On Remembrance Day 2016

On  Remembrance Day – Dear mindfulness practicing friends:

On Tuesday we witnessed an unexpected victory for Donald Trump in the USA-  he will be the next President for our neighbours to the South- along the longest undefended border between two nations.
Our people have  evolved side by side for over 150 years  with enough shared values and similar life styles that we could say unequivocally:  we have more interests in common than differences.
I remember this wonderful picture book from 1976 that featured neighbours along that long border –  called : Between  Friends , pictured above.  The heartwarming photos of ordinary people living close to our border with the USA and Americans living within a stone’s throw of our Canadian communities was edited and compiled by Lorraine Monk.   Ironically it came out in a second special edition in June 2001- a few months before the world was transformed by 9/11.
When I flip through my copy, I can see how closely our lives can be intertwined  across that border.  How interdependent we actually are, how special our international friendships have been over many generations.

Whatever your  sentiments right now, at this moment in time – whether you are feeling elated or devastated by a Donald Trump Republican victory –  know that your views will change.  The world will keep moving forward, and we will be seeing and hearing how the new administration evolves after the early days of January 2017.

It is important to use our practices now to enhance our ability for critical thought, for evaluation, for clarity and honesty.  Do we have a willingness to look deeply into our own attitudes and views  on politics, social change and the needs of all of Americans, Canadians and the Planet ?  We may actually have to fight for our deep convictions, in our own ways:   taking stands peacefully where we can,  within the system for what we believe in.  The Civil Rights movement on behalf of all marginalized people and the survival of this very planet – is not over!

It is easy to fall into the black hole of seeing disaster fall upon us all,  if you support the Democratic party and what they have been working for these last two terms in the White House.    Since Tuesday  morning I have been waking up and flashes of fear and apprehension pass through my mind and body.  I see the wiping out of democratic institutions and long and hard fought battles on many issues, such as climate change and human rights; the importance to provide refuge for those fleeing tyranny.   Many hard fought socially progressive legislation and social safety nets suddenly appear to be vulnerable to elimination with the stroke of the new President elect’s pen.   Then I remember Mark Twain who is reported to have said “I have seen many disasters in my time-  75%  have never even happened.”

My mind like that of most of ours is quick to get aroused into a fight or flight reaction. That is the nature of the mind.  It fills in the blanks very quickly, and before we know it we see destruction and devastation all over the place.   My hope is that I will keep my practice very close and watch over my thoughts and not allow my emotions to take me down into fear and despair.   They say there is a silver lining around every cloud.  If that is the case:  What is Tuesday election’s sliver lining?    Perhaps it is the opportunity to recognize that reality and reality shows   are not the same thing!!    The internet can not be the source of our education.  It is filled with anger driven, even hateful commentary masquerading as facts.   It is time to teach ourselves and our children rudimentary logic – to immunize everyone from being swayed by innuendo and calumny and slander.

These times may also be an opportunity to listen and learn and try to figure out how we can actually work together for needed change in our strong democracies.    I invite you to view the following Tube video:  I think it speaks to the single most important issue in the Western World that absolutely needs to be addressed.   This issue- about inequality of wealth distribution – can no longer be ignored.  Income distributions  have reached  a most  egregious extreme in America;  but it is not only a problem in the USA.

To be honest, it is a bit of a stretch for me,  but I am trying to be open to what were the needs and sentiments behind those who gave their votes to Trump, and apparently held such disdain for Hillary Clinton.  Maybe the above video explains one of the many factors that have led to where we are right now,  on Remembrance Day.
Remembrance Day (or Veterans’ Day) is a time to remember that a not so long ago, in the in the 1910’s ,1940’s ,1930’s,  1950’s, 1960’s  indeed every decade in the last century –  our brave sons and daughters have been willing to go and fight for values and a way of life we have been benefiting from.
The only way forward, in my estimation, is to foster dialogue and ask questions and keep listening –   Between  Friends.  I wish the best to our friends and  neighbors, even family in the Great United States  to begin the journey of healing, so the nation can be whole again soon…
May the great American poet Galway Kinnell lead the way.

How Many Nights
How many nights
have I lain in terror,
O Great Spirit, maker of night and day,

only to walk out
the next morning over the frozen world
hearing under the creaking of snow
faint, peaceful breaths…
bear, earthworm, ant…

and above me
a wild crow crying “yaw, yaw, yaw”
from a branch nothing cried from ever in my life.

From: Body Rags – 1968 – reprinted in A New Selected Poems 2001

“Are mindfulness practices making us Ill?” – A question worthy of serious reflection.

I was recently sent a link to a couple of articles by an English journalist Dawn Foster which appeared in The Guardian- a British publication to which she is a regular contributor. Ms. Foster writes about her own introduction to mindfulness practice with a group of people in a work place setting. The session began with a benign sounding request to eat a sandwich mindfully. Yet, Ms. Foster began to feel “excruciatingly uncomfortable” and was left wondering if her jaw was malfunctioning. Her distress became amplified as the group was next introduced to siting meditation. Even before the postural instructions were finished, she felt the beginnings of a panic attack. These experiences are described in Ms. Foster’s January 23rd. 2016 article entitled: “Is
mindfulness making us ill?” making-us-ill.

Individuals world wide are reporting positive benefits to overall wellbeing as they
practice mindfulness meditation. These practices are taught on several continents in
many languages and followers now number in the millions world wide. Yet there are a
growing number of individuals who report adverse effects in some situations when they
begin mindfulness meditation. Is this shocking or even surprising? Absolutely not.
Those who are engaging in the practice, expecting mindfulness to bring ease, freedom
from distress and blissful states of mind misunderstand the aims of the practice, or the
reality of suffering. Basically, people are projecting their deepest emotional needs and
longings for release from anxiety and inner turmoil onto a method that may well have
been oversold in our western pragmatic and solution oriented culture.

There is no question that every healing approach or set of prescribed set of
suggested behaviours for improving wellbeing has limits. Mindfulness is a practice of
becoming aware of our condition, and of the human condition in general. Awareness
comes at a price – the inevitable price is related to the fact that our world is not a
peaceful place. We are not immune to the conflicts and suffering of our fellow human
beings. Unavoidably, in this conflict ridden world, our inner life is complex, often messy
and full of turbulence. When we choose to shine a light within, there may be a lot of
dust bunnies and even nasty things lurking in the corners of our psyche.

Most of us live at least some of the time in states of denial. The truth is we can
not attend to all the suffering in the world and live a good life. Our habit of avoiding the
realities of life can go too far. Our favourite way to avoid is to distract ourselves, and
our environment offers infinite ways to accomplish this. We need only to turn on any
one of our electronic devices to tap into pleasant and interesting forms of distraction
from hard truths, both on a personal level and on a societal one. Yet, there has to be
balance and to live a healthy life, in the very least our personal experiences and realities
need to be faced and seen with compassion for how they really affect our minds and

Psychologists warn that sitting and watching the mind may trigger intense
emotions. We are, after all, emotional beings who crave those feelings we call pleasant
and go to great lengths to protect ourselves from the other kind – the intense, mean and
scary kind.  Meditation is a kind and gentle practice of self care – a way of enriching our
lives with the invitation to live more fully in the present. However, it is not without its
power to reflect what ails us sometimes quite vividly. Any one of us who has the habit
of avoiding taking care of ourselves by regular reflection on the big picture of our lives
will collect the dust bunnies of anxiety. When anxiety arises, it could be seen as a gift –
the gift of clear seeing.

On rare occasions, sitting and paying attention to what is arising in body and
mind may raise anxiety in troubled people. If they have had psychotic episodes in the past another one could be triggered. However, these breakdowns are triggered by a variety of situations in life. Mindfulness Meditation can not be held responsible. We know that individuals with traumatic histories may not be able to handle the sudden opening of the floodgates of inner experience damed up with coping strategies designed to keep the truth of suffering and anxiety at bay.
Fragile people may need a lot of support and skillful guidance. The unleashing of memories from their past may be highly intense to take head on.
Especially when they are unprepared for such past experiences to come gushing forth. Starting a practice with guidance from experienced teachers may be the necessary but not sufficient step for some. Some may require an experienced therapist to interpret what arises mentally along the way. Providing support to navigate inner storms on the painful journey toward healing is the role of an experienced therapist. Mindfulness is not therapy, even though many therapies now are informed by mindfulness.

In spite of the fact that we can not prevent people confronting their painful pasts, mindfulness based therapies and practices have great potential benefits. Even the most vulnerable, whose approach to their experience is carefully planned and who can make use of skillful guides along the way
can begin to heal with mindfulness.
And that is simply because no matter whatever happened in
the past to any one of us, we can only move forward and honour that past without
succumbing to fear and hopelessness. The alternative is to continue to repress the past and distract ourselves with addictive behaviours. Repression and denial stunt our growth and prolong our suffering.

Who is Dawn Foster? My search shows that she is a Guardian journalist who
seeks out edgy subjects. She challenges the status quo including the National Health Service in England.
So, as mindfulness based therapies are gaining traction in Great Britain these
approaches to health care are rightfully being challenged. I applaud the act of
challenging any treatment approach, especially one that is promoted by large corporations such a Google,
or the Department of Health and Transport for London. Pretty soon the Apple Watch will
be equipped with a Mindfulness App. The question is whose App will be chosen? And
will the mindfulness app be oversold as a way to manage the stress of constant contact
in a wired up life? Are we going to allow ruthless workplaces to push us even further
into stress with corporate offerings of “stress reduction’’ while denying their
responsibility to negotiate with employees honestly about their work loads. On the
other hand, when is the declaration of “my job is the reason I am a mess” a valid
argument for sick leave? These discourses need to be faced with more than a
superficial nod to the mantra of “Work Life Balance”.

The title of this last guardian article is naively preposterous, in my view. But it is
bound to draw attention to the soft underbelly of the mindfulness industry. As a well
entrenched and pretty long time teacher (going on to my ninth year) I don’t mind
admitting that the stress reduction end of mindfulness as a practice has some serious
pitfalls. It is far from well researched because this kind of endeavour poses many
obstacles to serious scientific enquiry. Mindfulness is not a well controlled series of
health management techniques – it is a group of skills packaged in a variety of ways for
many different purposes.

“Is mindfulness making us ill?” With such a challenging title, I am not likely to be the
first practitioner responding to defend the practice. On the other hand, I also believe
that Ms. Foster’s viewpoint has a kernel of truth but one that is born of lack of
understanding of the aims and benefits of mindfulness practice and meditation. You
have to believe in the power of awareness, to commit to any of the mindfulness
practices.. Mindfulness meditation is not transcendental meditation. Mindfulness
does not seek to empty the mind and dissolve the ego. It goes beyond that, and
challenges us to look at and see our present reality. How things actually are is not that
pretty much of the time. The journey can not be successfully undertaken without
harnessing the power of kindness and openness and acceptance of ourselves as
imperfect and suffering human beings. It also challenges our preconceptions about how
the world is supposed to be. This does not mean capitulating to those aspects of our
lives which require us to confront and rise up and take action.

But that is another topic worthy of another discussion.

Compassion Meditation and CPR Practice

“Time will come when with elation you greet yourself……

For several years now, research into the efficacy of mindfulness training has focused on which of the many components of the practices is most significant in producing desired outcomes. Which meditative practice, for example is most significant for healing? Which practice or practices yield the greatest sense of ease and freedom from suffering? If we are in difficult interpersonal situations, which mindfulness practice will reconnect us to a sense of calm and equanimity? What needs hearing to help us resolve our differences?

There are few studies to date actually designed to tease apart the many skills mindfulness students learn in the course of mindfulness based learning programs and mindfulness informed therapies. But what we hear from participants in our programs often gives us an indication how the skills people learn can transform their everyday experience. One common theme we hear is when our clients tell us that recognizing how self critical they have been toward themselves in their difficulties can be a shocking discovery. It is often a shock to hear for the first time the inner language that we have been directing at ourselves sub consciously over the years. Such new understanding can come for the first time in mindfulness groups. When this happens we have heard people say: “It is jolting to hear myself put myself down.” or “ I cried the first time I clearly heard how hard I have been on myself.” and “I don’t think it is helping me to get down on myself.” These moments of recognition are precursors to begin healing the broken heart ! The heart has to break open to self compassion.

And we resonate with Derek Walcott’s: Love After Love

The time will come

When, with elation,

You will greet yourself arriving

At your own door, in your own mirror,

And each will smile at the other’s welcome

And say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine, Give bread, Give back your heart

To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All you life, whom you have ignored

For another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

The photographs, the desperate notes,

Peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life

Derek Walcott

We have been teaching compassion meditations in our groups for quite a while. Our purpose is to tune in and hear our self talk and begin to reshape our relationship to ourselves. From critical and rejecting to honest and nurturing is the way we shift the attitudes and belief systems which we unconsciously hold toward ourselves. Knowledge is power. What we can’t hear and know will keep us enslaved. Psychologists know that change is difficult. Change comes from new perspectives. Changing attitudes is probably most challenging of all. Often the cultivation of compassion through directing aspirations for care and kindness to oneself and toward others is directly instrumental in attitudinal change. Freedom arises when we no longer enslave ourselves to self punishing beliefs. Or to beliefs that place the power for change in the hands of others.

In my own experience as someone prone to anxiety and worry with a family history of depression, I know that watching my own mind – the moods, the thought streams has yielded surprising and sometimes disturbing results. I had no idea how hard I was on myself, until I allowed myself to calmly observe the self judgement that goes on all day in my head. Life may be going on smoothly until someone reminds me that I forgot to do something, or did not get my facts straight, or I found myself not as sharp on the uptake in a conversation as someone else – BINGO ! The Self Critic is triggered and the self recriminations in the head come gushing forth— a real torrent of thoughts difficult to stop.

Mindfulness meditation lets me see that these thoughts bring with them a certain feeling of familiarity. There is almost a visceral feeling in my stomach, or head – and here come the self critical thoughts once again. The feeling is often the first sign. If I am lucky and catch that visceral sense and notice: “ooh here come self judgement… the self put downs….etc…” if I can catch the thoughts early, I can stop what I am doing and take a breath and go straight into a CPR practice:

Here is how CPR Practice may work for me

First come the feelings such as: “ You will never get this right!”- These difficult thoughts arise out of habit- they are not helpful and hinder me from being a stronger, more successful person…So I begin with directing thoughts of compassion towards me:

C=Compassion to self 1st step

“Here come the feelings and thoughts , let me breathe into the chest – the tightness in the head, let me just be with these feelings and thoughts for a moment.” Then I move to P…

P=paying attention to perceptions and quality of feelings.

Watching and tuning into the sensations of my body, the emotional tone I am feeling right now, the quality of mood in the mind, I know I could get down on myself with the habitual rant “You will never get it right, you won’t ever do this well enough, etc.” but instead I just observe right now whatever is arising in myself. Then I move to seeing that there is a moment of choosing..There are two ways to go –

R could be automatically Reacting

But that just keeps the negative cycle perpetuating and is counter productive.

A Better R

A Response I can choose instead: for me this may be “Let me accept myself just as I am” Let me be OK with the strengths I have, let me relax and tune in and see what coping skills I can bring to this situation. Let me Just stay with what is right here now!

When I do this, I disconnect my concept of who I am from any thoughts or beliefs about How I am Performing! My performance is what I am capable of in this moment- it is not who I am.

The three CPR steps can be followed by anyone.

There is no difference in how to care for ourselves when dealing with pain from how to care when we feel a sense of failure.. As I see it and have heard it from many people: one can not help but feel like a failure when the body is not working the way we would like it to work.

When the back or shoulder or knees or feet ache – it feels like some kind of failure – we shouldn’t be this way! We become our judge , jury and pronounce ourselves wanting. we may feel defective. And that is just not so, and highly unnecessary. When these beliefs arise, reinforced by habit and or repetition- we can breathe deeply into the chest. It is helpful to be caring and attentive and willingly open to the disappointment, with compassion. It can be so hard.. to stay with the sensations attached to these beliefs, these thoughts, these emotions. But turning to these inner experience is like embracing our core selves, our vulnerability. Turning toward creates a new habit path, one that is easier for the body and the mind & heart.

How will you respond in a way that is more kindly and accepting – because you know, you KNOW you are so much more than your pain, your aching body? And your aching body needs your loving attention, maybe some of your time in body scan , movement, yoga. You alone can decide which practice may be most needed.

I have found that spending 5 minutes in loving kindness meditation as I end my daily sitting meditation really helps calm down that critical judge that has really outlived its usefulness in my life. I can only be myself, not some other smarter, more efficient, more ambitious person. PLEASE listen to the featured video on the Greater Good Web site with Dr. Kristin Neff – hear an expert in the field explain in her words the importance of compassion, especially self compassion to start you back toward healing and your love of life.