Every generation thinks they've had it the worst: the baby boomers and Vietnam, the generation that survived the Great Depression and WWII, and now the millenials and the Great Recession and a new wave of explicit racism, hate crimes, and political extremism. But keep scanning back in time, and you'll see throughout the entire history of human civilization, we've had war, corruption, violence, slavery, prejudice, cruelty, poverty, revolts, and suffering. Just Google search "medieval torture devices" for some interesting insights into how much pleasure Europeans took in devising ways to slowly kill people who didn't follow their society's norms.
History repeats itself. Many will tell you that we should learn from our mistakes as human beings, yet we don't seem to stop doing things to hurt each other and the Earth, even though the effects will be felt across many people for many years. An unhappy fact, yet no generation objectively had it better or worse than another--the problems simply shifted to new forms. The world has always been chaotic, and this irks us to no end because we are strongly motivated to believe that the world is fair and just (the "Just-World" phenomenon in psychological terms). We sleep better at night thinking that people get what they deserve; that good things happen to good people, and bad people are punished. But the world isn't that black-and-white, nor is it always fair, and coming to terms with an unjust world sometimes manifests as depression or anxiety symptoms, such as lost sleep, worrying, helplessness, and irritability.
How do we come to terms with the reality that sometimes, bad things happen to good people? That bad behaviors aren't always punished? And if the world outside is chaotic, and seems out-of-control, what can we do about it?
- We can focus our energies outwardly, trying to force the world to fit into our expectations of what is sensible and fair by controlling as much as we possibly can (ourselves, others, events, etc.). This path tends to lead to disappointment and frustration when our expectations are inevitably not met.
- We may also focus on advocacy and being agents of change as part of an external (outer-world) focus. Not an easy endeavor, but can be rewarding to make even a small difference in the world around us.
- We might explore spirituality or more vehemently hold to a spiritual belief that assuages our frustration, telling us that in the bigger picture, all is taken care of by unseen forces (in ways we aren't equipped to fully understand), so we can go back to believing in the "Just-World" again. This can be a helpful approach for those who are more spiritually-inclined.
- We can also focus our energies inward to learn to become the eye of the hurricane. What does it mean to be the "eye of the hurricane?" Completely surrounded by chaos, but calm, mindfully aware. Serene while the world continues to churn. Some research suggests that those who practice mindfulness and/or are high in "trait mindfulness" report increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity, and improved behavioral regulation. Why might mindfulness reduce our own anxiety and distress? Because it involves learning attentional control and increasing our mental flexibility. In simpler terms, it means not holding on to thoughts and images that may prolong our negative feelings.
But How Do I Cultivate Mindfulness and Presence?
Do you ever notice that you're constantly thinking? Catch yourself cycling through thoughts like a ticker-tape of news at the bottom of a TV screen? Daydreaming, worrying, fantasizing, planning, calculating, ruminating--all of these thought processes take away from our experience of the present moment. The antidote to this requires a few steps:
1. Develop awareness of your thoughts. We become experts in our careers and hobbies, but often fail to understand our own thought processes. In fact, we usually just let our minds do their thing "unattended," so to speak, without thinking about why or how we are thinking ("metacognition"). Worse, we might believe our mind's judgments and criticisms and accept them as absolute truth.
- Start to pay attention to your thoughts throughout an average day. When do you find that your mind is the "loudest?" Do your thoughts tend to make you feel bad or good? What kinds of thoughts do you ruminate on the most? How hard is it to let go of thoughts that come with emotions (i.e. thoughts that make you anxious)? Do your thoughts ever feel out of your control? Once you can answer these questions and understand your thoughts, you can move on to step 2.
2. Start to practice a gentle letting go of your thoughts.
- Give yourself about 10-15 minutes of set time in a quiet place, preferably daily, but at least a few times per week. Close your eyes and relax, breathing slowly. You might even try inhaling to the count of four and exhaling to the count of seven, making your exhales deeper than your inhales.
- When you realize that you are having a thought, think to yourself, "I am having the thought that...," and let it go, as if it is just a cloud passing by in the sky. Other thoughts will come in and out as they inevitably do, but the more we practice detaching from them (called "cognitive defusion"), the easier it gets. We sometimes get hooked onto thoughts that bring up negative emotions, such as stressful thoughts about tasks, plans, memories, conflict, etc. Remind yourself that this is normal, but with practice, you can "defuse" by practicing being in the present moment (mindfulness).
3. Practice letting go of judgments. Nonjudgment is an important aspect of mindfulness. Throughout the day, notice when you judge yourself or others in the same way that you practice becoming aware of your other thoughts. When you have judgmental thoughts, use the same technique of identifying the thought "I am having the thought that....I am stupid (etc.)" and let it go. You don't have to accept the judgment, agree with it, believe it, or give it any more of your time and energy. You also don't have to take time out to do this and count breaths; this is something that you can start to practice at any time that you notice a critical thought. When you start to let go of these judgments, you might find that you are able to detach from your thoughts and stop believing them as if they are absolute truth.
Why is nonjudgment part of mindfulness? Our brains are geared more toward negative information (from an evolutionary standpoint) to learn from mistakes in order to survive. But if our thoughts have turned into a broken record of criticisms about self and others, it's no longer serving an adaptive purpose; in fact, it's causing us quite a bit of distress. Thus, practicing "nonjudgment" in our daily lives may help decrease distress. In addition, you might find that it's easier to be compassionate with yourself and others if you aren't involved in self- and other- judgments as often.
4. Practice, practice, practice! Sometimes people give up on mindfulness practice because it doesn't immediately provide drastic results the first few times. Or sometimes it does work the first few times, but they don't want to practice regularly ("I'm good now!"). Developing present moment awareness through mindfulness is like working out to develop your muscles; you won't see the biggest benefit until it has become a regular practice for an extended period of time. This is daunting for some in the same way that working out 4-5 times a week seems daunting. But both have a payoff, if you can commit to the practice. The difference is, with mindfulness, the energy is devoted to your internal mental/emotional state, rather than your external body.
Mindfulness practices are freely available for everyone to try. If they work, great, and if they don't work, that's okay, too. But if it's free to use and has benefitted many, why not try becoming the eye of the hurricane in your own life?