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chimp paradoxI enjoy taking models from Eastern and Western ways of viewing the world, comparing them, contrasting them and working out how they can be integrated. I’ve long been a seeker, and I relish the challenge: looking at two supposedly distinct systems and seeing how they provide a combined (superior?) wisdom. Certainly as I deepen my understanding of mindfulness, meditation and the Buddhist teachings, and continue my practice in Western therapeutic approaches I actually see more overlap than distinction.

So, it was with much enthusiasm I greeted the decision that a book club I participate in took up the reading of Steve Peters’ “The Chimp Paradox”. Nothing unusual about that you may think – the twist being that the book group is made up of fellow Buddhists.

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Over the summer months, while I was catching up on the latest in the cycling world, I came across this quote from Lance Armstrong “My therapy is riding my bike, playing golf and having a beer”. Armstrong finds himself involved in a legal battle since he admitted a history of doping that carried him to 7 Tour de France victories. This quote was captured in an interview that also reveals he is planning to write a book – one that would “right all the lies that he told”. Maybe his ‘therapy’ will be the process of writing, but for sure he doesn’t sound too keen on working with a counselling professional “A little bit of reflection helps to learn and grow, but I’m not going to dwell.”

When I read the article, I smiled at the quote. Yes, it is typical of Armstrong – a strong character, I am not surprised he is finding his own way to deal with what must be his world turning upside down. The article had reminded me of several conversations I have had with athletes across many sports, and some of the cyclists I have coached. I really value the positives that sport and exercise can bring to people’s lives. Yet, I think the shadow side can be overlooked in a contemporary culture that makes idols of elite sportspeople. Why do people aspire to sporting success? Love of the sport, or fighting demons?

“Sometimes I feel as if I’m racing with my own shadow. But that’s one thing I’ll never be able to outrun. Nobody can shake off their own shadow.”
― Haruki Murakami, After Dark

Similarly, I have heard athletes speak of a meditative process, “Running is my meditation”. To some extent, I can relate to that. Certainly there were times in my own competitive career when I was out training on isolated country roads: there was just me, my bike. my pedalling, my breathing. I felt very present, connected to my body. I believe 100% that moments like this, moments of ‘here and now’ are beautiful to experience, and examples of mindfulness in everyday life. However, is it really mediation?

rowers meditatingWhether we are discussing sport as a therapy or sport as a mediation, I believe we must consider intention behind the act. I often talk to my meditation students about the importance of a ‘formalised’ approach to meditating. One sits on the cushion or chair and is totally aware of what they are about to do, about to commit too. Just like preparing for sporting performance, where each training session is designed to be specific, when training the mind (which really, meditation simply is) we apply the same principles. We might say “It is my intention to sit for 20 minutes, and do my best to place my attention on the breath”. The word ‘formal’ can be off-putting, particularly when many people find meditation from the gateway of wanting to lower stress or anxiety! Yet all that is meant by that is our attitude – it is a deliberate practice, not something we fall in to by chance. And this is my point about sport being a meditation, or a therapy – maybe sport can be meditative and therapeutic…but that is probably not the intention behind the act.

So if one may benefit psychologically from time on the bike, time on the trails, time in the pool why am I saying it is not technically therapy or meditation in motion? Intention aside, am I being pedantic with my nouns and adjectives?

Two things come to mind. Firstly, where we are placing our attention. I would argue that when someone is in the act of running, cycling or some other sporting activity, focus (at best*) is being placed on the activity itself. In meditation, and indeed therapy, there is a deliberate turning toward the mind mirrormental / emotional processes – we tune in to our inner world, one of mental events and feelings; maybe some of those feelings are emanating from physical sensations but they are more likely coming from emotional processes than attempts to supply adequate oxygen and fuel. In therapy, the thoughts are interrogated and may lead to insight; in meditation we learn how to watch the thoughts arise yet not act them out. And that brings me to my second point – the relational aspect seen in meditation and therapy. In meditation, we are working with the relationship to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions: we practice resting with whatever arises and learn how to not react – with time, this teaches us how to make more skilful choices, and to respond. In therapy, relationship is crucial (speaking from the Humanistic framework within which I like to work). In partnership, the therapist becomes the mirror for the client. Some may argue my relational link between therapy and meditation is stretching it a bit – but in my experience (personal, and from client work), when we are working on our relationship with the mental events in meditation, many of the thoughts arising are introjects from others so there is an element of ‘self-other’ even when just one of us is on the cushion!

I am aware that the meditation master Osho considers anything can be a meditation…and I will not argue with someone with a lot more meditative experience than me!! Some meditation traditions offer a way to transcend reality and altered state of consciousness; I am speaking from a perspective of mediation being a formal practice bringing us to, rather than escaping, the here and now. Armstrong’s** use of leisure activities are (arguably) taking him away from the storm around him – and who can blame him? As we also need to be kind to ourselves – the key is being conscious of our choices, and I would offer not to confuse the motivation behind an act.

*I say ‘at best’ because very often attention is being ‘dissociated’ – research has shown that whilst elite athletes are more likely to ‘associate’ (be with the activity, in tune with physical sensations etc), the majority of people let their attention drift – very often so they don’t connect with the exertion!

**I would never have believed it possible to get Osho and Lance Armstrong in the same paragraph!

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In my last post, I talked about the difficulties people face in working through emotions. Whether it be new clients to therapy, or novice meditators it is difficult to convey the importance of exploring the felt sense of anger, hurt, rejection, guilt. It is tempting to stay in the story, retreat to the head – because that is what we know. However, as hard as we try, we cannot think our way back to emotional health; it is my belief that we need to feel our way there.

There are many forms of therapy that help people explore the bodily held sensations underneath powerful emotions. The so-called ‘experiential therapies’ believe that change comes only once we have accepted our experience, and that experience in its totality – the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions. My own approach relies upon two such streams – Gestalt and Focusing – and I have found them very powerful in opening up and processing emotions in the safety of the therapy room. However, what about the 6 days between therapy sessions, what can people do to work with the waves and not feel in danger of overwhelm?

rainWorking with a therapist will bring useful insight as to the root of the problem the client is facing; Meditation, or simply sitting in stillness allows the client to give space to the feelings. This is how meditation and therapeutic counselling form a formidable duo. I will spend more time on this topic in a future post, but for today I wanted to introduce a useful practice that can help ‘compost’ emotions: the acronym of ‘RAIN’.

RAIN is a four step process that gives structure to emotional processing. I think structure is vital to give people confidence to turn toward the emotional rapids – like a life raft in the stormy sea.

The first step of RAIN is to recognise what is arising in experience. Take yourself back to an argument with a loved one – were you able to feel the anger or hurt as it was coming on? Maybe you could feel tension in your facial muscles, increasing warmth, a knot in your stomach. Can we be present enough to notice the bodily changes we are undergoing while in the moment of the experience that is gripping us? Maybe you can tune in the to commentary in your head, “I am noticing that comment upset me; I am noticing I want to cry”. The key here is observation not reaction. It would be easy to focus on the story – “He has hurt me, look how he treats me”. The ‘recognise’ step is to name simply what is present, dropping the story. I have found it useful to encourage clients to change their language around emotion. Look at this progression as we learn to work more skilfully with our emotions: “He has made me angry” to “I am angry” to “I have anger” and finally to “There is anger arising”.

The next step is to acknowledge the experience ‘as it is’, even if it’s terribly unpleasant. The key is to stay with it – to allow it, not push it away, not try to change it. This is a hard step because it requires self-compassion rather than self-criticism. I often point out to clients that it is our resistance to the pain in life that brings the suffering. We have a choice to not add to the difficulty of an already tough situation – but it does take practice. Open up to the physical sensations – to be with the knot in your stomach, the tightness in your chest. The physical reactions in a time of stress are simply the body’s way to protect against threat. If we allow the physical sensations to arise, just sit with them, they will subside in about 60 to 90s. Again, this takes practice – we have learnt to suppress emotions, so to allow expression of them goes against our survival logic.

Having allowed the emotions some space, we can now bring an attitude of inquiry and investigation. We can become interested and curious. This can be a confusing step. Typically, we look for any chance to understand our experience by going to thinking mode. However, this step is not asking for intellectual analysis – that can detach us from what is actually happening. Instead we are looking to go in to our experience. Tara Brach, a psychotherapist and meditation teacher gives some great examples of how we might engage in a gentle exploration:

“What most wants attention?”
“How am I experiencing this in my body?”
“What am I believing?”
“What does this feeling want from me?”
This is such a powerful step, as it allows us to soften to our experience. For example, we may become aware of the feelings of hurt under the brittle armour of anger.

The final step calls for us to not-identify with our experience. Undoubtedly, we ARE having a feeling, a thought, an emotion but it is NOT who we are. If we have been able to sit with the arising emotion or physical sensation long enough, we will see how it falls away. With time and experience of this, we begin to see that the various parts of the experience are fleeting aspects of the totality of who we are. In the Buddhist teachings on meditation, we are encouraged to see our minds and our experience as the clear, blue sky. The clouds are passing weather, the blue sky remains even if we cannot see it. Like the changing weather, sights, sounds, thoughts, and other contents of mind, arising and passing away often have nothing to do with us.

sun after stormWhether a formal practice, or taking the time to slow down in everyday life, RAIN is a great way for us to fully experience what is going on for us on all levels – our thinking, our feelings, our emotions yet to refrain from taking it too personally. Be careful here though – it is not a way to side-step or avoid: Rather than detach, we are training to be non-attached. It can help if we view all experience as energy – if we can allow this energy to flow, emotions will come and go (like white fluffy clouds); and that opens up a sense of spaciousness and peace.

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