Have you ever watched a sink or bath overflow? How did you feel watching the surface tension of the water break as the water crept or gushed through the overflow pipe or over the edge and onto the floor? It fascinating to watch, especially if the tap was on slowly, so that the water level creeps up gradually, unnoticeably, until all of a sudden it’s spilling over the edge. It’s insidious, and if you walk away from a slowly filling bath, thinking you have plenty of time before it’s full, the filling takes you unaware until it’s suddenly done, and more so, and the water’s cascading over the edge, leaving you with lots of mopping up.
A tap that’s on full seems to demand closer attention: we know it’s going to fill quicker, so we pay more attention, ready to turn off the tap when the washing up bowl’s full, but sometimes we’re not quick enough and it still overflows. Either way, the container fills to the brim, and once it’s overflowing we often panic, rushing to turn off the water and clear up the mess (like when my son ‘forgot’ about his bath running until we saw water dripping through the kitchen ceiling!). Maybe that spilled water has just dampened something, or perhaps it’s caused serious, irreparable damage that will cost a lot to repair.
Our minds, bodies, and lives are very much like that bath or washing up bowl, being filled up with the water of people and situations, and just as prone to overflowing, whether it creeps or gushes. The overflow might not be a big deal, just a little spill to clear up, but all too often the metaphorical water-damage can cause serious problems. I think the trick is to pay close attention to those ‘filler-uppers’ and the speed with which our baths get full; and also consider how hot or cold the water. Like Goldilocks in the fairy tale, we each have a water temperature that’s just right. We don’t want to be in a tub of water that’s too full or empty, too hot or cold. As our life baths fill, maybe we could also pay attention to the temperature, so that we can adjust it.
What could this look like for you? Maybe the cold things are the rational, physical – connected with your work, money in the bank, fixing the car, meetings you need to attend. The hot things, the more emotional stuff, might include the pressure you feel under at work, the drama at home created by your teenage child, the stress involved when caring for older, sick relatives as well as your partner and children, maybe your long-standing mental health issues. Each of these physical and internal bath-fillers has a different rate at which they flow, some are a little but constant trickle, others gush alarmingly but for just a minute or two.
If your bath of life feels ‘wrong’ for you, could you consider what’s filling it, or the rate of flow? Can you find ways to turn off the tap so that you can get in and actually enjoy the bath instead of just being anxious about the water level? Can someone else help to turn off the tap or reduce the flow? What could this look like practically instead of my metaphors? Maybe the long hours in your job are some of the ‘gushers’, and you could reduce them, or at least pause in the middle of the day for a proper lunch break (imagine this as turning off the tap completely; even if you have to turn it on full blast later, at least there’s been a break long enough for you to draw breath). That slower flow of caring for your poorly mum is still inexorably filling the bath despite the slower speed: can someone watch the bath for you for a while? In real life, this might be asking for or accepting help from others in that caring role so you don’t have to constantly watch the bath (or help your mum).
We need to be able to enjoy the bath we’re pouring, and life isn’t about watching it all anxiously and clearing up the spills afterwards. We need to be in the bath, surrounded by all the warm water, feeling the bubbles, and maybe also a bit of grit in the bottom, and not thinking about what we can’t control about the bath. Yes, the water will cool down, and we’ll get wrinkled the longer we’re in it, but we can pour out the cold water and add more warm, and who cares about a few wrinkles?! It’s fascinating to watch your fingers and toes get squashy and wrinkled – it shows you’ve been in your bathwater a long time, enjoying it instead of just watching, anxiously, from the outside.
So I invite you to be mindful of the things filling up your bath of life that you can control a little, get into the water, and really be part of it instead of being a spectator. You could literally run a bath for yourself and imagine the amazing parts of your life going into the tub along with that gorgeous bubble bath that you’ve been saving for a special occasion. There’s a sort of ritual in filling the bath, adding essential oils or bubble bath, getting your towel/clean clothes ready, that’s calming and even necessary. Think of the preparation as a form of mindfulness, a slight untangling of the thoughts in your mind: focus on the sound of the water running, the feel of soft towels, or listening to the sounds of the radio or podcast you’ve chosen. Get into the water, perhaps play some music, and actually feel the water and bubbles, think of them as the things you love and enjoy, and try to let anything else wash off as you rinse off the bubbles. Everything can be suspended for now. Listen to the music you’ve chosen. Try to slow down your breathing and feel the water swirling gently around you. Maybe you can smell the fragrance of the bubble bath in the steam.
Once you’ve done, as the water drains out and you rinse the bath, maybe you could imagine some of the stressors going down the plughole with the water, and you can let them go for now. Stand back and take stock of the empty bath and decide how you want to control the metaphorical filling up in the future. Keep in mind the speed at which it can happen, especially if you take your eye off it, and try to build in your own little mechanisms to prevent overflows. Take regular ‘baths’ to immerse yourself in the flow of your life, let yourself get wrinkled as you have a soak, enjoy the bubbles and the silly stuff, top up the cooling water when you need to, and really listen to the music!
Have a good week, and do let me know how you get on if you try this for yourself!