‘If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.’
This saying from Tibet beautifully encapsulates the philosophy of mindfulness. When we find ourselves struggling in life, or we just have a sense of disquiet or unease, we might look for major changes, something which will really make a difference. And sometimes big changes are necessary – for example if you’re fighting an addiction and need to check into a residential rehab facility for months in order to establish a completely different way of life. Or we may retrain for a new career, or leave an abusive relationship, or move to another country as refugees or migrants.
Most of the time, however, it is the way in which we engage with the ordinary minutes of our day which will, slowly but surely, change the way we engage with life. The neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes it as turning fleeting mental states into permanent neural traits. Over time, something minor and seemingly insignificant becomes, if repeated often enough, an important part of who we are.
Imagine you’re sitting at your desk, and you’re about to get up to fetch a document from the printer. Instead of charging across the room while anxiously thinking ahead to the next task and simultaneously worrying about something from days ago, you pause a moment for a slightly deeper breath as you get up. You walk over to the printer more slowly than usual, noticing the ground underneath your feet. You’ve been sitting at your desk for a while now, so you take the opportunity to roll your shoulders back a few times, really feeling those muscles relaxing and letting go as you walk. You pick up the document and, back at your desk, allow yourself to savour for a moment the satisfaction of having completed this particular task.
Every time you choose not to rush, to instead use the present moment to ground yourself, you are stimulating pathways in your brain which allow you to become more centred, resilient, and calm. Over time, these passing neural states become your neural traits – they become the person you are. By taking care of the minutes, you are no longer buffeted about by every minor stress, but are able to feel strong and confident in the midst of the ordinary difficulties of your life.
Weekly practice idea:
Each day, choose one routine activity to do a little more slowly and mindfully than usual. Take the time to notice how this feels.