‘A great deal of our suffering comes from an expectation that life should be different from how we find it’
Stressful things are part and parcel of life itself. It is how we handle these things that makes the difference between whether they rule or control our lives, or whether we can relate more lightly to them.
Becoming more aware of the thoughts, feelings and body sensations brought on by events, gives us the possibility of freeing ourselves from habitual, automatic, ways of reacting. So that we can instead, mindfully respond in more skilled ways.
In general, we tend to react to experience in one of three ways:
- With indifference or boredom: so that we switch out from the present moment and go off somewhere else ‘in our heads’.
- With attachment: wanting to hold on to experiences that we are having right now, or wishing we were having experiences that we want rather than what we are actually experiencing.
- With aversion: wanting to get rid of the experiences that we are having right now, or avoid experiences that may be coming along that we do not want.
Each of these ways of reacting can cause problems, particularly the tendency to react to unpleasant feelings with aversion. For now, the main issue is to become more aware of our experience as we react automatically. This awareness is the first essential step towards responding mindfully.
Regularly practicing Sitting Meditation allows us an opportunity to notice when we have drifted from awareness of the moment, and to recognise what it was that took our attention away. It then allows us to gently but firmly bring our attention back to our original focus. In doing this we are reconnecting with moment-by-moment awareness.
At other times of the day, deliberately using the Breathing Space whenever we notice unpleasant feelings or a sense of ‘tightening’ or ‘holding’ in the body provides an opportunity to loosen the grip of habitual, automatic reactions to stress.
The Stress-Reaction Cycle
Human beings are remarkably resilient to stress. We are expert copers and problem solvers, using our own internal resources, pleasurable and meaningful activities, and encouragement and support from family and friends, to deal with stress. But it’s also true that our usually stable balance can be pushed over the edge into deregulation and disorder if it is taxed beyond its capacity to respond and adapt.
Our health can be undermined by a lifetime of ingrained behaviour patterns that compound and exacerbate the pressures of living we continually face. Our automatic reactions to stress, triggered without awareness, often exacerbate the stress, making simple problems worse, and largely determining how much stress we experience. A lifetime of unconscious reaction to stress significantly increases our risk of eventual breakdown and illness.
We all experience external stressors from the biological, physical, social, economic and political forces that influence us everyday. From the inside, our thoughts and emotions are strongly affected by our perception of these outside forces, and also generate their own stressful reactions, producing another whole set of pressures and demands.
Some stressors affect us over extended periods of time – we call these chronic stressors. For instance, taking care of a family member who is disabled is a form of chronic stress. Other stressors come and go over relatively short periods of time – an example is getting something done by a deadline – these are called acute stressors. We react to stressors in different ways, depending on how far we perceive them as threats to our wellbeing or sense of self. Our reaction can range from minimal (where little or no threat is perceived) to an automatic alarm reaction where the stressor is highly charged for us emotionally, or is perceived as being a definite threat in some way.
The fight-or-flight reaction helps us to survive when we find ourselves in life-threatening situations, but in today’s world it can become a problem. Much of our stress comes from threats, real or imagined, to our social status, rather than to our lives. But the fight-or-flight reaction kicks in even when there is no life-threatening situation facing us. It is sufficient for us just to feel threatened. Our body and mind react automatically, whether the threat is real or not. If this happens often enough, hyper-arousal can become a permanent way of life. This can manifest in chronic muscle tension, shakiness, faster heart rate, and frequent urges to ‘lash out’ in anger, get into arguments or even fights.
What do we do when the fight-or flight reaction is building up inside us, but we feel unable to fight or run because both are socially unacceptable, and we know neither will solve our problems? The common way to deal with these feelings is to suppress or deny them, hiding them from others and sometimes even from ourselves. We internalise our stress reaction and carry on as usual, holding it all inside.
Remember to use your body as a way to awareness. It can be as simple as staying mindful of your posture. You are probably sitting as you read this. What are the sensations in your body at this moment? When you finish reading and stand, feel the movements of standing, of walking to the next activity, of how you lie down at the end of the day. Be IN your body as you move, as you reach for something, as you turn. It is as simple as that.
Just patiently practice feeling what is there – and the body is always there – until it becomes second nature to know even the small movements you make. If you are reaching for something, you are doing it anyway; there is nothing extra you have to do. Simply notice the reaching. You are moving. Can you train yourself to be there, to feel it?
It is very simple. Practice bringing your attention back to your body again and again. This basic effort, which paradoxically is a relaxing back into the moment, gives us the key to expanding our awareness from times of formal meditation to living mindfully in the world. Do not underestimate the power that comes to you from feeling the simple movements of your body throughout the day.
-Adapted from Joseph Goldstein ‘Insight Meditation’, 1993
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only
have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you about mine,
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving
across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clear blue air, are heading
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over
announcing your place
in the family of things.
-Mary Oliver, ‘Dream Work’, Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 1986
Home practice following Session 4
1. Practice Sitting Meditation each day
2. Practice the 3 Step Breathing Space – at least three times a day, taking around 3 minutes for each breathing space. Either practice it when you think of it, or connect it to 3 regular activities you do or places you are everyday (e.g. on waking up and/or going to bed, before a programme you regularly watch, before eating, after washing your hands, on first sitting down in your car or on the bus or at your desk)