Friday, August 28, 2009

Kindness - An Essential Companion of Mindfulness

This is the last section in Dr. Hopper's paper on mindfulness and it describes two essential elements or companions necessary in the successful practice of it. Anyone who meditates knows that you must be non-judgemental toward yourself because this practice of calming your thoughts will take a long time to master. Therefore, as your thoughts and emotions arise and interfere with your mindfulness, you must calmly accept this, just observe them, and return to your practice. This is natural for all so you should never allow this to cause frustration or a sense of failure. These two companions to mindfulness, lovingkindness and compassion, are tecniques to help you become non-judgemental, loving, and compassionate toward yourself as you deal with the thoughts and emotions that arise during your practice. These tools will help you to fine tune your mindful practice and achieve a much greater state of happiness and contentment in your life. Good meditating!


The non-judgmental quality of mindfulness discussed previously is very important. However, the absence of judgment toward unwanted experiences is necessary but not sufficient. People also need to cultivate the presence of kindness – toward themselves, toward others, and toward the inevitable unwanted, painful and otherwise distressing experiences in life.

There are two especially important forms of basic human kindness, which Buddhists refer to as "lovingkindness" and "compassion." These are ways of relating to ourselves and others that promote acceptance, calmness, happiness, and freedom (especially from reactivity and compulsivity). While lovingkindness and compassion are (moral and ethical) ideals for relating to others, they are also mental qualities essential for achieving greater peace, freedom, and happiness. Therefore, encouraging oneself or others to cultivate these qualities – as I'm doing here – is not about "preaching" or "moralizing" or pushing people to be "good" or "nice." Rather, the encouragement and suggestions that follow are intended to help you to discover how cultivating these qualities will help you to achieve much greater freedom and happiness in your life.

"Lovingkindness" is an English translation of the word "metta" from Pali, a language used to record the early teachings of Buddhism. The word has two root meanings, "gentle" and "friend," and the foundation of lovingkindness is being a gentle friend to yourself, no matter what kind of experience you happen to be having in the moment.

Lovingkindness refers to an unconditional and open love. This is not the kind of "love" that has requirements and conditions attached to it ("I love you because...", "I'll love you if..."), or that only accepts pleasant experiences and thus distorts one's perceptions based on wishes and illusions. Lovingkindness is not bound up with personal agendas or desire. Lovingkindness does not want things – including unwanted experiences – to be anything other than they actually are, in the present moment. Instead, the present moment and current experience are embraced, which, paradoxically, makes even unwanted and painful situations more "workable," by providing other options for responding than automatic and habitual reactions which cause more problems and suffering.

In the Buddhist tradition, it is said that practices designed to cultivate lovingkindness were first taught to help people to overcome fear. Such practices can be extremely helpful to people with histories of childhood hurt and betrayal who continue to struggle with fear in their lives. In fact, many of the automatic and habitual reactions that make situations worse are based on fear of being hurt, exploited or otherwise mistreated, even if one is not aware of this at the time.

Before going further, it is important to clarify what lovingkindness is not. It is not about accepting or condoning other people's hurtful behavior. It does not mean becoming more vulnerable because you no longer experience or respect your fear or anger and simply "letting down your guard." As suggested above, exactly the opposite is true:

The mental quality of lovingkindness allows one to accept the reality of what is happening in the present moment, including one's potentially intense negative emotional responses.

Accepting rather than rejecting what is happening in the current moment does not mean believing or "accepting" that one can do nothing to prevent the situation from continuing or getting worse in the next moment. Nor does it mean blindly accepting and simply allowing one's own automatic and habitual responses – no matter how compelling or "justified" such responses may initially feel. Just the opposite: accepting the current moment enables you not to allow the external situation, or your internal reactions, to rob your capacity for freedom in the next moment.

It's not about "letting down your guard," but rather guarding your mind – guarding it from being carried away with automatic, habitual, and unhelpful responses based on reactions to past hurts; guarding it from being consumed by fear and self-defense rather than being supported by clear perception, effective reasoning and wise choices about how to respond skillfully and without worsening the situation.

With lovingkindness, taking care of oneself, and responding compassionately to others, are not in conflict but go hand in hand. Most of us sometimes "defend" ourselves when it's not necessary, or respond with more extreme self-protective measures than are required or helpful in a particular situation. And most if not all of us think we were "just trying to defend myself" when attacking another person. Lovingkindness practices can reduce and eventually help to eliminate these habitual ways of thinking and behaving.

All of the descriptions above are fairly abstract, so let's reflect on a typical experience in everyday life, and how lovingkindness can radically change it:
You are walking down the street, partly paying attention to where you're going but mostly focused on concerns about the past and worries about the future, when suddenly someone bumps into you. In response, you automatically do one or more of the following: (a) say something like "hey, watch where you're going!" or "what's wrong with you?!" (b) think to yourself something like "I can't believe she did that!" or "People are such jerks!" or "Just another example of how I get pushed around all the time." We've all had experiences like this. Our mind and brain, already in a state of distraction and stress, are vulnerable to responding automatically in ways that only increase our stress and, should we say something out loud, could escalate the situation by evoking anger and aggression in the other person. We really don't know why the person bumped into us, but our distracted and stressed mind assumes ill intent, perceives an attack which must be defended against, and reacts by directing anger toward the other person and/or our self.

You are walking down the street, feeling calm and happy, enjoying the sights and sounds, when suddenly someone bumps into you. As you watch the person continue past you, you notice how your body immediately swerved to the side and tensed up; how the thought, "hey, watch where you're going!" automatically arose in your mind and is now quickly followed by attempts at explanation with thoughts like, "what a pushy person," "maybe she's in a hurry," "maybe she's distracted and stressed." Mindfully observing the conditioned responses of your body and mind, you maintain the background of calmness and acceptance and, with an attitude of gentle friendliness, simply notice that your body has tensed and your mind is attempting to assign meaning and blame – then go back to enjoying the sights and sounds of walking down the street. You might even look at the person who bumped into you and think, "I hope you have a nice day." Sometimes it can be hard to feel kindness (especially if you've experienced a lot of hurt and betrayal in your life). Try starting with something simple:

The starting point is to imagine a person or animal that spontaneously and irresistibly evokes feelings of kindness. Picture them in a peaceful quiet setting, like a nice field of grass.

This could be a person – for example, a baby, a niece or nephew, another little child, or a much-loved grandparent who is still living or has passed away. If you choose a person, it's important that it not be someone for whom you have any mixed feelings, otherwise they could get in the way.

Or it could be a cute little puppy, kitten, or other baby animal, or a group of them.
Notice the feeling you get when you imagine this person or animal. Notice whether your body changes, any internal sensations of kindness.

If you can feel this kind and warmth feelingt, give yourself a minute to continue imaging the person or animal and feeling that warmth, and the attitude of gentle friendliness that goes with it.

If you don't feel the kindness and warmth initially, give yourself some time, and experiment with images, until you find one that helps you have some feelings of safety and comfort. Then give yourself a minute to continue having those feelings, and imagine wishing them for a lovable person or animal. Notice the kindness behind your wish, and give yourself some time to experience that kindness and feelings of warmth that go with it.

Then bring to mind an image of yourself as a young child. Move the kindness from the other person or animal to yourself. If the young image of yourself is too young for words, simply hold your hands over your heart. If you wish to use words, gently add the phrase "may I love myself just as I am" while holding your heart. Other lovingkindness phrases are, "may I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be safe, may I be free of suffering," but feel free to make up your own, whatever works for you.

It is important not to force the lovingkindness. If you can't feel anything or it feels routine or cold, try compassion practice instead (described below). If you have felt a great deal of pain in your life, you may be more naturally able to feel compassion. For example, as one woman with a history of severe child abuse observed, "At certain times, working with lovingkindness felt like silencing the pain. Paradoxically, though, as soon as I listened to and cared about my suffering with compassion, then the lovingkindness naturally arose."

Also, if you sometimes don't experience lovingkindness when you do exercises like these, it is important not to be hard on yourself, or to give in to thoughts or feelings of hopelessness that may arise. As Sharon Salzberg explains in her book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness,

"In practicing metta [lovingkindness] we do not have to make certain feelings happen. In fact, during practice we see that we feel differently at different times. Any momentary emotional tone is far less relevant than the considerable power of intention we harness as we say these phrases. As we repeat, 'May I be happy; may all beings be happy,' we are planting seeds by forming this powerful intention in the mind. The seed will bear fruit in its own time...

"Doing metta, we plant the seeds of love, knowing that nature will take its course and in time those seeds will bear fruit. Some seeds will come to fruition quickly, some slowly, but our work is simply to plant the seeds. Every time we form the intention in the mind for our own happiness or for the happiness of others, we are doing our work; we are channeling the powerful energies of our own minds. Beyond that, we can trust the laws of nature to continually support the flowering of our love" (p.39).

"Compassion" is an English translation of the Pali term "karuna." As Sharon Salzberg explains, karuna means "experiencing a trembling or quivering of the heart in response to a being's pain." The compassionate response of the heart involves engaging with pain – gently, with acceptance and strength – not being overwhelmed by it. Many of us have learned first hand that being overwhelmed by pain can lead to depression and despair, even anger and aggression directed against our self or others. Such conditioned responses, while understandable, especially if one was hurt as a child and has not yet learned to respond compassionately to one's own suffering, must not be confused with compassion.

There is much to learn about developing compassion, from books like those listed below, from teachers of compassion-cultivating meditation practices, from therapists, and from many experiences in life and relationships.

Here are some compassion practices to try out and experiment with. Remember, don't try to force things, and give the practices and yourself some time. It's not helpful to judge yourself or give up hope – but if judgments or hopeless thoughts and feelings arise, don't judge yourself for having them or lose hope!

Simply repeat, with a genuine intention, a few phrases of kindness and compassion toward yourself. Some commonly used phrases are, "May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be free of suffering." Another option is, "May I have a calm, gentle, and loving mind." Or you can make up phrases of your own, experimenting until you find ones that work for you. After a few minutes of repeating these phrases, and continually reconnecting with the intention behind saying them, you may find that feelings of kindness and love, a state of calm, and/or other nice things are happening in your mind and body. Doing this practice for 10 to 20 minutes once a day can be very powerful, and can create a resource to draw on during particularly stressful times.
Offer compassion to your painful feelings. A common phrase to use is, "I care about my pain." Again, you may be surprised to discover the power of simply repeating a phrase like this with a sincere intention.

When difficult emotions arise, try holding them like you would a crying child. Hold the fear like you would hold a fearful child. Hold the anger as you would hold an angry child. Ultimately, it's about learning to meet each one of your thoughts and mind-body states with this unconditional love, like welcoming all your children home.

Offer compassion to the hurt part of yourself. Bring to mind an image of yourself at a time of hurt and pain, and offer compassion to the child or adult you were then. You might use phrases like, "may you find peace, may you be free of suffering."

Try a practice known as "tonglen" (which involves "sending and receiving" coordinated with breathing). Picture yourself at a time of pain and hurt. On the in-breath, breathe in that person's pain and suffering. On the out-breath send that person support and caring.

Finally, try directing compassion to the quality of your own mind, or the part of you, that can be mean or cruel to yourself or others. Recall a time that you were hurtful to yourself or someone else (start with a relatively mild case). Notice how you were responding based on past conditioning, feeling like you were defending and protecting yourself, or justly punishing yourself or the other person. Offer compassion to that tendency to respond to pain or being wronged with anger and aggression. Offer compassion to yourself for how – like all human beings, especially those who have been deeply hurt – you can create more suffering because of your confusion and your limited ability to respond to pain compassionately.

These fundamental forms of human kindness, lovingkindness and compassion, are indeed essential companions to mindfulness. They will calm your mind and body. They will bring you peace, ease, and happiness. Like mindfulness, lovingkindess and compassion require practice and discipline, as well as patience with yourself. But the practice and patience are well worth it. Gradually but inevitably, you will find yourself having kind, loving and compassionate responses to a greater and greater range of experiences – ultimately even the most difficult and painful ones.

By Jim Hopper, Ph.D.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Caution: Mindfulness Includes Pain, and Requires Readiness

In my previous post, Dr. Hopper explained "mindfulness" in detail. This practice of being completely in the moment is at the core of all spiritual teachings and is necessary for you to progress on your Path with Heart back to your True Nature. In these moments of "non-thought", some people may experience difficulty or discomfort if they access past negative emotions. This can be difficult and require emotion-regulation skills. In this second post, Dr. Hopper discusses this situation thoroughly and explains how you can be prepared in case this happens to you. I strongly recommend that you read this and learn these skills so you will be prepared for this unpleasant situation should it occur.

Unless you have overcome this material world, you have had and will continue to have bad experiences. The best thing to do is to deal with them as they happen with acceptance and love but few of us have mastered this very Zen state of Being. This means that we have repressed painful and unpleasant experiences and emotions hidden deep beneath our consciousness. As you meditate, you may encounter one of these repressed emotions so it is always good to be aware of this and prepared to deal with it. This is only natural and can be very therapeutic. You should never let this possibility interfere with your mindfulness practice and stop you from continuing on your Path with Heart. The wise person accepts the obstacles on their Path and deals with them even if he/she needs help in doing so. Whenever you need help, be sure to get it. Once you overcome this obstacle your life will be much better. You will also feel a stronger Love coming from our Source, your True Nature, because you are getting closer now that your Path is clear.


Caution: Mindfulness Includes Pain, and Requires Readiness

To better understand this section, a preliminary discussion of pain and suffering is necessary. Physical and emotional pain are inevitable parts of life. Our brains are designed to experience pain as a source of crucial information (e.g., this is harming me, I need to avoid doing that again, that part of my body needs care, etc.). While our brains are wired to avoid pain, the function of this avoidance is not to avoid pain itself, but rather to avoid causes of pain that are harmful to our well-being. And after harm has occurred, causes of pain are avoided because they can slow or prevent recovery from the harm that has already occurred.

A simple example of physical pain's function: When you cut your finger, the initial pain informs you of the harm, leads you to care for your finger, then to think about how this occurred so you can avoid it happening again. Later, after the initial first aid, pain lets you know that your finger is vulnerable, that it needs extra caution in how you move and use it, or ("ouch!") that you've just done something that may be slowing or preventing healing.

Emotional pain is different from physical pain. When someone is experiencing physical and emotional pain at the same time, different areas of the brain process the physical sensations of pain and the emotional pain, even though these may be subjectively experienced as inseparable.

Emotional pain is sometimes referred to as "emotional suffering," or just "suffering." Most of us have observed, to some extent in ourselves and others, that the experience of physical pain may or may not be associated with emotional suffering. And of course, emotional pain may arise on its own in the absence of physical pain. For example, experiences of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, and memories of abuse of various kinds, can be associated with extreme emotional pain.

Experiences of emotional and physical pain can be altered by the nature of our attention. We've all learned that ignoring (or attempting to ignore) pain can reduce our experience of it, and that focusing on experiences of pain can amplify them. An important difference between emotional and physical pain makes emotional pain more capable of being altered by attention: emotional pain usually involves an interweaving of feelings and thoughts. The thoughts can take many forms, but typically involve interpretation and judgment – about the emotional pain itself, about the events the pain is associated with, about oneself, or about others involved in the experience: "This is horrible!" "How could he have done that to me?" "I can't take this any more!" "I wish she would drop dead!" "There's no hope for me." In fact, such thoughts may even be the cause of emotional pain arising in the first place.

And like attention, thoughts can increase emotional pain. The greatest amplification of suffering comes from focusing one's attention on the pain while thinking thoughts that escalate the pain. Such thoughts can take many forms, including interpretations, judgments, and memories. Many of the thoughts that escalate pain and suffering are stories that we tell ourselves – about the past, the present, and the imagined future. The stories can be very involved and elaborate, and may revolve around themes of betrayal, rejection, failure, punishment or revenge that are guaranteed to generate more negative emotions and suffering.

We all know how such cycles of thinking, feeling, remembering, and imagining can spiral out of control, and sometimes lead to drastic attempts at escape (which can become causes of new physical and emotion pains).

As described above, mindfulness can help, by allowing you to catch these cycles of suffering early on, and to cut through the automatically unfolding chains of associated feeling, thinking, remembering, fantasizing and story-telling. The present-focused, non-judgmental attention of mindfulness allows one to directly observe the separateness of feelings and thoughts, to attend to feelings without running off into associated memories, stories, etc. The following techniques may help you to catch yourself in the midst of this and interupt the cycle of escalation by creating a moment of mindful reflection:

  • Stop and ask yourself, quite directly, "Can I know, absolutely, that these thoughts are true?" If you can't answer "yes" with certainty, then it's probably a story you're telling yourself.
  • When things aren't going well and you're in danger of escalating further, try asking yourself periodically, "Aside from the unwanted emotions I am experiencing, however unpleasant they are, am I otherwise OK right now?" This simple reality check can show that while you may not be feeling good, in that moment your mind is prolonging the suffering, or even creating additional misery.

However, this is where the caution comes in: Only a solid foundation of self-regulation skills, and disciplined practice, will enable one to attend to emotional pain with a sustained mindfulness that does not bring escalation – as opposed to having one's attention grabbed, dragged, and swept away in escalating cycles of suffering.

That is, for someone who (a) lacks skills for tolerating and regulating the intensity of painful feelings, and (b) typically copes by escaping or acting impulsively, practicing mindfulness can bring a flood of intolerable painful feelings into awareness. For some, it will be necessary to learn mindfulness practices in the context of a therapy relationship.

Important: If you have any of the following problems at times, then practicing mindfulness before you are ready will tend to make them worse or create new problems:

  • Tendencies to become overwhelmed and "flooded" by painful feelings and memories, due to underdeveloped self-regulation and coping skills. For people with histories of traumatic child abuse, this is common and normal during the "first stage" of recovery, when learning such skills and establishing safety and stability in one's life are the main tasks. (To learn more about the "stages of recovery" from child abuse, see the About Therapy and Recovery section of my Child Abuse page and Judith Herman's book, Trauma and Recovery – links open as new pages.)
  • Tendencies to "dissociate" – that is, blank out, space out, leave one's body, etc. – in stressful or upsetting situations. These are not uncommon experiences among those with histories of severe child abuse, and can become automatic and habitual. Originally self-protective in otherwise inescapable situations, dissociation can later cause many problems. For beginning meditators with abuse histories, dissociative states are sometimes confused with mindfulness. Learning "grounding techniques" and other emotion-regulation skills will probably be necessary first steps toward cultivating mindfulness.
  • Tendencies to get "lost in your own world" and withdraw from relating to others, or to not even bother trying to connect with others. In this case, mindfulness practices could possibly be "co-opted" by strong habits of self-absorption and disconnection from others.
  • Tendencies to hear voices in one's head that sound like those of real other people, or to become convinced of ideas that are extremely unlikely or clearly untrue to other people. (As this can be a delicate topic for people with such experiences, and difficult to address in writing rather than thoughtful and respectful conversation, I will not write anything more.)

Even if you have one or more of the tendencies or problems above, it is possible to practice mindfulness. But to be ready, you will need a foundation of self-regulation skills.

Good therapists can help you improve your self-regulation skills. For people with histories of child abuse (an area of expertise for me), excellent self-help resources are available too. I highly recommend those below, and the first one is particularly helpful if you struggle with dissociation.

How does a mindfulness meditator learn to feel strong emotions and bodily sensations without getting overwhelmed or dissociating?

  • First, choose an object of attention that can provide a "base" and "safe place" to come back to when experiences threaten to become overwhelming. People often choose their hands, feet, or the center of their belly as a comfortable or neutral place. For others the breath will work, or a comforting phrase, or an image or memory of a safe place or person. Practice gently bringing your attention back to this base whenever it becomes distracted or pulled along by something else.
  • In all meditation traditions, cultivation of focused attention precedes cultivation of the open attention associated with mindfulness. For people who can become overwhelmed by "opening" to whatever arises in their experience, including painful feelings and memories, it is even more important to practice focusing one's attention on one object and repeatedly bringing attention back to it. The idea is not that you will never get distracted (only very advanced meditators achieve this), but that you will usually be able to bring your attention back soon after it has wandered (i.e., within 10-20 seconds), and sooner when it wanders into emotionally painful territory (i.e., 1-5 seconds).
  • Once you have achieved some skill at concentration, when a difficult emotion, sensation or memory arises during meditation, you can choose to "touch up against it" in small increments. Briefly touch the pain with your attention, and then back off and return to your safe object of attention until you feel the strength and presence to touch the difficult experience again.
  • Other ways to back off include opening your eyes and focusing on something you can see, or switching to a lovingkindness or compassion practice. *
  • Such gradual, tolerable and deliberate re-experiencing of painful feelings and memories can modulate their intensity and foster increasing confidence and mastery. It really is possible to relate to painful experiences and memories without trying to escape or becoming overwhelmed.
For many people, it is necessary to work with a therapist and/or meditation teacher who is experienced at helping people deal with the four problems listed above. One therapy that can be extremely beneficial is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). This treatment approach incorporates mindfulness into a comprehensive individual and group program designed to cultivate skills of emotion tolerance, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness. (For more information on DBT, see the section, "Resources for Learning to Be More Mindful")

Finally, some people need to take medication for severe depression, anxiety, posttraumatic or other symptoms. A group of long-term meditators who are also physicians – Roger Walsh, Robin Bitner, Bruce Victor and Lorena Hillman – have written a very thoughtful article on this issue, Medicate or Meditate? They discuss preliminary research findings on potential benefits of anti-depressants for meditators who suffer from major depression.

* I will post the section about this practice next time.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

What is Mindfulness?

I have used the terms "mindful" and "mindfulness" quite often when describing the unified state of "body-being", the Oneness of mind and body, but it never occurred to me until now that some people may not understand what it means. Meditation is central to my Path with Heart whether it be in a seated form, a moving meditation like Tai Chi, or expanding this state of being into every-day tasks and situations. Because all forms of meditation or body-being integrity require mindfulness, here is an in-depth explanation of this state of being by an expert in the mind-body-environment relationship, Jim Hopper, a Harvard Ph.D. in Psychology. This is just an introduction so there is much more useful information on mindfulness that I will add at a later date. Enjoy!


Psychologist and mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn has simply defined mindfulness in this way:

"paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."

This sounds simple, but mindfulness is a skill that takes practice to cultivate and maintain. Why? Let's consider the different parts of the definition...

  • "Paying attention"
    • How much of the time are you really paying attention to what's happening in your life – as opposed to thinking about something else, remembering things, imagining possible futures, and acting out habitual patterns or, more accurately, reacting to people and situations based on old habits of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and behaving?
    • Paying conscious attention can be especially hard when a current interaction reminds us of past hurts or betrayals – and before even realizing it, we can automatically and defensively responded as if those old experiences were happening again.
    • All of us have our habitual patterns, our vulnerabilities to automatic reactions based on past experiences of hurt, our "buttons" that can get "pushed." This is particularly true when we are already stressed and/or in a hurry. Truly paying attention in our lives is a challenge for anyone.

  • "On purpose"
    • It takes a conscious decision, and effort by one's mind and brain, to pay attention to what's happening in the present. In fact, such choices and efforts are required over and over again, since we are continually pulled back into habitual ways of processing information and responding to things.
    • Too often we're on "auto pilot," not even trying to pay attention to what's actually happening in the unique situations and interactions that make up our lives.

  • "In the present moment"
    • Most of us, most of the time, are absorbed in memories of the past or visions and plans for the future.
    • For most people, it is rare to be aware, without some amount of distraction or multi-tasking, of what is actually occurring in the present moment.
    • Particularly when strong emotions arise, people often respond not to situations as they are, but to reactive perceptions and thoughts based on painful experiences in the past. In the most extreme instances, one may not be "here" in the present, but "back there," reliving the past through responses to present situations.

  • "Non-judgmentally"
    • This is one of the hardest things to achieve. We so often react intensely to our experiences, particularly unwanted experiences, and to our initial responses to them.
    • "This is horrible!" "What an idiot!" "How could I do that?!" "I can't take this any more!" "Here I go again." You know the ways you can instantaneously and automatically judge situations, other people, and your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors – often in a chain reaction of increasing judgment and distress.
    • "I need..." "I want..." "I deserve..." Positive judgments and the cravings they evoke can also be a problem, particularly when they are automatic and intense. We can lose our focus, forget what's important, get caught in cycles of addiction, selfishly take advantage of others, etc.
    • In contrast, the non-judgmental quality of mindfulness brings great freedom – to see things more clearly, to evaluate situations with some distance from our habitual emotional reactions and impulses, to observe emotions and impulses as they arise without either trying to escape them or letting them carry us away.
    • We all have at least glimpses of this potential, when we are feeling so positive and relaxed that something which would normally cause strong judgment and negative emotions is seen as no big deal, more clearly for what it is: a passing unwanted experience or temptation to indulge.
    • But to bring this non-judgmental quality into our daily lives, consistently, even at very stressful times, this is something many of us can hardly imagine. Yet it is possible, by practicing mindfulness (and kindness).
    • And for those who are vulnerable to remembering and reliving painful experiences from the past, to strong waves of emotion, to intense self-criticism – the cultivation of non-judgmental mindfulness can bring tremendous relief and freedom from old patterns. One must be prepared, though, to be able to relax this flow of emotions if they become become overwhelming.*

In addition to defining what mindfulness is, it's important to define what it is not. Here are two common misconceptions:

  • Paying attention mindfully is not about detaching from your experience and failing to emotionally engage with your life. It does not cause apathy. It does not kill passion. In fact, mindfulness allows one to engage more fully with one's emotions and other experiences, rather than simply reacting to them with habitual patterns of avoidance or acting out.
    • For positive emotions, this means having more access to them and greater ability to put them into beneficial action.
    • For negative emotions, such direct and open engagement is a foundation for making them more manageable, a protection against attempting immediate escape or impulsively acting out.
  • Non-judgmental awareness is not the same as passively accepting whatever happens, including harmful things. It does not mean failing to evaluate whether others' actions or your own are harmful, or failing to protect yourself from victimization, or failing to prevent yourself from causing harm. Quite the opposite: non-judgmental mindfulness enables one to respond to such situations from awareness and thoughtfulness rather than habit, over-reaction, compulsion, addiction, etc.

* I will post another entry soon pertaining to this situation.

"The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds. In other words, be mindful."

~ RD Laing

"When living mindfully we define our own success, live in the moment and open our Self up to the abundance we deserve. Uncertainty is removed as we choose our own definitions and free our Self from the cultural confines placed upon us. The practitioner is then free to realize individual success beyond expectation..."

~ Jodi Williams, The International Centre for Mindful Existence

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mindfulness Meditation Slows Progression Of HIV

Mindful meditation has been used for thousands of years to improve one's mental and physical health. My practice has dramatically lowered my blood pressure, greatly increased my sense of well-being, and is probably the main reason that I have been sick only once since the 1980's. This study has been out for about a year now and there is no doubt that much more has been discovered about the benefits of mindful meditation since then. Just think how much you could improve your life by incorporating some form of daily mindful meditation. If it is effective against HIV, just think what it could do for you!


ScienceDaily (July 27, 2008) — CD4+ T lymphocytes, or simply CD4 T cells, are the "brains" of the immune system, coordinating its activity when the body comes under attack. They are also the cells that are attacked by HIV, the devastating virus that causes AIDS and has infected roughly 40 million people worldwide. The virus slowly eats away at CD4 T cells, weakening the immune system.

But the immune systems of HIV/AIDS patients face another enemy as well -- stress, which can accelerate CD4 T cell declines. Now, researchers at UCLA report that the practice of mindfulness meditation stopped the decline of CD4 T cells in HIV-positive patients suffering from stress, slowing the progression of the disease. The study was just released in the online edition of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of bringing an open and receptive awareness of the present moment to experiences, avoiding thinking of the past or worrying about the future. It is thought to reduce stress and improve health outcomes in a variety of patient populations.

"This study provides the first indication that mindfulness meditation stress-management training can have a direct impact on slowing HIV disease progression," said lead study author David Creswell, a research scientist at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA. "The mindfulness program is a group-based and low-cost treatment, and if this initial finding is replicated in larger samples, it's possible that such training can be used as a powerful complementary treatment for HIV disease, alongside medications."

Creswell and his colleagues ran an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) meditation program and compared it to a one-day MBSR control seminar, using a stressed and ethnically diverse sample of 48 HIV-positive adults in Los Angeles. Participants in the eight-week group showed no loss of CD4 T cells, indicating that mindfulness meditation training can buffer declines. In contrast, the control group showed significant declines in CD4 T cells from pre-study to post-study. Such declines are a characteristic hallmark of HIV progression.

Creswell also noted that researchers found a "dose-response" relationship between MBSR class attendance and CD4 T cells, meaning, said Creswell, "the more mindfulness meditation classes people attended, the higher the CD4 T cells at the study's conclusion."

The researchers were also encouraged because the overall CD4 T cell effects remained even after controlling for a number of factors that could have skewed the study results. Most notably, they found equivalent protective effects for participants whether or not they were on antiretroviral medications for HIV. Even participants taking HIV medications showed the CD4 T cell buffering effect after the mindfulness meditation class, Creswell said.

There is emerging evidence from other studies that shows that behavioral stress-management programs can buffer HIV declines in HIV-positive people, Creswell noted. And while there has been an exponential increase of interest in and practice of mindfulness meditation in the West over the past 10 years, this study, he said, is the first to show an HIV disease protective effect with mindfulness meditation training.

In order to understand the health benefits of mindfulness meditation, Creswell and his colleagues at UCLA are now examining the underlying pathways through which mindfulness meditation reduces stress, using brain imaging, genetics and immune system measurements.

"Given the stress-reduction benefits of mindfulness meditation training, these findings indicate there can be health protective effects not just in people with HIV but in folks who suffer from daily stress," Creswell said.

This study was supported by postdoctoral research fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health, a seed grant from the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, and the UCLA General Clinical Research Center. Other authors were Hector F. Myers, Steven W. Cole and Michael R. Irwin, all of whom declare no financial interests or conflicts of interest regarding this study.

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