Watchful like a man crossing a winter stream, yielding like ice about to melt, simple like an uncarved block of wood, hollow like a cave. - Lao Tzu
Yesterday we had the sixth session of this twelve evening "Life skills" course. I wrote last week about the fifth session. A dozen slides covering material we explored are viewable/downloadable at slides 1-6, Powerpoint or slides 1-6, PDF and slides 7-12, Powerpoint or slides 7-12, PDF.
I began by talking about having choices when we're facing aversive/difficult/unpleasant experiences. Quite often we are simply able to remove the source of discomfort ... or remove ourselves from it. This evening we were going to practise going through a relaxation/meditation session while there was a radio in the room blaring quite loudly, tuned just "off station" to make it even more unpleasant. Obviously it would have been possible to have simply turned the radio off ... and often in life removing a source of discomfort is a sensible choice. Sometimes though we will be faced by aversive experiences that it's not so easy to simply remove. This might, for example, involve physical pain or discomfort, or emotional suffering, or interpersonal difficulty. This links with the "Bus driver metaphor" we talked about in the session last week (with its notion of the driver learning to "accept/ignore" unhelpful interactions with "bus passenger" thoughts/feelings). It links too with much material elsewhere on this website reachable via the "Tag cloud" and clicking on words like "Acceptance" and "Mindfulness".
So if we're to practise simply being with difficult experiences "mindfully", it makes it easier to start with if we work with challenges that we can set up in progressively more confronting steps. Using sound source distractions while practising meditation is a good example. Working with experiences of cold (e.g. swimming or showering in cold water), or physical discomfort (e.g. while exercising intensely) are other options. Being alert for opportunities to practise with other aversive experiences - emotional, behavioural, interpersonal - during everyday life can also be helpful. This is not intended as an exercise in masochism or passivity. It is however intended to give us more choice in our lives (to tolerate, to change, to problem solve, to discuss, etc), more sense that we can "keep our heads above water" even when the going gets tough. So we went ahead to do the Autogenic session with the radio blaring in the background. We then went round discussing how the experience had been. This too can be such good learning - some found it pretty hard, some interesting & not too difficult, some even found that it helped them stay in the present & reduced "mind wandering". I talked then about possible home practice of this kind of challenge.
We then paired up to talk about last week's practice, before convening as the full group to each have a turn to say how things had been going. This gave me a chance to get a better sense of how individuals were doing and to troubleshoot where appropriate. We also talked more about last week's gratitude/appreciations exercise, which most of us had enjoyed and valued a lot. I explained that I think that - as "hunter gatherers" we're internally programmed to attend preferentially to sources of possible danger, rather than sources of possible pleasure. It makes sense for survival. However for most of us, in our current life situations, we would do better to adjust this "internal thermostat" and train ourselves to savour and appreciate and be more grateful for this extraordinary life and this extraordinary planet ... rather than being consumed by anxiety about endless "what-ifs".
I then went on to project this evening's Powerpoint slides (see above). I talked about the crucial importance of our relationships. I showed data from a series of research studies demonstrating the increased mortality risk in having poor relationships - as or more significant than much better publicised risk factors like smoking or having high blood pressure. I also talked about the central value of relationships in boosting our wellbeing. Obviously relationships can be a huge source of pain and stress, but they can also be a major source of joy, warmth, and meaning in our lives. I introduced the notion of Self-Determination Theory's (SDT's) three basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence & relatedness. See the webpage "Wellbeing, time management & self-determination" for much more on this ... and I gave them the "Psychological needs & wellbeing 1" & "Psychological needs & wellbeing 2" SDT handouts. I also mentioned Sheldon Cohen's work and his argument that to flourish we need high levels of interpersonal intimacy/closeness, high connection with a broader social network, and low levels of chronic interpersonal stress & conflict. I gave everyone copies of the "Personal community map", the "Personal community map instructions" and the "Personal community map questions", and asked them to fill in the map and answer the questions over this next week.
They also had a further dietary handout on "Wholegrains", a "Practice record", and a CD of the "Belly warmth" Autogenic exericise. Clicking on "Belly warmth" will also take you through to a description of another major focus for this week - the "reminder dots" exercise. I had already got them to pair up to go through their day identifying where they could usefully position these dots. So we finished with a brief further Autogenic relaxation/meditation session. We'd run out of time and I asked them to complete the "Reflection & intentions" sheet soon, so that we could review it next week along with their practice record.
And see "Life skills ... session 7" for detail's of next week's meeting.