It is all too easy to add pain to our suffering when times are hard…telling ourselves how badly we are managing, or that this is how things will always be. In this short, supportive article, Dr Stephanie Dowrick leads us towards a simple practical way of restoring calm, equanimity and even optimism in the present moment. To share your comments, please visit Stephanie Dowrick’s public FACEBOOK page.
On the days when nothing seems to be going remotely well and your stresses are accumulating unbearably, please try a life-saving version of mindfulness. Allow yourself to be present to the truth of what is happening, yet not overwhelmed by it. Ask yourself: “What would ease the situation RIGHT NOW?” “What do I need RIGHT NOW?” Listen to your small quiet voice of wisdom. Persist until you have some clarity. Ideally, write that down. “I can…”; “Yes, I will…”.
Move through your day at half speed, or anyway at a speed that allows you to be immersed in familiar routines of care and activity. This will curb the rising tide of panic. Let yourself be soothed by the rhythms of what you are doing. Some of you will remember the story I wrote in FORGIVENESS AND OTHER ACTS OF LOVE about doing the washing up slowly, carefully and with total attention…how I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful teachings how brilliantly this simple task (and any similar task of care) can calm the mind and the body. “Collapsing” (hiding under the bedclothes) can be very tempting but it makes things worse, not better. Remember, too, that courage is only ever found on the run. Each time you ask, “What’s needed now?” you evoke courage to go forward. As crucially, you awaken the part of your brain that can work for you, lifting you from being flooded with painful emotions to a state of mind where possibilities will begin to emerge.
Support yourself as you would a friend. This means: eating regularly and well, speaking to yourself encouragingly, focusing on one step at a time, paying attention to what is going well or could support you, asking for and accepting help (and using absolutely no alcohol or drugs; however tempting, they will quickly make things worse).
Often when we feel bad we make it far worse by giving ourselves a hard time or talking ourselves down. This is your chance to discover and practise another way: to grow stronger, and more compassionate as well as more resilient. If you feel overwhelmed, breathe through that using a simple mantra like: “This will pass.” “I’m getting there.” “I have the strengths I need.” Let your breathing soften, gentle and strengthen you.
You can also write your way through the worst moments, taking 10-15 minutes either to “vent” freely about your feelings – writing them down without any censoring – or to list your concerns and decide how you will support yourself through at least one of them. (Sometimes just getting through the day courageously and with focus on what needs to be done is enough.) This can save you from lashing out with frustration or fear…and making things far worse. In fact, paying even CLOSER ATTENTION THAN USUAL to caring for others is also a failsafe way to move through our times of fear or uncertainty. Caring for others moves us beyond our own concerns; it also – and vitally – reconnects us to our own strengths as well as to the concerns and needs of other people. It literally makes our world larger and safer.
Also, and not least, let nature support you…walking, noticing the physical world around you, swimming, dancing, playing, gardening: all physical activities can be literally re-vitalising and need to be part of our daily routine. We live in a body that needs to move. And it especially needs to move when our feelings seem to be stuck or mired. Give yourself every chance to re-engage with your innate capacities for resilience, hope and trust. For me, prayer always helps: surrounding myself and the situation with light and allowing myself at least a glimmering of awareness that “I am not alone with this.”
(Much more in CHOOSING HAPPINESS, CREATIVE JOURNAL WRITING and HEAVEN ON EARTH. Literally and spiritually, you really are not alone.)
(I love this photo, taken some years ago when on retreat in India…and discovering even more deeply than previously that, however hard any moments in life are – and some are very very hard – “I am not alone.” Much more on prayer – and the immense power of support prayer offers – in HEAVEN ON EARTH.)