This post originally appeared on Mindful.org
The other week, I lost a dear friend and colleague, Jamie Zimmerman. A physician, meditation teacher, and author, Jamie lectured internationally on “meditation medicine” and living your calling. She was passionate about global health and believed that healing happens from the inside out. A medical journalist at ABC News, she loved spending time in nature, exploring museums, yoga classes, cafes, and live music. She died as she lived—taking the time to connect to nature and herself in Hawaii, where she was taking a few days for vacation before she was going to speak at a conference.
Jamie’s death is a profound loss to so many people, and many of us grapple with understanding how to grieve. Her death was sudden and shocking, and in trying to make sense of something so seemingly senseless, I found myself remembering one of our last conversations. Jamie and I spoke about the vast potential of maintaining a beginner’s mind and that the essence of mindfulness is remembering this idea when we are faced with something we think we already know. Dear Jamie, all of us who were, and continue to be, touched by your work are forever mindful of you. As we struggle with grief, we will try to do what you would have sought to do with grace and wisdom—bring a mindful perspective to all we are now experiencing.
I offer here five ways to grieve mindfully, but first, I want to touch upon a question I’m asked often as a psychologist. What IS grief? Psychologically speaking, according to Dr. Kubler-Ross (1969), grief is an emotional response to loss. This emotional response is conceptualized as a non-linear expression of different stages of feeling states including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (aka: “dabda”). Biologically speaking, grief is a homeostatic process, a journey that our mind, brain, and body need to engage in to best recover from the trauma of a loss. This is an evolutionary need, since attachment and connection is embedded within our limbic circuitry. Yes, whether we are conscious of it or not, or like it or not, relationships deeply imprint upon our neuronal selves.
Grief is not, by any means, a one-size-fits-all kind of process.
Second, I want to note what grief is not. Grief is not, by any means, a one-size-fits-all kind of process. In fact, it is a uniquely individual process that often feels amorphous and difficult to capture with words. When it comes to grief, there is no “normal” or typical way to “do it.” Despite what some believe, in my opinion, there is no “normal” time period allotted for grief.
It takes a boat load of self-compassion to allow oneself to feel whatever it is you are feeling at any given time, without judgment, without comparison relative to another’s explicit portrayal of their own process. In this way, to grieve is to be mindful of our thoughts and feelings.
Finally, while there is no one “right” way to grieve, to actually grieve is essential for our ability to employ our human capacity to find a renewed sense of meaning. Grief elicits resilience. The capacity to continue to hold a loved one in our heart/mind while still forging forward with purpose and direction.
Five ways to Grieve Mindfully
- Accept your feelings: Allow yourself to feel what you feel at any given moment, with a sense of self-compassion, and without judgment.
- Express your feelings: Just as important as accepting your feelings is expressing them in a way that is helpful to you. Journaling, talking about the experience, scrapbooking, or dancing, for example, are helpful ways to process grief instead of allowing the feelings to stay stuck.
- Reach out: During this time, it is important to reach out in multiple ways. Reach out for guidance from a spiritual counselor or a psychologist. Reach out to share stories of your loved one with others. Reach out to offer support to other grievers. Find a balance between sitting with yourself, and being with others, but ultimately, reach out—don’t isolate.
- Continue to take care of yourself and others. Living life while grieving often feels like scaling a mountain. Grieving takes energy and can often feel draining. As much as possible during this tough time, continue to eat well, exercise, and maintain wellness practices.
- Celebrate your loved one’s life: It is important through the grief process to keep the memory of your loved one alive in some way that both inspires growth, and reflects and honors your unique relationship. This can include donating to a charity, meditating in their honor, and even planting a tree.
I am so grateful that my review regarding the mechanisms behind mindfulness’s positive impact upon psychological well-being was recently published by Dove Medical Press (with a video included!)
The following blog post is based off that review.
Let’s Thrive! – Dr. Wolkin
This blog post originally appeared on Mindful.Org
There is a lot of research conveying mindfulness meditation’s positive impact upon psychological well-being. In fact, a vast literature of controlled studies has found that mindfulness meditation is related to improved mental health across a variety of disorders, including different anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and chronic pain symptom reduction.
Yet, the idea of mindfulness has become a buzzword of sorts, and despite research regarding positive outcomes, specific mechanisms associated with mindfulness and psychological well-being are unclear. (Additionally, the ambiguity in the term mindfulness, and how it’s approached in research, makes it difficult to parse out particular mechanisms responsible for clinical outcomes.)
Mindfulness and Attention Mechanisms
Despite these limitations, many research studies seem to indicate that cultivating different aspects of attention is a feasible and consistent starting point to bridging mindfulness practice and psychological well-being.
The question remains: How can cultivating multiple aspects of attention through mindfulness meditation account for psychological well-being?
This blog post is based on a review that supports a previously suggested idea that cultivating all aspects of attention through mindfulness leads to greater well-being by decreasing rumination.
Like mindfulness meditation itself, attention is not easily defined. Over two decades ago, researchers conveyed a conceptualization of attention as a multifaceted construct made up of the three unique and differentiated, yet overlapping networks called Alerting, Orienting, and Executive Attention—the latter includes regulatory processes like conflict-monitoring and metacognition.
Attention is also described in terms of the way it is regulated. In fact, meditation practices are usually described by the degree to which they entail “Focused Attention (FA)” and “Receptive Attention (RA).” Although sometimes likened specifically to RA, mindfulness practice is distinguishable by its utilization of both FA and RA.
Focused Attention: When our attention is focused, it is restricted to a specific object, which is commonly the neutral sensory experience of the breath going in and out.
Ideally, attention is sustained, but as thoughts, and/or feelings and/or physical sensations arise, a conflict is presented; different stimuli are pulling for attention.
Receptive Attention: After consistent practice, there is often less need for a specific object of focus (the breath), and we broaden the focus of our attention so that it is receptive to our entire field of awareness, including whatever thoughts, feelings and sensations arise in the moment.
Rumination: Rumination has been defined as a passive dwelling upon negative thoughts and/or emotion and is negatively correlated with aspects of psychological well-being.
As mentioned, this review supports mindfulness meditation’s role in improved psychological well-being, through the mechanism of reducing rumination via attentional processes.
The question remains as to how this actually plays out.
Distraction and Decentering
Rumination is decreased through a two-step process including distraction and decentering. These steps correspond to the attention regulation styles inherent to mindfulness meditation.
Early on in one’s mindfulness meditation practice, when it entails focused attention, attention is sustained on the neutral sensation of the breath. While this skill is being cultivated, ruminative thought processes likely interrupt the effort to sustain this attention.
The ability to monitor conflicts of attention, however, ensures that one is constantly distracting oneself from ruminative thoughts through the redirection of attention from rumination back to the breath.
According to the research, distraction is a healthier response to stress than rumination and entails a deliberate direction of attention away from ruminative thoughts onto a pleasant or neutral stimulus. Yet, research also indicated that although distraction is important, it only serves as temporary relief, because with distraction, avoidance is taking place.
In the long term, avoiding and pushing away thoughts through distraction is as inefficient as clinging to them through rumination. So, there is a process beyond distraction. Mindfulness meditation utilizes the benefits of distraction, but then goes beyond it in cultivating a more adaptive response to distress.
This is enabled through receptive attention, during which attentional focus is broadened and one is encouraged to be aware of all experiences. One now has the space to actually notice patterns of over-engagement in negative thoughts as opposed to suppressing them through distraction.
The ability to cultivate a broader range of awareness also cultivates the ability to decenter, which is enabled through enhanced metacognition, and allows for a stepping back from any possible secondary elaboration of ruminative thoughts.
This means that thoughts are nonjudgmentally accepted as just thoughts that come and go. When thoughts are seen as transient, one is more likely to feel disconnected to them.
How Mindfulness Meditation Creates a Shift
The idea inherent in both distraction and decentering is that a shift is taking place. During the former, one’s ability to distract and redirect attention away from rumination and to sustain attention on the neutral breath is a literal shift in attention that cultivates regulatory processes intrinsic to psychological well-being. During the latter, one has the opportunity to figuratively shift attention from the content of a thought toward the process of having one. That vantage point allows for a more objective and less judgmental perspective. This perspective is more adaptive and reflected in greater psychological well-being. Ultimately, engaging in mindfulness meditation cultivates our ability to both focus and broaden our attention, which is a practical way to elicit psychological well-being.