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Upgrading the 'breathing space' meditation, some research-based suggestions (3rd post): embodied values & goodwill

I have already written a couple of blog posts "Upgrading the 'breathing space' meditation, some research-based suggestions (1st post): mindfulness & naming" and "Upgrading the 'breathing space' meditation, some research-based suggestions (2nd post): touch & affectionate releasing" where we have taken our attention inwards, noting & naming our internal state/our internal weather, and responding to this inner state with settling touch, self-compassion & relaxation.  These posts have introduced nine suggestions that potentially upgrade a more standard breathing space practice.  In this third post I add a further three suggestions to make a total of a dozen research-based ideas that you can explore to see what works best for you.

So now we've come to the last four-breath sequence.  I may or may not continue with the gentle touch through this third section of the twelve-breath exercise.  It depends on what feels best to me at the time. This last section of the twelve-breath breathing space typically involves values & goodwill (although, as described in the next blog post, I occasionally shift to action planning or appreciation).  The first breath of the second four-breath sequence was made up of an initial soothing-touch breath and then three breaths where we scanned through our bodies with self-compassion.  There's a somewhat similar structure in the third four-breath sequence which starts with an initial connection-to-values breath and typically goes on to three breaths where we channel goodwill & compassion out to other people.

10.)  What are the values we connect to with the first breath of this third section?  Well they're the personal values that matter most to us, the values that remind us how we want to live our lives.  Personal values are so important for our health.  It's no accident that grandfather-of-positive-psychology Professor Ed Diener, in his recent evidence-based overview of how we can best improve our wellbeing, suggests we start with clarifying & connecting to our values.  This point is also well made in the post "Purpose in life: reduces dementia risk, increases life expectancy, treats depression and builds wellbeingand then extended in "Purpose in life: reconnecting to meaning & values". Values (unlike goals) aren't something I intend to work towards in the future ... they are about how I want to live right now ... more like a compass bearing I use to direct my journey by than like a destination that I have to travel towards to reach. 

So how can we clarify what our key values are? It may be we simply know already, or we become clear very quickly once we start to think about it.  You may not have specifically thought this through very fully before, but you will be leading your life guided by values (whether you have already consciously considered this or not).  A fun & worthwhile way to explore this more is to try out the "Respected figures" exercise.  Here is a downloadable PDF format worksheet for doing this (and here's the same sheet as a Word doc). What we're looking for with this exercise is the emergence of two or three key values that really resonate with how you want to be in the world.  The exercise typically throws up clusters of related personal qualities & values.  You can group what feel like the most important of these into two or three areas and then find words that feel like they describe these main quality/value clusters well.  The "Purpose in life: reconnecting to meaning & valuesblog post, that I've already mentioned, discusses this approach to values clarification a bit further.

A couple of further ways to throw light on this question of personal values are Shalom Schwartz's fascinating research and also the impressive body of work by Seligman, Peterson & colleagues on identifying one's character strengths.  Although character strengths are not quite the same as values, they overlap to a large extent and are very relevant to the twelve-breath breathing space exercise that we're discussing.  For more on this see the post "Strengths of character: head, heart & gutand do consider seriously taking the VIA assessment questionnaire.  As I wrote in the post "Twelve practical suggestions for exploring our character strengths" - "Even more practically, go to "The VIA Institute on Character" website and complete their 10-15 minute survey.  I suggest you then bite the bullet and spend $20 downloading the "VIA ME! Report".  Although you can get a basic free report about your survey answers, if you're going to use the results seriously you're much more likely to benefit from the considerably fuller, 20 page or so, "VIA ME!" response.  There are a number of other reports you can buy, but - at least initially - they probably only add a modest amount to what you'll learn from "VIA ME!".  

      

Intriguingly and very encouragingly - as I've described in the post "Most people agree on the healthy key values they want to live by and this is real grounds for hope" - it's usual to find values emerging from this exercise that are both about wanting to act with kindness towards others and also wanting to act with courage to express our own truths & dreams.  So, after reading Shalom Schwartz's fascinating research, I wrote "Yup ... it does look that, across the nations, most people probably do agree to a surprisingly large extent on the healthy, self-directing, altruistic values that they want to live by ... "Benevolence, self-direction, and universalism values are consistently most important". This makes me smile and feel at least a little hope in these critical times for our species". 

 

very much addresses this area, as too does "Purpose in life: clarifying future goals & the challenges we will face in achieving them".

   ... and see too "To reach the other shore with each step of the crossing": a brief embodied cognition meditation exercise" ...

Personal values are important for our health.  This point is well made in the post "Purpose in life: reduces dementia risk, increases life expectancy, treats depression and builds wellbeing" and then extended in "Purpose in life: reconnecting to meaning & values".  Values (unlike goals) aren't something I intend to work towards in the future ... they are about how I want to live right now ... more like a compass bearing I use to direct my journey by than like a destination that I have to travel towards to reach.  So how can we clarify what our key values are? It may be we simply know already, or we become clear very quickly once we start to think about it. A fun, helpful approach I often use here is "The respected figures" exercise (downloadable as a Word doc & as a PDF file). Do try it if you haven't already come across it ... or even if you have, it can be well worth repeating occasionally.  And it makes lots of sense to write (or speak) more fully about the most important personal values that emerge.  See the practical post "Therapeutic writing and speaking: inspiration from values (specific instructions)" and the very real benefits in increased resilience & wellbeing that are associated with this kind of reconnection.

 

More to follow ...

 

So, using the bus driver metaphor , the first mindfulness & naming 'how's the internal weather' four-breath scan acknowledged & named the internal state (the 'bus passengers') without being hooked up or swept away by them.  The second touch & compassion four-breath scan worked tenderly & encouragingly (the 'bus conductor') with the internal state to ease it (if it was 'distressing') or to savour it (if it already involved 'high wellbeing').  The third four-breath exercise works with embodied cognition & personal values. to centre on moving out into the world again (the 'bus driver').  

One can also look at this through 'an attachment lens' as well, so a distressed child may reach for a reassuring adult, be soothed, and then want to move out to explore the world again.  The 12-breath sequence has a similar structure - being sensitive & responsive to oneself, internally soothing & settling, and then moving out into value-directed activity once more.

 

8.)  Often with compassion/loving-kindness/goodwill meditation practices, one is encouraged to use a repeating set of words to help channel the kind intentions.  Many people find that having a specific set of phrases helps reduce mind wandering and helps too to deepen the practice.  Traditionally one chooses a simple phrase to wish physical wellbeing for the person you’re focusing on in the practice, another simple phrase to wish them well emotionally, and a third phrase to wish them well for their life generally.  Examples are “May this person (refer to them by name if this feels easier) be well.  May they be happy.  May they flourish” or “May this person be free from suffering.  May they live joyfully.  May they fulfil their dreams”, and so on.  Think about what words or phrases you’d like to use.  Chris Germer, who co-developed Mindful self-compassion practices, has a good exercise called "Finding loving-kindness phrases" on his website.  The exercise is described in a downloadable PDF sheet and expanded on more fully in a 23 minute meditation.  For many people doing this Finding loving-kindness practice is likely to be well worthwhile.  Once you’ve come up with a set of words that feels right for you, don’t chop and change too much.  Try to stick with the phrases for several practices to give yourself a chance to see what helps you and what doesn’t.  It’s been said “Hold the phrases lightly and carefully like carrying quite fragile, precious china”!  As always, explore what works best for you. 

Stage 2 in the standard "Self-Compassion Break" typically links to a reminder of common humanity.  So the SCS handout suggests one might say to oneself things like "I'm not alone. Others are just like me" or "We all struggle in our lives" or "This is how it feels when a person struggles in this way".  These are all examples of "reappraisal" which research suggests is a crucial, but underused emotion-regulation tool ... see, for example, the paper "Launching reappraisal: It's less common than you might think".  I have written about reappraisal more fully in the blog post "Reappraising reappraisal" where I mention the great Lucius Seneca quote "No man was ever wise by chance".  Happily mindfulness & reappraisal seem to make great "bed-fellows" ... see "Use of mindful reappraisal coping among meditation practitioners" and "Dispositional mindfulness co-varies with self-reported positive reappraisal".  Crucially though, remembering the finding that reappraisal is "less common than you might think", it's important to realise for the Self-Compassion Break that 

It's likely to be worth reading the blog post "Reappraising reappraisal" or the similar downloadable handout "Getting a better perspective" with its acronym WaVED (Wisdom, Values, Empathy, Distance) highlighting some overlapping ways of reappraising situations.  If there is a particularly troublesome issue one is struggling with ... or particular kinds of situations that repeatedly trigger suffering ... then it's likely to help if we take time to experiment with "the fit" of various reappraisal reminders.  Find out what works well for you.  If particular forms of reappraisal are helpful, you're likely to notice your suffering becoming easier.  Write down what works for you and in which kinds of situations it's most helpful.  Do explore how to phrase the reappraisal most usefully.  It is likely to be more effective if you use non-first person sentences, in other words you use "You" rather than "I" ... or you could experiment with using your first name, or possibly a name that has been lovingly used for you by those who care deeply for you, or possibly add in terms of endearment if this feels helpful - see the paper "Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: how you do it matters" with its abstract commenting "Does the language people use to refer to the self during introspection influence how they think, feel, and behave under social stress? ... Seven studies explored these questions ... They demonstrated that using non-first-person pronouns and one’s own name (rather than first-person pronouns) during introspection enhances self-distancing ... these findings demonstrate that small shifts in the language people use to refer to the self during introspection consequentially influence their ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress, even for vulnerable individuals".

So after Stage 1: Mindfulness - Sensing, Labeling & Softening, we can move onto Stage 2: Self-Naming & Reappraisal.  And we want to practise regularly, so using the Self-Compassion Break as a repeated short breathing space exercise over the course of the day makes very good sense.  

And the standard third stage of the Break is Self-Kindness (although maybe this would be better re-ordered).  The standard instruction states: "Now put your hands over your heart, or wherever it feels soothing, feeling the warmth and gentle touch of your hands.  Say to yourself: "May I be kind to myself", or another way of saying this is "May I give myself what I need".  See if you can find words for what you need  in times like these ... If you're having difficulty finding the right words, imagine that a dear friend or loved one is having the same problem as you.  What would you say to this person?  If your friend would leave with just a few words in mind, what would you like those words to be?  What message would you like to deliver, heart to heart? Now see if you can offer the same message to yourself.  This is precious stuff and reappraisal & self-compassion can support each other, see the recent paper "Self-compassion enhances the efficacy of explicit cognitive reappraisal as an emotion regulation strategy".  Although the paper's abstract suggests that self-compassion might usefully precede reappraisal, rather than follow it ... "Cognitive reappraisal has been shown to be an effective strategy to regulate depressed mood in healthy and remitted depressed individuals. However, individuals currently suffering from a clinical depression often experience difficulties in utilizing this strategy. Therefore, the goal of this study was to examine whether the efficacy of explicit cognitive reappraisal in major depressive disorder can be enhanced through the use of self-compassion and emotion-focused acceptance as preparatory strategies. Thereby, explicit cognitive reappraisal refers to purposefully identifying, challenging, and modifying depressiogenic cognitions to reduce depressed mood. To test our hypotheses, we induced depressed mood at four points in time in 54 participants (64.8% female; age M = 35.59, SD = 11.49 years) meeting criteria for major depressive disorder. After each mood induction, participants were instructed to either wait, or employ self-compassion, acceptance, or reappraisal to regulate their depressed mood. Depressed mood was assessed before and after each mood induction and regulation period on a visual analog scale. Results indicated that participants who had utilized self-compassion as a preparatory strategy experienced a significantly greater reduction of depressed mood during reappraisal than did those who had been instructed to wait prior to reappraisal. Participants who had used acceptance as a preparatory strategy did not experience a significantly greater reduction of depressed mood during subsequent reappraisal than those in the waiting condition. These findings provide preliminary evidence that the efficacy of explicit cognitive reappraisal is moderated by the precursory use of other emotion regulation strategies. In particular, they suggest that depressed individuals might benefit from using self-compassion to facilitate the subsequent use of explicit cognitive reappraisal".

 

More to follow ... 

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