I worked as a mental health counsellor for a Canadian military base for about a decade. During this time, I saw many soldiers with PTSD – infantrymen, pilots, intelligence officers and other trades, all of whom had been exposed to unspeakable horrors in war-torn countries such as Rwanda, Afghanistan and Bosnia. Many of them struggled with nightmares, anxiety, intrusive thoughts and reintegration into the civilian world. Some treatment modalities helped, some did not. At some point, a new military psychiatrist came into town, and all of a sudden I started hearing of clients being referred to hot yoga and mindfulness meditation (MBSR) classes. This, in the early 2000s, was very unusual in our neck of the woods.
The other day, as I was taking a break between two compassion fatigue workshops in my little guest cabin in Bermuda, I picked up Graham Greene’s novel “Our Man in Havana” and this paragraph jumped out at me, where Dr Hasselbacher shares his philosophy with the main character:
“I have a secret defence, Mr Wormold. I am interested in life.”
“So am I, but…”
“You are interested in a person, not in life, and people die or leave us […] but if you are interested in life it never lets you down. I am interested in the blueness of the cheese. You don’t do crosswords, do you, Mr Wormold? I do, and they are like people: one reaches an end. I can finish any crossword within an hour, but I have a discovery concerned with the blueness of cheese that will never come to a conclusion […]
This is a good companion to my previous post on being a road warrior: I too am very interested in life (and in people too, though, unlike Greene’s Dr H). So every new meeting is an opportunity to learn and discover new things. It’s my “secret defence” – it’s what keeps me engaged and replenished.
Curiosity is a wonderful gift.
One consequence of compassion fatigue and burnout is that we lose this curiosity about the world and about others – we are so depleted and emotionally exhausted that meeting new people, trying new things feels totally draining and beyond our reach.
What would it be like for you to bring one new thing into your life today? One new experience, taste, sound, observation? You don’t need to be in a Caribbean island to do this – just look up around you right now, what do you see? Is there something that you could rediscover, no matter how small?
Hi dear readers! I’ve been on summer hiatus for the past month. Every year, I take some time off after the annual conference. That means taking a break from writing and non-essential work in order to refuel and take stock. Don’t go imagining that this means that I am not working – far from it – there is always a lot to do, but I do deliberately shift gears from the Winter/Spring pace which can be frenetic at times, in spite of all of my best efforts. It’s a funny problem, really, to have a job I love! What I have also found is that busy times do not always allow for creative flow – when I am knee-deep in logistics, such as planning the annual conference, I don’t feel particularly filled with great new ideas, you know? But I have learned, now, because it’s the same every year, that if I give myself some time to slow down, by August, the writing muse comes galloping back.
A few “ungoals”
This year, I was a bit more deliberate in planning my writing break: I set some “ungoals” if you will, a few things that I wanted to integrate more regularly into my life, without being too dogmatic about them, and I also planned a retreat. Here are some of the “ungoals” I set:
Many of you who have attended my workshops know that I am a big fan of the concept of 1% change. In fact, when it comes to implementing change, my motto is “Keep it Small, Realistic and Achievable.” Good for you if you ran a marathon last year, awesome if you lost 70 lbs and kept it off, or quit smoking and never looked back, but the truth is that for most of us, change is hard, and we fall down over and over again. New Year’s resolutions? They are usually long gone by Valentine’s day, right? The problem is often that we set ourselves up to fail – our goals are simply too big, and we lose steam early into the change process. A way to set yourself up for success is to establish what Sark calls “micromovements” tiny little steps in the right direction: want to improve your eating? Add one apple per week to your diet. Start small, and keep it small.
Now, clearly great minds think alike because my favourite blogger Leo has written about micromovements too. Check out his great post on making small changes and go floss that one tooth! Happy V day to all of you. xoxo Françoise
Public Service Announcement:
“We invite you to participate in a mindfulness retreat led by internationally respected peace activist and Zen Master Thích Nhat Hanh and monastics in the tradition of Plum Village, along with international guest speakers from the field of mindfulness in education.
The retreat will be 5 days, from Sunday, August 11 to Friday, August 16, 2013, and will take place at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, located between Niagara Falls and Toronto, and sitting atop the Niagara Escarpment in a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It will be fully residential, with all accommodation on campus.
The retreat is a special retreat focused on educators, a unique opportunity for educators to practice mindfulness together and with non-educators. It will include international guest speakers from the field of mindfulness and education.
The retreat is open to all, as we recognize the importance of the greater community in the undertaking of change and support for the education system. At least half the spots will be reserved specifically for those in the field of education and working with young people, including school, college, and university teachers, administrators, guidance counsellors, youth workers and social workers, as well as education students.
Registration is limited and we expect it to fill up quickly. If you would like to be notified before registration opens please sign up for the retreat’s email list.“
Hi! I’m back! I hope you have had a wonderful summer so far. I am just wrapping up my summer holidays today, packing up and cleaning the wonderful cottage in the Laurentians where we spent the last month. This morning, I woke up to the call of the loon who graces our lake, made a cup of tea and went out on the deck to watch the morning mist rise up from the water. “This never gets old,” said a friend as we were sitting staring out at the view a few days ago. Our main activity at this place that is full of awe is to sit and watch the lake, the light over the cliffs, the falcons circle the sky, the beavers that hang out on our beach sometimes. That kind of thing. “It’s not exactly hard to be mindful when you are staring at this” said another pal of mine. I will get back to mindfulness in a minute. I am very lucky to have access to such a special place. Thank you to my in-laws, David and Kay for this.
So here are a few lessons gleaned from this summer, in no particular order:
Jon Kabat-Zinn has always said that the most interesting and beneficial aspect of meditation is when we learn to incorporate it into our daily lives: the calm that returns to us, with one breath, while trapped in traffic or in the middle of a difficult client session. In order to achieve this inner calm, we need to develop a regular mindfulness practice. However, there are many stumbling blocks to meditation: not enough time, the “monkey mind” that jumps around and keeps us distracted or preoccupied…The Globe and Mail published an article on “micro-meditations” yesterday (which you can read by clicking here) and a “Tips for A Types who can’t meditate” click here to read.
Those of you who have been to my live workshops have heard this story before:
One day, a few years ago, my son who was about ten years old at the time, came to me looking rather concerned. He said: “Mom, have you ever noticed that we are never in the present moment?” And I said: “What do you mean, sweetheart?” (well, in French but I am translating this conversation for you ) and he replied: “Well, I am either grinding the past, thinking of things that made me angry, or that were unfair, or things I missed doing or I am looking forward to or worrying about the future. I am never in the present. Mom, my life is passing me by!”
My son’s comments made me reflect on many things: the hectic pace of our lives, the rare times when we sit and simply enjoy the present moment and the fact that he’s a wonderfully wise old soul.
Let me ask you: How often are you in the present moment?
Many of you are familiar with mindfulness meditation and mindfulness stress reduction (MBSR). Developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn over thirty years ago, MBSR is a holistic mind-body approach that emphasises the importance of practicing daily sitting meditation where we simply sit, focus on our breathing and stay in the present moment. I wrote a full-length article about MBSR and its effectiveness in helping us manage compassion fatigue in 2009. Click here to read it. If you are not familiar with mindfulness, I encourage you to take a few minutes to view Kabat-Zinn’s Youtube videos on the topic. To find them, simply enter “Stress Reduction Kabat-Zinn” in the Youtube search engine. You will see videos entitled “Stress reduction one of 6″ and so on.
Sitting and doing nothing other than focusing on our breathing is incredibly difficult at first: many people talk about being distracted by thousands of fleeting thoughts, ambient noises and sometimes boredom. This is completely normal. Jon Kabat-Zinn encourages us to simply refocus on our breath, and gently redirect our minds to the task at hand, without beating ourselves up about the distractions. The goal of mindfulness is not to reach a state where our mind is empty, the goal is simply to be here, right now, in the present moment, and, as Kabat-Zinn says, if you need to bring your mind back a thousand times, then bring it back a thousand times.
In his video, Kabat-Zinn explains the tremendous health benefits of learning to connect with the present moment:
“When I am teaching meditation, we use a tennis ball and just remind people that they can drop into the breath virtually at any time. So it’s not just like when you are doing some kind of formal meditation practice – that’s the least interesting part of meditation: The real interesting part of meditation is that your whole life becomes a meditation – that you’re here for all of it, and you are able to be with it with a little less reaction, a little less judgemental and, in that way, these hidden dimensions and opportunities and options appear to us and we can navigate with much greater wisdom and with much greater self-compassion in our own lives and deal with the full catastrophe of the stress, the pain and the illness that is inevitably going to come up because we’re human and we have bodies and we’re mortal and we are subject to huge forces that we have no control over.”
The incredible power of mindfulness is that once you practice it regularly, it becomes a tool that you carry with you into all aspects of your life: you can reduce the stressful experience of being stuck in a traffic jam, in a heated meeting or working with an angry client by dropping into the breath.
Jon Kabat-Zinn acknowledges that learning to practice mindfulness is indeed difficult: “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.” How about starting small and trying to sit without doing anything for the next few minutes? Simply take normal breaths, focusing on your in-breath and your out-breath and perhaps closing your eyes if that is easier. You can also visit this website for an easy introduction to being in the present moment: www.donothingfor2minutes.com
Here’s a link to Kabat-Zinn’s first stress reduction video: Stress Reduction 1 of 6
Update: (January 25, 2012) How timely – I just came across two short instructional videos on various uses of mindfulness that may be of interest to you. They feature Dr Ron Siegel, author of “The Mindfulness Solution.” In one of them, Dr Siegel interviews a physician’s assistant who works in the Arctic. She describes how useful mindfulness has been for her both in her patient work and in keeping herself grounded and reducing her stress while doing challenging work. Another short video discusses times when mindfulness may be contraindicated and a final one discusses anxiety and mindfulness. These videos were produced by NICABM (The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioural Medicine). I subscribe to their newsletter and often find telecalls and webinars that I enjoy on their site. In order to view these, you need to sign up by sharing your email with NICABM but they guarantee that they will not share your email or spam you. Let me know what you think of the videos! Here is the link to register to view them. Just so you know, I have no affiliation with NICABM, nor do I profit financially from sharing these resources with you. Just thought you’d be interested, as I was.
1. Blossoms on a crabapple tree: I don’t know why, but those blossoms make me ridiculously happy. Are there any signs of spring that you love?
2. Helping people make small changes: I recently got an email from a therapist who reads my blog and who wrote: Re: your blog post on healthy eating, you might be interested to know you inspired me to buy a juicer. I love it! In the words of my 8 year old, “that juicer has changed our life!
3. Running by a lilac bush and inhaling deeply. Also, seeing those big pink peonies that are currently in bloom in my part of the world. I love them. I remember the first time I ever saw one, after having lived my early years in Northern Quebec. It just blew my mind. They are so over the top. I guess they tap into my “inner peony” – the hidden side that is exuberant and expansive and a little outrageous.
4. A grilled marinated portobello mushroom topped with greek yogurt and roasted garlic. From the Heart Smart cookbook. Hmmm. Delicious.
5. Being able to do a plank for 60 seconds. (hard!) This took about six months of practice.
6. Spending time with my children. I went on a coffee date with my daughter yesterday and she insisted we take a picture of the coffee, above. See why? When the weather is nice, my son and I go shoot some hoops at the local schoolyard every night after supper. Those are special, precious times.
7. Crossing things off my to-do list.
8. Getting lots of emails and no phone calls (yes, that is likely weird for many of you who are swamped with emails, but I love emails).
9. Coming home to find that someone else (aka my partner) has cleaned up the whole kitchen. Thank you!
10. Going for a run before anyone is up, and coming home to a sleeping house.
What about you? What small things make your day?
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a holistic mind/body approach developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachussets Medical Center in 1979. MBSR is “[...] based on the central concept of mindfulness, defined as being fully present to one’s experience without judgment or resistance”. (Cohen-Katz et al, 2005) The MBSR program recommends using meditation, yoga, relaxation training as well as strategies to incorporate these practices into every day life. To read more about MBSR, click here.
A recent article from the Globe and Mail suggest that MBSR may also lead to changes in our grey matter. Click here to read G&M article.