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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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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1) Compassionate mindfulness: - Steadying the mind and body

The background, ideas and suggestions for practice in the next series of posts are drawn from a variety of spiritual traditions and 'secular' mindfulness practice programmes as well as evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. Authors, sources and references are acknowledged within the text and also in the 'Resources' section.

'To change the brain we only need moments' - a quote from trauma specialist Dr. Bruce Perry, from the 'Being Well' podcast with Dr. Rick and Forrest Hanson (rickhanson.net)

Without a foundation of steadiness our minds can more easily be scattered, mindlessly driven, readily distracted and made anxious, depressed and chronically fatigued. We can use practices to help regulate our sometimes battered nervous systems. Whilst in the flow of life we can remember to simply adopt a relaxed yet alert posture - sitting, lying down, standing or maybe walking (walking sometimes feels easier if our bodies have previously been in 'high alert' or 'fight or flight' mode). We then bring awareness into the body and can do this by focusing on the breath wherever we somatically experience it .. the heart area can somehow soften and warm us whilst the rising and falling belly can help centre us. If the breath proves a difficult focus then simply feeling our feet can be grounding and steadying. The image of a kangaroo using its thick muscly tail to stabilise itself can be useful!

In 'Neurodharma - 7 Steps to the highest happiness',  Rick Hanson describes 5 factors to help with Step 1. 'Steadying the Mind', each of which can be used as a practice. Summary below:-

After adopting a posture as described above we can:

1. Establish intention to steady the mind - and do this in two ways within the mind/body - top-down - as in giving yourself an instruction - then bottom-up -  imagining a person you know of who 'embodies' steadiness (say, Thich Nhat Hanh..) - breathe with this and have a somatic 'felt-sense', drawing on body feelings/sensations. Mix the two together. Feel the body steadying.

2. Ease the body .. be aware of your body .. focus on the breath .. make your out-breaths slightly longer than your in-breaths ... imagine a relaxing setting (garden, beach, woodland) .. let the body calm - allowing the vagus nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system to slow the heart rate, lower the stress hormones. Feel the body steadying.

3. Abide wholehearted - bring to mind a being or beings you care about - could be a pet .. focus on feelings of caring .. Next, focus on being with others who care about you  .. friend, family member, neighbour .. feel what it's like to be cared for ... imagine your breath coming in and out of the heart area .. allowing love to flow in and flow out to others. Feel the body/mind steadying.

4. Feel safer..  letting yourself feel as safe as you actually are - right now - in this moment .. within this room .. outside in this space .. Be aware of your strengths .. your ability to calm. You may be aware of unease too - allow yourself to let this go as you breathe out .. letting go of contracting, tensing .. Feel the body/mind steadying.

5. Feel grateful and glad - by bringing to mind something you feel grateful for in this moment .. friends, a pet, your neighbours, your home, the natural world, a shaft of sunlight on your wall .. focus on feelings of gratitude and gladness for what you have  .. absorb them .. open to them. Feel the body/mind steadying.

(For full description see Hanson p 35 - 65)




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2) Mindfulness & Self-Compassion



'When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it's bottomless, that it doesn't have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space.'    

                                Pema Chödrön - 'Start Where You Are'




In his book 'The mindful path to self-compassion' Christopher Germer writes :


'Mindfulness has to be experienced to be known. It can't be expressed adequately in words. A moment of mindfulness is a kind of awareness that comes before words, such as the twinkling of stars before we call them the Big Dipper or a dash of red at the door before we recognise it as a friend wearing a new red dress. Our brains go through this preverbal level of awareness all the time, but we're normally too caught up in the drama of everyday life to notice.' (p.17)



'Compassion comes from the Latin roots com (with) and pati (suffer), or to "suffer with". When we offer genuine compassion, we join a person in his or her suffering. Being compassionate means that we recognise when someone is in pain, we abandon our fear or resistance to it, and a natural feeling of love and kindness flows toward the suffering individual.' (p 33).


When considering healthcare it's useful to consider the difference between empathy and compassion .. in his article 'Overcoming Burnout: Moving from Empathy to Compassion' psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegal wrote:


'... resonating empathically to pain day in and day out can be overwhelming, leaving us exhausted, emotionally shut-down, and burnt out.

There's an alternative to this empathy fatigue that until recently received little attention from clinicians or researchers. It involves deliberately cultivating compassion rather than empathy .. Compassion involves a particular sort of empathy - empathy for painful experiences - the stuff we hear about all day at work ... but compassion also involves an additional element. It includes an altruistic wish, a desire for the other person to feel better or be well. When our friend or client is hurting, we feel his or her pain and we have a wish in our heart for our friend to feel better. These needn't be pie-in-the sky wishes. We might wish, for example, that  friend or client with stage four cancer have a peaceful last few months, or an easy death, not necessarily a miracle cure.' (Praxis Blog, July 3, 2019)


On self-compassion Germer says:


'Self-compassion is a form of acceptance. Whereas acceptance usually refers to what's happening to us - accepting a feeling or a thought - self-compassion is acceptance of the person to whom it's happening. It's acceptance of ourselves while we're in pain.

'(It) is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others. it's a small shift in the direction of our attention that can make all the difference in our lives, both when we're in intense pain and as we negotiate the travails of daily life. WE all have the instinct for self-compassion, perhaps forgotten or suppressed, that's even stronger than the instinct to resist suffering. Fortunately, self-compassion can be cultivated by anyone.' (pp 33.34)


It is often said that we need to tend to ourselves before we can truly tend to others. If our own body/mind vessel is empty, paradoxically our offering to others may be at huge personal cost.



With Tibetan Buddhism roots, mindfulness (clear-seeing) and compassion are together sometimes referred to as two wings of a bird:


'The two wings of clear-seeing and compassion are inseparable: both are essential in liberating us from the trance. They work together, mutually reinforcing each other. (Tara Brach: Unfolding the Wings of Acceptance, May 4, 2012, from website tarabrach.com).



In secular mindfulness the 'Breathing Space' form has been used in MBSR, MBCT and other mindfulness based programmes - acting as a bridge to bring awareness into our lives as we encounter everyday stresses, strains and distractions. In 'Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living', Erik van den Brink and Frits Koster weave multiple compassionate threads into this practice form - using breathing spaces with kindness and compassion - based on our need to regulate our innate threat and drive systems with soothing practices that provide kindness, compassion and connection.




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Hints & tips for more meditation practice

1. Choose a particular space for practice - especially at the beginning. Could be a room, or part of a room, but designate it 'your space' - maybe with a chair, stool, cushion or mat - or maybe your bed for lying down practice (NB beware of sleep - unless this is your intention!). You may add in a shawl or scarf. It may suit you to use more walking practice - in which case adapt your choice to a suitable room or any outside space. 

2. It's often easier to have a regular time for practice - incorporating this into your daily schedule - maybe 5 times a week.  First thing is a good time for many  - when a mindful/compassionate intention for the day can be set and before the weight of mind chatter takes over. Let others know so as not to be disturbed.

3. It's being proven that shorter more frequent practice is more effective at creating brain change. So a very regular short practice of 10/15 minutes is better than 40 minutes once a fortnight.

4. An alert but relaxed body posture means signals from the body impact the brain/mind to encourage greater well-being ... sitting, walking or lying down!

5. The breath is the commonest anchor for mindfulness mediation - but the heart is often used for compassion-based practices - whist the belly can foster calm centredness and the feet help us (literally!) to ground. Take your pick!

6. Remember .. to bridge that gap between formal and day to day 'embedded' mindfulness  - a simple 'remember'  practice can be 'triggered' when we walk up the stairs, along a corridor, sit for a meal, receive a phone alert (!) ... to help us mentally pause, to remember and to 'come back' to awareness of this moment.


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