What does it mean to be mindful? And what does a practice of mindfulness offer to someone who is living with a chronic condition?
Let’s take a look at the way our minds work. It’s human nature to not live in the present moment. Instead, our minds often wander into the past —memories, disappointments, things that make us angry. Or the future —what we hope, what we think we deserve, what we dread.
As a result, we miss a lot of what’s going on around us because we are stuck gazing into the rear view mirror or into the crystal ball. So we tend to judge the things that happen in life based on what should be, what might be, what we hope. In other words, labeling something as good or bad, right or wrong, even before we understand it.
And then a lot of emotions come up —anger, fear, disappointment.
Why do we do this? Human beings don’t do well with uncertainty. In fact, we do just about everything we can to avoid it. When we have gaps in our information, or when a situation isn’t knowable, our minds fill in those gaps. We judge, we label. We also cause our own suffering.
If you are living with a chronic condition, you know all about uncertainty. The diagnosis itself is an unexpected twist in a road that you thought was headed in a different direction. Symptoms, treatments, effects on your daily life. Each day can present a new challenge.
And chances are, your mind is often at work doing the interpreting. Here’s an example. You wake up not feeling so well. Your mind automatically jumps in. “Here we go again. This is really gonna be a bad day. It’s going to be the same as the time when…”
Another example: Let’s say your doctor recommends a different treatment. And your mind reacts with: “This is terrible. The adjustment will be awful. This will make a mess out of my summer.”
And sure enough, those familiar emotions return along with those familiar thoughts —disappointment, frustration, fear and stress. And you suffer even more.
So what does it mean to be mindful?
Mindfulness starts by staying in the present moment, not in the past, not in the future. Observing, accepting. Not interpreting. Not judging. Not labeling.
By letting an experience unfold on its own, and not forcing it into a box with all of that judging, you can avoid a whole lot of stress.
Here’s one of the ways that I recommend practicing mindfulness. I call it “taking a step back.” You can take that step back in a couple of different ways.
One is to do mindfulness meditation practice. It’s simple. Get into a quiet place where you can sit and pay attention to yourself. Be aware of your breathing - when you breathe in, when you breathe out. Quiet your mind. When a thought comes in, say hi to it, and then dismiss it. When you judge, say okay another judgment, and dismiss it, too.
Mindfulness meditation helps us to have more control over those thoughts that pop up automatically and the stress they can bring us.
You can also take a step back with a mindfulness attitude. When your chronic condition throws a curve ball at you, and you automatically start interpreting and judging, be aware of how your mind is working. Remind yourself how your thoughts may be creating catastrophes that don’t have to be created – that aren’t even real – and that you are making yourself miserable when you don’t have to be miserable. You don’t know the future, you don’t know all the facts. So don’t get ahead of yourself.
Mindfulness is accepting life as it is. Letting go of that internal battle to “know” and accepting what we can’t know. At least not at this moment. Not necessarily loving uncertainty, but being okay with it.
Is this giving up? No, just the opposite. Our minds are limited by past experience and not enough information. Mindfulness clears the way for possibilities! With a whole lot less stress.