“So, you’re suggesting I stay present to what I don’t like and be uncomfortable? Why would anyone do that?” Sometimes a participant in a mindfulness program expresses what many others are thinking.
Unlike those photos of blissful looking young women often used to “sell” mindfulness, much of the exploration that occurs in a mindfulness program involves turning towards what we do not like. This isn’t what most people are expecting when they sign up. They want what that blissful looking young woman has. They don’t want to investigate their aversion and reactivity or spend any more time with what is unpleasant. They’ve already had enough of that! This process of “turning towards” is primarily about developing a different relationship with our inner experience (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations etc).
When you stop and think about it, there is much to be gained by becoming an expert on what triggers your aversion and reactivity and what comes next. Yes, truly. We are already very good at getting away from what we don’t like. We have a wide variety of strategies that ensure we do not experience what is unpleasant. Reactivity is hardwired into our being, from the limbic structures in the brain, to fine-tuned reactions of the nervous system, to the stress chemicals released to support fight or flight. We really don’t need to practise aversive reactivity. With awareness, we can observe it occurring many times every day. Aversion and reactivity have many different faces: blaming, resistance, numbing, blocking, escaping, avoiding…
So, what might be some benefits from turning towards what we do not like? To start with, avoidance of what we don’t like is a very limited strategy and will not always be possible. It also is not a strategy that is appropriate in many of the situations in which aversive reactivity arises. For example, your best friend’s father has died unexpectedly and you feel uncomfortable because have no idea what to say. Do you avoid the discomfort by evading your friend, or might it be a better option to acknowledge your feelings of inadequacy and reach out? Another example: you are made redundant in an economic downturn. Rather than escape the uncomfortable feelings of failure by numbing through alcohol, it might be healthier for all concerned to acknowledge the emotions and discomfort, and respond instead with compassion and nonjudgement.
Mindfulness invites us to pay attention to our inner experience, without trying to change it, whether or not it is pleasant. Our inner experience is never judged to be right or wrong – it is simply what has arisen. Our task is to learn to relate to that changing inner experience without additional reactivity. We can start at a very simple level, observing an itch in the body or a desire to move because of boredom. Without mindfulness, we scratch the itch and move to alleviate the boredom. We react to the unpleasant stimulus. Bringing mindfulness to the itch and to the boredom is a fascinating process of turning towards what we usually want to avoid. With curiosity, we investigate the quality of the experience and see if it is possible to stay with the experience without doing anything to change it (non-reactivity). We observe how the experience changes, and over time, we cultivate greater capacity to be with discomfort. This is a key component of resilience. We are developing the qualities that enable us to be the calm amidst the storm.
Turning towards discomfort is counterintuitive and needs to be done carefully. Little by little we explore the unpleasant experience (eg frustration, grief, hurt or anger) in the same way a scientist might. What can we learn by bringing curiosity and interest to this experience? We investigate what is present in the body, what thoughts have been generated and any other emotions present. This is not the same as indulging in the story that we might be telling ourselves about the situation (rumination). Those thoughts may well not be facts, but rather an aspect of our reactivity.
This process is a bit like exposure therapy to overcome say, a fear of spiders. We expose ourselves to our own scary emotions, desires, reactivity, thoughts and bit by bit learn that in fact we can be with them with more ease. Through this process we are also learning to relate to thoughts and emotions rather than from them. Instead of those reactive thoughts and emotions calling the shots, we hear what they might be telling us and then choose a response.
Unpleasant experiences (challenges) are like the manure that helps resilience grow. We paradoxically need what we do not like in order to develop qualities (such as calm and non-reactivity) and strengths (such as patience and perseverance). Recognising the benefits of unpleasant experiences can help us make the choice to turn towards, rather than away from discomfort. How else to be able to remain balanced and non-reactive when the proverbial hits the fan, than through practice? And how do we practice? We practise by turning towards small experiences that we don’t want or like. Bit by bit, we get a taste of greater freedom from our conditioned reactivity.
Kathryn Choules (PhD)
PS Remember, this invitation to ‘turn towards’ needs to be accompanied by wisdom and self-compassion. It is not wise or self-compassionate to turn towards what will be overwhelming. Turning towards is not always the best option – apply it carefully.
Dr Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.