We are shaped by the forces we experience: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
A while back I wrote a little about some of the physical forces shaping our lives. Those are generally the more obvious, but I would argue they are not the most significant. Let’s reflect on the less physical forces that shape our bodies and our lives.
This article is about meditation, but it will take us just a bit to get there. Please read on.
As an occupational therapist, I am trained to observe people’s habits and routines. As an ergonomist and skilled observer of activity and alignment, I am continually watching how people move. But, I’m not just observing their bodies for proper alignment. Their postures also give away their mood, their attitude and their sense of self. Their facial expressions and hand gestures (or lack of) speak volumes. And, (here’s where I hope I don’t lose some of you) often we just feel it. People are energetic. They give off a vibration, a vibe. I would presume that many of you, especially my occupational therapy friends, can tell instantly when your client comes in the door (or you walk in theirs) how they are feeling. You pick up the vibe. Whether you believe that a picking up a vibe means a sense of another’s energy or just a skilled observation and snap decision of many visual clues, please keep going.
In my classes I teach the concept of matching, pacing, leading to build rapport with clients. It is a common management strategy. I teach students to not just barge into a client’s room on full blast with their 100-watt smile and a chipper attitude. It may not at all be what the client needs. I ask them to enter with empathy and notice how the client is feeling. If they are also vibe-ing (yes this is a made-up word; I’m blogging not writing a scientific article) high then let that 100-watt smile loose. If they are not, settle in and adjust your vibe more in line with theirs. This is matching.
From here on out, you can begin changing the pace. As occupational therapists, we have many strategies to do this, but our most powerful is our therapeutic use of self. We listen. We engage with the client. We help them find meaning and create priorities. This is pacing.
As we engage the client and being to notice their vibe (attitude, mood, willingness to make eye contact, facial expressions, the tone of voice, etc.) changing, we can continue to pace the interaction in a more positive direction skillfully. This is leading.
The goal is to lead them to a place where they feel empowered and are willing to participate in therapy and in life. It may just be for this moment or this 30-minute visit, but it is a start. Sometimes a little traction is all that is needed to move forward. After all, life is about moving forward. When we are burdened by mental, emotional and spiritual issues, this can be very challenging. We end up being still and closed in on ourselves. Our postures change, and we don’t move. Our muscles and fascia become stiff. We feel yucky. Lifting our vibe enables movement which is critical to health.
In this scenario, when a client doesn’t want to participate or are vibe-ing low, we are often dealing with mental, emotional or spiritual issues. They may be frustrated due to pain or because the stroke they experienced has changed the way they look and feel. They may be fearful they will not be able to engage in life the same way. They fear the loss of a meaningful life. These issues are often much more significant barriers to participation than the physical ones.
As occupational therapists, we have our own barriers. How do we handle this? We are not only dealing with our client’s issues, but we also have our own. We are people too. We can’t always separate our life from our work. We bring our family issues, financial concerns and our own aches and pains to work with us every day. They don’t go away when we walk in our client’s room. Some of us are better than others at putting our own issues aside and putting on that 100-watt smile mask no matter how we really feel. That is not, however, the best answer. What is the answer? Meditation.
Learning to meditate may be the best decision you’ve made in a very long time. And, sharing that skill with your clients may be the best intervention you’ve provided, maybe ever. It doesn’t take much of a deep dive into the literature to see the benefits are being studied and the outcomes are positive. Here is a short article in Psychology Today that links to specific articles if you want to dig in. Or, you can always go to the National Institute for Health.They share several studies for meditation with specific diagnoses such as pain, blood pressure, and anxiety.
When I work with my clients, every new client, every time, the first thing I teach them is diaphragmatic breathing. And, I check in with them regularly if I don’t see diaphragmatic breathing being used during our follow-up visits. I emphasize how diaphragmatic breathing will make the treatment more effective. I show them that this is the foundation to meditation and focusing on your breath helps to calm the body and the mind. Every client I work with also has stress. Shock. I have never had a client that was not open to learning to breathe better.
Why should you learn to meditate? It is good for you. And, you can more effectively teach your clients. You are a role model, and they will ask you if you meditate. If you can honestly say yes, they will be more likely to trust you and be willing learn from you.
Learning to center or ground yourself before walking into a client’s room can change everything. You will be more receptive to your client’s vibe. You will notice more. You will listen more intently. You will make better decisions. What does it mean to center yourself? Basically, it means being completely in the present moment. Letting go of the past and future concerns. Calming your emotions. Noticing and physically feeling what is around you such as the ground beneath your feet.
Letting go of past and future concerns is probably the most challenging part of centering yourself. But, it is only for a short period of time. Never fear. You can go back to worrying when you step out of the client’s room. Learning to meditate is what gives you the power to turn it off and the power to focus on the here and now. When you learn to focus on the present for short periods of time, you can learn to do it longer and longer.
How can you use it with your clients? First, teach them to breathe. When they aren’t up to much of anything, they still need to breathe. Educate them about the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing. Evaluate how they are breathing. Are they using their diaphragm or their chest muscles? Once they are focusing on their breath, you can tell them they are already meditating! They are being fully present and in the moment. Hearing they are already meditating is often very surprising to my clients and it may be to yours too. If they are already using prayer or reflection, they may be surprised to hear those can also be considered forms of meditation. These baby steps open the door to a willingness to learn more.
The next step is educating your clients about using breathing and meditation to manage stress. It is helpful to begin dispelling the many myths about meditation. You don’t have to sit cross-legged. You don’t have to wear a robe. You don’t have to chant. You don’t have to meditate for hours upon hours to get the benefits. And so on and so on. You can also let them know there are many forms and styles of meditation and it is very likely they can find one to suit them and their lifestyle. Of course, you should always be respectful of any religious or cultural beliefs.
Do your homework or attend a class on meditation to learn the many options you can offer your clients. There are many forms of breath work. Some meditation practices focus on our different senses such as vision, hearing, taste, and smell. There are body focused meditations. Additional meditation styles us imagery, gratitude, and even movement. As you may offer your client many different options for exercise, you can provide just as many options for meditation.
It just so happens, I offer a short workshop designed to expose you to a variety of meditation options. The workshop also covers how to prepare the body for meditation and how to develop your own personal practice. For therapists, we’ll also discuss how to use meditation as an intervention in occupational therapy practice in any setting.
This article used the scenario of an occupational therapist and a client. However, you can substitute many different situations here. A parent and child. A manager and an employee. A teacher and a student. Friends. We are all connected and learning to be fully present for ourselves, and each other is indeed the best gift we can ever give anyone.