Sunday, November 9, 2008

Out of the Cold

It is starting to get colder as November imposes its dreary clime on the landscape. And as a reponse to the need that exists, even in middle class university town, local churches open their doors to those who are homeless.

I arrived on Friday night at the First United Church in uptown Waterloo, Ontario to do my over night shift as a volunteer. I was greeted in a curt, but polite manner, by Howie (not his real name) and told to sign in. Howie is a no-nonsense guy, with a gruff exterior and a heart of gold. He tells me that he's been doing this work for ten years and it shows. He knows all the men and women who come through the doors, tired, cold, strung-out and looking for a place to crash for the night. I'm struck by Howie's straight-forward compassion, and his caring for the people who find themselves under his charge for the night.

Throughout the night we greet any new comers by readying a bed for them, preparing a bit of food if they are hungry and finding them some dry clothes in the mountain of donations that litter the hallway. In all we greet 40-50 people - Howie tells me this is a light evening. Some nights last year there were close to 100 folks huddled together in church halls across the twin-cities of Kitchener and Waterloo. When the program began ten years ago they would get around 10 people.

Howie tells me that most people in our community haven't a clue that we have a housing and homelessness problem. He says that some people, when considering the plight of those on the street, still believe that the homeless want to live the way they do. He observes, "nobody wants to live this way, there is always a story why they ended up here." And most of the stories include major losses and disadvantages that the majority of us have had the good fortune to dodge.

Most of the people are in bed and laying down when I arrived, so I didn't get much of a chance to talk to the guests. The ones that I did meet, however, almost to a person, presented with the signs of chronic mental illness. Among the disorders, addictions play a substantial role. The lack of services within the community has it these people hard; low employability, poor access to health services, the lack of affordable housing and the harshness of the northern climate have all conspired to make living on the streets the only viable means of surviving. Howie tells me,"these people know all the tricks; wandering around drunk and a nuisance can, if you're lucky, get you a night in a warm cell and a meal in the morning - you survive another night."

And that's what the Out of the Cold program tries to do - prevent people dieing on our streets. (Homeless will inevitably cut people's lives short - see for details). But these people need so much more, they need access to services that will help them deal with the problems that give rise to homelessness in the first place. (One such attempt at providing these services can be found at

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Support me in my personal campaign for SickKids


I'm emailing you today to tell you about the Friends of SickKids Campaign.

As some of you may know, as a young child I was born with a congenital heart defect. As young parents my folks were faced with the terrible dilemma that I would die before I reached school age. My dad was 26 and mom 23 when they came to Canada so that I could receive the life saving operation that allowed me to live a complete and meaningful life. My campaign is dedicated to the memory of Bill Mustard - a true Canadian hero, to whom I literally owe my life.

SickKids continues to be a place of remarkable hope for children and their families. It is where the sickest children go. This remarkable place treats children with aggressive cancers, the worst burns, those awaiting heart transplants, and more. The kind of life-saving care that happens at SickKids only happens at a few special places in the world.

That's why I volunteered to tell as many people as I can about SickKids. I hope you'll support me in my personal campaign to raise much needed funds to continue the good work of folks like Bill Mustard. It is ONLY because of committed supporters - people like you and me - that SickKids is a premier children's hospital in Canada - and one of the top three in the world.

To support me in my campaign, please click on the link below:

When you make your donation online, you will receive a tax receipt directly from SickKids within 24 hours for the amount of your donation. Please give what you can, as soon as you can. Thank you.


Barry Cull

If you are having trouble viewing the above web address, copy & paste the entire URL into the address bar of your browser.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Waterloo Mindfulness

At the urging of Ross Clark, I arranged a meeting at my place for the inaugural meeting of Waterloo (Ontario) Mindfulness group. We discussed some of the ways in which a group could provide a community, a means to network and a way to further ongoing training needs. These ideas will likely be more fully developed as the group continues to meet.

Our group blog is at

Barry Cull

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Stigma of Mental Illness

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) made public the results of a survey on Canadian attitudes toward mental health. And the results are not encouraging. Despite efforts by those working with people who have mental health difficulties (such as the public ad campaign run by the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health that profiles prominent Canadians who have lived with mental health difficulties) the stigma of mental health persists.

The President of the CMA, Brian Day, stated, ""We are looking at the final frontier of socially acceptable discrimination. It's a national embarrassment." I happen to believe it is more than an embarrassment, it is harmful. This type of discrimination gives impetus to neighbourhood associations to act irresponsibly in attempting to deny housing to the homeless, and for politicians to exploit the vulnerable when they see fit. For example, the Conservative Party of Canada is now running an ad campaign targeting so-called "junkies". They are suggesting that people with serious addictions will be forced into residency (incarceration) in "rehab" programs. The Conservatives are able to get away with this type of rhetoric only because most Canadians don't know that drug addiction is a serious mental illness, and even if they did, they would demand that these people just simply, "get over it".

We have much work to do.

The positive message in this year's survey is that 72% of survey respondents felt that funding of mental illness programs should be on par with funding for physical illness. This is energy we can use.

Letter to the editor of KW Record here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Instructions to the Cook

Rachel (who has a blog I've participated in) recommended a book to me after she learned of my interest in supportive housing. The book, Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master's Lessons in Living a Life That Matters, by Bernard Glassman and Rick Fields is a real gem! Thanks Rachel.

The premise of the book is based on a metaphor, proposed by the 13th century Zen master Dogen, that serves as a guide to living a complete and fulfilling life. The Zen master is a cook, who using the ingredients at hand, creates the "supreme meal" for the guests. Glassman invites us to be as cooks, practical in our spiritual lives, vowing to make a difference for those around us by using "local ingredients".

The fives courses to this meal we are preparing are:

1. Spirituality - taking time to centre and explore the "oneness" of all life.
2. Learning and knowledge - developing our intelligence for the job to be done.
3. Livelihood - being able to support ourselves through our work and efforts.
4. Social action - being aware of the needs of others.
5. Community and relationships - recognizing our interdependence with others and working for harmony.

Laying the foundation, Glassman then spells out clearly and concisely how to be a social activist in your own back yard, in the place where you live; helping others build lives that make a difference.

This gem of a book is quietly inspirational and it just so happens I baked a great loaf of bread today!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The roots of empathy

While listening to the CBC radio yesterday morning I heard Dr. Anne Russon (author of The Evolution of Thought: Evolutionary Origins of Great Ape Intelliegence) relate an amazing story about one of our close relatives on the biological family tree, the orangutan.

Dr. Russon is a developmental psychologist studying the orangutan in the wild. Her research involves the rehabilitation of orphaned young orangutans back into the wild. She conducts her research through the Orangutan Social Learning and Cultures Project operating through the BOS Orangutan Reintroduction Project at Wanariset, Borneo.

Dr. Russon described a situation, that she observed, where a young orangutan got confused and frightened as the rest of his peers (all about 6-7 years old) left to return to their nighttime compound. While the human caretakers concerned themselves with locating the youngster in a tree, one of the youngster's peers doubled back and positioned himself in an adjacent tree. This young ape then gently got the attention of the frightened youngster and eventually coaxed him down to safety, leading him back to the compound.

What is so revealing about this story is that we recognize, immediately, that this was a kind, sensitive and socially responsible thing to do - in fact we would expect no less from our own children. Why are we able to recognize empathetic behaviour in a creature to which we are related through evolution? Check out Marc D. Hauser's book Moral Minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong, for some possible answers.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

White Water

Rumi's "The Guest House" expresses the idea that life is guest house into which uninvited guests stream daily. We never know who will enter the door; but we are to greet each guest with enthusiasm, so that we may live life to the fullest.

Murray McLauchlin's song, "White Water" has a similar theme. The river is much like a guest house, in that each turn offers a new vista and new experiences. Again, what the river has to offer must be accepted with enthusiasm in order to live skilfully and contentedly. In this video I tried to synchronize the two themes with my photography of Killarney and Temagami, Ontario and Nahanni, NWT.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Youth Justice - Revisited

The Canadianl government is seeking public consultation on the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The folks in the policy research branch would like to get input from Canadians on how to address the needs of youth, in an effort to divert the small minority of them away from the criminal justice system. As I have noted below, doing a little preventive work might go a long way.

The Canadian Psychological Association has taken the opportunity to reply to the request for input and have sent a letter of recommendations for the policy folks. The main recommendations are for the continuance of programs to divert young people away from the criminal justice system and to conduct research into crime prevention and rehabilitation programs for more serious offenders.

And just how big is this problem in reality?

Well, there has been no increase in youth crime rates. In fact, since the last government enacted the YCJA in 2003 there has been a 15% decrease in youth arrested. Why? Because the system realized some kids make mistakes that land them in trouble. The vast majority of these kids when allowed to atone for their mistakes never get in trouble again. The diversion programs within the YCJA provided for community discretion when dealing with what amounts to petty drug charges and acts of minor vandalism.

There has been a 3.7% increase in violent crime. But rather than the YCJA, itself, being the problem, the CPA hints that maybe the increase may have something to do with the mental health status of those committing these crimes. Having worked in the field for nearly 30 years, I would suggest that child abuse, poverty, criminal neighbourhoods, involvement with drugs and school dropout might be some of the factors that have been on the increase in recent years, along with the cuts in dollars to community programs that deal with these more troubling issues. I wonder whether anyone has done a study yet on the increase in violent crime among youth in relationship to the decrease in community mental health programs, rates of retention in secondary education and rates of youth employment?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The myth of justifiable motives

Canadian involvement in the war in Afghanistan is based on a collection of untruths. Young men and women are sacrificing their lives in a war that our leaders compare to the Canada's involvement in WW I and II. Marjorie Cohn points out that not only is the war in Afghanistan an illegal one, but also an unnecessary means to an end that would be better served through diplomacy.

End the Occupation of Iraq - and Afghanistan by Marjorie Cohn

The article below underscores why the justifications used by the Canadian government for the Afghanistan war are fallacious.

Freedom, Justice And Human Rights Versus Islam In Afghanistan
By Donald B. Ardell

There are many threats to liberty right here at home.These threats exist despite centuries of democracy, a constitution with a treasured bill of rights and all manner of additional legal safeguards. In some ways, it seems a distraction from the challenges before us in this country to become concerned about and involved in seeking to prevent human rights abuses in distant, strange lands with very different cultures This is particularly so in a country like Afghanistan, where freedom, human rights, democracy, civil safeguards and basic justice have no foothold. Who would expect human rights to be respected in a fanatically Muslim country of backward, warring tribes, a place from which sprang the horror of the Taliban? I would not – would you?

Yet, American taxpayers have been supporting all these rights and safeguards for Afghans since we invaded that country after 911. We invaded to destroy the religious barbarians who, among other offenses beyond the pale, were believed to be harboring Osama bin Laden and other lunatic jihadists. We had to deal with our enemies in that country who viewed us all as infidels to be destroyed. As part of our response, we not only fought against and removed the Taliban but also leaned on the natives to adopt an Afghan constitution that incorporated American-style freedoms, safeguards for basic liberties and adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Alas, getting the people of Afghanastan to incorporate such rights and freedoms into their value systems steeped in religious fanaticism has not been easy – and probably never was a realistic goal.
Which leads to mention of the case of Sayed Pervez Kambakhsh, a 23-year-old journalism student sentenced to death a few months ago for the victimless crime of blasphemy! I’m not making this up.
It seems the poor fellow insulted Islam. Hard to believe but there it is. What a country. Mr. Kambakhsh’s insult leading to the charge of blasphemy was downloading material offensive to certain religious clerics. The material apparently contained statements that the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad oppressed women. Duh. Good thing that kind of offense is not a capital crime in this country. The unfortunate infidel Kambakhsh was taken to an Islamic court, charged with a litany of “crimes” (e.g., “un-Islamic speech and activity, socialism, rebelliousness and improper instigation of religious debate”) and found guilty - of blasphemy. The punishment? Death.

Human rights groups in this country, including the Center for Inquiry, are trying to save Mr. Kambakhsh from the imposition of the sentence. They are appealing to the country’s leaders to honor the Afghanistan constitution. That is, the document we more or less imposed on this theocratic society. The Afghan constitution makes freedom of expression inviolable and guarantees every Afghan the right to express thoughts through speech, writing, illustrations as well as other means. Well, that’s all well and good, but the religious authorities don’t take such secular affirmations very seriously. Nor do they care much for the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though the country has signed on to that, as well.

Efforts are underway to get signatures on a petition for mercy for Mr. Kambakhsh. The petitions will be sent to the nation’s president, Hamid Karzai. The Free Inquiry petition notes that the accused was “tried without legal representation by a private Islamic court, and was accused of doing only what any promising student should do - independently seeking information, and stimulating discussion among classmates. If Afghanistan is to be a free, open society, it cannot allow religious orthodoxy to trump free inquiry among its citizens, and it certainly cannot impose deadly penalties on those who dare speak out. Such charges are an affront not only to the basic political and legal structure of Afghanistan, but to the freedom and dignity of its citizens as well.”

The president is then urged to “condemn this injustice and to secure the immediate and unconditional release of Mr. Kambakhsh.” Well, I signed the petition at the Center for Inquiry website and I urge you to do the same. Maybe such expressions of concern and good will can save this particular victim of religious intolerance. However, I suspect that, given the mindset that infests the Islamic world, the prospects for this student and others who take Western-imposed documents of freedom and human rights too seriously are very bleak.

The case of Mr. Kambakhsh and the power of religion in so much of the rest of the world is all the more reason to celebrate our own freedom this coming weekend during the Independence Day festivities and every day thereafter – and do all we can to vote out of office Republican zealots who themselves would make blasphemy a criminal offense, though probably not a capital one. But then, if Bush had another term, you never know.

Donald B. Ardell, Ph.D. publishes the ARDELL WELLNESS REPORT

Global Climate Change

In the last issue of Skeptic magazine there are a series of articles on global warming. The most controversial is that of Dr. Patrick Frank, a chemist working for the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (funded by US Dept of Energy). He contends that the models of global warming are all wrong, and conclude that the observed climate changes are not for certain due to man's activity. The trend though, in real world observations, are incontrovertible. Global temperature has gone up, concomitant with increased levels of CO2 emissions from industry.

The problem with Dr. Frank's conclusions:

Dear Editor (Skeptic):

I have read and re-read Dr. Frank’s article on the accuracy of global climate models (GCM) and most of it leaves me in the dust. I’m familiar enough with statistics to understand the point he is making about the accuracy of the models and will concede that he may have a point here. I won’t quibble about his analysis of the models and their accuracy – he likely has done his homework well enough to get this part right. I’ll leave any criticism of his analysis of the models to those who have skills and expertise in this area.

Where I will take issue with Frank is in his concluding remarks where he caricatures the skeptics of his conclusions about global warming in this way:

‘Some may decide to believe anyway, “We can’t prove it”, they might say, “but the correlation of CO2 with temperature is there (they’re both rising after all), and so the causality is there, too, even if we can’t prove it yet.”’

Frank is right in suggesting that some of us have noticed that man-made CO2 production has seen a precipitous increase since 1850. Since 1850 the amount of carbon we have put into the atmosphere per year has risen from insignificant amounts, through to two billion metric tons in 1950, to 8 billion tons in the latter part of the 20th century to present day. Furthermore, direct measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere show an increase from 312 ppm in 1958 to 375 ppm in 2005 (this is the so-called Keeling curve). Measurements of global mean temperature show an increase of 0.60 C ± 0.2o C in 20th century. (see These are the correlations in the data that give some of us pause.

Frank points out that it is an error in logic to go from correlation to causation – no problem here (we’re all taught this in Stats 101). But isn’t there another alternative in our application of scientific principles than jumping from correlation to causation? Those of us who notice the correlation just might suggest that we continue with the investigation. We might argue that the continued use of fossil fuels isn’t sustainable (we’ll simply run out) and we may be concerned that all of the pollution generated by fossil fuels may be a causal factor in some of the ecological events of recent decades (the bleaching of coral just one of many). If that were the case, couldn’t we act rationally and try an experiment that would meet the gold standard of science?

In psychology, the behaviourists taught us a really good technique to test a causal inference called the A-B-A design. In phase A of the experiment we measure behaviour at baseline. In phase B we institute the treatment and note any changes in behaviour. Finally, in the second phase A we withdraw the treatment and note whether the behaviour returns to baseline. That observed pattern leads to pretty strong statement of causality, but to be on the safe side we institute the treatment phase again and run another B. What is practical in the climate change scenario is to do an AB design. We already have the baseline data as noted above. Now we do the B part – run the treatment; namely reduce CO2 (William Calvin has some excellent suggestions on how this might be done in his book Global Fever). If things get better, and it will take time to get the data – these things take decades given the size of events we are talking about, a tentative hypothesis can be made about man’s involvement in global warming. If the results are negative – no effect on climate change, we have at least found cleaner energy that is less polluting and all those other toxins and particulates will have made our air and water safer.

To just simply deny that there is a possibility that climate science has some of the picture right and to continue as usual seems counterproductive and not very scientifically minded – we have the chance to conduct a wonderful experiment in living more sustainably; what could be more scientific than that?

Barry Cull

A better approach:

William Calvin in Global Fever points out that the direct and careful observations by Keeling at Mauna Loa in Hawaii have shown a steady rise in mean global temperatures since 1958. This isn't a "model", it's the real thing.

Treating the planet as a "patient" with a high fever, Dr. Calvin offers some viable strategies to first halt carbon emissions from tracking higher and second to begin decreasing man-made CO2. The cure isn't going to be easy, and the initial costs may be high, but Calvin shows that it is doable. Having just finished the book, of which the Skeptic article is just an excerpt, I suggest that Calvin has a better grasp of the subject matter, and has covered more of the findings than Frank has. My money is with Calvin in this debate.


Thursday, July 31, 2008

Youth Crime as Election Issue

You can tell when an election is pending, the polititians trot out their favourite issue they know will generate public anger that they can convert into votes. Last week Jeff Martin, MP sent out a circular about youth getting away with serious crimes and how his party was cleaning things up. The myth about youth crime is seldom dealt with honestly by polititians or the media. I replied to Mr. Martin with the following.

"Your recent flyer "Age is no Excuse", indicates that you have extremely limited knowledge about crime, its root causes and what needs to be done to effect change. The problem is not, as your flyer suggests, the Youth Criminal Justice Act and the need for stiffer sentences. Crime is a societal problem with complex dynamics and has much to do with social disadvantage in all its forms. If you think stiffer sentences are the answer, look south. The United States imprisons more of its citizens than most countries in the world and its crimes rates continue to remain unaffected. The majority of those jailed are poor, black and have serious drug problems.

Here are some of the issues you might want to address if you are serious about youth (or any crime):

1. Child poverty

2. Lack of educational opportunities (high tuition costs, poor granting programs)

3. Lack employment opportunities for unskilled workers (or skilled ones for that matter)

4. Lack of support for children in need of assistance to stay in school (remediation services, psychological services, literacy programs etc.)

5. Poor cohesive communities - poor neighbourhoods breed disenfranchisement

6. Racial and social intolerance - (the use of the words "thugs" and "punks" in your flyer shows a serious lack of compassion and tolerance)

7. Services to address addictions issues - crack cocaine is a serious problem, and rather than treat the issue as one of public health, your party prefers to demonize its victims rather than address the mental health problems of the user. These addicted kids are the ones who will be filling our jails under your strategy.

Your flyer asks which party is "on the right track?" I know which party is the least likely to put resources into the things that matter in dealing with youth crime. We've seen it here in Ontario at the Provincial level, when Harris attacked vulnerable people with his policies, rather than the real problems facing our communities.

Barry Cull"
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Joys and Trials

There is a truth about canoeing that the beautiful places of solitude are one difficult portage longer than most people are prepared to make. Nellie. Lake is one such place; the 1450 metre uphill hike from Murray is a real trial.

Jack Kornfield states that the trials in our lives are our teachers, and need to be invited in with willingness and acceptance. Today's portage provided a chance to practice being in the moment and not wanting to be somewhere else.
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Shedding the layers of urban attachments takes time. With repeated journeys the time gets shorter and a ride on the Big Canoe across the Bay sure helps. A highlight of the crossing is Flowerpot island.

(I left for Killarney Park on Tuesday - bound for Nellie Lake. This is the highest and clearest lake in the Park. It can be reached from the west end of the park, near the North Channel of Georgian Bay)

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sunset Over Nellie

A late afternoon paddle revived the spirit. The reward was the sighting of a doe at the water's edge.

The sunset was a little disappointing given that the clouds rolled in at the last minute.
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Monday, July 28, 2008


Arrived at the dock by e10:15. The day is sunny and clear. Promises to be a clear sailing.
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Killarney Bound

Killarney Park is considered the crown jewel of Ontario's provincial parks. It is situated on the north shore of Georgian Bay and encompasses the LaCloche range of hills. These white quartzite hills are the remnants of an ancient mountain range; they are dotted with the clear blue lakes and expanses of boreal forest. I headed for Nellie Lake in the park's west end - the highest lake in the park and the clearest. The lake is separated from the lower lakes of the west section by a 1400 metre portage up hill over rugged terrain. It is an effort to get there.

I'm going to try to post some blogs from my cell-phone so stay tuned.

Friday, July 25, 2008


There has been a significant rise in the number of people living on the streets in cities across North America. Generally, municipalities view the problem as one of aesthetics, it looks bad and it is a nuisance to descent people trying to navigate past the panhandlers.

We may ask, though, "who are the homeless and how did they come to be here in such high numbers? Perhaps, more importantly we may ask, "what can be done about the problem?" In his TED talk, Daniel Goleman, offers some thoughts about the nature of compassion and provides some insight into the problem. Goleman states that recent studies indicate that over 90% of people who live on the street have psychiatric problems. He goes on to urge a mindful approach to seeing others through our busy lives and unexamined assumptions.

I came across a wonderful resource in my research into the topic of homelessness. In 2003 the Center for Urban Community Services published a document on supportive housing for the homeless. In chapter 1 they provide a history of the policies over the past that have resulted in the increase in the mentally ill living on the streets.

The trends have been:

1. The discharge of large numbers of people from psychiatric hospitals since the 1960's. The trend toward de-institutionalization and the lack of availability of community resources has been a major contributing factor.

2. The decrease in stock of single room occupancy units in the 1970's . These units, in older hotels, provided affordable housing to psychiatric patients and others. Urban renewal projects has meant the disappearance of these housing stock as cities seek to get rid of what some considered "eyesores" and the magnets of urban problems.

3. Diminishing government benefits, such as disability pensions.

4. The advent of AIDS.

5. Reduction of job opportunities for unskilled workers in an ever-increasing information -based economy.

A movement to reverse these trends has been in the offing since the early 90's. Supportive housing offers the best alternative to dealing with the problem of homelessness. In the next few weeks I hope to review what this movement looks like and how it is likely to result in a compassionate community.

Monday, May 19, 2008

CSS and the Creativity Process

I'm really enjoying the opportunity to be creative. It provides exercise for my right brain that is otherwise dormant. I even went on a canoe excursion last week to "collect" some images. The marsh grasses on my "Psychology of Mindfulness" page are from the Rankin River.

The image on my home page is one I took of the Cirque of the Unclimables from Glacier Lake above the Nahanni River last summer.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


I am building a place for mindful practice in the backyard beside the pond. There are repairs to be done and the work feels hard. Last night I removed the old bridge and today so far I have tried to locate the leak in the stream. I think I may have found it. It's a spot where roots have worked there way between the seams of the last fix. I can't be sure that this is the place, but it looks promising.

And part way through the work I think, I don't like this, it's tedious. I'd rather be doing something else. It dawns on me as I continue to breath, stretch and exert myself into deeper acceptance of this moment with its accumulation of sediment, mud, rocks and toil. That the place to practice has already been laid carefully before me.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


In his book Return to Warden's Grove: Science, Desire, and Lives of Sparrows, Christopher Norment talks about ecotones. In biology these are known as the transition zones between two communities where the species from each community co-exist. In effect they are verge areas, like transition between between states of awareness; becoming aware after a night's sleep.

Spring is akin to an ecotone; a transition between states that sees the remnants of winter leaving and the emergence of new life taking its place within our inner and outer landscapes. There is an anticipation, an excitement and even anxiety in the what the changes will mean. We are jolted into a transition that is ripe with possibilities of anything. Norment quotes part of a poem that captures this feeling nicely and I have reproduced it here in its entirety.

I go among trees and sit still.

All my stirring becomes quiet

around me like circles on water.

My tasks lie in their places

where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes

and lives a while in my sight.

What it fears in me leaves me,

and the fear of me leaves it.

It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.

I live for a while in its sight.

What I fear in it leaves it,

and the fear of it leaves me.

It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,

mute in my consternations,

I hear my song at last,

and I sing it. As we sing,

the day turns, the trees move.

-Wendell Berry

Saturday, April 12, 2008

MBSR Conference -Day Two

6 pm

Drop into the moment that is now. No need to judge, no need to have an agenda as to what will be, no need to say, "I am meditating". Just be here, drink in all that this moment has to offer as if it is the only one that you have - because it truly is. Living fully demands that we pay attention, to this moment, with intention, acceptance and without judgement.

This the message of Jon Kabat-Zinn who led through an hour of practice of attending to this moment. He repeats this message in his important books that serve as introductions to this way of being and the titles are evocative of the importance of the experience of now:

Full Catastrophe Living (1990); Wherever You Go , There You Are (2005); Coming to Our Senses (2006)

Keynote Address: Mark Williams

Saki Santorelli introduced Mark Williams, Oxford Professor of Clinical Psychology, by reading the Rumi poem "Cry Out in Your Weakness". Mark Williams, like Marsha Linehan has spent his career finding ways to alleviate much suffering in the world - finding ways to prevent relapse in depression, that can and often does, lead to increased levels of depression and suicide.

Dr. Williams and is colleagues John Teasdale and Zindel Seigel have been important contributors to the treatment of depression, specifically the prevention of relapse. By combining many of the principles behind cognitive therapy with those of mindfulness practice, a powerful synergy has emerged that offers new hope for those suffering with chronic depression.

Dr. Williams spoke today about the role of the experience of psychological pain in preventing access to the specific episodic memories that are essential to problem solving. In effect the experience of a negative emotional state leads to a rapid flood of painful thoughts that cut off access to specific memories about how to solve the problem facing the individual. What remains are general memories that offer few, if any real solutions. Mark pointed out that mindfulness offers a way to reconnect with, and allow time for, specific memories to re-emerge promoting effective problem resolution and improved mood states.

Miriam "Miv" London, University of Vermont - Mindfulness programs for anxiety and depression for college students:

The effectiveness of a of 7-week mindfulness-based intervention for college students was discussed in this workshop. The net results were that the students benefited from the program through a reduction in their anxiety and depressed symptoms. The challenges with this group of clients was that they often were quite distracted by other priorities in their lives that the commitment to formal practice had often to compete with school work, social opportunities and space and time constraints. Despite this, many of the students were able to deal effectively with their anxiety and depression through incorporating many of the practices into daily life.

Arnold Kozak, University of Vermont - Curriculum course in the Psychology of Mindfulness:

Arnold spoke about a course he has developed and taught now for two years at the University of Vermont. The course includes the 8-week MBSR component, academic work in cognitive therapy, Buddhist psychology and clinical applications of mindfulness in psychology and health. The course includes both experiential and didactic components. The evaluation of the course has been positive, both in terms of student appraisals and in outcome measures that looked at whether students were incorporating the practices into their own lives. I would like to know to what an extent such a course might lower levels of stress for the students at Conestoga College. Anyone interested in working up a proposal with me?

Summary - conference themes in some of the informal discussions:

  • Has there been too much emphasis on mindfulness as technique in psychotherapy, when in the end it will be shown to be no more effective than other psychotherapeutic techniques accounting for only 15% of the variance in symptom reduction?
  • Is the benefit of mindfulness in its effect on the therapist, making them more empathetic, more non-judgemental, able to build better therapeutic alliances and less reactive? On this point, one meta-analysis shows that non-treatment aspects of the therapy (i.e. therapist listening skills) account for 30% of the symptom reduction.
  • What will it take to resolve the fundamental biases that exist within the two different ways of knowing between psychology and mindfulness? There was tension here at times between the agenda of the researchers who wanted to know about the randomized clinical trials and the therapists who were more concerned with the effect on the lives of their clients.
  • Finally, I sat in on a number of interesting sessions where the focus was on marketing mindfulness as a product. The cost of an eight week MBSR course has currently reached about the $2000 mark. Training of professionals can be substantial as anyone interested to investigate on the internet will find. This means that by the time the program hits the street, it will likely only be available to those who can afford a health club membership. It runs the risk of becoming "spa" treatment for the wealthy. And Buddha winces. So my question, how do we get mindfulness in the hands of those working with some of the most disaffected people in our communities?
  • Personal note: I have spent nearly 3 months now, offering my 30 years clinical experience for free, for a year. My sabbatical next year allows me to do this. My price: let me come and learn to hone my mindfulness clinical as part of the team. That means a net saving to your organization one senior clinician's salary and perhaps 20 - 30 clients off the waiting list. Total organizations that have jumped at the offer so far= 0. We need to look seriously, I think, at how we can massage the system to, as George Miller might say, "give mindfulness away". Anyone interested in setting up a volunteer list to assist with referrals for the treatment of depression, anxiety or trauma?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Mindfulness Conference - Worcester MA

6 am

The day begins with sitting, walking and stretching in present awareness led by Saki Santorelli. I am slowly letting the flight, the other things to do, the distractions leave the now - but they are persistent in creating "noise". I decide to practice accepting noise - I am more or less successful.

7 am

I am successful in finding friends and colleagues from Waterloo. I am delighted and we have breakfast together. This is a conference on the science of mindfulness and its relationship to healing arts. There is excitement here, a quiet anticipation we all feel about the power of this approach to relieve much suffering. Breakfast conversation is about how the community that this embraces is something like the ripples in a pond that spread ever further out from the centre. And today I am at one of the centres of the movement, the birthplace of MBSR; mindfulness-based stress reduction.

Keynote Address: Marsha Linehan

Dr. Linehan spoke eloquently about her career as a behavioural therapist, scientist and student of Zen and how this led her to the developmental of dialectical behaviour therapy
Her work has been with some of the most troubled individuals, those who have received as diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, people who she points out are the most likely of all psychological disorders to succeed at suicide. One in every ten people with BPD will take their own life.
Using a mindfulness-based approach Linehan invites her clients to practice the art of acceptance in their lives. Clinically sound and scientifically validated over 30 years, her approach offers the most hopeful of all treatment modalities for this complex human response to betrayal trauma, abuse and neglect in childhood.

I found Dr. Linehan to be full of energy, realistic and the embodiment of compassion. As Saki Santorelli described her, "She is a force of nature".

Research Sessions:

Ruth Baer

Ruth Baer has been interested in cognitive therapy and has written an important work that reviews the effectiveness of mindfulness based interventions. Her discussion today was on the relationship between formal mindfulness practice, informal mindfulness activities and psychological wellbeing.

Donald McCown and Diane Reibel

Donald and Diane presented a compelling story about their attempt to market an MBSR program to train people in various workplaces how to reduce stress and to respond as people and as corporations in a more "contemplative" manner. While their program didn't get the funding needed from the university, their were able to run a scaled-down version of the offerings to some pretty impressive organizations. They reported that they are happy doing work they love in the not-for-profit sector.

One of their training programs has been offered to anaesthesia nurses, perhaps the most stressful of all nursing jobs. Students in the course learned methods of being more aware, less stressed and more at ease with themselves with the workplace. I found this talk quite relevant to my work teaching psychology to nursing students

Donald Marks, Alix Sarubbi and Rosanna Sposato

What role does compassion play in healing? There is little doubt that it is significant. Marks et al. presented their research on the relationship between the relief of suffering and active compassion. The results of their work can be summed up by the story Donald told of a woman, so debilitated by pain that she was unable to get out of one particular chair in her house. To add to the suffering, she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the spine. This woman, with the help of Marks and his team, was able to do something she'd wanted to do for a long time - volunteer at the school attended by her disabled daughter. The times when she was volunteering, the pain she suffered was less meaningful to her than what she had to offer the children. During these times the pain, became a background in her life, rather than the entire focus of her existence.

As a closing, Mark took us through a mindfulness session where we were encouraged to embody in ourselves "the perfect nurturer". It is from this base of compassion, we are told, that we are able to extend healing into the world.

Day's end:

Today has been busy and exceptional. At the end of the day we had a banquet and danced to the type of music that Geoff Johnstone loves. (Hope you had an ale or two for me on Thursday, brother). Wish all of you could have been here, there is much that is of interest to Liberal Studies folks; culture, philosophy, communications, sociology, economics, psychology, wellness and history to name a few. Even some comparative religion, like how the message of the Buddha and Christ and all religions has been the same since the earliest times - a compassionate heart is the key to peace that begins with ourselves.

As they say here:

metta (lovingkindness):