Herd Mentality

On our way to Niagara this week, we stopped at an ONroute service centre. These are places on the 401 between Montreal and Toronto where you can relieve yourself, eat and fuel up.

Complexes like this which pepper the highways of the world are designed to efficiently and profitably direct large numbers of visitors in and out. They work. As we converged on the entrance we became one of the crowd. Once you’ve been in one you know them all. They’re identical. You could be anywhere. You could be anyone.

Signage was clear. The bathrooms appeared within seconds. Each concession, automat and service was perfectly positioned to be at hand before you even knew you wanted it.

I realized what I hate most about consumer culture. I felt like cattle—part of something larger than me, and not in a good way.

Each visitor is stripped of her or his individuality simply by virtue of being there. Everyone follows the same pattern. We all have the same road-weary look. We all obey the signs. These are awful places.

I mentioned it to Caroline.

She nodded. “And yet,” she remarked, “Every one has a story. We’re all individuals. We all suffer and try not to. Everyone’s wants to be happy.”

Happiness? What’s that? Half the visitors came out clutching oversize soft drinks, munching on fast food wrapped in artificially colored containers.

“Wow,” I said.

“Wow,” said Caroline.

Feeling ashamed, I heard Shylock’s voice. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Yes we’re all the same, but a part of that sameness is the need to express our uniqueness. Here, I don’t feel anything like that.

“Let’s get out of here.” We said it together.

Later that day in Niagara we were met by Caroline’s cousin Peter and his husband Luc. They’d invited us and two friends for dinner, and it was a perfect match. There was no small talk. The conversation was personal, confessional and deep. We each expressed our uniqueness, and then some. I love people who are honest about themselves and know how to share.

Two days later we headed home. After a couple of hours we needed a bathroom. This time we ignored the convenience of ONroute and exited the highway. We found an old gas station. The bathroom was grubby. Toilet paper was strewn on the floor and the porcelain was stained. Without thinking I said, “Eew, gross.”

But I smiled. Although there’s something definitely revolting about a dirty public washroom, it’s nothing compared to the horror of being a herd.

Three Reasons Doctors Should Practice Mindfulness

I’ve had a large number of psychologists in my workshops. They heard about mindfulness years ago and took to the practice as a natural extension of their training. Now I’m being sought out by physicians, but their interest is more personal.

What a career choice! Doctors work unnaturally long hours and have high rates of burnout, divorce and substance abuse, as well as the highest suicide rate of any profession. Physicians are more likely to suffer from mental illness but much less likely to be treated for it. A 2012 study on physician suicide begins with the lament that there have been so few studies.

1. Equanimity

Although you must be highly ambitious to become an MD, it often starts with the simple motivation to relieve suffering and help others. Simple on the surface, at any rate. This is a huge moral commitment, and since it’s impossible to take on the emotional load of every suffering patient young doctors are taught emotional detachment that is reinforced by the fierce competitiveness of the profession and the tendency towards obsessive-compulsive perfectionism. Over a lifetime this often boils down to plain insensitivity. Emotional detachment has been described by one professional as, “an unnatural skill in which you must suppress your innate sympathy.”

Suppressing your innate sympathy is clearly at odds with your fundamental motives and renders your practice of medicine inherently stressful.

There are other ways to manage emotional overload. The resolute practice of mindful noting cools your emotional reactivity by building equanimity without sacrificing your sensitivity to others.

2. Care

Central to the whole notion of mindfulness is care. You care about life and what you do with it. You care for yourself and others by seeking physical, mental and emotional balance.

You express care most tangibly by managing your reactivity. While mindfulness is known to be calming, it also has a more profound purpose: to recognize and let go of reactivity. This happens not by force of will but by understanding yourself from the inside. As you master this reflective skill you exude presence and become a powerful role model. You express the full potential of your healing sensibilities.

3. Resilience

You’re not only under pressure from patients. You also have to function within systems that can be bureaucratic, discriminatory, heavy-handed and sometimes just plain irrational. You can become hardened, or you can become resilient.

Resilience is a flexible inner strength that enables you to consistently bounce back from adversity. By training you to accept what-is with equanimity, Mindful Reflection™ keeps you firmly in touch with your convictions so you can pursue your highest goals with poise and presence.

With resilience arises the recognition that human ignorance, like human mortality, is inevitable. Both summon your desire to heal, and both at times are beyond your power. Resilience enables you to accept your limitations without being defeated by them. You honor life by always seeking new pathways and by exploring life without preconceptions.

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These three qualities of Equanimity, Care and Resilience are intimately connected and overlap naturally. They arise together from a committed training in Mindful Reflection™.

Mindful Reflection™ combines the well-known practices of mindfulness with the less well-known reflections that corral your thoughts and bring mindful attention to all you do. For more information contact the author.

Five Ways to Stop Being Emotionally Reactive

How many times have you promised yourself you’ll never behave like that again, only to find yourself reacting the same old way?

—Excuse me, why are you doing it that way?

—Jeez. Just because I’m not doing it your way doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

—That’s not what I said. No need to get all defensive.

—Me defensive? What about you.

And so on.

Even the most intelligent, educated people can get like this. In the heat of the moment, it’s hard to acknowledge that you’re not quite the person you like to think. It seems childish. It upsets the self-image you like to maintain. You lose face, you feel bad and in an effort to avoid this unpleasant reality you look for somewhere else to pin the blame. Needless to say, no good comes of any of this.

Eventually you calm down, admit your mistake, apologize—and make new promises. No matter how contrite you may be however, you’ve done nothing yet to trigger real change. Defensiveness is an instinctive impulse towards a perceived threat. Your reaction’s unlikely to change until you see why it feels that way. What’s the threat exactly?

This is what mindfulness is for. I’m not speaking of mindfulness as a movement or a technique or an ancient teaching. I’m talking about the mental factor of mindfulness—the self-reflective way of seeing that gives you choices and opportunities other animals lack, that makes it possible to stop reactivity and be the person you want to be.

You don’t need to learn mindfulness; you already have it. It’s a natural mental factor. However, it can’t do much by itself. Only when it’s trained along with other mental factors such as effort, discernment and open-mindedness does it become an effective tool for long-term change.

And then you put it to work. Let’s revisit that conversation:

1) Pause, take a breath and get centered.

This first step is the hardest. You can’t just expect to be mindful when you need it, but with as little as ten minutes a day of meditation it becomes second nature. It leads you to a natural go-to place within yourself where you feel centered and see clearly. That sense of peace colors your day and guards you against reactivity.

—I like the way you’re doing that.

—Oh really? I learned from my dad. He taught me to do things right.

2) Don’t be surprised if your partner is defensive too. Use mindful listening. Try to clarify the situation rather than avoid, ignore or reject it.

—My dad was like that too. Only one way to do it!

—Well, I wouldn’t say that.

3) Show personal interest. Mindful watching helps you understand what the other person feels and needs at that moment.

—Really? You think there’s something to learn from other ways?

—Absolutely!

4) Spell it out. Come to an agreement that reactive emotions are not the way to communicate. Ask the other person to point out when you do it.

—How about this way, how I’ve always done it?

—Well that’s interesting too.

5) As you explain your own needs, watch out for any tendency to invalidate those of your partner. Remember, she or he is just as vulnerable as you.

—Thanks for your help.

—Well, thanks to you I’ve just learned something new.

The difference between these two conversations has nothing to do with being right or wrong. It’s about letting go of defensiveness and exploring the conversation open-heartedly.

Calming the Storm of Cancer

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Everyone is touched sooner or later by cancer. I’m no exception. It took my father. My sister is a survivor. I could go on.
I’ve also had cancer patients and survivors in my mindfulness workshops and among my clients, and what I’ve noticed is that they’re already contemplative. They find mindfulness training helpful and life-enhancing. In the midst of cancer’s negativity, it’s a positive source.
So when I heard that the West Island Cancer Wellness Centre was open to volunteers, I wanted to be a part of it. I met with Programming Coordinator Louise Bilodeau in her office. Like the entire building, it’s bright and spacious. I mentioned to her the lovely smile I received from a lady on the way out. She wore a scarf wrapped around her head. “Before I even set foot in the building,” I said, “I felt the welcome.”
Louise is soft-spoken and direct. The proximity of cancer resets any priorities you might have thought important. “When you no longer expect life to be easy,” she said, “it gets easier.”
Cancer isn’t just a physical disease. It’s a storm that disrupts your sense of what’s normal and triggers a stress response that may compromise the immune function just when it’s most needed. It depends how you respond.
Some people put that stress to good use by considering something they’d never considered before: to sit down, do nothing and say nothing, in other words to start meditating. When we’re all wrapped up in worldly pursuits and feeling indestructible, it’s the hardest step to take. At times like this though, it’s more like going home.
Most of my students and clients with cancer admitted that before, they’d never have considered meditation. They finally came because they were ready to try anything. Then they discovered they liked it.
Linda Carlson at McGill University measured levels of stress, anxiety, depression and anger in cancer patients and found a 65% reduction in mood disturbances, measurably aiding them in their treatment and recovery.
And afterwards? Well, you’re left with a new set of priorities. Whether you call it mindfulness or not, you want to be fully present to your own life now that you’ve seen how fragile it is.

If you’d like to talk—to know more about cancer and mindfulness or anything else—message me or call 450-458-8030.

The Healing Power of Mindfulness

All his life Lindsay counted himself lucky—until the day he woke up with tinnitus. The ringing in his ears started just like that. It’s coming up to a year and a half now and he still can’t believe it. He has little reason to hope it will go away. He’s told it might—but who knows?

It’s changed his life. He’s more cautious, less sociable, more self-conscious. For the first time in his life now, he sometimes gets depressed.

He showed up at my last workshop and sat through six classes that I don’t think would have otherwise interested him.

Not that I promised or even suggested anything. All I said was, “Let’s take a look at the way you respond to the ringing in your ears; maybe you’ll see something you haven’t noticed before.”

“I’ll try anything, “he said, and sure enough he sat there open minded, even when touchy-feely subjects like relationships came up. He had a great life and a great marriage, he told me; no need to dissect it.

I wasn’t sure how he felt about the workshop, but afterwards he started sitting with me one-on-one. He wasn’t ready to say that the meditation seemed to be helping.

I learned that Lindsay and his brother worked their whole lives together as builders. I’m sure he’s good at it because he’s intelligent, honest, and always looking to do his best. He’s a hard worker, not a dreamer.

However he’s taken to me. Our conversations are candid. He tells me shyly of his one-time visit to the Kirov Ballet back in the 1980s. He still seems surprised that he enjoyed it.

The T-word is never far from his lips though. Fond memories remind him that things now are not the same any more. “The ringing is so loud and persistent,” he says holding his head with a grimace, “Sometimes I think I just can’t take it any more.”

“Look,” I say. “I’m not sure what I can do about the tinnitus. I mean, how many causes might there be—physiological, neurological, psychological?”

Lindsay shook his head. “God knows. The doctors don’t.”

“What I can do is help you explore your reactivity. We’ll look at 1) what you pay attention to, 2) how it makes you feel, and 3) what habits those feelings trigger.”

I go on. “Right now I’m not sure you accept your condition.”

“I’m not sure I want to,” he says.

“Fair enough”, I say. “Let’s take a look.”

I lead Lindsay through a ten minute meditation and he admits, “Yes, for a moment here and there I forgot about the ringing. And even the ringing itself: it’s not so loud, so insistent. It’s died down a bit.”

He shed a tear, apologizing several times. It was years since he’d been ‘emotional,’ he said. He was embarrassed.

Lindsay’s a pleasure to work with. We agreed we would focus on his disbelief—one more form of denial from the prodigious human arsenal of defensive reflexes. Does denial have something to do with Lindsay’s experience of tinnitus?

Today I called to remind him he’d left his glasses in my office, but before I could say a word he blurted out, “My tinnitus today. It’s so little. It’s so quiet. It’s like it’s not there!”

He could hardly believe it.

“Hah!” I said. “Why d’you think that is?”

“You know, I realized from the meditation yesterday that the more stressed I feel the louder it is, so this morning I made a decision to not be stressed today, to take it easy and remember my mood from last night.”

“Okay.”

“And that’s what I did!”

“You know,” he went on, “I think that sometimes I’m stressed in ways that I don’t even notice. It’s like I don’t do it consciously. Isn’t that funny?”

“Really funny,” I agree. “Anyway, you gonna keep meditating?”

“You bet.”

Andrea Courey
—in search of why

Divorced with three children and no child support, Andrea Courey not only found the inner strength and focus to succeed as a small business owner, she became Woman Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007!

Andrea has always been reflective about life, so when she embarked on her own business it was natural for her to ask, “Why am I doing this?” In this episode of Mindful Lives she shows how that question became the backbone of her will to succeed. Listen to her inspiring story here.

“One of the most difficult things I had to deal with was to get to work early every morning, leave late every night and know that the sun had risen, had made it all the way through the sky, and had set, and I had missed the sun that day.”

The Future

worldWhen you think about it, homo sapiens cuts a tragi-comic figure. We’re an excessive number of hyper-organised dressed-up apes mismanaging an incredibly diverse ecosystem that’s worked fine without our help for millions of years.

Once, before we were sapiens, our mission was the same as any other animal’s—merely to survive. Now, it’s to get more and to be more—no matter what.

Did you know they’re even working on a cure for old age. Really! I suppose if they succeed there’ll be weird side-effects, but that’s not the only creepy thing. Imagine if people stopped dying. We’d have to start shipping them to other planets—eventually by the billions. We might even have the technology, but who’s going to foot the bill? Besides, space ships are blowing up these days….

In general, I don’t mind dying; once or twice when I was deathly ill I actually felt like letting go. On any other day though, I’d rather not. As for that cure they’re working on, if it really could reverse arthritis and lengthen my telomeres I dare say I’d take it.

Ho-hum. One more paradox of being human. Cull the human race, but not me (or mine). We’re far from being God’s chosen; more like a scourge on the planet and on each other.

Now, just minutes before midnight some people are waking up to the dangers. Whether it’s happening fast enough is another matter, but I’m going to hope we will—before it’s too late—win over our somnambulant brothers and sisters and build a saner society. Who knows, we could even pretend we’re on the same side.

The alternative isn’t worth considering, since it includes our extinction. I mean, what’s the point of philosophy then?

We have to hope and try. Who else is going to?