Steady yourself with a little perspective
A YEAR OF LIVING MINDFULLY: 10:This week I have found myself in conversation with frontline managers who asked me how mindfulness could help them face the cutbacks, conflicts and frustrations that confront them every day.
Their resources are shrinking and they are being asked to do more with less. Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of their job is listening to and trying to contain the stress of colleagues who feel consumed by fear about what may be coming down the line.
I have no easy answers for these challenges. But I do know that whatever will help has to start with looking after ourselves. It sounds selfish, but unless we know how to steady ourselves, we can’t keep perspective. And when we feel steady, we can face pressure and not drown in it.
After being swept up in the frenzy of a busy day, we often say: “I hadn’t time to catch my breath.” This may be an all too precise account of our day. It highlights one of the reasons why a day at work leaves us agitated and exhausted.
Consider what it would be like to consciously take time during the day to become aware of what you are experiencing.What would it be like to take time to breathe? Mark Williams, in his excellent book Mindfulness – Finding Peace in a Frantic World describes this practice as the Three-Minute Breathing Space. This brief meditation concentrates the core elements of mindfulness into three steps of roughly one minute each. He recommends practising this first at home so that you can drop into it twice or more during the course of an ordinary day.
Step 1: Becoming aware
Adopting an alert, dignified posture, whether you are sitting or standing, bring your awareness to your inner experience and ask yourself: what is my experience right now? What thoughts are going through my mind? As best you can, simply acknowledge these thoughts without trying to make any judgment about them.
Next ask yourself: what feelings are here? Turn towards any sense of discomfort or unpleasant feelings, acknowledging them without trying to change them.
Next ask yourself: what body sensations are here right now? Let them be, just the way they already are.
Step 2: Focusing attention on the breath
Re-direct your full attention to the breath and follow it all the way in and all the way out. Breathing in, breathing out, saying quietly to yourself “in” and “out”.
Counting your breaths may be another way to help you keep your attention on the breath. So for example, taking your next breath in, you might say: “breathing in – one” and as you breathe out, you might say: “breathing out – one”. With the next in-breath you could say: “breathing in – two”, and so on up to five, before starting again at one.
Step 3: Expanding your attention
Finally, expand your attention around your breathing so that it includes a sense of the whole body, your posture, and your facial expression. Breathe as if the whole body is breathing. Allow the body to soften in places where you notice any sensations of tension or discomfort. Befriend these sensations and breathe into them. Try saying to yourself, “It’s okay to feel this. Whatever it is, it’s okay to be open to it.”
It’s tempting to see this Breathing Space as just another version of taking time out to forget about the pressure we are under. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, but this exercise is about something else.
When you take time to stop, to bring your attention back to your breath and your body, you are taking time to re-connect with the stranger that you’ve become to yourself.
You are making a choice to be present to that person, and to befriend them, whatever they are feeling.
I think now of those managers and what I want to say is this: don’t let yourself be completely swept away by the pressures and demands that you meet in your working day. What your colleagues and staff need is that you take care of yourself so that when you show up, you are able to be present to them. And to be grounded enough to see creative possibilities in even the most difficult of circumstances.
Tony Bates is founder director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health