After having my interest piqued by some iTunes University lectures, I have been reading Mark Williams’ and Danny Pengman’s book Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. In the midst of a number of urgent projects, I am reading it in fits and starts, so I am not really following the program as prescribed. From the outset, I have also been deeply skeptical about how useful a program that essentially consists of guided meditation could be for managing stress.
Already, however, I think I have taken one fairly valuable thing from the book. When a person is nervous about a subject – and particularly if they are prone to anxiety – it is exceptionally easy to get into a spiral of connected painful and frightening thoughts. For example, something might remind me of the ongoing covert war that is happening in Iran. That, in turn, makes me think about the assassination of scientists, the possible bombing campaigns that could occur against Iranian nuclear facilities, the terror of nuclear weapons themselves, the danger of conventional or nuclear war in the region, and so on. Confronted with thoughts that have powerful emotions linked to them, the mind goes into a ‘problem solving’ mode, but in relation to problems I can do nothing about. The result is counterproductive attempts to either minimalize the seriousness of the issue being considered, or try to find some trite mechanism for explaining why I shouldn’t be worried. “We’re all going to die sometime” is the sort of pathetic rationalization the brain sometimes coughs up when presented with a mortal problem well beyond the capacity of a single human to solve.
My very preliminary understanding of mindfulness is that it is all about being able to pause for a moment and just see things as they are, without wanting or trying to change them. You can simply say: “The possibility of war in the Middle East is deeply frightening”. Looking at the emotional situation that way, simply as an expression of fact, without creating a mental map of linked fears or deploying psychological self-defence strategies, seems to allow the mind to recognize the fear and move on, without trivializing or ignoring the reality of it. It’s possible to just say “that’s tragic” or “that’s terrifying” without getting caught up in the hopeless task of trying to immediately remedy the problem.
This also works with some of the other substantial fears that crop up periodically in a person’s thoughts: from the inevitability of aging and death (both for yourself and for family and friends) to the frightening state of the global environment to the countless terrible injustices that are always ongoing around the world. All of those observations are accurate, well-justified, and emotionally charged. Nothing we can do will make any of those things go away. But pausing for a moment of honest recognition can allow us to keep functioning, despite the frightening and overwhelming character of the world.