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!

A Complaint-Free World: The deepest practice of compassion

Stop complaining? No way. It’s how we vent, share our pain, give voice to injustices! But is it?

Recently, a dear colleague and friend got me into this practice of being complaint-free. It’s a program started by Will Bowen who was encouraging his congregation to develop a new habit. It takes 21-days to form a new habit. (Well, for the most diligent among us, anyway!) So, for 21-days can you commit to not complaining? Bowen describes complaining this way:

To “Complain” is defined as “to express pain, grief, or discontent.” Surely, it makes sense to express pain, grief or discontent occasionally but most people do so constantly. In so doing, they are talking and thinking about what they do not want in their life and, thereby, attracting more pain, grief and discontent. Instead, think and talk about what you are grateful for. Talk about what you DO want and not what you DON’T want.

This is a great description of our tendency to fall into the trap of unintentionally reinforcing a bad habit. Our actual intention is rooted in being self-compassionate. When we feel pain, it makes sense to seek out support, get advice, ask for a reality check. It is part of what we can do to care for our distress in a healthy way. Rather than isolating ourselves, we seek out others who can validate a common experience of pain. It also helps us to bring a tender awareness to our pain, a way of being mindful of it. When we turn towards our pain rather than away from it, we reduce our reactivity and avoidance of its experience. We can take experiential responsibility for it. In other words, it’s not something that is being done to us but rather something we feel within us that is not only valid but also within our capacity to manage. As we learn to approach our pain, we cultivate a kindness in our attention of it, a willingness to attend to it in a wise and healthy way.

In reality, what actually happens? Our sharing and seeking out of relief can become a way of resisting that pain. We seek out justification for its injustice, its unfairness, its insolence in preventing us from getting what we want. We complain. This is a form of resisting what is happening, of looking away by creating stories about the pain. And by doing so we transform our pain into suffering.  A popular expression of this process is to see pain and suffering as this equation:

Suffering = pain X resistance

Suffering is the way in which we meet our pain. Out tendency is to push it away, cling to what was (pleasant), or to be misled in our minds about what is really happening.

Sometimes it’s hard to dive into a mindfulness or self-compassion practice because the chatter in our head is so loud and relentless. Taking this step of slowing down the rate of complaints makes it a bit more manageable. It restores the energy we spend dispensing judgment on ourselves and of others.

Give it a try!

 

5 Mindful Practices to Handle Anger

Recently, I had the privilege to exchange via email some thoughts on anger. My friend wrote on behalf of her friend and asked about ways to get unstuck from a repeating cycle of anger especially in a relationship. Later, I had the chance to also exchange thoughts with that person about our tendency to get stuck in age-old stories fed by what we should have done, could have seen happening, or any of those backwards-engineering tactics we use to fix the past.

Below is the full email I wrote on how to deal with anger when it arises. The next post will cover how to look into our ways of sustaining those old stories hoping they will fix ancient wounds and feelings of inadequacies .

©Gograph Graphics

Anger is a fascinating issue – especially if we tend to hold our behaviours at a high standard. So here are some possible ways to look at the inner and outer situation with Five Skillful Practices to connect with anger.

What is

(1) Anger is your friend, not your enemy. It’s a bit unruly and overly protective in trying to tell you something is threatening your wellbeing. It’s just not very skillful in telling you that. In effect, anger is your body’s way of communicating to you that you are at the end of your skillfulness and need to find a safe place – just for a moment (or maybe longer).

(2) Anger does not mean there’s something wrong with you. It does not mean you’re a bad at your spiritual practice or an inadequate human. It DOES mean you are not listening to the consistent message that you are putting yourself in harm’s way. It CAN mean that you are seeing things as threatening when they may or may not be so.

(3) By the time your anger is expressed, it’s actually too late to manage it. The best you can do is step back, take a time out from the person or situation, maybe even apologize (yes, the consequence of anger is humility). The lesson to take from expressed anger is that you need to monitor its slow boil. Although it may feel in your body that anger has blown up out of “nowhere,” it actually hasn’t. Very few things in our bodies just explode; there’s usually a slow creep up to the expression.

(4) Start practicing.

The Practice

(1) Take time everyday to meditate or have a period of contemplative silence. Notice the stickiness of the emotions that arise. Turn into the emotions and notice the sensations. Emotions are just clusters of sensations to which we give a name. Learn the sensations that you’ve named “anger.” Get to know them when you’re off the cushion or chair.

(2) When those sensations arise as you go through the day, pause and take a breath or two or three – even if the specific sensation is not related to “feeling angry” in the moment. You’re training your brain not to use the sensation associated with “anger” as a means of becoming trigger-happy. Cultivate compassion for your body; it’s carrying a heavy load with these sensations! Meet the experiences with curiosity and interest.

(3) Look into your situation. What is true and what is real? Often something can be true but not real. (Ask yourself: Is it happening in this very moment). It can be true that this person is disregarding your needs. Is it happening in the very moment that you’re having breakfast or driving to work? Is that person right there in the car with you or have you, in your mind, invited her along for the ride? Often we practice our reactivity to a noxious issue without even being aware of doing so. Pause/Stop, breathe, come back to your real activity in this moment.

(4) What stories are getting generated because something is true? What are you imagining will happen if this person continues their way of interacting with you? Those stories of catastrophes and bad outcomes tend to be what ramps us up and gives our internal system fodder for sustaining irritation. That irritation then expands into anger when we’re face-to-face with the person because the mind has already associated the sensations of experiential discomfort with a trigger for it.

(5) Get an outside opinion. We’re all deluded. It helps to get someone else’s (likely deluded but not in the same way) opinion of what is really going on. Pick someone who is willing to tell you compassionately what your role is in the situation. Someone you trust to care enough that you get through this with increased wisdom about yourself.