One of the core principles of mindfulness meditation is to participate without additional effort. The aim is to relax into awareness. When you get distracted, you don’t force your attention back, you invite it.
It’s designed like this so we don’t load effort and stress back into the system. When we lose our way, we don’t beat yourself up about it – because that doesn’t help. We just acknowledge the distraction and come back to the focus.
But this approach doesn’t have to be limited to meditation – it’s applicable to almost everything we do. There aren’t too many activities where we couldn’t benefit from a state of relaxed, flow and focus. And just as with meditation we don’t achieve that state by loading our stress and effort back into the system.
Whether we’re writing an essay or washing up, we’re bound to get distracted or bored or frustrated. What matters is not that we got distracted, but what we do next – how we respond.
If we can return to focus by gentle invitation and not loaded with frustration, stress and disappointment then we have a much better chance of a successful outcome.
It’s easy to get caught up in an abstract world, and miss what’s happening right around us.
This is because we experience the world in a re-constructed, semi-artificial way.
We don’t “see” a tree. We see a reconstruction of it. Our brain receives information from the outside and reconstructs it in a model which makes sense to us.
It’s an abstraction, removed from the outside world, and yet it feels perfectly real.
This ability to create abstractions and then treat them as real, is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to interact with the physical world around us in a meaningful way. We can recognise and manipulate objects and respond to changes in our physical environment. It also allows us to interact with other people both directly and indirectly, sharing thoughts and ideas which are themselves abstract.
In fact, you and I are doing this right now. And we’re not even in the same space (or time) – that’s pretty amazing.
The flip side of this ability is that we can create imagined or potential scenarios in our brain and respond to then in much the same way as we would the real world. We can think about a potential event in the future and it can bring us the same joy and excitement or stress and discomfort as an event we actually perceive in the present.
Since all our experience of the world is via reconstructions, and we often like to switch between levels of abstractions, our brain has little interest in distinguishing between what’s real and what’s made up. To (at least one part of) the brain, it can pretty much seem one and the same.
And this is a problem when it comes to our physical stress responses and how they are wired to be triggered.
We have a number of deeply ingrained, biological warning mechanisms which are designed to fire a stress response when we perceive threats in our external environment. A leopard in a tree or a snake at our feet triggers this response and makes us uncomfortable enough with the current situation that we just want to leave.
Once we get out of the situation, the stress response disappears and we go back to normal. Phew.
But here’s the rub: That same ability to work with abstract concepts as if they are real, can trigger our stress response in exactly the same way – for imagined as well as actual threats. We think about a horrible email we might get in the future – zing – stress response. We imagine a confrontation with our boss – zing – stress response.
The result is that this stress response, which is meant to be an acute, short-term response to a real, immediate threat can be fired in a continuous and relentless way in response to imaginary and less immediate situations.
This can quickly overwhelm us and seriously inhibit our ability to operate normally.
It can also make us feel like shit.
The bad news is that there is no way to turn this off without losing our ability to interact with the real world, or work with abstractions. It would also leave some serious lobotomy scars.
The good news is, we can turn it down, it just requires some time and deliberate attention. We can be much more skilful at managing our responses if we start watching our thoughts and being aware of what’s happening in our brain.
It’s largely irrelevant whether you do this through a formal practice like meditation or just by taking note of how you feel and what you’re thinking about – the important thing is that you do it.
Once you’re aware of what’s going on in your brain, you can then make better decisions about what to do about it.
Sometimes you’re going to want to make changes in the physical world, but other times it might makes sense to just stop thinking about imaginary snakes.
Much of our anxiety and suffering comes from the fact that the world isn’t what we want it to be.
We see situations and people which could be so much better and think, “if only they were different”.
When the reality of the world, collides and conflicts with our models and expectations, we experience cognitive dissonance. We realise that something is out of joint and either we, or the world (or both) will need to change if we’re to feel better.
Typically the world – and the billions of people in it – is so big and indifferent and external and out of our control, it doesn’t change (at least without a good deal of effort). So the burden of change naturally falls to us.
But surprisingly, changing our personal attitudes and beliefs is difficult as well. Often this is because we’ve emotionally invested so much into them that we feel like we’re losing when we let them go. We also often feel that by recognising the status quo for what it is and accepting it, that we’re in some way condoning it in a way which compromises our beliefs. That by accepting what we think is wrong, we’re being a doormat and letting our situation or peers walk right over us.
Neither of these are actually true, but treating them as if they are is our biggest barrier to moving forward.
When we experience conflict between what should be, and what is, we resist it. This resistance (as opposed to the other Resistance I like to write about), arises from our acknowledgement that something needs to change, and our fear that the burden of change might fall to us.
This is the behaviour which causes us to cling to old beliefs when we see compelling evidence to the contrary. This is the behaviour which causes us to avoid conflict with those who challenge our ideas. This is the behaviour which turns away from the waves instead of facing directly into them.
This resistance has a formidable stranglehold on our behaviour and can… well… make us act like a bit of a dick. But what we don’t often realise, is that it’s power is entirely illusory and self generated. It’s not an external force, it’s one that we ignite, fuel and perpetuate ourselves. And just as naturally as we can kindle this resistance, we can snuff it out.
Thankfully, the process for unplugging this resistance from its main power source is surprisingly simple – all you have to do is to recognise that it exists, look at it directly, and let it go.
Unfortunately, not everything which is simple, is easy. Skydiving is simple: fall out of a plane. Stand-up is simple: be funny on stage. Juggling is simple: don’t drop the balls. But that doesn’t mean that they’re easy.
Like these examples, letting go of resistance is simple, but not that easy. But also like these examples, it’s just a skill – and any skill can be mastered with practice.
It takes practice to identify resistance. It takes practice turning to face it. It takes practice to let it go. It’s not arduous practice, and it pays dividends – but the only way to get better at it, is to do it and do it and do it again.
The reason this practice is worthwhile, is that as soon as the resistance drops away, you can better see the situation for what it is. You’re not viewing it through the lens of your personal attachment, or existing beliefs, you’re seeing what the reality of what it is, in the here and now. And while you might not condone it, you might not like it, you can at least accept that this is the currently reality.
And as soon as you accept this, you’re in a much better place to respond to it skilfully. Now that you’ve looked at it dispassionately, you can decide if it’s even worthy of your future attention and effort – most of the time it’s not.
If you have any kind of meditation practice, then you’ve probably got some experience in letting this resistance go. If you don’t, then a good place to start is with headspace or Tara Brach – both of which are effective, accessible and free. Tara has also written an entire book on the subject.
Being a doormat is the result of emotional attachment limiting your options in a situation which isn’t going your way.
Acceptance is about stripping away your attachment to a situation and creating a better set of options for spending your precious time and attention in the future.
Someone in the office started a weekly, drop-in, mindfulness session.
She booked a room for 20 minutes, and once a week, anyone who is interested can go over and listen to a simple, guided meditation.
It’s a great idea, was well framed and perfectly executed. Most of the people who turned up to the first session hadn’t done any meditation before, and the group seemed to genuinely enjoy the experience.
One of the things which I liked most about her idea, is that it was offered with compete sincerity – which means that she left herself vulnerable to social ridicule for backing an idea which might not work.
You might read that and think “social ridicule? What kind of work place is that?”
As it happens, it’s a great workplace, with lots of genuine, caring people. But there is still vulnerability in presenting an offer like this sincerely. When you first suggest it to a group of people, you do so not knowing if it will be accepted and you open the door especially to the very English dismissal/ridicule/discrediting arriving in the form of “banter”.
This kind of dismissal doesn’t have to be malicious in order to be effective or painful to receive. It’s often not even intended to actually discredit the idea, but is just a sniping observation, played for laughs.
This is especially true if the idea presented is more like “let’s meditate together” as opposed to something socially safer like “let’s get a burrito.”
The fact that I find this sincerity brave, probably says more about my own sensitivity to being undercut socially than being any great comment on how we interact with each other. I’ve been burned by comments like this in the past and I’ve certainly been responsible for dishing out my fair share. But I still think there is something powerful in this sincerity and worth calling out.
Elsewhere, Godin had said that bravery is over-rated, because we tend to elevate it to a status which means that we tend to make it unattainable for most people on a daily basis. But I think that the opposite is true. I don’t think that it’s given enough emphasis, but we need to show where it exists in the small gestures, not just the large ones. We need to celebrate and promote the acts of everyday bravery in everyday situations, as they potentially open up a whole spectrum of choices which might not otherwise be available to us.
This might just be a case of calling out and supporting sincere offers when we see them. Probably more helpful is to ensure that we defend sincere offers when they are at risk of being undercut socially by someone who pokes the vulnerability for laughs.
It might not be the easiest position to take in the world, but if it were easy, then the stoics wouldn’t have bothered to make courage one of their core virtues.
Either way, I’m all for a little more sincerity and social vulnerability. They might be occasionally painful, but I suspect they contain a lot of value that we ignore on a daily basis.
In the meantime, if you need me between 11.40 & 12.00 on a Wednesday, I’ll in chilling out in Christine’s mindfulness session.