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I’m blogging about my experience of a series of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy sessions. You can read the posts in order starting here.

A word about gentleness and curiosity

Being gentle and curious with ourselves and with our minds is a central part of MBCT. This struck a chord with me. We often tell other people not to be so hard on themselves, to take things slowly and treat themselves gently – but it’s much harder to take this approach towards ourselves. This week, we explored how MBCT encourages us to bring a gentle and curious awareness to our sensations and emotions - encouraging acceptance rather than of avoidance or attachment.

"Let it be" - what do we mean by acceptance?

I always thought that the song "Let it be" was telling us to "leave it alone" - but actually I think it was telling us to "Let it (just) be". This does not mean being resigned to negative experiences, feelings or sensations but instead to actively and intentionally cultivate acceptance of whatever it is.

Liam read us a poem that he said he felt emphasised how this acceptance differs from resignation. It was called The Guest House (A Poem by Jelaluddin Rumi) . The idea that we should meet every experience "at the door laughing" and not force any to turn away is suggesting quite a different relationship to our experiences than we are used to - especially for those of us with depression.

The mouse in the maze

To help us understand more about this focus on acceptance, Liam told us about some research that was done on approach and avoidance. Participants were shown one of two pictures of a maze. Each of the mazes had a mouse in the middle, but only one of the pictures showed a piece of cheese at the maze exit. The other showed a picture of a bird of prey overhead. The bird was described as ‘ready to swoop down and capture the mouse in its talons at any moment’.

The task for both groups was to draw a line from the mouse to the exit of the maze - but they had different reasons for doing so. All the participants managed to complete the task in less than two minutes - but those who were completing the task to avoid the bird showed an after effect of vigilance and caution for things going wrong. All of these participants showed less creativity and flexibility in response to new tasks than the participants who were completed the maze to approach the cheese.

The link was then made to how we manage experiences. This experiment suggests that an attitude of avoidance, trying to push away and avoid negative experiences actually almost 'shuts down' our minds, making us less creative and flexible in our attempts to deal with them. Instead we should approach the experience with curiosity, to explore what it feels like in the moment.

A rustle in the undergrowth

It sounds very counterintuitive - we all have a tendency to distinguish between wanted and unwanted experiences and react differently to each. Another way of helping us to understand the different kind of reactions we can have to unwanted experiences was described in terms of the "fight or flight" mode of dealing with threats - a term that we are all familiar with.

When, in our daily lives, we feel a "rustle in the undergrowth" of our mind - a depressed thought, a bad feeling, some sense things might be starting again - we react mentally in the same way we would physically if we heard a big cat rustle dangerously in the undergrowth. We leap into the fight or flight avoidance mode - the part of the brain that feels under threat kicks in.

Our brain can't distinguish between external and internal 'threats' - they are all presented as thoughts. We are compelled to try and solve the problem - using rumination (that doesn't work). And in avoidance mode our thoughts are less flexible and lead quicker to the 'negative spiral' we've discussed previously.

Instead, we should try and approach the 'rustle' or the negative experience. By becoming more aware of the thought or feeling and trying to explore what it feels like in the moment using a breathing space meditation, we can stop seeing it as a threat and therefore stop our inflexible avoidance reaction. We put ourselves in a much better position to deal with it.

I think this is something that it is quite hard to do if you come to it cold, without having spent a number of weeks practicing the skills of mindfulness and exploring these kinds of concepts. I could understand why we had spent so much of the first weeks trying to build these skills.

It interested me the amount of metaphor and poetry used to try and get some of these concepts across to us. These helped to get past the problems of insufficient language to really describe and share a concept.

Next time we’ll be thinking in more detail about our relationship with thoughts. This is really important - thoughts are how we experience the world. It is through our thoughts about the world that we interact with it. Because some thoughts reflect reality - "that car is red", "there is a lamppost", "I need to lift up my foot to step over that rock" - it is easy to think that all thoughts are facts - including those negative automatic ones we have.

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