A Meditation to Address Absolutes

In the previous post, I discussed the concept of absolutes advanced by Lance Allred.  Absolutes are those firm, unshakeable beliefs we hold about our self, others or the world around us.  They constrain our perspectives and influence our behaviour.  They are relatively immoveable and do not dissolve in the face of rational argument.  Absolutes shape our thoughts, feelings and reactions and impact our effectiveness and our relationships. They develop early in family life and are often reinforced culturally.  The downside of absolutes is that they stop us from realising our full potential – they act like clots in our circulatory system, stemming the flow of creativity and responsiveness.

A meditation to surface and address an absolute

It seems to me that the starting point for addressing the absolutes in our life is to begin with developing self-awareness and move to identifying strategies to self-regulate our reactions.  It is important to focus on one aspect of our present experience that we find unsatisfactory because of the negative thoughts and emotions that the experience elicits in us.  We are complex beings, so beginning with one relatively small absolute can develop our self-intimacy and improve our capacity to respond effectively without the baggage of our past.

There are several steps in the meditation:

  • Being grounded: It is important to become grounded so that you can achieve a sense of focus, balance and insight.  Being conscious of your posture and breathing helps to ground you in the present.
  • Deciding on an anchor: Your anchor is designed to enable you to come back into the focus of your meditation whenever you become aware that you have become distracted or diverted in your thinking.  The choice of anchors is a personal thing – I still like to feel the sensation of my fingers coming together.
  • Focus on an unsatisfactory experience: Decide what you are going to work on to unearth an absolute that is negatively impacting your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It could be some recent interaction or activity that made you upset or threw you off balance.  It does not have to be a major issue – in fact, initially it is better to start small. [I have started with the fact that I get upset and annoyed when I make a mistake at social tennis.]
  • Explore your emotions during the incident: What were you feeling?  What was the intensity of those feelings?  What was the catalyst for those feelings – what really happened?  Who were your feelings directed at – yourself or another person? [In my case, with my tennis mistakes my feelings were annoyance, frustration, anger and shame.]
  • What thoughts were behind your emotions: Why did you experience those emotions?  What was the incident triggering in you? What belief (absolute) about your self or the other person was driving your emotional response?  Whenever your thoughts include a “must” or “should”, you are beginning to access an absolute that is locking you into a response that reduces your flexibility and constrains your perspective.  [When I get upset with my tennis mistakes, my underlying thought or absolute is that “I must be seen to be competent at tennis.”] 
  • Explore the nature of your identified “absolute”: Take a close look at your absolute.  Is it a rational or realistic thought?  What is its origin? Is it embedded in a childhood experience or something that happened in later life?  Where did it come from and why is it persisting?  What does it say about your sense of self-worth – is your sense of who you are dependent on what someone else thinks or says?  [Tennis competence was a way to prove my worth – it generated respect and admiration.  It made me feel good about myself. My identity is tied up with the self-perception that I am a very good tennis player.]
  • What strategies could you adopt to reduce the impact of your “absolute”: The starting point is to acknowledge your absolute and how it is playing out in your life and relationships.  What could you do to reduce or avoid your negative, conditioned response?  Are there ways to build in a gap between the stimulus (the catalyst) and your response to give you the time and freedom to respond differently? Is there other offsetting, positive thoughts that you could entertain instead of your “absolute”?  [For my issue with tennis mistakes, one strategy has been to progressively loosen the relationship between my sense of self-worth and the outcome of the game – that is, not defining my sense of self- worth on whether I won or not.  This still leaves the issue of being upset with my tennis mistakes.  A strategy I am trying here is to express gratitude that I am able to play, that I can run and hit the ball, that I can hit some really good shots – that is, appreciating what I have and not focusing on the negatives and lack of accomplishment.]

Reflection

Even relatively minor “absolutes” are very hard to dislodge.  Using a meditation like the one described above can help to chip away at an absolute and reduce its hold on us by eroding our sense of certainty about the underlying belief, by seeing it for what it really is (e.g. illogical, unfounded or unnecessary) and developing alternative ways of thinking and feeling.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop deeper personal insight, identify how absolutes play out in our life and develop more creative and positive ways to respond to negatively experienced stimuli that will inevitably recur in our daily lives.

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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.

Self-Praise for Health and Wellness and to Make a Difference

In a recent email newsletter, Leo Babauta reminded us of the need to “train your mind with praise”.  So often we beat up on ourselves for falling short, for failure to perform to expectations (ours and others) or for an oversight or omission.  Our negative self-stories take over and cause us to procrastinate and avoid pursuing what is really meaningful in our life.  Leo argues that “shame is a bad teacher” – praise for our self serves to reinforce positive thoughts, emotions and behaviour and leads to good outcomes for others.  Leo readily shared how he uses self-praise to strengthen the good habits in his life.  Elsewhere he freely shared what enabled him to change his life when he was in a bad place.

Christine Wesson reminds us that the benefits of self-praise include growth of self-confidence. She highlights the fact that what we focus on develops and grows (whether positive or negative) and that, if we appreciate ourselves, others take their cue from our demeanour and appreciate us as well.

What can you praise yourself for today?

You can praise yourself for the numerous positive, small things you do in your day such as:

  • Stopping what you were doing and attentively listening to your child or partner
  • Being fully present when you give your partner a “good morning” kiss
  • Writing that piece for your blog or newsletter or service provider
  • Reading something about an act of kindness
  • Expressing genuine appreciation to someone – your partner, child, waiter/waitress, taxi driver
  • Responding promptly to an enquiry from a friend, relative, client or customer
  • Genuinely sharing your feelings with someone close to you
  • Making time to be with a friend
  • Offering to give someone a lift
  • Letting someone into the traffic line who was obviously at a disadvantage
  • Making good use of waiting time to focus on awareness (and not your phone)
  • Stopping to appreciate the beauty of nature – the ocean, sunset, sunrise, trees, flowers or birds
  • Helping someone in need
  • Expressing loving kindness towards someone or a group in your meditation
  • Taking time to exercise – Tai Chi, walking, gym work, playing tennis, going for a run
  • Resisting the temptation to do something else while taking a phone call – being fully present to the speaker.

Really, the list is endless – there is so much that you do during any one day that is praiseworthy – that makes life better for yourself or someone else.  You do not have to realise major accomplishments to make a difference in the world – it is the small things that add up to significant positive outcomes for yourself (and your capacity to be kind to others), your mood (which is contagious), your interactions with others and your close relationships.

Just as it is important to give ourselves praise, it is also vital to provide positive feedback to others in the form of genuine appreciation that is timely and specific – you can make their day with a simple act of praise.

Reflection

It seems to be anti-cultural to praise ourselves – it is a lot easier to be “down on our self”.  Self-praise builds self-confidence and helps to reinforce our positive thinking and behaviour.  It serves to push aside our negative self-stories.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn to appreciate and praise what we do that is healthy for our self and makes a difference (however small) in the lives of people we interact with. It does not take a lot of time to praise our self, but the effect is cumulative and flows over to all the arenas of our life (whether home, work or sports activity).

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Image by Foundry Co 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.

Mindfulness: An Antidote to Narcissism

The experts in the area of narcissism inform us that narcissism is not a single state but is a spectrum ranging from exhibiting narcissistic tendencies to having a narcissistic personality disorder.   They remind us that we all have narcissistic traits to a greater or lesser degree – shaped by the prevailing culture, our neurological/psychological makeup and/or the experience of being in a relationship with a narcissist (in a personal or work situation).  Whatever way you look at it, we have influences that can engender narcissistic behaviour on our part – the culture of individualism, entitlement and materialistic values is a seedbed for narcissism.

How can mindfulness help to reduce narcissism in our lives?

Experts in the area of narcissism and its impacts on psychological welfare identify a range of mindfulness meditations that can assist us to reduce narcissism in our own behaviour and to cope with the negative impacts of relationships (both work and personal) with people who are high on the narcissism spectrum.

  • Challenging self-stories – our negative self-stories can be compounded by experiencing the impact of a narcissist either in a personal or a work relationship.  The narcissist sets out to prove their superiority by diminishing other people and their achievements, by projecting their own weaknesses onto others and by criticising others relentlessly and sometimes publicly.  Their words and actions attack our self-esteem and sense of self-worth.  This aggressive behaviour is driven by a deep sense of vulnerability and a highly fragile ego.  The danger for us is that we can perpetuate this aggressive behaviour in our own lives through our acquired deep sense of unworthiness and fragility – we can become narcissistic ourselves by trying to protect our increasingly fragile egos.  Mindfulness meditation, focused on surfacing our negative self-stories and their origins, can help us to achieve a more balanced view of ourselves and our self-worth.
  • Cultivating healthy confidence – to offset deficit thinking and craving for attention.  Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, maintains that early childhood experiences, compounded by a relationship with a narcissistic person (either a boss or intimate partner), can undermine our sense of self-worth  He suggests that we can rebuild our self-esteem and self-confidence by being fully mindful of positive experiences – embedding them not only in our brain but also our body.  This involves paying attention to a positive experience, enriching it with feeling and bodily awareness and taking the time to absorb it so that it becomes part of our neural pathways.  Some of the positive experiences that can be the focus of mindful attention are being appreciated or cared for; experiencing at a very deep level our common humanity and interconnectedness; forgiving ourselves by “letting go” of criticism; or recognising our own knowledge, skills and competence.
  • Developing sympathetic joy to overcome envy and “I’m better than” thinking or acting – these attempts to establish “superiority’ reflect a central trait of the narcissist.  Bonnie Duran, a Professor of Social Work and Public Health, employs the Buddhist framework of “conceit” to explain the behaviour of a narcissist.  In Buddhist terms, conceit can be reflected in different forms – equality conceit (I’m as good as}, inferiority conceit (I’m worse than) and superiority conceit (I’m better than).  She maintains that narcissism is the extreme form of superiority conceit and that people who have experienced narcissism in their relationships can often display inferiority conceit.  While narcissists exhibit behaviour designed to demonstrate and/or gain superiority, we are each capable of exhibiting a need to prove we are “better than”.  Bonnie recommends meditation practices such as loving kindness (extending to ourselves as well as to others who have injured us), sympathetic joy, compassion and equanimity, to deal with narcissism in our lives.  Sympathetic joy meditation helps us to recognise the envy that underpins the need to appear superior and to replace this with appreciation for the success of others.
  • Enhancing self-awareness through meditation – a way to counter narcissistic bosses, partners and parents.  Sandy Hotchkiss, clinical social worker and psychologist, is the author of the book, Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism.  She describes workplaces as arenas of power where bosses carve out their piece of turf.  Sandy stresses the need for self-knowledge as well as an understanding of narcissism and its impacts on psychological welfare.  Experience of a relationship with a narcissistic person (boss, parent or partner) can lead to a distorted self-perception through their manipulation, shaming, projection and exploitation.  Sandy recommends mindfulness and mindfulness practices to deepen self-knowledge to counter this self-distortion.   In this way, we can learn to identify our triggers, discover our habituated responses and develop self-management strategies to reduce the psychological harm we have suffered.
  • Meditating on the “need to please” – this neediness can arise from the abuse suffered at the hands of a narcissistic person.   Terri Cole, psychotherapist and expert in dealing with narcissistic relationships, maintains that psychological harm experienced as a child of a narcissistic parent leaves a person open to traumatic experiences when engaging in intimate relationships, especially with a narcissist.  Terri suggests that the childhood experiences of being the “scapegoat” can be reflected in later behaviour in taking on the role of “key enabler” through the disease to please.  She stresses the need to establish boundaries and develop true self-love.  To this end, Terri provides a series of meditations, a Boundary Bootcamp, a video channel and podcasts.
  • Meditations for dealing with trauma from an intimate relationship with a narcissistRhonda Freeman, a clinical neuropsychologist and creator of neuroinstincts.com, experienced an intimate relationship with someone who suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder. She suffered trauma as a result and after leaving the relationship, she researched why it was so hard to leave despite the psychological abuse.  She set about to research and practise ways to heal herself from the resultant post-traumatic stress.  Her experiences healing herself and the related research are captured in the resources on her website, her video channel and her online course, Caring for the Brain After Psychopathic & Narcissistic Abuse.  Rhonda explains that the narcissist abuser engages in three key strategies that can have an enduring negative effect on the brain of the abused – idealize, devalue, discard.  She reinforces the value of addressing the psychological harm by engaging in self-compassion meditation, meditation for shame and mindful walking in nature.  While she recommends developing mindfulness, she suggests that this process should be supported by other activities such as developing healthy bonding through social contacts, cultivating creativity through music, art or journaling and engaging in purposeful movement (e.g. yoga and dance).

Reflection

Mindfulness meditation, in its many forms, can help us to redress the negative psychological impacts of a relationship with a narcissist, become aware of our own narcissistic tendencies and develop enhanced self-awareness and improved self-management.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can better understand the forces shaping the behaviour of a narcissist, and our own behaviour, and be able to extend loving kindness to them and ourselves.  As we reflect on our own narcissistic tendencies, we can begin to offer compassion and sympathetic joy to others.

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Image by Devanath 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.

Understanding Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress

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

Recognising the signs of post-traumatic stress

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

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

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

The role of memory and embodiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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Image – Sunrise over the water, Wynnum, Brisbane

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

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

Understanding Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

David Treleaven, through his doctoral dissertation and subsequent book, has raised awareness globally about the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  His book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, identifies three myths about mindfulness and trauma, discusses research-based case studies and offers clear options for the way forward.  His work is so critical to the teaching of mindfulness that Brown University has sought to integrate his work and findings into their Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute is exploring integration of David’s approach into their Mindful Leadership program.

Trauma and mindfulness

Trauma is described as “the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event”.  Many organisations and trainers/consultants/psychologists offer services, strategies and programs for trauma sufferers. Beyond Blue, for example, offers coping strategies and ways that friends and relatives can help someone close to them who is suffering from a traumatic event.

Mindfulness has become acknowledged as an effective way to deal with trauma.  For example, Boyd, Lanius and McKinnon (2018) concluded from a review of the relevant literature that mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches are effective in reducing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   They suggested that reduction in shame and self-blame could be key explanations of the efficacy of mindfulness-based approaches to PTSD.

David, however, warns that there are potential difficulties in using a mindfulness approach if practitioners are not sensitive to the interplay between mindfulness practices, beliefs about the universal efficacy of mindfulness and related messaging.  He points out that most people will experience at least one traumatic event in their life. So, in any one room of meditation participants, there is likely to be one or more people who are experiencing trauma in their lives.

David dedicates his life to making people aware of the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness through his book, videos, podcasts and workshops. He articulates his concerns about a lack of sensitivity to this issue amongst meditation teachers by identifying three “myths” about mindfulness and trauma that can potentially create harm for trauma sufferers.

Three myths about mindfulness and trauma

David’s research with trauma sufferers and practitioners in the field working with people who have experienced trauma, has led him to identify three “myths” (widely held false beliefs) that impede effective and safe use of mindfulness approaches. The myths are powerful determinants of the behaviour of mindfulness teachers:

  • Universality – David describes this myth as “one size fits all”.  However, David’s experience is that for some people who have experienced trauma, meditation can activate trauma stimuli so that the person re-experiences trauma.  As Peter Devine comments, “The nervous system can’t tell the difference between that [reliving the trauma] and the original trauma”.
  • Certainty – this myth relates to the assumption by meditation teachers that they will know when a person has experienced (or is currently experiencing) trauma.  David cites a case of a very experienced meditation teacher who failed to pick up the cues that some of his trainees were trauma sufferers.  He maintains that there are some very subtle non-verbal cues that can signal the existence of trauma, but it requires sensitised awareness to detect them.  He suggests that two major impediments that get in the road of someone openly disclosing their experience of trauma are (1) feelings of shame and (2) compliance (felt need to conform to an authority figure).
  • Neutrality – the myth that breath is always neutral, with no emotive content.  David recounts the experience of one person who was traumatised by a violent parent when a child.  Focusing on his breath “reconnected with the need to hide”, caused him to re-live his trauma and led to increased anxiety.  So, instead of being a calming anchor, mindful breathing acted as a trauma stimulus.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: some strategies

David provides considerable detail, explanation and case illustrations of these myths in his book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and in a video presentation on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, which was a promotional webinar for his course for practitioners on recognising trauma, responding to trauma and preventing the re-living of trauma during mindfulness practice.

In the video mentioned above, David suggests a range of strategies that address the limitations and potential damaging effects of the three myths:

  • Develop awareness about possible difficulties for people during mindfulness practices
  • Increase knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the signs of trauma
  • Provide space for people to experience different aspects of mindfulness practice and be ready to make modifications after asking, “What would work for you?”
  • Acknowledge at the outset that some people may have a very different experience to the calming effects of mindfulness meditation
  • Offer the opportunity for participants to approach you privately to have a conversation about their experience
  • Don’t reinforce the “shoulds” of mindfulness experience, e.g. avoid saying, “you should experience calm and peace”
  • Avoid “close and sustained attention to breath” as this may be a stimulus for re-experiencing trauma
  • Offer a range of options for people to practice mindfulness so that they can choose their own anchor for paying attention, e.g. breath, sounds, the sensation of the feet on the floor, feeling of the body on the chair or fingers touching each other.  According to David, Paula Ramirez, a Director of Breathe International, maintains that this choice of options gives participants a sense of agency (the opposite of a loss of control).

As we grow in mindfulness through our own meditation, research and reflection, we can become more sensitive to the needs of people who have suffered (or are suffering) trauma; be better able to respond to their needs; and also learn to adopt strategies that avoid re-traumatising participants in mindfulness training groups.

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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.

A Reflection: Seeing Our Self in Our Children

In our leadership/management development workshops, my colleague and I often have participants identify what their staff say or do that annoys them. Then we ask them to think about what they say and do that would annoy their boss. They are frequently surprised that their staff’s words and actions often reflect their own annoying habits. They are surprised too that this process of using their staff as a mirror opens up the possibility of their being honest with themselves. So too, we can use our children as a mirror into our own behaviour.

Seeing our self in our children

When we look at our son or daughter, we might acknowledge that they regularly withhold information or only provide information that puts them in a good light – and we might think of them as deceitful. They might regularly lie to us or mislead us – and we might think of them as dishonest. They might never clean their room or leave things lying around the house for us to trip over – and we might think of them as thoughtless. They might throw tantrums or angry fits when they don’t get their way – we might think of them as manipulative. They might be self-absorbed, ignoring your needs at any point in time – we might think of them as inconsiderate. They might carry grudges or disappointment for a very long time – we might think of them as resentful. They might accuse us of something they do themselves – we might think of them as incongruous.

Whatever negative characteristics we attribute to our children can serve as a mirror into our own words and behaviour – as reflecting who we really are. Often our self-reflection is full of “shoulds” and self-deception as we hide our real self behind a mask. Again, we may judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions, rather than by what we say and do.

It is a revealing and challenging reflection to apply the negative attributes that we ascribe to our children to our own self. We could ask our self for instance, “In what way do my words and behaviour in my relationships show that I am deceitful, dishonest, thoughtless, manipulative, inconsiderate, resentful or incongruous?” The adjectives themselves carry such negative connotations that we are reluctant to ascribe them to ourselves, yet we might ascribe them to our children. Facing up to the reality of ourselves as both meeting our own expectations and falling short is very challenging – but it is the road to an open heart and all the happiness and effectiveness that this portends.

Extending the reflectionlooking deeper into the mirror

It is challenging enough to acknowledge our own negative attributes; it is even more challenging to extend the reflection to look at how our words and actions impact or shape the words and behaviour of our children. We can readily deny that we have influence, either directly or indirectly, on what they say or do, but we are part of their learning environment – an influential force in shaping their character for life. Owning up to this impact takes considerable courage, insight and self-awareness.

However, whatever negative traits we attribute to our self through this reflective exercise does not define who we are – we are much more than the sum of these negative attributes. We have to move beyond the shame we feel (with the self-realisation from this reflection), to the genuine exploration of our inner depth and extend self-forgiveness and loving kindness to our self as we move forward.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation and reflection on seeing our self in our children, we can progressively overcome our self-deception, develop inner awareness, build understanding and tolerance and develop an open heart. We need to nurture ourselves through self-forgiveness and loving kindness if we are going to be able to deal with the emerging self-awareness.

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Image by Alexandr Ivanov 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.

Forgiveness: Forgiving Our Self and Others

Forgiveness is challenging because it is not a one-off event. We are continually hurt by others and hurt them, often unconsciously. It is one thing to forgive others for words and/or actions that are hurtful and another thing to forgive ourselves for the hurt we cause. According to recent research, mindfulness can improve our tendency to forgiveness and our willingness to forgive a past offense, according to

Developing a tendency to forgive others

If we are able to develop a mindful disposition – consciously monitoring our physical, mental and emotional health – we are better able to reduce our negativity and improve our likelihood to forgive. When we feel hurt by someone, we can harbour the negative emotions of anger and resentment – feelings that become compounded by the re-telling of the story of the hurtful action to others. We can become obsessed with our rightfulness in the situation and elaborate on how much we have been wronged, entrenching our feelings of hurt and anger.

Mindfulness can help us to name these negative feelings and learn to tame them. It can give us insight into our own sensitivities and the pattern of our own emotional responses. In a conflict situation, it can also help us to understand the perspective of the other person who has, consciously or unconsciously, hurt us. In the process, it can assist us to develop a tendency to forgive others.

Forgiving our self: a lifelong process

It is one thing to forgive others for the hurt they cause us; it is another task – often more challenging – to forgive our self for the hurt we cause others. For one thing, we tend to be blind to the way we hurt others – we often will not let our recollection of these events reach conscious awareness because they are perceived as damaging to our self-esteem – our sense of our own (superior) worthiness.

There is also the difficulty of dealing with the very strong negative emotions of guilt and shame, once we have surfaced our recollection of our own hurtful words and actions. These emotions are hard to deal with and require a concerted, conscious effort to overcome them – a process involving lifelong learning and reflection.

Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, offers a forgiveness meditation in her article, Practise Self-Compassion with Forgiveness. The meditation begins with focusing on forgiveness towards others and then our attention is directed to forgiveness of ourselves.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a mindful disposition, an understanding of the perspective and hurt of others and awareness of our ingrained feelings of hurt (and related sensitivities). We can gradually, with concerted effort, develop the tendency to forgive others (for present and past hurts) and, at the same time, slowly develop self-forgiveness for the hurt we have caused others.

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Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

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

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

Breaking Out of Our Belief Trance

Tara Brach suggests that we often live in a self-absorbed trance generated by our false beliefs about ourselves and our learned beliefs about others. She offers ways to address these beliefs and their damaging effects in her new course, Releasing Negative Beliefs & Thought Patterns: Using Mindfulness to Break Out of the Trance.   Her mindfulness course, involving 26 lectures and 2.5 hours of video, provides ways to identify and manage our harmful beliefs

How harmful beliefs arise

Harmful beliefs about ourselves and our self-worth develop at an early age through a range of influences – parental, peer and/or religious education. Our parents can sow the seeds for a diminished self-esteem by reminding us that we are not as good as some comparative child, a sibling or classmate. We might be told that our academic or sporting achievements fall below their expectations of us or what they themselves achieved. Our peers are constantly comparing us to themselves and other peers as they too are consumed by the self-absorption trance. Our religious education might reinforce our low self-esteem by telling us that we are inherently “bad” and sinful.

These influences on the formation of our negative self-beliefs can be compounded by traumatic childhood experiences such as getting lost in a store, being placed in an orphanage for a period or being left in the custody of one parent following a divorce. These experiences can deepen our sense of rejection and heighten our beliefs about our “unworthiness” or our sense of being “unlovable”. Over time, these beliefs can become deeply embedded in our psyche and confirmed by our unconscious bias towards a negative interpretation of events impacting us.

Impact of harmful beliefs

Our self-beliefs play out in our thoughts and emotions and impact our interactions with others. Negative beliefs leading to diminished self-evaluation can reinforce our sense of separateness and the need to protect our self from others who might further damage our self-esteem.

We may try to conceal our shame or project it onto others through anger and resentment. Underlying our interactions is a constant fear that we will be damaged by others – a fear reinforced by our past experiences. We may have difficulty developing close relationships (we keep trying to “keep our distance”), building motivation to take on new challenges or overcoming a deepening sadness or depression. We begin to see the world and others through dark clouds that distort our perception of people and reality and their inherent beauty.

Breaking out of the belief trance

Tara’s course is designed to help us to identify our harmful beliefs, understand how they play out in our life and interaction with others and develop techniques and strategies to limit the harm caused to our self and others as a result of these beliefs.

She offers, among other things, a brief guided meditation focused on a recent, conflicted interaction we have had with someone else. After taking time to become grounded, she suggests that you focus on the conflicted interaction and explore your self-beliefs that are playing out from your side of the conflict. You might ask yourself, “What nerve is the interaction activating? (e.g. a fear of criticism); “What am I doing to the other person in the conflict? (e.g. destructive criticism or calling them names); or “What am I doing to protect myself and my sense of self-worth (e.g. justifying my words and/or behaviour).

Having teased out what is going on for you in the interaction in terms of personal sensitivities and your self-protective behaviour, you can begin to explore the self-beliefs that underlie your part in the interaction. These may not be immediately evident as they are so deeply embedded and reinforced, but over time they will emerge from the mist of self-deflection. If you repeat the guided meditation on harmful beliefs following other conflicted interactions, you can gradually begin to see more clearly and notice a pattern of behaviour, thoughts and underlying beliefs. Once you have identified what is going on for you, you are better placed to manage your personal interactions.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on our conflicted interactions, we can become more attentive to what is happening for us, understand our part in the conflict, identify our harmful self-beliefs and progressively manage our beliefs, thoughts, emotions and behaviours. We can become more connected to the world and others and less insistent on defining and reinforcing our separateness. In this growing self-realisation lies the seeds of compassion.

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Image source: courtesy of Skitterphoto on 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.

Shame: A Destructive Emotion

Envy precipitated by a sense of shame can unleash destructive behaviours that flow from feelings of anger, frustration or a desire for revenge. The envy itself may be based on a distorted perception of the relative beauty, worth, capability or desirability of another person.

This distorted self-perception and unrealistic perception of others can lead to psychological harm for the person initially experiencing shame as well as for other people who are the target for their projection of shame and their incited envy.

One has only to look at the level of domestic violence in families to see the destructive force of shame at play. Bullies in the workplace and in schools are attempting to hide the shame experienced because of their low self-esteem, and their impact on their victims is particularly destructive – especially when it leads to suicide such as can happen with cyber-bullying.

The destructive force of shame and envy

The destructive cycle of shame and shame-induced envy is graphically illustrated in John Boyne’s novel, A Ladder to the Sky.  The contagion of shame and the resultant envy is portrayed in the dramatic lives of the primary characters, who are accomplished authors.

Even the subsidiary characters in the novel are controlled by their shame and envy. Aspiring writers, graduates of creative writing courses, serve in the capacity of reviewers for articles submitted to a journal. These interns protect themselves from the shame of not making it in the publishing world by rejecting the manuscripts submitted by “someone they envied or feared”. As there is a limited publishing “pie”, the interns are motivated to stop other writers from gaining the spotlight through publication in the journal. John Boyne describes this intern group as part of a “shared network of covetous hostility” (p.229) – a hostility towards competitors driven by shame and envy.

Dealing with shame requires self-awareness and the development of a balanced perspective. In the final analysis, it requires self-forgiveness. As we grow in mindfulness, through various forms of meditation, we can slowly identify our emotional make-up, address the adverse emotional impact of our accumulated memories and find ways to reduce our shame and its destructive impacts. This is a long, slow process of self-discovery, self-forgiveness and self-regulation that cannot be rushed. As Mary Lamia cautions, “Take it slow”.

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Image source: courtesy of Skitterphoto on 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.