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Mindful : February 2015
Is such a radical shift possible? Yes, according to practitioner reports over thousands of years, and the new data from brain-measuring technology. How- ever, it requires practice, method, and courage. The science of turning towards In one study, people with a fear of spiders were invited to walk towards, a nd try to touch, a live tarantula. The people who fa red the best were those asked to notice and acknowledge their fea r by say- ing, as they approached, something like: “I’m anx- ious and frightened by the ugly, terrifying spider.” By openly acknowledging their a nxiety, they not only turned towards the object of fear, but towards the fear itself. It might feel counterintuitive, but the more we gently practice this “turning towards,” the more it seems we’re able to handle problems. In a nother experiment, people were exposed to a painful stimulus before and after a few sessions of mindfulness. After they’d learned to meditate, the study participants reported a 40% reduction in pain intensity. They also rated the pain as 57% less unpleasa nt. Their tolerance had increased, perhaps because they experienced the pain as less troubling, and so were less averse to it. During another study, in which people were asked to label expressions on people’s faces (e.g., angry, scared), those who were more naturally mindful showed less activity in the amygdala, sug- gesting a smaller fight or flight reaction, and more activity in the prefrontal cortex, indicating a greater capacity for regulating emotion. The mindful par- ticipants seemed more comfortable with acknowl- edging troubling emotions on the faces in f ront of them. Whether it’s spiders that worry us, or pain, or unpleasa nt thoughts, or unopened bills, or relation- ships with others, when we avoid difficult experi- ences that can’t be put off forever, problems seem to mount. But when we practice a mindful approach, we open a reser voir for coping that can help see us through hardship. Compassionate abiding Being with difficulty in this way is what medita- tion teacher Pema Chödrön calls “compassionate abiding.” Staying present with what ails us, we allow ourselves to notice, approach, and fully feel what ’s here, offering a tenderness of heart to what we may formerly have demonized. It’s important not to create expectations. As soon as we’re moving into the difficult with the hope it’ll disappear, we’ve turned away from an intention sim- ply to befriend what ’s present. If nothing happens when we practice, then we can befriend nothing happening. If resistance comes up, we can befriend resistance. If there’s anger a nd pain, or anger at Intuitively we recognize the seeds of beauty in the unwanted, painful things in life, like frogs that turn into princes when kissed. 38 mindful February 2015 resilience