How to Let Joy into Your Life

Diana Winston recently provided a meditation podcast on Opening to Joy.  She reinforced that mindfulness is about openness to the present moment in a curious and non-judgmental way.  Diana thought that this particular meditation is relevant in December when we are constantly being exhorted to be “joyful” – when many of us are experiencing emotions other than joy owing to anxiety, depression, or serious setbacks (physical, emotional or financial) at this time of the year.  It is also a time when we can experience extreme levels of exhaustion if we have been working intensely throughout the year or spending lengthy and stressful  days as a carer.  Diana offered this guided meditation as Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA as part of the weekly meditation podcasts presented by MARC.

We can find that at this time of the year our negative feelings can be magnified as the pressure of family celebrations mounts, distressing memories of recent (or even long-past) adverse events well up or existing painful emotions such as loneliness become intensified because we are feeling left out or overlooked or misunderstood or marginalised.  Some people have very recently lost family members as a result of bush fires, car accidents, or other misadventures – while others experience recollections of these devastating events occurring at this time of the year in the past.  It takes a lot of time, focus and energy to heal the wounds of past trauma.

Diana encourages us to be kind to ourselves through self-compassion as well as to show compassion for others.  She encourages us to explore mindful approaches to equanimity to allow peace and joy to re-enter our life if we are experiencing negative emotions or distress.  To this end, she is offering an online course Cultivating Forgiveness as part of the many courses presented by MARC.

Encouraging joy in your life through mindfulness

When we practice mindfulness, we are opening ourselves to joy and contentment – to experiencing what is, in an accepting and kind way.  It does not have to be a laugh-out-loud happiness but can be something small and subtle.  Joy can range from something that is profoundly felt to a simple sense of being content with life at the present moment. It can be the sensation of mindfully taking a walk by the sea, drinking a cappuccino, being fully present and mindfully listening to someone – joy can happen just by being fully here and showing up in our lives.  The act of gratitude for the positive things in our life – savouring our child’s development, our achievements, our friendships – can release us from unease or resentment and let joy into our life.

A guided meditation on cultivating joy

Diana provided a specific guided meditation on how to cultivate joy in your life during the podcast.  The basic steps are as follows:

  • Begin by experiencing being grounded through your feet on the floor, your thighs resting on the chair, your back upright but not strained – developing a sense of stability and being supported.
  • Progressively scan your body and loosen any muscle that may be tight or tense including your feet, legs, arms, wrist, neck, shoulders, shoulder blades, lower back and your face and forehead – your whole body, opening to a sense of well-being and ease.  You can take deep breaths as you progress with your scan and use the outbreath as a way to release tension and let in ease.
  • Now focus on something that will serve as an anchor in the event of distraction – the sensation of your breathing in some part of your body or the sounds in the room (without interrogation of their nature, source, volume or pleasantness).  You can also use the dual process of focusing on the sensation of your fingers being joined while at the same time experiencing your breathing in some part of your body where your attention can focus.  When you experience distractions such as planning, thinking, evaluating or worrying, redirect your mind to the present and your anchor to stay with the sense of ease, rather than the experience of unease.  This process of redirecting attention builds your awareness muscle and increases the prospect of experiencing joy in your life.
  • While you are being anchored through your breathing or sound, be conscious of the peace or contentment you are experiencing.  Pay attention to the joy that arises from being mindful – being fully in the present moment with openness and curiosity and wonderment. 
  • Now focus in on a specific, recent experience of joy – e.g. being with a loved one, sharing an experience with a friend, enjoying company over lunch or dinner, walking in a rainforest, or enjoying the sense of competence when playing tennis or any other sport.  Try to recapture the moment, the sensations, feelings, thoughts and the resultant joy – stay with these feelings and positive thoughts.  You can express gratitude for being able to have such an experience and to have the capacity to recapture it.

The art of cultivating joy flows from our conscious efforts to develop mindfulness and live our lives as fully as we can in the present moment.

Reflection

We can cultivate joy in our lives through mindfulness practices, meditation, reflection and expressing gratitude.  A meditation specifically designed to cultivate joy can assist us to grow in mindfulness and, as a result, more frequently capture and savour the experience of joy in our everyday lives.  We can cultivate joy by being mindful in our words and actions.

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Image by Daniela Dimitrova 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.

Healing the Wounds of Trauma

Corey De Vos of Integral Life and Ryan Oelke discussed the need to address the effects of trauma at sometime in our life.  Their discussion, Inhabit Your Wound, was wide-ranging and covered the impacts of trauma, barriers to addressing the wounds and processes for uncovering the wisdom that lies beneath the pain of trauma.  They suggest that each of us has our own “unique constellation of trauma” but if the wounds are addressed with a gentle curiosity, social support, professional help and self-compassion, they can release new insights and energy to enable us to more fully realise our purpose in life.

Trauma tends to impact many facets of our life, often below the level of consciousness.  It might be reflected in irrational fears, reluctance to appear in public, constant anxiety and depression, inability to develop and/or maintain intimate relationships, eating disorders or addiction, indecisiveness, inability to hold down a job or an overall sense of lack of meaning and purpose.  Many things can trigger a trauma response, including objects, people, news, conversations and observing a violent incident – because trauma impacts at a “cellular level”. Trauma can leave us directionless, powerless, confused and disoriented.

Barriers to healing the wounds of trauma

Corey and Ryan maintain that the shadow of trauma follows us throughout life, but we typically have defence mechanisms to prevent us from dealing with the pain and healing the wounds.  The memory of a trauma is often submerged below our level of consciousness because we sense that recollection is potentially too painful.  We may even have experienced dissociation to keep the memory away from our inner awareness.  We may have developed an internal narrative that is based on denial – “it really didn’t happen” – and this acts as a barrier to exploration and healing from trauma.

Ryan and Corey also observe that sometimes we could be part of a collective trauma experienced as a result of systemic discrimination or jointly experienced life events.  These life events could take the form of war, mass incarceration, natural disasters or a terrorist incident.  They can lead to “culturally inherited dramas” imprinted on our psyche.  Experience with religion during childhood or later in life can leave its own “baggage” and can be “harder to unpack” and deal with because it can become caught up with other traumatic experiences.  Corey and Ryan suggest that sometimes people want to hold onto their trauma because it makes them feel special and may even elicit a desired, sympathetic response from others (neediness in this area my be symptomatic of the trauma itself).

Processes to heal the wounds of trauma

We may have developed the ability to operate productively and confidently with our work environment but become aware of some disfunction in other arenas of our life.  Alternatively, we may have noticed a habituated and unhelpful response to a specific kind of incident such as personal criticism, open conflict or someone challenging our ideas or perspective.  These experiences can be the catalyst to deal with the “residual effect” of trauma and provide the necessary motivation to change our behaviour.

Corey and Ryan suggest, in line with Jon Kabat-Zinn, that a potential starting point is to “reinhabit our body” – to start noticing our bodily sensations and reactions.  This can lead to curiosity about what has triggered these responses and what prior experiences underly the nature and intensity of our response.  Ryan suggests that we need to work with any resistance we may experience in our body, but we should proceed slowly with a tender and caring curiosity.  A key here is our readiness to open the wounds and our resilience in dealing with the result – timing and support are of the essence.  Somatic meditation has proven to be an effective way to deal with the wounds of trauma and it is often undertaken with professionally trained facilitators.

There are a wide range of therapists to assist anyone who wants to deal with trauma and its effects.  Some employ cognitive approaches (such as Dialectic Behaviour Therapy) requiring voicing our thoughts, feelings and assumptions, others use less cognitive approaches such as art or music as tools for therapy.  A more recent development is the use of equine (horse) therapy which may be more appropriate for someone who loves animals and particularly horses.  Organisations such as Beyond Blue provide links to resource centres and professional therapists and others such as the Black Dog Institute offer support groups.  Keith Witt offers two books, Shadow Light and Shadow Light Workbook, that provide insights into our trauma-induced, unconscious responses and offer practices to illuminate the nature and potentiality of our “shadow self”.

The experience of Clare Bowditch in healing the wounds of trauma

Clare Bowditch – singer, songwriter and actor – captured her healing journey in her “no holds barred”, personal memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl.  Clare indicated that she wrote the story of her early life to encourage others to speak to someone and seek assistance if they are suffering from the effects of trauma, especially if they are experiencing anxiety and/or depression.  She describes in detail her own battle with anxiety and depression brought on by adverse childhood experiences and the trauma of seeing her sister die at the age of seven, after two years of hospitalisation with a rare, incurable illness that progressively eroded her muscles and caused paralysis. 

Clare, like Corey and Ryan, stressed the critical importance of relationships (family and friends) for her successful healing journey.  She encourages people to set out on the painful journey because it is “well worth it”, even if it turns out to be tougher than you first thought.  Clare experienced a nervous breakdown – she had fled to London, unprepared economically and emotionally, after she experienced shame and depression following a relationship breakup.  She experienced severe symptoms of her trauma wounds such as an inability to listen to music, write songs, watch TV, listen to the radio, eat well, sleep adequately or go outside.  She was consumed by all kinds of irrational fears and images of death (grieving her sister’s death).   Her response was to return home to her family and spend up to six months healing herself including meditating and learning about the impact of stress and unhealthy foods on the body’s nervous system.

Clare was able to reframe her nervous breakdown as a “nervous breakthrough” because “it was at this time that I got a really deep sense of what made sense to me, which was music” (p. 326).  She had finally found herself.  She rediscovered her need to be creative, to avoid things that did not make sense to her and to sing and write songs that really spoke her truth – her real, raw feelings.  She stated that the journey required the discipline to control her negative self-talk, the insight to realise that despite her life circumstances she had a choice in how she responded and the courage and resilience to persist despite setbacks.

Consistent with Corey and Ryan, Clare maintains that it is important to celebrate the small steps forward because they collectively make up the journey:

… a career is a thing that’s made up of one tiny step, one small act of courage after the other.  It’s only really when you look back later that it all makes sense. (p.313)

Reflection

Trauma affects many people in multiple, idiosyncratic ways.  The problem is that it works away as our shadow self and unconsciously impacts our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, behaviour and responses to triggers.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and self-observation, we are better able to gain insight into how we have been impacted, to develop the courage to address our trauma-induced wounds and move forward (however slowly) to realise our life purpose. 

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Image by John Hain 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.

Living with Purpose

Ginny Whitelaw introduced her Lead with Purpose online training program In an interview with David Riordan of Integral Life.  Basically, the program is about living with purpose because it is not only about leading in an organisational setting but extends to every area of our life, including family and community.  During the interview, Ginny explains in detail what the course covers, the practices employed, and the perspective offered.  She particularly emphasises the non-religious orientation of the course even though it draws on Zen philosophy and is part of the many leadership development programs available through the Institute for Zen Leadership.  Ginny maintains that unlike many leadership programs that are highly conceptual in nature, the Lead with Purpose program is very much about mind-body connection – it highlights the need to achieve this integration of mind and body if a leader is to achieve realisation of their ideas and purpose.  Integral Life offers other enlightening interviews in their series of podcasts, as well as courses.

The influences behind the Lead with Purpose Course

Ginny brings to the course her doctoral studies in biophysics, a sound understanding of recent neuroscience research, training in and practice of Zen philosophy, training in martial arts (Aikido black belt, level 5 achieved as well as training others) and her experience as a senior manger in NASA (coordinating groups that support the International Space Station).  So, her training covers mind and body and their intimate connection – and she incorporates this uniquely shaped perspective in the training course.

To Ginny, the Zen approach is about direct experience of the mind-body connection and aims to deepen and enrich this sense of connection.  This is achieved in part through physical practices focused on the breath and moving focus away from analysis and obsession with using the brain to work things out.   The practices are designed to centre and stabilise the energy of the body and make it available as a rich resource to pursue our life purpose.

These practices heighten our intuition and sensitivity to the body’s signals and develop our insight into our fundamental purpose in life and the pathway to pursue it.  Ginny points out that our individual purpose is what differentiates each of us and our connection within and with others enables us to manifest that unique purpose in our lives, whatever arena we are operating in.   She maintains that this centredness enables us to influence others effectively whether in a meeting, a public presentation, in our family relationships or when engaging with the wider community.

Some of the modern-day issues addressed in Lead with Purpose

In today’s fast paced world with ever increasing demands and rapid change on every front, we often express frustration in three main areas – (1) lack of time, (2) lack of energy and (3) inability to translate ideas into action.

  1. Ginny explains in the interview that the course changes our relationship to time so that we are not racing against time but are focused on the now and being fully engaged with our situation.  She points out that participants in the course develop a different perspective on time and no longer see time as something separate but experience time through their continuous, personal evolution.
  2. Ginny addresses the lack of energy by maintaining that often we are unproductive because we get distracted from our purpose and energy gets “siphoned off’ into other pursuits.  The Lead with Purpose course through its centredness in the body builds energy and enables real resonance to be achieved by a person who is leading.  She explains that “as the body relaxes, energy flows”.  Ginny describes four basic “energy patterns” that exist in our nervous system and that are foundational to her approach in the course.  She maintains that we each prefer a particular pattern which reflects our personality (and influencing style) but we need to develop the capacity to use the “right energy at the right time” – a specific focus of the course.  As we increase our internal connectedness between body and mind, we can use our heightened energy to influence externally – to manifest our dreams and purpose.
  3. Often our attempts to translate our ideas into action are thwarted by our internal barriers (such as negative self-talk) as well as external barriers related to organisational, personal or community readiness to change.  The Lead with Purpose course creates a heightened sensitivity to what is possible, to the opportunities that open up and to a way forward in pursuit of our purpose.

Ginny explains that through the program, participants create an “intuitive connection’ with the situation in which they lead and an “empathetic connection” with their followers, collaborators or co-creators.

Clare Bowditch – a journey into leading with purpose

Clare Bowditch – singer, songwriter, and actor – is a person of exceptional talent in many arenas. She is the winner of an Aria Award as the best female vocalist and was nominated for a Logie for her acting role in the TV series, Offspring. She has won many awards, toured with famous singers like Leonard Cohen, and developed as a radio presenter and entrepreneur.  She recently released her memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl: The stories we tell ourselves and what happens when we believe them. The memoir recounts an extended personal journey to find her purpose and pursue it with her total focus and centred energy.

Clare suffered numerous dark days through depression, catalysed by childhood trauma through the death of her young sister and adverse childhood experiences through her abusive treatment at school and elsewhere because she was considered “fat”.  She was filled with self-doubts about her talent, fears about future events and a sense of guilt over the death of her sister and her failure to do more to save her (a totally irrational belief given that her older sister died at the age of seven from a rare and incurable disease).

Clare describes in graphic detail the self-talk that debilitated her for much of her early life and clouded her view of her life purpose.  The memoir is also a story of courage, resilience and persistence in the pursuit of her life purpose. Clare adopted multiple approaches to acknowledge her true purpose, accept it and pursue it with a singular, focused energy.  Her strategies included:

  • Drawing on the support of her family and friends (including a “healing friend”)
  • Engaging in meditation (however imperfect)
  • Listening to her body and the signals it was conveying about her fears, her energy, her passion and her happiness
  • Naming negative self-talk as “Frank” and developing a way to shut Frank up and ignore “his” messages (she called it FOF)
  • Developing a personalised approach to relaxing herself (FAFL – Face, Accept, Float and Let time pass).

Clare had to offload the “shoulds” that beset her throughout her life to enable her to identify her differentiation as a singer/songwriter in terms of speaking with her real voice – becoming her “resonant self”, reflecting her true feelings and beliefs.

Reflection

Ginny’s discussion of her course, Lead with Purpose, helps us to realise the blockages that prevent us from identifying, accepting and pursuing our life purpose.  She provides a pathway forward built on an intensive mind-body connection that removes these blocks to insight and energy.  Clare Bowditch provides a model of the courage, resilience and persistence required to truly align our energies with our purpose.  As we grow in mindfulness through physical practices, meditation and reconnection, we can develop a clarity and resonance that enables us to create a real difference in our world.

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Image by John Hain 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.

Dealing with the Inner Critic through Self-Compassion

Clare Bowditch – singer, storyteller and actor – recently released a biography titled, Your Own Kind of Girl.   In the book, which she had been attempting to write since she was 21, Clare discusses how she dealt with her inner critic which was all encompassing and destructive.  Clare writes that the book is “about the stories we tell ourselves, and what happens when we believe them”.  She lived in hope that someone would tell her that she was “more than” her grief, her failures and the negative stories about herself that she constantly carried in her head.  Clare explained that the title of the book is drawn from a song she wrote in 2008 and, to this day, she is immensely moved by the lyrics in the second verse, including the words, “You are fine, you’re more than enough”.  The book is about her painful journey to come to this realisation – a journey that is a common story for many people, particularly women.

The debilitating effects of the inner critic

In an earlier blog post, I spoke about the negative self-stories that we perpetuate, partly because our brain has a negative bias but also because of social pressures and the materialistic values that are propagated on an hourly basis through intrusive advertising and image making in videos and films.  Our self-stories can undermine our self-esteem, entrap us in a sense of helplessness and create a negative spiral leading to anxiety and depression.  These stories, often based on irrational fears, can become deeply ingrained and extremely difficult to shift.  They can blind us to creative options, block the realisation of our potential and harm our interpersonal relations.

Self-compassion to overcome the inner critic and negative self-stories

Tara Brach recently released a book titled Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and the World with the practice of R.A.I.N.  This meditation practice involves four basic steps – recognise, accept, investigate and nurture.  Tara provides a brief example of this process in a 9-minute, guided meditation, Reflection: Healing Self-Blame.   Below are some of the key points in this meditation that is based on the R.A.I.N. approach:

  • The starting point is to recognise some aspect of your life where your inner critic is active.  It does not have to be a major example of self-denigration – it could be some relatively minor self-critique, e.g. focusing on your failure sometimes to really listen to someone or diverting a conversation to establish your credentials.   The important thing is to have a focus for this meditation.  More complete self-awareness can grow out of recognising even a small aspect of the inner critic in our life – this can puncture a hole in the wall of self-protection that blocks our self-realisation. 
  • As we progress in the meditation, we come to a point of self-acceptance. This involves acknowledging what we say and do but also accepting that we have an innate goodness and that we are not defined by our thoughts – that we are “more than” our negative self-evaluation.  In Clare’s words, “You are fine, you’re more than enough”.
  • Our investigation of the impacts of our inner critic extends to recognising bodily sensations as well as feelings that flow from the inroads that negative self-stories make on our sense of self-worth.  We can experience tension in our muscles, pain (e.g. in our arms, neck and back), headaches or a nervous twitch when our inner critic is running rampant in our thoughts.  A body scan and progressive tension release can help here.  The key thing is to experience the impact of our negative self-story in a holistic way – this builds awareness and increases our understanding of the negative impacts of our inner critic.
  • Lastly, we reach the stage of self-nurturing in the meditation process.  This can be expressed physically by placing your hand on your heart or mentally through naming the self-criticism and countering with expression of self-forgiveness, acknowledgement of your positive contributions and achievements and gratitude for all that you have in life – opening yourself to what is good in you and what is wonderful in the world around you.

Reflection

Our inner critic is deeply entrenched and can be very damaging to our self personally, and to our relations, both at work and at home.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and especially the R.A.I.N. meditation, we can become more aware of our inner critic (negative self-stories), understand its impacts physically and mentally and develop strategies to counter its inroads into our sense of self-worth.  As both Clare and Tara point out, dealing with the inner critic can create a new sense of freedom and realisation of our true potential.

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Image by John Hain 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.

Turning From Envy to Valuing the Success of Others

Johann Hari, in his  book Lost Connections, discusses various ways to achieve reconnection to other people, to meaningful work and to meaningful values.  In looking at ways to reconnect with others he maintains that the challenge is to overcome self-addiction (what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “myself as the center of the universe”), and transition to valuing the success of others (what Johann calls “sympathetic joy”).  To illustrate this transition, he tells the story of his friend Rachel who was consumed by envy – a divisive emotion that is socially constructed.

Envy – a socially constructed emotion

Rachel was able to describe how she experienced disappointment, sadness and depression when others succeeded at the expense of her own self-evaluation.  She explained that she had become driven by society’s values that encouraged comparison, competition and materialistic values – a society that was based on the assumption that if others achieved power or success there was less to go around for herself (a “zero-sum” perspective).

She lacked happiness and joy in her life because she always came up lacking when comparing herself with others – whether the basis of comparison was financial or professional success, the quality of her home or car or her level of visibility/perceived credentials.  This led increasingly to disconnection from others, in part because she could not express appreciation for their achievements and distanced herself to reduce her envy.

In Johann’s book, Rachel describes how she was able to turn from envy to valuing the success of others – how she was able to progressively experience and express “sympathetic joy”.

Developing sympathetic joy through loving-kindness meditation

Rachel explains how she turned to loving-kindness meditation as a pathway to overcome the pressure of society’s expectations and her socially constructed envy.  Overcoming addiction to self was a slow journey, but as she began to express positive emotions towards others when they “succeeded”, she was able to release the stranglehold of society’s expectations embed in her sense of self.

There are various forms of loving-kindness meditation and the form Rachel described entailed the following steps:

  • You picture yourself being successful in some arena of activity and allow the resultant joy to flow through you – experiencing it holistically in mind, body and emotion
  • You then visualise someone you love succeeding in some endeavour, and again open yourself fully to the resultant joy
  • You progressively focus on success and joy in relation to someone you don’t know well or are not close to, then someone you dislike and lastly someone for whom you have a strong dislike.

This loving-kindness meditation – expressing happiness for the success of others – eventually erodes envy and replaces it with appreciation, valuing others and experiencing real joy (that is no longer solely dependent on your own success but also embraces the success of others).

Reflection

We can move from envy to sympathetic joy as we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness meditation and reflection.  As the neuroscientists continually reminds us, “we become what we focus on” – if we focus on valuing the success of others (in whatever arena) we will experience joy, if we continue to envy the success of others, we will become consumed by envy and resentment and become disconnected from others.  Sympathetic joy is a pathway to personal happiness, whereas envy leads to sadness, depression and despair because our self-evaluation is based on distorted comparison with others.

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Image by Eric Michelat 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.

Creative Collaboration Versus Craving for Attention

In several earlier posts I shared Johann Hari’s research about the social factors contributing to the rise of depression and anxiety in the Western world. Of particular significance was his finding that the loss of connection to meaningful values – evidenced by the rise of materialistic values – was a major social factor leading to depression. Inherent in this increase in materialism is concern for what other people think about us and the need to attract attention to ourselves – hence, the rise of the “selfie” and “dronie”.  Johann explained why the obsessive concern for what others think about us leads to depression – its negative impact on our relationships, reduction in our capacity to enjoy the present moment, our over-dependence on the opinions of others and the resultant frustration of our innate human needs

How does this craving for attention arise?

Sarah Valencia Botto, a researcher in early childhood development, explored the question, “When do kids start to care about the opinions of others?  In her TED Talk presentation, she provided video evidence that our concern for what others think begins as early as when we are toddlers.  Sarah suggests that as parents we unconsciously cultivate this concern through our words, actions and the choices we make about what we spend out time on.  She suggests that we are continuously informing our children (whether we are conscious of this or not) about what is “likeable, valuable and praise-worthy, and what is not”.

The problem then arises that social media reinforces our craving for attention.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt explains that our craving for attention through obsession with the number of “followers” and “likes” leads to a loss of creativity, a sense of being inadequate and inevitable disappointment.  He suggests that the “attention-driven model” of social media means that the technology giants are relentlessly making profits from our attention-seeking behaviour.  He argues that creativity develops when we “pay attention”, not when we “seek attention”.   Tristram Harris goes even further suggesting that tech companies control the thoughts of billions of people by tricks that use our own psychology, e.g. craving for attention, to gain our attention and direct our thoughts.  They pander to our need for attention and over-concern with the opinions of others.  

Creative collaboration instead of competitive attention-seeking

Joseph explained that creativity is developed through collaboration (not competition for attention) and, in line with this belief, he has established an online platform to promote and cultivate collaboration in the arts.  He has also started a series of podcasts involving interviews with key people that focus on Creative Processing – how creative people do what they do and how creative collaboration actually works.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can build our capacity to pay attention, to collaborate with others and to open ourselves to our creative capacities.  Craving attention, on the other hand, undermines our creativity and our innate human needs and leads to disappointment and depression.  Collaboration develops our creativity; competition for attention destroys it.

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Image by Anemone123 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.

Doing That Meaningful Work You Have Been Avoiding

Leo Babauta, creator of the blog Zen Habits, reminds us that we each invariably have one meaningful task, endeavour or initiative that we keep putting off.  We find excuses, maintain our busyness, visit the fridge, go out for coffee or adopt any number of tactics to avoid facing up to the challenge of doing the one meaningful thing that we know we ought to do.  Leo describes this process of procrastination as our “habituated avoidance.”

What meaningful work are you avoiding?

Your avoidance may relate to developing a solution to a seemingly intractable problem; doing that significant blog post about a controversial topic; engaging with a particular ethnic group; volunteering your services to a charity; offering a special service to a group in need; joining a Men’s Shed; or undertaking any other meaningful work. 

Factors that could contribute to your habituated avoidance of the meaningful work can be many and varied, e.g. the work takes you out of your comfort zone; there is a chance you could be embarrassed; you may “fail” in what you are setting out to do; it could require significant courage to undertake the work; you could be perceived to be an “upstart”; or you might be challenged because you lack specific professional qualifications.

One of the things that I have been putting off that would fall into this category of meaningful work is the development and conduct of guided meditations via an online conference platform.  The reality is that through this blog (with over 350 posts) and its numerous hyperlinks to resources, I have what I need to create these guided meditations.  I also have experience conducting online conferences and have access to an online conference platform.  But what is stopping me from developing these valuable events?  I know that part of the reason is my uncertainty about the reliability of the online conference platform (or is this just an excuse?).  I find that even in the downtime between meetings with clients, planning training activities, facilitating workshops and writing this blog, I do not embrace the challenge of creating these online guided meditations – even when I have surplus time in my life.  To me, an important first step is to revisit the reason why the avoided “work” is significant or meaningful.

Revisiting your intention

Why is the work/task/endeavour meaningful?  What group or individual (family member, friend or work colleague) will benefit from your undertaking this work?  What are their needs that you can meet or partially address? In what way would your activity make a difference or improve the quality of their life? 

For example, The process of online guided meditations would enable me to help people who are experiencing anxiety or depression, mental health conditions that have reached epidemic proportions.  It would provide a way for them to connect with other people, use mindfulness to address some aspect of their adverse mental health condition, become aware of resources and support that are available to them and learn techniques and mindfulness practices that they can use outside the guided meditation experience.

Revisiting your intention in doing the meaningful work is important to tap into the motivation and energy needed to take the necessary steps to make that meaningful endeavour happen.  Spending time meditating on this intention can help to energise you to take action – and overcome the internal objections, self-doubts and excuses for inaction.  Leo offers three easy ways to translate this intention into action.

A simple Three-Step Method for getting your meaningful work done

Leo offers a 3-step method that is simple, time efficient and workable (he uses it himself with great effect! – you don’t create a blog with 2 million readers without successfully pushing through the inertia or the procrastination barrier).

  1. Create a space (a brief period that you can free up) – Leo suggests that this can even be 15 minutes, but it  is important to start now (or very soon so you don’t put it off).
  2. Meditate on meaning and feelings – tap back into your intention and what gives the planned work meaning or significance.  Having captured this meaning in your mind, do a body scan to tap into any fear, resistance, tension, anxiety or worry that you may be experiencing as the meaningful work comes clearer into focus – in the process release the tightness, pain or soreness.  Then really focus your attention on the people you will be helping – tap into your feelings, sense of loving-kindness, towards them (and experience your own positive emotions that accompany compassionate action).
  3. Do the smallest next step – do something that will progress your meaningful work, no matter how small it seems to you.  Translating intention into action, however small, sets your momentum in the right direction.  Small actions build to larger steps which, in turn, increase energy; provide reinforcement; develop motivation; and offer personal reward.

As you adopt these techniques for advancing your meaningful work, you will grow in mindfulness (internal and external awareness) and build your capacity to pursue creative endeavours to make a real difference for individuals or a group.  The insights gained will help you overcome inertia in relation to other things that you need to get done and the experience of overcoming procrastination in relation to your meaningful work, will flow into other arenas of your life.

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Image by Anemone123 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.

What Do You Do if Mindfulness Does Not Reduce Your Symptoms of Anxiety or Depression?

I was approached recently by a young man who was experiencing severe anxiety.  He was able to cope well with his work but had all kinds of difficulties coping at home, including endless self-doubts, negative self-stories and an inability to relax or concentrate.  He indicated that he had “tried everything’ – meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection. 

He found, for example, that “reflection” only resulted in his entertaining negative thoughts about himself and re-visiting his destructive self-stories.  So, reflection for him resulted in a downward spiral rather than a release from self-deprecation.

What does “tried everything” mean?

The first consideration is how did he approach these attempts to develop mindfulness and reduce his symptoms?  Given the young man’s level of agitation, it was likely that his efforts were somewhat frantic and unfocussed.  One could question whether he engaged in a sustained meditation practice in a focused way, e.g. working on his self-stories with the aid of a meditation teacher or meditation group.

One of the issues is that there are so many different forms of meditation that it is tempting to “try them all” and flit from one form to another, without addressing your specific needs or the causal factors of your depression or anxiety.  This is where a professional psychologist or dedicated professional group could help.  Organisations like Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute can help by providing knowledge, resources, group support, access to programs and advice in identifying a suitable medical practitioner, psychologist or psychiatrist.  Other specialist carer support groups can assist people who are experiencing anxiety or depression as a result of caring for someone who has a long-term need for care and support.

The Mental Health Care Plan

You may need medication and/or the aid of an allied health professional to overcome depression and/or anxiety. In Australia, there is a specialist form of help that can be accessed through your local medical practitioner, the Mental Health Care Plan.   You explain your symptoms and needs to a doctor who develops a mental health treatment plan with you.  This may include medication, referral to an allied health professional such as a psychologist and/or other forms of activity designed to address your specific mental health condition.  Medicare will provide rebates for visits to an authorised health care professional where the visits have been the subject of referral by a medical practitioner as part of a Mental Health Care Plan.  The number of visits covered by Medicare rebate is 10 (subject to a confirming review by the doctor after the first six visits).

Advancing our understanding of the causes of depression and anxiety

Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, highlights recent research undertaken worldwide that shows that anti-depression medication can be effective in the short term to reduce symptoms but that, in the medium to long term, it typically has to be increased and can reduce in effectiveness over time.  In his book, Johann focuses on the social factors contributing to the global rise in depression and anxiety and proposes solutions that support rather than replace medication treatments, although some people are able to give up their medication after a period of successful use of one or more of these alternative approaches.

Johann identifies seven social factors that contribute to the rise in depression and anxiety, all relating to a loss of connection.  He describes them as “disconnection from”:

Johann acknowledges the research that shows that in some instances a person experiences depression and/or anxiety because of their genes or a brain change brought on by some life experience (pp. 143-155).

Reconnection: alternative anti-depressant treatments

Johann describes several ways to reconnect to overcome depression and anxiety.  These include reconnecting with others, with meaningful work, with nature and/or meaningful values. He also includes chapters on finding “sympathetic joy” while overcoming self-obsession (Chapter 20), and a compelling chapter on acknowledging and overcoming childhood trauma (Chapter 21).

What I found particularly intriguing, as well as very practical, was a chapter on “social prescribing” (Chapter 17).  In this chapter, Johann highlights the work of the Bromley-by-Bow Center which combines a medication approach (where deemed necessary) with hundreds of social programs.  This medical centre is very different to most doctor’s clinics that you would normally visit, both in terms of the orientation of the medical practitioner and the physical environment.  The emphasis is on listening, not medication prescription, and treatment is strongly oriented to “reconnection” strategies such as a walking group, employment skills group, start-up support to establish your own business and a casual group focused on “Create Your Future”.

What further intrigued me was the effectiveness of one project described by Johann through the experience of Lisa, who was experiencing severe depression.  The project was the brainchild of Dr. Sam Everington who was concerned about the over-reliance on anti-depression medication.  Basically, he assigned some of his patients to a community project focused on beautifying a strip of bushland that had become overgrown and neglected but was a popular walk-through. 

The group of people experiencing depression, who had difficulty interacting with anyone and typically kept to themselves, eventually started having conversations, sharing their life histories and their personal mental health challenges as well as plans to beautify the bushland strip.  They had to learn about the seasons, plants and their nutrition needs and how to plant and cultivate different kinds of plants.  They took pride in their project and started to gain confidence and competence.  A moving story was that of a person who had initially presented as very angry and aggressive who went out of his way to help two people who experienced learning difficulties.  Eventually, the members of the group decided to do a Certificate in Horticulture.

Johann pointed out that this creative project addressed two major reconnection needs – reconnection with others and with nature.  It can also be seen that each of these reconnections reinforces the other.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can be open to new ways of dealing with depression and anxiety.  We can learn to reconnect with key elements in our life that induce mentally healthy living, including mindful connection to others, spending time in nature, being grateful for what we have (rather than suffer “status anxiety”) and being willing to show compassion towards others.

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Image by Henning Westerkamp 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.

Accessing the Wisdom of the Body

Diana Winston, in her meditation podcasts through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), often begins by defining mindful awareness as paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is.  In this context, openness and curiosity extends to our body as well as our thoughts and feelings.   However, we frequently take our bodies for granted and, more importantly, ignore our body’s signals.  The recent Wisdom of the Body Summit with 32 leading teachers and scientists, was designed to make us aware of the wisdom of the body and its innate intelligence.

In this post, I would like to explore some of the ideas advanced by Spring Washam who spoke during the Summit on Trusting Our Hearts, Intuition, Embodiment and Personal Power.  Spring is the author of A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Courage and Wisdom in Any Moment.  A central theme of Spring’s presentation was learning to access and trust the wisdom of our body.  She highlighted the intelligence of the body that is ever-present to us, if we would only stop and attune ourselves to its message.

Disembodied: out of touch with our body

Increasingly we live in our heads – engaged in endless thought processes, some of which lead to depression, others to anxiety.  We continually become absorbed by self-stories that lead to self-deprecation and self-recrimination.  In the process, we become disconnected from our bodies and cut ourselves off from the body’s intelligence, intuition and energy.  When we are disembodied, we are also disempowered.

Spring maintains that we should “press the pause button” so we can listen to our bodies, become conscious of what our heart is telling us is the right way to proceed.  We become numbed over time because we are constantly pushing ourselves to achieve, ignoring the signals from our body.  We need to become attuned to our body and the wisdom that resides within.

Embodiment: being in touch with the intelligence and wisdom of our body

Ways to tap into the wisdom of the body are mindful breathing, mindful walking, being in nature and feeling the earth through walking barefoot on the grass or sand.  Walking barefoot helps to develop proprioception – the body’s capacity (through its nerves, muscles and joints) to monitor its environment (e.g. the slope of the ground) and to make adjustments accordingly.  This is just one form of intelligence of the body – reflected in our capacity to know where our limbs are in space, even when we can’t see them.

Our bodies also store memories, including the emotions associated with memories – which is why people display unease and/or sadness when recalling a disturbing event or personal loss.  We can access these memories and emotions through getting in touch with our bodies through mindfulness practices such as a body scan.

Our bodies are continually taking in information from each of our senses at an astonishing rate (calculated to be around 11 million bits per second) and compressing the information to enable conscious processing and response. So, our bodies are incredibly powerful information processors that are also intuitive.  Sometimes our body can anticipate events before they happen – such as just before a car crash is about to happen.

Spring suggests that placing our hand on our heart is one way to access the heart’s intelligence, intuition and synchronicity.  She mentions the research done by HeartMath and the science behind the heart’s intelligence.  For example, the research has shown that “changing heart rhythms, changes emotions”, e.g. from frustration to appreciation.

As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation and mindfulness practices, we can learn to tap into the innate intelligence, intuition and wisdom of our bodies. This will enable us to be grounded in the present moment, become more aware of our thought patterns and gain better control over our feelings that could be holding us back from living life more fully and meaningfully.

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Image by Michal Jarmoluk 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.