Archives for March 2018

Self-Compassion and Teen Suicide: A Mother’s Quest to Break Barriers

By Cynthia Osterman

My son Benji reminds me of Lovejoy, the glowing green comet that visited earth a few years ago for the first time in 11,500 years. Both are beautiful and rare, other-worldly phenomena transiting my life.

Benji died by suicide on May 7, 2015, at age 15. I still struggle sometimes to believe this isn’t just a bad dream.

Benji

Benji was curious, bright, funny and creative. He identified as bisexual. In some ways he was mature beyond his years with an adult-like view of the world and ability to converse. But he was also more tender than he would ever let on, which sometimes got him into situations beyond his ability to manage.

He accomplished a lot in his short lifetime — as a writer and as someone who aspired to bring creativity into the world in the form of books, theater and music. I remember seeing him moving props on stage at our local theater company during an intermission, and he wouldn’t say hello to me because he didn’t want to break the fourth wall. I marveled at how he started a book blog when he was 11 and gained thousands of readers.

Benji could run a complex publicity campaign but struggled to get the garbage from the kitchen to the garage. He had trouble with being truthful. He could be insensitive to the feelings of others. He loved to challenge the status quo and rock the boat.

But like all mothers and their children, I loved him without reservation.

Benji died at home by hanging on a cool spring morning.

I had no inkling that this was coming. Shock, trauma and grief were overwhelming. The day Benji died and the weeks thereafter are a horrific blur for me. There’s really nothing that can be done to diminish that grief. It will be with me always. My 20-plus years as a meditator in a Buddhist tradition helped me continue breathing and probably saved my life.

Once I was out of the initial fog of Benji’s death, I was tortured by questions. How could I have missed that my child was in such distress? How did I not keep him safe and protect him?

I experienced the harshest of self judgment. I assumed the world blamed me for Benji’s death because I blamed myself. I thought back to my fixations on giving him organic baby food and toddler Spanish lessons and realized I, who clung deeply to the desire to be a good mother, had been exposed as a fraud.

I embarked on a quest for understanding. I became a detective in my own life. I gathered gossip and information about Benji. I talked to people who knew him — though teenagers are not the most forthcoming lot. I learned Benji had tried pot and probably had sex. Before he died, I would have flipped out about this, but in retrospect I was glad he experienced as much as he could.

I had a forensic analysis done on his computer. I tried to break into his phone unsuccessfully. I read through his email which was virtually empty because Snapchat rules. I pored over his toxicology report which showed not a trace of anything in his system.

What I learned did not give me any resolution. There was no neat explanation. There were many causes for Benji’s death and no single one. Except perhaps that ever since he was a toddler, he lacked emotional resilience and was a little too sensitive for this world.

I had missed things, and viewed from hindsight, I saw them as part of his slide. But at the time I saw them as adolescent turmoil — difficulties with a project he was involved in, with friends, and at school. I subsequently learned that more than half of people who die by suicide suffer from depression, so that likely was a cause that I missed.

I have many questions for Benji if and when I ever see him again, and some of the most persistent are: Did you know how loved you are? And did you know that I would have done anything to help you?

Benji worked hard to prevent me from seeing that he was struggling and needed my help. Why?

The conclusion I drew was that Benji did not ask for help because he could not. A somewhat fragile soul, he had built up self-protective walls. He was deeply invested in projecting to the world a facade that everything was great.

Our culture frowns on anything that smacks of weakness or failure. It’s not OK to be average or ordinary. This obsession with success and perfection is magnified many times over by social media. Since I didn’t come of age in the social media era, I don’t think I truly appreciated how influential it is. One big straw on Benji’s back was being unfriended on Facebook by some people.

So what would it have taken for Benji to be able to admit his struggles?

The answer is self-acceptance, and this is where self-compassion comes into play. To seek help, we must first acknowledge and accept the reality of what is happening: I’m struggling, I need help. To give voice to our suffering, we have to recognize it and admit it to ourselves. If I can’t accept that I am failing at something, I won’t be willing to share it with you.

After Benji’s death, it became clear to me that the path to less suffering and greater well-being for adolescents (and all of us) was through greater self-acceptance. I learned of the work of Kristin Neff, the world’s leading researcher on self-compassion, and Chris Germer, a clinician and noted authority on integrating compassion into psychotherapy, and was particularly intrigued by the program they developed called Mindful Self-Compassion. Their program was adapted into a teen-specific curriculum by Karen Bluth of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Lorraine Hobbs of University of California San Diego.

The teen program is called Making Friends with Yourself. I founded a nonprofit called The Benji Project with a mission of offering this program to adolescents in my area, where we have a much higher than average number of teens who report that they have seriously considered suicide. Since starting work in late 2016, The Benji Project has offered courses and workshops to teens and adults, including our first two sessions of Making Friends with Yourself this year. We are about to award scholarships to train local teachers in MFY.

Self-compassion has helped me heal. It is a powerful tool to relieve suffering and improve coping for teens. This work is my way of loving Benji and the world. I invite you to join me in helping teens treat themselves with greater kindness with the gift of self-compassion.


Visit Making Friends with Yourself: A Mindful Self-Compassion Program for Teens online, or visit the Teacher Training page to learn more about how to become trained to teach self-compassion to teens.

Cynthia is a lover of words, people, and places. Her happiest moments are spent with son Holden, dog Ivy, and too many wonderful friends to name individually. She’s the mother of Benji and the founder of Benji Project.Her spiritual path is Buddhism and her professional path is journalism. She has had assignments in Chicago, Washington, D.C., London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Vancouver as well as a stint as a humanitarian relief volunteer in East Africa. She has worked from home as an editor since moving to Port Townsend in 2000.

Mindful Parenting: Resilient Children: Parenting in a Rapidly Changing World

By: M. Lee Freedman, MD, CM FRCP(C)

Families today live in a society that is rapidly changing, increasingly demanding, faster moving, overly stimulating, increasingly unpredictable, and financially insecure. In the midst of this, stress-related symptoms and conditions in adults and children alike have become common, and cross all socioeconomic lines. There is an increasing need for both children and parents to develop stress management skills, and cultivate qualities of resilience in order to thrive in our current culture, and to prevent illness.

Mindfulness-based programs have been used increasingly in the health care system in the management of stress-related conditions. Extensive research has shown the many health and psychological benefits of practicing mindful awareness. Neuroscience research are showing the positive effects on the functioning and structure of the brain of regularly practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness-based programs have more recently been developed for children, teens, parents and teachers and are increasingly being used as a preventative as well as a treatment intervention.

The practice of living mindfully involves the practice of deliberately paying attention and living as many of the moments of our lives as possible with caring and intentional non-judgmental awareness.

The practice of parenting is often accompanied by multiple stressors. Under stress, we tend to spend more of our waking hours functioning mindlessly, reacting in a habitual way, often ineffectively and contrary to our values. Mindful living is about being fully awake and aware of what is going on, rather than reacting unconsciously according to predetermined habits, patterns, and judgements.

Practicing mindful awareness while parenting enables us to actually see our thoughts, feelings and body sensations more clearly, and with acceptance and self-compassion, as we interact with our children. This further allows us to see our children more clearly. It helps us to be aware of what is really happening here and now, without getting caught up in judgments, ruminations, prior expectations, or worries about the future. This gives us a choice to respond to what is happening in the moment more calmly, empathically, compassionately, effectively, and more in keeping with our values, rather than reacting unconsciously, automatically and driven by our emotional state.

The practice of self-compassion is integral to mindful parenting, as we are more present to our children when we are not caught up in self-judgment. Self-judgment tends to result in exhausting our vital emotional energy either by defending ourselves, or in denial of our feelings and thoughts as they truly are, rendering us unaware of what we may unconsciously be passing on or projecting on to our children. The opportunity to effectively respond to our thoughts and feelings wisely, and act with the best interest of our children in mind, is lost if we are not able to accept and clearly see our thoughts and feelings with an attitude of curiosity and compassion.

Mindful parenting is not a collection of techniques of how-to-dos and what-to-dos. Rather it is a practice of a way to be with our children, that is seeing and accepting of ourselves, and our children as they are now, responding effectively, and encouraging of their further growth in a healthy, safe, peaceful, and fulfilled way.

Parenting tasks such as teaching, guiding, disciplining, limit-setting, nurturing, and providing a safe and healthy environment, among others, continue to play a central role of parenting in the context of a mindful relationship in which the child feels heard, respected, seen and accepted. When a child’s behaviour needs to be addressed for moral, safety or health reasons, this need could be responded to with clarity, calm, compassion and wisdom.

The practice of mindful parenting is not conditional on the emotional states or stress levels of ourselves or our children, nor does it depend on external circumstances. Whatever is going on in ourselves, our children and the world around us is the actual subject of mindful awareness, and therefore an opportunity to practice.

Listening in an attentive way is a valuable and practical expression of our love for our child, and understanding our child’s perspective is an effective tool of communication. This often requires slowing down. Unfortunately, it can feel like we are going against the cultural grain to value or to learn how to slow down, pay attention, single-task, delay gratification, and be kind and compassionate to ourselves and to others. For many of us, it seems more culturally congruent to show our love for our children by doing as much as we can as fast as we can to provide them with all of the experiences and opportunities we think they need to thrive in this rapidly changing society.

In reality, we just do not know. The world is changing quickly. This uncertainty leads to some parents feeling powerless, and less confident in their parenting, deferring to the “experts” and well-intended “enriching” activities and stimulation in an attempt to prepare their children for an uncertain future in this competitive and stressful culture. Ironically, this may lead to insufficient time and energy for the most valuable, (and cost-effective) resource parents have to offer their children to enhance their resilience in preparation for their future: regular unstructured, “unproductive” time with a mindfully present and attuned adult. Optimally, a child’s life would have a fluid balance between productive, active “learning time”, and rest and unstructured “play time”. In either case our mindful presence and the mindful presence of their teachers and other significant adults in their lives would enhance any experience.

Mindful parenting becomes especially important with the challenges of raising a child with biological vulnerabilities such as symptoms consistent with diagnoses of attention deficit disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, autistic spectrum disorder, and learning exceptionalities, and under stressful circumstances such as chronic illness of a family member, divorce, exposure to domestic or neighborhood violence, and poverty, to name a few.

The reliable presence of an adult who is attuned to the child, who is willing and able to consider the perspective of the child, who cares unconditionally about the child, and who is able to regulate their own emotions and attention in order to clearly see and respond wisely to whatever is happening, is extremely valuable to the optimal emotional, social, physical and cognitive development, and success of the child.

Recent findings in neuroscience research suggest that parenting our children mindfully provides them with a sense of security which fortifies their health and wellness, enhances their abilities to learn to their full potential in and out of school, potentiates their ability to regulate their emotions and attention and to make good decisions, fosters resilience in the face of any curve balls that life throws their way, and enables them to thrive in this fast-paced and uncertain world.

Parenting mindfully also deepens the relationship between parent and child, and provides parents with a more comfortable and joyful experience of raising their children.

Mindful parenting is a practice which is simple, but not easy, and most definitely worth the effort.

M. Lee Freedman, MD, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, is a Co-Founder of Mindfulness Toronto and Founder of Mindful Families and Schools.

This article was originally published by UCSD’s Mindfulness-Based Professional Training Institute

Free monthly online peer support sessions available for Trained Teachers of MSC

Have you gained your trained teacher status? The support you’ve received along the way can continue, as each month there are different dates and times to choose from to connect for one-hour with other MSC Trained Teachers for online peer support sessions.

The sessions are provided free of charge through CMSC and managed via SignUp Genius. To see the different times, dates, and languages for these 1-hour sessions simply follow this link to SignUp Genius and sign up to attend. You will be sent a reminder email a few days before with the link to join. There is no need to commit to a series of sessions; just attend when it works for you.

What do these sessions involve?

The peer support sessions are an invitation to connect and share deeply, without compromise-confidentiality is a guiding principle, as is respect for each-other and allowing everyone to bring what ever they wish to share, or seek opinion, support from the group for. We share the joy of delivering the course as well as discussing the process and any issues that may come up. We support one another unconditionally.

The sessions have an informal format, loosely based on the Zoom sessions for teacher training, where each person has the opportunity at the beginning to share what they wish to bring to the group, we go around each person, and the facilitator makes a note so that everyone has a chance to have their questions answered by the group. This is the only role of the facilitator, there is no hierarchy, we come together as one community, to share and support. When the original facilitator cannot attend another regular attender simply steps up to the role.

Join a Free Peer Support Session now

Examples of the kind of support you can gain from these sessions:

Opportunities for sharing resources with one another in regards to how we screen our potential participants. There have also been rich discussions regarding how to facilitate ongoing booster sessions for past participants and ways to help each other promote our MSC groups. People often bring specific examples of challenging participants to discuss and hone wisdom alongside fellow MSC teachers.

An example of how the sessions have helped Annette

“I have found the sessions hugely beneficial when something new comes up. An example I am happy to share: I facilitate a ‘six -weekly gathering’ for participants following on from completion of the course who have completed it with me. A while ago I was asked if this could be an ‘open’ gathering. I was unsure what to do as this had not come up before. However, in a short space of time I was being approached by two or three people who were not running follow-up groups themselves. I had my reservations -they had not trained with me so did not have that connection, my gatherers had, how would they fit in? Was this appropriate? I was able to come to the peer support group and air my thoughts in a safe supportive environment and received some really helpful ideas and reflections. I also reached out directly to CMSC for support, as this work is so important to me.”

“One Saturday I was running a gathering, and out of the blue a lady arrived — she had thought I was running a day retreat she had booked on but that was another day. Judith Soulsby had very kindly given her my details. She was a long way from any regular MSC support and had just completed an intensive. I was not about to send her home after she had travelled so far. The group welcomed her with open arms and she has been a wonderful contributor at the gatherings ever since. Thanks to the support of the peer support group and the MSC family I was able to reflect fully and now I run ‘open groups’ regularly – trusting the guiding principles of MSC to support each gathering, so MSC remains inclusive and open-armed.”

Join a Free Peer Support Session now

Quotes From the Facilitators:

“I find the sessions a privilege to be part of; they are safe and nourishing. I can sit for an hour with like-minded people from across the globe and share all aspects of the journey of both practicing and teaching MSC. I have made precious friends on the other side of our planet thanks to these sessions.” – Tina

•••

“As an English-speaking peer support online facilitator for the past few years, I have gained so much knowledge about the process and the path to teaching MSC. It is such a privilege to connect with so many teachers from a wide range of different countries once a month and share a sacred space with teachers who embody Compassion, honesty, humility, and authenticity.”  – Annette

•••

“The sessions are a way of connecting to a world that is bigger. As a Mindfulness and MSC teacher I mainly work alone, and it is a wonderful feeling to know there is a place where I can get support and connect to other teachers. Since the Dutch zoom sessions speak Dutch, it is easier to convey what I mean. Meeting up like this sometimes leads to wonderful cooperation too, like planning an MSC-retreat with Marie Kempe, and developing the Dutch Self-Compassion Cards together with Marlou Kleve” – Rianne