Week 7: Taking more care of ourselves Pasted Graphic 1

Life is a game of snakes and ladders, but if there are too many snakes and not enough ladders it can be a tedious game. Often we pile pressure on ourselves, and forget to relieve that pressure. We can do that until we come to breaking point. In this session we will look at how we can mindfully rebalance our lives.

Having looked at stress and how it affects us, at some of the mechanisms that create stress, at some practices that help us deal with stress, and at some aspects of communication, it is time to turn towards ourselves. What can we do to make our lives more manageable, less wearing?

Pasted Graphic 2 Looking with a child’s eyes at the world

When you were a child, did your parents teach you how to play in the garden? Did you have to study long and hard to learn to blow the seeds off a dandelion, and were you made to watch them float in the wind until they landed or had blown out of sight? A child might watch a beetle or a worm with more intensity than any zoologist. That connectedness with the world around us is something we often lose as we get older, perhaps occasionally glimpsing it momentarily when the world wakes us up with a beautiful sunset, or an unexpected delight when we are out walking.

Beginner’s mind is inviting us to be like that, to treat each moment afresh, and not dress it with our opinions and prejudices. The practices of connecting with the body, through sensations or breath, the anchoring into the present moment, are all invitations to wake up to the present moment
as it actually is and not as we think it is.

In our goal-driven lives, we can lose the poetry of life. Look carefully at a photograph or a piece of art, and instead of just labelling what is there, really examine it. Listen to a poem, and instead of looking for literal meaning and trying to mentally explain it to yourself, instead see if you can feel it. Listen to a piece of music instead of having it as background noise. Enjoy a meal, take delight in friends. Find any way you can to connect with the present and let go of the past.

We are so much more than our thoughts. Our thoughts are like waves on a deep ocean - they only represent the surface. As we focus on the surface churn, we lose track of the depth of our minds. This is not mystical, this is about practicality, about living with ourselves as a whole rather than just as our thoughts.

With mindfulness practice, we can become much more connected to the world, and be more childlike in our appreciation of it. All our wisdom and learning need not be thrown away. Rather, we can bring more freshness into our experience, see things a little more clearly, without throwing away our wealth of past experience. The movement towards responding instead of reacting is one that allows us to hold a bigger view of ourselves and the world. When we switch off autopilot, we become more aware of the landscape, more engaged with what is going on around us.

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Often we are our own greatest critics. Why is this so?

We learn to respond to danger by withdrawing or putting up a barrier. It is often called the “fight or flight response”. Those dangers are often real, and our natural response is sensible and effective. We learn our responses to danger quickly, and this helps our survival. Such responses are imprinted as habits, and they can be useful habits.

However, our mind often imagines dangers, and we can get locked in rumination over what may happen or how we could have prevented something that happened. There are few real tigers out there wanting to eat us nowadays, but we often act as if there were. Our automatic reaction to real danger can often be awakened by imagined dangers. This is natural, but carried too far it can lead to unnecessary sadness or even depression.

Our tendency to criticise ourselves is based in part in this self-protection, looking at ways we can make ourselves safe, blaming ourselves for past mistakes, and endlessly planning to avoid future mistakes. We want to control things, and if things go wrong, or seem likely to, we take the blame.

In this self-protection, we often forget to enjoy the present. The very behaviour that is meant to protect us can actually make us miserable. Mindfulness, with its non-judgemental quality, by making us more aware of our reactiveness and habits of rumination, can help us recognise the processes of self judgement, and help us see ourselves with more kindness and more equanimity. It gives us more perspective, more discernment, and more choice.

With mindfulness practice, we can begin to notice our habits of self-judgement, hold them carefully, and learn how to respond. This is not self-affirmation, but self-awareness. It is not avoidance, but approach. By examining our habits of self-criticism, our negative thoughts about ourselves, we can begin to unpick the tangled knots. It is not instant, and it takes effort, but it is the way out of suffering.

Working on our attitudes

It is possible to change the relationship we have to ourselves. Let us go back to the foundational attitudes.

We said a little earlier about beginner’s mind, learning to take moments afresh. When we react to something that causes us difficulty, can we try experiencing it afresh? Is it the bracing ourselves that hurts more than the actuality of the experience? Does that change our perspective on difficulty?

Patience is something you can cultivate with yourself. If you want to become skilled at something you need to practice, and that requires patience and persistence. A musician needs to practice, practice, practice to become competent. But if in each practice there is irritation, then discouragement quickly follows. Maybe you want to be a little less irritable, and the next day you snap at someone, well maybe being patient with yourself is better than beating yourself up for that - of course, apologise if possible, but then let go of it.

Acceptance of ourselves, as we are, is difficult. Usually we have a list of things we would like to change. That list can become overwhelming. We set up an ideal, and judge ourselves on how far we are from that ideal. It is fine to have a list of things to work on, but not fine to be constantly criticising ourselves for our inadequacies. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s favourite introduction to those arriving on his MBSR courses is “if you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you”, irrespective of whatever they are suffering from. Can you take a more balanced view?

Letting go can be very hard. That mistake you made with someone that you cannot correct, observe how often you go back over it, rehearsing how you could do it better. Of course it is right to be concerned about the effects of our behaviour, but it is important to learn and move on instead of getting stuck.

There is a paradox in non-striving, in that the more we try to do some things the harder they become. Have you never noticed that? The more you try to get on with something, the more distractions you find? The more you try to get to sleep, the more you stay awake at night. Effort is fine, but when all of your effort goes into striving and measuring how far off the goal you are, the further away the goal seems. It is sometimes worth recognising that a journey is made up of a lot of individual steps, and the only way to get to the end is to take each step one at a time, and to enjoy the journey instead of hurrying unnecessarily towards the goal.

Curiosity may sound strange to apply to yourself, but hopefully you are getting some insight into how your mind works, and how it relates to your body. When the same set of thoughts or feelings come up over and over again, moving towards them and examining them with curiosity, looking at how they link to feelings and body sensations, will help to defuse cycles of unhelpful thinking. Curiosity about our bodies makes us more aware of where we are carrying stress, and when we are tired and need a rest.

And all of these are wrapped up in the attitude of non-judging. Going back to the earlier definition of “mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”, that non-judgemental attitude develops a wider and richer set of attitudes. Non-judgemental does not mean non-discerning or indiscriminate. Rather, it is an invitation to note what is there. Mindfulness can be a first step towards change, but if mindfulness is judgemental then that change will not be fully informed. Noting what arises non-judgementally, and then responding gives space to change that instant reaction often precludes.

But beware of setting out to “change your attitudes”. The mindful way is to examine attitudes as they arise. With increasing awareness you can become more sensitive to the unhelpful attitudes, and find space to deal with them. Mindfulness is not about “self development”, but about “self awareness”. It does not set goals and challenges, rather it invites you to be more aware of where you are and what you bring with you. Foundational attitudes are not ideals, but beacons along the way, landmarks to guide you and not goals in themselves.

Mindfulness slowly awakens you to a wider sense of self, to building trust in your own judgement. It helps you realise when you are stuck in a rut. Developing that trust in yourself, that you can deal with life’s challenges, that you have options, that you can choose, all take time. Trust is slow to build, but with it comes confidence.

Changing our habits

Take some time to consider your daily habits and how they impact on your life.

Do you watch late night TV, and stimulate your mind before you go to bed? Do you keep yourself busy even when your body and mind are tired? When did you last do something different? When did you last go for a walk, just for the pleasure of going for a walk. When did you last do something just because you enjoy it?

Our habits, our reliance on automatic pilot, can get us through the day. But they can be wearing. They can also be changed.

Try choosing to do something different every day. Take a different route to work. Go for a walk at lunchtime instead of sitting at your desk with a sandwich, or have lunch with a friend. Decide to go to the cinema one evening. Book a theatre trip. Sit in the garden and enjoy it for ten minutes.

And, of course, we have some valuable practices we can weave more and more into our days. Formal practices are nourishing, but it is after the formal practices that the real work of mindfulness comes in. The pause, the breath, the taking time to notice, all are about mindfulness in our daily lives.

Looking at ourselves exercise

  • Write down a list of the things in a typical day.
  • Now write down next to each one the letter N if it is nourishing and D if it is depleting.
  • What do you notice?
  • Are you happy with it?
  • What might you do to change it?

Home Practice

  • Continue a formal practice daily, either sitting or body scan.
  • Each day, do one thing differently.
  • One evening, do something new.
  • Review what you have learnt from the course, and bring it to the final session.