Using Williams & Penman's book "Mindfulness: a practical guide" as a self-help resource (7th post) - fifth week's practice
Last updated on 29th August 2012
I wrote about chapter eight in Mark & Danny's book last week. This post is about chapter nine - the fifth week of meditation practice - "Turning towards difficulties" (pp. 159 to 182). In their week-by-week programme summary (p. 59), they write "Week five introduces a meditation - Exploring difficulty - that helps you to face (rather than avoid) the difficulties that arise in your life from time to time. Many of life's problems can be left to resolve themselves, but some need to be faced with a spirit of openness, curiosity and compassion. If you don't embrace such difficulties, then they can increasingly blight your life." To powerfully illustrate this point, the chapter begins with a description of how "Elana Rosenbaum, a meditation teacher ... was in the middle of teaching an eight-week mindfulness course (about where we are in our programme now) when she found that she had a recurrence of her cancer." Elana has written about her experience in the book "Here for now: Living well with cancer through mindfulness" and a further short book is due out by her this summer on "Being well (even when you're sick): Mindfulness practices for people with cancer and other serious illnesses". Mark & Danny quote her quite extensively and go on to say "And what about the rest of us? How are we relating to those things, large and small, day in, day out, that remind us of our vulnerabilities?"
They write about "acceptance" highlighting that, when they use this word, they are not talking about resignation or giving up. They link it to its roots, meaning "to receive or take hold of something ... to understand". They say that, in this sense "Acceptance is a pause, a period of allowing, of letting be, of clear seeing." Acceptance in this way " ... takes us off the hair trigger, so that we're less likely to make a knee-jerk reaction. It allows us to become fully aware of difficulties, with all of their painful nuances, and to respond to them in the most skilful way possible." This may take real courage, and as the self-determination theory experts Levesque & Brown have shown in their research, mindfulness tends to de-automatize our behaviour so that we're more likely to act in genuinely self-chosen, autonomous ways. They write "Mindful attention may have particular adaptive value when individuals face challenging tasks or new behavioral choices" with benefits on "positive task performance and well-being outcomes associated with autonomous functioning." I think there's a link here to C S Lewis's quote "Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point." This quality of brave, open acceptance of "what is" can so often encourage skilful, value-driven responses as illustrated in the well-known "Bus driver metaphor". And usually our choices on how to respond include both outer problem-solving actions and also inner problem-solving attitudes.
For me there are two overlapping meanings or implications about acceptance & mindfulness here. One is the way that the inner pause and openness of acceptance helps us make better choices, more in line with our true inner values. And the second meaning, for me, is that sometimes that choice is simply to "accept" and be with what is happening without trying to change it outwardly ... although we know that this quality of mindful "acceptance" actually changes our situation & experience inwardly. In fact, "acceptance" and "reappraisal" are two of of the most powerful inner-change strategies we have - see, for example "Cognitive reappraisal and acceptance: An experimental comparison of two emotion regulation strategies." And, fascinatingly, these two skilful responses are more intertwined than one might initially think - as the authors of the recent paper "Positive reappraisal mediates the stress-reductive effects of mindfulness: An upward spiral process" found - "Positive reappraisal and mindfulness appear to serially and mutually enhance one another, creating the dynamics of an upward spiral. Through mindfulness practice, individuals may engender a broadened state of awareness that facilitates empowering interpretations of stressful life events, leading to substantially reduced distress." And this week's extended meditation exercise is very much a training in turning towards difficulty, openness, courage and the deeper & potentially more creative "acceptance" that is involved in this.
As usual, I've put together a reflection sheet that you can use to jot down your reactions to this book chapter, and also a practice record to keep a note of your meditations. Mark & Danny do a good job of explaining how to go about this "Turning towards difficulty". It's typically health & wellbeing promoting to encourage ourselves to have an overall "approach" motivation to our inner & outer lives. As the authors of the paper "Curiosity and well-being" reported, the tendency to "explore" helps to "broaden the thought-action repertoire by promoting interest in novel/challenging situations and to incrementally build knowledge and well-being". Research shows that lower "emotional approach coping" is associated with "higher anxiety sensitivity and higher anxiety symptom severity". While there is extensive research highlighting that engagement & "behavioural activation" are helpful both in the treatment of depression and in building wellbeing - see "Behavioral activation treatments of depression: A meta-analysis" and "Behavioral activation interventions for well-being: A meta-analysis". Maybe somewhat counter-intuitively, the authors of the enjoyably named "Goals and responses to failure: Knowing when to hold them and when to fold them" even found, while researching how experimental subjects responded when faced with unsolvable anagrams, that "people with approach goals are better able to identify when they should disengage during failure, and disengage more completely, than people with avoidance goals."
So the practices this week include a daily extended meditation sequence starting with paying attention to breath, body, sounds & thoughts before moving on to "Exploring difficulty". There are also developments in the brief "Breathing space" meditations, with encouragement to explore "naming" one's internal state, internally verbally noting the breaths, turning towards difficulty, and working more on continuing to be mindful during daily life. Noting and naming one's inner state is an interesting request. It might be helpful anyway to see how much your scores on the "Five facet mindfulness questionnaire - short form (FFMQ-SF)" have changed. Quite often the facet "Describe" gets rather left behind in FFMQ-SF score improvements - see, for example, my earlier post "Mindfulness: the missing facet 'Describe'". Possibly the relationship implications of increased skills in "Describe" may be the most important outcome here, but there are other benefits too - see the post "Naming emotions is another useful self-regulation & mindfulness strategy". Finally Mark & Danny's "Habit releaser" request this week involves sowing seeds and/or looking after a plant (p. 181) and they describe the surprising benefits that this kind of "caring for" can bring.
When you're ready to move on, see the next blog post in this series.