Most of us are used to operating from a very functional mode of being in our daily lives. When life’s all ‘rush, rush, rush’ it’s easy to become deafened to the signals of your body and of the deeper levels of the psyche. In this way, we cheat ourselves from experiencing the full richness of our lives. And as efficient as it may seem, it is often also a false economy, keeping us in behavioural loops and phases of our lives we actually need to move beyond.
At a superficial level, we overlook things a thousand times a day. It’s drinking coffee, eating sugar, or taking other stimulants instead of recognising the need to sleep more. It’s continuing to train on an injury when your body really needs to heal. It’s treating a colleague or family member in a disrespectful or inappropriate way when they have triggered an insecurity rather than addressing the root cause. As we all know these oversights add up over time. Stories abound where the above examples alone have led to burnout, or a need for surgery, dismissal from work and family rifts.
At a more profound level glossing over the truth can shape the contours of our lives. Take relationships. How many of us have at some point ignored the signals of an ill-suited relationship instead of accepting our discomfort at the idea of feeling lonely or facing upheaval or social disapproval? And further still perhaps denied our inability to genuinely support and love ourselves and to embody the love and freedom we seek? Or take careers. How many of us have at some stage piled all our efforts into a career or cause instead of acknowledging the fear of failing at our heart’s true calling, or the fear of fully confronting the emptiness of not knowing what that true calling is?
Let’s face it, these are tall asks. A common technique in mindfulness practice both on and off the cushion is the idea of ‘leaning in’ to whatever is really going on for us. We listen and develop attunement to, the cues our physiology gives us. So much information is carried in our bodies, in our breath, and in the subtle signals of our thoughts, feelings and dreams. In the physical stillness of a formal meditation practice, we are able to slow down enough for these quieter signals to begin to be felt. This is the value of a seated meditation practice over yoga, running, creative work or other meditative outlets. With no other object of focus, we can let our awareness become like a sophisticated radar for what’s going on in our ecosystem. With this training as our daily practice, we more easily carry those skills of detection to into the real world.
Leaning in is not an easy process. Sooner or later we all have to confront aspects of ourselves and our lives we don’t like very much at all. We will have to create space for those parts of us and learn to honour and accept them as much as those aspects we currently value and ‘own’. With this, we must tread lightly. Perhaps just tiptoeing around these aspects in our awareness for some time, gradually easing our way towards integration and cohesion.
We must also pick our battles. To take it all on in one go is too much. We can ask, ‘which area of my life requires the most attention?’ and simply sit and breathe and feel or notice what responses the body brings us. Mindfulness is not a process of analysis, like some forms of psychotherapy. Rather it’s a process of gently and kindly holding space for these signals to arise, and to gradually shift and transform or dissolve with the light of our attention. Slow down, slow down, slow down. If in doubt, do less. Feel more. Breathe.
‘Why bother?’ you may indeed ask. Over time we become more able to tolerate a greater spectrum of experience. The more we narrow the range of our experiences, the less alive and fulfilled we feel. Think about a potentially typical day of taking the same commute into work, stopping off and doing your regular workout at the gym, going into the office and carrying out much the same type of work as you have done for years, stopping off at your local bar and then going home to eat a familiar meal and watch a TV show recommended to you by Netflix. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this for a day. Nor indeed for certain phases in our lives when we feel we need stability, or we need to provide stability for children, for example. But after a while, it’s difficult for our senses not to become dull. Compare this to when you go on holiday and everything looks different, vibrant, interesting. You take photos of random streets, people and scenery because you are inspired by the novelty of the place. You try out a new activity you would never have thought of trying at home. Every conversation with someone from the local area seems poignant and sacred. You come home inspired, a little more awake, refreshed.
This is similar to the effect meditation can have. As we are able to be more open, to lean into greater extremes of both good and bad in our immediate environment with love, without fear, everything shines more. Our lives become richer. And we become more interesting because we are more interested.
With that in mind, here are some strategies for developing your self-listening skills:
- Check in with yourself first thing in the morning, last thing at night and at a few points throughout your day by simply pausing, closing your eyes, taking a deep breath and listening to how you feel. Is your body tense or relaxed? Can you be more specific about how your body feels, do you sense any underlying emotions, perhaps even attached to specific areas of your body? How is your breathing? What has been occupying your mind?
- Consider activities like journaling, keeping a dream diary, or something creative (no one else has to see it) to help you articulate your inner experience in a more concrete way. Sometimes the process of getting things down can really help you understand how you feel. Try as best as you can, not to censor or judge what you are doing, just represent what is coming up for you as accurately as possible. Julie Cameron’s technique of writing ‘morning pages’ of just whatever thoughts pop up in your head for the first 5-10 minutes of the day is also a very powerful technique. Read more about that in ‘The Artist’s Way’.
- Build a 20 minute seated meditation into your daily routine. The more stillness you can create throughout your day the more you will cultivate your attunement to the signals of the mind-body ecosystem.
- Vary your routine as much as you can. Listen to different music. Try a completely new workout (especially if you think you might not enjoy it!). Find a different route into work. Speak to people you wouldn’t naturally be as drawn towards. Travel more. Keep your mind open and your experience fresh.