Recall a time when you felt really alive. What were you doing? Who were you with? How did it feel in your body? Most likely it was a time when you’d thrown yourself in the deep end somehow. Doing something far outside the norm. Maybe it was having an adventure in a foreign land. Or performing on a stage. Or really nailing a job interview. Those highs we feel, that sense of growing, of transforming as part of those kinds of experiences, are some of the most valued moments of our lives. We were at the edge of what we could do and then we did it, expanding our whole sense of self. They infuse us with a sense of meaning. They often feel as though they are forming part of our identity even.
So it’s a shame that these moments are so rare for many of us. How often are you prepared to go to your edge places? To really place yourself in a situation you know will challenge you to your limits in some way. Once a week? Once a month? Once a year? How often would you like it to be? What holds you back?
The demands of daily work and home life can feel all-consuming of our energy and attention. Bills and birthdays. And in the midst of all of that to try to contrive these moments of challenge or breaking of habits can frankly feel just like an unnecessary faff. But then two, three, four years fly by in a whirlwind and suddenly you realise just how important making that extra time and effort can be.
The real reason we might not be quite so up for challenging ourselves in new ways is that it’s not just time but a question of physical and psychological tolerance too. It’s the embarrassment and shyness you might need to get over to go to that dance class you’d secretly like to try. Or the loneliness you might need to let yourself feel instead of heading out to the bar. Or the way your familiar, comfortable narrative about the world might be turned upside down by entertaining someone else’s point of view.
What habits do you have you’d like to change? Or in which areas of your life do you feel stale or stuck Whether you’re one for New Year’s resolutions or not, this time of year can be a nice opportunity to shift away old habitual patterns and breathe fresh air into stale routines.
In Tibetan Buddhism on the New Year, rather than setting resolutions, the monks set intentions. These intentions are written with an emphasis on the process of change rather than a particular outcome. For example, rather than aiming to run 10k, the intention would be around the decision making process on what, when and how much to exercise. Combining our intention with our attention in this way is a powerful driver for change.
Once you bring this kind of process into consciousness, the very real question soon arises: how much discomfort can we tolerate? Transformation is never easy, so how can we find ways to support ourselves so that we can continue to grow and develop?
Set your intention
Be as specific and process-driven as possible. One visual prompt around making choices might be visualising a switch in your brain which was once a little broken, looking sad and worn, and used to make one kind of choice but which you’ve now fixed to be all strong and shiny and now makes a different kind of choice.
Every time a choice like that comes up you could picture that switch, working well, directing the kind of decision you really want to make. How does it feel at times when you know you’re making a decision which conflicts with your values, versus times when you know you’re making a decision you can be pleased with yourself for?
Prepare your body, and your heart
Create as much support for yourself as possible around a particular challenge. If you’re changing your patterns around movement, make sure you nourish yourself in as many other ways as you can, with good food, rest and so on. Take on the challenge from a place of ease and joy as much as possible.
Acknowledge the discomfort
At certain moments throughout any challenge, discomfort is bound to arise. See if you can allow yourself to feel that discomfort for a moment without pushing it away. Become curious about the sensations that come up for you. Explore them in different ways. Describe them out loud. As strong as the sensations of discomfort may feel, bear in mind they are not all you feel. Broaden out your field of feeling to include other sounds and sensations of the moment, such as your breathing or parts of your body that feel ok.
Crowd out discomfort with positive sensation
After a while bring in some positive feelings around the discomfort. Maybe just feeling the reassurance that you are still breathing, your heart is still beating and that you are basically ok right now. Or perhaps focussing on the outcome of your challenge, what it means for you and others and how that will feel. Start to really dial up the intensity on these feelings. Maybe the feelings of discomfort will fall away entirely or maybe they will stay but not feel as all-consuming as they did before.
Take time during and after any challenge to really thank yourself for the energy you have put in. Notice how good it feels, perhaps how it strengthens your self-esteem and ability to place trust in yourself. Check in at intervals following the challenge to continue to acknowledge and reinforce the psychological impact of your good deeds.
Now that you have this technique, see if you can set yourself regular challenges to continue to grow and inspire yourself in new ways. Search out these opportunities, and enjoy the process!
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Natalie hosts thorough 10-week ‘Train your heart’ mindfulness and compassion interactive courses online on Tuesday evenings. She is a yoga, meditation and mindfulness teacher and an advocate for personal, corporate and social change for the well-being of society and the environment. She left a successful, ten year corporate career to follow these passions. Every month she will explore how yoga and meditation can help us wake up to the full richness and potential of our lives by cultivating a deep compassion and connection with ourselves and others.
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