The Simplicity of Meditation

Marvin Belzer, PhD, provided a guided meditation podcast emphasising the simplicity of the process and the fact that its eminently “doable” – even if we have to fit it into a busy life by dedicating 3-5 minutes to focused attention on the present moment and our bodily sensations.  He emphasised that it does not have to be difficult or challenging but does require effort and regular practice.  He emphasised the need to avoid setting a goal that we pursued through meditation – this can create stress and distraction.  His emphasis is on keeping it simple while paying attention to some aspect of our everyday life. 

Marvin indicated that he has practised meditation for more than 30 years and has taught mindfulness for 20 years.  He offered the meditation as part of the free weekly guided meditations provided by MARC, UCLA.  His role in UCLA is that of Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences.  He has taught mindfulness to many groups including semester-length courses for university students and courses for teens.  We can gain some insight into Marvin’s mindfulness orientation by listening to his interview with Bob O’Haver on Bob’s “Why Meditate?” Podcast – the interview provides some insight into Marvin’s approach to meditation, mindful living, and the cultivation of compassion in our lives.

Guided meditation

In the guided meditation, Marvin maintains that by keeping the process simple, we can more readily access the calming effect of meditation and not be so readily distracted by complex or abstract thoughts.  The focus is on the present moment awareness as we are experiencing it.  His starting point is deep breathing to help us to ground ourselves – with a sigh on the out-breath. Marvin offers a choice of anchors – bodily sensations, surrounding sounds or our breath.  He encourages us to sustain our attention on one of these anchors so that we can experience a sense of calm, peace and stability.  Marvin emphasises that this simple approach to meditation can be a refuge in busy or turbulent times, if we make it a regular practice.

In his view, meditation enables us to pay attention to what is real in our life, not what we wished it would be.  Marvin encourages us to persist with paying attention even when thoughts, emotions or sensations distract us from our focal anchor.  He suggests that we adopt a playful approach to meditation not chiding ourselves, but noting something like, “There I go again, planning my day as if my life depended on it”.  He recommends that even in this busy time of the year, with Christmas approaching, we can adopt the habit of brief meditations – a process I employ when “waiting” for someone or something, especially traffic lights. 

Marvin encourages us to be non- judgmental towards ourselves but to “show up as we can”, given our commitments, health and family situation.  This is sound advice as I often find myself, when I am unwell or have an injury, being critical of myself for not doing my Tai Chi mindfulness practice.  His overall approach with his focus on simplicity and regularity is very encouraging.

Marvin also notes that sometimes we can be bored during meditation (I can relate to this!) but that boredom can be an important antidote to the endless stimulation provided by social media and invasive advertising.  Our capacity to pay attention is continuously eroded by the “firehose of information” – a term used by Johann Hari in his book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention If we persist with meditation despite our sense of boredom, we can reap the fruits of developing our awareness muscle and deepening our capacity to concentrate.  It is critical for our mental health and the health of our minds to protect our attention.

Reflection

Marvin, like accomplished practitioners in many fields, is able to make complex concepts and processes simple.  His approach encourages us to persist with meditation, no matter what is happening in our lives.  He suggests, for example, that if we are anxious, we can pay attention to the bodily sensations of our anxiety – we can release any tension we locate or stay with the sensation in a softening, calming way through a compassionate body scan.  As we grow in mindfulness through regular mindfulness practices such as meditation, we can access our inner landscape, enjoy tranquility, and gain clarity and insight.

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Image by nobutz from Pixabay

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

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

The Wounds of Trauma and Their Impact on Relationships and Communication

In their book, What Happened to You?, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry, provide a chapter where they bring together an understanding of the wounds of trauma and their impact on relationships, communication between people and physical illness.  Throughout, they stress the mind-body connection and how the brain processes experiences.   Bruce’s explanations are lucid and, together with Oprah, he illuminates the ideas and concepts with stories and examples.  Oprah draws on her own traumatic upbringing and thousands of interviews with traumatised individuals of all ages; Bruce draws on his research and clinical practice, especially with traumatised children.  The book reflects decades of experience and the ongoing conversations between the authors. 

The book is incredibly rich in ideas, insights and stories and I found that I was better able to absorb its content by listening to the CD-Audio version which is narrated by the authors as an everyday conversation.  The interchange of ideas and experiences adds to the clarity of their explanations of the wounds of trauma and the elucidation of their impact in individual cases.  With the audio version of the book, Bruce also provides a series of diagrams that illustrate the conceptual framework behind the book and the shared understandings.

Understanding the wounds of trauma

Bruce contends that trauma-related symptoms are often overlooked – they are assumed to result from a functional breakdown or represent psychosomatic illness.  He maintains that the symptoms of the wounds are often “dismissed, missed and misunderstood” by doctors. He illustrates this by sharing the heart-rending story of Chiara who suffered from Diabetes and at age 16 was admitted to hospital in an unconscious state resulting from “diabetic coma”.  His explanation of how doctors tried unsuccessfully to treat her highlighted the doctors’ blindspot in relation to  the wounds of trauma.  Bruce explains how he achieved an effective diagnosis of Chiara’s condition by identifying the trigger for her traumatic response and using his understanding of neuroscience to develop a treatment protocol implemented by the doctors.

Bruce explains that different physical symptoms – such as chest pains, headaches, abdominal pain and fainting – are all potentially related to a “sensitised stress response” resulting from trauma.  When I heard him explain “fainting” as one potential impact of trauma memory, I recalled how often I used to faint in Church in my childhood – simultaneously, I was experiencing the trauma of a violent, alcoholic father suffering from PTSD as a result of war service and imprisonment in Changi.  My doctor had no explanation for these fainting spells.  However, at the time, my home environment was heavily charged with parental conflict – unfortunately, none of us understood trauma, PTSD and the full extent of the wounds and impact of trauma, including addiction.

The impact of trauma on communication and relationships

Bruce draws on the concept of “sequential processing” of the brain to explain the impact of trauma on communication and relationships.  Basically, the concept involves recognising that all sensory experience is firstly processed by the “lower brain”.  Part of this processing involves matching the new input with “the catalogues of stored memories of the past”.  The degree of matching with a traumatic experience determines whether or not a maladaptive stress response occurs.   The smart part of our brain, the Cortex, can be shut down when the perception of risk (as a result of current or prior trauma) is very high – so the “thinking brain” is drowned out by the “survival brain”.

Bruce illustrates this by sharing the story of 3 year old Joseph who witnessed the abduction of his 11 year old sister, which resulted in her murder.  At the time, Bruce was working with the FBI Child Abduction and Serial Killer Taskforce.  He discovered that the FBI officers were unable to get any useful explanation from Joseph and he was asked to work with the child to try to find out information necessary to find the perpetrator and enable a conviction.  Bruce provides a very detailed explanation of how he went about winning the boy’s trust and gaining the necessary information for conviction of the murderer.

As part of Bruce’s explanation of his process with Joseph, he discusses the impact of the “power differential” between the FBI Officers/himself as a stranger and the 3 year old traumatised child.   He explained that when you are the person with all the power, you can be unaware of it or its potential impact.  This fact has been brought home to me many times in co-facilitating the Confident People Management Program over 15 years (involving 2,000 managers in multiple programs and locations).  What we have found is that the majority managers on the program (mainly drawn from the public sector) are totally unaware of their power to shape the team culture.  At the outset of the program we say to them, “What you say, how you say it, what you do, how you do it and what you omit to do, shapes team culture hour in and hour out every day” – we add “whether you are conscious of it or not”.  

Bruce’s discussion of the impact of trauma on communication in relationships highlights the wisdom of this advice that we have been giving to managers.  He explains that the goal of communication is to achieve a “Cortex to Cortex” transmission.  However, on both sides of the communication (giver and receiver), rational thoughts are first processed through “the emotional filters of the lower brain”.  Hence, the message can be distorted in its transmission and reception.  He explains lucidly that “our facial expression, tone of voice and words are turned into neural activity by the other person’s senses” – they can trigger a traumatised response or build the relationship with staff through developing trust, mutual respect and safety.  A by-product of this approach is the development of a sense of agency in the manager themselves.   One of the participants on our program provided concrete evidence of the wounds of trauma and their impact when she explained that her current highly nervous state resulted from a manager shouting at her in front of other staff – this experience was traumatic for her, the impact being compounded by the power differential (and possibly stored memories of like, past adverse experiences).

Reflection

Many researchers and therapists talk about the wounds of trauma and their impact on relationships and communication.  However, Bruce and Oprah in What Happened to You, “join the dots” and “pull it all together” from their decades of experience and ongoing conversations and collaboration.  They enrich the meaning of the neuroscience concepts and insights with relatable stories that clearly illustrate the points they are making.

At one stage when talking about the power differential, Bruce mentioned that it may take 10 or more sessions before a client will feel safe and be prepared to “share some of their most emotionally difficult experiences” or acknowledge their contribution to those experiences.  This discussion reminded me of my experience mentoring a manager who was traumatised on a daily basis by a narcissistic Director who continuously belittled him by publicly calling out his “mistakes” in front of his staff  (sometimes the “mistakes were not his, but the Director’s).  It took me 7 coaching sessions of 90 minutes each over a few months before he admitted that he was defensive in his communication.  He said he experienced the insight as a “blow to his stomach” – an expression which showed the embodiment of his resistance resulting from the wounds of ongoing trauma and their impact on his feelings of safety while working with me (the “power differential” was at play in a major way as I had been engaged as a consultant by the Director to coach the “inefficient” manager).  I have come to realise that in this interaction, I was an external consultant with a high degree of expert, personal and referent power – I was the one that was in a position of power, what Bruce describes as “at the top of the power differential”.

There is so much that plays out in our daily interactions that we are unaware of, especially if we are in a power position.  We can grow in mindfulness and self-awareness through personal study, reflection and mindfulness practices such as meditation.

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Image by Wilfried Thünker 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.

Guided Mindful Movement Meditation

Tom Heah, a highly accredited mindfulness teacher, provides a guided meditation podcast on mindful movement, his particular area of expertise.  Tom was an Occupational Therapist in Vancouver Canada until 2021 when he switched to offering mindfulness training to the Vancouver Center which focused on mental health and substance abuse.  Tom has conducted many mindfulness training courses, including Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindful Awareness Practices (MAPs).  He offers free access to guided audio versions of mindfulness practices incorporated in these courses – they are available for streaming and/or download.  His recent mindful movement meditation was offered as the last of the 2022 weekly, UCLA online meditations.  From 12 January 2023, the weekly meditations will resume as in-person, face-to-face sessions at the Hammer Museum with live streaming.  The guided meditations will continue to be available in audio podcast form after the resumption.

Tom discusses the nature of mindfulness in terms of focusing on the internal and external sensations of the present moment.  He suggests that this involves openness, interest and curiosity about our current reality, both internal and external.  By focusing on the present moment, we resist the natural urge to ruminate about the past (experiences, mistakes, losses) or to worry about the future.  Tom maintains that cultivated present moment awareness enables us to show up in the various arenas of our lives.

Tom highlights the fact that despite the festivities of the Christmas season, many people will be experiencing sadness through loss, isolation, loneliness, illness or conflict with relatives.  He observes that people often cannot sit still when they are stressed – so he focuses on mindful movement in his guided meditation.

Guided mindful movement meditation

From the outset of the mindful movement meditation, Tom stresses the need to stay within our own physical limits, engaging in the suggested movements only to the extent that they do not cause pain.  The fundamental idea of mindful movement is to move parts of our body while breathing in a controlled way.  The aim then is to focus on the bodily sensations experienced with each form of movement.  Guided movements can be undertaken either standing or sitting, allowing for variations for the chosen posture.

In the guided movement meditation, Tom skilfully directs our movements while guiding our breathing – all the time reminding us not to stop breathing.  Some of the movements involve raising both arms, moving our arms sideways and slowly moving the neck in a number of directions.  It is important to follow the guidance provided so that we can remain focused on our bodily sensations, without thinking about the next step.

After completing the movement meditation, Tom guides us on a silent, still meditation where we can focus on an anchor of our choice to enable us to return to our focus when we become distracted by thinking or planning.  The anchor could be our breathing, sounds that surround us or some form of bodily sensation such as our fingers touching.

Reflection

The guided meditation provided by Tom is one of the many meditations that involve mindful movement.  Others include Tai Chi and Yoga.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful movement meditations, we can develop new perspectives on old problems, respond to triggers in a more skilful way and experience greater ease and restfulness.  Our increased bodily awareness can help us to better access the wisdom of the body and develop openness to our intuition.

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Image by Moondance from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness as a Way of Letting Go

Allyson Pimentel. mindfulness teacher with the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA, offers a guided meditation podcast titled, Mindfulness as Letting Go and Letting Be.  She describes the meditation as a Compassionate Body Scan and notes that it’s an adaption from a book by Susan Pollak, Thomas Pedulla and Ronald D. Siegel, Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy.  While the Compassionate Body Scan is one of the many meditations offered for therapists working with clients, it has wider application for every-day use by non-therapists.  To this end, the authors offer a series of audio meditation podcasts for personal use in downloadable format, along with handouts that list the steps in each mindfulness practice..

The Letting Go meditation offered by Allyson at the end of the 2022 is very timely as it coincides with a time when we have a natural tendency to review our year and begin to make resolutions about changes we want to make in our life.  This could mean breaking free of the ties that bind us, e.g., shame, expectations, perfectionism, or fear of failure.   It might entail overcoming self-protection or false beliefs that are preventing us from undertaking needed personal change.  Alternatively, it could involve letting go of difficult emotions, such as anger, hatred and resentment. 

Allyson reminds us that mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment as it is – not as we wish it to be. In this sense, it requires us to let go of “fantasy” and get in touch with our reality as it is, not distorted by wishful thinking.  Her guided meditation involves adopting an attitude of compassion towards ourselves as we scan our bodies and get in touch with the here-and-now bodily sensations we are experiencing.  Unlike some other forms of body scan, the focus of the compassionate body scan is not on release of tension but softening the sensation – staying with the discomfort and noticing how it changes over time as you soften its intensity.  Allyson points out that the process “can begin to soften the hardened, contracted aspects of our life, our bodies, our minds”.  

Guided meditation

At the outset. Allyson explains that letting go within the meditation is not an active process such as throwing out unwanted materials but a passive process of “letting be” – noticing and accepting what is.  The goal is to develop “clear insight” into our current reality as reflected in our bodily sensations.  Freedom lies in relating to ‘what is” with kindness and self-compassion, however painful.  She quotes an insightful poem by a friend that acknowledges “the pain of letting go what defines yourself”. 

During the guided meditation, Allyson helps us to focus on various body parts, starting with our forehead and extending to our feet, all the time bringing compassion to ourselves.  This is a particular form of meditation that is better with a guide as it helps us to focus on our bodily sensations and supports us to soften our sensations rather than adopt the habituated behaviour of attempting to remove or release them.   The meditation component of the podcast is about 20 minutes.

Reflection

During the guided meditation, I became conscious of my efforts at letting go when playing social tennis.  After having played team tennis competitions for two decades, I had developed an ingrained “need to win”.  I have had to progressively curb my need to win each point, each game, my own service game and eventually each set.   Underpinning this letting go is the need to let go of the image of myself as a very fit 40 year old playing A-Grade tennis.  The reality is that I am 76 years of age and losing strength in my arms, wrists and legs – my current reality, not my “fantasy’.  The last milestone in letting go of my “need-to-win” mindset, is being able to genuinely “savour the wins of others” – the winning shots of my opponents.

At the outset of the guided meditation, Allyson encourages us to take in our environment.  Fortuitously, I had decided to undertake the guided meditation while seated on our back deck – not in my office as I usually do.   The environment I was able to take in was very calming and pleasant – the warm sun of a Summer’s afternoon, glimpses of Moreton Bay and the islands, a very blue cloudless sky, a gentle cooling breeze and the sounds of Rainbow Lorikeets returning to their nightly resting place.

Gabor Maté, leading trauma expert, reminds us in his latest book, The Myth of Normal, that healing “starts with waking up…to what our bodies are expressing and our minds are suppressing”.  Edith Eger, holocaust survivor and world-renowned psychologist, suggests that what we need to do is to “remove the concentration camp of our mind”  – thus choosing freedom over victimhood.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and guided meditations, we grow in self-awareness – awareness of our bodies, our mindset, the thoughts and emotions that are holding us back from genuine healing and growth.  We need to give ourselves compassion and kindness as we are letting go.  Allyson maintains that this process enables us to live our life with greater wisdom and skills and greater compassion towards others.

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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.

Expressing Emotions or Being Imprisoned by Avoidance

Edith Eger In her book, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, discusses the “the imprisonment of avoidance” – the refusal to express challenging emotions.  She maintains that avoiding feelings through suppression leads to depression – the opposite involves release through expression.  We can supress our feelings for many reasons, e.g. to avoid the pain and hurt of recollection or to protect others from seeing us as vulnerable and suffering. 

If we are suffering from past hurts or trauma we can try to shield loved ones from the discomfort that comes with the expression of strong feelings.  In the process, we are not being honest and we are also depriving them of the opportunity to express empathy and love.  We can also unconsciously train our children to avoid the expression of feelings when they are hurt or upset.   We can try to diminish their feelings out of our own discomfort or sense of sadness.  We might say, “Don’t cry, there will be other opportunities to go to parties”, “You’ll forget about this tomorrow”, “Look how many friends you do have who let you play”, or “Let’s get some ice cream and make the pain go away!” (we can try to substitute something  pleasurable to avoid the expression of pain and hurt, thus setting in place habituated avoidance behaviour).

Edith suggests that sometimes we suppress our feelings by trying to convince ourselves that we are happy and joyful when this is patently not true.  We might even resort to affirmations to hide our true feelings.  This form of subterfuge only acerbates our feelings because it denies our reality – the depth and breadth of our true feelings.  Edith encourages us “to feel so you can heal” because “you can’t heal what you don’t feel”.   Sometimes our underlying feelings can be mired in resentment and can be unearthed through a guided reflection.

There is a real cost to ourselves in avoidance.  Despite our very best efforts, emotions are embodied – they manifest in our bodies as physical tension/pain and/or result in emotional or physical illness.  By not living our truth or accepting the reality of how we are feeling, we undermine our own integrity and personal integration.   Edith provides a detailed and graphic example of the impact of unexpressed feelings on a women who experienced incomprehensible violence by a family member.  Her life was lived in fear and loneliness because she never owned up to her feelings of rage, anger and deep fear of the perpetrator.

There may be times in conversation with a friend that we withhold a true expression of our feelings about some matter relevant to our relationship with them.  Edith suggests that we can revisit the conversation mentally, work out what we should have said and then approach the relevant person at a suitable time and in a neutral place to express our real feelings.  We could even start by practising with restaurant waitresses and expressing our honest feelings about a meal (rather than hiding our true feelings because we do not want to hurt or embarrass them). 

Facing up to our feelings and naming them provides a real release.  Edith suggests that we can practise this by stopping ourselves at any time during the day and naming our emotion, whether positive or challenging,  in the present moment.  This is not only a form of mindfulness practice but is also a way to increase self-awareness and develop honesty about our feelings both to ourselves and others.

Edith explains that sometimes this challenge to express rather than supress feelings appears overwhelming.  She writes about her inability to face the Auschwitz Museum for fear of the pain of recollection of her parent’s murder and her own torture and starvation as a prisoner in the concentration camp.  It took her a lot of courage after 10 years to visit the Museum and she describes in detail what she felt when confronted with images of emaciated people, the cattle trains and arrival platform.  She found herself cringing and curled herself up into a tight ball in a dark corner of the Museum – overwhelmed by grief, pain, anguish and anger.  However, revisiting the trauma and owning the depth of her feelings provided a new level of release to enable her to be even more productive and helpful in her ongoing work as a trauma consultant – she had finally gained release from the imprisonment of avoidance.

Reflection

Edith’s own life experience, which she shares so freely in her books, bears out how difficult it is to free ourselves from the imprisonment of avoidance.  It may take many years of progressive inner work, and trying out various ways of overcoming our entrapment, to achieve some degree of freedom and realise ease and joy.  However, suppression leads to ongoing suffering and depression.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become increasingly self-aware of the different ways we avoid expressing our true emotions, develop the courage to own up to these emotions and achieve the resilience required to break free of the imprisonment of avoidance. _________________________________

Image source: 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.

On the Frontline During COVID – Self Caring for the Carers

Professor Cynda Hylton Rushton and Rheanna Hoffmann recently engaged in a moving video podcast conversation that highlighted the scars and distress of what it means to be a frontline nurse during the COVID pandemic.  They covered not only the impact on nurses physical and mental health but also explored strategies that could be adopted by nurses to manage their distress.  Cynda will be a key presenter at the free, online Healing Healthcare Summit in early February 2022. 

Cynda is incredibly well-informed about nurses experiences during the pandemic, being a nurse herself and working with nurses to develop what she calls “moral resilience” – the ability of an individual to “restore or sustain” integrity in the face of the onslaught of challenges to their inner harmony and capacity to align their words and actions with their values and deep commitments.

Cynda, whose focus includes clinical ethics and contemplative practice, brings to the conversation penetrating insight and deep caring and compassion – characteristics that are manifested in her faculty work with the clinicians training program, Being with Dying.  Cynda is the author of Moral Resilience: Transforming Moral Suffering in Healthcare.

Rheanna is an emergency nurse who is also a meditation practitioner and teacher with extensive experience in mindfulness and its benefits.  During the worst of the pandemic in the US, she volunteered to work in New York City.  Her personal recollections of this experience can be found in an interview where she shares an intimate insight into what happened for herself and others during the overwhelming crisis.  Her presentation is part of the Mindful Healthcare Speaker Series which is readily available as a “resource for challenging times”. 

In her discussion with Cynda, Rheanna provided an expose of her emergency nursing experience during COVID that is raw and vulnerable but manifests her openness and courage.  I have previously reported on Rheanna’s interview about death and the dying process with Frank Ostaseski, Founder of the Zen Hospice Project.  Rheanna herself is the Founder of The Whole Practitioner designed to help nurses “to rediscover health, balance and their core values” after experiencing burnout, exhaustion and deeply personal frustration.

The distress of frontline COVID nurses

Rheanna recounted in telling detail the nature and extent of distress experienced by COVID nurses, especially those who were engaged in emergency wards.   She spoke emotively about the following experiences and sensations:

  • Reaching the limit of effectiveness of personal resources – whether that be yoga, friends or colleagues
  • Experiencing isolation and loneliness – tendency to withdraw physically and mentally to deal with the overwhelm
  • Feeling incredibly bare and vulnerable – the challenge of people dying and grief (that of relatives/friends and your own grief)
  • Physical exhaustion – tired beyond belief and suffering from lack of sleep, resulting from replaying adverse incidences
  • Feeling chronic hopelessness and helplessness – the challenges were beyond the capacity of individuals and the health system itself; exposure to personal limitations in the face of so much death and suffering.  Associated with this sense of helplessness are nightmares, flashbacks, randomly crying and insomnia.
  • Separation from self – the natural consequence of traumatic experiences.
  • Loss of a sense of balance –  impacting how time, health and relationships are valued or devalued (because of lack of time allocated to them)
  • Burnout – on physical, psychological and moral levels.  Rheanna described this as “acute burnout” reducing the energy for self-care and potentially leading to thoughts of suicide.

Rheanna pointed out that nurses, including herself, were normally able to “compartmentalise” their  adverse experiences and do so in a way that was healthy,  However, the adverse experiences from the pandemic were “unrelenting”, leading to chronic distress.  Part of the frustration was the inability of frontline nurses to help others at times when they were feeling so “fragile”.

Self-caring strategies for frontline COVID nurses

Cynda offered several self-care strategies for COVID nurses during her conversation with Rheanna.  Some covered ways of addressing negative self-talk while others focused on adopting a changed perspective and mindset or instituting a mindfulness practice: 

  • Mindfulness practice: Cynda offered a mindfulness practice that could be used by COVID nurses experiencing distress and burnout.  This focused initially on the breath with the out-breath being viewed as a release of stress.  In the exercise, the exhale stage was lengthened to accentuate and support release.  Participants were encouraged to rest in the gap between the in-breath and out-breath and, where possible, extend this gap between breaths.  A slow body scan was the next step with emphasis on identifying and releasing points of tension.  Participants were encouraged to focus on an anchor of choice to stop their minds addressing their extended to-do list or diverting into worrying.   Cynda suggested that nurse participants become conscious of how many miles their feet have travelled in pursuit of their daily caring and the level of support that their feet  have provided.  Lastly, she encouraged the nurses to employ statements such as:
    • May I trust the wisdom of this moment consciously and fully.
    • May I have the courage, honesty and openness to see things clearly and without judgment.
    • May I be willing to let go of what impedes me rather than helps me.
    • May I encounter a wise mentor to assist me to deal with these challenges.
  • Confronting your own limitations: Rheanna pointed out the sense of guilt and shame that she experienced that were driven , in part, by her self-talk – “you could have done more”, “if only you had acted faster”, “if you had paid attention more fully you could have saved more people”, “if only you had been able to convince people to make different decisions”, etc.  Our minds are very creative when it comes to self-denigration and negative self-evaluations.  It is important to acknowledge that no one could have handled the challenges for nursing presented by the pandemic and not experience their debilitating effects.  Cynda suggests that nurses need to “turn towards their limitations” and do so “with as much compassion “ as they extend to others.  There is scope here for loving-kindness meditation for oneself.
  • Changing your perspective: Cynda stated that the tendency in these crisis situations is to think that you are carrying the load by yourself because there is a natural tendency to turn inwards to cope with what is happening.   She argues that what is required is a change in perspective.  For example, she asked Rheanna to think about “Who else is carrying the load of the pandemic? “Who has your back? (e.g. friends, family, colleagues local and abroad & mentors).
  • Separate effort from outcomes: Cynda maintained that a form of self-care is to acknowledge that  the health outcomes are often beyond the control of a nurse.  She stated that In her own work she does the best she can in the circumstances to meet an identified need but recognises that the specific outcomes are not in her control – there are too many intervening aspects impacting the final outcome.  Cynda maintains that freeing yourself from expectations and outcomes is crucial for a nurses’ welfare.  In the pandemic, COVID nurses such as Rheanna attempted to “fix unsolvable problems”.  Nurses’ health outcomes were not the result of lack of effort or smarts but because the pandemic situation exceeded the capacity of individuals and the health system itself.  
  • Savour achievements – Cynda reinforces the view that the brain has a natural negative bias and is more likely to “mull over” what did not go well rather than “honour what we are able to do in the moment”, given the circumstances thrust upon us.  She stated that nurses need to focus on how they made a difference in people’s lives, e.g., holding someone’s hands as they were dying, gasping for breath or having a tube inserted to enable them to breathe.  This thought expressed kindly by Cynda precipitated a chain reaction from Rheanna who began to identify numerous moments when she “deeply showed up with people” and , in the process,  rediscovered “what it means to be a nurse” and gained insight into the very core of her being and who she was.  The other aspect that Rheanna savoured was her deep connection with people who were suffering – in spite of what was happening around her independently of her best efforts.

Reflection

Much of what Cynda proposed as strategies to help nurses deal with the extraordinary level of stress of frontline work during the pandemic can be incredibly useful for all of us to manage stress and resultant distress in our daily lives.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices we can reshape our perspective and expectations, savour the positive in our lives (including being alive), confront our grief and limitations and achieve the freedom of separating outcomes from effort in our chosen endeavours.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness and Training in Compassion

The Science and Wisdom of Emotions Summit conducted online from 2-5 May 2021 provided access to 30 of the world’s experts in the areas of compassion, mental health, well-being, wisdom, neuroscience, emotional intelligence and trauma counselling.  Access to the full recordings and transcripts are thoughtfully provided on a sliding scale, generosity-based pricing structure – with all levels of purchase receiving the full package together with the gift of free access for a friend, colleague, or family member.

There was so much covered in the Summit that is relevant to mindfulness.  However, in this post I want to look at compassion from the perspective offered by a one of the presenters.

Research into developing compassion

I have mentioned earlier in this blog the work of Richard Richardson and Daniel Goleman, authors of Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, whose review of research studies confirmed that compassion meditation developed the traits of kindness and compassion.  In the Summit, Dr. Sona Dimidjian, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, shared her own research work on the development of compassion. 

Sona had been concerned about the lack of research into the transfer of compassion training to the practice of compassion in daily life and set about establishing a participative research project to find out what works and for whom.  She was particularly interested, especially in our current environment of racialism and inequity, to establish what are the “barriers and facilitators” of bringing compassion into everyday life.

Fundamental to Sona’s approach, was engaging participants in her research in every phase of the research process – formulating questions, deciding the methodology and collaboratively undertaking the research.  She involved educators, young people and those experiencing mental health issues.  One such collaborative study led to the conclusion that brief compassion training (20 minutes a day compassion meditation practice) increased participants compassion while daily exposure to images of people suffering actually led to a decline in compassion.

One unexpected result from the study was that teachers, one of the core groups that Sona sought to help, became particularly concerned about the impact of their daily exposure to the suffering of their students and their parents.  The teachers indicated that they lacked training in self-care and care for their student children and yet they aspired to be kind and compassionate.   

This concern of the teachers led to another collaborative research project with educators to co-design a course in compassion that would lead to compassionate action on the part of the teachers.  The resultant program, Masters in Teacher Leadership, is available through Colorado University and incorporates a Certificate level component on Cultivating Compassion and Dignity in Ourselves and Our Schools.  Sona’s hope is that teachers become true models of compassion while teaching their students to be compassionate.

Compassion and dignity

While the abovementioned course incorporates self-compassion, fundamental to the content and approach is the recognition that compassion involves “honouring dignity within each other” – recognising the dignity of each person, irrespective of their race, religion, skin colour, gender (or identification as non-binary or non-gendered), sexual preference, culture or country of origin.  Compassion is inclusive and non-discriminatory.  It actively works against the prevailing ethos, created through “systematic conditioning”, that fails to see our common humanity and connectedness.

Compassion involves deep listening and the capacity to hear the perspective of another while seeking to understand and value the learning and diverse experiences of other people.  It involves curiosity blended with tenderness and caring.  Compassion training through mindfulness incorporates “mental training’ (involving both thinking and emotional elements) and serves to preclude reactive responses to those who are suffering (which Sona points out sometimes aggravates the suffering of others through a lack of understanding).  The mindfulness training involved in compassion training, on the other hand, enables the participant to “act more skilfully” and take compassionate action in their day-to-day interactions.

Compassion involves “seeing one another in our fullness”, in all our diversity and complexity.  Surprisingly, Sona found that the digital world, accessed through programs like Zoom, enables participants to have greater access to each other’s life – you get to see the bookshelves, dogs coming in and out of a room, children demanding attention or partners moving about undertaking their daily activities, the room layout and house surrounds (in some cases).  Sona points out that this is a much richer perspective than the perception of a person created by the role that they occupy – you get to see and engage differently through a more complete perception of a person in their natural environment.

Reflection

Reading something of Sona’s clinical research history and work on the ground with educators, new mothers and expectant mothers and youth experiencing mental health issues, you begin to appreciate that her life and work epitomises compassion-in-action.  In fact, one of her personal goals is to strengthen her own mindfulness practices to enable her to pursue compassion in her own life by avoiding the interference of her own biases and living with integrity and congruity with the compassionate values that she promotes.  Sona generously shares her research and insights through her Mind & Life Podcast.

Sona’s life and dedication pursued in a spirit of humility, openness and curiosity provides an exemplar for how we could pursue compassion through our own life and work and daily interactions with others.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the insight and commitment to enhance our deep listening skills and build the courage to take compassionate action in a skilful way.

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Image by Juanita Foucault from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness and Self-Sabotage through Social Media

Hugh Van Cuylenburg has developed the GEM pathway to happiness which entails three core elements – gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness.   In his book, The Resilience Project, he describes the origins of his approach, the impact of practising GEM and its effectiveness in helping people to move from depression about the past or anxiety about the future.  He has found that his approach has been effective for school children, elite sportspeople, and businesspeople in small and large organisations.  At the heart of his approach, is the tenet that happiness lies in “being” and appreciating what we have, not in “having” and resenting what we do not have.  Hugh gives concrete examples of where practising the simple process of a gratitude journal has enabled people to overcome suicidal thoughts and find happiness in their life, their relationships, their business accomplishments and/or their sporting endeavours.

Developing mindfulness practices

Hugh described how his school children in India looked forward to their daily 30-minute meditation each morning at school.  In Australia, he had his students take a mindful walk around an oval before school started and observe and record “five things they heard, saw and felt” on their walks each day.  He basically encouraged them to pay attention to their senses so that they could live their day more fully, with increased awareness.  Hugh highlighted the studies that demonstrate the positive impact of mindfulness practices (e.g., meditation, body scan, mindful breathing) on adolescent stress, depression, and anxiety.  These impacts have explained the global development of mindfulness in schools, including the MindUP Program developed by Goldie Hawn and her foundation.

I have written earlier about the benefits of mindfulness meditation for adults, including the development of wisdom, calmness, clarity, and self-awareness.  Mindfulness practices can also help to “mind  your brain”, an otherwise neglected resource.  The challenge is to find a way to practise mindfulness daily in whatever form suits us personally.  Regularity, repetition, and practice build capability, provide constant positive reinforcement, and develop “unconscious competence”.  Hugh demonstrated through his real-life stories how we become what we focus on – the simple act of a daily gratitude journal leads to gratitude-in-the moment; practising loving-kindness meditation develops kindness and compassionate action; and regular reflection-on-action enables the capacity for reflection-in-action.

Self-sabotage in the pursuit of mindfulness

Despite our best intentions in practising mindfulness, we can easily sabotage our own efforts.  Self-sabotage can take many forms, including obsession with the news, overuse of our mobile phones or addiction to social media.  We can grab for our phones when we are waiting for something or someone, instead of using the opportunity to develop awareness. 

Hugh warns about the negative impacts of social media and its harmful effects on our minds.  He explains how social media giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter use “persuasive technologies” to distract us and capture our attention – because “eyes-on-a-page” readily translates to revenue dollars through advertising.  Your likes and dislikes are tracked continuously so that you can be fed advertisements for what you most likely desire and are willing to buy.  The benefits of any particular product or service are embellished – you do not buy a car, you buy “envy”, “status”, “luxury” or “visibility”.  

Hugh points out that social media and constant, easy access via mobile phones have become integral to the “attention economy” that feeds off our tendency for distractedness – distraction from ourselves, our pressures. and relationships.  Disruptive marketing through “pop-ups” and “behavioural retargeting” are designed to pull your attention away to what social media advertisers want you to pay attention to.  By engaging endlessly in consuming social media, we are self-sabotaging our mindfulness – our capacity to pay attention on purpose in the present moment with wonder and awe and an openness to what is real and meaningful in our life.

Hugh recommends several strategies to reclaim “what the attention economy has taken from you”:

  • Delete Facebook from your phones
  • Turn off notifications on your phones
  • Rearrange your home screen to display what you want to focus on and delete what you are unhealthily addicted to
  • Leave home without your phone (at least occasionally when it is not necessary to have it with you).

Our level of resistance to any or all of these recommendations reflects our level of capture by the psychological manipulation of the attention economy.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can access a wide array of benefits that enable us to live more  happily and aware.  However, if we obsess over the news or social media and become captured by our mobile phones, we will sabotage our efforts to mind our brains, build emotional resilience and achieve tranquility and ease.

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Image by Thomas Ulrich 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.

Developing Awareness to Live More Fully

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education, at MARC, UCLA offers a meditation podcast where she introduces a range of meditation practices.   Her guided meditation covers The Spectrum of Awareness Practices.  During the meditation, Diana likens the different practices to changing the lens and focus of a camera – from narrow to broad to panoramic.  Her aim is to open us up to the possibilities inherent in meditation practice so that we can choose a preferred awareness focus as a regular practice or seek variety by consciously “changing our lens”.   It is not her intention to provide an exhaustive list of meditation practices but to show that there is a broad spectrum in terms of what we can pay attention to and the resultant focus of our awareness.

The telephoto lens – narrow focus

The first meditation practice Diana introduces is what she describes as using a telephoto lens – homing in on a specific object of awareness and leaving awareness of other things in the background (as you would when you focus your camera on a bird in a tree in a distant location).  The focus can be your breath (the rise and fall of your abdomen), specific body sensation or a noise within your room.  As your mind wanders from this chosen anchor, you can bring it back into focus (as you would when adjusting a lens for greater clarity of an image).  This form of awareness meditation develops concentration, calmness, and clarity. 

Wide lens – broader focus

We can broaden our focus beyond our breathing to a particular body sensation or a difficult emotion that draws our attention away from our breath.   We could pay attention, for instance, to the sense of groundedness in our feet, the warm tingling in our fingers or the tightness in our shoulders.  With a difficult emotion, such as resentment, we could focus not only on the nature and intensity of the emotion but also its bodily manifestation, e.g., tightness in the chest, stiffness in the  jaw or pain in the neck.  We can name the emotion and describe its intensity to better tame it and bring it under control.  This broader form of awareness practice can help us to understand our emotions and our triggers, develop emotional regulation, build body awareness and increase our awareness of our mind-body-emotion connection.

Panoramic lens – being conscious of awareness itself

Here we broaden our attention beyond a chosen focus to what exists both within and without us.  It involves tapping into our natural awareness – a consciousness of what is going on inside us as well as around us, without any specific focus.  It requires opening up fully to our inner landscape and our external environment – taking in the sights, sounds, smells, touch, and taste of what we experience.  This is the spaciousness in which we become conscious of awareness itself.   Natural awareness helps us to cultivate openness and acceptance, curiosity and appreciation and a sense of wonder and awe.

Reflection

Diana introduces the spectrum of awareness as a way to broaden and enrich our meditation practice, increase our understanding of the nature of awareness and its pervasiveness, and enrich our daily life so that we can live more fully, engaging with ourselves and the world with heightened awareness and gratitude.  David Sinclair in his book, Lifespan, describes something of the richness of openness to natural awareness when he describes the experience of bushwalking with his family as “Searching for serenity.  Hearing stories. Finding Beauty. Making memories. Sharing wisdom.”

Diana describes natural awareness and other mindfulness practices in more detail in her book, The Little Book of BeingAs we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation, we can experience life more fully and enrich the lives of others from the fullness of our own life.

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Image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer 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-Healing through Energy Techniques

Tami Simon of Sounds True provides a podcast of her interview with Amy Scher, energy therapist and author of How to Heal Yourself from Depression When No one Else Can.   The interview is part of the podcast series titled, Insights at the Edge.

In the conversation with Amy, Tami explores the origins of her interest in “energy psychology”, experiences a number of energy techniques, and discuses the implications and efficacy of the energy processes.

Amy’s interest in energy psychology

Amy was motivated to explore the whole field of energy psychology when she found that nothing worked in terms of being able to treat her own severe illness, including chronic Lyme disease.  She experienced all kinds of debilitating and energy-draining symptoms, including difficulty with walking, being bedridden and suffering from headaches, nausea, and other severe symptoms.  Amy even tried the risky procedure of an “experimental stem cell transplant”, which required her to travel to India.   While this latter treatment worked for a while, her symptoms started to reappear, albeit with less severity.   This symptomatic recurrence and the fear that her condition would worsen again provided the motivation to explore self-healing as an alternative to doctor-controlled treatments.

The mind-body-energy-emotion connection

Energy psychology recognises that throughs, emotions, and beliefs impact the physical systems of the body, e.g., the digestive system and nervous system.  Our emotions and thoughts can create ill-health and physical dysfunction.   So, the associated process of “energy therapy” works with the body’s own self-healing processes by stimulating the internal energy system of the body – an approach that is consistent with that of other healing modalities such as  acupuncture, Reiki, acupressure, and Japanese Seitai Massage.  While the latter treatment modality focuses on the musculoskeletal system to remove physical blockages to energy flow, energy psychology involves “working with the emotional landscape” and its connection to the energy system of the body, thus helping to “heal body, mind and spirit”.

Energy techniques

Fundamental to a wide range of energy techniques provided by Amy in her book is a recognition that our thoughts, emotions and beliefs impact our body’s welfare, e.g., we might say, “I’m feeling really uptight just thinking about what might happen”.  Negative self-stories about self-worth, how others view us and what we are capable of, all add to the stress experienced by the body and manifest in different ways depending on the emotions involved.  The challenge is accepting that we play a significant part, consciously or unconsciously, in our physical health.   This is a difficult concept to swallow and even Amy talks about the strength of her own resistance to this idea of personal contribution to her own ill-health.  The techniques she discusses primarily involve listening to your own body.

Listening to your own body

Amy indicated that the real breakthrough for her occurred when she started to be still and quiet and to listen to her own body and what it was telling her.  She maintains that physical symptoms are the “body’s communication system” and that emotions convey a message.  We just need to listen with openness and curiosity to begin the process of self-healing.  In her book mentioned above, she identifies the “most common subconscious blocks” to energy flow in the body, exploring the body’s messages, symptom by symptom.

Practising energy techniques

One of Amy’s own foundational energy blocks was the belief that “If I express my true self, I’ll be unlovable” – a damaging belief that had its genesis in her Jewish origins and the generational trauma passed down through her grandfather and father who lived through the Holocaust.  Both Amy and her father experienced deep depression – hence, the motivation for her recent book.

Amy provided a sample of energy techniques during the podcast and enabled podcast listeners to experience three techniques:

  • The Sweep – a particular narrative that is spoken or read to “sweep” unconscious, harmful beliefs from the mind.  Amy maintains that this process can lead to a shift, however small, in perspective or belief. 
  • Tapping – this is an increasingly recognised healing technique that is part of the repertoire of energy therapists and is described by Amy as one of her “micro-movements” – a recognition that a shift happens in small steps, especially for someone experiencing depression.  Amy provides a specific tapping technique that involves focusing on the emotion that you are experiencing in the present moment while tapping on your chest.  She suggests that you can strengthen the freeing effect of tapping by saying over and over, “let go, let go, let go”. 
  • Accepting yourself – Amy suggests that an approach you can use when you are tending to “beat up on yourself” is to challenge the thought that generated the emotion by saying something like, “Was I really that bad or unforgivable?”  She maintains that a shift can happen if you focus instead on “the next less shitty thing that you can think about yourself”.  Again, this practice constitutes a micro-movement.

Amy explained that her book provides a wide range of energy techniques that readers can practice to help them achieve their own energy shifts and self-healing.

Reflection

Research confirms the negative impact of stress and trauma on our immune system and the tendency of the body to experience various forms of inflammation.  The current challenging environment is contributing to “emotional inflammation” as well.  Amy highlights the impact of these stressors as causing “energy suppression”.  Her energy techniques are designed to release the trapped energy and enable the body to heal itself.  The process of self-healing generates a sense of agency for the person engaged in the relevant energy practices.  Some people have found that the vibrations involved in singing too can be a form of self-healing along with the positive emotions expressed in sung mantra meditations.

As we grow in mindfulness through energy techniques, meditation, and other mindfulness practices we can develop openness and curiosity, deepen self-awareness, and learn to heal our self.  Movement towards healing is possible if we sustain our practices.

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Image by Antonio López 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.