How mindfulness can help you uncover the person you really want to be
IT HAPPENS TO MOST of us. Sometimes it’s a slowly unfolding awareness, sometimes it comes in the form of a sharp, unexpected blow. It’s that moment when you realise that you:
feel constantly tense and pressured
try to frantically save time by clogging your days with ever growing to-do lists
burst out into tears whenever something unexpected happens
yell at your partner, children or pets for no particular reason at all
fight unsettling emotions by acting cold and indifferently
You might think that you’ve fallen victim to circumstances like the economy, those ruthless managing directors at your work, your parents who become more and more dependant or your children who don’t seem to need you anymore. Maybe you’re angry, frightened or sad. Or you’re downright lost and lonely on a daily basis.
When you have become unrecognisable to yourself
I don’t think I have to tell you you’re suffering from chronic stress. Stress, exhaustion and anxiety undermine and pollute your personality and you might find yourself feeling as if you’ve become unrecognisable to yourself.
These were the symptoms of my chronic stress when I was still running my own advertising agency in Amsterdam:
restlessness; sleeplessness; endless worrying
the idea that I couldn’t fulfil other people’s wishes
the belief that I had to fulfil other people’s expectations
beating myself up because I no longer liked my work
blaming others for my unhappiness (secretly this was my favourite one)
having zero faith in the goodness of myself or others
a total lack of self-confidence
To cover up this mess I whipped up a sugary cream of perfectly rationalised excuses, such as: Look, I’m not really enjoying my work right now, but I’ll just work harder to get back on top of it all, watch me! I now know from fellow stressees that they suffer from the very same feelings and turn to exactly the same excuses in order to hide their misery and their having drifted away from their true selves.
You might ask yourself when exactly did you start to turn into that stressed out, anxious or angry person you don’t want to be, but who seems to control everything you think and do.
Pealing away layers of negative thinking and low self-esteem
I started to realise that something had gone seriously wrong with me when I crashed into burnout, which forced me to leave my agency because I could no longer cope with the everyday stresses of work. Surely, I had crashed before, but with the help of psychologists I had crawled up again and moved on, always promising myself inner change but never really understanding how to achieve this.
This final burnout seemed terrible, but to be honest: it was the best that ever happened to me.
Because only when I found myself at the lowest point of my life, I saw that I had to go for a total reboot. Not just applying some shallow tweaks here and there… but finding the courage to go through the burning fire and for once and for all purify my polluted mind.
Mindfulness literally brought me back to my senses
It was mindfulness which proved to have the power to turn me inside out and make me see where I had gone wrong and how I could get back on track again.
With mindfulness I was able to peal away layers and layers of negative thinking, of insecurity, of low self-esteem, of pretending and hypocrisy (saying ‘yes’ while I meant ‘no’), and of listing to the silly chatterbox in my mind rather than to the wisdom of my heart.
Chronic stress, anxiety and badly managed feelings had made me suspicious, bitter, reactive and overly sensitive, turning me into a drama queen with who it was hard to argue. These traits didn’t suit me at all and exhausted me, but they had kept me firmly in their iron grip for many years. No wonder I had suffered from numerous disorders… physically as well as emotionally.
With mindfulness I was finally able to return to how I’d been when I was a child: full of faith and hope, inquisitive, always ready to lend a helping hand, and happy to live.
With mindfulness you can become your better self
Mindfulness has changed my life dramatically. When following Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness training course, I soon found that during my life I had chosen exactly the opposite of every mindfulness principle. Not a particularly smart way of living my life, I now know!
My old self had subconsciously fought each and every mindfulness principle:
I had always been resisting reality, while mindfulness teaches us acceptance of all the circumstances we can't change.
I had always been judgmental, while mindfulness teaches us not to judge.
I had always been extremely impatient, while mindfulness teaches us patience
I had always believed in the succeed-or-fail dogma, while mindfulness teaches us to not be so black-and-white and simply start again.
I had always been holding on to old pain and grudges, while mindfulness teaches us to let go in order to heal.
I had always been pushing myself to achieve goals, while mindfulness teaches us to stop striving.
I had always cultivated distrust to protect myself from disappointment, while mindfulness teaches us to have faith.
With mindfulness I suddenly saw that it had been my corrupted attitude that had caused all my stress, frustrations, discontent and lack of faith. I started to practise mindfulness, then incorporate the mindfulness principles into my everyday life. Not slowly, but immediately.
And so I mustered up courage to chat with the girl behind the supermarket counter, asking her about the day and her work. She seemed quite bewildered by this unexpected dose of friendly attention, but we did end up talking for a while and from then on always had a chat when we met. Before mindfulness, I would not have said a word, then complained that there was no kindness in this world. Now, with mindfulness, I understood that I was the one to offer kindness and attention, rather than lazily waiting for someone else to take the initiative. I suddenly understood that I could change my world – not by passively waiting for it, but by actively changing it myself.
The mindfulness secret that will change your life
So what’s the big secret? We all know that mindfulness has something to do with ‘being in the present moment’, but I hardly ever meet people who really understand what this means.
The big secret to mindfulness is: attention.
It’s all you need to change your life for the better, adding colour and depth to your existence.
Attention is free, and you have plenty of it. You’ll never run out of it. So you can give it to others in endless amounts.
Do mindfulness today
Practising attention is easy.
Start in the morning, by making your breakfast with attention. Then eat it with attention. This means that you don’t watch TV at the same time, and you don’t check Facebook or your inbox, and you don’t send text messages or tweets. You put your devices away for ten minutes, so that you are free to simply watch your hands making breakfast, buttering your toast, or putting your toasted muesli into the bowl and pouring milk over it. Then you focus on the eating, chewing and swallowing process. Quietly, without any distractions.
If you have a partner or children, you could practise giving attention by listening to their stories rather than mechanically saying yes, no and ahem at the right time.
When you're off to work, pay attention to how you walk, or how you ride your bike, or how you operate the car. Feel your feet, feel your legs, feel your back, feel your shoulders, feel your arms, feel your hands, feel your head on your neck. Feel how your body performs extremely complicated and refined movements, and pay attention to that process.
During your day, look for opportunities to give away attention: to your coworkers, to your friends, to the trees in the park, to the birds, to your coffee, to the printing machine, to your lunch, to your body when you’re in the gym.
Be quiet, and pay attention.
There is no failure so you're covered
Our minds are wired to wander and jump from one thought to the other. That’s why it’s called the monkey mind. This is normal and natural for the human mind to do. But when the mind is allowed too much freedom and not being controlled, it’s also exhausting and can cause chronic stress. By paying attention to all things and all living creatures, both great and small, you’re controlling your mind and prevent it from jumping form one thought, worry or judgement to the other.
Don’t expect yourself to master this game immediately. It will take you the rest of your life… and that’s fine! Don’t worry about perfection. There is no perfection because there is no need for perfection. The reality is that you will lapse. You will fall off the attention bandwagon. And that’s okay. It’s normal. I fall off it just about each and every minute :-) But I have trained myself to realise I fell off, and then I bring my attention back to where I want it to be.
Just accept this two-steps-forwards-one-step-backwards-process as it is. The mastery is not in the end result, but in the journey. It’s about motivating yourself to take a step, no matter how small, each day.
The only thing you have to do, is gently (so: not angrily or impatiently) bring your attention back to where you want it to be, as soon as you notice that your mind has started to jump around again.
P.S. Would you like to learn how to be more aware and uncover your true self? Then buy my digital Karma Kickstart course today. You don't have to learn to meditate, but you can start right away with super practical exercises which adapt easily to your everyday routines. With my approach you don't have to plan or schedule – you simply practise with your daily tasks.
So check out Karma Kickstart now and start practising awareness today.