I have a reactive nervous system – what I mean by this is that little things in the environment can trigger a strong reaction in my body. In fact, until I was in my early thirties, anxiety and panic attacks – and my efforts to avoid them – created a ton of difficulty in my life and relationships.
Fortunately, I discovered the practice of mindfulness – paying attention on purpose and accepting what I find. I started practicing everyday. I sat in silence, rested my attention on my breath, tried to notice when it wandered, and brought it back to the breath when it did. Each time an uncomfortable sensation showed up – restlessness, boredom, anger, resentment, worry, fear, tightness, hunger, etc… — I did my best to let it be.
Despite the way it is presented by the modern happiness industry, the goal of this practice is not to feel good all the time. This may be hard to tell given that pictures of blissful models grace the cover of every magazine touting the benefits of mindfulness. The goal of this practice is to work peacefully and effectively with whatever shows up – including all kinds of discomfort.
When I find myself in an ineffective meeting, when I disagree with someone, or when Google maps is slow to tell me my next turn, it is not at all uncommon for me to feel like a flare has just gone off in my chest. It’s just what my nervous system does. I don’t know if this will ever change.
There are some big differences in my life since I began practicing mindfulness: I am much less likely to fuel these feelings. I am much less likely to blame others for these feelings. I am much less likely to do something that requires a lot of apology and clean-up afterward. I am much less likely to be harshly self-critical over the fact that my nervous system does what it does. On the other hand, I am much more likely to let the feelings pass, to put my energy into something that actually matters, and even to smile or laugh about how quickly my brain goes into survival mode.
The other big thing that has changed for me is that I am much more likely to find some empathy and compassion for others who are reacting strongly in a situation. I travel quite a bit and I see people in airports lash out when they are delayed or miss a connection. Sometimes it is not pretty. But I get it. Evolution has handed us a complicated brain that can see minor inconveniences as threats to our survival. We can either work with this reality more skillfully or we can suffer the consequences of being a victim to it.
I am no transcendent guru. I am not special. I do not have anything that others do not have. I have just been practicing. That’s all. And I am not perfect. I still get caught and blinded by strong sensations – perfection is not the point. Growth is the point. Acceptance and self-compassion for my humanity sure does help. It leaves room for learning and growth.
If you would like to learn more about the practice of mindfulness in daily life, visit the Applied Attention blog
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#mindfulness #emotionalwellness #leadership #emotionalintelligence #anxiety #stress #stressreduction