Small Cabin In VermontSitting on the deck of a small cabin in Vermont, I watched the setting sun on my last evening helping conduct a Naikan retreat at the ToDo Institute. Listening to the crickets begin to sing, I contemplated how the self-reflections participants had shared changed them and me. Preparing for the end of the retreat, I was and remain inspired to say thank you more often for the benefits I receive. Supporting others with intense Naikan practice inspired me to be a bit quicker to share apologies for the difficulties I cause. 

Truth SpaceNaikan, when translated literally, means ‘looking inside’ and sometimes is translated as reflection. On Naikan retreats, participants use a structured process for reflecting upon their life, from birth to the present day for six days or more. Participants sit behind shoji screens that enclose enough space for a couple of cushions, an eating tray, and a notepad for about 10 hours a day practicing Naikan. The cordoned-off area is called a “hoza” or “truth space.” 

 

The Naikan process was developed in Japan by Ishini Ishimoto to help people leave their anxieties by focusing their attention on gifts received, gifts given and troubles caused. Naikan Self-Reflection by Norimasa Nishida describes the practice as used in different countries. It shares how a Naikan retreat can be life-changing. 

 

What I found fascinating was how being an interviewer could also be life-altering. Constantly asking myself, how can I support the participants and exploring how I caused difficulties, I did not have time to even contemplate who was at fault for not having tasks done. Instead, it was a practice of searching out how I could help, which is something I take back to my work. The tasks required to support the retreat participants with a constant flow of assignments, interviews and time out in nature fill my six days. 

During the six days, Gregg Krech managed to find time for staff to have a few moments for reflection.  I cherished the opportunity to create a truth space for reflection outside. A small bench surrounded by growing plants and trees set up behind the main house was a place to shift my attention from anxiety to reflection.  It was a space to notice how much of my tensions were focused on what I thought other people might think. I laughed as I realized my worries were often internal dialogues with myself. Shifting to what I received, I began noticing the myriad of causes and conditions that make a moment. It was often humbling. Standing up from my small bench, I thanked the flowers, the bees, the dragonflies and the spreading trees for sharing their beauty.  Gregg and Linda Krech have done so much to have the ToDo Institute host Naikan retreats in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Check out the schedule for Naikan classes and retreats at www.todoinstitute.org 

Todo Institute Retreat Center

Anxiety is a heightened mental or emotional state of stress resulting from challenging conditions. However, events themselves are not intrinsically stressful. The same set of circumstances that produce smiles in some people generate fear and anxiety in others.  Anxiety and stress are caused by how we react to events.

Such diverse responses can be seen on the faces of those on a roller coaster as it descends into a deep dive.  The same is true for an invitation to attend a public reception of five hundred people. Some respond with an attitude of, “How wonderful! I will meet so many new people.” Others respond with, “How horrible! There is no way I’m going to get lost in such a crowd.” One person is excited while the other is stressed or anxious to the point of sweating just thinking about the event.  Both responses are reactions to a mental story, not the event. 

We often respond to events by generating anxiety. Unhelpful responses to stress take many forms. We may use intellectual analysis to dream up “what-if” situations. Projecting our fears based on what someone said is another typical response. Or, we may paint a story onto some common condition in our lives. Then we dwell in the emotions and anxiety about responding or dealing with the story we generated. 

Anxiety can be so disturbing it will disrupt daily routines and work habits. When stress is intense, methods that work best are often those not dependent upon more mental assessment or analysis. Dr. Pat Ogden developed such methods by combining somatic therapy techniques with attachment theory and cognitive applications. She founded the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute in 1981 to teach sensorimotor therapy. Adapted from Dr. Ogden’s principles of walking meditation, I share with my clients walking mindfully. 

When stress boils over into anxiety, it is possible to walk away.  Even in an intense work setting, a short walk done mindfully can provide a bit of relief. 

Mindful walking requires the mind to focus on all that is happening while walking. It demands walking with the body instead of all the blah, blah, blah. Although all the anxiety may not disappear, the intensity of it will lessen by forcing the thought processes to drop down into the body.  Sense everything around you, a foot touching the ground, a leg swinging out, hearing the sound of a door closing, a car horn. By placing attention on the sensation, one cannot stay fixated on feelings of anxiety nor past events that cause stress.

When anxiety starts the foot pumping or fingers tapping on the table, it is time to get up and use the simple instructions below. If at work it might be a walk to the water cooler or a break room.  If at home, it might be a walk around the block. If waiting for an appointment, it can be a short walk down and back in the hallway. Use the instructions below to take a mini-vacation from stress and anxiety.  

MINDFUL WALKING TIPS

Prepare to walk: 

  • Stand with shoulders back and head up. 
  • Look outward and lower the gaze. 
  • Breathe in and out, SLOWLY.
  • Align with gravity.
  • Distribute weight over both feet and relax. 
  • Bend knees slightly.

Walk at your own pace mindfully: 

  • Pick up one foot and stretch out the leg in front slightly. 
  • Place heel down and feel the heel touch the ground.
  • Continue shifting weight onto the foot by putting toes on the ground. 
  • Stand fully on the one foot, letting back heel start to rise.
  • Bring back leg forward and place heel down on the ground.
  • Continue walking with a relaxed gaze.
  • As thoughts arise, return focus to walking.

As you walk, notice sensations in the body. Notice where you are placing your weight? What do you feel when you walk? (internally and externally) What do you see, smell, or hear? Do you feel air moving on your skin from a fan or the wind?  Is there warmth on your face? As thoughts or emotions arise, notice the idea or feeling and then think, “I am walking.” Breathe in, breathe out. Focus on the movement and sensations of your body. And, if a sensation is pleasing, remember to smile. The sun won’t mind.

  • By Carol O’Dowd, MPA, M.Div., MI, RP 

How often do we find ourselves dwelling on past events or mistakes we’ve made? The use of the term dwelling indicates that this is where we reside. When reflections become ruminations that carry us out of the room, it feels like that is where we are living. We get so caught up in our thoughts we start contemplating how others label us. Why? Well, we know so well how we judge ourselves, we pretend we know what others are thinking. We get so caught up in our own thoughts and assessments and what-if scenarios, we forget where we are. Sometimes we are so caught up in thinking we don’t see the room or landscape in which we are sitting.

So how do we wake up to where we are when residing in a dwelling that keeps us behind a closed door? The simple answer is to start doing. Do anything that engages the body. Ideally, if you can run, attend an aerobics class or go outside for a walk, you will quickly leave the dwelling of sadness, anxiety or doom for sunshine. However, any activity that transfers the mental treadmill of “woulda-coulda-shoulda” will work. It can be something as simple as cleaning or working on a puzzle. Any activity where you use your hands and can notice different sensations will give you a break from your dwelling. After feeling and seeing that the dust cloth is full of dirt, take it outside and shake it. Notice the dust flying in the air and the new feel of the cloth after it is shaken out. Another option is washing dishes or clothes. Notice the feel, the smells of soaps as well as the odors from clothes or leftovers. Listen to the sounds created while cleaning. Get into your activity by noticing how your body is engaged in the tasks.

Having taught mindfulness and reflections practices for more than 15 years, I have coached many on how to leave the dwellings of obsession, anxiety, sorrow, and perfectionism. If you want to learn more about doing and engaging fully with life, give me a call.

  –  Carol