Think before you blow a gasket Mindfulness Man Martin Stepek
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.