As a mindfulness teacher, I have worked with many people over the years, teaching them valuable, life-changing tools to help them be more resilient, healthy and happy individuals.
A major issue that comes up for most people is what to do with uncomfortable emotions. You know, feelings like guilt, shame, embarrassment, vulnerability and fear. The majority of our lives is spent avoiding these unpleasant experiences. We want to run away and hide, hoping that if we try hard enough to avert the unwanted feelings, they will somehow go away.
Perhaps avoidance of these experiences stems from a particular moment in your life when you were overwhelmed, vulnerable, or afraid. Maybe you messed up your lines during the school play and suffered ridicule by our peers. Maybe you lost the chance to score the winning goal and choked in the final moments of the hockey game. Or maybe your parents were insistent on pointing out all your flaws and failures as a child.
The point is, past memories that are reinforced with intense uncomfortable emotions tend to stick in our minds and create a reference point that we repetitively recall throughout our life to prevent us from feeling that way again. We want to avoid experiences that will cause those uncomfortable feelings in the mind and body, so preemptively seeking out the negative as a way to protect ourselves is what we are wired to do.
THE NEGATIVITY BIAS
When you think about the reason behind this, it makes perfect sense. The brain is hardwired to avoid what is uncomfortable. It is a defence mechanism that is meant to protect us from danger and to keep up alive. The brain is so good at perceiving danger in our environment that it an do this without the presence of an actual threat. Here’s an example.
Imagine walking through the woods one afternoon and just ahead of you, you spot a long, slender, brown object on the ground. Before your brain has an opportunity to get closer and inspect the object, your threat detection system reacts and you automatically scream, “SNAKE” as you stop dead in your tracks. Your heart races, you feel flush, your palms get sweaty, your breathing becomes laboured. As you tentatively walk closer, you realize almost instantly, this isn’t a snake at all, it’s a tree branch! There was actually nothing to fear.
This is how the brain is programmed; we perceive a threat, we are activated by the fight/flight response, we react to our environment. Now in real life or death scenarios, this threat detection system is important, without it we might get hit by a car, walk off a cliff, or be eaten by a bear. Where things get complicated is when our brain starts to perceive uncomfortable situations that are in no way a real danger to our survival as real threats.
Our mind has a tendency to interpret pain, whether physical, emotional or mental, as a perilous incident requiring an immediate and often inappropriate reaction. Think about it, how often do you feel a visceral reaction to a seemingly stressful situation when it wasn’t really called for? Maybe it was because of something you posted on Instagram that didn’t get a lot of ‘likes’. Maybe it was the blistering feeling of rejection after you asked out that girl at work. Or maybe it was the debilitating feeling of shame for not turning out to be the model son your parents hoped for. The bottom line is that we encounter uncomfortable, unwanted, undesirable feelings every single day but it doesn’t mean we should be engaging these experiences as though they were real threats to our survival. That’s just a waste of time, a waste of energy, and a waste of emotions.
The only way out of the repetitive and exhausting cycle of fight or flight is through the age-old practice of mindfulness.
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness is the ability to see things in the present moment and observe with non-judgemental awareness. Whether they are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral sensations, we intentionally witness what is arising with a clear and calm mind.
It allows us to be able to take a good look at what we are experiencing, whether it is a thought, feeling, emotion, or body sensation, without attaching to it, avoiding it, or having a reaction to it. Often times our thoughts paint a picture or reality that is skewed and distorted, mindfulness helps us to remove the filter and see things from a clear and open point of view.
When we practice mindfulness, we operate less from the primitive, reactive brain and more from the evolved, conscious brain. This allows us to assess our situation with openness, curiosity, and non-judgment, thereby allowing us to respond rather than react. Remember the scenario with the tree branch in the woods? Well, mindfulness is the ability to notice the branch, recognize that it LOOKS like a snake, but in actuality it is not an aggressive reptile and it can cause us no harm, allowing us to move along the path. Mindfulness acknowledges the fear in the moment, “wow, that branch looked like a snake and nearly caused me a heart attack”, but it allows us to gradually release the fear and move on.
Mindfulness is the gateway to transformation because it requires us to PAY ATTENTION! When we are operating out of fight or flight, it’s like our brain is being hijacked by an oversensitive, overreactive, system that cannot make sense of what is happening. It’s like being in a movie theatre and someone yelling “FIRE”!! Without hesitation, without even thinking about it you will jump out of your seat and run for the exit. When we practice mindfulness, we are operating from the part of the brain that is reasonable, rational, and conscious. The part of the brain that makes us human beings and allows us to assess ourselves and our environment.
Mindfulness can be experienced in a variety of ways but it usually involves some kind of formal, intentional, daily exercise that allows the brain to practice resilience. This practice is known as meditation and it is the fundamental exercise for training our brain to be mindful.
WHAT IS MEDITATION?
Meditation is the tool we use to cultivate the skill of mindfulness. It is an intentional, formal practice that involves focused, non-judgmental awareness of present moment experiences. Although there are various types of mediation practices, starting with a simple yet effective breathing exercise is the foundation to any meditation technique.
Meditation is a very old practice, in fact, the earliest mention of meditation was nearly 5000 years ago. Every wisdom tradition involves some kind of exercise that allows the individual to quiet the mind, shut off external distractions, and move inward toward self-reflection.
Meditation requires very little to be effective; all you need is a quiet space, a comfortable posture, and a willingness to observe whatever is arising within your body/mind. It is the capacity to allow anything to bubble up to the surface, to notice without evaluation, and to shift your attention back to the focus of the practice (usually the breath). It is through meditation that we sharpen our mind to pay attention, to allow the unfolding of our experience, and to let go of anything that is not serving us.
We practice again and again how to observe, witness, notice whatever comes up, whether it is a thought, emotion, or physical sensation. We train our mind to pay attention, watch, and then effortlessly let go without resistance. If we train our brain to do this in a very systematic way, we will naturally be able to practice this skill when we are out and about living our life.
In this way, meditation is a portal to our own consciousness. It is the ability to open up to ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, our belief systems, our perceptions and it gives us permission to observe ourselves without judgment.
MINDFULNESS ALLOWS US TO GO WITH THE FLOW OF LIFE
Learning how to observe ourselves without resistance allows us the ability to go with the flow of life. When obstacles arise, we can navigate through the experience with effortless ease. When we are confronted by difficulties, we accept the challenge with curiosity. When our stress response is on high alert, we gently focus our attention on the rhythmic exchange of air as we inhale and exhale, thereby calming our mind, relaxing our body and engaging with life in an intentional way.
The only way to change our habitual reactions to stress is to engage in an intentional practice that can help shift our focus to what is real in the moment. Sure, life is hard and we will encounter pain in some way, shape, or form. But if we can cultivate the skill of non-reactive awareness, strengthen our capacity to allow things to be as they are rather than running away, we will ultimately be happier, feel healthier, and engage with life with openness.
We will be less likely to find danger in day-to-day experiences, allowing us to move through discomfort with effortless ease. When things get tough, we can acknowledge the challenge, recognize the impact, but not attach to it in a negative way. When pain arises, we can let go of resistance and lean into the experience knowing full well that we are becoming stronger, more resilient with each moment we accept.
Mindfulness keeps us mentally grounded, physically calm, and emotionally resilient. With time and practice, we can cultivate non-reactivity and acceptance, which will allows us to accept the inevitable, difficult changes of life with an open heart and open mind.