Mindfulness Practice and What Unusual Things Can Teach Us About Feeling Good
Personal growth, trigger practice, and the startling beauty of wolf spiders eating maggots
For reasons that are now impossible to imagine, it did not occur to me that my daughter’s idea for a sleepover party for her eleventh birthday might be terrible. I wasn’t raised with YouTube and parent-shaming listicles about elaborate slumber party activities. There was little warning that I lacked the emotional fortitude to cheerfully endure what was to come.
But lack it I did. And the too-late half-hearted decision to make the elaborate Rube Goldberg machine of cascading logistical dilemmas into a mindfulness practice went as well as one might imagine.
My wife’s compassionate choice to not involve me in the specifics of the activity planning backfired dramatically as my bare feet began reacting to the acidic compound the dog and girls tracked in from the porch where their second “craft” of the evening managed to coat the ground in itchy white powder. By ten o’clock the dog was scratching himself frantically and I was demanding to know more about the contents of whatever had seemingly been detonated on our porch.
Was I totally ignorant? I experienced some inarticulate dread earlier in the day. A part of me surely saw the royal blue binder full of activities on the dining room table and recognized something my conscious mind was not ready to process.
It wasn’t until a balloon garland incident less than an hour before the guests started arriving that it began to dawn on me how long this night was about to feel. But I’m not ready to write about the balloon garland incident. I may never be.
Trigger practice and handling unpleasant emotions
In any case, our marriage survived my wife’s well-meant decision not to run any of the activity planning by me ahead of time. By the next morning, with the overtired girls loudly and spastically distributing party-themed trash throughout our living room and backyard, I realized I had missed a perfect opportunity to practice.
Challenging events can be opportunities for trigger practice. When you know something is likely to trigger a strong reaction in you, that knowledge allows you to practice skillfully transforming the reaction. For example, when you anticipate a nightmarish conversation with a colleague or supervisor, you may deliberately try to maintain a mindfulness technique during the encounter.
Anticipating the nightmare gives you time to raise the intention to practice in a certain way. You may tell yourself, “I intend to notice and release tension in my body as Brian makes invalidating comments.” Successfully applying the technique of noticing tension, regardless of whether any of it was successfully released, has two related benefits: you develop mindfulness skills and Brian’s face is more likely to go unpunched.
A girls’ sleepover plus birthday party involves a more complex array of intersecting triggers than Brian’s punchable face, but you may notice a similar physical response. Both horror scenes result in points of tension in various parts of your body. If you can bring your attention to those points of tension, returning each time one of your daughter’s loud friends declares something must be posted to her Instagram, you can potentially release the tension. And when you fail at that because you’re ruminating about who would be following a ten-year-old on Instagram — you’re still building mindfulness skills that can be useful in the future.
I didn’t do anything like that. Which meant that I missed a perfect opportunity to try and repeatedly fail to apply a specific technique. Situations that are manifestly beyond my capacities are very low-pressure. Any positives are like free money. I probably left a lot of free money on the table that evening as I watched events unfold in shocked incomprehension.
Trigger practice and creating pleasant emotions
The next morning, with the party continuing into its second day, I worked on a positivity technique while walking the dog. I was evoking a positive feeling in my body and trying to support it until it faded or I lost focus. This approach is sometimes compared to ringing a bell and following the reverberations or dropping a pebble in a pond and flowing with the ripples.
My morning dog walks always include a mindfulness technique and usually I allow the elements to emerge from relatively spontaneous experimentation early in the walk. But I was frazzled and wanting to test my capacities against a challenging mindset. I tried to activate some dim sense of positivity and nurture it until a voice reminded me that the house would still be filled with loud girls when my elderly dog decided after a few slow blocks that he was done with physical activity for the day.
With positive feelings seemingly out of reach, I settled on noticing my frustration and trying to remain open and receptive to positive feedback from the environment. A light breeze or the transition from the hot sun to a cool shadow are useful sources. If I don’t get lost in thoughts, I can use those sensations as positive triggers and vibe with them.
But that didn’t happen. There was no discernible breeze and few shadows in the alley my dog methodically scrutinized and invisibly decorated with his markings.
Just a collection of sensations
By staying open to positivity from the environment, I was sensitizing myself. Even though my focus was on felt sensations, I was not actively ignoring audible and visual content. The payoff for that heightened attention came once I attempted to deposit a bag loaded with my dog’s stool in a garbage can.
I don’t know what the right decorum is for using other people’s large cans for doggie deposits. In my neighborhood, we all use the same waste management receptacles in the alleys behind our homes, and I have so far stuck with the golden rule: I don’t mind you leaving a neatly tied bag of your dog’s leavings in my receptacle, so I assume you will feel similarly. But I always try to be discrete about the drop off just in case someone is offended by the sight of me somehow befouling their otherwise pristine waste.
I approached a trash can that was hidden behind a garage and noticed that the doggy bag and its lid were the same royal blue color as my wife and daughter’s activity binder. Maybe there was something in that commonality that triggered what happened next because, as I went to raise the lid, I saw a small wolf spider perched atop it clinging to something that looked like a bloated grain of white rice.
I paid careful attention to the wolf spider, which was about a foot from my hand as I pried the lid upward. On closer inspection, the object in its mouth and front appendages was a slowly writhing maggot. I dropped off the bag, carefully lowered the lid, and continued watching the spider and its meal with morbid fascination that suddenly became something else.
That something else is hard to describe, but it is also the purpose of this writing, so I had better try.
How we feel about anything, anything at all, is a collection of sensations. We ascribe deep meaning to some collections and almost none to others. There is nothing inherently fascinating about a wolf spider eating a maggot and nothing inherently unworthy of fascination.
Almost anything can be a source of positive connection. And hot sauce enthusiasts and BDSM communities continue to test the boundaries of that “almost.” On a morning when I could not generate my own positive feelings, I raised my antennas to receive feedback from my environment, which offered me something gross.
The signal I received was perhaps related to surprise, curiosity, or maybe just basic interest. The result was a heavy stone dropped into a pond generating a splash of appreciation followed by ripples of enjoyment undulating outward, encompassing the entire field of my experience.
I don’t want to suggest this is what passes for scenic wildlife in my small blue-collar city, which is infamous regionally for its massive winter population of obese crows. A wolf spider disemboweling a bloated maggot suggests the potential value of not waiting for our experience to be different than it is, and how the quality of our attention and receptivity can locate positive feelings in unlikely situations.
I did not try to sustain the feeling. It did not seem like it belonged to me, like it was mine to sustain. Instead, I experienced its fading and nurtured the feeling of okayness with its fading. Just another momentary miracle that happened to be a little weird.
An experiment in seeing good
Noticing momentary miracles can be aided by the practice of actively looking for pleasant objects or qualities in your visual field. It can be anything — a blue sky, the passage of a breeze through some nearby trees, the color of a neighbor’s house. Don’t overthink it and feel free to adjust when necessary or desirable.
Here are some broad parameters:
1. Look for something, anything, pleasant or appealing in your visual field.
2. Notice how you are physically experiencing the pleasantness by searching for its related sensations in the body.
3. Soak into the experience of pleasantness; nurture it; if possible, allow it to expand.
4. If you notice the pleasant feeling fading, return to the object of attention and the sense of pleasantness it evokes, or find something else pleasant and repeat the process.
Some additional pointers:
1. Evoking the pleasant sensation can be likened to ringing a bell and following its reverberations or dropping a pebble in a still pool of water and flowing with the ripples. Feel free to use that imagery as a guide each time you return to the pleasant stimulus.
2. You may try to allow the pleasantness to spread, but don’t push it. This practice is most effective when done lightly, gently, and playfully.
3. If nothing in your visual field stands out, you can imagine something pleasant instead, such as a loved one or a kitten (if you’re a cat person). Closing your eyes can make the image more vivid.
4. As a challenge, you may experiment with enjoying something that is not outwardly pleasant. Can you evoke the positive feeling while viewing something toward which you feel indifferent? What about something unpleasant?
A major benefit of this practice is that it exercises and grows your innate capacity to access positive visual feedback from your environment. If you are noticing even a very subtle form of that feedback, you are doing it right.
But if that positive feedback isn’t available from the visual field during a practice period, you might try getting it from somewhere else. In an unhurried, deliberate way, you may explore receiving positive vibes from auditory or physical sensations related to the environment. To benefit from this practice, any source of good feelings is a good source of good feelings.