Mindfulness

Connecting to the present moment

In the shade of society’s towering expectations, it seems there is little to be gained by committing our whole selves to the present moment. Success in education and study requires that we motivate ourselves towards an end goal. Reaching mastery at a sport, a musical instrument, a craft, a language, a project; requires that we strive to continually improve ourselves. Maintaining healthy relationships requires hope and curiosity in our own capacity to improve. As Sam Harris points out in his book Waking Up our “simply accepting our many faults does not lead to happiness.”

So what do we gain by connecting, completely, with right now, with this very moment? 

Mounting research has found that people are consistently less happy when their minds are wandering. We create anxiety by negatively introspecting about the past and the future. About what happened, what didn’t happen, what might happen, what might not happen. Every waking moment, this endless stream of thought runs into a reservoir of anxiety that, as it fills, starts to impact our functioning. We lose patience, concentration, energy, and productivity. We slip into unconscious behaviours like compulsive eating, drinking, gaming, working. Our bodies chime in with tension headaches, nausea, stomach cramps, and other aches and pains.

Embracing the present moment can give us temporary relief from the relentless gathering of thought. We stop the flow of introspection. We step out of the chaos and allow our minds space to breathe. In the quiet, we have a chance to reconnect with our authentic selves. We gain perspective. We gain clarity. 

The poet Mary Oliver captures with spine shivering intensity, the hope that waits for us in the present moment, in her poem The Summer Day.

dreams

What happens when we dream?

Dreaming is something almost all of us do, some of us remember, and most of us take for granted. But why do we dream?

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, or dream sleep, is our mind’s natural way of processing the emotions around whatever we have thought about or experienced during the day. Perhaps we have been brooding following an argument with a friend. Perhaps we have fretted over a presentation we have to give at work the following day. Perhaps we have been flattened by an stampede of bad news, and wept for those around the world who are suffering.

These thoughts have scurried around our brains like commuters at a busy airport, each with a different purpose, each with a different set of worries, raised voices rising towards a constant noise, that is so inescapable we forget it’s even there. In his book Waking Up Sam Harris refers to this noise as the “trance of discursive thought”. For the majority of us, unless we have refined meditative techniques to hand, it is not until we leave behind consciousness and enter into sleep that the airport empties and we escape the din of competing thoughts.

Unless we are suffering with severe anxiety or depression, REM sleep, which makes up only 20% of our sleep patterns, is designed to carry out crowd control on this thought chaos, processing each thought by converting it from an emotional memory into a narrative memory. These narrative memories are then moved from our primitive brain into our intellectual brain, where we have more control over them.

At the onset of REM sleep the brain behaves in much the same way as if someone were to bang saucepans together behind our heads as we sat quietly reading a book. Founders of the Human Givens approach Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell suggest that the reason the eyes move around rapidly as we dream (hence the name rapid eye movement), is that we are responding to the signal that something very important is happening, right now, and we are searching for what it might be. This search is in vain however, as the source of emotional arousal is internal rather than external, as we metaphorically act out, within our dreams, the unresolved musings from the day, discharging their emotional baggage.

Our dreams are creative, unbound by the rationale and logic that governs our conscious minds, which equips them to clear emotional hurdles that our awake selves simply stare at helplessly. Dreams help us to peel away the layers of frustration, anxiety and fear from our thoughts, until we are left with smooth pearls of wisdom. We file these pearls away in the library of our intellectual mind, in cabinet drawers labeled ‘perspective’, ‘understanding’, and ‘knowledge’. 

There is much research yet to be done to help us understand exactly how dreams process anxiety, however plenty of existing research shows that they do, and do so incredibly effectively. Quietening the noise, calming our minds, making space. Ready for tomorrow’s thought onslaught.

Griffin, Joe; Tyrrell, Ivan (2013). Human givens : a new approach to emotional health and clear thinking (New Ed.). Chalvington, East Sussex: HG Publishing.

Harris, S. (2014). Waking up. Simon & Schuster

Mindfulness, Solution Focused Therapy

Looking on the bright side

In Solution Focused Hypnotherapy, one of our main intentions is to shift the client’s focus away from the problem and towards the positive. Humans have a natural negativity bias, particularly when we are feeling stressed. This is because when we are stressed, we spend more time in our primitive minds and the primitive mind is a negative mind: it always sees the world from the worst possible perspective. The primitive mind has to be negative to ensure our survival as a human species. If we answered the door to an eight foot tiger, it’s highly unlikely that we would invite him in for tea, and chuckle as he ate all the cupcakes and drank all of Daddy’s beer, as happens in Judith Kerr’s children’s story The Tiger Who Came To Tea.

Thankfully, if we did open our front door to an eight foot tiger (or it’s less fantastical equivalent) our fight or flight response would kick in within a fraction of second, pumping out adrenalin, increasing our heartbeat, preparing our body for escape. Operating from within this stress response, we would assume the worst, we would be hyper-vigilant to any movement the tiger made, and we would be obsessional about figuring out an appropriate escape route. In this scenario, our stress response is our friend, it’s working for us, we are immensely grateful for its input.

However, in many situations, this negative focus causes us an enormous amount of needless suffering. Raging or descending into gloom about a smashed wing mirror doesn’t fix the mirror. It just suck us into our negative primitive mind, reducing the value we can both give and receive from our interactions with others. When we surface from our rage and gloom back into our intellectual minds, we are likely to reward ourselves with a hefty serving of shame about how we handled the situation. We have grown our hurt. Similarly, ranting when we find our kitchen wall has been redecorated with permanent marker, courtesy of our three-year-old, doesn’t miraculously remove the scribble. It just sucks us into our negative primitive mind, reducing the value we can give to, and receive from our child. When we escape from the cycle of ranting and regain intellectual control, we’re rewarded with the all familiar weight of parental shame about how we handled the situation. Our suffering has swelled.

In these stressful moments, wrenching our attention away from the problem and towards the positive can loom like a mammothian task. ‘Looking on the bright side’, as simple as it sounds, actually entails a lot of practice if we are to be able to apply it when we most need to. In his book Waking Up, Sam Harris suggests that just one positive thought can act as a lever to pry the mind loose from “whatever rut it has found on the landscape of unnecessary suffering.”

Acknowledging, out loud if necessary “at least the rest of the car is undamaged” or “at least we have some paint left to cover up the marker pen”, can help us to manufacture a feeling of gratitude for all the bad things that have not happened. Research has shown that gratitude is a powerful mechanism for increasing well being over time, but it can be equally powerful as a safety net when stressful events occur, bouncing us back into our intellectual minds where we can access rationale and reason, and suffer less than we otherwise would have done.

References

Harris, S. (2014). Waking up. Simon & Schuster

Kerr, J. (2006). The Tiger Who Came To Tea. (1st Ed). London: HarperCollins

Mindfulness

Pausing thought

In Solution Focused Hypnotherapy we talk about how frequently we experience some form of trance in our everyday lives. Some of this daydream-like thinking can be positive. We can lose ourselves in memories of entertaining times we have spent with our friends. We become absorbed by the imagined reality of a holiday we’re looking forward to.

But unless we practice otherwise, most of us spend most of the time in negative trance. In negative trance we are criticising ourselves for something we did or didn’t do or say; or we are criticising someone else for something they did or didn’t do or say. In negative trance we are plotting, scheming, just-in-case-ing, imagining the worst and mapping out possible ways around it.

This negative inner dialogue comes with a heaped side order of anxiety, frustration, guilt, anger, and a bunch of other unpleasant emotions that spike our body’s natural stress response. When this happens our brain pumps our bodies full of stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, which in turn serve to maximise both our mental and our physical discomfort. The gates to our intellectual brains slam shut and we get locked inside our emotional primitive minds where every negative thought becomes absolutely, irrationally, unbearably, horrendous.

In his book Waking Up, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris refers to this rumination, both positive and negative, as “the trance of discursive thinking“, to which the antidote is meditation.

In Solution Focused Hypnotherapy we combine solution focused therapy and hypnotic trance to reassure and guide our conscious minds towards a place of peace, where, just for a little while, they let go of their grip, and the inner dialogue quietens, the never-ending thought train draws to a temporary halt.

It is in this meditative state of trance that we can enjoy, as Harris describes “a mind undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky.”

And with our minds open, as Psychiatrist and Clinical Hypnotherapist Milton Erickson pointed out, we become much more receptive to ideas and understanding. We are more able to accept positive suggestions without our conscious minds jumping in to disagree.

When we press pause on the overwhelming blare of constant thought, especially the criticism, judgements, assumptions, and fears, we allow our minds space to breathe. To relax. To reduce our stress levels enough to unlock the door back into our intellectual minds where we can find perspective, reason, rationale and balance.

Mindfulness

Lockdown parenting: finding the positive

With schools out for lockdown, and parents working from home, the four walls of the family home loom higher; some days casting an enormous black shadow over the occupants. Sharing space without reprieve is tough. Relentless multitasking is exhausting for our minds and for our morale. 

But what if we shifted our focus to what we have, rather than what we don’t? In place of time to think, we have extra time to spend with our children, whose younger years will slip through our fingers like grains of sand. 

In place of by-the-book parenting, we have a collection of imperfect parenting moments, that, as Brene Brown points out in Daring Greatly, become gifts as our children watch us try to figure out what went wrong and how we can do better next time.

In place of freedom to connect with friends, we have freedom to connect with our home, the space we come back to every night, the partners with whom we used to bookend each day with the scraps of ourselves we had left, the children we struggled to get more than two words out of when we asked about their day.

In place of a deceptive certainty of what the future holds, we have the glorious present moment, and as Sam Harris acknowledges in his aptly named book Waking up, that’s really all we have.

In place of plans and diaries bulging with progress, we have opportunities to take stock, to change direction, to connect with another path. 

In Solution Focused Hypnotherapy, we spend time guiding our clients to reconnect with the strengths in their lives. To shift focus to the positive. Moving forward, this change in mindset can be both liberating and life changing. As Elliott Connie, Global Leader in Solution Focused Brief Therapy Elliott Connie says; “There is magic in being led by what you want, rather than what you don’t want.”

So embrace the moment; embrace the magic. And recognise that to do this is, in itself, an achievement. A demonstration of your powerful mind. 

References 

Connie, E. (2016). Small Things Can Lead to Big Things. Moments with Elliott Connie. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rd3QIelHxhk

Harris, S. (2014). Waking up. Simon & Schuster.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Gotham Books.

Mindfulness

Is mindfulness selfish?

One of the criticisms often levelled at meditative practices, like self-hypnosis, is that they are selfish. Too introspective, too inward-looking. Drawing our attention away from all the bad things happening in the world that we should be out there trying to fix. Encouraging us to settle, to embrace inadequacies. To sit cross legged in a bubble of peace while everything around us collapses. 

In 2017, Psychiatrist Dr Alison Gray of the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggested that solitary meditative practices can cause us to become more self-centred (Petter, 2017). Instead, Dr Gray encouraged us to seek out a community with whom we can practice mindfulness.

However, as COVID-19 isolates much of the world in their own homes, away from their support networks and away from their communities, these solitary meditative practices can be a useful tool in lowering our anxiety, building our resilience, and connecting with our inner resources. Gifting ourselves some time each day to nurture our minds, release anxiety and embrace the present moment can be a powerful antidote to the feelings of frustration and helplessness brought about by the lockdown. We are locked down, but our minds don’t have to be.

Embracing mindfulness to protect our mental health can be far from selfish. As neuroscientist, philosopher and best-selling author Sam Harris writes in his book Waking Up, meditating alone doesn’t necessarily equate with self-centredness; in fact, it can amount to precisely the opposite: “One can […] spend long periods of time in contemplative solitude for the purpose of becoming a better person in the world – having better relationships, being more honest and compassionate and, therefore, more helpful to one’s fellow human beings.”

We don’t need to feel guilty for prioritising our inner peace sometimes, even while those around us are struggling, as we have more to offer them when we ourselves are calm and centred. As Sam Harris argues “The world is in desperate need of improvement – in global terms, freedom and prosperity remain the exception – and yet, this doesn’t mean we need to be miserable while we work for the common good.”

References

Petter, O. (2017, December 29). Mindfulness could be making you selfish, psychiatrist warns. The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/mindfulness-selfish-mediation-psychiatrist-dr-alison-gray-a8133106.html

Harris, S. (2014). Waking up. Simon & Schuster.