A Year of Living Mindfully: Step into the present by taking time to rest and unwind

After any upheaval in our life, when we’re punch drunk from grief or worn out from relentless stresses in our lives, we need to stop.

It’s hard to pause, and to take a break. It’s much easier to be carried along by the force that propels us from one flurried agenda to another.

To just stop runs counter to a culture that constantly tells us to keep going, not to think too much, and to get on with our lives.

But unless we stop, we can’t think about the difficulties facing us and allow something new to happen.

Being mindful absolutely depends on being able to stop. We can do this at any moment of the day.

We press “pause” and interrupt our automatic tendency to push and rush full throttle through our lives.

When we do, we give ourselves a chance to see where our actions are taking us and ask ourselves if we really want to go there.

When we’ve been wired for weeks on end, we need to pause for days rather than minutes, to gather ourselves, to allow our wounds to heal and to remember who we are.

The stronger our feelings of turmoil, the longer we need to rest.

Too exhausted to meditate
When I'm exhausted, I find it really hard to sit mindfully. Tiredness turns my meditation into rumination. I sink onto my cushion with the best of intentions, but my thoughts weigh on me like sticky molasses. My body feels heavy and my muscles ache.

In the past week I’ve just realised something. My mind is embodied. When my mind is tired and exhausted, of course my body is too. So any practice of meditation has to begin with taking care of the body.

For me, movement helps drain tiredness and relax my body. Inertia sucks me to the spot. So I take up my body and walk. I allow my restless mind to settle. I open my eyes and I try to be present to the raw beauty of ordinary things.

Talking out what’s been happening can help but sometimes walking with someone who can be comfortable with silence is the best remedy. I feel safe in the company of someone I trust and my mind gradually calms down.

In stress our minds tighten and close. We see the world with tunnel vision, looking at everything from the angle of feeling threatened. Survival becomes our one priority.

Avoiding pain
We become preoccupied with avoiding pain and going after what we desire. "How can this be happening?"; "I have to do something fast."

So we revert to learned knee-jerk reactions that come naturally to us just because they are well worn.

My exhaustion may be from repeating my past over and over again. I discover I have choices. I can break the pattern of my doomed automatic reactions and give myself the opportunity of something different.

When I rest and take time to unwind, I step into the present.

My circumstances don’t change but my point of view does. I begin to look at my difficulties in a more flexible way.

I break free from my self-centred preoccupations and see the world from fresh perspectives.

When we rest, when we take pause and gather ourselves, we stop the constant re-runs of old all-too-familiar psychodramas.

We give our minds a chance to see a new, more creative way to move forward. We steer our wheels out of the well-worn ruts of past conditioning.

Creativity requires that we are relaxed enough to play with imaginative possibilities.

Automatic reactions
Freedom from our past begins with interrupting the flow of automatic reactions and allowing the grip they have on us to loosen. We step into the present.

Our thoughts and feelings lose their grip. The stronger our feelings, the longer we need to rest and relax.

If I really attend to the present, to one thing at a time, I find that my mind opens out, instead of closing in.

Some new understanding of my situation emerges. I stop the overwhelm. And I become clearer on what I need to do next.

Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health.