Bear with me here, as at first, ‘eating oranges differently’ may sound a bit trite.
My mindfulness practice took a big turn – for the better – when I discovered Compassion Focused Therapy many years ago. I used to write features for the BACP magazine, Therapy Today and dug into the practice when I interviewed the brilliant, charismatic, and you guessed it, very compassionate Paul Gilbert. Many years and a few trainings with him and his colleagues later, compassion-focused meditations and practices are now a part of my daily life. I have no way of knowing for sure if these have contributed to my improved mental health, it could be the process of ageing, and other factors too of course. Any client of mine will recognise the influence of all this practice has on the way I think about my work in the therapy room too.
Compassion practices have led me in other directions – including self-compassion work of Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, as well as the inspiring work of neuro-psychologist Rick Hanson who introduced the brilliantly simple, yet effective idea of re-wiring our brain by actively savouring the GOOD in life. Put simply, this means that – thanks to evolution – we are up against a negativity bias of our brain, and a natural propensity to dwell on negative experiences. In order to keep safe from predators, our brain evolved a powerful mechanism (the ‘fight or flight’ system) that meant we became hyper-vigilant to any whisper of threat. We needed to respond quickly to, say, a noise we heard, just in case we were soon to be eaten. Very useful of course, and indeed crucial for our evolution, but not always so useful these days – not least because its contributes to an easy habit of anxious or ruminative thinking. Most of us in the Western world don’t need to be on red alert any more, although of course those who do experience trauma will have threat systems ‘online’ more than others because of this.
In his catchy phraseology, Hanson suggests that ultimately, our brains have evolved to be like ‘teflon’ for good experiences and ‘velcro’ for the bad ones. Think of it this way: you make a long car journey that is seamless and unusually traffic-free, until the last mile or two when cars begin to back up and your imagined time of early arrival evaporates. My guess is that you will remember, and dwell upon the lasts mile…Hanson suggests that we can tackle this negative thinking through a form of brain-training – not sudoku or crosswords, but very different practices that force us to actively take in, embellish and savour good experiences – just as we unthinkingly do with bad ones.
In Hanson’s book Hardwiring Happiness, he mentions meeting someone who takes advantage of his daily orange-eating as an exercise in ‘savouring the good’. This man eats two a day, and each time he does, he makes a point of enjoying the pause, the smell, the taste sensations – all in an effort to counter his fast-paced, reactive nature of his life. It also sounds like mindfulness-in-action too. This hit a note with me as I also eat a lot of oranges – just one a day, but a habit that started 20 years ago when my diet was appalling and I decided to make a token gesture toward health (and also reflecting old thinking that Vitamin C warded off colds).
A few months ago, way before New Year in fact (resolutions can happen any day of the year), I decided to copy Hanson’s friend, with the addition of another layer of contemplation as I smelt, chewed and felt: that of humanity. So, on eating an orange, not only do I savour the goodness of the experience but I also consider how many humans it took to get to my plate: the ones that planted the seeds of the tree, the ones that kept the tree watered, the ones that collected the orange, the ones that packed it, the ones that transported it so far, the ones that unpacked it, then transported it….you get the picture. A whole chain of human beings of which I am just one at the end, grateful for all of that labour that produced my good experience.
The whole exercise takes as long as it takes to eat – sometimes moments if I’m in a hurry, sometimes longer if I’m lucky. There’s no doubt that this reminds me – just a little bit more than usual – of the goodness that there is in life, and despite the onslaught of news suggesting otherwise, how the good in the world outweighs the bad. Just as we are up against our brains, we seem to be up against a world dominated by fear and ignorance and disappointment. 2018 for me means prioritising connection with the good, which includes humanity.