Dekyi-Lee Oldershaw is the Co-Director of the Inter-professional Mindfulness Meditation certificate program at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto. She is also the Founding Director of the Centre for Compassion and Wisdom in Burlington. She is the author of “16 Guidelines for Life” which is being offered at the centre in Burlington and as Secular Ethics of Mindfulness at University of Toronto and she is the developer and international trainer of Transformative Mindfulness Methods for Inquiry & Intervention. Needless to say, staff of the Hamilton Wentworth Catholic District School Board were eager to be in attendance at her workshop which was part of the board’s monthly staff wellness initiatives.
The session began with a brief discussion on Mindfulness, which Oldershaw explained as “a huge wave that is sweeping the planet right now.” She said that 85% of what we now know about our brains has only been discovered in the past twenty years, noting that “something that was flaky 20 years ago is now one of the most dynamic programs at U of T” and that there are now 60 courses and 40 faculty members teaching in the Applied Mindfulness Meditation program there. She explained that neuroscience research - neuroplasticity - is proving that we can actually change our brains right up until the time that we die. Research is also reporting how important relationships are to our wellbeing in our workplaces in a world that is so performance and data-driven. Oldershaw explained that the workshop was to “demystify” the practice of mindfulness and show that there are 3-5 minute exercises which could be integrated into our work and home lives during those little moments between students and colleagues, even when waiting in line, “waiting at Tims” she said, “that’s a big sacred space to practice.
The workshop began with Oldershaw asking the group how they were feeling in this moment. She requested the group to “turn to the person beside you and share three words that describe how you felt when you entered the room.” Responses included “rushed”, “frazzled”, “anticipating”, and “hungry.” This was the first exercise for the group – Simply noticing. ”Mindfulness is not a religion, it’s not a philosophy, it is just learning to come home to ourselves – that’s it, it’s pretty simple.” She then instructs everyone to sit back in their chairs and she rings some meditation bells. One by one you can see the release in the room as people’s eyes close, they sit back and their faces soften. Oldershaw guides the group with clarity and simplicity, her tone offers suggestions rather than instructions;
“Just notice the breath, which part of your body is expanding and contracting?”
“Do a bit of a check-in, take your focus down to your feet, just notice, what’s the sensation in your feet?” This mindfulness practice simply helps us to focus on sensations we are experiencing.
She asks the group again for three words that describe how they feel now. Perhaps the most appropriate response came from one participant who simply said, “it’s like whoooo” and she exhales as the group nods in agreement.
The next activity was in mindfully communicating with other people. The group organized into pairs where one person’s role was simply to listen – not to advise or comment – simply to listen, and the other person was to tell a story about their day. Then the instructions changed and the other person told a story while their partner did anything but listen. People shifted, itched, scratched their heads, sipped from water bottles, looked away. The responses to the exercise really demonstrated how powerful our communication with others is.
When people were mindfully listening they said they felt at ease because they “didn’t have to spend two minutes having to think about what to say next” and commented that “it’s an honor to be a sounding board for someone else.” The people who were listened to felt “satisfaction” and “stillness.”
When they were not being mindfully listened to, participants said they felt “frustrated” and “annoyed” one person even commented, “I just thought how do the kids in our schools feel when they are trying to tell us something and we are not really listening … really, we’re devaluing them.”
Other exercises included mindfully breathing and re-framing situations. During each activity Oldershaw blended lessons of neuroscience with practical daily advice. She explained that recent research showed that a company that employed mindfulness into their culture reported a 76% drop in absenteeism and noted benefits to the immune, cardiac and digestive systems of their employees. This was compared to a drop of 42% with a fitness program for their employees. She pointed out a story of a doctor making errors in dosage instructions because he was multi-tasking and commented that “we can’t afford to be less focused because it’s causing too much error.” It turns out that as soon as we multi-task, as soon as we introduce a second thing to focus on, our effectiveness drops 66% – imagine, we would have more time if we slowed down!
As Oldershaw ended the workshop she reminded the group that our brains are programmed so that negative or uncomfortable experiences “stick like Velcro” and the importance of repeatedly emphasizing the good in our lives rather than constantly stressing over that which we would like to change. “We have to train our minds” she said, “to strengthen our positive neuro-pathways instead so that they begin to stick like Velcro.” She laughed as she commented that we never say things like, “wow…wasn’t that an amazing sun or gosh… I woke up again this morning!” Something to think about next time you’re in line for coffee.
Links to one of Dekyi Lee’s Transformative Mindfulness Methods exercises can be found here: http://lamponthepath.org/transforming_problems_self_healing_visualization Or download it as an audio: www.ido.si
For the program at University of Toronto, visit http://www.socialwork.utoronto.ca/conted/certificate/MIND.htm
MindsUp program in primary schools: http://thehawnfoundation.org/mindup/
Mindfulness Without Borders now in 40 Catholic high schools in Toronto area: http://mindfulnesswithoutborders.org/