How I find space in the most stressful of days

There are always those days where it feels like we don’t stop. Like the demands are continuous and we don’t have time to catch our breath. It might be a pressurised day at work, or a day at home with children on your own. The nature of the stressor doesn’t matter. It’s the relentless nature of it that affects our wellbeing. Shamash Alidina uses a good analogy of the water cup. If you had to hold it for one minute that would be no problem. Hold it for an hour and your arm would ache. Hold it for 24 hours and your arm would be in significant pain. It’s the duration of the pressure that causes the problem.

 

“If the pressure is too high for you and lasts for long periods of time, it can cause chronic stress, and that’s where the danger lies.” Shamash Alidina in ‘The mindful way through stress’

 

It’s not always possible to change our lifestyle, at least in the short term, but we can draw upon some small changes to alter our perception of the demands placed upon us. To create more space for us to breathe, to think and to rest. What I’m going to describe now is how you can feel the pauses in your day to break-up what seems like a continuous barrage of stimulus and demands.

 

Let’s explore this together with a short exercise using our breath as an example. We often think of our breath as being continuous. It’s the one activity that links our lifetime from birth to death. We are wholly dependent on our breath continuing in order to survive, and yet the breath is also punctuated with short pauses all the time.

 

Feel the pause exercise

 

  1. Close your eyes
  2. Draw your attention down into the body and become aware of your breath
  3. Allow yourself to observe the natural rhythm of the breath
  4. When you’re ready, see if you can observe the subtle pause between the out breath and the in breath of the next breath
  5. Keep this going for a few breaths until you can consistently feel the pause
  6. See if you can notice the stillness and lack of tension in the body in this pause
  7. Now see if you can observe the even more subtle pause between the in breath and the out breath
  8. Again, see if you can notice the stillness present in this pause
  9. When you’re ready, bring this meditation to a close and allow yourself to notice how you feel as a result

 

In the same way as the breath, there are often small pauses within the day that we don’t notice. Bringing mindful attention to these pauses can help us to metaphorically put down the water cup for a while so we can rest, before starting again. Drawing attention to these pauses can be difficult at first until we get the hang of it so it can help to start with a specific intention. Perhaps if you have a lot of driving to do you can use every red light to take a deep breath in and out. Imagine coming away from every red light feeling more positive and rested, rather than more stressed and aggravated! If you’re spending the day at home with children, perhaps use a task like boiling the kettle to remind you to take a deep breath in and out. Just feeling a moment of stillness. Anticipating the positive experience of a warming cup of tea. Or if you’re in the office, you could decide to breathe deeply and mindfully while drying your hands at the hand drier. Think you don’t have time to dry your hands at the hand drier? Try counting. It’s normally less than 20 seconds. Imagine using those 20 seconds to rest, clear your mind and appreciate the warm air on your hands rather than rushing out of the toilet with half dried, damp hands.

 

Once you start to notice the pauses you’ll find yourself noticing more and more pauses and embracing the chance to rest, albeit briefly, before continuing with your day. Take the opportunity to nourish and shine affectionate attention on your body and mind, and everyday demands will start to feel less overwhelming.

 

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You have a right to experiment with your life

Do you ever read a quote and have it change your life? I’m a little bit in love with Anaïs Nin anyway but I read this quote of hers and it finally gave me the courage to do what I’d been afraid of.

 
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“You have a right to experiment with your life. You will make mistakes. And they are right too.” – Anaïs Nin

 
At the time I had a great job with great people but I knew that I wanted to be able to look after my family on more of a full-time basis. I also had a passion for mindfulness that I wanted to explore. I spent many months ruminating on the decision about whether to leave (I’ll tackle rumination in a different post) and there were two key thoughts that were holding me back.

 

  • It’s highly unlikely I’d be able to return to research in such a fantastic position. What if I regret it and want to return?
  • What if I fail? Everyone would see me fail and that would be embarrassing.

As I read that quote however, I realised that making mistakes IS inevitable. I could take all the precautions I wanted but at some point I would make a mistake anyway. We often see our lives (particularly our professional lives) as being a linear upward trajectory. We don’t expect to pause, to reset, to circle back around and come up again on a different path. But would it be so bad if we did? It suddenly felt quite liberating to acknowledge that I’d had an amazing time in research for 12 years but that right now, I could allow myself to take on a new challenge. And if I decided to return to research in the future, maybe I would find another amazing role to fill. There are no definites, only possibilities.

 
The other thought I acknowledged was that failing and making mistakes ARE OK. This is one I struggle with a lot and learning self compassion through my own meditation practice has been very healing.  Yes it feels bad to fail, but it can also be a great teacher if we let go of the accompanying self-criticism and negative thinking that we often heap upon ourselves when we do so. We can be kind to ourselves instead. Acknowledge the hurt, explore what the experience has to teach us and then let it go. We can even be grateful to our failures for teaching us.

 
So as I prepare to launch my new classes this week, I feel that familiar knot of trepidation in my stomach. My anxious mind telling me that failure is a possibility. That it would be safer not to try. To remain unseen and untested.

 
And then I remember those words “You will make mistakes. And they are right too”. I remember that I have love to give. That I am passionate about what I do. That I want to share that feeling of loving life again that I had when I learned mindfulness for the first time after my first baby. That I can do this.

 
The best mentors often allow us to step outside our thoughts and see them from a different perspective. Thank you Anaïs.