Featured in

Featured in: Tiny Buddha, Halifax Media Coop, Fine Fit Day, Simplify the Season, La Presse, Filles, Le Canada-Français

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: 

Submit your comments below

Become a follower of the blog/subscribe by email (top left corner of this page)

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: 

Submit your comments below

Become a follower of the blog/subscribe by email (top left corner of this page)