A New Year! A New You? - Hannah Marsh

Photo courtesy of Hannah Marsh

Photo courtesy of Hannah Marsh

Around this time of year, there are many messages of self-transformation. Some are inspiring reminders that each year, each moment, is a new beginning. Others, less helpfully, tap into our insecurities, the things we dislike about ourselves, and offer up an image of a better future - "A new you!" This version of self-transformation depends on dissatisfaction with the present. It suggests that to be happy, we need to become a new and different person than we already are.

I'd like to offer an alternative:

What if we started this year, as we do our MBSR classes, by saying, "There is more right with you than wrong with you"?

What if, instead of a to-do list of resolutions, we each told ourselves, "I am enough"?

What if, instead of striving toward an imagined future, we listened to the very centre of our being and asked ourselves, "What is it that I really want"? What matters most deeply, in this moment?

From this inner listening, we might find our truest intentions, "the noblest aspirations of our heart" (Ajahn Pavaro). This year, I invite you to stand firm, honouring what matters most deeply to you. For me, right now, what matters most is connection - to the world around me, to the people I love, to my own good self. I invite you to join me, standing firm in our noblest of intentions, following them with great patience and self-compassion, remembering we are not alone. 

Hannah Marsh is a consultant with the Mindfulness Institute.ca.

Loving-Kindness Meditation - Catherine L. Phillips, MD

Photo Courtesy of Brad Stewart

Photo Courtesy of Brad Stewart

In this meditation we will practice generating and directing compassion towards ourselves and others.

Start in a comfortable position, your posture embodying qualities you would like infused throughout this meditation and in your day-to-day life. These may include solidity, grace, poise, strength, clarity, gentleness, kindness or dignity – however these feel for you! Allow yourself to sink into your body, bringing awareness to what it feels like to be sitting, with the air flowing in and the air flowing out as you embody these qualities.

Allowing everything to be exactly as it already is. Allowing sounds to come and go just as they are. Allowing physical sensations to come and go exactly as they are. Allowing thoughts to come and go exactly as they are...and if you notice your attention carried off by thoughts or other distractions, simply noting this with acceptance, and gently bringing awareness back to the present moment.

When you are ready, and in your own good time, bring to your mind and heart the memory and image of some being for whom or by whom you have felt love or loved. This being could be someone from your past or present, a friend, family member, or even a pet. Holding an image of this being in your mind, allow yourself to feel the kindness or love you experienced at some moment in time with this being. Allowing yourself to experience the good intentions and love of this being towards you as in your mind’s eye you open to, and receive these well wishes from them:

May you be safe. May you be free from inner and outer harm. May you be healthy. May you be happy.  May you live with ease. May you be free from anger, pain, and suffering. May you be filled with peace, joy, and compassion for yourself and for others.

Continuing to hold this being in your heart as you continue to generate feelings of kindness, love and compassion. And now, holding this being in this state of love as you direct these well wishes towards them:

May you be safe. May you be free from inner and outer harm. May you be healthy. May you be happy. May you be free from anger, pain and suffering. May you live with ease. May you be filled with peace, joy, and compassion for yourself and for others.

As you continue to sit in the presence of this benevolent being allowing this love and compassion to envelope you both, directing this same loving kindness and well wishes towards your own self, for you are no less deserving than any other being:

May I be safe. May I be free from inner and outer harm. May I be healthy. May I be happy, May I live with ease. May I be free from anger, pain and suffering. May I be filled with peace, joy, and compassion for myself and for others.

When you're ready, you could now bring to mind a more neutral person from your past or present, and direct this loving kindness and sincere well wishes towards them:

May you be safe. May you be free from inner and outer harm. May you be healthy. May you be happy. May you live with ease. May you be free from anger, pain, and suffering. May you be filled with peace, joy, and loving kindness for yourself and others.

As you continue to generate feelings of kindness and compassion from within, using the image of the first benevolent being to help you do so if needed, bring to mind a less than neutral person, perhaps someone by whom you have felt wronged, or even hurt. And, only if you choose, experimenting now with directing love and well wishes towards this person:

May you be safe. May you be free from inner and outer harm. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be free from anger, pain, and suffering.  May you live with ease. May you be filled with loving kindness for yourself and others.

Offering kindness, gentleness and compassion for yourself as you try this – not necessarily choosing the most difficult person in your life if you feel unready for this, and listening to and respecting your own internal cues and reactions, as you work with yourself just the way you are.

And, if you choose, now expanding this loving kindness to encompass everyone in the same house or perhaps everyone in the same community or city, wishing each and every being:

May you be happy. May you be free from inner and outer harm. May you be healthy. May you live with ease. May you be free from anger, pain, and suffering. May you be filled with peace, joy and loving kindness for yourself and others.

And as we reach the end of this exercise, knowing that at any time you can draw upon this inner reservoir of compassion, of boundless loving kindness, and offer it to yourself and to others in your life at any moment over the course of your day and your life.

Note: You can spend as much or little time on each being as you choose, and individualize the phrases as desired.

Catherine L. Phillips, MD, FRCP(C) is the Founder and Director of The Mindfulness Institute.ca. For more information, see About Us.

Answering the Fundamental Question of Mindful Self-Compassion - Steven Hickman, Psy.D.

Photo courtesy of Brad Stewart

Photo courtesy of Brad Stewart

It’s a simple question, really. But one that often brings on a state of perplexed astonishment when someone asks us.

“What do you need?”

Unless we are a sobbing child, rushing to his mother after some sort of sibling transgression, or we are urgently and frantically searching for the restroom in an unfamiliar restaurant, we may have an unusually hard time answering that question.

In a moment of suffering, sorrow, despair or betrayal, can we actually answer the very deep and important question of “What do I need? Right now, in this moment.”

What we often needed as children when we were distressed was to be comforted, reassured that we were still loved and cared for, and soothed by the gentle unconditional touch of a loving parent. We needed someone to kiss our “booboo” when we stumbled and fell. Or to be consoled by a loving embrace when we were excluded from a game of hide-and-seek.

But for many of us, our distress was met by something else, or as we grew older we had difficult or traumatic experiences that disconnected us from our deep need to be loved, accepted and appreciated. For whatever the reason, we have found ourselves removed from a sense of what we really need when we suffer; much of the time, we may not even be aware when we DO suffer. We overlook our fears of being disconnected, unloved or, ironically, overlooked – often by tending to the needs of others instead.

Many of us are quite adept at caring for the needs of those around us. We channel our inner desires to be cared for by caring for others – and when done with a true connection to one’s own heart, this can be a beautiful thing. We often instinctively know just exactly what others need. Our mirror neurons fire wildly when we contact another person’s pain and difficulty, and through that resonance with another person, we are miraculously able to muster up just the right expression of comfort, the perfect words and the much-appreciated offer of kindness or consolation.

But what of the darker moments of our own despair, fear or desperation? What do we need in those moments for ourselves, because this matters, too? We often struggle to answer that question, and as a result, further suffering arises as we resort to less helpful and more destructive ways of meeting that deep inner need to be loved and connected. We even criticize ourselves for having this need, telling ourselves that if we just tried harder, got things right more often (or better yet, if we were perfect), or removed ourselves from contact with others, THEN we would feel OK.

And so it is that a growing number of people find themselves in the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course developed by leading self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, Ph.D., and noted author and expert on compassion and mindfulness in psychotherapy, Christopher Germer, Ph.D.

MSC could be considered an “antidote” to the shame and self-criticism that many of us bear, and which cripples many of us with self-doubt, fear and self-loathing. By systematically cultivating the ability to be kind and loving to ourselves, especially in those moments of suffering that arise when we feel disconnected, lost, alienated or dismissed, MSC slowly helps restore in each of us our natural capacity to be kind, loving and compassionate to ourselves in the way that we do so effortlessly for others.

One of the first questions that participants ponder in MSC is the curious one of “How would you treat a friend when they are struggling, when they fail or feel inadequate?” Typically, the responses flow quickly and fluidly. And then, when the question turns to how we treat ourselves in those very same situations, the responses are often in stark contrast. Many find that their inner critic is harsh, demanding, dismissive and belittling (often echoing the voices of people from the past who have treated them in this way). When they notice how it feels to be spoken to in this way, it can be a revelation. Some participants exclaim, “I would NEVER talk to someone else like this!”

In fact, this phenomenon is more widespread than one might think. Dove recently dramatized this in a YouTube video where they asked women to write down the things they say to themselves about their appearance. They then set up public conversations between two women in cafes and restaurants where one woman said those same things out loud to her companion. Strangers nearby were horrified and, in some cases, actually interrupted the two actors to comment on how terrible it was that one person would speak to another in such a way!

The MSC program sets about to help participants begin to “warm up the inner conversation” and to cultivate a loving, tender, accepting attitude toward oneself that motivates us out of a desire to be happy and free from suffering, rather than out of perfectionism, fruitless striving, fear and shame. Early research on the program is promising, and the huge existing body of research done by Kristin Neff and others already demonstrates a strong association between self-compassion and a variety of measures of wellbeing and good mental health, as well as the ability to make changes in unhealthy behavior, persist in the face of adversity, and to be perceived more positively in intimate relationships, just to name a few.

If you find it difficult to answer the fundamental question of Mindful Self-Compassion – “What do you need?” – when you are feeling overwhelmed, afraid, sad or fearful, you might benefit from a greater ability to bring kindness to yourself and soothe yourself in these moments, as well as in your daily stressful life. Consider taking the Mindful Self-Compassion course to discover your compassionate inner voice and to find a way to meet yourself in the way in which you tend to meet others, reversing the Golden Rule and doing unto yourself what you would do (and say) to others!

Steven Hickman, Psy.D., is a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Clinical Professor in the UC San Diego Departments of Psychiatry and Family & Preventive Medicine. He is also the Founder and Executive Director of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. He has been teaching mindfulness, in the form of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and more recently, Mindful Self-Compassion for 12 years.

We're excited to have Steven in Edmonton this August to co-lead Mindful Self-Compassion: 5-Day Residential Intensive!

Loving the Living with the Love of the Dead - Steven Hickman, Psy.D.

Photo courtesy of Brad Stewart

Photo courtesy of Brad Stewart

I have a wide open day ahead of me here in the San Francisco Bay Area and am eagerly anticipating a welcome return to the coastline of Point Reyes National Seashore and a meandering and rejuvenating drive up the coast through my childhood coastal stomping grounds. One stop along the way might be a brief visit to the seaside grave of my father-in-law, whom I have never met, but who rests in my heart because of what he meant to my beloved wife and the warmth and admiration that flows from her every time she speaks of him. I am the welcome and grateful recipient of his fatherhood in this way.

And so the thought floated up out of my waking moments: “What if we could be with the living breathing people in our lives, the way we are with the dead?” That may sound a little strange, but bear with me for a moment.

How are we when we stand there awkwardly looking down at whatever tangible marker might have been placed as a proxy to the vibrant existence of a family member or friend? We feel a certain presence of the deceased, but largely our attention is broad enough to include a kind of warm attentiveness to our own selves as we recall the person who once walked and talked and breathed with us.

We are quiet, respectful, patient, receptive and tender in our attention. We may feel the reverberations of grief and loss that the person’s passing brought to us, but it is a kind of nostalgia (the roots of that word referring to “the pain of remembering”) that bears the mellow sweetness of the time that cliché has told us heals all wounds. And we are finally free of the constricting web of a change agenda for the other. The “if only” and the conditional melt away with the reality of the absolute and the imperative of this very moment as it is, without holding or pushing away, even if we would like to do so.

We may also ride the harsher waves of hurts, resentments, wounds that never really healed, anger at abandonment, fear of life without this person who simply desired what we all desire: to have peace, satisfaction and joy in life, no matter how he or she went about seeking that. But we are finally and ultimately aware that absolutely nothing can be done but to meet this suffering within ourselves with some degree of kindness and gentleness, and perhaps the wisps of forgiveness. Forgiveness of this person who was ultimately and inevitably human, flawed and subject to failure, mistakes, desire and delusion, and vulnerable to the reality of mortality.

And perhaps some opportunity for forgiveness of ourselves is also present in the space of dwelling in the presence of the dead and buried. Forgiveness of ourselves as we realize that we are the only ones that have been truly and completely bequeathed to our daily and lifelong care. If we are to experience healing, change, improvement, relief and release, it will come from deep within us when we shift our relationship to the outer world and tend warmly and compassionately to what is within us.

How would it be if we had tea with a friend and sat with them as we sit with the dead: delicately attuned to our own experience, reflective but fully present, riding the gentle undulations of the heart as the encounter unfolds word by word, expression by expression, emotion by emotion. Is there, in the end, a more respectful and self-compassionate way of connecting with those we love than by connecting warmly with our own tender beating heart and treating it in the same warm way we treat a heart in its eventual repose?

Previously published on stuckinmeditation.com. Published here with permission of the author.

Steven Hickman, Psy.D., is a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Clinical Professor in the UC San Diego Departments of Psychiatry and Family & Preventive Medicine. He is also the Founder and Executive Director of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. He has been teaching mindfulness, in the form of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and more recently, Mindful Self-Compassion for 12 years.

We're excited to have Steven in Edmonton this August to co-lead Mindful Self-Compassion: 5-Day Residential Intensive!

Mindful Self-Compassion - Michelle Becker, M.A., LMFT

Self-compassion is a skill that can be learned by anyone, even those who didn’t receive enough affection in childhood or who find it embarrassing to be kind to themselves. Self-compassion is actually a courageous mental attitude that stands up to harm—the harm that we inflict on ourselves every day by overworking, overeating, overanalyzing, and overreacting. With mindful self-compassion, we’re better able to recognize when we’re under stress and face what’s happening in our lives (mindfulness) and to take a kinder and more sustainable approach to life’s challenges. Self-compassion gives emotional strength and resilience, allowing us to recover more quickly from bruised egos to admit our shortcomings, forgive ourselves, and respond to ourselves and others with care and respect. After all, making mistakes is part of being human. Self-compassion also provides the support and inspiration required to make necessary changes in our lives and reach our full potential.
— Christopher Germer, Ph.D
Brad Stewart - with permission

Brad Stewart - with permission

Imagine my surprise when my patient said, “STOP THAT!” “Stop what?” I wondered. I was listening to my patient talk about something very painful and had responded with a gentle mmmm. At first it was hard to understand what was happening; yet, it happened more than once and with more than one patient. Some of my patients were actually bothered by a compassionate response from me. The heartbreaking part of this is that these were people who had been so deprived of compassion. They were in desperate need of compassion, yet they spoke to themselves in a very critical way and could not tolerate receiving compassion from others.

Other patients soaked up the compassion from me like drops of rain in the desert. They needed compassion desperately; much more than I could give in a session a week, or even two sessions a week. They left my office feeling better for having been compassionately met, but then white-knuckled the time between our sessions.

I was already teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and practicing mindfulness, loving-kindness and self-compassion in my own life when I learned that Drs. Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff had developed an 8-week course in Mindful Self-Compassion. I was delighted! From my own personal practice and from my professional experience I was deeply aware this was the missing puzzle piece. “This is the salve the world needs” were the words that expressed my delight at finding this program. That was over a year and a half ago. Drs. Neff and Germer invited me to begin teaching Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) and I’ve been teaching it continuously ever since, all over the US, Canada and Europe. To say it has been well received would be an understatement. Even participants with a 20-30 year meditation practice have remarked that it was the “missing piece” for them. MSC explicitly teaches us to pay kind and warm attention to what arises for us. In March of 2014, we launched our teacher training; in that short year we have had about 300 people go through the teacher training.

The patients I referred to above? Both groups have gone through the program with tremendous results. One patient came into a session saying, “It’s not my fault, I didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t deserve it” in reference to her painful childhood. Her harsh critical voice was replaced with a kinder and gentler one. It was the turning point in her treatment. Imagine, she was no longer beating herself up for her misfortune and could actually receive compassion. Her mood became more stable, she was happier, more engaged with life, and her relationships with others improved markedly.

For other patients, the times between sessions became much easier, and as they learned to comfort and soothe themselves they were no longer so overwhelmed with life. They reported feeling less “needy” and more satisfied with life in general. For both groups, an increase in mindful awareness and a kinder, wiser, more balanced way of being has developed.

Indeed, this does seem to be the salve the world needs. Research has shown that self-compassion greatly enhances emotional well-being. It boosts happiness, reduces anxiety and depression, and can even help people stick to their diet and exercise routine. And it’s easier than you think. Most of us feel compassion when a close friend is struggling. What would it be like to receive the same caring attention whenever you needed it most? All that’s required is shift in the direction of our attention—recognizing that as a human being, you too, are a worthy recipient of compassion.

Previously published in The Center for Integrative Psychology Newsletter (Fall 2013). Published here with permission of the author.

Michelle Becker, M.A., LMFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in San Diego, CA utilizing mindfulness and compassion based psychotherapy. She is Director of Compassion Programs at the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness where she teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindful Self-Compassion. She is co-founder, along with Drs. Germer, Neff and Hickman, of the MSC Teacher Training.

We're excited to have Michelle in Edmonton this August to co-lead Mindful Self-Compassion: 5-Day Residential Intensive!

Welcome to Our New Website!

Brad Stewart - with permission

Brad Stewart - with permission

We are excited to launch our new website - and we look forward to hearing your feedback!

Since we developed our first website 5 years ago, mindfulness has flourished. Just last year, we saw 2014 become The Year of Mindfulness, with everyone from school teachers to CEO's abuzz about the benefits of mindfulness. Underneath the buzz there have been significant developments. Research on mindfulness is booming - just visit The American Mindfulness Research Association to see how much research is being published each month. The benefits of mindfulness for our health and wellbeing are increasingly recognized, as is the need for mindfulness in settings ranging from schools to hospitals to the workplace. 

Here at The Mindfulness Institute.ca, we've heard the need for more resources on mindfulness - to begin or deepen a mindfulness practice - and for more mindfulness programs taught by experienced mindfulness teachers. We're pleased to be able to offer these resources, and to expand the selection of mindfulness programs that we offer. This summer, we're excited to host a Mindful Self-Compassion: 5-Day Residential Intensive, led by Steven Hickman and Michelle Becker from the UCSD Center for Mindfulness.

Stay tuned for details about our Fall programs, including Introduction to Mindfulness, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and MBSR for Professionals!