I just wanted to offer up this audio recording of my own version of a body awareness practise which I have found often helps on those nights when sleep just won’t come. I hope it helps some of you and would be very happy to receive feedback in the comments below.
As the old saying goes, ‘lightning never strikes in the same place twice’. When it is not taken literally as a comment on the geographical location of a weather pattern, it is taken to mean that, broadly speaking, misfortune is singular. The same disaster cannot happen again in the same way to the same person. This can be very comforting when life has just dealt you a really low blow. Your relationship has collapsed or you’ve lost your job or a loved one has breathed their last. You can feel the burn and the shock throughout your physical and emotional body. It is really helpful at those times to recognise that this particular set of events will never repeat itself in your or anybody’s life in just this way, with this particular brand of misery and distress.
If you are going through such a time then please take care! Just keep breathing, in and out… in and out. You don’t need to get through the week. You don’t have to sort everything out. When crisis hits and your world is thrown into confusion, getting through the next few moments is enough. Whatever is right in front of you is often all you need to worry about. Stagger for a while…it is OK!… life can wait for a bit…feel and breathe… find a gentle ear to listen to your howl.
If you are not going through such a time now, do you remember what it was like when you first discovered that ‘thing’ which broke your stride, which struck your soul so hard you lost your breath? Do you know what crisis means? Do you yet bear a wound?
Our sorrows join us to the human family. There may be a happy few who find my words a mystery, but most of you know well the desperate inner cry when life just will not go the way we deeply want or desire, the way we think it should, the way we were promised and deserve. And for those of you like me who have likely passed the half-way point of life, you may know multiple occasions for which you still bear the scars. Whilst the lightning of the saying may indeed not be the same misfortune, it still hurts pretty bad when it is a different variety of crisis, a different kind of life betrayal, a different weapon in the hand of fate. We may well know a few lightning strikes before we’re done.
But just as our sorrows join us, so does our resilience. For most (not all by any means) we will make it through the dark times and emerge into a new and sometimes happier relationship with life. New shoots will grow in the scorched earth of struck ground. We will grow new hopes and the winds of fresh desire will blow through us and drive us onwards into new days. Crises will be past events, often leaving their marks in our body memory but rarely dwelt on willingly.
If you ever ‘do therapy’ I recommend that you take the opportunity to tell your long story. Ask for a session entirely devoted to a telling of your life. Broader than whatever current crisis you are facing, the long story gives a chance for deeper perspectives to grow in you. Even if you are just beginning on adult life you will have a beginning, middle and end to your story so far. As you tell your life you may notice the high points and the low points, the triumphs and defeats, fulfillments and disappointments. Up and down we go alongside each other, winning and losing, loving and losing, living and losing. There is a mindfulness exercise which encourages us to notice and remember the low points when we are high and the high points when we are low. Paying deliberate attention to the extremes of our successes and failures brings a kind of sobriety. When intoxicated with how wonderful life is as our latest gamble has paid off, we remember a year ago when the duvet was so attractive. When we are walking home from work with our redundancy cheque in the briefcase, we remember the first flush of young love, as if it were yesterday. The elations of triumph are slightly dampened and the desolation of depression is gently lifted. We learn to live in the middle place, cool eyed, clear headed, unruffled by the storm… Lightning has its uses…
Many of us will, from time to time in our lives, experience compulsive behaviours. Some gamble, some binge eat, some go shopping too often, some spend too long on the internet or other screens. Whilst these behaviours remain legal and can often be simple pleasures, sometimes when we begin to lose control we can become, to whatever extent, enslaved to compulsive urges. Sex, sexual fantasies, sexual desires can all become problematic. Much of the time our simple ‘needs’ can end up surrounded by shame, worry and anxiety. Day to day activities can become overwhelmingly complicated and we become prey to unmanageable energies which begin to run our lives and demand satisfaction. Of course compulsions can become even more dangerous if we begin to drift to the fringes of what is acceptable to ourselves and society at large. Stealing, substance abuse, self-harm are destructive very quickly if they become masters in your life. How does mindfulness help?
A very interesting mindfulness practise from the buddhist tradition encourages breaking experience down by which ‘doorway’ (sense) it enters the mind. One spends time looking at what you are experiencing moment by moment. Is it a sight, sound, smell, taste or touch experience? Buddhism treats the thinking mind as a sense just like the others. Just as for an eye there are sights to be revolted by or excited by, for a thinking mind there are ideas to be enjoyed or ideas that are distasteful. So, one spends time breaking experience down into the six senses. Is this a sight, sound, smell, taste, touch object, or a thought? One watches carefully. Breathing in and breathing out. Observant and attentive to the play of experience.
This approach can give a very different perspective to investigating just what is it you are longing for when it comes to a compulsive behaviour. What particular experience is it that gives you satisfaction or that you imagine will give you satisfaction. Investigating your experience will reveal useful data about what triggers you as well. The more detailed the clues, the more chance you have to find that crucial point of freedom. Take self-harm by cutting for instance. Is it the pain that releases you, the sight of blood, the ideas and images that go on in your mind as the self-harm process happens? Which is most significant? It might be the silver of the blade, or the sound of your breath as you sigh! Which details are heightened as you revel in the compulsive state? This mindfulness practise, often repeated, will slow the processes down. Mindfulness practise may also give you some control over the severity and/or the frequency of the behaviour. Mindfulness can give you the data you need to inform your next step.
There is a teaching story from the buddhist tradition that goes a bit like this:
Imagine a person catching six animals of differing ranges and differing habitats. A snake, crocodile, bird, dog, hyena and monkey. That person then binds them to one another with a rope and sets them free. The snake pulls towards the anthill, the crocodile pulls towards the water, the bird tries to fly, the dog pulls towards the village, the hyena would pull towards the charnel ground, the monkey would pull for the forest. All six become exhausted and eventually one would emerge as the strongest and would drag the others along to its favourite haunt. In much the same way our eyes are pulled towards pleasing sights, our ears towards pleasing sounds, nose to smells, tongue to tastes, body towards pleasant touch experience and our thinking mind is drawn to the ideas we like and value.
Another person catching those same 6 animals, tethers them together and fixes the rope to a firmly embedded post. The animals struggle and pull and struggle and pull but eventually lie or sit down next to the post. The post in this instance being a well developed practise of being mindful of the body and the breath.
(the original is here http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.206.than.html)
The suggestion the story makes and indeed my own experience of working with mindfulness for many years is that as we grow more grounded in the body and breath. IF WE CHOOSE TO, we can counter compulsions much more easily. I emphasise choose because there is no magic pill to breaking habits. At some point it comes down to you to choose and commit to change. Mindfulness is a crucial ingredient in selecting what to do to escape the bind.