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Being with stressful experience

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I am currently doing the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course as a participant. It’s great to be a student again in this capacity – I’m learning lots and feeling quite rejuvenated!

This week’s topic (Week 4) – Investigating stressful experience – was quite timely for me. Our home practice was to take note of one unpleasant experience each day and note the thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise at the time. As the course book says, this exercise is a chance to practice an exploratory attitude rather than a reactive one in the face to difficulty.

Like most people, I have no shortage of unpleasant experiences in my life. Whether it’s a depressed, mellow feeling when I wake up early in the morning, a difficult interaction at work or a headache, I had plenty to work with! On one day, after a rather intense conversation over lunch with an acquaintance, I found myself feeling anxious and headachy. My initial reaction took me back to pre-mindfulness days – panic! ‘Oh no, I’m going to feel worse as the day goes on…why am I feeling like this?…here we go again…What have I done wrong, I have been so good at looking after myself, etc.’ And then I remembered everything I know, have learnt and teach as part of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course and I stopped. I took a breathing space (or did the S.T.O.P practice – Stop, Take a breath, Observe thoughts, breath, body, sounds, etc and then Proceeded) and allowed myself to drop below the story / narrative so that I could sit with the feelings and sensations in my body.

As discussed during this week’s class, when we pay attention to unpleasant experiences, bringing a non-judgmental and observing stance to what is unfolding, we are better able to open up and accept, acknowledge and process our emotions. Rather than amplifying our suffering which is what tends to happen we when resist an unpleasant sensation or experience (suffering = pain x resistance), mindfulness reminds us that there is nothing we need to do other than to observe and be with our experience. As one participant said in the class, ‘It’s a real relief to allow myself to feel my sadness and anxiety rather than feel I have to push it away.’

Given experiencing difficult emotions/feelings is something that unites the human population, I thought a refresher on how to explore difficult emotions/feelings would be helpful. Here are some handy tips from a handout from the Center for Mindfulness, UMass and Openground’s course book:

  1. Identify the emotion, naming it as anger, fear, sadness, guilt, shame, etc
  2. Pay attention to the felt experience of the emotion. Where in your body can you feel it? Is the feeling heavy or light? Moving or still? Hot or cold? What shape is it? Is the sensation moving, or does it stay the same?
  3. Feel the feeling. Allow the anger, fear, sadness, guilt, etc to be there. Don’t inhibit, suppress or ignore it.
  4. Realise the impermanence of all emotions. Emotions arise, stay for a while and then disappear.

 

“Every experience, no matter how wonderful or terrible it may be, will change and pass away. What we are is a process that is continually unfolding into the unknown of each new moment.”

-Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield

This blog post is no substitute for Week 4 of the MBSR course. Like many things, mindfulness has to be practiced and experienced to be understood.

Our next Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course is running shortly – we hope to see you there.

 

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