'This Way Up' Programme materials and resources
Session 1: Introducing the ABC of Mindfulness
The bad news: life can be difficult
Life and work contain some problems that you simply can’t avoid. But often you may make things worse by how you react to the original problem. This is down to the ‘autopilot’ mode of the human mind, which evolved in humans’ prehistoric past to provide safety in a hostile environment. Humans share it with most animals. It’s like a problem-solving machine and is essential in carrying out routine tasks: you don’t have to work out how to do them every time. It’s like a ‘doing’ mode that keeps you alive and functioning.
But autopilot is not so useful when it comes to more subtle or complex human challenges (difficult emotions, a long to do list, etc.). The problem is that it often treats these in the same way as life-threatening emergencies (a wild animal chasing you). This sets in motion a rapid chain of events in the brain, nervous system and body – causing blood and energy to rush to the muscles, and stress hormones to be released. Your body can handle this once in a while. But if it happens too often, it can lead to a semi-permanent state of high alert and stress, and even exhaustion and burnout. When this happens, you can’t think straight – so you can’t actually ‘solve’ whatever the problem is.
To make matters worse, this failure to fix things can make you feel worse because it leads to negative and self-attacking thoughts. And then, because thoughts and moods are so closely linked, your mood may get worse, giving rise to more negative thoughts, then your mood gets even worse… and so you may find yourself in a downward spiral. This whole process happens at an unconscious level – you don’t mean to do this to yourself. It’s simply become a ‘mental habit’ to think and feel in this way. And it’s all because autopilot mode has been given too much power.
The good news: there is another way…the ABC of Mindfulness
The good news is that there is another way to relate to problems and difficult emotions: your ‘intentional’ mode. It’s the part of our brain that came last in human evolution, and it’s unique to human beings. It’s responsible for complex social interactions, advance planning, abstract thought and imagination.
When you’re in intentional mode, you feel calmer and in greater control. You don’t get overwhelmed by complicated challenges. It’s more of a ‘being’ mode – where you’re able to stand back from situations, see more clearly what’s going on, and come up with creative and effective solutions. The more this can happen, the more you can have true autonomy and agency in your life.
It’s possible to train oneself to step out of autopilot mode when that’s needed and into intentional mode. That’s what Part 1 of this guide is all about. The most effective training for this process is ‘mindfulness’. This is about simply noticing things, without judging them as good or bad; or trying to instantly change them – even if you don’t like them. The training involves our simple ABC model:
Awareness – of what is happening in your mind and body
Being with your experience – accepting what is already there and cannot be fixed immediately. This is about giving your brain and body time and space to understand and process your experience. This stage includes two key things:
Thoughts: loosening their grip by learning to step outside them, and simply watch them come and go in their own natural way
Emotions: noticing these in your body and allowing them, without them dominating. This is about cultivating acceptance.
Choosing wise responses – instead of reacting automatically, allowing helpful choices to emerge.
Home practice after session 1
1. 'Waking up to yourself' meditation - follow the instructions on the audio guide
2. Mini meditations – several times a day take some brief time-outs with either of these two practices. You can use the audio at first. Eventually you will be able to guide yourself:
Three-step breathing space
3. Do a routine activity ‘mindfully’: Pick a routine activity that you do every day – for example, brushing your teeth. Instead of doing it on ‘autopilot’, try and get into more of a ‘being’ mode by bringing awareness to the physical sensations in your body. Notice anything coming into you through your senses: sounds, textures, light and colour, smells and so on. Bring curiosity and interest to how this routine activity feels different each time you do it.
4. Do something different: sit in a different chair from the one you usually do. What does it feel like? What do you notice when you change something around like this? Feel free to jot down what you discover by doing the practices – whatever feels relevant to you, but here are a few possible pointers:
How much time do you normally spend in ‘doing’ mode?
What happens when you focus your attention on one part of your body, or your breath? How easy is it?
What’s different about doing a routine activity when you notice what it feels like in your body?