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Being mindful helps de-stress everyday life

by Dawn Brazell
Public Relations
Ramita Bonadonna well remembers her first clinical day in nursing school. Her assignment was to walk down the hall and just go talk to a patient—any patient.

“I was walking down the hall in my little white uniform, and a man opens the door to his room and he’d had– what I know now–was a radical neck dissection. He was severely disfigured from a surgical procedure. He met my eye, and I met his. He said, ‘Come here. Tell me what this looks like.’”

Scared to death, Bonadonna used her new “reflective listening” skills and said, “You want to know what your surgical site looks like? and he said ‘Yes…I don’t have a mirror.’” She asked him if he wanted a mirror. When he nodded that he was ready to face the sight, she went to find one. She brought it back and sat with him while he looked at his face and cried.

“I didn’t have to tell him how frightening he looked to me. All I did was reflect what he was feeling,” she said of using her communication training from Nursing 101. “I knew then that listening to patients was what I wanted to do as a nurse.”

Conveying compassion is a calling for all health professions, whether they hold the job of psychiatric consultant as Bonadonna, Ph.D., does or not. Bonadonna said she has no doubt her practice of mindfulness meditation has made her a better health professional and dramatically improved the quality of her life.
It’s why she and Chris Larson, a senior Zen student from Asheville, N.C., will be hosting a one-day workshop Jan. 29 called “Zen in Everyday Life” at James Island County Park from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. featuring how to develop mindfulness to reduce stress and improve the quality of life. The session will include tips on developing a practice and guided imagery exercises.

Bonadonna said her practice has evolved over many years. She got interested in mindfulness training in the ‘70s when she began exploring therapeutic touch, an energy-based intervention developed by Delores Krieger, Ph.D., R.N. “I could see the difference my state of consciousness made in my interactions with patients —not only for doing therapeutic touch, but for engaging and connecting and facilitating the relaxation response.”

The more she practiced, the more her quality of life improved. She taught mindfulness-based stress reduction courses at Hollings Cancer Center in the mid-90s and got rewarding feedback from patients about how much it helped.

“I started to realize what a huge difference these practices can make in people’s lives—whether they were healthy or ill—whatever is going on. If you do these practices, they make a difference.”
Bonadonna said it can feel awkward at first learning how to incorporate more stillness and solitude into the day. There’s motivation to do it, though, when she sees how those moments of solitude translate to how she handles the rest of her life, whether professionally or personally.

As a psychiatric consultant, she’s seen her meditation practice add depth to her nursing practice. Before she goes in to meet with a patient, she takes time to internally “clear the decks” and let go of preconceived notions.

“As I’m knocking on the door I’m about to I enter, I recognize that I have no clue. I may have some facts, but I really don’t know what’s going on on the other side of this door or who this person is. I let go of my preconceived ideas and I recognize that I’m here to meet this person. It’s not like I’m going in as a white-coated professional with an agenda. I put that aside. I look to see what is this person’s experience. I bring genuine curiosity about who this person is.”

She’s able to do that, in part, because her practice has helped her face her own fears so she’s better able to be with someone else as they look at theirs. She had a patient recently who had gotten news that he had inoperable cancer. She met with him and asked if he wanted to talk. He told her no, unless she wanted to talk about dying from cancer.

“I told him, “That’s absolutely a conversation I’m willing to have.”

It took him and his wife by surprise, and it opened the door to a healing conversation. “Talking helps with some of the fear. The more willing I am to face my own fears and pain, the better I’m able to help someone else while they deal with theirs.”

Bonadonna said that research on the practice of mindfulness has shown it can positively affect a wide range of chronic physical and psychological conditions ranging from depression and post traumatic stress disorder to pain and cancer. It’s her hope that more people in the health professions will learn to use its power, for themselves as well as for their patients.

“It’s why we got into the profession in the first place. It was to heal and to help people—to make a difference in people’s lives. Yet it’s our own internal busyness and our own critical self-image that often gets in the way.”

Her practice has shifted the focus from “fixing” people to helping them help themselves—learning to trust in other people’s adequacy to take care of themselves as well as her own ability to identify and meet her own needs.

“I’m a much happier person. I appreciate what I have. I’m not as driven toward seeking the future or regretting the past. I’m better able to experience the present moment. The more I practice, the more I see how miraculous it is.”

6 tips to a happier you

Find a practice that you can do every day that brings you peace.
“That could be meditation, prayer, song, baking—but find something you can do routinely every day that brings you peace. It’s important to step outside of the routine, fast-paced world and learn to focus and shift attention.”

Learn to break the habit of self-criticism.
“We are such good people, and yet we live with this constant harangue of ‘you’re not good enough, you’re not doing enough, why did you do that,’ which is a constant commentary that is torturing us. To be able to shift attention away from that to a sense of peace can make a huge difference. It takes practice. It doesn’t happen overnight. Just knowing that this is a possibility is a big step in the right direction.”

Developing a mindfulness practice is as easy as you make it.
Expect to eliminate some activities from your schedule to make room, but know developing a mindfulness practice is not complicated. It can be as easy as picking up a book, an audiotape, going to a conference or picking up a sport. It varies based on the individual. She loves getting “Practice Everywhere” tweets (, so mindfulness becomes integrated into her whole day.

Bonadonna does yoga five days a week and practices a 30-minute silent meditation daily, but some people just adopt everyday mindfulness moments, such as when they’re washing their hands or tying their shoes, she said. The key is to put yourself in the moment and open all the senses.

Make friends with monkey mind.
The beauty of mindfulness training is that it allows a person to develop a different  relationship with what’s known by practitioners as “monkey mind” or the state where the mind jumps from subject to subject.
“Recognize that this is just what the brain does—this is just what the mind does. If  I can pay enough attention to it so I  recognize the patterns—there are only a few patterns--it’s like an endless loop. It’s not very creative. It’s clever, but it doesn’t come up with a lot of new stuff.”

She said it’s easier to let it go when the patterns can be recognized. It does take a willingness to commit to the practice of paying attention.
“It’s being willing to make your own well-being a top priority. Everything else falls into place behind that. We’re worth the effort. People know more intimately than anyone else on the planet what they need to do to take care of themselves.”

Expect gratitude to grow. Practicing mindfulness enhances gratitude. “I’m much more grateful for what I do have. That self-critical voice can never get enough. To find that there is a real choice I can make and to make the choice to be present rather than listen to the internal critic, frees me up to enjoy what I have.”

Realize the power of solitude. When we spend time in solitude and introspection, we get a sense of what’s true about who we really are, she said. “We’re so overstimulated. It comes down to self knowledge. Are you willing to find out who you really are?”

Dr. Bonadonna and her cat, Meeka, enjoy a quiet meditation moment.

Dr. Bonadonna finds it helpful to have a special place to meditate. She’s created a nook in her living room.

Friday, Jan. 14, 2011

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