Breathworks Blog

Stories, tips, and articles about mindfulness, daily meditation, compassion, living well with illness and chronic pain, and more.
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Mindfulness After a Spinal Cord Injury

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Our founder Vidyamala Burch suffered from a spinal cord injury at 16, and Breathworks came into being as a result of her quest to use mindfulness and compassion to manage her subsequent pain and health problems, so we were especially interested in the results of a new study recently published by the International Spinal Cord Society, which examined the effects of a Breathworks online course for people suffering from depression following a spinal cord injury.

Participants were given either a Breathworks online course, or an online course (often recommended to those suffering from chronic pain) containing information about spinal cord injuries and the role of thoughts and emotions, as well as options for pain and psychological management. It was good to have an active control group in this study, since this allows researchers to be more confident that the effects of the Breathworks course were due to the nature of the course itself, and not simply due to some non-specific effects of an online intervention, such as feeling more supported.

After 8-weeks, those who completed the Breathworks course were less depressed, and had less anxiety, pain catastrophising (negative and exaggerated response to pain), and less experience of pain unpleasantness, compared to the group who had received psychoeducation. Mindfulness levels, and non-reactivity to inner experience also showed a greater increase in the Breathworks group. Participants completed a follow-up questionnaire two months after the study, which showed that these benefits were maintained over this time for the Breathworks group.

A possible downside of the Breathworks course was that the dropout rate (i.e. the number of people who didn’t complete the course) was slightly higher compared with the psychoeducation group; this may have been because the Breathworks course recommends two daily meditations, and so probably requires more effort. It was also noted that participants who dropped out were statistically more likely to be older than the group average, which may suggest that less familiarity with the online nature of the course could have been a factor.

Overall, however, the results of this new study were incredibly promising, demonstrating that Breathworks’ mindfulness and compassion skills can be effective for those who have suffered a spinal injury, and even those who are suffering from depression. It is especially promising as this online course format can be delivered easily to individuals with reduced mobility. Although there is much empirical support for mindfulness as a treatment to prevent people who have previously suffered from depression from becoming depressed again, research into whether mindfulness is useful for those who are currently depressed has been more sparse, and thus far, inconclusive. Depression is, perhaps unsurprisingly, very common following a spinal cord injury, and we are glad to think that this study may continue to lend support for mindfulness and compassion skills as components of living well with pain and health issues, and to give hope to those who need it. 

You can access the full study here.

And you can find Breathworks online courses here.

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How to Deal With Obstacles in Meditation

How to deal with obstacles in meditation

 

There is an attitude often found amongst meditators that a desire to become ‘better’ at meditating is somehow against the spirit of the venture. But of course, if you could simply open a hatch on your brain and turn up the dial, everybody would choose to be more skillful at meditating. The issue is not simply wanting to be better, but becoming frustrated with the obstacles one runs into; a distracted mind, a painful body, falling asleep, difficult emotions. It may seem that these are two sides of the same coin; that the goal of advancing one’s skill as a meditator must carry with it a degree of aversion towards the obstacles to that advancement. This is, I think, a misconception.

In Ancient Greece there was a craftsman who wanted to create a mosaic out of shells. So he set out along the beach, searching for shells to use. But every time he found the perfect specimen, he crossed his arms with a sigh, grumbled about the work he’d have to do with it, and then stomped on it. Hearing this story, we would certainly have cause to wonder about the mental health of the craftsman, if every time he finds something helpful to his goal he destroys it. And yet, many of us find ourselves in this exact mental state, every time that these obstacles to meditation arise.

After all, if you are searching for shells, you should pick one up when you find it, and if you are practicing meditation, you should use a distraction as an opportunity to return to the breath with gratitude and joy. Likewise, if you find a difficult emotion, you can use it as an opportunity to practice non-judgemental awareness, and if you find a pain, you can use it as an opportunity to turn towards discomfort with compassionate acceptance, and open more fully to the pleasant aspects of experience. Of course, if you find that your mind is calm and content, then you can use this as an opportunity to further deepen the skills of meditation, but holding out for this state of mind and disregarding all else is like searching the beach for a fully completed mosaic.

A sculptor needs clay to practice her craft. A swimmer needs water, a hiker needs a slope, and a meditator needs the habits of the human mind. Instead of seeing these things as obstacles, you can see them as the very means to make all the progress you have hoped to make in meditation. When you can find this perspective, a drive to make progress becomes synonymous with a full engagement with the fascinating and joyful process of an unfolding meditation practice. 

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Waking Up: Helen's Breathworks Story

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This is the tale of three characters: Helen her Pain and I. I am the narrator of course, but you’ll hear more of my story later… Pain and Helen and I have lived within each other for most of our 56 years of life here on this planet. In fact, we can’t actually remember a life without each other. 

Helen was born in Zambia, in Central Africa into a happy Catholic family, had two older sisters, an Australian Dad and a South African Mum. Pain arrived amongst us about 9 months into Helen’s life when the family were living in Mount Isa in the form of septic arthritis in her right hip and then with the osteoarthritis that followed.  Since then Pain has co-habited with us in the form of sepsis in several other parts of her body, osteoarthritis throughout her spine and hands and the Pain surrounding about 30 anaesthetics experienced for multiple surgeries on different parts of Helen’s body and that include hand surgeries, gynaecological interventions, dental surgery, a pilonidal sinus excision, gall bladder removal and many more. Last year was the biggest ever surgery with a re-replacement of a 26 year old artificial hip with 3 days in Intensive care, 2 weeks in hospital and about 6 months of fairly intensive rehabilitation. Sadly, by that time, her hands and back were far more painful than her hip. Fortunately however, by this time, she had begun to be aware of my voice and to interact with me more regularly.  This had started to happen through her willingness, finally, to begin working and practicing Mindfulness some 4 and a half years prior and then especially through her journey with Breathworks from July 2016.

You see, I am Helen’s awareness of herself as an embodied human being. I have remained relatively invisible to her for most of her life. She was taught to and knew how to relate to God or a higher being, but wasn’t very conscious of me. She and her pain co-existed too, though usually in silence. They lived together a bit like two rivalrous siblings: sometimes hugely resentful of each other, often mean to one another and on rare occasions, mutually considerate. But mostly they just reluctantly acknowledged that the other was there with no kindness or generosity and resented having been forced to share the same home (or in this case, body). It was clear that they did not like or accept each other in the least!

Now let me tell you a bit more about Helen. She was born, as a friend once commented, like a Duracell Bunny. She had no “Off” button and only one speed - and that was high! Luckily her Lithium-like battery gave a full 16 hours of service every day before she’d collapse into bed for a recharge. She jam-packed every day with hobbies, learning, travel, work,  friendships and sport. Horse-riding and slalom water-skiing – the latter - preferably at high speed, being her most exhilarating activities. She also held leadership positions, acquired 3 degrees and a diploma, worked as a High School Teacher and then as a Clinical Psychologist, a university lecturer, a trainer of therapists, co-author of a book and the wife and mother of one son, now 18. And did this in around 30 homes in Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Over these years, she also experienced several very traumatic events, including the suicide of one sister who had suffered with intractable epilepsy, a severe brain haemorrhage in her other sister, a terrorist attack and a horrible accident involving her son. She collapsed in a heap at times, but got up again and pushed on regardless. Oddly, it never occurred to her, that Pain, in any form, might be shaping her identity.

In 2014, her Mum (who was living with her and her family) had a catastrophic stroke and died in the midst of a busy and difficult time at work for Helen. And, after 30 years of sitting still in a chair absorbing the pain and trauma stories of hundreds of people, training and supervising many Psychologists and other therapists, her world came tumbling down.  And Pain: emotional and physical – was there with her in full force and this time, she could not ignore or push away her co-habitant anymore. She had been shovelling Mindfulness, Meditation, Self-Compassion and Compassion-focussed therapy to her clients for well over 10 years, but blindly, had never considered that she needed it herself. She even told her GP that she’d rather bang her head against a brick wall, than meditate – such Buddhist nonsense!

But she actually started meditating the day after the GP’s suggestion (using the many books and CDs she had in her therapist’s library) and through this, finally began to realise that I was there. And that she and I (her embodied awareness) could be together in dealing with her painful experiences. But, she was hoping for a solution, for a way back to her busy life of achievement, accomplishment, doing her best, being there for anyone and everyone who needed her. To what she SHOULD be doing as a human being. And so, pleased with her very partial recovery, she pushed herself hard enough to get back to work in full force -  lecturing again. But alas, Pain in her wrists, hands, and back had not submitted and began shouting so loudly at her, so out of control, that she fell down in a heap again, feeling that she had failed and let down so many people. 

In July 2016, she came across Vidyamala’s amazing story and blessedly, continued to deepen her understanding of who I am. Vidyamala’s books, the Breathworks courses and daily Breathworks core meditations enriched her Mindfulness journey - encouraging her to connect ever more closely with me and her body and to face Pain and begin to accept the reality. And she began to more fully realise that I loved and liked her, could be her best friend, and that I understood her, got her quirky sense of humour and accepted her for who she was. And, that I could be kind, and was an alternative to her own harsh voice, her punitive internalised parent always chiding and pushing her to her limits. Through applying the principles of Breathworks, twice weekly Pilates with an inspired teacher, she endeavours to listen to her body. She uses her breath as an anchor when in pain, seeks out the smallest pleasures in everyday life, aims to pace herself and notice what makes her pain worse, to alter how she works and plays accordingly (even if these strategies are somewhat erratic at times). She is learning to be kinder and more compassionate towards herself - a big change for her, and to connect more with others who are more understanding of her story. Sadly for her, but with growing realism she knows now that there is no going back to life the way that it used to be. That her days of ignoring Pain, pushing it away and resisting it are over.

All her new learning and self-discovery were tested by fire last year, with the massive re-do of her old artificial hip entailing a 50cm cut with 40 stitches, bone grafting and more. She cried, she laughed, she struggled, she breathed, she meditated and body scanned, and brought loving kindness to herself as she listened to Vidyamala’s words via Audible books hundreds of times over. Earlier in the year, at a Breathworks retreat, Vidyamala asked her whether she (Helen) thought it had been worth her reading her 3 books aloud for the Audible versions as it was such a big time commitment. Helen’s reply was, “you don’t know how much it means to me to hear your voice sometimes when the pain is awful and you shall be with me through my recovery journey as a result”. Vidyamala hugged her and it was a warm moment which was treasured through those dark days. 

So where to, with this narrative about Helen, Pain and I? It will contain the same characters and yet we are all quite changed. All three of us are now involved in exploring and creating a new and different path which is unfolding day by day, but with no real knowledge of how the future or our life together will be. But at least she has finally acknowledged me as her best friend.

Helen Perry

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Why You Find Mindfulness Practice Difficult

why you find mindfulness practice difficult - Breathworks Blog                                                                                                                                                                                     Photo by Philipp Schlabs on Unsplash

Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say, "Oh, this pace is terrible!" But actually it is not. When you get wet in a fog it is very difficult to dry yourself. So there is no need to worry about progress.”- Shunryu Suzuki Rōshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Everybody struggles with mindfulness practice at some time or another. You try your best, but don’t seem to be making any progress. You try to practice compassion, but end up criticising yourself for not doing it right. You meditate for a long time, but end up more restless and distracted than when you started. Sometimes the distance between our actual experience and the mindfulness that we had hoped to embody can seem like a measuring stick for something wrong with us.

But what do you really mean when you say that you’re finding practice difficult? There is a misapprehension underlying this sense of difficulty that the real practice, of either meditation or mindfulness in daily life, requires you to be experiencing more mindfulness than you currently are. “Difficulty”, in other words, is simply the felt sense of the difference between your current experience and your idea of how your practice “should” be going.

But the practice is very simply to understand and hold intentions in mind: in daily life, to come back to awareness of what’s happening now when you can, and in meditation to notice when your mind is wandering or about to wander, and come back to the breath. Some days you will be distracted and notice mind-wandering less frequently, but the practice remains the same, and the frustration is optional.

Imagine how unpleasant the practice of gardening would be if you thought that all of your plants should grow in a month, or a week. You could easily think that you must be doing something wrong and over-water your plants, or try to make them grow by pulling them. But nature moves in its own time, and a skilled gardener is not somebody who can force plants to grow faster, but somebody who knows how to tend to them correctly, and who can enjoy that process. Mindfulness practice is just like this.

Intentions need only be very light. Trying to force the development of mindfulness and kindness in meditation through willpower and sheer force of effort will inevitably be ineffective, and lead to more tension and discouragement. The trick is not to practice ‘hard’, but with commitment and consistency. A meditation teacher I know says that exercising these intentions is like brushing a snowflake with the tip of a feather. Like gathering moisture walking through a fog, like the seed which grows into an oak, like the trickle which carves a raging river, these intentions, if practiced consistently, will gradually change our minds completely.  But the change is directed by the way that you practice - if your practice is to wish that you were more mindful than you are, then you will simply get better at wishing.

Ollie Bray

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Shouldn't I Be Feeling Mindful By Now?

Shouldn't I be feeling Mindful By Now Breathworks blog Ollie Bray

When I was in my teens, I had a girlfriend who broke up with me. (It seemed like a big deal at the time). I had been reading lots of books about mindfulness, meditating, finding out about some of the interesting research, and I was pretty much convinced that it was the best thing since sliced bread. So I stopped, channelling the spirit of Jon Kabat-Zinn, took a moment to cultivate a little metacognition, took another moment to feel smug about knowing the the word metacognition, studiously reminded myself that thoughts are not facts… and still felt terrible.

I was watching those feelings of sadness, loneliness, and regret play out in my mind, but as mindful as I tried to be, I couldn’t lose the sense that they were just... really really bad. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, and I remember that it put a seed of doubt in my mind: I thought I was doing the whole mindfulness malarkey right, so why couldn’t I shake the wish for those feelings to go away?

Even after I was over it, that seed of doubt started to grow in the following years during some episodes of depression, and it took a while for me to accept that, although being able to apply mindfulness during difficult times is one of the most beneficial things that you can do, it won’t make all negative feelings lose their sting. Sometimes the truth of your experience is that you’re devastated, or grieving, or full of regret, and that will always feel wrong in a deep, primal way, regardless of how much mindfulness you’ve done. Feeling good, in other words, is not always a sign of good mindfulness.

Things that will help make upsetting feelings go away for a bit include: fantasising, drowning out your feelings in too much work or TV, denying, avoiding, and repressing. But the fact that nobody seems to be writing books entitled “The Miracle of Scotch and Emotional Repression” probably tells you something, and the research indeed shows that these things are counter-productive in the long-term. The fact is that when we find ourselves confronted with the most glaring downsides of being human, it takes a great deal of courage to simply sit with that, before we feel better, and before we really know whether things will be okay.

The important thing is to trust the process. If you practice mindfulness, that process will unfold, and, generally speaking, it will help you feel much better. Even though this upwards path can run through valleys of great difficulty and upset, those are the times to stay the course, and to take heart that it is indeed an upward path. You will gradually learn the extent to which our suffering is relieved simply when we don’t add to it with self-judgement, worrying about things that we have no control over anyway, blaming (others or ourselves), and generally expending energy on the multitude of ways we can wish things were other than how they are. As you become more and more familiar with your experience untinted with these things throughout life, you will develop the ability to hold more and more uncertainty and discomfort, with awareness and with self-compassion, without the need to resort to the intuitive but self-defeating strategies of running away or numbing out.

Perhaps the well-known Indian work on mindfulness and meditation, the Bhagavad Gita, says it best: “On this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure.

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