Breathworks Blog

Stories, tips, and articles about mindfulness, daily meditation, compassion, living well with illness and chronic pain, and more.
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Making Mindfulness Available to Everyone

Breathworks Foundation New Logo 2018 White

 

It has been just over three months since I started working for The Breathworks Foundation, taking on a new role as Head of Development, and what an inspiring and heart-opening time it has been already.  The Trustees asked me to bring my previous fundraising experience to The Foundation to raise money to realise Vidyamala’s long held vision: sharing mindfulness with as many people who suffer through pain, illness or stress as possible, whatever their financial circumstances.

"I am absolutely delighted that Karunatara Green has joined The Breathworks Foundation, which funds Mindfulness for Health Course bursaries for those struggling financially, as Head of Development. She brings a wealth of experience in fundraising from her previous role at the Manchester International Festival and, every bit as important, she brings a lot of heart. She is passionate in helping the Foundation expand its reach and already has a keen grasp on the scale of suffering in our societies. She can clearly see the potential of the Breathworks approach to mindfulness and compassion to help people find new ways to manage their difficulties and to find some hope and ease. It is a real joy to have her join the Breathworks project. I get very excited when I think of all the people we will help once we have raised more funds. I feel confident and optimistic that she and I can realise our dreams." - Vidyamala Burch

The Trustees are very excited about the plans to award more bursaries for both courses and teacher training.  We plan to enable working with more partners, charities and trusts & foundations to reach people with long-term health conditions, the young and the old and those many people who are only just getting by / hanging onto their lives and are in need of support and new skills.

I am amazed by the reach of Breathworks with over 400 fully accredited teachers; half in the UK and the other half spread around the world across 22 countries.  I have been lucky enough to talk to some of the people who have made this happen and are spreading mindfulness globally. A decade ago a course started in Valencia, with all the materials translated into Spanish, was then taken to packed houses of 80 participants a time in Mexico!  This dedication and the rise in interest in mindfulness means there are now 80 qualified Spanish speaking teachers, from Buenos Aires to Madrid. Another trainer fell in love with the Breathworks method of mindfulness on the second week of their course, instantly signed up to learn to teach and then took the course online to run real time sessions with participants both in the UK and India.

Learning more about the great work funded by The Foundation has been so inspiring.  It has been moving to talk with some of the 60 individuals who have received bursaries this year, enabling them to deepen their own mindfulness practice, and how passionate they are to share its benefits with others.  Gail, from St. Michael’s Hospice in Ledbury, so affected me as I heard her talk about how she had difficulty convincing the hospice to allow her to train, and then as she worked with people near the end of life, how they saw great benefits from the mindfulness courses The Breathworks Foundation funded, and agreed to fund a second employee to learn to teach.  Now Gail can spend most of her time one-to-one with patients at their bedsides, whilst Mark runs courses, with double the numbers attending. The three-year funding has allowed over 100 people to learn mindfulness in a suitable setting for just the cost of the books, and mindfulness is now part of the Hospice’s culture.

 

Vidyamala and Gail (not massive).png

Gail and Vidyamala at St. Michael's Hospice, Hereford

I just finished attending an eight-week Mindfulness for Health course, gaining much personally as I learn to enjoy my present moment more and more.  It’s inspiring to see how my fellow course participants are in less pain and smiling more and more each week as they experience life anew through the varied techniques and teachings we are sharing.

You will be hearing more about The Foundation as we launch various fundraising initiatives to raise our goal of £100,000 by next summer.  Please do get in touch if you would like to get involved and of course it goes without saying we would be delighted if you felt able to give to support The Breathworks Foundation’s great work, especially during the season of goodwill – no amount too small or too large.  Just click here to go to the donation part of our website.

Lastly, we wanted to take this opportunity to send a special note of thanks to the three donors from our first official fundraising request to course participants, back in September.  Your contributions were a real encouragement to the Breathworks team.

Karunatara Green

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Experiments in Beating the Negativity Bias

Negativity Bias Blog thing

 

I am a new mum to a now seven month-old baby and my to-do list is endless. Looking after a baby on my own is proving very challenging! I am fast approaching mental burnout. I’ve been there before and I am determined not to go there again. In some sort of sleep-deprived state, I rifle through my Mindfulness for Health notes to find the Pacing section. I decide to pace myself in a unique way. I have developed a method which adheres to the principles of Pacing and also to The Treasure of Pleasure simultaneously.

Task Block

I have two mini whiteboards; one on which I write my to-do list and one which is divided into six squares and then each square is diagonally divided into triangles. The idea is that I pair up a 'good' and 'bad' task (one in each half of the square) from the list and therefore I always tackle ‘good’ with ‘bad’ simultaneously. In this way, I aim to override my well-honed avoidance tactics of doing any of the nasty tasks!

I realise intellectually that there is in fact no distinction between good and bad and that these ‘boxes’ they are merely constructs of the mind, but at the same time I know that my mind categorises them as such nevertheless, and doing this gives me a practical 'way in' for my mind to deal with the ever growing list. I call it ‘bribing the guards’ [of my mind]. The very act of gluing a bad thing to a good thing also, I find, has the curious inadvertent effect of neutralising and depolarising both. Perhaps, by doing this, my mind may move closer towards regarding all experiences simply as experiences and eventually doing away with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels altogether.


Before bed each night, I pair up the tasks, so that I am at least partially ready to tackle the next day in case I do not get any sleep! On this particular night, I sit pouring over my endless list; some urgent… some not... some of those ridiculous ticky box tasks… and some very non-urgent tasks which I want to do for myself – pleasurable things which naggingly have been sat on that list since I had my baby half a year ago. Interestingly, they have been there longer than all of the others…

I try to distinguish between good and bad and in the face of sheer adversity and immense fatigue, into my awareness suddenly drops a number of pearls of wisdom. I realise that my mind has started to classify every task as bad just because it is another item on the to do list. I noticed that I am now regarding tasks on the list as enemies whom I have to fight every day, rather than just regarding them as the very fabric of my life experience per se. That is to say, my mind has started to label tasks as ‘bad’ even if the task started out life as a ‘good’ one just because it has been on the list longer than I deem acceptable. It finally dawned on me that I actually regarded none of the tasks as positive and so I couldn’t in fact complete my method of filling in the two halves of each square and therefore could not get on with the day tomorrow as I had planned! My own negativity bias has indeed shot me in my own foot!

Inadvertently and somewhat ironically too, my method of linking good with bad in order to be more proactive had in fact led me to a dead end…albeit a revelatory one. However, I believe every journey has a purpose, if only to present an opportunity for learning. The exercise led me to see just how much I was wallowing in negativity every day – I had actually no idea just how much it had taken over my daily life. My positive/negative equilibrium was very much out of balance and in fact, the negativity bias of my mind had paralysed me into doing nothing. It was like wallowing through a never-ending quagmire of negativity.

The realisation in fact took me back to a school residential fieldtrip, where we had to wade through a muddy quagmire of rice pudding colour and consistency. My welly got stuck and I could not free it. The rice pudding started trickling over the top of my welly. I panicked as I sank deeper and deeper and I ended up tugging like mad, losing my balance and landing face down in the rice pudding! I felt this was a great analogy for how each day was panning out just now. This memory lightened the mood a little and it was in fact a relief to come to the realisation that it was actually me who was setting myself an uphill struggle every day by dwelling on the negative.


My thoughts then turned towards my Breathworks training retreat where we discussed two common and unhelpful responses to pain and unpleasant experiences: trying to block out the unpleasant with distraction and stimulation, and becoming completely overwhelmed with the experience and ‘drowning’ in it. It had been a revelation to me how what one person deemed as blocking, another perceived as drowning! That day, I learnt that there are in fact different ways of framing the tasks; mind could frame a task as good when looked at in one way, and bad when looked at in another. In reality, neither exist and both are just an effort of the mind to put things in boxes because boxes are easier and tidier to move around in the great filing system of the mind.


The revelation yesterday reminded me of just how ugly the human negativity bias can be and how it can creep up on you and swamp you without you even noticing, until you are completely bogged down with it. I now feel much happier about my to-do list; downloading music for my new sound system is no longer a ‘bad’ task (even though it has indeed been on my to-do list for almost a year), neither is collecting the apples off the tree before the wind blows them off. And now, after reframing many of the tasks on the list and regaining some form of equilibrium, in actual fact, the call to HMRC (which after reframing, I realised was the only real daunting task on the whole list) is not so daunting after all.


Alison Salter

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On Backs, Beds, Necks, and Wrecks

On Backs Beds Necks and Wrecks

Vidyamala Burch is the founder of Breathworks, author of the books Mindfulness for Health and Living Well with Pain and Illness, and a world-class expert on mindfulness-based pain management.


 Last week I got a lovely email from Michelle DiGiacomo in the USA that included her blog "battered by beds".

Her email said:

Dear Vidyamala,

I feel like Christopher Columbus and that I’ve just discovered America. 

In telling my story in my blog, I was hesitant to talk of meditation because the western world hasn’t quite caught on, but it was pivotal to this discovery. I laid in those beds for years throbbing in pain, yet it took a very deeply felt body scan to finally discover this. It feels like a miracle. 

I want to scream this from the rooftops. I’ve suffered in pain for years and been given powerful drugs I never needed when I was simply sleeping in extremely defective beds which caused intense pain. 

Thank you for your work as I truly couldn’t have discovered this without you. I’m hopeful that I can share this with my Mayo Clinic doctors and that they will take it seriously. I think the problem is epidemic and needs serious attention. 

I read her blog and felt all kinds of resonances. Her realization that bad mattresses and pillows were causing a significant escalation in symptoms correlated vividly with my own experience, so I thought it would be good to share this more widely. In fact I get very similar symptoms to her if I don’t have the correct mattress for my spine - appalling nerve pains and weakness in my legs at night that comes from pressure on the sacrum if the bed is too hard. If the bed is too soft - that’s another whole disaster. As for pillows, well: headaches, fatigue and neck pain quickly arise if the pillow is too high, too low, too soft, too hard. Truly I have become like the princess and the pea!

We are all different but the best solution for me is a reasonably firm inner sprung mattress with a memory foam topper pad on top. When I travel the world teaching for Breathworks I always take my trusty travel topper pad and generally sleep reasonably well. I also travel everywhere with my memory foam pillow that has transformed my sleep and neck pain. There are many different brands on the market but the Harley works best for me.

When travelling my luggage allowance is quickly used up by topper pad, pillow and other disability paraphernalia such as catheters; so if you wonder why I sometimes look a bit scruffy you now know. There’s very little room left over for actual clothes! But it’s worth it.

Vidyamala Burch


Here is Michelle’s story

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Attitudes for Living Well with Illness

Attitudes for Living Well With Illness

Shunyamala is a Wellness Coach who works one-on-one with people experiencing chronic pain or stress in their lives. She says: “Through years of managing my own chronic auto-immune illness I have learned effective, authentic, holistic ways to soothe the roller-coaster challenges that being out of balance in our bodies and in our minds can bring.”


Many people have asked me "How do you do it? How do you have a smile on your face and good humor while dealing with autoimmune issues day in and day out?" Most of the time I fumble something like "This is the way it is” or “I have no other choice." On further reflection, I can see that I often am using the Breathworks concepts that I learned a while ago and that in fact they serve me very, very well.

So, I'll share some of my favorites that I have woven into my life, and that have made such a difference;

1. Start Where You Are
Full-heartedly turning toward where you are before you decide where you are going. Take some time to listen in and honestly assess how you are feeling before forcing your way, forcing your body, to perform out in the world. Sometimes this can be painfully emotional and yet this is where authentic healing happens. I may even decide to postpone my plans. Permission to do less. It sounds obvious and yet, in the past, I’ve relied on sheer will-power to get me through. Being accepting of where you are is a healthier, smarter alternative. What would make it easier?

2. Listening To Your Body
When listening in or settling in for a meditation, pay attention to the breath in the back of the body, the sides of the body, as well as how your body breathes in the front. Being so forward-centric many of us only think of the body in terms of its front - the face, the heart, the belly. And it is the back of the body that protects us, supports us, that is a force for stabilizing. Keying into the back of the body naturally sends a message of support and self-care. And hey, our bodies like these messages! What is it you would really like your body to know?

3. You Can Always Look for the Positive
There is always the possibility to look for the positive - and this is not some sugar-coated theory. Even in extreme pain, in a dire situation, there is more happening than what may be grabbing your attention. As you relax, see if you can expand, rather than tighten around the pain, to what else you are feeling. Perhaps the sense of stillness as you calm the mental negative chatter. What else is happening now?

4. Honor the Rest Your Body Needs
Honor the rest your body needs before it gets too stressed and strained under pressure. Vidyamala refers to this as pacing. It is a way of saving your body from stress, rather than managing the stress after it has already happened. Bodies that are already compromised in some way do not like stress in any form or manner. For me rest is the best medicine I can give myself. What is it that allows your body to thrive?

Whether it is illness or anxiety that is creating your stressful pain, Vidyamala’s book "Mindfulness for Health", is full of wisdom and ideas that can shine a lighted path forward. The guided meditations included in the book are an invitation to listen in for that healing place in your body. I share these with many of my coaching clients as we all have times that are painful. Albeit some of us more than others. Instead of pushing away what seems to be the source of the discomfort it is the turning towards that can create more possibilities of connection and health.

Shunya


You can learn more about Shunyamala and her work at HeartWisdom Coaching or contact her directly at heartwisdomcoaching@gmail.com. Shunyamala is also a Buddhist practitioner and teacher and member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, practicing at the San Francisco Buddhist Center.

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Embracing Compassion: Experiences from the Breathworks Mindfulness for Stress course

 

embracing compassion blog

Reflections from Breathworks teacher Katherine Michaelis' on her Mindfulness MSc. Thesis 


Feldman and Kuyken (2011) describe compassion as:

"an orientation of mind that recognizes pain and the universality of pain in human experience and the capacity to meet that pain with kindness, empathy, equanimity and patience".

I am a Breathworks teacher. When I teach the compassion part of the Breathworks Mindfulness for Stress (MfS) course I have noticed that some participants struggle to engage with the practices, and occasionally find them upsetting. When I first tried these practices myself, as a MfS course participant, I found them tricky. Now, though, they are part of my daily practice and through them I feel I’ve become much kinder both to myself and to others. I draw on them all the time; recently they helped me to care for my mum who had Alzheimer’s.

When I undertook a Mindfulness MSc with Aberdeen University I chose to research how participants experienced compassion training on a Breathworks MfS course. I wanted to gain a deep, rich understanding of participants’ experiences and what these experiences meant to them. I hoped to benefit my teaching and the experiences of course participants and perhaps to benefit other teachers and participants. I began my research by doing a literature review and I found that although compassion training is very beneficial, leading to increased well-being and lower levels of psychological distress, it is also quite common for people to find compassion training difficult and even upsetting at first.

I chose a qualitative approach for my research, which let me capture participants’ experiences and thoughts about compassion training during classes and from interviews conducted some weeks after the training ended. 6 participants of a Breathworks MfS course took part in my research.

My findings revealed that all the participants valued the compassion training highly; they felt it addressed their needs for greater self-compassion, it benefitted their relationships with themselves and with others and it improved their wellbeing. One participant discussed how she had become kinder to herself:

I don’t put myself down, I don’t yell at myself, ‘Oh you stupid person.’”

Another discussed how she benefited from practicing loving kindness for work colleagues she found difficult,

the next day it’s so much easier to talk to them. I can then go and be nice to the person.”

Two participants talked about how kindness practices helped them manage health conditions. One said practicing kindness to herself helped her recover more quickly from depression. Another was recovering from an operation and said the practices were, “helping her to feel better, more reassured and calm,” and that self-compassion, “supports her through the day really.”

Some participants initially had negative experiences of kindness meditations but these experiences changed over time and became more positive. One said she had been skeptical about the benefits of kindness practices and had felt irritated, frustrated, and impatient when she first did them; however, after a week of practice she reported liking the sun imagery practice. Another participant had initially felt pressured during self-kindness practices; striving to achieve happiness, but this attitude had softened over time. One participant became tearful and felt unable to wish herself well when she began. In her interview she said the phrase “may I be safe” had triggered difficult feelings from a childhood in which she had “never felt safe”. She had persisted with the practices and 8 weeks after the course ended she described how she was using compassion practice to calm herself.

Some participants had customised their compassion practices and felt this helped them to gain benefits. One participant, who was a Christian, had mentally changed the sun image into the Son of God, which made more sense to her,

As Christians, he is within and outside… the sun, it didn’t have the same effect, where as the Son of God did.

Another practiced self-compassion when unsettling physical feelings arose by placing her hand on areas of discomfort and using the breath to soothe her. This made her feel, “much calmer and better”.

Learning in a group brought insights into difficulties experienced by others, which helped participants gain self-acceptance, self-compassion and compassion. One participant said, “if you feel that other people are struggling, it’s OK to struggle too and therefore you can be a bit kinder to yourself because you are not judging yourself for feeling crap, you’re saying I am human, this is fine, other people feel like this, I’ll get through this."

However one participant had initially felt intimidated in the group because two other participants, who were counselors, had said they were attending the course to gain skills to use with clients. She felt better when she realised that the counselors also experienced difficulties.

Some participants said that I, as the teacher, had helped group dynamics by giving the sense that we were all in the group together, “teacher included” and by demonstrating kindness towards people who were struggling. However, one participant had felt picked on when I went round the group asking individuals about their experiences.

Most participants said the teaching of Gilbert’s "Three Circles" model; three broad emotional systems corresponding to: The ‘Red Circle’ of Threat, the ‘Blue Circle’ of reward-seeking, and the ‘Green Circle’ of Soothing, Caring, and Contentment:

The home practice of finding ways into the green circle zone had helped them access soothing, nurturing behaviours; they spoke extensively about how they were accessing it in their lives. One participant also said this teaching had taken away the guilt of “feeling all those things in the red circle.” However, two participants had not connected with this teaching. One said that this was because she had identified so strongly with the threat system that she had missed the soothing system.

It was heartening to find that all participants had continued with their compassion practice and were gaining benefits 4 to 8 weeks after the course had ended.

It is not possible to generalise from this kind of study; every group is different and every person will have a different experience of compassion training. However, my findings resonated with the literature and with my previous observations, and I have made some changes to how I teach the Breathworks MfS course. In week one I now encourage participants to share specifically personal wellbeing benefits that they hope to gain from the course, to foster a sense of common humanity, and I now invite participants to share their experiences rather than go around the group in turn so no one feels put on the spot. I encourage participants to customise the kindness practices if they wish, for example I suggest the use of the hand on the heart area to help access warm feelings and I discuss the use of alternative phrases in the loving-kindness meditation. When teaching Gilbert’s theory, I ask participants to share ways in which they already access the “Green Circle” to help them connect with this emotional system. I try to manage expectations and cultivate helpful attitudes for kindness meditations by talking about these before I lead any meditations. I am hopeful that this will help reduce possible striving and feelings of failure. In case of painful emotions arising in the kindness practices, I remind participants of how to work with difficulty and discuss how they can support themselves if they feel overwhelmed; I try to do this lightly so as not to create an expectation of difficulty. I am also alert to any difficulties participants may have and offer opportunities to talk outside class.

Doing the research was a great experience, I feel I have learned lots and I’m really grateful to the study participants who were so helpful and so open in sharing their experiences.

Katherine Michaelis

If you have any questions or want to read my full thesis (18,000 words) then do please get in touch: katherine.michaelis@gmail.com.


 Find out more about the Breathworks Mindfulness for Stress course here.

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