We don't all arrive equipped to handle the many things that life throws at us, myself included. The good news is that with effort, the skills we need to be mentally resilient can be picked up. This post attempts to bring together ideas on mindfulness, acceptance and meaningful living in a way that might be useful to other people.
Here's what I've learned.
Happiness and attention
Attention is the most precious thing we have to "spend".
When we do several things at once, we spread it thin and it doesn't go far. But if we can focus it on just one thing at a time then we're rewarded. This is true everywhere in our lives.
To savour good experiences like eating food, being with people we love, or pleasant challenges, we need to give them our full attention. To make good decisions and tackle difficult problems in our lives, we need to give them our full attention.
The problem is that keeping our attention on something is hard.
The mind on autopilot
Our mind never sits still. At its worst, this can be like trying to get through a large shopping center to buy just one thing, whilst your four kids run amok around you. The mind finds unhelpful ways to soak up your attention.
You can't stop your mind from wandering, but you can learn so-called "meta-cognitive strategies" to deal with it. This just means noticing when your mind wanders. The more skilled you are, the faster you notice. Noticing alone is often enough to get you back on track; you've applied your attention well. Mindfulness meditation is all about learning to notice.
Sometimes noticing alone isn't enough. When unhelpful thoughts intrude, we sometimes give them too much credit, and think they represent who we are or what is true in the world. This is called fusing with our thoughts. We combat this by defusing them, recognizing that they hold no special bearing on reality, that they're just words passing us by.
Avoidance and acceptance
Sometimes we still have something to acknowledge or learn from difficult emotions.
Our automatic response to unpleasant emotions is often to push back, to deny them our attention. This strategy might banish small emotions, but larger, more intense feelings tend to return.
Avoidance is bad because it's temporary and because it's costly. To escape from intense emotions, we have to engage in something just as intense to keep our attention from them. This might mean burying ourselves in work or other distractions, at the expense of other important parts of our life. As a thought experiment, what are you avoiding right now?
The way out of this is to instead accept difficult emotions and give them your full attention. By doing this, sitting with them, and noticing the physical effect that they have on your body, they will eventually pass. If some action is needed to resolve them, it will become clearer.
Some of this may seem like impossible mental gymnastics, but the skills here can all be learned from practice. For specific exercises for working with your attention and for dealing with difficult thoughts, read of Russ Harris's book The Happiness Trap, a key source of ideas for this post.