Acceptance – One of the Most Useful Skills

Before I focused on mindfulness I used to practice a number of meditation practices which emphasised concentration. They used to teach things like ‘throw thoughts away’ or ‘just let go of emotions’ and the principle that if you developed enough focus then you could overcome all fears, worries and concerns. Well this was all good and well when you were meditating or practicing on a good day, but I found this did not help me in daily life when I was facing strong emotions or overwhelming thoughts. No matter how hard I tried to focus on my breath, positive emotions or how much I ‘let go’ of these negative emotions they would just get stronger and I would be falling back on basic strategies like avoidance, rumination or shutting down in overwhelm. What mindfulness brought, as a missing piece to my practice, was the principle of non-judgemental awareness, acceptance or equanimity toward these thoughts and emotions. It was okay to have these negative feelings and thoughts; I didn’t have to fight them, just hold them with an accepting awareness. I have found this to be one of the most beneficial aspects of mindfulness.

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Firstly, it’s important to emphasise that with acceptance this doesn’t mean that we accept objective phenomena that we clearly need to change. We should not become ‘door mats’ or accept wrong treatment in the name of mindfulness. Here acceptance means that, when we can’t change objective conditions, that we don’t fight against our internal reactions in the body-mind to the present moment. We avoid the push and pull and internal struggle with our reactions and we do this through awareness.
Acceptance/equanimity develops through and over time. This is a really important point, through time spent on the cushion, doing moving mindfulness and daily life practice equanimity will develop naturally with time. It develops when we allow thoughts and emotions to come and go without trying to block, change or get rid of them and instead hold them with awareness. It’s also related to your concentration/stability of mind skills in mindfulness, the deeper you develop the relaxed and effortless concentration of mindfulness the more acceptance you will develop.
Here are some other ways you can increase and develop acceptance skills:

1. Full body relaxation – as best as you can, try to relax your whole body, you can quickly scan from head to toes and relax any areas of tension particularly the muscles around the eyes, the jaw, the shoulders, the breath, legs and arms. If you find any areas of tension you can’t relax then simply observe them.
2. Gentle light awareness – if we can also use a relaxed focus this will help to develop equanimity, this means using just the amount of effort to stay with the meditation but not struggling or effort-ing beyond this. It’s like you lightly ‘rest’ your awareness on the object of meditation and if you drift away then just notice and gently return. You have close to an effortless focus. Try noticing that you are seeing or hearing, that amount of effort to simply notice is all that is needed.
3. Kind gentle speech and loving self-talk – it can be helpful to activate the language part of our brain, you can gently and in a kind tone (silently or out loud depending on where you are) label the emotion ‘feeling, thinking’, or you can talk to yourself with kind loving words like ‘may I be happy, may I be free from suffering’.
4. Notice the aversion or resistance – if you can’t observe something because it is too hard then notice the resistance and gently return your attention to your meditation. This resistance shows up as tension in the body, subtle or strong emotional sensations like fear or anger, heaviness or tension in the head and negative thoughts in the mind. If this is difficult, use an anchor like the breath at the abdomen or the sense of the physical body as a whole and allow your mind to be aware of the anchor and any challenging emotions. If the resistance is really intense then it might be a good choice to practice moving meditation or switch to an action you value that is meaningful (there are times when its more skillful to read a compelling novel!).
5. Time, time, time – just to emphasise again that generally equanimity develops in direct correlation of the time spent practicing, therefore notice it develop over time as the weeks and months go on.

Probably the best meditative practice to develop equanimity is open awareness, sometimes called choiceless awareness or open monitoring. In studies on advanced Zen and Tibetan Buddhist meditators, they were able to regulate their response to pain stimulus the greatest using this technique, and this was directly through equanimity to pain (they use a hot water wrist patch to invoke pain in the neuroscience lab!).

Here is a guided open awareness practice, but remember all mindfulness practices will develop this skill: Open Awareness

Happy practicing!

Jon Kabat-Zinn on Mindfulness

It was wonderful to see Jon Kabat-Zinn talk about mindfulness at the School of Life on the 2nd May 2015. Jon has arguably played one of the most important roles for the promotion of secular mindfulness in society, through the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Programme that he founded. MBSR was originally put together to help patients at the hospital where he worked in Massachusetts manage chronic pain, stress and other suffering related to their chronic illnesses – see for more details.

Jon covered so much in the session but I wanted to share some of the highlights for me:

Heartfulness. Jon emphasised that compassion and loving kindness are built into the fabric of mindfulness. The awareness that is used to bring acceptance to pain and suffering is kind and compassionate. For this reason he often calls it ‘heartfulness’.

Attending to attention. Mindfulness is connecting with awareness itself, this pure awareness can hold and contain suffering in a way that makes unavoidable suffering more manageable. Negative thoughts and emotions self-liberate in this awareness.

If you find it hard to connect with this pure awareness then by all means use an object to anchor yourself in the present moment like following your breathing.

Rest in Awareness. It is important to try to be soft with our focus, like you are ‘resting’ in the present moment focus.

So be very gentle and relaxed with attention but at the same time focus like your life depends on it. Mindfulness is the balance between deep rest and clear focus.

And finally Jon emphasised become at ease with not knowing. As we train in mindfulness our inquisitive and controlling mind can try to question and understand every little thing. At times we just need to let go as best we can and let the practice take care of the answers.


Why do mindfulness?

Before starting any endeavour it is good for us to consider why we are doing it, particularly in terms of what benefits we can anticipate. There are only so many free hours in the day and each one ideally should be used to bring more happiness to ourselves and to others. Mindfulness is no different, and so I always like to begin by describing some of the key benefits. I often classify these under three broad headings:

Enhancing the positive – our brain has evolved to have the quality of neuroplasticity; this means that the way we use our thoughts influences the structure and qualities of our brains. The famous saying goes “neurons that fire together wire together”. One implication of this fact is that positive or negative habits strengthen the associated brain pathways.

Humans have evolved a negativity bias, meaning that we have a tendency to focus on threats as monitoring these will keep us alive (from sabre tooth tigers through to dangerous drivers) and the positive experiences are more of a “nice to have”. This is why if you meet many nice people in one day and then one difficult person it is likely that you will tell your friends about the difficult person and say little of the nice people!

But by using mindfulness to focus on positive experiences, the thoughts, sensations and emotions associated with them, we can strengthen these neural pathways. This can become a positive feedback loop – focusing on positive experiences make us feel good and feeling good enhances our focus, often when we talk about savouring an experience this is what happens. Neurotransmitters that we associate with positive experiences like endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine are released through meditative practices and positive life experiences and we can further enhance this by being aware of the process and feelings.

Managing the negative – But as a human being we will also experience negative emotions and in mindfulness we are not trying to suppress these, or trying to always be happy and to deny that negative experiences happen. This is where mindfulness presents a number of skills that are very useful in managing negative experiences. In fact this is a growing area in psychotherapy where mindfulness is being used to manage depression, anxiety, pain management, stress related illness etc. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Mindful Compassion Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy are examples of these approaches. The non-judgemental quality of mindfulness is at the heart of this aspect, the ability to observe our thoughts, sensations and emotions without the secondary reaction, allows us to defuse from the negative emotion. This defusing process allows us to tap into the observer self, which is the part of our mind that is simply aware of experience.

The observing quality of our mind allows us to create distance and space which lessens the emotional pain and gives us more room to see a solution and to be more creative and flexible with our minds. It’s important to note that acceptance doesn’t mean we don’t take action to improve our situation, it just allows us to be kinder to ourselves and cope with the things we can’t change more effectively.

Mindfulness also helps us to breakdown the experience into manageable pieces so the emotion seems less solid – the pieces consist of the different sensations in our whole body, the thoughts and emotions. We also see that these experiences are actually more fluid and constantly changing which helps to give us more freedom and equanimity, the whole cluster of experience is no longer fixed and tangled together in a strong complex. It now becomes a dynamic and more manageable cluster of flowing sensations, thoughts and emotions.

Essentially mindfulness helps us to manage our naturally evolved stress response, what is often called the fight or flight behaviour response which is associated with the sympathetic branch of our nervous system. Along with mental health benefits, we are starting to understand that this also provides physical health benefits, as stress is being seen by the medical profession as an integral part of most illnesses.

The experience itself – this brings us to the practice itself which engages the other side of our nervous system, the parasUSA Aug 2013 008 (2)ympathetic nervous system which Harvard Professor Herbert Benson called the relaxation response. Although relaxation is not the aim of mindfulness, rather awareness of moment-to-moment experience (which may include tension and stress), often as a side product there can be deeper levels of relaxation which are enjoyable in of themselves. The release of the neurochemicals described above, are associated with wellbeing and positive emotions and there are specific meditations designed to generate positive emotions such as loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.

If these benefits sound worth spending 10 or 20 minutes a day to cultivate then why not sign up for our new 8 week course starting in February, check out our website for more information.