Sunday, August 24, 2014

Meditation: The Inside Scoop

The most common reason people give to be unable to meditate is to say "I can't turn my mind off". For some reason, there's this assumption that meditation requires the supernatural ability to clear the mind in order to be performed. This is absolute rubbish.

Everything we do requires practice. If the prerequisite or goal of meditation practice was to empty the mind, the best meditation teachers would be those who could perform lobotomies. I can assure you this isn't the case.

I've maintained a daily meditation practice for about 18 years. I thought I'd share with you all some of what happens when I sit down to meditate to assure you that a quiet mind is in no way a requirement for a meditation practice. The following took place in an idyllic location while on vacation in Catalunya a couple of weeks ago. I sat down one afternoon while everyone else in the house was gone to watch my breath. I assumed the meditation posture, and focused my mind on counting my exhalations, one at a time, while allowing my mind to unfurl.

"What a beautiful spot. I can't believe how blue the sea and sky are. I should have sat down to meditate a while ago.

It reminds me of what I thought of earlier, once you decide to sit down to meditate, everything outside of the sitting session is resistance. How long have I had this meditation practice? I used to say 16 years, but I think it's 18. Wow. Mind still very much on.

This spot is high up. I'm pretty sure it will survive the ice caps melting. Who knows how many feet that will be. I hope it's gradual, although that one researcher said it's more likely to be sudden and catastrophic. Those methane reserves in Siberia are being released, that's really bad. It will all come down to timing. I hope we're all together when it happens. I can't imagine the drive out of south Florida. What will I take? Glad I backed up the hard drive and put it in a Ziploc in my office. That's going to be a crazy traffic jam. We'll have to head north. I hope I can get a job in another state easily. I wonder if the flood will bring down the global economic system.

Wow, that's the most uncomfortable tangent. I hate that topic. Government is so broken. Taken over by demonic forces. Ancient forces that brought down Rome, too. So evil the way the way they're treating the earth.

Why all the judgement? Meditation is about love, after all. Ok, let's think about love. Let's send love to the politicians and greedy oil executives.

Wow, what a nice spot to sit. I can't believe how relaxing this is. Seems like a bubble while the rest of the world turns to shit. So many dead in Gaza, Syria.

Breath tight. Release the belly. There. The most helpful thing is always to release the belly. Got to remember that. Love the chattering parts of the mind. How many parts of my mind are there? Wait, who's keeping track? Is that part of the mind, too, or something outside of it. Does mind emerge? I'm really appreciating that emergent hypothesis. I wonder if I can incorporate that into the Toronto workshop somehow. The slides are all done. Those used to make me so much more nervous.

The run this morning was awesome. I wish we had mountains and trails in Florida like that. Makes me miss living in California. I don't think my Achilles' tendon can take two runs a day, but I would love to if I could. I wish I had run more in my late twenties. Grad school sucked for that stuff.

Soften the belly.

Oh wait, that was a shimmering moment. Love that. Let's do it again.

Nope. But that was nice.

Ah, it happened again.

Hmmm. I hit my goal. But I want to keep going. Ok, another 49 breaths. I hope I have time. Is there anything else I should be doing?

Oh, nevermind, this is nice. 'The Buddha's enlightenment is vast, it encompasses all experience'. He's been here, each moment is a footprint of his enlightenment.

If only people knew how much chatter remains, even with meditation practice, they'd be less intimidated. I should totally blog out this session. "

So what's your experience like?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Seven Tips for Professional Caregivers

This past weekend I was in Toronto as part of a series on Contemplative End of Life Care put on by the good folks at the Institute of Traditional Medicine. My area of focus was grief, specifically the approach I use and have highlighted in my books. It occurred to me that I've been taking care of the dying and grieving for over 15 years. I feel like I just got started and nowhere near burned out. I was asked several times in different ways what's worked for me in being able to sustain high intensity mental health care.

When I'm discussing end-of-life care and grief therapy with other professionals, I like to point out that we need to tap our own inner resources of compassion in order to be able to help others. To do this, we have to build up these inner resources in the first place.

The way to do this is fairly straightforward to describe, but harder for many to put into practice. We'd much rather take care of someone else than ourselves. If we listened to half the advice we give others about how to take care of themselves, we'd be twice as healthy.

What works? In 2014, there's very little mystery in answering this question. Here's the list, again, culled from decades of health and well-being research (done by others) and my own personal experience: 

1) Treat yourself as a whole person. This means balance different aspects of your life-- body, mind, spirit.

2) Eat right. What's that mean? Science is telling us more and more how important it is to eat plants, use common sense portions and avoid processed foods. For me, this means going to the grocery story to buy ingredients rather than meals to re-heat.

3) Exercise. If you can do an hour a day most days of the week, wonderful. If not, 20-30 minutes 3-4 times a week of moderate cardio exercise is a good goal.

4) Meditate. This doesn't mean read about meditation or enjoy spending time in your garden or playing with your pet. It means cultivate a daily sitting practice. It's the purest way I know of to nurture heart and spirit.

5) Create a community. If you work in health care, start talking about self-care. Give hugs to tired colleagues. Spread the word that we matter. You don't want to become the nagging missionary, but better yet, let the changes you're making be their own example. People will notice you're doing something different. If you work as a solo practitioner, reach out on social media or try to arrange meetups in or near your community to find like-minded people that can help you feel connected. The key to preventing burnout is feeling that you're part of a bigger whole, a tribe of fellow caregivers moving in the same direction with the same priorities. Don't wait for a community to form spontaneously, change the system to be one you like.

6) Limit your reliance on alcohol, television and other drugs. We joke a lot in health care about happy hours. But there's no evidence to suggest people who drink regularly are more emotionally resilient or spiritually centered than those who drink very little or not at all.

7) Don't be afraid to grow into your potential. Many of us started out working as professional caregivers with mentors or teachers we looked up to. Mentors aren't born, they're made out of experience. Don't be afraid to make changes in how you work and how you live so you can become an expert at what you do. Remember the gratitude of others as a guide to keep you going. What helped your patients the most? Keep doing that.

We are blessed to do what we do for a living, but chances are no one has taught us how to be in it for the long run. Health care providers who are balanced and healthy can provide better care for others. My goal in caring for others is to be able to do it for as long as I can and stay healthy in the process. I hope you can, too.