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I have initially created the Better Than Cured Guide to Healing and Happiness to help patients in my psychiatric private practice who were suffering from anxiety and depression. My goal was not only to help them get well, but beyond that, to also help them find a viable path to a happier life. They were loosing any hope that they can ever be healthy and happy again. They were amazed when they did it. If hundreds of my patients could do it, so can you, my dear reader. I hope their stories of courage and success will empower you to reinvent yourself and rekindle the hope that your life too can be better and that your pain can be healed. Set your life course on a "better than cured" path that leads to your own profound and personal journey to healing and happiness. For more information about my medical career and my private practice, please visit my web site at drforest.com.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How Mindfulness Training Can Make Your Life Better

Over the weekend I attended a workshop on mindfulness taught by Dr. Ronald Siegel. Mindfulness psychotherapy derives from Buddhist psychology. Dr. Siegel has been practicing and teaching mindfulness to patients for many years, even before it was considered okay to mention Buddhism in medical circles. He is part of a small group of pioneers, including Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn, who have advocated including mindfulness practice in medicine since the 1980s. Now, backed up by an increasing body of well documented research, the medical world is better prepared to accept the notion that our minds are an even more powerful health component than believed, and that learning how to access and use that power facilitates physical and emotional healing, and increases our overall capacity for happiness.

The first part of the workshop was about how we, as mental health workers, learn and apply mindfulness to our own lives. The second part, was how to teach it to our patients.

Here are two of my take-home points:

The more you try to run away from a nagging thought or fear, the harder it is to escape it.

The more effort we put into forcing out of mind an uncomfortable thought or fear, the more we focus on it. The more we focus on it, the more we reinforce it and lodge it deeper in our mind. It’s the old “try not to think of a pink elephant right now” and the whole class suddenly imagines a variety of pink elephants promptly inhabiting the room.

But if we stay with an uncomfortable thought without an excessive effort to subdue it gradually our mind begins to get accustomed to it, bored with it; and gradually our mind will start looking for new thoughts or feelings to focus on.

We did this exercise in class and you can do it at home too: Go to a quiet place where you will not be disturbed for ten minutes. Set your alarm for ten minutes. Now sit comfortably and breathe freely. While breathing, think of something that usually annoys you. Stay with that thought. Try to keep it in mind as long as you can, maybe even for the whole ten minutes before the alarm sounds. Were you able to do it, or did you have difficulty holding that unpleasant thought in mind?

Pleasant and unpleasant thoughts travel in and out our minds in waves. They reach a peak and then, if we do not hold on to them, they decrease in intensity and go away. They become more controllable, less obsessive or disturbing or painful. If we do not hold on to these troublesome thoughts, the wave passes. If we try to fight them, the wave lingers until we do let go. It is a counterintuitive way to manage frustrations, but it works better than trying to oppose them and fight them head on.

Meditation is an attainable “feel good” practice.

This came as a surprise to me. I was under the impression that meditation is hard and complicated and takes a lot of time to do. I could not have been further from the truth.
We did a few meditation exercises in the class. Meditation for our purposes means sitting comfortably in a chair, or standing, or even slowly walking, while breathing normally and focusing on the breath. Stay calm and focus on how the chest and abdomen distend to receive the nourishing air that brings oxygen to the heart, brain…to the whole body. Breathing in and out, stay with it. Because our minds are used to being busy, the tendency will be to jump from thought to thought. But no matter where your mind goes by itself, like an unruly puppy, you bring it back to focus on the breath—a single, simple focus point. As with a beloved puppy, be gentle and kind (nonjudgmental) in bringing the focus back to the breath. Thoughts will occur; they do in everyone.

If you can do that for at least ten minutes a day, you will increase your ability to stay calm when facing frustrations, you will feel more rested and more peaceful; additionally, you will increase your immune system’s strength and your tolerance of pain--among many other benefits.

It does take practice to focus the busy mind on something as basic as the breath. But you may feel so peaceful when you do that, that you will want to extend the time you spend meditating. That would be a good sign.

This is a simple step, a humble beginning. If this works for you, you will likely take further steps in this practice.

Using my IPad, I drew a few diagrams on this subject.

The first one represents an unruly, untrained mind, one that is very busy worrying about everything, can't focus on anything in particular and is completely overwhelmed by the chaos it creates for itself.

The second diagram represents a trained mind, used to sort out worries, prioritize them and deal with worrisome thoughts without panic. It holds many different thoughts, many more than an unruly mind, because it has a clear, uncluttered focus. It is a much calmer mind, too. Much more balanced and much less overwhelmed. Formal meditation is one way to achieve this clarity. But not the only one.

The third image is a picture I found on fotolia.com. It is a good visual metaphor for an enlightened mind, able to go beyond the obvious, so powerful that it can hold the entire world in it. Some say that through years of diligent practice of meditation, one's mind could get to this level.

Here are some helpful references if you would like to explore this subject:

Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Mindfulness Solution Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems: book and website by Ronald Siegel

Explore the work of Jon Kabat Zinn

1 comment:

  1. A fantastic article. I was reading on Yahoo just yesterday how scientists have FINALLY discovered that people are indeed much happier when they are in the present moment. I laughed that it took them all this research and technology (they used an iphone application) to learn something that we have always known.