A Brief Meditation for Anxiety

In an earlier post, I discussed Tara Brach’s explanation of how anxiety-producing self-stories are maintained and the importance of meditation incorporating self-compassion and self-forgiveness to break the cycle of anxiety-producing thoughts.  I have also discussed different approaches to anxiety meditation.   In my last post, I explained Bob Stahl’s 30-minute meditation to reduce fear and anxiety that incorporates a comprehensive body scan and compassionate curiosity towards yourself and others.  This approach could be preceded by reflective writing, an approach Bob recommends for focusing on a single anxiety-producing experience which is explored in terms of its bodily, mental and emotional impact.  An alternative resource is the 30-minute meditation podcast provided by Diana Winston that seeks to deepen the well of ease, leading us to greater self-awareness and consciousness of the depth of our inner resources.

However, you may not have the time required to do these kinds of meditations or reflections.  If you are time-poor, you could practice a brief, three-minute anxiety meditation provided by Zindel Segal, co-developer of MBCT and co-author of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT] for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse.  This resource book for clinicians provides an in-depth explanation of the benefits and process of the three-minute meditation discussed in this blog post.

The Three-Minute Breathing Space

This meditation exercise is incorporated in the 8-week MBCT program and involves a process of awareness raising by assisting you to shift attention, to check-in on yourself and moved on beyond anxiety-producing thoughts. The Three-Minute Breathing Space meditation incorporates three core steps that are each of one-minute duration:

  • 1. Inner awareness of what is happening for you – exploring what is in your mind.  This involves getting in touch with, but not changing, the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that you are experiencing at this moment.  The first step thus involves shifting your attention to inner awareness of “what is”.  This is a passive activity – just watching what is happening for you, as if it is appearing on a “widescreen”.
  • 2. Creating a breathing space – moving away from the focus on your thoughts to a complete, undivided focus on your breath.  This grounding approach involves checking-in on the sensations of your body as you breath in and out.  You could concentrate on the rise and fall of your stomach as you take a breath and release it.  This calming breathing activity enables you to move away from whatever anxiety-provoking thoughts are preoccupying you and creating a “breathing space” to enable you to move on.  The secret is to give your mind a single thing to do – focus on your breath. 
  • 3. Expanding awareness – incorporating inner and outer awareness. The first step at this stage is to widen your awareness to your whole body – the sensation of sitting and its impact on every part of your body, your body on-the-chair.  Next you move your attention beyond your body to what is immediately impacting on it – the air flow on your body, the sounds reaching your ears. Finally, you move your attention to the room encasing your body.  You can then gradually return to full awareness by taking a few deep breaths and opening your eyes (if you have closed them to focus better).

As we grow in mindfulness through various forms of anxiety meditation, whether brief or extended, we can build the capacity to manage our anxiety-provoking thoughts and achieve a level of calm and equanimity that creates a sense of ease amongst the (sometimes turbulent) waves of life.

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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.

A Meditation for Facing Fear and Anxiety

Bob Stahl, co-author of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook for Anxiety, provides a 30 -minute meditation for facing fear and anxiety that I will discuss in this post.  Bob is a Master Mindfulness Teacher who has developed multiple MBSR programs for hospitals and members of the medical professions.  He is active on multiple fronts – author, developer of the Mindfulness Training Institute, and a professional educator and innovator with the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

How meditation and mindfulness can help to reduce anxiety

Mindfulness can calm feelings of anxiety because it enables you to face fear and anxiety in all their intensity (rather than attempt avoidance which is harmful); it assists you to access the well of ease within you; and “creates space around your anxieties” so that you are not exhausted and totally consumed by their pervasiveness and relentlessness.

Our anxieties deepen when we indulge in harmful self-stories and thoughts about what might happen which typically involve “fearing the worst”.  These stories and thoughts can overwhelm us and take our focus away from the present moment and effective, mindful living.  The feelings of fear and anxiety can be experienced as a whirlpool with the sensation of being caught in an ever-deepening vortex of water – drowning in the whirling immersion.

Mindfulness and meditation can still the whirlpool of emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations; calm the mind and body; and open the way for creative exploration of options to address the presenting issues or catalyst for the anxiety and fear.

A meditation for facing fear and anxiety

At the heart of the anxiety meditation offered by Bob (Practice #2) is a body scan that not only opens awareness of what you are sensing in your body but also awareness of your debilitating thoughts and the full range and depth of emotions you are experiencing (which we often deny or avoid because they are too painful).

Bob proceeds through a series of steps that I will summarise below (however, I encourage you to undertake the anxiety meditation by listening to Bob):

  • 1. Congratulate yourself for taking the time and effort to undertake this meditation and to experience the vulnerability it entails.
  • 2.Undertake a preliminary check-in to sense how you are feeling, thinking and experiencing bodily sensations.  Reinforce your intention to face your fear and anxiety.
  • 3.Bring your attention to your breath gently – focusing on the rise and fall of your stomach as you breathe in and out.  Just breathe naturally without force to enable the calming influence of your breath to take over from the controlling influence of your thoughts and feelings.
  • 4.Shifting your focus to a body scan – the scan that Bob offers is very comprehensive, starting with your feet and ankles and working slowly through your whole body to the top of your head.  What adds to the power of this body scan is Bob’s way of linking each part of the body to its place in the body’s systems, e.g. your heart and circulatory system, your lungs and respiratory system. 
  • 5.Accept what happens as you “breathe into your whole body” – if there is tension or tightness, let it be,; if your body releases the tension, let that softening sensation be; or if thoughts and/or feelings arise, let them be.  Just stay with your breath, notice what is happening and let go – an act of trust in the process.
  • 6. Explore thoughts that generate fear or anxiety with compassionate curiosity – investigate gently their underlying causes and acknowledge this influence without trying to over-analyse.
  • 7.Extend compassion to your feelings – let them be to the level of intensity that you can handle.  Sometimes, this may mean just “wading into the water” of your anxiety.
  • 8. Become grounded in your breath again – withdraw from the compassionate inquiry to rest in the natural flow of your breathing.  You might find it useful to undertake this grounding at various stages throughout the meditation to lower the intensity of your thoughts/feelings. 
  • 9. Notice your thoughts – observe the ever-changing character of your thoughts and how they come and go.  Bob suggests you view them as “the clouds in the sky” passing by, rarely stopping as they are carried along by the breeze or wind.  See whatever happens as just “floating by”.
  • 10. Think of others who may be experiencing fear and anxiety – extend your wellness wishes to them in the hope that they too will become free.

As we grow in mindfulness through this anxiety meditation, we become better able to accept what is, experience our bodily sensations and feelings, break free of the stranglehold of our anxious thoughts and experience once again the ease of well-being.  Bob suggests that we view this anxiety meditation as an “internal weather report” and congratulate ourselves for being able to “acclimate ourselves to our fears”.

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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.

How to Be With Stress Rather Than Avoid It

Dr. Nate Klemp and Eric Langshur provide an interesting perspective on stress management in their article, Being With Stressful Moments Rather Than Avoiding Them. They contend that if we use mindfulness to do away with or avoid stress, we are not being mindful – we are not being with what is. They contend that our beliefs about stress frequently impede our capacity to deal with stress in our lives – our beliefs serve as a disabler rather than an enabler. Nate and Eric suggest a process that enables us to be with the stress rather than avoid it.

Stressors take many forms

There are many stressors that can occur in life through adverse situations, damaging relationships or one-off conversations. What is a stressor for one person may not be for another, partly because of the self-stories that we perpetuate. Our experience of stress varies over time – in one period of our lives, we can be relatively stress-free, while in another we can experience a range of stressors that build up and make us lose our patience and equilibrium.

Stress can arise at home through the suffering of a daughter or son, through conflict in intimate relationships or financial problems impacting our quality of life. Stress can arise at work through job overload, role conflict or ambiguity, conflict with colleagues or dealing with an unskilled manager. Stress is cumulative over time with each form of stress adding to another.

Our limiting beliefs about stress

Nate and Eric identify two primary beliefs that impede our capacity to deal with stress and lead us to try to avoid stress – which is an ever-present reality in our daily lives:

  1. The belief that we should get rid of stress from our lives – that we should always be in a state of ease and wellness. This belief can lead us to use mindfulness meditation to avoid stress rather than engage it as it is happening. The authors suggest that denying or trying to remove stress is not being mindful because mindfulness involves being “with whatever is arising, pleasurable, painful, comfortable, or uncomfortable” – not denying what is happening in our thoughts, feelings and bodily experience.
  2. The belief that stress is bad – that is should be avoided at all costs. Research shows that our “stress mindset” can change our experience of stress and that stress, provided it is not chronic, can be good for us because it promotes personal growth, both mentally and physically. Kelly McGonigal suggests ways to make stress our friend.

The combination of these beliefs can aggravate our experience of stress because it can lead us to feel resentful or angry that our sense of ease has been disturbed or destroyed.

Being with stress

Nate and Eric, who are the authors of the book Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Well-Being, offer a process to enable us to be with stress rather than avoid it. They describe this process as Notice-Shift-Rewire:

  • Notice – in common with other meditation practices, their process involves noticing what is. This requires us to be with our full experience – our feelings, our bodily sensations and our thoughts. They particularly focus on the thoughts/mindset relating to “stress aversion” – the desire to be free of all stress.
  • Shift – this requires shifting from judging the experience of stress as “bad” and acknowledging, non-judgmentally, the way we are experiencing the stress.
  • Rewire – staying with what we are experiencing in all its manifestations while letting go of attempts to avoid the stress.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices that help us to be with what is, we can develop our capacity to deal with stress, rather than avoid or deny it. The Notice-Shift-Rewire process can help us to be really present to what we are experiencing, more effectively “navigate stress” and build our resilience.

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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.

Happiness Through Mindfulness

Shinzen Young, an internationally renowned meditation teacher, identified multiple ways that mindfulness meditation can contribute to our experience of happiness. In one of his videos – titled Why Meditate? – he identifies five specific aspects contributing to happiness that are enhanced by meditation. I will discuss these aspects below.

Five ways meditation contributes to happiness

  1. Managing pain – neuroscience research strongly supports the view that meditation can reduce the suffering experienced by people in chronic pain. Jon Kabat-Zinn, through his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program, has shown that meditation can provide genuine pain relief. Diana Winston highlights the fact that pain is an inevitable part of human existence, but we have the choice through meditation of reducing our sense of pain (which is often exacerbated by the stories we tell ourselves and others about being-in-pain). She offers a meditation practice for dealing with pain.
  2. Heightened fulfillment – a sense of satisfaction from doing what you set out to do or realising some aspects of what you see as your real purpose in life. Stephen Cope explains how meditation can assist us to progress along the four-stage path to realising and actioning our true purpose.
  3. Understanding our self – Shinzen maintains that meditation leads to a deep level of self-understanding, learning who we really are. This self-awareness develops through meditation as we progressively challenge our self-stories and negative self-evaluation.
  4. Improvements in behaviour – through meditation we can identify our reactivity and the inappropriate ways we behave. We can also develop the intention to change our behaviour, the motivation to realise this change and the reinforcement of the change through savouring achievements in desired behavioural change.
  5. Contribution through selfless service – a spirit of serving the needs of others and helping them to realise happiness in their lives. This sense of service brings its own personal rewards and, according to Richard Barrett, represents the highest level of psychosocial development. Shinzen argues that this level of achievement is the natural outcome from realising the other four aspects of happiness mentioned above.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we can suffer less from our pain, experience fulfillment in our life, develop a deeper self-understanding, achieve desired behavioural changes and be in a good place personally to contribute to the service of others and their achievement of happiness. In turn, we will enhance our own experience of happiness and the equanimity of a life well-lived.

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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.

How to Do Those Difficult Tasks That You Avoid or Put Off Doing

We all have tasks that we ought to do, or want to do, but that we avoid or put off because they are difficult or challenging. Sometimes our negative self-stories get in the road, other times we may have developed the habit of procrastinating without knowing why. We find ways to distract ourselves from the task or take on other tasks that are not important or time-sensitive. We may have difficulty building up the energy to tackle the task in addition to overcoming the personal barriers we create that prevent us from completing the task.

Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits blog, offers a comprehensive strategy to address this problem of avoiding or putting off tasks. In his article, How to Do Your Scariest Tasks of the Day – with Joy, he introduces an approach that he describes as creating a “training container”. He discusses how to develop the training container and offers a number of steps to encourage you to undertake the associated training in a spirit of joy.

Creating a training container to develop the habit of tackling a difficult task

Leo is an internationally recognised expert on developing habits – he has 2 million readers who seek out his wisdom in this area. The training container (or dedicated block of time) acts as a routine (for a new habit) that can be developed to suit your own personal and work style and that, with persistence, becomes an integral part of your day (just like any other training or gym regimen).

The key elements for creating a training container are:

  1. Set aside a time of the day when you train yourself to do the task. It’s important to allocate a set time that suits your lifestyle and/or work pattern that you can dedicate to the training. I’m a morning person, so I find that mornings are best for training myself to complete a difficult task. You can let others know about your dedicated time and even set up a reminder through the alarm on your mobile phone. The time set aside may change as your circumstances change, e.g. when I was writing my PhD, I used to write at 4am for two hours before our baby woke up and before the phones started to ring.
  2. Set aside a place for this training. You can find a space that is different to your normal place of working so that you break free of environmental blockages associated with your procrastination. If I have a difficult task to work on, I go away from my office and work at the kitchen table (with a view) or go to a tolerant, coffee shop. If you have a recurrent difficult task, you can go to an alternative space daily and treat it as your training space.
  3. Set up a ritual for starting your scary/difficult task. Leo, who happens to be a mindfulness expert among other things, encourages you to develop a ritual at the start to focus on your intention and commitment to dedicate your attention fully to your task. This helps you to undertake your task mindfully, fully utilising the opportunity that the training container provides.
  4. Focus on a single task during your training session, do not multi-task. I learnt early on that if I start the morning with reading emails, I get side-tracked very easily and hours can pass before I get back to my difficult task or have to put it off to another day. If you find that you feast on the news, you will have to develop the discipline to put off chasing the news until you have finished your training session. This discipline of undertaking a single task during your training session, not only builds your capacity to focus but also enhances your productivity.
  5. Revisit your “why”. You need to get in touch with the fundamental reason you want to do the difficult task – Who are you doing it for?, Who will benefit from it? In my case, I try to keep my focus on my readers who come from all walks of life but who share many common personal difficulties that impact negatively on their lives. Richardo Semler suggests that you ask yourself three “why’s” to get to your deeper purpose. Focusing on purpose builds motivation.
  6. Express gratitude at the completion of your training session. Leo suggests that initially you set a timer for your training session. He urges you not to rush off to something else when the session is completed, but to take the time for a brief gratitude meditation. As he puts it, “Bow to the practice, and to yourself, out of gratitude.” In the long run, you will certainly be grateful for having set aside the time, place and focus for your training container.

I have found these tactics very useful in creating the discipline and focus to write this blog. Yesterday, I completed my 300th post. I now have a set time and place every second day when I write my blog and maintain a single focus throughout the research and writing involved. I have found, too, that some preparatory work in the form of thinking or research before my writing day also helps me to start writing because I am not starting from a blank sheet. So, jotting down some notes during the day may be helpful when you come to tackle your task within the training container.

Training with joy

Leo provides a number of ideas to help you bring joy to the challenge of completing your training session. Two of these steps – dropping into your body & staying with your sensations – are consistent with my previous discussion on managing anxiety with mindfulness.

Leo also suggests that playing some music can help to achieve the mindset and focus necessary to realise joy in undertaking your difficult task. I play classical music when I write this blog. I find that Mozart’s music strengthens my concentration and increases my relaxation. I have yet to follow Leo’s final step, “Dance with the chaos- let your body move to the music”. He also suggests that the dance can be figurative in the sense of having fun while you are encountering uncertainty and venturing into an aspect of your life that you used to avoid or put off.

As we grow in mindfulness – by bringing a disciplined, mindful, focused, curious, grateful and joyful attention to a difficult task – we can experience greater productivity, energy and sense of achievement. Overcoming procrastination takes time and persistence but having a plan like the “training container” can help us to remove the blockages that get in the road of achieving our tasks and associated, meaningful endeavours.

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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.

Committed Mindfulness Practice to Challenge our Self-Stories

Tara Brach reminds us why our negative self-stories are so persistent and difficult to dislodge. Sometimes our stories can help to protect us by warning us about real dangers. Often our self-stories are based on an irrational fear that has its origins in our childhood. If we are to challenge these stories and change our negative thoughts, beliefs and patterns of behaviour we need to be committed to a consistent mindfulness practice that unearths the stories damaging our lives and our relationships.

Stories can blind us to creative options

Fear-based stories tend to cloud our perceptions and obscure our thinking, so that creative exploration of options is closed off to us. If we are dealing with difficulties in our relationships or undertaking a challenging task, we can be blinded by the negative self-stories that capture our thinking and lock out consideration of alternative approaches. It is in stillness and silence that we can access our creativity – the noise of incessant negative, inner dialogue can disable us because the embedded fear triggers the amygdala (the most primitive part of our brain) and our automatic fight/flight response.

The starting point for self-exploration

The starting point for self-exploration can be identification of a blockage to taking action on some issue or problem, whether associated with a relationship or an endeavour. If we find we are procrastinating, if is a sure sign that some form of negative self-story is playing in the background, on an unconscious level. As we discussed previously, the challenge is to bring these stories “above the line” – into our conscious awareness.

When we are faced with a perceived threat or the possibility of embarrassment, we tend to fall back on the illusory sense of control embodied in our self-stories and fail to exercise the values that we espouse as important such as “honesty, collaboration and fairness”. Bob Dick, in his research paper on Rethinking Leadership, asserts that in this scenario we try to “control the situation” and, in the process, desert our espoused values. Our sole focus is on self-protection.

Challenging our self-stories through a commitment to mindfulness practice

While ever we remain unaware of our negative self-stories or fail to face up to them when we become aware of their existence, we will be held captive and blinded by them. They can be persistent and pervasive. Addressing them in a single mindfulness session will be inadequate to prevent their recurrence. Negative self-stories are like weeds – you remove them from some aspect of your life, and they pop up elsewhere in a slightly different form. Even with persistent and focused meditation, negative self-stories will not be removed entirely. However, their negative impact on our lives will be reduced with committed mindfulness practice – what Tara calls “dedicated practice”. She encourages us, in the words of Henri Nouwen, “to push aside and silence the many voices” that question our worthiness and basic goodness.

The difficulty in trying to build any new, positive habit is being able to sustain the effort. Without sustained mindfulness practice, however, our self-stories will continue to hold us to ransom and control our beliefs, thoughts and actions. We need to become conscious of the damaging effects of these stories and to frequently recall the benefits of the freedom and creativity afforded to us through mindfulness practice. We can reinforce our commitment by revisiting the sense of expansiveness and self-realisation that mindfulness releases in us.

As we grow in mindfulness, through reflection and committed mindfulness practice, we can engage in self-exploration, unearth our negative self-stories and their damaging effects, experience openness to self-realisation and creativity, and rest in the calmness of our relaxed breathing.

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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.

Our Self-Stories Perpetuate Anxiety

We live in an anxious world where the prevalence of anxiety disorder has reached epidemic proportions in Australia, even in primary school children. This increasing level of anxiety disorder is mirrored in the reported experience in America. Underlying this growth in anxiety are self-stories that have a significant, negative impact on relationships. A core problem encountered when trying to eliminate these negative self-stories is the range of forces that keep them in place and cement their hold over us.

Tara Brach, in her course on overcoming negative beliefs and patterns of thought, argues that fear-based stories dominate our mental maps. In respect to our relationships, these stories suggest what we should be and what others should be – an impossible realisation that generates anxiety because of the gap between our self-perception/ perception of others and some idealised reality.

How self-stories are maintained

Tara argues that there are three factors that sustain our self-stories and perpetuate our anxiety:

  1. Our self-stories involve “deep groves in the psyche” – we continuously repeat an inner dialogue that creates neural pathways that deepen over time as the cycle of thought- fear-manifestation becomes more deeply embedded through repetition. Fear generates a biochemical reaction which becomes an automated response and maintains the experience of anxiety as a persistent state.
  2. We are reticent to share our self-stories that betray our uncertainty, anxiety and inability to cope. We keep them to ourselves and, because we do not expose them to the “light of day” by sharing them with others, we become more and more captured by them and identified with them over time.
  3. We cling to these negative self-stories because they give us a semblance of control which is illusory. We maintain these stories because they are reinforced by our distorted perception of our past experience. As Tara points out, we prefer to have “a deficient map rather than no map at all” – even though this gives us a false sense of security. The “disease to please” is one such deficient map.

Breaking the cycle of anxiety-producing self-stories

Tara maintains that it takes a lot of courage, persistence and self-compassion to break down the anxiety-inducing, negative self-stories. The more difficult self-stories to counter are those that are based on a perception that our life situation will only worsen not get better – a precursor to depression.

It takes courage to face up to the self-stories that negatively impact our relationships and to look beyond the stories to what underlies them, e.g. fear of rejection. It takes persistence to continue this self-exploration despite relapses brought on by self-recrimination over beliefs such as “this should not be happening to me” or “I should not be like this”. In the final analysis, it requires self-compassion and self-forgiveness to break out of the vicious cycle of self-talk that perpetuates anxiety.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can throw some light on our self-stories that negatively impact our relationships. With courage and persistence, we can break the anxiety-producing cycle of these stories by accessing self-compassion and self-forgiveness.

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Image by skeeze on 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.

The Self-Story Behind Procrastination: Bringing the Story Above the Line

In a previous post, we explored the storytelling mind that leads to self-stories that negatively impact our relationships and thwart our endeavours. The impact of these stories is that we become stuck in a pattern of responses (or lack of response) that impedes our progress towards successfully accomplishing our goals. Procrastination, the art of “putting off” some action, is one such habituated pattern.

The self-stories behind procrastination

Procrastination can block us at any time in relation to any endeavour. Behind procrastination there is often a self-story based on fear. It can take many forms and block us from taking action:

  • “I might appear as a fraud or hypocrite because I do not always do what I encourage others to do.”
  • “I could appear stupid because people might not understand what I am getting at.”
  • “I could make a fool of myself because I lack the intelligence to take on this endeavour and be successful.”
  • “I may not be able to live up to the expectations of others if I start on this project.”
  • “What would happen if I fail?”
  • “Will people be upset with me and think less of me if it does not work out really well?”
  • “What will happen to my reputation if things go wrong and don’t turn out as I had promised?”
  • “How can I possibly live up to so many diverse expectations of me?”

Bringing the procrastination self-stories “above the line”

Fear embedded in our self-stories can block us from taking action. The first step to redressing this situation is to identify, or “throw light on”, the stories that underpin our fear. In the previous post, I discussed the “circle of awareness” that depicts our unconscious awareness as existing “below the line”. Tara Brach suggests that the aim in dealing with mental and emotional blocks to our progress is to bring these underlying self-stories “above the line” so that we can loosen the hold of our false beliefs and self-defeating stories.

You can bring the self-stories into conscious awareness (above-the-line awareness), by taking several steps that can break your procrastination pattern:

  1. Identify the self-stories that are blocking your progress, naming the story – “What are you saying to yourself when confronted with a challenging or stretching endeavour?”
  2. Get in touch with the feelings that are generated by your procrastination self-stories
  3. Revisit the parental influences that underly the stories that you are telling yourself
  4. Examine any pattern that may be occurring in your stories
  5. Reflect on any life experiences that have served to “solidify” your false beliefs and self-stories – What has happened in your life to reinforce these beliefs and stories?

The impact of life experiences in solidifying self-stories was brought home to me during a workshop I was facilitating on the power of positive feedback. One manager reflected on why she had stopped giving positive feedback to her staff over the previous five years. She recalled a negative experience of giving positive feedback to a staff member where the recipient turned on her and was abusive towards her. The manager from then on maintained the self-story, “Whenever I give positive feedback, the person receiving it will attack me.” It was only when she reflected on the previous negative experience and brought her self-story to light, i.e. above the line, that she could see what had been holding her back from using the power of positive feedback. She resolved “then and there” to begin again to give positive feedback in a timely, sincere and specific manner that would ensure her success in this endeavour.

Self-stories that lead to procrastination lose their power over time if brought into the full light of consciousness, so that they can be seen for what they are – seemingly true but fundamentally false. Tara encourages the regular practice of bringing self-stories above the line – they will recur throughout your life as you face new challenges or may take on a new shape (as Tara publicly acknowledges, her own self-story challenge has oscillated between “self-deflation” [less than others…] to “self-inflation” [more than others…]).

The repetition of the practice of bringing self-stories above the line, creates new neural pathways so that the self-defeating stories are eventually replaced by self-enabling beliefs and stories. You can strengthen these new neural pathways by developing success “anchors” – alternative stories of successful outcomes that you have achieved.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can develop the capacity to throw light on our procrastination self-stories and bring them “above the line” by naming them, identifying patterns of false beliefs, disowning self-defeating stories and creating new neural pathways that facilitate our pursuit of successful, creative endeavours.

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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.

Expose Self-Stories Through Awareness Raising

Tara Brach in her course on negative beliefs and thoughts highlights the fact that as humans we have a “storytelling mind”. We develop “self-stories” that influence the way we view ourselves, perceive others and relate to the world at large. These self-stories evolve over time and exist below our level of consciousness. Tara maintains that we can overcome the limitations of these stories about our self by “shining a light” on them through awareness raising – achieved through mindfulness practices.

Our storytelling mind

Archaeologists, through the discovery of drawings and fossils, argue that humans developed the capacity for abstract thought more than 100,000 years ago. This enabled humans to think about things beyond their immediate observations – to envision, engage in symbolic thinking and develop language.

The capacity for abstract thinking underlies our innate preoccupation with developing stories, especially self-stories. Many of our self-stories, however, are fear-based Joseph Campbell described this propensity for fear as the “survival brain”. We fear physical and or psychological harm because of our human origins. Jacob Ham contrasts the survival brain with what he calls the “learning brain”. The former is totally focused on potential threats and is fearful about new situations and ambiguity, whereas the latter is open to new experiences and the challenges inherent in ambiguity – it is not preoccupied with avoiding mistakes.

Self-stories are unconscious – beyond awareness

Our self-stories develop through parental influences, social factors and our own life experiences. The messages we receive from our parents and society at large, influence the formation of our self-stories which, in turn, impact our relationships and our endeavours. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes these stories as “narratives” that can control our thinking, emotions and behaviour.

While self-stories influence our perception of threats and drive our behaviour, they are below conscious awareness. Joseph Campbell highlights this aspect with his concept of the “Circle of Awareness“. He suggests that we can think of our “self” or “psyche” as illustrated by a circle with a line through it – above the line represents conscious awareness and below the line represents our unconscious. We can increase our conscious awareness (above the line segment) by accessing our unconscious awareness through mindfulness.

As humans we have what scientists describe as meta-cognition – the ability to “think about thinking”. In other, words we have the capacity to access our thoughts, our stories and our internal representations of external reality. This meta-cognitive ability enables us to access our unconscious stories through awareness-raising processes designed to expose these self-stories.

Exposing our self-stories through awareness raising

Tara offers a very simple way to access your self-stories that may be locking you into ways of feeling and behaving. This mindfulness practice can be undertaken once you have grounded yourself through conscious bodily awareness and mindful breathing.

The practice entails picturing a time and place where you were with your parents as a child – e.g. the dinner table, the card table, on the sofa watching TV or lying on the floor with the pet dog. Now you turn your attention to your parents and how they are viewing and interacting with you – are they making eye contact at all, asking your views, listening to you mindfully or are they communicating with you without eye contact, ignoring your presence or talking over the top of you all the time. What messages are you receiving from this “interaction”?

In various, subtle ways, often below their level of consciousness, your parents are communicating messages to you and about you. These messages and others you receive, can shape your self-stories, e.g.

  • I need to go out of my way to attract attention, so that people will acknowledge me and value my opinion
  • I need to be nice and constantly meet other’s needs to be sure that I can be loved and valued (a self-story that can lead to “the disease to please“)
  • I should be “seen and not heard”
  • I will only be accepted when I am successful with everything I do
  • I cannot make a mistake, otherwise I will be rejected
  • Risk is to be avoided at all costs
  • I have to show people how intelligent, capable and accomplished I am before people will listen to me and take me seriously.

Tara argues that when you can name your self-stories, they lose their power to control you – to influence your thoughts, emotions and behaviour.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can expose our self-stories, increase our awareness of how they impact our lives and relationships and reduce their (unconscious) hold over us.

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Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

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

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