Discussing life’s challenges with my friend a while ago she said, ‘Well Christine, it’s like they say on Love Island…’ I was waiting for a punchline. ‘…It is what it is.’ I laughed, then wondered why it was funny. It turns out she wasn’t actually joking. She was simply taking a truism so overused by the show’s contestants it sparked a new drinking game among viewers and sagely applying it to the situation at hand.
I keep thinking of my friend with the Love Island obsession as I’ve recently been poring over texts about mindfulness written by wizened practitioners and repeatedly coming across this message — it is what it is.
Acceptance in mindfulness means being able to see things, people or situations from a bit of a distance — maybe not totally objectively, but with a bit of space from the busy thoughts and feelings that tend to instantly colour anything we turn our attention to.
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Personally, I’ve found this life-changing when applied to what’s going on in my mind. Russ Harris in The Happiness Trap explains lots of ways you can give yourself a bit of space from… yourself. Nice thing too in isolation as it can feel like there’s no getting away from ourselves right now!
For example, with a bit of practice you can catch yourself feeling annoyed, acknowledge it and name it. You can say in your head, or out loud (the joy of isolation!), ‘I notice I’m feeling annoyed (that it’s glorious weather but if I dare go to the park and sit on the grass and relax I will get told off by the law and scorned by every member of the public in the vicinity!)’ And just like that you can see the feeling of being annoyed more for what it really is: less a deeply ingrained part of who you are and more a story you are telling yourself by way of automatic thoughts and feelings.
Thoughts and feelings keep changing and with a bit of space from them we can choose if we want them to control us and our actions. Like if I was just annoyed, end of story, I’d probably do something annoyed Christine does like mope, get grumpy with her boyfriend, eat junk food, whatever. But observing that feeling like a scientist might, I could choose to give it some space, knowing it will pass, and do something a bit nicer in the meantime, like staring at each of my plants and silently demanding to know what’s eating them and/or why they aren’t growing. This is far more therapeutic than it sounds.
Prising apart the story version of things from the things themselves is working towards nicer relationships with the world around us and within us.
That’s so satisfyingly simple (if challenging to put into practice) I’m loath to complicate it. But the above can be thoroughly enriched by the unlikely guru of mindfulness, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. If you haven’t seen this American sitcom, there was never a better time to get on it. We could all benefit from the strength and feel-good lols of Kimmy right now. The plot goes: young Kimmy was taken in by a cult leader who held her and three more women in an underground bunker for 15 years. He told them there had been a nuclear apocalypse and no one above ground had survived.
The women must constantly turn a mystery crank — they have no idea what it connects to. Kimmy is unperturbed by the thankless, possibly pointless, hard work. She cheerily shares the trick to her perseverance:
‘A person can stand just about anything for ten seconds.’
She shows how this works to Sister Gretchen — turning the crank, counting from one, getting weaker at five and really struggling by ten but totally revived when back to one!
Disclaimer: I know kidnap and a cult leader is a problematic example and I am definitely not suggesting it is good to be unquestioning when it comes to awful and unjust situations!
But basically Kimmy is being in the present and there is a lot to be said for that. We spend very little time in now. Mostly we holiday to future plans, fantasies, catastrophes, or we hang back in the past watching re-runs of things that have already happened. Mindfulness don Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in his book Full Catastrophe Living, ‘The present moment… is the only time that any of us ever has.’
Like with the breathing space from our thoughts and feelings, being able to bring ourselves out of time traveling mode and into the present is very freeing! It doesn’t mean you’ll lose your memory and capacity for thinking ahead. It is more likely to lead to clearer thinking about what’s going on around you as it happens — more headspace, if you like.
Looking for words to describe the pandemic lockdown I’m aware that, as with Love Island, the level of repetition might be causing some people to tear their hair out or take a shot every time they hear ‘unprecedented’; ‘strange’; ‘uncertain’; or ‘difficult times’. So I’ll not use any of those. But let’s just say, these times are of the sort where getting lost in concerns about the future or remembering the past and not being here right now can hold us back from doing what we want to do and being who we want to be.
My experience of mindfulness during lockdown has been that it’s made things far more bearable and, dare I say, more pleasant than it might have been otherwise. I take some time each day to try and focus on breathing, noticing when my mind wanders and gently pointing out to myself when thoughts, feelings or time travel are going on. I look out for all these things during the day too, when I remember. Deceptively simple stuff, but powerful.
Here is a great list of resources from The Free Mindfulness Project.