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Deep listening – to oneself

Last week I was discussing deep listening to another as one sits silently attending to what one can hear them say rather than going into thinking about what to say in response. This last week I had an experience of listening deeply to myself, to the meaning making machine of my mind and the beliefs that underpin that. 

A friend called me and I asked to call back latter as I was near the end of my work out and needed time to finish. I called back but couldn’t get through and then in a series of missed calls we ended up not being able to talk. Eventually I received a text saying he was now busy and could not talk. 

Objectively it was just one of those things, nothing to get too concerned about. But in my body I felt a sense of heaviness and constriction. My mind went into panic as it thought about how I should have ended my workout to make time to talk, feeling sad at missing the chance to connect and feeling a sense of loss that we were not now able to talk. I got the urge to text him to say this and yet also felt this was way out of proportion for what had just happened and would just create a drama where one was not needed. Hence I then had a fight in myself about if I can say I am upset or not.

I stayed present to this as the time passed and realised I was going into a familiar pattern of mine – the fear of abandonment. The brain has been called a ‘meaning making machine’ and when it has unhelpful programmes in it the meanings it creates do not always serve one’s well being and happiness. Right now, my meaning making mind was generating the old familiar story of being not wanted/abandoned and by so doing was blowing a fresh breeze into the old worn out sails of this particular fear. 

Jung says: “what we resist persists and what we fight we get more of”. I think that despite talking about this dynamic of fearing abandonment, I’ve not really allowed myself fully to turn to it, face it and feel it. Instead I always run after the next experience that I hope will take away the fear, and then feel worry as I wait for the text in reply/ for the person to like me/ to hear back. In this way I stay locked into  the familiar place of longing and loss, rather than opening to a feeling of plenitude and abundance – which just feels too unfamiliar and unusual to believe in! 

A book I’ve been reading about mindfulness for addiction makes the point that all addictions seem to be rooted in an attempt to escape stress. When stress arises we turn to our addiction of choice. This could include an addiction to being wanted in order to feel of worth. I know as a child I created the meaning that my mother needed me for her well being – rather than feel it the other way around. And this has fed in to my adult life, where I try to be the one for others to turn to but feel unable to say I need help, creating a pattern of never fully owning my own need for support, comfort or love – yet having repeated mind dramas that keep bringing me back to the pain of fearing being alone, of not being good enough for another to want. “What we resit persists, what we fight we get more of”. 

A deeper belief I notice as I reflect on this now is the belief I had as a boy that my father left because I had done something wrong – that in fact, I was wrong. Each time someone does not reply or pulls away, this old belief is activated: “I am wrong” and it is painful – so I try to escape the pain by doing what I did as a child, go into my head and think it out or pull away entirely, or push in closer to the person I fear is going to leave me….with the inevitable result that they see me as needy and pull away! And so the cycle goes on. 

One approach to working with our negative self-talk in the book ‘Loving Ourselves’ by Kimeron Hardin is to listen in to the underlaying beliefs under our self-talk. What I notice right now is the belief “I am wrong” under the drama of missing a phone call. This is a belief a child created in response to his father leaving him. It was his only way to make sense of the world. A child cannot conceive that his parents are defective or wrong, and being so focused on himself assumes whatever happened was due to him. Looking at this belief as an adult I can bring in the disputing self talk that says this is not true, that my father left because he had his own reasons, and in this way bring this repeating pattern to an end. Instead all there is is a feeling of sadness at missing a chance to talk to my friend without the mind then creating meaning from this. It is felt, and it passes. 

The Buddha once said: “Through the round of many births I roamed without reward, without rest, seeking the house-builder. Painful is birth again and again. House-builder, you’re seen! You will not build a house again. All your rafters broken, the ridge pole destroyed, gone to the Unformed, the mind has come to the end of craving.” — Dhammapada 153-4 There are various Buddhist teaching this may refer to, but perhaps one element of the house builder that he saw through was this storytelling in the mind and the underlaying beliefs that give rise to the sense of ‘me’. Once fully present and in the moment all he experienced was things as they were in that moment, without any drama.

Disputing the propaganda of the mind

What I’m exploring right now is a method I learnt recently which uses disputing self talk to challenge the story. The propaganda machine of the mind is so ready to start telling it’s old lies and assumed truths. Rather than going along with this and getting pulled into the familiar tailspin of despondency I can turn to the thoughts or statements of truth and ask: is this true, can it be challenged? 

Disputing the self-talk takes the form of being like a lawyer in one’s own head. The statement comes – “my friend no longer likes me, I have no friends, there’s something wrong with me”, and rather than go along with this, I can say “stop”, “this thought is not helpful” – and question it. Is it the case I’m always abandoned? No, I have some friends I no longer see, that is true. I meet men who then do not want to date again, but this is life and happens to everyone. I also have friends who will make time for me, want to see me and value my company. I had a boyfriend and we were together for over two years – so someone did want to be with me, and in fact we are still friends.

As the evening went on, my friend did then text me and we ended up having a lovely exchange. He was working late and that was why he could not talk, but we connected by text and all of the inner drama was shown to be based on nothing true. In this way the phrase a therapist once said to me was also played out: “we are wounded in relationship and we heel in relationship”. I received the wounds that make me fear abandonment and the belief I am wrong from family dynamics, but having good friends who then hold and offer true connection gives  a chance to heal this wound in a current relationship. 

A book I’m reading at the moment called Wake The F#ck Up, by Brett Moran, gives a very simple exercise when faced with this negative self-talk. On noticing such self-talk, repeat one of the following as if it were a mantra:

  • I am not my thoughts, I am not my thoughts, I am not my thoughts
  • My thoughts are not real, My thoughts are not real, My thoughts are not real
  • It’s just a story, It’s just a story, It’s just a story

Next time you get caught in an old loop of thinking, try this and see if by questioning the thought it can be allowed to dissolve and instead there’s just an awareness of the experience rather than being lost in the drama. What can be created in this open space of awareness? What is it you want to open to rather than run away from? Ask, when did it become more important to me to run from my fears than dive into my bliss? What is my bliss? Do these thoughts take me in the direction of my bliss or away? If they take me away, then what purpose do they serve?

The four minute video below is by the author of Wake The F#ch Up, and is a beautiful exploration of the two things we know – that we were born and will die, and of the amazing space in between, which is our life.


Deep listening

What is it like as we talk to another? What is our automatic way of being in a conversation? How often as we listen  is part of our attention on what we need to say next rather than fully taking in what the other is saying? Rather than trusting that we will know how to respond when it is time to talk we may start planning what to say, and therefore do not fully hear the other.

As you talk to others do you notice how some people you know will listen and hear what you say, others will respond by immediately talking about their own experience or by trying to fix you – either by giving suggestions or offering an uninvited hug? How does it feel when others impose their own agenda rather than just acknowledge having heard you?

Mindful listening is a practice of staying fully present to your own thoughts and feelings whilst offering an open space for the other to talk in to. We have done it a few times in the group. It can feel strange to listen without responding verbally, but for some the experience of being able to talk without having others impose their own thoughts can feel liberating. 

I gave a talk this Friday at the Mindful living show and we started with this practice. There were about 80  people there. Many did not know each other, but the mindful listening practice offered a way to connect. The way it works is that one person sits and listens without saying anything. The listener stays present for one minute to their thoughts and feelings and when they notice their attention has drifted they bring it back to the breath and to listening. This creates a space for the other to speak into for their minute.

Experiences varied. Some found it hard to listen and not talk. Others found it very supportive to be able to talk and not have others impose their opinions or thoughts. By the end of the short exercise I then invited people to talk in their pairs and suddenly what had been a room full of strangers was abuzz with a gentle conversation. This had taken five minutes to reach. 

I went on to talk about how powerful this could be if it were taken into a workplace and people learnt to listen heartfully to each other, and hear what the the other was saying, rather than hear what they think the other is saying or asking for, or be caught up in there reaction to what they hear the other saying (which may not in fact be what they are saying, but how we hear what they are saying) – becoming a space of compassionate deep listening rather than simply reacting to what the other says.

To listen to others in this way we need also to bring this deep listening and non judgmental hearing of our own inner world. As I meet my own shadow and fears I find it becomes easier to hear and be present to others with whatever is going on for them. You may have noticed this yourself as you explore listening to your own experience within meditation, becoming a kinder, more gentle listener to the chaotic inner world. 

I hope you enjoy exploring this in your own practice. As you listen to another talking to you see if you can rest in to this deep listening, rather than the need to offer an opinion or immediately rush to speak. Allow what you say to come from this place of silent presence. 

This deep listening practice is from work by peace activist and monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He talks about how deep listening can even help to bring war to an end. In the talk below he outlines what compassionate deep listing means for him. 

Finding freedom by listening to our body with calm attention

One of the joys of teaching mindfulness is that I make new friends through the people who come on my courses or to the class. These friends initially come to learn mindfulness and I am in the role of a teacher, but as they then establish their own practice they become fellow practitioners and can often end up teaching me, inspiring me as they share their experience. This happens with a number of people, but a few weeks ago I received a text that was beautiful in its succinct expression of the power of mindful enquiry.

The person who sent this had initially come on an 8 week mindfulness course I ran a few years ago. They found it very hard at first to connect with the body scan and to notice any sensation in their body. But they kept going, slowly opening to noticing the sensations they had spent so long being cutting off from. There were times when this meant feeling a lot of things they had not wanted to feel, but over time it has become a gift.

I had sent them a link to a teacher I am currently interested in, called Micheal Rodriguez, who spoke of being with difficult feelings in the body and how we want to run away from them, but in turning to feel them we can find a freedom that is blissful. In response he sent me this text. In subsequent conversations I asked if it was ok to share it as it has a few things in that I found very moving.

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This is something I have been hearing from different teachers recently, the emphasis on trusting that within the chaos of experience there is a stillness that is always accessible. When I visited my old monastery last year and met with the Abbot there, he spoke of how mindfulness is a practice for building a container that can hold the chaos, enabling us to be present with our struggles without being overwhelmed. 

There’s a Tibetan saying about meditation: “better not to start, having started better not to stop”. What this refers to is that as we learn to meditate we open to so much that we once were oblivious to. It may feel at first that things are getting worse rather than better, as we feel more deeply into all of the things we had pushed away into the shadow of denial. Having started this process if we stop then we are simply stuck in a place of feeling more without any release from this deep intensity. As we continue with this mindful enquiry though we can start to sense that we are not just the chaos, instead we start to wake up to the witness.

In the Thai Forest tradition in which I trained, they refer to ‘the one who knows’. This is the wisdom that arises as we practice mindfulness. It is the mind’s ability to know all that arises as a creation and to know not to believe the stories the mind weaves about things. It is the wisdom that can hear an unpleasant sound and instead of going into thoughts of dislike and disgruntlement, simply knows it as a sound, with certain qualities of tone, pitch and volume. Or someone can say something hurtful to us and it is known for what it is: an opinion from another that we give life to by either liking what they say or disliking it.

Our suffering starts when we pick up what they offer, start identifying with it, believing that we are as bad as they say, or getting angry with them because we feel they are disrespecting us. If we leave it for them to hold, then, to summarise a metaphor the Buddha used, it is like an unwanted present we choose not to accept. As we listen quietly like this to our reaction to what they say, to their words and how they are being, we may even pick up a sense of their words coming from a place of pain or suffering – envy, anger or resentment. If we hear this then our potential anger may turn into compassion for them. 

Our minds are meaning making machines – we look for meaning and weave stories around what we see, hear and sense. The ‘one that knows’, the wisdom of stillness, knows not to buy into that drama. Instead it notices with a calm attention, sensing how our response to something is starting to create eddies in the mind – little ripples of attraction or aversion that in a few moments can become crashing waves of elation or despair. 

Ajahn Chah would always teach that mindfulness is the way to connect with ‘the one that knows’ – the state of mindful and non-reactive Awareness that we connect with when looking with a calm and clear attention at any sensory experience that arise in our body-mind: thoughts and bodily sensations.   As my friend did this, they first noticed the intensity of emotions in their body. As Ajahn Chah has said of meditation, “unless you have cried deeply you have not even started to meditate”, Awareness will open us to the fear, the pain, the trauma we have for so long denied. But as Ajahn Chah also says of meditation: “when you sit, let it be, when you walk, let it be, grasp at nothing, resist nothing”. The state of knowing, ‘the one that knows’ arises as we turn with calm presence to our experience right now – neither trying to push it away, nor deny it or make it otherwise to what it is.

Ajahn Sumedho, my teacher from the monastery who trained under Ajahan Chah in Thailand, puts it like this:

“In the moment of mindfulness, there is no suffering. I can’t find any suffering in mindfulness; it’s impossible; there’s absolutely none. But when there’s heedlessness, there is a lot of suffering in my mind. If I give in to grasping things, to wanting things, to following emotions or doubts and worries and being caught up in things like that—then there is suffering. It all begins from my grasping. But when there is mindfulness and right understanding, then I can’t find any suffering at all in this moment, now.”

In the text above, my friend felt into the intensity of the experience that was presenting itself in that moment, knew it, and trusted that there was a stillness that was not the difficult emotions or painful sensations. In that moment the ‘one that knows’ arose and there was a clear seeing and suffering came to an end, at least for a few seconds! These little insights at first seem insignificant, but the wise people I was so lucky to live with in the monastery were examples of how with persistent and committed practice there can be a shift – from these being brief glimpse of insight, to living from this as an ongoing experience. 

If you would like to explore this further, the full text of Ajhan Chah’s talk is here, and the full text of Ajhan Sumedo’s talk is here. The video I mentioned at the start of the email is below. 


9 Year Anniversary

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In April 2009 there was an article in Boyz about a new group for gay men that had recently started in London. It was the first in a new section they were launching called ‘passions’ where gay men shared what they were passionate about. I had recently started the group at its first venue, the Light Centre in Victoria, and was looking to promote the sessions so had contacted Boyz. Little did I know that this fortnightly class, initially meeting on Sunday mornings with about 10 people would still be going 9 years latter and that over 1,000 men would have come to the class. 

It took  many years of encouragement from a good friend, Juan Serrano, before I took the leap and set up the group. Without his confidence in me I don’t think I would ever have done it. A big thank you to him! I still remember him telling me how there was a gay meditation group back in Madrid, and how he was sure if Spanish men would come to a mindfulness class then it would be possible in London.

After about 6 months of meeting in the Light Centre I  decided to find a new venue where we could meet weekly. I remembered the room that Bodhi had used for his Five Rhythms dance class. I had assisted Bodhi with setting up the class each week and I remembered it was somewhere central and was a good sized room and so contacted the venue and arranged to go in and visit. On meeting with the Warden there it turned out a room had recently become free on Monday nights, so I had the chance to book it.

The only difficulty was that I needed to pay for three months in advance, and put down a deposit of three months – so I had to find 6 months rent. I did not have £1600 and for a moment I thought to just let it pass and leave the meeting. Instead I said I would go ahead and made the booking. Then came the question of how to pay! A friend agreed to lend me £800. I then spoke with my mother to ask for a loan. She spoke to my step father – who when I first came out many years earlier had not had the most positive attitude to me being gay! But he agreed, and they leant me the other £800. 

I feel a huge sense of gratitude to the people who helped to make the group possible at the start. Juan for his encouragement, Bodhi for providing me with an idea of where to run the group, David Hews for his generosity and trust in me to lend £800 and my mother and step-father, Jillian and Steve Clements for their support. 

Then came the other forms of support. Graham Humphreys offered his time as a designer to create the first fliers for the group:

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A big thank you also to Kevin O’Neil who helped me set up my website and blog to help promote the group. Then there are the people who helped as the group got established. Andy Jones who used to come in early to help set up and made it so much easier to get the room ready than doing it on my own. Meirion Todd, Tim Waldron, Malcolm Morris and the others who were the first door babes and kitchen angels. Without them it would have been so much harder to have run the group as it became established. A big thank you to Ian Patrick who was one of the first to help with the clean up at the end and for years oversaw the washing up. Ian has been our longest standing regular, seeing the group as it has developed over the years since he first came in 2010.

A big thank you to Kam Munsamy who gave his time for free to take group photos for our first publicity and has come in again more recently to take photos of the group.

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These are a few of the people who were involved or helped as the group became established. There were also indirectly my teachers from the monastery, from whom I had learnt what I then went on to share through the group.  The training in the monastery continues to underpin my practice which in turn informs how I teach at the group. 

Then there have been the many people since who have given their time on the door and in helping to make tea, wash up and clear away at the end. A big thank you to all of you! Dan and Sam who for some time were the main door babes and whose commitment to helping meant there was always someone there at the door to welcome people as they arrived. Alex who helped on the door before Sam and Dan and is now once more assisting as a door babe. Then there are the rest of the current door babes: Frank, Boyan, Howard, Kelvin, Lloyd and Simon. Thanks to them there is always a smiling face to welcome you at the door and give new members a few minutes introduction. I’m sure all of you remember your first time and just how much a difference it made to have someone there to greet you and help put you at your ease as you arrived. 

There will be people I have forgotten in this list, and my apologies if your name is not here  – but thank you to everyone who has leant their time to help over the years. 

Buddhism teaches interdependence – that we live as part of an interconnected whole and are not isolated individuals acting  with only our own agency. Remembering all of the people who contributed to the early years of the group I feel an immense sense of gratitude for their contribution, and it is a reminder that I didn’t do this alone, but with their help. Without any one of them it would have been a slightly different group. We live in this matrix of interconnecting influences, but often do not see all of the people involved with an event we go to or an experience we have. 

It’s useful to remember that we never really do anything in isolation. Our successes are built on our connections with others. The sense of self-worth and confidence we have got from the encouragement a teacher gave us on seeing a skill, or family and parents instilled in us. Our failures too grow from our interaction with others – the fear we have to put ourselves forward that may come from a chance remark of a teacher many years ago still lodged in our being. As I look to go forward from here, keeping the group healthy and thriving, I know that I do it not just on my own, but through the help of others, and through you…all of the people who have come to the group  in the past or are still coming now, and those yet to come to the group in the future who in their turn will take on a role in helping and supporting. 


Thoughts are not facts

Before Christmas I met a man at a party. Shortly after we started talking a man came up and was introduced as his boyfriend. I was a little disappointed as I had found him attractive, but that was that. We did swap numbers and stayed in touch a little, then a month ago we were chatting again and he said he had been single for a few months and we met for tea and a chat. I felt we had got on well and was already imagining the possibilities of dating. We were going to meet for dinner but he had to cancel due to being ill. Then he invited me to an event he was running and we arranged to meet early to have dinner. All good, or so I thought.

I arrived, we chatted, then he mentioned that his ex was going to be there that night…..and that they are dating again. Suddenly all of my assumptions about what might be happening fell apart. In an agonising moment it became very clear that my hopes that he might be interested in dating were nothing but my own imaginings. Some of you will have read the emails I wrote on Attachment theory, one of the things that came out from that book was how anxiously attached people tend to build castles in the air, creating an idea of what might be happening before there is any real evidence – telling their friends about the amazing person they have just met and how great the chemistry is, and how they just know they’ve met ‘the one’ they have been waiting for….only to have to tell the same friends a few weeks latter that it has gone nowhere and the other person actually wasn’t even interested! 


The scripts we live by

What happened in the seconds after he told me he was dating again was intense. I felt sad, foolish, and felt I could say nothing to him at all. I even wondered for a moment if he had known how I felt and was just brushing it aside by telling me he was dating again and for a moment I felt a quiet rage. In those few seconds as I checked in with myself I could see an habitual pattern at work: the old scripts that say “hold your pain”, “don’t burden someone else with it”, “just stay quiet and don’t make a fuss”. Then I considered if this was really what I wanted – an evening where I would sit without really saying how I felt. At this point he said “Anyway, how are you?” as a way of continuing the conversation. I paused a moment knowing I could either have a general conversation about work and things going on in my life, or be honest about how I felt in that moment. I then said “I feel a bit sad to be honest, I had been hoping this might be a date!”. In my head saying this would lead to the sky falling in, but the sky did not fall down.

He did not crumple under the weight of my disappointment. Instead we had a great conversation where he was able to say he had not seen me as someone to date – he saw me as a friend, and someone he wanted to turn to for advice and support, but with no idea that I might feel any other way. As we continued to speak easily I could let go of my feeling that I had to protect the other from the intensity of my feelings. I remember this feeling as a child, holding back from telling my mother if I was upset, not wanting to burden her with things, feeling I should look after her. I’ve sometimes told her as an adult things I never said as a child and she is always a little sad and bemused why I never told her, as she would have wanted to help or support, but I had made it my rule that I was not to worry her. It was unhealthy then for me as a child, and works no better for me now as an adult! It creates relationships where I seek to look after and protect the other but sacrifice myself for their good, finally becoming resentful of them and leaving, or realising that I am only with them because they have triggered my rescuer mode. 

This experience shows a few things. One, that I have read too much Jane Austin, where romantic desire is conveyed in subtle linguistic clues hidden in seemingly banal conversation! A text saying “I could have talked with you for hours” after our first tea and chat being read as him saying much more than just I enjoyed the conversation! As we talked I was able to say that I am so inexperienced in dating that I do not know how to express my feelings to someone so that they might know that I am interested. As we talked with an ease and openness that my fearful voice had told me would be destroyed by being honest about my feelings it also showed that I do not have be trapped by old scripts. The script that says “do not say what you are feeling, it will be too much for the other to hold”, was replaced by an experience of saying how I felt and having it met by the other in an adult and honest conversation. 

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Mindfulness practice does not make us super human – infallible and all wise. Even after years of practice we still have our basic conditioning and personality. Some people have a personality and set of self -beliefs that serve them well – those who show up as ‘secure’ in attachment theory. Others have a set of self beliefs that incline them towards avoidance or anxious  attachment. People with avoidant attachment styles feel that others will overwhelm them and need to be kept at a distance, so will give mixed messages – opening to connection but then keeping you at a distance.  People with anxious attachment styles tend to worry that they are not good enough and will always be seen though and rejected, and so try to be supper good and amenable to others while having an unspoken addenda  – which can  be felt by the other as being manipulative and needy as desires are not expressed but silently implied and when not met there can be a silent rage at the other for not sensing what one wanted from them! What mindfulness can do is give a foundation of awareness to notice these belief systems at work and to question them.


Thoughts are not facts

In the 8 week mindfulness course there’s a saying “thoughts are not facts”. Learning to challenge these automatic ways of thinking and experiencing the world as it is rather than how I think it is offers a chance to make new choices. In this instance I saw the habitual thought process at work: “don’t say anything, don’t make your self look like a fool, don’t burden him with your upset, just hold it without sharing and deal with it alone as you always do”. It took a moment of jumping off the cliff and trusting I could fly to say how I felt, but as soon as the words were out I trusted I could deal with whatever happened – if he had been confused or upset, I could have dealt with that, but instead he was responsive and held it really well and we ended up closer though having an honest conversation about what we both felt and wanted.

Whilst in the monastery I attended a series of rebirthing sessions to address issues around what had been a difficult birth. In the last session at the end of the breathing I was invited to listen in to find a phrase I could remember and use to encourage myself. The words that came were: “when I trust myself, I flow with life”. Twelve years latter I am reminded of this, and of how important it is to trust ourselves rather than living from a place of hesitancy and fear of getting it wrong. I hope as you read this you can reflect on your own life and actions and notice where you lack trust in yourself and how this feels, and what it is like in the moments when you let go of controlling life and trust that you have wings as you step into the unknown.

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


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
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