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?
Whether 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 mental / 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!
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?
Working 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.
Whether 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.
“I don’t want to feel this way anymore”
“If I let myself cry, I don’t think I’ll ever stop”
“I want the pain to just go away”
It is common for a person starting counselling to spend the first few sessions recounting the stories that have brought them to see me; why they feel stress, anxious, depressed; who are the key players in their issues; what is causing the obstacles they are encountering. And then, the words dry up. It can often feel like a ‘make or break’ moment in the counselling relationship – it is as if having told me their story they wait in anticipation “so, what next?”. Maybe they want the answers from me, maybe they want me to take the problem away: but what they probably don’t want is the invitation that I offer – to go beneath the stories, under the words and rather connect with the feelings and emotions.
It is important that we have the chance to tell our story. It is important to feel heard. Very often, clients find a lot of relief in just sharing their load. One client of mine recently told me I provided them space to ‘scream and shout’: as no-one else would be able to tolerate it. In my experience though, long-lasting change comes from being able to go beyond the words and touch the feelings underneath – as Fritz Perls used to say, “Lose your mind and come to your senses.” For every story we can tell about someone making us angry, underneath there is pain, hurt or rejection.
As the client and I discuss the issue and their attempts to talk and think themselves out of it they come to understand how retreating in to their heads (and ruminating on the story) isn’t moving them anywhere – in fact it can get them more entrenched as they start to believe the stories are actually true (of course, they ARE true to them, but there is a truth for each and every person on the planet and we can’t ALL be right!). Re-telling the story tends to solidify the situation, and in the worst cases we can over identify with it – very often the reason depression sneaks up on people. But even when there is an intellectual realisation that they need to do things differently, there is always* resistance to questions I pose such as “so how does that feel as you tell me that? where can you sense it in your body?” Very often I see the tears well up, the hand may move to the chest – but almost immediately the silence is broken with the words “I think I feel”…commentary re-commences, it is just too painful to stay with the feelings and the intellect comes in to protect like a white knight.
I connect with this struggle on a personal level. For many years I relied on my ability to think my way out of pain – but actually I now see that my thoughts were a layer over the hurt inside. Historically, thinking kept me safe; but it also kept me living on a knife edge. It is stressful trying to stay safe, and it stopped me from living, I mean truly experiencing life. I didn’t want to live a numbed out life anymore. Therapy helped me see that the very strategies that once kept me safe were now out of date and were the shackles that held me back.
“You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn’t mean you’re defective – it just means you’re human.”
― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
If to feel is to be human, what stops us wanting to feel? Where have we learnt that feeling is inferior to thinking? Plain and simple, feeling is painful – why wouldn’t we want a smooth ride, why wouldn’t we want to pad ourselves with cotton wool and keep the hurt out? When I talk with client’s about their experience of pain, the main resistance to turning toward the feelings is one of fearing it will catapult them in to an abyss. “If I let myself feel that, the emotion will overwhelm me”; “If I let myself cry, I’ll never stop”. Crying will break open the dam, an irreversible experience of pain. There is fear of paralysis; and ultimately a fear of annihilation and oblivion.
Have you ever tested this out? Have you allowed yourself to be touched by something sad and allow it to take you over, to truly sob? Chances are if you have found the courage to turn toward your experience, fully, you will have noticed that the crying, the sobbing doesn’t last forever…and in fact great relief can come.
Now this will sound strange for me to reveal this, as I am a purveyor of mindfulness meditation – but the first reaction I had to starting a meditation practice was falling in to depression. For the first time in my life I connected to my inner world on a deeper level – and it froze me. I lived in a fog. However, this was the first step I needed to go through – my hopelessness turned to sadness**. When I started therapy, I learned to connect to- and understand the hurt. My mediation practice at this time was a great bedfellow to the therapeutic work – as it allowed me to sit with the emotions – to feel the pain and learn that I COULD survive it.
“To be free, to come to terms with our lives, we have to have a direct experience of ourselves as we really are, warts and all.”
― Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life
The Buddhist teachings (as with many Western therapeutic models) reveal that true liberation from comes from deep acceptance of ourselves – and I mean the full range of who we are, the dark the light, the happy the sad. Gestalt therapy (which is said to have received input from Zen Buddhism) in fact speaks of the “paradox of change” – clients will come to therapy often wanting change; but relief eventually comes from the acceptance of ‘what is’. When we turn towards our pain, the struggle stops. Pain is not the problem, the struggle is.
Someone who writes a lot about pain – and turning towards rather than away from it – is the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. She suggests:
Feel the feelings and drop the storyline. And this is where a meditation practice helps us’compost’ our experience. In an environment of relative safety (away from the reactive situation that caused the pain) we can sit and just let the sensations flow through us
And it is this allowance of ‘flow’ that brings the healing. Ordinarily, we get caught up by the emotion, or ‘hooked’ (Chodron uses the Tibetan word ‘shenpa’). Emotion is simply energy – if we let the energy rise – and trust it won’t last forever – it will subside. We only get ‘hooked’ when that energy becomes solid, when we make it ‘real’. Linking this with what I say above, it is often the words and story that lock the energy down and stop the flow.
Of course, we all experience pain in many different ways. And, I certainly wouldn’t recommend turning on the feeling tap in extreme states such as trauma***. The ‘turning toward’ processes of therapy and meditation need to be approached with caution. With care and a compassionate attitude to ourselves, we can un-learn the ‘speaking over’ our experience. To drop the words and feel what is underneath; to feel the richness of this human life.
*I rarely generalise, but I have yet to work with a client who gets excited about my offer to explore the felt sense!
**Yes, that IS progress. Wrongly, people confuse depression with sadness – the former is listlessness, the latter a much richer emotion
***Trauma is actually a quite sensible strategy the body has adopted – it is the detachment of the event from any feeling. Re-uniting the narrative and feelings to re-enact the event needs to be a carefully monitored process under the supervision of a trained professional.
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