My mind has been keen to run away with me these past few days, and it took a lot of mindfulness muscle to keep pulling myself back, over and over again. I hadn’t expected that three days of camping with three children would be challenge-free, but I didn’t expect (in any way) most of the challenges that arose. Call me naïve, but I didn’t expect the very drunk young lady in the tent next to us to be up until after 4.30am shouting about how she “f’ing hates camping”. I didn’t expect that a gentleman would be so keen for all of us campers to have access to his music that he parked his car in the middle of the field, put his music up full volume and (presumably so that his car battery wouldn’t be drained) left his engine running for several hours so that he could enable us to ‘enjoy’ his musical taste. The bad moods of the tired children combined with gale-force winds and torrential rain on our final night were literally a breeze compared to this!
As a mindfulness teacher I spend a lot of time observing how quick our minds are to move into judgement and how that keeps us from being aligned with the present moment. Even knowing this, it took monumental effort and the use of every strategy that I’ve learned to endeavour to hold on to some sense of equilibrium. The situations described above may or may not seem that outrageous to you, but we all have our triggers and it’s our job to work on them when they’re flushed to the surface. I thought that perhaps it would be helpful to share some strategies for restoring equilibrium that I’ve learned over the years…
Strategy 1: Practise recognising judgmental thoughts. Mindfulness is all about knowing what’s happening, while it’s happening, and so our starting point is to become the observer of our thoughts. After all, we are not our thoughts – our thoughts are simply movements of energy rather than solid, factual things that many of us are very identified with. When we start noticing our thoughts, we can then start to see how much of our thinking is generated in response to judgements that we’ve made, and these judgements come out of our beliefs, expectations and assumptions.
In my camping scenario, much of my unhappiness was stemming from the belief that ‘people should be considerate of others as well as the environment’. My suffering was arising from this belief, and noticing this was the first step to freeing myself. The unavoidable discomfort of feeling very tired and being unable to get to sleep, or loud music that I had no control over, was made into something so much more painful by the way that I was internally reacting. Recognising that our thoughts are heaping extra suffering on top of something that’s already painful is really helpful, but if you’re strongly triggered then you may find that your thoughts are churning around too much and that your emotional response to these is gaining in intensity – if that’s the case then head straight to Strategy 2!
Strategy 2: Stay with the Physical. When strongly triggered by an event, one of the most helpful things that we can do is to stay with what’s going on in the body, rather than be concerned with our thoughts. Because rest assured, our thoughts are having a BIG effect on our body, and the mind is keen to analyse its way out of the problem (which actually often tends to make things worse). Mindfulness invites us to stay with what’s here in the present moment and pay particular attention to the layers of sensation that we can drop into when we’re really present. With each physical sensation that we notice, we can invite the body to soften. I say ‘invite’ because we notice a tightness, a tension, a heaviness or some other sensation that alerts us to an opportunity to soften, but we let go of expectations in relation to what will happen as a result of asking the body to soften. We don’t need for things to go a certain way and for relaxation to result, we’re just relating to what’s here in the kindest and most helpful way that we can. Practise this strategy with little difficulties so that you can remember to engage it with the big things, and watch what happens. Prepare to be amazed.
Strategy 3: Practise loving-kindness. It’s a bit tricky to summarize loving-kindness practices in a sentence or two, and for many of us they can feel very challenging, but in essence they invite us to grow our ability to offer loving-kindness to all sentient beings, recognising that each of us is deserving of loving-kindness. As I lay in my sleeping bag listening to the young lady shouting and swearing (and my requests for her to please be quiet were ignored), I brought to mind a person for whom loving-kindness naturally flows and who I have an uncomplicated relationship with (my youngest son, in this instance) and tuned into the sensations in the centre of my chest (my heart centre, energetically) for a while, literally charging-up my heart! I then imagined a pink light surrounding our tent, surrounding us with love and support, and after a while I then imagined this pink light expanding until it surrounded the campsite – like a mother’s love enveloping all of her children. In the same way that we were perhaps soothed by a parent or carer when we hurt ourselves when we were little, this soothed my anger as well as helping me to feel comforted and to remember that everything would be OK.
Strategy 4: Zoom-out and try to see the bigger picture. Rumi’s famous Guesthouse poem invites us to see that each difficulty has been sent to teach us something; Eckhart Tolle invites us to see each moment as having been chosen by us (on a subconscious level) as perfect for our spiritual growth in that moment. In a moment of difficulty, we might ask ourselves whether this event will feel important in a week, a month or a year from now. Zooming-out, we find ourselves back in our seat in the movie theatre, watching the story of our life play out on the screen in front of us. As we gain some perspective, we can even start to see the humour of the situation!
Strategy 5: The Big Daddy – Surrender to the moment. This is not a one-off thing, i.e. we internally stop resisting what is and all is fine-and-dandy; we surrender to the moment over and over again. “What we resist persists”, Carl Jung once wisely said, and so resisting and bracing ourselves against what is here anyway is not the most helpful way to be in relationship with the present moment. This doesn’t mean that we can’t take action and ask people to change their behaviour, or we can choose to leave (if this is an option) but we do so out of a place of non-resistance, letting go of a need for things to be a certain way. We might say to ourselves, in our mind’s eye a few times, “I surrender”, and observe what happens in the body. Something quite profound happens when we allow ourselves to relinquish the illusion of control, opening ourselves up to the flow of life in all of its glorious messiness.
I write a lot more about many of these topics in my book, ‘Awakening Child: A journey of inner transformation through teaching your child mindfulness and compassion’ if you’d like to read more…
For now though, in joyful surrender and wishing the same for you,