When I was still a student, I went for a bushwalk in the Grampians with a group of friends. It was foggy, the kind of fog which doesn’t lift all day, but sits close among the rocks and trees, ethereal and quite magical. I still remember the walk, how atmospheric it was to see the gum trees and granite boulders emerging and disappearing again into the mist. There was a sense of walking in enchanted land; of being, for the day, outside the usual sense of space and time.
A few years later, I did the same walk, but this time the sun was shining, and suddenly, to the right and left, there were stunning views – of valleys, other peaks reaching out into the distance, small towns, farms and vineyards. It was quite surreal, to know all this had been there the first time and I had been unaware of it. I’d had no sense of what was beyond the narrow path and the few trees I could see in the fog. Though I knew there was a world beyond the mist, I didn’t know what it consisted of.
When we are under stress we are often only aware of the narrow path in front of us, and we can lose all sense of the surrounding landscape. This is our survival mechanism, the fight/flight response which kicks in at the first intimation of threat. All our attention is focused on the perceived danger, whether it is someone just about to attack us, or difficulties at work or in the family. We also tend to become self-centred – fiercely determined to look after No 1 first. All these are valid responses to immediate physical threats, but less helpful in complex, ongoing stressful scenarios.
Throughout history, there have been people who have been able to step outside their own narrow self-interest in times of danger and act from a larger perspective. We probably know people like this ourselves – even when life is difficult for them they retain a sense of openness and awareness of the bigger picture. They might be the family mediators, or the colleague who smooths the choppy waters of office politics – the ones who can see where people are coming from, why they might be struggling in certain situations.
Mindfulness can help us develop this sense of greater perspective – being able to pause, ground ourselves, look around and ask – what is really going on here? What is happening in me? What can I sense in my body, what kind of thoughts are swirling through my mind? What is going on for others? By grounding our experience in the direct experience of our bodies, rather than getting caught up in abstract mental notions of how things ‘should’ be, we slowly gain the ability to see beyond the fog of stress; to get a more open, realistic perspective on what the difficulties actually are.
Weekly practice idea:
This week, when you are feeling stressed, take a few moments to ground yourself – feel the earth underneath your feet, notice your breath, any strong sensations in your body. Does this make a difference to how you deal with the situation?