Stepping out of autopilot and a cortisol fueled existence and embracing every aspect of reality has truly transformed my life.
Five years prior to finding mindfulness and beginning my practice I worked as part of the senior leadership team in a large, tough inner city secondary comprehensive school, a school located in one of the most deprived areas in the UK. In my last year at the school I saw three of my close associates signed off with stress, on reflection my SNS (sympathetic nervous system) was constantly triggered and I could only plot myself at the extreme end of the stress-performance curve. Whilst on most days I maintained a positive external relationship with both students and staff, internally my thoughts were often negative and on reflection often inaccurate. Some days I just managed to keep myself together whilst holding agenda driven discussions with people at all levels of the organisation, but once the office door was closed I found myself in a sorry heap on the desk. After doing 12 hour days I regularly arrived home frazzled, conversations with both friends and family were dominated by work and the next Ofsted visit. I found it difficult to remember what friends and family had said during a conversation, I found myself sending constant reminders to myself just to remember the basics.
On reflection, when it came to my professional life I truly was a remarkable actress, my decision to leave the school came as a massive shock to all across the organisation. My loved ones simple rejoiced!
I write this article almost a year on and I feel a warm glow throughout my body. Through self-reflection and studying mindfulness and compassion I have come to recognise that being in the present, stopping the constant negative rumination and appreciating the small things in life enables us to be fully aware not just of ourselves, but of all we come into contact with. By being aware and allowing the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) to take a major role in my life I am now in a position to have open, enriched conversations, where instead of dominating the conversation I often just set my intention to whole-heartedly listen to the other person. Yes, set my intention, I’m on a journey, but I’m not quite there just yet.
As I look back I can see that my distorted negative thoughts fueled conversations with friends and we would both find ourselves getting embroiled in a downward spiral. Conversations held with close family members often became quite heated as I projected my low mood and toxic nervous energy onto my nearest and dearest. Emotional reactivity has been exchanged for mindful pauses and an ability to start regulating my emotions. Yes, there are sometimes relapses, but these are now relapses not the norm.
I’m a great fan of the 3-step breathing space, it just gives me the space I need to respond mindfully in potential stressful situations. Just simply grounding my feet and taking a breath is often all I need to avoid being reactive, which I find diffuses the most difficult conversations.
Introducing self-reflection and compassion into my tool box for life has been truly enlightening. As I let go of past negative relationships and bring my awareness to what that person might have actually being going through at the time, I’m healing. And being compassionate for others in the everyday is actually helping me to avoid having those negative relationships in the first place.
To truly cultivate mindfulness both in ourselves and others I now accept will take years, it’s a journey, but I’m going to enjoy the ride. Before embarking on the mindfulness voyage I would never have got into the car or cooked a meal without the latest tunes blasting, now I feel life is my signature tune. I still appreciate listening to music when friends are over or when the children are in the car, but much to their dismay I’d prefer a mindful conversation. Taking my daughter shopping has been transformed, now I take the time to control my responses and overall behaviour – patience is most definitely a virtue I’m starting to develop.
Reading research on “Self-Compassion” has been pivotal, “Is that kind?” is a wonderful way to question our behaviour both to ourselves and to others. And this has really helped me develop self-compassion, that and the wonderful Kirsten Neff.
When reflecting on my practice, the major turning point for me for was incorporating 30 minutes of mindful walking into my day whilst on holiday. Before mindfulness I would never have got up at 7.30am every morning on holiday and gone for a walk, a walk without headphones just simply to appreciate the surroundings?! This simple change has been transformational both physically and mentally. I now walk every morning for at least 30 minutes and I’ve promised myself to do my utmost to incorporate this into my daily routine no matter how hectic life may get. Walking gives me time to be self-compassionate, it’s time for me, and it gives me time to be present, to just simply observe life without making a judgement. It’s also developing my resilience, I actually feel an inner strength and it sets the tone for a calmer day ahead.
Being self-compassionate and giving myself time to practice and develop my mindfulness skills is not only enriching my life, but the relationships all around me. I even find myself questioning my own thoughts; Is that kind? Could there be an alternative explanation? Being less judgemental, setting my intention to be kind and appreciating all I have in life are all fruits of mindfulness and on reflection I can now see the seeds of this fruit dispersed throughout my relationships with others.