Photo by Marek Mierzejewski
Written by Michelle Morris
Challenges we experience may be anxiety, loss, feeling our buttons pushed, physical pain or maybe you are struggling with critical chattering in your mind. Even what we consider positive things, like marriage or vacations can trigger stress, as shown by the Holmes and Rahe stress scale.
Interestingly, many of the stressors listed on this scale relate to changes in our lives. And currently in this Covid era, we are living in a time of major change and uncertainty.
Meditation teacher Shinzen Young gives a very clear way to think about how mindfulness can be helpful when challenges come up: we can use mindfulness strategies of turning away from the challenge in a healthy way or turning towards in a healthy way. This month we will look at the first strategy.
What do we mean by this? If we take the example of anxiety: when practising the turning away strategy, we focus our attention away from the emotional sensation of anxiety. There are several focus options:
1. Restful states: e.g. focusing on the breath can be calming for many people.
2. Anchoring our attention out: e.g. focusing on external sights or sounds in your environment. This could be hearing a bird song or seeing the blooms of the flowers.
3. Focusing on positivity: this could be a mantra or positive words or phrases such as used in Loving Kindness practice, and/or a visual image in your mind, that evokes a good feeling.
The important thing is, you are not trying to get rid of, or suppress or deny what is unpleasant (this makes it a “turn away” in a healthy way) but rather intentionally not focusing on it. As we practice one of these 3 options, we are not paying attention to the anxiety directly, but totally allowing the anxiety to be there in the background. This is cultivating the mindfulness skill of equanimity, specifically background equanimity. We are developing another way to be with difficulties (that is not avoiding or getting caught up in anxiety) in which we are not fighting with our sensory experience.
You may have had the pleasing experience of practising a ‘turn-away’ strategy, and applying background equanimity, and found that what was distressing at the beginning of your meditation may have calmed down or even been resolved at the end. As Shinzen states, “the main cathartic factor is equanimity”.
Next month we will be exploring the turn away strategy.
When you notice experiences of stress or challenge in your life, try applying one of the turn away mindfulness practices. You can do a micro practice of a minute or two, or a formal meditation practice of 10 minutes or longer. Remember equanimity takes time to develop and you may not always notice rewards immediately.