I find myself facing stress in my life – once again! Practically, how can Mindfulness meditation be of use in the face of stress? If our Mindfulness meditation includes compassion and an understanding of the way stress operates within the realm of the mind and body, then there is a lot that we can do to help ourselves in the face of stress. Here is my recent experience and a plan for moving forward.
This last weekend I have been teaching with Choden, Alan and Graeme Nixon on the second insight weekend of the MSc in Mindfulness program with the University of Aberdeen. It became clear to me over the course of the weekend that my mind was repeatedly caught up in thinking about the future, with the underlying aim of gaining control. This is nothing new within my perfectionist mind, but I did find myself somewhat frustrated about the persistence and strength of this habit, which leads to a lot of physical stress – tightness and physical pain being held in my body – clenched against experience so habitually that a whole program of simplification is called for consistently over the next few weeks, for any chance of unclenching. Or at least that is my experience up until now.
One of our MSc students asked me over the course of the weekend whether I felt that I shouldn’t experience stress after all my years of meditating. I blithely replied, no, and that my busy job with responsibility for overseeing the day to day running, financial viability and future growth and sustainability of the Mindfulness Association (MA), was inherently stressful and so I was bound to feel stressed from time to time. I love my job, but I do sometimes become very identified with it, consumed by it, wanting control and terrified of failure. What do I most usually find myself thinking about? Future plans for the MA. And, by the way, deep down I do think that after all these years of meditation I ‘should’ be able to cope better with stress!
I find myself well and truly in what Rick Hanson calls the red zone, which Choden was talking about at the weekend. According to the work of Prof. Paul Gilbert, my threat and drive systems are on full alert and pushing my soothing and contentment system out of the picture.
In the red zone, I worry about the future, driven by fear of failure. In the green zone, I am curious about the future, motivated by an intention to make a difference to the world. This transforms my working life. There is a real flourishing and joyfulness that comes from my work when I am in the green zone. In the red zone my resources become more and more depleted.
Still, the great news is that over the weekend I experienced an insight – I recognised that I am inhabiting the red zone. Now I have recognised this I can do something to move back into the green zone. So what am I going to do? Here is my plan for simplification:
- Work in short bursts, with breaks in between for practice and/or mindful pottering about doing chores.
- When I’m not working and I find myself thinking about work, label this ‘thinking’ and do a short self-compassion break.
- Respond to (rather than ignore) the mindfulness bell on my phone, and take time to feel my feet on the floor, then open up to my present moment experience and be grateful for all the good things in my life.
- Do one thing at a time, and as little as I can get away with, for example, simply cooking and eating my lunch, rather than listening to the radio or an audio book as I do so.
- Avoid over-stimulating entertainment (eg. TV) in the evening and get into big time relaxation and laughter (eg. radio 4 comedy podcast).
- Get my body moving, to shake out the stress, at my desk, on my running machine or perhaps some dancing around the kitchen.
All this thinking activity in the red zone takes away my free will – something Graeme spoke about at the weekend. If I am not present to pay attention then my habitual patterns take over and I am under their control. So my main aim for simplification is to be as present as possible, in a curious and allowing way, so I can observe some of my habitual patterns and perhaps refrain from following some of the unskilful ones that move me into the red zone – exercising some free won’t! Also, as Graeme pointed out, if we aspire to live in accordance with our values, we are perhaps exercising free will and moving to live authentically. Some of my values are to cultivate joy and let go of control, so that I can flourish in the world so that I am better placed to help those I come into contact with.
So, in this often busy period in the run up to Christmas, how can you simplify? Here is the some new audio for a self-compassion break. It might be of help in moments when you are stressed out.
Also, you might like to buy the Mindfulness Association’s new book ‘Mindfulness Based Living Course’ , which is published on Friday. We can use this to remind ourselves, week by week, of the many benefits of Mindfulness in the face of a busy life.