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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Mindfulness - Nuance

Bastien Confourier, Flickr

One of the most important things we learn as we get older is nuance: There are always two sides to a story. Nothing is entirely black or white (even the notion of race has its limits!) But fine lines are hard to draw, and balance is hard to find. Until you apply mindfulness.


This controversial quote popped on one of my social media accounts today:

"The world ins't filled with "haters" and "toxic people". It's filled with people who are hurting and trying, ineffectively, to give themselves relief. So distance yourself if you must, but try do do it with empathy, not judgement. The only cure for "haters" is love, so try to show them more kindness than they showed you. This is how we can slowly make the world a more loving place". (Lori Deschene)

It did not take long before comments started to appear below it, and most of them were outraged: individuals who had been abused, verbally, physically, psychologically, could not fathom offering even more love and kindness to those who had hurt them so badly. That poses no question, no more than the fact that your own safety and sanity - physical and psychological - should always come first. 

Notwithstanding the very important exception of abuse, there is nonetheless some truth to Deschene's quote. Working with children and teenagers, I have often reminded myself that few youngsters make the wrong choices deliberately (or at least not entirely) - many factors come into play. Interacting with irritating or even offensive adults, I have often remarked to myself that the source of their unpleasantness is most likely a personal struggle that I know little about.  

I still put my well-being first, and I have cut ties with a small number of "toxic people" in my life, but this knowledge has helped me remain zen in "milder cases".


In my approach to pleasure, I have had a tendency to assume that any unproductive or potentially harmful behavior is the sign of our need to compensate for some form of suffering, or worse, an addiction in its own right. For example, overeating would have its roots in another unfulfilled need that we are failing to address. 

This can and is often the case, of course, but I am realizing that sometimes, our exaggerations don't stem from something so problematic. In the overeating example, we might simply have fallen prey to the temptation of pleasure! The food is good, eating it provides us with a lot of pleasure, therefore we keep eating even when we aren't hungry anymore. The same can apply to overspending: we see something beautiful in a store, and even if we don't need that item, the pleasure of acquiring it feels very compelling. 

The real problem arises, addiction or not, when indulging has undesirable repercussions. We feel unwell after eating too much. Our finances are tight because we spent too much. At a milder level, even if we feel well and keep our finances in check, eating or spending too much can get in the way of our goals (overeating even slightly is not conducive to a very active lifestyle, especially if you want to be competitive, and overspending even slightly can prevent us from saving for bigger items or experiences we really want to be able to afford). 

In short, behaviors that are unproductive, that do not fulfill a true need and that might have adverse effects don't always deserve to be demonized. A life without pleasure would be very sad. Where to draw the line, that is the question, and mindfulness is probably the only way to discover the difference.


During a discussion at my guided meditation class, a senior participant mentioned that she finds it hard to reconcile the detachment we should ideally have toward our own death, and her very strong (and very natural) will to live.

She also mentioned finding it hard to enjoy life when she knows she is getting closer to her "expiry date", and stressing out about losing her independence. 

Upon discussing it for a little bit longer, we did agree that the awareness of your own mortality can have another, more positive effect: it can encourage us to make the most of life. What if this is the last time I see a sunset? I might as well savor the sight, taking it all in.

No matter our age, finding balance between preparing for the future and enjoying the moment is a challenge... but I think it's a beautiful one.

Mindfulness this Week

Does any of those examples of nuances speak to you?

Does any other example come to mind?

Be part of the process: 

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Friday, September 2, 2016

Mindfulness - Pain

Caja de la china, Flickr 

"We are not on this earth to accumulate victories, or trophies, or experiences, 
or even to avoid failures, but to be whittled and sandpapered down 
until what's left is who we truly are." 
Ariana Huffington

Disclaimer: This blog in no way replaces medical and psychological advice or treatment. If you experience suicidal thoughts, seek professional help immediately.

Have you ever felt unbearable pain? Chances are you have, even if your life has been exempt of unusually dreadful events (e.g. torture, a war, a genocide). 

Physical pain

For one thing, some medical conditions or events, which may not be that uncommon, can put one into a state of intense pain. Examples include kidney stones, shingles, migraine/cluster headache, nerve pain, severe burns, and giving birth. 

The type (and intensity) of pain triggered by those conditions or events is hard to imagine for the neophyte, but nonetheless very real. Cluster headache, for example, has nothing in common with "just a headache" that a tall glass of water, some acetaminophen, and a walk outside would take care of: 

"It's nicknamed the suicide headache because patients have suicidal thoughts to get away from the pain. My patients have told me that it makes them want to bang their heads against a wall or take a drill to their head." (Sean Mackey, pain medicine specialist)

Psychological pain

Some mental health issues, such as the rather widespread anxiety and depression, can feel unbearable to the point of suicidal thoughts (notice a trend?). I know a chronically depressed person who told me that to her, "life will always be a struggle", and who needs antidepressants to manage getting out of bed in the morning. Another friend once wrote that every single morning, he deliberately chooses between putting a gun or a toothbrush in his mouth. 

But more commonplace events can send one down the abyss of despair just as well. The loss of a person you loved, whether they were a family member, a friend or a lover, and whether they were taken away by death or simply chose to walk out of your life, is one flagrant example. The feelings that arise from such events are almost unbearable, at least temporarily. 

The truth is, some emotions can generate just as much pain as physical injuries, and one might be willing to do just about anything to get rid of that pain. As Christina Huffington aptly put it: "Giving up drugs is easy compared to dealing with the emotions drugs protected you from." Obnoxious emotions often have a physiological component, too, and anyone who has ever experienced anxiety (or any type of intense fear), depression (or any type of profound sadness) could attest: knot in the stomach or in the throat, nausea, etc.

Here and now

What's common to those causes of unbearable pain is that they force you to be in the moment, in some cruel manifestation of imposed mindfulness. When in pain there is no past and no future. You are in the here and now with the pain, although you would much rather be anywhere else (sometimes even dead).

What to do about pain

The main problem with pain is not its existence, but our reaction to it. Here are some of the right things to do in the face of pain:

  • Obtain proper treatment (when applicable): That could be the right medication or the right therapy - just don't assume you have to endure the pain. It took me years to find proper treatment for my migraines but boy am I glad I did not relent in my search.
  • Although this may sound contradictory, acknowledge the pain: Obtaining proper treatment is not the same as numbing the pain or distracting yourself from it with a harmful habit. Simultaneous to - adequate, supervised - treatment should be a quest to understand where the pain is coming from, the factors involved. Mindfulness may help identify the triggers and some solutions so that the pain happens less, or less intensely, in the future. Meanwhile, if you feel like crying, do so (oftentimes crying qualifies as part of the treatment).
  • Breathe: When all else fails, going back to the breath is sure to help - even slightly. There's a reason women in labor are encouraged to breathe in a certain way. Conscious breathing can help release anxiety, stress, and physical pain. It's not a panacea, but it helps.
  • Take care of someone else: In between bouts of intense pain, thinking and caring about someone else's needs can be a relief - especially if they are in pain too.
  • Give it some time: This too shall pass.

Finding meaning to pain

No offense to Kelly Clarkson, what doesn't kill doesn't always make you stronger. 
Intense, debilitating pain, especially when it's recurrent, takes its toll on you (physically and mentally). 

Trying to find meaning to pain is a grand metaphysical endeavor, and in my opinion mostly a coping mechanism. If we're going to suffer that much, can we at least understand why?

Unfortunately (or fortunately), there is no rhyme or reason to pain. Life does not follow any logic in how it distributes suffering. You might make all the right choices and still end up in a lot of pain, or make mistake after mistake and be spared for the most part. How unfair! But how lifelike.

Notwithstanding Judeo-Christianity, I will never consider pain a plus in my life - pain sucks, and the least is the better. However, as a longtime migraine sufferer, I couldn't help but notice that in the absence of head pain, I feel absolutely fantastic. Light. Free. Blissful. I am not sure I would experience normality so intensely if frequent, debilitating pain was not part of my life.

Pain is also a great teacher. Experiencing intense emotional pain after falling for (and getting dumped by) the wrong person? It has taught me to not become attached to the wrong people. To listen to my instinct, always keeping my antennas out. If something feels odd or off, I don't pursue it, or at least I remain slightly detached emotionally. I protect myself.

That being said, I would rather not have to experience intense pain, and when it's there I cannot wait for it to go away. I cope by reminding myself that 

This too shall pass.

Mindfulness this Week

How do you cope with pain?

What has pain taught you?

Be part of the process: 

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Mindfulness - The real problem with time

Nick J Webb, Flickr

"If we worship money, we'll never feel truly abundant. 
If we worship power, recognition, and fame, we'll never feel we have enough. And if we live our lives madly rushing around, trying to find and save time, 
we'll always find ourselves living in a time famine, frazzled and stressed." 
(Ariana Huffington)

Do you find yourself rummaging for time, desperately trying to go through your to-do list, always tired, always frustrated?

I know I do. A few months ago, I even tried to create a detailed weekly plan that would incorporate everything I want (or need) to do; paid work, household chores, quality time with loved ones, running, swimming, going to the gym, practicing the guitar, writing articles for an increasing number of publications. To my great despair, and no matter how I tried to move things around, it simply didn't fit - especially given the fact that I wanted the supreme luxury of also sleeping 8 hours per night. 

There is nothing original about my quest for hours, nor is there with my ongoing frustration with the unfinished state of so many of my ventures: as a working parent of the new millenium, I am in good company.

Not content to simply accept this state of affairs, I decided to dig deeper: Why do we feel so pressed for time while living in comfort and privilege? Does it have to be that way? How can we create for ourselves a schedule that has a more organic pace, while still reaching at least some of our goals?

The more I researched the topic, and the more I experimented with my use of time (this summer, for example, was the first in many years that I did not create a long to-do list for myself), the more I realized that the real problem is not time. Our stressed out and frustrated state originates from a few other factors:


Simply put, many of us tend to underestimate the time it will take to do something. I am definitely guilty of that. The first step toward regaining control over our use of time might be to actually set aside enough time to accomplish the things we want to accomplish. If, like me, you also struggle to remain focused on the task at hand (I can barely empty a dishwasher without researching something on Google halfway through), you may want to plan even more time. Which takes us to the next factor: 


No matter how much time you spend on a task, if you are not focused on it, you are not making progress. It doesn't matter if you are distracted by others (external interruptions) or by yourself (daydreaming, multitasking). A block of time devoted to something must indeed be devoted to it! How to accomplish that? Monotask. Take the necessary steps to avoid being disrupted (There is a sign on my home office door that reads "Keep calm and do not disturb - I am working"). And plan regular breaks.


Time is a finite resource. Energy is not. So what really matters is not how much we work, but how we use our energy. One of the main lessons I have learned from running is to pace myself. That could mean going slower than what comes "naturally", or taking a break before you think you need one. This, I realized, applies to any sort of activity: physical, intellectual, even emotional.

If I try to go too fast, or if I fail to rest when I need it, then I end up being way less efficient, which wastes my time. When we do that on a regular basis, a common consequence is to engage in "numbing activities" to compensate for the unpleasantness - this is how so many of us end up over eating, drinking, shopping, staring at a screen for hours, etc. I'm not okay with wasting my time numbing pain and discomfort with bad habits that most likely have side effects. Instead, I am coming to terms with "unproductive" activity (sleeping, daydreaming, reading, listening to music)  that provides me with rest or pleasure.


"Most people are living at such a furious pace that they rarely stop to ask themselves what they stand for and who they want to be. As a consequence, they let external demands dictate their actions." (Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy) 

I stopped counting the number of times I heard time-starved moms - myself included - apologize for not baking/cooking the dish they were bringing to a party, or for not welcoming their guests into an immaculate house... as if getting something from the grocery store and living in a house that looks, well, lived-in, was a venial sin of some sort. To avoid the guilt - and the ensuing apology - a lot of us will try to cram such extra demands into a schedule that is already bursting at the seams. Enough already! Do those things really matter that much?

Like a teacher sets end goals, then breaks them down in small, incremental steps for her students, we should set life goals, determine the intermediate steps, and ensure that our time is indeed devoted to those goals on a daily basis. Any activity that does not lead to the fulfillment of those main goals can be tossed aside. 

Unfortunately, it is very easy to confuse our own personal goals with those that society imposes on us. Based on the current, mainstream definition of success, for example, I should be spending most of my time trying to impress others by 1) making sure I (and my family, and my house, etc.) look their best and "coolest" at all times, including on social media; 2) becoming famous (or making my kids famous, by extension); 3) making lots of money.

The problem is, those endeavors often prove exhausting, and may fail to provide the fulfillment we are looking for. I have written about how, when my translation business was at its height (and with it my income), I felt more fatigue, stress and frustration than any happiness I might have been looking for. I have since then decided to slow down on the career front, and I genuinely feel much better for it.

Meanwhile, other activities that seemed far less glamorous than a lucrative start-up, and which had fell through the cracks, regained importance in my eyes as I realized they actually fit some of my main priorities. Walking in nature and listening to the rain or birds, or spending time washing and cutting up veggies, seems rather banal and, again, unproductive. But when setting my priorities, eating (and feeding my family) healthy, and making sure I engage in peaceful, meditative activities on a daily basis, made it to the top 10 - meaning those activities should indeed be part of my daily life - even if that means sacrificing other activities. 

Less is more

The fear of missing out is a potent feeling, exacerbated by the plethora of choices modern life offers. Is it because my father passed away suddenly at 50, long before he could enjoy any bit of retirement, making it all so clear that the clock is ticking? I have felt an intense pressure to "make the most of life". When left unattended, that pressure can suck enjoyment out of life, which is the last thing we want to happen. I now know that what I need is not to do more things in general, but to strive and be in the moment, whatever I am doing (or not doing).

And so, counterintuitive as it may seem, in order to feel at peace with our use of time, we might need to do less, not more. To learn to sit or walk in silence, to stare into space, without guilt.

Which is exactly what I practiced this summer. There is no endless list of activities on my fridge, with little checkmarks all over it. This summer I took life day by day. Consequently, I spent more time on "unproductive" activities such as reading, chatting with friends and family, and even sleeping. It wasn't always comfortable, but I got used to that slower, more organic, pace. Interestingly, the top priorities still got done (e.g. repainting the decks, organizing the basement). Was this summer better or worse than the previous ones? Neither. But it was certainly less stressful. Will I have regrets? Probably not.

Mindfulness this Week

Have you changed your relationship with time?
How do you make sure you respect your pace, energy levels and priorities?
Do you find it hard to set realistic expectations, and to maintain your focus?

Be part of the process: 

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