Mindfulness for the Highly Reactive


Me We ReflectionI adore paradoxes, experiences that seem contradictory on the surface but provide clarity at a deeper level.  I stop everything when I notice them and search for truths in their tension… which is how I came to discover a pre-K (Yes, pre-kindergarten) approach to mindfulness.

In 2007, I participated in a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course for professional and personal reasons:  I needed an evidence-based treatment protocol for a research grant I was writing and I wanted a non-pharmacological intervention to reduce my blood pressure.  Over the next two months I learned that I did not have an affinity for sitting meditation.  My blood pressure went up every time I sat.  As I simply observed the unfolding of my experience without reactivity, I noticed that my body, mind and emotions were reacting like crazy.  My instructor suggested patience as my blood pressure increased, yet greater awareness did not lead to a healthier physiological response.  Did highly reactive people like me need a stronger foundation to support meditation?

I changed the focus on my grant:  Were there active ingredients within the mindful sitting discipline that could be used as an alternative to sitting meditation?

I spent time reading about mindfulness from its Eastern and Western perspectives, searching for concepts in common. I found brain science that supported the effectiveness of the commonalities, which informed the development of my pre-K mindful wellness and well-being curriculum.

  1. Attention: When mindful, we heighten our awareness of “what is happening” inside and around us at THIS moment in time… paying particular attention to our inner dialogue.  We teach how to get out of autopilot functioning, direct the spotlight of our attention, and face whatever we encounter without unnecessary suffering.
  2. Attitude: When mindful, we seek transparency about “how we react” to whatever we encounter… paying particular attention to familiar self-criticism, fault-finding and blaming (ourselves, others, and events). We teach how to employ a heavy dose of self-compassion and positivity to reduce our understandable predisposition to defensiveness.
  3. Aim: When mindful, we build our capacity to orient to “what we want to accomplish”… paying particular attention to the person we want to BE and the life that matters most to us.  We teach how to discern our proximate and ultimate reasons for being who we are and living the life we want to live, including how we want to contribute to others.

Our brain is highly influenced by what it has done in the past.  Its habits become our default way to function.  Reactivity begets further reactivity.  Left alone, we miss the opportunities to be mindful when we need it, when we feel pressured by life’s obligations, alienated or hurt by others, rendered powerless by in pain or other life crises.  In the past seven years, our roughly 550 participants have come to class in search of ways to meet NOW needs.  They have not wanted to become proficient at meditation, nor have they wanted to change the way they spend their free time.  They wanted a calm inner mindset and a life worth living.   Our research lab recorded gain on many measures which were similar to MBSR.  This included biometric measures of heart health and computer-assessed capacity to focus.  My blood pressure normalized when I guided my attention, attitude and aim.

The data from my lab suggest that there are many mindfulness practices that can shift what takes place in our body and mind, to include “micro-practices” that do not involve sitting meditation.  With intentional daily use, they also disrupt our brain’s default response to its usual cues and increase our capacity to respond to what is in the HERE and NOW.  Before we rise from bed in the morning, we can take two to three minutes to become aware of how our body feels, accepting whatever we find without critique.  When waiting in line, we use the free time to become aware of our inner dialogue and how we react to the stories attached.  When stopped at a red light, we take advantage of the free time to scan how our body feels, relaxing any unnecessary tension in our muscles.

Mindful micro-practices become a discipline when we incorporate them into our day, seizing opportunities to practice in everyday occurrences.  We face life’s pleasant and unpleasant moments to become aware of the content of our Attention.  We uncover the quality of our Attitude to see how it shapes our experience. We define and take charge of our self-care in order to envision our Aim and move toward it. I believe there is something wise and right and noble about accepting how we are NOW while aiming for how we want to be.  There is another mindful way to build a wiser brain, even in highly reactive Beginners.

© Copyright 2015 Maria Hunt


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