Bullet Ants, Vision Quests and Mental Health Recovery as an Endurance Event

The Sateré-Mawé tribe of the northern region of the Amazonas in South America have a sacred ritual for young warriors that is quite unique. They have to prove their worth to the tribe by remaining in a calm state whilst suffering agonising pain. The tribe sow sedated bullet ants (named as their sting is said to be as painful as being shot) into gloves made of leaves. Boys as young as twelve have their hands placed into the gloves. As the ants awaken, they are stung for five minutes or longer. The ant’s toxins interfere with their nervous system and the venom continues acting for hours after being removed. The young warriors endure pain & paralysis, disorientation and hallucinations in these hours that follow. They need to go through this herculean ordeal twenty times to earn the respect of the tribe and be recognised as full warriors. Their only distraction during the ceremony is the tribe’s ceremonial song and dance!

Tests of endurance are perhaps as old as humankind. Vision quests, Sundance’s and land diving have given rise to the modern triathlon, iron man and ultra-marathons. I think that some days during mental health recovery are like endurance tests. When you wake to your intense symptoms and they persist till you attempt to sleep, it is somewhat like an endurance test. But one you have not chosen to take part in and often won’t gain the respect of your tribe. However, we can use the same tools that endurance athletes use to go through this process. Tools like breathing and relaxing, motivational and instructional self-talk (especially with a kind and compassionate tone) and mindful attentional training. We can use attentional control skills and develop our ability to accept pain in the service of moving towards our valued goals in life. Runners will often focus out into their environment rather than be drawn into the intoxicating feelings of exhaustion. The Sateré-Mawé focus intently onto the rhythmic music and dancing. We can find our own ceremonial drums.

A focus on values and goals can help us in this difficult place. Athletes will remind themselves of their goals, the time or position they are hoping for, why they are running and their team that are supporting them. This can help them to dig deeper and persist. Humans are a deeply social animal. We can draw on strength and support from our team, the crowds and supporters. Even in a vision quest the lone adventurer has the intention to pass through the trial so they can come back stronger and wiser for the tribe. There is fascinating research demonstrating that people anticipate mountains to be less steep when they are with a friend or group. Find your support network and tribe.

I’ve had days in the past when waves of panic or depersonalization were my constant companion. When the heavy weight of depression held me like the burning lactic acid climbing that first mountain or when repetitive rumination and obsessive thoughts felt like an enemy hunting me through the forest. And at those times it was helpful to frame it like a hero’s journey, rite of passage or endurance test. To constantly accept the anxiety and return my attention to the conversation I was having, or the activity I was doing, and to ensure I had a kind compassionate inner coach with me all day in my self-talk. To come back to my values and goals each hour to check I was moving towards what I cared about rather than running from what I feared. And I think at these times when we are facing our shadow, we train our new brains to regulate our old brains at a much deeper level. A simplified model is our pre-frontal cortex is getting stronger and more able to calm our limbic system, even when we are in our fight, flight or freeze response.

If we have days during recovery when we feel good then that’s great, we can savour and enjoy that. But if during the recovery marathon we have days that are dominated by anxiety & depersonalization, depression, obsessions & compulsions, then this is a chance to practice acceptance and following our valued direction in life – like weight training for our brain. On these days we are competing in the endurance race of recovery, if we can gently and patiently keep going, we are laying the synaptic pathways for freedom and a deeper happiness. It’s tough but we can build these skills over time. You may need the help of a professional skilled in the journey of recovery, just as a coach is an essential part of a physical fitness team. You will almost certainly need a training buddy or group – humans can’t do many things without the tribe. But with practice you can get there. So maybe think of the Sateré-Mawé when you are next having a tough day of suffering and maybe this concept might help you through it. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, the only way is through, whilst using whatever tools support you best.

Savouring the Present Moment: Mindfulness of Pleasure, Enjoyment and Happiness

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.’ Albert Einstein, My World View (from a collection of philosophies of notable figures in 1931)

 

Savouring and mindfulness are two distinct but related cousins. One enduring definition of mindfulness, penned by Jon Kabat-Zin, is ‘Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally’. So, in theory, mindfulness meets pain and pleasure with the same openness, or range of acceptance. Whereas savouring is selectively attending to what is pleasant, enjoyable, satisfying etc in the present moment, and allowing our attention to ‘dance’ between what we are enjoying and how we are feeling. It could be argued that mindfulness meets a beautiful view, pain, a busy London underground carriage all with the same receptive attention. Whereas savouring is going to be easiest with the beautiful view and more difficult (but not impossible) in the other situations. Mindfulness deepens and supports savouring, and often it leads to it. Some researchers believe these concepts naturally overlap and that this was reflected in its historical roots in Buddhism.

Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff have led much of the important psychological research on savouring, including exploring the emotional and physiological benefits. Their distinction with mindfulness is ‘when people savour, they too are mindful of their experience, but their attention does not remain totally open to incoming or internal stimuli. Instead, the savouring process involves a more restrictive focus on internal and external stimuli associated with positive affect’. They also distinguish two types of savouring where you can attend to the sensory pleasure and the experience without thinking. Or you can engage more cognitive processes, thinking thoughts that deepen the sense of savouring. Other methods they suggest for deepening savouring include: Sharing your good feelings with others; taking a mental photograph; congratulating yourself; sharpening your sensory perceptions (a forte of mindfulness); shout it from the rooftops (i.e. express it with your voice, body and expression); comparing the outcome to something worse; getting absorbed in the moment; expressing gratitude; reducing killjoy thinking; and reminding yourself of how quickly time flies.

Barbara Fredrickson parses savouring into the categories of memories from the past, experiences in the present and anticipatory savouring for the future (there is some overlap with positive constructive daydreaming). She advises to ‘Narrate your experience with a gentle inner voice that truly appreciates what’s unfolding before you. Notice the small details.’ She also encourages a light touch to this process, as excessive effort can decrease savouring as can attempting to hold onto something slipping through your fingertips.

Another positive psychology researcher, Sonja Lyubomirsky, states that ‘researchers define savouring as any thoughts or behaviours capable of generating, intensifying, and prolonging enjoyment’. It’s clear that savouring and gratitude are closely related, expressing gratitude can deepen savouring. And savouring and flow (being deeply engaged in activities where attentional absorption begins to happen) also overlap to some extent. Savouring differs from flow in that there is a stepping outside of the experience to notice the pleasure, whereas flow involves complete absorption, so that it is only after the experience we are aware it was enjoyable. We can savour how good we feel after flow, but savouring flow would reduce absorption. A great way to enhance savouring is sharing with loved ones, reflecting on our positive experiences and talking and enjoying them together. This is something people often do very naturally, but when humans are experiencing psychological distress it can be a behaviour that drops away as we isolate ourselves and the brains negativity bias limits savouring.

Here are some ideas and tips to help savour positive experiences:

  1. Choose something enjoyable, anything from a pleasant memory, completing a task, a delicious meal, time with a good friend. This can be a memory, something you are doing in the present or a future anticipated enjoyable activity.
  2. Relax and allow your mind to settle in the present moment. Maybe take a couple of deep soothing breaths to slow yourself down.
  3. Now attend to the pleasant sensory experience of whatever you are doing or visualising and thinking about. As your awareness settles in, allow your mind to dance back and forth between pleasant feelings in your body and the activity, experience or memory.
  4. You can gently narrate this to enhance it the experience (as Fredrickson advises), similar to loving kindness meditation practice where you use a phrase to deepen your connection with a feeling, you can say ‘this feels so good, that looks so beautiful, I feel amazing etc’.
  5. Like many of the practices your mind may resist this. Brains like to stick with patterns and they can look for threats in both environments and our own minds. Sometimes happiness can be threatening to a mind that is not so used to it. Also, if we have not had these experiences reinforced through our life, or put another way, we weren’t well taught to savour things in our childhood then it can be tricky at first. In a depressed state positive emotion can be threatening. Therefore, be gentle, start with small practices especially if you are experiencing low mood, depression or anxiety.

If this is difficult then savour for a short time and do this a few times a day. Let this develop and build over time and its totally fine for ‘negative’ emotions and thoughts to be in the background as you savour. You are aiming to have more of your attention on the pleasant experience and feelings, which are often very subtle, and you are accepting any negative feelings or thoughts. Accept any doubtful thoughts, self-criticism or worry etc and gently keep bringing your attention back to savouring. At first the difficult emotions may be stronger than the subtle notes of pleasure. But just like wine tasting we can develop and refine our affective palette and attention. Some days it might feel the most natural thing and you don’t really need to use any effort to savour – this might be happening naturally. Other days it might be arduous and take discipline to bring your mind back to savouring, but often at those times its when we need savouring, gratitude and flow the most.

If savouring is proving tricky then focus on engagement and absorption in your chosen activity. Pick something you enjoy, or enjoyed in the past and give 15 mins to concentrate and attend to what you are doing (noticing and accepting any resistance from your mind and returning to the activity). Then savour the affects of having been absorbed (to greater or lesser extent) in the valued activity.

Bringing savouring together with painful emotions is a step that is often taught in many psychotherapy models. When you bring the strength of an internal resource to meet the pain from the past it can help us to process the memories. We draw on inner or outer resources to soothe the pain of the past. This is something Rick Hanson talks about with eloquence and clarity in his books including the brilliant Resilient. Give savouring some time to develop and let me know how you get on.

The Dialectics of Being Lost at Sea – Differences between Acceptance and Distraction

Marsha Linehan developed Dialectical Behaviour Therapy as a way to help treat the most suicidal patients. Having lived through this wretched place in her own life, she was deeply empathic in her quest to aid these people. These patients had been traditionally shipwrecked, as Emily Dickinson so beautifully put it  without ‘even a Report of Land’. The clinical psychologyfield had been at a loss when it came to the controversial and highly stigmatised diagnoses of borderline personality disorder that Linehan decided to target. Linehan drew upon the philosophical perspective of dialectics (balancing opposites) in order to develop this behaviour therapy. She balanced the concept of acceptance with change, when working with the emotional storms her patients were experiencing. Sometimes people needed to learn emotional regulation techniques that could contain and shift their emotional overwhelm. Other times they needed to learn ‘radical acceptance’ in order to get back to a ‘wise’ way of living. Both of the strategies that are the focus of this post – acceptance and distraction – are found in DBT.

I am a huge fan of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) principle of acceptance and committed actions in service of your valued direction in life. This can seem similar to distraction as an emotional regulation strategy, but there are subtle differences. As Rob Wilson puts it the difference is all about intention. Distraction is a strategy to escape painful thoughts and feelings. Acceptance and valued actions lets the thoughts and feelings be there, whilst you engage with meaningful activities and relationships.

I’m with Marsha Linehan in her view that distraction can be a useful tool at specific times. There are people that have such severe emotional regulation problems that acceptance is a step too far in the beginning. Prof Paul Gilbert once described someone he was working with, that smashed her head through a window when asked to accept her feelings because she was so distressed! For some people their emotional thermostat is too sensitive for acceptance in the beginning. This is why DBT uses skilful distraction as part of the emotional regulation and distress tolerance modules.

Distraction can be enhanced by using the skills from positive psychology concept of flow. We can ensure a task is challenging and requires skill which is balanced to our ability; we concentrate in an ‘effortless’ way and there are clear goals with immediate feedback. We can pick more complex tasks like sports, creative pursuits or complex intellectual challenges. We can also try to speed up an activity so we are just at the edge of our abilities. We can pick activities that naturally grab our attention like books, movies or music we enjoy. There is clearly a place for this and DBT demonstrates the effectiveness of this side of the dialectic.

However, distraction has its limitations. It doesn’t always work, there can be levels of emotional distress that mean we can’t get absorbed in activities. Sometimes distractions work for a period of time but when we finish the distracting activity the emotional distress can come back even stronger. We can’t always perform at the high level of intensity needed for absorbing distraction, and we might not deal with the underlying problems in our lives or relationships which are feeding or causing the distress. Acceptance and committed action is another powerful option, that with practice can be a more flexible psychological tool. It can still lead to states of flow, but it really supports us when our mental health disrupts our ability to concentrate or engage with what we are doing.

To describe this approach I like David Veale’s metaphor that this acceptance approach is like walking along a pavement next to a busy road. The difficult thoughts and emotions are like cars on the road. If we try to flag them down or stop them we are likely to experience all kinds of problems. But if we focus on the pavement we are walking on, who we are walking with and what activities we are doing, we may notice the cars on the road but we let them go past while focusing on the meaningful activities we are doing on our path. It takes time to develop this skill, but like any complex task we can build our ability with practice.

Return from the ‘Bliss’ Retreat

Leigh Brasington’s Jhana retreat turned out to be an illuminating learning experience. There were some real highs and the typical challenges of being on a 9-day silent retreat. I had moments of energising bliss, followed by deeply-still happiness and then moments of just stillness alone without obvious positive emotion. I also had moments of my mind saying ‘why did you sign up for a silent retreat when you could have just taken a holiday, blah, blah, really important, blah blah’! These challenges came mostly off the cushion, when I was having lunch or going for a midday walk. On the cushion my mind was a lot more still and any internal narrative was in the background and I was able to let it be and continue with the Jhana practice (most of the time at least!).

It was lovely to be back in the idyllic setting of Gaia House. The food is wonderful and I really recommend it as a UK retreat centre with an illuminating set of teachers.

Gaia House

What about the questions I had before the retreat? (see part 1 of this article) I had chance to ask Leigh lots of questions in personal interview and also his Dharma talks provided many answers and a great depth of insight and knowledge.

Is it better to focus on ‘dry’ concentration, or concentration together with happiness/joy/bliss?

In the beginning of the practice it’s important that we are working with something that isn’t too engaging so it is harder to stay with the object and we work the mindfulness brain circuits more deeply e.g. the breath. But once we get to the stage where concentration activates more and more pleasure then switching to the happiness is not undermining concentration power. It is also fulfilling in of itself to develop the Jhana factors including happiness. They add to emotional wellbeing and complement the shaking up process of deep insight practice by providing a buffer of happiness.

How does ‘creating’ these blissful states relate to the aspect of mindfulness working with the ups and downs of life?

The concentration skills developed in Jhana practice provide the ‘power’ to engage in the insight practices that help with dealing with the challenges of life. I tend to teach two initial techniques for dealing with negative emotions – mainly influenced by Shinzen Young and Mingyur Rinpoche but also found in MBSR and MBCT. Focus away and focus towards. Jhana concentration supercharges both of these strategies. With focus away we allow the negative emotions to be present in the background and we use the Jhana concentration skills to stay with another aspect of the present moment – like sights and sounds, the breath or the feeling of compassion.

In focus towards we turn towards the emotion and deconstruct it into its component parts – the body sensations of emotion, the thoughts (internal image and narrative). Jhana concentration helps with the clarity to observe these different parts. When the microscope of concentration gets strong enough we see that emotional phenomena are made of many different parts and also that each component is changing moment to moment, this is classically described as insight into impermanence and can lead to more freedom. We find we can more easily cope with these individual changing parts when they are seen separately than when they combine together.

The Pond

The happiness and peace from these practices are rewarding in of themselves – a deep experience of the bodies relaxation response. Regarding the ups and downs of life, the happiness of Jhana can work to raise our emotional set point to some extent over time. Leigh has collaborated on some fascinating research that showed his brain’s reward system (the Nucleus accumbens) was significantly firing up in the Jhana’s characterised by happiness and joy, and it seems that over time you can tip your brain toward this potential. Although this needs further studies to investigate but is anecdotally reported by Jhana practitioners.

How does Jhana relate to the insight practices related to the suffering caused by the effort and energy we put into creating a sense of self as permanent and individual?

Leigh emphasised that in the early teaching of the Buddha he placed special importance on achieving Jhana 1-4 and then using this concentration in insight practice (like the four foundations of mindfulness). We have talked about how Jhana helps to achieve the insight of impermanence and interdependence (realising and investigating how emotions are made of many components that are constantly changing).

Another insight is that there is no ‘thing’ called self inside us as a distinct solid and unchanging entity. This is confirmed by findings of neuroscience which show that there is no area of the brain where the self is located, it is composed of many different systems interacting and changing together including the wider nervous system of the body.

The state we develop from Jhana puts us into a relaxed and peaceful state for insight practice. This makes ‘do nothing’ practices where we relax all effort and ‘just be’ more simple. Also in choiceless awareness practices (observing the arising and passing of phenomena), when the surface thoughts quieten we tend to be working with more subtle thoughts and feelings which can lead to deeper freedom. However, I think it’s complimentary to be able to go right into insight in a moment without ‘warning up’, as these strategies can be most helpful when we get stressed in life.

The majority of meditation teachers recommend concentration practice with or without Jhana for the start of practice to build up concentration power. Beginning students might spend longer on this but as we advance we might spend longer with insight practice.

From a mindfulness/MBSR perspective you might spend longer on mindfulness of breathing and the body scan and less time on mindfulness of thoughts and emotions and choiceless awareness. Then in time this balance might reverse. This is the approach I work with, spending about a quarter of the time on concentration and the rest on insight. So this might be anything from 10mins to an hour on concentration before moving into watching thoughts and emotions, choiceless awareness or ‘do nothing’. Some days I go straight into insight to train that. I tend to use focus on the breath or metta to generate Jhana and cycle through the first 4 Jhana’s as Leigh teaches them. Maybe after many more years I might reach the deeper Jhana levels as taught by the likes of Pa Auk Sayadaw but this is good for now!

Happy practicing!

PS Leigh has now released his book ‘Right Concentration’ which is an excellent manual on Jhana practice, I really recommend it.

PPS Well done if you made it through this rather long blog post, you are fighting the tendency for modern technology to reduce our concentration power even further!!

Going on a ‘Bliss’ Retreat

I am excited tomorrow to be going on a 10 day retreat at Gaia House (www.gaiahouse.co.uk) in Newton Abbot, Devon. The retreat will be taught by Leigh Brasington, the senior American student of the late Ven. Ayya Khema (leighb.com) and is entitled Right Concentration. This is because it focusses (no pun intended!) on meditative concentration/absorption states, called Jhana’s in traditional Buddhist meditation practices.

Leigh has quite a unique method for entering the Jhana’s www.leighb.com/jhana3.htm which I interpret as: 1) generating a concentrated state using mindfulness of breathing 2) shift the focus onto a pleasant sensation for example a gentle smile on your face, relaxation, happy feeling in your heart 3) Focus on the pleasantness of the sensation and it will grow in intensity 4) Eventually it grows to bliss/euphoria (piti in traditional Buddhist terminology). From the first Jhana this grows onwards to a more peaceful joy in the second Jhana (sukha). There are further Jhanic states all with different characteristics. But these states are framed and described by different teachers in different ways (and with varying levels of importance) and so beyond the scope of this article to describe.

I am particularly interested in Leigh’s approach because he tends to look at the Jhana’s in a scientific way and has collaborated with a neuroscience lab to see what is going on in his brain when he enters these states: www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2013/653572/ in fact he proposes the following neurobiological correlates for the Jhana’s www.leighb.com/jhananeuro.htm. As a secular mindfulness teacher and practitioner (and contemplative neuroscience enthusiast/geek) this approach appeals to me.

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As those who have learned mindfulness from me know, I like to frame the reasons for practicing mindfulness around 1) Managing negative experiences (stress and negative emotions) 2) Enhancing positive experiences (mindfully savouring good experiences) and 3) The experience of mindfulness itself (e.g. the relaxation response). Leigh’s approach focusses greatly around 2 and 3, therefore I’m interested to see how it can inform that aspect of my teaching.

I always like to read other teachers and practitioner’s personal experiences of meditation; it seems to teach me lots of useful things. Therefore here is my own experience of ‘playing’ with Leigh’s approach: I find I can hover around what Leigh describes as the “access concentration” level (note different meditation teachers define this level in different ways):

Any thoughts that you have are wispy and in the background…When the thoughts are just slight, and they’re not really pulling you away, you’re with the sensations of the breath. This is the sign that you’ve gotten to access concentration.”

For me this description is very useful, there are times when seemingly thoughts drop right away, but more often the wispy background description seems a good way to describe the feeling with mindfulness of breathing. I have played with Leigh’s approach of shifting to the pleasant feeling, and I have experienced the rushes of bliss that he describes as Piti and then the more relaxed peaceful feeling that he describes as Sukha. I will take this foundation and see where I get to on the course, making sure I don’t strive for anything, as this is a sure way to reduce the depth of your meditative state.

However, I do take a healthy level of questioning with me. For example; teachers of other meditation lineages teach to ignore the bliss that arises as you get deeper into meditation. One contemporary teacher’s explanation is that it is easy to focus on things that make us feel good (we all know how easy it is to get absorbed in a good book or film) and that we have to stay with something more neutral to get into the deepest level of meditation and this level of focus is then more applicable across all areas of life (not just the fun parts). Additionally life is not all ‘bliss and roses’ and another aspect of mindfulness is acceptance and the ability to non-judgementally observe both the good and the bad. How does ‘creating’ these blissful states relate to that aspect of mindfulness? Finally, deeper levels of meditation teach that much suffering is caused by the effort and energy we put into creating a sense of self as permanent and individual, when really the self is changing all the time, made of many different pieces and related/connected to many other factors. By deeply realising this, we are taught that we can greatly reduce suffering. I hope to explore how the Jhana’s relate to these questions and more on the retreat.

Finally I have been asked by a number of my friends, who don’t practice mindfulness or similar practices, why you would subject yourself to 10 days of silence and over 8 hrs a day of seated and walking meditation? Well the simple answer is amassing the hours of practice that any action in life takes to master. The neuroscientific research by the likes of Richard Davidson http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org/ has shown that there appears to be a correlation between hours of practice and level of brain activation in ‘positive’ circuits. Equally the research done on everyone from professional musicians to London Taxi drivers confirms that hours of practice correlates with activation and structural size of associated grey matter in the brain and related level of attainment in the activity. Simply put, to get good at anything in life you have to put in the hours.