It’s strange how when we open up to our emotions, thoughts and experiences, we start to notice others in a similar situation to us. Like once we are aware of and acknowledge it, there is a magnified attention to others experiencing similar things. Recently I found myself in a funk. A sticky, muddy place where I felt stuck and miserable. It wasn’t until I really noticed I was experiencing this that I started to notice others were having, or have had similar periods of “stuckness”, and that it was in fact quite a common place to be. A whole bunch of people hanging out in a park together, but in separate funky mud puddles.
A colloquial definition of a funk would be “a feeling of not moving forward or heading towards a goal of sorts, and kind of just stagnating”. It may sound and even LOOK like depression, but generally the symptoms are not the same, while it may definitively coincide with depression for some. So it would seem that finding yourself in a funk is normal. If it’s so common, why didn’t I know about them; why didn’t anyone write about them in the big manual of life? Yeah, I know, what manual?!
The reality is that these ruts ARE normal, and it’s OK to be stuck. Life can be a tornado sometimes; it throws us around, it throws things at us (sometimes big, sometimes small), and then there is the beautiful, calm eye of the storm that is hard to find and never stays around for long. In saying that, a tornado could also be a really fun ride if we manage to notice all the fantastic and enjoyable things along the way.
I guess the root of the problem is that we have societal pressures reigning down on us that we need to be OK all the time. But how can we achieve this when we are stuck in this figurative tornado? There is an unspoken expectation that we need to be in a constant state of ‘happy’ all the time. We have social media memes saying “just push through it” and “smile and it will be ok”, with the general undertone of don’t bother showing up with ‘negative emotions’ (as we can’t deal with it). Sometimes ‘just smiling’ doesn’t get us through those feelings of disappointment in ourselves, or when a complete lack of motivation hits. These heavier sentiments tend to stick around longer than what a day of smiling can cure.
There seems to be a societal avoidance of ‘negative emotions’ like sadness, disappointment, anger, and fear that make it damn hard for us to experience all the different things we need to, to live balanced lives. I’m not saying we need to be in these states all the time, but they serve us for different things and help us figure ourselves out. A little while back (when I was in said funk) I bumped into a friend at a café, and the normal casualties and greeting occurred.
Them: “How have you been?”
Me: (in a not-so-perky tone) “Yeah ok I guess”
Them: (eyebrows raised in slight shock and confusion) “Have you and your partner split up??” In other words, they immediately jumped to the worst possible scenario that could happen to make me unhappy, because people should be ok all the time, right? So I went on to explain why I was down and stuck. But sometimes, people don’t really want to hear that. (And no, my partner and I didn’t split up!)
So we are under immense pressures to keep our ‘bad’ emotions at bay, even pushed down into a state of non-existence. It’s so constraining and quite ridiculous really. Personally, I think it is a large factor contributing to our increasing mental health prevalence.
Let’s come back to the tornado that is life. We constantly have demands on us to be making decisions, staying ‘healthy’, contributing to the world, reaching age-appropriate life goals (like getting a good job, then maybe a house, then hopefully a partner, or vice versa). It’s when life becomes a daily bombardment of commitments that continue to fill up and up causing us to spill over the edge, and our sanity gets compromised.
So why are people getting to the point where we spill over the edges, flip out, burnout, or get completely stuck?? We have never been taught how to cope properly. Another thing that needs to go in life’s manual! Ending up at these places seems to be a combination of not living in-line with our values (what’s really meaningful for us), and not having a buffer against stress when that tornado hits levels 4 and 5.
SO HOW TO GET THROUGH THAT FUNK?
Mindfulness is that buffer against stress. It makes everything bearable when the glass keeps filling up and up. It actually brings the level down, and it never quite reaches the top because you can deal with it. Bringing a mindfulness practice into your life allows you to be a bit of a superhuman in most areas of life. When you have an anchor (like the breath) in your chaotic life, you can park ship when it gets stormy. You are able to notice what thoughts are controlling you (like “I can’t do that because I will definitely fail”) and you can disengage with them, because it’s just a thought. It’s literally a random neuron firing in your brain and it thinks it can bully and control you just like that??
Your thoughts may still be there, but at the end of the day, you are totally aware of them! You acknowledge them, but you don’t give them the time of day and you can choose to act differently if you wish. That brings me to my next point, which is deciding how you actually want to act in the world. Not ‘act’ like a dramatic façade, but how do you want behave, communicate, respond and BE in the world.
Upon reflection of my own experience, I was stagnating because I wasn’t living in a way that was important to me. I didn’t feel like I was contributing to my wellbeing or my future in a way that was meaningful or nourishing. This is interesting because I wasn’t doing anything UNHEALTHY or detrimental to my health or wellbeing, it was more a lack of meaning and purpose in my life that was keeping me stuck. I discovered that meaning-based living can have a huge impact on our lives. In fact, it’s usually those people that are working towards their values in an active and constant way that report to be the happiest overall.
There is so much to be said about doing what’s really important to you. You might say “Yeah sure, I’m working in a good job, have a good income, good family (or these things most of the time); I’m doing just fine”. If you think about it for a bit longer though, you might notice that some of those things you think are important are in fact important to your parents, close friends, or society in general. We take on the values of our friends, family and society and go with the flow without really stopping to think if it’s what we REALLY want.
Have you ever fantasised about randomly opening up a cake shop, or being a yoga instructor in Bali, or travelling for the rest of your life? But you have then written the idea off as silly because you need to have a stable job and family by age 35? Maybe give in to those fantasies a bit more, look deep into them and see what is so inspiring about them. Maybe it’s freedom, maybe independence, solitude, humility, or adventure? These are all values. When we think about our ideal lives and what REALLY nourishes us as individuals, it tends to let us know what we value in life.
Some people go through their whole lives not thinking about what they value and what they really want. If you find yourself in a sticky funk, that’s ok. We do end up there and that’s fine. Rest, recover, and evaluate. Allow yourself to crawl along for a while, cut yourself some slack, and know that you’re ok in the mud. However, somewhere along the way we need to acknowledge that something has to change to either get out of the funk or to stop ourselves from falling into mud puddles in the first place.
If you’re in a stagnating place right now, maybe you can take some time to think about what you want to achieve as a person. Consider this one thing: How do you want your loved ones to describe you at your eulogy? This will give you an idea of what kind of person you are striving to be, what’s important for you, and what you really value.
On Monday we learnt ‘How to open our heart’ as part of the FU TO THE MONDAY BLUES workshop series. We got cosy and comfy with blankets, experienced some pretty awesome mindfulness meditation, and learnt skills on how to more open with ourselves and how we’re feeling.
We had a small intimate group, who really got into the activities with openness and enthusiasm. Our head psychologist Mary led us through activities that helped identify relationship patterns, fears, and situations where we feel vulnerable. We delved into what really makes us afraid in relationships, and why it’s such a huge thing to consider. It was such an interesting and deep workshop that left us inspired to look at our vulnerable selves and our relationships.
There are very few moments when we go deeper to understand ourselves and why things are the way they are.
Learn how to get and keep your shit together with mindfulness skills and other nifty tools to use when life gets wild. Come and join our ‘how to’ workshops over the next few months and explore a huge range of topics like ‘how to stop your freak outs’ and ‘how to stop being a stress head’. Don’t forget next week June 6th is a public holiday (yew!!) so take the night off. We’ll be back on Monday June 20th to learn how to harness the power of gratitude, a tool that is especially helpful for when you wish every weekend was 3 days long! For more info on our FU TO THEMONDAY BLUES series, check out our upcoming Facebook events here.
So you’ve just started meditating or have been doing it for a little while now, and you’re wondering where this enlightenment thing is? You may have to keep at it for a good 10 years to reach enlightenment, BUT you can reap the benefits sooner than that. Much sooner. So how do you know you’re getting somewhere with your meditation practice? Here is an overview of some of the benefits you may gain in different areas of your life, to know you’re benefitting from the practice. Everyone meditates slightly differently with little tricks and habits, and everyone will notice different things, but here are a few of the big ones.
You will begin to feel more love and compassion for yourself and others, and less anger and frustration. This is because meditation develops your capacity for emotional regulation. You may even develop a deeper empathy and concern for the wellbeing of others. You may notice yourself being much less reactive to negative thoughts. The aim of mindfulness is to reach a state of equanimity, no matter how fleeting the experience is. This is a state where you don’t have either a positive or negative judgement about your thoughts, feeling and experiences, they are just there.
You might notice it in your relationships. If you observe the way in which you interact with your partner, children or friends, you might notice yourself feeling more calm – especially in situations that would have bothered or even aggravated you in the past. This is because meditation is training your brain to become less reactive to your emotions. You will be able to take a step back from habitual thoughts and reactions, accept what is occurring and choose to respond more appropriately.
You might notice a greater sense of peace and calmness within. You may find yourself on your phone less and less during your commute to work or wait at the doctor’s office. Instead you would be content simply being with yourself and your thoughts. Being present is such a powerful thing, and once you have had a taste of its sweetness, it’s hard to go back to bombarding yourself Facebook, emails, music, calls, and Twitter all at once!
You will become more aware of the world around you. You might notice new buildings or plants on your way to work that you hadn’t ever noticed before. With a new curiosity for the world, you may begin to experience the world and all its monotonous nature with a new appreciation. You really start to notice things that you may not have been aware of before, because you are in your body and not up in your head chattering away. You might become more aware of the interactions between those around you. Your attention and concentration will improve, which research has shown time after time.
The effects won’t be so huge at the beginning, but after some consistency, you will start to notice small differences in your way of being and interacting. Meditation helps foster a mind and body connection, so you may notice benefits in either or both of these arenas. You will know when you’re making progress, just like when you know if your medicine is having an effect. You will be able to tell. Just wait it out. Everyone experiences meditation and its effects a little differently. Everyone is on their own personal path of progression. So don’t compare yourself to others. Just notice what the differences are within YOU.
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty of mindfulness. What IS mindfulness, why is everyone talking about it, and why is it so SEXY at the moment?
Mindfulness originated in Eastern philosophy (largely in Buddhism, Taoism and Yoga) and has literally been around for thousands of years. More recently in the past 40 years or so, it has seeped its way into Western research and psychological practice due to its truckload of benefits. Mindfulness is ‘the state of being attentive to, and aware of present experiences, in a non-judgmental way’ (Kabat-Zinn). In simpler terms, it means to actively develop awareness to the present moment, and stepping back from our automatic judgements of things. It means to get in contact with the present through your senses, and being curious as to what’s really going on around and within you, and just observing the moment.
Let me give you an example you can probably relate to. I’m sure you know the term ‘autopilot’, where you go about your day doing everything that needs to get done like showering, brushing your teeth, driving to work etc. We do these things so often they become second nature and they don’t require conscious effort to get them done. So we generally switch off from the task at hand and go into our heads. The most common example is when we are driving the same road everyday, we usually switch onto autopilot, and start to plan the day, recap yesterday’s events, anticipate certain conversations and so it goes. It isn’t until we walk into work that we realise we cant remember driving there! It’s like we have blacked out and teleported to where we were going. Can you relate? We all do this, because our habitual tasks become mundane and don’t necessarily need our attention as much (although doing this while driving can be quite dangerous!).
So what are the benefits of turning that switch back over to manual in our everyday lives? Because there have been so many positive effects of practicing mindfulness, researchers have jumped on the bandwagon to find out what actually happens when you practice mindfulness, and what ARE the benefits of this ‘mindfulness thing’? There is now SO much research on both the psychological and physical effects of mindfulness, it’s hard to sift through. So let me break it down for you:
- Mindfulness was originally used in Western psychology for pain management, and has consistently been shown to help deal with and manage chronic pain, and physical conditions.
- It has absolutely HUGE effects on stress reduction and management. While it helps manage the psychological state of stress, bringing your attention to your breath and body also activates your parasympathetic system (your ‘calm the f*** down’ system!) – making it easier to relax and think with clarity.
It literally changes the structure of your brain:
- Neurological studies have shown that frequent mindfulness meditators have increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory.
- Meditators self-reported reductions in stress have also correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress (more stress reduction benefits!)
- Through a consistent practice of mindfulness meditation, studies show that the brain creates new neural pathways that allow for new behaviours and thoughts to come to the forefront, rather than old pathways of stress, worry, and negative thinking.
- Various studies have consistently shown that mindfulness practice helps manage and reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress.
- More recent studies have shown that mindfulness can have huge impacts on those with trauma, as it helps individuals to be more IN their body and process trauma-related emotions.
- Mindfulness significantly reduces stress, and offers effective coping strategies for life’s everyday havoc.
- It increases self-awareness, emotion-regulating abilities, and largely increases positive emotions, gratitude and happiness.
- Mindfulness had been shown to impact positively on communication and relationships, it increases relationship satisfaction (and improves your sex life!)
So how does it actually work? And what will it do for me?
Mindful awareness gives you the tools to deal with life’s shit. We have a lot of commitments (work, friends, partners, family, children, hobbies, exercise bla bla bla), we have lots. To be honest we are not taught how to manage all of these external commitments, that constant chatterbox in our head, and not to mention our daily fluctuation of emotions! Majority of the time we are rehashing and reliving the past, or planning and worrying about the future (even if its just 10 minutes ahead of us). Through practicing mindfulness, you will give yourself some space from your never-ending thoughts, and be able to just observe both your thoughts and emotions, and be in the moment peacefully. With this small bit of space, you then have the option to CHOOSE how to respond to situations rather than act out of automatic habit. So not only will you have more engagement with yourself and your choices, everyone close to you will benefit from your superpower of being present and non-reactive.
Mindfulness can be practiced formally through meditation (and it doesn’t need to be for an hour, 10 minutes will do!). Or informally through being mindful in everyday activities (like eating that scrumptious brownie). Mindful awareness can be increased quite rapidly through practice and repetition, and you will be surprised at how fast you start to notice a difference in your own reactions. Like physical fitness and exercise, you need to keep at it with training to get the near-optimum form! So get working out, you will thank yourself when you start to notice the beautiful autumn leaves on that ‘boring’ drive to work.
image source : Electric Confetti