It’s easy to become paralyzed by self-doubt and fear.
Our minds often get stuck on worst-case scenarios and “what-ifs,” which in turn discourage us from ever pursuing our goals.
It’s especially heartbreaking to witness young people succumb to this kind of negative thinking, as it often leads them to abandon dreams almost as soon as they develop.
Helping young people overcome this pattern is why I became the Director of Mindfulness at Sea Change Preparatory. Our students were featured on NBC’s Nightly News for setting swimming records against all kinds of odds and in the face of a myriad of challenges. And, they set these records by using mindfulness to overcome fear and dismiss limiting beliefs about their abilities.
It’s due to their mindfulness training that they can plunge into 60-degree, pitch-black water in the middle of the open ocean and embark on races never previously attempted. And while they are watched closely by experienced ocean lifeguards and have a kayaker next to them for the entire time that they are in the water, they are otherwise alone with their thoughts for the duration of the long swim.
The thoughts racing through their head are the same as those that we all grapple with when faced with life challenges: “Can I really do this? Am I crazy even trying?” And yet many of us, when faced with these thoughts, may give up or fail to even try in the first place.
We let our self-doubt and our fear get the better of us; we allow our goals and dreams to drift away.
But, what if we practiced dealing with these thoughts before we were faced with the actual circumstances that, sometimes legitimately, invoke such stress?
The practice of recognizing and releasing the internal stories that fuel fear can be finely honed when we are in situations such as the one faced by these young swimmers. Internal stories of perceived threats—in this case, sharks, jellyfish, and other sea creatures lurking in the pitch-black water—easily enter the mind. But a well-trained mind can identify these overblown stories and refocus on the established goal.
Regular mindfulness training, practiced in a quiet, safe place, prepares us for when we are faced with more high-stress situations.
Concentration training has long been recognized as a good place to start a mindfulness practice (as described, for example, in Real Happiness—The Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg). At Sea Change, we have found that spending a few weeks dedicated to concentration paves the way to develop mindfulness practices focusing on thoughts, feelings, emotions, compassion, and loving-kindness.
The following concentration-oriented, guided meditation practice has been helpful to Sea Change students, and will be helpful for any practitioner seeking to better manage self-doubt and fear:
Begin by focusing on the breath. It all starts here—and some would say ends here. Consider starting the session by taking a series of deep, cleansing breaths, and then focusing on the breath at the nostrils or wherever else feels comfortable. Then notice, and release, the externals that are vying for attention: the sounds (of the ocean if it is just before a swim by the water) or the sensations you feel in your body (of the wind blowing against the face, for example). Then try to notice, and release, the feelings, emotions, and thoughts that are likewise competing for attention. Do the best you can at this releasing, as we are going to start focusing on concentration.
Concentrate to relax and unify all of your senses. Now, start to try to focus your mind on one thing, or mostly on one thing—like you would on a candle in a dark-lit room. But here, focus on your breath. Realize this exercise can be a pleasant, relaxing experience. You have nothing to do, no place to go. And it is not just your mind that’s getting focused or concentrated. Let all your senses be unified in this endeavor. Feel the relaxation in your shoulders, neck, back, and legs. Feel your mind release the thoughts or emotions that were occupying it before you started this exercise.
Visualize a long corridor leading to a sunny, grassy knoll. You are at the start of this corridor, and are going to head out to a sunny, grassy knoll that is just beyond a door at the end. Now, visualize various tables along the corridor populated by imaginary people who are trying to distract you from their goal. These distractions take the form of temptations and embodied voices—just like our minds in our ordinary experience. It is easy to imagine some that attempt to capture your attention in real life: perhaps a spouse beckoning with a long, binge-worthy Netflix queue and several boxes of Junior Mints, or a cell phone lit up with the latest Facebook posts—or maybe it’s a group of friends urging you to go shopping. Here your job is simple to recognize that these voices are mere visitors—they need not be followed.
Redirect your focus on to your breath while noticing these distractions. Realize that you need not be captured by any of them, nor do you need to engage with these internal voices. Realize how this act of refocusing allows these distractions to evaporate so that you can focus on getting to the end of the corridor—on reaching your goal. And realize that you can enjoy a pleasant journey along the way.
Practices like this one are extremely helpful for those wishing to successfully deal with the many challenging events life has to throw at us.
While it is vital to have a practice to help us cope with extraordinary challenges such as swimming in the open ocean at midnight, utilizing this kind of concentration practice in such extreme circumstances also makes it easier to employ in the more ordinary, but important, challenges that we face in our daily lives.
Likewise, when we regularly commit to practices such as this one, we increase our ability to manage the self-doubt and fear that so often derails us from the goals and dreams we wish to achieve.
John Allcock is the Co-Founder and Director of Mindfulness at Sea Change Preparatory, a trailblazing academy that regularly integrates the practice of mindfulness into it’s curriculum. His new book, FORTY THINGS I WISH I’D TOLD MY KIDS, shows adults and children alike how to use mindfulness to become more compassionate, resilient, and confident.
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