Think be­fore you blow a gas­ket Mind­ful­ness Man Martin Ste­pek

Sunday Herald Life - - MIND & BODY - Martin Ste­pek is founder of Ten­forZen, of­fer­ing guided mind­ful­ness ses­sions in handy, 10 min­utes a day, au­dio cour­ses. Au­thor of four books, he is fre­quently asked to speak on mind­ful­ness, his re­mark­able fam­ily her­itage, and on business. See ten­forzen.co.

THIRTY days hath Septem­ber. All gone now. Oc­to­ber al­ready. It’ll be Christ­mas be­fore we know it. Where does it all go?

Ev­ery­one has thoughts like this, and as we get older, we think the decades have gone by like months of the year. For peo­ple of my gen­er­a­tion any song after about 1990 is re­cent. Our life look­ing for­wards seems to stretch on for­ever, though we know it doesn’t, while the past seems to have been com­pressed into a small tight pack­age, even though we know that’s non­sense.

What we have is al­ways only one thing. Now, the present, is only lo­cated in one place. Here. So, here. And now. An op­por­tu­nity to pay at­ten­tion and per­ceive or cre­ate what’s pos­si­ble. My first teacher of mind­ful­ness, a Ti­betan Bud­dhist monk, once said: “Re­al­ity is a field of po­ten­tial.”

For me this ex­plains how to do life. Re­al­ity is life there­fore “life is a field of po­ten­tial”. You only ex­pe­ri­ence life in the present mo­ment. So each mo­ment is a field of po­ten­tial. Let’s look at an ex­am­ple.

Some­one behind you at a round­about an­tic­i­pates you set­ting off, but you de­cide you can’t go out yet. The driver of the car behind you bumps into your car. You’re al­ready on edge as the traf­fic’s been slow and you might be late for a meet­ing. There’s no ma­jor dam­age but a wee scratch, so you have to ex­change in­sur­ance de­tails. Your mind is think­ing – and be­cause this is a re­spectable Sun­day news­pa­per I won’t say all the swear words going on in your head, but you know there is a whole stream of them.

Al­ter­na­tively, the ac­ci­dent hap­pens. You no­tice with mind­ful­ness the an­noy­ance and ir­ri­ta­tion that your mind has cre­ated au­to­mat­i­cally with­out your con­sent, and choose de­lib­er­ately and qui­etly to let those un­help­ful emo­tions go. This takes about 10 sec­onds, aided by you fo­cus­ing on your breath, slow, cool and fresh with the in-breath, then warm and peace­ful as it flows gen­tly back out.

Mind clear, you re­alise that al­though you might now be late, you can’t do any­thing about that. It’s there­fore ir­rel­e­vant. The driver apol­o­gises and to ease his dis­com­fort you say: “Don’t worry, these things hap­pen. Let’s leave it to the in­sur­ance folk.” He’s grate­ful you’re calm about it.

Re­al­ity is in­deed a field of po­ten­tial. Your life in that mo­ment had an in­fi­nite ar­ray of pos­si­ble op­tions, and of the two we have de­scribed, the au­to­matic re­ac­tion would un­pleas­antly af­fect your mood for much of the day, with the rip­ples of your lin­ger­ing an­noy­ance caus­ing a neg­a­tive mood amongst the col­leagues in your work­place. More­over your mind would reg­is­ter yet an­other bout of neg­a­tive emo­tions, and as a re­sult strengthen that habit as your pre­ferred way to re­act in fu­ture. Oh, and you’d prob­a­bly be tak­ing a few sec­onds off your life ex­pectancy.

The other choice means that your mood would be un­af­fected by the time you got to work; there would be no neg­a­tive rip­ples puls­ing out and af­fect­ing your col­leagues; there might even be some pos­i­tive rip­ples going out be­cause you feel good about how well you han­dled a po­ten­tially ir­ri­tat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Mean­while in the con­stantly neu­ro­plas­tic world of the mind, your mind has been re­shaped by your con­struc­tive and skil­ful re­sponse, and is learn­ing to strengthen that mind­ful­ness skill of notic­ing, and the sub­se­quent skill of let­ting neg­a­tive emo­tions dis­si­pate by ob­serv­ing them or de­flect­ing them with ob­ser­va­tion of the breath. This means you’ll prob­a­bly be more able to do the same in fu­ture, you’ll have weak­ened your habit of get­ting an­noyed so eas­ily, and you’ll live a few sec­onds longer as a di­rect re­sult. The Bud­dha said: “The wise per­son, as if hold­ing a set of scales, chooses what is good and avoids what is de­struc­tive.” Learn to be a wise per­son.

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