Integrating Gratitude with Loving Kindness Meditation

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) UCLA offered a guided meditation podcast integrating gratitude and loving kindness.  Her guided meditation, Extending Loving Kindness & Gratitude Practice, is designed to use the energy and warmth of gratitude practice to extend our loving kindness beyond ourselves to others in our life to whom we are truly grateful. 

Diana’s meditation is one of the weekly meditation podcasts offered by MARC with a view to helping participants grow in self-awareness, develop emotion regulation and attain an overall sense of wellbeing and ease.  The approach of the MARC meditations is to enable us to focus fully on  “present moment experience” while adopting an open and curious perspective and accepting “what is”.

Guided meditation incorporating gratitude and loving kindness

At the outset, Diana encourages us to adopt a comfortable position, whether sitting on a chair, lying down or adopting a cross-legged siting posture.  She makes the valid point that is difficult to extend loving kindness to others when we are not physically comfortable.  She suggests that we begin with a few deep breaths to ease some of the tension in our bodies and to ground us in the moment.  Associated with this is the encouragement to be with what is – to acknowledge and accept our mental state, our feelings of reluctance or enthusiasm for the meditation or our agitation about something external to the present moment.

The anchor for this meditation is initially focusing on something that we are really grateful for – whatever that might be in the physical, intellectual, emotional, relational  or financial realms of our lives.  Because so many of my friends and family lack physical mobility at the moment (owing to illness and/or aging), I focused with gratitude and appreciation on my ability to walk, run on a tennis court, and play tennis well.  I began to appreciate that I had been coached in tennis very well at an early age and that I now had a range of tennis strokes and strategies that I can use to really enjoy my social tennis.  I thought of how much playing tennis had become a positive, grounding part of my life through fixtures, competitions and social tennis groups (both intimate and broad).

The next phase of the meditation focuses on someone in our life we really appreciate – a partner, child, friend, colleague, mentor or anyone else who is a positive influence in our life and a source of joy.  I focused on my life partner of forty years and expressed appreciation for her sustained love, kindness and warmth;  her intellectual and problem-solving capacity; her generosity towards others in need; her courage and resilience in the face of difficult situations; her willingness and ability to listen for understanding; and her desire and ability to be a very strong support for our two adult children. 

Diana encourages us to allow the feelings of gratitude to flow through our body – to capture the embodiment of our appreciation in the moment.  These feelings can then energise our desire to express loving kindness towards our chosen person.  The loving kindness can be expressed in many ways but often includes a desire for the person to be protected and to be safe from harm of all kinds (both internal and external); to realise a state of happiness and contentment; to achieve improved physical and mental health; and to experience a deep and abiding send of ease (a rare occurrence in these challenging times). 

As we extend loving kindness to the person we have been focusing on, we can begin to imagine this loving kindness being reciprocated – we can envisage ourselves as the recipient of loving kindness being extending to us.  We might mentally revisit a recent experience where the person has shown love and warmth towards us (e.g. by placing their arms around us, holding hands or offering a hug of appreciation or empathy).   Again ,we can focus on our embodiment of these reciprocated feelings – how do they make us feel in our body in the present moment?  What is that the other person sees in us and what else should we be grateful for?

Diana asks us to think of another person to whom we are grateful and begin to identify what it is about them that we are grateful for.  It may be that they nurtured us in a time of challenge, came to our rescue when we were in need, or became the person to offer “a shoulder to cry on” when we were suffering and/or experiencing grief.  At this stage of the meditation, I thought of my colleague of 15 years.  I expressed appreciation for her wisdom and calmness; her flexibility and understanding; her courage and willingness to meet challenges head on; her work ethic and persistence; her active commitment to fairness and equity; her genuine care and concern for our clients; and her kindness and generosity to anyone in need (often at great personal expense).

The reflection made me realise how lucky I am to have such a colleague and to know that in any situation we encounter I can rely on her for her considered and apt response.  Diana suggests that after this experience of appreciation and gratitude, we again express loving kindness towards them in our own words as befit the individual involved.

The final stage of this guided meditation is to focus on people who might be suffering – experiencing chronic illness or fatigue, addiction, the COVID19 virus, or the extreme challenges of war/refugee experience. We can extend loving kindness to our chosen group of people – wishing that their suffering be alleviated; that amidst the pain they can have moments of peace; that they are able to meet their challenges with acceptance, resilience and courage; and that they are eventually free from their suffering so that they can experience wellness and ease.

Reflection

There will be times when we cannot feel loving kindness – particularly to those who have hurt us or whose words and actions are continually challenging.  In these situations, instead of indulging in self-denigrating thoughts and feelings, we can extend loving kindness to ourselves

We can also explore an internal form of compassionate curiosity – whereby we envisage what traumas a person with an addiction has experienced in their lives and what might be the messages they are giving themselves about their “worth”.  Gabor Maté explains this approach in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.

As we grow in mindfulness, through gratitude and loving kindness mediation, we can begin to appreciate the many people and things we take for granted in our lives, grow in kindness towards others and ourself, and move beyond a self-referential and self-centred world to engage in compassionate action.  Loving kindness meditation helps us to appreciate what is good in others as well as in ourselves.

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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.

Barriers to Overcoming the Anxiety Habit Loop

In previous posts I have discussed Judson Brewer’s concept of the habit loop underpinning anxiety, addiction and craving and his mindfulness processes for overcoming anxiety.  Central to his process for overcoming anxiety, is understanding the trigger-behaviour-reward process, the need to honestly and openly explore the realised rewards and costs of a particular behaviour and the willingness to update the reward value in our mind in the light of this learning.  In this post on barriers to using Judson’s process to overcome anxiety, I will explore further some of the ideas presented in his book, Unwinding Anxiety: Train Your Brain to Heal Your Mind.  I will also link this discussion to other ideas on barriers to mindfulness that I have written about earlier. 

Barriers to overcoming the anxiety habit loop

Below are some of the barriers I have identified in reading Judson’s book but supplemented by my earlier discussions:

  • Obsession with the news – we can feast on the news as if our lives depended on it.  At every opportunity, we might be seen accessing our mobile phones to find out the latest news.   We can do this while waiting, instead of using this down-time to build our awareness.   The problem is that the news is typically dominated by adverse events and people’s suffering as well as portents of disaster.  It is often unnerving, adds to anxiety and causes disquiet.  If we become obsessed with the news, we are not creating the space for stillness and calm that would enable us to be mindful about our habituated behaviour and its real rewards (outcomes). 
  • Closed worldview – pursuing the news is what Judson describes as “deprivation curiosity” where our motivation is to address a deficit in our knowledge where the reward is discovery of the up-to-date information.  However, this process constitutes a closed system because closure is achieved once the void (missing information) is filled.  We can also adopt a closed worldview by trying to protect ourselves from disconcerting or uncomfortable information, and related feelings, about our habituated behaviour and its impact on our wellbeing and the welfare of others.  Judson argues that what we need to pursue is “interest curiosity” where the process of curiosity is reward in itself because it is open-ended, never dries up and exposes us to the rewards of joy, wonder and awe.  He suggests that interest curiosity feels better when we compare it to “the scratchy, closed-down itch of deprivation”.
  • Review and regret approach – this habituated behaviour constitutes another closed circuit in that it leads us to self-flagellation and negative self-appraisal whenever we revert to our bad habit or make a mistake.   Judson suggests that what is needed here is “forgiveness and moving on and up”.  This reflective approach opens the way to real learning and sustained habit change.  We can beat up on ourself for mistakes but this only feeds the anxiety habit cycle and contributes to depression.  In contrast, If we adopt a growth mindset, we can see each experience, and attempt to overcome our anxiety habit loop, as an opportunity to learn and grow.  Our actions serve to give us feedback about outcomes, both intended and unintended – and this is the way we learn.
  • Lacking persistence – in this era of the desire for immediate satisfaction, it is easy to lose heart and give up before our goal is realised, even if we have made some progress along the way to reducing our anxiety level.  We can overlook the fact that our habituated behaviour has been developed over many years and, in some instances, has resulted from a traumatic event or adverse childhood experience.  It will take a concerted effort over an extended period of time to overcome an anxiety habit loop.   Judson suggests that it will take “short moments, many times” and a willingness to persist with the process of “kind curiosity” to unearth our anxiety habit loop and the underpinning reward system. 
  • Unchanged reward value – we can mindlessly accept the existing reward value that keeps our anxiety habit loop locked in thus creating a barrier to change.  Alternatively, we can actively seek to update our reward value with disenchanting information (which we typically ignore).  We tend to see only the positive aspects of a habituated behaviour (e.g. avoidance of discomfort, pain, embarrassment  or hurtful self-disclosure).  Judson likens this barrier to a “chocolate experiment” where people failed to realise when eating more and more chocolate turned an otherwise pleasurable experience into one that caused displeasure.  We can either not notice or ignore the “turning point” and fail to develop a real updated, assessment of a reward value.   This often occurs with people whose underlying anxiety drives a habit of procrastination.
  • Focus on reasoning rather than feeling – Judson argues that thinking and rationalisation will only go so far in terms of sustainable habit change.  While as humans we need thinking to problem solve, be creative and plan, rational argument has little impact on entrenched habits.  A more holistic approach of sustained personal inquiry is required to unearth not only our thoughts but emotions and bodily sensations that inform us about what is happening in the moment when we resort to our habituated responses. Focusing on our feelings in the moment gives us a way to understand the drivers behind habit formation and maintenance, and enables us to develop the requisite insight to update our “reward value” of the habituated behaviour.

Ways to overcome the barriers to unwinding anxiety

In his Unwinding Anxiety book, Judson discusses a one-week silent retreat that he and a colleague provided for members of the US women’s Olympic water-polo team (who were back to back gold medal winners).  He explained that a real breakthrough for members of the team in developing holistic, interest curiosity was achieved by having participants repeat the sound “hmm” as a mantra.   This sound when repeated tends to engender openness, wonder and awe while clearing the mind of its tendency to engage in worry and negative self-judgment.  Judson suggests that this practice can be employed whenever we become stuck in our meditation attempts, experience panic or encounter internal barriers to overcoming our anxiety habit loop.  It enables us to tap into bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions.

Judson also provides a process for experiencing a closed versus an open mindset.  This entails recalling in full colour and richness an anxious event followed by recalling a joyful event.  He explains that this process of observing bodily sensations generated by the different events forms part of the first day of his Unwinding Anxiety app.

Another source of encouragement to maintain persistence and adopt an open, learning mindset is provided by Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Metamorphosis.  The words of this mantra effectively describe the process of the sustained effort and open mindset required to achieve transformative change and encourages us to “not give up” but “trust the process” and be open to breaking with our old ways.  If we sing the mantra along with Lulu & Mischka, we can reinforce our desire to persist until we overcome our anxiety habit.

Reflection

Clearly the unwinding anxiety process proposed by Judson has application in many arenas, including in sports.   This got me thinking about an issue I am having with my tennis game when playing social tennis.   I have played tennis since I was about 12 years old (and probably earlier but I can’t think back that far).  I have used a single-handed backhand all my life but as I get older, my wrists and arms are becoming weaker (despite my occasional efforts to strengthen them with exercises).  So, for my 75th birthday, I requested three tennis lessons from a coach to learn how to do a double-handed backhand.  By the end of the third half hour lesson, I could manage a rally with the coach using my newly “acquired” double-handed backhand.  The problem is that I am experiencing an emotional blockage that is stopping me from using the new stroke at social tennis – I keep reverting to my single-handed backhand.

When I read about the habit loop and the need to change/update the reward value (in my mind) attributed to a particular behaviour in order to change the habit, I realised that what was keeping my old habit (single-handed backhand) in place was the failure to update the reward value of this behaviour.  I still seemed to be assuming that it was a reliable stroke preventing me from making mistakes and enabling me to keep the ball in play or win a rally.  The reality is that my single-handed backhand is no longer reliable and I do make lots of mistakes with it.  So I need to update the reward value that I attribute to this stroke and accept that in the earlier stages of a changeover to the new double-handed stroke, I will probably make more mistakes.  However, the bigger, better offer (BBO) is a stronger, double-handed stroke capable of winning a rally.  By being unwilling to use my double-handed backhand, I am adopting a closed mindset and depriving myself of the opportunity to learn through doing and reflecting on the outcomes.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, kind curiosity and mantra meditations, we can develop the persistence and courage to explore our anxiety habit loop and its reward value.  With a sustained concerted effort, we can begin to overcome our anxiety habit loop as we update our reward value and develop substitute rewards that are bigger and better than what we currently rely on, consciously or unconsciously.

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians 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.

Developing Awareness to Overcome Anxiety

Judson Brewer, world-renowned clinical psychologist and neuroscientist, maintains that mindfulness through a three-geared awareness process can break the anxiety habit loop.  His latest book,  Unwinding Anxiety: Train Your Brain to Heal Your Mind, provides a guide on how to develop the requisite awareness.  His clinical practice and scientific research in relation to cravings and addictions, the focus of his first book The Craving Mind, led naturally to his understanding of anxiety and how the anxiety habit is formed and overcome.

Judson argues that anxiety hides in our habits.  Underpinning cravings, addiction and anxiety is the fundamental habit loop which develops through operant conditioning – reinforcement of a behaviour through a rewards system.  We experience some kind of trigger which leads to a habituated response that brings a personalised reward.  For example, if you experience a stressful event/day (trigger), you might come home and have a drink of alcohol (behaviour) which enables you to deaden your distress and distracts you from it (reward).  In the process, you are setting up a habit loop which becomes increasingly entrenched because your behavioural response (drinking alcohol) becomes habituated and you progressively need more and more alcohol to deaden the pain and achieve the necessary level of distraction.     

The reward value concept

Judson explains in his latest book that the reward experienced after a habituated behaviour is not a single element creating the habit.  According to him, the way the brain works is that it establishes a reward value for a particular behavioural response that not only involves the present moment reward but also the recollection of the accumulated rewards associated with prior occurrences of that behavioural response.   So, the reward value attributed by the brain to a behavioural response (such as drinking alcohol after a stress trigger) is an accumulation of prior experiences that were deemed positive (such as drinking alcohol in good company in a stunning location) – all of which can distort the real value of the reward and further entrench the behaviour.

Breaking the habit loop or anxiety cycle

Judson points out that the way to break the habit loop or anxiety cycle involves fundamentally developing awareness of the habit loop and establishing a realistic and holistic assessment of the “reward” in the present moment.  For example, if our to-do list acts as an anxiety trigger leading to procrastination (behaviour) which provides the reward of avoidance, we can in-the-moment recall that the procrastination behaviour itself has adverse effects such as leading to criticism for delays and/or intensifying the level of experienced anxiety.   This heightened awareness may also be developed “reflexively” (reflecting on the trigger-behaviour-reward loop after the event) if the experience is relatively recent and the recall is rich in content.  These options of present moment awareness or reflexivity relate to what we have discussed previously as reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. 

Developing holistic awareness

The fundamental problem with a habit loop is that our recall is often biased and defective.  We tend to overlook the adverse effects of a behavioural response and focus only on the positive, immediate effects (such as deadening or distraction).  In developing awareness of a habit loop or chronic anxiety, we need to adopt a more holistic and balanced approach – we need to become aware of the impacts of a behavioural response on our bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings as well as broader impacts such as on our work, our relationships and our environment.  Just providing an intellectual rationalisation for the desired changed behaviour is normally not enough to create the behaviour we desire – it ignores the power of emotions embedded in bodily sensations.  Judson points out that our survival needs (manifested through difficult emotions and bodily sensations) are more powerful than our need to overcome “cognitive dissonance” (where our rationalisations of a behavioural response conflict with our evidence-based experience).

Kind curiosity

Judson encourages the pursuit of “kind curiosity” to enable us to develop a more holistic and realistic assessment of the personally assigned “reward value” of a behavioural response.  Curiosity is a natural habit (evident in children and somewhat deadened in adults because of “mass distraction”) that can be encouraged and cultivated.  Unfettered curiosity can lead to unearthing disconcerting facts that may disarm, disillusion or distress us – it can challenge our self-concept in relation to our sense wholeness and genuine goodness.  Judson points out the importance of accompanying this heightened curiosity with forgiveness and loving kindness towards ourself – hence, the concept of kind curiosity.  Interestingly, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness includes the concept of purposefully paying attention in the present moment and doing so “non-judgmentally”.

Reflection

Once-off awareness raising is most likely to be ineffective in changing a habit and is definitely not going to overcome chronic anxiety.  We cannot expect to overcome habits that are entrenched and developed over many years (often since childhood). What is required is sustained kind curiosity and ongoing awareness raising.  Through sustained effort, we can substitute a more realistic reward value for the one that we have developed in our mind over time – which is why Judson suggests that we can unwind our anxiety by training our brain, through awareness training, to heal our mind.  Over time, too, we can develop what he calls a “bigger, better offer” (BBO) to offset the current reward value driving the existing anxiety habit loop.  He suggests that mindfulness might “fit the bill” here as it provides a wide range of benefits, without the adverse effect of substituting one bad habit for another (e.g. substituting lollies for alcohol).

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become aware of our triggers, our habituated behavioural responses and gain insight into the reward value that we attribute to our responses.  We can also learn to substitute more rewarding responses that will encourage the development of changed habits that have positive outcomes.  If we revert to old habits in times of extreme stress, it is important to avoid negative self-talk and self-denigrations and we can do this by extending forgiveness to ourself.

Throughout his book on anxiety, Judson draws on illustrations and validation from users of hist three  apps focused on cravings (e.g. over-eating), addiction (e.g. to smoking) and anxiety.  What these app-based programs provide is a readily accessible way to monitor yourself throughout the day and progressively substitute holistic rewards for those that are currently entrenching unhealthy habits.

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians 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 the Pain Beneath Trauma and Addiction

Dr. Gabor Maté encourages us to look beyond trauma and addiction to the unfulfilled needs and pain that lie beneath.   He maintains that the traumatic events and adverse childhood experiences are not the trauma but the catalyst for the trauma that is created within an individual.  This traumatised inner landscape reflects the pain of unfulfilled needs experienced by the individual and manifested in addictive behaviours, that are often self-destructive.  The internal trauma involves disassociation from one’s true self and distortion of internal and external perception.

Gabor offers compassionate inquiry as a way to help a client access their inner pain and distorted self-beliefs.  His approach is confronting but compassionate, penetrating but respectful, persistent but with a healing intent.  He is intent on helping an individual come to his own truth and to understand the connection between their trauma experiences and their addictive behaviour.   He makes the point that addiction is not just about drugs but people can be addicted to anything – to work, sex, “the need to please”, money, food, shopping, or anything else that holds them captive in compulsive behaviour that is injurious to the individual physically, mentally or intellectually.

One way we can understand the pain that lies beneath other people’s addiction and our own is to hear Gabor talk about examples and/or see him work with someone in his compassionate way.  By observing him unravel the threads that link a traumatic event or developmental experience to the self-talk that underlies addictive behaviour is enlightening and a motivation for compassion for others and self-compassion.

The negative self-stories that lie beneath addictive behaviour

We are very impressionable in early childhood and are forever trying to make meaning out of events in our life and experiences that flow from these.  Gabor states that children are basically “narcissists in the developmental sense” – everything is personal to them.   When parents, for example, are unhappy, fearful or sad because bad things are happening, then the child thinks “it must be about me” and develops low self-belief and negative self-talk accordingly.

Gabor talks about his own addiction to his work as a family medical practitioner as a way of fulfilling an unmet need.  His adverse childhood experiences during the Holocaust led him to believe that he “was not wanted in the world”.  His workaholic behaviour, negatively impacting his family and his clients, was designed to enable him to feel as though he was wanted and needed.  However, the continuous positive reinforcement of his role led to entrenchment of his addiction to work.  Beneath the workaholic behavior was an attempt to address the self-talk that reflected the pain of an unfulfilled need – the need to be wanted and protected (a basic attachment need).

In his interview podcast with Joe Polish, Gabor explored what Joe described as his sex addiction earlier on his life.  He had been molested in childhood over two years and his parents, who themselves were traumatised at the time, did not protect him.  His negative self-talk then was  around “I am only valued for my body” – thus leading to addiction to sex to fulfill his unmet need to be wanted and needed.  Gabor stated that acknowledging and confronting this unmet need is painful but essential for healing.  Addiction is often an escape to avoid facing up to a deep pain that seems bottomless.

Developmental trauma and worldview

In the interview with Joe Polish, Gabor maintained that there is another form of trauma that is not derived from a specific traumatic event.  He described developmental trauma as a disconnection from self that arises through a defective developmental childhood, resulting in a distorted worldview.  He instanced the different developmental traumas that can arise with parents who fail (for whatever reason) to provide a balanced environment for a developing child.  If, for example, the father was highly competitive, aggressive, domineering and “raging” at times, the child learned that the world “is a horrible place” and the way to survive is to be aggressive, grandiose and defensive. 

If, on the other hand, a child experienced an early childhood environment where she was bullied by her peers and informed by her mother that she should get out there and face them for “there is no room for cowardice”.  In Gabor’s interpretation, the message would be “to suck it up” – put up with whatever is happening, even if it is abusive and bullying.  Gabor commented that this worldview would lead to passive behaviour, even where someone is abusive and aggressively invading your personal space.

So our early developmental experiences can lead to aggressivity or passivity, depending on the nature of these experiences.  In both the early childhood experiences described above, there was an unmet need for protection and warmth.  The pain of this deficit was hidden beneath the individual’s distorted worldviews and consequent “habituated behavioural patterns”.

Reflection

Gabor maintains that “recovery” from trauma and addiction involves “reconnection with yourself” – being in touch with your feelings, intuition and insight.  It also involves replacing distorted perceptions of the world and self with compassionate understanding of the fragility and complexity of the human condition.

When I think of my early childhood, I recall the 18 months I spent in an orphanage separated from my younger sister and parents when I was four years old, as well as the 12 months boarding 100 kilometres from home when I was seven years old.  My negative self-talk, in line with Gabor’s experience, would have been “I am not wanted by my mother” (even though she was suffering serious illness at the time and could not take care of me while my father was on army duty overseas).  These early adverse childhood experiences may have translated, after completing secondary school, to my pursuit of study for the priesthood  – a very strong desire of my mother.  Thus I could have been trying to fulfill that unmet need to be valued by my mother – and during the five years of my religious life I certainly gained reinforcement of how much my mother valued me in that role.  I left the religious life more than 50 years ago because I decided “it was not for me”.

On reflection, I can see that my distorted perspective of what I perceived as a lack of care and concern for me by my mother was derived from my narcissistic orientation as a child (in reality, my mother was incredibly thoughtful, kind, generous and courageous – at the time of my separation she was not only very seriously ill, but grieving for the death of my four month old brother that occurred just before I was sent to the orphanage).

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we can gain insight into the antecedents for our behaviours and come to understand the source of our negative self-talk.  We can also renew our sense of wonder and awe, not only about nature but human life as well.

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Image by Carina Chen 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.

Compassionate Inquiry as a Healing Mode for Trauma and Addiction

Compassionate Inquiry is a psychotherapy method developed by Dr. Gabor Maté to help people suffering from the effects of trauma and addiction to experience “deep healing and transformation”.   Gabor is a world authority on trauma and addiction and has developed his method after many years in family medical practice, covering the whole range of human experience from obstetrics to palliative care.  He found through his counselling sessions conducted each day after his clinic hours that trauma underlay many of the numerous physical and mental illnesses he encountered in his medical consultations.  Gabor intensified his research in related fields and explored his own addictive behaviour and its trauma-induced origins.

Gabor acknowledges that his early efforts at therapy were inadequate because he had not been trained in the area.  However, he persisted because there were very few people offering a psychotherapy approach to addiction and trauma – even psychologists, in the main, trained in the medical model, adopted a symptomatic approach and related medication treatment.  They did not explore the root cause of the addictive behaviour or the distorting impacts of various traumas experienced by people, especially in early childhood.

Compassionate inquiry to heal addiction and trauma

Gabor learned through his early experience that healing lay in enabling the client “to experience the truth of themselves within themselves”.   So what he attempts to achieve is not just an intellectual exercise – it involves engaging the whole person, their distorted perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.  He maintains that his approach is compassionate even though he interrupts people, challenges assumptions, and explores aspects that are painful for the client.  He believes that it is not his role to make the person feel good but to help them to genuinely face their pain and the truth about themselves. 

Gabor stated that often therapists are dealing with their own trauma and addiction issues (as he was in his early stages) and are not able to be totally present to the client nor able to control their responses to what the person is saying or doing – their help is not offered unconditionally.  He suggests that therapists need to work on themselves to ensure that they do not contaminate their interaction with their client/patient because of their own unresolved issues.  He stated that therapists who display anger or other challenging emotions undermine the healing process for the other person.

Paying attention to the cues

There is one very important aspect to paying attention to the cues provided by the client’s words, actions and non-verbals – and that is the issue of consent.  Gabor seeks consent to explore behaviour in-depth with the person he is working with but he also checks that he has consent to continue when the going becomes challenging.  He argues that the person will give some cues if they are too uncomfortable and these should be used to confirm ongoing consent.  In a podcast conversation for Banyen Books, Gabor said that he exceeded the consent boundaries in his earlier days as a therapist when he would drop into therapy mode with his family members – who outright rejected his approach given that they had not given consent. He soon realised that they wanted him as a spouse, parent, friend or supporter – not as their therapist.

The other key aspect of paying attention to cues is that they give the therapist insight into what is really going on for the client.  Gabor illustrates how “unconscious metaphors” (such as the sun revolving around the moon) can indicate that the balance of dependence and inter-dependence is distorted in a relationship between daughter and mother.  The daughter might be “carrying” the mother, thus creating a traumatic experience of missing out on maternal support in the early stages of development.   Gabor maintains that metaphors a person uses are instructive, even if employed unconsciously.  He uses this cue to explore the meaning of the metaphor for the client and the underlying thought processes and emotional component. 

His compassionate inquiry approach is designed to get at the “basic human need” that lies unfulfilled in the person he is working with.  He argues that no matter what the words or behaviour of the individual (e.g. aggressive or obnoxious) there is a ‘real human being underneath”.  He uses the words of Marshall Rosenberg when he describes addiction as “the tragic communication of a need”.   The challenge is to enable the client/patient to go inside themselves and confront the uncomfortable and painful truth that they are futilely pursuing an unmet, and unacknowledged, need deriving from adverse childhood experiences or adult traumatic events.   Gabor spontaneously illustrates his compassionate inquiry approach in a podcast interview with Tim Ferriss.

Gabor makes the point that his approach does not involve having people tell detailed stories about their traumatic events or adverse childhood experiences, he consciously chooses to focus instead on the impacts of these events/experiences in terms of the person’s distorted perceptions, false self-beliefs and/or addictive behaviour.  He sees his task as staying present to the person and their “here and now” experience so that he can “mirror back to them their true selves”.  Gabor’s compassionate inquiry approach is supported by Bessel van der Kolk, a global authority on trauma, who has used attachment research and neuroscience to develop innovative treatments for adults and children who have suffered from traumatic events.  Bessel contends that his research demonstrates that to change the way we feel we need “to become aware of our inner experience” and then learn to “befriend what is going on inside ourselves”.

Training in compassionate inquiry

Gabor maintains that compassionate inquiry requires an “unconditional determination to understand a person”.   He offers several training courses for people who want to develop the requisite skills and personal wholeness to be able to offer compassionate inquiry in their therapeutic/consulting practice.  He indicated that experience with these courses shows that participants gain insight into themselves as much as learning about the compassionate inquiry method.  Gabor often uses inquiry into the experiences of individual participants themselves to illustrate his perspective and process.  He offers a one year, online course in compassionate inquiry over 12 months, as well as an add-on certification process for those who want more advanced training.

An alternative to the online training is paid access over a 1-year period to Gabor’s recorded seminars based on a weekend workshop conducted in Vancouver in 2018.  The four videos involved cover more than 9 hours of training by Gabor.  Free access to Gabor’s perspective and methodology can also be gained by exploring his YouTube Channel, which includes his interviews and his TED Talk.  Gabor’s website also provides additional resources.

Reflection

With his compassionate inquiry approach, Gabor provides a methodology that a skilled facilitator with adequate training and immersion in his approach, could employ to help people who seek assistance with addiction and/or the effects of trauma.  Compassionate inquiry practitioners are available in multiple locations around the world.  Gabor also offers CI Circles facilitated by a certified CI practitioner for anyone who wants to learn more about CI concepts and practices and to engage in self-inquiry.  The Circles involve self-reflective journalling and a willingness to  share insights and disclose present moment experiences, somatic and otherwise.

As we grow in mindfulness and associated self-awareness through reflection, meditation and guided inquiry methods, we are better placed to help ourselves deal with the impact of traumatic events from our past life and to assist others with similar needs.

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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.

How Trauma Impacts Our Behaviour

Dr. Gabor Maté, world authority on trauma and addiction, has produced a film titled The Wisdom of Trauma.  In the film, he draws on his research, his own experience of trauma as a child of the Holocaust and the addiction and trauma stories of others.  Through this wealth of evidence, he challenges several prevailing myths about the nature of trauma and addiction.  For instance, he maintains that addiction is not just an inherited illness nor is it a basis for blaming an individual.  He takes a more compassionate approach and suggests that we need to understand the true nature of trauma and addiction.

In essence, Gabor maintains that trauma is not external catalytic events such as adverse childhood experiences or adult traumatic events.  In his view, trauma is what happens internally, not externally.  Fundamentally, trauma is the “resultant dissociation from self” that occurs for the individual.  Gabor describes this as a “loss of authenticity” in that the traumatised individual can no longer access their intuition or gut feeling and as a consequence tend to engage in self-destructive behaviours such as addictions in different forms including alcoholism, drug addiction, workaholic behaviour, or addiction to sex or shopping.  These injurious behaviours are a form of escape designed to avoid personal feelings that are too painful to face.

The traumatised person loses the capacity to deal with their emotions and seeks diversions that they hope will bring freedom, a renewed self-esteem, a sense of completion or aliveness – which are all legitimate pursuits of healthy humans.  So the addiction is a way of solving their fundamental problem – a basic disconnection from their real feelings.  The addictions do not bring freedom or wholeness but serve as an imprisonment and deepen the feelings of hollowness and meaninglessness.

Gabor contends that for the traumatised person, their healthy orientation has never been expressed in life through meaningful relationships.  He argues that we have to see addiction as a response to trauma and look beyond its external manifestations and “see the wound that is right inside that person”.   Gabor encourages us to look beyond “what is wrong with a person” to what has happened to them in their life, including their early childhood.  His compassionate approach is spellbindingly expressed in his book, In the Realm of Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

Recovery from trauma and addiction

Gabor illustrates through his film and books, amazing stories of recovery from addiction. He shows that the wisdom that lies in trauma is awareness of how our response to everyday interactions throws light on our fundamental traumatised thinking such as “I am not worthy of respect” or “I am not lovable”.  Gabor asserts that recovery from trauma and addiction requires “compassionate inquiry” that enables a person to face their fear, let the truth inside themselves out into the light of day, and gain insight into the drivers of their behaviour, including their distorted worldview.

He illustrates how addiction and healing were manifested in his own life.  His trauma experience as a child during the Holocaust, hiding with his mother and being passed over to others for safe keeping, led to his belief that “the world doesn’t want me”.  He realised with the help of the compassionate assistance of his wife, that his workaholic behaviour as a specialist medical doctor was designed to “to make himself needed”.  The continuous affirmation of his contribution to peoples’ health and wellness served as personal validation and cemented his addictive behaviour.

Reflection

Gabor demonstrates that if we do not address the fundamental problem of dissociation from our feelings, we will not be able to achieve recovery from our trauma and associated addiction.  Trauma has a way of surfacing in distorted perceptions and inappropriate, sometimes high risk-taking, behaviours.

Gabor suggests that each of us examine situations where our response to some stimulus leads to an over=reaction on our part,  e.g. when a waitress tells us we cannot change a menu item or a tradesperson does not turn up when they promised.  He encourages us to look beyond our reaction to the personal belief that is being played out, e.g. “I am not good enough for people to pay attention to my needs”.  He would encourage us then to explore what traumatic event(s) led to this fundamental self-belief.  In the film, he illustrates this process by sharing part of his podcast interview with Tim Ferriss where he explores Tim’s self-belief (“I am not worthy of respect”) deriving from adverse childhood experiences.

 As we reflect on our life and our responses to everyday events, we can grow in mindfulness and develop increased self-awareness, insight and self-compassion.  We can also enhance our empathy for others who are addicted and develop the courage to take compassionate action, inspired by the work of people like Gabor, who with Vicky Dulai, founded the Compassion for Addiction group.

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Image by Jubair Bin Hasan 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.

Gaining Support in Difficult Times through Mindfulness

Allyson Pimentel offers a meditation podcast on the topic of “Mindfulness as Support”.  In the guided meditation, presented as a teacher at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), Allyson reminds us of the power of mindfulness to provide a refuge in challenging times, whether the source of difficulty is at home or at work.  She suggests that mindfulness, being in the present moment and accepting what is, enables us to navigate troubled waters by helping us to access our inner peace and equanimity and providing the opportunity to experience a wider perspective than a total focus on the present troubles or pain.

Mindfulness as nourishment for carers

Carers have a particularly challenging time as they not only have to deal with their own difficulties but also the suffering and difficulties of others such as Alzheimer’s Disease experienced by a loved on.  There is not only the challenge of seeing someone else suffer but also the need to manage the emotional contamination of another’s pain and personal distress.

Allyson reminds us that mindfulness enables us to broaden our perspective beyond the immediate, perceived suffering to other things that are good in our lives and that of others.  We can pay attention to the broader environment of sounds and laughter, open our minds to all that we have received in life  and that another person has received.  This “wider aperture” brings with it appreciation that beyond immediate difficulties and suffering is relief.  Allyson likens it to going from the centre of a dark wood to coming to the edge where light streams in and lush green plains open before us. 

Extending beyond ourselves

In the guided meditation, Allyson encourages us to think about others beyond our immediate sphere who might be experiencing suffering and personal difficulties, whether that involves pandemic-induced illness, addiction, loss of job or home, disconnection from family and friends, mental illness, or financial difficulties.  She suggests that we try to encompass others by focusing on them and their needs and wishing them peace, tranquility, and ease.  We can also envisage them offering us empathetic support in return.

Mindfulness as support for business owners

The Smiling Mind organisation reminds us that small business owners can gain support from mindfulness particularly in these difficult times of the pandemic and associated economic difficulties.   Small business owners have to deal with the daily challenges of managing their cash flow, engaging and retaining staff, dealing with business uncertainties and political changes,  managing multiple demands on their time and skills and establishing a work-life balance.  On top of this is the ever-present challenge of maintaining quality relationships at home with partners and children while their minds are full of business-related information and endless to-do lists.

Mindfulness enables small business owners to manage stress more effectively, achieve increased self-awareness and awareness of others, build their powers of concentration and cultivate their creativity.  It provides a refuge from daily turbulent waves and a place to recuperate and restore perspective.  Mindfulness also helps small business owners to develop resilience, to improve their deep listening skills and their relationships, and to realise much-needed, regenerative sleep.

Smiling Mind, in association with MYOB, offers a free mindfulness app with a special Small Business Program within the “At Work” section of the app.  They also have specific blog posts dedicated to how mindfulness can support business owners manage their day-to-day challenges.

Mindfulness as support for people with addictions

In a previous post I discussed how mindfulness through growing self-awareness can break down the “trigger-reward” cycle involved in addiction.  I also discussed the barriers to undertake and sustain mindfulness practice to overcome addiction and offered a four-step mindfulness practice to overcome these barriers.  In cases of serious addiction, mindfulness can support and reinforce therapies offered by professionals such as psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and psychologists.  Just as with trauma healing, people with addictions may need the support of professionals to overcome self-destructive behaviours.

The COVID-19 pandemic while providing some people with relief from time and work pressures and the unsustainable pace of life, has also led to increased alcohol and drug addiction, especially amongst older people such as “Baby-Boomers”.  In an interview podcast, Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke discussed the adverse impact of the pandemic on mental health as well as increased levels of addiction.  She explained that pandemic-related isolation is compounding difficulties for people with mental health issues and addiction and this is in addition to other new life stressors generated by the pandemic, e.g., uncertainties concerning employment and personal health, fear of infection of themselves and loved ones, financial difficulties, the breaking down of established life patterns and thwarting of future plans.

In recognition of the pandemic-induced growth in addiction of all forms, organisations such as ARK Behavioral Health provide a range of services as well as Covid-19 Mental Health and Addiction Resources.  Their insight into the adverse impact of alcohol abuse on immunity and vulnerability to COVID-19 infection is illuminating.  The pandemic resources provided are comprehensive as are the levels of care that ARK Behavioral Health professionals provide.

Reflection

Destructive emotions such as anger and resentment and related behaviours such as addiction can be injurious to the mental health and happiness of anyone as well as to that of their partners and children.  As people grow in mindfulness through regular mindfulness practices, they can experience support to address destructive emotions and addictive behaviours. Mindfulness develops self-awareness and emotion regulation and cultivates conscious choice and wise action.  Mindfulness can also provide support and reinforcement for situations where professional help is required to overcome addiction or heal from trauma.

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Image by Rebecca Tregear from Pixabay

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

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

Turning From Envy to Valuing the Success of Others

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

Envy – a socially constructed emotion

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

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

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

Developing sympathetic joy through loving-kindness meditation

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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Image by Eric Michelat from Pixabay

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

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

Developing Awareness to Overcome Craving and Addiction

In an earlier blog post, I discussed how cravings are formed and how mindfulness breaks the link between addictive behaviour and perceived rewards, drawing on the work of Jud Brewer. author of The Craving Mind. In a subsequent post, I discussed barriers to sustaining mindfulness practice and a four-step mindfulness practice for overcoming cravings and addictions.

In a recent presentation on the Brain Change Summit hosted by Sounds True, Jud elaborated further on how mindfulness breaks the “habit loop” of craving and addiction. He spoke of the “wedge of awareness” that mindfulness drives between a trigger (such as stress or negative emotion) and our habituated reactivity. He explained that mindfulness effectively disrupts the reward-based learning that is embedded in the craving/addiction cycle. In his view, mindfulness progressively establishes three different levels of awareness which he calls the “three gears of awareness”.

The three gears of awareness

Research undertaken by Jud and his colleagues demonstrates that if people are able to sustain meditation practice, they can realise a deepening level of inner awareness that breaks down the trigger-reward cycle involved in craving and addiction. Jud describes this progression in awareness in terms of three gears that release the power and potentiality of a person by enabling them to “move up a gear” – effectively changing the relationship between a trigger and the behavioural response. The three gears of awareness developed through mindfulness can be explained as follows:

  1. First gear: awareness of a “habit loop” – becoming conscious of the connection between a trigger, a behaviour and a reward that underlies a specific craving or addiction. The first step to breaking a habit is understanding how it is formed.
  2. Second gear: disillusionment with the reward – becoming aware that the “reward” does not work. For example, being mindful of your bodily sensations (taste, smell, touch) as you have a cigarette can make you realise how “disgusting” the cigarettes are. One respondent in a relevant mindfulness research project said (after paying attention to her bodily sensations when smoking), that her cigarette “smells like stinking cheese and tastes like chemicals”.
  3. Third gear: breaking free of the “caught up-ness” of the habit loop – works through a process of substitution of a better and higher reward. Through mindfulness you access your natural capacity to be “curious” – to observe and explore your emotions and reactions and name your feelings. Curiosity without habituated reactivity leads to a sense of expansiveness, peace of mind and equanimity – a higher level reward than flight behaviour. Jud suggests that R.A.I.N. meditation, breathing into strong emotions and loving kindness meditation can activate this third gear.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we can become aware of the habit loop reinforcing our craving or addiction, re-evaluate the rewards inherent in our habituated responses and begin to experience the freedom and peace which comes from the ability to be curious about our inner world, while being reaction-free.

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Image by Gerd Altmann 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.

Exploring Awareness Without Boundaries

In a previous post, I explored Diana Winston’s discussion of the three dimensions of awareness – narrow, broad and choiceless. In this post, I want to explore “boundaryless awareness” which is often called “choiceless awareness“. I will be drawing on a guided meditation for resting in boundaryless awareness provided by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

The expansiveness of awareness

Jon reminds us that our awareness can take in an endless array of sensations, thoughts, and emotions as well as conscious awareness of the fact that we are observing, thinking or experiencing. Our awareness is like the unbounded expanse of the sky or the galaxies beyond.

With narrow awareness we hone in on a particular focus such as our breathing, sounds around us or a specific self-story; with broad awareness we open ourselves to all that is going on around us. With boundaryless awareness we progressively open to our total inner and outer reality without constraint – not choosing, entertaining or engaging – just being-in-the-moment. Jon reminds us that we are often extremely narrow in our awareness, just fixated on ourselves – e.g. on our addiction, our pain or our boredom. Boundaryless awareness creates a sense of freedom – moving beyond self-obsession to openness to what is.

A guided meditation on boundaryless awareness

In Jon’s meditation podcast, provided by mindful.org, he takes us through a series of stages that gradually open our consciousness to the expansiveness of our awareness – beyond depth, breadth and width.

In the 30 minute meditation, he begins by having you focus on the “soundscape” – the sounds that surround you and the space in between each sound. He encourages you to “be the hearing” – to rest in the very act of hearing, thus deepening awareness not only of the sounds but also of the fact that you are hearing them.

In the next stage of progressing in awareness, Jon suggests that you now move your awareness to the air that you breathe and the sensation of the air on your skin as well as consciousness of its progress through your body. You could even extend this to breathing with the earth, so that you are attuned to your participation in the “breathing globe”.

Jon points out that while all this is going on your body is experiencing sensations – aches and pains, pressure of the chair on your back and legs, the sense of being grounded with your feet on the floor. [As I participated in this meditation, I even had the sensation of movement in my fingers (which were touching) – lightening the pressure of touch, growing thicker and expanding outwards.] Jon suggests that you let your awareness float across your body sensations as you breathe, sit, hear and feel.

You can extend your awareness to your thoughts, not entertaining them but growing conscious that you are thinking – letting your thoughts come and go as they float away. This awareness simultaneously embraces feelings elicited by your thoughts and accompanying images and memories.

In the final stage of this guided meditation, that Jon calls “one last jump”, you allow your mind and heart to be “boundless, hugely spacious, as big as the sky or space itself” – an awareness that has no bounds like the “boundarylessness” of awareness itself in its uninhibited form.

Stability through narrowing your focus

If you find that you need to stabilise your mind as you experience the unaccustomed sensations of “weightlessness” or unbounded awareness, you can return to a narrower focus – your breath or the sounds around you. In returning to a narrow awareness, you can sense the limits of this focus within the broader field of unbounded awareness. Boundaryless awareness, however, is accessible to you at any time you choose to pursue it.

As we grow in mindfulness by resting in our awareness -narrow, broad or boundaryless – through meditation, we come to realise the expansiveness of awareness and the freedom and calm that lies beyond self-absorption, with all its various manifestations such as addiction, negative self-stories or depression.

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Image by O12 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.