Mindfulness Shines A Light on Anger

by Margaret Cullen and Gonzalo Brito Pons

margaretMargaret Cullen and Gonzalo Brito retrato-gonzalo-argentinaPons, co-authored “The Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance Workbook. Join them for the Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance (MBEB) Teacher Training Intensive, April 9-15, 2017 at EarthRise Retreat Center, Petaluma, CA. Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance is an empirically-supported 9-week psycho-educational group intervention that teaches mindfulness meditation and emotion training.

It’s such a shame to think of how often we deride ourselves, and each other, for being “emotional.” It’s like jumping on someone for breathing. Emotion is a process that is a vital part of being alive. As the pioneering psychologist of emotions Paul Ekman has said, emotion is a kind of rapid, automatic appraisal of what’s going on. It’s influenced by our evolutionary past as well as our personal past, such that when “we sense that something important to our welfare is occurring…a set of physiological changes and emotional behaviors begins to deal with the situation.”

You’ve been endowed with a nervous system that has evolved over thousands of generations in a way that you didn’t choose. By the time you actually realize that you have a mind and a brain, the basic rules of how they work are already in place. The events that trigger our emotional responses are sometimes universal and sometimes personal. Almost anyone would feel fear at the sight of an oncoming car, but only some of us are afraid of hiking down steep trails while others happily scramble down them like a mountain goat. The triggers that each of us carries with us often come from early childhood and can continue quite unconsciously into adulthood.

And opportunities for emotion abound. Remembering, talking about, or imagining a past emotional scene or thinking of future scenarios can trigger emotions. Observing another person’s emotions (even on a TV screen) can elicit an emotional response. Role playing or theater can elicit emotion; and so can seeing an event that offends our sensibilities, like someone talking on a cell phone at the symphony or throwing trash into the street.

One of our most potent emotions—whose inward and outward effects can have disastrous consequences—is anger. In evolutionary terms, its main adaptive function is to remove obstacles that thwart us. When we feel anger, it’s because the primitive brain is trying to tell us something needs to change. We share this emotion with other mammals and even with reptiles. Baby humans come already well equipped with the capacity to get angry. If you hold a baby by her arms from behind, preventing her from grabbing a toy, she will get pretty angry, furrowing her brow, tightening her muscles, trying to move forcefully to get the toy, and perhaps shouting with a squeaky voice. When the baby grows up, she can have an analogous reaction when someone cuts her off on the road, especially if she’s already late for an important meeting! Anger also shows up when you—or others you feel connected to—are treated unjustly, or when someone or something prevents you from meeting your goals and needs.

Regardless of what triggers them, emotional responses can be either functional or dysfunctional. If we automatically swerve from an oncoming car, the fear response is extremely functional. If we’re afraid to leave the house for fear something terrible will happen, we are now in a disorder that is on the very dysfunctional side of fear, a disorder that no doubt is being triggered by an imported script from past trauma.

Until around the 1970s, it was commonly believed that the nervous system was essentially fixed throughout adulthood; that brain functions remained constant and that it was impossible for new neurons to develop after birth. If you were born with a “glass half-empty” attitude, it would be a life-sentence of unhappiness. Neuroscience has changed all that with the concept of neuroplasticity, which suggests that, in reality, human brains are flexible and change through experience. Although there are some fixed rules about what minds and brains can do, it’s also true that there is a space of freedom to respond rather than react that can be cultivated through mindful observation and practice. And in that space, we have an opportunity to work creatively with the dysfunctional aspects and enhance the more functional aspects of our emotional life.

Consciously or not, we’re constantly training our minds and brains to respond to circumstances. By virtue of repetition, our reactions crystallize into emotional patterns and neural pathways, which, in turn, influence the way we perceive reality. This is particularly true when we’re in the grips of a strong emotion, which is sometimes called the refractory period, a period of time when we’re only able to take in information and evoke memories that confirm, maintain, or justify the emotion we are feeling. This same mechanism that guides and focuses our attention can also distort our ability to deal with both new information and knowledge already stored that does not match the current emotion. We can all think of countless examples when we have missed obvious cues or forgotten historical data when we were “blinded” by a strong emotion. It’s not called “blind rage” for nothing.

Blind and Blaming

MindfulnessBasedEmoBalanceWB-CF.inddAlthough it’s quite possible to get mad at ourselves, the energy of anger is generally directed outward and it’s often linked with blame. This tendency to blame, strike out, punish, and retaliate makes anger especially challenging to sit with, and a big source of interpersonal suffering. When we feel anger toward someone, our sense of “self” and “other” gets very solid. In this state, we exaggerate all the negative qualities of the other person and become blind to positive attributes, which in turn feeds the aversion. The complexity and nuance of the other is reduced to a monolithic negative cartoon called “the enemy.”

We often wonder why we’re angriest at those we’re closest to. For one thing, people who know us intimately also know what can hurt us the most. Someone said, “Your family knows how to push your buttons because they actually installed them.” But a less glib reason is that it tends to be safer to show anger to an intimate than to a stranger. You can express aggression to your partner when you’re actually mad at your boss, probably because it’s less likely your partner will fire you. We can be frustrated about ourselves but direct our anger outside. It’s uncanny that we can even get quite angry at inanimate objects—a door, a table, a wall, or a shoe.

And that very fact reveals something that illuminates what’s really happening: although it feels as if the source of anger is out there, the anger comes from within. Other people are just pretending to be the real enemies. In fact, it’s possible to see them as our “patience coaches,” offering us opportunities to explore and tame the anger habit. If everyone was nice and considerate, how could we train in patience, how could we learn to tame our anger?

There’s an old story about a man who was sailing his boat on clear and sunny day, when a dense fog rolled in. Just as he had decided to return to shore, he noticed the profile of another boat coming in his direction. “Keep your distance!” the boatman shouted, concerned about a possible collision. But the other boat just kept approaching. The boatman used all his skills to swiftly shift direction, so there was more room for the other boat. He got really upset when he saw that the other boat changed its own course, now coming directly to him. “Stay out of my way!” he shouted again, but the other boat just kept coming closer, until it finally crashed into his boat.

The man was enraged: “You idiot! What the hell are you doing?!” He got totally worked up and continued his rampage until the fog lifted enough so that he was able to see that the other boat was empty—it was just an old abandoned boat floating downstream. Now he was perplexed and frustrated: To whom could he express his anger? Could he project his anger onto an empty boat? Without a person to blame, it was impossible to keep the story of anger going.

Ask yourself: Do I ever get mad at “empty boats”? If so, where does this anger come from? Where does it go?

Becoming aware of the inner terrain of anger can be helpful in catching it sooner and sparing ourselves and others the hurt and regret that often ensue from acting out anger. To work with anger, we need to see the space between trigger and reaction in order to mindfully look within.

Door Number Four

Anger is tricky because there’s a cost both to showing anger and to suppressing it. Suppressing doesn’t actually solve anything. It only postpones having to deal with anger while it keeps quietly simmering under the surface, wreaking havoc with our bodies. But if we show it, almost invariably we either hurt others or provoke retaliation. Another common habit is unconsciously “feeding” the mind states of anger with our stories of blame and victimization, thereby reinforcing the anger habit.

It’s rare that therapists nowadays advise their clients to act out their anger with real or symbolic others (punching pillows, shouting loudly in an empty room, and so on), partially because brain science has demonstrated that each time anger is expressed it gets rehearsed and strengthened. The idea that if you let your anger out you will reach peace and calm is simply not true—the satisfaction of the discharge will invariably be transient relief. And the anger will be saying, “I’ll be back.”

Most of us know we can get a certain satisfaction or relief when we express aggression. There can be a seductive quality to the anger, and an adrenaline rush, and that’s why it can become a habit, even an addiction. Anger is like a fuel. When we get angry we can feel energized, stronger, bigger—picture an angry cat with a curved spine and raised hair, pretending to be bigger than it is to scare away what it’s actually scared of. However, anger isn’t a very efficient fuel, because it burns hot and costly. It can be quite polluting on the inside and outside, and it’s heavy and corrosive in the system.

Fortunately, there are other options besides the “three doors” of suppression, expression, and unconscious fueling. When insults or obstacles are perceived, it’s normal for an anger response to arise. It’s just our nature and evolutionary history at work. Though we may succeed in becoming angry less often, it will always be a part of our emotional lives and it is therefore critical to learn how to relate skillfully with this challenging energy. As soon as you remember that you’re not just a victim of your anger, that you can actually use it as a path of self-discovery, you can practice being present with the feeling of anger, connecting with it, and allowing its energy to arise and pass away without acting on it or suppressing it.

This is “door number four.”

Don’t underestimate the power of this simple method. As with mindfulness generally, it’s simple, but it’s not easy.

The capacity to work with anger mindfully is not a binary, either-you-have-it-or-you-don’t proposition. It’s a practice that builds gradually, strengthening the muscle of mindfulness in the face of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Instead of identifying with, rejecting, or being unaware of anger, we can learn to approach it with openness and curiosity, trusting that anger has something to teach us, and that this can be a very productive part of practice.

Anger is not a special problem getting in the way of mindfulness practice. It actually provides you with an exceptional opportunity to practice mindfulness, to open up when habit tells you to shut down, to connect with experience when habit makes you disconnect, and to question if the image you’ve constructed of yourself and others is as solid as it appears.

There’s a Cherokee story that captures the nature of anger beautifully. A boy tells his grandfather about his anger at a friend who had done him an injustice. His grandfather replies: “Let me tell you a story. I too, at times, have felt great hate for those who have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It’s like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times. My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One wolf brings happiness. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. But the other wolf…ah! The littlest thing will send him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all of the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. Sometimes it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”

The boy looked intently into his grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one wins, Grandfather?”

The grandfather smiled and quietly said, “The one I feed.”

Training in mindfulness is remembering that every moment is an opportunity to practice peace, no matter the circumstances. Our thoughts, words, and actions are food for the wolves we all have inside. There’s no need for guilt when you notice you’re feeding the angry wolf (we all do this, and guilt won’t help). Instead, know that you have the freedom to learn from your experience and keep practicing with patience. Trust that it’s the small—often invisible—steps that take you forward.

MindfulnessBasedEmoBalanceWB-CF.inddMargaret Cullen and Gonzalo Brito Pons, co-authored “The Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance Workbook. Join them for the Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance (MBEB) Teacher Training Intensive, April 9-15, 2017 at EarthRise Retreat Center, Petaluma, CA. Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance is an empirically-supported 9-week psycho-educational group intervention that teaches mindfulness meditation and emotion training.

 

 

New Retreat Offered to Meet the Needs of Teachers of Mindfulness-Based Programs

By Susan Woods, LICSW

WoodsSusan

Susan Woods

In time everything changes and the field of mindfulness is no exception. Over the years one of the recommendations for becoming an instructor interested in teaching a mindfulness-based program (MBP), has been the requirement to attend silent teacher-led mindfulness retreats. This is because teaching mindfulness-based programs profoundly relies on the teacher having a personal working experiential knowledge of what happens to the mind/body when engaging in mindfulness meditation practice.

The field of MBPs is becoming professionalized and that includes continued discussions about developing consensus and standardization for the training of MBP instructors. This means that specific training pathways are being identified for the development of best practice skills. Many professional people are attracted to offering MBPs and unlike in the early days of MBPs, most do not have established meditation practices.

One of the questions the field is now facing is how to best support trainee MBP teachers in developing and sustaining a personal meditation practice and importantly how this influences the development of mindfulness-based teaching skills. There will always be the option to attend silent teacher-led meditation retreats. Indeed, over the long term, there is no better way to nourish mindfulness meditation practice for MBP teachers.

But many experienced MBP teachers believe the time has come for the field to consider the development of specific mindfulness retreat trainings that take into account sustained periods of silence and teacher-led meditation practices alongside explicitly designed teaching modules that address and support the teaching of MBPs. This would help to bring a clearer identity to the field of MBPs as a profession and in turn place less reliance on the traditional form of Buddhist practice centers.

Faculty: Susan Woods, LICSW
& Helen Vantine, PhD
Chapin Mill Retreat Center, Batavia, NY

In March 2017, the Mindfulness-Based Professional Training Institute (MBPTI)  at UC San Diego, is sponsoring just such a Mindfulness Meditation Retreat. This five-day training, offered at the lovely Chapin Mill Retreat Center in Batavia, New York, designed by myself and Helen Vantine will offer the opportunity to experience sustained periods of silence with teacher-led mindfulness meditation practices combined with teaching modules that relate to answering the question, how does sustaining a personal mindfulness meditation practice influence the ability to become a skilled MBI teacher.

The retreat meets the requirements for a teacher-led silent retreat training as a part of MBSR/MBCT/MSC Certification through the MBPTI at UC San Diego and at the Center for Mindfulness Studies, Toronto, Canada. We look forward to having you join us.

Being Mindful of Your Character Strengths: The mPEAK Program

by Pete Kirchmer

ccf9e-headshot2Pete Kirchmer is  the Program Director for the UCSD Center For Mindfulness mPEAK (Mindful, Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge) Program. Pete specializes in coaching his clients in applying the practice of mindfulness to making healthy lifestyle changes as well as improving performance in life, work and sport. For more information about Pete Kirchmer please visit his Mindfulness Based Health Coaching website.

Using our personal strengths can enhance our mindfulness but mindfulness logo-mpeakcan also help us better use our strengths in life, work or sport. In the mPEAK program, participants become aware of how and when they are using their strengths and the results that they’re getting so that they can understand how to use them to the best effect.

The informal practice the mPEAK participants use is called “Strengths Spotting”which is the practice of purposefully bringing mindful attention to what strengths are working well in either their own performance or in the performance of others around them. When directed towards others, Strengths Spotting is a powerful practice for counteracting our evolutionarily inherited negativity bias and cultivating the ability to look for the positive rather than for what is annoying or broken.

According to Strength Researcher Alex Lindley, when we are practicing strength spotting with our co-workers, teammates or family, we attempt to name or label what it is about a person that shines. This can be done in conversation with someone you know but it can also be done while observing the way people interact from a distance. It requires us to take a deep and non-judgmental look at the people around us and ask the question of ourselves, “what does that person do well?”. Test it out for yourself and see what happens when you hold people in what humanist psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard” and choose to see them for their strengths rather than judge them for their weakness. Participants regularly report a greater sense of connection, empathy, compassion and report.

Bringing mindful awareness to our own strengths means paying closer attention to what we refer to in mPEAK as “PEAK Performance Events” and flow experiences. By waking up to the experiences of being “on” and then curiously mining those experiences for strengths, participants start learning how to further develop and refine their strengths as well as create more opportunities to use them.

According to the Center for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP), Realize 2 Assessment, my own highest realized strengths are Mission, Growth, Self Awareness, Empathic Connection, Spotlight, Enabler and Listener. Each of these strengths has a direct positive impact on my commitment to mindfulness practice as well as how I show up in relationships, how I perform at the gym and in my work as a Life Coach. Again, strengths represent who we are when we’re at our best and there’s value in learning to leverage them to increase performance.

However for many who are already “high achievers”, the real growth opportunity lies not in continuing to embellish strengths but rather mindfully marshalling their use.

Strengths out of Balance

We’ve all heard the phrase, “your greatest strengths can be your greatest weaknesses.” Has that ever been true for you? Let’s take a look at how strengths can be both an asset and a liability to your performance, depending on how you use them. Here’s the description of someone, like me, who wields the CAPP strength of Spotlight. “You enjoy being the centre of attention. Whether in a meeting or in a social gathering, you naturally speak up and hold the floor. You like holding people’s interest and focus, and usually find this easy to do. You find that you can get people to listen to you and keep their attention – whatever else might be going on.”

With this strength I’ve been able to get up in front of teams and large organizations, facilitate workshops and give presentations to hundreds of skeptical strangers. Given that public speaking is generally a fear greater than death, I’d say this strength is generally serving me well. But it doesn’t always. There is a shadow side of being in the spotlight, as we know from the lives of movie stars and sports celebrities. Even at it’s worst, my Spotlight is hardly paparazzi worthy, but it has gotten me in enough trouble to warrant continual mindful management.

In my 20’s when my need for the spotlight was the strongest, I was attracted to dating girls whose strengths naturally included being a good audience to the “Pete Show”.  With all the charisma of a frat guy with a new philosophy fetish, I would dominate conversation on double dates and woo the crowds at dinner parties. While telling tales of wild adventure, sharing esoteric theories and violently flaunting my charm, my date and all other poor bystanders were inevitably left in the dust. When my strength of Spotlight was out of balance, there was no room for anyone else to show up and be heard. In the end, I learned the hard way that this is NOT the best strategy for making real connections.

Even a seemingly noble, ethically grounded strengths can be dangerous when out of balance. My strength of Mission has been a North Star guiding my personal practice and professional path as a coach over the years. A “man on a mission” is usually a desirable trait and exactly what’s needed to make real change in the world. But when the strength of Mission is overplayed in my life, everything else that doesn’t perfectly align or directly contribute to furthering my vision is neglected. This includes family, friends, significant others, finances, fun and upkeep of the home. I’ve found that a myopic pursuit of meaning and purpose can lead to isolation and frustration, not the higher performance we’re looking for.

In my many years as a coach I’ve worked with big hearted, compassionate animal lovers who’s strength out of balance lead her to adopt so many stray creatures she could no longer house them, afford to feed them or ever even consider leaving the house for a vacation. I’ve coached a fitness enthusiasts who’s self regulation out of balance constantly bordered on control freak, a single woman who’s fierce independence closed her down to receiving any kind of support from men and an interior decorator who’s attention to detail started showing up as OCD. With mindfulness, each of these people were able to become aware of what it felt like to use their strengths in and out of balance and gained the power to intentionally dial them up or dial them back to fit the circumstances…and this my friends is power.

Beginning to Work With Your Strengths

By now it’s pretty clear that mindfulness and strengths work together to enhance performance and create more opportunities for flow. If you’d like to explore how using strengths could support you along your path, follow these 4 steps:

1.     Discover Your Strengths. There are several strength assessments including the CAPP Realize 2, VIA Character, and the Clifton Strength Finder 2.0. You can also choose to do a self-evaluation by brainstorming what you see as your strengths or by doing a strengths interview and asking others who know you well.

2.     Practice Mindfulness of Strengths. Start intentionally becoming more aware of when and where you’re naturally using your strengths. Take note of the impact they have on your attitude and energy. You may also become aware of how they impact others around you.

3.     Apply Your Strengths. Start intentionally using your top strengths at work, in your relationships, and toward your personal goals.

4.     Manage Your Strengths. Mindfully monitor their use, making sure you don’t under or over play them.

logo-mpeak
3-Day Intensives mPEAK course Programs activities include: meditation; talks on the relationship between neuroscientific findings, peak performance and mindfulness; experiential exercises; group discussion; and home practices.
CE credits are available.

May 14-16, 2016 UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness, San Diego, CA

June 17-19, 2016 Brescia University College, London Ontario, Canada

 

 

 

June 26-28, 2015 The Catamaran Hotel, San Diego, CA

The Mindfulness Solution to Pain: Read The Story of Adam & MBCPM

 

Mindfulness-BJG_1-full-resolution-copy-150x150ased Chronic Pain Management (MBCPMTM) founder Jackie Gardner-Nix is a Physician and Chronic Pain Consultant, St Michael’s Hospital, Toronto and Associate Professor, University of Toronto. Join Jackie May 10-15, 2016 at EarthRise Retreat Center, Petaluma, CA, for a 5-Day Professional Training.

The Mindfulness-Based Chronic Pain Management (MBCPMTM) course is a modification of the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction courses established by Jon Kabat-Zinn which are now world-wide. There are cognitive aspects to the MBCPMTM course, as well as carefully crafted meditations to speak more to the chronic pain sufferer than the general participant who signs up for mindfulness training.

In most Mindfulness program there MBCPM-Bookis a curious ratio of 70 to 80% women to 20 to 30% men, yet men benefit very much from this work, and many of the leading teachers in Mindfulness are men. The following is a moving story emailed to me one year after taking our course by a young man, his site connecting with mine where I was co-facilitating the course via telemedicine in Ontario, Canada. At his site sat a young, softly spoken neurologist, doing her first co-facilitation via telemedicine with me after training in our curriculum, before launching her own courses. He repeated the course to gain more training in mindfulness, joining her for her first solo course.

Adam’s Story

by Adam Michael Segal

Pain overview:

My chronic pain odyssey began in early 2012. It was based in my bladder and was from an inflammatory condition called Interstitial Cystitis (IC). I also later developed chronic neuropathic pain. The pain was debilitating, relentless and as it persisted and intensified, it completely broke me down. It ruled my life. As a result, my marriage ended. I was unable to work. I fell into a major depression. I was 37 and doubted I would make it to 40.

MBCPMTM: After seeing nearly 20 specialists, I was referred to Dr. Jackie Gardner-Nix’s Mindfulness Based Chronic Pain Management (MBCPMTM) class in the summer of 2014. While initially shy and quiet, as I started to speak with classmates, I felt understood for the first time in years, even validated. Finally, there were people who could relate to me and my suffering. And a doctor who actually ‘got it!’ As I read sections of Dr. Jackie’s book, The Mindfulness Solution to Pain, it was like reading my biography. Some case studies in the book were people just like me – similar personality traits, pain triggers and emotional responses to pain.

Over time, the book, classes, activities, guided imagery and meditation collectively led to something transformative happening; my attitudes and views started to change. I began to realize that my emotions, especially bitterness and hopelessness, impacted my pain in a negative way. I began to gradually accept the pain and let it be. I started to focus my thoughts on the positive things in my life. For example, I had written a manuscript for a children’s book and I started to explore publishing it. And I went to my GP to get referred to a urologist in Kingston, Ont., who was Canada’s leading authority on IC.

Fall of 2014: I met with the urologist. I went into that consult with a positive, hopeful attitude. I can say emphatically that MBCPMTM contributed significantly to me being positive during the doctor visit. Everything I learned from MBCPMTM helped arm me with the courage to follow the urologist’s treatment regimen, which included invasive and painful bladder instillations – a treatment I had feared tremendously. Within a few months, my symptoms started to improve considerably.

Winter 2014/2015: I participated in a second round of MBCPMTM led by another doctor who was trained by Dr. Jackie. By March, I returned part-time to my job and dedicated the rest of my time and strength to the arduous process of self-publishing a book. In September, the book was printed and I started to do readings and author visits at schools. Children literally mob me like a rock star when I read. They laugh and learn and I glow in knowing my creation brings them such joy. In October, I hosted a book launch party with over 100 people. An article about the book and the pain I managed well enough to produce it, was published in a local paper.

Fall 2015: I continue to take most of the medications prescribed by the urologist, but I no longer require the invasive treatment. I still experience neuropathy, but it has no impact on my mood. My thoughts, views and attitudes are bursting with hope and optimism. MBCPMTM enabled me to really understand the mind-body connection. It helped me cultivate a frame of mind in which I control my life, not pain. I am mindful every day of how far along I have come and how happy I am to live in the here and now. And that gives me strength to live a fulfilling life.

About the Author

Adam Michael Segal is an expert in healthcare communications and author of the recently published children’s book, Fartzee Shmartzee’s Fabulous Food Fest, available on Amazon. Mr. Segal intends to develop the main character into a health & wellness super hero for children. Earlier in his career, Mr. Segal was a journalist and wrote articles for such media as The Toronto Star, National Post and CBC. Mr. Segal hopes his story inspires others with chronic pain to make mindfulness a central part of their healing solution. He holds degrees in Arts, Education and Journalism.

Mindfulness Training Leads to Important Changes in the Brains of World-Class BMX Cyclists

By Lori Haase, Ph.D.

mpeak-medals copyResearchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine who have been working with Olympic BMX cyclists to improve their athletic prowess have documented areas of the brain that appear to respond to mindfulness training. Specifically, recent results suggest that these peak performers were better able to appropriately anticipate challenges and found that they could remain focused and aware of their performance in the midst of the split-second stressors that arise in a BMX race that can be intense and often lasts for fewer than two minutes with multiple competitors vying for a place at the finish line. These results suggest that BMX performance may be enhanced through the regular practice of mindfulness meditation.

Reporting in a recent issue of Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience (abstact, full article) researchers show that a 8-week intensive mindfulness training course, known as mPEAK, altered the cyclists’ brain activity patterns in two performance-relevant ways:

As measured by fMRI activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and insula were enhanced during the anticipatory and recovery phases of a stress-provoking exercise. The ACC and insula are believed to play a strong role in interoception, the ability to sense bodily sensations such a heart rate and integrate them with external stimulation and emotional overlay.

“Prior to the test, their brains were ramping up for activity,” said first author Lori Haase, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UC San Diego School of Medicine. “We interpret this as meaning the athletes are anticipating the stress and getting ready for it.”

The second measurable change was an apparent reduction in the level of connectivity between posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and both the right medial frontal cortex and ACC, during the stress-evoking test, in which athletes were asked to breathe through a narrow straw that restricted air flow. The PCC is implicated in self-awareness and self-referential thoughts. A reduction in connectivity to this brain area is consistent with the idea that mindfulness training heightens a person’s awareness of bodily sensations, with less self-referential processing added to what is being experienced physically. “This can potentially help athlete stay present to their performance ,” Haase said.

Taken together, these results suggest that significant changes in the brain, directly related to performance in intense and physically demanding activities like BMX cycling or other athletic endeavors, can result from a relatively brief and focused program like the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness’ mPEAK course.

About The Author: Lori Haase is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and in addition to her clinical training, she is also a neuroscientist investigating the neural substrates of resilience and optimal performance and their modification through mindfulness training. Dr. Haase is Director, co-developer, and teacher of the Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness and Knowledge (mPEAK) program.​

Learn about the mPEAK 3-Day Intensive mPEAK program February 13-15, 2016  at the Catamaran Hotel in San Diego, CA. Activities include: meditation; talks on the relationship between neuroscientific findings, peak performance and mindfulness; experiential exercises; group discussion; and home practices. CE credits are available. Register here.

For our local San Diego residence you are also invited to register for the full 8-Week mPEAK program held at the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. The next course starts in January 2016.

 

What Time is It? Inspiring a shift from tic-toc to lub-dub.

by Royan Kamyar

royanRoyan Kamyar, M.D., MBA is Founder and CEO of Owaves, a lifestyle medicine technology company based in Encinitas, CA producing software tools for wearable devices that inspire and motivate the next generation to engage in healthy lifestyle activities.  Royan has presented at TEDxUCSD and been quoted by Forbes, Reuters, FOX News, Xconomy, U-T San Diego and the San Diego Business Journal.  Royan earned his M.D. at Baylor College of Medicine, MBA at the Rady School of Management, UC San Diego, and BA and BS in Biochemistry and Business Administration at UC Berkeley and the Haas School of Business.  He serves on the Formative Board of Directors for UC San Diego Center for MindfulnessMindfulness-Based Professional Training Institute and is an active member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.

Image Credit: Dadara

[Image Credit: Dadara]

Imagine a flowering plant. A baking cake. A rising stock price. A healing wound. Time passing can be a beautiful thing.

Why then does the cartoon above resonate so deeply with us? Is it our fear of mortality? Our never-ending list of to-do’s and things left undone that haunt us moment-to-moment? Are we as a culture, as a species, doomed to brood on the past, fear the future, and run away from the present?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies our sense of “time scarcity” as a leading source of stress in the United States — a primary cause of heart disease, our number one killer. Meanwhile, growing positive psychology research demonstrates the healing power of “being in the present.”

What if our relationship with time shifted? What if we began to view time as a source of inspiration instead of dread? What if each glance at the watch put us more “in the moment,” made us feel more focused, centered and alive? Few realize that our modern timekeeping system is fundamentally arbitrary. Hours, minutes and seconds have no home in cosmology, but rather the digits of our hands…

Technology is evolving as we speak to put smartphones on our wrists. The era of smartwatches with heart rate sensors and real-time monitoring systems is dawning upon us. With processing powers greater than the earliest mainframes and NASA spaceships embedded into our timepieces, we are no longer compelled to settle for a construct of time rooted in hand gestures, ropes and rocks. What if we, as a community of innovators and healers, took the first step in evolving our modern-day answer to the age-old question, “What time is it?”

Mindfulness & Innovations in Timekeeping

The mindfulness community actually has a long and storied track record of innovation in timekeeping, centered around spiritual observations, holidays, rites, rituals, meditation and prayer:

32,000 BCE – Cave art found in France and Germany depicts lunar and seasonal cycles of the “heavens”, representing the first known calendaring system. Its creators are believed to be astronomer-priests of the late Upper Paleolithic Cultures.

4,200 BCE — Ancient Egyptians calculate 365 days between alignments of the sun and Sopdet, goddess of Sirius the Dog Star, marking the Nile’s concurrent flooding and enrichment of the soil.

3,000 BCE — Stonehenge in modern-day England demarcates the annual winter and summer solstices, serving as burial grounds and a venue of ancestor worship and rituals.

2,400 BCE – The first known clocks are the shadow clocks or “obelisks” of ancient Egypt, erected by clerics in pairs at temple entrances for ritual observances.

2,100 BCE — Assyrians, Sumerians and Babylonians of the Middle East establish twelve phases of the moon, or “moonths”, per lunar calendar year. Holy days are declared on the first, seventh and fifteenth of each month.

1,000 BCE – Egyptian clerics develop water clocks or “clepsydras” to continue tracking proper timing of rituals throughout the night, i.e. in the absence of sun and shadows.

100 BCE – Chinese, Korean and Japanese Buddhist monks advance incense timers to replace the more flammable and inaccurate candle clocks of the day. Utilizing various scents, one smells the time change.

1200-1300 AD — Benedictine Monks of Western Europe become the first clockmakers of the region and create the mechanical clock. Adding weights and escapements to water clocks automates ringing of the communal prayer bell.

1582 AD — To more accurately celebrate Easter in its relation to the March equinox, Pope Gregory XIII spearheads the Gregorian Calendar widely used today. The Gregorian Calendar arrives closer to the tropical or “solar” year than the preceding Julian Calendar.

The Origins of Tic-Toc

The divisions of years, months and days are rooted in cosmological events and account for consistent measurements across disconnected cultures. Subdivisions of weeks, hours, minutes and seconds, however, are largely arbitrary and varied more greatly throughout history.

Weeks, for example have seen lengths of 3 to 13 days depending on prevailing leadership. Decisions usually hinged on what was deemed a reasonable workweek as per autocrat or religious text, i.e. “… on the seventh day he rested.” Papal States used six hour days as recently as the 1800’s with 6 o’clock pointing fixedly to sunset, and the Japanese had a twelve hour system with intervals that varied in length according to the season. Decimal time was used by China throughout most of its history dating back to 1000 BCE, was espoused by the French Revolutionary thinkers of the late 1700’s and resurfaced in 1998 when the Switzerland-based Swatch company proposed “Internet Time” of 1000 beats per day.

The sexagesimal system which lies at the heart of our modern-day “tic-toc” was similarly devised for convenience, not derived from scientific fact or basic principles. The ancient Sumerians and Babylonians used sixty as a mathematical base due to its ease of counting with two hands. Each finger segment on one hand represented a number one through twelve demarcated by the thumb, and each digit of the other hand represented a multiplier. Multiplying twelve finger segments by five digits provided a max count of sixty. The number sixty is also considered a “superior highly composite number” in mathematics, meaning it is easily divisible and lends itself well to fractions.

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[Image Credit: Ministry of Education, Brazil]

The Problems with Tic-Toc

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn presents a valuable anecdote from the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program he developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, in his manuscript Full Catastrophe Living:

Linda described feeling as if a large truck were always right on her heels, driving just faster than she can walk. It was an image people could relate to; the vividness of it sent a wave of acknowledging nods and smiles through the room…

Her mind was the truck. It was always right behind her, pushing her, driving her, allowing her no rest, no peace.

In the modern age, feeling overwhelmed and out-of-sync is an increasingly common experience. Heart disease is real, heart attacks are real, and the CDC sobers us with the knowledge that this “time scarcity” mentality is a chronic stressor.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that one of the central tenets of mindfulness-based stress reduction is to encourage patients to adopt the present moment. As Dr. Kabat-Zinn explains:

Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.

The ancient Greeks embraced two definitions of time to help carry this distinction. “Chronos” was used to discuss chronological or sequential concepts of time, with which we are most familiar and tic-toc describes quite well. “Kairos”, on the other hand, translates to the “eternal moment” in which everything actually happens. This latter concept is missing from our current communication of time and resonates with Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s teaching.

Among pools of evidence collecting around the importance of present moment awareness, Science published a Harvard study in 2010 demonstrating a link between “mind-wandering” and mental health. Over 250,000 data points from 2,250 subjects between the ages of 18 and 88 shows our minds are focused on the past or future 46.9% of the day, leading directly to poor mood. As summarized by study co-author psychologist Matthew A. Killingsworth:

Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.

The tic-toc almost by definition puts us in a sequential frame of mind rather than in the moment. This shift first took hold in the Western world during the Middle Ages with the spread of the mechanical clock. Benedictine Monks lived ascetic lives centered on punctual communal prayer six to seven times per day. Bells (Celtic = clocca or “clock”) were rung manually to inform the community of established timetables. By adding weights and escapements to water clocks, a bell could be rung automatically without requiring a brother present, and more dependably as well.

As the National Watch and Clock Collectors Association notes:

Time no longer flowed like water through a clepsydra — it ticked. It was no longer a seamless continuum, but a succession of short periods.

The streaming of water, passing of a shadow or burning of a flame became replaced by the now familiar “tic-toc”. With the dawning of the Industrial Revolution and mass scaling of clock and watch production, “dollar watches” put everyone in a mechanical state-of-mind and helped synchronize the workforce. Time became money as factories calculated hours worked as key labor costs and employees as wages. As per American historian Lewis Mumford, “… the archetypal model for the industrial era was the clock.”

The tic-toc represented a major departure from cosmological cues for the average person organizing her or his day, as the sundial became officially obsolete in the 1800’s. Perhaps the greatest divorce came more recently with the International Committee for Weights and Measures decision to re-define the second in 1967. A “second” no longer represents an arbitrary fraction of Earth’s rotation around the Sun, but rather:

9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133-atom.

While this advances our computer networking capabilities and satellite communications, the tightening of our “tic-toc” does not necessarily serve to heal our emotional relationship with time. In fact, the focus by such governing bodies on the physics and engineering components of time misses the human implications that actually define it.

Within some of our lifetimes, Albert Einstein brought forward the general theory of relativity, which proved without a doubt that a second for you is not the same as a second for me:

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.

Our speed, our culture, our circumstances, our environment, our climate, our neighbor, our mindspace all dramatically impact our individual perceptions of time. Further, Einstein’s contributions to quantum mechanics helped show the existence of time actually depends on our perceptions of it. No consciousness, no time. So these changes in perception that we feel and experience on a regular basis are not simply novelties or asides in the calculations of time, but real occurrences that get neglected in our current approach.

In the 1950’s, University of Minnesota biologist Franz Halberg coined the term “circadian” (Latin = around a day). Known as the “godfather of chronobiology,” he helped establish a fundamental, evolutionary relationship between our biology and time. We now know that every cell in our body, down to the DNA level, has some “awareness” of (or dependency on) the time of day. This is true for virtually every known organism, even those that are single-celled.

The implications of these “circadian rhythms”, or physiological patterns dictated by the rise and fall of the sun, are both broad and deep. Recent research encouraged the World Health Organization to label night-shift work as a “probable carcinogen”, in the same class as UV radiation, due to its devastating impact on circadian rhythms. Poor circadian rhythms are also linked to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and mental health disorders. Our 24/7, hyper-connected, always-on smartphone culture makes the bulk of us “social-shift workers,” exposed to blue light late into the night… and shifting our hormones into dangerous patterns.

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Why then has nothing changed? Does our new subjective, dynamic definition of time, no longer static and mechanical, not change the underlying formula? Does the realization that our biology has a fundamental, natural and overarching relationship with time not beg us to re-evaluate why this is not factored into the perennial question, “What time is it?”

Introducing Lub-Dub

The arbitrariness of our current timekeeping method, combined with the facts that it is out-of-date and fosters a stressful mindset, presents us with a wide-open opportunity to improve. Coupling our evolved understanding of time with modern needs and the latest technologies, perhaps we can imagine a way to re-define the concept so that it better serves our bodies, hearts and minds.

Consider your daily routine. It might look a lot like this: wake up, meditate, eat breakfast, drive to work, work, eat lunch, go for a walk, work some more, drive home, cook dinner, spend time with family, relax and read a book, go to sleep. What is the optimal way to get you from one “daily milestone” to the next? When you realize the bulk of these milestones don’t generally change from one 24-hour block to the next, you begin to sense there might be a better way to organize and track your day.

Peter Galison, physics professor, historian and philosopher at Harvard University defines clocks accordingly:

We’re always looking for things that repeat, over and over again… and that repetition, that cycle of things, forms a clock. That’s all time becomes, is some repetitive process.

So since my daily activity patterns generally repeat from one day to the next, what if they became my “tic” and my “toc”? So my cadence became linked to “breakfast time” and “exercise time” rather than some mechanical, arbitrary construct that lies beneath it? In essence, I become my clock. Lub-dub.

What we can imagine is a shift from a quantitative, mathematical and mechanical view of time towards a more heartful, experiential and soulful view of time — one that makes sense on an emotional and psychological level.

Amazingly, this approach has a biological basis as well. In his study of circadian rhythms, Dr. Aschoff also coined the term “zeitgeber”, German for “time giver” or “synchronizer. ” The zeitgeber is any external or environmental cue that “entrains” or synchronizes an organism’s biological rhythms to Earth’s 24 hour light/dark cycle and twelve month orbit.

Decades of chronobiology research tells us that these same types of intuitive markers for progression of the day, or daily milestones outlined above, are in fact biological zeitgebers. Meals, exercise, and socializing each play a role in establishing our cyclical physiological relationship with the solar environment. This has implications for: our sleep/wake cycle, body temperature, patterns of hormone secretion, blood pressure, digestive secretions, levels of alertness, mood and reaction times just to name a few.

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[Image Credit: Nature Reviews Neurology]

Timothy Monk, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Sleep Medicine Institute summarizes the value of this framework well:

Circadian rhythms are driven by endogenous processes, are self-sustaining, and rely upon circadian time cues (zeitgebers) to remain appropriately oriented to the individual’s environment and desired routine. The gold-standard measures of human circadian rhythms have been core body temperature and salivary or plasma melatonin levels. However, one can also make the case that the behavioral circadian rhythms related to the timing of sleep, meals, work and social interactions are just as valid circadian rhythms as the physiological ones. Moreover, these are the rhythms most salient to the individual himself or herself.

An additional “bonus” of shifting to this type of intuitive, biologically-based system is that these same behaviors — nutrition, sleep, exercise and socializing — are deemed by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine to be the fundamental building blocks of a long, healthy life. Also called “lifestyle vital signs,” measuring and monitoring these parameters might be more meaningful in predicting long-term morbidity and mortality than the traditional set of vital signs for current and future generations (due to an overall shift from acute to chronic and preventable disease). Following the age-old adage that you cannot manage what you do not measure, taking these health fundamentals into account would help prevent and treat diabetes, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety and more.

For example, we know that heart attacks are most likely to occur shortly after dawn due to concurrent rises in blood pressure and cortisol levels. We also know they are more likely to occur at the beginning of the workweek, when stress from anticipating future events reaches its peak. What if your timekeeping tools took this knowledge into account, and helped you time activities accordingly? Perhaps optimizing algorithms to discourage Monday AM work meetings when possible? Or suggesting stress-reducing sounds or images during these times? Something as simple as a picture of a loved one, left in ambient view on your wristwatch at the right time, might go a long way in dipping your odds for a cardiac event.

CFM OWAVES

[Image Credit: Owaves]

Now time becomes something we can control, name, juggle, design, manipulate and relate to according to our personal biology, desires and needs. Granted, a universal timekeeping system would always need to lie at its base. Meeting times must be coordinated and train crashes prevented. And yet, analogous to “personalized medicine”, we can evolve or grow from this generalized base to create a truly individualized and relevant concept of time that inspires and heals rather than stresses and reduces.

Commonly in mindfulness courses today, we are taught that certain external stressors cannot be changed, and are best addressed by mobilizing our internal resources to better respond and adapt to our environment. Yet our maligned relationship with time seems to be universal and we know now, increasingly, that our historical perspective of time is incomplete, arbitrary and malleable. Perhaps we should learn from the mindfulness leaders of millennia ago, and play an active, creative role with regard to understanding, communicating and measuring time.

As we speak, physicists and engineers continue to develop incredible methods for fine-tuning existing calculations of timekeeping tools to better run the machines of the world. I propose it is our duty, as a community of healers and innovators, to ensure that human health and well-being is plugged more squarely into the equation.

Continue to explore the Mindfulness courses presented at the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. Registration is open for our local 8-Week Mindfulness programs along with our Mindfulness-Based Professional Training Programs that are held in various locations in North America.

 

Answering the Fundamental Question of Mindful Self-Compassion

by By Steven Hickman, Psy.D.
Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher and Teacher Trainer
Executive Director, UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness

steve-hickmanTo locate an 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion course near you, or to locate a 5-day intensive MSC program, see the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion website. Dr. Hickman will be co-leading upcoming MSC intensives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in late August and near Rome, Italy in early October. For mindfulness and self-compassion courses in San Diego, see the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness website.

It’s a simple question, really. But one that often brings on a state of perplexed astonishment when someone asks us.

“What do you need?”

Unless we are a sobbing child who has come rushing to his mother after some sort of sibling transgression, or we are urgently and frantically searching for the restroom in an unfamiliar restaurant, we have an unusually hard time answering that question.

In a moment of suffering, sorrow, despair or betrayal, can we actually answer the very deep and important question of “What do I need? Right now, in this moment.”

What we often needed as children when we were distressed, was to be comforted, reassured that we are still loved and cared for, and soothed by the gentle unconditional touch of a loving parent. We needed someone to kiss our “booboo” when we stumbled and fell. Or to be consoled by a loving embrace when we were excluded from a game of hide-and-seek.

But for many of us, our distress was met by something else, or as we grew older we had difficult or traumatic experiences that disconnected us from our deep need to be loved, accepted and appreciated. For whatever the reason, we have found ourselves removed from a sense of what we really need when we suffer, and often are not even aware much of the time when we DO suffer. We overlook our fears of being disconnected, unloved or, ironically, overlooked, often by tending to the needs of others instead.

We throw ourselves into caring for the needs of those around us and many of us are quite adept at such acts of service. We channel our inner desires to be cared for by caring for others, and when done with a true connection to one’s own heart, this can be a beautiful thing. And we often instinctively know just exactly what others need. Our mirror neurons fire wildly when we contact another person’s pain and difficulty and through that resonance with another, we are miraculously able to muster up just the right expression of comfort, the perfect words and the much-appreciated offer of kindness or consolation.

But what of the darker moments of our own despair, fear or desperation? What do we need in those moments for ourselves, because this one matters too? We often struggle to answer that question and as a result, further suffering arises as we resort to other less helpful and more destructive ways of meeting that deep inner need to be loved and connected. We criticize ourselves for having this need, we tell ourselves that if we just tried harder, got things right more often (or better yet, if we were perfect), or removed ourselves from contact with others, THEN we would feel OK.

And so it is that a growing number of people find themselves in the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course developed by leading self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D. and noted author and expert on compassion and mindfulness in psychotherapy Christopher Germer, Ph.D.

MSC could be considered an “antidote” to the shame and self-criticism that many of us bear, and which cripples many of us with self-doubt, fear and self-loathing. By systematically cultivating the ability to be kind and loving to ourselves, especially in those moments of suffering that arise when we feel disconnected, lost, alienated or dismissed, MSC slowly helps restore in each of us our natural capacity to be kind, loving and compassionate to ourselves in the way that we do so effortlessly for others.

One of the first questions that MSC participants ponder in the course is the curious one of “How would you treat a friend when they are struggling, when they fail or feel inadequate?” Typically, the responses flow quickly and fluidly when we contemplate that question. And then, when the question turns to how we typically treat ourselves in those very same situations, the responses are often starkly in contrast. Especially when considering something as seemingly innocuous as the tone of voice of our inner dialogue. Many find that their inner critic is harsh, demanding, dismissive and belittling (and often echoes with the pain of the voice of people from the past who have treated them in this way). They notice how it feels to be spoken to in this way and it can often be a revelation for people who have never actually considered how it feels to be talked to in this way.

This revelation is often reflected in comments by participants like “I would NEVER talk to someone else like this!” In fact, this phenomenon is more widespread than one might think. In fact, Dove recently dramatized this fact in a YouTube video where they asked women to write down the things they say to themselves about their appearance. They then set up public conversations between two women in cafes and restaurants where one woman said those same things out loud to her companion. Strangers nearby were horrified and, in some cases, actually interrupted the two actors to comment on how terrible it was that one person would speak to another in such a way!

The MSC program sets about to help participants begin to “warm up the inner conversation” and begin to cultivate a loving, tender, accepting attitude toward oneself, that motivates us out of a desire to be happy and free from suffering, rather than one of perfectionism, fruitless striving, fear and shame. Early research on the program is promising and the huge existing body of research done by Kristin Neff and others already demonstrates a strong association between self-compassion and a huge variety of measures of well-being and good mental health, as well as the ability to make changes in unhealthy behavior, persist in the face of adversity, and to be perceived more positively in intimate relationships, just to name a few.

If you find it difficult to answer the fundamental question of Mindful Self-Compassion of “What do you need?” when you are feeling overwhelmed, afraid, sad or fearful, you might benefit from a greater ability to bring kindness to yourself and soothe yourself in these moments, as well as in your daily stressful life. Consider taking the Mindful Self-Compassion course to discover your compassionate inner voice and to find a way to meet yourself in the way in which you tend to meet others, reversing the Golden Rule and doing unto yourself what you would do (and say) to others!

Register for Mindful Self-Compassion locally in San Diego! Registration is now open to attend the next Mindful Self-Compassion program at the UCSD CFM beginning Thursday Afternoon, September 24th, 2015, 1:00pm-3:45pm.

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Summertime Musings on Koru Mindfulness

It’s summer time. A time for those of us who work on college campuses to take a deep breath and reflect for a moment on the school year just past, and make plans for the year a head.For me, this means thinking about our Koru Mindfulness program, looking at the number of students we served last year at Duke and contemplating how we can continue to expand our programming to meet the growing needs of students. Not surprisingly, this activity produces a surge of gratitude in me. Gratitude for the amazing students I’ve gotten to know through our mindfulness classes and gratitude for their willingness to commit to our short course on mindfulness. Koru classes are only four weeks long and we require students to meditate for only 10 minutes a day while they are participating in the course. But even this relatively short intensive in mindfulness requires them to set aside any skepticism they might have, make time in their already too-busy schedules, and do something entirely unfamiliar to them.

“Twenty-somethings are in the best possible life stage for learning mindfulness.”

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To my delight and relief, most of them do it with great good humor and almost all of them end up teaching me something along the way. For example, this year one student taught me that dynamic breathing (or chicken breath as our students usually call it) can be done to good effect while waiting in the wings to go on stage, so long as you remember to turn off your microphone. OMG, that story had us all laughing until we cried.

Most of the students we teach report some significant personal transformation as they grapple with the challenge of developing a first time mindfulness practice. It continues to amaze me how flexible their young minds are and how capable of change.

It also continues to reinforce my belief that twenty-somethings are in the best possible life stage for learning mindfulness. They are old enough to take the practice seriously, but young enough for the practice to impact some of their most significant life choices.

It was heartening this year to hear one of our Koru students talk about the way she had begun to reevaluate some of her relationships since she’d started her mindfulness practice. She was noticing that when she was with her friends, they seemed to only complain and criticize. She hadn’t really tuned in to this before she began practicing mindfulness, but she was quickly seeing the negative consequences of this in her own life.

She was beginning to think about what it would mean to create different kinds of connections, connections that mirrored her more natural optimism and generosity. You could hear her finding her way into a different way of relating, all because she was learning to pay attention to causes and consequences as her life unfolded.

And it is not just the Koru students, but also the Koru teachers I am grateful for this summer. I am just home from Cambridge, where the Center for Wellness at Harvard University Health Services hosted us as we trained 35 men and women from around the country and the world to teach Koru Mindfulness at their agencies and organizations. I feel tremendous hope for the future as I see this small army of committed individuals preparing to introduce mindfulness to the young adults they serve.

The wisdom and compassion they carry with them to their work with young adults in all walks of life, truly feels like it will change the world. The seeds of mindfulness they sow will influence the lives of our next generation of scientists, artists, healers and leaders. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Koru-Logo1-300x182Register for the upcoming Koru Mindfulness Teacher Certification Training presented through the UCSD Center for Mindfulness (UCSD CFM) Professional Training Institute, August 2-6, 2015, held at EarthRise Retreat Center, Petaluma, CA.

This workshop/retreat is the first phase of the Koru Mindfulness three-phase teacher certification program. Participants in the workshop must be accepted into the Koru Mindfulness teacher certification program. A complete description of the Koru Mindfulness certification program and an application can be found here.

Meet Your Inner Critical Coach

By Pete Kirchmer

About The Author

ccf9e-headshot2Pete Kirchmer is  the Assistant Director for the UCSD Center For Mindfulness mPEAK (Mindful, Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge) Program. Pete specializes in coaching his clients in applying the practice of mindfulness to making healthy lifestyle changes as well as improving performance in life, work and sport. For more information about Pete Kirchmer please visit his Mindfulness Based Health Coaching website.

When asked what gets in the way of consistently performing at their best, most people can easily identify obstacles such as time, energy, scheduling conflicts, and distractions. These can indeed be areas that need focus but what I’ve found in my coaching practice is that most of our real obstacles are internal. Another way to say this is, our greatest obstacle to peak performance is often ourselves.

Inner CriticThese internal obstacles are experienced as negative thoughts and stories in our mind accompanied by tension in our body. These thoughts can take on a personality and an inner voice that seems to have but one job, to sabotage you from doing whatever you set out to do. This inner voice would like to talk you out of your big vision by convincing you that your plans are unworkable and your aspirations are unattainable. Listening to and believing this voice leads to ambivalence, low self-esteem, catastrophizing, shame, anxiety, worry, exhaustion and ultimately failure. Often they are the internalized voices of influential people and caregivers from our past, and when they treat us badly there may be good reason to consider finding ways of letting them go.

In the mPEAK program we refer to these thought patterns as the “Inner Critical Coach”.

The Inner Critical Coach looks for perfection everywhere. It loves to compare and hold unachievable high standards. It strives to attain, and will drive you to success at all cost-including health, happiness and sanity. You know you’re listening to the voice of the Inner Critical Coach when you start feeling like you SHOULD be better than you are. You SHOULD be “there” by now. And SHOULD be like someone else who clearly has it more together than you. There is an overall sense of not measuring up and just not being good enough. When the Inner Critical Coach is in charge, you may end up making long lists of things to do and staying up late, feeling pushed to do more and more but never feeling quite satisfied.

Everyone has these voices to varying degrees. For some, it only comes out when under the extreme pressures of deadlines or competition and for others; it’s a pattern that regularly dominates their thinking. Perhaps you already know a little bit about your own Inner Critical Coach? Just think of an area of your performance that you feel like needs to be changed. Then imagine how you talk to yourself when you don’t perform the way you’d expected in that area. Chances are, the things your Inner Critic says would be grounds for a breakup or a fistfight if someone else said them to you! “Yep, you blew it again. That was bound to happen.” “Its your fault, if you would have worked harder you wouldn’t have let the team down.” “You’re never going to get it right”.

“Your Inner Critic is actually trying to protect you from others’ disapproval, hurt or abandonment.”

It’s easy to start thinking of your Inner Critical Coach as the enemy but let’s explore it a bit more before making that judgment. According to The Founders of Voice Dialoguing Therapy, Hal & Sidra Stone, its intentions aren’t all bad. Your Inner Critic is actually trying to protect you from others’ disapproval, hurt or abandonment. The philosophy of the Inner Critic is “better me than them”—in other words, it is better for your own inner critic to whip you into conformity before you have to experience the hurt of someone else criticizing you. It has a remarkable underlying anxiety about life and what other people think, because again, its job is to protect you from others’ judgments. Can you see how this might be true for your Inner Critical Coach?

Mindfulness of the Inner Critical Coach

mPEAKThe first step to managing your Inner Critical Coach is to start consciously noticing and identifying it from the other thoughts you have. Once identified as “not you” it helps to slap a label on it. Some participants of the mPEAK course stick with the standard title, “Inner Critical Coach” and others give it a more personalized title- maybe even named after a pushy past boss or grouchy childhood soccer coach! The act of noticing and labeling brings the thought from unconscious to conscious or from subjective experience to something that’s now objective and manageable. The clearer we can be in observing these thoughts, the easier it becomes to manage them.

“The clearer we can be in observing these thoughts, the easier it becomes to manage them.”

After labeling, it’s important to realize that your thoughts don’t have to control you and that you have a choice about how to work with these critical thoughts. Perhaps you dispute the thought by finding evidence against it- a time where you did succeed and you were indeed good enough. Or maybe you get curious, “what am I protecting myself from?” Or, “What’s the silver lining in this?” Sometimes just by seeing The Inner Critical Coach for what it is allows us to simply let the whole thing go and move on. We can even potentially thank the Inner Critical Coach for how hard it has worked up until now to try and keep us safe or protect us from harm in some way.

Meet Your Compassionate Inner Coach

But even as resilient as you may be, we’ve all had occasions where the challenges we’re up against just don’t seem to respond to our usual strategies for moving forward. Maybe you dropped the game-winning pass, lost a key client, sustained an injury, got fired or gained twenty pounds. Try as you might, the emotions that come with failure such as inadequacy and unworthiness can seem to stick like pine tar. Even though you’re aware that your Inner Critical Coach has taken over the ship, you may still feel helpless to turn things around.

SparklerDuring these inevitable difficulties we have participants in the mPEAK course experiment with turning towards another aspect of themselves, their Compassionate Inner Coach. This is the inner voice that is kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain and failure. Your Compassionate Inner Coach has your back and wants whatever is best for you. It wants nothing more than for you to be happy, perform at your best and be free from stress.

“How would you feel if you lost a competition and your coach said to you: “What a looser. You’ll never amount to anything. I’m ashamed of you!” Inspired, confident, ready to take on the next challenge? Of course not – and yet isn’t that exactly the type of language we use with ourselves when we fail? What could your coach say that was more productive? “Hey, it’s okay. Everyone fails sometime and it’s an important part of the learning curve. But I’m here for you. I believe in you. What can I do to help?” This type of kind, supportive talk is going to be a much more effective motivator. Luckily we can start to use this approach with ourselves by learning the skill of self-compassion.”

–Kristin Neff

Compassion is not a term typically spoken in boardrooms or locker rooms and it’s relevance to performance enhancement may not be immediately obvious. Sure we all agree it’s valuable for caregivers like nurses, mothers, aide workers and those religiously inclined to service but how might compassion help an athlete or an executive?

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Dr. Kristin Neff

Though research into the physiology of self-compassion versus self-criticism is still in its early stages, Kristin Neff, the lead researcher in self-compassion hypothesizes a simple model. Harsh self-criticism activates the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and elevates stress hormones such as cortisol in our bloodstream. When our Inner Critical Coach has a hold on us, we cannot learn from or engage with the deeper lesson or truth that may be there to serve us. Connecting with your own Self-Compassionate Inner Coach on the other hand may trigger the mammalian care-giving system, releasing hormones of affiliation and love, such as oxytocin, which is associated with feelings of connection and well-being.

Offering self-compassion by treating yourself the way a good friend would, presents a healthy way of relating to the self that is not dependent upon performance, success or positive self-evaluations. Treating oneself with compassion involves accepting all aspects of one’s experiences, regardless of how painful or difficult they may be.

“Treating oneself with compassion involves accepting all aspects of one’s experiences…”

Research by Mosewich et al. found that self-compassion was linked with lower body shame, body surveillance, fear of failure, fear of negative evaluation, objectified body self-consciousness, and social physique anxiety. Treating oneself with compassion allows for clarity of one’s limitations and recognition of unhealthy behaviors, which enables action for growth and encourages change to improve well-being (Berry, Kowalski, Ferguson, & McHugh); hence, self-compassion may be a viable resource for achieving human potential. In other studies done by Ferguson and Kowalski et al., Self-compassion was described as advantageous in difficult sport specific situations by increasing positivity, perseverance, and responsibility, as well as decreasing rumination.

Self-Compassion Skepticism

Despite the promising research, some of the participants in mPEAK meet this particular practice with resistance and a healthy skepticism. It’s a commonly held belief in high achievers that “if I didn’t beat myself up, I’d never get anywhere. My Inner Critical Coach is who motivates me to win!” Self-compassion can be perceived as too gentle for corporate culture or too passive for the grittiness of competitive sports. There is a fear that listening to the voice of the Inner Compassionate Coach will make them complacent, or overly tolerant of low standards. “If I’m too kind to myself, I’ll loose my edge.” “If I believe I’m good enough, I’ll never get better.”

But The Self-Compassionate Coach is hardly one to let you off the hook. Neff explains that self-compassion is not a way of avoiding goals or becoming self-indulgent. Instead, self- compassion is a great motivator because it involves the desire to alleviate suffering, to heal, to thrive, and to be happy. A parent who cares about her child will insist on the child’s eating vegetables and doing her homework, no matter how unpleasant these experiences are for the child. Similarly, taking it easy on yourself may be appropriate in some situations, “but in times of over-indulgence and laziness, self-compassion involves toughening up and taking responsibility.”

In experiments by Juliana G. Breines and Serena Chen, it was found that self-compassion actually motivated people to improve personal weaknesses, moral transgressions, and test performance. So rather than giving up, those who are self-compassionate actually try as hard to succeed as those who are less self-compassionate, but are more likely to persist after failing or falling or losing.

Loss, failure and injury are painful enough on their own without us adding an extra layer of self-judgment and insult. If your Inner Critical Coach is holding you back from peak performance and you’re ready to make a shift toward greater Self Compassion, you may consider signing up for our upcoming mPEAK 3-Day Intensive.

logo-mpeakMindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge
3-Day Intensive mPEAK course Program activities include: meditation; talks on the relationship between neuroscientific findings, peak performance and mindfulness; experiential exercises; group discussion; and home practices.
CE credits are available. June 26-28, 2015 The Catamaran Hotel, San Diego, CA

For our local San Diego residence you are also invited to register for the full 8-Week mPEAK program held at the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness.

 

A Mindful Approach to Procrastination

Written December 10, 2014 by Holly Rogers

About the Author

Holly-RogersHolly has been a staff psychiatrist at Duke University’s student counseling center since 1996, and she is a Clinical Associate in the Department of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. Her professional interests include the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders in the context of young adult development. She has a special interest in using mindfulness and meditation to facilitate health and personal growth in young adults. She is the co-developer of Koru Mindfulness and a co-founder of the Center for Koru Mindfulness.

Image by Lynn Friedman from Flickr. Creative Commons Copyrigh

On college campuses across the country, ‘tis theseason…to procrastinate. Mindfulness offers a strategy to get moving.

It’s that time of year again, final’s week at many of the colleges around the country; the time when a semester’s worth of procrastination finally kicks you in the butt. For the lucky student, awareness that she has reached the bitter end will catapult her into efficient activity that allows her to complete all the necessary tasks on time. The less lucky student may find himself trapped in a paralysis of panic, weighed down by anxious dread as he sees clearly the train coming down the tracks towards him.

Of course, not everyone procrastinates, but in my experience it is pretty common. Procrastination is just one of the many ways we learn to avoid discomfort.

We get very practiced at avoiding discomfort. Our smart phones are an ever-present distraction, saving us from even a minute of boredom or restlessness. It seems practical, avoiding discomfort; what could possibly be the problem with avoiding discomfort? The savvy reader already knows the answer: not all discomfort can be avoided. Life, in case you hadn’t noticed, is not just a non-stop series of delightful events.

Somewhere along the way, we humans got the idea that if we got everything organized just right we would be able to avoid all discomfort. If we can make the work easier, the homes more comfortable, the food more tasty, the sex more available, the internet even faster, then we won’t ever have to experience unpleasantness.

Most of us have gotten pretty good at constructing a life that minimizes our contact with things we don’t like. Unfortunately, that leaves us unpracticed at managing the disappointments and losses that life will inevitably serve up. If we aren’t practiced at managing disappointments, then we easily get overwhelmed when troubles arise. We don’t have a strategy for dealing with the discomfort; even more problematic, we don’t trust that we can cope with whatever challenge comes our way.

One advantage of learning mindfulness meditation is that it helps build your capacity for tolerating unpleasantness without getting overwhelmed. If you are always avoiding discomfort, your capacity for holding difficult feelings shrinks very small, down to the size of an espresso cup, or a shot glass. When you have only a very small cup to hold tough feelings, your cup is easily flooded, and you quickly become overwhelmed. If you can increase the capacity of your cup to hold difficult feelings, say up to the size of a Starbucks’ Trenta, then you can handle a greater degree of discomfort without your cup flooding over. It stays more manageable. Meditation helps you increase the size of your cup.

For me personally, this has been one of the most tangible benefits of my meditation practice. Over time I have developed the ability to sit quietly, still-ly, and watch the way difficult feelings come and then go again. I’ve learned that if I just breathe and watch, everything moves on. I’ve seen over and over and over again that my thoughts can grab onto a situation that has produced an unpleasant feeling, and review it endlessly, forcing the unpleasant feeling to last indefinitely. Or, I can just let it go. Watch my breath. See what’s next. Maybe the feeling comes back. Or not.

I’ve been meditating long enough that I’ve developed a small amount of skill at doing this. I can do it now even when I’m not meditating, like when I’m in a rush and the light turns red. Or when I’m just about finished writing an article, and the computer crashes. I’m not even close to perfect at this trick of course, but it comes easier these days. Perfection was never the goal, anyway.

What does all this have to do with procrastination? Typically, underlying procrastination are some negative thoughts. I don’t want to do this stupid paper. I’ll never get it done. I don’t know where to start. I’m a horrible writer. This is a waste of time. What if I fail? These thoughts breed anxious dread and are of no practical use when completing a task. Rather than just tolerating these unpleasant feelings and carrying on, we try to avoid them by avoiding our work.

So how might mindfulness help with this? If you can bring some mindfulness to these moments, you might become aware of the thoughts coming up, notice the accompanying anxious dread and also notice the feeling of your feet on the floor, your fingers on your computer, your breath going in and out. The thoughts about your potential failure and your feeling of dread need have no more significance than the feel of your body in the chair. They are just thoughts passing through. You don’t have to make the negative thoughts and doubts go away, just leave them alone. Tolerate the discomfort without fretting about it. It’s OK to have those thoughts. And you also don’t need to be controlled by them or wait until your mood changes to get started. Just turn your attention to the work at hand and begin.

With practice, you can learn to notice your distracting doubts without getting caught in them or taking them too seriously. You can feel the discomfort they cause without having to react to them. You move on. The work gets done. It’s no big deal.

Koru-Logo1-300x182Register for the upcoming Koru Mindfulness Teacher Certification Training presented through the UCSD Center for Mindfulness (UCSD CFM) Professional Training Institute, August 2-6, 2015, held at EarthRise Retreat Center, Petaluma, CA.

This workshop/retreat is the first phase of the Koru Mindfulness three-phase teacher certification program. Participants in the workshop must be accepted into the Koru Mindfulness teacher certification program. A complete description of the Koru Mindfulness certification program and an application can be found here.