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Mindfulness is a powerful painkiller that can dramatically enhance quality of life in chronic pain sufferers – latest research

Mindfulness is a powerful painkiller that can dramatically enhance quality of life in chronic pain sufferers, suggests new research. The findings add weight to previous studies which discovered that mindfulness can reduce pain severity by around 50 percent.

This new meta-analysis, published in the peer-reviewed journal Evidence Based Mental Health, analysed the evidence from 21 previous studies involving 2,000 chronic pain sufferers. It was designed to assess whether mindfulness was as effective as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for relieving chronic pain and its associated distress. CBT can be effective and has none of the side-effects of traditional painkillers such as lethargy and addiction. But, crucially, not everyone benefits from CBT.

Most of the participants in this new analysis were women aged between 35 and 65 and suffered largely from musculoskeletal pain. In nearly 40 percent of the studies, participants had endured their pain for more than a decade.

This new analysis suggests that mindfulness is just as effective as CBT when it comes to improving ‘physical functioning’. And both mindfulness and CBT were equally good at reducing pain and its associated conditions such as depression.

Dr Wei Cheng, lead researcher on the study carried out at the Ottawa Hospital, Ontario, Canada, said: “While CBT is considered to be the preferred psychological intervention for chronic pain, not all patients experience a clinically significant treatment response.

‘Although a number of recommendations have been proposed to improve CBT for patients with chronic pain, an additional solution may be to offer patients Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction since it shows promise in improving pain severity and reducing pain interference and psychological distress.’

Previous work has shown that mindfulness meditation is highly effective at directly relieving chronic pain and also reducing the distress it causes. For example, work carried out by Fadel Zeidan at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre in North Carolina discovered that mindfulness can reduce chronic pain by 57 percent. Accomplished meditators can reduce it by over 90 percent.

Dr Zeidan said: ‘Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs.’

As I explain in our book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress and Restoring Wellbeing, which is recommended by the British Medical Association, meditation achieves these remarkable results because it turns down the ‘volume’ control on pain. (Our book is published in the US as You Are Not Your Pain).

A typical meditation involves focusing on different parts of the body and simply observing with the mind’s eye what you find. This allows you to see your mind and body in action, to observe painful sensations as they rise and fall, and to let go of struggling with them. And when you do this, something remarkable happens: your suffering begins to melt away of its own accord. It also creates a relaxed state of mind that reduces the level of stress hormones in the body. Such deep relaxation enhances healing and boosts mental and physical health.

Imaging studies show that mindfulness soothes the brain patterns underlying pain and, over time, these changes take root and alter the structure of the brain itself, so that patients no longer feel pain with the same intensity. Many say that they barely notice it at all.

For these reasons, hospital pain clinics now prescribe mindfulness meditation to help patients cope with the suffering arising from a wide range of diseases such as cancer (and the side effects of chemotherapy), heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. It is also used for back problems, migraine, fibromyalgia, coeliac disease, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome and even multiple sclerosis.

You can download free meditations from You Are Not Your Pain/Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress and Restoring Wellbeingfrom here.

What is Mindfulness?

What it can do for you

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The Art Of Breathing: The Secret To Living Mindfully, by Dr Danny Penman, is published in the US by Conari Press

Buy the Art of Breathing from Amazon US.

Buy it from Amazon UK.

 

 

Three Things I’ve Learned, Loved and Recycled in February

Three things I’ve learned

  • Spring is definitely on the way. Birdsong is returning, snowdrops and crocuses are blooming, and the daffodils are reaching for the sky. A great way of noticing nature is to do the Sounds and Thoughts meditation in the park and then pay attention as you walk home or continue on to work.
  • My three-year-old son refuses to believe that people used to burn black pieces of rock to heat their homes (that’s coal, by the way). He’s madly in love with steam trains though.
  • Film cameras are fun to use and produce wonderful ‘Netflix-style’ colours. I’ve always been a keen photographer and owned far too many cameras. I’ve just dusted off my old Nikon FA, popped in a new battery (it must have lasted for 15-20 years), bought some film and… it just worked! It’s so much less stressful than using a digital/iPhone camera. I find that with digital I fuss about too much, take too many pictures and then I have to decide which ones to keep. With film there’s none of that. It makes photography a conscious act again. It forces you to frame each shot correctly and to press the shutter at the right moment (so you begin to observe the scene in more detail). It mimics life in that you don’t know if it has worked until some time later. In fact, I don’t even know for certain if the shot is in focus until the film is processed days or weeks later.

 

Three things I’ve loved, read or watched

  • I’m reading Love for Imperfect Thingsby Haemin Sunim. A great book that’s stirring my desire to write another one.
  • Sex Education on Netflix is strangely wonderful. It’s an American-style high school/teen drama shot in the Wye Valley with a British cast and storyline. The bizarre collision of styles, brilliant acting and idyllic scenery make it quite compelling. And Gillian Anderson’s English accent is perfect in every way. I normally love sci-fi or gritty realism but sometimes you just need a bit of fluff, don’t you?
  • Most of us work very badly and inefficiently (according to New Scientist). Becoming more efficient is mostly common sense. Here’s New Scientist’srecommendations (and the evidence is clear): Do your creative stuff in the morning just after you start for the day (night owls might like to shift this around a bit, so pay attention to your own natural rhythms; work flat out for 52 mins and then take 17 mins off; 20 minute naps are good; move around more (sitting still for more than an hour is bad and so is standing); creativity and productivity are enhanced when you escape from work (so take a genuine lunch hour, go for walks in the day/weekend, switch off email in the evening) etc; ditch hot-desking and make your desk your own whether it’s messy or minimalist; take more breaks in the afternoon; people who work less get paid more – so shirk better, work better; and finally, you’ll never get along with some of your co-workers so accept it and move on. The Befriending Meditation can help with this.

 

Three things I’ve bought, borrowed or recycled

  • A seed sprouter (mine is an automatic one made by Tribest). Sprouting seeds are incredibly healthy and can actually taste good if sprinkled on salads that are drenched with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and sea salt. They are quite amazing if sprinkled with toasted seeds (sunflower, pumpkin etc) and thinly sliced sundried tomatoes. Best of all, the seeds sprout in a few days and the salad takes a couple of minutes to make.
  • Shoes and boots can be easily recycled (especially leather ones). Around us, people leave unwanted items on the wall outside their house. Almost everything quickly finds a new home. If that fails, they can be recycled. Our seven-year-old daughter’s school boots were bought second hand on eBay, used mercilessly, and then popped on the wall outside our house ready for a new home. Re-use is always better than recycling.
  • An OWC Mercury Elite Pro Quad enclosure. I’m obsessive about computer backups… This enclosure when combined with a software RAID programme will write to four disks simultaneously and minimise the chances of me losing all of my data. I currently use the SoftRaid programme on my iMac and two Seagate IronWolf Pro disks and a couple of Toshiba N300 drives. I also use a Drobo 5N2 network drive (but I can’t recommend that) plus a couple of 2.5 inch disks that I swap around every week or so and leave one off-site.

 

The Art Of Breathing: The Secret To Living Mindfully, by Dr Danny Penman, is published in the US by Conari Press

Buy it from Amazon UK.

What is Mindfulness?

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Mindfulness Enhances the Performance of Elite US Special Forces

Mindfulness training significantly enhances the performance of elite US special forces, a new study has discovered. Even the simplest of mindfulness exercises were shown to enhance working memory, clarity of thought, and the ability to focus under extreme pressure.

‘Previous studies have found that mindfulness protects against the deterioration in cognitive performance during periods of high stress to help special forces sustain their performance and well-being over time,’ said Dr Amishi Jha, a Psychologist at the University of Miami and lead researcher on the study.[i] “Yet here, in a population already known for their peak cognitive ability, we found that mindfulness training may be able to enhance cognition, even under periods of high stress.’

Psychologists have known for many years that mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety, stress and depression. Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness not only prevents depression, but that it also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression and irritability so that when they arise, they dissolve away again more easily. Other studies have shown that regular meditators see their doctors less often and spend fewer days in hospital. Memory improves, creativity increases, and reaction times become faster (see http://franticworld.com/what-can-mindfulness-do-for-you/).

It is so effective that mindfulness meditation is now recommended for the treatment of anxiety, stress and depression by the UK’s National Health Service, many US Hospitals, and other healthcare systems around the world. Mindfulness seems to be particularly effective for relieving the worst forms of depression. Indeed, one programme – Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) – is recommended for the most severe forms of depression by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which evaluates treatments for the NHS.

In recent years, researchers have begun investigating whether mindfulness can also enhance mental performance rather than merely relieving suffering. In this recent study, Dr Jha and her colleagues wanted to see whether mindfulness could enhance the already formidable mental performance and resilience of elite special forces. To this end, the study followed 120 of the US Special Operations Forces for two months to see whether mindfulness training could help improve their working memory and ability to focus under extreme pressure.

The warriors (special forces dislike being called ‘soldiers’) were taught four different mindfulness meditations over either two or four weeks and asked to practice them for 15 minutes a day for eight weeks. Classroom sessions were used to both teach the meditations and explain their underlying logic. The control group received no training. Each session in the course, known as Mindfulness-Based Attention Training (MBAT), introduced a corresponding mindfulness exercise. They were first taught a simple Breathing meditation. In this, participants were asked to focus on their breathing and to return their attention to the breath each time they realised that their mind had wandered (you can listen to a similar one here: http://franticworld.com/aob/  They were then taught a guided Body Scan. This involved paying attention to the sensations in their body without making any value judgements about them by, for example, describing them as ‘painful’ or ‘pleasant’. You can listen to one here: http://franticworld.com/free-meditations-from-mindfulness/ Two other meditations were also taught. The Open Monitoring meditation involved expanding the field of awareness beyond the breath and noticing the rising, changing, and passing away of sensory and mental phenomena (e.g. sounds, body sensations, or thoughts). The final meditation, known as the Connection exercise, asked the warriors to express kindness and feelings of ‘connectedness’ towards themselves and to others.

Before and after the training, the soldiers’ ability to pay attention under pressure was measured using a computer-based task that required them to respond to numbers on a screen. To test working memory, they were presented with complex visual information (e.g., faces) to remember for short intervals while being bombarded by distracting negative images. The researchers then tracked the changes as they progressed through the course.

Jha’s team also wanted to see whether the benefits of mindfulness followed a ‘dose-response’ relationship, that is, more practice conferred a greater benefit than did less. To test this, they delivered two and four week versions of the course.

‘The two-week training was the shortest we have ever offered,’ said Dr Jha. “And we found that two weeks is too short. The bigger benefits come with the four-week MBAT programme, which resulted in significant improvements to both attention and working memory task performance.

‘In addition, we found that just like physical activity, the more time that participants engaged in daily mindfulness exercises, the more their working memory benefitted.’

‘Because these soldiers are required to do the most difficult and cognitively demanding tasks under extreme conditions, we want them to have the maximum amount of attention and working memory to succeed at those tasks,’ said Jha. ‘We found that after four weeks of mindfulness training, they may well be more capable of dealing with the humanitarian, environmental, and security challenges that our country and the world face.’

Mindfulness is garnering increasing support within the US military. Lt. Gen. Eric Shoomaker, M.D., 42nd Army Surgeon General and former commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Command said: ‘Dr Jha and her colleagues have demonstrated that mindfulness training may provide the best prospect for success in demanding work. As more people are engaged in critical roles and tasks in which attentiveness and working memory play key roles in ensuring safety… mindfulness training is emerging as a powerful tool.’

Dr Jha believes that anyone who needs to perform for sustained periods at the highest of levels will benefit from mindfulness. But it is not just the likes of firefighters, police officers, athletes, trauma surgeons, nurses, and judges who might benefit says Dr Jha.

‘Mindfulness training may also help in stressful everyday moments by strengthening those cognitive capacities that get readily depleted when the mind is hijacked by anger, fear, worry, and rumination.’

 

i) Mindfulness training as cognitive training in high-demand cohorts: An initial study in elite military service members; Anthony P.Zanesco, Ekaterina, Denkova, Scott L.Rogers, William K.MacNulty, Amishi P.Jha; Progress in Brain Research; https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.pbr.2018.10.001

Can Mindfulness Help Relieve Tinnitus?

One in seven people will suffer from tinnitus at some point in their lives and yet its causes are unknown and treatments are only partially effective. A new clinical trial highlights the remarkable promise offered to sufferers by Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.

 

If you have ever suffered from tinnitus, you will understand what a surprisingly distressing condition it can be. It can lead to anxiety, stress, depression, insomnia and impaired hearing and concentration. Its medical definition of ‘the sensation of hearing sounds in the absence of any external sound’ barely reflects the impact it has on day to day life.

I suffered from tinnitus for several years and it still returns from time to time. I managed to control the condition using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness. I was taught CBT at hospital where it was called Tinnitus Retraining Therapy and I used my own mindfulness sessions to enhance its effect. And I found it surprisingly effective. The tinnitus in my right ear disappeared completely. Some ringing returns to my left ear from time to time, but it no longer bothers me.

Nor is my experience an isolated case. New research shows that mindfulness can have a big impact on tinnitus. Dr Laurence McKenna of University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Dr Liz Marks of the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, have found that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) can help sufferers far more effectively than the relaxation-based treatments currently taught by many tinnitus clinics.

Dr Marks’ team compared MBCT to relaxation therapy, the normal treatment for people with chronic tinnitus, to determine if MBCT was a better option.

“In total, 75 patients took part in the trial at UCLH’s Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear hospital receiving either MBCT or relaxation therapy. The study found that both treatments led to a reduction in tinnitus severity, psychological distress, anxiety and depression for patients,” said Dr Marks.

“The MBCT treatment led to significantly greater reductions in tinnitus severity, and this improvement lasted for longer. In addition, 182 patients who completed MBCT routinely in our clinic showed a similar level of improvement.”

MBCT teaches patients to pay purposeful, present-moment attention to experiences, rather than trying to suppress them. In the case of tinnitus, patients were encouraged to meditate on sounds, including that of the tinnitus, and to follow how it rose and fell, how its pitch and timbre changed, and also to place it in the context of the wider ‘soundscape’. This cultivated a more helpful way of responding to tinnitus. People learnt how to allow and accept tinnitus rather than trying to fight or suppress it. Even though this mindful approach did not aim to change the nature of the tinnitus, it led to it becoming less intrusive to the point where it was no longer a problem. In many cases, it disappeared completely.

Dr Marks added: “MBCT turns traditional tinnitus treatment on its head – so rather than trying to avoid or mask the noise, it teaches people to stop the battle with tinnitus.

“The mindfulness approach is radically different from what most tinnitus sufferers have tried before, and it may not be right for everyone. We are confident, however, that the growing research base has demonstrated how it can offer an exciting new treatment to people who may have found that traditional treatment has not been able to help them yet. We hope the results of our research will be one of the first steps to MBCT becoming more widely adopted.”

So how does MBCT, and mindfulness in general, have this effect?

To answer this question, its first necessary to understand the true nature of tinnitus. While its cause is unknown, it is clear that tinnitus is not a disease or an illness in the normal sense. Rather, according to the British Tinnitus Association, it results from some type of change that can be either mental or physical and may be unrelated to hearing. It is probably akin to neuropathic pain, except patients hear non-existent sounds rather than feel the sensations of pain.

Neuropathic pain occurs in the nervous system and often normal investigations fail to discover a clear cause. It might result from damage to the nerves, spinal cord, or brain. But sometimes pain is felt even when there is no damage, or when healing seems to have completed at the site of an illness or injury.  Such neuropathic pain can also take the form of unusual sensations, such as burning or electric shocks, and can even ‘occur’ in amputated limbs. Or it can take the form of tinnitus.

It is believed that tinnitus arises when background electrical or ‘white noise’ in the sound processing systems of the ear and brain become unduly amplified. The auditory system is highly sensitive and the nervous system is naturally ‘noisy’. Normally, the auditory system screens out this background electrical noise. However, if the background electrical noise rises above this auditory threshold – or the threshold is lowered – then you will hear the hissing sound of white noise, or tinnitus. What happens next is crucial to the progress of the condition. In some people, the noise is perceived as alarming and the body’s fight or flight system is activated. This ensures that the brain begins to actively search for the sounds of tinnitus because they are seen as a threat that needs to be avoided. The brain and nervous system then responds by increasing its capacity to process the noisy tinnitus signals – rather as a computer devotes extra memory and circuits to an important task. So the brain begins to act like an amplifier that’s stuck on ‘high’.

How you then react to tinnitus determines whether it is amplified further or fades away of its own accord. If you learn to accept the condition by paying conscious attention to the sounds by, for example, mindfully following how it rises and falls, and its changes in pitch and timbre, then you begin to accept the background noise. You can begin relaxing into it. The brain then no longer sees the noise as alarming and begins to naturally screen it out once again. Mindfulness also reduces anxiety and stress, which probably reduces the level of ‘white noise’ in the nervous system. In addition, lowering anxiety and stress can take you off a hair-trigger, and, in effect, lowers the brain’s sound amplifiers still further.

The Sounds and Thoughts meditation seems to be particularly effective for tinnitus although the whole MBCT programme reinforces the benefits.

The researchers in London and Bath now hope to extend their research to see whether it can help with tinnitus related insomnia. Given that mindfulness is an effective treatment for insomnia in its own right, the chances for success are high.

You can try some shortened MBCT meditations here. These are taken from my bestselling book Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World co-written with Professor Mark Williams, co-developer of MBCT.

You can also try some free meditations from my book Mindfulness for Health (published in US as You Are Not Your Pain) here.

Please seek medical guidance before you try incorporating mindfulness into your own tinnitus treatment.

Find out more about the condition from the British Tinnitus Association.

You can read the original research papers here and here.

 

Buy Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World from Amazon.com

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Buy Mindfulness for Health now from Amazon UK

Buy now from Amazon US (Sold as You are Not Your Pain)

 

What is Mindfulness?

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Is Awe Our Most Under-Rated And Powerful Emotion?

Awe calms the mind and soothes the spirit. It defuses anxiety, stress, and unhappiness, while also inspiring curiosity and enhancing creativity. And yet, it is being snuffed out by our increasingly homogenised world. Thankfully, awe is easy to inspire….

 

Close your eyes. Imagine that you are standing atop a tall craggy mountain. Wind whistling through your hair. Sun shining on your face. Feel the immensity of the mountains around you. See their snow-capped peaks streaming off into the distance in every direction. And there… over there… is an immense storm barrelling towards you. You are held in awe by nature’s power.

Awe is that feeling you get when confronted with something vast that transcends normality, and that you struggle to fully understand. It’s amazement tinged with an edge of fear. Your senses are sharpened and fuse into one over-arching sense of being. The mind is stilled and you lose your ego-centric sense of self. You become lost in the scene that you are surveying. The heart may skip. Goosebumps might appear. And, for a short while at least, everything pauses as if balanced perfectly on the head of a pin; your spirit, the world, time itself.

Awe creates a vanishing self. All negative traits simply evaporate. That nagging voice in your head, anxious self-consciousness, self interest… they all disappear in the face of awe. You begin to feel more connected to a greater whole; to friends and to family, to society, to the physical world, and to the universe itself. Awe is immense, infinite, and ultimately, indescribable. It can only be feltby the deepest reaches of the soul.

Awe cultivates generosity, compassion, and selflessness. It calms the mind and diminishes selfishness and narcissism. It lowers stress, sometimes for weeks afterwards, and enhances happiness and quality of life. Awe enhances the immune system by cutting the production of inflammatory cytokines. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which, in turn, soothes the body’s stressful fight or flight response. And it alters our sense of time, so that it feels as if you have more it, so you feel less busy and more willing to devote some of it to helping others. Awe can help break habitual patterns of thought – especially negative ones. It also enhances memory. You see, our memories are not fixed databanks that store objective facts about the past. They are far more fluid than that. They are coloured by our assumptions and expectations. Awe counteracts this tendency by enhancing mental clarity and freshness. It also ushers you back into the present moment so you can focus with renewed vigour on what is actually happening in the moment rather than being absorbed by your preoccupations. So it decreases negative rumination and enhances mindfulness. Curiosity and creativity also increase. Research has discovered that people shown awe-inspiring pictures of the Earth produce far more creative solutions to problems, find greater interest in abstract paintings, and persist longer on difficult puzzles.

Despite its power to move the soul, awe is one of our most under-rated and under-explored emotions. Nor is it likely to get any better; for technology is killing awe. Always-on connectivity can trap us inside a small and slowly diminishing, world. Those carefully constructed information silos crafted by the algorithms that underpin social media can all too easily create a ‘small world’ that is the antithesis of awe. You can disappear down a rabbit-hole of your own making (with a little help from your phone). The Internet may contain countless opportunities to become inspired by awe, but the corporations that control many of its gateways don’t want that. Awe is dangerous. It has the power to liberate you. And free spirits’ endanger profits.

Our education systems, too, are slowly killing awe. They have become too focused on achieving benchmarks and results at the expense of curiosity, creativity, and awe. To get a feel for this, look at how science, maths and art are taught. Children are no longer allowed to explore and risk ‘failure’ but are instead force-fed facts. There is a checklist of items that they need to know to pass exams, so that is what they are taught. It means they learn to jump through the necessary hoops rather than gain true knowledge and wisdom. Great art, science, technology and maths are genuinely awe-inspiring. Learning facts is not. Discovering something new to you through experimentation is thrilling. Being told that something is ‘great’ or ‘important’ is not. But not only that, such an approach closes down the mind and stifles curiosity. Awe never gets a look in.

And this is compounded by identikit housing, bland workplaces, ‘safe’ architecture and our increasingly homogenised cityscapes. Sometimes we need to be slapped in the face as we walk down the street. Say what you will about 60s architecture and town planning, but it was anything but bland. British Brutalism and its equally terrible global architectural spin-offs was truly awful, but it’s a great conversation-starter. You come alive when faced with the ugly and the brutal. A frisson of annoyance anyone? Sometimes exasperation is good for the soul (but only if you take the time to pay attention and to savour it).

We need to rediscover the messy, the dirty, the disorganised, the non-sensical and the completely bonkers. We need to go berserk and enjoy life in all of its chaotic beauty. We need to experience the bigger world that lies just beyond our fingertips. In short, we need to feel a little awe each day.

Thankfully, awe is an easy emotion to cultivate. You simply need to pay attention, become a little more mindful, and very quickly you will begin to feel the prickle of awe as it rises from the heart and washes over the soul. So today, do the unexpected, take a risk, and march off into the unknown. Dare to be inspired by awe. You could drive into the hills, to a lake, or to the sea. Or perhaps take a bus or a train ten miles from your home and then walk back. Whatever you do, pay attention to what you find. Open your eyes and ears. Notice any sights, sounds or smells that are around. Feel everything. And when you find the unexpected, feel a sense of awe washing over you.

Or try this, my favourite little exercise, to rekindle your sense of awe…. It’s taken from my recent book ‘The Art of Breathing’. You can adapt the principles to just about any situation.

 

Go outside on a starry night.

  • Take off your shoes and socks. Feel the ground beneath your feet.
  • Look upwards….
  • See the stars streaming off into infinity in every direction. Not just unimaginably big but true, never-ending, ever expanding, infinity.
  • Focus on your breath as it flows in and out. Feel the soles of your feet touching the ground, the cool night air washing over you. Feel the stillness, the expectation, infinity itself . . .
  • Look at the stars as they twinkle. Those twinkles may have taken billions of years to reach you.
  • Breathe . . . Love, love the arriving of the light . . .

 

The Art Of Breathing: The Secret To Living Mindfully, by Dr Danny Penman, is published in the US by Conari Press

Buy the Art of Breathing from Amazon US.

Buy it from Amazon UK.

 

What is Mindfulness?

What it can do for you

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Can you really find peace in a messy world simply by taking the time to breathe correctly?

Breathing is so ordinary, so mundane, that its true significance can easily pass us by. For thousands of years, people have used simple breathing exercises to relieve anxiety, stress, depression, and even chronic pain.

Some even claim they lead to spiritual enlightenment.

But I am as spiritual as a housebrick, so instead I use them to stay positive, focused and appreciative in a crazy world.

I first discovered the art of breathing as part of my research into mindfulness meditation, about which I have written three books, including the million-selling Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

Mindfulness has been clinically proven to beat depression and enhance happiness, clarity of thought, and even decision-making and creativity. And correct breathing is its cornerstone.

My latest book, The Art Of Breathing, gathers a range of mindful breathing techniques into one little volume that allows anyone to incorporate some mindfulness into their life.

These techniques work because of the way your breath reflects and amplifies your emotions.

Incorrect breathing can cause anxiety, stress and even depression. It works like this: momentary stress causes the body to tense and you begin to breathe a little more shallowly. A shallow breath lowers oxygen levels in the blood, which the brain senses as stress.

Breathing then becomes a little faster and shallower. Oxygen levels fall a little more. The heart begins to race. The brain feels a little more stressed…

It is a vicious circle.

But there is an alternative.

A gently rising and falling breath stimulates the parts of the brain and nervous system responsible for creating a sense of calm tranquillity. Soothing hormones flow through the body, calming negative thoughts. You begin to relax and breathe even more slowly and deeply…

It’s a virtuous circle.

To gain a sense of its power for yourself, try this simple exercise:

  • Lie flat on the ground with a cushion under your head. Close your eyes.
  • Place your hands on your stomach. Feel them rise and fall as you breathe in, and out.
  • Submit to the natural rhythm of the breath. Feel the air as it flows in and out of your body. Relax into the breath’s fluidity.
  • Within a few breaths your heart will begin to slow and beat more effectively. Your breath will start to become deeper and more rhythmic. You will begin to relax and think more clearly.

Most of us breathe incorrectly, especially when we’re sitting slumped at desks all day long. This interferes with the natural motion of the lungs, chest and shoulders.

Breathing relies on the big, powerful muscles of the diaphragm, the abdomen and the intercostal muscles between the ribs. It is helped along by the smaller secondary muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper ribs.

When you are upset, anxious or stressed, or spend too much time sitting in one position, the abdomen tenses and prevents the big primary muscles from working, leaving the secondary muscles to do all the work.

But the secondary muscles are designed to shoulder only 20 per cent of the burden, so they become stressed. If this continues, it can lead to chronic tension in the shoulders and neck, to headaches and fatigue, and to increasingly shallower breathing.

You can counteract such tension by using a simple breath-based meditation. All you need is a chair, your body, some air, your mind – and that’s it.

Here’s how:

Sit erect in a straight-backed chair with your hands in your lap. Close your eyes.

  • Focus your attention on your breath as it flows in and out. Stay in touch with the sensations of each in-breath and out-breath.
  • When your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the sensations of breathing. In. Out.
  • The moment you realise your mind has wandered away from the breath is the meditation. It is a moment of mindfulness.
  • After a few minutes, or longer if you can manage, open your eyes and soak up your surroundings.

After spending a few minutes practicing this meditation, you’ll feel less anxious, stressed and unhappy. You’ll have gained a bit of mental clarity and started to realise that your breath is one of your greatest assets. It is naturally meditative and always with you. And peace is only ever a single breath away.

 

The Art Of Breathing: The Secret To Living Mindfully, by Dr Danny Penman, is published in the US by Conari Press

Buy the Art of Breathing from Amazon US.

Buy it from Amazon UK.

 

 

What is Mindfulness?

What it can do for you

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The Art of Breathing: The Secret to Living Mindfully

Dissolve anxiety, stress and unhappiness, enhance your mind and unleash your creativity with these simple breathing exercises.

 

A flock of paragliders are soaring like eagles on powerful currents of rising air. Far below, a group of children watch in amazement as the pilots practise their aerobatics silently above their heads.

Then, suddenly, something starts to go wrong. One of the pilots loses control of his wing and starts spiralling like a leaf towards the earth.

After what seems like an age, the young man smashes into the hillside. He lies face down on the hillside. Broken.

But he is alive. After a moment of stunned silence, he begins screaming in agony. It will be at least 30 minutes before the paramedics arrive and another hour to reach hospital. Alone, he knows that he cannot afford to lose consciousness in case he never again awakens. So he begins forcing himself to breathe.

Slowly. Deeply. With a supreme effort of will, he focuses his mind away from his broken body and onto his breath. In. Out.

Inch by inch, the agony recedes. Before, finally, he reaches a state of calm tranquillity. Of pure mindfulness.

I was the young man who crashed his paraglider.

And the art of mindful breathing saved my life.

For thousands of years, people have used the art of breathing for equally profound effects on the mind and body. Some have used it for relief from chronic pain. Many more to cope with anxiety, stress and depression. Some claim it led to spiritual enlightenment.

But I’m as spiritual as a housebrick…. so I use it to help me stay calm in a chaotic world and to better appreciate the bittersweet beauty of everyday life.

Breathing seems so ordinary that its true significance can easily pass us by. It is so mundane that many of us have even forgotten how to breathe correctly – and this, as I found out after my paragliding accident, has huge implications for overall health and happiness.

Correct breathing enhances the immune system and helps rid the body of toxins and pollutants. It calms the mind and wards off anxiety, stress and unhappiness. And focusing on the breath with the mind’s eye is the heart of mindfulness meditation, which has been clinically proven to beat depression, and enhance overall happiness, wellbeing, clarity of thought – and even decision-making and creativity.

To gain a sense of its power for yourself, try this little exercise with me: Lie flat on the ground with a cushion under your head. Place your hands on your stomach. Spend a minute or so feeling them rise and fall as you breathe in . . . and out. Submit to the natural rhythm of the breath. Feel the air as it flows in and out of your body. Allow yourself to relax into the breath’s fluidity.

As the breath waxes and wanes, oxygen and nutrient-rich fluids are pumped through the abdomen, flushing out toxins. The physical movement of the breath in the body also massages the liver, kidneys, intestines, joints of the spine, indeed everything, so they’re kept healthy, supple, and well lubricated.

But there’s also a hidden – and equally important side to breathing. Your breath actually reflects and amplifies your emotions. So incorrect breathing can cause anxiety, stress and even depression.

It works like this: momentary stress causes the body to tense and you begin to breathe a little more shallowly. A shallow breath lowers oxygen levels in the blood, which the brain senses as stress. Breathing then becomes a little quicker and shallower. Oxygen levels fall a little more. The heart begins to race. The brain feels a little more stressed.

It’s a vicious cycle….

But there is an alternative. A gently rising and falling breath stimulates the parts of the brain and nervous system responsible for creating a sense of calm tranquillity. Soothing hormones flow through the body. These calm negative thoughts, feelings and emotions so you begin to breathe a little more slowly and deeply. You begin to relax.

It’s a virtuous cycle….

Unfortunately, most of us breathe incorrectly. This is especially true in the modern world where we often sit slumped at desks for far too long each day while being bombarded with work, emails, calls and messages. This can become even more of a problem if we are under any kind of stress. This disturbs our natural breathing patterns which in turn creates even more stress. It works like this.

Breathing relies on the big, powerful muscles of the diaphragm, the abdomen and the intercostal muscles that lie between the ribs. It is helped along by the smaller secondary muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper ribs.

When you are upset, anxious or stressed, or spend too much time sitting in one position, the abdomen tenses and prevents the big primary muscles from working. Instead, they begin tugging against each other, leaving the secondary muscles to do all the work. But the secondary muscles are only designed to shoulder 20 per cent of the burden, so they become stressed.

If this continues, it can lead to chronic tension in the shoulders and neck, to headaches and fatigue, and to increasingly shallower breathing.

Thankfully, to breathe correctly, all you need do is relearn the art of breathing.

The art of breathing lies in paying attention to your breath in a very special way. It’s the heart of mindfulness and as old as meditation itself. You can learn the basics in just a few minutes. Mastering it takes somewhat longer.

Breathing meditations are actually very simple but people often make them unnecessarily difficult and complicated. Firstly, meditating cross-legged in the lotus position is very uncomfortable. You can’t meditate if you’re not comfortable. Take a deep breath . . . and ask why the chair was invented.

Secondly, you don’t need any equipment, mantras, incense, fancy bells, apps, or even a quiet room. In fact, all you need is: a chair, your body, some air, your mind – and that’s it.

Try this little mindfulness exercise with me.

1) Sit on a straight-backed chair. Place your feet flat on the floor (with your spine one inch from the back of the chair). Be comfortable (with a relaxed but straight back). Place your hands loosely in your lap. Close your eyes.

2) Focus your mind on the breath as it flows in and out. Feel the sensations the air makes as it flows in through your mouth or nose and into your lungs. Feel the rising & falling of your chest and stomach.

3) Where are the strongest feelings? Nose, mouth, throat, stomach, chest, shoulders? Pay attention and explore the feelings, especially the way they rise and fall. Don’t try to alter them in any way or expect anything special to happen.

4) When your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath. Be kind to yourself. Minds wander. It’s what they do. Realising that your mind has wandered and bringing it back to the breath IS the meditation. It’s a little moment of mindfulness.

5) Your mind may eventually become calm for a little while…. or filled with thoughts or feelings such as anger, stress, or love. These may be fleeting. See them as clouds in the sky (simply watch them drift past). Try not to change anything. Gently return your awareness back to the sensations of the breath again and again.

6) After five minutes (or longer if you can manage) gently open your eyes and take in what you can see, hear, feel and smell…

7) Repeat twice a day.

You can stream this Breathing Meditation here.

As that short meditation will have begun to reveal, your breath is the greatest asset you have. It’s naturally meditative and always with you. It reflects your most powerful emotions and allows you to either soothe or harness them. It helps you to feel solid, whole, and in complete control of your life while grounding you in the present moment, clarifying the mind, and unshackling your instincts.

The art of breathing kindles a sense of wonder, of awe, and curiosity — the very foundations of a happier and more meaningful life. It grants you the courage to accept yourself with all of your faults and failings. To treat yourself with the kindness, empathy and compassion that you truly need, and helps you to look outwards and embrace the world.

And when you do this, you’ll discover the secret to living mindfully.

You can find out more in my new book The Art Breathing: The secret to living mindfully. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it as ‘A marvellously beautiful and sensitive book.’

‘This book is inspiring.  Against a backdrop of beautiful art, Danny Penman’s gentle words explain clearly how breathing, known since ancient times as the foundation for living mindfully, can become, for any of us, a way to reclaim our lives.’ Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

Download a sample of The Art Of Breathing.

Buy now from Amazon US.

Buy now from Amazon.

Is Empathy Our Most Dangerous and Self-Indulgent Emotion?

Compassion is becoming a word so widely misused that it is rapidly losing its true meaning. Many people (and organisations) appear to profess ‘compassion’ in the same way that they support eliminating poverty and protecting the environment, that is, they’re in favour so long as they don’t have to do too much about it.

At first glance, this is a little disheartening….. However, true heart-felt compassion remains intrinsically human and easily stirred. Compassion is so deeply embedded in human nature that few people are incapable of experiencing it. That fact that we get angry when we see people behaving thoughtlessly, unfairly, or callously, is a testament to humanity’s intrinsically compassionate nature. We are angered by sexism, racism, and inequality precisely because we are caring compassionate creatures. If we were not, then we simply would not care about such things, let alone become angry about them. We even wage war out of the compassion we feel for others, however misguided that may prove to be. Compassion is human. And strange as it may seem, it is also good for us.

Dr Barbara Fredrickson, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and one of the world’s leading researchers on human emotion, says that cultivating positive emotions such as compassion helps to build the four key resources that progressively enhance success and overall happiness in life. Firstly, it helps to build cognitive resources, such as the ability to mindfully attend to the present moment. This, in turn, enhances concentration, creativity and focus. Secondly, it helps to build psychological resources, such as the ability to maintain a sense of mastery over life. This can help ward off anxiety, stress, depression and feelings of being trapped or exhausted. Thirdly, it builds social resources, such as the ability to give and receive emotional support. This helps to build and maintain family ties and friendships. And fourthly, it helps build physical resources by, for example, boosting the immune system so that you are healthier and more energised by life. Enhancing these four resources will help you to meet life’s challenges more effectively and to take advantage of its opportunities.

In short, says Dr Barbara Fredrickson: ‘When people open their hearts to positive emotions, they seed their own growth in ways that transform them for the better.’

Mindfulness is a highly effective way of enhancing such positive emotions. It does this on many levels simultaneously, but it primarily works by helping people reconnect with their previously suppressed emotions (there are also specific practices such as ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation that directly enhance compassion). It also helps people tease apart, and sense, the many different ‘flavours’ of their emotions so that they cease to be over-whelmed by the intensity of their feelings.

A good example is the way that people misunderstand (and feel) compassion and empathy. Empathy is the sharing of another person’s state of mind and their emotions whereas compassion actively seeks to relieve another’s suffering. Therein lies the crucial difference: compassion is active whereas empathy is passive. Empathy is, in some ways, a necessary precursor to compassion. It provides the motivational force to actually relieve another’s distress. But it can also be a ‘negative’ or even a coercive emotion because it is ethically neutral.

People often confuse compassion with empathy. A rather brutal analogy highlights the difference: A torturer will put a gun to your head. An empathic torturer will put the gun to your child’s head. A compassionate one will put the gun down…. Same situation. Same tools. Only the interpretation of the raw emotional data differs.

So empathy alone can be quite dangerous (and arguably a little self-indulgent). To my mind, empathy carries with it a slight tinge of entertainment or even voyeurism. It is stoked by the news media, who ironically, often have the best of intentions. Empathy in the Twenty-First century can also be highly damaging to mental health and well-being. We are all bombarded with disturbing images from war-torn parts of the world. Talented journalists, photographers and broadcasters all compete to get the most harrowing stories and images. Empathy then ensures that they eat their way into our soul and corrode our mental wellbeing.

Dark political and economic forces can also use our natural sense of empathy to drag us into interminable wars over which we can have no long term influence. It is one thing sending off young men and women to die if they can banish an evil dictator and bring peace. It is quite another to send them off to be blown apart because people have been manipulated into believing that ‘something must be done’. Quite simply, most western interventions over the past few decades have served only to enrich the arms industry, satisfy our desire ‘to do something’, and provide news channels with exciting footage. And to what end? Can we influence the course of a civil war? A more compassionate approach would be to accept that terrible things can happen, and that we have absolutely no control or influence over them. In such scenarios, the best course of action is to adopt the first principle of medicine. That is: ‘First, do no harm’. And that may mean doing nothing at all.

We can counteract the tendency to substitute empathy for compassion by actively cultivating the growth of positive emotions. Recent work has shown that it is possible to do this using a specific type of meditation known as Metta (or Loving Kindness). In a landmark study, Dr Fredrickson and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina found that practicing this meditation increased the pleasure and intensity of feelings as diverse as curiosity, amusement, hope, joy, awe, and love.[i] In turn, these positive emotions built the four key personal resources necessary for a happy and creative life, namely; cognitive, psychological, social and physical. This meant that those who practised the meditation found themselves with an increased purpose in life, had more friends, were happier and healthier, and were consequently more satisfied with their lives. And over time, such feelings lead to enhanced creativity, clarity of thought, cognitive flexibility and compassion. It’s a virtuous circle too; happiness leads to success – and success to greater happiness. These aren’t just welcome outcomes in themselves. Recent work has discovered that such positive moods also directly enhance divergent thinking, the type of thinking which underpins creativity.[ii]

Perhaps then, if we can collectively learn to think and act more creatively, we might just be able to deal with the world’s problems more effectively. We might learn to deal with them with intelligence and compassion, rather than risk making them worse with empathy.

 

Try these simple practices to enhance compassion and wellbeing

Try this Resilience Meditation (a type of Metta meditation) led by Dr Danny Penman. You can listen, stream or download it from here. Try doing it for at least 5 days.

You can also try this simple Breathing Meditation to ground yourself in the present moment and clarify the mind.

the-art-of-breathing-coverjpgNew Book: The Art of Breathing – The secret to living mindfully. Just don’t breathe a word of it… 

You breathe 22,000 times every day. How many are you really aware of? 

My latest book provides a concise guide to letting go and finding peace in a messy world, simply by taking the time to breathe. Known side effects: You will start to smile more. You will worry less. Life won’t bother you so much. 

Dissolve anxiety, stress and unhappiness, enhance your mind and unleash your creativity with these simple exercises. And with each little moment of mindfulness, discover a happier, calmer you. It really is as easy as breathing…

‘A marvellously beautiful and sensitive book.’ Jon Kabat-Zinn

‘This book is inspiring.  Against a backdrop of beautiful art, Danny Penman’s gentle words explain clearly how breathing, known since ancient times as the foundation for living mindfully, can become, for any of us, a way to reclaim our lives.’ Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

Download a sample of The Art Of Breathing.

Buy now from Amazon US.

Buy now from Amazon.

 

References

[i] Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J. & Finkel, S. M. (2008), ‘Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, pp. 1045–62. See Barbara Fredrickson’s website at http://www.unc.edu/ peplab/home.html.

[ii] Lorenza S. Colzato & Ayca Szapora & Dominique Lippelt & Bernhard Hommel (2012). Prior Meditation Practice Modulates Performance and Strategy Use in Convergent- and Divergent-Thinking Problems. Mindfulness
DOI 10.1007/s12671-014-0352-9.

What exactly is mindfulness? Hint: it’s probably NOT what you think it is…

In 2010, when Mark and I were trying to come up with a title for our book ‘Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World’, we were met with blank incomprehension. Almost everyone would say: ‘Mindfulness? What the hell is that? You can’t call a book Mindfulness, nobody knows what it is… Nobody will read it.’

The world has moved on a little since then and mindfulness has become mainstream. But the concept often remains equally misunderstood. Many people feel that they haven’t quite grasped the idea because it seems so deceptively simple (this might be because the concept itself is easy to understand but the actual state of mind is difficult to cultivate for more than a few seconds at a time).

Mindfulness is, quite simply, full conscious awareness. It is paying full conscious attention to whatever thoughts, feelings and emotions are flowing through your mind, body and breath without judging or criticising them in any way. It is being fully aware of whatever is happening in the present moment without being trapped in the past or worrying about the future. It is living in the moment not for the moment.

Mindfulness can also be understood by what it is not. It is not a religion. Nor is it inherently mystical or spiritual. Prominent atheists, such as Sam Harris, are quite happy to meditate because of the clarity of mind it engenders. It is simply a tool for reconnecting with life, for embracing the ebb and flow of the world, and for coming to a greater understanding and acceptance of life’s eternal flux. Although people through the ages have used meditation for spiritual purposes, the main thrust of my work is to help people gain relief from anxiety, stress, depression, exhaustion and physical pain. It is said that ‘all life is suffering’ but I think that is far too bleak. All life can be suffering, if you allow it to be, but it certainly need not be this way. Life can be broadly happy and meaningful but only if you first get out of your own way and allow it to naturally unfold before your feet.

Another misconception is that mindfulness is in some way ‘opting out’ or detaching yourself from the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s actually about connecting and embracing life with all of its chaotic beauty, with all of your faults and failings. Many people also mistakenly believe that the aim of mindfulness is to intentionally clear the mind of thoughts. Rather, it is about understanding how the mind works. To see how it unwittingly ties itself in knots to create anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. It teaches you to observe how your thoughts, feelings, and emotions rise and fall like waves on the sea. And in the calm spaces in between, lie moments of piercing insight.

Although meditation is extremely powerful, it is not the only way of becoming more mindful. Every aspect of life can be used to enhance mindfulness. Every one of your senses can become gateways to this delightful state of being. Eating and drinking, and even such simple things as walking through a park and smelling the flowers, can all become mindfulness practices. The work of Dr Ellen Langer at Harvard University is instructive. She has dedicated her life to finding novel ways of enhancing mindfulness and has rediscovered what many accomplished meditators have said for centuries: the key to mindfulness is to actively engage with life. There’s one little problem though: ‘mindlessness’ is all pervasive. We are all naturally mindless. If we are left with ourselves for more than a few moments, we can easily lapse into mindlessness. And we are generally not aware when we lapse into such a state. So we are unaware that we are unaware. We live on autopilot. Fortunately, there is a simple antidote: pay full conscious attention to whatever you are doing. Paying attention is the key to becoming present, to becoming grounded in the present moment, neither living in the past nor worrying about the future, but simply living life as it was meant to be lived. And when you once again begin paying attention, you kick-start profound changes that ripple across your whole life. You begin to see the world with all of the excitement, freshness, and joy that you did as a child. Anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion simply melt away in the face of such awareness.

Although meditation is profoundly important, it is but one way of cultivating mindfulness.

In many ways, the real meditation is your life.

 

Try these simple practices:

*****

The next time you catch sight of your partner or a close friend, notice five new things about them. Pay attention to the way they move, their facial expressions, and the way their voice rises and falls, with its pitch and timbre. Can you sense their aroma? And their hair? Is it the same as you expected? Do they look tired or energised? Are they wearing their normal clothes? Pay attention to what they are wearing and the way the clothes follow or hide their contours. Try not to judge them in any way but instead accept them for who they are. The aim is not to judge but to observe. You find what you find. Do they become newly alive to you?

*****

When eating or drinking, pay attention to all of its textures, flavours and aromas. Tease them apart and focus on each one in turn. Then pay attention to the flavour, aroma and texture of the food in its entirety. Tea and coffee contain many different flavours and chocolate has over 300. See if you can sense some of them, and then see how they combine to produce the overall flavour of ‘tea’, ‘coffee’ or ‘chocolate’.

*****

The next time you are in a queue (or line) notice how your body reacts. Does it take on a mind of its own? Do your arms and legs want to move of their own accord? Are the impulses surprisingly powerful? Do you feel compelled to walk to the front? Is your mind swirling with annoyance or impatient thoughts? Pay attention to all of the different sensations in your body, the ground beneath your feet, the way your chest rises and falls with each breath. Close your eyes if that helps. After a while, begin to pay attention to the world around you. What can you see? Do the people around you look angry, stressed, unhappy or perhaps serene? Pay attention to their faces and to their body language. After a while, begin to broaden your awareness to encompass the whole scene. What can you see? Pay attention. What can you hear? Chattering, the sound of machinery or a keyboard being tapped? Pay attention to the whole soundscape. What can you smell? What can you feel? Can you gain a sense of the air flowing over your skin or hair? Breathe. Pay attention to whatever surrounds you.

the-art-of-breathing-coverjpgNew Book: The Art of Breathing – The secret to living mindfully. Just don’t breathe a word of it… 

You breathe 22,000 times every day. How many are you really aware of? 

My latest book provides a concise guide to letting go and finding peace in a messy world, simply by taking the time to breathe. Known side effects: You will start to smile more. You will worry less. Life won’t bother you so much. 

Dissolve anxiety, stress and unhappiness, enhance your mind and unleash your creativity with these simple exercises. And with each little moment of mindfulness, discover a happier, calmer you. It really is as easy as breathing…

‘This book is inspiring.  Against a backdrop of beautiful art, Danny Penman’s gentle words explain clearly how breathing, known since ancient times as the foundation for living mindfully, can become, for any of us, a way to reclaim our lives.’ Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

Download a sample of The Art Of Breathing.

Buy now from Amazon US.

Buy now from Amazon.

 

 

Should you try to get over grief or accept it with mindfulness?

I recently listened to a harrowing BBC Radio interview with Matt Briggs, who’s wife Kim was run over and killed in London by an aggressive cyclist. The killer was cycling at speed, had no brakes, and showed no remorse for the death he had just caused and the family just devastated. Kim left behind two children, barely ten and twelve at the time, whilst Matt was left with the daily struggle to care for his two children alone.

Matt was incredibly stoic about his family’s loss and talked about how grief had affected him and his young family. I was struck by his strength and wisdom but also reminded of a reassurance that we often hear in connection with grief: of the inevitability of ‘getting over’ it. People tell grieving friends and relatives that their grief will pass. ‘You will get over it,’ they say. While those in the throes of grief reassure themselves with the mantra: ‘I will get over it’.

But is this the best way of coming to terms with grief?

Grief is over-whelming. It is painful beyond measure. Grief is the realisation that you will never, ever, see, hear, touch or smell a loved-one again. It is the most painful emotion that any human can ever experience. It is far worse than physical pain. Infinitely worse than splitting up from a lover or losing your job, house, and money. All of those things can be ‘got over’. They are replaceable. But grief entails the absolute loss of someone who is unique and irreplaceable so that the very idea of getting over it is a fallacy. You simply can’t. You can suppress it though, for a while at least, but this can have devastating long term consequences because if you suppress one emotion then you end up suppressing all of them, which will leave you cut off from all that is good about life.

I lost my mother when I was 13. Even now, from time to time, I grieve for her. Just writing this has brought tears to my eyes. I can feel a yawning chasm in my life where my mother once stood. I feel for the things she will never see; my beautiful wife and two young children, the success I have enjoyed after numerous long diversions, the happiness I now enjoy. I want her to see these things. To understand that she did a good job bringing me up in very difficult circumstances. But she will never see these things and it hurts intensely. The idea that I should ‘get over’ her loss feels almost like an insult to her life. So instead, I have come to an acceptance of the loss without any false beliefs about its impact. It was an extremely long and tough process and one which I undertook the hard way because there was simply no one who could help me when I was 13-years-old and was forced to bring myself up.

So I understand why someone would want to ‘get over’ the intense pain of grief, but I don’t believe it is the wisest course of action. In our mechanistic world, grief, like all uncomfortable emotions, is seen as something that should be either got through as fast as possible or pushed away at all costs. To this end, people often go to extraordinary lengths to suppress ‘negative’ emotions such as anger, fear and grief while chasing the ‘positive’ ones of happiness and contentment. But this approach is fraught with perils and is actually the root cause of many people’s dissatisfaction with life. Life is beautiful, but painful too. You can’t have one without the other, although we desperately want it to be so.

We take this approach because we misunderstand the true nature of our emotions. They are seen as mere messages sent from the brain to the conscious mind. This leads to the mistaken belief that you can become blissfully happy by simply suppressing the bad and chasing the good. But emotions are not solid and pure entities. They are flexible entities that are both message and messenger sent from the deepest reaches of the psyche. When it comes to emotion, the medium really is the message. So in practice, if you try to suppress the message, then the dutiful messenger will keep on coming back to pester you until you have felt the emotion it is trying to convey. And each time you turn away the messenger, it will try a little harder to find another way of conveying its message. With each twist of the cycle, the message will become more and more distorted and powerful so that even the mildest of ‘negative’ emotions can become an intense spikey knot of pain.

Emotions are also mistakenly see as absolutes; as solid entities that are either good or bad, sweet or sour, painful or pleasant. But the emotions we actually feel are fusions of many different feelings. We rarely feel pure anger or happiness. Happiness might have a sad undertow, while anger might be tinged with sorrow. Grief is even more powerful, subtle, and complex. This is why it is so overwhelming. It is an amalgam of all our most powerful feelings in a distressing roiling cauldron of emotion. It is anger at the injustice, bitterness about the loss, fear for the future, regrets about the times you were less than perfect. There is loneliness, too, but also happiness at their memory, and thankfulness for their presence in your life.

Painful as it is, the only way of truly ‘getting over’ grief – or any difficult emotion – is to actually feel it. To experience it. To accept it. If you allow the messenger to deliver its message by actually feeling it, allowing it to settle into your mind and body, then it will have done its job and will begin to dissolve. Make no mistake though, this is difficult. In the long run, though, it is far easier than living a life marred with suppressed emotion and cut off from the rich beauty of life.

What does the acceptance of loss and grief entail? It means the acceptance that you are on the most difficult journey that any person can undertake. Have no illusions; grief is horrible beyond measure. Grieving means powerful emotions will periodically tear your life apart, leaving you feeling utterly lost, alone, and broken inside. In time, between the gaps in your grief, mindfulness can begin to help you (see below for some practical ideas).

Mindfulness can help with grieving but try not to rush things. There is no destination to reach. No prizes for arriving. Baby-steps are best. Over time, you will come to understand that mindful grieving means feeling your emotional turmoil rather than suppressing it. It means embracing the dead person’s life with all of their faults and failings, suffering and regrets, happinesses and sadnesses. It means embracing both their memory and the loss. It means the acceptance that life is often far shorter than we might wish; that death often appears before we are truly finished with life. It means the acceptance that the price of life is death.

If you can progressively begin to do all this, then when your turn comes, perhaps people will laugh and cry at your funeral. And perhaps people will not ‘get over’ your death at all, but will instead choke on laughter and tears at your memory.

 

Some thoughts and practices to reflect on:

*****

From time to time, remind yourself that everyone grieves at their own pace and in their own way. Do not listen to people who suggest that you should be ‘over it’ in a set period of time such as one month or one year. Your grief will rise and fall. Sometimes you will feel it intensely, other times hardly at all. The intensity of your grief does not reflect how much you loved the person.

 

*****

When you feel grief arising, try not to fight it. Emotional turmoil is normal. Break down into a heap of tears if that helps. Depending on your character, you might like to allow yourself to cry in public or perhaps alone. The choice is yours. Do not be guided by culture or convention.

 

*****

Don’t try to meditate on the person you have lost until you feel ready. There is no rush. Instead, allow yourself to feel grief and to cry when you feel able. When grief becomes over-whelming, allow it to flow. You may feel more comfortable taking yourself off to a less crowded place should grief appear when you are amongst strangers or at work.

 

*****

When you do feel ready begin meditating, try this Breathing Meditation.

 

Try not to bring the person you are grieving to mind but if thoughts, feelings or emotions about them do appear, allow yourself to feel them for a while before returning to the breath. The aim of the Breathing Meditation is not to grieve but to ground you in the present moment and to see how all thoughts, feelings and emotions rise and fall. Later, if you wish, you might like to try the course in the bestselling book I wrote with Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University: Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Meditations from The Art of Breathing are a good starting point too.

 

*****

Feel free to be as gregarious as you like or to be alone as much as you want. The company of friends and family will probably help you immensely but we all need time to be alone.

 

*****

From time to time remind yourself that the price of life is death. That single sentence sums up the human condition more than any other. We are here on this earth for a short while, experience a panoply of bitter-sweet emotions, and then depart. We forget this at our peril.

 

*****

Be aware of how your mind tries to distract you from grief by conjuring up other intense thoughts and emotions. Gently remind yourself that ‘You are not your thoughts’.

 

*****

You should not feel guilty for experiencing positive emotions. If someone has died after a long and painful illness then it is OK to feel relief at their death and the fact that they are now at peace. Equally, happiness or even laughter are normal and uncontrollable features of being human. If they should arise, welcome them as the beginning of a return to normality not as a betrayal of your loved-one’s memory.

 

*****

Don’t feel the need to remove all traces of the person you have lost from your life. How you choose to deal with this is your personal choice but try not to rush into any decisions. Allow things to settle for as long as it takes. When you feel ready to begin rebuilding your life, start to remove their personal possessions from day to day life. Give away or sell their possessions if you want to. Or stockpile them if you wish. Do not rush into any decisions about anything. The future is a big place.

 

*****

When the intensity of grief begins to subside, take note of the other emotions you are feeling. There might be anger, fear, loneliness, bitterness, hatred and happiness too. Don’t try to consciously bring them to mind, just notice them as they appear and begin to subside. Notice their ebb and flow.

the-art-of-breathing-coverjpgNew Book: The Art of Breathing – The secret to living mindfully. Just don’t breathe a word of it… 

You breathe 22,000 times every day. How many are you really aware of? 

My latest book provides a concise guide to letting go and finding peace in a messy world, simply by taking the time to breathe. Known side effects: You will start to smile more. You will worry less. Life won’t bother you so much. 

Dissolve anxiety, stress and unhappiness, enhance your mind and unleash your creativity with these simple exercises. And with each little moment of mindfulness, discover a happier, calmer you. It really is as easy as breathing…

‘This book is inspiring.  Against a backdrop of beautiful art, Danny Penman’s gentle words explain clearly how breathing, known since ancient times as the foundation for living mindfully, can become, for any of us, a way to reclaim our lives.’ Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

Download a sample of The Art Of Breathing.

Buy now from Amazon US.

Buy now from Amazon.

What is Mindfulness?

What it can do for you

Buy Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World from Amazon.com

Buy Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World from Amazon UK

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