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Mindfulness for Just About Everything

von Paramabandhu

... in downtown San Francisco, trying to navigate by myself...
driving on the wrong side of the road... [LOUD LAUGHTER]... in a car where I couldn't
work out how it worked; it was complete scary monsters! But – you know – a couple of
days later I'm driving around like I've lived here all my life... so it is really good that we
can do automatic pilot.

...But it can be a real nuisance as well. For example, sometimes there might be something
that is niggling away at you and you just don't clock it – and it might be that you are in a
bit of a bad mood. But actually, because you've not clocked it, and not really faced it,
then it can control you, because we get pushed around by our mental states if we are not
aware of them.

Particularly if you suffer from, or are prone to, depression, what can happen is that maybe
your mood has just gone down a bit for some reason or other, and then that can start
triggering negative thoughts, and then that can lead to the mood going down a bit more,
and it gets into a downward spiral... and that can very quickly escalate out of control if
it's not caught. If it has just been going on on automatic pilot, then you can find yourself
in a really depressed state and not quite understand why.

Similarly with addiction, there might be something that is distressing you, and that can
trigger thoughts of: 'I really need a drink to cope with this', which can go on, again, a bit
out of awareness... and then before you know it you're suddenly having really strong
urges to have a drink, which are very difficult to fight.

There's another one that is sometimes called in the trade 'seemingly irrelevant decisions'.
'Seemingly irrelevant decisions' are where you make a series of apparently innocent
decisions in themselves – like, 'it's a beautiful evening; it would be lovely to go out for a
walk with the dog; I haven't been out for a walk; I must see the daffodils in the park
because it's springtime and they're so beautiful...' – and guess what, on the other side of
the park there is an off-licence, and before you know it you've got a bottle.

So that is the same sort of thing. It just sort of goes on a bit outside awareness.

So, automatic pilot is a very habitual way of being, and actually we need it in order to
operate, but it can also be quite dangerous, actually for everyone but particularly if you
are prone to things like depression and addiction; whereas if it can be caught early – like
a change in mood – that will be much, much easier to deal with than when you've really
spiralled down.

And also there is this thing of 'clocking what is going on' – starting to learn the links – so
for example you might discover that you are particularly prone to negative thoughts if
you're tired, or premenstrual, or something like that. In other words, this thing is about
noting the nature of arising: under what conditions do these unhelpful thoughts
particularly arise, and therefore you particularly need to be 'on the ball'?

So that is all part of 'clocking our experience' and really noticing what is going on.


2. Staying with experience

The second thing is 'staying with experience' – particularly staying with negative
experience. We could see this as a bit like both the surgeon's probe, investigating what is
going on, and this idea of climbing the tower; of being a bit detached from our
experience, in the sense of not being caught up in it.

What we are trying to do when we're trying to 'stay with our experience' is we are not
trying to change the experience – that is very important – if anything, we are trying to
deepen into the experience, but avoiding the extremes of either reacting to it or pushing it
away (suppressing it). Basically, pushing things away doesn't work. It's like: 'don't think
about a pink elephant'... you all think about pink elephants. So when we try and do that –
like, 'I've got a negative thought – don't – don't – don't think it!' or, you know, 'I need a
fix... don't think about it!' – pushing it away just brings it back, rebounds it back into
awareness. So suppression is very unhelpful. But, equally, other habitual reactions may
also be unhelpful.

So the instruction instead, when we notice something difficult arising, is to try and open
up to it; to try and soften towards it; to try and have, as best we can, a sense of
acceptance.

There is a very nice Rumi poem which gives a bit of the flavour of this. It's called 'The
Guesthouse':

'This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.'


...So, it's about just accepting, as best we can, whatever it is – whatever, whatever is
happening; and also with kindness, as best as we are able. It is important to try and find a
flavour of mindfulness that isn't cold. I think mindfulness, when it is fully there, is not
cold. It's got a kindly aspect to it; a metta-ful aspect to it.

So we just keep practicing that. We just keep practicing, again and again, being with
difficult experience, so that we are increasingly able to tolerate difficult experience; so
that increasingly we feel confident of being able to handle whatever comes our way – as
opposed to a more habitual reaction, which might be a sense of 'I can't cope with this'.

When we have that thought – 'I can't cope with this' – that immediately sets off anxiety,
depression... it just increases the distress, or it can lead to substance use as a way of
avoiding it, or, if we think in terms of actual physical pain, if you think, 'oh, I can't cope
with this!' then automatically you tense up around the pain, which actually makes the
pain worse. So that 'can't cope' reaction sort of spirals it, in a way.

If you remember, there was part of that refrain that the Buddha was describing where he
says:

'Mindfulness that there is a body is established in him to the extent necessary for bare
knowledge and continuous mindfulness.'

What I was alluding to earlier is very relevant here: in other words there isn't a whole
mental proliferation – your mind doesn't just go off, and off, in a whole chain reaction,
depending on what has just happened.

So, to do that, body awareness is particularly helpful to try and really investigate exactly
what is going on; to find out just exactly what is happening; to really explore pain rather
than just putting a label on it of: 'this is pain; I can't bear it'. To find out just what [the
pain] is like – a whole myriad of changing sensations – and even to become interested in
what is going on.

In that way, we don't fall into getting anxious about being anxious, or getting depressed
about being depressed, or getting angry about being depressed, and so on. It is like
cutting through – staying with our experience enables us to cut through a lot of this
proliferation. I think particularly this 'staying with' is the really central key to making a
change to things like anxiety and depression, and relapse into addiction.


3. Having a bigger perspective

If we look at mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression, which is perhaps the
thing I am most familiar with... it was set up originally to find a way of using C.B.T.
[cognitive behavioural therapy] to help prevent relapse, but that could be delivered in a
group format.

In C.B.T. you get people to challenge their negative thoughts. For example, there might
be a scenario where somebody is walking down the road and they recognise someone on
the other side of the road and they wave at them, and the other person doesn't respond.

Someone who is prone to depression might immediately fall into thinking, 'oh, what have
I done? They obviously hate me!' as an interpretation of that. So what you do in C.B.T. is
you notice, and you write all that down – 'I believe that they hate me' – and then you look
for alternatives, like, 'maybe they didn't see me', 'maybe they were in a bad mood', and
'well, if that's the way they treat me, do I want them to be my friend anyway, if they do
hate me?' So there might be all these alternative ways of thinking about it.

What happens in C.B.T., if it is successful, is that you keep doing these diaries and you
keep challenging these beliefs, and what eventually happens is you get a change on an
implicit level where basically you don't take the thoughts so seriously. You might still
have this thought of, 'she hates me because she didn't wave at me', but you think, 'oh,
well...' – you see it much ...

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