20 Feb 2018
Therapy continues apace, with my therapist kindly squeezing me into her busy schedule wherever she can. My sessions are all ad-hoc, which means they are all outside of her regular cycle for seeing patients or clients. I’m thankful for that.
Progress is patchy though. There’s repressed anger in me, and somehow I’m not able to access it. My therapist also detected that I’m still struggling to allow myself certain thoughts and feelings, which means that I need to work harder on my mindfulness, to allow multiple, even conflicting thoughts and ideas to co-exist, without needing to find a solution. There’s progress, but my therapist has warned me that the next few sessions will be even harder, with her trying to tax me to express my anger in reality. In the interim, my job is simply to learn to give myself space to feel and think.
It’s a novel idea to me, mindfulness. I struggled a little with the idea, but more and more, I see where the value lies. Bear with me as I use an example to illustrate the use of mindfulness.
When we are in a discussion, we want to be able to contribute, and say what is on our mind. A few things can happen:
- Someone pipes up to say why your idea sucks, and nixes your idea on the spot
- Someone hijacks your idea and builds on it and takes it away from you.
- Everyone else agrees and says how good an idea it is.
A discussion usually also has a goal in sight – a reason for the discussion. A solution to a problem, if you will.
Now think of that discussion happening in your own head. Except that instead of someone, it’s you. Instead of others responding to your discussion, it’s you. You are the one nixing your own ideas. You are the one hijacking your own thoughts and feelings. You’re the one discouraging yourself from piping up, dismissing your own ideas and your own feelings before they’ve even been brought up in the discussion. You’re the one disenfranchising yourself in the discussion that’s going on in your head.
Mindfulness has a few precepts, and I’m still reeling from how big the whole field can be. I’ve distilled it for myself the only way I know how – by doing what makes sense. Your mileage may vary. (YMMV)
- There is no judgment. Feelings and thoughts are allowed to flow.
- There is no right and wrong. From point 1, if you instinctively judge your thoughts or feelings, then allow the judgement to also pass by.
- Mindfulness is not about solutions. Mindfulness is about allowing a safe space. Imagine a discussion where brainstorming occurs – everyone is allowed their say, including instinctive responses, but everything is written down as a possibility.
- Mindfulness doesn’t solve your problems. Mindfulness gives you space to think through your problems in a safe and more complete way.
- Being mindful involves:
- Being kind.
- Being compassionate.
- Active listening.
- Mindfulness requires active awareness, and gets easier with more practice.
- Given all the thoughts and emotions, we choose what we want to focus on.
- We are also giving ourselves the option to be fully present with what we’re doing.
- We aren’t in control of the thoughts and feelings that enter our head – but we are in control of how we respond and what we do with them.
Most of us would agree that the above list makes sense for a good and fruitful discussion or conclave. Yet when we turn it inwards on ourselves, we find it hard to do the above. We classify our thoughts and feelings into “good” and “bad” categories, and try to do more of the “good” and less of the “bad”. But the more we try to suppress “bad” thoughts and emotions, the more they leak out in uncontrollable ways, at unexpected times. This leads to outbursts, meltdowns, and a constant burden of guilt and shame that builds as we struggle with the “bad” stuff. Frustration mounts as we struggle with why we keep having these thoughts and emotions much as we have classified them as “bad” and want as little to do with them as possible.
Mindfulness ignores good and bad. It also doesn’t do away with good and bad. Instead, the last point is the most important one – that it is the outcome of our thoughts and emotions that matter more than what comes into our heads. By isolating control to the outcome, we no longer struggle with the presence of these thoughts and emotions. They don’t make us “bad” anymore than feeling angry with someone who cut your queue makes you “bad”. Instead, acknowledging that you feel angry, and then recognising that you can choose to talk to the person, or just shrug and leave it since you aren’t in a rush, makes a potentially frustrating situation into a calm conversation, or even a non-event. This then, is the advantage of mindfulness – a space to gather all the information, and then decide what to do based on a much better informed mind, without using automatic responses all the time.
Mindfulness doesn’t work for everything. There’s no time to be mindful when someone is choking on a meatball, or when your kid is about to step off the curb into oncoming traffic. But mindfulness helps us especially in what could be a confrontational or stressful situation to act not on impulse, but on a measured, even tone. Mindfulness doesn’t provide the solutions because mindfulness simply becomes a process to make better decisions.
With that in mind, mindfulness becomes a good way to work out our Christian faith as well.
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
Luke 9:23 ESV
Christianity is always about choice. It’s about choosing to follow Christ, despite the difficulties we are facing. When times are easy, we never have a second doubt about following Christ. When times are hard, we can waver. Mindfulness helps us to take a pause as we waver, to acknowledge that we doubt, to acknowledge our fear, and also gives us time to recognise God’s goodness and then make a choice that honours Him, with His help. Mindfulness should and can also encourage us to pray, as we pause and take stock of what is going through our mind. It’s a reminder that we are sinful people who need His help, rather than relying on our impulses or well-practiced religion.
What’s difficult about mindfulness? First of all, we don’t listen or tune in to ourselves enough. Most of the time, especially in an Asian context, our minds have already been sorted out for us. There is “good” and “bad” – it is bad to cry unless you have a reason. If you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything. We are brought up this way, and it’s just easier to sort things by default. I’m no sociologist, but it’s also true that generally Asians think of society and how we interact with it more – things like losing face or being embarrassed in public is more of a big deal in Asian cultures. Thus there are default ways in which we react to things happening.
Secondly, it is an unfortunate truth that Christians are generally taught that there are “wrong” ideas and emotions. Just to even have them is wrong! What we struggle with is that they still pop up, and we feel guilty. Lust. Anger. We beat ourselves up for it, and then try to sit on these emotions. Instead of shunting them off, mindfulness gives them space to be present – and then we weigh up the arguments against them so that they are gently refuted, instead of being suppressed. Both have the right effect – we are still taking captive these thoughts, but suppression doesn’t convince. Suppression doesn’t show the fault. Suppression doesn’t help, in other words. Things leak out later, when we least expect them to. Flee temptation – by first understanding what lies under our temptations, instead of reacting on the surface and falling prey to our temptations when we least expect it.
Wait – but didn’t I say that there isn’t judgement in mindfulness? Yes – in other words, we don’t feel guilt for these thoughts and emotions. It doesn’t make them right or wrong – I must emphasize this. It gives us a space to acknowledge them, to say, yes, I feel and think this way. But there is still a right or wrong response based on our values and these responses are now a result of our mindfulness. The thoughts may feel right or wrong, and we can allow that to exist in that space as well. The whole point is to acknowledge instead of suppress, to admit instead of deny, and then to control the response instead of reacting. This is the best part of mindfulness that I find the most helpful.
A third difficulty lies in not being trained to be mindful in a digitally connected world. Things happen fast. We want fast results, quick solutions, and ready answers. Mindfulness dictates a necessary pause, a time to think, and doesn’t promise answers. That makes it seem silly – until we realise that mindfulness actually gives us more answers than we think. In that safe space, as our thoughts flow, we are actually doing our internal brainstorming, and our minds may already have an alternative answer which is better than the reactive answer we originally had. So instead of snapping off a response on Facebook, we do our fact checking first. Instead of replying defensively to that email, we clear our minds of frustration and look at the issue more objectively before crafting a well tuned email with constructive steps to be taken.
Mindfulness also helps when we’re distracted by too many things to be fully invested in the present. By allowing the flow of thoughts and feelings to flow through, we can process them faster than if we keep thinking about them with no end in sight. By acknowledging them, we give ourselves the choice to deal with them later, rather than feel guilty that we are not in the present moment. Having acknowledged them, we can choose to focus on our current environment and our current company with less baggage. This is where focusing on breathing helps as one of the key practices behind mindfulness. Instead of regulating our breathing, focusing on how it feels to breathe forces us back into the present moment, and reminds us that we are alive now, not in the future. We can then acknowledge what it is that is bothering us, and come back to it later.
Last but not least, how can we learn to not judge? That’s a byword nowadays – everyone says it, but it’s hard to do. We judge quickly, assess quickly, react quickly and move on. Therein lies the problem that starts a lot of heated discussions and unnecessary pain. Mindfulness allows us to move away emotionally from the issue involved first, by forcing us to observe. With that observation and implied distance, we are able to tune better into the heart of the problem instead of just seeing things on the surface.
With that, compassion, curiousity and kindness are all implied. Think of someone you care about, and think of wanting that person to be comfortable to share their heartfelt thoughts with you. Naturally you would need all these qualities to create a space for that person. Why not do it for ourselves? It doesn’t come naturally, but it can come with more practice.
My job then, for the next week and a half, is to allow the difficult thoughts and emotions to enter my conscious mind, and to face them without immediately forcing them out. I write this to help myself to crystallise how I want to approach mindfulness and prayer. Thus, YMMV – but I hope it helps you, if you are facing the same struggle as me.
How to really be true to yourself.