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How To Bounce Back From A Mindfulness Lapse

Old habits die hard, so the saying goes.  And even though I’ve been practising mindfulness for a number of years, this is still true.  I’m just more aware of those habits!

Like the urge to push uncomfortable feelings away.

I’m sure some of you know what I mean.  That old familiar feeling you don’t like starts creeping up on you (in my case feelings of anxiety or sadness), and before you know it you’re in full-on problem solving mode.

How can I get rid of this feeling?  What meditation will make it go away?  Whose podcast of wise words can I listen to so I can find the mysterious ‘answer’ to stop myself feeling this way?

But here’s where the mindfulness steps in.  I’m not totally lost in this automatic habit.  These days, I notice myself doing this.  I recognise more quickly when I’m caught in that seductive agenda of trying to control how I feel.

In these moments I’m reminded that I don’t actually need to find some new trick or perspective.

I just need to re-visit something I’ve learned many times before.  That taking a mindful approach means turning towards these awkward, uncomfortable feelings.  It means exploring them with curiosity and responding with kindness.

Mindfulness doesn’t remove discomfort so that we’re ‘fixed’ and never feel it again.  In this human life, we’re going to keep on experiencing the unpleasant, the difficult and the challenging – alongside what’s beautiful, moving and enjoyable.

I’ve heard it said that mindfulness is a process of re-minding yourself.  During a meditation we may need to re-mind ourselves to come back to the breath – 20 times, or a hundred times.

And so it is in life that we constantly re-mind ourselves to respond to our experience with kind attention.  Often this means turning towards what we’re really feeling, so we can let it be felt and flow through.  The alternative is to get seduced into trying to fix the unfixable, or try to ignore it.

Those times when we find ourselves caught in old patterns aren’t a sign that our mindfulness has lapsed or failed.

When we see our old patterns playing out and can notice – in the midst of that very difficulty – what’s really happening, we’re being mindful in the most courageous of ways.

So the next time you notice an old habit kicking in, try not to give yourself a hard time.  Instead, celebrate this moment of awareness and bravery, which has brought you back to mindfulness.

Sheila Bayliss runs wellbeing classes in Heaton Moor, South Manchester, and offers personal workshops by Skype.

Don’t Stop Growing

At what age do we stop learning and growing?

I used to think that by the time I reached adulthood, I should be some sort of finished product. That I should somehow know everything by then (whatever ‘everything’ means!) Or that I at least should feel like I know what I’m doing.

But the reality is, we’re all learning, all the time. And rather than this being something to be ashamed of, it’s something to celebrate. Indigenous cultures honour the transition into becoming an elder, a wise and valued member of the community. This sort of wisdom doesn’t grow in a few years or even a couple of decades, it takes a whole load of life experience – with all the losses, joys, frustrations and insights that can entail.

I read recently about the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes who is revered even though she brings destruction, because the hot lava also creates new ground when it cools. This reminds me so much of the new ground we constantly create in life as we continue to develop as human beings. As the fire of awareness begins to burn away old ways of being that are no longer helpful, new possibilities emerge. We gain new resources and strategies for meeting life as we cultivate new mental and emotional capacities.

This emotional growth isn’t a neat process; sometimes, it’s in our messiest moments that we learn the most. Transformation can feel intense, as if our painful feelings are fuel for a fire that burns away our old patterns to make way for a new way of being. Or we can have periods of feeling stuck or lost, through which we learn to trust that something different is germinating, even though it feels like nothing much is happening in that space of ‘incubation’.

I suppose this is one of the reasons I believe that self-kindness can be the most transformational practice of them all: because if we can learn to see ourselves through kind and loving eyes, we can appreciate the growth that is happening through our struggles.

So far, my own growth journey hasn’t involved becoming less vulnerable, less emotional or less imperfect. It’s been about becoming more human: more receptive, more responsive, more alive and more whole. It’s been about discovering a kind of confidence and ease that is nothing like the limited mould I once thought I could squeeze myself into.

And the more we grow personally, the more we have to contribute to the world around us. Whether that’s through work, or friendship, or parenting, or supporting the natural world, or some other way that we feed into community – we all have our own unique part to play.

So if you are on a growth journey, please don’t stop growing. This world needs it.

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Marilyn McEntyre’s poem ‘What To Do In The Darkness’

My recordings of guided self-kindness practices.

Kindness Challenge: Cutting Out Criticism

I’ll admit it, a part of me does like to have a good moan. About the food that isn’t quite right in a restaurant, or the film that doesn’t live up to my expectations, or how someone else has done something that’s had an unfortunate impact on me.

And I know I’m not alone. Social interactions (whether online or in conversation) are littered with comments and opinions that are critical, judgemental or of a complaining nature. Our internal dialogue might have this flavour too, if we’ve learned to turn judgement against ourselves as self-criticism. We’re most likely conditioned into this habit, especially if we grew up with it. And I really think that’s what it is – a habit, and therefore something we can condition ourselves out of too.

I know that in my own experience, this tendency is a reactive, aversive energy. It arises when my needs aren’t met, or I don’t like something, or even just to fill an awkward silence. Sometimes it’s a defence mechanism, when I feel hurt or vulnerable. It can also get triggered when I’m seeking validation.

I can’t help wondering, if we all reduced this aversive energy, what would fill those spaces in conversation (or in our life) that the judging and complaining used to occupy? Maybe that’s why we find this habit so seductive, because it covers over a fear of just being with our naked experience, without having to paper it over with our preferences and reactions.

So I’ve set myself a challenge to notice when I’m moaning, criticising or complaining about someone or something. It’s probably more often than I think. Especially when I look at things from someone else’s point of view rather than my own.

I say noticing because I have no intention of transferring the judgement onto myself if (when) I fall into the same old trap. Awareness is the starting point for change, so I trust that it’s enough for now.

Maybe that noticing might plant the seeds of something else that could fill those spaces if I cut out criticism. Because alongside the part of me that likes to find what’s wrong, another part of me can see the world through kind eyes, and find what’s good to appreciate. I just need to get out of the way more often to let that part of me fill those spaces.

And if this post itself comes across in any way judgemental, please know that isn’t my intention. Life isn’t easy, and we all make judgements (it’s an important part of our survival equipment). We can grow our awareness without attacking ourselves for being human.

On that note, when I do find myself acting out an old habit and need to see that through kind eyes, I always find Portia Nelson’s poem reassuring.

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Choosing Love Over Power

Outgrowing Old Habits, Learning New Superpowers

It appears I have a new superpower – being able to get my needs met. How? By asking.

That sounds ridiculously simple, but for me it’s been a long and complex journey.

Like many people, I used to find it tricky (to say the least) even to express my needs, never mind to get them met!

Many years of meditation and awareness practice have helped me discover some interesting emotional patterns of mine that can lie hidden in everyday interactions.

Like that acknowledging the existence of my own needs can activate feelings of guilt and shame. Which in turn can switch on some anger and frustration. And then that can express itself via a certain defensiveness when I need to ask for help or compromise. As you can imagine, that isn’t often conducive to someone else wanting to help me!

Or rather, that used to be the way it often went.

Something very interesting is emerging. Having worked closely with those parts of myself in self-kindness meditation – the part that feels shame, the angry part and the scared, defensive part – I’ve been able to soothe these bits of me so that they don’t need to ‘act out’ so much. When these parts need emotional security, I’ve begun to learn how to meet that need myself, instead of project that onto other situations where emotional security can’t actually be found.

As my awareness has deepened through meditation practice, I’ve also taken advantage of therapeutic support to help me integrate what’s been discovered. My therapy of choice recently was Somatic Experiencing, which significantly deepened my body-based mindfulness. Through this process my nervous system has calmed even further and begun to feel much safer.

It’s important to be aware, I think, that mindfulness isn’t all about the brain, that our whole body nervous system is involved when we begin to grow our awareness, and out-grow old habits.

As a result of this process, I’m learning that the world isn’t as hostile as the younger me had experienced. From a place of deeper trust, I can take a chance on expressing my needs openly and gently, and seeing what happens.

This doesn’t mean I always get what I want. But it does mean that I more consistently ask for what I’d really like. The defensiveness has reduced, because my nervous system feels safer. I’m also less attached to any particular outcome: I’d like to get my needs met, but I know that if that’s not possible, it’s not a personal attack. So how I’m asking has changed a lot. And more often than not, I do get what I need. In fact, people will often go out of their way to help me, even when they could easily say no.

To quote one of my favourite Rolling Stones songs, ‘You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need’.

Reclaiming Our Natural Wellbeing – Part 2

In part 1 of this post, I considered how we’ve become disconnected from our embodied experience as human beings.  The more that modern culture has prized (and praised) a ‘left brain’ approach to living and learning, the more we’ve lost touch with the wisdom of our right brain/body.

By contrast, research on hunter-gatherer people suggest that they are more ‘whole-brained’, or I might say ‘whole-bodied’.  People who’ve lived with and studied the few remaining hunter-gatherer cultures have shared some fascinating insights into a way of life that appears to support better wellbeing than we enjoy in contemporary western culture.  So what might happen if we were more connected to our right brain/body? (When I use this phrase, I mean the whole body).

We might add less stress to our experiences. The thinking mind can be a great tool, when it’s the right one for the job. But when we have an unpleasant experience, we often add an extra layer’ of difficulty with thoughts that escalate our distress. This is sometimes called ‘discursive thinking’ in the meditation tradition. If we can stay with our experience in the body, the difficulty tends to pass through quicker and with less suffering. (This is often taught in mindfulness courses).

We might be more present-moment oriented. Instead of constantly thinking about what resources (money, possessions, relationships) we need to store up for the future, we might concentrate more on what we need for just now. Of course it may still be important to provide for the future. But perhaps we can balance this by inhabiting trust, and by having more modest ambitions. If we have fewer wants, these are more easily satisfied and we are more likely to enjoy the wellbeing of being happy with what we’ve got right now.

We might enjoy work more. I was fascinated to read that in a hunter-gatherer culture that still exists today, they don’t have a word for ‘work’. They cheerfully get on with a range of necessary activities, but they don’t label any of these separate tasks as ‘work’. This seemed to mirror a discovery I made myself about not labelling activities as work – I found it really liberating, as it began to erode a belief I’ve picked up that work has to feel hard and unpleasant if I’m doing it right!

We might stop chasing ‘happiness’ as a goal. In our culture, we seem to have created a mythical destination called ‘happiness’ that once reached, we can dwell in permanently. But in reality, we all experience a constant flow of feelings that arise and pass. Being able to enjoy present-moment feelings of joy or peace, without trying to nail them down, is to experience true wellbeing. I reflected more deeply on this in an old post Finding Happy Ever After – Right Now.

We might feel more whole, more fully human, and more at ease with ourselves. Research tells us that suppression of emotions reduces wellbeing rather than improving it. I’ve seen the enormous value of self-kindness practices in helping people to re-connect with these cut-off parts of themselves, and the confidence and resilience that then emerges. I’ve learned in teaching these practices that our right-brain imaginative capacities are a huge ally in accessing this capacity: often people feel unsure about how to connect with self-kindness, and then discover that in using their imagination, they can find a creative ‘way in’.

We might be more peaceful. In my own experience, the more connected I am to all parts of myself, the more I can connect with others peacefully, without the need for defensiveness or control. I find it fascinating to reflect on the escalation in human conflict since we started farming and separating ourselves with territories that we need to defend. For me, the concept of the Love Mode vs Power Mode is really helpful, which I touched on here.

We might regain our connection to the earth and halt some of the damage that we’re doing. I’m by no means innocent of engaging in non-eco-friendly practices, but my awareness is growing of the ways I can reduce my own impact on resources. Perhaps if we collectively felt more connection to our environment, some large-scale care for it might become possible.

As to how we find our way into these changes… I’ve known for a while that meditation helps the right brain/body to come back online. I haven’t just read the theory, I’ve experienced an explosion in my own sensitivity, curiosity and creativity (all ‘right-brain’ traits) as my meditation practice has become more established. And of course I’ve witnessed the journeys of people who come to my classes.

I suspect that the practice of meditation helps us attain more balance by calming down the left brain that wants to be constantly figuring everything out verbally. In the meditation space, there is more room for the wisdom of body sensations that we are usually cut off from. It’s not a quick path, but it’s one that (I believe) can gradually lead to healing and wholeness, not just for ourselves, but also for the natural world that we are a part of.

If you want to explore meditation, you can find my recordings on this site under Meditations and Mini-Meditations