‘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 for 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 what 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 skillfully 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 the difficult. 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 skillfully.
Using the 3-Step Breathing Space to face difficulties (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 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
(Adapted from Full Catastrophe Living, Kabat-Zinn)
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, and hyperarousal.
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 or 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-limited 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.
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.
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. Sitting Practice, alternate with Movement or Body Scan (6 of 7 days)
2. 3-Step Breathing Space – Regular – practice three times a day and at times that you have decided in advance. Noting any comments /difficulties
3. 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.Stressful Communications Calendar
Home Practice Record Form – Session 5
Record each time you practice on the home practice record form. Also, make a note of anything that comes up in the home practice so that you can come back to it in the next session.
Download the practice record form here.Home Practice Record Form