Anxiety, perpetual stress, and emptiness have unfortunately become intrinsic characteristics of the 21st century individual. The struggle for survival has evolved, at least in the western world, into the struggle for happiness. Happiness has moved from being a “state” that we experience given a set of pre-conditions (for instance, having a roof to shelter us, and enough food on the table, living exempt of life-threatening situations, etc.), towards being a goal. An unattainable goal. We have it all, but we want more. Our soul seems like a bucket with a pierced bottom, where we pour and we pour, but it never reaches fullness. We live too fast, we accumulate too many goals and deadlines that should grant our future happiness but steer us away from present happiness, and even our so-called hobbies we do not always enjoy. Instead, we turn them into pre-programmed tasks, part of a larger set of tasks that need be accomplished in a given timeslot. We are living a life that our bodies are not suited to sustain. But, how can we change this?
BEGINNING OUR PATH TOWARDS CHANGE
We cannot, of course, get rid of all the bad things at once, but we can slowly tackle them and find our way to a type of balance that suits our personality. How we have gotten to this point is something that escapes our control, because it is part of the past (e.g., the education provided, and how past expectations mismatch nowadays’ reality) but what we choose to do NOW doesn’t. In my eyes, the first key to happy and healthy living is introspection and awareness. Before I get to this point I must emphasize what I mean with “healthy living”. I am not only talking of bodily fitness here: our mindset and lifestyle have a deep major impact on biological and cognitive processes, and on how our brain is wired. In recent years, many studies have emphasized the adaptability of the human brain (neuroplasticity). Our brains so happen to be highly susceptible to what we are thinking and, indeed, since a couple of decades mindfulness has been used as a successful therapy to treat several disorders such as OCD, as well as depression. What’s more, our mind can even provoke changes in our brain’s chemistry! Mindfulness is a very broad concept (a whole philosophy, really) based on introspection and meditation. It implies both a connection and disconnection from ourselves. At a very basic level, it consists of becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings (as well as other bodily reactions), and think about them in an analytic and objective manner (this means, keeping our cool!), without judging them as right or wrong. Only when we learn to identify the origin of our problems (of the factors causing stress), we can begin to eradicate them.
MY OWN EXPERIENCE
I used to be a very easy-going person. In the last years, however, I started feeling anxiety for things I would have previously laughed about. We are meant to get wiser with age, and we do, but together with wisdom we seem to accumulate prejudices, fear, and some sort of unease. I’m trying to break up with negative feelings and potential stressful situations by reasoning about them from a mindfulness perspective. To be honest, I have always liked to examine my own thoughts: they are the number one source of information about inner wellbeing (so, listen in!!). In a way, I was always taking a “mindfulness” approach, without being aware of it. I must say it feels right to find a philosophy that embodies nearly every idea I’ve ever had about keeping our soul healthy. However, I never took it far enough, I never went further than mere psychoanalysis. But I am changing, and I am ready to take everything one step further: to take action, to change my life, to get over with the anxiety, to break the glass ceiling. I don’t feel unhappy, but I reckon my life (and the life of those around me) will improve once I am past certain irrational (almost child-like) behaviours. I am a very positive and rational being. However, I break down when one of my rituals is disrupted -for instance, when the milk for my coffee is over. Note that by admitting this I am actually revealing myself to you as a highly superficial being! I also feel unease in some social situations, even if I appear to be very extrovert. The first situation gives rise to an avoidable tantrum that will ruin my mood for something that could be between minutes and hours (you know, negativity is contagious and spreads!). The latter has larger implications, and is more complicated to treat. I am on my way to solve both, though! The key? Introspection and awareness. Mindfulness.
A PRACTICAL EXERCISE
Here is a simple three-step action plan that may be useful for everyone. I am going to propose you a practical exercise, followed by some reflecting time:
1 Make a list of every situation that made you feel stress or anxiety over the course of a whole week. Think about the things on your list, and rate them as a function of how important they are to you. You can later take this as your departure point: starting with the small things is always easier, and a good exercise 🙂
2 Start a meditation routine. This is not straightforward at the beginning. How do I meditate? How do I know that I’m doing it right? -you may ask.
Here are my tips: meditating only a few minutes a day already makes a huge difference, so you can opt for a short meditation routine of about 10 minutes, mornings or nights. There are several types of meditation. I personally like bodily awareness approaches. Adopt a comfortable position (sit, or lie down), preferably in silence and without distractions. Close your eyes and start focusing on your breathing. Breathe with your stomach, making your tummy big as you inhale, and small as you exhale. Here you have several options. For instance, some people count the number of times they breath, slowly from 1 to 10, and then back. Alternatively, you can meditate by focusing your attention on your body, starting with the head and continuing downwards until you reach your toes.
3 After your meditation, in full calm, you can start thinking about the elements you noted on your list for that particular day, or the day before, and think of what you could actively do to improve the situation. Reflect on it, and write it down.
WHAT KIND OF CHARLATAN WOULD I BE, IF I DIDN’T DO THIS WITH YOU?
I am going to follow this routine myself for a week, and I will share my experience with you. So, stay tuned! Furthermore, feel free to give a try to the exercise and post a comment with your experience, or simply about the things you want to change in yourself, or about the questions you have.