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.

A good meditation

‘A good meditation is one you have done.’ Shinzen Young

When we reflect on the expectations we have of ourselves, we might notice that we often tend to set the bar pretty high. This can be true for meditation, where we might feel as if everyone else in the world is meditating like little Buddhas, with their minds at rest in perfect peace and equanimity, and it’s only us who is struggling with intrusive thoughts, physical discomforts, an inability to focus for more than a few seconds, and general feelings of restlessness and frustration. In fact, virtually all meditators have experiences which are far removed from bliss and calmness, and each tradition has techniques for working with our inherently restless mind, and systems of thought for putting these experiences into context. This is why it can be difficult to learn meditation on our own, without a teacher – we don’t know what to expect, and how to work with the challenges which inevitably arise when we meditate regularly. It can be helpful to regularly be in touch with more experienced meditators who can guide us, by attending courses or meditation evenings or retreats. And if we’re fortunate enough to find a teacher we trust long-term, this can be wonderful opportunity to deepen our meditation practice.

Meditation is about seeing clearly what is actually going on – not getting caught up in avoidance or projection or excessive drama. Sometimes, what is going on are strong emotions such as frustration, sadness, resentment. We might sit down to meditation with the idea of gaining some relief from these, and then find ourselves confronted with the current state of our mind, with nowhere to escape to. Mindfulness meditation cuts off our usual escape routes, the many ways we might have at our disposal to avoid being with ‘life as it is’. We are left instead with the bare bones of our existence.

These bare bones can become the building blocks for a less reactive life, a life where we are more present, more grounded. Regular meditation involves simply showing up to the practice, and staying as present as we can during the time we have set aside for it, whether it be five minutes or thirty or an hour. Some days we may notice sensations of peace, whereas other days we realise that our mind is really quite busy today. As Shinzen Young says, a good meditation is one that you have done. Sometimes the most challenging meditations are the ones which are ultimately most useful to us, as they invite us into a different way of responding to the challenges of everyday life.

Practice idea:

Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper, and on the left hand side, write down your expectations of how meditation ‘should’ be, and on the other side, some of the experiences you’ve had during meditation. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Nurture Positive

A pink lotus flower and lily pads with saturated color

This week’s blog is a contribution by Michelle Morris:

When I was a young child I would imagine going to a place with animals that I loved, this gave me a deep feeling of calm and safety.

We all have the capacity to create positive mental images and positive mental talk, which can trigger positive emotional body feelings. We can use this natural capacity, which is particularly accessible for children, to develop mindfulness. So with the mindfulness practice of Nurture Positive we get to focus on things that are pleasant and enjoyable, while at the same time cultivating positive feelings and developing mindfulness skills; concentration/attention and equanimity.

Nurture Positive/Focus on Positive, is part of the Basic Mindfulness System developed by the innovative mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young. There are a vast range of practices throughout history and different cultures, which come under the umbrella of Nurture positive. What these practices all have in common is intentionally creating and holding positive content in our subjective world of thoughts and feelings. Some examples are lovingkindness/Metta, Diety yoga, The Catholic Rosary, visualisations, affirmations, gratitude, self-compassion and forgiveness practices.

The Dalai Lama was shocked to discover low self-esteem is a widespread experience of people in Western culture. Perhaps this is why self-compassion and forgiveness practices have become popular. They can be a powerful antidote to self-criticism, self-hatred and feelings of unworthiness, and can develop compassion and self-love, which we can then extend to others.

The traditional Buddhist practice most commonly taught with mindfulness is lovingkindness practice. The Buddha taught this practice to a group of monks after they became very frightened of the dangers in the jungle, where they were trying to meditate. Roger Walsh comments on this “smart psychologist that he was, the Buddha realised that fear and love displace each other, and that if the mind is filled with love fear is swept away”.

Aside from the traditional phrases of the lovingkindness practice, we can also create a personalised nurture positive practice. We can choose a specific positive feeling, positive behaviour or positive cognition we would like to cultivate. For example a mother was having a struggle with her young son’s morning routine, and not feeling good about her reactivity. I instructed her in the Nurture Positive technique. She created positive words, and a positive image to help connect her with the positive feelings she wanted to cultivate. She describes the benefits she found from practising this:

“The Nurture Positive meditation has ended up wonderfully for my full-time time with my son. I did manage to use it and it made a huge difference to my ability to notice and control my tone and attitude”.

The mindfulness practice of Focus on Positive is not the same as positive thinking. We are not trying to suppress, fight with or get rid of “negative”, but give total permission to the non-positive to arise if it wants to, allowing it in the background whilst intentionally focusing on the positive content.


Weekly practice idea:

Think of a time when you felt cared about, loved. It may have been by a person, a pet, spiritual figure, or nature

Hold the image of the person, or other

If there is a name of that person, that helps you to connect with positive feeling, think of that

Feel any pleasant sensations of being cared about, loved

Then shift to an image of someone you have loved and hold that feeling.

By gently focusing back on the positive content, each time the mind is distracted we are developing concentration. By allowing distractions, including “negative” ones to arise and pass away, we are developing equanimity.

Michelle Morris


A good meditation


‘A good meditation is one you have done.’

Shinzen Young

Even though meditation is now practised in all kinds of settings, from schools to hospitals to large corporations, it’s still often surrounded by a sense of the arcane. Someone who meditates might be seen as very ‘Zen’, engaged in some mysterious pursuit which evokes images of distant mountain caves; hermit monks who speak in strange riddles; spirits floating by on clouds, reaching nirvana and bliss.  Because of these esoteric associations, it’s not easy to settle into meditation without some expectation that the next half hour should be calm, special, infused with joy. We would like to reach a state beyond the hum-drum ordinariness of our daily existence, perhaps become enlightened, or at the very least break through into some profound insight. If all goes according to plan, we will rise from our meditation cushions transformed, our every action from here on will be composed and mindful, and all our annoying neurosis will have once and for all been laid to rest. Continue reading “A good meditation” »