I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs during my mere twenty years of life on planet Earth.
Growing up, my parents’ marriage was toxic — toxic being a gross understatement. Sure, they had good times together, but those fleeting moments of romance were scarred by bouts of fiery disagreement that would often last for days on end.
I wasn’t happy at home, not back then, and I’d find solace in visiting my then-girlfriend’s house to spend time with her and her happy family.
When I was younger, my mother battled breast cancer for a short while before making a full recovery — another burden that the joy of my relationship lightened. A few years after that, my parents made the decision to separate, which, I’d expected, would herald the beginning of a happier life for all of us.
And it did, for a while. Things were good. But then my girlfriend got diagnosed with brain cancer.
I’ll never forget that day for as long as I live.
Following a few unusual symptoms, Charlotte had an appointment with her optician. It was there that we found out that she was suffering with a condition they called papilledema, identified by the sight of swelling within the vessels of Charlotte’s eyes.
Everything snowballed from there. See, papilledema is rarely indicative of innocuous causes, like being overweight or having high blood pressure. Instead, this thing we’d never even heard of left Charlotte with a few grim possibilities. A haemorrhage, meningitis or a brain tumour.
We rushed Charlotte to the hospital, where a series of tests, scans and procedures ensued that would last until the early hours of the morning. It was around nine o'clock the next day when the doctors came to us. They sat around Charlotte’s bed and, with tears in their eyes, delivered that fatal blow that would knock us all to the ground.
Cancer. Terminal. Eighteen months.
We Can’t Control Everything
As humans, we have this in-built desire to control everything. When things operate beyond our will, we start to worry.
Take climate change, for instance. When we’re told that we might only have another fifty-odd years left on the planet and that there’s little we can really do about it on an individual level, our anxiety soars.
It’s the same with a lot of other things, too. Politics, plane crashes, brain cancer. If we can’t control it, and it might harm us or the ones we love, we worry.
Of course, we worry about things we can control, too — but that’s a different kind of worry. Why? Because we can actually do something to change our situation. We might worry about being late, but then we set our morning alarm a little earlier and dispel that fear in an instant.
When we’re discussing things that we can’t control, though, what’s the use in worrying? Well, there isn’t any.
My fiancé died in the summer. Throughout everything, from her diagnosis to her death, that single kernel of wisdom is what enabled me to cope. That is, that if something might occur that’s beyond the realms of authority, it isn’t worthy of our concern.
Some Things Are Worth Worrying About
Of course, there are some things in life that are worth worrying about, but worry is only useful insofar as it precedes action. In other words, unless we’re going to do something to alter our future and therefore change whatever it is we’re anxious might happen, there’s no need to worry.
Take health, for instance. My mother is terrified that her cancer is still looming in the dark depths of her body, waiting for the right time to emerge and claim her life.
That may or may not be true. The odds say it isn’t. Her scans are perfect and she has no reason to believe that she might have cancer. And yet, like every irrationally-minded one of us, she worries incessantly that there’s a monster lurking in the shadows.
Is that a worthy concern of hers? It is — to an extent.
As said previously, her worry is useful but only as much as it stimulates her to act. She can’t control the microbiology of cancer cells. At least, not enough to prevent the formation of a tumour.
But she can control what she eats, what she drinks and how she lives. If she does everything within her power to discourage any form of malignant recurrence, she needn’t worry.
Indeed, her cancer may still return in spite of her actions. But what more can she do? Nothing. So should she worry? Of course not.
The same is true of many things that bother us. Whether it’s a financial concern, marital issue or the daunting prospect human extinction at the hands of global warming, there are things that we can control and things that we cannot.
The former, we should deal with. The latter, we can forget.
Thoughts Are Powerful
Our mind is a strong muscle. It pulls our focus with ease and pollutes our awareness with all kinds of catastrophic forecasts — often against our will.
I’ve come to realise something recently. Our mind shapes our entire reality. Everything we do, say, perceive and project, all of it is a product of what we think.
Many of us make efforts to keep ourselves healthy, since we know that health is an important element of positive existence. And yet, ironically, few of us do anything to improve the quality of our mind. We distract ourselves with social media all day, indulge in hedonistic pleasures and then wonder why we can’t seem to focus on anything.
I’m not being critical here, either. I do these things too. The point I’m making is that so many of us complain about the state of the space between our ears, yet none of us seem to be doing anything about it.
The reason I state this opinion is because it relates directly to what I wrote in the previous paragraph. We can’t exactly just shrug our shoulders and decide never to think about the things we can’t control again.
Even if we try, our mind still has a lot of power over us and it’ll continue spinning horror stories against our will.
It follows, therefore, that we should also make more effort to bring about peace of mind and clarity. That is, to nourish our internal reality in order to lessen our worries and enhance our day-to-day existence.
We should. That, we know. But what few of us know is exactly how.
How to Clear Your Mind
As soon as I was able to process Charlotte’s diagnosis, my mind began its race to prophesise the events that would ensue. I’d sit up for hours at night and worry about what might happen in the year that was to come.
No matter how much I tried to rationalise, I couldn’t stop worrying about how things would be. In other words, all I focused on were factors I had no control over.
I’d dabbled with practices like meditation in the past, but now I knew I needed it more than ever. See, the purpose of meditation is simply to get good at disconnecting from thoughts. It isn’t to reduce their frequency, but rather, to lessen the intensity of the grip they have over us.
That way, when those worries pop up, worries about the things we can’t change, we won’t get sucked into that all-too-familiar vortex of negative thought. We’ll just stop, disconnect, and then return to reality.
Meditation is a vital practice in the pursuit of mental clarity. But that only brings us to another question. How do you meditate?
Well, a typical meditation practice might look something like this:
- Find a quiet space where you won’t be distracted.
- Sit comfortably and close your eyes.
- Begin to focus on your breath, noticing it as it enters and exits your body.
- Then, as thoughts begin to arise, simply notice them and then come back to the breath.
How often do we sit and observe the contents of our mind like this? Almost never. We’re always being distracted or busied by something — be it our phones, work or friends.
Sitting in silent reflection, however, is essential. And doing it regularly is the key to maximising its benefits.
At least once a day, every day, run through the above process for 5–10 minutes. And then, as you go about your daily business, use that same technique (focusing on your breath) whenever your worries crop up.
Worrying seems to be one of our favourite pastimes as humans. We all do it, and rarely do we give our concerns to causes that actually warrant our consideration.
I learned that the hard way. When your mind is racing with thoughts of your fiancé’s impending death and the omnipresent possibility that she’ll be subject to the terrifying reality of a multifocal seizure, your sanity demands that you start investing time into clearing your head.
But we don’t need to lose a loved one to understand the importance of mental clarity. It’s the most important faculty in our entire lives, since those lives are shaped almost entirely by the contents of our head.
Achieving that all-important state of mental clarity comes down to two key things:
- Understand that worry is only useful insofar as it precedes action. We should only think about things that we can control. Those that we can’t, we should dismiss from our awareness.
- Start investing time into making your mind clearer. Practices like meditation are vital to the health of our mental space. They arm us with the tools we need to combat our thoughts and refocus on what’s truly important to us.
With this duo, we can overcome adversity with greater ease. Be it climate change, a conservative government or a grade four Glioblastoma, what would otherwise be crashing mental waves are lessened to gentle kinks in the blanket of our mind.
Reaching that point of mental clarity takes time. And that’s a good thing, since if there’s anything we all have, it’s time. Sure, you might be a busy mother or overworked boss.
But ten minutes? We all have ten minutes.
Before You Leave
I run a free newsletter about motivation and creativity called The Daily Grind. You might like it. And if you don’t, that’s okay too.