It felt that I had a huge mountain to climb...
In both episodes 1 & 2 of the Mindful Men Talk podcast I make reference to the following Jon Kabat-Zinn quotation:
"You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf"
But what does ‘surfing the waves’ actually mean and why then are we constantly trying to ‘stop the waves’?
So often when we experience a difficulty, in particular a difficult emotion or a difficult thought, our instinctive reaction is to get rid of it. Suddenly our minds take over and we tell ourselves that we ‘shouldn’t’ feel or think this and therefore unconsciously we create a gap between the direct experience of our thoughts and emotions and where our minds tell us we ‘should’ be. Without realising it we get in our own way by trying to manipulate or even stop the ‘waves’ of our human experience. In this way we are continuing the unwitting architects of our own difficulties. Time and time again it is not a thought or emotion that is our problem; it is how our minds react, usually by telling us that’s it’s not ok to think this thought or feel that emotion.
But there is a different and more helpful way to approach our difficulties, if you like the trickier ‘waves’ of our human experience...
We can learn to become skilful surfers of those tricky waves.
But how do we do this?
In episode 2 of Mindful Men Talk I talk at length about my own struggles with anxiety and how mindfulness in particular helped me to change my relationship with anxiety (not get rid of it). What this meant for me is that by cultivating a mindfulness practice I have been able to pause when I am triggered by anxiety and to become skilful in turning towards the symptoms rather than constantly trying to run away from them. Believe me, this has taken a very long time as initially I could not get my head around the concept of wanting to turn towards symptoms that for so long I had feared. Over time not only had I developed a sense of heightened anxiety but I had also become anxious about feeling anxious! So it felt that I had a huge mountain to climb...
A long-standing mindfulness practice has helped me to become more curious about my anxiety and, when the symptoms arise, to use various techniques to help me make space for and to sit with the anxiety in my body as it unfolds moment by moment. Perhaps most importantly mindfulness has helped me to turn towards my anxiety with kindness, with patience and without judging myself harshly for feeling anxious. Mindfulness has also taught me too not to strive to get rid of any anxious feelings but to sit with them as I might sit with a frightened or agitated child. In this way I have developed the skills to self – soothe when I feel threatened or anxious and in that way I believe that I have become a more skilful surfer of the waves of anxiety as and when they arise.
But more than this mindfulness has changed my whole perspective and understanding of anxiety. Whereas for so many years I simply wanted to rid myself of any anxious feelings (which in itself was counter-productive), now I am more comfortable with rolling out the welcome mat when those anxious feelings arrive at my door. I have come to realise that when I feel anxiety-type symptoms my body is telling me that maybe something is being felt beneath that anxiety, maybe a difficult emotion such as anger or fear that for so long I had repressed and did not have the skills to acknowledge let alone process.
Mindfulness has changed my whole perspective
It has taken me a long time to realise that for me ‘anxiety’ (however defined) can be a welcomed source of wisdom and that mindfully surfing its waves with kindly curiosity is much more helpful and less exhausting than constantly trying to stop those waves!