Going With Your Gut: How Mindfulness Meditation Develops Insight

May 18th, 2016 by

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Call it a hunch, gut feeling, intuition – that immediate sense of truth, without words or reasoning, is one of your most important faculties. It can tell you where you want to move in life, what you need to let go of, and how to best relate to challenges. But how can you develop your intuition?

Seeing Clearly

Meditation is one way to tap into your “gut” feelings. Mindfulness meditation is sometimes known as “Vipassana” – an ancient word from the language of the Buddha which means “insight” or “seeing clearly”. Vipassana or mindfulness meditation is the foundation of most Western meditation practices. It’s also the most studied by Western scientists.

“The insights of meditation are intuitive, not conceptual,” writes Joseph Goldstein, author of Insight Meditation (1993) and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society. “Intuitive in this sense does not mean some kind of vague feeling about something; rather, it means clearly, directly seeing and experiencing how things really are.”

Rather than trying to solve problems with the thinking machine in the head, we practice mindful awareness, training our attention to “just be” in the present moment by focusing on an anchor like the breath, footsteps, sounds, or body sensations. As we become more skilled in being “present”, we can begin to see creative solutions to sometimes very big problems in our lives. These solutions arise spontaneously from within, through feelings and an “inner knowing,” and not through thoughts or concepts. We simply know.

Knowing What You Really Want

Often, we don’t really know what drives us. We are moved to do something, because it’s the expected thing to do in life or because it seems like a reasonable choice. But if we understand our true motivations, maybe we would do things differently. Before she began her meditation practice, a friend of mine bought a lovely house. It seemed like the logical and “right” thing to do. However, she soon noticed that she really didn’t even like having a house! She wasn’t handy and felt like she was rattling around in the extra space. Once she began meditating, however, she gradually had the insight that want she really wanted was not a house, but a home. She realized that had she continued to rent, and work on developing more close personal relationships, her life would have been moving more in the direction of her true needs and desires. Meditation created the conditions for her to see and feel her true feelings. When she sold her home, she felt immense relief.

Compassion for Your Own Experience

Meditation is the practice of staying present in the moment without judgment, even those moments we’d like to escape or avoid. It’s a skill that grows with patient practice, and it enables us to have insights in how we work with difficulty, including pain. In my mid-forties, I developed chronic pain in my hip, and I became quite angry about it. As my pain increased, so did my anger and attempts to get rid of the pain, which included physical therapy, electrical nerve stimulation, and giving serious consideration to a hip replacement. One night, as I lay awake with the throbbing pain, I had the insight that anger and resistance were not relieving my suffering. I tried a different approach: instead of resisting the pain, I tried to get to know it. I brought my attention right into it and discovered a part of my body that was holding a tremendous amount of suffering and yet was trying to do the best it could to keep functioning.

When I came up close to my pain without judging it, as I had learned to do from my meditation practice, I felt spontaneous compassion for this part of my body that was suffering. As I continued to work compassionately with my pain, the change was dramatic. Although I still have some pain, it’s manageable now and I know it’s a signal to take care of myself (think yoga). Having compassion toward pain in my body (and heart) is an insight I credit to my meditation practice.

The skill of mindfulness, developed through meditation, allows us to experience things they really are, without the distracting and often intensifying effect of our judgments, beliefs, and thoughts. Sometimes what we discover has been long hidden by the activity of the chattering mind. It’s only when we train the mind to become quiet that these realities become known, whether it’s our desire for a home or compassion for our own pain. Learning how to sit quietly and just “be with” our own unfiltered experience allows us to receive insights that can transform our lives.

Graduate’s Story: Artist Theresa Girard

February 14th, 2016 by

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Many of you have seen the beautiful art on display in the Integrative Mindfulness studio in Bonita Springs, FL. These are the words of the artist, Theresa Girard, on her experience upon completing the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program –

“The discovery of this seemingly simple process reaches far beyond anything I had previously considered. Being present for me began a new emotional connection to who I am and what is embodied in my true spirit. At the same time, filling a spiritual void that had crept into my life.
Previous torments, such as anxiety, fear, a barrage of “what ifs” lessened in an acceptance of being where I needed to be in the moment. A certain quieter place comes forward and seeps into much of my decision making and provides a peace focused on awareness. Even when things are not going well, I was able to decrease my self judgement and negativity.

As an artist, with an overly active and creative mind, I became able to self soothe in a forgiving way and found that my work actually raised to a higher level as I learned to slow down and really “look” and be a part of the painting in the present.

My new series of work is not based on comparison to other artists, but a peace at being here and a new self talk to encourage and gently disengage my focus from low self worth. I am lovable in this moment. My work is good, I can be successful for myself, just as a direct expression of my own energy……mindful energy….

Thank you!”

Mindfully Managing Menopause

December 15th, 2015 by

Mindfully Managing Menopause

The significant hormonal shift that comes with menopause – bringing with it forgetfulness, insomnia, sweats, emotional outbursts, skin and breast changes, and slower metabolism—can leave women feeling most unhappy! If you are longing for a better way to navigate menopause, mindfulness offers some real benefits.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the skill of paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. We all have this skill, especially in childhood, but it can diminish over time as we fall into the automatic reactive patterns of adulthood. Add menopause to the mix and you’ve got some very good reasons to seek relief!

According to research, menopausal women who participated in a training program known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (“MBSR”), when compared with a control group who did not receive the training, reported lower anxiety and perceived stress, reduced bother from night sweats, sleep disturbances, and hot flashes, improved quality of life, less overwhelm, and greater attentiveness.

How do you practice Mindfulness?

Mindfulness practice is patiently training the mind to focus on a chosen “anchor” that exists in the present moment – your breath, sounds (like the ceiling fan whirring), sensations in your body – and gently returning your attention to your chosen anchor when it wanders (and it will!). Each time you “come back” to your anchor, you’re strengthening your mindfulness muscle.

As you practice, you simply witness and observe all that comes into your awareness moment to moment, letting go of that natural tendency to judge what’s arising as “good” or “bad”, “pleasant” or “Unpleasant”. As you practice, lots of things will come up! Body sensations (tingling, numbness, fluttering, warmth, coolness) and thoughts (“How will I get everything done today?” “My back is killing me?” “I’m burning up!”). Rather than resisting these things, or trying to replace them with something else, you allow them to be present, but in the background of your awareness, as you escort your attention back to your chosen anchor. Simple, but not easy!

Why practice mindfulness?

Even in a short ten-minute practice you will get lots of opportunities to “come back” to your anchor, and this coming back is really what the practice of meditation is all about. It fortifies your ability to attend to just “what is” in the present moment without the overlay of thoughts that so often color our experience and make us truly miserable. In so doing you become skilled at differentiating between “observing” a thought from the point of view of a neutral witness, and being drawn into the “content” of the thought, two very different things. The latter is typically loaded with judgments, opinions, memories, fantasies, past, or future – all of which have an impact on your present moment experience, physical, mental, and emotional. Mindfulness practice enables you to step off the merry-go-round of thoughts and just “be”. And this quality of “being”, when cultivated on a regular basis, has real life implications for your health and quality of life.

Navigating a Hot Flash

At age 53, I’ve had numerous opportunities to “practice” during a hot flash. Before mindfulness, my thoughts would have judged the sensations as unpleasant and unwanted (“Why did I wear long sleeves?” “Now I’m going to miserable!”). Pursuing such thoughts undoubtedly magnified the unpleasant qualities of what was happening, making my hot flash much worse than it needed to be. With mindfulness I practice letting go of the judging and instead simply note that the sensation of heat is arising. I might reflect internally “This is how it is right now.” I let go of the impulse to escalate it by following the content of my thoughts. I stay attuned to what other sensations are present; the sound of rain dripping from the roof, the hum of the refrigerator, the feeing of breathing in and breathing out. I witness the stream of changing sensations moment to moment, and eventually notice the feeling of a current of air against my skin. Coolness. Yes, every experience, including a hot flash, eventually changes. I stay present with this process of change and notice after a few moments that my body is beginning to resume a normal temperature. Undoubtedly this hot flash would have lasted much longer, and been much more unpleasant, if I had automatically followed the content of my misery filled thoughts.

The practical benefits

While mindfulness cannot completely remove the symptoms of menopause, it can alter your experience of the symptoms. You can liken the symptoms of menopause to a loud, blaring television, bombarding you with colors, sounds, sensations, music, and storylines. Mindfulness won’t necessarily turn off the TV, but having a regular mindfulness practice can help turn the volume way down.

Mindfully Seeking Shut-Eye

October 8th, 2015 by

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Sleep. It’s one of the most important and least prioritized components of health and happiness. It contributes to our overall well-being in enormous ways, from hormone balance and job performance to the foods we choose and whether or not we feel motivated to exercise. Getting enough sleep has numerous benefits including increased longevity, improved mood, better overall health, and a general feeling of contentment and satisfaction with life, to name a few.

We all need deep sleep. Those who have gone without it for extended periods (like new parents and people with insomnia or other sleep disorders) can attest to the fact that sleep deprivation can make daily life feel like unmanageable drudgery. In fact, not getting enough hours of sleep, or failing to get deep sleep and complete sleep cycles at night, can lead to a multitude of physical and psychological issues.

The Connection Between Stress, the Mind, and Sleep

People suffering from sleep disorders may benefit from better “sleep hygiene”, with a nightly routine of relaxing and unwinding, going to bed at the same time each night, and avoiding bright screens, exercise, and stimulating activities before bedtime. However, chemical and hormonal imbalances resulting from long periods of unmanaged stress are often behind insomnia disorders. A number of research studies on mindfulness training for sleep-challenged adults have demonstrated a significant link.

A recent study at the University of Southern California and UCLA found that mindfulness meditation training is more effective for sleep-challenged adults than sleep hygiene education. “We were surprised to find that the effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality was large and above and beyond the effect of the sleep hygiene education program,” said David S. Black, PhD, MPH, author of the study and assistant professor of preventive medicine at USC and Director of the American Mindfulness Research Association (goAMRA.org).

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults aged 26-64 get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. People who regularly practice some form of mindfulness meditation are likely to enjoy more sleep and better quality sleep. Mindfulness practices soothe the nervous system and ease mental patterns associated with stress. Mindfulness practitioners learn to let go of their thoughts about the day before bedtime. As Black notes, “Before going to bed, people who can’t sleep worry a lot, and they start ruminating about not being able to sleep.” Mindfulness practitioners are better able to notice these thoughts and set them aside without chasing them or elaborating and creating more stress and wakefulness.

A Mindfulness Routine for Getting a Nourishing Night’s Sleep

In addition to dimming the lights one hour before bedtime, and putting away anything with a screen – tablet, phone, computer, or TV. (The light causes wakefulness), Shelby Freedman Harris, Psy.D., C.BSM, clinical psychologist and director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, suggests a mindfulness practice known as the “Body Scan” ten minutes before bedtime. Sit in a comfortable chair and bring your attention to the top of your head, or to your toes, and progressively bring your attention to each part of your body, noticing whatever sensations you become aware of. Gradually move your attention through your entire body. When your mind drifts into thinking (which it will), the practice is to simply notice this (without judging yourself) and then gently escort your attention back to noticing sensations in the body. It doesn’t matter how many times the mind wanders away: Each time you bring your attention back to the body you’re strengthening the mindfulness muscle. Spend about 5 minutes on this practice. Then, get in bed and rest your attention on the sensations of your breath. If you are unable to fall asleep, get up, sit in the comfortable chair again and repeat the Body Scan. Don’t get back into bed until you feel sleepy—and don’t sleep in the chair!

Whether you’re getting sufficient shut-eye or not, mindfulness practice can help prevent sleep disturbances and maintain healthy sleep patterns. Sleep well!

Creating a New Habit? How Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, and Baby Steps Make Change Possible

July 24th, 2015 by

To reap the benefits of a habit, you must practice! Most of us have good intentions: meditate daily, eat mindfully, take daily walks, eat healthy meals. So why is it so hard to form a new habit and what’s the best way to do it?

HOMEOSTASIS and NEUROPLASTICITY
Homeostasis
is the tendency of the body and mind to keep things the way they are, even if things aren’t so good. We are wired for survival; homeostasis helps us survive. From its perspective, survival is all that matters.

Because we are multi-dimensional creatures with varying tendencies and capacities, we’re built to stay the same AND to change! The human brain is the only organ in the body that changes with experience. This is Neuroplasticity. As one of my meditation teachers notes: “You’re always practicing something. And whatever you’re practicing, you’re getting good at!” You will become “good” at whatever you consistently pay attention to—for better or worse. With neuroplasticity, we can influence what we become “good” at. The elements of change are present-moment awareness, patient persistence, and kindness and compassion towards oneself.

The last part is important; most of us feel guilty when we revert to old habits. Research shows that self-criticism kills motivation and is a big obstacle to change. Mindfulness and self-compassion can be applied in moments of self-criticism to support change.

AUTOMATIC PILOT
How can we train ourselves to “do” the behaviors we want to get good at, and let go of those that aren’t serving us?

Most of our thoughts, choices, and behaviors occur automatically, resulting from old beliefs and patterns. These patterns have well-established roots in our brains because we’ve “practiced” them frequently. They have such hearty neural pathways that simply by choosing them it becomes easier to repeat them. In fact, when we consistently travel down these neural pathways, our brain rewards us with Dopamine, an addictive chemical that helps create memories and controls the part of the brain responsible for desire and decision-making. This chemical process behind Automatic Pilot is the reason change can seem so difficult.

MINDFULNESS
Mindfulness, or present moment non-judgmental awareness, is a skill we can strengthen with meditation practice. Consistently practicing just 5-10 minutes a day makes a big difference in forming and letting go of habits. Don’t have that kind of time? Try 1 minute. Research shows that by breaking down the desired behavior into smaller steps, and committing to just the first step, you’re already on your way to establishing your new habit in the brain.

Once you’ve completed the first step, chances are that the next steps will get easier to take until your new habit is fully implemented. By strengthening your capacity to “attend” to the present moment through regular mindfulness meditation practice, you’ll improve your ability to “be present” when unwanted behaviors surface and will find that you have a choice about what to do next.

THE MIRACLE OF THE PRESENT MOMENT
By dwelling within the present, even if only for a moment, you begin seeing new options. One option may be to take another baby step toward implementing a desired new behavior: savoring this bite of food rather than eating mindlessly, taking a walk now rather than continuing to work at your computer. This is how we re-wire ourselves to create and experience the life we want.

THE SCIENCE OF BEHAVIOR CHANGE
Thanks to research around habit forming and its relationship to neural pathways in the brain there are now many tools to help us replace old habits with new ones.  Here are a few, inspired by Gregory Ciotti, author of The Sparring Mind and How to Build Good Habits (and make them stick):

  1. Set an intention or name a “purpose” for why you want to develop this habit. The most successful habit-formers are those who are internally motivated.
  2. Know that you will fail, and when you do, simply forgive yourself and start over.
  3. Start small. The surest way to accomplish goals is to set big goals and small quotas. If you’re brand new to meditation, and would like to develop a regular practice, 3 minutes per day might be a perfect start.

Taking Mindfulness in Stride

December 23rd, 2014 by

Looking for a way to quiet your mind that doesn’t involve sitting still and following your breath? Walking meditation may be for you. It is just as beneficial as sitting meditation, with some differences. Obviously you’re walking instead of sitting, but the focus of your attention is also a bit different. Rather than attending to each breath, in walking meditation you gently attend to the experience of each step. When the mind wanders away from the feeling of walking, the practice is to patiently bring it back.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts and the pioneer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), explains that mindful walking differs from regular walking in that, “you’re not going anywhere.” It’s an opportunity to bring awareness to an aspect of life, like so many others, that has become quite automatic or “mindless.”

Walking meditation shares the same 2,500-year-old tradition as sitting meditation. Ancient texts state the Buddha himself taught that meditation should be practiced in four different “postures” – sitting, standing, walking, and lying down.  The idea seems clear – train the mind to abide in the present moment in a variety of contexts, and become “present” for the whole of your life.

Walking meditation is done very slowly in a “lane” in which one walks back and forth. Remember, you’re not going anywhere. Beginners often like to use the phrase “lifting, moving, placing, landing” to help them focus their attention on the four components of each step.

For even more of a beneficial boost, take your walking practice outside. Research from Japan has shown that walks in nature, compared with urban walks, produced a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity (“fight or flight”), a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. Participants had better moods and less anxiety.

Key Components of Your Best Life

October 30th, 2014 by

During my graduate studies in Transpersonal Psychology I became intrigued with the idea of human connection and mindfulness as catalysts for healing and transformation. Something about today’s world of divisiveness and separation seemed fundamentally inconsistent with my own understanding of psychological health.  I wanted to find out just what the key elements of healthy psychological development are. I was surprised to learn that prior to the 1970’s, when women entered the field of psychological research, the primary model of psychological health was based exclusively on research involving only male subjects. As a result, attributes like autonomy, separation, and competition were assumed to be qualities of psychological health, while the urge for connection and relationship (typical of the female experience) was seen as inferior and unhealthy.

Enter the Healing Power of Connection

In the 1970’s, when women entered the field of psychological research, this old and incomplete model was shown to be in error, and a new model of psychological well-being emerged. Based on current research involving male and female subjects, this newer model shows that the urge to connect is our essential human drive – not autonomy and separation. Growth-fostering relationships, those involving active participation in the development of others, are now understood to be the primary vehicle for psychological wellness. It’s easy to see how all of us – men, women, boys and girls – have suffered under the mistaken assumptions of the old model. Mindfulness Opens the Door to Connection

The practice of mindfulness, which is the cultivation of our natural human skill for non-judgmental present moment awareness, is emerging from its ancient roots as a healing and wholesome way to live. Health-care, personal fitness, and wellness models are beginning to incorporate a holistic mind-body-spirit perspective in the services they offer for the prevention and treatment of disease, and mindfulness is the central feature. Unlike the current “find it and fix it” healthcare model, the new integrative model of healthcare reflects elements of relationship, communication, spirituality, mindfulness, wholeness, nutrition, life purpose, personal development, and the mind-body connection.

In my experience as a mindfulness teacher, I’ve observed that as practitioners develop the qualities of mindfulness they typically experience a decline in their reactivity to stress, and an improvement in their relationships and interactions with others. “I’m more patient and show more kindness to others,” says one local mindfulness graduate. “I’m a more attentive listener, and I feel more love and kindness toward myself and others,” says another. By utilizing their mindfulness skills as they engage with others, practitioners realize first hand that their way of “being” has a significant influence on their experiences with other people. This influence upon others has a scientific basis. Known as limbic resonance, researchers are examining the interrelationship between the activity of the brain’s limbic system, the non-verbal transmission of emotion, feelings of empathy and relatedness, and the methods by which we, as human beings, become attuned to the inner states of others with whom we are in close contact.  Connection is more than an idea!  It is a powerful dynamic exchange which arises in the present. With mindfulness we learn to tap into the immediacy and power of connection in the very moment we engage with another. We come out of our heads and into relationship.

Take Away Practice: The 3-Minute Breathing Space

This simple practice, takes only 3 minutes (or less), and has three components:

1. AWARENESS
Bring yourself into the present moment by deliberately adopting an erect and dignified posture. If possible, close your eyes. Then ask: “What is my experience right now…in thoughts…in feelings…and in body sensations?”  Acknowledge and register your experience, even if it is unwanted.

2. GATHERING
Then, gently redirect full attention to breathing, to each in breath and to each out breath as they follow, one after the other. Your breath can function as an anchor to bring you into the present and help you tune into a state of awareness and stillness.

3. EXPANDING
Expand the field of your awareness around your breathing, so that it includes a sense of the body as a whole, your posture, and facial expression. The breathing space provides a way to step out of automatic pilot mode and reconnect with the present moment. The key skill in using mindfulness is to maintain awareness in the moment. Nothing else.

Adapted from the book Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression, Segal, Williams, and Teasdale (2002).

 

Mindful Communication – A Key to Better Relationships

October 10th, 2014 by

One of the significant characteristics of mindfulness training is that once you begin to feel confident in your practice, and start to notice the benefits of mindfulness in your daily life, you begin to see relationships evolve and change. Mindfulness “ripples out” from the practitioner and affects those around her. Several times I’ve heard the question from new students – “How can I get my spouse to do this too?”  My response is always the same – the key is to work on yourself, and only yourself. You are one half of an interconnected “system” called a relationship. By changing yourself, the relationship will, of necessity, change. I often tell the story of how I tried “for 20 years” to “change” my husband  – and it never worked. It wasn’t until I started to change myself that he began to change. Interesting huh?

Your Mindfulness Ripples Out to Others

Each of our relationships –  with our significant other, our kids, friends, and co-workers – is a dynamic system. Systems naturally tend toward a state of equilibrium or a “steady state”. Each relationship is a unique mixture of what each person brings to it. However, our “steady state” relationship with our spouse may be the result of unconscious and habitual patterns of behavior each of us automatically relies on when we interact. Examples are patterns like reactivity, defensiveness, and blame. These patterns are sure to kick in when we try to “change” someone else. The interesting thing is that when you begin to change yourself  – by cultivating your own mindfulness – you bring a new and transformed way of being, and relating, to the relationship. Because the system will naturally seek to regain equilibrium, the other half must change in some way. This is how your mindfulness “ripples out” and affects others.

Did You Hear Me?

The practice of mindful communication, especially mindful listening, can make a world of difference in potentially every interaction you have. David Rome and Hope Martin, creators of “Embodied Listening” workshops note, “Unsatisfying communication is rampant in our society.” It seems that most of us are talking, but no one is listening! “Poor listeners” they point out, “are frequently unable to separate their own needs and interests from those of others. Everything they hear comes with an automatic bias: How does this affect me? What can I say next to get things my way? Poor listeners are more likely to interrupt: either they have already jumped to conclusions about what you are saying, or it is just of no interest to them. They attend to the surface of the words rather than listening for what is “between the lines.” If this describes you, you’re not alone. Many of us are poor listeners, but we’re seldom aware of it. How can we become more aware of our communication patterns? By paying attention. This is where mindfulness – the skill of paying attention, on purpose and nonjudgmentally –  can work wonders!

Mindfulness Meditation Makes Us Better Listeners

In mindfulness meditation practice, “we learn to settle, returning over and over again to the present moment, and allowing our thoughts to come and go without acting on them.” This practice shows us how our focus on “self” keeps us from experiencing the world directly. “Letting go of the “web of me” is the first step toward seeing and hearing others more fully,” advise Rome and Martin. By building our self-awareness through the practice of mindfulness, we begin to befriend ourselves, based on an attitude of kindness, gentleness, and non-reactive noticing of our own impulses and patterns. Rome and Martin identify mindful self-awareness as “the ground for listening and communicating well with others.”

Better listening skills through self-awareness are the natural outgrowth of a regular formal mindfulness practice, like meditation. However, the informal practice of mindful listening is something you can do anytime – and the more you practice, the better you get. There’s nothing quite like observing the face of someone as they discover you’re actually listening to them. Typically their face will begin to light up, their voice and stance will soften, a scowl may turn into a smile! Even the most unpleasant conversation can be improved by the practice of mindful listening.

Try It, You’ll Like It

Chad Meng-Tan, in his book Search Inside Yourself, describes the practice of mindful listening as giving the gift of your full attention – the gift of “air time” – to the speaker, while at the same time maintaining some mindfulness on your body. While this practice isn’t appropriate for every conversation, it can be wonderful and effective when the time is right – which is more often than you think. As the other person speaks, notice whether you’re really listening or instead planning what you will say in response at the first opportunity. Try to just listen openly and non-judgmentally. “Don’t try to remember everything,” he says, “If you really listen, you’ll hear.” Notice your own impulses to interrupt and, as best you can, let them go and return to just listening. You may “acknowledge” what the speaker is saying – for example by nodding, or saying “I see” or “I understand”, but don’t “over-acknowledge.”  When the speaker is finished, practice closing the loop of communication by saying something like, “What I heard you say was  . . . .” and then reciting back the essence of the speaker’s message as accurately as possible, without your own embellishment or interpretation.  Observe closely how these communications go, and polish your skills by practicing often.

photo credit photostock via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mindfulness Training & Therapeutic Yoga: Optimal Treatments for Insomnia

September 16th, 2014 by

I remember when chronic pain and obsessive worry kept me awake night after night. Typically, around 2 am, my mind was scanning the horizon like a lighthouse, searching for something to worry about. When it locked on it wouldn’t let go, mentally approaching the “problem” from every conceivable angle – until the alarm clock went off. Does this sound like you?  Are you exhausted day after day due to the inability to sleep? What would life be like if a good nights sleep was something you could count on? How about a life with more energy, better moods, improved concentration, and enhanced health? Sound good?

Restful sleep is a foundation of good physical and emotional health.  But many people lie awake nightly, or have difficulty returning to sleep once awakened.  Sleep medications can produce unwanted side effects, including dependency. Medications can also lose effectiveness over time. Is there a natural alternative that’s actually good for you, without side effects, and the effectiveness of which increases over time? There is!

Medical researchers are looking closely at mindfulness training due to the substantial benefits it offers for insomnia as well as a host of other health, quality of life, and productivity concerns. Stress is a major cause of insomnia, but pain, anxiety, and depression – all magnified by stress – are also associated with sleeplessness. Researchers are studying why mindfulness training offers such valuable relief for insomnia.

Jeff Greeson, PhD, MS, clinical health psychologist at Duke University explains, “When we don’t know what to do with intrusive and persistent thoughts, the mind and body feel threatened. That signals the ‘fight or flight’ response which starts a cascade of sleep-robbing emotions like agitation and anxiety.” Greeson’s study of 151 sleep deprived adults, mostly women, who received 8 weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training in mindfulness techniques and gentle yoga, showed significant improvements in sleep quality, sleep disturbances, and less daytime sleepiness. “When people become more mindful they learn to look at life through a new lens. They learn how to accept the presence of thoughts and feelings that may keep them up at night. They begin to understand that they don’t have to react to them. As a result, they experience greater emotional balance and less sleep disturbance.”

Stress is so pervasive today. People worry about the economy, their jobs, bills. “All that worrying, obsessing, and ruminating can increase the risk of illness and disease,” explains Greeson. “When the mind worries, the body responds.” The key, he says, is not to push those thoughts away, but to acknowledge them “That helps people manage their reaction to stress and anxiety and helps them remain calm.”

Researchers at the University of California at San Diego compared mindfulness training with sleep medication in two groups. One received the 8-week MBSR program. The other was prescribed the sleep medication Lunesta™. The MBSR participants significantly reduced the time it took them to fall asleep, increased their total sleep time, reported no adverse events, and scored their satisfaction with treatment as high. Although the patients who received sleep medication obtained similar benefits, their treatment satisfaction scores were not high, most continued using sleeping pills, and several reported adverse events. Because MBSR produces no side effects, and the positive potential benefits of mindfulness extend far beyond sleep, the researchers encouraged people with insomnia, especially those unable or unwilling to use sleep medications, to consider mindfulness training with MBSR.

This year a study by Duke University and Aetna found mindfulness training to significantly improve sleep, stress, pain, and blood pressure. Researchers concluded that mindfulness training reduces stress by teaching people how to significantly shift their attention to the present moment, with a curious and non-judgmental perspective.

If you’re lying awake night after night with a busy or worrying mind, you may already be feeling the effects – from chronic fatigue to more significant health consequences. Imagine a life with more energy, and the feeling of being well-rested and alert!  You can learn time-tested practices that will reverse the cycle of sleeplessness. Mindfulness training can improve the quality of your sleep, your health, and your life  – no pills, no side effects, no dependency.

 

 

Mindfulness and Anxiety

August 22nd, 2014 by

Many of the people who come to Integrative Mindfulness for mindfulness training suffer from anxiety, just as I once did.  Several years ago, when I was in the midst of a very stressful period in my life, I experienced anxiety attacks on a regular basis. For me, this would be a sudden and uncontrollable surge of stress chemicals throughout my body that brought my day to a complete halt until it passed. I also had chronic insomnia and spent most nights worrying.  I knew something was wrong, but I was so caught up in the momentum of my life, and absorbed in my worried thought patterns, that I couldn’t see a solution. Ultimately my health suffered and I became physically ill and depressed. My body insisted that something change.

If you experience anxiety you’re not alone. Anxiety is very common. Chronic anxiety afflicts 15.7 million people in the U.S. each year. One of the best books I’ve come across on this subject, and one which I frequently recommend to my students, is  Calming Your Anxious Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion can Free You From Anxiety, Fear, and Panic by Jeffrey Brantley, MD, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at Duke University Center for Integrative Medicine. Dr. Brantley notes that anxiety is a “powerful interaction of biology, cognitive-emotional influences, and stress.”

Anxiety and chronic stress are the result of repeated and long-term activation of the body’s fear system, the “fight or flight” reaction which involves many body systems and is designed to help us survive immediate danger. For example, avoiding a collision while driving.  Anxiety develops when the part of the brain responsible for soothing the activated fear system ceases to function effectively. The“fight or flight” reaction is necessary to survive occasional emergencies, but in anxiety the body and mind have learned (or overlearned) the reaction too well, and our natural system for calming the fear reaction have become compromised. “Fight or flight” becomes a long-term way of living.

Here’s the good news – just as the body and mind overlearn, repeat, and sustain the fear reaction, the parts of the mind that naturally calm the fear response can also be trained and strengthened – bringing the mind-body system back into healthy balance. This is where mindfulness is so effective in reversing anxiety.

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