News Update

May 2-4Buddhist Roots & Ethics in a Mindfulness Program, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Barre MA with Lynette Monteiro & Frank Musten (Mindfulness teachers or trainees).

 June 13-15: Registration FULL for Heart of Mindfulness Practice Retreat at Galilee Retreat Centre, Arnprior ON. WAIT LIST available.

July 20-25Advanced Teacher Training for MBCT and MBSR Teachers, Batavia NY with Susan Woods, Char Wilkins, assisted by Lynette Monteiro (please see UCSD requirements for registration).

On the origins of my journey to recovery…

Lynette Monteiro:

A powerful story of meeting depression with openness and courage.

Originally posted on The Men's Depression Education Network (Men's D.E.N.):

(Originally published in April 2013 at MensDepression.org.)Jean-François Claude, Founder, The Men's D.E.N.

In the late Spring of 2012, I went to see my General Practitioner (GP) after a nine-year hiatus. I was physically healthy throughout my thirties, and simply did not see a need for any kind of medical check-up.

What finally prompted me to make the call, and virtually beg my doctor’s office to take me back as a patient, was self-diagnosed professional burnout. I’d been burning the candle at both ends for so long, that I’d finally hit a wall after a string of 60 to 70 hour work weeks.  The BlackBerry was, for years, a permanent fixture in my hand, and unplugging, even for just a few hours, was to my mind not even a remote possibility and simply unfathomable.

Imagine my state of shock when my GP promptly informed me that “burnout” was not a medical condition and that in…

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10% Happier – ABC news anchor learns the 1-2-3 of enlightenment

10%happier Once in a while, in this deluge of books claiming insight and enlightenment, a book actually surfaces that speaks to the truth of meditation, practice, mindfulness, and truth of being human. Dan Harris, ABC journalist and anchor of Nightline and the weekend edition of Good Morning America, throws himself wholeheartedly into telling us his story of anxiety, self-doubt, and finding the path through it.  Harris describes his adrenaline-fueled life as a young correspondent for ABC and his slide into drug use to deal with the experiences of reporting on the war in Iraq. As he pulls out of the drug use on his own, he’s left with a hyper-regulated physical system that leads to an on-air panic attack. Harris puts it succinctly:

All of us struggle to strike a balance between the image we present to the world and the reality of our inner landscape. p. 10

This very real tension, fuelled by an inner critic that continuously natters to him about his inadequacies, leads him to therapy. There, his psychologist offers him the opportunity to learn about meditation from a Harvard colleague’s book (I’m dying to know who that was). Harris is skeptical but circumstances contrive to lead him along a path of cautious yet incisive inquiry into the benefits of meditation.

The strength of the narrative is twofold. First, Harris fearlessly lets us into his thinking brain, making us privy to his every experience, evaluation, and re-evaluation at a very human level. The train of thought that takes him from an event to (mentally) ending up in a “flophouse in Duluth” resonates deeply. (My inner critic drops me off under the Rideau Street bridge to live in a cardboard box!) If he holds a strong opinion on an experience, we’re right there. If he has a change of heart/mind about his opinion, we’re right there. Second, Harris draws from his investigative journalistic skills and work on religious topics to give us a vibrant picture of gurus and giants in the meditation field. He describes encounters with blatant honesty and does not shy away from pointing out naked Emperors – well, at least garishly dressed ones.

What I found in this distinctly American subculture (of self-help) was beyond crazy – a parade of the unctuous and the unqualified, preaching to the desperate and, often, destitute. p. 82

It’s a personal thing but I came to appreciate the kindly balanced way Harris pointed out the difficulties with Eckhart Tolle’s “befuddling” teachings and capping it by pointing out Tolle’s work was primarily unattributed material from Buddhist teachings. He might well have taught me to be kind about Tolle. Harris’ interviews and meetings with Deepak Chopra are mini-series-worthy; he pointedly writes that “(i)t was intriguing that someone could strive so nakedly and yet claim to be without stress. (p. 82)”. The issue though is not the toppling of gurus whose supposed teachings suck in the ill-informed or desperate. The lesson for us is in Harris’ unrelenting inquiry, an approach we should all use in assessing whether someone should have access to our vulnerabilities and pain.

That important lesson notwithstanding, Harris’ book is not about the dark side of the self-help subculture. It is very much about one man’s journey into and through his own life. In one way, it is a life no different from many of ours being populated with demons of all varieties and sinkholes of all sizes. In another, it is a life that has a privileged vantage point on human foibles and frailties. As part of the team on the Sunday edition of World News, Harris launched several stories on religious and cultural issues, giving him access to leaders in those fields. Once he began to inquire into meditation, this access included the top names in Buddhist thought and eventually the vast field of Mindfulness.

Still, I appreciated his honesty and humility as he encountered the various teachers, reacted to their styles, and recanted when they revealed more skillful ways of teaching. Harris is nothing if not forgiving! His description of his first 10 day retreat is a worthy read which will either allow you to forgive yourself for one you’ve gone on or convince yourself that you too can survive one. Of course, here again, we need to note that most Insight Meditation Center retreats by the “big names” are impossible to get into without some pull and we’re not likely to be invited to an interview with the big name teacher; at least he was honest about how he got in.

Harris covers the ground of contemporary mindfulness well. He draws from his own growing personal experience of meditation and adds a healthy desire to understand the complex process of meditating. He confronts the “dark side” of becoming too attached to the idea of compassion, a slippery slope that almost leads to his career sliding out from under him. (This is so rarely discussed that it alone is worth the price of the book!) He finds that Middle Path between equanimity and indifference, kindness and being a doormat, compassion and becoming enmeshed, appreciative joy and hypocrisy.

More important, Harris doesn’t oversell his new-found life. He says it’s helped him become 10% happier. He’s realistic about stress and his inner critic: “It’s about mitigation, not alleviation. (p. 160)” He’s insightful about his practice and the core values they reflect: “This is aspirational, not operational. (p.205)” Although Harris doesn’t see himself as enlightened, these are the 1-2-3′s of enlightenment!

This is a book for anyone who carries the burden of a harsh inner voice, who wonders how to wade through the innumerable programs and teachers offering relief, who is fearful that taking a mindful approach to their life may dull their edge in a competitive world, or who simply wants to aspire to be more available for what life has to offer.

5 Skillful Habits to help you let go of self-blame

I’m often asked about “letting go.” You know how it is. There’s an incident with someone – a friend, a family member, a boss, a colleague at work. For the most part we tend to be able to deal with the situation, even if it’s not as satisfactorily resolved as we would like. Then, in the aftermath of the storm, we start to re-think our words, our posture, our approach. The wheels begin to spin and the revolutions ramp up so that all we can think of is that better response, that smart retort, or that air of calm we could have projected. We replay the scenario over and over like an ancient (often badly acted) TV show until we’ve taken apart all the lines of all the players, including our own. How do we let go of this sticky tape that runs and runs through our mind? How do we step back and see that it’s a “done deal” yet dragging us into the past and sometimes invading the future?

Well, we just love a good drama… or a good horror story! It doesn’t take much to be hanging out in our mind and them BAM! we’re having this knock-down-drag-out battle with someone over something that is long, long gone. At one level, these moments, when we can haul back quickly enough, serve to remind us that our practice of awareness of the quality of our mind is really important! Without that practice, we end up sitting at a train station and unwittingly hopping on a train whose destination I don’t realize is the station of Raving, Spewing, Me-Bashing or whatever station name you want to give it. With the practice of awareness, we realize we’re on this train to nowhere and get off.

So, this is a good time to be reminded that these ruminative spin outs is why we practice constantly and not just when we’re under stress. Our practice of letting go of these wayward and seductive thoughts when we’re on the cushion or under minimal stress strengthens our ability to do the same when we’re in a tough situation. And that is really important because when we hop on a train to someplace really horrid, we recognize where we are headed before we do too much damage to ourselves.

The other part of this stickiness involves time-travelling – what John Dunne calls “pursuing the past” or “ushering in the future.” We’re hoping to gain some wisdom from taking apart our past actions and we try to predict all the worst-possible outcomes so we can be prepared. But the problem is that we’re using a faulty data set. Under stress, we tend to hear the threat-laden information more loudly and miss the more nuanced pieces of the interchange. So what we’re reacting to is really the high-end alarms. (Now those may well be there in some conflicts but not all.) Layered on this is our belief that we just didn’t live up to who we hoped we would be in such circumstances.

Practice is relational. We act to cultivate a relationship with ourselves, with others, and in community. It’s our way of developing a sense of responsibility for ourselves and others so it’s not surprising that we want to honour that intention. And when it doesn’t happen the way we wished, we tend to be hard on ourselves and flip into problem-solving mode. The antidote is compassion. Kindness for what we believe we have done, how we think we behaved, what we believe were/will be the consequences.

Simply put, first practice getting off these trains to nowhere. Second, meet having got on them with compassion. It points to your strong sense of stewardship to your world. And yes, we tend to believe we have failed in some way by hurting or allowing hurt to happen to ourselves and others. And that in itself hurts.

Here’s Five Skillful Habits you can practice:

(1) Respect your limits of how much time you can spend in these toxic mini-dramas (we all consume a certain amount); self-reflection is good but pathological scrupulosity is not.

(2) Honour the life you have that is less accessible when you are caught in this kind of time travel.

(3) Be generous with yourself when you finally hop off that train and take care of the bumps and bruises of the bumpy ride.

(4) Be attentive of all the toxic stories about yourself that you consume – media, others, old habitual thought patterns. Step back from them.

(5) Finally, watch your language. Cultivate an inner discourse that is sustaining and respectful of who you really are, not who you imagined yourself to be in someone else’s mind.

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.

Wishes for the very best of the New Year!

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Thank you for you support of our clinic and programs! We invite you to join us in our twice-monthly practice to sustain your mindfulness skills and to enjoy the support of the ever-growing community of mindfulness practitioners.

With warm wishes to you and yours,

Lynette Monteiro
Frank Musten

& the teachers and staff of the OMC

Is Mindfulness the same as Buddhism?

DSC_0049There’s been a lot of chatter on the internet these days about Mindfulness and Buddhism. In a nutshell, practitioners, writers, and philosophers of Buddhism have expressed concern about the potential misuse of Buddhist beliefs and concepts by mindfulness-based interventions or programs. There is much merit to these concerns although the discussions tend to become bogged down with a lot of arguments that missed the central point. There are important issues about Mindfulness and Buddhism as well as Mindfulness itself that anyone considering a program should take the time to investigate. Below are some of these issues that may be helpful to consider.

Are Mindfulness-Based Programs and Interventions the same as Buddhism?

The answer will vary depending on the framework we use to address it. At one level, mindfulness is a Buddhism-based concept so it is unavoidable that the core principles guiding any Mindfulness-Based Intervention or Program will reach into a Buddhist conceptualization of its meaning and practice. However, mindfulness has moved far enough away from Buddhist philosophy and has begun to draw from various fields of psychology such as Cognitive Theory, Positive Psychology, Motivational approaches, Organizational Psychology, that it can be said to be a new “wave” in the genre of psychological and organizational approaches.

If you are considering a mindfulness program, there are some underlying concepts and frameworks you may wish to know that will inform your decisions. In our course intakes, we are often asked if the program is Buddhist. We are also asked if there are aspects of the program that would interfere with the person’s religious views or practices. People also want to be assured that the program won’t impose values and beliefs on them that may not fit with their own values and beliefs. These are important questions and need to be addressed openly and all the more important with the debates going around on the Buddhist nature of mindfulness and the potential dangers of teaching it as a secular or psychological modality.

Is Mindfulness the same as Buddhism?

Not completely. We can organize mindfulness programs into two categories: Mindfulness-Informed (MI) and Mindfulness-Based (MB) approaches (edit: See Shapiro & Carlson’s book The Art and Science of Mindfulness). Mindfulness-Informed approaches will draw from Buddhist philosophy using concepts of impermanence, adaptive self (non self), and the reality of suffering. They can also introduce concepts of lovingkindness and compassion. MI approaches may not use meditation practices specifically. Typically, the professional is trained in Buddhist theory and/or practice and therefore understands how our attitude and interpretations of our difficulties leads to our sorrow and suffering. Mindfulness-Based approaches draw from Buddhist practices such as sitting and walking meditation, breath awareness, etc. and build from this a state of steadiness so that the issues that plague us can be faced in a skillful manner. (edit) Additionally, Mindfulness-Based approaches draw from current understanding of stress theory and other psychotherapeutic models. (edit end) The final intention of both MI and MB approaches is the same – the reduction of suffering. Neither approach requires nor relies on a belief in Buddhist religious concepts.

Are all Mindfulness Programs the same?

No. For clarity, I refer to interventions separately from programs. A Program is offered over a time period, typically 8-weeks and may or may have a psychological intent; it may be conducted individually or in a group. “Programs” may be offered for stress management, lifestyle changes, spiritual growth, personal wellness or development. An Intervention refers to the medical- or psychological-based intent of the approach; this may be delivered as a time-framed process in a group or individually. “Interventions” may be offered to deal with physical or psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain, physical pain or injuries, etc. These typically require a registered health care professional to supervise or conduct the intervention. Research articles on mindfulness will refer to Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) or their specific label such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.

There are many, many MBIs! Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Mindful Self-Compassion, Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (for addictions), Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training, Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training, and so on. And of course, just to add to the confusion, each of these will be taught under different “company” names. The M4 Program we offer at the OMC is a psychologically-based MBI and designed as an intervention for psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, chronic illness etc.

Are Mindfulness Instructors or Teachers accredited, certified or trained professionally?

Not all are. Most professionals will have taken at the very least a 5-day intensive training in the specific area of interest. Some will have continued from this to take on-going training with specialists in their field. (edit) All MBI teachers are expected to have a personal meditative/contemplative practice to support their teaching skills and personal development. (edit end) Health Care Professionals who work in the Mindfulness-Informed approaches will likely have trained in their specific treatment modality (CBT, EFT, etc.) and also continued with a Buddhist or other contemplative practice tradition. Others will have obtained accreditation from specific organizations.  The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts offers a teacher certification program for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programs. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy accreditation is available from the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto. The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion offers teacher training in Mindful Self-Compassion. The University of California at San Diego is developing a Professional Training Institute that will allow teacher-development programs in several streams of Mindfulness-Based Interventions.

One aspect of the training/accreditation question is to consider whether the facilitator or instructor is accredited in their own field of expertise. All health care professionals have a regulatory organization which certifies their training; mindfulness can be viewed as a therapeutic intervention that they provide as a trained health care professional. Other professionals such as educators, coaches, and spiritual care professionals,  will have professional organization that verify their credentials as a trained professional.

Do all Mindfulness-Based Programs have the same positive effect?

It depends. Research shows that MBIs have a positive impact for many issues. Whether an individual experiences the expected positive change depends on the “good fit” between the individual and the program. If the issue is depression, then a “stress” program may not do the job. If there are issues of anxiety that are not disclosed at the intake (yes, there should be an intake!), then this can have an impact on their experience of the program. What can increase the probability of a “good fit” is asking lots of questions at the information session or the intake appointment. The most frequent issues that derail the program for participants are as follows:

  • Realizing that there is a certain amount of sharing that happens in the course
  • Finding out it is not like a school course where we get all the answers from the teachers
  • Not realizing how much time the practices take
  • Wanting a “quick fix”
  • Needing certainty that the practices will work
  • Wanting to “get rid” of the problem

These are all important questions to consider and to ask if you are thinking of taking a Mindfulness-Based Program. It is about your health and well-being. Be proactive. Understand the scope and limits of MBIs. Most of all, know the people offering the programs.