Reflecting on the ebb and flow of life

Posted on: 4th June, 2019

Category: Mental Health & Mindfulness

Contributor: Susan O'Regan

Mindfulness helps us to be ok when the unexpected happens, the things we have no control over.  On a personal note, life has thrown me some curveballs recently and truly put my mindfulness skills to the test.  I have found my sense of grounded-ness and stability unravelling a bit at times. I have seen an old familiar habit of mine kicking into action and it has unsteadied me at times. I have found myself catastrophising. One unsettling piece of news came from an old friend who contacted me recently, as life has taken a big turn for him – he has been diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour.  

On hearing this news, I was struck by how immediately my thoughts frantically headed years down the road into the future and I felt a sense of panic rising in my body. There was also a sense of self-judgement present, as I caught myself thinking that, as a mindfulness teacher, I should be coping better with these life events. Not so. I was, and still am, incredibly sad and at the same time flooded with a sense of gratitude for life and to have walked part of this journey with him.

Many of us have developed the habit of reacting to bad news in a catastrophic way, as if life is suddenly falling apart. This catastrophising of events is familiar to me, as it was a habit I probably learned in my early years and one that I continued throughout most of my adult life. I would just heap every new challenge or difficulty on top of the load I was already carrying! It was a habit that was not helpful and made problem solving very difficult if not impossible. Because I did not have the skills to handle each new life event as it occurred, over time, my pile of problems was so huge that it became hard to isolate and deal with the current issue at hand.

Mindfulness can help us with letting go of past hurts and difficulties that can sometimes weigh us down and which can distort our experience of our life as it is now. Letting go allows us space to heal.  When our mind is free of the habit of constantly ruminating over past events, it allows a clearer view of the present issue. We are then better able to deal with life moment by moment, rather than obscuring our life now with past calamities or imagined futures. I now have many mindfulness tools at my disposal, which really help me to stay present, even in difficult real-life situations, not just when meditating on a cushion or a seat. “The real meditation is how you live your life” says internationally renowned mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat Zinn.  

As some other difficult life events have also been unfolding, I have been relying on mindfulness and self-compassion skills and over the last few weeks have been taking Jon Kabat-Zinn’s words to heart and practicing mindfulness as if my life depended on it. It helps when my mind takes me too far away from the present moment, either to the future or the past. So, lately, when I have begun to feel overwhelmed by events and notice myself going down the habitual road of catastrophic thinking, when I can remember to, I take a pause and check in with myself, asking myself “what’s happening right now?” I received a tip from a naturally mindful friend and have taken to sitting outside at night in the dark with my tea, listening to the sounds of the night and watching the night sky.  This often induces a sense of awe and humility in the face of nature and a feeling of gratitude for being part of it.  

The skills we learn when we practice mindfulness can no doubt over time increase our tolerance of and acceptance of life’s unpleasant events, as well as growing the habit of noticing and savouring the very many amazing moments and joyful interactions of everyday life. Being mindful affords us a choice in how we respond to life events. Like myself, some of us may have developed a persistent habit of fiercely resisting unpleasant or challenging events in our lives and more of us accept these events with grace. Acceptance of life just as it is can sometimes be the hardest thing to do. Yet, allowing difficulties to be part of the ebb and flow of life can help us to deal with the actual issue.  Many of us are inclined to unwittingly pile more suffering on ourselves by denying the reality of what is happening. I am reminded of words from a poem ‘Allow’ by Danna Faulds, “Resist, and the tide will sweep you off your feet. Allow, and grace will carry you to higher ground”.

My reflection on life taking these unexpected turns of late is that life is as very precious, as it is fragile and full of ups and downs. Sharing the most special gift of human vulnerability with others in my daily life and work, helps me to remember that everyone has difficulties and suffering at times.  It is what pioneering researcher on self-compassion, Dr Kristin Neff, names our common humanity, that is, viewing our problems as a part of the human condition. Whatever stance we take on the difficulties and curve balls that life throws us, one thing is for sure, we’re all in this same boat together. In the face of our struggles may we learn to be kind to ourselves and to each other. 

Monthly mindfulness and self-care Saturdays continue at the Market Street Clinic Skibbereen along with weekly drop-in mindfulness sessions on Tuesday mornings. For more information on future workshops and courses call Susan on 087 2700572 or email: susanoreganmindfulness@gmail.com.

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