Social Anxiety – How Mindfulness can help

posted Jul 24, 2019, 2:17 AM by Fidelma Farley   [ updated Jul 24, 2019, 3:11 AM ]

It’s not easy experiencing anxiety about socialising. I had it for many years, and it was tough. All that second guessing about what people might think about me, or are thinking, or were thinking – it’s exhausting. 

Social anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways, including:
Being consistently late for social occasions, as the anxiety delays getting ready and leaving on time.  I was so bad, my friends took to telling me that the start time was 30 minutes earlier than it actually was, so there was some chance I’d arrive within a reasonable time! Or it can be the opposite – consistently arriving very early for social occasions.
Finding it hard to leave social occasions for fear of drawing people’s attention, even for the short time it takes to say goodbye. Or it can be the opposite – consistently slipping away without saying goodbye to anyone.
And then the big one – worrying about what people think. This type of rumination can go on for days before the event (‘what will people of me, of how I look, of what I say’), during the event itself, sometimes making it difficult to talk to people, and then after the event, going over and over what people may have thought (‘what did people think when I said this, what did they mean when they said that’).

It’s easy to say to ourselves that none of this matters, but that doesn’t help. The feelings of anxiety are still there, the racing mind is still there. In fact, social anxiety has its roots in a universal and very primal fear – the fear of being rejected by the tribe. For our ancestors to survive, they needed each other and the mutual support of the tribe. Banishment from the tribe meant almost certain death. Even for us today, feelings of isolation or exclusion are very painful, and the prospect of those painful feelings triggers this primal fear of judgement and rejection. Even if a person isn’t actually alone, just feeling isolated internally can have a negative impact on their physical as well as their mental health. 

I Give You Back
I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart
But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.

Joy Harjo

So how can mindfulness help?
Firstly, mindfulness develops self-awareness so that we get to know ourselves in all our messy glory. We get to know what are values are, what’s important to us. When we know ourselves better, we’re less swayed by what others think, which means we’re on more solid ground when we relate to others, not the shifting sands of what we think they think.

Secondly, through mindfulness practice you come to see that thoughts are not facts, they’re just mental events that may or may not be true. In my individual and group mindfulness classes, this phrase, ‘thoughts are not facts’, is regularly named as one of the things that has had the most positive impact. It’s one I turn to all the time, especially if I find myself falling into old habits of worrying about what people might think of me.

Thirdly, mindfulness meditations like the Loving Kindness meditation develop a sense of common humanity, a sense that even though there are, of course, differences between us all, we share so much simply by being alive on this earth. This is a powerful antidote to feelings of isolation, as it helps us to recognise that we are not alone, that the feelings we experience are experienced at some point by human beings all over the world. Everybody wants to be loved and accepted, everybody wants to be happy.

A short Mindfulness exercise
Although mindfulness has the most effect when practiced regularly, ideally through mindfulness meditation, even a few minutes a day of being mindful can make a difference.
- Start by noticing the contact of feet on the floor, and your bum on the chair if you’re sitting. Notice the solidity of the ground supporting your body. 
- Then pay attention to three breaths, focusing particularly on each exhalation, as this helps release tension. Placing a hand on your tummy helps to keep the attention on the breath, and it’s quite comforting too, though it may not be possible to do this, depending on where you are.
- If your inner critic is loud, silently saying to yourself, ‘It’s ok, it’s ok’ can lessen the inner critical voice and provide reassurance. 

It’s good to pick a time of day that you do this regularly, for example, in the shower, waiting for a bus, when you sit at your computer, before you go to sleep at night, but you can do this exercise as often as you wish during the day. 

How 'bad' meditations are good for you....

posted Nov 2, 2017, 8:54 AM by Fidelma Farley   [ updated Nov 3, 2017, 12:14 AM ]

Mindfulness teacher and author Joseph Goldstein tells a story about a time he went on a long, solitary meditation retreat in India. He had searched for and found the perfect location – a remote, isolated hill overlooking a beautiful valley. Within a few days of arriving there, a Girl Guide camp set up in the valley, with hundreds of people milling about and a loudspeaker blaring music and announcements from early in the morning to late at night. Goldstein describes the angry letters he wrote in his mind, how he railed against the injustice of his situation. But in the end, his mind surrendered and he accepted that there was nothing he could do. With that acceptance, he writes, “it was okay. There was the sound, the noise. It was fine. Finally, I just let it be.”

I can't meditate because.....

Goldstein’s example is an unusually dramatic one, but anyone who meditates will probably recognise the challenge of trying to meditate, or be mindful, when the conditions are difficult. What I hear a lot in classes is that people think they can’t meditate because – 
- too noisy – there are other people in the house, builders in the house next door, a car alarm is going off, a dog is barking
- the ‘wrong’ space – it’s too small, too messy, too crowded, too cold, or not private enough
- not having the ‘right’ equipment – no CD player, the CD player is broken, the chair is uncomfortable, no yoga mat, can’t download the meditation
- not feeling ‘right’ physically – too tired, a headache, a back ache, a cold
- not feeling ‘right’ mentally/emotionally  – too stressed, too angry, mind is too busy, too pre-occupied
- no time – too busy, too much going on, on the go all day
- a break in routine – it’s the weekend, a holiday, or away from home

Very often you may feel that there’s no point in even trying to meditate unless all the conditions are just right. Sometimes, we start to meditate and something happens, like a sound, or an interruption, and we feel that there’s no point in continuing the meditation. But mindfulness isn’t about controlling our environment so that we experience no discomfort, it’s about learning to be ok with discomfort if and when it arises. This is not to say that you do nothing to facilitate your meditation/mindfulness practice. It is more supportive to your practice to set up the most favourable conditions possible, within your own circumstances. But you can do that and still a car alarm will go off, a child will burst into the room, you’ll remember a vital phone call you forget to make, you realise how tired you are, your bad knee flares up. You cannot control everything. So you set up the conditions as best you can - and then you let the rest go. 

“The deep inner stillness we seek comes not from having a quiet mind or a still body, or from the world being quiet, but from letting things be, exactly as they are, in the moment.” Mark Williams

While it seems counter-intuitive to meditate when it’s noisy, or you’re tired, or stressed, in fact it is during those very meditations that you build resilience and equanimity, the ability to be with unpleasant experience without immediately avoiding it, or fixing it, or being overwhelmed by it. These are the meditations when you are really practicing acceptance – of how you are and where you are – and kindness towards the fact that things have not gone to plan. Mindfulness and meditation teaches us to go with the flow of life, rather than battling to control it. Sometimes life (and meditation) is pleasant, joyful, calm, and sometimes life (and meditation) is unpleasant, difficult and painful. Every meditation, no matter what it feels like, is a practice in deepening the ability to open our hearts and minds to the whole of our selves, the whole of our lives.

"Ego says, 'Once everything falls into place, I'll find peace.' Spirit says, 'Find your peace and then everything will fall into place.'"  
Marianne Williamson

Killing Cravings with Kindness

posted Feb 8, 2017, 1:21 AM by Fidelma Farley

The other morning, I wasn’t feeling great, my stomach was unsettled and I felt a bit drained. I found that I was dying for a cup of strong coffee, even though I knew it would upset my stomach even further, and that it may then take days before I could eat normally. Yet even so, the urge for coffee grew and grew. I kept telling myself it was a bad idea, that it would ultimately make me feel worse, that I was being stupid, but it made no difference to the craving. I was on my way to buy the coffee, still arguing with myself, when I remembered what I already knew but had forgotten – the craving was a distraction from something, something that I didn’t want to be experiencing. What was it I wanted to avoid? The answer was obvious – I didn’t feel well, and I wanted to stop feeling unwell. A cup of coffee would give me a temporary jolt of energy, so that for a while I wouldn’t feel so drained. With that awareness, the choice was really clear – get a coffee, feel a bit better for 30 minutes or so and then much worse for a few days, or accept how I was feeling in that moment, knowing that I would probably be ok by the end of the day. That was the end of the arguments with myself and the end of the craving – when the choice was so clear, there was no way I would do that damage to myself for the sake a few minutes’ respite.

Often when there’s a craving for something that we know is not good for us, we try to overcome it by logic (eating that whole bar of chocolate will make you feel sick!), or willpower (don’t do it, put it down!), or self-criticism – (don’t be so stupid!). Sometimes those methods work, but very often they don’t. It’s because the craving is reaction to vulnerability, it’s a desire to escape something unpleasant and to replace it with a different, more pleasant, experience.  When we apply logic, or will power, or self-criticism to the craving, the part of us that’s feeling tired, or unwell, or sad or anxious, hasn’t been listened to. (Let me make it clear that I’m not talking about full-blown addiction here, which is a condition requiring professional help).

Although the craving is fuelled by the desire not to feel vulnerable, it also hides the vulnerability, so that all we’re aware of is an overwhelming urge to eat the biscuits, or buy the expensive shoes, or have another drink, or immerse ourselves in Facebook. Underneath, however, is something that wants our attention, and some kindness.

What am I avoiding?
I’ve come now to see cravings as signals that there’s something I’m experiencing that needs my attention. It prompts me to ask – ‘what am I avoiding? What is there in this moment that I don’t want, that I want to get away from?’ It’s not always easy, and there are times I forget, or I ignore the inner voice and obey the craving instead. But what a difference it makes to actually acknowledge your suffering with kindness, to allow yourself to be a human being that has bad days, that feels pain or fatigue occasionally, that is affected by interactions with others.

What do you really need?
As well as asking ‘‘what is going on with me in this moment that I don’t want?’, a further question helps - ‘what do I really need in this moment?’ It may be to talk to a friend, or to take a short break, or to get some fresh air, or have a bath. And sometimes it may be that a little of what you fancy is what you need. Maybe it would cheer you up to go shopping, or watch TV or eat ice cream. When we’re driven by the craving, it’s hard to stop because stopping will make the feelings we’re trying to avoid come to the fore again. So we keep going and going until we feel worse than when we started. But if you're aware that eating some ice cream, say, will make you feel a bit better for a short while, that it’s a way of responding to how you’re feeling, rather than a way of escaping how you’re feeling, then you’re more likely to be able to stop when you’ve had enough.

Mindfulness Sleeping

On another occasion, I sat down to watch TV one evening. Something about the way I turned on the TV made me aware that I was all set to binge watch, which would mean getting to bed really late and being exhausted the following day. I asked the question – ‘what is going on with me that I don’t want?’ and realised that I was feeling a bit blue, a bit melancholy. And what did I really need? To get to bed and get some sleep! I watched one episode of my favourite programme and then went to bed. So I cheered up a bit, and got the sleep I needed.

True kindness – listening to yourself
So next time you find yourself gripped by a craving that won’t listen to logic, or will power, or self-criticism, see if you can listen to what’s under the craving. Just asking yourself – ‘what is going on with me in this moment that I don’t want?’ – can be enough to dissolve the craving and see the tender spot beneath. Then asking yourself, ‘what do I really need in this moment?’ to tend to that vulnerability. We sometimes think that being kind to ourselves is indulging our cravings, but this is true kindness, responding to your own vulnerability with care and love.

New Year, Old You?

posted Jan 5, 2017, 9:15 AM by Fidelma Farley   [ updated Jan 5, 2017, 9:15 AM ]

This is the time of year we see the ‘New Year, New You!’ posters, exhorting us to take steps to become better, healthier, fitter, happier. It’s so seductive to picture that transformed version of ourselves, but I suspect I’m not the only one that didn’t really believe that I could do it, so it seemed like an unattainable fantasy that there was no point in trying to achieve.  Having said that, I often started to work on one of my resolutions with great zeal and enthusiasm, only to fall by the wayside within weeks. That’s when it felt like the ‘old’ me was back, back into bad habits that I didn’t like but had a certain reassuring familiarity – ahh, now this is really me! I saw every glitch or falling away as a ‘failure’, which reinforced the idea that I wasn’t succeeding. Anyone recognise the voice of perfectionism?! If I can’t do this perfectly, why bother doing it at all? Much safer to stay as I am, rather than risk the pain of failure. 

So when I came across this well-known quote from Samuel Beckett, it struck a deep chord:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Worstword Ho, 1983)
(See Maggi Dawn’s blog post for a great reflection on the meaning of this quote).

I realised that it isn’t about ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’, it’s about keeping going. The New Year brings lots of talk about new beginnings, but actually we keep on beginning, over and over again. Begin again, fail again, begin again. Rather than aiming to ‘succeed’, what if we aim to find what we love, what we find meaningful, and to keep beginning with that, over and over again? That we measure ‘success’ by our ability to discover and nurture what feeds our spirit, and by our ability to keep re-discovering and re-connecting with it. 

No finishing line
About a year after my son was born, I took up running, mainly to try to get fit and lose weight. I set myself the goal of running the Women’s Mini-Marathon, but three weeks before the race, I got a sinus infection that lasted two weeks. I managed, just about, to run the whole 10k, but was disappointed. I entered another 10k a few months after, but the same thing happened, and kept happening over two years. It was very frustrating, as I felt as if I wasn’t progressing at all. I was on the verge of giving up altogether, when I re-assessed why I run. I run because I love being outdoors in nature; because I love the time by myself; I love the renewed energy I feel when I’m running regularly. That’s my motivation to starting again, not a goal that marks my success or failure. Don’t get me wrong – having goals to aim for can be hugely helpful and motivating. But for the perfectionists among us, setting goals can sometimes be counter-productive. 

Steering your course
When you steer a boat you are constantly correcting, constantly going off course and bringing the boat back om course. Each time you go off course with your intentions, don’t beat yourself up, re-adjust the boat and get back on course, knowing that you’ll veer off course again, but also knowing that you can get yourself back each time too. For anyone that meditates, you’ll know that this is what we do in each and every meditation. We focus on the breath, we wander off, we come back to the breath, we wander off – repeat ad infinitum. Meditators learn that the more you interpret the wandering mind as a ‘failure’, with all the self-criticism and frustration that comes with that, the less your meditation flows, and the less inclined you are to keep at it. Accept that your mind will wander and trust that you will notice and bring it back to the present moment.

What works in meditation is what works in the rest of your life. Set your intention, accept that there will be times you will not follow it, and trust that when that happens, you can and will, in time, re-connect with it.

I’ll leave the last words to Brendan Kennelly, from his poem, ‘Begin’:
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

Accept Yourself - Don't Forget!

posted Sep 23, 2016, 8:46 AM by Fidelma Farley   [ updated Sep 24, 2016, 2:33 AM ]

“You don’t become a different person when you meditate – you become more yourself.”

I heard this at a follow-on meditation course I took some months after I’d first learnt to meditate, and my heart sank. Then I was taken aback by the implication of my reaction. Why would my heart sink at the prospect of becoming more me, more myself? Did I dislike myself so much that I actually wanted to be a different person? Is that what I’d hoped, deep down, to get from meditating? Painful though it was, that moment was a turning point for me, the first step on an on-going path of self-acceptance.

It seems to go against the grain of self-help and personal development to accept yourself, warts and all, to not work hard to smooth out all the creases and bumps and glitches in our personalities so that we’ll finally become the perfect person we yearn to be. Self-acceptance smacks of resigning ourselves to being stuck as we are. If we don’t recognise and criticise our failings, how will we ever improve?

But it’s a bit like the joke about the reply a man gets when he asks for directions – “Well, I wouldn’t start from here!” You have start where you are and really know where you are before you can move forward. Mindfulness is a practice in that knowing – of how you are, how you feel and what’s happening for you, in the present moment. Self-criticism is like a fog that obscures the view, preventing us from seeing ourselves clearly. Kind acceptance of what is there, in that moment, allows us to see through the fog, to observe what’s actually going on, without judgement - even the ugly thoughts about your boss/spouse/friend; even the horrible panicky feeling in your chest; even the fantasies about being better/calmer/cleverer/richer/kinder. 

"We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses." Carl Jung 

In my own practice, I have found that the longer I practice letting myself be as I am in the moment, the more I do actually change. It’s not that I have become, or am even becoming, a perfect human being, but I am kinder to myself, more accepting of the fact that I’m not perfect (and never will be), that I sometimes mess up, but that overall, I’m ok as I am. Of course there are times when the old habits of self-criticism kick in, but I’m getting better at catching those thoughts, accepting them and being kind to the feelings they evoke in me.

One of the traits I used to actively dislike in myself is a tendency to forget or lose things. It has caused a lot of stress over the years, usually followed by a bout of mental self-flagellation, which caused yet more stress. I had high hopes that mindfulness would transform me into a model of efficiency, but alas, I’m still waiting (though I have improved, thanks in no small part to a great, simple practice, Starting & Finishing, which I wrote about in an earlier blog). But mindfulness practice has done two things – firstly I have more perspective - I’m not as forgetful as I used to think I was, and secondly, I don’t get as stressed about it. I haven’t become a ‘better’ person, I’ve become kinder to myself for not being perfect. 

“We don't meditate to improve ourselves; we meditate to end our compulsive striving to do everything better.” Christopher Germer, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

Try it and see for yourself. What is it in yourself you would like to change, that you feel is holding you back from being the person you want to be? Maybe you don't want to be shy in social gatherings, maybe you hate the way you get so irritable when you're tired, maybe you wish you wouldn't turn to eating or drinking too much when you feel a bit down. How would it be to become curious about it, observe it without judgement? How would it be to let go the self-criticism and be kind to how you feel? To allow yourself to be imperfect, to be human?

I love the way Leonard Cohen puts it in Anthem:
“Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
It’s how the light gets in.”

Through a kind awareness of our cracks and imperfections, we can let in the light of understanding and compassion and empathy and allow ourselves to be fully human.

Coming to Our Senses - Mindful Journeys

posted Aug 16, 2016, 11:56 PM by Fidelma Farley   [ updated Aug 17, 2016, 7:14 AM ]

Have you ever gone for a walk on a nice day, only to find afterwards that you were so wrapped up in in your thoughts that you didn’t really notice anything? Or have you started to listen to music you love, only to find that after a few moments you’ve drifted into thinking about work the next day, or a daydream about holidays, or going back over a conversation you had earlier? Or maybe you’ve eaten meals that you’ve hardly tasted because you’re reading, or watching TV as you eat. It’s frustrating, when you think about it, not to get the most out of these really pleasurable experiences!

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the default setting of the mind is to wander. Recent research, however, has shown that ‘the wandering mind is an unhappy mind’. When our minds wander off into random thoughts, we’re unwitting passengers on a thought-train that can take us anywhere, to places and states that may be unhelpful and even distressing. Not only that, but when we’re caught up in thoughts in this way, we’re missing out on what’s around us – the presence of people we love, the feel of a cool breeze on the skin, the scent of flowers, the taste of delicious food.

Mindfulness is a way of being more present, and one way of doing that is to be more aware of what we experience in our bodies, through our senses. The more we practice, the more present we are and we’re hijacked less often by the thought-train.

A few years ago, I regularly cycled a particular route. It’s a pleasant journey, by the sea for the first part, then along tree-lined roads, then through a lively area with shops and cafes and pubs. I love cycling, and yet I noticed after a while that I would arrive at my destination hot and sweaty and out of breath and with no sense of having enjoyed the journey. What was going on? I began to notice that during the cycle my mind was racing with all sorts of thoughts, and because my mind was racing, my legs apparently wanted to race too! I was caught up in my thoughts and cycling very fast, and wasn’t getting any enjoyment at all. So I selected a few landmarks along the route that would be my mindfulness triggers, and when I passed them, it would remind me to ‘come to my senses’ – to pay attention to what I could see around me, what I could hear, the feel of the wind on my skin, the sense of my body moving and my breath. Of course, after a short while, my mind would wander off again, but then I’d pass the next landmark and come to my senses again. The whole experience was transformed – I got such pleasure form each journey, and I arrived at my destination calm (and not sweaty!).

Why not try this on the routes you take regularly, whether walking, cycling, driving or public transport? Pick out a few landmarks, like a crossroads, or a church, or shopping centre, or a hotel, and when you pass them, take a few moments to ‘come to your senses’ – what do you see around you? What can you hear? What can you smell? What do you sense in your body (e.g. what are your hands in contact with? Your feet? Do you sense wind or rain or heat on your skin)? Just a few moments of mindfulness will change your experience, even of a very familiar journey.

I wish you ‘bon voyage’!

Starting and Finishing

posted Apr 25, 2013, 2:41 PM by Fidelma Farley

The start of a new year is a time for new beginnings but also for endings. We usually think of this in terms of the end of one year and the start of the next, or the bringing old and unhelpful habits to an end and starting to develop new and healthier ways of being. I’d like to share with you, however, a practice of starting and finishing that I’ve found very
helpful, if challenging at times. I came across it in a book called Life with Full Attention (by Maitreyabandhu, pub. Windhorse), in the chapter on Day-to-Day Mindfulness. The practice is, quite simply, to finish what you start, or to put it another way, to complete your cycles. This means seeing your actions through, for example, putting the milk back in the fridge, washing dishes you’ve used, cleaning the shower after using it, finishing the tasks you started. When you do this, you’re demonstrating an awareness of the consequences of your unfinished sequence of actions on others. So, for example, if you just place a used cup in the sink, someone else has to wash it and dry it and put it away.

It also has an effect on your own peace of mind, in that we feel less pressured by the thoughts of myriad uncompleted tasks. When I started this practice, I was taken aback by how scattered my attention was. I would start to put away laundry, for example, remember a text I meant to send, which would lead to some other task and so on, and only a while later would I remember that the rest of the laundry hadn’t been put away! It took effort to follow through completely on each task, but now that it’s become more habitual, I find that I feel less pressured by time and have the sense of getting more things done. It’s also a very good example of how much effect the little, everyday things can have on us. Forgetting things and feeling pressured can make us irritable, which has consequences too for the
people around us, so anything that helps to reduce that will also have a positive effect on ourselves and others.

Fidelma Farley

How Kindness Works

posted Apr 25, 2013, 2:29 PM by Fidelma Farley   [ updated Apr 25, 2013, 2:42 PM ]

I’d like to share with you part of a talk I gave to meditators at Oscailt, on kindness. I was prompted to explore this topic by the questions occasionally asked by people in a mindfulness or Loving Kindness class – what exactly is kindness, and what do I do to be kind to myself? It seems to me that kindness is a process.

It starts with seeing – simply seeing that someone is suffering. This can be as simple as noticing that a friend is tired, or that someone is struggling to get a door open while carrying bags. However, it’s not enough just to see. Sometimes we see someone’s suffering but ignore it, or we judge them for it (‘they deserve it’, ‘what else did they expect?’), or we just don’t want to let in anyone else’s pain. Sometimes we feel that because we can’t ‘fix’ (i.e.get rid of) the  suffering, there’s no point in doing anything.

So the next step in the process of kindness is empathy, an imaginative leap into how the other person is feeling. This comes from our own awareness of what it is to feel tired, or stressed or ill, or to have experienced a loss.

Finally, we respond, and if we’re responding from empathy, it’s a heart response to someone else’s suffering.

Practising kindness benefits the receiver and giver – the receiver sees that they are not alone in their suffering, and the giver opens their heart each time they give. Both enhance that connectedness with each other that is so vital to our well-being and happiness.

We can follow this process to be kind to ourselves, especially in meditation: by seeing when and how we’re experiencing difficulties, when we’re suffering; by opening to the unpleasant experience without expectation or desire to get rid of it, we develop empathy for ourselves; and we can then respond compassionately to the difficulty we’re experiencing.

[…] Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and send you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Naomi Shihab Nye

Fidelma Farley

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