Finding our balance

We humans are complex creatures – we crave excitement but also yearn for peace; we want life to flow smoothly but get bored when we don’t have any challenges; we want to fit in and belong, but prefer to feel unique and a little bit ‘special’ at the same time; we want intimacy and also our own space. Life is a constant balancing act between these contradictory drives, as well as our obligations to others, and the particular circumstances we find ourselves in. Because we’re being pulled in different directions both internally and externally much of the time, we can find ourselves a little dissatisfied with life even when all seems to be going well for us. In Buddhism this is known as dukkha – the unsatisfactory nature of existence. Even when everything is going to plan, a part of us already knows that it won’t last. Within each moment of happiness, there is the knowledge that sadness will follow sooner or later.

Far from being a defeatist attitude, the concept of dukkha can be quite liberating. For example, a few days ago I was in the garden, pulling out the last of the old tomatoes and preparing a vegie bed for winter. It was a job I’d been wanting to get around to for a while, and here I was, on a cold but sunny autumn day, finally doing it. Yet I was constantly distracted by seeing other jobs which needed to be done – all those weeds to be pulled out, and leaves raked, and the roses tidied up, and the azalea not looking the best. Not to mention the unanswered emails and countless other tasks inside the house! Part of my mind was also mulling over work.

I love gardening, but in the garden I tend to be a half-glass full person – more likely to notice what needs to be done than what is growing well. Gardening is a perfect opportunity for mindfulness – it’s quiet and in nature, and we can use all our senses to tune into our environment. I find it helpful to remind myself from time to time – ‘this is what I’m doing right now’. Right now I’m clearing out the vegie bed, and if I can focus on that, my experience of gardening becomes much more satisfying and peaceful.

There are many aspects to mindfulness, but I find that the ability to centre ourselves into what we are doing, rather than feeling ourselves pulled in all directions, is one of the greatest gifts of mindfulness. For the past few weeks, I’ve talked about Paul Gilbert’s model of the three emotional systems, which describes some of the reasons why we are often distracted away from the present moment. These reasons are powerful, because they’re hard-wired into our brain. They are designed to help us survive, which is one of the most powerful drivers there is. Fortunately, we can change some of the ways in which our brain has evolved, through regular practices which help us to ‘remember’ to come back to the present. This provides a powerful counter-balance to our fears and drivenness, and can indeed help us to find greater balance within our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose something you will do for ten or more minutes each day to re-balance your life. What do you notice?

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

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

Living in balance

A good life is a balanced life – we have the right amount of work and rest, of company and solitude, of stimulation and peace, of food, exercise, meditation, and also of rights and responsibilities. It’s impossible to get this balance perfect, and learning to live with imperfection is one of the signs of maturity. Yet living a life which is very out of balance is also going to put strain on our resources, and can potentially leave us depleted. I’ve worked a lot with carers, who often put their own needs aside to focus on the loved one they’re caring for. Carers, as a group, have some of the worst health statistics in the population, and often suffer financially as well. Many are very good at caring for others, but not so good at caring for themselves. If we look at rights and responsibilities as a continuum, most carers would lean heavily towards the responsibility end. Other people in our society are very conscious of their rights, but less aware they also have responsibilities to society. Depending on our upbringing, culture and gender, we may feel more comfortable being aware of our responsibilities or our rights. Yet for all of us there is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, where we can balance a healthy sense of entitlement with awareness of the needs of others.

Living in balance involves making choices – sometimes major ones, such as whether to have another child, go back to study or find a new job – and also small choices, such as whether to log onto Facebook or sit in the garden with a cup of tea for ten minutes after work. Sometimes there’s not much we can do to change the major circumstances of our lives. For example, parents of a child with a severe disability may be stressed but coping, until one of their own parents also becomes unwell and requires care, really putting the family under strain. We may have a job which involves working long hours, but nothing else is available and it pays the bills. Yet even within those circumstances, we often have more choice about living in balance than we might think.

It could be a conscious choice to slow down, take a few deep breaths and notice our surroundings when we feel stressed. It could be a walk around the block instead of checking the news online. We might spend less time with an acquaintance who is always complaining and leaves us feeling depleted, and more time with our friends or pets or ourselves. We could join a community choir instead of sitting at home watching TV. Or we might curtail our overly busy social life to spend more time at home watching TV!

Over the next few weeks, I will look at a model by Professor Paul Gilbert about our three emotional systems (fight/flight, resource-seeking, and soothing/affiliation) which I’ve found very helpful when thinking about why we’re often not that good at making choices to bring our lives more into balance, even when the opportunity is there.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside ten to twenty minutes, and in a notebook write ‘Living in balance for me means…’ and keep writing and see what emerges. Journalling can be a wonderful way to discover ways to re-balance our lives.

Anja Tanhane

Contentment

Welcome to the final of the summer specials of favourite mindfulness reflections. New reflections will be published from Monday, 2.2. This reflection was first posted on 14.10.2013:

‘Knowledge is full of labour, but love is full of rest.’

From The Cloud of Unknowing

Imagine writing a song for every emotion you experience during the day. How many different songs would you need to compose? Would it be the same song repeated on an endless loop, or would you be flitting from one song to the next, like a preview sampler across all styles and moods? Would the feelings expressed in the songs be complex – bittersweet, a melancholy happiness, restless contentment – or would they be straight-forward – now I’m happy, sad, excited, calm?

Our emotions might seem random and vast, like an endless array of colours and possibilities, but can actually be grouped into three basic emotional systems, as Paul Gilbert describes in his wonderful book ‘Mindful Compassion’ (co-written with Choden):

  1. The threat and self-protection system
  2. The drive and resource-seeking system
  3. The soothing and affiliation system.

We’re all pretty familiar with the self-protection system of fight/flight, which activates the stress response. Most of us are also used to living much of our lives in the drive system, constantly striving to achieve more and more. The point about the model is that all three systems are important – we certainly need to protect ourselves, and without drive we’d just stay in bed in the morning and hope that someone will be kind enough to bring us a cup of tea and some toast at some point. However, all three systems need to be in balance, and in our hectic modern lifestyle, the soothing and affiliation system can easily miss out. And yet this is the system which promotes deep contentment, where we can feel most deeply ourselves, where we can rest in the simplicity of being present rather than getting caught up in chasing endlessly moving goal posts.

Although we all strive for happiness, I often find contentment a more useful concept to think about. It is more stable than happiness, less dependent on external triggers. There are times when I’m a little melancholic or anxious, but still deeply content. Like a beautiful Baroque Adagio, which can be yearning, complex, sad, yet still leaves us calm and at peace when we listen to it, so contentment can help us feel in the deepest sense ourselves. It is at the core of us, when we slow down and allow ourselves to be. Contentment is the state we touch more and more during meditation, and which over time infuses the rest of our lives. It balances the fight/flight and drive systems, without diminishing their importance in our lives.

A baby which grows up in a loving household learns from its caregivers to regulate its own emotional states through self-soothing. But even if we didn’t learn these skills in childhood, we can still develop them as adults – through learning practices which activate our parasympathetic nervous system (the resting and regenerating state); through our relationships with other people; and through an understanding that our three systems need to be in balance, even if this doesn’t seem to suit the dominant paradigm of our consumerist culture. Meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, prayer, gardening, walking, listening to music, playing with pets, holding a sleeping child, cooking with love – all these can help to ground us, to bring us back to ourselves. Regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to bring with it a long list of benefits, which are all excellent, but essentially they all come down to just one factor – mindfulness meditation helps us self-regulate and balance our three emotional systems, so we live in greater harmony with ourselves and the world around us.

Weekly practice idea:

Find a piece of music which evokes feelings of contentment, and set aside a quiet time when you can listen to it – perhaps lying on the couch with the phone turned off, or with headphones in a park if your home is very busy. Allow your muscles to relax, and your breath to slow with the music. Over the coming months, come back to this piece of music from time to time when life gets overly hectic.

Anja Tanhane

 

 

Contentment

 Fern

‘Knowledge is full of labour, but love is full of rest.’

From The Cloud of Unknowing

Imagine writing a song for every emotion you experience during the day. How many different songs would you need to compose? Would it be the same song repeated on an endless loop, or would you be flitting from one song to the next, like a preview sampler across all styles and moods? Would the feelings expressed in the songs be complex – bittersweet, a melancholy happiness, restless contentment – or would they be straight-forward – now I’m happy, sad, excited, calm?

Our emotions might seem random and vast, like an endless array of colours and possibilities, but can actually be grouped into three basic emotional systems, as Paul Gilbert describes in his wonderful book ‘Mindful Compassion’ (co-written with Choden):

  1. The threat and self-protection system
  2. The drive and resource-seeking system
  3. The soothing and affiliation system. Continue reading “Contentment” »