June 25, 2017

Mindfulness

“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” – Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

For me, yesterday was just one of “those days”. You know that type of day — when you’re all in your head, you’re just a tangled knot of anxiety, and it feels like nothing is going your way. It’s the type of day wherein you feel like maybe Zeus has gotten his toga in a twist and is taking it out on you personally.

Realizing that I really wasn’t managing to get anything productive done, I decided to take a moment and step away from the ever-growing mountain of things I needed to do. I made a cup of tea, cooked myself a nice meal, and took some time to just relax.

Normally, when I cook, I put on some TV show to look at while I’m in the kitchen; but yesterday I decided to instead try out something I read about ‘mindfulness’. I’d been hearing a lot about mindfulness, and during my psychiatry rotation, I learnt about it being a useful way to deal with stress.

Mindfulness is simply a Western adaptation of the ancient Eastern practice of “stilling the mind”, which is the goal of meditation. It’s the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal experiences occurring in the present moment.

So I decided to give it a go.

As I was cooking, different thoughts started popping into my head — most of them trivial and more than a little ridiculous. But then the more serious ones started to bubble to the surface; thoughts like, “Did I fail my last exam?” And instead of doing the usual of just stuffing the thought into a drawer in the back of my brain, I decided to deal with it head-on. I needed to acknowledge the thought and how it made me feel.

Of course the thought of failing an exam made me extremely anxious. But would I be able to fix anything about that test now? No. All I could do is wait for results to come out. I needed to change my perspective — instead of looking at that test with regret and guilt, I needed to look at it as a lesson for things I could do differently moving forward. By acknowledging that, I was able to feel less anxious.

And, for the rest of the afternoon, I just tried to be in the moment. Instead of being all caught up and swept away in my thoughts, I acknowledged thoughts and worries as they cropped up, dealt with them as best I could, and moved on. I finished cooking and enjoyed my meal. I lingered over my cup of tea, and really just tried to appreciate the little things.

When it was time for me to get back to work, my head was clearer and I got much more done that I thought I would. I would say that the mindfulness experiment was a success. I also figured out why the Japanese have such an elaborate “tea ceremony” and why Hindu Pujas can be so relaxing.

I think everyone experiences anxiety at some point. And many of us tend to get into our heads about it and, as the old folks would say, just “gotay” the problem — make it revolve in a never-ending series of circles. It’s important to take a step back, examine our thoughts, and try to notice when our thoughts are derailing us. By acknowledging and being more self-aware about our anxieties, we can start to deal with that anxiety in a productive way, before it spirals out of control.

So maybe you should give mindfulness a try; you might find it helpful!