Domestic Violence: A Catalyst for Pursuing Life Purpose

The challenge we are confronted with during various stages of our life is to decide what is our purpose in life.  Finding that unique purpose can lead to a singular focus, total commitment and “unified action”, where your contribution to community – utilising your unique knowledge, skills, experiences, insights, and connections – becomes your unifying focus.  Trent Dalton, journalist and author of  All Our Shimmering Skies, tells the story of how domestic and family violence became the catalyst for Nicolle Edwards and husband Gareth to identify and pursue their life purpose in the form of RizeUp Australia, a registered charity providing concrete support to women and families fleeing domestic violence.

Trent’s story, Hands & Hearts in the Australian Weekend Magazine (12-13 December 2020), describes the practical help that RizeUp provides in terms of furnishing a house for domestic and family violence refugees.  With the help of a large social media following and a very large group of volunteers, Nicolle and Gareth provide home-making support for DV refugees when they move out of a Women’s Shelter to often-unfurnished, emergency  accommodation.  The list of furniture and accessories provided at no cost (or fuss), including bedding and basic appliances, is extensive and very impressive – all provided and set up for free through donations of goods and money and the donation of time and effort by volunteers in the RizeUp network.  Nicolle comments in the article that the “sigh of relief” of the recipient mother is motivation enough for her to dedicate herself to this life purpose.

Nicole realised that she could help domestic violence refugees and their children when she turned to social media to provide help to a DV refugee very early on (before RizeUp was created in 2015).  She was amazed at the response and with Gareth created the RizeUp network, which has now set up more than 980 homes for DV refugees and their families.  The RizeUp Facebook page provides many photos showing volunteers at work and the kind of practical home support provided by the network.   Nicole and Gareth demonstrate the strength and sensitivity required to pursue your life purpose.

My story – my experience of domestic and family violence

I experienced domestic and family violence as a child because my father, who was suffering from PTSD, had become an alcoholic. I heard the many shouting fights between my mother and father because he was spending so much of our income on alcohol.  I do recall our family at one stage living off food donations from the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  I also recall the times when my mother ended up in hospital after particularly violent arguments.   

I left home immediately after Grade 12 to study in Victoria and when I returned five years later the situation had not improved.  So, one day when my father was at work, I helped my mother pack her things and moved the both of us to a small house at the back of a shop.  The strangely happy part of the story is that after my parents divorced, my father remarried, gave up alcohol and walked every day for an hour for his physical and mental health.  He also used to drive my mother to church each Sunday after the separation.

It is only as I grew older that I realised how little support there was for my father whose nerves were shattered after serving in the Australian Army in Singapore in the Second World War.  He had been a prisoner-of-war in Changi prison for 18 months following the capture of Singapore by the Japanese.  Stephen Wynn describes life after The Surrender of Singapore as “three years of hell”.  Not long after my father’s release from Changi, he was deployed as part of the Allied Occupation Forces in Japan.

On reflecting on these early life experiences of domestic violence, I believe that they have unconsciously motivated me to work towards developing mentally healthy workplaces and communities both in my consulting and writing.  In my organisational consulting work, I have particularly worked with managers to build managerial mindfulness – consciousness about the impact that their words and actions have on the development of a productive and mentally healthy workplace.  In writing this blog, I have focused on mindfulness, mental health, trauma, and leadership as my contribution to providing individuals in the community and managers with resources, practices, and processes to create a mentally healthy life.

What is your story?

Recently, Tami Simon from Sounds True introduced a new publication written by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond who took ten years to develop and refine the reflective processes incorporated in their book.  The transformative and interactive journal, titled  What’s Your Story: A Journal for Everyday Evolution, provides a series of strategic questions to help you reflect on your life story (by theme and/or area of your life).  The deeply penetrating questions are designed to challenge self-limiting beliefs and throw light on a possible path forward.  The authors hope to enable you “to begin living your most authentic, creative, and meaningful life”.

Reflection

Sometimes the search for our life purpose is confounding and confusing – it seems to go around in circles before achieving some degree of clarity.  Our life purpose might prove illusive because it can be changing over time. As we gain greater personal insight and experience different catalytic events, we may find that what was truly purposeful and meaningful at one point in our life, is no longer adequate or energizing. As we grow in mindfulness through journalling, meditation and reflection, we can develop an expanded view of what we are capable of, build the courage to pursue our unique purpose, and positively impact others and ourselves. It is in achieving alignment with our life purpose that we find meaning and happiness.

Another useful resource is an eight-week course, Your True Calling, which is available online at Sounds True.  The author Stephen Cope, wrote the book, The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling.

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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.

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.

Healing from Trauma and Building Resilience to Manage Stress

Liz Stanley recently provided an introductory webinar for her course on Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)®.  The webinar explains the components of the course and how it helps people recover from trauma and enable anyone to build resilience and effectively manage stress.  She also discusses the traumas she has experienced, her personal search for healing and resilience and her in-depth training including her doctorate. 

The components of MMFT®

The online course covers 8 modules over 8 weeks (that you can undertake within your own time and availability).  The first four modules provide the framework to understand how stress and trauma affects us and provides an insight into the neurobiology involved.  As she explains in the webinar, stress and trauma reduce our window of tolerance (our tolerance of stress arousal).  In her view, each of us have our own window of tolerance which has been shaped from birth, and continuously widened or narrowed through our life experiences, encounter with trauma, our lifestyle choices and our stress response (creating implicit learning about what is threatening). 

If we are within our window of tolerance, we are better able to access our thinking brain (enabling accurate perception, clarity of thinking and wise decision making); when we are outside our window of tolerance we are captured by our survival brain and habituated stress responses in terms of bodily sensations, difficult emotions and harmful choices.

Liz explains that the second group of four modules of the MMFT® course deal with habits and related habituated responses, making effective decisions, managing difficult emotions and chronic pain, as well as ways to be more effective in our interpersonal interactions.  The course includes stress and trauma-sensitive mindfulness practices, ”somatic experiencing” and a unique sequence of exercises designed to achieve grounding and enable movement “from dysregulation to self-regulation”.

Liz’s course is offered through Sounds True and has been validated extensively through evidence-based research that has confirmed results in terms of improvements in cognitive performance, strengthened resilience and improved self-regulation, as well as positive developments in other areas of self-management.

Widening the Window of Tolerance

Liz explains that our repetitive experiences impact our implicit knowledge and shape our brains and neuroception (perception of threat/ safety).  We can choose experiences that are beneficial or others that are harmful – we have choice in how our brain is shaped and adapts (neuroplasticity).

In the MMFT introductory webinar and in her book, Widen the Window, Liz offers five lifestyle choices that can serve to widen our window of tolerance:

  1. Sleep
  2. Diet
  3. Exercise
  4. Awareness and reflection
  5. Social connection

She explains that the course details the beneficial effects of each of these elements and also the detrimental effects caused by their absence or deprivation.  She particularly notes the benefits of awareness and reflection.  Liz explains that awareness can be built through mindfulness practices, Tai Chi and yoga while reflective practices involve reflective thinking such as journalling, reading poems, reflecting on scriptural passages or work experiences and their implications, or maintaining some form of gratitude diary.  She highlights the benefits of mindfulness and reflective practices in terms of calmness, clarity, self-awareness, focus, resilience and intention building.

One of Liz’s key messages is that resilience is something that we can learn and develop through beneficial choices.  The result is that we will be better able to manage stress, heal from trauma and access our thinking brain which enables us to think clearly and creatively and choose wise actions – rather than be captive to stress-induced confusion and harmful habituated responses.

Reflection

Liz’s course focuses on how to heal from past, stressful experiences and how to deal effectively with future stressful situations, whether internal (e.g. chronic anxiety) or external (e.g. job loss or interpersonal conflict).  She emphasises the need for consistency not only in making beneficial lifestyle choices but also through engaging in regular mindfulness and reflective practices.   As we grow in mindfulness and the associated awareness of thoughts, emotions, and bodily responses, we can widen our window of tolerance and deal more effectively with the stressors in our life.

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Image by Candid_Shots from Pixabay

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

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

The Pandemic and Narrowing of the Window of Tolerance

David Treleaven and Liz Stanley discussed the current pandemic In their interview podcast on Widening the Window of Tolerance.  They both asserted that COVID-19 had effectively narrowed the window of tolerance of many people.  There are many people who are becoming increasingly stressed and traumatised by unfolding events, whether because of the death of relatives and friends, loss of a job, dislocation from their normal place of work (and way of working) and/or stringent “lockdowns”.

Narrowing the window of tolerance

In these very challenging times, people are becoming controlled by their “survival brain” – resorting to a fight, flight or freeze response.  Their window of tolerance is becoming narrowed, both in terms of their inner tolerance of challenges and external tolerance of differences.  Everything has been “thrown up in the air” so that they have lost their grounding in accurate perception and balanced body sensations. 

Polarisation , racism, and hate thrive in this disrupted state as people seek refuge in their “own tribe” (flight) and attack others who are different from themselves (fight).  Liz suggested that many people are “uncomfortable in their own skin” so that lockdowns and movement restrictions , creating disconnection, exacerbate the tendency to dysregulation (inability to control emotions).   The sense of hopelessness and helplessness in facing continuous and growing uncertainty adds to the incidence of anxiety and depression.

A compounding factor is that social media becomes what Liz calls an “echo chamber” – it gives unregulated voice to “dysregulated communications” that increase the tendency towards polarisation.  People retreat to social media and television only to find that these media are increasingly disorientating and disturbing.    

Further compounding the issues for individuals is the fact that we tend to make a “bargain” with ourselves – e.g. we can put up with lockdown for three weeks by adding some new routines such as working different hours, taking more regular breaks and expanding project timelines.  However, when other people blatantly and inconsiderately breach lockdown regulations or social distancing requirements leading to further lockdowns, conforming people can feel betrayed – intensifying a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

Hope and widening the window of tolerance

In the previous post I discussed trauma-sensitive mindfulness and widening the window of tolerance.    Liz provides several strategies in her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.  In the interview podcast she shared some of her own strategies for becoming grounded during the current health and economic crisis – mindfulness meditation, gardening, walking and playing with the dog, and focusing on connectedness to others.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® provides detailed strategies and tools to navigate effectively through times of trauma and stress.  She makes the point that whenever we are controlled by our “survival brain”, we are disconnected from our “thinking brain” and shut off from the opportunity to access our creativity and ingenuity. In discussing “hope” in the current challenging times, David noted that the tendency to “hyperfocus on what is not working” (as he has done at times) tends to narrow the window of tolerance and our capacity to cope.  He suggests that accessing stories of successful transition can help to widen our window of tolerance, e.g. successful career changes by people who have lost their jobs. Another strategy that he suggests is to effectively reframe what is happening.  By way of example, he draws on the comments of Adrienne Maree Brown in her article on living through the unveiling:

Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered, we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

Liz reinforces this view when she suggests that it is really only in times of turbulence when everything seems to be “thrown up in the air”, that genuine and sustainable change can happen.

Reflection

As David suggests, we can choose to stay in the fog bank by continuing to absorb negative messages, both external and internal, or we can free ourselves from this befuddled state by growing in mindfulness and developing our own strategies to build resilience and stay grounded.

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

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

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

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and the Window of Tolerance

In the previous blog post I discussed several resources on the topic of trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of these was David Treleaven’s Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast which includes interviews with people who have expertise in the area or a related area.   In a recent podcast, David  had a conversation with Liz Stanley who not only experienced very considerable trauma, the impact of mindfulness meditation on her traumatic experience but also has developed her own resources and training for people, both civilians and military personnel, who have experienced trauma.  The conversation with Liz on the topic of Widening the Window of Tolerance draws on her personal experiences, study and training and incorporates ideas from her training program and her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.

The Window of Tolerance

The concept of the Window of Tolerance has been attributed to Dan Siegel, clinical psychologist and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), UCLA.  Dan is the author many books, including Aware: The science and practice of presence.  Many people, including David Treleaven and Liz Stanley, have applied the concept of the Window of Tolerance in their research and training in relation to trauma-sensitive mindfulness.

The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (nicabm) provides an infographic that illustrates the concept in a very clear and easy-to-understand way.  They explain that the window of tolerance is about our capacity to deal with the challenges and stresses of the moment and take wise action to deal with them.  When stress takes us outside our window of tolerance we can experience hyperarousal (related to the fight/flight response) which manifests in uncontrolled anger, emotional overwhelm, or extreme anxiety; or, alternatively, experience hypoarousal (related to the freeze response) which manifests in the body trying to shut down resulting in numbness, “zoning out” or “spacing out”.  

The Attachment and Trauma Treatment Centre for Healing (ATTCH), drawing on the work of Dan Siegel and colleagues, provides a more detailed explanation of the concept in an article titled, Understanding and Working with the Window of Tolerance.  Pooky Knightsmith, on the other hand, provides a simple explanation in her short video on the window of tolerance and how to apply it to managing our emotions in everyday life (for those who are not experiencing trauma or trauma stimuli).

Trauma and narrowing of the window of tolerance

In her podcast interview. Liz reinforced the view that trauma causes a narrowing of a person’s window of tolerance.  She explained that she is a living example of someone who has experienced multiple traumatic events and who tried to cope in the only way she knew how, conditioned as she was by familial and social determinants.  Liz suffered an incredible range of traumatic experiences – active military duty in Asia and Europe, PTSD,  a near-death experience (NDE), rape, and whistle-blower harassment as a result of formally complaining about sexual harassment by her senior officers.

Liz described her response in terms of the compulsivity that comes with hyperarousal (which can occur when a person is outside their window of tolerance).  Instead of dealing with her traumatic stress, she intensified her activities, completing two undergraduate degrees simultaneously.  She explained that like a lot of people, she “compartmentalised” the stress, suppressed it and just kept going harder than ever, managing on two hours sleep each night – she “soldiered on”, both literally and metaphorically.

Liz had to make changes when she temporarily lost her eyesight – something she described as “cosmic coping pain” when her body which had “borne the brunt” of her hyperactivity decided “enough was enough”.  It was then that she explored mindfulness and researched trauma and trauma healing.

Liz explained “trauma” as impacting “neuroception” – “how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life threatening”.  In effect, trauma can distort our neuroception and effectively narrow our window of tolerance.  She explains the effect in terms of our “thinking brain” and our “survival brain”.

Our thinking brain enables us to analyse, make decisions, accurately perceive stimuli, and take wise action; our “survival brain” responds to perceived threats with the fight/flight/freeze response.  With trauma, the connection between the two is “compromised” so that, for example, seemingly harmless stimuli can be perceived as a threat and engender an inappropriate response negatively impacting a person’s health, relationships and capacity to undertake their work.   When we perceive a situation as hopeless or ourselves as powerless, our survival brain and nervous system can become flooded with heightened “emotional arousal”.

Liz explains, however, that when the thinking brain and survival brain are in harmony and working together, we have a wider window of tolerance – e.g. better tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty and the ability to identify and make effective choices, build sustainable connections, and perform optimally. 

Experience of mindfulness for dealing with trauma

Liz turned to mindfulness meditation to help her cope with her traumas which had deep-seated antecedents in the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by her father and grandfather (along with all the distorted coping mechanisms and fractured relationships that this entailed). Her initial experience with mindfulness was one of helping her to achieve some degree of self-awareness and associated self-regulation.  However, over time, she found that her “survival brain” took over as it began to “peel back deeper layers” – deep emotional scars hidden behind her hyperactivity (just as the happy-go-lucky “joker” or “larrikin” can hide the deep emotional pain of depression).

As some mindfulness practices acted as “trauma stimuli” she experienced panic and shallow breathing in-the-moment and flashbacks, nausea, claustrophobia, and inability to sleep for days afterwards.  Liz explained that a potential problem with mindfulness done in isolation and without appropriate modifications can lead to such heightened emotional awareness and arousal that the traumatised person can lose their ability to regulate their emotions and their unhealthy condition can be exacerbated rather than diminished, both mentally and physically.

Developing a trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness training

Liz explained that she spoke to scientists and neuroscientists, explored multiple skills and techniques, and wrote a book about her experiences and her journey out of trauma disablement.  She found that the myths surrounding mindfulness could make matters worse unless the mindfulness trainer recognised the impact of traumatic experience on a person’s window of tolerance.

In her book on widening the window, she draws on her own experiences and stories from people she has trained in a areas such as healthcare facilities and the armed forces.  Liz maintains that you can build resilience even in stressful jobs or when healing from traumatic experience(s).  She provides strategies involving paying attention in certain ways to increase the capacity to access choice and creativity and to make courageous decisions while effectively connecting with others through curiosity, openness, and compassion.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® which was developed in 2008 and evaluated on four occasions by neuroscientists and stress experts is now available online through Sounds True.  The comprehensive course includes video training and live sessions on topics such as resilience, stress and trauma recovery, effective decision making and relationship building along with “new tools for successfully navigating the interpersonal aspects of stress, trauma, emotions, and conflict”.

Reflection

When you first hear about the potential harmful effects of mindfulness meditation training for trauma sufferers, you can understandably become concerned about conducting mindfulness training for any group.  Alternatively, you might initially dismiss the trauma-sensitive mindfulness movement as a movement to counter the growing global popularity of mindfulness.  However, the evidence to support the trauma-sensitive approach is growing and cannot be ignored.

On the other hand, both Liz and David strongly encourage practitioners not to be put off from training others in mindfulness by this new information nor to behave as if they are “walking on eggshells”.  They strongly encourage mindfulness trainers to persist, especially in these challenging times when mindfulness and resilience is needed by some many people.  They do, however, suggest to proceed with “some discernment”, develop increased awareness of trauma and its impacts, learn about new tools available for trauma-sensitive mindfulness training and intensify their own efforts to grow in mindfulness so that they can train with increasing awareness, insight and sensitivity.

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Image by skeeze 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.

Resources for Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

The core resource that I have used to understand and practise trauma-sensitive mindfulness is the work of David Treleaven.  David experienced trauma as a child and was a committed to mindfulness meditation practice which he found to be essential for healing trauma, but of itself insufficient.  His own clinical practice as a psychotherapist working with trauma sufferers confirmed this view of the essential nature of mindfulness meditation but its insufficiency in healing trauma sufferers.  David has dedicated his life’s work to researching and educating others about the relationship between mindfulness meditation and trauma.  This has culminated in his book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing and a website with additional resources. 

The potential for harm to trauma sufferers during mindfulness meditation

In his book and a free webinar on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, David explains that a lack of understanding by mindfulness trainers of the relationship between trauma and mindfulness meditation can result in overwhelm for a current or former trauma sufferer.  This overwhelm can be manifested in heightened anxiety, dissociation, or emotional dysregulation – the inability to control emotions elicited by a trauma stimulus.  Harm to the trauma sufferer by a meditation teacher can be exacerbated by a lack of understanding of trauma and perpetuation of the myths surrounding mindfulness meditation.  Typical responses that show this lack of understanding and sensitivity are statements like, “Stick with it” (by implication, “if you persist, your trauma response will go away”) or “Most people find this meditation relaxing and calming” (by implication, “there must be something wrong with you”).

The difficulty is compounded by the incidence of trauma and related adverse childhood experiences (ACE).   One study of 17,000 members of an integrated health fund found that two thirds had experienced an adverse childhood experience and 20% had experienced more than three such events.  There is now an ACE instrument whereby people can identify the number and type of ACE’s they have experienced in a lifetime.  David mentions other research that indicates that everyone will have at least one traumatic experience in their lifetime.  He goes on to say that the implication of this is that in any room of people practising mindfulness meditation, there will more likely be at least one person suffering trauma.  Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections, identifies disconnection from childhood trauma as one of the seven social causes of the pervasiveness of depression in society today.

The three myths about mindfulness meditation and trauma

In the 60-minute webinar on his website, David identifies three myths about mindfulness meditation that have been perpetuated in the popular press and in mindfulness training.  The three myths are as follows

  1. The Panacea Myth – the belief that mindfulness meditation will heal all kinds of stress, even stress generated by trauma.  David’s own experience and his clinical experience working with trauma sufferers reinforces the fact that mindfulness meditation alone will not heal trauma – mindfulness meditation processes need to be modified and, in some cases, supplemented by other methodologies such as professional psychological support.
  2. The Breath Myth – the belief that breathing is emotionally neutral.  David explains that because the respiratory system is biologically proximate to the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for excitation of our “flight/ flight/freeze” response) “close and sustained focus on the breath” can re-traumatise an individual for whom “breath” is a trauma stimulus. He states categorically and importantly that “people have different relationships to breath at different moments”.  He encourages the listener to experiment with this throughout the day to confirm that our breathing can be relaxed, tense or emotionally neutral at any point in a day.
  3. The Sufficiency myth – the belief that mindfulness meditation alone is sufficient to heal trauma.  David draws on case examples to illustrate the need for modifications to mindfulness meditation practice and the introduction of additional “self-regulation” tools to enable a person to heal from trauma.

Overall strategies to develop trauma-sensitive mindfulness training practices

David and other authors, practitioners, and researchers provide a range of strategies to “do no harm” when educating others in mindfulness meditation.  Here are some key strategies:

  • Understand trauma – First and foremost, understand trauma and its components on a biological, psychological, and social level.  Without this understanding, it is difficult to develop the sensitivity and flexibility required to do no harm when facilitating a mindfulness meditation session.  Associated with this, is the need to understand trauma-sensitive mindfulness and different strategies that can be adopted by mindfulness trainers and educators.
  • Provide choice re participation – this can be as basic as the freedom not to participate in any or all mindfulness practices on a particular occasion.  It can be the freedom to choose to close your eyes or leave them open (downcast or in wide-ranging exploration) and/or the option to sit, stand, walk  or lie down during meditation practice.  David points out that choice reinforces a sense of agency and is an important and healing aspect of mental health.  He also warns about the potential of offering too much choice in one session which can result in stress for participants, particularly those who already experiencing anxiety (David learned this by making this mistake himself in his zeal to provide agency).
  • Provide choice of anchors – this is a key area of choice that not only recognises that some anchors can be trauma stimuli for some individuals but also that anchors in meditation are an area of personal preference (what works for one person does not work for another).  Anchors enable meditators to restore their focus when they have been diverted by a distracting thought and/or emotion.
  • Adopt modifications to mindfulness meditation practices when needed – In the webinar mentioned about, David provides examples of how he has been able to offer modifications to mindfulness meditation practices for particular individuals when working one-to-one, including  allowing brief breaks to walk around, suggesting a shift in posture and encouraging the use of deep breathing at different intervals or at appropriate moments.  Sam Himelstein, who works with traumatised teenagers, has found, for example, that where a teenager cannot talk about, or focus on their feelings about, their traumatic experience, listening to appropriate music together can be relationship building and enable progress to be made in healing teenage trauma.
  • Develop awareness of principles, guidelines and practices for trauma-sensitive mindfulness – David provides a comprehensive, two-part, online program for training mindfulness practitioners in trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  He also provides a free Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast featuring  people such as Liz Stanley on Widening the Window of Tolerance and Sharon Salzberg on Loving-Kindness Meditation.   Sam Himelstein, author of Trauma-Informed Mindfulness With Teens, offers both guidelines and principles to enable mindfulness trainers and educators to develop the awareness and sensitivity to work with people who have experienced trauma.

Reflection

Reading about the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma-sensitive mindfulness made me realise that I had suffered multiple traumas as a child and that my five-years’ experience in daily mindfulness meditation and Gregorian chant as a contemplative monk in the late 1960’s had helped me to heal from these traumas. 

Recently, I had two participants out of a group of 20 in a management training program who openly stated at the beginning of the program that they suffered from chronic anxiety – one of whom experienced trauma as a result of their manager shouting at them and abusing them in public.  This facilitation experience confirmed the need to modify the training program and also led me to further explore anxiety through Scott Stossel’s book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope and Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind.  This book helped me to become more aware of the pervasiveness of trauma-induced anxiety across the world, intensified by the global pandemic, and how such anxiety can pervade every aspect of an individual’s life.

I have also witnessed two situations of emotional dysregulation during training courses when individuals have experienced a trauma stimulus – one during a singing course when a person experienced acoustic trauma and another where someone experienced re-traumatisation during observation of a success posture exercise being undertaken by another individual with the guidance of a workshop facilitator.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and research, we can become more self-aware, develop insight and sensitivity to work with people who are experiencing trauma and anxiety and build the flexibility and confidence to adopt mindfulness practices and approaches that are more trauma-sensitive.

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Image by Maria Karysheva 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.

Benefits of Body Scan Meditations

Body Scan meditations take many forms but typically involve a process of progressive noticing of parts of the body, usually beginning with the feet.  A body scan meditation can be undertaken anywhere or at any time and can be brief or extended.  One of its advantages is that it can be easily integrated into other forms of mindfulness practices such as gratitude meditation or loving-kindness meditation.  It can also be undertaken while lying down or sitting on a chair (e.g. in a workplace).  A powerful example of the benefits of this form of meditation is provided by Tara Healey who offers a guided meditation incorporating a 10-minute full body scan.

What are the benefits of body scan meditations?

There are many benefits that accrue from this form of meditation and these benefits are typically mutually reinforcing.  I will discuss several of the benefits here, but the real test is to try different forms of body scan and select one that is appropriate for the time you have available and your needs at the time.  A daily practice will be habit forming so that in times of stress you can automatically drop into a body scan.

  • Relaxation: the body scan is often described as a form of progressive relaxation as you consciously progress from your feet to your head paying attention to parts of your body, e.g. your toes on your left foot.  The very act of noticing serves to relax the different parts of the body as you progress.  Michelle Maldonado, when discussing self-care, suggests that a body scan can be used by people who have difficulty going to sleep in these challenging times. 
  • Tension release: some forms of body scan involve identifying different parts of the body where tension is being experienced in the form of tightness, ache, pain, or soreness.  This approach involves noticing these specific physical tension points so that you can consciously release them.  Because of the close mind-body connection, the release of physical tension can also serve to lessen sources of mental tension such as anxiety, fear or worry.  Deepak Chopra maintains that “there is no mental event that doesn’t have a biological correlate” – in other words, our thoughts and feelings are automatically manifested in our body.
  • Body awareness: as you develop the habit of a body scan, you increase your body awareness.  Some forms of this meditation focus on body sensations as you progress through the scan. In this way, you become more conscious of how your body is reacting to your daily experiences – often an aspect of your daily living that is outside conscious awareness.  Thus, the body scan is a route to developing mindfulness through heightening awareness of your body and its various sensations. 
  • Being present: body scan helps you to be in-the-moment, not distracted by thoughts of the past or anxiety about the future.  Focusing on body sensations such as heat or energy in various parts of your body (such as when your fingers touch), can enable you to become really grounded in the present moment.
  • Building capacity to focus: the act of conscious noticing of parts of the body, builds the capacity to focus – a key component of achieving excellence in any endeavour.  Learning to pay attention to what is going on in your body builds your awareness muscle and can help to reduce debilitating habits such as procrastination.
  • Developing self-awareness: this is a key element in the process of developing self-regulation.  As you develop self-awareness, you become more conscious of what triggers negative emotions for you and are better able to build your response-ability, thus controlling how you respond in specific situations.   You can become aware, for example, that particular situations make you “uptight” and learn what it is about those situations that contribute to your body and mental stress.
  • Dealing with trauma: body scan is a form of somatic meditation that is often employed in helping people who have suffered trauma or adverse childhood experiences.  Trauma and associated experiences leave deep imprints on your body, and mindfulness activities such as body scan can help to reduce this scarring and release harmful emotions.

Reflection

There are many benefits that accrue from the use of body scan meditations.  However, the benefits are intensified with daily practice.  As we grow in mindfulness through body scan meditations, we can develop self-awareness, release tension, improve self-regulation, build our body awareness, and heighten our capacity to be in the present moment.  In this way, we can learn to focus our mind and energy and overcome the dissipating effects of distractions and challenging emotions.

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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.

Tuning into our Sense of Well-Being

Diana Winston in a guided meditation podcast from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center focuses on Accessing Our Fundamental Well-Being.  She likens this process to tuning into a wellness radio station that is always there.  In these challenging times, however, we are often tuned into the “station” that evokes anxiety, fear, distress and unease.  Diana points out that much of what is happening in the world around us is outside our control – by focusing on the “station” that generates challenging emotions, we are moving further and further away from our fundamental well-being.  She offers a mindfulness process to enable us to tune into our sense of well-being that is always accessible to us, if only we would open our awareness to what resides within us – a process she calls natural awareness.

Guided meditation on accessing our sense of well-being

Diana guides us through this meditation by offering a series of steps:

  1. Grounding: beginning with a few deep breaths and sensing the in-breath and out-breath, you can move your attention to the rest of your body.  Here the focus is on the sensation of your body touching parts of your chair and the floor. 
  2. Embracing feelings of warmth: instead of paying attention to tension points, in this exercise you focus on the parts of your body where the sensation is one of warmth and feeling good, e.g. the tingling in your hands or fingers or the solidity of your feet on the floor.  The idea here is to soak up the sense of well-being that these bodily sensations generate.
  3. Choosing an anchor: you will find that your attention wanders from time to time, e.g. planning your day instead of being in the moment.  You can choose an anchor such as your breath, the sensation of your fingers touching each other or the surrounding sounds to bring your attention back to the present moment experience of well-being.  If you have experienced trauma or had an adverse childhood experience, then it pays to be very conscious of the anchor you choose – you need to avoid an anchor that will act as a trigger to relive a traumatic event.
  4. Revisiting an experience of well-being: once you have chosen an anchor and absorbed a present moment experience of well-being, you can recall a past experience of well-being.  It could be walking along a bayside esplanade in the early hours of the morning, an enjoyable meal with friends, an experience of being-in-the-zone in a sporting activity or listening to classical music or recorded sounds of nature.  Whatever the well-being experience, try to recall as much of the detail as possible – the bodily sensations and positive emotions you experienced – and become absorbed in your sense of well-being.

Reflection

We can experience many instances of well-being throughout our day or over a week.   However, we are often not consciously aware of the positive feelings, strength and equanimity that these experiences generate.  One strategy to capture the moment and the well-being feeling is to express gratitude for all the elements that make up your experience – e.g. if you are having a bayside walk, you can be grateful for the cool breeze, the reflections in the water, the bird life surrounding you, the enjoyable company and the beauty of the sunrise.  As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to consciously absorb the profound sense of well-being at the centre of our being and draw strength and resilience from this source.  Diana reminds us to let joy and wellness into our life.

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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.

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.

Creating a Positive Future in a Climate-Changed World

Diana Winston recently provided a meditation podcast entitled, Envisioning a Positive Future in Our World.  The podcast was timely given the devastating fires across Australia in the months preceding and following the presentation and the ongoing challenge of gaining control over fires that continue to rage.  Diana’s guided meditation was a part of the weekly podcasts offered by MARC, UCLA.  Diana emphasised the need to draw on mindfulness for strength and resilience, to envisage a better future and to collaborate to achieve a better world.

The immeasurable impact of the Australian bushfires

The devastating impact of the Australian bushfires and wildfires was brought into sharp relief by the ABC Four Corners© program, Black Summer, aired on 3rd February 2020.  The program incorporated video footage from various areas and stages of the fires along with discussions by people who had survived the fires and lost their homes and/or family members, firefighters who described what it was like to be in thick of the fires, evacuation centre volunteers and elected officials living in areas impacted by the fires. 

Michael Pengilly, Mayor of Kangaroo Island in South Australia, summed up the extent of the physical devastation when he said:

So far this bushfire season, almost 12 million hectares have burned.  At least a billion native animals have died.  More than 3,000 homes have been destroyed and 33 people have lost their lives.

He pointed out that there were still bushfires creating havoc across Australia at the time of the TV program. 

Firefighters and people who had lost their homes and loved ones spoke of the trauma resulting from the fires, the fear of losing their lives, the 48 hours of blackness and the suffocating smoke that burned into your throat and lungs.  Aaron Salway, who lost his father and brother in the bushfires, spoke of the immeasurable impact on themselves and children who have experienced and survived the fires:

This fire I’ll never forget.  I don’t think my kids will ever forget it. It’s something that’s going to be scarred into my brain.  I don’t ever want to see it again.

When you see pictures of 60 metre high flames; raging fires driven by gale force winds (in excess of 80 kph); exhausted firefighters who have just heard that two of their colleagues had died in a fire truck rollover caused by a fallen tree; and flying embers moving at high speed horizontal to the ground, you understand that the emotional scars are deep and very real. 

Some of the lessons from the Australian bushfires

The fires brought to the fore the courage and resilience of individuals and communities when confronted with a crisis of this scale.  One such inspiring example was that of members of a Muslim Community who travelled for five hours to cook for exhausted firefighters in East Gippsland in Victoria and arranged five truckloads of donated goods to be delivered to people in fire-affected communities.

The firefighters (many of whom were volunteers) who risked their lives, and in some cases lost their lives, showed incredible commitment to helping others to deal with the frightening challenge of the fires raging out of control.  

One of the key lessons of the fires was what people could achieve when they pulled together, pooled their resources, supported each other emotionally and concerned themselves with the safety of others.  The questions and answers during the video episode highlighted some other key lessons:

  • The climate-changed world is a “new normal”
  • Unless people of different political persuasions can pull together and collaborate, there is no way that the situation can be redressed and the prognosis for the future be improved
  • Leaders at every level need to move beyond petty differences and demonstrate true leadership – marshalling committed followers to work towards creating a positive future
  • Australia must find ways to tap into the indigenous knowledge of landscape management – learning about and respecting the environment and related ecosystems.

Tackling climate change as individuals

In introducing her podcast, Diana highlighted an article by Emma Morris in the New York Times on January 10, 2020.  In the article, titled  How to Stop Freaking Out and Tackle Climate Change, Emma provides a sound five-point plan that individuals can pursue to move beyond paralysis by fear to constructive engagement:

  1. Ditch the shame
  2. Focus on the systems, not yourself
  3. Join an effective group
  4. Define your role
  5. Know what you are fighting for, not just what you are fighting against.

The last point demands moving beyond blaming to collaborative endeavour.  Emma’s plan shows what individuals can do to create a positive future for their children and grandchildren.

Diana draws on this discussion to incorporate a visioning exercise in her guided meditation.  After an introductory period focused on becoming grounded, Diana suggests that people engaging in the meditation begin to envision what a renewed environment would look like in terms of flourishing trees, clean air, running water, clear skies, happy children, healthy and diverse wildlife, numerous birds and butterflies – a very different picture to one of darkened skies, dense and suffocating smoke, children distressed about their future environment, blackened trees and flora and burned/dead animals (many of them in danger of extinction).  Diana maintains that the future is ours to create.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can build our resilience; better appreciate our connectedness to others and our natural world; develop our motivation to collaborate and take compassionate action; overcome our biases and assumptions; and develop our personal role in helping to shape a positive future in our climate-changed world.

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Image by Johannes Plenio 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.