Like background traffic noise that we screen out and are barely aware of, these patterns of mind influence our actions, affecting the mood. Being on ‘automatic’ may be normal, but it limits our choices. We tend to react to what happens in predictable ways, invariably adding 'extra' to the event, with an overlay of negative or critical thoughts. This tends to keep us stuck in grooves of difficulty that echo back to the past, and resonate forward into the future.
Jennifer, an experienced mindfulness teacher was leading a large graduate class of people who had all attended 8-week mindfulness-based courses. In the room was a woman who was obviously going through treatment for cancer. Jennifer made the point that for some people—in the moment—the appearance of a damp patch on the wall might be worse than having cancer. Some of the group looked shocked and turned to look at the woman with cancer to see how she was reacting. She nodded her head and, laughing, volunteered the comment that she had a particularly house-proud friend, for whom noticing a damp patch would be a major drama!
The point that the teacher was making was not that having cancer is a breeze, but that we all have the capacity—in the moment—to react way out of proportion to an event if certain personal patterns are triggered. By learning to regularly ‘come back’ to the body and the breath, we can start to wake up out of automatic, notice the reactive patterns as they arise and regain the opportunity to be more present to our experience.
Anne had a teenage son, Alan, who had a rare and incurable illness. She nursed him at home whenever possible. This put a huge strain on her and her family, and Anne knew that she was close to breaking point.
She was referred to a mindfulness course and met Jane, a mindfulness teacher. Neither of them felt that this was a good time for Anne to attend the course, as she was so troubled. So they decided that Anne would go and practice ‘Feet on the Floor’ for a few weeks, to see how she got on. Anne returned saying the practice had definitely helped and she was keen to learn more.
Later, on the course, she was given a little thread bracelet with a red bead on it as an aide to help her remember to ‘come back’. Anne’s group was told of rural South African mothers caring for their young with Aids, who were also wearing these threads. Anne was heard to comment ‘I don’t feel so alone’. (www.thoughtonathread.co.uk)
When we practice being present with our experience, we uncover qualities of compassion and kindness both for ourselves and others. This is not separate from the practice of being present. It is integral to it. Recent research showed increases in self-compassion to be one of the key ways that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression has its beneficial effects (Kuyken, 2010)
Coming to the Breath
This is another practice which is important in signposting us back into the body. It offers us an anchor to come back to—and a way of exploring detailed sensations, deep in the body.
We can do this practice for a few moments, or a minute or two—and find ways to remember to come back to the breath during the day. Indeed, we can create our own practices to suit us, whatever we are doing. Here are some ideas:
We can also build in reminders and routines to help us remember to practice. Cultivating clear intention is key to this.
Once we have learnt to regularly come back to the body, and begun to notice when we have been on ‘automatic pilot’, we can then start to look at what happens when our ‘buttons get pressed’—or when things start to ‘amp up’ a bit.
So unpicking this a little—it is worth noting that every experience we have results in pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feelings (when things are neither pleasant nor unpleasant). What happens next is important.
We generally want to hold onto the experiences that feel pleasant. We want more of them. We want them to last longer, or repeat again and again. Sensations in the body are likely to be ones of warmth, openness, lightness, flow and ease.
We usually pull away from things that result in unpleasant feelings. We try to avoid them. We tense against them. Sensations in the body might be constricted, painful, agitated, hot and tight. Thoughts in the mind can move towards blame, judgment, and rumination—adding a lot extra to what is already unpleasant.
Neutral feelings and experiences will usually not be noticed at all—and when they are, they turn into something else, pleasant or unpleasant.
We can readily appreciate the consequences of the ways we tend to react to unpleasant events. This is the picture of stress, distress, or worse. What is trickier is to appreciate what unfolds when we try to hold onto pleasant feelings. Perhaps it might help to draw this out with a fairly trivial example.
I’m in my favorite coffee shop and am delighted to notice that there is carrot cake today. Ordering some, I start eating it with relish, and almost immediately think about whether to have a second piece.
In that moment of wanting more, and thinking about getting more, I am no longer enjoying the taste of the cake. In fact I may well finish the cake, without actually tasting much more than the first mouthful! The pleasant experience triggers wanting more, and soon there is just ‘wanting’, which is not pleasant. Eating is an obvious example, but there are many others that bombard us every day. We may discover that ‘wanting’ is as much, or more, of a problem to us than ‘not wanting’.
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