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Lilian Cheung, D.Sc., R.D. Headshot

Break Out of the Prison of Your Past

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"You are free to be here." -- Thich Nhat Hanh

This simple idea opens a world of relief. We can unburden ourselves of past suffering by realizing that however painful experiences were, they are not happening to us in the present moment. The suffering from the past is a shadow that we allow to haunt us.

The application of mindfulness, the state of being fully present in the here and now, has proved so useful in transforming past pain in to peace that prisons, detention centers and psychotherapists treating veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are increasingly implementing mindfulness-based programs. The results for individuals who participate, and their communities, have been promising.

The Mind Body Awareness Project, a nonprofit organization that offers meditation courses to at-risk youth in prisons and detention centers, conducted a two-year pilot study, which concluded in 2007. Ninety-five percent of participants in their mindfulness programs reported feeling physically better after coming to class. Ninety-three percent reported feeling less stressed, 85 percent felt better about themselves and 78 percent reported sleeping better.

These internal improvements translated to external improvements too; 82 percent used what they learned to better deal with living in a detention hall, and 78 percent reported being better able to "cool" off when they got angry or upset.

For many of these youth, who have seen great violence and suffering, mindful breathing is helping them open the door -- perhaps for the first time -- to new ways of being in the world. Freed from the engrained patterns of their past, they're choosing to live more peacefully.

Mindfulness not only helps us cope with past trauma, it also facilitates the transformation of our suffering. Psychotherapist Peter Strong explains how in his Psychology Today article, "The Mindfulness Approach":

"Mindfulness is the absence of reactivity, either in the form of identification with the story line of our experience, or aversion to what we are experiencing. These qualities are invaluable in psychotherapy, because they allow the client to investigate the deep structure of his trauma, rather than staying stuck at the superficial surface structure."

For this reason, many psychotherapists have begun using mindfulness techniques to treat patients with PTSD. A study published in the Journal of Counseling and Development showed that veterans suffering from PTSD who practiced Transcendental Meditation experienced reductions in depression, anxiety and family problems after just three months.

We have all experienced suffering, an integral part of life. This pain is not relegated to prisoners, veterans or any other group of humans. We can all benefit from relinquishing the pain and anger of our past by showing ourselves compassion.

To do so, we can start by acknowledging that all we have to contend with is this present moment. The past is already gone. No matter how much we analyze, regret or replay a moment, we cannot change it. Our only hope for transformation is in the here and the now. We've learned from our past experiences, and this knowledge is a part of us. It serves to make us wiser, and there is no value in dwelling.

Yes, it's easier said than done. We all have memories of suffering that when triggered threaten to haunt, block and berate us. And the more we relive these memories, the more they interfere with our present.

Thay's advice, from Peace is Every Breath, inspires me to recognize my mindful agency in the present: "Breathing mindfully, we know the events playing out in these mental movies are not real, and simply remembering that fact removes their power to push us around."

Drawing our awareness to the present, we're empowered to make sound decisions that reflect our current goals, circumstances, values and wisdom. When breathing mindfully, we feel less reactive and open, even, to transforming old sorrow through understanding, self compassion, insight, and new positive experiences. We are not destined to travel in the same cycles of pain.

We may say to ourselves:

"Here in the present, I am safe and I am free."

I'd like to leave you with these wise words from Vinny Farraro, a teacher with the Mind Body Awareness Project.

"Do your conditions lead inevitably to suffering? No, they don't. Only a being's perspective leads to suffering. Two people in the exact same situation, according to their outlook and expectations, can have completely different experiences. Turn that around, and any conditions can be a vehicle for bondage -- or freedom and awakening."

For more by Lilian Cheung, D.Sc., R.D., click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.

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