There are many many many tools and techniques around designed to help us navigate our myriad interactions with other human beings. I have worked with lots of them and one thing I have found is…they don’t easily stick. That five-step formula from seven years ago—I don’t even remember what it was.
However, about ten years ago I came upon a practice that I have found can help me in any place and at any time. It is as easy as bringing my attention to my breath in and my breath out. The practice is being mindful of the here and now. Being mindful of my breathing, speaking, walking, sitting, eating, looking at a flower, playing with my grandchildren, leading an important meeting, or reacting to conflict. Aware of what is going on in each moment of my day. The great thing about mindfulness is that it is simple to do, and gets stronger as I practice it more and more often in my life.
Mindfulness is helpful in stressful situations. When I get lost in my thinking, my feelings, the heat of the moment, and when I remember, I can mindfully bring myself back to my breath, my body, what I am feeling or thinking in this very moment—recognize what is going on and be with it without changing or doing a thing. It is a practice I can use to prevent my reactive self from making a situation worse—saying or doing something I may later regret. It helps me create space around my situation so I can experience it more fully and deal with it more authentically. The act of being mindful, bringing kind, open attention to oneself and one’s situation, has the effect of slowing the breath, relaxing the body, releasing tension, bringing a sense of ease.
Importantly, it brings the onus of my response in a difficult situation, or my part in an interaction, back to me—the one person over whom I have some measure of control. No need to blame someone else. Once I have collected myself, taken myself in hand, I can respond from that place. And maybe I do not respond at all. There is unbelievable freedom within this mindfulness practice. I don’t have to rely on another person or persons to make things better for me. The power is within my own self. I use my practice of mindfulness to assist me.
Have you noticed that there are certain things that can trigger a particular pattern of thinking or emotional reaction in you? We get hooked. We get caught. We get stuck. We have a violent reaction to a mild situation. But it doesn’t feel so mild to us. We have core issues that cause us distress, and our distress can interfere with our ability to be truly present with others in the moment. Or to understand where they are coming from. Or to see the situation with clear eyes. The only way to break free from these patterns of thinking and reacting is to transform them. We don’t reject or deny them. We just hang in there with them. We give them plenty of space and kind attention, and they gradually bit by bit transform themselves. And we see things differently. Over time we may find we are less reactive. Mindfulness is our friend, our support, through this transformation.
Thich Nhat Hahn said:
If we face our unpleasant feelings (and, I would add, thoughts) with care, affection, and nonviolence, we can transform them into the kind of energy that is healthy and has the capacity to nourish us. By the work of mindful observation, our unpleasant feelings can illuminate so much for us, offering us insight and understanding into ourselves and society.
With mindfulness we have the opportunity to live life more fully, free to be who we really are. Free from what blinds us, so we can see others for who they really are. Each moment we live is a fresh new moment. Each person we see is a fresh new person. If we are mindful right here, right now.