One of the challenges we face in our often busy lives is that many of our habitual patterns and coping strategies are happening below the level of our conscious awareness. We might promise ourselves, for example, to cut down on sugar, and yet suddenly here we are, an ice-cream in our hands, and we barely know how it happened. Or we have every intention of being more patient with Aunty Frieda next time she rings, and yet the conversation finishes with the usual recriminations and blame games. To change those patterns which are unhelpful to us, we first need to be aware of them, then we have to notice what our usual coping strategies are, and then we need to have the internal recourses to come up with, and implement, new ways of being with our discomforts and distress. In psychology this is known as affect tolerance – being able to tolerate a range of emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them.
Mindfulness meditation, and in particular the sitting meditation, helps us with all four steps of this process. One of the questions we can ask ourselves from time to time during meditation is – ‘what is really happening right now’? Often we might notice, for example, feelings of anxiety. These could be subtle, or quite intense. Anxiety is one of those feeling states we’d do almost anything to escape from. And yet what happens if we don’t reach for our usual coping strategies, and sit with the anxiety instead? Where do we notice it in our bodies? We can take the time to really tune into the physical sensations of anxiety. Sometimes it might be the stomach churning, or a tightness of breath, or the heart seeming to beat very fast. Over time, as we practise meditation regularly, we can gain confidence in sitting with anxiety for a while, rather than immediately needing to reach for that glass of wine or spend the rest of the evening watching mindless TV. This can be very empowering, and is often one of the benefits of meditation which those who are starting out often appreciate the most.
There are times when meditation, or at least meditation by itself, is not going to be the answer to our problems. We might have suffered significant trauma, or a profound loss, and need counselling and other supports for a while before we can begin to sit quietly with our pain and anxiety. The coping strategies we use are there for a reason – they’re the best we could manage at the time. We need to do this work in our own time, with the right supports in place. Yet it’s probably fair to say that there are few of us who wouldn’t benefit from learning more about our usual coping strategies, and finding new and more skillful ways of being present with ‘life as it is’.
Weekly practice idea:
Set aside twenty minutes for a quiet meditation. What kind of emotions, thoughts and body sensations do you notice during that time? What happens when you don’t react to unpleasant feeling states, but simply remain present with them?