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

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

Barriers to Communicating with Confidence

In a Sounds True interview podcast, Tami Simon interviewed Patricia Stark about confidence in public communication situations such as speeches, presentations, workshops, job interviews and various forms of artistic performance.   Patricia is an acclaimed executive coach and an expert in body language as well as having substantial experience as a presenter and producer on radio and TV.  She spoke extensively about her book, Calmfidence: How to Trust Yourself, Tame Your Inner Critic, and Shine in Any Spotlight

Patricia explained that she coined the word Calmfidence to highlight what her experience in communicating in the public arena has taught her – you cannot have confidence without inner calm.  She argues that an external show of confidence is not enough – you can be disarmed if something does not go the way you expect.  Under the pressure of the moment, you can easily lose track of what you want to say or experience an inability to “think straight”.  Physiologically, you can experience the shakes, blanking out, headaches or pain in various parts of your body.  Inner calm enables you to manage both your psychological and physical response.  It facilitates emotional regulation and provides ways to dampen your physiological response.

Patricia explained that calmness underpinned confidence and involved trusting yourself and having a very clear idea of who you are and want to be.  This enables you to develop less reactivity in situations that do not turn out as you expect and to communicate with genuineness and authenticity.

Barriers to confidence

We each have barriers that prevent us from communicating confidently and these barriers are highly individual in origin and intensity.  Some of these barriers relate to past experiences while others are generated by the circumstances arising at the time of communicating publicly:

Past history – we each bring to a situation our experiences from the past that can create issues for us in terms of our confidence.  We could have been bullied at school or work, made fun of by our peers face-to-face or on social media, made embarrassing mistakes or observed someone experiencing vicarious trauma during a confronting workshop.  These negative experiences can make us prone to fearing an unsuccessful outcome when undertaking a public speaking endeavour and can even cause us to freeze during a job interview. I recall interviewing a manager for a job and at one stage he was unable to speak and actually had difficulty breathing.  Through pacing, I was able to help him begin to breathe slowly and deeply and settle down for the rest of the interview.  Patricia suggests that these past bad experiences need to be explored through “inner work” to bring them more into consciousness so that you can be aware of how they are playing out in your public interactions. She also suggests that you remind yourself why you are communicating with others and what benefit can accrue for them.

Perfectionism – can prevent us from even starting a public communication endeavour for fear of making mistakes.  We will always be waiting for the right time which may never occur.  Perfectionism can cause us to question what we have done in a public communication situation and generate a continuous cycle of “shoulds” and “what if’s”, e.g. “I should have started another way”, “What if I had given more examples?”  We can beat up on ourselves for mistakes or alternatively see them as an opportunity to grow and develop our public speaking skills.  Patricia suggests that we adopt a “growth mindset” which involves seeking continuous self-improvement in our practice while viewing mistakes as a learning experience on the path to personal improvement.  She suggests that it is unrealistic to expect not to make mistakes because of our human limitations and noted that in the public media arena it is a given that you will sometimes make mistakes.  In her view, often “good enough” is what is required and perfectionism can cause us to “freeze”, prevent flexibility and impede our ability to get in the zone and experience “flow”.   Like Seth Godin, Patricia suggests that it is better to “start small” to develop the confidence and calmness required to communicate publicly than to not engage in public communication because the task we set ourselves is too big a challenge.

Negative self-talk – these are the thoughts that we are not good enough or that we have no right to put ourselves “out there”.  Tina Turner explained that these thoughts can prevent you from making your unique contribution to the world and to positive experiences of other people. Tina actively developed her “inner landscape” through chanting and meditation and this enabled her to move beyond her “comfort zone” and realise her potential in performing for thousands of people.  She was able to see the growth potential and “hidden treasures” that lie in life’s challenges, including public communication and performances.  Tina recognised that we are not our negative thoughts but have the capacity to let them go and replace them with positive thoughts and expectations of success.

Reflection

Patricia indicated that she had a “painfully shy childhood” – she experienced panic at school, had other people take her place in the line at the shop to buy her lunch and would be shaking whenever she had to do a public presentation at school or college.  She has developed many exercises and tools to develop a calm confidence which has helped her in her worklife and enabled her to help over 2,000 clients who have sought her assistance and guidance.  She provides these tools and exercises in her book which offers very practical approaches to overcoming fear and anxiety around public communication.

Most people experience fear and anxiety around public communication, even seasoned performers. such as Tina Turner. As we grow in mindfulness through deep reflection, meditation and other mindfulness activities we can gain the self-awareness, courage and emotional regulation to enable us to achieve “Calmfidence” when engaging in public communications.  Mindfulness activities assist us to expand our response ability.

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

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

Solitude and Silence in Nature – A Pathway to Self-Awareness and Resilience

We can have an approach-avoidance attitude to solitude in nature – being alone in silence away from other people.  It can at first generate fear and tap into all our negative associations with “being alone”.  Solitude is different to loneliness because it involves choice – choosing to be by ourselves or to make the most of being “forced” to be alone.  It involves developing a positive perspective on being alone – seeing it as an opportunity for increased self-awareness and empowerment rather than a deprivation of company.

Ruth Allen, author of Grounded: How Connection with Nature Can Improve our Mental and Physical Wellbeing, maintains that when we are in nature we are never really alone – we are always in the presence of other living things that are around us that we often do not see.  Our natural environment is teeming with life.  When we choose solitude in nature, time away from other people, we can become more connected with nature and every living thing.  We can be more open to the vibrancy and beauty that surrounds us.

Often, we can be fearful of being alone with ourselves – facing up to who we really are (rather than who we project to others).  It means confronting those parts of ourselves that we may not like – it might be our character flaws or personal weaknesses, our past history of unkindness or thoughtlessness or our self-indulgence.  Many of these traits can be hidden away from consciousness because they appear too painful to confront.  The power of solitude in nature is the gift of silence and quiet reflection – time away from the distracting influence of noise and the pollution of expectations (our own and those of other people).

Gaining self-awareness and clarity

Solitude in nature offers us the opportunity to become increasingly self-aware – to understand who we really are and what we are truly capable of.   In his TED Talk, photographer Benjamin Powell argues that solitude in nature gives “our inner voice the opportunity to speak” and reveals our life purpose to us because it unearths our “latent gifts and talents” and cultivates unselfishness.  We can move from being self-absorbed to being absorbed in everything around us.

Often when we are experiencing challenges we say, “I need to go for a walk to clear my head”.  Solitude in nature gives us the opportunity to develop clarity, restore perspective and find creative solutions to issues that are causing us stress.  We can gain insight into our own way of perceiving the issues as well as develop an understanding from other people’s perspective.  Reflection through solitude in nature can help us, for example, to understand residual resentment that we may carry after an interaction (even if that was a long time ago).  It enables us to step back from the noise and clutter of a busy life and self-indulgence in hurt feelings and to find the insight to balance our perspective on the interaction, including understanding how our own sensitivity has contributed to our hurt feelings and appreciating the influences that contributed to the other person’s behaviour.

Strengthening relationships

When we return from solitude in nature, we are in a better place to engage with others, whether partners, family, friends, or colleague.  We can be more self-aware (particularly of our sensitivities and our habituated behavioural patterns), more patient through absorption in the quietness and stillness of nature, more in control of our own emotions and more ready to appreciate others in our life through experiencing gratitude for nature and its freely-given gifts.

Building resilience and self-reliance

When we spend time alone in nature, in stillness and silence, we have to fall back on our resources and resourcefulness.  We have to tap into our inner strength as we explore our “inner landscape” with openness and curiosity.  Meeting this challenge head on builds our capacity to meet the challenges of everyday life and to learn the depth and breadth of our inner strength.  Solitude in nature can provide us with an experience of bliss that flows over into our daily lives and strengthens us when we are confronted by adversity.  We know, too, from experience of solitude that we can seek refuge in nature to restore our groundedness and self-belief.

Reflection

If we have an aversion for solitude in nature, we can explore the feelings we are experiencing to better understand the source of our fear.  It might be that such solitude is a trigger for a traumatic reaction because of prior adverse experiences.  It could be that we are very reluctant to look too closely at our lives and what we have done in the past.  Sometimes, we may need professional support to engage with the challenge of solitude.

Ruth contends that we can train ourselves for solitude in nature and offers activities that we can undertake when alone in nature and ten strategies to employ when planning solitude in nature.  She also cautions against trying to move too fast or too far when we are not used to spending time alone.  Ruth points out, too, that we can progress from a short period to longer periods in solitude as we expand our comfort zone.  She also recommends that we reflect on our solitude experience and learn what natural places are more conducive to wellness for us as well as what is an ideal amount of time for us to spend in nature alone.

As we grow in mindfulness through solitude in nature and the resultant self-reflection, we can grow in self-awareness, self-reliance, and resilience to face the challenges of life.  We can also gain clarity about our life purpose and what we can contribute to helping others achieve wellness.

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

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

Building Cognitive Resilience through Mindfulness

Research conducted by Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell supports the view that mindfulness builds cognitive resilience – “the ability to overcome negative effects or stress on cognitive functioning” (as defined by Staal and colleagues).  In times of stress or serious setbacks, we can experience cognitive confusion and disorientation.  When the perceived threat to our wellbeing is considerable our “thinking brain” tends to shut down and our “survival brain” takes over – we can be controlled by our negative emotions and engage in fight, flight or freeze behaviour.  In these challenging times we can experience emotional inflammation as we are challenged on many fronts.

The impact of information overload

Information overload is a characteristic of our times with the ever-present and pervasive information highway.  With COVID19, we not only have to cope with the emotional strain of illness and death amongst our families , friends and colleagues but also the vast amounts of complex health advice and restrictions – information that is often conflicting and exacerbated by misinformation peddled by vested interests.  

The stress of information overload can be compounded by what Jamie and Rosie refer to as a our “digital and media diet” – a bias towards distressing information, rather than information that inspires, uplifts, or motivates.  An obsession with the news can be a daily diet of information that disturbs, distresses, distracts and debilitates us and severely limits our effective cognitive functioning.

Unfortunately, our natural tendency is to close down emotionally and avoid facing the pain of negative emotions.  We can block out difficult emotions such as fear, anxiety, and depression until such time as they take their toll on our physical health.  Liz Stanley, for example, explains how she lost her sight temporarily by “soldiering on” despite traumatic stress.

The role of mindfulness in developing cognitive resilience

Mindfulness practices can help us face raw and difficult emotions such as fear and build resilience through accepting our current reality, rather than denying its existence.   Rick Hanson, for example, provides a meditation practice designed to turn fear into resilience.   Bob Stahl, meditation teacher and author, offers a mindfulness practice to address fear and anxiety that are exacerbated by negative self-stories.

Mindfulness meditation can be a source of refuge in times of turbulence when we feel our minds and emotions whirling.  It enables us to restore our equilibrium and find peace and calm despite the waves of change and challenge crashing down on us.   We can build our resilience by taking time out to become grounded and to reconnect with ourselves. 

Jamie and Rosie point out the research that demonstrates that mindfulness can enhance both working memory and long-term memory.  Working memory constitutes our temporary storage facility that enables us to utilise information to effectively make decisions, act wisely and communicate appropriately.  It can become overwhelmed and degraded by stress and trauma and negatively impact our window of tolerance – narrowing it and thus reducing our capacity to cope with further stressors, however minor.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness we can increase our sense of agency in the face of stress and setbacks by facing up to our negative emotions and diffusing their impact, accessing our memory and cognitive faculties without the befuddlement of emotional overload, making sound choices about information that we expose ourselves to and developing groundedness despite the turbulent winds of change.  In this way, we can progressively build our cognitive resilience by reducing the negative impacts of stress on our cognitive functions and limiting emotional turmoil.  Hence, we will be better able to access our creative faculties and take wise actions such as scenario thinking to deal with ongoing stressors. 

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

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

Self-Care and Care for Others in Challenging Times

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

Self-Care for resilience

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

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

Self-awareness to take wise action

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

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

Contributing to the service of others

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

Tuning into our Sense of Well-Being

Diana Winston in a guided meditation podcast from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center focuses on Accessing Our Fundamental Well-Being.  She likens this process to tuning into a wellness radio station that is always there.  In these challenging times, however, we are often tuned into the “station” that evokes anxiety, fear, distress and unease.  Diana points out that much of what is happening in the world around us is outside our control – by focusing on the “station” that generates challenging emotions, we are moving further and further away from our fundamental well-being.  She offers a mindfulness process to enable us to tune into our sense of well-being that is always accessible to us, if only we would open our awareness to what resides within us – a process she calls natural awareness.

Guided meditation on accessing our sense of well-being

Diana guides us through this meditation by offering a series of steps:

  1. Grounding: beginning with a few deep breaths and sensing the in-breath and out-breath, you can move your attention to the rest of your body.  Here the focus is on the sensation of your body touching parts of your chair and the floor. 
  2. Embracing feelings of warmth: instead of paying attention to tension points, in this exercise you focus on the parts of your body where the sensation is one of warmth and feeling good, e.g. the tingling in your hands or fingers or the solidity of your feet on the floor.  The idea here is to soak up the sense of well-being that these bodily sensations generate.
  3. Choosing an anchor: you will find that your attention wanders from time to time, e.g. planning your day instead of being in the moment.  You can choose an anchor such as your breath, the sensation of your fingers touching each other or the surrounding sounds to bring your attention back to the present moment experience of well-being.  If you have experienced trauma or had an adverse childhood experience, then it pays to be very conscious of the anchor you choose – you need to avoid an anchor that will act as a trigger to relive a traumatic event.
  4. Revisiting an experience of well-being: once you have chosen an anchor and absorbed a present moment experience of well-being, you can recall a past experience of well-being.  It could be walking along a bayside esplanade in the early hours of the morning, an enjoyable meal with friends, an experience of being-in-the-zone in a sporting activity or listening to classical music or recorded sounds of nature.  Whatever the well-being experience, try to recall as much of the detail as possible – the bodily sensations and positive emotions you experienced – and become absorbed in your sense of well-being.

Reflection

We can experience many instances of well-being throughout our day or over a week.   However, we are often not consciously aware of the positive feelings, strength and equanimity that these experiences generate.  One strategy to capture the moment and the well-being feeling is to express gratitude for all the elements that make up your experience – e.g. if you are having a bayside walk, you can be grateful for the cool breeze, the reflections in the water, the bird life surrounding you, the enjoyable company and the beauty of the sunrise.  As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to consciously absorb the profound sense of well-being at the centre of our being and draw strength and resilience from this source.  Diana reminds us to let joy and wellness into our life.

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

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

Understanding the Message and Wisdom of Difficult Emotions

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

Emotions hold a huge amount of energy

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

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

Emotions are not good or bad

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

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

Understanding the message and wisdom of difficult emotions

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

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

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

Effective ways to draw on the message and wisdom of emotions

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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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.

Living in the Light of the Lessons from Death and Dying

Frank Ostaseski in an interview with Rheanna Hoffmann about death and the process of dying, mentioned his book based on his experiences of being with a thousand people as they died.  His book, The Five Invitations: Discover What Death Can Teach Us About Living Life Fully, provides five principles or guides for living life with integrity, meaningfully and in alignment with our true purpose.  Frank was the co-founder and director of a thousand-bed hospice, so his book is based on lived experiences and real stories of how people faced death, as well as the distillation of the “wisdom of death” from these deeply personal and moving experiences.

Frank maintains that death is the “silent teacher”, imparting understanding and wisdom about how we should live.  He expounds his ideas and principles in a number of recorded podcast interviews, including What Can Death Teach Us About Living Mindfully. His recoded talk at Google focused on his book through the theme, Inviting the Wisdom of Death Into Life.   A succinct explanation of the principles in his book, which he describes as “invitations to living”, is provided in his 26-minute edited interview with Steve Heilig of Palouse Mindfulness.

The five invitations to living learned from the dying

Frank emphasises that these invitations to living have been taught to him by the dying and by compassionately helping many hundreds of people with the process of dying.   Understanding the following five principles and putting them into practice enables us to live life fully and mindfully:

  1. Don’t wait – we assume that life will go on as it always has, that our health, wealth and relationships will persist into the future.  If nothing else, the Coronavirus should disabuse us of this belief and the associated perceptions.  There is a tendency to put off changing the way we live because of this belief in continuity.  However, living is precarious, nothing is certain.  We can become absorbed in the busyness of life and put off any change – avoiding the need to slow down and really experience life and relationships.  We can spend so much of the day planning our next activity or sequence of events. Frank maintains that we are reticent to fully “step into life” – “waiting for the next moment in life, we miss the present”.  Frank urges us not to wait till our death to find out the lessons of dying.
  2. Welcome everything, push nothing away – whether it’s grief, loneliness, boredom or suffering, there is a lesson to learn if we don’t push away the feelings, emotions and thoughts that pervade our life.  Frank suggests that we should welcome grief and fear and difficult feelings because these “moments” of discomfort are pivotal in our life for developing sustainable personal change, if we fully face them.  He spoke of the grief he experienced working with the dying and how he adopted meditation, bodywork (the touch of a practitioner on a source of physical pain in his body) and holding and rocking newly born babies (a life-affirming activity) as a way to face the full emotional, physical and mental experience of grief – it’s as if he ritually experienced the life cycle of birth, living and dying as a way to manage his overwhelming grief.  
  3. Bring your whole self to the experience – Frank made the point that in his work with the dying, the part of him that was most helpful was his vulnerability and helplessness because it acted as an “empathetic bridge to their experience”.  These “weaknesses” became his strengths and enabled him to be fully present to them, to be-with-them.  He has stated previously that authentic presence and compassionate listening are healing and supportive of people’s transition in both the challenges of living and of the dying process.  He asserts that none of us is perfect but that we can bring our whole self to whatever we are experiencing – leaving no part of our self out of the interaction.
  4. Find a place of rest in the middle of things – we can find a place to rest amidst the turmoil and tenuousness of life and despite overwhelming emotions that beset us.  The “place of rest” could be a breathing exercise, a ritual, mindfulness practice or reconnecting with nature.  Finding such a “place” is critical as a self-care approach for healthcare professional, particularly in these challenging times. Rheanna Hoffmann, who volunteered to work in the Emergency Department of a New York Hospital during the height of the Coronavirus, stated that this principle, explained in Franks’ book, helped her deal with the exhaustion, grief and overwhelm she experienced in helping suffering and dying patients while working under unimaginably difficult conditions. Frank also recounts the story of how he helped a woman to find a place of rest who was dying and experiencing extreme difficulty breathing, a struggle to breathe exacerbated by fear.  He asked her, “Would you like to struggle a little less?”  He then helped her to put her attention to the gap/pause in her breathing and began to pace her by breathing in and out with her.  He reports that “fear left her face” and she died peacefully.  Frank pointed out that none of the conditions had changed for her (including difficulty with breathing), only her relationship to her experience of dying.
  5. Cultivate a don’t know mind – this is not designed to encourage ignorance.  Frank quoted a Zen saying, “Ignorance is not just ‘not knowing something’ but the right thing”.  Ignorance is knowing the wrong thing and insisting on its truth and universality.  The principle is not about accumulating information (the “what”) but cultivating a mind that is “open, receptive and full of wonder” – a mind that is curious and pursues the truth and understanding in everything.  Frank suggested that we should talk with our children about death and, in the process, learn from them (not tell them).  He recounts his experience as a Director of a pre-school when he organised for the children involved to go and collect dead things in the woods nearby.  He marvels at the insight of the children and their perceptiveness.  They had been discussing the theme of endings becoming beginnings, e.g. a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, when a four-year old girl said, “I think the leaves on the trees are very, very generous – they fall and make room for new leaves”.  Frank maintains that a “don’t know mind” is fluid and flexible and “infused with a deep interest to know” and to know what is true right now.

Reflection

Frank’s approach to fully facing all that life presents (both discomfort and joy) is in alignment with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s concept of Full Catastrophe Living and Frank’s personal process for handling his grief accords with Deepak Chopra’s recommendation that we adopt a ritual to symbolise our release from the stranglehold of grief.

Frank epitomises in his life and work what he advocates through his talks and video podcasts.  He pursues a life that is meaningful and purposeful.  For example, in addition to his book and public presentations sharing his knowledge and experience of the dying process and its lessons, he has established a creative approach to educating end-of-life carers through the Metta Institute.  His words and actions manifest a life of integrity, compassion and wisdom.

Steve Heilig, the person who interviewed Frank in one of the video podcasts mentioned above, has also found a way to live a life full of meaning and purpose.  One of his many mindfulness endeavours has been to collect resources and permissions from leading mindfulness practitioners, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, to enable him to provide a free, 8-week, online course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

As we grow in mindfulness, by employing the five principles that Frank espouses, we can live our lives more fully and expansively and truly aligned to our energy and purpose.  We can find our expansiveness and spaciousness which Frank evidenced with people who were dying – their capacity to find the personal resources to face their fear and death despite their belief that the challenge was beyond them.   We can also become a calming presence to others who are experiencing difficulties as we progressively overcome our own reactivity. If we develop the discipline of the daily practice of meditation, we can live in the light of the lessons of dying and death.

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Image by mostafa meraji 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 Death and the Process of Dying

Rheanna Hoffmann recently interviewed Frank Ostaseski on healing grief through compassion and love.  Frank founded the Metta Institute whose mission is to provide innovative educational approaches to developing skills in “mindful and compassionate end-of-life care”.  Rheanna herself is the founder of The Whole Practitioner, dedicated to helping nurses move beyond frustration and burnout to “rediscover, health, balance and their core values”.

Frank and many other writers on the process of dying maintain that it is not just a medical event but is much broader and more holistic than this form of the mechanical model.  Increasingly, research is confirming too that consciousness is more than our physical brains.  Frank argues that the unwillingness in our culture to talk about death and the dying process is preventing us from learning the lessons that the dying can teach us and our children.  He contends that if we learn about the dying process and face the reality of our inevitable death, we can better appreciate the “preciousness of life” and live our lives more fully and in alignment with our values and purpose.

The process of dying

Frank describes dying as a process of “stripping away”.  It’s as if everything that is associated with our “ego” – our sense of self – is peeled away.  Undoubtedly, our mental and physical capacities decline, and this begins with the aging process.  But the stripping away is much more than that – it is losing attachment to everything including our spouse or partner, our home, our roles, our possessions, and the animals in our life.  Frank also talks about dying as a “sacred process of transformation” through which we see things in a new light, have a deeper understanding of the meaning of life and the value and true purpose of our own life – in other words “an awakening”, no longer limited by our concept of a “small separate self”.

Peter Fenwick, when talking about What Really Happens When We Die, suggests that the more we hold on to our ego needs and refuse to let go, the more difficult is the dying process.  Living our life in a selfless way – not totally self-centred — makes the process of dying easier because we are not absorbed in holding on to our attachments.  Being “other-centred” in the pre-transition phase of our life makes dying easier and enables the final transformation that Peter describes as entering a “spiritual domain” where you lose your identity as a separate self and become identified with the total cosmos – the universal whole.

Peter discusses the change in our level of consciousness in the light of research into Near Death Experience (NDE).  He maintains that consciousness research focused around NDE experiences confirm a “widening of consciousness” that manifests in:

  • Losing the self-narrative – the self-talk that we employ to boost or deflate our egos
  • Being just in the moment – not absorbed in the past or anxious about the future
  • Experiencing “unbelievable” happiness
  • Tending to be transcendent – losing a sense of duality (our self and others) and becoming merged with the cosmos.

Peter has co-authored The Art of Dying with Elizabeth Fenwick which provides personal accounts from those who have been dying and people (healthcare professionals, carers and family) who have been with them and supported them in the process of dying.   The accounts discussed, as well as other research into NDE experiences, confirm that consciousness is much more than our physical brains.  Monica Renz, author of Dying: A Transition, provides a process-oriented approach to end-of-life patient care that incorporates confirming the dignity of the patient, understanding the transition process of dying and being able to sensitively engage in the symbolic journey described by dying patients.  Her observations and detailed accounts are based on attending 1,000 cancer patients during the process of dying.  Monica describes the dying process as both an archetypal and a spiritual process and contends that, in the process of transition, patients move through fear into a “space of peace, acceptance, dignity and tranquillity characterised by connectedness and even luminosity”.

Reflection

Our cultural blinkers blind us to the reality of the dying process and the nature of our own inevitable death.  As we become more aware of the dying process through our own research and study, we can learn to appreciate how precarious our life is and how precious is the process of both living and dying.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on death and reflecting on its implications for how we live our life, we can progressively come into more alignment with our life force, our values and our life purpose.

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Image by Hans Braxmeier 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.

Healing Grief through Compassion and Love

Frank Ostaseski was recently interviewed during the 2020 Mindfulness & Compassion Global Summit by Rheanna Hoffmann on the topic, Grief and the Healing Power of Love and Compassion.  With so many deaths worldwide from the Coronavirus (410,000 at the time of writing), the issue of grief and its manifestations becomes increasingly prevalent.   Frank is the cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project (now called The Zen Caregiving Project) and founder of the Metta Institute designed to provide creative education in the art of “mindful and compassionate end-of-life care”.

Healthcare professionals may not have lost loved ones through the virus, but they can experience grief too with the loss of patients that they have been caring for – this is in addition to other stressors that challenge their resilience.  In his interview responses, Frank explained the nature of grief and the power of compassion and love to heal people who have experienced profound grief.

The nature of grief

Frank who has supported more than 1,000 people in the process of dying maintains that grief is not a single point but a process – an evolving process of “loss, losing and loosening”.  There is the initial shock of the loss that can result in physical collapse and total disorientation.  Shock impacts people differentially – some people may experience numbness, there is no “one way”.   Beyond the initial shock of the loss, is a process of “losing”, where in the midst of other things an overwhelming sense of loss returns accompanied by strong emotional and physical symptoms.  “Losing” can persist for many years and eventually become an intermittent event.  In the meantime, the process of “loosening” commences with progressive release of the hold that grief has over a person.

People grieve in different ways – some withdraw and have a strong desire to be alone with their grief, others experience tears and crying uncontrollably, while still others may take out their grief by aggression and violence (such as is occurring in the riots in America in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement).  Grief and our response may be aggravated in challenging times such as the pandemic where everyone is experiencing a form of “emotional inflammation”.

Frank maintains that grief has many faces, e.g. anger, rage, sadness, depression, fear and even regret.  He also suggests that grief results not just from the sense of loss of a loved one but also from the associated lost opportunities – a young life cut off in their prime, a missed opportunity to reconcile with a loved one, a lost chance to say goodbye or to be physically present with someone as they were dying.   For people exposed to dying and death as a result of the Coronavirus, there can be a collective grief brought on by the lost opportunity to save lives, as well as the lost opportunity of the lives lost.

Healing grief through love and compassion

The starting point for being able to show compassion towards the people experiencing grief is having an understanding of the nature of grief and its many forms of expression. It is important not to add to the stress of people who are grieving by communicating expectations of how their grief should be expressed.  Grieving is a very personal process and requires compassionate attending and listening, not the projection of personal preference.

Pema Chödrön discusses ”compassionate abiding” in our own grief and suffering as the pathway to expressing compassion for others.  Frank suggests that we need to “metabolize” our own fear and suffering by facing it fully, experiencing it in our body, mind and heart and converting it to compassion for others.  He maintains that when we can explore our own experience through self-observation and self-inquiry we can “build an empathetic bridge to other people’s experience”.  Otherwise we can be working out of our own distress and needs rather than the needs of others who are grieving.  Without this level of self-intimacy we can appear dishonest or disingenuous to others we are trying to help in their grief.

Frank explained that he has difficulty expressing self-compassion but has developed a number of processes that enable him to express compassion for others.  Each night before going to sleep, he focuses on the suffering of others – those who might be suffering through loneliness, those experiencing grief or those who are caring for others who are dying.  Through this process he feels love and warmth towards others and the emergence of his “innate compassion” that is broad and deep enough to absorb or dissolve his own experience of suffering.   In the morning, with his hand on his heart, he asks himself, “What would love have me do today?”

Reflection

Self-intimacy is a key to genuine compassion towards others who are grieving.  Compassion and love help to heal grief because they involve abiding fully with someone who is experiencing grief, not trying to fix them.  Our very presence, uncontaminated by unrealistic expectations of the other person, can be a source of healing just as “listening generously” can be.   As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop self-intimacy, calmness and peace and be better able to be present to and compassionate towards others.

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Image by Gordon Johnson 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.