We celebrated my daughter’s third birthday today. Her birthday is actually a little later next month, but we wanted to have a pool party and that means celebrating before Labor Day. This morning I ran out to the grocery store to pick up last minute items (hey, it was a busy week, and my husband and I aren’t always the most organized people!) and on my way home I realized that I was becoming very stressed over making sure everything for the party was perfect. I wanted to be sure we remembered all the different items and had everything set up just so and that everyone would have a good time and that the kids would all share and play well and… and I just made myself stop. Stop worrying about it. It’s a three-year-old birthday party, and it’s at a pool and the weather is good. It’s already a win, and I want to enjoy it. I want to be present mentally as well as physically.
I recently bought a book called “The Mindful Way through Depression” by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn. I bought it to read for my job with a few particular patients in mind, because it focuses on preventing relapse of depression once a person is feeling well again. As I am reading through it I am realizing there is quite a lot in the book I can apply to myself. The premise of the book is that we have two modes of thinking. There is doing mode, in which our minds constantly compare where we are with a mental image of where we want to be. This is a great mode for problem solving. For example, this week my husband and I were assembling birthday gifts and we used our doing mode to read the instructions and put the pieces together and compare what we had in front of us with the pictures on the directions. It all worked out quite well. Doing mode is incredibly helpful in our lives, but when we apply it to our emotional experience it doesn’t actually work well.
Emotionally, we all experience transient feelings of sadness, anger, fear, shame and happiness. These feelings come up for various reasons and usually will just subside in time. However when we react to them in a doing mode, treating them as problems to be solved, we tend to make ourselves more distressed, because the more we think about how unhappy we are the more unhappy we become. We get further and further from our goal. The doing mode also activates a counterproductive train of thoughts and behaviors in an effort to force happiness. In contrast to this, mindfulness teaches us to activate a being mode. In being mode we are non-judgmentally aware of our experience in an open, curious way. We notice our feelings, whatever they may be, but we don’t get all excited about them or try to solve them. And interestingly enough, what usually happens is that the feelings usually are transient and do subside in time without any effort on our part. A whole lot of pain and effort and energy is saved. We also have the time and space to notice what’s going on in our life, because we aren’t deafened by the internal clamor of frantic, desperate doing.
I’ve noticed that when I am doing things in my daily life I am often busy in doing mode. I have a certain image in my mind of how I want an event to turn out, and I get so caught up in that mode that I can’t relax and enjoy the actual event. So driving home from the grocery store, I decided I didn’t want that to happen today. I didn’t want to miss my daughter’s third birthday. So during the party I made a choice to stay relaxed and present. And of course things didn’t go exactly according to plan. We ran late getting there and guests arrived while we were still setting up. We forgot the ice cream. I ordered the pizza late so the pizza delivery didn’t line up with the swimming break. The candles wouldn’t light on my daughter’s cupcakes because it was too breezy. Guess what? Everyone had a great time, including me. I actually had time to talk to my friends who came to the party and enjoy the beautiful weather and delicious food. There was plenty of food and no one needed more sugar in the form of ice cream. The pizza delivery kept the kids out of the pool for the longer breaks from swimming that they needed; after all, we’re talking about 3-5 year olds here. My daughter was perfectly happy to blow out pretend candle flames. Later in the day I had time to appreciate my daughter’s style of opening gifts, which is to open one and play with it for a good long while, instead of feeling an impatient need to rush through the pile so that the “goal” of opening presents was accomplished. We had a lovely, calm, connected day. I put my daughter to bed tonight telling her what a wonderful, special kid she is and how much I love her and how happy I am to be her mother.
There is a lot of scientific research going on these days about mindfulness as a treatment or component of treatment for various mental illnesses, most of it very positive. I think this research is interesting and important, particularly as about 46% of the U.S. population suffers from mental illness at some point in time. Some of those people will receive good, helpful, effective treatment but many will not, even if they seek it, because the treatments we have don’t work for everyone. That makes any and every validated new treatment important, because it gives us a chance to help more people than we can now. But I can also tell you that mindfulness is useful and important in day-to-day life. Today it kept me from missing my daughter’s birthday because of my own stress, perfectionism and impatience. I think that’s pretty good.