Does Mindfulness really help us to feel calmer?
I have a friend who lives near Newcastle airport. We teach Mindfulness together, and when we can we like to sit together in her back garden planning our teaching sessions. Frequently we are interrupted by the sound of aeroplanes overhead drowning out our conversation. Since, momentarily we cannot talk, we see this as an opportunity to pause, tune in to ourselves and enjoy a moment of just being with our own experience.
Another friend who used to live nearby sold her house after less than a year at a considerable loss because she couldn't stand the constant interruptions from the noise.
A lot of people are drawn to mindfulness because they want to feel calmer, and lots of evidence exists to suggest that people are indeed calmer after completing a course in Mindfulness. In my experience, this change does not come about in the way that most of us initially expect that it will.
People are often surprised when I tell them that I experience more anxious, angry and sad thoughts than I did before starting to practise mindfulness. I experience stronger emotions too. This is not everybody's experience, although it is also not unusual. I have learned that it is because I used to suppress my feelings, perhaps because I learned as a child that some feelings were unacceptable.
Mindfulness puts us in touch with our feelings and thoughts and helps us to relate to them in a helpful way. It is challenging to be in touch with some of our more triggering thoughts, so we learn initially how to keep ourselves steady. In the early stages, mindfulness teaches us ways of staying grounded and anchored in an awareness of our breath perhaps, or of the sounds around us. This is indeed calming. It is not the essence of mindfulness, but a method of keeping ourselves steady which we will need when we come in touch with some of our more difficult experiences later on. This is important, because many mindfulness students enjoy the initial feelings of calm only to be disappointed later when things start to feel more turbulent.
As we continue with mindfulness, our awareness deepens and we naturally come in contact with strong emotions. While initially we might imagine that mindfulness will stop this from happening it is not true. Mindfulness will stop us from trying to control or put our own agenda on to our experience. Sometimes the result of this will be that we experience more, rather than less strong emotions. The essence of mindfulness then is in how we respond to these emotions. We learn that it is futile and indeed counterproductive to try to fight our thoughts or the way that we feel. Fighting how we feel adds fuel to the fire and makes it burn stronger. Instead we can learn to bring a gentle, kind attitude to our feelings. We learn to recognise that it's hard to feel the way that we do sometimes and that this is OK. We learn to respect our need to care for ourselves the way that we might care for a friend when things are difficult. Over time we learn that, whatever difficult and intense feelings arise, if we can honour the way that we feel, recognise that it's hard and focus on looking after ourselves while things are tough the feelings will eventually pass on their own.
A common misconception about mindfulness is that we will learn to actively use strategies that will help us to feel calmer. What we actually learn is the opposite - to let go of any attempts to control our feelings. What changes is not so much our feelings but our attitude about them. Like the aeroplanes flying over, feelings and thoughts will continue to arrive whether we want them to or not. If we can mindfully allow this to happen, they will disturb us only momentarily. We will become equipped with an inner calm which does not rely on the absence of troublesome thoughts or feelings. We will be willing to allow ourselves to feel the whole range of human emotions when they arise, without judgment.
Mindfulness is like pausing to allow the aeroplanes to pass overhead. They are there and that might require us to do things differently for a while. That's OK. By not fighting what's in our experience we feel calmer about it. We feel better about allowing ourselves to feel worse.