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Mindfulness Practice for Fear

Mindful observation is a skill we can use in our daily lives at any time, not just in a quiet meditation. And fearlessness is not the absence of fear; Fearlessness is mindful observation that results in the awareness and perception of fear. 

When we practice meditation or any mindfulness practice, there is an awakening of self knowledge. Unfortunately, not all that knowledge is pleasurable or expected.  In self study, we may discover that fear is not only present, but controls our lives to some degree. Fear can be misunderstood and mislabeled. We may not realize our decisions are made by feelings of fear disguised as worry, apprehension, dread, or distrust. In some spiritual traditions, fear is the basis of suffering.  An important aspect of a mindfulness practice is to study fear—to understand and accept it enough that we do not live under its influence. Fears are obvious when they prevent us from engaging in normal activity. But sometimes we don’t recognize the ways in which we avoid, ignore, or resist fear. Part of spiritual awakening is identifying fear in its different stages and forms: the fear itself, shame, guilt, embarrassment, excuses, discouragement and anger.

 

Buddhism gifts us the Four Immeasurables:

Metta- Loving Kindness

Karuna – Compassion

Mudita –  Sympathetic Joy

Upekkha – Equanimity

These powerful mindset manipulators are also included in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I.33 “To preserve openness of heart and calmness of mind, nurture these attitudes:

Kindness to those who are happy

Compassion for those who are less fortunate

Honor for those who embody noble qualities

Equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values.” – Nischala Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga

 

You Become What You Practice

The brain does not differentiate between thoughts and feelings. Practicing these four virtues, particularly Metta, changes the way the brain is wired (the neuroplasticity thing mentioned below). Metta is the heartfelt intention for the well-being of oneself and others. We start with loving-kindness because it is all encompassing and makes the other Immeasurables more accessible. In addition to changing the brain, loving kindness develops a calm, protected heart; we increase the heart energy vibration (www.heartmath.org can tell you more about this).  When used together, the Four Immeasurables can replace not only fearful thoughts, but those of jealousy and righteousness among others.

The Metta meditation is simple and can be used as an antidote to fear:

May I be happy.

May I be well.

May I be safe.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

If you have difficulty being mindfully present with fear, start by offering yourself this meditation as a way of finding some calm in the storm. You can substitute any verbiage to suit you. Then offer the same loving-kindness to others in your fear response scenario; this can include both those who you worry about and those who cause the worry. When working with fear, we don’t have to confront the fear directly, especially if it seems overwhelming. Just the intention of loving-kindness changes our course and keeps us afloat above the water. When you feel stronger, split your awareness between loving-kindness and investigating the fear.

 

Breathe

Repeating the words, thought or feeling of loving kindness is a portal through fear. Another course to find calmer waters can be breath observation. The more fully the mind engages with the breath, the less it thinks about the fear, and so the fear loses some of its power.  Feel the temperature and movement of the breath on the face, the edges of the nose, in the throat, around the heart or maybe in the abdomen. There is no need to direct or control the breath or do any fancy pranayama; just observe the natural breath.  Keep it simple and if breath observation sinks you deeper into a fear response, go back to Metta.

Once the breath calms us enough that we are not gripped by the fear, we can openly observe the the fear itself. In mindfulness practice we do not get rid of fear by denying it – that would only strengthen it. Instead we explore it, sense it, and become the captain of our ship of fears. In doing so the troubled waters become more tranquil.

 

The Issues are in the Tissues

Interoception is our ability to feel ourselves on the inside. By being the observer of thoughts and breath, we prepare to be present in bodily sensations. Fear can cause us to disconnect  from the body and disassociate from an experience and the subsequent sensations.  One of the primary ways to investigate fear is through the felt sense where we consciously feel ourselves. When we step outside of the fear and into the felt sense, we are less likely to be sunk by the other forms of mislabeled fear.  There might be sensations of butterflies, heat or cold, changes in heart rate, tightening in the chest, sighing, or clenching in the stomach or face. When the fear is strong, it can be difficult to be with the sensations directly. In that case, return to the Metta meditation and breathe with and through the discomfort, as though the breath is the whole ocean and the fear is only one big wave. The wave will crest and trough. Guided the mind to float in the ocean of the breath.

 

Feel To Heal

Breathing into bodily sensations can allow us to move through the fear without drowning in it. It is helpful to discover what sensations are associated with the fear.  When we are ready to anchor the attention on the sensations that signal fear, the fear loses its wind. We recognize when we begin to tell ourselves or others stories that manifest as fear and shift back to the present moment. Mindfulness teamed with loving-kindness and the breath allow the bodily sensations to compassionately move through us.  Eventually we begin to notice the samskaras or mind loops we unconsciously course through and learn what triggers them.

 

Trust Yourself

From the time we are children, we are told what we need and when: when to be hungry (“it’s time for dinner”), if we are hot or cold (“put your jacket on”) how to feel (“stop crying” or “don’t  pout or your face will stay like that” ), when we are tired (“go to bed”) and even when to urinate (“go to the bathroom before we get in the car”).  We turn away from ourselves and our instinctual, intuitive voice. To everyone else, you are a bio-mechanical model – only you have the ability to get to know yourself as a soma – a being of internal sensation. It is from this unique space that we slowly learn not to destroy, disassociate from or control our feelings. We discover them and can be present with them in order to discharge them. We begin to see how they work when we enter into them and give them room to express and release.

 

Shit and Shift Happen

Remember the slogan “shit happens”?  Shift happens too, and at the same place in the brain.

“The very mechanisms in the brain that allow adversity to get under the skin are the same mechanisms that enable awakening.  We can harness this power of neuroplasticity for the good by cultivating certain types of virtuous qualities.”  – Dr. Richard Davidson, Neuroscientist

The time it takes to recover from “shit” is termed resilience. Mindfulness can strengthen our resilience and disempower fear. Exploring fear begins by being aware of how it manifests in our lives using witness consciousness. We don’t analyze it, but rather take the role of the observer: make no comparisons, make no judgements and delete the need to understand in the words of W. Brugh Joy. Have a relationship with the fear without living in the power of it’s stories. When working with fear or any other emotion, mindfulness is initially a disciplined practice. As the brain rewires, mindfulness becomes more automatic and we wake up sooner to the fear and change our perceptions around the fear.

Peace,

Megan

As another option to mindfully work through fear, you can access my free guided meditation “Navigating the Waters of Your Mind” below.

 

Embody the Nervous System with Yoga

Perhaps it is the climate of our nation, but I am overdue for a geek blog. If the words “gray matter” intrigue or excite you, or if you just wonder why savasana feels so good, please enjoy.

Gray matter is brain tissue located in the cerebral cortex of the brain.  Studies have shown (you are going to have to look them up on your own) that there is a decrease in grey matter in individuals with chronic pain. It is a downward spiral: decrease in grey matter can lead to memory loss, decreased motor response and emotional problems like anxiety and depression. But guess what? Yoga can increase grey matter! The process requires that we get out of our head and give our brain “feel feedback” from the rest of the body.

To understand the importance of how yoga helps to mentally connect us to our physical body, you need to have a basic nerd understanding of the Nervous System.  The brain thrives on stimulation; it is what allows the continual growth and repurposing of neurons, the specialized cells of the Central Nervous System (CNS).  As babies, we have to  learn to move the arms and legs with sensory motor awareness from the brain and spine – the CNS. More specifically, the motor cortex of the brain sends impulses from the neurons to the muscles.  The motor cortex is a chunk of the cerebral cortex (yep, back to gray matter), that is involved in control and dishing out orders to the muscles to create movement. Most of us don’t remember having to think to learn to crawl, but it was difficult stuff. With repetition, movements like walking become effortless.

Like a baby first learning to crawl, trauma, chronic pain and disease can make us work to make what were once conditioned reflex movements happen. Sometimes we are able to make those movements, but don’t realize that muscles that once turned on automatically are in a permanent state of savasana and other muscles are pulling 70 hour work weeks. Depending on previous physical and/or emotional trauma, we can experience diverse loss of sensory motor awareness (coined Sensory Motor Amnesia by Thomas Hanna).  This is no longer a response to the actual damage. It is a learned habitual behavior by the brain. These habits can only be permanently changed by relearning sense of movement through movement- the big word – neuroplasticity – and it takes the disciplined, captivated mind of a yogi!

If the nervous system never experienced physical or emotional trauma, the benefits of yoga would rest solely on who wears the best pants. In a healthy adult, the brain and spinal chord respond to conscious thought by sending nerve impulses from the senses and the Central Nervous System to the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS – the nerve fibers that branch out from the spinal chord to all parts of the body that receive and send messages to the brain). The CNS also sends hormones and chemicals through the organs and the rest of the body.  Think of the CNS as driving on the nerve expressway and the PNS as getting off to take a local, more distant route; it is two way traffic. In individuals who have disconnected from their bodies for numerous reasons, nervous system response time can be slow, like driving the Kennedy into Chicago at 5pm on a Friday.

The Peripheral Nervous System is divided into the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS – stuff just happens, ignore it and you don’t need to do a darn thing) and the Somatic Nervous System (voluntary “I got this” system). The ANS is mainly responsible for involuntary responses such as heart rate, digestion and breathing. This system is no buttercup and will do its job without coddling, but yoga recognized the ability to positively influence the ANS through asana, pranayama, meditation and thought patterns. The ANS is famous for hosting our good twin and evil twin, Parasympathetic and Sympathetic; except nether of them are actually evil, unless they are getting all the attention all the time. The sympathetic throws tantrums on a diet of STRESS and the parasympathetic thrives on RELAXATION. When the sympathetic is acting out, it hangs out with troubled kids like Amygdala, who feeds fear to our brain. In this overstimulated, noisy, multitasking, ever present electronic-devices world, our ANS often needs a timeout – a safe space to overindulge the peaceful parasympathetic. The Eight Limbs of Yoga are structured to deepen our sensory withdrawal from all the external rubbish (pratyhara – the 5th limb) and nurture the parasympathetic or Relaxation Response (as termed by Dr. Herbert Benson in his 1975 book).  Encouraging the sense to go internal can be as simple as watching the breath breathe (pranayama – the 4th limb of yoga), or it can be more systematic.  In a yoga practice that includes postures (asana – the 3rd limb of yoga), we bring awareness to the muscles, bones and breath.

The Maya Kosha model of yoga teaches that we are multi-layered beings. Our first layer  is the Annamaya Kosha; our outermost physical body.  We may dress it up and look at it in the mirror but this layer where our muscles and bones live needs to feel like part of something bigger inside of us. When we do formal techniques in yoga like progressive muscle relaxation, the mind and body both benefit. The overlying goal in squeezing specific muscles then releasing them is to see where tension is held in the Annamaya Kosha.  The body/brain relationship goes on a date to Cognitive Connection where they dine on skeletal muscles and sensory organs…the Somatic System gets a romantic interlude!  Additionally, when we do yoga postures, the Somatic System provides voluntary control of the body movements and tells the brain the position of the body in space through specific nerves called proprioceptors.  Normally, the voluntary activities of the Somatic System happen effortlessly below the level of conscious awareness. Unfortunately, somatic signals don’t come to us in the form of words. When we are able to experience them, they are felt as bodily sensations. Yoga strengthens this conscious feeling based interfacing from the brain to the periphery of the body. Incoming (sensory) and outgoing (motor) messages change lanes freely between the CNS and the organs, muscles and glands.  The expressway and local routes are wide open!

If you read this far, here is your bone: There is no need to re-read this or study the nervous system.  Embody means “to embrace, to give a concrete form to, to provide with a body”.  Yes, simply provide your brain and nervous system with your body! It also doesn’t matter why you come to yoga, what style of yoga you choose, or if you can stand on your head.  When you are on your mat and feeling yourself, your grey matter is having a party in your brain!!!  As long as you stick with your practice, the party can get bigger and will never run out of cake.

Next Up:

When we are stuck on the jam packed CNS expressway with the radio playing a cascade of adrenaline and cortisol; the psychological and emotional healing that takes place in yoga.

Namaste, Megan