Allan 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
When I think of mental health, somehow my inner voice switches the last word to” illness.” It’s used so interchangeably that we shouldn’t be surprised about the stigma and aversion that grows around the topic. Health is never really a concern to us until it becomes an illness that needs attention. Yet, physical health devolving into physical illness is easier and more acceptable to talk about than mental health dissolving into mental illness.
The other difficulty is that wellness and illness are set up as polar opposites. It’s as if they are mutually exclusive and one is a preferred state. The radical view is that they are not even a continuum. Each arises out of a set of causes and conditions in our life. Take away one of those causes and conditions (or some of them) and our mental state will change.
Going through graduate school in psychology, I struggled with the training as it opened me up to many past experiences that I didn’t even know had caused pain and suffering. I was a child immigrant in the 60’s when being an immigrant was an unusual state and support was minimal. Where I grew up, I had been exposed various forms of violence and lived in a state of constant threat. As I progressed through my training, many emotions began to surface, which I now recognize as trauma-related. Then, however, in supervision and interactions with my classmates what was only evident was that my emotions were all over the place. I remember feeling deeply ashamed and angry, frustrated and confused. It seemed like everything I did was viewed terribly different from what I intended. I seemed like everything I said or tried to communicate came out wrong or with an inflection that was unintended. And yet, I was successful as a student, getting praise from my internship clinical supervisors, good grades, and guarded respect from professors who appeared not to be turned off by how I was.
I sought help in therapy for what I thought was Borderline Personality Disorder. Self-diagnosis an occupational hazard of being a clinical student. In my first session, I told my therapist I was there because I was “so BPD!” Even then I felt the stab of how I was stigmatizing myself and name-calling my suffering. We worked together for five years; it was a roller coaster process. His only message was that I needed to stop denigrating myself, stop buying into the propaganda in my head (and from the world around me). I didn’t “have” BPD because it’s not a virus. I wasn’t bad because I believed I was an angry person because it’s not a character flaw. (My actions were unskillful, no doubt, but that’s not part of my character; it’s a learned repretoire .)
Over time, I began to value the idea that under some conditions, I can be quite skillful. And that skillfulness ranges depending on my fatigue, awareness of my limits, and most especially on how I treat myself. Slowly I began to understand and lean with compassion towards the residue of the various traumas in my life. Depression, anxiety, perfectionism, the dark thoughts and shame about them became my friends and we sat down to tea everyday.
I’ve learned through my personal practice of mindfulness which began in the 1970’s and grew more deliberate over the years that there are storms in everyone’s life. No one is immune to pain and suffering, joy and love. Our work is to learn how to be steady in the wild winds, to bend and be flexible so as not to break, to trust the heartwood of who we are. Mindfulness teaches us that steadiness in the face of joy and woe. Self-compassion gives us flexibility so our harsh criticisms don’t leave us rigid and vulnerable.
And community. A supportive group of people who see us as valued members of a larger net is indispensable. We cannot walk these dark paths alone. We should not have to. Wellness and illness are not polar opposites. They arise out of the inner and outer landscape we travel across. And companionship helps. Immensely.
Mary Oliver, in her poem Wild Geese, writes: “Tell me about despair, yours. And I will tell you mine.” To become better at being who we truly are, we must give voice to our fears and struggles. We must gather as companions and travel with confidence through the light and dark of our lives.
Happy Thanksgiving and may we all walk together with wisdom and compassion.
Is it unethical to bring awareness to certain life circumstances?
by Lynette Monteiro & Frank Musten
The Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic Teacher Training Retreat brings out the best in our participants and this session was no different. One of the questions that arose from our examination of the impact of the various exercises we invite a class to do was particularly thought-provoking. This question is also central to refining our intention as teachers of and participants in any Mindfulness-Based program.
“What are the ethics of an exercise that brings attention and awareness to a lack in their life?”
We take many levels of our comfort for granted; Cheri Maples, co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice, calls these assumptions “unearned assets”. By virtue of our gender, race, creed, and access to education, certain avenues that get us what we need are available to us. By virtue of our education, we enjoy a “value-added” level of credibility when we speak to people. Our patients grant us, in our initial meeting, a trust and assumption that we likely are competent because of the title and degree. We don’t have to work for these “credibility assets” because they come as a package along with the labels.
The specific question asked by one of our participants was about the ethics of asking someone to do the raisin exercise if this person may be in a financially tough situation and may not have enough food at home. On the surface this may seem like a non sequitor however it raises a deeper question about the impact of our work as mindfulness teachers. What are the unearned assets we bring to class? What are the assumptions we operate from that could highlight a hardship or a lack in our participants’ lives that may not be helpful?
This is a tough and complex question. Let’s look at the intention of mindfulness. It is to bring not only awareness but also value to our life as it is. Our tendency is to only see what is missing, to see the glass half full. When we start from this stance our tendency is to continue down the path of probing for lack. “What if my participants don’t even have a glass; what if they don’t even have potable water?” This is where, we believe, the true work of practice happens. The issue is absolutely about the glass and the water. And it is neither about the glass nor the water. Continue reading
At the end of each 8-week course we remind the participants that diligence in maintaining their practice is very important. We like to say, “The half-life of the skills you’ve acquired in this class is about 3 months.” It may be anecdotal but it does seem that way when we meet in our Alumni groups. The Q&A on practice issues raises themes that are quite consistent over the various gatherings. Below are two areas that present the sticky aspects of practice after classes are over and we’re flying solo.
I’m fine when I’m meditating but as soon as I go out into the world I just can’t get back that feeling of calm.
This is really good! It’s great noticing and more than great that it is happening! Of course, you may feel surprised to hear that. The first thing we bring our attention to when we notice this fracture in our experience is that we have an expectation. I want what I had on the cushion/chair! I don’t want what is out there in the world! Meditation is supposed to keep me calm! All of this is true in a way. But – and here’s the gold nugget – it’s not the point of practice.
The second thing we do is return to our intention in practicing; it is to develop our awareness of how we get into these sticky spots, rejecting of and clinging to our momentary experiences. So, when we notice that we are fracturing off our life into good-bad spaces and times, we can meet that realization with kindness and understanding. Honestly now, who wouldn’t want to have the serenity of meditation and avoid the chaos of the world? We note that it is very understandable to want something different and we let ourselves be taught by that experience of “wanting.”
Who do we become when we don’t get what we want? Who do we become in the face of disappointment? Withdrawn? Blaming? Helpless? Curious? Motivated? Intrigued? How interesting!
How do I practice the meditations like the 3-minute breathing or the walking meditation from office to office when there just isn’t time to get it all in there?
We tend to have this idea about practice, that it is something extraordinary, sacred even. Again, although it is good to hold our practice and practice time as something of value, it is not separate from our life. If there isn’t time for 3 minutes of breathing, then go to 3 breaths or even one breath. One breath in or out, taken with gentle compassionate attention, is worth 10, 000 annoyed packages of 3-minute breathing exercises! Do what is possible. But also, make it always possible to do what is necessary. In other words, it’s important to be honest about whether we are truly crunched for time or whether we are reacting to the demands made of us – with mindfulness practice becoming the scapegoat “demand.”
As we mature in our practice, we begin to let go of the rigid structure of practice. But we aren’t there yet; at least, not a few months after the course. So it’s important to have a regular time and space in which to work on the skills until they are well-confirmed. Like anything – exercising, cooking, playing the piano – improvisation is only delicious to the senses when we’ve acquired some level of mastery. Otherwise, we’re just adding chaos to confusion!
We also want to acknowledge that life gets busy and that sacred and special time on the cushion/chair may get co-opted in very real ways. So we suggest looking at all the places we would not believe meditation is possible because it “just isn’t the way it should be”; check out those expectations.
There are no places that are sacred or defile for meditation.
This was posted earlier and it may be useful to review if you’re thinking of taking an MBSR or MBCT course.
Five Things you want to practice to get the most out of the course. And, of course, to get the most out of this one, wild, and precious life!
To practise mindfulness is to engage in our lives with responsibility and with a sense that only we can make the changes necessary. True, there are external relationships we have with various health care providers that may be significant to our well-being. We give these relationships a level of authority over the trajectory of recovery. It is also important, if not more important, that we give our inner healer the same power over our well-being. In a sense, being in wellness requires that we acquire professional-level skills to be who we already are: beings whose natural stretch is towards wellness.
The following video and its companions in the Legacy of Wisdom series are instructive and revealing about the practice of becoming our own Inner Doctor. Please enjoy them and enter this new year with a resolve to become truly professional about living deeply.
Our colleague, Maia Deurr, whose work can be seen on The Liberated Life Project, has written a terrific blog post on how to reflect on our past year and meet the year to come. No resolutions that are only going to shatter in the first few days, no promises to keep. These are lyrical and nourishing activities we can engage in so that we can celebrate and cherish our life as it is.
Maia suggests following a Reflection and Intention building process that begins with a period of contemplation – meditation, yoga, any centering activity you use as a practice. Then, she advises us to answer a series of questions that explore what has drawn us further into living fully.
For more details on how to do your year-end Reflections and Intentions visit The Liberated Life Project.
Happy New Year!