These days there is a lot in the news about illness and pandemics. Closer to home, I have been aware of persons who are ill, recovering from operations or close to death.

The news of an illness can surface anxieties, including how we are supposed to respond. These can also touch into an unconscious, deeper anxiety about “ceasing to be,”. Like all emotions, that anxiety can actually be useful and instructive. One of the principles of Mindfulness practice is that negative emotion—when we turn toward it rather than run away from it— is itself the path.

We try and work with noticing the initial apparent unpleasantness of negative emotions. This initial feeling tone is somewhat illusory. The actual “taste” of anxiety is in the just a sensation, like the sourness of a lemon; our initial response tells us that it is bad, but actually it’s just what it is. Like a lemon, anxiety has its uses. These strong emotional states can often be our best teachers.

Mindfulness of illness can teach us so much at a deeper, fundamental level. When illness affects us directly it makes us slow down, and be more attentive to the ongoing wonders that we take for granted. We can see the individual moment of our lives through the perspective of new priorities. We can also be challenged in the way we feel the need to be in control of our lives, to constantly hold ourselves up. Illness helps us see that much of life is out of our hands. Ill people need to let themselves be held by others – by the medical staff, by their families, by the support of friends. At times we too need to receive and learn how to be vulnerable. We learn that not all of life can be measured in achievements and outcomes, but often just waiting in silence can be the best work we can do.

“A waiting person is a patient person. The word “patience” means the willingness to stay where we are and life the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere. The moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there”.

Henri Nouwen, A Spirituality of Waiting

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and different medical conditions

Scientists have reported that the MBSR Programme may keep people with HIV healthier longer. A 2009 UCLA study published in the journal Brain, Behaviour and Immunity found that the Course helped people with HIV maintain immunity. In the study, 48 HIV positive people (43 men and 5 women) with T cell counts of between 600 and 700 were assigned to 2 groups, one of which did an 8 week MBSR programme while the other got a basic instruction in meditaion without any encouragement to practice on their own. After 8 weeks the MBSR group saw their T cells remain high while the other groups plummeted. The drop was expected but not the relationship between mindfulness meditation and T count: “The more people practiced” said lead study author David Creswell, Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, “the better their T cells did. That indicates that the more you practice, if you do it on a weekly or daily basis, the better your outcome”.

“This study provides the first indication that mindfulness meditation stress-management training can have a direct impact on slowing HIV disease progression,” continues Creswell. “The mindfulness program is a group-based and low-cost treatment, and if this initial finding is replicated in larger samples, it’s possible that such training can be used as a powerful complementary treatment for HIV disease, alongside medications.”

Another area studied is the effectiveness of MBSR in working with stress and other conditions in cancer patients. A study carried out by Linda Carson and Sheila Garland at the University of Calgary looked its impact on a number of mood-related symptoms in those who suffer from cancer. They found that, in general, sleep disturbance was significantly reduced and sleep quality improved. There was also a significant reduction in stress, mood disturbance and fatigue.

More Lessons from Saint Martin

The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposing halves.” Jung

The most famous event in the life of Saint Martin occured when he met a poor man begging on a very cold day. The beggar was shaking and blue from the snow but no one reached out to help him. We are told that Martin was overcome with compassion, took off his expensive cloak, cut it in two, and gave the half to the beggar. Later that evening he had a dream in which Jesus was wrapped in the cloak, and said “Here is Martin who has clothed me”

These early stories may be based on historical events but also can have a symbolic meaning. A beggar covered in sores and nearly naked disturbed most of the people who passed by and shunned him. His presence and appearance bothered them. We have many instances today where we are bothered, as individuals or as a society, by those who are different, by strangers, by conflicting views, by different cultural practices. These can give rise to fears and to the desire to exclude these people or their opinions from our sight and our surroundings. In times of fear, such as the current economic climate, it is easy to look to blame others, to find someone outside and project the negativity onto them.

I think the beggar in the story can also be seen as the weak, needy or wounded parts of our inner selves. We can be are uncomfortable with parts of our own life and history. We too can have wounds and injures caused by others or by our own life history.These parts of our lives can become our shadow side – all that has been split off, unrealized or every potential that has never been developed. We all carry with us a histroy of neglected, unrealized, underdeveloped talents and possibilities that can be there, begging for our attention. Or there can be parts of our lives that we are actively afraid of or uncomfortable with, such as addictions, repeating behaviours or powerful emotions which arise from time to time. We feel, at times, panic, anxiety, loneliness, anger and a lack of safety.

Today’s fast paced society means that we have plenty of opportunity for looking away, for rushing by. Even more so, we have strong habits of not wanting to experience the unpleasant, or preferring to turn away. Or we can project an underdeveloped or disowned part of yourself onto another person. Consequently the deep message in times like these go by without our full attention. In these difficult moments, it can be easier to avoid looking at our inner world and focus our attention outside ourselves, or perhaps rushing to find a fix for what appears to be wrong.

What Saint Martin’s example prompts us to do is firstly not to turn away or rush to fix but to turn towards, to recognize our own suffering, our own wounds and the places that scare us in our lives. He then shows us to extend compassion to our poor and needy selves – after recognizing our wounds and suffering, to respond to them with love. This means not looking away, not seeking distractions when offered the opportunity to be present for our own pain, or the difficult moment that scares us. The practice is to try and be open to all emotions even those that are frightening and to hold them first in simple attention. Understanding and caring for the shadow aspects of our lives is a path towards wholeness.

As Rumi said:
Don’t turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That’s where the light enters you.

Some effects of stress

People prone to negative emotions and stress may be 40% more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, according to a study in Neurology. The authors hypothesize that a lifetime of stress could adversely affect the part of the brain responsible for regulating memory. To stop stress weakening your brain, researcher Dr Paul Nussbaum, from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, recommends devoting 30 minutes a day to calming activities such as reading or, at a minimum, aim for 10 to 15 minutes of meditation.

Learning from nature

O to be self-balanced for contingencies,
to confront night, storms, hunger,
ridicule, accidents, rebuffs,
as the trees and animals do

Walt Whitman

All things, the grass as well as the trees,
are tender and soft while alive
When dead, they are withered and dried.

Therefore the stiff and the rigid are companions of death
The gentle and the kind are the companions of life

Lao Tzu

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Jung on Patterns

Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” Carl Jung

Factors which can lead to stress come from many sources. They can be due to external circumstances such as the current economic situation or being far away from family and familiar supports.

However some factors are internal, such as those caused by the patterns or conditioning we have built up over the years. Thus we may have learnt that we need to push ourselves hard in order to get attention and worth, and this manifests in our life as a compulsive, driven focus on work or success.

There also seems to be patterns that have been passed on to us, unconsciously, when we were very young. Jung’s observation prompts us to consider how where and how our caretakers were stuck in their development, and how this can becomes an internal paradigm for us also to be stuck. Jung goes on to say: “The child is so much a part of the psychological atmosphere of the parents that secret and unsolved problems between them can influence its health profoundly. The participation mystique, or primitive identity, causes the child to feel the conflicts of the parents and to suffer from them as if they were its own. It is hardly ever the open conflict or the manifest difficulty that has such a poisonous effect, but almost always parental problems that have been kept hidden or allowed to become unconscious”

Without developing some non-judgmental, gentle capacity for awareness of these influences on our inner life we can fail to transform or integrate them into who we are. Thus even into adulthood, our psyche can remain trapped and unconsciously serve the agendas and the lacks of others. In this way we can fall short of achieving our own potential and end up repeating patterns in relationships and in our work life. An awareness of these repeating schemes seems to frequently happen in mid-life when some of the paradigms adopted up until can fail. It was in this period of our lives that Jung said that we need to “decently go unconscious“.

The first step in doing this is to slow down, to make space, to stop the constant flood of information and activity that assails the mind. Making space for art, for meditation, journaling and reflection are all ways we can be kind to ourselves and develop a greater understanding of the factors that lead to our freedom. Slowing down in meditation quickly reveals the first type of internal stressors – our compulsive repeating conditioning – and can perhaps go on to heal some of the unconscious processes which have left their mark on our inner lives.