His Vision Carries On

IMG_3805 “I want to live in a world where people are inspired to actively respond to our personal, social, environmental, and economic challenges” ~ Micheal Stone

I was listening to a radio interview with Feist a little over a week after Michael’s passing. She was sharing the inspiration for her Pleasure album, but more specifically the significance of her song “Get Not High, Get Not Low”. Her exact words, I can’t remember. But what I took away from it was that she, as an artist, dreamed and had ambition to find a greater balance between the highs and the lows that characterized her reality and its expression. She used words like “Zen”, “balance”, and “even”, when describing her ideal way of life in which she could discover what living outside of the extremes would be like. And then, the interviewer (I apologize for not having noted who it was), asked whether Feist thought that the very creativity, imagination, and emotion that fuels her art would then die – whether it was possible for an artist to have both: a balanced, zen life and produce works of art that move people to feel and live deeply. And Feist simply said “I don’t know. That’s a good question.”

It made me think of Michael. Of everything he accomplished, visioned, created, published, loved deeply, inspired, and with such certainty and unstoppable determination. It made me think of me at certain times in my life. It makes perfect sense that he struggled. It makes sense that he studied the very practices that help find the balance between the highs and the lows and that he knew these teachings and practices so intimately. His highs, his burst of inspiration, the energy he must have gained from the work he did in support of others, and the rapid-fire mind that he had, were most likely the elements of his constitution, when kept in reasonable check, that made him the artist and creator that he was.

Dear Michael, I was meant to write you an email after your last visit to Ottawa. With more time and reflection, I will write you an open letter – in your name and memory. For now, I simply hold your vision in mind and trust that clarity will come in terms how to carry the teachings and mental health awareness forward when someone like yourself has gone from the only reality we know.

Perennial Wisdom vs. Evolving Science

IMG_3499If you wish to understand a concept, study the root language and the meaning of the root word from which the modern concept was derived. There is incredible wisdom in this approach to studying and understanding the qualities of our human experience.

It was through my studies in yoga therapy that I began to pay very close attention to the distinction between addressing health and healing through the lens perennial wisdom vs. evolving science. If you google “Perennial wisdom”, you will likely see the Latin translation, “Philosophia perennis”. And the definition of that is “a core of philosophical truths that is hypothesized to exist independently of and unaffected by time or place”. Evolving Science, however, refers to the evolution of what is known to be true. In other words, as scientific approaches, thoughts, measures, theories, protocols, tools, treatment practices grow and change overtime, what is known to be true also grows and changes overtime. Ask any medical professional to point out the differences and the relevance of their studies from 20 years ago to today’s application of medical science and they will tell you that what is known to be factual evidence in terms of the cause and treatment of most diseases has greatly shifted. In the 70s, homosexuality was a proven and published disease with a specific set of diagnostic criteria, for example. The treatment for Schizophrenia and many other mental health disorders involved scientifically sound treatment approaches such as electro shock therapy and commitment to asylums. Not that long ago, in an age when women had no rights and no voice, the treatment for “hysteria” which was a diagnosed disease based on women’s emotional and behavioural hormonal imbalance, was treated by the actual removal of the uterus. All this was done in good faith and profound trust in science. Yet, 10, 20, 30 years later, what is true has changed. And 10, 20, 30 years from now, today’s scientific truths will also have changed. I can almost guarantee that chemotherapy will be something we look back on and say “can you believe we used to think that poisoning the system was the answer?”. The times of giving Ritalin to 5 year olds for the treatment of ADHD will have long passed. And the belief that taking antidepressants as a means of changing brain chemistry will also shift in some unknown direction.

To come back to Perennial Wisdom, Yoga Therapy, and the study of root languages: I don’t reject modern science, but I do base my therapeutic approaches more on philosophical truths that have remained unaffected by place and time and I go back to these truths to inform my understanding of how to support a person who is not seeing results in the treatment they are receiving through a scientifically proven pharmaceutical or pathology-based approach. Please don’t misunderstand me. Our scientific and medical advancements are astounding. They have saved lives and given chances to people who 20 years ago would have died under the same health conditions. What I am saying is that Perennial Wisdom is something we must keep integrating and going back to when what we think to be true is proven wrong.

One of the missing aspects in evolutionary science is the spiritual component of our human experience. This is where root languages come in. In the most simple terms, yoga therapy is 90% working with the breath. In many root languages, such as Latin, the word for breath is spirit. The translation of Psyche in Latin, is also the human soul, mind, spirit. But in our Western Psychology, we have come very far from that concept. In yoga therapy, the root of all suffering is “Avidya”, which in Sanskrit, means a wrong understanding that we are alone and separate – an ignorance of our interconnectedness, our whole and complete nature. In my therapeutic approach, regardless of the person’s culture, religion or non-religion, age, gender, mobility, sexuality, diagnosis, what I am most interested in is their connection to themselves, others, and the world; their relationship to life and death. When the person is willing, we work directly with their breath. There is no need to believe in anything spiritual if what we understand about spirituality is simply that we become free from emotional and mental suffering when we can come back home to our heart, breathe freely, and live in whole connection to ourselves and the world around us. We are free from suffering when we remember and wake up to an experience that we are not alone and separate from one another.

Science may never be able to prove or show evidence for things that can’t be intellectually explained or measured by tools developed through the rational mind. Perennial wisdom is something we can simply trust because it keeps showing up. What was true in ancient times, remains true today. We are not separate from one another. Yet, when we believe that we are, we suffer. Scientific assessment of this would be categorized as depression, anxiety, PTSD, insecure attachment, and medication may be seen as the answer. Let’s not forget the deeper aspect of our human experience and the innate resilience that perennial wisdom can remind us to tap into.

 

Gettin’er Done

IMG_3816We all had a stake in it; we all had something to win and something to lose. Stuck in the mud, tears streaming down my face. I had already been there for two hours and the quad just wouldn’t budge. My body was just too small to give it gas with my thumb and push and lift the whole thing at the same time. Even though it took me two hours to admit that to myself – I kept saying “I can do this!” and would give it another try. And then another. But each time, I sunk myself deeper into the mud hole and the quad was now on its side. Maybe I was just trying to distract myself from the cloud of black flies. They are the reason I finally broke – my face itchy and swollen and my ears in a hot rage. What the fuck were they thinking giving me a quad with no brakes? No matter how deplorable the work conditions, we all kept going back year after year. Sure, I’ll deliver for my own crew. As though I was superwoman with extreme physical strength and mechanical skills. What was it with me, trying to prove some sort of gender equivalency? I could really use one of the guys right about now I kept thinking to myself. At this point, I knew my whole team would be soon sitting on the road waiting for trees. So, I abandoned the quad and walked the remaining five k. Sure enough, all thirteen of them were just waiting for me to show. When I entered the block with no quad and no trees – Well, they were unimpressed to say the least. Some quite pissed off, not at all surprisingly.

At 7 am that morning, I had given them a speech. I wish I could say it was the motivational kind, but no. It was more of a tough love, you’re not working hard enough, give ’em shit kind of speech. They all had to plant a lot that day – averaging 2000 trees each – for us to move on from that hell block where we had been working already for 8 days. I had been set on wrapping it up today. In my attempt to push my crew to plant hard, I found myself imitating the male bosses I had had in the past. Tried to make the long walk into the land seem trivial with stories of “back in my day” and mock them for acting like pussies for complaining. I was going to bust my tail for them I had decided. So, they better do the same. Essentially, I started my day angry hoping it would get me through what seemed like a ridiculous task. What my crew didn’t know was that I had only slept three hours. I had calculated everything. I did two trips in with trees the night before. Loaded up with a truck load at the tree cash at 5 am that very day. If I managed to do two quad runs per hour, we would be good, with two more truck runs to the tree cash in between.

So, those of them that understood how high the stakes were, loaded up their first bag-up with 50 lbs. of trees to walk in. Some of them did so quietly and marched through the first mud hole with determination. They showed they were on board and planned to just get’er done. Others whined and complained to which I could just say “we have to do this either way”. The worst of them was Andy. He had decided to boycott and stay in the van. Which was nothing new. He was about to get fired but somehow thought he was being smart.

By my third run in and out with the quad, I got so annoyed with Andy napping in my face that I radio-d the supervisor to please come get him and take him into town. Turns out my supervisor was more fed up than I was. He took Andy into town all right, but he swung by camp first for Andy to pack. He dropped him off at the bus depot with no money and told him to figure it out. Andy actually owed camp fees and hadn’t earned crap.

As I saw my crew when I entered the block on foot with no trees, I thought back to that moment when my supervisor had come to get Andy and check in. He had asked if I was sure that I would be ok. He was more invested in me wrapping up that block that day than me. But I told him I’d be good on my own. I was ahead of the game. He double checked even, letting me know that if he left me, he wouldn’t be back till after dark. “Are you sure you don’t need help?”, he couldn’t have asked more explicitly – and two or three times. I wanted Andy out of my hair so badly that I said I was perfectly fine. I knew all the muddy sinks wet spots on my route like the back of my hand. We had already built a bridge over the worst spot. Which is exactly where I ended up getting stuck – not more than ten minutes after my supervisor was out of radio shot. The bridge was the exact width of the quad and in my over-confident rush, the front tire slipped and the quad flipped into the mud. Two hours I spent there. Wishing Andy was still in the van cause he would have been close enough to see me and be that extra hand.

But instead, my “I can do this even though I am a girl” attitude took over. We all had to go back to that block the next day – adding on another minimum wage pay day to be living in a swamp in Northern Ontario planting trees. Back at camp, the day would be washed away and we would all gather around the fire laughing and venting about how ridiculous it all was. For now, the van ride home once everyone had walked out was dead silent. Sometimes, that’s just the way we all needed it to be. Someone eventually cranked up the tunes and it help shift the mood. We did wrap up that block the next day and finally moved on to better land.

Healing Is a Dynamic, Non-Linear Process

I don’t remember all the details of what it actually felt like to be that depressed. I can make an effort to remember – if I sit here and close my eyes and embody a glimpse of the lethargic, heavy, sobbing memory. After all, it had been my norm and my way of being for over a decade from age thirteen and well into my late twenties. It was like being wrapped in a heavy blanket that restricted my mobility, with chains hanging from my limbs and neck, and my own voice talking more loudly in my own head than any noises around me. What I do remember clearly was how much effort it took for me to be present to reality. It was like swimming against a heavy current with everyone watching very closely and screaming “what’s wrong with you? Just swim and stop crying.”

Because my mind was so absent, distracted, and disconnected from what was happening in real time, I don’t remember much in terms of the sequence of events and I don’t share memories in the same way as my friends and family. I just remember things as someone who was watching passively from the sidelines. Or better yet, I was sitting on the couch and watching life go by on a screen from a completely different experience of place and time. My favourite thing to do and what I craved all day long was the feeling of closing my bedroom door, hibernating from the world, curling in a ball, crying profusely, and ruminating on how much I was hated by everybody including me. No joke. I craved it. Although I could somehow function through most of my schooling, sports, and other activities, my body spoke so loudly – begging me to just get out, get home, so I could sink and wallow in my self-pity. I just don’t remember everything that went on around me for that decade because of my foggy brain activity.

I see it now in people who come to see me to heal from this same feeling. And those who are courageous enough to admit what’s going on will say “but what if I don’t want to get better?” or “what is wrong with me that I actually like wallowing in my self-pity?”. I usually respond by acknowledging that reality as just a part of the ironic symptomatology. And I let them know that there is also a way out of that irony. Because while it’s comfortable in that predictable and familiar kind of way, it’s also an extremely lonely place to be. I do remember that very clearly. I remember feeling so alone, so on my own, and the ruminating was always about “why me?”. Yet, by curling up into a ball and literally shutting out the world around me, I got to not have to be responsible for anything including my own well-being. My room was my sanctuary where I could cry as heavily as I wanted to and just be with my sob story. It’s how I could let everyone know how badly they had hurt me. Come to think of it, it was a delusion of my only means of communicating what was going on with me. I kept hoping that someone would help me, instead of standing by the side of the river screaming “What’s wrong with you? Just swim and stop crying.” I finally did meet someone who showed me how to swim more efficiently – how to focus my mind so intently that I became able to get through the heavy current and breathe and see everything around me more clearly.

It wasn’t a straight forward, linear process. I’m talking another decade of on and off craving for the comfort of the sadness and loneliness that had been my identity. But eventually, it all became a distant memory. Healing is just that way – two steps forward, one step back, three forward, two back, as we meet and overcome all the obstacles along our way. I haven’t wallowed in that way in years now – turns out I know how to be happy.

Mindful Leadership: the challenges we face

img_3132  This seems like the perfect timing of sharing the take-aways of “A Mindful Leader Forum”that I attended last week. The President Elect for the U.S. is officially Donald Trump. I genuinely thought it was an impossibility. My faith in humanity was so strong that I disengaged from paying attention to the campaign weeks ago. I held strong in my perspective that there was no way in a million years that the American people would make that choice for their future – our future. I realize now that I failed to pay attention to how out of balance the world really is at such a crucial time of needed social change. A man who is in a state of ignorance has been placed in one of the World’s most powerful positions. And I believe he was elected by a population who are equally suffering from a state of ignorance. I don’t mean ignorance in a condescending way. I mean ignorance in the true sense of misapprehension, not-knowing, being blind to the truth of the interconnection of everything and everyone. For people to come to a point of thinking that Trump is the answer to helping them overcome their suffering means they have been too long focused on a narrow view of themselves; too long focused on blame vs. responsibility, on power vs. respect, and on their own advancement vs. that of humankind. I am still confused and trying to make sense of how this happened and what the way forward is.

I had the fortune last week of listening to a conversation among leaders of important corporations, government, and academia from across North America as well as the UK. The event was held at The Canadian Museum of Nature in a beautiful space for an inspiring evening. These leaders were people with a unified commitment to authentic mindfulness as a way of being – committed to people’s health and happiness. Companies like Google, Dell, and WestJet, were represented by the very people who brought the concepts of mindfulness into the cultures, decision-making, and human resource management and training within these companies. A Mindful Society, The Mindfulness Initiative in the UK, University of Toronto, The Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic, Health Canada, Mindful – a print and digital magazine, and other individual practitioners, were all a part of the conversation about bringing the practice of mindfulness into private and public sectors in Canada, specifically. The part of the conversation that captivated me the most was a discussion among these leaders about the challenges we face, as mindful leaders, when trying to bring mindfulness into the cultures of government, institutions, corporations, and not-for-profit sectors, including education, criminal justice, and health services. Sher Van Aarle, an economist and senior advisor for the Government of Canada, said: “We want our public servants to be happy people, to be excited, engaged. If we had that, we would have a more balanced society, a more balanced world.” She encouraged us to think about what mindfulness could do in our schools, and in our communities, especially those that can’t afford to pay for trainings.

Here are the notes I took from the reflections, questions, and contemplations that this group of leaders raised in the discussions of the challenges they have faced in their journey of leading from a state of mindfulness:

  • How do we have power without being mean, without having aggression? With power comes responsibility and therefore, leaders have a responsibility to be mindful of the way they exercise that power – to do it with kindness, compassion, wisdom, and in a state of awareness of what is going on within and all around themselves.
  • Mindfulness is an opportunity to think creatively about the kind of change we want and need.
  • With mindfulness as a part of our culture, conflicts would still occur, but when they arise, they would be resolved productively.
  • Compassionate Wisdom: A well trained mind is a powerful mind when you bring those two virtuous characteristics together.
  • By our own actions, by our own role-modeming, we can really change the world.
  • Imagine what would happen if you had people at every level of organization and in our political systems bringing consciousness to everything they did and were living their purpose.
  • Part of the problem is that people don’t see themselves as leaders, so the first step is to work with people in identifying with their own leadership capacity.
  • We also need to become skilled in de-mystifying and communicating what mindfulness really is.
  • The champions (the people trying to effect the change) within organizations are often isolated from the power structures and the decision-making.
  • Now, there is a bigger interest among the public and individuals in all sectors of our society, but the question then becomes: do we have enough mindfulness practitioners who are experienced enough and skilled enough to meet the demand with really authentic teachings and trainings?
  • People are beginning to understand how mindfulness can be helpful for individuals, but there is still a challenge in translating these benefits on a organizational level so that the people in power see and understand the value of how a mindful culture within their organization could help them achieve their organizational outcomes.
  • And lastly… it’s important to take religion out of it. Barry Boyce pointed out that while Buddhism founded the concepts of mindfulness, Buddhism shouldn’t “get a free ride”. He pointed out that we would never try to push Judaism or Catholicism onto people and into the culture of our government or our public services, so we need to be mindful of how to make mindfulness its own practice that is inclusive of and relevant for everyone and separate from religious beliefs and practices.

After Trump’s success in winning the presidency, I had to take a step back, and wonder how mindful leaders in the U.S. especially will become even more isolated than they already are. I can only hang on to the fact that we, in our human capacity, are limited in our view. We can’t see how things will play out, we can’t see what break-downs and break-throughs will arise. We can only focus on what is within our control, accept what is. We always have our practice to come back to – an awareness of what is happening inside and around us in each moment of every day will guide our actions from a place of clear-knowing. Keep doing things that are important in this world, and keep living from your heart.

 

 

Health And Happiness Are Two Sides Of The Same Coin

img_2483The more I study and understand the interconnections between our mind, body, and breath, the more I am intrigued about the relationship between our overall health and our level of happiness. I am currently studying Ayurveda in conjunction with the yoga therapy training I am coming to the end of. I decided to embark on studying further because of how often I see people’s mental wellness and happiness depleting along with their physical and physiological health. Without our health, basically, I don’t believe that any amount of wealth can bring us real contentment even if that wealth is a richness in relationships, money, and professional or personal achievements. When I speak of health, I include the psychological, physical, physiological, and spiritual aspects of our well-being. “The total is greater than the sum of its parts”. For the purpose of this post, I am referring even more specifically to our physical and physiological health as an important part of the overall system.

Our digestive fire is like the battery in our car. A healthy system is one whose bodily functions work in alignment with one another: the individual has a healthy appetite, regular bowel movements, good quality and quantity of sleep, etc. Healthy does not mean we don’t get sick, but when we do get sick, the body bounces back into alignment following the infection or illness and doesn’t stay out of balance. Health is also optimized when we don’t suppress any of the following bodily urges: gas/ bowel movements, urination, menstruation, sneezing, yawning, orgasm, tears, vomiting, hunger, breathing, burping, thirst, and sleep. These urges are not to be indulged in any excess either. Cravings can be healthy or unhealthy and so it requires having a healthy mind to be able to pay attention to the body’s natural and healthy urges while abstaining from the mental cravings that may be mistaken for natural urges.

The other thing I am recently becoming more aware of and intrigued by, is the Ayurvedic understanding of healthy eating that goes way beyond the common saying “we are what we eat”. According to Ayurveda (and which makes perfect sense), our health is not only dependent on what we do, but how we do it. When we exercise, do it in such a way as to listen to the body and be mindful of the choice of exercise we do. When we communicate, to communicate non-harmfully and clearly and in alignment with all other ethical precepts. And when we eat, it’s not just about what we ingest, but about how we ingest it, digest it, assimilate it, metabolize it, and eliminate it. It is not uncommon for people in today’s health-conscious world to fall ill or develop a disease and say “but I did everything right”. As a psychotherapist and yoga therapist, my intention is to work with people on this deeper level and in a way that assists them in restoring their overall health by working with the whole system toward the end goal of living a happy life. There are many people who eat well, do exercise, and maybe even practice yoga. If these same people, however, have a restricted and shallow breath, are suppressing some of their healthy and natural urges, and living with any other symptoms of anxiety, fear, or disintegration, the digestion, assimilation, metabolism, and elimination processes may be impeded, resulting in a manifestation of physical and physiological symptoms or conditions.

Once the health of the physical body and all of its functions is restored, greater mental clarity and contentment is possible, and vice versa. You can’t address one without looking at the whole. Yoga and its sister science, Ayurveda, are brilliant models for understanding the nature of our human system with very basic and simple concepts rooted in ancient wisdom.

The beauty in studying these ancient teachings is that it simply requires understanding and observing the nature that surrounds us all and applying that understanding to our own self-care.

The Upside of Anger

Some of the most fertile soil on the planet is the soil that has lived the transformation of a forrest fire. img_0423Lately, there has been a fire in my belly, a determined force within me, and a strong urge to create movement, change, and real transformation. The kind of anger that I consider to be my friend as long as I find the balance between feeling it and containing it. Like any fire, it will burn out, but also needs to be contained with elements of water and earth. I try not to add too much additional fire, air, or give it too much space to expand. I also don’t want to suppress it or suffocate it. This anger has an upside even if I can’t yet see what it is, what it will serve exactly, or how it will manifest.

I wrote another post on this topic 3 years ago, titled “Don’t tell me to calm down!”. In reading over what I wrote, my perspective is the same now as it was then. In fact, I would re-iterate everything I wrote about the healthy aspects of anger, its important messages, and knowing how to distinguish between what is happening and what we perceive is happening in order to respond appropriately when anger strikes. Anger can in fact cloud our perception. I would also say that a clouded perception can result in misinformed and unnecessary feelings of anger. When we don’t take the time to observe ourselves and what an emotion is signalling, we do risk causing undo harm – especially if we choose to act on anything while in an emotional state and before having clarity. The harmful consequences are sometimes immediate and sometimes experienced later on. Either way, anger isn’t bad, it’s the actions that we take when we are angry that that lead us to believe that anger itself is a bad thing. We just need to learn how to pay attention to it, listen, give it space to shift, and know when it is helpful and when it’s harmful to ourselves and others.

This specific fire in my belly is a unique kind. It’s familiar and unfamiliar to me at the same time. I have always known sadness better than I know anger. In fact, I used to get so uncomfortable and feel guilt when anger arose that it would melt into tears, self-punishment, and shame. This time, it’s not melting. It wasn’t triggered by anything in particular (I don’t think) and I am not afraid of it. It’s been with me for three days. I am watching myself get more easily frustrated, flustered, impatient, and yet, not breaking into tears – I am able to stay with it and limit my reactivity to the burning sensations of heat and power. I try to express it without harming anyone and give warning to people when I do feel myself bordering on being misunderstood as an impatient or angry person or when I know I am simply not being myself. I think it may be an arising of a part of myself that I have either suppressed or ignored for a long time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence either that I am experiencing this after having had a cranial-sacral therapy treatment where themes of anger and distrust come up in the form of physical resistance to a process of surrender during the treatment. It was a full moon in the last couple days. Thanksgiving came with some family conflict. But still with those things combined, I can’t yet see or understand what its message is. All I can do is trust its usefulness to my growth, give it enough space to burn within mindfully contained limits: “mind the fire”, if you will. Part of what it’s teaching me is to learn how to befriend it and use it as a motivator for the urges I am having to create movement, change, and transformation.

I have a feeling it’s the social justice kind of fire. I am day-dreaming of cutting out the bullshit in social services provided for people; telling the people who crossed lines with me to f-off; and carrying myself more proudly with a greater sense of self-respect and communicating simply through my presence and way of being rather than through a reactivity that creates fear or giving in the discomfort of holding my personal power. The upsides are a sense of being head-strong, determined, beautifully powerful, and commanding respect by giving respect both to myself and others.

Anger ain’t a bad thing. It may just be a fire that fuels change.

Victim, Villain, Hero, Oh my!

085The point that I am interested in making in this post is related to the impact that it has on our health when we get stuck in the loop of the drama triangle. Essentially, it is impossible to play out one of the three roles of victim, villain, or hero in our interactions AND be in a state of mindfulness at the same time.

I took this picture at a small little art show on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, a few summers ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t note the artist’s name and yet I keep finding appropriate topics to suit her messages.

“Holding onto it only makes you sick” reminded me of the narratives we create, play out, and reinforce in our lives when we’re in conflict with others. Therefore, reminding me of the drama triangle model that I had come across in the past. Every story has a victim, a villain, and a hero, which I believe was originally coined as the “drama triangle” by Karpman, S. as a model for fairy tale and script drama analysis. However, the model also proved to be quite useful later on in psychotherapy, conflict resolution, and as a basic model of human social interaction. To read more about the theory as it relates to human interactions and conflict resolution, here is a link to a short summary written by Gary Harper: Conflict Drama: Victim, Villain, Hero?

To be in a state of mindfulness involves being in connection with ourselves; seeing clearly what is happening in reality beyond our mind’s interpretation and commentary; and to respond from a place where the ego doesn’t get in the way. Where ever there is drama, there is either suffering or the potential for suffering. From a mindful state of being, however, there is no story, just direct perception, and therefore, there is no suffering and no drama. Also, from a state of mindfulness, there is space for healing, change, and a letting go.  What we hang on to psychologically, has a real impact not only on our mental health, but on the physiological and physical realms of our being.

Too often, I meet people who are caught in the drama triangle and psychologically attached, convinced, and even comfortable staying there. They are also sometimes people who are quite sick, with many different physical and physiological conditions. I completely understand it and I have been there and continue to get caught in it every now and then. Unfortunately, without either a meditation practice or some means of checking in with ourselves to jump off the story-making-merry-go-round, there is a real risk of increased suffering. “Holding onto it only makes you sick” is not just a saying or a metaphor.

Take the time to keep your mind healthy. Take the time to examine the stories you tend to play out and shift from passive victim to assertion, from hero to problem-solver, and from controlling villain to collaborator, as described in Harper’s article. Even if it’s for no one else but yourself – for your own health.

Witnessing the Art of Dying

Recently, I had the fortune of being by my uncle’s side and supporting my aunt who was caring for him during the last 48 hours of his life and this is what I wrote:

Witnessing the Art of Dying

“Je veux mourir à la maison” he had decided. And so dying at home it would be. After all, he was a man who precisely calculated everything and he lived this way intentionally. The kind of wealth he had doesn’t come from rushing through things blindly. I am referring to the wealth of love, respect, and dignity, that one only earns from being so giving.

Ironically, “Hourglass” was the title of the song that was playing right before his ending: a beautiful cello composition that encapsulated his graceful state of being. The lake still frozen and the clear sky lit up by the moon, filled those last two nights with a silent and peaceful solitude. We stayed awake since we knew he would be leaving us soon, and because every one of his last moments was to be held with gratitude.

As he lay there dying, audibly labouring each breath, he was just waiting. And we sat there by his side, holding the space of tranquility, hoping to assist him in this process of surrendering. The sun would rise and we would pull up the blinds and say: “Il s’est rendu au matin”. My aunt would ask the nurse to stay until the 6 AM morphine, and then we would brew some coffee and go back to our quiet sitting.

There were times when I would close my eyes next to him, meditating. Embodying the serenity that he himself had set up the conditions for in his waking. Other times, I would focus on his breath, his transforming being, seeking to understand what was objectively happening. I also found myself reciting mantras in my head to remind myself of my own mortality, while wondering what was this cancer that inhabited his physical body.

What I could hear, but he was not saying, was his voice in response to us caring: “Ok, chère”, “Merci, chère”, “T’es bein fine, chère”. All of sudden, the term “chère”, dear, rung loudly in my memory and with a whole new meaning. It was not just a term of endearment, but one that he always spoke with softness, respect, and authenticity. And to his wife, I could hear him saying “Je t’aime Bé”, “Merci, Bé”, “Je vais n’ennuyer de toi, Bébé”. It’s this love that he shared with his wife wholeheartedly that I mostly had the gift of witnessing.

He opened his eyes on his day before last and asked “Y’ai quelle heure?” “10 H”, my aunt replied. “Avant-midi?”, “oui”. He was awake for that moment and maybe for no reason but to see it drift into its past. It’s likely, that in his state of vulnerability, he was accepting, and facing his death with humility. He had said everything he had to say in preparation for his passing. And so, when he went, he went peacefully.

And therein lies the art of dying. He had mastered it by having learned the art of living.

Katherine Marr

The Mindfulness & Yoga Trends: addressing the concerns arising from one-size-fits-all approaches being taught

028I have received a few emails now from various students and clients asking me to address some of the complaints they have heard from people regarding the risk factors associated with mindfulness and yoga practices. Articles are being published by people who have attended a mindfulness workshop, for instance, only to feel triggered and have a panic attack upon leaving the room. There are now people researching the risk factors of mindfulness and meditation, announcing that mindfulness is not as therapeutic as people have been claiming. And, as the trend of yoga continues to be rampant, there have been many publications and warnings about how the physical practice of yoga can actually cause injury. I agree that this is an important topic to address and I hope to help clarify some of the misconceptions about mindfulness and yoga that are leading to these adverse effects in the first place.

The main problem in the health-related fields where mindfulness is being applied and where programs are being developed is that practitioners are teaching, packaging, and trying to sell the practices to large groups and in a way that falsely communicates that the same techniques can be applied to all people for the same benefits.

The one-size-fits-all approach could not be more misinformed. The Yoga Journal and other popular publication sources will publish articles titled “Yoga for depression”, or “Yoga for back pain”, or “5 meditation tips to alleviate anxiety”. So, the question that any well-informed therapist would ask is “Whose depression, back pain, and anxiety are we talking about?” The tools in yoga and mindfulness are infinite. The therapeutic application of the tools needs to be highly individualized and very specific to the individual’s constitution, symptoms of suffering, the causes of suffering, their therapeutic goals, their lifestyle, and more. For many people, individual guidance in the form of a prescribed practice is the most optimal choice for wellness and healing.

As it relates to mental health in particular, there are two important responses I have to anyone whose anxiety or trauma has actually been triggered by a mindfulness practice.

The first thing to note is this: if you have been living your life in reaction, dissociation, and slight disconnection from the reality around you in order to survive and protect yourself from harm or the threat of harm, it is natural that you would experience mindfulness practices as triggering because you are bringing to your awareness the very patterns of thought that you were previously either unconscious of or intentionally avoiding. Some of the students or clients I work with therapeutically will actually walk into a session angry with me at times and say “great, I knew i was messed up, but now I know I am even more messed up than I thought”. And to that, I say “perfect”. They don’t like that, but i then explain. It’s perfect because it means they are doing the work. It’s perfect because they are stepping into the awareness which is where the real work toward change can begin. And it’s perfect because it means change is happening. Silent practices in particular where you are being asked to quiet or focus your mind on something may be quite frustrating as this would naturally have you become more aware of just how easily distracted and restless you are. In this sense, ignorance can be bliss. But, hopefully, with the right guidance and support in finding the most appropriate tools for you, you can stay with this discomfort, stay with the practice, and gain a helpful understanding of the root of your suffering in order to address this and move toward freedom from the suffering as you learn to observe the patterns more objectively and live your life more consciously and connected.

The second important response I have is related to the tools being selected. If you suffer from panic attacks, PTSD, or any other anxiety-based disorder where the breath can be restricted, being asked to focus your attention on your breath may very well be one of the most unsafe places to be. Being silent and left with your thoughts if you suffer from flashbacks and serious emotional suffering could be more hindering than helpful. And I share this understanding from my own mistakes made as a practitioner. So, I have no judgment toward those who are learning as teachers. Following 5 minutes of a simple breathing meditation, one of the youth I work with proceeded to engage in serious self-harm as soon as she returned to her room from the practice. In those 5 minutes, she was reliving the atrocious events in the form of memories that she has spent her life trying to distract herself from. I have since received a lot of mentoring and coaching from knowledgeable practitioners and I make a very clear point in my studies to understand not only the beneficial effects of the various tools in yoga, but also the contra-indications. One very simple and fairly safe statement is that, for some people, the best way to expand the breath and quiet the mind is by making sound or chanting. With the appropriate selection of physical movements, breath can be taught in synchronicity with the movement, without having to focus the mind on the breath, and with clear intentions of the desired effect of alleviating problematic symptoms and addressing the root cause of the suffering.

In yoga therapy, we ask ourselves three questions as we enter a therapeutic assessment: what is the desired effect of the practice? where do we want the person to feel the effect (at the level of the mind? in the breath? where on the body?, etc.) and for whom is this effect intended (taking all individual factors in mind about the specific person).

So, if ever you read or hear anything about the risk factors related to yoga and mindfulness practices, it is most likely that the person who has experienced adverse effects was either taught in a group format with a one-size-fits-all approach that was not suitable for that individual, or they may have received the guidance from someone who did not have enough experience to support them through the discomfort by re-evaluating the person’s experience and the tools being applied in order to continually adjust the practice for the desired effects.

I welcome any questions, comments, or experience you may have to share related to this important discussion.