By Ashley Watson.
Can mindfulness help us deal with the seemingly endless tragic events that we hear about every day? It is easy to feel overwhelmed when we read and watch the senseless violence that seems to constitute every news bulletin. One of the dangers of this overwhelm is that we go into ‘compassion fatigue’ – we almost become desensitised to these tragedies. Or possibly, we allow our minds to take us into negative thought patterns where we begin to believe the world is a terrible, dangerous place. We may ‘catastrophise’, and because the mind has a natural negative bias, we look for evidence to support what we believe. Every piece of bad news we hear confirms what we know to be true.
Do we really want to live that way? To begin with, we may wish to pay attention and notice what form our thoughts are taking. Meditation is a useful tool to help us to do this but you can also help your mind to settle in other ways. Mindful movement, eating mindfully, creative activities which require our concentration, can also help to spring us out of the automatic pilot mode in which we spend a great deal of our time and into the present moment. Once we become aware of our thoughts we can then choose what to do. Do we wish to allow them to carry us off, imagining the worst? Perhaps we can train our mind to remain more in the present which in turn helps us to feel calmer and more balanced. We can start to orient our mind towards pleasant events. Make a list of all the things in your life you are grateful for and pay attention to all of the good things, the small kindnesses that you see every day all around you. We have to make a conscious effort to do this – but in doing so it helps to balance all of the negative events we hear about. Pay attention to what you consume by way of news and read on social media. If you are constantly reading negative news it is easy to lose our perspective on the world.
Practising mindfulness can help us to access our compassionate heart. Mindfulness is much more than meditation or using the tools we learn to help us, such as the three minute breathing space. We also learn to cultivate an attitude of kindness and compassion towards ourselves and others. The practices and the attitude we bring are like the two wings of a bird – they support each other. Developing compassion within ourselves helps us to realise that compassion is not passive or apathetic but can assist us in turning towards suffering and taking direct action. We come face to face with the reality that suffering is here and ask ‘now what can I do?’ Compassion’s near enemies are overwhelm and denial.
Being present in our bodies helps to ground and steady us so that we less likely to be thrown off course by life’s events. Become curious about how your body responds to hearing bad news. When you read or see difficult images on your TV screen, notice how your body reacts. If there is tension or tightness in your body you can pay this some attention. Take a gentle breath to the parts that are tense and silently invite your body to soften and soothe.
We cannot control what happens in the world around us. We do have a choice about how we respond and where we allow our thoughts to take us. We can decide whether or not to practise compassion. Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, says that, ‘you have control over only three things in your life: the thoughts you think, the images you visualise and the actions you take’. Noticing our thoughts is the first step. Before we can take action we firstly have to notice the stories we create in our head. With mindfulness we are beginning to notice our thoughts – the habits of our mind, and with that noticing comes choice.
Lastly, be kind and gentle with yourself. It’s stressful to surround yourself with bad news so make sure you do things every day that you enjoy – go for a walk, meet a friend, go to a yoga class.
We are more effective in the world when we feel calm and balanced.