lessons learnt from mindfulness

Lessons from the May challenge: all about anxiety

How did the 16 days in May challenge go? Not to the discouragement of my readers, I admit defeat.

16 day mindfulness challenge

This really was a challenge, and I am not that happy with how it went. Why? Life got in the way. I was under a lot of pressure to get a project done with lots of codependencies and lots hinging on it. During the early days of the challenge, I received fairly disconcerting feedback, so everything else went on hold. Anxiety took over.

A lot of people suffer with anxiety. Many refer to a small study that was done among the elderly and asked them what their biggest regret in life was. Many said that they worried too much. Well, of course! With the benefit of hindsight, that’s easy to declare.

A lot of people also say that anxiety isn’t going to help the outcome. Of course it will, otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved it. Naturally, there is pathological anxiety – and I am not talking about that, but in these days of overmedicalising feelings strong anxiety is seen as needing to be gotten rid of.

Maybe the problem isn’t the anxiety? Maybe the problem is the thing that’s causing anxiety? Genius thought, I know. But it seems to be denied any viability in our society. [Then they ask how did we all turn out to be special snowflakes. Hmm.]

Well, I didn’t get rid of my anxiety or try to suppress it. Once I just admitted to myself that I was anxious, a weight came off my shoulders. This is that classic acceptance thing they talk about in mindfulness. Anxious. So what? It’s not a crime. It’s not a defect. It’s just my experience and right now, in this moment, it’s not actually that bad at all. Acceptance of reality gave me the opportunity to work on the underlying cause of the anxiety.

Right, closer to the point:

1. A day without assumptions

OMG. How do you live without assumptions? Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is usually correct. When I got my worrying feedback, I immediately started mind-reading, mitigating the worst case scenario, assigning probabilities to possible outcomes and acting. Acting is such a drug against anxiety. The problem is of course that directionless hustle isn’t necessarily better than inaction. It’s exhausting and it is possible to do damage like a bull in a china shop.

2. A walking meditation

Definitely a win. Interestingly, it was my olfaction that work up by doing this. I spent most of my life living in a city and that’s not the sort of place where you want to expose yourself to smells. Also, a walking meditation is kind of more lighthearted than the more perfectionist sitting meditation.

3. Get one thing that you have been putting off done

I’ve emailed a bunch of people about a project we all committed too, but all left it to stagnate. Two of the three recipients were very helpful in moving it forward and now, somehow, we have a fourth, who just contacted me out of the blue. Coincidence? Providence?

4. Make a list of your habits

I was too nervous to do that with all my stress. What if I exposed something so disappointing or annoying that I would be too upset? I simply didn’t have the reserve to do it at this time. I will add it to my list (guess that’s a habit…)

lessons learnt from mindfulness

5. Ask: Why am I doing this?

W was easy. I know what I consider meaningful. I also know that this changes. I know why I am doing what I am doing though sometimes I wish the routes were straight lines. Ultimately, we have to adapt to our environment and respect the peninsulas of circumstance that we navigate around.

6. Wear the worst clothes you own

Haha, well that led to a clearout! (Anyone of eBay?) It wasn’t so bad at all. Where I live, in Dublin, clothes aren’t as much of a status symbol as they are in some places – like Russia, or I imagine China, or even the UK. I am very grateful for that.

7. Spend the day on your own, no social media

Fail. I can spend the day on my own, but social media – that’s tough. I have this sensation that I am about to get some kind of interesting news via social media. All it is in reality is a trained dopamine-mediated habit. I need to get out of it. It’s not that hard, but once again, it may expose things. For example, it can expose just how lonely I feel sometimes. And then, if I commit to not having social media, at least on certain days, then I am leaving myself to confront the loneliness. As a teenager, I used to travel a lot – and it would always be a connection flight. Sometimes, the connection would be 4 or 5 hours. This was before the kind of engaging social media we have now and certainly before widespread free wifi. I just remember that horrible mix of boredom and loneliness and I don’t ever want to feel it again. Having said that, I always say I come up with some of my best realisations in transit. Maybe then, I should just take the bandage of and be alone with myself, whatever may bubble up.

8. Write down the things that annoyed you

Fail once again. I was worried that it would put me in a foul mood. That’s quite presumptuous and possible wrong. It remains on the to-do list.

9. Go through the notification settings on your phone

Done. Much less distraction now. Best decision ever.

10. Try some mindful cooking

I couldn’t really do that. I was worried that I don’t have the time with my project. It also felt a bit wrong to be messing around with new recipes when things are shaky. Once again, pretty presumptuous, but hey, all I can do is all I can do.

11. Note how much of the stuff you do isn’t for you

This turned out to be a surprise. Even from a Machiavellian points of view, I can easily argue that everything I do for others is done as an investment into a relationship.

12. Look back at where you came from and see where you are now

What a magical thing to do. I thought of my parents, of where I was born, of where I started, of the role I had to play in where I am here today. I think so many of us get upset as we feel that life happens to us and that we don’t have any real control. To any human being, it is very upsetting to not be in control. But is it true? On the one hand, in the grand scheme of things we are small and insignificant. But in the context of our own lives, we are a big deal. Just like the Stoics would argue it’s important to focus on what you do or think as a person. Circumstances aren’t always a form of feedback about how well or poorly we are doing. Looking back at how we navigated our circumstances, even back when we were younger and much more naive, is bound to generate some feelings of pride and invigorate the perception of who we are people.

13. Pay attention to the people in the shop queue

Well, let’s just say I was dragged shopping in IKEA during this time. There was a lady in front of us in the queue who changed her mind on what she was going to buy and was hiding the goods she was going to just dump at the cashier under a pile of bags. Before sneaking the stuff away, she looked over at us a bit like a poorly trained dog looks at people passing by when it’s eating. But I really couldn’t be bothered judging. Maybe she has too much sense to just buy 3 French presses (that don’t filter anything by the way)?

14. Check email only twice a day

Fail. What if something super important happens and I don’t even know?! I need to work on this.

15. Look back at the last 5 purchases you made and whether you needed them

They were all quite optional. I’ve learnt the lesson of not having useless clutter a long time ago (moving dorm rooms every year in college will teach that fairly quickly). However, I was quite surprised at how I could have gotten away without having a lot of these things.

16. Thank yourself for trying so hard

This is a lot like looking back at where you came started. Yes, sometimes the seas part, the light shines, the lucky break happens and we should be endlessly grateful for these blessings. However, we should thank ourselves for working so hard and having faith even when things don’t look good.

lessons learnt from mindfulness challenge

12 thoughts on “Lessons from the May challenge: all about anxiety”

  1. Thanks for the soul bearing. You know, I don’t think I’ve read many if any reflective pieces like this where the author just poured out honest thoughts. Rather refreshing really.

    I got hooked on your word providence, and started rattling off homonyms, provenance, precedence, prominence, prescience — a bunch of weighty “p” words.

    RE: anxiety — damn that primitive rat brain of ours!


  2. A wonderful post I enjoyed reading very much. Seems a slight departure from your usual and applicable to a wider audience too.
    Although I didn’t take the challenge personally (a month is a very long time at 70!), I certainly identify with a number of items and your responses.
    • A walking meditation is something I do more and more of since my expanding interest in photography. Although I have been married to a Buddhist for 46 years it was only recently I got anywhere near being able to have even a modicum of success. I now walk slower, breathe slower and deeper, find myself noticing detailed elements of plants rather than just the plant or flower, the nails in a church door, the shape of the clouds, the type of soil underfoot as I cross a field. And strangely I don’t always take any photos at all and discover that a one hour walk took me two hours!
    • Going through notification settings has become a habit because new apps or updated old ones have a habit of sneaking up on you. Email subscription to various apps often catch me out though as they can be many and varied for a single app and need turning off singly.
    • I recently took a long look back at where I had come from in getting to today; poor working class family, school failure, university-PhD, successful organisation psychologist, wealthy retired….. And realised how little my daughter knew of my past upbringing. So I started to blog some stories so that she could read them as and when she wished and they would never be lost. I uncovered a buried respect for my parents hardship during WWII, an affinity with a local poet, the roots of my disaffection with chemistry at university and more.
    • I recognise a huge personal weakness in NOT thanking myself for trying hard! I have generally been well balanced in business life and in relation to personal goals mostly to do with mountaineering. I always could laugh at failing to reach a Himalayan summit, or move on to another client in business if a failure had ensued; but a recent failure in aid work in Nepal will haunt me forever! Everyone says we were a huge success leaving a massive education legacy, but this was not the goal or overall expectation, neither of which were met, and in my book today THAT is failure.
    So thank you again for the post, as you can see it triggered many of my own thoughts. I would like to reblog it on my own site if you agree?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the insights! Would you believe I followed the same thought process and I encouraged my mother to blog (she is going incognito, so I can’t really link). There are lots of stories that parents won’t tell children just because they don’t match that usual parent-child paradigm. Her blogging helped me understand my mother in a new way.

      I also agree with you on the point about your Nepal project. Sometimes the work we do is remarkably meaningful to others but not to ourselves. Whenever that happens to me I try and get out of my own way a little bit: there is no point in making ridiculously convoluted conditions for being satisfied with our work. Goals sometimes change depending on circumstances, not because of our weakness, but because of our increased understanding of the project we took on. Let me know what you think!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I saw parallels between what you had written and my own personal experiences. My own mother died 6 years ago at 92 and had suffered from dementia since 85. Lots of gaps therefore in things I wanted to know about. But some reflection on my own part, a few photos, letters etc have helped. The Nepal experience is a bitter one that I can’t rationalise into something more positive. Without burdening you with too much detail our goal was to influence Nepal Ministry of Education to change its primary education system. A tall order, but they created a strategic plan to change their system in 2008 which we pulled apart, then advised them how to change it. They ignored us, so we set about improving the quality if education in 200 schools, affecting a quarter of a million children, training 2000 teachers, and educating thousands of illiterate parents. Still they ignored us. Then in 2016 they admitted failure of their strategic plan and began creating a new one seeking $billions in aid from EU, UK, US. Still they ignored our research and results! Now, I don’t see any positives in that at all, and no way that the original goal could be construed differently. The country is a corrupt cesspit and how my wife became their first female PhD is a complete mystery! Sorry, too much rant. 😂🙏🙏


  3. Some of these I have incorporated into my life over time (probably the easier ones!)

    Item #7, I always struggle with spending a day offline. The whole wanting to share some time with others and I totally feel the “dopamine-mediated habit” thing, I also notice myself turning to coffee and not so healthy food on these quite days at home. I’m good at limiting my e-mail checking though (#14).

    I often do the whole mindful shopping queue thing, #13; it’s a great way to not feel impatient when the place is busy.

    I like the final challenge: thank yourself for trying so hard; it’s good to reflect on what we have achieved on a given day, especially if it has been a tough one.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks so much for your feedback. I have not finished writing mine. I was writing as each day passed but stopped towards the end because of work and other responsibilities. In general, I can’t say I got a perfect score. Far from that. I did learn a lot though. Perhaps, despite my horrible short-term memory courtesy of years of multi-tasking, I am quite mindful and aware. I ponder a lot and I seem to like to look back a lot. From an inferiority complex as a child to where I am now, it serves me (I hope not in a vain way, though) to look back because I do believe I’ve come a long way, and I’ve grown although I am still growing. Walking meditation and mindful cooking was a complete failure, just to name the obvious. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

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