A Letter to my Future Self
Firstly, congratulations on participating in the 2020 Mindful in May challenge. You managed to meditate every day and listen to all 18 interviews! I know you really enjoy meditating and learning from scientists & experts about the many applications of mindfulness, however keeping up a daily practice amidst your work and family responsibilities is something worth celebrating.
This month of meditation has allowed you to experience frequent joy and gratitude. The variety of teachers that have offered their guided meditations has provided you with a number of different perspectives and insights, especially during this time of COVID19. The meditations have prompted you to set your intention to be kind, patient and persistent each day, remembering that no matter what happens, you can always begin again. Taking the lessons from your meditation practice into your daily life, remembering to pause and take a breath before reacting (or after reacting on the odd occasion!) has been such a valuable tool for regulating your emotions and behaviour. The practices of loving-kindness and self-compassion have been particularly helpful for dealing with challenging interactions with family members, colleagues and patients, and I hope that these meditations continue to feature regularly in your meditation schedule.
The interviews have really deepened your understanding of how a regular meditation practice can lead to physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual change that enhances your experience and interaction with the world. Remember the very first interview with Dr Amy Saltzman? Her advice about how to respond when you make a mistake was so simple and powerful: dust yourself off and pay attention to what’s coming next. Have you read her book “A Still Quiet Place” yet? If not, why don’t you schedule some time to read it – your children are sure to benefit from this.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s advice to “roll out your welcome mat” really resonated with you. It reminded you of Frank Ostaseski’s book “The Five Invitations” and in particular, the second invitation: welcome everything, push away nothing. You really enjoyed listening to Shannon Harvey reflect on her new documentary, My Year of Living Mindfully, and you were so excited when she released the documentary online for free at the end of May. Of course, you couldn’t wait to watch it and when you did, you were not disappointed. Shannon did such a fantastic job of sharing her own story and the stories of others who have implemented mindfulness meditation into their lives in order to heal from anxiety, chronic pain and trauma. I hope you have been able to share the film with many of your patients so that they may be inspired to try the same.
Kelly McGonigal provided some fascinating insights into the power of exercising while in nature, which stimulates the release of endocannabinoids into our circulation. The areas of the brain that are involved in regulating the way we respond to stress have endocannabinoid receptors. When the endocannabinoids bind to these receptors in the brain, they decrease anxiety symptoms and made us feel more content. Further to this, endocannabinoids stimulate dopamine release, in turn fuelling our feelings of optimism. Of course, you know for yourself how good you feel when you go for a long walk on the Cape to Cape track, so hopefully you’ve managed to commit to regular hikes with your friends and you’re experiencing the benefits!
Tara Brach shared her beautiful RAIN meditation – Recognise, Allow, Investigate and Nurture. What a gift of self-compassion. I know this is a practice you will have used many times over the past months.
Jeremy Hunter reminded you that meditation is an opportunity to reflect on the question “what do I want?” and “why am I doing this?” His recognition of the fact that at school, we are taught to think but not how to see and perceive the world with curiosity, kindness and non-judgement, was a powerful insight for you. He also proposed a question that you can ask yourself when you’re feeling challenged in your relationships: “how can I be more generous in this relationship?”.
Elizabeth Lesser’s interview was such a pleasure to listen to. Her honesty and humility were so engaging. You loved her simple words of advice, including “Strong back, soft front” and “be your authentic self, don’t try and be anyone else, it’s not a competition.”
Cortland Dahl told a beautiful story that I know you will have shared many times already. Here it is again just in case you’ve forgotten it:
A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side. The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman. Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his journey. The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After re-joining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them. Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?” The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”
Daniel Goleman shared scientific research from his latest book “Altered Traits”, including evidence that suggests that regular, long term meditation can lead firstly to altered states of mind then consequently to altered traits, or personal characteristics that a person possesses. He also highlighted the fact that mindfulness practice and loving-kindness meditation affect the brain in different ways: mindfulness reduces amygdala sensitivity, while compassion increases amygdala sensitivity. Consequently, we need both practices in equal amounts to optimise our brain function. If you haven’t been keeping up both of these practices, may this be a reminder to you Sarah!
David Treleavan’s interview was really engaging and prompted you to visit his website to learn more about his work: Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness. He described how when supporting people who have experienced trauma, we must start by acknowledging what has been working for them as this is where they can access the power and strength that will allow them to be with what is difficult. He also pointed out how meditation must be modified when working with trauma, in the same way that physical exercises must be modified when working with a physical injury. He also reflected on how mindfulness takes courage because it is risky and uncomfortable to be mindful when trauma exists in the body and mind. Sarah, I do hope you’ve been able to share these insights with your patients who have experienced trauma and helped them find a meditation practice that is safe and effective.
Elissa Epel summarised the positive effects that meditation has on all aspects of our physical and emotional health, essentially slowing the ageing process by effecting the length of our telomeres at the ends of our chromosomes. You really enjoyed Shauna Shapiro’s interviews, where she explained how mindfulness and compassion are two sides of the same coin. She reflected on how mindfulness provides us with the space to allow creativity to flow, and how technology can interfere with our creativity if we don’t set strong boundaries around its use. Shauna also emphasised the importance of practicing acceptance, which is the opposite to resistance. By accepting what is, we have the freedom to choose how we respond in any given moment to what arises within our minds and bodies. What a gift this is.
Patricia Jennings also had much wisdom to share. As an academic who has brought mindfulness to schools, she highlighted the fact that mindfulness practice teaches us to get comfortable with our uncomfortable emotions. She also noted that when teachers are being mindful, their students will intuitively notice this and tune into it. When adults are acting in a mindful way, children are very attracted to the calm energy that we put out, because it’s not frazzled, controlling or pushing them away. It is invitational and welcoming.
Gil Frondsal was a pleasure to listen to. He described mindfulness as "a practice that invites us to be more intimate with ourselves while being with others". He reiterated that mindfulness is not about being comfortable, but rather it is about becoming aware of the busy nature of the mind and choosing not to react to it. He explained that the more we practice mindfulness, the better we get at turning down the volume of our thoughts and releasing the hindrances of the mind, such that we may feel delight and freedom. He clarified the different choices we have when challenges come up for us in meditation: we can turn towards them or we can turn away from them; both are valid choices and we need to try and maintain balance by choosing the most appropriate action in that moment. Turning away from challenges and focussing on the breath may be the appropriate choice in some circumstances, while turning towards the challenge and investigating thoughts, beliefs and emotions associated with the challenge may be appropriate in other situations. You really loved his description of awareness as like “two cupped hands coming from beneath and holding the emotion, allowing the emotion to be there with kindness, rather than fuelling the emotion with judgment and contempt.” Gil explained how meditating daily creates our body as a temple, a sacred place where we can sit and allow our emotions and thoughts to bubble up and be there without reacting to them – what a delightful metaphor. Finally, you really resonated with Gil's story of the troll on the Brahama’s throne:
"Once upon a time, up in one of the heavens of Buddhism, which was ruled by the great God Brahama, a troll took his chance when Brahma was away from his palace to hobble into the palace and jump onto his throne. The court guards were disgusted - an ugly little troll wasn't meant to be on the throne! "Get down! You can't be up there!" they yelled. The troll wouldn't listen so they all start getting angry with him. “You are bad", "you are terrible" they shouted. They used all the kinds of ways to get angry with him. But as they got angry, the troll grew bigger, more beautiful and more radiant. The court guards didn’t know what to do so they went to find Brahama to tell him what was happening. Brahama went back to the palace and stood in front of the big strong powerful troll on his throne. He said to him: "Dear troll, I am so glad you are here and hope you are comfortable up there. I am here to be your friend." and bowed to him. As he was respectful and kind to him, the troll shrank and shrank and got smaller and smaller until he disappeared. Brahma got up on his throne and explained to everyone, ‘that was an anger eating troll! The more angry you are the bigger it gets, you just needed to stop feeding it."
Sarah McKay shared her research into brain health and ageing, which has been published in her book “The Women’s Brain Book”. She reflected on the Dunedin study, a longitudinal research project that has followed over 1000 participants in New Zealand from childhood to adulthood, measuring different aspects of their health, development and wellbeing, and highlighted some important findings. These included the conclusion that participants who grew up in loving, nurturing homes were more likely to be “successful” than children who grew up in stressful, chaotic households where they experienced neglect, abuse or poverty. These childhood experiences were also very predictive of health and wellbeing outcomes in adulthood. Further to this, she discovered that longevity is related to finding a purpose that involves serving others and continuing to learn for as long as possible. Sarah concluded by encouraging us to remain curious and deeply engaged in life - like a child – as this appears to be the key to remaining vital into our 80s and 90s.
Dan Harris shared a few key take-aways. He shared how when negative thoughts and emotions appear in his mind, he greets them with the phrase “welcome to the party” and allows them to be there without resistance or judgment. He also reflected one of the most useful lessons he has received from his teacher, Joseph Goldstein, which comes in handy when ruminating on a worry: simply ask yourself “is this useful?”. I hope you have been able to incorporate these helpful lessons into your life over the past months Sarah.
Vidyamala Burch also offered a number of really helpful tips for incorporating mindfulness practices into your daily routine. These included:
If in doubt, breathe out
FOFBOC: feet on floor, bum on chair
Practice a body scan after lunch
Vidymala also described a couple of simple exercises that can be transformational for managing difficult emotions and thought patterns. The first exercise involves sitting quietly and making a fist with your hand. As you do this, notice what happens to the breath. Inevitably, you hold your breath when you are tense in the body. So, as you notice this, take a few deep breaths. Now notice what happens to your fist. Inevitably, it will begin to relax. Such a simple but effective exercise in letting go. The second exercise involves sitting with a cushion on your lap and naming the problem that the cushion represents, eg chronic pain, infertility, a difficult relationship. Then you start describing the stories you associate with that problem, eg it’s not fair, it is interfering with my work, I don’t have enough money to fix the problem. With each story you place another cushion on your lap. Before long, the pile of cushions will be very high. At this point, you reflect on the weight of these stories on top of your problem and ask yourself “what you might do to relieve yourself of this heavy load?” Of course, the simplest response is to take away the cushions, or the stories, that you have created around the problem, and just allow the problem to be there without the added load.
You were really excited to listen to Michael Merzenich as you have previously read about his work in the fantastic book “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doige. Michael described how the brain is designed to rewire itself in a way that serves the brain better, depending on its environment. Further to this, the attitudes and beliefs that we hold influence how the brain rewires itself. He explained how when we are open to awe in our physical environment, this serves as a powerful tool for keeping our brain young. Being mindful and curious to new and novel sights and experiences in our environment triggers the release of noradrenaline, which bathes our brain and keeps the neurones wiring together to maintain its function and prevent deterioration. The takeaway messages were to keep stimulating our brain each day, because if you don’t use it, you lose it, and practice joy and generosity, because these are experiences that keep our brains healthy and youthful.
And now for the most inspiring interview (in your opinion anyway!): Emiliya Zhivotovskaya. This was the interview that you listened to twice, first in the car driving to work, then again in bed one evening with your note pad and pen so you could capture every inspiring word and practical intervention she shared. You really resonated with her philosophy of integrating the science of positive psychology, resilience building and mind-body medicine for achieving health and happiness, while also acknowledging there is still so much that science is yet to explain that we must continue to ponder and contemplate. Emiliya defined resilience as our capacity to keep moving and developing our efficiency at bouncing back so that we are stronger than we were before, not only from major life challenges but from the daily stressful triggers that we face. She outlined the four components of resilience that we can develop through practicing different exercises, similar to when we go to the gym and exercise different muscle groups in order to recover from an injury. The goal for building resilience is to become are stronger than before the injury. These components are:
Spiritual and Social
Emiliya also highlighted how it is important to recognise when we need to persevere and when we need to stop and rest. The key skill for recognising which action to take is mindfulness. Using mindfulness, we take on the role of detective of our thoughts and rather than being a worrier we can become a warrier. She also explained that resilience is not about recovering in a particular period of time, but rather about how we respond to thoughts, feelings and sensations from moment to moment as we undergo a process of healing.
Practically, Emiliya recommended a number of tasks we can undertake to put our resilience building and mindfulness into action. These included:
Journaling – this gives our thoughts a home. We can then analyse our thoughts and critique our inner critic.
Breathing exercises – consciously slowing our breathing rate to 6 breaths per minute for a period of 5 minutes at least once a day.
Using sound (“arrrrrgh”) or movement (eg dancing, running) to experience our strong emotions, such as anger, rather than expressing them through shouting or acting violently towards other people.
Keeping a gratitude journal – writing down 3 things we are grateful for every day.
Informal mindfulness practice – tuning into the 5 senses of seeing, hearing, touch, taste and smell frequently throughout the day.
One of my favourite quotes that really summed up the messages shared throughout Mindful in May was this one:
“Humans are feeling creatures that think, not thinking creatures who feel.” Jill Bolte Taylor
And so there you are. A record of your learnings from Mindful in May 2020. May you continue to embrace these lessons each moment of every day, week, month and year for the rest of your life.