Tag Archives: mindfulness

Mindfulness & T’ai Chi for Good Mental Health

Today I’ve been watching this short video on mindfulness for mental health by psychologist
Mark Epstein – bit.ly/1NYGFeO.

I thought I’d capture some key points and bring in some T’ai Chi context.

Mindfulness: not reacting to emotional stimulus

Mindfulness: not reacting to emotional stimulus

What is mindfulness: outcomes

Mindfulness helps us not to cling to everything which is pleasant and not to condemn everything which is unpleasant. Mark Epstein explains that mindfulness allows us to distinguish an unpleasant stimulus from your emotional reaction to that stimulus.

We have a choice!

I say this all the time to my children in fact – “you can choose to be happy!!” I say. I hope one day in the fullness of time, they will embrace this gem ;) It’s a great starting point, and I find a very useful coping mechanism for overwhelm and for those days which just aren’t going my way. So, by choosing to not react to that unpleasant stimulus and instead just noticing its passing, the moment is over. And it’s unlikely that reacting to it would have given any meaningful benefit. To bring in the T’ai Chi context now – in classes, I often remind ourselves that if after attempts to stop our minds from chattering thoughts do come into our heads – we should acknowledge those and then dismiss them for another time. In practising T’ai Chi, we are learning to let go; we don’t meet force with force; we deflect aggression.

 

What is mindfulness: two distinct types

It’s interesting to note that Mark Epstein put mindfulness into two distinct types: for beginners, there is concentration practice where you keep your focus on something neutral, like your breath. If the mind wanders, you simply return your attentions to the breath, – and this without judgement(!)

A second more advanced practice allows the attention to go with the mind. You thereby become aware of your thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions, worries, joy, anger etc. In conclusion, Mark Epstein explains that in this way, mindfulness allows you to appreciate that everything is changing (think the T’ai Chi symbol and concept of Yin & Yang), and that you become more aware of that as a process rather than paying attention to the content. (Bear this in mind for the “hello you” comment coming up!)

Where does T’ai Chi fit?

T’ai Chi is sometimes referred to as “meditation in movement.” Mindful practice encourages the inner voice to quieten, and rather than emptying the mind of all thoughts and entering a trance-like state, T’ai Chi practitioners are looking to bring their mind into their movements (i.e. away from their heads), and to acknowledge thoughts which do come to mind – but then to dismiss those for another time. So, an awareness of feelings which come and go, and a concentration on being in the moment – i.e. focus on the T’ai Chi practice.

The brain is plastic: it's possible to make changes to the brain's architecture

The brain is plastic: it’s possible to make changes to the brain’s architecture

Mindfulness for good mental heath

Mark Epstein explains in this film that the brain is “plastic” and capable of being reconditioned. He talks about mindfulness helping to make changes to the brain’s architecture and developing certain areas of the brain, e.g. altruism.

At this point, I’d like to refer to a wonderful blogpost I read and tweeted about a while ago. Here’s my tweet – and note my reference to the “hello you” comment – I’ll come back to that shortly – http://bit.ly/1ToL5aR

In her blogpost, author Barbara Graham, reveals quite a personal story of her lifelong struggle with anxiety, and how she went in search of ways to manage the condition.

On her journey, Barbara Graham was excited about research relating to the prefrontal cortex down-regulating the amygdala [i.e., it’s less aroused] – thereby causing any anxiety to be reduced. Barbara goes on to ask herself –

‘How do we form those new neural pathways we hear so much about?’

In answer to that, Barbara lists: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has shown great promise in regulating mood states. So has Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). She also includes positive impacts from psychotherapy, medication, aerobic exercise, as well as changes in diet and behavior.

On Barbara’s journey to find some relief from her anxiety, and search for some peace of mind, she attended a workshop by Lee Lipp, Ph. D. and David Zimmerman. Their commentary on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness included this, which Barbara quotes –

‘[With mindfulness practice] we see that our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations come and go like bubbles in a pot of boiling water.’

So as represented in the T’ai Chi symbol – everything is in a constant state of flux – feelings & negative thoughts come and go. And since we are learning through mindfulness that this is the case, we can tune ourselves into that coming and going as a process (as per Mark Epstein’s short film), rather than engaging with every piece of content (i.e. the negative thoughts and emotions).

Mindfulness encourages appreciation that everything is in a constant state of flux

Mindfulness encourages appreciation that everything is in a constant state of flux

I thought Barbara’s piece concluded brilliantly – she talks about her anxiety manifesting itself as “uninvited companions” – one of whom she describes as a “sleeping tiger”

‘My uninvited but faithful companions who demand to be seen and heard. “Oh, it’s you again,” I say now more often than not when they start banging at my door. “It’s only you.”’

In this simple analogy, Barbara’s taken control back brilliantly!

And as for the tiger – my T’ai Chi predecessor, the late Gerda Geddes wrote about the symbolism of the tiger* -

‘[I]t can be either yin or yang. When it is yang the tiger depicts authority, courage, bodily strength and military prowess. […] When the tiger is in conflict with the yang celestial dragon it becomes Yin, the quality of earth. To the T’ai Chi performer, the tiger represents all forms of energy.’

And Gerda advises –

‘[I]t is with these energies that we have to learn to deal. We have to direct our energy in such a way that the natural healing process of the body can be enhanced. We have to use it with intelligence, not allowing it to become totally depleted but always retaining a reserve.’

Managing our energy: we have a few choices

Managing our energy: we have a few choices

8 choices for improved mental health

So, as I see it – we have a few choices:
• to use mindfulness to bring our experience of life back into the present moment
• to embrace feelings, emotions, thoughts etc. – but to view those as something which is in a constant state of flux (we often refer to feelings coming in “waves”) – they come AND they go
• to understand more about the process of feelings coming and going – thereby liberating us from anxieties
• to not cling to all pleasant emotions
• to not condemn all unpleasant emotions as negative
• to choose not to react to unpleasant stimuli
• to learn to deal with our energies (not depleting; always maintaining a reserve)
• to choose to be happy!

Mindfulness for a sense of balance, perspective & wellbeing

Mindfulness for a sense of balance, perspective & wellbeing

Full acknowledgements

Mark Epstein’s film can be viewed at http://bit.ly/1NYGFeO

My tweets on Mark Epstein’s film at http://bit.ly/24tm7T9

Barbara Graham’s blogpost at http://bit.ly/1PTXwjj

Gerda Geddes excerpt from: chapter “Discovery of the symbols” from Looking for The Golden Needle

Top tips for stress busting your life… the T’ai Chi way: Tip #1

Here’s how the conversation goes –

“So, how was your summer break? Did you get away anywhere nice?”

“Yes, thanks – we spent two glorious weeks doing X,Y & Z and enjoying the break from A, B & C… seems like a LIFETIME ago now, though. Everything has overwhelmed me now we’re back at the daily grind. It’s like we’ve never been away!”

Recognise this? Well, read on and I’ll arm you with the first in my series of top tips for stress busting your life the T’ai Chi way.

Allow yourself to let it go

Allow yourself to let it go

#1 Just “let it go!”

We all hold onto stresses which we can quite easily do without. I’ve in fact had this discussion with a number of good friends over the summer. It’s easy I guess to tell people not to worry about something – but what I’m encouraging, is to really weigh up whether the worrying and associated stress are in fact helpful. Isn’t it better that you find an appropriate time and method for working through your problems (mindfully, constructively etc.) – and then to allow yourself to let go of those worries. By doing this, we are separating the source of the problem from the stresses and anxieties which they create. This stress-busting tip won’t make the problem go away; but it will equip you with the resilience, strength, energy, clarity of thinking and fresh perspectives which will allow you to reduce and manage the stress. It’s also helpful to give your subconscious mind a chance to work things through “offline” for a bit.

In T’ai Chi everything is in a state of constant flux; nothing stays the same. Your energy needs to flow. We embrace this. It’s healthy to move on and not to dwell so much on things which may not be possible to change.

In my T’ai Chi classes, I encourage students to bring their mind into what they are doing in the present moment; to acknowledge any thoughts which come to them in class – and then to dismiss those for another time. The very act of practising T’ai Chi for that hour or so means that you give your mind a “holiday” from its constant re-running of what I call “same-loop thinking.”

That’s how T’ai Chi is so relaxing, and refreshing.

In previous posts I have explained that T’ai Chi doesn’t meet force with force. Instead, we build energy/ confidence from within and simply deflect any aggression without engaging with it. We can tell ourselves that an aggression doesn’t need to be our reality. We don’t need to accept it. We can smile and let that aggression go :)

Let any aggression pass you by: you don't need to own that

Let any aggression pass you by: you don’t need to own that

Exercise

Choose a quiet moment (it need only be one minute, and can even be at your desk). Say to yourself that you “give up” some of your thoughts for a while. Label those; be specific. Allow yourself to operate completely free from the thoughts which have been particularly bothering you. You can set the timeframe – but make it a longer timeframe than you’re used to in terms of that same-loop thinking coming back to you for its next repetition. Having labelled the thoughts you are about to give up, also make a committment to plan in a short time to run through your worries in a mindful, engaged fashion (e.g. plan a call with a friend, or designate a section of your dog walk in which you can “thrash it out.”)

Find the serenity you deserve

Find the serenity you deserve

I’m aware that this is much easier said than done. It’s only talking to friends on this, that I have come to realise quite how much I bring T’ai Chi principles into my own life every day – and how beneficial these are in managing my stresses. It has taken years of practice – but the baby steps have been very worthwhile.

Mindful notion for a mindful nation

Pssst! Have you heard of the new mindfulness agenda gathering pace? I’m excited to see how the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness will develop its thoughts & actions around “mindfulness” – and the wider remit of improved “wellbeing” for all. It’s quite a task, that’s for sure! But very much a worthy one…

Towards a mindful nation

The APPG is looking to create a “mindful nation,” by including mindfulness in future policy-making. Policy areas could include –

  • mindfulness in schools to improve classroom behaviour, attention and focus, as a strategy to raise educational standards and supporting social mobility, and to develop young people’s tools for lifelong well-being
  • expanding the provision of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy within the NHS as a treatment for depression and other mental and physical health problems
  • mindfulness as a way to reduce stress and improve care, attentiveness and compassion amongst healthcare workers
  • mindfulness as a way to improve resilience, reduce stress and anxiety, and develop creativity in the workplace
  • mindfulness as a way to tackle depression, anxiety and stress in the criminal justice system (both staff and those in custody)
  • mindfulness as a way to cultivate overall health and well-being

(These from the aims of the The Mindfulness Initiative, a collaboration of the Mindfulness Centres at Oxford, Exeter and Bangor Universities, which supports the APPG.)
Source: http://oxfordmindfulness.org/all-party-parliamentary-launch

So there’s a move towards using mindfulness to boost mental wellbeing, reduce stress, anxieties and depression; and increase an overall sense of improved health & wellbeing – in everyone. The notion of including mindfulness and wellbeing in policy-making – what’s not to like?!

And I’d like to go one step further – and say that as individuals, we should be:

  • applying mindfulness techniques
  • looking after our wellbeing (and the wellbeing of those around us)

in everything we do!

T’ai Chi as a mindful exercise

My interest obviously stems from the fact that I teach T’ai Chi, which is a mindful exercise, often described as an “internal exercise.” This is because in T’ai Chi practice, we generate the internal energy of the body, know as “chi” – or life force. It’s this internal/meditative element to the exercise which can bring students some incredibly uplifting benefits.

I talk a lot to students about the fact that T’ai Chi is more than just a dance. I’m aware that students are drawn to T’ai Chi for different reasons; but to ignore the meditative/mindfulness elements seems to me to be completely missing the point. Practising T’ai Chi encourages students to really examine for themselves their own connection between body, mind and spirit. And insodoing, the end result can be powerfully uplifting.

T’ai Chi’s contribution to the mindfulness agenda

Here are a few of my thoughts around how T’ai Chi contributes to this new and growing “mindfulness” agenda:

  1. Practising T’ai Chi and applying its principles to everyday life (and work) enables us to become more open-hearted and compassionate humanbeings.
  2. In T’ai Chi we are encouraged to feel “grounded.” This sense of “just being” in the present moment means that we have a better ability to see what’s here and now, and to appreciate what we already have
  3. Being grounded helps alleviate the incessant “drive;” yearning for the “next” thing / striving all the time for something better
  4. In a sense, being in the present moment takes away the focus of great expectations of the future: being mindful and present means you can assess and manage your expectations. That’s what Happiness is made from 
  5. Over the years, I have seen the big difference T’ai Chi has made to my students who are caring for partners/elderly relatives. Practising this mindful exercise affords carers a break from their everyday “loops” of thinking: this is a very welcome break, and a nurturing experience
  6. I’d like to refer to “like-mindedness” – connecting with like-minded people who come to T’ai Chi classes creates its own energy; this is difficult to describe, not least because in class we’re not talking to each other – but there is a definite sense of accepting others for who they are and how they are. And feeling accepted brings a warmth to the soul.
  7. In T’ai Chi we “yield” and flow with our weight, with our slow graceful movements. This yielding brings a certain sense of letting go… of altered perspective. We’re not pressing back; instead we are quite passive, but at the same time strong and rooted. Confident. Resilient. My students often share with me that this element helps them to cope with workplace stresses (or other situations of conflict). It’s a new developed mindset.
  8. T’ai Chi movements are deliberately slow. For beginners this is one of the major challenges – to fully believe it’s ok to slow down. Yet once in that mindset of “accepting” (in class) – the experience of accepting is “one to bottle!” When we are accepting, we feel less stressed and more fulfilled.
  9. Given that T’ai Chi practice leaves me feeling relaxed yet alert, agile and with a certain clarity of thought, its benefits definitely include better access to The Creative Me. That’s come through lots of practice – but it’s the meditative, mindful element which brings that creativity to fruition.
  10. “Easing off” at the edges and “going with the flow” are principles I often refer to in class; but which also have a place in managing everyday Life. I talk about “taking the scenic route” and not pressing with 100% effort. This then encourages a wider awareness, and it’s this wider awareness which provides both creativity and a sense of opportunity.

This latter point brings me neatly onto a quote from Lord Richard Layard, Member of Legatum Commission, who said:

Treating the goal of education as being to ‘get ahead’ is an inherently zero sum game: a society can make no progress this way.”

So over the coming summer hols, I’ll be practising some mindfulness techniques/activities with my children. We’re going to “do” less, and spend more of our time “just being.”

I’m looking forward to developing in them a notion of mindfulness and wellbeing in all that we do.

For an update on how we’re getting on, watch this space…