The Gentle Power of Mindfulness in Challenging Times
by Jacqueline Gammon
When I’m travelling on an aeroplane, I enjoy sitting in the window seat and peacefully watching the islands of clouds below. The bump on landing always surprises me, as does the way that my body wants to keep moving forward as the plane slows down. It’s a moment that reinforces how fast we have really been hurtling through the sky. After the landing comes the inevitable tiredness and slight disorientation of being in a new place as I gather up my bags, disembark and look for signs to point me in the right direction.
I felt the same way when I gave up teaching four years ago. Little did I know that mindfulness would soon set me on the right path.
I had been teaching for over twenty years, fifteen of those in Spain, and I was tired. This was a combination of a succession of particularly demanding year groups and trying to support my own children through exams and university. I had little energy for anything other than slumping on the sofa in the evening. It was not how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I felt disconnected from myself; I needed a change.
My youngest child would soon be leaving for university in the UK, so it seemed the perfect time to make a change. After much deliberation, I handed in my notice. It was a tough decision after so many years.
I can still see myself at the end of the school year, walking away with a bag of gifts and my now redundant playground whistle. Then came the jolt of realisation that I wouldn’t be going back to teaching in September. I loaded up my car and asked myself the overarching question, “What am I going to do next?”
Land. Gather your baggage. Disembark. Look for the signs.
That evening, with perfect synchronicity, I spotted and enrolled on an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course in Barcelona, due to begin in October. I couldn’t believe the timing. My sister, a mental health nurse, had introduced me to The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle some time ago, and I was eager to discover more about mindfulness. I had been unsuccessfully looking for a course for a while, now one had appeared as if by magic. I thought it could be the reset button I needed.
Summer passed, September arrived. My colleagues returned to work. We packed up my daughter’s belongings and travelled to the UK to leave her in her halls of residence, returning home to an empty nest. Everything was different. My fifteen-year routine had stopped. The house was quiet. Suddenly I had more time and less washing.
I spent each day writing. At night, I dreamt that I was late for work.
September turned to October. I found myself lying on a yoga mat in a blissfully scented and darkened room, with what turned out to be several other ex-teachers. We were being guided through a body scan meditation, focusing our awareness on each body part in turn. Someone fell asleep and snored loudly. Others were restless. I listened to the teacher’s voice and became aware of the tension that I was holding in my body, particularly in my shoulders, which seemed to have migrated to my ears. My mind was jumping from place to place like a chimp, and it was just as noisy as it tried to disturb my tranquillity. “You’re not doing this right!” it screeched. “What are you doing here anyway?” And, inevitably: “Don’t forget to pick up some bread on the way home!”
At the end, we shared our experiences. The teacher kindly told us that there is no right or wrong way to meditate. “Every experience is valid,” she said. “It’s being able to observe this experience that is important. And whatever thoughts or emotions arise – that’s okay, just notice them. If you want to cry – that’s okay too. Go with the flow. There’s no judgement or questions, and the tissues are over there if you need them.”
Permission to go with the flow. I thought about her words that evening. It was a shock to suddenly realise that I had spent years going against the flow, struggling upstream against my emotions. I would tell myself, “I’m fine. I’m strong. I can juggle and control everything in my life – no problem. Middle age? No problem. Kids moving out? No problem. Stressed out in the classroom? Nah, I’ve got this, of course I have, I am a strong woman.” These were the stories that I had been telling myself, the same stories that many others are telling themselves every day.
It became clear that it was okay to feel what I felt. It was okay to think the thoughts I had, without judgement. It was okay to just be. It was okay to be me. Suddenly I felt lighter.
Land. Gather your bags. Disembark. Look for the signs. Unpack your baggage.
The weeks passed; we learnt about stress and the harm it can do to our bodies and minds when we are living in a constant state of fight or flight. I wondered how much damage I’d done to my body over the years with the steady stream of cortisol that must have been pumping through it.
We learnt how to use our breath to calm ourselves and to gauge our stress. It was something I had never thought of before. As I became aware of and connected with my breathing, I wished that I had known about mindfulness years ago – it would have been invaluable in the classroom for dealing with difficult moments.
There were no hours of sitting cross-legged, chanting. l quickly came to understand that mindfulness isn’t a secret technique, it’s a way of life – one that would provide me with resilience in dark times. Above all it meant better connections, with myself and others.
By the time the course ended, I was meditating regularly at home, putting into practice the tips for mindful living and beginning to see things from a different perspective. I felt more resilient. This was easy! Little did I know that I was about to give mindfulness its first tough test.
On the day of my 49th birthday, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. My mind immediately and naturally fast-tracked to the future; what was going to happen, would she survive? In my imagination I saw the funeral, the relatives, her empty house and the void in my life.
I used my breath to ground myself in the present moment and get back on track. I drew on everything I had learnt in the course, and I meditated.
My sister flew over from England, and we resolved to mindfully focus on each day. Painting a dark picture of the unknown was not going to help anyone, least of all our mother who needed us to be a calming reference point. We could give her the gift of mindfulness via a ripple effect.
So, in the times when my mother was undergoing tests and we had to wait, we made our way outside into the surprisingly warm spring sunshine and chatted on a bench. One lunchtime, we ordered nachos in a nearby restaurant and laughed when the waitress brought us each a plate the size of a sombrero. We made the most of this unexpected time together.
The tensest day was the day of the operation. This time we didn’t move from the waiting room. We were both quiet, each alone with our thoughts. I didn’t touch the book I had brought with me. Mindful breathing stopped me panicking.
The surgeon came to find us after the operation to tell us that the operation had gone well. It was like a moment in a film. The long recovery could now begin.
Weeks later, my sister was back in England and we were chatting on the phone. We both admitted that we wouldn’t have coped as well without mindfulness. “I’ve decided to teach mindfulness!” I announced. “I want to share it with as many people as possible!” I had no idea how I would be able to achieve this as I was living in Spain, until with perfect synchronicity, as always, along came Shamash’s online mindfulness teacher training course. It was a great match for me. I enjoyed the humour, the supportive community, and the encouragement and confidence to teach mindfulness in a creative, flexible way. Mindfulness has been a welcome gift, but being able to share it with others and hear how their lives have changed is the greatest gift of all.
Mindfulness has a gentle power; the power to gradually change our lives. It helped me shed years of stress and reconnect with who I am. I’ve benefited from it through difficult times and will do so again with those yet to come. It gave me an appreciation of the little moments in life, the ones that are often overlooked.
Land. Gather your baggage. Disembark. Look for the signs. Unpack. Enjoy your life — mindfully.
Mindful Exercise: Managing Your Thoughts
This exercise will help you to manage your thoughts.
- Write down your thoughts/worries on small pieces of paper.
- Spread them out in front of you. Pick one up and read it. Notice your reaction, without judgement.
- Close your eyes for a moment and take a calming breath, allowing the air to fill your abdomen. Exhale. Open your eyes and place the paper face down.
- Choose another and repeat the process.
- When all the pieces are face down, gather them up without re-reading them, shred them, and throw them away.
This chapter is the one I contributed to Mindfulness for Transformation by Shamash Alidina & the Teach Mindfulness Community. The book is available on Amazon: