1996 Journal of Reality Therapy
Confronting Stress: Integrating Control theory and Mindfulness to Cultivate our inner resources through Mind \ Body Healing methods
By becoming a more integral part of our healing process and getting to know yourself on a deeper level can lead us to understand the reasons why we choose our in-effective organized behaviors to deal with stressful situations. We will examine how mindfulness, an eastern meditation technique, can be used to increase our utilization of Control theory. Learning to spend more time observing our thoughts and behaviors in a non-judgmental way, and confront the fears that we have repressed in our body and mind may cause us pain in the short run. On the other hand, carrying these fears inside us can cause more long term health effects. After we have learned to slowly bring in our fears and observe the behaviors we have used to repress them we can learn how to stop the conflict within us and transform and heal our mind and body.
Knowing others is intelligence;
Knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
Mastering yourself is true power.
-Lao Tzu, (Tao Te Ching, pg. 33)
How a person defines stress is only what they perceive what “Stresses” them out. Not only do different issues affect others in various ways, how we deal with stress is unique to each individual. We first must be concerned with educating ourselves about the feelings and behaviors associated with stress, in lieu of what actually stresses us out. We will all have a certain amount of stress in our lives. The practice of stress reduction techniques is to learn how to observe and be aware of the behaviors and thoughts that will arise under stressful situations. Our goal is not to get rid of all the stress in our life. We want to experience each moment as it unfolds, and understand the stress so we can have more control over choosing our behaviors when we are “Stressed out.”
Have you ever heard that certain individuals have greater coping capacities to deal with stress than others? Or in certain instances, people say that they thrive on stress and work harder when they are under pressure? If those persons thrive on stress, and their is a negative connotation in our society associated with the word stress, is this really “Stress” that they are actually feeling? Or it is a positive internal energy that promotes motivation and initiative? Why is it that one person breaks down when stress has occupied their mind and body, and the other is actually being more productive? For the sake of argument, I am going to assume that the feelings, thoughts, actions, and physiological affects of stress are unfavorable, and most people would like to have a certain amount of control over the stress in their everyday lives.
I believe that more people would benefit from stress reduction techniques by being concerned with increasing their awareness of themselves. It is not to say that we do not know who we are, but it is a closer examination of our internal thoughts and behaviors. If we seek to gain greater control over our lives it is not necessary to look outside of ourselves to find the answers. All the information we need to know about ourselves is there inside us. We may have not looked close enough to understand the roots of our internal thoughts and behaviors that manifest when we are stressed out. By actually decreasing the amount of thoughts that filter into our mind each and every second of the day we are increasing our ability to focus on the present moment, the essence of life we tend to miss.
Getting to know yourself on a deeper level is sometimes painful. It is necessary though to get to the root of why we choose to use our ineffective organized behaviors in a stressful situation. Stress Education is a pre-requisite to learning “Stress Reduction.” We are educating ourselves, by increasing our knowledge about ourselves. Are we a person who represses stress? Do we tend to over dramatize our stress externally? Do we shut down and avoid a situation because it is to painful to think about it or do we increase our physical exercise to alleviate the symptoms of stress related affects hoping to drive them away?
In this article I will give a synopsis of how the eastern philosophies have had such a great impact on the way in which we perceive ourselves as part of the healing process. From Taoism to Buddhism to Control theory, the theme is that we need to understand how we choose our behaviors, and how we can effectively meet our needs. Our thinking and perceptions can be transformed in a “stressful” situation by developing control over the mind. Integrating Mindfulness into our understanding of Control theory can facilitate a clear and objective mind to understand, create, and re-organize our behaviors. Mindfulness becomes the bridge that crosses the gap from mere existence to living each moment to it’s fullest by creating an understanding of how we become attached to the perceptions of our thoughts.
What can you do for yourself FIRST?
“Do not seek yourself outside of yourself”
Ralph Waldo Emerson – Self Reliance
“Progress is up to the individual, it depends on his or her understanding and resolute application of the will, so self-reliance is our only recourse.” (Smith, 1991, p. 122.)
In stressful times it is habitual to consult with our support system to comfort, offer advice, or just listen to an issue that is causing us pain. Our support system may include family members, friends, co-workers, or medical professionals. On the other hand, if we are able turn our focus inward upon ourselves for understanding, we may find we are our own best support resource. Is it so urgent that we need to look to others to comfort our pain immediately? Or can we ask ourselves, “What can I do for myself first.” We have the ability to comfort our own afflictions while by spending time observing our feelings and thoughts, and getting back in touch with yourself.
Solitude is one fear we may have to contend with while spending time with ourselves and gaining control over these thoughts. When you invite all your feelings in, you are there alone with all your internal formations to seek understanding and to begin to untie the knots within yourself.
By self-examination you empower yourself to be in-control of the therapy. You are beginning to manage your feelings by using the freedom you have to choose when you want to consult with other support resources other than yourself. Outside consultation is acted upon without the urgency and fear of helplessness. You have tapped into the true consciousness of your own mind to alleviate the pain by bringing it into your awareness, and transforming each and every feeling by understanding how it developed and attached itself within your mind and body.
Stress may externalize itself in many forms to each individual. Whether the stress is manifesting from work related issues, family, past experiences, or future concerns, they all have a way of creating knots inside our mind and body that cause us to worry or feel unsettled. These knots cause us to be trapped within a cycle of using ineffective behaviors that keep us returning to unresolved issues because we have not confronted or let go of the pain.
What would happen if you decided to confront, or bring into your awareness your afflictions that have created you pain in your life. Would they cause you more pain? This is quite possible in the short run, but the long term effects of carrying unresolved issues around have been proven to cause much more serious illness. Bringing these issues into your awareness may cause you more pain in the short run because you have spent so much time and energy repressing them. Then you confront this issue and all the pain that you have worked so hard at repressing filters into your body and mind. Practicing mindfulness will help you unfold the underlying thoughts and behaviors that have been helping you squelch these issues, and find a way to live with them, and extinguish the fear within your mind. By continual examination and mindfulness you have brought this fear closer and closer to you and observed all the actions, feelings, and physiological effects that you have been using to push this fear away. Now that you have unlocked the fear of facing this issue you begin to re-organize your behaviors because you have increased your ability to evaluate that what you have been doing has actually been causing you more pain and anxiety in the long run.
CONTROL THEORY AND NON-ATTACHMENT
At times we ruminate over our problems and we become attached to them by obsessively thinking about them over and over. When a person becomes rapt in thought about one issue, the dilemma has taken control over ones mind. Mindfulness has discontinued and attachment unto this issue makes it more difficult for a person to change his or her behaviors to unlock the conflict. We do not want to become self absorbed on the issue by thinking about it so much that we become increasingly more frustrated. We must understand that the point of meditation is to observe without judgment. If you find yourself over-consumed by certain issues we must find a way to develop a clear mind. This presence of mind will pave the way to increase our ability to change our in-effective organized behaviors that keep us from liberating our perceptions of this issue.
Eugen Herrigel, who wrote, Zen in the Art of Archery, explains how in his life lessons with the Master he learns non-attachment through the art of archery. He spent six years waiting for the “Right shot” to hit the target. And so came the day when it finally happened, and the master replied, “What are you thinking of?”, “You know already that you should not grieve over bad shots; Learn now not to rejoice over the good ones. You must free yourself from the buffetings of pleasure and pain, and learn to rise above them in easy equanimity.” The master’s point here is that we should not be anymore attached to the good feelings that we have than the bad ones we experience. This will lead us to develop a clear and non-judgmental mind.
Non- attachment should not be confused with detachment. When we try to be detached from something in our lives we are staying aloof from it, and do not want to get involved. We repress it and do not want to deal with it because we are afraid of it. Non- attachment means that we are able to let things come and let them go without trying to control our feelings. We accept them by paying attention to them as they arise, but we do not become attached. We know when to let go to be fully present to the next experience in our life.
In Control theory there are three types of sensations that are associated with our thoughts and feelings, they are: Yellow, a positive feeling, Green, a neutral feeling, and Red, a negative feeling. When we are practicing Mindfulness and we experience a Yellow, Green, or Red feeling enter our mind and body, we are completely non-judgmental about whether it is a good, bad or neutral thought. When you feel good you just observe “I am now feeling a positive feeling,” or “I am now feeling a neutral feeling” or “I am now feeling a negative feeling,” This is the simplicity of Mindfulness. On the other hand, once we become attached to the feeling we start to lose control over our actions, and the feeling may become more intense. In Control theory terms we are being driven by our feeling wheel because of our choice of behaviors that we believe that will help us gain control of ourselves. The Red (negative) feelings are filtering into our control system, and we become attached to them by continuing to use our organized behaviors. We now are unable to let go and be non-judgmental towards the feelings, which consequently constrain our ability to create and re-organize new more effective behaviors. By implementing mindfulness techniques we become non-attached by identifying, and observing the actual feelings that are associated with our behavioral system in the present moment, and bring them into our awareness.
For example, during my summer vacation I had been planning a trip when I was on vacation to go Concord MA to visit Henry David Thoreau’s home that he lived in for two years in the woods at Walden Pond. When I got there the parking lot was full, and the attendant said that the lot would re-open at 2:00 p.m. I was upset, but not completely let down. I said to myself, “O.K., I will get an Ice cream and return at 2:00 p.m; it is only a couple of hours.” I then returned at 2:00 and the line to the parking lot was now a mile long. I became angry and felt a sense of urgency to get into the parking lot. I was grasping on to the steering wheel so tightly as if the line was going to move any faster, and I would soon be in Walden woods. The line was not moving and my anger was increasing steadily. I became so attached to having to see Thoreau’s house on this day that I pushed all my feelings aside and in my mind began a one man quest for the parking lot at Walden Pond. I was so consumed by my feelings I could not begin to think to move to my thinking wheel, and re-organize my thoughts. It did not occur to me that I had three more weeks off for the summer, and I could come back at another time. I was angry, frustrated and seething by the heat, the parking lot attendant who said the parking lot would be re-opened, and all the people who decided they were going to Walden Pond on this day.
After a short while, I took a few seconds to ask myself what I was doing. I finally was aware that I had not been practicing mindfulness, and began to deliberate on the situation. I was not pushing the feelings away anymore, but I brought them into my consciousness and accepted that they have arisen in my mind and body. I observed in my body anxiety, frustration, and heat. I said to myself, “Right now I am feeling anger in myself, I also feel frustration, and I am hot.” I then again repeated these feelings and physiological events that were occurring. Each time that I reiterated my behaviors the strength of the anxiety, frustration, and the urgency to get into the parking lot started to diminish.
My point here is what would have happened if I did not restore the situation by being mindful of my thoughts and behaviors? How long would I have been attached to these feelings in my mind and body, and why was it so important for me to see Thoreau’s house that day? If I had friends or children in the car I may have been yelling, and demonstrating my frustration, and they would have been affected by my inability to gain control over this situation.
In our Quality world we all have different pictures and wants for meeting our needs for Belonging, Power, Fun, and Freedom. This may have not been important to others that day, but to me it was my way of having Fun, and if I did not see Thoreau’s house I was not having Fun.
In my opinion, the ability to identify the frustration signal is a principal component in mindfulness. What we do next is the key to our development as a person who exhibits control over their choice of behaviors. Mindfulness heightens our awareness of what we are doing in the present moment, and then we are more effective at looking at, and evaluating our behaviors. It is certainly difficult to train the mind to deal with the day to day stress, but if we are not careful we create internal formations, and start to repress our negative feelings. Understanding Control theory and Mindfulness can help us deal with stress by confronting and re-organizing our behaviors. The practice of mindfulness assists us in understanding the relationship between our mind and body.
“Our conscious reasoning mind knows that negative feelings such as anger, fear, and regret are not wholly acceptable to ourselves or society, so it finds ways to repress them, to push them into remote areas of our consciousness in order to forget them. Because we want to avoid suffering, we create defense mechanisms that deny the existence of these negative feelings, and give us the impression we have peace within ourselves. But our internal formations are always looking for ways to manifest as destructive images, feelings, thoughts, words, or behavior”
(Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991 p. 65)
Internal formations are those unpleasant thoughts in our mind which have clung themselves into our unconsciousness and caused us anxiety. They have tied knots in our mind and body and they have been repressed because we either were afraid to confront them, or we did not have any other method of resolving the conflict within ourselves. These formations will eventually manifest themselves in our behaviors and thoughts sometime within our lives. We may not know the reasons we feel the way we do because understanding has not been investigated. The longer we choose to let these knots dwell they will tighten themselves over time and it will be difficult to undo. By looking into our inner most fears we examine them one by one. We may have been carrying many repressed thoughts in ourselves for a long time and never have attempted to unveil our mask that has covered our true face.
I do not propose that it is time to all of a sudden let all of your fears out into the open. You may start by peeking into these fears that are tucked within your consciousness, and just observe them and see what they do by being completely non-judgmental about each feeling or thought, whether good or bad. You may realize this isn’t so bad and want to look more, or deeper with the same intentions.
Recognizing and accepting our afflictions seizes their destructive nature, and enhancing our perspicacity of our afflictions is the key to loosening the knots within ourselves. The fears you have now unveiled are not as heavy as they were at one time because we are no longer spending energy pushing them away. We must realize that the fears have not changed in themselves, but we have looked and observed them and now have more control over them than we did before. The difference now is of understanding, and we are confident we can face these issues and choose behaviors that will help us to move beyond the attachment.
The pain or thoughts may still exist with the same intensity, but we now can learn to live with it and stop fighting what we fear. What we are not afraid of anymore is all the feelings associated with the issue if it enters our mind. We have confronted these feelings and are in more control over what we do if they arise again.
“Expressing anger is not the best way to deal with it. In expressing anger we might be practicing or rehearsing it, and making it stronger in the depth of our consciousness.”
(Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991 p. 59)
Expressing anger is the first reaction that most people tend to use to deal with stress. When we express our anger we get the false impression that we are venting our anger and this is good for us. Even when we use physical exercise we may have the perception that the stress will go away after we have worked our bodies to exhaust and dampen the feelings inside us. If we are using methods that are pushing the stress away, we are only going to be relieved of the stress in the short term. Eventually, once we have time to think and rest, the stress will manifest itself once again. What has occupied our mind as a stressful issue will attach itself until we have understood all the factors that are causing ourselves to feel “Stressed out”.
I believe that there are two ways we can express our anger. Internally, or internally and externally at the same time. Which one is the most effective way to deal with our conflicts? Neither of them! Have you known a person who is always blissful, and outgoing only to find that they are really unhappy, and can not understand how they can always wear a face that displays complete balance? This is an example of expressing anger internally. The person exhibits little or no expression of unhappiness. This may imply that the person is in denial, or they are using this behavior to deal with the affliction. The conflicts are therefore creating internal struggles, and the consequences of the stress related effects may develop disorders or disease within the body and mind.
On the other hand, the person who always seems to be depressed or angers impulsively, and his or her unhappiness manifests in their affect is expressing their behavior internally and externally at the same time. We must understand that the stress related issues always are rooted internally within our mind and body. They begin there, and we will always be affected internally when they have attached themselves within our consciousness. Whether we choose to express our feelings externally is only another in-effective behavior we choose to deal with the issues.
If you think that you can deal with stress by creating an external impression of bliss, or hide your conflicts internally, you may fool others, but you can not fool your own mind and body. I think it is a step in the right direction that a person can have a positive outlook to dealing with their stresses and anxieties. If the objective is though to hide these issues by repressing them, and to avoid confronting them, the control you once thought you had will deteriorate, and eventually will lead you to create other in-effective behaviors.
Only by bringing in these issues into our awareness and confronting them will we be on the right path to deal with the internal factors leading to our expressions. If you are observing and comforting these issues each day, you will be able to evaluate how you choose to deal with the conflicts. Does it ever help to wear a face that expresses anger or unhappiness? Or keep things inside by thinking you are hiding them from yourself and they will go away?
First lets look at what it mean’s to keep “Things”, inside? Does this mean that we do not tell others our problems, and it is hurting us by not expressing ourselves externally? Or does this imply that we will feel better if we tell our friends or support resources our problems, and in our perception we have, “Expressed ourselves”, and have untied an internal formation within our mind and body? In my opinion, keeping things inside means to not have observed these “things” unto ourselves, and we have not committed to changing our behaviors. When we have told someone about our issues we have helped them understand why we may have been behaving in a certain manner. Have we confronted the issues though in our own mind to understand our thoughts and change our behaviors?
Keeping “things” inside means you have not confronted your own issues, and are not willing to accept them within your own mind. Remember, you do not have to let your feelings out of the bag by telling others, this is a personal choice. You only have to be honest to yourself by facing the issues by mindfully being aware. You can tell someone about your problems and this may help you, but if you never face the real issues you are continuing to keep them repressed and are expressing them internally.
Meditation and alternative healing methods
“There is something about the discipline associated with these Mind \ Body techniques that empowers individuals and at the same time, deepens and broadens their perspective on the value of having a body, and taking care of it and nourishing it in a certain way”
(Kabat-Zinn, 199, p. 135)
The practice of alternative Mind \ Body healing methods is to offer an individual opportunities to improve their quality of life. Proponents of alternative healing methods say that the mind and body have a direct influence on one another. In fact, in Chinese medicine it is said that their is no distinction between the mind and body, they are one in the same. Stress reduction techniques are a rather eclectic menu that one can choose from. There are many techniques used around the world and have been practice for many centuries.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, and the foremost leader on the practice of mindfulness uses the example of doing the dishes to demonstrate mindfulness meditation practices. Their are two ways a person can do the dishes. First, we can look at this time as something we disdain and struggle our way through it by complaining or thinking about something else you could be doing, or second, we can do it mindfully. If we do the dishes mindfully we are becoming in contact with the present moment and we do not judge doing the dishes as good or bad, we just do the dishes because they need to be done. If we label the time as a red (negative) feeling, and become attached to the negative perceptions you have with doing the dishes then you are going to have negative feelings throughout the time you are spending cleaning the dishes. If we are able to let go, and be non-judgmental about the negative feelings towards doing the dishes, practicing mindfulness may change our perceptions about this activity. We let go of all previous perceptions of doing the dishes, and in the cleaning process we practice observing our breath, and staying in touch with the present moment which is very relaxing. This is an example of using “Mindful Meditation” as a practice in our everyday lives. We can do many things in the spirit of mindfulness. We can practice while mowing the lawn, washing the car, spending time with family, standing in line at the bank, or just walking, as long as we are focused on the present moment during the activity.
If a person has not reached the point where they can sit down and practice meditation by just observing his or her breath, I would advise a practice that implements the physiological aspect of meditation, and learning how to control all the thoughts that inundate us. In meditation, when we add the physiological component to the process with Yoga, Tai chi, or walking, we are giving the mind something else to do, rather than just chatter, or re-organize into other ailments such as headaches, stomachaches, or boredom. This is done by practicing exercises that are called meditative movement. Tai Chi Chuan (Qigong), Walking meditation, and Yoga are examples of exercises that fall into this category. We replace being mindful of our breath in the present moment, to becoming mindful of the soft flowing movements of Tai Chi Chuan, or each step we take when we walk, or the postures and stretching of Yoga exercises. Eventually this can lead us to practice seated meditation once we have begun to understand our mind and body, and have begun to train the mind to quiet down.
Usually a practitioner will find themselves to become “Bored” of the activity. This usually happens when a person is focusing on the results of meditation practice. Boredom is just a perception arising in the mind that keeps it chattering. It is O.K. to be “Bored”, it is only a thought that has entered your mind, observe it, and let it go just like all other thoughts that are keeping you from being in touch with the present moment. Once you recognize that you are bored you are no longer practicing mindfulness, just observe the thought and focus back on being mindful of the present moment. You may have to do this on a continual basis, but by steady practice each day you will find yourself focusing on your breath for longer intervals without distraction.
I find that many people that I talk to say that, “The meditation practice is not working for me I can’t do it”. Once you have set a goal or objective in your meditation practice you are going to be disappointed. Let go of getting anywhere in your practice. Do not set your eye on the results of the practice, just sit to sit, or walk to walk, just be here to be here in the present moment and observe what happens nonjugmentally.
“Meditation is best described as a way of being. It’s like weaving a parachute when your about to jump out of the plane. You want to have been weaving the parachute morning, noon, and night, day in, and day out, so that when you need it, it will actually hold you.”
(Kabat-Zinn, 1993, p. 142)
The curative process in the use of meditation, Tai Chi Chuan (Qigong), or Yoga should not be the aim of the practice. Focusing on ones breath and relaxing is the first step to learn how to control the mind. The effects of tuning into our mind and body are simply being in contact with the present moment. One should not be consumed by thinking that they are “treating”, or “curing” the stress or illness. In fact, we learn to let go of getting anywhere, and observe our thoughts. The physiological relaxation and increased control of the mind that accompanies these techniques will be a healing in itself.
There is no quick fix associated with dealing with our stress. Cultivation of our inner resources is to increase our ability to deal with stressful situations when they arise. How do we cultivate our strength? To put it simply, we practice observing our feelings every day. The mind constantly chatters, and we can quiet it down if we direct our energies on developing control over our mind and body. If we are practicing walking meditation and the thought of having to finish a project at work comes into the mind, we simply observe it, and direct our focus back on each step that were taking. We may have hundreds of thoughts come into our mind when we are practicing, and we have to bring ourselves back to the breath a hundred times. With persistence practice we can quiet this chatter and increase our control over our thoughts.
We seek refuge in ourselves as the healer of our pains. We inoculate ourselves against stress by inviting the anxieties, fears, and frustrations, into our mind and body. For example, when we are vaccinated from the flu we are actually being injected with a small sample of the virus. We therefore build up a tolerance from the virus by facilitating this resistance. “We might say to ourselves when we are feeling anxiety,” I am now feeling anxiety, anxiety has arisen in my body before, and I will observe its nature.” As we elucidate the fear of confronting our stresses by past introspection into our thoughts and perceptions we have embarked upon cultivating awareness of body and mind.
WHAT IS NOT WRONG TODAY
“In eternity their is indeed is something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Let’s look at another perspective of our thoughts and feelings. When stress is not present in our bodies do we think, “Right now I am not feeling any stress, or right now I am not feeling a toothache?” Do we enjoy not having any stress or not having a toothache? It may behoove us to be more aware of what is not wrong, rather than going on to thinking about our next problem. Are we really afraid of enjoying ourselves without having to solve a problem right now, or not having anything to do by keeping our mind occupied with thoughts?
The fear of not having anything to do may have a direct influence on how we overlook the experience of enjoying life in the present moment. We are attached to having to keep the mind occupied to avoid boredom. Is there dissatisfaction in being bored? Only if we perceive it to be this way. Boredom can be complete equanimity if we allow ourselves to dwell in the present moment. We do not need to fill the mind with incessant stimulation. This perception may be much of what is causing us stress. When you are bored have you ever thought how stress free you are right now? Try and observe the feelings of how you are in-control of what you are doing right now, without the pressure or hastiness that occurs in our every day lives.
By integrating mindfulness into our everyday lives our use of Control theory may be more effective because we have spent more time observing our internal thoughts and behaviors as they arise. Experiencing mindfulness can develop a greater awareness of why we choose our organized behaviors. We become the person who is managing our own healing process, not the person who is being managed by others.
In life it seems as if we are always waiting for something to happen. We are constantly setting goals, and the journey on the path to reaching these goals is overlooked. When I do this… then I can do that, but what about right now? If we are always deciding about the future, or reflecting on the past how can we enjoy each moment of our life as it is happening right now? Freedom from our stress or anxieties is going to be a part of our daily life. If we spend all our time expecting to be freed from all our stresses one day, a large portion of life will pass us by before we know it. Ask yourself, how much time do I spend thinking about how it would be like if… and how much time do I spend enjoying life in the present moment each day.
Lao Tzu. (1988). Translation by Stephen Mitchell: Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Perennial.
Kabat-Zinn. (1993). Bill Moyers: Healing and the Mind. New York: Doubleday.
Smith, H. (1991). The Worlds Religions. SanFrancisico: Harper Collins.
Thich Nhat Hanh. (1991). Peace is every step: The path of Mindfulness in everyday life. New York: Bantam Books.