I’ve been interested for quite some time now in both the idea and practice of mindfulness. (You can see that interest sprinkled all over this blog!) Mindfulness – the need for it, the attempts to develop it, the changes it brings when I manage to be effective with the practice of it – touches every aspect of my life, I think. From my own personal growth, to me as a mom, and on and on. It affects everything. Even my photography is, in part, rooted in it.
I realize that “mindfulness” is a buzzword these days. But my interest truly isn’t due to any cultural trendiness. It’s come about much more organically than that – and it’s due to my slow realization that most of the rough patches I’ve hit in life have actually occurred (or, at least, been amplified) because of a lack of mindfulness.
Of all of the insights I’ve had about my life and my own self in the past few years, I think realizing that one thing (that I have a real need to cultivate mindfulness) is the single most important one.
My issue with mindfulness (or lack thereof) has never actually been that I don’t know myself. I am mindful that way. I pretty much always understand myself and why I feel the way I feel – and when I don’t, I’m good at digging in to myself and finding the necessary answers and insights.
No…mindfulness (or its lack) has, for me, been more about the fact that for most of my life, I’ve been very prone to letting myself get knocked around by outside forces. I, historically, have ceded my own power much, much too easily.
The reasons for this aren’t that easy to sum up (or not that quick anyway…and I’m trying not to write an absolutely voluminous post here!) But a lot of it falls under two parts:
1- I’m a very, very, very empathetic person. It’s my natural tendency to “walk in another person’s shoes” and identify with how they feel.
And I do think this is a good and useful quality in many ways, actually. When you’re empathetic, it’s easier to relate to other people, and it’s easier to feel compassion and understanding. These are good things!
But there are definite downsides to strong empathy as well – like the fact that I’m ultra-aware of “vibes.” And this can be really challenging. Oftentimes when there are negative vibes rolling off of a person, they in fact have nothing to do whatever with me…I know this. But it’s incredibly difficult to remain unaffected when you’re soaking them in. And the strong empathy I have means that I do that – the absorbing of the vibes – naturally. The experience of that can be anything from disconcerting to awkward-feeling to downright uncomfortable and draining.
It’s in many ways like another sense. You can’t ignore the information one of your senses is giving you; the information is just there, whether you want it or not. Like a really strong smell, say. You can try to ignore it or power through it – but ultimately, you have to find a way to deal with it.
So, yeah – one of my biggest social hurdles has always been that I have this difficult time not absorbing the vibes (particularly stress and angst, which are powerful) of the people around me…even when they don’t have anything to do with me.
But then, to make it worse, they do sometimes in fact have something to do with me! That’s even harder!! Facing critical people isn’t easy for anybody, but it’s particularly difficult when you have this strong empathy thing going in, because that sets the situation up such that you’re not only dealing intellectually and emotionally with a difficult person or situation, but you’re also, as I said, soaking in their vibe.
Consequently, I was a people-pleaser for much of my growing-up time (and beyond. I still battle this tendency, honestly…though I’m slowly making strides.) And people-pleasing isn’t often conducive to making the decisions you need to make to forge a life that suits you.
2-I’m also a pretty creative person and very imaginative. And I like these qualities in myself! I’m grateful for them. They’ve served, and continue to serve me pretty well. I wouldn’t trade them away any more than I’d trade the empathy. Their benefits far outweigh their negatives.
But that doesn’t mean the negatives don’t exist. And, like with the empathy thing, they can make things difficult. For example: my imagination is such that it’s almost impossible for me not to imagine negative outcomes and worst-case scenarios along with the positive – for myself and for people I care about. And, in doing so, I of course worry. Anxiety is, in fact, a rather big issue for me.
Over the years I’ve realized that one way – maybe the only way – to manage my particular personal qualities is to breathe. It comes down to grabbing the reins of myself, basically – remaining in control, as opposed to allowing myself to be buffeted about by other people’s vibes or by my own active imagination or by anything else. It’s about literally stopping, putting my focus squarely on my present moment, centering into myself, and grounding into the here and now. And this, for me, is accomplished largely by focusing on my breath – in and out.
It’s a simple thing, and a tool that you always have with you. But training yourself to do it consistently, to head yourself off at the pass, as it were, before you get really stressed out or reactive, is much trickier. I’m proud that I’ve come as far with this as I have…but I’m still not where I want or need to be.
It’s an ongoing process. 🙂
I was actually, with all of this, leading up to a couple of things I wanted to say about meditation – which is, among other things, a strong mindfulness support. And which until just about three months ago, I was never able to get anything out of, in spite of my strong interest in mindfulness and desire to advance there.
I want to talk about how and why that changed – how I got over the hump of not being able to meditate and how that’s made a difference already to my life and my pursuit of mindfulness and balance. There are a few tools – one in particular, but a couple of others that are more offbeat but have really helped me – that I want to call out.
But I realize I can’t talk about any of that now and still keep this post at a reasonably manageable length!
So I’ll just say, “to be continued” for now, and write more soon.
And I’ll end this with a shot of my dog, Thursday. Like me, she struggles a lot with the concept of chilling out, not worrying, and just being “zen.” We’re working on it together! 🙂