Fight or flight – Part 2

As I mentioned last week, the fight/flight system has its place – we will all find ourselves in situations where this primitive survival system is called for and may even save our lives. Yet in modern life, this system is activated all too readily. The 24 hour news cycle, advertising, over-crowding, insecurity at work, family stress, the political climate – all these can make us fearful and reactive over and over again. Sometimes this is exploited by others – for example click-bait, which are stories designed to have us clicking on to online news, helping them to sell advertising. Politicians may want to make us feel insecure so they can promise us security if we vote for them. The advertising industry often works on our fear – buy this product to keep you and your family safe – and who would not want their family to be safe? So we quickly buy the product or insurance.

Because it is a primal survival response, the flight or flight mode activates the more primitive parts of the brain, in particular the brain stem and the limbic system. This system encourages us to react quickly, without over-thinking. Fortunately, we can learn over time to switch off this primitive reactiveness when it’s not called for, and to instead engage the whole of our brain – including those parts which make us mature, wise, reflective and considerate. In mindfulness, we are in effect asking – ‘what is really going on right now?’ And also, once we’ve become clearer about the current situation, we can also ask, ‘how can I best respond?’ Over time, if we practise mindfulness regularly, we find that our level of arousal in stressful situations is not as high, and we can recover more quickly. This is a major advantage in times when we’re under considerable stress, but need to negotiate our challenges with wisdom and restraint.

These kind of effects are often noticed after only a few weeks of regular mindfulness meditation. Participants in the eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course often report in weeks three or four that they were able to deal with a stressful situation more effectively than they would have in the past. Whether it’s our relationship with our family or work, our neighbours or our cravings, we can learn to pause, reflect, and make conscious choices on how to act. Over time, this feels very empowering, as we are no longer so much at the mercy of our primitive fight/flight response.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of a situation where you have recently found yourself in fight/flight mode although there was no imminent physical danger. Imagine yourself in this situation being able to calm yourself down, be reflective, act with restraint. Could this have changed the outcome?

Anja Tanhane

Fight or flight Part 1

Most of us are pretty familiar with fight or flight, which is the first of Paul Gilbert’s three emotional systems I mentioned in last week’s reflection. Fight or flight is a remarkable system designed to keep us alive. It’s a primitive but effective emergency response to a perceived danger, and it mobilises our body for immediate action. In fact, in emergency situations, we often find ourselves reacting before we have time to think. This is great when a snake is coming at you and you have to jump out of the way; not so good when your boss says something you find upsetting and you find yourself screaming abuse at her.

During fight or flight, our body systems go into overdrive – the blood pressure goes up, as does the heart rate, breathing becomes fast and shallow, your body is flooded with stress hormones, peripheral circulation decreases as the blood rushes to the major muscle groups ready for action, and your digestion slows down. Your focus is narrow, fixated on the perceived danger, and you lose sight of the bigger picture. Parts of the brain such as the central pre-frontal cortex, which are designed to restrain your action, reflect on the situation and bring empathy and atunement to another person, go offline. Again, we can see how these responses are great in a survival situation, but less useful in a complex office or family environment.

Unfortunately for us, fight or flight is activated quite easily – after the old adage, better safe than sorry. It is activated just as readily by a real danger, such as a tiger attacking you, as by imagined danger, such as an email from management announcing a major restructure at work. Some people live in dangerous situations, such as a war zone or in a domestic violence relationship, but for many of us the actual physical dangers are rare – and yet we can spend a great deal of our lives in fight or flight mode. And if your stress is chronic, the fight/flight response may not be de-activated between stressors. Because it’s such an extreme emergency response, being often in fight/flight mode is like driving the car down the freeway in first gear – eventually the system will wear out and start to break down. Next week, we will look how mindfulness can be helpful for regulating the fight or flight response a bit better.

Weekly practice idea:

Try to become more conscious of situations where your fight/flight response is being activated. What happens in your body? In your mind?

Anja Tanhane

Silent grief

Most of us carry within us some kind of ‘silent grief’ – a disenfranchised grief for something we’ve lost which isn’t publicly recognised, but which may still burden us. Sometimes this grief is quite minor – a slight yearning, a small sense of loss. Perhaps your childhood home, which hasn’t been in your family for years, is being demolished. You feel a little sad about this, knowing you will never be able to see the house you grew up in again, but you’d hardly travel to the address to stage a public funeral on the footpath.

Other forms of silent grief, however, cut us far more deeply, and can over the years lead to feelings of bitterness and isolation. Having a parent with dementia is one form of disenfranchised grief – the person you knew is no longer there, they are no longer acting as your parent, but on the other hand there’s usually been no ritual to mark this transition. Each society has its own forms of disenfranchised grief – losses which aren’t validated by the community. One example, which is slowly changing in some places, is the disenfranchised grief of a same-sex partner who has no say in end-of-life decisions or funeral arrangements. The silent grief can also be the loss of our hopes and dreams, being incapacitated in some way, a past injustice, or historical wrongs which haven’t been acknowledged.

Immigration is another form of loss which isn’t generally validated by the new host country. Immigrants are supposed to be delighted and happy they’ve been accepted into their new home, and there is usually an expectation of rapid assimilation. Yes, by all means bring some of your wonderful cuisine along and open a restaurant where your whole family can work long hours to feed us. But apart from this, do make sure you quickly learn how things work here. And please don’t go hankering after the ways of your old country…

A regular mindfulness practice will, sooner or later, open us up to the silent grief within us. At first this might be vague, a generic form of Weltschmerz, feeling the pain of the world. Over time, however, we become more attuned to the losses inside us, and what might trigger feelings of grief. Do you feel very moved by the online footage of the teenage Syrian refugee who has brought his puppy with him to Europe? ‘I love my dog’, he says, ‘everyone told me I couldn’t bring him along. But I have water, and food for him. I love my dog.’ Maybe you had to leave a beloved family pet behind when you moved countries? Maybe you are unable to keep a dog where you live? The Internet, the news, daily life, they are full of triggers for our silent griefs. Grief is just a natural part of life – there is nothing wrong with grief. But it helps to understand where it comes from, how it affects us, what might trigger it. It helps to hold the silent grief with mindful compassion, to honour and respect it, so it’s no longer a disenfranchised grief but simply becomes part of our common humanity.

Weekly practice idea:

What is one of your silent griefs? Perhaps you can invent a small ritual to mark it? It doesn’t need to be elaborate – a simple gesture to acknowledge the grief, such as lighting a candle, or placing a flower in a stream and watching it float away, can be very powerful.

Anja Tanhane

A gentle half smile

Light up your face with gladness

Hide every trace of sadness

Although a tear may be ever so near.

That’s the time you must keep on trying

Smile what’s the use in crying?

You’ll find that life is still worth-while

If you do just smile.

Lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons

This famous song has no doubt brought a smile to many faces over the decades. From a mindfulness point of view, we may not agree with the line ‘hide every trace of sadness’, since we don’t want to deny our feelings. However, there is a practice which the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls a gentle half smile, which can indeed brighten our day, without needing to pretend that life is all wonderful.

When we look at advertising we are bombarded with ecstatic smiles, showing two rows of perfect white teeth, giving the impression of a fully realised human life. In the past we may have been told ‘come on, smile!’ 🙂 when we’ve been having a bad day, and we probably rather resented this! It’s quite galling to be told to smile when you’re feeling lousy. And we have all come across the compulsory professional smile, which depending on the person may still be friendly, but in the wrong hands can feel cold and arrogant.

The gentle half smile is a way of bringing positive energy into our day, of lifting our spirits without necessarily trying to radically change our underlying feeling state. We can feel sad, or anxious, and still find our outlook improves if we sit with those feelings while we have a gentle smile on our face. It’s quite easy to habitually frown without even noticing we’re doing this. It’s a good practice to start our meditation with a reminder to gently smile, but we can also bring this half smile to our face throughout the day.

The meditation teacher Tara Brach has a lovely way of extending this practice. During some of her guided meditations, she suggests feeling the gentle half smile behind the eyes, behind the face, in the heart centre. We can also send the half smile to parts of our body which may be hurting, or which feel tense. It’s easy for us to metaphorically frown at various parts of the body, either because of pain, or because of a sense there is something ‘wrong’ with our bodies. It’s so much more friendly to bring a gentle smile to different regions of our bodies instead.

When we are talking to other people, it may not always be appropriate to be beaming a wide smile at them. They may be talking about something which has distressed them, or criticising you, and a big smile would look out of place. But even in those situations, you can still imagine a gentle half smile behind your eyes, and you will look more open and receptive to the other person, and they may feel you are being warm and friendly towards them. It is a wonderful habit to cultivate, and encapsulates what mindfulness meditation is about – not pretending that life is other than it is, but choosing small actions which will gradually infuse our days with more positive states of mind.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, try the gentle half smile, when you are by yourself and also with other people. Notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane

A warm and friendly voice

Imagine spending a week with someone who only ever criticises you. You’ve achieved something great at work, and the best they can manage is a miserly, ‘yes, well okay, that wasn’t too bad, BUT…’ This person specialises in ‘buts’ with capital letters, finds it very difficult to be happy for you, and looks slightly anxious if you insist on being joyful for a few moments. It’s as if this person knows more about the world than you, understands that the world is really a very dangerous and unpredictable place, and so is trying his or her best to keep you on your toes, prevent you from being complacent, and ensure you will always strive a little harder than you did the day before.

If this were a person in the real world we’d probably soon tire of them, but the fact is many of us carry such a person around in our heads, constantly criticising, analysing and finding inadequate pretty much everything we do. When we learn mindfulness, we become more self-aware, and we can use this self-awareness to catch ourselves when we are caught in certain thought-patterns, such as negativity or anxiety or rumination. This increased self-awareness is valuable, but it will only really improve our lives if we can manage to talk to ourselves in a warm and friendly tone of voice. Otherwise, our self-awareness might only add extra grist to the mill of self-criticism which is perhaps already out of control.

We spend a lot of time in our own company. And most of us give some thought to how we interact with others – hopefully we are friendly, polite, and considerate to our friends and colleagues most of the time. We all know how wonderful it is to be with someone whose voice is warm, calm, and resonant. Yet what is the tone of voice we use to communicate with ourselves in our own head?

People often comment how learning mindfulness is helping them to be more kind towards themselves. There is a place for self-reflection, self-evaluation, and also self-criticism. Yet when we do find ourselves being self-critical we can ask – is the criticism constructive? Is it measured? And is it friendly?

Weekly practice idea:

Listen to the tone of voice you use towards yourself, especially in situations when you’re feeling under pressure or aren’t performing as well as you’d like. How would you describe your tone of voice then?

Anja Tanhane

Cultivating enthusiasm

‘In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… in the real world all rests on perseverance.’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Last week, we looked at enthusiasm, and some of the joys and challenges it can bring to our lives. Enthusiasm which isn’t grounded in reality is like a tree with shallow roots which is blown over by the first gust of wind. It’s relatively easy to kick-start a burst of enthusiasm, but even easier to deflate it again. You may know a person who, every time you meet them, breathlessly extols the latest self-help book or diet or guru or TV preacher. They’ve finally found ‘it’ – the one thing which will turn their lives around and set them on the path to happiness and fulfillment. Except that next time you see them, they’re preoccupied with a completely new ‘it’, the formerly wonderful ‘it’ quite forgotten.

It’s much more difficult to stay with something long-term – to remain committed to a teacher or a craft or a sport or religion through the inevitable ups and downs and the tedious, repetitive parts – and still retain some of that enthusiasm which probably helped you to get involved in the first place.

One of the greatest barriers to enthusiasm might also be that it makes us vulnerable. We put ourselves on the line when we show enthusiasm – we’re saying, in effect, this is precious to me, this is something I feel passionate about. It’s so easy to deflate someone’s enthusiasm – just a little pinprick, and the bright red balloon becomes a sad scrap of rubber. It might seem much easier to be cool, cynical, to not show the world what we care about.

Mindfulness meditation can help us with all three of these factors. It can provide a grounded counter-balance to over-excitement, to be more realistic about our present reality – to neither overplay nor underplay our expectations. Mindfulness can help us develop beginner’s mind, an appreciation of what is happening right now, which is useful when we want to stay with something long term without getting bored by it. Mindfulness also helps us become more comfortable with our vulnerability, to be honest about those things we care about, but perhaps to also choose more wisely who we share our enthusiasm with. Not everyone wants to hear all the ins and outs of the novel you’ve been working on for the past ten years, but sharing it with a person who does, and who actually, genuinely, wants to read the latest version of Chapter 1 – that is priceless!

 

Weekly practice idea:

On a piece of paper, write down what you feel enthusiastic about. If little comes to mind, perhaps remember some things you enjoyed doing as a child. Pick one of these and find a way of including it in your week, even if it’s only for ten minutes.

Anja Tanhane

Enthusiasm

‘I think the really good mountaineer is the man with the technical ability of the professional and with the enthusiasm and freshness of approach of the amateur.’

Edmund Hillary

One of the most endearing, positive qualities we can have in our lives is that of enthusiasm. It adds an extra sparkle to our day, motivates us to go the extra mile, brings us endless joy, and inspires and uplifts those around us. The word enthusiasm comes from the Greek en theos, which literally means ‘God within’, or ‘inspired by God’. Like grace and love, there is an inspired quality to enthusiasm – we all know what it feels like, but we can’t manufacture or control it.

Because enthusiasm is so beneficial, it is all too easy to try and force enthusiasm – perhaps in a work situation where everyone has to be upbeat and revved up all the time; or in religious group, where your enthusiasm is proof of your religious conviction; or in intimate relationships which operate mainly in a heightened state. Sometimes in these situation we may start out with genuine enthusiasm, but that initial flush can be difficult to sustain. Our enthusiasm may then develop a fake, pinched quality – it comes across as forced, and doesn’t really convince anyone. The strained smile, the false cheerfulness – these can be used to hide dysfunction and disengagement, to stop people from asking difficult questions or expressing doubt.

Enthusiasm is also easily manipulated – an inspirational speaker can fire up a crowd to behave in ways the individuals themselves would not, for better or worse. Add some music, balloons and colour, clapping and singing together… We can soon find ourselves being swept up in the mood of the crowd, which could be euphoric, one of the best experiences of our lives, or else it could be nasty, downright dangerous.

Enthusiasm without wisdom reminds us of the saying – ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’. There are many times when enthusiasm is not warranted – where it’s much more skillful to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and either walk away or else participate in something with a high degree of skepticism and caution.

As Edmund Hillary has expressed so well, as responsible adults we need to balance our learning and experience with the childlike enthusiasm of a beginner. It’s easy to end up at one end of the scale – either heavy with world-weary ennui, or else sparkling with fireworks exploding all over the place. Next week, we will look at ways of cultivating enthusiasm which are healthy, and based in reality.

Weekly practice idea:

When completing a task which is a little tedious, imagine yourself being very enthusiastic about it. Playfully, not taking yourself too seriously, imbue the task with enthusiasm and notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at the bright side

‘Always look on the bright side of life…’

Eric Idle

Who can forget the group of criminals, crucified at the end of Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’, cheerfully singing and whistling,

‘If life seems jolly rotten

There’s something you’ve forgotten

And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.

When you’re feeling in the dumps

Don’t be silly chumps

Just purse your lips and whistle

– that’s the thing.

And…always look on the bright

side of life…’

There are indeed times when looking on the bright side of life is just plain ridiculous. Yet, as Jon Kabat-Zinn often says to participants in his MBSR courses, most of the time there is actually more right than wrong with us. This is not to gloss over suffering and challenges which are real and painful. However, just as mindfulness is about acknowledging the difficulties we face, it’s also about recognising the resources and gifts which are available to us in any given moment.

Some of these resources are external – perhaps we have friends and family who care for us, or we live in a civil society which is relatively stable, or we have food and shelter to nourish our bodies and protect us from the elements. Just these basics are more than hundreds of millions of people around the world are able to enjoy right now.

Then there are our internal resources – our gifts, wisdom, resilience, good humour and warmth. I’ve worked with people in hospitals or residential care who had lost almost everything, and yet they would smile with warmth when they saw a little kitten or young child come to visit. If we think about all the people we’ve met in the last few weeks, chances are that most were fundamentally friendly, decent and resilient. Not many people are completely cold and bitter. As for ourselves, we might have made a few mistakes in the past month, perhaps didn’t always cover ourselves in glory, but nonetheless we probably were often thoughtful and kind, and it’s likely we made some good choices along the way.

So there’s a lot to be said for looking at the bright side of life – perhaps not always, as the Monty Python song reminds us, but almost always!

 

Weekly practice idea:

Write down three external and three internal resources which you feel are in your life right now, and set an intention this week that you will notice times when you are drawing positivity and strength from these.

Anja Tanhane

Just in case mind

When my grandmother died, she had a cellar full of old nails, pieces of string, tools she hadn’t used in years, old clothes, shoes, crockery and books. Having lived through two world wars and the depression, she did not like to throw anything away. Her flat upstairs was neat and tidy, but downstairs in the cellar was a different story. Hers was an era before ‘planned obsolescence’, where she used the same record player and radio she’d bought as a young mother after the war, right until her death. She valued her possessions and looked after them, treating everything with care and respect so it could last as long as possible. Yet she also had a cellar full of rusty nails she’d never use, old clothes which could have gone to someone else – all these possessions stored below, just in case.

Our mind is often the same – storing old information and memories ‘just in case’. We evolved like this to give ourselves the best chance of survival in an environment full of threats out in the open savannah. Anything with a hint of danger had to be remembered, and to be readily retrievable. I hear a funny rustling sound? I spin around in panic just in case. Perhaps it is the wind in the bushes, perhaps it is a tiger about to attack. But I’d better react immediately and instinctively, just in case.

Most of us would like to be able to move on more quickly from past hurts, to let bygones be bygones, to enjoy a beautiful afternoon walk in the park instead of stewing over something which happened days or weeks or even months ago. Our mind is full of rusty old nails we’ll never use, but which we cling on to in case they might come in handy one day. These patterns are hard-wired into our brains, and they’re designed to keep us safe. Unfortunately, this just in case mind can also bring with it a great deal of unnecessary suffering, and can significantly reduce our ability to enjoy life.

A regular mindfulness meditation practice can help us become more aware of these patterns, and to become less caught up in them. We do need some of this threat-based information, and it pays to look after it, just as my grandmother looked after her radio and other possessions all her life. We want to learn from our mistakes, to ask ourselves next time we find ourselves in a similar situation – ‘now remember what happened last time, that didn’t go so well, what might you do differently today?’ Yet much of our stress is caused by our just in case mind, that cellar full of rusty nails, and a regular mindfulness practice can help us clear some of that junk out, and choose to keep what’s actually important.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down some of the rusty old nails you keep in the cellar of your mind. In what situations do they mainly arise? By writing them down, you bring them out from the cellar of old memories into the living space of awareness upstairs, where it’s much easier to find an appropriate place to keep them (which may well be the rubbish bin!).

Anja Tanhane

Developing insight

‘The man with insight enough to accept his limitations comes closest to perfection.’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Imagine walking around for days with a serious injury and not even noticing it. There is a rare genetic disorder called congenital insensitivity to pain, where this is exactly what happens. People with this disorder don’t feel physical pain, which sounds wonderful at first, but is actually extremely dangerous. As children, they may chew off most of their tongue, constantly get injured without learning from the pain, and spend a lot of time in hospital. Throughout their lives, they don’t know if they’re getting appendicitis or some other internal disease. People with this condition tend to die young, with their bodies in a terrible state after years of broken bones and other injuries.

Our challenging emotions are the psychological equivalent of the physical pain we experience – often unpleasant, sometimes so excruciating we feel we cannot bear it, yet on the other hand they are like a bell which alert us to what’s actually going on in our lives. If we try to simply ignore them, we’re like the person with severe chest pain who refuses to call for an ambulance and dies of a heart attack. Yet if we investigate our emotions, like a doctor who examines a patient with a set of symptoms, we can learn a lot about ourselves.

In order to investigate the emotions, we first need to have some space around them, which is where the practices of recognition, acceptance and investigation we talked about in the previous two reflections are important. It can also be helpful to talk to others, or seek some counselling. Once we gain a wider perspective, we can then ask ourselves – what can this emotion tell me about my life?

Sometimes there is an immediate, obvious answer – ‘I’m resentful because a colleague got credit for one of my ideas’ – and a deeper, underlying one – ‘I’ve always found it hard to assert myself’. We might notice certain emotional patterns, or over-reactions to current events, which stem from experiences in the past. In mindfulness, we try not to judge ourselves for having these emotions, but rather learn from them. We all have our vulnerable places, where something affects us more than we think it ‘should’. This is just part of our common humanity, and rather than judging ourselves harshly, we can use the insight we gain from understanding our emotional ‘symptoms’ to grow and develop.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down one challenging emotion you experience regularly. Then write about the ‘story’ behind this emotion. What can you learn from this story to help you in the present and the future?

Anja Tanhane