Thursday, 29 May 2008

Permission to care—for oneself!

Awareness in Action recently offered a workshop to introduce the practices of mindfulness and meditation to a group of care workers supporting children in need. It was a large, lively group with a good cross-section of caseworkers, psychologists and support staff. We were about a third of the way into the workshop and had tried out some simple mindfulness exercises. It’s always a special time in a workshop—people have begun to leave their preoccupation with their schedules aside for a couple of hours and to sense the simple effectiveness of what they are learning.

After an exercise in watching the breath we asked for responses from the groups. Following some moments of discussion a woman at the back put up her hand and asked, ‘This is for us, isn’t it? This workshop is for us to learn these techniques?’ Puzzled, I replied that yes that was the purpose and then she continued, ‘I almost feel guilty that this is for me and not for my clients.’

It’s not the first time that I have heard this sentiment expressed and it won’t be the last but each time is still surprises and touches me. I am surprised that people who spend their whole working life caring for others get so little assistance is learning how to care for themselves, and the fact that they expect so little is always touching.

It is a fallacy that I come across more often than I would like—the idea that to spend time learning how to care for oneself on a deep level with practices like mindfulness and meditation is somehow an indulgence that can only be justified if it can be translated into benefit for the client. Care workers will spend any amount of time learning techniques to teach their clients but quickly feel guilty if the object is themselves. One of the things we stress in our workshops is that learning to quieten one’s mind, and open one’s heart through mindfulness and meditation is the surest way to enable you to offer more to the people you work with—whether they are people in need, or colleagues in business. Taking the time to work with oneself in this way is the best safeguard against burn-out and emotion-fatigue and increases one’s stability and capacity. To put it simply—everyone benefits: you, the clients and your management!

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

The work of Jon Kabat’Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programmes is well known. I recently came across an article by Saki F. Santorelli, one of the MBSR instructors at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. The article is called, Mindfulness and Mastery in the Workplace. It presents 21 ways to reduce stress during the working day.

Here’s a few that I especially liked [you can adapt them to suit your circumstances]:

  • While your car is warming up, try taking a minute to quietly pay attention to your breathing.
  • While sitting at your desk, keyboard, etc., pay attention to bodily sensations, again consciously attempting to relax and rid yourself of excess tension.
  • Use your breaks to truly relax rather than simply "pausing." For instance, instead of having coffee, a cigarette, or reading, try taking a short walk -- or sitting at your desk and renewing yourself.
  • Decide to stop for one to three minutes every hour during the workday. Become aware of your breathing and bodily sensations, allowing the mind to settle in as a time to regroup and recoup.
  • Choose to eat one or two lunches per week in silence. Use this as a time to eat slowly and be with yourself.
  • At the end of the workday, while your car is warming up, sit quietly and consciously make the transition from work to home -- take a moment to simply be -- enjoy it for a moment.

Like most of us, you're heading into your next full-time job -- home!

A String of Moments

If you have spent some time looking at the Awareness in Action website and delved into its Resource Centre, you’ll have seen that we are very excited about the current scientific research that is helping to provide data that confirms the beneficial effects of methods of mind training such as mindfulness, meditation, and compassion—the very methods we use in our work.

For example, as part of the current research into happiness, Daniel Kahneman has explored how people evaluate their experiences. He describes an individual’s life as a ‘string of moments’—each of these present moments may last up to 3 seconds, which means that people experience 20,000 of these moments in a waking day.

Unfortunately, the experiencing self that lives these moments has barely time to exist before it is overtaken by the evaluating self—the self that weaves a story of our lives and forms it into a continuous whole. Whereas the experiencing self is present, and awake to each moment as it is, the evaluating self works through memory and is often affected by mood, habits and invested interest. To some extent we recruit our memory to support the narrative of our life that we wish to believe in and present to the world.

The practice of mindfulness is all about allowing the experiencing self room to breathe. By being present to each moment as it arises we give ourselves the chance to engage with our body, our mind and the world around us with freshness and accountability. Generally we are so caught up in everything that is going on around us that we do no take the time to notice what is going in our own minds—the continuous ebb and flow of thoughts and feelings. Because we are not used to looking at them, these very thoughts and emotions can sweep us away into moods, reactions, and stories. With mindfulness we learn to notice what is going on with us, and so learn to work with it, rather than be subjected to it.

When we’re at work we are usually busy and may thank that there is not time for the luxury of self-awareness. Nothing could be further from the truth. By taking time to notice our breathing, to experience our feet contacting the floor as we stand, to be aware of the rhythm of our limbs as we walk to a meeting are all simple, non-time consuming ways of becoming mindful. As we learn to practice each simple method, we can build a whole strategy of mindfulness to support us through the day.