Breathworks Blog

Stories, tips, and articles about mindfulness, daily meditation, compassion, living well with illness and chronic pain, and more.
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Self-Compassion at Christmas

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Last night I was at a local sitting group and the topic of Christmas came up in the sharing. I suppose this was inevitable as, even for the many who don’t celebrate it, its presence looms large in advertising, TV and much of the wider culture at this time of year. What struck me forcibly last night was how, even in that one small room, everybody expressed such different responses to it all, depending on their own circumstances, past associations, family, faith, attitude etc.

Of course this should not have been surprising, but it was lovely to openly share this difference within an atmosphere of kindness and acceptance. For some, Christmas simply meant holiday and time off work, for others it meant time with family or friends, others noticed a feeling of aversion and a desire to withdraw, for some it is a reminder of loneliness or bereavement, for others it is a positive time of family, food and sharing. For many, as in most things in life, it was mixed; the difficult and the pleasant will always co-exist, whatever time of year it is.

There was also a shared acknowledgement of discomfort about the disparity between us in that warm room and those nearby living in shelters or on the streets, or perhaps faced with a choice between paying for heating or food. These are huge topics but it was lovely to notice a common concern and a desire within each of us to find a balance between generosity and looking after ourselves. I believe that to be able to really give to others without burnout, self-care and self-compassion are essential. I have certainly found this even within my own family. It is useful to remember this when, for example, one of my teenage children rolls their eyes at me, or totally ignores some reasonable request, just before demanding that I drive them somewhere – right now! This is when a few mindful breaths, a warm hand on my heart and some kind words to myself really help.

Something that has also helped me recently is a greater understanding that self-compassion is also good for those around me. I was struck by this recently when looking at research on mindful parenting. Two studies I read demonstrated a link between self-compassion in parents and a more positive outcome  for their children in terms of their levels of anxiety and depression. In fact of all the factors related to mindfulness that they measured in these studies, this was the only one that showed an impact. So self-compassion in parents promoted more positive mental health in their children. Admittedly these studies were small scale and not at all irrefutable, but they made me think.

I believe that embodying mindfulness has the most impact in terms of teaching it to others. It therefore makes sense to me that the best way to help those we love be with themselves when they are suffering is to be with our own suffering, large or small, with kindness and self-compassion. I hope that we can all remember through the highs and lows of Christmas that self-compassion is not only wise and important for ourselves, but it also helps those around us. It will also increase our ability to really take in and appreciate all the good and beauty that will be there too. Happy holidays everyone! 

By Sophie Matthew

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Pain is the First Step to Compassion

Breathworks Blog - Pain is the First Step to Compassion

Our practice at Breathworks is to move toward the painful, the difficult; to meet our suffering, loneliness, lost-ness and disappointment with kindness and tenderness. The emotional attitude is open, receptive, welcoming and embracing, rather than rejecting or abandoning. When we’re exploring the practice of befriending our suffering during a mindfulness course (whether that’s physical, emotional or mental suffering), I ask people what their reaction might be to a child or loved one who is in pain or who is afraid, lonely or lost. Participants always know what to do and how to be; they talk about love and kindness and patience and listening and holding close, and giving of themselves in terms of attention and time and tenderness. We know how to love and how to live from the heart. We are born knowing this. We unlearn it.

Moving toward and attending to pain and distress can often make sense theoretically, but resistance may continue and so it’s useful to take some time to consider some of the things that we can learn from attending to suffering. There are benefits to coming into close and kindly relation to our suffering but what are they?

One of the benefits of learning to repeatedly turn towards pain or discomfort is the development of courage. It takes courage to change, to stop avoiding, to stop distancing ourselves from life, to what’s really happening. It takes courage to turn around, to face and open up to our pain, fear or loss. The word courage derives from the word ‘heart’ and is linked to whole heartedness. The chance to develop whole heartedness is a chance to live fully and brightly even if and when we hurt.

Perhaps the most beautiful benefit of the practice of moving toward the difficult or the painful is the development of self-compassion. To see, to feel, to know that we suffer, that we experience pain, that we feel despair, grief, fear. Our mindfulness practice gives us permission to name this experience, to name what’s happening for us, not in an abstract but in a very visceral way, to come to know where pain lives in the body, to be able to place a hand there, to take the breath there, to touch our suffering with the warmth and affection of awareness. In this way we interrupt the habit of abandonment.

When we’re willing to lean into, stand close to and pay attention to suffering, we come to see that experience, sensation, feelings, moods, patterns of thoughts change. We imagine them to be seamless and endless (it often feels that pain and depression will never end), but the very nature of experience is to change, it shifts, it alters, subsides, recedes and reduces in intensity. We can come to see experience and sensation for what it is, a constantly changing flow of sensation/thought and feeling. Knowing this to be true is a very valuable insight because it means that neither pain nor low mood will last; everything is subject to change.

When we abide with pain or suffering, when we’re willing to return, to hang around with, when we’re willing to open to our whole experience, we begin to notice that there’s pain and low mood, but also that our experience may include and be coloured by the sound of laughter in the street or the sight of a of a small flower living brightly in a pot. There may be pain, but this is not all of our experience: joy and discomfort, beauty and sadness can live in us simultaneously. This seems to echo the nature of life, wonderful and difficult as it is.

Abiding with our pain or discomfort, we come to rest in our own vulnerability, coming to know our own tender and open places, places that are innocent and undefended and beautiful. With courage, with our hearts engaged, we allow this precious part of ourselves to breathe and to see the light of day.

Once we know that we suffer, once we know that we’re vulnerable, its only a short step to acknowledge that others must suffer too, must be vulnerable too, because they’re human! If we pay attention and look closely we see that many people are happy, but many also struggle with loneliness, sadness, disappointment. We see our own lives reflected back to us in the faces of people we don’t know in the street, on the bus, the train. And seeing this is an opportunity to make connection, to feel common humanity, an opportunity to feel that we are not different to each other, not so separate, that we’re in this together, and that we don’t suffer alone.

There is much to learn from our raw experiences of suffering about the nature of reality and experience, about change and about transformation. Intimacy with suffering doesn’t need to isolate or separate us from each other. A caring, compassionate connection to suffering can bring us into a close and heartfelt understanding of what it means to be human, bringing us closer to ourselves and each other.

Colette Power

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The Problem of Burnout for Doctors

Breathworks New Statesman Parliament Roundtable discussion

The New Statesman held a roundtable discussion at the Houses of Parliament recently, in collaboration with the University of Buckingham, on the subject of how to make a profession in Healthcare more sustainable by altering the university experience for medical students. It was attended by NHS Directors, Professors, Politicians, and Charities, and Breathworks was delighted to be invited to attend; our Business and Research Manager Colin Duff (below) represented Breathworks in the discussion.

Breathworks New Statesman Parliament Roundtable discussion Breathworks Business and Research Manager Colin Duff

The issue of the work intensity for doctors in the UK is hard to overstate; only 1 in 10 Trainee GPs say that they want to work as a doctor full-time when they complete their training, citing, amongst other things, the intensity of the work. Given the eight years of gruelling work it takes to qualify as a GP, this is a shocking figure. In 2011, England lost 13% of its GPs and 22% of its Specialists to Australia, due to kinder working hours (and also probably the sun).

Self-maintenance and well-being strategies are not touched upon as part of a medical degree, despite having a huge influence on burnout rates and time lost to poor mental and physical health, job satisfaction, and basic quality of life for doctors. Higher levels of workplace stress for doctors is also associated with lower quality of care and lower levels of patient satisfaction. The medical school at the University of Buckingham has been an exception, emphasising mindfulness and well-being in the curriculum, thus far with excellent feedback from students and patients.

There is great potential for universities to incorporate a developing understanding of positive psychology into their degree programs. A recent paper1 from Sir Anthony Seldon and Dr. Alan Martin makes a number of excellent suggestions to this end, proposing that well-being strategies be taught to everybody before they are needed. They make the simile that waiting for an individual to develop mental health problems before helping them is like waiting for somebody to fall off a waterfall, and then trying to fix them, instead of employing prevention strategies which in the long-run would be more economical, effective, and encourage the flourishing of well-being for the whole student body.

A study2 published in February looked into the effectiveness of interventions for physicians to prevent burnout. It found that interventions targeted at individuals, many of which were mindfulness-based, were significantly effective in preventing burnout in physicians, but that those interventions which were directed at an organisational level were significantly more effective still. The study concluded that “burnout is a problem of the whole health care organization, rather than individuals”.

A letter sent to the committee from a retired GP echoed these findings strongly: Mindfulness and Compassion training would be very helpful as a part of a bigger package to improve resilience in young doctors, but if the package is used as a sticking plaster for a much deeper wound of a broken NHS, that is to say, if working conditions are not improved, the package will not be effective.” 

The former GP, Dr. Farhad Emad, was himself forced to retire from the profession early due to ill health resulting from chronic physical and mental burnout. He writes of himself and a colleague: Subsequently we both trained in Mindfulness practice with Breathworks organisation and managed to get ourselves out of our difficulties successfully, and in the process, we helped others including GP’s, by teaching Mindfulness. We are both of the strong opinion that earlier Mindfulness and Compassion training might have averted our premature retirement and that we would still be working as experienced GP’s.”

Breathworks runs introductory Mindfulness and Compassion courses for doctors and Healthcare professionals to help with these problems. Dr. Emad noted that  “Many junior doctors are taught empathy but know nothing about compassion and consequently struggle with empathic distress, which can lead to burnout.”

It seems essential that organisational changes take place and that aspects of this training become incorporated on an institutional level where they are sorely needed by trainee doctors at huge risk of severe physical and emotional burnout. In the meantime, we can hope that a knowledge of well-being training is spread organically through books, courses, and teachers.

You can find out more about Breathworks courses for Healthcare professionals and book a place here.

Ollie Bray

 

References

  1. Seldon, A., & Martin, A. The Positive and Mindful University. 2017
  2. Panagioti, M., Panagopoulou, E., Bower, P., Lewith, G., Kontopantelis, E., Chew-Graham, C., ... & Esmail, A. (2017). Controlled interventions to reduce burnout in physicians: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Jama internal medicine, 177(2), 195-205.
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What Does a Ukulele Have to do with Mindfulness?

Breathworks Teacher Ben Hoff - Teaching with the Camden Society

You might imagine silence being the predominant feature of a mindfulness workshop. Wrong! Last week ­– teaching at the Camden Society where Breathworks is delivering a mini Mindfulness for Health intervention as part of a longer back-to-work course being run in conjunction with the DWP – we were treated to a ukulele rendition by participant Dan which touched us all. What does a ukulele have to do with mindfulness

We’re frequently sold an idea that happiness is something outside of ourselves – a far-away (and usually unreachable) tropical island or a winning lottery ticket the likelihood of winning is virtually zero. Here, as advertising exec Don Draper reminds us in the hit TV series Mad Men: ‘Happiness is the moment before you need more happiness’.  One important aspect of Breathworks courses is discovering pleasure in the small, everyday things things around us. In a sort of ‘show and tell’ we invite participants to bring in a small selection of personal objects which are pleasant to touch, smell, taste, feel or listen to. Whenever I do this exercise people are always amazed at the sense of wellbeing they derive from simply finding pleasure in the ‘everyday’  – the fragrance of essential oils, the sensual touch of a particular material, or in this case, the sound of a ukulele.  As Dan said afterwards: ‘When the world ends, and all the lights have gone out, I’ll still be able to play myself a tune on the ukulele’. 

-Ben Hoff

 

Ben Hoff will be teaching the Breathworks Mindfulness for Health Course in London this March. For more details about the course take a look at the Mindfulness for Health page, and find dates and times, and book your place here.

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The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step

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In today’s column I want to write about how extraordinary change can come about through steadily taking small steps in the direction of healing. Never underestimate the power of seemingly ordinary acts.

I have lived with chronic pain for 40 years now, ever since my life as a sporty teenager was cut short with a spinal injury and two major operations. I have struggled with it, fought against it, hated it, almost been defeated by it. But, gradually, step by step, I have turned my life around and now, as a 57 year old, I have a better life than ever. Sure, I’m not particularly ‘able bodied’, but this doesn’t matter to me anymore as the quality of my life is better than ever.

How did this change come about? If I compare myself now to how I was 20 years ago, there has been a huge, almost unbelievable, change. And yet most of this change has come about very gradually, almost imperceptibly, through simply and steadily working away at developing new habits. Moment by moment, day by day, year by year.

I’d like to tell you about some of these new habits in the hope that you too can feel inspired to tread this journey of a thousand miles by valuing the steps along the way.

Become a routine lover – get your eating and sleeping in order

I try to go to bed, get up in the morning and eat my meals at regular times. This is a big change from the chaotic habits of earlier years. I’ve learned that the body loves routine and, far from being boring as I used to fear, it frees up time and energy for other things.

Regular exercise

I do my stretches every morning and I try to swim at least a couple of times a week. Again, I used to find these things boring and experience huge resistance. But I’ve got to the point now where I miss these simple activities if I miss them for a few days. I invariably feel better afterwards.

Seek help

I have had osteopathy for my back about once a month for the last 30 years. It has become a staple of my lifestyle and I know it has saved me from a lot of secondary degeneration. I know some of you won’t be able to afford it and I used to be on extremely low income when on benefits. But I always tried to scrape together the money for these treatments before other luxuries as I knew how much they helped me. Now I travel a lot teaching mindfulness and I make sure I have ‘an osteopath in every port!’. Likewise I try and have regular massage and for a time I had psychotherapy. I’ve learned there are people who can really help me and I’ve let go of pride in thinking I should be able to cope all on my own.

These are just a few tips on how to manage your pain as well as possible. I hope you’ve found them helpful. As I said at the start: never under-estimate the power of simple steps. If you keep taking them steadily, over time you can turn your life around. 

Vidyamala Burch - Breathworks Founder and author of Mindfulness for Health

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