Often we’re simply unaware of our feelings. Sure, we notice them when they’re raging out of control, at either end of the spectrum, but the rest of the time it’s as though they’re just there in the background colouring our view of life. But also the speed at which our emotions change, one feeling morphing into the next, can make them seem impossible to separate and define. Think back to the last time you felt happy, do you remember when it began? Take a minute or so to see if you can pinpoint the very moment the emotion of happiness came into being. And then when did it end? What about the last time you felt angry? You might remember the situation or context for the anger, but can you remember when the feeling of anger began and when it finished? And what caused these emotions to suddenly vanish? Was it that they ran out of steam? Did something else more important grab your attention? Or was it simply replaced by the next feeling?
For something that’s so central to our entire experience of life, we have remarkably little understanding of emotions. Neuroscientists can tell us with amazing accuracy what’s happening physiologically, and behavioural scientists can interpret that data to give us a rational explanation for why we feel the way we do. But although this is helpful and interesting, does it change the way you feel? More importantly, does it alter the way you respond or react to the way you feel? I may know that I shouldn’t get angry because it releases harmful chemicals into my body and causes my blood pressure to rise, but that knowledge does little to stop me getting angry. Likewise, I know that taking it easy and being a bit more carefree will make me feel less stressed, but that is of little use if I’m going out of my mind with worry. Sometimes this gap between what we understand intellectually, and our actual experience of emotions in everyday life, can appear as an enormous chasm.
When approaching emotions through meditation, it’s not that we need to give the emotions more importance (they already receive quite enough attention); instead, we need to find a way to relate to them in a more skilful way. We need to find a way to be aware of our emotions, to experience, acknowledge and live with them, and yet not be at their mercy. Mindfulness and meditation show us how best to do this.
Ten Suggestions for Living More Mindfully
Needless to say, the theme that runs throughout is one of awareness, an understanding of both oneself and others. It’s about developing a gentle curiosity: watching, noticing and observing what’s happening in every aspect of your life – how you act, how you speak, and how you think. But remember, it’s not about trying to be someone else, it’s about finding a sense of ease with you as you are, right now.
Perspective – choosing how you see your life
For meditation to be effective it doesn’t really matter how you view your life. But it can be useful to acknowledge the general theme, because that way you can be more alert to the tendency to slip into negative patterns of thought. And it’s this increased awareness that provides the potential for sustainable change.
It’s also useful to notice how your perspective can shift – how one day you can get on a crowded train and not be too bothered about it, and yet on another occasion it appears to push every button you have. The good thing about this realisation is that clearly it’s not what’s happening outside of ourselves that causes us the most difficulty, but rather what’s going on inside our own minds – which, thankfully, is something that can change. Noticing these shifting perspectives from day-to-day, and from moment to moment, can be a very strong support for your daily meditation.
Communication – relating to others
If you want to find a greater sense of happiness through the practice of meditation, taking out your frustrations on others is unlikely to encourage a calm and clear mind. Communicating skilfully and sensitively with other people is therefore essential on the road to getting some headspace. This could mean applying a greater sense of restraint, empathy or perspective to your relationships – or maybe all three!
That said, there are some people who, no matter how well intentioned you are, will still choose to pick a fight. In these situations there is often little you can do. Trying to empathise with them and recognise those similar states of mind within yourself can be helpful, but if someone is consistently unpleasant towards you, then it might be best to just stay well clear – if you possibly can that is.
Appreciation – smelling the roses
Have you ever noticed how much emphasis some people place on even the smallest amount of difficulty in their lives, and how little time they spend reflecting on moments of happiness? Part of the reason for this goes back to the idea that happiness is somehow ‘rightfully ours’, and that everything else is therefore wrong or out of place.
The idea of taking time out to be grateful may sound a little trite to some, but it’s essential if we want to get some more headspace. It’s very difficult to be caught up in lots of distracting thoughts when there is a strong sense of appreciation in your life. And by developing a more heartfelt appreciation of what we have, we also begin to see more clearly what’s missing in the lives of others.
Kindness – towards both yourself and others
When you’re kind to someone else it feels good. It’s not rocket science. It feels good for you and it feels good for them. It makes for a very happy, peaceful mind. But whilst you’re at it, how about showing yourself some of that kindness – especially in learning to be more mindful. We live in a world with such high expectations that we can often be critical of our own progress in learning something new.
Fortunately, meditation has a strange way of bringing out the kindness in people – and practising kindness in everyday life will simply feed back into your meditation. Kindness makes the mind softer, more malleable and easier to work with in your practice. It creates a mindset that is less judgmental and more accepting. Clearly this has profound implications for our relationships with others.
Compassion – in the shoes of others
Compassion is not something that we can ‘do’ or ‘create’, it already exists in each and every one of us. If you think back to the blue sky analogy, the same principle applies to compassion. In fact, you could say that the blue sky represents both awareness and compassion in equal measure.
Sometimes compassion will arise spontaneously, like the clouds parting to reveal the blue sky. At other times we might have to make a conscious effort, which is a bit more like imagining what the blue sky looks like, even when it’s obscured by clouds. But the more you imagine this scenario, the more likely it is to happen naturally. Compassion is a lot like empathy really, putting ourselves in the shoes of another and experiencing a shared sense of understanding.
Balance – a sense of equanimity
Life is not unlike the sea, ebbing and flowing throughout our lives. Sure, sometimes it’s calm and serene, but at other times the waves can be so big that they threaten to overwhelm us. These fluctuations are an inevitable part of life. But when you forget this simple fact, it’s easy to get swept away by strong waves of difficult emotions.
By training the mind through meditation it’s possible to develop a more balanced approach, so that you experience a greater sense of equanimity in life. This shouldn’t be confused with a boring existence where you float along in life like some emotionless grey blob. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Having greater awareness of your emotions means that, if anything, your experience of them will be heightened. It’s just that in being less caught up in them, you will no longer feel as though you’re at their mercy.
Acceptance – resistance is futile
No matter how fortunate your circumstances, life can at times be both stressful and challenging. We often try to ignore this fact and therefore feel frustrated and disappointed when we don’t get our own way. Much like compassion, it can be useful to think back to the blue sky analogy when you reflect on acceptance.
With that in mind, the journey to acceptance is about discovering what we need to let go of, rather than what we need to start doing. By noticing moments of resistance throughout the day, you can start to become more aware of what prevents acceptance from naturally arising. This in turn will allow you to view the thoughts and feelings that arise during your meditation with a much greater sense of ease.
Composure – letting-go of impatience
For many people, life has now become so busy, so hectic, that a sense of impatience is perhaps inevitable. In these moments, you may notice your jaw tightening, your foot tapping, or your breath getting increasingly shallow. But by noticing the impatience with a genuine sense of curiosity, the very nature of it begins to change. Somehow the momentum slows down and its grip is released.
Impatience is just as likely to show up in your meditation practice as it is in everyday life – one simply reflecting the other. In fact, if you’re like most people you may well find yourself asking, ‘Why am I not experiencing results more quickly?’ But remember, meditation is not really about achievement and results – which is why it’s such a nice change of pace from the rest of life. Instead it’s about learning to be aware, to rest in that space of natural awareness with a genuine sense of ease.
Dedication – sticking with it
Mindfulness is about a fundamental shift in the way you relate to your thoughts and feelings. While that may sound exciting, or perhaps a little overwhelming, it’s done by repeating the exercise little and often. So this means practising meditation on a regular basis, no matter how you feel. Like any other skill, you’ll become more confident and familiar with the feeling of mindfulness the more often you apply it.
By practising in this way – little and often – you can slowly start to build up a stable sense of awareness in your meditation, which will naturally feed through to the rest of your life. Likewise, by being more mindful in everyday life, it will have a positive impact on your practice. If you’re really clear in your motivation, knowing why you’re learning meditation and who those people are around you that are likely to benefit from your increased sense of headspace, then you’re unlikely to have trouble sitting down for ten short minutes each day.
Presence – living life skilfully
Living skilfully can mean having the presence of mind to restrain yourself when you think you might say or do something you’ll later regret. It can also mean having the strength and stability of awareness to respond sensitively to difficult situations rather than reacting impulsively. So living skilfully requires a certain amount of discriminating wisdom.
Unfortunately, wisdom can’t be learnt from a book, no matter how profound the writing. Instead it relates to an experiential understanding of life, which meditation can help to enhance. In the same way that compassion and acceptance are reminiscent of the blue sky analogy, so too is presence. Because wisdom isn’t something you can ‘do’ or ‘make happen’ – it’s there in all of us. By becoming more familiar with that space within ourselves and trusting our instinct more fully, we can then learn to apply this quality of discriminating wisdom in everyday life. In short, we can begin to live more skilfully in the world.