The basement of Waterstone’s is often my refuge. On the days where I feel brave enough for a weekend venture onto Princes Street, I’m often quickly reminded why I avoid it. As a mildly anxious introvert, I have strategically staked out restorative niches across the city to be called upon in a moment of personal crisis – this is one of them. If you find yourself in non-fiction, deep in the bookstore belly (which I truly believe, is in a dark basement for a reason) amongst the usual pocket guides to Rousseau and latest George Monbiot, I’ve noticed a newcomer. An interloper, multiplying like Tribbles every time I visit: Mindfulness books. Everywhere. The Little Book of Mindfulness. The Mindfulness Pocketbook. The Little Pocket Book of Mindfulness. In fact, no less than 117 titles on the subject in stock, right now. If you’ve yet to encounter this 21st century re-brand, it’s meditation for the masses.
Once upon a time, such things were the preserve of the New Age marginale, yet the word seems to have become commonplace in cultural lexicon. It’s the millennials’ Chicken Soup for the Soul. But why the shift from out there to accepted? Have we collectively reached the tipping point? Has the world gotten so ugly that what was once the preserve of chai-supping hippies (I know, I was one) has been yoinked into the mainstream by the over-worked?
A sure-fire sign of social saturation is ‘the app test’. Take a nebulous concept, bung it in the iTunes store, and see how many people can sort your life out with one £2.99 digital package. The answer is ‘lots’. To me though, the rise of ‘spiritual tech’ and the explosion in ‘wisdompreneurs’ all seems a little antithetical to the original ethos.
But – I caved, and bought one anyway, because there are some weeks where the world feels more awful than usual. Weeks when the news exists only to pipe a constant stream of human suffering into your ears. Add to that school holidays, a full-time job, 5:30am writing, bills, deadlines, post-grad research, unexpected guests, global tragedy, internet backlash, and I’d reached the limits of my own weekly stress quotient. After a futile battle between sleep and being sucked into a giant forest harvester, I needed a quick fix. Don’t we all?
I’m no newbie to the concept of spiritual calm. I’ve spent the majority of the last eighteen years in an on/off relationship with my inner self. (For the most part, mostly wishing she’d wheesht). My wee West Coast Papa, a veteran of two coronaries before fifty, knew exactly how to bring his heart rate down through focus and mantra, and taught me his secret. This progressed to trying yoga nidra after binging on Jane Fonda videos, through to joining a Buddhist chanting class and on to guided meditation, transcendental meditation and hypnobirthing. Yet despite putting in the years, the quest for inner stillness persists. If self-improvement is a journey, I keep getting on the wrong train.
So I gave the technology a shot. You know what I learned? For a simple concept, mindfulness is really bloody hard. It’s nigh on impossible to be present, and appreciate the air against your skin, and the sound of the rain, and where your body meets the floor in a room where your cat is furiously humping the rug and your kids have spontaneously redecorated with Lego and browning apple cores. Right now, mindfulness, for all its good intentions, is another personal benchmark for me to miss. In the midst of my own shitstorm of a week, it feels like a fad that has been intentionally crafted to fatten up social media posts and make me feel inadequate. Of course, I know this isn’t true. But in a world where my patience is constantly stretched it feels like yet another thing for me to try, fail and then feel bad about. I began poisoning myself with my own ‘toxic self-criticism’ – precisely what the practice is supposed to eliminate.
In a nutshell, the tech didn’t work. If anything, the passive-aggressive reminders to stop and take stock only made me cross. Pictures of dandelions, soft music and guided breathing did nothing to centre my life. And I know why – because such a radical shift in focus can’t happen in front of a 5.5-inch screen – it has to come from me. I have to recalibrate my expectations, and stop trying to find a sticking plaster fix for my own attitudinal self-sabotage.
As a result, I’m beginning to arrive at my own slightly wonky Zen state. One that is far more realistic given that I don’t live in an Instagram photo. It starts with a mutual understanding between me and The Universe, that nobody in Scotland is really living in a higher state of being. Next, it involves laughing at how badly my well-intentioned self-help pans out. Then, it’s a gradual acceptance that I’m more Daria than Dalai Lama, and that deep down, I’d rather call for pizza than strike a posture.
For all of my early rising, hungover sun salutations and meditation, I’m no longer aiming for personal nirvana. And I think I’m okay with that. Nothing beats whizzing down a hill on a bike. Nothing makes me smile like making a bed-sheet den with my boys, on a clothes horse. I know I’ll find moments of self-care hiding in bubble baths and beer bottles and in singing to The Smiths when I feel sad. These will always work in a way that deep breaths never will. So long may the little things continue.