Twelve years ago, I was a clinically depressed, overthinking, over-drinking, cigarette smoking woman with a career on the fast-track to nowhere. Today, I am a non-smoking, sometimes drinking, healthy, happy being working in a challenging, well paid management position.
How did this happen?
To cut a long and by no means linear story short, I learnt how to live with my emotions. You see, you can’t really control your emotions, you can only learn to observe them and live side-by-side with them. I learnt this through mindfulness meditation.
The term mindfulness meditation encompasses a range of practises that basically help you to learn to have some control over your mind. You learn to become much more aware of the here and now rather than events that occurred in your past or things that may or may not happen in your future. You learn to recognise when you are experiencing emotions and how to handle yourself until the emotion passes.
What are emotions?
Some sources define emotions as feelings and if you look up what a feeling is you will either be told it is an emotion, or that it is a physical sensation. Sigh… In reality, there is little scientific consensus as to what an emotion is but there is masses of research on how to deal with them! My understanding of emotions is that they are mind states that can impact how we behave, and they have a physical sensation attached to them.
I recently watched the TV series Big Little Lies. I had read the book so I knew it was about domestic violence, but watching the show disturbed me. I felt a burning sensation in my chest and my breathing became laboured as my chest muscles constricted. I was feeling the emotion anger. I reacted by doing what I have learnt to do with emotions. I took a moment and observed what was happening. I noticed the burning sensation, I noted the tighter breathing and I took some deep breaths and I just watched myself. Nothing else. It’s not comfortable, I’ll give you that, but it is not life threatening either. I might have said a gentle note silently in my head of “anger”. After about twenty seconds, the feeling passed and I felt OK.
Mindfulness mediation gurus will tell you that the trick is not to fight your emotions
When we fight them, we engage in negative behaviours in order to mask or avoid our feelings. I used to drink when I got home from work as a way of dealing with unpleasant emotions. These behaviours can have negative consequences such as hangovers, or worse. At the very least, resisting emotions prolongs the pain they inflict.
What I have learnt is that no emotion lasts forever, they are all temporary visitors. Even positive emotions are only temporary. Have you seen the film The Pursuit of Happyness? Throughout the movie, the character portrayed by Will Smith endures incredible challenges and at the very end of the movie, he says words to the effect of ‘There…right there… that one second, that was when I felt happy.’ Because all emotions and their accompanying sensations are fleeting.
It takes a while to get your head around this very simple understanding of emotions because it goes against what we have been taught. We have been taught to admire high passion and drama. How good would Romeo and Juliet be, for example, if Juliet wakens from her induced coma and upon seeing Romeo dead, just goes away to be with her emotions for a while and does not kill herself? We are led to believe it is a remarkable story because two beautiful young people were so consumed with passion and grief at their separation that they kill themselves rather than be apart.
So how has this impacted upon my life, career and notions of a successful life?
My husband will tell you that life is much, much better now that I meditate. I don’t get so angry, I am less judgemental, more tolerant and I am a whole lot happier and positive about life, the universe and everything. From my perspective, even though I consider my husband to be one of the finest of his species, he sometimes says things to which I object. At those moments, I actually have enough control over myself that I can read the situation before responding with something that he can digest.
Over the years, I have had limited career success. No-one has ever doubted my technical skills but even in a female-dominated sector, I have struggled to be promoted. In hindsight, I think people would have described me as an ‘intense’ person who struggled with stress and responsibility and they would have been right. Since practicing mindfulness meditation, I seem to the outside eye and to be more in ‘control’ of myself. Not long ago, an Irish sales executive who I worked with on a university project wrote me a LinkedIn recommendation stating that I was a reliable and calming presence in the team. My current staff seem more open to what I have to say, less defensive.
I wish I could say that I am now the perfect leader at work but the reality is that I still sometimes handle situations in a less than skilful way. But the difference is that now, I don’t blame anyone else for it and I waste less time re-living and analysing my mistake over and over again. I resist for a bit, because I am still learning these skills, and then I accept my mistake and move on.
Have I succeeded in life?
I think I have. Why? Because even as I walk home from the train station after another excruciatingly exhausting day at work, I can still appreciate the autumn colours on the trees and the sight of two tiny sausage dogs stopping their owner from walking as they excitedly sniff a tree trunk. I am happy and content in the moment. In my mind, that is success.