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Hold Stroke
25m

Hold Stroke

Stay clear and present even during life’s challenges.

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[Thomas McConkie, Mindfulness Teacher] Hello, and welcome to another episode of Mindfulness+. I'm your host, Thomas McConkie. Thank you so much for listening today. The topic today is hold stroke, but that will not mean anything to you unless you're a swimmer. But I'm gonna relate this to an element of mindfulness practice that's really important, starting with a little walk down my memory lane in high school. State champs 1998. Okay, that's enough of that. So there's a swimmer on the team. I came onto the high school swim team, I had no experience, I didn't participate on the swim team growing up as a kid, so I was just kind of learning the ropes my freshman year. And there was this hulk of an upperclassman all-state swimmer named Joel. And this is not related to the podcast episode immediately, but he had enormous pecs and everybody knew him for not just his good looks and his his kindness to everybody, but his pecs. The guy could do over 100 pushups just right there on the spot, just drop down and give you 100 real quick. Anyway, Joel, as he was, you know, teaching me about how one swims on the swim team, one day he was talking about holding stroke, and he was saying, "The difficulty in racing is that when we get really tired, the muscles that hold the form that help us move the fastest and most efficient through the water, they start to fatigue. And when they fatigue, the stroke falls apart, disintegrates, it breaks down." So when we race, it's really important to notice where the stroke is tending to fall apart, 'cause in any race, whether it's, you know, 50 meters or 1,000 meters or whatever, at some point we're gonna wear out, certain muscles are gonna fail first, and that's gonna create drag in the stroke. And that creates a kind of vicious cycle, 'cause the stroke breaks down, we have more drag in the water so we're working harder to maintain the same speed, and it all just goes to pot from there. we get more and more tired to work harder and harder to not even maintain the speed we were maintaining. So holding stroke is a really important element of learning how to swim fast, how to race. What does that have to do with your mindfulness practice? Well, it occurred to me at some point as a kind of lightning bolt this week as I was thinking about you, my beloved podcast listeners, the Mindfulness Plussers, that something very analogous happens in a mindfulness practice where life becomes challenging and our form, our stroke if you will, of our mindfulness practice, it starts to break down. Whereas in swimming, something like your core muscles will go out, or your shoulders, or your legs depending on, you know, what kind of swimmer you are, in mindfulness what I've found to be almost universally true is one of the first places to break down in our mindfulness form, when we're attempting to be as mindfulness as possible in the most difficult and challenging situations of our lives, awareness collapses. The equivalent, I'm gonna go through this a few times and we're gonna practice it, but in mindfulness, when we're under stress, when we're challenged, it would be the equivalent to being in a race if you were on a swim team. In mindfulness, when we're stressed, challenged, the first thing that happens is awareness contracts. Why does awareness contract? I use the word collapse, meaning we go from a sense of spaciousness, relaxation, to everything just lasers in on what we perceive to be the problem. So a specific example of this, let's say I'm in conflict with another person. Interpersonal conflict is one of the most challenging areas of human life to maintain a really stable, open, mindful awareness. The moment we start to feel threatened, the tendency for awareness is to zero in on whatever feels the most threatening. So for example, I'm in a conflict and somebody says something to me, and I think it's untrue, I think it's unfair. I feel wrongly accused. I perceived an aggressive tone in what they were saying, whatever. If I feel really threatened, my awareness is going to fixate on that moment. "You said this thing. You did this thing. I don't feel safe now," da-da, da-da, da-da. And our biology kind of runs away with itself. This collapse, this contracted awareness, is directly associated with a fight/flight response in our body. So the moment we feel threatened, awareness collapses and physiology goes into a kind of fight/flight response. I'm in danger. I either get outta here as quickly as I can, or I stay and I fight. Or I freeze; I can't get outta here, I can't fight, I'm just totally frozen. So in this sense, if we learn to spot where our mindfulness practice breaks down, we can actually learn to correct for it. It's something that seems to be deeply wired into our evolutionary biology. When we perceive a threat, we focus on it the way you cross a busy street and you focus on oncoming traffic. It's skillful. 100,000 years ago, you hear a rustle in the bushes and every part of your awareness focuses on, you know, movement, sound, smell. Is there a predator nearby? It's a survival mechanism. We don't wanna get rid of it. However, the situation in modern life is that these alarm bells are going off all the time and they're rarely accurate. They're rarely giving us information that our life is actually threatened. The upshot for you and your mindfulness practice is, as you start to pay attention to this every day of your life, when you're in a rush, when you're stressed, you have a deadline at work, or you're in a conflict with somebody, whatever the challenging situation, you can start to notice that awareness is contracting. And associated with that contractive, collapsed awareness is this enhanced feeling of, "Oh no, there's danger. I'm threatened." So we correct for it, just like in swimming back in the day when I was on the last leg of a butterfly race and my stomach just felt like it was on fire, I would consciously kind of tell myself to stick it out, put all the power I had into my core, even though it felt like I had nothing left, and I'd, you know, dolphin kick my way to the wall. In a mindfulness practice, you notice awareness is wanting to contract around a perceived problem, and you intentionally remain spacious. You keep it open. That's it; that's the correction. But it's profound. As you notice this happening in daily life, you'll start to cultivate a habit over time where you're resting for longer periods of time in open, relaxed awareness. Just like back to the swim team, you know, you train enough, you do enough work at the gym, you swim enough laps, your core starts to sustain you for longer and longer periods with more intensity. If you catch your awareness contracting and you practice opening it up, your awareness will develop a greater strength, a capacity, even a stamina to remain widely open in easy situations, in very difficult situations. That's the long and the short of it. It's easy to be mindful when you're mindful. Anybody can be mindful when they're mindful. Just like Jesus says in the New Testament, anybody can love people who loves them, but can we love our enemy? Can we be mindful when we're not mindful? And that's what holding stroke is all about. That's what holding open awareness in very challenging situations is all about. So let's do this. Let's work with a little open focus. By open focus, I mean we'll be focused, but also very open in our awareness to get that feeling of expansive concentration, the opposite of contracted fight or flight, I'm afraid for my life concentration. Get used to this feeling of having a flexible, responsive awareness. And it occurs to me, before we start the practice, let me say that in case it wasn't totally clear to you, you could ask the question, "Okay, so when I get stressed in life, when I feel threatened, awareness contracts, and to come back into a mindful state, I notice the collapse and I open back up. So what? So I open back up. Why would I wanna be in a mindful state? What's the big deal about mindfulness?" I'm gonna get like right back to episode one, the very basics here, in case you're new to the conversation. When our awareness is flexible, when our awareness is able to adapt moment to moment to a situation, focus as needed, open as needed, what we find in our subjective experience is that we're more creative, we're more spontaneous, we're more responsive to life. When our awareness is collapsed, the first thing that happens is I kick into survival circuitry. What do I mean by that? So survival circuitry, I'm in that fight or flight response. I'm no longer choiceful about what's happening, I'm just at the whims of my habits, my evolutionary habits of, "I feel threatened, I'm gonna punch someone. I feel threatened, I'm gonna yell at someone. I feel threatened, I'm gonna run away in the opposite direction as fast as I can." Usually yelling at people, punching people when we feel threatened is not the most skillful response. So we're doing this, the whole reason we do this, is because having a responsive, open, flexible awareness moment to moment, especially in the challenging times in life, it allows us to respond optimally to each situation. No matter how difficult, if I'm present, I can offer my very best response to that situation. And we might not notice, you know, after a single act of an optimal response, right? Maybe we're just in a really tough situation and we do the very best we can do, and we still feel awful after. Life's rough. You respond to life optimally 100 times, 1,000 times, 10,000 times, 1,000,000 times, day in, day out, year in, year out. You exchange kindness for an aggressive remark from somebody. You hold your tongue when you wanted to give someone a piece of your mind, but you realized in the moment that that's not gonna help the situation. You respond optimally enough in life, and lo and behold the conditions of your life tend to improve exponentially. Everything starts to feel workable, no matter what happens. You develop a deep trust and confidence in yourself. So it's a pretty big payoff, and it starts with what we call in swimming holding stroke. In mindfulness practice, what's the equivalent? It's holding form, just remembering to stay in this open, flexible awareness, which we're gonna practice right now. Take a moment to find a posture, a posture that allows you to be very relaxed but also very alert, very present. Feel all of sensation throughout your entire experience, throughout the entire body. Maybe you feel the tingle of the soles of your feet and the pressure of your seat against your body, your bottom, your back. Wherever you are, just notice what sensations are in flux, coming and going, rising and passing. And just to get a sense of spaciousness here, I want you to bring your awareness to hearing. I want you to listen as if you're trying to hear for any sound just beyond the edge of your hearing. It's like if you listen very carefully, you can make something out 1,000 feet away. You're listening with that quality. And the soundscape, 360 degrees all around you, above you, below you, intently listening to every possible sound that's available and even the sounds that are almost beyond the threshold of your hearing. As you do this, be aware of a sense of spaciousness. You are listening into, out, and through space. Maybe you hear some sounds. Maybe you hear no sounds. Continuous sound, intermittent sounds, it doesn't matter. Just notice all of the coming and going through space. Or if it's silence, you can just really attune to the sound of silence. So you're aware of space all around you in every direction, up and down and around. Bring your feeling awareness back online if it dropped off, so you're feeling all of sensation as well throughout the entire body. And then I want you to bring awareness to a focus, almost a pinpointed focus right around the nostrils, really just fascinated by every single sensation, moment to moment, of the breath in and around the nostrils, without losing contact to the great sense of spaciousness all around you, above you, below you, even all of physical sensation, but with a special emphasis on the sensation around the nostrils. So you're focused on the sensations of breathing in and around the nostrils, but you're totally open in your peripheral awareness, aware of other sensations in the body, aware of any sounds in the environment. I want you to just rest here, noticing this particular posture of awareness where there's focused attention and open awareness simultaneously. Take a moment to get used to this. If awareness contracts, you get pulled into a thought, or you get too focused on the breath, find this dynamic balance between focused attention on the breath, the nostrils, sensation, and open awareness, peripheral awareness. You're aware of the whole field of physical sensation, all the space around you, above you, below you. It actually takes some stamina to do this. We're used to letting our form break down. We're used to letting our awareness collapse. But we can learn to let it be open and spacious. When we hold our awareness in an open, spacious quality, it brightens awareness. It brings more clarity. It's like increasing the candle power of the mind, so to speak. Stay with this just another moment, totally focused on the sensation of breathing, totally open to everything around you, and sensation, sound, the environment. Now I want you to let go of this focus on breathing, staying open, wide open, feeling all of sensation throughout the body, all of space around you, above you, below you. And call up in focused attention the last time you were in a really hard, challenging, stressful situation. Maybe a stressful situation on the road in traffic, maybe a conflict with someone close to you. Whatever it was, call up the intensity that that experience brought on while remaining open. There's a challenging situation present. It feels like a problem. Awareness is wide open, wide open to all the possible responses. As I remain open, I can let whatever intense sensation arises in the body rise and pass, come and go through me. I don't have to react to it. I don't have to avoid it. I don't have to say or do something I'll regret 'cause I'm trying to escape from how I'm feeling. In this wide open space, I can just take my time, wait for the right moment. And in this open field of spacious awareness, I trust myself intuitively when it's time to act, when I know what to say, when I know what to do, I do it. Okay, there it was. Thank you, my friends, for the practice today. Thanks for listening to Mindfulness+. If you enjoy the show, if you think someone you love could benefit from a little mindfulness practice, please feel free to share this podcast with them. Leave us a review where you review your podcasts, and we will be back with more next week. Signing out.

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