Week 5: Responding more effectively to stress

In this session we will look at how we can transfer the skills we develop in practices such as meditation into daily life and deal more effectively with difficult situations. By bringing greater awareness of our thoughts, feelings and sensations to bear, we can waste less energy and approach problems more effectively.

More on edges Pasted Graphic 1

By now you are probably finding lots of “edges” with your mindfulness practice, and beginning to notice them more in daily life. These edges are important for us, and exploring them is very much part of mindfulness practice. By learning more about our edges, we begin to learn more about ourselves. The more aware we are, the more our limits come into view, and the more we begin to explore those boundaries and sometimes find we can move them a little.

That can be quite a surprise for people coming to a mindfulness or meditation practice for the first time. Probably you signed up to become a little calmer, and at times you feel anything but calmer. Practice can make you calmer, and often formal and informal practices will do that for you, but sometimes they don’t and sometimes the road can be a bit bumpy. Oddly, when things are not going so smoothly that is often where the real learning comes. Why is this?

Well, to start with, coming off automatic pilot means you actually see where you are heading. Moving from reacting to responding brings things into awareness that were previously passing you by. You see things earlier, and you miss less. The clenched teeth and tight shoulders were probably there before, but now you notice them. You perhaps felt justified before at snapping back at someone, and now you notice your reaction before you snap and think twice about it, but that is uncomfortable too.

You are beginning to be more aware of difficulties, and notice them when you arrive instead of blindly bumping into them. Sometimes a thought or feeling is too difficult to work with when you first meet it, but finding it is there can be useful. Slowly you start to map out your physical and emotional boundaries, the confines within which you feel safe.

We all set up those boundaries and edges. One bad experience with something can be enough to put you off for life. Being sick after a meal can put you off an item of food you once enjoyed, even if it was something else that caused the sickness such as a virus. If we don’t examine them from time to time, bringing awareness to them as they arise, our lists of dos and don’ts get longer and longer, and our habitual ways of thinking and behaving can get more engrained. As that happens, our sense of freedom diminishes.

Charlotte Joko Beck uses the image of people freezing themselves into ice cubes. As people bump into each other, they chip bits of ice cube off, so ice cubes tend to want to freeze themselves harder and harder. Some ice cubes however start to melt, and mindfulness practice can help us to melt our barriers slowly over time. Melting ice cubes become mushy, and less prone to damage when other ice cubes bump into them, and in turn do less harm to other ice cubes. Some ice cubes melt altogether and become puddles, and become immune to damage from other ice cubes bumping into them.

Another image of hers is of people as whirlpools in the river of life. Free flowing whirlpools have fuzzy edges, are expansive, take things in, spin them a while, and release them. Tight, vigorous whirlpools suck things in and hold onto them within their tight and rigid boundaries, becoming clogged and in the end stagnant.

Mindfulness does not break down boundaries or by magic melt away difficulties. It makes you aware of what edges you have. When you find an edge, there is no mindfulness recipe to deal with it other than to look at it and note it is there. Sometimes you might see an edge as an illusion, and realise it is a restriction that you need not adhere to. Sometimes you will find a firm edge that you need to respect; even if you would like to be able to stand on your head, it might be best to avoid that without long and skilful yoga instruction.

Knowing our edges is important. Moving up to them can be helpful. Exploring an area of pain in the body can be a way of changing our relationship to the pain - the pain may not go away, but our emotional hurt or frustration with it may change. So, finding our edges may not be comfortable, but it can lead to far less distress and difficulty in the long run.

Pasted Graphic 2 Approach and Avoidance

Our natural way of dealing with the world is to avoid unpleasant things. Mostly that is a sensible strategy. However, when something is a problem then avoidance can just make the problem worse. Not seeing a doctor when you have an unusual symptom that you don’t understand can mean the difference between a simple treatment or a chronic and painful disease. Not dealing with emotional problems can lead to depression or anxiety. Not dealing with a conflict can lead to resentment and even breakdown of a relationship.

A metaphor by Charles Handy is that we spend our lives stumbling backwards into the future. We don’t see the things that hit us until they hit us, and we live our lives in a mixture of fear and relief watching the things that fly past us. Turning around can be a bit scary at first. But if we want to reduce the number of things that hit us, turning to face them is important, and even if we cannot avoid some things at least we can prepare.

Mindfulness encourages us to turn towards our difficulties, to walk into the future with open eyes. That can be challenging at first. However, in that turning it does not invite us to drive headlong into them. Mindfulness is about becoming aware. Out of that awareness you use your own wisdom to determine the right course of action.

The common assumption is that mindfulness makes you calmer. Actually, it is more that mindfulness enables you to navigate the world more effectively without bumping into things so much, which in turn makes you calmer. Cultivating awareness means that we can respond more fully, and often avoid a difficulty or reduce it, and where we cannot we can learn to live more peacefully with it. Out of that less stressful way of living comes a deeper calm.

I like your attitude … Pasted Graphic 3

Earlier we looked at how our attitudes are a key to our practice. During mindfulness practices we encourage a particular orientation. For example, instead of criticising ourselves when our mind wanders, we are encouraged to accept mind wandering and to patiently return to the practice. That open, patient, accepting, non-judging attitude is something we can widen more into our daily lives.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”. He openly says that this is not a hard and fast definition. In fact, he sometimes talks about it as being like a Zen koan, something the mind can chew on but which, when you examine it is full of paradoxes. You cannot use the definition to determine whether you or someone else is mindful, or measure how mindful someone is. So, why have it?

He elaborated on this by talking about foundational attitudes: beginner’s mind,non-judging, non-striving, trust, patience, acceptance, letting go. These too can be paradoxical. For example, we cannot come completely to a situation with a pure beginner’s mind - we always carry into a new situation some history. However, if we use beginner’s mind as an attitude to check out our prejudices and assumptions, we might see a situation in a different way. Say, for example, someone you know rings you up to complain about something that you are responsible for. If that person is a natural complainer, you might discount everything they say, or get defensive with them. Alternatively, you might treat them as if they had never complained to you and make a note and check out the complaint if it is not too difficult to do so. So a foundational attitude can help you question your initial reaction, which may lead you to a better response.

Non-judging is not meant to be indiscriminate, but an attitude that you can use to check out whether your automatic response is judgemental. Non-striving does not mean you never try to do something, but by now you have probably already found that trying too hard with a meditation practice can be counter productive. Trust does not mean blindly doing things because someone said, but is more a process of learning where to trust. Patience does not necessarily mean waiting forever for something. Acceptance does not mean being a doormat. Letting go of an emotional reaction does not mean becoming indifferent.

The foundational attitudes can be used to move you out of your normal reactions and look more carefully at situations. They are not ideals to be imposed, but viewpoints to help you see the world differently, and perhaps sometimes move you away from the opposite attitudes when they threaten to take over: closed minded, judgemental, striving, mistrusting, impatient, resistant and resentful.

Exercise - exploring a space

Choose a space you know that is not overly familiar to you. It might be a garden, or room, or a small area near a familiar walk. Now, with no agenda to look for anything in particular, begin to explore. Move at your own pace around the space, noticing the fine detail or the broad shape of things. Do this for about ten minutes.

Finally, settle on one thing, noticing how you choose it, and begin to look at it in detail. Notice how your mind sometimes wants to take you away from the object, and then bring yourself back to the object, each time gently returning and bringing back a sense of curiosity towards what you are looking at. Do this for about five minutes.

Home Practice
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  • Continue a formal practice daily, either sitting, body scan or movement.
  • Try one exploring a space meditation for 15 minutes, settling on one object for the last 5 minutes.
  • Keep using mindfulness in daily life, doing tasks more mindfully, pausing, coming to the breath.
  • Keep a stressful communications diary.

Stressful Communications Diary

Whenever you have a difficult communication during the day, make a note of the following:

  • Who it was with and what the issue was.
  • What were your expectations from the communication, and what was the outcome.
  • What were the other person(s) expectations, and what did they get out of it?
  • What were your thoughts, feelings and body sensations at the time.
  • How did those affect your actions?
  • Have you resolved the situation? If so, how?