Allan faithfully attended each class of the Mindfulness-based Stress Management program we offer at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. He shared openly about his anxiety and insecurity as a father to three children and a son caring for ill parents. The heart of his distress though was in his relationship with Debra, his partner of 15 years; their relationship had devolved into a series of sniping comments and hurtful neglect. He wanted so much to restore the intimacy and love they had once shared. He missed how it sustained him through his demanding job and personal illness. He knew she did too; after all they seemed to do a lot of arguing over who was more unhappy in the marriage. Continue reading
I’m often asked about “letting go.” You know how it is. There’s an incident with someone – a friend, a family member, a boss, a colleague at work. For the most part we tend to be able to deal with the situation, even if it’s not as satisfactorily resolved as we would like. Then, in the aftermath of the storm, we start to re-think our words, our posture, our approach. The wheels begin to spin and the revolutions ramp up so that all we can think of is that better response, that smart retort, or that air of calm we could have projected. We replay the scenario over and over like an ancient (often badly acted) TV show until we’ve taken apart all the lines of all the players, including our own. How do we let go of this sticky tape that runs and runs through our mind? How do we step back and see that it’s a “done deal” yet dragging us into the past and sometimes invading the future?
Well, we just love a good drama… or a good horror story! It doesn’t take much to be hanging out in our mind and them BAM! we’re having this knock-down-drag-out battle with someone over something that is long, long gone. At one level, these moments, when we can haul back quickly enough, serve to remind us that our practice of awareness of the quality of our mind is really important! Without that practice, we end up sitting at a train station and unwittingly hopping on a train whose destination I don’t realize is the station of Raving, Spewing, Me-Bashing or whatever station name you want to give it. With the practice of awareness, we realize we’re on this train to nowhere and get off.
So, this is a good time to be reminded that these ruminative spin outs is why we practice constantly and not just when we’re under stress. Our practice of letting go of these wayward and seductive thoughts when we’re on the cushion or under minimal stress strengthens our ability to do the same when we’re in a tough situation. And that is really important because when we hop on a train to someplace really horrid, we recognize where we are headed before we do too much damage to ourselves.
The other part of this stickiness involves time-travelling – what John Dunne calls “pursuing the past” or “ushering in the future.” We’re hoping to gain some wisdom from taking apart our past actions and we try to predict all the worst-possible outcomes so we can be prepared. But the problem is that we’re using a faulty data set. Under stress, we tend to hear the threat-laden information more loudly and miss the more nuanced pieces of the interchange. So what we’re reacting to is really the high-end alarms. (Now those may well be there in some conflicts but not all.) Layered on this is our belief that we just didn’t live up to who we hoped we would be in such circumstances.
Practice is relational. We act to cultivate a relationship with ourselves, with others, and in community. It’s our way of developing a sense of responsibility for ourselves and others so it’s not surprising that we want to honour that intention. And when it doesn’t happen the way we wished, we tend to be hard on ourselves and flip into problem-solving mode. The antidote is compassion. Kindness for what we believe we have done, how we think we behaved, what we believe were/will be the consequences.
Simply put, first practice getting off these trains to nowhere. Second, meet having got on them with compassion. It points to your strong sense of stewardship to your world. And yes, we tend to believe we have failed in some way by hurting or allowing hurt to happen to ourselves and others. And that in itself hurts.
Here’s Five Skillful Habits you can practice:
(1) Respect your limits of how much time you can spend in these toxic mini-dramas (we all consume a certain amount); self-reflection is good but pathological scrupulosity is not.
(2) Honour the life you have that is less accessible when you are caught in this kind of time travel.
(3) Be generous with yourself when you finally hop off that train and take care of the bumps and bruises of the bumpy ride.
(4) Be attentive of all the toxic stories about yourself that you consume – media, others, old habitual thought patterns. Step back from them.
(5) Finally, watch your language. Cultivate an inner discourse that is sustaining and respectful of who you really are, not who you imagined yourself to be in someone else’s mind.
Recently, I had the privilege to exchange via email some thoughts on anger. My friend wrote on behalf of her friend and asked about ways to get unstuck from a repeating cycle of anger especially in a relationship. Later, I had the chance to also exchange thoughts with that person about our tendency to get stuck in age-old stories fed by what we should have done, could have seen happening, or any of those backwards-engineering tactics we use to fix the past.
Below is the full email I wrote on how to deal with anger when it arises. The next post will cover how to look into our ways of sustaining those old stories hoping they will fix ancient wounds and feelings of inadequacies .
Anger is a fascinating issue – especially if we tend to hold our behaviours at a high standard. So here are some possible ways to look at the inner and outer situation with Five Skillful Practices to connect with anger.
(1) Anger is your friend, not your enemy. It’s a bit unruly and overly protective in trying to tell you something is threatening your wellbeing. It’s just not very skillful in telling you that. In effect, anger is your body’s way of communicating to you that you are at the end of your skillfulness and need to find a safe place – just for a moment (or maybe longer).
(2) Anger does not mean there’s something wrong with you. It does not mean you’re a bad at your spiritual practice or an inadequate human. It DOES mean you are not listening to the consistent message that you are putting yourself in harm’s way. It CAN mean that you are seeing things as threatening when they may or may not be so.
(3) By the time your anger is expressed, it’s actually too late to manage it. The best you can do is step back, take a time out from the person or situation, maybe even apologize (yes, the consequence of anger is humility). The lesson to take from expressed anger is that you need to monitor its slow boil. Although it may feel in your body that anger has blown up out of “nowhere,” it actually hasn’t. Very few things in our bodies just explode; there’s usually a slow creep up to the expression.
(4) Start practicing.
(1) Take time everyday to meditate or have a period of contemplative silence. Notice the stickiness of the emotions that arise. Turn into the emotions and notice the sensations. Emotions are just clusters of sensations to which we give a name. Learn the sensations that you’ve named “anger.” Get to know them when you’re off the cushion or chair.
(2) When those sensations arise as you go through the day, pause and take a breath or two or three – even if the specific sensation is not related to “feeling angry” in the moment. You’re training your brain not to use the sensation associated with “anger” as a means of becoming trigger-happy. Cultivate compassion for your body; it’s carrying a heavy load with these sensations! Meet the experiences with curiosity and interest.
(3) Look into your situation. What is true and what is real? Often something can be true but not real. (Ask yourself: Is it happening in this very moment). It can be true that this person is disregarding your needs. Is it happening in the very moment that you’re having breakfast or driving to work? Is that person right there in the car with you or have you, in your mind, invited her along for the ride? Often we practice our reactivity to a noxious issue without even being aware of doing so. Pause/Stop, breathe, come back to your real activity in this moment.
(4) What stories are getting generated because something is true? What are you imagining will happen if this person continues their way of interacting with you? Those stories of catastrophes and bad outcomes tend to be what ramps us up and gives our internal system fodder for sustaining irritation. That irritation then expands into anger when we’re face-to-face with the person because the mind has already associated the sensations of experiential discomfort with a trigger for it.
(5) Get an outside opinion. We’re all deluded. It helps to get someone else’s (likely deluded but not in the same way) opinion of what is really going on. Pick someone who is willing to tell you compassionately what your role is in the situation. Someone you trust to care enough that you get through this with increased wisdom about yourself.
This is a slide from Dr. Richard Davidson’s keynote speech at the 10th Annual Scientific Conference of The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, March 31, 2012. The text in the second bullet reads: Basic research on “naturally occurring” virtuous qualities; Toward a scientific foundation for secular ethics.
The third bullet reads: Research on contemplative practices other than meditation; e.g., intentions and vows.
These are two issues very close to the heart of the programs at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. Beginning with the second point addressed by Dr. Davidson, the underpinnings of mindfulness are described (see research by Shauna Shapiro and colleagues) as intention, attention, and attitude. Other writers, both from mindfulness and Buddhist Psychology, emphasize the need for creating an intention which directs the attention to cultivate a particular attitude to our experience. Intention forms the foundation of the practice of mindfulness and it is a necessary component of practice. It is, at the heart of practice, the means by which autopilot is interrupted and compassionate attentiveness is given to the moment.
Dr. Davidson’s reference to secular ethics is an important consideration. It opens to a debate that has flowed in Buddhist circles for centuries and perhaps reflects more of a habit than any real schism of ideology. One set of teachers views ethical behaviours as an emergent property of practice. Another school of teachers suggest that while this is true, it cannot be left to happenstance and the ethical actions require conscious cultivation.
Regardless of the different points of view, the endpoint is the same: both perspectives require active, intentional practice of actions that are guided by ethics. As we cultivate our meditative skills, we become aware of the impermanence of life, situations, and feelings, of our deep interconnections with each other, and of the universal nature of suffering. We cannot help but feel compassion and empathy grow from this deep profound insight. We practice meditation in all forms, formal and informal, to cultivate this realization that we have choices in the actions we activate. And in those moments, we practice intentionally choosing the actions that reflect respect for life, generosity, unexploitative relationships with each other and ourselves, mindful speech, and mindful consumption. We are both motivated by compassion to practice these actions and these actions deepen our capacity for compassion.
Meditating without awareness of the intention to cultivate an ethical lifestyle is possible. There has been much in the news recently about Norwegian Anders Breivik who killed 77 people including children in 2011 and claimed he practiced meditation to numb himself. While it would be possible to argue about whether he was “meditating” or not, it is more important for teachers of mindfulness skills to understand that a practice of sustaining attention and cultivation of a particular attitude can result in a belief that the practitioner is “freeing themselves” of emotions. Without the litmus test of ethical choices, this “detachment” is easily mistaken for acceptance or equanimity of the individual situation or feeling state. In other words, intention while necessary is not sufficient and directionality of that intention must be included in practice. Even Breivik referred to his meditation process as “de-humanizing” – an outcome in direct opposition to the intent of a mindfulness practice of becoming more open to our humanity.
In traditional practices, usually Buddhist but actually any contemplative practice, the guides of intention are a set of ethical values. Typically there are universal virtues but these can also be spiritual or religious ones.
It will be interesting to see where Dr. Davidson’s call for a scientific study (and hopefully inclusion) of “secular ethics” in the mindfulness realm of interventions will take us. Hopefully, it will be to a deeper understanding of our responsibility to each other and the world.
Dr. Richard Davidson’s research and papers are available at Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.