There is a cute campfire song you may have sung in your childhood:
Be kind to your fine feathered friends
‘Cause that duck may be somebody’s mother…
It probably brings a smile to your face to think of acts of kindness towards a duck and knowing that through such kindness its babies will benefit. Somehow when the need for kindness and care is other-directed, we don’t have any trouble responding to it and seeing the wide-ranging benefits. When it comes to caring for ourselves, however, it’s another story all together – even if we’re somebody’s mother, father, sister, brother, and friend.
Christopher Germer has written a compelling book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, which walks us through the need to be kind to our fine feathered selves. And we need to do that, not just because we are connected to a host of others but because we cannot be truly connected to them unless we are connected to ourselves. With the explosion of Mindfulness Self-Help books on the shelves, it’s a comfort and relief to have Germer address the issues of mindfulness with clarity and insight. He shares his own experiences which gives a level of transparency to the teachings he offers; it’s nice to know even deep practitioners can fall into unmindfulness. And it’s even better to see how much confidence they have in their practice which gets them back to mindful living.
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion is particularly helpful because it dives immediately into knowing and listening to our bodies. With simple and useful exercises, Germer guides us into a deeper awareness of this transmitting/receiving system and gets us out of our heads. He also tackles the stickiness of difficult emotions with courage and encouragement. “Don’t look away” is brought into action with softness and consideration for our limits at the moment.
Of particular use is the Appendix on Emotion Words. What an innovation for those of us who have trouble finding the language to express the intangible sensations that course through our bodies. Under the category of “Fearless” words is an all-time favourite, now rarely heard: stout-hearted.
May we all enter our lives with a stout heart!
You can enjoy the book by ordering it here. Also visit Chris Germer’s website for online courses and more goodies.
Neural pruning is the process of removing neurons that are no longer used or useful in the brain. Don’t try it at home! It’s a natural process in the brain that happens at different developmental stages. Children’s brains grow rapidly and in the flood of new learning, neural pathways are created that are useful in some stages but not others. At the initial stages of acquiring new skills, neurons grow thickly and rapidly. Neuroscientist Donald Hebb is often quoted as saying “Neurons that fire together wire together.” But eventually, as some behaviours are found to be more useful and used more often, some of the pathways die out. It’s this process of strengthening and “pruning” that allows us to continue learning and maturing through our lifetime.
Dan Siegel writes in The Mindful Brain:
When we focus our attention in specific ways, we are activating the brain’s circuitry. This activation can strengthen the synaptic linkages in those areas. By exploring the notion that mindfulness, as a form of relationship with yourself, may involve not just attentional circuits, but also social circuitry, we can then explore new dimensions of the brain aspect of our mindful experience….
How would our focus of attention and internal attunement lead to alterations in the circuits of the brain that mediated these functions with mindful awareness? How we pay attention will stimulate neural firings in specific areas, and they will become activated and change their connections within the integrated circuits of the brain.
To put this on the road, it means we become what we practice. If we practice agitation, anxiety, and anger, that will be our strongest neural (and behavioural) routes. Under stress when the thinking brain is off-line, these will be our auto-pilot. If we practice calming, staying in this moment, and compassion, these will be our fall-back positions. Then, under stress, these pathways are more likely to be activated than the old dysfunctional ones.
- make yourself a cup of tea or coffee and treat it as an act of generosity to yourself
- take a moment to appreciate the view and bring awareness to the gift of sight
- acknowledge the pain you feel while noticing that you don’t have to go down old brain alleys of despair
- look at an object with new eyes (remember the raisin exercise!)
- walk out into your day unconditionally
Bob Stahl, one of the best-trained teachers of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, has co-authored a workbook with Elisha Goldstein that is sure to make teaching and participating in MBSR (or MB-anything) a whole lot more beneficial.
You can learn more about Bob here. And about Elisha Goldstein here.
Let us know if you take this book out for a test drive! We have our copy on order!
Recent research by Emily Lykin and Ruth Baer at the University of Kentucky (Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 2009, vol 23(3)) showed that the long term practice of meditation (over 7 years) has positive effects on psychological well-being. Long term meditators were compared to non-meditators on various tests and they reported better able to
Be nonjudgemental of their experience
Enjoy psychological well-being
Not get carried away by their thoughts
Regulate emotional states
Be more self-compassionate
They also found that being more mindful helped reducing fear of emotional states, rumination and increased behavioural self-regulation.