Welcome to week 6 in our 8-week journey together towards mindfulness. By now, the daily practice is probably becoming something of a habit. Maybe you’re even starting to notice some changes in how you physically hold stress, or in your mental or emotional landscape. If not, don’t worry – these things take time, but they’re coming.
As we continue with week 6, I encourage you to read chapter 10 in the book “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World,” by Professor Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman. These posts are meant as a companion to the course described in the book, and by reading you will get the most out of your practices.
If you’re just joining us now, start at week 1 here. To sign up to receive all 8 weeks of the course by email, click here. And if you’d prefer to just read along and take time for the more formal course later, you’re welcome to do that too.
Living in the Present
The sad truth is that if we don’t take some kind of action to teach ourselves mindfulness – or whatever you want to call it – we are likely to spend most of our lives on autopilot, mulling uselessly over the past, or projecting with futility into the future. Our practices that we attempt each week are steps towards anchoring our awareness in the present moment and keeping it there. And then, when our minds wander – which is what minds do – we gently bring ourselves back to the gift of being here right now.
One of the things that happens when we’re not in the present is that our minds start to generate negative feedback loops that quickly get out of control. These loops may be tied to old memories, based on worries or anxieties, or associated with fears or trauma – whatever they are, though, they’re incredibly sticky and hard to break out from once they begin. After one of these loops, you feel joyless, hopeless and like the color has gone out of the world – and then, you likely feel anxious, worried and confused. What’s happened, you might ask yourself, and why can’t you seem to make yourself feel better?
Mental pain like this can include thoughts like, “I just can’t manage,” “This is never going to change,” and “This is hopeless. It will always be like this.” Something about these thoughts tries to present itself as definite and unchanging – even though nothing in life is actually that solid and unmalleable. To believe something will “always be like this,” is a mind trap, what’s called in the research a “painful engagement.” (A fantastic understatement of a term, if you ask me.)
In a western industrial culture built on fear, guilt and shame, it’s no wonder that we carry around thoughts like these and let them control our lives and slowly seep the enjoyment out of our daily presence and pleasures. It’s all in our heads. This might sound like bad news, but actually it’s wonderful. Situations that present themselves as irreversible (“I’m damaged forever,” “Now things will never be the same,” and so forth) are actually changeable – and it’s well within our power to do so.
An Important Point about Stress
In addition to our shared cultural story based on fear, guilt and shame, there’s something happening in our brains that makes these negative feedback loops hard to shake. For those of us expat aid workers who have experienced extreme stress and trauma, or who are depressed, exhausted or anxious, our brains tend to show a result called “overgeneral memory.”
Let’s investigate for ourselves what that means. I’d like to invite you to remember a memory – a specific memory of just one event – that was a time you were happy. What about sad? Relaxed? Felt a sense of failure? What about a time you felt lucky?
Now, if you found it hard to recall a particular memory associated with those feelings, but instead you were likely to say “I’m relaxed when I’m at the beach,” or “I feel sad when I say goodbye to my friends at home,” you may be showing signs of this “overgeneral memory” I was talking about. Basically (and you can read more about this in chapter 10), for those of us who do this, our memory patterns often stop short of retrieving specific events and instead remember summaries. And this can be a problem when we’re trying to be healthy and happy, especially in the world’s most challenging places.
It’s nothing to be ashamed of; I do it to. Those of us who have gone through really hard situations and lived in difficult environments are more likely to show this kind of pattern, though, and it has a huge effect over time on our day-to-day ability to be present and enjoy things now. That is because people who have an overgeneral memory pattern also have a harder time moving on from past events, are more affected when things do go wrong, and have a harder time bouncing back after an upset.
But here’s the good news. Because our brains are changeable (they have what’s called neuroplasticity), when we practice mindfulness, all that can change.
Practicing Radical Self-Acceptance
The escape from all this inner pain and self-imposed suffering is alarmingly simple: treating yourself with kindness. By learning to shift self-judgment and negative self-talk into loving kindness and compassion, we begin to change the brain’s patterns and pathways of thought. We learn to sit in the now, holding ourselves with love. It might sound too good to be true, but it isn’t – and it’s available to us all, right now.
In addition to learning to love yourself, which this week’s meditation will help you to practice, we need to learn to sustain this feeling of compassion and kindness by learning to focus it onto our relationships and the world at large. We’re not going to become little buddhas overnight, but with time and practice the intention to experience these feelings of friendship and kindness become more accessible and even start to feel natural.
Most of us expat aid workers are good at turning compassion outwards. But what about turning that loving kindness and compassion to yourself? We find this infinitely more challenging, and that’s why it’s the entire focus of this week’s practices.
It might sound silly to ask you to learn to treat yourself kindly. You might want to dismiss what the practice is asking of you this week because it sounds easy or soft. But these findings are based on decades of accumulated research on empathy and mindfulness at Oxford University and around the world; trust our guides and this process.
Here’s a beautiful Einstein quote the authors share to back us up:
“A human being is part of the whole called by us the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, has thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creates and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is itself a part of the liberation, and a foundation for inner security.”
Mindfulness Practice Week 6: Befriending Yourself
Chapter ten in “Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World” explores the scientific research and thinking behind these practices in detail. Like I said above, this post is just a companion to their course so do yourself a favor and read it to get the most benefit.
Here are our daily practices for week 6:
– This week’s practice is a short 10-minute Befriending meditation (here) to be practiced once a day. It can help to prepare yourself for this with one of the other meditations, if you like. “Mindfulness of Body and Breath” (here) or “Breath and Body” (here) are good ones for settling into the practice.
– 3-minute meditation (here): Continue with this, twice a day and whenever else you need it.
– Habit releaser: Reclaim a passion you’ve lost or let go of, making time for it each day. It can be anything that you did by yourself or with others. Or, practice a random act of kindness, turning your attention to helping others.
You can find the complete set of guided audio meditations from “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” here.
We’re all in this together, so please do share this with someone you think might benefit. If you’d like to get Expat Backup by email, subscribe here.
Much love and see you next week.