The Mindfulness Spiral

In Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) we learn about the “downward spiral” – when we are operating on autopilot, we are vulnerable to being caught up in a self-perpetuating cycle of reactivity that, for some people, can lead to depression and anxiety. The more times we go around in this cycle the more deeply ingrained, reflexive and rapid it becomes – a recipe for relapse.

This is how the spiral works – when we encounter a stimulus, a feeling tone arises that is either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. While we will often ignore a stimulus that is neutral, a strong feeling tone will easily capture our attention if we aren’t mindful of it. We will fixate on it and begin to have all kinds of thoughts about our experience. These thoughts lead to emotions, which lead to a reaction. We either tend to grasp after or cling to what is wanted or we push away or fight against what is unwanted, or all of the above.

If our actions are unskillful, we may get some temporary relief, but over the long term, they only serve to increase suffering. The cycle begins anew, but now we are even more sensitized to the internal and external cues that might lead to pain. Our tolerance for discomfort and ambiguity is reduced. In our efforts to avoid difficulty, our experiential world shrinks – and along with it, opportunities for connection and joy.

Fortunately, training in mindfulness can help disrupt this painful pattern. A self-perpetuating and beneficial upward spiral gains momentum, cultivating greater equanimity and wellbeing. Each step of the way requires practicing a new way of relating with experience. The mindful upward spiral works like this:

  • Since we’re mindful, we’re more immediately aware of phenomena of the mind accompanying or in anticipation of an experience
  • We’re open to exploration of this phenomena because we are familiar with our inner landscape and feel relatively confident in working with it
  • This early awareness, before our emotions become overwhelming, allows us to uncouple our interpretations from sense data and unpack our experience, so that we see things more clearly
  • We’re able to meet experience with self-compassion and other beneficial attitudes that we’ve cultivated through practice
  • We can more easily direct and sustain our attention where its needed most
  • This creates space for choice making and wise responding
  • Each repetition of the upward spiral creates additional confidence, willingness, #resilience and insight
  • Our world expands and we experience greater opportunities for joy and connection

Being awake and open to internal and external experience, we are aware of stimuli and associated feeling tones as they arise. We see phenomena clearly and meet them with a beginner’s mind, patience, compassion, and other helpful attitudes. Having trained our minds, we are better able to decide where we place our attention and we can shift it to another object of focus when it makes sense to do so. We understand that we are not our experiences, which allows us to take things less personally. We create space to observe experience objectively and make choices about how to respond with greater wisdom, according to our highest values. We are not attached to outcomes, understanding that our intentions are the only thing that are truly within our control. Our observations bring insight into what is beneficial and what is harmful, which gives us the courage and willingness to be even more curious, open and welcoming of experience. In this way, we encounter additional opportunities for connection and joy that we may have otherwise missed. Directly experiencing its benefits, we naturally lean even further into this way of being.

Lean into the rhythm of the breath
The temperature of the air on your skin
And the way in which your body feels in this very moment

Lean in

Lean into the sounds around you
The level of light that’s gracing your eyes
And the pace of your life-giving heartbeat

Allow the more subtle sensations
To dance you fully into this present moment

Leaving the stories behind
Of who you are
Why you are here
And who you think you’re supposed to be

Lean in

Lean into the current state of your emotions
The fluctuations in the mind
And the way in which it truly feels within the depths of your heart’s center

To truly lean in
Takes great courage
To truly lean in
Can be wildly uncomfortable and beautiful simultaneously

But it’s perhaps one of the greatest gifts
We can bestow upon our sweet selves

There’s a secret passage way
Whose door creeks open
To those who dare greatly and fully lean in

To what is
To truth
To stillness and ease
To what it means to simply be.

Alexa Torontow, Lean In

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