Client Stories: Wendy Berg

January 1st, 2016 by

Wendy Berg Headshot

I’ve been thinking about how your MSBR class has changed my life. One area I haven’t heard many people talk about is mindfulness and athletic performance. Your class helped me become more aware of my body and to tune into the messages it gives me. When I used to run, I mainly distracted myself from what I was doing with music, thoughts, or TV. I still do that some of the time but most of the time I am aware of what is happening. I am now running, biking, swimming, doing strength training, and yoga as I train for a triathlon sprint. I do body scans while exercising, checking in with each part looking for issues, discomfort, pain, or fatigue. I check on my technique and form. Do I feel strong? Can I go faster? Further? Do I need to change my stride? My gear? My reach? My hip rotation? Or do I need to scale it back? Catch my breath? Walk for a minute? In the past, I never listened to my body and just pushed myself to finish whatever I set out to do even if it meant injuring myself. Ok, I’m still pretty goal oriented and almost always finish my daily plan, but I’m doing it in a kinder gentler way. I am more accepting of what is. I am okay with just doing my best no matter what that is on any given day. I’ve been able to do so much more without pushing so hard. I’ve let go of so many ideas I had about being too old to do something, and what I expected my body to be like in my 50’s. I am now in better shape than I’ve been in a long time, maybe ever. I’m still a little overweight and slow, but I no longer beat myself up over that. Now, I celebrate what my body can do and enjoy pushing the limits set by my mind and by society. And the back pain I’ve dealt with for 14 years is practically nonexistent. I’m not sure if that is from being in better shape, meditation, actually paying attention to my body, or a combination of everything. I find myself able to accept, appreciate, and celebrate what is in all areas of my life. Thank you for helping me along this journey. Feel free to use this if it may be helpful to share the benefits of MSBR and your class. Wendy Berg

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.

Four Things Mindful People Do Differently

July 10th, 2015 by

Research continues to support the many health and quality of life benefits of mindfulness practice: stress reduction, greater physical well-being, and a happier, more stable mental state. Did you know that if you practice mindfulness, you are more likely to be successful in making positive behavior changes in your life (think weight loss, exercise, productivity), and you’re less likely to catch a cold or the flu?  Media personalities are also causing us to take a closer look, including ABC newsman Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Works — a True Story. Anchorman Anderson Cooper recently participated in a meditation retreat led by mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn as part of a segment on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Cooper reports that because of the benefits he has experienced, he is now a mindfulness practitioner. They’re getting our attention. But why should you build time into your day for mindfulness practice? How are the daily lives of mindfulness practitioners different from the lives of those who have yet to discover this millennia old form of meditation?

They Don’t Ride the Emotional Rollercoaster

Sure, mindful people have emotions—we all do, we are human! The difference is that mindful people are aware of their emotions in a different way. Their mindfulness practice trains them to be aware of and feel their strong emotions without automatically reacting to them.  When emotions arise, they are able to observe them from the safety of neutral ground rather than being yanked around by the ups and downs of the emotional rollercoaster. Over time, and with practice, they have learned from their own experience that even the most intense feelings are impermanent.

They Keep Calm and Carry On

Because people who practice mindfulness have practiced working with their difficult emotions, their reactions, decisions, and sense of self are less influenced by their emotional state when things “go wrong” or don’t turn out as planned.  Practitioners are more able than others to remain calm and effective in stressful situations, actively listening to others, and responding skillfully based on what’s called for in the moment, rather than reacting automatically.

They Pay Attention to Their Bodies

Mindfulness practice is about bringing awareness to the present moment, noticing thoughts and feelings as well as bodily sensations. People who practice this type of awareness have learned that it is OK to “be with” discomfort, knowing from experience that it too is not “fixed” but changeable. Mindfulness invites us to “hold” and attend to  discomfort in the body with kindness rather than resistance —whether it is the racing heart of anxiety, the burning tightness in the chest of anger, or the heartache of grief. By learning to turn toward what’s difficult in the body, and to explore it with curiosity, they have discovered that pain is often blanketed with layers of thought, resistance, and strong emotion. While everyone experiences pain, mindful people have discovered that without these layers of added psychological pain, their true physical pain is actually manageable. And by staying attentive to the body, they know when and how to take care of themselves, for example with a timely yoga stretch, exercise, or rest. Because they are more embodied than others, mindful people experience the fullness, richness, and aliveness of their embodied human experience.

They Practice Compassion

People who practice mindfulness and meditation tend to be less afraid of thoughts and emotions because they have looked at them and discovered that thoughts and feelings are fleeting and illusory. By the same token, they have willingly embraced deeply painful emotions and felt them in their entirety. Consequently, mindful people are more inclined to connect with and reach out to others who are suffering, and offer them empathy and compassion. The late great Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa referred to the “genuine heart of sadness,” or the tender, open, fearless heart of compassion that is awakened through practicing mindfulness. By knowing our own pain we connect more intimately with the human experience of others.

Tips for Mindfully Working with a Difficult Emotion

Sense into your body with kindness and curiosity. What sensations are associated with this emotion? Where are they located?

Notice what happens as you observe.  Do the sensations stay the same, intensify, diminish, or shift in some way?

Name the emotion. Is what you are feeling anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, loneliness?  Research shows that developing the skill of naming our emotions in the moment they arise helps loosen their grip.

Practice “just being” every day. Give your mind an “anchor” to pay attention to, for example the sensations of your breathing, or the sensations of movement during yoga. Notice when the mind wanders into thinking. Patiently return your attention to your chosen anchor, allowing thoughts to drift through your awareness like clouds in a vast sky.

 

 

Too Much Cortisol? The Scary Stress Hormone and How to Decrease it

May 15th, 2015 by

If you’ve ever had a panic attack, or remember a close call when driving on a busy highway, then you’re familiar with the effects of the stress hormone cortisol flooding the body. It’s a horrible feeling! But cortisol isn’t concerned with how you feel. It’s concerned with your survival. Your body is an incredible organism with a brain that functions to protect the body against perceived threats. This could be an oncoming car or a recurrent negative thinking pattern. The primitive part of the brain that scans every moment of your experience for potential threats – the amygdala – has a “hair trigger” and would rather be safe than sorry. So, when the Amygdala gets even a fuzzy sense of a threat —whether “real” or perceived—it instantly activates the autonomic nervous system producing a cascade of stress hormones and a host of physical changes in the body to allow you to either fight off or escape from a predator – commonly referred to as the Fight – Flight response.

This phenomenon is obviously essential for your survival in the face of immediate physical dangers (that near miss on the highway requires immediate evasive action), but it can become a huge problem when the perceived “threat’ is actually chronic stress, which may include automatic reactive and negative thinking patterns that originate within your own mind. The amygdala doesn’t know the difference!

Repeated activation of the Fight-Flight response, even for “threats” that come in the form of thoughts and emotions, like excessive worry, anger, and rumination, means long-term exposure to cortisol. Such exposure has been linked to everything from hypertension, cancer, infertility, high blood sugar, aggression, and more. Excessive cortisol makes the brain more sensitive to pain and exhausts the adrenal glands, which brings a whole host of ailments including insomnia and weight gain. Additionally, cortisol suppresses happy hormones like serotonin, leading to depression.

And it gets worse! Cortisol also effectively turns off the body’s innate repair mechanisms – anything not needed for immediate survival. Think immune system, reproductive system, and digestive system. Cortisol ramps down the functioning of these systems and ramps up those needed to deal with the stressor: especially the cardiovascular and adrenal systems. You can see how long term exposure to cortisol is not a healthy way to live.

How can we rebalance this mind-body system? As Dr. Lissa Rankin points out in her book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself your body has natural self-repair mechanisms that fight infections, slow aging, and boost immunity. But these mechanisms cannot operate while the nervous system is stuck in “Fight-Flight”. What’s needed are ways to engage and strengthen the body’s parasympathetic nervous system: the part that soothes and calms the amygdala.

There are many simple mind-body practices that activate the soothing parasympathetic nervous system: meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, aromatherapy, and physical exercise. To keep yourself in balance, and protected from the damaging effects of cortisol, you must carve out time for self-care, and practice regularly. These practices are protective and healing and have no side effects!

Years ago, before I discovered meditation and yoga, I lived in a chronic state of Fight-Flight and cortisol saturation. I had the chronic pain, weakened immune system, and regular panic attacks to show for it. Now, having practiced and taught meditation for several years, I was recently invited to participate in a university study that examined the cortisol levels of meditation teachers. To my delight, I learned that my levels of cortisol were significantly lower than the average. I have no doubt that my mindfulness meditation practice is responsible for that. Take care of your body-mind. If you don’t, who will?

Mind-Body Practices for Reducing Cortisol

  • Mindfulness Meditation
  • Restorative Yoga
  • Chair Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Qigong

On the Job Mindfulness

February 27th, 2015 by

For most of us, working is an unavoidable fact of life, and with jobs comes stress. Even if we’re self-employed or have a flexible schedule, stress is an inevitable part of our workday. Most of us spend most of our time at work. So, how can we work with our stress?

Typically we begin a new job or project with gusto, filled with hope and enthusiasm about the newness and possibility ahead. Promises of a perfect impression or the potential to advance motivate us to perform well and maintain a positive attitude. Eventually, however, smiles may begin to fade, and once-promising prospects become burdensome, when expectations are not met, or old patterns of thinking, feeling, or behavior creep in. The same phenomenon can happen with promotions, management changes, or new spaces; enthusiasm wears off once “reality” sets in. This scenario is so common that we seem doomed to repeat it at work. Fortunately, through mindfulness practice, we can be proactive and reclaim the optimistic mindset we thought we’d lost.

In order to undo patterns of negativity, let’s take a look at how they work. While we start a job or project on the right foot, intending to carry that energy throughout the length of our career, the brain has other priorities. It is wired for survival, and part of the brain constantly scans for threats and stresses in our environment.  Its job is to identify patterns and categorize events in order to protect us from actual physical threats to our survival.  We need this protection, but if we aren’t careful, we can easily become run by over-learned patterns of perceived danger and conflict which are much more symbolic than physical. This autopilot mode of fixating on stressors has become a modern hindrance. If we let it, it will cloud our perception and block creativity. By employing mindfulness at work, we can become aware of how the body and mind are “reacting” to a stressor, and we can see our automatic reactive patterns as they emerge. And here is the critical thing: we do this without judging ourselves. We become a neutral observer of the situation, and this helps us to see it more clearly. Even just a moment of presence gives us an opportunity to respond with skill rather than react automatically. To echo the late Tibetan meditation teacher Chogyam Trungpa, there is no problem in the present moment.

The beauty of mindfulness practice is that it allows us to choose accountability. Instead of being victimized by thoughts and circumstances, we can choose not to buy into them. Instead of being run by repetition, we can bring a freshness and new life to our work and attitude. Here are three ways to bring mindfulness into your work:

1. Watch Your Mind
When you start to notice your chest tightening in a heated meeting or your palms beginning to sweat during a presentation, turn inward and notice your thoughts. Is there an internal dialogue going on about how the situation should have gone but isn’t? Are old mental patterns dictating your response before you even have a chance to consider whether they still hold true for you? By bringing awareness to our thoughts, we begin to unravel their hold on our perception.

2. Listen
Do you find yourself formulating a response to a statement from a colleague before she’s even finished talking? This is hearing, but not listening. Try this: before entering into what may be a difficult communication with someone, make a decision not to talk. It can be for 1 minute, 5 minutes, whatever feels appropriate. By spending a meeting just listening, you may discover that there’s a wealth of information you’ve been missing because you were too busy coming up with a response or a defense.

3. Breathe
A good way to de-escalate an automatic reaction, or unplug a negative thought pattern, is to bring attention to the breath. By shifting your focus from the mind’s chatter to the sensations of your breathing, you instantly bring attention to the what’s actually happening rather than rerunning stories and scenarios through the mind.

How can you begin to bring mindfulness into the workplace? What techniques do you already employ?

 

photo credit Ambro via Free Digital Photos

 

Mindful Eating: Try These “Micro Practices” for Boosting Appetite Awareness

January 23rd, 2015 by

The ability to control impulsive eating during stressful times is a challenge. We all experience typical garden-variety upheaval from time to time.  While intellectually we know this is temporary. Life will soon become predictable and comfortable again. But in the meantime, we start observing our own sense of discomfort around the experience of things being “unsettled”.

Eating When You’re Not Hungry

Sasha Loring, a meditation teacher, psychotherapist, and mindful eating expert, is the author of Eating With Fierce Kindness (my all time favorite book on the practice of mindful eating). She identifies three main reasons that drive us to eat, even when we’re not hungry:

1. eating to reward oneself

2. eating to feel pleasure

3. eating to feel relief from discomfort

One thing the practice of mindfulness begins to reveal is that we all have a bundle of reactive habits we turn to when the going gets rough. They may soothe us in the short term (“Aahhh that melt-in-your-mouth chocolate), but over the long-term do us more harm than good.

Mindfulness and Eating

Jean L. Kristeller, PhD , professor of psychology at Indiana State University, and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating, explains how the practice of mindfulness builds internal skills that can help us turn off the automatic pilot that drives much of our habitual reactive eating. Kristeller defines  “mindfulness” as a cognitive state marked by attentional stability that disengages habitual reactions and allows for inner wisdom to emerge.” Sound good? It is! By strengthening your mindfulness muscle you learn to pause between the event that triggers a compulsion toward non-hunger eating, and the often instantaneous reaction to that trigger (mindLESS eating).  This skill that can be strengthened through formal and informal (mini) meditation practices.

Some people have an incorrect understanding of what meditation really is, so let’s dispel some common myths: Meditation is neither a trance state, nor is it primarily a relaxation tool. Rather, meditation is an attentional process that promotes self-regulation. It’s the skill of attention that strengthens our ability to skillfully intervene between stimulus and response.  Mindfulness is a state of being awake and alert in the present moment, without judging your experience. It’s the noticing that’s important.

Appetite Awareness

Another skill fortified by mindfulness practice is our capacity for internal awareness – of both physical sensations in the body, and emotions and thoughts in the heart and mind.  We can learn (through practice) to notice and pay attention to physical sensations like hunger and fullness, as well as emotions that may be driving us to eat when we’re not hungry. One really helpful tool that I’ve been working with is the Hunger-Fullness Scale. Developed by Linda Craighead, PhD, a researcher and expert on disregulated eating at Emory University, the Hunger-Fullness Scale is a simple and convenient informal practice for gauging your actual physiological appetite, and strengthening your bodily awareness. Research shows that stronger appetite awareness is connected with improvements in eating and weight control. One tool Craighead developed is the “Hunger-Fullness Scale”.

Very Hungry

Moderately Hungry

Mildly Hungry

No Feeling; Neutral

Mildly Full

Very Full

Much Too Full

 

2.5  Start Eating

<- Desirable Zone ->

5.5

Stop Eating

 

Credit: Linda Craighead, PhD Emory University

When you get into the healthy habit of mindfully connecting with your body throughout the day, your awareness of how hungry or full you actually are becomes more and more clear. The Hunger-Fullness Scale suggests you eat when you are “Mildly Hungry” (i.e. you rate your internal physical sensations of hunger at between a 2.5 to a 3.0), and that you stop eating when you are “Mildly Full” (i.e. you rate your internal sensations of fullness at approximately a 4.5 to a 5.0). Use of the Hunger-Fullness Scale is a mini-mindfulness practice (a “micro practice”) that anyone can do. And the more you practice, the better you get!

Consider using the Hunger-Fullness Scale in conjunction with a Mindful Eating Mini Meditation before each meal and snack. It only takes a few moments and no one need know you’re doing anything. Check out this 3 minute Mindful Eating Mini Meditation video produced by The Mindfulness Clinic in Toronto: www.bit.ly/14mubTY

 

 

 

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.

Mindful Eating and Self Compassion

June 6th, 2014 by

Mindful eating is as common a practice at many monasteries, meditation retreats, and Zen centers as walking or sitting meditation. Like the more formal mindfulness meditations, mindful eating is a practice of presence, noticing sensations, and observing one’s surroundings. In the monastic setting, practitioners enter dining halls silently, bow to their food to acknowledge the farmers who grew it and the chefs who prepared it, then eat slowly and silently, bringing awareness to each mouthful of food. While we may not have the luxury to eat every meal in silence, we can incorporate some simple mindfulness practices into mealtime and move a more enjoyable relationship with food and more compassionate relationship with ourselves.

Many of us have made it a practice to inhale our breakfast in the car on the way to work or distractedly eat dinner standing up while watching the news. Our attempts at a better relationship with food usually involve strict, unpleasant dieting that feels more like punishment than health. Contrary to dieting, eating mindfully is not about restriction but about listening to our bodies, cultivating awareness of the present moment, and appreciating our meals. For those of us who eat as a stress release or coping mechanism, the practice of mindful eating provides us with the opportunity to face the normally unconscious, uncomfortable feelings that drive us to eat when we do not need or want to eat. We discover that what we are truly hungering for is not food, but a way to satisfy some other kind of hunger: emotional hunger, for example. The reason we are typically unsatisfied after eating and seem to experience endless hunger is that we have not given ourselves the opportunity to fully taste and enjoy our meals, have not made ourselves available to the body’s cues of satisfaction or hunger, and most importantly have not addressed the discomfort that we are compelled to suppress by eating. Instead of ignoring our feelings, punishing our bodies, and squelching the opportunity to enjoy our meals multiple times a day, we can bring awareness and healing to the experience of eating.

By practicing mindful eating, we do not need to binge because we are choosing to consciously address our feelings instead of stuffing them down with food. We no longer need to diet because by fine-tuning our relationship with the body and mind we automatically make healthier choices. Slowing down to fully experience our meals also invites us to become aware of the beauty and richness of the food we eat, where it comes from, and the time and care it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and prepare before it reaches our mouths. We bring awareness to our connectedness to the earth, the plants, animals, and people, and we can abide in our open-heartedness towards all of life, including ourselves.

Simple Mindful Eating Practices to Incorporate Each Day

  1. Sit, Breathe, Eat
    As much as possible, get in the habit of sitting down to eat. When you sit, feel the weight of your body on the chair. Check in with yourself: what sensations are happening in the body? Before lifting your fork, take several deep breaths. Notice the feeling of the breath entering and leaving your body. Say a little blessing or grace before beginning your meal; thank the earth and elements, the farmers that grew your food, and yourself for taking the time to nourish your body and spirit.
  2. Chew Your Food
    It’s incredible how quickly we can gulp down food after hardly chewing. As difficult as it may be at first, commit to taking one bite at a time putting down your fork in between bites, and fully chewing your food. Doing this will allow you to fully taste and enjoy your food and will also give your body time to cue your brain that it’s time to stop when you are full.
  3. Eat Until You are Satisfied
    Even if you do not do this with every meal, as a practice once daily commit to eating only until you feel moderately (or two-thirds) full. What happens when you do this? Notice the feelings that arise when you stop yourself from automatically reaching for another mouthful of food. Observe how your body feels five, twenty, sixty minutes after this practice.

photo credit Andy Newson via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Taking Mindfulness in Stride: Walking Meditation May Be Your Path to Serenity

April 30th, 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.

A Little Background

Walking meditation shares the same 2500-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.

The practice of mindful or meditative walking can be found in numerous traditions
and cultures. Each year thousands of people worldwide learn the practice of
walking meditation, as well as other mindfulness practices such as sitting
meditation and gentle yoga, as part of the 8-week MBSR program. The health
benefits of mindfulness are well documented. Studies show reductions in stress,
anxiety, blood pressure, back pain, and insomnia, and stronger immune systems,
speedier healing, and longer cell life.

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.

How Do I Practice Walking Meditation?

In MBSR, 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. To try it, find a place where you’ll be
undisturbed and unobserved, as walking meditation can look a bit odd to people
who are unfamiliar with it.

A great way to practice is on a walking labyrinth – a winding, circular pattern of
ancient Greek origin, used throughout the ages for contemplative walking. This is
my preference, as there’s nothing odd about walking slow on a labyrinth.

Walking Meditation: Some Simple Steps

1. Start by Standing: Feel your feet on the ground, noticing the body’s gentle
sway as it balances itself. Place one foot slightly in front of the other, shifting your
weight to one foot, and then the other, staying attentive to the experience. Shift
back and forth a few times.

2. Lifting: Focus on the sensation created as you lift your back foot. If you find it
helpful, silently say the word “lifting”

3. Moving: Stay attentive to the feeling of the foot moving forward through
space. If you like, saying the word “moving” to yourself as you move the foot.

4. Placing: Stay attentive to the moment the heel contacts the ground, as well as
the sensation of the entire sole as it meets the earth. You might mentally say the
word “placing” as you do this, but make sure the word and your action are
simultaneous.

5. Landing: Feel your weight shifting into the front foot, saying the word “landing”
as you experience this shift.

Continue sensing the physical experience of each step, repeating the four-part
“mantra” if you like. Your mind will naturally wander into thinking many times. You
will likely find yourself thinking about walking! When you notice this, you are
instantly “present” again. Simply note when you discover the mind has wandered
into “thinking” and gently escort it back to the sensations of walking.

 

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