There is no doubt that modern day life is stressful. For the lucky majority who do not have to worry about basic shelter or food life still brings many more challenges. Obesity is on the rise, as it heart disease and long term conditions of all kinds. More people than ever before experience persistent symptoms of pain or fatigue. Reported stress, depression and anxiety are also on the increase.
For many, work pressure is also on the rise. Zero-hours contracts and micro-management are not unusual. Perhaps it is not surprising that many of us are experiencing an impact on our physical and mental health of these unsustainable and uncompassionate practices.
When things get tough it is natural to look for guidance. There is certainly a lot of guidance to be found, on a variety of issues. We are probably aware of national guidance on physical exercise (30 minutes a day, 5 times a week) and on eating (calorie limits for men and for women, best achieved by a certain mix of healthy vegetables, grains, proteins and fats). For work too, rules and guidelines, policies and protocols abound. Yet one thing that I have learned, powerfully, from my mindfulness practice over the last 5 years is that sometimes it is better to let go.
When I first started to practice Mindfulness I was always trying to get things right. As a therapist I would try to plan every session in advance, spending time on my own really reflecting about what might be going on for an individual client. I remember clearly my first week-long retreat, partly in silence that I attended as part of the MSc in Mindfulness Studies with Aberdeen University. After a period of practising Mindfulness in silence the realisation came to me - I don't need to figure everything out. The answer is inside me, I can trust what I feel.
On returning from retreat, I was able to let go of my felt need to have everything planned for my therapy sessions over the next few weeks. Instead I was able to fully listen to what my clients said, not planning what to say next but rather, really listening, from the body as well as the mind. I let go of any sense of needing to plan. I listened fully to what was said, and then responded accordingly. A number of clients commented that they found these sessions, shortly after my return from retreat, especially insightful.
Since then, my felt need to plan has reduced a lot. I am learning that I can trust what I will say even without planning and monitoring it first. While I may fear losing track, looking stupid or not knowing what to say, it is increasingly clear that these fears do not reflect reality. I have never felt compromised by not knowing what to say since I have let go of planning every sentence. In contrast, people have often told me how they have appreciated this approach.
I am similarly finding that in terms of other basic daily decisions intuition also works better. Rules based exercising and eating don't help me. When I can tune into my body they are unnecessary. The body knows what it needs. All I need to do is to stay tuned in to it.