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.

Who cares?





A few years ago, I was coordinating community recreation groups for adults with an Acquired Brain Injury. One of the participants, I’ll call him Bill (not his real name), had a wonderful way of shrugging his shoulders whenever something went wrong (which was quite frequently) and saying with a philosophical smile, ‘Who cares?’

I told myself that I could really learn from Bill. Because most of the time, he was quite right – who cared if something hadn’t quite worked out? You simply did your best to fix it and moved on. While it’s good to be conscientious, it’s certainly easy to over-exaggerate the importance of getting stressed over every minor hiccup. It might make us look and feel caring, but what is the right balance between being a caring person, and bringing a sense of equanimity into our lives?

In the helping professions, it’s well known that those who are most caring are also most likely to burn out. Yet for the people they’re working with, the simple sense of feeling ‘cared about’ (’I’m not just a number to this person.’) can be enormously healing. Most of us are helpers – whether we work in a helping profession, coach our son’s basketball team, take our elderly parents to the doctor, or volunteer for a good cause. It can give us a real buzz to feel we’re making a positive difference, but it’s also easy to exhaust ourselves in the process. And while there are certainly people who seem completely self-centered and don’t care much at all, many of us have the opposite problem of caring too much, and often feeling overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world we want to heal.

Sometimes, when I’m out and about for work, I might have lunch in a café. I’m entitled to a lunch break, so it’s a perfectly legitimate break, and yet I’ve noticed that I feel I should be slightly anxious during lunch, as if I’m about to rush back to work, being a busy little worker bee. Of course this makes no sense. One day I suddenly realised – who cares what my state of mind is while I have lunch? The reality is, no one cares at all. The whole world is completely indifferent to whether I eat my lunch quickly, with a serious look on my face, or whether I enjoy the break and the different surroundings and make the most of the experience. And of course I’m more likely to be effective at work in the afternoon if I’ve allowed myself a relaxing lunch break.

So, who cares? Perhaps those of us who tend to be at the over-caring end of the spectrum can all learn from Bill. I still picture him from time to time, with his philosophical shrug, and the way he reminded us,

‘Who cares?’

Weekly practice idea:

Pick one day where you will pause from time to time and ask yourself, ‘who cares’? Where are you, in that moment, on the spectrum of over-caring vs indifference? What would a happy, balanced amount of caring look like in this situation?

Anja Tanhane





Equanimity





Flower arrangement

As a solid mass of rock

Is not stirred by the wind,

So a sage is not moved

By praise and blame.

Dhammapada 81-83

 

When we hear the word equanimity, it can imply detachment, cold-heartedness, a lack of emotions. On the other hand, when I find myself day after day ‘sweating the small stuff’, getting emotional about every little up and down, tossing and turning half the night because of some stress, greater equanimity seems like a wonderful idea! Daniel Siegel has a nice way of putting it when he talks about having enough limbic firing (activation of the mammalian part of our brain) for vitality but not chaos. Sometimes people come to meditation as a way of trying to escape their feelings, of becoming detached from the vicissitudes of life, of floating, as it were, above the ‘cesspool’ of human existence. However, most forms of meditation, including mindfulness meditation, are not about being detached, but becoming more connected to life. Yet this connection comes with greater equanimity – towards one’s own emotional states, mistakes and vulnerabilities, and also that of others.

It’s easy to fake equanimity – pretending we don’t care when we’ve been snubbed, or received an award, or didn’t get credit for an idea at work. Continue reading “Equanimity” »





Dealing with good news





Convent stained glass

 

Your heart is thumping, you can’t sit still, you try to relax but find yourself pacing restlessly around the house. When you speak your voice is high and excited, you go on and on, probably repeating yourself, and pity the person who wants to barge in with a story of their own. You try to find the perfect piece of music to express how you feel, but nothing is quite right. Your appetite is all over the place, the world is at your feet, and you’re feeling giddy. You might find yourself dancing madly around the house, or almost in tears with the emotion of it all. What on earth is happening to you?

It could be that you’ve had some good news. Perhaps hard worked-for, perhaps out of the blue. A major turning point in your life, something much less dramatic – whatever it is, it has upset your equilibrium, and you are, quite frankly, all over the place. If this is what you’ve always wanted, then why does it feel so stressful? Continue reading “Dealing with good news” »