‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’
– Jon Kabat-Zinn
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 well-being 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.
Download the daily activity calendar here.Daily Activity Calendar
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)
M – mastery activity (something that may not be pleasant in itself, but feels good after you have completed it – like defrosting the fridge or clearing out a cupboard)
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 that I did to the raisin, instead of judging them or wishing that they were not there?
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 well-being 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, qigong, 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.
Using the Breathing Space – Action Step
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.
In dealing with difficult times 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); visit 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, do something that you have been putting off doing, take some exercise.
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 are 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 banister 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.
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. As Jon Kabat-Zinn said … ‘Don’t start weaving your parachute when you are just about to jump out of the airplane.’
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
Go deeper: The Exhaustion Funnel (By 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.
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 for the next few weeks (up to and after the end of the course). 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 – Regular. Practice three times a day at times that you have decided in advance.
3. 3-Step Breathing Space – Coping plus Action. 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 so that we can cover it in the final session.
Download the practice record form here.Home Practice Record Form