Updated: Dec 13, 2022
I am currently on the first ‘gap year’ of my life. It has turned out to be quite ‘the gap’ as thanks to COVID, I’ve had to shelve all my plans as it all involved travel! I started to work on other projects close to my heart instead. Most days I find myself happily self-employed in these but from time-to-time I feel a sense of utter restlessness and discontent set in. It is during one such ‘episode’ that I penned this article, in real-time, as I worked through my restless mind. I wanted to put my knowledge and practice of mindfulness to test – could I apply these to reboot the mind and return it to a more joyful state of being?
PART 1: LEARNING TO BE GRATEFUL
As I sit here, staring into the blank white screen of my laptop, I feel a sense of utter restless and general discontent. Ironic given I am supposed to be on a break – a holiday even.
On day’s like this, I find myself getting caught in all things that I don't have or can't do ... In the process I lose perspective on all the good things that I do have and can do.
To turn this state of mind around, I need to start by reminding myself of all things in my life that I am truly grateful. My first step in becoming mindful, will be to write out a gratitude list.
I live in a safe country, in a comfortable home, close to the ocean, surrounded by good friends, a supportive family and a strong spiritual community
After years of being happily single, by sheer chance, just as the world was shutting down, I met a kind and loving man who brings much joy and laughter into my life
I live simply and frugally and that in itself gives me a lot of security
Although I live in an apartment there is a small piece of land I can grow and nurture a small garden in
I know how to cook and enjoy beautiful meals every day - on which point how lucky are we to have such an abundance of beautiful food even in these trying times
I am smart and have enjoyed a wonderful career, working in roles that I loved and with people that I respect
It’s a small list but I am already starting to feel better as my mind, through the physical act of writing, is forced to focus on the positives.
PART 2: WORKING THROUGH THE ACHIEVER COMPLEX
Starting with a 'gratitude list' was a good call but the 'achiever within’ continues to prod, “Why stop here? Go on, do more and achieve more so that (and here's the clincher) there is a lot more you can be grateful for!”
So the next logical thing to do is to work through this ‘achiever complex’ of mine.
A few thoughts come to mind.
“Why do I need to do anything, at all? Why is it not OK for me to just chill and enjoy this break in a life that has otherwise been consumed with toil - doing, doing, doing all the time?”
I have pondered these many times before and I think it all comes down to having grown up in modern societies that are obsessed with doing and achieving. Simply 'being' is not discussed, and if it comes up, it's always dismissed as the path of lazies, hippies and new-age flakes.
Unsurprisingly, even when I have earned the right to 'be', my mind won't let me.
It nags unceasingly, both consciously and sub-consciously, with doubt and questions, “Are you making the most of your life? Are you doing enough? Look at everyone else and see how much they are achieving! They are so driven they don't even need to sleep for more than four hours a day! What about that article on the ten things successful people do before they even have breakfast - you should totally read that!”
On and on it goes.
Without some serious mind training, ideally grounded in ancient Eastern wisdom traditions, it's impossible to recognise that this voice is not 'you' at all - rather the ramblings of an untrained mind.
Even with mindfulness training, which I have been practicing seriously for almost six years now, it's still hard not to give into these taunts. The moment you do, it has got you – hook, line and sinker! Next thing you know, despite all you have done and achieved, at best you feel restless and discontent, and at worst, depressed.
So what to do next?
It’s time to put this mind training of mine into practice! Off I go to do a formal meditation sit for an hour, flavoured as follows:
Start with focusing on the breath. This gives the mind a solid anchor point on which to focus and rest.
As the mind settles, take a step back and dispassionately observe the ramblings of the mind like you are listening to the radio or watching TV
Recognise and label all that comes up as mere thoughts - not mistaking these to be messages or insights or signs
Work at not engaging with the thought - watch it without getting involved and observe how this causes it to lose energy and dissipate.
Keep repeating this process as one thought will no doubt be immediately replaced by another thought …
Inevitably a thought will hook the attention and carry it off. Be grateful for becoming aware of this and then start the practice again with the breath …
When practiced long enough, this sort of meditation creates an experiential awareness of the much cliched phrase - 'I am not my mind' – which is very reassuring once you get acquainted with all that goes on in your mind!
The practice today has served as a much need reminder of this very important fact.
PART 3: TAKING THE PRACTICE 'OFF-THE-MAT'
The formal meditation practice provided some reprieve but as I came out of it, the very next thought that appeared in my mind on this restless day is, “what now?”
This should not come as a surprise. The tendency to feel restless and discontent is so deeply ingrained that a sixty minute isn't going to cut it. Recognising the ramblings of the mind for what it is requires constant vigilance and practice.
Mindfulness is practice that I find I need to begin ‘on-the-mat’ and then carry with me ‘off-the-mat’.
Ironically, the best time for the practice is precisely moments like these – when the mind is feeling restless and discontent.