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Mindfulness Meditation for Stress

by Jon Kabat-Zinn(more info)

listed in meditation, originally published in issue 24 - January 1998

The problem of stress does not admit to simple-minded solutions or quick fixes. At root, stress is a natural part of living from which there is no more escape than from the human condition itself. Yet some people try to avoid stress by walling themselves off from life experience; others attempt to anaesthetise themselves one way or another to escape it. But if escape and avoidance become our habitual ways of dealing with our problems, the problems just multiply. When it comes right down to it, facing our problems is usually the only way to get past them.

There is an art to facing difficulties in ways that lead to effective solutions and to inner peace and harmony. When we are able to mobilize our inner resources to face our problems artfully, we find we are usually able to orient ourselves in such a way that we can use the pressure of the problem itself to propel us through it.

The issue of control is central to coping with problems and with stress. There are many forces at work in the world that are totally beyond our control and others that we sometimes think are beyond our control but really aren’t. To a great extent, our ability to influence our circumstances depends on how we see things. Our beliefs about ourselves and about our own capabilities as well as how we see the world and the forces at play in it all affect what we will find possible. How we see things affects how much energy we have for doing things and our choices about where to channel what energy we do have.

For instance, at those times when you are feeling overwhelmed by the pressures in your life and you see your own efforts as ineffectual, in all likelihood you will wind up feeling depressed and helpless. Nothing will seem controllable or even worth trying to control. On the other hand, at those times when you are seeing the world as threatening but only potentially overwhelming, then feelings of insecurity rather than depression may predominate, causing you to worry incessantly about all the things you think threaten or might threaten your sense of control. These could be real or imagined; it hardly matters in terms of the stress you will feel and the effect it will have on your life.

Feeling threatened can easily lead to feelings of anger and hostility and from there to outright aggressive behavior, driven by deep instincts to protect your position and maintain your sense of things being under control. When things do feel “under control,” we might feel content for a moment. But when they go out of control again, or even seem to be getting out of control, our deepest insecurities can erupt. At such times we might even act in ways that are self-destructive and hurtful to others. And we will feel anything but content.

If you have a chronic illness or a disability that prevents you from doing what you used to be able to do, whole areas of control may go up in smoke. And if your condition causes you physical pain that has not responded well to medical treatment, the distress you might be feeling can be compounded by emotional turmoil caused by knowing that your condition seems to be beyond even your doctor’s control.

If you can name something or even feel it, you can be mindful of it. As we have already seen a number of times, in bringing mindfulness to an activity or an experience, whatever it may be, you flesh it out. It becomes more vivid, more bright, more real for you. In part things become more vivid because the stream of your thinking subsides a little and is less likely to interpose itself between you and what is actually happening.

As encountering each moment with awareness becomes more familiar to you, you will find that it is not only possible but even enjoyable to be in the moment, even with ordinary tasks such as washing the dishes. You come to see that you don’t have to rush to get through with the dishes so that you can get on to something better or more important because, at the moment that you are doing the dishes, that is your life. As we have seen, if you miss these moments because your mind is somewhere else, in an important way you are shortchanging your life. So try taking each pot and each cup and each plate as it comes, being aware of the movements of your body in holding & scrubbing & rinsing, the movements of the breath, and the movements of your mind.

You can follow a similar approach with anything and everything you find yourself doing, whether it be alone or with other people. As long as you are doing it, doesn’t it make sense to do it with your full being? If you choose to do things mindfully, then your doing will be coming out of non-doing. It will feel more meaningful and requires less effort.

If you are able to be present while doing routine daily activities, if you are willing to remember that those moments can be moments of calm and alert attention as well as times of doing things that have to be done, you may find that not only do you enjoy the process more but you are also more likely to have insights into yourself and your life while you are doing these routine activities.

We are not talking about simply seeing that life is a stream of dirty dishes, after which you go back to doing the dishes mechanically. The point is to really do the dishes when you are doing them, to be awake and alive as you do them, mindful of the tendency to slip back into autopilot and do them unconsciously, perhaps also aware of your resistance to get to them, to procrastinate, to resent other people who you want to help you but who don’t. Mindfulness can also lead to decisions to make changes in your life based on your insights. Perhaps you might even get others to do their fair share of the dishes!

Perhaps these suggestions for how to do the dishes mindfully will give you some ideas for ways to do whatever you find yourself doing with greater awareness and for ways to nurture a clearer seeing into your own mind and life situation. The important point to keep in mind is that each moment that you are alive is a moment that you can live fully, a moment not to be missed.

Reprinted with permission from Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn, £14.99 paperback, Piatkus Books, Freephone 0800 454 816.

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