Right here, right now
Let’s talk about control.
Every day, we have thousands of thoughts. As humans, we’re blessed with this incredibly sophisticated organ we call a brain. It’s so advanced and complicated that we haven’t even really begun to understand how it works. It runs fast and it runs slow, stimulated by every little thing we experience. It processes and reacts to everything we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. It helps us to make decisions, governs our mood. It stores our memories, alerts us to danger. Even when we sleep, it’s working, repairing itself, sending us subliminal messages about our lives, in the form of dreams.
But modern life doesn’t prioritise peace of mind. Switch on the breaking news, and it’s deeply alarming. We live in the age of the update and the alert. Our smart phones connect us to every latest thought, action and development. 350,000 tweets are posted every minute, and on the ring road, the traffic never stops. Our schedules change quickly, our commitments pull us in every direction. We’re in the gig economy and there are no more jobs for life. A new generation of young adults inhabit a world of sofa surfing, student debt and information overload. It’s disorientating.
Sepsis blew my world to pieces. My brain won’t ever let me forget that. The experience of waking from that 4 month induced coma in 2000 and slowly taking in the extent of my amputations near enough destroyed my soul.
For about sixty seconds, I wondered if I could deal with the damage – then I looked into my wife’s eyes and decided that I could.
Control has been crucial throughout my long period of rehabilitation. For a few years, I was all at sea. I had different appointments every day and I effectively became a professional patient. There were doctors, nurses, consultants, physiotherapists, local government agencies, plastic surgeons, pharmacists, prosthetists, all knocking on my door. My wife devoted at least five entire years of her life to all this, accompanying me to every single therapy.
Then, at a certain point, when I could drive a car again, and remember where I had to be and when, I started going solo. Slowly, I started taking responsibility for myself.
Getting back to work helped a lot. It gave me a fixed schedule, a daily framework, I really benefitted from that. Being with other adults in a group where I wasn’t the centre of attention was therapeutic and transformative.
Now, a full 17 years on, my daily preoccupation is on controlling my mind. This is important and I have to consciously work at it. Because, although I have that same brain constantly bombarding me with endless impressions and information, I truly believe that it’s only me who can control how that goes.
This one notion fills me with joy. In terms of resilience, it’s very empowering.
It means that although I have this experience of unusual adversity, I can choose how I think about it. No-one else has to tell me to feel sad, tragic, angry or hopeless. It’s completely down to me.
Mindfulness helps enormously in this context. I discipline myself to being in the moment, thinking all the time about all the fantastic things that surround me:
People. The sky. Music. Words. Coffee. My children. Football. The way the water ripples in the low-slung breeze across Rutland Water. Love.
What you dwell upon grows. I’m alone with all these good thoughts, I’m working to fill my head with these things, right here, right now.
How to be more mindful
Remind yourself to take notice of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and the world around you.
Notice the everyday
For example, the sensations of things, the food we eat, the air moving past the body as we walk. This has huge power to interrupt the ‘autopilot’ mode we often engage day to day, and to give us new perspectives on life.
Keep it regular
Pick a regular time – the morning journey to work or a walk at lunchtime – during which you decide to be aware of the sensations created by the world around you.
Try something new
Trying new things, such as sitting in a different seat in meetings or going somewhere new for lunch, can also help you notice the world in a new way.
Watch your thoughts
Some people find it very difficult to practice mindfulness. As soon as they stop what they’re doing, lots of thoughts and worries crowd in. It might be useful to remember that mindfulness isn’t about making these thoughts go away, but rather about seeing them as mental events. Imagine standing at a bus station and seeing ‘thought buses’ coming and going without having to get on them and be taken away. This can be very hard at first, but with gentle persistence it is possible.
Name thoughts and feelings
To develop an awareness of thoughts and feelings, some people find it helpful to silently name them: “Here’s the thought that I might fail that exam”. Or, “This is anxiety”.
Free yourself from the past and future
You can practise mindfulness anywhere, but it can be especially helpful to take a mindful approach if you realise that, for several minutes, you have been “trapped” in reliving past problems or “pre-living” future worries.