Oh the hustle.
It’s just the way us humans are. We fill our days full-up with plenty of things to do and people to see, zipping through life like we’ve got a box to tick, and catching up with friends who are…(you guessed it)...just as busy.
Add to the list trying to find time to be healthy and we’ve just tipped ourselves into a spin cycle. And when we get stuck in the vortex of hyper stress, it’s a feeling that is least to say pretty bumpy, if not completely debilitating.
Today, anxiety is more common than ever, affecting an estimated 1 in 5 of young women, and 1 in 10 of young men. We are naturally seeking health, happiness, joy and love, and yet in the rush we forget how these things even feel. This state of hyper-stress we’re experiencing has had an enormous contribution to the staggering growth of the serious health issues we face today. We turn to medications to cope, and mindlessly consume large amounts of caffeine and sugar to bring ourselves up. Then, to celebrate making it to the end of the day, we use alcohol to bring us back down.
Further fuelling the vortex, the modern world has become full of hyped up solutions, aka McMindfulness, which all promise the moon. How do we know if anything works? Now we have “choice debilitation” (a real thing caused by too many choices), on top of all that swirling busyness.
It’s worth highlighting; catchy headlines are not the whole story. They play on your natural desires, with the ultimate goal to reach your wallet. ‘Conscious companies’, ‘mindful burgers’, ‘zen escapes’….it easily loses meaning when we see it so much. But there is a silver lining, because mindfulness in and of itself is a genuine article. Inherently it has authenticity because it is an action that you can do, that is not about buying a product. The act of mindfully taking a quieter approach, slowing down when we can, and becoming unhurried gives us back our power, and brings us closer to the feelings we crave.
Tapping in to this requires a conscious investment of energy at all levels; physical, spiritual, and emotional. The promise and temptation of a thirty day solution is never going to replace the value of doing the real work for ourselves. We need to actively keep the body and the mind replenished, to keep up with the demand we face.
Part of this formula, is about getting time to do more of the things we love. We all know deep down this is good for us. You probably have the best intention to take some ‘me’ time, but it’s just always getting bumped for something more urgent. The run. The yoga class. The vacation. The date night. The fun stuff. We harden up and learn to be grown up. We sacrifice frivolous for dutiful, want for must, and dreams for reality. And then time just gets away from us.
Dr Richard Chambers is a Clinical Psychologist and internationally recognised expert in the practice of mindfulness. He highlights that “most mental processing is unconscious. So we can think one thing consciously but have a great deal of mental activity happening outside of awareness.”
In other words we are thinking zombies. We can think ourselves into quite a frenzy without even knowing.
Chambers shared his own personal journey of discovering a slower pace. After developing depression in his final year of University, Chambers decided to try lifestyle changes including diet, exercise and meditation. “Mindfulness has basically benefitted every area of my life. The ultimate goal is to wake up, meaning to no longer get caught up in reactivity and daydreaming. After a while meditating you start to experience moments of incredible clarity. Basically, you can start to recognise that there is something awake in each moment, which is aware of all the thoughts and situations that come and go, but is not the same as them. You start to realise that if you familiarise yourself with this enough, and learn to be it in each moment, you will no longer get caught up in things in the same way. This is the most exciting thing about meditating for me. Along the way, you start to wake up out of old habits and become a nicer, more functional person.” Experiencing is believing.
We know it’s very easy to ‘’stay asleep’’ in today’s world, with the countless ways to disengage, and going deeper into our own minds is something a lot of us resist for a long time. We chase external distractions and become accustomed to a constant level of discomfort, discontent and seeking. It becomes our normal state.
Alongside this we have a tendency to romanticise things we want and don’t have. We can anchor our attention to something far away that’s not part of our everyday noise, and make it our shining star. I’ve done this myself a zillion times. The grass is always a little greener. If only I could get a new car, new job, more money, (insert activity you can’t find time for). But these are all external things.
Here’s some food for thought: maybe the ‘thing’ isn’t what we think. Maybe we are just moving the goalpost. We seem to have created a kind of crazy first world problem; achievement that lets us down and time off that isn’t relaxing; sometimes it’s even …(wait for it)…more stressful.
It may even be that the universe is just a bit mean. You know the person who finally takes a two week holiday, and then is sick the whole way through? Or the busy mum that finally gets a day to herself and has a whole pamper day planned; a manicure, a massage, and some kid free shopping. Only to rush around like mad trying to squeeze it all into one afternoon, and then wonders why she feels just as exhausted and unsatisfied at the end of it. Is this a cruel trick being played on us?
I believe there’s a better explanation and it ties back what we’ve touched on, our inability to be in the moment. When we hold off for that vacation, or our special treat, and build up all this mental anticipation of what it will be like, we are projecting our expectations into something that’s not real - the future; creating a world of pain between now and then. This in itself is the thing we need to look at. We were not built to soldier on day after day, waiting to relax. We are meant to have rest time, now. Regularly. Our nervous system, immune system, and health all rely on this balance. It’s a biological need. Digestion requires rest. Sex hormones require rest. Happiness requires rest. Our health relies on rest.
And I know a secret. I know deep down you’re exhausted and you want rest. Good solid rest.
“All the unhappiness of men,” the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously noted, “arise from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.”
Researchers in the new field of Interruption Science have found that it takes an average of 25 minutes to recover from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every 11 minutes. You do the math- we’re never caught up with our lives.
We seem to have gotten accustomed to this new fast pace, but it wasn’t always this way. Remember? We didn’t used to have access to work emails and newsfeeds 24/7. Life was simpler, we did one thing at a time, we sat on porch swings, we had down time in the garden, in nature, or waiting for a bus with no phone in our hand. The one thing technology doesn’t provide us with is a way to make the best use of the technology. We now are exposed to so much information, but are lacking the time and tools to sift through it. It’s a perpetual cycle that the mind struggles to keep up with.
So how do we break free from the machine?
The way to manage this busyness is to journey within and connect with the body. According to Chambers “The body is a wonderful tool for showing us reality. To push ourselves beyond our limits we need to dissociate from the body, usually by getting too much ‘in our heads’. The moment we tune in and notice the effects of our busyness and lifestyle on the body, we immediately start to regain balance.’’
It’s not that life was ever stress free. We’ve always had stress, and it’s there for a very good reason. Our nervous system can switch into high gear and it can save our lives if it thinks we’re going to die. It’s good to be able to get an extra burst (fight or flight) when we need it for survival. The only problem is a lot of us are staying in this higher gear for very long periods.
The impact may be that we hit the wall and burnout. And with the relentless hum in the background, we don’t tune in to the other symptoms in our lives. Instead we are projecting our internal unhappiness, confusion and dissatisfaction elsewhere, and not giving ourselves what we really need, “me time”.
Rather than waiting for the vacation or the special day before you relax, why not start relaxing before you go do the special thing? Get grounded little by little, rather than all at once. This is a small but significant shift in mindset, a little preventative medicine could make all the difference to the joy you experience.
And if you think this is all a bit airy-fairy, think again. Many business leaders are already on board. When it comes to improving productivity, ‘going within’ is on the rise and no longer an alternative practise. According to Chambers, “Businesses of any size will benefit. Workers will become happier and more productive. Perhaps they (workplaces) could run a lunchtime seminar outlining the evidence base around the benefits of mindfulness for wellbeing and performance. It is important for people to hear about both so they don’t think it’s just about relaxing and taking time out. It is also good for employees to understand that mindfulness is simply the experience of being fully engaged in each moment (activity), and can be cultivated through practice (meditation).” What this means is that we all have this within us, it’s just about reconnecting.
Chambers himself is a leader in spreading mindfulness and believes health professionals are at the forefront of spreading the word, and they need to walk the talk. “The best thing for professionals to do is to develop their own personal mindfulness practice. This will give them an experience of mindfulness, which they can then use to shape and inform their work. Some people learn about mindfulness as a concept and then start trying to use it in therapy without having their own practice going. This leads to very bad therapy. Mindfulness is an experience and cannot be communicated easily by words, so you can’t fully grasp it through reading or hearing about it. You have to do it. To be it, really.”
Over a year ago now I started my own daily meditation, and it has impacted me in ways I could not have foreseen. I thought I was relaxed. Haha yeah right! I was burning the candle at both ends, and then going to yoga, and ignoring the signs. I would go to work and achieve, and then go home and feel wrecked. Behind the scenes my racing mind was keeping me sheltered from my emotions. I can’t recommend enough the simple practise of sitting still and breathing every day. As a health practitioner, there isn’t a more important tool to share with my clients.
You see, our nervous system heals when it rests. Not allowing rest is not allowing healing, and I know my own health issues started to fester in my fast pace.
Chambers explains the science behind healing the body with the mind. “If we focus our mind on healing with mindfulness, both the unconscious and conscious align and we start to heal. The mind and body are linked after all, so directing our mind toward healing creates that reality in the body (and vice versa in the case of thinking ourselves into unwellness).”
Recently, I was introduced to another mindful practise, floating. The act of lying in a highly salted bath much like the thick, clear water from the Dead Sea, with no stimulus or outside noise. Simply being free of gravity and interruptions.
The whole hour of my first float was a journey within. It felt like being on a cloud, or back into some peaceful place I’d long forgotten about. When I emerged, I felt like I’d just returned from a trip to some tropical paradise (or wanted that trip to feel like). It was a new feeling of lightness and bliss that I hadn’t expected at all. On my second float, I noticed how much space there was in my lungs, and in my tummy which has had lots of upsets. I felt a calm and sense of rest that I did not even know was missing. Indigestion cure? You bet. You see, floating is a deeper way of gearing down, and tapping the digestive-parasympathetic-nervous-system function, which is blocked under stress. And the lack of noise, stimulus and lightness of floating create a beautiful space to just be. If you have aches and pains, want to deepen your meditation or are just curious, then I highly recommend seeking out a floatation studio. Dinuka Bandara from Elevation Floatation and Yoga (recently opened in Melbourne) is a health crusader, (and a genuinely lovely human being), who wants to spread the benefits of floating. “We wanted to give busy people, athletes and professionals a way to destress that is easy to access and also heals the body in a way traditional therapies don’t.”
There are things available to us every day that will bring us immense peace and grounding, if only for short bursts between the hustle, and they don’t require a plane ticket or a lot of planning.
Go to your yoga class, but don’t rush there. In fact, just do everything more slowly. Stand still for a moment in the garden, and notice the beauty around you. By resetting your nervous system into a lower gear, you have just given your body the elusive-out–there-treat you are craving.
Life is not a guarantee of happiness. A day off is not a guarantee of satisfaction.
Being ok with the ebb and flow though?
Well that’s a bit profound.