Blog Archives

Mindfulness & changing habits

2014-07-30 16.04.28

Quite often in my own life I’ve used mindfulness techniques as stress management tools. I would often use them to run away from the things in life that scared me or I felt that I couldn’t face up to. These practical techniques, such as breathing exercises, certainly helped me manage short-term stress and also allowed me to put myself into a more mentally resilient state. But they didn’t always enable me to explore my habitual patterns or unpick old behaviours. It seemed that despite practicing mindfulness the same challenges kept on arising time and again. It was only through exploring mindfulness, further, that I was able to understand more fully how it was my relationship “with” the things or situations that I found uncomfortable rather than the situation itself .

Creating the groundwork for developing mindfulness

In the first stages of my exploration of mindfulness I explored lots of different tools to help observe and develop smooth breathing, to develop focus, to be more aware of my physical body and also how changing my posture regulated my thoughts and emotions. I also practiced techniques to develop self love and love and compassion for others. These building blocks of mindfulness were and are essential components of human thriving.

These practices enabled me to be in a position to begin to explore my habitual habits and tendencies.

Exploring our inner world

In Yoga the fifth limb of the Eight limbs of Yoga, contained in the Yoga Sutras, is Pratyahara or the exploration of our inner world.

The exploration of our inner world means being still and observing whatever arises in a non-judgmental way. This happens at the level of sensation. We observe without the necessity of a cognitive oversight. We sit still, we observe the sensation and we breathe into the sensation. In this manner we observe that feelings and thoughts manifested as sensations arise and pass away. In this way we are able to separate our sense of self with the thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise. All things arise and pass away. Hardness softens. Things come and go. The mere act of observation changes the observed. As we continue to practice this observation of self we are better placed to separate the emotion and thought from our sense of self. For example I might be angry about a situation that another person may have “caused” but I do not define myself as an angry person nor hold anger towards the other person.

Observing emotions, allowing them to flow and acting

This is an example of, perhaps, a best-case scenario for managing a difficult situation:

Anger arose in me for an event caused by another person. I observed that anger arising and felt it first as a sensation. I breathed into that area and felt the anger subside. But the anger was a cause to act and in a balanced and calm manner I was able to express to the other person why I felt anger. I retained positive regard for the other person and kept an open mind and open ears. I was ready to challenge my own view on the situation as he explained his truth to me.

Bringing cognitive oversight to our observation

As we observe sensations in a calm and balanced way we may notice the same patterns arising again and again. We may notice the thoughts and feelings that emerge with the sensations and we may start to notice causal events linking event with thought, feeling and sensation.

On other occasions we may not be able to make such causal leaps. We often want to assign reasons for feelings and this may be useful. It might help us draw a line under things and move on. In many cases however life is so complex that we simply can’t understand where the feeling comes from. Maybe we just feel anxious sometimes and that’s ok. Simply observe the sensation, breathe it into and let it pass. Once again we are separating the sense of self with the feeling. “ I feel anxious now but that does not mean that anxiousness defines me”

All emotions are valid. Emotional intelligence is developed as we observe and don’t suppress the sensation and emotion. It is also developed as we develop and practice tools to handle the information that the sensations we observe are telling us.

Tools for observing our inner world

By sitting still we may observe patterns of thoughts, feelings and sensations arising over and over. There are a number of tools, which may be helpful in enabling you to fully appreciate that all things arise and pass away and by exploring these tools we may learn to unpick habitual tendencies. One of these tools is to keep asking why a particular situation causes you discomfort.

Asking WHY – WHY – WHY – WHY

If a feeling and sensation arises in the same situation again and again keep asking yourself why you feel that way. This exploration may help you unravel deeper feelings, such as, feeling unloved or of lacking in abundance. As we do this we may begin to appreciate that we are reacting to old hurts long past. The you and I, as we were when we were little kids, may no longer seem physically present but the five year old, fifteen year old and twenty-five year old us are still deep inside us. Not only are all our past selves contained within us but also the experiences of our ancestors and our society. We are creatures of conditioning and by calmly observing experience in the present we may learn to become less reactive and begin to create new positive patterns. This can only truly come by sitting and observing who we are. For example as I practice a yoga posture I try not to do the posture but be the posture. I observe myself within my environment and part of my environment. I am within my skin and know I am within my skin. But I am also part of my environment and am my environment. I AM. I am a human being and not a human doing.

We can let go of old ways of being and be present now reflecting upon and engaging with a new reality as it arises at this moment. We can learn to fully love the five year old, fifteen year old and twenty five year old us. They enabled us to be the beautiful person we are now, always were and always will be.

I hope you found this useful

Andy Roberts

Andy Roberts teaches mindfulness, emotional intelligence and resilience in Australia and the UK

 

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How to build resilience

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How to build mental resilience

  • How can we stay engaged and busy at work but not overly stressed?
  • When is the right time to push ourselves and when is the right time to sit back?
  • How much pressure is good for us?

These are tricky questions and there is no definitive right and wrong answer. That’s because people are complex. If you run or manage a team the relationships you have to each team member and to the group will be rich and varied.

As managers we need to change the way we think of “staff “ and think of them more as our internal customers. Like external customers they need to be listened to and deserve to have high expectations from the organisation.  Like our customers the relationship we have with each team member will be nuanced, rich and varied.

We need to remember that people come to a place of work for financial reasons but also because it provides (or should provide) meaning, fun, positive relationships, a degree of autonomy and a sense of shared purpose and structure.

The Gallup organisation, through their Q12 survey, have found the most financially successful organisations have employees who tend to tick those employee engagement boxes.

When we work in a culture like that a heavy workload and tight timetables feel more like a fun challenge than an onerous one. Creating an engaged workplace enables a more resilient culture to flourish and the benefits will flow throughout the team and outwards to your customers and your suppliers.

In such an engaged place of work people develop trust and warm friendships. They feel able to communicate ideas. They are also more likely to put their hands in the air when they feel under prepared or over worked. Stress builds when we are unable or feel unable to express our feelings and motivations. This happens in a culture of distrust when the development of positive relationships are not prioritised.

The starting point for building an engaged, resilient organisation is to build a culture of positive regard for colleagues. It also means changing the idea that people are overheads to one where people are our greatest assets and a source of learning, fun and meaning.

Our next resilience workshop is Townsville, North Queensland

How can we build better mental resilience? How can we feel stretched at work whilst remaining calm, balanced and physically healthy? Find out more at our one day resilience workshop on Friday 27th November

What a thought can do to your body

Most people know about fight or flight and how our bodies have a physiological reaction to a perceived threat.  Whether its a physical or psychological threat the outcomes to the body and mind are similar – we get braced for a fight or energise our muscles to run.  So whether its a caveman running from a sabre toothed tiger or your boss yelling at you the physical effects are similar in the short term:
  • your digestion system shuts down – absorbing nutrients takes energy and the body needs the energy for a fight – hence constipation, IBS etc
  • your muscles tense ready for a fight – you are braced, your body becomes brittle and armoured  – neck pain, lower back pain
  • your heart rate rises to pump blood to the major organs of movement – heart rate increases
  • hormones secreted constrict blood vessels to enable blood to be pumped to the major muscle groups quickly – blood pressure rises and your face gets red
  • the muscles of fight/flight are prioritised – there is a dramatic reduction in flow to non essential areas – like the skin, kidneys and re productive areas – so you wont look good and your bits and pieces wont work so well
  • your pupils dilate in order to pick up more information from our surroundings –you look a bit unhinged
  • proteins, carbohdrates and fat are stored in your body and during fight flight are mobilised and dumped into the bloodstream to provide energy for the major muscles of movement.  They circulate in the bloodstream as amino acids, glucose and fatty acids and can adhere to the constricted blood vessel walls –increasing your chances of heart disease or stroke.  
  • amino acids are not great sources of energy so during fight/flight the protein in muscles is dumped into the blood stream and then converted by the liver into glucose – this increases diabetes risk and makes it hard for the mega stressed to grow lean muscle mass
  • when the fight flight emergency ends the amino acids, glucose and fatty acids are re absorbed, often in fat store deposits – this requires a huge amount of energy to convert from one form of storage – hence we get tired easily and store fat deposits
Fight/flight was designed an evolutionary response to physical threat.  But human beings are amongst a unique group of animals who can live in fear of the past and the future and create physiological damage just through the power of our thoughts. However we have a number of positive options for trying to manage a mind that darts and roams to dangerous places ;

Physical exercise – say your boss makes you feel small in front of people you might have a fight/flight reaction – you may want to stuff his teeth down the back of his neck.  But you can’t so you sit there and take it.  Shaky legs because you want to kick him in the chops and angry dilated pupils so you can aim your foot in the right place.  So the solution is to be an animal.  Be your natural self.  Go to the gym and kick the crap out of a punch bag or run, like you are running away from a tiger.  Its what your body is made to do

Empty your head of thoughts every so often – if you try empting your head of thoughts you get into the practice of observing thoughts as they arise.  And as the observer of yourself you might note some pretty alarming ones – I’m fat, I’m old, I can never do that – these are self inflicted psychological and physiological wounds – you are hurting your own body and mind with a thousand small cuts that you might not even be aware of .  There are so many great techniques that help you banish these internal thieves (thieves of your present and future health and happiness).  For example by learning to focus on your breath you focus on the moment, clear thoughts and engage the parasympathetic nervous system, reversing many of the negative effects of fight flight

Mind therapies – another way to tackle these thieves is through discussion and observation of thoughts, emotions and actions with an experienced coach.  This is where our mind therapies business can help you build a positive internal dialogue which will help you create and nourish your body at the cellular level.  I’ve written about this many times – people who are able to develop an internal feel good  state (which is not just reliant on fleeting hedonistic events) live longer, are more resistant to disease and infection and find it easier to build strong healthy bodies.  Focussing on developing a positive internal world shines through on the outside.  As I set out above your skin will glow because blood is pumped to it, your eyes will be soft and gentle and not angry and demanding, and your actions and movement will be measured and considered.

Here is our mind therapies team !!!

Monica Black – Clinical Hypnotherapist and NLP Practitioner
As one of the country’s leading qualified Master Clinical Hypnotherapists, Master NLP Practitioner, EMDR Practitioner, Monica has successfully helped many people
overcome all kinds of conditions and ailments which manifest either physically or emotionally such as weight loss, addictions, building confidence, conceiving etc. She further coaches in mindfulness and public speaking as well as works as a Media Lifestyle Commentator.
Monica is a member of the Royal Society of Medicine, CNHC, GHR, GHSC, ANLP, BATtH.
Contact Monica on 07776230332 or 0207 419 2211 or see her websitewww.hampsteadhypnotherapy.com

Marion Beauregard  – Sophrology practitioner 
Sophrology is a gentle non-intrusive technique improving quality of life, helping clients feel aligned with their environments, resources and values.  Marion has specialised in this cutting edge discipline, working both on the body and the mind, combining breathing exercises, muscular relaxation, gentle movements and visualisations. With a previous ‘life’ in marketing and extensive travelling experience, French-born Marion brings to the UK a new unique therapy practice and is qualified with the International Therapy Examination Council (ITEC) .
Contact Marion on 07929056135 and find out more about her at www.vie-tality.com

Madeleine Mason – Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, Relationship Coach
With an MSc and BSc in psychology, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy training and a background in the mental health profession specialising in quality of life, Madeleine brings extensive expertise to PassionSmiths. Having experience in marriage, dating and relationships, Madeleine is passionate about helping people to understand their own needs and getting successful results. She is a member of the British Psychological Society and the International Positive Psychology Association.  Contact Madeleine on 07707689900 and find out more about her at http://www.passionsmiths.com.

Daniel Williams – Psychotherapist and Relationship Coach
Trained as a psychotherapist, Dan is highly experienced in working with many different client needs, including couples with relationship issues. With a successful ‘previous life’ in the IT world as well as personal experience of dating and marriage, Dan brings crucial wisdom to the sessions at PassionSmiths. He is registered with the UK Council for Psychotherapy.  Contact Dan on 07557667137 and find out more about him athttp://www.passionsmiths.com.

Andy Roberts – Life Coach
With an MSc in Positive Psychology and training in Yoga, Andy specialises in stress management techniques including breath work and positive visualisation.  With previous experience working in finance, Andy understands the stresses involved with working in the city and combines his psychological and holistic trainings to help people focus on the positive in order to overcome life’s challenges.  Andy is an accredited Emotional Intelligence coach. Contact Andy on 07766343931 and find out more about him athttp://www.breathe-london.com/positive-psychotherapy

Dorinda Talbot – Psychotherapist and Mindfulness Coach
Trained in Core Process Psychotherapy, Dorinda combines her psychotherapeutic training with a Buddhism-based understanding of the transformative power of awareness.  Dorinda offers open-ended therapy incorporating voice dialogue sessions and mindfulness coaching to bring greater ease, intimacy and possibility into people’s lives.  Dorinda’s sessions are useful in dealing with many issues including (but not limited to!) anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, low self-esteem, stress, grief, life transitions, addictions, feeling stuck and lost and emotional management issues.  Contact Dorinda on 07949868426 and find out more about her athttp://dorindatalbot.com/

David Lewis – Cognitive Hypnotherapist, Psychotherapist and Coach
David has a comprehensive list of trainings in Hypnotherapy, Psychotherapy and Coaching.  Having worked as a psychotherapist at St Thomas’s Hospital from 2005-2010, David brings a wealth of excellent experience to his practice helping people tackle their anxiety, depression and relationship issues as well as phobias, fears and addiction problems. David’s professional memberships include the UK Council for Psychotherapy the National Council for Hypnotherapy. Contact David on 07545871504 and find out more about him at http://changeandmore.co.uk

The benefits of Yoga

A year ago I began a series of newsletters/blogs about the wellbeing courses that have inspired me. I wrote quite a few articles about the benefits that I received from studying Positive Psychology and Emotional Intelligence courses

In this newsletter I take a look at Yoga. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to this because of all the courses I’ve taken over the last 15 years it’s the thing that’s been the most beneficial to my physical and mental wellbeing.

One of the reasons that I’ve left it so long is the sheer complexity of Yoga. I teach about 15 hours every week and often find myself trying to encapsulate its usefulness. Each time I try, different words come out. The narrowest possible view is that it makes you more flexible. This is true but of equal importance is the increased physical strength, the improved balance and ease of movement.

However the physiological benefits derived from practicing the Asanas (physical postures) are just one part of the practice of Yoga. Yoga is a complete wellbeing system. The physical and psychological tools it provides you with enable a diligent practitioner to move towards mastery of the body, thoughts and emotions. In Yoga there is no delineation between the body and the mind. The body is trained to benefit the mind. The mind is trained to benefit the body.

 

Whether or not you attend Yoga classes in gyms or in Yoga centres we can begin to introduce a Yoga practice into our lives. It is not a religion and does not require a special place to practice. It is based on 4,000 years of human observation of the complex relationship between the body and the mind.

If you are interested in improving your wellbeing but have little interest in attending Yoga classes then this newsletter provides three simple techniques for bringing the practice of Yoga into everything you do:

1. Be aware of your physical essence – For example, if you are exercising a particular part of your body focus on that body part. In past newsletters I’ve set out research which indicates that when you focus attention on the muscle group you are exercising, the muscle develops more strongly than when your attention is scattered – energy flows where your attention goes. As another example, notice how when you are commuting or driving, your energy levels improve and thoughts become brighter when you sit up straight and focus on your posture.

2. Be aware of your breath – Observe your breathing in a dispassionate way (ie. not directing the breath to make it fast or slow). When you do this the act of observation has the effect of focusing the attention and engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. If you focus on your breathing, your attention is diverted away from anxiety stimulating thoughts. Thoughts have a consequential physiological impact. We find it difficult to multi-task and by focusing on our breath we learn to sharpen our attention and enable a feeling of centered calm to reside. By feeling calm and centered inside we are less likely to pay attention to our own internal thoughts and prejudices and more likely to observe the fine detail of the world around us.

In Yoga breath is Prana or energy. In addition to breath there are other forms of subtle energy. If we allow ourselves to observe the present moment we can tap into a limitless supply of universal energy. In my last sentence I’m not repeating what I’ve read in a book about Yoga. It’s what I’ve observed in my own practice. The more you practice, the more you observe the complex relationship between thought, energy and matter. Yoga is a about practice and personal observation of cause and effect.

3. Observe your thoughts and emotions – As you move through the world, continue to observe your thoughts and emotions as they flow through your mind. Become the observer of yourself. In Buddhism there is no delineation between thoughts and emotions. They are bundled together. One does not precede the other. They emerge blended. Through the practices of Yoga you charge your energy levels by allowing a universal energy to flow through you. You feel light, connected and balanced. As you feel connected you feel less isolated and more confident in the world around you and your place within it. Once you cease to observe your thoughts they can wander and become scattered. This scatters the energy you have built up. Even worse than this is that in an absent-minded way your thoughts may drift to a situation that causes you anxiety. Immediately the energy that you have built up seeps away – energy flows where attention goes.

When you focus on your physical presence, your breathing and subtle energy as well as remaining aware of your thoughts, you charge your body with positive energy. In yoga you focus first on your own wellbeing. From this position of confidence and strength you can then choose to help others.

Hope you found this useful

Andy

New things at the Breathe Centre

Sara is practicing Chiropractic care 6 days a week at the centre now

 

Lindsey is now practicing Holistic Massage on Fridays 12 to 5pm and all day Sunday

 

Zoe does sports massage on Fridays 5 to 7pm

 

Pawel is focussing on Craniosacral, Mysofascial release and Reflexology on Tuesdays 5 to 9pm

 

 

Being in nature – how it changes your mind

Wellbeing and nature

This weeks Breathe newsletter explores the benefits to health of being in nature.

I’ve just spent three magical weeks in Australia and for four days of the holiday we hiked and camped on a tropical island called Hinchinbrook.  The island is a few kilometres off the coast of northern Queensland.  It’s about 40km long by 3km wide and unlike most of Australia has a sharp backbone of granite mountain peaks rising to over a thousand metres. The island is a national park set within the Great Barrier Reef marine park.  Most of the island is covered in thick rainforest and there are dozens of remote, beautiful palm-fringed beaches, waterfalls and freshwater lagoons.  The rainforest is some of the oldest in the world and home to many species unique to the island.  As you approach the island you get the feeling you’re coming to Jurassic Park

Hinchinbrook is uninhabited and a maximum of 43 people are allowed to visit and camp on the island at any one time.  You have to bring your own food and camping equipment and are required to take all your rubbish away with you when you leave.  The suggested track to walk along is on the eastern side of the island facing out to the blue Pacific. The Western side faces the mainland of Australia, is full of mangrove swamps, and swarming with crocodiles.  You are therefore cut off from the mainland by the steep mountain peaks behind you.  At night the only lights are the stars and the only sounds, the animals.

Each day consisted of a seven hour hike through dense tropical rainforest and over beaches carrying heavy backpacks.  We woke before the sun came up at 5am and slept at 6.30pm as the sun set.

As we left the island for the hour long trip back to the mainland I thought about why I felt so amazingly healthy.  I felt as though every molecule in my body had been replaced with something better. Physically there are lots of reasons for this transformation:

  • Clean fresh air
  • Minimum food
  • Lots of exercise
  • No light and noise pollution

But I was also interested in the transformation of my mind. By about day three of our adventure I realised that if I walked in front, along the track, there was nothing in my field of vision which was man made.  All I could see was rainforest, beach, sky or sea.  There was nothing on the island made by man.  Throughout our journey all we had to consider was where to get water from and to be alert to dangers such as snakes and crocodiles – we met several snakes on the path and saw crocodile tracks near our tent!

I’m interested in what happens to your mind when all you see is nature.  I think we reflect what we see and fall into harmony with it.  Man-made things are usually other people’s attempts to satisfy our existing needs and desires, or to entice us to manufacture new needs and desires.  Occasionally man-made things are simply produced to be beautiful.  Man-made things force us to make decisions.  They play to our senses, they make us compare what we have to what others have, and what we could have. Even things made by man for beauty force a decision from us about whether we think it is a beautiful thing or ugly.

Nature is different.  The plants and animals around us have come into existence through evolutionary efficiency.  They evolved to become the form they are because nature has no choice.  Things flow into a new form in order to thrive.  Nature is not on display for our satisfaction.  It is arranged to be the best it can be.  The plants and animals fight and co-operate with each other in perfect harmony to create perfection.  Man’s creations are based on opinions and thoughts.  Man-made objects attempt to freeze time and create a false idea of the permanence of beauty, or usefulness.  When we surround ourselves with nature we reflect its non-thinking state and become engrained in the moment.  We become part of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.  As you walk along the path and observe rainforest you start to feel that the boundary between you and the forest is illusory.  You detach from your thoughts and realise you are part of a whole and not separate.

As we become more connected and use technology to do great things with our lives we also need to spend time immersed in nature.  If we fail to do this we move away from our true essence.  The more time we spend away from nature, the more we turn inwards and inflate our egos.  Our thoughts are fanned and we become isolated people.  Nature reflects our true essence of belonging to the earth and the elements.

In the photograph below you can see the rubbish that two of us created in four days – about the size of two or three Pret a Manger sandwich wrappings.   Optimising our wellbeing and having great experiences does not equate to ever-increasing levels of production, consumption and material acquisition.  Our weak politicians fail to understand this.  Growth is still the mantra.

While we were on the island a report came out that half the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has been destroyed in 27 years.  Experts argue over the causes of the destruction, however, most of the blame for the massive reduction in biodiversity that follows the death of coral reefs can be placed squarely on the growth of the use of man-made chemicals in farming and mining along the Queensland coast leaching into the Pacific.

I hope you found this useful and thought provoking.

Love,
Andy

Meditation and swimming

This weeks newsletter is a continuation of the meditation theme.   Although I have learnt and practiced many different meditation techniques I often find it difficult  to sit down, close my eyes and stop busy thoughts.  The excuse that I use is that I live in a big, busy city and feel bombarded with interesting, exciting images and ideas.  In this newsletter I introduce a really simple mindfulness technique and then talk about the evidence base which supports the exercise.

The practice
One technique that Tom Te Whaiti taught me years ago in Australia was to take an every day activity I love (swimming) and match this to a body scanning technique.  This is how it works – On the first lap you focus your attention to the crown of the head and feel for how it feels for the water to rush against it, on the second lap you move your focus down the body to the forehead , on the third your focus should be on the throat, continuing all the way down through the body’s energy centres until you reach your toes.  As you practice this you become totally wrapped in the moment – you hear that noise you make as you breathe out, you see the light making magical patterns on the floor of the pool and how it feels for the water to massage your skin.  If you do this for 20 minutes  its like being fully connected and in tune with reality as it unfolds.  Its euphoric and energising.  You can also do this technique running or on an exercise bike.

The evidence base for body scanning and swimming

  • Your environment effects your state of mind – mirror neurons in your brain reflect your circumstances.  When you take the time to observe beauty (say patterns of light at the bottom of the pool), you create beautiful patterns in your mind – you create a beautiful mind.  I’ll give you one example study illustrating how potentially vulnerable we are to our environment.   In a study participants were asked to sit in wobbly chairs and then rate how secure famous couples’ relationships were (for example Barack and Michelle Obama).  Another group were asked to do the same exercise on secure chairs.  Amazingly the wobbly group on average rated relationships as being insecure and craved security in their own relationships. (Kille, Forrest, Wood – University Waterloo Canada).  Thats just one illustration of how vulnerable our minds are to our environment – so its useful to train our minds to reflect on beautiful things.
  • Training our minds to be mindful and observe what arises in the moment reduces stress (Jon Kabat Zinn studies) and increase wellbeing levels ( Barbara Fredricksons research on loving kindness meditations)
  • Mindfulness and meditation exercises make permanent changes to the way we think – we observe more, are more creative and less vulnerable to negative shocks (Read the Dali Lama at MIT and the Buddha’s Brain for the latest neuroscience and decision making research in this area)
  • When you observe a body part working ( for example during the swimming body scan technique I observe my biceps moving in the water) you build more muscle than when you do an exercise and think about other things.  (Shackell, Standing at Bishop’s University).  Just by thinking about doing an exercise you build more muscle mass than a control group just asked to sit and do mental exercises.  One of the Ka Huna principals is energy flows where attention goes and this seems to be true.

Hope you found this useful
Love Andy

PS:  When I write these newsletters I try to emphasise a few points:

  • I try to provide practical examples of how I use Positive Psychology, meditation and other holistic practices in my life ( I take other peoples ideas and try and make them useful for me living in a big city)
  • Introduce the science supporting holistic practices
  • Explore the similarities and differences between Western Psychology and Buddhist/ Vedic practices  

Learning to meditate

Learning to meditate

This is the third in a series of blogs and newsletters about the different wellbeing courses I’ve attended over the last thirteen years.  I’ve picked the courses, teachers and books that have had the most profound impact on the way that I perceive the world.  One of the most transformational courses was a ten day Vipassana meditation retreat in the Rocky mountains four years ago.

As I left Vancouver on a rainy Summers day I was filled with uncertainty about the challenge ahead.  As the bus snaked through the foothills I was reluctant to leave the misty Pacific and I reflected on the rules that I had agreed to abide by for the next 10 days:

–        No communication with anyone on the course.  This included verbal and non verbal communication.  For example eye contact with fellow participants was to be avoided.

–        No communication with the outside world

–        No ipods, no music, no books or magazines.  Nothing to hear or read or watch for 10 days

–        A simple vegetarian diet with no alcohol, no tobacco or drugs of any kind and just two small meals per day

–        Complete emersion in the practice.  They were to teach us a form of meditation and we were to practice this style only

–        Each day started at 5am and lasted until 10pm.  90% of this time was to be spent in a shaded room sitting cross legged on the floor practicing the Vipassana meditation technique.  The rest of the time was to be spent taking silent walks alone in the forest or receiving meditation instructions.

So you can understand my concern! This was serious spiritual bootcamp. Why endure this when there was so much to see outside – the beautiful snow capped Rocky Mountains.   Why spend time looking inside alone with my hopes and fears for 10 days.  Where would the love be, the touch of another, the smile and the loving support that we all need?

The taxi drive from Merritt greyhound station up to the retreat in the mountains only took about 20 minutes.  What surprised me most was the electric fence surrounding the centre to keep Grizzlies at bay.  Throughout the early part of the course my thoughts kept returning to whether, in the event of a power cut, they had a good backup generator.  I didn’t want to be eaten by a bear just as I was on the threshold of enlightenment.

Before dinner on day -1 we met the people on the course and as usual on such things there were people from all walks of life.  On this course there were four senior members of Obamas election campaign team.  After dinner we received the first of our instructions and from then on we agreed to engage in the practice and not communicate.

We spent the first three days practicing a breathing technique to help make the mind sharp.  Over three days we focussed our attention on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nose – how warm it felt as it left the body, how cold it felt as it entered the body, which nostril it came in through more strongly etc.  3 days focussing on the sensations felt at the tip of the nose!

After that we were taught to focus our attention at the top of the head and enquire, without thought, what the sensation of observing felt like.  As we observed the body did we feel heat, cold, joy, pain, light etc ?

From here we learnt to scan the body from top to toe and back up constantly remaining present to the observation of sensation.  Perhaps each scan took an hour to complete.  Sometimes it felt excruciatingly painful in my back and knees.  Part of the process was to learn to become dispassionate about this discomfort.  Sometimes harrowing thoughts and sadness kept intruding. Sometimes the boredom felt crushing and sometimes when you were able to be truly in the moment you felt utter bliss and pleasure.

At the end of each day we received video instruction on how to improve our practice.  Many of the key messages that came through during the 10 days have stayed with me:

–        The mind is lively and excitable.  It’s obvious that we have a brain to think and create with but it’s also clear that having periods in each day where we train ourselves not to think can be extremely relaxing.  It also gives you a sense of calm and understanding that you don’t have to clutter your mind with thoughts and clutter your life with so much stuff

–        Practicing not thinking helps us become more dispassionate.  This does not mean that we loose passion.  During the 10 days observing the body mind relationship you realise that pain and pleasure are often self created mind constructs.  They ebb and flow.  You learn to accept that sometimes there is pleasure, sometimes pain.  That’s not to say that there is no real pain in the world.  The pain of loss and suffering is real but the scanning practice that I’ve talked about here illustrates to us that pain and pleasure are certain throughout life but that these states are not constant.

–        The  practice teaches us to be empathetic and sympathetic to the pain of others but not to allow that pain and suffering to affect the balance and equanimity of our own mind.  This might sound cold hearted but a loss of hope and negative emotions can be contagious if you let them.  You can only be a source for positive change in yourself, loved ones and the world if you engage with the pain of others but not allow it to affect your underlying state.  A daily meditation practice helps you do this by reminding you that pain and pleasure states flow.

–        Similarly you appreciate that the bliss, joy and ecstasy of deep relaxation is also illusory, ie enjoy it whilst it lasts but don’t crave positive feelings.  Craving and desire inexorably leads to pain and suffering because inevitably at some stage in life you wont be able to get what you once had nor do what you once did.  The practice teaches you to stay open to new possibilities and not overly attach to one type of pleasure sensation again and again.  Pleasure can lead to habits, minor addictions, major addictions and suffering for you and others.  Not overly attaching to one pleasure allows the full world of possible sensations to be experienced.  As you focus your attention on one thing with your eyes  closed it enables you to be present to a stream of endless beautiful possibilities when your eyes are open.

–        Lastly towards the end of the 10 days we were instructed in the practice of a loving kindness meditation.  This practice teaches us to harness the good will and positive energy that has been accumulated during the previous 10 days and communicate it to all beings.  We are reminded that the practice of mindfulness and meditation is meaningless without positive intention.  Many people use spiritual practices as a means of withdrawing from the outer world and suppressing emotions.  Practicing meditation without developing kindness and compassion has been described as bare attention ( as opposed to bear attention).  You do these practices not to become isolated from but to become an active, engaged, positive member of society.

On day 10 we opened our eyes and I felt as though I knew my fellow participants in a very deep way.  I felt re wired, buzzing, energised and fully alive.  The next 3 weeks were spent with my family camping in the Rocky Mountains with my eyes wide open.  The world is so beautiful.  Enjoy all it has to offer.

Find out more about Vipassana mediation centres all over the world .  This is the one in British Columbia that I went to http://www.dhamma.org/en/schedules/schsurabhi.shtml

Science playing catch up to the benefits of meditation and yoga

The stress response mechanism is way more complex than we previously thought

A number of recent studies on the stress response system have shown individual differences in the way we respond to stressors are much more varied than previously thought.  Many factors have been shown not only to influence what makes us stressed, but also to influence both physical and psychological reaction and coping mechanisms.  Influencing factors include the environment we grew up in as a child, social status, gender and the genes we inherit. 

The human stress response system, which has often been over-simplified in both academic and popular literature to describe the ‘fight or flight’ response, is now being recognised as encompassing a much larger physical and psychological realm than previously thought.  The fight or flight response has deep roots in our evolutionary past.  It occurs when activity in the parasympathetic nervous system increases (activating muscles needed to run or fight) whilst the sympathetic nervous system decreases (keeping our internal organs switched on, but in a kind of standby mode). 

Other stress-response behaviours recently identified include the “tend/befriend” response (seen significantly more in women) associated with turning to social networks of support when confronted with stressors, and social withdrawal and/or anti-social behaviour (seen significantly more in men).  Both these phenomena have been shown to operate at the same time (in some people) or instead of (in others) the fight/flight response.  The deciding factor, and the new buzzword in stress literature and indeed in other walks of life where “social” goals and activities have been thrust into the spotlight) is “context”. 

We can now demonstrate that meditation and yoga have huge benefits to mind and body

A new and holistic scientific approach is emerging that broadens the scope of the stress response system to acknowledge the social world, both from an evolutionary perspective, and in its current context.  This means for example, that the production and transmission of sex hormones and neurotransmitters actively used in our brain’s reward, motivation and control circuits (almost always unconsciously), are now often measured alongside more common metrics such as heart-rate or blood-pressure in experimental psychology and social neuroscience studies. 

One of the consequences of this new science of what makes us stressed and how we respond to our environmental pressures, is that more complex patterns are beginning to emerge that challenge classical psychology/psychiatry diagnoses and provide testable hypotheses to determine previously unproven benefits of alternative therapies or holistic practises such as yoga and meditation.  These are increasingly shown to mediate the effects of stress through what are known in neuroscience as interoceptive pathways.  These are pathways used (usually unconsciously) by the body’s physiological systems to inform other body and brain functions of their relative fitness or functionality.  Yoga and meditation practice has long been thought of by its practitioners to be the embodiment of a conscious exercise in interoception. We now we have the scientific techniques to prove the mental value of what sceptics have in the past regarded as simply a set of physical exercises.

“Stressed” people can be high performing happy individuals in many areas of their lives

But these physiological mechanisms only go part of the way towards building our unique stress response profile.  One of the more interesting findings, that stress response profiles (phenotypes) are more varied than previously thought and are highly correlated with activations in other physical systems has been labelled our “biological sensitivity to context” – and it means many more of our biological systems that have been previously disregarded when building psychological profiles are now seen as key determinants of the strategies we choose when faced with environmental stress.  In a recently published theory (Del Guidice, et al. 2011) four behavioural patterns emerge that are based in evolutionary life-history theory and are used to describe common stress-response patterns.  These don’t correspond so well to classical psychology’s stereotypical introverted/extroverted, high/low-stress-responsivity models, but they do correspond to findings that were previously seen as paradoxes, such as why people with very high stress-responsivity can be found performing very well in highly uncertain environments, but very poorly in low-stress environments.  Its all about context, and what we’ve become used to.  Also, the physiological and developmental changes we all undergo throughout our lives such as childhood growth, puberty, adulthood, menopause, etc., correspond to periods of high neural plasticity, when we literally carve out our future responses to stress from the biological and environmental tools we’re given (or create for ourselves).

 Developing a more tailored approach to stress management

Another consequence of joint research in psychology and the physiology of the brain in the context of social stressors is that emphasis on our biological sensitivity to context will provide more nuanced mechanisms for treating mental health problems related to stress such as ‘internalised’ symptoms of depression or low self-esteem, and ‘externalised’ symptoms like anti-social behaviour.  “Context”, encompasses a rather old-fashioned idea that’s suddenly been given a new lease of life and when taken together with the new data-rich environments currently being studied in social neuroscience (the study of how the brain works in conditions with a social context) provides a real opportunity to produce meaningful and coherent theories that explain common patterns of observed responses/strategies to stressful situations in a way that is consistent with cultural evolution and medical science – something that must surely be regarded as something of a holy grail to psychologists – and opens the way for tailored programmes of intervention through various means, such as life coaching, social engagement, nutritional change, in addition to medical and pharmaceutical help in resolving stress disorders.

 Today’s blog was produced by Tom TeWhaiti, co founder of Breathe London and Breathe Australia

 

Del Guidice, M., Ellis, B.J. & Shirtcliff, E. (2011) The Adaptive Calibration Model of stress responsivity, Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews, 35, pp 1562-1592

 

Tai Chi exercises for the heart

Keith Graham is a member of the Breathe London wellbeing team and is  a senior Tai Chi and Chi Gong Instructor with The Tai Chi Union of Great Britain. He lives and teaches on the Isle of Wight and in London. For more information about classes and workshops with Keith go to http://breathe-london.com/rolfing

We all experience times when the road is hard and difficult to follow, in these times more than any other, we need a strong heart full of compassion for ourselves and others.

 

Practice this lovely heart exercise as often as you like.

Standing or sitting, take a deep breath in as you bring the palms to the chest. As you breath out through the mouth make a soft “haa” sound. At the same time stretch the arms out, palms forward as if pushing something away. Imagine that you are emptying your heart of all the negative energy it may have accumulated for what ever reason. Repeat this cycle twice more, bringing the palms back to the chest and then breathing and pushing out all the energy that you don’t want.

 

For added power you may like to imagine that as this black sticky energy leaves your body that it transforms into golden light benefiting all beings.

 

Next, on the ‘in’ breath move the hands out in a wide arc above your head and bring them back to your heart. Visualizing gathering all the good energy you can hold and pouring it into your heart centre. Then, with the palms on the chest, take a long relaxed breath out.

 

Start to breathe in again this time send the hands downward as if scooping up a large armful of energy from the earth. Bring this back to the heart as you complete the ‘in’ breath. Breath out and relax.

 

On the next ‘in’ breath move the arms in a wide horizontal arc as if hugging a huge bear. Visualise gathering good energy from the whole universe and bringing it back to your heart. Breath out with the palms resting on the chest.

Repeat the whole cycle twice more.

Finish by bringing the heart energy down to the Tan Tien by pushing it with your downward facing palms on an ‘out’ breath. With love and blessings, Keith

Using Tai Chi to become more balanced

Tai Chi stepping teaches us how to walk softly and with balance. This has the benefit of eliminating the damaging impact that heavy heal strikes have on the lower back and greatly reduces the risk of falls even on slippery or uneven ground. It seems almost ridiculous to say, but many of us really don’t do walking very well and learning to do it with a little more awareness will realign the joints to help prevent or relieve all sorts of feet, knee and hip problems.

 

Take your time trying this simple exercise and then go for a walk and feel the difference.

 

Stepping with the right foot:

Stand with the feet hip width apart but this time with the feet angled outwards slightly. Put your weight on the left foot and when you feel balance in it (not before) swing the “empty’ right leg forward, keeping all the weight still on the left. Let the heal of the swinging leg touch the ground followed by the whole foot (toes pointing forward) Then, when you are ready (not before) transfer the weight from the back (left) foot to the front (right) foot. Keep the now “empty” back foot flat on the ground.

 

Now transfer the weight back to the left foot again and when you feel balanced on it (and not before) pick up the right again and step back to where you started. This time lightly placing first the toes then the whole foot down flat and then (when you are ready) transfer all the weight back from left to right. The whole idea is to break the habit of ‘falling’ on to the foot and learn instead to take a step without automatically committing your weight to it. As you get the hang of it you can increase the speed of your stepping and let the arms just swing naturally as the body moves. Repeat all of the above for Stepping with left foot.

If your feet feel a little tired or unresponsive wake them up first by treading on a tennis ball. Be sure to find all the sore places and massage them away with the ball.

Keith Graham is a member of the Breathe London wellbeing team and is  a senior Tai Chi and Chi Gong Instructor with The Tai Chi Union of Great Britain. He lives and teaches on the Isle of Wight and in London. For more information about classes and workshops with Keith go to http://breathe-london.com/rolfing