Mast Cell Activation Syndrome and Covid-19: The Invisible Link

There has been a lot written lately about Long Covid and its differential impacts on individual’s health.  More recently research has highlighted a connection between Covid-19 and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome.  It is important at the outset to reinforce the need to consult a medical practitioner for treatment of individual health symptoms.  We can too easily make assumptions about what is occurring for us if we go it alone.   For example, I assumed that my numb feet were the result of peripheral neuropathy caused by Long Covid.  When I consulted my medical practitioner, I  discovered, through the X-Ray that he requested, that my assumption was wrong – the actual problem was multi-level spinal degeneration.   However, it is important to consult practitioners who are open to multiple explanations of chronic symptoms, such as those induced by allergies and food sensitivities.  Often, this may involve a medical practitioner who has a holistic perspective and/or is  qualified in functional medicine.

I recently participated in a Creative Meetup conducted by Health Story Collaborative.  During the meeting, Diane Kane responded to a discussion by a number of participants who were experiencing Long Covid symptoms such as loss of sense of smell, brain fog, and allergies.  When I mentioned my ongoing battle with food sensitivities and allergies, Diane shared some information about Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS).  She explained that her website is a research hub for MCAS.  On the website, Diane shares her own extended patient story as well as research resources including a video presentation on MCAS by Dr. Larence B. Alfin, author of Never Bet Against Occam: Mast Cell Activation Disease and the Modern Epidemics of Chronic Illness and Medical Complexity.

What is Mast Cell Activation Syndrome?

Dr. Kelly McCann in a video podcast interview explains that mast cells are a key part of our normal immune system.  Their role is to watch for invaders that would cause injury to our bodies.  They reside everywhere in our bodies from our head to our feet, and typically live in areas of our body that are at our interface with the environment, e.g. our skin, our blood vessels and our nerves.

Mast cells are responsible for delivering chemical messengers, called “mediators”, such as cytokine and histamine, that produce an inflammatory response to the perceived invader, e.g. a virus, environmental chemicals, mold, or the flu.  Kelly points out that research has shown that mast cells play a major role in the “cytokine storm” that causes an inflammatory response to Covid-19.  If the “foreign invader” is overcome (e.g. we recover from Covid or the flu), “everything quiets back down again” and ‘inflammation goes away”.

However, for some people mast cells become over-active, “hyper-vigilant” and hyper-responsive” – a condition identified as Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS).  What happens then is that our body “misperceives things”, some of which are actually good for us, e.g. healthy foods.  Hence, we can end up with food sensitivities and allergies (to things like smells, chemicals and some foods).  Kelly makes the point that because of the pervasiveness of mast cells in our body, “anything in our body could present as a mass cell activation symptom”, e.g. brain fog.

Kelly explains that Mast Cell Activation Syndrome is “a spectrum” – ranging from mild to extreme.  A key feature of MACS is that over time, without intervention, there will be an “escalation in the inflammatory or allergic symptoms” of an individual.  The inflammatory response can be exacerbated by what Kelly calls “hits”, e.g. a virus, sustained exposure to mould, or a tick bite (leading to Lyme Disease).  For example, the progression of mast cell activation syndrome could be signalled by the worsening of food sensitivities for an individual.    

Diane’s personal health story

Diane created her website as a means of education and advocacy about the independent science research being conducted on mast cell activation syndrome.  Her own story is really about the extreme end of the spectrum of MCAS and is one of resilience, persistence and hope – a great source of inspiration for anyone experiencing MCAS symptoms.  Diane’s multi-dimensional health problems persisted over 46 years.  Despite visiting 80 consulting doctors and undergoing “extensive evaluations” at 15 major hospitals and suffering multiple anaphylaxis attacks over 20 years, she was not diagnosed with MCAS until 2017 when she visited Dr. Ali Rezale of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

Dr. Rezale and Dr. Alfin are working with Diane to improve her health overall.  In the meantime, Diane is working on writing a book titled, The MCAS and Covid-19 Theory: A Multidimensional Epigenetic Phenomenon.   As an experienced medical researcher and author who suffered long-term symptoms of MCAS, she is well-qualified to document her story and the growing body of relevant scientific research.  Diane provides draft copies of early chapters of her book on her advocacy website. 

My health story

I have experienced multiple “hits” as described by Dr. Kelly McCann.  Having had asthma as a child, I am prone to respiratory problems and allergic reactions.  While I overcame the asthma by the time I was 12 years old, since then I have contracted pneumonia three times, RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) three times and Covid-19 in 2021.   In 2017, I experienced major eczema covering my whole body, following 8-weeks of intensive antibiotics to heal an infected leg (resulting from an operation to remove a melanoma).   Since then I have experienced continuous food sensitivities and allergy which are increasing in breadth and depth to the point that there are very limited things I can eat or drink without negative side effects. 

Dr. Kelly McCann explains that there are two things going on with MCAS – a trigger(s) and reaction(s).  Both need to be addressed.  In terms of food triggers, I can relate to Dr. Kelly McCann’s comment that she was gluten-free, dairy-free and unable to eat a long list of foods.  As Kelly suggests in her presentation, I have been undertaking an elimination process trying to identify specific foods (especially those high in histamine or salicylates) that cause aggravation of my symptoms so that I can remove them from my diet. 

In regard to reactions, Kelly argues that there is a need to dampen the hyperactivity of the immune response.  My naturopath, Dr. Mark Shoring, agrees with a tentative diagnosis of MCAS in my case, and recommended initially a course in Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), a herb identified by Mt Sinai Health System in New York as being “used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat allergies, infections, inflammation, cancer, and headaches”.  This treatment, along with Turmeric, is designed to dampen down my hyperactive immune response. So, my somatic strategies, at the moment, include identifying and eliminating aggravating foods and drinks while simultaneously calming the inflammatory response of my immune system.

Mind-body connection and healing practices

Kelly maintains that she experiences the influence of the mind-body connection everyday in her clinic when working with patients.   She points out that the impact of mind-body connections is developed through our early family and developmental experiences.  Unfortunately, we are often prone to misperceive these experiences or develop false beliefs that lead to emotional problems such as low self-esteem and emotional dysregulation.  She argues that we have to envisage the health challenge confronting people with MCAS in terms of a three-legged stool – Mast Cell Activation, Limbic System Activation (our emotional centre) and Vagus Nerve Dysfunction (the main nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system).

Kelly mentions a number of practices that can help retrain the limbic system to get our “mental/emotional loops” and habituated behaviour under control, e.g. Dynamic Neural Retraining System, the Gupta Program and Cathleen King’s Primal Trust Program.

Vagus Nerve Dysfunction can lead to people with MCAS becoming stuck in fight/flight/freeze behaviour which can impede healing.  Kelly maintains that the approach required here is stimulation of the vagus nerve to help people to get “back into parasympathetic rest and digest”.  She suggests approaches to achieve restoration of balance, e.g. breathing exercises, meditation and devices such as EmWave, HeartMath and Rezzimax.  Kelly mentioned that she uses mind-body techniques in her clinical practice when the person she is treating is receptive to these approaches.

Reflection

I think it is important to remember that MCAS impacts each individual differently.  The impacts are influenced by our biology and the number and severity of what Kelly calls “hits”.   There are so many confounding variables involved that self-diagnosis is likely to mislead us.  However, this should not stop us from being proactive, e.g. identifying and reducing or eliminating our triggers.  Actively seeking to grow in mindfulness can help us to stimulate the vagus nerve, activate our relaxation response and overcome negative thoughts.

Reading about Diane’s experience prompted me to revisit my naturopath and discuss his diagnosis of my food sensitivity and allergy experience.  He explained that his recommended treatment approach was based on the assumption that I was experiencing MCAS.

During one of my Creative Meetups, also attended by Diane, we listened to a reading of William Stafford’s poem, The Way It Is.  Listening to this poem and the subsequent discussion in the Meetup group prompted me to write a poem about my food sensitivities and allergy:

The Inflammatory Thread in My Life

There are many things I can’t eat
fruit, gluten, dairy and red meat.
I feel left out that I can’t share
even with delicious family fare.
I crave something sweet
but the cost is too steep.
Hives and rashes make me really itchy
legs and feet are shamefully icky.
Wine is off the table, not that I am unable
it’s the swollen ankle, that renders me unstable.
The endless cycle of elimination
to discover the source of inflammation.
It’s harder to share a meal with my wife
what I’ve done for forty years of my life.
Covid-19 has a long arm
it’s still doing me harm.
Almond croissants are my passion
a loss of consciousness my reaction.
Butter was a food sensitivity
It’s now a dangerous allergy.
Food and drink are tainted rewards
a mindset change to move forward.
It’s a long journey with a clear destination
It takes patience, perseverance and dedication.

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This post is provided for information purposes only and is not intended to replace personal medical advice provided by a trained medical practitioner.  Please seek advice from a qualified professional before deciding on treatments for yourself or other members of your family.

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Image by Ingo Jakubke 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 and the resources to support the blog.

Changing How We Deal with Emotions

Hilary Jacobs Kendel, psychotherapist, author and activist, contends that we learn many things in school that we never use but do not learn about emotions that affect every aspect of our daily lives.  She strongly advocates for education about emotions though her videos, blog posts, presentations, interviews, newspaper articles and clinical practice.  Hilary is the author of  It’s Not Always About Depression:  Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions and Rediscover Your Authentic Self.

The Change Triangle®

Hilary educates people about emotions and how to change the way we deal with them through what she calls the Change Triangle®.  This is a visual representation in the form of an inverted triangle of the different types of emotions we all experience.  At the base are what Hilary calls the core emotions that are calls to action designed to help us negotiate our environment.  To the right at the top are inhibiting emotions which impede us experiencing core emotions in their true form.  These, in turn, often lead us to adopt defenses which we employ to avoid being aware of, or experiencing, our feelings.  

Hilary acknowledges that her own understanding of emotions was developed through attending a presentation by Dr. Diana Fosha, Director and Founder of Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP)™ which is a treatment model adopted by Hilary that was developed to help adults experiencing difficulties as a result of childhood attachment trauma and abuse.  This transformational model focuses on healing and flourishing despite the experience of emotional suffering and draws heavily on neuroscience, brain plasticity and research on mother-infant development.  Diana advocates strongly for a healing approach (transformation) instead of the traditional psychotherapy approach of a focus on pathology.  In this respect, she addresses the question What Happened to You?, not What’s Wrong With You? – a healing approach also adopted in the book by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry.  Diana wrote the Forward for Hilary’s book.

Core Emotions

Core emotions have been identified as early as Charles Darwin and their impact on the brain is now able to be identified through brain imaging.  Hilary identifies the core emotions as fear, joy, anger, excitement, sadness, sexual excitement and disgust. These emotions are beyond conscious control as they are triggered by our everyday experience and serve as a survival mechanism, activating our flight or fight response, our approach or avoidance stance.  Where real danger exists, this can be life-saving.  Fear, for example, can make us aware of a real, impending danger, e.g., a house fire.  However, through trauma and adverse childhood experiences, the core emotions can be triggered by seemingly harmless activities or events, such as conscious breathing, a smell or a sound.  The core emotions “ready our body for action” as they appear with a lot of biological energy – ready for activation. 

Inhibiting Emotions

Hilary identifies three emotions that she describes as “inhibiting emotions” – anxiety, shame and guilt.  These emotions often arise from the “shoulds” “and “should-not” messaging that we are all exposed to, especially in our childhood.  Deborah Feldman illustrates this very well in her book, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic RootsShe talks of the shame she felt in reading books written in English rather than Yiddish (because of the constant paternal messaging) and the guilt she experienced eating cakes when she felt hungry from the very restrictive traditional diet.  Hilary explains that “shame” is designed to inhibit out impulses and ensure conformity to the norms of our reference group – e.g., family, community or religion.  She differentiates healthy shame from toxic shame – the former brings us safety through inclusion, protection and support.  The latter generates a toxic environment in that it is built on negative self-talk that reinforces negative beliefs about oneself generated by bullying (online or offline), abuse, neglect or alcoholic parents.  Hilary explains that the road to healing is employing the Change Triangle® to unearth the core emotions that lie underneath the shame.   She provides a roadmap through her blog post, 5 Ways to Work the Change Triangle as a Beginner, and offers multiple examples of this transformation process in operation within her book, It’s Not Always About Depression.

Defenses

Hilary explains that defenses are a form of emotional protection in that they are multiple ways “we all avoid painful, uncomfortable or conflicting emotions”.  She identifies the more common ways to avoid emotions in one of her blog posts, including sarcasm, superior conceit, constant apologizing, procrastination, eating disorders and addiction.  She describes some of the more surface level defenses as moving away, rolling your eyes or judging others.  Defenses can be healthy and serve our needs in particular situations such as in a professional environment.  However, unhealthy defenses prevent us from experiencing either inhibiting or core emotions and effectively lead to disconnection from our authentic self.  We hide away from the pain of our deepest feelings by finding a way to deflect them.

In a New York Times Article, It’s Not Always Depression, Sometimes its Shame, Hilary describes her AEDP therapeutic work with a client named Brain.  He had presented with what appeared to be chronic depression and had failed to respond to multiple forms of therapy and medication.  He appeared to be in a comatose state – unable to connect, express his feelings or communicate effectively.  His defenses, in the form of withdrawal enabled him to protect himself form the pain of “emotional aloneness” and toxic shame – induced by a lack of emotional bonding from his parents. His father was preoccupied with earning a living and his mother drank to excess – resulting in “emotional neglect” for Brian.

Hilary employed a range of techniques over the four years of her therapeutic intervention, including throwing cushions to Brian just to engage him in some way.  In his second year of treatment,  he learned to name his emotions, validate them and “safely connect to the emotion he felt in his body”.  On the conclusion of his therapy Brian “felt alive again”,  developed more friends, undertook meaningful work and learned to assert his needs.  In the process, he dissipated the toxic shame he had been experiencing.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness we gain increased self-awareness and are better able to identify our triggers, our habituated defenses, the inhibiting emotions and our underlying core emotions (often, there is more than one at play).  We can also learn to access our emotions through our bodily sensations – a major focus of Hilary’s approach.

In her video presentation of the Change Triangle® to a group, Hilary begins with a meditation – participants are asked to close their eyes, become grounded, get in touch with their breath, and undertake a body scan.  The first part of the scan focuses in on a place in the body where we can feel calm and warmth.  The second part of the scan involves identifying a place of tension or pain in the body.  This is followed by a process of breathing into that place and imagining that we are able to move it aside even for a little bit to locate the emotion that is under there, “pushing up for experiencing and validation”.

As Bessel van der Kolk maintains, The Body Keeps the Score.  In this book, he explains the role of the brain and body in the transformation of trauma.  As Hilary points out, through her Change Triangle®, healing and transformation ultimately lead us to our Authentic Self which enables us to achieve clarity, calm, courage, creativity, compassion and connectedness.

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Image by Ronald Plett 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 and the resources to support the blog.

Developing Self-Love to Realise Our Potential

Often we are weighed down by our past actions, words and omissions.  In Lighter, yung pueblo offers us a way to “let go of the past” in order to expand our future.   Central to this lighter life is self-love.  To achieve genuine self-love, according to yung, we need to make three core changes to our life – (1) radical honesty, (2) positive habit building and (3) self-acceptance.

In the introduction to Lighter, yung shares his own story – an early adult life of drug abuse.  Addiction to drugs became the escape from his inner pain, sadness and anxiety.  It was a way to avoid spending time in dealing with challenging emotions and personal hurt.  It took yung several years to break the habits that were destroying his life and frustrating the realisation of his potential. 

A key turning point for yung was when he reached “rock bottom” physically and psychologically and simultaneously experienced gratitude for all that his parents had done for him. He began asking himself how he could behave the way he did after all the sacrifices, effort and encouragement they provided to help him reach his potential.

For yung, genuine self-love is a prerequisite to achieve our potential and build rewarding relationships.  He makes the point that the goal of self-love is not about diminishing ourselves, overlooking the needs of others or considering ourselves “superior” – it involves humility generated by acknowledging that we share “the fragility of the human condition” with others and are highly inter-connected and inter-dependent. 

Three core changes to expand our future

The core changes identified initially by yung lay the foundation for moving beyond our present blockages to realise our potential:

Radical Honesty – involves being fully present to our thoughts and emotions.  It requires us to avoid suppressing what is unpleasant about ourselves and facing up to our real self – no matter how much it hurts and pains us.  It means facing the truth and challenging the lies we tell ourselves about who we are or what we have done.  It means being open with ourselves to achieve authenticity.  The aim is not to punish ourselves but to honestly and calmly “look in the mirror” without distortion or veils.  Radical honesty is a life-time pursuit.

Positive Habit Building – radical honesty helps us to identify our habits that are harmful rather than helpful to our goal of achieving our potential.  These may involve any aspect of our life, e.g. angry outbursts with colleagues, failing to listen to our life partner, not having adequate rest or sleep, or eating foods that lead to inflammation.  We find these harmful habits difficult to change – they become habituated responses and ingrained over time.

yung suggests focusing on one or two habits that you want to change and consolidate them as habituated behaviour through frequent repetition over a reasonable period, e.g. three months.  Trying to achieve habit change on multiple fronts simultaneously can lead to dissipated energy, self-defeat and falling back into old harmful habits.  Narrowing our focus can lead to successful change and positive reinforcement in that we will feel better, have a sense of accomplishment and experience “moving forward”, rather than being “stuck”.

Being truthfully present to ourselves is a real challenge. yung found that meditation helped him to progressively achieve a radical honesty that was initially unnerving but ultimately rewarding.  He encourages us to find our own path to mindfulness and self-awareness.  It could involve yoga, Tai Chi, chanting or any one of a multitude of mindfulness practices.  He maintains that once we choose a single focus and practice, we should maintain it as a daily activity to build the desired new habit and realise the benefits.

Self-Acceptance – Inherent in the challenge of developing radical honesty, is the need to achieve self-acceptance, “warts and all”.  It is difficult to face up to our frailties and vulnerabilities and to own them, rather than deflect them because they are unpalatable. Failure to accept ourselves, can create a roadblock in our journey to true self-love.  It does not mean that we are complacent, but rather that we are willing to identify ways to heal from the past to live more fully in the present and the future.

Self-acceptance may not be an even road – there will be “ups and downs”, progression and regression.  We might come up against something about ourselves that we now find repulsive.  However, taking these deeper “cuts” slowly and with persistence over time, can lighten our life and heighten our integrity and resilience.

Reflection

Genuine self-love is necessary for lasting, deep relationships.  If we can be honest with ourselves and accept our frailties and vulnerabilities, we will be better able to accept imperfections in others and be more willing to acknowledge our inter-connection and inter-dependence.  We will be inspired to take compassionate action for those in need.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the self-awareness, courage and resilience to achieve radical honesty, build positive and nourishing habits and achieve a genuine self-acceptance. 

Tina Malia, in her mantra meditation, In Sunlight, sings a relevant refrain:

Lead us from illusion to truth

From darkness to light

(Sanskrit translation)

Note: “yung pueblo” (meaning “young people”) is the author’s pseudonym chosen to acknowledge that humanity is not yet mature in realising compassionate interconnectedness.

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Image by Joe 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 Final Stages of the Hero’s Journey for the Frontline Midwife

In a previous post, I discussed the story of Anna Kent as a midwife volunteering in South Sudan in terms of the first 8 stages of the Hero’s Journey.  What I will discuss now is her Sudan story expressed in terms of the final stages of the hero’s journey (Stage 9-12).  I’ll be drawing again on her book, Frontline Midwife: My Story of Survival and Keeping Others Safe, in which she tells her story in graphic detail.

The final four stages of the hero’s journey – stages 9 to 12

The final four stages of her hero’s journey in South Sudan were deeply formative and life-changing and enabled Anna to develop a new perspective, skills and determination to help others in need wherever they were in the world:

9. Reward – there is no doubt that Anna emerged a stronger person as a result of overcoming personal challenges, including self-doubts and questioning of her obsession with volunteering.  The reward, too, that she experienced involved saving the lives of mothers, children and babies.  However, she had to deal with the sense of guilt she felt for the death of baby Mariam.  James tried to reassure her that she was not responsible for the death of the baby – in his words, “it was everyone in the world’s fault”.  She accepted intellectually that “every aid worker has a patient they carry in their conscience”.   Emotionally, though it was a continuous challenge to overcome the sense of guilt which pervaded her nightmares as she relived the traumatic event.  Unfortunately, our brains carry a negative bias – we see the negative much more strongly than the positive.  For a time, Anna found that her negative thoughts overwhelmed her rewarding thoughts – her personal satisfaction that she had saved many lives who otherwise would have died without her skilled and brave intervention.

10. The Road Back – this is both a physical journey and a metaphorical one.  On the physical level, it involves returning to her “ordinary world” – life with her boyfriend Jack in their comfy home in Nottingham.  The metaphorical aspect relates to being comfortable with her new self in an environment that is starkly different on every dimension to the one she was leaving in South Sudan.  It also meant dealing with the grief of leaving her mentor, James, her colleagues and the Sudanese people who she grew to love and admire for their courage, gentleness and stoicism.  Her short recreation spells during her volunteering in South Sudan forewarned her of the pending difficulty of the “road back”.  She found on her brief recreation trips that she could not share with Jack the horrors and traumas she had experienced and realised that she was totally lacking in libido.  Friends would ask about the exciting bits of her story but all she could share were her stories about snakes, not the reality of the poverty, harshness, and deprivation of the basic rights of women in South Sudan.  She found that she and Jack had so little to talk about, and their time together involved lots of silence as Anna tried to come to grips with crossing the threshold back into her former life. 

11. Resurrection – on her return home Anna broke off her relationship with Jack and moved to her parent’s home.  This created significant stress for her as she was unable to talk to her parents about her Sudan experiences or her reasons for breaking up with Jack – both these topics were too raw and traumatic.  In speaking with James her mentor, she shared her angst and he informed her that he had experienced similar dislocation and disorientation on his return from volunteering abroad.  James suggested that he made the mistake of “trying to be the person I once was when that person has gone”.  Anna recognised that everything changes with overseas service in a different culture and land where deprivation is rife – your values and perspectives change and you see “luxuries” and waste with new, intolerant eyes.  The way home for her involved a dying to the old person she once was and becoming a new, stronger, values-driven person. 

12. Return with the Elixir – another phase in Anna’s transition to her new persona began with entering a share house with two other nurses.  What she found was the ability to party together and share their experiences in a way that was cathartic.  Out of this period came a very strong resolution by Anna to build on her newly acquired midwife capabilities.  She enrolled in a midwifery degree at Nottingham University and had a very rewarding and enlightening work experience in Ethiopia as a student midwife.  She felt stronger and better prepared for subsequent volunteering missions involving Haiti following the earthquake in 2010 and Bangladesh working with Rohingya refugees – and these experiences entailed different journeys with new challenges and companions (as discussed in her book). 

Reflection

Throughout her hero’s journey in Sudan and beyond, Anna had to face her traumas which had “many heads” and in the process develop her resilience.  An experienced volunteer nurse, Anita, had told her “you’re gonna have to work out how to sit with these painful feelings without reacting to them”.  Like James, Anita suggested that meditation would be helpful as well as focusing on what has been achieved, not what her inner critic perceived as a “failure”.  James even suggested that Anna meditate for “an hour every day” and often encouraged her to be in the moment and experience what was before her – e.g., children playing with kites made from sticks, and the earth glowing from the setting sun. 

Anna demonstrated that as we grow in mindfulness through meditation (no matter how difficult we find it) and other mindfulness practices such as being in the moment, we can learn to regulate our emotions, deepen our self-awareness and develop resilience.

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Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness on the Path of a Hero’s Journey

Anna Kent has provided a thought-provoking memoir in her book, Frontline Midwife: My Story of Survival and Keeping Others Safe.  The “frontline” theme of her memoir enriches our understanding of this concept.  Anna’s story recounts how she undertook nine months service with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF) in South Sudan – where the population had suffered civil war for fifty years, with ongoing outbreaks of conflict despite a peace settlement.

Anna whose background was as a nurse in a hospital Emergency Department (ED) in the UK found herself as an accidental midwife.  There was no one else available to do the task because there were no trained midwives in South Sudan at the time because of the civil war and its impacts.  As I read her “heart-wrenching tale”, I recalled Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero’s Journey

Anna’s story is told with unassumed humility, raw emotion, and acknowledgement of her fears, frailties and vulnerability.  As nurses tend to do, she provides graphic descriptions of the medical challenges she confronts and provides a warning at the front of the book in terms of potential triggers for people who have experienced birth-related injuries, maternal death, loss of a baby or gender-based violence.

The first eight stages of the hero’s journey – a structured view

As  you read Anna’s memoir, you can begin to map Joseph Campbell’s twelve stages of the hero’s journey throughout her account.  I have attempted to link her story to the first eight stages in this blog post:

  1. Ordinary world – Before her journey, Anna enjoyed a comfortable life with her kind and musically talented boyfriend, Jack, and a home in Nottingham which included “an airy, high-ceilinged bedroom”.  Her normal professional world was that of a highly qualified ED nurse at the Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham, where she coordinated a major trauma unit.  To prepare herself for her work in South Sudan, she undertook a number of voluntary shifts in the maternity unit while on leave, completed a diploma in tropical nursing and volunteered for a brief placement at a Zambian Hospital in a rural district.  Additionally, she completed a pre-departure course conducted in Germany by Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
  2. Call to adventure: Ever since an early age in her childhood, Anna felt the call to do something about the suffering and pain she saw every day on TV and in the newspapers.   She felt a strong urge to help alleviate the overwhelming suffering she observed, especially that experienced by children like herself.  As an adult, she experienced “complicated reasons” for wanting to volunteer and help those in need of relief from pain and suffering.
  3. Refusal of the call:  As she was packing for her trip, Anna was almost overcome by her fears and uncertainty.  She felt ill-prepared for what lay ahead and concerned about leaving her boyfriend and all the comforts of her everyday existence.   She could acutely feel the tug to stay and not take the perilous journey involved in work in South Sudan.  She also wondered about her comfy life, “Why isn’t this enough for me?”
  4. Meeting the mentor: At Loki, in north-west Kenya, Anna underwent a week-long training that included how to survive a kidnapping, emergency evacuation, and working in isolation.  She was informed that there was no internet access because computers melted in the heat and was warned about landmines, poisonous snakes and scorpions.   She was told about her onsite mentor who she would meet on arrival in Tam, South Sudan.  All she knew about him was that he was over sixty years old and “eccentric”.
  5. Crossing the threshold: Anna crossed the threshold in more ways than one.  She flew to Tam in a rambling, old aid plane which was the main transport for people and supplies to this remote area of South Sudan.  The flight itself involved being thrown into the reality of war-torn Sudan with bandaged passengers and a woman covered in a bundle of rags lying on a stretcher on the floor of the plane.  She was dying and had an IV line connected to her arm and attached via string to the seat’s edge.  The French nurse attending to her indicated that the woman would be delivered to the MSF Hospital in Leer, the State’s capital.  Anna was very aware that back in the UK, this woman would have had the best of care including drips and monitors and would not have had to suffer the indignity of travelling on the floor’s plane.  She was informed that Tam itself suffers from a drastic shortage of pain relievers, antibiotics and other medical necessities.  After offloading the dying woman and other passengers in need of urgent medical attention, the plane flew onto Tam where Anna would be working.  Her plane eventually lands roughly on the mud landing strip that reflected the terrain – hot, barren and forbidding. 
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: The heat and oppressive conditions are the enemy.  Anna meets her mentor, James, a very experienced nurse and she took an immediate dislike to him.  His joviality in the face of unmitigated horrors does not ring true and she can’t make him out.  This uncertain relationship with someone whom she will have to depend on, added to her discomfiture.  She identified an ally in another female nurse who supports her in the early days of her volunteer work in Tam.  However, she is horrified by her sleeping conditions – she is in a tent with James nearby in another tent, both located within the dirt compound that is also traversed by poisonous snakes and scorpions.   On top of this are the conditions for patients, many of whom walk many miles to attend the clinic even when seriously ill.   The waiting room is effectively the “Waiting Tree” where patients huddle under the limited protection provided by a tree within the dirt compound.  The stream of patients is endless (Anna and James treat 1,000 patients in a month) and the diversity and complexity of illnesses is scarry.   The makeshift wards are overrun with some patients having to lie on mattresses in the dirt compound.  There are continuous life and death decisions determining who will be airlifted to the hospital in Leer, given the restricted availability and limited capacity of the aid plane, and the resources at the hospital itself.  
  7. Approach to the inmost cave: The death of a young boy became a crisis point for Anna.  Her inner conflict intensified, doubts about her own capability in such trying conditions resurfaced, and she experienced emotional turmoil and overwhelm at the sight of unmitigated suffering, pain and death.  She was tense about what further trauma lay ahead.  Her salvation came in the form of lengthy, tent-to-tent conversations at night with James , her mentor.  Unburdening herself with him and talking through what she was experiencing in an open and honest way changed their relationship.  It helped her deal with her emotional crisis  These conversations  enabled her to reflect on her challenging experiences as they occurred and voice her worst fears.  He offered her reassurance and emotional support.  James introduced her to the power of mindfulness for dealing with turbulent emotions.  Anna came to value his advice, his philosophy of life and his positive psychology.
  8. Ordeal: The ultimate ordeal for Anna and the medical team arrived in the form a 16 year old pregnant girl who was in deep distress and agonising pain.  Anna played a major role in successfully delivering premature triplets and helping to save the young girl’s life as she was in acute danger of dying from excessive bleeding resulting from postpartum haemorrhage”.  This experience gave Anna the ultimate high so that she felt like a “hero” and suddenly understood why she had volunteered for such physically and emotionally draining work. She believed at the time that the high from this event would enable her to ride out the lows.  The image of the young mother walking home with her triplets in a basket on her head reminded Anna of what was possible in saving others and to value her own contribution.

Reflection

Anna’s story lends itself to mindful reading which according to Mirabai Bush “moves the reader into a calm awareness, allowing for a profound experience and understanding”.  It requires full attention, avoidance of distractions and openness to thoughts and feelings as they emerge throughout the reading process.  This story is rich in self-disclosure, replete with expression of emotions and immersive in its description of the context and physical environment.  Anna encourages us to join her on her hero’s journey into the challenging unknown and land of profound suffering.

Her efforts to grow in mindfulness through micro-practices increased her self-awareness and emotional regulation and enabled her to deal more effectively with the challenges that she had to meet on a daily basis.

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Image by Eszter Hornyai from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Rachel Kable – author, podcaster, blogger and mindfulness coach from Victoria in Australia –  recently participated in a podcast interview with Dr. Justin Puder.  In the course of the interview, she explained that when she first started out practising mindfulness in the more formal way of meditating (e.g. focusing on her breath), she had great difficulty and did not like it at all.  At the time she lived very much in the past and the future, not the present.  She would review past performance and prepare to-do lists for future activities to the point where she would lie awake at night, not being able to quiet her mind.  To sit still and focus on the moment was a real challenge and counter-intuitive.

However, Rachel persisted with formal practice because she had heard of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and wanted to experience them for herself and to share them with others.  As she persisted in her more formal efforts, she found that mindfulness practice increased her ability to focus and concentrate, enabled her to sleep more restfully and fully, enhanced her relationships (e.g. through being present to the person speaking and listening actively, not distractedly) and improving her capacity to be creative in her career endeavours.

Rachel also discovered that she could bring mindfulness to everyday life and the things she already did each day, e.g. cleaning the house, washing the dishes, preparing the meal, driving the car, eating her meals, or sitting on her deck (which provided the opportunity for engaging in “natural awareness”, taking in the sounds, sights, and smells already present to her).  Consequently, she decided that the focus of her mindfulness coaching would be on helping people to bring mindfulness to the activities of everyday life.  To this end, she has developed her blog covering things like self-care, meditation techniques, and simple living.  Rachel’s podcast series, which at the time of writing has 322 episodes, provides lots of practical advice on how to be mindful in everyday life, dealing with issues such as challenging emotions, expectations, stress, decision making and negative self-evaluation.

Rachel has also written a book, The Mindful Kind Book, wherein she provides practical advice and tools to manage overwhelm and stress, enjoy life more, improve resilience to handle setbacks and to practise mindfulness as a form of self-care when engaging in everyday activities, including work.  Her interview is one of many conducted by Dr. Justin Puder who has developed the podcast series, Drop In with Dr. J.

Reflection

Tennis is a very important part of my life and my exercise activity and has been since I was in Primary School (about 10 years of age).   Rachel’s podcast interview reminded me that I need to bring mindfulness more to the fore when playing tennis.  I have certainly used reflection-on-action in the past when looking at how I play tennis.  Through reflection, I have become more conscious of the importance of savouring the moment when playing tennis; addressing my “habit loop” (and related reward system) when experiencing blockages to trying out new tennis strokes; being able to constructively manage mistakes when playing social tennis; and identifying the behavioural and cognitive blind spots that are impeding my tennis performance.

I am often conscious of the technical aspects of playing tennis, e.g. keeping your eyes on the ball, preparing for a tennis shot, choosing the right shot, deciding the stance and position to receive a serve, and identifying the gaps in which to play a shot.  I can become more conscious of when my attention strays to what is happening on one of the other eleven occupied courts and bring my attention back to my own tennis game.

What Rachel’s comments remind me to do is to face my emotions in the moment when playing tennis (e.g. anxiety, fear), name them and decide how to manage them – rather than ignore or suppress them.  It also means acknowledging to myself (and challenging) my self-imposed expectations that impede my performance and enjoyment of the game. 

Rachel reminds us that mindfulness can be practised in every aspect of our life, even having lunch.  For me, for example, that means eating my lunch mindfully, savouring the taste, texture and aroma of what I am eating – not processing emails or planning my day as I eat. 

As we grow in mindfulness through formal processes such as meditation, Tai Chi, or yoga, we can more readily bring mindfulness to our everyday life whether that is driving a car in traffic, sitting on our back deck, working in our garden or just taking a walk.  Mindfulness can accompany us wherever we go and whatever we do – if we only let ourselves drop into present moment awareness.

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Image by Peter H 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.

Life is Like Playing Tennis

Daily living has a lot in common with playing tennis – this does not suggest that they are exactly the same, only that they have some features in common when observed from an effectiveness viewpoint.  As with any metaphor, to say that life is “like playing tennis” is to say that there are some aspects that are the same in each thing being compared.  Life and playing tennis are characterised by uncertainty and challenges, require constant adaption, are affected by our mental and emotional state and can be a source of happiness or disappointment.

When playing tennis, as in life, you are uncertain about the next ball/challenge you will have to face.  In tennis, the shot you have to deal with can vary in spin, speed, and direction and be affected by external factors such as wind and air temperature and the kind of surface you are playing on, as well as the condition of that surface.   In life, we are faced with all kinds of challenges such as financial and health issues, relationship problems or adverse work conditions as well as broader issues such as financial constraints or heath crises such as the pandemic.

I have to admit that I am a “tennis tragic” having played tennis for over 60 years and continuing to do so in my 70’s.  I only play social tennis now once a week (compared to in my youth when I played morning and afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays, including different forms of fixtures and coaching).   As with life, I have had to make continual adaptions as I age.   I have decided, for example, that I need a new tennis racquet to provide better support for my game.  I requested a new racquet from my wife for my recent 75th birthday –  a racquet that is lighter and has a larger frame (for failing eyesight).   This replaced my 20-year old tennis racquet which was badly in need of a restring to restore power and precision.  

They say that to ward off Alzheimer’s disease you need to exercise and learn a new skill that challenges you and provides you with mental stimulation.  Again to overcome the declining strength in my arms and wrists, I decided to learn how to play a two-handed backhand instead of the single-handed backhand that I have used for the last 60 years plus.  This is incredibly challenging for me, not only from a technical viewpoint but also from the perspective of incorporating it psychologically in my game, with the high probability in the early stages of making a lot more mistakes when playing a tennis game.  It means  that I have to take more risks, reflect on what I am doing wrong and manage my mental and emotional reactions to the higher level of mistakes

To help me start out with the requisite technical knowledge, I asked by my sons to pay for three professional coaching lessons (as a 75th birthday present) which gave me a good grounding in the technique required to achieve an effective two-handed backhand.  Now, I just have practice to acquire the technical competency of a two-handed backhand and learn to manage my fear of making a lot of mistakes as I learn to adapt my shot and my positioning to different balls that I will face in a tennis game.  Fear can prevent me from trying out the two-handed backhand in a real game and deprive me of the opportunity to learn as I go.  As with life, I have to learn to manage my fears if I am to achieve a rewarding level of competency and joy.  

Over many years, I have learned to develop a number of principles for playing tennis effectively – a set of principles that have relevance to achieving a life that is fulfilling and happy.  I describe these principles below and they may serve to reinforce a positive approach to life.

My six principles for effective and joyful tennis playing are:

  1. As I approach each night of social tennis, I decide on one micro skill that I am going to concentrate on improving during that night (usually over three or four sets).  There are so many micro-skills involved in playing tennis that it is not possible or effective to concentrate on everything.  As with making resolutions in life to improve your behaviour, focusing on a single goal can prove to be more achievable, effective and reinforcing.   This process employed on each occasion of playing, has served as the basis for continuous improvement, one micro skill at a time.
  2. When playing, I make continuous adaptions to my game to adjust to the circumstances – different players and different conditions.  If some particular tennis stroke is not working or getting me into trouble, I try something different.  Over the years I have developed multiple forms of spin such as top spin, slice, back spin, “out-swinger” (spins away from the body of my opponent) and “in-swinger” (spins into the body).  I adapt my spin to suit the circumstances, e.g. the type of players I am playing against and the external conditions.
  3. Over the last few years dealing with declining physique, I have had to change my mindset playing tennis.  Earlier on when I was much more physically able, I used to try to avoid making mistakes.  But increasingly now, mistakes are a part of the game of tennis.  So I have come to view playing each shot as an experiment – in the face of the numerous variables involved in a tennis shot (both received and hit), it realistic to view playing tennis as a process of conscious “trial and error”, with relevant adjustments for what is deemed to be an error in shot selection and/or delivery.
  4. Instead of dwelling on mistakes I make in a game, I try to savour my really good shots – those that were executed well with the desired effect.  Over time, I have built up a mental video playlist of really good shots which serve to build my sense of self-efficacy – my belief in my capacity to competently complete a particular shot (e.g. a backhand, half-volley lob). 
  5. The challenge when continuously making mistakes or doing the wrong thing, is to avoid beating up on yourself.  I am learning instead to appreciate the fact that I can still run, play a tennis shot, enjoy a game with friends, have ready access to tennis courts and be able to afford to play.  When I am tempted to chastise myself for a poor shot, I try to express gratitude for the things that I have and can do on a tennis court.
  6. Over time, as my physical capacities have declined, I have had to adjust my expectations of what I am capable of achieving.   In my secondary school days, I was trained as a sprinter and achieved selection at GPS level.  Now I am a lot slower off the mark.  I have had to change my expectations about my speed and mobility around the court and capacity to hit fast tennis shot (owing to weakening strength in my arms and wrists).  I do try to strengthen my wrists and arms through exercise but this can only serve to reduce the rate of decline.  In the meantime, I have had to adjust my expectations (though sometimes, I attempt to play like a 40 year old…and suffer accordingly!).
  7. I have taken up again the regular practice of Tai Chi which helps to build balance, flexibility, reflexes, coordination and overall energy.  I have learned that Tai Chi has quite remarkable benefits for playing tennis.  This form of meditation-in-action also suits my personal approach to developing mindfulness and helps to offset my declining physical prowess as I age.

Reflection

I have previously written about how tennis can build mindfulness if approached in an appropriate way.  For me, playing tennis involves a continuous process of reflection.  AS I grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and other mindfulness practices, I am increasing my self-awareness about my thought patterns and emotional states when playing tennis.  I am also learning to adapt and adjust my expectations and to approach my game more mindfully, enjoying the present moment without the contamination of continuous negative self-evaluation.  There can be real joy in savouring the experience of competency and being grateful for what I have and can do. Despite the aging process.  I am increasingly convinced that If you live a reflective and mindful life, wisdom becomes a natural outcome.

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Image by Tonny Nijkrake 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.

Being Mindful 0f Our Thoughts

Tom Heah presented a guided meditation podcast on Mindfulness of Thoughts through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  Tom reminds us that we are often lost in thought either about the past or the future – all of which detracts from fully experiencing the present moment.  In relation to the past, we might be absorbed by regrets about what we have done or failed to do; disappointed that certain outcomes (sporting, academic or otherwise) did not meet our expectations; or depressed about a broken relationship or lack of achievement or advancement.  In relation to the future, we might be worried about the unintended consequences of our words and/or actions; concerned about loss of physical/mental capacities; or anxious about our financial situation or the pervasiveness of the pandemic. 

Tom Heah is an occupational therapist and an experienced meditation trainer and practitioner with many years’ experience training facilitators of programs such as MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy).   He has a low-key and reassuring way of facilitating meditations and provides strong encouragement to “have a go” and try different approaches.

Guided meditation

Tom begins the guided meditation by suggesting that we focus first on “arriving” – being really present in body, emotions and mind.   He encourages us no matter what our posture is (e.g. sitting, standing, lying down or walking) to become very conscious of our bodily sensations – are we bringing any physical tension or tightness to the meditation?  He suggests we welcome any feelings that we may have at the start and to acknowledge their existence without blame or concern to shift them.  As part of this grounding process, Tom asks us to tune into sounds around us without interpreting them or seeking to evaluate them in terms of pleasant or unpleasant – acknowledging that these sounds just exist outside of ourself but within our soundscape.

Tom then uses our bodily sensations as an anchor before moving onto the potentially disarming and distracting element of our thoughts.  He encourages us to feel the solidness beneath our feet (whether through sensing the floor or the earth).  He switches our focus to our palms – firstly, placing our palms downturned on our lap, followed by having them in an upright position and becoming aware of the different sensations associated with these alternative positions (e.g. tightness, tingling or warmth).   This process can be followed by a full body scan moving from the top of our head to the souls of our feet.

When we have achieved some level of groundedness and being present to what is, Tom suggests that we become aware of our thoughts – their content, focus and associated feelings.  He draws on the work of Joseph Goldstein, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, to assert that thoughts lead to action that, in turn,  lead to consequences.  To change the consequences, we need to change our thoughts but the starting point is awareness of our thoughts, their patterns and their reactivity to negative triggers.  Joseph maintains that awareness of our thoughts leads to an “opening of the mind”.

Associated with our thoughts are emotions that are manifest in our body.  Tom encourages us to return to our anchor, bodily sensations, to tap into the embodiment of our thought-provoked emotions.  Again, we can become aware of the bodily sensations associated with particular emotions (e.g. anger can be reflected in muscular spasms or tightness; depression may be experienced as inertia; and nonspecific anxiety can manifest as fibromyalgia).

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness and become more aware of our thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations through meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can learn to accept what is and achieve a level of groundedness and emotional control.  Associated with these outcomes are increased resilience and heightened creativity in dealing with challenging situations and experiences.

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Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

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

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

A Pathway to Well-Being

Deepak Chopra lays out a pathway to well-being in his multiple books (80 in total), his online courses and his many videos on Chopra’s YouTube Channel.  Chopra also provides a podcast focused on meditation and well-being with daily meditations grouped by weeks.  His approach is backed by current research and neuroscience – he is an active researcher and publishes research results with his colleagues on the  Chopra Foundation website.   The information that Deepak offers is comprehensive, combines the practical with the theoretical and is inspirational.  However, the vastness of this information can be overwhelming.  One way forward is his Radical Well-Being online course which integrates a lot of this material and provides meditations, practical exercises and a clear pathway to well-being.

Foundational to Deepak’s approach is the science-based recognition that our genes account for only 5% of our overall well-being – the remaining 95% is governed by lifestyle.  Hence Deepak states that “genes are not our future”.  Underpinning this recognition is the knowledge that our body while seemingly remaining the same is undergoing continuous change, e.g. our skin is replaced once a month, our skeleton once every three months and, over a year, 98% of the atoms in our body are replaced.  Deepak concludes “our suitcase has a longer shelf-life than our body”.

Deepak maintains that our “soul”, our core consciousness, creates our body.  While the soul is invisible it can be experienced through our memories, thoughts, feelings, sensations, and images.  While stress is often considered to be a perception of threat of some kind (physical, emotional or psychological),  Deepak argues that a wisdom perspective sees stress as “interference with the soul’s spontaneous expression” thus impeding creativity and generativity.

Practical steps on the pathway to well-being

Deepak’s resources are replete with practical advice and tips for well-being,  so I can only hope to cover a sample here and link them to resources that he provides:

  • Meditation – Deepak draws on extensive research that confirms the benefits of meditation.  In particular, he notes that meditation positively impacts our entire genome – the complete set of instructions/information found in the cells of our body.  Also, because of his abiding interest in aging and the impact of stress, he stresses that meditation increases the protection for, and length of, telomeres – leading to increased well-being and improved biological aging.   A core meditation that he proposes for inner peace is a form of meditation that explores the fundamental question, “Who am I”, and progresses through the various levels of consciousness that he identifies.  Deepak suggests that we can gain the benefits of meditation even by spending just 10 minutes a day in meditating, e.g. through focusing on our breathing.  Throughout this blog, I provide multiple meditation methods and links to sources of meditation processes.
  • Sleep – a minimum of 7 hours a night, ideally 8 hours.  Deepak draws on the science of sleep to  reassert its beneficial effects, including its capacity to “restore, repair and conserve energy”.  He also reinforces the power of deep sleep to consolidate our long-term and short-term memories and to connect us more fully with the natural rhythms of the universe.  Sleep facilitates the operation of our subconscious mind and its information processing capacity.  Deepak stresses the negative impacts of sleep deprivation, including confusion,, inability to concentrate and irritability.  He describes his daily process of aiding his sleep through “recapitulation” – by reviewing his day as if watching a video and then letting it go while saying to himself, “I don’t hold onto anything”.  He states that this process of daily reflection and review develops emotional freedom and well-being.   The day has become a dream and it is in our dreams that we process our daily emotions.  Deepak stresses the Buddhist principle of the impermanence of everything, including our experiences – a principle that is reflected in the fact that we cannot hang onto a single breath, we have to let it go to live.
  • Movement – movement generates energy and activates our brain.  Here Deepak is not just talking about exercise in all its forms but also yoga, Tai Chi and breathing techniques.  Movement leads to attunement with our body, self-awareness and overall well-being (both physical, mental and psychological).  The benefits of Tai Chi, for example, have been well researched and documented by the Harvard Medical School.  Locating movement in nature provides added benefits.
  • Managing emotions and stress – take responsibility for our emotions and proactively deal with the stressors in our life.   Daily we have choices about what we will watch and/or read – we can feast on the news with deleterious effects or do the things that engender happiness or a sense of satisfaction and achievement.  We can wallow in anger or resentment or develop our sense of appreciation and gratitude.   If work is a source of stress, we can explore our work stressors and develop strategies to address them or seek to change our job.   
  • Earthing – involves grounding through direct contact with the electromechanical field in the earth.  Earthing can be achieved by walking barefoot on the ground and/or sitting down with hands or feet on the ground.   Deepak has reported the research that shows the benefits of earthing including better balance, reduced tension and being more centred.   The Earthing Institute emphasises the capacity of earthing to reduce inflammation, the major source of many illnesses.  Forest Bathing is another form of earthing that can enable us to access the healing power of nature.

Reflection

One thing that Deepak stresses throughout his resources is the power of intention.  Through intention, we can shape our perception and our reality.  To achieve overall well-being it helps to form the intention to develop a “joyful, energetic body”, ‘a loving compassionate heart” and a “reflective, alert mind”.   The practical steps that Deepak identifies can put us on the pathway to overall well-being.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, earthing and reflection, we can identify the obstacles to our well-being, form positive intentions to take practical steps and progressively review our processes while maintaining patience and self-compassion (not beating up on ourselves for self-generated setbacks).  We cannot do it all at once, but we can work progressively on one thing each day that will contribute to our overall well-being.

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Image by SplitShire 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.

Meditation as a Process

Marvin Belzer, meditation teacher and faculty member of the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, offers a guided meditation, Mindful Monday, as part of the regular guided meditation sessions provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.   In a recent Mindful Monday podcast, he focused on the process of meditation and as well as offering a guided silent meditation.

Marvin stressed that the process of meditation does not involve rush to get somewhere and is not about “doing” which is typical of our daily life as we seek to achieve things in family life, work and recreation.  While meditation does require “effort” it is a subtle process, unlike our exertions to achieve things in life.  To be effective in meditation we have to give ourselves permission not to aim for “getting things done”.

Marvin explained that the process of meditation involves directing attention to something specific that is occurring in our everyday life.  It can involve the sounds that surround us, our breath or our bodily sensations.  Marvin maintains that meditation cultivates concentration – a skill that can flow over to every area of our life and enhance our relationships, e.g. through deep listening.  Focusing on something that is neutral can be calming and provide clarity.  

Marvin’s guided meditation process

Marvin’s process began with several deep breaths to relax your body and ground yourself in the present moment.  It also helps at this stage to reaffirm your intention in meditating.  He followed this up with a focus on ambient sounds – the sounds that enter your awareness from outside your immediate location.  This can be difficult for some people because our natural tendency is to analyse sounds, identify their source and categorise them as good or bad, intrusive or relaxing, harmful or helpful.  In focusing on sounds, it is important to suspend intellectual activity and just experience the sounds as they are in the present moment.

Distractions such as planning the day’s activities or worrying about some future event are a natural part of the process.  Marvin stresses that the experience of meditation is a very personal thing that can be impacted by our emotions at the time, our intellectual preoccupations and our life conditioning.  There is no right way or perfect end result – there is a continuous process of focusing, being distracted, and returning to our focus – a cycle that builds our awareness muscle.  Jon Kabat-Zinn maintains that while mindfulness meditation involves “paying attention on purpose”, it also requires a non-judgmental frame of mind – not evaluating ourselves against some perfect model, process or way of “doing meditation”.

Marvin suggests that you do a light body scan at the outset to ascertain any points of tension and to notice your posture which should be relaxed but enable you to be alert to what is happening for you.  An alternative at this stage, particularly if you are feeling stressed, is to do a full body scan which can enable you to progressively release tension wherever it is experienced in your body.  Your body and specific bodily sensations can become the focus of your meditation, e.g. paying attention to the vibrations in your joined fingers or your feet on the floor or ground.  You can also tune into the physical sensation of experiencing fear, anxiety or sorrow – noticing where in your body a strong emotion is being manifested.  Marvin points out that this process of paying attention to the embodiment of an emotion can serve as a refuge from the disturbance of challenging emotions.

Another source of achieving calm that Marvin identifies is your breath.  He suggests that you can rest in your breathing – paying attention to where in your body you can experience your breath in the moment, e.g. the movement of your chest or abdomen or the flow of air through your nose.  This process does not involve controlling your breath but experiencing it as it is – slow or fast, light or deep, even or uneven.  We are always breathing as a natural process of being alive, so resting in your breath can serve as a refuge at any time throughout your day.  Through meditation practice, you can drop automatically into the calming influence of your breath – just as performers and elite athletes do when they are about to perform or compete. If you associate breath awareness with a bodily sensation such as vibrations when your fingers are joined during regular meditation practice, then the act of bringing your fingers together (e.g., when waiting for something or somebody) can activate breath consciousness and the calming influence of breathing.

Reflection

Meditation is a process, not a goal post.  Regular practice enables us to find calm in the midst of the waves of life.  It is important to remain non-judgmental.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation in whatever form we choose, we can develop calmness and tranquility and have a genuine source of refuge when times become challenging or we begin to become overwhelmed by emotions.  Our constant focus during meditation serves as an anchor in life when we encounter the turbulence of challenging times.

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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.