How to tolerate extremes

Whether you’re experiencing a winter freeze or a summer burn, there’s little point in complaining. Try to experience any extreme with open curiosity, and you might find you can tolerate a lot more than you thought.

‘Suddenly it’s cauld; very fuckin cauld. The candle’s nearly melted doon. The only real heat’s comin fae the telly. Something black and white’s on but the telly’s a black and white set so it was bound tae be something black and white . . . wi a calour telly, it wid be different . . perhaps. It’s freezing, but movement only makes ye caulder; by making ye more aware that there’s fuck all you can do, fuck all you can really do, tae get warm. At least if ah stey still ah can pretend to masel ah have the power tae make masel warm, by just moving aroond or switching the fire oan. The trick is tae be as still as possible. It’s easier than dragging yourself across the flair tae switch that fuckin fire oan.’

Irvine Welsh. Trainspotting.

How to tolerate extremes
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A woman came to me during a retreat saying that despite extra layers of clothing and a hot-water bottle, she felt cold all the time. She also realized that she was frightened about feeling cold. She knew the fear was irrational, and she had been looking for its source. Then she remembered an incident twenty years earlier when she’d had some heart trouble and was very cold.

I asked her to scan her body carefully and tell me what percentage of the body did not feel cold. After a few minutes she reported with surprise that over 90 percent of her body felt warm, or even hot. She realized that the 10 percent of her body that was cool was producing 100 percent of the fear. Later she said that a weight had been lifted from her mind, a fear that had lasted decades, and she was now able easily to tolerate different temperatures.

I once watched a passenger get into my car and reach over to turn on the air conditioner, before the car had even started. It’s like salting our food before we taste it. We live on automatic, trying to insulate ourselves against any discomfort before it even arrives. Then we lose the joy of potential discovery and the freedom of finding that we can investigate, and even be happy, within a greater range of experiences than we thought.

Jan Chozen Bays. How to Train a Wild Elephant and Other Adventures in Mindfulness.

Trust your own strength

Mythological heroes often possess extraordinary powers. That ability and strength to overcome apparently insurmountable problems is within us all.

‘The mighty hero of extraordinary powers —able to lift Mount Govardhan on a finger, and to fill himself with the terrible glory of the universe—is each of us: not the physical self visible in the mirror, but the king within. Krishna declares: “I am the Self, seated in the hearts of all creatures. I am the beginning, the middle, and the end of all beings.””
Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Trust your own strength
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Part of mindfulness practice is to cultivate a trusting heart. Let’s begin by looking deeply into what we can trust in ourselves. If we don’t immediately know what there is to trust in ourselves, maybe we need to look a little deeper, to dwell a little longer with ourselves in stillness and in simply being. If we are unaware of what we are doing a good deal of the time, and we don’t particularly like the way things turn out in our lives, perhaps it’s time to pay closer attention, to be more in touch, to observe the choices we make and their consequences down the road.

Perhaps we could experiment with trusting the present moment, accepting whatever we feel or think or see in this moment because this is what is present now. If we can take a stand here, and let go into the full texture of now, we may find that this very moment is worthy of our trust. From such experiments, conducted over and over again, may come a new sense that somewhere deep within us resides a profoundly healthy and trustworthy core, and that our intuitions, as deep resonances of the actuality of the present moment, are worthy of our trust.

Be strong then, and enter into your own body; there you have a solid place for your feet.

Think about it carefully! Don’t go off somewhere else!

Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things, and stand firm in that which you are.

Jon Kabat-Zinn. Wherever you go, there you are.

* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

When the mind is stuck on replay

The mind often replays old arguments, bringing the same feelings of anger and resentment back. Instead, we should try to recall the feelings from before these disagreements.

There was, I believed, no original thought left to have about my various confrontations, but still they turned over and over in my mind, certain phrases bubbling back up, certain moments replaying in a loop. I formulated snappy and witty rebuttals, unanswerable comebacks; I scripted and rehearsed future encounters. And this ceaseless, futile mental activity disgusted me even as I felt myself unable to stop indulging in it.

Will Wiles. The Way Inn. 2014. Fourth estate. London.

When the mind is stuck on replay
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Naturally when something reminds you of pain from your past, painful thoughts and feelings are likely to show up. You can’t stop that from happening. That’s the way your brain is hardwired. But if you clutch those thoughts and feelings and refuse to let go, you turn them into a mass of seething resentment. This does not allow healing; instead it opens your wounds and pours in salt. The word “resentment” comes from the French resentir, which means “to feel again.”

When you hold on to resentment, you will relive the pain, again and again and again. In Buddhism, there’s a saying: resentment is like holding a red hot coal in order to throw it at someone else. When you hold on to hurts from the past, you cultivate feelings of anger, resentment, and revenge. These feelings hurt you, not the person who wronged you. It’s like cutting yourself with a knife and hoping that the other person bleeds.

Russ Harris. Act With Love.

Why we need free speech

Even grumpy old Charles Bukowski couldn’t get angry at those who attacked free speech. Through mindfulness, we can learn to broaden our understanding and see that there are many ‘truths’.

Why we need free speech
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‘Censorship is the tool of those who have the need to hide actualities from themselves and from others. Their fear is only their inability to face what is real, and I can’t vent any anger against them. I only feel this appalling sadness. Somewhere, in their upbringing, they were shielded against the total facts of our existence. They were only taught to look one way when many ways exist.’

Charles Bukowski. Letter to journalist, Hans van den Broek after the book Tales of Ordinary Madness was removed from the public library in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. 1985. Source: Letters of Note. Available from: [accessed on 11 January 2014].

‘Perhaps ultimately, spiritual simply means experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly, a seeing that individuality and the totality are interwoven, that nothing is separate or extraneous. If you see in this way, then everything becomes spiritual in its deepest sense. Doing science is spiritual. So is washing the dishes. It is the inner experience which counts. And you have to be there for it. All else is mere thinking.

At the same time, you have to be on the lookout for tendencies toward self-deception, deluded thinking, grandiosity, self-inflation, and impulses toward exploitation and cruelty directed at other beings. A lot of harm has come in all eras from people attached to one view of spiritual “truth.” And a lot more has come from people who hide behind the cloak of spirituality and are willing to harm others to feed their own appetites.

Moreover, our ideas of spirituality frequently ring with a slightly holier-than-thou resonance to the attuned ear. Narrow, literalist views of spirit often place it above the “gross,” “polluted,” “deluded” domain of body, mind, and matter. Falling into such views, people can use ideas of spirit to run from life.’

Jon Kabat-Zinn. Wherever you go, there you are.

The benefits of a smile

A smile, even a fake smile, can have many positive effects on the people around you, such as gaining trust and making new friends. It might even make you feel a lot better too.

The benefits of a smile
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He shouted for silence from his companions, and then turned to me with the widest and most radiant smile I’d ever seen.

‘Good mornings, great sirs!’ he greeted us. ‘Welcome in Bombay! You are wanting it cheap and excellent hotels, isn’t it?’

He stared straight into my eyes, that enormous smile not wavering. There was something in the disk of his smile—a kind of mischievous exuberance, more honest and more excited than mere happiness—that pierced me to the heart. It was the work of a second, the eye contact between us. It was just long enough for me to decide to trust him—the little man with the big smile. I didn’t know it then, but it was one of the best decisions of my life.

Gregory David Roberts. Shantaram.

Have you noticed that people who smile tend to be surrounded by a lot of people (and it’s not because they’re thinking, ‘What’s that wise guy smiling about?’)? The reason is that being in their company is pleasant. After all, you broadcast your emotional state from your facial expression. Some researchers have discovered links between how intensively people smile and the quality of their relationships, and even claim to be able to predict how long people will live from old photographs of people smiling.

Also, when you focus on smiling, you reduce your stress levels, encouraging more peaceful and relaxed sensations. By putting a smile on your face, you automatically begin to lift your mood. You don’t even have to be genuinely smiling – begin by just faking it and see what happens!

Shamash Alidina. Mindfulness for dummies.

Remain in the moment

We are all capable of living in Walter Mitty type worlds, of placing too much importance on what is going on in the mind rather than taking time to experience what is really happening in this moment.

The premise that we live in a constructed “virtual world” of our own making is of fundamental importance in mindfulness based stress reduction. Formal mindfulness techniques (body scan, sitting meditation, Hatha Yoga) are contextualized by statements such “everyone’s experience will be different and unique,” and a de-emphasis on generic goals such as relaxation or insight. Instead, the importance of “just noticing” events in the moment-by-moment flow of experience is emphasized, without trying to make anything in particular happen. Non-judgmental awareness is at the core of mindfulness practice, emphasizing clarity of perception and freedom from cognitive preconceptions.’

James D. Herbert and Evan M. Forman (eds.). Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Understanding and Applying the New Therapies.

A meditation on death

Author PD James, who died yesterday (27 November 2014), wrote often about the acceptance of death. It’s a difficult concept, and mindfulness meditation can help us see death as part of life.

‘We all die alone. We shall endure death as once we endured birth. You can’t share either experience.’

P.D. James. The Children of Men

Author PD James on the loneliness of death, and birth: ‘You can’t share either experience.’
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‘Life and death are but two faces of one reality. Once we realize that we will have the courage to encounter both of them. Now I see that if one doesn’t know how to die, one can hardly know how to live – because death is a part of life.

We must look death in the face, recognize and accept it, just as we look at and accept life.

When I was only 19 years old, I was assigned by an older monk to meditate on the image of a corpse in the cemetery. But I found it very hard to take and resisted the meditation. Now I no longer feel that way. Then I thought that such a meditation should be reserved for older monks. But since then, I have seen many young soldiers lying motionless beside one another, some only 13, 14, and 15 years old. They had no preparation or readiness for death. Now I see that if one doesn’t know how to die, one can hardly know how to live-because death is a part of life.

We must look death in the face, recognize and accept it, just as we look at and accept life. The Buddhist Sutra on Mindfulness speaks about the meditation on the corpse: meditate on the decomposition of the body, how the body bloats and turns violet, how it is eaten by worms until only bits of blood and flesh still cling to the bones, meditate up to the point where only white bones remain, which in turn are slowly worn away and turn into dust. Meditate like that, knowing that your own body will undergo the same process. Meditate on the corpse until you are calm and at peace, until your mind and heart are light and tranquil and a smile appears on your face. Thus, by overcoming revulsion and fear, life will be seen as infinitely precious, every second of it worth living. And it is not just our own lives that are recognized as precious, but the lives of every other person, every other person, every other being, every other reality. We can no longer be deluded by the notion that the destruction of others’ lives is necessary for our own survival. We see that life and death are but two faces of Life and that without both, Life is not possible, just as two sides of a coin are needed for the coin to exist.’

Thich Nhiit Hanh. The miracle of mindfulness. Translation by Mobi Ho.

Going back home

Some heroes are reluctant to go back to their old world after a dramatic life experience, while such a return can benefit both them and their society.

going back home
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‘The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss”? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes. The easy thing is to commit the whole community to the devil and retire again into the heavenly rock-dwelling, close the door, and make it fast. But if some spiritual obstetrician has meanwhile drawn the shimenawa across the retreat, then the work of representing eternity in time, and perceiving in time eternity, cannot be avoided.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

People who have survived dangerous environments have sometimes reported that they are hyperaware of everything around them. This acute sensitivity to the environment may have served a useful function at some time. For example, combat veterans may have been very sensitive to small sounds in order to stay alert for danger. But now they might use this sort of vigilance in everyday, noncombat situations … This can be an interesting sort of paradox in that many combat veterans we have talked with report that they never felt more alive than they did while in country. We want you to look at how that hyperawareness functions now in your life.

This acute awareness of everything is not what we mean by being mindful. In fact this is a kind of hyperarousal that happens in extreme stress and can be very hard on you, both psychologically and physically … For instance, if you interpret every small creak your house makes at night as a sign of danger, you’re not likely to get much sleep … Physically, we know that staying in a state of extreme stress and arousal can cause all types of health problems over time, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and other stress-related illness.

Victoria M. Follette and Jacqueline Pistorello. Finding Life Beyond Trauma: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Heal from Post-Traumatic Stress and Trauma-Related Problems.

* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Observe your river of thoughts

Take time to observe your thoughts, to listen to them and watch them as they pass by. Try not to get caught up in them, or let them pull you away into their stream.

Observe your river of thoughts
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He began to pay careful attention to his thoughts and ideas, and to admire them. For example, it occurred to him that if he were to die, the world in which he had been living would cease to exist. At first, this thought just flashed through his mind, but aware now of his inner originality, he did not let the thought escape as so many other ideas had done earlier. He grasped it, observed it, examined it from all sides.

He was walking along the river; now and again he would close his eyes and ask himself whether the river existed even when his eyes were closed. Of course, every time he opened his eyes the river continued to flow before him, but the remarkable thing was that this in no way proved it was there when Jaromil was not looking at it. This seemed extremely interesting to him, he spent the better part of a day on this experiment and then told Maman all about it.’

Milan Kundera. Life is Elsewhere. Translated by Peter Kussi.

‘As you observe thoughts or feelings, you’re separate from them in a sense, because you’re watching them. It’s like sitting on a riverbank as the water rushes by rather than being in the river itself. As you watch the water (emotion or thought) pass by, you may sometimes feel like you’ve been sucked into the river and washed downstream. But you’re not the river itself. You can simply step back out of the river again. De-centring is an important aspect of mindfulness.’

Shamash Alidina and Joelle Jane Marshall. Mindfulness Workbook for Dummies.