• Mindfulness can help even when you think your mistake is beyond its reach says therapist Aaron Balick

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I screwed up. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good either, and it was entirely my fault. In the vernacular of my youth, I dropped the ball, hard. So, naturally I gave myself a hard time about it. And then, I gave myself a hard time about it again. Whenever I thought of it (and it was a lot) the worry and shame came, the adrenaline and cortisol burned in my chest, and I chased the disturbing thought down the rabbit warren of my emotional interior.

Funny, that, as I’d been practicing mindfulness for some time and I thought I’d got the hang of it. Yeah, right. The thing is, the super-ego, that part of your mind that loves to set you impossible challenges and then mocks you when you fail to achieve them, is a trickster. It’s a double trickster because it’s your very super-ego that says you should be more mindful, and then your super-ego that says you’re not doing it well enough. None of this back and forth is mindful in the least.

My initial mistake, distressing though it was, was not so distressing as what my super-ego decided to do with it. However, as I was going to town on myself, I realised that I was treating this event as an exception to my regular mindful practice. It was like, “But I really screwed up this time, so being mindful isn’t going to help, I have to give myself hell.” So it was only after I found myself caught up in this cartoon smoke-cloud of internal noise that I realised . . .

No exceptions to mindfulness

I could be mindful of the cartoon smoke cloud of my guilt and self blame. I didn’t have to be it so much as watch it go by. This doesn’t take away my responsibility for having got it wrong in the first place, but that ship had already sailed. The only thing I could do was what came next: nothing in the world was going to change what had happened. I might as well be mindful about it.

In his excellent book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman demonstrates that people who take on mindfulness to achieve calm are barking up the wrong tree. Mindfulness is much more about acceptance (of sometimes frankly shitty feelings), more than it is achieving a blissful state of calm. Rather than rushing away from negative feelings, mindfulness encourages us to lean in – feel them, and then let them move on. Pema Chodron, the prolific Buddhist nun quoted in Burkeman’s book suggests that rather than running away from distressing experiences, we should instead be “relaxing into the groundlessness of our situation.”

For a change, this sort of thing is as difficult as it sounds! It’s when we really fall into our psychological trap doors that we forget to do the thing that would be the most helpful for us – to be mindful. This, we think, is an exceptional feeling. I don’t have time to be mindful because I’m too busy panicking, or self-blaming, or defending my ego. Guess what? Doing those things won’t help you an iota.

Stay in the present moment

Usually it is the future or the past that captivates our minds and tears us away from the present moment – like how I kept returning my injured mind to my screw-up. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through The Storm echoes the wisdom of the mindfulness theorists. He recognises that real emotional injuries from the past can haunt us. He describes a childhood traumatic event you picture in your mind that comes back to haunt you:

“But that [event] is only the past. You are no longer in the past; you are in the present moment. That did happen, yes – in the past … If you keep going back to the past to review those images, that is wrong mindfulness. But if we root ourselves in the present moment, we can look a that past in a different way and transform its suffering.”

Yes, mindfulness is simple but profoundly difficult – but here’s the good news. If you can identify your psychological trap doors, those events that make you spin out into shame, self-blame, guilt, or worry – if you can identify the very feelings that make you feel like they’re an exception to mindfulness, then there is your cue to start being mindful. The very thing that spins you out, is your cue that you’re following the rabbit down the wrong hole.

For me it’s “that neurotic feeling” – when I feel myself getting het-up, spinning out, getting frenetic; it’s that feeling of neurotic buzz that has become my very trigger to tell myself to step down and be mindful. It doesn’t always work, but it is very possible to use your very weakness, your very exception to mindfulness to be your invitation to be mindful.

To avoid exceptions to mindfulness:

1) Be aware of your psychological trap doors. These are always patterns, so if you look for them you will find them.

2) Next time you spin out, catch yourself there and step away from identifying yourself with that experience.

3) Don’t try to calm yourself or make it go away, just sit with the feeling and let it be.

4) It will tempt you (the tricky thing) to being an exception to mindfulness DON’T FALL FOR ITS DIRTY TRICKS! Bring yourself back to the present moment.

5) At some point you will have to choose how you respond to what happened, but that will be the next present moment, which will come – don’t get hung up on the last one.

It if were easy, would it sound so simple? (a little Zen Koan for you).

Read here about Buddha's famous aphorism on calming the monkey mind.

Further reading

Mindfulness on the move

Self-care for when you're feeling overwhelmed

Using mindfulness to manage loneliness

7 tips for mindful parenting