Mindfulness and Caregiving

People often choose or are thrust into the role of caregiver.  They are often the primary provider of services for healthy, seriously ill, or special needs children. They may care for elderly, often parents, but possibly for siblings, or other relations. They care for the sick from chronically seriously ill, to hospice care, to temporarily incapacitated. There are a wide variety of situations and contexts. But, in common to all is great stress and hardship on the caregiver.

Caregivers face many challenges that can take a toll on them. Burnout is common. Their own health is often compromised as the stress takes its toll. The modern emphasis on in-home care has increased the magnitude of the problem. It is important to find ways to assist caregivers so that they can continue to provide the needed care without serious compromise to their own health or well-being.

Mindfulness is not a solution, but it can help. This is exemplified in today’s Research News article, “Mindfulness-Based Positive Behavior Support (MBPBS) for Mothers of Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Effects on Adolescents’ Behavior and Parental Stress.”

Mindfulness training for the caregiver with an autistic child is shown to not only reduce caregiver stress, but improve the behavior of the child, reducing the onerousness of the task.

How does mindfulness help caregivers?

Mindfulness training has been repeatedly demonstrated to improve attention.  By being more attentive and screening out irrelevant stimuli the individual becomes more focused on the other person. Being attuned to another makes the caregivers responses better aligned with what the other needs making caregiving more efficient and effective.

Another way that mindfulness training can be of help is through improved emotion regulation. Mindfulness is associated with a heightened ability to recognize and manage one’s own emotions. In caregiving it is easy to react to your own emotions and as a result respond inappropriately or ignore the actual needs of the other person. So, the caregiver can be much more effective by being able to better regulate their own emotions.

Mindfulness training has also been shown to reduce stress and responses to stress. This can be of direct benefit to the caregiver in dealing with the stress of caregiving. This can in turn improve both the caregiving and also the health and well-being of the caregiver.

It should be emphasized that caregiving is complex and very demanding. Mindfulness training is not a magical solution to the issues confronted by the caregiver. It does, however, appear to help, making both the caregiving and the caregiver better.

So, be mindful and be better equipped to provide care to others when needed.


Mindful Negotiations

Mindfulness practice is generally a solitary practice. We venture deep into ourselves. But, mindfulness practice does more than just improve the individual it also improves the individual’s ability to interact with others. There are a number of ways that mindfulness can work to improve interpersonal relationships including by increasing attentional focus.

In today’s Research News article, “The Influence of Mindful Attention on Value Claiming in Distributive Negotiations: Evidence from Four Laboratory Experiments.”

It was demonstrated that a brief exercise in mindful attention could significantly improve an individual’s success in simulated negotiations. The authors attribute the improvement to increased attention produced by the exercise.

Indeed, mindfulness has been shown repeatedly to improve attention in many disparate contexts. Today’s article suggests that even in negotiations, heightened attention can result from mindfulness and improve the outcome. How can attention improve negotiating ability?

In negotiations being sensitivity to the nuances in the subtle behaviors of the person being negotiated with can be very helpful. By being more attentive and screening out irrelevant stimuli the individual becomes better able to read the nonverbal cues coming from the other person. These cues are important for understanding the emotional reactions of the other person to each stage of the negotiations and can thereby assist the negotiator in refining offers and counteroffers. Being attuned to another makes your responses better aligned with what the other wants making you more successful.

Another way that mindfulness can be of help in negotiations is through improved emotion regulation. Mindfulness is associated with a heightened ability to recognize and manage one’s own emotions. In a negotiation it is easy to react to your own emotions and as a result respond inappropriately or ignore the most logical negotiating step. So, being able to better regulate emotions would provide a negotiating edge.

Mindfulness has also been shown to improve problem solving and creativity. A negotiation can be viewed as a problem solving task where the negotiator must figure out the optimum strategy to produce the desired outcome. Also, by applying greater creativity to the problem the negotiator can devise novel solutions, optimizing outcomes.

So, practice mindfulness and become a better negotiator.


Spirituality and Alcoholism Treatment

Alcoholism is a terrible disease. It renders the individual ineffective at work. It tears apart families, with one in every four families having alcohol related problems. It makes the individual dangerous both driving and not, with over 33 thousand deaths attributed to drunk driving in the US per year. It is associated with a quarter of all homicides worldwide. It also degrades the person’s health, reducing life expectancy by about 10-12 years.

An effective treatment for this addiction has been elusive. Alcoholics Anonymous has been as effective as any other treatment devised. Why is it somewhat effective, when many other programs fail? Why is it effective for some, but not all? One reason could be the emphasis on spirituality present in AA.

In today’s Research News article, “Spiritual Awakening Predicts Improved Drinking Outcomes in a Polish Treatment Sample”


it was found that undergoing spiritual awakening while in AA was associated with much better outcomes, including increased abstinence or a higher likelihood of absence of heavy drinking.

Why is spiritual awakening associated with better outcomes? One possible reason is that spirituality provides a source of comfort as the individual faces the challenges of stopping drinking. The challenges provided in everyday life can be a source of motivation to drink. An alcoholic uses alcohol as an escape from the pressures, stresses, and emotional upheavals that occur during ordinary life. But the alcoholism tends to produce its own set of stresses that create a vicious cycle where the escape creates the problems to be escaped. Spirituality may provide another way to cope with the individual’s problems. The individual can take solace in the devine instead of alcohol when upheavals occur. This can help to break the vicious cycle, making it possible to deal with the alcoholism.

Spirituality can provide the recognition that they need help, that they can’t go it alone. It helps the individual recognize that they can’t control the drinking without outside assistance. The alcoholic then can allow fellow alcoholics, people close to them, or therapists to provide needed assistance when the urge to drink begins to overwhelm the individual’s will to stop drinking. The recognition that there are greater powers than themselves makes it easier to ask for and accept assistance.

It has also the case that spirituality is associated with negative beliefs about alcohol. Buddhism teaches that intoxication is an impediment to spiritual development. Other religions completely prohibit alcohol while many decry the behaviors that occur during alcoholic stupor.  This provides a cognitive incompatibility between drinking and spirituality. The recognition that drinking is not an OK thing to do might provide the extra motivation to help withstand the cravings.

In addition, spiritual groups tend to be populated with non-alcoholics. So, increased spirituality also tends to shift the individual’s social network away from drinking buddies to people less inclined to provide temptation. It is very difficult to stop drinking when those around you are not only drinking themselves but encouraging you to drink. So shifting social groups to people who either abstain or demonstrate controlled drinking can help tremendously.

Regardless of the explanation the association is clear. Spiritual awakening is associated with more positive outcomes for AA participants.


Stop Repeating the Same Mistakes Over and Over Again

Humans are flawed creatures and often make mistakes. As they say ‘to err is human’. But, humans are also capable of learning and changing their behavior in response to experience. So, once a mistake is recognized we should be able to make adjustments so that we don’t repeat the mistake when the same situation arises again in the future.

So, why is it that history seems to repeat itself? Why is it that we make the same mistakes over and over and over again? Why do we not learn from these mistakes and change?

The primary reason for repeating errors is that we do not recognize the true cause of the mistake. We attribute it to something outside of ourselves and reason that when it goes away the mistake will not reoccur. Hence, an abused spouse continues to stay in the relationship because they believe that their partner will change. An employee believes that a new job will result in the long sought promotion. An investor believes that bad luck and outside macroeconomic forces are the causes of their repeated losses. A student believes that if the professors were fair their grades would be better.

We continue to make mistakes because we don’t look at ourselves accurately. The solution to most repetitive mistakes resides within the individual not outside. The abuse is allowed to continue because the individual has low self-worth and fears leaving the relationship. It’s the self-worth that needs to be changed not the abusive spouse. The promotion is not forthcoming because the individual does not know how to truly listen to others. It’s the listening skills that need to be fixed, not the employer. The investments are not working out because the individual is responding to the ups and downs of the market with greed and fear. It’s the individual’s response to emotions that need changing, not market forces. The grades are low because the student has difficulty paying attention. It’s the attentional process that need strengthening, not the professors’ fairness.

It’s rather simple in that the solution is to be found inside not outside. The failure to see this results in seeking solution outside, resulting in repeating the same mistakes over again.

Contemplative practice is the medicine that can cure the problem. It focuses the individual’s attention inside making the individual become more sensitive to their own psychological and emotional state. Through practice the abused spouse can come to see the underlying self-worth issue, the employee learns to listen deeply, the investor gains emotion regulation, the student improves his/her attentional abilities.

Engage in contemplative practice with patience, dedication, and energy targeted at what’s inside, not outside. Over time this practice will allow you to truly understand the source of the problem and to stop repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

Contemplative practice can stop history repeating itself!


Present Moment 1 – Awareness of Now

The notion of focusing on the present moment is the essence of mindfulness practice. In common modern usage it refers to an awareness of the sensations and thoughts that are occurring in the immediate moment. But, in more traditional usage coming out of the Judeo-Christian or Buddhist traditions that form of awareness is only one form of present moment awareness. In addition there are two other forms of mindfulness; an ethical awareness of the present and a spiritual awareness of the present. These latter two will be discussed in future posts. For now we will focus on the modern notion of mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn proposed what is probably the most widely accepted definition of mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”

In this definition mindfulness involves intentionally distributing attention to the present moment. It’s something that we actively choose to do. The requirement of volition makes it different from orienting to a sudden stimulus in the environment, which is reflexive. It is also different from mundane everyday present moment awareness that occurs as we navigate through our everyday lives. This usually occurs without an active distribution of attention and frequently is done without thought as we execute well learned behaviors on “autopilot”, e.g. driving. Most importantly, it lacks the focus that mindfulness brings to bare on the present moment.

The attentional focus of mindfulness is expressed in two forms of mindfulness practice, focused attention and open-monitoring attention. Focused attention involves paying close attention to a single object of meditation, e.g. the breath, a mantra, a prayer, etc. While open monitoring involves simply, quietly watching everything as it arises and falls away and not specifically focusing on anything. Both of these forms of mindfulness particularly as practiced in the west are focused on the physical world with no reference to ethics or non physical, spiritual phenomena.

Where mindfulness of the present moment as its practiced diverges radically from everyday mental content is that it’s performed non-judgmentally. Our everyday observations of experiences are fraught with judgments. We’re constantly classifying things as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, liked or disliked, etc. We rarely see hear or feel anything without some our minds proclaiming some kind of judgment on it.

Ceasing judging in mindfulness is challenging. Our minds are programmed to evaluate everything. That’s an adaptive strategy and helps us detect problems and prevent issues from arising. But, it is strongly embedded in our thinking and trying to stop it can be very difficult and can take years of practice. This can be devilishly tricky as our minds get involved in judging whether were judging or not.

This is what we try to do in our contemplative practice, to develop mindfulness of the present moment without judgment. But, this is where it ends in modern mindfulness practice. It obviously can produce great benefits for the individual’s health and well-being, but somehow this seems to be lacking something. We are left better, but somehow not fundamentally changed. Somehow we’ve neglected to develop morally or spiritually.

Regardless, practice developing mindfulness and reap its rewards.


Dealing With Major Depression when Drugs Fail

Mindfulness training has been repeatedly demonstrated to be an effective treatment for depression. It is so effective that the in the UK it is considered the treatment of choice for depression. But Major Depression is another level entirely. Very few treatments other than drugs have been effective.

Major Depression appears to be the result of a change in the nervous system that can generally only be reached with drugs that alter the affected neurochemical systems. Once under control with drugs, other therapies are helpful in assisting the individual to adjust to the new normal and to remedy the sequellae of years of depression.

But what can be done when drugs do not work which happens quite frequently. It is suggested in today’s Research News article, “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy vs. psycho-education for patients with major depression who did not achieve remission following antidepressant treatment


that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) may be a solution. Patients with Major Depression who have not responded to drugs did significantly improve with MBCT treatment and the improvement was superior to an active control group designed to simulate many of the conditions of MBCT.

This is remarkable. A mindfulness based treatment is effective on a major mental illness, which is principally a physiologically based disease, even when drugs fail. How is this possible that MBCT can be effective when other therapies and even drugs don’t help?

One possibility is the emphasis on the present moment in mindfulness. Depression is often rooted in the past and the individual ruminates about the misery of the past. By shifting focus to the present moment, mindfulness can move the individual from being preoccupied with a troubling past to being focused on a safe and secure present. Mindfulness also stresses non-judgmental awareness of the present. There is a decreased tendency to be constantly judging what is happening and instead just accept it as what is, which is a difficulty in depression.

Another possibility is mindfulness’ ability to increase emotion regulation. That is mindfulness assists the individual in recognizing emotions as they arise and not over respond to them. It doesn’t prevent emotions. It simply allows the individual to better deal with them when they do arise. So when depression occurs the individual can recognize it, accept it, and then let it go and not respond to it. This liberates the individual to find new ways of responding to the environment and other people.

Still another possibility is that mindfulness produces a heightening of acting with awareness. The individual then is more aware of what they’re doing. For the depressed individual this can help in the recognition of how he/she is acting in response to the depression. This allows them to reprogram their responses to be more appropriate to the circumstances of the present rather than responding to the depression itself.

Finally, it is known that drugs are effective for depression by altering the brain. It is also known that mindfulness training produces alterations of the nervous system. Perhaps, they act on the brain in similar ways, producing similar changes that help to relieve depression.

Regardless, if you’re depressed, try mindfulness.


How Long is the Present Moment

‘the prototype of all conceived times is the specious present, the short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible’ (James 1890)

In our contemplative practice we are instructed to pay attention entirely to the present moment. There is no instruction as to what exactly that means as it would seem to be self-evident. On reflection, however, it can be seen that it is not that simple. What we experience as the present is not an infinitely small point in time. Rather it appears to have duration. It seemingly lasts from briefly in the past to briefly in the future.

We can conceive of the present moment as of fixed duration in which stimuli arise and fall away. It is always the same, but its contents are constantly changing. We are aware of now and what is happening in now is impermanent and in perpetual flux. In other words, time appears to be moving through the now rather than the present moment moving through time.

In today’s Research News article “Moments in Time”



Marc Wittmann asserts that before we can answer that question of how long is now we must first define exactly what we mean by the present moment. He reviews three different ideas of the present moment; functional moment, experienced moment, and mental presence.

The functional moment is defined usually by the threshold for detecting two separate events in time. For example telling that two sounds spaced apart are actually two sounds rather than a singular sound. It is the time when separate events appear to be fused together into a single event. There are various ways to measure this and the estimates vary greatly depending upon the method, but generally the functional moment lasts somewhere between 30 to 300 milliseconds, .03 to .30 seconds.

The experienced moment is the subjective present. It is an experienced now within an ongoing stream of events. For example while listening to music a note does not stand alone in consciousness but is joined by the prior note and the expected future note. In speech, each word is perceived in reference to past and expected words, as in the phrase “how are you”. When we hear “are” we process it recognizing that it’s in reference to a question, “How” and due to our learning we also experience the “are” with the expectation of a following word “you”. This experienced moment has duration of somewhere up to 3 seconds.

Mental Presence is defined as a temporal platform of multiple seconds within which an individual is aware of himself/herself and the environment, where sensory–motor perception, cognition, and emotion are interconnected features of representation leading to phenomenal experience. It is the temporal boundaries of perception that allow us to hold events in present experience. There is no fixed time duration of temporal presence. Rather it appears to continuously change phasing into and out of other mental presences.

What does it matter as to how long is the present moment. It matters to scientists and philosophers who are attempting to understand it within the confines of dualistic language and logic. The present moment for contemplative practices is probably more akin to mental presence.

But to the practitioner of contemplation the present moment is simply experienced. It does not have to be compartmentalized, measured, or described. It just is. And that is enough for our purposes of staying in the present moment.


It’s a Good Day Even when it isn’t

A frequent part of everyday conversation is the wish to “have a good day”. This statement is often produced automatically and vacuously, without any thought as to its meaning. But, regardless, the ubiquitous wish indicates that “having a good day” is desired and often our days are not what we would describe as good.

Why do we think of some days as good and others not so? It all has to do with what we experience during the day. It could be something as overt as the weather or something much deeper as what we learn or the emotions we experience during the day, or it could be something as simple as what we accomplish during the 24 hours. Regardless, we classify these experiences as good or bad.

I prefer to say “enjoy your day” because it implies actively engaging in the day rather than passively taking what the day has to offer. I’m very fond of a quote from the sage Thich Nhat Hahn “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.” I have it framed in my closet to remind me when I get dressed each day as to how to proceed to make each and every day a “good day.”

Thich Nhat Hahn’s smile is not put on or forced. Rather it follows from the thought of the enjoyable wonders of the day ahead, evoking happiness. What is doing this? It’s the thought of living “fully in each moment” that is eliciting the smile. What he is implying is that mindfulness is the key to making every day “a good day.”

If we approach the day with full mindfulness it is always good. If it’s sunny we can appreciate the energy that our sun is bathing our world in, allowing our food to grow, warming our environment, and lighting our way; such wonder, such beauty. If it’s dark and rainy we can appreciate the beautiful sounds of the rain on our roofs or as it strikes the trees and plants around us, feeling the raindrops as they strike our skin with sudden pinpricks of coldness, and sustaining the growth on which we depend; such wonder, such beauty.

If our work is difficult and we are faced with troubling challenges we can observe the wonder of our minds rising to the challenges, producing insights out of nowhere to help resolve the issues, and feel the pleasure of success or the rich textured emotions of failure; such wonder, such beauty. If our work is humdrum and normally boring we can explore what exactly is happening as we’re performing the tasks, feeling the sensations and emotions of wanting things to be more interesting, and contemplating the ripple effects of what we’re accomplishing.

If we are truly mindful there are no good days or bad days, there are only joyful days of experience the wonder of life.

So be mindful and “enjoy your day.”

See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Zl9puhwiyw for a wonderful explanation of the nature of a “good day.”



Present Moment 2 – Ethical Awareness of Now

The notion of focusing on the present moment is the essence of mindfulness practice. In many spiritual traditions there are three forms of mindfulness; present moment awareness,  ethical awareness of the present and spiritual awareness of the present. In a previous post we discussed present moment awareness. Today’s essay essays will focus on mindfulness suffused with ethical considerations.

Ethics are omnipresent in the traditions from which contemplative practices emerged. The present moment is never without an ethical/moral context. Mindfulness includes the actions of the individual within the present moment and how the individual should conduct himself/herself. This is based upon a mindful understanding of the consequences of actions and which are desirable and which not.

In many spiritual traditions there are moral and ethical dictates sometimes called commandments that are provided to guide mindful ethical conduct. To transgress is a sin, an affront to a supernatural being. In other traditions, particularly eastern, ethical conduct is guided by the consequences of the actions. Ethical actions are ones that lead to greater spiritual development while those that would be classified as unethical would interfere with the individual’s spiritual development. There are no absolutes, only skillful and unskillful actions.

The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is an exemplar. It specifies the actions and attitudes that lead to spiritual development. Three of these are associated with ethical conduct; right speech, right livelihood, and right action. It is not considered sinful to not follow these principles, rather it is considered as detrimental to the individual. So, the consequences are direct and immediate to the individual.

Right speech is not to engage in false speech or more simply to be truthful. But the notion extends beyond simple lying and truthfulness to a mindfulness of the consequences of what we say and its impact on others. Our words can hurt, our words can be used to manipulate, our words can mislead, and our words can hide the truth. These are all unskillful actions. Truly being mindful we can become more aware of the consequences of our speech and learn to better tailor it to help ourselves and others.

Right livelihood is to make our living in such a way as to not harm others, including other living things and the world itself. If we are truly mindful of our job or occupation we can see the consequences of our livelihood. Doing things that are harmful to others such as engaging in gun sales, production and distribution of harmful drugs such as alcohol and cigarettes, or which extract funds from those who can least afford it are unskillful and in the end harm both the other and ourselves. Similarly, making our living in such a way that it is harmful to the environment or unnecessarily destroys life is also unskillful. The idea of right livelihood is that we should engage in occupations that assist others in the lives and are sustainable within our environment.

Finally, right action is not to engage in harming others, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, and more subtly doing things that promote unmindfulness, such as ingesting intoxicants. More positively, it is to cultivate loving kindness, generosity, and awareness. Mindfulness of our actions helps us to see clearly when our actions are kind, generous, and leading to greater mindfulness. It helps us see the positive consequences of these actions for ourselves and others. It helps us to see their skillfulness.

It should be clear that mindfulness can be much more than simply being aware of the present moment. Unfortunately mindfulness as practiced in modern west cultures is for the most part neglectful of the ethical aspects of mindfulness. Only being aware of now and our actions in the present moment is not enough. Actions have consequences and without proper mindful appreciation of those consequences the practice of mindfulness is without a compass to guide actions. We need to reintegrate ethics into mindfulness. We need to make it a vital part of our practice.

So, develop mindfulness, but ethical mindfulness as well, be skillful and grow and thrive.


The Miracle of Language 3 – Thinking and Implicit Speech

In a prior post we discussed the miracle of speech production and comprehension.

Speech production involves intricate motor control by the nervous system of breathing, the larynx, mouth, and tongue producing sound pressure waves that can be detected by others. Speech comprehension involves the response of the auditory system to sound pressure waves produced by another, causing a neural response from the receptors in the cochlear and transmission of this information to the nervous system.

Production originates in the nervous system and comprehension occurs in the nervous system. Because all of the information processing occurs internally in the central nervous system it is reasonable to think that perhaps the nervous system could produce and comprehend language without the involvement of the vocal apparatus or the auditory system. This is indeed what appears to happen in what we call implicit speech.

In essence we talk to ourselves. We’ve been dong it most of our lives and as such we take it totally for granted. But, taking a much closer look we can see that this may be even more of a miracle than the production and reception of vocalized speech.

In meditation, we attempt to quiet the mind. What this means in essence is to turn off implicit speech, to cease the constant internal jabbering. But, it is very difficult to do this and veteran meditators have learned not to fight it, but to allow it to happen and observe it just as they would observing an odor rising up and falling away or the shadow of a cloud as it passes over us. As a friend of mine likes to say, let the thoughts come in, just don’t serve them tea. In other words, let them pass on through without undue attention.

As we meditatively observe the process of implicit speech we appear to “hear” an internal voice. In addition, the meaning of this speech is readily apparent as if it was produced outside. Somehow understanding is present but where or how or what that understanding is, is a complete miraculous mystery. As you become more sensitive to the whole process you begin to recognize that the important stuff happens in an awareness that isn’t the verbal mind that we thought it was, the awareness that is aware of the internal speech.

Although implicit speech is part of our thought processes. It is only a small part. But, nevertheless it can be very distracting. It is for the most part not terribly productive, frequently repetitive, with a thought or phrase repeating itself over and over again, sometimes even a song lyric. Problem solving and creativity seem to happen outside of this internal speech but when the solution becomes apparent, the implicit speech recognizes it, articulates and is often credited with the solution of which it had very little or any part.

We think of the implicit speech as our mind. But, it is as Suzuki Roshi used to call it our “little mind.” He called the actual, vital, creative, but mysterious entity our “Big Mind.” The reason we need to quiet the implicit speech in meditation is so that the “Big Mind” will not be hidden by the incessant noise of the “little mind.” Once it is quieted we can observe the core of our existence, the “Big Mind”, the consciousness, the awareness that is the essence of our being.

So, observe this process of internal speech and marvel at it, but quiet it and see what you really are.