As we start each new year, many of us are preconditioned to take stock of our lives and make changes. We check in with Rachel Ardagh of InsightOut Mindfulness, to seek her advice on how to set realistic expectations and ensure this annual assessment is on-going rather than at the behest of the Gregorian Calendar.
“I would encourage people to pause and maybe take out a pen and paper and check in with their values. We can kind of float through life mindlessly – all of us do sometimes, or we can get so hung up on what we think we should be doing, or what society thinks we should do, or get, or have, that we can lose touch with ourselves, and what’s important to us. So, rather than making unrealistic goals or expectations I would see what words come up when you think about what’s important to you, how you want to live. And give that some time and space. “ – Rachel Ardagh
When did you first get into mindfulness? Were there any triggers which led you to it?
My first course was in Buddhist meditation in the Dublin Buddhist Centre in town, quite a while ago. I think I was 24 or so. I was drawn to it from both a place of curiosity and feeling low after a breakup. Something landed with me on that course. I had my first taste of not being totally tied up in my thoughts, and I liked that. However, I also liked to have a lot of fun and continued on with my somewhat hedonistic lifestyle at the time and left meditation behind, before returning again about seven years ago. I was experiencing some mental health difficulties at the time, so I was trying just about everything to try and feel better. I did an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, and from there a bit of a love affair with meditation and mindfulness blossomed.
Again, I suppose I was beginning to get a taste of what awareness was, of how I could untangle from unhelpful mind states, and how instead of being an asshole to myself I could actively nurture my mind to be kinder – to myself and other people. I began to notice small simple beautiful things that were in my life that I was missing normally from excessive planning/worrying/ruminating. So, the love affair really began back then.
What are the common misperceptions about mindfulness?
There are so many! For a start it’s not all about being ‘zen’. It’s about being able to pause in our life and be really awake to what is going on for us. Even for a moment. The lovely moments as well as the not so lovely. In this way mindfulness takes a bit of courage, and we sometimes say it’s not for the faint hearted! But being alive to our present moment experience gives us greater flexibility and insight into what we need, how we want to respond and take care of ourselves and others, the environment, etc.
It’s not a panacea either, and it’s not the most helpful thing for everyone to do. Sometimes we need to work with a therapist to support our mental health. And sometimes we need both. At the very least it’s important to have a trauma-sensitive mindfulness teacher who is qualified and accredited. There is some substandard/dangerous stuff happening out there and I would always recommend people find their teacher on mtai.ie, (Mindfulness Teachers Association of Ireland) to make sure you are in safe and competent hands.
Mindfulness isn’t fluff either. We can see in MRI’s how parts of the brain responsible for things like emotional regulation, compassion, and perspective taking grow in grey matter, even after eight weeks of meditation. Mindfulness is proven to help down-regulate the amygdala (part of the brain responsible for the Fight Flight Freeze Response), which helps us become less reactive to what we perceive as stressful.
Finally, it breaks my heart a little when I hear people say they ‘can’t do’ mindfulness. It’s not surprising that they do think this, considering the misinformation that can be out there. Everyone has a mind that wanders, and everyone has the capacity to be mindful. Mindfulness is like a muscle that we can build and grow… Just as we can get very good at being harsh, worrying or obsessing, we can also get good at noticing this and gently training our mind to come back to what is here for us in the present moment.
It’s really hard to stay consistent with mindfulness. How do you keep it up, and any advice for people who struggle with this?
It is hard. I struggle to be consistent sometimes too. Rather than seeing this as a failure it’s helpful to see this as part of having a mindfulness practice. We will forget. According to the research we are on ‘automatic pilot’ for over 50% of our lives, so, of course, we will. So, if you forget or fall off the wagon, you can maybe just acknowledge that this was, and is, bound to happen. It’s really not a problem unless we make it into one. The essence of mindfulness is the willingness to begin again – right now. This is the only moment that we really have.
I think what helps me keep it up long-term is an acceptance of being a flawed human that’s going to forget/feel resistance/want to numb out. It’s all ok. So, yeah, I would say the most important ingredient to staying consistent is to cut yourself a little slack. It’s not another thing you need to be ‘good at’. It’s hard to be with our experience sometimes. We have never been more distracted and pulled by the pressures of living in a fast-paced world, a pandemic. Pausing even for a moment is genuinely a radical act. But it’s a lifeline, and it can help us to find moments of stability and ease, even in the midst of the uncertainty and difficulty of our current global crises.
Other things that motivate me to keep it up were certain life events where I’ve seen and felt how it’s helped me. Through the small stressors like how I can manage criticism these days (which would have crushed me a few years ago), all the way up to bereavements. I had two miscarriages during the pandemic and I was just so grateful to have had a mindfulness practice. I have never ever felt so connected with women, and have such compassion for the pain and emotional complications miscarriage and pregnancy loss can bring. I’m not saying I didn’t feel grief, heartache, loss – I very much did. But there was a little safety net there for me that just about helped me keep my feet on the floor when I felt things beginning to unravel into the shame, the fear, the anxiety that can be so live in the wake of a miscarriage, or trying to conceive after one.
We are predisposed to take stock of our lives as we start each new year. Any advice as to how to set realistic expectations and ensure this assessment is on-going rather than at the behest of the Gregorian Calendar?
I would encourage people to pause and maybe take out a pen and paper and check in with their values. We can kind of float through life mindlessly – all of us do sometimes, or we can get so hung up on what we think we should be doing, or what society thinks we should do, or get, or have, that we can lose touch with ourselves, and what’s important to us. So, rather than making unrealistic goals or expectations I would see what words come up when you think about what’s important to you, how you want to live. And give that some time and space. The pandemic has made it really clear that we live under an illusion that things are safe, permanent, or that we can control things. Life is so precious and we never know when our time will be up. One thing that’s certain is we will all die one day, sooner or later. This isn’t meant to be grim in any way, but a way we can even for a moment, wake up to what’s really important. Or in the words of Mary Oliver, “Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I would add a gentle reminder that we are all flawed, insecure, and vulnerable, and we are all only ever doing our best. So maybe the goal is to pare things down, or connect with one of those values and note one or two small actions that might lead us closer to living that way. That way we will be intrinsically motivated and are much more likely to engage during a check in around how we are getting on with this. Sharing all of this with someone close to us is another great way of making our thoughts and written words more solid, and heard.
What can people expect to learn and take away from your course or one to one sessions?
Hmm, there is no one fixed answer to this because it depends on how much a person really engages with the grist of diving into the daily practice required of them! But what I hear and feel from participants on the likes of the eight-week course is a shift in how they relate to their experience. Maybe they notice they’re a little less reactive or snappy, more patient, a little kinder to themselves or others. I often hear people talking about slowing down, and having more time to savour and notice the ‘the little things’. The most transformational shift I see in a course like the MBSR is how someone relates to themselves – how compassion for themselves can be cultivated, and grown, even in eight weeks. This would also correlate with the evidence base for MBSR. It’s incredibly humbling and moving when you see this happen. It’s kind of magic. In fact, going back to your above question about what motivates me, it’s seeing this shift. I’m very inspired by the groups and individuals I work with.
I’ve also started to take more one to one clients, especially women who are experiencing infertility, undergoing fertility treatment, or trying to conceive after pregnancy loss. These sessions, whether they are once off, or a series, are based around evidence based mindfulness and mindfulness based self compassion techniques to ease anxiety and stress. I’ll also have a bespoke course and a free drop in starting for these women in the new year.
If you had to recommend a text and/or person to follow when it comes to mindfulness, what or who would you suggest?
Or if you are a little curious to dip your toe in the Buddhist side of things I just love love love Sylvia Boorstein. She is an 83-year-old Buddhist-Jewish feminist activist New Yorker – and she is my hero!
Rachel holds a Masters in Mindfulness Based Interventions and is a member of the Mindfulness Teachers Association of Ireland. To get in touch with Rachel for One to One Mindfulness Sessions, Workshops or to be placed on the waiting list for her next course you can contact her on Instagram @rachel.ardagh, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Neil Smyth