Our sense of agency – part 2

Last week we looked at our sense of agency, and its opposite – helplessness. The experience of learned helplessness – this feeling of ‘it doesn’t matter what I do, it won’t make any difference’ – is a major risk factor for anxiety and depression. We humans can be remarkably resilient, as long as we feel we have some influence over how our life unfolds. There are times when much of our life is outside our control. We might be stuck in a miserable job, but can’t afford to resign. We might be dealing with a major illness, get caught up in a natural disaster, or have a family member who requires a lot of care. It’s also possible that our external circumstances look very rosy, but internally we feel trapped in the grip of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.

This is where practising mindfulness can be empowering. Over time, if we meditate regularly, we notice we can have quite an impact when it comes to how we respond to certain situations. For example, we might be feeling under pressure at work, but are able to ground ourselves and take some slow deep breaths before a difficult meeting, helping us to think more clearly, speak more calmly, and therefore be more effective. Or we are able to listen more deeply to our teenager, and find that the conversation takes a more constructive turn as a result. Perhaps we feel attacked by someone, but don’t over-react, and the other person realises you’re not such an easy target any more.

People who are learning mindfulness often report a greater sense of choice. Rather than trudging down the well-worn path of habit with our eyes to the ground, barely noticing our environment, we can pause, look around, get a wider perspective, decide perhaps to take the ‘path less travelled’. These brief moments of choice add up over time to a sense of ‘learned agency’. We often underestimate the power of small but wholesome choices to steer our lives in a better direction.

Studies have shown that people with a strong sense of agency are more likely to look after their health better. They are also more confident, resilient, have a greater sense of responsibility, and are more successful. Agency is like a boat which carries us through a stormy sea – we are still caught up in the elements, but are safer and more in control than if we were trying to swim through the waves.

Our sense of agency is developed through increasing our experiences of efficacy – being effective. We will look at how mindfulness can help us to do this over the next two weeks.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose a current situation which is causing you difficulty, and think of a small way you might be able to bring a greater sense of agency to it. For example, take the time to pause now and then, or write down what you want to say to someone before having that tricky conversation.

Anja Tanhane

Our sense of agency – part 1

The sense of agency we are able to bring to our lives is one of the most important factors which influences our health, wellbeing and success. Yet it’s not often talked about, and usually poorly understood. Agency is the feeling of being able to make something happen, of being the cause of events rather than the effect. We’d like to believe that we, and everyone else in the world, is able to live with a sense of agency. It’s fundamental to how we see ourselves as humans.

Unfortunately, research (including some very cruel studies on animals) has shown that it only takes a few experiences of being disempowered, of not being able to get yourself out of a painful situation no matter how hard you try, to develop a sense of learned helplessness, where you give up altogether and simply accept whatever comes at you. Not only that, but it takes many more positive experiences of agency, of being able to make a difference, to counter the effect of one negative experience of helplessness.

This is where the saying ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ is so fundamental. It’s all too easy to look at other people’s lives and judge them for not trying hard enough. From the outside, it might look perfectly obvious what someone should be doing to improve their circumstances. Yet really, we have no idea why this person may be struggling. Chances are they have experienced traumas we can only guess at. And yes, people who are disempowered sometimes make bad decisions, just as people with all the power in the world also make mistakes. Often, however, our society often judges people who are on benefits much more harshly than those who are materially successful, although the research would suggest it should really be the other way round.

Mindfulness practices can be very empowering for us, as they can greatly increase our sense of agency. We will look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can lead to ‘learned agency’ in next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, if you find yourself being judgmental about someone, pause and ask yourself – am I really sure I know the whole story? This is not to make excuses for the other person, but simply to acknowledge there may be aspects to the story we don’t know about.

Anja Tanhane

Escapism

Last week we looked at the idea of ‘taking refuge’ – finding little sanctuaries in our lives where we can gather strength and be inspired. As we saw, these can be varied, and are very individual. One person’s refuge could be someone else’s worst nightmare. For example, I find going on week-long silent retreats is a refuge for me, but for another person, the idea of sitting still and in silence for seven days might sound more like some devious form of punishment and torture!

It’s important to find refuges where we feel safe and supported. The challenge for us, however, lies in being able to distinguish between healthy self-care and self-compassion on the one hand, and an unhealthy amount of escapism on the other. Personally, I think a certain amount of escapism is good for us – to take time out occasionally to enjoy a movie which isn’t too earnest, to watch sport for a day or lose ourselves in a book, or to find some other way of forgetting about our problems, and the problems of the world, for a while. Yet if escapism becomes a way of life, it will prevent us from engaging with our lives honestly and sincerely. And true intimacy, whether with ourselves, a partner, our children or a group of friends, is impossible when we are constantly trying to escape to somewhere else.

Unfortunately for us, even our refuges can become just one more form of escapism. We might intend to become more fit but end up with an exercise addiction instead. A religious practice can become obsessive rather than grounded; being inspired by a teacher can lead to an unhealthy fixation and neediness. What’s more, our circumstances are constantly changing. What may be perfectly reasonable one day (you come home from a horrible day at work, your partner wants to discuss something with you and you tell them, not now, I really just need some time to myself) might be quite unacceptable at other times (the whole family knows to never hassle Mummy/Daddy after work, no matter what is going on). Sometimes life is so challenging, we rely on large doses of escapism just to get by; but hopefully over time, we can find more effective strategies to help us cope.

Depending on our upbringing, our cultural background and personality, we can be either too sparing or too profligate with our doses of escapism. It is helpful to pause and ask ourselves from time to time – do I need to buckle down a bit more, or could I afford to loosen up a bit? Most of us would have done some form of this over the New Year period and possibly a few weeks into January. Hopefully we can continue to check in during the rest of the year, so we don’t end up next Christmas either burnt out, or realising we wasted most of the past year on meaningless, forgettable pursuits.

One factor which makes quite a difference in how we can approach these issues is the sense of agency we bring to our lives, which will be the topic of next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

Where do you think you tend to fall on the continuum between too much escapism and not enough? Write down one action which could help you be more balanced, and make a time to implement it this week.

Anja Tanhane

Taking refuge

In the Buddhist tradition, people talk about ‘taking refuge’ – in particular, taking refuge in the Buddha (the teacher), the Dharma (the teachings) and the Sangha (their Buddhist community). This is an acknowledgment that any kind of spiritual life is not easy without support. In our individualistic culture, we might sometimes feel as if we’re supposed to work it all out by ourselves, but that’s not realistic. It’s very helpful to have teachers and other people in our lives who can guide and support us.

Similarly, it’s difficult for us to practise mindfulness if we’re constantly rushing from one commitment to the next. We need to find spaces in our lives where we can ‘take refuge’ – a space where we feel safe to stop for a while, to tune in, take stock, and have our internal batteries recharged. It could be a place where we can be on our own, or time spent with a group of like-minded people, or even a combination of the two.

The word refuge implies a space free from persecution, where we are completely safe, but if we carry unrealistic expectations into our refuge, we can unwittingly sabotage what it has to offer. A spiritual refuge is not so much a place where we can escape all our problems, but rather an opportunity to gather strength for the sometimes difficult internal work ahead. For members of religious communities, these refuges are often built into the structure of the days and weeks. Going to mass, lighting a candle, making offerings at a temple, celebrating the Sabbath or stopping five times a day for prayer – these are moments where we can pause and allow ourselves to feel supported. If we don’t belong to a religious group, ‘taking refuge’ is less automatic, and may require more intention and planning, but it can nonetheless become a regular and valuable part of our lives.

I know of someone who sits in her garden every day in a favourite spot, and quietly meditates as she notices the sights, sounds, smells and the air around her. This small daily ritual has become a precious and sustaining part of her life. Someone else with a stressful job and young children always makes the time to go for a walk along the beach by herself on a Sunday morning. A busy lawyer has noticed that if he pauses a few times a day to ground himself using the STOP practice – his work day flows much more smoothly.

Taking refuge works best when it becomes a small but regular part of our lives. Then, when we go through a difficult period, we have a familiar place where we feel safe and supported, and where we can gather the strength we need.

The shadow side of taking refuge is escapism, which will be the topic of next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

On a piece of paper, write down between three to ten ‘refuges’ – inspirational teachings, practices, communities or places which nourish and sustain you. Choose one of them and tick it, and plan it into your week.

Anja Tanhane