Monday, 23 December 2013

Cooling the engine part 3

‘Mindfulness means intentionally paying attention, in the present moment, in a non-judgmental way. Once you stand back, you don’t try to make things different, it’s not even about relaxation but about witnessing whatever’s going on without the usual critical commentary.’ That’s Ruby Wax’s take. Russ Harris says: ‘We connect with the world directly, rather than being caught up in our thoughts. We let our judgments, complaints and criticisms come and go like passing cars, and we fully engage in the present moment. We see our thoughts for what they are and let them go. We make room for our feelings and let them be.’

Ruby makes the distinction between doing and being. ‘The ‘doing’ mode drives us on to achieve things in our lives, while the ‘being’ mode ‘has no voice, it’s just directly sensing something, and being in the eye of the experience’. It’s what psychologists call flow, when you’re completely absorbed in something ‘without added running commentary’. You’re totally immersed and involved, and thoroughly enjoying the experience. Ruby finds it when she’s scuba diving. For me it might be when I’m taking photographs. For you it might be gardening, playing the piano, running, hide-and-seek with your grandchild, painting the kitchen wall, performing on stage. ‘In this mode, the mind isn’t flipping between the past and the future, it has nothing to do, nowhere to go, so it can start to settle and slow down from the high-speed chaos, noticing what’s going on in front of your eyes at that moment and experiencing thoughts as passing phenomena that arise and disappear.’

There are many books on mindfulness, and you can probably find an eight-week course running near you which will give you the tools you need if you really want to get into it. Both Russ and Ruby’s books contain many different types of exercises which encourage a mindful and accepting awareness. There’s a wide variety so you’re bound to find something that makes sense for you. I’ve limited myself to a few here which are brief and easy to explain.

Russ offers Breathing to Connect: ‘Take ten slow, deep breaths. For the first five, focus on your chest and abdomen; connect with your breathing. For the next five, expand your focus, so that as well as being aware of your breathing, you’re also connecting fully with your environment; that is, while noticing your breathing, also notice what you can see, hear, touch taste, and smell.’ You can do this exercise for a while if you’ve got time to spare, and you might just take three or four deep breaths if you’re waiting in a queue or sitting at traffic lights.

Part of the process is to notice how our minds distract us from focussing on the present. That’s okay. It’s what our minds do. Both Ruby and Russ suggest we might name or label thoughts as they come up. ‘I’m never going to get that essay in on time’ could be named as ‘panicking’. ‘I bet he earns more than me’ could be labelled as ‘comparing’. ‘I wish I could afford to take the kids to Disneyland’ could be ‘longing’. ‘The laundry needs doing’ could be ‘planning’. If we can notice these thoughts for what they are and return our attention to the present, they’re not really a problem – we try not to get caught up in them, but we just let them pop up and pass on through.

Russ encourages us to recognise that our minds are trying to help us, trying to keep us safe by alerting us to potential issues that we may need to think about. So he suggests we adopt the practice of thanking our minds for their input. When we find ourselves thinking ‘It’s about time I finished clearing out the garage’ when we’re trying to enjoy a relaxing bath, we can literally say ‘Thank you, Mind’. We acknowledge the thought, and let it be, without having to do anything about it.

If you’d like to be more in tune with physical sensations and how they’re related to your feelings, you could try Ruby’s exercise on emotions. ‘Focus in on a predominant feeling and notice where an emotion arises in the body and explore into the core of the feeling, the edges, pulsing, throbbing or stabbing. Notice how eager your mind is to create a story out of a feeling, which might not even have anything to do with the feeling. Stick with the feeling, and skip the running commentary.’

If you’ve found some of this interesting you could read more at and You could have a look at The Happiness Trap or Sane New World or any of the other host of books on mindfulness. In times of anxiety I find it helpful to think of myself as being more than my feelings, thoughts and sensations. I try to see myself as the sky, containing all the weather that comes and goes – sunshine, fog, clouds, storms, heat and frost. None of it lasts. It all passes.

Whatever you’re doing this Christmas, you might find some time here and there to set aside worries about the future and regrets about the past, and focus, however briefly, on the present. It could make a difference to your life.

I leave you with an apple I noticed that was just crying out to be gazed at. And a few words from William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Cooling the engine part 2

The big tool that both Ruby Wax and Russ Harris advocate is acceptance, which can be reached through mindful practices. We’re going to feel difficult emotions, we may be anxious about looking good at the Christmas party, envious of someone having more invitations than us, angry that we’re doing all the work. But if we can accept these feelings, rather than telling ourselves off for having them, or trying to pretend we don’t have them, or ignoring them altogether, we’re likely to be better placed to keep going.

Russ talks about the ‘struggle switch’. When it’s switched on, we’ll be doing our level best to avoid any negative, painful, difficult emotions. And this may give rise to other difficult stuff – we’ll feel angry that we’re anxious, or worry that we’re overloading our bodies by feeling stressed, or guilt that we’re letting things get on top of us. We may try to avoid or get rid of the feelings, by overworking, overeating, drinking too much, spending hours on Facebook. There’s no problem if we distract ourselves in these ways in moderation, but they can lead to addictions, problems in our relationships, health concerns etc.

Our childhood experience will inevitably have an impact on our tendency to label emotions as good and bad, positive and negative. You might find it useful to think about the messages you received about which emotions were acceptable and which were not, and about how feelings were dealt with in your family – was anger freely expressed? Were you encouraged to be different, and have your own view?

As Russ sees it, the problem with judging feelings as good or bad is that we’ll struggle to avoid the ‘bad’ ones. It’s the struggle that wears us out, rather than the feelings themselves. He urges readers to ‘let go of judging your feelings altogether and see them for what they are: a stream of constantly changing sensations and urges, continuously passing through your body’.

Ruby puts it like this: ‘This doesn’t mean that you sit there like a lump of tofu with a bindi on your head, listening to the sitar. It means when your mind does what all of our minds do, which is change – change constantly and never stop chattering – you don’t fight it, but rather understand and accept it for what it is.’ She believes that: ‘Pain exists but suffering is optional. You can’t stop the unhappy mood but you can stop what happens next. Fear is in fact never as bad as the fear of fear.’

If we can recognise the struggle and flick the switch off, we let the feelings come. They may be unpleasant, and we may not like them, but we try to let them be. ‘With the struggle switch off, our anxiety levels are free to rise and fall as the situation dictates. Sometimes they’ll be high, sometimes low, and sometimes there will be no anxiety at all. But more importantly, we’re not wasting our time and energy struggling with it.’

That’s all very well, I hear you say. But how? Next time we’ll think about how we might move towards some feelings of acceptance.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Cooling the engine

Christmas is coming … Some people look forward to it. Many do not. You may recognise some of the following scenarios; you may well have other reasons for finding Christmas a challenge. You’re facing the first Christmas since you lost someone close to you. There isn’t enough money to do the things you’d like to. Those happy TV ads look nothing like your family life. You feel all your friends have more invitations than you do. You’ll be spending Christmas alone again. Your partner leaves everything to you. You meant to get fit beforehand to look your best but you’ve been tucking into festive meals. You can’t stand the crowds in the shops. You know you’ll drink too much and regret it. Your parents are making you choose where to spend Christmas.

It’s likely that some or all of the above would make you feel stressed and anxious. And if things are mostly going pretty well in your life, you may still be starting to feel the clock ticking towards the deadline. Over the next weeks I’m going to share some thoughts on stress and anxiety, and offer some suggestions as to how you might help yourself.

First up, it might be useful to consider what a stress response actually is. There’s plenty of neuroscience out there to explain what’s going on in our brains, and I’ve found Russ Harris in his book The Happiness Trap and Ruby Wax in Sane New World to be among the best at making the science accessible. Russ explains that when we feel threatened, we move into fight or flight mode – either we defend ourselves and stand and fight, or we run away. And there are physical changes in our bodies to facilitate this: ‘Your heart rate speeds up, your body floods with adrenaline, blood shunts to the large muscles of your arms and legs, and your breathing increases to give you more oxygen’. Ruby adds that when the stress hormone cortisol is released, activity in the hippocampus (the part of our brain which organises memory) is reduced, and cortisol also stops our digestion and the urge to have sex, as ‘thinking about sex or eating during a disaster would only make things worse’. 

In prehistoric times, we needed this response to keep ourselves alive, to detect where the dangers were and respond appropriately. Here’s Ruby again: ‘Out on the Savannah, our physiological responses were perfectly suited to deal with stressors (run from the big animals with big teeth). These days we can’t just run from what drives up our anxiety and stress: mortgages, money problems, looking hot, relationships and deadlines. Evolution did not set us up to suffer Jurassic Park levels of stress, day in, day out. That’s the bitch of living at today’s pace.’ Russ Harris believes that ‘our mind, trying to make sure we don’t get killed, sees potential danger almost everywhere’, and maybe that includes Christmas preparations, the difficult-to-buy-for relative, when to get the sprouts, whether the tree will lose its needles before the big day.

Both Russ and Ruby make the point that we just weren’t built to be constantly on the lookout for danger. As Ruby puts it in her no-nonsense style: ‘The problem these days as modern man is that when we perceive danger, adrenaline shoots into us but because we can’t kill a traffic warden or eat an estate agent, the juice never comes back down. We’re in a constant state of red light alert, like a car siren that drives you nuts.’

So that’s where we are, or at least some of us, some of the time. Next time we’ll think about how we can cool the engine a little, and take a bit of time out from the hectic panic.