Breathworks Blog

Stories, tips, and articles about mindfulness, daily meditation, compassion, living well with illness and chronic pain, and more.

Embracing Compassion: Experiences from the Breathworks Mindfulness for Stress course


embracing compassion blog

Reflections from Breathworks teacher Katherine Michaelis' on her Mindfulness MSc. Thesis 

Feldman and Kuyken (2011) describe compassion as:

"an orientation of mind that recognizes pain and the universality of pain in human experience and the capacity to meet that pain with kindness, empathy, equanimity and patience".

I am a Breathworks teacher. When I teach the compassion part of the Breathworks Mindfulness for Stress (MfS) course I have noticed that some participants struggle to engage with the practices, and occasionally find them upsetting. When I first tried these practices myself, as a MfS course participant, I found them tricky. Now, though, they are part of my daily practice and through them I feel I’ve become much kinder both to myself and to others. I draw on them all the time; recently they helped me to care for my mum who had Alzheimer’s.

When I undertook a Mindfulness MSc with Aberdeen University I chose to research how participants experienced compassion training on a Breathworks MfS course. I wanted to gain a deep, rich understanding of participants’ experiences and what these experiences meant to them. I hoped to benefit my teaching and the experiences of course participants and perhaps to benefit other teachers and participants. I began my research by doing a literature review and I found that although compassion training is very beneficial, leading to increased well-being and lower levels of psychological distress, it is also quite common for people to find compassion training difficult and even upsetting at first.

I chose a qualitative approach for my research, which let me capture participants’ experiences and thoughts about compassion training during classes and from interviews conducted some weeks after the training ended. 6 participants of a Breathworks MfS course took part in my research.

My findings revealed that all the participants valued the compassion training highly; they felt it addressed their needs for greater self-compassion, it benefitted their relationships with themselves and with others and it improved their wellbeing. One participant discussed how she had become kinder to herself:

I don’t put myself down, I don’t yell at myself, ‘Oh you stupid person.’”

Another discussed how she benefited from practicing loving kindness for work colleagues she found difficult,

the next day it’s so much easier to talk to them. I can then go and be nice to the person.”

Two participants talked about how kindness practices helped them manage health conditions. One said practicing kindness to herself helped her recover more quickly from depression. Another was recovering from an operation and said the practices were, “helping her to feel better, more reassured and calm,” and that self-compassion, “supports her through the day really.”

Some participants initially had negative experiences of kindness meditations but these experiences changed over time and became more positive. One said she had been skeptical about the benefits of kindness practices and had felt irritated, frustrated, and impatient when she first did them; however, after a week of practice she reported liking the sun imagery practice. Another participant had initially felt pressured during self-kindness practices; striving to achieve happiness, but this attitude had softened over time. One participant became tearful and felt unable to wish herself well when she began. In her interview she said the phrase “may I be safe” had triggered difficult feelings from a childhood in which she had “never felt safe”. She had persisted with the practices and 8 weeks after the course ended she described how she was using compassion practice to calm herself.

Some participants had customised their compassion practices and felt this helped them to gain benefits. One participant, who was a Christian, had mentally changed the sun image into the Son of God, which made more sense to her,

As Christians, he is within and outside… the sun, it didn’t have the same effect, where as the Son of God did.

Another practiced self-compassion when unsettling physical feelings arose by placing her hand on areas of discomfort and using the breath to soothe her. This made her feel, “much calmer and better”.

Learning in a group brought insights into difficulties experienced by others, which helped participants gain self-acceptance, self-compassion and compassion. One participant said, “if you feel that other people are struggling, it’s OK to struggle too and therefore you can be a bit kinder to yourself because you are not judging yourself for feeling crap, you’re saying I am human, this is fine, other people feel like this, I’ll get through this."

However one participant had initially felt intimidated in the group because two other participants, who were counselors, had said they were attending the course to gain skills to use with clients. She felt better when she realised that the counselors also experienced difficulties.

Some participants said that I, as the teacher, had helped group dynamics by giving the sense that we were all in the group together, “teacher included” and by demonstrating kindness towards people who were struggling. However, one participant had felt picked on when I went round the group asking individuals about their experiences.

Most participants said the teaching of Gilbert’s "Three Circles" model; three broad emotional systems corresponding to: The ‘Red Circle’ of Threat, the ‘Blue Circle’ of reward-seeking, and the ‘Green Circle’ of Soothing, Caring, and Contentment:

The home practice of finding ways into the green circle zone had helped them access soothing, nurturing behaviours; they spoke extensively about how they were accessing it in their lives. One participant also said this teaching had taken away the guilt of “feeling all those things in the red circle.” However, two participants had not connected with this teaching. One said that this was because she had identified so strongly with the threat system that she had missed the soothing system.

It was heartening to find that all participants had continued with their compassion practice and were gaining benefits 4 to 8 weeks after the course had ended.

It is not possible to generalise from this kind of study; every group is different and every person will have a different experience of compassion training. However, my findings resonated with the literature and with my previous observations, and I have made some changes to how I teach the Breathworks MfS course. In week one I now encourage participants to share specifically personal wellbeing benefits that they hope to gain from the course, to foster a sense of common humanity, and I now invite participants to share their experiences rather than go around the group in turn so no one feels put on the spot. I encourage participants to customise the kindness practices if they wish, for example I suggest the use of the hand on the heart area to help access warm feelings and I discuss the use of alternative phrases in the loving-kindness meditation. When teaching Gilbert’s theory, I ask participants to share ways in which they already access the “Green Circle” to help them connect with this emotional system. I try to manage expectations and cultivate helpful attitudes for kindness meditations by talking about these before I lead any meditations. I am hopeful that this will help reduce possible striving and feelings of failure. In case of painful emotions arising in the kindness practices, I remind participants of how to work with difficulty and discuss how they can support themselves if they feel overwhelmed; I try to do this lightly so as not to create an expectation of difficulty. I am also alert to any difficulties participants may have and offer opportunities to talk outside class.

Doing the research was a great experience, I feel I have learned lots and I’m really grateful to the study participants who were so helpful and so open in sharing their experiences.

Katherine Michaelis

If you have any questions or want to read my full thesis (18,000 words) then do please get in touch:

 Find out more about the Breathworks Mindfulness for Stress course here.

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Mindfulness for Pain

Mindfulness for Pain Breathworks Blog

 A taste of the Mindfulness for Health course from Breathworks teacher and pain specialist Tuula.

There is excitement in the room. People chance curious glances at each other. New people around, people you have never seen. Men and women, who have brought suffering and pain with them, here, into this room. We are going to meet eight times over these next months; there is time to get to know each other. This is a Breathworks mindfulness pain management program. Mindfulness and meditation as pain treatment – this is a very new idea for most people here.

We introduce ourselves in pairs, tell our stories of why we are here; how we would like to manage our pain and health conditions better. We tell just what we feel is safe to tell for now. Then, pairs introduce their partners to the group. This is the first mindfulness practice: mindful listening in this moment.

People wish their pain would be more tolerable and wish that they could somehow accept the pain. They would like to learn from others’ experiences and to have a source of support. Some wish to diminish the pain medication and find non-medical treatment for pain. Good goals, that arise in every group.

 Then one man says quietly: “I look for mercy and forgiveness.”
What do you mean?” I ask.
My pain has come and brushed away everything in my life, everything has changed, I am not the same person anymore. I seek mercy and forgiveness.”

As weeks pass we talk less and less about pain and suffering. We have learned that no amount of talking and thinking can solve the problem of pain. In the practice we turn towards the pain, the unpleasant sensation, breath by breath. How do we experience the pain, how does it feel to soften around the pain instead of resisting or trying to escape it? This moment, this breath, this sensation. We find that the pain is changing all the time, as everything changes: breath, emotions, thoughts, and sensations move through us like flowing water. We bring a new kindness into the experience. Is that mercy?

Threats, danger, and potential problems; our brain is wired to detect these things as fast as possible, and to hold them in attention, demanding that a solution be found. Now, after experiencing our familiar unpleasant sensations in a new way; a kindly, open way, we begin to turn towards the pleasant. Our evolved instinct is to focus on the unpleasant, and ignore the pleasant.  Now we begin to tune in our brain to that which is beautiful around us; the things that are usually hidden behind our pain and suffering. How lovely it is to find miracles in our garden, or on our way to work, only by opening our senses to receive them. The birds which have been singing to us this whole time. The flowers we have been too busy to see. The first smell of the earth after a long and snowy winter. We surrender to these small and everyday wonders.

In the same way, we learn to  find something pleasant in our own, suffering body. It can be tiny, but very significant: soft skin, warm hands, a light wind on the cheek, a mere absense of pain in some part of the body; anything. It is joyful to notice something good in our body and let it be as it is. No need to change anything.

Weeks pass by. How can we find balance, when the world around us is upside down and the pain is trying to control us by changing its locations and intensity? We learn to observe and to be in our body moment by moment, breath by breath. We learn to let the pleasant and unpleasant sensations come, let them be and let them go without trying to change anything. We let the breath flow naturally and soften to all our experiences. We touch the pain in a gentle way, as we would comfort a fearful child. We meet the pleasant sensations by letting them be as they are, without clinging on to them.

Pain is isolating, and as our group approaches the end of the course, we have a theme of connection to others. We may feel pressure and demands from our surroundings, and some from ourselves. How do we find connection to others without trying to pretend to be happy and healthy? It is helpful to listen to our own body and recognize our resourses. I give myself as I am and I receive help, when needed.

What have we learned? Peer support in the group has become significant. We have shared our experiences, learned from each other and from ourselves. We have created our own humour, black but gentle. A concrete change has begun in how we pace our daily lives. We have learned to listen to our bodies and mind and to take a break before we need a break. Mindfulness meditation has become a part of our life. Natural breathing has become our pain medication. Some have been able to diminish medication and others have accepted that they will still need some. However, we have found many new ways to manage pain aside from the pill bottle.

The main finding is kindliness and compassion towards ourselves. These qualities allow us to accept pain that can’t be changed, and to recognize that there are still many things we can change; still much happiness and well-being to be found. Pain may be part of our life, but we are much more.  If we have had to abandon something, there are always new possibilities, if we let ourselves see them. First, we need to forgive pain.

Tuula Korhonen, Breathworks teacher, anaesthetist and pain specialist

 Find out more about the Breathworks Mindfulness for Health course here.

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Mini-blog: The Music of Difficult Emotions

Inside Out Disgust Anger Fear

If you've been practicing mindfulness for a little while, you've probably noticed that negative emotions and difficult experiences begin to act as a sort of mindfulness bell that brings you back to your immediate experience.

A key part of this process is becoming grounded in body sensations. Often we think of difficult emotions like fear, anger, and sadness as being states of mind, yet, looking beyond the stream of thoughts, they are largely composed of sensations in the body. If we are not mindful of them, those sensations (such as the tension and heart-pounding accompanying stress) can seem to make those thoughts more believable. It's a lot like how background  music can make a speech seem so much more powerful. 

Becoming grounded in the body is like just learning to listen to that music in itself, and not let it carry you away with the content of the speech. So, the next time you find yourself in the grip of some negative emotions, try to look past the thoughts and become grounded in your body; note what sensations are taking place, where abouts, and with what intensity, like a composer listening to a piece of music. Does it change your experience? This can be a fascinating practice to experiment with, and can help you unhook from the spell of a charged thought.

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Mindfulness and Control

mindfulness and control


You are facing North. You want to face South. What do you do?

Obviously, rather than trying to turn the entire world around you, you simply turn yourself around.

Now another puzzle: You want your partner to start acting differently, or you want the weather to be nicer, or your body to look a different way, or you want not to be ill. What do you do? You want things to be a certain way, but they aren't.

Just as it is easier to turn yourself around than to turn the Earth around you, so it is easier to direct your own mind than it is to direct the course of the whole world around you. This is the gift of mindfulness; it is the ability to embrace things just as they are; it is an act of radical acceptance.

This certainly does not mean being passive, doing nothing to work towards a better world, or to stand up to injustice.

However, external events will always be unpredictable, and our control over them can never be relied upon. The only thing we can control is how we direct our attention and intention in the present moment.

Mindfulness is the gift that allows us to see things just as they are, even if they are not how we want them to be, and yet not make our well-being dependent on changing anything. It is understanding without analysis, and acceptance without resignation.

Look for the opportunity, within those occasions when things are not as you want them, to practice making that inward turning. If you develop this skill, you will stop seeing the world only in terms of how well it meets your wants, and that world, just as it is, is a beautiful world to see.

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You Can't Stop The Brain Waves, But You Can Learn to Surf

Ricard and Davidson

Image: Scientist and Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard, with psychologist and neuroscientist Richie Davidson

Check out the Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard rocking a whole head of EEG electrodes as part of a study investigating brain changes during meditation of experienced participants. EEG stands for electroencephalogram (eh-LEK-tro-en-SEF-a-low-gram), a device which uses electrodes to read brain activity.

When a group of neurons matthieu Ricard EEgin the brain are active, they ‘fire’ electrochemical impulses along nerve fibres, resulting in tiny changes in voltage, which be detected by electrodes on the scalp near that area. This change in the electrical activity of brain areas is what produces the ‘brain waves’ visible on an EEG screen (below).

EEG has been in use for a long time; the first human EEG was recorded in 1924. Although it’s hard to know precisely where in the brain the signal is coming from, and electrodes placed on the scalp are only able to detect voltage changes from the outer layer of the brain, EEG has been a useful research tool in psychology, and has specifically resulted in some very interesting observations in the field of meditation research.

Eyes Open, Eyes Closed
Different frequencies of brain waves are generally associated with different states of mind. For instance, beta waves (see below) are typically seen when one is awake and acting normally, whereas very slow delta waves are only seen during deep sleep. Slower alpha waves are associated with closed eyes, and in fact were initially believed to only occur with closed eyes due to the reduction in visual processing, until researchers read the EEG signal of meditators and were surprised to find a strong alpha signal even when their eyes were open.


Meditation on the Brain
Experience with meditation seems to be associated with both increased alpha and theta wave strength, and an overall reduction in the frequencies of brain waves. This is especially the case during meditation, although highly experienced meditators also show high levels of alpha wave activity even during normal waking activity. Alpha waves in general have been linked with relaxation and feelings of calm, and theta waves with concentration. Theta waves in experienced meditators have also been correlated with self-reports of bliss and stillness of mind.

Cyborg Meditators
It is impossible to make detailed inferences about what effects meditation is having in the brain simply from EEG signals, however a certain pattern of signals does seem to correlate reliably with meditation, and so can be put to use. As EEG technology has become cheaper, a number of commercial EEG devices have been made available, and some which are specifically intended to help meditation. For example, the Muse headset comes with an app which gives you real-time feedback about the quality of your meditation based on your brainwaves, and claims to be able to give immediate feedback if your concentration slips.

Muse, Emotiv, and other meditation headsets are secretive about what their algorithms are actually using to indicate quality of meditation. It may be alpha waves, theta waves, or some relationship between the strengths of these and other frequencies, compared to the baseline measurement that they take. It’s a shame not to know the details of their research, since, aside from being fascinating, would open the way for other start-ups and independent researchers to test and continue developing these technologies.

Due to the variety of meditation techniques used, different levels of meditation experience in participants, inconsistent placement of electrodes between studies, and varying research methods, many questions remain unanswered about the relationship between EEG output and meditation. Furthermore, the question of whether EEG-based meditation feedback will be useful for learning meditation at all remains open. Will it act like a cyborg brain extension and artificially improve concentration, or will it simply make users’ concentration dependent on the feedback?

The algorithms used by these headsets may also be measuring only a proxy of actual meditative progress, such as relaxation or, if the research process has used inexperienced meditators or misinterpreted the relationship between EEG output and mind state, even drowsiness. Theta brainwaves are also present during light sleep, yet this is, of course, a completely different state from the precise, alert engagement of deep meditation.

As meditation continues to grow in popularity, and as EEG tech becomes cheaper and more accessible (see this video of somebody controlling a robot with their brainwaves), doubtless these tools will become better and more reliable, and a fascinating and fruitful union of ancient techniques and modern technology may await along this path.

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