Managing Chronic Pain with Mindfulness

Christiane Wolf , MD, PhD, provided an encouraging meditation podcast on the topic of employing mindfulness to manage chronic pain and the mind’s activity that exacerbates our feelings of pain.  In her guided meditation, The Past and the Future Pain Story: Working with Pain in the Present Moment, shespoke of the role that rehashing the past and/or rehearsing the future plays in our experience of pain and offered ways to reduce the mind’s influence over our pain experience.   Christiane is the author of Outsmart Your Pain – Mindfulness and Self-Compassion to Help You Leave Chronic Pain Behind, and is a meditation teacher who offers audio meditations and mindfulness videos on her website. 

Guided meditation on mindfulness for managing chronic pain

Christiane begins her guided meditation with ensuring your posture is comfortable and well-grounded (whether in a chair, couch or on the ground).  To help with grounding, she suggests that you focus on the solid sensation of your feet on whatever surface you are on.  Closing your eyes for the sake of strengthening your focus on your meditation is offered as an optional extra.  Christiane recommends some bodily movement, such as turning your neck or rolling your shoulders, as a way to improve your comfort level when undertaking the meditation.

The next phase of the guided meditation entails focusing on your breath.  Here, Christiane encourages you to really feel your breath by both deepening and lengthening your breathing. An alternative to using the breath as an anchor is to focus on sounds around you or the sensation in your feet or your hands.  She maintains that a meditation anchor is based in the body and its senses to enable a focus other than being “lost in thought”.  It’s a place to return to whenever thinking distracts you from the primary focus of your meditation.

How the brain exacerbates our feelings of pain

Christiane points out that our brain has a major role in how we experience pain whether the pain derives from chronic physical pain or enduring uncomfortable feelings, emotions, or thoughts.  To build your awareness of the mind’s influence she suggests that firstly you explore the “past pain story” – what you are telling yourself about the origins of the pain (e.g., “outside my control”), how it was experienced in the past, or mistakes/poor decisions that led to your pain.  She argues that the mind through recalling the past pain is trying to protect you from its recurrence or to prevent the same mistakes/poor decisions that may have occurred in your past.  Sometimes the recollection of the previous intensity of the pain serves to strengthen your resolve to avoid the pain and/or the factors that contributed to it.

Once you have explored the past pain story, Christiane encourages you to explore the “future pain story” – what is it that you are anticipating will happen in the future as a result of your pain? (typically, we envisage the worst); how does your future story make you feel? (e.g., anxious, uncertain, fearful, resentful, or sad).   

Christiane argues that the past and future pain stories are like baggage that you carry around that increases the load of your pain and exacerbates your feelings of pain.  She uses imagery to help you reduce your pain – she suggests you view the past and future pain stories as a heavy suitcase, weighing you down.  Her recommendation is that you view yourself putting the suitcase (of stories) down on the ground so you are relieved of its added weight and can gain clarity about the nature of your pain and role of your brain in rehashing past pain or anticipating future pain.  It is important to reflect, at this stage, on what is left of your pain after the stories are removed or have been put away.

Widening the focus

Christiane recommends “widening the lens of your focus” at the end of the guided meditation.  This entails initially focusing on people you know who are experiencing suffering or pain and wishing them strength and healing.  She encourages  you to then expand your focus to include people anywhere in the world who are experiencing pain or grief as a result of the COVID19 pandemic, a natural disaster, or the collapse of a building as in Miami recently.   Her desire is that you extend loving kindness to these people.  

Reflection

Christiane’s approach enables us to “unpack” the thoughts and feelings that accompany chronic pain – she puts the spotlight on the role of the brain in creating past and future pain stories to enable us to lighten the load.  In the guided meditation, she suggests ways to lighten the load using mindfulness.  In her book she provides additional exercises, meditations, and reflections to enable us to effectively manage chronic pain and suffering.

She encourages us to explore our pain with openness and curiosity to better understand and manage it.  She suggests that we should not begin her mindfulness approach with a really difficult pain but ease into it gradually starting with some form of suffering that is not so complex or challenging.

When I followed the guided meditation, I decided to focus on the challenge I have with dermatitis and associated food intolerances.  I had suffered dermatitis over the whole of my body in 2017.  In recalling this event during the meditation,  I realised that my “past pain story” focused on the extreme discomfort of the condition and the disappointment of having to limit severely what I ate and drank during a visit to Northern Italy – no wine, coffees, pasta, desserts, etc.  However, my current experience of dermatitis is very limited compared to then but I do have a “future pain story” that anticipates what would happen if the inflammation blew out again.  I found the guided meditation lightened the load of the past feelings of disappointment and the anticipatory feelings of anxiety and fear. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can understand our pain better and learn ways to manage our chronic condition.  We can also develop the strength to deal with the difficult emotions associated with chronic pain and suffering, including resentment.

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

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

A Meditation: Valuing the Environment

Diana Winston of MARC, UCLA presented a guided meditation podcast, Earth Day Meditation, to celebrate the environment.  Her meditation podcast on Earth Day, April 22 2021, focused on appreciating and valuing the environment through our reflections and actions.  She reminded us that mindfulness involves present moment awareness which is often stimulated by nature when we go for a walk in a rainforest, swim in the ocean, spend time near a river or just enjoy our garden – the trees, plants, fresh air and sounds of birds.   Mindfulness is enhanced when we develop a sense of wonder and awe in the presence of the beauty of nature.

At one stage in the meditation, Diana asks us to remember the indigenous people who, through their stewardship of the land, preserved what we have to share and experience today.  Wynnum in Brisbane, the area in which I live, was named by the local Aboriginal people after the Pandanus Palm or breadfruit tree.  The local islands, such as Stradbroke Island, have a rich history of Aboriginal life, closeness to nature and caring for the land and bay.  Stradbroke Island is one of my favourite places to visit and relax in its relatively undeveloped beauty.  Part of valuing our environment is exploring our local environment history with openness and curiosity.

A guided meditation on the environment

Diana presents a guided meditation focused on the earth and its amazing features and places.  She suggests at the outset that we become grounded and pay attention to the sensations in our feet.  We might be experiencing tingling, warmth, heaviness, or other sensation.  By paying attention to our bodily sensations, particularly in our feet, we can experience a deepening connection to the earth.  We can feel the earth’s physical support which enables us to experience the richness of our life and our environment.

Meditating on place

Diana suggests later in the meditation that we focus on a place that is special to us, that engenders positive feelings.  We first picture the place and its physical characteristics – the terrain, bird and animal life, significant features, the presence or absence of water.  Moving on from capturing the physical aspects of the place that we are paying attention to in our minds, we are asked to capture some of the feelings that this place generates in us.

I found at this stage of the meditation that I focused on our local environment and particularly the Esplanade along the bay where I often walk with my wife.  I was able to experience wonder and awe, peace and ease,  relaxation and happiness as I pictured myself walking in company along the bayside paths through the trees, adjacent to the marina.  I recall the dolphins I saw in the marina and their playful nature.  I also felt a sense of connectedness to nature and people as I pictured the natural beauty of the place and people strolling happily along with their dogs, their children, and partners or by themselves.  I also felt energised by the images as I mentally explored my immediate environment and felt the energy that surrounded me both in nature itself and the people enjoying the bayside walk.

Reflection

This meditation enriched my appreciation of the environment that I have to experience daily.  It made me more aware of the richness of what surrounds me and the connection that I have to others who actively seek out the beauty of our bayside environment.  Diana asks us, in the spirit of Earth Day, to commit to one or more micro-gestures to care for our environment as we experience our sense of gratitude.

We often take our environment for granted but it will deteriorate if we do not value it and actively care for it. As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on our natural environment and all that it offers in terms of healing, tranquility, and connection, we can become more grateful for what we have at our doorstep and commit to caring for it.

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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.

Accessing the Genius of Anxiety for Improved Mental Health

Karla McLaren discussed embracing anxiety in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True when having a conversation about Making Friends with Anxiety … And All Your Other Emotions.   Karla was able to draw on her own life experience and her recent book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.   She has spent a lifetime researching and writing about emotions.

In a previous post, I explored Karla’s concept of emotions as storing energy and providing a message and wisdom.  I also discussed effective ways to draw on the energy and wisdom of emotions.  Karla emphasised the importance of not attributing the characteristics of “good” or “bad” to emotions, including difficult emotions.  In her view there are real lessons and ways to move forward hidden in each emotion, even anxiety.

Trauma and anxiety

Karla herself experienced childhood trauma and many of her insights are drawn from her experience in overcoming the associated anxiety and depression.  Like other people who have been traumatised, Karla has had to deal with anxiety and depression throughout her life.  She found that she was ignorant about these emotions and tended to repress or suppress them.   However, through reading and research she has been able to develop practical approaches to addressing anxiety and depression.  She has learned to befriend these emotions and now views depression as enforced slowing down and redirection and has developed the ability to draw on the “genius of anxiety”.

The genius of anxiety

In her interview with Elizabeth Markle on embracing anxiety, Karla emphasised that anxiety is “an essential source of foresight, intuition, and energy for completing your tasks and projects”.  As with any emotion we have a choice – we can suppress, repress or “over-express” anxiety or, alternatively, listen to the message and wisdom that lies within this emotion.  We need to understand that emotion is a process – trigger, experience, response – we have a choice in how we respond to what triggers us and the feelings we experience as a result.

Karla suggests that the appropriate response to situational anxiety is to channel the energy of the emotion towards completing a task or project – much as a canal channels water.  Repression or suppression of anxiety blocks the energy flow, while over-expressing anxiety through panicked or frantic activity can dissipate the energy rather than direct it.  A starting point for channelling the energy of anxiety is “conscious questioning” – e.g. “What brought on this feeling?” and “What truly needs to get done?”   This approach enables you to work with, rather than against, the energy of anxiety and to simultaneously care for yourself by downregulating the impact of the emotion on your thoughts and feelings. 

Karla continued her discussion of “conscious questioning” for anxiety by referring to a sample of other questions featured in her book, Embracing Anxiety (p.85):

  • what are your strengths and resources?
  • are there any upcoming deadlines?
  • have you achieved or completed something similar in the past?
  • can you delegate any tasks or ask for help?
  • what is one small task you can complete tonight or today?

Karla argues that this approach involves “leaning into anxiety”, not artificially calming yourself.  She also alludes to the research that demonstrates that accurate naming of our emotions and identifying the level of intensity of them is another effective form of downregulating emotions.  To this end she encourages us to develop our emotion vocabulary and offers her blog as a starting point for emotion identification.  In her book she offers ways of describing different levels of emotional intensity, for example, low anxiety is described as apprehensive, mild anxiety as edgy or nervous and intense anxiety as overwrought or super-energised.

Karla suggests too that yoga and mindfulness are effective ways of downregulating that can assist the process of conscious questioning.  She offered very brief meditation to illustrate this calming effect.  The meditation basically involved focusing on the quietest sound in the room.  Karla provides a range of practices for each emotion in her book,

Different anxiety orientations: planner vs procrastinator

Karla drew on the work of Mary Lamia, author of What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success, to differentiate between two main manifestations of anxiety – planning anxiety and procrastination anxiety.  The planner maintains a low level of anxiety continuously and has a task “to-do” list(s) to manage their anxiety about getting things done.  The procrastinator, on the other hand, does not make lists but works to deadlines and has an immense burst of anxiety and energy the night before a deadline is due (and often achieves the task in the early or late hours of the morning).  The procrastinator can “chill out” while waiting for the deadline, the task person has difficulty “chilling”.

Mary points out that what is different in the two approaches to task achievement has to do with “when their emotions are activated and what activates them”.  The procrastinator, for example, is motivated by the imminent deadline and experiences “deadline energy”; the planner is motivated by the need to keep task commitments under control.   Understanding the difference between these two sources of motivating anxiety and your personal preference in how to get things done, can reduce conflict in a relationship and support success where partners have a different orientation.   Maria discusses the potential clash in orientation between procrastinators and non-procrastinators in her Psychology Today blog.

Reflection

Mindfulness practices along with conscious questioning and reflection can help us to focus the emotional energy of anxiety.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can better identify our emotions, understand what motivates others and increase 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.

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.

Understanding the Process of Emotions

Dr. Eve Ekman recently presented a session on Overcoming Negativity and Judgement as part of the Wise@Work Virtual Communities series organised by Wisdom Labs.  Eve’s professional work focuses on developing emotional awareness, compassion and mindfulness. In pursuit of this goal, she draws on her knowledge, research and experience in areas such as integrative medicine, clinical social work and contemplative science. The mission of Wisdom Labs is to improve mental health in the workplace and the organisation offers guided virtual communities and a stress reduction app as a means to pursue these goals.  The positive outcomes from these tools are reduction in workplace stress, combating loneliness and burnout and improvement in teamwork.

Eve facilitates the Cultivating Emotional Balance Online Course and is Director of Training at the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), University of California Berkeley.  Eve demonstrates the benefits of her yoga and meditation practice in her concise, calm, practical and insightful presentations in many contexts, including in large organisations around the world.   Her video presentation on cultivating emotional balance and fluency at the 2013 Summer Institute for Educators (GGSC) is another example of the depth and passion of her work in developing emotional awareness

The process of emotions

Eve made the point at the outset that we have to understand the nature of emotions if we are going to learn how to keep them under control.  She explained that emotions are more than feelings (e.g. feeling good or bad about something).  In her view (informed by scientific research), emotions are really a process – a process involving “a trigger, an experience and a response”.

The trigger for a feeling of frustration and anger in the workplace could be something like the internet freezing continuously, someone who continually talks loudly in your open office workspace or the fact that your views and suggestions are ignored by management.   Working from home in the current lockdown environment of the Coronavirus can provide multiple triggers for frustration such as distractions, inadequate computer resources and managers who lack an understanding of your personal situation and associated difficulties (such as young children at home).   

Our experience of frustration and anger and associated thoughts of unfairness have a “biological correlate” – in other words, our thoughts and feelings are reflected in our body.  We may feel “uptight”, experience soreness in our back, arms or legs or have a stiff neck or headache.  Our response to the trigger and associated feelings and bodily sensations, can be mild, measured, “over-the-top” or involve some form of calming of ourselves and our emotions.

Eve suggests that we draw on integrative science (Western and Eastern approaches) to identify emotions as “constructive or destructive in how they are enacted” – in other words, how we respond, how our emotions play out in our words and actions.  Whether we choose a constructive or destructive way to act out our emotions will depend on how well we have our emotions under control at the time. 

The capacity to consciously chose an appropriate response to our triggers and associated feelings is described as emotional fluency or as Susan David calls it, “emotional agility”.  Eve’s facilitation in workplaces and her research, confirm that meditation and mindfulness practices are a pathway to developing emotional fluency/agility.   Without awareness of our emotions and how we enact them, we can be easily captured and controlled by them, resulting in harmful interactions and poor decision making.

Reflection

Viktor Frankl reminds us that between a stimulus (a trigger) and our response, there is a gap – wherein lies the opportunity to exercise choice in how we respond, and in the process, free ourselves from the enslavement of our emotions.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices we can build our self-awareness in relation to our triggers, thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and habituated responses and develop self-regulation to deal with our emotions constructively.

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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.

Resilience through Self-Compassion

Sounds True founder, Tami Simon, recently interviewed Pema Chödrön as part of the podcast series, Resilience in Challenging Times.  The theme of Pema’s interview podcast was Compassionate Abiding – an emphasis on building resilience by abiding in, or inhabiting, difficult emotions while extending loving-kindness to our self and others.  Her focus was on ways to become “embodied” – being fully in touch with the physical manifestations of our feelings. 

Pema acknowledged that many people worldwide are feeling lost and experiencing “groundlessness”.  This is normal and natural in these challenging times when everything has been upended – intrastate, interstate and international travel, location of work, availability of work, education of children and adults, health risks, financial security and relationships.  We are now having to connect from a distance – with our colleagues, friends and extended family.  People in the streets, cafés and shops are wearing masks and observing social distancing – avoidance is the new norm in interactions.

Becoming grounded in your body

With this pervasive upheaval, it is difficult to stay grounded and avoid being swept away by a torrent of difficult emotions. Pema maintains that the one, immediately accessible control point is your body.  Your difficult emotions can manifest in your body as tightness in your chest, pain in your arms or legs, headaches, upset stomach, racing pulse or any other physical form of constriction, acceleration or discomfort.   Pema contends that the pathway to resilience lies in immersing yourself in your feelings and associated bodily sensations through your breathing.  She argues that it is important to “lean into your sharp points and fully experience them”.

Pema offered a breathing exercise during her interview podcast (at the 16-minute mark).  She encouraged listeners to get comfortable (sitting, lying or walking) and to ask themselves, “What does a specific feeling (e.g. anxiety) feel like in my body?’  You are encouraged to explore the depth and breadth of the feeling through self-observation and self-exploration – locating the point(s) of manifestation of the feeling in your body. 

Conscious breathing with kindness and self-compassion

Having named your feeling and fully experienced its manifestation in your body, the next step is to take three conscious breaths – breathing in and out deeply, feeling your lungs expand with the in-breath and experiencing a sense of release/relief on your out-breath.  Pema argues that in this way we are accessing the “wisdom of our emotions” – emotions that have been shaped by our personality, life experiences and responses to triggers.  This process can be repeated over a longer period if the level of personal agitation is high.  Pema mentioned that in one of her recent experiences of a difficult emotion, it took her half an hour to achieve equilibrium and peace through this breathing exercise.

For some people, the focus on breath may be too traumatic because it generates painful flashbacks to adverse childhood experiences or too demanding because of respiratory difficulties or other physical disability.  In this scenario, Pema suggests that embracing yourself, rocking, tapping or a more analytical approach could work to tame the emotions and dampen the associated feelings.

As you breathe into and out of your feelings, it is important to extend loving-kindness to yourself – avoiding negative self-talk that is debilitating and disabling.  Each person has a different way of expressing self-compassion and acknowledgement of their inherent goodness.  Pema maintains that “the essence of bravery is being without deception” – having the courage to face up to what we are not happy with in ourselves, as well as what we admire.  By holding our faults, deficiencies and prejudices in loving kindness and understanding, we can move beyond self-deception, self-loathing and self-recrimination.  It takes a brave person to face the reality of what they feel and why, and to open themselves to self-intimacy and self-empowerment.   Pema suggests that as we extend kindness to our self, we imagine our heart opening wide and filling an ever-expanding space.

Reflection

Pema is a humorous, grounded and practical meditation teacher who has written many books including Start Where Your Are and When Things Fall Apart.  She provides a free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön.  Pema has also developed an online course, Freedom to Love, covering the principles and practices mentioned in this blog post as well as a penetrating exploration of resilience through compassion towards others.

After many years of meditation and teaching, Pema Chödrön has developed a quiet, down-to-earth, insightful approach that makes you want to learn more from her.  To me, she evidences the calmness and peace that she promotes. 

Consistent with other mindfulness teachers, Pema encourages spending time in nature, walking and other forms of movement.  As we grow in mindfulness through our breathing, self-exploration and self-intimacy, we can better access our own sense of peace and resilience in the face of very challenging times.

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Image by jplenio – My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: from Pixabay

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

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

Finding Joy, Beauty and Healing through Nature in Challenging Times

Jon Kabat-Zinn when discussing mindfulness and resilience in difficult times stressed the need to be “still aware of beauty” in the midst of the challenges confronting us during the onset of the Coronavirus.  He suggested that despite the incredible heartbreak of these times, inspiration abounds, particularly in the beauty and resilience of nature.  Jon referred to the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist, who experienced his fellow monks dying from bombing raids by the Americans.  Amidst the grief during the burial of his friends, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Don’t forget to see the flowers blooming by the side of the road”.  Jon reminds us to lift our eyes beyond the present pain and fear and to be aware of nature and all its beauty and healing power.

Wise@Work recently provided a webinar with Mark Coleman presenting on the topic of Beauty, Joy and Resilience in the Midst of Adversity: the Healing Power of Nature.  Mark is a globally recognised meditation teacher, author of From Suffering to Peace: The True Promise of Mindfulness and the creator of the Mindfulness Institute.  Mark has a particular focus on being healed through nature by finding beauty and joy in experiencing nature mindfully.  He shares his unique insights drawn from mindfulness practices, research and experience in this area through his course, Awake in the Wild Nature Meditation.

Attending to nature and experiencing connectedness

What we pay attention to shapes our lives – our thoughts, feelings, mood and perspective.  In challenging times, we tend to become absorbed in what we have lost, obsess about the news and feel a loss of agency in many aspects of our life.  Our natural negative bias is strengthened, resulting in a continuous scanning of the environment (local and global) for threats, both real and imagined.

Mark maintains that we can restore our sense of equilibrium by paying attention to nature – attention being something that we can have agency over.  Through mindful attending to nature we can experience joy, peace, beauty and healing – experiences that are uplifting and energising.  He argues that as we become connected and aligned with nature, we can find our life purpose and delight in living or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it, “waking up to what is” as the “laboratory of life unfolds”. Mark quoted the words of Mary Oliver’s poem, Mindful, to reinforce his view of the joy in nature.

Nature as a source of sensory awareness and joy

We can refocus our attention by beginning to notice nature as it unfolds daily before us and enlivens our senses – seeing the exquisite beauty of the sun rising in the morning over the water, listening to the echoing sounds of birds as they awake to another day, smelling the ground and grass after a night’s rain, touching a furry leaf or tasting freshly picked fruit, herbs or vegetables.  There are many ways to tap into the beauty and healing power of nature – we just have to be alive to them and willing to create space in our lives to experience this unending source of joy.

Mark reminds us that we don’t have to go out into the wild or visit a rainforest to enjoy nature (the very words we use such as “enjoy” expresses nature’s potential).  We can venture into our yard and observe the blossoms on the trees, notice the first seedlings emerging from recently planted grass seeds, feel grounded on the solidity of the earth, smell the earthiness of the soil and hear the wind gently rustling the leaves of trees and plants.  We can even stay inside and connect with nature through pictures and images – the sunflowers in a field of grass, the small child leaning over to smell a flower in a rockery or the tall poplars lining an expanse of crops.  If we study the painting of the girl, we can observe the colour of the flowers, the shape of the leaves, the fallen branches and the stone paving – things that we may not have noticed before.

Reflection

I have always found trees a source of meditation and an inspiration for poems because they reflect the paradox of human existence – suffering and joy, life and death, disconnection and closeness, weak and strong, flexible and inflexible.

Nature surrounds us and is there before our eyes, ears and other senses – if we would only pay attention.  The time required is minimal and the rewards in terms of mental and physical health and overall wellbeing are great.  Nature is a free, ever-changing resource. 

As we grow in mindfulness through paying attention to nature and meditating on nature, we can experience a calmness, peace and joy amidst these turbulent times.  Like our breathing, nature is a refuge readily available to us to enjoy, a source of connection to other living things and means of healing through alignment.

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Image by Jill Wellington 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.

Tapping into Our Positive Energy Force

In a recent presentation as part of the You Can Heal Your Life Summit, Rajshree Patel emphasised that our breath is our life force.   She elaborates on this idea extensively in her book, The Power of Vital Force: Fuel Your Energy, Purpose and Performance with Ancient Secrets of Breath and Meditation.  She maintains that many people achieve “success”, but their harmful emotional life and/or turbulent relationships drain their energy and ensure that they are not happy.  Rajshree argues that they have not learnt to master their inner landscape – their thoughts, emotions and feelings.  For her, breathing is the gateway to life’s balance, energy and happiness.

In an interview recorded in a Moonshots Podcast, Rajshree argued that true self-awareness arises through our vital life force, the breath.  She stated that meditation is “the ability to perceive what is going on in your inner world as it is”.  For her, conscious breathing initiates meditation and enables you to achieve a level of perception of your inner landscape that gives you access to your innate power, potential and energy. Meditation through conscious breathing precipitates calmness, clarity and tranquillity – realised through evenness of our breath.  Rajshree pointed out that there is a proven relationship between how we breathe and our thoughts and emotions.  For example, research has demonstrated that a specific pattern of breathing occurs when people are shown photos depicting different emotions such as anger and fear.  The breathing pattern changes with each different emotion displayed.

Rajshree offers three ways to access our breath and suggests that these are pathways to meditation appropriate to different situations.  The three patterns she identifies are deep breathing, deep calm breathing and reset breathing.

Deep breathing

Conscious breathing brings us into the present moment, away from anxiety and fear about the future and from anger and resentment about the past.  Deep breathing is a mindfulness practice that builds our capacity to be in the present moment and tap into our internal power and energy source at any time during the day.  We might adopt this practice before we start our working day, after conducting a workshop or before beginning a meeting.  Rajshree reminds us that the in-breath draws in energy and vitality while the out-breath releases toxins and pent-up feelings.

The process of deep breathing involves placing your hand on your abdomen and taking a deep breath in, pushing your abdomen out.  Rajshree explains that often we take a shallow breath, drawing our abdomen in and trying to fill our chest with our breath.  She maintains that it is really important in deep breathing to expand the abdomen because this enables you to release “emotional blockages” that are held within this part of the body.  The in-breath should be taken as long as possible with a slow, controlled out-breath.  Having your hand on your abdomen helps you to be conscious of expanding your abdomen, rather than contracting it – of releasing emotion, not trapping it within you.  Rajshree suggests that you take 10 deep breaths at least three times a day – as practice builds awareness and competence.

Deep calm breathing

This form of breathing is designed to clear difficult emotions that may arise after a day’s work where you experience deadlines, noise, interruptions, unrealistic expectations, information overload and the resultant stress and overwhelm.  In a sense, deep calm breathing is a form of “letting go”.  If we don’t do this then we can become locked in a pattern of negative thoughts and emotions that finds expression in traffic rage, conflict with our partner or failure to listen empathetically to our children.  Little annoyances can catalyse a disproportionate, angry response.

The process of deep calm breathing involves deep abdomen breathing once again but this time you take in a deep breath and when you think you can’t breathe in anymore, you draw in more breath and then release the breath after a brief holding of the breath.  Rajshree maintains that this form of breathing breaks the link between mind, body and stress – releasing difficult emotions before they find expression in negative patterns of behaviour towards others.  She suggests that this mindfulness practice should be employed at the end of each working day before you leave the office or when you finish your workday when working from home. Doing 10 deep calm breaths at the end of the working day prevents negative emotions from taking hold and enables you to achieve a relative level of calm to face the rest of your day.

Reset breathing

This mindfulness practice is called “reset breathing” because the idea is to change your breathing from the form of breathing you take on after an experience of considerable agitation, e.g. conflict with your spouse, partner, boss or colleague; difficulty in getting to work on time; a spiteful interaction with a stranger or any other activity that raises your ire or upsets you unduly.  If we let this agitation fester, it drains our energy and frustrates our positive intentions.   As Rajshree points out, “our quality of life is directly related to our minds” and if we waste energy reliving the past and being resentful about our interactions, we destroy our chance of being happy, vibrant and energetic.

The process of reset breathing involves firstly recapturing the experience that caused you agitation.  Rajshree suggests that you close your eyes and try to envisage as fully as possible what you experienced at the time – your thoughts, actions, emotions and bodily sensations, as well as your perceptions of other people and your immediate environment.  After you have fully captured the precipitating experience, you take in a deep breath through your mouth followed by a sudden exhale accompanied by sounding “hmmm”!  Rajshree maintains that the vibration caused by this explosive sound is felt effectively between the eyes and positively activates the pituitary gland

Reflection

Our breathing occurs unconsciously moment by moment all day, every day that we are alive.  It is readily accessible wherever we are.  Breath is our life force and constant source of energy.  Conscious breathing, in whatever form it takes, enables us to access this life force and release difficult emotions and toxins in our physical system.  Our mind-body connection is clearly manifested through our breathing patterns.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing practices, reflection and other forms of meditation, we can achieve a profound level of self-awareness and an enhanced level of self-regulation and tap into our life purpose and creative energy.  Conscious breathing provides release from negative emotions and positively impacts the human body’s “energy system”. 

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Image by enriquelopezgarre from Pixabay

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

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

How to Release Pain and Reduce Difficult Emotions

Deepak Chopra on discussing how to release pain and difficult emotions stressed the connection between our physical bodies and our emotions and also the interconnectedness of all living things.  He maintained that “there is no mental event that doesn’t have a biological correlate” – that is to say, that our every thought and related emotion finds expression in some form in our body.  He stressed that our brain serves to integrate everything we experience – our thoughts, feelings, emotions, social interactions and the ecosystems that surround us.  Deepak talked too of our entanglement with each other – how we influence each other energetically and emotionally through “limbic resonance”.

In speaking of ways to reduce physical pain in another video presentation, Deepak strongly supported the idea of regular exercise to release endorphins, meditation to take us beyond our limiting perceptions, music to reduce stress and pain and social connection and interactions to provide support.  He maintained that, contrary to popular belief, alcohol and smoking increase pain rather than reduce it.  He also highlighted the powerful role of biofeedback, employed by various health professionals including the Chopra Center for Wellbeing.

A seven-step process for physical healing and emotional release

In his presentation for the You Can Heal Your Life Summit, Deepak offered a seven-step process for physical healing and emotional wellbeing.  The seven steps serve as an integrated approach to individual mindfulness practices that we have previously discussed on this blog. 

You begin by reflecting on an interaction that made you upset or left you having to deal with difficult emotions.  Then you follow the following seven steps:

  1. Accept responsibility: accept what you are feeling as your own, not blaming others for the way you are feeling.  Without accepting responsibility, you cannot gain control over your feelings, nor can you wait for the other person to change so that you can be released from your feelings, because this will not happen.
  2. Feel the feeling in your body: Deepak maintains that any feeling relates to one of the energetic centres of your body, one of the seven Chakras. The location of your pain is an indicator of the Chakra involved and the unfulfilled need finding expression in that Chakra, e.g. pain around the heart region (the Heart Chakra) can signal a need for love and belongingness, while pain in the stomach region (Solar Plexus Chakra) can indicate an unmet need for stability and strength.  To feel the feeling you can close your eyes and focus on the area of your body where you feel pain – and bring your awareness to it without doing anything other than being with the pain wherever it is being felt in your body. 
  3. Name your feeling: Deepak describes this step as “labelling your feelings”.  By naming your feelings accurately, you can learn to tame them.  He calls accurate naming “labelling intelligently” – the more specific you can be about what you are feeling, e.g. resentment, anger, shame, the better you are able to deal with it. 
  4. Write it down – here the aim is to express what happened from three different perspectives – your own, the other person’s perspective and a third person’s perspective  – the independent observer.  Deepak maintains that using this 1st, 2nd and 3rd person approach reduces the emotional energy you have invested in the conflict, improves your immune system, and lightens your emotional load because “you are not weighed down by the emotion”.
  5. Share it with someone: here you share both the process you used and the outcome for you with someone that you trust.  It is important to accurately share the three perspectives that you have developed – avoid excusing your own behaviour and blaming the other person.
  6. Use a ritual release: Deepak suggests that a ritual activity that symbolises “release” reinforces your new state of equilibrium and equanimity.  It can take many forms but needs to be a personal way of expressing release, e.g. using a mantra meditation, scrunching up the paper you have written on or throwing it in the river.
  7. Celebrate the release: again using something that is meaningful to you, e.g. a long forest walk, or mindful walking by the bay – some activity that manifests your joy and the realisation that you are moving on, no longer trapped physically or emotionally.

Reflection

The wisdom of this approach is the recognition throughout of the profound mind-body connection – In releasing our emotions, we can release pain in our bodies. It takes time to develop the self-intimacy and honesty required to defuse these emotions and the related physical pain.  Persistence brings its own rewards in this endeavour as in many other endeavours.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices, meditation and reflection, we can achieve a level of consciousness that creates emotional freedom and physical ease.  Deepak maintains that “all healing is consciousness”.  To deepen our level of consciousness, we can make a habit of self-observation, naming our feelings and related unmet needs, and exploring creative ways to respond. 

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Image by Nika Akin from Pixabay

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

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

Self-Compassion in Times of Uncertainty and the Coronavirus

There are many people offering ways to manage anxiety and fear in these times of uncertainty brought on by the global Coronavirus.  Psychologist Rick Hanson, for example,  provides multiple online mindfulness resources including the Wise Brain Bulletin.  In the latest issue (Volume 14.2), Kristin Neff and Chris Germer offer 10 self-compassion practices for self-management during this time of the pandemic.  Self-compassion is about being compassionate towards ourselves despite our mistakes, deficiencies and perceived weaknesses.  It takes time and effort to build self-compassion, particularly if we are used to negative self-talk, berating ourselves for our mistakes or constantly comparing ourselves to others (and coming up short in our own estimation).

Elsewhere, Kristin provides a video explanation of the concept of self-compassion, discusses the three components of self-compassion and offers exercises on how to develop each of these.  She also offers a range of guided meditations and exercises on the website for the  Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.   Kristin and Chris are co-developers of the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSP) Program designed for those who want to explore more fully the richness of this mindfulness approach.  They are very well qualified to teach mindfulness and compassion (for ourselves and others).

Additional Approaches to developing self-compassion

There are multiple resources and exercises available to help you build self-compassion.  Some that are very accessible and easy to use are:

  • Compassionate body scan: a 20-minute progressive body scan that focuses attention on different parts of the body and treats each part of the body with kind awareness and tension release.  The guided body scan is offered in separate audio recordings by both Kristin and Chris.
  • Mood tracking: an essential element in building the self-awareness necessary for developing self-compassion and improved mental health.  There are many mood tracker apps that help you identify your triggers and enable you to gain control over your emotional responses.  Steve Scott provides a review of the 14 best mood tracker apps available today.  These apps provide a ready means of tracking stimuli and your responses in terms of moods/feelings.

Reflection

Self-compassion is the antidote to negative self-evaluation, just as gratitude and savouring what we have reduces competitive comparison and envy.  As we grow in mindfulness and self-compassion through meditation, mindfulness practices/exercises and reflection on the triggers that precipitate our strong emotional responses, we can progressively develop self-intimacy and the self-regulation necessary to identify our negative triggers and control our responses.

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Image by Stephen Cruickshank 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.