As I start to type, the lyrics of Sandy Denny’s song Who Knows Where the Time Goes? pop into my head – it doesn’t seem like two months ago since I was last sitting here writing this column. I’m not sure that I have the answer to Sandy’s question, but time does seem to fly by, and it made me reflect on how little time we actually spend in the present moment.
Too much of the time we seem to get caught up in rumination. Last time round I talked about the consequences of getting stuck in worrying thoughts about the past or the future. This can result in a rush of adrenaline and cortisol circulating around our body. That’s not good for our physical or mental health, unless of course, we really are in danger in the present moment and need to fight, flee or freeze.
Paul Gilbert, of the Compassionate Mind Foundation, talks about the impact of our ‘tricky’ brains and the consequences for our wellbeing and emotional regulation when we get stuck in the Threat and Drive Systems. While this isn’t the place for a neuroscience lecture (and who am I to attempt to do that!), it is still interesting to know that the practice of mindfulness can instead activate the Soothing System that is associated with feelings of being safe, calm, peaceful and content. This green zone is a much better place to be in than the red zone.
So, when we spot that we’re in the red zone what can we do to help ourselves move out of it? Noticing that we are in it is the first step. The suggestion from Rick Hanson is that setting an intention to act is the next step. Exhaling slowly, twice as long as the inhalation, helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which calms the stress response and slows down the heart rate. Becoming aware of where the tension is in the body and relaxing it as best we can helps, as does focusing on the little bits of good stuff in the present moment. It’s like taking your foot off the accelerator pedal.
Incentive and Resource-Seeking System
Function: to motivate us towards incentive and resources to survive.
Feelings: wanting, pursuing, achieving and consuming
Soothing, caring and contentment system
Function: to feel safe and content with the way things are.
Feelings: contented, safe, connected, cared-for and trusted
Threat and self protection system
Function: to pick up on threats easily and self-protect.
Hormone: adrenaline and cortisol
Feelings: anger, anxiety and disgust
“IT SEEMS THAT THE PUSH FOR SELF-IMPROVEMENT IN OUR WESTERN CULTURE IS MAKING US TOO HARSH ON OURSELVES”
Mindfulness is a great tool to help us be on our own side so that we can deal with what is going on for us in positive ways. It helps us experience the world directly through our senses, without the relentless commentary of our thoughts. In focusing our attention in this way, we are better able to slow the racing thoughts that can lead us into difficulties. We are able to strengthen our resilience and enhance our capacity to notice and experience the joys of everyday life.
The joys don’t need to be biggies, like winning the Lottery or an Olympic medal. Throughout the day there are many opportunities to take in the good. Recently I read that roughly 40% of our daily activities are habitual. We can spend a significant proportion of our lives on autopilot and we fail to notice the bits of good around us. In sharp contrast we have no trouble noticing the negative stuff inside and outside of us. Part of my daily mindfulness practice is to set an intention to come off autopilot, even if only for a breath or two, and to take in the good in little ways during the day. I did that today at the end of a shopping expedition at Sainsbury’s in Colne (where I was on autopilot for most of the time). I went into the café and caught sight of the beauty of Pendle Hill in the distance. Ahh… a trigger to remind me to come back into the present moment. I paused for a couple of breaths to let it sink in before sitting down with my mug of tea and a toasted teacake. That was the point when I remembered about the Really Relishing practice. The teacakes there are wonderful and, with the autopilot button turned off, I savoured every mouthful.
The four steps to Really Relishing are:
- Choose an experience you really enjoy and will be fun to savour – a tasty snack, a favourite drink, a beautiful sight, a special sound, a lovely feeling or good company.
- Really relish. Give your full attention to the physical experience of what you are relishing, savouring or enjoying for a few moments. Slow down and really notice. Explore your different senses and how it feels in your body. Allow pleasurable feelings to soak in and spread through the body. Research shows that we need about ten seconds – a couple of breaths – to fully register a positive experience.
- Notice and return. Your attention will probably wander off. Just simply notice that your attention has been pulled away and captured by other things. Allow whatever tries to hook your attention to just rest in the background – let it be. Be kind to yourself. Keep gently returning your attention to the experience you are relishing each time it wanders away.
- End on a high. Carry on for only as long as the experience is interesting and enjoyable, ensuring that Really Relishing is easy and effortless.
Coming into the present moment and bringing awareness to the good stuff is a way of being kind to ourselves. I’ve become interested in the idea of ‘kindfulness’ which has been described as mindfulness’s compassionate sister. It seems that the push for self-improvement in our Western culture is making us too harsh on ourselves. Wise words from Padraig O’Morain, a psychotherapist, when he says,“Kindfulness is about being a friend to the person you are now, not putting it off until you become a perfect person, which for most of us never arrives.” He says: “If we’re kinder to ourselves, it will make us more able to turn those feelings towards others.” Enjoy some kindfulness right now.
A reminder about what mindfulness is about
• Mindfulness is about being in the present moment and noticing what is happening while it’s happening.
• It’s about being on our own side with kindness when it’s a difficult moment.
• It’s about pausing to take in the good in enjoyable moments.
• It’s about not living our whole life on automatic pilot.