'This Way Up' Programme materials and resources
Session 4: The B of the ABC - Being with experience
Part two: Emotions
Trying to ‘fix’ difficult experiences doesn’t work
Life and work can include plenty of difficult experiences that can lead to difficult emotions. These unavoidable challenges are ‘first layer difficulties’. Your autopilot tries to fix, ignore or get rid of them automatically – using a limited range of techniques (e.g. working even harder; ignoring things; giving up). These can kind of work for a while, but eventually leave you feeling exhausted or inadequate. In other words it can create ‘second layer difficulties’ that are even more challenging that the first layer.
It’s better to turn towards unpleasant experiences
You can choose to relate differently to ‘first layer difficulties’ – including body sensations, emotions, and thoughts. This is about acceptance. It doesn’t mean resignation, giving up or suppressing your feelings. Rather it’s about noticing how things actually are – and then choosing to turn towards them and feel them more deeply in your body. It’s pressing the pause button – and learning to become more comfortable with a problem not yet being solved. This creates space to allow other more effective strategies to become apparent, in their own good time. It means you can prevent ‘second layer difficulties’ from arising. This process requires both courage and kindness towards yourself.
Nipping things in the bud, in your body
With mindfulness, you will increasingly notice how there is often first an original experience of difficulty, and then the mind’s automatic reaction is to try and push it away. But if you are able to simply stay with the original difficulty, then that automatic desire to push it away can diminish. The best way to practise this is by noticing how your body responds to difficulties, rather than trying to figure it out in your thinking mind, which can’t always solve things. Working with body responses allows space between ‘you’ and the ‘problem’ – so that you can process the same raw material, but with ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ mode. It also means you get more familiar with signs in your body that you’ve been ‘triggered’.
Acceptance applies to pleasant experiences as well
The same acceptance approach is useful with pleasant experiences. If you allow yourself to feel a pleasant sensation fully, two things can happen. First, you learn about appreciating simple pleasures that are available to you without the need for too much external stimuli. Second, you might notice how the mind wants to ‘hold on’ to pleasant experiences for as long as possible – and how this is part of the same phenomenon of wanting things to be other than they are.
Using the three step breathing space to practise acceptance
The three step breathing space (already introduced) is particularly useful when you find yourself ‘triggered’ or facing some strong difficult feelings. You follow the same steps as before, but with an emphasis on turning towards those strong feelings in the last stage, and breathing into them – allowing them to soften and open on the outbreath.
How to practise acceptance out of meditation
Use imagery: picture yourself trying to get out of quicksand – what effect does the struggling have?
Curious scientist: explore the feeling like an object – its size, weight, shape, colour, texture, etc.
Choice to feel: would you choose to stop feeling this if it meant you could no longer care about anything?
Normalising: all feelings are natural and human
The mountain beyond the swamp: if you can get through these difficult feelings (swamp) you get to the thing you really want (mountain)
‘Being with’ experience opens up intentional mode
The ‘Being with’ stage of the ABC model can be thought of as the bridge between autopilot and intentional mode. It’s a bit like a ‘resting’ phase, where you deliberately and consciously press the pause button – particularly when you’ve got caught up in striving too hard or over-thinking things. When you stop trying to solve things in this way, you give certain parts of your brain a vital rest.
It’s actually impossible to stop your thoughts or emotions, or to totally ‘clear your mind’. But it is possible to slow things down bit by bit. You won’t achieve this by suppressing or ignoring your thoughts and emotions: that will only set up a vicious circle. Instead, you first ground yourself in awareness of physical sensations. Then, as your mind starts to settle down, you can observe and explore your thoughts and feelings from the ‘safety’ of the body awareness you’ve built up. The remarkable thing about this approach is that the very act of mindfully observing your thoughts and feelings starts to change their nature and impact on you. But only if you give them time and space.
Home practice after session 4
1. Alternate each day between these two practices:
‘Acceptance’ meditation – follow the instructions on the audio meditation
‘Movement meditation’ – follow the video / audio instructions.
2. Practising acceptance away from meditation – try using some of the techniques outlined above to practise acceptance.
3. Three step breathing space – use this whenever you get triggered or are experiencing some difficulty: either on your own, or using the audio.
4. Do something different – the next time you watch the news or read a newspaper, notice when you have a strong opinion about something. Then try constructing an argument that’s totally the opposite.
5. Jot down some notes about what you notice when you allow yourself to turn towards all your experiences more. If you get stuck, here are some pointers:
How do I tend to try and fix or block out difficult experiences?
What happens when I allow myself to feel them more – even if only for a moment longer?
What else might I be blocking out of my life by doing this?
Mindful movement video