Saturday, October 4, 2014

Healing yourself with writing

By Catherine Ann Jones

Our lives may be determined less by past events than by the way we remember them. Memory can be either disabling or enabling. Dr. Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning wrote that "…everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms: to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." What we think or imagine in fact is our reality, both individually and collectively. Healing and transformation is possible only through changing one's perspective from within. It is by making meaning out of memory that true healing and empowerment can occur. What story are you living? How do you choose to remember your story? The following allegory offers a clue.

Two Wolves: A Native American grandfather is talking to his grandson about how he feels about a tragedy in their village. "I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is the vengeful, angry, violent one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one." The grandson asks, "Grandfather, which wolf will win the fight in your heart?" The grandfather places his hand on his heart and replies, "The one I feed."

How do we learn to "feed" the stories that heal?

How do we put together the pieces of the past? How can we rewrite our life story so that pain becomes meaningful and actually promotes growth and transformation?

One answer lies in focused journaling. This course offers a step by step journey of discovery and re-visioning through focused journaling. Throughout this course, the reader will be presented with writing exercises designed to facilitate healing and transformation. In this way, global healing takes place one individual, one tribe, at a time.

Negative Patterns

Negative patterns sometimes evolve for a reason. A child growing up in an alcoholic and/or abusive environment may create a wall around him or her for protection. Such defensive methods may actually ensure surviving emotionally and physically through challenging and threatening times in our lives. Years pass, however, and though now safe, these walls and other defensive mechanisms may sabotage our personal and professional lives. The wall is no longer needed yet it remains. It has become habitual. The first step is to become aware of what we have built around us. What stories we continue to tell ourselves to fortify the wall. Stories from the past live on in us long after the cause or effect is gone. Here's one small example. I recently taught a workshop at Esalen in Big Sur, CA. A woman had broken up with a man who also happened to be taking the workshop at the same time. Sitting in the circle with this former lover made the woman increasingly uncomfortable. And though she ! had looked forward to taking the workshop, she now felt unable to focus. I spoke with her privately for a few minutes then asked if she could for a moment separate the perception of the man from the inner story she was telling and re-telling within. She closed her eyes and was able to discriminate between seeing him and listening to the story she was keeping alive within herself. I asked her, "So who is telling the story?" She laughed, took a deep breath, and was able to release the old track from her mind – at least enough to return and focus on the remaining days of the workshop. This is not to say that her work was done in this moment, but she had acquired a new tool in lessening the trauma she had experienced from the break up with her partner. With a small shift in perspective, she had gained an insight into a deeper self enabling her to step back and witness a life event that had stalled her moving forward into a new life.

So what exactly happened here? A woman felt powerless because she was unable to let go of a story she was holding onto which made her a victim. Even though she no longer saw this man, her former lover, she carried him within, and over and over again inside was keeping this version of the story alive. Thus, in doing so, she made herself more and more powerless. All she did now was to step back and take responsibility for the story she was telling and re-telling. She could see herself as separate from what she was doing. She became a witness to her own creation of her daily life.


Think of a difficult event in your life, now past. Feel within the emotions associated with the person or event. Now visualize stepping back and see yourself telling the old story. Ask who is telling the story? Now choose to write a new version from where you are now standing, some distance away. Take all the time you need for this process.

As we grow these negative, protective patterns outlive their use. Then as maturity comes, we seek to create new, healthier patterns. It's not that the negative patterns leave, they simply go dormant, and the new healthier patterns take over, as it were. We learn, as the old grandfather did, to feed the good wolf. It makes sense to accept this and have compassion for not only the old negative patterns but for the child or young adult who needed them at the time.

Only when old patterns which no longer serve are released can new ones emerge. Sometimes new, healthier habits must be in place before releasing the old ones.


Feed or visualize positive thoughts as the fuel that powers your goals. Make a list of two columns with two headings: Negative and Positive. Under Negative, list any negative thoughts or feelings you have lived with and are now willing to release. Under Positive, list a new version transposed from the Negative version. After completing the list of both, read them and decide which ones you will adopt.

When traumatic or disturbing events either personal or collective happened to us when young, we may not have possessed the words to speak out then? The words would come later as we look squarely at our own lives and the world we live in, at how we got here from there. What in your history, both positive & negative, made you who you are today? By going through and beyond your own story, you will connect to the great universal story of us all.

Personal events are not the only forces that darken our psyches. Sometimes the soul's way is diametrically opposed to the collective tune, and we must find the courage to march to our own drum. It is possible peacefully to separate yourself from the dysfunctional collective whose message is that we are helpless and must accept the world as it is, that we are powerless to change it or our own lives. If we wait for only the perfect people to change the world, it will be too late. If speaking out can help one other person, how can we remain silent? How can I make a difference, be it ever so small? How do I choose to spend my free time? As Gandhi said, "Become the change you wish to see."
To be most effective, it is best if the movement towards change comes from within, that deeper part of our being. There is no greater force than being true to one's self and finding the courage to move forward in a centered way. How many times have allies –visible and invisible – come to our aid when we walk our true walk.

Writing or focused journaling can be a powerful tool for healing wounds and furthering our own growth as a human being. Writing is the best therapy I know. An only child, I began at age twelve writing in journals. The journal became my best friend, my confidante, and began, for me, a path of self-discovery.

Later earning my living as an actor then playwright in New York followed by a career as a television and screenwriter in Hollywood, I have experienced writing as a way of understanding the world and others. Writing for the popular television series, Touched by an Angel, I learned how important it is to tell the story from the character's Point of View or perspective. It is so in life as well. How we see our past is how our present will be imprinted. All we have are our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. These are what we remember, these become the memories good or bad which constitute a life. How we view our life matters tremendously. If we go deep enough, have the courage to let go the negative past, and allow a shift to occur, we can free ourselves of negative patterns which imprison by recreating negative feelings and events.

One example of a shift in seeing is this. Something occurs with a family member, friend, or business associate which causes us to become frustrated. You might habitually pronounce, "I'm frustrated." In this way, you become identified with frustration. You are walking frustration. Develop a practice of stepping back and just become aware of the frustration – without judgment or resistance. Instead of saying to yourself or others, I am frustrated, try saying instead, "Frustration is there." See it as something separate from you, as an uninvited guest who has dropped by. In this way, you may grow to see that you have no problems, only challenges. Remember you can only govern your reactions to what happens to you, not what happens.


Consider an unpleasant occurrence either recent or past. Write it down. Now close your eyes, breathe deeply and release, then visualize stepping back from this incident, seeing it from another point of view. Now write down your reactions to what happened to you – not the incident itself – only your reaction. Lastly, write down these words: "I take responsibility for my reactions."

Paul Reps in his wonderful collection, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones gives us the Zen story, Is That So? The Zen master Hakuin was praised by one and all as one living a pure life. A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. One day her parents discovered she was with child. At first, the girl refused to name the father yet after much harassment at last named Hakuin. In great anger, the parents marched over to the Zen master, and Hakuin responded by saying, "Is that so?"

After the child was born, it was brought to Hakuin. Now, his reputation lost, he did not seem troubled, and took very good care of the child. A year later the girl's mother could stand it no longer and told her parents the truth: that the real father was a young man who worked in the fish market. The parents rushed to Hakuin to beg his forgiveness and to get the child back again. Hakuin simply gave the child back to them, saying, "Is that so?

What if we adopted a welcoming attitude to life, letting go of a habitual defensive or controlling attitude? What would we attract then?

Friday, October 3, 2014

Benefits of loving-kindness meditation

Emma Seppälä looks at the emerging science around the benefits of loving-kindness meditation.


Many of us have heard of meditation's benefits. We may have even tried meditation once or twice. And many of us will have found it hard and concluded that "meditation is not for me." But wait! Did you know there are many forms of meditation? There are mantra meditations, visualization meditations, open-focus meditations, breath-based meditations, and so many more. You just have to find the shoe that fits. An easy one to start with is one that evokes a very natural state in us: kindness.
What Is Loving-Kindness Meditation?
Loving-kindness meditation focuses on developing feelings of goodwill, kindness and warmth towards others (Salzberg, 1997). As I've described in my TEDx talk, compassion, kindness and empathy are very basic emotions to us. Research shows that loving-kindness meditation has a tremendous amount of benefits ranging from benefitting well-being to giving relief from illness and improving emotional intelligence:
1. Increases Positive Emotions & Decreases Negative Emotions
In a landmark study, Barbara Frederickson and her colleagues found that practicing seven weeks of loving-kindness meditation increased love, joy, contentment, gratitude, pride, hope, interest, amusement, and awe. These positive emotions then produced increases in a wide range of personal resources (e.g., increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased illness symptoms), which, in turn, predicted increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.
2. Increases vagal tone, which increases positive emotions & feelings of social connection
A study from 2013 found that individuals in a loving-kindness meditation intervention, compared to a control group, had increases in positive emotions, an effect moderated by baseline vagal tone—a physiological marker of well-being.
We don't usually think of meditation as being able to help us with severe physical or mental ailments, but research shows it can help.
3. Decreases migraines
A recent study demonstrated the immediate effects of a brief loving-kindness meditation intervention in reducing migraine pain and alleviating emotional tension associated with chronic migraines.
4. Decreases chronic pain
A pilot study of patients with chronic low back pain randomized to loving-kindness meditation or standard care, loving-kindness meditation was associated with greater decreases in pain, anger, and psychological distress than the control group.
5. Decreases PTSD
A study reports that a 12-week loving-kindness meditation course significantly reduced depression and PTSD symptoms among veterans diagnosed with PTSD.
6. Decreases schizophrenia-spectrum disorders
Also, a pilot study from 2011 examined the effects of loving-kindness meditation with individuals with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders. Findings indicated that loving-kindness meditation was associated with decreased negative symptoms and increased positive emotions and psychological recovery.
We know that the brain is shaped by our activities. Regularly practicing loving-kindness meditation can help activate and strengthen areas of the brain responsible for empathy & emotional intelligence.
7. Activates empathy & emotional processing in the brain
We showed this link in our research (Hutcherson, Seppala & Gross, 2014) and so have our colleagues (Hoffmann, Grossman & Hinton, 2011).
8. Increases gray matter volume
in areas of the brain related to emotion regulation: Leung et al (2013); Lutz et al (2008); Lee et al (2012).
Loving-kindness meditation also benefits your psychophysiology & makes it more resilient.
9. Increases respiratory Sinus Arrythmia (RSA)
Just 10 minutes of loving-kindness meditation had an immediate relaxing effect as evidenced by increased respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), an index of parasympathetic cardiac control (i.e., your ability to enter a relaxing and restorative state), and slowed (i.e., more relaxed) respiration rate (Law, 2011 reference).
10. Increases telomere length—a biological marker of aging
We know that stress decreases telomere length (telomeres are tiny bits of your genetic materials—chromosomes—that are a biological marker of aging). However, Hoge et al (2013) found that women with experience in loving-kindness meditation had relatively longer telomere length compared to age-matched controls! Throw out the expensive anti-aging creams and get on your meditation cushion!
11. Makes you a more helpful person
Loving-kindness meditation appears to enhance positive interpersonal attitudes as well as emotions. For instance, Leiberg, Klimecki and Singer (2011) conducted a study that examined the effects of loving-kindness meditation on pro-social behavior, and found that compared to a memory control group, the loving-kindness meditation group showed increased helping behavior in a game context.
12. Increases compassion
A recent review of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) concludes that loving-kindness meditation may be the most effective practice for increasing compassion (Boellinghaus, Jones & Hutton, 2012)
13. Increases empathy
Similarly, Klimecki, Leiberg, Lamm and Singer (2013) found that loving-kindness meditation training increased participants' empathic responses to the distress of others, but also increased positive affective experiences, even in response to witnessing others in distress.
14. Decreases your bias towards others
A recent study (Kang, Gray & Dovido, 2014) found that compared to a closely matched active control condition, six weeks of loving-kindness meditation training decreased implicit bias against minorities.
15. Increases social connection
A study by Kok et al (2013) found that those participants in loving-kindness meditation interventions who report experiencing more positive emotions also reported more gains in perception of social connection as well.
How many of us are slaves to self-criticism or low self-esteem? How many of us do not take as good care as we should of ourselves?
16. Curbs self-criticism
A study by Shahar et al (2014) found that loving-kindness meditation was effective for self-critical individuals in reducing self-criticism and depressive symptoms, and improving self-compassion and positive emotions. These changes were maintained three months post-intervention.
The nice thing about loving-kindness meditation is that it has been shown to be effective in both immediate and small doses (i.e. instant gratification) but that it also has long-lasting and enduring effects.
17. Is effective even in small doses
Our study—Hutcherson, Seppala and Gross (2008)—found an effect of a small dose of loving-kindness meditation (practiced in a single short session lasting less than 10 minutes). Compared with a closely matched control task, even just a few minutes of loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward strangers.
18. Has long-term impact.
A study by Cohn et al (2011) found that 35 percent of participants of a loving-kindness meditation intervention who continued to meditate and experience enhanced positive emotions 15 months after the intervention. Positive emotions correlated positively with the number of minutes spent meditating daily.
Want to give it a shot? I created a recording of the loving-kindness meditation we used in our study that you can download here or watch the clip below:
Emma Seppälä, Ph.D is a Research Scientist at Stanford University and the Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.
Adapted from Emma Seppälä's blog