An online survey conducted by the American Psychological Association recently found that more than 50 percent of Americans feel stressed out and anxious about this year’s presidential election.
In her #Mindful Monday presentation on Facebook, Meadows therapist Joyce Willis reminds us what forgiveness is and what it is not:
“Forgiveness is about bringing peace to ourselves. Forgiveness is a way to end suffering for ourselves and others and to bring dignity and harmony back into our lives. It is fundamentally for our own sake, and for our own emotional health. It is one tool that we can use to let go of the pain that we carry.”
In AA’s Big Book, the 4th step calls on people in recovery to search out ‘the flaws in our make-up which cause our failure,’ and understand that ‘self, manifested in various ways, is what has failed us.” The book goes on to identify the number one failure of self as resentment.
However, for people who have been abused or mistreated, resentment is perfectly reasonable feeling to have toward the perpetrator (or perpetrators.) When people with histories of emotional trauma approach this step in their recovery, they can sometimes feel stuck. Some interpret this step to mean that they have to find a way to accept some responsibility for what happened to them—that they have to somehow find their part in allowing themselves to be victimized.
This notion can most certainly be counterproductive to trauma survivors’ processes of healing. And, it can intensify the shame and self-blame that likely fed their addictions and behavioral health issues in the first place. That’s why there has to be some nuance and balance to interpreting this step for those who have experienced physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse.
No one is responsible for someone else’s decision to abuse them. In order to heal, it’s not the abuse that the survivor has to accept responsibility for but for the ways in which they may have acted out as a result of their feelings related to that abuse. If a trauma and abuse survivor realizes through their work in recovery that they have behaved in ways that were harmful to themselves or others, they can ask themselves “What other choices did I have? Could I have done better given the circumstances?”
All in all, forgiveness is not about absolving the abuser of guilt or letting them “off the hook.” Instead, it’s about letting go of feelings and beliefs that prevent a survivor from living the full, connected, and authentic lives they deserve.
Forgiving is not easy. It is not something you can do in an instant. You can’t simply decide to forgive and then expect all of your anger and resentment to instantly disappear; it is something that you will have to work through over time, by letting go of a little bit of your anger each day.
You may need more than meditation to help you let go of resentment, especially if you have been abused or mistreated. Therapy and self-care can also be crucial to forgiveness, but meditation can play a key supporting role in the process by helping you cultivate your capacity for love, compassion, and healing. Meditation can help you access and accept the past as it is, and help you gain a deeper understanding of the thoughts and beliefs that are blocking you from having a full emotional life and reaching your full potential. More on Mindfulness and Meditation
Check our Facebook page every Monday for a new guided meditation led by one of our experts. Coming up on Oct. 31, Joe Whitwell, MAC, LAC, CCTP and Therapist at The Meadows Outpatient Center will present a mindfulness talk and exercise on Anger.
And, for a more intensive experience, consider registering for or 5-day Mind & Heart: A Mindful Path to Wholehearted Living workshop. For more information call 866-494-4930 or reach out online.
Carol Juergensen Sheets LCSW, CSAT, PCC
Recently I interviewed Dr. Jon Caldwell, a psychiatrist from The Meadows who is helping sex addicts to look at their urges and cravings differently. This is an excerpt from my internet radio show on sex addiction that you can download on iTunes if you wish to hear the whole show. If you struggle with urges and cravings you might want to give these techniques a try.
If you would like to hear the whole show, please click here.
Carol: You have been doing a lot of important work around this topic. I thought, if you could express and explain to our listening audience, in your opinion what is mindfulness?
Jon: Mindfulness really has grown out of contemplative traditions, religions and traditions that come from Buddhism, from contemplative traditions in Christianity and Sufism. Many religious practices have thought that trying to really spend time with our raw experience just as it is, noticing the present moment and noticing the experiences of the present moment have a lot of value for general well-being. These practices have been around for thousands of years actually, and in the last 3 decades or so here in the US, we have been studying these practices. Generally the way that most people talk about it is mindfulness. The definition that’s mostly used for mindfulness was given to us by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and it’s really bringing an unconditional nonjudgmental attention to our experience in the present moment.
Carol: That is really important, isn’t it, to be nonjudgmental.
Jon: That’s right.
Carol: So many sex addicts have so many negative thoughts about themselves and about this disorder, so you just did a great job of explaining mindfulness. Now you actually believe that there is a science to this, that it can be studied and it can be measured, is that correct?
Jon: Yes. There has actually been quite a lot of research done in this area. Again, Jon Kabat-Zinn is really the father of mindfulness in the US and in the West. Nearly 30 years ago, he developed a stress management clinic at the University of Massachusetts, and he started working with patients who have chronic pain, patients who are not able to get relief through typical medical treatment. From that beginning, he developed an 8-week course that helps people to learn the skills of mindfulness and self-compassion. He taught them some yoga, so they had more awareness of the body, and then he began to study what happened to these folks as they spent time in this 8-week course. What he found was that people had real genuine improvement in their pain, and they also had better quality of life. There are at least 2 things happening. One is that it seems to have a biological effect on the body. If you think about the toxic effects of stress and chronic stress, including things like pain and disease and psychological stress, then this is a way for people to learn to work with the body that alleviates some of that stress. It’s a form of a coping mechanism, a way of being with our experience in such a way that it helps to reduce the stress and the strain on the body and the mind. In addition to that, it seems to really help with general well-being and positive emotion. There’s more joy and happiness and peace and calmness that comes through this practice.
Carol: This is a subjective question, but would you say that addiction is one of the most powerful stressors in a person’s life?
Jon: We know that people who find themselves in an addiction oftentimes have been dealing with very stressful things for some time, and the addiction is a way to try and manage what’s happening in their life. They’ve probably been dealing with stress for years, if not for most of their life, and they’ve turned to the addiction as a sort of way to manage that. The tragedy of course is that the addiction ends up being more stressful. Not only does it cause a lot of strain in people’s social lives with family members and in their workplace, but it has a lot of stress and strain on the body itself. This includes anything from food addiction, substance addiction, sex addiction; all of these addictions create tremendous stress in the body and in the mind. So yes, I do agree with that.
Carol: My feeling was that oftentimes you’ve got these terrible traumatic experiences from childhood on up, and then in addition to that what ends up happening is you develop the addiction and now you have that double stressor of feeling bad about the trauma, sometimes even reenacting the trauma, and then having the addiction to cope with the trauma which makes you feel worse about yourself. So with mindfulness, what do you work on first?
Jon: Mindfulness and the different techniques that go with it are sort of interesting. The techniques can be specifically applied to the addiction or to the trauma, but they can also be applied quite generally and help both conditions simultaneously. When you think about it, some of the Buddhist psychology says that the source of our suffering here in this life is not necessarily the pain that we will all encounter, the pain of being in this mortal existence. We’re going to run across problems with our body, and we’re going to grow old, and we’re going to lose loved ones and we’re going to have changes in our role and what we’re able to do in terms of functioning. Ultimately, we’re going to die. All of that is sort of the natural pain of life, but the Buddhists said that we don’t have to have suffering piled on top of that. What we end up doing so much of the time, we push our experience away. We resist our own experience. We either avoid it, suppress it, repress it, or we find some pleasure like sex, food or drug, and we hold onto that as a way of avoiding what is really here, the emotions and the thoughts and the various pains that just come with being alive. There is a tendency to avoid what is uncomfortable and to hold onto what is pleasurable. In some ways, that basic tendency, that basic human conditioning, is present in both how people deal with trauma and in how they deal with addiction. These techniques I do with mindfulness are really helping us to not move toward holding onto something pleasurable or avoiding something painful, but instead to learn to be with our experience just as it is; to have a measure of acceptance and allowance, and sometimes even being able to befriend our experience. To be able to really welcome our experience and come home to ourselves in our own experience is the wonderful benefit of this work. It allows us to be here with what is here and not always run from our experience into addiction or into some sort of emotional upheaval that comes with trauma.
Carol: You used those words like repression and suppression, so for our listening audience, repression is when you absolutely forget about the pain and you ignore it and you avoid it and you don’t even know it’s there, whereas suppression is you minimize that. You’re saying that those 2 things are coping mechanisms. They can actually be helpful initially but ultimately end up interfering with that acceptance process which is so important in dealing with whatever pain and suffering we’ve experienced.
Jon: Yes, I totally agree.
Carol: So that is a difficult concept for anybody out there listening who has been, unfortunately, I use the term “fighting” their sexual addiction. You’re actually encouraging them to surrender to it, and to accept it as part of life so that they can then work with it and go with the flow.
Jon: Yeah, this is a very interesting point, Carol, I appreciate that you brought it up. There is a little bit of friction that’s inherent in this process. When I’m working with people with sexual addiction, many of them when I bring up the topic of mindfulness and acceptance, they really struggle with how to incorporate that into their recovery process.
Here’s just one practical example of a way I use mindfulness in my practice with people with sexual addiction. Sometimes what I find is that people can really get into a struggle with the addictive tendencies. This can be applied to alcohol, drugs, all the rest as well, but what they oftentimes do is many times especially in recovery, there’s this struggle with what’s happening in the mind, the cravings that are coming up around sexual addiction. People can sometimes find themselves really battling inside of their mind with the stuff that’s coming up. I’ve had a number of people in recovery who say, “It feels like I’m just as distant and not present and struggling now that I’m in recovery than when I was actually dealing with all these cravings.” As if the thought of don’t do it, don’t look, don’t go to that side; all of that tension in the brain saps a lot of their energy and their awareness of the present moment. One of the things I find a practical technique is actually to try and release people from that struggle within their mind.
For example, if somebody in recovery from sexual addiction has a thought that comes up, a trigger; let’s say they drive by a billboard and there is an image on the billboard that really triggers them into some thinking and maybe even an old memory about their addiction, the tendency for many people is to say, “Oh no, I can’t think about this.” There’s this strong resistance to what is happening. The mindful approach would be to just notice that there is a craving there, and to step back from the experience and you might just label the craving with something very neutral. Again, non-judgmentally, label it as I like to use the term “desire.” The person would look at the billboard and say, “Ah, desire.” Desire is a natural human tendency. We all desire. We all have sexual desires. We have desires for food. We have desire for pleasure, so we just label it very gently with something called desire, and then just notice there is this triggering happening in the body and in the mind. Instead of either latching onto it and following that trill to an old memory or resisting it very strongly, you just step back from the experience of what’s triggering and just notice what’s happening. You might be able to pay attention to your breath, or you might pay attention to the feel of your hands on the steering wheel, and just notice this desire or feeling inside of the body happening. You don’t have to do anything with it. You don’t have to push it away. You don’t have to change it. You don’t have to run from it, but you can have a momentary experience or desire and then come back into something in the present. That doesn’t mean you have to just sit there and wallow in that. You may pick up the phone and call your sponsor. You may decide I have to hit a meeting tonight, but you’re not running from it or pushing away your experience, you’re just recognizing that this is part of the process to whole-hearted living, to fullness, just being with our experience the way it is.
Carol: Is that what you would consider self-compassion? When you feel something, and instead of attaching shame and guilt to it, you just have that mindful awareness of it, reframe it, call it something like desire, and then move on from it.
Jon: That’s right. It’s been shown in a lot of studies now that the practice of mindfulness really seems to facilitate greater self-compassion. Whenever I work with people in recovery and I’m using mindfulness as a technique to help them, I always incorporate some tools around self-compassion. You’re exactly right, they go hand in hand. Many times when we start to open to our own experience, we encounter some difficult feelings and thoughts, and it takes a lot of gentleness and self-compassion and care to really hold our experience in a loving and self-compassionate way so we can be with what we find there. The tendency for many people is when that desire comes up, when they’re triggered by something in the environment or even something inside; let’s say they remember a past event that has a trigger to it. The first thing they might think is oh great, here I go again, I can’t believe I’m still in this place where these things trigger me. Why can’t I get over this? Why can’t I do this better? There’s a lot of negative self-talk that goes along with it. This approach brings a lot of gentleness and compassion, so you might say I just noticed I got triggered inside. Again, back up from your experience; take a breath, and say, “So this is still part of my recovery process.” These thoughts still come up. I notice desire right now.
Dr. Jon Caldwell
Over a decade ago, in the early stages of my own process of awakening, a colleague intuitively noticed that I was having a particularly difficult day and suggested that I “try to stay in the present moment”. My mind was reeling, my emotions were on overdrive, and I’m sure I was focused on some temporary, self-destructive fix. He caught my frantic, darting eyes with his and gently implored, “Just try to be right here, in this moment, just as it is… being present for our own experience can be pretty cool.”
Needless to say, I really didn’t understand what he was talking about. I had heard about “transpersonal meditation” and “being in the now”. But these phrases typically brought to mind images of bald guys in flowing robes chanting “Ooooommmm” in a remote hill-top monastery. These notions, naïve as they were, seemed to be completely at odds with my hectic, restless, and discontented existence at the time. I remember thinking, “Who has time for the present moment?!”
As I progressed in my self-reclamation journey, I began to recognize that my incessant running from the-here-and-now was associated with tremendous suffering. The constant busyness and perpetual mind-motion was probably meant to fill some void within myself. Yet, despite my frenetic void-filling behaviors, I still felt a lot of emptiness inside. Eventually, the pain of my situation was enough that I decided to try something different; I got curious about what I was running from and what it would be like to stay with my own experience.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this simple inquiry – “what is really here and can I be with it” – has been at the heart of various contemplative traditions for thousands of years. Within the traditions of Buddhism, a style of meditation practice known as vipassana involves training the mind to have greater awareness or insight of bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Today, this type of practice is generally known as mindfulness and can be defined as “bringing attention to the present moment without judgment.” In recent decades, numerous scientific studies have shown that mindfulness techniques can improve relationships, health, and general wellbeing.
Mindfulness can be practiced in formal sitting meditation where the mind is trained to observe or notice what is happening in relation to the brain and body. Mindfulness can also be practiced in everyday activities by applying non-conceptual awareness to the raw experience of life: the sensation of water on the body while bathing, the ebb-and-flow of mental activity while stuck in traffic, or the actual embodied feeling of grief when hearing a particular story on the radio. The daily practice of mindfulness enables a person to become a witness to their own experience.
Becoming an observer or a witness of present-moment experience can foster a profound shift in perspective and consciousness! When we can learn to take even a small step back from our experience, and observe it with less judgment, we can gain valuable insight into how the mind and body are connected. We can begin to see what sort of situations trigger us into self-defeating thoughts and emotions. We recognize that we don’t have to completely believe our thoughts and that our emotional landscape is constantly changing. As we become more adept at observing our moment-to-moment experience, our human tendencies for mindless reactivity can gradually give way to wise responding.
Sounds great, right? But how do we start to circumvent our strong conditioning to leave the present moment – usually by avoiding what seems uncomfortable or clinging to what seems pleasurable? This is certainly our natural human tendency, but it isn’t necessarily our destiny. Greater awareness and presence is possible! Our brain is a thought-secreting organ… over eons of evolutionary time it has learned to plan, scheme, ruminate, control, avoid, repress, and deny. However, our brains also have the profound capacity for neural plasticity. That is, humans have the unique capacity to use their minds to literally shape the structure and function of their brains.
Interestingly, the brain-sculpting capacity of the human mind relies heavily on the body. That’s right, the body is the quintessential guide to greater mental awareness and progressive neural plasticity. Strengthening the connections between the brain and body is a powerful way to bring our awareness into the present moment and experience relief from self-limiting patterns of thinking and feeling. Gently bringing our attention to various sensations in the body – literally coming to our senses – awakens us from habitual patterns of reactivity into the rich and dynamic experience of the here-and-now.
At this point, you may be feeling a bit lost… like I felt when my colleague encouraged me to, “stay in the present moment”. Let’s talk practicalities: how do we come home to our own experience? Well, I think it has to start with a sincere intention to welcome the life that is here, just as it is, with as much acceptance and compassion as possible. For example, we might start each day with the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, “I want to unfold. Let no place in me hold itself closed, for where I am closed, I am false.” Carrying in our hearts a commitment to unfold, to truly open to all aspects of our experience, can flavor each moment and each interaction in a way that fosters greater mindfulness.
With our sincere intention in heart, we can then establish and sustain a regular practice of present-moment awareness. This practice might take the form of sitting meditation, yoga or Tai Chi, contact with nature or animals, or simply moving through daily life more mindfully. Many people find that a regular contemplative practice within a community of similarly-intentioned individuals is extremely useful in establishing healthy patterns. Regardless of the method, it will take practice! Our human conditioning to trip off into the non-now is so strong that practicing re-mindfulness is the rule, not the exception. With practice, we can remember the pathway back home to presence. We will inevitably trail off into thoughts and feelings, so we lovingly invite ourselves back home… again and again.
Whatever our pathway to presence, the body is a reliable companion for the journey. In any given moment we can let the mental chatter fade to backstage as we bring the rhythmic sensations of our breath to the forefront of our mind. We can simply allow our awareness to ride the waves of inhalation and exhalation, no need to change or control it… just letting it be, as it is. In those precious moments of presence, we can rest in an embodied awareness and centeredness of being while observing the dynamic flow of sensations, feelings, and thoughts. We can touch into a deeper sense of who we are – something more than our habitual fears and cravings – an awareness of presence itself, complete and whole.
There are other practical ways to let our body guide us back to the experience of now. When we have the good fortune to notice our mind has wandered, we can nonjudgmentally refocus our attention back to our hands, letting them relax and feeling them from the inside out. We might try cultivating more awareness of the textures and flavors of our food – slow the process down and mindfully savor each bite. During a heated discussion with another person, try scanning the body for areas of tension (i.e., raised shoulders, clenched jaw, hard belly) and allow the body to soften with each outbreath. When gripped with strong emotions, let go of the storyline stay with the sensation of the emotions in body: notice the prickly heat on the skin, the tightness in the throat, or the ache in the pit of the stomach. Listen to the body – it knows the way.
Of course, after more than a decade of practice, I still have difficult days when I appreciate a reminder to “stay in the present moment”. However, now, instead of feeling lost by such a suggestion, I often try to pause, notice my breath, and let the corners of my mouth turn up. Over time, the body-brain connections supporting mindfulness and compassion have been reinforced and those supporting mindless reactivity have diminished to some degree. My body has become a valuable companion and guide on the pathway to greater present-moment awareness. The hectic, restless, discontented existence that was so familiar has shifted to one with many moments of calm centeredness and wondrous awe. Unexpectedly, moments of precious presence have become a form of spiritual awakening… a homecoming to true nature. It’s been right here all the time.
Dr. Caldwell is a board certified psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of adults with relational trauma histories and addictive behaviors. For a number of years he has taught students, interns, residents, and professionals in medicine and mental health about how childhood adversity influences health and wellbeing.
Dr. Caldwell's theoretical perspective is heavily influenced by his PhD graduate work at the University of California at Davis, where he researches the affects of early childhood maltreatment and insecure attachment relationships on cognitive, emotional, and social functioning later in life.
Dr. Caldwell's clinical approach has become increasingly flavored by the timeless teachings and contemplative traditions of the mindfulness meditation practice.
By: Joyce Willis, MC, LPC
Have you ever driven someplace in your car and then couldn't remember the entire drive or what you passed along the way? That's an example of not being mindful that many people can experience daily. It's the same routine and you place yourself on auto-pilot, not noticing what you are doing or what is going on around you. In this article, we will explore the art of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the art of paying attention to what you are doing and what is going on around you. Mindfulness is about living with openness and experiencing possibilities by paying attention to the present moment. When we practice mindfulness, we can reduce stress and function in a more balanced way. Practicing mindfulness helps us to gain insight into ourselves and the environment around us. Practicing mindfulness helps us treat our relationships with patience, respect, and kindness.
How do we start to develop mindfulness? There are many qualities to incorporate in our lives to live in mindfulness. We will consider 4 of the most important qualities of mindfulness. These are
There are many benefits of Mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness has been found to decrease medical conditions and psychological issues. Much research has been done to show that being mindful and using mindfulness decreases psoriasis, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure and asthma. Psychological benefits of practicing mindfulness include:
One of the most important benefits of practicing mindfulness is decreasing stress. When we decrease stress, we can decrease medical and psychological issues and increase our general well-being. There are five steps to a mindful approach to life which can be applied to every aspect of life. These steps are:
One way to practice mindfulness is through mindfulness meditation. A quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk and a renowned Zen master, sums up how meditation and mindfulness go hand in hand: "Meditation is not to escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do."
John Kabat-Zinn states that mindfulness is about attention and awareness in anything we are doing. The practice of mindfulness includes not only mindfulness meditation, yet the actions we take in every day life. Kabat Zinn warns us that mindfulness is not a cure-all or magical solution to life's problems. It is up to us to choose our path and chart our course. Mindfulness provides a simple, yet powerful path for getting us in touch with our wisdom and vitality. When we follow this path, we can improve our lives and our relationships.
Like the title of this article states, mindfulness can be a part of everyday life; eating, talking, driving, spending and living. Let's consider each of these areas of everyday life.
Let's explore how mindfulness relates to recovery. Mindfulness is an integral part of recovery. Addiction, depression, and anxiety can all be looked at as dis-eases; they all are a suffering. Incorporating the Four Insights, by Terese Jacobs-Stewart into our recovery process can be a source of comfort and relief.
The First Insight - Suffering: Suffering is an intrinsic part of life. Life serves up one form or another. It is not anyone's fault; it just is. We face the truth of the First Step of the Twelve Steps by admitting we are powerless and that by continuing to deny and try to manage our addictions, depression, anxiety... makes our lives unmanageable. For addicts, addiction and codependency are the First Insight. For others, the First Insight may have to do with change, depression, anxiety, illness, loss or death.
The Second Insight - Our response to suffering: The second reality that we have in internal response to the suffering we encounter. For every external event, we have an internal reaction. Our responses may compound the suffering that already exists when we numb with drugs or alcohol, when we blame, when we try to manage and control our addiction or depression. We may choose to become rigorously honest and use mindfulness to develop greater self-awareness and self-control.
The Third Insight - Transforming our response: We are not doomed to be stuck! We do not have to keep suffering. We can change our internal responses to the things we cannot control. An ongoing practice of mindfulness and meditation can change our brain chemistry. We must be willing to deeply engage in mindfulness, spirituality and to welcome change.
The Fourth Insight - A Path to Transformation: The fourth insight is that there truly is a path out of suffering. This path is about continuing practices of mindfulness, meditation and ethical living. The Twelve Steps give us steps to follow that are similar to mindfulness practice.
So, honor yourself by practicing mindfulness. This will help you open a new foundation for building the life you want. With mindfulness, you can face day to day situations with a new vision of who you are. Be gentle with yourself. Cultivating mindfulness takes time and patience. Mindfulness can lead to a realization of your basic nature, your true greatness and your potential.
For further information about Mindfulness, you might consider these books:
Wherever You Go, There You Are -; John Kabat-Zinn
Full Catastrophe Living -; John Kabat Zinn
Cultivating Lasting Happiness: A 7 Step Guide to Mindfulness - Terry Fralich
Peace in Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life; - Thich Nhat Hanh
The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Mindfulness -; Thich Nhat Hanh
Mindfulness and the Twelve Steps - Terese Jacobs-Stewart
Joyce Willis is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is currently a therapist at The Meadows. She earned her Bachelor of Education degree from the University of Akron. After teaching for several years, Joyce earned a Master's degree in counseling from the University of Phoenix. She has been in the counseling profession since 1996 and in that time has worked extensively in the addictions field. Her specialties include treatment for addictions, bereavement, trauma, depression and anxiety. Joyce has a special interest in mindfulness and helping people connect their emotional, spiritual, mindful and physiological selves with compassion and respect.