Before you close your eyes: things to know about meditation

“Do you meditate?”

It’s a common question these days. Almost everyone I speak to has taken a mindfulness program or is looking for a place to learn how to meditate. It’s an exciting time as well because, as healthcare professionals, we’re finding ways to help people that seem to be making a difference in their lives. So, how can there be a problem with that?

None, if meditation is taken up with an understanding of what it is and how it works. And, more important, how it doesn’t work.

What we think meditation is

Most people want to feel free of the stresses in their lives and it’s a realistic desire. Jobs are demanding or lost; relationships are frayed; the world seems fragile with disasters and destruction; chronic illnesses are affecting so many people. Who wouldn’t want something for these turbulent moments that gives a few moments of peace? When we approach meditation with the agenda of feeling better,  it can feel good and for many of us, it may be enough to get us through the tough times.

But, is meditation just a practice of feel-good sayings or moments of by-passing reality?

What is meditation, really?

A Zen teacher said, “If all it takes to be enlightened is sitting, then frogs would be enlightened.”

If you’ve been meditating and still find yourself getting angry, frustrated, sad, or reactive, welcome to being human. The one thing meditation will not change is the natural responses we have to upsetting events in our life. Of course, the Catch-22 is that the more upset we feel in our lives, the harder it is to meditate because it’s all the same mind and mental habits.

The intent of meditation is to become aware of three patterns of reactivity:

Anger – I don’t want what I have
Clinging – I want what I don’t have
Confusion – I don’t know why things are going the way they are

If it’s happening in our everyday lives, it’s going to pop up in on the cushion as well. And, when it does, we start to feel meditation “isn’t working”. That’s when we may start avoiding or only sitting if it gives us good feelings like relaxation.

What keeps us from going back to the cushion?

In Buddhist psychology, there are five habit patterns that get in the way of changing our reactivities (and why we need to “meditate” throughout the day):

Desire for things that please us
It’s easy to see that if we really want to sleep in because the bed is so warm and cozy, we’re less likely to get out and get our butt on the cushion. that’s a low-level example, but I think we can see that many activities appear more desirable than sitting still – especially if sitting still brings up unpleasant thoughts and emotions!

Anger
It’s the same with feelings of anger; whether in the everyday activities of our lives or when we sit and the gates open, anger is a tough emotion to be a comfortable feeling. The problem is, if we’re practising anger throughout the day, it’s more likely to show up when we sit down and relax our mental control. So, watch for those moments of irritation when you’re off the cushion!

Sloth & torpor
I admit these are my favourite obstacles! Most days, by the time I get home, I’m wiped out – lethargy and laziness are my BFFs. If I try to sit when I feel this way, I just end up drifting off to sleep, which I rationalize as being one with the cosmic vastness. I also know that moment-by-moment, I’m likely practising sloth & torpor in my day as well. That means I need to pay attention to my procrastination and avoidance patterns.

Worry & agitation
These buddies are linked to needing an outcome that reassures us we’re doing the right thing. The problem is that there’s no “right thing” in most activities and our perfectionism pushes us to set unrealistic standards. Do a reality check: is what you’re aiming for really what’s needed.

Doubt
This obstacle is the foundation of the previous four. And, it’s a sneaky one! It shows up as perfectionist tendencies, reverse praise (You did so well the last time!), cautious behaviour and procrastination, and so much more. Learn what you go-to excuses are for not getting to something that needs doing. See which of the previous four obstacles are partnering up with doubt to bring you to a grinding halt.

Am I getting enlightened?

Let’s hope so! Be careful of the hype around meditation. It doesn’t cure everything (or anything, actually). However, it can become possible to develop a level of steadiness that makes things more understandable. It can become the pause in our interactions that allow us to make a better choice, or see how we get in our own way. The catch is that it takes practice – and avoiding the desire for and addiction to the quick-fix of relaxation is the first step.

If you want to practice, try our meditations here (in French here) or on Insight Timer.

10-Minute Mindful Movements Practice

Before attempting any movement practice, please follow the advice you have been given by your physician, physical therapist, or any health care professional about your range of motion, injuries, and physical limitations.

Recognize that this is your practice.  You must listen to your body and only work to your level of ability.  If the practice feels like too much, please take breaks, modify the movements or just leave some of the movements out.  Recognize that body and energy levels vary day-to-day, so just because you can do something one day, that doesn’t mean you will be able to do it the same way every day.  Doing Mindful Movements is a time to practice respecting your limits and being kind and generous to yourself.

10-Minute Mindful Movements Practice


Download PDF: 10-Minute Mindful Movements Practice

As promised in my last post, Mindful Movements: Yes, you can be mindful even if you can’t sit still, this post sets out a short Mindful Movements practice.  I have called it a 10-minute practice but you can make it longer or shorter, depending on how long you spend with each movement.

Please note that many of these movements can be done seated, so you can do them in a chair if you need to be seated at work, have mobility issues or are just having a low-energy day.

Neck Stretches and Semi-Circle Rolls

Taking a seated position in a chair, plant your feet on the floor, sit up tall and drop your chin toward your chest.  If your shoulders try to creep up by your ears, just relax them down.  Feel the stretch in your neck and between your shoulder blades.  How far down your back can you feel it?

When you are ready, gently rotate your right ear toward your right shoulder and then hold your head tipped toward the right, feeling the stretch along the left side of your neck.  If your shoulders try to come up and meet your ears, just drop them down.

When you are ready, drop your chin back down to your chest and then rotate your left ear toward the left shoulder, dropping the shoulders down away from the ears.  Hold, feeling the stretch along the right side of the neck.

Begin to slowly rotate the head from side to side, dropping the chin down toward the chest between sides.  Note any areas where the movement is particularly smooth and anywhere it is a bit sticky.

Shoulder Rolls

Bringing the shoulders up toward your ears, draw your shoulder blades together and then drop the shoulders back and down, opening up the chest.  Continue to roll the shoulders slowly, really feeling every part of the movement.  Notice where your shoulders move easily and where they may meet some resistance.

When you are ready, switch directions.

Notice any thoughts that arise.  For example, you may notice that you like moving your shoulders in one direction better than the other.  When thoughts arise, just note them and then return to the sensations of the movement.

Notice where your shoulders move easily and where they may catch a bit.  Notice the space that is created between the shoulder blades as the shoulders come forward.  Notice when you tend to inhale and when you tend to exhale during the movement.

Rocking Chair

Sit forward on your chair so that you have some space between your back and the back of the chair and grab ahold of your knees.  As you inhale, draw the chest forward through your arms, arching the back, opening up the chest and looking up slightly.  As you exhale, round the back, drop the chin toward the chest and let yourself hang back, feeling a stretch between the shoulder blades.

Slowly begin to rock back and forth between these two postures, seeing if you can feel the movement start at the base of your spine and ripple up each part of the spine like a wave.

Standing Tall

Stand up and plant your feet firmly on the floor, hip distance apart.  Align your body so that your knees are directly above your ankles; your hips are directly above your ankles, and your shoulders are directly above your hips.  Draw the shoulder blades slightly together, opening up the chest.  The chin is parallel to the floor.

Press into your feet and feel how this action makes you grow a bit taller.

Take a moment to close your ears or just soften your gaze and notice how it feels to stand tall and balanced.

Tiptoes and Heels

Gently rock forward onto your tiptoes.  If that feels like too much, just shift the weight onto the balls of the feet.  As you do so, notice how the whole front of your body engages to keep you balanced.

Rock back onto the heels.  As you do so, notice how your body automatically bends in the middle, your torso moves forward and the back part of your body engages to keep you balanced.

Rock back and forth, experimenting with how far you can go.  Notice any judgments that arise about your balance or what you “should” be able to do.  No need to fight these thoughts.  Just note them and return to the bodily sensations that accompany this movement.

Seated Modification: Press your heels into the floor, drawing the rest of the foot up off of the floor.  Bring the rest of the foot slowly down onto the floor and then press the toes into the floor, drawing the rest of the foot upward.  Alternate rolling onto the heels and onto the toes, seeing if you can notice when each part of the foot touches the floor.

Rocking Left and Right

Come back to being balanced over your feet.  Now, rock a little over to the left and then back to the right and then gently sway back and forth.  As you sway, see if you can notice at what point in the movement you reach a point of equilibrium and at what point the weight shifts onto the left or right foot.

Notice at what point you reach an edge at which you can go no farther without tipping over (and if you pass that edge).  Notice what sensations arise in your body as you approach and reach that edge.

Making the movements smaller and smaller, gently come back to stillness and equilibrium and take a moment to stand tall, appreciating the sensation of being balanced.

Balanced Ankle Circles

The next movement requires balance so you may wish to hold onto the wall or a chair.  Sometimes even placing a finger on the wall or a chair is enough to steady you.

Grounding your right foot firmly into the floor, lift the left foot slightly off the floor in front of the body.  Rotate the left foot around the ankle, noticing any cracking sounds the ankle makes.  Also, notice the micro-adjustments the standing leg makes to keep you balanced.  Switch the direction of the ankle, noticing if any thoughts arise, such as liking one direction better than the other.  When thoughts arise, simply return your attention to the bodily sensations.

Now planting the left foot on the floor, lift the right foot and repeat the same movement on the other side.

Seated Modification: Stretch the legs out in front of you, keeping your heels on the floor.  Rotate your feet around the ankles one direction.  Notice any cracking sounds the ankle makes.  Switch the direction, noticing if any thoughts arise, such as liking one direction better than the other.  When thoughts arise, simply return your attention to your bodily sensations that accompany this movement.

Standing Tall

Placing the two feet firmly on the floor, align your body again as you did in the “Standing Tall” practice above.  Take a moment to notice all of the sensations in the body.  Notice if there has been a shift in the sensations or your energy level between the beginning and the end of the practice.

When you are ready, open the eyes if they have been closed.  You can now carry on with your day, or if you choose, take a moment to engage in a seated mindfulness practice.

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

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!