‘Mindfulness provides a simple but powerful route for getting ourselves unstuck and back in touch with our own wisdom and vitality …’
– Kabat-Zinn, 1994
Body Scan – guided meditation
Acceptance and change
The advantages of awareness, acceptance, and mindfully responding to situations rather than immediately resorting to pre-programmed ‘automatic’ reactions has been a theme throughout this programme.
Acceptance may often be the springboard to some form of skilful action directed at achieving change in your inner or outer worlds.
However, there are also situations and feelings where it may be very difficult, or actually impossible, to change. In these cases, there is the danger that by carrying on trying to solve an insoluble problem or by refusing to accept the reality of the situation one is in you can end up ‘banging your head against a brick wall’, which is exhausting, and can actually increasing your sense of helplessness.
In these situations, you can still retain some sense of dignity and control by making a conscious, mindful, decision not to try to control it and accept the situation as it is. If possible, with a kindly attitude both to the situation and your reactions to it.
Choosingnot to act is much less likely to increase a sense of helplessness and stress, than being forced to give up attempts at control after repeated failures.
Download the form attached below and answer the relevant questions for your own reflections.
Give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which must be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.
– by Reinhold Niebuhr
Where do we find this grace, this courage, and this wisdom?
At some level, we already have all of these qualities. Our task is to realize them (make them real), and our way is none other than moment-by-moment mindful awareness.
Looking to the future
Decide, right now, what your regular pattern of practice will be over the coming weeks, and commit to stick to it as best you can.
Also, remember the Breathing Space. Regular practice provides a way of “checking in” with yourself a few times a day. Make it be your first response in times of difficulty, stress, or unhappiness, whatever happens.
Use Your Umbrella
A young woman, studying in India, undertook to develop love, kindness, and goodwill through her meditation practice. Sitting in her small room, she would fill her heart with loving-kindness for all beings. Yet each day, as she went to the bazaar to gather her food, she would find her loving-kindness sorely tested by one shopkeeper who would daily subject her to unwelcome caresses. One day she could stand it no more and began to chase the shopkeeper down the road with her upraised umbrella. To her mortification she passed her teacher standing on the side of the road observing this spectacle. Shame-faced she went to stand before him, expecting to be rebuked for her anger.
“What you should do,” her teacher kindly advised her, “is to fill your heart with loving-kindness, and with as much mindfulness as you can muster, hit this unruly fellow over the head with your umbrella.”
Sometimes that is what we need to do. It would be easy enough to hit the man over the head with the umbrella. The difficult part is to do it with all the loving-kindness in our heart. That is our real practice.
– adapted from Christian Feldman & Jack Kornfield: Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart, Harper, San Francisco 2001
“Remember to weave your parachute every day, rather than leaving it to the time you have to jump out of the plane!”
Well done and congratulations on completing the final session. I am going to leave you with a few simple ideas for how you can bring mindful practices into your everyday activities
When you first wake up in the morning before you get out of bed, bring your attention to your breathing. Observe 5 mindful breaths.
Notice changes in your posture. Be aware of how your body and mind feel when you move from lying down to sitting, to standing, to walking. Notice each time you make a transition from one posture to the next.
Whenever you hear a phone ring, a bird sing, a train pass by, laughter, a car horn, the wind, the sound of a door closing. Use any sound to be like the bell of mindfulness. Really listen, being present and awake.
Throughout the day take a few moments to bring your attention to your breathing. Observe 5 mindful breaths.
Whenever you eat or drink something, take a minute and breathe. Look at your food and realize that the food was connected to something which nourished its growth. Can you see the sunlight, the rain, the earth, the farmer in your food? Pay attention as you eat, consciously consuming this food for your physical health. Bring awareness to seeing your food, smelling your food, tasting your food, chewing your food, and swallowing your food.
Notice your body while walking or standing. Take a moment to notice your posture. Pay attention to the content of the ground under your feet. Feel the air on your face, arms, and legs as you walk. Are you rushing?
Bring awareness to listening and talking. When listening, can you listen without agreeing or disagreeing, liking or disliking or planning what you will say when it is your turn? When talking, can you say what you need to say without overstating or understanding? Can you notice how your mind and body feel?
Whenever you are waiting in a queue, use this time to notice standing and breathing. Feel the contact of your feet on the floor and how your body feels. Bring attention to the rising and falling of your abdomen. Are you feeling impatient?
Be aware of any tightness in your body throughout the day. Breathe into it and as you exhale let go of excess tension. Is there tension stored anywhere in your body? For example – your neck, shoulders, stomach, jaw, or lower back. If possible stretch or do yoga once a day.
Focus attention on your daily activities – such as brushing your teeth, brushing your hair, washing up, putting on your shoes, doing your job. Bring mindfulness to each activity.
Before you go to sleep at night, take a few minutes and bring your attention to your breathing. Observe 5 mindful breaths.
– Adapted from Saki Santorelli, EdD, University of Massachusetts Medical School
‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’
Bringing awareness to times of difficulty
What we actually do with our time, from moment to moment, from hour to hour, from one year to the next, can be a very powerful influence on our general wellbeing and our ability to respond skillfully to challenges in our lives.
Make a List of all your daily activities
From the time you get up until the time you go to bed.
When you have done that – go down the list and categorize each one as either: N – nurturing activity (something that nourishes you) D – draining activity (something that depletes you)
You might like to try asking yourself these questions:
Of the things that I do and take in, what nourishes me? What energizes me, makes me feel calm and centred? What increases my sense of actually being alive and present, rather than merely existing? (the N activities)
Of the things that I do and take in, what depletes me? What pulls me down, drains my energy and makes me feel tense and fragmented? What decreases my sense of actually being alive and present, or makes me feel I am merely existing, or worse? (the D activities)
Accepting that there are some aspects of my life that I simply cannot change, how can I consciously choose to increase the time and effort I give to the things that nurture me, and to decrease the time and effort I give to the things that deplete me?
And how could I learn to approach the things at present I find depleting in a different way? To practice being fully present with them, even if I find them boring or unpleasant. To bring the same curiosity and attention to them as if doing them for the first time.
By being present in more of our moments, and making mindful decisions about what we really need at each of those moments, we can use activity, and the choices we make about what we take in, to become more aware and alert.
This is true both for the regular pattern of our daily lives and for times of difficulty. We can use day-by-day experience to discover and cultivate activities that nourish us, and then use these as tools to cope with periods of challenge. Having these tools readily available means that we will be more likely to persist with them in the face of difficulty instead of our habitual responses.
For example, one of the simplest ways to take care of your physical and mental wellbeing is to take daily physical exercise. As a minimum, aim for three brisk 10 minute walks a day and also, if at all possible, other types of exercise such as mindful movement, yoga, swimming, cycling, etc. Once exercise is part of your daily routine, it is readily available as a way of responding to external and internal difficulties as they arise.
The Exhaustion Funnel – Professor Marie Asberg
The narrowing area of the circles illustrates the narrowing of our lives as we give up the things that we enjoy but that seem ‘optional’. The result is that we stop doing activities that would nourish us, leaving only work or other stressors that often deplete our resources.
Professor Marie Asberg suggests that those who continue downward are likely also to be the most conscientious workers, those whose level of self-confidence is closely dependent on their performance at work. The diagram also shows the sequence of accumulating ‘symptoms’ experienced as the funnel narrows and people become more and more exhausted
3 Step Breathing Space
Using the Breathing Space
The Breathing Space provides a way to remind us to use activity to deal with unpleasant feelings as they arise. After reconnecting with an expanded awareness in the Breathing Space, it may feel appropriate to take some considered action. The following activities can be particularly helpful:
Doing something pleasurable
Be kind to your body. Have a nice hot bath; have a nap; treat yourself to some of your favourite food without feeling guilty; have your favourite hot drink.
Engage in enjoyable activities. Go for a walk (maybe with the dog or a friend); do your favourite hobby; do some gardening; take some exercise; phone a friend; spend time with someone you like; cook a meal; go shopping; watch something funny or uplifting on TV; read something that gives you pleasure; listen to music that makes you feel good.
Be aware of barriers to pleasure. Be aware of ‘killjoy thoughts’ that tell you won’t enjoy a pleasure you have planned, that you don’t deserve it, that you should be enjoying it more, thoughts that distract you from fully experiencing what you are doing.
Doing something that gives you a sense of satisfaction, achievement or control
Clean the house, clear out a cupboard, catch up with letter writing, do some work, pay a bill or do something that you have been putting off doing.
Be aware of over-high standards and ‘it should be different’ thinking. They may make it hard for you to feel you have achieved anything worthwhile.
Notice thoughts like “I should be doing this better/faster/more easily.” Recognize them for what they are, and let them be.
When we are faced with difficult times it may well be helpful to break tasks down into smaller steps and only tackle one step at a time. Make sure you treat yourself kindly and with respect, and congratulate yourself whenever you complete a task or a part of a task.
When we are faced with difficulties or feeling stressed our minds tend to be preoccupied with worries. We may be going over and over things that have happened in the past, trying to make sense of why we feel the way we do, or anxiously wondering about the future. The end result is that our attention is not really on what we are doing – we are lost in our heads, rather than focused on what is happening right here and now. This means that activities that might nourish us become depleting.
Notice if your mind has been hijacked by thoughts or feelings that tend to take you away from being present. Instead, have an intention to focus your entire attention on what you are doing right now.
Keep yourself in the very moment you are in; put your mind in the present (e.g. “Now I am walking down the stairs … now I can feel the bannister beneath my hand … now I’m walking into the kitchen … now I’m turning on the light …”). Be aware of your breathing as you do other things. Be aware of the contact of your foot with the floor as you walk.
The more powerful your thoughts and feelings, the more difficult this may be. But, with practice, you will find that your capacity to be more fully present in each moment will grow.
Tips to keep in mind
Whatever you choose, treat it as an experience. Don’t pre-judge how you will feel afterwards. Keep an open mind about whether doing this will be helpful in any way.
Aim for a broad range
Consider a range of ways of taking care of yourself and don’t limit yourself to a few favourites. Sometimes trying new behaviours can be interesting in itself.
Don’t expect miracles
Carry out what you have planned to do as best you can. Putting extra pressure on yourself by expecting a single activity to alter things dramatically may be unrealistic.
When things feel difficult
The mindfulness skills we have been developing through these sessions are particularly relevant to these times. When we are under pressure we are more likely to revert to old habits of mind. The more ‘tuned in’ you are to yourself and the world around you the wiser your decisions, choices and actions will be. This is particularly helpful when you are facing challenges. At these times … try asking yourself: ‘What do I need to help me get through this time?’
The Paradox of Noise
It is a paradox that we encounter so much internal noise When we first try to sit in silence
It is a paradox that experiencing pain releases pain.
It is a paradox that keeping still can lead us So fully into life and being.
Our minds do not like paradoxes. We want things To be clear, so we can maintain our illusions of safety. Certainty breeds tremendous smugness.
We each possess a deeper level of being, however, which loves paradox. It knows that summer is already growing like a seed in the depth of winter. It knows that the moment we are born, we begin to die. It knows that all life shimmers, in shades of becoming – that shadow and light are always together, the visible mingled with the invisible.
When we sit in stillness we are profoundly active. Keeping silent, we hear the roar of existence. Through our willingness to be the one we are, We become one with everything
– by Gunilla Norris
Home Practice following Session 7
1. From all the different forms of formal mindfulness practice that you have experienced in the course, settle on the practice(s) that you intend to use on a regular, daily basis going forward. Try your practice with and without recordings. Also practice informally by being as aware and awake as possible throughout the day. Look for ways to make the practice your own. Record your reactions if you wish.
2. 3 Step Breathing Space – practice three times a day at times that you have decided in advance.
3. 3 Step Breathing Space – Coping practice whenever you notice unpleasant thoughts or feelings.
4. Spend some time finding out what your warning signs are when you feel stressed or in difficulty. Using the form from the previous session, develop a list of the range of unhelpful actions and strategies that you find yourself slipping into at difficult times. Having an awareness of these will help you to spot them when they are present. If you want to, include those people you share your life with, in a collaborative effort to notice and respond rather than react.
Home practice record form Session 7
Record each time you practice on the Home Practice Form. Also, make a note of anything that comes up in the home practice.
‘From thoughts come actions. From actions come all sorts of consequences. In which thoughts will we invest? Our great task is to see them clearly, so that we can choose which ones to act on and which simply to let be’
– Joseph Goldstein
Our thoughts can have very powerful effects on how we feel and what we do. Often those thoughts are triggered and run off quite automatically. By becoming aware, over and over again, of the thoughts and images passing through the mind and letting go of them as we return our attention to the breath in the moment, it is possible to get some distance and perspective on them.
This can allow us to see that there may be other ways to think about situations, freeing us from the routine of the old thought patterns that automatically ‘pop into the mind’. More importantly, we may eventually come to realise that all thoughts are only mental events (including the thoughts that say they are not).
Thoughts are not facts, and we are not our thoughts.
Thoughts and images often provide us with an indication of what is going on deeper in the mind; we can ‘get hold of them’, so that we can look them over from a number of different perspectives. By becoming familiar with our own most frequent, automatic, unhelpful thought patterns, we can more easily become aware of and begin to change them.
It is particularly important to become aware of thoughts that may block or undermine practice, such as “There’s no point in doing this” or “It’s not going to work, so why bother?” Such a pessimistic, hopeless thought pattern is one of the most characteristic features of highly stressed states, and one of the main factors that stop us from taking action that would help us.
It follows that it is particularly important to recognize such thoughts as ‘negative thinking’ and not automatically give up on efforts to apply skillful means to change the way we feel.
Some helpful ways that you can see your thoughts differently
Just watch them come in and leave, without feeling that you have to follow them.
See if it is possible to notice the feelings that give rise to the thoughts: the ‘context’ in which your thoughts are just one link in a chain of events.
View your thoughts as mental events rather than facts. It may be true that this event often occurs with other feelings. It is tempting to think of it as being true, but it is still up to you to decide whether it is true and how you want to deal with it.
Write your thoughts down on paper. This allows you to see them in a way that is less emotional and overwhelming. Also, the pause between having the thought and writing it down can give you a moment to respond to it differently.
For particularly difficult thoughts, it may be helpful to take another look at them intentionally, in a balanced, open state of mind, as part of your sitting practice. Let your ‘wise mind’ give its perspective. Perhaps, labelling the feeling with a sense of curiosity, “Ah, here is sadness”: “Here is the familiar harsh and critical voice:” The key here is to look at your thoughts with gentle interest and curiosity.
Stepping back from thoughts
It is remarkable how liberating it feels to be able to see that your thoughts are just thoughts and not ‘you’ or ‘reality’. For instance, if you have the thought that you must get a certain number of things done today and you don’t recognise it as a thought but act as if it’s ‘the truth’, then you have created a reality in which you really believe that those things must all be done today. Thereby putting yourself under pressure.
This liberation from the tyranny of the thinking mind comes directly out of the meditation practice itself. When we spend some time each day in a state of non-doing, observing the flow of the breath and the activity of our mind and body, without getting caught up in that activity, we are cultivating calmness and mindfulness.
As the mind develops stability and is less caught up in the content of thinking, we strengthen the mind’s ability to concentrate and to be calm.
And if each time we recognize a thought as a thought when it arises and register its content, discerning the strength of its hold on us and the accuracy of its content, then each time we let go of it and come back to our breathing and a sense of our body, we are strengthening mindfulness.
In this way we come to know ourselves better and become more accepting of ourselves, not as we would like to be, but as we actually are.
Other people can be a big source of stress in our lives. Our relationships with others give us seemingly endless opportunities for practicing mindfulness and so reducing ‘people stress’. Psychological stress arises from the interaction between us and the world, so we need to take responsibility for our part in relationships with people who ’cause us stress’ – responsibility for our own perceptions, thoughts, feelings and behaviour. If we react unconsciously when we are having a problem with another person, just as with other forms of stress, this usually makes matters worse.
The deeply automatic impulse to fight-or-flight influences our behaviour even when our modern lives are not in actual physical danger. When we feel our interests or social status are threatened, we can react aggressively to protect our position before we know it. Alternatively we may act submissively at the expense of our own views, feelings, and self-respect.
Since we also have the ability to reflect, think and be aware, we have a range of other options available to us. But we need to purposefully cultivate these other options. They don’t just magically surface, especially if our way of relating interpersonally has been dominated in the past by automatically defensive or aggressive behaviour. We can choose a response, rather than being carried away by a reaction.
Even when we are feeling threatened, angry, or frightened, we have the potential to improve our relationships dramatically if we bring mindfulness into the domain of communication itself. To communicate is to unite, to have a meeting or union of minds. This does not necessarily mean agreement. It does mean seeing the situation as a whole, and understanding the other person’s view as well as one’s own.
When we are totally absorbed in our own feelings, view and agenda, it is virtually impossible to have genuine communication. When we react by feeling personally threatened, it is easy to draw battle lines, and have the relationship degenerate into ‘us’ against ‘them’ making the possibility of communication very difficult. Locking into these restricted mindsets, means we cannot recognize the whole system of which we and our views are only a part.
But when both sides in a relationship expand the domain of their thinking and are willing to consider each other’s point of view and the system as a whole, then extraordinary new possibilities emerge, as imaginary but all-too-limiting boundaries in the mind dissolve.
Even when one party takes responsibility for thinking of the whole system and the other does not, the system is altered and new possibilities for conflict resolution and understanding may emerge. This response requires us to be centred, awake and mindful. We become grounded in our breathing and in seeing the situation as a whole without reacting totally out of fear, even if fear is present as is likely in our real-life encounters with people.
It means that we are willing to see things from the other person’s perspective, and are receptive and willing to look and listen. This allows the other person to maintain his or her integrity, and for both to become partners rather than adversaries, whether the other person wants to or not. In this position, though you don’t know what will happen next, you’ve many more options. By maintaining your centre, you are in control of yourself and much less vulnerable to harm. If you are committed to meeting each moment mindfully, with as much calmness and acceptance as you can muster and with a sense of your own integrity and balance, new and more harmonious solutions often come to mind as you need them.
The patience, wisdom and firmness that can come out of a moment of mindfulness in the heat of a stressful interpersonal situation can yield fruit almost immediately, because the other person usually senses that you cannot be intimidated or overwhelmed. He or she will feel your calmness and self-confidence and will probably be drawn towards it.
When you are willing to be secure enough in yourself to listen to what other people want and how they see things without constantly reacting, objecting, arguing, fighting, resisting, making yourself right and them wrong, they will feel heard, welcomed, and accepted. This feels good to anybody. They will then be much more likely to hear what you have to say too, maybe not right away, but as soon as emotions calm. There will be more chance for communication and a meeting of minds, and an acknowledging and coming to terms with difference. In this way, your mindfulness practice can have a healthy and even healing effect on your communication and your relationships.
The most effective way to communicate with others is by being assertive (rather than either submissive or aggressive). This comes from giving yourself and others equal rights, and respecting both your own and others’ boundaries. Assertiveness involves clear, calm thinking and respectful negotiation, where each person is entitled to their opinion.
It requires you to have an awareness of your feelings as feelings, so you can break out of the passive or hostile modes that can automatically surface when we feel put upon or threatened. The first step towards becoming more assertive is to practice knowing how you are actually feeling. This may not be so easy, especially if you have been conditioned all your life to believe that is wrong to have certain kinds of thoughts, which can lead to unconscious suppression of feelings, or alternatively to feeling guilty about what you are feeling.
The first lesson in assertiveness is that your feelings are simply your feelings! They are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ – these are just judgements that you or others impose onto your feelings. When you know what you are feeling and have practised reminding yourself that they are just feelings and it’s okay to feel them, you can begin to explore ways of being true to your feelings without letting them create more problems for you by becoming passive or aggressive.
When being assertive, it is also helpful to say how you are feeling or seeing things by making “I” statements rather than “you” statements. “I” statements convey information about your feelings and views, rather than saying things like “You make me so angry” or “You are always making demands on me.” Can you see that this is saying that the other person is in control of your feelings, so handing power over your feelings to another person?
The alternative is to say something like “I feel so angry when you say this or do that.” This is more accurate. It says how you feel in response to something. This leaves the other person room to hear what you are saying about how you see and feel without feeling blamed or attacked, and without being told he or she has more power than he does.
The most important part of effective communication is to be mindful of your own thoughts, feelings and speech as well as of the whole situation. Most of the time, cultivating this approach will help resolve potential conflicts, create greater harmony and mutual respect. In the process you are much more likely to get what you want and what you need from your encounters with other people, and so are they!
The Ten-finger gratitude exercise
To come to a positive appreciation for the small things in life, you can try the gratitude exercise. It simply means that once a day you bring to mind ten things which you are grateful for; counting them on your fingers. It is important to get to ten things, even when it becomes increasingly harder after you reel off the first few. This is exactly what the exercise is for, intentionally bringing into awareness the tiny, previously unnoticed elements of the day.
Have you ever watched kids On a merry-go-round Or listened to the rain Slapping on the ground?
Ever followed a butterfly’s erratic flight Or gazed at the sun into the fading night?
Do you run through each day on the fly When you ask “How are you?” Do you hear the reply?
When the day is done, Do you lie in your bed With the next hundred chores Running through your head?
You better slow down Don’t dance so fast Time is short The music won’t last
Ever told your child, We’ll do it tomorrow And in your haste, Not see his sorrow?
Ever lost touch, Let a good friendship die ‘Cause you never had time To call and say “Hi”?
When you run so fast to get somewhere You miss half the fun of getting there.
Life is not a race. Do take it slower Hear the music Before the song is over.
– by David L. Weatherford
Home practice following Session 6
Body Scan, Mindful Movement or Sitting Meditation. You could experiment with different practices on different days; different times of the day; and perhaps working at times in silence without a recording
3 Step Breathing Space – Regular practice three times a day. Either practise 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 eating, when you get to your desk).
3 Step Breathing Space – Coping practice whenever you notice yourself starting to feel stressed and explore options of responding with greater mindfulness and in a more friendly way to yourself and the situation
Do the Ten-finger gratitude exercise each day – don’t stop until you have reached the ten things to be grateful for.
Choose a Habit Releaser – some examples below could be..
a. Going for a walk
Walking is one of the finest exercises, a brilliant stress reliever and mood booster. A good walk can put the world in perspective and soothe your frayed nerves. There’s no need to feel that you have to rush anywhere; the aim is to walk as mindfully as you can, focusing your awareness on your feet as they land on the ground, and feeling the fluid movements of all the muscles and tendons in your feet and legs. You might even notice that your whole body moves as you walk, not just your legs. Pay attention to all of the sights, sounds and smells around you. If you’re in a city you’ll still see and hear a surprising number of birds and animals. See if it is possible to be open to all your senses; smell and scent of flowers, the aroma of freshly cut grass. See if you can feel the breeze on your face or the rain on your head or hands; listen to the air as it moves; see how the patterns of light and shade can shift unexpectedly.
b. Do a good-natured deed for someone else
Why not carry out a random act of kindness? It needn’t be something big. Think about your friends, family and workmates. How can you make their lives a little bit better? Perhaps a colleague is hard pressed on a particular job and you could cheer them up by leaving a little treat on their desk first thing in the morning. There’s no need to tell anyone else about it. Give for the sake of giving and imbue it with warmth and empathy. Once again, you don’t need to wait until you feel like doing it – see the action as a meditation in itself, an opportunity for learning and exploring your reactions and responses.
c. Do something nourishing for yourself
If you find you are always giving to others and not to yourself, see how it is to do something nice for yourself. This might be taking a nice walk followed by lunch, spending some time by yourself reading a book, making an appointment for a massage, treating yourself to something you enjoy or perhaps reconnecting with an old hobby.
Home Practice Record Form Session 6
Record each time you practice on the home practice form. Also, make a note of anything that comes up in the home practice.
‘Bringing awareness to the body offers us an alternative way for learning to relate differently to difficult experience’
– Segal et al, 2013
Turning towards difficulty
In this session we extend our formal practice to deliberately begin turning towards painful experiences with kindness. The basic guidance in this practice is to become mindfully aware of whatever is most prominent in our moment-by-moment experience.
So the first step, if the mind is repeatedly drawn to a particular place (thoughts, feelings, or body sensations), is to deliberately take a gentle and friendly awareness to whatever is pulling our attention, noting the sense of being pulled again and again to the same place.
The second step is to notice, as best we can, how we are relating to whatever is arising in the body or mind. Our reactions to our own thoughts and feelings may determine whether they are just passing events or whether they persist. Often we can be with a thought, feeling, or body sensation but in a non-allowing, reactive way. If we like that experience or feeling, we may become attached to it and try to hold on to it.
If, on the other hand, we dislike it because it is painful, unpleasant, or uncomfortable in some way, then we may experience fear or irritation, tense up, or try to push it away. Each of these responses is the opposite of allowing or letting things be.
The easiest way to relax is, first, to let go of trying to make things different from how they are. Allowing experience means simply allowing space for whatever is going on, rather than trying to create some other state.
Through cultivating a ‘willingness to experience’, we settle back into awareness of what is already present. We let it be. That is, we simply notice and observe whatever is already here.
This is the way to relate to experiences that have a strong pull on our attention, however powerful they seem. When we see them clearly, it helps prevent us from getting pulled into brooding and ruminating about them, or trying to suppress or avoid them.
We can then begin the process of freeing ourselves from them. We open up the possibility of responding skilfully and with compassion rather than reacting, in a knee-jerk fashion, by automatically running off old (and often unhelpful) strategies.
A new practice
Now we will explore together this new way of approaching difficulty. If we notice that our attention keeps being pulled away from the breath (or another focus) to painful thoughts, emotions, or feelings, the first step is to become mindfully aware of any physical sensations in the body that are occurring alongside the thought or emotion.
We then deliberately move the focus of awareness to the part of the body where those sensations are strongest. See how the breath can provide a useful vehicle to do this, just as we practiced in the Body Scan. We can then take a gentle and friendly awareness to that part of the body by ‘breathing into’ it on the in-breath, and ‘breathing out’ from it on the out-breath.
Once our attention has moved to the body sensations, and they are in the field of awareness, we can say to ourselves, “It’s OK. Whatever it is, it’s OK to allow myself to be open to it.”
Then we just stay with the awareness of these body sensations and our relationship to them, breathing with them, accepting them, letting them be.
Note, it may be helpful to repeat “It’s OK. Whatever it is, it’s OK. Let me be open to it,” using each out-breath to soften and open to the sensations.
‘Letting be’ is not resignation – it allows us, as a vital first step, to become fully aware of difficulties and to respond to them more skilfully.
3 Step Breathing Space – Coping
You have been practicing the Breathing Space regularly and whenever you need it. Now we suggest that whenever you feel troubled in body or mind, the first step is always to take a breathing space. Here is some extra guidance that may help at these times.
1. Awareness of the difficulty
Acknowledging. Bring yourself into the present moment by deliberately adopting a dignified posture. Then ask: “what is going on with me at the moment?” Notice, acknowledge and identify what is happening for you. Observe your inner experience, and notice what is happening in your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. Describe your experiences in words. For example say in your mind: “Feelings of anger are arising” or “Self-critical thoughts are here.”
2. Redirecting attention
Gathering your full attention onto the breathing, experience fully each in-breath and each out-breath as they follow one after the other. You may find it helps to note at the back of your mind: “Breathing in … Breathing out …”, or to count the breaths. The breath can function as an anchor to bring you into the present and to help you tune in to a state of awareness and stillness.
3. Expanding awareness
Expand your awareness around the breathing to the whole body, and the space it takes up, as if the whole body is breathing. In particular, take the breath to any discomfort, tension or resistance you experience, ‘breathing into’ the sensation. While breathing out, allow a sense of softening, opening, and letting go. You can also say to yourself: “it’s okay to feel whatever I’m feeling,” “I don’t like it but I can be with it.” Include a sense of the space around you too. Hold everything in awareness. As best as you can, bring this expanded awareness into the next moments of your day. Carry on holding any difficult experiences in a wider awareness when you notice them, rather than the mind being in battle with them.
This use of the breathing space gives us a way to step out of ‘automatic pilot’ mode when dealing with difficulties, and to reconnect with the present moment and our own inner wisdom.
Responding to stress
The very first and most important step in breaking free from a lifetime of stress reactivity is to be mindful of what is actually happening while it is happening. This creates an alternative pathway, which we call the stress response to distinguish it from the automatic stress reaction.
In the stress response, we use mindfulness to create strategies to cope with stress in healthy ways. Moment-to-moment awareness allows us to exert control and to influence the flow of events at those very moments when we are most likely to react on automatic pilot, and where before we would have plunged into the fight-or-flight reaction.
As soon as you bring awareness to what is going on in a stressful situation, you are not on automatic pilot anymore, and have already changed the situation dramatically. Becoming aware takes only a split second, but it gives you a range of options for influencing what will happen next. You now don’t have to suppress your thoughts and feelings associated with heightened arousal to prevent yourself from going out of control. You can actually allow yourself to feel threatened or fearful, angry or hurt, and to feel the tension in your body. You can easily recognise these agitations for what they are – thoughts, feelings and sensations.
We have been training mind and body to respond in this way in the formal meditation practice. Only through this regular training could our calmness and awareness start to become strong and reliable enough to help us respond in a balanced, imaginative way when we are stressed.
The capacity to respond mindfully develops each time we experience discomfort, pain or strong feelings during meditation, and we just observe them and work at letting them be the way they are, without reacting to them. We have learned that control can come out of inner calmness, acceptance and openness. We don’t have to struggle with thoughts or feelings, or try to force things to be how we want them to be. We can decide to do things differently.
When you bring awareness to stressful moments, you might see if you’re overreacting to the situation, and remind yourself to try letting go of your own self-limiting view, just to see what would happen. Making the effort to meet the situation with calmness and clarity might help things become more harmonious. When you experiment in this way, you may be surprised at how many things that used to ‘push your buttons’ no longer get you as agitated. They may no longer even seem stressful to you, not because you have given up and become helpless and defeated, but because you have become more relaxed and trusting of yourself. Responding in this way under pressure is an empowering experience. Ask yourself – what do you have to lose by trying it?
How do we consciously cultivate the stress response in daily life? The same way we cultivate mindfulness in the formal meditation practice: moment-by-moment, grounding ourselves in our body and our breathing. When your buttons are pushed or you find yourself feeling stressed, you might try bringing your awareness to your face and shoulders as they tense up, to your heart beginning to pound, to how your stomach is feeling, or to whatever else you might notice about how your body feels at that moment.
See if you can be aware of your feelings of anger, fear or hurt as you feel them arising in you. You might even try saying to yourself, “This is it” or “Here is a stressful situation” or “Now is the time to tune into my breathing and centre myself.”
It takes practice to catch stress reactions as they are happening. But don’t worry, if you are like most of us, you will have plenty of opportunities to practice. It is unrealistic to expect yourself to respond in this way to every situation, but just by trying to bring a larger view to each moment, you are transforming the stressors into challenges and pathways for growth.
It all starts with the breath
The place to start, of course, is with your breathing. If you can manage to bring your attention to your breathing for even the briefest moment, it will set the stage for facing that moment and the next one mindfully. The breath itself is calming, especially when we can tune into it at the belly. It’s like an old friend anchoring us and giving us stability.
The breath reconnects you with calmness and awareness whenever you lose touch. It brings you to an awareness of your body in that moment, including any increase in muscle tension. It can also remind you to check your thoughts and feelings. Perhaps you will see how reactive they are. Perhaps you will question their accuracy.
Maintaining your own centre in the face of stress helps you to look for the whole context, and recover your inner balance more quickly even if it is thrown off initially by your reaction.
When you channel your energies in this way, you will experience a quicker recovery of your mental equilibrium, even in very stressful situations, and also of your physiological equilibrium as your bodily reactions calm down. You respond and then it’s finished. You move on.
Responding to stress requires moment-to-moment awareness, taking each moment as it comes, trusting in your ability to come up with new ways of seeing and responding in every moment. And remember, you will be charting new territory each time you encounter stress in this way.
A new practice – Mindful Walking
1. Find a place where you can walk up and down, without feeling concerned about whether people can see you. It can be inside or outside, and the length of your ‘walk’ may vary perhaps between 7 and 10 paces.
2. Stand at one end of your walk, with your feet parallel to each other, about 4 to 8 inches apart, and you knees ‘unlocked’ so that they can gently flex. Allow your arms to hang loosely by your sides, or hold your hands loosely together in front of your body. Direct your gaze, softly, straight ahead.
3. Bring the focus of your awareness to the soles of your feet, getting a direct sense of the physical sensations of the contact of the feet with the ground and the weight of your body transmitted through your legs.
4. When you are ready, transfer the weight of the body into the right leg, noticing the changing pattern of physical sensations in the legs and feet as the left leg ’empties’ and the right leg takes over the support of the rest of the body.
5. With the left leg ’empty’, allow the left heel to rise slowly from the floor, noticing the sensations in the calf muscles as you do so, and continue, allowing the whole of the left foot to lift gently until only the toes are in contact with the floor. Aware of the physical sensations in the feet and legs, slowly lift the left foot, carefully move it forward, feeling the foot and leg as they move through the air, and place the heel on the floor. Allow the rest of the bottom of the left foot to make contact with the floor as you transfer the weight of the body into the left leg and foot, aware of the increasing physical sensations in the left leg and foot, and of the ’emptying’ of the right leg and the right heel leaving the floor.
6. With the weight fully transferred to the left leg, allow the rest of the right foot to lift and move it slowly forward, aware of the changing patterns of physical sensations in the foot and leg as you do so. Focusing your attention on the right heel as it makes contact with the ground, transfer the weight of the body into the right foot as it is placed gently on the ground, aware of the shifting pattern of physical sensations in the two legs and feet.
7. In this way, slowly move from one end of your walk to the other, aware particularly of the sensations in the soles of the feet and heels as they make contact with the floor, and of the sensations in the muscles of the legs as they swing forward.
8. At the end of your walk, stop for a few moments, then tum slowly around, aware of and appreciating the complex pattern of movements through which the body changes direction, and continue walking.
9. Walk up and down in this way, being aware, as best as you can, of physical sensations in the feet and legs, and of the contact of the feet with the floor. Keep your gaze directed softly ahead. When you notice that the mind has wandered away from awareness of the sensations of walking, gently escort the focus of attention back to the sensations in the feet and legs, using the sensations as the feet contact the floor, in particular, as an “anchor” to reconnect with the present moment, just as you used the breath in the Sitting Meditation. If you find your mind has wandered, you might find it helpful to stand still for a few moments, gathering the focus of attention before resuming your walking.
10. Continue to walk for 10 to 15 minutes or longer, if you wish.
11. To begin with, walk at a pace that is slower than usual, to give yourself a better chance to be fully aware of the sensations of walking. Once you feel comfortable walking slowly with awareness, you can experiment as well with walking at faster speeds, up to and beyond normal walking speed. If you are feeling particularly agitated, it may be helpful to begin walking fast, with awareness, and to slow down naturally as you settle.
12. As often as you can, bring a gentle awareness that you cultivate in walking meditation to your normal, everyday experiences of walking.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture.
Still, treat each guest honourably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice. Meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
– by Rumi, 12th Century poet
Home practice following Session 5
1. Practice the Sitting Meditation, alternate with Movement or Body Scan each day
2. Practice the 3 Step Breathing Space – Regular – practice three times a day and at times that you have decided in advance. Noting any comments /difficulties
3. Practice the 3 Step Breathing Space – Coping – if you choose: practice whenever you notice unpleasant feelings
4. Fill in the Stressful Communications Calendar
Stressful Communications Calendar
Be aware of a stressful communication at the time it is happening. Use these questions to focus your awareness on the details of the experience as it is happening. Write it down as soon as possible afterwards.
Download the stressful communications calendar form here.