5 Essentials to Help Your Mindfulness Practice

At the start of our Mindfulness Based Symptom Management (MBSM) program, I ask the participants what they think mindfulness is. They usually say some version of “Being in the Now” or “The Present Moment”.  I ask again at the end of the eight weeks and typically they say, “It’s being aware” or “It’s knowing that everything changes – and that’s ok” or “It’s seeing what’s going on and letting it teach you.”

An academic, scholarly definition of mindfulness is a practice of attention that makes us more aware of our inner and outer experiences so that we can make wise choices and learn from the results. That may seem a lot to try to fit into two hours a week for eight weeks but somehow it does get across. Mindfulness is a practice of developing a discerning mind. And while it sounds simple, it isn’t easy.

Here are five essentials about mindfulness you may find helpful in your practice.

You’re always practicing something; it may as well be something healthy. There’s no getting around this; your brain is constantly taking information in from your inner and outer contact with the environment. When you get angry at every car that cuts you off on the highway, you’re pulling together an inner and outer set of experiences that ends with a reaction. That pattern, reinforced everyday, becomes your go-to action when you feel unfairly treated or threatened. How about building a different set of endpoint responses to those triggers?


The mind is shameless. Beginning practitioners get really upset when they first sit down and try to still the mind. It gets quite overwhelming: breathe, pay attention to the breath, come back when you wander, treat thoughts like clouds. That’s a lot of doing for a non-doing practice. It helps to see that the nature of the mind is to be active. And that it’s quite indiscriminate in where it lands or flits to next. The difficulty is not that the mind is like a drunk monkey that’s been stung by a bee. It’s that we get upset at that poor monkey and try to wrestle it to the ground. Like the nursery rhyme says: Leave it alone and it will come home.

 

 It’s all about the BEST – that’s Body-Emotions-Sensations-Thinking. In other words, it’s not just about thoughts. We tend to give our thinking brain a place of honour and trust every thought we have. Sometimes you may hear “Thoughts are not facts” as a way of unhooking from that belief in the supremacy of cognitions. In fact, the body takes the lead in how we become aware of an experience. Sensations inform the brain. Our past experiences with clusters of sensations provide us with a language that we call emotions. Thinking is a latecomer to the scene, trying to make some sense out of the clusters, looking for causes that explain their presence. Essentially, it’s easier to calm the body than to talk yourself out of a feeling you’re caught in (try yelling at someone to calm down). Practice paying attention to your body, listen closely to see if you can catch the early signals of an arising sensation that builds to a label (emotion).  Use the breath to soothe the sensation in the body.


Give up hope. That sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? Hope keeps us going so why give it up? Sometimes, as T.S. Elliot wrote, we “hope for the wrong thing.” Because we suffer, we want to stop suffering.  But when we think in this all-or-nothing way, we’re setting up expectations that can only disappoint us. So, it’s not that we should be pessimistic or inhabit an Eeyore mind. It’s about taking small steps and assessing how it’s working. Don’t expect to sit rock-solid still; that’s not the point anyway. See what minimal shift is necessary to bring some ease or relief. Stay with just this breath; don’t worry about the remaining thousand to get done before the meditation ends. Take just this step, eat just this mouthful, stay just here.

 

Be kind and cultivate skillful laziness. It’s good investment when you’re kind to yourself. The biggest fear is that if we cut ourselves some slack, we will become lazy, useless lumps on the sofa. Mindfulness is really skillfully being lazy. When we practice, we’re attending to the right and minimum dose required to see a change. It’s called a Just Noticeable Difference or JND. What’s the least intervention needed to see a shift in mood, behaviour, thinking pattern? Now listen to your inner critic. It’s likely going on a rant about how risky this laziness thing is! How are you ever going to get things done, get ahead, be successful? The inner critic is thinking in extreme terms: you must always be going at full tilt and success must come now. Skillful laziness is really skillful investment of our resources for the best outcome. What is possible in this moment, given these conditions?

 

Bonus essential 

Mindfulness is a No Fail Zone. Even when you think you aren’t practising, you are –

because you noticed you aren’t.

5 Essentials JPEG version for download

Are you weaponizing your mindfulness skills?

Kwan Yin1Allan faithfully attended each class of the Mindfulness-based Stress Management program we offer at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. He shared openly about his anxiety and insecurity as a father to three children and a son caring for ill parents. The heart of his distress though was in his relationship with Debra, his partner of 15 years; their relationship had devolved into a series of sniping comments and hurtful neglect. He wanted so much to restore the intimacy and love they had once shared. He missed how it sustained him through his demanding job and personal illness. He knew she did too; after all they seemed to do a lot of arguing over who was more unhappy in the marriage. Continue reading

I am not this body: Mindfulness for Pain Management

maple shadowPain is unavoidable. We inhabit a system that is engineered to become wonky, cranky, and otherwise uncooperative over time. We know this conceptually but not when and how it matters. Why me? What now? tend to be our responses when the body fails us – as it inevitably does. In case you think this is only a problem for aging folk or those afflicted with strange hard-to-diagnose illnesses, it’s not. Athletes injure themselves. Random acts happen to young and old alike that leave them having to reshape not only their bodies but their mental attitudes towards their entire life.

Joy is unavoidable too. We have a resilient system that is subtly wired to sense into experiences that nourish and sustain us. We don’t know this in the definition of sensing joy; we hope and believe it will be true some day – if we’re really good, work hard, and check off all the boxes that we think entitle us to joy. And it’s not just aging folk who do that. In fact, the older you get the more you begin to see that it’s not the boxes you’ve checked off that brought you joy in any lasting way. Continue reading

Self-Compassion Practices for Emotional Distress: It’s not just about being kind

leavesSelf-Compassion practices and programs are gaining momentum in psychological treatments and look like they might well become the next wave of transforming our painful feelings. Mindful Self-Compassion (1), developed by Drs. Christopher Germer and Kristen Neff, is an approach that can be both an adjunct to conventional therapies as well as a stand-alone treatment model. The interesting and very useful aspects of this approach are its applicability to our multilayered experiences of suffering. First, let’s look at what they define as Self-Compassion.

Neff (2) describes it as a three-fold system that are antidotes to the experiences that cause us suffering. (A sidebar note: Suffering is typically described as Pain multiplied by our Resistance to the reality of that pain (3)). Here’s a table that summarizes Neff’s definition of self-compassion. Continue reading

10 books that are good for your health: Mindfulness, Self-Compassion & Happiness

As we enter the New Year, let’s make 2015 a year of exploring the many gifts from skilled researchers and clinicians which can support our resolution to live better. The participants of the Mindfulness-Based Symptom Management, Burnout Resilience and Pain Management programs at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic have one wish in common: a desire to find a way to live their lives differently. In fact, this wish is not only that of the participants but also of everyone who works at the OMC. We share together the realization that despite our best intentions, we falter in caring for ourselves and others in a way that is kind, nourishing and supportive. We have strong values and tend to be committed to making ethically informed choices and yet we find ourselves wondering where all the wisdom went as we choose against those exact purposes.

If you’ve taken a mindfulness course, good start! You know over eight classes there can be shifts in your thoughts, actions and speech. You also know it’s not a quick fix and that the Ninth Class is the toughest! So to help with the rest of your practice life, here’s a collection of books that we recommend to support, boost and sustain your practice!

Mindfulness Starts Here: An eight-week guide to skillful living by Lynette Monteiro & Frank Musten. Now you didn’t think I would miss a chance to prop up our own book? If you’ve taken the 8-week program at the OMC, this is a great way to extend your practice. It also helps to come to the monthly Alumni groups! Nuff said. Let’s get on to the books you really need to get for yourself!

Leaves Falling Gently: Living fully with serious life-limiting illness through mindfulness, compassion & connectedness by Susan Bauer-Wu.  This is likely my all-time favourite. Bauer-Wu is an expert in the field of pain, oncology and mindfulness. The book is infused with compassion and an open-hearted approach to the vagaries of chronic pain. The exercises are easy and helpful, realistic and encouraging. The sections on the impact of chronic illness on memory, attention, emotions, etc. is invaluable. This book also is unstinting in its honesty about life-threatening illness and offers opportunities to change our rigid stance to the reality of living and dying.

The Practicing Happiness Workbook by Ruth Baer. This is a terrific book that brings together Dr. Baer’s skills as a clinician, methodical approach as a researcher and clear understanding as a mindfulness practitioner. I loved the set-up of the workbook because it … well, it works. Start with a nice pithy overview and then jump in at your own pace. The second section explores four very important traps that can derail our practice:  rumination, avoidance, emotion-driven behaviours and self-criticism. The section following on mindfulness skills is clearly written and I truly appreciate the inclusion of values and goals. The chapters are punctuated with stories about people with whom we can identify and the worksheets are very user-friendly. It makes me happy just to read it!

Hardwiring Happiness: The new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence by Rick Hanson. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson is well-known for his ability to pull together neuroscience and psychological mind states in a way that is immanently understandable by most of us non-neuroscientists. There are so many catch phrases used in the mindfulness circles that originate with his teachings and in his books! Velcro for bad/Teflon for good, HEAL yourself, metaphors for resilience and vulnerability, the list is endless. What is important though is his ability to explain why we act the way do and how this is hard-wired. The section “Paper Tiger Paranoia” is my favourite and has helped me out of many a flight reaction! Mostly, in this book, we get to practice the ways in which to make changes to those survival instincts and hard-wire responses to experiences that sustain and help us. If you find this book helpful (or if you’re curious), also try his new program called Foundations of Well-Being which is a year-long on-line program and worth taking.

Living Well with Pain & Illness: The mindful way to free yourself from suffering by Vidyamala Burch. This book is written by and is based on the Breathworks program developed by someone who truly understands the challenge of physical pain. Vidyamala Burch’s history is unlike anyone I’ve read about and her strength is apparent throughout the book. Chapter 2 explains what is pain and is one of the clearest and most useful descriptions available. The use of research-based information is well-placed and does not overwhelm the information in each chapter. I totally fell in love with the third chapter. It’s my favourite allegory of how we create our suffering out of pain. And Burch patiently tells the story in gentle sequences making it come alive. The exercises and case stories are accessible and very user-friendly. I prefer the book to the e-book simply because the text set up is more compelling.

Empathy: Why it matters and how to get it by Roman Krznaric. This is an important book to keep the practice of mindfulness from becoming a self-centered practice. While we start our practice because we suffer the effects of personal difficulties, it is important to see that we are created, and can be undone, in a social context of family, community and global events. Mindfulness brings our awareness to our suffering and we practice so that we don’t repeat the same cycles of interactions with ourselves and others. However the deeper intention of mindfulness is to create a compassionate world and that change can’t happen without seeing that others too want to be free of the same suffering we endure. Empathy is the capacity to walk in their shoes, to make choices that are informed by understanding that what others need is not what we think they need. The exercises and examples in the book are wonderful and challenge us to find a different way to know the world. Grow your connection with those you love and beyond!

Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert & Choden. Paul Gilbert is well-known and respected for his work on compassion and cultivating the compassionate mind. In this book, he teams with Choden, a Buddhist monk who helped develop the graduate program in mindfulness and compassion at Aberdeen University. I particularly like the way they organize the book so that the arising of compassion is a natural outcome of how we organize the world as we know it. Gilbert’s perspective of compassion as a social mentality which helps us negotiate through relationships and interactions is an important understanding. In other words, being compassionate is far from being soft and squidgy or a door mat. The exercises are nicely explained and inviting. The definitions of compassion clear up misconceptions. The development of a compassionate self (Chapter 10) is probably the most important part of the book. However, it rests on all that precedes it; I especially liked that the exercises in this chapter are also empathy cultivating ones. An important addition to your mindfulness practice!

The Mindful Way Workbook: An 8-week program to free yourself from depression and emotional distress by John Teasdale, Mark Williams & Zindel Segal. This book is a user-format version of the previously published A Mindful Way through Depression. The first section lays out the foundations and the next section takes us through the eight weeks. I liked how the issue of traps and obstacles is re-framed as “another way of knowing” which opens up the thought patterns and is subtly a practice in cognitive flexibility. It is focused on addressing depression through mindfulness however, the various exercises also might be useful for anxiety and general stress. I had trouble with the layout of the book (too many boxes for a book that wants us to get out of our mental boxes) and the excessive number of balloon quotes are distracting (not cool for a mindfulness book). I have used it as a guidebook with individual patients and found it organizes the sessions well. Be patient when you use this but do try it!

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions by Christopher Germer AND Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself by Kristin Neff. These two books come as a perfectly balanced pair. Germer approaches self-compassion with a clinical understanding of the emotional impact of our often harsh inner critic. Neff comes from the perspective of a research-based understanding of what self-compassion means and how it works. With both the experiential practice and the knowledge base to ground it, I find the practice of self-compassion inviting and easy to integrate into my life. As both Neff and Germer remind us in their workshops: don’t chose a practice that sets off an argument in your mind about it. Folded into both books is also the much-needed practice of forgiving ourselves for not being that superhuman being we think we need to be.

The Mindful Way to Study: Dancing with your books by Jake Gibbs & Roddy Gibbs. For all you students out there and those of us who are perennial students, this is a terrific guide to setting down and getting the work done. And more. I like the way this book addresses the various obstacles we encounter (traps) by setting the perspective of “gumption”. Just do what needs to be done! Well, it’s not that easy and Gibbs & Gibbs walk us through a number of gumption traps. The first one was ego (but I figure I already know how that works so I skipped it… no, not really). Check out the section on procrastination though; it’s not just about boredom or priorities! Gibbs & Gibbs’ focus on Right Effort (the last section) is helpful and has a nice balance of meditative practice with insight to our actions.

 

Solitude, Solstice & the Longest Night

tree

 

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness…

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

Wendell Berry on solitude from Brain Pickings

 

December 21 (today) will be the shortest day and longest night. As a bonus, tonight will also be the longest night in earth’s history (apparently not according to the linked article). Fascinating astronomical facts! This date, in a mind-opening way, is also the turning point at which the days begin to get longer. As poet and artist Richard Wehrman wrote, introducing his Solstice poem: At the darkest, the turn toward the light.

This time of year is also a time of contemplation, of entering into a period of reflection on the path our life has taken and the cultivation of a wish for the direction it can take. It’s ironically embedded in the most emotionally activating time of year as well. However, we also fear this opportunity for solitude and perhaps fall into the rush and chaos as a welcomed escape from our thoughts because the idea of solitude, being with ourselves, lies too close to our fear of loneliness, being alone, without support or care.

In one recent study, later refuted by Keiran Fox and Kalina Christoff, it seemed like people would prefer to avoid their thoughts to such an extent that they would rather shock themselves. Fox & Christoff re-visited the data from the original researchers and showed that the conclusions didn’t support the conclusion of the participants’ aversion to being alone with their thoughts. Fox & Christoff interpreted the data as suggesting the participants were curious about the shock itself and that several didn’t use the shock at all. Others were thinking pleasant things about weekends, etc. In other words, we don’t tend to be horribly avoidant of our thoughts however we may not be very skillful in relating to them either.

lighthouseSolitude, especially where there is no structured task or schedule, provides the opportunity for spontaneous thoughts that can play a role in creativity. We can also get so caught up in these live-streaming thoughts that we lose track of what our intention was; this is the downside of ‘mind wandering’ (MW). Typically, we believe that the alternative to mind wandering is to get control over that mental process, suppress the thoughts and re-direct ourselves back to the task at hand. In their chapter on this topic, Fox and Christoff explore how the interaction between the mind wandering part of our brain and the metacognitive (reflective, monitoring our own thoughts) is actually cooperative and symbiotic. The positive aspects of this relationship are creativity, mindfulness or insight, and lucid dreaming. Interestingly, in meditation spontaneous thoughts are present as is the awareness or monitoring of these thoughts; and, areas of the brain connected to mind wandering and metacognitive functions both are active.

This contemplative time of year offers us the opportunity to connect with these aspects of our mind. As with anything, it can be directed in a healthy way or in a way that leads us to feel bad (or worse).  This is why consistent and dedicated practice is important. More specifically, a commitment to meditative practice is crucial. Spontaneous thoughts arise and suppression never works; we need to be aware that some thoughts have a positive trajectory, some neutral and some take us down paths that are harmful to our mental health. The metacognitive practice – monitoring the quality and directionality of our thoughts – plays an important role in discerning which thoughts patterns are just re-hashing old unhelpful stories and which are healthy and creative ways of engaging in our life at this moment.

This perspective goes beyond the aphorism that “thoughts are not facts.” The existence of thoughts IS a fact. However the belief that they direct our actions is not a fact. Thoughts play an important role as indicators of wise choices, markers of health and activate our creative encounter with life.

Take this time to discover this new relationship with yourself.

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The staff and teachers of the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic send you warmest wishes for a vivid and luscious celebration of solitude as we turn toward the lightening days ahead.

Thank you for your support of the OMC and our best wishes for the New Year!

Building Safeness: How to get intimate with our inner critic

chive heart

We all want to feel safe. It’s important. When we feel safe, we feel confident and more willingly open ourselves to new experiences. In fact, feeling safe leads to the willingness to take risks – to risk being known, being seen, loving and feeling loved. As we encounter the world in all its various ways of showing us what being safe means, we learn to open and close our hearts (and minds) when we feel respected or rejected. Paul Gilbert¹, the developer of Compassion Focused Therapy, uses the term “safeness” to describe the experience of being safe. It’s different from “safety” or “safety-seeking” which tend to be what we do when we are engaged in the threat evaluation/response processes.

There are many things in our environment that we have learned are safe and many we have learned are unsafe. Hot stoves, fast-moving traffic, dark alleys and the like are easy to discern in terms of their safety. Emotion-cued environments are harder to figure out. Our childhood experiences are a fruitful ground where we learn many of our lessons about safeness and safety. Angry voices, certain words, patterns of relationships and other features of interpersonal relationships can become cues for safeness. We typically know the degree of safeness from the language and tone of the person speaking to or interacting with us. Safeness with respect to our inner dialogue is no different from our external experience.

Most people, when asked about their inner voice, smile sheepishly and confess it’s not a pleasant one. But almost immediately, they will begin to defend their not-so-silent partner. “It’s how I motivate myself.” “I’d never know how to avoid mistakes I make if I didn’t remind myself that I can screw up.” While all this is true, the sad fact is, our inner critical voice is often what keeps us from engaging with life. More than that, the inner critic leaves us feeling threatened rather than safe.

Like all relationships, our relationship with our inner critic is complicated. We suspect it’s trying to help but it sure doesn’t feel like it at times. We’d like to turn it off but we’re afraid without it we’d become a lazy lump on the couch. We want it gone forever but it’s a hard-wired part of who we are. We’d like to make peace with it but we’re not ready for that inner group hug. We think it just wants us to be careful and wise but it sounds like it’s telling us can’t do anything right, ever! And to add insult to injury, no one knows us better than that inner critic. It knows all the buttons to push to get us to start or stop. It knows our vulnerabilities and strengths, often over-emphasizing the former and diminishing the latter. It is like being inseparable from an unruly, impolite friend who has really good intentions to keep us safe but can’t create safeness. It is intimate with every aspect of who we are and that also makes it primed for self-compassion²‚³.

However, befriending a person like that is a challenge at the best of times; befriending ourselves in the worst of our times can be daunting. That’s why we need to take slow, quiet steps towards engaging with the inner critic.

Step 1. Mindfulness. It’s hard to be in the presence of harshness, so mindfulness practice helps us stay grounded and aware when the inner critic begins its monologue of dire warnings. Mindfulness of our emotions helps us stay connected with the impact of the words. It also tells us when we’ve had enough and need to get off that nasty train of thoughts.

Step 2. Acknowledge we heard its message. This sounds strange because it may feel like we’re agreeing with it. Notice we are saying, “I hear you,” and not “You’re right.” Everyone has a perspective and the point of view of the inner critic is just one perspective on our life. As we become more comfortable with acknowledging its voice, we can try to acknowledge its attempt to help. Eventually with practice, we may get to say “Thanks for alerting me. I’ve got this!” Remember we can’t fight the inner critic with brute strength; we have to soften around it.

Step 3. Strong back, soft front: respect the partnership. The inner critic is really our attempt at feeling solid in our life; that’s the strong back. We have opinions, ideas, feelings and a reality that is meaningful. We are also of a softer nature that is attentive and giving, accommodating and caring. We feel our vulnerability and openness in relationships. The balance between the strong back and soft front helps us be flexible and available emotionally.

Meditation practices you can try:

1. Lovingkindness and compassion meditations help us develop less fear of being wounded. The inner critic tries to toughen us up against external criticisms and that subtly makes these criticisms seem more threatening than they are and the wounds deeper than they might be.

2. Giving and receiving compassion meditations can help to create space and calm between ourselves and our inner critic. Although the meditations are intended to give compassion to another person in our life who needs it, we could see the inner critic as an aspect of ourselves that needs compassion too.

3. Compassion Breaks and “Soften-Soothe-Allow” meditations help to develop presence in the face of the monologue we heard internally.

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With notes from Glynn, Brittany, Mindful Self-Compassion 8-week program, Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic

¹Gilbert, Paul (2009). The Compassionate Mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. New Harbinger Publications: CA

²Germer, Christopher (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion:Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. Guilford Press: NY

³Neff, Kristin (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. William Morrow: NY