Breathworks Blog

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

All you need is love

Love HeartsMy friend Suvarnaprabha is dying of cancer over in San Franscisco. She has written a stunning blog of her journey on ‘Crap! I’ve got cancer!’ I highly recommend you give it a read. She is currently turning it into a book which will be a gift to the world.

In a recent post she included this transcript of a brilliant convocation speech George Saunders gave at Syracuse. I thought I’d share it here as it is so amazing. Witty. Erudite. And true.

“Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).

And I intend to respect that tradition.

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?”  And they’ll tell you.  Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked.  Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.

So: What do I regret?  Being poor from time to time?  Not really.  Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?”  (And don’t even ASK what that entails.)  No.  I don’t regret that.  Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked?  And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months?  Not so much.  Do I regret the occasional humiliation?  Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl?  No.  I don’t even regret that.

But here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class.  In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.”  ELLEN was small, shy.  She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore.  When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing).  I could see this hurt her.  I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear.  After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth.  At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.”  And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then – they moved.  That was it.  No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that?  Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it?  Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her.  I never said an unkind word to her.  In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still.  It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope:  Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question:  What’s our problem?  Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian.  These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question:  How might we DO this?  How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.

So let me just say this.  There are ways.  You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter.  Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend;  establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

One thing in our favor:  some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age.  It might be a simple matter of attrition:  as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really.  We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality.  We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be.  We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now).  Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.  I think this is true.  The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love.  YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.   If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment.  You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit.  That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today.  One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.

Congratulations, by the way.

When young, we’re anxious – understandably – to find out if we’ve got what it takes.  Can we succeed?  Can we build a viable life for ourselves?  But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition.  You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can….

And this is actually O.K.  If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers.  We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Still, accomplishment is unreliable.  “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up.  Speed it along.  Start right now.  There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness.  But there’s also a cure.  So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.  Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.  That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.  Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s.  Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place.  Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been.  I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Congratulations, Class of 2013.

I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.”

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Adventures in Biofeedback

biofeedback-copy-for-web-biggerA few weeks ago Glyn Blackett came to Breathworks to show us his biofeedback and neurofeedback kit. This was with the view to discussing whether this is something we could use at Breathworks, in conjunction with mindfulness, for people who are looking to improve their quality of life despite living with stress, pain or illness.

I turned up to the meeting somewhat stressed. Usually I have a PA who comes and helps me with my personal care and to get ready for the day and, due to a misunderstanding, she hadn’t turned up. So I’d been struggling as best as I could to get myself presentable and I arrived late for the meeting and a bit breathless – hardly a poster girl for mindfulness! In my naivety I’d thought he would just talk about options, but before I knew it, he had me wired up measuring the tension levels in my neck and shoulders. It wasn’t awful but neither was it the sort of reading someone who has been meditating for 25 years would hope to get! It was fascinating to get an objective reading of an internal experience. I sense this is the main value of these machines. I knew I was tense and rushed and the machines validated that and they also showed the benefits of a few moments of mindful breathing and meditating – the graphs responded immediately and this in turn helped me feel calmer – a virtuous circle!

Next up came a machine that measures the levels of CO2 in the blood. I just breathed ‘normally’ for a few moments whilst chatting, noting that I was peaking below a line on the screen that I sensed was significant – but I had no idea what it meant. Glyn then explained that, if breathing optimally, one peaks above this line and this showed me that my breathing was a little bit inhibited. Not surprising given I was wearing my rigid back brace that constricts my belly, but, once again, very helpful to have the effect of this objectified. I need to wear my brace, but I found it helpful to learn that there is more I can do to help my breathing exhale to a full out-breath even whilst wearing my brace. I sense my breathing is much better when I am lying down, but I am upright wearing my brace most of the day, so this is where the work needs to be done.

So far, so predictable. The shocker was still to come! Next there was a measurement of ‘Heart Rate Variability’, which I don’t really understand, though it was clear that in an ideal world your breathing and heart rate variability are beautifully synchronized as Glyn showed me on a graph. Mine was a mess. My heart rate was all over the place and I could discern no relationship between this and my breathing. Now I started to see the downsides of bio/neuro-feedback as I felt disheartened. I knew from past medical tests that I have an unusual ECG that shows I have had a silent heart attack at some point in my life; and my autonomic nervous system was damaged in spinal surgery a decade ago – but to see the consequences of these things on the screen was unnerving to say the least. In the situation of the feedback machines I compared myself with ‘normal’ and felt a) humiliated (especially as I’m a mindfulness teacher with decades’ experience) and b) rather concerned that my readings were so far away from ‘normal’. Wise friends later commented that they were astonished and amused that I would have ever thought my readings would be those of a perfectly healthy person and this was reassuring. They also reminded me of how much work I have already done to create a rich and fulfilling life despite my circumstances and this helped me re-gain perspective.

So what are the main lessons?

Pros: Bio/neuro feedback has great value in giving an objective reading of inner experience. Meditation and mindfulness are profoundly subjective experiences and it is impossible to know if a perceived sense of relaxation is actually objectively relaxed, or just relaxed for you – from a baseline of perhaps a high level of tension. I feel motivated to hire a machine and check my readings in different circumstances and gain a more objective sense of when I need to practice breathing more fully, for example. I am sure I will benefit greatly from this.

If you have a damaged body, like me, then it can just trigger feelings of being a failure and a ‘freak’. I think the comparisons between readings would be most effective if done just from one’s own ‘baseline’, rather than comparing one’s own readings with what it looks like if one is perfectly relaxed, or breathing perfectly. Otherwise it is just disheartening and the last thing we want people to feel when they come on a Breathworks course is disheartened. No one is perfect and we all have different baselines and potentials. I came across the image below the other day of 2 pelvises, which illustrates how differently people will respond to yoga. Due to different pelvic shapes one of them will have much greater range of movement in the hip sockets. No amount of yoga will change this basic anatomical fact. Perhaps bio-neurofeedback needs to be used against this backdrop of accepting we are all different, with different anatomical facts and potentials.

of great benefit if used wisely. I am sure it can help people shift their baselines towards greater health, within their own unique physiological circumstances.

For more information on bio-neurofeedback contact Glyn Blackett


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Tallberg mindfulness week

Posted by     Vidyamala on     Thursday, 04 July 2013

Mindhouse Park Mindfulness Week 2013

By Vidyamala Burch

Last week Sona and I travelled 3 hours north of Stockholm to spend a week with like-minded people at a 'mindfulness week' conference. It was quite a remarkable experience. The location was stunning in a small Swedish village on the shores of the famous Lake Siljan. The night didn't arrive before it was morning again. If I looked out the window at 2 am it was still light! This alone has a tremendous effect on the spirits and I felt energetic the whole time I was there.

a1sx2 Thumbnail1 tallberg eve sun

We were there at the invitation of our friend and colleague Dr Ola Schenstrom who founded the Mindfulness Center in Sweden some years ago. He had teamed up with Anders Liden, a meditating entrepreneur, to host the week with the intention of running a similar event annually for the next ten years. Ola is a highly idealistic guy who was very involved with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in the 80's and 90's. He is now in his mid sixties and shows no signs of slowing down in his wish to make the world a better place for future generations. The conference was very, very idealistic - even radical.

Various topics were covered including mindfulness in society, health-care, leadership and nature. I gave a key note talk on Breathworks 'Mindfulness for Health' courses as a self-management intervention for people living with long-term health conditions and chronic pain. Here are some of the scary statistics I quoted:

  • 1.5 billion people worldwide suffer chronic pain (3+ months)
  • 1 in 5 in Europe suffer moderate to severe chronic pain (2006)
  • In recent 'Health Survey of England' = 20 million people in the UK suffer chronic pain: 31% of men, 37% of women
  • In USA some 116 million people suffer chronic pain = $635 billion a year
  • The problem worsens as population ages: 57% over 75's suffer daily pain in UK.
  • If include all chronic health conditions = epidemic proportions. This is taking up increasing proportion health care spending.

Giving the talk, and attending the conference, made me reflect on whether I need to work a little more 'politically' to raise the profile of self-management interventions such as mindfulness. It is obvious to me that teaching people skills to help themselves (which includes seeking external health care as appropriate, of course) is the way forward in this new world we live in. Not long ago the bulk of public health spending went on acute care; now it goes on chronic conditions. This is due to the massive burden of chronic health conditions to both the individual and society as we live longer and modern medicine is increasingly able to keep people alive. Cancer, for example, is increasingly being seen as a chronic condition as more and more people are successfully treated, but left with long-term effects to manage.

Being around visionary people at Tallberg has had a big effect on me. It was galvanising and inspiring. On the last morning I had a spontaneous breakfast with three remarkable women who are all working tirelessly in their fields of endeavour. Here we were gathered from across the glode sharing our vision: Lucia McBee who teaches mindfulness to elderly people in New York - surely one of the most neglected groups in our culture; Katherine Weare who works developing mindfulness for kids, including the very successful .b programme; and Merle Lefkoff who is radical to her core having spent her life travelling the world as an international mediator. She was going from the conference straight to Jordan to do some work with young women activists involved in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. It was amazing hooking up with these women, as well as all the other idealistic radicals at the conference, and I look forward to our connections deepening over time.

I hope to go to Tallberg again next year to continue this vital work of trying to make the world a better place for all of us alive now, and all who will follow behind.

pano party

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Life works in mysterious ways

By Vidyamala Burch 

Vm recordingWhen I was a young woman I was a film and sound editor in the New Zealand film industry. I worked on many projects – some of which were good and some of which have gone the way of all things, perhaps thankfully. I very much enjoyed this work: it was intense, creative and provided a way of compulsively distracting myself from my back pain. Of course this method of pain management was not at all intelligent and eventually led to a complete crash; but for a time I was gainfully employed in enjoyable work.

One of my lesser known skills is that I know how to create the sound of a head hitting the tarmac in a fight scene. Plunge a knife into a cabbage and slow the sound down and it is remarkably authentic. I know how to create atmosphere and a 'soundscape' by adding a dog barking in the distance in a night scene. And I know many such tricks of the trade when designing sound for a feature film or drama.

So, isn't it strange how this week I found myself in a recording studio for 4 full-on afternoons recording the audio version of my new book 'Mindfulness for Health'. Here I was dealing with microhones, sound quality and feeding my obsessive side again – in the fabulous company of Jenny Leow from Sthrathmore Publications, based in London. She and I come out of the same mould and the jury is out as to which one of us is the bossier. I, of course, think Jenny was much more bossy than me, but she may disagree. It is really rewarding to find a new outlet for my recording experience – especially when produced by someone who is as fussy as me when it comes to quality.

At one point we were both sitting there with our headphones on, intensely working away, when we both heard a 'squeak, squeak' in the background. "What was that?" we cried out to one another. And then it came again "squeak, squeak". She said, "It's an owl". I said, "no way" and didn't believe her and said, "go and ask Matt" (the guy who runs the studio). Sure enough, she came back and said it was indeed a local owl that sometimes comes out for a little daytime calling. For some reason he/she was quite chatty on this particular occasion so we had to wait for the owl to go back to sleep. We think we didn't record over it, but perhaps we could have a competition when the audiobook comes out to see if any really sensitive listener can spot the owl call that may have escaped our brutal editing.

The audio version of the book comes out at the same time as the print version on Sept 5th. I am so very happy about this as I know many of the people who could benefit from the book can't read a print version for one reason or another: they may be visually impaired; they may suffer from paralysis; they may just be too tired to hold a book. I hope all the work and, perhaps somewhat unhealthy feeding of my obsessive side, bears fruit for future listeners who want to learn how to apply mindfulness and compassion to their health difficulties and to learn to live as well as possible.

job doneVm and jenny working

Vidyamala and Jenny at recording studio

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Our First Blog

VM in Holland13sonainholland13

Sona & Vidyamala arrive in Holland to train experienced MBSR and MBCT teachers

Ok the time has come to take the plunge and start a blog. Its been on the 'to-do' list for long enough. In this blog I'd like to say more about my life and work and how mindfulness goes with me through my days.

I'm actually writing this in the car on the way back to Rotterdam for the ferry tonight to UK. (No I'm not driving!). I look out the window every now and then and it is just more motorway, lorries, cars, busy, busy tin cans on wheels. It does make you wonder about this world.

I’ve been at training event in Holland with my colleague and partner Sona Fricker. It was for people who already teach mindfulness and want to learn more about mindfulness for people with pain, illness and stress we've developed over the past decade or so.

One of the highlights was a visit from Jaap who recently completed an 8 week Breathworks course with Ingrid Van Den Hout, one of our Dutch teachers. On these events we inevitably talk about what it is like to work with people with pain, which sometimes can feel slightly abstract. Jaap punched through that veil and, with beautiful honesty and courage, told us about what it has been like to live with chronic head aches, neck and back pain following a whiplash injury 13 years ago. He's gone from being an ambitious, sporty, financial manager, to a guy who is unable to work and spends hours a day at home on his own.

Jaap told us how the Breathworks approach to mindfulness had helped him. He's now pacing his activities and working for 20 min periods before resting. He's got more of a life again. He's less angry. More motivated. He's got more of a sense of being in the driving seat of his own life. He smiled a lot when talking to us. He and I shared some of our experiences of living with dodgy bodies and yet being determined not to go under with the struggle.

His visit to the training retreat reminded me of a session we led at a conference a couple of years ago. We invited some participants from a course we'd led for people in recovery from addictions, asylum seekers and carers. They spoke to the a workshop we were leading with about 70 delegates, many of whom were health care professionals. Once again, it was as if their eloquence and honesty punched through the veil that so often separates 'professionals' and 'patients'.  We were all just human beings in a room sharing, and being awed, by the human stories of the course graduates we were listening to. It was incredible. Ingrid told us that hearing their stories that day was when she decided to train as a Breathworks teacher. It wasn't just a theory. It was real and transformed the lives of people who had been fighting immigration systems for years trying to get asylum from war torn lands; people who had spent years in prison; people who had lived on the fringes of society. This group has now nearly finished their training and, very soon, will be teaching mindfulness themselves. How extraordinary.

Ok we've arrived at the ferry terminal so I'll stop now. I’ve enjoyed writing this blog!


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