The Pandemic and Narrowing of the Window of Tolerance

David Treleaven and Liz Stanley discussed the current pandemic In their interview podcast on Widening the Window of Tolerance.  They both asserted that COVID-19 had effectively narrowed the window of tolerance of many people.  There are many people who are becoming increasingly stressed and traumatised by unfolding events, whether because of the death of relatives and friends, loss of a job, dislocation from their normal place of work (and way of working) and/or stringent “lockdowns”.

Narrowing the window of tolerance

In these very challenging times, people are becoming controlled by their “survival brain” – resorting to a fight, flight or freeze response.  Their window of tolerance is becoming narrowed, both in terms of their inner tolerance of challenges and external tolerance of differences.  Everything has been “thrown up in the air” so that they have lost their grounding in accurate perception and balanced body sensations. 

Polarisation , racism, and hate thrive in this disrupted state as people seek refuge in their “own tribe” (flight) and attack others who are different from themselves (fight).  Liz suggested that many people are “uncomfortable in their own skin” so that lockdowns and movement restrictions , creating disconnection, exacerbate the tendency to dysregulation (inability to control emotions).   The sense of hopelessness and helplessness in facing continuous and growing uncertainty adds to the incidence of anxiety and depression.

A compounding factor is that social media becomes what Liz calls an “echo chamber” – it gives unregulated voice to “dysregulated communications” that increase the tendency towards polarisation.  People retreat to social media and television only to find that these media are increasingly disorientating and disturbing.    

Further compounding the issues for individuals is the fact that we tend to make a “bargain” with ourselves – e.g. we can put up with lockdown for three weeks by adding some new routines such as working different hours, taking more regular breaks and expanding project timelines.  However, when other people blatantly and inconsiderately breach lockdown regulations or social distancing requirements leading to further lockdowns, conforming people can feel betrayed – intensifying a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

Hope and widening the window of tolerance

In the previous post I discussed trauma-sensitive mindfulness and widening the window of tolerance.    Liz provides several strategies in her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.  In the interview podcast she shared some of her own strategies for becoming grounded during the current health and economic crisis – mindfulness meditation, gardening, walking and playing with the dog, and focusing on connectedness to others.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® provides detailed strategies and tools to navigate effectively through times of trauma and stress.  She makes the point that whenever we are controlled by our “survival brain”, we are disconnected from our “thinking brain” and shut off from the opportunity to access our creativity and ingenuity. In discussing “hope” in the current challenging times, David noted that the tendency to “hyperfocus on what is not working” (as he has done at times) tends to narrow the window of tolerance and our capacity to cope.  He suggests that accessing stories of successful transition can help to widen our window of tolerance, e.g. successful career changes by people who have lost their jobs. Another strategy that he suggests is to effectively reframe what is happening.  By way of example, he draws on the comments of Adrienne Maree Brown in her article on living through the unveiling:

Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered, we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

Liz reinforces this view when she suggests that it is really only in times of turbulence when everything seems to be “thrown up in the air”, that genuine and sustainable change can happen.

Reflection

As David suggests, we can choose to stay in the fog bank by continuing to absorb negative messages, both external and internal, or we can free ourselves from this befuddled state by growing in mindfulness and developing our own strategies to build resilience and stay grounded.

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Image by My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: 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.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and the Window of Tolerance

In the previous blog post I discussed several resources on the topic of trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of these was David Treleaven’s Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast which includes interviews with people who have expertise in the area or a related area.   In a recent podcast, David  had a conversation with Liz Stanley who not only experienced very considerable trauma, the impact of mindfulness meditation on her traumatic experience but also has developed her own resources and training for people, both civilians and military personnel, who have experienced trauma.  The conversation with Liz on the topic of Widening the Window of Tolerance draws on her personal experiences, study and training and incorporates ideas from her training program and her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.

The Window of Tolerance

The concept of the Window of Tolerance has been attributed to Dan Siegel, clinical psychologist and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), UCLA.  Dan is the author many books, including Aware: The science and practice of presence.  Many people, including David Treleaven and Liz Stanley, have applied the concept of the Window of Tolerance in their research and training in relation to trauma-sensitive mindfulness.

The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (nicabm) provides an infographic that illustrates the concept in a very clear and easy-to-understand way.  They explain that the window of tolerance is about our capacity to deal with the challenges and stresses of the moment and take wise action to deal with them.  When stress takes us outside our window of tolerance we can experience hyperarousal (related to the fight/flight response) which manifests in uncontrolled anger, emotional overwhelm, or extreme anxiety; or, alternatively, experience hypoarousal (related to the freeze response) which manifests in the body trying to shut down resulting in numbness, “zoning out” or “spacing out”.  

The Attachment and Trauma Treatment Centre for Healing (ATTCH), drawing on the work of Dan Siegel and colleagues, provides a more detailed explanation of the concept in an article titled, Understanding and Working with the Window of Tolerance.  Pooky Knightsmith, on the other hand, provides a simple explanation in her short video on the window of tolerance and how to apply it to managing our emotions in everyday life (for those who are not experiencing trauma or trauma stimuli).

Trauma and narrowing of the window of tolerance

In her podcast interview. Liz reinforced the view that trauma causes a narrowing of a person’s window of tolerance.  She explained that she is a living example of someone who has experienced multiple traumatic events and who tried to cope in the only way she knew how, conditioned as she was by familial and social determinants.  Liz suffered an incredible range of traumatic experiences – active military duty in Asia and Europe, PTSD,  a near-death experience (NDE), rape, and whistle-blower harassment as a result of formally complaining about sexual harassment by her senior officers.

Liz described her response in terms of the compulsivity that comes with hyperarousal (which can occur when a person is outside their window of tolerance).  Instead of dealing with her traumatic stress, she intensified her activities, completing two undergraduate degrees simultaneously.  She explained that like a lot of people, she “compartmentalised” the stress, suppressed it and just kept going harder than ever, managing on two hours sleep each night – she “soldiered on”, both literally and metaphorically.

Liz had to make changes when she temporarily lost her eyesight – something she described as “cosmic coping pain” when her body which had “borne the brunt” of her hyperactivity decided “enough was enough”.  It was then that she explored mindfulness and researched trauma and trauma healing.

Liz explained “trauma” as impacting “neuroception” – “how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life threatening”.  In effect, trauma can distort our neuroception and effectively narrow our window of tolerance.  She explains the effect in terms of our “thinking brain” and our “survival brain”.

Our thinking brain enables us to analyse, make decisions, accurately perceive stimuli, and take wise action; our “survival brain” responds to perceived threats with the fight/flight/freeze response.  With trauma, the connection between the two is “compromised” so that, for example, seemingly harmless stimuli can be perceived as a threat and engender an inappropriate response negatively impacting a person’s health, relationships and capacity to undertake their work.   When we perceive a situation as hopeless or ourselves as powerless, our survival brain and nervous system can become flooded with heightened “emotional arousal”.

Liz explains, however, that when the thinking brain and survival brain are in harmony and working together, we have a wider window of tolerance – e.g. better tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty and the ability to identify and make effective choices, build sustainable connections, and perform optimally. 

Experience of mindfulness for dealing with trauma

Liz turned to mindfulness meditation to help her cope with her traumas which had deep-seated antecedents in the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by her father and grandfather (along with all the distorted coping mechanisms and fractured relationships that this entailed). Her initial experience with mindfulness was one of helping her to achieve some degree of self-awareness and associated self-regulation.  However, over time, she found that her “survival brain” took over as it began to “peel back deeper layers” – deep emotional scars hidden behind her hyperactivity (just as the happy-go-lucky “joker” or “larrikin” can hide the deep emotional pain of depression).

As some mindfulness practices acted as “trauma stimuli” she experienced panic and shallow breathing in-the-moment and flashbacks, nausea, claustrophobia, and inability to sleep for days afterwards.  Liz explained that a potential problem with mindfulness done in isolation and without appropriate modifications can lead to such heightened emotional awareness and arousal that the traumatised person can lose their ability to regulate their emotions and their unhealthy condition can be exacerbated rather than diminished, both mentally and physically.

Developing a trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness training

Liz explained that she spoke to scientists and neuroscientists, explored multiple skills and techniques, and wrote a book about her experiences and her journey out of trauma disablement.  She found that the myths surrounding mindfulness could make matters worse unless the mindfulness trainer recognised the impact of traumatic experience on a person’s window of tolerance.

In her book on widening the window, she draws on her own experiences and stories from people she has trained in a areas such as healthcare facilities and the armed forces.  Liz maintains that you can build resilience even in stressful jobs or when healing from traumatic experience(s).  She provides strategies involving paying attention in certain ways to increase the capacity to access choice and creativity and to make courageous decisions while effectively connecting with others through curiosity, openness, and compassion.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® which was developed in 2008 and evaluated on four occasions by neuroscientists and stress experts is now available online through Sounds True.  The comprehensive course includes video training and live sessions on topics such as resilience, stress and trauma recovery, effective decision making and relationship building along with “new tools for successfully navigating the interpersonal aspects of stress, trauma, emotions, and conflict”.

Reflection

When you first hear about the potential harmful effects of mindfulness meditation training for trauma sufferers, you can understandably become concerned about conducting mindfulness training for any group.  Alternatively, you might initially dismiss the trauma-sensitive mindfulness movement as a movement to counter the growing global popularity of mindfulness.  However, the evidence to support the trauma-sensitive approach is growing and cannot be ignored.

On the other hand, both Liz and David strongly encourage practitioners not to be put off from training others in mindfulness by this new information nor to behave as if they are “walking on eggshells”.  They strongly encourage mindfulness trainers to persist, especially in these challenging times when mindfulness and resilience is needed by some many people.  They do, however, suggest to proceed with “some discernment”, develop increased awareness of trauma and its impacts, learn about new tools available for trauma-sensitive mindfulness training and intensify their own efforts to grow in mindfulness so that they can train with increasing awareness, insight and sensitivity.

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

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

Self-Care in Challenging Times

Diana Winston provides a meditation podcast on the need for self-care in these challenging times when every aspect of our external environment is being disrupted – our health, politics, economy, society and climate.  Added to this, is the rising unemployment precipitated by pandemic-induced responses designed to restrict movement and resulting in business upheavals, shutdowns, and permanent closures.  The inner environment for many people is in turmoil – mental health issues are growing exponentially as people experience grief, anxiety, anger, and depression.  Overt racism is on the rise as people project their anger and frustration on those less able to cope.  

The demand for help is overwhelming on many fronts.   The temptation, according to Diana, is to be so focused on caring for others that we ignore self-care – leading to exhaustion, burnout and personal overwhelm.  Diana’s podcast is designed to help us to find our balance in the face of these overwhelming needs– her guided meditation being one of the many weekly podcasts provided by The Mindfulness Research Centre (MARC) , UCLA.

The need for self-care

Diana makes the point that it is more powerful and helpful to provide help and assistance from a place of equanimity than one of frazzle and burnout – it is more productive to provide from our personal overflow than from our depletion.  Being frenzied and frazzled is not helpful to others nor to our own wellbeing.  The challenge is to find the balance between the many demands of life – our families, relationships, work – and our desire to give support to others in need, whatever form that takes.  Diana stresses the need for self-care to achieve the necessary balance and personal overflow to be able to give from a centre of calmness and gratitude.  She quotes Thomas Merton who maintained that trying to achieve “a multitude of conflicting concerns” can lead to “violence” towards self.

Ways to achieve self-care

There are a many ways to achieve self-care, several of them are already described in this blog.  Diana emphasises the role of meditation in enabling us to provide self-care simultaneously for mind, body, and heart.  Meditation helps us deal with challenging emotions such as feelings of resentment, to handle negative self-evaluation and to find creative ways to give without self-depletion.  It enables us to find equanimity amidst the current turmoil of life.

For some people, movement in the form of exercise, yoga, Tai Chi, walking, or riding is an important component of their self-care.  Personal preferences are important here so that our choices address our personal needs of achieving inner harmony and life balance.  Lulu & Mischka remind us that mantra meditation is another form of self-care – integrating body, mind, and heart, especially if heartfelt and meaningful chanting is combined with movement such as swaying or rhythmic dancing.  Meditation in its many forms enables us to re-generate and to leverage energy in a  unique way.  Some meditation practitioners such as Melli O’Brien of Mindfulness.com offer a free meditation app with several meditations relevant for our times.

Guided meditation on self-care

In her guided meditation on self-care, Diana begins with helping you to become grounded through deep breathing followed by attending silently to the natural rhythm of your own breath.  She encourages you to choose an anchor such as your breath, the sounds surrounding you or bodily sensations (such as the warmth, tingling or a flow sensation in your fingers or feet).   The anchor is designed to bring you back to your focus when distracting thoughts appear.

Diana then encourages you to envisage what it would be like to feel really balanced while at the same time caring for others and yourself and contributing purposefully and meaningfully  to your work or role in life.  Her aim is to encourage you to experience this balance and sense of satisfaction as a motivation to make some small change in your life to achieve a better balance.  She encourages you as a part of the meditation to make a commitment to achieve that one small, re-balancing activity.  For some people, this change may actually involve taking on some form of caring for others if they are not already engaged in helping others.

Reflection

It is easy to lose ourselves in these challenging times when everything is in a state of flux.  Meditation and other forms of self-care can assist us to balance our lives and re-generate and increase our positive energy flow in such a way that we can provide support for others while maintaining our own equilibrium.  As we grow in mindfulness, we enrich our inner landscape, revitalise ourselves and become more open to possibilities both in terms of self-care and caring for others.  We can find our unique way to help and to take wise action to achieve our intentions.

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

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

Self-Care and Care for Others in Challenging Times

Resilience is a constant theme of podcasts, online courses, and conferences in these challenging times.  One outstanding example of this is the interview podcast conducted with Michelle Maldonado  by Mindful.org.  Michelle discussed Resilience for Divided Times – the challenge of maintaining equilibrium in times of divisions on the grounds of race, nationality, gender, wealth and health.  The pandemic has unsettled everyone and challenged our way of operating day-to-day and, in the process, heightened anxiety and unearthed deep divisions previously hidden by the routines and busyness of daily life.  IN the interview, Michelle highlights the need for self-care, self-awareness, and pursuit of our own individual contribution to the service of others.

Self-Care for resilience

Without self-care we are unable to care for others and are more likely to contribute to divisions rather than their resolution.  Michelle emphasises the need to get in touch with our challenging emotions and not push them away or ignore them.  She quotes her father who used to say, “No way to it but through it”.  Michelle suggests that with escalating personal challenges, the need for self-care increases and demands that we increase the frequency, duration, and variety of our self-care approaches and mindfulness strategies if we are to build resilience and maintain our balance.   

Many people are finding it difficult to sleep in the current challenging times because of worries about health, finances, employment or restrictions on movement and access.  Michelle shared her own approach to overcoming the inability to go to sleep.  She maintains that often sleep eludes us because our mind is unsettled or constantly ruminating.  Her recommendation is to meditate or write a journal before going to bed to provide a “dump” for the mind and to still the mind’s incessant activity.  This mental activity can be complemented by a “body scan” to identify and release points of tension.  If you wake up prematurely, Michelle encourages you to practise a form of breathing involving exhaling longer than you inhale (e.g. a count of 7 on the exhale and 5 on the inhale) – an approach that activates the parasympathetic nervous system.  An alternative is to get up and write.

Self-awareness to take wise action

Michelle argues that if we lack self-awareness, we can unconsciously inflame divisions by our words and actions.  She maintains that each of us is constantly engaged in perception and prediction – both of which are influenced by our past experiences, including our childhood.  Our perception and prediction can generate a wide array of emotions including anticipation, sense of hopelessness, exhaustion, and excitement. 

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of our biases, predispositions, and distorted perceptions and create the space to think and act more consciously, skilfully, and compassionately (towards our self and others).  Michelle tells the story of how working closely with Federal Enforcement Officers totally changed her perception of these officers – an erroneous perception built up through newspaper and TV reports.  She saw their humanity, kindness, and concern for others. The danger is that we tend “to lump all people together” – whether they are of a particular location, race, profession, political affiliation, or gender orientation.  We need to challenge our assumptions through curiosity and honest self-inquiry so that we can create the space to understand where others are coming from and be able to take “wise action”, not action fuelled by ignorance, fear, hatred or misunderstanding.  

Contributing to the service of others

When we are confronted with the magnitude of suffering, mental illness, and uncertainty in these pandemic times, we can have a strong desire to help others but can feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task.  Michelle assures us that there is a unique way for each of us to make a contribution to the welfare of others.  She suggests that you can sit with the challenge of identifying your role and contribution to the service of others, think about it and attempt to write it down (to provide clarity and order for your thoughts).  With patience and persistence, you can gain the necessary insight to take the first steps and have the courage to “concretize and manifest what is yours to do”.  This may involve overcoming your natural tendency to procrastinate.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through self-care and developing self-awareness, we are better placed to identify any distortions in our perceptions and projections and to manage challenging emotions.  We can build resilience and contribute in a unique way to healing divisions and helping others to achieve the ease of wellness.  

Michelle offers a brief G.R.A.C.E. meditation by way of reflection and integration of her discussion (at the 29-minute mark).  The meditation encompasses gathering attention; recalling intention; attuning to self and others; considering what would serve your self-care needs and the needs of others at this moment; and engaging ethically through deciding one wise action you can take (a first step).

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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 Intentional Imagination

Mitra Manesh introduced the concept and practice of intentional imagination in a guided meditation podcast produced by MARC, UCLA.  Mitra has been practising and teaching meditation for 35 years and combines Eastern and Western approaches to meditation particularly for application within the corporate world.   She has developed the Inner Map app to enable people in the workplace and elsewhere to readily access and practise meditation and mindfulness.   Mitra also provides mindfulness approaches in her brief videos on Vimeo©.  In an earlier podcast, she provided an insightful meditation on the meaning of love.

Mitra points out at the outset that we all have and use imagination all the time.  The very act of worrying involves imagining an undesirable future.  In our dreams, our imagination holds sway and is not censored by the light of day.  Everything that we see around us – the buildings, bridges, tables, computers – were firstly imagined by somebody.   Imagination is what exists beyond our senses and yet it can create the reality that we see, feel, taste, hear and smell.  The power of imagination, then, is that it can make things happen.  As Napoleon Hill is quoted as saying, “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve”.  Intention, focus, and imagination together can create a new reality in your life.

Intentional imagination meditation

Mitra introduces her intentional imagination meditation by combining sensation with imagination.  After becoming grounded you are encouraged to feel the sensation of your feet on the floor or ground and then imagine drawing the energy of earth up through your feet, through your legs to your belly.  While resting in this sensation of strength, you can engage in conscious breathing, noticing the movement in and out as your belly expands and contracts with each breath.   You can return to your feet again at any time, imaging that you are drawing up more energy into your belly and drawing on the connection and support that surround you.

After a period of silent and restful meditation, Mitra encourages you to envisage some current difficulty (that is relatively small) that you have in your life.  You then imagine placing it in the corner of a very large room – thus reinforcing your perception of it as small and insignificant.  Now imagine moving to another spacious corner and sensing the feeling of resolution of that difficulty.  You can even smile if that helps you to tap into the sensation of resolution, success and achievement.

Imagination can free us from false beliefs, enable us to see possibilities and enhance the power of mindfulness practices such as Tai Chi.  We can integrate imagination in many forms of meditation, e.g. in mantra meditations.  Imagination can take us outside of ourselves and help us to develop loving kindness and compassionate abiding.

Reflection

We so often overlook the power of imagination to create a better life – we let it control our thoughts by imagining a harmful future.  Particularly in these challenging times, we need to draw on our imagination to create new possibilities that are adaptive and life-enriching.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices, intentional imagination meditation and reflection, we can access our creativity and build a better future for ourselves and those we interact with.

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

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

A Meditation for Grief and Loss

The sense of grief and loss can be overwhelming in these challenging times of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Maybe we have lost a relative, friend or colleague to the virus or we are experiencing the loss of the way things used to be – the levity and gaiety of daily interactions, the structure and social intercourse of a common workplace, the freedom of movement and access, the enjoyment of our favourite sport or pastime or the security, success and predictability of our business.  It is easy to beat up on ourselves and say, “I should be over this by now” or “Why aren’t I more positive like other people?”  Grief and loss have their own individual expression and it takes time and space to deal with the intensity of these difficult emotions.

Meditation as a refuge

Whatever is the cause of our sense of grief and loss, meditation can serve as a refugea place of safety, security and equanimity in the midst of everything that is unsettling.  It enables us to accept what is and move forward, even with tentative ideas and steps.  Meditation provides a grounding when the sense of loss is swirling around us, encompassing our thoughts and emotions.

We can become grounded through our breath – noticing the in-breath and out-breath and the rise and fall of our abdomen or chest.  We can rest in the space between our in-breath and out-breath and envisage kindness and strength flowing into us while tension and unease flows out of us.

We can sense the solid feeling of the floor or ground whether we are sitting, lying, standing or walking during our meditation.  As we do a body scan, we can notice our bodily sensations and points of tension – caused by suppressing the sense of grief and loss and holding back the natural flow of difficult emotions.  We can breathe into these places of tautness and pain and allow our emotions to surface and release.

We can feel the flow of energy, warmth and strength move through us as we sense the tingling in our hands and feet or through our fingers touching each other.  We can sense surrounding sounds by tuning into the room tone or the sounds surrounding us in the open – the breeze blowing, leaves in the trees rustling or the birds chirping or singing.  We can become immersed in the energetic field of our surround-sound as we allow ourselves to experience focused attention.

Meditation for grief and loss

We can use general forms of emotion meditation or a structured approach such as the R.A.I.N. process (recognise, allow, investigate, nurture).  Alternatively, we can use a specific meditation focused on grief and loss.  For example, Diana Winston, author of The Little Book of Being, offers a guided meditation podcast on Working with Grief and Loss.  

Her approach begins with grounding processes such as those described above but then moves onto dealing directly with the emotions of grief and loss.  She suggests at the outset of her focus on grief and loss (22min. mark), that you envisage a time when you were held tightly and securely and encompassed in love and compassion – whether by a parent, intimate partner or a close friend.  Diana encourages you to dwell in this feeling of being surrounded by support and strength, a feeling that can be reinforced by feeling the solidity of the floor or ground beneath your feet or body.

Diana encourages you to notice your feelings of sadness whether it is for yourself, others close to you or people in your neighbourhood or interstate (as with the rising number of deaths from Coronavirus in the State of Victoria, Australia).  She suggests that you allow the emotions and bodily sensations to manifest themselves – whether feelings of anxiety, constriction or heaviness of mind and heart.  She stresses the importance of staying grounded throughout by simultaneously being connected to something solid – a memory of being held warmly or the solidity of the earth beneath your feet.

While experiencing these emotions, especially if you are feeling regret at failing to appreciate what you had or connecting with a loved one, it is vital to show yourself kindness and self-compassion and to reassure yourself with words like, “I can get through this”, and “I have the support of others wherever in the world they might be”.  You can extend your compassion to others who are experiencing their own form of loss and grief, especially those in Beirut at the moment.  Tara reminds us to accept what is and to acknowledge that “we are all in this together”.

Reflection

It is natural to feel grief and loss in challenging times like those we are all experiencing differentially at the moment wherever we are in the world.  Denying those feelings can intensify them and lead to harmful and unproductive behaviour and negatively impact our interactions.  Meditation provides a refuge and a way to face our difficult emotions with kindness and self-compassion.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can find the resilience and strength to persist in the face of adversity and restore our equanimity no matter what the circumstances that challenge our ability to cope.

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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.

The Impermanence of Everything and the Preciousness of Life

In Part 1 of his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses his first invitation and principle for living, “Don’t Wait”.  Frank, as founder of a hospice and end-of-life carer, has cared for more than a thousand patients during their dying process and death.  In this first part of his book, he highlights the impermanence of everything and the preciousness of each moment of living.   

Frank has been a companion to the deepest grief of friends and relatives of the dying and experienced a depth of vicarious grief that is difficult to conceive – it’s as if the collective grief of others had beset him and brought him to his knees, both physically and metaphorically.  Fortuitously, he was a colleague and friend of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross at the time who supported him in his grief and his work as an end-of-life carer.  Elizabeth developed the classic concept of the five stages of dealing with death and loss in her book On Death and Dying and was also the author of Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss.

The impermanence of everything

If nothing else, the Coronavirus reinforces the impermanence of everything through its pervasive impact on every facet of our daily lives – our home, work location, transportation, schooling and education, shopping, spending, entertainment, health, finances, sport and our very daily interactions and movements.  The on-off nature and varying intensity of imposed restrictions serve to reinforce this message of the changeability of everything.  In these challenging times, we are called to adapt to the unpredictability of our work, our changing home arrangements, the extreme challenge to our health and welfare, and the uncertainty of our income and overall finances.

Without the pandemic, we can still become aware of impermanence – the birth and death cycle for humans, animals and nature.   Relationships end, animals are killed and eaten by other animals in the endless pursuit of food and survival and leaves fall off trees to become life-giving compost for new plant growth.  

The impermanence of everything was brought home to me by two recent incidents.  The first was the disturbing story of a nurse killed suddenly in our city while cycling to work.  Her husband indicated that their day started as normal with a coffee and breakfast together but ended tragically when the nurse was only metres away from her work at the hospital.

The second experience of impermanence occurred when I was walking along the foreshore of Moreton Bay near our home.  I was watching the small fish full of life darting back and forth in the marina when a fast-moving bird dived into the water and retrieved one of the fish for its food – only to be followed by other birds dive-bombing the school of little fish. 

The preciousness of life

Frank describes the process of dying as a “stripping away” of everything including our sense of “self” – our sense of who we think we are and should be, all our roles such as husband/wife, partner, parent, neighbour.  We lose our professional identity, our personal orientation, e.g. as a “people person” and our comparative self-assessment such as well-off or impoverished and successful or an abject failure.  Frank reinforces his view of the inadequacy of the medical model to explain the breadth and depth of the “stripping away” at death.  He maintains that in dying everything is released/dissolved – “the gross physical elements of the body, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, conditioning all dissolving”.  Frank asserts that what is left to discover is “something more elemental and connective” that constitutes the real essence of human nature.

Our awareness of impermanence, accentuated by illness, can lead to anxiety or a readiness to appreciate and savour the preciousness of life, of our relationships and of nature.   Through appreciating the pervasiveness of impermanence, we can more readily accept change and more willingly give up our attachments – the things that we hold onto to define our self and our worth.   This is where meditation can help us both in fully living and preparing for dying and death.

The “Don’t Wait” principle reminds us of the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the timing of our death – that it will happen, but we don’t know when or how.  This principle encourages us to value every moment we are alive and to savour what we have in life and the experiences of living.  Frank’s heart attack reinforced this message for him – his sense of self and perception of himself as the “strong one” helping everyone else in need was completely undone.  He encourages us to be curious about ourselves and our preferences/attitudes/ biases and to work at letting go of the identities that we have become attached to.

 Frank maintains that “softening around these identities, we will feel less constraint, more immediacy and presence”.  I am learning the profound truth of this statement through softening my identification with being a “good” tennis player who never or rarely makes mistakes.  Instead of wallowing in negative self-evaluation, I am beginning to enjoy the freedom of progressively loosening this unsustainable identification as I grow older and less physically able.

Reflection

Frank’s book would have to be the easiest and most-engrossing personal development book I have had the privilege to read, and, at the same time, the most profound.  As someone who has had a deep interest in, and knowledge of, his subject, he can communicate his ideas in simple language and practical illustrations.  Each paragraph contains exquisite morsels of wisdom and the book is replete with moving but brief stories that impress indelibly – so, even if you don’t remember the exact wording of his principles, you certainly remember the stories that illustrate them.  Frank’s writing reflects the calmness, humility and depth of insight and wisdom that is evident in his many conversations and podcast interviews about the process of dying and “The Five Invitations”.

“Don’t Wait” is a challenging principle but Coronavirus has forced us to stop, reassess and protect ourselves and others.  It has been the catalyst for incredible acts of courage and kindness – by our health professionals and people from all walks of life.  The Pandemic Kindness group on Facebook©, with over half a million members, is but one of many efforts to encourage and support random acts of kindness in these challenging times.

The “Don’t Wait” principle incorporates many invitations to create change in our lives.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become increasingly aware of our attachments (including to harmful self-narratives) and progressively develop the discipline and self-regulation to create real change in our lives to live with more appreciation, thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion.  We can learn to savour every moment of our life and everything that it entails.

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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 Message and Wisdom of Difficult Emotions

In a recent interview podcast, Tami Simon of Sounds True recorded a conversation with Karla McLaren, author of The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You.   The interview covered a range of emotions and the message and wisdom that lie beneath each one.  Karla’s primary focus was on emphasizing that emotions are not good or bad but serve to help us in various ways to change our situation and/or our behaviour.  In her view, emotions are a hidden source of wisdom that we should listen to rather than seek to control or dismiss.  Karla noted that people often deflect their attention from difficult emotions and try to displace them with “happier” experiences – thus missing the message of emotions.

Emotions hold a huge amount of energy

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla highlights the huge amount of energy that is stored in emotions, especially those that we label as “bad”.   The unproductive ways to deal with these emotions (and the energy stored within them) is either to suppress or repress them.  Suppression involves consciously distracting ourselves from the discomfort of these emotions and trying to meet the unrealistic ideal of an “always happy” person.  It can be okay as a short-term solution, but if the emotion (e.g. anger) remains unaddressed then it can lead to dysfunctional and harmful behaviour as we express our emotions in an unhelpful way.  

Repression, on the other hand, involves unconscious avoidance of emotions (a response partly conditioned by our upbringing and our perceptions of other people’s views).   The energy stored in repressed emotions can manifest itself in a depleted immune system and physical symptoms such as muscle pain and fatigue as well as the associated increased risk of serious illness such as cardiovascular disease.  You can see the negative impact of repressed emotions such as anger  operating in the workplace when someone at work blasts you for something that was a very minor mistake – you cop an “emotional dump” that is a response completely disproportionate to the nature of your error (but that manifests the accumulated energy of a repressed emotion).

Emotions are not good or bad

By naming difficult emotions as “bad”, we perpetuate our reluctance to face them and understand their message and wisdom.  Instead we increase our motivation to suppress or repress them because we fear what others might think, even if we express them in an entirely appropriate way.  Karla suggests too that when we label some emotions as “good” we are potentially setting ourselves up for disappointment or negative self-evaluation – because we perceive that we don’t feel as positive as others expect or express our good emotions in a way expected by others.

According to Karla, what lies behind calling emotions “bad” or “good” is an “attribution error” – we erroneously blame our emotions for the precipitating situation or trigger.   Our difficult emotions do not create our problems (like the health and economic impacts of the Coronavirus) – they exist to help us deal with our problems and difficult situations, if only we would listen to the message they convey.

Understanding the message and wisdom of difficult emotions

The first task is to name your feelings in a fine-grained way or what Susan David calls developing a granular description of your feelings.  This involves avoiding generalisations such as “I feel upset” and being more precise about the feelings involved such as anger, fear or anxiety.  Until you can name and compassionately accept your difficult emotions, you will be unable to understand what they are telling you.

According to Karla, each emotion has its own message.  For example, depression arising from a specific situation reduces your energy and slows you down so that you can see when something is not right, and you need to change the situation.  Karla maintains that depression “removes energy when we are going in the wrong way to do the wrong things for the wrong reason”.   On the other hand, anger helps you to establish boundaries (e.g. constant interruptions or intrusions into your personal space) and fear helps you to get really focused on the present moment and to draw on your insight and intuition to address the trigger for your fear.

Karla maintains that the current challenging times of the Coronavirus is resulting in people experiencing dyads or triads of emotions – she sees, for example, evidence of people simultaneously experiencing sadness, depression and grief.  In her view, sadness in this context is a message to let go of something that no longer works or applies (e.g. working in a workplace during pandemic restrictions) and grief is a natural emotion when you have lost someone or something – it is about taking the time to grieve and allowing for the fact that grief is experienced and expressed differently by different people and its expression changes over time.

Effective ways to draw on the message and wisdom of emotions

Karla emphasised the importance of being grounded when you attempt to deal with difficult emotions.  In her interview podcast with Tami Simon, she described a process based on deep breathing and sighing and complete focus on the present moment and your bodily sensations.  She suggested, for instance, that you feel the sensation of your bottom on the seat and your feet on the floor and listen to the sounds that surround you.

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla provides many experiential exercises to draw out the wisdom hidden in a wide range of emotions including anger, fear, jealousy and shame.  Through these exercises you can gain emotional fluency in dealing with your own and others’ emotions.  Karla stresses the importance of understanding a particular emotion and being able to differentiate it from other emotions, e.g. differentiating between sadness and grief.  This clarity about the nature of a particular emotion enables you to identify practices to understand and act on the message and wisdom inherent in the emotion.  She provides an alphabetical list of emotions and links to relevant blog posts on her website as well as videos on different emotions on her YouTube© playlist.

Another strategy that Karla mentioned is that of “conscious questioning” which she describes in detail in her latest book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.  In the interview podcast, Karla provided an example of this process that can be used in relation to panic.  For example, you can ask yourself, “What is the basis of my fear and the likelihood that what I fear will happen?” or “Can I avoid the situation that has the potential to harm me and is making me fearful?”  In the latter case, you might put off a visit to a food store at a busy time for fear of contamination from the Coronavirus.  Panic can help us to realise a potentially dangerous situation and enable us to take action to avoid the situation.   If your panic is chronic and not situational, other approaches such as managing your morning panic attack might help.

Reflection

Karla draws on her own life experience of dealing with her difficult emotions as well as a lifetime of research into emotions, their manifestation and effective ways of dealing with them.  As we grow in mindfulness and understanding through experiential exercises, reflection, conscious questioning and meditation we can access the messages and wisdom hidden in our emotions and develop emotional fluency.  Through these mindfulness practices we can safely negotiate difficult emotions and restore our equilibrium in any situation.

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Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

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

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

Self-Care for Healthcare Professionals

Dr. Reena Kotecha presented at the 2020 Mindfulness & Compassion Global Summit on the topic of self-care for healthcare professionals.  Reena highlighted the irony of healthcare professionals caring for everyone but themselves and, in the process, suffering pain, disillusionment and burnout.  She shared her own story of depression, mental illness and suicidal thoughts resulting from working as a young doctor in an emergency department in a hospital.  She was drowning in self-doubt, suffering anxiety about the future and trying to cope with her present level of stress symptoms such as palpitations and sleeplessness.  Reena found her way out of the dark hole of depression through meditation.

She highlighted the stresses that healthcare professionals are experiencing in these challenging times of the Coronavirus.  Reena spoke of frontline healthcare workers who had to move out of home to protect their family and/or elderly parents, of the sadness and grief they experienced with the death of patients, of the frustration of having inadequate resources (such as personal protective equipment) and of their fear for their own safety in terms of the impact of their work on their mental and physical health.  Frontline professionals experience the intensity and immediacy of Coronavirus-related stress and emotional inflammation as a result of the risks to the life of their patients and their own life.

Barriers to healthcare professionals seeking help

Reena emphasised that healthcare professionals not only tended to overlook caring for themselves but also failed to seek help for their mental welfare when they really needed it.  She spoke of the barriers that stop healthcare workers from seeking professional support (some of which she experienced herself):

  • Training focus – all the focus of their training is on how to care for others, very little of the training is focused on caring for themselves or how to seek professional help for themselves
  • Priority focus – healthcare professionals are singularly focused on caring for others and they fail to give priority to their own mental and emotional health that would actually enable them to care for others more effectively and in a more sustainable way.  As Reena points out, healthcare professionals are much more comfortable and more proficient in the role of caregiver than that of “care-taker”.
  • Career focus – healthcare professionals become concerned about what others, including management, would think of them if they admitted to not coping and experiencing some form of mental illness (which still carries its own stigma).  They can be concerned about how others will judge them and what impact this would have on their career.
  • Expectations focus – the community has highlighted the heroic efforts of the frontline healthcare workers but this brings with it an unrealistic set of expectations that they are all strong and courageous, free from normal human emotions of fear, anxiety and self-doubts and the resultant experience of depression with its concomitant impacts of inertia, exhaustion, reticence and lack of energy.  In the light of this community expectation set, they are reluctant to admit to “weakness and fragility”.

Young healthcare professionals may begin their career with an unerring focus on their patients, giving priority to their caregiver role and ignoring their own needs.  They may feel really uncomfortable about being seen as “needy” or becoming a “care-taker”.  Professionalism is interpreted by them as being strong and efficient, able to cope with any situation.  Gradually, however, the singular focus on patients begins to take its toll and is compounded by the fact that no matter how hard or fast they work, demand continues to outpace resources and capacity.  They begin to experience stress, fatigue and sleeplessness.  Despite these signs of not coping they push on – driven by their own expectations and the perceived expectations of others, including the “worshipping” community.  Burnout results when the gap between what they are putting in and their intrinsic satisfaction with their work widens to the point where they lose belief in the value of what they are doing – burnout occurs on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels.

Mindfulness as self-care for healthcare professionals

Self-care for healthcare professionals is a lifetime passion for Reena, partly generated by her own early professional experience but also reinforced by the healthcare workers who seek her help and support during these highly stressful times.  She is the founder of Mindful Medics – an 8 week course for healthcare professionals incorporating mindfulness, emotional intelligence, neuroscience and positive psychology. Participants in the course have experienced significant benefits for their mental and physical health as well as in their overall personal and professional lives.

Reena is also a highly recognised public speaker on the topic of her lived experience.  For example she presented at the Happiness and Its Causes Conference in 2018 on the topic, Personal Story: Healthcare Starts with Self-Care.   In her Summit presentation, Reena provided a gratitude meditation designed to focus on appreciation for what we have in the present to displace a focus on a disturbing past or anticipatory anxiety about the future.  There is so much that we can be grateful for and savour in our life – nature and our environment, the development of our children, our achievements and rewards and the space of being alone

Reena in an article, titled I am grateful…, recommends strongly that we develop a constant practice of expressing gratitude for the simple things that we have in our lives and highlights the neuroscience research that supports the benefits of gratitude for mental health and wellbeing.

Reflection

It is important to express compassion for others, especially healthcare professionals and those directly impacted by the Coronavirus.  However, we have to recognise the enormous stress healthcare workers are experiencing in these challenging times and be more aware of not adding to that burden by perpetuating the expectation that they, individually and collectively, can cope with any challenge at no cost to themselves.  We can also offer our support for people like Reena who are helping healthcare professionals to develop mindfulness as a means of self-care.  The Mindful Healthcare Speaker Series is one ongoing event that we can support.

As we grow in mindfulness by focusing on self-care through mindfulness practices and gratitude meditation, we can become more conscious of what we are thinking and feeling and be better able to appreciate the present moment and all it has to offer in terms of overall wellness and happiness.  Mindfulness enables us to identify our barriers and expectations, acknowledge when we need help, develop strategies to cope more effectively and progressively build our resilience.

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Image by Petya Georgieva 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.

Building Resilience through Compassion Towards Others

In a previous post, I discussed Pema Chödrön’s ideas of developing resilience through self-compassion by “compassionate abiding” in our own pain and suffering during these challenging times of the pandemic.  This entails abiding in, or dropping into, the full depth of our painful experience through our bodily sensations and conscious breathing.  As we undertake slow, conscious breathing we hold our suffering with self-kindness and warmth.  Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Warriors of Light, remind us to “breathe into our hearts” because breath is our chariot enabling us to face the unknown and stand on our own.

In her interview podcast with Tami Simon of Sounds True, Pema extended the concept of compassionate abiding by moving beyond self-compassion to compassion towards others.  She maintained that embracing the pain and suffering of others particularly in these times, when everyone is suffering in one form or another, contributes to our resilience – we realise we are not alone and we are able to move beyond self-absorption and “panic storylines” to extending kindness to others.

Pain and suffering: a doorway to compassion for others

In these challenging times of the Coronavirus, we can be very sure that there are millions of people around the world who are experiencing suffering like we are.  People are experiencing all forms of loss – of loved ones, their jobs, their business incomes, their health, their financial security or their homes.  They may have become physically disconnected from their workplaces, their family and their friends, even stranded in a foreign country because of international travel restrictions.  They could be healthcare professionals working on the frontline and/or living away from their families for a number of months to protect their loved ones from cross-infection.  We can be very confident that there are people around the world who are feeling pain and suffering like we are.

Pema argues that abiding with compassion in our own pain and suffering is the doorway opening us to compassion towards others.  In experiencing fully our own suffering, not denying its intensity or pervasiveness, we develop a deep sense of connection with others who are also suffering at this time.  Pema spoke of the principle of Tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “taking in and sending out” – taking in our own experience of pain and suffering and sending out desire for relief for others.  She suggests that once we become grounded in our own suffering (this may take 10-20 minutes), we can take in the suffering of others.  On our in-breath we can imagine others who are experiencing similar pain and suffering and on our out-breath, wish them relief and insight to enable them to move beyond their own discomfort, distress, grief or loneliness.  Connectedness and resilience lie in this mutual experiencing.

Pema maintains that we do not have to confine this compassion towards others to a time of extreme challenge, we can use our pain and suffering as the doorway to compassion and connectedness at other times.  We may be experiencing distress because a family member is suffering from Alzheimer’s or feeling panic and anxiety because someone we are carer for is experiencing the black dog of depression.  At these times, we can drop into conscious breathing, embracing our distress and anxiety with kindness, and gradually move beyond this abiding self-compassion to compassion towards others who are experiencing the intensity of our own emotions. 

Reflection

I think that Pema’s profound insight into compassionate abiding opens the way to develop self-compassion, compassion towards others and personal resilience.  As we grow in mindfulness through conscious breathing and extending relief to others, we can move beyond our self-destructive narratives, restore our inner equilibrium and peace, and develop the resilience to not only survive these challenging times but also be able to extend help and support to others. 

Compassion towards others can be expressed in many ways even in these times of social distancing – the virtual choir of women physicians singing “Rise Again” is but one example of many where people are moving beyond their own overwhelming challenges and distress to reach out to others.

Pema provides multiple resources including her many books, her free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön  and her online course, Freedom to Love, which expands on the principles and practice of compassionate abiding.

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Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski 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.