Let’s face it, we are only human, right? And as humans, we are hardwired to solve problems and handle difficult and trying moments in life. This is how we have evolved as a species and how we have accomplished what we have so far. Problem solving is an essential and necessary part of life. But contrary to the brain’s belief, life is not a problem to be solved; rather, it is a constantly evolving and changing experience to be lived. So how do we learn to stop – be in the moment – and, in the pause, change our thoughts and retrain our brain to embrace life as a gift? Let’s talk a look at what happens in our brain when trouble is in the air:
The moment we experience discomfort of any sort, the brain sees it as a threat – something to be dealt with and solved. If we’re not happy, something is wrong…right? Of course not – yet the brain interprets the state of unhappiness (or some other uncomfortable emotion) as a problem to be “fixed”. We are not feeling as we “should be” feeling and so something must be done. And if we tell ourselves that we “should be” feeling some other way than we are feeling at the time, the mind can easily think: “There is something wrong with me” and it perceives the experience as a defect, a deficiency, or unworthiness. The brain interprets the whole sequence as something to “fix” and uses self-judgment to tell us something is wrong. Now the brain is on high alert for other things to go wrong. This only adds pressure to an already stressed system.
In my own life, I have learned that when troubled or facing a difficult moment, the best strategy is to create a state of “being” rather than thinking I must “do something” right away. Mindfulness and the state of being present, rather than being lost in the past or worried about the future, is how we balance the brain’s habitual agenda of constant problem solving activity. With mindfulness, we train the brain to “be with” what is here rather than needing “to do” something about what is present. By cultivating mindfulness and learning to bring a calm, centered and purposeful awareness to our feelings, we send a message to the brain telling it to pause and therefore allowing us to be fully aware…to be “here, now” with any difficulty we are facing.
Once aware and focused, “mindful” rather than mindless, we are able to make informed decisions. Once aware, we are able to “respond” rather than react to a situation asking for out attention. Once aware, we are able to be an observer of our feelings, thoughts, and sensations rather than a prisoner of habitual, ineffective ways of handling our experience. Being mindful we become able to be “heartful”: responding to our world with compassion and calm rather than selfishness and desperation. Difficult moments, then, become opportunities to be wise and responsive – to learn and grow – while improving the world one mindful moment at a time.
Try this: choose to stop what you’re doing for 30 seconds and practice “being here, now”…the state of simply “being”, rather than “doing”. Take a breath and acknowledge yourself and how you are. Is your mind busy or calm? Is your body tense or tranquil? Are you feeling anxious, bored, curious, or some other emotion? Breathe in ….breathe out. You have arrived. You are here, now, present to the moment.
Now, if you will, allow yourself one minute to develop a simple practice that can be done anywhere, anytime. It is the practice of mindfulness and it can be your ally in tough times (as well as in everyday life). Begin by setting aside any judgmental thoughts or ideas about whether or not this practice will “work for you”. See if you can keep an open mind and a curious heart as you follow the simple instructions below.
Breathe: Notice your breath as you breathe in and out. Take a few deep, slow breaths. Simply notice.
Allow and Accept: This is the process of expanding attention from the breath to the entire body, feeling your body as it is in this moment. You can begin by noticing your posture…any feelings or sensations in the body. As best, simply be with any sensations that arise. You may feel warmth or coolness, tingling or numbness, heaviness or lightness. While noticing the body, be aware of how emotions can be expressed in parts of the body. If there is physical pain, see if you can let it be…just as it is…and dwell in acceptance. Just for now. As the minute comes to an end, again, simply notice. How was this for you?
Like any new habit, the more you integrate it into your day, the stronger it becomes and the more likely it is to be accessible during difficult moments. This may sound too simple to be impactful – again, see if you can be curious and simply notice – setting aside your judgments and allow your experience to guide your way. In time, you will notice a difference – a more centered and aware experience. As they say: “There is pain and there is suffering”. To me, this means I can have discomfort but I don’t have to have the judgments that can be created in the mind about the discomfort. It becomes possible, then, to “notice” discomfort or difficulty without making it bigger or more threatening than it needs to be. And with the breath, it becomes possible to embrace difficulty, becoming an observer of the experience – creating calm, compassion and clear choice.