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Using daily life to grow resilience

Schools and colleges shortly universities have gone back to having students in classrooms with people standing in front of them teaching.  Who’d have thought this would ever be a surprising thing?  Even if you have no direct connection to people starting back to full-time education you may be impacted by the slow creep of our old normality re-establishing itself, even if we have to wear face coverings whenever we’re in close proximity to others.

Near the start of the lockdown, my post Staying flexible when it’s tough mentioned how we may be adapting to the new normal… and now we’re doing it again!  The signs look good for a 2021 COVID-19 vaccine (e.g. see The Conversation here), but this is a time of testing, so what have we learned about ourselves?  I don’t mean as a whole, I mean each of us as individuals.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet includes the phrase, “There is nothing good or bad, only thinking makes it so.”  I dislike this quote because we could read it as blame – if you’re suffering, it’s your own fault – a wholely unhelpful perspective in my view!  Some of us are dealing with higher vulnerability, perhaps with the loss of loved ones, financial challenges and many other issues entirely caused by the situation that we couldn’t reasonably predict.

But, there’s also some truth in there, and it represents an element of hope.  How we feel, doesn’t have to be the whole story.  Psychological flexibility is a key aspect of resilience.  If we’re flexible we’re more likely to see options and opportunities.  Unfortunately, unpleasant emotion – anger, fear, frustration, sadness and so on – tend to take away flexibility.  They can cause us to narrow our attention to the object of our emotion.

My own experience of homeschooling my eleven-year-old son is a good example for me.  Math’s was a real challenge.  I would get frustrated, he would get frustrated – and in that frustration, we would close down, lose flexibility.  I couldn’t see another way!  Explaining something in a slightly louder higher-pitched voice, for some reason didn’t help.

Eventually, I would take a break.  Slowly, alternative ways of describing a problem, or ways of dealing with a situation would creep in.  Over the weeks, I learned a lot – yes, about my son, and about angles in triangles (it’s been a long time), but I also learned how to spot and manage my and my sons rising frustration more frequently before it took away our flexibility.

This ability to be aware of the rising frustration and work with it are aspects of awareness, which is a learnable skill – most commonly through mindfulness training – that has been invaluable in my own life… and of course something that I’ve now been teaching for seven years (see Mindfulness at work, or my public courses).

Wear a mask – because you care

A few years back I was running some training in Japan.  I was excited to be there, and for the first time in my life finding myself feeling like a foreigner – not just because of the unfamiliar language and writing, but because of my western hemisphere looks!  I’d been to many different countries, but this was the first time I felt I looked so different from everyone around me (and perhaps how South-East Asian visitors feel when they visit the UK).

On arrival, I caught a train into Tokyo centre near to my hotel.  Just as expected, the train was comfortable, fast and running perfectly to schedule.  I also noticed the occasional person wearing a face mask.

After work was done, I had a couple of days for some site seeing.  After some brilliant help from one of the hotel staff, I had the confidence to use the Tokyo Subway to make way through the list of must-see places.  In the subway station, there were people handing out face masks to anyone that seemed to want one.  Were people afraid of catching something?  There were only a small number of people wearing masks, but it was curious.

That evening I was fortunate to have been invited to dinner by my contact at the company I’d done the training for.  She bought a colleague with her, who was wearing a mask!  Finally, I was going to be able to ask… what is it with the mask-wearing?

The answer humbled me.  I’d not been quite forward enough to ask the person wearing the mask why he was wearing it, so in an opportune moment, I asked my host.  She explained simply, ‘he thinks he has a cold coming, and he doesn’t want us to catch it.’  After a little further discussion, I realised that those people wearing masks are doing so to protect their fellow commuters, friends and colleagues.  With my individualistic culture upbringing, I’d assumed the masks were about the protection of the wearer – and although that may have been sometimes true, the thought that this was a selfless act had highlighted my self-oriented thinking, but had also given me a good feeling about all those mask wearers.

I now wear a mask when I visit the supermarket.  I don’t have any reason to think I have a virus to share, but on principle, feel a duty to give those around me some comfort.  Though, at least as I write this, it seems to be a rare thing.  In our culture, we don’t do masks, and many of those wearing them are doing so because they want to protect themselves.

We should be responsible for protecting ourselves, of course.  But we also bear some responsibility for our impact on those around us, and that’s a great reason to wear a mask – or, more broadly a face-cover.  So, wear a face-cover because you care, just one more thing we can do to help us all get safely through this, now, not quite so odd, time.  For a more detailed discussion of masks and why wear them, The Conversation has a helpful recent article Does your face mask protect you, or other people?

Live well,
-Mark

Long to-do list? Structure and frogs

How is your to-do list?  Long?  I know mine is.  There are times when I seem to be adding more things than I can possibly do – and there are times when I’m completely on top of it.  And it’s these latter times that are the most interesting.

It’s easy to focus on what’s not working, and forget to take lessons from what is working.  When I’m on top of my to-do list, other things are usually working too… I’m getting enough sleep, eating well, managing to move regularly, doing mindfulness practice.

When life gets busy the to-do list presses deadlines that seem to require long hours, and other activities that support wellbeing get prioritised out.  Or it might be the opposite, that nothing is pressing and there’s a lack of purpose about the day, which ironically can lead to the same end.

When we’re overly busy we might long to be free of obligation, and when we’re free of obligation, guess what…!

For most of us, structure helps.  If we manage to start the day by achieving the first things on our list, the rest of the day often follows suit.  In my case, I know that if I’m able to do a morning meditation practice and walk the dog, then start a planned task, by the time 11 o’clock comes around, things are running smoothly, and coffee is welcome.

Years ago I read a book by American writer Brian Tracy called ‘Eat that frog!’ – the premise, as I recall, is that the first task you do in the day should be the most important or hardest one.  It’s often the one you’re least looking forward to doing, as appealing as eating a frog!  After that task is done, everything is easier.

If you’re really busy or have all the time in the world, give yourself some structure, try starting the day with something active that supports your wellbeing, then eat that frog.  The to-do list will feel lighter (even if it’s longer than you would like).

Prioritising your wellbeing or work?

How are you looking after yourself?  I know some of us have been able to focus on wellbeing – eating well, exercising, managing their sleep… and for others, it’s not been quite so easy.

If you’re in the latter category then perhaps taking a leaf out of the Tiny Habits process that Prof. BJ Fogg identified might help.  If we want to exercise more, it’s easy to go with a vision of exercise that’s a long way from where we are now – running 5k or cycling to work every day.  Trying to achieve those things too quickly might be so unpleasant that all of our instinct tells us to stop!

So, start tiny.  Perhaps every time you climb the stairs, go back down and back up again (or even just go back a few steps).  That’s a much easier target, and doing it helps encourage further steps.

The NHS Choices Couch to 5k programme aims to help people reach the fitness level to run 5k by slowly increasing the difficulty over 9 weeks – I did this programme a few years back, and it was really helpful in getting back into running – though I did visit a physiotherapist towards the end of the 9 weeks (she was very helpful)… perhaps I should have combined it with 5 weeks NHS Choices Strength and Flexibility plan.  I do still run though, so it worked well for me.

The point is to start small and work up slowly.  Make one change to your food preparation, increase how much you move a little, turn off the light at night 10 minutes earlier.

But, it’s not just diet, exercise, and sleep that support our wellbeing.  What do you do that you enjoy?  Read a book, take a bath, dance, sing, …  I often share an exercise I call the ‘play list’.  In short: write down everything you can think of that you enjoy.  Keep adding to it, build the list.  And, here comes the intervention: regularly do things from your play list, particularly if you are struggling.

It’s not that we should become hedonists… but do mix play into the non-play stuff to help us recover as a part of our wellbeing habits.  What’s on your play list?

Of course – I’d also strongly suggest you start, restart or continue in mindfulness practice!  Start with 1-minute if you need to.  Prioritising your wellbeing is an investment that pays dividend long into the future.

Staying flexible when it’s tough

Have you adapted?  Chances are good that you’ve adapted to a new lock-down normal – even if it isn’t one you would choose.  At the heart of resilience is our ability to remain open and flexible, and to some degree our ability to adapt to this new normal highlights why, perhaps paradoxically, flexibility can be difficult.

I have adapted.  New routines have formed – combining walking the dog with running for exercise, most cooking is now from scratch despite the extra time it takes, I train and coach online now, and many more subtle adaptations.

I’ve even noticed the odd fleeting inner concern about going back to the old normal – even though that old normal was the normal for decades!  Noticing this was a great reminder of the short-term nature of our emotional system and it’s aversion to change, despite our ability to adapt!

When things are going well it’s hard to see that in the face of adversity my openness to options, and willingness to change will be affected.  But one part of experiencing adversity is a narrowing of our awareness – our world view reduces, honing our thinking down to the difficulty we’re facing.

If you’re facing difficulty now, here’s five ways to encourage openness to flexibility by exploring the bigger picture, or to clear some mental space so we can:

  1. Do something physical – such as stretching or some form of exercise (running up and down the stairs has become a ‘thing’ in our house).  After exercise there’s often a period of more open awareness.
  2. Ask yourself, “In a week/month/year/decade (pick a relevant time period) how important will this be to me?” Or perhaps, “…might I be able to see this differently?”  You may then ask, “What would my future self tell me now?”
  3. Imagine someone you care about was going through this / feeling like this, what advice would you give them?  And, what would be my attitude towards them?
  4. Often whirring thoughts in our head block everything else, so let them out.  If you have a trusted friend that’s a good listener, try opening up to them.  Or try this…get a pad with plenty of blank sheets of paper and a good pen; start a 15 minute timer.  Begin writing about anything that comes into your head – and just keep writing – don’t stop writing.  Write, ‘I’m not sure what to write now’ if necessary, but keep going.  Afterwards, you might look over what you have written and see if there’s anything to learn from it… or you might simply shred it and move on.
  5. How do your feet feel while you’re walking?  Simply coming into the present moment where our reality is much simpler, and if it’s physical sensation (like how your feet/face/head etc. feels) more objective than the often biased complexity of our busy heads, can help to make mental space.

There’s no right way, so experiment a bit.

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Mindfulness is not… about stopping your mind thinking

Perhaps you’ve heard someone suggest ‘don’t think about pink elephants,’ or some such example in order to demonstrate how tricky it can be to not think about something that has just been suggested.  This paradox was first written about by a group of research psychologist’s, led by Daniel Wegner, in a 1987 paper Paradoxical effects of thought suppression in what have come to be known as the ‘White Bear’ experiments.  After further study, Prof. Wegner proposed the theory of ironic processes of mental control, describing the ironic or paradoxical effects of thought suppression.

The super summary of the paradox is that the more you try not to think about something, particularly if there is associated emotion or anxiety, the more your mind brings your attention back to the thought – it’s called a rebound effect.  In teaching mindfulness, I often describe this phenomenon as, trying to push away unwanted thoughts (or feelings) gives them the energy to push back.  Sometimes you can distract yourself enough that the thoughts seem to go away, but usually, they’re waiting for the next moment in which to jump out on you again.

If during a mindful meditation practice you find yourself trying to push away thoughts, or trying to ‘stop thinking,’ by dragging your awareness back to, say, your body breathing, there’s a good chance you’ll also find yourself frustrated by rebounding.

So, the first useful realisation is simply, don’t try to stop your mind thinking about something, and indeed mindfulness meditation is not about stopping your mind from thinking.  So, what is it about?

A much more productive approach is to be able to watch your mind thinking, without being caught up in the thoughts.  This detachment or more formally, meta-cognition, takes some practice (that’s why we call it mindfulness ‘practice’), but it can have surprisingly helpful results.

In a typical concentration practice, like watching your body breathing, the intention is to bring your focus and awareness to the chosen anchor (the breath in this case).  But, what do you do if you’re constantly interrupted with ‘thinking’?  Well, firstly, recognise that this is a normal process of our mind – it’s what our thinking mind is designed to do, so as far as possible remain objective, curious or relaxed about it.

As soon as you notice your attention has been snagged by some thought, you can feel pleased that you’re back in the present moment, aware of the thinking you’ve just been engaged in.  Next you might acknowledge the thought by labelling or describing it (e.g. ‘ahh, that’s planning again’), and then choose whether to stay with the thought or come back to your breath.  If you choose to come back to your breath, you’re allowing the thought to go.  And, although this might sound like we’re stopping the thought – the difference between ‘trying to stop it’ and acknowledging it and choosing a different focal point, is in practice, very different.

We’re allowing and accepting both that our mind thinks, and that our attention will be snagged by that thinking.  This gentler approach ultimately means we react differently to the thoughts. In fact, we react less to the thoughts, which is less likely to trigger the ironic processes, and so fewer thoughts snag our awareness.  Overall, by not trying to stop the thinking, we get more choice over where we place our attention.

Mindfulness is not… about relaxation

For this, the first in a series of ‘Mindfulness is not…’ posts, I’d like to deal with the most common misconception I meet, and one that can pervade even those who regularly practice.  The reason is that sometimes mindfulness meditation can be relaxing… but it certainly isn’t the intention of the practice.

So, what is the intention?  Well, you’ve probably seen a definition of mindfulness, mine is ‘choosing to be aware, in the present moment, without judgement.’  The word mindfulness is a translation of the Pali work sati, which some also translate as awareness, though its somewhat more complex than any single translation (for example, see Mindfulness, by any other name) – though I’ve never seen any connection with the idea of relaxation… quite the opposite in fact.

Using a typical meditation as an example of formal mindfulness practice – choosing an anchor, such as the movement of body as you breath, and bringing your full attention to the phenomena of that anchor.  In choosing a focal point such as the breathe, there may be little to entertain our busy minds, and before long (seconds!) you may find yourself planning what to have for lunch, wishing you’d said something different in an earlier conversation, or in a deep investigation of that idea you have to solve the world energy crisis… indeed anything but focusing on the body as it breathes.  As soon as we realise our minds were off thinking about something else, we can choose to bring our attention back to our anchor.  And this process may be repeated many, many times.

So, the intention is to be alert, focused and awake, with a light concentration on our anchor – which isn’t how I would describe relaxation.  Just try doing it when you’re tired or hungry, it’s hard. That isn’t to say it shouldn’t be relaxing, if it is, well, then you might consider that a pleasant side effect.

Rather than the gentle numbness of relaxation, mindfulness is more about being awake to the realities of the present moment, including our thinking patterns, perceptions, automatic reactions, emotions and sensations.  And with this reality, being able to make discerning choice about what, if anything, to do next.

-Mark

Mindfulness, by any other name…: trials and tribulations of sati in western psychology and science. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), 219–239.