Did you know that compassion, the act of recognizing someone else’s suffering with the inclination to want to support them, creates important activity shifts in the brain that are associated with resiliency and well-being?
I recently attended a talk at a fundraiser where the presenter, Amy McLaren, had conveyed her story of going to Kenya with her husband and making a deal with a child there that if he shares his report card with them at the end of the month, they would pay for a month of his schooling.
They didn’t expect him to follow through, but after they returned back to Canada, a month later they received a letter with a picture of this boy holding up his report card.
He followed through and so did they.
Every month he would send his report card and every month they would pay for another month of school. Years later this boy is now in business school and has developed
Note: There are plenty more, but I thought these top the charts.
Myth #1: Mindfulness if for taking a time-out from life, quieting the mind and reducing stress.
Truth: I think this is the #1 myth out there because it’s my experience that this is how people initially experience the practice. One of the greatest entry points to mindfulness in the West is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This is a fantastic program with wonderful science behind it, but the name is just for marketing. The ultimate goal isn’t meant to be stress reduction. The goal of mindfulness and MBSR is to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional and physical processes, recognize the connectedness between people and operate in the world with greater self-compassion and compassion.
However, the initial practices can often give people sense of relief from a busy mind and can then be equated with a mental break. While there’s nothing wrong with using it this way, it also minimizes the power of mindfulness.
The paradox here is when we’re able to do just be present to our minds, emotions and bodies, the stressful relationship tends to quiet down, but when we try and quiet the mind down, we often add fuel to the fire.
Myth #2: You need to carve out plenty of time in a serene “mindful” space.
For a number of months now hundreds of people have been taking the Basics in Mindfulness Meditation: 28 day program challenge to bring more mindfulness, self-compassion, compassion and balance into their lives. Throughout the course questions are asked that I field and one came in recently that I thought important to bring to all people as it is a seminar question of our time.
Hi Elisha, Thank you for this very helpful course. I notice that my thoughts start whirring around in my head when I have had an emotional encounter. I try to accept the thoughts, acknowledge it being there, then focus on breathing or the body scan but my mind races back to that emotion I experience of sadness. How can I pull myself into the moment when this happens? Will appreciate your advice.
We all experience resistance everyday when we’re trying to do something that matters. Whether you want to sit and meditate, work on a new project, get out and exercise, whatever it is that is in the direction of growth, resistance comes
alive. In my next book Uncovering Happiness (can’t wait to share it with you – January, 2015), I explore some of the neuroscience behind what keeps us stuck in a depressive loop and how to get unstuck and even find our natural anti-depressants and thrive. While resistance lies within a depressive spiral, you don’t have to have had experienced depression in the past to know resistance, it’s a universal daily experience for all of us.
But the deeper question is, where does it reside in the brain and how do we overcome it?
I don’t believe anyone has conducted and brain scan specifically on resistance, but one thing we do know is that the right side of the prefrontal region that lies behind your forehead lights up when we’re trying to avoid something. This same region also lights up with negative emotions.
One thing we’re wanting to do is intentionally practice and repeat shifting the activity to the left prefrontal region that is more associated with approaching things in life and with resiliency.
The fact is resistance is relentless, it’s a deeply ingrained wiring that we all have to move away from what the brain anticipates to be uncomfortable and stay with what’s comfortable. Not only is this hardwired into most of us, but we’ve practiced is so often that it’s strengthened the default. The brain has such a lock on us, that we’re not even aware of it.
This is why procrastination is so common.
So what do we do about it?
The best way to get the brain to change it seems is through engaging novelty. Kids are doing it like crazy, everything is new. I remember when my oldest was born and we’d walk around the neighborhood. I’d grab a leaf on a tree and say, “See this, this is a leaf. Look closely at the shape and see how it has veins.” In the process I was interacting with life as if for the first time and it inspired wonder and joy within me. I tapped into something important and I knew it.
In the now famous book Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie points us in the direction of happiness:
“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
Almost 19 million Americans have periods where they feel a lack of pleasure or interest in what was once pleasurable and interesting. They feel tired and heavy, potentially overly emotional or numb, and experience an onslaught of negative and self defeating thoughts that can keep invading the mind over and over again. The more periods of this depressed mood we have in life, the more likely we are to fall back into them again. Why does this relapse occur and how can mindfulness offer hope?
Falling into a depression feels traumatic and just like getting bit by a dog causes us to be fearful of and oversensitive to dogs, our minds and bodies become oversensitive to associations with the depression causing our brains to flinch at any sign of a relapse.
Feeling low mood is normal for everyone, but if we’ve experienced depression in the past, this may be a trigger for a relapse. If we feel tired or if we notice sadness, the mind pops up with the worry “uh oh, that is how I felt when I was depressed, maybe I’m getting depressed”. Our minds begin to go in overdrive with negative self judgments, “I am a failure” or “I am weak” or “I am worthless”. It then tries to solve the mystery as to why we are becoming depressed again and the more it tries to solve this puzzle, the deeper it sinks into depression. Think of a worried, judging person coming at you trying to solve your problems when you’re already not feeling well. Probably not what you’re looking for. You see, it’s not the low mood that’s the problem here, it’s the way we get stuck in habitually relating to it that pours kerosene on the fire, with our minds continuing to fan the flame rolling us into a full blown depression.
The practice of mindfulness teaches us a different way to relate to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they arise. It is about learning to approach and acknowledge whatever is happening in the present moment, setting aside our lenses of judgment and just being with whatever is there, rather than avoiding it or needing to fix it. It’s the mind’s attempt to avoid and fix things in this moment that fuels the negative mood.
With Uncomfortable Emotions
If sadness is there, instead of trying to fix it or figure it out, we might just acknowledge the sadness, let it be and get a better understanding of what we need in the moment.
If self-judgments arise (e.g., I am weak, I am a loser) out of past sensitivities to having been depressed before, we can acknowledge that they are associations from the past, let them be, and then gently bring ourselves back to whatever we were doing. In doing this, we’re stopping the ruminative cycle that might occur between our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and behaviors that can play off one another leading into another relapse (I call this “The Depression Loop” in the upcoming book Uncovering Happiness).
Now, this is easier said than done and it takes practice.
One of the wonderful surprises of being a therapist all these years is how big the gift of being of service can be. I have the privilege of knowing people intimately and supporting them in opening their hearts and uncovering happiness. When I sit with that, it gives me an immense sense of purpose. Herein lies life’s beautiful paradox: The more love you give away, the more love you have. The ripple effects give me immense joy.
Through this experience I’ve realized at times it’s important to relay back what I’ve learned.
1. Essential Books to Have at Your Bedside
Aside from Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion (debut: January, 2015) - wink! – I’m a big fan of books that keep it simple. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk who writes simply and elegantly and I am a fan of many of his works. Taming the Tiger Within and The Miracle of Mindfulness are some of my favorites.
2. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
That there’s an end goal.
I don’t mean that people need to be in therapy for an indefinite time, but there’s a faulty notion of achieving some end state. This focus makes therapy more difficult as the mind is cluttered with an expectation instead of focusing on learning. Even if insurance only covers 10 sessions and wants a definitive end goal, we have to always keep in mind that therapy is a vehicle for learning and while we can begin to master certain ways of being, growing and learning about ourselves in life never ends.
3. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
Take two minutes to read this blog post; it may truly be the thing today that can save your life.
First before we begin, watch this surprising video below (runtime 1:47).
The National Safety Council says there are currently 1.6 million accidents per year for texting while driving.
How could it not be true that the way many of us engage with Smartphones while in the car is not responsible for a rising amount of death tolls and injuries?
To some extent, it’s important to understand how the brain science may be working in the case of driving with the phone.
Many media outlets have been talking for a number of years now about how ubiquitous mindfulness is, the impact it’s having in a variety of sectors and all the wonderful science that continues to be published. But I noticed that many people in the media don’t talk much about the actual formal practice of mindfulness meditation and that’s probably because it can be a hard habit to establish. One thing I’ve learned is if you want to establish a practice you have to look directly at what’s getting in the way and allow those obstacles to be your greatest teachers.
Here are five obstacles that have been in people’s way for thousands of years and the antidotes to get over them.
Antidote: We have to remember that thoughts are just thoughts; they’re not facts (even the ones that say they are). When we notice this doubt slipping
It seems like every day interest in mindfulness is reaching new heights. All the major news networks have covered it and recently Sharon Salzberg was on the Katie Couric Show explaining how to achieve mindfulness. But the question on many people’s minds is; has mindfulness become another form of snake oil, claiming to cure everything under the sun from anxiety to sneezing? Last week a post broke out on the New York Times claiming there is a “Mindfulness Backlash” afoot where some people are questioning the science, seeing it packaged as a commodity and even warning against it.