watering negative seeds

Blowing Our Anger

By Marie Sheppard mb39-Blowing1

Anger and I go back a long way. These seeds have been well fer­tilized, for generations, and I was doing my best to keep up the tradition until I began to practice mindfulness.

Being a parent has motivated me to work harder than I oth­erwise would have with anger. I didn’t want our children to be on the receiving end, as I had been. I knew that if they were, the cycle would continue and they would end up giving just as they had received. I hoped that they would have a different relation­ship with anger. I wanted to give them tools to help them to work with anger in ways that would deepen their understanding and compassion for themselves and those around them.

About three years ago we were visiting extended family when a huge fight erupted. Our three-year-old son Rowan and I were sitting at the far end of the picnic table as the voices escalated and the tears came. This was Rowan’s first exposure to such a heated argument, and my immediate impulse was to protect him. I wanted to distract him and, at the same time, give him something that would help him to be with this expe­rience. I started telling him a spontaneous story about looking deeply at our anger. The story introduced a practice we call “blowing our anger” that we are still using, three years later.

A little girl named Jess wakes up from her nap and becomes very cross that no one has come in to give her a cuddle. She stomps through the house and wreaks havoc on her family. She knocks down the block tower that her brother is carefully building. She yanks a ball out of her dog’s mouth, puts it in a drawer and slams it shut. She tells her Daddy (who had just told her that he was making her favorite dinner—sushi) that she hates sushi and that he is a dreadful cook!

mb39-Blowing2

She stomps out in the garden to find her Granny. Granny asks her how she is feeling, and Jess tries the same behavior with her. Granny observes that Jess seems upset and encourages Jess to blow her anger up to the sky. Granny explains that anger is sticky, and if you blow it at other people, it will stick to them and they will become angry. If you blow it to the sky, the wind will carry it away. Jess does this, and a scarlet red fireball of anger floats up into the sky and dissipates.

Granny explains that once the anger has blown away, Jess can look underneath it to see what is there. These are the feelings that caused the anger to come. If we share the feelings that fuel the anger, other people can understand what we are experiencing and try to help us. Jess does this and realizes that she felt hurt because no one seemed to care about her or give her any attention when she awoke from her nap. She tried to hurt her family because she was feeling hurt, and she understands that they are probably feeling angry with her. She guesses that under their anger, they are probably feeling hurt or frightened by the things that she did.

Granny encourages Jess to go back into the house and ex­plain what happened to her family. Jess brings her family to the garden and describes how she blew her anger and what she found underneath. Then, she invites them to practice in the same way. Jess holds their hands and as they blow, the colors fly up to the sky and float away.

We have used this story (with lots of rousing sound effects) to help us manage our anger and look at what is underneath it. By “managing,” I mean not blowing anger in hurtful ways at those around us. Blowing is really breathing and calming. Once we have released the force of anger, we can identify its cause.

After I first told the story, I began going outside to blow when I became angry. I would then return to the family and explore what was underneath my anger. Once he had seen me practice this way, I invited Rowan to go outside and blow when he became angry. It’s been important that it not be seen as a punishment, but as a way of helping.

The first time he did this, he was in the car. He rolled down his window and blew very hard (and noisily!). He described what his anger looked like, in vivid detail, as it flew up into the sky. As we continued this practice, he wondered whether it would stick to trees or birds, and we agreed that it dissipated in the air so that it couldn’t stick to anything. After he had finished his “blowing med­itation,” I would coax him to share the feelings that had caused the anger. Discussing these emotions, and the events leading to them, was a healing process, for both of us.

As he grows older, Rowan is more focused on looking into his anger. There have been several times where he will initiate, after having blown his anger at us (and then outside), a discussion about what is underneath his anger. While we still encourage him to practice blowing (and vice versa), he needs less help with the next steps then he did before. Just recently, a friend of his had an altercation with another playmate on the playground. Afterwards, his friend stood perfectly still and bellowed at the top of her lungs. She was furious. Rowan was perched on the slide and called down to her: “What’s underneath your anger, Leah? I think you might be embarrassed because of what happened, is that what’s under your anger?”

I stood to the side, listening as he gently tried to help her figure out why she was so upset.

I was deeply moved that he found this tool useful, and of his own volition, was using it to help a friend. It reminded me of one of the Buddha’s teachings that I treasure most: don’t practice because I tell you to. Only practice if it works for you.

mb39-Blowing3Marie Sheppard, Joyful Path of the Heart, practices with the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center and the Washington Mindfulness Community. Marie and her family (partner Scott, children, Rowan and Ela, and dog, Bicho) enjoy the outdoors.

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Mindfulness in a State Psychiatric Hospital

By Bruce L. Hilsberg

Bruce Hilsberg passed away on March 29, 2005; you may read an essay by his wife Karen in issue 39 of the Mindfulness Bell.

When I first became a student of Thich Nhat Hanh over ten years ago, I never thought that my personal interest in meditation, mindfulness practice, and the dharma would become an essential part of my work as a psychologist at a state psychiatric hospital.

I had practiced mindfulness with my wife in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, attended days of mindfulness with Thay when he visited California, and participated in meditation classes and dharma discussions with a local Order of Interbeing teacher. Over time, I have taught mindfulness techniques to some of the patients in my private practice to help them find relief from symptoms including insomnia, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, relationship difficulties, manic depression, and anxiety. Still, my mindfulness practice felt compartmentalized. In the context of working at the state hospital, I still subscribed to the medical model of illness and disease in which I had been trained. During work, I contemplated curing mental illnesses and reducing symptoms rather than seeing individuals as people with strengths and a desire to build on these.

But all that changed last year, when an outside consultant was brought in to help improve the state hospital where I had worked for over eleven years. It just so happened that this consultant, who served many state psychiatric hospitals in the United States, had cultivated a Soto Zen Buddhist practice and had integrated mindfulness training into his work. When the consultations with our hospital began, I found a door through which I could enter to begin integrating my personal and professional beliefs and practices. This is the story of my journey this past year and a half.

Our system at the state hospital has watered many seeds of negative habit energy over the past decades, resulting in problems that need new solutions. For example, the system encountered difficulties in accurately diagnosing and properly treating individuals with serious and persistent mental illnesses. With the help of our consultant we are moving in the direction of systemic change for the betterment of the people connected to the hospital: administrators, staff, individuals with psychiatric disabilities, family members and the community.

From the Medical Model to the Recovery Model

One of the first methods we are using is stopping and looking deeply at ourselves and each other. While we are well aware of changes that we would like to see, part of my practice has become to accept that I am where I need to be in this moment and the hospital too is where it needs to be. Sangha building has also been a very important part of the process. We are forming connections with each other to support mindfulness in our work environment so that we can embody the practice and then bring the fruits of our practice to the hospital and the people with whom we work. In this regard, we have struggled to get out of “automatic pilot” and instead to recognize our habits, realize what we are thinking and doing, and look deeply so that we can make better choices for ourselves. In turn, we can help others to make better choices for themselves. This forms the basis of a new model of treatment for mental disorders called the recovery model.

In the recovery model, we think about individuals—what helps them and what hinders them in their lives. We talk about choices and empowerment. In the same way that Thay talks about our store consciousness with our positive and healthy seeds as well as our negative and unhealthy seeds, the recovery model sees individuals as having seeds of strength and seeds of weakness. In the old medical model, we might have asked, “Why was the individual so ill? How can we treat and cure his illness?” Now with the recovery model, we ask, “How did the individual sustain herself in the face of her illness? How can I help support her strengths and help her to recognize and water her own seeds of health, growth and well-being?” We now focus on conducting strengths-based conversations with them instead of routine diagnostic work-ups (though accurate diagnoses are still considered very important).

The research that is now emerging in the field of psychology indicates that mindfulness training is an incredibly effective treatment for many people suffering from psychiatric disorders such as chronic depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. The treatment does not necessarily make the disorder completely vanish, but it can empower individuals to manage their symptoms effectively, to discontinue negative cycles of thought and behavior, and to lead more adaptive and contented lives outside of hospitals and in the community. Furthermore, many individuals with psychiatric disabilities have benefited from mindfulness training as they learn to change the relationship they have with the symptoms of their illness and to feel a sense of control in their lives.

What Mindfulness Looks Like

Over the past year and a half, as I have been mentored by our consultant, my own mindfulness practice has deepened immensely. At work, I try not to operate on automatic pilot anymore. I don’t see events as meaningless. I see the importance of my speech and my actions, and I appreciate that all I have right now is the present moment and my own presence in the moment. I spend a great deal of time in meetings, and my behavior at meetings has changed. I’ve become more present in the meetings. I recognize that while there is a lot to do, what I am doing in the moment is what I need to be doing right now. I listen deeply to others’ speech, I don’t interrupt others, and I breathe mindfully. I realize that my list of things to do does not control me. I practice non-attachment to outcomes happening within a certain arbitrary period of time. I understand that I do not need to balance my time, but to find balance in my life. I realize that my list of things to do is there to assist me in seeing what needs to be done and what my priorities are, but that is all. I feel a sense of acceptance in my work of what is. Just as in my life, rather than feeling that I need to chase after a goal, buy something, or accomplish something to feel better, I am just being in acceptance of what is.

At work, I have begun to offer a weekly meditation group for members of the hospital staff. For the last couple of months, every Thursday at lunchtime we sit on chairs or on the floor in the administration building and meditate together for half an hour.

Though I have attended meetings in this room for many years, now that I meditate there, I am aware of new sounds that I never heard before. For example, I am aware of the sound the clock makes as it ticks. We have core members who are present almost every week, and we also have people who come and go. The energy of the group practice is becoming strong, and after the practice we discuss our experiences together in a spirit of acceptance, understanding, and lack of judgment.

One thing I dream of is a time when these practices will be so much a part of the institution that before a treatment planning meeting, the treatment team will take some mindful breaths together and set an intention for the meeting. This would help each person at the meeting to move beyond their own tendency to be on automatic pilot and to truly experience the individual as an individual, rather than seeing the purpose of the meeting as a task that must be accomplished.

In my private life, my wife and I have made a new commitment to meditate together every morning before our young children wake up as a way to support each other in the practice. We also have had wonderful opportunities to spend time at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido and to practice breathing, sitting, walking, eating and working meditation as a family with the support of the monastic Sangha. We have come to see the truth for us in the Dharma Seal, “You have arrived, you are home.” We have also recently formed a Sangha in our area to offer the practice to our family, co-workers, neighbors, and friends on a weekly basis and to seek support for our Order of Interbeing aspirant training.

To some, the changes that have happened at our hospital are remarkable and inspiring. To others, it seems that change is moving at a snail’s pace. Many people within the hospital are struggling with the changes and feel angry, resentful, or helpless. Others are embracing the changes and feel the freshness of the new approaches as they are introduced. For me, some days are full of frustrations as more entrenched problems in the system emerge into the light of day. “Breathing in, I know I feel frustration. Breathing out, I smile to my frustration and am grateful that I am alive.” Other days are exciting as new standards of care for the individuals we serve are implemented. Overall, I can say that mindfulness is now a part of my daily work life as well as my personal life. Through mindfulness training we are working to improve our hospital, the treatment practices, and the quality of life of the individuals we serve, as well as staff, administrators and family members. It has not been easy to introduce these ideas into a bureaucratic system, but my work is enormously meaningful to me now in ways that it has never been before.

Bruce L. Hilsberg, True Commitment of the Heart, was Chief of Psychology at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California. He and his wife practiced with the Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City, California and at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.

From: Spoken Like a True Buddha, an unpublished compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

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