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Being present — paying attention to what we see, hear and sense right now, without getting carried away by our opinions or judgements — is an ideal state.
Unfortunately, much of the time the reality is different. Autopilot pulls us forward (and potentially out of control) because we seek certainty—an anchor—especially now when life is so uncertain. Anchors are even starting to emerge in our lexicon in attempts to provide a sense of certainty, such as the expression ‘new normal.’
Uncertainty has long been an unwelcome companion, and now we have a global catastrophe catalysing an urgent need to develop ways to embrace, tolerate, and even learn from it. But embracing uncertainty is counter to our evolutionary survival instincts and so we are pulled into creating a ‘fake certainty.’
To avoid this situation, it’s important to acknowledge the uncertainties we have no control over—identify the ‘knowable unknowns’. Paying attention to our reactions to uncertainty gives us control over how we respond. So by reflecting on the thoughts and emotions that uncertainty triggers within us, we will be in a better position to respond mindfully to it—bringing us into the here and now, where control is back in our hands.
Researchers have found that about 50% of our time is spent thinking about something other than what we are doing—and 80% of that time, what we’re thinking about is more stressful than what we’re actually doing. In a sense, we’re the authors of the stress we are trying to avoid.
When we are aware of what we’re doing, we are happier and calmer regardless of what the situation is. So, why are we unhappier when our minds are wandering? When we’re not ‘present’ we can easily get stuck in reliving or regretting the past, or fast-forwarding and worrying about the future. Or perhaps we just switch to autopilot?
Being mindful is simply drawing our attention to what we feel, think, see, hear and sense at any given moment. If we remain in the present in as many of these moments as possible, mindfulness will become second nature.
Practices such as yoga, tai chi and meditation can encourage a mindful state. Daily rituals (such as making a cup of tea and savouring each sip, looking at a favourite tree in the garden, listening to or playing music) can also help us stay in the here and now, grounding us and helping us to experience awe—feeling small, but connected to something vast and interconnected.
American psychologist Tara Brach has developed a mindfulness practice she calls RAIN. Try the following when in a position of stillness and focused attention:
Recognise feelings living in you: Fear? Anger? Sadness? This is the felt sense.
Allow: Send a message to yourself to allow it, let it be. Whatever is, is—it belongs. This creates the pause to...
Investigate: Explore what you are experiencing and where it is in your body. What are you aware of? Your heart rate? Your tense muscles? What do you most need?
Nurture: Attend compassionately to what you need.
BALANCE AND MOVEMENT
As well as our minds, we need to be present in our bodies, with regular ‘organised movement’. Mindfulness combined with movement improves our immune system and cardiovascular function and decreases stress. Yoga, walking, playing a musical instrument, dancing, singing etc all combine mindfulness and movement. In particular, musicality also incorporates human connection, forming a buffer against helplessness—as demonstrated in footage of people in Italy singing together from their balconies.
Stability is one of the most important factors in keeping your head up and not losing control—emotionally and work-wise. It’s impossible to leave work at work; work is at home now, so managing work-life integration is crucial.
Whilst having a schedule and a rigid structure might seem like a good idea, in reality our nervous systems don’t like feeling trapped—they like choice. So if we turn someone else’s ideas into a protocol to follow, we stop listening to our own nervous system and its unique needs.
YOUR MIND MENU
American psychiatrist Dan Siegel developed the healthy mind platter to provide a cross-section of organised movement to maintain a healthy mind. It consists of:
Focus time: Mindfully completing tasks
Play time: Allowing spontaneity and creativity, enjoying novel experiences
Connecting time: Engaging with others and nature
Physical time: Moving aerobically and deliberately
Time in: Reflecting internally on images, feelings, thoughts
Down time: Simply allow your mind to wander or just relax
Sleep time: Consolidating and recovering from the experiences of the day—giving our brain the rest it needs.
Create a ‘mind menu’ by writing down your own suggestions for the above categories. Each day, you can go to your menu and choose what feels right for that day.
It’s so easy to get stuck in one of two extreme states—fight (I have to DO something!) or flight (a disconnected, numbing shutdown). Unless we have a reference list for organised movement, we can end up being chaotic and unproductive, or reverting to autopilot.
A mind menu helps us to be intentional about fostering a state of safety, calm and connection. Spending more time in the present allows us to pay attention to those moments where we can tell ourselves “Oh, I can breathe right now. I can feel the ground under my feet. I can hear the birds ... I have no idea how I am going to manage in the next two weeks but right now, the world is OK.”
Experiment with what works best to get yourself back to this calm place when things feel overwhelming—and then add those ideas to your menu too.
The reality is the world could be forever changed by what’s happening—and that’s a stark and challenging thought. But rather than letting it overtake us, take control of it by giving voice to whatever thoughts are in your head, even to an empty room. Naming our thoughts gives us a sense of control and helps bring us back into the present, able to access our mind menu.