This page is about the Mindfulness-Based Self-Compassion and Self-Empowerment class that I co-facilitate with Will Meecham, MD, at College of Marin, Community Education, in Kentfield, California. For those who do not live geographically close enough to attend the class, this page can serve as a guide along with my book: In Your Own Hands: New Hope for people with Chronic Medical Conditions. This page is also intended as a guide for members of the class. Although the practices offered in the book were designed for people living with chronic, debilitating medical conditions, perfectly healthy people in the class continue to benefit greatly from these practices. One of the major benefits of the class is that it is much easier to practice in community than in isolation.
The Goal and Basic Premise of the Class
The overarching goal of the class is enhanced wellbeing and aliveness, cultivated by the daily practice of continually coming home to the body.
The basic premise is that when we keep coming home to the body, we keep returning to ourselves throughout the day. Many of us tend to abandon ourselves every time we focus on helping others or get busy with people or activities. This practice is a way of being more present with ourselves while simultaneously being more present with others.
When we learn how to practice coming home to the body, especially when feeling overwhelmed by too much to do, traumatic life events, or by strong emotions, we develop loving self-care, self-compassion, self-empowerment, self-efficacy, self-valuing, resilience, and an increased sense of aliveness.
In learning how to practice being fully awake and present in the body, all of life’s difficult challenges can be managed without feeling overwhelmed. Even the most traumatic life events are usually manageable as long as we are willing and able to be fully present with our inner subjective experience of the moment, including the fear, the pain, and the resistance.
For the most part, what gets in the way of being able to emotionally deal with our most difficult life challenges is our resistance to what we are feeling. Being human includes the use of distraction, dissociation and other tactics to avoid experiencing frightening and painful life events. It is only natural to want to try all sorts of ways to avoid feeling certain emotional pain, physical pain, extreme fear, as well as other difficult emotions. However, keep in mind that: Resistance Breeds Persistence.
Every time we feel hurt, sad, angry, frustrated, or any other unpleasant feeling, we have an opportunity to build stress-resilience by courageously coming home to the body and embracing what we feel.
The path to self-compassion is to honor our most painful feelings and to allow ourselves to go through them instead of going around them using any of the myriad forms of distraction or dissociation.
There is a misconception that being open and vulnerable means being weak. In reality, the strongest, bravest, most stress-resilient people are those who courageously allow themselves to be open and vulnerable. They allow themselves to feel hurt, angry, sad, frustrated, and all the other unpleasant feelings. They make no attempts to cover-up their vulnerability or their feelings.
The Most Unique Feature of this Mindfulness Class
What sets this class apart from other mindfulness-based classes is the extent to which it is body-centered, in terms of sensations, feelings, and groundedness. This class helps people to live in their bodies rather than in their heads.
Students learn to live from the body-center and to put their attention there, rather than in the mental chatter that is continually spewed out by the brain. The body-centering principles taught in the class evolved from my more than forty years experience with the internal martial arts.
The body-centering practices taught in the class are extremely simple to learn and can be practiced while engaged in most daily activities. They involve learning how to be centered, grounded, and aware, whether sitting, standing, walking, or engaging in any physical activity.
Without some type of mindfulness practice, our default is to go through the day so caught up in mental-chatter or self-talk that we are not even aware of our moment-to-moment experience. The body-centered practices taught in the class offer an antidote to living an unfocused life in our heads, totally enslaved by non-stop mental-chatter. With mindfulness, especially body-centered mindfulness, a typical reaction to the mental chatter is often something like: Oh, there’s that silly message from my brain again. It is common to become amused by the messages rather than entangled with them.
More on the Benefits of the Class
- Learn special mindfulness-based practices that will help you achieve freedom from cognitive fusion (hooked by mental-chatter) and experiential avoidance (resistance to taking action due to fear).
- Acquire the ability to objectively observe mental-chatter while it is constantly spewed out by the brain.
- Learn how to practice finding something throughout the day in your immediate environment to appreciate. This is a very pleasant way to keep returning to the present moment whenever you become aware of all the useless chatter. Although this may seem like a distraction technique, it actually is a way to attract your attention to the present moment.
- Mindful relaxation: This is a way of generating greater aliveness and awareness by freeing up internal energy that is otherwise blocked by emotional distress and bodily tension. The practice of mindful (very aware) relaxation allows us to walk out of the prison of the mind.
- Increased moment-to-moment awareness: In practicing mindful relaxation walking throughout the day, which means walking while including diaphragmatic breathing, relaxing downward, and putting the mind in the body-center, the mind is so focused on the body, it is less apt to wander and engage in mental-chatter. A lot of attention and intention is required, which is incompatible with entanglement with mental chatter.
- Moment-to-moment mindful intention and action: This skill arises out of attunement with our moment-to-moment experience.
- Self-compassion: Although self-compassion results in part from allowing ourselves to be authentically seen in the supportive community of the class, it also results from allowing ourselves to authentically stay present with our moment-to-moment experience. Honoring our inner subjective experience is a way to honor ourselves. Any rejection of our inner experience is a rejection of our feelings, a rejection of ourselves and is antithetical to self-compassion.
- Increased authenticity: As a sense of emotional safety is experienced inside and outside the class, we begin to take greater risks in being fully honest with others and ourselves and as we become increasingly open and vulnerable, a new sense of aliveness and self-appreciation appears.
- Manage highly stressful situations as if you were in the eye of a hurricane. (Hurricane’s all have an area referred to as the eye, located in the middle of the storm, where it is completely calm.)
You Can Survive Even the Most Painful Feelings
It is normal to believe that we would not be able to survive a traumatic life event such as the death of our child, our spouse being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, or any number of other tragic and traumatic life events. However, once we develop the ability and courage to stay fully present with whatever we are feeling, we actually become increasingly stress-resilient. This does not mean we no longer suffer, but we suffer far less than when we try to resist the suffering. This has sometimes been referred to as suffering without suffering.
Suppression of Thoughts and Feelings is a Rejection of Self
Most of us throughout the world have been led to believe that happy, pleasant experiences are better than sadness, frustration, anger, and other unpleasant feelings. Tragically, suppression and repression (unconscious suppression) create a lack of aliveness in us, which can lead to anxiety and depression. Therefore, the answer is not to try to suppress or avoid what is unpleasant—that only serves to amplify the very unpleasant experiences we wish to be rid of, which can then catalyze anxiety and depression.
Taking Emotional Risks by Venturing into Transparency
One of the ways my colleague and I teach self-compassion is by modeling how to be fully transparent while we are teaching the class. This modeling includes authentically responding to comments made in class by students when those comments create strong feelings in one of us. For example, on rare occasions someone will make a seemingly benign comment about people of a certain race, religion, nationality, income level, sex, sexual orientation, or geographic area. Personally, I feel saddened by those types of divisive comments and I use that as a teaching opportunity; I try to say exactly how and why I am affected by the comment. My co-facilitator and I both model how to share feelings without making the other person wrong. There is no danger in making the other person wrong when what we say is confined to sharing our own feelings rather than making a statement about the person who made the comment.
We all talk to ourselves, albeit silently for the most part throughout the day. Mindfulness practice helps us to differentiate inner critic self-talk from healthy planning self-talk.
The way you talk to yourself influences your health and wellbeing. However, a prerequisite to healthy self-talk is mindfulness practice, without which you will not be able to recognize your unhealthy self-talk. Healthy, self-empowered self-talk may seem unnatural after practicing self-deprecating, disempowered self-talk all your life, but the more you commit to the body-centered mindfulness practice, the more you will be able to generate healthy, empowered, loving self-talk and the more natural it will begin to seem. Be careful not to be self-critical when you find yourself using unhealthy self-talk; accept yourself with that disempowered self-talk and commit to practicing self-empowered self-talk.
Examples of disempowered versus self-empowered self-talk:
- Disempowered and unkind: I should eat healthier food. Self-empowered and loving: I want to feed myself nutritious meals.
- Disempowered and unkind: I should get more exercise. Self-empowered and loving: I want to take myself for nice exercise walks.
- Disempowered and unkind: I should get out more. Self-empowered and loving: I want to take myself to visit friends.
- Disempowered and unkind: I should get more sleep. Self-empowered and loving: I want to give myself enough sleep each night.
- Disempowered and unkind (when having trouble sleeping): I have to fall back to sleep right away. Self-empowered and loving: I have no responsibilities and no place to go in this moment. I feel so cozy in bed.
- Disempowered and unkind: I am …(Fill in your favorite self-deprecating thought.). Self-empowered and loving: I’m fine just the way I am.
You can practice these skills by applying loving, self-empowering language throughout all your daily activities. Benefits will include improved motivation to practice optimal self-care as well as reduced stress and a greater sense of wellbeing.
The Need for the Mindful Relaxation Walking Practice: Anyone who has maintained a long-term mindfulness-based, sitting meditation practice and/or a dynamic (body-centered) concentration practice knows that it is very challenging to practice while engaged in their daily activities. Those practices are most often performed at a special time and place each day. It occurred to me that if I could create a practice set that was simple enough to infuse into normal daily activities, such as walking, it would be possible to suffuse our entire day with the same degree of presence and aliveness that we often only experience during those periods of the day we normally set aside for formal, mindfulness-based or concentration-based sitting meditation, or dynamic forms of concentration practice, such as yoga, tai chi, or any other formal practice performed with focused concentration. The practice I came up with is the Mindful Relaxation Walking Practice.
The Benefits of Mindful Relaxation Walking Practice
- Diaphragmatic breathing is facilitated by the mindful relaxation walking practice. Specifically, as the chest and abdomen relax, and posture improves, the anatomical position of the diaphragm improves, thereby facilitating a healthy breathing pattern.
- Diaphragmatic breathing increases heart rate variability (HRV). High HRV reduces cardiac dysrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation (AF) and has countless other health benefits.
- Mindful relaxation improves autonomic function. Specifically, it increases parasympathetic (rest & digest) stimulation and reduces sympathetic (fight or flight) drive.
- Increased parasympathetic stimulation improves digestion and sleep. It also improves cardiac, lung, immune, endocrine, GI, and neurological functions.
- Aside from the physical health benefits, mindful relaxation practice increases stress-resilience and overall wellbeing.
- Because of the physical nature of this concentration and mindfulness practice, it helps us to continually come home to the body whenever we get triggered or distressed about anything.
- Coming home to the body helps us disentangle from the constant mental chatter continually spewed out by the brain.
- Unlike practices like yoga and tai chi, mindful walking can be practiced anywhere and at any time.
The Difference Between Sitting and Dynamic Mind-Training Practices
As with the formal sitting forms of mindfulness practice, this dynamic, concentration and mindfulness-based walking practice trains the brain to notice all the useless mind chatter that we all experience throughout the day.
Mindfulness sitting meditation: This method is introduced, but is not the main focus of the class. In this method, quieting of the mind-chatter results from sitting still and observing the physical sensations of breathing. Another practice involves objectively observing the mind-chatter without analyzing or getting hooked by any of it. You notice where your mind drifts off to, without analyzing the content. Each time you notice your attention drifted off to thinking, you immediately return your attention either to following the sensations of breathing or to objectively observing whatever enters your mind.
Dynamic concentration practice: This method is emphasized in the class. In the mindful relaxation walking practice, intense focus on the various aspects of the physical practice serves to quiet mind-chatter. As in sitting meditation, you notice that your attention drifts off, but what is different in this dynamic, concentration practice is that as soon as you notice your attention has drifted off somewhere, you immediately return your attention to the physical practice, again without analyzing or judging the nature of the mind-chatter.
The Uniqueness of the Mindful Relaxation Walking Practice is that it Does Not Require You to Set Aside a Special Time and Place.
Calming the body serves to calm and center the mind, just as calming the mind serves to calm and center the body.
The mindful relaxation walking practice is intended to empower you with a set of body-centered, concentration-based, mindfulness skills, which are so rewarding to practice, that you will want to infuse this physical concentration practice into almost every activity throughout the day, thereby creating an experience of living with a high level of aliveness, awareness, resilience, self-empowerment and self-efficacy.
It is precisely the physical nature of this practice that serves as an antidote to all our useless mind-chatter. When you learn to put your mind in your physical center, it is precisely that physical embodiment that protects you from getting caught up in useless or stressful thought patterns, which occur when your mind is not in your bodily center.
Anyone who has experienced the rewards of long periods of intense, concentrated mindfulness practice at a residential retreat has had the frustrating experience of returning to normal daily routines following the retreat, only to discover their level of awareness has regressed to where it was before the retreat. Of course, a high degree of mindfulness can be maintained by continuing to engage in sitting meditation throughout the day, every day, following the return home. But for the vast majority of us that idea is completely impractical, due to the multitude of obligations that are so much a part of normal, daily life. In fact, many of us have even found it challenging to set aside a half hour each day for formal sitting meditation.
There is nothing in the following practice set that cannot be incorporated into most of your daily activities.
Mindful Relaxation Walking (or standing) Practice:
- Relax downward. Alternatively, relax every muscle from scalp to feet. Use conscious intention to relax the entire body. The body automatically tenses up when we get upset or stressed. This can be changed, but it requires conscious, intentional practice. Every stressful situation will be managed more effectively when you practice mindful relaxation.
- Expand spine upward from coccyx to crown of head, which improves posture. If that image doesn’t work for you, simply stand in good posture—this means proper alignment in an anatomically natural stance. Not only is good posture healthier for your body, it improves your state of mind as well.
- Put your mind in your center and take in your surroundings through your center. If that imagery doesn’t work for you, simply focus your attention on your center as you stand and walk.
- Move from your center. Put your mind in your center of gravity—just below and deep to the navel. If the imagery of putting your mind in your center doesn’t work for you, substitute attention for mind.
- Pay full attention to your immediate surroundings from moment-to-moment, experiencing them through your center. Cultivate curiosity about your immediate surroundings as they change from moment-to-moment.
- Throughout the day, continually look for as many things in your immediate environment as possible that you can appreciate. I practice this external practice whenever I’m driving because the internal practices are too difficult to do while driving. I also practice it whenever I am unable to focus my mind enough to do the internal practices.
- Maintain a soft, relaxed gaze, taking in all your surroundings with a relaxed awareness and equanimity. Relaxing the muscles around your eyes actually improves your peripheral vision and allows you to take in more of your surroundings. The opposite would be tunnel vision, where your eyes are tense and focused on one thing.
- Throughout the day, keep moving forward in alignment with your desired intention, despite negative self-talk, which can stop you only if you let it.
- Maintain awareness of your internal environment—all sensory input from within and without, including thoughts and feelings. This allows you to respond in interpersonal interactions the way that is most aligned with your conscious intention in that moment.
- Whenever you feel stressed in interpersonal interactions, put your mind in your center and breathe diaphragmatically. Breathe slower with longer outbreaths. Putting your mind in your center is a way to defuse or untangle from your stressful thinking and is very psychologically and emotionally grounding.
- Diaphragmatic breathing optimizes blood pressure, cardiovascular function, heart rhythms, centering, and autonomic function. Study Appendix B of my book for an in-depth understanding of breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing helps facilitate moving from your center.
- Exhale to count of 8 and inhale to count of 4, or out to 6 and in to 3.
- Natural diaphragmatic breathing is enhanced by relaxing the chest, abdomen, back, and pelvis.
- Set the intention throughout the day to maintain this practice. It is very challenging to maintain until it becomes a habit. However, as you begin to get results, the motivation to practice becomes easier.
- Each time you notice your mind has wandered to ruminative thoughts of the past or future-centered planning, gently and lovingly return your attention to the above practices.
Final Notes on Mindful Relaxation Walking Practice: Gradually, over time, you will increasingly, automatically, find yourself walking, standing, breathing, and moving from your center of gravity. However, at first, this practice may seem unnatural and even exhausting, due to all the various aspects of the practice set to remember. Over time, the exhaustion will actually change into increased energy and aliveness as the practice becomes your natural way of life. At that point, you will feel increasingly in harmony with your body, your environment, and your moment-to-moment situation, regardless of the specifics of the activity. Constant repetition is what leads to unconscious automaticity in the practices. Early on, you will begin to appreciate the ease with which you can practice while in the midst of other activities.
The quality of your breathing has very profound effects on the degree of aliveness you experience. One breathing technique that many people find helpful is the following: Push out the air until no longer comfortable and then relax the abdomen to allow the air to reinflate the lungs naturally. In other words, exhalation is intentional, whereas inhalation is automatic. Also, remember to keep the exhalation roughly twice as long as the inhalation. This focused breathing method is best practiced in activities not requiring high oxygen consumption, such as aerobic forms of exercise, because in that situation it is best to let the body breathe you naturally. Also, due to the fact that this type of breathing is energizing, it is best not used when lying awake in bed wide awake in the middle of the night. For example, when I awake in the night I put my full attention on objective observation of the pure physical sensations of breathing, felt in my lower abdomen and low back in the form of expansion and contraction. This more passive form of breathing is so relaxing that I almost always fall back to sleep.
Why the Focus on Practices?
Mindfulness is a practice, not a philosophy.
In his book Full Catastrophe Living, arguably one of the best books on mindfulness ever written, author Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness: “It is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.” This definition is intended to describe what is meant by the practice of cultivating mindfulness through both formal and informal mindfulness practices, which become a way of life. He says that mindfulness is both the goal as well as the method. He also describes it as: “a living practice, a way of being.”
Kabat-Zinn makes it clear that: “The essence of mindfulness is denatured or lost if viewed as a concept rather than as a practice and way of life.” The practice, in his words: “emphasizes that it is a living, evolving understanding, not a fixed dogma related to a museum honoring a culturally constrained past.”
Again, in Kabat-Zinn’s words: “The heart of mindfulness-based interventions lies in a deep silence, stillness and openheartedness that is native to pure awareness and can be experienced directly both personally and interpersonally. The consequences of such cultivation may go far beyond symptom reduction and conventional coping adjustments, defining new ways of being in the body and in the world that are orthogonal to the conventional perspective on both health and well-being.”
By practicing healthy behaviors repeatedly throughout the day, every day, these new behaviors gradually begin to replace the unhealthy ones. The brain rewires and each time one of the new practices is engaged, the neural circuits associated with the healthier practices get reinforced. In that way, the new healthy practices gradually become the new, automatic default behaviors.
More on Self-Compassion
As described in chapter fifteen of my book, it is important to learn how to tune in to emotional states of mind as they are experienced. As previously mentioned, it is natural to try to avoid unpleasant feelings. This is certainly understandable, but the problem is that suppression produces a paradoxical effect. If you don’t want it, you’ll have it.
It is important to accept all bodily sensations. Much of our emotional life goes unnoticed because the sensations are too subtle to notice during the course of a busy day. Then, there are other emotions that are strongly felt in the body, such as shame, rage, grief, and anxiety. The self-compassion I advocate involves allowing yourself to have the full body experience of those feelings and states of mind.
One challenge to this practice is the fear that allowing yourself to fully experience shame, rage, or any other strongly felt emotion or state of mind will cause additional suffering. It may sound logical, but nothing could be further from the truth. All the mindfulness research data prove that acceptance of our most uncomfortable emotions and concomitant sensations actually serve to reduce suffering. For example, try suppressing shame next time you experience it and you will notice those sensations get magnified. The same is true with rage. Allowing yourself to embrace the whole bodily experience of a strong emotion with acceptance serves to immediately reduce suffering and build self-compassion.
Take your self-critical and judgmental thoughts about others more lightly. Learn to laugh at all your judgments. During those moments when I am aware enough to objectively observe my judgmental thoughts, I find my judgmental thoughts to be a joyous source of entertainment. Whereas, during the moments when I lack the awareness to objectively observe my judgments, and instead get hooked by them, I experience unnecessary stress and unhappiness.
The purpose of the next practice is to reinforce your awareness of your power of choice. Although thoughts will always pop into your head automatically, with mindfulness, you can choose what to do with them; you can get obsessively caught up in them or you can let them pass by as if they were clouds floating across the sky.
Suggested Practice: I Am Choosing…
Throughout the day, as you consciously observe your behavior, preface everything you do with the declaration: I am choosing…
Do this even with the simplest activities, such as:
- I am choosing to get out of bed.
- I am choosing to put on my exercise clothes.
- I am choosing to exercise.
There is no action that is too insignificant to include in this practice. Include thoughts as well as actions:
- I’m choosing to think about my day. Although we cannot actually choose our thoughts, we can choose how to respond to them. In other words, we can choose to mindfully observe them, obsess over them, or act on them.
- I’m choosing to obsess about the conversation I had with the lab tech yesterday. This may seem like a strange statement to make, but when you realize that you are in fact obsessing over anything, prefacing it with I am choosing to… will serve to increase your awareness of choice.
- I’m choosing to complain about the pain in my back.
- I’m choosing to focus on the benefits of the invasive test I chose to line up.
- I’m choosing to feel grateful for this beautiful day.
The Value of Community
The health and wellbeing benefits of the practices taught in the class can be challenging to maintain without support, which is one reason a large percentage of the people who take the class keep coming back. In part, this is because they begin to feel a sense of belonging in the class; it becomes a supportive community. Also, being in the class supports people in maintaining their daily practices. Several people have taken the course continuously since its inception in January 2015.
Aside from the health benefits of the practices themselves, researchers have discovered, after controlling for confounding factors, that when people have a sense of belonging within a supportive community, they are healthier and happier than people who live more isolated lives.
My book and this class evolved out of years of reviewing psychoneuroimmunology, psychooncology, psychophysiology, and neuropsychology research, as well as my long history with the internal martial arts, transcendental meditation, vipassana, Zazen, EEG biofeedback and mental imagery.
My book contains a compilation of the mind-training and other practices most strongly associated with unexpected recovery from serious illness and includes hundreds of studies. The book and the class include no magic cures, just evidence-based practices and class experiences that can increase your happiness potential.
Also visit the website of Will Meecham, MD, the retired surgeon and creator of Mindful Biology who co-facilitates the class with me: http://www.mindfulbiology.org.
For a further exploration of what it means to be body-centered, see http://larryberkelhammer.com/tai-chi-chuan/