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How changing your posture can change your behaviour

Some years ago I remember seeing a fascinating set of drawings of how chimps change their posture as they become increasingly distressed, sad or emotionally overwhelmed. The postures they adopt look very familiar – arms crossed, body hunched, making themselves small.

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Looking at this similarity it made me think of how at times of stress and powerlessness our bodies go into a posture that has its roots deep in our evolutionary body memory. At the time I also saw this cartoon, which says so much about the importance of posture

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It was a few years latter that I saw Amy Cuddy’s video on the importance of posture to our sense of well being. On seeing this it opened a new dimension on the importance of being present to one’s posture and its impact on our sense of self worth.

Amy Cuddy observed that some of her students adopted very submissive postures which took up little space, whilst others adopted postures that took up a lot of space. The students who occupied only a small space often came across as timid and uncertain, and some talked to her about wanting to drop out of the course and did less well in class whilst doing much better in their written assignments. 

Curious about this Cuddy conducted an experiment using 42 students. They  were told the experiment was to see the effect of whether electrodes were placed above or below the heart, but the real experiment was to have half adopt high power poses and the other half adopt low power poses for two minutes.

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Participants had saliva swabs taken before and after  to test for cortisol and testosterone levels and were asked to report how they felt at the end of the two minutes in these postures. The results showed that two minutes of holding a power posture led to an increase in testosterone and a decrease in cortisol. In her talk below Amy describes how the power posture links us to the way alpha male chimps will stand and compares this to the instinctual behaviour an athlete displays on winning. Amy comments that even if someone has been blind from birth they still know to make the same gesture on winning.

 

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Having observed in the experiment how adopting a power pose could alter testosterone and mood Amy started to encourage her more reticent students to adopt the high power pose postures and to see what impact this would have. In the talk she describes this as ‘fake it till you become it’, noting that if we feel small and insecure adopting a high power pose can feel uncomfortable, but by consistently doing so over time we can start to feel it and act accordingly. 

Last week I looked at Mel Robbins’ talk about the power of shifting from feeling overwhelmed to seeing it as feeling excited. Amy Cuddy gives a similar insight into changing how you feel in a situation, by introducing the awareness of the impact a certain posture can have on how we feel. Linking the two approaches together could have a powerful effect on shifting the inner narrative about a situation: noting a low power posture and associated mood or self talk “I’ll never achieve this” etc, and then thinking 5,4,3,2,1, and shifting to a high power posture and seeing how this changes how we feel or think. 

As I researched this email I found there has been some significant criticism of Amy Cuddy’s original study and dismissal of her findings. I’m sad that some who was so eager to share her experience of how body language and posture can impact on our sense of self-worth has received so much vilification. In the end these things are there to be tried out and explored for oneself and if they work one can adopt them, if not let them go. Over the last few years since watching Amy’s Ted talk I have been conscious of my posture and of noting when my body goes into a low power pose and feeling in to what is happening, then seeing what happens if I shift to a high power pose. Perhaps it does not lead to an increase in testosterone, with some attempts to replicate her study having found it impossible to replicate this aspect of her findings, but I certainly find it alters my mood and how I feel about myself and brings a greater awareness to how I habitually hold my body and what this says about how I express myself physically.  It has also made me aware of the impact of posture on mood, noting how low power postures are associated with feeling unconfident and unsure, whereas by switching to a high power pose I immediately feel more at ease and confident.  I hope you enjoy playing with it!

If you would like to see her full 20 minute Ted talk the video is below. 

Panic Attacks, procrastination and fear: transforming panic into excitement.

A few weeks ago I was with a friend who showed me a video of Mel Robbins talking about how she had learnt to transform her panic attacks into an experience of excitement. In my work I am often asked what suggestions I have for applying mindfulness to panic attacks and I was keen to listen to this talk to see what she had to share and see how I might apply it in my own life.

I have never had a panic attack, but I was writing in the last email about the feeling of dread and anxiety on approaching an event where I have to meet people, and how this fear of socialising that I picked up as a teen seems to create a false narrative in my head about what I can and cannot do. Listening to her talk I could certainly see how I might apply it to these situations, and how people might use it if dealing with a panic attack.

In her talk she starts by discussing the limitations of motivativational thinking to get us to do things. She says: “we are not designed to do things that are scary, difficult or uncomfortable. Our brains are designed to protect us from those things, because our brains are trying to keep us alive. In order to change, to build a business, to be the best parent, best spouse, to do all those things that you know you want to do with your life, your work, your dreams, you’re going to have to do things that are difficult, uncertain or scary. Which sets up this problem for all of us: you are not going to feel like it….[because] our minds are designed to stop us from doing anything that might hurt us.” She goes on to say that as a result of this we all have a habit that holds us back, the habit of hesitating.

She then outlines how one technique the brain uses is the spot light effect, where the brain magnifies the risk of something in order to make us back away from doing it. She goes on to say “you can truly trace every  single problem and complaint in your life to silence and hesitation”.

Mel then talks about how the sensations in our body are the same when we feel excitement or fear, and that it is this similarity which enables us to reframe how we are interpreting these sensations. She gives an example from her own life: when she is about to go out and give a talk she can feel her heart racing, her palms a little sweaty, her breath racing. If she were to tell herself “I am anxious and frightened of talking” this would create a feeling of fear of going out on stage. Instead she focuses on the sensations as an expression of feeling excited, and this supports her as she walks out in front of the audience.

The root of this approach is based on the fact that the flow of adrenalin is the same if we are feeling excited, or scared. It is how we interpret it that then determines how we think and feel about the physical sensations adrenalin causes.

In her longer talk below Mel describes how she was at a low point in her life, waking up with feelings of dread, and how this would lead to her laying in bed, consumed by panic and anxiety, hitting the snooze button until the morning was turning into the afternoon.  One evening she saw a programme about a rocket launch, and as she watched the rocket take off she decided that was what she would do the next morning on waking, she would count down and launch herself out of bed before her brain had a chance to start thinking, working or catastrophising about the day.

As she woke up the next day she immediately started a count down: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and then got up. Once she was up the debilitating anxiety that would otherwise have kicked in and kept her in bed could then start to be absorbed through becoming active: she started to face the day as it was rather than as it appeared to her as a thought as she lay in bed worrying about it.

Mel then started to apply this 5,4,3,2,1, approach in her waking life. On noticing that she was caught in an addictive behaviour – perhaps prevaricating before going to bed, or moving on to an activity she needed to focus her attention on – she would then say to herself 5,4,3,2,1, and at 1 move on to the activity she had been avoiding and stop the activity that she was wanting to move away from. 

“When you count backwards, you mentally shift the gears in your mind. You interrupt your default thinking and do what psychologists call “assert control.” The counting distracts you from your excuses and focuses your mind on moving in a new direction. When you physically move instead of stopping to think, your physiology changes and your mind falls in line.

The Rule is (in the language of habit research) a “starting ritual” that activates the prefrontal cortex, helping to change your behaviour. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that you use when you focus, change, or take deliberate actions.” (Ref)

I have started to use this as I wake up, and it really works. Rather than laying in bed with the feeling of dread of the day that is to come, which could easily lead to 30 minutes or an hour of delaying getting up, when I count back as soon as I wake up and swing myself up and out of bed then this mood that might have kept me trapped in bed immediately starts to dissipate, as instead I head to the bathroom, brush my teeth, get a glass of water and move into doing some yoga and meditation. I am also starting to explore using it during the day, at times when I notice myself caught in procrastination, hesitation and avoidance.

To find out more about her method I’ve included her interview below.

Using the 5,4,3,2,1 method for a panic attack

With panic attacks Mel uses the similarity between feeling excited and feeling fear to create a different way of focusing your attention and interpreting the experience. In a panic attack we have no clear trigger for why we feel panic, so there is nothing to move away from. All we have is our body telling us we feel panic and our brain has no idea why. Given that our brains purpose is to keep us safe by helping us move away from danger, this is the most terrifying thing for our brain: the experience of danger with no clear action it can take to escape.

As one of the participants on an 8 week course I was running observed, mindfulness helped them to stop panicking about the panic attack, and that in itself stoped it from escalating. But how to transform a panic attack? Rather than riding it out, which the mindfulness helped this participant to do, is there a way to actually transform the experience. Mel suggests that there is. 

At a time when you feel calm and at ease take a few moments to connect with an anchor thought you can use when a panic attack occurs. An anchor thought is an image/thought of a situation where you feel safe, grounded and excited. The example in the video the woman connects with is of seeing her grandchildren. 

On first noting the sensations of a panic attack count back: 5,4,3,2,1. Then connect with your anchor thought and say to yourself “I am so excited to….”what ever you anchor thought is. In the case of the woman in the video she would think “I am so excited to see my grandchildren tomorrow”. The effect of this is that it tells the brain the reason for the sensations in the body are not an unexplained terror, but a feeling of excitement at the idea of the thing you are about to do.

Perhaps you like going on a roller coaster, or bouldering, or feel exhilaration on going dancing or are excited to take your dog for a walk. Connect with one thing that gives you a feeling of excitement and that you enjoy which you can then focus on when the panic attack starts. This gives your mind an explanation to then enable it to calm your body down.

Think of the brain as a guard on watch at the city gate – suddenly the dogs start barking, the guard looks up with concern, ready to sound the alarm in case the city is under attack. If the guard sees no reason for the dogs barking he will become more agitated and alert, looking for any sign of danger. In the same way in a panic attack the brain is alerted by the body to danger, but there is no clear danger. All the brain can do is look for danger and attempt to remove you from an unseen harm which gives rise to increased alarm as there is no obvious escape route from an unseen danger. If the guard were then to see a cat sitting on a wall, he would suddenly know that the dogs were only excited by the cat, and there was no need for concern. In the same way, give your mind an image of being excited by your anchor thought and the brain can settle, telling the body it is ok, stand down the alarm signals, it’s only excitement at seeing a cat! 

If you experience panic attacks and use this method please let me know how it works for you. As I have not been able to apply it to myself I would like to hear if it does help you interrupt a panic attack, as I will then be more confident to share it more as I teach. 

We are meeting again this Monday. Looking forward to seeing you there.

For details of the next 8 mindfulness week course starting on Thursday 3rd May click here

Autopilot behaviour – what keeps you trapped in old patterns?

We all know the feeling – we are on our way home from work, following a familiar route, as we get near we suddenly realise the thing we had intended doing on the way:  the place we meant to stop off at or even the person we were supposed to meet! Autopilot can be as extreme as this or simply be the automatic routines we have created in our days: our morning routine, our route to work. It can also show up in our patterns of thinking and responding to situations.

Some autopilots serve us, but others can be based on old messages and scripts that have become our distorted truth. Perhaps we have a limiting belief about ourselves or our abilities. Perhaps we hold back from certain things thinking it is not for us. We limit the flow of our spontaneity.

Learning to notice these autopilot behaviours and thoughts is the first stage in letting them go. As we meditate we become better able to be present to our thoughts and feelings, and there’s a natural process of recognising these. As you sit in meditation, simply notice the unedited flow of thoughts and responses to thoughts. Notice if any of these seem to fall into patterns of belief about yourself. It can be really helpful to then discuss this with people who are open to exploring deeper self-awareness – with a therapist if you have one, or close friends, or in a group.

The first week of the 8 week mindfulness course explores autopilots in more detail, and it then forms the basis of the whole course, bringing awareness to our patterns of thought and behaviour. Seeing how we can let go of those that do not serve us. If you are interested in exploring this more, there are still places available eon the Spring course.


 

“This course was very powerful and has been life changing. It has really helped me to focus on the ‘Here and now’ rather than getting caught up in ruminative thinking. I have a tendency to worry about the future and about events that have not yet occurred and this was making me feel very stressed. Applying the techniques and mindfulness strategies I learnt on the course I feel better able to cope and although I still feel anxious this tends to diminish more quickly.”

Kensington Council 8 week course participant, 2016


 

Thursday evenings

May: 3rd, 10th, 17th, 24th, 31st

June: 7th, 14th, 21st

Silent practice day. Date to be confirmed.

Time: 7.00 – 9.40 pm

Venue:

Chadswell Healthy Living Centre

Lower Ground Floor, Chadswell
Harrison Street
London
WC1H 8JE

MAP

Nearst tube: Kings Cross

£295 (£200 concessions for unwaged, students and those in need)

Booking confirmed on receipt of full payment.

To book email: nick@evolvingminds.org.uk

Call: 07910 224 560

For more details of the course click here

The Fear of Inadequacy

Going from a belief “I am not good enough”….to “I am enough”

Yesterday I went a networking event at Hammersmith and Fulham Town Hall. As I approached the building I noticed a sense of fear and an urge to run away. It is a familiar feeling, one that comes up whenever I approach a social situation. I remember as a teenager going to eat lunch on my first day at sixth form. I bought soup and bread and found a table, sitting down alone. As I sat surrounded by people chatting to each other the trembling started. I couldn’t stop my body from shaking. Try as I did to get the soup to my mouth it just fell back into the bowl, my arm was shaking so much. The more this happened the more anxious I became that people would see and laugh. That was my last lunch in the canteen. I told myself that I wanted to study and it would make more sense to eat at my desk in the library. A Mars Bar became my lunch. For the following two years I hid in the library every lunch time.

I thought that was just an unhappy memory. But today I woke feeling sad with a sense of panic sweeping over me. As the day progressed this feeling hung over me like a fog. I started to be curious about why I was feeling this way and let my attention turn towards it.  As I did this I suddenly thought of how scared I felt as a teenager of going to school, how I feared being laughed at as inadequate by the other boys, how the days with sport would be preceded by a night crying myself to sleep at the thought of having to play football – not so much playing football, but the pain of once more going through the ignominy of being the last boy to be chosen for the team, seen as a hindrance and unwanted.

This fear of school, the desire to retreat to the safety of home, to be with mum where I could chat and talk at ease, this was the back drop to my teenage years. Today as I walked into my bedroom after doing a work out in the sitting room, returning to the computer to start some work, it struck me that as an adult I have made all my choices based on being able to live self-contained or to retreat from the world and to stay in a safe familiar place: home or the monastery, or a commune. Even as a teenager at school I used to hang out with a few friends in the school green house. It was our base, and meant I never had to go into the school canteen, or mix with the other boys during break times.

Now I’ve chosen to work as a mindfulness teacher, going out to organisations and venues, and this has certain challenges. Each time I approach a place to teach I notice the fear of being with people again and the desire to run away. The root of it is a fear that I will be inadequate in some way, that I will fail. I know from experience now that once I am in and teaching this limiting belief that I will fail falls away. In it’s place is a feeling of joy, ease and competence. But I have to walk through this invisible barrier to get to that experience.

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When I think of going out to teach what I feel is not a confidence that I will be competent and at ease, but a fear of failure. This is important, for as one of the speakers at yesterdays event said, the brain’s job is to keep us safe and out of danger. If there is a belief that going out into the world is dangerous, that I risk failure and ridicule then what is the brain going to do? It is not going to engage with imaginative ways to promote my services and put me in front of audiences, instead it will procrastinate, delay and practice avoidance strategies to ensure I get no effective work done. As one teacher put it, the brain is a “don’t get killed mechanism”, that’s its job. It is not a face your fear and learn from it mechanism. If there was knowledge that a sabre tooth tiger lived in a certain area the ancient human’s brain did not think “it will help me in my personal growth to face this fear and go to where the tiger is”. Instead the brain would find all means of taking you away from where the tiger was.

Now we live with psychological fears as much as real threats. But the brain works in the same way. Going to a networking event = danger. Socialising = fear. Appropriate action = withdraw from these interactions. Even after 12 years of going to the Friday 5 Rhythms dance group, I have to make myself go. The thought of going fills me with dread. But I know once I am there and start moving I will feel amazing. | have to tell my self it will be OK, and remind myself how good I’ve felt after other sessions. Mainly I just have to put on my coat and go out, telling myself to go rather than listen to the urge to stay safely withdrawn at home.

Earlier today I chatted about this with a friend, and it was very revealing that he has the same pattern. I wonder how many of us who grew up as gay boys and teenagers perhaps share some of this sense of fear, shame, feeling of inadequacy? And the compensating behaviour of thinking I have to be perfect to be liked or of value, as I feel I am of no value myself. With both of us we see how we hold ourselves back from succeeding in work due to a belief that we are not OK. We procrastinate, the brain holding us back from going out into work that we fear will show our inadequacy. But this procrastination feeds our sense of inadequacy as we see others thriving and succeeding.

I first thought to work as a corporate mindfulness coach in 2012. I might have been in the early phase of bringing mindfulness into organisations. But I sat in my room, dreaming of finding ways to teach in banks, law firms, corporates, offices. But taking no real action to make this happen. In the meantime others started to see the opportunity of mindfulness, acted on the experience they had and took action. I felt like the boy sitting at the side wanting to dance but fearing everyone would laugh. Then feeling frustrated as some got all the applause for their dancing!  I did set up the Monday group, but that took a friend three years of challenging and an intensive immersion in a self development programme to finally take the first step.

Talking with my friend today made me wonder how many of us there are who show our social face, saying we are fine, when behind our mask we are feeling inadequate, feeling fear, doubting our ability to succeed?

Today has not given me any solutions, so I am not able not offer that in this email. But it has shone a light on a habit pattern of thought that keeps me from acting on my intention to find new clients and be effective as a mindfulness teacher, or go out and socialise and meet people. Perhaps the simple phrase “I am enough” is one to ponder as I meditate. How would it feel to really believe that and act from a place of feeling ‘good enough’, rather than fearing “I am not perfect”?

The Fifth hindrance to meditation: doubt

The Five Hindrances

The mind states that disturb the natural clarity of our heart-mind have been described as the five hindrances. Each hindrance has its own flavour and over this set of five emails I’ll explore each hindrance. But first, to give an overview here are all five:

1. Sensual desire
2. Ill-will
3. Lethargy and drowsiness
4. Restlessness and remorse
5. Doubt

Each hindrance is compared to the natural clarity of the still heart-mind, which is said to be like clear water. Doubt is said to be like a pot full of muddy water.


5. Sceptical Doubt

The Buddha encouraged his followers to question his teaching. He even spoke of the belief that things are true just because tradition tells us they are as a hindrance to real awakening, as it leads to a tendency to hold on to beliefs and opinions that have simply arisen over time as part of a tradition, rather than seeing wisdom for ourself. He encouraged his followers to question all of his teachings and not take them on blind faith. Only after exploring them in their lives and seeing for themselves if they held true were they to believe in them.

This last hindrende then does not mean we are to take all we hear from a teacher on blind faith. But as we meditate, a certain attitude can sometimes arise where we stop testing the efficacy of mindfulness or the teachings we have heard, and instead we loose any belief that change is possible, that it is worth meditating or that things can be other than how they are.

It is this skeptical doubt that this hindrance refers to, which can be enough to make us stop meditating or drop away from our path of practice. This state of mind is strongly linked to the sense of inertia that keeps us locked in our habit patterns, it is the way of thinking that does not want to make any effort. Thoughts such as “what’s the point of meditation, it seems too hard”, “meditation may be good for people who can go away to a retreat or live in a monastery but how will I be able to get any benefit from it”, “does it really matter what I do”.

With all of these we can either sink into the muddy state of inertia these thoughts encourage, or we can look at our experience and reflect on how we have benefited from the meditation we have done. We may remember how a session of meditation helped us shift a mood, or embrace something we had wanted to push away – and how this changed our relationship to it. We may remember that our actions have led to feeling happier or to sorrow depending on if they were rooted in skilful wishes or unskillful intentions. If you have started to explore Buddhist teachings you might reflect on how “actions have consequences” and look back in you life and see if this is the case or not. In this way we use conscious reflection on the teachings we know to bring about a clear understanding of how meditation is of help to us, or not.

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Doubt may play out in other ways in our life as well. For me it has been doubt about my skills or abilities. It took a friend’s persistent encouragement over three years before I set up the Monday class, as my inner doubt told me I would fail. As it is the group has now been going since April 2009 and next year will be our 10 year anniversary!! Then over the last few years as I’ve explored working as a mindfulness teacher in the corporate world it is this same doubt that holds me back – feeling I’m not yet ready, that I have more to learn, that I have nothing of value yet to bring to a workplace mindfulness teaching until I have read one more book on workplace mindfulness, or attended another seminar. 

I was lucky to have a call two years ago from the head of learning and development at Kensington and Chelsea council. He was looking for a mindfulness provider to run courses for council staff. After a year and half of running these sessions I could see that people enjoyed and benefited from the sessions – the thought I still needed to perfect my skills in teaching in the workplace was just a way for my doubting mind to hold me back from taking action. Of course, I have had more to learn, but that is what life is – a place for learning, and standing on the side lines waiting to know all the intricacies of the game just means one never plays the game at all – which is the only place to learn!

This year I have resolved to finally step forward into working more in the corporate world, in companies and organisations and with mindfulness initiatives such as teaching mindfulness in schools. It is part of me feeling into “following my bliss”, the saying of Joseph Campbell’s that always inspires me. Rather than seeing getting work as a mindfulness teacher as a chore to be got through, if I see it as an expression of living my bliss, and sharing my joy of living a life informed by presence, awareness and self-compassion, then it is not work but play. 

Where does your doubting mind hold you back? Where do you hesitate to step in? How does the habitual mind try to keep you small and stop you realising your potential?

The fourth hindrance: restlessness and remorse

Last week we looked at the hindrance of lethargy and drowsiness. This week the list of hindrances comes to its opposite: the state of the mind being unable to settle due to being busy and active. The analogy with water for this hindrance is a lake being ruffled by the wind – the still surface is constantly disrupted and agitated. One metaphor for meditation is that the calm mind reflects wisdom in the way a still lake reflects the moon. When the mind is agitated it cannot rest into this calm state.

The second element of remorse refers to memories of things one has done which cause upset or disappointment. These would be any unskilful activities that have resulted in causing harm to oneself or others. It is for this reason that ethical conduct is emphasised as being one of the three elements of the Buddhist path of practice: morality, meditation and wisdom are said to be all needed. Meditation grows out of living an ethical life in which we do not have anything to cause us remorse. Wisdom grows out of meditation. Buddhist morality is similar to that of many other religions, except there is no concept of a judging external force as there is no god in Buddhism. Instead an impersonal process called karma. The basic description of this process is that “actions have consequences”.

Karma is like a wind that is constantly blowing back at us, picking up whatever we have thrown out into the world and returning it to us. Act in a way that is skilful – kind, generous, concerned for the welfare of others – and what will blow back is rose petals and a pleasing scent. Act in a way that is unskilful – cruel, selfish and with no regard for the welfare of others –  and what blows back is sand and grit. Obviously we do not get rose petals or sand in our actual life, generally, but as a poetic image it suggests the quality of the events that will return to us as a consequence of our actions and mental states. It also helps before any action to consider, how will it feel to have this blow back in my face?

As we meditate if we have been cruel, vindictive or acted in ways that are unskilful it will be much harder to experience a peaceful and joyful mind. An extreme example of this is given in the Buddhist texts in the story of a prince who murdered his father in order to gain the throne. One day after the regicide the new King came to listen to the Buddha teach. The 500 monks were all siting in silence and the young King had a mind so full of anxiety that he was worried that there might be an ambush about to happen as he could not believe so many men could sit so quietly. As a result he hardly heard any of what the Buddha said. After the King left, the Buddha told the monks that had the young man not killed his father he would have gained insight that day listening to the teaching, but as it was his mind was now too troubled for him to hear. 

A more mundane example might be my experience before Christmas, when I allowed myself to be taken in by a story in my mind about a friend who was not replying to texts. The story was one of being abandoned and not appreciated. In hindsight and after writhing about the attachment types I can see that what followed was a classic example of anxious attachment triggering. I went into protest behaviour, where I tried to get my friend’s attention by becoming annoyed and trying to get a response by acting out on that annoyance. I wrote an angry text to him asking what was going on with this nonsense of not replying…. but in more harsh words than that! His reply showed that he was hurt by this and that he decided to have a little distance for a while before we would talk again.

As a result of this I sat with a feeling of remorse in my meditation, a sense of disappointment for not having lived true to my ideals of kindly speech. It also created the very thing I had been wanting to avoid – distance and lack of contact. When we did speak recently it transpired he had been going through a hard time with some difficult circumstances and my text came at at time when he couldn’t take on any other difficulty. It was a classic example of “actions have consequences”. Luckily we have a strong enough friendship that it has been talked about and is being resolved. But other actions are not so easy to simply say sorry for or let go of. Also my practice is strong enough now that I can let go of any recriminations against myself. I can see that I was suffering in my own way and that my actions grew out of that. I acted as I did, and that place of fear and loneliness needs to be held with kindness. I can also reflect that in a future situation sending the first text that comes into my head may not be the most skilful act!! 

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To avoid remorse one can seek to live as kind a life as is possible. As the Dali Lama once said “my religion is kindness”. To support this one may choose to follow a set of precepts. Although these are from the Buddhist tradition, they are similar to other religions and also form a set of principles one could follow as a humanist or atheist following no religion.

The five precepts are:
1. Avoiding killing any living creature.
2. Avoiding taking anything that is not given (stealing, but can also be more subtle – such as taking someone’s time when it is not willingly given)
3. Avoiding sexual misconduct (rape, adultery – anything that causes another harm through pursuing our sexual gratification)
4. Avoiding false speech – saying anything we know not to be true with the intent to deceive the other or benefit in some way from the untruth
5. Avoiding intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to a loss of mindfulness and the possibility of breaking one of the previous four precepts. 

The positive counterparts to these are
1. Respect for life
2. Generosity
3. Contentment
4. Truthful speech
5. Clarity of mind. 

Restlessness in the body may be a result of growing up with the sense of needing to be active. There can be a belief that ‘naval gazing’ is unproductive and may even make us weak or inactive. As we sit in meditation if our conditioning is a belief “I need to be active to be validated/good”, it will be very hard to allow ourselves to simply be for the period of the meditation. Instead the body will twitch, we will shuffle our feet and there will be an urge to get up and get active. 

It is said that restlessness is only fully resolved at the moment of full awakening. So we can give ourselves some slack the it arises if we are not yet fully Enlightened! That feeling in a meditation of wanting to get up, move, stop the meditation and do something. All we can do is sit with this agitation and allow it to be, noting that it passes if we continue to sit and that what seemed like an urgent need to get up and be active soon fades and can in turn be replaced with a feeling of relaxed ease as we sit. 

The third hindrance to meditation: lethargy and drowsiness

Last week’s essay addressed the hindrance of sensual desire, which is said to be like boiling water – the mind is stired up in a fury of excitement, bubbling and burning hot. This week the analogy with water is of a pot of water that is stagnant, slimy and full of algae. When the resistance to resting in the mind’s clear state does not turn to desire, it can go to its energetic opposite, a state of sluggish lack of focus where we feel sleepy and dull. Trying to watch one more breath just feels like too much effort, and it seems as if it would be easier to stop meditating and have a good sleep instead.

As we rest attention on the breath it shifts our nervous system from the active fight or flight mode to the calming rest and digest mode. This can be felt to be very soothing but may lead to feeling sleepy. What is needed is the ability to rest in this calm state whilst staying alert and focused on the experiences of the present moment. When we do this it is felt as a state that is both calm and full of a subtle joy of heart and vibrancy in our body.

What then if we find ourselves feeling sleepy as we meditate? In  Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English, the author, Bhante Gunaratana, gives 9 suggestions:

1. Mindful reflection—Conduct a silent monologue to rouse yourself, giving yourself encouragement and motivation. You may reflect on the benefit of this time of mindful sitting and how getting up now will impact on your day, or that mind states are fluid and that by staying with this feeling of sleepiness it may pass and in turn a state of alertness may arise.

2. Open your eyes—Open your eyes and roll your eyeballs around for a few seconds. Close them and go back to your sitting mindfulness exercise. Or you may open your eyes and focus on an object for a short time  – a candle flame is ideal as it is bright and energising.

3. Visualize a bright light—Visualize a very bright light and focus your mind on it for a few seconds. As you are visualizing bright light, the sleepiness often fades away. You may simply imagine you are looking at a bright light, or for a more Tantric energy approach you can imagine a yellow light at your solar plexus (naval, number 3 in the diagram below), the light intensifying and slowly expanding to fill your body. Or you can imagine a root going down into the core of the earth from the base chakra (number 1). Visualise yourself drawing this red energy up form the core of the earth into your body. You can combine this with doing pelvic floor muscle contractions, tensing as you breathe in, relaxing as you breath out. To locate this muscle feel how you need to clench to stop yourself form peeing. The aim is not to tighten the anus but only this muscle.

4.  Hold your breath—Take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can. Then slowly breathe out. Repeat this several times until your body warms up and perspires. Then return to your sitting practice.

5. Pinch your earlobes—Pinch your earlobes hard with thumbs and index fingers. Really feel the pinch. Surprisingly, this can help.

6. Standing—Stand up very slowly and very quietly. Try to do it so that even a person sitting next to you will not know. Do standing meditation for a few minutes until the sleepiness goes away. Once it is gone, return quietly to your sitting mindfulness practice.

7. Walking—Do walking meditation for a few minutes until sleepiness disappears. Then return to your sitting practice.

8. Splash water—Go and wash your face with cold water.

9. And finally…..if the sleepiness persists, go and take a nap for a few minutes. Sometimes sleepiness actually is a sign we may need sleep. I find there is a natural rhythm to my energy during the day and in the afternoon I need to have 20 minutes laying down to rest. After this I feel alert again and ready to continue, but without it the whole afternoon can feel lethargic.  Even in the monastery where we were encouraged to have little sleep, waking at 4am to goto the morning meditation, it was part of the days routine to go and rest for a short while in the afternoon.

If you find you feel sleepy a lot when you meditate it may be a sign of sleep deprivation. In the time of the Buddha and until about 200 years ago sleep was largely determined by the setting of the sun. Once dark poor families would not have access to candles and people would follow their bodies natural rhythm, sleeping early and waking with the dawn. There is a lot of evidence that our current habit of sleeping 8 hours is not a natural rhythm for us but something brought in with the industrial age when it became necessary to get people in to work in factories.

In the pre-industrial era it was common for people to have two phases of sleep, waking for a few hours in the night between these two phases. People would get up and pray, do some simple work, have sex, and there are even example from the 18th century of dream discussion groups in London where people would go and discuss the dreams they had just had before returning to their second phase of sleep.

With the invention of artificial light – first gas, but then even more so with electric lighting, it became easier to push the darkness away and stay awake. Now that we have computers, tablets, ‘phones, laptops and televisions which all emit a blue light that stimulates the brain into thinking it is still day light the tendency is to stay awake long beyond the point our bodies would naturally drift into sleep. The light from these devices prevents the production melatonin, the hormone that tells our body to sleep. It’s a bit like when you hear a bird singing at night – the street lamps have confused their brains and they think it is dawn. Add to that consumption of coffee to get us through our tiredness and the fact stress impacts on sleep and it is little wonder we live in a society that runs on sleep deficit.

If you do find yourself feeling sleepy every time you meditate you may want to reflect on your sleep patterns. How much sleep do you get each night? What time do you go to bed? Do you find yourself falling asleep when ever you stop: watching a film, sitting in a quiet warm room, listening to relaxing music? All of this can indicate sleep deficit. We all vary in how much sleep we need, but we all need a certain amount to feel fully charged. If you are constantly getting one or more hours too little, then like a bank account that does not receive enough funds you will go into deficit. The only way to rectify this is to sleep! Hence the tendency to  lie in at weekends or find that we sleep for hours when we go on holiday.

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