[Any moment of difficulty, any moment at all, can be a cue to practice our mindfulness, self-compassion, connecting to resources, and resilience. The story and exercise below are adapted from Chapter 16: Using Reflection to Identify Options in Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being. May they prove useful to you and yours.]
My client Shirley told me this story about preparing her taxes last spring. She began early in the morning, and within thirty minutes got caught in an old mindset: “This is confusing; this is overwhelming; this isn’t workable. I don’t know what I’m doing; I never was good at numbers; I can’t do this!”
Because Shirley had been practicing a form of compassionate reflection for more than a year, she noticed her state of mind. That noticing broke the automatic pattern of her reactivity. She noticed her annoyance at her state of mind. She quickly realized that being caught in this state wasn’t helpful. She also realized that she didn’t have to stay caught in the old mindset now.
Shirley took a walk around the block to clear her mind, came back to her desk, and took another five minutes to create a different mindset for herself. Could she use preparing her taxes as an opportunity to practice? Shirley brought her mindful empathy to bear on the issue, noticing every moment that she stayed in her wise mind-open-minded and curious about how her mind was responding to the task of preparing her taxes. She noticed and named moments when she was learning something new-a changed rule about depreciation, a better way to categorize her expenses. She also noticed and named moments when her mind began to contract in the face of something she didn’t know.
She did call her neighbor Tom, a retired accountant, for advice three times that afternoon, but she managed to finish her taxes by dinnertime. She also noticed her sense of pride in mastering the task that had threatened to overwhelm her that morning, enjoying the deepening trust in herself and her practice; she noticed her gratitude that she noticed her initial patterns of response and took them as a cue to practice. The noticing and naming kept her prefrontal cortex functioning well and brought her out of confusion into clarity.
Exercise to Notice Cues to Practice
- Remember or recognize a current situation in which you might be triggered to respond from an automatic conditioned pattern:
- it’s after midnight and your spouse hasn’t called or come home
- you receive a notice from the IRS in the mail
- you’re due for an annual physical checkup or visit to the dentist
- you just ran a red light;
- your boss dismissed as irrelevant a project you had worked hard on and felt was significant.
- Use your mindfulness practice to pause, become present, notice your inner reactions to the situation even now. Put words to your inner experience as best as you can: the agitation of “uh, oh!” The anger of “Not again!” The worry of “What the heck do I do now?”
- Bring some self-compassion to yourself: “Ouch! This is a hard moment. This is painful! It’s so hard being a human being.”
- Practice noticing, reflection, and discerning what you are feeling, thinking, and doing before you decide what to do next.
- See if you can shift your perspective to that of your Wiser Self, “what would my Wiser Self be able to do here?” Or think of the possible response of a trusted role model, “what might Sally or James do if they were in my shoes? What would Sally or James even say to me in this moment?” Consult with a friend/colleague/neighbor for their sense of what they might do in this moment.
- Notice if there’s a difference between what your Wiser Self or role model might say and your initial automatic survival response. Notice if that difference shifts your perceptions, interpretations, feelings, or thoughts about yourself. Notice which states allow your choices of response to be more open and flexible.
- Practice a new response. And let yourself learn in that moment that any moment can indeed be a cue to practice shifting gears and choosing a new response. Over time, using the moments of our lives as cues to practice, we are rewiring our brains for more resilience.