I just returned from my annual 5-day silent retreat at Rolling Ridge Retreat Center in Andover, MA and like other years, this one did not disappoint! A silent retreat (in the same vein as the Tom Hanks character Forrest Gump's view of life) is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get! Something always bubbles up from the unconscious whenever we spend that much time in quiet solitude.
At this retreat, led by Steven Hickman and Beth Mulligan, I learned about "Mudita". Mudita is a Pali word that means joy; especially sympathetic or vicarious joy. I found it ironic that I learned about Mudita from Beth Mulligan. I had never met Beth, although I heard many great things about her. She held a silent retreat here in South Florida a couple of years ago, a retreat that many of my MBSR students attended. They raved about her, and I have to admit, I was envious. Then, recently, my students then told me about the book Beth had published, something I’ve been trying to do for years. Again, envy. I hate to admit that I avoided buying the book because I did not want to experience the pain of failure for not being able to write one myself.
I now see that I have a habit of avoiding reading or hearing about the successes of others (e.g. Facebook posts and newsletters) to avoid my own inner critic’s voice, “See how great they are doing?” or “You could never do that”, or “You’re not keeping up”. I see now that although this behavior was protecting me from pain, it was also stunting my growth and limiting my connections with others.
I remember an old Buddhist saying, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened”. Thank you, Beth, for teaching me about Mudita. I just ordered your book, and can’t wait to start reading!”
As many of you know, in my 20s while working as a nurse, I suffered from bulimia, medicating myself with food to combat a depression. I had no idea I could free myself from craving and depressive symptoms until I was recommended to see a therapist by a boyfriend who was breaking up with me. Back in the 80s, I thought therapy was for people who were suicidal, addicted, or "crazy". And I was a member of the healthcare community! My beliefs were due partly because of, (a) my denial of the severity of my symptoms, (b) my lack of awareness of available mental healthcare services, and (c) the stigma attached to receiving mental healthcare. Many Americans will not seek mental healthcare today, for these very reasons. One of the reasons I was so depressed (and in need of comfort) was because of all the negative and ruminative thoughts I had about myself. For example:
"You're too fat!"
"No one wants to hear what you have to say"
"You're a bad person"
"You're not enough"
"You're not worthy of love and happiness"
When I began therapy in my 20's, I learned how to identify my thoughts and feelings, as well as their origins. But they did not go away. I learned how to distract myself from cravings, but they did not go away.
Then, 9 years ago, I began to meditate. Over the past few years, being still long enough to see the negative thoughts as "just thoughts", not identifying with them, and being compassionate with myself while experiencing them resulted in a reduction of those negative thoughts, and a reduction in cravings. Finally, a light at the end of a very long tunnel!
And research bears this out! In the journal "JAMA Internal Medicine", Goyal and colleagues reviewed 47 studies of over 3,500 participants, and found that taking an 8-week class in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, can improve anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. What was most amazing is that the effect sizes for the improvements found through meditation were stronger than the effect sizes for the improvements found from antidepressant medication (unless someone was very severely depressed, then antidepressants beat meditation as a treatment modality). Because of these findings, Goyal recommended that "clinicians should be prepared to talk with their patients about the role that a meditation program can have in addressing psychological distress".
If you, too, suffer from negative thoughts, I first recommend you learn to meditate. Signing up for one of the classes below can help you establish a consistent daily meditation practice. If that doesn't help, consulting a therapist or psychiatrist may be extremely beneficial.
And whenever you experience those negative, pesky thoughts, I recommend you stop, take a breath, observe the thought without judgment, and then nurture yourself for having to experience it. I often put my hand on my heart and say, Oh...that's a painful thought! In addition, click on the picture below for another tool to help you identify and reduce those "stupid thoughts".
Stopping Stupid Thoughts Worksheet
A couple of weeks ago, Scientific American published an article entitled, "Where's the Proof that Mindfulness Meditation works?" The author, Bret Stetka, warns the reader that "many psychologists, neuroscientists, and meditation experts are afraid that hype is outpacing the science". As a scientist and practitioner, I cannot agree more. Firstly, although I am a staunch supporter of mindfulness-based interventions, particularly those that have been evaluated by randomized clinical trials and with active control groups (e.g. MBSR, MBCT, MBRP), there are many, many other approaches that are being created without ANY scientific scrutiny that tout the same effects as these well established standardized interventions. That really bugs me. You should not compare apples to oranges. Secondly, even in rigorous randomized clinical trials, evidence of statistical significance is not always the same as clinical relevance. For example, a 10-point increase in attention on an particular attention task may not have significant relevance in everyday life. Thirdly, there are limited studies that evaluate the potential negative effects of the practice. That is why, as trained MBSR instructors, we provide orientations, and consider the exclusionary criteria when considering the appropriateness of someone participating in our programs. We tell people in our orientations, "It is sometimes stressful to take the stress reduction program". We don't want to strip away someone's defenses when they are not psychologically ready to do so.
So although the journey to prove the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions for a variety of maladies is very promising, there is still more work to be done.
So, what is the general public to do? I recommend the following:
When considering taking a mindfulness-based intervention, I frequently refer to the slogan of the Sy Syms School of Business, "An educated consumer is our best customer"!
This Spring, I attended a 7-day silent retreat led by Tara Brach, Jonathan Foust, Ruth King and Pat Coffey at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW). On day one, they asked us to set our intentions. What do we want to get out of the retreat? To be honest, my first thought was that I really wanted to lose some weight on this trip! It had been a very stressful few months, and I am a stress eater, so…I was feeling badly for having gained a few pounds lately. Not that I knew for sure, because I stopped weighing myself years ago, in an attempt to be a more mindful eater and more in touch with internal cues than external ones. Having this thought, I immediately felt shame…you’re a mindful eating teacher, and you are still focused on food and weight? Noticing judging mind…
On day # 2, they encouraged us to inquire further when, during a meditation, negative thoughts or emotions surfaced. Instead of just noticing them, not judging them, and then refocusing on your object of attention, they encouraged us to “Take your demons to tea”. This was based on an old Tibetan myth. "Milarepa was a loner who lived in a cave by himself and meditated wholeheartedly for years. He was extremely stubborn and determined. One evening, Milarepa returned to his cave after gathering firewood, only to find it filled with demons. They were cooking his food, reading his books, and sleeping in his bed. They had taken over the joint! He did not know how to get these guys out of his cave. Even though he had a suspicion they were just a projection of his own mind—all the unwanted parts of himself—he did not know how to get rid of them. He first tried to teach them the dharma. He talked about compassion. Nothing happened. The demons were still there. Then he lost his patience and got very angry and ran at them. They just laughed at him. Finally, he gave up and just sat down on the floor saying, 'I am not going away and it looks like you are not either, so let us just have tea.' At that point, all of them left except one" (this excerpt written by Pema Chodron). Once we could do that, we were encouraged to practice R.A.I.N. Here is what happened to me.
R: Recognize what is going on. I subsequently sat down for the 9:30 a.m. meditation. Noticing thoughts, feelings, body sensations. Then, a thought entered, “Your hair is a mess!” Then another, “You’re too fat”. Then another, “Your belly is too big”.
A: Allow the experience to be there, just as it is. Allowing these thoughts in, I began to scan my body for any sensations connected to them. I began to feel a pain in my stomach, which became more intense the more I focused on it. As the moments passed, I began to feel like I had just been punched in the gut. I felt my throat tightening, like I was going to cry. I checked in with my emotions. I felt hurt by the terrible things I said to myself. It never occurred to me before that I was so abusive with these God awful statements! I would never say these things to my worst enemy!
I: Investigate with kindness. Allowing myself to stay with the unpleasant, I began to investigate. When did I first begin to have these thoughts about my weight? I thought back how, in my first year of nursing school, I was very shy and struggled to fit in. I figured that if I were thin, people would accept me. If I were thin, people wouldn't judge me. If I were thin, I would get a boyfriend and wouldn't be lonely.
Huh. I realized that these negative thoughts, however punitive, were adaptive at a time when I had very few coping skills. They were used to keep me "in line" so I would not feel rejected or abandoned. I had felt those feelings before, and I did not want to feel them again.
N: Non-identification of the experience. Becoming aware that these automatic, once adaptive, negative thoughts are just thoughts has been very helpful. They no longer define me. Now, I am making a concerted effort to notice these body bashing thoughts whenever they occur, allow them to be there, and know they are just echos from the past that no longer serve me. I also made a promise to trust my body to tell me when to eat (when hungry), and to stop eating (when satisfied). Things fundamentally shifted for me that day, and I now find that those thoughts come around less often. That feels nice.
As many of you know, I have struggled with sugar cravings since my teenage years. In my twenties, I became bulimic. In my thirties, I was fortunate enough to have good health insurance to begin treatment. After my discharge from an inpatient eating disorder unit in 1987, I graduated from being a bulimic to an "emotional overeater". This was no small feat, because I now had to "own" everything I ate, and most of my self-esteem back then was wrapped up in how pretty I was, or how thin I was. I also found out that I was using food to soothe myself from a mild depression.
After a couple years of therapy, my depression lifted, and I was feeling better. But over the past 30 years, I was still bingeing about every other week. I couldn't shake the sugar cravings! When I began meditating 5 years ago, I became more and more aware of their presence: their frequency and their intensity.
Two years ago, in my search to end my sugar cravings, I started reading about mindful eating. I learned the BASICS of Mindful Eating from Lynn Rossy, PhD, at the University of Missouri. She recommended that before eating,
B: Belly check before you eat for hunger and satiety
A: Assess your food
S: Slow down
I: Investigate your hunger and satiety
C: Chew thoroughly, and
S: Savour your food.
This practice has helped me tremendously. It's not so easy to do, and it takes practice. But it works! By using all of your senses to explore your eating experience (sight, hearing, touch, smell as well as taste), you're sending signals to your brain that you are becoming full and satisfied! I hope you all try this for one meal on Mindful Eating Day!
As MBSR instructors, we are encouraged to attend one silent retreat per year. This year, I chose a 7-day retreat at Insight Meditation Society (IMS) In Barre, Massachusetts. Seven days without cell phones, TV or computers. Seven days without speaking. Seven days without coffee, meat or alcohol. Daunting as it sounds, it was exactly what I needed!
Although I am not Buddhist, I learned much about my self in their teaching, "Hindrances to meditation practice". The major 5 hindrances include Desire or Craving, Aversion, Restlessness, Sloth and Torpor (sleepiness), and Delusion (confusion or doubt). For me, the first two days were filled with Sloth and Torpor. Every time I sat down on my cushion (5 times daily) and tried to meditate, I immediately fell into a dream-like state. So frustrating, but not surprising. I knew that was going to happen. I had been pushing myself hard over the past couple months, so I knew it would take a couple days to "settle in".
However, what did surprise me was, once the sleepiness wore off, I experienced a little known phenomenon to me...PAIN! Knee pain, butt pain, back pain, all over pain. But only during the time I sat on my cushion. As soon as the bell rang to end the meditation, and I moved my position, the pain stopped. I tried everything to get rid of the pain, Advil, changing my position, using a different cushion, and alternating tensing and relaxing my muscles. I tried to ignore the pain, making myself think of something else. Nothing worked. For 3 days straight, pain was front and center in my field of awareness.
By day 5, I was in tears. This was not the meditation retreat I signed up for! I wanted bliss and enlightenment! I clearly was struggling with the hindrance of Desire; wanting a pain free retreat experience.
Then, one of the evening talks addressed attachments, and how they cause suffering. Once I realized that I was attached to the idea of a blissful, pain-free retreat, I practiced the remedy: letting go. I also began to relax into the pain, exploring the sensations with a beginner's mind. Exploring it's boundaries, how it changed from moment to moment. At first, the pain intensified. I dove in even further, breathing deeply.
After this paradigm shift, I swear to you the pain disappeared for my next two sits! I thought it was magic! It returned again intermittently over the last 2 days, but it was not as intense as when I was trying to push it away.
I learned many valuable lessons on this retreat. One lesson is that, when I see myself attached to a particular situation, or thing in my life, to trust that things may still be okay if everything doesn't always go my way. In fact, allowing situations to unfold naturally, without trying to control them or push them away, may even create better outcomes than I had ever anticipated.
Sometimes I have to “re-mind” myself to be mindful.
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to travel in Asia. If you ever get to Singapore, you might want to ride the "Singapore Flyer". The Flyer is the world’s largest observation Ferris wheel, and it takes about an hour to make a complete rotation. It was one of the attractions that I was really looking forward to experiencing.
As I boarded the capsule and began the revolution, I took out my camera and started to take pictures. I moved from end to end of the glass enclosure, and each moment offered a unique photo vantage point. The views were spectacular, and I captured as many amazing photos as I could.
As I completed my revolution and exited the capsule, I took a moment to pause and reflect. That's when it dawned on me. Although I enjoyed the experience, it did not seem to be very mindful. Mindfulness is "paying attention in a particular way". I realized that I was so preoccupied with snapping as many pictures as I could, that I forgot to focus "with mindfulness" on what was unfolding in front of me. I certainly enjoyed the experience and took it in, but I think that if I had applied more of a mindful approach, it could have been a deeper one.
I am a bit of a newbie to Mindfulness and I would imagine that the longer I live life being mindful, the more natural it will become. In the meantime, maybe I'll write on my hand "Live Mindfully".
I do have great pictures and an amazing mindful life lesson from that day. Perhaps that was how my experience was meant to unfold.
Applying Mindfulness and being in the moment has helped me to avoid increasing stress. By observing my experiences in the present moment, I am able to take in little things that may often go unnoticed. This Christmas, I traveled from South Florida to Upstate New York to spend Christmas with my family. In the airport. there was some stress due to delays and overwhelmed travelers. Using many mindful breaths and positive thinking helped me arrive comfortably. In New York, the 20 degree weather was bone chilling at first. Although it was a bit unpleasant, I felt some joy in the refreshing crispness in the air.
On Christmas Eve, my parents and I drove to my Aunt’s home to begin the festivities. I sat in the car and watched the beautiful decorations people had displayed on their lawns. A Christmas song came on the radio. “Once the holidays get here, my spirit is gone.” My father sighed. He went on to explain how he feels excited in planning, decorating and baking, but once Christmas arrives, it becomes hard to enjoy because it will soon be over. I am sure many people share in his anticipatory excitement and dread when the holiday comes to an end.
Mindfulness is the perfect gift someone can give themselves to fully enjoy their holiday. By focusing on each moment, as it unfolds, there is no room to worry about, “what’s next?” or “this is almost over.” When I found myself thinking these common thoughts, I brought myself back to where I was. I was able to enjoy the surroundings of my family members, good discussions and great food. Being more mindful makes me appreciate my family and the many things we are grateful for.
I wish everyone a happy, safe and mindful New Year!!
Four weeks ago today, my mother-in-law passed away mercifully in her sleep. She was in hospice care for 10 months, and she received inpatient care for the last 2 months of her life. She was 88, and was one of the kindest, most selfless women I have ever had the opportunity to meet. I was very lucky to have her for a mother-in-law.
For my husband and I, this is our first major loss. It really hurts. However, we are comforted by friends and family. I also receive comfort from a quote by Albert Einstein, who, as the story is told, was responding to a letter written to him by a Rabbi, asking his assistance in helping his daughter cope with the loss of her sister.
"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us "Universe", a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security."
This quote reminds me of the law of impermanence, but also the peace that can be found in being truly present, where we can experience these feelings of connectedness. At the wake, the funeral, and days that followed, I felt the pain. I tried really hard to stay present, and avoid the things I typically do to avoid pain (eat chocolate, google on my laptop, obsess about work-related issues). During those moments that I could actually be “with” the pain, I tried to apply the concept of “Beginner’s Mind”, by trying to experience the pain as though I’ve never experienced it before. When doing so, I sensed something in those moments that I had never experienced before. I can only describe it as a “sweetness” in the sharing of the painful experience with my family. I felt so much more connected with them, and continue to feel it today. What a wonderful gift for my mother-in-law to give me. I hope I will remember what serenity lies in any future painful experience, when I choose to be present.