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Change the focus

07 December 2018

Mindfulness teacher and trainer Singhashri Gazmuri reveals how you can benefit from mindfulness and compassion in your day-to-day working life and beyond.

Meditating iStock

Over the past 35 years the number of research papers on mindfulness has increased exponentially, from on average two papers a year between 1982-1992, to over 700 papers in 2017. Since 2000 there have been a total of 3686 articles on mindfulness (American Mindfulness Research Association, 2018).

This increase demonstrates a growing interest in and enthusiasm about the life-changing potential of mindfulness to help ease suffering of all kinds, from stress and mental illness to long-term health conditions and physical pain.

But what exactly is mindfulness and how can it benefit your practice? Mindfulness means: paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness (Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, 2015).

The benefit of practising mindfulness to CPs is in helping to improve your own wellbeing, your experience in the workplace, and in being able to relate more fully to the experiences of your clients.

The mindful compassion practices we teach at Breathworks, a leading mindfulness training organisation, have been shown to improve concentration, calm under stress, successful interpersonal communication, and work satisfaction. And we know that compassion is one of the strongest aspects of resilience. You can practise mindfulness in the smallest of ways (see Tips for daily mindfulness).

 

Be aware

Our approach to mindfulness courses involves supporting people to interrupt cycles of pain and stress and replace those cycles with acceptance and kindness. This acceptance supports us to make more positive choices on how to respond, rather than react, to our suffering, which can lead to a reduction in suffering (Burch and Penman, 2013).

We do this by taking course participants through our six-stage process, helpful to remember with the acronym Be AWARE.

Be – we begin by bringing awareness to our breath and body.

This support us to get out of our heads and into our direct experience in the body, which naturally relieves physical and mental tension.

A – We can then begin to develop an acceptance of what’s difficult. This isn’t a passive resignation, but rather an acceptance of what can’t be changed in the moment. We meet this with compassion towards ourself as someone who is suffering.

W – In addition, we can also cultivate a sense of awe and wonder at the pleasure and beauty of life.

A – By learning how to accept the difficult and appreciate the pleasant, we are able to develop a broad awareness of difficulty and pleasure. Life includes both.

R – Mindfulness is not just an individual practice, but also a collective one. Once we are in touch with our own experience, this becomes a basis upon which we can begin to relate more fully to the experience of others.

E – Finally, with an awareness of ourselves and others, we can engage in our life and the world with agency and choice.

 

Understand how suffering works

One of the first things we help people to understand on Breathworks courses is the difference between their primary and secondary suffering. Primary suffering is the suffering that is a give-in. In any given moment we may experience a painful sensation, thought or emotion. What we tend to do as soon as primary suffering arises is to layer additional suffering on top of it. This is our secondary suffering – the thoughts and emotions that come on the heels of an initial painful experience.

For example, someone with chronic back pain may wake up one morning in extreme pain. This is their primary suffering. That pain comes as tension, perhaps cramping, a stabbing sensation, extreme heat, a dull ache. Immediately thoughts of how this happened, 
when will it go away, will it ever go away, what if I will never be able to work again, and so on, follow. These thoughts can lead to further emotions of anger, hopelessness and grief.

On our course, we encourage participants to stay with the primary suffering. This allows them to notice how the suffering is not necessarily as solid as they originally thought, but is actually changing all the time. We teach them to notice that when they bring awareness to the sensations, their resistance to them lessens and the additional thoughts and emotions subside. The pain may not be optional, but the secondary suffering is. Therefore, it is possible to learn to accept our primary suffering, soften our resistance, and reduce or even overcome our secondary suffering.

Part of the challenge in all this is our biological programming. We’ve been hardwired to be highly alert to unpleasant sensations. Without this ‘fight/flight’ response, associated with adrenaline and cortisol, we would not recognise potential threats (Gilbert, 2009).
But it also means we have an in-built negativity bias (Hanson, 2009).

In order to bring balance to our experience, we need to intentionally cultivate a different faculty - our ‘soothing’ system to bring a sense of connection and peace. Sometimes referred to as the rest and digest system, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is associated with oxytocin and endorphins. You can stimulate it through mindfulness and compassion practices (Gilbert, 2009).

 

Tips for daily mindfulness

  1. A mindful pause - This can be taken at any moment in our day: while waiting for a train or the kettle to boil, in the lift, or even on the toilet. Stop, breathe, and notice what’s happening in and around you. Whatever you find, meet it with kindness and, if there is any suffering, compassion.
  2. Notice the beauty - When we take the time to notice a sunset or the sound of birdsong we are re-wiring our brains to be more sensitive to pleasure. This stimulates the PNS which can bring a release of tension and cultivate ease (Gilbert, 2009).
  3. Take a break before you need it - Often we keep going until we’re exhausted – especially relevant in healthcare settings. Mindfulness supports us to become more aware of the kinds of activities that drain us, and those that sustain us. Taking a break from certain activities can support us to do more in the long run.
  4. Perform random acts of kindness - Once a day, take a moment to notice someone else and how they might be feeling. Help ease any suffering by doing something small but meaningful: hold the door open, ask a retailer how they’re doing, let someone in front of you.
  5. Meditate - Just 10 minutes a day can make a big difference to your mental health. Begin by finding a comfortable posture sitting or lying down. Close your eyes if you wish. Spend time feeling the sensations of your body against the chair, bed or floor. Notice the sounds around you. Now bring your awareness to the breath. Allow your mind to follow the breath as it comes and goes. If you become distracted, come back to the breath. If there’s anything unpleasant in your experience, try to meet it with kindness and compassion. End by bringing a sense of appreciation to yourself.  

Singhashri is a mindfulness teacher and trainer at Breathworks, and is developing innovations for bringing mindfulness into the workplace. 

 

Resources  

  • For more on mindfulness, research into the Breathworks approach and training, visit breathworks-mindfulness.org.uk
  • Mindfulness for health (2013) is a guide to relieving pain, reducing stress and restoring wellbeing by Vidyamala Burch (co-founder of reathworks) and Danny Penman.
  • For NHS information on mindfulness, see bit.ly/mindfulness_NHS
  • Learn about mindfulness from the Mental Health Foundation at bemindful.co.uk

Time to reflect

What moments of your typical day might you be able to earmark for a mindful pause or other mindfulness practice? Has mindfulness helped your experience with clients? Share any insight and join in the conversation on Twitter @CommPrac using #MindfulCPwork


 

References

American Mindfulness Research Association, Mindfulness journal publications by year, 1980-2017. See: https://goamra.org/resources/ (accessed 20 November 2018).
 
Burch V, Penman D. (2013) Mindfulness for Health: a practical guide to relieving pain, reducing stress and restoring well-being. 1st ed. London: Piatkus.
 
Gilbert P. (2009) The Compassionate Mind. 1st ed. London: Constable & Robinson.
 
Hanson, R. (2009) Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom. 1st. ed. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
 
Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group. (2015) Mindful Nation UK. See: https://themindfulnessinitiative.org.uk/images/reports/Mindfulness-APPG-Report_Mindful-Nation-UK_Oct2015.pdf (accessed 20 November 2018).

https://www.breathworks-mindfulness.org.uk/courses-for-health-profs

 

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