Worrying is a natural reaction of the mind and body. We de-compartmentalize by firstly noticing with equanimity and curiosity what and how we add to our worries – the stories we tell ourselves. Then, noticing how worrying is felt in the body, and breathing in and out of that sensation, taking long exhales. And finally as best as you can, letting be, letting go. The poetry “I Worried” by Mary Oliver comes to mind.
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
This practice is about meeting anxiety as and when it arises. Anxiety is often characterized by a fast beating heart, sweaty palms, and maybe throbbing pain in the head. The feelings seem unpleasant, naturally compelling us to want to push them away or to get rid of them. By giving in to this reaction, we are merely avoiding and allowing anxiety to have a grip over us. We are not learning how to respond skillfully to difficulties.
The invitation is to allow ourselves to witness whatever that is arising by pausing from judging, staying as still as we can (not needing to react), and staying with the experience (not needing to run away, distract ourselves or zone out). If the feelings are overwhelming, we approach by dipping our toes and homing in slowly, as best as we can seeing anxious feelings as transient (even if they seem to last forever or they’re recurrent), and as merely outcomes of the mind and body (even if they seem so real). They do not define our identity, they are simply experiences, and we can choose how to respond to them. The response can be not to do anything but simply to just observe and embrace all life experiences as they are.
Poetry for today is Between Going & Staying, by Octavio Paz (translated).
We further deepen our practice on noticing feeling tone (“vedana” in Pali) and what precedes and accompanies it. Do you notice unpleasant feeling tones arising around certain thoughts like “this meditation is taking forever”, accompanied by the restless need to quit? Or maybe there were beliefs such as “my mind keeps wandering, I suck at meditation.” What experiences accompanied those beliefs eg feelings of defeat? The purpose of this practice is to take a step back and watch for the whole chain of reactions surrounding feeling tones, recognizing that they are natural outcomes of the mind and body, and simply acknowledging them without needing to get caught up.
The practice ends with a reading of Wendell Berry’s poem The Peace of Wild Things.
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The painting above, Luncheon of the Boating Party is one of Renoir’s finest masterpieces, and one of his last Impressionist work. More interestingly from my perspective, it was painted using his left hand because he broke his right, but the awkward experience ended up giving him new inspiration. He wrote in a letter to a patron: “It’s even better than what I did with the right (hand). I think that was a good thing that I broke my arm. It allows me to make progress.”
That’s the essence of the program I teach, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)—giving ourselves permission to respond in new ways to difficulties instead of falling back on the security of our habitual “doing” tendencies. In the process learning new wisdom.
Q: What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about intentionally paying attention to the present moment with non-judgement. We pay attention to what is arising on the outside such as smell, and in our inner world: thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, impulses to act, and feeling-tones. We assume a sense of equanimity, which means staying engaged and accepting whatever that has arisen or is arising without needing to like nor dislike the experience. It is aided by bringing to bear the attitude of a beginner’s mind or curiosity, and kindness or friendliness. By doing so, the mind is more steady and less reactive. We can be more wise in our actions and speech.
Q: What then is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)?
MBCT combines mindfulness practices and cognitive therapy principles. Three psychology professors—John Teasdale (Cambridge), Mark Williams (Bangor, now Oxford), and Zindel Segal (Toronto)—developed MBCT with the aim of providing a non-drug alternative to reducing depression relapses. This was in the 1990s. MBCT is approved by NHS England and is now also widely taught to the general population to deal with stress and to flourish. Together with MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), MBCT is considered a gold standard secular mindfulness program because they are evidence-based, and observe rigorous teaching standards.
MBCT starts off by learning to switch out of autopilot and to ground ourselves. Henceforth we are more awake, anchored and less automatically derailed by triggers. We remain guided by our values, and have more capacity to be calm, compassionate and resilient.
Cognitive therapy is widely used by psychologists to help clients become aware of how their thoughts and feelings drive behavior. Here we appreciate that thoughts and feelings are simply outcomes of the mind and body processes. They are outside our locus of control, they are impermanent and innocuous. Hence, instead of striving to get rid of thoughts and feelings which had already arisen eg anxiety, we stay in the present moment and focus our energy on what we can do, which is forging a kind relationship toward them. Eventually anxiety reduces its grip.
All this sounds easy and logical but when we are caught in the heat of the moment, we easily lose sight of this wisdom. That’s why we practice mindfulness frequently to allow the mind to unlearn and learn new habits. I am learning this every day!
Q: Is MBCT about just letting it be, not progressing and changing our circumstances?
Generally, our default reaction to difficulties is to “do something” eg ruminate, blame others, avoid, suppress, neutralize with positive thoughts (even if they are untrue or unvalidated), or to keep ourselves busy and distracted. We can’t help ourselves! Mindfulness calls for a different response of non-doing. Something far less exhausting.
The invitation is to connect directly with our inner world experiences (as opposed to analyzing them in our head), to practice letting go of the need to get rid of or to fix unwanted experiences, and to accept our humanity its warts and all. This creates conditions for us to be more flexible and to see a bigger perspective rather than be ruled by our “lizard brain”. So we are on a more steady footing to decide our next course of action instead of habitually launching into avoiding, distracting, and running around in circles.
Q: Is MBCT or mindfulness religious-based?
MBCT is adapted from MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and adds to it the understanding of cognitive therapy. Jon Kabat Zinn started a stress reduction clinic and developed MBSR at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the 1970s. His work is influenced by his yoga and Buddhist practices of calm, compassion and insight by simply accepting the present moment as it is; and to integrate these teachings with empirical research. To date, more than a thousand studies have been done on the efficacy of mindfulness-based programs, mostly showing positive or promising results for responding to physical and mental health conditions eg stress, chronic pain, depression, and anxiety.
MBSR/MBCT is informed by Buddhist psychology that suffering eg unhappiness is due to cravings and aversions formed by our non-discerning (unwholesome) judgements. But MBCT/MBSR is not Buddhism per se because it does not prescribe core Buddhism beliefs of rebirth and karma.
It should also be noted that mindfulness and meditation are mentioned in all mainstream religions. They just differ in purpose. For Christians, the centre of awareness is God while Buddhism is about achieving enlightenment (nibbana) that requires a high level of concentration.
MBCT/MBSR is about practicing equanimity and kindness in responding to life. The anchor is whatever that is available such as sound. MBCT/MBSR program is therefore universal and secular. It is about uncovering the masterpiece within us.
For more info about my MBCT course, see 8-Week Mindfulness (Jul-Aug) here
Feel free to join my talk on the Art & Science of Mindfulness to get more details about how MBCT works. On Wed, 26 May, 7:30 – 8:30pm MYT/SGT/HKT via Zoom. Register on Eventbrite at www.bit.ly/asmindful4
Drop me a note if you have any questions or feedback: email@example.com