Mindfulness

Going on ‘holiday’ via mindfulness

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One of the losses many people have been feeling most keenly since the start of the COVID pandemic has been that of overseas, or at times even interstate, holidays. Unable to hop on a plane and escape to a different place, we may start to feel trapped in the humdrum of home and work and yearn for a change of scene to reignite the spark in ourselves and our lives.

The fact that a break from the regular is healthy for us has been honoured by traditions and customs throughout the ages and around the world. Before community and religion declined in significance in the West, ‘special times’ like ‘holy days,’ public ceremonies, festivals and celebrations, ritual fasts, pilgrimages, and retreats frequently interrupted normal life with ‘extra-ordinary’ experiences, from which people returned to their everyday routines not only refreshed but ideally also more at peace with themselves and reconnected with their group and the dimension of the sacred that gave their lives meaning.

Today, holidays away from home fulfil for many people some of the functions that those ‘special times’ had in the past. Allowing ourselves to relax and do new things, we may reunite with normally neglected parts of ourselves; travelling with our partner, family, or friends can revitalise and strengthen our bonds; and a trip to a beautiful location in nature is an opportunity to open up to a sense of awe and rediscover our love and reverence for the life we are a part of.

So it’s understandable that current travel restrictions have left many people feeling deprived of an important element of their lives. However, the good news is that we can bring aspects of holidays into our everyday lives by practising mindfulness. Indeed, when we look more closely, we will find that, fundamentally, what made our favourite holidays such special times is the fact that we were much more mindful during those ‘most precious weeks of the year.’

That’s because holidays foster a mindful state that has been called ‘being mode.’ In our society, we spend most of the time in ‘doing mode,’ which is characterised by goal orientation, thinking and problem solving, a focus on getting from ‘here’ to ‘there.’ When in doing mode, we are mostly focused on the past or the future and live in our heads, as our minds busily analyse, evaluate, compare, and plan in order to close the gap between where we are (for example, facing an empty fridge or wanting a promotion) and where we want to be (choosing goodies from a well stocked fridge; sitting in the corner office). In the doing state, our sympathetic nerves are revved up and we narrowly focus only on what is directly relevant to our goals. Rushing to finish a report on time, or talking on the phone with a difficult client, we don’t notice that we are dehydrated or hunched over, and we don’t see that the peace lily on our colleague’s desk has produced a flower.

Even though necessary and useful a lot of the time, doing mode with its sympathetic arousal needs to be balanced by being mode, or we suffer a decline in our physical and psychological wellbeing. So how do we access being mode? The quickest way is to pause and pay mindful attention to our senses. When we open our focus to become aware of sounds and what we see around us, when we allow ourselves to notice tastes, smells, and what we feel on our skin and inside, we reconnect with our bodies and activate the parasympathetic part of our nervous system, which is responsible for ‘rest and digest’ processes, cell maintenance and repair.

But even though it’s highly beneficial for our mental and physical health, paying attention to our physical experience from moment to moment is something we tend to reserve for the holidays. Soaking in an outdoor onsen surrounded by early morning forest greenery and mossy rocks, we are far more likely to allow ourselves to become vividly aware of our sense impressions – the warmth and sense of relaxation throughout the body, the gentle sloshing in the silence when we move, and the unfamiliar bird calls coming from the trees – than when we take a hurried shower at home while mentally going over the presentation we are about to give, or planning the dinner menu for Saturday.

This is why the memories of our favourite holidays are so vibrant – we were really present in those moments, which is usually not the case during our ‘normal’ life. When we step out after dinner to drop the garbage in the bin, the sudden impact of the sharp air on our warm body, the thin sliver of the moon high above, bright and precise against the black winter sky, the gleam of the streetlight sliding across the surface of a parked car as we pass it, and the intricate pattern of shadows on the pavement will be no more than a barely noticed backdrop, if we’re composing an email in our head or rehashing a conversation.

This kind of everyday absent-mindedness is partly due to our species’ survival oriented evolutionary past, which equipped us with a brain that tends to pretty much ignore our surroundings, even our bodies, in the absence of novelty, urgent needs, or signs of danger. Being in a new place and doing something different, however, brings our attention back to the moment. There’s so much to explore and discover when we’re travelling, so many new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes! And we also move more, and perhaps move in new ways, when we are on holiday. Snorkelling and surfing, hiking, climbing, skiing, or simply doing a lot of walking are all activities that tend to keep us absorbed in the moment. We feel alive and animated – and perhaps dread returning to our ordinary life back home.

But we are not condemned to dullness and lethargy when we are in our usual surroundings, and we don’t have to wait for the next holiday to experience novelty. If art makes the familiar strange (Viktor Shklovsky), so does mindfulness. Paying attention to our senses moment by moment allows us to find newness in the same old, same old. If we approach the present as a place we’ve never been to before, we are free to get curious again. This fresh inquisitiveness will transform our experience of the things that our brain dismisses as not deserving our full attention since we already ‘know’ them. The daily shower, the walk to the café, our regular meals, contact with the people we see every day – each of these moments has never happened before and is unique, complex, and rich, if, instead of tuning out, we bring mindful attention to them.

So if everyday life seems less ‘special’ than our holidays, it’s not just because of our brains’ tendency to withdraw attention from our physical experience if there’s no urgency to stay alert. As everyone knows who’s ever suffered from the ‘holiday blues,’ just being in a new place and doing ‘fun’ things does not guarantee happiness or greater attention to the present. What makes moments special is also the way we approach them. How would our lunch taste, for example, if we put the phone away and started paying as much attention to every bite as we would if we were sitting at a small table outside a family run café on the island of Ortigia, having the traditional Sicilian meal of Caponata for the first time? By not paying attention to the moments of our everyday lives because they are just ‘ordinary’ we may actually prevent them from being special.

Without being fully conscious of it, we rank the moments of our lives and typically regard only those at the top of our hierarchy (like the ‘most precious weeks of the year’) as worthy of our attention, while dismissing large chunks of our time as not deserving any attention at all. In fact, we treat a lot of moments as best to be ignored. Standing at a traffic light in a cold drizzle, feeling bloated after a disappointing lunch, trucks and buses thundering past, and an afternoon full of boring chores ahead – we might not want to be present to that.

But the practice of mindfulness challenges this attitude. Everything the Buddha taught is concerned with respect for life, says meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg. Yet, as he points out, we usually pay respect in the form of attention only to some things but not to others. We may be fully switched on during an important meeting at work, but don’t listen when our kids tell us something – or vice versa; we may give our full attention to a music video, but don’t hear the birds when we walk to the station; and while we relish our good moods, we tend to flee from unhappy mind states straight into costly distractions. This habit of escaping from our experience makes us miss a large part of our lives. However, the practice of mindfulness reminds us that ‘everything is worthy of our attention. The ant walking across the floor. The piece of fruit you’re eating. Each breath. These things are our lives, moment by moment. If we don’t notice them, we don’t make contact with the full vividness of life.’

If we tend to be more tuned in to the rich and detailed vividness of life while we are on holiday this is not just because we pay greater attention but also because of the way we pay attention while travelling. Not all holiday moments are wonderful, but once we’ve entered a more relaxed state of body and mind our judgemental attitude tends to soften and our tolerance level goes up. As a result, we become more interested and curious and willing to stay present even to experiences that, at home, would’ve pushed our ‘Escape’ or ‘Turn away’ buttons. In other words, while on holiday, we often adopt more of another important element of mindfulness – a nonjudgmental or accepting attitude.

For example, rather than swearing and hating what is happening when we get completely soaked in a sudden downpour in Nadi, Fiji, we may feel excited and alive, as we notice the smells and sounds of the rain all around us, the reflections in puddles, the sight of people running, the sensation of water trickling down our back, and the funny feeling of our toes squelching in wet sandals. And if you and your friend arrive in Lucerne too late for the last connecting train to Grindelwald, and your tight budget won’t allow for an unplanned stay in a Swiss hotel, you may experience this as part of the great adventure of travelling, rather than as a total disaster. So instead of sulking till the morning, you stay open and curious and, as a result, have a memorable time full of fascinating sights, sounds, and experiences as you roam Lucerne’s streets and forest at night.

Of course it’s easier to bring this kind of curiosity and openness to experience and even unpleasant events while travelling. Not having to work through to-do lists and meet deadlines means we can take things like getting soaked or missing a train more comfortably in our stride. Being stuck in a queue in the supermarket and finding ourselves next to the onion armpits of a burly guy in a singlet who keeps inching closer, while our eardrums are being pierced by the outraged screams of toddler who dropped his lolly, feels very different when we’ve just spent a leisurely afternoon exploring London’s Kew Gardens, than if we’ve had one of those days when our work kept being interrupted, we spent the lunch break holding the line of our telco, and our boss reprimanded us for something that wasn’t even our fault. If we are relaxed, we may even see something funny in those moments in the queue, instead of experiencing them as the last straw.

Fortunately, we don’t need to wait till we are on vacation before we can access being mode. We can do it anywhere and anytime. And if we consciously switch from doing mode to being mode by paying close attention to our sensory experience, opening up to the moment just as it is, and accepting it as part of the journey, we can create ‘holiday moments’ right in the turbulence of our regular days. Practising mindfulness won’t stop the noise, end lockdown, extend the deadline, or make the queue move faster, but it will allow us to meet difficult or unpleasant moments with greater calm. It will also add an abundance of pleasant and interesting moments to our lives that we would never have experienced otherwise. And as we nourish and refresh our body and mind throughout our ordinary days with ‘holiday’ moments by taking a break, slowing down, and being curious about what is here, we may discover behind the veil of familiarity a whole new world of wonder.

© Gesa Brennan 2021

Mindfulness

Mindfulness and habits: How mindfulness can help you quit a bad habit for good

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You may know the feeling. You wake up and something – perhaps your body, a relationship, your bank account, or simply your conscience – is not right. And it’s because you’ve done ‘it’ again. Maybe you’ve had too much to drink, or you binged on food, perhaps you lost your temper, went on an online shopping spree, or procrastinated something important. The list of behaviours that at first relieve us but in the end make us feel worse than before is long. Engaging in them once is usually not a problem. However, when we do it again and again, we are in trouble. We’ve made the behaviour a habit, and habits are hard to shake. The good news is that even when it seems impossible, indeed unthinkable to do, we can quit the most ingrained habit. And it’s mindfulness that is the key to successful change.

We need habits. Our conscious mind can only attend to one task at a time, but thanks to habits, which are based on our brain’s ability to automate sequences of actions once they have been repeated often enough, we are able to have an animated conversation with our friend while making her a cup of tea, we can reflect on our choice of words while typing, and we can get in and out of the shower in three minutes thanks to the fact that we don’t have to figure things out from scratch every morning. (‘Left armpit first or right?’)

And habits help us with decision making. Deciding what to do, when, and where, consumes time and energy and can be stressful, but habits automate choices like what to do after coming home from work, when and where to get our groceries, or how to handle stress and disappointments. That way, habits keep us from feeling lost, vulnerable, or frozen in indecision. If we let them, habits, strung together into routines, will make a large percentage of our choices for us, carrying us through our days, weeks, and years like a travelator. The question is, do we want to be where our habits take us?

Every day we make small decisions, such as how to relate to others, what to eat and drink, how to spend our money, if to exercise and for how long, and how to go about our work. These choices may seem insignificant by themselves, but, as Charles Duhigg points out in The Power of Habit, once they’ve become habits, they will end up having a huge impact on our life satisfaction, health, financial situation, and productivity. Of course many of our habits may be aligned with our values and priorities and work very well for us. But others? If we sat down and thought about it, we’d have to admit that even some of our habits that don’t classify as addiction or psychological disorder ultimately leave us feeling regret, remorse, and less healthy than we’d like to be. And yet, around and around what Duhigg calls the ‘habit loop’ we go, as if we had no other choice: cue, routine, reward. We briefly enjoy the rewards of our harmful habits, but then we pay the price.

So how can we take back control over our behaviour and get off the travellators that take us to bad places? How do we quit a harmful habit?

By paying attention. What makes habits so useful – the fact that they put behaviour on autopilot outside conscious control – is also the reason they seem impossible to stop. How can you quit doing what you’re not even fully aware of doing? You’re at a party and holding an empty glass in your hands, but you have no recollection of drinking it – and how many have you had? Or you’re busy and working hard all day, only to realise while lying sleepless in bed that a lot of that busyness was how you again avoided a pressing issue that you’re feeling anxious about. Likewise, the person who keeps interrupting people in mid-sentence probably doesn’t even know they’ve got a communication-killing habit.

Mindfulness, however, means waking up from autopilot mode. By practising being fully present and paying attention, even when we’re engaged in something that we’ve done hundreds or thousands of times before, we introduce consciousness into situations in which we usually act absentmindedly. Instead of just doing, we observe what we are doing and, over time, this allows us to recognise the patterns in our behaviour and to let go of denial: ‘No, this actually didn’t feel right. And no, it wasn’t a one-off. It’s become a habit and it’s hurting us – and others.’

Mindful attention will not only allow you to recognise which behaviour patterns harm you more than they help you; once you’ve decided to quit a habit, mindfulness will also help you do it. In order to let go of a problem behaviour it is crucial that you learn as much about it as you can. This might mean reading up on the subject, watching relevant programs, perhaps learning from fellow sufferers and discussing your issue with a counsellor or therapist. Most importantly, however, you will need to observe how exactly this behaviour pattern is playing out for you. For this reason, many change programs include a process of monitoring. Keeping a journal in which you record anything relevant to the habit you want to give up trains you to be mindful not just of the problem behaviour itself but also of its contexts. As a result, you will intimately get to know the different parts of your personal ‘habit loop’.

For example, what are your cues? What triggers your habit? Cues can be anything from objects (chocolate bars at the checkout), a certain time (‘happy’ hour, the weekend), a place (the pub, the kitchen), a situation (time pressure, being alone, being with others), to physical states (sleep deprivation, tension), thoughts (‘I can’t do it’, ‘I’m fat’), and emotions. Paying close attention to the cues of your habit will help you understand what kinds of circumstances are particularly challenging for you. This is important information that allows you to plan ahead and prepare for difficult situations.

As you explore your habit, you will also develop a deeper awareness of its rewards for you. As James Clear explains in Atomic Habits, a lot of our habits are driven by the urge to transform our internal state. What physical and mental states are you trying to change when you engage in your problem behaviour? With regards to some habits this is pretty straightforward. Cue: An afternoon slump. Routine: Having something with caffeine and/or sugar. The reward: Increased alertness and motivation (for a while). However, we’ve developed some of our routines specifically to not notice certain inner states. In these cases, we’re not just in the habit of automatically turning to a particular substance or doing certain things, but of looking away. We may, for example, quickly go online, have a drink, or eat something before we’ve fully noticed that it’s feelings of depression that we’re trying to escape. Or we may have developed the habit of keeping ourselves continuously busy to avoid even thinking about issues that we feel anxious or ashamed about. An anger habit might protect us in situations that trigger feelings of vulnerability or sadness that we don’t want to feel, and by automatically saying yes to every request we may keep ourselves from becoming aware of a painful inner conflict between wanting more time for ourselves and wanting to please in order to be liked.

Meditating, however, can make us less dependent on the main benefit of our harmful habits, the temporary banishment of unpleasant or difficult inner states. Practising mindfulness in meditation means paying attention to whatever is present, including uncomfortable states of body and mind, such as tiredness, restlessness, aches and pains, and distressing thoughts and emotions. This allows us to experience that even though avoiding and getting rid of what is unpleasant is a natural human tendency, we have the option to override it. And as we turn toward, rather than away from, painful or uncomfortable inner states, we may also discover that we are actually quite capable of being with them, and that doing so can lead to valuable insights, self-compassion, and a greater sense of freedom and inner peace.

In meditation we also practise ‘urge surfing.’ Instead of automatically giving in to an impulse, such as the desire to scratch an itch or check our messages, we make this impulse itself an object of our attention. When we just watch its sensations, thoughts, and feelings, it becomes a conscious choice whether we follow the impulse or not, rather than an immediate knee-jerk reaction. This is an excellent practice if we want to let go of a habit, because no matter how much we try to stay away from temptations, sooner or later we will feel the strong desire to do ‘it’ again. In these moments, we can remind ourselves of what we’ve learned in meditation – that it’s possible to have an urge without the urge having us.

But what if we slip? What if we do give in to temptation?

Studying people who managed to overcome a maladaptive habit without the help of a therapist or a program, Prochaska and colleagues found that the process of behaviour change has six stages, starting with denial and ending at the point where we don’t even feel tempted anymore. However, we don’t necessarily travel from the first stage straight through to the last. Instead we may do one or more loops – quitting, then falling back into our old behaviour and reverting to an earlier stage, before once more moving towards the complete cessation of the habit. However, as Prochaska points out, a slip doesn’t have to be a fall. It’s what we do after we’ve given in to temptation that decides if our lapse really turns into a full relapse.

A big challenge after making a mistake is not to react with the much bigger mistake of giving up on our change process altogether. If we demand perfection of ourselves, a slip-up looks like complete failure: ‘You’ve blown it!’ And once our journey forward seems over, we feel the only way open to us now is the way back. We stop paying attention and let the habit take control once again. Thus a single glass of wine is followed by a relapse into boozing, one cigarette turns into the start of another six months of nicotine and tar, and a week without exercise leads to getting stuck in the old sedentary ways once more.

However, if we are tired of every slip-up ending in another round of months or years in the old habit loop, we can learn to catch ourselves. Our body does this automatically when we trip over something on the floor or make a misstep in rough terrain. Thanks to reflexes shaped by evolution for the purpose of keeping us safe, we immediately do what we need to do in order to prevent a fall and possible injury. But usually that’s not what happens when we slip up and give in to temptation. Instead we tend to do the equivalent of pushing the person who’s just lost their balance. ‘How could you! You’re hopeless!’ If we have a mental habit of beating ourselves up it will kick in as soon as we make a mistake, and if we don’t watch out it will turn our slip-up into a fall. Because if you’re being yelled at inside, you don’t want to stay there, so chances are you’ll escape through the nearest exit – and guess what that is.

If we practise mindfulness in that situation, however, we won’t need the comfort of our habit in order to comfort ourselves over having fallen back into it. Instead of fleeing when we’re being yelled at inside, we notice the harsh self-judgements that arise when we’ve broken our commitment and have done ‘it’ again, and we recognise them as (very familiar) thoughts that are neither helpful nor something we have to buy into. And instead of escaping into our habit to get away from the shame and other difficult emotions that are triggered by our slip-up, we name them and ride the waves of their sensations in our body as best we can, knowing that they will pass.

Most importantly, the way we pay attention to our experience when we practise mindfulness cultivates a friendly self-acceptance. Mindfulness, as Kabat-Zinn points out, is equally heartfulness. And as we look with our hearts as much as our minds, a deeper understanding of the situation will emerge than the one that fuels self-blame. Paying attention to our experience like a friend, i.e. with an open heart and genuine interest, what we will see is not some ‘loser’ who has ‘f*cked up yet again’ but a person who’s in pain, confused, and longing for happiness. We will see someone who’s trying their best but human. Mindfulness invites us to swap the conditional self-acceptance of ‘self-improvement’ (‘I’ll accept myself once I…’) for an unconditional acceptance of ourselves here and now. Rather than dealing with the inner critic by pushing ourselves to rush faster toward a future where we will finally be an acceptable self, we allow the inner judgements to come and go, and we allow ourselves to just be. And focusing on our experience in the present moment, we may notice how desperately we monitor the gap between ourselves as we are now and the way we ‘should’ be, and compassion may spring up and take the place of shame. We may suddenly see that our harmful habit is a form of making do and giving up on what we really long for, and we may feel a genuine wish to help ourselves. So we may ask: What could we learn from this slip-up? What is the next step on our way to the freedom that lies beyond the old way of handling things? And mindfully taking step after step, we may one day realise that we don’t need to do ‘it’ anymore.

© Gesa Brennan 2020

Mindfulness

Mindfulness in the age of disconnection

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The West is experiencing an epidemic of isolation, disconnection, and loneliness.

In 2004, when Americans were asked how many confidants they had that they could turn to for help or to share a joy, the most common answer was ‘None’.

In 2016, the census found that nearly one in four Australian residents was living alone.

Last year, the Australian Institute of Health published that one in ten Australians aged 15 or over reported lacking social support, and one in four said they were currently experiencing an episode of loneliness.

This year, with the arrival of COVID, the issue of disconnection and isolation has taken on a whole new dimension. Borders are closed. People all over the world are locked into their little cells in self-isolation or quarantine; thousands are dying cut off and alone; and meetings are often not humans coming together and sharing a space but a number of faces appearing on a screen, each inescapably confined to its own little rectangle.

How symbolic of contemporary life in the West. Of all the creatures in the world, nobody resembles us more than other humans, but our fundamental connectedness is easy to forget in a world of international competition, where, burdened by a ‘self as portfolio’, we seem to be set against each other and strive to develop that competitive edge that sets us apart from the rest. Many families today are spread over continents. Working ever longer hours, we have less and less time to be with our partners, children, relatives and friends; and moving restlessly from home to home, and from one job to another, we no longer connect with neighbours and colleagues the way people used to do.

But we are not just cut off from each other. As Johann Hari describes in Lost Connections, there are many ways in which modern life in the West has been isolating and disconnecting us since long before the arrival of the virus, and it’s leaving us anxious and depressed in ever increasing numbers. According to Beyond Blue, one in six Australians is currently experiencing depression or anxiety or both, and WHO declared depression to be a leading cause of disability worldwide and a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.

Worldwide, people are turning to mindfulness for help. But how can closing the door of our little cells to sit down on our meditation cushion and turn our attention inward possibly address the problem of disconnection? If so many causes of psychological suffering today are systemic, isn’t any attempt at healing that centres on the individual not just doomed but making matters worse by keeping us focused on our inner and private world? Does the mindfulness industry just help people to cope with a sick situation, when what we really need to do is to get up and change that situation through social and political action in the external world?

And what has mindfulness, i.e. the awareness that arises when we pay attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally (Kabat-Zinn) to do with connection anyway?

A lot actually.

First of all, paying mindful attention is an act of connecting. In fact, it is the very basis of connection.

Often, when we feel lonely and disconnected, it seems as if we are trapped in isolation and have to wait for others to come and release us from our prison by connecting with us. But this is not how connection works. Rather than something we’re either deprived of or lucky enough to receive, connection is something we do. Surrounded by family, colleagues, or friends, we will still feel excruciatingly lonely and cut off, until we actively and genuinely make contact with others. If we are hiding inside instead, perhaps because we feel we wouldn’t truly be welcome, we’ll be stuck in our solitary confinement, even if someone makes friendly contact with us. Their invitation to connect won’t lead to a real sense of connection unless we start doing something for this connection ourselves. And whatever form this act of connecting may take, it will be based on attention – to the other person, ourselves, and what is happening between us in the moment.

The word attention is based on the word attend, which originally meant to ‘apply one’s mind or energies to’. It is derived from the Latin attendere, a word made up of ad ‘to’ and tendere ‘stretch’. Paying attention to what is happening right now, we’re stretching our minds and energies out to meet whatever is here in this moment. In other words, we connect.

And if we are serious about practising mindfulness, we’re going to do this not just on our meditation cushion but throughout the day.

Mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh points out that if we ‘look deeply’, we will see the cloud in our cup of tea – the cloud that brought the rain which nourished the tea plant. And if we keep looking in that way, we may see the people who planted and harvested the tea, and how they live. We may notice how we treat ourselves and others; what, how, and why we eat and consume. And as we pay more attention to our experience, the world, and how we relate to and act in it, we will develop greater awareness of how the things we do affect our body and mind, the natural world, and other people, and how we in turn were and are affected by the world. We will come to see the dense and complex web of interconnections that our life is embedded in. We will notice the many ways in which we are connected, even when we’re feeling isolated and alone. And seeing connections we haven’t been aware of before may inspire and allow us to participate in our life and world in new and more engaged ways.

For example, if we pay attention to the present moment, we may, instead of getting lost in worries or daydreams and doing our shopping in sleepwalk mode, actually see the sales assistant who serves us at the checkout register and notice that she is tired. As a result, our thank you and smile may be more genuine; perhaps we may even want to say something like ‘Wow, quite busy today!’ to make her feel seen. As a result, a moment that would’ve just been two people on autopilot looking past each other may turn into a moment of connection.

Thus, the practice of mindful attention, by allowing us to become aware of our lives as part of the bigger picture, may make us want to participate in life more consciously and more in line with our values.

And just as paying attention in the moment and nonjudgementally allows us to see and create connections between us and the external world that might’ve gone unnoticed and not recognised as opportunities otherwise, mindfulness practice also means connecting with ourselves.

By paying mindful attention, we connect with our bodies, for example. Practising the body scan and movement meditations, many people who attend a course such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) discover a whole new way of relating to their physical selves that transcends the constant judgement and demands which characterise the relationship to the body for so many of us.

But of course the body is not the only aspect of ourselves that we tend to disconnect from. We may routinely avoid difficult emotions by bingeing on Netflix, ice cream, work, sex, drugs, drink, or shopping. However, mindfulness practice means paying attention to these avoidance behaviours as well, to the fear that drives it, and to the feelings and thoughts we’re running from. That way we’re reconnecting with cut off parts of ourselves. Anger, shame, anxiety are then no longer all that is but something that arises, changes, and dissolves within a bigger whole.

And as we hold our feelings of loneliness in our awareness, knowing that we share this with our fellow humans across the world, this loneliness is not so cut off and lonely anymore.

© Gesa Brennan 2020