Written by Ailín Ó’Blí
In zazen (meditation), leave your front door and your back door open. Let thoughts come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.Shunryu Suzuki
I’d like to tell you a little bit about mindfulness meditation, and how I use it in my life.
Where I’m coming from
When I was in my teens and early 20s, I had a severe panic disorder. It peaked in my second year of University, when I was so anxious that I only attended a handful of lectures. As my world shrank, I realised that I had to do something. For me, “something” was yoga and a brief course of CBT.
In the space between these two approaches, I found simple techniques that have helped me nearly every day for the last 20 years.
What I practice
I have an “ideal” self-care and self-development practice, which is a combination of physical yoga stretches, breathing exercises and meditation. I sometimes manage long periods where I’m doing that daily, but have equally long periods of time where I’m not doing anything near that. It’s a lot to pack in!
So in reality my daily practice boils down to two essential things.
First – taking time to ‘just sit’ for ten minutes
The important thing about this is that I can do it anywhere – in my chair at work, on a bus, or even while standing or walking (which is stretching the definition of ‘sitting’ a little!). I don’t do breathing exercises, or meditate on a specific thing. Instead I just try to notice my thoughts without following or engaging with them. I let them come and go but “don’t serve them tea”!
Its surprisingly difficult, but only so long as I think I’m trying to achieve something. Once I remind myself that I have no aim in this practice, that just sitting is enough, I can let go of the idea of success or failure. This daily practice has a big impact in helping me to “reset” my day and start fresh.
Second – dealing with stress in the moment
The second part of my practice is how I deal with specific stressful situations. Throughout the day I routinely check in with myself to see how I’m doing. Noticing when I’m becoming tense or anxious isn’t always easy, but there are clear warning signs such as racing thoughts, tapping my foot, or breathing rapidly.
Once I notice that I’m becoming tense, I have a few options depending on how severe it feels:
- I can just take a single deep breath, in and out, which helps me to pause and then slow my thoughts down
- If more is needed, I can consciously slow my breathing by counting the length of the breaths, while also softening parts of my body that tend to hold tension (e.g. belly, shoulders)
- Finally, I can remove myself from the situation completely, and take some time to breathe
How this approach helps
A long time ago, someone asked me if I’d prefer to get rid of my anxiety, or learn how to deal with it whenever it arises. I figured that learning to deal with it was preferable, and have spent the last 20 years gradually getting better at doing this.
When I’m completely on top of my practice, stress is barely an issue. But when time is short and stressors are piling up, I can still have confidence in my ability to cope. These simple practices keep my world open, and mean that I no longer need to avoid things for fear of how I’ll respond.
Ailín Ó’Blí is a former academic (neuroscience and public health), now working in the health service.
Alongside the day job he has been teaching yoga for 15 years, and is exploring how his experience of autism interacts with his practice and teaching. You can find him on twitter @IogaNua