Mindfulness and pain reduction

All in the mind? – Opening ourselves up to a different approach

Medical research suggests that we can use our mind and our mind/body connection to be aware of painful feelings as they arise and to, in effect, stop struggling with them. When we use our mind to become aware, as in mindfulness practice, then something unusual happens. We begin to start a gentle observation of something (painful sensation) rather than being wrapped up in, and/or fighting it.

With a little practice, something very special begins to happen. We notice that the pain may start to dissolve, as if by magic! People who have experienced this for the first time are frequently amazed and begin to appreciate how doing something a little different can open the door to a new realisation that pain comes in two varieties, primary and secondary, which both stem from different origins.

Primary pain, as the name suggests arises from a physical incident of some sort which produces the pain, whether that is illness, injury, surgery or other medical treatment. It could be thought of as the body’s reaction to this incident. Secondary pain, or suffering, closely follows and is concerned with our reaction, at a conscious and subconscious level, to the primary pain.

Pain Reduction

Pain is a warning that something is wrong with the body. It is therefore irresponsible and unethical to remove pain unless we can be sure that the pain is symptomatic of a non-threatening or serious illness. In reality, how can we ever be sure of this? It is therefore preferable the help the Client to reduce, rather than remove pain and to enable the Client to have a degree of control over the intensity of pain.

Pain is a complex phenomenon and much mystery still surrounds just how it ‘works’.

The ‘gate control theory’ of pain is based upon the principle that when our nerve cells are stimulated by injury or disease – ie potentially painful stimuli – the message is transmitted to the brain. Along the way, at the spinal column and in different areas of the brain, the information is interpreted and acted upon.

Touching a hot stove results in a reflex action that causes your hand to pull back faster than the message took to reach the brain. But if you burnt your hand, then the continuing pain is ‘analysed’ in the brain – and experienced as a dull ache or a sharp twinge or whatever. In another part of the brain, the degree of discomfort is registered and appropriate action taken.

Psychological therapies including clinical hypnosis seem to have the effect of being able to separate the various ‘interpreting regions’ so that the level of discomfort can be modified, for example. Distraction, visualisation and NLP are three methods of achieving pain reduction in this way.

When working to achieve pain—relief it is sensible to allow some discomfort to remain, especially in cases of chronic suffering, where it serves to remind you of the underlying condition. The aim is to reduce the level of discomfort. Establishing a scale of pain in your imagination – varying from 10, the worst imaginable pain, to 1, pain-free – and deciding on where the Client’s level of pain lies and comparing this ‘reading’ before and after some therapy, will help you to assess the success of the practice.

The Buddha, The Arrow Sutta

This teaching is often summarized as “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” We have in life two forms of distress in life. The first arises from the unavoidable events that occur in life: the pains, insults, rejections, losses, separations, ageing, sickness and on. Such events quickly give rise to inevitable, uncomfortable physical expressions, such as feeling that the wind knocked out of us, a hollowness in the chest, a tight stomach, dizziness, tears, etc. The second form of distress lies in our thought based reactions to the event: “Why me? This is unfair. How do I change this? What will happen now?” We add more anguish to the mix by taking universal experiences personally, trying to escape the unavoidable.

These optional, second arrows of torment can -play out in different ways:

  1. We can blame and denounce others for shooting us with those first arrows [their rejections, insults, dismissals, wrongs of all varieties] and feel picked on by the universe.
  2. We can castigate and condemn ourselves for being human and not avoiding life’s inescapable disappointments, reaching the conclusion we are particularly damaged or fated to misery.
  3. We can chase short-term distractions and pleasures: stuffing our feelings with food, retail therapy, deluging ourselves in work, seeking refuge in television or sex, drugs and alcohol…

All of these approaches distract us until they eventually let us down. No matter how much we blame ourselves or others or keep ourselves busy, the discomforts we’ve been avoiding and abandoning resurface; from high-flying financiers to destitute heroin addicts, whatever diversionary tactics we choose will wear thin and return us to emotional conditions of vulnerability, loss, emptiness. No matter how much we’ve been sweeping under the rug, we will have to face the challenging feelings from which we’ve been hiding.

The spiritual solution is to put aside the distractions and to attend to the uncomfortable feelings directly after being hit with those first arrows. How does it feel to be fired? dumped? rejected? abandoned? Not good, but if we hold the sensations in our awareness, it turns out they’re not as overwhelming as we thought; with compassion and care the body softens, the mind becomes less agitated, the impressions arise and pass. It turns out we can survive being hit by an arrow, so long as we don’t shoot too many into ourselves in return.

How to learn more

Please follow this link to a one-day CPD training which The UK College – Mindfulness Now is presenting on Saturday 8th July 2017

Mindful Walking

Most people think of mindfulness within the confines of sitting still for a period of time. But, in fact, carrying out mindfulness when walking can be incredibly beneficial. We regularly undertake a brief walking meditation during our mindfulness teaching sessions, when members of the group are encouraged to be fully aware of their bodies and/or breathing while doing this simple movement. So, like all mindfulness exercises, this is about awareness.

As is often the case, people are somewhat surprised to find what a different sort of experience this presents to them. Being completely and fully aware of our bodies when doing something we usually do without a second thought can be enlightening. When you are moving it’s often easier to become aware of your body than it is when sitting still for a period of time. And many opportunities arise each day when a brief walking meditation can take place.

Normally we don’t walk without intention – we are walking to get somewhere or our intention may be to seek pleasure. Here we aim to let go of all intention other than awareness. We may notice ourselves either enjoying or disliking our walking. We may be cold, we may be wet, or we may feel exhausted. On the other hand, we may feel completely happy and full of energy! Whatever we notice is OK – we’re not trying to change anything.

So, how do our feet feel against the changing surfaces we walk on? What do we notice about the differing shades of colours we encounter? How does the air feel against our skin? Is it cool, or warm or breezy or still? What sounds are we aware of and how do those sounds change as we walk along? Do the sounds of our own walking change as the walking surface changes? Does the pace of our walking change?

As you walk, scan through the physical sensations in your body, starting with the soles of your feet and all the way up to the top of your head. Take time to notice sensations in all parts of your body. Then notice sensations in your body, as a whole.

Now we might like to bring a little intention to our walking – by walking and smiling. This walking and smiling practice is recommended by world-famous mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and is all about generating positive feelings for yourself as you walk. So… walk as if you’re the happiest person on earth. Smile – you’re alive! Acknowledge that you’re very fortunate if you’re able to walk. As you walk in this way, imagine you are printing peace and joy with every step you take. Walk as if you’re kissing the earth with each step you take. Know that you’re taking care of the earth by walking in this way.

Every now and then, when you see a beautiful tree, flower, lake, or anything else you like, stop and look at it. Continue to follow your breathing as you do this. Allow each step to refresh your body and mind. Realise that life can only be lived in the present moment. Enjoy your walking.

So next time you’re getting up to put the kettle on, walking from the car to the shop, or walking along the beach on holiday or around the local park, just simply slow down a little and notice what’s going on – what is your breathing doing and has it changed? – what are your muscles doing and how do they feel? – are you brave enough to take your shoes off and feel the sand between your toes or the grass beneath your feet? Remember that the purpose of a walking meditation is to be fully in the present moment, letting go of any anxieties and worries; letting go of any intention. Simply being fully aware.

Rachel Broomfield, Mindfulness teacher and trainer

5 ways to be more mindful every day!

Think of the time you ate your lunch today or yesterday. Did you stop to look at the colours and shades in your food? Did you notice it’s aroma? Were you aware of the texture and taste of the food in your mouth as you slowly chewed? Were you aware of how it felt to swallow the food? What aftertaste was there?

One of the attitudes of mindfulness, beginner’s mind offers us the chance to really slow down, ‘smell the coffee’ and start to appreciate everyday activities with new eyes, new senses, almost as if for the first time. And each and every time we do this, we’re applying what we have learned in our formal meditation practice (the time we take just to sit or lie and practice meditation) to our everyday activities. The formal practice is about learning to pay attention to whatever is going on in our mind, body and the world around us, moment by moment, in a non-judgemental, kindly and gentle way. We can then take this focused attention into our normal everyday lives, bringing a full awareness to our experience of the world and the ways in which we interact with it.

Often we spend much of our time lost in thought, rushing around from one activity to another, and often trying to do several different things at the same time. This constant busyness is at the root cause of much of our unhappiness, anxiety and exhaustion. However, we can switch over from this doing mode of mind into a gentler, more peaceful being mode. We can do this through practising everyday ‘informal’ mindfulness. Our lives offer numerous opportunities for this type of everyday mindfulness practice. Here are just five ways of doing it:

1. First thing

As you wake up, rather than immediately opening your eyes why not keep them closed for a short while and spend a little while just noticing your breathing. Not trying to change your breathing but just being aware as you let this awareness extend to the sensations in your body – and then outside your body – how does the duvet feel around you and the pillow beneath your head? What does the bed linen smell like? What sounds are you aware of from indoors and out? Just spend a little while really noticing as much as you can – spending a few moments before you get up. Gradually open your eyes and slowly take in everything you can see.

2. Wake up and smell the coffee

The say that a watched kettle does not boil but you may just discover that if you are mindful enough, it actually does! Why not make a mindful experience out of preparing and enjoying a cup of coffee. If you grind the beans, notice the feel of some coffee beans in your hand, smell them and drop them into the grinder. Listen to the sound of the grinder and then smell the ground beans. How do they differ from the un-ground ones?

Notice what it is like to fill the kettle and watch and listen as it boils. Pour the boiling water through the coffee and watch and smell as it percolates. Eventually watch and smell the filtered coffee as you pour it into your cup. It may just be the best cup of coffee you have ever tasted!

3. Travelling to work

If you are travelling by bus or train to work, rather than reading or looking at your phone why not just take the time to really notice everything around you. See it all as if through beginner’s eyes – as if it was all for the first time. Notice the movement, the smells and sounds around you. If you feel comfortable with this, and are not in danger of missing your stop, why not close your eyes for a while and just explore all the sounds that come into your awareness. It can be a very different experience.

4. Another kind of listening

The next time you are having a conversation at work why not make it a very different kind of experience. One where you really listen to what the other person has to say rather than concentrating on your own internal thought stream. Try avoiding that tendency to think about your response in advance, while the other person is still speaking! Try being more attentive than normal to the other person’s conversation, in a non-judgemental and empathic way. Watch the other person’s body language and learn from it.

5. During your working day

Whatever your day is like why not take just a few moments every now and again to take a few mindful breaths, even if it is just noticing one breath, it can have a really beneficial effect, slowing you momentarily and allowing you to enter being mode, even if it is for a few brief moments!

Maybe you could set a few reminders for yourself at regular intervals during the day, no matter how busy you are to briefly switch off from relentless doing and just be aware in the present moment. The rest of your day is likely to be so much more productive as a result.

Notice how helpful it can be by introducing a few informal mindfulness practices into your daily life you can learn to trigger your mind/body’s relaxation response and let go of unhelpful and potentially harmful stress. If you start with just one practice you are likely to be tempted to do much more.

By Nick Cooke

Compassion – the key to happiness

In today’s world, anyone might think that gaining material possessions is the key to happiness. Adverts on the television, at the cinema, at bus stops, on the internet constantly tell us that all we need to do is buy this appliance, get that product, wear these clothes or eat this food and we’ll have the perfect life and live happily ever after. But once we buy whatever they’re selling, we’re then told we need the latest version, an upgrade or the most up to date fashion – then we’ll be happy! And so it goes on… And if you can win the lottery, well that would be your life sorted forever, surely?!

So make sure you’re in a position to buy and have whatever you want, then you’ll be happy.

Or will you?

Research actually suggests that it’s not in what we receive that we have the most happiness but actually in what we give. As long as our basic needs are met and we are able to live relatively comfortably, then very little after that counts.

MRI scans show that those parts of the brain that are responsible for feeling pleasure when we receive things are equally active when we give, if not more so.

If we suffer symptoms of anxiety and depression, it often points to the fact that we are focusing a lot of our thoughts on ourselves, and usually negatively – what has happened already or what we think might happen in the future; everything that has gone wrong or might go wrong. When we start to shift a little of the focus towards others and what we might be able to do for them then our perceived levels of happiness and well-being actually increase.

Even doing a very simple act of kindness, for example, letting someone in front of you in the line of traffic, holding a door open for the person that’s following, or even smiling at a stranger as you pass them by in the street can have an effect – by carrying out these simple acts you’re putting someone else first; another way to think of it is that you’re showing them a very basic level of love and compassion.

And we all want to be loved, do we not?

And someone else putting us first helps us to feel this. In the same way, when we put someone else first it makes us feel good – no matter how small that act of kindness might be.

A favourite mindfulness meditation is called Loving Kindness. This involves a focus, firstly, on ourselves, offering ourselves a little love, good health and well-being. Sometimes we forget how important we are in our own lives! Then the focus shifts gently to someone we love, again offering them some loving thoughts in our imagination. After this we are asked to focus our attention on someone whom we have perhaps seen that day but don’t know very well – perhaps someone who served us at the shop or someone we saw at the bus stop. Again, we attend to them in our thoughts wishing them well in health and happiness. And lastly, and perhaps this is the most difficult part of the meditation, we offer those same loving thoughts and good wishes to someone whom we perhaps have difficulty with, offering them the same compassion we did with ourselves and our loved ones.

In this way, through a very simple meditation practice, we perform a very gentle form of ‘self-psychotherapy’ in which some kind of healing may take place.

So, compassion may just be the key to happiness!

By Rachel Broomfield

A Mindful Approach to Coaching

I find mindfulness to be very useful component of my performance coaching work and I’d like to share a little about using it to greatly increase our chances of successful coaching outcomes.

Flow State

We can probably all remember times when we were totally absorbed in something, perhaps eating a particularly delicious meal or being completely fascinated by an exciting novel which we found so difficult to put down.

For years I really enjoyed running and I, like many runners, found myself getting into a state of absorbed exhilaration where I felt, once I had overcome the pain threshold, as if I could just keep on running. This is often described as being in the flow. Artists will usually be familiar with flow state and it won’t be very hard for them to focus on the choreography of a ballet in which they are dancing or a sculpture which they are creating. However, in our lives generally, it is not so easy to remain in present focus when engaged in our ordinary, everyday activities. Isn’t it all too simple to slip into worrying about future events or feel guilty or stressed about something in the past, instead of allowing ourselves to truly appreciate or enjoy our present activity.

How can mindfulness be an effective part of coaching?

Curiosity

As a performance coach a good dose of curiosity can achieve wonders at times. It can be argued that one of the key skills of coaches is to be able to somehow get our clients to think! – and to think in a creative way ‘outside the box’. That’s why ‘GROW’ model options questions like ‘what other options do you think you have?’ and ‘if anything were possible, what would you do?’ and even perhaps when things are getting stuck, ‘if you did know the answer, what would it be?!’, can be most helpful in developing ‘way forward’ options.

Mindfulness can help us to develop curiosity particularly with a kind of non-judgemental reflection. Have you noticed how, when you reflect on something that you have written, maybe your journal or notes for some forthcoming event, in a fairly quiet, distraction free (almost meditative) state that real inspiration can come to mind?

The essence of curiosity can be found in ‘enquiry’ type ‘powerful’ questions in coaching. The sort of questions that, the answer to which, may have a real impact on the coaching issue. The answer to these sort of questions, such as ‘how can you identify what is really holding you back?’ may not immediately find an answer at a conscious level. The client may need to reflect and let it settle quietly before an answer comes to mind. The mindfulness body scan exercise, mentioned earlier can be helpful here.

Beginner’s mind

One of the most quoted attitudes/principles of mindfulness is known as beginner’s mind. Rather than responding to events in the way we always have before – rather than thinking and doing in the way we always have before, just supposing we were able to see things as if we were looking through a completely new pair of eyes.

In a coaching exercise I was carrying out with a female client, she (let’s call her Gill) had been struggling to come to terms with a very troubling relationship, over many years, with her only sister. Gill described their relationship as close, an intense struggle of willpower and, in Gill’s opinion, a desire by her sister to be dominant over Gill.

In one of our coaching sessions Gill wanted to focus on reality and what this meant in her relationship. I asked Gill to carry out a gestalt – empty chair drama exercise with her talking to the empty chair and imagining she was talking to her sister and then take the empty chair herself, imagining that she was her sister and talking back to her (Gill). This is a useful and sometimes powerful way of gaining clarification on core values.

Gill really struggled to respond in the role of her sister and I suggested a shift in emphasis with Gill immersing herself in a gentle meditative exercise with something I adapted from the ‘loving kindness’ meditation. I got Gill to start by focussing on her breathing and then direct positive feelings towards herself, making some positive affirmations such as ‘May I be well and happy’,’ May I gain clarification and understanding’ and ‘May my sister and I be happy’. Gill chose the affirmations. After this she directed positive feelings towards her sister, again with affirmations of a similar nature. Lastly Gill directed positive feeling towards herself and her sister with affirmations such as ‘May my sister and I be well and happy’, May we gain understanding of each other’ and ‘May we understand each other’s needs’.

Through the course of this exercise, which took over 30 minutes, Gill found that she started to develop much more positive feelings about resolving her relationship problems. We then went back into the gestalt, empty chair process and this time Gill found it much easier to answer, in the role of her sister, her concerns over their relationship. This proved to be a defining moment in Gill being able to resolve her difficulties with her sister.

Presence

Our presence in the coaching relationship may be considered as one of coaching’s core competencies. Just how genuinely present are we in that relationship? What does being present mean?

Staying present really means letting go of our awareness of ourselves so that we become more aware of our client. Conversely if we start to become more aware of ourselves, within the coaching conversation, perhaps thinking about how we look, how we are sounding, letting any of our own personal thoughts intrude, then we decrease our awareness of our client. When this happens then we start to listen less effectively and we are less likely to perceive non-verbal information so we are unable to check out congruence in communication. We actually become less conscious of the whole coaching process.

So, presence may be thought of as something which all of us in our profession believe we have a natural aptitude for, rather like an ability to build rapport. That doesn’t mean to say however that we can’t become even more effective if we work at it.

Being truly present is actually a very joyful state to be in. When we feel we are at one in the moment but at the same time unattached to the outcome, it is as if we are somehow connected to some kind of source of inspiration. We can truly be in a state of ‘flow’ where everything seems effortless, and where we are open to all possibilities.

Mindfulness, although it sounds very similar to presence, is in fact the way to achieve it, in my opinion. Our mindfulness practice can help us to feel centred and whole. It can help us to be fully aware of ourselves, mentally and physically and to then let go of that awareness. The body scan meditation can provide a wonderfully detached/dissociated feeling that is ideal practice for being present in coaching.