Are you being mindful? Are you even mindful of what it is to be mindful? It can cure depression and anxiety, or so I’m told.
There are a host of websites dedicated to explaining this word. “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present,” writes mindfulness.org, adding that being mindful avoids being “overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
Sounds like a good idea, until life kicks you hard in the stomach.
Late last year, I lost a lucrative job without warning, forcing me to scramble for work to pay rent. As a result, I lost my apartment and had to move to a smaller place, only to have my relationship fall to pieces at the same time. Who the hell wants to be mindful of all that?
Wouldn’t being fully present force me to be more aware of an uncertain future, clouded by loss and loneliness? By working at not thinking of external stressors, I ended up obsessing about external stressors. Some cure, this mindfulness.
But I also wasn’t ready to give up on the idea, either. There’s a grounding technique often used to de-escalate those who are having a panic attack—just focus on the five senses.
It’s pretty amazing if you stop to think about it, the amount of information your body is currently feeding your brain right now, most of which we don’t pay attention to out of necessity. But just stop and take a listen to only one of your senses. Make a mental list of all the things you can hear right now.
What are your ears telling you? Maybe you’re in a bar, and you’re hearing the constant clink of glasses. Bursts of laughter from a group of friends crowded around a small, wobbly table. If you’re in a straight bar, “Hotel California” is probably playing for the third time in the last hour.
As I write these words, I can hear the rush of traffic below my apartment. The loud spinning of a box fan wedged in my window. The collar of my cat as he snakes his way between the legs of the chair I’m sitting in.
The trick, I’ve discovered, is not trying to empty the mind or work at not clinging to all the thoughts relentlessly bouncing off the walls of my mind. All I’m doing is stepping into that running stream of perpetual information the body is pouring into my brain.
I indulge the senses by burning sandalwood incense all day. I linger on the taste of the morning’s coffee still on my tongue. I focus on the feel of a soft cotton shirt rubbing against my shoulders and back.
This technique hasn’t fostered any solutions for the stressors in my life. Being mindful hasn’t cured my feelings of isolation. But by turning my attention to the senses, if only for a few minutes, the immediate becomes an anchor for my mind that feels lost in a sea of violent waves knocking me back and forth.
Mindfulness is a temporary respite until (at some point) the storm clears, so that I can make more sound decisions on how to navigate these storms that so often hide any hopeful, bright horizon.