My first encounter with ‘mindfulness’ was several years ago when I found myself living in France under stressful circumstances. Not only was I adjusting to life en français and a new job teaching English at a French secondary school, but an ongoing situation in the UK was taking up a lot of my time and emotional energy. This draining situation affected my spiritual life too: I couldn’t pray and for various reasons I didn’t get to church much. Worse, I had no outlet for my increasing frustration. The ‘noise’ of all this became acute: at night it felt like the walls were closing in on me, like I needed to burst out of them and run screaming for the hills. Like I needed to plunge into the ocean and wash it all away.
I confided some of my personal situation to a friend who advised me to use the mindfulness techniques that had helped her through situations of severe clinical anxiety. ‘Imagine your thoughts are like leaves floating in a stream. Don’t try to block them, just notice them approaching and then watch them go past.’
Although my mind was too chaotic at the time to make much sense of this, I did find that attempting to ‘live in the moment’ (which is essentially what ‘mindfulness’ boils down to) was helpful. If I was lucky I could catch the breeze and fly, be involved in my task, and simply forget the meta-narrative, the constant voices in my brain that were attempting to catch me and drag me downwards. Far from thinking less, it allowed me to think more, that is, to think more freely. To imagine, as well as to ‘experience’ and ‘just be’.