Head Trip: Meditation Apps for Traveler

Meditation apps today offer stress relief for vacationers, be they walking through an airport, sitting on a plane or train, or strolling on a busy city street. Travelers can plug in and be mindfully guided to their final destination. Credit Gaby D'Alessandro

Having long tried to virtually transport listeners to beaches, rain forests and other dreamy respites, meditation apps today are also trying to appeal to people who are actually traveling to such places.

Several apps — including Buddhify, Calm, OMG. I Can Meditate! and Simple Habit — offer specialty meditation sessions for travelers on planes, trains and city streets, making their way across oceans or simply across town, be it “Waiting at the Airport” or “Commuting: A Mindful Journey.”

On my first trips of 2017, I tried several such apps, including some veterans, to see if they could alleviate the stress of long lines, crowded planes and busy streets. Meditation is personal — the teacher’s voice, words and methods, affect each of us in different ways — so I didn’t rank the apps. Instead, I’ve highlighted certain features, and to whom they may or may not appeal.

Research began at Newark Liberty International Airport, where my plane was being de-iced. I put in earbuds and tapped the “Prepare for Travel” session from Simple Habit, an app with meditations for situations as varied as remedying procrastination and easing PMS. Users can choose from sessions that span the vacation process, from “Waiting at the Airport” to “Just Landed” to “Relaxing on Vacation” and “After Vacation.” To gain access to all of Simple Habit’s sessions (including those that don’t pertain to travel), you need a subscription ($3.99 for seven days; $11.99 for one month; $99.99 for a year on iOS). As with other app subscriptions, you can cancel through iTunes (I used an iPhone, but the apps are also available for Android).

From my plane seat I tapped the “Prepare for Travel” session. “Oops, low internet connection,” the app said. “Please check your network.” I kept trying. I opened a couple of other meditation apps; they worked just fine. I gave up and revisited the “Prepare for Travel” session later, days after a trip to Puerto Rico.

“Travel can sometimes be a tumultuous experience,” a male voice said. It instructed me to let the tension in my neck, shoulders and jaw dissolve. A tense traveler might wonder: But how? The voice encouraged me to repeat the words, “Just this breath. Just this moment.”

“You just got your seat on the plane?” the voice said. “Just this breath. Just this moment.”

“It’s a way for you to come back to what’s here, right now,” the voice added. If you want brief, basic lessons about controlling your breathing, you may enjoy these sessions, more minilectures than silky-voiced meditations. (If you don’t find mantras effective, you may like Buddhify, which has a different technique for bringing you back to the present. More on that momentarily.)

Another app, OMG. I Can Meditate! (access to all sessions, $12.99 a month; $89.99 a year on iOS), offers sessions like “Mindful Walking,” “Waiting in Lines,” “Public Places” and “Mindful Eating,” which I selected during breakfast.

“Notice all the different colors, textures, shades, different food types,” a female voice said. The travel-related meditations on this app may appeal if you’re beginning to practice mindfulness and want step-by-step instructions. The eating session, for instance, asks listeners to rate their hunger from 1 to 10 to help them learn when they are full. “A lot of us eat because we’re nervous or bored,” the voice said. Other users, however, may find such sessions too much like pedestrian self-help audiobooks.

 

Simple Habit is an app in which users can choose from sessions that span the vacation process, from “Waiting at the Airport” to “Just Landed.”

One morning, I tried Calm (the company’s website offers lovely, free nature sounds and scenes, perfect for office workers seeking to drown out ambient chatter). The app (access to all sessions, $12.99 a month; $59.99 a year on iOS) has multiday programs such as “Seven Days of Calming Anxiety,” as well as meditations including “Calm Kids,” “Deep Sleep,” “Commuting” and “Emergency Calm.” I tried “Walking Meditation,” during which a female voice asks you to notice how you’re moving and what you’re seeing. The commuting and walking meditations were the only travel meditations in the app. If you’re a beginner and want the blithe cadence of certain yoga teachers, you may enjoy these sessions. If sing-songy voices make you think of the sleep teachings used to brainwash children in “Brave New World,” you may not.

The Pause app incorporates touch as well as sound. Move your finger and the blob grows while your ears are bathed with birdsong and breaking waves.

On the plane at Newark I also tested Pause, a simple, low-cost app ($1.99) with a surprising payoff. Unlike other stress-relief apps that try to keep you in the here and now, this one incorporates touch as well as sound. While it isn’t travel-specific, its ease of use makes it a nifty on-the-go solution. You put the tip of your finger on a small blob and slowly move it around the screen of your phone, like pushing a desktop sandbox with a little rake. (The creators of Pause say it uses principles of Tai Chi.) Move your finger and the blob grows while your ears are bathed with birdsong and breaking waves. As passengers jockeyed for overhead bin space, I guided the blob this way and that. Words appeared. “Go anywhere.”

At first, the idea of Pause seemed as silly as a mood ring. But there is something about slowly guiding your hand to the sound of lapping waves that has you radiating calm before you even set foot on a beach. If you want a quick, surreptitious way to refresh your mind without someone instructing you to tune into your breath, this could be the app for you.

Buddhify has a rainbow wheel with a question in the center. Users can select slices of the wheel with sessions like “Walking in City.”

Experienced meditators may want to try an oldie but goodie: Buddhify ($4.99 for iOS and $2.99 for Android), which has a rainbow wheel with a question in the center: “What are you doing?” Users can select slices of the wheel with sessions like “Walking in City.” I tapped one that said “Traveling” and up came options like “Connecting with stillness in a busy place” and “A unique meditation for when you’re on a plane.”

The latter is about 10 minutes. A soft male voice asks you to notice the sounds of the plane, and the people within. To help you stay present, the voice suggests that when your thoughts drift to the past, you say to yourself the name of the city from which you’re departing. If your thoughts drag you into the future, you say the city where you’re headed. Simple but effective in gently guiding the mind.

“Did one of the cities feature more often than the other?” the voice asked. “Just that little observation can teach us a lot about where our mind tends to wander, whether to the past or to the future. And the more our mind learns about itself, the stronger it becomes.”

Here’s hoping.

A version of this article appears in print on January 29, 2017, on Page TR3 of the New York edition with the headline: Meditation for Travelers on the Go.

 

Head Trip: Meditation Apps for Traveler

Meditation apps today offer stress relief for vacationers, be they walking through an airport, sitting on a plane or train, or strolling on a busy city street. Travelers can plug in and be mindfully guided to their final destination. Credit Gaby D'Alessandro

Having long tried to virtually transport listeners to beaches, rain forests and other dreamy respites, meditation apps today are also trying to appeal to people who are actually traveling to such places.

Several apps — including Buddhify, Calm, OMG. I Can Meditate! and Simple Habit — offer specialty meditation sessions for travelers on planes, trains and city streets, making their way across oceans or simply across town, be it “Waiting at the Airport” or “Commuting: A Mindful Journey.”

On my first trips of 2017, I tried several such apps, including some veterans, to see if they could alleviate the stress of long lines, crowded planes and busy streets. Meditation is personal — the teacher’s voice, words and methods, affect each of us in different ways — so I didn’t rank the apps. Instead, I’ve highlighted certain features, and to whom they may or may not appeal.

Research began at Newark Liberty International Airport, where my plane was being de-iced. I put in earbuds and tapped the “Prepare for Travel” session from Simple Habit, an app with meditations for situations as varied as remedying procrastination and easing PMS. Users can choose from sessions that span the vacation process, from “Waiting at the Airport” to “Just Landed” to “Relaxing on Vacation” and “After Vacation.” To gain access to all of Simple Habit’s sessions (including those that don’t pertain to travel), you need a subscription ($3.99 for seven days; $11.99 for one month; $99.99 for a year on iOS). As with other app subscriptions, you can cancel through iTunes (I used an iPhone, but the apps are also available for Android).

From my plane seat I tapped the “Prepare for Travel” session. “Oops, low internet connection,” the app said. “Please check your network.” I kept trying. I opened a couple of other meditation apps; they worked just fine. I gave up and revisited the “Prepare for Travel” session later, days after a trip to Puerto Rico.

“Travel can sometimes be a tumultuous experience,” a male voice said. It instructed me to let the tension in my neck, shoulders and jaw dissolve. A tense traveler might wonder: But how? The voice encouraged me to repeat the words, “Just this breath. Just this moment.”

“You just got your seat on the plane?” the voice said. “Just this breath. Just this moment.”

“It’s a way for you to come back to what’s here, right now,” the voice added. If you want brief, basic lessons about controlling your breathing, you may enjoy these sessions, more minilectures than silky-voiced meditations. (If you don’t find mantras effective, you may like Buddhify, which has a different technique for bringing you back to the present. More on that momentarily.)

Another app, OMG. I Can Meditate! (access to all sessions, $12.99 a month; $89.99 a year on iOS), offers sessions like “Mindful Walking,” “Waiting in Lines,” “Public Places” and “Mindful Eating,” which I selected during breakfast.

“Notice all the different colors, textures, shades, different food types,” a female voice said. The travel-related meditations on this app may appeal if you’re beginning to practice mindfulness and want step-by-step instructions. The eating session, for instance, asks listeners to rate their hunger from 1 to 10 to help them learn when they are full. “A lot of us eat because we’re nervous or bored,” the voice said. Other users, however, may find such sessions too much like pedestrian self-help audiobooks.

Simple Habit is an app in which users can choose from sessions that span the vacation process, from “Waiting at the Airport” to “Just Landed.”

One morning, I tried Calm (the company’s website offers lovely, free nature sounds and scenes, perfect for office workers seeking to drown out ambient chatter). The app (access to all sessions, $12.99 a month; $59.99 a year on iOS) has multiday programs such as “Seven Days of Calming Anxiety,” as well as meditations including “Calm Kids,” “Deep Sleep,” “Commuting” and “Emergency Calm.” I tried “Walking Meditation,” during which a female voice asks you to notice how you’re moving and what you’re seeing. The commuting and walking meditations were the only travel meditations in the app. If you’re a beginner and want the blithe cadence of certain yoga teachers, you may enjoy these sessions. If sing-songy voices make you think of the sleep teachings used to brainwash children in “Brave New World,” you may not.

 

The Pause app incorporates touch as well as sound. Move your finger and the blob grows while your ears are bathed with birdsong and breaking waves.

On the plane at Newark I also tested Pause, a simple, low-cost app ($1.99) with a surprising payoff. Unlike other stress-relief apps that try to keep you in the here and now, this one incorporates touch as well as sound. While it isn’t travel-specific, its ease of use makes it a nifty on-the-go solution. You put the tip of your finger on a small blob and slowly move it around the screen of your phone, like pushing a desktop sandbox with a little rake. (The creators of Pause say it uses principles of Tai Chi.) Move your finger and the blob grows while your ears are bathed with birdsong and breaking waves. As passengers jockeyed for overhead bin space, I guided the blob this way and that. Words appeared. “Go anywhere.”

At first, the idea of Pause seemed as silly as a mood ring. But there is something about slowly guiding your hand to the sound of lapping waves that has you radiating calm before you even set foot on a beach. If you want a quick, surreptitious way to refresh your mind without someone instructing you to tune into your breath, this could be the app for you.

Buddhify has a rainbow wheel with a question in the center. Users can select slices of the wheel with sessions like “Walking in City.”

Experienced meditators may want to try an oldie but goodie: Buddhify ($4.99 for iOS and $2.99 for Android), which has a rainbow wheel with a question in the center: “What are you doing?” Users can select slices of the wheel with sessions like “Walking in City.” I tapped one that said “Traveling” and up came options like “Connecting with stillness in a busy place” and “A unique meditation for when you’re on a plane.”

The latter is about 10 minutes. A soft male voice asks you to notice the sounds of the plane, and the people within. To help you stay present, the voice suggests that when your thoughts drift to the past, you say to yourself the name of the city from which you’re departing. If your thoughts drag you into the future, you say the city where you’re headed. Simple but effective in gently guiding the mind.

“Did one of the cities feature more often than the other?” the voice asked. “Just that little observation can teach us a lot about where our mind tends to wander, whether to the past or to the future. And the more our mind learns about itself, the stronger it becomes.”

Here’s hoping.

A version of this article appears in print on January 29, 2017, on Page TR3 of the New York edition with the headline: Meditation for Travelers on the Go.

 

Mindfulness, Self-Compassion and Resilience

Resilience is an innate capacity in the brain that allows us to face and deal with the challenges and crises that are inevitable to the human condition.  It allows us to respond flexibly to external events, even those that are upsetting, disturbing, and stressful. It also influences our response to  the internal perceptions or schemas we have about those events, and how we see ourselves in relation to those events.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for the broad range of cognitions known as  executive function in the brain, and we rely on it to regulate the body and the nervous system, quell the fear response of the amygdala, manage a broad range of emotions, attune to ourselves and other people, empathize with ourselves and other people, develop self-awareness, and respond flexibly, i.e., shift gears, shift perspectives, and shift behaviors when necessary (Daniel Siegel, M.D. was among the pioneers to attribute flexible responding to the prefrontal cortex.)

A mature prefrontal cortex allows us to analyze, plan, make judgments, discern options and make wise choices. This region of the brain develops as a result of our interactions with other people. We learn from others how to regulate our reactivity when we are startled, or frightened, or frustrated, or worried, or confused, to perceive whether we are in danger, or whether  we are safe in connection with another human being. .  We also learn from our interactions,  how to calm ourselves down, as well as how to  activate and motivate ourselves when necessary.  We learn to attune to ourselves and others by being attuned to by others.

The development and maturation of the prefrontal cortex is kindled in our earliest interactions with our first primary caregivers, typically our family of origin. Infants learn how to regulate their emotions by the emotions being regulated by the prefrontal cortex of their parents. An infant learns that he or she has value and worth because the parent relates to them as valuable and worthy. An infant learns to trust its competency in relationships by being related to in resonant, predictable ways. When these interactions go well, the infant, and later, -toddler and older child learns to be resilient, e.g., when he or she  handles a disappointment in school or difficulty playing with other children.  With support and resources, he or she can even bounce back from a potential disaster like a parent becoming gravely ill or parents divorcing.

If these early interactions, and subsequently, the initial conditioning and wiring of the brain's neural circuitry has not gone so well, the developing child's patterns of coping can become defensive, rigid, and closed to new experiences, new people, new emotions, and new learning. .  Psychologist Bonnie Badenoch refers to this lack of flexibility as "neural cement."

Alternatively, the developing child's patterns of coping lack stability, wherein the sense of self remains amorphous, inchoate, and their ability to cope,  chaotic or volatile. The brain, thus, being too flexible, and termed by Dr. Badenoch as a "neural swamp."

However, resilience can be learned as the growing child has interactions with other people, such as  siblings, peers, teachers, coaches, romantic partners, therapists, and spiritual teachers.  A fully mature prefrontal cortex, the "CEO" of resilience, is the best buffer we have against stress, trauma, and later psychopathology.

Psychotherapy offers many tools and techniques, through many modalities, to strengthen the functioning of the prefrontal cortex and thus our capacities of resilience.  The focus of this article is on the practices of mindfulness and self-compassion, two powerful agents of brain change well documented in research, that allow us to rewire our brains in ways that are safe, efficient, and effective. Both practices help us create the shift brain that help us make a shift in our responses to both personal suffering and suffering that we experience as part of the collective human condition.

Mindfulness simply brings awareness to our experience; an awareness of what is actually happening, as well as how we react to  it. Self-compassion brings acceptance to our experience; an acceptance of what is actually happening, as well as our reaction to it.

Mindfulness and self-compassion accomplish this shift in the functioning of the brain in two very different ways.  Self-compassion involves bottom-up processing, i.e., body-based and emotion-based practices that shift the focus of the brain from our   automatic survival responses or the automatic negativity bias of the brain, and into a more open, receptive brain state. This receptive brain state then allows us to shift behaviors.

Mindfulness involves top-down processing, i.e., conscious awareness and reflection that leads to wise choices and wise action.  With mindfulness, our focused attention on what is happening and our reactions to the same shifts the focus  of the brain from its default network that is responsible for worry and rumination. The default mode of processing can hinder wise coping and effort by getting us mired in memory after memory that leads to even more upset and suffering. Mindfulness, i.e., paying attention to our experience in the moment, moment after moment, facilitates the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, the structure of the brain we use most for self-awareness, for regulating the revving up and the shutting down of the nervous system, to quell the fear response of the amygdala, as well as for response flexibility, coping, good judgment,  planning and decision making, and wise action and resilience.

When we are mindful

  • We pause and become present: We come out of distraction, dissociation, and denial. We show up and engage with the experience of the moment.
  • We notice and name our experience: Labeling  our experience activates the language centers of the brain, and our higher conscious brain is online.
  • We step back, disentangle from the experience, and reflect on it, cultivating a witness awareness.
  • We can then, if we choose, monitor our experience and modify it.  We can begin to make choices about how to respond to this experience.
  • We practice shifting our perspectives, even knowing that we have a perspective.
  • This allows us to truly discern options and even the potential consequences of our options.
  • Then we can indeed choose wisely; we can let go of the unwholesome and cultivate the wholesome.

Self-compassion operates differently.  When we pay attention to ourselves as the experiencer of the experience, and bring kind, loving awareness to ourselves, we activate the care-giving system in the brain. This process activates the release of the oxytocin, the hormone that is the immediate antidote to the stress hormone cortisol.  Oxytocin puts the brakes on the body-brain's automatic survival responses of fight-flight-freeze or shutting down, numbing out, collapsing, and allows the brain to re-open into a larger perspective, a bigger picture where we can reliably, realistically, and reasonably create a shift.

Compassion is one of a dozen positive, pro-social emotions that have been studied by behavioral scientists as well as neuroscientists for the last 20 years, along with gratitude, kindness, generosity, joy, awe, delight, and love.  Self-compassion is especially potent because it activates the care-giving system and moves us to act, care, and protect.  Researchers have found that daily practices of these positive, pro-social emotions have many benefits, a few among which are:

- Less stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness

- More friendships, social support, collaboration

- Shift in perspectives, more optimism

- More creativity, productivity

- better health, better sleep

- Longer lives, by 7-9 years, on average

Resilience is a direct outcome of these practices.  More compassion leads to more resilience.

In therapy, we cultivate the capacities of self-reflection, the observing ego, the witness awareness, as essential tools of therapeutic change.  Whether we call it mindfulness or not, we ask our clients, "What are you noticing now?"  When there is a shift in body posture, an upwelling of an emotion, an opening to a new area of inquiry, or a resistance to an area of inquiry, we ask them to pause and notice, and reflect on their experience, thus taking the time for any shifts or any insights to appear. This practice can often lead to meta-awareness, i.e., being aware of their awareness itself.

Awareness is essential to being able to shift perspectives and  views, notice that we have a perspective in the first place and a belief that is filtering our perception.  Awareness, therefore, allows us to choose a response.

Awareness, conscious, intention reflection, is essential for the brain to do its rewiring, to shift old views, old perspectives, and create new views, new perspectives.  The brain learns from experience. We learn from reflecting on that experience.

Richard Davidson, whose Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has generated much of the data demonstrating the impacts of mindfulness and compassion practices on brain structure and brain functioning, says,

"The brain is shaped by experience.  And because we have a choice about what experiences we want to use to shape the brain, we have a responsibility to choose the experiences that will shape the brain toward the wise and the wholesome." 

In therapy we use mindfulness to pause, notice, step back and reflect, then to monitor and modify our behaviors, to shift perspectives and discern what our options might be.  We help clients choose the experiences that will shift the functioning of the brain and their coping behaviors toward the wise and the wholesome.

 

In therapy we use the practices of compassion and self-compassion, our compassion and caring, our attunement and empathy for the client, and their self-compassion and caring, their self-attunement and self-empathy, to cultivate self-acceptance.  Self-acceptance is what puts the brakes on the shame attacks, the panic attacks, the rage attacks, and allows the clients to come into a larger, broader perspective again, to be resilient.

Carl Rogers said 50 years ago, "The curious paradox is, when I accept myself exactly as I am, then I can change."

The Mindful Self-Compassion phrases, which I do teach in my clinical sessions, create the space for that shift into self-acceptance:

May I be kind to myself in this moment.

May I accept this moment exactly as it is.

May I accept myself in this moment, exactly as I am.

May I give myself all the compassion I need.

Self-compassion is a most powerful tool for self-acceptance. With mindfulness and self-compassion together, the outcome is the client's self-awareness, self- acceptance, learning and growth, change and resilience.

www.lindagraham-mft.net 

 

Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, and Resilience

Reslience is an innate capacity in the brain that allows us to face and deal with the challenges and crises that are inevitable to the human condition.  It allows us to respond flexibly to external events, even those that are upsetting, disturbing, and stressful. It also influences our response to  the internal perceptions or schemas we have about those events, and how we see ourselves in relation to those events.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for the broad range of cognitions known as  executive function in the brain, and we rely on it to regulate the body and the nervous system, quell the fear response of the amygdala, manage a broad range of emotions, attune to ourselves and other people, empathize with ourselves and other people, develop self-awareness, and respond flexibly, i.e., shift gears, shift perspectives, and shift behaviors when necessary (Daniel Siegel, M.D. was among the pioneers to attribute flexible responding to the prefrontal cortex.)

A mature prefrontal cortex allows us to analyze, plan, make judgments, discern options and make wise choices. This region of the brain develops as a result of our interactions with other people. We learn from others how to regulate our reactivity when we are startled, or frightened, or frustrated, or worried, or confused, to perceive whether we are in danger, or whether  we are safe in connection with another human being. .  We also learn from our interactions,  how to calm ourselves down, as well as how to  activate and motivate ourselves when necessary.  We learn to attune to ourselves and others by being attuned to by others.

The development and maturation of the prefrontal cortex is kindled in our earliest interactions with our first primary caregivers, typically our family of origin. Infants learn how to regulate their emotions by the emotions being regulated by the prefrontal cortex of their parents. An infant learns that he or she has value and worth because the parent relates to them as valuable and worthy. An infant learns to trust its competency in relationships by being related to in resonant, predictable ways. When these interactions go well, the infant, and later, -toddler and older child learns to be resilient, e.g., when he or she  handles a disappointment in school or difficulty playing with other children.  With support and resources, he or she can even bounce back from a potential disaster like a parent becoming gravely ill or parents divorcing.

If these early interactions, and subsequently, the initial conditioning and wiring of the brain's neural circuitry has not gone so well, the developing child's patterns of coping can become defensive, rigid, and closed to new experiences, new people, new emotions, and new learning. .  Psychologist Bonnie Badenoch refers to this lack of flexibility as "neural cement."

Alternatively, the developing child's patterns of coping lack stability, wherein the sense of self remains amorphous, inchoate, and their ability to cope,  chaotic or volatile. The brain, thus, being too flexible, and termed by Dr. Badenoch as a "neural swamp."

However, resilience can be learned as the growing child has interactions with other people, such as  siblings, peers, teachers, coaches, romantic partners, therapists, and spiritual teachers.  A fully mature prefrontal cortex, the "CEO" of resilience, is the best buffer we have against stress, trauma, and later psychopathology.

Psychotherapy offers many tools and techniques, through many modalities, to strengthen the functioning of the prefrontal cortex and thus our capacities of resilience.  The focus of this article is on the practices of mindfulness and self-compassion, two powerful agents of brain change well documented in research, that allow us to rewire our brains in ways that are safe, efficient, and effective. Both practices help us create the shift brain that help us make a shift in our responses to both personal suffering and suffering that we experience as part of the collective human condition.

Mindfulness simply brings awareness to our experience; an awareness of what is actually happening, as well as how we react to  it. Self-compassion brings acceptance to our experience; an acceptance of what is actually happening, as well as our reaction to it.

Mindfulness and self-compassion accomplish this shift in the functioning of the brain in two very different ways.  Self-compassion involves bottom-up processing, i.e., body-based and emotion-based practices that shift the focus of the brain from our   automatic survival responses or the automatic negativity bias of the brain, and into a more open, receptive brain state. This receptive brain state then allows us to shift behaviors.

Mindfulness involves top-down processing, i.e., conscious awareness and reflection that leads to wise choices and wise action.  With mindfulness, our focused attention on what is happening and our reactions to the same shifts the focus  of the brain from its default network that is responsible for worry and rumination. The default mode of processing can hinder wise coping and effort by getting us mired in memory after memory that leads to even more upset and suffering. Mindfulness, i.e., paying attention to our experience in the moment, moment after moment, facilitates the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, the structure of the brain we use most for self-awareness, for regulating the revving up and the shutting down of the nervous system, to quell the fear response of the amygdala, as well as for response flexibility, coping, good judgment,  planning and decision making, and wise action and resilience.

When we are mindful

  • We pause and become present: We come out of distraction, dissociation, and denial. We show up and engage with the experience of the moment.
  • We notice and name our experience: Labeling  our experience activates the language centers of the brain, and our higher conscious brain is online.
  • We step back, disentangle from the experience, and reflect on it, cultivating a witness awareness.
  • We can then, if we choose, monitor our experience and modify it.  We can begin to make choices about how to respond to this experience.
  • We practice shifting our perspectives, even knowing that we have a perspective.
  • This allows us to truly discern options and even the potential consequences of our options.
  • Then we can indeed choose wisely; we can let go of the unwholesome and cultivate the wholesome.

Self-compassion operates differently.  When we pay attention to ourselves as the experiencer of the experience, and bring kind, loving awareness to ourselves, we activate the care-giving system in the brain. This process activates the release of the oxytocin, the hormone that is the immediate antidote to the stress hormone cortisol.  Oxytocin puts the brakes on the body-brain's automatic survival responses of fight-flight-freeze or shutting down, numbing out, collapsing, and allows the brain to re-open into a larger perspective, a bigger picture where we can reliably, realistically, and reasonably create a shift.

Compassion is one of a dozen positive, pro-social emotions that have been studied by behavioral scientists as well as neuroscientists for the last 20 years, along with gratitude, kindness, generosity, joy, awe, delight, and love.  Self-compassion is especially potent because it activates the care-giving system and moves us to act, care, and protect.  Researchers have found that daily practices of these positive, pro-social emotions have many benefits, a few among which are:

- Less stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness

- More friendships, social support, collaboration

- Shift in perspectives, more optimism

- More creativity, productivity

- Better health, better sleep

- Longer lives, by 7-9 years, on average

Resilience is a direct outcome of these practices.  More compassion leads to more resilience.

In therapy, we cultivate the capacities of self-reflection, the observing ego, the witness awareness, as essential tools of therapeutic change.  Whether we call it mindfulness or not, we ask our clients, "What are you noticing now?"  When there is a shift in body posture, an upwelling of an emotion, an opening to a new area of inquiry, or a resistance to an area of inquiry, we ask them to pause and notice, and reflect on their experience, thus taking the time for any shifts or any insights to appear. This practice can often lead to meta-awareness, i.e., being aware of their awareness itself.

Awareness is essential to being able to shift perspectives and  views, notice that we have a perspective in the first place and a belief that is filtering our perception.  Awareness, therefore, allows us to choose a response.

Awareness, conscious, intention reflection, is essential for the brain to do its rewiring, to shift old views, old perspectives, and create new views, new perspectives.  The brain learns from experience. We learn from reflecting on that experience.

Richard Davidson, whose Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has generated much of the data demonstrating the impacts of mindfulness and compassion practices on brain structure and brain functioning, says,

"The brain is shaped by experience.  And because we have a choice about what experiences we want to use to shape the brain, we have a responsibility to choose the experiences that will shape the brain toward the wise and the wholesome." 

In therapy we use mindfulness to pause, notice, step back and reflect, then to monitor and modify our behaviors, to shift perspectives and discern what our options might be.  We help clients choose the experiences that will shift the functioning of the brain and their coping behaviors toward the wise and the wholesome.

In therapy we use the practices of compassion and self-compassion, our compassion and caring, our attunement and empathy for the client, and their self-compassion and caring, their self-attunement and self-empathy, to cultivate self-acceptance.  Self-acceptance is what puts the brakes on the shame attacks, the panic attacks, the rage attacks, and allows the clients to come into a larger, broader perspective again, to be resilient.

Carl Rogers said 50 years ago, "The curious paradox is, when I accept myself exactly as I am, then I can change."

The Mindful Self-Compassion phrases, which I do teach in my clinical sessions, create the space for that shift into self-acceptance:

May I be kind to myself in this moment.

May I accept this moment exactly as it is.

May I accept myself in this moment, exactly as I am.

May I give myself all the compassion I need.

Self-compassion is a most powerful tool for self-acceptance. With mindfulness and self-compassion together, the outcome is the client's self-awareness, self- acceptance, learning and growth, change and resilience.

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Meditation at work? Think deeply about it

At first, work and meditation were separate activities for Golbie Kamarei. These days, she is a poster girl for combining them, after the meditation classes she started at BlackRock, the powerful New York-based investment firm where she worked, grew to 1,500 participants. She recently decided to leave the firm to advise companies interested in starting such programs of their own and to coach top executives in mindfulness.

It all started in 2011, when she decided to immerse herself in a five-day mindfulness meditation retreat at an ashram in the Caribbean. She had done yoga on and off since college and figured if this new experience didn’t work out, she could always spend the rest of her vacation on the beach. But she didn’t get much sun in.

“That’s when everything shifted. In the first meditation I had an experience that showed the power of this practice,” she recalled in an interview.

A Stanford psychology graduate, she has an intellectual understanding of the mind. But in meditation, she experienced it directly, observing how her mind wandered and how it served as a filter by which the world is experienced. She began to devote her weekends and vacations to meditation retreats, finding it healing. And the barrier between this private activity and work started to dissolve as colleagues asked her about her passion and whether she could lead some guided meditation for them.

By 2013, she was vice-chairwoman of the people and culture committee at BlackRock’s New York office and mentioned the possibility at a meeting. An e-mail was sent to 2,500 people and 60 people showed interest, with 30 joining at the first session. She committed to be present each week, except during vacations, calling in when on business trips.

Word spread, a unique grassroots initiative, and folks in other offices wanted in, until employees in 31 cities were taking part by calling in from their desks or sitting together in a conference room if they couldn’t be at the New York session. It had the largest participation rate of any employee-led initiative in the company, as people told their colleagues and an article on the Intranet site also sparked interest.

She delineates four different motivators that drew participants: Reducing stress; increasing focus and attention; interest in techniques to build emotional awareness; and experiencing the health advantages of meditation. The program expanded to two 30-minute sessions a week, one morning and one afternoon, during work hours. Sessions were also recorded so that people could dip in at lunch hour or in the evenings.

Many people have an interest in meditation or other activities that might help provide balance in their lives. But the difficulty is finding time, in a complicated, busy life. Her goal was to remove inhibitors and make it easy to explore this avenue, and having sessions at work during business hours was particularly helpful. “The only limitation was for them to make time for it,” she said.

Not everyone bought in but she enjoyed talking to the skeptics and challenging their preconceptions. Some people felt it might make them weak, less able to compete in a dog-eat-dog world. Others felt it simply didn’t belong in the workplace.

Although the company sanctioned the activity by allowing it to be held at work, meditation and work were still separate in her personal time budget. She was not being paid, after all, to run meditation classes. She still had a demanding regular job as a global program manager within the client business division, and the meditation classes were a voluntary activity. Some weeks she might devote 20 hours of personal time to the program but gradually a group of volunteers sprung up to share the organizational burden.

Now based in San Francisco, she is taking the practice to other interested firms. “Most companies don’t maximize the potential of their human capital,” she said. She believes meditation can boost energy and focus, and help people to collaborate better.

But before jumping into such a program, companies must be clear on the expected outcome. For some, a collaborative culture might be the goal, for others a more innovative team. They also must be clear on why they are doing it. “If the why is not coming from a place of service – helping others – it won’t have the impact it should have and won’t be sustainable,” she said.

That doesn’t mean, however, the programs can’t be promoted as helping performance. After all, the audience is interested in increasing their productivity and that might bring them to the table. “The practice changes you. So I don’t get upset if someone says ‘I want this to improve my performance,’” she said.

Companies need to identify who will design and lead the program, whether internally or externally. Although she brought in outside facilitators for her own program to show other approaches, often they had difficulty making the transition to a corporate audience. But as mediation becomes more mainstream, that will be less of a barrier.

There must also be an internal champion with influence who embodies the practice and serves as a conduit for keeping top management on board and persuading employees to give mindfulness a try.

After all, meditation and work need not be separate.

Harvey Schachter

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015 5:00PM EDT

 

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter