The magnificent landscapes of the mountain parks, the warmth of the sun on your face, snow that sparkles like diamonds, the gentle sound of silence in the forest. These are just some of the treats available in the outdoors. You daydream and say yes, I could use some of that! It is time to get outdoors and unwind.
It’s Friday evening and you have had a very demanding and trying week of work – unrealistic deadlines, horrendous commuter traffic, unfriendly co-workers, unending e-mails and your patience is running thin. It is time to get outdoors and unwind. As you drive to the mountain parks, you are aware that you are not feeling your usual self. You feel tense, your thoughts are constantly on the past week and you are wondering how you are going to manage to get through the next few days at work. “What is happening to me?”, you ask yourself. You usually feel happy and relaxed driving to the mountains.
One explanation is that you are experiencing signs of too much stress. Common signs of stress are evident – physical tension that you can’t seem to get rid of; repetitive thoughts; and irritability in reaction to everyday frustrations (like sitting in traffic on the Deerfoot at rush hour). According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of “Full Catastrophe Living”, these are automatic reactions to the stressors we encounter in our lives. How much stress we experience is a result of these automatic reactions. In time, if we are caught in stress reactivity persistently, stress can build and lead to uncomfortable and unhealthy consequences. According to Kabat-Zinn, the way out of reactivity is to learn to respond to stressful situations by developing a capacity for mindfulness.
Mindfulness is non-judgmental recognition and awareness of your physical sensations, perceptions, thoughts and feelings as they occur. Awareness of your reactions to a stressful situation, in the moment, is heightened and you are now in a position to simply observe the reactions. The stance of observing enables you to change your relationship to your stress reactions. The goal is not to change the reactivity, but, to simply watch it come and go away. In time, this process leads to greater peace of mind, inner calmness, and an element of control of the situation. More control provides an opportunity to choose a suitable course of action, if any, in response to the stressors.
The process of developing a capacity for mindfulness is one of coming to your senses. You start by observing and concentrating on your breath, becoming aware of the sensations of breathing, and gradually widening your awareness of the experience of your activity through seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling (our senses) and our minds. As you become aware of the present moment and the accompanying sensations, you will see that your mind will not stay on the present moment and it may repeatedly jump back to the past and/or to the future. To come to your senses involves intentionally bringing the mind back to the present moment again and again. This process leads you to fully experience your seeing, hearing, thoughts and feelings and opening to relaxation and well-being that is available to you now, not tomorrow or ten minutes from now, but, right now.
Mindfulness is a capacity and skill that can be developed through training your mind. Meditation and gentle stretching are two effective ways to accomplish this. Over time, as you develop the capacity to experience your senses in the present moment, you will transform your relationship to your stress reactions from automatic reactivity to a stress response which can include calmness, wisdom, and clarity. Come to your senses through mindfulness – a way to find some balance in the midst of the stresses in your life and to enjoy the majesty and magnificence of the great outdoors.