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Mindfulness Meditation and Focused Training

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of paying attention mindfully. As Jon Kabat-Zinn describes:  Paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. 

The ability to focus can be learned! Meditation does not have to involve a major time commitment. If you are new to meditation, or if you have limited time, you might want to start with a very simple focused meditation. Even practicing this simple meditation 5 to 10 minutes a day, has been found to have very positive effects on a persons ability to handle stress, their immune system functioning, and their overall health.

Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit. Dim the lights in the room. Turn off your cell phone and other technology that may interrupt your practice. Make sure that the room is at a comfortable temperature, and if not, cover yourself with a throw.

Identify the length of time that you want to practice. In the beginning, this may only be five or ten minutes. As you increase your ability to focus, you may want to challenge yourself with longer sessions. However, it is important to set a timer so that you do not have to watch the clock.

Sit comfortably in your chair with both feet solidly on the ground. Try to keep your back straight and lay your hands at your side or fold them together in your lap. Or, alternatively, lie on the ground.

Start to notice that you are breathing. Become aware of the sensations of breathing. This is not about controlling your breath, but is simply about noticing that you are breathing. Notice the air moving in through your nostrils, passing through your throat, and into your belly as you inhale.  Follow your breath out through your mouth as you exhale. You may notice that your breath slows down as you focus on your breath.  A comfortable rate is approximately six breaths per minute (6-7 seconds on inhale and 6-7 seconds on exhale).

As you sit and observe your breath, you will find that your mind wanders to different thoughts, ideas, worries, or plans. This is normal and is the brains natural default state. Rather than engaging with your minds thoughts, simply notice that your mind has wandered and then gently bring your attention back to your breath. If you find yourself feeling frustrated or self critical, again, just simply notice that you had the feeling (without judging) and guide your attention back to the breath.

When the timer goes off, allow yourself to slowly return to your day.

When you practice this daily, you will strengthen the neural connections in your brain that are important in maintaining focus and regulating behavior. As with any skill, the more you practice, the better you will become. Many people find that doing this practice regularly helps them to feel more centered and in control. However, even skilled meditators sometimes find themselves having difficulty focusing. It is during these unfocused times that you are training!

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What I learned from almost losing my daughter

Two years ago my beautiful granddaughter was born. It was one of the happiest days of my life. However, it did not go off without difficulty. My daughter had Graves’ disease which made her pregnancy high risk. Additionally, although her labor was short, part of the placenta was retained in the birth canal after the baby was born, causing her to hemorrhage. For the next five hours my daughter lost a tremendous amount of blood. Her heart rate fluctuated between 140 and 180 bpm and she was in intense pain.  When her doctor finally returned, he was able to stop the bleeding, and we felt that she was out of danger. A few days later, she was discharged from the hospital. She struggled with postpartum depression, likely due to anemia, but settled in to being a mother. 

Fast-forward approximately six months. My daughter was feeling fatigued. Fatigue is expected when your new mother but this seemed to be in excess of what we would expect. She went to the health clinic and was immediately sent to the emergency department. I’ll never forget when she called me to tell me that she had a pulmonary embolism. I’ll also never forget the next day when she called from the hospital after being told that she was in heart failure and was having episodes of ventricular tachycardia. For those that don’t know what ventricular tachycardia is, it is an abnormal rhythm of the heart that can lead to cardiac arrest. I remember looking at my granddaughter, who lay sleeping beside me while her mom was in the hospital, feeling so worried that something might happen to her mother.

We spent the next year traveling from one specialist to the next. My daughter was put on bed rest for months and was having several episodes of arrhythmia. My granddaughter came dangerously close to losing her mother. I came dangerously close to losing my daughter. Despite all of the training I received in mental health, there were times that it felt “impossible” not to worry.

Shortly after life started to settle down, the 2016 election cycle began. I don’t need to tell you how stressful it was watching such a divisive and hateful process, because we all went through it in one way or another. But again I felt that I was being pulled into worry about what lies ahead for our country.

Through both of these experiences, each still ongoing and at times overwhelming, a couple of important life lessons have become very clear to me:

It is important to acknowledge the limits of my control in any given situation.

Acknowledging the limits of our control is very difficult but holding on to the illusion of control doesn’t change the outcome. It just creates more stress as we focus all of our energy into trying to control things that are not within our reach. By acknowledging that we do not have the power to control certain things, we free ourselves to put energy into what we CAN affect.

In reality, I cannot be with my daughter 24/7 and therefore, I cannot stop my daughter from having a cardiac arrest if that is what is going to happen. I cannot make her medical decisions for her, even if I feel her decisions are risky. But I CAN research her condition and give her information that may help her. I CAN take a refresher course in CPR and purchase an AED. I will be there if and when she needs me. 

Likewise, I cannot stop the President from tweeting and I cannot make members of Congress act in a way that I want them to. But I can march or write to my Representatives to give them my input. I can (and will) vote. I will consider becoming more involved in politics. I will continue to speak from the heart and be loyal to my values. 

It is important to live in the moment and to not get too attached to the outcome.

I realize that this may sound ludicrous. How do you not get too attached to what happens to your child or with the world? However, going back to the first point, no amount of worrying is ever going to change that hard fact that we cannot control the situation. Worrying only steals from our enjoyment of today. I know there were many times in my life (and I’m sure yours) that I have worried about something and it did not happen. How much time do we waste on worries that never come to fruition? And if something tragic were to happen, how much would we regret that we did not enjoy the time that we, or our loved one, had? No one ever looks back from their deathbed wishing that they had worried more.

Engaging in worry is a habit and one that takes a lot of time and energy to break. Mind-body practices such as meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, and tai chi help you to practice being in the moment. Mindfulness meditation is a form of meditation that teaches us to accept life as it is and to be “present” and has been found helpful with people with chronic illness, anxiety, or other illnesses. I knew all of this, but making the time to engage in these activities, in the midst of the stresses was necessary.

Lastly, sometimes you cannot do it alone.

I am thankful that I have a good, supportive network of people that I can turn to. My husband and family are there for me, and I certainly used them as sounding boards when I was feeling stressed. Being in the healthcare industry (and mental health, to boot) I have several friends with training in dealing with stress, and aside from just offering a shoulder, they would remind me to take care of myself, as I have reminded them when they needed it.

But sometimes we may not feel that we want to burden our friends and/or family. This may be particularly true in times like today when our friends and family may be on the other side of politics. Or, they may be feeling overwhelmed and may not be in a position to see your problem clearly and without bias. Additionally, chronic stress can lead to clinical depression, and may require more help than your friends can give. At times like this, it can be important to turn to a psychologist or therapist for professional help.  

I have always reminded myself of the saying: show up, pay attention, tell the truth, but don’t be attached to the outcome. I remind myself every day that as long as I show up, and do everything within my power to make the world better, I can, and will, be okay with the outcome.