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Sunday, November 27, 2016

How Mindfulness Benefits Physical and Emotional Health (interview)

photo courtesy Erin Sharaf
Erin Sharaf spent many years as a primary care provider and university professor, has a master’s degree in Integrative Medicine and is passionate about helping others find true wellness. She leads mindfulness groups, virtually and in person, joyfully coaches those interested in shedding limiting beliefs, and believes that inner transformation is the key to global transformation.

What are some of your favorite mindful eating practices?

For me, mindful eating means staying as conscious and awake as I can for every step of the process of nourishing myself, starting with buying the food. I ask myself questions like:

  • Was there cruelty and suffering involved with this? If so, I don’t want to contribute to that or put it into my body. 
  • Is it loaded with artificial ingredients and extra sugar or is it close to the earth? 
  • Is it genetically modified? 
  • Sprayed with pesticides? 
  • Treated with hormones? 
  • How far did it have to travel to reach me? 
  • Was a virgin rainforest cut down and many animals displaced for this to reach my plate (as often happens with palm oil)? 
  • Is this food or industry contributing to global warming (as with the beef industry)? 
I do all this with great love so it doesn’t feel complicated or burdensome. By the time I’m actually eating, I can stay present with my food and be grateful for it bite by bite, because I know I made the highest and best choice I could make for my individual body and for my planet.

How does this help with physical as well as emotional health?

All of this is instrumental to my physical and emotional health!

Emotionally I feel very connected to nature when I eat this way and therefore happier and more grateful. My life flows with more ease in general since I started being more mindful around eating.

My physical health takes care of itself too. Bodies are naturally healthy when we eat and move in the way nature intended. It feels much easier and wiser to make informed, healthy choices up front, instead of chasing down and treating problems later. Mindfulness can really help us ENJOY and appreciate making wise choices so it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.

Taste buds and food preferences can change over time and mindful awareness can really help us make the transition
into healthier eating.

You sometimes describe yourself as a ‘recovering academic.’ What can we do to foster more mindfulness in education?

Ideally we would prioritize intra-personal and inter-personal intelligence (mindfulness of self and others) as much as we do content areas, or maybe even more. And this cultivation would start at very young ages and carry all the way through our educational system. 

We get more of what we feed, and right now we are feeding competition, linear thinking, a scarcity mentality, a (mostly) blind obedience to authority and disconnection from our inner guidance system. We’re seeing the results of this play out in our society and it’s often not pretty or kind.

We can (relatively easily) teach our kids to accept and manage their strong emotions. Right now, we have many kids who have good reasons to feel strong emotions like fear, anger, grief, and loneliness. We send messages like: “Somehow figure out how to ignore all that and focus on my agenda for you.”

They can’t do it and it’s not fair to ask them to without showing them how. They can’t access the higher parts of the brain when they’re in survival mode. It’s counterproductive to ask them to try and work on content when they’re in fight-or-flight.

In addition, we 
often send subtle signals that some emotions are not OK to have. Boys don’t cry. Man up and take it. Girls don’t get angry. Be nice.

Therefore, when kids have certain emotions arise, as all humans do, they layer shame on top. This is where things can start to feel really confusing and heavy, and some kids get medicated or turn to substance use or abuse to temporarily dull the pain.

There is a much more skillful way to handle all of this! Some basic mindfulness practices can be hugely helpful.

You’ve worked with many different age groups, including seniors. What kinds of practices do you particularly recommend to older adults?

Sometimes seniors can be overly focused on what’s going wrong with them and what they’ve lost and this can contribute to limitations. It can be helpful to intentionally linger in what’s going right, or even invite them to imagine a time when their bodies were more capable. 

Ellen Langer did a brilliant study in this regard that showed how the mind-body connection can have astounding implications for seniors, including improved vision, walking taller and even going from a wheelchair to a cane. The mind-body connection is a powerful and underutilized resource. 

What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

To me, mindful teaching means:
  • having an intimate and deeply connected relationship with myself first and foremost;
  • staying connected with my intentions to always serve the highest good; 
  • to be able to manage my own strong emotions; 
  • to care for and be kind to others even when I disagree with their views or need them to modify their behavior for the good of the group. 
Modeling all this is the most important thing we can do. From that place we can share specific practices with a community in a way that is authentic and impactful.

What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you in your work?

The foundation of my practice is a daily sitting practice. I try to do 30 minutes a day and will often also do yoga, or mindful walking and the mindful eating I mentioned. If I slack off on my sitting practice I can feel myself becoming more distracted and more reactive and that always motivates me to get back to my cushion.