Instructor Responses to Week 3 Homework

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    Patricia Burke
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    Mindfulness in Addiction Counseling    

    Responses to Class 3 Homework

    Patricia A. Burke, MSW

     

    Question 1: Soft Belly Meditation

    What did you notice about your physical experience during the Soft Belly Meditation? What was it like for you to have a point of focus be the soft belly? How would you evaluate the effectiveness of this meditation to enhance acceptance of feelings and sensations in the moment?

    Many find that the Soft Belly Meditation has the intended effect of helping us enter into a state of awareness that was more welcoming of sensations and feelings with the added benefit of deep relaxation, and for some an entry into expanded awareness. For example, Jennifer mentioned, “I was able to feel my belly. I hold a lot of tension there, and I definitely was aware of those sensations. With the conscious awareness of it, I found that my belly did soften. I felt that this was an effective way to get right to the place where I often hold intense physical sensations.” Elaine commented, “once I took a few full deep breaths, I did start to let the rest of my day slip out of my mind and focus on the general feeling in my chest  more than my belly.”

    Some folks find that the soft bell meditation was is not beneficial or is challenging in some ways. For example, we live in a cultural context that tells us that a flat belly is physically appealing. This belief can make this meditation more challenging. I think it is important to note that some people may find focusing on the belly challenging because of this cultural norm or if they have body image concerns. You may decide to not use this particular meditation with some clients.

    Some discover that this mindfulness practice is challenging because it brings heightened attention to areas of the body that are experiencing discomfort. It may be that this meditation may not work for you or some of your clients. There are no shoulds or shouldn’ts. The most important thing is to find and practice mindfulness meditations that work for you and individualize them for each client.

    When we practice mindfulness it is not with the intention of getting rid of negative feelings or sensations, but to welcome or accept them into the softness of the non-judgmental space of mindfulness. The effect is that while the negative feelings or unpleasant experience is still there, it doesn’t take over or overwhelm us or they easily, without forcing or effort, dissolve into the softness of the mindful state.

    Acknowledgment of thoughts/feelings without judgement is a kind of radical acceptance. Remember that radical acceptance is the experience of entering into reality, just as it is, in any moment without judgment of that experience and without any attempt to hold on to or get rid of that experience. By simply acknowledging thoughts and feelings we naturally let go of the need to force our experience to a be a certain experience. We can then relax and the breath, body, thoughts and feelings also relax. We begin to feel safe in our bodies instead of feeling like the body is an enemy that has to be defeated. Until we begin to practice mindfulness we often are not aware of how much time and energy we spend trying to change our thoughts, feelings, sensations and forcing them into our mind’s image of what our thoughts, feelings, and sensations “should” be.

    As we engage in mindfulness practices, because we are being with our experience in the present moment, in a non-judgmental way, we begin to trust our own inner wisdom more and more and can rely less and less on external validation or evaluation to help us know who we are. There is tremendous wisdom in our bodies that, in our culture we tend to discount or distort, that we can tap into through a sustained practice of paying attention to sensations without judging them.

    When we begin to develop a facility for tolerating intense feelings, then accepting them, they become less frightening and take their proper place in our lived experience. Instead of negative feelings being real bears that frighten us and take over our lives, they become stuffed bears and sit in the corner of the bedroom with the other stuffed animals.

    Being in the present moment in a non-judgmental way is a terrific antidote to the self-doubt, low self-esteem, self-hatred, low confidence that many people with addiction or other mental health issues face.

    Question 2: Acceptance Meditation

    What did you notice about your physical experience during the Acceptance exercise? What was it like for you to have the point of focus be the phrase, “May I Accept Myself Completely As I Am Right Now.” How would you evaluate the effectiveness of this mindfulness exercise to enhance acceptance of self in the moment?

    People often find that returning to the phrase is a helpful concentration practice, as well as a practice that enhances a sense of self-acceptance, relaxation, and satisfaction with experience in the moment. Elaine mentioned that “repeating the acceptance statements really served me well in this exercise and didn’t allow my brain to wander.

    Some folks find that focusing on this phrase of acceptance is challenging or doesn’t work well. For example, some find that repeating the phrase can actually makes them more aware of their own self-judgments. That’s okay. These are important realizations. When we stay with the phrase we often find ourselves in a metta position of being able to witness our self-judgments without engaging with them. As Jennifer noted, “When we got to the phrase about accepting myself completely, I noticed judgmental thoughts and fears coming up and a lot of physical sensations (heart racing, feeling hot in my face). After breathing in to it, I felt a distance from these physical reactions and some compassion for myself.

    It is important to remember that the goal of this meditation is not to accept ourselves immediately, but to use the phrase as a kind of prayer to open to the possibility of acceptance in this moment. This is often a useful distinction to make with clients. I recently worked with this meditation phrase with a client and she told me that she just couldn’t accept herself as she was. When I invited her to focus on the “May I” part of the phrase, she softened a bit, practiced the meditation and the next week came back and reported that she felt more relaxed and more compassionate toward herself.

    This phrase was offered to me by one of my spiritual teachers and I remember how challenging it was initially to return my focus to the phrase. My mind kept arguing with the phrase. I kept thinking how can I accept myself completely, I am such a jerk, I am incompetent, I am worthless, etc., etc, etc . . . Then I slowly began to realize that the meditation wasn’t about trying to change my mind about my inadequacies, it was simply a phrase to bring my attention back to when my mind got engaged in all the self-criticism.

    This was such a relief. I didn’t have to change my beliefs about myself; all I needed to do was breathe and bring my attention back to a phrase over and over again, every time my mind started criticizing me. What a relief . . . and lo and behold, without trying to force my mind to change its mind about me, I started to accept myself, in each moment. Since each moment is eternal, each moment began to become a lifetime of acceptance.

    For me, the practice of self-acceptance has been the antidote to the downward spiraling of self-doubt, shame, and self-hatred that goes along with the downward spiral of addiction. . .  One moment at a time. Letting go of self-judgment is freeing. It frees up our emotional, physical, emotional and spiritual energy. It frees us up to make better choices in our lives and to follow our dreams.

    Integration Into Clinical Practice

    How would you envision adapting and integrating the Soft Belly Meditation and/or the Acceptance Exercise into your clinical work with people who suffer from addictions? Be specific

    Below is a sampling of some of the ways you might integrate the Soft Belly Meditation and/or the Acceptance Exercise into your clinical practice:

    * I would offer either of these mediations in the moment, with the client’s permission, to help them during a time when they are feeling especially judgmental about themselves.

    * The self-acceptance practice is an extremely effective way for an individual to get into a positive  acceptance or “flow.”

    Now that you have tried these mindfulness practices for yourselves, you have gained experiential wisdom with regard to what might fit or not fit for your clients.

    Meditation and Clients with a History of Trauma

     

    I want to mention a caveat with regard to engaging clients with histories of trauma, PTSD, and/or who dissociate easily in mediation practices. Dissociation is a non-ordinary state of consciousness that can be activated by deep meditation. The difference is that dissociation feels to the client like an unintentional entry into an altered state, whereas, meditation is a deliberate entry into a non-ordinary state of awareness. It is very important to make clients aware of this potential effect of meditation and honor their wishes to not engage in any of the practices we have been experimenting with if they choose not to. You can also give instructions to keep their eyes open, begin with very brief mindfulness exercises, and make sure that clients know that they are in control and they can stop the process at any time by letting you know that they want to stop.

     

    It is also important to let clients know before they try any of these exercises, that it is normal, especially at first, if they have difficulty returning their focus to the point of concentration because their minds are racing. They may feel discouraged or like they have failed in some way. I try to remind people that there is no right or wrong way to meditate or practice mindfulness, because mindfulness is non-judgmental. So if they have “trouble” doing the exercises, this is not bad.

    Keep inviting them to simply notice with a sense of curiosity that the mind races and gently return their attention back to the point of concentration whether it is the breath, an external object, a sensation, a feeling, numbers, or a phrase or mantra that they repeat silently to themselves. I can also be useful to share some of your own challenges with learning the practice of mindfulness. I also like to remind people that we call it a “practice” for a reason. We recognize that mindfulness, like learning to ride a bike, is not something we do “right” the first time. We develop skill over time. . . and as always, if the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.

    Once again, thank you all for your willingness to engage in the exercises and your thoughtful comments. Your participation enriches the experience for us all. In our final lesson we will be focusing on how mindfulness is an antidote to the suffering of addiction and specific ways that mindfulness practices can be applied in behavioral health counseling to the physical, mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of treatment.

    Be well. Be in peace.

    ~Patricia

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