Sarit Swisa (Clinical Psychologist)

Somehow, the VERY last things you want to be told when you’ve had an extremely stressful, hectic day are “calm down” or “just breathe” or “stop stressing”.  Doesn’t it seem a bit condescending? As though you hadn’t thought of being calm or actually enjoy that frantic whirlwind in your mind?! Or even worse…imagine being told “you really messed that up” or “you always stuff up” or “why are you such an idiot?”?  Seems rather brutal, doesn’t it?

Strangely enough the person most likely to be bombarding you with these sentiments can actually be you! Now how on earth does that work? When we are having a tiring, embarrassing, confusing or troubling time we attack ourselves? If you speak to enough people you will soon discover that these self-denigrating thoughts are widespread. In order not to feel as helpless about various situations in our lives, we tend to blame ourselves with the idea in mind being that if it is our fault we can do something about it next time. Even if we can, have you seen progress in the child who failed maths being berated for being a dummy? I think most people would agree that extra input and assistance is the route to go! Applying this strategy to our internal worlds has proven effective too.

This is where mindful practice steps onto the scene. The idea of mindfulness might conjure up images of some whacky meditation session or floating to the Himalayas, sitting cross-legged in trance. While mindfulness is indeed linked to meditative practices, it is the very opposite of disappearing. In fact, I would call mindfulness the art of making a star appearance in your life by bringing yourself into each moment, rather than relying on old biases and thought schemas of what you “should” think or feel or perhaps worse, not being present at all.

Since mindfulness is a practical skill the best way to understand it is by trying it out. Pause here and see if you can find a small block of chocolate or any good substitute. Lift the piece of chocolate to eye level and notice the edges and surfaces very carefully. Now, close your eyes and feel the texture of the chocolate on your fingertips, note whether your chocolate is warm or cold, light or heavy, rough or smooth, sticky or matt. Then raise the chocolate to your nose and smell…. Be aware of what happens in your mouth at this point. Slowly put the chocolate in your mouth, and without biting it, feel the slow melting and sweet sensation present. Seriously…try this before reading further!

When was the last time you ate a chocolate (or anything!) like this? The idea is to bring yourself and your mind fully into the moment. Thus, rather than typing an email or worrying about your day, you find yourself present in the moment at hand. By practicing this skill, we learn how to stop repeating the same critical, useless thoughts that bog us down, we begin to see things as they are, we experience the full range of being. Anxiety often acts as a kind of static interference in our head space so that we need not fully immerse ourselves in all our emotions and thoughts. By practicing mindful awareness (that is non-judgemental noticing) of these thoughts and feelings we realise that they are likely to pass when we aren’t squashing them down or forcing ourselves to think and feel otherwise. Instead of berating ourselves for our failings, we access our capacity to understand how we came to those encounters and what we feel about them. Rather than losing ourselves in a panic due to an overwhelming load of work or responsibilities, we can recognise our deepest needs and find ways to manage the impact of our external lives upon our inner ones.

There are numerous ways to learn about mindfulness – from books to cell phone apps. If you would like to join a formal eight week mindfulness training programme feel free to contact me at info@psychmatters.co.za.

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