56. Being Mindful

17 Feb 2018

It’s the second day of Chinese New Year, and my kids are with my in laws. My wife is resting next to me while we sit at a cafe in the middle of the busyness of Orchard Road.

Chinese New Year is a big deal for Chinese. We meet, we re-establish familial ties, we greet, we respect. Yet in the midst of my depression, I struggle with only one thing. I can’t smile. And that means a lot to traditional people.

Having the boys stay with my in-laws was the best compromise we could come up with. The boys get to go visiting around the relatives, while my wife and I have a quiet period together. I don’t have to force myself to smile, and I don’t have to keep trying to psyche myself into smiling. Not many people understand the illness, so I would have had to be ready to explain. So it was a good compromise.

But it comes with its own burden. I feel like I’ve not tried hard enough, that I’m beyond help. It made the first day of the festival a burdensome one. My wife gently tried to remind me that I’m the only one who’s stressing about this, but the feeling couldn’t be easily shaken. It made it really hard to enjoy my time with my wife. I was overwhelmed, to the point of quarreling with her over something small. And the worst part was that I didn’t know how to back down.

See, mindfulness and CBT are practices done when one isn’t emotionally overwhelmed. At the end of a tiring day where I’d broken down twice in public, something that was small became big because of my own petty actions and my inability to apologise. By the time I wanted to, I was afraid of apologising. And my wife, already long-suffering due to my depression, couldn’t avoid being hurt and upset by me.

That’s blown over, thankfully. We’re OK now, largely due to her kind heart and God’s grace. Notwithstanding that, mindfulness still has helped in a few occasions.

It’s getting easier to snap out my space bubble for my thoughts to percolate through like some vaccuum coffee machine, provided I’m not emotionally overwhelmed. Within that space, I get to be kinder to myself, and I ask myself guiding questions that help me to see the issue more clearly. A couple of examples:

1. I’ve been struggling to wake up on time to go to church. When I passed that thought through my bubble, a lot of other insights came out, which may lead to us making concrete changes to our patterns in the future. We still have to pray over it, but it’s helped to gain some clarity into how I think of church.

2. I wanted to clear up our storeroom on the eve of Chinese New Year, but I woke up feeling miserable. I decided not to, and didn’t feel good about deciding not to. So bubble up, thoughts went through, and I realised I could simply open the door to the storeroom, and look at what could be done easily. In that way, I made six trips to the chute area, throwing out items which had been laying there for a while. As a good side effect, the items which were still usable were gone by the end of the day, no doubt to bless a neighbour or the cleaning crew.

Mindfulness on top of CBT is really helpful for what it does. CBT helps me to organise my thoughts and come up with new thoughts. Mindfulness helps me to explore the thoughts themselves, coming up with new related thoughts.

View from Changi Airport Terminal One Viewing Gallery

We were at the airport yesterday, and I was thinking – when we see planes land and taxi into the gates, so many people depend on the pilots to get to their destinations safely. But all those planes have a further dependency – the ATCs or Air Traffic Controllers. For a plane to get aloft, there’s also so many other people contributing to it – the fuel bowsers, the starter trucks, the cargo pellets, the luggage trailers and the people who work on them. The security teams. The front gate personnel. The cabin crews. All of them dance a time-sensitive ballet to ensure that people get from point A to point B in as much comfort can be extended to them, admittedly based on the amount that they pay. But ATCs don’t care – their job is to ensure as many planes land and as many take off as possible while keeping everyone safe.

But no one ever thinks of them, of what they do, of how they do their jobs. Or the myriad other teams that dance a quick dance around each plane, servicing the monster so that it can do its job in the air.

No one – or few – think about the engineers who make all this possible as well.

In the same way, mindfulness helps us to bring out all these hidden thoughts. It helps us to bring these thoughts out into the open, without judgment. Sometimes we have thoughts that immediately we try to squash, labelling them as terrible or bad. And sometimes that’s good – such as thoughts that make us want to steal or so on. But in depression or other such mental illnesses, we suppress too many thoughts, or label so many of them that we think only negatively of ourselves. Mindfulness makes us aware of our own ATCs and engineers, and by being open and kind, they get their own space to fully develop. Some of the final reactions or outcomes from the thoughts remain bad or harmful, but the balance is that we start to explore parts of ourselves that we have neglected for the longest times, including the areas that give rise to unhelpful thoughts.

I’m looking forward to therapy in a couple of days so I can tell my therapist that it’s been really helpful. At the same time, I’m curious how mindfulness will help me with the bigger struggle ahead, the one that’s always led to my anger and grief.

I pray that it’ll come out easier. And less painfully than before. At least, that it won’t consume me.

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