Monday, 21 May 2018

When the Mind Goes Dark

As nearly 10,000 freshmen and transfers arrived on campus at the University of California, Los Angeles, last fall, they were invited to try something never before offered during student orientation: depression screening.

The hope, administrators explained, is that by identifying their risk for depression, students can get the support they need before they face the rigors of academia and the disorienting experience of living away at college. There’s reason for the concern. In 2016, a record high of almost 12% of UCLA freshman reported “frequently” feeling depressed in the past year. And a report from Penn State, drawing data from 139 university and college mental health services, found that in the 2015–2016 year, use of these services increased by 30%, although enrollment grew by just 5%. This included “a persistent increase in ‘threat-to-self’ characteristics such as nonsuicidal self-injury and suicidal ideation.”

The screening initiative—which will be extended to the entire student body eventually—is part of the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, a landmark effort to understand one of the most pervasive and debilitating health conditions in the world, one that affects an estimated 350 million people and contributes to the suicides of 800,000 people, including 40,000 Americans, every year.

The university launched the challenge in 2015 as a multiyear, interdisciplinary study to develop better methods of understanding the genetic and environmental causes of depression and to improve detection, evaluation, and treatment. The goal is ambitious: to cut the global depression rate in half by 2030.

This comes at a time when public health officials around the world struggle to get their hands around what is considered the leading cause of disability among adults, costing some $210 billion in medical and long-term care and lost productivity hours each year.

“That depression has not been identified as our number-one health issue astounds me,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said in announcing the campus-screening program in September 2017.

Unpacking the blues

While mental health experts are cautious about calling depression an “epidemic”—citing better screening and greater understanding and acceptance of the condition as possible reasons for increased diagnosis—the numbers are still startling: 350 million sufferers worldwide. According to UCLA, if you haven’t experienced depression yourself, you know someone who has.

It is also now recognized as being at the core of numerous mental health conditions, from bipolar disorder (powerful swings between high and low mood) to postpartum depression, just to name a few.

Many of the symptoms of depression are familiar: persistent low mood, exhaustion, loss of appetite and sex drive, an inability to enjoy life or cope with everyday activities—like socializing or even getting out of bed. But some may not be as obvious, such as disordered and distorted thinking, agitation, physical aches and pains, and insomnia.

Yet despite how much we now know about what depression is, we still don’t really know what causes it. What we do know is that a variety of wide-ranging factors seem to influence a person’s risk of developing depression, including childhood adversity; genetic make-up; chemical changes in the brain and body; certain unhelpful styles of thinking and relating; and social, economic, and cultural deprivation.

The truth is, there are likely myriad interrelating causes involved in each case. “We’re all vulnerable in a sense because we all have factors that contribute to that vulnerability,” says Zindel Segal, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who specializes in depression.

Further complicating matters, depression doesn’t always act the same way from individual to individual, or from episode to episode, which can range from mild to severe. An episode can last from a few days to weeks, months, or even years.

All of these factors make treatment difficult, because each sufferer will need something different. Indeed, treatment for depression is a bit of a guessing game, with only a 50% success rate with the first intervention tried. Antidepressants work sometimes, but not always. Talk therapies help some people, but not others. Someone may feel better with increased social contact, a change in relationships, or a new job. For others, becoming less busy or starting an exercise regime is what makes the difference. Sometimes the passage of time is what helps. Unfortunately, because depression plays havoc with the capacity to see things accurately, it’s hard for a depressed person to know what they need.

Because depression plays havoc with the capacity to see things accurately, it’s hard for a depressed person to know what they need.

And while most people recover from a depressive episode, it’s a chronic, relapsing condition, with recurrence ever more likely each time it strikes. It’s commonly accepted that if you experience even one depressive episode, you have a 50% greater chance of experiencing another.

Dodging the wrecking ball

At this point you might be thinking, “Now you’re going to tell me that this is where mindfulness fits in.” After all, doesn’t the practice of paying attention to the present moment enhance our ability to see clearly, stabilize the mind, and be freed from unskillful patterns of thinking and behavior? Doesn’t it have salutary effects on the mind, brain, and body?

Well, yes. But, also, no.

Psychologists widely agree that mindfulness has an important role to play in managing the condition—as a self-care practice, and by helping us to tune in to the natural ebbs and flows of energy and mood.

In fact, having a regular mindfulness practice may help someone who struggles with depression to notice when they’re at risk, allowing them to take appropriate action, if not to avoid an episode, then to at least minimize its impact.

Having a regular mindfulness practice may help someone who struggles with depression to notice when they’re at risk, allowing them to take appropriate action, if not to avoid an episode, then to at least minimize its impact.

“I think somebody who has a mindfulness practice and a history of depression will know themselves whether they need rest, or whether it would be better to walk the dog or go to work,” says Willem Kuyken, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, and director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, which has pioneered mindfulness-based treatments for depression. “What’s so beautiful and transformative about mindfulness is that it places the wisdom in the person and their own practice. They have a sense of ‘what’s happening with my mind and body at the moment?’ and how to shift from automatic pilot to more of an experiential present-moment mode. From that place they can judge what feels skillful and discerning.”

One model in particular, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which offers mindfulness training in conjunction with cognitive-behavioral therapy, appears to be particularly effective. “We’ve got 10 randomized controlled trials suggesting that for people with a long history of depression, MBCT does much better than usual care,” Kuyken says.

He explains that depression makes someone more likely to react to life’s setbacks with negative, judgmental thinking, which can lower their mood and trigger a new episode. Mindfulness helps create mental space around these thoughts, enabling people at risk to observe, with kindness, the patterns of the mind that might otherwise drag them down.

He shared the example of a former client. “She was a young mother who was pushing her toddler son on a swing. It was a happy moment, but then a thought popped into her head: ‘I don’t deserve to be happy, and this happiness won’t last.’ We all have thoughts like this, but for someone who’s vulnerable to depression those shards of negative thinking can quickly spiral into a whole bunch of other negative thoughts, associated emotions, and behaviors.”

For this woman, he says, the thoughts came in the form of “I’m a rubbish mother” and the internal thrashing that typically followed. Prior to MBCT, he says, going down that path “might have led her to do a ‘duvet dive’ and hide away from the world,” resulting in more rumination and furthering the downward spiral. Instead, she was able to recognize the destructive pattern forming—what she called “wrecking-ball thoughts”— and take a sideways step, allowing the thought to pass through her mind without being knocked over by it.

Zindel Segal, one of the creators of MBCT, agrees. “Qualitative analyses show the core takeaway from MBCT is I am not my depression. That the self is bigger than that.

“That’s a source of liberation, because they can choose how they want to act, rather than running to the first solutions that the mind offers, which can often be reactive,” he adds. “Their symptoms may not reduce to zero, but their well-being and resilience increases as they develop a different relationship to them.”

There’s a time and place for mindfulness

For the great success mindfulness, and MBCT in particular, has shown for helping people with a history of depression to avoid or lessen the impact of those depressive dips, there are equally strong caveats against using the practice when you’re in the throes of an episode.

“It’s very hard to sit and do formal meditation practices when you’re depressed,” Segal says. “The executive control networks of the brain are often compromised when you’re in an episode of depression, and it’s di cult to engage.” In other words, when the world goes dim and life feels bleak, your brain might not have the bandwidth to be a kind, nonjudgmental observer to its own thoughts, or to grasp the bigger picture.

Susan Woods, a psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher in Vermont, goes further: “If somebody is in a major depression episode, mindfulness is useless. There’s just no energy there, no ability to concentrate for any length of time.”

Even if a person with depression is able to engage with meditation, there is a risk that heightened exposure to the unpleasant symptoms of their illness, experienced while paying mindful attention, could actually increase their fear and aversion, triggering a reactive spiral of deepening low mood. “There is some evidence that vulnerable people exposed to mindfulness can have quite unsettling experiences,” says Kuyken. “That makes complete sense,” he says, because when people are depressed, the mind “can be quite dark and scary.”

Also, if depression seems more to do with a person’s life situation, rather than their inner patterns of thinking, feeling, and relating, they may need assertive action more urgently than meditation. “If someone is in circumstances of tremendous adversity or abuse, they first need to get to a place that’s safe,” adds Segal. “If your house is on fire, you need to get out.”

A mindful exception

There are exceptions to every rule, of course. I learned to meditate toward the end of a two-and- a-half year major depressive episode, and it was the key that released me from a prison of constantly fighting my inner demons, a pattern that kept them running rampant. However, by the time I started practicing, I had already undergone intensive psychotherapy, begun to make much-needed lifestyle shifts, and understood some of the ingrained mental and behavioral habits that were maintaining my low mood. Meditation was a vital piece of the puzzle—a practical skill that helped me discover the art of letting go—but I also remember how tough it was the first times I tried to sit and focus on my breath. It felt like I was going to explode from the intensity of the sensations inside me. It took a lot of commitment, a lot of support, and a lot of going gently for the practice to bear fruit. In the earlier phases of my illness, I doubt it would have helped so much.

A few small-scale studies suggest MBCT can help people in the midst of an episode, but Segal notes the quality of evidence is low, and Woods points to the fact that the courses in these trials were often led by very experienced teachers, who were also specialists in treating depression. Kuyken shares their concerns: “With vulnerable clients, teachers need to be well-trained and very skilled in how they teach mindfulness.”

Because it’s so difficult for the depressed mind to discern what it needs, the best first step to wellness is professional support. A competent therapist can act as a guide to skillful action, helping you form a treatment plan. This, according to Woods, is likely to include antidepressant medication, slowly building in self-care activities that can help stabilize and elevate mood, and cognitive therapy to help you understand and work with your individual triggers. There is mindfulness here, but it comes from the therapist as a wise, compassionate friend—much needed when you can’t locate your own inner compass.

Once mood has stabilized, mindfulness training can be part of the plan. At this point, says Segal, a mindfulness-trained therapist might recommend a mindful movement practice. Woods suggests short sitting practices, such as the three-minute breathing space (at right), to be practiced several times a day and at the beginning of a therapy session. After a few months of stability, it might be time to enroll in a group-training program, such as MBCT.

Moving forward

So, when depression is present, it probably isn’t the time to engage in meditation. However, there’s cautious optimism that when mindfulness is developed and practiced while a person is feeling emotionally stable, it may increase their ability to navigate difficult situations or emotional upheavals in the future. In this sense, it may be a powerful buffer against the ups and downs inevitable in every life.

When mindfulness is developed and practiced while a person is feeling emotionally stable, it may increase their ability to navigate difficult situations or emotional upheavals in the future.

By showing people sad movie clips during an fMRI scan, Segal and his colleagues in Toronto found that mindfulness practitioners’ brains showed more activation in sensory processing regions, such as the insula and somatosensory cortex, but less activation in midline prefrontal structures, which are associated with the mental rumination that is often problematic for people with depression. This indicates that while mindfulness-trained people feel their emotions intensely, they are less likely to think that sadness is a problem to x, a cognitive stance that can lead to depression. Also, a key element of mindfulness may be a shift to enhanced sensory experience and a corresponding decrease in “living in your head.”

Evidence also shows that practicing mindfulness can start an upward spiral of mood and behavior, enabling people to become more fully integrated in their lives, and bringing with it a greater sense of freedom and flourishing. “In the longer term, sustained practice is a profound generator of compassion and connectivity,” explains Segal, “and that starts to change how people interact with one another. It’s at a much broader scale than people just looking to deal with their mind disorder, although that is an important starting point.”

This potential for wider social impact hasn’t escaped the notice of politicians: A 2015 report by the United Kingdom’s Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group recommended that MBCT be made more available in the country’s National Health Service, and a global group of policy-makers—including US Congressman Tim Ryan—has formed to explore the possibilities further. Meanwhile, the Oxford Mindfulness Centre has begun a seven-year program of research into teaching mindfulness in schools to see if it can help students’ resilience as they enter the teenage years, a common age for the rst appearance of mental health problems. “Can we take 11- to 14-year-olds,” asks Kuyken, who’s leading the project, “and teach them the skills to prevent depression from ever occurring?”

Preventing depression among those at risk is where more mindfulness training could be, as Segal says, “a public health win.”

“It would have a huge impact on the health landscape, because people wouldn’t be coming back into treatment, and they’d be more effective in parenting, as partners, and at work,” he explains. “They could enroll in all sorts of activities that would have much-needed effects in areas of wellness aside from mental health.”

Getting Help

If you experience depressive episodes, you’ll need to pay close attention to the types and doses of mindfulness practice you use and consider seeking the aid and advice of a therapist or psychiatrist who can assess your unique needs. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has developed practices that have proved effective for some people with depression; however, mindfulness practice is not recommended during depressive episodes. If your depression is deeply interfering with your ability to live your life, it is best to consult a professional.

First steps to take when you’re depressed

When a depressive episode strikes, we need a personalized action plan to help stabilize and elevate mood. Here are some ways you might start taking care of yourself.

  • Seek help. “Recognize that you’re dealing with a legitimate condition that requires care,” says Zindel Segal. “Many people see depression as a personal inadequacy, which is actually one of its symptoms.” See your doctor and ask for treatment. You may be prescribed antidepressant medication and/or referred to a therapist, who can help create a treatment plan tailored to you and your circumstances.
  • Do something pleasurable every morning. “This might be something like taking a long warm shower or bath, or getting up and making that first cup of coffee or tea,” says Susan Woods. “Mornings can be really difficult when you’re depressed, so make sure that you get out of bed and do something that usually gives you pleasure.” Do something each day that brings a sense of accomplishment “Washing the dishes, doing the grocery run—these kinds of activities can really help give a sense of accomplishment,” explains Woods. “Just do one of them rather than making a whole list.”
  • See a friend at least twice a week. “Social isolation can happen quickly,” says Woods, “so reaching out to a dear friend and making an appointment to see them can bridge that.” Get some fresh air “Going for a walk, especially in nature, can be helpful,” says Segal, “because it can pull people out of rumination.” Exercise has been shown to have antidepressant properties; some therapists even go on walks with their patients rather than sitting in the consulting room.

3-Minute Breathing Space

This short practice is taught and repeated throughout Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. It’s intended to help bring formal mindfulness practice into moments of everyday life. It’s considered the most important practice in the program.

Begin by deliberately adopting an erect and dignified posture, whether you are sitting or standing. If possible, close your eyes. Then take about one minute to guide yourself through each of the following three steps:

  1. Becoming aware. Bringing your awareness to your inner experience, ask: What is my experience right now? What thoughts are going through your mind? As best you can, acknowledge thoughts as mental events, perhaps putting them into words. What  feelings are here? Turn toward any sense of emotional discomfort or unpleasant feelings, acknowledging their presence. What body sensations are here right now? Perhaps quickly scan your body to pick up any sensations of tight- ness or bracing.
  2. Gathering. Now, redirect your attention to focus on the physical sensations of the breath. Move in close to the sense of the breath in the abdomen, feeling the sensations of the abdominal wall expanding as the breath comes in and falling back as the breath goes out. Follow the breath all the way in and all the way out, using the breathing to anchor yourself in the present. If the mind wanders away at any time, gently escort it back to the breath.
  3. Expanding. Now, expand the eld of your awareness around your breath- ing so it includes a sense of the body as a whole, your posture, and facial expression. If you become aware of any sensations of discomfort, tension, or resistance, take your awareness there by breathing into them on the in-breath. Then breathe out from those sensations, softening and opening with the out-breath. As best you can, bring this expanded awareness to the next moments of your day.

 

This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Mindful magazine.

 

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Thursday, 17 May 2018

Tech Yourself, Don’t Wreck Yourself

Once upon a time, technology served to increase human efficiency and accuracy. Now, between everything we have to attend to on our devices and the countless ways they grab attention, it sometimes feels like our lives aren’t enhanced as much as unsettled by personal devices. When we let technology run rampant, our mental and physical health may suffer.

The Tech Effect

It starts with child development. Studies show that under-monitored screen time potentially disrupts attention, behavior, language, and academics. For teens and adults, smartphones ping and buzz all day and night. Research suggests that being reachable 24/7 escalates stress, interrupts social interaction, and impacts productivity. One study showed the mere presence of phones visible on the table disrupts conversation.

Social media, for all its potential benefits, has been linked to decreased well-being, increased depression, and escalated jealousy. The ongoing study Monitoring the Future of Teens showed that teens spending more time on screens are more likely to be unhappy than those spending less. Even Facebook and Apple have conceded social media affects at least some people for the worse.

When it comes to physical health, studies show teenagers today have become as sedentary as the average 60-year-old. Increased screen time has been linked to obesity, using a device (or television) near bedtime to poor sleep. One study correlated increased screen hours with odds of dying young. Strange as that seems, it’s possible that upping your screen time impacts other lifestyle factors, like healthy diet and exercise, that contribute to a long and healthy life.

It’s Workable

These effects are not directly caused by our gadgets, of course. They reflect how we live, starting with the expectation of constant connection. It’s also our often-unconscious choices about which activities screens replace, their potential to distract from productivity and face-to-face communication, the emotional influence of social media, and more.

It’s important to stay connected through work or socially, but instead of “batching” time online, we interrupt ourselves repeatedly all day. That undermines efficiency and disrupts our down time. And, unlike with previous innovations (such as, say, the wheel), screen usage is manipulated by products and games designed to hook us.

Mindfulness helps us choose how we live with technology. We can elect to remain available for what’s urgent, connect with friends, entertain ourselves…and also value disconnecting for a bit.

Mindfulness helps us choose how we live with technology. We can elect to remain available for what’s urgent, connect with friends, entertain ourselves…and also value disconnecting for a bit.

Take Stock

Try using a daily calendar and fill in everything you value: time for sleep, work, or school, homework, reading for pleasure, exercise, being outdoors, after-school activities or hobbies, friends, and quiet time. Whatever time is left is the maximum available for a screen.

Another trick is to ask yourself: What percentage of my down time goes to a screen? While technology seems like the ideal fill-in for daydreaming and boredom, often it is in these idle moments that creativity arises. Apps like “Moment” and “Quality Time” allow us to self-monitor time online.

Set Boundaries

When you’re with other people, including at mealtimes, put away your device. Avoid “phubbing”— dissing strangers by making no eye contact while on your phone. Set personal and family guidelines for situations that are appropriate for texting, games, and watching TV.

Avoid temptation by turning off any unneeded notifications on your devices. When the phone rings or vibrates, practice taking a breath before deciding if it needs immediate attention or if it can wait.

Mindfulness involves being aware of our habits. Catch yourself often, notice how you’re living— and what’s driving your on-screen experience— and then engage in active decision-making.

Phone screen

Intentional Phone Practice

How can we use our phones with more intention? We can start to notice when we’re checking them compulsively, out of FOMO (fear of missing out), or comparing our life to social media’s polished but unreal images. Try this mindful tech practice to make your phone a healthier part of everyday life.

  • Before touching your phone, catch yourself. Each time it rings, pings, or vibrates, first gather your attention. Is it time to check it right now or could it wait? Take a few breaths, focusing on the air moving near your nose and mouth. Then decide what to do next.
  • If you start mindlessly plugging in, catch yourself. How does your body feel, and your facial expression and posture? (A hunched thumb-typing stance may adversely affect your mood.) What do you notice emotionally, and how is it influenced by whatever you’re looking at? Where are your thoughts? Past or future? Comparing and consuming, or engaged and balanced?
  • After time on your phone, catch yourself once more. Take a breath or two. Note whatever is going on and who is around you. In this moment, you can reconnect to real life, in real time.
This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of Mindful magazine.

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Monday, 14 May 2018

The Surprising Benefits of Teaching a Class Outside

As any teacher knows, students need to be engaged with learning to absorb lessons in any meaningful way. Otherwise they can become distracted, disrupting everyone in the classroom and taking time away from instruction.

There are many ways to foster engagement, of course. But one may surprise you: holding classes outside. Findings from a new study show that learning outdoors is not just a fun, novel experience for kids, but also helps them focus once they return to the classroom.

In this study, third-grade students from two classrooms were assigned to conduct about half of their biology lessons outside (on a nearby patch of grass) and half inside the classroom during an academic year. The lessons involved things like identifying leaves and understanding the process of decomposition, and were closely matched: The indoor lessons had natural elements (like leaves and soil), while the outdoor lessons were conducted like a regular classroom (without student interaction or free play).

After each lesson, students received a short break and then continued indoors with their regular studies, like math or reading. Their level of engagement during this time was assessed by teacher ratings, independent tallies of “redirects” (how many times teachers needed to redirect students to the task at hand), and ratings of engagement based on classroom photos analyzed by someone blind to the study’s purpose.

Results showed that when the students received outdoor biology lessons, they were significantly more engaged in their next instructional period on all measures than if they’d received biology lessons indoors. This held true for different teachers, different times of day, and different times of year.

Results showed that when the students received outdoor biology lessons, they were significantly more engaged in their next instructional period on all measures than if they’d received biology lessons indoors.

According to lead researcher Ming Kuo of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this is an important finding with practical implications.

“Kids can actually pay better attention in class after an outdoor lesson,” she says. “This is nice for teachers, because you don’t have to stop teaching and you still get that bump in attention.”

Not only that, the bump in attention was large—much larger than Kuo had expected. In some cases, teachers only had to redirect half as often and kids paid attention one or two “standard deviations” better—research-speak for much, much better—if they’d had an outdoor lesson rather than an indoor one.

This surprised Kuo, who is used to working on highly controlled studies in a laboratory rather than field studies in a classroom.

“I thought that we would have smaller effects when we had a whole class of squirmy third graders,” says Kuo. “But maybe when every kid gets a little bit better at paying attention and at controlling their impulses, and then you put them all in one classroom, there’s some kind of synergy happening.”

What’s powerful in this study is that the children didn’t spend time wandering down a forested path. The teachers simply changed the location of their lesson to a greener space—something that virtually any teacher at any school could do without taking away from instruction time.

“We could have taken these kids into capital-n Nature; but the kind of nature that we studied turns out to be pretty common—just a patch of grass with an access road,” she says. “The kind of outdoor setting we used is probably available for many, many schools.”

The restorative power of nature

Why would being in nature benefit kids at all? Perhaps it reduces stressrestores depleted attention, and improves immune function in children, much like it does in adults. And kids who are healthier, calmer, and less depleted may simply learn better.

Kuo’s study adds to a growing body of research on learning in nature. Prior studies have found that teaching outdoors increases students’ interest in a subject and intrinsic motivation to learn, and may help them to retain information longer than regular indoor classes. In addition, kids like learning outside, says Kuo, and they report liking their school more when lessons are held outdoors.

“Being able to pay more attention, being less stressed, and being happier and more interested in doing the work—this can have real effects on how engaged kids are,” she says.

Still, Kuo’s study is unique in looking at what happens after an outdoor lesson—the carryover effects. And that’s important to teachers who may be reluctant to give up class time for going outside, worried their kids will lose all focus. 


Kuo understands that teachers may be skeptical—even one of the teachers in her study was doubtful before the experiment started. But, if a teacher can be open-minded, she says, they should at least try it out and see what happens. Kuo argues that the current educational movement to reduce student outdoor time—or enrichment programs like music, art, and theater—is wrong-headed.

“Kids are so starved for nature that you can take them out into a not-very-natural area, give them a lesson without really engaging much with nature, and even this pretty small, pathetic dose helps them function remarkably better.”

—Ming Kuo

“You can add as much instructional time as you want and keep pouring, but once that cup is full, it’s full,” she says. “You have to find ways to give kids more capacity to take things in, before it makes sense to spend any more time with instructional teaching.”

Being in nature seems to increase that capacity, suggesting yet another way kids benefit from being outside. Kuo’s work implies that kids need nature, maybe more than we think. She hopes that future researchers will study whether spending more time in nature produces even greater benefits.

In the meantime, it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t take much nature to make a difference.

“Kids are so starved for nature that you can take them out into a not-very-natural area, give them a lesson without really engaging much with nature, and even this pretty small, pathetic dose helps them function remarkably better,” says Kuo. “That feels like a big ‘Wow!’ to me.”

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, one of Mindful’s partners. View the original article.

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Saturday, 12 May 2018

Eating Addiction: How Meditation Helps Free Us - Tara Brach


Buddhist psychology views clinging as the source of suffering, and one of the great domains of clinging is compulsive overeating. For most of us the causes and conditions for compulsive overeating existed before we were born, during our early childhood, and in our surrounding society. We begin to release shame and self-aversion by realizing we are not alone in this suffering; and eating addiction is not “our fault.” The talk includes an exploration of how, through RAIN, we can bring mindfulness and self-compassion to compulsive eating, giving us more choice in our behavior. Ultimately we discover that this deep prison of suffering can become a portal to realizing the freedom our true nature.

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Friday, 11 May 2018

Manage Big Parenting Feelings Before They Manage You

I recently had the nerve to suggest that my daughter eat her broccoli before indulging in another bowl of mac ‘n cheese. She promptly lost it — I’m talking level four meltdown right there at the table. I knew she was tired and cranky, and I knew she was angry at me for pushing veggies on her yet again. I was tired too, and I was irritated at her for blowing up, so I did what any reasonable parent would do: I snapped. “This is NOT a thing to freak out about. It’s just broccoli, and the sooner you finish it, the sooner we can be done with dinner.”

If you’re a parent, you know how that went: poorly. She continued to cry, and I continued to feel irritated at her. I didn’t want to deal with any of the feelings in the room, not mine and certainly not hers. I’m not alone in this — few of us ever want to hang out in the muck of unpleasant emotions. Either the feelings are too intense, or the timing is inconvenient, or we just don’t have the energy to deal, so we stuff down, cover up, ignore, reject, or deny our emotions, only to later explode at our spouses, scream at our kids, indulge in one too many adult beverages, blow money we don’t have, or spend the night tossing and turning because we can’t stop thinking.

The better we get at identifying, naming, and expressing our big feelings, the better our kids will get at it, too.

That’s the bad news about big feelings: they’re meant to be felt and expressed. If we don’t create the space for that to happen, they’ll find a way to do it themselves, and believe you me, our emotions don’t give two hoots about whether or not it’s a good time for us. (Spoiler alert: It’s never a good time.)

The good news is that we can become more skillful at managing our emotions. The better we get at identifying, naming, and expressing our big feelings, the better our kids will get at it, too. Eventually, they’ll be able to eat their broccoli without going all nuclear at the table. Here are some practices that can help the entire family roll more smoothly during those typically tense moments.

Seven practices to help you build resilience during tense parenting moments

1. Remember that any emotion is ok, but not every behavior is ok. It’s important to distinguish between what we feel and what we do. Repeat after me: there is no such thing as a bad or wrong feeling. There are scary feelings and confusing feelings and deeply unpleasant feelings, but none of them are wrong. However, if we don’t find skillful ways to express those feelings, they’ll do it on their own, usually in the form of problematic behaviors.

2. Next, acknowledge that you are experiencing an emotion. This may sound pretty obvious, but the chaos of daily life with children can make it hard for us to notice what we’re feeling. The CALM practice can help you quickly and easily check in with your body and tune in to your emotions: At any moment, you can quickly scan over your Chest, Arms, Legs, and Mind. Despite what the acronym says, you don’t actually have to calm yourself down, you just need to become aware of whatever you’re feeling.

3. Name your emotion. This next step can be as simple as saying either to yourself or to your children, “I am feeling ______.” This isn’t always easy, especially if you’ve spent your whole life believing that certain feelings are inappropriate or unacceptable. (If this is the case, I refer you to point #1.) You’re not going to intensify your feelings by acknowledging them. Just the opposite is true: the sooner you identify your emotion, the sooner it will dissipate instead of bubbling under the surface, causing tension. If intense emotions don’t dissipate, identifying what underlying tensions are at play puts you in the driver’s seat to take whatever action might be necessary: maybe it’s time to cut down on after-school activities to free up time in the evening, or maybe there’s a bigger-picture adjustment to make.

4. Do something with your body. Anything. Really. Take some deep, slow breaths. Put one hand flat on the counter and trace your fingers with your other hand. Get on the floor and stretch. Hop on one foot. Strike a still pose. Run up and down the hallway or the stairs. It really doesn’t matter what you do, just do it and pay attention to whatever it is that you’re doing. Emotions live in our bodies, and focusing on our bodies can help dispel the physical tension and thus, the feelings.

5. Wait for it to pass. The one thing you can count on, regardless of whatever you’re feeling, is that your feelings will change. They come and go, intensify and lessen, dissipate and return. It’s like that old joke about the weather: Don’t like it? Just wait five minutes! The same is true for your feelings. Regardless of how intense the storm is, it won’t last forever. Don’t believe me? Set a timer for 15 minutes, and then see how you (or your child) feel at that point.

6. Take care of yourself like you would take care of your child in your best parenting moments. If you’re in the midst of a big feeling storm, resist the urge to fight it. Acknowledge that it’s a hard moment, identify how you’re feeling, and then offer yourself some physical comfort. Snuggle up on the couch with a blanket. Sip a cup of something warm and yummy. Pet your kitten. Listen to your favorite music. Be as patient and compassionate with yourself as you would with your child when they’re going through a difficult experience. If your children’s needs make it impossible to do any of this right now, take a few deep breaths, do what needs to be done, and come back to yourself once they’re in front of the TV or down for the night.

7. Get some sleep. Exhaustion breeds big feelings, and a weary brain just can’t cope, no matter how well-intentioned you are. This is why every member of the family is more likely to lose it in the evenings. So stop trying to adult when you’re exhausted and do whatever you can to get some sleep.

Which brings us back to the Monday Night Broccoli Meltdown. After I bit my daughter’s head off, I stood up, took some deep breaths, touched my toes, stretched my hands in the air, and sang a terrible aria (or what I imagine an aria might sound like). My bizarre reaction distracted my kiddo out of her freak out long enough for her to hear my apology, which went something like this: “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I feel tired and cranky right now. I suspect you feel the same way.” My daughter nodded tearfully. I gave her a hug, we made a plan for the dreaded broccoli, and you bet your tushy we both went to bed early.

Three Simple Ways Parents Can Practice Self-Compassion

How to Be a Resilient Parent

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Saturday, 5 May 2018

After the RAIN (retreat talk) - Tara Brach


This talk offers an in-depth exploration of RAIN, applying the wings of mindfulness and compassion to painful domains of trance. We bring special attention to the fruit of RAIN, the realization of who we are beyond any limiting identity.

This talk was given at the 2018 IMCW Spring 7-day Retreat at the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown, MD.

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