Tuesday, July 22, 2014


To me, the philosophy behind Mindfulness, is one of the only ones I have ever heard that makes real sense to me.

Mindfulness, as more and more people are discovering, is a way of looking at the world that focuses on the present moment. The idea is that the present is the only thing that really exists.

Both past and future take up a lot of our thoughts and attention, but the truth is that we only have the "now". The past is gone, it has happened, it is fixed and unchanging. No matter how much we wish it was different, no matter how hard we try to will it to change - and believe me, I have had periods where all I could think of was how I wished I could do things over again - this can never happen. We are left with no choice but to accept the past.

The future, of course, is something that takes up much of our lives. We plan, we worry, we anticipate, we frequently get anxious about things that never come about. It hasn't happened yet, and - despite what some psychics will tell you - no-one can tell what will occur. The future is always uncertain, for good and ill, and this too must be accepted.

So in a real sense, neither the past nor the future actually exists, though we all spend so much time in both. I know this has been a large issue for me throughout my life, the twin toxic emotions of regret and worry.

Regret is simply wishing that the past were different. And with ME/CFS, which has to be managed very carefully, it is all too easy to look back on things we could have done differently at particular times that would have save us a lot of misery and illness and loss. "If I had only known then....", "If I had only rested at that time,.....", "I wish I could do it all again."

I am very familiar with these thought patterns, extremely toxic and harmful as they are. They are torture when they get on a loop in your mind. Regret nearly always results in self-blame, with depression not too far behind.

Worry about the future too is something I have a lot of experience with. It is the other side of the coin from regret. I have improved in the last few years, mainly because I began to notice that ninety-five percent of things that I spent hours or days worrying about never happened. It began to be clear how wasteful worry is, especially if you only have a limited amount of emotional energy.

So mindfulness, with its emphasis on living in the present moment, is something that makes absolutely perfect sense to me. Yet, it is about retraining bad habits that have built up over a lifetime, and so needs a certain degree of commitment and persistence. The main way of practicing mindfulness is through various forms of meditation.

The meditation is built around breathing. You simply focus your attention on your in-breath, and then your out-breath, becoming aware of what happens in your body when you breathe in and then breathe out. And you keep doing this. Thoughts will come and go in your mind, but the idea is to just accept them and let them go again.

I use an app called Stop, Breathe and Think, which is pretty good for guiding you through a meditation. I have been trying to keep up regular meditation for years now, but have only recently taken it up again in the last few months.

I have said that the theory makes perfect sense to me, and has improved my general outlook on, and approach to life, but actually being mindful in everyday life is a struggle. Moving beyond these bad, life-long habits is not easy, and at times is beyond my abilities.

So I have recently started going to a meditation group, or "Sangha" in the local area. They meet once a week, and I find that being in a group, with the kind of support and joint practice that this entails, is a help.

Yet there are elements of the Sangha that I struggle with too. The group is based on the teachings of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, and although you don't have to be of any particular religious belief to take part, there are vestiges of religiosity that I am uncomfortable with.

For example, there are "sharing" sessions where people can talk briefly about anything that they like, but before talking each person is supposed to put their hands together over their chest as if
praying, and bow slightly from the neck. Then, the rest of the group make the same gesture. This has to be done every time before someone speaks, and also when they finish speaking.

I find a lot of this ritual behaviour a little silly and tedious, if I was being honest. I grew up with Catholicism, and all of the kneeling and blessing myself of my childhood in the cause of a belief system I no longer believe in has made it difficult to take any of these rituals or gestures seriously. There are people in the group that really do sit cross legged on the floor, with the fingers together and pointing upwards, as in the classic guru pose, and I generally find it funny that people are so serious and intense about these kind of things.

The philosophy too, is something I have mixed opinions on. It is somewhere between a hippie view of the world that desires "happiness for all living things" (as the group leader wished for during our last meeting) and a kind of new-age, alternative health approach, that talks a lot about "healing" and "forgiveness."

Not that there is anything wrong with healing, happiness or forgiveness, it just that after nearly seventeen years with ME/CFS I have come across a lot of nonsense in the alternative health field, and am automatically suspicious of this type of rhetoric. I also am pretty sceptical in general, and do tend to find a lot of things like this funny.

Still, these are my issues. In general, there is no scam going on with meditation, like there is with religions or some alternative health practitioners. No-one is trying to make money out of you or control you or tell you how to live your life. The group is simply a collection of people who are trying to work out how to live a good life, and using meditation to try and find some balance.

And in the end, it is the only way for me to live. Mindfulness is really a requirement for me, I believe, just to be able to get up every day and face the challenges that life with a chronic condition presents. Damping down regrets, and repressing worries, attempting to live more in the present moment, is an essential approach for me.

It appeals to me on an emotional level, in the sense that I know how powerful just training your attention on the present can be, and what a relief it feels to be given a break from regret and worry.

And it appeals to me on an intellectual level too. It is a very profound truth that the past and future don't really exist. The effects of the past on the present are a fact, and no matter how much money you have or how powerful you are, you can never change that. And the future is yet to occur, it is truly uncertain.

The only thing we can be sure of is the present. That is all we have. Mindfulness, despite the difficulties I have with various aspects of it, is an essential tool for simple survival.

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