Monthly Archives: September 2015

  • Exploring Fear with Compassion

    CompassionThis blog post is based on a talk by Tara Brach, titled ‘Transforming Two Fears: FOF and FOMO’. Click here for the full audio.

    When we experience fear, sometimes the last thing we feel we want to do is meet it head on. Our habitual response may be to distract ourselves, or try to ignore it. However, by doing this, we miss out on the opportunities for freedom and growth that fear offers. If we can investigate our fear with compassion and openness, we can move through it and beyond, to a more spacious place – not a place where the fear ceases to exist, but where it can safely co-exist with other aspects of our humanity.

    In her talk ‘Transforming Two Fears: FOF and FOMO’, Tara Brach explains two common types of fear: fear of failure (FOF) and fear of missing out (FOMO), and what we can do to meet these fears with kind awareness, curiosity and acceptance.

    Fear of Failure

    This can encompass many different fears, not just the obvious ones that may come to mind. Fear of failing in our career, education or relationships is common, and something we all share. So is the fear of not being able to cope with certain situations, for example ‘How would I cope if I became unwell?’ There are probably countless other situations that we may have imagined, and consequently worried about, namely about our ability to successfully meet those challenges. Fear of rejection, or of not being good enough also fit this category. Tara describes it as ‘fear of deficiency’; a feeling that we’re simply not prepared or equipped for what the future may bring.

    These fears keep us alert to everything that might go wrong, in either our immediate or distant futures. They come from the primal part of our brain, which simply wants to avoid harm. It’s tempting to believe that by analysing everything that could go wrong, we will be more prepared. And sometimes this may be true. But usually what happens is that we become disconnected from the present moment, which is where our resiliency and strength truly exists.

    Fear of Missing Out

    Fear of missing out is somewhat different. It’s that nagging fear that we’re missing out on pleasure or gratification of some kind, that our lives could or should be different somehow, that we could have more, that things could be better. This fear creates a feeling of dissatisfaction with our lives. Or it can create a fearful sense of urgency, that we ‘must’ take this particular action now, otherwise we might miss out on an opportunity forever. Advertisers regularly take advantage of this shared fear of ours, promoting limited time offers, and encouraging material competitiveness with our peers, for example. But we may also experience this fear in relation to things such as finding love, having children, or losing our youth.

    Investigating Fear Through Meditation

    Tara Brach offers two reflective meditations to help us meet these two distinct fears, with honesty, acceptance and kindness. After all, these are fears that we all experience. Although we often believe they are a personal failing on our part, they are in fact a shared experience across all of humanity, and even other species too!

    Reflecting on the Fear of Failure 

    The first step of widening your identity – not being caught in the cocoon of fear – is to just investigate. Just to notice it, witness it,” says Tara. “So you might bear witness, without judgement, and just ask yourself, ‘So where do I become afraid of falling short?’

    With a sense of openness and curiosity, we can explore the kinds of thoughts and memories that come to mind when we reflect on our fears of failure, rejection or not being enough. Can we think of one particular habitual fear that comes to us time and time again? Rather than trying to dance around it and avoid it, take some time to really meet it within yourself. Notice the reactions it triggers, the typical line of defence you take against it. And rather than seeing it as your personal fear, Tara suggests viewing it as ‘the’ fear – one of the archetypal fears that all humans experience. How does doing this with a sense of kindness affect that fear?

    Reflecting on the Fear of Missing Out

    Now with the same openness, we can feel into the distinctly different fear of missing out; the stress or anxiety we experience from feeling there is something pleasurable or gratifying to be had that we don’t yet have. What feels particularly important to us to have right now? The range of experiences this could include is vast, from not wanting to miss out on the latest piece of technology, to not wanting to miss out on achieving an enlightening insight. It could be that we’re frightened of never achieving the level of wealth or success that we crave, or of not finding ‘the one’. The less we feel that our needs are being met in that area of life, the more intense our fear of missing out on that thing will be. Our desire or fixation on what we don’t yet have can cut us off from the present moment. By exploring our FOMO, we may notice that shift, from a mindful state to a more narrowed, restricted view. But again, this is not a personal fear of our own creation, it is ‘the’ fear of missing out, arising in us as it arises in all of us. How does it feel in the mind, heart and body? Tara reminds us that, “You’re bearing witness to how this human self is when caught in this conditioning. So bring some kindness to it.

    Using Fear as a Portal

    “If we deepen our attention when we’re caught in the fear of failure, when we’re caught in that fear of rejection… the more we discover a kind of timeless belonging that takes us beyond that fear. And with FOMO, the more we get in touch with that fear of missing out and that wanting for gratification, the more we discover that what we wanted was always here. And we tap into an absolute infinite flow of creativity, of dynamism.”

    So by meeting these fears with attention and compassion, we can use them as portals to move beyond, into greater spaciousness. Our fears will still be there, and will still catch us. Yet by mindfully greeting them each time we notice them arise, we can become less and less contained by them. We can stop basing so much of our identity around constantly trying to subdue these fears by using outside sources, such as money or achievements, and instead tap into something deeper within.

    MEDITATION:

    Body Scan

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Mindfulness for Anxiety and Depression

  • Unleash Your Creativity with Mindful Photography

    photographyMindfulness is about more than just sitting down to meditate. The wonderful thing about mindfulness is that it can be used to enrich all aspects of life, including our hobbies and creative pursuits. With smartphones and compact digital camera’s now being common place, it’s never been easier to get into photography. By adding some mindfulness into the process, we can not only start taking more interesting pictures, but can also start to see the world around us from a fresh perspective.

    Be Present with What You See

    In our daily routines, we may spend little time really noticing what’s around us. When we’re walking, we tend to have a destination in mind (work, the bus stop, a shop, etc.), rather than contemplating the many sights along the way. However, by setting aside some time to go out and take photographs, we can give ourselves an opportunity to be more present with our surroundings. By not having anywhere that we have to get to, we become free to explore our world.

    Before we start taking photos, we first need to look around and seek out interesting things. Many of us don’t do this often, so we may be pleasantly surprised by what we find! It could be some unusual architecture, a street view, the sky, a tree, or something more abstract like the play between light and shadow on a pavement. We can experiment with different angles, discovering how common sights look from new perspectives. Trying to look at something as if we’ve never seen it before can help us to truly see it, rather than seeing our pre-conceived idea of it.

    Things To Look Out For:

    Colour – This could be single blocks of colour or contrasting shades. They could be beautiful hues that remind us of some happy memory, or ugly colours that make us wonder what people were thinking! Notice how different colours affect your mood. What thoughts arise as you look at them? Can you get across some of those emotions through your photography?

    Texture – In a city or town you’re bound to find some interesting textures on buildings or concrete. Chipped paint, cracks in a pavement or even a pile of litter could make a great photograph if captured at the right angle.  Nature can offer other types of textures, such as the bark of weather-beaten tree, a feather or lush green mosh on a stone. Get up close! Notice every little detail.

    Shape – Traffic signs, curbs, fencing, and corners of structures can all create fascinating shapes for us to photograph. Try looking down from a window or balcony to discover shapes that we can’t see from the ground, or kneel down and look up for another fresh perspective.

    Movement – Movement will be trickier to capture, but is worth experimenting with. A bird mid-flight, a twirling dancer, a flowing waterfall or your best friend laughing. Look for the life around you, and capture those precious, fleeting moments to remember forever.

    Let Yourself Play

    Taking a mindful photography trip can also be a good opportunity to notice how we may limit ourselves when it comes to being creative. We may find that we hesitate about being too experimental, or notice that we have some thoughts about only wanting to take ‘good’ pictures. These things can block our natural curiosity and creativity from flowing freely, but when we notice them we can start to consciously let them go.

    Digital cameras make it super easy to take lots of photographs, so if we later don’t think they’re good enough to keep, we can just delete them. But whilst we’re out and about we can feel free to try out new things, and just take photographs of anything and everything that grabs our attention. Whether we show them to anyone else is entirely up to us. Mindful photography isn’t about being good at it or not, it’s all about the process of seeing, exploring and experimenting.

    Happy snapping!

    Want to learn more about Mindful Photography? Check out our fun one-day workshop: http://www.londonmindful.com/mindful-photography.html

  • Using Mindfulness When Things Are Beyond Our Control

    controlAs much as we like to plan and make our own choices, there will always be times in our lives when we have little or no control over what happens to us. Say we have an accident and have to stay in hospital for a while, or we’re involved in a legal procedure and are awaiting a decision that could change our lives, or even something less serious as waiting to hear about how we did in a job interview. That waiting, lack of influence or loss of autonomy can be incredibly stressful or depressing. Our minds may be full of solutions that we simply are unable to put into use, or we may be plagued with regret, rumination and if-only’s.

    However, we can use mindfulness and self-compassion to help us get through these difficult or uncomfortable situations.

    ‘Fight or Flight’ Reactions

    Ever noticed how stressful situations get your blood pumping, your heart beating faster, and your whole body buzzing with nervous tension? That’s a ‘fight or flight’ reaction (also known as ‘hyperarousal’ or ‘acute stress response’) – a physiological response to a perceived attack or threat. An initial response from the amygdala then starts a chemical chain reaction within the body, which is why our blood pressure goes up (among other things). The nature of the threat doesn’t really matter to the brain; the fight or flight response could be triggered by a vicious dog jumping out at us, or just the prospect of speaking in public. Basically anything that we perceive as being potentially harmful to our physical or psychological well-being will send us into that stress reaction.

    In general, this is no bad thing; it’s designed to help keep us safe from danger. However, if this reaction is triggered regularly, it can make us feel constantly anxious and on-edge.

    This can happen in situations that are beyond our control; we naturally feel threatened or at risk, however, there’s nothing we can do to avert that risk. For example, say we’re waiting for an important medical scan, the results of which could show whether or not we have cancer. We have to wait for the scan, and then we have to wait for the results, and throughout all this time there’s nothing we can do other than worry. Our anxious thoughts of not-knowing, of not being able to ‘do’ anything will keep triggering our fight or flight responses, trapping us in a perpetual state of stress. Aside from the health issues this can cause, it’s simply not pleasant! So what can we do when we find ourselves helpless against our circumstances?

    Noticing When We’re On High Alert

    The first step in helping ourselves cope is to notice when we’ve gone into a stress reaction – sometimes this can happen just from thinking about the situation we’re in. By bringing mindful awareness to our bodies, we can notice if our breathing has become rapid, or if we are holding tension in parts of our bodies.

    What usually happens when we bring mindfulness to these things is that we naturally let go a little, simply from noticing that the tension is there. Of course, this won’t always be the case though. It’s not always possible to relax ourselves. In these cases, it may just be enough to simply acknowledge how we’re feeling. If we’ve been going through a trying time, we may have got stuck in the belief that we must keep soldiering on, that we can’t allow ourselves to feel sad, angry, anxious or whatever else. And so we hold it all inside. Being honest and accepting of whatever is arising for us at this time will allow those feelings to come and go more freely, rather than getting held tight in the body.

    Mindfulness Shrinks Amygdala Volume

    Studies have found correlations between increased mindfulness and decreased amygdala volume. Remember that it’s the amygdala which kicks off the whole stress response process. So in other words, people who practice mindfulness benefit from a reduction in stress and anxiety. That’s not to say that we won’t still feel stressed during stressful situations! Yet we are more likely to be able to cope better when those things arise. Therefore, practicing mindfulness isn’t just a good idea for in-the-moment stress relief, but is useful as a sort of ‘preventive’ measure for future stresses too, in the same way that strengthening your back muscles may help prevent so many aches and pains in later life.

    Self-Compassion in a Crisis

    There’s never really a time when some self-compassion isn’t a good idea, however when we’re helpless and in a difficult situation that’s when we really do need it the most. When there’s nothing else we can possibly do, we can at least be kind to ourselves.

    In a beautiful talk (The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion), self-compassion expert, Kristin Neff describes a particularly challenging experience she had on board a plane with her four year old autistic son, Rowan. As can sometimes happen when autistic children are very young, Rowan had a terrible tantrum. He’s flailing and screaming on the plane, while all the passengers are staring disapprovingly. Kristin decides to take him to the bathroom to comfort him away from everyone else, but when they get there it’s occupied:

    “So imagine being in that little space, outside the bathroom door, with this tantruming child, and I knew that in that moment the only refuge I had was self-compassion. So I put my hands over my heart, and, I tried to comfort him but I was mainly focussing on myself: ‘This is so hard right now darling, I’m so sorry you’re going through this, but I’m here for you.’ And you know what? It got me through.”

    So although there are some things in life that we can’t control, we can at least choose to be kind and caring towards ourselves; to take a deep breath, acknowledge how hard things are right now and that we’re doing the best we can, and show ourselves some compassion.

    MEDITATIONS:

    Body Scan

    COURSES/WORKSHOPS:

    Mindfulness for Anxiety and Depression

    Self-Compassion Workshop

    8-Week Mindful Self-Compassion Course

  • The 11 'Dangers' of Mindfulness Meditation

    dangersMindfulness meditation is a wonderful tool, supported by a growing wealth of evidence which demonstrates the many benefits of the practice. However, recently there have been a few articles in the press which have highlighted the 'dangers' of meditation. Therefore, it seems a good time to look deeper into what could be considered meditation dangers, and how we can not only address them but also learn from them.

    On our mindfulness journeys as practitioners and teachers, we have certainly all encountered hurdles to our practice. Some of us might have unconsciously used mindfulness to force positive feelings, others might have used the technique to avoid certain situations (see below: 'Chasing a 'Feel Good' State' and 'Meditation as Avoidance').

    Most of us, however, would probably not say that by doing so we've put ourselves in 'danger'. On the contrary: If we have, for example, used mindfulness to feel good, we might have brought to awareness our tendency to chase happiness instead of trying to be with whatever presents itself to us in this very moment. Bringing this to light through practising mindfulness will then help us break free from this pattern. This potential 'danger' that we encounter during our practice might turn out to be a wonderful gift that helps us deepen our practice, and understand ourselves better, thus helping us grow.

    Here is a list of some of the common 'dangers' that we might encounter in our practice. They might help to shine a light on some mindfulness meditators patterns.

    1. Abandoning All Other Coping Mechanisms

    After practising mindfulness (even for only a couple of weeks), many people get really passionate about the practice. But we should not forget that there also exist many other great techniques that can help us cope with life's challenges. For example, sometimes when we feel down or nervous, we might not always choose to meditate, but rather go for a run or a swim. Or we might want to meet up with a friend or watch a funny movie. There are many ways to cope with the stresses of everyday life, so let's use them all!

    2. Chasing a 'Feel Good' State

    Many of us have experienced wonderful states when practising mindfulness meditation. We may suddenly feel complete peacefulness or have a great insight into the nature of our mind or life. Such states do happen during meditation and when they do, it certainly feels good. However, the primary aim of mindfulness is not about chasing these states or insights. Mindfulness instead is (most of the time) simply about maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. Being attached to any experience can cause unhappiness, whether it's good or bad. But the funny thing is that the more we accept the simplicity of our moment-to-moment experience, the more often we will naturally be present and feel good when we meditate.

    3. Being Mindful of Everything All the Time

    In mindfulness we learn to pay attention to whatever arises in the present moment, on purpose and non-judgmentally. Yet, this does not mean that we have to pay attention to everything. For example, if we feel a very strong pain in our back, we do not have to dive right into that pain and explore it for twenty minutes. Or, let's say, we suddenly feel very sad during meditation - we do not have to stay with that sadness until we cry.

    A huge part of mindfulness is about cultivating compassion and care for ourselves. So if we do feel terrible pain in our back due to chronic tension, we can choose to meditate lying down or practice mindful movement. Or we may choose to shift our attention away from our painful back to our toes or the sounds around us. In short: meditation doesn't mean that we have to torture ourselves by focusing on unpleasant experiences. Instead we always have the choice in how we wish to approach our pain!

    4. Over-Analysis

    Some of us have the tendency to analyse our issues, character, family, friends, work colleagues or life in general. If one has such a tendency, we might easily start to analyse everything that happens when we meditate. True, great insight may arise when we practise mindfulness. However, mindfulness is not about putting a certain amount of time aside each day to silently analyse. Instead it is about developing the skill to notice when we've drifted off into analysis and then chose to gently come back to the present moment by reconnecting with a sensory anchor such as the breath, sounds or bodily sensations.

    5. Self-Improvement Project

    Many meditators turn their meditation practice into a rigorous self-improvement project. We may wish to become this eternally present, accepting, compassionate, grateful and enlightened being. This can actually have the opposite effect. If we have such high goals, we might become overly critical of ourselves when we do not live up to our high standards. Instead, we can remind ourselves that just because we meditate does not mean we have to be a 'better' human being in any way. All that we might become is just a bit more aware and accepting of our everyday humanness, and that's okay.

    6. Pushing Away/Detaching from Painful Thoughts and Feelings

    In mindfulness meditation we practise noticing when our minds have drifted off into the past or future, and then gently bringing our attention back to the present moment (see above: sensory anchors). Mindfulness is, however, by no means about learning to control our minds or to push away or suppress our uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. Rather, it is about maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. It's about 'being with' whatever is arising in the moment. If we notice that we've started using mindfulness to forcefully avoid certain states of mind then we may be on the wrong track, and it won't work long term anyway. What you resist will persist.

    7. Too Much Practice (Too Soon)

    When we first start meditating, we might immediately fall in love with mindfulness (also called "the honeymoon phase"). Having a history of excessive worrying, analysis or rumination, we feel so happy to have found some peace of mind. What a relief! Often what happens in such cases is that we do too much too soon. Maybe we decide a month after our first meditation session that we will embark on a rigorous ten-day silent meditation retreat. This might work for some of us, but for others it might be overwhelming.

    Don't forget that a great part of mindfulness is about being kind and caring with ourselves. After all, we wouldn't run a marathon after having run for half an hour every few days, and maybe we'll even decide that we don't need or want to run a marathon at all!

    8. Over-identification

    Some of us over-identify with being a mindfulness meditator. Everything becomes about mindfulness: We join every mindfulness group out there, read every book on mindfulness, redecorate our flat in a mindful way, only want to have friends who practice mindfulness, etc. We might even become self-righteous about our lifestyle. While mindfulness indeed is a beautiful practice, we need to remember that the practice is about accepting ourselves and others as we are and not getting attached to any bundle of beliefs. Otherwise we might alienate ourselves from our non-mindful friends and family who might not really get what this is all about, or who simply have no desire to meditate - which is totally fine too! Not everybody in this world has to become a meditator. And the best way to share mindfulness is by being mindful yourself.

    9. Meditation as Avoidance

    Some mindfulness practitioners have noticed that they might have used meditation sometimes to avoid certain things. Let's say we feel down and lonely and it might be good to go out and meet a friend. But we cannot find the energy to leave our home. So instead we then decide to stay at home and meditate. There's nothing wrong if we do that once in a while. But staying at home and meditating all the time will probably not help us in becoming less sad and lonely.

    10. Doing it without Proper Instructions or Teachers

    When we learn to meditate, it's advisable to do it with a well-trained teacher. Sometimes, people who start meditation, for example, think that mindfulness is another relaxation technique. While relaxation might be a by-product of meditation, it is not the aim. Or a meditation newbie might think that he/she could have a completely thought-free mind when meditating and if that does not occur, he/she feels frustrated and thinks that he/she's not a 'good' meditator, or that meditation is not for him/her. In such cases it is good to have a well-trained mindfulness teacher to support the process of learning how to meditate. Especially because it is not advised to start with mindfulness when one is, for example, in the middle of a depressive episode. A well-trained teacher is aware of that and will find out before a course whether it's the right time to embark on a course or whether it might be better to wait for a while until the person feels more stable. Meditation can also bring up unexpected thoughts and emotions, some of which could be challenging. So it's useful (and comforting) to have an experienced teacher to help us through that process.

    11. Suppression of our Needs

    Although acceptance is a key component, meditation is not about blind acceptance. In mindfulness one learns to be curious and accepting about one's emotions and life in general. This is a beautiful skill to develop. However, this does not mean that we need to accept everything and never take action if we need to do so. If someone, for example, crosses our boundaries and makes us angry, we should not simply use the mindfulness skills to accept the action of this person and the resulting anger and be passive. Instead we can use our mindfulness skills to notice that we are angry, pause and breathe and then let them know how we feel. Mindfulness is by no means about suppressing our needs and enduring everything as a practice in acceptance! It is more about empowering us to feel more centred within ourselves, so that we can make decisions with greater consciousness, clarity and self-compassion, and sometimes that will involve taking action.