Illness and the Impact of Our Psychological and Social Environment

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

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

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

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

The impacts of injurious psychological and social environments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

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

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

Understanding the Pain Beneath Trauma and Addiction

Dr. Gabor Maté encourages us to look beyond trauma and addiction to the unfulfilled needs and pain that lie beneath.   He maintains that the traumatic events and adverse childhood experiences are not the trauma but the catalyst for the trauma that is created within an individual.  This traumatised inner landscape reflects the pain of unfulfilled needs experienced by the individual and manifested in addictive behaviours, that are often self-destructive.  The internal trauma involves disassociation from one’s true self and distortion of internal and external perception.

Gabor offers compassionate inquiry as a way to help a client access their inner pain and distorted self-beliefs.  His approach is confronting but compassionate, penetrating but respectful, persistent but with a healing intent.  He is intent on helping an individual come to his own truth and to understand the connection between their trauma experiences and their addictive behaviour.   He makes the point that addiction is not just about drugs but people can be addicted to anything – to work, sex, “the need to please”, money, food, shopping, or anything else that holds them captive in compulsive behaviour that is injurious to the individual physically, mentally or intellectually.

One way we can understand the pain that lies beneath other people’s addiction and our own is to hear Gabor talk about examples and/or see him work with someone in his compassionate way.  By observing him unravel the threads that link a traumatic event or developmental experience to the self-talk that underlies addictive behaviour is enlightening and a motivation for compassion for others and self-compassion.

The negative self-stories that lie beneath addictive behaviour

We are very impressionable in early childhood and are forever trying to make meaning out of events in our life and experiences that flow from these.  Gabor states that children are basically “narcissists in the developmental sense” – everything is personal to them.   When parents, for example, are unhappy, fearful or sad because bad things are happening, then the child thinks “it must be about me” and develops low self-belief and negative self-talk accordingly.

Gabor talks about his own addiction to his work as a family medical practitioner as a way of fulfilling an unmet need.  His adverse childhood experiences during the Holocaust led him to believe that he “was not wanted in the world”.  His workaholic behaviour, negatively impacting his family and his clients, was designed to enable him to feel as though he was wanted and needed.  However, the continuous positive reinforcement of his role led to entrenchment of his addiction to work.  Beneath the workaholic behavior was an attempt to address the self-talk that reflected the pain of an unfulfilled need – the need to be wanted and protected (a basic attachment need).

In his interview podcast with Joe Polish, Gabor explored what Joe described as his sex addiction earlier on his life.  He had been molested in childhood over two years and his parents, who themselves were traumatised at the time, did not protect him.  His negative self-talk then was  around “I am only valued for my body” – thus leading to addiction to sex to fulfill his unmet need to be wanted and needed.  Gabor stated that acknowledging and confronting this unmet need is painful but essential for healing.  Addiction is often an escape to avoid facing up to a deep pain that seems bottomless.

Developmental trauma and worldview

In the interview with Joe Polish, Gabor maintained that there is another form of trauma that is not derived from a specific traumatic event.  He described developmental trauma as a disconnection from self that arises through a defective developmental childhood, resulting in a distorted worldview.  He instanced the different developmental traumas that can arise with parents who fail (for whatever reason) to provide a balanced environment for a developing child.  If, for example, the father was highly competitive, aggressive, domineering and “raging” at times, the child learned that the world “is a horrible place” and the way to survive is to be aggressive, grandiose and defensive. 

If, on the other hand, a child experienced an early childhood environment where she was bullied by her peers and informed by her mother that she should get out there and face them for “there is no room for cowardice”.  In Gabor’s interpretation, the message would be “to suck it up” – put up with whatever is happening, even if it is abusive and bullying.  Gabor commented that this worldview would lead to passive behaviour, even where someone is abusive and aggressively invading your personal space.

So our early developmental experiences can lead to aggressivity or passivity, depending on the nature of these experiences.  In both the early childhood experiences described above, there was an unmet need for protection and warmth.  The pain of this deficit was hidden beneath the individual’s distorted worldviews and consequent “habituated behavioural patterns”.

Reflection

Gabor maintains that “recovery” from trauma and addiction involves “reconnection with yourself” – being in touch with your feelings, intuition and insight.  It also involves replacing distorted perceptions of the world and self with compassionate understanding of the fragility and complexity of the human condition.

When I think of my early childhood, I recall the 18 months I spent in an orphanage separated from my younger sister and parents when I was four years old, as well as the 12 months boarding 100 kilometres from home when I was seven years old.  My negative self-talk, in line with Gabor’s experience, would have been “I am not wanted by my mother” (even though she was suffering serious illness at the time and could not take care of me while my father was on army duty overseas).  These early adverse childhood experiences may have translated, after completing secondary school, to my pursuit of study for the priesthood  – a very strong desire of my mother.  Thus I could have been trying to fulfill that unmet need to be valued by my mother – and during the five years of my religious life I certainly gained reinforcement of how much my mother valued me in that role.  I left the religious life more than 50 years ago because I decided “it was not for me”.

On reflection, I can see that my distorted perspective of what I perceived as a lack of care and concern for me by my mother was derived from my narcissistic orientation as a child (in reality, my mother was incredibly thoughtful, kind, generous and courageous – at the time of my separation she was not only very seriously ill, but grieving for the death of my four month old brother that occurred just before I was sent to the orphanage).

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we can gain insight into the antecedents for our behaviours and come to understand the source of our negative self-talk.  We can also renew our sense of wonder and awe, not only about nature but human life as well.

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Image by Carina Chen from Pixabay

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

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

Compassionate Inquiry as a Healing Mode for Trauma and Addiction

Compassionate Inquiry is a psychotherapy method developed by Dr. Gabor Maté to help people suffering from the effects of trauma and addiction to experience “deep healing and transformation”.   Gabor is a world authority on trauma and addiction and has developed his method after many years in family medical practice, covering the whole range of human experience from obstetrics to palliative care.  He found through his counselling sessions conducted each day after his clinic hours that trauma underlay many of the numerous physical and mental illnesses he encountered in his medical consultations.  Gabor intensified his research in related fields and explored his own addictive behaviour and its trauma-induced origins.

Gabor acknowledges that his early efforts at therapy were inadequate because he had not been trained in the area.  However, he persisted because there were very few people offering a psychotherapy approach to addiction and trauma – even psychologists, in the main, trained in the medical model, adopted a symptomatic approach and related medication treatment.  They did not explore the root cause of the addictive behaviour or the distorting impacts of various traumas experienced by people, especially in early childhood.

Compassionate inquiry to heal addiction and trauma

Gabor learned through his early experience that healing lay in enabling the client “to experience the truth of themselves within themselves”.   So what he attempts to achieve is not just an intellectual exercise – it involves engaging the whole person, their distorted perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.  He maintains that his approach is compassionate even though he interrupts people, challenges assumptions, and explores aspects that are painful for the client.  He believes that it is not his role to make the person feel good but to help them to genuinely face their pain and the truth about themselves. 

Gabor stated that often therapists are dealing with their own trauma and addiction issues (as he was in his early stages) and are not able to be totally present to the client nor able to control their responses to what the person is saying or doing – their help is not offered unconditionally.  He suggests that therapists need to work on themselves to ensure that they do not contaminate their interaction with their client/patient because of their own unresolved issues.  He stated that therapists who display anger or other challenging emotions undermine the healing process for the other person.

Paying attention to the cues

There is one very important aspect to paying attention to the cues provided by the client’s words, actions and non-verbals – and that is the issue of consent.  Gabor seeks consent to explore behaviour in-depth with the person he is working with but he also checks that he has consent to continue when the going becomes challenging.  He argues that the person will give some cues if they are too uncomfortable and these should be used to confirm ongoing consent.  In a podcast conversation for Banyen Books, Gabor said that he exceeded the consent boundaries in his earlier days as a therapist when he would drop into therapy mode with his family members – who outright rejected his approach given that they had not given consent. He soon realised that they wanted him as a spouse, parent, friend or supporter – not as their therapist.

The other key aspect of paying attention to cues is that they give the therapist insight into what is really going on for the client.  Gabor illustrates how “unconscious metaphors” (such as the sun revolving around the moon) can indicate that the balance of dependence and inter-dependence is distorted in a relationship between daughter and mother.  The daughter might be “carrying” the mother, thus creating a traumatic experience of missing out on maternal support in the early stages of development.   Gabor maintains that metaphors a person uses are instructive, even if employed unconsciously.  He uses this cue to explore the meaning of the metaphor for the client and the underlying thought processes and emotional component. 

His compassionate inquiry approach is designed to get at the “basic human need” that lies unfulfilled in the person he is working with.  He argues that no matter what the words or behaviour of the individual (e.g. aggressive or obnoxious) there is a ‘real human being underneath”.  He uses the words of Marshall Rosenberg when he describes addiction as “the tragic communication of a need”.   The challenge is to enable the client/patient to go inside themselves and confront the uncomfortable and painful truth that they are futilely pursuing an unmet, and unacknowledged, need deriving from adverse childhood experiences or adult traumatic events.   Gabor spontaneously illustrates his compassionate inquiry approach in a podcast interview with Tim Ferriss.

Gabor makes the point that his approach does not involve having people tell detailed stories about their traumatic events or adverse childhood experiences, he consciously chooses to focus instead on the impacts of these events/experiences in terms of the person’s distorted perceptions, false self-beliefs and/or addictive behaviour.  He sees his task as staying present to the person and their “here and now” experience so that he can “mirror back to them their true selves”.  Gabor’s compassionate inquiry approach is supported by Bessel van der Kolk, a global authority on trauma, who has used attachment research and neuroscience to develop innovative treatments for adults and children who have suffered from traumatic events.  Bessel contends that his research demonstrates that to change the way we feel we need “to become aware of our inner experience” and then learn to “befriend what is going on inside ourselves”.

Training in compassionate inquiry

Gabor maintains that compassionate inquiry requires an “unconditional determination to understand a person”.   He offers several training courses for people who want to develop the requisite skills and personal wholeness to be able to offer compassionate inquiry in their therapeutic/consulting practice.  He indicated that experience with these courses shows that participants gain insight into themselves as much as learning about the compassionate inquiry method.  Gabor often uses inquiry into the experiences of individual participants themselves to illustrate his perspective and process.  He offers a one year, online course in compassionate inquiry over 12 months, as well as an add-on certification process for those who want more advanced training.

An alternative to the online training is paid access over a 1-year period to Gabor’s recorded seminars based on a weekend workshop conducted in Vancouver in 2018.  The four videos involved cover more than 9 hours of training by Gabor.  Free access to Gabor’s perspective and methodology can also be gained by exploring his YouTube Channel, which includes his interviews and his TED Talk.  Gabor’s website also provides additional resources.

Reflection

With his compassionate inquiry approach, Gabor provides a methodology that a skilled facilitator with adequate training and immersion in his approach, could employ to help people who seek assistance with addiction and/or the effects of trauma.  Compassionate inquiry practitioners are available in multiple locations around the world.  Gabor also offers CI Circles facilitated by a certified CI practitioner for anyone who wants to learn more about CI concepts and practices and to engage in self-inquiry.  The Circles involve self-reflective journalling and a willingness to  share insights and disclose present moment experiences, somatic and otherwise.

As we grow in mindfulness and associated self-awareness through reflection, meditation and guided inquiry methods, we are better placed to help ourselves deal with the impact of traumatic events from our past life and to assist others with similar needs.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

How Trauma Impacts Our Behaviour

Dr. Gabor Maté, world authority on trauma and addiction, has produced a film titled The Wisdom of Trauma.  In the film, he draws on his research, his own experience of trauma as a child of the Holocaust and the addiction and trauma stories of others.  Through this wealth of evidence, he challenges several prevailing myths about the nature of trauma and addiction.  For instance, he maintains that addiction is not just an inherited illness nor is it a basis for blaming an individual.  He takes a more compassionate approach and suggests that we need to understand the true nature of trauma and addiction.

In essence, Gabor maintains that trauma is not external catalytic events such as adverse childhood experiences or adult traumatic events.  In his view, trauma is what happens internally, not externally.  Fundamentally, trauma is the “resultant dissociation from self” that occurs for the individual.  Gabor describes this as a “loss of authenticity” in that the traumatised individual can no longer access their intuition or gut feeling and as a consequence tend to engage in self-destructive behaviours such as addictions in different forms including alcoholism, drug addiction, workaholic behaviour, or addiction to sex or shopping.  These injurious behaviours are a form of escape designed to avoid personal feelings that are too painful to face.

The traumatised person loses the capacity to deal with their emotions and seeks diversions that they hope will bring freedom, a renewed self-esteem, a sense of completion or aliveness – which are all legitimate pursuits of healthy humans.  So the addiction is a way of solving their fundamental problem – a basic disconnection from their real feelings.  The addictions do not bring freedom or wholeness but serve as an imprisonment and deepen the feelings of hollowness and meaninglessness.

Gabor contends that for the traumatised person, their healthy orientation has never been expressed in life through meaningful relationships.  He argues that we have to see addiction as a response to trauma and look beyond its external manifestations and “see the wound that is right inside that person”.   Gabor encourages us to look beyond “what is wrong with a person” to what has happened to them in their life, including their early childhood.  His compassionate approach is spellbindingly expressed in his book, In the Realm of Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

Recovery from trauma and addiction

Gabor illustrates through his film and books, amazing stories of recovery from addiction. He shows that the wisdom that lies in trauma is awareness of how our response to everyday interactions throws light on our fundamental traumatised thinking such as “I am not worthy of respect” or “I am not lovable”.  Gabor asserts that recovery from trauma and addiction requires “compassionate inquiry” that enables a person to face their fear, let the truth inside themselves out into the light of day, and gain insight into the drivers of their behaviour, including their distorted worldview.

He illustrates how addiction and healing were manifested in his own life.  His trauma experience as a child during the Holocaust, hiding with his mother and being passed over to others for safe keeping, led to his belief that “the world doesn’t want me”.  He realised with the help of the compassionate assistance of his wife, that his workaholic behaviour as a specialist medical doctor was designed to “to make himself needed”.  The continuous affirmation of his contribution to peoples’ health and wellness served as personal validation and cemented his addictive behaviour.

Reflection

Gabor demonstrates that if we do not address the fundamental problem of dissociation from our feelings, we will not be able to achieve recovery from our trauma and associated addiction.  Trauma has a way of surfacing in distorted perceptions and inappropriate, sometimes high risk-taking, behaviours.

Gabor suggests that each of us examine situations where our response to some stimulus leads to an over=reaction on our part,  e.g. when a waitress tells us we cannot change a menu item or a tradesperson does not turn up when they promised.  He encourages us to look beyond our reaction to the personal belief that is being played out, e.g. “I am not good enough for people to pay attention to my needs”.  He would encourage us then to explore what traumatic event(s) led to this fundamental self-belief.  In the film, he illustrates this process by sharing part of his podcast interview with Tim Ferriss where he explores Tim’s self-belief (“I am not worthy of respect”) deriving from adverse childhood experiences.

 As we reflect on our life and our responses to everyday events, we can grow in mindfulness and develop increased self-awareness, insight and self-compassion.  We can also enhance our empathy for others who are addicted and develop the courage to take compassionate action, inspired by the work of people like Gabor, who with Vicky Dulai, founded the Compassion for Addiction group.

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Image by Jubair Bin Hasan from Pixabay

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

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

Enriching Your Life Through Nature

Over the past few days, I participated in a number of sessions of the online Nature Summit (11-17 May 2021) and found it very inspiring, enlightening and encouraging.  I subsequently upgraded from the free version and gained lifetime access to the 30+ presentations (both audio and video versions) as well as extensive bonuses.  The bonuses included access to the 35 sessions from the 2020 Global Summit on Mindfulness and Compassion together with other resources such as meditations and mindfulness practices.

The themes of the Nature Summit included developing mindfulness and deep listening through nature; finding wellness, healing, and creativity in nature; nature-based leadership; and protecting the environment.  The Summit provided a holistic approach to the beauty, wonder and power of nature.

Becoming grounded in nature

One of the key speakers was Kaira Jewel Lingo, mindfulness teacher, educator and editor for Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Planting Seeds: Practising Mindfulness with Children.  Kaira focuses heavily on mindfulness in education and shares the wisdom of her 20+ years of mindfulness practice including years spent in Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery as a Buddhist nun where she developed her commitment to his tradition of Engaged Mindfulness

During the Summit Kaira discussed how the earth engenders a sense of belonging and connectedness.  She shared Thich Nhat Khan’s daily practice of a one-hour community walk in nature, interspersed with a 20-minute sitting meditation.  She explained that the communal walk done slowly with full attention and with “loving steps on the earth” brings awareness of a perspective that is larger than ourselves.  Kaira maintains that this close engagement with the earth takes us outside ourselves – outside self-absorption, the busyness of daily life and the afflictions of modern living.  

Kaira also discussed the mindfulness practice of lying prostrate on the earth.  Through “touching the earth” we can release our suffering and frustrations and imbibe its energy and resilience.  She suggested that this practice can also connect us to the healing power of nature.  One of the interesting exercises she does with school children is to have them touch a tree while blindfolded, then run and locate the tree without the blindfold, but relying solely on their sense of touch.  Kaira laments how under-utilised our senses are, especially our vision which accounts for “80% of attention”.

Caring for the environment

Jane Hirshfield – poet, editor, translator, and author – in her session during the Nature Summit, discussed how nature engenders “a creative awakening”.  Jane, as an internationally acclaimed poet, has become widely known for “working at the intersection of poetry, the sciences, and the crisis of the biosphere”. 

As a trained Zen practitioner, she has a deep commitment to pursue mindfulness through nature.  Her daily “trundling” in nature reinforces her view that the “natural world is the first field of [mindfulness] practice”.  She argues that our environmental crisis has arisen through a lack of adequate mindfulness, of awareness of nature and our co-dependence.  She maintains that “awareness is the ground for change”.  Appreciating nature, its energy and beauty, develops the desire to protect it.

Jane indicated that after the election of Donald Trump, she took political action every day to protect the environment through her poetry, essays and writing letters to people in power.  Donald Trump’s actions on the fifth day of his presidential office inspired a ground-breaking poem, “On the Fifth Day” that went viral and was read out by Jane at a protest march for scientists and the environment.  On his fifth day as President, Donald Trump had ordered the removal of any reference to climate change from the Government’s website and forbade environmental scientists employed by the Government to speak in any public domain about climate change.   Jane spoke about the resultant rise in “eco-poetics” and “poets for science”.

Jane explained that she writes her poetry not as a political action but more as a person finding her way in life and trying to meet daily challenges.  However, given her focus and standing, she has been cast as a climate change activist who is grateful to the natural world for enabling her to pay attention, to achieve balance in her life and to see reality as it really is.  While she is an extreme introvert, she engages in extroverted activities such as public speaking to communicate the urgency of the message about avoiding extinction that will occur if we keep destroying our planet.  Jane suggests that we each need to go outside our comfort zone and contribute “one small decibel in the chorus of sanity” – to add our voice and skills to achieving balance on a personal and an environmental level.

Reflection

There are many ways to discover the benefits of nature.  The Nature Summit provided a wide range of meditation and mindfulness practices that centred on nature.  Many of the presenters noted that if we really appreciate the beauty of nature, we will be moved and motivated to protect it.  As we grow in mindfulness through nature meditations, mindful walking, and other mindfulness practices, we can experience the healing power of nature, our connectedness to every living thing and gain the courage and resilience to adopt a form of Engaged Mindfulness that utilises our core competencies and the learning from our life experiences.  Jane’s latest book of poems, Ledger, is a call for “personal, ecological and political reckoning”.

Growth in awareness of nature and its beauty will motivate us to protect the natural treasures that we are able to enjoy.  Meditating on the elements of nature can bring equanimity to our lives despite the turbulent waves of our human existence.   

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Image by Valiphotos from Pixabay

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

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

A 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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Image by holgerheinze0 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.

Let the Energy of the Seasons Into Your Life

America is beginning to enjoy the warmth of Spring.  Mitra Manesh, meditation teacher with MARC UCLA, encourages us to align ourselves with the energetic influence of the seasons.  In her meditation podcast, An Invitation to Spring, she invites us to shed the hibernation and energy saving of Winter and embrace the new beginnings and new life of Spring.  With Spring we begin to hear the urgent cries of new-born baby birds as their parents frantically search for food; we see buds appearing and flowers emerging and opening as captured by the Moving Art of Louie Schwartzberg; we start to smell the aroma from new blossoms; and feel the vibrancy of new life as the warmth of lengthening days and light engender new beginnings on our sensory palate. 

Attuning with nature is both energising and healing.   As we absorb the light and energy of Spring, we can begin to envisage new beginnings for ourselves.  Mitra encourages us at the outset of her meditation to take several deep breaths to breathe in the energy that surrounds us and to begin to imagine a new beginning.

Throughout her guided meditation podcast, Mitra employs intentional imagination.  The focus of our imagination initially is drawn to our internal reality, not the emergent world around us.  Mitra encourages us to begin to progressively imagine comfort in a part of our body, calmness in our mind and contentment in our heart.  As we engender these feelings through intentional imagination, we can feel an infusion of energy and begin to imagine new beginnings in our life – whether that be overcoming addiction, breaking free of negative self-stories, opening to love, clearing clutter from our lives, bringing creativity to our work or any other endeavour that opens up a new world of possibilities.   Mitra suggests that we capture the essence of our envisaged new beginning by making a wish.

The energy of new beginnings

Napoleon Hill reminds us that “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve”.  The power of imagining a better future is brought home to us by the work of Nancy McGirr, former wartime photographer, who used her imagination and talents to envisage and create a better future for children in Guatemala who survived by scavenging for recyclable materials in the dump.   To realise her vision, Nancy established a not-for-profit organisation now called  Fotokids.   Her mission is “to help small groups of Central American young people from the poorest of barrios develop useful, employable skills as a means to self-exploration, expression, and discovery.” 

Nancy’s photography project has helped young children and their families emerge from the depths of poverty to improve their lives and financial situation.  Children involved in the project(s) learn photographic skills, creative writing and how to use computers.  The initial six children helped by the project through the generous support of Konica Japan has grown to more than a thousand children and 500 families.  Nancy realised very early on through a photographic project undertaken as an employee of Reuters that she needed to do more than just observe the plight of these children, she had to take compassionate action

Nancy has been able to align her core skills, developed over many years and photographic assignments in multiple countries, to her life purpose and bring hope and joy to impoverished children.  Her success is attested to by the many products the children’s photography generates such as cards, prints, Christmas ornaments and books, including the award-winning book, Out of the Dump Writings and Photographs by Children from Guatemala.  Profits from the book and photographic products go towards the children’s education, welfare, and the photography project itself.  The quality of the photographs is attested to by the exhibitions that have appeared around the world in places like Tokyo, Paris, California, London, and Amsterdam.

Reflection

Nancy has demonstrated the power of imagination and envisaging a new beginning for herself and others.  She left the security of a well-paid job with international travel and fame to work in the obscurity and insecurity of a freelance photographer in Guatemala.  She has been able to capture her dream and the dreams of the children involved through a new publication, To Capture Dreams, that shares the experiences and output of 20 years of Fotokids. 

As we grow in mindfulness through our meditations and the inspiration of people like Nancy McGirr, we can gain the insight, courage, and creativity to discover and pursue our own life purpose that will bring happiness and fulfilment as we align our core skills with needs beyond ourselves.  If we let the energy of the seasons into our lives through nature meditation, we can begin this lifetime journey that will bring connection to others and every living thing.

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Image by bernswaelz 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.

Cultivating Kindness through Meditation

In a recent meditation podcast, Diana Winston discussed Meditation and Kindness.  She maintained that kindness is “embedded in meditation” because to meditate we have to be able to do so “non-judgmentally”.  Even when our mind wanders, which is a natural human characteristic, we can return to our focus without beating up on ourselves.  We can acknowledge that in this era of disruptive advertising and the incessant pull of “weapons of mass distraction”, we are going to become “lost in thought” at times and lose our focus.  Our concerns and worries about the past or future will also intrude.  However, to be kind to ourselves and achieve the refuge inherent in meditation practice we have to avoid engaging in “negative self-stories” such as, “I am hopeless at meditation”, “I will never master the art of meditating” or “I’m bad at everything I do”.

Meditation as kindness to our self

The practice of meditation is itself an act of kindness towards our self.  When we meditate, we open a rich store of benefits, not the least of these is the increasing capacity to handle our difficult emotions and our destructive thoughts.  Meditation builds our “awareness muscle” and strengthens our capacity to pay attention.  It can serve to enrich our relationships by building our ability to engage in “deep listening”.  Kelly Noonan Gores, in her book, Heal: Discover the Unlimited Potential and Awaken the Powerful Healer Within, stresses the healing effects of meditation, especially meditation practices involving mantras, positive imagining, gratitude and forgiveness.  Mindfulness practices can help carers engage in effective self-care in the face of all the demands on their time, energy, and emotions.

Meditation as kindness to others

While there are specific loving-kindness meditations designed to offer kindness to others, the very practice of meditation brings benefits to others because of our improved awareness of our emotions, thoughts and actions and their impact; increased emotional self-regulation; and enhanced capacity for listening, empathy and compassionate action.

Guided meditation on kindness

During the podcast, Diana offers a guided meditation on kindness that extends beyond self-kindness to kindness towards others.  She begins with encouraging a couple of deep breaths to release accumulated stress and bodily tension.  As she describes the meditation process, she adopts a trauma-sensitive mindfulness approach by offering a choice of anchors such as the breath, sounds, and bodily sensations, to enable us to focus our attention.  Diana suggests that if very strong emotions or pervasive thoughts intrude on our meditation practice, we can temporarily turn our attention to them, explore their origins and significance and then return to our anchor.

Reflection

There are so many benefits to be gained from meditation, not the least of these being kindness towards our self and others and the capacity to heal ourselves.  There are many forms of meditation – we have only to explore what approach is best for our self and this may vary over time.  As we grow in mindfulness through regular meditation practice, we will realise the multiple benefits of meditation and this will be self-reinforcing.  However, we need kindness and persistence, particularly in the early stages, where we can be discouraged by our “conscious incompetence”.

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Image by Kirill Lyadvinsky 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.

Activating Gratitude through Micro-Gestures

LaRayia Gaston, author of Love Without Reason, spoke to Tami Simon of Sounds True in an interview podcast that covered her book as well as her life and work amongst the homeless in Los Angeles.  LaRayia is the founder of Lunch on Me, a charity offering fresh vegan and organic food to the homeless by accessing left-over food from cafes and restaurants that otherwise would be wasted.  She did extensive research to develop a supply chain and distribution process to ensure that people on the street received quality, fresh food.

LaRayia spoke about her difficult life with her own mother who was full of anger and resentment and engaged in destructive behaviours.   In contrast, her Grandmother was a constant source of inspiration through her unconditional love and her ability to spread love to whoever she met, wherever she went.  In her own words, LaRayia maintained that her Grandmother taught her to “love without reason”.  LaRayia decided that she did not want to “sit in the pain of anger and resentment” and the negative energy involved but wanted to share her positive energy and love.

Activating gratitude

LaRayia maintained that it is not enough to write our gratitude journals in the comfort of our homes – we have to translate that gratitude into compassionate action for those who are less fortunate than ourselves. We have to activate our gratitude.  She suggests that anyone can achieve this by adopting “micro-gestures” of kindness, thoughtfulness, and love.  For example, you could buy someone a bottle of water or a coffee, especially someone who has been seeking donations at the front of a store. 

LaRayia made a habit of carrying bottles of water and granola bars in her car that she could distribute to whoever might need one. Taking time to talk to someone on the street, who may look dishevelled, can be another micro-gesture expressing kindness and love – ignoring the appearance of a torn shirt, old jacket, and untidy beard to see the person beyond.  LaRayia contends that she is not asking people to “change the whole world” but to act on “what’s in front of us”.  She also stated that it is one thing to give when asked, it’s another level of awareness and action to notice a need and respond without being asked.

Barriers to activating gratitude and love for others

One of the barriers identified by LaRayia is our “scarcity mindset” – no matter what we have, it is never enough.  Another is what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as always rushing to “be someplace else”, rather than being in the present moment.  LaRayia argues that it takes discipline to be present and to take compassionate action towards those in need.  She practices meditation and develops her deep awareness of her connectedness to everybody, no matter where they live or how poor they are.

Another key barrier to activating gratitude and spreading kindness is the rationalisations that we use to avoid taking compassionate action, e.g., when we consider giving money to homeless people – “They will only spend it on drugs or alcohol”, “If only these people would work hard like us, they would not need assistance – helping them only makes them lazier”.  As LaRayia points out, these assumptions and preconceptions blind us and disable us from taking action – the fact is, we do not know what these people have experienced, the hurt they have felt or the way they have been treated in the past.  We know, however, for example, that young people who are homeless have often been the victim of domestic violence or sexual harassment or sexual assault.

LaRayia addressed the issue of “fear of rejection” in her interview podcast – a very common barrier to extending kindness to others.  We often think, “What if they turn down my offer of help, would I cope with the embarrassment of rejection”? She stated quite clearly that taking compassionate action is exposing ourselves to vulnerability, but it is a cost we have to pay to be kind.  A wonderful example of compassionate action while being vulnerable is that of Coach Mo Cheeks’ action to help a young singer complete the National Anthem at the start of a major basketball playoff – the singer had forgotten the lyrics and Mo helped her out by singing with her despite not being a great singer himself.  LaRayia suggests that the way forward is not to focus on “outcomes” but to concentrate on the process of spreading kindness, thoughtfulness, and love.  A focus on outcomes can entrap us and lead to disappointment and discouragement.  On the other hand, focusing on the person in front of us can lead to mutual benefit and healing.

A two-way street

Neuroscience research confirms the benefits that accrue to people who show kindness and gratitude to others.  LaRayia stated that this exchange is “not a one-way street”.  This was especially brought home to her when she was experiencing disabling grief on the death of her beloved Grandmother.  She decided to spend time with the homeless as a way to find herself again and heal from her grief. Her experience is recorded in her documentary, 43 Days on Skid Row.  LaRayia found that homeless people were the most generous people she had ever met – they gave despite their need while we often give from our surplus.  She argues that in giving both people learn and heal.

Reflection

One of the tenets of Lunch on Me is “radical self-love is the foundation for permanent healing”.  When we show kindness and love to others in need, we are showing respect and building their self-esteem.  If we show avoidance, disdain, or look down on the homeless, we are reinforcing any sense they may have that they are “not worthy” of respect or love.  

LaRayia encourages us to engage with others from our rich store of innate love rather from a perspective of emptiness.  She notes our obsessive need to accumulate wealth and possessions which do not bring lasting happiness.  The reality is that when we die or if we suffer Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, we can take none of this with us – people set about disposing of our possessions and dismantling our life’s accumulation.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a deeper sense of connection with everyone, no matter what their status, wealth or appearance is.  We can also develop the courage and creativity to overcome the barriers to activating our gratitude and adopt a daily practice of micro-gestures of empathy and compassion.  LaRayia offers many suggestions for micro-gestures and relevant meditations/reflections in her book.

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Image by Hieu Van 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.

Exploring Healing and Creativity through Music and Nature Imagery

Louie Schwartzberg, time-lapse photographer and filmmaker, in a recent Wonder and Awe podcast, interviewed Lindsey Stirling, internationally famous songwriter, violinist and dancer.  They explored the role of music and nature imagery in self-healing and in stimulating energy and creativity.  Louie and Lindsey have collaborated on a number of projects, including The Big Sur – shown during the podcast interview and featured in Louie’s Moving Art video on Netflix. They identified one key aspect that their individual artistry has in common – Lindsey’s classical music and videos and Louie’s nature photography and videos – both have no words.  They pointed out that in a world of information overload they offer inspiration, a personal emotional journey, self-awareness, and self-healing.   Lyrics, in contrast, can take us down the track of the thoughts and emotions portrayed by the creator.

Healing from grief through music

Lindsey spoke of her grief with the loss of her father and her best friend in the one year, and how she turned to music as a form of self-therapy to deal with her sense of loss and associated grief.  Her album, Brave Enough, enabled her to pour out her grief and to be “brave enough” to feel the intensity of her difficult emotions.  She said that every song on the album was inspired by her feelings of grief and loss.  In her reflection on the loss through Lymphoma, of her keyboard player and best friend, Jason Gaviati, she indicated that the true path to success is being able to “rise from failure”, time and time again.  She stated that her album and related Brave enough tour were about “the courage to feel, to feel everything”.

She wrote the instrumental song Guardian which highlights the way her own grief became transformed into connection.  Working with Mako, she was able to hear the words that expressed her grief in a song called, Lose You Now.  She wanted this music to be light and conducive to reminiscing (e.g., the Monarch butterfly represented her friend Jason) while building hope for the future, despite the sadness of the past.   Louie commended her for her inner strength and ability to manage the challenges of “the journey of life” with all its waves and vicissitudes.

Bouncing back from setbacks and failure

Lindsey Stirling was buzzed off by Piers Morgan during the quarter-finals of America’s Got Talent and was rejected by the judges who variously said she was “not good enough”, “would not fill a concert hall in Las Vegas” and was “not a world-class violinist”.  All of which made her work harder at both her music and her dancing.  Lindsey’s accomplishments since then are mind-boggling.  By 2017, she had 600 Million views of her music/dance videos on her YouTube Channel and, at time of writing, this number has grown to 3 Billion views of her 100 videos.  She made history with her 5 top-selling albums and filled concert halls everywhere (her “Brave Enough tour” involved 83 concerts in 20 countries).  Also, Lindsey and her dancing partner were second on Season 25 (2017) of Dancing With The  Stars (DWTS). As she has proven in her own life, “bouncing back” from setbacks is an essential element in her success.

Parents as models and inspiration

When asked by Louie how she had developed her passion for music, dance and storytelling in song, Lindsey maintained that her earliest influences were her parents who exposed her to the arts, especially classical music.  Her mother was creative in her sewing endeavours, a skill that Lindsey also shared, while her father’s creativity was expressed through writing stories that he often read to her.  Lindsey identified her storytelling as her “greatest gift”.

Gratitude in the midst of loss and pain

Lindsey tells the story of how painful it was to be at the bedside as she and her sister watched her father die of cancer.  In those moments of extreme sadness, they found the inspiration and energy to tell each other stories of their childhood memories of being with their father.  Amidst the tears and pain, she felt an intense sense of gratitude for having had such a life together and a rich store of  wonderful memories.  

This experience was replicated when she took on the challenging task of dancing and playing the violin while hanging from her hair to create the video for the song, Crystallize.  The excruciatingly painful training over three months for this achievement has been  recorded in her Hair Hanging Vlog.  Despite the pain, Lindsey was able to feel gratitude for the feelings of beauty and power that the final performance engendered in her.  Her basic message is that we are all capable of what at first seems impossible because we have achieved hard things before.    She reiterated that “courage and faith can be found through the fear”  and that “gratitude can be discovered by our losses”.

Developing resilience through gratitude

Louie observed that research has demonstrated that gratitude develops resilience.  He maintained that if your mind is filled with thoughts of gratitude, there is no room for negative thoughts.  Both Lindsey and Louie agreed that if you focus on what you have, rather than what you do not have, you are healing yourself, building your energy and opening yourself to creativity.  As Louie stated, “If every experience is a gift, then your only attitude is gratitude”.   As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, “we become what we focus on”.   Lindsey illustrates this idea through her practice of writing in a gratitude journal each morning and night.  She maintained that this practice that started as a chore is now something she looks forward to and enables her to frequently be grateful in the moment.

Lindsey noted that while being able to play the violin, write songs and dance are gifts in themselves, her special gift that she realizes when performing is an “intense connection” with people in her audience as she looks into their eyes while performing.  For her, this is a special place where she sees the beauty in everyone and is consumed with love.

Lindsey has established the Upside Fund to provide financial assistance to people experiencing financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic.  She started this fund, which accepts donations, after her father died in hospital and she began each Christmas to pay the hospital medical bills of 10 people.  The name of the fund is based on the idea that we can each “lift where stand” – we are each in a unique position to contribute to the welfare of others based on our life circumstances, location, and the gifts that we are grateful for.  Lindsey particularly works through her fan base to build the fund and support people in need.

Mindfulness, music, nature, and dance

I have previously explored the relationship between mindfulness and playing a musical instrument.  Lindsey stated that when she plays the violin for herself (not for her work) she finds it meditative.  She is completely in the moment when she dances and particularly when she is doing so in nature.

Louie as an “action man” is not a practitioner of formal meditation – he experiences his mindfulness through immersion in nature which he contends increases his capacity for “courage, creativity, kindness and compassion”.

Both Louie and Lindsey suggest that to be more mindful and focused on the moment that we should not be obsessed with the end goal but experience the process fully, whether it is playing an instrument, learning a dance, taking time-lapse photography, or developing a video.  Louie stated that after 40 years of time-lapse photography, he has only a total of 16 hours of high-quality film – he indicated that a day’s work would typically produce 2 seconds of useful film.  To him the process of observing and photographing the beauty of nature is what brings him joy, healing, and happiness.  He can walk in nature when not filming and notice the quality of light and how it reflects on plants and flowers.  He can walk mindfully in nature, engaging all his senses.

Louie articulated his belief that nature cultivates gratitude and mindfulness when he presented a Ted Talk on the theme, Nature, Beauty, and Gratitude, which featured his movie titled Gratitude that incorporated his time-lapse photography and his fundamental belief about the need to be grateful for everything in life.

Reflection

Nature stimulates reflection, healing, energy, gratitude, and creativity.  Music and dance, in their many forms, can have similar outcomes.  We have a choice in terms of how we spend our time and what we consume mentally and emotionally.  We can grow in mindfulness and enjoy all its benefits through exposure to nature, music and dance or we can become overwhelmed by information and the news and the negativity that they often engender.

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Image by sun liming 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.