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Mindful : April 2017
Many therapies—not to mention the advice we get from friends and our grand- mother—encourage us to change the story we’re telling ourselves when that story causes us anxiety, depression, or other challenging mental states. In the recovery world it’s called “stinkin’ thinkin’,” the kind of self-talk that tells us we are no good or things are not going to work out or that the person we are about to go talk to is an absolute ogre. The stories we tell our- selves in our head do frame our experience, and they can form a kind of script for our lives, so the advice to “flip the script,” to change the story we’re telling ourselves, would seem to make a lot of sense. Mindfulness practice, how- ever, in its basic form, does not emphasize studying our story so that we can change the story we’re telling ourselves. It doesn’t ask us to enter into a dialogue with our inner storyline to try to shift it. The basic instruction is to notice whatever thinking arises, see it for what it is, and come back to whatever anchor we are using for our attention, most commonly the breath. So, which makes more sense and is more effective for coping with and healing anxiety? Flip the Script? “It’s not binary. There’s no need to think of one being right and the other wrong or one being necessarily better than the other,” according to Zindel Segal, Distinguished Profes- sor of Psychology in Mood Disorders at the University of Toronto and one of the found- ers of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. In mindfulness practice, Segal says, you have an opportunity—the mental time and space, if you will—to see more elements of the story, a richer picture. “You may see more clearly as you anticipate a difficult encounter what the underlying emotion is that’s triggered and how it’s showing up in your body.” In this way, you become aware of the full context of the story, like seeing a flower opening in slow-motion photography. With this awareness, over time “your solid belief in a storyline may begin to erode.” Segal also notes that sim- ply reminding yourself of the flimsiness of a given storyline, such as—to give a very simple example—vastly overestimat- ing the likelihood of a plane crash, is cer tainly an accept- able strategy. It’s simply that mindfulness practice aims to do deeper work with our story-making habits, to give us more choice as triggers for anxiety or depression emerge in our lives. STRATEGIES After months had passed and I had done a lot more meditation, I went back to my instructor. “How’s it going?” he asked. “ Well, I’m still agitated and fidgety, but not as much. It almost feels good,” I said. He laughed. “That’s a little bit of well-being overtaking you.” “Really,” I said. “ Well, how about that.” I was like a kid who had found he suddenly had a week off from school unannounced. There was relief. The very next time I meditated, I worked myself up into a lather. This time, my mind was captivated with how great a meditator I was going to become. It was the polar opposite from that other time, where I obsessed about how terrible a meditator I was. Now, my ambitions gnawed at me, making me impatient, overeager, and...anxious. It seemed I would default to anxi- ety at any turn. And then a little gap opened up in my mind. Something jerked my attention back to the meditation instruction, and to the next breath. At that moment, there was a tiny little wow, an eentsy a-ha moment: No matter how many times I freak out and set off a rapid-fire chain reaction of speedy thoughts, I can simply come back here and start fresh, all over again. Taking It Moment by Moment We sometimes like to fantasize that life is not precarious and dodgy. We like to think it’s not filled with risk and that as humans our hearts and bodies are not vulnerable. But deep down, we know life is shifty. Like when my dad died, out of nowhere. Or your lover finds someone new. Life is like this. Up and down, repeatedly. The point of meditation is not to go off and enter a fuzzy zone of bliss. The point is that the habit of seeing our thoughts as less solid and threatening can rub off and start to become a part of how we see and work with the world in the heat of the moment, away from our meditation room, in the arena of life. So the next time we feel we are about to leap out of our skin—when the hows and whens and what ifs start to build—we may notice a cool breeze touching our skin, and a shaft of sunlight splashing in front of us. Maybe we catch the sound of a bus passing nearby, or come back to the awareness of the people all around us. We’re a little scared; and that’s OK. Our anx- iety lets us know we’re alive. And yet we’re not fighting for survival. We have survived. We are surviving. The next moment awaits. ● Change your storyline or simply notice it? Which is better? April 2017 mindful 55 emotions