Observe Your Fear: A Mindfulness Offering
Yesterday, we learned to use the powerful tool of our imagination. Do you feel a bit more ready to take further action? Today, we will take the second preliminary step: observing your fear with mindfulness practice.
What Is Mindfulness?
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction), mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” To practice mindfulness, we intentionally bring our awareness to the experience at the present moment, without judging, analyzing, and evaluating it.
As we emphasized in previous lessons, the key to healing ourselves from phobia is to get used to putting ourselves in the fear-causing situation. The longer we can stay in it each time, the better. In this sense, mindfulness offers a practice that allows us to hang in the moment and allow the experience to unfold.
“Intentional attention” is like having a surveillance camera at the back of your mind, constantly observing what’s going on both internally and externally. In his “Neuroscience, Mindfulness & Mindfulness Meditation” seminar, University of Toronto professor Rob MacFadden explained that consciousness plays a direct role in harnessing neuroplasticity by altering previously automatic modes of neural firing and enabling new patterns of neural activation to occur. Where attention goes, neural firing occurs; where neurons fire, new connections can be made. By directing attention purposefully, we shape our brains, which is why mindfulness can result in emotion regulation and decrease amygdala activation. In fact, more neuroscience studies have shown that regular mindfulness practice can induce an increase of grey matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus.
Many people misunderstand that to practice mindfulness, you have to wipe out all thoughts. We don’t wipe out anything; instead, we allow the thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations to move through without trying to control them or understand them. When you are distracted, just gently return to your focus point. By doing so, you cultivate a non-attachment and non-action response to whatever arises within yourself. Below is a simple exercise you can try.
The “BEST” Exercise
“BEST” stands for Breathing Emotion Sensation Thought. In this exercise, you bring your attention to different focus points in sequence and observe them as is without trying to change anything. You can do this exercise any time, whether you are walking, sitting, taking the subway, or washing dishes.
Breathing: First, bring your awareness to your breath as you inhale and exhale at your normal rhythm. Focus on each breath and the space between breaths. Observe and allow your breath to move as it is.
Emotion: Now shift your attention to your feelings at the moment. Is there any emotion coming up? Start noticing each subtle feeling. Give it a name if an emotion emerges, without evaluating it. Observe how it feels and allow it to come and go.
Sensation: Again, move your awareness to your physical sensations. Notice your body temperature, muscle groups, and your posture. Is there tension, pain, or a pleasurable sensation? Stay with your body non-judgmentally and acknowledge each sensation.
Thought: Finally, pay attention to your thoughts, without thinking with them. Like listening to the radio, simply listen to the thoughts that are playing at the back of your mind.
It’s helpful to maintain this mindfulness practice as often as you can. According to Dr. MacFadden’s research, mindfulness encourages exposure to the experience, refraining from engaging in an internal activity toward it, bringing acceptance to a bodily and affective response. It trains your brain to be able to respond in a situation, rather than to react.
And here is today’s challenge for you: Find yourself in a safe distance from your phobic object or situation, but close enough to feel frightened. Stay in and observe your fear. Bring your intentional attention to the emerged feelings non-judgmentally, allowing the fear to be as it is. Meet your fear as if it’s an infant, embrace it, and allow it to come and go away. Stay there for as long as you can manage.
Tomorrow, we will go through the checklist to implement your self-treatment action plan.
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