A Year of Living Mindfully: What does mindfulness do for you?
Michael’s been meditating for years. He’s one of a number of people I asked about the difference mindfulness has made to their lives.
“I’m too sensitive. My reactions are sometimes out of proportion. Bad things I see knock me for six, good things can lead me into euphoria and de-stabilise me.
“Without mindfulness I would never have been able to manage my life. I would probably have hidden myself away or buried myself in a job that wasn’t stressful. And done whatever it took to take the edge off living.”
Michael continued: “From practising mindfulness, I notice that my reactions don’t take me over. I keep my balance. I can hold all my feelings, all the sensations, all the pain and joy, because in mindfulness, they get equal weighting.”
But surely, I thought, mindfulness makes us more sensitive to the suffering of others. What about those images of starving and homeless people that appear relentlessly on TV?
He was quick with his reply: “Mindfulness works by breaking down our sense of separation from the world around us. It’s the ego that decides what is of concern to me and what is not. We hold some people and things close and we distance the rest.
“Mindfulness cracks us open. When I see someone on the street now, I feel the humanity we share. That person is as much ‘me’ as anyone else in my life. So I’m willing to go the extra mile for them.
“But that does not mean that I lose myself or dissolve into sentimentality every time I see an image of a starving child. Projecting misery onto them, feeling all cut up inside doesn’t do either of us any good.
“What mindfulness has given me is the ability to stay in myself and relate to the suffering of others, thoughtfully. Because it would have all been too much before. I’d have had to shut out the pain around me because it hurt too much.”
Other people I spoke to agreed that mindfulness has made it easier for them to live. Una said: “I don’t get so rattled at work by what happens anymore. I slow down and take a step back when trouble erupts. I’ve stopped reacting to things. I take a breath. I concentrate on one thing at a time. I give it my undivided attention.”
She spoke about not forcing herself to practise: “It’s not something on a to-do list anymore. Change has arrived naturally out of my practice. The payback is showing up.
“The awareness that comes when I sit every morning often highlights certain things in mylife that need attention. This awareness doesn’t stop when I finish my practice. It grows in me afterwards. And small insights come to me.”
Everyone I spoke to described how mindfulness quietens the voices. Those voices can be self-attacking and lead us into depression; they can be anxiety-inducing, shaming and destroy our trust in ourselves.
New sense of peace
What I’ve learned is that those voices, our thoughts, are not truths. They’re like clouds moving across a sky. I used to get lost in those clouds. Now I can see that when I don’t cling on to them, they pass. And I can see the sky. The gift of mindfulness is a whole new sense of space.
Mindfulness wakes me up. It helps me to see clearly what nourishes and what deadens me.
Listening to what people had to say about their practice, I was struck by how specific mindfulness was for each of them. Mindfulness is not a technique, or a skill, or a self-improvement programme that we apply from the outside on ourselves. It’s a way to connect with what’s most intimate in us, the feeling inside of who we are and how we want to live.
We pause and breathe and give that intuition of truth that lies in each of our hearts, the chance to awaken.
Tony Bates is the founding director of Headstrong – the National Centre for Youth Mental Health.