Mindfulness in the midst of this –
‘being overwhelmed is not wrong’
A last blog in this series offering mindfulness based support in these troubled times ….
In my last post I talked about three zones of experience which I called our ‘place of refuge’, our ‘place of challenge’ and our ‘place of overwhelm’. The intention of the piece was to direct our awareness to these three kinds of experience and to encourage us to develop the skills to enable us to avoid ‘overwhelm’ if we choose to.
But I wanted to write an important corollary to this. And that is, this does not mean that being overwhelmed is wrong – or that something has gone wrong if that is my experience. Overwhelm can be really unpleasant, disorientating and can involve real suffering. But it would be unhelpful to add the additional suffering of thinking I have in some way failed or got something wrong if I feel overwhelmed by all that is happening. Indeed some would argue that if I find myself overwhelmed I am actually well attuned to the situation.
So the point here is to acknowledge that, despite my best intentions, there will be times when I do just become overwhelmed. And this can happen either because of my outward circumstances and the things I am facing in life, or while I am simply sitting at home alone and while outwardly perfectly safe my thoughts and anxieties get the better of me and it all goes a bit horrible.
And so if I find myself in such a state (or if you are supporting a friend who is) then it may be helpful to remember three key things:
- This is not my fault and nothing fundamental has gone wrong
- Other people will also be experiencing this, and
- It will pass.
Nothing has gone wrong
The first point is crucial in helping us not to add coals to the fire and may help us to step back just a little and recognise ‘overwhelm’ for what it is rather than spiralling down with it. Just saying the words ‘I am feeling overwhelmed’ may help. Or if someone says this to you over the phone, then actually that is quite a helpful thing to say and our response should not be to suddenly to try to fix this person’s overwhelm but rather to help them to realise that this is quite reasonable and so, as it were, to be OK with it. No, it’s not nice and your friend is sharing their real suffering. But at least they have been able to articulate it. It may be that, having articulated it, they will be better able to choose wisely what to do right now while it is here.
Others will also be experiencing this.
The second point can also be very helpful in veering us away from over-personalising our mood state. And what’s more, it is true – many other people will be feeling the same right now – and possibly thinking they are the only one or that something is wrong with them. But the truth is that this feeling of overwhelm is a normal human reaction to the set of circumstances (outer or inner) that we are all facing. And so it can even be helpful to imagine others who are facing the same as me right now and then wishing them well, for instance as we do in the ‘befriending’ meditation if you know it:
May others who are feeling the same as me at this time be safe; may they find peace; and may they know kindness.
This, too, will pass
And the final point is what some have suggested is the greatest and deepest wisdom that there is: ‘this, too, will pass’. So actually I don’t need to do anything to fight it or make it go away. And furthermore knowing that it will pass will actually help me not to get into fights with it (which generally makes things worse anyway) and will help me to ‘be with it’ in a way that will, counterintuitively, help it to pass more easily.
[The meditation which most relates to all this, by the way, is often called ‘being with the difficult’. But it is best to use this meditation only when you are feeling a bit more settled and stable as a way of practising ‘being with difficulty’ as opposed to fighting difficulty. It would not be helpful to use as a kind of emergency help when you are still in the midst of feeling overwhelmed.]
And so, in short, the best way for me to respond to finding myself in the place of overwhelm is to see if I can possibly say to myself something like:
So here it is, here is the state of overwhelm and, actually, that is OK, it is normal, others will be experiencing this and it will pass. But what is it possible for me to do right now which will help me while it is here?
And as I write this, whatever you are facing right now, I wish you all courage and peace together with the knowledge that you are, in fact, not alone:
May you all be safe; may you all find peace; may you all know kindness.
And with every blessing and with warm wishes,