From tigers to contented cats

dyingAt the beginning of this month there was a brief and moderate amount of publicity in the UK for two books about a subject many of us, myself included, find difficult to contemplate – death. One was by an Australian palliative care nurse called Bonnie Ware, who wrote ‘The Top Five Regrets About Dying’. Ware observed many people nearing death who saw with complete clarity that, for example, they wished they had the courage to live a life that was true to themselves and not the one that others’ expected of them. The next bigge st regret was that people wished they had not worked so hard, and therefore missed out on children growing up or precious time spent with partners.

The second book was by a French psychologist, Marie de Hennezel, called ‘Seize the day: how the dying teach us to live’. Amongst other things, de Hennezel writes about the importance of learning to embrace joy and all the small pleasures of the here-and-now.

I don’t know about you, but I often find it hard to think about my own mortality or the death of a loved one. It frightens and saddens me – and my instinct in the past has been pull away from the subject as quickly as possible.  I am also aware, however, that I do throw myself into work project after work project, and ‘stopping to smell the roses’ and appreciate the small pleasures in life often seems to take second place to that hurly-burly of constant doing. And that is despite now years of mindfulness practice.

Thankfully, help has arrived via one of those projects. I work as a mental health nurse and am currently studying the clinical applications of mindfulness on a course with a Scottish university. One of the approaches we have considered is ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ or ‘ACT’, developed relatively recently by Steven Hayes and colleagues. Within ACT, one of the many techniques on offer is to think not so much of immediate death but to imagine you are now aged seventy or eighty and reviewing your life so far.

At this point, it is important to note that ACT is also not concerned so much with goals as values. Values are both the way we wish to go about things and the consequences we desire from that in our lives. They include what kind of partner, parent, sibling, friend and colleague we wish to be, and therefore are intimately related to the quality of relationships we wish to have with others. Once we have determined what our values are we might then set concrete goals in order to live in ways which support our values more closely.

This theory has been inspiring for me in everyday life. Perhaps naturally enough, I want to be a loving, kind parent and partner, but knowing that those values do not always make their way into my everyday behaviour, I recently considered what I could do differently.  One thing stood out immediately: how to return home from work at the end of each day and actually be with my family. This may seem silly, but it can be hard to make the transition from sometimes frantic work activity to home life; on the one hand, I can be tired, grouchy and hungry, but on the other hand on a kind of ‘high’ from all that rushing about. And, taking inspiration from Maureen’s blog on 8th February, occasionally I can even return home as if I was some kind of sabre-toothed tigre, prowling about being bossy and making demands of my family.

Rather than rush straight to the kitchen and start making tea, or demanding to know why the kitchen was a mess yet again, and therefore was going to get in the way of making tea, I began to pause mindfully, find and look everybody in the eye, say hello, and enquire about their day.

In my home that means joining a teenage step-daughter for a few minutes as she watches TV at the end of another hard day at school rather than shouting hello; stopping to pet our jet-black kitten, Zac, rather than stepping over him in the hallway; and pausing to check-in properly with my partner rather than launching straight into domestic chores. Re-connecting in this way means that whatever happens for the rest of our evening together, it is a more genuinely shared and loving process. Without it we can feel like we sometimes arrive home from our different worlds and stay separate- or at least, we might not be able to let go of the busyness in our heads and rest well. Simultaneously, arriving home mindfully seems to automatically give rise to appreciation, of both small pleasures and the opportunity to have the time that I do with loved ones. Life is, after all, impermanent.