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Living Richly During Challenging Times—Put aside thoughts of past and future and engage with now

This week the newsletter focuses on the third step in our practice of living richly during challenging times: putting aside thoughts of past and future and engaging with now.

How are you going with the previous steps? How is your rest? And how are you feeling? Where have you noticed richness in your life in the last week?

As another week of COVID-19 related limitations ticks by, life can seem repetitive and dull, especially with our access to different surroundings and activities curtailed. Add to that the mix of anxiety, fear, frustration and loneliness that have been well recognised, and the hope and anticipation I discussed in the last newsletter, and it's easy for our minds to wander. Anywhere—and anytime—but here and now! Sustaining ourselves through these challenges makes it even more important to be able to experience richness and meaning in our lives now.

Richness and meaning arise and grow in our lives as we move through a range of experiences and interactions, both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. In supportive circumstances, being challenged and experiencing negative emotions can sharpen our sensitivity to positive emotions and experiences, and amplify their value and meaning to us. We can find that we connect more deeply with others, adding greater richness to our relationships. Challenge can also strengthen and build our resilience.

This practice is not about neglecting or ignoring negative emotions or the challenges we face. It's about holding in tension our negative emotions with more uplifting ones, and our past and future with our present. This is why the previous practice—recognising and acknowledging how you feel—is so important. This tension can be bittersweet at times. At other times we feel stronger and more grounded and can deeply engage in something joyful, meaningful, profound in the present.

I became strongly aware of this ‘holding in tension’ when a family member was diagnosed with advanced cancer not long before their 40th birthday. What was important in the present came starkly into focus. We chose to suspend our fears and sadness for our collective futures as best as we could and truly celebrate their birthday with family and friends. There were many laughs through the day—yes, and some tears, at times within a few minutes of each other. My memories of the family member and other family members of that day and the challenging months that followed are rich—happy, sad, profound, detailed.

Here's what I've found works for me:

Note: Please don't progress to this step until you have worked on the previous practices.

Having worked through the previous steps, choose something you've identified that adds meaning and that you can access. Starting with something meaningful helps you engage with and sustain the practice before moving to the final step of broader mindful presence.

Consciously put aside any thoughts of future and past to engage fully in the present with what you've chosen. Enjoy or be grateful for it, as best as you can. It may feel awkward at first, and you may find it easier on some days than others.

Be gentle with yourself. Remember this is a practice and it takes time to learn. Recognise any achievements no matter how small. To quote the poet Michael Leunig, ‘it's as simple and as difficult as that’.

Reflecting at the end of each day improves your skill with the practice and provides a good basis for sleep. You may even like to start a gratitude journal—noting at least one thing down each evening—which can help sharpen your ability to notice opportunities for meaning, and is a great resource when you're having a particularly tough day.

To get started, each day after you've checked in with how you feel, choose one thing that will add meaning to your day and focus on that. Reflect at the end of the day on the experience and its impact on you.

Being able to put aside thoughts of future and past and engage in the present—even in small ways—adds richness and meaning to our lives now, and in the memories we will look back on of this time. Building on the previous practices, it helps us to be more resourceful, stronger and more creative in facing our challenges. It can even create a virtuous cycle by improving sleep!

'You are here' in white neon lights
Photo by John Baker on Unsplash

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