A Compassionate Approach to Addiction

Gabor Maté argues for a compassionate approach to addiction in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.   He points out that Portugal has successfully decriminalised the personal use of drugs that were previously illicit with the result that they have seen “a reduction in drug habits, less criminality, and more people in treatment”.

However, he maintains that a key success factor in this decriminalised approach is the development of effective rehabilitation processes and comprehensive resources to support them.   Such rehabilitation approaches need to be viewed as ongoing and long-term as well as “patiently pursued and compassionately conducted”.  Gabor claims too that Portugal’s success in decriminalisation of personal drug use is influencing the development  of a more compassionate approach in Norway and Canada.

Gabor contends that addictions. no matter what their form or manifestation, in very many cases have their origins in the pain resulting from adverse childhood experiences.   For example, in his book he explains that the self-harm (lacerations) employed by “Arlene” creates pain that obliterates, however briefly, “the pain of a larger hurt deep in the psyche” – a deep pain resulting from sexual exploitation when she was young.

Parents reaction to addiction suffered by their adult child or children often involves hurt or anger, instead of understanding and compassion.  This censorious stance is underpinned by self-blame and a lack of self-awareness.

Gabor maintains that parents should not be blamed for their children’s addictive behaviour – they have most likely experienced intergenerational trauma and “unwittingly bequeathed” to their children their “own unresolved or unconscious trauma”.  They have tried to cope with their own pain by what Johann Hari describes as “disconnection from childhood trauma” in his book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression.  

Adopting a holistic approach

Gabor also argues that a holistic approach to addiction in all its forms requires teaching people ways of self-care including meditation and other mindfulness practices as well as what he describes as “body-work” which covers practices such as yoga and Tai Chi and other forms of martial arts.  Included in self-care approaches would be training in nutrition and overall stress management approaches such as reconnection to nature.

While Gabor acknowledges the benefits of 12-step approaches like that adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and GROW, he asserts that these approaches are not for everyone and other methods may be more appropriate for some people.  He argues for an approach that he calls “compassionate inquiry” which is based on trauma-informed understanding and a depth of inquiry that pursues causal factors rather than just seeks alleviation of symptoms. 

The aim of compassionate inquiry is to help the person suffering addiction to identify the trauma/traumas that they have experienced early in life, to isolate the resultant negative self-messaging and to ultimately confront and name the underlying pain they are seeking to alleviate through their ineffectual addictive behaviour.

Reflection

Underpinning Gabor’s compassionate approach is his unshakeable belief, informed by research and decades of field work, that addiction “arises from thwarted love” and that it is “one of the commonest and most human manifestations of torment”.  He maintains that the addicted person is constantly seeking external solutions for their internal “insatiable yearning for relief and fulfillment” – a state he describes as the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and body-work practices such as Tai Chi we can enhance our self-awareness, reduce self-blame and increase our understanding and compassion towards ourselves and others who are addicted.

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Image by Gisela Merkuur 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.

Illness and the Impact of Our Psychological and Social Environment

Over the past couple of blog posts, I have focused on the manifestation of trauma and adverse childhood experiences in our negative self-thoughts and addictive behaviours.  Drawing on the work of Dr. Gabor Maté in the area of compassionate inquiry, I have also discussed how the compassionate approach to addiction is to look beneath the self-destructive behaviour to the person and pain that lies beneath.   In this post, I want to explore more of Gabor’s ideas about the negative impact of adverse psychological and social environments and how they lead to chronic disease.

Gabor suggests that a fundamental flaw of the traditional medical model is the separation of mind and body and viewing a person in isolation from their psychological and social environment.  This leads to a symptomatic perspective on illness and the use of medications to redress the symptoms.  He suggests that these deficiencies in the approach of traditional medical practice are no more highlighted than in the pursuit of the search for a cure for cancer.  He draws on the work of a holistic wellness expert who illustrates this flawed thinking by arguing that the research of individual cells for the source of cancer is like exploring the combustion engine as the cause of traffic jams.  

Gabor strongly maintains that his years of family medical practice and his role as Coordinator of palliative services (end-of-life care) for a hospital have convinced him that underlying all chronic disease, without exception, is a deficient psychological and social environment of the individual involved.  His assertion is based, in part, on the assumption that a defective social and psychological environment negatively impacts the immune system as well as other bodily systems (such as the respiratory and cardiovascular systems) that are inextricably interconnected.  He asserts in live with Buddhist philosophy that everything is connected to everything else and that “nothing exists on its own”.  He cites the Buddhist concept of life as the “interconnection of co-arising phenomena”.

He argues that in line with this perspective which reflects the reality of human existence, that a leaf and raindrop should be viewed not as isolated occurrences but as resulting from the interplay of soil, compost, sky, sun, rain and atmospheric conditions.  Louie Schwartzberg would add the role too of mycelium (mushrooms and their internet-like connected tentacles beneath the earth).  Gabor maintains that we have to take a “biocycle, social approach” to really address the causes of chronic illness.

The impacts of injurious psychological and social environments

Gabor in his YouTube© talk on “When the Body Says No”, draws on scientific studies to demonstrate the connection between stress and disease.  He maintains that an injurious psychological and social environment has major implications for the development of illness.  He illustrates this interconnection, for example, by discussing the impact of stressed parents on the physical welfare of a child.  Parents themselves can be stressed by their environments (economic and social systems, the presence or threat of war, racism) and/or their own lived experience of trauma or adverse childhood experiences.  The child, in consequence of this psychological/social environment, is stressed and scan suffer from asthma (which itself is treated with stress hormones to open the airways and reduce inflammation, resulting in the adrenal system becoming overcharged).

The parents’ stress is contagious – the child is aware of their own body and the impacts of parental stress on their bodily sensations.  The pain of the parent, mother and/or father, is experienced by the child but the real problem is that this pain “never gets discharged”.  Gabor cites Australian research that demonstrates that our bodies adapt to our psychological and social environment (as well as our physical environment).  He maintains that some of this adaption is helpful in the short term but in the longer term results in adverse bodily manifestations such as elevated blood pressure, heightened stroke risk, unhealthy sugar levels, arteriosclerosis and defective immune system.

Gabor also refers to research that shows that if a woman is both stressed (psychological environment) and isolated (social environment) her chances of a lump in her breast being diagnosed as malignant are increased immensely.  This research reinforces the interplay of illness and the psychological/social environment of an individual.  Other research shows that if one partner of an elderly couple dies, and the other partner is left bereaved and isolated, there are deleterious changes in the surviving partner’s immune, nervous, hormonal and cardiovascular systems, resulting in a “significant risk of dying”.

The development of illness through the suppression of challenging emotions and our own needs

Gabor demonstrates that suppression of challenging emotions such as anger negatively impacts the immune system and other connected bodily systems.  A person may suppress expressions of anger to gain and/or maintain parental affection and affiliation (because their absence is too painful).  The result of suppression of challenging emotions is “suppression of the immune system”. 

Gabor argues that a  key contributor to disease is a personal stance that is forever worrying about other people’s psychological needs while “ignoring your own needs”.  This can manifest as feeling responsible for the feelings of others and avoiding any words or actions that might disappoint them.  Gabor argues then that there are four significant risk factors that contribute to chronic illness and are life-threatening (18 minute mark of his talk):

  1. Ignoring your own emotional needs to cater for the perceived needs of others
  2. Identifying yourself with duty and responsibility in a way that is rigid (at the cost of your own authenticity, thus creating an external locus of control)
  3. Repressing challenging emotions such as anger or resentment
  4. Believing that you are responsible for how other people feel and, in consequence, trying assiduously not to disappoint them (and, as a result, never saying “no” when you should do so for your own health and welfare).

Gabor contends that “attachment” is the “most important dynamic in human life”.  Without it, we cannot survive as infants or adults.  We seek “closeness and proximity” with another so that we “are taken care of”.   He maintains that pathologies arise when our attachment needs are not met. This, in turn, leads to frustration of our other basic need, the need for “authenticity” – which he expresses in terms of our ability to be in touch with, and listen to, our “gut feelings”.  Gabor instances the  “please love me syndrome” of Robin Williams as an underlying cause of his depression and chronic illness,  leading to his death by suicide.

Reflection

We cannot ignore the impact of our psychological and social environment on our physical health.  At the same time, we have to recognise that we are contributing to the creation of a psychological and social environment that could be healing or harmful for others, especially if we are in a caring or managerial role.  Gabor explains his ideas about stress and illness in his book, When The Body Says No: The Cost Of Hidden Stress.  He also provides training and further resources on his website, The Wisdom of Trauma.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly self-aware and aware of our impacts on the physical health and psychological welfare of others.  We can be more determined to take compassionate action, to look beneath self-destructive behaviours to find the person desirous of wellness and associated ease.

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Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

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

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

Understanding 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.

Achieving the Benefits of Meditation Through Regular Practice

In his Mindful Monday podcast on the 9th of August, Marvin Belzer emphasised the importance of keeping meditation simple, especially when we are new to meditation – focusing on something that is simple and real such as our breath, ambient sounds, or bodily sensations.  He stressed that this simple focus enables us to experience what is happening now for us and leads to realising the many benefits of meditation such as calmness, clarity and concentration – each of which flows over into other areas of our lives such as family, work, sport and relationships.  He highlighted the need to relax into our meditation, not trying to force specific outcome.  The process of meditation that he described is similar to what I explained previously, though on this occasion there was more time devoted to silent meditation.

In a subsequent podcast on 16th of August, Marvin stressed the need for effort and patience to realise meditation’s benefits – we cannot rush the results.  He maintained that we are not aiming for perfection but need to recognise the nature of the human condition – a realisation that cultivates humility and the acceptance that we have very little control over much of our life.  However, what we can control is our ability to direct our attention – a skill that underpins much of success in life.  Controlling our attention is “doable” if we make the effort of regular meditation practice.  Marvin suggests that what helps here is humour as we recognise the frailty of our ability to concentrate for any sustained period of time without distractions.

The benefits of regular meditation practice

While sustained meditation practice can be difficult, the benefits that accrue are worth the effort and persistence involved.  These benefits include:

  • Creativity – we can develop creative solutions to our everyday problems and realise creativity in our work life.  Creativity is cultivated in an environment of stillness and silence – an environment where our mind is uncluttered and we are not overwhelmed by challenging emotions.
  • Clarity – meditation helps us to clear our minds and open ourselves to self-awareness and to insights into what we bring to a situation.  It also throws light on our life purpose – how we can utilise our life experience, skills, knowledge and values to create a better world, whether locally or globally.
  • Resilience – as we become more grounded through meditation, we can bounce back quicker and easier from setbacks and disappointments.  Meditation builds resilience because it helps us to clear false beliefs, regain perspective and overcome “emotional inflammation” that is prevalent in these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Calmness and equanimity – as we become more grounded in our breath which is always with us while we are alive, we can experience calmness and face the vicissitudes of life with equanimity.  We can use symbolic actions, such as joining our fingers, at any time during the day to recapture this sense of calm and stability.
  • Compassion – as we come to accept our own frailty in the face of life’s challenges, we can become more empathetic towards others and more motivated to take compassionate action to alleviate the pain and suffering of others.

Reflection

Meditation requires effort but multiple benefits accrue if we can sustain regular practice.  If we are not too hard on ourselves – not seeking perfection in meditation practice – we can more readily sustain the motivation to undertake regular practice, no matter how boring the process may feel at times.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more tolerant of ourselves and others, appreciate our life and live it more fully.

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Image by Iso Tuor 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.

Balancing Compassion with Equanimity

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC UCLA, offers a meditation podcast on the theme, The Balance of Compassion and Equanimity.  This is one of the weekly meditations provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC).  Currently, the meditations are offered via the Zoom platform and are recorded and uploaded for ongoing access.  They are also readily available via the UCLA Mindful app which provides “meditations for well-being”.

Guided meditation on balancing compassion with equanimity

In these challenging times it is easy to experience “compassion fatigue” or burnout.  The pandemic alone has brought death and grief, pain and suffering, job losses, homelessness, suicides, mental illness, business rundown/closure, family separations and divided communities (around issues such as border closures, vaccination distribution, mask wearing and mandatory vaccination).  Many places are experiencing natural disasters including earthquakes, wild fires, floods and tornados.   There are international conflicts creating an endless stream of refugees as well as people who are trapped in a violent and inhuman environment.   We do not have look too far to be surrounded by pain and suffering in this world of conflict and challenge.

In her guided meditation Diana maintains that in these times, it is common for people to experience a lack of balance and overwhelm.  She suggests that one way through the dilemma of finding a balance between compassion and equanimity is to take refuge in meditation.  Her recommended meditation practice involves both expression of compassion and a retreat into equanimity.  This can be a once-off approach.  However, if we are dealing with considerable imbalance and/or overwhelm we can repeat the process on a regular basis.  This will also be necessary if we find ourselves in a state of compassion burnout where we can longer feel for others who are in pain and suffering.

Diana begins the mediation by having us take a few deep breaths to release tension we may feel as a result of experiencing strong feelings of compassion.  She suggests that we become conscious of our posture and the groundedness provided by our feet on the floor or our body on the ground (if lying down outside in nature).  Initially, she encourages us to identify physical points of tension so that we can consciously release them.  Diana then progressively moves us through the process of exploring several anchors for our meditation – our breathing (movement in our abdomen or chest), external sounds or some bodily sensation.

Compassion meditation

Diana starts with a focus on compassion and invites us to bring to mind a particular group of people or an individual who we know are in pain and suffering.  She suggests that we start with something that is not a source of overwhelm (so that we can manage the emotions involved).  Diana then encourages us to find some words that enable us to express our compassion towards the chosen group or individual, e.g., “May your suffering be alleviated”.  If we can find our own words to express compassion, it will enable us to genuinely feel that we are extending kindness to others.

Equanimity meditation

Following the focus on compassion, Diana suggests that we take a form of refuge in equanimity meditation.  In this context the retreat to equanimity is achieved by refocusing on our chosen anchor.  It might be our breathing or sounds or a particular bodily sensation.  I have frequently focused on my fingers joined on my lap during meditation – feeling the warmth, the tingling and the flow of blood and energy.   In times when I am waiting or experiencing strong emotions, I can resort to this practice and simultaneously tap into my breathing.  The combination of these anchors – joined fingers and breath – are achieved by regular practice creating the association between them.  Each person has their own way of becoming deeply grounded and restoring balance and equanimity.

Reflection

Diane calls the  meditation practice she facilitated, the “black belt of meditation” – it can be extremely difficult to deal with the attendant emotions, achieve balance and restore equanimity.  What we are trying to achieve is acceptance of what is, while offering genuine compassion to those who are suffering.  There are so many things that are outside our control that acceptance, along with taking compassionate action where possible, is the way forward.  As mentioned earlier, a “rinse and repeat” process may be required to achieve a consistent level of equanimity.

Allyson Pimentel, another MARC meditation teacher, offers an alternative guided meditation on focusing on the elements of nature to achieve equanimity – calmness can be achieved by connecting with the elements of earth, water,  fire, air and space.   Martin Brensilver, in a different MARC meditation, maintains that equanimity can also be strengthened by widening our perspective, reducing our focus on evaluative thinking (e.g., resorting to absolutes of right and wrong) and intensifying our sensory experience (which increases our groundedness).  Gratitude meditation can also help us to restore our balance and calmness. 

As we grow in mindfulness through alternating compassion and equanimity meditation practice, we can progressively gain emotional regulation, develop a balanced compassion and experience equanimity and the ease of wellness.  We can also find creative ways to provide compassionate action for others who are experiencing pain and suffering.  Meditation and mindfulness practices enable us to access the deep well within ourself to provide strength and support to others.

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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.

The Essence of Happiness and How to Be Happy

In a culminating dialogue during the Science and Wisdom of Emotions Summit, the Dalai Lama, Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman focused on the nature of happiness and how to be happy in our day to day lives despite the turbulent waves that we may encounter.  The Dalai Lama maintained that genuine happiness is closely linked to our mental state.  Outside events such as the pandemic, employment situation and political upheaval can affect us but not to the same degree as our minds.  We have the capacity to train our minds so that we reduce “destructive emotions” and cultivate constructive/positive emotions.

The impact of destructive emotions

The Dalai Lama spoke of destructive emotions as emotions that harm others or ourselves. They distort our perception of reality and of other people, leading to fractured relationships and unhappiness.  The most destructive emotions are those of anger and hatred.  Anger, according to the Dalai Lama “robs us of discernment” – because of our distorted perception and emotional inflammation, we are unable to initiate an appropriate response or undertake “wise action

Destructive emotions unsettle our peace of mind and destroy our equilibrium and sense of ease and tranquility.  It destabilises us so that we are unable to think clearly or act skilfully.  Resentment, for example, that feeds anger can have its foundation in misperception – not understanding what is happening for the other person or what they intended by their words and/or actions.  We can be so preoccupied with our own perceived hurt, that we do not recognise the needs of another.  We can end up with a one-track mind, replaying hurtful incidents and fuelling our anger and unhappiness.

The Dalia Lama explained that we have “Three Doors of Action” – speech, body, and mind.  We interact with others and the world at large through these three doors.  While the mind is preeminent, what we say and how we present ourselves to the world also affect the balance of happiness and unhappiness in our life.  Even if our words do not disclose our anger our non-verbal behaviour – such as abruptness, avoidance, or ignoring someone – can betray how we really feel.

The impact of positive emotions

Positive emotions derive from understanding our connectedness to every living thing, especially to other people wherever they are in the world.   It means seeing the dignity in every person no matter their beliefs or their actions.  The Dalai Lama suggests that when we experience righteous anger over some injustice, acting out that anger through aggression does not respect the inherent goodness and dignity of the other person(s).  It only aggravates the situation and leads to a negative cycle of destructive relationships.

He maintains that it is possible and desirable to approach such unjust situations with curiosity and a desire to understand the perspective of the other person, even when you strongly disagree with them.  Compassion demands that we recognise that the other person may be acting out of ignorance, inherited bias or past hurt. 

Positive emotions lead to harmonious relationships and happiness.  They enable us to exercise “patience and forbearance” and to experience joy in our life. If we are considerate and empathetic, we not only help others we also help ourselves.  Positive emotions are “grounded in reason” and understanding of our connectedness to everyone, which is increasingly the case in the world today.   Destructive emotions, on the other hand, are not grounded in reason and can lead to reactivity and ill-considered responses.

Reflection

We can create or destroy our happiness by our words and actions.  If we operate as if our happiness depends solely on ourselves, what we can acquire and how we can control situations and other people, we will find that unhappiness is a constant state for us.  On the other hand, if we grow in mindfulness through regular mindfulness practices, we can experience “emotional hygiene” and realise genuine happiness.  We can identify when we are emotionally out of balance, have sufficient self-awareness to identify what is happening for us and be in a better position to act skilfully, rather than reactively and injuriously.

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Image by Sasin Tipchai 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 Your Life Around – a Buddhist Perspective

In her book Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good, Tina Turner identifies a number of ways to achieve our full potential and realise happiness in our lives.  In a previous post I discussed how she chanted the Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo mantra as a way to tap into her fundamental Buddha nature which releases “limitless courage, wisdom and compassion” to overcome any obstacle or challenge in life. However, along the way she encountered the pull down to a lower life condition created by negative self-stories.

Tina experienced negative self-talk that saw her as not beautiful, not talented, or too fat.  These messages were reinforced by her interpretation of her mother’s behaviour – her neglect and desertion as well as her preferential treatment of her sister.  We can each develop specific negative self-talk through our experiences of the words and behaviour of our parents, our “friends”, classmates, teachers, or the community generally. 

When we entertain these thoughts, they begin to have a life of their own and can be a powerful pull away from the realisation of our potential and our happiness.  The strength of these negative thoughts, as in Tina’s case, can be reinforced by the press and/or social media which can be particularly unkind, hurtful, and damaging to self-esteem.  

Overcoming the negative self-talk

Tina’s Buddhist beliefs enabled her to see the good in everyone, including herself – to understand the inherent Buddha nature of everyone.  This strong belief in the core value and worth of everyone, which can have its origins in any philosophy or religion, can be a strong antidote to negative self-talk.

A key strategy that Tina employed and that is advocated by mindfulness experts such as Jon Kabat-Zin is to assert that “we are not our thoughts” – that we are much more than our limiting self-talk.  This recognition and constant affirmation are powerful ways to break free from the holds of negative self-perception.

Tina reaffirms the positive energy and self-talk that is generated by chanting the powerful Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo mantra or other forms of mantra singing.  The vibrational energy and resultant healing in mantra singing are confirmed by neuroscientists.   Tina maintains that we can each have our own preferred way of tapping into positive energy whether that be singing, listening to music, observing nature, walking or exercising.   The important process is to find a way to replace the disabling energy of negative self-talk with the powerful energy of whatever stimulates positive energy and resonance for us.

Reframing our difficulties and challenges

Despite our best efforts to generate positive energy, we can be thrown off balance by life-changing difficulties or challenges such as illnesses, loss of a job, death in the family, deterioration of another family member or other forms of emotional overload.  Workload and the challenges of being a carer can add to the tendency to lose our balance and develop negativity. 

Tina draws on the work of Nichiren and his restatement of the Buddhist concept of “changing poison into medicine” – turning challenges and setbacks as opportunities for learning and to grow stronger, enhancing our “courage, wisdom and compassion”.  When she was about to perform after a night of celebrating the close of a very successful music tour, she was low in energy and high in reticence but found the strength to do her chanting and remind herself that hidden treasures lie in life’s challenges.  She went on stage to conduct a highly successful event.  She did not let old habits and negative self-talk destroy her positive energy but overcame them through chanting and waking up to the beauty in her life, including the pleasure on people’s faces when they heard her sing.

Reflection

Tina presents a positive approach to dealing with negative self-talk and life’s challenges and setbacks and demonstrates in her own life how to turn your life around, develop resilience and achieve sustainable happiness.   There is a general consensus that chanting mindfully is itself a form of meditation that can enhance our capacity to be present in the moment, enrich our inner landscape and increase our inner strength.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can experience the ease of wellness, the energy of connectedness and the insight to pursue out life’s purpose and passion.

Tina’s book is enlightening, engaging and enriching. It’s readability and attractiveness is created by her rich story-telling, her openness and her vulnerability.

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Image by Kanenori 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.

Adversity, Resilience and Happiness: A Chanting and Meditation Pathway

Tina Turner experienced an incredible amount of adversity – an abusive marital relationship, stalled singing career, severe illness (including a stroke and kidney failure), all preceded by adverse childhood experiences (including parents who constantly fought, divorced and abandoned her).  At age 34, still in her destructive relationship, Tina discovered Buddhist chanting and meditation and this eventually changed her life, giving her the courage to break off her damaging relationship and launch her solo career.  Tina explains her journey in her new book,  Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good.

The chant that changed her life

Tina explains how she discovered the power of the Daimoku – the chanting of the Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.  This mantra is central to Buddhist practice and millions of people around the world practise it every day.  Orlando Bloom, the English actor, is also a strong advocate and practitioner of this mantra.

Tina maintains that chanting the Buddhist mantra generates vibrational energy and positive Karma in a person’s life.  She explains “Karma” as “the sum of all your actions – thoughts, words and deeds”  and suggests that it is like a “balance sheet” reflecting the net balance of the positive and negative actions of your life.  Karma “determines our dominant life condition”.

Tina maintains that chanting the mantra is doing a workout for your spirit and likens it to a physical workout that conditions you for physical exertion and sporting activities.  She suggests that the time spent in daily chanting should be influenced by the level of your karma limitations (excess negative over positive energy), your life condition and the magnitude of your dreams. 

Tina writes that she spent many hours a day chanting when she was in a karmic low and experiencing adverse life conditions while still holding onto very big dreams.  She found that the very positive results she achieved with her chanting acted as reinforcement to maintain her daily practice.  She was, however, able to modify the time spent on chanting as her life became more balanced.  Tina suggests that even 15 minutes chanting the Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo mantra each day, can be beneficial for your life condition and the achievement of your dreams.

Buddhist wisdom – the Ten Worlds

In her book, Tina introduces the “Ten Worlds” of Buddhism that describe our “life condition” and likens them to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She explains that our life condition encompasses our thoughts, moods, and our overall wellbeing which, in turn, influence how we view ourselves and others, our emotional disposition, our decisions and actions.  Tina compares the lower levels of the Ten Worlds to the lower levels of the hierarchy of needs such as physiological needs, safety, need for belonging and self-esteem. 

In Tina’s view, the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy, self-actualization, accords with elements of the top four Buddhist Worlds, namely Learning, Realization, Compassion, and Buddhahood (complete freedom, endless courage, wholeness, a sense of connection to the “life force” of the universe).  Both Learning and Realization are developed through learning and reflecting on our own experiences and insights and that of others.

Tina found that one of the attractions of the Buddhist concept of Ten Worlds was the idea that you can progress directly from the bottom level to the top levels through concerted inner work, working daily on enriching your inner landscape. Her pathway was that of Buddhist chanting and meditation.  She maintains that we each have to find our own pathway to live more fully.

Reflection

Tina has demonstrated throughout her life the capacity to bounce back from physical, emotional and relationship challenges – she has shown resilience in the face of adversity.  In the process, she has been able to achieve deep happiness.  As she points out, we all seek happiness but it is invariably “elusive”.  Sustaining a state of happiness is a challenge. 

Tina was able to grow in mindfulness and awareness through Buddhist chanting and meditation and found that her daily practice enabled her to rise above challenging emotions and circumstances, enrich her life, and achieve her wildest dreams.  For each of us there is a potential pathway to resilience and happiness and the realisation of our dreams and life purpose. 

As Tina states in her book Happiness Becomes You:

Each of us is born, I believe, with a

unique mission, a purpose in life that

only we can fulfill.

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Image by Наталья Данильченко 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.