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Hand Model of the Brain

Here’s a link to an article I co-wrote with a friend of mine, Alisdair Smith. He is a much sought after coach, speaker, and facilitator. He is also a deacon and business chaplain at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver.  The article is one of a series that Alisdair writes, aimed at business people and folks in leadership positions. His Leadership Notes are always thought provoking and well-worth a read.

We wrote this article after a conversation we had about handling difficult emotions. I spoke about Daniel Siegel’s work in Interpersonal Neurobiology, and his “brain in the palm of your hand” model. Alisdair ran with the topic, and began relating it to workplace relationships.

Have a look. Enjoy! And take some time to read some of Alisdair’s other writings!

Alisdair Smith – Dare Communications

(Scroll down to “The Brain and the Hand”)

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Compassion and Self-Compassion

Self-CompassionA couple of weeks ago, I co-facilitated a workshop with a group of counsellors considering the topic of self-compassion. Most people are far more used to hearing about compassion than self-compassion, but I think there is an important relationship between the two that is easily overlooked.
Here in Vancouver, we’ve just had a visit from Karen Armstrong, who was in town to mark the launch of the Greater Vancouver Compassion Network. This group is inspired by the Charter for Compassion – a world-wide effort to create compassionate communities and make our world a more compassionate place – started by Armstrong in 2009. Her studies in world religions and theology have led her to the realization that at the core of all religious and spiritual traditions is compassion. Beyond all the differences and nuances of language and practice, each tradition encourages individuals to recognize our shared humanity, and our connectedness to each other.

So, how does self-compassion fit into this picture?

Here are four thoughts that might shed some light:

1. Self-compassion includes self-care, but is also more

One part of self-compassion is an ability to treat oneself with kindness rather than harsh criticism when noticing shortcomings, mistakes or failures. But there’s more…
A second component of self-compassion is an ability to recognize that imperfection is part of being human, and that everyone experiences disappointment and failure. With this understanding, we’re more able to stay connected to others, rather than feeling isolated by our mistakes.
A third component of self-compassion is mindful awareness of our own experience and an ability to put our experiences in perspective rather than letting them overwhelm us.

2. Self-compassion helps people become more genuinely compassionate

If we can be compassionate towards ourselves first, we are more likely to be able to draw on our own resources in order to be able to extend compassion to those around us. If harsh self-criticism is all we know, the same harshness will underlie our efforts in relationships, whether we’re aware of it or not.

3. Self-compassion is a process, not a destination

Self-compassion is a quality that can be consciously cultivated over time. It isn’t something that anyone can achieve immediately, nor is it something that is continuously present. We have to work on it, and it becomes a way of being.

4. Self-compassion is not selfish

I believe that a self-compassionate presence in one person creates an atmosphere that invites others to be more compassionate toward themselves. When each individual takes responsibility for cultivating self-compassion, the cumulative effect can be a community or society that is more forgiving, gentle, and compassionate with its members.

For more information, visit these sites:
Dr. Kristin Neff: http://www.self-compassion.org/
Christopher Germer, PhD: http://www.mindfulselfcompassion.org/
Books by Professor Paul Gilbert

Also, here’s a link to an article on self-compassion specific to counsellor training and development by my friend and colleague Ariadne Patsiopoulos.

Stay tuned… Ariadne and I are hoping to offer more workshops on the subject of self-compassion in the next few months.
Maybe you’ll be able to attend one!

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Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB)

Some of the most exciting influences on therapeutic work in the last decade have come from the study of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB), originated by Daniel Siegel and Allan Schore. The researchers in this field examine how our brains are influenced by our relationships, and how our brains are actually changing and developing daily in response to our environments. My interest in IPNB began when I was doing my graduate research on contemplative practices and seeing the transformation in the lives of people who maintain these disciplines. I started reading Siegel’s work and noticing the connections between his findings and what I saw in my research. Since then, I’ve been learning from the large and growing body of research about how our brains work and about how we can influence our own well-being and promote healing.
Here is a very brief and partial summary of a few of the points that I find most interesting and relevant to my work.

1) Our brains are formed in relationship, not in isolation. We do not exist as finite, separate entities from those around us or from the very air we breathe. We are influenced by the people and places around us, and their influence impacts not just what we think, but also how we think. The way our brains develop is shaped by our contexts, so that, for example, if we live with anger and conflict as children, we learn defensive ways of being that we carry with us, even when newer contexts no longer have the same levels of anger and conflict. Through awareness and practice, we can change the patterning of our responses and the very way that our brains receive and process information.

2) The human brain develops in stages, and distinct parts have specialized functions. There is some controversy about conceptualizing the brain as having two distinct hemispheres – right and left – because too much emphasis on the differences between them can lead to labelling one side as “good” and the other as “bad”. An oversimplified explanation is that left and right hemispheres exist together and both contribute to our overall perceptions and responses to the world. However, the types of processing done by each hemisphere are different, and when the balance is shifted too far towards one way of processing over another, we tend to have problems. (Studies of people who have damage to one or the other side of their brain due to strokes have provided much of the material for this exploration.) Broadly speaking, the left hemisphere tends towards itemization and categorization, while the right tends towards a “big picture” and relational view. Both views are important, but there seems to be a societal leaning towards left-brain type processing, and a need for a regaining of the right/left balance. (Iain McGilchrist explores this idea in detail.)

3) The science behind IPNB is supporting the wisdom behind ancient spiritual practices. (Siegel speaks about this, as does spiritual teacher Cynthia Bourgeault) At their best, spiritual practices from all traditions are, in one way or another, encouraging people to move towards development of acceptance, compassion, openness, and a unity of consciousness that recognizes that we are all interconnected with each other and creation. These all fall under the domain of “right brain” types of processing. Everything we do and all our interactions with each other are contributing to both “who” we are and “how” we are. We’re always capable of change and learning, but there’s something important about finding ways to focus attention and to calm our thoughts and emotions. I think there are many ways to do this in addition to formal meditation practices. Music and expressive arts are two that are very powerful in helping people towards deeper self-understanding and connection with others as are other moments when we experience a shared sense of community.

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Really Listen

Happy 12th day of Christmas! Today is the twelfth day after December 25 and in the Christian liturgical year, this means that tonight marks the end of the season of Christmas, and tomorrow is the beginning of the new season of Epiphany. The change of seasons means that it’s time to put away all of the Christmas decorations for the year. It also means it’s time to turn off the Christmas music until next December. As a musician, one of the things I love most about Advent and Christmas is the amount of music being performed everywhere. Performances tend to wane after the 25th, but I tend to keep playing my favourite Christmas albums throughout the season, long after the malls and shops have packed away everything festive. Today I’m rather regretfully putting things away, but looking forward to new performances and opportunities to listen during the new year.

It’s a real gift to be able to sit down and really listen to good music, without the distractions that usually accompany us if we’re driving, or working, or doing errands with the radio on in the background. Real attentive listening to music can be a profound spiritual practice. I gave a workshop last year in which part of our day was spent in quiet reflection listening to a recording of an entire cello concerto without interruption. It was a very relaxed gathering, with people on couches, sitting on the floor, or in chairs, just being comfortable with themselves and each other. It was a great way to enter into self-reflection and deeper conversations with each other.

If you are interested in exploring new ways to engage your inner self, and explore a deeper spirituality, you might enjoy this exercise:

Pick some music – maybe something familiar, or it could be something brand new to you. It doesn’t have to be lengthy. Chose something that fits with your tastes and comfort level.
Chose a time when you are alone without distractions and interruptions.
Find a comfortable place to sit or to lie down.
Take a minute before you start listening to ground yourself with some intentional breathing, or a prayer.
Listen to your chosen selection of music.

While listening, try to listen with your whole self. Hear the music, but also notice how you feel, what emotions it brings out in you, what your body sensations are as you listen, what memories are stirred.

When you’re finished, take a few minutes of quiet. Be aware of any shifts you might notice in your thinking or mood, or in your body. You might want to journal or draw your responses to the exercise.
Give it a try. Let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this exercise.

Happy New Year!

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All Hallows’ Eve

For me, Hallowe’en always seems to mark a shift in seasons. Fall started a long time ago, I know, but something about the shortened hours of light and the colder air seems to make it more real when the month turns over into November. October 31st is also the first of 3 days that take us into a “darker” cycle of thinking. All Hallows’ Eve, followed by All Saints Day on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd, are reminders about our human life-span and the cycle of life and death that all living things experience. I think it’s important to have markers in our lives – a patterning that returns year upon year – reminding us of our own place in the cycle of life, and encouraging us to live in a more authentic way with our thoughts and memories, whether these are ones of joy or sorrow, sadness or celebration.

Another aspect of these days that I’ve come to appreciate is the notion of being in the company of those who have come before us. In the Christian tradition, we refer to the “cloud of witnesses” (from a Scripture passage at Hebrews 12:1), and to the “Company of the Saints”. For me, these phrases speak of viewing our own lives as linked with a long line of those who came before, and intertwining our journeys with theirs. This spiritual heritage can offer strength and reassurance in difficult times.

And so, as the sun sets and we approach this evening’s light-hearted and spooky fun, I hope there will also be time in the next couple of days to recognize some of the bitter-sweetness that underlies the nature of these holy-days. Time to remember some of those who have gone before and who are our personal saints. Perhaps these days may offer an invitation to honour these thoughts and memories with gentleness.

Happy Hallowe’en!

 

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Contemplating Mindfulness

This weekend I’ve been listening in via the internet to a conference titled Creating a Mindful Society. The conference was in New York, but delegates came from many locations, and the internet broadcast reached around the world.

The concept of mindfulness has been drawn out of Buddhist practice and applied to western psychology, most notably by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs. Many other researchers and practitioners in various fields have been studying the effects of mindfulness practices as well as looking at how the brain itself is changed through prolonged use of those practices. The evidence is mounting that the benefits are significant.

But mindfulness is not new, not exotic, and doesn’t require any special abilities. Mindfulness is about paying attention, and about paying attention to how and what we pay attention to. As a music teacher, I saw what could be labelled as mindfulness at work in my young students as they learned to focus their attention on the small details of posture, hand position, physical co-ordination, sound, etc. when learning to read music and play piano. The label didn’t matter at all – they were learning to be fully present with themselves and to create something that allowed them to communicate and connect with others – something every human being has the capacity for at some level. There are, of course, many other activities that help foster this ability. It seems that other things inherent in being human also pull us away from paying attention at this deeper level, and the current call of mindfulness in western psychology (this conference as an example) echoes what ancient contemplative practices encouraged.

Though the roots of mindfulness practice today are in Buddhism, virtually all contemplative practices from the major faith traditions teach similar concepts of attending to the breath, learning to acknowledge and release thoughts and emotions, and developing capacity for compassion for self and others. They promote self-awareness, acceptance, and a sense of connectedness that leads outward to positive action in the world.

My own research looked at contemplative practices held by people in helping professions, and how their personal practice shaped their spiritual journey – and by extension, influenced their work. For many of the research participants, rooting their practice in the meta-narrative of the Christian story helped them recognize and heal from life crises and transitions by recognizing a divine healing presence in the world. This recognition of the divine in their own lives allowed a freedom in professional practice that could include being open to acting as agents of this divine presence. In other words, it allowed for mystery and the intangible alongside skillful therapeutic technique and method – without having to grab tightly onto concepts of “success” or “failure”.

For those who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious, the basic work of mindfulness and other contemplative practices is accessible and rewarding. I also think that it helps to show the common threads between those who claim Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, other traditions, or no particular tradition at all, as their own. Maybe this is the most important concept at the root of religion – communicate, connect, love, and recognize the mystery at the heart of our ability to do these things.
As a footnote, here are a few links to people who spoke at the conference. These people are applying their personal practice to their work in the world, and creating change in their communities and disciplines.

Holistic Life Foundation – Ali Smith & Atman Smith with Andres Gonzalez

Rhonda Magee, JD – Mindful – Living with Awareness and Compassion

Kristi Nelson – Mindful Money

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Pause

Inspiring words
This week saw the country take a collective pause to honour the work and life of Jack Layton. I watched the Parliament Hill ceremony and began thinking about how important and rare these times are, when silent reflection unites us with each other and with ourselves. Pausing is important. It tells us that there’s something important about this moment – that something worth paying attention to has just happened or is about to happen. As a musician, I liken these moments to a symphony concert, when the conductor raises arms and baton, the musicians settle into place in united concentration on the join task in front of them. Or the end of the symphony, when the music stops, but the conductor holds the silence while both musicians and audience are momentarily suspended in time. Something important just happened – we’re not exactly the same as we were, now that we’ve been here, seen and heard what we’ve just seen and heard.

How often do we in our regular lives take time to pause and really experience our lives? Every day we’re experiencing priceless moments, losses, celebrations, mundane events that are essentially profound moments of just being human. So many of these get away from us and just fade into the ordinary of our routine.

In Christianity, our collective pauses centre around the Eucharist, in the sharing of bread and wine that symbolizes our unity in Christ. Jesus’ own life recounted in Scripture followed a pattern of action and retreat, times of pause for solitude and prayer interwoven with action and engagement with the real messiness of his world. Other faith traditions have equally important rituals and examples of sacred pauses that unite them.

One of my recent learnings has come from the current research into neuroscience and well-being. I’ve started encouraging clients to be aware of “Remember this” moments; moments where they recognize and take a figurative snapshot of a sacred moment in their day.

These times of pause make life more real, and they permit us to truly feel the gratitude and the sorrow of our everyday lives. When these moments are shared, they enrich our communal experience and bind us together as a community, a country, and a society.

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