Mindfulness – A Pathway to Emotional Agility

Dr. Susan David in her 2017 TEDWomen’s Talk, spoke about the gift and power of emotional courage – the willingness to face our emotions in all their diversity and strength.  She stated that research demonstrates that denying or suppressing emotions leads to strengthening emotions and can make people aggressive. Other research shows that such denial or suppression induces unhealthy coping behaviours and contributes to serious mental and physical health problems. Sometimes we suppress emotions because we think that this is what we should do – we take our cues from social norms or established unwritten rules operating in the workplace.   

In her book, Emotional Agility, Susan argues that radical acceptance of our emotions, however difficult, is essential to be able to bounce back from setbacks and lead a productive, happy life.  Her main premise is that denial of emotions develops personal rigidity – the inability to be flexible and move with the ups and downs of life.  She maintains that, on the other hand, radical acceptance of emotions builds resilience and “emotional agility” – the capacity to deal with the complexity of an uncertain and ever-changing world. 

Susan warns us about the “tyranny of positive” – the social expectation that we do not express what is viewed as negative emotions – such as anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment or envy.  We are expected in many situations “to put on a brave face” and deny how we really feel.  She discusses the “destructive power of denial” not only in terms of being injurious to health and well-being but also in disabling us and preventing us from developing effective or creative responses to our situation. 

How to overcome rigidity and build emotional agility

In her presentation and book, Susan offers several suggestions that can assist us to develop emotional agility:

  • Stop labelling emotions as “good” or bad” – they are just feelings that we experience as a result of our perceptions and are a part of normal, daily living
  • Change your mindset to accept that “discomfort is the price of a meaningful life” – a way of living that is designed to make a difference for ourselves and others. This is a part of accepting “what is”.
  • Name your feelings but do so accurately and specifically – so instead of saying “I’m stressed” (a generic state), identify the real feeling in all it’s intensity and contours, e.g. “I’m bitterly disappointed because I missed out on that promotion” or “I am continually very resentful that Joe caused me so much work and embarrassment by his words and actions”.  We tend to fudge the emotion to take some of the heat and negativity out of it.  Accurate description and radical acceptance of our emotions lead to a genuine release and frees us to explore productive ways of thinking and acting.  This may entail a progressive realisation of the true nature of our feelings as we reflect or meditate, e.g. by undertaking the R.A.I.N. meditation
  • Recall Susan’s statement that “emotions are data, not directives” – we can establish control over our emotions through meditation and by developing self-regulation.  The starting point is naming and accepting them. 
  • Ask yourself, “What is my emotion telling me about my current situation” – e.g. “Is it informing me that my current job is destroying my motivation and/or deskilling me?

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the true nature of our feelings, name them accurately and accept them as part of trying to live a life aligned with our values and what is meaningful for us.  It sometimes takes time to unearth the real nature and intensity of our feelings because we so often disown them.  Persistence in our self-exploration and self-compassion opens the way for us to be more emotionally agile and more open to life’s experiences, including the potentially challenging aspects of moving outside our comfort zone.                      

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Image by Holger Langmaier from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Inertia: A Sign of Feeling Vulnerable?

Previously, I explored ways to overcome our defence mechanisms designed to protect us from vulnerability. I’ve also explored how being vulnerable can improve our contribution and our relationships. In this post, I want to look at the relationship between inertia and feeling vulnerable.

Experiencing inertia

Inertia according to the Oxford Dictionary is a “tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged” – a trait often ascribed to bureaucratic organisations but experienced by most of us at some point in our lives. When I was an active academic, I used to be approached by potential higher degree students who would say, “I really want to do a doctoral degree, but I don’t seem to be able to get started.”

My first word of advice to them was not to start a doctoral degree – which involves study, research and concentrated effort over several years – unless they have a research topic that they are passionate about. Without the passion, research students are unable to sustain the effort and focus required to achieve their desired outcome, the award of a doctoral degree. This principle of passion and enthusiasm can apply to any endeavour requiring a sustained effort over a long period.

Behind inertia – feeling vulnerable

When the potential student reassures me that they have a topic that they are passionate about, I then explore with them why they have been unable to take action, to start on the path towards their degree. Invariably, their response identifies vulnerability as the source of their inertia – “I may not be intelligent enough to do the research.”; “No one may be interested in what I want to research!”; “I have not written anything lengthy before.”; “What if I fail the doctoral examination?”; “I don’t know anyone who could supervise me.”; “My writing may not be good enough.”; and similar expressions of feeling vulnerable.

Often the advice to people who are unable to make progress on something that they really want to achieve is to start somewhere, anywhere that will put them on the path to their desired outcome. In the case of a potential doctoral study, this may mean reading around the topic to explore the area, generate heightened interest or identify potential resource people. While this is very good advice, it may not overcome a person’s fear of feeling vulnerable, particularly if it is deep-seated – resulting from prior traumatic experiences or from being “wounded”.

Exploring the vulnerability behind inertia

Often, we need to deal with our deepest fears before we can move forward or take action on something that we really want to do. One way into this is to clearly identify the underlying sources of our sense of being vulnerable. This can be achieved progressively through meditation, but it will require complete honesty with our self. Excuses are often avoidance strategies, not legitimate reasons for not taking action.

You can start a meditation to explore your inertia by becoming grounded, through your posture and breathing in the first instance. You can gradually move to exploring the bodily sensations that arise when you focus on the endeavour you are trying to start on. You can notice these sensations – tightness, tension, nervous movements – and focus on them and try to release them through your breathing.

Once you have been able to settle down your bodily reactions, you can begin to explore the feelings behind the bodily sensations – fear, anxiety, concern, worried, wary, troubled, insecure, guarded, apprehensive or other associated feeling that indicates that you are feeling vulnerable. You need to be able to name your feelings to be able to reduce their impact and to release the hold on your energy. Once you have identified these feelings and faced them, you can move forward.

The next phase of this exploration of the vulnerability behind inertia is to identify the fear-inducing thoughts that you unconsciously entertain and that give rise to these feelings of being vulnerable. The thoughts could be, “I’m not good enough.”; “What if I fail?; “What if I make a fool of myself?”; “What If people see through me?”; “What if I get stuck and do not know what to say?’; “What if I have nothing really worthwhile to contribute?”; and so on. Invariably, you will be dealing with a lot of “what if’s” – betraying your mind’s negative orientation.

You can face these thoughts and deal with them by asking, “Is this outcome likely to happen?”; “What could I do to reduce the likelihood of it happening – how can I plan appropriately?”; “If it does happen, can I deal with it?” We tend to catastrophize – think of the worst possible outcome – which, in turn, blocks our taking action.

Once you have dealt with the sensations, feelings and thoughts associated with your inertia and sense of feeling vulnerable, you can move forward by planning and taking some action to move yourself towards your goal. It may take a number of practices of this meditation before you can move forward – the time and effort required will depend on how deeply embedded is your sense of vulnerability.

As we grow in mindfulness – awareness of our inner and outer reality -through meditation on our inertia and its manifestation (in our bodily sensations, our feelings and thoughts), we can release our blocked energy and gradually move forward to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of MMckein on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog. 

Overcoming the Obstacle of Doubt During Meditation

I have previously discussed a range of obstacles that can impact on our attempts at meditation – aversion, sleepiness, desire and restlessness. Today I want to concentrate on “doubt” as an obstacle or source of distraction during meditation.

Doubt is a common experience during meditation, particularly for people who are at the early stages of meditation practice.  We can doubt ourselves. whether we are doing it right or whether we are progressing at some ideal rate.  We can also doubt the process of meditation itself because we are so easily distracted, or we may not be experiencing the benefits that are claimed for meditation practice.

It is a common experience in learning any new skill, such as playing tennis, that we will have doubts and some confusion about what we are trying to learn.  It is also easy to give up when we are in the early stages because we are conscious of our incompetence.  Early on in meditation practice we are assailed with all kinds of obstacles and we can experience the strong temptation to give it away.  However, persistence pays in meditation as in other facets of our life.

We can find it really difficult to deal with the endless thoughts that assail us during meditation – the distraction of things to do, mistakes made, future pleasant events and related desire, impending difficulties or current challenges.  By letting these thoughts pass us by and returning to our focus, we are building our “meditation muscle” – our capacity to restore our focus no matter what the distraction or how often distractions occur.

With persistence in meditation we are able to bring our renewed level of self-awareness and self-management more and more into our daily lives – to overcome the challenges, tests of our patience and disturbances to our equanimity.

Overcoming doubt during meditation

Diana Winston, in her meditation podcast on managing doubt during meditation, provides us with some sound advice on ways to overcome these doubts as we meditate:

  • Accept the doubts – acknowledge the doubt as the reality of “what is” for you at the present moment. Focusing on the doubt and its manifestation in your body, enables you to name your feelings associated with the doubt and to “look it in the face”, rather than hide from it.
  • Don’t beat up on yourself – doubts assail everyone, particularly in the early stages of engaging in meditation practice.  The doubts themselves can lead to negative self-evaluation if you think you are the only one who has doubts.
  • Spend more time on being grounded during meditation – this process can take us out of our doubts and ground us more fully in the present moment.  Diana suggests, for example, spending more time on scanning your body for tension and letting go to soften the muscles in your abdomen, shoulders, back or neck.  Another suggestion she makes is to focus on the sounds around you – listening to them without judgement as to whether you like them or not, just focusing on the sound itself.
  • Remind yourself of your motivation in doing meditation – are you practising meditation to gain self-control, improved concentration, calmness in the face of stress, improved resilience in dealing with difficult situations or general wellness? If you can focus in on your motivation, you will be better able to sustain your meditation practice.  Learning any new skill takes time and practice and a sustained vision of the end goal.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can overcome doubts that serve as obstacles to our progress.  We can avoid the self-defeating cycle of indulging our doubts – our indulged doubts impact the effectiveness of our meditation which, in turn, increases our doubts about the value of meditation for us when we are already time-poor.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of danymena88 on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.