Friday, 8 May 2009

Living the now of mindfulness

By Virginia Winder
The Tasman Sea is roaring like an angry taniwha and the woman walking barefoot just beyond its surging clutches notices everything.
She inhales salt air tossed on a westerly wind, feels soft cool sand suck at her feet and watches a black dog tear along the beach, tongue lolling from a canine grin.
Then, madly, she plunges into the sea, focused only on each wave that rushes at her. Then she dives under a big wall of tumbling white froth and holds on to the sand, feeling the power of water pass over her.
She pops up, takes a deep gulp of air and faces the next wave.
For her, nothing else exists but her body and the sea. Every worry is gone, every looming bill, every job waiting to be done, every smudge of sorrow, all gone, left on dry land in what feels like another life.
This woman is in an absolute state of mindfulness, a concept that is finding favour with university scientists from Boston to Dunedin.
Earlier this year, a story in The Wow! Factor detailed research from Otago University that showed how women taught relaxation techniques and mindfulness had better relationships with food and, after two years, had maintained their weight or even shed a few kilos – all without dieting.
Study co-author Caroline Horwath, from the university’s human nutrition department, used relaxation response training modelled on the Harvard Mind/Body Medical Institute’s symptom reduction programme. Mindfulness was a big component of this.
Now, in Taranaki, a man from India is teaching mental health clients this new and yet ancient way of being – and it’s changing their lives.
Dr Samir Heble, 37, works for the Taranaki District Health Board and is one of the youngest clinical directors of mental health in New Zealand.
He came to New Zealand seven years ago from Goa in India. “I was seeing the different types of illnesses in the Western cultures and I felt the treatments we were doing were helping some but not everybody.”
He thought something from the Eastern cultures might be helpful and decided to run courses on mindfulness, a philosophy that he lives, breathes and writes about.
“Mindfulness is a concept that derived from Buddhism more than 2500 years ago. The basic principle is radical acceptance.”
However, he makes it clear that he is not a Buddhist and the programme is not based on religion.
“What mindfulness basically means is living in the present moment and accepting every moment is unique and has a special grandeur,” he says.
He acknowledges that both the past and future are important. “However, a lot of the time we get so engrossed in the past or engrossed in thinking about the future that we fail to relish and enjoy the present moment.”
In his courses, Dr Heble teaches how to focus on the now. Those who take his courses aren’t in crisis mode, but are heading towards recovery or are well and need tools to stay healthy.
“I tell the clients that this is one of the truths in life, but I don’t tell them it is the truth.”
He believes there are many other ways of living and if people have already found useful tools or treatments, Dr Heble doesn’t tell them to give these up. “I don’t tell them they should stop medicines or other therapies like CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) because all that is equally as important. It (mindfulness) is another asset to what they already have.”
From a mindfulness perspective, a person’s mind is like a guest house. “All our thoughts, emotions, feelings, wishes, hopes, desires, ambitions, dreams, aspirations, projects, disappointments, pleasures are guests. Some of these are wanted guests and some are unwanted guests.”
People tend to only welcome the wanted guests and not the unwanted guests, like anger, frustration, grief. “That’s what creates the unease or the suffering, because the more we won’t take those unwanted guests in, the more they keep knocking at the door.”
Dr Heble teaches his clients to acknowledge both the joys and pains of life – the wanted and unwanted guests. “As soon as the unwanted are acknowledged, they tend to knock less and people will feel more at ease.”
Then he teaches people how to let go – that’s where a concept he calls “radical acceptance” comes to the fore.
In the first session he asks the group two questions – what is happiness and how do we find it.
The answers, 99 per cent of the time, refer to finding happiness via external forces – through pets, nice partners, good jobs, wealth and more. “From a mindfulness point of view, happiness doesn’t depend on external conditions; it’s a state of mind.”
It’s important for people to deal with thoughts and feelings in a non-judgemental way and remember that thoughts are just thoughts and are not necessarily truths.
“In some people’s lives their minds are like a balloon. If the wind is strong it goes in this particular direction and if the wind is stronger this way it goes in this direction,” he says, moving his head from side to side.
“No matter how strong the wind is we should be able to keep in one place.”
Dr Heble also turns to nature for some powerful lessons about the impermanence of life. “Whatever rises will fall. There are no exceptions.”
In his courses, he illustrates points with poetry and often uses his own works. “My grandfather was one of the national poets of India.”
He is talking of Balkrishna Bhagwant Borkar who, in 1967, received the Padmashree, an Indian national award, for services to literature and education.
People doing Dr Heble’s courses are also encouraged to write their own poetry or find words that inspire them.
The first workshop was held in the middle of last year, the second in November and December and the latest one began this month. The third course is being facilitated by the health board’s community adviser, Nic Magrath.
“It’s a six-week course, but mindfulness is a life-long process,” Dr Heble says.
There are about 20 people in the group and many have found the lessons helpful.
One patient says it has transformed her life. “I feel empowered and in control of my life for the first time in six years.”
The woman, who cannot be named because of privacy reasons, says the techniques are simple to use. “It’s made a huge difference to me. I use the skills I’ve learnt every day to cope with situations.”
She says big crowds no longer cause her anxiety. “I can go to the supermarket and out to dinner with friends – I never used to be able to do those things.”
Dr Heble says another woman who used to be lonely, no longer feels that way because mindfulness has taught her that she is part of nature.
“We are all made up of molecules and are part of the great cosmos,” he says.
“When I told that to one of the ladies in an earlier group, all the loneliness went away from her life. Each time she starts feeling lonely she looks out the window at the sun and the mountain and she feels part of the whole big universe and she’s not depressed now,” he says.
Mindfulness is about letting go of self, of ego and all expectations.
“One must hope and dream, and have aspirations, but do not have expectations because expectations are not always met and expectations are the root cause of most suffering,” he says.
But mostly, it’s about focusing on the moment.
The woman in the sea is deeper now.
She watches a wave rushing towards her and turns ready to ride it. Just at the instant before it breaks she begins swimming furiously towards land, feeling the sea lift her and throw her forward in a rush of white water and speed.
And she’s flying, lost in a pure moment of mindfulness.

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