7) Other 'on the spot' practices

 

Practices that can be used in times of difficulty and challenge are a useful addition to longer, more formal meditations.

> One such is the 'Self-compassion practice' from Kristin Neff. Kristin distinguishes three components to self-compassion that offer a different route from the usual flight, fright or freeze reactions to stress.They can sometimes be presented in a different order but the main elements are commonly presented as:

1. Mindfulness ... this helps us see more clearly what is happening ... and how we can choose how to react. The words ''This is a moment of suffering" can be silently uttered to acknowledge the pain or difficulty of what is happening right now ... we can notice and hold in awareness what is happening in our bodies and minds right now .. then we move to -

2. Common humanity ... this is the simple realisation that suffering is part of being human .. it helps us against the drift to self-isolation ... we share this suffering with others ..we could say inwardly, "I am not alone in this" ... before moving to -

3. Self-kindness ... we can offer ourselves a moment of kindness ... rather than self-criticism, we can be gentle and kind ... we could offer the words "so may I treat myself with kindness"

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> "Just like me" is another  'on the spot' practice - this time from Kelly McGonigal. On recognising, for example,  being with challenging behaviour from another, we could 'come to' and say inwardly something like, 

"Just like me, this person wishes to be happy, healthy and free from suffering" ...

This simple phrase, reminding us to take perspective, can help soften us when we're revving into reactivity ..  so our physiology can calm down and we can maybe choose a wiser path..

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6) Heart-breath visualisation

Still on the theme of the value of imagery as a way for our imaginations to help 'fire' our brains in a particular direction .. here's a further very short practice - derived from Kelly McGonigal - who suggests visualising our breath breathing in and out from the heart and heartspace. We can add in words and further images to help foster a compassionate space from which we can act. It offers a useful 'on the spot' practice for times of emotional challenge.

Heart Breathing Practice (audio)     

 

  

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4) Fear & Soothing

In 'Yoga Therapy for Fear' Beth Spindler writes:

'Fear invokes wars, elects tyrants to government offices, sells cosmetics and medications, belittle the human spirit, and tells us we are not enough... Keeping ourselves safe is a priority. We listen when someone warns us of the dangers of terrorists or impending disaster and tend to tune out compliments, kindnesses, and the brighter, positive angle of a situation ... Often, our reactions to circumstances are related to our past experiences, and in particular to the first few times that we experienced a similar situation to the one we are currently reacting to (usually something that happened when we were young).

Fear is addictive in that we seek out news and social media stories to reinforce our fears... We see clickbait images on our computers that upset or frighten us, but we can't resist the temptation to take a peek... It's that misguided survival drive that pushes us toward intentionally seeing if we are threatened. Margee Kerr, PhD, sociologist and author of 'SCREAM: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear' states that "other 'feel good' chemicals can also come into play withy fear, namely endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin: 'The neurotransmitters and hormones that are released are helping us prepare to flight or flee, at the same time our attention is shifting away from abstract thoughts and focusing on issues of survival.'" It's as though realising we aren't going to die produces a "natural high" and we become hooked on the scare. But we may wonder why we are tired. Feeling afraid exhausts the nervous system.' (p.18).

So - given our natural propensities to scare ourselves 'witless' (or use any other expression that comes to mind !) - and knowing that the world pandemic has ratcheted our fear responses skywards - how are we to help ourselves? 

Our nervous system is a super-delicate balancing act - aided and abetted by our endocrine (hormonal system) - The ANS (autonomic nervous system) is designed to protect and also to help us resource ourselves and to connect with others. The sympathetic branch helps us protect ourselves and to achieve our goals while the newer branch of the parasympathetic system - the ventral vagus - enables us to move into a rest & digest and tend & befriend state - but maybe not as seamlessly as we may witness in our pet cat. Hormones such as cortisol persist in our blood stream long after they threat has gone; our muscles ache from the tense positions we brace ourselves into and forget to release, and our minds can remain over-alert or overcome by 'brain-fog' fatigue long after the danger has passed.

The pandemic remains with us as an ongoing threat, so our understandable anxiety remains as a response to our fear. To alleviate our over-primed sympathetic nervous system, we can encourage our parasympathetic soothing system, mediated by the vagus nerve. A first step could be to become aware of our body, to adopt a more relaxed posture (especially in the shoulders, neck and jaw) and to use a steadying technique such as concentrating on the breath, using it as a gentle anchor to bring a body/mind connection. 'Awarenessing' is mediated by the anterior cingulate cortex in the front of the brain which helps bring awareness back 'on target'. Over time making this kind of deliberate focusing effort can become a habit - how useful is that! When we practice like this it's also useful to cultivate a kindly non-judgemental attitude towards our mind-wandering. The propensity in us (especially us 'striving westerners') is to put so much effort into what we do that we judge ourselves very harshly when we fail. And if we think the job is to control our minds then we certainly will fail. In concentration practices the idea is simply to notice when our attention wanders - and simply bring it back. So - we need to be understanding of this - and cultivate an inner kindly tone. (see simple, kind breathing practice in 3). It's also worth remembering we don't have to sit cross-legged for practice (great though that is for posture) - we can sit in a chair, stand, lie - or walk to do such a practice. Walking is great - as our sympathetic systems are mobilised we can (gently!) 'walk off' the neurochemicals that are keeping us in fear mode.

Another useful technique is encouraging a soothing breathing rhythm to develop.  This can be done by slowing the breath down - according to Chris Irons and Elaine Beaumont in 'The Compassionate Mind Workbook' - 'there is growing evidence that slowing down our breathing rhythm to approx. five or six breaths per minute, combined with an even, deep breathing rhythm, can produce a particularly helpful physiological balance between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.'  We can encourage the breath to slow by simply imagining it slowing as you breathe out, as well as noticing your body feeling a little heavier as you breathe out. We can add words such as 'mind slowing down' as we breathe out - using a gentler soothing tone. We can also add in a kind wish in sync with the breath - see the Kind Breathing Space in 3). 

By the way, if a breath focus is difficult for you - don't despair. Quite a few people find that an explicit focus on the inner experience of breathing can even provoke anxiety. An alternative is to keep the slower breathing rhythm but focus attention outside the body - by holding an object such as a stone or beads, or any small object whose shape and texture has a calming effect on you. Interestingly, the use of Apps can be beneficial here: attention on the App taking attention away from the body.

Finally - for now - although the two practices presented are breath-focused there will be many practices where you will be able to use a different focus - for instance, on the feet, belly or hands , and others where we move away from having an explicit focus at all.

 

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5) Using Imagery to Soothe & Connect and to Steady & Ground

In 'The Practical Guide to Compassionate Living', Erik van den Brink and Frits Koster' state:

'Allowing a soothing breathing rhythm increases the vagal tone and a healthy heart rate variability, calming our emotional brains, making a kind gesture by putting a hand on the heart area can, in the right circumstances. support the release of oxytocin and feelings of warmth, openness and connection. By nourishing the soothing system, we empower the 'low road' to compassion, bringing our old brains and bodies in line to receive and give kindness and care' (p 18).

But we can also use 'the high road' of compassionate imagery to activate our soothing systems. This is powerful - the brain responds to both internal and external triggers in the same way - so by developing our own internal soothing imagery we can create our own helpful internal triggers, to use when we need to connect and soothe.

A useful exercise - and one that can be stored and come back to whenever we feel a need to resource and replenish ourselves - is the idea of creating our own safe place. This will help connect with our soothing systems, encouraging feelings of safety, calm, contentment and peace.

See the 'Safe Place' practice below  as a guide to developing one's own safe place/space.

A Safe Place (audio)

The Mountain image is used as a metaphor for strength and stability. It is frequently used as a meditation practice to help build strength and stability and to foster insight into an understanding of endurance in the face of change and impermanence.  

See the 'Strong and Steady as a Mountain' practice below as a guide to using this form of imagery in meditation.

 Strong and Steady as a Mountain (audio) 

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3) Two short practices to steady the mind and ease the body, with a kindly approach

> The following is a five minute concentration practice to bring the body and mind into present-moment awareness, using the breath as an anchor. We cultivate an attitude of gentle, kind acceptance to all that comes up and to the naturally wandering nature of mind.

It can be used as a short formal practice, or adapted for on-the-spot use at any time during the day or night.

Simple Kindly Breathing Practice

> The next practice is a six minute breathing space, adapted from 'A Practical Guide to Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living' by Erik van den Brink and Frits Koster (p. 10).

Again, this short practice can be used as a formal mindfulness practice, or used spontaneously at any time.

Kind Breathing Space

 

 

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