No matter what crises, catastrophes, or confusions we are facing in this moment, in any moment of our daily lives, it is possible to tap into a deeper awareness and find the more open heart that can tenderly and truthfully hold it all.
This month’s newsletter introduces three paths of healing and awakening that effectively cultivate the mind-body-heart connections that, over time, help us meet the dreads, dips and disasters of our lives from the steady, authentic awareness of our own inner wholeness.
REFLECTIONS: MIND-BODY-HEART CONNECTIONS
I participated in the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides breast cancer walk in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park a week ago Saturday. Five miles, 10,000 people. Lots of poignant portraits and stories in the tent galleries. Lots of good music and high school volunteers cheering us along the route. I’ve supported three close friends healing through breast cancer in the last year. (See May 2008 newsletter on Equanimity for part of my friend Bonnie’s journey.) Participating in this walk was a small but heartfelt way to “show up” for the suffering we share as human beings.
I walked with my friend Cris who does HR for an architecture firm in the city; her firm provides kinesthetic activity monitors (kams) that employees can wear to measure units of physical exercise like walking, jogging, bicycling, bowling, tennis, etc. Employees accumulate kam points every month that earn them a discount on their health insurance.
So, we were talking about her team earning points on this walk. We go on to talking about corporate support for health and wellness practices. Talking with an architect from the firm on the walk, I learn about the importance of views and green environments for employee wellness that research shows translates into higher productivity. That reminded me of Daniel Goleman’s commenting in his book Social Intelligence how we all need the connection, warmth and touch of healthy relationships and social connections for well-being also; how in office buildings across America the walls of windowless cubicles are plastered with photos of loved ones for regulating stress during the work day.
Someone else on the walk mentioned the new book Choosing Brilliant Health about research at the Mayo Clinic’s Complementary and Integrative Medicine program that documents how positive emotions improve brain function, enhance the body’s ability to fight disease, and help patients recover from surgery faster. Then I remembered that subjects in Richard Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin have shown statistically significant improvement in their immune system after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation and yoga practice to reduce stress.
There’s an emerging confluence of understanding about the mind-body-heart connections that foster resilient health across all realms – physically, emotionally, mentally, relationally, spiritually.
In this month’s newsletter, I share my experiences and the experiences of others in three different programs that can powerfully help us navigate the crises, catastrophes and confusions of our lives: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Awakening Joy, and Authentic Movement. All three programs have been around long enough to gather empirical data and/or anecdotal evidence to back them up. The practices are comprehensive and the teachers/trainers integrous. All three programs create communities of support which, in and of themselves, foster healing and well-being.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction was developed 30 years ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachussets to help patients cope with “full catastrophe living.” MBSR is now taught through community education departments in local hospitals throughout the country. The 8-week training in MBSR includes practices of mindfulness meditation, yoga and body scan to increase awareness of one’s moment to moment experience, reduce stress and improve health.
I participated in the 5-day training in MBSR for health professionals with Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli in 2001. I remember to this day the profound sense of OK-ness from even the first afternoon’s meditation exercise: dropping below the stormy waves on the surface of my life to rest (Relax and Enter into Safety and Trust) in the stillness of a quiet deep ocean, undisturbed by the turbulence on the surface, dropping into infinite, eternal stillness and wholeness, deeper than any storm, any storm at all.
I have since referred at least 25 clients and friends to MBSR over the last seven years. Without fail, every single one of them has learned to manage stress and pain better. More than that, they have come to clarity in major decisions about work, lifestyle, relationships that have changed their lives for the better.
“Whenever I lose my way in coping with this cancer,” a client shared with me a few months ago, “if I become dis-spirited from the chemo or burst into tears as I put a scarf on my balding head, I sit, I breathe, I remember the largeness of life carrying me through this. I remember other people in the class struggling, too. I breath, I let go, I go on, I heal.”
Awakening Joy was developed by James Baraz eight years ago in Berkeley, CA, a conscious dovetail of James’s 20+ years of experience as a seasoned Buddhist dharma teacher with research findings from the book How We Choose To Be Happy by Rick Foster and Greg Hicks. I’ve participated in the course every year since the second year and can testify to the depth and comprehensiveness of its offerings.
Awakening Joy is a 10-month course in cultivating joy – one of the seven factors of enlightenment. The course teaches practices of intention, mindfulness, embracing suffering, gratitude, integrity, letting go, loving our selves, connecting with others, compassionate action and the joy of being. The course, in person in Berkeley or online, includes guest speakers, experiential exercises, joy buddies and support groups, and many practical tools each month for finding joy in difficult times, developing wholesome states of mind, dealing with self-sabotage, mindfulness as appreciation practice, daily gratitude e-mail practice, playfulness in connection, etc.
One participant this year shared: “I was so compacted with not-joy that I took myself into the studio one Saturday morning and got myself a large amount of clay. Clay is very nurturing; it accepts anything you do to it; it requires no final product. It’s a great “process” medium. I let my feelings express themselves through my hands and the clay responded. As I worked I began making a large clay bowl, much larger than the bowl of self-compassion I had made years before. So I thought “This bowl could hold that bowl” and then thought, “It could hold it all, compassion and grief and sorrow and anger and peace and selfishness and generosity, all of it. It’s my joy bowl.” It is a wonderful mental image that I carry now, sometimes overflowing with grief, sometimes with loneliness curled in a ball, sometimes overflowing with abundance, sometimes with sadness and delight sitting side by side. It is a very open bowl and it can hold it all. The bowl itself actually didn’t survive, but that’s ‘immaterial’!”
Authentic Movement I participated in my first Authentic Movement class ever two Fridays ago, and can hardly wait to go again. Authentic Movement was developed by Mary Whitehouse and furthered by Janet Adler 50 years ago as a convergence of improvisational dance and the psychology of Carl Jung. The workshop I went to in Berkeley was led by David Mars, a psychologist and teacher of Authentic Movement for three decades. David has incorporated principles of process oriented psychotherapy developed by Arnold Mindell and principles from Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy developed by Diana Fosha into Authentic Movement. Rich!
After experiential exercises to help us tune in to the seven channels of experience: body sensations, feelings, energy, kinesthetics (movement) auditory, visual, imaginal (juicy!) we were paired with a partner who was our caring witness. Encourage to move, however we felt moved to move from authentic experience deep within, I found myself moving powerfully, un-self-consciously through experiences of grief, anger, defiance, courage, fiero (Paul Ekman’s term for the “Toyota feeling”). Debriefing the experience after with my witnessing partner, observing her movements across the dance floor with my own deep empathy and interest, everyone sharing their discoveries in such open-hearted vulnerability in the larger group, changed something inside me, deepened a trust in the authenticity of my own subjective truth. I learned, “If I can speak it, I can share it. If I dance it, I can heal it.”
See Books and Websites for more information on all three programs.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry
* * * * *
This life is yours. Take the power to choose what you want to do and do it well. Take the power to love what you want in life and love it honestly. Take the power to walk in the forest and be a part of nature. Take the power to control your own life. No one else can do it for you. Take the power to make your life happy. The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.
– Helen Keller
* * * * *
New-age verse to Amazing Grace, from the MBSR training at Mount Madonna in 2001: (go ahead and sing it)
Amazing grace that taught me how
To touch and taste and feel;
The wonders of accepting love
Have made me whole and real.
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
[This month’s stories come from participants in the 2008 Awakening Joy course, with bows to their wisdom and joy.]
I am a school social worker at a public charter elementary school in south Sacramento. We have about 800 children, K-6. The population is composed of many ethnicities, many grand-parents and single-mom families, as well as struggling couples with large families. The children that come to me, for the most part, are experiencing grief and loss. There is much poverty, death, incarceration, divorce, domestic violence, and violence in general in their young lives.
I was first introduced to gratitude practice some years ago in a twelve step program as a way to allow sanity to eek into our crazy-making lives. When the Joy class re-introduced this idea, I was delighted to again bring it to school. The children are amazing teachers and, with little prodding, they thought of, and were eager to share, their deep, heartfelt reasons why they were grateful.
I gave the students assignments to interview each family member about what he or she is grateful for. Some of them did and others forgot, but that brought another discussion, looking at what we have instead of what we haven’t. There is extra cheer now as we say our rousing goodbyes on days when we express our gratitude.
* * * * *
I’ve had one experience that was pretty illuminating. As I was driving in the city, there was traffic. I tend to get really frustrated and contracted when there’s traffic. My mind starts thinking about a lot of things in our society and I get on a roll. And I stopped and said to myself, “Now wait a minute. Is there any joy here?” And I realized that I could just switch the channel. I looked out and saw the water. I looked up and it was a clear day. I opened my sunroof and said to myself, “You know, it’s not so bad.” There is a switch that I’m starting to nurture that I didn’t realize was there before.
* * * * *
Three days ago I was in a long line to board the ferry for the trip from South Island to North Island (New Zealand), where there were literally 1000+ folks in 4 lines of cars. The line next to me had a rental car and a tourist couple driving, with a baby asleep in the back seat. They went to start up the car and the battery was dead! They were just “gobsmacked” at this turn of events. I wanted to help but no battery cables. What I did have were three plums! So I went over and offered my plums to them. As we were all eating we looked over at this huge SUV and decided to ask them if they had jumper cables. They did. We jockeyed them into place, car kicked over, and we all got on the ferry. It’s amazing how giving what you can (even if it’s small) helps others. Instead of one day at a time, my motto is now “one plum at a time.” It was so small a gesture with such big results. AND the joy I felt at being able to help is still with me.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Inclining the mind toward the wholesome – and noticing.
We whiz through our days so quickly, rushing headlong from task to task, worry to worry. We may be vaguely aware that something nice has just happened, but we don’t take the time to savor it, really let it sink in and nourish us.
When we set the intention to “incline our mind” toward the wholesome, we prime the brain to be more receptive and perceptive to any actual experience of the wholesome we might be blessed with. We focus our attention, and we begin to notice. And any moment we do notice – “aha! let me take a few precious seconds here to stop, be present, open up the channels” – we have a chance to register the experience viscerally in our bodies, plant it firmly in our body memory and let it nourish us forever after going forward.
Take a moment to sit quietly; focus your attention inward. Settle into the peacefulness underneath the surface waves of your life, rest in your own inner wholeness. When you’re ready, bring to mind a moment of joy, ease, peacefulness. A simple moment. Your child racing across the kitchen to hug you tight. The dazzling colors of the autumn leaves on your way to the grocery store. The relief that you just missed hitting the car crossing into your lane; he didn’t even see you.
Let the memory come through as many channels as you can open – the visual details, sounds and smells, the body sensations, the energy and vitality, any movement your body wants to make as you remember this moment, the feelings that arise. Let yourself savor this moment fully. Let it linger for 15-20 seconds. Let yourself soak it in, to your heart or belly or shoulders or eyes. Put your hand on your heart and savor the warmth as it spreads through your torso. Commit to “locking in” the felt sense of this moment. Later on, several times in the next few days, recall the felt sense of this moment; pull the felt sense back into your consciousness to install it in your conscious memory. This memory becomes a resource to anchor you in future crises, catastrophes and confusions. It works.
Switch the channel
Mindfulness helps us become aware of our grumps, our frets, our mind-farts as they arise, and helps us remember we can “switch the channel” when we are agitated, discouraged, caught in a squirrel cage of repetitive thought. The person in the second Story to Learn From asked, “Is there joy here?” Simply asking the question created the pause needed to switch the channel and focus on the simple joys of the moment. James Baraz uses the question “What story am I believing now?” to “wake up” out of whatever story he might be caught in at the moment. Even a simple “How am I doing?” several times throughout the day gives us a chance to focus on, and change, our inner emotional landscape.
Think about a question you could ask yourself to help you switch the channel. Awe and gratitude are two of my favorites. Simply pausing for a moment of awe at the sheer miraculousness of life, stopping to think of five things I’m grateful for, helps me switch the channel in just a few seconds. Practice using your question to switch the channel for the next few weeks; notice how reliably you can come to change the inner landscape of your mind.
BOOKS AND WEBSITES
Joy, No Matter What by Carolyn Hobbs. Conari Press, 2005
The first step in Joy, No Matter What, is saying yes to what is: our feelings of disappointment, discouragement, angst, loneliness, grief, anger, fear, hopelessness, shame; our habits of worry, judgment, doubt, our beliefs of “I’m not good enough” or “ I don’t deserve love.” By engaging with what is, with acceptance and equanimity, we can witness and reflect on what is actually happening and respond differently. Joy, No Matter What is written in a refreshing, warmly personal style with numerous examples and exercises to make the practice of saying yes to what is, alive and do-able.
Choosing Brilliant Health by Rick Foster and Greg Hicks. Penguin Group, 2008.
A practical application of cutting-edge research in mind-body medicine, using positive emotions and thoughts to change our brains, benefit our health, and create lifelong vitality and well-being. “Choosing Brilliant Health” is simply wonderful. Better yet, this information can save your life.” – Christiane Northrup, M.D.
A new 10-month course begins the end of January 2009, either in person in Berkeley, CA or online; registration begins November 2008. If you wish to receive notice of open registration, e-mail Affordable fee, no one turned away for lack of funds. To read a very interesting article in the January 2008 “O” magazine:
This is the national website for the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society, which now offers many programs including the original MBSR training.
For local offerings: at the University of California San Francisco’s Center for Integrative Medicine. My friend Bonnie Jonsson has taught MBSR here for years. The clients I refer report back the best possible feedback.
For background information: Authentic Movement: Moving the Body, Moving the Self; Being Moved by Patrizia Pallaro. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007.
For local classes taught by David Mars in Berkeley or Karen Pando-Mars in Marin County, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
If you have your own suggestions of programs and practices of mind-body-heart connections, please e-mail them to me: firstname.lastname@example.org