Last week I was on my way to Radio Fremantle to be interviewed about mindfulness. I was due to arrive at 3:50 pm. Somewhat unusually, I had left in plenty of time. Several kilometres north of Fremantle, I hit a snarled traffic jam. For over an hour I slowly inched my way into Fremantle, across the bridge and on to Hamilton Hill where the radio station is located. Watching the clock move faster than the car, I saw 4 pm come and go while I stood still.
One of my strategies to minimise distraction in my life is to not have a mobile phone. Being caught in the traffic jam was one of those times where that choice has negative consequences. Fortunately, the radio presenter who was to interview me, knew that I did not have a mobile. Sitting in the traffic going nowhere, was a great opportunity to see clearly the options available to me. I could significantly add to the situation by getting hot under the collar, blaming myself, blaming others and create an internal dialogue about how this should not be happening. Or I could choose to observe what was happening externally as well is internally and to the extent possible bring some curiosity, kindness and acceptance to what I observed.
When I became aware of increasing tension and agitation, I would pause, bringing my attention from the thoughts about what should be happening, into awareness of the present moment. It was a great opportunity to observe the thoughts and emotions that arose, lingered, passed, returned… I heard the well-known ‘script’ from my childhood: “You can’t be late. It is rude to be late.” Not surprisingly, that thought was accompanied by a sense of urgency and concern. I felt a lack of control over my external situation and the insecurity that came with that. I heard self-judgement: “Your decision not to have a mobile phone impacts negatively on others.” Caught in the traffic, one relevant mindfulness principle was acceptance – acceptance of having no control and acceptance of the coming and going of thoughts and emotions. I could feel a strong energy resisting what was happening, accompanied by a narrowing of attention around the “problem”. It required ongoing intention to open up with curiosity, care and acceptance to the moment.
Being caught in a traffic jam is an example of the daily situations that occur that we don’t want/like. Our automatic, conditioned reaction to situations we don’t like is to judge, resent, blame and resist. This reactivity is, in and of itself, stressful. It significantly adds to the stress of the original situation. From a mindfulness approach, we identify this as secondary stress. To a certain degree, this secondary stress is optional. It is optional because through practice, we develop the capacity to choose an alternative response (rather than reaction).
The first step is to insert a pause in the automatically triggered thoughts, emotions and even bodily reaction. In the pause we can stand back and observe the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations with curiosity, openness, kindness and acceptance. In doing this we take a step out of the drama we’ve created and into presence (non-reactive awareness). A key refrain in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program is: “It’s not the stressors per se that are the problem but how you handle them.” Rather than railing against the world for not providing what we want, a simple acknowledgement that “this is how it is” reduces the additional stress triggered through reactivity.
In the pause, we are more likely to be able to clearly see the situation, including our reaction to it, without distortion. When we are able to accept the reality of our situation rather than deny it or fight it, more options become available to us. We can let go of the storyline: “This should not be happening! “Given that the situation is happening, a more useful approach is to ask: “Can I be with it?” Expanding the range of situations that we can be with, without reactivity, is fundamental to greater balance and inner peace. Cultivating the capacity to “be with” what we don’t like is beneficial for us and beneficial for everybody around us.
From a place of balance and stability, we are better able to implement any steps to respond appropriately to the situation. Some situations, such as becoming aware of bullying in the workplace, may require us to act for the well-being of ourselves and others. However, in other situations, such as the death of a loved one, there is nothing that can be done to remedy the situation and the most useful thing we can offer is our presence and care.
Practising to develop acceptance and non-reactivity with minor unwanted occurrences builds a good foundation for those times when we really need balance and calm. Here are some places to practice: a person takes the parking bay you’d been waiting for; dog poo on the footpath; a shop assistant gives you poor service; you’re in the slowest queue… And remember, acceptance does not mean you do nothing. It enables any subsequent action to be thoughtful, considered and not from a place of reactivity.
So, next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, it is worth pondering: how much of the stress has been caused by how you are relating to the situation? There may well be an alternative approach.
Kathryn Choules (PhD)