Imagine a herd of zebra, hanging out, eating grass, enjoying the sunshine, relaxing. Suddenly one of them spots a lion. In a split second a physiological response in triggered in their body that gets them ready to “Ruuuuuuuun!” When the danger is over, they quickly go back to relaxing and eating grass. Something in the zebra’s brains that sounded the alarm when the lion was noticed, switches off when the danger is past.
With us humans, it’s not always a physical danger we’re afraid of. We might be worried about our workload, that embarrassing thing we said yesterday or whether we’ll ever find true love. But our brains initiate a similar fight or flight stress response for both lions and deadlines. The heart starts beating faster, breathing quickens and non-essential functioning shuts down.
And then something else happens: our brain begins trawling through memories to try to find a reason why we are feeling like this. We remember when we felt threatened in the past and create scenarios about what might happen in the future. The result is that the body’s alarm system starts to be triggered not only by the current problem, but by past threats and future worries. This happens in an instant, almost before we’re aware of it.
So when we humans bring to mind other threats and losses, some times our bodies fight or flight systems do not switch off when the current danger is past. Unlike the zebras, we don’t stop running.
As you sit here reading, see if you can notice any sensations of tiredness. Maybe you feel it in your eyes in the heaviness of your body. Once you have tuned into this tiredness, ask yourself some questions about it. Why am I feeling so tired? What’s gone wrong? What does it say about me that I’m feeling like this? What if I don’t stop feeling like this? Allow these questions to swirl around your mind.
I bet you feel worse now, don’t you? Sorry about that! It was to make an important point. Underlying these questions is the desire to get rid of the tiredness and to do so by working out why you feel like this, what you need to do differently and what will happen if you don’t. This understandable impulse to ‘solve’ your tiredness has made you feel even more tired.
We tend to do the same for other feelings too: if we’re feeling unhappy, it’s natural to try to work out why and start solving the problem of unhappiness. The key insight here is that anxiety, unhappiness, or exhaustion cannot be solved – only felt. The mindfulness approach is to notice what you’re feeling and accept it, non-judgmentally. If you can do that the feeling is much more likely to vanish, like mist on a spring morning.
Using the rational mind to ‘solve’ the way you’re thinking tends tends to lead to asking yourself those critical questions What’s wrong with me” Where did I go wrong? Why do I always make these mistakes? Such questions are not only harsh and self-destructive, they also demand the mind to come up with evidence that explains your discontent. And the mind is truly brilliant at providing such evidence.
Research shows, however, that brooding actually reduces our ability to solve problems and is absolutely hopeless for dealing with emotional difficulties.
You can’t stop the negative thoughts and feeling from appearing in the first place, but you can change what happens next. Just by noticing what is happening, you can break the cycle. You are not your thoughts and feelings. You possess an awareness which is capable standing back and watching them happen, rather than being swept along by them. You are not the weather, you are just experiencing the weather.
So next time you feel an unpleasant emotion, see if can curiously investigate where in your body you feel it. Notice the thoughts that come along with it. And say to yourself, “I feel anxiety, and that’s OK.” Or “I feel tension and that’s OK.” By allowing the feeling to be there it will evaporate far more quickly than if you actively try to get rid of it. Then you can be just like a zebra, relaxing in the sunshine.
Based on an extract from Mindfulness, a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.
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