11) Touching Peace & Growing the Good

'If you think that peace and happiness are somewhere else and you run after them, you will never arrive.It is only when you realise that peace and happiness are available here in the present moment that you will be able to relax' (The Long Road Turns To Joy, Thich Nhat Hanh, p.14)

'If you're like me and many people, you go through each day zipping from one thing to another. But along the way, when's the last time you stopped for ten seconds to feel and take in one of the positive moments that happen in even the most hectic day? If you don't take those extra seconds to enjoy and stay with the experience, it passes through you like wind through the trees, momentarily pleasant but with no lasting value.'

So writes neuropsychologist Rick Hanson in the introduction to his book 'Hardwiring happiness' (2014). In this and more recent publications (see Resources section) he's written of ways we can learn to turn towards positive experiences in our lives - as essential training for our brains - in order to lead happier, healthier and more resilient lives.

We are hard-wired as humans to survive, and when there's threat - as has especially been the case over the past year during this pandemic - we are primed to be safe, to stay vigilant - in order to survive. All good adaptation!- except that this threat-based, negativity-biased living - protective though it is - can deplete and de-energise us, even carrying us down a path of isolation where we lose connectivity with others. 

But we can (re)prime our minds (and thence our brains) through something called 'experience-dependent neuroplasticity''. In 'Resilient', Hanson writes 'In order to convert passing experiences into lasting inner strengths, we have to be able to focus attention on an experience long enough for it to start being consolidated into the nervous system.' (p.24).

So ... we use our mindfulness practices to help steady and ground us - to help us regulate our attention. We can use what Hanson describes as 'Refuges' to help us feel more protected, safe, nature us - our 'Safe Place' practices (see no. 5 in this series) are imaginal refuges - as can be our friends, our pets, our favourite places, our a soothing thing like a cup of tea!

And then we can use a practice like Hanson's 'Let Be, Let Go, Let In' where we: 1) Can be with what's there.. feel whatever we're experiencing - feelings, thoughts, emotions .. you're simply 'being with' your experience without changing it - a kind of mini acceptance practice. 2) You can decrease the negative aspects ... whatever  is harmful - e.g. relax the tension in your body, step back, stop fuelling your self-critical thoughts, let go of an unhelpful habit like habitual comfort- eating. 3) Increase the positive - whatever's enjoyable - create or preserve - 'grow the good' - use your refuges, your soothing breath, develop a more positive eating habit. 

To further change our habitual negative-biased tendencies by using learning strategies to rewire our brains. Because 'Neurons that fire together wire together' (Donald Hebb), by having repeated experience, we change our brains - so we can choose to become calmer or more grateful or at peace. We can use Hanson's HEAL practice to activate and install new learning. The stages are:

Have a beneficial experience - e.g., by noticing a beautiful sunset, or imagine talking with a trusted friend/loved one

Enrich it - stay with the experience by lengthening it  (5 + seconds), intensify it by breathing with it, expanding it - noticing thoughts, sensations, emotions..., freshen it up by look for, noticing something different about it, value it by being aware why it matters to you

Absorb it - consciously choose to take in the experience, sense it sinking in .. like a golden light, a warm soothing balm .. tune into what is pleasurable or helpful about the experience - allowing neurotransmitter systems to help post the experience into long-term storage.

Link it (optional) - Use it to soothe and replace painful, harmful psychological material. Whilst having va strong sense off a positive experience in the foreground of awareness, we can also become aware of something negative in the background. An example could be when you're feeling more at peace with the world right now, you could sense this experience making contact with feelings of angst and unrest in the past. If the negative experience  takes over, drop it and move back to focus on the positive .. you can move back and forth when you feel stable enough .. foreground .. background .. N.B. This step is definitely optional - simply using HEA is helpful in shifting out brains (and so our minds) by deliberately inclining our minds to positive experience.

For a more detailed exposition of HEAL by Rick Hanson on Youtube see the following link:-  

 HEAL: 4 Steps to Happiness (by Rick Hanson)

 

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9) Acceptance - working with emotions

'... our archetypes, social mentalities and emotions are produces of millions of years of evolution and .. some of them can give us a very hard time indeed, It is important that we listen to our emotions carefully because they have important information for us. Sometimes we don't acknowledge anxiety, anger, frustration or upset because we're just keeping out heads down in order to survive or because we are frightened of these feelings. Learning to attend to and understand the meanings of our emotions and social mentalities can be extraordinary helpful ...'

(from 'The Compassionate Mind' by Paul Gilbert, p.416)

A useful mindfulness tool for working with emotions (good, bad & ugly!) is the RAIN practice - originally developed by Michelle MacDonald and made popular by Tara Brach, the following practice is mainly adapted from Diana Winston's 'Working with emotions 'RAINN’ - with a double N - practice from 'The Spectrum of Awareness' section of the 'Waking Up' app of Sam Harris. It combines mindfulness and compassionate imagery to help us recognise and gently work with difficult emotion.

 

RAINN practice 

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10) Compassionate acceptance practice - for physical pain

Here is a short meditation for working compassionately with physical pain. It's based on a practice from 'Mindfulness for health - a practical guide to relieving pain, reducing stress and restoring wellbeing' by Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman. This book sensitively and experientially explores the field of chronic pain and the suffering of illness, both authors having deep personal experience of physical pain:

'We wrote this book to help you cope with pain, illness and stress in times such as these. It will teach you how to reduce your suffering progressively, so that you can begin living life to the full once again. It may not completely eliminate your suffering, but it will ensure that it no longer dominates your life.' (p 1)

As with all previous practices, this one could be lengthened or shortened, adapted to individual need, and used throughout your day.

Compassionate acceptance practice

 

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8) Going gently - our brains are fragile

'Adverse reactions to kindness and compassion are common in people who were neglected, abandoned or maltreated as children. Those who were not securely bonded to their parents or caregivers often find it difficult to trust others and form stable relationships later in life ... Many people experience adverse reactions in more subtle ways, as tenderness, sadness, heaviness or emptiness. You may notice this more clearly when you observe yourself mindfully.

The important message is that adverse reactions to receiving kindness are a normal phenomenon that many of us will encounter. Adverse reactions are not 'wrong' reactions, they arise naturally from our histories. So, if you notice them, there is nothing wring with you. It is another opportunity to practise mindfulness and awaken compassion . Having a grounding in mindfulness practice is particularly helpful here, enabling you to pause with your experience as it is, even if is painful and difficult, allowing the breath to settle into a soothing rhythm and the body to soften..'

(from 'A Practical Guide to Mindfulness-based Compassionate Living' by Erik van den Brink and Frits Koster, p 36 - 37)

So - given our evolutionary history of focus on threat, survival and striving, combined with our own personal histories, some of which will contain considerable trauma -  we need to proceed with compassionate mindful awareness with care.  Balancing and rebalancing our regulatory systems is important work - requiring both gentleness and courage.

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