By Melissa Lafrance on May 2, 2019
Guest contribution by Dr. Thara Vayali
Pleasure is associated with many different things. It can occur beneath the sheets, at the finish of a difficult project or with devotional work. Occasionally, pleasure is associated with hedonism, the unrelenting pursuit of self-indulgence.
More often, pleasure is associated with instant gratification, but it’s important to differentiate between the two. The body and mind don’t have to exert much effort to achieve instant gratification; the reward is small, and the chemicals that signal pleasure are fleeting. Pleasure itself, however, is simpler: it’s a mental or physical sensation of joy and has longer-lasting effects in the body. The sensation of pleasure is the result of a well-deserved “win” in the context of feeling safe and calm. For example, finishing a race at your fastest pace can feel well-deserved and safe – if you’ve trained regularly and the race course was filled with people who support you.
Human beings are continually searching for pleasurable experiences, yet it is a state that can only exist under two circumstances that may not be easy to achieve: reward and safety.
Reward is a journey of effort and achievement. Safety is both a physical and emotional necessity. While physical safety is occasionally out of our control, we can speak about ourselves more positively, which can help develop a safe, emotional environment where pleasure can exist.
Mindful awareness of our habits in daily life can allow us to open up to pleasure when we want to. While reward and safety may be complex concepts to understand, I offer you some ideas for exploring these concepts to help you increase your capacity for pleasure.
Create a challenge deadline and give yourself meaningful challenges. For example, if you’ve always wanted to publish a book, set up a schedule to write each morning. Challenge yourself to read aloud from your book draft by the end of a season and invite anyone you feel supported by.
The “effortful” work of creating a reward challenge means that:
- it is important enough for you to stay committed even when someone else’s needs filter in.
- it exists in a timeline you set solely for yourself.
- the timeline realistically recognizes all your other responsibilities.
- the challenge requires effort, whether physical or mental.
- the desired result requires you to work just beyond your current skill level.
It is not easy to tick all these boxes quickly and you may notice you can realistically only do one to three genuine challenges a year. Creating effortful challenges allows for reward to contribute to a lasting sensation of pleasure.
Notice the language you use to speak about yourself. Do you undermine your efforts or minimize your achievements? Do you defer compliments or gratitude? Do you blame yourself when things don’t work as planned? Learning to speak positively to yourself takes time, but by becoming aware of your own language, you can begin to create a safe mental space for yourself.
With daily practice, you can increase your capacity for pleasure.
Dr. Thara Vayali is a Vancouver-based naturopathic doctor and yoga teacher, UBC alum and popular guest contributor to our Healthy UBC newsletter who specializes in intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. For more information about Thara, visit www.tharavayali.ca.
Photo: Sean McGrath (Flickr)
By Melissa Lafrance on April 2, 2019
Did you know that there’s a connection between mindfulness and financial wellbeing?
Mindfulness can help us pay closer attention to the present moment and acknowledge its beauty through focused awareness. By paying attention to our personal finances, we can spend our money more intentionally and thoughtfully, rather than spending impulsively on unnecessary things. Improving our self-awareness can help us become savvier shoppers.
That’s not to say we need to think about the present moment all the time; being financially responsible involves planning for the future and understanding how our spending habits will impact it. Bringing a mindful awareness to our shopping habits will not only help us make better decisions in the present, but set us up for long-term financial health.
Before making your next purchase, try applying this simple Pause, Notice, Take Action practice:
When you discover something you want to buy, pause and take a mindful breath. Take a moment to reduce the distractions and stimulations around you.
Check in with yourself and consider: How am I feeling? Will this item bring me joy? Is it within my budget? Listen to your intuition and give yourself time to decide. You can always step away and come back later.
After making your decision, take action mindfully. Notice your behaviour. Whether you purchase the item or not, be proud that you made a conscious decision rather than an impulse buy.
You should absolutely treat yourself with your hard-earned money. However, by being more mindful, you can avoid impulse purchases and savour the moments and things that bring you joy and satisfaction.
Take action now by signing up for UBC’s 30-Day Online Mindfulness Challenge cohort, starting April 15.
By Miranda Massie on February 5, 2019
Looking to reap the mental benefits of your movement this month? Discover ways to enhance your mental fitness while being physically active. To inspire you, check out these previous guest articles by Wendy Quan (The Calm Monkey) and Dr. Thara Vayali.
- Try a Walking Meditation: A how-to-guide for trying a walking meditation
- 3 Secret Stress Senses: Innovative body movements to combat stress
- 3 Walking Meditations for the Summer: Still perfect to try in the early spring or in rain-proof gear!
Remember, a mindful moment doesn’t have to lack movement. Enjoy!
Photo credit: UBC Thrive
By Miranda Massie on January 8, 2019
Guest contribution from Wendy Quan
Mindfulness offers a wealth of practices that can help in times of distress. It can allow you to observe when your thoughts are spiralling out of control and to notice what’s influencing your reactions. It can help you make better decisions, be more effective and not regret your reactions afterwards.
Here is a simple practice you can call upon in the heat of the moment:
Pause and take a mindful breath. Give yourself a micro opportunity to mentally ‘step away’.
Notice your emotions. Check in with yourself. It only takes an instant to do so. Can you identify and label the emotions you’re having right now, in this moment? It could be surprise, anger, disbelief or many other emotions.
By identifying and labeling your emotions, you give yourself the opportunity to gain some objectivity on the situation at hand. It gives you some space to consider what you feel are appropriate possible responses.
If you are in a situation that requires immediate action, take a mindful breath. If you have a bit more time (e.g. preparing to go into a heated meeting), close your eyes just for a minute and experience your breath. You can find some calmness, composure and clarity of thought in just a short moment.
3. Take Action
After making a decision on the best appropriate response, take action mindfully. Notice how you are responding: your behaviour, body language, tone of voice, etc. Being mindful of your actions lets you create the experience you wish to have, rather than succumbing to auto-pilot responses triggered in the heat of the moment.
Call upon this simple Pause, Notice, Take Action practice as a tool to get you through those unsettling moments.
Wendy Quan, founder of The Calm Monkey, is an industry leader in training and certifying experienced meditators to become mindfulness meditation facilitators in their workplace or community. She combines change management with mindfulness meditation to help people through difficult change and is the creator of the Dealing with Change Toolkit.
Wendy is a certified organizational change manager who has been recognized as a pioneer by the Greater Good Science Center of the University of California, Berkeley, the global Association of Change Management Professionals and the Chartered Professionals in Human Resources. Her clients include Google, the government of Dubai, University of British Columbia, the US Senate, and individuals and Fortune 500 organizations worldwide.
By Guest Contributor on September 11, 2018
Guest contribution from Dr. Thara Vayali
The five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste – are familiar to most of us. We often employ these senses to become more mindful of our environment. But did you know there are three other senses that are incredibly valuable to recognizing our stress triggers and responses?
Those folks who say “I can’t dance”, I believe you can! Though it seems that coordination is innate, proprioception – the ability to know where and how your body parts are held in space – is a skill learned with practice. Whether it is your elbow, your knee, your shoulder muscles or the top of your head, there are receptors in your muscles and joints that help you understand tension, relaxation and balance. Proprioception can temporarily falter when you are tired, distressed or experiencing pain.
Try the blindfolded balance
Stand on one leg for 30 seconds with your eyes closed. For the pros, try doing this on a blanket.
The capacity to connect a physical sensation to your needs is a practiced skill as well. Yawning, tummy discomfort, a full bladder, butterflies in the belly, sweating, goose bumps, a racing heart, and breathlessness are all physiological signals that move us to act. If you aren’t paying attention, your actions can be delayed, mindless or stress-inducing. The better you are at sensing your internal environment, the better you will be at decision-making during stress. Interoception helps you recognize your reactions, adapt and respond in a way that serves you best.
Do a breakfast body scan
On waking, you have likely not eaten for at least 8-12 hours. This is a great time to take a scan of your mood, your abdomen and your cognition. After eating a small amount of food, note what happens. What happens if you eat a large amount?
Beyond your “gut sense” of physiological sensations, you have a “spidey sense”. Neuroception is involuntary: subconsciously assessing people, situations and environments for danger and safety. Depending on your history, your patterns of behaviour and other factors, neural circuits can sometimes perceive danger inaccurately. In this case, safe situations can elicit fear, or risky situations can be entered without caution. The better your neuroception functions, the better we can take care of ourselves.
Practice Softening your Eyes
The muscles around the eyes tense when we feel fear. This muscular change influences our cognition and decision-making. On your daily commute (or another neutral situation), take 30 seconds to practice the following:
- What does it feel like to harden your eye muscles?
- Now try softening them.
- Notice your default.
- Then try changing it in a challenging situation.
Practice using all of your secret senses. These hidden senses are how your mind and body work together to signal and regulate your stress responses.
Dr. Thara Vayali is a Vancouver-based naturopathic doctor and yoga teacher, UBC alum and popular guest contributor to our Healthy UBC newsletter who specializes in intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. For more information about Thara, visit www.tharavayali.ca
Photo Credit: Melissa Lafrance
By Miranda Massie on June 5, 2018
It’s the time of year when we revel in the opportunity to get outside and enjoy the summer months.
Here are three walking meditations to explore and try on your breaks or the next time you’re experiencing the great outdoors. Remember to be keenly aware and walk safely!
Regular pace walking.
Walk at a relaxed pace, and as your left foot touches the ground, say ‘left’ silently to yourself. As your right foot touches the ground, say ‘right’ silently to yourself. And so on. This keeps you mindful and present as you pay attention to syncing your words with your steps.
Walk at a relaxed pace, and place your awareness on your breath for a short while. Anchor in the present moment by feeling your body breathing. Then shift your awareness to your surroundings (for example, place keen awareness on sounds, sights, smells, activity, etc). Shift your awareness back and forth between your breath and your surroundings.
The very slow walk.
If you don’t care who might watch you, try taking super slow small steps, synced with your breathing. As you take a step forward and your heel touches the ground, exhale. As you shift your weight forward on the same foot, inhale.
Walking meditation is a wonderful, mindful way of giving ourselves a break from our busy days. It’s a great way to bring more movement into our lives and a sense of relaxation and calm. You can even try doing this during your workday as you walk from place to place, meeting to meeting.
Wendy Quan is an industry leader in helping organizations implement self-sustaining mindfulness meditation programs to create change resiliency. She is the founder of The Calm Monkey, the first and only online and in-person training and certification of its kind, which turns experienced meditators into Mindfulness Meditation Facilitators in the workplace and community.
Wendy is a certified organizational change manager who has been recognized as a pioneer by the Greater Good Science Center of the University of California, Berkeley and the global Association of Change Management Professionals and the Chartered Professionals in Human Resources. Her client list includes individuals from around the world and organizations such as Google and the government of Dubai. Her life’s purpose is to help people create a better experience of life.
Photo Credit: Melissa Lafrance
By Guest Contributor on May 3, 2018
Consent does not begin in the bedroom, it starts with how we listen, how we speak and how we live & work. Our personal culture of conversation can tell us a lot about how we respect and ask for consent. Consent is more than a question, more than a statement of boundaries: it is the entire terrain of communication. Listening is the foundation of how we communicate. Sometimes, we can fall into a pattern where conversation flows in a manner that suggests that neither party is listening. Instead of simply learning how to ask for consent, I think it’s worth being mindful of how we listen for it.
The 3 checks of consent:
The Interruption Check
If you notice that your conversations are filled with “Yeah, but…” or “Me too, and…” you are interrupting. If you are anxious to respond before the other person finishes speaking, you are interrupting. To notice when someone states their boundaries, you need to genuinely hear what they say. There needs to be space between where their thoughts end, and yours begin. Interrupting indicates that you are listening to respond, rather than to understand. You can only respect someone’s boundaries if you understand what the other person has said about them. When in doubt, take a moment to breathe in, then out, before saying anything in any conversation.
The Constant Chatter Check
Uncomfortable silence is called so for a reason. Sometimes, light conversation can be exactly what is needed, but sometimes it is not. Habitually filling space by chatting is a sign that you are preoccupied with your own experience. In an attempt to create comfort for yourself, you may be missing some non-verbal signals from others. Silence is not consent for conversation. Look for other clues that may indicate what type of conversation the other person is looking for. Notice your breathing when you experience an uncomfortable silence. If you can slow your breathing, you are more likely to be able to “read the room”.
The Dismissive Check
If you think you know what someone else is thinking, you are already not listening. By making assumptions in a conversation, you put on metaphorical earmuffs. This can lead you to view the other person’s statement as irrelevant, unimportant or incorrect. By dismissing, undervaluing or correcting someone’s statements, you are effectively shutting down a conversation. You may be missing what they are trying to communicate. If you choose to assume and dismiss, you’ve lost the opportunity to listen. Dive in when your impulse is to dismiss.
The way we converse may seem innocuous at first, but the downstream impact of our daily habits can end up leading us away from meaningful interactions. Our culture of conversation determines how we understand consent. Self-awareness consent checks are meant to show us our habits from the other person’s perspective. Make listening the foundation of your conversations, and you will gain more than you expected.
By Miranda Massie on April 3, 2018
We live in a demanding world, one that keeps moving and often leaves us feeling as if we are struggling to keep up. This can be compounded by tasks we might avoid or feel less inclined to do such as budgeting and finances.
Try this mindfulness micro-practice from the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute as a way of becoming more present and focused, for yourself and your team.
Use this mindfulness tool before you start a new task, whether you’re alone or with others. You can even try it before you begin a work meeting.
- Pause before you begin a financial activity or task such as budgeting or taxes.
- Take 1 minute (in silence) to focus on breath and breathing.
- Allow the body and mind to settle and focus on what you are about to begin.
For more information about the Search Inside Yourself leadership program at UBC, click here.
Photo Credit: Melissa Lafrance
By Miranda Massie on January 11, 2018
Harnessing mindfulness can help us gain a sense of control over our experiences. By actively engaging in situations as they arise, we can utilize mindfulness to our advantage. We can use it to suspend judgement and cultivate patience, thus avoiding stress. Here’s how mindfulness works:
If you are looking for a way to reset your brain and your thought patterns, try listening to this Meditation on Intentions for the New Year (10 minutes):
Or sign up for one of our upcoming mindfulness training programs.
Photo credit: UBC Communications and Marketing
By Guest Contributor on October 25, 2017
Guest contribution by Dr. Thara Vayali
On some days, why do we feel more fiery or more defeated than other days? Through a combination of our brains, our memories and our stressors, we arrive at our current mood.
Mood is like memory, imperfect and incomplete — a faint fragrance, trails of a tune, a sliver of a glance, a shadow, a twang of voice. Something we sense triggers a place deep in the brain to say, “This is what ‘that’ feels like, remember?” Your mood is shaped by fragments of your previous moods. Depending on your stress level at any given time, the mood memories that arise to influence you will vary. Stress and mood are inextricably connected.
The Three-Eyed Brain
One metaphor for the brain is what I call, “three-eyed seeing”: three distinct ways in which we view our experiences. By understanding these views, we can draw the link between how our stressors can impact different parts of our “brain vision.”
Although I describe the brain in three parts below, different parts of the brain are never isolated or single-tasked in their functions. The key to understanding mood, memory and stress is to see how and when the brain prioritizes certain input more others. That understanding requires a little separation and definition.
Way at the back of your skull – where the brain meets your spinal cord – is an area called the hindbrain. It is where our basic functions like balance, heart rate, breathing, digestion, sleeping and waking are regulated. Sometimes called the “reptilian” brain, the hindbrain is where the basic functions of survival originate. The vagus nerve passes through this area and influences whether we slip into “fight or flight” or “rest or digest” mode. It is the only nerve that wanders from brain to gut, picking up on signals from our digestion to our social connection, and all the subtle signals in our environment.
I call this the instinctual brain; we don’t know or process the “why”, but we act. It is urgent and safety-oriented. The instinctual brain is all about self-preservation and protection.
Our amygdala – two little almond-shaped portions in the middle of our brains – have the tendency to hoard the sensations of memories that trigger a stress response. The nucleus accumbens – two tiny nut-shaped portions of the brain behind the eyebrows – are mostly associated with dispersing signals of reward and safety. These memories and signals can evoke positive or negative emotions that help us make decisions.
I call this the intuitive brain. The intuitive brain is perceptive and focused on patterns.
The way we respond to our intuitive brain is a bit like jelly. A memory shakes us to respond but the impact is buffered; the exact memory is slightly hazy due to the jelly. We feel the shake, we know something is happening, but can’t quite pinpoint the source of the sensation. This is where we feel: “This doesn’t feel good” or “This feels safe”.
Depending on whether those memories were cast as positive or negative, our mood in the present moment can sway. Through time and space we travel from back then to now and carry our mood souvenirs with us.
The front and outer covering of the brain is called the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) and is mostly associated with cognition, the complex reasoning and logical part of our brain. It is from here that we look at risks and consequences, value patience and reward, and lay out positive and negatives. This is where we think. Focused on the present situation, our PFC is our headlamp: it shines light for detail and clarity in the direction we are pointed toward.
I call this the intellectual brain. Though clear-headed, it can miss some subtle, abstract, or hidden information that our other “i’s” can see. The intellectual brain is focused on detail and reason in the present moment.
We need to see with all three eyes to be present, perceptive and protective.
Whether acute or chronic, stress impacts this brain trio; rising cortisol impacts the PFC. Stress breaks down our thinking. It can impact concentration and leave us short-sighted. When stress hits, we are less capable of accurately assessing a situation for risk or gain. We start reaching for encoded memories of our own or others we know. These memories from our intuitive brain influence our current state and how we feel about our situation.
The intellectual brain fails to keep the intuitive and instinctual brain in balance. Memories can begin to override our reasoned thought, and we can begin to perceive our environment as a true threat. An experience that triggers our stress response is in fact our intuitive and instinctual brain playing table tennis with our situation. This scenario sets up our brains for a negative bias – to see our environment/situation as intentionally or destined to be harmful.
Our moody blues may in fact be a combination of stress leaving our intuitive brain vulnerable to seeing things through a negative bias.
Three tips to beat the blues:
1. Long, deep exhales. Breathing deeply is a signal to your vagus nerve and your hindbrain that the environment is safe. It allows your body to disarm and reassess. Once you have defused your fight or flight mechanism, you can turn your three-eyed seeing back on and engage with more clarity. When we breathe shallow breaths we can unknowingly put ourselves into hindbrain dominance – self-preservation rather than present and perceptive. If you notice you’ve put a negative bent on your day, take a few long, deep exhales; you might open your eyes to a different day.
2. Stress Inventory. De-stressing is not so simple as breathing deeply. The next step is to recognize what your stressors are. Take a moment and ask yourself, “What are the pressure points for me today?” “How was my sleep?” “How have I eaten?” “What is my environment like right now?” “Is anything overwhelming me?” Start there and see what you can change before chalking it up to the blues.
3. Reconnect. A valuable tool for beating the blues from a brain and body perspective is to find time to be with others. Social connection signals the vagus nerve and releases hormones to decrease cortisol. When you feel the blues beginning to take hold, find an environment where you can be face-to-face with someone you feel safe with.
Instead of cheering up or dismissing our blues, perhaps our path to mental wellness is through mindfulness and stress awareness. Take a few breaths, notice what you can do about your situation, and connect to others. You brain and body will thank you.
Thara Vayali is a naturopathic doctor and yoga teacher in Vancouver, as well as a UBC alumna. She is obsessed with intestinal and immune health, hormones and pain-free bodies. She is also the creator of Change Natural Medicine, which offers budget-conscious, membership-based health consulting.
Posted in A Thoughtful Mind, Guest Contributor, Mindful Moments | Tagged brain health, Dr. Thara Vayali, instinct, intellect, intuition, memory, mindful moments, Mindfulness, mood, the brain | Leave a response
By Guest Contributor on July 1, 2017
Guest contribution by Dr. Thara Vayali
Listening can be hard, especially in difficult conversations or discussions with people we spend a lot of time with.
To listen like you mean it is to honestly hear the whole statement of the person who is speaking in order to have a meaningful conversation. Most of us speak so that we can be heard and have someone reflect back that they have understood us.
Yet most of us listen so that we can speak, often interrupting a speaker with our agreement or disagreement.
And round and round we go.
In all this speaking to one another, we often forget that the act of conversation is a gift. It is an invitation to witness their expressions and to be present as a valued contributor. When someone wants your attention, it is important to recognize this gift and listen. Stop what you are doing, or if you need time to wrap up what you are doing before you listen, say so. When you engage with your full attention, the interaction will thrive.
To be able to be present and listen like you mean it, you must develop two trusts:
- Trust yourself. Trust that you will not forget what you have to say. You may change it based on what you hear, but trust that if something is important to you, it will not disappear.
- Trust the other person. Trust that they are doing their best to express themselves. They may end up using language that makes you defensive or causes you to digress, but what they really want is for their experience to be understood.
Once you can employ these two trusts, you can begin the practice of listening.
It’s not about what you do; it’s how you do what you do.
The five steps to honest listening are always based in the two trusts:
- Say (to yourself), “This is not about me”. Even if the words are directed at you or the phrases include you, remember that for the most part, the speaker wants to be heard by you. The details can be hashed out later.
- Pausing makes all the difference; it takes a reactive statement and gives it some breathing room, a moment to assess if now is the time to speak. It shows the speaker that you have the capacity to process what was said.
- Assume that what is being said is true – from the speaker’s point of view. You may not agree, but suspend your disagreement for a moment and reflect on, “What if it was true?”
- Assume you have misunderstood. Each person is a world of definitions, connotations, nuances and histories. Even though we use similar words, we often mean very different things.
- Become curious about them and their situation by asking:
- “Tell me more about X; I’m not sure I understand it.”
- “It sounds like…am I getting it?”
- “I’m so interested in this part of what you said; what is it all about?”
- “What were your previous experiences with this like?”
- “I’ve never felt that; what is it like?”
The key to becoming curious is actually feeling curious, not just repeating these questions or paraphrasing someone’s expression. Listen so that you can find something you are interested in learning more about. In conversation, authentic curiosity is refreshing and automatically engages the listener’s mind.
These five steps are built on being present, which is built on trust. Instead of specific actions – which may be found in “active listening” tools – what I offer are ways of thinking, of being, of feeling, so that when we listen, we are doing it fully and inherently.
Listening, like many different skills, takes practice. Each time you enter into a conversation, be grateful for another opportunity to be there. Listen like you mean it and allow your conversations to thrive.
Thara Vayali is a Naturopathic Doctor & Yoga Teacher in Vancouver and is also a UBC alumnus. She is obsessed with intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. She is the creator of Change Natural Medicine: Budget conscious, membership based health consulting.