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

Holiday favourites – Living with Ease

‘May I live with ease.’

This is the last line of the loving-kindness (or metta) meditation I often use during meditation classes and retreats. At first the phrase might simply sound pleasant, or even a little self-indulgent. We hear the word ‘ease’, and imagine an easy life. And yes, it does make sense to wish ourselves an easy life. We probably don’t want to go around saying,

‘May I have a tremendously difficult life’ (character-building though that may be!).

Yet when I repeat the phrase, ‘may I live with ease’ during meditation, to me it also has another meaning – may I be at ease with my life, regardless of the circumstances. May I be at ease with the inevitable ups and downs of my existence, instead of constantly struggling against ‘what is’. This is not passive, or resigned – in fact, being at ease with our lives involves a very active engagement with reality, as opposed to clinging onto some idealised fantasy of how life should be. Being at ease is not the same as ‘anything goes’, ‘she’ll be right’, or the ‘yeah, whatever’ attitude we’ve probably all come across.

A Christian minister who was taking part in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course found himself struggling with the idea of a life at ease. In his tradition, ongoing struggle and obligations were considered very important. It is actually possible to be very busy, work hard, even feel a little stressed, and still be at ease. When we see sports people give the performance of their lives, there is often an ease about how they move, despite the obvious effort which goes into their achievement. They are not being lazy, but neither are they wasting energy by tensing up their bodies unnecessarily. They expend exactly the right amount of energy, in the muscles which count. Their minds are focused, and they’re not distracted by obsessing about a long list of other things they ‘should’ be doing.

When I play a difficult passage on the piano, I’ve learnt to allow my fingers to soften rather than tense as I make my way through the many notes. It is remarkably effective, and goes against our notion that extra tension = extra effort = better results. In fact the formula should probably look more like this:

Extra attention = less effort = better results.

Weekly practice idea:

Notice times when you tense more muscles, and expend more energy, than you need to. It could be as simple as gently picking up a cup instead of impatiently grabbing for it.

Anja Tanhane

 

Being in our bodies

Welcome to the summer series of some of the most popular mindfulness reflections – this blog was first published on 24.6.2013:

‘Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body.’

This wonderful quote by James Joyce, from ‘The Dubliners’, is an apt description of how probably many of us feel. While our bodies make themselves known to us when we are hungry, ill or tired, much of the time we may barely be aware of them, except perhaps for a vague sense of inadequacy, of our bodies not living up to an idealised version of what they should be. In the Buddhist tradition, the four foundations of mindfulness start with mindfulness of the body. The eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course also uses the body scan as its first mindfulness practice. We tend to think of meditation as something which happens in our head, for example the misleading notion that we should be able to ‘clear’ our mind of all thoughts during meditation, or wrestle with and tame our thinking mind. Yet mindfulness training, whether in a Buddhist centre or during a MBSR course, starts with the posture, awareness of the breath, tuning into our bodies, the body scan. We’re not trying to transcend our thinking mind or our physical bodies, but be more at home within them.

‘Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows.’ Henry David Thoreau

Mindfulness is not a tool, but a way of life. Part of this way of life is to regularly tune into our bodies, becoming aware of internal body sensations, as well as the senses which connect our bodies with the outside world. I first taught mindfulness in a hospital setting, to the families of mainly young patients with a severe acquired brain injury. These families were dealing with unimaginable grief, anxiety, emotional pain and uncertainty. Many neglected themselves, focusing all their energy on trying to help their loved one, often for years on end. Yet after some Tai Chi and a guided meditation, the tightness in their faces would soften a little, and there was a palpable sense of coming back to themselves, of being able to rest, for a few precious moments, within their own bodies. I’ve seen this happen again and again, during workshops, retreats, the MBSR course. There is a deep contentment which comes from settling into our bodies, rather than living ‘a short distance away’ from it.

Our bodies always exist in the present – they are never caught up in the past or the future. We don’t time-travel with our bodies. By being aware of our senses, our physical sensations, we are automatically living in the present moment.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, become more aware of your senses. What can you hear? What can you smell, taste, touch? How does it feel, to become more aware of your surroundings, more grounded to the present moment?

 

Anja Tanhane