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Bitter Sweet Mindfulness

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Trevor Silvester

Summer 2019

Bitter Sweet Mindfulness

If I were to list the loves of my life, Betty would come high on my list. She’s deep, complex, funny, beguiling, beautiful and… a miniature Schnauzer. Come to think of it, as many dogs would be in my top ten as people.

Betty is a blessing of the mixed variety. Every day she makes me smile. Every day I can feel the good chemicals flowing through me when she comes to me for a stroke. Every day she makes me scared. Betty has cancer. Over the last two years, she’s had seven tumours removed from her skin. Each time they’ve come back from the lab as slow-growing and non-spreading, but it feels like Russian roulette. My brain tries to tell me we’re living on borrowed time.

Why am I talking about this? Because of mindfulness. It’s a big deal these days. The benefits of training yourself to be in the moment are many and well-proven, but it isn’t easy. Usually, people are encouraged to be mindful of positives. To look at a flower and take the time to really see it. To take a single mouthful of chocolate and really savour it or smell your favourite perfume with your eyes closed and just be with it. And that’s good advice.

We feed what we focus on, so the more time we spend attending to positive things the more positive things we’ll notice, the more positive a world we’ll feel we live in, the more positive we’ll feel in ourselves. It’s a great feedback loop. Do it.

Light from the shadow

But there are opportunities in every challenge too. Sometimes it’s in the depths of a life crisis that we find something vital that we overlook in our day-to-day. I’ve found that it can be fear that prompts gratitude or sadness that prompts joy. Which brings me back to Betty. Every time I stroke her, I know I’m also feeling for lumps. Which sucks, but at the same time it puts all my awareness in my fingertips, and I really am in the moment, connecting to another creature. Stroking her feels deeply intimate because it’s love that’s in my fingers. And I swear she knows it. She talks to me the whole time and bangs me with her paw when I stop. On a walk, I often just stop and watch her. She lives to hunt, and I feel so joyful sharing in her excitement, mingled as it is with the sadness of knowing we may not have a full span with her. At that moment, I’m truly in the moment with her, so deeply appreciative of what we have together. Would I have that depth of relationship if I assumed we had years ahead? I doubt it.

Mindfulness from negatives is bitter-sweet but so valuable.

The Stoics talk of Momento Mori (remember that you will die), a reflective practice that gets you to focus on the transience of life to better value it. They often carry a coin with a skull on it as a reminder. Betty is my coin.

Since yesterday she hasn’t been able to jump up or down from the sofa (of course that’s where she sleeps). It could be just a torn muscle from her gallop after rabbits. It probably is. But I can feel the urge for my brain to explore other, darker futures, that it might be cancer in her spine. When I stroked her this morning my fingers more urgently worked up and down her back, feeling for tenderness, lumps, anything. Bitter-sweet mindfulness rewarded with a bang on my nose when I stopped. She’s not stressing; she’s just getting on with what she can do, not mithering over what she can’t.

The future isn’t what it seems

And we humans are so bad at that. It’s the downside of our software. We see the future like no other creature. It’s been a significant factor in us being where we are today (Brexit and Trump aside). But I’m sure you’ve experienced your mind sending you out into the future – usually in the dead of night – to experience all kinds of catastrophic outcomes to a present situation. I’ve been tortured by all kinds of things that have never happened. Such catastrophic thinking can become a corrosive habit. If you feed that habit, soon every situation will have a downside, and that downside will seem more and more the most likely outcome. The scientist John Lubbock said, “We get the future we expect”, and this is what he meant. If you’re going for a job interview, and spend time beforehand imagining it going badly, your unconscious will get your body ready to respond to what it sees as the dangerous situation ahead. It will dump chemicals like adrenalin into your system getting you ready to fight, run or freeze, you’ll consequently feel nervous and flustered – strong emotion makes you stupid – and you enter the interview room as a quivering version of the real you. And create exactly the failure you anticipated.

Or, you spend your life expecting every twinge or sniffle to be something serious. Your body keeps dumping those same protection chemicals into your body in response to your endless scary imagined futures. Over time this exhausts your immune system, and you finally succumb to something that becomes serious only because of your inability to fight it off. Spending too much time in the future – or the wrong kind of time – can literally kill you.

So being mindful is a good practice. It can really help to schedule times to do it amongst your everyday activities. Choose a particular cup of coffee to sit with and do absolutely nothing else. Just attend to its aroma, the warmth of the cup, the anticipation of the first sip, the taste of each one after that. Go for a walk each day and choose ahead of time a place you’re going to stop and be in the moment. A place in nature will serve you best. Generally, seek nature for such moments, there is something magic in our interactions with her. If you make positive mindfulness a habit, it will prepare you for the harder moments, when your brain is screaming to take you out in the future to check for danger, pain, sadness or any of the plethora of negative experiences we prefer to avoid. It will make it more possible to sit with something sad and appreciate it, something painful and be grateful for it.

All is well, at this moment

As I stroke Betty, I have a chance to remind myself that whatever might happen in the future, at this moment, nothing is. On balance, it’s ok to wait and see. In this moment, I have her. That little oasis of calm gives me an opportunity to be aware of what I could see in the future that would help me best. Not baseless or careless optimism that wouldn’t serve her.

But there’s nothing to do until there’s something to do, so any future calculation really is a waste of time. I should get back to enjoying the moment. We’ll watch her, give her a chance to get better, and then act on what we see in front of us, not in our mind’s eye.

This bitter-sweet mindfulness isn’t for wimps. It takes discipline to take time off from your negative feelings and search for the positive that’s to be found in the present moment. It takes a huge effort to look away from your mind’s cinema screen showing all the fearful consequences awaiting you in the future. It takes focus to remind yourself that they’re not happening yet, and may never, and their only purpose is to help you prepare, not to torture yourself with. The future exists as an opportunity to go through your options, to choose your actions, to work the problem. Not as a sea of pain, or pity, or fear to aimlessly drift in.

Because you might not have a paw to bop you on the nose and bring you back to now. I’m lucky. I have a dog as a guru.

Postscript: Betty jumped onto the settee twenty minutes after I finished this article…