Into the Magic Shop by Dr. James Doty, founder and director of The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), captivates from the first page and continues at an unrelenting pace through Doty’s life, beginning with a disadvantaged childhood to his current work as a leader in the field of compassion training. The book opens with a searing description of brain surgery he conducted on a 4-year-old, intense not because of any tired trope about blood and gore but in how it stands as a practice of the heart. This is Doty several years away from the pivotal point in his life: a 12-year-old discovering from a loving presence the mind’s ability to transform itself.
We are proud to celebrate our 10th anniversary of Teacher Training and welcome our 2015 cohort of mindfulness teachers who completed the M4 training requirements in the first full 3-day training retreat. Congratulations to all and we look forward to an on-going sharing in your insights and great work! Many thanks as well to our coach teachers, Brittany Glynn, Lakshmi Sundaram, Sheila Robertson, and Jessie Bossé.
Self-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
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.
(This is a transcript of talk given at the inaugural meeting of Mindfulness Ottawa, Ottawa ON 2012 November 21. The preliminary section on “laying down the path by walking” has been excluded.)
Let me share here what we have distilled out of 10 years of our path – what Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi calls “one continuous mistake.”
Mindfulness-Based Interventions are composed of three components:
1 – Contemplative practices, in particular sitting, walking, lying down meditations;
2 –Buddhist insight that experience can be perceived in this moment through our six senses, is knowable, and constructed or an emergent property of a myriad of sensations; and
3 – Western psychological theories that propose experiential avoidance is the root of our psychological difficulties.
These three components underlie the various forms of Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs). Specific programming may hold one or the other of these components in the foreground but that’s a reflection of the individual intent of the program. This model is not just about what we do in teaching mindfulness skills; it is also about who we are. Furthermore, it applies to us as individual teachers of mindfulness practices and – most important – as an evolving community of practitioners.
First, to evolve from our complex history and emerge as beings open to intimate connections, we – as teachers of mindfulness – are called upon to cultivate a contemplative life, engaging in practices that steady us in the face of personal and professional challenges.
Second, to co-create a community that is supportive and compassionate, we need to examine our experience and relinquish our perceptions that we are separate from one another. We need to begin to see ourselves as emergent properties of an innumerable set of interactions. This, more than anything else, calls forth the practice of sila or ethics. It is not a call for moral constraints or moral code but of a considered approach to what brings us mutual care and encouragement. I’ll expand on that in a moment.
Third, we are not immune to our own tendencies to experiential avoidance. As health care providers, we have both personal and professional agendas that set our intentions when we teach. We have our fears of disappointing, not meeting expectations, feeling insecure.
We slide into adaptations when we are uncertain of the impact of what we are doing. And, this is our work: to face our own nature and be intimate with it. To bring best practice to our work, we begin by reaching deep into our professional training – whatever that may be – and stepping out from there. We remember – the meaning of sati or mindfulness – that our love for this mindful path arises from our passion for what we already do for others.
Now, let me return to ethics, the fire in the heart of mindfulness:
Laying down the path to community is a challenging one. Laying down the path to a compassionate community can be both challenging and threatening to many who may see it as mushy tree-hugging.
In Buddhist philosophy, ethics is made up of compassionate action, discerning livelihood, and compassionate communication. However, in a market economy, it is a challenge to turn away from our survival-derived impulses to competitiveness, ownership, and exclusion. Continue reading
We’re introducing a new series – Mindfulness Mythbusters – to go along with Tangled Thoughts and Frazzled Feelings. Newcomers to the practice of mindfulness have many terrific questions about what is supposed to happen in practice and, in this series, we will try to address some of them – without giving away any secrets of the Universe of Mindfulness!
The most common question asked after a week of practice (or earlier) is whether our minds are supposed to go blank. In fact, many people come into a mindfulness course hoping that they will be free of all this thinking, thinking, thinking. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Our heads are filled up with an incessant buzz of narratives, stories, conversations, and sometimes lyrics of songs we’d rather not hear! It’s exhausting.
In one of our classes, co-teacher Brittany Glynn said,
“Mindfulness is not about being thoughtless.”
This statement works at so many levels. The prevalent myth about mindfulness is that we will have a thought-free mind. And, there’s a second myth that Brittany is pointing to: being mindful is not about being self-absorbed.
Let’s tackle that first level. Mindfulness is not about being thoughtless or thought-free.
When we practice, we bring our attention to the breath first so that we can strengthen and stabilize our attentional skills. Trying to blank out our mind messes up that practice. Bringing our attention back over and over again requires thought. We need to notice we have wandered off, then we need to encourage ourselves to return. Just as in physical life, we set about a task like lifting a box by creating a thought stream of intention, attention, and approach, our mental life requires the same strategy.
Paying attention to the breath at my nostrils… oh… gone away… OK… come back to the nostrils… I’m never going to get this… Oh a judgmental thought… OK… come back….
Thoughts in this case are the tools we use to strengthen the “pay-attention” muscle. And, we’re staying lightly vigilant for those thoughts that can derail our practice by creating trains (of thoughts) that take us away into dark neighborhoods. You might consider this a type of fighting fire with fire; a skillful thought is used to stop the spread of unskillful ones.
When we hear the term “empty mind,” it helps to understand that what is empty is not the mind itself. What we empty the mind of are the restrictions we place on ourselves. A different way of saying this is that the mind is boundless. It can hold everything and our work is in being steady in the face of all it holds.
You may remember the Rumi poem, The Guesthouse. Rumi invites us to welcome “the dark thought, the shame, the malice.” In a vast boundless space like the mind, all these can simply be there without disturbing our self-concept if we cultivate that steadiness of returning over and over to the focus of our attention (the breath).
Another image that helps is to see the mind as the vast boundless sky which remains undisturbed despite the many types of clouds that pass by. Clouds, like our thoughts, have an important role to play in our environment. So, don’t wish them away. Practice so that they are free to come and go.
Mindfulness is not about being thoughtless. The second myth we want to bust is that practicing mindfulness means we are selfish or that it makes us self-centered.
It can look that way. After all, we take time away from other things to sit around staring at our navel (or nostrils)! Our family and friends probably feel neglected or upset that we don’t seem to be as available or willing to put our life aside for their needs. We may feel that we are taking too much away from those we care about; 30-45 minutes a day to sit in meditation is a lot of time!
Before we start a program of practice, it’s important to check in with our life.
What’s really important? What’s negotiable?
Are we being fair to ourselves and others in what we take on?
Are we truly present for our loved ones, our colleagues, or are we simply hurtling forward on energy fumes and momentum?
Mindfulness practice opens the doors of insight to these questions. However, it is important that we open those doors ourselves so we’re not caught off guard.
Now here’s the trick. When we practice we are not setting rigid barriers and boundaries against the invasion of everyone’s agenda. The practice of paying attention to our inner experience allows us to discern more accurately what is needed in each moment.
We call this developing a dose-related response.
When we’re tired, we tend to over-respond. When we’re steady, we can assess the amount of response needed. Think of it as a kindness, a compassionate action we take to meet someone’s need and to have something left over for the next person – who may be us.
In a time of limited resources, giving just what is necessary is important. Ironically, it leaves us free to give more and suffer less.
Don’t impose the wrong notion of what harmony is, what compassion is, what patience is, what generosity is. Don’t misinterpret what these things really are. There is compassion and there is idiot compassion; there is patience and there is idiot patience; there is generosity and there is idiot generosity.
For example, trying to smooth everything out to avoid confrontation, not to rock the boat, is not what’s meant by compassion or patience. It’s what is meant by control. Then you are not trying to step into unknown territory, to find yourself more naked with less protection and therefore more in contact with reality. Instead, you use the idiot forms of compassion and so forth just to get ground.
When you open the door and invite in all sentient beings as your guests, you have to drop your agenda. Many different people come in. Just when you…
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