This is Mindfulness for a Messy Life!

May 26, 2020

First the “Messy"

As any well-worn seeker, I’ve spent my share of time, energy, and resources (both the internal and hard-cash varieties), in search of the ‘one thing’ that would fix all the brokenness, and neaten all the messiness of my life. As you may have guessed, I didn’t find it. As it turns out (surprise, surprise!) there is no one single answer to life’s many complex questions, nor is there a healer, guru, religious dogma or spiritual leader (however inspired and inspiring) that can offer a viable antidote to the trials and tribulations of the human experience. It is fortunate then, that we are possessed (I believe) of the skills necessary to elevate what we can’t fix, learn where we can’t heal, and make meaning, even where we can’t make sense.

And Now the Mindful

Mindful. The word itself feels like a mini mantra to me, as though its very utterance gently nudges you a smidge closer to that oh-so-elusive but wildly delicious present moment. But what is mindfulness really? Here's my best shot:

The gentle resting of our attention on what's happening within and around us, without judgment, attachment, denial, or disregard. It is state in which we're both alert and receptive, able to observe our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and experiences without reacting to them, feeding them into a narrative or storyline, or attributing any particular meaning to them. 

But what happens when the thoughts presently running around your head are a toxic, tangled mess? When your emotions have taken over the reins and are pulling you in every which direction? Or when your body seems to be retaliating with a succession of symptoms?

Conventional mindfulness says "stay present-tense"

'Messy-life' mindfulness says "not necessarily!"

While some may argue that the present is where it's at, regardless of your mental, physical or emotional state, I say it only becomes a prime destination when it's a healthy hospitable place to be.
Mindfulness practices are–as you might have guessed–exercises designed to cultivate an awareness of the aforementioned present moment. Consistent here-and-nowness can be tough though even for the most well-balanced amongst us; for those of us with a mental health challenge or two, it can be nearly impossible to sustain. And, the simple fact is, some of us don't want to be up close and personal with the present all the time. It can be mighty unpleasant, if not downright scary!

I mean, have you ever tried sitting still for twenty minutes while your gut is twisted up in knots of aching despair? How about paying close attention to the frantic pounding of your heart during a ten-minute panic attack? Perhaps you've attempted to watch as your hand goes round and round a dirty dish as suggested by a mindfulness expert when all you wanted to do was crawl into a hole?

Now I believe wholeheartedly in the transformational potential of being present. It can absolutely increase our tolerance for discomfort and our ability to skillfully manage life’s ups and downs. But, our awareness—wherever it’s focused—is only as good as the foundation it’s built on.
If, for instance, we are continually “aware” of painful emotions but show ourselves no compassion, then what good is our awareness? If we’re aware of negative thoughts about ourselves but don’t believe we can change them, then again, how does that help us? And if we’re aware of something that triggers our anxiety but have no tools to mitigate it..once again, awareness alone falls short.

Conventional mindfulness says “sit with the hard stuff"

'Messy-life' mindfulness says "you may want to dance instead"

For those of us struggling with our mental health, "sitting with the hard stuff" as is often recommended, can be grueling and exhausting, even detrimental. If you suffer with PTSD for instance, 'sitting' with” acute distress can be re-traumatizing and leave you only more deeply enmeshed with your pain. In fact, there are times when we're far better off dancing, singing, or running with our pain than 'sitting' with it. And there are other therapeutic tools that may prove more healing than present-moment awareness: EMDR, yoga, Neurofeedback, EFT Tapping, Ayurveda, to name a few.

Ultimately, I think we’ve first got to figure out how to recognize and tame our demons so that when we reach the present, it’s a both a safe space, and a place we actually want to be. This is mindfulness that encourages emotional awareness and acceptance in just the right dose to facilitate healing without the potential for harm. No one knows more about this than the author of Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness David Treleavan, PhD, so check him out!

Conventional mindfulness says "the past is not your friend"

'Messy-life' mindfulness says "the past offers critical clues" 

I'm guessing that most of us love/hate our past in equal measure–our trips down memory lane alternating between delightful and torturous. But few would disagree that the past is an information-packed storage house–a little 'mindful' excavation of which can help us get some serious intel about our inner workings. I mean what better place to venture in search of the source of negative core beliefs or emotional triggers? Where better to find evidence of our strengths and capabilities (and who couldn't use a reminder of those?!). And of course all those juicy insights and 'aha's' can be put to mighty good use as we work to inform and upgrade our life choices.

Conventional mindfulness says "the future is a distraction"

'Messy-life' mindfulness says "sometimes we need a little distraction!" 

I will always vote for some time spent focusing on the future. Why? Because it can give us direction and inspire us to action. Framing the future as a motivational tool, we can recognize the power of thoughtful, well-informed goals to pull us out of dark places and set us on a more productive path. And luxuriating in our fantasy future affirms the best of what’s possible while building up a storage of healthy, constructive thoughts and good-feeling emotions. And we do love those!

Which is all to say that there are many ways to be mindful! It may take some trial and error to see what works for you, but trust that any version of mindfulness is a boon for your mental health. 
Below find one of my favorite mindfulness exercises for panic or just generalized anxiety.

When we’re in the throes of a panic attack, things can get scary pretty quickly. It can feel like our internal controls have been hijacked and the best we can do is try to steer ourselves back onto the rails. At worst it can feel like you’re losing your mind. The Quick Chill  helps you regain a sense of control over your mind and body. You can download the audio version here to have on hand for whenever panic arises. 
  1. Place one hand on your heart and the other just below your belly button.

  2. Breathe into your lungs and belly and feel your hands rise as you do.

  3. With a gentle smile on your face, start to hum so that you can feel the vibration beneath the hand on your heart–try to hold the hum until you run out of breath as this ensures a full exhale.

  4. Remind yourself of one or more of these things:
    a. I am here in my body.
    b. I am breathing.
    c. I am okay and/or right now everything is okay.
    d. I am safe.

  5. If you’re feeling calmer and want to offer yourself some added reassurance, try “I’m so sorry for this awful feeling”, and continue with an appreciative “I’m so glad to be Okay”. As the panic starts to subside, try getting up and moving in any way that feels comfortable. In this way you are physically affirming that you are 'okay' and not in danger. 

    You can find tons more tips for panic as well as myriad targeted exercises in my course Turning Your Mind into Your Greatest Ally.


  1. I love the distinction you make between conventional and messy-life mindfulness. Sometimes it feels good to daydream! And dance :)

  2. Brava, Elizabeth! Such good insights and suggestions..staying present can take so many forms. Sending much love!

    1. Many thanks Ahimsa! So appreciate your support :)