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Portland OR &Vancouver WA

Integrating psychotherapy, medication management, body work & mindfulness for an encompassing and empowering approach to healing.

Author: Sarah Lebo

Rwanda Day 2: Compassionate Curiousity

Our first venture in Rwanda was the iconic safari trek. This allowed us to quietly wander through this new landscape while we appreciated its natural beauty and animal inhabitants.

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We came here to learn from and exchange information with the people in this resilient community…however, watching animals in their natural habitat set the stage for a sense of wonder, admiration and curiosity that we will most certainly take with us in our professional meetings this week.

Even the animal kingdom here is in a revival phase, since many animals were killed in the genocide along with their human neighbors. There are also stories of targeted assaults on specific species, such as the lions, due to the threat they posed to the local livestock. The backlash of farmers poisoning their own cows totally eradicated lions from this area. Just last summer, seven were “re-introduced” to the protected land in the national park we visited, a gift from South Africa, and existing relatively hidden to visitors as they roam the property. Imagine our awe and excitement when we happened to spot one and watch as it sunbathed some 30 yards from our vehicle!

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One chord that reverberated from our safari experience was the practice of being with other beings in a way that’s respectful of their unique experience — sensitive that it is VERY different from our own. We found ourselves naturally speaking in soothing, hushed tones to the animals, or simply sitting totally still and silent, in respect for their territory and existence. We asked basic questions of our guides, purposefully leaving behind our presuppositions and entering wholeheartedly into a world that’s very different from our own.

We held our curiosity with a sense of compassion, attempting to understand creatures we easily admitted were foreign, yet important in a way that’s difficult to articulate in words. This ability, this altruism, is something we will intentionally carry over into this coming week … A willingness to enter generously into another’s point of view with humble, compassionate curiosity.

Mindfulness: All it Takes is a Moment

I’ve been running short on time lately, which has threatened one of my most important personal self-care strategies, and one I often recommend to my clients: mindfulness.  When I mention this to folks they usually state: I don’t have time for that! In most cases, what they are in fact thinking they don’t have time for is meditation. Yes, many of us do not have time to sit cross legged on a pillow with our eyes closed, focusing on our breath and nothing else. I agree with that (and suffer from the same challenge!). Fortunately, mindfulness is a little bit different. The technical definition is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the well-established Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction model.

So, if you look at that definition, true mindfulness just takes a moment! Okay, okay, after years of practicing a moment here and there, I now do try to get 10-30 minutes of meditation in my daily schedule (because of the further health benefits which I will detail in another blog post). However, most days, I find myself squeezing small doses of mindfulness into my lifestyle to encourage this beneficial practice and, quite simply, to give myself a shot of pleasantness here and there. This is important because our minds need a break at times, AND, when it comes to pleasant emotions and experiences, our minds are wired like teflon: Nothing sticks. We’ve got to apply mindfulness of pleasant moments here and there like a vitamin so we can counterbalance all the doubt, fear, pain and stress we encounter on a regular basis.

Traumatic experiences and unpleasant emotions like fear and sadness, unfortunately, DO stick. Stress is like velcro in the mind. Why? Because this was important for human survival. Evolution shows us that humans had to face the demands of a threatening environment and HAD to consider safety and react quickly to sustain life. We were lucky to survive until our reproductive years, so pleasant moments might not have been as important as the emotion of fear and the hormones of adrenaline and cortisol we needed for survival.

Now, though, we are living longer and we no longer face the saber tooth tiger or other previous threats. Unfortunately we are hardwired to still have adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our systems, and long term that can be detrimental to our health.

So, start small and counteract this biology by attempting to shift out of auto-pilot and into the present, moment-to-moment experience of your life. Think of a small child who has a sense of wonder about them (maybe start by watching little children and observing how they take in their experience without judging, often noticing the physical sensations rather than jaded thoughts or emotions).

All mindfulness takes is pausing to be more aware of your thoughts, feelings and body sensations. There is no success or failure, it’s simply paying attention (relaxation, having an empty mind or suppressing thoughts or emotions is NOT the goal, that is an incorrect belief many people have about meditation). If a recording would help, take 5-7 minutes to try these online, from the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) in California.

Practicing this behavioral skill can actually help you develop a greater tolerance for the reality of what is occurring within yourself, and often allow the amazing opportunity for choice and strategic change. So just check in, see how you’re doing, and then respond with mindful awareness (this practice also makes those pleasant moments and positive hormones that much easier to access when you are in distress).  Then contact me to join ITTC’s mindfulness groups to cultivate your practice and decrease your stress!