Category Archives: Mind

Morphine or Meditation?

If you’re in pain what are you going to do, pop a pill or do some mindfulness meditation? sun & cloudsThere’s a lot of research that shows you’re better off doing the latter. Apparently meditation is better for pain relief than pain relievers. These studies have been going on for over thirty years and are so well-respected that in some parts of Canada meditation training is covered by their provincial health plan for those referred by a physician. That in itself is an interesting concept, doctors suggesting their patients learn how to meditate. Is this an admission that the drugs don’t work?

In the UK doctors are being told to heavily reduce prescriptions of painkillers and sleeping pills because of concerns that patients are becoming addicted. Instead they’re being asked to consider alternative treatments. That’s where meditation comes in. All this research involving heat testing and brain scans is showing that just one hour of meditation training can result in about a 40% reduction in pain intensity. Morphine and other pain-relieving drugs typically reduce pain ratings by about 25%. Meditation appears to work by calming down the pain experiencing areas of the brain while at the same time boosting coping areas. Ah, the power of the mind.

Mindfulness meditation is all about being in the present moment; observing the breath, observing sensations in the body. It reduces worry about the past and future. Meditation is low-tech and low-cost and even the side-effects are beneficial. In one study statistically significant reductions were observed in  negative body image, mood disturbance, anxiety and depression. Pain-related drug use decreased and activity levels and feelings of self-esteem increased.

In another study participants described achieving well-being during and after a meditation session that had immediate effects on mood elevation but also long-term effects on improved quality of life. Several themes were identified related to pain reduction, improved attention, improved sleep, and achieving well-being resulting from mindfulness meditation that suggest it has promising potential as a non-pharmacologic treatment of chronic pain.

And the latest study suggests meditation’s calming effect could help those with stress-related chronic inflammatory conditions such as bowel disease and asthma. I remember my own GP telling me years ago that the only thing that had been shown to be effective in the treatment of auto-immune diseases was meditation.

There is a saying: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. Most suffering, it seems to me, is the stuff we do in our heads; worrying about the future, churning over the past, never giving the present moment a chance. In mindfulness meditation the present moment is all important. Observing the breath, observing the sensations – including the pain – and knowing that this also will change. Sort out the pain from the suffering and almost miraculously most of the pain will disappear – well, according to studies, 40% of it at least.

I wish I was a psychopath.

Mindfulness. It’s been shown to alleviate stress, reduce anxiety, relieve drug and alcohol dependence, and my doctor told me it helps with all kinds of illness especially auto-blow flyimmune disease. I’ve been practising mindfulness for years as part of my daily meditation but I’m still not very good at it.

Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment. Not worrying about the future, not dwelling on the past. Being here, now, moment by moment. It’s not easy. My mind wanders all over the place. But when it does go meandering, I avoid beating myself up. I bring my awareness back to the present moment, mindfully, and start again. Many Eastern philosophies have used mindfulness techniques for millennia and Western psychology has taken to it with gusto.

When I was in Twelve Step programs one of my sponsors simplified it for me. One day when I was telling her about all my fears she said to me, “What is there for you to be fearful of? Right here, right now in this moment?”

My answer surprised me as much as her question. “Nothing.” If I keep my thoughts to the present moment what do I have to fear? Absolutely nothing.

Simple concept. Hard to achieve. But not if you’re a psychopath.

Recently I read this article by Kevin Dutton who’s a research psychologist. It was adapted from a piece he wrote called The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success. “What?” I hear you say. “Taking lessons from psychopaths? I don’t think so.” But it seems that I could take a few lessons in mindfulness from these violent maniacs myself. Kevin went to Broadmoor, the best-known high-security psychiatric hospital in England, to chat to a few of the inmates. What he found there amazed me.

One of the inmates, Leslie, told him; “The thing about fear, or the way I understand fear, I suppose—because, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever really felt it—is that most of the time it’s completely unwarranted anyway. What is it they say? Ninety-nine percent of the things people worry about never happen. So what’s the point? I think the problem is that people spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what might go wrong, that they completely lose sight of the present. They completely overlook the fact that, actually, right now, everything’s perfectly fine. So the trick, whenever possible, I propose, is to stop your brain from running on ahead of you.”

Kevin writes: Leslie’s pragmatic endorsement of the principles and practices of what might otherwise be described as mindfulness is typical of the psychopath. A psychopath’s rapacious proclivity to live in the moment, to “give tomorrow the slip and take today on a joyride” (as Larry, rather whimsically, puts it), is well documented—and at times can be stupendously beneficial.

And there you have it. A lesson in mindfulness from the most unlikely of sources. Perhaps it’s time to let my inner-psychopath off the leash, just a little. A little less fear, a little more joy. I just hope I don’t end up in Broadmoor. There, you see? I’ve done it again. Started worrying about the future. I wish I was a psychopath!

NB: I debated whether to use “I wish I was a psychopath” or “I wish I were a psychopath”. I did some research and I’m still not sure. “Were” is used in a state that has never existed and never will exist. “Was” is used in situations where the statement might once have been or could be a reality. But you can see which one I went with…

As voices take flight

photo: joefutrelle
photo: joefutrelle

This time, after the teaching of metta, as the teacher and his wife go singing off into the distance, I smile. No yearning, no bittersweet melancholy. Only happiness. Yes, they are going where I can’t follow, but I am on my own path – it’s under my feet, meandering into the distance, shaded with overhanging trees. It’s solid, welcoming, real. I sense the wonders, awe, troubles and joy ahead. I am on the path. My path. And they are on theirs as their voices grow fainter and fade away until one of the assistant teachers finally switches off the CD.

The assistant teachers sit for a moment longer then make their way from the meditation hall. The new students eagerly head for the door. I know they will be greeted by a sign, in its own frame, hung from the post directly outside. It will tell them that Noble Silence is lifted. After nine and a half days they are free to talk again. I continue to sit in meditation. Smiling. I am in no hurry. I am not in pain. Love, compassion, goodwill to all beings.

When I finally leave the hall the new students, like little birds, have scattered to chirp excitedly to each other, bursting with stories of pain and triumph, hell and freedom. I walk silently to my room. I’m not ready to speak and know the dangers of speaking too much, too soon. Outside my window two old students greet each other. They talk of anxieties, fears, endless running minds, heads aflame with thoughts. They talk of wanting to leave, of not sleeping, of only wanting to sleep, of good days and bad.

And as for me? What will I say when I finally let my voice take flight? Yes, I had pain. Yes, I did endless head miles. Yes, I felt as though there was a tangle of fat pythons inside my head, squirming and pushing against my skull. But in the end, the meditation took over. Eventually my busy, exhausting mind tired of it’s own stories. It would flick through the choices available, like DVDs on a shelf, and realise it had seen them all before, too many times. Then it would slow, let go, and finally, finally, let me do the work I was here to do. Observe the breath, observe sensations, remember the truth of impermanence. Awareness and equanimity. One step on the path and then another, sometimes shuffling, sometimes skipping, and sometimes doing an about-face when the pain bit back.

The teacher’s words still ring in my head; Liberate yourself from the bondages of craving, aversion, delusion, illusion and enjoy real peace, real harmony, real happiness. But now, finally, it’s time to hear words from my own lips. This time I choose the path leading to the dining hall and lunch, to join the other voices; gliding, swooping, diving and soaring.

 

Is there such a thing as bad meditation?

I’ve always thought that any meditation is a good meditation. Sure, some may be better than others – positive and uplifting, rather than ho-hum, or should that be ho-om…

I love my mediation time. It’s time to myself, to be with myself. I watch those thoughts flit by until they calm down and diminish, until I’m left with space and a blue-sky mind. Other times it’s enough just to be able to sit down for a while and have the excuse of “I’m meditating” to keep all those bothersome tasks at bay.

But apparently not all meditation is good meditation. I’ve interviewed two people recently who have said that meditation can keep us in a negative loop. That if it’s done incorrectly it can ingrain harmful thought patterns and behaviors into our psyches.

Gary Little calls himself a wellness navigator and has spent twenty years researching the causes of pain. According to his findings pain is mostly in the mind and yes meditation is a great source of relief but he’s known people who have maintained their negativity with bad meditation practices.

Peter Hoddle is a metaphysical healer. He has spent a lot of time meditating. Although looking back he believes he wasn’t actually meditating at all when he was in his early twenties. He was either asleep or being run ragged by his mad and damaging thoughts.

In meditation our consciousness is heightened, our awareness expands and our thoughts slow down. It doesn’t matter what kind of meditation you do, as long as it works for you. Observe those mad and negative thoughts and let them go, as opposed to getting hooked in by them and letting them run the meditation and be the boss of you.

But I’m a fine one to talk. So many of my mediations have consisted of fighting with my mad monkey mind. It’s exhausting. But it’s also great fodder. The descriptions of just how mad my mind can get are part of my meditation memoir being released in April 2013 by Pan Macmillan. Oh, hang on a sec. Maybe I need to get the release date pushed forward. Isn’t the world ending in a couple of weeks? Now that’s something to meditate on.

Breath. Breath in,observe. Breathe out, observe. Repeat. I’m feeling better already.

 

 

The Unexpected Joys of Detoxing

“Why do I always do this to myself ?” I found myself thinking three days into a detox retreat. When other people take time off work, most of them have a holiday. Instead I spend seven days without food, taking lots of herbs to clean out my entire system, which before it gets clean feels like…well you get the idea. Other so-called holidays I’ve had involved meditating in silence for ten days and only having lemon water for dinner.  I seem to think that holidays are meant to fortify the body and soul rather than relax them. Perhaps I feel a certain amount of guilt living in a permanent holiday destination, where driving to work means a beautiful meander along the Maroochy River and I get to go to the beach everyday.

Friends and family laughed when I told them I was going on a detox retreat. “You’re the cleanest living person we know,” they said. “What have you got to detox from?” And that was a very good question, a question I didn’t find the complete answer to until almost the end of the retreat.

The answer I found was that I was detoxing from the media, from the news, from the gossip, from the latest round of tragedy and betrayal. I was detoxing from the internet, and boy did I go through withdrawals. Not being able to google myself up an answer or some information at the touch of a keyboard was almost as tough as going without three meals a day plus snacks.

I was detoxing from a certain mindset that pushes us all to achieve in the external world, to acquire and grasp and cut ourselves off from each other with our possessions and positions in life.

I was detoxing from fear, from the need to constantly prove myself in the eyes of others.

And strangely enough of all, I was detoxing from music. I fill my ears constantly with sounds from all over the world, the latest hit single from the multinational multi-labels to obscure bouzouki playing duos recorded on the last two-track reel-to-reel in existence. Sometimes your ears need a good cleaning out as well as the rest of your system so that you can appreciate a simple melody or a beautiful lyric.

The joy of detoxing is that you get to begin again all squeaky clean and when you do you can really enjoy that brand new song, the latest factoid on the internet and the taste of, well let’s face it, just about anything tastes good after a week of not eating!

**This post also appeared as a column in Holistic Bliss Magazine November 2012

A Sick Joke

I’m going to tell you a joke. I’ve only got a couple of them that I reluctantly trot out in public.

The Hubby encourages me to. Not because I’m a particularly good teller of jokes, I think he just likes to see me being silly. Usually I’m such a serious young hedgehog, bustling around being rather prickly. So telling jokes is a good way to be a galah, chattering away and having a play. There is a reason for telling you this joke, which will become apparent very soon.

So, there’s this lion walking through the jungle, actually strutting more like. He sees a monkey and he roars, “I’m the King of the Jungle! I’m big and strong and brave. You’re just a silly, banana-eating primate.”

The monkey, scared out of his wits, or what little wits he has, nods his head and scuttles off.

The lion struts along some more and he sees a warthog. “I’m the King of the Jungle! I’m big and strong and brave. You’re just a pig with big teeth.”

The warthog isn’t all that happy with this turn of events but knows better than to take on a lion, so he snorts and trots off.

The lion, feeling very pleased with himself, continues to strut through the jungle and spies a mouse. “Ha!” he roars. “I’m the King of the Jungle! I’m big and strong and brave. You’re just a puny, scrawny, pathetic little rodent.”

The mouse looks up at the lion through squinty little eyes, wrinkles his little pink nose and

“I’ve been sick.”

says in a very squeaky little voice. “I know, but I’ve been sick.”

And the reason for telling you that joke. “I’ve been sick!” Still am. I’m feeling very small, squinty and mouse-like. And when you’re sick the world feels like a roaring lion, big, strutting and noisy. It’s all a bit too much. Best to concede to the puny, pathetic mouse-like state and find a dark corner to hide in. Tomorrow I might be a lion but today I’m a scrawny squeaker. And as long as the dog doesn’t consider me a snack, I should survive.

The Unexpected Adventure of Writing

It was explained to me, by a more experienced writer than myself, that saying, “I felt sick,” when asked how I felt when I landed a publishing deal, was best avoided, even if it was the truth. She said most people, who haven’t been published, expect you to say, “It was fabulous, I was so excited, over the moon,” and if that wasn’t the case then I should practise saying it until it sounded natural.

Trouble is I did feel sick, and she understood why. She’d been through it herself and talked to many other first time authors who felt the same. It’s about letting go. Letting go can be tough, especially when you’ve nurtured your manuscript for six years. The realisation that my brutally and beautifully honest meditation memoir was going out into the world to have a life of its own was a tough jump to make, even though I’d wanted it to happen for years. Dreams and reality are two very different beasts.

I took a deep breath, jumped, and signed the much desired contract. Reality rushed to meet me head on with a touch of dreaminess to soften the blow.

My publisher told me it was one of the most complete manuscripts she’d ever read. There wouldn’t need to be many changes, she said. I met my editor and my publisher – and how good does it feel to say that when you’re a first-time published author – and we talked about time-frames and covers. Bliss. They told me they were both going to read the manuscript again and send me their suggestions, but that there wouldn’t be much to do in that regard.

When the manuscript was emailed back to me with comments and suggestions my reaction was extraordinary. And I say reaction in every sense of the word. It was chemical, physical,emotional and totally illogical. I was angry, defensive, hurt and full of fear. I started scrolling through the suggestions and my chest clamped up. How dare they? How dare they challenge my work, my bravery, my art? How dare they want me to change any bit of it? I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I was not capable of doing it. I swung between fear and fury. I decided, within half an hour of receiving the email, that I wasn’t going to go through with the deal. I was going to email them and tell it was all off. I’d had enough. It was too hard.

Crazy woman. I watched myself go through this agony. I watched my insane, terrified mind writhe and twist. Two things became apparent. I’ve always hated being told what to do. I’ve resented every boss I’ve ever had. My publisher was just another boss at that point, telling me what to do. The other realisation was that I was just plain scared because I’d never done this before. I’d never had to revise a manuscript for a publisher. I’ve done plenty of writing courses and been given feedback. I’ve been in a writing group for years and accepted suggestions from my fellow members. But this was on a whole new level. I’m a professional now, a soon-to-be published author by a major publishing house. This was totally different. I was out of my comfort zone and in outer space somewhere, spinning and lost.

So I did what I always do. I emailed my editor and my publisher and said, “Sure, that’s fine. And yes I can make the changes by the dead line.” And then I didn’t do a thing. I would slide through the manuscript and drift over their notes from time to time, like a tongue seeking out the aching tooth, but that was it. As the deadline grew closer I read the notes more carefully. They weren’t as bad as I’d first thought, in fact some of them were complimentary. My confidence returned just enough to read some more. The suggestions made sense, ah yes why hadn’t I noticed that, and oh, that would make it easier for the reader to follow. By the time the last weekend before my deadline arrived I was feeling as if I could possibly, maybe do this and not stuff it up too badly.

I allotted myself four days. The Hubby was away for two and a half of those. I’d have the place to myself, except for the dog. The first day and a half I did everything else but work on my manuscript. There were too many distractions. Everything was more important than my book. Finally, when The Hubby was gone, the dog was walked and everybody else was taken care of, I got down to work. I didn’t leave the house, except to walk the dog, I survived on what ever food was in the fridge. Slowly the pages, changes and suggestions started melting away. In the midst of it I had major realisations about the core message of my memoir. I made subtle changes that made the story sing and sob. I felt a whole new energy vibrating through the words. I cried and laughed, and howled with the dog. By the afternoon of day three I knew I was home. Right in the middle of my own life. Doing what I was destined to do. Doing what I loved. And it was working.

And I knew something else. I had conquered my fear, I had done something I’d never done before and my book was so much better for it. Clever publisher, clever editor, clever me.

Techno-Rogered!

I think we all know by now that the well-touted technology revolution has not given us more leisure time, nor made our lives easier, and it definitely has not made us happier, healthier or wealthier. It may have made some people extremely wealthy but they would have probably invented something else that would’ve made them rich if they hadn’t come up with all this computerised guff. And guff it is.

Technology should be quick, useful, easy and even easier to move on from. None of this waiting for 10 minutes for your computer to log on, the endless frustration of documents that won’t open, screens that freeze, work that disappears when the network crashes or money lost when hackers get your details.

Not only does technology dominate our lives from work, to play, to home but now we’re all so dependent on it, it’s started bossing us around. I could get used to my car telling me I’d left my headlights on, that’s actually useful. But telling me off for not having my seatbelt on, for having the keys in the ignition when the door’s open and for something else that I haven’t even worked out yet? I don’t think so.

My washing machine alerts the neighbourhood when I haven’t balanced the load properly. You can hear it two streets away telling everyone how hopeless I am at basic domestic chores. The microwave demands to have its door opened after it’s finished destroying all the enzymes in my food and the dishwasher trills an ode to how clever it is when it’s finished doing the dishes. And I’m really not in the mood for attitude from my fridge. If I leave the door open too long it starts up, gently at first, with a few warning bleeps. But if I don’t obey it’s request to close the door it really lets me have it.  And I thought technology was supposed to help us, not dob us in!

Then there’s mobile phones. Smart phones. Yes, they are smart. Smarter than us. Think about it. Who’s the boss in your relationship with your phone? How many times do you leave it unanswered? When it tells you it has a text or a Twitter alert or a diary entry do you jump to attention? Even when you’re with company, even if you’re on a date with the person of your dreams, I bet that phone comes first.

Technology hasn’t set us free. Technology has enslaved us. Technology is the true opium of the masses. We’re all stoned out of our minds and totally hooked. And like all addictions it’s getting increasingly demanding and more time-consuming. It sucks us into a vortex that we can’t escape from and don’t want to. You hear it all the time. “I can’t live without my computer.” “I couldn’t function without my phone.” It’s the greatest trick there is. Why? Because it’s not true, and we all know it, but we want it to be true and we live as if it is. Totally techno-rogered.

Oh the pain, the pain!

One minute I was fighting fit. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror tying my hair back in readiness for a walk with the dog. It was a beautiful morning and I was looking forward to striding out through leafy streets, past creeks and canals and then back home again for breakfast. I had planned a day of cooking, gardening and writing. The Hubby was away and I was free to do as I pleased.

I finished putting my hair in a pony-tail and as I did my entire right shoulder went into some kind of spasm. That’s the only way I can explain it. One minute I was pain-free, the next I was in incredible agony. All my plans for the day dissolved as I came to grips with this sudden reality. The pain was dramatic. I couldn’t turn my neck and, when only a few moments ago I felt invincible, I now felt small and vulnerable, close to tears.

I managed to walk down to the park at the end of the street with the dog sniffing and pulling at the lead. I even managed to throw the ball for her with my left arm and the help of one of those ubiquitous plastic ball throwing devices that almost all dog owners own these days.

At home, on the couch, I reviewed my situation. I could still write and that was a blessing. I usually avoid pain killers but in this instance I succumbed and with the help of heat packs I got through the day.

The next morning I went to see the chiro. Sean, the massage therapist warmed me up before the chiro came to do the cracking.

“Do much computer work?” Sean asked.

“Oh yes.”

“That’ll be your problem then.”

It was puzzling though that tying my hair back had brought this on. I had had a lot of trouble with my right shoulder but the pain was usually lower down.

“Something, somewhere, at sometime will complain,” explained Sean. “It’s cumulative and that’s the action that triggered it.”

“Okay,” I said. “I make a pledge here and now to make a change. I’ve tried before and given up because it’s so darn hard, but from today I will use the mouse with my left hand.”

And here’s my challenge to you. Try using the computer mouse with your non-dominant hand and see how long you last. Especially at work, under time pressures. There have been times when the stress, tension and frustration of doing so seemed counter-productive but I have persisted. I am determined to become adept at using the mouse with my left hand. My body has demanded change and I am delivering it. I’m not alone with suffering shoulder pain from mouse usage, here are some tips that might be useful if you’re in the same boat.

I also bought and downloaded some Feldenkrais mp3s specifically for shoulder pain. I first encountered the Feldenkrais Method when I was at acting school and it has come back into my consciousness recently. The method is all about awareness through movement. The founder Moshe Feldenkrais said, “With awareness everything is possible.” That appeals to me enormously. It also got me thinking about the pain and my body. What was right about this pain that I wasn’t getting? What was it about this situation that I was pretending not to know? And the answers that came to me were all about awareness. I am guilty of treating my body like a machine. There are certain tasks, often very repetitive ones, that I demand my body do without me ever being aware of how they’re affecting it. I used to have one of those timers on my computer at work that buzzed every 20 minutes to tell me to stretch or to get up and take a little walk. It got so annoying I turned it off and kept ploughing on through, as usual. I was denying my body. So this shoulder pain is my body saying to me, “You can’t ignore me anymore, something has to change.”

And let me tell you this, if you do try using the mouse with your non-dominant hand it will be a revelation. I can no longer take my body for granted. I am no longer a machine. I am acutely conscious of every time I use the mouse, I know exactly what my body is doing and what is involved with getting that cursor where I want it. Awareness through movement? You betcha!

Connection

I was in need of some time out. The stress levels were on the rise and my ability to cope diminishing. Ten day silent meditation retreats may not be everyone’s idea of a holiday but that’s what I chose. I’d done a few before and knew they worked for me. I also knew what I was in for; eleven hours of meditation a day, no talking to, or even looking at, any of the other meditators, and some physical pain.

The retreat was held at an old holiday camp on top of a cliff. The ocean crashed against the rocks below making a mockery of the so-called silence. The waves were a loud and constant soundtrack during those ten days. In the hours of meditation sometimes my mind would wander to the sea and as I practised observing my breath and observing the sensations I felt my body dissolve and become one with the ocean. During one of those hours a character formed in my imagination. An energy being who came to Earth to make amends for a mistake she made in the long distant past. The only place where she can take her true form is in the ocean, like golden particles suspended in the water. In the place where she comes from connection is the most important thing but because of her transgression she has been dealt a cruel punishment, the worst possible for those who depend on being connected. Separation. Exile.

After the retreat The Hubby came to collect me. He took me to the beach and as we dived through the waves I told him about this character and how I would write a book about her. I opened my eyes under the water and saw her suspended there, golden motes dancing in the water.

True to my word I took six months leave without pay and wrote my first novel. I called her Maggie and she was my constant companion day and night for those six months. Maggie can do things with space and energy that quantum physicists can only dream of. But it is the Little Blue Planet she loves, and the oceans that give it its name. After being cast out by her own she searches for connection wherever she goes and finds it here on Earth.

They say all first novels are autobiographical. Perhaps it is my love of the ocean that shines through in this book, my fascination with energy and how it works that determines Maggie’s form. And if it is true, is it my desire for connection that colours her actions, her motivation? Or was it simply that Maggie was imagined into being at a meditation retreat where I was not allowed to connect with anyone but myself. And there’s the key. Connect to self and all else will follow, including imagination, creativity and companionship.