“It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it”
Picture by Rita, Volunteer
Book Review: The Mindfulness Revolution
Leading Psychologists, Scientists, Artists, and Meditation Teachers on the Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life
Edited by Barry Boyce and the editors of the Shambhala Sun. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2011.
Reviewed by Jan, Alumni
This book contains an interesting collection of essays about the discipline of mind-fulness. It offers readers a glimpse of how mindfulness is being applied in many different professional areas, and how the concept is progressing from medicine and neuro-scientific areas into education, business, and other fields.
Whether you are struggling with the concept of mindfulness and considering whether it is really for you, or you have already fully embraced it, this book has something for everyone. For some of us, being able to think mindfully is a work in progress, which takes concentration, practice, and most importantly, time. I believe that The Mindfulness Revolution will offer interesting insights, as well as helpful instructions when needed.
The book is divided into four parts: (1) How to Practice Mindfulness; (2) Mindfulness in Daily Life; (3) Mindfulness, Health, and Healing, and; (4) Interpersonal Mindfulness. The Mindfulness Revolution describes mindful attention, and the essays detail how it can be applied to many aspects of life.
Part One contains an article by Bob Stahl and Elisha Goldstein (aptly entitled, “Mindful Meditation Instructions”), which is most informative. It contains invaluable information for anyone who is starting to study mindfulness. It gives complete instructions for the Body Scan meditation, considered by most teachers to be a very important meditation for all students and one that should be studied frequently. John Kabat-Zinn’s essay detailing “Why Mindfulness Matters” is also a must read.
In Part Two, the writers share with us their personal, widely varied, and interesting experiences with mindfulness. For example, Edward Espe Brown’s “Let Your Passion Cook” is excellent. He maintains that, in the kitchen, “being mindful” can often be understood as “doing it right” or “the way you are supposed to.” Brown studied Zen, and Zen followers believe that you should “feel your way in the dark.” He believes that if you practice this way of going slower, then you will be careful and sensitive to what is happening. So in the kitchen, give your attention only to the carrots you are cutting – look at their colour and let your taste buds anticipate the taste to come. The same goes for the other ingredients. Be mindful of what you are doing at that exact moment.
In Part Three, two essays stood out for me: “Caring for the Wounded Places,” and “Living Well with Chronic Pain.” The first essay, by Saki F. Santorelli, reminds us that, “the mind in mindfulness also includes the heart.” He shares with us his own personal retreats into “non-judgmentalism” and mindfulness meditation.
Vidyamala Burch, in her essay, “Living Well with Chronic Pain,” offers practical guidance to change your pain for the better by relating it to the Buddhist analogy of being pierced by an arrow:
“When an ordinary person experiences a painful bodily feeling, they worry, agonize, and feel distraught. Then they feel two types of pain – one physical and one mental. It’s as if this person was pierced by an arrow, and they experience the pain of two arrows.”
The first arrow is the original pain and because of an inability to deal with it, you suffer a second arrow (more pain). To avoid this second arrow, the Buddha advises trying to practice mindfulness when the first arrow hits by resisting distraction and trying, in the best way for you, to deal with the pain.
Part Four contains many anecdotes, reflections, and, sometimes, personal advice about helping others and taking responsibility for others in a mindful way. Contributions from the present Dalai Lama and many other well-known writers such as Daniel Goleman, who contributes a thought-provoking essay about responsibility and being a mindful consumer, make this intelligent reading.
The Mindfulness Revolution is not a textbook. It shows how everyday people can apply mindfulness practices to their daily lives and everyday tasks. I found it to be readable and relatable.
By Dr. Kim McKenzie, a mindfulness teacher and Mindfulness-Based Chronic Pain Management (MBCPM) facilitator in Barrie.
We often think of digestion as related to food, but everything we take in through our senses can also be thought of as “digested,” and has an impact on our physical, emotional, and mental health.
With mindfulness, we can become aware of how our health is affected by what we choose to take in.
Let us first become aware of how our food intake affects our emotional health. By choosing the right foods, we can get our emotional health back to a place of calm, so that we are much better equipped both physically and emotionally to deal with whatever life has in store.
There are six key principles for eating to assist in retaining a state of calmness. These are:
- Keeping our blood sugar levels steady. This can be achieved by avoiding high glycemic index (GI) foods such as sugar, white bread, candies, cookies, etc. These quickly raise our blood sugar and then, when our insulin rapidly kicks in, drops our blood sugar drastically, resulting in mental and emotional sluggishness. Low glycemic index foods such as vegetables and beans produce a slow, steady release of energy without this roller coaster effect.
- Top up the B vitamins. These are the key vitamins which become depleted when we are stressed, and help support the nervous system and stimulate the production of serotonin, a “feel-good” hormone.
- Eat lots of antioxidants and vitamins A, C, and E. These can be found in fruits and vegetables with the brightest colors. They help to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, protect the heart, and encourage our brains to work.
- Look after our digestive system. Eat plenty of fibre-rich foods to prevent constipation, drink water to flush it all through, and include yogurt with live cultures to boost the levels of healthy bacteria in our digestive tract. Minimize junk food such as burgers, pizza, and fried food, which stress our digestive system.
- Promote restful sleep. Sleep is essential for regulating hormones, maintaining blood pressure, balancing mood, improving energy levels and memory, and keeping a strong immune system. Calcium, magnesium, and certain amino acids promote restful sleep.
- Reduce caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine is a stimulant and produces many of the same effects on the body as stress hormones. Stick to one or two cups of coffee a day and avoid caffeine in the evening. Alcohol is a depressant, so it can lower our mood and interfere with sleep.
In addition to food intake, it is also important to think about what we emotionally digest from movies, newspaper, television, and our social situations. The emotions we are exposed to are reflected in our own emotional state. We have talked about mirror neurons in this Newsletter in the past, where the emotions that we witness are actually mirrored in our brains and can either energize or deplete us. Surrounding ourselves with anger, fear, anxiety, violence, sadness, and pain will be reflected in our bodies and minds almost without our awareness. Surrounding ourselves with joy, happiness, and the celebration of life will equally be reflected in our bodies and minds.
So, it is important to ask ourselves: What is it that I surround myself with, in my choice of reading material, movies, television, and social conversation? Will those emotions energize or deplete me?
That doesn’t mean that we should choose not to watch movies, TV, read newspapers and books, or engage in conversation which have negative content. Rather, we could be more mindful of the effect those activities are having on us, and perhaps choose activities, mindfully, that support our enjoyment of life. And if we are not feeling particularly resilient, we could avoid, mindfully, those activities that we are not feeling up to during those times.
Think about how often we experience the simple joy of laughter. Children often laugh a hundred times a week. How often do adults laugh? Perhaps two to three times a week? Simple laughter is one of the most powerful tools we have for reducing stress and switching our brain from our “old” reactive brain to the prefrontal-response brain. This can release serotonin, which is the feel-good hormone in the body, and reduce cortisol, which is our primary stress hormone. What can we do to promote laughter in our lives on a daily basis?
So we can see that everything we eat, watch, listen to, and take part in is reflected in our stress levels. Mindfulness allows us to be more discerning and shows us the choices we have, when we have them. We can make choices that help us to be healthy.
Picture by Rita, Volunteer
“I need to understand meditation. What the purpose is. Is it a mind discipline? Is it a psychological exercise? Is it a distraction?”
Answer: By Dr. Jackie Gardner-Nix
If we ask dozens of meditation teachers the questions above, we might get dozens of different answers. I often find myself thinking, "that's not quite what I understand", every time I hear someone explain meditation.
I think of meditation as a mind skill, which quiets the mind from the incessant bombardment of input. The mind’s activity is helped to quiet down by bringing it to an alert awareness of one "thing”, typically the breath. Part of the practice of meditation is noticing the mind wandering, and having the opportunity to constantly and respectfully escort it back to present moment awareness, without judgment. It is not “failing” when the mind wanders—it is part of the practice.
Using the breath as a focus progresses to “feeling” the breath breathing you, and being right there in your body, at one with your breathing.
Daily repetition of formal practice helps us to find it easier to mentally “uni-task,” rather than multitask. That is, to focus on, and really pay attention to, anything we do that day, which allows us to more consistently attend to it, without being distracted so often from the task at hand. (Interestingly, the "well-trained in meditation" mind is able to easily discern what it needs to attend to, from a safety point of view, if something comes up during focusing.) This ability to focus on present moment tasks, or awareness of being alive in the "now," is also useful when our mind might be filled with anxiety or panic. We can bring it back to whatever we are doing in that moment with less effort due to our practice. This skill helps to quiet the “traffic” going through the nerves in the brain in areas that are competing for our attention or experiencing adverse emotions, which otherwise translates into the body/mind’s difficult feelings that can be caused by stress.
We know from research that, in general, people who are consistent with this practice are more productive at work, do not "fall off" in productivity when stressful events are looming, and are happier. I think that the well-trained mind is able to attend to what is going on in the present moment, to appreciate the mundane as not so mundane after all, and to reduce the amount of time spent in stressful anticipation and regret. By attending to present moment events more often, more clearly, and with less tendency to run from what presents itself, this contributes to a gentler, more aware, better thought-out, and more enjoyable existence.
With meditation practice, we can focus more clearly on mundane things, such as the shopping list, without the distracting thoughts that used to easily derail us from the task at hand. So, even that becomes a mini-meditation, and a reinforcement of practice.
Is it distraction from stressful emotions and events? By focusing on the breath are we distracting ourselves from these by focusing on the breath? I think the word “distraction” is often used as a coping mechanism. But here the “coping” is, instead, a “knowing” that the mind doesn't have to be let loose to race, obsess, or range across topics that may distress us, with no input from our reasoning brain to make the choice of what we wish to do with our mind in that moment. We find, through cultivating great familiarity with going to the breath, that we can choose what to do with our minds, and that choice is welcome and becomes easier to exercise. Retaining that ability to choose takes daily practice. Is that distraction, or wise choice?
Updates on Future Courses and Events
Please note: Fees for Mindfulness-Based Chronic Pain Management (MBCPM) courses and course materials will vary depending on coverage by the health facility, and the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). Costs may range from $100 to $450 per 12 or 13 week session.
MBCPM for sufferers of Multiple Sclerosis (MS):
This course will run at St. Michael's Hospital from April 24th to June 26th from 1:00pm to 3:30pm, and will be facilitated by Cecilia Wan. For more information please contact her by email at WanT@smh.ca
This course will be facilitated by Dr. Adam Bletsoe and runs from April 1 to June 17 (12 weeks) from 6:30pm - 8:30pm. For more information, please contact Dr. Adam Bletsoe’s Chiropractic Clinic at 416-694-4800 x 1 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
This course will be facilitated by Dr. Kim McKenzie and runs from April 3 to April 26 (13 weeks) from 3:00pm - 6:00pm. For more information, please contact Deidre at 705-721-6934 or by email at email@example.com
Did You Know That?
Withdrawing too quickly from certain sedative medications can cause seizures?
If you feel that mindfulness practice is reducing your anxiety or helping your sleep, you may decide to come off of your sedatives or sleeping pills. However, it is possible to come off of them too quickly for safety, which is why we always emphasize doing so under the supervision of your health care professionals.
The class of drugs based on Valium (generic name diazepam, and all those with -pam at the end of their generic name, such as lorazepam, clonazepam, etc.) can be difficult to withdraw from, due to a reflex neurological irritability that if uncontrolled, could cause a seizure. Very slow withdrawal is therefore necessary, particularly if the medication has been taken for decades. A gentler way of reducing and tapering, though a mathematical challenge for the prescriber, might be to take a slightly reduced dose twice a week, and the usual dose on the other days, and then only reducing the dose 3 times a week, taking the usual dose on the other days, then reducing the dose only on alternate days, and so on.
Care should also be taken when being switched from a -pam drug to a sedative or sleeping pill outside of its drug class. The tricyclic antidepressants may even be slightly seizure-inducing, an additional risk if being transferred from a -pam to a tricyclic drug. For example, a sudden switch to a sedative tricyclic anti-depressant, such as amitriptyline (brand name Elavil), after years on a -pam, or to zopiclone (brand name Imovane), which is not in the same drug class, might also result in seizures. The -pam drugs, also known as benzodiazepines, are actually anti-seizure as well as anti-anxiety medications, which makes sense since they are reducing nerve activity in general. So even in non-epileptics there can be a rebound nerve irritability occasionally resulting in seizures if withdrawn too quickly, or a change to a drug without such nerve-calming activity.
The bottom line: Always work with your prescriber to taper off of any drug, such as when mindfulness work might allow medication reductions.