In modern life we juggle such a high number of responsibilities that we create just as many opportunities to feel under pressure. In the process, we distance ourselves from what really matters. Preoccupied by a constant rush, we forget to look after ourselves, our loved ones and of course the environment, which enables our existence.
Lately I have experienced an elevated level of stress and frustration both at home and at work. I found myself simultaneously buying my first home, handling change at work and feeling financially stretched. In this high state of anxiety, in which I was being more sensitive than usual, I had to learn to relax and let go, to avoid losing it entirely. I am pretty sure that anyone reading this article has experienced something akin to this situation.
Going through these negative emotions has a detrimental effect to our lives. It makes us impatient, grumpy and even rude towards others. It keeps us away from having a healthy lifestyle, that benefits us and everyone else in the short and long term. That is something that I personally aspire to have. Yet in the heat of the moment, with stress swirling around us, having a balanced life can seem like something that people on another planet get to have, while here on planet ‘really busy right now’ we just have to lump it, along with the grabbed sandwich at our desk and sitting in meetings with our tense minds roaming elsewhere.
Yet it is in fact very possible to have a healthy lifestyle that makes space for your mind and body in these modern times, no matter what the devil on our shoulder tells us. What it takes is the courage to change our habits and the profound desire to live the best version of our life.
Perhaps subconsciously I was looking for someone to sanction this desire within me. And so I found myself at a talk by Tibetan Monk Geshe Gelek Rabten on managing positive and negative emotions. This introduction to Buddhist practices taught me about appreciating the simple things in life, not seeking to live a materialistic life, being loving and compassionate towards others.
I left inspired. I clearly had a choice. I could choose to tackle these emotions through making time for slowing down, prioritising what’s important and seeking simple pleasures, or I could continue along the path to burning out. I chose the first path, and in doing so I realised how much I could impact more positively on the environment. When I started to make time for slowing down, I realised that I was putting more thoughts into purchasing healthy and eco-friendly items, I exercised more and I was more empathetic and sympathising towards others. My mind was set on looking after myself so I could better look after others and be present in the moment.
When we are busy, we can convince ourselves that we don’t have time for non-urgent things, no matter how important they might be. Yet in fact it is exactly then that those practices can benefit us the most. The answer for me came in switching off the noise and reconnecting with nature.
Get out there and see the world!
Wherever you live, you have the opportunity to stretch your legs. Even your local park can help you connect to the planet around you. I go on walks because I enjoy being in the vitality of nature. It enables me to feel calm and helps me forget the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. Reconnecting with nature is something we should do because it makes us feel good but also it reminds us that nature needs to be preserved. As humans, we have claimed most of the environment at the expense of other species. Our daily routine makes us forget that we share this planet with these other species and we impact their lives. We run the risk of losing something beautiful and fundamental, and we also risk losing the profoundly positive impact that nature has on us. By simply stopping and soaking it in, it is possible to gain a more peaceful state of mind.
The significance of this act runs much deeper to our existence, because in taking this time out from our busy lives, we naturally come back to a truer state of balance within nature and in turn will gain a greater respect of the natural world. At the same time, it is also good for the planet as we become more alert advocates for its conservation.
Switch something habitual for something that is useful
About a year ago, I started cycling to work instead of using public transport to save money for a house deposit. I also really wanted to do more exercise because I have an office job where I am sat down most of the day. A 40-minute ride, twice a day, five days a week, has become my routine and I am so pleased I chose to do this. While I started cycling to save money, I found far greater benefit from the sense of motion and connection with the world around me.
My journeys take place during rush hour through the centre of Oxford. A city that also has very poor air quality because of a high car density. An 11 km journey, which by car would take over an hour, is done in 40 minutes at a fairly leisurely and crucially, constant pace. While I cycle freely, I look on at the long line of people, one by one, stuck in their cars, barely moving at walking pace. I destress through the endorphins released during exercise and I have no negative impact on the environment, as opposed to feeling stressed stuck in traffic and pumping out harmful exhaust fumes, which are damaging to both us and the wider environment. The constant movement, versus the frustration of the traffic jam, helps me to arrive at work feeling a sense of progress before I have started my day.
The payback? A calm mindset
When I am feeling overwhelmed, I have to work at being present in the moment with my colleagues and loved ones. Stepping not just out of my head but into my physicality by walking or cycling, or simply noticing the sights and smells around me has helped to quieten my busy-to-bursting mind. That is a conscious choice that I make, when it would be easier to just go with the flow of my anxiety. Every day I witness evidence of the importance of being in control of your mindset, and how powerful and beneficial it can be to question the fixed ways of thinking that we can all fall into. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset has spoken of the powerful effect of believing that we can change. To recommend breaking habits once and for all is an easy thing to say. In my view, it cannot happen without changing one’s mindset to slow down and appreciate living in the moment.