When struggling with anxiety, depression, grief, relationship problems, or any of the numerous human ailments that afflict us all, we have a tendency to close down and cut off. We feel claustrophobic and trapped by our own negative emotions. Like a frightened child refusing input good or bad, we virtually close our eyes and swat away everything that comes at us, deflecting experience, whether good or bad or indifferent.
This shutting down keeps us stuck in old habit patterns, both external in the form of behaviors and internally in the form of life narratives. We run the same old feedback loops of failed efforts and old complaints that somehow confirm our feeling of being trapped, backed into a corner, hopeless, and without choice.
With mindfulness, our first task is to take note of what is. What are my narratives? What are my feelings? What am I doing? I accept that, in the present moment, I cannot change the fact that I am, for instance, lying on the couch with a heavy feeling in my chest that I call depression. Similarly, if my mind is racing and my heart is pounding with worry, I take note and realize that, in the present moment, racing thoughts and a pounding heart are a fact of my life.
In recognizing a certain powerlessness over how things are in this exact moment, I can become curious. I can pause and consider my depression, investigate it with a felt sense, try to locate it in my body, recognize how the feelings move, where they begin, where they seem to end. With anxiety, I can watch my racing thoughts. I can explore what racing thoughts feel like, what the sensations are.
I often encourage people to engage this component of mindfulness as if they were futuristic explorers suddenly in new bodies (much like in Avatar). Presume you have never felt what it feels like to be in this body. You have never heard the words depression or anxiety before. In so doing, we can support mindfulness without judgment, giving more room for feelings to evolve, relax, and do what it is they are supposed to do.
This mindfulness process may not remove feelings such as sadness, grief or fear (which or often the seeds of depression and anxiety), but it does creates more space, and with more space, there is less suffering. Also, we begin to see that our problems do not engulf us but are merely one part of our broader experience. We begin to realize that, we are powerless over our current state, we have choices about what we are going to cultivate in our behaviors and our internal emotions that will lead to less suffering in the future. Elements of sadness or fear may persist, but we can acknowledge them and tend to them while not missing out on the opportunities in life that make living valuable.