Even though my school days are very much behind me, every September I feel the ‘back to school’ bells tolling around the country and it takes me back to the days when I would get excited about seeing my friends again, and (almost as) excited about visiting the stationery shop to stock up on new lever arch files, and as many new pens as I could justify spending money on (bearing in mind we always had a good number of pens lying around at home, but they were boring biros, so unacceptable for a teenager’s pencil case).
I was someone who studied hard at school. I hate using or hearing the word ‘swot’ – because I probably was one (and the fact that I was particularly average at sport maybe backs up my theory that books were more my thing).
Looking back, I don’t quite know what it was that made me study hard. I’d like to say it was the gratification that came with learning, but I think it was much more likely that the drive to succeed was accompanied by an innate fear of failure, and the sense of shame that I felt whenever I didn’t do as well in something as I thought I should do.
And I carried this with me into work - in the first few years I felt on a constant goal-driven path but I’m not sure what the goal was - “non-failure”, whatever that is? It is hardly an inspirational interview response (Question: “Where do you see yourself in ten years' time?” Answer: “I’d like not to be a horrible failure”).
Worrying about what might happen if I did not do well occupied far more of my time at work than celebrating and experiencing moments that did go well. I found living in this way fairly exhausting and not particularly rewarding. Don’t get me wrong – no one at school or work knew this was how I felt most of the time: I was a high-functioning worrier.
So how did mindfulness help me?
Mindfulness cultivates the ability to focus on the present, on purpose and without judgement. All of these elements help me, but in particular:
Being able to focus more on the present has helped liberate me from worrying endlessly about the future or churning over the past and wondering whether it or I was ‘good enough’ in a particular moment that has already passed. I’m not saying I don’t ever do this now, but I notice when it is happening and that, in itself, is useful. It also doesn’t mean I don’t think about or learn from the past – but we can churn over moments that can’t be changed with a sense of relentless desperation, and it can end up leaving us stuck. Mindfulness can help untangle that.
Noticing “without judgement"has given me the capacity to be kinder to myself and notice when the pressure I’m experiencing to reach a particular standard is internal rather than coming from elsewhere.
As liberating as it was to discover this with mindfulness, it was also a shift for me. It took (and still takes) some getting used to that there is no "A" in mindfulness – there is no "nailing it", no end goal and no particular way to be or place to reach when you practice. As someone used to the western schooling system where grades were the ultimate evidence of your achievement in life (followed in later life by other universal standards (salary, house, family life for example)), I found the idea of practice for practice’s sake quite difficult at first. I was concerned there was some secret meditator code that I hadn’t tapped into, and that if I practised and concentrated really REALLY hard, I would just ‘get’ mindfulness and know that it was all worth it.
But that didn’t happen. Each time we practice mindfulness it will be different, and letting go of expectations about what will happen in a practice requires patience and persistence. At times I can find it boring, frustrating or difficult to fit into my day. But at times it has created a sense of calm that I haven’t known before, it has supported my resilience in times of difficulty and, as importantly, it has helped me to notice and appreciate when things are good – rather than worrying about the fact that they might not be good enough or that the good might not last forever (which slightly ruins the good times, if you think about it).
So, there is no A to achieve in mindfulness. Knowing that there are no marks at the end, and that you’re OK noticing the present just as it is for you right now, however that is, is immensely liberating.