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Facing what you cannot face (Mindful inoculation)

Dear integral Meditators,

This weeks article explores the idea of ‘mindful inoculation’, how you can become stronger and more resilient by deliberately turning and facing your most difficult inner issues. It’s a dimension of the ‘shadow work’ that I do.

In the spirit of turning and facing,



Facing what you cannot face (Mindful inoculation)

Inoculation from a disease involves injecting a small amount of the disease into your body, so your body’s immune system recognizes and become resilient to the disease. In order to become immune from the disease, you need to expose your body to the disease in small doses.
When building your psychological health, the same is true. To make yourself resilient to your most difficult and debilitating anxieties and stresses, you have to deliberately seek out and expose yourself to them each day. By doing so you ‘normalize’ the experience of the anxiety, so that it does not feel overwhelming or threatening; you build your immunity to it. You might think of this method as a sort of ‘mindful inoculation’ of your psyche from debilitating stress.

The challenge of doing this is it runs against much of our instinctive strategy regarding pain, anxiety and stress. When we sense a feeling or thought in our mind that is painful, sad (etc…) our first reaction is most commonly to distract ourselves from it, turn away from it, or repress and deny it. The last thing we want to do is turn and face it, let alone accept it!

The benefits of turning towards our sources of pain for short periods of time in the day is that we learn to accept and process them. This results in us taking far less time to work though the emotional trauma of bad experiences, and we become very confident. After all, if we can face down the very worst of what we find in the recesses of our mind, what is there left to intimidate us in life?

The method: Turning towards
To do this practice, take a domain in your life, eg: relationships. Then ask yourself the question “What anxiety or pain is it in my relationships that I am not acknowledging or facing right now?” Let your mind sit with the question, and start to investigate. Before too long you will come across an issue that you really don’t want to face. Once you have found it, mentally turn and face it. Move your attention towards it. Breathe with and acknowledge it. Relax into the experience (uncomfortable as it may be) for at least a minute. Over the next week or so your task them becomes to deliberately turn your mindful attention to the issue that you cannot face, and face it for short periods of time. By doing this you will gradually ‘inoculate’ yourself from the issue. It is not that it is no longer there, it is just you can turn and face it with confidence, you know how to look after it. It ceases to feel like a threat to your wellbeing.

An example
Relatively recently, a romantic relationship that I had been in for a few months came to an end. As we were moving toward the final split (but had not reached that decision yet) I asked myself “What is it about this relationship that I am not acknowledging or facing right now?” Quite quickly the answer came back ‘I cannot face that I may have to let this relationship go’. So, then my object of mindful inoculation became the loaded sentence ‘I may have to let this relationship go’. Repeatedly exposing myself to this, and the feelings around it moved my experience quite quickly from aversion: ‘I can’t let this relationship go’, to acceptance: ‘I need to let this relationship go’ to confidence: ‘This relationship is over, and I’m excited about the future and all the new possibilities!
You don’t necessarily need a lot of time to get over challenging, difficult or painful experiences, but you do have to have the courage to turn and face them and ‘mindfully inoculate’ yourself from them!

Related article: The quickest way through the rain

© Toby Ouvry 2018, you are welcome to use or share this article, but please cite Toby as the source and include reference to his website

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