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Emotions empowering patients Happiness Letting Go Meditation mindfulness Preventive Health Self-care stress management Wisdom

An Introduction to Mindfulness

by Davidicus Wong, M.D.

This is a handout I share with my patients to introduce them to the practice of mindfulness and principles of cognitive behavioural therapy. I consider these to be two fundamental emotional wellness skills that every adult and child should learn.

Like any other skills we wish to master, practice – particularly daily practice – is essential. Through the power of the human brain’s capacity for neuroplasticity (to change itself), we learn new skills – including new ways of thinking and feeling – through repeated practice. In the words of the pioneering Canadian neuropsychologist, Donald Hebb, “Neurons that fire together wire together.”

MINDFULNESS MEDITATION helps us to centre our minds, increase our awareness and calm the nervous system that modulates how we experience pain and other sensations. The practice of mindfulness teaches us a less reactive approach to the rest of our lives. We become open to accept and experience every aspect of our lives, our selves and our sensations, without clinging, aversion or judgment.

We begin meditation by spending 15 or 20 minutes each day just sitting in a quiet place in a comfortable position. We turn our attention to the natural flow and sensations of the breath without trying to control it in any way. This becomes a safe and calming anchor that we can return to at any time.

We can then turn our attention to sounds as they arise in our immediate environment, just attending to the arising and disappearance of different sounds as they come and go from our awareness. We don’t have to label or identify each sound. We simply remain aware of them as they arise.

We can centre our awareness on different physical sensations in the body, perhaps the pressure at points of contact, warmth, coolness, vibrations, pulsations, tingling and even pain. We can move awareness to different areas of the body, and if a sensation such as pain in one part of the body is difficult to manage, we can shift our attention elsewhere, to the part of the body that is most comfortable or back to the anchor of the breath.

With practice, we are able to maintain awareness and attention to every sensation without reacting to it, without aversion, clinging, judgment or identification. With time, we recognize that everything within our awareness is ever changing; nothing is constant – no sensation (not even pain), no mood, no emotion and no thought.

We are able to attend to each thought as it arises without getting carried away in a train of thoughts or a story in the remembered past or imagined future. We can note thoughts as they arise, without judgment or identification and let them go. We can do the same with the transient feelings and emotions that arise without getting caught up and carried away with them. We experience moods, feelings and emotions but we are not our moods, feelings or emotions. We can see them as transient, temporary conditions like a mist, a fog or a shower. They pass through us or we pass through them.

We can be mindful when walking, attending to the sensations of each step, the sounds and pressures on the feet and the movement of the legs. This becomes a mindful anchor from which what we hear, see, feel and think arises in our open and accepting awareness. 

Mindfulness can be practiced while eating, attending to the taste and texture of each bite of food; swimming, attending to the sensations of buoyancy, flowing water on the surface of the skin and rich sounds of moving water and air; and even driving. Mindfulness only begins with meditation. When you apply the healthy attitudes of non-reactive acceptance, gratitude and compassion to everything in your life throughout each day, you will discover a deeper level of peace, happiness and meaning. 

Mindfulness when diligently practiced can bring serenity to your mind and body throughout each day – an open, accepting and nonreactive approach to your life. It can foster in you greater compassion for others and yourself.

COGNITIVE BEHAVIOURAL THERAPY trains us to uncover our underlying beliefs and assumptions, choose our conscious thoughts, reframe our situation and shape our emotions. We can discover that we can improve our moods, thoughts and function in life through healthy self-care – eating regular healthy meals, ensuring adequate rest, daily appropriate physical activity and spending quality time with supportive friends and those loved ones who naturally lift our spirits. Mindfulness meditation can help us identify unskillful thoughts (those that increase suffering) and help us choose skillful ones.

MORE RESOURCES (I’ve put my favourites in bold)

MINDFULNESS MEDITATION

The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Mindfulness (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom (Joseph Goldstein)

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (Joseph Goldstein)

Radical Acceptance (Tara Brach)

True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (Tara Brach)

JackKornfield.com, TaraBrach.com Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach’s videos, guided meditations and lectures are available for free on these websites. By listening to these teachers, you will quickly see how the attitude of mindfulness can be applied to your everyday life.

Local mindfulness retreats: Westcoast Dharma Society http://www.westcoastdharma.org

MicrodosingMindfulness.com will show you how to fit in routine mindfulness breaks in just a few minutes a day

THE PRACTICAL SCIENCE OF NEUROPLASTICITY

Hardwiring Happiness (Rick Hanson)

Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom (Rick Hanson)

COGNITIVE BEHAVIOURAL THERAPY

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment(Martin E. P. Seligman)

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (David D. Burns)

Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think (Dennis Greenberger, Christine Padesky)

Anxietybc.ca has many useful resource including the Mindshift app for smart phones

Checkingin is a free mindfulness app for your smart phones

DIALECTICAL BEHAVIOURAL THERAPY (a synthesis of mindfulness and cognitive therapy)

            The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for AnxietyBreaking Free From Worry, Panic, PTSD, & Other Anxiety Symptoms (Alexander L. Chapman)

For an effective technique for establishing healthy new habits, check out TINYHABITS.COM

Categories
Forgiveness Friendship Grace Happiness Letting Go Parenting Relationships

The Healing Power of Gratitude

My dad was born during the Great Depression in Cumberland, near Courtney and Comox on Vancouver Island. He lost his father in early childhood, and his mother was left with six children to raise on her own. Though she was uneducated, my dad remembers her as being very good with her hands, a skilled chef and seamstress. She managed to make ends meet and raise each of her children to be independent.

My dad worked throughout his childhood to support his family, finished school, studied automechanics and worked at Vancouver Motors downtown. He saved enough to go to university. When he talks about his childhood, he never complains about the prejudice he endured or the hardship his family suffered. He talks about wonderful life experiences, his lifelong friends and the kindness of so many people along the way.

He told me of one bachelor in his hometown who – whenever he saw poor children who had worn out or outgrown their shoes – would buy them new ones. I wonder if people so moved by the spirit of generosity realize the power of their acts to inspire gratitude and further acts of kindness for generations to come.

I have heard others who have come from a place of poverty, misfortune, loss and mistreatment tell quite different stories in which they remain victims; they are left with feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger or resentment.

The human brain has evolved to have a negativity bias. The negatives in our environment stand out and are remembered best. This was important for the survival of our species – to quickly recognize danger and learn from bad experiences. But in modern times, it fosters anxiety, depression and interpersonal resentment.

My father’s gracious approach to life may be the best fix for our natural negativity bias. Psychologists tell us that in order to balance out our brains’ negativity bias, we have to think of five positive observations to balance out one negative – just to come out even. So the way out of a bad mood (the natural end result of the negativity bias unchecked) is to actively search for the positive in our lives.

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This is especially true in our relationships. If your boss or coworker has a habit that irritates you to no end (such as leaving his dishes in the sink at the end of the day for someone else to clean up), you may be able to give some constructive feedback and encourage behavioural change – or you might not. If you can’t change the situation – and you can’t leave it, you can reframe it. Think of five qualities in the other person that you like or admire. You might feel less irritable and may even work even better together.

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Seeking – and expressing – the positive you see in others is even more important at home. As a parent, it’s so easy to tell our kids what they’re doing wrong or what we want them to do. If we don’t balance our words with appropriate praise or appreciation, not only will we feel more negatively towards our kids but they will see us as the constant complainers that we are. We will also be reinforcing negative self-talk that our children will carry into their adult lives.

For every negative comment to your child or partner, express five positive qualities that you appreciate. By actively searching for the positive, through the power of neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to rewire itself by practising new habits of thought, you will see the best in others more easily. You can transform the atmosphere in your home. You will be happier and so will everyone else.

When we are thankful, we are happier. When we express thankfulness, those we appreciate are happier.

I raised my own kids to begin and end each day with a prayer of thankfulness for the blessings of life and the gifts of the day. With an attitude of gratitude, they would begin each day with their cups half full and by day’s end, their cups would overflow

Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in the Burnaby Now and Vancouver Courier.

 

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Caregiving Compassion Coping with Loss Forgiveness Friendship Letting Go Love Relationships

Live with the end in mind

Nitobe Memorial Garden, UBC (Davidicus Wong)

Mindfulness of death is a Buddhist practice that informs more meaningful living.

If anything can happen anytime and if your next breath was your last breath, you would pay attention to the quality of each remaining moment of your life – every sensation, thought, word and action.

If this was your last week or today was your last day, what would you do differently?

You may update your facebook . . . or you might not.

Would you spend more time on social media, go shopping one last time, go to your favourite restaurant and eat all you can? Would you reflect on your life in retrospect, recognize what really matters and spend your remaining time there?

If you had one last chance to talk to the people you love, what would you say?

Dr. Ira Byock, a palliative care physician wrote in his book, “The Four Things That Matter Most” that those four things are what we need to say to our loved ones before we part: “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”

We are all human and imperfect. We hurt the people we love, and they hurt us. We take one another for granted. We don’t always speak or act in loving ways.

If we knew our time together was limited, we might be kinder, more patient and loving. The truth is our lives are indeed limited, and few of us knows how much time we have left. In fact, the only ones who know this have been diagnosed with a terminal condition.

My mother died suddenly in April 13 years ago.

I was fortunate that my profession had taught me how precious life was and that I was able to give back to my mom the love that she gave me. Yet I have often thought of how her kind and generous presence would have enriched my life and those of my children if she was still here.

When grieving, I recalled every word from those who offered comfort. One patient said that to die suddenly is a good way to go. Ten years later, that patient would die from end-stage congestive heart failure. Without warning or in palliative care: neither is easy for loved ones.

Last year, my dear aunt passed away in palliative care at St. Michael’s Hospice. She was surrounded by her loving family, and we all had the opportunity to express our love and gratitude for all that she had done for each of us.

Palliative care focuses on the comfort of the patient suffering from a life-limiting condition. The aim is the best possible quality of life even in the final stages of illness.

It takes a team to attend not only to the physical aspects of care but just as importantly the psychological and spiritual. Patients with their families and friends are supported by a team that includes nurses, doctors and volunteers.

Since 1986, the Burnaby Hospice Society has provided trained volunteers to offer emotional and practical support at home, in hospitals and in long term care facilities to those with life-threatening illnesses and their families. They also offer free grief counseling to family members.

On Sunday, May 1st, the Burnaby Hospice Society will be hosting the 2016 Hike for Hospice at Central Park to raise money for these services. The cost is $25/person (children under 12 are free). For more information, see their website at burnabyhospice.org.

Though we cannot predict how our lives will unfold, we can live with the end in mind. We can invest in our most important relationships with the gift of each day and each moment together. We can stop wasting our time, doing things that don’t matter, holding grudges or putting ourselves before others. In the end, what can we hold on to?

We can say what needs to be said. We can use each moment more mindfully. We can express all the love we have in our hearts because it’s only worth something when we give it away. We can’t take it with us.

Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in the Burnaby Now, Vancouver Courier, Royal City Record and Richmond News.

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Nitobe Memorial Garden, UBC (Davidicus Wong)

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Compassion Forgiveness Happiness Letting Go Love Uncategorized

The magic of self-compassion

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St Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest, Hungary

Sometimes what we long for is right in front of us, and like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we already have what we need.

Each day, I see patients searching for a solution to their suffering that can come as feelings of emptiness, anxiety, stress, low self-esteem or depression. They may expect that solution to come in the form of medication or counseling.

An example is the burnt out accountant or business owner, giving 100% of himself to his work, leaving nothing for friends, family or self. Another is the perfectionistic student, struggling to keep up with her extracurricular achievements and maintain an A+ average.

There are many unhappy in their own bodies, concerned about their weight or magnifying perceived imperfections. Some with wavy hair like it straight; those with straight hair want the waves. Some with big body parts want them smaller. Some with smaller body parts want them bigger.

When you look at those you love unconditionally – children, parents and friends, do you wish them to look different or “better” or to be anything other than who they are?

What we all need is self-compassion, an essential aspect of emotional wellbeing.

It’s not what we usually think about when we say self-love that most might associate with narcissism – a self-centred obsession with a superficial self.

Self-compassion is an extension of the authentic love we more freely give to others.

Through the habits of negative self-talk, guilt, perfectionism or self-neglect, we can become our own worse critics and fail to give ourselves the care we need.

Through the magic of self-compassion, our world becomes a better place – even if nothing else has changed. We struggle less. We are happier, less judgmental and more accepting of our selves and others. When we look in the mirror, we smile instead of furrowing our brows.

How can you nurture self-compassion?

Practice this lovingkindness meditation borrowed from Buddhism. Picture someone you care about, someone who makes you smile when you think of them – a child, parent or friend, and say in your mind, “May you be happy, healthy, peaceful and safe.”

You can nurture compassion for others, by imagining their faces and saying, “May you be happy, healthy, peaceful and safe.” Foster self-compassion by saying, “May I be happy, healthy, peaceful and safe.”

Be mindful of critical, judgmental thoughts towards others and yourself. One key to a happier marriage is to offer five honest positive comments for every negative one. Be a good partner to yourself.

A good parent ensures the children are well fed, exercise, play safe and get enough sleep, yet so many good parents don’t extend that care to themselves. Be a good parent to yourself – eat well, don’t skip meals, avoid recreational drugs and limit alcohol. Engage in daily exercise and get enough rest.

Being human, we are by nature imperfect yet we are still beautiful and worthy of love. Be kind to yourself, and may you be happy, healthy, peaceful and safe.

Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in Burnaby Now, Vancouver Courier, Royal City Record and Richmond News. For more on achieving your positive potential in health, see his website at www.davidicuswong.wordpress.com.

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Compassion Coping with Loss Empathy Forgiveness Friendship Grace Growth Happiness Letting Go Love

The gifts that give back

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7 Mantras (Davidicus Wong)

At one time or another, we all think about ourselves when we give to others.

That’s perfectly fine when your gift is a shared experience: a nice meal, a concert or a movie. You’re celebrating your relationship and saying “I love you so much that I want to enjoy some special time together.”

Some gifts are thinly veiled gifts to your self. Examples among spouses abound. Consider the husband who buys a big screen TV for his wife a week before Valentine’s so that they can enjoy watching the Super Bowl together. Have you ever received a gift that someone else uses more than you?

When I was 14, I gave my brother a record album that I liked myself. He immediately noted that I would be enjoying the music as much as he so I exchanged it for something he really liked (that I couldn’t use).

There are three virtues that I call “double blessing”: forgiveness, gratitude and generosity. They are two-way gifts – gifts that give back. They benefit the giver as well as the receiver. They strengthen our relationships, and they nourish our souls.

Forgiving

Shakespeare said it best in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath; it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Sometimes we are loath to forgive someone who has hurt us. It is especially difficult if that person’s actions have caused great suffering, were done with ill intent and with no remorse.

To forgive may feel like you’re letting the other off the hook, giving something up or diminishing yourself, but what you give up and lighten may be a load that has been weighing you down and holding you back.

If you’ve travelled by plane recently, you’ve noticed that most passengers are maximizing their carry on luggage, stuffing them under seats and overhead. This makes for an even more uncomfortable flight for themselves and their neighbours.

We weigh ourselves down by carrying into each new day the baggage of our past: resentments, prejudices, insults and slights. They hold us back from stepping lightly, moving forward and welcoming new experiences.

Forgiveness isn’t so much letting someone else off the hook as it is unhooking you from the load you’ve been towing. You are the one who is freed.

Appreciation

I taught my children that two of the most important prayers are those of gratitude at the dawn of each day and at dusk. When we frame the day counting our blessings, we nurture both optimism and happiness. We greet a new day with a cup half full and go to bed, with a cup overflowing.

But we can do much more than just counting our blessings and acknowledging the gifts of the day. We can strengthen our relationships and spread happiness by thanking those who have helped us.

We all need to feel appreciated and to know that we make a difference to the people around us. If someone has touched you and made your life better, thank them. Don’t take anyone for granted. Don’t miss a day’s opportunities to express appreciation and to make a difference. All is fleeting.

Generosity

Each day you can see people in need, and you can help in ways big and small.

You don’t have to be rich to enrich your own day and make a positive difference. You can make someone’s day with an act of kindness, a sincere complement, a helping hand, encouragement and appreciation.

When we give freely and without expectation, we are nurturing our own capacity for unconditional love. We are each beneficiaries of kindness and love from many people throughout our lives: teachers, coaches, health care providers, family, friends and benevolent strangers. We cannot give back all that we’ve received, but we can give that love forward.

It is the greatest re-gift.

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Compassion Emotions Forgiveness Letting Go Love Parenting real beauty real love Relationships

Love . . . the real thing

Ducks at Central Park
Central Park, Burnaby by Davidicus Wong

I believe we are each a unique manifestation of the divine in this world.

When we are self-less, identifying less with this everchanging physical body and the elaborate personal story of endlessly conditioned thoughts and feelings that we have created throughout our lives, we see that we are all connected.

When others harm or insult me personally, they are also harming themselves. If I respond with misery or anger, I also harm myself – I allow myself to be twice stabbed, and it is my own self-inflicted wound that causes the longest suffering.

Our bodies are 60% water, but we don’t own that water. We are each a part of the water cycle. We take it in, we let it out. Water flows, evaporates, condenses and precipitates.

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We are also vessels of love and part of a great Love Cycle. It is an essential part of us, we take it in through many forms, it nurtures and sustains us, we give it out and we let it go.

Like all gifts in life – youth, health, friends, loved ones, careers – it is given to us in trust. It is not ours to own or cling to. We must appreciate these gifts when they are present but we cannot hold them forever – even our selves are not forever; we must let go of every gift.

But being human, we do not always love unconditionally – particularly with those closest to us. As parents, we may add judgment and expectation in our love for our children. The newborn baby is beautiful to us (even in her imperfection) because she is our own baby. When I was younger, I thought that I had to earn my parents’ love by being an overachiever but I later realized that that was not the case. They loved us each just as we were.

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Loved ones, friends, neighbours, coworkers and classmates may say and do things that attack our personal selves, and we can be pulled back into the usual mode of thinking of ourselves as separate selves – defending ourselves and competing for limited resources – the status quo of the win-lose game.

When couples fall in love. It begins with love, the idea and love, the emotion. Love, the idea is the product of infatuation – and we don’t see clearly. It’s like a psychosis, and I wonder if young people madly in love can really give informed consent to be married (until they have cooled off and come to their senses). Love, the emotion is a complex of our physical responses (which always fades with the passage of time) and our ideas and beliefs about that person (often inaccurate and incomplete).

With these limiting definitions of love, we can only love a few people in our lives.

Agape, metta or unconditional love is the real thing: the capital “L” Love. It is Love, the spiritual experience. It comes from an unlimited wellspring. It comes without conditions. Although it may seem foolish from a self-centric perspective, Love-based thoughts and actions benefit our truest, deepest, spiritual selves.

Just as Shakespeare said of mercy in the Merchant of Venice: The quality of mercy is not strained . . . It is twice blessed. It blesses both the giver and receiver.

Forgiveness is the same. Letting go of the past, acknowledging but relinquishing anger, and completely forgiving others – benefits most the one who forgives.

Life on Earth in a human body is a delicate balance. So easy is it for each of us to get lost in the delusion that we are just our separate personal identities. So easy it is to forget who and what we really are. When someone else – enemy or loved one – pokes at our little selves, we feel that natural response to defend and react. Mindfulness of our true identity reins us in.

We are human and imperfect, and we don’t always love unconditionally. In fact, most of the love that we have received in our lifetimes has come of course from other imperfect humans and came with conditions. But it is still love and part of the love cycle of which we are a part. It is the love that we give forward.

We can filter that love, purify it and share it with the rest of the world more unconditionally and closer to the original source of Love.

With real Love, I see more clearly. I see real beauty in the world and in other people. The two greatest spiritual experiences are to Love . . . and to be Loved in this way. It comes from the divine within us, and with it, we see the divine in others. As human beings, this is the purest way that we can experience God.

May you be happy, healthy, peaceful and safe. May you be filled with Love and give it freely.

God Creating Adam

 

 

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Burnaby Division of Family Practice Coping with Loss Emotions Friendship Growth Happiness Letting Go Love Positive Potential Relationships Your Goals

Bring Your Best to a New Year

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As we grow older, each year seems to pass more quickly.

When I was five years old, a summer seemed to last a year; now each season passes in a flash. As we accumulate years in age, each year, month, week and day becomes a relatively smaller proportion of the time we have experienced. And maybe we’re not as attentive.

Yet with each New Year as I review the old calendar, I am always surprised with what has happened in the span of just one year. The media recapitulates the big world events with retrospective spins, but what matters most to you and me are our personal experiences.

There were birthdays, anniversaries and many other celebrations; time spent with family and friends; plays and musicals seen with my wife.

There were hard times too. I looked after two dear patients who died from the most aggressive cancers. Though palliative care is a special opportunity to give my best in the worst situations and care for a whole family when they need it the most, each visit to home and hospice takes its toll. I die a little with each death.

Last year, my wonderful Aunt Cecile passed away in hospice. Though we miss her deeply, we were fortunate to have had the time to express our love and say goodbye.

There were changes in our relationships: meeting some for the first time; saying farewell to others; a deepening of some friendships; a drifting apart with others.

Taking stock of the old year is practice for looking back at one’s life.

Before moving on, I ask, “What am I most grateful for?”

I reflect on the good fortune not just the bad; the wonderful, kind actions of others; my gracious patients who entrust me with their care; my colleagues who support me in our shared calling; the many good people I have worked with to improve the health of our community; my best friends, and my family.

What have I survived? How have I been helped? How have I helped others? What have I learned? How have I grown? The answers are measures of a year and of life.

Entering this New Year, what will we do differently? What activities should we do more of? What should we reduce? What should we cut out all together? What can we create?

This life and each moment are precious. We have nothing to waste.

This year, I’ll be continuing my work with the Burnaby Division of Family Practice in our free public health lectures.

On Friday, January 29th at 7 p.m., I’ll be speaking on “What You Should Know About High Blood Pressure” at the Confederation Community Centre at 4585 Albert Street in North Burnaby (near the Eileen Dailly Pool and McGill library). Register online with lcullen@divisionsbc.ca or call Leona at (604) 259-4450.

Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in this paper. For more on achieving your positive potential in health, see his website at www.davidicuswong.wordpress.com.

Categories
Balance Emotions Happiness Letting Go

Mindfully Manage Your Emotions

Nitobe Memorial Garden, UBC (Davidicus Wong)

Do you remember the scene in Disney’s animated movie when Snow White runs screaming through the woods, terrorized by what appear to be evil trees? She awakens in the morning, surrounded by new furry, forest friends.

In real life, we all get lost in the wilderness of our emotions, and those emotions cloud what we are able to see. We may think we know the difference between happiness, sadness, anger and anxiety, but any of us can get caught up and lost in our moods and feelings. We are surprised with where we have wandered.

The conventional approach to life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That we believe is the definition of success and the secret to happiness: maximal pleasure and minimal pain.

We preoccupy our thoughts and energy with the pursuit of physical comforts: nice meals, a comfortable home, attractive clothes and a variety of sensual pleasures. We work not only for the necessities of life but to buy the things we crave. We peruse catalogs, search the net and wander through shopping malls to find what we want.

At the same time, we avoid what we don’t like: pain and suffering. When we experience physical pain especially when it becomes chronic, we struggle to fight it – with fear, anger and sadness. This invariably amplifies our suffering.

Likewise, we seek positive emotional experiences: falling in love, happiness and peace, and we react with aversion to negative emotions, such as sadness, grief, anxiety and anger. We might try to suppress or ignore these difficult feelings or struggle to fight them with even greater fear, anger and loathing.

Our conventional approach to life is doomed to fail. That is reality.

There is good and bad in every life, and each of us will experience a daily mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences.

If our aspiration is to remain young, active and pain-free forever, we will surely be disappointed; our bodies age and breakdown, we will become ill at some time, and each of us will ultimately die. Accidents can disable us or shorten our lives.

Change – both predictable and unpredictable – is the nature of life and part of being human. It is futile to hold onto all that gives us pleasure. Pain is a part of life, but suffering – to some extent – is optional.

We don’t have to be caught up with the dramatic twists and turns of fortune or get sick on the roller coaster ride of our emotions. With a little wisdom and the application of mindfulness, we can still find peace.

Without mindfulness, we instinctively react to circumstances and get carried away with our emotions. We stab ourselves twice by clinging to negative emotions.

First, we identify with them. We say, “I am depressed”, “I am panicky” or “I am angry” instead of “I am experiencing a feeling of depression, a panic attack or a wave of anger”. By identifying with negative emotions, we add more power to their punch and stay within their reach.

Then we ruminate – repeating and recycling the negative thoughts associated with those emotions. For depression, “Everything is terrible and it’s never going to get better.” For anxiety, “I can’t handle it. I’m overwhelmed.” For anger, “I have a right to be mad, and here are the reasons . . .”

In this way, we linger in the lake of our sorrows or get caught in the quicksand of our own anger.

A mindful approach to difficult emotions is to recognize that it is normal and human to feel a variety of emotions and to notice them change as does everything else in our lives. I use the acronym, ROAR.

Recognize your emotions. What am I feeling? Is it really anger or does something else lie beneath the surface? Fear? Sadness?

Open up and accept your feelings without judgment. Feeling a wave of anger, sadness or fear does not make you a bad person.

Appreciate whatever is arising in your heart. What does it feel like? What does it physically feel like in your body? Think “This is anger or anxiety or sadness” rather than “I am angry, I am anxious, or I am sad.”

Release. Don’t identify, cling to or feed your emotional response. Let it pass through you like a weather system.

Catch and release. Breathe in and breathe out.

That is a key to mindfully managing your emotions.

Nitobe Memorial Garden, UBC (Davidicus Wong)

Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in Burnaby Now, Royal City Record, Richmond News and Vancouver Courier. 

Categories
Emotions Happiness Healthy Living Letting Go Meditation

Retreating to Mindfulness

Nitobe Memorial Garden, UBC (Davidicus Wong)

If you were on the UBC campus a few weekends ago, you may have seen over a hundred people slowly streaming out of the Asian Centre eyes lowered and placing each step deliberately. This was not the early arrival of zombies for Hallowe’en. I know because I was among them, and I’m very much alive and mindful of that.

We were all there for a weekend meditation retreat led by Diana Winston, director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. The book, “Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness” which she co-authored with Susan L. Smalley outlines the scientific evidence and practical application of mindfulness meditation.

At our retreat, organized by the Westcoast Dharma Society, we practiced meditation while standing, walking, eating and sitting (on a chair, meditation bench or a meditation cushion called a zafu). Meditation is the practice of focused attention or concentration. Depending on your practice, you can meditate upon an idea, an image or a mantra, such as the word, Om. In mindfulness meditation, we focus on what arises in the present moment.

When we first learn to meditate while sitting, we focus our concentration on each breath in and each breath out, noting the sound and sensations in different parts of the body. We can then shift our attention to other physical sensations: heat or cold, pressure, tension or pain.

Tea House at Nitobe Memorial Garden, UBC (Davidicus Wong)

With further practice, we become aware of thoughts and emotions as they arise. We train our minds to remain in the present moment – rather than getting stuck in the past or projected into the future. We recognize when our minds are carried away in a train of associations or our thoughts snowball out of control, and with practice we remain in the present.

A strong foundation of mindfulness can serve as a safe anchor from which we can experience and manage challenging emotions and physical pain. For example, we can move our awareness and focus back and forth from the anchor of mindful breathing to an area of pain or a difficult emotion, such as sadness, anger or fear.

In walking meditation, we first learned to attend to the sensations in our feet and legs as we took deliberately slow, controlled steps. As we sped up, we noted the subtle changes in our sensations. In standing meditation – a good alternate to sitting when you think you might fall asleep, we recognized that we are in constant motion even as we try to stand still.

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In a mindful eating exercise, I shared lunch with my friend and med school classmate, John but we couldn’t talk according to the rules of the retreat. By remaining conscious of each bite of my sandwich, apple and pear and every grape, I noted sensations and subtleties of taste that I normally would have missed. It took me 40 minutes to eat a lunch I would usually wolf down in 10, but my appetite was satisfied with less food. I’ll be recommending slow, mindful eating to all of my patients who are challenged by their hearty appetites.

Though many people think of meditation as something that is done only in solitude while seated on a zafu, mindfulness is meditation in motion. With the deepening of practice, mindfulness becomes the attitude with which we can live every moment of our lives, as we learn and work, talk and relate to others, and experience being alive, having thoughts and feeling emotions.

An insight arises in the practice of mindfulness where the focus of our attention is whatever arises in the present – a moving target. Everything changes and everything is in motion – everything in our world, everything in our selves, including our thoughts, emotions and bodies.

My favourite place for walking meditation was the Nitobe Memorial Garden, a gem of a Japanese garden hidden behind the Asian Centre. It reminded me of the beauty that is all around us every day that we may miss if we are not mindful.

Nitobe Memorial Garden, UBC (Davidicus Wong)

Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in the Burnaby Now, Vancouver Courier, Royal City Record and Richmond News. 

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Compassion Coping with Loss Letting Go Love

My Parents’ Stories: The Cycle of Love

Dad's family & home in Cumberland before his birth in 1930
Dad’s family & home in Cumberland before his birth in 1930

My dad was born on Vancouver Island in Cumberland, near Courtney and Comox. When Cumberland had a coalmine, it was one of the largest Chinatowns on the West Coast. My dad lost his father in early childhood. His mother was left with 6 children to raise on her own. But my grandmother’s life was difficult from the start. At age 9, she was sold to a wealthy Chinese family that moved to Vancouver. She worked throughout her childhood and was not taught English. She was married and had her first child at age 14. But my dad remembers her as being very good with her hands, a skilled chef and seamstress. She managed to make ends meet and raise each of her children to be independent.

My dad worked throughout his childhood to support his family, finished school, studied automechanics and worked at Vancouver Motors downtown. He saved enough to study science at UBC and dentistry at McGill. When he talks about his childhood, he never complains about the prejudice he endured or the hardship his family suffered. He talks about wonderful life experiences, his lifelong friends and the kindness of so many people along the way.

The Ng Siblings
The Ng Siblings

My mom was born in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Vancouver. When my mom was 9 years old, she and her 7 siblings were orphaned. Her oldest sisters were teenagers and her youngest brother was still in diapers. There was no extended family to help them. To keep the family together, the oldest sisters decided that they would all work to raise the rest of the family until the youngest finished school. My mom always taught me the value of a good family in which each is responsible for one another, and 76 years later, my aunts, uncles and cousins continue to celebrate the love of family at our annual Boxing Day party.

My parents’ stories could have been told with sadness or bitterness but instead, they are stories of courage, resilience, gratitude and love. The way they told their stories shaped how they lived their lives, related to others and raised our family.

My mom’s love for me was unconditional. She saw the best and expected the best of me. At first, I thought I had to be a top student and athlete like my brother to earn my parents’ love, but I eventually realized their love came with no conditions. I would always be loved and accepted just as I was.

My mom’s circle of concern continued to expand throughout her life. She had many friends and was involved in helping others in her United Church and community. She would go out of her way to make a positive difference in the lives of other people with not so random everyday acts of kindness.

When she died unexpectedly from a cardiac arrest 12 years ago, I was overwhelmed with grief, but over time I realized that my mother’s greatest gift was still with me. It was her love, compassion and kindness. I could never give back all the love that my mom had given me, but I was already giving it out and giving it forward. I realized that what I feel towards my own children is the same love my mother gave to me, and if I teach them well, that same love will be given to others beyond my own lifetime. My mother’s greatest legacy was of love. This legacy of love belongs to every one of us.

THE CYCLE OF LOVE

60% of our bodies is made up of water. It’s in each of our cells and in our circulation, but we don’t own that water. We consume it in our food and drink, we lose it through perspiration and elimination.

In school, we studied the Water Cycle. Water evaporates, condenses into clouds, precipitates as snow or rain, freezes, thaws, flows into rivers, lakes and oceans, continuously cycling around the globe. It belongs to no one. It belongs to everyone.

I see our selves as vessels of love and we are part of the Love Cycle. We receive love from many people throughout our lives – friends, family, teachers, coaches, ministers, nurses, doctors and other health care providers – and it comes in many forms including the random kindness of strangers. It doesn’t always come unconditionally – it comes in many imperfect and human forms because we are imperfect and human, but still we receive love from infinite sources.

Love is not a finite resource. It is in us to give, and the giving of love does not diminish us but connects us and makes us stronger.