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Keep Calm and Be Mindful?

[fa icon="calendar"] Aug 7, 2016 4:15:10 PM / by Dawn Foo

CGA writer Dawn Foo shares what she has learnt about mindfulness over the past seven months and how it has helped her keep calmer, be authentic and pay more attention to being kind to herself.

Quit Telling Me to Keep Calm….I’m Mindful of It!

I’m hardly a fan of these ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm’ posters, just because you see them almost everywhere and almost anything goes after the first two words. Or maybe it is because I have an aversion to the words “keep calm”. The reason is simple.

Do you find it hard to not get wound up? Mindfulness can help reduce stress

It gets personal, almost always when people around me start telling me to be calm when I’m about to explode or implode. The well-meaning colleagues, friends and loved ones around me have been sensitized to my moods, dislikes and can easily spot how my temper gets ignited. I am not going to deny it – my temper is not great (but it is seeing better days now). And the toughest part of it all is that I am caught between showing my temper and concealing it, simply because I worry about how others view and judge me. So either way, it seems like I faced a losing battle for a long time.

Sometime last year, my close friend Erin mentioned that she was pursuing a Masters of Science in Studies in Mindfulness and I was a little too polite to actually express my inner thoughts of “why on earth would anyone study a subject like that?” I kept my opinion to myself and heard more from her about the practice of mindfulness and realized that she was very committed to it. Seven months ago, she invited me to attend a session on mindfulness and I am really glad I kept an open mind despite not really knowing what to expect from it. It introduced the key concepts of mindfulness and explained the stereotypical views attached to the practise of mindfulness. There, I decided to give it more thought and before I knew it, there seemed to be an exponential growth in terms of articles, media coverage and talk about mindfulness everywhere I looked. If you’re keen on finding out more about how to practise mindfulness and its benefits, you would be pleasantly surprised to know that there are many options available in Singapore. Just check out the three possible resources links here:  

Mindfulness: A Matter of Myth and Fact

It became clear to me that mindfulness as a practice was gaining currency in education, mental wellness and the corporate spheres where thousands of articles were written recommending best practices maximizing the value and benefits. But the underlying premise seems to radiate from oneself. I am certainly no scholar or trainer in mindfulness so the focus of this article is merely to share how mindfulness has helped me in being kinder to myself by intentionally keeping an open mind in terms of how I manage my thoughts, emotions and actions, especially in coping with stress and relating to others.

I started by finding out as much as I could about mindfulness and cleared up some of the earlier misconceptions that I had, such as:

  • myth: mindfulness is synonymous with religious practices, fact: it is widely practised across the secular world.
  • myth: mindfulness is all fluff and worthy of attention only if you have too much time on your hands, fact: practising it does in fact save you more time, headache and heartache.
  • myth: mindfulness is a flavour of the month and a passing phase, fact: it has been around for as long as 2500 years.
  • myth: mindfulness can be a perfect panacea to all your problems, fact: there is no such thing – mindfulness is a valuable tool to complement stress and problem solving techniques (medical or non-medical).
How can mindfulness help improve mental health

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programmemindfulness” is defined as awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally,” says Kabat-Zinn. “It’s about knowing what is on your mind.”

As I read this quote, a few key words jumped out at me and I thought it fitting to describe my experience with mindfulness based on them.

Keeping Yourself In Mind

‘Mindfulness is awareness…on purpose’ 

Being aware is simply a state of being conscious about something, being informed or attentive. Achieving awareness on purpose suggests a keen intent to direct that sense of awareness. In other words, taking the effort (and time) to be meaningfully conscious of facts, events, people or anything in our surrounding.

As an educator and communications practitioner for the past two decades, I have met countless individuals who could have benefitted so much, just from increasing their awareness of the things and people around them. These individuals include 50 year-old team managers as well as 17-year-old youths who face challenges being mindful of their environments and their struggles with stress. Often, awareness is the last state of mind they want to embrace because it’s hard work and the truth sometimes hurts. Almost always, these individuals genuinely believe that they are aware of the problems they face but are very reluctant to consider their options in solving these issues and making small changes. I know because I’ve been there.  

It’s no mean feat being aware of your authentic self- perhaps because we doubt that we know ourselves well and we struggle to accept all of ourself. As part of this state of purposeful awareness, I have chosen to discuss two sub-components of awareness, namely self-awareness and self-compassion as these two aspects seem vital to opening up to oneself before practising mindfulness.

Self-awareness: try walking in someone else’s shoes?

One of the things that typically irk me when feedback (usually negative) is provided, is when the accompanying comment is “please don’t take this personally, because it’s not.” My internal response to that used to be “HOW CAN IT NOT BE PERSONAL WHEN IT IS ABOUT ME????” yes, in full SCREAMING UPPERCASE.

It was hard and I needed to calm down, I just didn’t need to hear it coming from someone else. So I asked myself:

  • If hearing from someone else was so difficult, could I take it coming from myself? Well, I would never know unless I tried it. So I did – and it took some time being mindful that this was when my sense of empathy kicked in, both for others and more importantly, for myself. I wanted to intentionally consider the reasons and feelings of others when processing my emotional responses before taking any action.
  • Am I able to walk in someone else’s shoes and see their view? To do that, I needed to get comfortable in mine for starters. So I would honestly explore my emotions and actions and whether there were certain emotional minefields triggered with the feedback. After all, that knowledge  would only be transparent to me, based on my experiences, upbringing and beliefs.
  • Can I be humble enough to consider the reasons that the specific feedback was shared to begin with? If I considered the intention and behaviour of the sender (of the feedback) and I was able to see that the motivation was to build me up rather than tear me down – it became a lot clearer that I was better off moving forward rather than moping around. The litmus factor that helped here was to consider the sender’s relationship with me (either professionally or personally) to help discern their intentions either over a period of time or from a one-time session.

Self-compassion: can I be kind to myself?

As M. Scott Peck, author of the New York Times bestseller The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth said, “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

Naturally, this sounds a lot easier to accept in print than reality but alongside my attempts to be more mindful on a daily basis, I have found self-compassion the most crucial and empowering in understanding and accepting that life is hard, so we should not be harder on ourselves.

I do believe that we are often our best and worst critics, and at times we may take tough love a bit too far when we are too quick to judge and even condemn ourselves for our thoughts and actions. The result – a somewhat downward spiral emotionally and spiritually that yields no good for anyone. Let’s face it, everyone has different stressors in life but that is no reason for us to forget to be kind to ourselves.

I have observed that while many people openly promote consideration and compassion for others, more can be done to start with ourselves by being less unkind in our choices of words used and be slower to label our actions and inner thoughts. Even though we think that others don’t hear them, our minds and bodies are conditioned by the way we frame our thoughts so let’s do ourselves a favour and practise some self-kindness. This could take the form of simple steps such as:

  1. Saying something kind to yourself each day when looking into the mirror or walking on the way to work or home.
  1. Penning a few encouraging words in a journal or in the notes section of your handphone and reflecting on them afterwards in between breaks.
  1. Keeping a ‘happy box’ of memories comprising compliments and kind words others have shared about you over time and looking through them once in awhile. This may seem a tad bizarre but it does wonders for your soul (provided it does not become self-infatuation). I am old school so I keep a physical box of cards and handwritten notes sent to me over the years for old times’ sake. Recently, I’ve progressed to snapping pictures of them before they fade away and that way I get to keep them handy in my phone too. If you prefer, you can start by keeping screenshots of encouraging and kind text messages that someone sent as well.

Achieve calmness by being mindful and kind to yourself

'Mindfulness is practised non-judgementally’

“Expectations just keep getting higher, you just need to manage them.” I first heard this comment 17 years ago and it keeps resonating with me because there is no denying this, especially when people are involved or should I say especially when family is involved.

Where expectations exist, judgement almost follows immediately – it is such a reflex instinct that seeps into our daily lives without us even paying close attention to it.

I struggle the most with this aspect of mindfulness because I am prolific in judging everyone around me and I genuinely believed that others were doing the same to me so it’s just the way the world worked. However as time passed, this habit became toxic and I needed to do something about it, fast.

This whole business about expectations spiraling was a double-edged sword and it hit me only after I lost a loved one in my life. Suddenly, I blamed everyone around me for not showing enough help, concern and support during this lowest point in my life and I criminalized them for what they did or did not do and even what I assumed they thought. Secretly, I had become a travel agent for guilt trips and it became so painful facing them when I had so much bitterness. It also did not help when other family members joined the ride adding spice to make things worse.

Eventually, it took me close to three months to ease out of the pain and talk to a friend about all this judgement I was inflicting on my family, my friends and myself. I realized that:

  • Expecting anything from anyone can do more harm than good: in general, I found this a handy reminder. It is always so much more meaningful and gratifying to receive offers of help or concern when you don’t or least expect it. Instead, setting expectations on friends and family may get you more disappointed and worn out. I am certain that I have let people down before so why should I judge them more than I was ready for?
  • The beauty of the earlier point is the fact that you can apply it to yourself as well: as long as you feel genuinely happy doing something for someone else, go right ahead and if you don’t, then free yourself from the fear of being judged by others. This is truly liberating as it gives you the option to respond rather than living up to expectations, imagined or otherwise.
  • Being open in using the disclaimer “please don’t judge me for xxx” can be a useful lead in conversations with others. This has become a common catchphrase among close friends when we share certain stereotype views or deep-seated beliefs that most people are generally not comfortable discussing openly. I have found that this gives people a sense of assurance as a conversation starter and if anything, it encourages an open dialogue, tilting the attention more towards safe sharing rather than hasty judgements.

'Mindfulness is knowing what is on your mind’: especially when you’re stressed

“How am I supposed to know what’s on your mind?”

I have known many people who wished they could read minds – but alas that special power continues to elude us. But we could start with something more tangible by getting to know our own mind a little better Knowing one’s mind takes more than intuition to simply decipher matters of the mind as we evolve over time. To make things more challenging, stress complicates and often clouds our minds. Some of the ways I have tried to obtain greater clarity of mind are:

  • Putting the “ME” in Meditating: I have to admit that I fell asleep rather often as I tried meditating so I needed to find another way of spending this alone time with myself. So, I adapted it and chose to verbalize my thoughts in a quiet space on my own. This was a lot more useful to concentrate on my key thoughts and developing a comfort level to speak my mind.
  • Seeking my center: now and then, I need some time away from everyone just to be alone and be with my thoughts while doing simple activities. For some of my friends, trekking does wonders as the natural setting is so serene that it conditions them to spend time with their own minds and focus on getting from one point to another. For me, it’s a hybrid between window shopping and people watching. For some strange reason, these two activities provide an ideal context for me to calm down and collect my thoughts as I observed who and what was around me.
  • Penning it all down into words: this works for me since I’m a journal enthusiast so it all comes down to putting my thoughts into words, especially when I am stressed. It helps me develop a comprehensive discussion with my thoughts while considering some realistic solutions to reduce the stressors. More importantly, it makes for really authentic reading on hindsight.

Mindfulness improves your mental wellness by making you calmer and appreciate your state of awareness.

Is Mindfulness the Way To Go?

I believe it is and after seven months of living in moments of mindfulness, I am a lot calmer and appreciative of this state of awareness. Given my personality and passion for life and people, mindfulness takes me a step closer to helping myself before I attempt to help others as an educator, communications practitioner and just a fellow human being.

So go ahead, have fun on this journey of awareness and be mindful of how you evolve as a person.

If you are still keen to find out more about mindfulness, you may want check out these resources as well – I know I will be!

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Topics: Wellness

Dawn Foo

Written by Dawn Foo

Dawn is fiercely passionate about living and expecting miracles! She holds tight to the adage that “as one person you can’t change the world but you can change the world for one person”. A wordsmith at heart, she loves deconstructing words and chatting about anything under the sun. Her warm caregiving personality is synonymous with her name and she welcomes all comments you have on her blog.”