Updated: Mar 18, 2019
How are you? How are you doing today? This is a question we get asked most often. Perhaps the habitual inclination is to reply, “Not bad” or “fine thanks”.
Pause, just take your attention inward and check in with your awareness. Start to scan your body. Perhaps you can notice sensations in your body, maybe the presence of stiffness or tension? You might notice it around the jaw, neck or shoulders as a dull ache, or you might be pleasantly surprised at the absence of pain. How are you feeling? What kind of emotions are present? Is there contentment, joy, or an unsettled de-motivated feeling, or maybe something in between, like numbness. What about the thoughts? Are you concerned about the state of the world? Do you have thoughts that are racing around with a “to do” list or that continual inner chatter that wants to comment about everything you see or hear?
It’s this last question that I am interested to know about most, the inner dialogue of the mind. When you stop to observe this, what do you notice? Are some thoughts more pleasant or others stressful and tinged with worry or anxiety? This turning towards what we feel in the present moment of awareness is mindfulness and is developed by regular practice of meditation. In his book “Full catastrophe living”, Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally”. I’d like to add, that this experience is a heart-felt presence where we drop down away from the thinking mind, bear witness to and inhabit the direct experience of the body.
I am a regular practitioner of meditation and came to it through reiki and yoga. It has been an invaluable asset in keeping me well for over 20 years, that I have been practising holistic therapies. I’ve always been fascinated and interested in how stress affects mind & body and how mindfulness meditation is an effective way to reduce stress, and how it can bring clarity, peace and wellbeing.
I have been teaching meditation for over 12 years and in 2017 completed the Mindfulness teacher training with Breathworks. I learned some useful and interesting things that I’d like to share.
The negativity bias
Neuro-psychologists have found we are wired with a negativity bias to look out for fearful situations or circumstances to ensure our survival. Our primitive ancestors needed to survive a harsh world of life-threatening conditions. This primal instinct resides in the Limbic part of our brain. When we feel threatened, the stress mode of fight, flight or freeze is activated. Of course the threats we face are different today than what our ancestors had to deal with - we don't have to be faced with the actual threat of danger from a tiger - just the fear and feeling of being threatened, whether the source is external or comes from our own internal thoughts, is enough to trigger the release of cortisol and adrenaline in the body! The Neuro scientist, Rick Hanson says that, “a negative experience tends to stick like Velcro and positive ones tend to slide off like Teflon”. To me, this says how it is important to have a mindfulness meditation practice to counter the build-up of fear and stress that reside and take up space in the tissues, organs and nervous system.
Mindfulness, Empathy, Self-Compassion
Just as we can locate the negativity bias in the Limbic system of the brain, neuro-scientists have found that when we practice mindfulness, this activates the pre-frontal cortex of the brain that stimulates mindfulness, empathy and compassion.
We have the inherent ability to self-soothe. A way to connect to this is to recall a time when we were shown compassion, comfort and reassurance by a parent, friend or loved one. We can also connect to a time when we gave the same to another.
Dr Kristin Neff has dedicated many years to conducting research and study into self-compassion techniques and has found that when we place our hands over our heart in a gesture of self-soothing, endorphins and oxytocin are released into the body.
Continued practice of mindfulness strengthens these qualities into traits, which help to broaden our perspective on how we feel and experience our life.
Thoughts are real but they are not necessarily true or fact
We think a lot of thoughts. Millions in one day! Whilst thinking is useful for planning and necessary for getting things done, it’s the ones that keep repeating and looping in an unhelpful way that create the anxiety and stress. Perhaps our thoughts turn to worry about what might happen in the future or we ruminate about the past. We might get stuck on a looping of a difficult conversation we had with someone that is still playing on our mind.
What happens when we believe our thoughts? As we create worrying or fearful thoughts, they can escalate. We can convince ourselves that an unusual pain we are experiencing, is due to some rare condition that we have read about on the internet. We feel threatened by these thoughts, it can lead to feeling panicky and anxious, we get carried away and completely lost in thought! We think in words like sound bytes, sometimes the thoughts take the form of images. These thoughts and images are representations of what we construct on the mental plane, many of them are made up and not true, such as fantasies or daydreaming, so there is no need to believe the stories.
Being & Doing Mode
Most of the time we are occupied in doing mode: goal setting, to do lists, achieving and having, we are living more from the head. This can put us in the under-current of stress mode and after a long period of time can be overwhelming and we feel over-stretched. This is what leads to energy depletion, sickness and depression. Inhabiting the being mode is necessary for counter-balancing the doing mode. We can do this by thinking less and sensing more into the experience of the body, just as you did in the beginning of the “checking in” exercise.
This direct experience brings us into the now and has been found to lead to profound change, without all the striving of the doing mode. Just as we nourish ourselves with good wholesome food, or exercise to keep our body fit, it is important to nourish and nurture our minds, to make the time and space for positive wellbeing. When we do this, we become resilient and resourceful and can tap into this wellspring in times of need. It is like a gift to self or an act of kindness. We can stock up and replenish our vitality and energy levels. This ensures that we are taken care of and therefore we can be and give the best of ourselves.
Here are 3 things to help pause and stop the cascading thoughts around any stressful thinking.
1. Pause & Breathe: Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly to connect and centre. Take a slow deep breath and gently hold for a few seconds, watch the breath as you slowly breathe out and pause before breathing in again. Repeat a few times.
2. Thoughts are not necessarily fact. Even though thoughts feel real, they are not necessarily true or fact, we can get caught up in a story. So ask the question of the thought, "Is it true"? You can say to yourself, “I don't need to believe my thoughts”.
3. Be kind and gentle with yourself: Using a self-soothing breath, reconnect to love. These phrases can be helpful in terms of neutralising negative thoughts, self-judgement and self-criticism.
" I am not responsible for others' thoughts and feelings".
" It's not my fault, I am not to blame. When I get het up and my buttons are pushed, rather than react, I can choose to respond".
With an attitude of curiosity we can explore and experiment with these tools and discover how we can choose peace over stress, anger or hurt. With practice, patience and a loving kind heart, we can watch how our suffering can transform into harmony and wellbeing.