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S5E14 Webinar highlights: Mindfulness and Meditation with Phil Startin

Listen to S5E14: Webinar highlights: Mindfulness and Meditation with Phil Startin

Welcome to Living Well with MS. In this episode we are sharing the highlights from our ‘Mindfulness and Meditation with Overcoming MS’ webinar with Overcoming MS Facilitator Dr Phil Startin. Phil discusses ways to make mindfulness and meditation part of your daily life.

This popular webinar was recorded on 17 April 2022 as part of our Finding Hope with Overcoming MS – 10th anniversary edition webinar series. You can watch the whole webinar here or the podcast highlights on YouTube here.

Keep reading for the key episode takeaways and bio. 

Make sure you sign up to our newsletter to hear our latest tips and news about living a full and happy life with MS. And if you’re new to Overcoming MS, visit our introductory page to find out more about how we support people with MS.

Selected Key Takeaways

Starting a new meditation habit can be difficult

3:17 “When we run Overcoming MS retreats or events, often one of the first questions we ask the group is ‘which steps in Overcoming MS do you find the hardest to adopt?’ And it’s always meditation. If you do struggle with meditation, and getting a practice going, you’re definitely not alone. Of all the different steps within the Overcoming MS program to actually adopt about 34% of us really, really struggle with that.”

Give yourself permission to take time out to meditate

6:28 “We’re almost addicted to activity at times. Activity has become a measure of success, which just seems to be crazy. We’re almost ‘not allowed’ to sit and do nothing. There’s a phrase I really like, ‘we’re not human beings, we’re human doings.’ We just spend all our time doing things. But perhaps the biggest reason why we don’t meditate, or why we stop meditating is we just don’t give ourselves permission.”

Keep yourself accountable for your meditation practice

10:34 “At the end of the day, you need to be accountable for actually getting yourself to start meditating. I recommend that you journal, and record every time you meditate: what was that meditation experience like for you? I did for a number of years. And I found it extremely helpful to be able to look back over my experiences, and to see how it worked. It’s a great way of learning about the practice. Give yourself a little reward now and again, as well. If you manage, let’s say, a week of meditating within no gaps, then reward yourself for a month of meditating.”


Read the episode transcript here

Overcoming MS  00:01

Welcome to Living well with MS. This podcast comes to you from Overcoming MS. The world’s leading multiple sclerosis healthy lifestyle charity, which helps people live a full and healthy life through the Overcoming MS program. We interview a range of experts and people with multiple sclerosis. Please remember, all opinions expressed are their own. Don’t forget to subscribe to Living Well with MS on your favorite podcast platform so you never miss an episode. And now, let’s meet our guest. Today’s episode features highlights from the Mindfulness and Meditation with OMS webinar presented by Overcoming MS facilitator Phil Startin recorded live in front of our global audience as part of the Finding Hope with OMS 10th Anniversary Edition webinar series. To join us live for the next webinar, or to watch the original presentation, head to our website

Phil Startin  01:02

Hello, everyone, welcome wherever you are in the world. Just before we start just a few words about myself. So it’s built starting, I have Primary Progressive MS diagnosed back in 2007. I started meditating then in about 2010. And I’ve been following OMS since about 2011, I was on the first OMS retreat in Europe, back in 2013. And I’ve been following the program pretty pretty strictly since then and have been facilitating at OMS retreats throughout the last five or six years. And similarly teaching mindfulness and specifically the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program to people for people with MS for about the same time. And the really the theme of the session today is it’s about why is it so hard to to start to maintain a meditation practice? And what what can we do? Yeah, and I think the vast majority of us know that meditation and mindfulness is really important that over 60% of us feel that mindfulness meditation is either important, or very important, which is something we really do need to do. And perhaps one of the reasons for that is because the research shows, it’s also I guess, it’s the just our lived experience of dealing with stress and anxiety, and just our our acknowledgement or how it feels to us and how it can affect our symptoms, how it can almost sometimes exacerbate the condition, it potentially can in cause and sometimes be the cause of a relapse, maybe even progression of the condition itself.

Phil Startin  02:55

So we know it’s important. But there’s an issue. And it’s it’s quite hard to meditate. And it’s I certainly struggled when I first started meditating. And I suspect a lot of you do as well. And it’s not easy to start meditating or continue a regular practice. I know that when we run OMS retreats, often one of the first questions we ask the group is, which steps in OMS do you find the hardest to adopt? And it’s always meditation. So you’re not alone. If you do struggle with meditation, and getting a practice going, you’re definitely not alone. Of all the different steps within the OMS program. Meditation is by far the hardest that all of us find to it to actually adopt. And it says over about 34% of us really, really strict struggle with that. So why is it so hard? So how to start and so easy to stop? And there’s there’s lots of reasons for that. And interestingly, there’s been quite a lot of research now done. Because the increasing popularity of mindfulness. Research has been done into, why do people struggle? Why do people find it hard? I’ll just go through some of the reasons now. So perhaps the first one is that it’s we’re trying to form a new habit and forming a new habit takes time. Just take some time to rewire our brain to get it into our heads that we need to pick up this and start developing this new habit. So the study from UCL University College in London, shows them typically it takes about 66 days to really get that new habit hardwired in our brains. And then actually sticking to the new habit is not easy.

Phil Startin  04:44

So there was a study by the Benson-Henry Institute at the University of Massachusetts that showed that only 8% of New Year’s resolutions are actually adhered to over time. So we forget 92% of new habits typicaly that we try to take up, so it’s not easy. But also, it’s a new skill we’re learning. So although superficially, mindfulness might feel quite, quite easy, I mean, how hard can it be to sit for 20 minutes or half an hour, and just be aware of the breath? I mean, surely that’s simple. I mean, we breathe all the time. But it’s not actually that easy. So it is simple. There are some things to this skill already to learn in what mindfulness is, and actually how to meditate. Because sometimes when you practice, it can feel really quite hard, or even unpleasant. And you might go through a stage of a few weeks, when actually your daily meditations just feel really, really difficult. It may feel like every minute just feels like it just feels like an hour. And you’re just desperate to get to the end end of the meditation. So this is this is not this is not uncommon. Perhaps another reason is that, although we get a lot of support from OMS, from our colleagues, or peers inside OMS, sometimes our friends or families don’t give us that level of support. In particularly in the West meditation, it’s just not widely accepted. So we tend to sometimes not to get that level of support and say, from friends, or family, and then perhaps linked to that is that we’re supposed to be doing things we’re not supposed to be sitting down, and just meditating. That’s, that’s that we almost addicted to activity at times, and activity seems to have become almost a measure of success, which, which just seems to be crazy. So yeah, we’re almost not allowed to sit and do nothing. And meditate was supposed to be doing things. There’s a phrase I really like, were actually, I don’t remember who it was. But they said, Actually, we’re not human beings. We’re human doings. We just spent all our time doing things. But perhaps the biggest reason why we don’t meditate, or why we just stop meditating is we just don’t give ourselves permission. Again, wherever we are, whatever we do, our lives are typically really busy. And it can be busy with work with a family or with children. And for some of us, even just getting up in the morning, getting washed, getting dressed, can feel like a huge exercise to do. Sometimes we just don’t give ourselves permission to actually sit down for 30 minutes and meditate. If that’s the case, what can we do? So what any hints or tips are there to actually start new practice, or to ensure that we can actually continue with it with with our practice? So what do we need to do? What can we do to start a practice?

Phil Startin  04:55

So So looking at this diagram here, just going through each of these blobs in order, first thing we need to do is just to start to develop the habit. So unfortunately, at some point, we just need to sit down and start meditating. But perhaps do that quite, quite lightly. Just enjoy it, explore it, suggests we just need to start doing that. We also then need to build the skill of mindfulness. And one of the best ways of doing that is actually to practice meditation. So get some guided meditations. And there’s literally 1000s of guided meditations out there available through different apps on the internet. And you can use those. So yes, please use a guided meditation, again, both to just just to build your skill in how to meditate. And perhaps over time, you may want to use those less, perhaps more so. But at least it’s a great way of actually developing that skill of mindfulness. But also at the same time, I think mindfulness is such a fantastic such a fascinating, rich area. I’d actually encourage all of you to view if you’re even vaguely interested in mindfulness to read up around it. Watch some podcasts and some webinars. And there again, there are loads literally 1000s of books, some good, some not so good. On the subject or mindfulness out there. And again, there’s some recommendations in the handout that goes with this session today. So have a have a look at those as well. So really try and sort of build the skill, both through practical experience of meditating, and perhaps read around it as well. So what what’s watch some some webinars

Phil Startin  09:24

as you develop the habit and build the skill, you may feel the need to get some support as well, because it’s not the easiest things to do. So yes, get some support. There. Again, loads and loads of courses you can do. A lot of those courses are now available online, using zoom. So again, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, or mobility is an issue. You can you can do these courses from home. And some of them work really, really well. And again, it might feel a little bit strange, doing a mindfulness course over zoom, but it genuinely does work. It really is good. But similarly, you might just want to join a group but Join a group of people who meditate regularly together. Or if you can’t find one, set one up. If you’re a member of a circle, perhaps get your circle to set up a little mindfulness group, and just sit and meditate together.

Phil Startin  10:15

Again, to say that might sound a little bit strange commanded to sitting with a small group of people in silence via zoom, but it actually really, really works well. So it’s it, it’s definitely something I’d recommend doing. So if you do that and start to see develop the habit, build up your skill, you’ve got some support. At the end of the day, though, it’s really about you, you need to be accountable for this. Only you can actually get yourself to start start meditating, I’d certainly recommend that you do journal, and record, perhaps even every time you meditate, what was that meditation experience like for you? I did for a number of years. And I found extremely helpful just to be able to look back over over my previous experiences, and to see how it worked. And say, it’s a great way of learning about the practice, machine, just give yourself a little rewards now, and again, as well. If you manage, let’s say, a week of meditating within no gaps, then reward yourself for a month. But just make it make it make it a little bit fun. Let’s say at the end of the day, this is really down to you. So we’ve got yourself and meditating. And that’s starting to work. Also, then just make it work for you too.

Phil Startin  11:25

So think about the time, what time you’re going to meditate and experiment with that. And again, there’s no right or wrong answer, as to when you should meditate. Just find something, something that works for you. It may be you may be controlled and dictated by just your family life, you may then just want to settle down at a particular time every day, is to say just just find something that works for you. Similarly, location, I personally have got a particular spot at home where I always sit and meditate at. And it really just helps to build the habit of almost almost a ritual. So I’ll sit down and get my cushion out and prepare with my timer. So just have a play with that we play with locations. And again, there’s no right or wrong answer. And you may want to meditate inside or outdoors or in your garden shed or wherever, wherever it’s best for you. And similarly position. And again, there’s no right or wrong answer for this. But just really find a comfortable position for you. So you don’t have to sit in the full lotus position or half lotus position or anything like that. You can just sit in a chair, you can lie on the bed, you can stand, lots of different options there. So say just just find something that works for you. And then finally, just play with the different types of practice. Again, there are 1000s out there, just find a practice that works for you find a different voice that works for you. And a duration that is best for you. And again, you may want to start with shorter duration meditations, and then build up to 30 minutes, or 40 or 40 minute meditation. So again, there are lots of different types of practice out there. But also remember the difference between formal practice. So formally sitting down for, let’s say, 30 minutes, and doing a meditation, and an informal practice, of just becoming mindful at different points during the day, just taking even just five seconds out, just to come back to the present moment. scattering in little, little informal practices during your day, or a little gratitude practice during the day really makes really makes a difference too. So it’s all those different things to remember. So think about the timing, the location, how you’re sitting, and is that right for you. And they’re different practice you want to try that particular day. Before you start each practice. think then about these three areas, your attention, your intention, and your attitude.

Phil Startin  13:58

Now this model was first developed by Shauna Shapiro and her colleagues at the Santa Clara University back in 2006. And it’s now become a really wide accepted model of what mindfulness is, and say, when you sit down and practice, just think about your attention, bringing it into the present moment. So really, really controlling, regulating your attention. This is what we’re doing as part of the mindfulness practice. And then think about your intention for the practice. And it could be really simple. Just just, I’m going to stay in the present moment. I’m going to sit in my practice, say 20 minutes, and just stay in the present moment. That’s my intention. And when my mind wanders off, as it inevitably will do, then just bring it back to the practice. So that’s my intention. And then think about your attitude, the attitude you want to bring to your practice. To my mind, I mean, there are lots of options here, but there are two that are really, really important. So one is to bring an attitude of just curiosity, what’s going on? What what is my experience in the present moment, but also in kindness. So seeing it’s possible your experiences through through a lens or a filter of kindness, of gentleness. Say before you start your practice, just think about those three things. intention, intention, and attitude. This is all useful. But there’s a perhaps a bigger picture. And the bigger picture, and we need to grow with this big question is what first place should we be meditating? Why spend all this time and perhaps money on courses? actually learning to meditate? Where do we need to sit for 30 minutes every day? What’s What’s the purpose? Why, why why are we even doing it? And there are perhaps a few answers to this question. Well, the first one is that yeah, Jellinek said, go meditate. It’s one of the steps one of the pillars of the OMS program. And we will, hold George, extremely high regard and do do a lot of what George says. But also remember, the whole OMS approach is based on evidence, and exactly the same for mindfulness well, so his recommendation to meditate completely mindfulness meditation is based on evidence by year since 1980, all the way through to 2020, the number of papers published in peer reviewed academic journals with the word mindfulness and title. So we’re now at over 1000 papers a year on research on to mindfulness. So huge amount of research has been that’s been going on. The majority of that research has been done by psychologists and neuroscientists. But there have been some studies, looking specifically at the benefits of mindfulness for people with MS. Fatigue, again, is another big area where there’s been quite a lot of research. And the research on fatigue is now so well evidenced that the National Health Service in the UK have actually proved it, approved it as a treatment for fatigue. So if you’re showing high levels of fatigue, you can get your GP in the UK, to actually recommend a course of mindfulness for you. It can help with pain, as well, again, another big area that somebody with MS really have difficulty with. And it can make life extremely difficult. So so there’s lots a lots lots of evidence as to why mindfulness is such a good thing for us to do. But I think there’s there’s possibly a little bit more than that, too. And really, I think living with MS is it’s it’s a mind game. It really is. And we need that, that that resilience and that flexibility of mind to judge cope with this this very unpredictable condition. And I don’t think it really matters, whether you’re in your early 20s, you’ve had a recent diagnosis, maybe completely fit and healthy. It might be the start of your career or starting at starting a family. And you’re living with the unpredictability of MS, or your 50s or your 60s, you’ve got a progressive MS and you’re losing function. Either way, we need that resilience, that that mental flexibility to just just sometimes just live better with a condition date, day by day. And mindfulness can really help us with that. I when I was on the OMS, with my OMS retreat, back in 2020 13. With with George Jelinek, and then Linda Bloom. There was there was a chap there and I remember him standing up it was he was again another one of the delegates on the on the group, his name was Klaus and he stood up on the flip chart and wrote up this phrase, MS equals Mental Strength in class that I still remember you doing that, and that those words have stuck with me for the last the last nine years. And yet we need that we need that mental mental strength. So mindfulness can help with that. I think there are there are other reasons to meditate as well. Mindfulness is it’s about awareness. So you can use the two terms interchangeably.

Phil Startin  19:24

But they’re synonyms. So by being mindful, we can develop awareness. And we can develop awareness of ourselves, how we work, what kind of what presses our buttons and how we respond when our buttons are pressed, our conditional reactions, those know non volitional responses, and when we do things that we don’t we’re not even aware we’re doing. We start to bring insight and space into those. We can learn we can learn to just live with the ease. Just with less suffering, and that’s for ourselves and for others, to say bringing that, that that awareness to ourselves, just how we work. And mindfulness is a really this is a big part of mindfulness can really, really make a huge, huge difference. There’s just one more, one more reason, I think, to meditate. That’s think it’s very important as say, the most important one to last. And that is that really mindfulness is it’s an act of kindness. So every time you sit down and meditate, it’s an act of kindness to yourself. Like to have an act of self compassion. And perhaps we can use the word mindfulness and kind from this interchangeably. Maybe this is something to bear in mind when you do meditate. You’re doing it as an act of kindness to yourself. It’s really can make such a difference in the healing process. So there’s a teacher, mindfulness teacher and author, based in Melbourne, Australia. And he wrote these words around this, let me just bring this up now. So Bob Sharples wrote, “don’t meditate to fix yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself. Rather do to is an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way, there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self improvement. For the endless pursuit of not doing enough it offers the possibility to end the ceaseless round of trying so hard, that wraps so many people’s lives, they’re not. Instead, there is now meditations an act of love her endlessly delightful encouraging.” And we’ll just do a practice together. So perhaps just taking your um, will do with maybe sort of maintenance and like a 15 minute practice together.

Phil Startin  22:14

So just sitting how you normally sit, like you can with your legs and crossed and just having the feet flat on the ground and resting your hands, just on your thighs or in your lap.

Phil Startin  22:31

Perhaps sitting with your your back away from the chair, if that’s okay for you. It’s your spine self supporting the head up right with the chin tucked in slightly.

Phil Startin  22:45

And the invitation is just to close your eyes for the practice. If that’s right for you need to open them at any point then just just please do so.

Phil Startin  22:59

Which is finding a posture that just feels right for you. And really underlines your intention to be present. It’s just taking now just three or four deep breaths

Phil Startin  23:18

just letting the body relax the shoulders drop flexing any tension in the jaw in the face and hands the fingers just gently relax

Phil Startin  23:45

just bring our attention to the present moment. So just aware of our experiences knowing that this now is a time for you. And it’s a time to really care for your health and well being. Our intention for the practice, just very simply to keep our attention in the present moment. And if perhaps when mind wanders, almost inevitably will do. Then your task is really simple. Just noticing the wind has wandered off, gently walking it back again to the present moment. And you may have to do this 10 100,000 times during the practice and that’s fine. minds wander. It’s just what they do. But attention it’s just to be in the present moment. And attitude, this practice. So you just be curious about what our experiences are just opening and softening to whatever arises in our experience and bringing that that say that sense of kindness you can with gentleness to whatever experiences are so let’s just if you wish to make an endorsement it’s mostly just minutes to the posture and then just moving getting into stillness now just to start the practice just move your attention to sounds so just becoming aware of sounds aware of selves your room where you are

Phil Startin  25:56

maybe in your home, rooms, apartments or the house or outside wherever you are in the world

Phil Startin  26:16

just gently curious about the sounds that are reaching your ears that moment

Phil Startin  26:32

so many sounds be at the forefront of your awareness forefront of your attention

Phil Startin  26:52

that’s aware of how by normal it is to try to work out what the sound is what or who’s making the sound go see if it’s possible just to be aware of the raw sensations of the sound itself the loudness the tone the pitch

Phil Startin  27:29

just observing this after changing some escapements here feeling

Phil Startin  27:55

if you find the mind wandering off several times already and then just gently bringing it back back to the present moment the soundscape is here

Phil Startin  28:24

there’s no need to judge the sounds or judge yourself gently curious about the changing soundscape

Phil Startin  29:00

Just listening just aware of sounds nothing else

Phil Startin  29:22

maybe even the sounds coming from inside your body sounds you know breathing if you’re going to be check your heart or blood you’re ringing in the ears.

Phil Startin  30:02

Now when you’re ready, putting sounds go to the back of the mind and bringing the sensations of the breath in the body to the forefront of your awareness. Start just resting your awareness on the nose just aware of the sensations of breathing in the nose so feeling the flow of air through the nostrils as you breathe in

Phil Startin  30:40

slightly warmer air flowing out as you breathe out

Phil Startin  31:02

feeling the move into the body, the breathing down in the chest area and the ribs chest I mean the ribs expanding lifting upwards should breathe in. Lungs filled with air the ribs relaxing for the back to breathe out

Phil Startin  31:44

see if it’s possible to track the full duration of each breath like from the start to the end breath all the way through to the end of the outro.

Phil Startin  32:08

Now moving the awareness down to the stomach to the belly area. Area chest round of neath the navel. Feeding the belly push out as you breathe in. body relaxes and falling back breathe out

Phil Startin  32:44

so just choosing where wherever you feel the sensations of the breath of the bar are the most strongly resting your attention there. So the know is chest, the belly whatever works best for you and bringing that to exploring of curiosity to each breath to the sensations body of each breath

Phil Startin  33:33

just gently letting your awareness sit with the sensations

Phil Startin  33:46

much riding on the ebb and the flow of the breath

Phil Startin  34:03

so we’re the quality of the press. So the duration of each breath

Phil Startin  34:23

again, if the minds wandered away you know what exactly what to do without being critical of yourself. Just gently bring it back, bring it back to the sensations of the breath. letting it rest here stay with this breath. Now just gently gradually expanding your awareness to include sensations throughout the entire body so sensing your presence, your room the space that your body occupies it’s really the weight the points of contact the body with the ground the chair or the bed whatever you’re sitting on lying on the touch the feet on the floor next to the legs, buttocks maybe the back resting against a chair in the hands that’s resting on the legs or thighs or in your lap maybe touching each other maybe feeling the touch of your clothing cuts the skin slight rustling and things clothing should breathe in out the touch of the air against the bare skin hands or face ahead now just bringing that curiosity to the sensations inside the body exploring what’s here just giving the body some space and time now you’re aware of little itches, tingles temperature the body feels warm or cool any tightness see if it’s possible to bring that sense of kindness of compassion to the body so were sensations that are here and if the minds wandered off just bring it back gently but firmly bringing it back to sensations in the body

Phil Startin  38:58

when you’re ready to start moving the sensations in the body to the back of your mind and letting the buttons come to the front of the mind just sitting here and see if it’s possible just to be aware of thoughts. Thoughts are no longer distractions to this practice. They really are the object of practice simply just sitting here and watching thoughts arise in the mind are you see them? Maybe you can hear me aware too of any emotions maybe not aware of the quality of thoughts maybe they’re like wispy thoughts rushing past which deeper stickier thoughts bigger perhaps even dark thoughts.

Phil Startin  40:43

As best you can, not engage in the thoughts to wear these things and trigger mind leaving knowing they’re not real just synapses firing in the brain and its events in the mind. Now for the final few minutes of the practice think our thoughts emotions and coming back to the sensations of breath to narrowing down retention bringing awareness to sessions the breath a punch in the nose just letting the breath flow as however it wishes there’s no right way to breathe here resting your your awareness the waves of the breath stay with each and breaths and each out breath really has nothing to achieve no right way to feel simply aware of the breath slowing everything right down almost now just taking our lives just just one breath at a time swear that sense of stillness peace as we sit here meditating together ever we are in the world know this time has been a time for you. Time for healing a time of kindness for yourself a time of self compassion.

Phil Startin  45:02

This practice now just sensing and we can take this sincere compassion for ourselves and for others back to our day next one lives lives ahead in fold just day by day that’s now just started to move slightly moving your fingers or toes. Stretch a little

Overcoming MS  46:00

thank you for listening to this episode of living well with MS. Please check out this episode’s show notes at you’ll find useful links and bonus information there. Have questions or ideas to share? Email us at [email protected] or you can reach out to Geoff on Twitter @GeoffAllix, we’d love to hear from you. Thanks again for tuning in and see you next time for tips on living a full and happy life with MS.

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Dr. Phil Startin’s bio:

Career and Overcoming MS:

After a DPhil in Quantum Physics, Phil left his academic roots for a more peripatetic career in management consulting, initially with Price Waterhouse. After years of travelling around the world for both work and pleasure, including a two-year assignment in Geneva, he was diagnosed with Primary Progressive MS (PPMS) in 2007.

Phil discovered Overcoming MS in 2011, and coupled with his earlier discovery of mindfulness meditation, it awakened a whole new area in his life. With training and supervision from Bangor University, he now teaches an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course to people with MS and to the general community on a pro-bono basis. He is also a trustee for MS-UK.

Personal life:

Phil lives in Arrochar, Scotland with his American wife, Cristina, whom he met over a weekend at the Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Phil’s completely convinced that the Overcoming MS program and mindfulness have positively affected the trajectory of his condition.