Being Mindful of Mental Health in the Workplace

There are at least five pieces of legislation in Australia that require directors, executives and managers to be mindful of mental health in the workplace.  These pieces of legislation highlight the duty of care responsibility of organisation office holders and managers to be mindful and proactive in developing a mentally healthy workplace.

The Portner Press publication,  Mental Health at Work Guide 2018,  identifies the following pieces of legislation that are relevant and reinforcing of this responsibility:

  • Fair Work Act
  • Common Law
  • Workplace Health & Safety legislation
  • Anti-discrimination legislation
  • Worker’s Compensation legislation

Despite this legislative responsibility very few managers are adequately trained to be aware of mental health in the workplace or to know how to take appropriate, compassionate action.  The Heads Up organisation, a mentally healthy workplace alliance, identifies awareness and responsiveness of managers and staff as one of the nine attributes of a mentally healthy workplace:

Ensure that managers and staff are responsive to employees’ mental health conditions, regardless of cause and that adjustments to work and counselling support are available.

There are numerous video resources available to help managers and staff become more aware of, and responsive to, mental health issues in the workplace.  One such resource is the video of the webinar conducted by Belinda Winter, partner  of law firm Cooper Grace Ward, where she explores managing mental illness in the workplace.

A toolkit for a mentally healthy workplace

WorkSafe Queensland provides a superb and comprehensive Mentally Healthy Workplaces Toolkit which is accessible online to help managers exercise their responsibility to be mindful of mental health in the workplace.  The toolkit is built around the four pillars of awareness and responsiveness, namely:

  1. Promote positive mental health at work
  2. Prevent psychological harm
  3. Intervene early
  4. Support recovery

Each of these steps requires managers and staff to be mindful about the state of mental health in the workplace and to be proactive in pursuing processes, policies, systems, leadership style and an organisational culture that are conducive to positive mental health.

Mindfulness training supports managers in their duty of care

Mindfulness training, along with appropriate action learning interventions, can help build the requisite culture and assist managers and staff in exercising  their duty of care and maintaining their own self-care.

As managers and staff grow in mindfulness through meditation practice and training they can become more mindful of mental health issues in the workplace and more responsive to the needs of individuals.  The managers will be better equipped to exercise their duty of care and related responsibility for creating a mentally healthy workplace.

 

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Being Mindful of the Past and the Future

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and doing so in a way that is open to, and accepting of, whatever is the reality of our lives.  It means not resisting our lives but approaching our lives with curiosity and a willingness to be with the present moment.

We often hear in the context of mindfulness that it is important not to be lost in the past (which leads to depression) or in the future (which leads to anxiety).  However, the past and the future have a positive role to play in our lives.

Mindful of the past

The opposite to being mindful of the past is to be always living in the past – obsessing about what might have been, what we could have done.  It is replaying in our head the negative things we have done or experienced – going over and over them so that the past controls us.  We can become obsessed about the past and stuck on what happened, unable to let go.  This inevitably leads to disappointment, frustration, sadness, resentment and depression.

Being mindful of the past can involve a positive approach to life.  If we reflect on our actions and the outcomes, intended and unintended, we can learn from this process, if it is done in a non-judgmental way.   Through reflection, we can really grow in self-awareness and self-management, because we can recognise the negative triggers, our responses and alternative ways of acting and being-in-the-world.

When we engage in gratitude meditation we can revisit in a positive way what has happened for us in the past.  We can appreciate the skills we have developed, the opportunities to acquire qualifications, the support of our parents/siblings/friends, the synchronicity that flowed from our focus, and the opportunities that opened up for us because of our life circumstances.

Mindful of the future

Approaching the future mindlessly can involve obsessing about the negative things that can potentially happen in our lives.  The word “potentially” is used consciously here- much of what we imagine will never happen.  We can easily get into a spiral of negative thoughts that leads to catastrophising- envisaging the worst possible outcome.  Unfortunately, our minds have a negative bias but we can train our minds to be positive in outlook and open to opportunities that may come our way.  A morbid fixation on the future can only lead to fear, worry and anxiety and destroy our potential for happiness in the present.

We need to attend to the future and this can be healthy and positive.  We have to plan ahead for many things such as getting to work, what to wear, what to focus on for the day, what we will have for dinner, what social events we will engage in on the weekend and our upcoming holiday.   Such planning and thoughts about the future are natural.   However, if we become overly concerned about what might happen or how our life will turn out in the future, we can enter a negative anxiety spiral.

Being mindful of the future requires a healthy approach to planning (not planning obsessively) and a willingness to accept what arises in our lives despite our very best plans.  It also means not being controlled by the expectations of others or our own expectations of how things might work out.

A meditation on the past and the future

Tara Brach provides a meditation podcast on exploring the past and the future. In the meditation she encourages you to notice any tension in your body arising from thoughts about the past or the future.  She suggests that you do not entertain these thoughts but let them pass by like the train as you wait at the station.  Her advice is to continuously come back to the focus of your meditation, such as your breathing or sounds that surround you, whenever your mind wanders into the past or the present.

Tara suggests too that if you are focusing on sounds, you could try to tune into the furthest sound you can hear and to rest in the sense of expansiveness that results.  The primary goal, however, is to rest fully in the present.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we can become mindful of the past and the future and avoid being captured by either.  We can extract from the past and the future positive thoughts and avoid dwelling on the negative which can lead to sadness and unhappiness.  We can learn to happily appreciate the present moment – the summation of our past and the positive potentiality of our future.

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Caring through Mindfulness

Caring is integral to mindfulness – we pay attention in the moment with care and curiosity.  We can learn to care for others through  loving kindness meditation as well as learn to care for ourselves through self-compassion.

Diana Winston provides a meditation podcast on the subject of mindfulness and care and stresses the need to care for ourselves as well as for others.  She suggests that people often discount or devalue their inner experience or feelings and yet be consumed by care for others.

Diana asks an important question to enable us to be mindful about caring – her question is, “What or whom do you care for”.  For whom do you express care and concern – a son or daughter, partner, friend or people suffering adversity.  How wide is your circle of care and how deeply do you care?

These are challenging questions because they raise the issue of how often we express care and concern for others – how generous and expansive is our caring?  How many people do we let into our lives through concern, considerateness and thoughtfulness?

Caring through mindfulness

Caring can be the focus of our meditation once we have become grounded through placing our feet on the ground, adopting a restful position with our body (and especially our hands) and taking a few deep breaths.

Our concern and care of our body can then be expressed through a progressive body scan and relaxation of points of tension.  Focus on our breathing will assist us to pay attention to the theme of caring as mindful breathing steadies our mind and enables us to concentrate.

We can focus on an individual and express care for that person and tap into what it feels like to express this care – is the feeling one of warmth, love or genuine concern for their welfare?  How is this care manifested in our body?

We can also express appreciation for the fact that we do care for others and take the time to express that care in words and actions.  We can acknowledge that it is a gift to be able to be sensitive to others and their needs – to move beyond self-absorption to concern for others.

As we grow in mindfulness through caring meditation our circle of care and concern widens and deepens, and we are able to more readily extend care to ourselves.

 

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Being Mindful About Our Thoughts

Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Mindfulness of Thoughts, explains the role thoughts can play in our lives and provides options for using mindfulness meditation to control our thoughts.

Thoughts have a powerful influence over our lives – they can be positive or negative with consequential impacts on the way we see and experience the world.  They can express our perceptions of others and our experiences.  Our thoughts can extend to our needs such as who I wish to marry, where I would like to live, my ideal job, what I want to study/research or what I am going to do with the surplus in my life.

We also have thoughts that contribute to our pain and suffering such as negative self-evaluation, anxious thoughts, thoughts about grief or thoughts that engender negative emotions such as rage, anger, frustration or envy.

Being mindful about our thoughts

Mindfulness can really help us to manage our thoughts.  Diana suggests that a fundamental rule is, “Don’t believe everything you think”.  Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us too, “We are not our thoughts”.  Thoughts can be seen as real but, in reality, they are just passing through our mind, unless we cultivate and encourage them.

We can be trapped by our thoughts or create some space so that we have times when we are free from them.  Freedom comes from just noticing our thoughts as they pass by rather than being enmeshed in them and acting them out, particularly where they are negative.

Diana uses the metaphor of a passing train as a way to illustrate how one thought leads to another, which leads to another…as if they are coupled or joined together.  They become like a “thought train that leads us down a particular track”.  Before you know it, a lot of time can elapse and you begin to wonder where the time has gone – you have been lost in your thoughts.

By being in the present moment through mindfulness, you can stop yourself from going down that particular track that your thoughts are leading you along. Diana suggests that an alternative position is to visualize yourself staying on the platform and watching the thoughts go by, avoiding getting on the thought train, just letting the train go past.

Meditations to control our thoughts

We can build awareness by focusing on our breathing while noticing when thoughts arise and then returning to our focus – our breath.  This practice of noticing, not cultivating our thoughts, and returning to our focus, is a powerful way to achieve equanimity and avoid being disturbed and captured by our thoughts that can lead to a negative spiral.

A second meditation practice is to actually notice a thought and pay attention to it for a brief interval – just noticing it briefly and returning to our focus.  It becomes like a temporary aside.  We could notice that we are engaged in planning, critiquing or other frequent forms of our mental activity.

A third meditation practice is open awareness – like noticing thoughts as if they are clouds in the sky passing by us as the wind blows them along in a hazy way.

Each of these meditation practices can help us to be mindful about our thoughts and to learn to control them so that they do not control us and the way we experience, and relate to, the world.  Diana, in her meditation podcast, leads us through each of these meditation practices to enable us to experience the sense of freedom and control that comes from release from the binds of our thoughts.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices that address our thoughts, we can develop a sense of peace and control and free ourselves to show up for our lives – not being held back by the heavy anchor of negative thoughts.

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Mindfulness for Overcoming Resentment

Resentment towards another person, organisation or group can hold us captive and lead us to give away control of our emotions to others.  It also has the ability to linger and smoulder long after the initial catalyst has passed or even been forgotten.

Our resentment may flow from someone or a group that has frustrated our expectations or impeded our goals or done something that we experienced as harmful to us personally.  Unless we let it go and dissolve its power, resentment can eat away at us and negatively impact our quality of life and the quality of our relationships.

Overcoming resentment through mindfulness

There are several mindfulness practices that can help us to let go of resentment.  Here are three processes:

Forgiveness Meditation

Forgiveness meditation is one way to use mindfulness to overcome resentment towards a person and has proven to build understanding and empathy.  It is designed to replace resentment with thoughtfulness and loving kindness

Dealing with conflict

During a two-day course on mindful leadership conducted by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, I learned a process that related to conflict resolution but was also designed to build understanding and tolerance of others and to dissolve the blocking effects of resentment.  As part of the process, you had to reflect on the conflict incident and put yourself in the place of the other person with whom you had a conflict and towards whom you felt some resentment.

The conflict process acknowledges that for both parties in a conflict there are three levels of issues at play – (1) content, (2) feelings & (3) identity.  So when you begin to reflect mindfully on what is happening for the other person, you ask the following questions from their perspective:

  1. Content (What happened from their perspective?)
  2. Feelings (How do I think they felt?)
  3. Identity (What might have been at stake for them in terms of their sense of competence, their thoughts about their own goodness and lovability?)

By reflecting mindfully about what was going on for the person in the conflict that we felt some resentment towards, we can experience the resentment dissolving and empathy replacing it. As we ask ourselves the same questions, we can begin to realise that we are all very human and that we misunderstand each other and make mistakes which we may later regret.

Being mindful of the potential damaging effects of resentment

If we are able to get in touch with our feelings at a point in time and name our feelings as resentment, we can reflect on what that feeling is doing to us both bodily and emotionally.  If we focus on these damaging effects and project them into the long-term, we will come to realise that we have to let the resentment go and move on, just as Khaled Hosseini described.

Khaled, in his book A Thousand Splendid Suns, has one of his lead characters, Laila, refuse to give into resentment:

But Laila has decided she will not be crippled by resentment.  Mariam wouldn’t want it that way.  What’s the sense? she would say, with a smile both innocent and wise.  What good is it, Laila Jo?  And so Laila has resigned herself to moving on. (p.399)

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we come to realise the damaging power and hold of resentment and to learn ways to overcome it.  In the process, we can develop understanding of, and empathy for, others.

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

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Mindfulness in Busy Workplaces

At the recent 19th International Mental Health Conference, Dr. Shahina Braganza explained how she and her colleagues introduced mindfulness into the Gold Coast Health Emergency Department.  Her presentation, oneED – Can we Embed a Wellness Program into a Busy Emergency Department?, was one of the highlights for me at the Mental Health Conference.

The wellness program incorporating mindfulness was appropriately titled, oneED, because it recognises that emergency departments are very much a team with high levels of interdependence amongst the various categories of staff who are focused on patient welfare in often demanding circumstances.  The wellness program is inclusive, covering both clinical and non-clinical staff.  The program focus was also broadened beyond mindfulness in recognition that not everyone is receptive to mindfulness as an approach and that other approaches, such as physical activity, can also lead to wellness

The emphasis on oneness is clearly articulated by the Director of Emergency Medicine, Dr. David Green, when discussing the oneEd program on video.  He emphasised that quality emergency patient outcomes are achieved “where everyone looks after everyone else” in the Department.

Developing mindfulness in a busy work environment

Shahina explained that the essence of introducing mindfulness into a busy emergency department was the ability to incorporate it into the daily flow of work.  While the program began with a one-day mindfulness course, other activities of the structured program are embedded in the daily routine.

A four-minute pause was introduced at handover time during shift transitions.  This was originally conducted daily and changed to weekly,  following consultation with the staff involved.  The pause may include sharing experiences, watching a brief mindfulness-related video and/or engaging in a 90 second sitting meditation.

Emergency staff are encouraged to engage in moments of mindfulness that are precipated by the experience of overwhelm and/or loss of focus, and aided by a series of flyers encouraging reflection and mindfulness.  A weekly, 30 minutes drop-in session is conducted on a voluntary basis to build the capacity of ED staff to engage in these mindfulness moments.

Shahina wrote a thought-provoking article on the program identifying the learnings from the development of the Mindful Emergency Room.  Of particular note in the article are the nine tips for implementing a wellness program in a busy workplace.  These tips incorporate sound change management principles related to a mindfulness approach.

One of the tips relates to joining forces with like-minded people and Shahina mentioned the banding together to form a group called WRaP EM (Wellness, Resilience and Performance) – incorporating a blog, guides and learning resources.  The blog provides an avenue for medical staff to share their wellness stories.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and encourage its adoption in the workplace, we can contribute to the effective achievement of organisational goals, a strong sense of connection and support, and the development of ever-widening circles of positive influence.

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

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Managing Expectations through Mindfulness

Expectations play such a significant place in our lives – we have expectations of ourselves and others in our daily activities.   We expect ourselves to be able to perform well (or exceptionally) in our work, our sport and home life.  We have expectations of others in terms of their words and actions and the level of support they provide to us.

Sometimes we can be captured by external expectations in terms of fitness, health, the way we look, our level of income, where we live and what we wear.  Dr. Harrier B. Braiker captures the essence of this “disease” – fulfilling everyone’s expectations of you to avoid rejection and anger – in her new book, The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome.  Harriet is the author of the 1986 book, The Type E Woman: How to Overcome the Stress of Being Everything to Everybody (reprinted in 2006), in which she challenges “erroneous expectations”.

Expectations can often lead to conflict.  If someone does not fulfil our expectations through their words or behaviour, then we can be upset, annoyed, angry or resentful.  This may extend even to the simplest tasks around the house as well as in the workplace where we have expectations of our managers, colleagues and peers.  Mindfulness can help us gain self-awareness and self-management with respect to our expectations.

Managing expectations through mindfulness

George Pitagorsky, in his article, Using Mindfulness to Manage Your Expectations, focuses on expectations in a work situation, but the principles apply to any context.  He suggests two key strategies for using mindfulness to manage expectations at work:

  1. Being mindful at the outset of a project to ensure that expectations of all involved are aligned.
  2. When expectations are thwarted, being mindful of the feelings you experience and learning to use the gap between stimulus and response to self-manage.

George is the author of Managing Expectations: A Mindful Approach to Achieving Success.  His book which focuses on the experience of a Project Manager involved in organisational transition “explores how to apply a mindful, compassionate, and practical approach to satisfying expectations in any situation”.

Phillip Moffitt discusses the Tyranny of Expectations and argues that living in the now, developed through meditation practice, is the way to free ourselves from this tyranny manifested in the endless cycle of ever-increasing expectations.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness meditation practices, we can become more aware of the nature and impact of our own expectations and those of other people and develop our “response ability“, so that we are not held captive by our expectations or those of others.

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Being Mindful at Work

In the previous post, I wrote about mindfulness at work and identified some ways to be mindful while working.  Here, I want to take this further by suggesting some other strategies, again using the article by Shamash Alidina for my inspiration:

1.Slow down

In slowing down, we can become more aware of our inner thoughts and outer environment.  If you find yourself rushing from place to place, you can slow down and engage in some form of mindful walking.  Often we are rushing, not because of a deadline, but because this haste behaviour has become habituated.  You can pull yourself up in the act of rushing around and just take a few steps at a slower pace.  You might ask yourself, “Why am I in such a hurry?”  This mindful practice can start with your behaviour when getting to work, so that when at work you are already conscious of your hurrying behaviour and more able to “slow down to speed up”.

2.Treat stress as your friend

This approach seems counter-intuitive.  Most of what you read about stress is how harmful it is to your health.  Yet there is an optimum amount of stress that improves your health, energy and productivity.  Without sufficient challenge we suffer boredom and malaise; too much stress leads to “frazzle”.   Kelly McGonigal, in her TED talk, encourages you to “make stress your friend”.  Research shows that how you perceive stress can, in fact, influence the way stress impacts you.  If you have a positive perception of stress – you see your pounding heart as energising you and getting more oxygen to your brain – you are able progressively to reduce your physical response to stress and to increase your capacity to manage it.  So, in a lot of ways, it is “all in your head”.   Being mindful, you can get in touch with what is going on in your body, and instead of panicking, you can view this bodily response as “readiness for action”.

3.Develop a gratitude bias

We hear about the negativity bias of our brains, but it is possible to develop a “positivity bias”.  Kabat-Zinn suggests that you become what you pay attention to, e.g. you can become grateful, compassionate or empathetic by focusing on these aspects through mindfulness meditation.   Being mindful of what you have and expressing gratitude for these things “has a positive impact on your creativity, health, working relationships, and quality of work”.  Instead of focusing on the aspects of your job that you do not like, you could look at what you do have that you appreciate – expressing gratitude for the fact that you have a job, that you can make a difference, have a supportive boss, have colleagues who are collaborative or have highpoints in your day when you realise that you are doing something meaningful.  You can substitute a positivity bias for a negativity bias, by frequent and regular recall of what you appreciate in your work.

Your thoughts play a large role in how you experience the world and your associated mental health and mood.  As you grow in mindfulness through the practice of being mindful at work, your thoughts become more positive and your brain becomes “more efficient, focused, effective at communicating with others, and better at learning new skills”.

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Engaging With and Accepting Death

Annie Robinson, in her article, How Mindfulness Can Ease the Fear of Death and Dying, asserts that there is a strong movement in the West to reengage with death, encourage open conversations about death, and to pursue choices in dying that respect the values and vision of the dying person.  This is also the theme of Lucy Kalanithi’s TED talk and Paul Kalanithi’s book,  When Breath Becomes Air, which he wrote while suffering from terminal cancer.

There are a number of characteristics of this movement and approach which involve dying mindfully:

Acceptance of death

Acceptance involves not only acknowledging the onset of death but all the feelings and thoughts that go with it.  This includes denial, sadness, suffering, anger, fear, grief and sense of loss associated with declining mental and physical capacity as well as the ultimate separation from loved ones.  It also includes accepting the loss of our old identity and an envisioned future and progressively forging a new identity and vision of dying.  Mindful acceptance does not remove the suffering but can reduce the pain and fear of death.

Being attuned to sensory experience

This involves paying attention to our senses – touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell- and experiencing the sensations such as a beautiful scene or sweet-smelling flower to a heightened degree.  It involves resting in these sensations while we can still experience them.  Some of these sensations will be intensified as we focus on them with our waning energy.  Annie suggests that being attuned to our sensory experience can develop joy and mindfulness.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Coming to Our Senses, has demonstrated that focused attention on our senses can alleviate pain and help us to rewrite the narrative in our heads (including the narrative of fear and depression).

Finding balance through openness to love

Remaining open to love and caring of a partner, parents, children and relatives enables the dying person to find some level of balance as they alternate between pain and joy.  This requires vulnerability as their faculties decline and dependence increases; it also means that bitterness over loss on every dimension is not permitted to gain a stranglehold on emotions.  In his book, Paul Kalanithi was able to talk about marriage difficulties arising from his extreme workload as a neurosurgeon resident, working from 6am to late at night, 7 days a week.   His wife, Lucy, in the Epilogue to Paul’s book acknowledged that the cancer diagnosis enabled them to reinvigorate and deepen their love for each other and, in the face of  Paul’s dying, “to be vulnerable, kind, generous, grateful”.

Lucy wrote about the balance that emerged through their complete acceptance and trust in each other:

Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love (p.219)

Lucy acknowledged that as you grow in mindfulness, you can find joy amidst the pain and grief, meaning when all seems lost and a profound gratitude that engenders fortitude and courage.

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Dying Mindfully

Lucy Kalanithi, in her Ted talk, What makes life worth living in the face of death, shared the story of her last 22 months with her husband who was suffering from terminal cancer.   Her husband, Paul, a young neurosurgeon, was able to continue his practice for a while after his cancer diagnosis owing to his oncologist’s management of his chemotherapy.

After Paul was unable to continue as a neurosurgeon, he turned to writing which he continued to do until the last months of his life.  Paul’s book is titled, When Breath Becomes Air.   The book is a reflection on the task of transitioning from doctor to patient.  It describes the challenge of facing his own death –  a challenge that both Paul and Lucy had assisted their patients to face.

Lucy explained in her talk that together they accepted that suffering and death were part of life – but this did not remove the pain and suffering involved.  When reflecting on life and its purpose she said:

Engaging in the full range of experience — living and dying, love and loss — is what we get to do.  

Lucy said that instead of fighting against fate, she and Paul learnt together how to deal with the here and now of suffering and loss – they worked together to help each other through.

Part of their approach to Paul’s dying was to talk with each other openly and honestly about their feelings and the difficult decisions that they faced progressively:

  • whether to have a child (with Paul’s uncertain life expectancy)
  • whether Lucy should remarry after Paul died
  • what level of medical intervention they would accept at different stages of Paul’s illness
  • when to turn off life support.

Lucy commented that talking through the options, helping each other make those decisions and accepting the pain and loss involved at each stage, gave her a new insight into the meaning of resilience – because it could not mean, in their circumstances, “bouncing back” to a prior state.  Paul had to redefine his identity throughout the illness as he lost physical and mental capacities and Lucy had to find a new meaning in her role as “caregiver”.  Together, though, they showed the resilience of facing dying mindfully, of being present to the current reality confronting them and not meeting it with denial.

Paul also used his final months to reflect on what he was experiencing in the hope that his written reflections could help other patients going through what he was experiencing and help clinicians to understand the dying patient’s journey from the inside.

In her final comment, Lucy stated that exercise and mindfulness meditation helped her a lot.  As we grow in midnfulness, we can help each other during the experience of dying and develop a new resilience in the face of an inevitable, changed reality.

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

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