Mindfulness and Dealing with Pain

Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Working with Pain, offers some suggestions on how meditation can be used to alleviate and/or manage pain better.  She highlights the fact that along with pain are the stories that we tell ourselves about the pain we are experiencing, e.g. “This pain will never go way.”, This is ruining my life.”, “I cannot cope with this pain.”  Diana suggests that the stories aggravate the suffering we experience with pain and only serve to amplify the pain through their negativity.

Pain and suffering are part of being human as we are reminded by the Buddhist tradition.  Diana quotes the often repeated saying, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”, to remind us that we have choices in how we deal with pain.  So, we are left with the challenge of managing the pain that occurs at different points of our life, whether the pain of loss or physical pain in some part or all of our body.   Dealing with chronic pain through mindfulness has been the focus of a lot of the pioneering work of Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Meditation for working with pain

Diana provides a meditation exercise for working with pain in her podcast mentioned above.  The meditation practice involves several discrete steps and is about 20 minutes in length:

1. Grounding – feet on the ground, arms relaxed on your lap or beside you (h0wever is comfortable), eyes closed or looking downwards, a few deep breaths to relax your body.

2. Focus on your breathing – focus your attention on wherever you can feel your breathing in your body (nose, mouth, chest, stomach). Don’t try to control you breathing but just notice it, e.g. the undulations of your stomach.  Get in touch with your in-breath and out-breath and the space between.  You can rest in the space.

3. Body scan – explore your body with your attention, noting as you progress from your head to your toes any points of tightness, tingling or other sensation.  Just notice as your attention moves over your body and let go as you experience the sensation. (The art of noticing is integral to mindfulness practice.)

4. Refocus on your breathing – now return to mindful breathing (3 above).  Spend a reasonable amount of time resting in this focus – about 10 minutes say.

5. Focus on a relaxed part of your body – the aim is to locate in your body a part (e.g. arm, leg, chest) that feels secure, relaxed, at peace and pain-free.  Rest for a time in this relaxed part of your body to enable the sensation of peace and calm to spread through your body.

6. Focus on your pain – now focus on that part of your body where you are experiencing the ongoing pain.  Feel the sensation of the pain and describe the sensation to yourself.  Now focus on the stories you have developed around the pain and let them go – they are fabrications created by your fight/flight response.  If you can, bring your focus to a point outside the area of pain as a prelude to completing the next step.

7. Re-focus on the relaxed part of your body – experience the restfulness here.

8. Re-focus on your breathing – gradually bring your attention back to your breathing.  After a time of mindful breathing, resume your daily activity.

As we grow in mindfulness though meditation, we can learn ways to reduce pain or better manage pain so that we can function normally.  It is important to master our stories that aggravate our suffering from pain.

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

Image source: courtesy of dimitrisvetsikas1969 on Pixabay

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Coping with Trauma by Re-Connecting

In the previous discussion, I identified ways to access your inner resources to cope with trauma.  The problem with trauma, as Tara Brach points out, is that we become cut off from our brain and from our relationships.

This separation from ourselves and others impedes our ability to access our inner resources. There are a number of things that we can do to move past these blockages and find some peace.

Connecting with the present moment

One of the issues with trauma is that we can keep visiting the traumatic event(s) and the associated feelings, so we are re-living the past.  Resourcing begins with being in the present – being able to focus on the positives in our life including our achievements.  For example, we can connect with nature through open awareness – listening to the birds, smelling the flowers and trees, feeling the breeze on our face, observing the sky and clouds and touching the fibrous stems of a plant.

Connecting with our anxiety and aversion

When we find that every fibre of our body resists delving into the depths of our pain and grief, we can make the anxiety or aversion the focus of our meditation.  This involves being open to the anxiety involved and, instead of pushing it down deeper, we can establish a relationship with the feeling of aversion.  One way to do this is to explore the relationship that is demanded by the aversion – what is it asking of us?  Another way is to disarm it by picturing an image of the aversion- a cartoon character, an archetype (e.g. a witch) or a monster – and giving it a name such as “Mister Magoo”.  When the anxiety, fear or aversion rears its ugly head, we can then say – “So, Mister Magoo, I see you are back, what do you want this time?”

Connecting to daily practice

Sometimes, we find that we cannot maintain a daily practice of meditation – we may lack the discipline or motivation.  If we are driven by “shoulds”, we will be unable to sustain the habit of meditation.  However, if we revisit our intention – purpose for engaging in meditation – we can find the necessary discipline and motivation to restore our meditation practice.  Affirming to ourselves the benefits we seek, will help us to keep on track and overcome minor deviations from daily practice.  Sitting in the place we always sit for meditation can help, even if we can only do it briefly.  Journaling about the resistance we are feeling and recording how long we practised, can bring to light a pattern in our thinking and behaviour.  Also, by naming the resistance, we can tame it.

Connecting with our body

Sometimes we cannot feel an emotion in our body – we can become numb to our feelings.  We may feel, as a result, that we lack something that others possess when they can describe the impact of a feeling in their body in terms of colour, shape, intensity or location.  Again, practice helps.  When we feel a strong emotion such as kindness or disgust during our daily activity, we can try to notice our bodily reaction, exploring what is happening in our body no matter how minor or weak the impact.  Regular practice of this noticing will heighten our awareness and open us up to sensing our body’s reaction to particular emotions.  At first, it may be just a general sensation, but over time the features of the sensation will come into clearer focus.

Connecting to the community of suffering and love

The reality is that at any one time, most people are experiencing some form of suffering, whether physical, mental or a combination – suffering is a part of the human condition.  If we can move beyond our own suffering and its intensity we can connect to others who are experiencing similar suffering or something different and more intense – compassion for others can take us outside of ourselves.  There is also the wider “field of love” that we can tap into – be it from our friends, family or the community generally.  There is a sea of kindness everywhere, if we only look for it.

Connecting to a source of wisdom

We can imagine a wise person besides us as we try to make decisions that affect our life and wellbeing.  This can be a religious figure or someone who has taught or mentored us in life.  We can envisage talking to them about our issue and the decision we need to make.  This is a way to tap into universal wisdom.  We might raise our aversion, anxiety or resistance as a topic of conversation and the focus of a decision.

Through these means of connection, we can realise that we are not alone, that we do not need to be “cut off”.  We can feel the strength of everything and everyone around us and rest in that awareness.  As we grow in mindfulness through connection practices, we can break free of the sense of separateness, numbness and overwhelm and feel energised to deal with our deeper feelings generated by the experience of trauma.

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

Image source: courtesy of markusspiske on Pixabay

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Self-Compassion Can Transform You

Over the last couple of posts I discussed how self-compassion can free us from the bonds of self-judging and explored some of the challenges involved in self-compassion meditation, including breaking through our defences and denial.

In this post, I want to share two stories told by Tara Brach of how self-compassion can transform our lives.

From prison bully to freedom

Tara Brach has worked extensively in prisons teaching mindfulness to prisoners.  In the course on the Power of Awareness,  she tells the story of a woman in prison who was a tough bully and very mean but who came to one of her 6 weeks courses.  During the course she heard the words of the poem, Please Call Me by My True Names by Thich Nhat Hanh.

These were the words of the poem that broke through the defences of the woman prisoner:

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

In the preamble to the poem, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that had he been born in the same place as the pirate and lived in the same demeaning conditions, he would have been the pirate.  He goes on to explain that this realisation releases our compassion towards ourselves and others.

The woman prisoner realised that she too was suffering through the circumstances of her life and this realisation enabled her to be kind and compassionate to herself, to stop viewing herself as “bad” and to refrain from acting out her hurt and suffering through meanness to other prisoners.

Tara Brach explained that often we block self-compassion by telling ourselves that others have had it worse, so we should not be acting out our own suffering and pain.

From self-loathing to self-compassion

Tara Brach tells the story of a woman who knew that her ex-husband abused her daughter.  She could not face the pain of this knowledge, so she turned to alcohol to hide her shame, anger and self-loathing.

Her transformation came when, in desperation, she sought the advice of a priest who showed her (by drawing as small circle on her hand), that she was living in a small destructive circle of anger and self-aversion.  She had cut herself off from truly living and experiencing the world around her because she could not face the pain within.  The priest placed his large hand over hers to symbolise that there was a larger field of kindness and forgiveness that she could access to free herself from the tyranny and blindness of self-loathing.

As she meditated thinking of the hand of mercy covering her narrow circle of life, she came to realise that kindness and self-compassion lay within – it is inborn and accessible if only we are open to it.

Through meditation we can grow in mindfulness and come to the realisation of our own pain and suffering that blocks our self-compassion.  If we persist with meditation practice, we can open our hearts to innate kindness towards ourselves and be more present to the beauty of the world around us.

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

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Further Reflections on an Action Learning Intervention

This post represents a further reflection on the action learning intervention undertaken by Dr. Rod Waddington in South Africa.  It follows on from my previous reflections on the values differences between narcissism and action learning.

In another earlier post, I highlighted the need to support mindfulness training with organisational interventions designed to address things like over-work, lack of agency, managerial style and toxicity.  This was the perspective of the union body in the UK and the Mindful UK Report.   Now I turn to ways that mindfulness could strengthen an action learning intervention that did address these identified issues.

In the current reflection, I want to highlight the role that mindfulness could play in enhancing the outcomes of the action learning intervention by focusing on self-awareness and resilience.

Mindfulness strengthening self-awareness

One of the outcomes that Rod’s intervention in an education setting in South Africa had in common with Dr. Diana Austin’s intervention in a health setting in New Zealand, is the personal disclosure by participants of what they were experiencing and feeling and what contributed to their pain and suffering.  In the case of the college, the disclosure related to the style of management and the toxicity of the workplace; in the health setting, midwives identified the lack of support that they received following a critical incident.

In both cases, participants had suffered in silence and not shared with others what was happening for them – they were engaged in a “conspiracy of silence”.  The collaborative environment provided by action learning enabled them to feel safe and to be open about what they really thought and felt.

If mindfulness training had preceded these interventions, participants could be more aware of themselves and more willing to share at a deeper level. Mindfulness brings with it self-awareness and increased insight into factors impacting thoughts, feelings and reactions.  Participants would also be better placed to support each other through the disclosure experience.

Mindfulness strengthening resilience

If participants in an action learning program had been exposed to mindfulness over a reasonable period and had undertaken regular practice, they would have brought a higher level of resilience to the action learning intervention.  This, in turn, would contribute to the ability to sustain the outcomes of the intervention as participants would be better able to manage setbacks and difficulties.

The potential contribution of mindfulness for an action learning intervention

As potential participants in an action learning intervention grow in mindfulness through meditation training, they bring to the intervention a greater capacity to contribute openness and honesty, make the most of the opportunities for increased agency and contribute to the sustainability of the intervention through their enhanced resilience.

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

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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.

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

Image source: courtesy of realworkhard on Pixabay

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How Mindfulness Undermines Cravings and Addiction

Melli O’Brien recently interviewed Dr. Judson Brewer (known as Jud) who is Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Craving Mind.  Jud is an acknowledged international expert in training people in mindfulness to overcome addiction.

In the interview Jud explained the basic cause of addiction and shared neuroscience research that explained the impact of addiction on the brain and the counter-impact of mindfulness.

How addiction develops

The concept of “operant conditioning” developed by B.F. Skinner provides a fundamental explanation of how addiction develops.  Basically, certain behaviours lead to what we perceive as rewards.  So, if we continue to engage in those behaviours and receive the associated rewards, we positively reinforce the behaviours so that we are more inclined to repeat them – thus leading to cravings and addiction.

The craving and resultant addiction can be related to anything, e.g. food, sex, shopping, spending money, drinking alcohol, gambling or consuming drugs.  We unconsciously link the rewarded behaviour with something that is unpleasant – e.g. if we are stressed we may over-eat or drink alcohol excessively.  What we are attempting to do is to substitute something pleasurable for something that we find unpleasant, e.g. we eat dark chocolate (pleasure) to overcome the unpleasantness of stress.  So, stress acts as the trigger for our craving and addiction.

We consolidate our belief in the utility of dark chocolate to help us deal with stress by reminding ourselves of the latest research that shows the positive benefits of dark chocolate – thus we not only receive a physical reinforcement (pleasant taste) but also an emotional reinforcement (positive feelings for “eating what is good for me”).  Of course, we overlook the fact that the research on dark chocolate stresses the moderation required in eating the chocolate so that the positive benefits are not outweighed by negative impacts such as the amount of saturated facts consumed.

Mindfulness undermines addiction through a process of substitution

Jud pointed out in the interview that addiction activates a part of the brain that is called “the posterior cingulate cortex”; whereas, when we engage in mindfulness practice, the opposite happens – that region of the brain becomes deactivated.   Through mindfulness, then, we are substituting excitation of the brain (generated through craving and addiction) with restfulness.

Mindfulness for overcoming addiction works on two basic levels – firstly, as we look inward, we increase our awareness of the body sensations associated with our craving; and secondly, we sever the link between our addictive behaviour and the rewards we ascribe to that behaviour.  We effectively undermine the reinforcing link between the behaviour and the reward.

Substitution occurs on three levels:

  1. pleasant feelings associated with our addictive behaviour are replaced by the pleasure experienced when we are curious about, and investigate, the bodily sensations generated by our cravings and addiction (we are substituting one form of pleasure for another);
  2. seeking to have, or do more, is replaced by the act of noticing what is going on for us (we replace uncontrolled seeking with patient noticing of the bodily sensations experienced in craving something);
  3. temporary happiness derived from satisfying our craving is replaced by the realisation of more sustainable peace and joy.

In the final analysis, mindfulness breaks what Jud calls the “habit loop” of addiction with a new and rewarding “habit loop” – habituated behaviour whose rewards grow exponentially.  Jud reiterates that developing new habits, such as mindfulness, requires “dedicated practice every day”, which is one way to overcome the barriers to changing our behaviour.  Sustaining mindfulness practice, then, is critical to undermining cravings and addictions.

As we grow in mindfulness, we gain a better understanding of our craving and addiction and learn ways to use mindfulness to undermine the hold that cravings have on our thoughts and emotions.  We can learn to make more conscious choices in the process.

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

Image source: courtesy of  whekevi on Pixabay

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Mindfulness for Children: MindUP

Empathy is the gateway to compassion. As we grow in mindfulness we become more aware of others and their needs and of the pain and suffering that mirrors our own experiences.  We also gain the insight to understand our own potential and capacity to act to redress pain and suffering in others – our ability to show compassion in a way that is reflective of our life history  and unique skill set.

This was certainly true of Goldie Hawn who acknowledged that, as she grew in mindfulness through mindful practice, she developed a deeper empathy for the plight of children who were lacking in joy and suffering from stress and fear.  This deepened empathy led to the insight that she herself could do so much to redress the pain and suffering of school age children in a unique way – she could show compassion in a way that was built on her own life history and skill set.

This, in turn, led to the development of MindUP™ – mindfulness for teachers and children.  In establishing MindUP™ through her Hart Foundation, Goldie had some very clear goals in mind:

I created MindUP ™ with educators, for educators.  I wanted to help them improve student focus, engagement in learning academics and give them tools and strategies that would bring joy back into the classroom. It is my greatest hope that every teacher who uses MindUP™ will find it beneficial in their work and in their life.

Goldie realised that she had to work through teachers to develop a new curriculum based on mindfulness and to give the teachers experience of the benefit of mindfulness so that they were motivated to share this with their students. The program with its curriculum and framework  consists of 15 lessons for Pre-K-8th grade children.  It exposes the teachers and children to “neuroscience, positive psychology, mindful awareness and social learning”.

An experiential approach to mindfulness is embedded in the program through daily mindfulness practices.  Children are taught “activities around topics such as gratitude, mindfulness and perspective taking”.  Goldie was able to report that the science/evidence-based program, which has been evaluated over a ten year period, has impacted the lives of 500,000 teachers and children.

The outcomes of the MindUP™Program, identified in the ongoing evaluation, are reported as “drives positive behavior, improves learning and scholastic performance, and increases empathy, optimism and compassion”.

This program shows you what mindful leadership can lead to and what impact a single individual can have through their own growth in mindfulness.

Mindfulness for children is becoming critical because of the increasing loss of the capacity to focus and pay attention, the growth in depression and mental illness in school aged children, the disastrous impact of cyber bullying leading some to suicide and the underlying lack of skills and resilience to deal with life’s challenges.

Goldie Hawn, through her MindUP™ Program, takes action to redress these issues for children.  She shares how her own life is now filled with joy and happiness.  What she has effectively achieved in her own life through mindfulness practice, are the essential elements of happiness:

  • work or activity that utilises her core skills and experience
  • meaningful work/ activity
  • working towards something that is beyond herself.

Personal happiness can be an outcome of mindfulness but it also provides the foundation for the active pursuit of some goal that will bring happiness and fulfilment into the lives of others.

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

Image source: courtesy of Khamkhor on Pixabay

 

Looking For Inspiration

Inspiration is everywhere if we just look out for it.  However, as mentioned in the previous post, we tend to become focused on negative news, rather than positive stories.  Inspiration leads to health and well-being, while negative-oriented news creates distraction and emotional disturbance – especially where events are sensationalised to create the maximum emotional impact.

One of the very helpful sources of inspirational stories is TED Talks – an endless source of video presentations on every conceivable topic by numerous people from different corners of the world who have achieved much to improve the human condition.

One such talk was given by Dr. Lucy Kalanithi – What Makes Life Worth Living in the Face of Death?  In this outstanding presentation, Lucy discusses how she and her husband Paul, a neuroscientist, coped with the knowledge that at the age of 37 he was dying from Stage IV lung cancer.

In her optimistic -and sometimes humourous – talk, Lucy makes some key points:

  • the critical importance to keep talking to each other, with no topic off limits
  • realising that the person who is dying must work to reshape their identity
  • making conscious choices together about ongoing health care
  • learning to accept the pain of your dying partner
  • finding beauty and purpose amidst the sadness
  • learning that resilience, in this situation, means bouncing back to real living without denying the reality of impending death.

The video of the presentation by Dr. Lucy Kalanithi is given below:

Besides building bonfires on the beach and watching the sunset with her friends, Lucy found that “exercise and mindfulness meditation helped a lot” after Paul’s death.

Both Paul and Lucy were noted for their compassion towards others. As they were able to grow in mindfulness through this compassion and their intense living-in-the moment, they were better able to cope with the reality of Paul’s terminal illness.

 

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

Image source: Courtesy of martythelewis on Pixabay