“You are the cause of about 90% of your own mental anguish and suffering!”
When I make that statement at one of my group therapy sessions or stress management presentations, I usually get the evil eye. But by the end of my session, every head in the group is nodding in agreement.
Look around you right now. Are you safe? Are you comfortable? Is there anything happening to you right at this moment that is causing you mental anguish? At least ninety-nine percent of you will answer “no” to that last question. When you think about it, NOW is a good moment. In fact, most of your moments are good moments. Yet you suffer from worry, fear, frustration, sadness, regret, guilt and a host of other unpleasant emotions and mental suffering.
Why? Because most of the time, you are not truly in the present moment. Most of the mental suffering that you experience is not caused by what is happening in your life right at this moment. It is caused by you allowing your mind to go to the past: recalling that cancer diagnosis; reliving your divorce; replaying the fight you had with your sister; or going back to your dysfunctional childhood. Or, for many of you, mental suffering is caused by allowing your mind to go to the future: what if the cancer comes back?; What if my son gets into a car crash tonight?; What if I can’t pay the bills next month?
Living in the past causes depression. Living in the future causes anxiety. Only in the present moment can you find peace.
So how do you bring yourself back to the present moment? The best way I have found is by tuning in to my senses, a technique which is known as mindfulness. Stop what you are doing right now and take one moment to look around you. Notice everything you see in your surroundings. What grabs your attention? Now take a moment to listen. Just be mindful of what you hear. Next, if you have a nice body lotion, apply it slowly and mindfully to your hands, just enjoy the sensation of touch. Now, if your lotion is scented, take a deep sniff and savor the smell. Finally, if you have a small food item, such as a candy, eat it, very slowly and very mindfully, enjoying the sensation of taste. (Every time I do this session with a group of students, one of them will say, “Miss Strang, that is the best Skittle I have ever eaten!” That is true because most of the time we are not mindful of eating and so we miss out on the pleasure of our food.)
The exercise you just did is a technique I use to demonstrate HOW to be mindful. Practicing mindfulness however, does not mean sitting down with a bag of Skittles and a bottle of hand lotion to tune in to your senses for five minutes. Mindfulness is really all about using your senses to bring you back to the present moment in your everyday life. For example, you can be mindful of taking a shower, just by turning off your thoughts for a few minutes and really paying attention to the feel of the water on your skin and the smell of the soap. Practicing mindfulness just means having more mindful moments during the day; more moments where you get out of your head and simply pay attention to what you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste.
I once had a client who came to me because she was a constant worrier. She worried about her children, she worried about her health, she worried about her husband and so on. I think if she didn’t have something to worry about, she would make something up! I suggested that during her lunch break she take a walk around a beautiful trail that was near her work, since spending time in nature is such good medicine for the soul. The following week however, she reported that it did her no good. She spent her entire walk worrying and overthinking. I suggested that on her next walk she just listen and come back to tell me everything she heard on her walk. The next week a very different client came to my office. She was smiling and very eager to tell me all that she had heard on her walk: children laughing; rocks crunching under her feet; the wind in the trees; the water lapping on shore; birds singing; cars driving by; etc., sounds that she had never before been aware of.
“Was your mind occupied with your worries?” I asked.
“No”, she laughed, “I was too busy listening to worry about anything.”
That is mindfulness.
Not every moment is going to be a good moment. If you recently experienced a loss you can’t just eat a skittle mindfully and make it go away. But if you find that you are spending much of your mental energy in the past or in the future, it will cause you suffering. Peace can only be found in the present moment.
I wish you a peaceful day, filled with many mindful moments!