One of the greatest benefits of mindfulness meditation is how it helps us gain control over our stressful thoughts. But, contrary to what one might think, the point is not to make these stressful thoughts go away. Instead it is to turn them into powerful supports for our practice, into true friends and allies that bring greater clarity, energy, insight and compassion. Does it sound crazy that your stress might be a blessing in disguise? Let me explain.
Through mindfulness, as we practice paying attention to this present moment, we begin to see how our thoughts arise and how they try to hook us into following them. The primary instruction is to notice when we have become distracted by thought, and then to shift back into awareness of this present moment and our chosen object of meditation, whether it is our breath, sound, or other bodily sensations.
With practice, we come to vividly see how much we suffer when we follow our stressful thoughts, and how much happier we are when we let them pass. We discover that we have a choice whether to follow them or not, and we learn to catch them at earlier and earlier stages, so that it is easier to disengage from them and come back into the peace and reality of this present moment.
All of this is extremely helpful, and brings significant stress relief. But this is not where the practice ends. If we take it further, we can learn a great deal from our stressful thoughts and we can begin to use them in very empowering ways, so that they truly become our friends.
One of the first ways that we can befriend our stressful thoughts is by recognizing that they are very helpful reminders of this present moment. It is easy to space out and forget our mindfulness practice when everything is going smoothly in life, but there is nothing like stress to get our attention. The suffering of stress and the uncomfortable, tense sensations in our body jolt us back into this moment, and this is the single most important opportunity for practice. This is “where the rubber meets the road,” and where we have the most potential for profound insight and great progress in our practice.
During daily-life moments of stress, here is what to do to take advantage of these golden opportunities (in fact, I invite you to try this right now by first taking a moment to think of a stressful situation in your life, until you begin to feel the stress):
- Ask yourself, “Where do I feel this stress in my body?”
- Rest in awareness of these physical sensations of stress, letting thoughts pass.
- Adopt an attitude of non-judgment, not resisting these sensations, but allowing them to be just as they are.
- Generate a sense of self-compassion, being present with these sensations like a kind, caring friend.
How does this feel? Do you see how this simple practice can help you to turn stressful experiences into powerful opportunities for mindfulness and self-compassion?
In a future article I will write more about additional ways to befriend our stressful thoughts. But for now I want to leave you with a short prayer that I wrote to help guide myself and others through the practice above. I call it The Stress Blessing.
I wrote this as a prayer because, personally, in moments of intense stress, I have learned that, in addition to mindfulness, it can be a huge help to call upon the support of my guides and higher powers. Their presence helps to empower my mindfulness, and this brings greater relief, clarity, and insight. Whether you believe in a higher power or not, reciting this prayer in moments of stress might be a way of remembering and opening to the many hidden blessings in your life’s most difficult moments.
The Stress Blessing:
Bless this stress
that I may rest in awareness
of this present moment
and these sensations