Today I thought I’d share a meditation practice I have been engaging for a little while from Rick Hanson’s book Neurodharma. Among other things in this book Rick Hanson explores how to develop seven practices of awakening, which he identifies as steadying the mind, warming the heart, resting in a sense of enoughness and of being whole, receiving nowness, opening into allness and finding timelessness. Rick Hanson suggests that we can engage with each practice separately or as a whole meditation. Below is a summary of this meditation practice:

Steadiness. To develop steadiness we choose an object of attention such as the sensations of breathing or a word and we stay aware of it. For example, if it’s the breath, we apply attention to the beginning of each inhalation and sustain our attention to its full course, and then we do the same with each exhalation, breath after breath after breath.

 Lovingness. Once our mind has steadied we move our focus on warmhearted feelings as our object of attention. Our focus can turn to people we love and care about and who care about us, feelings of compassion and kindness. The focus is on the emotions and if other thoughts and feelings arise we let them come and go as we continue to focus on a sense of warm heartedness. As we breathe, we could sense love flowing in and out through our chest and heart.

Fullness. We turn our focus on the sense of enoughness and safety of the moment as it is, resting in a growing sense of contentment. Also, we can focus on gratitude and simple feelings of gladness and other positive emotions … while letting go of disappointment, resentment, stress, etc.

 Wholeness. As we rest at ease in fullness, we turn our awareness to the sensations of breathing in the left side of our chest, then the right side, then our whole chest as a whole, and then we gradually widen our awareness of breathing to include all of our body. Rick Hanson writes: “…. being aware of your whole body as a single field of experience … abiding as a whole body breathing … all of you as a whole … abiding undivided”

Nowness. As we abide as a whole, we stay in the present and we remain alert, while letting go and finding comfort in the present… the nowness. Rick Hanson writes: “Be at ease, you’re all right … here in the present as it changes … receiving this moment … receiving now … resting at the front edge of now … and now.”

Allness. Abiding as a whole, air flowing in and flowing out … “inhaling oxygen from green growing things … exhaling carbon dioxide to them … what you’re receiving becoming a part of you, what you’re giving becoming part of other things … Letting these knowings become feelings of relatedness … of inter-being … with plants … and animals … and people … and with air and water … and mountains and all of this earth.” (Rick Hanson)

Timelessness. We continue to abide in the present letting go of thoughts and we settle back into a wordless sense of being, perhaps experiencing a sense of possibility, spaciousness and stillness.

Finally, we come into a bodily grounded sense of this moment perhaps moving feet and hands and breathing more fully.

For a more open minded and holistic approachToday I am sharing a painting I have been making this month and a post inspired by talks from a summit I have been engaging with over the last two weeks or so, on the connection between trauma and our overall health, the body and the mind connection and the many different routes available to approach trauma and health. Summarily, the perspectives presented in this summit on how to understand and approach individual and collective trauma and its lingering effects on our health and well being are: mind body approaches; functional medicine approaches; brain, nervous system and somatic approaches; energetic approaches; social and developmental approaches; and perspectives to understand the social root causes of mental health, physical health and complex chronic conditions.

The breadth of information, on the one hand, has felt daunting because ultimately for most people on this planet in this time in history adopting this type of integrative approach, which practically requires access to quality resources and possibly a team of diverse practitioners to deal with complex problems like PTSD, depression, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, cancer and many other health issues related or correlated to trauma is not feasible. Also, there is so much information circulating that it can hinder discernment and choice. On the other hand, the fact that information is becoming available to larger and larger numbers of people gives people back some of their power even if only at the level of their being aware that a compartmentalized or symptoms management approach alone does not deal with issues at a root level, and thus, does not bring about deep changes and growth. More often than not problems and issues are not the result of one variable alone. For instance, high levels of anxiety might simultaneously be the result of unaddressed traumas and stuck energy, current circumstances and mercury poisoning from silver tooth fillings or nutrient deficiencies. Several experts talked on the connection between mouth health, dental fillings and our overall physical and mental health. Also, dissemination of information opens up our understanding of the many toxic factors that may be contributing to disease or dis-ease and the various lifestyle changes, natural remedies and technologies and tools that one can use on their own to heal some, increase equilibrium in their system and tap into deeper levels of resilience.  It can also facilitate choice because one size does not fit all.

Furthermore, as the deleterious and lingering effects of trauma, both collective and personal, become more well-known, a shift can take place of our understanding of problems and of what is possible, and also, of the necessity of a more integrative approach and of structural changes in many areas of society. In this post I will refer to one example of the many discussed by various speakers. Dr David Brady, an expert on treating fibromyalgia talked about how research and work with people, interestingly mostly women, who suffer from this cluster of symptoms or condition suggest that it could be viewed as a ‘hypervigilant disorder’ like post traumatic stress and other anxiety related conditions, and that fibromyalgia and chronic pain  are correlated to PTSD and trauma, especially childhood adversity. It has been found that people who suffer from fibromyalgia, for instance are on guard even in their sleep, which practically means even when they don’t suffer from insomnia they block the cycling through deep levels of sleep, in other words their sleep is superficial and not adequately restorative. Another interesting point he made is that cortisol is the stress hormone that has been typically measured so far, but has more recently been found that chronic anxiety and stress can eventually lead to secretion of low levels of cortisol, and therefore, catecholamine levels should me measured as well.

I will also refer to a book written by one of the participants, Lissa Rankin (MD), on how fear is one basic factor leading to disease. In the book she walks us through the scientific data that proves that fear (stress, anxiety, hypervigilance) increases our risk of almost every disease, especially, heart disease, and decreases our longevity if left unchecked.  During her talk Dr Lissa Rankin referred to the high burden of developmental traumas and generational legacies and how clearing trauma can be the best preventive medicine and can even trigger remission of disease.  In her book The Fear Cure she explores the detrimental effects of chronic fear and anxiety on our health and longevity and explores how our fear can guide us to the places in our life that need healing. In the beginning of the book she describes an experience in her twenties when she and her friend were held at a gunpoint in a tunnel by two masked and armed men. She writes: “When someone has a gun to your head, fear is something to welcome. It’s there to protect you. …… the right kind of fear can benefit your health. It can even save your life.” However, many of our fears are the result of our potentiated amygdala, which can’t tell the difference between a past threat and what is happening in the moment. Our nervous system gets stuck in unnecessary stress responses and our warning mechanisms are chronically activated. Over time this has deleterious effects on our health and decision making. Data proves that fear isn’t just a painful emotion that causes psychological turmoil; but it can be a serious risk factor for disease when not processed and transformed. Every fearful thought we have triggers a stress response that puts our body at risk and causes suffering. Fear predisposes us to harmful biochemical influences.

She describes how after the robbery incident, mentioned above, she was afraid of everything until she became sick, but despite her medications her body was not responding, and because she had been brainwashed into the mind-body dissociation, it never occurred to her to question whether her high blood pressure, heart conditions and other issues might be related to her fears or post traumatic stress.  She writes: “My nervous system had been completely jacked up, and it was affecting every cell in my body through a complicated series of hormonal reactions that were making me sick. Had I not woken up to the many ways that a repeatedly triggered stress response was contributing not just to my high blood pressure and cardiac issues, but also to a whole host of other health conditions that plagued me, I’d probably still be taking the seven medications…… Fortunately, I did wake up. I began to understand how, if we’re out of touch with our Inner Pilot Light, false fear leads us to deny what is true for ourselves, and how this betrayal of our personal integrity predisposes the body to disease.”

So, what if instead of resisting and suppressing our fears we viewed them as guides pointing towards the things in our life that need our attention. Rankin says: “What if fear is the finger pointing toward everything that stands between you and true well-being? Most of us devote a great deal of energy to organizing our entire lives around avoiding what we fear most. But fear can be a messenger that wakes you up to everything in your life that’s still in need of healing.” However, she suggests that we need to discern between fear that points to real, present danger and unsafe situations and fear that is pointing to blind spots and past experiences. She writes that in the branch of psychotherapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy there is a differentiation between “clean pain” and “dirty pain.” Clean pain results from real-life events and dirty pain results from the stories we create and judgments we make about these events. Rankin believes feelings of fear divide along similar lines and she differentiates between true fear and false fear. She writes: “True fear is a natural survival mechanism, here to protect you, and false fear is an important teaching tool, here to enlighten you. Fear affects every one of us. It’s nothing to hide. On the contrary, it is worth examining so it can point you toward a better way to live, a way that aligns you with your natural courage and supports you in optimal health……..  Courage is not about being fearless; it’s about letting fear transform you so you come into right relationship with uncertainty, make peace with impermanence, and wake up to who you really are. This kind of courage helps you make choices that strengthen rather than diminish you.”

Sharing a painting I have been working on this June and a poem written by W. H. Auden about The Fall of Icarus, a painting by Breughel, one of the artists that intrigued me in my younger years. The poem is both a narrative about the painting and a commentary on human suffering and how life carries on oblivious to the disaster or the suffering.Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,

The old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.