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 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.
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 bottoms 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.
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
The Stress-Reaction Cycle
(Adapted from Full Catastrophe Living, Kabat-Zinn, Ch.19) 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. 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 into worse ones, and largely determining how much stress we experience. A lifetime of unconscious reactivity to stress significantly increases our risk of eventual breakdown and illness.
Like the person depicted in the Stress Reaction Cycle, we all experience external stressors (shown as small arrows above the head) from the biological, physical, social, economic and political forces that bear on us and generate changes in our bodies, our social status and our lives generally. 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 (shown as the arrows inside the box, labeled ‘Internal stress events’).
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.
This alarm reaction is our body’s way of clearing the decks for defensive or aggressive action, to protect ourselves in life-threatening situations, and to maintain or regain control. People, in common with animals, go through a physiological reaction when feeling under threat, called the fight-or-flight reaction. This leads to a state of physical and psychological hyper arousal, which is characterized by muscle tension, strong emotions, a rapid cascade of nervous-system firings, and release of stress hormones such as adrenaline. We become very alert and attentive. The heart beats faster raising the blood pressure, and blood is redirected from digestion (causing feelings of ‘butterflies in the stomach’) to the large muscles of the arms and legs – if you are about to be eaten by a tiger, there’s no point continuing to digest food, you need to have as much energy as possible to run or fight! This activity is regulated by the autonomic nervous system.
The fight-or-flight reaction helps us to survive when we find ourselves in life-threatening situations, but 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, unfortunately hyper-arousal can become a permanent way of life. This can manifest in chronic muscle tension, shakiness, faster heart rate, and frequent urges to flee or to ‘lash out’ in anger or get into arguments or 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.
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.
by Mary Oliver, ‘Dream Work’, Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 1986
Home practice following Session 4
1. Practice Sitting Meditation (6 out of 7 days)
2. Practice the 3-Step Breathing Space – Regular 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)
3. Practice the 3-Step Breathing Space – Coping when facing difficulties: Practice the breathing space whenever you notice unpleasant feelings