Managing Chronic Pain with Mindfulness

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

Guided meditation on mindfulness for managing chronic pain

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

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

How the brain exacerbates our feelings of pain

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

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

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

Widening the focus

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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Image by JUNO KWON 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, Attention and Learning

Research has consistently shown that mindfulness can build our attention and concentration.   Mindfulness, by definition, involves paying attention in a purposeful way “with openness and curiosity”.  Mindfulness helps us to reclaim our attention and strengthen our concentration.  Attention is one of the four pillars of learning, according to leading neuroscientist, Stanislas Dehaene.   In his book, How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain, he identifies the four pillars as follows:

  1. Attention – adds amplification to the information that we choose to focus on; it brings into clearer focus the detail and implications of what we are hearing and seeing.
  2. Active engagement – through curiosity, constantly testing our internal hypotheses and models of the external world; contrasted with passive learning where we only take in what others teach us.
  3. Error feedback – helps us to correct our hypotheses/models through comparison with reality; what happens when acting in the real world serves to provide feedback – confirmation or the need for correction/change.
  4. Consolidation – moves us to a state of “unconscious competence”; where we act automatically, but appropriately, in response to external stimuli.  Making explicit our own learning and restful sleep assist this process of consolidation.

Attention’s role in learning

Stanislas highlights the fact that today we encounter multiple sources of distraction, including that of digital noise, which negatively impacts our attention and capacity to learn.  Developing our attention, according to his research and that of other researchers, has three core benefits in terms of the learning process:

  1. Alerting – changes our level of vigilance by signalling when we need to pay attention.
  2. Orientating – indicates what we need to pay attention to and, in the process, highlights the detail of what we are interested in.
  3. Executive attention – the contribution here is on the how, the way in which to respond to the stimulus/task/challenge.

The growth of the executive function, tied to self-regulation, is itself a lifetime learning process.  This function involves engaging the pre-frontal cortex of the brain  – making decisions based on analysis and timely adaption rather than habituated and inappropriate responses.  Stanislas demonstrates through sharing the results of different experiments how the pre-frontal cortex and this executive function develops from the age of 12 months and reaches a mature level around 20 years of age.  These studies are fascinating in that they highlight how the brain attempts to process information that is seemingly contradictory and/or challenging to our habituated responses learned through prior experiences and information processing.  He contends that the development of our pre-frontal cortex as we mature in age spontaneously results in the “development of attention and executive control”.

Stanislas cautions that we can still make mistakes and take inappropriate action through our selective perception as adults.  Perception of threat (real or imagined), for example, can lead to the dominance of our amygdala and disengagement of our pre-frontal cortex, leading to a fight, flight or freeze response – resulting sometimes in an inappropriate action rather than “wise action” that can be developed through mindfulness.   

However, Stanislas also emphasises that even in adulthood our brains are capable of plasticity – changing physical shape (including reducing the size of the amygdala and increasing the size of the pre-frontal cortex) and, in the process, strengthening executive control.  Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, highlights the research that demonstrates how mindfulness increases this neuroplasticity.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can enhance our attention and concentration – key components of learning identified by Stanislas.  Concurrently, we can develop our self-awareness and self-regulation, learn to overcome habituated responses, and choose wise actions.  Mindfulness improves our information processing by helping us to reclaim our attention in the face of endless distractions, including digital noise and overload.  The openness and curiosity cultivated through mindfulness enriches our capacity to grow and learn. 

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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.

Welcoming the Richness of Our Life

Allyson Pimentel, psychologist and meditation teacher, often focuses on connection to overcome a sense of separation.   In her recent meditation podcast, her topic was Sit So You Can Stand – suggesting that through meditation we are better able to deal with life vicissitudes.  Her underlying theme was welcoming everything into your life – accepting “what is” with openness and curiosity.  Through openness and freedom from assumptions and stereotypes , we can truly appreciate the richness of our lives.

The richness of our life

There are so many things that we take for granted in our life.  Gratitude meditation and the mindfulness practice of savouring what we have, can enrich our life, develop positive mental health, and reduce negative feelings associated with envy or resentment. In the introduction to her meditation podcast, Allyson takes these considerations one step further.  She focuses on the richness and diversity of the people with whom we connect and, in particular, with those engaged in the virtual meditation practice that she was facilitating.

Allyson read a short anonymous piece called, Radical Welcome.  The text highlights the process of welcoming everyone and acknowledging the diversity and richness of all who are present – welcoming those who are child carers/elder carers/ mental health supporters; those who have a fast internet connection/ slow connection/ disrupted connection; those who bring greater diversity to the meditation through differences in ethnicity, race, or ancestral origin; those who are experiencing the ease of wellness together with those who are suffering from chronic illness.  The welcoming process was inclusive of gender and religious differences; of the young and not so young; of those who educate and those who are learning; of the doubts, questions, uncertainty and searching of people present; of the hearts, minds, and bodies of all who form part of the common endeavour.

To give some practical application of the welcoming process, Allyson encouraged everyone to look at the “gallery view” of those who were present and to wave to acknowledge others.  Looking at everybody opens our eyes and minds to the diversity of those present and this is enhanced if people have previously identified their location in the text box.  These practices in a virtual meditation environment help to make us more aware of the richness and diversity of people we interact with a on a daily basis – we are often too preoccupied with ourselves, our stories, our needs and our perceptions to appreciate what others bring to our lives.  To reinforce this connectedness, Allyson began the podcast meditation with an invitation to take a collective, deep breath while noticing the infusion of energy on the in-breath and the release of tension on the out-breath.

Guided meditation

 In the guided meditation, Allyson encouraged us to feel the support of the chair and the earth, to tap into our natural breathing process, and to progressively focus on the noises in the room – including their coming and going and the silences in between.  She stressed the importance of choosing an anchor that we can return to if we are distracted by our thoughts, e.g., by worries, negative self-evaluations, or planning our day. 

Most of the meditation was undertaken in silence – with a focus on the sense of connection with everyone  present, while acknowledging the richness of diversity.  

Reflection

Allyson’s podcast meditation offers us an opportunity to call to mind the differences we encounter in people we interact with on a daily basis.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditations such as this podcast, we can become more conscious of the differences in the people we encounter and the potential richness of the interaction.  Mindfulness also makes us more aware of our own perceptions, biases and assumptions that could act as barriers to truly acknowledging others, mindfully listening to them, and valuing their differences.   Creativity and innovation lie within diversity if we adopt openness and curiosity to learn about, and understand, differences.

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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.

Silence and Connection: Finding Peace in a Turbulent World

Last night I had the privilege of accompanying my wife to a fund-raising event at Stepping Stone Clubhouse in Brisbane – an organisation dedicated to enabling people with mental illness to rebuild and enrich their lives.  The speaker for the night’s event was Trent Dalton, author of two recent books that were the focus of his discussion.  Trent has become a best-selling author as a result of the first of the two books, The Boy Who Swallowed the Universe which features two boys who experience the darkness of adverse childhood experiences.  The second book he spoke energetically about is his recently released novel, All Our Shimmering Skies – two girls experiencing trauma feature prominently in this book which is also an expression of hope, of wonder and life’s endless mysteries and miracles.

Life beyond trauma

Trent had many adverse childhood experiences and related trauma – including an alcoholic father, heroin-addicted mother, heroin dealer stepfather and a criminal baby sitter.  His two novels then are part autobiographical, part fiction and part fantasy (“gifts dropping from the sky”).   His two daughters had questioned him as to why he wrote the first of the two books with boys as the focal characters when he in fact had two daughters.  So, two girls featured in the Shimmering Skies novel.

Trent mentioned that even though the books begin with darkness in the characters’ lives, they end with hope and wonder.  He wanted to inspire his daughters to be strong and resilient despite what life brings in the way of obstacles and adversity.  He also wanted them to believe in hope and a life beyond trauma as reflected in his own life – now as a multiple award-winning author who is internationally recognised for his writing craft and storytelling.

Finding peace in silence and connection

Trent spoke of his close connection to place and nature.   His home suburb, Brisbane’s western suburb of Darra, features strongly in his writing as does Darwin which he visited a number of times, mainly on assignment as a journalist.  He described with a sense of awe the natural beauty experienced during a guided walk through Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia.  His closeness to nature is reflected in his wonder at even the smallest living creatures.

His connection to family and friends provided a very real grounding and enabled him to rest in the strength of these relationships.  Of particular note is his comment about how one of his daughters brought him very much “back to earth” after a whirlwind tour following his highly successful book, The Boy Who Swallowed the Universe.  At one stage when he was at home and dropping naturally into his effervescent storytelling mode, his 11 year daughter said something to the effect, “You don’t have to impress us now – you just have to be Dad to us.”

Trent’s Shimmering Skies novel captures something of the stillness and reflection he experienced observing the night sky through his window in Darwin or from his writer’s den in Brisbane.  His valuing of silence and stillness is reflected in his comment on Christine Jackman’s novel, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World:

…a deeply personal assignment: treading bravely, beautifully into the wonder of silence.

Christine reminds us that life is full of noise, distraction and setbacks and yet there exists the wonder of stillness and silence – the unnameable space in which one was free to think and breathe and simply be.   We just have to learn ways to access the silence in our lives – something I experienced at 5 am this morning when I walked along the Manly Esplanade in Brisbane as the sun rose and reflected on the shimmering water of the marina.

Reflection

Trent was able to inhabit the wounds of his trauma by revisiting his adverse childhood experiences through the key characters in his two books.  In discussing his books and his life, he was able to be completely transparent and honest about his background, his challenges, and his small triumphs.  This openness and curiosity about life are hallmarks of mindful living.  By growing in mindfulness through reflection, writing and wonder, he could appreciate his connection to everything and his close relationships which are so central to his life and work.

I find it humbling and a source of gratitude that I personally was able to live a life of silence and contemplation for five years after leaving home and traumatic circumstances.  I have lived through many adverse childhood experiences in my early childhood and traumatic events later in life.  I found solace and peace in stillness and silence.

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Image by Ron Passfield – Sunrise at Manly Esplanade

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.

Forgiveness: A Reflection

In a previous post I discussed an important topic, Don’t Wait to Forgive, based on the book by Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations.  Forgiveness is something that we tend to put off because it is too self-revealing and painful.  Frank suggests that we have to face up to who we really are and not who we project ourselves to be.  We have to look in the mirror, not into an internally fabricated image that shows ourselves in the best possible light.  The honesty required is disarming and can be disturbing.   Experience and research suggest that some principles can help us along the way:

  • Be grounded and relaxed – Forgiveness is a difficult pursuit at the best of times.  However, if you are agitated or highly distracted, it is extremely difficult to focus on forgiving yourself or someone else.  The starting point is to become grounded and relaxed.  Grounding in the present moment can involve tapping into your breath, your bodily sensations or the sounds around you.  I find sometimes that sounds can themselves be distracting because I am always trying to interpret them.  I like using a particular body sensation as a means of grounding, e.g. the sensation of fingers on both hands touching.  I find that I can use this practice anywhere, whether waiting for something or someone, or beginning a meditation.  It can quickly induce relaxation and focus for me.  Each person will have their preferred approach to grounding and relaxation – for some people, it may involve a full body scan to identify and release tension.
  • Manage distractions – Distractions are a natural, human frailty – they pull us away from our focus.  However, they can be more persistent and intensive when we are trying to focus on forgiveness because of the level of discomfort that we may feel when dealing with our shame.   Having a “home” or anchor such as our breath can enable us to restore our focus.  Persistence in returning to our focus builds our “attention muscle” over time – a necessary strength if we are to progress in our goal of developing forgiveness.
  • Start small – Self-intimacy around our need for forgiveness (for the multiple ways in which we have hurt others) can be overwhelming if we take on too much at once.  When you think about it, our need for forgiveness can be pervasive – impacting every facet of our interactions in close relationships, with work colleagues or with strangers in the street or shops.  We can think of times when we have interrupted someone, ignored people, been harsh towards them or spoken ill of them.   There are times when we have taken out our frustration or anger on someone who is not the trigger for our difficult emotions.  We can begin by focusing on a small, recent incident where we have caused hurt or harm to someone and gradually build to more confronting issues, situations or emotions.  Mitra Manesh in her guided meditation podcast on forgiveness suggests that a simple way to start might be to bring a particular person to mind and mentally say, “For all the pain and suffering I may have caused you, I ask for your forgiveness”.  This kind of catch-all statement avoids going into all the detail of an interaction.  Sometimes we can become distracted by what Diana Winston describes as “being lost in the story” – we can end up recalling blow by blow what happened, indulging in blame and self-righteousness.   Forgiveness is not a process of justifying our words or actions.
  • Forgiveness is healing for ourselves – We have to bring loving kindness to our forgiveness practice whatever form it takes – loving kindness for our self as well as for the person we are forgiving.  The process is not designed to “beat up on” our self but to face up to the reality of what we have said or done or omitted to do that has been hurtful for someone else.  It’s releasing that negative, built-up energy that is stored in difficult emotions and is physically, mentally and emotionally harmful to our self.  It is recognising that holding onto regret, anger, resentment or guilt can be toxic to our overall wellness.  However, like giving up smoking, it takes time, persistence and frequent revisiting of our motivation.

As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness through meditation, reflection and daily mindfulness practices, we can learn to face up to our real self and our past and seek forgiveness.  However challenging this may be, we need to begin the journey for our own welfare and that of others we interact with.  Diana Winston in her forgiveness meditation podcast reminds us that mindfulness involves “being in the present moment with openness and curiosity” together with a “willingness to be with what is” – it entails honest self-exploration.  She cites Lily Tomlin who maintains that forgiveness involves “giving up all hope for a better past” – seeing our past with clear sight and honesty.

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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 Resilience in Challenging Times

The Awake Network and Mindful.org have collaborated to provide a free resource for healthcare professionals in the form of The Mindful Healthcare Speaker Series.  Jon Kabat-Zinn speaking on Mindfulness and Resilience in Challenging Times was the first in the series of six speakers.   While Jon is not an MD, he has a PhD in Medicine and focuses on mindfulness in medication, healthcare and society.

Jon and host, Dr. Reena Kotecha, spoke of the enormity of the challenges facing everyone with the advent of the Coronavirus and especially the frontline healthcare professionals who, in many instances, lack adequate resources and training to deal with the magnitude of this pandemic.  They spoke of the trauma experienced by these healthcare professionals who are witnessing the suffering and death of so many people.  Reena spoke of one frontline female doctor who had to move out of home to live in a hotel for three months to protect her mother who was suffering from cancer. 

A truly disturbing event was the suicide death of Dr. Lorna M. Breen, an emergency center doctor, who continually witnessed the very worst of the impact of the Coronavirus on people, including people dying at the hospital before they could be removed from the ambulance.   Her heroic efforts to save people through her frontline medical work contributed to her own death.  Jon reiterated that mindfulness does not lessen the enormity of the physical and mental health impact of the pandemic on the lives of healthcare professionals but emphasised that mindfulness acts as a ballast to provide stability in the face of the turbulent winds created by the pandemic.

Mindfulness as ballast for stability

Jon referred to the 25 years of quality scientific research that showed the benefits of mindfulness, extending to positively altering the structure of the brain, increasing functional connectivity (e.g. of the mind-body connection) and enhancing neuroplasticity.   Neuroscientist Richard Davidson co-authored a book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, and demonstrated the powerful effect mindfulness had on building resilience.

Jon spoke of “full catastrophe living” and emphasised that it is truly human to experience fear, anxiety and grief.  He argued that mental health is enhanced by feeling and accepting everything we experience, rather than denying its existence or intensity.  He stated that no matter how emotionally rending our circumstances are we can find refuge in mindfulness, by being “in the present moment, moment by moment”.  In this way, we are better able to recover from the “trauma” of the present reality and to do so without total depletion of ourselves.   

Mindfulness as awareness

Jon maintained that “we are not our narrative” – we are not our negative self-talk that diminishes us and depletes our energy in the face of life challenges.  He argues that our life is “one seamless whole” – our mind, body, thoughts and emotions.  In his view, our breath serves as the integrating factor and energy force.  Awareness of our breath in the present moment enables us “to get out of the wind” and “to recalibrate, recover and respond instead of reacting”.  To reinforce this message, he provided a guided meditation during his presentation focused on the breath for about ten minutes (at the 30-minute mark).

Jon maintained that awareness of our breath can enable us to be fully awake to what is going on inside us and to be more deeply connected to others.  He argued that we don’t have to achieve a particular goal – to become more or better – in his view, “we are already okay”.  In these challenging times, what is needed to help ourselves and others we interact with is to be authentically present, without a “mask” (metaphorically speaking), but with openness and vulnerability. 

Reflection

Jon highlighted the importance of trusting our “human creativity” when confronted with the need to help people who are stressed out by the pandemic.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we not only build our resilience in managing our personal challenges but also “modulate the tendency to put self ahead of everyone else” – we can diminish our self-absorption and self-doubt.  He maintained that awareness of our breathing reinforces our ecological connectedness.  

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Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

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

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

Developing Sustainable Intimate Relationships through Mindfulness

Wendy Strgar, intimate relationship expert and author, stresses the role of mindfulness as a pathway to developing a sustainable intimate relationship.  In her books and blog she openly shares the ups and downs, troughs and deep valleys, of the 30 plus years of her relationship with her husband.  Her blog, Making Love Sustainable, has a category of posts devoted to mindfulness.  Wendy’s first book, Love That Works: A Guide to Enduring Intimacy, highlights developing intimate relationships as a learning journey for both partners.  Her latter book which provides a guide to awakening and sustaining intimate relationships focuses on “deep presence” and “attention” as key ingredients of a sustainable and rich intimate life.  I will draw on this latter book to share some of Wendy’s insights into how to sustain an intimate relationship through mindfulness.

Mindfulness for developing and sustaining an intimate relationship

There are very clear lessons in Wendy’s second book on sustaining intimate relationships that link directly to the nature of mindfulness as defined by Jon Kabat-Zin and the definition provided by Diana Winston.  Here are some key points that Wendy makes about developing and sustaining an intimate relationship:

  • Paying attention: Wendy’s longest chapter is devoted to this topic which she considers makes the difference between “fleeting pleasure and lasting happiness” in a relationship.  Her broader focus for a discussion of attention is being fully engaged in something that you love, that enriches you and makes you fully yourself.   A narrower focus that she emphasises is paying attention to your thoughts about yourself and your partner – since our thoughts create our reality.  In practice, this means dealing with negative self-stories on the one hand and developing a growing consciousness of how we think about our partner (a neglected area of personal inquiry).  As we have mentioned previously, “we are not our thoughts” nor is our partner solely what we think they are.
  • Being present: Wendy emphasises presence and being in the moment as key ways to communicate love and respect in an intimate relationship. If our mind is continuously wandering and we are lost in thought (about our “to-do list” for example), we cannot be truly present to the other person. In her blog post, Gifting Your Real Presence, she discusses the relationship benefits of being fully present and ways to achieve real presence.
  • Deep listening: the art of deep listening involves both paying attention and being present.  Wendy suggests that these aspects in combination develop the capacity for “full-body attention” and enable our partner to “feel truly heard”.  This art of listening requires that we do not “try to solve the other person’s problems or to steer the conversation” to something about ourselves and our achievements (to avoid the emotive content of the conversation).  In Wendy’s view, “attentive listening” serves to “enliven our intimate connection”.
  • Being non-judgemental: it is very easy to become obsessed with the negative spiral of identifying our partner’s faults and deficiencies (often to defend our own position or our sense of self-worth).  We can get into the negative habit of highlighting their lack of congruence – the inconsistency between their words (particularly their advice to us) and their actions. Again, paying attention to our thoughts about our partner will surface this tendency to judge and/or project our negative traits onto our intimate partner.
  • Developing the intention to focus on the relationship: Wendy suggests that an intimate relationship should be viewed as a container or environment that sustains “an atmosphere hospitable to love” (and intimacy).  This entails focusing on cultivating the relationship rather than the singular pursuit of our own needs at our partner’s expense or subservience to the assumed needs of our partner out of a sense of obligation.  Focusing on the relationship could also mean exploring the “unwritten rules” in the relationship. When we focus on cultivating the relationship atmosphere we can also think of the analogy of a garden.  Wendy suggests an intimate relationship needs the fertile soil of “showing up” in the relationship (translates to “sharing”), the pure water of setting aside time for intimacy, and the fresh air of clear and unambiguous communication.  
  • Bringing openness and curiosity to the relationship: this aspect lines up with Diana Winston’s explanation of mindfulness.  This entails a readiness to learn about our-self-in-the-relationship (through self-observation) and to get to know and understand our partner intimately – including their needs and preferences, communication style and their energy pattern.

Reflection

Developing a sustainable intimate relationship involves a lifetime pursuit of learning and focused intention to cultivate a loving environment for the relationship (rather than just accepting established patterns of saying and doing things which may be injurious to sustainability).  As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn to pay attention, be fully present, listen deeply, observe non-judgmentally and develop self-awareness and an unadulterated awareness of our partner (not contaminated by our unfulfilled need for attention derived from a deficient childhood).  Being mindful in an intimate relationship does not involve losing our self in the relationship but finding our self through the relationship.  It entails showing up fully in our life to enrich the relationship and engender intimacy through mutual appreciation and gratitude.

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Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

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

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

How to Resolve a Dilemma or Conflicting Polarities as a Leader

Often a leader is faced with resolving a dilemma or deciding between two different options that represent opposite polarities and are supported by different groups of people.  Each of the parties, too, that support opposite perspectives are very ready to highlight the deficiencies of the other party’s perspective and ignore the deficiencies of their own option.  The leader then is confronted with an “either or” situation.  Both options have advantages and disadvantages.

The tendency is for the leader to come down on the side of one option or other because it might appear as the “lesser of two evils”.   But even this solution depends on what priority the leader is assigning to the adverse impacts of the options – for themselves, the opposing groups, for consumers/clients or for the wider community. 

Ginny Whitelaw in her book The Zen Leader suggests that each of us resolves the tension of a dilemma on a very regular basis when we are breathing.  The actions of inhalation and exhalation are polar opposites, and each has advantages and disadvantages.  For example, when we inhale, we can take in oxygen and refresh our blood; when we exhale, we can remove carbon dioxide and relax our body and mind.  Each action – inhale or exhale – when taken to extremes (like holding our breath for too long) can have serious adverse effects on our health and wellbeing.  Neither action is sufficient of itself to sustain life.

Ginny points out that for a leader to lead effectively and in a fearless way, they must move away from “either or” thinking and reframe the issue or problem.  She argues that this involves a flip “from Or to And”.  Ginny suggests that in the tension of a dilemma or opposite polarities lies a creative solution.

How to resolve a dilemma or conflicting polarities

Ginny maintains in her book that the real impediment to moving to the And position (resolving the dilemma), is when a leader or a group becomes locked into one option by overstating the benefits of their solution and highlighting the deficiencies of the opposing solution, while simultaneously underplaying the deficiencies of their own solution and the benefits of the opposing solution.  This occurs frequently in organisational settings when leaders and their managers are engaged in strategic planning involving decisions re product/service offerings, pricing, place of operation, marketing approach or target customers/clients.

Ginny proposes a process she describes as a “paradox map” which has four quadrants that participants can work through to find a solution that encompasses the best of both options, while reducing the downsides of each.  This process entails seeking out the resolution of the tension between opposites by focusing on the And.

My colleague and friend Bob Dick has described a similar process over many years which he calls “option one-and-a-half”.  Bob provides a detailed process for a leader to work with a group to resolve conflicting polarities or opposing positions on an issue or problem.  His group process entails identifying the advantages and disadvantages of each option and then employing a creative group problem solving process and voting to come up with a solution that incorporates the best of each option.

As I was thinking about this challenge of moving “from Or to And”, I encountered a situation where my partner and I were trying to decide how to arrange a meeting with a mutual friend who lived on an island about 45 minutes by sea from our location.  I was strongly of the view that we should take a car across in the car ferry because it was convenient, provided independence and enabled flexibility when we were on the island.   My friend argued that the cost of the car ferry would be exorbitant considering we were only attending a lunch meeting and would not need the flexibility of our own car while on the island. 

After exploring the advantages and disadvantages of each solution we came up with the idea of having our friend travel to a location on the mainland that involved a similar travel time for each of us, reduced the costs for us and fitted in with other reasons our island friend wanted to come to the mainland.  The final solution incorporated the best of both initial, opposing options – reduced cost, flexibility, independence and a bonus of being able to extend an invitation to another mutual friend to join our “catch-up” meeting on the mainland.

Reflection

Being able to flip from an “either-or” position to what Ginny describes as a position of “And“, enables us to resolve dilemmas, reduce conflict and identify creative solutions incorporating the best of opposing options.  Underlying the process involved is the ability to move from a fixed position of “being right” to being able to explore the perspective of the other person or group.  This entails mindful listening and the capacity to be open to alternative perspectives and solutions.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices, reflection and exploration of alternatives, we can develop the necessary self-awareness, self-management and creative capacity to have the openness and curiosity to achieve the personal flexibility required.

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Image by Dirk Wouters 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.

Trauma-Informed Mindfulness: Principles for Effective Helping

Sam Himelstein has specialised for more than 12 years in using mindfulness to help teenagers impacted by trauma.   In a podcast interview with David Treleaven, Sam explained in depth his approach to teaching mindfulness to teens affected by trauma, as well as the evolving principles that shape his practice. While his focus is primarily on teens and educating others to work with teens, his approach and principles have relevance to anyone who is using mindfulness to assist people impacted by trauma (or anyone who is teaching mindfulness where a participant is a trauma sufferer).  He has developed his principles through ongoing reflection on practice.

Sam is a psychologist and youth worker and the author of A Mindfulness-Based Approach to Working with High-Risk Adolescents and the forthcoming book, Trauma-Informed Mindfulness for Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.  He is also the founder of the Center for Adolescent Studies.

Principles for trauma-informed mindfulness practice

In discussing his approach to working with teens impacted by trauma, including incarcerated youth, Sam identified several principles that guide his practice:

  • Avoid “adultism” – the assumption that as an adult you are superior to teens and have a lot to teach youth and they have very little in the way of wisdom to offer.  Associated with this false belief, is the assumption that you know best what is good for them – implying that they should learn from your teachings (that you try to impose on them).  This also involves recognising the wisdom they gained in their transition to a teenager. [You can also test your assumptions when working with adults – do you assume that they have no insights into the nature and practice of mindfulness?]
  • Work from where they are at – do not begin with formal meditation as they are unlikely to be ready for this.
  • Focus on relationship-building – consciously build trust in every aspect of your interaction, as their level of trusting others will have been severely damaged by their trauma experience(s). 
  • Assist teens to become comfortable with “sitting with themselves” and exploring “inner awareness”.
  • Be genuinely curious about what is happening for them and what they are doing to cope – bring an open mind to the interaction.  It can be helpful to identify and test your own assumptions before interacting.
  • Develop your own mindfulness continuously – your inner and outer awareness – and learn to let go of “ego” and the need to control the process.

Reflection

When teaching mindfulness to adults and youth, we need to be aware of the possibility that they may have been impacted by trauma(s) in their life.  Being conscious of the principles employed by Sam will help us to demonstrate sensitivity, build trust and relationships, and work at their pace – rather than to a pre-ordained progress schedule.  It will be imperative for us to grow in mindfulness – becoming fully aware of the assumptions we bring to the teaching/interaction, letting go of ego and the need for control, and genuinely engaging with curiosity, humility and openness.

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Image by Lubos Houska 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.

Paying Attention to Your Breath and Body

Allyson Pimentel, a teacher at the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), offers a guided meditation podcast on the theme, Mindfulness of the Body and Breath.   She explains at the start of the meditation that mindfulness involves paying attention in a particular way that induces ease, restfulness and tranquillity.

Allyson focuses on three elements of paying attention that lead to inner and outer awareness:

  1. Purposefully – paying attention is undertaken consciously with clear intention and purpose
  2. Focusing on the present – paying attention to the present moment, not to what has gone before or to an anticipated future event
  3. Openly – paying attention with curiosity and willingness to be with what is, not ignoring what is unpleasant, painful or challenging.

Allyson reminds us that our breath and our body are always with us in the present moment, even if our mind is continuously wandering with endless thoughts.  Our body and breath provide the anchors in the turbulent sea of life.

Allyson cites lines from a poem, “I Go Among the Trees” by Wendell Berry, that capture this stillness:

All my stirring becomes quiet

Around me like circles on water.

My tasks lie in their places

Where I left them, asleep like

 cattle…

Guided meditation on your breath and body

The guided meditation provided by Allyson incorporates mindful breathing together with a thorough body scan.  After inviting us to sit “upright not uptight”, she encourages us to notice our breathing (its pace, length and evenness).  After inviting us to pay attention to our breath, she guides us in a progressive scanning of the body.

Two things that I noticed with the body scan are its completeness and the focus on openness. She guides us to pay attention to our head as well as the rest of our body – top of the head, our forehead, cheeks, eyes, mouth and tongue.  While Allyson asks us to release points of tension in our body during the body scan, she also suggests that we notice points of openness once tension has been released.

As we grow in mindfulness through paying attention in the present moment to our body and breath, we can become grounded, release tension in our body and experience the ease of acceptance.  We can learn to more skilfully and openly respond to the challenges of the many aspects of our daily life and extend kindness to ourselves and others we encounter. This, in turn, will lead to the experience of equanimity.

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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.