Mindfulness helps us balance our energy as we move through life's challenges. In this post I'm sharing 3 practices for working mindfully with energy in the flow of your day.
Posts tagged ‘stress’
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. 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’.
This pair of posts draws on some (very) ancient wisdom that could be so valuable in our modern times – to help us re-connect to a kind of wellbeing that we’ve lost touch with.
I’ve become fascinated recently by how ancient people lived. I don’t just mean going back a couple of thousand years. I mean the hunter-gatherer culture that goes back tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Many of the books I’ve read recently which appear to be about different areas – parenting, education, meditation and psychology – all seem to point to the same thing.
Which is that with the birth of agriculture, we began to lose our sense of connection – to the earth, to ourselves, to each other, and to our ‘right brain’ that mediates these connections so powerfully.
Anthropologists suggest that in hunter-gatherer cultures, people experienced much higher wellbeing that we do in modern culture. I’m not ignoring that certain hardships may also have been more prevalent in those environments, or at least that some of the advantages of modern life weren’t available. I’m not wishing to romanticise their experience. But a few things have really got me questioning the received wisdom of our own times. What can we learn from those ancient people?
To start answering that question, I’m going to first mention more contemporary idea. I first stumbled across the idea of the ‘right brain’ when I was beginning to understand my son’s style of learning, which is very grounded in bodily experience. The basic premise of the theory is that we have 2 brain hemispheres, left and right, and that some of us tend to use one side more than the other*. The left side is associated with logic, language, planning, analysing and step-by-step learning. The right side is associated with creativity, intuition, imagination, spatial abilities and ‘bigger picture’ learning. This is a huge simplification – there are also other attributes for each side, and we tend to use both sides in combination.
Recent science has begun to suggest that the right ‘brain’ is actually the right hemisphere of the brain plus the whole of the body (not just one side). It’s all linked up. The vagus nerve that links the gut to the brain figures somewhere in here – you’ll have heard of ‘gut instinct’. Experts on the nervous system point out that we have more nerve fibres that pass information from from the body to the brain, than the other way round. This information has certainly made me reevaluate the importance of the information that our sensitive bodies can pick up.
In modern culture, we’re encouraged to rely heavily on our left brain skills, and so we disconnect somewhat with the right brain/body. We literally become disembodied, and lose the ‘body wisdom’ that in ancient cultures would have equated success in the world of hunter-gathering. Stressful experiences can lead us to dis-connect further from the body: to escape uncomfortable feelings, we may seek refuge in numbness or mental strategies such as explanations or evaluations.
You might think that right-brain skills aren’t as relevant in our world as they might have been to our ancestors. But in withdrawing into the left-brain, we also disconnect from the emotional energies that are associated with the right brain/body. When we disconnect from emotional parts of ourselves (even the ones we might not like, such as vulnerability, fear or anger), we feel less whole and our wellbeing gets compromised.
This is where practices like mindfulness, self-kindness and meditation can help us to re-connect with the lost parts of ourselves, and rediscover wholeness and greater ease of being. In the second part of this blog, I suggest some ways that our experience could be enriched by greater connection to our right brain/body, and also some thoughts about how to actually make that happen.
If you want to learn more about the brain hemispheres and modern-day disconnection (and see what seems true for you), these authors may be of interest:
Reginald Ray on body-based meditation (his book ‘The Awakening Body’ is a good starting point)
Peter Levine on how the nervous system processes stressful experiences (‘In An Unspoken Voice’ is a very comprehensive book)
Cindy Gaddis on the ‘right-brained’ learning style
Peter Gray on hunter-gatherer cultures (you can find his blogs about education on psychology.com)
Stephen Porges on the Polyvagal Theory (it’s quite an academic book about the nervous system, other people have written summaries)
*I should say that much of what I’ve written here about left/right brain theory is a gross simplification, and possibly includes my own interpretation of information that could be read a different way. I’m also aware that some studies would appear to disprove some of what I’ve shared. An alternative way to look at those studies is that they confirmed that each hemisphere functions differently, and that perhaps modern culture trains us to rely on the left brain more heavily (to quote psychotherapist Paul Francis). Personally, I’m a strong believer that ‘truth’ is what we find in our own experience. I can appreciate too why there might be resistance to the idea of our bodies being at least as wise as our brains.
I’m often asked the question ‘what is mindfulness?’. I don’t believe there is one definitive answer to this question. What you’ll find here is just one possible answer, based on the way I have received and share the practices of mindfulness and self-kindness…
Mindfulness means being with our experience in a gentle, accepting way. When stressed, we have a tendency to be stuck in our heads, thinking and problem-solving. With mindful awareness, we learn to inhabit our direct, sensory experience in the body, and this gives us more choice in how we respond to difficulty. Through learning to be with all of our experience – even the difficult parts – we build emotional confidence. I share mindfulness with a strong emphasis on kindness and compassion (including self-kindness, which is extremely powerful in helping us cope with difficulty).
What are the benefits?
Research shows that mindfulness reduces stress and improves wellbeing. I can personally say that it has helped me feel much more calm and positive in the face of many life challenges. Mindfulness isn’t a quick fix, but it does have profound & lasting benefits when you make it a habit.
So how does it work?
Mindfulness is practised by engaging in regular meditation. But it may not be what you associate with the word ‘meditation’. There are sitting practices that can be done while being guided. These include focusing on the body, the breath or feelings of kindness. There are also ways to bring mindful awareness to whatever we’re doing, and this all counts as meditation. Over time, meditating regularly starts to have a positive impact on how we are generally. It’s a bit like training to get fit: when practised regularly, it has a cumulative effect, re-wiring the brain to create new neural pathways. Although practising meditation will greatly enhance the benefits, it is possible to start becoming more mindful of your habitual responses by using mindful awareness tools in daily life.
What’s the best way to learn?
Most people find that some guidance is helpful initially via a class or course of some kind. This can be especially helpful if you think you’re ‘no good at meditating’. Being able to access regular sessions helps with motivation to keep your own practice going. It can also be useful to connect with other people who are learning. You can get CD’s or downloads with guided meditations to listen to at home. My recordings can be found on the Meditations and Mini-Meditations pages of this blog.
If you’re not quite ready for regular meditation, but you want to develop a more mindful response to worry, stress and overwhelm – you can still learn to live more mindfully in everyday life. I share ideas on how to do this in my Monthly Tips posts. Although it’s true that sitting meditation enhances the benefits of mindfulness, you can also develop your own set of tools that can be used whether you meditate or not.
Are all classes the same?
There are different types of courses and classes. My approach is helpful for stress, but is not intended to provide support for debilitating mental health issues. If you have been diagnosed with (or suspect you may have) a mental health condition such as depression or an anxiety disorder, you can ask your GP about a referral to a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course (MBCT) – this is different from the classes I offer.
I’ve become a little wary of blogging about mindfulness recently; I fear I’m at risk of becoming something of a cliche, if I write another piece about how great mindfulness is, and how everyone should practice it.
Because it’s everywhere right now, isn’t it? And I do worry that it could be turning into yet another thing that people feel they have to achieve.
But life for most of us is hard enough without that burden.
I’m beginning to prefer to use the word ‘awareness’ – it doesn’t seem to carry the weight of expectation, there’s more room for not getting anything right.
We can grow awareness very very slowly, and we can become more aware without even having to change anything. The habits we’d like to change are often so deeply entrenched because the idea of doing anything different is, quite frankly, terrifying.
If what we’re shooting for is simply awareness, we really don’t have to change the habit until we’re ready: just bringing compassionate awareness to those times we catch ourselves in the act is enough. It’s more than enough. It kickstarts the process of real change.
Because with awareness, we start to truly understand our habits. We begin to see what it is that we’re avoiding (or seeking) through particular behaviour. This can show up in the things we actually do, but also in our mental and emotional patterns and habits. I speak here from personal experience – many of my own habits are attempts to escape uncomfortable feelings like uncertainty, confusion, insecurity or fear (to name just a few).
Once we have this kind of insight into our own patterns, a positive change can begin to unfold naturally. And that will likely not be a neat and tidy movement towards ‘success’. A gradual growth as a human being may occur that is meandering, back-sliding, acceptance-requiring – and quite astonishing.
What’s more, there is no particular end-point that we need to reach. In my own practice of ten years, the more awareness I’ve developed, the further away I’ve moved from needing to evaluate my own success, at anything – including meditation.
I hope that as mindfulness becomes more embedded into our culture, we can embrace it as a simple invitation towards greater awareness, as we tread this tricky and amazing path of being human.
If you liked this piece, you can find out how to explore my approach through my other pages on this site.