That Metro Manila recently landed in the list of the top 10 most stressful cities in the world should be cause for alarm. George Orwell once warned us, albeit in a different context: “If we do not act, we are acted upon.” While we await what the government is planning to do about our daily “carmageddon,” the onus to take stock of available options is on us. Either we take action on the various stressors of life in the city, or those same stressors shall take their toll on us. Renewing your gym membership, taking up a new sport, diving into a new hobby — these perennially offer themselves as tried and tested ways of managing stress, especially at this time of year.
If you’re on the lookout for something different but just as effective in 2018, you might wish to dip your toe in mindfulness. Long-time practitioner and author Jon
Kabat-Zinn says mindfulness is about being present in the moment. Kabat-Zinn observes that too often, because of our fast-paced lifestyle, instead of being present in the moment we find ourselves worrying about what will happen tomorrow or overthinking something that has already come to pass even as we multitask in the moment. As a result, we fail to be in the here and now. We worry about work while we are at home, and we think about home when we are at work. To make matters worse, technology distracts us no end with countless social media apps and online games.
Mindfulness offers a solution that does not cost as much as going to the gym or taking up a new hobby. That’s because it involves something basic that we tend to overlook because we are so busy. Indeed, what could be more basic than “coming home to the breath”? At the Ateneo Bulatao Center, the first technique that is taught those who wish to get into mindfulness is the five-minute in-breath, out-breath exercise that one can do virtually anywhere. This writer tried it recently, and to his amazement it really did wonders to improving his focus and clarity.
You might say that all this business of breathing in and breathing out is fine and dandy, but what do you do if you find yourself in stressful situations that can really make your blood boil? What do you do when you are sandwiched by reckless motorists who think that counterflowing is the rule rather than the exception? What alternative can you explore in situations where reciprocating negativity presents itself as the only viable response?
Worry not. Mindfulness actually works best when you find yourself in the eye of the storm. Its most accessible strategy is the deep breath technique which collapses the five-minute “coming home to the breath” technique to a 36-second “first aid” exercise. By inhaling deeply in five seconds and exhaling in seven, three times in a row, the body inevitably snaps out of the tension wrought by the situation. One can then easily deep-dive into what mindfulness practitioners call “parsing.” This technique compels you to be curious about the chaotic state that you are in by breaking it down into a “storyboard” composed of your thoughts, your feelings, your bodily sensations, your urges and your thoughts now vs. your thoughts then. By diving into this technique, the strategic pause that is so crucial to differentiate stimulus (what happens to you) and response (what you do with what happens to you) is inevitably achieved.
Logotherapist Viktor Frankl is largely credited for writing about that elusive space between stimulus and response. Fairly recently, Stephen R. Covey celebrated this concept in the first habit of highly effective people. By focusing on the space between stimulus and response, one can truly respond instead of simply reacting. Alas, given our daily dose of traffic altercations, online bullying, and real-life telenovelas, we now know that this is easier said than done.
Thankfully, mindfulness offers itself as a practical tool to make us pause long enough to discover the most optimal response to a daunting reality.
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Von Katindoy works for a multinational fintech company.