meditation for stress

Your happiness does not depend on how you feel

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Recently I’ve been feeling, on and off, kind of crappy. A lot of the time I’m fine, but then heavy, despondent feelings arrive. Mostly this is to do with chronically “scraping by” financially, and the extra stress that causes: having to calculate how little gas I can get away with putting in the car, trying to juggle spending less in the supermarket with eating a diet that will keep me healthy, and so on.

I’m not complaining: at least I have a car, and I’m not going to go hungry. I often count my blessings. And mostly I’m optimistic and that keeps me going. But in the long term it gets a bit wearing.

When this happens I try to practice what I teach, and one of the things I teach is mindful acceptance.

Some years ago my friend Padraig O’Morain contributed an article here in which he shared how he uses the mantra “My happiness does not depend on this.” So he’ll be stuck in a traffic jam, for example, and he’ll remind himself, “My happiness does not depend on this.”

And this is a brilliant phrase to use, because often we do assume that our happiness does in fact depend on not being stuck in a traffic jam. And those assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies: we fume in the traffic jam. Undo that assumption, and we have an opportunity to experience peace, balance, and calmness in the face of things not going the way we want.

The principle that Padraig illustrates here applies to feelings as well. So when I find myself experiencing despondency, I remind myself, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

This might seem counter-intuitive, because we so often assume that happiness depends on feelings, and that in fact happiness is a feeling. But that assumption, it turns out, is as false as assuming that you can’t be happy in a traffic jam.

Our experience is layered. We have feelings, and we also have responses to our feelings. Often we resist painful feelings. And when we resist painful feelings, we make them stronger. Resistance is such an automatic response that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. And so we just assume that the unpleasant feelings that result from resisting primary unpleasant feelings are just part of the primary unpleasant feelings.

Acceptance is another response to our feelings. It’s one we practice much less often. Most people, I’d say, don’t really know how to accept painful feelings. And so it takes practice. we can practice by treating a feeling not as something that we are inside, but as something we’re observing. So we can observe where the feeling is. We can name it. We can observe its size and position, and how it changes. We can remind ourselves, “This is not me. This is not mine. This is not who I am.” We can even remind ourselves, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

The more we accept an initial unpleasant feeling, the more our secondary unpleasant feelings dissolve. And we’re left just with that initial feeling. We can recognize that there’s nothing wrong with that unpleasant feeling. We don’t need to get rid of it. In fact wanting to get rid of it brings us back to having resistance, and so we kick of another wave of secondary suffering. When you’re trying to accept a painful feeling and you get the thought, “This isn’t working!” this is just unacknowledged resistance. Just keep going. Let the unpleasant feeling be.

And it’s perfectly possible to be happy while having an unpleasant feeling present. This happiness isn’t in the form of a pleasant feeling. Happiness can take that form, but it can also be a deeper sense of calm, peace, and wellbeing. That deeper level of happiness can coexist with an unpleasant feeling, and it arises from acceptance.

This saying, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel,” or even, more specifically, “My happiness does not depend on this feeling,” is a tool I’m finding very useful in finding peace alongside feelings of crappiness.

Just one more word: acceptance doesn’t mean not changing things in our lives. So I’m not advocating that you accept circumstances that aren’t conducive to your wellbeing. I have things I’m working on changing so that I don’t have to deal with the extra stresses I mentioned above. But in the meantime, I can keep coming back to an experience of peace.

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Whatever is difficult within you, offer it love

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Someone wrote to me recently about realizing that she has an underlying feeling of anxiety around the solar plexus that’s there much of the time.

I have that too. It’s not always there, but it is a lot of the time. It doesn’t ruin my life. It doesn’t stop me from being happy. But it’s there. It’s not something that I can “fix” or make go away. And in fact it isn’t helpful even to try. This anxiety is something to be lived with, not banished. And the best way to live with it, I’ve found, is to love it.

Before you can love it, though, necessary to become aware of it. It can be uncomfortable to do this. But it’s an essential step. You can’t respond skillfully to such things unless you’re aware of them.

I think a lot of us have this kind of anxiety and don’t even realize it. Whether we know it’s there or not it affects us. We act out of it but not realizing that it’s there in the background, like a puppet-master controlling our actions, making us turn on the TV to avoid the anxiety of being alone, or pour a glass of wine to dull our worries about work, or making us snap at our partner because we’re worried they might not care about us.

The good news is that we can be at peace while the anxiety is present. The presence of chronic, low-grade anxiety need not affect our wellbeing. As we practice being mindful of those sensations we can learn to regard the anxiety as being not a threat, but just a sensation.

This takes practice, but it’s doable. Start with very minor anxiety, drop the thinking that accompanies it, drop the thinking about how unpleasant your anxiety is, and just notice it. What is this sensation like? What is its texture? Where is it located? How does it change, moment by moment? As we take this approach, anxiety becomes less loaded. It’s just a sensation like any other.

Then we can love it. Loving anxiety does not come naturally to us. It’s definitely something we have to learn to do because it’s not our natural response. The whole point of anxiety is to make us wary of something the mind has flagged up being a potential threat, and even to turn away from that apparent threat. Anxiety is meant to be unpleasant, so we become wary of anxiety itself, and see it as being a threat to our wellbeing. So we want to avoid it. Why wouldn’t we?

We can regard our anxiety not as an enemy and not as something to be gotten rid of, but as a signal being sent by some part of us that is suffering. Some animal-like or child-like part of us is scared and calling out to us. Can we offer it reassurance? Can we love it like we would a pet or a young child?

So we can relate to anxiety in a kind and parental way: “Hey, you! How are you doing today? I’m sorry you’re suffering. I just want you to know that I love you and care about you.” We can place a tender hand on the place where it manifests most strongly in the body. We can look at it with love. In these ways we can offer reassurance to the part of us that’s afraid.

Perhaps eventually this low-grade anxiety will go away. I certainly hope that the part of me that’s afraid learns to feel secure, confident, and unafraid. Until then I’ll offer it as much love as I can.

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Spend mindful time in nature to relax and reduce stress

The natural world is a powerful stress reliever and mood booster. It puts things in perspective and can right wrongs, calm anger and soothe frayed nerves. Spend a little time each day with nature, aware of the different feelings and sensations of the breath in your body, as well as all your other senses, and you can give yourself a little of this natural healing – for free. Just nip out into the garden, find a pretty local park or open space or, if you have time, head off to the coast or the moors. If you can’t get outside for any reason – maybe it’s horrible weather or you haven’t got much time – then you could sit quietly and look out of the window, or you could spend time looking at an indoor plant and really notice all the colours and textures. Wherever you are, your aim is simply to take in the natural surroundings as mindfully as you can.

Start by spending a few minutes absorbing the scene. What can you see, hear and smell? Does the air have a taste? How do the earth, grass and tree bark feel? Are they rough, smooth, soft or slippery? Close your eyes and focus on the sounds. Soak up the different ones. Can you hear the wind? Or perhaps cars in the distance? Can you hear insects, birdsong or the scampering of small animals? Notice the rise and fall of each individual sound. Mentally flick between them.

Now sit down. Can you feel the weight of your body settling onto the seat, park bench or whatever you’re sitting on? Can you give your weight up to gravity, so that you feel a sense of rest? Can you feel the movement of the breath in your whole body – the front, the back and the sides? Can you feel how the breath is always changing, just as the sounds do? Can you let any sensations of discomfort in the body also come and go as the moments pass? See if you can have a more fluid experience of both your body and the world around you.

Now stand and take a short walk. Feel the sensations underfoot and notice the movement of your muscles and joints. Feel the gentle swaying of your limbs. Experiment with walking at different speeds and notice how this feels. Let your breath flow as naturally as you can while you move.

As you do this exercise, notice the relationship between direct sensory awareness and thinking: when you’re immersed in savoring your senses, do you find you think less? And if you ‘come to’ at some stage and notice you’ve been lost in thinking – say, rehearsing an argument or worrying about something – can you see how your direct sensory experience faded into the background while you were lost in thought?

If you’re interested in Vidyamala’s “Mindfulness for Women” online course, which starts Jan 1, 2018, you can read more or enroll here.

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Four cast-iron benefits of mindfulness

Many thousands of studies demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness have now been published, to the point where mindfulness can almost seem like a miracle cure. The problem is that not all of these studies were conducted well enough to be taken seriously.

Daniel Goleman (author of “Emotional Intelligence”) and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson combed through thousands of studies and found that only one percent of them match the current gold standards for medical research. While we could rightly despair at the poor methodology of the 99 percent, we could instead focus on the four strongly confirmed findings that Goleman and Davidson have identified in the studies conducted using the soundest protocols.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review Goleman outlined those four confirmed benefits, which are: stronger focus, staying calmer under stress, better memory, and kindness. No doubt because he was writing for HBR, Goleman wrote about mindfulness mainly in terms of a tool for creating better workers for corporations — for example parsing kindness as “good corporate citizenship.” So I’d like to take those four benefits and write about them in a less corporate way, looking at how they can benefit us spiritually.

Stronger focus

People who practice mindfulness regularly experience less mind-wandering and distractibility.

Why is this important, and how can it benefit you? Mindfulness improves our filters. It helps us to identify when the mind is wandering in ways that are unhelpful for us, and to bring our attention back to our present-moment experience. Much of the time when the mind is wandering it’s engaged in what the Buddhist meditation tradition calls the “five hindrances” — craving, getting angry, worrying, low energy states of avoidance, and doubting. These hindrances diminish our sense of well-being and cause toxic effects in our interpersonal relationships and in our lives generally.

Reduced mind-wandering goes hand-in-hand with improved executive function, or self-control. Neurologically, what is happening is that the brain’s prefrontal cortex is learning to regulate and damp down activity in the amygdala, which triggers disruptive emotions like anger or anxiety. When we are mindful it’s easier for us to avoid things like addictive activities and needless conflict because we’re able to monitor the mind, spot the early stages of these activities beginning to kick in, and choose other ways of being.

Mindfulness, in other words, gives us greater mental freedom, which in turn brings us greater happiness and more harmony in our lives.

Staying calmer under stress

Since the prefrontal cortex regulates the amygdala more effectively when we’re mindful, mindfulness reduces stress.

This tends to make for better decision-making. When the amygdala is firing strongly it suppresses activity in the prefrontal cortex, which means that we don’t think clearly and make bad decisions. We might, for example, feel panicky about opening bills, stash them out of sight, and thereby increase the number of problems we have. Mindfulness helps us to think more clearly.

Mindfulness also improves our inter-personal relationships. When the amygdala is over-active, it’s constantly looking for potential threats, for example by worrying that someone doesn’t like us or is intending to insult us. Rather than waste energy reacting to “threats” that may not even exist we can just get on with building productive, sustaining, and nourishing connections with others.

This in turn leads to us having a better support network, so that we’re better able to deal with other stresses in our lives.

Better memory

Those who practice mindfulness show a stronger short-term memory (or working memory). For example, the graduate school entrance exams of college students who were taught to be more mindful scores showed increases of 16 percent.

The purpose of working memory is to keep relevant information in conscious awareness while it’s needed. The better our working memory, the more information can be stored there without data loss. On a very practical level, with a poor working memory it’s hard to remember a seven digit phone number long enough to dial it — intrusive thoughts or the inability to screen out other information disrupt our ability to keep the number in mind. Things like performing mental arithmetic depend highly on working memory as well, which partly explains the 16 percent boost that mindful students saw on their Graduate Record Exam scores.

But the benefits of better working memory are more profound than that. An improved working memory allows us to keep ethical principles and guidelines in mind as we go about life. Often the problem with being mindful or kind is that we just forget. So we might have an intention to be less reactive with our spouse, children, or colleagues, but find that this intention fades from the mind in the midst of our interactions. This is a failure of memory, and comes about because we’re not able to consciously keep our long-term goals in mind (such as “be more kind”) while attending to short-term ones, such as responding to what someone just said.

When we’re working on becoming better people — kinder, more compassionate, more honest, more courageous — we need to be able to keep those long-term aims in mind. This is what Buddhist psychology calls “sampajañña” — or continuity of purpose. Long-term change is difficult without this quality.

Kindness

Goleman presents this in terms of mindful people making “good corporate citizens,” which is an angle that I find rather jarring — as if the point of mindfulness practice is to fit in so that we can make more money for corporations.

He does also point out that mindfulness practice leads to “more activity in brain circuits for caring, increased generosity, and a greater likelihood of helping someone in need.”

In other words, mindfulness makes us kinder and more compassionate. This has benefits that go well beyond making more money for businesses. It creates more harmonious families and communities, and helps people who are struggling. In short, mindfulness can help us create a better world — something that’s desperately needed in these challenging times.

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Mental training changes brain structure and reduces social stress

Medical Xpress: Meditation is beneficial for our well-being. This ancient wisdom has been supported by scientific studies focusing on the practice of mindfulness. However, the words “mindfulness” and “meditation” denote a variety of mental training techniques that aim at the cultivation of various different competencies. In other words, despite growing interest in meditation research, it remains unclear which type of mental practice is particularly useful for improving either attention and mindfulness or social competencies, such as compassion and perspective-taking.

Other open questions are, for example, whether such practices can induce structural brain …

Read the original article »

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Meditation expert tells us what the science really says

Connie Ogle, Miami Herald: So you fell asleep easily enough, but now it’s 3 a.m. Your mind is spinning, and rest is elusive. You’re reliving every foolish or embarrassing thing you did in the past 24 — or 48 or 72 — hours, and that is a lot of material to run through. And you simply can’t stop.

Except maybe you could, if only you knew how to be mindful.

“When you’re caught in that loop of rumination, that’s very real, and it creates very intense feelings,” explains psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman, who reported on brain …

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How I brought mindfulness into my life

Elle Taylor, Popsugar: Mindfulness is certainly having a moment, but it’s not a contemporary fad — it’s an ancient practice that’s been around for millennia. In simple terms, being mindful involves being in the present. It’s about focusing your awareness on the current moment, while acknowledging your thoughts, sensations, and feelings in a calm manner. It’s about connecting your body and mind and experiencing each moment fully. There are various ways to practice mindfulness, from meditating to working on colouring books, and I’ve tried a lot of them. Here’s how I’m attempting to …

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Mindful eating: ‘Suddenly, you have power over food’

Jacqueline Howard, CNN: Mindful eating is rooted in the idea of mindfulness, an ancient practice that promotes being aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and environment instead of living your life on autopilot.

When applied to diet, mindful eating involves focusing on chewing your food, taking your time, being in tune with when your body signals that you are hungry or full, and being aware of how your food appears, smells and tastes.
“Over time, eating can become habitual. … We don’t even check in to see if we’re hungry. It’s, ‘Oh, …

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Meditation and neuroscience: new wave of breakthroughs in research on meditative practices

Koyama Tetsuya, Nippon.com: Zen, mindfulness, and meditation in general are believed to promote psychological and physical well-being. But why? An emerging generation of neuroscientists is fast unveiling the hidden workings of meditation.

Legs in tights, extending from leotards and terminating in pointe shoes, briskly cut through the air. Instructions are called out as the dancers, faces aglow, carry their arms in delicate arcs and place their feet in deliberate motions. Leading the ballet class at a dance studio in Tokyo is a 27-year-old woman whom we will call Murano Kozue. The students would …

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Nurses get training to cope with stress

Sylvia Pownall, Irish Mirror: Overworked nurses in danger of burn out are practicing mindfulness to help them cope with the stresses of the job.

Carmel Sheridan’s The Mindful Nurse was published last year and has already been included on nursing training courses in the UK and the US. The Galway-based psychotherapist says she was inspired to write the book when she realized how many people coming to her for help were nurses.

She told the Irish Sunday Mirror: “I’ve been teaching mindfulness around the country and more and more healthcare workers were enrolling …

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