Schrodinger, Hygge and Mindfulness — My Survival Bag for Stressful Times
I came into this strange season of pandemic and isolation at the tail end of what has already been the strangest and most difficult time of my life, making it a bit like the final quarter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland… are all of the oddities encountered at that stage in the story really that odd anymore?
You see, we’re in the midst of a home renovation. My husband and I bought an old historic house and what was at first scheduled to be a four month renovation has just stretched into its second year. It goes without saying that this has been the most stressful and overwhelming two years of my life. I won’t bore you with all the details here — just think of every renovation horror story you’ve ever heard and know that it’s probably some godawful Frankenstorm of them all. I’ve experienced more stress during this period than I would have thought a person could survive. Yet here I am, still standing, and I owe it all (or at least in large part) to mindfulness and its cousin hygge. And now these two methods of slowing down, calming down, and living in the moment are helping to keep me sane during isolation, as well.
I used to have a hard time understanding the concept of mindfulness. People would describe mindfulness as living in the moment, but when I heard the phrase “living in the moment” I would usually think of the people who use it to justify their reckless decisions made without regard for the consequences to themselves or others. However I’ve learned that living in the moment has nothing to do with recklessness or carelessness, but is something entirely different. Mindfulness is all about being present in the moment, and to do that means letting go of two things — the past and the future.
The Past is History
I’ve always hated sappy platitudes about the past being in the past — it’s a part of us, and a part of how we got to where we are. A lot can also be learned by examining the past, but over my lifetime I have also come to realize that 20/20 hindsight does not exist. The idea behind 20/20 hindsight is that we have clarity because we have all the facts. The thing is, though, that we don’t have all the facts. We only have the facts concerning the one thing that happened.
For instance, I know what happened as a result of the choices that I made in buying my house, but I still have no idea what would have happened if I had made different choices. What if I had bought that other house? Would I have been happy there? Would I have hated it? Would I have regretted the decision to buy it instead of taking the risk and buying my dream home?
I can guess at these things, but my guess is no more educated than it was two years ago. Or what if we had hired a different contractor? Would things have been better? Would they have been, I shudder to think, worse? I have no idea. I have no more clarity on all of these things than I did when I first made the decision. I only have clarity concerning what happened as a result of the decision that I did make.
Furthermore, when we look back we’re remembering, and memories are faulty things. We don’t see everything exactly as it was, like a movie playing, but instead we reconstruct it. The brain latches on to the details it sees as important, and leaves out lots of other little details that it deems unimportant. But, in the spirit of chaos theory, we have no idea how important all those little details we filtered out really were. Some tiny thing we don’t see as being of any consequence could have actually been the catalyst that set us down the path we ended up on. All the details that make life and the present fuzzy may be more important than we realize, and we just sift them out when we look back.
Even in situations where what could have been different is clearer, there is no amount of ruminating or lamenting that will ever change what has already occurred.
So while there is value in examining the past, the value is limited. We can take what we can from it, learn what we can from it, and move forward, but that’s all we can do. We can only apply what we’ve learned to future decisions — nothing can be applied retrospectively. Hence when we examine our past, we must not stay there.
Tomorrow is a Mystery
Just as I realized that agonizing over past choices and what could have been different did no good, I also had to learn to let go of my fears about the future. Again, not thinking about the future always seemed irresponsible to me, but I learned that there’s a difference between passively stressing and taking action. If there was something that I could actually do that could make some sort of difference, then certainly it made sense to do it. But much of the agonizing that we do about the future doesn’t actually make any difference.
I began to perform a litmus test of sorts when I started to stress. I would think: if what I’m stressing about never comes to pass, what will I have gained by worrying about it? The answer was almost always nothing. Which led me to my next question…
If things do go this way, what will have been gained by worrying about it now? In what way, if any, will my current stress improve the situation when it occurs? With the question framed this way, the answer sometimes led to some sort of constructive action I could take to either affect the outcome of things or to make practical preparations for likely outcomes, which felt better than just wringing my hands. If there was no constructive purpose to my stress, I had to let it go.
This non-constructive form of stress led to my thinking about our house in terms of Schrodinger’s cat, the cat that’s both dead and alive at the same time because you don’t know, you can’t know, which it is. I would tell myself that the house was both ours and not ours at the same time. When I started to stress I could tell myself, “It’s not worth stressing about, it’s not our house anyway.” Or, on the flip side, “It’s not worth stressing about, the house is ours.”
Reality can turn on a dime, a truth we have all learned this year. Everything in life is Schrodinger’s cat — it both is and isn’t until we find out. So until we find out, we must free ourselves from the worry of what isn’t, or what already is.
Today is a Gift, That’s Why It’s Called the Present
If you’re not fretting about the past, and you’re not stressing about the future, you are then, consequently, living in the present. Living in the moment, which is all that you really have. You cannot relive the past, and you cannot control the future, you can only exist in the space of this moment.
I started to realize at some point that this was the spirit of mindfulness — understanding that the moment you’re in is your reality. It’s your truth, more than anything else — more than your past, more than your future. So appreciate it for what it is, even when it’s not what you want it to be; accept it and appreciate it in any way that you can.
Upon realizing what living in the moment was about, I began to try my hardest to find ways to enjoy the small moments. Maybe just the taste of the food I was eating, maybe the smell of a candle, maybe something funny my son was doing. I didn’t realize at the time that I was practicing the art of hygge, what merriam-webster.com describes as “a quality of coziness that makes a person feel content and comfortable.” It’s living in the moment purposefully, enjoying the little things in life.
If mindfulness is about experiencing the present moment for what it is, hygge is about filling your life with the kinds of things that create moments worth savoring. Finding ways to create or enjoy good moments is a perfect blend of mindfulness and hygge that can be a lifeline during challenging times.
If you can’t seem to find pleasure in things during these most challenging times, mindfulness can still help you to breathe through a difficult moment, letting your feelings pass through you instead of take hold of you. Remember…
Mindfulness is not:
· Blowing off responsibilities or people.
· Acting without any regard for the future or the well-being of yourself or others.
· Regretting “wasted time” spent living differently than you wish to live now.
· Making resolutions about what you will do better or differently moving forward.
· Blocking out uncomfortable feelings.
· Judging yourself.
· Breathing deeply, or simply paying attention to your breath.
· Feeling the chill in the air, the sun on your face, or the movement of the breeze on your skin.
· Savoring your food and drink. Tasting it, paying attention to the texture, feeling the temperate of it as you swallow.
· Listening to your body — how does it feel?
· Doing a body scan: checking in with your feet, your legs, your torso, arms, head. Where are you tense?
· Tuning in to the feeling of your emotions. (Not the thoughts that go with them, but the feeling.) Does your anger feel like a knot? Does your stress feel hot? Does your anticipation give you tingles? Does calm have a color?
· Feeling your connection with the earth — your footfall as it connects with the ground, or the feeling of the surface you’re sitting or lying on.
· Listening to the sounds around you. A train whistle. A church bell. Crickets. The hum of distant traffic. The rumble of thunder. The whir of a fan.
· Looking a person in the eye and listening to what they’re saying.
· Committing an act with purpose instead of on autopilot — focusing on what you’re doing as you brush your teeth, stir batter, or make the bed.
· Feeling the weight of your child in your arms.
· Feeling the softness of your pet’s fur.
When you are able to ground yourself in these real, tangible things that you are experiencing right now, it can relieve the sense of panic and adrenaline that our thoughts and feelings can create. And once you are more adept at being in the moment, you can begin to tune in more acutely and more often to the moments you take the most pleasure, relief or excitement in, and these can be the moments that carry you through.