Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Self Compassion and Mindfulness

A local church asked me to address their assembly at a time later this year on the topic of “Self Compassion.”  I have to admit it’s not something I’ve thought a lot about, either personally or philosophically.  I’ve thought a lot about Compassion, though, as part of my personal journey and my professional activity.  But the idea of extending Compassion to myself just hasn’t been on my radar.

Compassion, as defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”   That certainly seems like a reasonable definition, and an excellent starting point for my mental meandering.  Let’s take a close look at this definition.

First, you can’t help but notice the word “sympathetic” here.  To have sympathy (going back to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary) is to have “an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.”  “Consciousness” we’ll take to mean awareness, which leaves us with the object of our Compassion: “others’ distress.”  Well, so far, we have three key words (Compassion, sympathy, and others) that are about someone else, not me.  You can’t help but be struck by the paradoxical nature of the phrase in question, “self Compassion.”  Is it even possible to have such a quality?

The answer is yes, but only if we twist our definitions a bit.  We’ll start by looking at sympathy:  Is it possible to have a relationship in which you notice what you, yourself, are feeling, so that some aspect of “you” is affected by another aspect of “you”?  Next up is “others.”  Again, is it possible for a person to regard him/herself as an “other”?  The only way that I can fathom that these questions can be answered “yes” is from the perspective of mindfulness practice.  Let me explain.

When we sit mindfully we begin to notice things.  Generally we start with our breathing.  That’s a good place to start; if you’re not breathing then you have bigger problems than this blog site can possibly address, so we can assume that there is a breathing process ready to be noticed.  As we mentally observe our breathing we begin to  notice that our mind wanders, rather easily as it turns out.  Quite suddenly we may find ourselves remembering aspects of our day, picturing some place we plan to visit, hearing a good (or bad) song in our head, making a grocery list, planning an event, the possibilities are endless.  So the meditation teacher gently reminds you that a wandering mind is typical and not to get worried about it, simply keep returning the wandering mind back to focus on the breath over and over again.  So far so good.

But after a while the meditation teacher hears statements like this: “OK, I just spent several minutes with my mind noticing my breath.  Then a thought arose, and my mind simply noticed the thought.  Then a memory arose, and I simply noticed the memory.”  Those statements are usually followed by a question that goes like this:  “OK, ‘I’ am watching ‘me.’  So, who is this ‘I’ and who is this ‘me’?”  Now, THAT is an interesting question.  Clearly, there’s only one “me” sitting on the meditation cushion, but at the same time there is clearly an observing consciousness that is experienced as somehow having a bit of separation from my immediate, direct experiencing.

This is a philosophical rabbit hole that I’m not going down in this post.  But it IS an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it?  In my mindful moment I’m “noticing” my own, personal reality.  And when I’m mindful I find that my “personal reality” is simply something that “I,” whoever or whatever THAT is, am having, and I become very free to choose (hopefully) a skillful response.

Which brings me back to “Self Compassion.”  One thing we know for sure is that life brings events that precipitate painful feelings, emotional or otherwise.  One thing I’ve noticed about pain (maybe you have too) is that when I’m in any kind of pain it feels relentless, as if it has permeated me totally.  It is very easy, when in pain, to become convinced that the pain is the new “me” and the old “me” is no longer available.  Now, I think that’s a fundamental thinking error but the fact remains that when a person is in pain, it’s hard to separate any sense of “self” from the felt pain.  The mindfulness meditator knows something about pain, however, because regular practice cultivates great skill at sitting with pain, making space for pain, abiding with pain, and being at peace with pain.  In a nutshell, the mindful person has established a “relationship” with pain, a relationship that accepts pain as a typical part of life.  You may be seeing where I’m going with this: the attitude of mindfulness tells me to become conscious of, feel, and accept “my” own pain (sympathy for my “self”).  This seems to cover the first half of that definition of Compassion cited above:  “sympathetic consciousness of others’ (in this case the “personal reality” that my mind observes) distress.”  Now I’m feeling better about this idea of Self Compassion.  But there’s still another aspect of Compassion to consider.

“With a desire to alleviate it.”  It is not enough to become sympathetically aware of my own distress, I have to want to bring relief to the pain that I am observing in my personal reality in order for this to be Compassion.  And, moreover, I would like to add that a person’s capacity for Compassion, for others or self, may or may not be skilled.  I have met well intentioned people who try to alleviate someone’s distress and, frankly, just are not very skilled at it (that’s pretty much what I talked about in the “Let It Be” post).

There is another potential problem that I see with this.  How engaged should I be with relieving my own pain?  I sense that one can become over-engaged, become preoccupied with relieving one’s own pain.  It seems self-centered, and just doesn’t seem right.  Being over-engaged with finding relief may distract me from seeing what’s going on around me; it may diminish my capacity to feel Compassion for others.

On the other hand, being under-engaged in relieving my pain seems a bit masochistic.  History is filled with martyrs, but the martyrs we admire have allowed their own pain for the relief of the pain of others (think Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Steven Biko).  I have to admit to having little patience with people who COULD bring relief to themselves but continue to live in great pain (and love to tell everyone about it!).

Clearly there’s a middle path to follow here.  Pain is not necessarily an enemy.  Sometimes pain is necessary.  Anyone who has ever raised rebellious teens, only to see them mature into adults who appreciate the standards and values of their parents, knows what I mean.  My mind goes back to acceptance; that is, living with pain as an inevitable part of life.

I think the key word we need to invoke here is “healing.”  When my intention is to relieve my pain by regaining health, healing, I believe that I find the middle path between self-centeredness and masochistic martyrdom.  To heal is “to make sound,” to restore to previous functioning, or, if restoration is not possible, to find the” new normal,” and accept a new reality.  When we heal we may not look or think or feel like we once did, but usually the healed wound, scar tissue and all, is actually stronger and more durable than the skin (or relationship) that has been replaced.

And that, to me, is Self Compassion.  It starts with an attitude that accepts pain as normal.  It proceeds to investigate the potential for healing.  Self Compassion leads me to seek healing, but invites me to consider emerging changes in my situation, and to embrace new realities.  When I extend Compassion to myself I truly seek to relieve my suffering while accepting my pain.  And I know that I’m the wiser for it, and probably more adept at extending Compassion to others.  When I seek healing rather than restoration, I learn the lessons of acceptance, and gain clarity of mind and vision.  My capacity for “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” becomes more deeply engrained; I become more fully  human, to myself and to those around me.  I become mindful.

Peace,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Let It Be

I attended a funeral service on Saturday.  Toward the end of the service the presider, a Catholic priest operating well “outside the box,” asked those assembled to begin an a capella version of the Beatles’ song Let It Be (the lyrics were printed in the program for the funeral).  Fortunately, a talented singer (my wife!) was able to get everyone started, singing deeply and with great clarity those lovely opening words:  “When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, Let It Be.”

Times of trouble come easily some days.  Mostly those times of trouble are tolerable, times when things go wrong or there’s too much to do in the day, or a project we planned on did not pan out.  We feel stressed out, maybe a bit overwhelmed, but with practice, some mindfulness and acceptance, and patience, we’re usually able to dig ourselves out of the hole.  But it doesn’t always happen like that.

Sometimes the times of trouble are not tolerable.  We learn that a beloved parent has cancer.  Or we learn that our child is ill.  Or someone has died.  We did not get the job we hoped for; perhaps the job that we needed.  A friend has a positive test for a terrible illness.  Another loved one has died from AIDS and its complications.

Sometimes the times of trouble are threats to our own integrity, whether physical, spiritual, or emotional.  We’ve received a terrifying diagnosis.  Or realized that we have aged or grown ill and lost an ability.  A friend or an ally turns against us in an hour of need.  Or we open the paper and learn that our spiritual leaders have compromised their own integrity, again and again.  Another person has died in a suicide bombing, or another drone attack has sparked riots against America.  The Koran is burnt in a country far away, and we watch images of rage across our screen.  Or a teen, walking in his father’s neighborhood, wearing a hoodie, has died needlessly.

These worst times of trouble usually don’t have any quick fixes.  Mostly they seem to have no fixes at all, only duration, suffering, and aftermath.  As I was taught years ago by the wisest 11 year old I ever met, “you don’t get over these things, you just learn how to live with them.”

But there are people who are skilled at helping us through our times of trouble.  VERY special people.  Today I had lunch with a very special person, one who has endured and continues to endure a time of trouble.  She shared openly with me how difficult her time of trouble has been, and in her sharing we both realized something important.  The people who escort us across the expanse of our time of trouble may not be the ones we expected them to be!  That was unsettling to consider, at first.  After all, should it not be my closest friends and confidants who can best help me, know me, be with me?  But then we realized that we do not choose our friends based on their capacity to tolerate our darkest times of trouble.  I’ll say that again in another way: we choose our friends for a lot of very good reasons, but usually not because they have demonstrated any particular ability to be able to help us to tolerate our times of trouble.

And here’s another truth that we realized together:  It may be someone you never expected, someone you don’t even know that well, who comes into your life and travels through those times of trouble by your side!  Consider this possibility.  Some people are better able than others to remain with us when we are suffering.  Some people just have that skill, an ability to experience your pain and their own felt sympathetic pain and not run away, whether figuratively or literally.  I’ve met people like this, people who remain still and silent on the inside, while I’m sharing with them my fear or remorse or anger or shame, or whatever suffering has come my way.  People with this internal stillness are rare, but stillness is a quality that can be cultivated.

But there are people who stays present with you even in the midst of their own flood of emotions: the fighters among us.  And this is a mark of courage, to be able to stay present even when it hurts to do so, because it is the right thing to do.  The feelings may overwhelm these people, but they stay with us, nonetheless.  They may not feel that stillness inside, but somewhere deep within them lies the conviction that the difficulty of remaining present does not matter; someone else’s well being is more important, in this moment, than mine.  Like the person with stillness within, these people are a treasure.

I believe that the quality of mindfulness is the essence of the stillness of the compassionate heart AND the fighter determined to remain present.  Mindful people recognize the upwelling of emotion within a moment of its initiation, and, no matter how unpleasant the emotion may be, make space for it.  Accept the pain.  Observe it with great neutrality; simply experiencing it as emotional pain that is telling me something important, something I NEED to know in this moment: that this person with me is suffering and needs connection, needs my compassion.  Lacking this mindful awareness, one quickly becomes terribly overwhelmed by the flood of emotions, a flood that tells every fiber of my being to flee, to get safe, to find a way to neutralize these feelings.  I cannot find fault with any person who cannot tolerate these feelings.  It is hard to choose to stay when your body says “go!” so strongly.

Each of us can cultivate this quality, but it takes practice.  That’s why we sit, every day if possible.  A baseball player has to take batting practice over and over again, just as a musician must repeat the lessons learned from a lifetime of diligent study.  But more than the practice in the formal setting, we must practice everyday mindfulness if we are to become adept at staying with “what is,” instead of escaping to “how we would like it to be instead.”  And if you find this capacity to remain present growing, don’t be surprised at who you are called to sit with.  In the same way that you may be surprised at who is able to sit with you when you are suffering, you may be just as surprised to find yourself sitting with someone suffering who you barely know.  But it may be you who is most able to remain there, compassionately helping that person through those times of trouble.  And if it does turn out to be you who can remain still with the suffering soul, take Sir Paul McCartney’s advice to heart: Let It Be.

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Humility

The word humility comes from the same Latin root word for “humus.”  That is, the word humility essentially means to be fully grounded.  Humus is the earth between our fingers; our humility is our self firmly held.  To be humble is to be grounded.  Grounded in reality, in an honest and accepting assessment of my strengths and my weaknesses.  The humble person knows himself, without any delusions, without any additions or subtractions.  The humble person knows that she is strong in one area while being weak in another, and it’s all OK.  The humble person yields to his vulnerability, knows that it is acceptable to be weak and to need help.  The humble person yields to her strength, knows that it is acceptable to be strong and to offer that help to another person.  In our humility we become real.  You cannot be humble and be phony.  To be humble is to be strong, chiefly because I know and accept that I have permission to be weak.

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Mindfulness Meditation

A Simple Truth

It may take years to realize, but one does not have to do everything one is asked to do.  Many opportunities arise.  Many elicit excitement upon being perused.  It is in the moment of arousal that great risk emerges, side by side with great opportunity.  This moment, a sort of crisis in its own way, demands discernment.  Appraisals fill the mind.  Does this concern me?  Can I do this well?  The answer to these questions may well be “yes,” but still more discernment is required.  Mindfully, one must remember that just because one might be able to do something well, one still has the option to not do that action, even if it IS important to do.  It is worth repeating: Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you MUST do something.  Many stress related illnesses and deaths may have been avoided had this simple truth been heeded.

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Stress Management Course Materials

Hello there,

I’m currently teaching a 3 credit Psychology course at Wilmington University titled “Stress Management.”  As part of this course I’m teaching a variety of methods to reduce physiological and psychological stress.  I’ve recorded five guided stress reduction interventions, which I’m posting for my students and anyone else who might find them helpful.  Please note that the sixth method I taught this weekend, Progressive Muscular Relaxation, can be found in a previous post.

1. Diaphragmatic Breathing.  This is a very simple way to “catch your breath,” and have a relaxing moment.  With regular practice, you’ll find this tool is one you can use in any situation to relax a bit and widen your cognitive outlook.  Just click on this link to listen:  Diaphragmatic Breathing

2. Awareness of Breath.  For those who are regular followers of this blog, or have taken the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, this mindfulness meditation is an “old friend.”  Just click on this link to listen:  Awareness of Breath Meditation

3. Body Scan.  Another favorite of regular meditators and students (and teachers) of MBSR.  Just click on this link to listen:  Body Scan

4. Visualization.  What are you thinking about?  What images do you bring to mind?  How do your thoughts and images affect you emotionally?  When you bring any sort of memory to mind, the emotional charge of that memory arrives with it, bringing your body to that place and time.  This capacity of the body is one that you can use to find a retreat, a safe place where you can restore your well being, even if only for a short time.  Visualization is a powerful technique.  Just click this link to listen: Visualization

5. Self Hypnosis.  The ability to become deeply relaxed and open minded is always available.  Hypnosis is the induction of that relaxed and open mindedness, and one that you can use to great advantage.  Before beginning consider what suggestion you’d like to plant in your mind, and, at the appropriate time in the induction, make that suggestion to yourself.  Just click this link to listen: Self Hypnosis

Hope this material is helpful for you.  Feel free to send me questions, comments, and concerns.

Peace,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Progressive Muscular Relaxation

Anxiety: a feeling of dread, related to fear and panic, yet not as strong.  It’s a feeling we can carry with us, whether there is some cause in our environment or not.  Sometimes anxiety is generated by a thought or a concern that we have.  And the longer we remain fixed on this thought or concern, the longer we carry the bodily feeling of anxiety. Sometimes anxiety arises spontaneously, filling the body with uncomfortable feelings.  And the bodily feeling of anxiety itself can set the mind in motion, activate all kinds of thoughts and memories that are congruent with the anxiety, but may have little if anything to do with what is happening right here, right now.

One of the primary effects of anxiety is to cause muscular tension.  It can be very subtle tension, such as jaw clenching or teeth grinding.  A sore back or neck, fatigue in our torso or limbs, all can be the result of muscles kept tensed throughout much of the day.  When the feeling of anxiety permeates our self, the muscular tension that ensues can be exhausting.

One antidote for anxiety is to relieve the muscular tension.  Many people find that the process of relaxing the muscles systematically not only brings on a peaceful feeling, but that it actually relieves the anxiety itself.  And if you combine the work of muscular relaxation with some simple mental corrections concerning those activated thoughts and memories, then the anxiety can truly be relieved and relinquished.  But it takes lots of practice and commitment.

Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR) is a technique pioneered by Edmund Jacobson, an American psychiatrist and physiologist, in the 1920’s.  Jacobson’s work, and the work of many of his disciples (especially Joseph Wolpe), laid the groundwork for treatment of anxiety disorders.  You can find a good introduction to Jacobson’s work in the Wikipedia article about PMR (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_muscle_relaxation).

I’ve recorded a simple, 15 minute script that will lead you through a PMR session.  All you need is a quiet comfortable place where you can listen to this script and practice PMR.  It’s really simple; after doing this practice by the recording a few times you won’t need to listen to it, you’ll simply know how to relax your muscles in this manner.  You might find cultivating this skill quite helpful.  Imagine mindfully noticing the beginning of some anxious feelings during the day, and being able to recognize which muscles are tensing and then, with a very simple and conscious effort, relaxing those muscles and letting go of the anxiety.

Here’s the recording: Progressive Muscular Relaxation

And here are the simple directions to follow before you listen to the recording:

1. Find a time and place that will allow you 20 minutes of relatively undisturbed quiet.  Padded earphones may be of assistance in tuning out the world.  Some people find it helpful to have recorded music of a relaxing nature in the background.

2. Develop a habit of relaxing in the same place at the same time every day.  Make it part of your daily schedule.  Relaxation is a skill that requires practice.

3. Get as comfortable as you can, preferably sitting in a recliner with your entire body and head supported, or lying down.  Wear loose clothing that will assure a sufficient warmth, or cover yourself with a light blanket.  Remove eyeglasses or contact lenses before beginning to relax.

4. Avoid doing the relaxation exercise immediately after eating a full meal or when you are tired, as you may actually fall asleep and not benefit from the relaxation practice.  However, relaxation in itself may be used to substitute for a nap as a source of renewed energy, or it can be used to combat insomnia which is associated with anxiety.

5. After you have relaxed to the recorded script several times, you will find you are able to obtain the same deep state of relaxation without actually tensing your muscles at all.  If you find yourself becoming impatient with the length and sequence of the tape, you might try starting your relaxation sessions midway through the tape, beginning with the deep breaths.  It is also recommended that you occasionally go through the entire relaxation sequence on your own without the tape.  Eventually you will be able to achieve the same deep relaxed state merely by imagining your calm scene.

I hope you find this useful; I know I have, especially during those times when there’s a lot of stress in my life.
And I would love to hear back from you about this practice, the good, the bad, and (let’s hope not) the ugly.
Peace,
Jim
Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Be Mindful Now

If not now, when.

Actually, the entire quote is “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

These are the words of one of the greatest Jewish scholars, Rabbi Hillel, also known as Hillel the Elder.  Hillel lived in the beginning of the common era, roughly 2000 years ago.  His admonition, “if not now, when,” is taken to refer to the necessity to attend to obligations now, in this moment, and to not put off that which is essential.

Be mindful now.  Such a simple injunction.  Taken with Hillel’s admonition, what am I waiting for if I do not direct my intentionality to the present moment?  When do I want to live?  Next year?  Back when I was 12 years old?

I only have now.  So why do I fret?  Tomorrow isn’t here.  Why do I regret?  Yesterday is over; I can’t change it.

When is the time to be mindful?  What am I waiting for?  How about you?  Did you sit today?  Did you walk mindfully?  Eat mindfully?  What excuse did I give myself?  Was I at least able to be mindful of my mindless excuse?

If not now, when.  Be mindful now.

Peace,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

“I Love You” Therapy

Good morning!

I’ve been away a while.  Life gets busy, and priorities shift.  It’s my intention to blog regularly, as I’m usually coming across information that fascinates me and helps me one way or the other, and I love to share that material.  One day soon the time will be available more regularly, I’m certain.

But for now, I’d like to direct you to this link: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/13/lifes-frailty-and-the-gestures-that-go-a-long-way/?ref=science

Tara Parker-Pope is a NYTimes writer who frequently contributes to the Tuesday “Science Times.”  She writes today about the frailty of life and the importance of expressing our love for one another.  I agree.  You just don’t know when it’s the last time you’ll see someone.  I know that sounds morbid, but it’s a truth that bears acceptance.  But there’s another reason for expressing our affection: it feels good.  It fills the heart.  If you’re not certain of this, take it to a meditation.  After you’ve steadied your mind somewhat, simply find two words to accompany your breathing.  Something like “soft” on the in breath and “heart” on the out breath.  Or “loving” and “kindness.”  Or “gently” and “caressing.”  The only limit is your imagination.  Once your mind has settled on this breathing intonation, bring to mind’s eye the image of a loved one.  Dwell with this image.  Perhaps reinvent this image to this loved one as a seven year old.  Or yourself, perhaps.  Then examine your heart.  Feel your body in this mindset.

If your body has softened, become loving, then take the experiment further: tell that person of your softened heart, caressing touch, or lovingkindness.  Be vulnerable, expect no return.  And if that person wonders “what’s this about” you can always tell them “it’s cheaper than a Valentine’s Day card”!

Peace and love to you,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Layers of Forgiveness: Relieving Trait Anger in the Compulsive Gambler

Hello,

The material available in this post includes the slides, handout, and original research article used in my workshop on trait anger and treatment of addictions, particularly Pathological Gambling.  Feel free to use these materials, and feel free to contact me about them if you have any questions (walshjm54@yahoo.com).

These are the Powerpoint slides I used in the workshop:  Trait Anger Gambling Workshop Slides

The questions we considered as part of our work in the workshop are included in this document: Trait Anger Gambling Workshop Questions

This is the research article that I presented during the morning portion of the workshop:  Gambling & Anger Outcomes Study

The Powerpoint slides and questions are my original work.  If you choose to use them please give attribution.  The journal article has its own copyright protection.

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

On Human Satisfaction

Hello again!

Is there a topic of greater interest than Human Satisfaction, especially as we grow older?  What does it mean to be satisfied with your life?  So many variables go into this equation.  My family’s happiness certainly comes to mind first.  My health, the health of those I love must be considered.  Are my basic needs met?  (What are my BASIC needs anyway?)  Do I have a career that feels more like play than work?  Do I have friends who bring my joy and comfort?  Do I find delight in the day-to-day events of my life?

For a great perspective on this issue, here’s a wonderful article from Jane Brody, one of the great science writers of our time.  It appeared in the Science Times section of the NY Times yesterday, January 10, 2012.  It’s worth reading.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/10/health/elderly-experts-share-life-advice-in-cornell-project.html?ref=science

More later.  But Ms. Brody’s article provides much food for thought.

Peace,

Jim