Urge surfing

I’m sometimes asked by students whether they ‘have’ to practise sitting meditation, or whether doing yoga or Tai Chi is enough. The answer really depends on why someone is choosing to do a mindfulness practice in the first place. Yoga and Tai Chi are both ancient practices which are whole and complete in themselves. Anyone who practises them regularly will benefit enormously – physically, mentally and spiritually.

The benefit of a sitting meditation is that it teaches us to remain still and centered in the midst of our countless different thoughts, emotions, body sensations and desires. Most of the time, we have a tendency to move away from unpleasant experience – we try to avoid it, or pretend it’s not there, or distract ourselves, or do our best to numb ourselves so we don’t have to feel the full impact of what is happening. There are times when any of these strategies are quite appropriate, but if they become our main way of dealing with life’s challenges, the solution can sometimes become as problematic as the initial problem we were trying to solve.

Say for example that you’ve had a shocking day at work, and when you come home you’ve just got to have a glass of wine. You instantly feel a little better about life. The situation at work deteriorates further, but in addition you’re now also having to deal with an elderly aunt who is no longer able to live independently, but refuses to even discuss a nursing home. Soon that glass of wine becomes three or four, but then you don’t sleep well, and so you drink one coffee after the other to get you through the next day, which is making you even more anxious. You know you’re in a pattern which isn’t helpful or sustainable, but when you get home you’ve just got to have that wine, and the thought of getting through a day at work without regular coffee breaks seems unbearable.

A regular sitting meditation teaches us the skills to notice the arising of unpleasant thoughts, body sensations and emotions, without needing to get up and implement our usual coping strategy. When we sit regularly, we soon notice that every sensation comes and goes. Even the most intense experience doesn’t actually last all that long – sooner or later it abates, transforms, or we start to think about whether we should have bought more milk.

In the practice called ‘urge-surfing’, we approach each desire like a wave coming into the beach. We notice the wave by tuning into our physical sensations. Where in the body do we feel the urge – is it large or small, what sensations are associated with it, how does it change? We notice the sensation becoming more intense, like riding the crest of a wave. But instead of being overwhelmed by the wave, we simply follow its journey to the shore and then get on with the rest of our day. We can practise becoming more familiar with the urge by also noticing the kind of thoughts and emotions associated with it. After a while it will become familiar, and we will have developed greater internal strength by learning how to stay with the urge without giving in. Sometimes it might be easier to practice urge surfing with something simple, like the urge to fidget during sitting meditation, before moving onto more powerful desires like smoking or whatever else is particularly challenging for us.

Sitting meditation teaches us that we don’t always have to instantly respond to every feeling, thought or urge which life brings us. So instead of saying – ‘don’t just stand there – do something!’, we might sometimes say instead – ‘don’t just do something – sit there!’

Weekly practice idea:

Pick a small habit you would like to change, and practise urge surfing with it this week. How does it feel?

Anja Tanhane

The resource-seeking system Part 2

Paul Gilbert’s model of the three emotional systems is all about balance, and, as we discussed last week, the strive- and resource-seeking system has an important role to play in our lives. However, because it is designed to help us survive, it comes with a strong in-built reward system which can easily hook us in. For example, every time we acquire something or achieve something, we are rewarded with a hit of the feel-good chemical messenger dopamine, which is in effect like getting a little sugar hit. This feels pleasant, and motivates us to keep striving for more. However, the resource-seeking system can become quite addictive – whether to drugs or gambling, or to over-work, or to needing constant praise. Also, within this system, the rewards depend on external validation – whether it comes in the form of a pay rise, winning an award, acquiring a new pair of shoes, or getting likes on Facebook. Receiving external validation feels pleasant, but it also leaves us vulnerable to the vagaries of other peoples’ judgments, the job market, what’s trendy and what’s not, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. And, just as a sugar hit feels pleasant in the short-term but leaves us more depleted, so the excitement of the resource-seeking system can soon wear off – and we either feel strangely flat and dull, or go anxiously searching for our next ‘hit’.

We might put all your energy into our career, neglecting our family and our health, and then find ourselves without a job after the latest restructure. Meanwhile, the family is getting on with their own lives, since they hardly ever saw us, our health is in tatters and our emotional resilience is also very low. Like a gambler on a winning streak, the resource-seeking system works great when things are going our way – but there’s little to fall back on when our luck runs out. There’s nothing wrong with hard work and being rewarded and relishing excitement – as long as we realise the ephemeral nature of excitement and success.

We are all addicted in one way or another to the resource-seeking system – it’s part of our human nature to seek out praise and reward. We may not be addicted to gambling, alcohol or drugs, but on a more subtle level, we still love to get those dopamine hits! We can enjoy them, as long as we keep them in balance. And the best way to find this balance in our lives, according to Paul Gilbert’s model, is to cultivate the soothing and affiliation system, which will be the topic of next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

Think about areas in your life where you know you’re a little ‘addicted’. Checking the smart phone too frequently is a common one nowadays. Does this ‘addiction’ come with a cost?

Anja Tanhane

Right effort – Part 2

We often hear inspiring stories of people who took on a challenge everyone thought was impossible, and who succeeded through sheer determination and persistence, and broke new ground in our understanding of what humans can be capable of. Sometimes you hear people say – ‘if you work hard enough, anything is possible’, but of course that’s not true. What we hear less about is the people who become obsessed and invest everything in a dream which doesn’t work out, and who are left broken as a result. At what point is an obsession inspiring, and when does it become pathological? Often, success has more to do with external factors (right place, right time) than just the personality of the individual concerned. Yet we can be quick to praise ‘heroes’, and condemn ‘losers’, without taking into account that their roles could easily have been reversed. For example, by all accounts Winston Churchill was a very effective prime minister during the war, but not afterwards in peacetime. His particular qualities suited one set of conditions more than another, and this applies to all of us. When is our effort heroic, and when does it become deluded and obsessional? And how do we know the difference?

Right effort is about finding the sweet spot between trying too hard, and giving up too easily. It’s a particularly complex area in our interpersonal relationships. I’ve worked with people who lost everything, including the family home, because they had a child with a drug addiction who kept taking and taking until it was all gone. Others stay in abusive relationships year after year, forever trying to fix something which show no signs of changing or is actually getting worse. We might feel we just need to try harder and everything will be alright, but all the effort in the world can’t fix someone else’s brokenness unless they themselves want to change. They say it takes two to tango, but sometimes we just need to walk off the dance floor and go home.

Right effort can be about persistence and hard work, but it can also be about accepting our limitations, and being at peace with those. Not everything is doable or fixable. We can also ask ourselves – is the prize worth it? A lot of heroes have families who’ve hardly seen them for years.

Sometimes the real heroism may lie in coming to terms with the life we have, with all its broken dreams and limitations, without becoming bitter, or jealous of other people’s success. Of course we can admire people who’ve achieved greatness, but we can also admire people who’ve attained equanimity and peace of mind. There is a place for incredible effort and persistence, just as there is a place for surrendering and letting go.

Weekly practice idea:

Find a quiet place to sit, and take 10 minutes to think about a dream you had which didn’t quite work out. What kind of thoughts and emotions come up for you as you reflect on this dream? Perhaps it transformed into something else which you appreciate, or you’re still in the grieving phase, or you feel it’s time to let go. What can you learn from your reflection?

Anja Tanhane