How it was
What follows below are my reflections from week 6 of the MBSR 18 months ago. After that I consider how the ideas and practice suggested have been applied (or not) since then.
Week 6 of the MBSR with CMWR in Swansea University centered on staying aware and balanced during stressful communication/relationships. The opportunity to practice mindfulness when we communicate with others is one that can support our effectiveness as communicators and the relationship itself.
The session focused initially on some practical steps. We started with a short sitting meditation to ground ourselves and then engaged in some listening exercises to experience what happens when we try to listen. Of course, whilst we are engaged in an exercise, ‘trying to listen’ we may be a little more tuned into the process than when we’re engaged in regular conversation.
Effective conversation requires us to talk and listen. During most conversations we are listening, but we are also plotting! Often we are engaged in a process of thinking about/judging what the other is saying and what we are going to say. So the first step in becoming more mindful in any conversation is to be aware that this is happening.
In a stressful conversation the thinking/judging may be heightened, our feelings (thoughts linked to an emotion) may be quite loud! Our opportunity is to become aware of this. To notice the thought, and perhaps to be aware of the fear that is generating it. These may be familiar thoughts (if the conversation is with a long term relationship partner) and familiar feelings. These may generate familiar thinking patterns and responses. The first step is to recognise that this has happened; maybe we are able to name the underpinning fear or habitual reaction (to ourselves).
In these moments it may be helpful to follow our breath in and out, to feel gravity in our body: our feet on the ground, our bottom on its seat. We may be able to tune in to the physical reactions the conversations is creating in our body. Our thoughts may generate reactions in the throat, chest or belly. If we can tune into this physical experience and we follow our breath, we can root ourselves in the present moment and give ourselves a little space to respond with understanding.
This practice bring us totally into the present moment, it may help us to be able to listen to the other with greater compassion, possibly even to understand their perspective. It will also support the opportunity to be aware of our feelings and to express them assertively, but without aggression. We may be able to say, ‘I feel so angry when you say that.’ Rather than, ‘You make me so angry.’
This is all easy to explain and even to understand theoretically . Applying it when we are engaged in deep conversation is challenging. Which is why mindfulness is called a practice. It may be helpful to actually practice noticing our thoughts and feelings. To engage in a meditation practice that has our mind’s events as its focus rather than the breath.
Here’s the practice.
- Sit in your normal meditation pose.
- Follow the breath for a few minutes until you are settled and present.
- Let go of following the breath and just notice your mind.
- Watch thoughts come to your attention. Don’t follow them, just watch them leave.
- If you become lost in a thought, note it and return to the breath for a moment. Then return to observing your mind.
- You may notice a pattern to your thoughts. Notice if they are linked to past or future events. You could even say to yourself, ‘past’, then return to your observing.
- You may notice feelings, which are thoughts linked to an emotion. Note the feeling, maybe even observe any physical reactions to the feeling. Then return to your observing.
Here’s an excellent article from Life Hack that offers ‘Mindful conversation in 9 easy steps’
Here’s another one from Insanity Mind that offers a listening response technique that we practiced on the MBSR course. ‘How to be more present: Mindful conversation’
How it is now
18 months on how mindful are my conversations? I’d say pretty present, but perhaps my fellow communicators should be asked! I do know that the practices suggested have had an impact in my deepening mindfulness generally and in the development of my approach to mindful photography.
Whilst I am aware of a broadening of mindfulness throughout my life I am also aware that I still forget to pay attention regularly. I occasionally forget things, miss things happening or zone out. However, I do more regularly catch this happening, and tune back in to the moment. It remains an ongoing practice and always will. It is a life practice and the attendant personal judgement when I do lose the moment is beginning to soften. I remain committed to the ongoing practice.
Ripples of these practices, ideas and intentions pass through my photography developments. In the last year I have written a book on the subject (to be shared during 2017) and I am currently developing my reinterpreted online course (live in Spring 2017).
In both the book and course I explain how similar practices can be integrated using your camera. Not so much the mindful conversation, of course, more the attention to the moment, and your thoughts and feelings experienced whilst you are creating photos.
Both photo thinking and present feelings are aspects of life that are an opportunity to develop mindfulness through the creation of a photograph. All will become clear this year. Stay tuned!
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.
Week 4 of the MBSR begins a deepening of the discussion around stress. My post from 2015 follows below and then I share some of the practices I follow now and the changes it has brought to my life.
How it was
The full title of this week’s MBSR class was ‘Reactivity to stress and pain’. We covered a wide range of concepts, discussion points and practices, but by far the biggest discussion was around what stress was. As dealing with stress and chronic pain were the original reasons for the development of the MBSR by Jon Kabat-Zinn and there were quite different understandings what stress is in our group, I’m going to focus my thoughts upon what stress is.
Let’s start with some clarity. No one can agree what stress is. I know, there are plenty of definitions, but even the guy who first coined the term, Hans Selye (1936) later said to reporters, “Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.” There is some common ground, repeated in most medical dictionaries and websites, which define stress as “the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental and emotional responses.”
A general perception is that stress is a negative reaction. That stress is a ‘bad’ thing. This was borne out by our group discussion where one or two people could only understand stress as a difficulty or problem that they did not function well under. The fact that our body’s flight or fight response generates a cocktail of chemicals into the bloodstream in order for high functioning reactions, to perform at our highest capability and possibly to avoid death or major problems, is part of a ‘stress reaction’ is not always understood.
The scientist Hans Selye coined the term ‘stressor’ to distinguish stimulus from response. Hence a stressor could be a car accident or public performance and the stress caused would be the body’s reaction to this stressor. Then we also have to take account of our individual reactions. One person’s stressor is another person’s reason for being. For example some of us hate the idea of a public performance, others revel in the limelight.
Throughout our lives we have developed automatic reactions to potential stressors. These are habits that we have little awareness of and include: indifference, attachment and aversion. In each case the common theme is that we are not in the present moment, we are choosing to ignore, imagine other experiences or avoid the unfolding experience. The outcome of these habits is that we may not be aware that we are being affected by a stressful situation.
The MBSR is most concerned with awareness. If we are aware that our body is reacting to a stressor we are able to change that reaction. So how do we become aware? We have to tune in to how our body reacts to a stressful situation. Here are some of the physical and emotional symptoms our bodies may experience (from Boots WebMD)
Emotional symptoms of stress include:
- Becoming easily agitated, frustrated and moody
- Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
- Having difficulty relaxing and quietening your mind
- Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless and depressed
- Avoiding others
Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Low energy
- Upset stomach, including diarrhoea, constipation and nausea
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- Frequent colds and infections
- Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
- Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear
- Cold or sweaty hands and feet
- Excess sweating
- Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
- Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
How can we be aware of stress?
We heighten our awareness of the moment by practicing mindfulness: meditation (breathing, body scan), mindful movement (yoga, walking, qigong), mindful activities (washing the dishes, eating, photography…). Each of these practices deepens our presence within the moment. In that space we can be more aware of how our body is, what our mind is thinking. Then with attention we can breath and be with our experience. Rather than turning from it, we turn towards it and in that space it begins to soften and lose its impetus.
My habits and practices
Now this is all fine and dandy in theory, but what of my reality. I now know that I have created my chronic health condition by ignoring my unfolding experience, not paying attention to my body’s reactions and acting out of a habitual response. My drive to succeed, to be the best I could be at my job and in long distance running led me to ignore the warning signs and allowed an acute breathing condition to become chronic.
Those habits are still with me. The difference now is that by continuing to deepen my mindfulness practice (meditation, yoga, body scan and mindful photography) I am now becoming more attuned to how my body is and I am then able to make choices that support my health.
It is an ongoing practice. The habits are decades old! However, mindfulness provides me with the tools to forge new neural pathways, new habits and new ways of being.
How it is now
The MBSR has been developed from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s understanding of how our body and mind react when we find ourselves in a stressful situation. Mindfulness is offered as a practice that can heighten our awareness to how we are, right now, in this very moment.
It is worth remembering that mindfulness is described as a practice. As with any practice sometimes it goes well and and other times it does not. When we do not notice (or choose to ignore) that we are experiencing a stressful experience we then return to our habitual reactions. The body’s cocktail of chemicals to support us is released and we behave as we do usually in these scenarios.
This reaction will be personal to you, but I am certain that you know what I am talking about. My pattern of behaviour when I am not attuned to the bodies reactions, and events are getting too much for me is to carry on, take on even more tasks and continue to not notice that my body is starting to struggle. Finally this will manifest in an acute situation with my chronic breathing condition. I then notice and stop.
Whilst I am getting better at noticing this I still think that I am invulnerable and have more capacity than I actually do. It is of course difficult to admit to your own vulnerabilities – health, behaviours or habits – but this is the area where the work and practice is required. Understanding how we behave and the situation that leads to that behaviour is the first step in recognising the vulnerability. Admitting that this is something that we often do is the first step in beginning to change the pattern.
Mindfulness and meditation train our mind to pay attention. They provide us with the space to begin to notice how we are. I understand this completely now. It does though remain a practice, one that I am committed to and one that I am making progress. It is going to take a lifetime though!
Week 2 is all about awareness. Awareness of the body and mind. In your busy western lives you move quickly through your day from task to task, achieving and doing. You are often so immersed in this task driven world that you pay little heed to its impact upon your body or the patterns of thought and feeling that your mind follows. If you are anything like me you may be doing a task or job, but your thoughts probably slip elsewhere from time to time; reviewing a past event or imagining a future happening.
Week 2 is about raising your awareness; paying attention to how you are, what you are thinking, how you are feeling. This attention can be practiced during any task or activity, that is what makes it mindful.
What follows below is my post that I wrote just after the week 2 session. This explains my initial reactions and places it in a time and place in my life.
In the section after that I will consider how this mindful practice is progressing. How am I doing? Do I pay attention all the time? (clue here: don’t be daft!)
Week 2 thoughts from 2015
Week 2 of our Mindfulness based stress reduction course (MBSR) started in entirely different circumstances and continued in quite a different manner to Week 1. Last week the weather had been howling: gales and thundering rain showers. This week the sun was shining and the 5th floor balcony beckoned on arrival whispering, ‘come and soak up my sunshine’.
Last week had introduced mindful techniques that we practiced throughout the class. When I had returned home I found myself to be very still and happily sat in the lounge, dog on lap, in the quiet dying light until all the family arrived home half an hour later.
This week I had a diary clash. The session was always going to be different as I chose to keep a previously arranged and paid for cinema visit with a mate. I was with the group for the first hour when we experienced our responses to a couple of emotive stories. This spurred a discussion about our experience of our body and mind’s reactions to life events, where we highlighted the body’s responses to stress and discussed the kind of emotions and thoughts experienced during the reading of each story.
All of this was designed to raise our awareness of the role our perception plays in generating and interpreting events, emotions and thoughts. We were encouraged to notice the body’s response to an event or situation and note the thoughts; like fear, judgement, possible actions, outcomes etc. In noticing the thought and where it was felt in the body an opportunity to let the thought soften and melt away could be encouraged.
Now, I know that this ‘letting go’ of thoughts, particularly those entrenched in habitual patterns, is not an easy task. But the task of noting that you recognise the thought and where it has come from is the first step in allowing it space to fade away. I know it works. It’s just not easy, to catch yourself heading off on a familiar track, but I am reminded that it is a practice. So I shall continue to practice.
Practicing Awareness in 2015
Today I am struggling to breathe. A combination of the Photomarathon day on Saturday and today’s high pollen count has aggravated my ability to breathe. The thoughts that then swirl are dominated by fear. Fear of not being able to breathe. Fear of the necessity to take steroids and the post medical reaction. Fear of the need for surgery. All of these rise and fall, along with a feeling of helplessness that these episodes generate.
I give myself a little space, get an increase in my hay fever medication and do a little gentle yoga. In this space I feel softer, less fearful. Which in itself also reduces stress on the body and helps my breathing to recover a little.
The period between completing the MBSR and now has been one of massive developments and change. In 2015 my chronic breathing condition had reached a crisis point and I was just about to embark on visits to one of the top throat reconstruction specialists in London.
At the first meeting with Mr Guri Sandhu I was very nervous. I remember sitting in his consultation room, laboured breathing and shaking with nerves. However, I noticed that I had the opportunity to practice. I focused on my feet on the ground, my backside on its seat and breathed to my belly. And kept with this focus until we started talking. The consultation was a turning point, but not for the reasons I initially thought.
After examining and talking to me Sandhu stated, with calm assurance, that he could fix me. He promised to return my breathing to a much improved place, but there would be a major compromise, I would be left with a mere whisper of a voice. At the time this felt like a relief and a way forward. Breathing was such a struggle. Now there was possibility of improvement.
Sandhu also highlighted my weight loss (nearly 2 stone – I am of slim build and average height) and stated that this was not connected to my breathing and should be investigated. It was this advice that changed my world. A later diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes was a surprise, but provided explanation for the ongoing acute attacks. Once I was established and used to the insulin the lights came on, a fog lifted from my mind and everything else began to unravel.
Since then the major life changes including; the end of my marriage, an intention to live with authenticity, health stability, new work opportunities, new relationship, new friendships, writing a book and much more have provided many opportunities to practice paying attention. I know that this is integral to how I want to live. However, I also know that it is a challenge and an ongoing practice. I have spent over 50 years laying down neural pathways that take my thoughts and feelings down familiar roads. Travelling along new paths, in the undergrowth off road, is hard going and I often stray back to the main road. But the practice remains. I meditate daily. I practice mindful photography weekly. I notice the one thing that I am doing, thinking or feeling and return to the present moment. It is a lifetime practice and one that will continue to bear fruit.
Last year I enrolled and completed the MBSR at Swansea University. At the time I blogged a little about my experiences. I will be revisiting these posts over the next few weeks to share my progress applying the ideas and practices to my life. Please share your thoughts and feelings too, the course is now hugely popular and is a fabulous introduction to living a mindful life.
My first week of attendance at the MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) course at Swansea University was in 2015 and at the time I was living with some serious difficulty. My chronic health condition (compromised breathing) was particularly challenging and the reasons for this were yet to be revealed. At the time there seemed to be a serious possibility that I would have to have major surgery that would leave me with the mildest whisper of voice, but improved breathing. Enrolling on the course was very much a support for living through this time. I already had a meditation practice and had developed the mindful photography philosophy that is now central to my life. But I saw the course as an opportunity to embrace mindfulness wholeheartedly through my life and maybe learn something new.
The MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) Course
This is an 8 week course which aims to introduce mindfulness practices into our lives, enabling us to be connected to the present moment in all of its glory and grime. It is believed that this connection and acceptance helps to reduce stress by encouraging us to be totally present, aware of the choices we make and their impact on our lives.
It is my intention to write a blog post for each of the eight weeks, summarising what we cover and, where relevant offering a mindful photography practice that supports that week’s intention.
Week One: Auto Pilot
Our first week’s theme was ‘Auto Pilot’. Our tutor, Sinead Brophy, explained that the intention of week 1 was to break us out of auto pilot and alert us to the present moment. Sinead explained what mindfulness was (attention to the present moment) and what it wasn’t (counselling, therapy, a happiness regime).
Over the course of the 2 hours + we were introduced to some mindful practices. These included a ten minute guided meditation, mindful eating and the body scan. Whilst I was already familiar with these practices I found the session really grounding and almost a return to ‘beginners mind’. It was helpful to revisit shorter simpler practices and when I returned home I found that I was much quieter (in my head) and content to sit in the lounge sharing the moment with my dog and not seeking any external stimulation (TV, computer, book)
We were also given homework, which includes: a 20 minute meditation, 1 mindful eating practice per day and 1 mindful practice per day (taking a shower, cleaning teeth etc.) This all seems best done in the morning. At least then the busy-ness of the day will not deflect and there is also a chance that the practices will encourage a more mindful approach to the day.
This fine theory was destroyed when before leaving for work, but after meditation, mindful shower and mindfully eaten cereal, I forgot to clean my teeth! Ah well, it is a practice.
My Mindful Life
So after 11 years of mindful practice and the MBSR Course have I got it all sorted? Do I live a mindful life every day, every minute? Oh no. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice. However, mindfulness and mindful photography have changed how I live. Mindful Photography offers a path to becoming a conscious and fully awake photographer, and because we cannot separate the photographer from the person, it also investigates a way of living.
Through my work with mindful photography I balance photography practices that develop mindfulness with an awareness of how life’s choices are determined. I still slip in auto pilot sometimes, 56 years of habitual behaviours has wired some neural pathways that shout to be used. But I do now have more practices, more tools to support my intention, and through this, occasionally more awareness of each moment.