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 soothing system – Part 2

We’re probably all pretty familiar with the stress response (sometimes it might seem like our whole lives are spent responding to stress!), but perhaps we are less well acquainted with the relaxation response. This response has been described by scientists such as Dr Herbert Benson, who found that people who meditated had the opposite of the fight/flight response – the meditators had decreased heart rates, slower brain waves, and a slower rate of breathing. Dr Benson found that two key factors were involved in evoking the relaxation response – repetition, and disregarding other thoughts when they come to our mind. 95% of the stressors most of us face in modern life are in our mind, not a sabre-tooth tiger about to eat us. Yet these anxious thoughts can keep us trapped in the stress response, which places a huge allostatic load on our bodies, meaning our minds and bodies wear out more quickly.

Dr Benson looked at cultures around the world, and found that every single culture had practices which involved repetition, and were designed to interrupt the train of everyday thinking. These could be rituals, prayer, singing, dancing, making offerings, meditation. What’s more, recent research by scientists at the Benson-Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine found that the very first time we switch on the relaxation response, genomic gene expression changes occur. We are born with a set of genes which we carry throughout our lives – these never change. However, our lifestyle and external factors determine which genes are expressed, and which ones are switched off. As Dr Craig Hassed says in the documentary The Connection by Shannon Harvey (which explains all this really well):

‘I just think it’s fascinating to be thinking you’re sitting in a chair practising a mind-body technique like meditation, and you’re doing genetic engineering at the same time. I find that extraordinary.’

There is one caveat – in order to really benefit from techniques which evoke the relaxation response, we need to practise them often, preferably daily. And rather than trying to ‘find time’ for these techniques, we’re much better off creating this time – consciously structuring them into our everyday routine. After a while, doing practices to evoke the relaxation response becomes part of our life – like having a shower, for example. Most people take a shower or bath quite regularly, not just when we ‘find’ the time for it or are in the right mood.

Meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, prayer and religious ritual can all be powerful ways through which to evoke the relaxation response. Think about activities you enjoy which leave you with a deep feeling of contentment. For me, this might be meditation, Tai Chi, gardening and bush walking. I enjoy watching TV, but can’t say I feel deep contentment afterwards – more likely a slight feeling of irritation.

Because our soothing and affiliation system is not related to our immediate survival, it is easily neglected. Yet so many of the aspects of life we value, such as contentment, close interpersonal relationships, healing, gratitude, appreciation and spirituality, all need this system in order to flourish. If a good life is a balanced life, then it makes sense for us to cultivate the soothing system, through regular practices which evoke the relaxation response and leave us feeling rested and regenerated.

Weekly practice idea:

What practices do you currently have which evoke the relaxation response? Do you do these regularly, or only intermittently? Would you benefit from more regular practices, and what might this look like in your life? What are some steps you can take this week towards a more balanced life?

Anja Tanhane

The soothing system – Part 1

The third system in Paul Gilbert’s model of the three emotional systems (the previous two were ‘fight/flight’ and ‘resource-seeking’) is what he calls the ‘soothing and affiliation system’. This system is crucial for rest, regeneration, and healing. Unlike the excitement and intensity of the other two systems, the soothing and affiliation system is quiet, receptive, and content. In the hectic busyness of our everyday lives, the soothing system is easily overlooked – and yet, so much of what we value in life springs from, and is nurtured through, this system.

It could be feelings of appreciation, of gratitude, of being grounded and present. There might be a sense of coming home to ourselves, of connecting with our deepest values. There’s little excitement in this system, but instead it allows us a deep sense of joy. Excitement has its place, but it can easily be derailed. For example, as a child you may have been very excited about getting a new bike, only to have one of your friends make a snide comment about its colour – and immediately your excitement gave way to hurt and disappointment. Contentment is different – a colleague may make a cutting remark about the compliment you received from your boss, but you are basically content within yourself, and can recognise the remark for the jealousy it probably is. We hear a lot about the search for happiness, but I find thinking about contentment more useful. We can feel sad, even a little hurt by unkind remarks, and still feel basically content.

The soothing and affiliation system is also important for kindness and compassion. We’re hardwired to be calmed down in the face of kindness. When we’re constantly in a rush, it’s difficult to find the time to sit with someone, really listen to them, respond empathetically to their distress. Deep social connections and support take time. That doesn’t mean we have to invariably spend hours listening to someone when we ask them how their day was. Yet eventually, if we’re always in a rush and distracted when we talk to our friends and family, those relationships are going to suffer.

In his book ‘The Brain’s Way of Healing – Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity’, Norman Doidge writes about the research by Stephen Porges, which found that activating the parasympathetic nervous system (which is our resting and regenerating system) also turns on our social engagement system, as well as the middle ear muscles. This allows us to communicate and connect with others. There are young children with sensory processing difficulties who are constantly overwhelmed by the sensations coming at them, and are therefore mostly in fight/flight mode. They may show little interest in interacting with others, until they are given the opportunity to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (for example through sound therapy, as Norman Doidge describes in his book). Once they’re able to relax and don’t feel overwhelmed, they may then become very engaged socially.

The soothing and affiliation system is crucial if we want to find a way of life which is fulfilling and balanced. Yet, because it’s not related to our immediate survival needs, it can often be neglected. Next week, we will look at some ideas for nurturing this system in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Put aside ten to twenty minutes, and reflect on areas in your life where you are currently cultivating the soothing and affiliation system. Does it feel the right balance, or do you need to spend more or less time in this system?

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