I love Spring. Daffodils are my favourite flower, it starts getting lighter in the evenings, lambs are super cute, and I get a valid excuse to eat as much chocolate as I want during the course of just one weekend. What’s not to love?
Most of all though, I love the fact that Spring signals new beginnings – the fact that we are surrounded by that happening in nature is somehow contagious. I often feel I have more energy and enthusiasm during Spring, and I don’t think that is just the result of me riding off a sugar high from all the chocolate.
Beginnings has significance in a number of ways in mindfulness practice. In terms of practice, you are encouraged to gently but persistently bring your focus back to the present, again and again when the mind wanders off or starts to get drawn into a storyline–beginning again over and over. When formal practice lapses for a while you can re-commit to it – another new beginning. And in focussing on the present, without judging it, you are encouraged to have ‘beginner’s mind’ where the attitude you bring to an experience is one of seeing it for the first time.
But why are new beginnings useful? How many times do you pre-judge something before you’ve even done it – sitting down to a plate of broccoli and refusing to eat it because “you hate broccoli, you’ve always hated broccoli, and you will hate broccoli until the end of time”? Maybe your taste buds have changed. Maybe the piece of broccoli could be the sweetest vegetable you’ve ever tasted, and you’ve unfairly written off broccoli without giving the green stuff a fighting chance to convince you of its worth. Maybe someone else wants to eat the broccoli more than you and you can trade it for their chips. OK, I’m not going to take this example that much further… I had a sprout at Christmas to test this theory, and I still didn’t particularly like it, but the point is, it didn’t make me heave, or ruin my entire Christmas day, which is what I probably would have told you would be an inevitable consequence of eating one of those little green boulders if you’d asked me to try one a couple of years ago. I might even eat two next year. Maybe.
Extending this ‘beginner’s mind’ approach towards all of life’s experiences and practising seeing each moment ‘as it is’ can be a strange but liberating experience. We can apply this to things we experience, but also in what we tell ourselves about how we are, how we react to things, and how a particular experience fits in to our own personal narrative.
I break things. Frequently. Glasses and mugs are not always safe in my presence. But I haven’t been cursed as a child by a shattering touch, and despite the fact that more glasses survive my care than not, I still catch myself (and my friends and family as they hide the expensive stuff from me) commenting that ‘I always break things’. I don’t. I often do, but that isn’t the same as always…
Although being clumsy is a fairly light example, generalisations and storylines can become particularly unhelpful when they reinforce a negative self-stereotype we have created. Often we tell ourselves a story about something, pre-judge an outcome and convince ourselves that both the initial thought and the accompanying narrative of how things will play out are factually correct. There sometimes seems to be no alternative path or outcome other than the (often gloomy) one we have predicted with the help of our unreliable but consistent cranial crystal ball. We can fast forward to that outcome, and resolve that we might as well accept now that the end of the story is going to be a bit rubbish, so we just need to grit our teeth and ‘get through it’.
When times are challenging, telling yourself, or being told that you ‘always get things wrong’ or ‘this stuff always happens to you’ is unlikely to build confidence, or lead to you feeling particularly positive. When something does go wrong, it reinforces the stereotype, and the negative narrative is fed a healthy dose of self-abuse, possibly washed down with anxiety, apathy, panic or frustration. The new beginning seems to be out of sight. If I ever bought a magic mirror that said some of the things I sometimes tell myself in these so called periods of self-reflection or evaluation, I’d get an immediate refund (unless of course, I’d already broken the mirror...)
By focussing on the present, mindfulness can help you notice when things are not going wrong. In fact, it can help you notice and appreciate when things are actually going pretty right, which is always nice.
This does not result in you walking through the street or the office punching the air, whooping out loud and high-fiving yourself in the shatter-proof mirror (you can do that if you want, but it might get a tad irritating to friends and colleagues).
What mindfulness can do though, is give you the ability to notice that the next time something does ‘go wrong’ (and sorry, it will), that experience, like the positive one that might have just preceded it, is a moment that will pass and not last forever. It might also help you still notice positive things in the middle of weathering the present storm.
In short, practising mindfulness can open up the possibility of constant ‘new beginnings’. It can help steady you, prevent a self-imposed negative storyline from spinning out of control, and allow you to sometimes just let things play out, from one moment to the next. That won’t necessary always happen, but for me, the fact that mindfulness has had that impact on me quite often has been worth raising an (inexpensive) glass to.