Paul came to see me about his anger management problem.
It had already lost him one job due to a violent outburst with a co-worker. Now his relationship was in difficulties.
‘I’m angry all the time’ he said. ‘I can’t understand it. I feel like I’m always on edge, like a pressure cooker and it doesn’t take much to me to blow my lid!’
I taught Paul how to control his anger attacks with the STOP System.
It worked well and certainly stopped the outbursts, yet Paul was reporting he still had a lot of inner tension. Something was pressing his angry buttons and Paul did not have an explanation. We would need to dig a little deeper.
Paul was surprised when I suggested mindfulness as a way of helping.
His task was to use the breathing exercise in the STOP System as a gateway to mindful awareness. Once relaxed, he should stop counting the breath and simply observe the contents of his mind.
I suggested he imagined sinking down to the ocean bed where he could relax for a while and watch his thoughts swimming past like fish.
Paul promised to give it a try.
Back in the 1950s Jo Luft and Harry Ingham came up with a simple, yet very useful, tool for improving self awareness.
They named it the Johari’s window by joining together their own first names. It soon became popular as a tool for training in personal development, communication, relationships and group dynamics. It is also used for disclosure, feedback and information processing. The ‘window’ has 4 ‘panes’, each relating to awareness from four perspectives.
1: what is known by the person about him or herself and is also known by others. This is known as the open area, open self free area, free self or the arena.
2: what is unknown by the person about him or herself but is known to others. This is called the blind area, blind self or blind spot.
3: what the person knows about him or herself that others do not know. This is the hidden area, hidden self, avoided area, avoided self or the facade.
4: what is both unknown by the person about him or herself and is also unknown by others. This is the unknown area or unknown self and relates closely to the deep subconscious mind.
By using feedback from others and self awareness, the aim is to increase the open area, or arena, by reducing all the others. One of the most powerful ways to increase self awareness is through mindfulness.
A riddle wrapped in a mystery
There has been a lot of debate about the nature of mindfulness. It has become something of ‘a riddle wrapped up in a mystery’.
From the outside looking in, it can certainly seem a little mystical. Many might imagine somebody sitting cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed and contemplating their own navel. There is no doubt, the longer you practice mindfulness the more profound, and mystical, the experience can be.
But for many, mindfulness is simply attention with intention and an awesome tool for training your brain.
A beginner might start by focusing on, or following, the breath, or focusing on a sound, or a sensation. They might walk mindfully, wash up mindfully or even eat a square of chocolate mindfully, engaging all the senses and really savouring the experience in the present moment.
Of course, if you do this, you will soon become aware of your thoughts, which may distract you.
This is normal.
Some believe that mindfulness is about emptying the mind. But it is the nature of the mind to think, and thoughts will be present. The object of mindfulness is not to be absent or empty of thoughts, but to remain detached from those thoughts; simply observing them and constantly bringing your mind back to the chosen focus of your attention.
My brain is full up
So often, my clients complain of racing, frightening or distracting thoughts.
They feel like they have ADHD. They talk about a kind of shiny object syndrome, are easily distracted, lack concentration and know they are less than efficient at work because of it.
They believe they have no control over the workings of their own mind. They don’t think their thoughts; their thoughts almost seem to think them. And these thoughts, if negative or angry can pour petrol on the emotional brain, fuelling the fires within.
The STOP System
‘Top-down’ exercises like the STOP System are excellent for thought stopping or interrupting patterns of behaviour. When we get into the habit of using informal mindfulness practices like ‘STOP’ as a kind of mindfulness in action, we become better at responding to life’s triggers rather than reacting.
Formal, seated mindfulness, on the other hand, is more of a ‘bottom-up’ exercise; potentially opening up the fourth pane of Johari’s window, raising awareness and revealing some of the secrets of the unknown self that collect in the dark corners of the subconscious mind.
Playing Pooh sticks with your thoughts
Like trying to herd cats, closing your eyes, sitting still and focusing your attention on just one thing, can feel impossible at first.
However, constantly bringing the mind home; observing your thoughts in a non-judgemental and detached way, not only has the power to raise self-awareness but actually trains the brain, enhancing the executive control of the prefrontal cortex.
Just five minutes can be enough, or three, or two, although some will sit for an hour or more. But, it is not so much the length of practice but the regularity of the practice which builds the psychological muscle, eventually rewiring the brain for greater self regulation.
An enlightened man
And what of Paul? He returned for his next session an enlightened man.
He had been shocked and surprised to observe that many of his swimming fish were made up of very angry thoughts indeed. He had written some down for me:
‘Who does he think he is?
Take him down a peg or two
Trying to get one over on me
It’s not fair
I’ll show him.’
It had not taken Paul long to realise that most of this was to do with his father and related to things that had happened long ago, which he had simply not let go of.
And, every time one of these thoughts crossed his mind, his hot buttons were pressed, releasing adrenaline into his bloodstream, affecting his emotional state and keeping him tense and agitated.
Finally, we were able to focus our work on closing those still-open files on his father and Paul was at last a happy (and calm) man.
‘Whatever the present moment contains,
accept it as if you had chosen it.
Always work with it, not against it’