Most of us have lives that include a certain amount of stress and anxiety. This may include daily events, difficult life events/transitions, physical illness, work stress, relationship stress or a combination of any number of factors from an exhaustive list. We may like to believe that if given the option we would choose to get rid of all stressors in our lives, but in fact, a small amount of stress can be helpful and motivating. For example, a small amount of stress before an exam may encourage us to study, but too much stress, and we may become overwhelmed and avoid the whole thing all together.
Mindfulness practices are one way that we can learn to become more familiar and therefore more tolerant with the thoughts, feelings and sensations that we may find difficult or challenging. We may try to avoid, ignore or push away uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, but usually this is only short term relief and it will find its way to the surface at some other time or in some other way. While it may seem counterintuitive, rather than running away from our fears, anxieties, and concerns, we must learn how to lean towards them with gentleness and curiosity.
If we look closer at the nature of worry, it seems to be connected to our inability to have full control over everything and everyone. There are times when we are able to change our situation to reduce our stress and anxiety – that’s fine. But there are often times, when the only choice we have in front of us is how to work with a particular stress or worry.
Mindfulness meditation helps us to cultivate, expand and strengthen our ability to be with everything as it is. That may include the thoughts that arise, emotions, physical sensations, as well as sounds, smells and visuals. Meditation encourages us to become more curious about how our minds function as opposed to criticizing or judging ourselves harshly. Some long time meditators describe that it is not that their stress and anxiety has disappeared, but rather that it seems much more workable. We are cultivating the ability to stay, rather than panic, react impulsively or run away. When we are able to look at our minds with a gentle curiosity from a place of stillness, we will be more likely to see what works, what doesn’t work and feel more able to make the necessary adjustments.
Like most anything else, the more we practice, the stronger or better we become at working with our minds. An analogy that is often used is that it is like going to the gym; a regular workout routine will naturally produce a fitter body. Meditation is mind exercise. While it is not magic, some of the benefits of mindfulness meditation seem pretty magical! Try it and see!