Mindfulness in the midst of this 3

Mindfulness in the midst of this –

‘being overwhelmed is not wrong’

A last blog in this series offering mindfulness based support in these troubled times ….

In my last post I talked about three zones of experience which I called our ‘place of refuge’, our ‘place of challenge’ and our ‘place of overwhelm’. The intention of the piece was to direct our awareness to these three kinds of experience and to encourage us to develop the skills to enable us to avoid ‘overwhelm’ if we choose to.

But I wanted to write an important corollary to this. And that is, this does not mean that being overwhelmed is wrong – or that something has gone wrong if that is my experience. Overwhelm can be really unpleasant, disorientating  and can involve real suffering. But it would be unhelpful to add the additional suffering of thinking I have in some way failed or got something wrong if I feel overwhelmed by all that is happening. Indeed some would argue that if I find myself overwhelmed I am actually well attuned to the situation.

So the point here is to acknowledge that, despite my best intentions, there will be times when I do just become overwhelmed. And this can happen either because of my outward circumstances and the things I am facing in life, or while I am simply sitting at home alone and while outwardly perfectly safe my thoughts and anxieties get the better of me and it all goes a bit horrible.

And so if I find myself in such a state (or if you are supporting a friend who is) then it may be helpful to remember three key things:

  1. This is not my fault and nothing fundamental has gone wrong
  2. Other people will also be experiencing this, and
  3. It will pass.

Nothing has gone wrong

The first point is crucial in helping us not to add coals to the fire and may help us to step back just a little and recognise ‘overwhelm’ for what it is rather than spiralling down with it. Just saying the words ‘I am feeling overwhelmed’ may help. Or if someone says this to you over the phone, then actually that is quite a helpful thing to say and our response should not be to suddenly to try to fix this person’s overwhelm but rather to help them to realise that this is quite reasonable and so, as it were, to be OK with it. No, it’s not nice and your friend is sharing their real suffering. But at least they have been able to articulate it. It may be that, having articulated it, they will be better able to choose wisely what to do right now while it is here.

Others will also be experiencing this.

The second point can also be very helpful in veering us away from over-personalising our mood state. And what’s more, it is true – many other people will be feeling the same right now – and possibly thinking they are the only one or that something is wrong with them. But the truth is that this feeling of overwhelm is a normal human reaction to the set of circumstances (outer or inner) that we are all facing. And so it can even be helpful to imagine others who are facing the same as me right now and then wishing them well, for instance as we do in the ‘befriending’ meditation if you know it:

May others who are feeling the same as me at this time be safe; may they find peace; and may they know kindness. 

This, too, will pass

And the final point is what some have suggested is the greatest and deepest wisdom that there is: ‘this, too, will pass’. So actually I don’t need to do anything to fight it or make it go away. And furthermore knowing that it will pass will actually help me not to get into fights with it (which generally makes things worse anyway) and will help me to ‘be with it’ in a way that will, counterintuitively, help it to pass more easily.

[The meditation which most relates to all this, by the way, is often called ‘being with the difficult’. But it is best to use this meditation only when you are feeling a bit more settled and stable as a way of practising ‘being with difficulty’ as opposed to fighting difficulty. It would not be helpful to use as a kind of emergency help when you are still in the midst of feeling overwhelmed.]

And so, in short, the best way for me to respond to finding myself in the place of overwhelm is to see if I can possibly say to myself something like:

So here it is, here is the state of overwhelm and, actually, that is OK, it is normal, others will be experiencing this and it will pass. But what is it possible for me to do right now which will help me while it is here?

And as I write this, whatever you are facing right now, I wish you all courage and peace together with the knowledge that you are, in fact, not alone:

May you all be safe; may you all find peace; may you all know kindness.

And with every blessing and with warm wishes,

Tim

Mindfulness in the midst of this 2

In the midst of this –

Staying connected but grounded.

I am adding one or two extra blogs at the moment in case it is helpful to reflect on what mindfulness has to offer us ‘in the midst of this’.

I noted in my last blog that we will all be facing such very different circumstances at the moment: some nightmarish and some reasonably peaceful; some struggling badly with isolation and others wanting a bit less contact. But as a principle for mindfulness engagement, ‘staying connected but grounded’ can be a good maxim for all of us and here are some thoughts on this.

Three zones of experience

At some point along a mindfulness course we will often teach that it is a good thing to become aware of what constitutes our individual ‘place of refuge’, our ‘place of challenge’ and our ‘place of overwhelm’.

Place of refuge.

Our ‘place of refuge’ is where we feel very at ease, calm and safe. It will have as much to do with outer circumstances as it has to do with inner experience. But it is possible to experience it through mindfulness practice even when outer experience is challenging or threatening to overwhelm us. ‘Wise distraction’ must always be remembered as our first call when things are very tough (if we have the choice) – turning our attention away from what is causing distress towards something which feels more nourishing and resourcing. But many mindfulness practices will also help and these will be the ones that give us a sense of stability and grounding: body scan, mindful movement, work with breath and body etc., though really it is for each of us to come to know through experience what will help us to reconnect with this place of safety and refuge – and so to know how to return to it at any time that we need to. And it is important to note that this is not running away from difficulty but is about looking after ourselves – indeed, building up a ‘bank’ of steadiness which will enable us to cope better when difficulty is here.

Place of challenge.

However, although it is really important that we know how to return to our place of refuge, this will not be a place where we will grow, discover new things or are able to show much compassion to others. So most of us would not want to be in this place all the time but would want to venture further out into our ‘place of challenge’. Again this will be different for each of us. For some it will be about choosing to read certain news items which we may normally want to avoid – in order to feel a bit more connected with what others are going through at the moment. Others, of course, are already being thrown relentlessly into and beyond their place of challenge every day and so there is no effort needed to find their place of challenge but rather the effort needed is to regularly connect with their place of refuge. In terms of news, I access my news through the BBC web-site and on the whole I tend to avoid video items as I find them so powerful but last week I deliberately watched a clip of an NHS nurse talking about her recent work shift and about how they were hardly coping but how they were struggling on. She was herself still very stressed – distressed – and it cut me through. But I was glad I watched it. On the one hand it would be no good just letting myself get overwhelmed by everything since I would probably then want to withdraw completely. But this was a really helpful way for me to connect with what is happening ‘out there’ – what many people are experiencing as their norm day by day in these times. Other days it might be wise for me not to watch such clips but on that day I felt able and it was good. It gave more weight to our NHS clapping on Thursday evenings.

So, again, managing how much I connect with what is going on will be part of it. But also the mindfulness practices ‘sounds and thoughts’, ‘being with the difficult’ and ‘befriending’ will all have elements of deliberately opening us up to and being with challenging thoughts, emotions and memories. And working with these kinds of practices will help us to connect both with what is going on ‘out there’ and with the personal stuff it brings up in us – which will, in turn, be a key part of the route both to deeper compassion and wise action.

Place of overwhelm.

But we should also always keep an eye on when we are approaching our place of overwhelm. If we start to become overwhelmed not much good really happens. Our minds become less clear, our decision making begins to get muddled, we become difficult to be with and we are not much use to others. As well as the fact that it is really unpleasant and may cause us to withdraw rather sharply form any kind of connection.

So, in general, overwhelm is to be avoided. And so it is best to see it coming and to take some sort of evasive action. And this will mean returning to the strategies which connect us with our place of refuge: ‘wise distraction’ and the ‘grounding’ mindfulness practices.

Connected but grounded.

Which brings me back to the title of this piece. We do naturally want to connect with all that is going on. We want to do all we can to support others. We want our hearts to expand with compassion. But we each need to recognise when we are close to our limits and need to pull back a bit (if it is possible in the circumstances at the time of course). So, connecting while remaining grounded is the image which helps me – as if making sure I am really well anchored to the side of the river before reaching out to help someone who is caught in the rapids. And, of course, the more work I do on my ‘grounding’ – building up resilience while in my place of refuge – the more I will be able to venture out into the place of challenge.

I very much hope you will increasingly sense this feeling of groundedness through your meditation practice even as you connect with all that is going on in these strange, unstable times.

 

Mindfulness – in the midst of this 1

In the midst of this.

In these days of global pandemic our first priority is to save and protect life and I am hoping that everything I am doing and the way that I am now living reflects this basic intention. But our mental well-being, too, will be so important as we seek to manage anxiety, keep ourselves steady and keep making good decisions in the midst of it all.

The phrase ‘in the midst of this’ is one we use sometimes in guided practice as a reminder that mindfulness is not just something we do when we can get away from it all but is something which is intended very much to be a resource in the midst of life – whatever we are facing. So here are some thoughts which may be helpful ‘in the midst’ of whatever you are facing in these difficult times.

But first just to acknowledge that people may be reading this in very different circumstances. For some suddenly life has become truly frantic and there is no choice in this – this is simply what is required of us in these times, or what we have chosen to do in response to need. For others, though, life has suddenly become very quiet and the usual things which keep us focused and reasonably balanced in ourselves have disappeared. And in each group there are those who will be thriving on these new circumstances and those for whom they are a real challenge.

Mood swings?

In fact our circumstances are so varied that it is difficult to get a sense of what one or two things might be helpful to write about but I thought I’d start with my own experience in the midst of it all which is noticing the difficulty in managing mood swings.

It might be interesting to note just how much we manage our moods by what we do and the routine of our lives. In my piece on Managing Anxiety (https://timsteadmindfulness.wordpress.com/troubled-times/) I reflected on just how much what we do (because it involves where I place my attention) affects our mood and sense of well-being. In which case, perhaps it is not such a surprise that with these very different circumstances our moods (high, low, anxious, excited etc.) can be thrown off key a bit. I find I am steadiest when I have just enough, but not too much work to be getting on with (whether paid work or domestic tasks) and it is when there is nothing that I have to do (even though there is still plenty I could do) that I become a bit more vulnerable. This can come as a vague sense of dis-ease, anxious thoughts taking over, self-critical thoughts or just an undefined listlessness. And if these moods get the better of me they can be quite debilitating as they flood into the gaps of all the space which is now here (and which, of course, I had so longed for previously).

‘Mindfulness of moods’

The first rule of mindfulness is to keep ourselves safe and to do whatever works for us in terms of steering us away from a downward spiral. And very often this can be our old friend ‘wise distraction’! – just do something which shifts the attention to something more positive and encouraging – or at least away from anything which may be causing the anxiety or low mood.

But the second rule is always ‘awareness’ – if I feel steady enough is it possible to bring some degree of awareness to what is actually going on for me? This is not about trying to fix or sort or change my mood but rather about throwing some light on it by actually turning towards it.

Three ‘R’s

So this is what I have been trying to do – sometimes, when I feel able – and I have found this helpful. And I have three ‘R’s which I follow which help me.

First: Recognise what is here. This involves me simply saying to myself ‘ah, here it is – my mood has noticeably shifted and I don’t like it’. But then making a conscious decision to sit down and pay it a bit of attention. All I am doing really is acknowledging what is here – I’m not trying to understand it or analyse it let alone fix it but just to recognise it for what it is. One of the things I have begun to notice as I do this is what time of day I seem to be most vulnerable – which is mid-afternoon for me. That’s quite helpful actually as I can then be a bit more ready for it. I can also remember that old maxim that ‘even this will pass’ – that moods are passing phenomena affected by so many things and so usually it is not really worth analysing. The important thing is simply to notice what is here and to know that it will pass.

My second ‘R’ is to Resource myself. And this just means to take a moment to bring a bit of care towards myself. This might involve spending a few moments reconnecting with my breathing or breathing with my body sensations. It might involve a three stage breathing space if you are familiar with that, or it might involve showing myself some compassion. But just something which acknowledges, against whatever backdrop of self-critical thoughts might be there, that there is a person suffering here and that they (me) could do with a bit of care.

And then my third ‘R’ is now to Respond – which is now to make some decision about what to do next. And usually I will make a better decision about what to do if I have been through the first two ‘R’s. The question I might offer myself at this point is: ‘what would support my own well-being in this moment?’. And even if my main concern is to support others, responding wisely to this question will always be the first part of how I can get to a place where I can do this. In my own case sometimes I have sat and meditated a bit longer, sometimes I have chosen to do some simple practical task, sometimes I have gone for a walk and a few times I have phoned a friend. You will make your own choice but probably the most important thing is that you have made a definite choice – not whether it is in some way a ‘right’ choice.

Anyway, I wish you all well as you seek to keep yourself both safe and well during these times.

Mindful Hope 3

HOPE 3: IN TROUBLED TIMES

Things have changed rather radically since last month when I planned the subject matter for this 3rd blog on Mindfulness and Hope. However, it seems to me that if what I was planning was authentic at all then it would be relevant for any time. So I have decided to follow the plan but tweak it for the current situation as far as I can.

But just a note first, that if you are looking for something which more directly offers support for the anxiety many of us are experiencing as we sit at home – alone or with others – then I have written something which you can find on the ‘Troubled times’ section on this web-site.

On hope, though, last month I talked about the different kinds of awareness that humans are capable of and how mindfulness meditation can help us to cultivate that kind of awareness which both keeps us connected with all that is going on but also keeps the wider perspective of space and time. And I suggested that it is this wider perspective which enables us to engage in hope rather than be overwhelmed and demotivated.

But there are also things we can intentionally do in the midst of it all to help to cultivate this kind of awareness and this kind of hope. And there are three things in particular that I believe can help with this – and specifically have helped me over the last few months.

  1. Community

When I sit alone thinking, I can very easily start to feel negative, alone, frustrated and  powerless which can make me want to cut off further from engagement. So, isolation makes me want to isolate even further.

But when I have been able to gather with others, especially those who share something of a common vision, my sense of hope has noticeably returned. And there are a number of things at play here. First I am reminded of our common humanity – that we are in this together and that we all experience albeit different versions of the same thing. Secondly, it draws me out of myself and stirs compassion in me for others. And thirdly, it reminds me that together we can actually do something worthwhile even if it is still small. All these have been sources of hope for me in recent months.

There is obvious difficulty with this in these days of restricted physical interaction but if we keep the principles in mind we may find means of engaging with people in ways that kindle hope in us. So, it may be only email, phone calls, walks in the park (2 meters apart!), or on-line meetings if you can do that sort of thing, but if, each time we engage with others, we keep these three things in mind (sensing our common experience, allowing compassion, and agreeing to do something however small) then we can use all these interactions to kindle the hope we need in these times.

In fact it is worth noting that we may even find we are engaging more with our fellow humans in the midst of this. For instance I have set up an email support group for our part of our street which is experiencing lots of activity and messages of care and support, and I’ve knocked on some of my neighbours doors for the first time since I moved in.

  1. Nature

Whatever access to the rest of nature you have (garden, park, or a plant in your house), paying some mindful attention in nature can have a very powerful affect on our disposition and on our perspective.

The thing is (as David Gee articulates so well in his blog – see link in ‘resources’) however awful all this is for humans, it is still, actually, part of nature doing what nature does. There is suffering in nature – sometimes devastating suffering. There is great loss and destruction at times and there will be the profoundest of grief to be experienced in the midst of it.

But as we pay a bit of attention to our wider context – that we humans are part of an inconceivably vast existence we call ‘nature’ – then we are reminded that all nature is ebb and flow, that this too shall pass, that there is no fundamental evil at work here seeking to undermine human goodness, and that, in the midst of this therefore, anything we do to relieve the suffering of ourselves and of others is worth doing.

So, it might be worth saying, then, that when you are out for a walk, if you are able to do this, bring some real attentiveness to where you are and the wonder of the smells, the colours, the shapes and the touch of all that is around you. Let us wonder at nature and the fact that we are a part of it.

DSC_0006nature walk 2

  1. Action

I like to remind people that mindful awareness, which some people call ‘being mode’, is not about not doing things but rather it is about cultivating the kind of awareness which enables wiser doing.

So, there is the kind of doing which is unreflective, reactionary and ‘driven’ which may decrease hope as it raises anxiety and adds to frustration. But there is also wise action which can hugely increase our sense of agency and which will, in turn, cultivate hope.

In a sense we need hope to be able to act like this. But if we act out of hope rather than out of frustration or despair, then whatever hope we do have will be strengthened.

The usual problem, though, is that of overwhelm. What can I possibly do in the face of such an enormous challenge with my limited resources and now with these new restrictions?

The important thing here, though, is not to get too caught up in the results of what we are doing but rather to focus on the value of the action in itself.

So the more helpful questions to reflect on might be:

  1. What is actually happening right now?
  2. What gifts/resources do I actually have?
  3. So, what small thing can I do to contribute?
  4. And who can I do it with?

All these questions warrant a bit of mindful attention in themselves. But if we do, we might actually end up with a clearer idea of what is possible for me and perhaps a greater sense of the value in what I am offering.

And all this will encourage hope to sustain and grow. And hope is going to be absolutely vital in the coming months. So let us seek to cultivate it now.

Mindful Hope 2

Hope Part 2: Kinds of Awareness

Having explored (in last month’s blog) how despair can sometimes take hold of us, some might ask then, is there a problem here which is actually caused by mindfulness?

In other words you could argue that mindfulness is about awareness and that greater awareness of the world and of its problems on the whole do not lead to hope at all. And that the only way to stay positive is to avoid too much awareness or at least to be a bit more selective about what news I take note of. I have heard people talking recently about not reading the news at all. But conversely I was moved by one person saying that she felt she must keep looking – somehow. So, how?

Well, mindfulness talks about two distinct modes of awareness – of paying attention in the world – which relate to two different modes of brain activity. I find this helpful since one seems very closely related to the sort of unhelpful despair and avoidance many of us drift towards in the face of difficult situations and the other may well be a clue to where hope comes from.

The first type of awareness is often referred to as ‘cognitive’ or ‘narrative’ awareness and, as the names suggest, it is very much coloured by our own persistent thinking processes and the narratives we tell ourselves in response to what we see. It is a kind of awareness which is characterised by: a narrow understanding of situations and short term outcomes; a tendency to prioritise the negative in the mix of what I see; and a drift towards vague ‘global’ conclusions – ‘everything’s going wrong!’ And in the end it tends to be all about me: how things will affect me, what my future is looking like, how well/badly I have done, whether I am any good etc. etc. – basically it is about my sense of myself and about my survival.

Now this kind of awareness is not wrong. My survival instincts are crucial – for my survival. But sometimes we need to take note that this narrower form of awareness may not be helping me to know the hope which will inspire me to keep going and to continue functioning usefully in the midst of things.

And I have noticed a number of these characteristics in my own low mood in recent months. Notably: a focus on and identification with the outcomes of what I might be doing together with a narrow, short term assessment of these at best; a vague, general sense that all is not well in the world; and, yes, a tendency to focus on negative news rather than all of the news (much of which is very hopeful).

The other type of awareness is called ‘embodied’ or ‘experiential’ awareness. And, as these names suggest, it is less dominated by narrow thinking patterns and much more focused on actual moment by moment experience itself rather than the narratives we tell ourselves about the experience. This kind of awareness engages with a much wider view of all that is going on whilst still remaining engaged in the detail of experience. It is willing to open up to this wider view both geographically and through time – it senses the whole of human experience (not just mine) and locates my particular experience in a much broader perspective somewhere along the continuous line between my ancestors and my descendants. And, in contrast to our narrative awareness being about me, this awareness is more about something called ‘life’ – the pure joy, wonder and exuberance, as well as the difficulty and tragedy, of life itself, of which I am a part and not, dare I say, the central part.

So, crucially, with this kind of awareness I begin to realise four things:

  1. the world is indeed a wonderful place,
  2. I am a part of and not the centre of this wonderfulness,
  3. there are millions of others working for good as well as the millions who have gone before and will come after (it is not all down to me) and
  4. so perhaps I can feel the simple joy of living once again and be liberated and inspired with hope to do whatever it is for me to do.

Now, it is this kind of awareness which is cultivated constantly through our mindful meditation practice, but there are other ways of cultivating it too and I would like to explore these in subsequent blogs. These will focus on: engagement with nature; coming together as community; and taking part in action.

Finally a quote from the Czech activist and later president, Vaclav Havel:

Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.