Fearlessly Tackling Your Meaningful Work

In previous posts, I have explored the nature of procrastination, the need to bring the self-stories above the line and the importance of building the awareness muscle to be able to identify and challenge our self-defeating thoughts.  Leo Babauta takes this discussion a step further by arguing that we need to be fearless in the pursuit of our meaningful work – pursuing the work that is our life purpose despite our reservations, uncertainties and discomfort.  To fearlessly tackle our meaningful work takes bravery (facing pain without fear) and courage (facing pain despite the presence of fear).

Identifying your rationalisations

Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, argues that to pursue your life purpose represented by meaningful work, you need to face up to the rationalizations that your brain dreams up (a Zen Habits blog post).  He maintains that these rationalizations are really lies that your fearful brain invents to discourage you from taking creative action that is breaking new ground, uncertain in outcome and potentially creating discomfort for you.  The discomfort can take the form of psychological pain (e.g. embarrassment, shame, self-doubt) or physical pain (e.g. headache, bodily tension).   In discussing the numerous rationalization that your mind could think up, Leo suggests potential counters to the mind’s arguments – all of which are enlightening in themselves as they challenge your core self-beliefs.  His blog post serves as a comprehensive checklist to explore your own rationalizations.

Dealing with rationalizations

In his blog post, Leo provides a range of strategies that you can use to deal with the rationalizations that get in the road of you pursuing your meaningful work:

  • Write down your rationalizations (you can use Leo’s checklist as a catalyst) and come up with contrary arguments based on the evidence of your past experiences
  • Treat the rationalization for what they are – invented lies driven by fear and designed to stave off pain and/or discomfort.  Stop believing that they are real and will inevitably eventuate.
  • Avoid your brain’s attempt to negotiate its way out of starting, e.g. putting off the starting time because it is inconvenient or too soon.
  • START– however small a step.  Movement in the right direction overcomes inertia and creates a momentum.  Leo suggests that you practice “moving towards [not away from] what you resist”
  • Become aware that as you practise, movement towards your goal becomes easier – you will experience less resistance and begin to overcome your rationalizations through evidence-based achievement, e.g. the new belief, “I can do this task!”  Leo maintains that there are unexpected rewards for dealing with uncertainty.
  • Remind yourself of your intention – why this meaningful work is important to you.

The self-harm in rationalizations

Disconnection from meaningful work has been identified by Johann Hari as a key factor in the rise of depression and anxiety in today’s western world.  Our brains, through rationalizations, are creating self-harm by keeping us from connecting with what is meaningful to us – what gives purpose to our lives.  Leo is so committed to helping us move beyond fear and rationalizations, that he has created a significant training program, Fearless Purpose: Training with the Uncertainty & Anxiety of Your Meaningful Work, to help people realise their meaningful work, whether that is writing a book, starting a community organisation, beginning a new, and purposeful career or undertaking any other creative endeavour that we may be fearful about.  The program is comprehensive and includes an e-book, meditations, videos and a support community.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become aware of the rationalizations that our brain thinks up to stop us from pursuing what we know, deep down, to be our real, meaningful work – pursuits that help us to realise our life purpose.  Mindfulness can also help us to challenge these mental barriers and free ourselves to act with courage in the face of uncertainty.

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Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Music and Meditation: The Key Role of Practice

Richard Wolf maintains that practice is a key element in meditation and playing a musical instrument.  Richard explores practice along with other parallels between meditation and playing music in his book, In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness. Previously, I explored his ideas on achieving harmony through music and meditation.

It is through practice that we can master playing an instrument or achieving a high standard in sport.  The same is true of meditation – our capacity to meditate and achieve its benefits is dependent on how well we practice.  The greater the regularity and length of our meditation practice, the greater are the benefits that accrue to us.

Practice and repetition

Practice requires repetition and may be experienced as boring, e.g. playing scales on a musical instrument.  However, as Richard notes, after a period of practicing, if we persist, we can be keen to “practice for practice sake”.  With sustained practice, comes the realisation that the practice itself achieves the desired benefits of competence, concentration, harmony and spontaneity.  This is as true of meditation as it is of practising a musical instrument.  It is similar with sporting practice. I recall practicing tennis drills with my brothers when we were playing A Grade tennis fixtures.  Repetition was a key part – hitting the ball up the line over and over or practising volleys again and again.  However, as we grew in competence, we would marvel at the shots we played, laugh at the fun we were having and experience a real sense of happiness.  We would look forward to our practice sessions.

As our meditation practice improves and starts to flow into our daily life, we begin to experience a greater variety of benefits which, in turn, feed our motivation to practice.  Richard suggests that this occurs because when you meditate, “your mental, emotional and physical awareness are the instrument you practice on”.  The essence of effective practice is to maintain focus in the present moment on what we are doing, whether playing a musical instrument or meditating on nature.

Breathing in time – treating your breath as a musical instrument

Richard highlights the role of beats in music and the need for a musician to master different times in music such as 4/4 time and 3/4 time (as in a waltz).  He suggests that “counting beats internally” is an essential component of mastering a musical instrument.  He proposes that as a form of meditation practice, you can adopt the parallel technique of “rhythmic breathing”, e.g. what he calls a “four-bar sequence”.   This involves holding your breath for four beats (counting to four) for each of the four “bars” involved in breathing – inhalation, holding, exhalation, holding. 

In his book, he offers other variations on this breathing sequence that you can adopt but stresses that the important thing is to go with whatever helps you to experience calm and equanimity.   It is vital not to beat up on yourself if you lose count in the middle of your practice – just start over again.  The outcome is achieving a mind-body rhythm that is beneficial to your sense of ease and wellness.

Reflection

Meditation practice becomes enjoyable as we grow in mindfulness.  This increasing inner and outer awareness flows into our daily life and brings a variety of benefits such as focus, productivity, creativity, calmness and richer relationships.  The benefits can grow exponentially if we sustain our meditation practice.  Rhythmic breathing can enhance our mind-body connection.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Bringing Mindfulness to Your Motivations and Intentions

Diana Winston recently offered a meditation on the topic of mindfulness and intentions.  Diana is Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC, UCLA and the meditation was part of the weekly meditation podcasts offered by the Center.  The podcasts are accessible from the MARC website or via the UCLA Mindful App

Diana explained that an integral part of mindfulness is curiosity about our self, what we do and why we do it.  Many times, our intentions are not conscious – our thoughts and behaviour are often the result of habituated patterns.  We might sometimes do things because we think it is the “right thing to do” or because “others are doing it”.  As Diana points out, our motivations and intentions are often very complex, mixed in nature and not easily untangled.  She offers a guided meditation to unpack these motivations and, in particular, to explore the question, “Why do we meditate?”  If we are clear about the benefits that accrue for meditation practice, we are more likely to sustain the habit of meditating.  I find, for example, that clarity about my motivations is a key strategy for enabling me to sustain my practice of Tai Chi and writing this blog.

Meditation on intentions

Diana provides a meditation on intentions that has four key phases:

  1. Body scan – you begin by undertaking a comprehensive body scan, starting with the sensation of your feet on the floor and moving through your whole body.  I find that a body scan is easier to do if you are following the instruction of another person rather than if you try to do it under “your own steam”.
  2. Exploring why you meditate – what is it that keeps you going with meditation?  What are the benefits that you experience? The clearer you can be about the personal benefits for you – the intentions that shape your habit – the more likely you are to sustain the practice through difficult times or when you are time-poor.
  3. Grounding through your anchor – revisiting your personal anchor can help you to maintain your focus when negative thoughts or other distractions take your attention.  Your anchor can be your breath, focusing on sounds in the room (such as room tone), or getting in touch with a sensation in your body, e.g. the tingling when your fingers touch (my favourite). 
  4. Exploring why you do other activities – now you shift your attention to something else in your life to focus on your intention in doing that activity.  You can focus on a major activity that you regularly undertake and ask the fundamental question, “What am I doing this for?”  Alternatively, you can focus on a less significant activity that you want to gain some clarity about – it might be a commitment or task that you no longer want to undertake but continue to do so.  Diana cautions not to let yourself become frazzled if you cannot immediately find a focus for this phase of the meditation – you can always revisit the meditation at another time.  She also suggests that a few deep breaths taken during this part of the exercise can be helpful for finding and sustaining your focus.

Motivation for meditation

When I undertook this meditation, I was pleased that I was able to clarify and strengthen my motivation for persisting with regular meditation practice.  I was able to identify the following intentions behind my practice (you may have very different intentions based on your own life experience):

  1. Achieving calm – this is a key aspect of my intentions in meditation practice.  I find that calmness enables me to deal with the stresses of life and the inevitable traumas that I experience.  At the end of a recent workshop that I was co-facilitating, a participant came up to me and thanked me for my “calmness and creating a calming atmosphere”.
  2. Developing creativity – meditating releases my capacity to be creative in my writing and in designing and facilitating workshops for managers and leaders.
  3. Dealing with difficult emotions – there are several meditations that focus specifically on difficult emotions such as resentment or anger.  These meditations help me to temper the emotion and contribute to restoring my equilibrium.
  4. Reducing reactivity – there are so many things in life that can trigger a reaction, e.g. traffic jams, and I can become less reactive through my meditation practice (especially targeted mediations such as “You are traffic too” and “When you are waiting, have awareness as your default, not your phone”).  Now in traffic delays, I am able to revert to my anchor, fingers touching, to remain calm and increase my awareness.
  5. Improving relationships – meditation helps me to be more conscious of my thoughts and emotions in any interaction and assists me to be sufficiently present to actively listen to others I interact with, especially in close relationships (even if I don’t achieve this very well in a particular interaction, my awareness and reflection help me to resolve to do better the next time).  Awareness of my own thoughts and emotions improves my capacity to understand the dynamics occurring in my training groups.
  6. Health and healing – meditations focused on nature support my emotional stability and contribute to my overall wellness.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can develop greater clarity about the intentions behind our meditation practice and other significant activities in our life, sustain our motivation and enjoy the benefits that accrue both to ourselves and others we interact with.  We can begin to more fully realise the benefits of increasing inner and outer awareness. Meditation focused on our motivations and intentions can help us to make explicit the implicit motivation behind our actions and, in the process, to strengthen our motivation.

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Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Providing A Choice of Anchors

David Treleaven recently published a book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness. The book enables mindfulness trainers to recognise a trauma-affected individual, provide appropriate modifications to their mindfulness processes and avoid aggravating the individual’s trauma experience.

David argues that two factors are foundational to trauma-sensitive mindfulness, (1) choice and (2) anchors.  He observes that people who are trauma-affected have experienced an unwanted negative event that endangered them, a total loss of control over the situation and a lack of agency (capacity to influence the outcomes).  Providing choice, especially in relation to anchors, is critical for the welfare of the trauma-affected individual – it avoids reactivating the sense of helplessness associated with the traumatic event and reduces the likelihood of triggering a painful “body memory”.

Providing a choice of anchors – internal sensations

An anchor enables an individual to become grounded in the present moment despite being buffeted by distractions, negative self-stories or endless thoughts.  The choice of an anchor is a very personal aspect of mindfulness – it relates to an individual’s preferences, physical capacity and emotional state.  An anchor enables a person to experience ease and emotional stability.

Jessica Morey, an experienced teacher of trauma-sensitive meditation, begins a meditation training session by offering participants a choice of three internally-focused anchors – a bodily sensation, attention to sound within their immediate environment (e.g. the “room tone”) or a breath sensation (air moving through the nostrils, abdomen rising and falling or movement of the chest).

Participants are given the opportunity to try out these different anchors over a five-minute period and to make a choice of an anchor for practice over a further period.  Providing this choice of anchors avoids locking individuals into a mindfulness process that can act as a trigger for reexperiencing trauma, e.g. sustained focus on breathing.

Alternative anchors – external sensing

David notes that the five senses offer further choices of anchors – in addition to the internally focused anchors suggested by Jessica.  The senses enable a participant in meditation training to focus on some aspect of their external environment:

  • Hearing – tuning in to the external sounds such as birds singing, the wind blowing or traffic flowing past.  The downside of this approach is that it may trigger our innate tendency to interpret sounds and this may lead to focusing on a particular sound – trying to identify it and its potential source. So, this may serve as a distraction pulling us away from experiencing (the “being” mode) to explaining (the “thinking” mode).  The aim here is to pay attention to the experience of hearing, not to focus on a single sound. Sam Himelstein has found that listening to music can be a very effective anchor for a person who is in a highly traumatised state – choosing music that aligns with the individual’s musical preferences can serve as a powerful anchor.
  • Touch – a trauma-affected person could have an object, e.g. a crystal or a stone, that provides comfort and reassurance and enables them to become grounded in the present moment through the sensation of touch.
  • Seeing – taking in the natural surroundings, e.g. by observing closely the foliage of a tree – its colours, shape and texture or observing the patterns in the clouds.

Other options include sensations of smell or taste.  However, in my view, these tend to be less neutral in character and can re-traumatise a trauma-affected person.

David Treleaven offers a wide range of resources to help meditation trainers build their awareness, skills and options in the area of trauma-sensitive mindfulness (TSM).  These include an online training course, interview podcasts, a TSM Starter Kit (incorporating an introductory video and a comprehensive “TSM Solutions Checklist”) and a live meetup of the TSM Community (registered members of a community of TSM-aware practitioners).

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, research and reflection, we can become more flexible about how we offer mindfulness training.  A trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness requires an awareness of the manifestations of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), identification of different sources of anchors and the willingness and capacity to offer participants the choice of an anchor and an approach to mindfulness.  This means that we need to move beyond our own fixation with “meditation logistics” and be flexible enough to offer trauma-informed mindfulness practices.

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Image – Trees on the foreshore, Wynnum, Brisbane

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Achieving Inner harmony through Music and Mindfulness

In his book, “In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness”, Richard Wolf likens practising a musical instrument to meditation practice – each builds our capacity for inner harmony.  He maintains that playing music draws our attention to vibration, sound, feelings and silence.  Meditation, too, can take the form of a focus on sounds, tuning into feelings, making space for silence and noticing vibrations within and without.

Inner harmony

Richard argues that when a musician is in the zone, they experience a perfect harmony between their mind, body and feelings – everything is in unison with the beat and rhythm of the music.  The musician loses this sense of harmony if they overthink the music – they need to maintain their focus to remain “in the flow”.   So, too, with meditation, when you can sustain your meditation practice, you can achieve an inner harmony whereby “your whole body is experienced as an organ of awareness”.

Music, too, sometimes involves alternating dissonance with harmony.  Dissonance in music can also lead to what is termed “harmonic resolution”.  Dissonance is an integral part of life – experienced within meditation as “unpleasant thoughts or emotions”.  This dissonance can be acknowledged, named and integrated into your acceptance of “what is” – surfing the waves of life.  Meditation enables us to experience ease amid the turbulence.

A harmonising practice – breathing in tune with room tone

Richard Wolf, an Emmy-Award winning composer and producer, states that every room has its own “room tone” – acknowledged by sound engineers who attempt to integrate room tone into a soundtrack for the purpose of achieving a sense of authenticity when someone hears the music.  He suggests that you can harmonise with room tone by first focusing on the sounds within a room – sounds emitted by computers, air conditioning, digital devices or the vibration resulting from wind on the walls.  Then when you are paying attention to the room tone, you can harmonise your breathing with it.

Reflection

The analogy of music as a bridge to mindfulness can open our awareness to the sounds, vibrations and silence that surround us.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can learn to harmonise our breathing with sounds beyond our bodies, e.g. the room tone. We can achieve inner harmony through sustained musical practice and/or meditation practice. Harmonising our breathing with room tone can deepen our awareness and provide an anchor to experience calm and ease when we are buffeted by demands, challenges, dilemmas and urgent tasks.  Tuning in to ourselves through meditation enables us to become more aware of “the ambient clutter of daily life”.

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Image by Lorri Lang from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Disconnection from Childhood Trauma: A Potential Determinant of Depression and Ill-Health

Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, identified seven social causes of depression including the loss of connection to other people.  One of the surprising findings in his discussions with researchers and his colleagues, was the link between obesity, childhood trauma and depression.  In the final analysis, collectively they established that in many instances unresolved childhood trauma was a determinant of obesity and depression. 

Obesity and depression

Johann drew on the ground-breaking research of Dr. Vincent Felitti, Founding Chairman of the Department of Preventative Medicine of Kaiser Permanente – a fully integrated medical provider offering not only health care plans but also services such as specialist medical practitioners, a dynamic medical school, mental health services and education and an affordable housing initiative.  Kaiser Permanente views a healthy life for all as a cause to pursue, and is a pioneer in offering seamless health services along with leading edge research into preventative methods and treatment approaches.

Kaiser Permanente commissioned Vincent to undertake research into obesity because it was becoming the major factor in the growth of its operational costs.  Vincent started out by using a specialised diet plan supported by vitamin supplements that was designed to help obese people lose weight.  This approach appeared highly successful on early indications, but Vincent noticed that the people most successful at losing weight were dropping out of the program and returning to their eating habits and becoming overweight again.  Additionally, they often experienced depression, suicidal thoughts, rage or panic. 

Research by way of interview of 286 participants dropping out of the obesity program established that most had been sexually abused or experienced some other form of childhood trauma.   Obesity was their way to deal with the aftereffects of childhood trauma, including fear of sexual assault and the desire to hide their shame.

Childhood trauma and depression

Vincent was surprised by the findings of the initial study and realised that research of childhood history as a determinant of adult ill health had been avoided previously because of shame, secrecy and the taboo nature of the topic.  Yet his early findings established that childhood trauma played out powerfully decades later in terms of emotional state, biomedical disease and life expectancy.  He found, for example, that 55% of participants in the obesity study had suffered childhood sexual abuse.

The link between obesity, depression and childhood trauma was not well received by the established medical profession.  The video, A Tribute to Dr. Vincent Felitti, highlights the scorn he experienced when first announcing his findings at a medical conference and demonstrates the resilience of a man who had the courage to back his research and the bravery to pursue his creativity.

Vincent was convinced that he had to undertake research with a larger and broader sample of people to establish the credibility of his findings.  Through Kaiser Permanente’s processes of capturing the medical history of patients he was able, in collaboration with Dr. Robert Anda of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), to add additional questions relating to life history.  The questions picked up on the 10 types of childhood trauma identified by participants in the earlier study. The 17,500 participants involved in the second study were representative of the broader population of California where the study was done.  They were middle class with an average age of 57 and were employed.

The research titled the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE) highlighted even more surprising results.  Two thirds of the participants in the research program had experienced one or more traumatic events.  One in nine had experienced 5 or more adverse childhood events.  They also established that the higher the number of different adverse childhood events experienced by an individual (their ACE Score), the greater the likelihood of that person committing suicide.

Typical strategies adopted by individuals to cope with the impacts of childhood trauma only exacerbate the problem of ill health, e.g. smoking or over-eating.  Vincent maintained that the experience of chronic, unrelieved stress affects the nervous system and the brain and can produce “the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals in a person’s body”, leading to suppression of the immune system.

What can be done about childhood trauma?

I have previously discussed principles and guidelines for trauma-informed mindfulness practice.  Johann Hari, in the section of his book on reconnection strategies offered several strategies that could have a positive effect on the negative impacts of childhood trauma, such as obesity and depression.  His recommended reconnection strategies include social prescribing and reconnection with nature, meaningful work and meaningful values.

Vincent Felitti, too, was concerned that people who had experienced childhood trauma need some form of hope about their ability to redress its negative effects.  He decided to do further research involving medical practitioners who were treating patients through Kaiser Permanente.  He provided them with a few simple questions to ask patients that related to life history and covered childhood experiences, and asked them to express genuine empathy and respect for the patient. 

Vincent found that the participants showed “a significant reduction in illness” once a patient shared their story of childhood trauma with a doctor.  He thought that the explanation for this was twofold – (1) the person was sharing their story with another person for the first time and (2) the recipient of the disclosure was a trusted authority figure who treated them with kindness and respect.  He postulated that the intermediate effects related to the fact that the experience removed the shame and self-loathing associated with the adverse childhood event.  The association of the childhood trauma with the experience of humiliation was broken. Vincent acknowledged that this was an area for further research.

Vincent argued that the ultimate solution to childhood trauma lay in “primary prevention” and advocated for the integration of their research findings into primary care medical practice.  He also supported the development of a life experience questionnaire reporting on childhood trauma as a part of a patient’s medical record that could subsequently be viewed by the treating doctor.  A healing conversation could take place if the patient was willing and able to share their story.

David Treleaven warns, however, that when dealing with someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is imperative not to tackle the trauma experience head-on.  He advocates a trauma-sensitive mindfulness approach.  Sam Himelstein also cautions against the use of direct questioning and talking where a person is outside their window of tolerance

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through research, meditation and reflection, we can begin to recognise the impact of our own experience of childhood trauma and address the negative impacts it has on our own life and relationships. We can also become sensitised to the experience of others who have experienced adverse childhood events and take this into account when dealing with individuals and groups who are seeking to use a mindfulness approach to improve their quality of life.

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Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Trauma-Informed Mindfulness: Relationship Building through Music

Sam Himelstein has developed several basic principles and a series of guidelines to assist mindfulness teachers to sensitively work with people who are impacted by trauma. While these principles have been developed over more than a decade working with trauma-impacted teens, the principles and guidelines are also relevant to anyone working with adults who have experienced trauma. 

Relationship building through music

In his podcast interview with David Treleaven, Sam discussed a particular case that was a primary catalyst to the development of his principles and guidelines.  He provides a more detailed discussion of the case in his blog post, Trauma-Informed Mindfulness with Teenagers – 9 Guidelines.  The case involved a 17-year-old high school student, Jeanette, who had experienced a traumatic childhood with many categories of traumatic events in her life, including drug addiction of her father.  She had approached Sam, a registered psychologist, for help with her trauma-related issues.

During initial psychotherapy treatment, Sam was helping her to locate her estranged father so she could establish a connection with him.  However, before this reconnection happened, the young woman learned that her father had died from a drug overdose.  This intensified her trauma and when she presented at Sam’s clinic after the death of her father, she was unable to talk about her father, follow a line of discussion or formulate coherent sentences.  Sam described this in terms of “her brain down regulating”.

Sam’s first principle – “do no harm” – came into play as he realised that getting her to talk would take her outside her window of tolerance.  As he knew about her interest in music and her favourite genre, he intuitively realised that listening to music that she liked would enable her to establish some degree of equanimity, build trust and reinforce the relationship through a shared pleasant experience. 

As they listened to the music together, she slowly began to move her head in line with the beat and rhythm of the music.  Then, she began to talk.  Sam described the effect on Jeanette of listening to the music as regulating her central nervous system, bringing her back within the window of tolerance and enabling her to access her language ability so that she could express her emotions such as anger, grief and sadness.

Sam had realised that while Jeanette was positive about the utility of mindfulness in the context of therapy, “conventional talk therapy or mindfulness meditation wasn’t going to work”.  This music intervention was in line with what he described as practising an INCRA, an “inherently non-clinical relational activity” that is not a therapy technique in itself but effectively builds the relationship.  Sam discusses case studies where he has used INCRA in a clinical setting with teens in his forthcoming book, Trauma-Informed Mindfulness for Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can better access our intuition when working with or training people who have suffered trauma.   Being present to the person needing help will enable us to let go of conventional, trained responses and be open to activities that are non-clinical in nature but develop the relationship – the foundation for all helping.  Trauma-informed mindfulness, then, involves not only sensitivity to trauma-impacted people but also the flexibility to depart from habituated responses or processes.  Mindfulness helps us to tap into our innate curiosity and creativity.

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Image by obBilder from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Trauma-Informed Mindfulness: Guidelines for Effective Helping

Sam Himelstein, in a podcast interview with David Treleaven, discussed the principles for teaching mindfulness that he has developed over more than 12 years working with teens impacted by trauma.  His principles and related guidelines have relevance for anyone using mindfulness to help people who have experienced trauma. 

Besides his discussion in the interview mentioned above, Sam provided a blog post that addresses the guidelines explicitly.  The principles and guidelines (together with examples from real cases, teaching material and  practical exercises) are explained in depth in his forthcoming book,  Trauma-Informed Mindfulness for Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.

Guidelines for effective helping of people impacted by trauma

The guidelines developed by Sam Himelstein provide clear and consistent actions that can be taken by anyone helping people impacted by trauma:

  • Do no harm – this is a fundamental guideline informing the others.  Through research, study and practice of trauma-informed mindfulness practice, we can be more aware of potential harm and have the tools to do the best we can to avoid further harming the person suffering from trauma.  Sam mentions two resources that he draws on, The Meditation Safety Toolbox and Chris Willard’s Guidelines for Ethical Teaching of Mindfulness.
  • Avoid prescription about “meditation logistics” – people who are impacted by trauma are often unable or unwilling to start with formal meditation.  Sam urges us to avoid being inflexible through insisting on a set posture or closed eyes when initiating our helping interaction.  This requires letting go of the structural prescriptions of our own meditation training.  It is important to recognise that the people we are helping will be in a “different space” but can still develop mindfulness (inner and outer awareness) with processes other than formal meditation.  We need to acknowledge that mindfulness is more than just meditating.
  • Establish safety – it is critical that the person we are helping feels safe.  If they do not feel safe, they may experience re-traumatisation.  In addition to physical safety, this involves relationship and emotional safety through developing trust, being authentic and being prepared to modify our approach to suit where the person is at.  A more involved aspect of safety is what Sam calls cultural safety developed through “intersectional awareness”.  This requires an awareness of our implicit biases when dealing with people who have characteristics different to our own, e.g. gender, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual preference, disability or “class”.
  • Employ somatic practices first – this involves recognising the role of body memory in trauma and being cognisant that cognitive approaches commenced too early in the intervention can exacerbate the situation for the trauma-affected person.  Sam indicated that he often uses deep breathing exercises and basic somatic meditations.
  • Understand the “window of tolerance” – relates to a personal zone within which a person is able to effectively employ their cognition to “receive, process and integrate information”.  If a person is outside their window of tolerance than are unable to engage effectively in talking, telling stories or undertaking meditation practices.  Sam suggests that a sign of this “intolerance” is the person’s inability to use language, e.g. unable to formulate complete sentences or follow a line of discussion.  He recommends the book Trauma and the Body, as a resource for understanding the “window of tolerance” and learning about somatic approaches to trauma healing.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices, research and reflection, we can develop our awareness and understanding of the sensitivity of trauma-impacted people to formal meditation.  This requires that we become more aware of the “window of tolerance” and develop our capacity to pay attention to the signs that someone we are working with is not coping with our processes.  Associated with this, is the need to build the relationship through establishing safety and trust.  Employing somatic approaches will be more effective if we have experienced their utility ourselves as part of our own mindfulness practice and experience.   The more mindful we become, the better we will be able to help people impacted by trauma – for one thing, we will be able to let go of our assumptions and become more aware of our biases.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Trauma-Informed Mindfulness: Principles for Effective Helping

Sam Himelstein has specialised for more than 12 years in using mindfulness to help teenagers impacted by trauma.   In a podcast interview with David Treleaven, Sam explained in depth his approach to teaching mindfulness to teens affected by trauma, as well as the evolving principles that shape his practice. While his focus is primarily on teens and educating others to work with teens, his approach and principles have relevance to anyone who is using mindfulness to assist people impacted by trauma (or anyone who is teaching mindfulness where a participant is a trauma sufferer).  He has developed his principles through ongoing reflection on practice.

Sam is a psychologist and youth worker and the author of A Mindfulness-Based Approach to Working with High-Risk Adolescents and the forthcoming book, Trauma-Informed Mindfulness for Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.  He is also the founder of the Center for Adolescent Studies.

Principles for trauma-informed mindfulness practice

In discussing his approach to working with teens impacted by trauma, including incarcerated youth, Sam identified several principles that guide his practice:

  • Avoid “adultism” – the assumption that as an adult you are superior to teens and have a lot to teach youth and they have very little in the way of wisdom to offer.  Associated with this false belief, is the assumption that you know best what is good for them – implying that they should learn from your teachings (that you try to impose on them).  This also involves recognising the wisdom they gained in their transition to a teenager. [You can also test your assumptions when working with adults – do you assume that they have no insights into the nature and practice of mindfulness?]
  • Work from where they are at – do not begin with formal meditation as they are unlikely to be ready for this.
  • Focus on relationship-building – consciously build trust in every aspect of your interaction, as their level of trusting others will have been severely damaged by their trauma experience(s). 
  • Assist teens to become comfortable with “sitting with themselves” and exploring “inner awareness”.
  • Be genuinely curious about what is happening for them and what they are doing to cope – bring an open mind to the interaction.  It can be helpful to identify and test your own assumptions before interacting.
  • Develop your own mindfulness continuously – your inner and outer awareness – and learn to let go of “ego” and the need to control the process.

Reflection

When teaching mindfulness to adults and youth, we need to be aware of the possibility that they may have been impacted by trauma(s) in their life.  Being conscious of the principles employed by Sam will help us to demonstrate sensitivity, build trust and relationships, and work at their pace – rather than to a pre-ordained progress schedule.  It will be imperative for us to grow in mindfulness – becoming fully aware of the assumptions we bring to the teaching/interaction, letting go of ego and the need for control, and genuinely engaging with curiosity, humility and openness.

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Image by Lubos Houska from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Understanding Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress

In the previous post, I addressed the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of the observations of David Treleaven mentioned in the post, was the need for meditation teachers to develop an awareness of, and sensitivity to, the presence of people who are experiencing, or have experienced, trauma.  Failure to do this could lead to mindfulness activity that generates trauma stimuli leading to re-traumitisation.  Being trauma-sensitive means understanding the signs of post-traumatic stress as well as having the presence of mind to modify mindfulness practices to take account of people’s needs in this condition.

Recognising the signs of post-traumatic stress

Trauma results where a person experiences an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds their ability to cope and deal with the emotional fallout from that experience.  The effects vary with each individual and the nature of the traumatic event. Traumatic events can include the loss of a sibling or parent through death, separation from a parent at a young age, a life-threatening car accident or terrorist event, separation and divorce, a house fire, physical or sexual abuse or a natural disaster.

This variability in the nature and impact of traumatic events, and the individual’s reluctance to disclose through shame or the need to comply with an authority figure, means that it is often very difficult to ascertain whether a person has suffered from trauma and is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  According to several reports, up to 20% of people who experience a traumatic event together will experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

Trauma can impact a person’s thoughts, emotions, perceptions, level of arousal/reactivity and mood.  It can be reflected in behavioural change such as avoidance of a person or location, inability to sleep or sleeping too much, reliving the trauma through nightmares or flashbacks or withdrawal from social contacts or work colleagues.  The attendant emotions could be depression, anxiety and feeling unsafe.  Thoughts of suicide can also be one of the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The role of memory and embodiment

Peter Levine, in an interview with Serge Prengel, discussed the role of memory in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Peter is the author of the book, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in Search of the Past – A Practical Guide for Working With Traumatic Memory.  His book is ground-breaking in that he highlighted the role of “implicit memory” and showed how to treat trauma sufferers by accessing the “complex interplay of past and present, mind and body”.  He termed his methodology, “somatic experiencing”.

In the interview, Peter stressed that we have several different forms of memory and the ones that are particularly relevant to trauma are episodic or autobiographical memories, emotional memories and procedural or body memories.  Episodic memory, also termed “defining moments” by Serge the interviewer, though low in emotive content are nonetheless impactful. For example, Peter describes a teacher who acted as a mentor to him and instead of blaming him for poor judgement encouraged him to learn and explore his curiosity.  Other mentors in his life as he progressed through his studies modelled similar behaviour.  This, in turn, led him to a career choice as a professional mentor – so the episodic memory acted as a “trajectory” for his progress in life. 

Emotional memories, on the other hand, “though further out of the realm of awareness” are “very powerful and compelling” and shape how we behave in our life.  Some interaction from the past is encoded with a very strong emotion such as sadness, anger or fear.   The emotional memory can interfere with a current relationship when something or somebody acts as a reminder of the past interaction so that we can be overwhelmed with either a very strong negative or positive emotion. 

While emotional memories operate at a deep level, body memories are deeper still.  At one level, they have to do with the acquisition of motor learning and skills, e.g. riding a bike.  At another level, they are determinants of our approach or avoidance behaviour.  Peter gives the illustration of coming across a former classmate more than 30 years after their schooling and finding that he had a strong desire to approach and reconnect with him.  The classmate had been his protector at school when other children tried to bully him – hence his approach behaviour.  An example of avoidance behaviour conditioned by body memory is when someone who has previously experienced sexual abuse actually freezes when touched by a loving partner.

David Treleaven reinforced the relationship between trauma and body memory when he stated in his video presentation that “the respiratory system is intimately connected to our sympathetic nervous system which is totally tied to traumatic stress”.  He pointed to two books by Babette Rothschild that highlighted the close connection between trauma and body memory, The Body Remembers and Revolutionizing Trauma Treatment.   David also explained further why meditation exercises such as mindful breathing can activate trauma stimuli.  He drew on the differentiation between exteroception (body’s perception of external stimuli received through the senses) and interoception (sensing conditions within the body such as deep breathing or tightness of the chest).  Normally exteroceptors and interoceptors integrate (e.g. the external sensation of viewing a sunrise is matched with the internal sensation of a warm feeling in your chest and a sense of looseness in your hands and legs); with trauma sufferers, “the relationship between interoceptors and exteroceptors can go awry”.

Peter Levine emphasised the need to recognise that we have a “fluid identity” – while our identity is shaped by the past, and the interplay of multiple events and interactions, it is possible to gently, but surely, release the embodied memories and progressively unearth the richness, power and sense of connection of an identity not locked into painful memories.  He has dedicated his lifework to training individuals and professionals in understanding the role of the different memories and in learning to use his trauma treatment methodology, somatic experiencing.  Other professionals, through an understanding of the mind-body connection, employ somatic meditation to assist trauma sufferers.

Reflection

We can grow in mindfulness as we develop an awareness of the role that memory plays in our own thoughts, emotions, moods and behaviour and learn to recognise the signs of post-traumatic stress in others.  As we develop this heightened awareness, we can make appropriate modifications to our meditation teaching and deepen our own meditation practice and reflection.

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Image – Sunrise over the water, Wynnum, Brisbane

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.