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Mindfulness and growth


Dealing with adversity and facing up to the things we don’t like

Quite often in my own life I’ve used mindfulness techniques as stress management tools.  I would often use them to run away from the things in life that scared me or I felt that I couldn’t face up to.  These practical techniques, such as breathing exercises, certainly helped me manage short-term stress and also allowed me to put myself into a more mentally resilient state.   But they didn’t always enable me to explore my habitual patterns or unpick old behaviours.  It seemed that despite practicing mindfulness the same challenges kept on arising time and again.  It was only through exploring mindfulness, further, that I was able to understand more fully how it was my relationship “with” the things or situations that I found uncomfortable rather than the situation itself .

Creating the groundwork for developing mindfulness

In the first stages of my exploration of mindfulness I explored lots of different tools to help observe and develop smooth breathing, to develop focus, to be more aware of my physical body and also how changing my posture regulated my thoughts and emotions.  I also practiced techniques to develop self love and love and compassion for others.  These building blocks of mindfulness were and are essential components of human thriving.

These practices enabled me to be in a position to begin to explore my habitual habits and tendencies.

Exploring our inner world

In Yoga the fifth limb of the Eight limbs of Yoga, contained in the Yoga Sutras, is Pratyahara or the exploration of our inner world.

The exploration of our inner world means being still and observing whatever arises in a non-judgmental way.  This happens at the level of sensation. We observe without  the necessity of a cognitive oversight.  We sit still, we observe the sensation and we breathe into the sensation. In this manner we observe that feelings and thoughts manifested as sensations arise and pass away.  In this way we are able to separate our sense of self with the thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise.  All things arise and pass away.  Hardness softens.  Things come and go. The mere act of observation changes the observed.  As we continue to practice this observation of self we are better placed to separate the emotion and thought from our sense of self.  For example I might be angry about a situation that another person may have “caused” but I do not define myself as an angry person nor hold anger towards the other person. 

Observing emotions, allowing them to flow and acting

This is an example of, perhaps, a best-case scenario for managing a difficult situation:

Anger arose in me for an event caused by another person.  I observed that anger arising and felt it first as a sensation.  I breathed into that area and felt the anger subside.  But the anger was a cause to act and in a balanced and calm manner I was able to express to the other person why I felt anger.  I retained positive regard for the other person and kept an open mind and open ears.  I was ready to challenge my own view on the situation as he explained his truth to me.

Bringing cognitive oversight to our observation

As we observe sensations in a calm and balanced way we may notice the same patterns arising again and again.  We may notice the thoughts and feelings that emerge with the sensations and we may start to notice causal events linking event with thought, feeling and sensation.

On other occasions we may not be able to make such causal leaps.  We often want to assign reasons for feelings and this may be useful.  It might help us draw a line under things and move on.  In many cases however life is so complex that we simply can’t understand where the feeling comes from.  Maybe we just feel anxious sometimes and that’s ok.  Simply observe the sensation, breathe it into and let it pass.  Once again we are separating the sense of self with the feeling.  “ I feel anxious now but that does not mean that anxiousness defines me”

All emotions are valid.  Emotional intelligence is developed as we observe and don’t suppress the sensation and emotion.  It is also developed as we develop and practice tools to handle the information that the sensations we observe are telling us.

Tools for observing our inner world

By sitting still we may observe patterns of thoughts, feelings and sensations arising over and over.  There are a number of tools, which may be helpful in enabling you to fully appreciate that all things arise and pass away and by exploring these tools we may learn to unpick habitual tendencies.   One of these tools is to keep asking why a particular situation causes you discomfort.

Asking WHY – WHY – WHY – WHY

If a feeling and sensation arises in the same situation again and again keep asking yourself why you feel that way.  This exploration may help you unravel deeper feelings, such as, feeling unloved or of lacking in abundance.  As we do this we may begin to appreciate that we are reacting to old hurts long past.  The you and I, as we were when we were little kids, may no longer seem physically present but the five year old, fifteen year old and twenty-five year old us are still deep inside us.   Not only are all our past selves contained within us but also the experiences of our ancestors and our society.  We are creatures of conditioning and by calmly observing experience in the present we may learn to become less reactive and begin to create new positive patterns.  This can only truly come by sitting and observing who we are.  For example as I practice a yoga posture I try not to do the posture but be the posture.  I observe myself within my environment and part of my environment.  I am within my skin and know I am within my skin.  But I am also part of my environment and am my environment.  I AM.  I am a human being and not a human doing.

We can let go of old ways of being and be present now reflecting upon and engaging with a new reality as it arises at this moment.  We can learn to fully love the five year old, fifteen year old and twenty five year old us.  They enabled us to be the beautiful person we are now, always were and always will be.

I hope you found this useful

Andy Roberts

Andy Roberts teaches mindfulness, emotional intelligence and resilience in Australia and the UK