Breathworks Blog

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

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A couple of years ago I was given a precious opportunity to join a long study/meditation retreat at a lovely place in the Malverns, with a great bunch of friends and teachers. I’d been looking forward this for a long time. Then imagine my distress, when, 4 days into the retreat, I woke up with a high pitched ringing in my left ear and an uncomfortable feeling of fullness and heat in the left part of my head. My three month idyll turned into a very difficult and emotional slog as I struggled to come to terms with tinnitus. Those of us who suffer with tinnitus will know what a miserable thing it can be. Although it’s generally not painful, it can drive you crazy.  When it started, I suffered from bad insomnia. My nights were sleepless and miserable. As soon as I sat down in a quiet room to meditate, I was immediately aware of the noise and it became difficult to concentrate. I was very frightened, sad, bewildered and, after a few weeks, completely exhausted. I wept at the slightest thing. I didn’t feel in control. Everything kept sliding away from me. I also felt very lonely, especially at night when I lay, wide awake as others slumbered, listening to my ringing ears.

Of course – I was in the right place! Not only was I studying the practice of mindfulness, but here I was with a cracking opportunity to practice it.  And with people to help me too.  The trouble was that the theory was much easier than the practice – turning towards tinnitus proved to be on of the most difficult things I have ever done, but in the event, also the most rewarding.

I had all the tests to rule out brain tumours and other horribles. They all came back clear. So there was relief, but also incomprehension. What caused this and why me?? My days were filled with fretful conversations about it, internet searches, mild to strong fits of panic, accumulating tiredness and lots of deep anxiety.  About six weeks in, and with lots of time to observe what was happening, I knew that I was in a merry-go-round state of either pushing tinnitus away, trying to ignore it or seeking comfort through distraction. After six weeks, and at rock bottom, I knew that either I would have to face up to it – literally turn towards it, or I’d have to cash in the opportunity of a lifetime and go home.

So I started to really practice what others had been preaching about mindfulness;  and discovered what had sounded so sensible and reasonable in theory,  proved rather difficult to do at first. I started by being very brave, and counter intuitively listening to the sounds, rather than avoiding them. The first seconds of this turning were invariably the hardest, but I quite quickly learned that the most difficult bit would pass quickly. I tried to cultivate an attitude of interest, rather than fear. Helpful things happened. I met other people on the retreat who told me that they too had had bad tinnitus, but had either become accustomed to it, or it had abated . A tinnitus expert told me that the noise is not in your ears, it’s actually in your brain. It’s your brain interpreting sounds differently. She said ‘Just imagine it’s brain music’. That helped me a lot. Thinking of tinnitus as music rather than cacophony. Thinking of it as sound rather than noise. Thinking of it as small, rather than big.

So I made every effort to find space and quiet in my life to enable me to work with this moment to moment turning towards, instead of resorting to methods of avoidance.

I used mindfulness to systematically help me identify places and states and situations and activities which would make me feel easier. I quickly learned that certain things would do this. These are some that work for me: 

  1. Going outside into the open air. The acoustics are completely different and the brain is enlivened and refocused by many other strong sensations. 
  2. Seeking out comforting noises. The wind in the trees. Water flowing. Birdsong or the drone of distant traffic. Fires crackling. Music.
  3. Being with people who cared about me and made me laugh – I began to notice that the tinnitus always felt better.
  4. Laughter – jokes, TV comedy shows, funny movies or books
  5. Mindful meditation, with gentle background noise somewhere.
  6. Just doing ordinary things like housework, cooking, gardening, cleaning stuff. S-l-o-w-l-y.
  7. Going for a short walk – I always do the same one and try to notice what’s different each time. I like the familiarity and safe predictability but I also like to clock the changes.

It was meditation that I began to notice had a palpable effect and began to give  me back a little sense of control. I’d sit upright or lie prone and comfortable, allowing myself to notice the ringing, but resolving to keep turning my attention to the rise and fall of my breath as well. Miraculously, I began to notice that after 20 minutes or so of this, my mind would stop noticing the tinnitus. It wouldn’t go, but it would ease and even become quieter or lower. And even more importantly, I would begin to feel calmer; more centered and sometimes actually happy and joyful. I focused on other pleasant sensations in my body. My bum warm on the cushion or my shoulders relaxing. I’d say to myself – no pain here, no discomfort there. Most importantly, if this didn’t happen (and sometimes it didn’t) I didn’t give up. I cultivated and then rested in the trust that if this worked for others, if it worked for me sometimes, then it could work for me again. 

I began to notice things that made it worse and avoid them. These were some for me.

  1. Being with charged up, anxious people and in fraught conversations.
  2. Enclosed, small spaces, especially places with double glazing; lots of insulation and in cars. I always travelled with the windows open.
  3. Rushing around and getting tired.
  4. Busy, stressful conditions with lots of people, activity, sensory inputs and requirements for me to respond.
  5. Worrying if I couldn’t sleep.
  6. Fretting – doing the thing where I started telling myself stories about the future and then worrying about what I ought to be doing to avoid it.

One day I watched a British Tinnitus Society video in which three lovely, ordinary people with tinnitus talked about how they’d learned to deal with it. One of them said that she hardly noticed it now. I liked hearing about people who had ‘come out the other side’ as it were. It made me feel more confident. 

Most importantly, somewhere along the way I let the belief that it would all be OK if only I did this, or that, or that...  fall away. At some point I just accepted it. I said, well this is me now. I even tried to express affection and care for myself by stroking my ear or the side of my head if it became bothersome. Like I’d comfort my grandson if he hurt himself. 

There was an evening in October, somewhere well into the retreat, after about 10 weeks of this ‘turning towards’ that I was trying to do, when I found myself  sitting on my bed, staring out through the windows  at dusk, watching the evening stars emerging and listening to the wind in the trees and thinking,  this is so peaceful and beautiful; I don’t ever remember feeling happier or calmer. I remember checking in with the sounds in my ears and noticing that if I went looking, they were still there, still as present and still as ‘loud’. But then, if I took my attention out from this little part of the picture of my experience at that very moment, and into the big frame of everything else going on, then there was just ease and peacefulness and a tremendous feeling of satisfaction that I had come to learn ways of facing this and then living with it.

Three years on and it’s still there. But I’ve learned that it doesn’t stay the same. It comes and goes. There are bad days, or more usually, hours. When they happen I know what to do – and if that fails, I know that if I simply stay with it and have confidence, then soon it will change again. Mostly now there are good days, when it’s just a part of me, and when it calls my attention, I simply say ‘hallo again’, and not – ‘go away’.  I say ‘now what can I do to comfort myself?

Suryadaya

 

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Painfully Beautiful - Healing with Compassion

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About me

My name is Nadia Miller. I am a mental health advocate, public speaker, course facilitator at the Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust’s Recovery Academy, and currently half way through my Mindfulness Teacher Training with Breathworks.

Talk at BIG

On Tuesday 26 February 2019 I will be delivering a talk to Bury Involvement Group. Here I will be talking to a recovery group sharing my experience of my own mental health struggles, therapies that have helped me get to recovery and most importantly, how mindfulness has not only enabled me to keep growing but healing too.  

How mindfulness has helped me

It was after 20 years of suffering, having thoughts & feelings of suicide and self-destructive behaviour that I learned to manage my mental health conditions. (Depression & traits of emotional unstable personality disorder).

I had received different psychological interventions along the way, but in the end learning to be more compassionate towards myself helped me get to recovery.

I have been in recovery for 4 years now and due to some difficulty that arose for me over a year ago, I had a strong urge to help myself with this. I knew that I didn’t need more therapy due to the tools I had already been given in the past but there was a need to understand my pain more.

Severe tremors in the hands and my head came out of nowhere; it was like I lost control of my body. I noticed the trigger and where it would happen but I didn’t see where this stemmed from for my body to react as it did.

In the midst of going through this violent storm, I was using my own compassionate tools to respond to myself with kindness and was eager to deepen my practice more.

As I was going through this process, I noticed a Breathworks poster providing details of how you can train to be a teacher with them. I was very drawn towards this as it was learning to be compassionate towards myself and changing perspective in life that helped me get to recovery. It is now my passion and purpose to give back the gift of this in any way I can. Shortly after seeing this poster, I contacted Breathworks and was informed of some pre-requisites before starting the formal training, one of them being attending an 8 week Mindfulness for Stress course.

A few months later, I attended this course and I found it really interesting and insightful. It really cemented everything I had learned through the therapies I had in the past, in particular, Compassion Focused Therapy.

This course helped me to turn towards my pain more so, it was a like a tap opening slowly, starting to release some pain that had been built up.

Before I started the next step of the teacher training (Introductory Training) I needed to complete meditation diaries, reflecting on how I found them, what came up for me, sensations, thoughts, how I dealt with them etc. It was here, in this in-depth experience of exploration and really turning towards did I notice a different relationship to this pain I had been holding.

It was especially more apparent initially with the compassionate acceptance and working with charged thoughts meditation. Here, I would always feel a lot of pain behind my eyes, my heart aching. As I understood the impact of resisting and not turning towards my primary pain, from the theory taught on the Mindfulness for Stress course, this made me want to sit with how I was feeling.

Tears would flow and with that, there was this strong sense of relief. It was a realisation that I had been trying to be strong for so long but now my body can breathe as I acknowledged the difficult time I had been going through.

A few months later, after really sitting with these practices, I was able to see clearly why my hands and head would tremor/shake the way they do sometimes. I made a connection of a traumatic event I went through in the past and I noticed my body thinking that this is happening again. What a relief it was to know what I was now working with.

This realisation helped me really soften towards myself, be my own best friend/parent more so and with that, the tremors/shakes diminished.

Mindfulness has helped me see that we are always on this journey of unfolding and becoming which can be painfully beautiful. It was very useful for me and most likely key that I had in-depth therapy beforehand which made it safe for me to explore my pain in mindfulness practice.

Having this personal experience, seeing first-hand how the Mindfulness for Stress course can truly help has made me excited about becoming teacher and the need to share this with others.

This practice has truly helped me be the captain of my own ship, being able to sail through stormy waters and into the calm ocean.

I hope by sharing my experience at BIG that it helps to inspire others, creates better understanding of this practice to bring about support and positivity for anyone in recovery.

 

Painfully beautiful by Nadia Miller

How the seasons change,

A reminder that things will never be the same again.

One moment being tossed and turned from all that we know,

far from reach, horizon out of sight.

The next, being brought back to shore,

Calm waves washing over our being,

bringing love, kindness,

Soothing our bruises, broken hearts,

A violent awakening,

Breaking our hearts open over and over again,

Eventually letting the light in,

healing pain, hurt that we have held onto for so long.

The seasons bring us choice, another chance,

to become, to breathe, to live again.

Eyes start to open,

Sensations arise,

Our wounds start to heal,

We grow taller,

How painfully beautiful.

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Solitary Retreat Tales

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Vidyamala Burch is the author of Mindfulness for Health, Living Well with Pain and Illness, and Mindfulness for Women. She is an internationally respected expert on Mindfulness-based pain management, and one of the founders of Breathworks. She leads meditation retreats, mindfulness and compassion masterclasses, and mindfulness teacher training events internationally.


In July I drove up through the drought-baked heartlands of England to begin a mythic journey into the Welsh mountains and into my own heart and mind. I was travelling to a friend’s hermitage in a converted cow-shed in Snowdonia to go on a seven week ‘solitary retreat’. A carer stayed nearby to help me with meals and essential practical day-to-day assistance.

In our culture we may associate the idea of solitude with some kind of punishment such as ‘solitary confinement’. But time on one’s own leading a simple, uncomplicated routine has always been highly valued in cultures rich in contemplative traditions. Time alone offers a precious opportunity to re-charge, reflect, face up to mental and emotional habits, drop beneath the endless doings of life and taste something of the deeper mysteries. This then provides the springboard to return to ‘normal’ life a little more loving, calm, connected and inspired.  Rather than some kind of escapist activity, we go away on solitary retreat in order to come close to our minds, which I always experience as much less escapist than the many other activities I distract myself with in my usual life! I experience this journey inside on retreat as one of the most courageous things I can do with my time, and these spacious weeks up the mountain this summer were no exception.

Quite quickly I settled into a daily routine of mindful movement first thing to get my body moving, followed by meditation before breakfast. Then I pottered about doing some study or drawing before spending time sitting outside in nature doing nothing, followed by meditation and lunch. After that I did a Body Scan, rested, took some exercise, and then spent more time sitting in nature doing nothing followed by more meditation before supper. I read, wrote and meditated to close the day.

My greatest achievement on this retreat was to enjoy doing nothing. I am such an inveterate ‘do-er’ and it was completely delightful to lie back on my lounger under the tree and to gradually tune into all the noises of nature, the clouds in the sky, my thoughts flowing through my mind with less ‘snagging’, and experience intimately the sheer energy of the world around and within me.  As the weeks went by I wanted to be outside more and more, regardless of the weather. I had my meals outside. I sat outside under starry nights. When the borehole eventually dried up in the drought I thoroughly enjoyed washing by hurling cold water over myself from the small stream. Everything became elemental and raw, in a good way.

Overall I found the 7 weeks inspiring. Initially I had to surrender to thick, sludgy layers of tiredness and then both the inner and outer worlds gradually opened up into a vibrant intensity.  My meditations became increasingly filled with colour and my imagination took off. I did a lot of falling in my meditations. Letting go down, down, down and then I would find myself in a cave deep within, inhabited by the most loving and kind imaginary people. They poured their love into me and whoever else I brought to mind, effortlessly and gloriously. Another day an imaginary lion came towards me across the landscape and he has meditated with me ever since. He climbs on my lap, he licks my face, he loves me and encourages me to feel into my power. Again, I have no idea where he came from, but it was important to let him into my imagination and to feel his love.

Strange things happened in the outer world too. One day a bird came and landed on my knee as if it was the most natural thing in the world. A hare came to visit some evenings and we’d look at each other for a long time. He had very beautiful ears. Gradually the threads that hold the world together seemed more elastic somehow, more porous, and everything became more open, connected and beautiful.

Eventually the time came to drive home again (earlier than anticipated due to the drought, but that’s another tale). As I write this three months later I still feel in touch with the wonder of that time up the mountain and have decided to book at least a month’s solitary retreat a year from 2020. I want this to be a source of energy and inspiration for all the more outward going activities I am involved with, including of course Breathworks - my passion and vocation.

Vidyamala Burch


 To find out more about Vidyamala's work and teaching, visit her website here. You can also try her 10-day course: Methods for Living With Pain and Illness on the Insight Timer App.

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Reaching out to Indians from England; leading a transcontinental online Mindfulness for Health course

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Rohini Vijaygopal is an accredited Breathworks Teacher; she has a background in working in pharmaceutical and educational sectors, and has been involved in teaching and research at several universities in India and the UK. 

She is teaching the next Mindfulness for Health Online course - you can find out more and book your place now.


Growing up in India, I was introduced to yoga, meditation and sound from a young age. Having personally experienced the benefits of these practices, I have sustained this passion throughout my life alongside whatever else I have pursued. Moving to England two decades ago and continuing with my ‘curiosity’ journey towards anything that is ‘well-being’ related, brought me to attending a Breathworks course here in the UK. Two weeks into the course, I knew for sure I wanted to teach Breathworks.

Such was my enthusiasm that before I knew it, having completed all the necessary training I was accredited with Breathworks and I am delivering mindfulness (smiling with gratitude as I write this!). By this point, my enthusiasm had become so infectious that many of my friends and contacts in India were curious about mindfulness and wanted me to teach them, but distance was a problem. They shared a preference for synchronous learning, where they could interact throughout the course, rather than independent learning. Also, some people in the UK who wanted to experience my teaching face-to-face had travel constraints, preventing them from accessing the course. This led me to ponder – ‘could I go to them rather than them coming to me?’

I feel alive when I am teaching. It has been a no brainer for me to draw upon my years of experience in online teaching of academic courses to help me reach people wanting to learn meditation but for whom distance is an issue. Having truly understood the power of technology and using my transferrable skills in this area, I went about adapting the course material for online delivery, including making material amenable for screen sharing as well as sharing of media with sound. Six participants enrolled within just a week! I accommodated people from India and the UK, deciding what would be an appropriate time to start to be feasible at both ends. It got finalised for 7am in the morning, UK time, on Sundays, not really a time that I am usually awake on a weekend.

I was thrilled to explore this way of delivering, but initially there were some butterflies in my stomach, worrying whether this would work out within the meditation sphere. It was a perfect time for me to use my own practice to aid my nerves and it worked! Sitting in my meditation room in England, I was teaching a group spread across two cities in India and some here in the UK. I soon noticed my participants did not pay attention to the fact that the medium of instruction was virtual; their focus was simply on the meditation process. The sessions were no different to face-to-face sessions - it had all the benefits yet it was accessible to those sitting 8,000 miles away. The added bonus came in the form of happy Sundays after an early start.

Millions in India live with chronic pain and illness and could benefit from the Mindfulness for Health course and the radical shift that can come about in how one experiences physical, mental and emotional pain. Although invisible illnesses have started to be recognised in the West, this recognition is barely emergent in India. Online, we can reach out to people in distant locations where we lack a physical presence. India is of special interest to me because of my own background. I also understand that Indians place a huge amount of value in collective learning. Synchronous online delivery of mindfulness can also benefit sufferers of chronic pain and illness within the UK, who struggle to leave their homes.

Feedback I have received has been very encouraging. One participant summarised she had never realised ‘feelings could travel virtually.’ Another said, ‘I learnt so much during the eight weeks and Rohini supported a lot when faced with difficult emotions.’ A Consultant Gynaecologist, one of the people in the group, mentioned that ‘Rohini’s delivery was simple, yet it made a marked difference to my state of mind’ - she said her patients could definitely benefit by doing this course.

I now deliver regular online drop-in sessions for participants and the group is growing by the day.rohini Enthused by knowing that it is indeed possible to do a successful online delivery with a population who are at a distance and for those who find it difficult to travel, I have already started delivering yet another transcontinental course. I am delighted to be able to make some difference to the lives of people who otherwise would have been difficult to reach, and grateful to my participants who have been happy to accompany me in my curiosity and exploration.

Rohini Vijaygopal

 

The Breathworks teacher training programme aims to prepare trainees to deliver the Breathworks Mindfulness for Health and Mindfulness for Stress 8-week courses in a traditional face-to-face group mode. For accredited teachers who have significant experience of e-learning delivery, it is acceptable for them to offer synchronous small-scale online teaching using a close adaptation of the 8-week Breathworks courses, for example via Skype or Zoom. Accredited teachers may not, however, set up a Breathworks course on a website or VLE, or deliver it in asychronous modes using applications such as VoiceThread, Facebook etc.

 

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Making Mindfulness Available to Everyone

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It has been just over three months since I started working for The Breathworks Foundation, taking on a new role as Head of Development, and what an inspiring and heart-opening time it has been already.  The Trustees asked me to bring my previous fundraising experience to The Foundation to raise money to realise Vidyamala’s long held vision: sharing mindfulness with as many people who suffer through pain, illness or stress as possible, whatever their financial circumstances.

"I am absolutely delighted that Karunatara Green has joined The Breathworks Foundation, which funds Mindfulness for Health Course bursaries for those struggling financially, as Head of Development. She brings a wealth of experience in fundraising from her previous role at the Manchester International Festival and, every bit as important, she brings a lot of heart. She is passionate in helping the Foundation expand its reach and already has a keen grasp on the scale of suffering in our societies. She can clearly see the potential of the Breathworks approach to mindfulness and compassion to help people find new ways to manage their difficulties and to find some hope and ease. It is a real joy to have her join the Breathworks project. I get very excited when I think of all the people we will help once we have raised more funds. I feel confident and optimistic that she and I can realise our dreams." - Vidyamala Burch

The Trustees are very excited about the plans to award more bursaries for both courses and teacher training.  We plan to enable working with more partners, charities and trusts & foundations to reach people with long-term health conditions, the young and the old and those many people who are only just getting by / hanging onto their lives and are in need of support and new skills.

I am amazed by the reach of Breathworks with over 400 fully accredited teachers; half in the UK and the other half spread around the world across 22 countries.  I have been lucky enough to talk to some of the people who have made this happen and are spreading mindfulness globally. A decade ago a course started in Valencia, with all the materials translated into Spanish, was then taken to packed houses of 80 participants a time in Mexico!  This dedication and the rise in interest in mindfulness means there are now 80 qualified Spanish speaking teachers, from Buenos Aires to Madrid. Another trainer fell in love with the Breathworks method of mindfulness on the second week of their course, instantly signed up to learn to teach and then took the course online to run real time sessions with participants both in the UK and India.

Learning more about the great work funded by The Foundation has been so inspiring.  It has been moving to talk with some of the 60 individuals who have received bursaries this year, enabling them to deepen their own mindfulness practice, and how passionate they are to share its benefits with others.  Gail, from St. Michael’s Hospice near Hereford, so affected me as I heard her talk about how she had difficulty convincing the hospice to allow her to train, and then as she worked with people near the end of life, how they saw great benefits from the mindfulness courses The Breathworks Foundation funded and agreed to fund a second employee to learn to teach.  Now Gail can spend most of her time one-to-one with patients at their bedsides, whilst Mark runs courses, with double the numbers attending. The three-year funding has allowed over 100 people to learn mindfulness in a suitable setting for just the cost of the books, and mindfulness is now part of the Hospice’s culture.

 

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Gail and Vidyamala at St. Michael's Hospice, Hereford

I just finished attending an eight-week Mindfulness for Health course, gaining much personally as I learn to enjoy my present moment more and more.  It’s inspiring to see how my fellow course participants are in less pain and smiling more and more each week as they experience life anew through the varied techniques and teachings we are sharing.

You will be hearing more about The Foundation as we launch various fundraising initiatives to raise our goal of £100,000 by next summer.  Please do get in touch if you would like to get involved and of course it goes without saying we would be delighted if you felt able to give to support The Breathworks Foundation’s great work, especially during the season of goodwill – no amount too small or too large.  Just click here to go to the donation part of our website.

Lastly, we wanted to take this opportunity to send a special note of thanks to the three donors from our first official fundraising request to course participants, back in September.  Your contributions were a real encouragement to the Breathworks team.

Karunatara Green

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