How it was
It is interesting when several aspects of your life converge upon a single theme. I had decided to investigate fear, its role in our lives and how we can live positively from it, because I knew that it would play a large role in this week. Coincidentally other happenings have followed the theme that were not expected, including this week’s MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) course.
This post is going to review what we covered on Monday night in week 5 of the MBSR 18 months ago. Later in the post I will reflect on what I have learnt about meditation and fear since then. I will also be considering the two Tara Brach talks I shared previously and how they relate to this week’s MBSR course.
Responding instead of reacting
The core theme of this week’s course was how we can cultivate a response to stress, rather than a reaction. When we find an external event challenging or difficult our body responds to this stressor instinctively. Our reactions are led by our mind and in particular the oldest parts of our brain, the parts that control the flight or fight response. These systems are hardwired to produce reactions in our body that enable us to function at our highest level, so that we survive the threatening event.
These reactions are guided by the sympathetic nervous system which gets the body ready for flight or fight. This system, which is part of the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS), accelerates our heart rate, widens bronchial passages (for more oxygen), dilates our pupils, raises our blood pressure, shoots us full of adrenaline and increases perspiration. So we are ready for action! This is all fine and dandy if we need to take immediate action to save ourselves, such as leaping out of the way of a car that is careering towards us, but if the event that causes us stress is an ongoing one then it may not be appropriate or necessary.
Continual hyper-arousal like this can cause the system to become disregulated and lead to other physical problems such as arrhythmias, sleep disorders, chronic headaches, backaches and anxiety. We may then engage coping strategies, such as overworking, overeating and substance misuse (alcohol, caffeine, drugs etc). These in turn can lead to physical and psychological exhaustion, loss of drive, depression, genetic predispositions, heart attack and cancer.
What if we could start to change our body’s reaction? If we could learn to respond differently we could break out from this destructive cycle. This is where mindfulness can help.
How mindfulness can help
The guidance from the course is straight forward to understand. It is in its application where the practice is to be found. The advice is:
“Experience the stressor just as it is in the present moment. In other words we accept it and let it be.”
The first step, when experiencing a stressor is to pay attention. Notice what is happening in your body and mind. What can you feel in your body? Increased heart rate? Stomach turning? Faster breathing? Getting hotter? These physical symptoms are all indicators that the sympathetic nervous system has kicked in. Acknowledge this experience. Feel it.
What thoughts are passing through your mind? Are you playing out scenarios? Are imaginary conversations or happenings flying through your mind. Notice them. Don’t follow the thought, just notice that it is there.
The second step builds upon this noticing. As we pay attention to our body and mind’s reactions we allow it to happen, but we don’t try to make things different. We breathe, in and out. Maybe we breathe in and out where we can feel things happening in the body. Breathe into the body’s sensations. We experience the thoughts and body reactions. Slowly, as we live through this, we settle back into the present. We begin to accept the present moment and its jagged edges begin to soften.
I know that is is not easy. I had the opportunity to practice yesterday. One tactic I employed was to not only feel it in my body, but to feel my body in the world. To feel my feet on the ground and my bum on the chair. This rooting down helped to ground me in the moment.
How it is now
Tara Brach’s talks describe these physical responses that the body is hardwired to produce when experiencing fear, as the Fear Body. I believe that it is a term first used by Eckhart Tolle.
I know that since I have learnt and understood how our body reacts to stress that I am sometimes able to notice how I am reacting in the middle of the experience. Of course sometimes I am so immersed in the experience that I am unable to notice. This is the practice!
This reminds me that the main purpose of meditation is to train the mind, to train it so that we can pay attention, so that we can catch ourselves reacting and pause. In that pause we can reconnect with our physical experience, we can come out of the stories or thoughts our mind is playing and root ourselves in the physical. Then in that moment we can choose how to respond.
Meditation provides many experiences and develops our ability to live mindfully through stressful events with skill, love and authenticity.