Mindfulness – our sixth sense: responding to stress

Categories: Education.

At its essence the MBSR was developed as a stress reduction programme. The first classes started in 1979 at what was then called: The Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. This programme was engaging with cultivating a way of learning to respond to the many stressors in our lives including: pain, suffering, chronic illness and many varied difficult life conditions, rather than indulging the reactivity of the mind that is the result of habitual ways of being.  

How we respond to stress, however, is infinitely individual and infinitely dependent on our perceptions of what for us is stressful. None of us have the two same definitions. We may have some tacit agreement that a certain level of distress and suffering is stressful – pain, illness, emotional and spiritual distress, dying, and death, but we cannot be specific on how the individual themselves responds to that stress. This is highly personal and unique. What I may find stressful, another person may not be perturbed by. So what is it that makes the difference? I could go into more depth and detail, but enough perhaps to say that how we respond to stress depends on our own history, experiences, genetic make up, cultural and social environment, our experiences of change, trauma, ability to cope with difficulty, as well as habitual reactivity. 

Herein resides the crux of stress reactivity, our habitual reactivity, our habitual way of defaulting to automatic pilot without engaging choice in the moment. Once we become aware of what it is that causes our body and mind to react to stress with a cascade of hormones that cause changes in breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, gut activity, mental function and more, we have cultivated some capacity for choice. This is the capacity which is developed through mindfulness: The capacity to be aware of what causes us stress, to examine it with curiosity with no attachment to changing the outcome, with kindness and compassion toward our own very human experience. The capacity to trust that in this moment we are okay, no matter what is happening. 

In the past week, if you have been following this series and doing the short meditations and practices, you will have been paying attention to pleasant events. You will have been noticing if you can catch the moment of the experience. Being aware of the event as it unfolded, the sights, the sounds, the sensations, the smells, the emotions, the thoughts, the interaction of what happened, and through this noticing being fully present and engaged with awareness of ‘pleasant’. Even if it may have been a fleeting moment of smelling a rose on Valentine’s Day, eating a piece of chocolate, or drinking a cup of tea, allowing your noticing and senses to be fully engaged in experiencing the pleasant moment. We so often allow the small moments to rush past and give the unpleasant moments more prominence. So in the exercises, we have been reflecting for a moment here on one of these pleasant moments and all that was evoked at that time. 

The task that will be set for this week is noticing the unpleasant moments: allowing them to unfold with kindness and curiosity to the experience that is labeled in your mind as being unpleasant. Seeing if you can be curious as to what this is, what makes it unpleasant, how does the body feel, what are the sensations, where, what are the accompanying thoughts and emotions? Noticing perhaps changes in breath, temperature, heartbeat, skin sensation, and the racing, seemingly knowing mind of how this particular unpleasant event reinforces a habitual pattern of mind. Or does it? Perhaps take some time to bring kind curiosity and attention to what is already here without making up a story about how it is. 

One little girl who showed me the meaning of responding rather than reacting to the certainty of death was a little girl with leukaemia from one of our northern neighbors in South Africa. Going back home to the certainty of very few days she chose to engage with the remaining days she had with laughter and joy, with reconnecting to her faith in the afterlife and the love of her god with dreams and stories, and being nurtured by the care of her loving family. Even though in the end the safety net of medication and medical support we had tried to set up did not work as well as we had hoped, she did not dissolve into despair or fear but continued to chose to be present to life with the joyful heart she had brought to all of her 14 years, showing me how it was possible to not be caught in reactivity of fear and difficulty and distress, even in the face of certain death. 

So this week be curious about what you may be labeling as an unpleasant event, how this may be stressful for you, what your experience is in this moment– body sensations, thoughts, emotions– noting one event per day down in your journal if you wish. 

Continue to work with previous short practices: being with breathing, eating, attending to a daily routine task, and engaging with the body scan with curiosity and kindness and patience and add in this week a short walk meditation practice.

Walking Meditation: 

Spend a few moments attending just to walking. This can be outside or inside. Where ever you feel comfortable.Chose a short particular lane (of your own making) in which to walk. Let your arms be soft, either by your side or held gently in front or behind your body. Allow your eyes to have a gentle focus a short distance in front of your body. Noticing as you walk the sensation of walking in your body, your legs, your feet. Notice the contact and connection made with the surface you are walking on, either barefoot, stocking-footed or with shoes. Notice the action of walking as you are walking – lifting – shifting – placing – lifting – shifting – placing…Noticing breathing, thoughts, other sensations, emotions arising in the moment. If it is helpful, naming these in your head, and letting go of needing to make a story of any of them, returning your attention gently each time to simply noticing walking.

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