Breathworks Blog

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

Is stress bad for you?

Is stress bad for you?  The answer seems to be yes and no.  According to Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, in her TED talk given in June this year, some recent research shows that stress is not the killer we have come to think it is.  It is how we perceive and deal with stress that is the problem.  This new research suggests stress may only be bad for you if you believe it to be.  It has been known for some time that stress has some positive side effects, like strengthening the immune system.  But now it seems that it also helps us to bond together as human beings, and even develop more compassion.

For more information I suggest you listen to this short talk by Kelly McGonigal

Kelly McGonigal 

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Launch of Mindfulness for Health and new Breathworks website

Launch of Mindfulness for Health and new Breathworks website


Yesterday was a BIG DAY. The new Breathworks website was launched which was the result of months of work and my new book, Mindfulness for Health, co-written with Danny Penman was published. This is the most up-to-date expression of the work I have been developing at Breathworks over the last decade or so. The eight week course in the book is based on the Mindfulness for Health online course I wrote a couple of years ago which has been very successful. For information on our online courses

Now I am trying to get this course out much more widely in this new book. Danny is brilliant at writing in a very accessible way and I hope that many, many people will get relief from their pain and suffering by following the programme. You can also read the book and then go on to attend a course with others, either online or 'face-to'face'. This is my wish: that the book will be a gateway to deeper learning for many people. For more info on courses.

Here is the first chapter to whet your appetite and if you want to buy a copy click here

 Mindfulness for Health: a practical guide to relieving pain, reducing stress and restoring wellbeing


Pain always seems worse at night. There is something about the silence that amplifies the suffering. Even after you’ve taken the maximum dose of painkillers, the aching soon returns with a vengeance. You want to do something, anything, to stop the pain, but whatever you try seems to fail. Moving hurts. Doing nothing hurts. Ignoring it hurts. But it’s not just the pain that hurts; your mind can start to suffer as you desperately try to find a way of escaping. Pointed and bitter questions can begin nagging at your soul: What will happen if I don’t recover? What if it gets worse? I can’t cope with this . . . Please, I just want it to stop …

We wrote Mindfulness for Health to help you cope with pain, illness and stress in times such as these. It will teach you how to reduce your suffering progressively, so that you can begin living life to the full once again. It may not completely eliminate your suffering, but it will ensure that it no longer dominates your life. You’ll discover that it is possible to be at peace, even if illness and pain are unavoidable, and to enjoy a truly fulfilling life.

We know this to be true because we have both experienced terrible injuries and used an ancient form of meditation known as ‘mindfulness’ to ease our suffering. The techniques in this book have been proven to work by doctors and scientists in universities around the world. In fact, mindfulness is so effective that doctors and specialist pain clinics now refer their patients to our Breathworks centre in Manchester and to courses run by our affiliated trainers around the world. Every day we help people find peace amid their suffering.

Mindfulness for Health and its accompanying CD reveal a series of simple practices that you can incorporate into daily life to significantly reduce your pain, anguish and stress. They are built on Mindfulness-Based Pain Management (MBPM), which has its roots in the ground-breaking work of Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in America. The MBPM programme itself was developed by Vidyamala Burch (co-author of Mindfulness for Health book) as a means of coping with the after-effects of two serious accidents. Although originally designed to reduce physical pain and suffering, it has proven to be an effective stress-reduction technique as well. In fact, the core mindfulness meditation techniques have been shown in many clinical trials to be at least as effective as drugs or counselling for relieving anxiety, stress and depression. When it comes to pain, clinical trials show that mindfulness can be as effective as the main prescription painkillers, and some studies have shown it to be as powerful as morphine. Imaging studies show that it soothes the brain patterns underlying pain and, over time, these changes take root and alter the structure of the brain itself so that you no longer feel pain with the same intensity. And when it does arise, the pain no longer dominates your life so much. Many people report that their pain declines to such a degree that they barely notice it at all.

Many hospital pain clinics now prescribe mindfulness meditation to help patients cope with the suffering arising from a wide range of diseases such as cancer (and the side effects of chemotherapy), heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. It is also used for back problems, migraine, fibromyalgia, coeliac disease, and a range of auto-immune diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis, as well as being effective for such long-term conditions as chronic fatigue syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome. It’s also useful for coping with labour pain. In addition to all these uses, clinical trials also show that mindfulness significantly reduces the anxiety, stress, depression, irritability and insomnia that can arise from chronic pain and illness. Researchers are continually finding new conditions that can be eased with mindfulness.

Mindfulness Dissolves Pain and Suffering

Mindfulness-Based Pain Management uses ancient meditations that were largely unknown in the West until recently. A typical meditation involves focusing on the breath as it flows into and out of the body (see box, below). This allows you to see your mind and body in action, to observe painful sensations as they arise and to let go of struggling with them. Mindfulness teaches you that pain naturally waxes and wanes. You learn to gently observe it, rather than be caught up in it, and when you do so, something remarkable happens: it begins to melt away of its own accord. After a while you come to the profound realisation that pain comes in two forms: Primary and Secondary. Each of these has very different causes – and understanding this gives you far greater control over your suffering.

Primary pain tends to arise from illness, injury or damage to the body or nervous system. You could see it as raw information being sent by the body to the brain. Secondary pain follows on close behind, but is often far more powerful and distressing. Secondary pain can be seen as the mind’s reaction to Primary pain.

Pain’s volume control

The mind has tremendous control over the sensations of pain that you consciously feel and how unpleasant they are. It has a ‘volume’ control that governs both the intensity and duration of the sensations of pain. This is because your mind does not simply feel pain, it also processes the information that it contains. It teases apart all of the different sensations to try to find their underlying causes so that you can avoid further pain or damage to the body. In effect, your mind zooms in on your pain for a closer look as it tries to find a solution to your suffering. This ‘zooming-in’ amplifies your pain. As your mind analyses the pain, it also sifts through your memories for occasions when you have suffered similarly in the past. It is searching for a pattern, some clues, that will lead to a solution. Trouble is, if you have suffered from pain or illness for months or years, then the mind will have a rich tapestry of painful memories on which to draw – but very few solutions. So before you know it, your mind can become flooded with unsettling memories. You can become enmeshed in thoughts about your suffering. It can seem as if you’ve always been ill and in pain, that you’ve never found a solution and that you never will. So you can end up being consumed by future anxieties, stresses and worries as well as physical pain: What will happen if I can’t stop this pain? Am I going to spend my life suffering like this? Is it going to keep on getting worse?

This process happens in an instant, before you’re consciously aware of it. Each thought builds on the last and quickly turns into a vicious cycle that ends up further amplifying your pain. And it can be worse than this because such stresses and fears feed back into the body to create even more tension and stress. This can aggravate illnesses and injuries, leading to even more pain. It also dampens down the immune system, so impairing healing. So you can all too easily become trapped in a vicious downward spiral that leads to ever greater suffering.

But even worse, such negative spirals can begin wearing tracks in the mind so that you become primed to suffer. Your brain begins fine-tuning itself to sense pain more quickly – and with greater intensity – in a futile bid to try to avoid the worst of it. Over time, the brain actually becomes better at sensing pain. Brain scans confirm that people who suffer from chronic pain have more brain tissue dedicated to feeling the conscious sensations of pain. It’s almost as if the brain has turned up the volume to maximum and doesn’t know how to turn it down again.

It’s important to emphasise that Secondary pain is real. You do genuinely feel it. It’s only called Secondary pain because it is the mind’s reaction to Primary pain and has been heavily processed before you consciously feel it. But this same processing also gives you a way out; it means you can learn to gain control over your pain. For this reason, Secondary pain is best described as suffering.

In practice, you can be in pain but you need not suffer. Once you realise this, deep in your heart, then you can learn to step aside from your suffering and begin to handle pain very differently indeed. In effect, mindfulness hands back to you the volume control for your pain.

The benefits of mindfulness on overall mental and physical health have been demonstrated in a wide range of scientific studies. Despite this, you might still be a little sceptical about meditation. When the word is mentioned a whole cascade of stereotypes can spring to mind: Buddhist monks, yoga classes, lentils, brown rice . . . So, before we proceed, we’d like to dispel some myths:

• Mindfulness is not a religion. It is simply a form of mental training that has been proven in countless scientific trials to help people cope with pain, illness, anxiety, stress, depression, irritability and exhaustion.

• Meditation will not trick you into passivity or resign you to your fate. On the contrary, mindfulness boosts mental and physical resilience.

• Meditation will not seduce you into adopting a fake ‘positive’ attitude to life. It simply creates a form of mental clarity that helps you to enjoy life and achieve your goals.

• Meditation does not take a lot of time. The programme in our book takes around twenty minutes per day. In fact, many people find that it liberates more time than it consumes because they spend far less time having to cope with chronic pain, illness and stress.

• Meditation is not difficult or complicated, although it does require some effort and persistence. You can meditate on more or less anything (we even include a Coffee Meditation in our book). You can also do it virtually anywhere – on buses, trains, aircraft or even in the busiest office.


Our book operates on two levels, which unfold week by week. The core mindfulness programme takes eight weeks and there is a chapter dedicated to each step. Each week you’ll be asked to carry out two meditations on six days out of seven. These take just ten minutes each.

You’ll also be encouraged to break some of your unconscious habits of thinking and behaving. These can embed a surprising amount of suffering because much of what we think and feel is locked in place by ongoing ways of approaching the world. By simply breaking some of your more ingrained habits you will help dissolve away your suffering. Habit-breaking – we prefer the term ‘habit-releasing’ – is straightforward. It can be as simple as watching the clouds from a park bench or waiting for the kettle to fully boil before making a cup of tea or coffee (rather than rushing to switch it off).

The programme in our book is best carried out over the recommended eight weeks, although you can do it over a longer period if you wish. Many people find that mindfulness gives them so many benefits that they continue with it for the rest of their lives. They see it as a journey that continuously reveals their true potential.

It can be a long and fruitful journey. We wish you well.

The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

Thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers prove that mindfulness enhances mental and physical wellbeing and reduces chronic pain. Clinical trials show that mindfulness is at least as effective as the main prescription painkillers while also enhancing the body’s natural healing systems.

Here are a few of the main proven benefits of mindfulness meditation:

• Anxiety, stress, depression, exhaustion and irritability all decrease with regular sessions of meditation.1 Memory improves, reaction times become faster and mental and physical stamina increase.In short, regular meditators are happier and more contented, while being far less likely to suffer from psychological distress.15

• Mindfulness can dramatically reduce pain and the emotional reaction to it.5,6Recent trials suggest that average pain ‘unpleasantness’ levels can be reduced by 57 per cent while accomplished meditators report reductions of up to 93 per cent.7

• Clinical trials show that mindfulness improves mood and quality of life in chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia8 and lower-back pain,9 in chronic functional disorders such as IBS,10 and in challenging medical illnesses, including multiple sclerosis11 and cancer.12

• Mindfulness improves working memory, creativity, attention span and reaction speeds. It also enhances mental and physical stamina and resilience.13

• Meditation improves emotional intelligence.14

• Mindfulness is at least as good as drugs or counselling for the treatment of clinical-level depression. One structured programme known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is now one of the preferred treatments recommended by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.16

• Mindfulness reduces addictive and self-destructive behaviour. These include the abuse of illegal and prescription drugs and excessive alcohol intake.17

• Meditation enhances brain function. It increases grey matter in areas associated with self-awareness, empathy, self-control and attention.18 It soothes the parts of the brain that produce stress hormones19 and builds those areas that lift mood and promote learning.20 It even reduces some of the thinning of certain areas of the brain that naturally occurs with ageing.21

• Meditation improves the immune system. Regular meditators are admitted to hospital far less often for cancer, heart disease and numerous infectious diseases.22

• Mindfulness may reduce ageing at the cellular level by promoting chromosomal health and resilience.23

•Meditation and mindfulness improve control of blood sugar in type II diabetes.24

• Meditation improves heart and circulatory health by reducing blood pressure and lowering the risk of hypertension. Mindfulness reduces the risks of developing and dying from cardiovascular disease and lowers its severity should it arise.25

A Simple Breath-based Meditation

Meditation can be simple and does not require any special equipment. The meditation below demonstrates the basic technique and takes just a few minutes. It will leave you profoundly relaxed.

1. If your condition allows it, sit erect but relaxed in a straight- backed chair with your feet flat on the floor. If you cannot sit, then lie on a mat or blanket on the floor, or on your bed. Allow your arms and hands to be as relaxed as possible.

2. Gently close your eyes and focus your awareness on the breath as it flows into and out of your body. Feel the sensations the air makes as it flows in through your mouth or nose, down your throat and into your lungs. Feel the expansion and subsiding of your chest and belly as you breathe. Focus your awareness on where the sensations are strongest. Stay in contact with each in-breath and each out-breath. Observe it without trying to alter it in any way or expecting anything special to happen.

3. When your mind wanders, gently shepherd it back to the breath. Try not to criticise yourself. Minds wander. It’s what they do. The act of realising that your mind has wandered – and encouraging it to return to focus on the breath – is central to the practice of mindfulness.

4. Your mind may eventually become calm – or it may not. If it becomes calm, then this may only be short-lived. Your mind may become filled with thoughts or powerful emotions such as fear, anger, stress or love. These may also be fleeting. Whatever happens, simply observe as best you can without reacting to your experience or trying to change anything. Gently return your awareness back to the sensations of the breath again and again.

5. After a few minutes, or longer if you prefer, gently open your eyes and take in your surroundings.


1 Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., Hopkins, J., Kreitemeyer, J. & Toney, L. (2006), ‘Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness’, Assessment, 13, pp. 27–45.

2 Jha, A., et al. (2007), ‘Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention’, Cognitive Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, pp. 109–19; Tang, Y. Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., Lu, Q., et al. (2007), ‘Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US), 104(43), pp. 17152–6; McCracken, L. M. & Yang, S.-Y. (2008), ‘A contextual cognitive-behavioral analysis of rehabilitation workers’ health and well-being: Influences of acceptance, mindful- ness and values-based action’, Rehabilitation Psychology, 53, pp.479–85; Ortner, C. N. M., Kilner, S. J. & Zelazo, P. D. (2007), ‘Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task’, Motivation and Emotion, 31, pp. 271–83; Brefczynski-Lewis, J. A., Lutz, A., Schaefer, H. S., Levinson, D. B. & Davidson, R. J. (2007), ‘Neural correlates of attentional expert- ise in long-term meditation practitioners’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US), 104(27), pp. 11483–8.

3. Brown, Christopher A., Jones, Anthony K. P., (2013) ‘Psychobiological Correlates of Improved Mental Health in Patients With Musculo- skeletal Pain After a Mindfulness-based Pain Management Program’, Clinical Journal of Pain, 29(3), pp. 233–44.

4. Zeidan, F., Martucci, K. T., Kraft, R. A., Gordon, N. S., McHaffie, J. G. & Coghill, R. C. 2011, ‘Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modu- lation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation’, Journal of Neuroscience, 31(14), p. 5540. See also the accompanying comments regarding mor- phine effectiveness by Fadel Zeidan of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine at

5. Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L., Burncy, R. & Sellers, W. (1986), ‘Four- year follow-up of a meditation-based program for the self- regulation of chronic pain: Treatment outcomes and compliance’, Clinical Journal of Pain, 2, p. 159; Morone, N. E., Greco, C. M. & Weiner, D. K. (2008), ‘Mindfulness meditation for the treatment of chronic low back pain in older adults: A randomized controlled pilot study’, Pain, 134(3), pp. 310–19; Grant, J. A. & Rainville, P. (2009), ‘Pain sensitivity and analgesic effects of mindful states in zen medi- tators: A cross-sectional study’, Psychosomatic Medicine, 71(1), pp. 106–14.

6. Brown, Christopher A., Jones, Anthony K. P. 2013, MD, ‘Psycho- biological Correlates of Improved Mental Health in Patients With Musculoskeletal Pain After a Mindfulness-based Pain Management Program’, Clinical Journal of Pain, 29(3), pp. 233–44.

7. Zeidan, F., Martucci, K. T., Kraft, R. A., Gordon, N. S., McHaffie, J. G. & Coghill, R. C. 2011, ‘Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation’, Journal of Neuro- science, 31(14), p. 5540. See also the accompanying comments regarding morphine effectiveness by Fadel Zeidan of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine at

8. Grossman, P., Tiefenthaler-Gilmer, U., Raysz, A. & Kesper, U. (2007), ‘Mindfulness training as an intervention for fibromyalgia: evidence of postintervention and 3-year follow-up benefits in well-being’, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 76, pp. 226–233; Sephton, S. E., Salmon, P., Weissbecker, I., Ulmer, C., Floyd, A., Hoover, K., et al. (2007), ‘Mindfulness meditation alleviates depressive symptoms in women with fibromyalgia: results of a randomized clinical trial’, Arthritis & Rheumatism, 57, pp. 77–85; Schmidt, S., Grossman, P., Schwarzer, B., Jena, S., Naumann, J., and Walach, H. (2011), ‘Treating fibromyalgia with mindfulness-based stress reduction: results from a 3- armed randomized controlled trial’, Pain 152, pp. 361–9.

9. Morone, N. E., Lynch, C. S., Greco, C. M., Tindle, H. A. & Weiner, D. K. (2008b), ‘“I felt like a new person” – the effects of mindfulness med- itation on older adults with chronic pain: qualitative narrative analysis of diary entries’, Journal of Pain, 9, pp. 841–8.

10. Gaylord, S. A., Palsson, O. S., Garland, E. L., Faurot, K. R., Coble, R. S., Mann, J. D., et al. (2011), ‘Mindfulness training reduces the sever- ity of irritable bowel syndrome in women: results of a randomized controlled trial’, American Journal of Gastroenterology, 106, pp. 1678–88.

11. Grossman, P., Kappos, L., Gensicke, H., D’souza, M., Mohr, D. C., Penner, I. K., et al. (2010), ‘MS quality of life, depression, and fatigue improve after mindfulness training: a randomized trial’, Neurology, 75, pp. 1141–9.

12. Speca, M., Carlson, L., Goodey, E. & Angen, M. (2000), ‘A random- ized, wait-list controlled clinical trial: the effect of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction program on mood and symptoms of stress in cancer outpatients’, Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, pp. 613–22.

13. Jha, A., et al. (2007), ‘Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention’, Cognitive Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, pp. 109–19; Tang, Y. Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., Lu, Q., et al. (2007), ‘Short-term meditation training improves attention and self- regulation’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US), 104(43), pp. 17152–6. McCracken, L. M. & Yang, S.-Y. (2008), ‘A contextual cognitive-behavioral analysis of rehabilitation workers’ health and well-being: Influences of acceptance, mindfulness and values-based action’, Rehabilitation Psychology, 53, pp.479–85; Ortner, C. N. M., Kilner, S. J. & Zelazo, P. D. (2007), ‘Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task’, Motivation and Emotion, 31, pp. 271–83; Brefczynski-Lewis, J. A., Lutz, A., Schaefer, H. S., Levinson, D. B. & Davidson, R. J. (2007), ‘Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US), 104(27), pp. 11483–8.

14. Brown, Kirk Warren, Ryan, Richard, M. (2003), ‘The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), pp. 822–48; Lykins, Emily L. B. & Baer, Ruth A. (2009), ‘Psychological Functioning in a Sample of Long-Term Practitioners of Mindfulness Meditation’, Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 23(3), pp. 226–41.

15. Ivanowski, B. & Malhi, G. S. (2007), ‘The psychological and neuro- physiological concomitants of mindfulness forms of meditation’, Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 19, pp. 76–91; Shapiro, S. L., Oman, D., Thoresen, C. E., Plante, T. G. & Flinders, T. (2008), ‘Cultivating mindfulness: effects on well-being’, Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64(7), pp. 840–62; Shapiro, S. L., Schwartz, G. E. & Bonner, G. (1998), ‘Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on medical and pre- medical students’, Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 21, pp. 581–99.

16. See NICE Guidelines for Management of Depression (2004, 2009). Ma, J. & Teasdale, J. D. (2004), ‘Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: Replication and exploration of differential relapse preven- tion effects’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, pp. 31–40; Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G. & Teasdale, J. D., Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: a new approach to preventing relapse (Guilford Press, 2002); Kenny, M. A. & Williams, J. M. G. (2007), ‘Treatment-resistant depressed patients show a good response to Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy’, Behaviour Research & Therapy, 45, pp. 617–25; Eisendraeth, S. J., Delucchi, K., Bitner, R., Fenimore, P., Smit, M. & McLane, M. (2008), ‘Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Treatment-Resistant Depression: A Pilot Study’, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 77, pp. 319–20; Kingston, T., et al. (2007), ‘Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for residual depressive symptoms’, Psychology and Psychotherapy, 80, pp. 193–203.

17. Bowen, S., et al. (2006), ‘Mindfulness Meditation and Substance Use in an Incarcerated Population’, Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 20, pp. 343–7.

18. Hölzel, B. K., Ott, U., Gard, T., Hempel, H., Weygandt, M., Morgen, K. & Vaitl, D. (2008), ‘Investigation of mindfulness meditation prac- titioners with voxel-based morphometry’, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 3, pp 55–61; Lazar, S., Kerr, C., Wasserman, R., Gray, J., Greve, D., Treadway, M., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B., Dusek, J., Benson, H., Rauch, S., Moore, C. & Fischl, B. (2005), ‘Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness’, NeuroReport, 16, pp. 1893–7; Luders, Eileen, Toga, Arthur W., Lepore, Natasha & Gaser, Christian (2009), ‘The underlying anatom- ical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter’, Neuroimage, 45, pp. 672–8.

19. Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feg, S., Lu, Q., Yu, Q., Sui, D., Rothbart, M., Fan, M. & Posner, M. (2007), ‘Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, pp. 17152–6.

20. Davidson, R. J. (2004), ‘Well-being and affective style: Neural sub- strates and biobehavioural correlates’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 359, pp. 1395–1411.

21. Lazar, S., Kerr, C., Wasserman, R., Gray, J., Greve, D., Treadway, M., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B., Dusek, J., Benson, J., Rauch, S., Moore, C. & Fischl, B. (2005), ‘Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness’, NeuroReport, 16, pp 1893–7.

22. Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J. Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S.F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K. & Sheridan, J. F. (2003) ‘Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation’, Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, pp. 564–70; Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feg, S., Lu, Q., Yu, Q., Sui, D., Rothbart, M., Fan, M. & Posner, M. (2007), ‘Short-term med- itation training improves attention and self-regulation’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, pp. 17152–6.

23. Epel, Elissa, Daubenmier, Jennifer, Tedlie Moskowitz, Judith, Folkman, Susan & Blackburn, Elizabeth (2009), ‘Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172; Longevity, Regeneration, and Optimal Health Integrating Eastern and Western Perspectives, pp. 34–53.

24. Walsh, R. & Shapiro, S. L. (2006), ‘The meeting of meditative disci- plines and Western psychology: A mutually enriching dialogue’, American Psychologist, 61, pp. 227–39.

25. Ibid. 26. Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L., Burncy, R. & Sellers, W. (1986), ‘Four-year follow-up of a meditation-based program for the self- regulation of chronic pain: Treatment outcomes and compliance’, Clinical Journal of Pain, 2, p. 159; Brown, Christopher A., Jones, Anthony K. P. (2013), ‘Psychobiological Correlates of Improved Mental Health in Patients With Musculoskeletal Pain After a Mindfulness-based Pain Management Program’, Clinical Journal of Pain, 29(3), pp. 233–44; Lutz, Antoine, McFarlin, Daniel R., Perlman, David M., Salomons, Tim V. & Davidson, Richard J. (2013), ‘Altered anterior insula acti- vation during anticipation and experience of painful stimuli in expert meditators’, Journal NeuroImage, 64, pp. 538–46.

27.Baliki, Marwan N., Bogdan, Petre, Torbey, Souraya, Herrmann, Kristina M., Huang, Leijan, Schnitzer, Thomas J., Fields, Howard L. &, Vania Apkarian, A. (2012), ‘Corticostriatal functional connectivity predicts transition to chronic back pain’, Nature Neuroscience, 15, pp. 1117–19.

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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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