Registration open for Mindful Self-Compassion Core Skills Training with Christopher Germer, April 11-13, 2014, Ottawa ON.
Registration open for Heart of Mindfulness Practice Retreat, June 13-15, 2014, at Galilee Retreat Centre, Arnprior ON.
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.
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 .
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.
(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.
(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.
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,
& the teachers and staff of the OMC
There’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:
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.
Karen Maezen Miller, author of Momma Zen and Hand Wash Cold, is offering a copy of our book, Mindfulness Starts Here! Maezen is well-known for her no-nonsense teachings in Zen and more for her direct connection with the everyday-ness of our experiences.
For a chance to get a copy of our book, go to her blog and leave a comment! (Then go to Amazon and leave a review for us!)
It’s been an exciting couple of weeks around here! Not only has our book, Mindfulness Starts Here, hit the bookstands, it has been greeted with some very positive feedback from colleagues and friends! The process of putting this baby out on the road has also opened us to various other ways to share information and to take a mindful stance to social media and its entanglements. It was interesting to see how much pressure there is to set ourselves up for tweeting every 2 minutes, flooding the marketplace with posts on Facebook, LinkedIn, paper.li, and so on. The vision of the publicity team was quite different from our own and we found ourselves arguing about the merits of keeping a book full of books in our car trunk in case we were somewhere and someone asked to buy the book – or maybe we could flog it on the street-side. So the phrase “book-in-a-box” has become a mindful bell for us to remember that we can get too caught up in the process and forget that the intention of putting the book on the metaphoric road was to provide opportunities for practice.
Along with keeping that intention in mind, we also noticed how easy it was to fall into an attitude or stance towards feedback or the statistics of the sales. Initially, it was fun getting to know what the Amazon ratings mean (nothing much as a global scale). Then we found ourselves comparing and contrasting with the ratings of other books. You know where that’s going, right? Oh that judgmental mind, ever ready to pounce and trounce!
The best lesson in subtle grasping happened as we were trying to upload the meditations onto a format suitable with iTunes. We became so focused on the “iTunes” piece that the obvious solutions escaped us – even at 2AM when the millionth upload to a storage website failed again. There we were caught in ideas like “iTunes,” “podcasts,” and “stats for downloads!” Some of you who have subscribed to this blog may have noticed a couple of posts go by with links to the meditations only to find them dead links the next day. Sorry about that! It was just a skirmish lost with the internet gremlins! It took a while to shake off those ego-gremlins too and to let go of how the “big names” do it. Back to intention. Provide opportunities for practice.
And yet those pretty logos and the cachet of saying we’re on iTunes is tempting. And we may still get there! Until then we do have a few nice things to offer you put out in the spirit of “if you upload it, they will come.” Here’s a list:
Newsletter (or click on the link in the panel on the right)
Meditations - these accompany the book (sell point!)
Current news & articles on mindfulness of interest - Flipboard of articles we think are outstanding.
So please enjoy these offerings and remember that everything is an opportunity to practice. Even leaving all this for later, turning off your computer, tablet, phone, and seeking out the sunshine!
How mysterious! The lotus remains unstained by its muddy roots, delivering shimmering bright jewels from common dew.
Who we are and what we want for ourselves and those we love is created through our experience and through our thinking process. We live an active mental life that seeks out images and builds castles in our inner environment. Then, through hopefully skillful actions, we try to make those dreams a reality in our external environment. One of us may have dreams of being a good parent and that seed is nurtured in our mind with images of things a “good parent” does or says to his child. Another of us may have an idea for a garden or a type of business and begins to formulate concepts which are likely to become a reality with effort. When these dreams, ideas, and concepts are made real, we feel a sense of accomplishment and our vision of being an effective person is clear. When these aspirations meet with obstacles or are criticized as inadequate, we become clouded in our vision of who we are and what we want.
Our mental life is like a glass filled with water and mud. Sometimes the contents are still and settled. We can live ade quately with the fact that parts of our life are clear and other parts are mucky with slime and ooze. In fact, many Buddhist teachers say that slime and ooze are crucial to our personal growth. Lotuses begin their life in the mud, cradled and nourished there until the blooms rise above the water clean and untainted by the messiness under water. It’s an inspiring image because most of us aspire to rise above all the inner turmoil and “ickiness” to be beautiful. We want to be able to roll with the punches, share in the joys of others, and take in a beautiful sunset.
Sometimes, the contents of the glass are stirred up. When we experience anger, anxiety, depression, frustration, grief, loss, or some challenge to our perception of ourselves or others, mud and water mix to form a system that is murky. In these moments, we lose sight of the clarity of water and all we see is a mess of mud. Whatever we have encountered seems to be the entirety of our being. The poet Rumi asked us to invite in as guests depression, meanness, dark thoughts, shame, and malice as a way of learning from these experiences. However, when we are overcome with such muddiness, it feels like these visitors have taken up every nook and cranny of our mind with no room left for love, compassion, joy or kindness. In fact, we can become quite convinced that the clarity of the water that we saw over the mud was an illusion and the muddy mixture is the absolute reality. We come to believe the worst of whoever has hurt us. The roadblock in our career path takes on monumental proportions. The consequence of a lost contract, an upset client, the end of a relationship or of good health seems like the end of our life. We take our unskillful actions as evidence of our unworthiness.
Losing sight of who we are is an easy skill to develop. In fact, we tend to practice clouding our vision as a daily way of being. In order to get things done, we live much of our lives on autopilot. We walk into a room and forget why we went there. We go to the grocery store for milk, buy a bunch of stuff, and forget to buy the milk. We set out on our daily drive to work and can’t remember much of the trip there. We feel frustrated with our aging or preoccupation.
Bring to mind your day. When you woke up, were you aware of that moment of growing awareness of what it feels like to be in bed or were you already caught in the activities of the day to come? As you were showering, were you feeling the water on your body or were you already wondering how to get breakfast ready for yourself, your partner and/or your children? At breakfast, were you already in the car? When driving, were you already at that meeting with the boss or colleague that you were dreading? At any given time in the day, we are likely living a time zone or two away. Yet, if asked, we would probably say that we’re very aware of what we’re doing and where we’re going. We have maps, lists, plans, and beeping reminders on our computers or phones to tell us where we are in time and space. In fact, we get indignant if we’re told we’re not paying attention.
Many years ago when one of us (Lynette) was in the field of assessing and treating children with Attention Deficit Disorder, we attended a workshop given by Ed Hallowell, who wrote Driven to Distraction. He commented that many adults with ADHD don’t even realize they meet the criteria for the disorder and that the people who can best diagnose the disorder are the partner or close friends of the person. He asked the audience how many of us believed we had ADHD. Both of us looked around at all the people raising their hands; our hands were firmly tucked into our laps. Then Hallowell asked how many in the audience believed our spouse had ADHD. We both raised our hands!
Just as the eye cannot see itself and the hand cannot grasp itself, it is hard for us to be aware of who we are in each moment. The busy mind carries us away at the speed of thought and we live in a world where that busy-ness is valued as something positive. At the same time, multitasking and rapid information processing is a necessity in our fast-paced world. Even as this is being written, the computer is scanning for viruses, updating the firewall program, backing up the files online, and recording the keystrokes. The writer of this paragraph is composing, remembering where the reference books are, mentally reviewing the handouts so that there is consistency with this text, wondering if her daughter is enjoying her vacation, and deciding what to have for dinner. We could also throw in a feeling of anxiety about this whole process of writing a book on mindfulness.
The problem is not that so much is going on in this moment. That’s the nature of mind; it’s a busy creature that’s been described as being like a monkey that’s drunk and been stung by a bee. It swings rather wildly at times and there is no predicting where it will end up. Problems arise when the peripheral issues trip up the primary intention. If the writer begins to worry about the purpose of the book, whether the references are where she thinks they are, what people will think of this work, worrying about her daughter and whether she’s a good mother if her daughter has a bad vacation and so on, the creative process is now subservient to worry, rumination, and projection into the future. Suddenly, the fingers trip over computer keys, doubt creeps in, and sentence structure goes to mud!