Mindfulness Meditation – Being With Things As They Are

Allyson Pimentel presented a guided meditation on “Mindfulness” for the MARC, UCLA  meditation podcast series.  In the meditation, she described mindfulness as paying attention in the present moment with an attitude of acceptance and kindness and a  “willingness to be with things as they are”.   She suggested that mindfulness can be either formal (as with the UCLA guided meditations) or informal  (occurring  throughout our day as we focus on the present moment).

Mindfulness then entails paying attention in a kind way to things as they are occurring in our life in the present moment – not wishing them to be different or to go away.  In this regard, Allyson maintained that mindfulness meditation can serve as a refuge – a safe place to nourish, restore and renew ourselves in challenging times.  We can feel overwhelmed by external events (such as  storms and severe weather events) or internal experiences (such as challenging emotions, deprecating thoughts or painful bodily sensations).   Mindfulness meditation offers the opportunity to regain our equilibrium when faced with these challenges.

Allyson likens mindfulness meditation to a “wildlife reserve” where our own “animal bodies” are protected, kept safe and nurtured so that we can cultivate the “beauty” of kindness, gratitude, generosity and wisdom.  Mindfulness meditation, then, can be a place of quiet restoration, renewal of our sense of wonder and gratitude and a means to mind-body balance.

Guided mindfulness meditation

Allyson progresses through the meditation by focusing in turn on bodily sensations, challenging emotions, disturbing thoughts and the ease and calmness of our breath:

  • Bodily sensations – we are asked to focus on a part of our body where we feel tightness and to be with this bodily sensation in all its dimensions (such as soreness, pain, tension).  Allyson invites us to soften this part of our body and allow some degree of ease to permeate our bodily sensation.  This involves a process of recognition and acceptance of what we are experiencing in the moment, rather than rejection or fighting against the sensations.  After focusing on a particular bodily part and accompanying tight sensation, we are encouraged to undertake a process of progressive body scan and relaxation.
  • Challenging emotions – we now focus on any challenging emotion such as resentment, anger, frustration or annoyance.  This involves being with the emotion, not attempting to deny it.  It requires an openness to what is – in all its amplitude and disturbance.  Again the process involves recognition and softening towards what we are experiencing, not hardening our hearts.
  • Disturbing thoughts – we might be simultaneously experiencing disturbing thoughts such as negative self-evaluation and self-censure.  As we get in touch with these thoughts and their impacts on our body and emotions, we can learn to diffuse them by accepting their presence and being with their intensity, while acknowledging that “we are not our thoughts”.
  • Breathing – finally, we can take refuge in our breath which is ever present to us.  We can focus on our breath wherever we experience it in our body, e.g., our chest, abdomen or nose.  This involves acceptance of the nature of our breath, not trying to control it.  As we tune into and listen to our breath, we can experience ease and freedom.

Reflection

At the end of the guided meditation, Allyson invited us to observe any aspect of our body that still feels tense or tight and to be with the sensation.  At the time, I had a tightness in my right ankle from a bit of swelling there.   The act of focusing and softening eased the sensation of tightness and pain.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and informal mindfulness practices throughout our day, we can access the well of ease, experience a refuge from challenges we are encountering and restore our equilibrium and sense of balance.

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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.

                                                                                                        

Ways to Manage Ourself During Difficult Times

The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA offers weekly guided meditation podcasts on a wide range of topics and issues.  In one of the recent meditation podcasts Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC focused on “Practices in Difficult Times” – providing several mindfulness practices designed to help us achieve calmness, manage our challenging emotions and express compassion to ourselves and to others who are suffering.

Diana highlighted the fact that challenging events such as the mass shootings in America and the war in Ukraine can generate “emotional inflammation” in us – we can feel strong emotions of anger, grief, rage or sadness.  We might feel overwhelmed by others’ inconceivable pain and loss and our own emotional response.  We might be confused and continually ask ourselves, “Why the children?”, “Why Ukraine?” or “When will this emotional and physical devastation stop?”

Diana draws on mindfulness practices to help us deal with these challenging times and the emotions they elicit in us.  She reminds us that mindfulness involves placing our attention fully on the present moment while being open and curious and accepting what is in our present internal and external reality. 

Three mindfulness practices for difficult times

The three mindfulness practices offered by Diana are described, in turn, in the following discussion:

  1. Calming Practices: Here we are encouraged to tap into the body’s own capacity to generate calm and ease.  The primary aim is to achieve groundedness in a way that is conducive to our present needs.  We could start by taking a couple of deep breaths and releasing them slowly to let go of the tension within us.  There is the option to find a place of ease in our body and focus in on it, e.g., our arms beside our body, our relaxed legs or our fingers joined and pulsating with energy.  Diana particularly stressed the power of “feeling the support of the earth” through our feet on the floor or the ground.  Our breath with its natural rhythm can provide a basis for experiencing calm and ease (unless, of course, focusing on our breath acts as a trauma stimulus).  If attention to our breath is calming, there are many ways to access a relaxed state through mindful breathing  practices.  We could adopt “micro-practices” such as the  4-7-8 breathing practice often used in yoga, the breathing in time practices (using our breath as a musical instrument) or we could pay attention to the internal physical sensations of our breathing – e.g., the rising and falling of our abdomen or the feeling of air moving in and out of our nose.  Diana suggests another alternative is to pay full attention to the sounds in the room or what is being generated externally (especially if we are in a natural setting with the sounds of birds, waves, or wind).  Sound can also be used as a calming mindfulness practice as we listen to and sing mantra meditations provided by people like Lulu & Mischka (such as their Rainbow Light song as part of their peaceful Horizon album).
  2. Holding strong emotions: Normally, people tend to suppress challenging emotions, deny them, or deflect their attention from them by numbing themselves with some form of addictive behaviour such as drinking excessive alcohol, overeating, taking illegal drugs or over-spending while shopping compulsively.  Mindfulness experts and psychologists remind us that we need to face up to our emotions or they will cause disruptions in our lives through some form of mental and/or physical illness.  Diana encourages us in this guided meditation to pay attention to our challenging emotions and observe how they are manifesting in our body, e.g. tightness in the chest, pain in the arms or neck, headaches, overall stiffness or fibromyalgia (non-specific whole-body pain).  Holding on to these strong emotions enables us to deal with them directly and use the healing power of our mind and body to dissipate them.  If we experience overwhelm while confronting our strong emotions, we can return to our meditation anchor which could be our breath, external sounds, bodily sensations or music.
  3. Compassion practice: Diana explains that compassion practice in this context involves ourselves as well as others who may be experiencing suffering and loss.  She encourages us to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion as we struggle to deal with our challenging emotions and our misguided attempts to ignore them or numb them.  She suggests, then, that we extend loving kindness to others in the world who are experiencing pain, devastation, grief and anger.  Diana offers  a possible expression of compassion for others in the form of a statement of desire, “May you be freed from pain and suffering and find contentment and ease”.

Reflection

We have a deep well of ease in our bodies that we can access at any time, if only we can let go of our damaging thoughts.  As we grow in mindfulness through calming practices, facing our challenging emotions and practising compassion towards ourselves and others, we can gain the insight, courage and capacity to manage ourselves during difficult times.  Mindfulness enables us to achieve emotional regulation, self-awareness and the creative drive to be the best we can be.  Challenging emotions, left unchecked or ignored, can undermine our endeavours at home or at work.

Over time we can develop a regular mindfulness practice that suits our make-up and that we can undertake on a daily basis (e.g., Tai Chi, mantra meditations, chanting or yoga).  This core mindfulness practice can be supplemented by micro-practices that we engage in throughout the day (e.g., when washing our hands, during waiting times, or when boiling the jug).  The compound effect of these core and micro-practices is a calm state of mind, enhanced patience and conscious presence.

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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.

How to Overcome being Imprisoned by Self-Neglect

Edith Eger in her book The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, discusses the “the prison of self-neglect”.   Habituated behaviours that underlie self-neglect can arise through adverse childhood experiences, an abusive relationship or a deficient developmental environment.  Edith suggests that self-neglect often arises because of unmet childhood needs – specifically the need for “attention, affection and approval”.   Our own needs are neglected in order to fill the gap left by unfulfilled childhood needs.  So we pursue the “A’s” (mentioned above) at the expense of our present needs.  An aspect of self-neglect is the avoidance of expressing strong emotions for fear of causing  discomfort to others.

Factors leading to self-neglect

We might have had parents who offered conditional love – on condition that we met their high standards in sport, academic or other achievements.  Their expectations about our performance can create a dependency whereby we are forever seeking approval or acceptance.  We might have suffered neglect as a child through the conscious choice of parents or their own adverse circumstances.  This can lead to our continuously seeking attention.  In one of my workshops, one participant proved to be continually disruptive through constant challenge to anything other participants said.  It turned out she was seeking attention and approval because she was denied this as a very young child – being expected to contribute meaningfully to adult conversation when still very young.

Sometimes self-neglect can arise as a result of the role we played as a child or young adult.  Family circumstances may have led to our being the “responsible one”, “the carer” or “the earner”.  These roles may have been necessary at the time but the unspoken expectation that comes with the role can continue into adulthood.  Edith recounts the story of a client who was imprisoned by the self-expectations that arose as a result of a childhood role as the “reliable one”.  This led to continual self-neglect in pursuit of other people’s needs – often unexpressed but assumed.  The result was personal burnout as well as depriving others of the opportunity to develop independence.  Sometimes creating dependence on ourselves fulfills our desire to be needed.  This was something that Gabor Maté discussed as contributing to his need to be a workaholic medical practitioner.

Gabor maintains that underlying many addictions is an unmet need arising from early childhood.  The addiction, whatever form it takes, is an ineffectual way to address the pain arising from parental neglect, abuse or inattention.  His “compassionate inquiry” approach is designed to unearth the early triggering event(s), the resultant negative self-message and the reward sought through the addictive behaviour.

Overcoming the imprisonment of self-neglect

The fundamental rule to freeing ourselves from the prison of self-neglect, is to begin to put ourselves back into the picture, to have self and our needs as part of the equation when trying to decide how to spend our energy and time.  Edith suggests that there are a number of ways to do this:

  1. Savour the things and people in our life that bring us joy.  We can start small with a few minutes each morning spent appreciating the little things in our life –  noticing a new leaf or flower on an indoor plant, reflecting on a picture or painting that generates positive feelings, or valuing a person who has shown us kindness, thoughtfulness or generosity.  Savouring what is good in our life can extend to appreciating the development of our children, accomplishments and rewards, the wonders of our subconscious mind, the capacity to think and create and our relationships (even our relatives).  We can actively seek to let joy into our lives.
  2. Appreciating nature – nature has a healing power and enables us to cultivate all our senses and develop our sense of wonder and awe.   In nature, we can be lost in the beauty, the sounds, the textures and the smells that surround us.   We can actually find ourselves in this process of being lost in something immense and awe-inspiring that is beyond ourselves.
  3. Edith herself adopted an affirmation that expresses something of her uniqueness and what she has been able to contribute to the world.  We can all find the words to reflect the positive things we have contributed to others and what makes us a truly unique person.  In the process, we can value the people who helped make us who we are – our parents and their positive traits, our mentors and their wisdom, and our teachers who willingly shared their knowledge and insights.
  4. Reflect on an occasion where you were asked for something or to do something.  Ask yourself what were your thoughts and feelings at the time.  What was driving your choices?  How much of looking after yourself was reflected in your response.  How could you have responded in a way that did not involve self-neglect, e.g. expressing your true feelings.  Are there habituated behaviours that you engage in that continually overlook your own needs?
  5. Explore the balance in your life.  Edith suggests that we keep a record (for a short period) of how we spend our day in terms of how we allocate time to work, play and love.  Does work absorb all our time and energy at the expense of our needs for nurturing, relaxation and time to ourselves.  How often do we allow ourselves to become absorbed in a hobby, creation or charitable activities or just enjoy social activities with friends or family.

Reflection

With the busyness of life, it is so easy to lose ourselves through self-neglect. There are often hidden forces underpinning this neglect, so self-exploration is important to unearth what drives our behaviour.  As we grow in mindfulness through observation and reflection, we can gain the necessary self-awareness and insight to understand ourselves and develop the courage to make changes to the way we live our life. 

Edith maintains that we do not change until we are ready to make the change and often this is driven by a need to change habits that no longer serve us in a positive way.  Any changes we make to our behaviour, no matter how small, need to be reinforced by savouring our achievement.   From Edith’s perspective, change involves the process of “finding the real you”. 

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Image by Perez Vöcking 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.

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.

A Compassionate Approach to Addiction

Gabor Maté argues for a compassionate approach to addiction in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.   He points out that Portugal has successfully decriminalised the personal use of drugs that were previously illicit with the result that they have seen “a reduction in drug habits, less criminality, and more people in treatment”.

However, he maintains that a key success factor in this decriminalised approach is the development of effective rehabilitation processes and comprehensive resources to support them.   Such rehabilitation approaches need to be viewed as ongoing and long-term as well as “patiently pursued and compassionately conducted”.  Gabor claims too that Portugal’s success in decriminalisation of personal drug use is influencing the development  of a more compassionate approach in Norway and Canada.

Gabor contends that addictions. no matter what their form or manifestation, in very many cases have their origins in the pain resulting from adverse childhood experiences.   For example, in his book he explains that the self-harm (lacerations) employed by “Arlene” creates pain that obliterates, however briefly, “the pain of a larger hurt deep in the psyche” – a deep pain resulting from sexual exploitation when she was young.

Parents reaction to addiction suffered by their adult child or children often involves hurt or anger, instead of understanding and compassion.  This censorious stance is underpinned by self-blame and a lack of self-awareness.

Gabor maintains that parents should not be blamed for their children’s addictive behaviour – they have most likely experienced intergenerational trauma and “unwittingly bequeathed” to their children their “own unresolved or unconscious trauma”.  They have tried to cope with their own pain by what Johann Hari describes as “disconnection from childhood trauma” in his book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression.  

Adopting a holistic approach

Gabor also argues that a holistic approach to addiction in all its forms requires teaching people ways of self-care including meditation and other mindfulness practices as well as what he describes as “body-work” which covers practices such as yoga and Tai Chi and other forms of martial arts.  Included in self-care approaches would be training in nutrition and overall stress management approaches such as reconnection to nature.

While Gabor acknowledges the benefits of 12-step approaches like that adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and GROW, he asserts that these approaches are not for everyone and other methods may be more appropriate for some people.  He argues for an approach that he calls “compassionate inquiry” which is based on trauma-informed understanding and a depth of inquiry that pursues causal factors rather than just seeks alleviation of symptoms. 

The aim of compassionate inquiry is to help the person suffering addiction to identify the trauma/traumas that they have experienced early in life, to isolate the resultant negative self-messaging and to ultimately confront and name the underlying pain they are seeking to alleviate through their ineffectual addictive behaviour.

Reflection

Underpinning Gabor’s compassionate approach is his unshakeable belief, informed by research and decades of field work, that addiction “arises from thwarted love” and that it is “one of the commonest and most human manifestations of torment”.  He maintains that the addicted person is constantly seeking external solutions for their internal “insatiable yearning for relief and fulfillment” – a state he describes as the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and body-work practices such as Tai Chi we can enhance our self-awareness, reduce self-blame and increase our understanding and compassion towards ourselves and others who are addicted.

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Image by Gisela Merkuur 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.

Illness and the Impact of Our Psychological and Social Environment

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

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

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

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

The impacts of injurious psychological and social environments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

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

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

Understanding the Pain Beneath Trauma and Addiction

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

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

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

The negative self-stories that lie beneath addictive behaviour

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

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

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

Developmental trauma and worldview

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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Image by Carina Chen from Pixabay

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

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

Compassionate Inquiry as a Healing Mode for Trauma and Addiction

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

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

Compassionate inquiry to heal addiction and trauma

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

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

Paying attention to the cues

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

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

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

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

Training in compassionate inquiry

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

How Trauma Impacts Our Behaviour

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

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

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

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

Recovery from trauma and addiction

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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Image by Jubair Bin Hasan from Pixabay

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

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

Life After Grief

In a previous post, I discussed how Rosie Ayliffe converted her grief and anger after the murder of her daughter to the reform of the Australian visa system that was contributing to manipulation and abuse of overseas backpackers.  Evonne Madden, in her book Life After: A Testament to Human Resilience, recounts the stories of 60 Australians who have experienced grief after the loss of a loved one.  Their stories illustrate that grief is very individual and plays out in distinctive ways over time.  It also confirms the view that in most cases grief is not a straight-line experience – there are ebbs and flows often occasioned by trigger experiences, words or actions that lead to flashbacks and emotional pain.  

The stories in Evonne’s book reaffirm the resilience of the human spirit and confirm how many people who experience grief find healing by going outside themselves – their anger and pain – to help others in need through compassionate action.   Their grief becomes the driver of their energy to ensure that others do not experience their level of pain.   As Katherine Woodward notes, trauma can be a trigger for self-awareness and self-realisation.

Exemplars of compassionate action through grief

Evonne details the heart-breaking loss experienced by the people in her stories.  Their sadness and grief is palpable but relieved by their strength of character and resilience and by how they have managed their grief by turning to the needs of others.  There are too many stories to recount here, but the following exemplars give you some sense of the resilience and courage of the people involved and serves as a teaser to encourage you to explore Evonne’s book yourself.

  • Lushani Hewage (age 26) lost her parents and one of her sisters in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.  Her account of the day the tsunami dramatically changed her life, when the wall of water hit the bus they were travelling in, is very traumatic and heart-wrenching.  Lushani and her two surviving sisters were initially cared for by relatives in her local area in Sri Lanka.  However, she was subsequently sent with one of her sisters to live with an aunt in Melbourne.  So there was not only the loss of her parents and a sister whom she had a special relationship with, but also the subsequent separation from another sister and having to adapt to life in a totally different part of the world.  Lushani now lives in Melbourne with her partner Sankini and they are both social workers.  She makes the point that “getting over” the trauma is not really an option but life does get easier, although people become impatient with your grief and ongoing sadness.  Lushani was determined to do something good after her experience and is very committed to the idea of doing social work in the child protection area.
  • Ajak Kwai (age 51) experienced the loss of her ill mother when she was a child and as a young adult experienced the loss of many relatives who were murdered in Southern Sudan by militia.  The civil war also took her father, siblings and fiancé.  She finally moved to Australia as a refugee and is now a singer and musician and her soulful music is available on Spotify and YouTube.  She stresses the need for modern society to learn from the practice in Africa where everyone drops everything and visits the bereaved family to provide emotional support…and they don’t stop visiting.  She maintains that what the world needs today is for us to “go back to the basics of caring for one another”.  She argues that forgiveness is important because hatred and revenge not only harms other people but also yourself so that you pay a “double price”.  Ajak believes “life is incredible” and “life is a mystery” and she gives expression to these beliefs in her songs.  She is a supporter of many organisations catering for women’s rights and refugees. 
  • Gavin Blue (age 52) and his wife Kel experienced the pain and grief of losing a child to stillbirth at 33 weeks.   While the hospital staff were very caring and concerned, the photographer seemed to be going through the motions and produced photographs of the Gavin, Kel and their stillborn baby that were “very graphic and forensic” and added to the trauma of the loss of the baby, Alexandra.  Kel was not coping at all afterwards so Gavin threw himself into protecting her and getting everything done, including a video of Alexandra’s life.  Despite people unwittingly making hurtful comments, Gavin and Kel decided that they had to look beyond the words and “listen to people’s intentions” which were designed to be helpful.  Gavin found that the photos he took himself of Alexandra helped him and Kel and made people comfortable talking about the situation “which helps immensely in grief”.  This experience inspired him to start Heartfelt which involves volunteer photographers providing free photos for people who have lost a child through stillbirth or have children with very serious or life-threatening illness.

Reflection

I listened to Ajak’s soulful music while I wrote this blog.  It reminded me of the healing power of music.  So many people have expressed their pain and grief through song and instrumental music, including the great composers and modern day songwriters like Lindsey Stirling.  Gratitude journalling too plays a major role in the healing process and is a pathway to resilience and happiness as demonstrated by Lindsey’s daily journalling process.

Grief is a complex mix of emotions fluctuating constantly and expressed in very individual ways.  The depth of pain and sorrow described by Evonne can at times feel numbing but the resilience and hope demonstrated by her generous interviewees shines brightly and is overwhelmingly inspiring. 

Ajak’s song Love Not Bitterness illustrates the depth of character of these people and their commitment to life and peace.  Olivia Gilewski, who lost her mother in a train accident when she was 12 years old, advises us to choose our words and actions wisely because they will be always with us especially after a loved one dies.  Her advice is that “You’ve just got to make the best of every day.”  As we grow in mindfulness though music, meditation and reflection, we can experience healing, health and happiness and learn to appreciate the beauty of life and nature

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Image by riyan hidayat 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.