Letting Everything Become Your Teacher – Lessons in Mindfulness

By Ida Soghomonian
Psychologist, The Resilience Centre

Extracts from bestselling author Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book ‘Full Catastrophe Living
Part 1 – Nonjudging, Patience and Beginner’s Mind
For those who want to learn about mindfulness

Whether you are trying to learn patience, cope with pain, deal with stress and challenges, improve your relationships or free yourself from destructive emotions, thoughts and behaviours, you must remind yourself that you have deep inner resources to draw upon, the most important of which is the present moment itself.

In part your vision will be moulded by your unique life circumstances, by your personal beliefs and values.  Another part will develop from your experiences, from letting everything become your teacher: your body, your attitudes, your mind, your pain, your joy, other people, our mistakes, your successes and nature.  This lifelong commitment to continual inquiry and a willingness to modify your perspective as you acquire new knowledge and arrive at a new level of understanding and insight.

Awareness requires only that we pay attention and see things as they are.  It doesn’t require that we change anything.  Healing requires receptivity and acceptance, a tuning to connectedness and wholeness.  None of this can be forced, just as you cannot force yourself to go to sleep.  You must create the right condition for falling asleep and then you can let go.  The same is true of mindfulness.

To cultivate the healing power of mindfulness requires much more than mechanically following a set of instructions.  It is only when the mind is open and receptive that learning and seeing and change can occur.  In practicing mindfulness, you will have to bring your whole being to the process.

Healing does not mean curing, although the two words are often used interchangeably.  While it may not be possible for us to cure ourselves or to find someone who can, it is possible for us to heal ourselves.  Healing implies the possibility for us to relate differently to illness, disability, even death, as we learn to see with eyes of wholeness.  Healing is coming to terms with things as they are.

Mindfulness is cultivated by assuming the stance of an impartial witness to your own experience.  To do this requires that you become aware of the constant stream of judging and reacting to inner and outer experiences that we are all normally caught up in and learn to step back from it.  When we begin practicing paying attention to the activity of our mind, it is common to discover and to be surprised by the fact that we are constantly generating judgements about our experience.

The habit of categorizing our experience locks us into mechanical reactions that we are not even aware of and that often have no objective basis at all.  These judgements tend to dominate our minds, making it difficult for us to find any peace within ourselves.

If we are to find a more effective way of handling the stress in our lives, the first thing we will need to do is to be aware of these automatic judgements so that we can see through our own prejudices and fears and liberate ourselves for their tyranny.

When practicing mindfulness, it is important to recognise this judging quality of mind when it appears and to intentionally assume the stance of an impartial witness by reminding yourself to just observe.  When you find the mind judging, you don’t have to stop it from doing that.  All that is required is to be aware of it happening.  No need to judge the judging and make matters even more complicated for yourself.

Patience is a form of wisdom.  It demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things must unfold in their own time.  We must cultivate patience toward our own minds and bodies when practicing mindfulness.  We intentionally remind ourselves that there is no need to be impatient with ourselves because we find the mind judging all the time.  Patience can be a particularly helpful quality to invoke when the mind is agitated.  It can help us accept this wondering tendency of the mind while reminding us that we don’t have to get caught up in its travels.  Practicing patience reminds us that we don’t have to fill up our moments with activity and with more thinking in order for them to be rich.  In fact it helps us to remember that quite the opposite is true.  To be patient is simply to be completely open to each moment, accepting it is its fullness, knowing that like a butterfly, things can unfold only in their own time.

The richness of present moment experience is the richness of life itself.  Too often we let our thinking and our beliefs about what we ‘know’ prevent us from seeing things as they really are.  We tend to take the ordinary for granted and fail to grasp the extraordinariness of the ordinary.  To see the richness of the present moment, we need to cultivate what has been called ‘beginner’s mind’, a mind that is willing to see everything as if for the first time.  An open ‘beginner’s mind’ allows us to be receptive to new possibilities and prevents us from getting stuck in the rut of our own expertise, which often thinks it knows more than it does.

No moment is the same as any other.  Each is unique and contains unique possibilities, beginner’s mind reminds us of this simple truth.  The next time you see somebody who is familiar to you, ask yourself if you are seeing this person with fresh eyes, as he or she really is, or if you are seeing only the reflection of your own thoughts about this person.

It is impossible to become like somebody else.  Your only hope is to become more fully yourself.  Ultimately you must live your own life, every moment of it.  In practicing mindfulness, you are practicing taking responsibility for yourself and learning to listen and trust your own being.  The more you cultivate this trust in your own being, the easier you will find it will be to trust other people more and to see their goodness as well.

Just keep practicing…

 

Dealing with the Dark Days (correct podcast for this title posted 28 November, 2018)

 

Leigh Hatcher interviews psychologist Sarah Piper and her client “Robyn” who came to Sarah looking for support through her depression. Gain insight into what happens in a session with a psychologist, by listening to a re-creation of a segment of a past session with “Robyn”. They also discuss the importance of getting the right “fit” when choosing a practitioner to work with.

Apologies to Sarah and our listeners for incorrectly posting one of Sarah’s previous podcasts (Psychologists are Human) under the title ‘Dealing with the Dark Days’.

20th Anniversary

Clinical psychologist, Lyn Worsley reflects on her journey into psychology, 20 years of The Resilience Centre and her passion to help people to connect. She discusses with Leigh Hatcher her interest in a solution focused rather than problem focused approach to helping people deal with life, and references the Pied Piper effect of computerized devices leading our children away from connecting with their community.

Why do we all get so frightened?

Why do we all get so frightened?
Have you ever thought of why we get so frightened? What part of the brain has this function to make us feel frightened?
Flight or fight is the natural instinct that we human beings possess so that our brain can quickly notify our body to make biological changes to save our life. Usually we only notice some physiological changes when we are fearful or running away such heart bounding, breathing rate increases, clammy hands, and butterflies in our stomach, difficult to breathe, tight chest, etc. Usually we only focus on our behaviour rather than knowing how it works in the brain and why it happens like this. Where does this fear message come from? Let’s look at which particular part of the brain does the alarm job to heighten our awareness to “fight or flight”.

The emotional part of the brain comprises of the limbic system, the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the basal ganglia.

The limbic system is the main areas for the experience and control of feelings. It sets the emotional tone of the mind, which filters external events through creating emotional coloring. It tags events as internally important, and stores highly charged emotional memories.

Although we know that generation of emotion is located in multiple areas and interconnected, we only focus on the amygdala, the limbic system, the hippocampus and the basal ganglia in here.
This critical task is processed by the structure called amygdala, which is regarded as the “fear centre” of the brain. It belongs to a small region of the brain called temporal lobe and is located at a point a line goes through your eye and your ear that intercepts with each other. It plays a key role in activating emotion. When it receives information form other parts of the brain, it will assign a level of emotional significance to whatever is going on and rings the alarm bell. For example, when a dog is fiercely barking at us, and is running towards our direction and appears to attack us, the fear centre will send sensory information to the other part of the brain and notify us to “escape or fight back”. At this time other body system will activate the release of the stress hormones cortisol for us to respond to this threat.

In addition, the amygdala also helps us remember a traumatic experience. Take the dog attack as an example. Next time when we see a barking dog coming to our direction even not showing any intention to attack us, we will flee to avoid the threat.

How does the connection work? The amygdala is connected to the hippocampus and runs like a circuit. The hippocampus is involved in storing highly charged emotional memories, both positive and negative. The amygdala is involved in negative emotions and the hippocampus is involved in aspects of memory. When we experience a threat, the memory is being registered in the hippocampus. Next time when a similar event happens, the hippocampus will send the sensory information to the amygdala to alert us that a threat is imminent. This process is going to promote survival in instinctual ways.

Sometimes a situation occurs when the circuit connecting between the amygdala and the hippocampus is dysfunctional. It may produce interference in stopping the amygdala or hippocampus within the limbic area, and as a result it cannot differentiate real from unreal information (Bradley 2000, pp259-260).
The basal ganglia are a set of large structures surrounding the limbic system. It is involved in integrating feelings, thoughts, and movement, as well as helping shift and smooth behaviour. It is also believed that the basal ganglia are involved in forming habits.

Research suggests that the basal ganglia are involved with setting the body’s anxiety as well as forming habits. When we are excited the basal ganglia will cause us to jump; when we are nervous it causes us to tremble; and when we are scared we will freeze.
When the basal ganglia are overactive, we are more likely to be overwhelmed by stressful situations and have a tendency to freeze or become immobile (in thoughts and in actions). To soothe the basal ganglia, research demonstrates that practising mindfulness skills would be able to slow down the activity of the basal ganglia and hence it calms the basal ganglia down, and thus our anxiety reduces.

Tips to calm our amygdala and other parts of our brain include:
1. Start using diaphragmatic breathing. This is the link from the youtube teaching diaphragmatic breathing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgTL5G1ibIo
2. Meditation – research has shown meditation can calm stress and enhance brain function
3. Remove caffeine and cut down sugar will help reduce a high lactate/pyruvate ratio’s connection with anxiety.
4. Vitamins B1, B3, and B6 help decrease anxiety by increasing the body’s ratio of pyruvate to lactate.
Gabriel Wong
Clinical Psychologist
References:
Amen, D. (2016). Change your brain change your life. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
Lazarus, P. (1995). Healing the mind the natural way. New York: G.P.Putnam’s Sons.