I was planning this week to write on the importance of structure for mental health. However, after a trip to my neighbourhood drug store, I decided to save that topic for another time.
Here’s what happened…while standing in a long checkout line at the drug store, I started reading the fronts of the magazines that were positioned on the way to the till. Without exception they were all touting ways to lose weight…diet tips, recent celebrity fitness regimes, the next ‘slimming’ food choice…everything necessary to create the “New You”. When I was in a similar lineup in December, these were the same publications that were pushing all the yummy, high calorie holiday treats! A group of other women were also waiting in line and I asked them if they were feeling manipulated…they smiled.
The Art of Manipulation
I don’t like marketing; not all marketing, just the type that is trying to push me to purchase a product that I don’t need in order to make my life become as ‘perfect’ as the lives of the people in the advertisement. Encouraging items that solve a problem, created by advertising departments, that I didn’t even know I had–until I came across their commercials (written, electronic or verbal). These types of marketing are easy to spot and are the obvious forms of manipulation.
However, there are subtler forms that are harder to fight against because we don’t always know that we are being affected. I suggest that one of these forms is the topics covered in mainstream magazines and how they are presented to potential readers.
The headings on the front covers of many magazines are designed to get us to buy the publication. They do this by making us consciously (or unconsciously) question if we need the information contained in the magazine. Unfortunately, the questions are not asked in a strength-based, straight-forward way. For example, instead of advertising ways to reach a healthy body weight, they promise ways to ‘drop 25 lbs by eating soup’–the title illustrated by a model who may or may not be of healthy body weight.
We’re Not OK
The message we often get from media is that we’re not wonderful in our current form.
For fun, try this experiment. The next time you pass a magazine rack, look at the headings on the cover (both large and smaller print). Chances are that the contents are providing ways to change yourself. Maybe it’s tips to adapt your personality, dating style, sexual ability, update your wardrobe, get ‘swimsuit ready’…the list is endless, depending on the time of year. When we dig under the headlines, the bottom line is that we are being told that we’re not ok the way we are. There is something we need to buy or change in order to become ‘acceptable’.
Granted, there are times when we need to make changes in order to take care of ourselves. If we have reached an unhealthy weight or need to improve our interpersonal skills, then there is work to do. However, at the same time, we also can accept that we are ok where we are (in this moment).
Acceptance and Mental Health
In graduate school, when I first heard about acceptance as a component of mental health, my alarm bells started to ring. How can we be asked to accept the ‘unacceptable’? How could I tell a future client living in an abusive relationship that acceptance was necessary? Later, I learned that acceptance doesn’t mean that we condone negative behaviour, or situations where we are in emotional or physical danger. It also doesn’t mean that we accept every bad thing that happens to us. Instead, acceptance comes from taking an honest and compassionate inventory of where we are at this time, and how we arrived here–knowing that we want to make some changes. Acceptance means that we stop fighting or judging ourselves, for where we are, and putting that energy into moving forward in a new way (if we choose to).
I think that our ability to practice acceptance takes work. Like a muscle, it gets stronger the more we use it. I wonder what would happen if, on a daily basis, we took one thing about ourselves that we viewed with judgement and instead looked at it with compassion. Chances are, our mental health would improve, and we’d buy a lot less magazines!
And now a wonderful teacher of self-acceptance…Enjoy!
People come and go in our lives for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because we meet a new friend, or a relationship ends. Maybe we’re the one coming and going as we change jobs or move to a new city. At some point, our entrances and exits are more substantial…we are born and we die. That’s the circle of life.
In the Not So Distant Past
While both birth and death are an unavoidable part of the human experience, I suggest that as a modern culture, we treat each of them very differently. However, this hasn’t always been the case.
As a big fan of Call the Midwife, I never tire of watching the sanitized TV version of babies being born. The series takes place in an East-London neighbourhood, during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Among other things, it chronicles the progression from the norm of home births to hospital births; and the resulting changes in the expectations of everyone involved. I’m not advocating one birth experience over another, just noting the shift of birth taking place at home vs. taking place in a medical setting.
Like birth, death has also moved locations. In the past, the common practice was that we died at home–circumstances allowing. Ideally, the dying person was surrounded by family and/or friends who were there to offer comfort to the individual and each other. Family members shared the final tasks of preparing their loved-one for burial. Visitation was held in the family home. Birth and death were very personal, yet community, experiences. Now, most of us can expect to die in a hospital, and prepared for our final resting place by funeral home staff.
On the flip side, 2014 saw approximately 384,000 Canadian births (142,000 in Ontario). A December 2015 Toronto Star article outlined a three-year McMaster University study that noted midwives attended 10% of all births in Ontario (2014 is included in their data). Of this 10%, 20% of these births occurred at home.
The bottom line…most of us will come and go in a hospital. However, the picture may be changing.
Thoughts on Current Practices of Life…
Midwifery, was regulated in Ontario in 1994, as a publicly funded service. Currently there are more than 700 registered midwives in Ontario who provide neonatal care to pregnant women, attend their deliveries and look after the mother and baby following birth. With the 1994 law, midwives have hospital privileges (including access to hospital staff and resources). The blending of the two options gives expectant parents more choice of where to deliver their babies. It is no longer a binary decision of at home with a midwife vs in hospital with a obstetrician (most family doctors no longer deliver babies).
According to the McMaster study, for women with low-risk pregnancies, babies delivered at home were at no greater risk than those in hospitals. We can have the best of both worlds.
The same choice has begun around end of life decisions as well. The number of hospice centers and palliative care support is growing steadily. According to an Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care position paper:
“Ontario is working to provide patients with more choices for palliative and end-of-life care.
This includes investing in more hospice care across the province and expanding caregiver supports that help families and loved ones support palliative patients at home and in their communities. Ontario will also support more public education about advanced care planning so that patients’ wishes for end-of-life care are understood. The province is establishing clear oversight and accountability for Ontario’s palliative care services, to further advance patient-centred care.”
It will be interesting to see the effects of assisted death legislation on end-of-life location options.
Speaking of options, there are now death doula’s or midwives who spiritually help individuals and their families through the death process. Training programs to become a death doula are now available throughout Canada and the US. Both MacLeans magazine and Global News have covered this subject.
Death is Making an Appearance
While our culture tends to hide death–even in the language we use to describe death (“passed away” or “passed on”); I have started to notice some changes. Besides the increased visibility of hospice and palliative care and debates on assisted death, end-of-life has started to take up space in our current frame of reference.
At first it was something I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. A colleague had mentioned that he had attended a weekend workshop on “home funerals”. The event took place in a private home, and included information about the rules and some basic skills for taking care of your deceased loved from death until burial. While not for everyone, this is a fascinating alternative to the current practice.
Next, over the six-month period, numerous articles appeared in the local paper:
A story about a Romanian cemetery (called the Merry Cemetery) where the crosses are etched with colourful epitaphs and drawings describing the deceased’s life and/or personality;
A helpful article about “tying up the loose ends of life”;
Another article assuring readers that “death doesn’t have be so frightening”;
A commentary of the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead–a family celebration that sees family members and friends having parties in local cemeteries as they visit their loved ones;
I came across information about the Good Green Death Forum (an event organized by the Green Burial Society of Canada) and DeathCafe.com (a social event where people talk about death with the goal of increasing their awareness of life).
Ideas about death appear to be popping up in popular culture.
Why Does This Matter?
As a therapist, I tend to look at things through the lens of mental health. While birth is usually a happy event (no matter where it takes place), I have concerns about how we deal with the end of life. With the movement of death from plain sight over the past decades, it has become scary. Combined with our culture’s fixation on youth, this fear has escalated. As with most things in life that we don’t understand, when we push them away they become something mysterious, and to be feared.
But do we have to continue to treat death this way? Instead can we use a familiarity with death as a tool to help us live more aware and fulfilling lives?
Another Way to Look at Death
In many Buddhist traditions, a purposeful contemplation of death is one practice that is used to help individuals become aware of the constancy of change and life’s fragility. The concept is that when we realize that nothing in life is permanent and everything is easily broken, we look at events in our lives differently. We may appreciate to a greater level not only what we have (including health, relationships, and things), but also the people we love. From this perspective, while we may grief loss (from the breaking of a favourite cup to the loss of something greater), we understand it to be part of a greater whole. As well, to quote a best-selling book title, we “Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff”.
These authors lead a guided exercise in which the reader imagines, in detail, their own funeral or memorial service–paying particular attention to what their family and friends are saying about them. These imaginary statements become nuggets to be mined as you set life goals. I’m not sure if it works, but could be an interesting exercise.
We can’t hide from the comings and goings in our lives…whether it’s us or someone else. However, we can become less fearful and more mindful.
And now…somewhat predictably, but none the less still moving after all these years (movie came out in 1994)…The Lion King – Circle of Life. Enjoy!
Mindfulness doesn’t go out of style! The following post is a popular one from the archives. Enjoy!
The word “mindfulness” has become very popular over the past few years. A quick Google keyword search finds about 58,400,000 sites–everything from how to learn mindfulness, business applications, links to books and exercises, organizations, professionals specializing in mindfulness…the list goes on. Companies such as Google, General Mills and Target have created mindfulness meditation programs for their employees to help them deal with stress and improve their health and productivity.
Advertisers have jumped on the bandwagon and are linking mindfulness practice to their clients’ products to encourage sales…and they can be subtle.
This two-minute commercial was made for and funded by a mindfulness app called Calm. While it appears to be a ‘non-commercial’ commercial–providing a relaxing break from usual advertising–it’s not. The Calm app, while free to download and try, costs $9.99 for a monthly subscription or $39.99 for a year. Mindfulness can be big business!
What is Mindfulness?
While the term “mindfulness” or “mindfulness meditation” may be everywhere in popular culture, what does it really mean? Mindfulness began as an ancient Buddhist practice that has been adapted for modern use. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment–and Your Life, describes mindfulness as “awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
There are different ways to practice mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn explains, “There are two complementary ways to [practice mindfulness]: formally and informally. Formal practice means engaging in making some time every day to practice–with tools such as guided meditations. Informal practice involves letting the practice spill over into every aspect of your waking life in an uncontrived and natural way.”
In other words, being ‘mindful’ means taking time to ‘be in the moment’ and notice what is happening. If you are washing the dishes, then you’re washing dishes–take the time to see the wet dishes, feel the water on your hands, experience the weight of the bowl as you place it on the drying rack.
It’s called “practice” because it is something that we commit to doing over and over again–and it’s impossible to do it incorrectly. The benefit is in showing up!
Benefits of Mindfulness Practice
So what are the benefits of mindfulness practice? In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) clinic at the UMass Medical School. The program teaches Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness meditation techniques to individuals coping with a variety of physical and mental health challenges.
Over the past almost 40 years the program has been the subject of research by the Medical School to determine MBSR’s effectiveness. In short, the results have been amazing, as people meditating for as little as a few minutes per day have seen a decrease in their symptoms and an increase in the effectiveness of their medications. In some cases, patients have been able to lower and stop taking their medications. If you would like more information about the program and research, check out the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the UMass Medical School.
Personally, and in my work with clients, I have discovered the benefits of practice as a way to lower stress and anxiety levels. Clients have reported that they feel less reactive to difficult people and situations. When I teach the breathing exercises in sessions, clients report that they feel more relaxed and are willing to continue to do the exercises between our meetings.
A Mindfulness Exercise
Curious? Want to try? Here’s a mindfulness exercise that can give you a quick taste of the experience. It all starts with chocolate! To begin, have a small piece of chocolate (or your favourite treat) in front of you.
Stand (or sit) still and feel yourself breathing. Listen to the sounds around you.
Slowly pick up the piece of chocolate. Feel your hand as it makes contact with the candy.
Look at the chocolate. Notice the colour, texture, size, shape. Feel the weight.
Pay attention to any thoughts that are arising about the chocolate.
Note any feelings that you are experiencing.
If wrapped, slowly unwrap the piece of chocolate. Feel the texture of the wrapping. Listen to any sounds that the wrapping makes.
Slowly put the chocolate in your mouth. Pay attention to the taste. Feel the texture.
Hold the chocolate in your mouth. Enjoy the taste and the sensation of the chocolate.
When you are ready, swallow and feel the chocolate as it slides down your throat.
Stand still and feel yourself breathing as you rest for a moment.
The idea of informal practice, is to bring the awareness you felt in this exercise to other activities in your life.
Formal Mindfulness Practice
Formal mindfulness practice involves discipline, and as already mentioned, the value is in showing up. As with any new activities, I recommend you give it a try for a few weeks to see if it makes a difference in how you feel and interact with others. Discover if it lowers your stress levels.
If you would like to try a type of formal practice, here’s a link to a guided meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The meditation lasts approximately 20 minutes. Be aware that there are long stretches of silence during the 20 minutes while you are following the directions. Enjoy!