Applying mindfulness to challenges – Part 2

Photo by Marek Mierzejewski

Written by Michelle Morris

A second mindfulness strategy, which may be a new coping mechanism, is to open up and turn towards challenges in a healthy way. This means not resisting or becoming identified with and caught up with thoughts and physical and emotional sensations. In turning towards a sensory challenge and applying mindful awareness, we untangle the strands of sensory experience, deconstructing them into smaller manageable pieces which reduces overwhelm.

Again, using the example of anxiety – rather than identifying with “I am anxious”, by observing the sensory experience of anxiety with mindfulness we can deconstruct the component parts, untangling them so they do not cross-multiply and gather momentum. Any experience of discomfort is comprised of one or more of 4 sensory elements:

  • unpleasant physical sensations in the body.
  • unpleasant emotional sensations in the body.
  • negative talk in the mind.
  • negative images in the mind

If we say the intensity of each of these elements is 10, what commonly happens is the physical body sensations, emotional sensations, mental images and mental talk, get tangled and unconsciously trigger each other, multiplying to an unbearable level of 10,000. By applying sensory clarity, the elements can be separated into the body part and the mind part, and then deconstructed further: in the body, the physical  is deconstructed from the emotional, and in the mind, the visual is deconstructed from the auditory. The elements are no longer multiplying with each other, they are just adding together, which would equal 40. This is a huge difference and much more bearable.

Then if we bring equanimity to that level of discomfort, meaning we stop fighting with the discomfort and greet each sensation with openness, this significantly reduces suffering further.

To flesh out how this works using the example of anxiety:

Applying Sensory clarity, you notice details such as location, quality, intensity; maybe butterflies in the stomach, tightness in the chest or constriction in the throat. Maybe you also notice further details. The anxiety could be a combination of other feeling tones, such as sadness, anger, shame, or love.

You can also separate out the facets of experience in the mind. Paying attention to how anxiety affects your thinking, bringing mindful attention to what kind of visual thoughts are triggered in the mind and what kind of mental talk is triggered.

By applying equanimity – exploring the anxiety, with openness, curiosity and a welcoming attitude and separating the sensory strands, so that they do not bind together and cross-multiply and gather momentum, the overwhelm decreases and we can “untangle and be free”.

Shinzen has a cool formula. Suffering = Discomfort × Resistance

Another ‘turn-towards’ strategy is to mindfully explore the ways that sensory experience is constantly changing. Unpleasant sensory experience can appear solid and feel like it will stay this way forever. When we look carefully, we notice this sense of solidity begins to break up. Even with chatter in the mind that for many of us, can feel non-stop and unpleasant, if we observe closely, we notice full stops/pauses between sentences, and we can grok on these endings. We can focus on the burst of mental activity, billowing up and passing away. Sometimes if we can ride that experience, like a surfer riding a wave, it becomes interesting; we can go with the flow and are not so identified with or caught in the experience.

A commonly held belief is, we need to confront challenges directly for them to be dealt with, and if we do not do this, we are being avoidant and cowardly. I realise now that for years I had this bias. However, at times a turn away strategy may be the most skilful and kindest. It is important not to try and make our system deal with more than is manageable, not to force our “window of tolerance” more than is bearable. What we are dealing with may be too intense for our level of equanimity at that time, and there is no need for shame about that. It has been a huge relief for me and for many people I work with, to know we do not have to unduly force or pressure ourselves.

As mindfulness teacher” Rakhel Shapiro says, “There are no brownie points for bearing down harder, brownie points for listening to yourself and being mindful of your own window of tolerance”. This is a key principle of Trauma informed mindfulness.

The third mindfulness strategy is to alternate ‘turn away’ and ‘turn towards’ practices. Trauma therapist and stress consultant Peter Levine coined the term ‘pendulation’, to describe this process of shifting our attention back and forth, from something pleasant to resource us, and then to bring awareness to something emotionally or physically painful.

We do have the power of choice about which strategy to use. And whether we choose to turn towards or turn away, or alternate between those two, all these practices will develop our mindfulness skills.

Mindfulness Practice:

When you notice experiences of stress or challenge this month, choose one of the mindfulness strategies to apply. This could be a turn away strategy, that we explored last month, or one of the turn towards practices. You could also experiment with alternating between these two strategies. You can do a micro practice of a minute or two, or a formal meditation practice of 10 minutes or longer.


Applying mindfulness to challenges: Part 1

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.

Mindfulness practice:

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.