Chasing Your Tail
Can you remember the last time you lay in bed wrestling with your thoughts? You desperately wanted your mind to become calm, to just be quiet, so that you could get some sleep. But whatever you tried seemed to fail. Every time you forced yourself not to think, your thoughts exploded into life with renewed strength. You told yourself not to worry, but suddenly discovered countless new things to worry about. You tried fluffing up the pillow and rolling over to get more comfortable, but soon enough, you began thinking again. As the night ground ever onward, your strength progressively drained away, leaving you feeling fragile and broken. By the time the alarm went off, you were exhausted, bad-tempered and thoroughly miserable.
Throughout the next day you had the opposite problem--you wanted to be wide awake, but could hardly stop yawning. You stumbled into work, but weren't really present. You couldn't concentrate. Your eyes were red and puffy. Your whole body ached and your mind felt empty. You'd stare at the pile of papers on your desk for ages, hoping something, anything, would turn up so that you could gather enough momentum to do a day's work. In meetings, you could barely keep your eyes open, let alone contribute anything intelligent. It seemed as though your life had begun to slip through your fingers ... you felt ever more anxious, stressed and exhausted.
This is a book about how you can find peace and contentment in such troubled and frantic times as these. Or rather, this is a book about how you can rediscover them; for there are deep wellsprings of peace and contentment living inside us all, no matter how trapped and distraught we might feel. They're just waiting to be liberated from the cage that our frantic and relentless way of life has crafted for them.
We know this to be true because we--and our colleagues--have been studying anxiety, stress and depression for over thirty years at Oxford University, UMass, the University of Toronto, and other institutions around the world. This work has discovered the secret to sustained happiness and how you can successfully tackle anxiety, stress, exhaustion and even full-blown depression. It's the kind of happiness and peace that gets into your bones and promotes a deep-seated authentic love of life, seeping into everything you do and helping you to cope more skillfully with the worst that life throws at you.
It's a secret that was well understood in the ancient world and is kept alive in some cultures even today. But many of us in the Western world have largely forgotten how to live a good and joyful existence. And it's often even worse than this. We try so hard to be happy that we end up missing the most important parts of our lives and destroying the very peace that we were seeking.
We wrote this book to help you understand where true happiness, peace and contentment can be found and how you can rediscover them for yourself. It will teach you how to free yourself progressively from anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. We're not promising eternal bliss; everyone experiences periods of pain and suffering, and it's naive and dangerous to pretend otherwise. And yet, it is possible to taste an alternative to the relentless struggle that pervades much of our daily lives.
In the following pages and in the accompanying downloads we offer a series of simple practices that you can incorporate into your daily life. They are based on mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) that grew out of the inspiring work of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the UMass Medical Center in America. The MBCT program was originally developed by Professor Mark Williams (coauthor of this book), John Teasdale at Cambridge and Zindel Segal of the University of Toronto. It was designed to help people who had suffered repeated bouts of serious depression to overcome their illness. Clinical trials show that it works. It's been clinically proven to halve the risk of depression in those who have suffered the most debilitating forms of the illness. It's at least as effective as antidepressants, and has none of their downsides. In fact, it is so effective that it's now one of the preferred treatments recommended by the UK's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.
The MBCT technique revolves around a form of meditation that was little known in the West until recently. Mindfulness meditation is so beautifully simple that it can be used by the rest of us to reveal our innate joie de vivre. Not only is this worthwhile in itself, but it can also prevent normal feelings of anxiety, stress and sadness from spiraling downwards into prolonged periods of unhappiness and exhaustion--or even serious clinical depression.
A typical meditation consists of focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body (see "A one-minute meditation"). Focusing on each breath in this way allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, to let go of struggling with them. You come to realize that thoughts come and go of their own accord; that you are not your thoughts. You can watch as they appear in your mind, seemingly from thin air, and watch again as they disappear, like a soap bubble bursting. You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.
Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself. When unhappiness or stress hovers overhead, rather than taking it all personally, you learn to treat them as if they were black clouds in the sky, and to observe them with friendly curiosity as they drift past. In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life.
Over time, mindfulness brings about long-term changes in mood and levels of happiness and well-being. Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness not only prevents depression, but that it also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression and irritability so that when they arise, they dissolve away again more easily. Other studies have shown that regular meditators see their doctors less often and spend fewer days in hospital. Memory improves, creativity increases and reaction times become faster (see "The benefits of mindfulness meditation").
A One-Minute Meditation
1. Sit erect in a straight-backed chair. If possible, bring your back a little way from the rear of the chair so that your spine is self-supporting. Your feet can be flat on the floor. Close your eyes or lower your gaze.
2. Focus your attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Stay in touch with the different sensations of each in-breath and each out-breath. Observe the breath without looking for anything special to happen. There is no need to alter your breathing in any way.
3. After a while your mind may wander. When you notice this, gently bring your attention back to your breath, without giving yourself a hard time--the act of realizing that your mind has wandered and bringing your attention back without criticizing yourself is central to the practice of mindfulness meditation.
4. Your mind may eventually become calm like a still pond--or it may not. Even if you get a sense of absolute stillness, it may only be fleeting. If you feel angry or exasperated, notice that this may be fleeting too. Whatever happens, just allow it to be as it is.
5. After a minute, let your eyes open and take in the room again.
The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Numerous psychological studies have shown that regular meditators are happier and more contented than average.1 these are not just important results in themselves but have huge medical significance, as such positive emotions are linked to a longer and healthier life.2
• Anxiety, depression and irritability all decrease with regular sessions of meditation.3 Memory also improves, reaction times become faster and mental and physical stamina increase.4
• Regular meditators enjoy better and more fulfilling relationships.5
• Studies worldwide have found that meditation reduces the key indicators of chronic stress, including hypertension.6
• Meditation has also been found to be effective in reducing the impact of serious conditions, such as chronic pain7 and cancer,8 and can even help to relieve drug and alcohol dependence.9
• Studies have now shown that meditation bolsters the immune system and thus helps to fight off colds, flu and other diseases.10
Despite these proven benefits, however, many people are still a little wary when they hear the word "meditation." So before we proceed, it might be helpful to dispel some myths:
• Meditation is not a religion. Mindfulness is simply a method of mental training. Many people who practice meditation are themselves religious, but then again, many atheists and agnostics are avid meditators too.
• You don't have to sit cross-legged on the floor (like the pictures you may have seen in magazines or on TV), but you can if you want to. Most people who come to our classes sit on chairs to meditate, but you can also practice bringing mindful awareness to whatever you are doing on planes, trains, or while walking to work. You can meditate more or less anywhere.
• Mindfulness practice does not take a lot of time, although some patience and persistence are required. Many people soon find that meditation liberates them from the pressures of time, so they have more of it to spend on other things.
• Meditation is not complicated. Nor is it about "success" or "failure." Even when meditation feels difficult, you'll have learned something valuable about the workings of the mind and thus will have benefited psychologically.
• It will not deaden your mind or prevent you from striving toward important career or lifestyle goals; nor will it trick you into falsely adopting a Pollyanna attitude to life. Meditation is not about accepting the unacceptable. It is about seeing the world with greater clarity so that you can take wiser and more considered action to change those things that need to be changed. Meditation helps cultivate a deep and compassionate awareness that allows you to assess your goals and find the optimum path towards realizing your deepest values.
Finding Peace in a Frantic World
If you have picked up this book, the chances are you've repeatedly asked yourself why the peace and happiness you yearn for so often slip through your fingers. Why is so much of life defined by frantic busyness, anxiety, stress and exhaustion? These are questions that puzzled us for many years too, and we think that science has finally found the answers. And, ironically, the principles underlying these answers were known to the ancient world: they are eternal truths.
Our moods naturally wax and wane. It's the way we're meant to be. But certain patterns of thinking can turn a short-term dip in vitality or emotional well-being into longer periods of anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. A brief moment of sadness, anger or anxiety can end up tipping you into a "bad mood" that colors a whole day or far, far longer. Recent scientific discoveries have shown how these normal emotional fluxes can lead to long-term unhappiness, acute anxiety and even depression. But, more importantly, these discoveries have also revealed the path to becoming a happier and more "centered" person, by showing that:
• when you start to feel a little sad, anxious or irritable, it's not the mood that does the damage but how you react to it.
• the effort of trying to free yourself from a bad mood or bout of unhappiness--of working out why you're unhappy and what you can do about it--often makes things worse. It's like being trapped in quicksand--the more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink.
As soon as we understand how the mind works, it becomes obvious why we all suffer from bouts of unhappiness, stress and irritability from time to time.
When you begin to feel a little unhappy, it's natural to try and think your way out of the problem of being unhappy. You try to establish what is making you unhappy and then find a solution. In the process, you can easily dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries. This further lowers your mood. It doesn't take long before you start to feel bad for failing to discover a way of cheering yourself up. The "inner critic," which lives inside us all, begins to whisper that it's your fault, that you should try harder, whatever the cost. You soon start to feel separated from the deepest and wisest parts of yourself. You get lost in a seemingly endless cycle of recrimination and self-judgment; finding yourself at fault for not meeting your ideals, for not being the person you wish you could be.
We get drawn into this emotional quicksand because our state of mind is intimately connected with memory. The mind is constantly trawling through memories to find those that echo our current emotional state. For example, if you feel threatened, the mind instantly digs up memories of when you felt endangered in the past, so that you can spot similarities and find a way of escaping. It happens in an instant, before you're even aware of it. It's a basic survival skill honed by millions of years of evolution. It's incredibly powerful and almost impossible to stop.
The same is true with unhappiness, anxiety and stress. It is normal to feel a little unhappy from time to time, but sometimes a few sad thoughts can end up triggering a cascade of unhappy memories, negative emotions and harsh judgments. Before long, hours or even days can be colored by negative self-critical thoughts such as, What's wrong with me? My life is a mess. What will happen when they discover how useless I really am?
Such self-attacking thoughts are incredibly powerful, and once they gather momentum they are almost impossible to stop. One thought or feeling triggers the next, and then the next ... Soon, the original thought--no matter how fleeting--has gathered up a raft of similar sadnesses, anxieties and fears and you've become enmeshed in your own sorrow.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.