Befriending the Beast

The mind can be our best friend or our own worst enemy. It makes a great servant but a poor master!

Most of our suffering, whether it be in the workplace, the athletic arena, or at home, comes from the workings of the mind in some form or fashion. I remember reading a line in a mindfulness magazine that said, “Reality is kinder than illusion.” Our minds can create some pretty wild illusions! Mindfulness brings us back to reality and out of the “virtual reality” of the mind.

So, with that said, I want you to think about the most obvious way that your mind creates suffering. What is the “mental beast” that you’re living with every day?

I came up with this idea of befriending the beast when I was deeply struggling with scary and intrusive thoughts post-partum. I have lived with what some may call obsessive-compulsive disorder since I was about eight years old, and in a way, it helped me as a gymnast. It didn’t make life fun, but the perfectionistic tendencies and incessant need to “make things right” constantly drove me to work harder.

Again, I’m not saying I recommend this approach! There are many more healthy ways to succeed in life than through an obsessive drive and compulsive need to be perfect! I just want to point out that this has been a common theme in my mind since childhood.

During the last trimester of my pregnancy and for about a year post-partum, I struggled deeply with terrifying and intrusive thoughts. It was almost as if a broken record was playing in my head with scary words and images, and it was a constant effort to somehow stay present.

I tried shutting it off and would get incredibly frustrated and downright desperate at times. Needless to say it was exhausting.

I did get through, however, in a step-by-step and moment-to-moment fashion! I attribute it to the capacity to first recognize that thoughts are thoughts, but ultimately, to bring kindness and self-compassion to the depths of my suffering.

Although the terrifying thoughts created physical reactions in my body, there was a deeper knowing within me that these thoughts were not the truth. This was my saving grace.

The next step was finding a neutral place in my body where I could shift my attention. So, I discovered that my hands and feet were comfortable most of the time, and they became a grounding place for me. So, the scary thoughts would come in, I could see them, and then immediately shift my attention to my hands and feet.

The final step of compassion took the practice beyond mindfulness. The first two steps were mindfulness of the thoughts and mindfulness of the body, but the third step brought in what could be called “skillful means” or “a heart-centered practice”. The final step was visualizing, breathing and saying to myself “deep love and compassion”.

I would envision breathing self-care and kindness into my heart and out through my heart and repeat the words a few times with each breath.

So, to me, the beast was these terrifying and intrusive thoughts, and through recognizing them as thoughts-real but NOT true-I had a little bit of space around them. Finding refuge in the body in the present moment moved me out of the mind and into a safer place. Finally, the love and compassion created the energy of befriending and offering myself kindness for the depth of the pain and suffering that these thoughts were creating.

Now, the first time I did this process, the thoughts were just as powerful and painful, but by about the 500th time, I could start to notice how I could automatically shift out of the thoughts and into the body. By about the 1000th time, I could actually feel the element of compassion which translated into some ease in my body.

I tell this story because I was able to bear witness to my own brain and physiology changing by using mindfulness along with some self-compassion and love. We don’t need to berate or further judge ourselves when our minds seem to betray us. There is a softer approach that is kind and much more pleasant!

Your beast may not be in the form of intrusive thoughts but could be self-criticism, judgment, catastrophizing, doubt, anger, or fear…just to name a few. Our minds learned these patterns somewhere along the road usually as a form of self-protection. So, we don’t need to berate ourselves for thinking these ways. We can simply recognize them as mental patterns, and understand that they are not the truth of who we are.

We are never stuck in patterns that don’t serve us. Mindfulness can allow us to see these patterns and recognize the “beasts” that burden us. From this place of awareness, we can then begin to shift our attention skillfully and actually rewire the brain and nervous system. It’s nothing short of miraculous!

You don’t have to beat the beasts to death. You may find that through befriending, the beasts actually transform into something beautiful.

I would love to hear your experience with “befriending the beasts” of the mind!

And if you feel in need of support, please contact me at theresa@fit-intuit.com or visit my website at fit-intuit.com.

Planting the Seeds of the Mind

“Though I do not believe a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
— Thoreau

I read this quote in Jack Kornfield’s book “The Wise Heart” today, and it really resonated with me. I have personally been feeling the frustrations and dissatisfaction of not being able to live life in the way that I want to due to my physical limitations. As I work to restore my health, this quote brought relief and hope. It reminded me that no matter what is arising, I can consistently choose to plant seeds that serve my life in positive ways and that, with time, these seeds do grow into something wondrous.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a peace activist and monk, often uses the analogy of “weeding out the mind” and “planting good seeds”. Unfortunately, the weeds of our minds have developed over time due to so many varying influences such as genetics, culture, possibly trauma, illness, abuse, and the list goes on. We don’t have to blame ourselves for the weeds, but now with mindfulness, we can become aware of them, start pulling them, and plant new seeds.

My mom has a really nice mindfulness practice that she does when she’s weeding her garden. She imagines the weeds being unhelpful thoughts and mental patterns, and as she pulls them out, can see those thoughts being removed from her mind.

This is a beautiful analogy, and it reminds us that, in any moment, we can become aware of patterns that may not be serving us, i.e the weeds, and plant the thoughts and patterns that will serve us.

These helpful seeds can come in different varieties. Just as in a flower garden there are an array of colors and types of flowers, these helpful seeds of the mind can come in many forms.

They may come in words such as positive affirmations, kind words to yourself, a pleasant song, or a mantra.

They may come in the form of images. You may call to mind a religious or spiritual figure supporting you and offering you the care and attention you need in that moment, or you may recall a memory of a time in life where you did feel happy, content, and at ease.

Or, they may be in the form of a felt sense in the body. The brain is wired throughout the body, so the words and images may bring about a felt sense that you can then allow yourself to rest in for a few minutes.

I have always found real-life examples to be helpful to see how this process may play out in the “real world”, and I can speak from my own life on this one. As I have mentioned in previous posts, depression has been a common theme in my life, and I have found the practices of loving-kindness and compassion have allowed me to relate to it with more perspective and care.

So, when the thoughts and feelings of despair arise, I can first become aware of these patterns. This is where pure mindfulness takes place. I can stay with the raw feelings for a bit and then work on “weeding the garden” for a few moments by turning away from it and planting and tending the seeds of compassion and self-care. I have found some of the loving-kindness meditation phrases helpful such as “May I be free of suffering and the root of suffering” and “May I love this life no matter what”. I also use imagery to see myself held in the arms of Mother Earth or Mother Mary because, to me, these images evoke a sense of unconditional acceptance and safety.

So, it’s unrealistic to think that we won’t ever have weeds. They just tend to grow. We can, however, continuously turn our attention to planting the helpful seeds and tending to those instead of watering the weeds. With time, the weeds become more scarce and the garden becomes much more lush, colorful, and full of life—so it is with our own minds and hearts.

We, too, can “have great faith in a seed…and expect wonders”.

What are some ways that you “plant good seeds”? Feel free to comment and share here!

Five Steps on the Mindful Path Through Depression

I experienced my first bout of depression in the year of 1996. I was 16 years old and had just fallen one spot short of my lifelong dream of making the Olympic team in gymnastics. I didn’t really know what was going on at the time, but I just had this lack of drive, moodiness, tearfulness, and sense of loss.

Depression can effect anyone and can make you feel like the weight of world is on your shoulders. You don’t have to hold it all by yourself…

Depression can effect anyone and can make you feel like the weight of world is on your shoulders. You don’t have to hold it all by yourself…

I would go into the gym and try to train, and I just wanted to give up. Prior to the Olympic Trials, I could work through challenging days knowing that there was a goal in sight. Now, even though I had a goal of making National Team the next summer, I just didn’t have the drive in my heart anymore. Something had been really lost when I didn’t make the team, and the depression was the manifestation of that loss.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t my last experience with the deep sadness and despair that accompanies depression. It came back in 2001, and I can recall my 21st birthday was basically spent bawling my eyes out. Depression clouded my existence from the ages of 23 to 25 following my collegiate gymnastics career, and then I had some reprieve as I pursued my masters degree as a physician assistant.

But…once again, it reared its very large head while I was pregnant with my son in 2013 and has come and gone ever since that time.

So, I want to say that if you’re struggling with the darkness of depression, I can empathize. It makes for a very difficult existence at times, and it sometimes drives you to actually not want to exist anymore. So, how do we use mindfulness and meditation to turn towards the darkness and hopefully find some light?

Before I go any further, I just want to state that in many cases it’s helpful to seek professional support with a psychologist, therapist, or some other support well-versed in working with this challenging experience. At times, medication and formal medical intervention are necessary, as well. It’s not something you should have to face alone.

Now with that said, here are five tools that we can utilize in any moment to bring some relief during these dark times:

  1. Implement R.A.I.N

    I have found that through Recognizing, Allowing, Investigating, and Nurturing (learn more about RAIN in my article here ) it’s possible to bring kindness and a nurturing attention to the emotional pain.

    This process brings a lot of important qualities to the depression. First, it allows you to name what is present and then allow it to be there. Sometimes the allowing can be challenging, and that’s why it helps to work with someone else during this process, if it’s possible. With practice, however, you start to realize that you develop a capacity to stay with the emotional turmoil, become curious about it, and then offer yourself the compassionate attention that is so needed.

  2. Journal

    Writing about what you’re feeling can be helpful to simply get it out of the mind and body onto paper as something tangible and visible.

  3. Ground Yourself in Nature

    If it’s too much to stay with the inner turmoil, step outside, or if your health allows, go for a walk amongst the trees and the beauty of nature. Nature can support us. You can become aware of the smells around you, the scenery, and the sensation of your feet on the Earth. This allows you to come into the present moment and shift the focus to all of the external sources of natural support.

  4. Call a friend or someone you know who can just listen and be with you free of judgment

    As I said before, this is not something you need to force yourself to handle alone. Having someone, a pet or, if you’re religious, a spiritual figure that can listen and offer comfort can make all the difference in the world. Knowing that you have support and love is critical in these moments and allows you to be held with kind attention, acceptance and understanding.

  5. Pendulating

There is a process where you can become mindful of the emotional distress within the body and then find a place in the body or through the senses where there is ease and comfort. This process allows you to gently touch into the pain but not overwhelm yourself in sadness, i.e pendulating back and forth.

It’s like getting used to cold water by dipping your toe in at first and then placing it back on warm ground and then placing the whole foot and then the leg, etc. This same process can apply to “dipping” into emotional and physical discomfort.

For example, as you’re becoming mindful of what depression feels like in your body, you may notice tension or contraction in the area of the heart. (This is just an example, and you may experience depression very differently in the body.) You may notice the edges of the tension and move towards the center of the most tension. As it starts to feel like it may be too much to experience, you can find a place in the body, such as the feet or hands or notice the blue sky or something that feels comfortable and shift your focus to that for a moment. Once you feel a sense of ease, you can gently go back to the area of tension.

You can repeat this process a few times, going into the pain and then shifting to something pleasant, and over time, you may notice things changing, possibly releasing and opening up a little.

For anyone struggling with the deep despair of depression, I hope these practices serve to bring you ease and support. If you feel in need of additional support through this process, I would love to serve as a guide. Please contact me here .

Wishing you peace, hope, and love along your path.





Is the Goal of Meditation to Not Have Any Thoughts?

When people first start meditating, they can quickly become disheartened. After all, we often look to these practices to calm the mind and the body and feel better, right?

So when people sit down to meditate for the first time, it can be disappointing to experience the monkey mind—thoughts that just won’t stop coming at you from all directions! And if people are hoping to not have any thoughts, they oftentimes feel like meditation may just be one more thing to judge themselves as “not good enough”.

It’s no wonder people stop meditating shortly after they start. Why on Earth would anyone want to sit with the mental chaos and then the potential physical and emotional pain that arises when there is nothing else to distract ourselves with?

I believe this initial frustration and subsequent aversion to meditation can be reduced if we go into the practice with a different intention and set of expectations. Yes, we want to be calm and able to handle the stressors of our lives, and meditation, with practice, can certainly help with that.

Ultimately, however, meditation is here to teach us how to experience the whole of our lives—the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows—with an open and compassionate heart. So the intention is to turn towards our experience and not to stifle or silence it.

Initially, that experience will likely be the monkey mind and a whole host of physical sensations and emotions. Instead of feeling like we have to fight these and change them, we start by creating an anchor, or focus point, to continually bring our attention back to. Oftentimes people use the breath as the anchor, but if the breath is uncomfortable or doesn’t feel like a good focus point, it’s possible to use a part of the body like the feet or hands to ground your attention in.

The analogy of training a puppy is oftentimes used with the process of meditation. We sit, and we place our focus on our anchor, and then…”stuff” starts coming up in the mind, body and senses. So, just as when we train a puppy to sit, he runs off time and time again and we gently bring him back, this too is the practice with meditation. We bring our attention back to our anchor, over and over and over again. So, the practice is not shutting down what is arising but gently shifting our attention so that everything arising slowly becomes soft background noise.

Now advanced meditators can reach states where the mind is very calm, but we don’t need to have that as a goal from the beginning. These states come naturally, without effort, with more meditation practice.

And then we might ask, why would I want to turn towards pain and difficult emotional states arising? It’s much easier to tune them out or distract myself. Even if we turn away, it doesn’t mean the difficult emotions and pain aren’t there. We’re just ignoring them for a temporary period of time. Eventually, they will make themselves known, and we’ll be forced to handle them at some point in our lives. Meditation allows us to gently turn towards the pain, bit by bit, so that through shining the light of compassionate awareness, our deeper pain can finally heal.

You may also find that by becoming mindful of the difficult situations, you are also more present when the joy and pleasant experiences arise.

Through the practice of meditation, we open ourselves to experience all of life. This, to me, is living to our fullest potential. It doesn’t mean that everything is sunshine and roses all the time, but it does mean that when the sunshine and roses are out, we are able to bathe in their beauty and feel the depth of being fully alive.

If you’re interested in learning more about establishing a meditation practice and living more mindfully, please contact me here or at theresa@fit-intuit.com.

The Mindful Approach to Pain and Injury

When I think back on all of the injuries that I incurred as a gymnast, I cringe at the way I dealt with them. I have that same reaction when I watch gymnastics, or any sport for that matter, on TV and hear the commentators praising athletes for competing with a torn rotator cuff or pushing through some type of physical pain.

Having been a gymnast for 21 years, I understand that mentality of “mind over matter” and “no pain, no gain”, but now 16 years removed from sport, I have a completely different perspective. While we’re in the thick of competition, we push through in hopes of attaining our athletic goals, and we’re oftentimes praised for it. Pushing through creates a sense of feeling tough and even more deserving of our accomplishments once they’re met.

And this mentality goes beyond just the athletic arena. Much of our culture encourages this “pushing through” and “win at all costs” mindset.

But is this short-term gain worth the long term pain? I don’t think so…

I was one of those athletes who had a lot of injuries throughout my athletic career and pushed beyond where I should have. My body was trying to talk to me, and I didn’t listen. Then it started to yell at me, and I didn’t listen. Then, it started to scream at me, and…I didn’t listen. It met it’s limit a few years back, and I have been forced to relearn how to truly listen to and respect my body.

So, I’m speaking from experience here and want to ensure that anyone reading this knows how important it is to listen when their bodies are talking to them and feel good about themselves for having the intelligence to honor and respect the physical messages.

I believe there is a different way to work with injury and pain, both in and out of sport. I know that pain is inevitable, but what we can control is how we relate to it, learn from it, and make the mind and body even stronger as a result of it. There’s the saying, “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Learning how to relate to our pain with more compassion and understanding reduces the suffering

It serves us all to know how to listen to our bodies with an accepting attention. When we’re in pain and struggling, it’s natural to want to push it away and change it. We start to criticize ourselves possibly with self-blame or somehow feel responsible for the pain we’re enduring.

Enjoy this full-length version of the body scan by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

But it is possible to learn a different approach. So, whether you’re a high level athlete who tends to push through injury or someone struggling with chronic pain, we can learn to hold the pain with more kindness and understanding.

There’s a mindfulness practice called “the body scan” which is simply a mental scan of the body from toes to head, coming in contact with the raw sensations that arise. The body scan can be guided (preferably by someone well-versed in the practice, and I have included one here), or once you understand the practice, can be done silently on your own.

This practice trains the brain to recognize physical sensation free of judgment. How can this help with injury and pain? If we practice getting in touch with what is going on in our bodies, we will be much better equipped to know when something is off or being overly stressed and, most importantly, have a more respectful way of relating to it.

Instead of mentally trying to override the pain, we will learn how to listen to the messages the body is sending. We can then respond to our needs from a place of kindness instead of judgment and resistance.

Now it’s not to say that judgment and resistance won’t arise. It’s natural to try to get away from discomfort, but as we practice in bringing mindfulness to what is arising, we can also be aware of the judgment and resistance and not be so swayed to act out of those feelings.

I personally utilized the body scan following my gymnastics career because I was so distant from my body, if that makes sense. I didn’t really know how to listen to what it was saying because my brain had been trained to, regardless of what my body was saying, ignore it or overcome it somehow.

The short-term gain of accomplishment as a result of pushing through is not worth the long-term pain, and we don’t have to push through in order to reach our fullest potential in life. In fact, by pushing through and ignoring our bodies, we set ourselves up for potential difficulties in the future. By learning how to relate to ourselves with more kindness and compassion, we can take care of ourselves now which…as the saying goes, “take care of the moments, and the years will take care of themselves.”

If you want to learn more about this practice, please contact me at theresa@fit-intuit.com