Meditation Methods to Prevent Burnout:Self-care for Advocates Series 5

  “First, you should understand that it’s a process. It’s not a matter of one day, you’re living your life with a great deal of energy and enjoyment, and the next, you wake up exhausted and devoid of any energy – both physical and emotional. Compassion fatigue develops over time – taking weeks, sometimes years to surface. Basically, it’s a low level, chronic clouding of caring and concern for others in your life – whether you work in or outside the home. Over time, your ability to feel and care for others becomes eroded through overuse of your skills of compassion. You also might experience an emotional blunting – whereby you react to situations differently than one would normally expect.” ~ When Helping Hurts by F. Oshberg, MD 

Stop the creeping burnout before it happens. Meditation can help. Not all meditation requires sitting on a cushion or shaving your head.  You can meditate if you are a Christian or any other practitioner of formal religion.  You can call it mindfulness if that makes it better but find a way that works for you and give it try not with the intention of stopping your thoughts because that’s impossible. Do it with the intention of befriending a brain gone wild with uncontrolled thought patterns.

Here are some things to know about meditation – mantra or chanting has been proven again and again to do something magical in our stressed out brains. Chanting, even a nonsense phrase like “What was I thinking when I signed up for Social Work?” or “I hate my job!” soon becomes nothing but sound in the brain and it’s calming like you wouldn’t believe.  Try saying the word pickle over and over – soon you can’t even remember what a pickle is and the word no longer makes sense.  Don’t try this out loud and especially not in the break room at work. Trust me, it doesn’t go over well. I don’t recommend saying something negative over and over to yourself but if making it fun makes you try it well ok then.

If you want to get real serious you can Google Transcendental Meditation and pay someone a lot money to help coach you in a method of using a mantra to quiet the mind. I’ve always been way too cheap for that so I’ve, since age 16 after my mother dragged me kicking and screaming to a class on chakras, investigated every method I could find. I may have already mentioned I prefer not to listen to my mother because it’s against the order of nature to pay attention to one’s parents right? Anyway in this she was right and here’s what is currently in my bag of tricks:

Chanting:

A lot of cultures have a prayer system or chant of some sort built into the fabric somewhere. I don’t know if the words matter, they might, I’m just not sure. I think somewhere we have intuitively known that the yammery voice in our head can be quickly overcome by chanting a repetitive sound. The Voice of Knowledge by Don Miguel Ruiz is a good read on this subject of the inner voice(s).

I alternate between the Lord’s Prayer and Om Mani Padme Hum and maybe a Ganesh chant to switch it up. I’ve used Ho’oponopono a method which you can find more information about here.

In times of extreme stress I have been known to employ the Anne Lamott method of praying by chanting the sentence, “Help me! Help me!” over and over.  All of the above work if you stick with them. In any method repetition is key. You have to do it long enough that you get past feeling silly about it all. Keep going and just like negative experiences are cumulative, positive ones are too and you will eventually have moments of profound peace and relaxation.

Mindfulness:

Mindfulness is simply being right here right now.  My hands are tapping the keys on the keyboard and now that I’m mindful of them I realize they hurt because for some reason I am pounding them like my fingers are tiny sledgehammers and I’m on a home improvement show with a pretty tight timeline for finishing. I’m smelling the Citrus Fresh bottle of essential oil sitting open by my side as a cat repellent for my keyboard. I’m smelling the Stress Away oil under my nose because our recent move from Colorado to Georgia has caused me to feel like the cheese is rapidly slipping off my cracker!

Mindfulness can be as simple noticing your breath, the best tool you have actually is your breath.  It’s harder to count to 10 than you may think but it’s a challenge worth training to achieve.  Try mindfulness with your children and watch what happens.  When you calm and really listen and really see them intently you will notice them relax and their neediness virtually disappear.  When everyone is stressed breathe deeply and slowly three times and watch everyone else around you start breathing slower too.

In meetings, at the dinner table, in the car when traffic is awful take 3 deeps breath in 60 seconds.  You’ll be pleasantly surprised. I heard a speaker once call it 360 breathing.  3 breaths in 60 seconds.  It works every time and it’s kind of fun to experiment and feel like you are Master of the Universe by calming everyone down who is around you.

One of the easiest and hardest things to do is to use your breath as your anchor in time and space.  You have it with you everywhere at all times obviously so why not make it do one more thing for you, you know, besides keep you alive? Anyway try this exercise, it sounds so easy:

Breathe in count 1

Breathe out count 2

Breathe in count 3

Breathe out count 4

And so on until you reach 10 or 20.

Every time you lose count just be kind and start over.  It’s not a competition. You don’t get a gold star or a meditation trophy when you master this, you get something even better…your sanity.

Here’s what it looks like:

At breath 3 you’ll remind yourself you’re doing this breathing exercise so get focused already and stop debating the relative merits of Krispy Kreme versus Dunkin Donuts.

At breath 5 you’ll lose count and have to start over.

At breathe 5 for the 2nd time you’ll find yourself wondering why Piper is so enamored with Alex when all she does is betray and use her (see Orange is the New Black)  You’ll grunt in aggravation and again start over.

This can go on for years! I’m kidding it can go on for weeks though and yet a day comes when you feel a stillness wash over you and you’ll catch yourself at breath 10 having gone straight through aware of nothing more than the sensation of air moving in and out of your body.

You’ll enjoy that flash of silence so much that you’ll try too hard then for a few days to get to it again and it will elude you because like all things precious and beautiful you must be still and open and willing for it to come to you.

Relax and count.  Peace cannot be pursued, it can only be allowed.

Object Meditation:

Candles have long been used as a way to focus the mind and let everything else go.  Most of us have a primal attraction to fire which means watching a candle flame can be strangely fascinating.  Candles smell good and the flame moves enough to keep you interested a little longer. If you haven’t stared into a flame try to see who many colors you can see.  There are several very distinct colors inside a flame. The goal is to see the flame, smell the candle and nothing else.  Thoughts enter your mind and you let them slide right on by because you are busy contemplating the flame. You can experience this same effect if you’ve made the poor decision to go on a diet near the holidays. Grandma’s strudel plate can become every bit as entrancing!

This same concept can be applied to any object if for whatever reason you would prefer to avoid candles.  You can use an intricate object and simply gaze on it doing your best to really see it in a way you may never have before.  A complex piece of art, the patterns in tree bark, a mandala painting or an abstract geometric pattern also work well.

Labeling:

As said in the beginning of this chapter you will not stop your thoughts. You may briely lose awareness of them but they are still there. Fighting against thinking is wasted energy and a battle you will never win.

Ever hear they saying what you resist persists? It’s true. Fight your thoughts and you will get entangled in those same thoughts until you stop trying to meditate altogether which would be a shame because when you do find a method that works for you it can be such a good thing for your life.

So what do you do with all those pesky thoughts about Kanye West’s extreme entitlement or that last episode of the Walking Dead that left you a little confused and more than a little grossed out?

Nothing.

Nothing at all.

You label the process of thinking, “Thinking” and that’s it.  There you are sitting in silence maybe in nature maybe in the supply closet at work. Maybe in your car at the animal rescue center trying to stop crying about their plight and trying not to hate all of humanity. You are struggling to calm your mind thinking that if you can just make this one decision that you’re obsessing about then you’ll be able to stop thinking but you won’t. Your mind will find something else to chase its tail about and that’s ok because it is your mind and that’s what minds do.  They problem solve, they talk to themselves (they’re apparently easily bored) and gnaw on the past and the future.  It’s ok.

You catch yourself thinking and you say softly, Thinking, and you go back to silence.  Simply labeling the behavior will help you stop and be able to start over.

“Thinking.”

“I don’t know why H goes deaf when I tell him about X, Y, Z but he can go to work and hear it from one of the boys and then he hears it clear as crystal! I hate when he comes home and acts like he just heard the greatest idea when I’ve been saying that for six months! Oh no! I’m thinking,

“Thinking”.

Over and over like a broken record and you really will learn not to attach and run with all the stories we tell ourselves about events in life.  A few moments silence and then away we go on a different topic.

The trick is stay loose and be kind to your mind. Bring your attention back again and again and again.  Treat it with the same kindness that you would offer while training a puppy or a small child.  It’s all part of the process and you are still getting benefit by sitting down quietly to try.

Too many times people let a mindset of following “the rules” stop them from ever experiencing the benefits of calming the mind so don’t give up because you think you aren’t “doing it right”.  There is no “right”. That’s right I said it, no right way to meditate, you can meet after school by the flagpole if you want to beat me up for that statement!

There are so many ways to achieve peace. Watch your cats gazing into the yard. Watch how your dog simply exists and radiates peace. Google search meditation or relaxation response and then go nuts on all the methods out there that you can try. If you use a form of meditation share it in the comments below I love hearing what is working for folks!

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11 Comments

  1. I love watching my cats look out the windows, and fall asleep in the sunshine. I find it very calming and makes me really happy to see them enjoying life : )

  2. I haven’t ever tried the chant idea. However, I do like to close my eyes and try to relax each part of my body sequentially from my toes to my head. The whole thinking thing really is tough to get over. I’m one of those people whose brain never stops. It has been the cause of a lot of wakeful nights.

  3. I know meditation is helpful for a lot of people. Personally, I have never really been able to just think about “nothing” or just one thing. My mind keeps bringing in other thoughts and I can’t seem to just let thoughts go as they occur.

  4. I took a yoga class in college and the one thing that I took from it was the whole breathing thing. Whenever I get anxious or stressed I start the counted breathing. It has helped so much. Thank you for all the good tips, and welcome to Georgia! I am in the Northwest part near Alabama in Rome. Hope you like it here! <3

    • That’s great Abby! The previous owners of our house are in Rome 🙂 Breathing helps everything! Depp breathing literally helps shift blood flow from the “lizard brain” back to the frontal cortex so we can think clearly again. I sure love it so far 🙂

  5. Great info Michelle! 🙂 And love the picture of your cat. Animal pictures is oftentimes all it takes to “de-stress” me. 🙂

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