`The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all moments.’
(Thich Nhat Hanh)
For those of us who had particularly difficult upbringings, for instance, who were exposed to some form of abuse as children, creating the life that we want may seem impossible because as adults we are likely to have much negative thinking about ourselves and others, suffer from low self-esteem, anxiety, depression or other mental health problems and physical health problems and experience a lack of direction in life. This is where I was at before I discovered mindfulness.
I had been in therapy on and off for several years but I was still stuck in negative thinking and cycles of depression, over reacting emotionally to everything around me, feeling overwhelmed by stress and strong emotions like anger, fear and sadness. I had low self-esteem, was constantly looking for external approval and felt powerless much of the time.
Since I have been practicing mindfulness, the ways in which I have been looking at the world and experiencing life have changed significantly. Mindfulness has given me a more positive outlook on life, enabling me to recover from depression, manage and reduce stress and anxiety, be less reactive to difficult situations, gain more self-confidence, find direction in life, take steps to pursue my dreams and generally feel much more empowered.
Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990) defines mindfulness as: `the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally to things as they are.’ We spend so much time thinking about past events, anticipating what may happen in the future and judging ourselves and others that we often miss out on experiencing the present moment. Indeed, we tend to move through life in auto-pilot, functioning mechanically, doing what we are used to doing everyday such as getting out of bed, brushing our teeth, taking a shower, eating and so on, without paying much attention to it, usually thinking about something else while doing it. Through mindfulness practice we learn to be fully present with the activity that we are engaged in at that moment and really appreciate what is happening right now. After all the present is all there is. As Eckart Tolle (2004) points out:
`Most humans are not fully present in the now because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.’
For a long time, because I felt unhappy, I waited for my life to start, thinking that in the future once I had what I wanted externally like the right job, the right partner, enough money, I would then be happy. Of course I realized that this was a state of mind. By always waiting for things to happen in the future not only was I missing the opportunity to live now, there would also never be the right job or the right partner or enough money that would make me happy if I was not able to feel good within myself first.
Mindfulness is a way of being and living. Mindfulness is about being present, accepting whatever thoughts and emotions are there at that moment and not trying to achieve anything. In that sense, when we are practicing mindfulness we do not try to create the life that we want otherwise it would mean that we are trying to get somewhere which is the opposite of mindfulness. When we are trying to get somewhere we cannot be fully present and accept what is happening right now. However, mindfulness practice can help us create the life that we want by giving us a more positive, accepting and holistic way of looking at ourselves and others. Through mindfulness we also become aware of our thought patterns and behaviours, and it is only through this non-judgmental awareness that we can make different choices and take action steps to create the life that we want.
While therapy and other personal development work have also helped me on my journey, mindfulness has changed my life in five specific ways, helping me create the life that I want in the process. This change has occurred by first, realizing that only the present mattered; second, realizing that thoughts were not reality; third, learning to accept what was happening in the present moment even if it was unpleasant; fourth, becoming less reactive and more resilient; fifth, developing more compassion and patience for myself and others.
The next five sections discuss the five ways in which mindfulness changed my life. Each section ends with a mindfulness exercise for you to do so you can start changing your life.
- Realizing that only the present matters
I used to spend much of my time worrying about everything that might go wrong or spending hours trying to predict what I wanted to happen in the future and being frustrated and resentful if it did not happen as I wanted it to. When I was not worrying about the future, I was thinking over and over about things that had happened in the past in ways that reinforced my negative view of the world. This meant that I was rarely living in the present moment. By watching the movement of my breath and feeling the sensations associated with it in my body or by bringing all my attention to the activity I am engaged in, I am now able to bring myself back to the present moment and really appreciate what is going on in this instant. This brings me a sense of inner peace and joy that was unknown to me before starting to practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness has made me realize that only the present really matters. Indeed, there are no problems in the present moment; problems are only created by our minds because much of the time we engage in incessant thinking that we are not aware of. This incessant thinking is dominated by what we want, what we like or don’t like, have or don’t have and judgements about ourselves and others that can create much dissatisfaction, severely limit our ability to see situations clearly and, thus, take action. When we fully engage with the here and now, we feel happier within ourselves.
Even if I don’t have everything that I want in my life at the moment, I can still feel a sense of joy and lightness simply by connecting with my breath, paying attention to nature and sounds and fully appreciating the present moment without judgment. By doing so, the ways in which I look at the world around me and myself have changed. I now feel much more connected not only to myself but also to my surroundings. I have been able to look at trees and flowers and even people with a new refreshing curiosity, noting the judgments that may come into my mind about what or who I see but without getting caught up in them, letting them go and bringing myself back to what I am experiencing in the moment.
For example, ask yourself when you go to the park for a walk if you really look at the trees and flowers around you? Do you stop to `smell the roses’? Do you feel the grass underneath your feet and connect to the sensations in your feet as you are walking? Or do you find yourself thinking about other things or making judgements about what you see, hear or feel rather than just being in the moment? Next time you go for a walk notice the thoughts that you have and how much time you are present with your surroundings or absent thinking about other things. Then gently bring yourself back to what you see and try to look at a flower or a tree without judgment with a curious awareness as if you had never seen a flower or a tree before.
Through mindfulness I have also found more joy in simple everyday activities. Rather than trying to escape mundane activities either by thinking about something else or watching TV, I have been able to enjoy everyday activities, such as walking, eating, washing my hands, brushing my teeth and even washing the dishes! This means that I find contentment and joy in ways that I would not have thought possible before because I kept thinking about unhappy I was.
This is a sample of a chapter taken from the book Creating Your Life: Mindfulness and Meditation. The chapter is written by Dr Lise Saugeres. Click here to pick up your copy.