Transcript of Audio: Step 2--The Mindful Experience of Discomfort
Although the initial practice of mindfulness may be somewhat confusing, it certainly makes more sense to people wanting alleviation of their suffering than this second step of mindfulness does. The second step involves learning how to be mindful in the face of unpleasantness, discomfort, and even crisis. I find this step even more difficult to explain when people haven't ever had the experience of mindfulness during an unpleasant event.
However, many people may have experienced this aspect of mindfulness naturally. For instance, I have had numerous clients with anxiety disorders who have told me “When I am in a real crisis, I am very calm and focused. I am able to take care of the situation. But the fear of something happening paralyzes me and I can't function.”
This is a good example of how problems are magnified by how we think. The larger part of our suffering is mental suffering which magnifies the physical suffering or discomfort we experience. When a person engages in catastrophizing about an imagined future, they experience increased fear, stress, and anxiety and a reduction in focus, ability to think clearly and make effective decisions.
However, with a very real event, when a person focuses on the present problem and how to solve it, they are able to clearly and confidently consider a course of action and take the necessary steps.
Why does this occur? Because when a person is focused on fears about the future they not being mindful and when they are focused on solving a present crisis they are being mindful. You might wonder “Why does mindfulness make such a difference?”
The primary difference is that when we are mindfully responding to a problem, we are fully focused on the problem. Our attention isn't being divided. We aren't giving our energy to negative thoughts, worries, demands, or expectations. Therefore, we are able to fully focus our energy on the present situation. Our brain can comprehend and react more decisively when our attention isn't divided. As a result, we make fewer mistakes and are able to resolve the problem more effectively.
In addition to that, focus and anxiety are polar opposites. Just as we can't focus when we are anxious, we can't be anxious when we are focused. Anxiety requires attention and when we give attention to something else, we aren't experiencing the anxiety. One exception to this is that if your focus IS the anxiety or other unpleasant experiences, then the intensity of the discomfort increases because focus increases the intensity of anything we experience. That is why it is important to choose your focus. As you may have learned if you are practicing the basic mindfulness, the anxiety and worry may still be present but they are not experienced in the same way. By developing detachment to the related thoughts, the experience of the anxiety or other discomfort changes.
Let's look at the experience of physical pain and how mindfulness affects suffering. First, it is important to understand that most of the suffering from pain comes from mental suffering. I'm not saying that the pain is not occurring. What I mean is that our body has a great capacity to manage pain and that it is when we sidetrack that process through our thoughts about the pain that we will intensify our experience of the pain.
In fact, our brain has mechanisms in place to cope with pain that we can enhance through the process of mindfulness. Specifically, the brain is able to decrease the messages from the nerve endings so that we don't experience the pain as intensely. The brain is also able to release endorphins which are natural pain-killers like morphine. However, being unmindfully focused on the demanding, negative thoughts can prevent this process from occurring. As a result, we will experience the full intensity of the pain.
You may already understand this concept at some level. For instance, you may know someone who experiences a great deal of pain and yet it doesn't seem to affect their life whereas it may have a devastating impact on someone else. Why is that? Frequently, we hear people say that a person has a “high tolerance for pain.” What exactly does that mean? It most likely refers to that person's ability to focus in a mindful way whether that person was trained to do so or knows how to do it naturally. As a result, the brain's ability to tolerate pain and discomfort is enhanced.
The good thing about the fact that some people can do this and that it is based on their ability to engage mindfully is that it means that most of us can learn to do the same thing. We just need to develop our mindful ability. Which means we need to first understand how to identify and manage the mental suffering that is such a large component of the inability to tolerate pain and discomfort.
What causes this mental suffering that intensifies pain, discomfort, and anxiety? The source of mental suffering is usually an attachment, also thought of as over-identifying with the discomfort or pain. We are capable of fully experiencing pain and yet not being consumed by it. It is the engagement with the pain that causes the greater suffering, not the pain itself. What I mean by this is that HOW you think of the pain can increase or decrease your suffering.
Hopefully, by now you have been practicing the basic mindfulness exercises and have some understanding of the experience of mindfulness. Otherwise, this concept of developing a tolerance for discomfort and even pain through mindfulness may seem unbelievable. In fact, an initial reaction to this idea is often “If I focus on my pain, it will only feel worse! How can a mindful focus help me tolerate pain?”
The answer to this question takes us back to an earlier concept I discussed in the first audio. The issue is not the focus on pain but HOW you focus on it that makes a difference in whether it is more or less tolerable.
For instance, often when people focus on pain, they focus on how intolerable it is. “I can't stand this.” “It is horrible.” “I have to find a way to stop it.” “I can't live like this.” This focus on negative evaluations of the pain tend to make you more aware of how miserable the pain makes you feel which has the effect of increasing the experience of the pain. This focus is a message that you are sending to the brain saying “This is important. Pay attention to it.” As a result, the brain does NOT mobilize its resources to manage the pain and instead focuses more on the pain which intensifies the experience of it. I am simplifying a very complex physical process here, but in effect, that is what occurs. Think of it this way. It is very natural to breathe. You don't have to think about it. Your brain does it automatically. However, you are capable of over-riding that process by deliberately holding your breath. In effect, when you hold your breath you are telling your brain to stop an automatic procedure. That is similar to what occurs when you focus on pain or other discomfort.
This process is what I mean by attachment or over-identifying with the pain. When a person sees the pain as the entirety of their life, it becomes their entire life because that is the message they are giving their brain: “Pay attention to this. It is important.”
Hopefully, by now, if you have been practicing the basic mindfulness you may be realizing how mindfulness affects this process. As I indicated in the first audio, the core of the basic mindfulness practice is learning how to refocus your attention when distracted by irrelevant, demanding, or negative thoughts. So basically, you are telling your brain “I understand that thought is there, but right now I am focused on this.” As you become more skilled with mindfulness, the brain becomes less insistent with the thoughts because it is getting the message from you that the thought is not important to you at the moment.
As a result, mindfulness helps the brain to utilize its natural resources to cope with pain and discomfort. Instead of giving the brain the message to focus on the discomfort, mindfulness gives the message to focus on whatever the present focus may be. The brain then directs its resources to manage the discomfort so that you are able to engage fully in your present experience.
The interesting thing about a mindful focus on something that is unpleasant is that it somehow changes the experience so that it is not so unpleasant. I can't explain how this occurs. Only that it does. For instance, if you have an unpleasant task that causes you discomfort and you are thinking about how much you dislike it and don't want to do it, you are likely to experience the full discomfort of that task. However, if instead, you focus on the task itself, the process of doing it, you are likely to experience the task in a different way. You may not even experience it as an unpleasant task. Instead, it just is what it is. The concept of “unpleasant” is a mental one that is placed on the task by how you think about it.
This is the core of detaching from an experience. When you engage in the task without the evaluative, demanding, negative thoughts, it detaches you from the situation which often changes your experience of it.
I know this can be difficult to understand initially. However, I would encourage you to practice the next step of mindful awareness during minor discomfort before trying to apply this concept to major problems or difficulties in your life. To aid you in this process, some of the mindfulness practice audios are focused on minor discomforts such as being mindful with an itch, or when too hot or cold, or when fatiguing the muscles, or when engaging in an unpleasant task. Begin to add this type of mindfulness practice into your daily practice. Continue to practice the mindfulness 10-15 times daily.
Other than the content of the mindfulness, this type of practice is exactly as you have already been doing. For instance, if you are mindfully focused on an itch, when a thought such as “I can't stand it! I've got to scratch” comes into your mind, just allow yourself to refocus back to the experience of the itch without scratching. Over time, you may notice how the experience changes when you don't have the demand that you have to stop or prevent the discomfort.
When you focus mindfully on discomfort or unpleasant situations continue to limit the length of time to a minute or so. However, with your practice of pleasant or neutral events, you may increase the length of time you mindfully focus. You especially want to increase your time if you are not as easily distracted by thoughts. As I have said, the main goal of mindfulness practice is to learn how to refocus. This is the skill that will aid you in many aspects of your life. So you want to gradually increase the length of mindful focus so that it continues to challenge you with distracting thoughts so that you can practice the refocusing.
Again, give yourself time to practice this aspect of mindfulness. Don't expect changes to occur right away. In fact, the expectation of change is a demand in itself which prevents the full experience of mindfulness. In the next audio, I will discuss applying what you have learned in this step to coping with problems in your life. In particular, we will focus on detaching further from those problems. But right now, just practice with minor discomforts.
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by Excel At Life, LLC
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