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S5E30 Mindfulness and Self-compassion with Melanie Lown

Listen to S5E30: Mindfulness and Self-compassion with Melanie Lown

Welcome to Living Well with MS, where we are pleased to welcome Melanie Lown as our guest. Melanie is a mindfulness teacher, has an M.A. in Psychology, and follows the Overcoming MS Program. She talks to Geoff about her MS diagnosis, the power of mindfulness and the importance of self-compassion.

Watch this episode on YouTube here. Keep reading for the key episode takeaways.

Topics and Timestamps:

01:30 Melanie’s introduction and MS diagnosis.

03:58 Balancing self-advocacy with compassion for healthcare professionals.

07:07 Using a diagnosis to discover your purpose.

09:48 Discovering Overcoming MS.

12:02 Our lived experience is as valid as datasets.

13:29 DMTs and COVID.

16:31 The growing popularity of mindfulness in Western medicine.

21:45 Meditation physically changes the brain.

23:33 Depression and spiritualism are opposite sides of the same neural pathway.

27:54 The awakened brain vs. the achieving brain.

29:39 Activating the parasympathetic nervous system with self-compassion.

33:39 Emotions are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

35:44 Mindfully choosing your healthcare team and treatment.

42:22 Tips to incorporate mindfulness into your lifestyle.

47:54 Non-judgmental awareness.

Selected Key Takeaways:

A diagnosis can give you the opportunity to discover your purpose.

07:47 “Having that misdiagnosis of a brain tumour was the moment to ask myself, ‘Am I really doing what I want to do with my life?’ and ‘Do I feel like my purpose here is being fulfilled?’… We went back and forth between [whether it was a] brain tumour, [or] MS for about 48 hours, and then they finally settled on ‘no, this is, in fact, multiple sclerosis’. Those 48 hours of considering my mortality completely changed the trajectory of my life.”

The benefits of meditation can be measured by functional MRI scans.

17:31 “It can be really scary when you’re experiencing symptoms or when you’re going through a relapse or a diagnosis. Mindfulness does allow us to step outside of ourselves and see things with a little bit more curiosity and a little bit more objectively. There are functional MRI scans of experienced meditators that show that our default mode network is going to be quieter and slower than that of individuals who don’t meditate at all.”

Using Self-compassion in Treatment Decisions

38:22 “Self-compassion was really key for me when choosing to go on a DMT. At the beginning, I just looked at the risks solely [and] talked about narrowing in on life preservation. I was not broadening my perspective to incorporate how these things could benefit me. I made that decision by talking with my medical professional and doing my own research. Then also sitting with myself and choosing that this felt inherently right and that [taking medication] was something I wanted to do.”

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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. If you were able to, we would be grateful if you could donate to help support the podcast and other work of Overcoming MS to help give hope to those impacted by multiple sclerosis. If you enjoy the show, please leave a review. These are quick to do and really help us.

Geoff Allix  00:40

Welcome to the latest edition of living well with MS podcast and today we are discussing mindfulness and self compassion with meditation teacher metta neat load, so I didn’t ask how you pronounce your name. Is it? Is that correct?

Melanie Lown  00:53

It’s Lown. It’s like Clow with no C, yes, Lown.

Geoff Allix  00:59

So Melanie holds an MA in psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. And while at Columbia, she trained in the Spirituality Mind Body Institute and was a colleague in the spirituality and psychology research lab. Before coming to Columbia, Melanie was the lab manager for the imagination and cognition lab in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She’s also studied at the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. So welcome, Melanie.

Melanie Lown  01:27

Thank you. I’m so excited to be here today.

Geoff Allix  01:31

And to start off with, could you tell us a bit about yourself, your work, and your MS diagnosis?

Melanie Lown  01:37

Yeah, I’ll actually start with my MS diagnosis because it really informed a lot of the work that I’m doing now. I was diagnosed with MS and 2018, following months of mysterious symptoms, and I also have a BFA in dance actually, and I’m a lifelong dancer, I got my BFA in dance in my early 20s. So as a dancer, I’m pretty aware of my body. And I just knew that something was off, I actually started to struggle with some mobility things, I couldn’t rise up on my toes, like bring my heels off the ground. And I had trouble running. And I just knew that this needed attention. And I also tried to, you know, explain a lot of these things, validate a lot of what was going on with other explanations, you know, to talk myself out of it, like, Oh, I’m probably just anxious, or maybe I just, you know, did a really strenuous workout. And this is the effect of it. But interestingly, when I really decided that this needed medical attention, I found that my doctors had the same responses to explain what was happening, like, maybe you’re just anxious, or maybe you did a really strenuous workout, and you have a pinched nerve or something. So it took several months, and seeing several doctors to actually gain the diagnosis. And I’ve heard that, you know, is a shared experience with a lot of individuals with MS.

Geoff Allix  03:14

I can only assume that there are quite a lot of people who don’t have MS, but have some of the symptoms that we have. And that’s why that this happens. Because, I mean, it’s almost everyone with MS. The first time they go to the doctor, they’re told it’s something else. Sure, sure. It’s only once you have multiple different things, and then there’s like, Okay, what’s then they start to, you know, it was with me it was the one thing that did it for me was my sight because I went to an optician and they said there’s nothing wrong inside your eyes. There’s something going that I was having double vision, they said, but they’re both looking the same way. They’re both working fine. Something’s happening in your brain with the signal you need a neurologist, right?

Melanie Lown  03:58

Yeah. And I imagine, you know, that’s such a good point. A lot of my work has actually started to consider compassion for medical professionals, because I imagine it’s difficult for them to try and decipher exactly, you know, what is going on? Are you anxious? Did you just have a strenuous workout? Or is there something else going on? And, you know, I don’t know if we have the right answer. But I know that there has to be a balance between self advocacy and you know, your doctors really believing in what you’re saying and also being able to treat a lot of people and some of those people aren’t going to have MS. So yeah, that’s a great point that you bring up and a lot of my work is focusing on how we can bridge that gap between medical professionals and patients. But yeah, I was diagnosed shortly after the MRI, I mean, within like a couple hours they called me to say, we did find active lesions in your brain, and you need to go to the hospital to be treated. And I felt very strongly that I needed immediate medical attention and that I wanted to be chucked into the hospital and receive IV steroids and get further testing, right away, I just couldn’t imagine going home, you know, and just sitting there waiting. And I know, that’s a lot of people’s reality that you wait for months sometimes to see a neurologist and get the next steps for whatever your treatment might be, or even just testing. So I went to the hospital, and within a couple hours of being there, they actually thought that this might not be MS and that you actually might have a brain tumor. And that was really a huge part, not just in my diagnosis story, but to the next life path that I would take the next steps in my life, it completely changed the trajectory of things for me. Because, you know, MS. In and of itself can be an existential reckoning, but then when you introduce, okay, are we also considering mortality? It was just on the next level, you know?

Geoff Allix  06:18

A lot of people said that, to me, it’s like, how did you take the diagnosis? I said, well, that was the same for me. The alternative was brain tumor.

Melanie Lown  06:26

Okay. I’ve heard that from several people.

Geoff Allix  06:30

The doctor didn’t tell me that that was doctor Google essentially. I was in that long-time for a diagnosis situation, which is what we have more in this country, because there’s, there’s definite pros and cons, free healthcare. But it does take a long time. But we do have access to loads of cutting edge drugs for free. And it says great things and terrible things. One that one of the downsides is it takes a long time. But then obviously, you get to Google, and oh, maybe it’s a brain tumor. And then you’re like, Okay, when I had an MS diagnosis, it’s like, well, on the plus side, I don’t have a brain tumor. So yes, it’s not a terrible thing.

Melanie Lown  07:07

Absolutely. Yeah. And it can be scary. I mean, Dr. Google and I know each other well, I spend quite a bit of time. And I think there’s like you’re saying pros and cons to that too, because it did lead to more self advocacy. But you can also go down a rabbit hole. And I’ll talk about that a little bit more as we get into mindfulness and self compassion. Today, too, but how we can utilize mindfulness and self compassion when we feel like we’re going down rabbit holes, but also use it to make informed, well aware decisions, like self advocacy, but having that misdiagnosis of a brain tumor, and, you know, the moment for me to ask myself, Am I really doing what I want to do with my life? And do I feel like my purpose here is being fulfilled? You know, I’ve never felt so explicitly called or told or whatever word you want to use to do something. But I went back to school to finish my degree within like, a couple of months after that. We went back and forth between brain tumor, MS brain tumor MS for like about 48 hours, and then they finally settled on no, this is, in fact, multiple sclerosis. And, you know, not a brain tumor, but just that those 48 hours of considering my mortality completely changed the trajectory of my life. So when I went back to UT to finish my psychology degree, I just knew that this was something I was really passionate about. And I felt really strongly about learning more about psychology and is this going to inform you know, the next steps of my life, I had really no idea end game just that, like, this was the next step I was going to take. And that led to me going to get my Master’s in psychology at Columbia and concentrating my studies in the mind body spiritual connection, and specifically on, you know, how integral spirituality can be to our overall well being. And I’ll get into the definition of spirituality and how we define it in our lab a bit later, but I don’t want to lose anybody with that term. Basically, just think, you know, I have greater existential understanding of my purpose and meaning and how I interact with the material world, but then also, you know, the mystery of what could be after.

Geoff Allix  09:44

And how did you discover Overcoming MS?

Melanie Lown  09:48

Yeah, I discovered Overcoming MS pretty quickly after my diagnosis. And the reason that I was so drawn to it was because it allowed space for lifestyle changes, and you may say like more Eastern practices with meditation, more mindful living, of course, being conscious about your diet, and, you know, being outside and engaging with nature, but also leaving space for Western medicine and science, if that’s something that you feel, you know, is important to your overall experience with MS. And I did. And, you know, I, I’ll talk a little bit about the balance between science and intuition a little bit later. And you know, how, how important both sides are. But for me, it was really important that I had space for both and Overcoming MS allowed space for both. So that’s why I felt really drawn to it and that I could trust in it. I felt the other options were really polarizing. It was like, No, we’re completely going on diet or No, it’s the diet doesn’t matter. The lifestyle doesn’t matter. It’s all about the medicine. And neither of those methodologies felt inherently right. With me, Overcoming MS really did it felt like well balanced, and it allowed space for a full picture of the disease trajectory and the disease treatments and allowed for different modalities.

Geoff Allix  11:37

Yeah, no, I think having spoke to Professor Jelinek, quite a few times is he just said if something works, then he’ll accept it. It’s, it’s not clear. It’s an open book. It’s like saying, Okay, if actually there was something completely off the wall, but it worked, then, if it’s been tested and it works, then, then it works.

Melanie Lown  12:02

I love that. Yeah, I was going to talk about this a little bit later. But I think this is the perfect place to discuss, you know, how often we look for ourselves in datasets and research, when in fact, our experience is the one that’s informing the datasets and the research. So we can, you know, trust, of course, in evidence and allow evidence to ask more, spur us to ask more critical questions and think more critically, but going down rabbit holes to find our experiences within research, and within a dataset is kind of futile, you know, our experience is the one that’s informing that. So if something’s working for you, you know, go with it, you don’t need necessarily to find the validation that it’s working. If it’s working, then it is. And of course, there’s the difference between short term effects and long term effects and medicine. And, you know, research can provide beautiful confidence in what you’re engaging in, and the type of treatment that you’re engaging in. But I know for myself, I sometimes would do it backwards and look for myself and my experience within the research instead of allowing my experience to just be that my experience.

Geoff Allix  13:24

How are you right now is how are your symptoms? With MS now?

Melanie Lown  13:29

I’m doing well now. In fact, I’ve had no new lesions since my initial diagnosis, I did have an MRI pretty soon after I was diagnosed with one new lesion. But that was before I really was able to get into any type of lifestyle changes or DMT. So now in the past, you know, four and a half, five years, I’ve had no new lesions and am able to live you know, quote unquote, normal life.

Geoff Allix  14:05

It really it’s, it’s COVID hit like a year after diagnosis. So how did that? Did you get COVID?

Melanie Lown  14:15

I have not had covert I know of. I took it pretty seriously. So about a year and a half after I was diagnosed COVID hit and I had just received an infusion of DMT like a month before COVID hit. And you have to remember back to the beginning of COVID. We knew nothing, you know, we had no information. And all I knew is that I had this compromised immune system and the world was imploding. So I locked down pretty significantly. I didn’t allow myself to see anyone that I didn’t know what they had been doing and of course that can spur mental health effects as well. But for me, you know, I really did not want to risk getting COVID When we knew nothing about it.

Geoff Allix  15:14

DMT is something that’s dampening your immune system. Yeah, there we were increased risk. Hopefully, we’re coming out the other end. So, as someone who teaches mindfulness and meditation, then we sort of talked about the sort of Eastern methodologies and there’s Western medicine. So I think that things are changing somewhat in that I think, if we went back 20 years or so or more, then it was very much that if you talked about mindfulness that was taken in the same way as you talking about crystals but now actually, the Western medicine, certainly my medical team actually put it as one of the things I should be doing, they’re saying, you know, consider stress reduction and mindfulness and different techniques. And they actually, so it’s become part of sort of Western medicine. And it’s not seen as something that’s a hippie-ish sort of thing to do. But so do you see that mindfulness is central to wellbeing?

Melanie Lown  16:31

Yes, so mindfulness has really gained momentum in Western spheres in the past, you know, 50 years. And even as you’re saying, in the past 10 or so years, it’s really gained momentum in western medicine. You know, my doctor also speaks highly of mindfulness and meditation. And there’s a lot of evidence that supports this. I’m gonna talk a little bit about. Well, first, I’ll share a little bit about my personal engagement with mindfulness and meditation, and then I’ll get into a little bit of research and evidence. So I believe that when we are able to live more mindfully, we can have a less judgmental and less attached perspective of our life and our experiences. This is key for individuals with MS. It can be really scary when you’re experiencing symptoms or when you’re going through a relapse or a diagnosis. And so allowing yourself to be less personally attached like it’s part of your identity, can have significant effects on your overall well being. And mindfulness does allow us to step outside of ourselves and see things with a little bit more curiosity and a little bit more objectively. So, I will share a little bit about the research because this is foundational to my work, and I believe in it wholeheartedly. So there are fMRI functional MRI scans of experienced meditators that show that our default mode network is going to be quieter and slower than that of individuals who don’t meditate at all. The default mode network is active when we are ruminating, or daydreaming, or scanning for threats. Even when you get like likes on social media, your default mode network is active. And it’s called the default mode network because we don’t need to engage it, it just happens. It’s like our default state. And depending on the research you look at it can be active 50% of the time or more. So it occupies a lot of our brain activity. It’s sometimes referred to as the me network, because it is how we find our sense of self and our identity and solidify ourselves as separate from the rest of the world. So in some ways, it helps us understand, you know, our self and how we interact with the world. But when we are engaged in meditation and mindful living, we can drop into more of an understanding of ourselves as part of the worlds more of an existential understanding of what we’re doing here on this world, our purpose and our meaning. The research that supports my program at Columbia shows that the the regions of our brain they’re active when we are spiritually active, so that’s not crystals or hippie or woowoo, or any of that. But it’s more of how we are part of something larger than ourselves and how we are okay with engaging with this part of our world that we may not have right in front of us. When we are spiritually active, that region of our brain is the same, that’s active as when you’re depressed, it’s like opposite sides of the same coin. So with this, we can see that, okay, when I’m spiritually active, or when I’m seeing myself as part of something, you know, larger than I can explain and engaging with this world. I’m understanding existentially what my meaning and purpose is. Then that is protective over the disease, that diseases of despair like depression, anxiety. So really, meditation and mindfulness are a vehicle to protect us from the diseases of despair. And it can actually change the way that our brain is shaped and of course, functions.

Geoff Allix  20:58

So this is something that’s there’s a mindfulness record, a recording that I quite often listen to. Just on there’s a service called Insight Timer that I use quite a lot. And there’s a guy on there, he’s called Davidji.

Melanie Lown  21:15

I know, Davidji.

Geoff Allix  21:16

He says on his Iintro piece, that if you do his sessions for six weeks, you actually change physically change your brain. So he doesn’t he doesn’t give any evidence. He doesn’t say, citations or anything. So I’m like, Okay, I know, he says this. I don’t have any knowledge, or, you know, I don’t know, what you just saying it or not. Is there actually literally a physical change?

Melanie Lown  21:45

There is literally physical change. And, you know, I’m one of the things that I think is so beautiful about material science and evidence based, especially when we’re discussing themes of spirituality and existential understanding is that we have this physical evidence, you know, that’s kind of nudging us to trust in a post material world. And I think sometimes, especially individuals who really appreciate logic and science, sometimes, you know, they don’t necessarily trust in what they can’t see. And I’m not saying you need to trust in any specific religion, or you know, that it has to look any certain way, it doesn’t have to look any certain way, we just have this understanding of ourselves as part of a larger picture, and that we’re engaging with that regularly, that that can change the physical structure and function of our brain is absolutely stunning. And I love it. And it just, it’s part of the reason that I just am so pulled to this work constantly.

Geoff Allix  23:04

How are you able to, to tie those two things up? So you trust in science, but then you’re also open to new thoughts on the unknown and existential things that so it does seem that there’s, you’re in that sort of crossroads between where we are with the science side and where we are with completely the complete mystical side.

Melanie Lown  23:33

I love that you said crossroads, because I see it as balance. So I don’t think it’s, you know, at a fork in the road where you’re choosing which direction to go, which, you know, we talked about at the beginning, that was one reason I loved OMS because I did feel like and everything’s so polarizing in our world, right? Like everyone wants you to choose a team. And I think if we can just take a step back from that, like need to be on a team, and just look at how can I balance these two things? So Dr. Lisa Miller is the founding director of my program at Columbia, and her longitudinal 20 year research is what showed that in fMRI scans, depression and spirituality used the same neural pathways, which is stunning research is the opposite side of the same coin. And that’s a 20 year study. Anyways, I digress. So she has a book The Awakened Brain, I highly recommend it. In her book, she discusses the awakened side and the Achieving side and that both are really necessary for interacting with our world as we know it. You know, we are humans. We have a human brain, we’re on this world, we cannot live in the spiritual realm 100% of the time, we’re just not going to have effective interaction with our experiences as we know them. So in allowing for our awakened brain to drop in and understand more of the core essence of who we are not like our job title, not how the world identifies us, not by a diagnosis, you know, not by by saying I have an MS diagnosis, none of these things are really the essence of who we actually are. So by understanding that part of ourselves, but also understanding and allowing space for our achieving brain, which is how we’re going to interact with this world. And that, well, I do need some kind of sense of self, I don’t need to attach to that sense of self. And I don’t need that to guide me. But I mean, I am a person, I am a human, you know, that wears two shoes every day and or whatever it might be, you know, that’s a really important part of our brain too. And we really do have to activate both sides of our brain. So for me, that’s how I look at science and more of intuitive living or conscious living, you could even say, it’s not like, one or the other. But it’s more of a balance between the two. And like we talked about earlier, it’s allowing the material science to, which is saying here, you know, here are brain scans of brains of individuals who engage in a post material world, it’s a worthwhile pursuit, to not trust solely and need material science, but to also trust in what we say in my program posts, material science, or science, that’s something we cannot see. Because there is actually beautiful science of the post material world too, and gaining more and more.

Geoff Allix  27:08

And if you go back far enough, then loads of things that are now science were then magic. If we go back 2000 years, then magnetism would probably been the same, they wouldn’t have understood it. And all these things they just didn’t understand. People thought that things flying with some form of magic things that magnetism would be magic, or all these things that we now just think, oh, no, that’s just we understand how that works. There aerodynamics or that’s magnetism, or that’s gravity, or whatever we understand. So I think it’s, I think science is just that a lot of these things once is enough evidence they just get shifted from what was mystical into, I think that’s where mindfulness probably is that now, isn’t it sort of shifting from a mystical thing into a science based thing?

Melanie Lown  27:54

Definitely. And that’s such an incredible point. And that’s really the function of how I see science, it is informing more critical thought for us to ask more critical questions. I mean, the reason we didn’t have science on these things before is because we didn’t ask the questions. So just because something isn’t evidence, like you can’t see tangible evidence right now, doesn’t mean that the evidence doesn’t exist, it just means maybe someone hasn’t asked the questions yet. And we have to be, you know, we have to use that balance of our awakened brain in our achieving brain to ask ourselves, you know, and to employ, a little bit of intuition like, Okay, do I think that this could be true, or does this just seem so far fetched? And it might be a different answer for different people. And that’s okay, too. I also really recommend Cured by Dr. Jeffrey Rediger. He’s a Harvard MD. And he studies spontaneous healing. And, you know, he really pushes the point that science, the function of science should be to ask more questions, and to allow the information that you get to spur on more critical questions, and not necessarily to just be hard and fast facts that we don’t think critically about.

Overcoming MS  29:12

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Geoff Allix  29:30

And could I ask you to explain a bit more about how the nervous system interacts and connects with the mind the body and spiritual health.

Melanie Lown  29:39

Yes, definitely. This is so key, I think to us understanding our experiences a little bit better and understanding the connection between the mind and the body. So I’m sure you’ve heard of fight flight freeze fawn response. because this is when our sympathetic nervous system is activated. And our ancestors may have had our sympathetic nervous system activated when you know, the classic example is a lion is chasing you so they can flee from the threat. But today, it’s overused and not as functional. Of course, there are situations when we do need to activate our sympathetic nervous system, and it’s functional, but it is often used maladaptively. So your boss may text you and be like, I need to see you at 8am And your sympathetic nervous system is activated. And all of a sudden, you have this chemical response and release of things like cortisol and adrenaline, that are going to cause inflammation and cause you to react in a very narrow way. Because your body is saying, we need to solely focus on life preservation. So because your boss texted you and needs to see you at 8am. Now your body is saying we need to survive, and it’s maladaptive. It’s not necessarily needed. And this can happen throughout our day, you know, over and over again, mindfulness can allow us to notice that and if we are living a little bit more, we talked about, you know, objectively, and curiously, we can notice, oh, you know, I’m feeling a bit of anxiety, I’m feeling you know, maybe my chest is tightening, or my shoulders are coming towards my ears. You know, actually, maybe what’s happening is physiologically, there’s cortisol and adrenaline releasing in my body, and this is what’s going on. And that’s that mind body connection. So we can slow this down with self compassion, which I’m excited to talk a little bit about. Self compassion can actually activate the parasympathetic nervous system. So it’s going to press pause on that loop of their sympathetic nervous system, which is, remember, we said solely focused on life preservation, and allow for a broader perspective to come in and look for other resources, harness resilience. And the parasympathetic nervous system, again, has a mind body connection, it’s releasing oxytocin. And we can do this if we’re able to comfort ourselves. So I may say to myself, you know, this is hard for me right now, or you’re gonna be okay. And it’s really effective. If you can imagine, like a friend saying it to you or a mother figure. Because that’s actually going to create a physiological response to allow you to slow down and employ your mind. Yeah, but I was gonna go somewhere else with this, oh, one thing I wanted to say this is really important. So those mantras, you could say that you’re saying to yourself, they’re not affirmations, I’m actually not a big affirmation person. So it’s not the same as looking at yourself in the mirror and saying, you know, you are beautiful, or you’re the best at your job, you know, it’s, it’s very different. The purpose is to soothe and comfort and soften. And that’s what’s gonna release the oxytocin and slow down the sympathetic nervous system so that we can broaden our perspective a little bit more and see things more objectively and clearly.

Geoff Allix  33:30

So, so mindfulness can reduce the negative emotional aspects, but also increase the positive emotion aspects.

Melanie Lown  33:39

Definitely. Yeah, and, you know, I love positive psychology. But I do want to qualify that, you know, emotions are not necessarily positive or negative. They’re just that they’re emotions so they can inform our experience, they are part of our experience, they can, you know, our experience is not necessarily guided by them. They encompass our full experience and they’re not necessarily good or bad. And really, when we start to get tied up in that it can get right back into the mind body connection as our body anticipates what’s going to happen negatively or positively. But Western psychology and specifically positive psychology uses positive and negative for ease of communication and clarity. So yeah, I might refer to things as positive and negative today too for ease of clarity, and, you know, yeah, the same reason that Western psychology uses positive and negative so often.

Geoff Allix  34:51

People with MS. have almost always got a whole team of people that are involved in their care. And if not, I would encourage people to look at that because I think certainly I, there’s a whole load of people. So there’s over like, there’s at least four or five different specialists I’m in regular contact with. And sometimes actually, it’s just because people haven’t looked out and they don’t realize that there’s a specialist physiotherapist for neurological conditions or there’s, you know, there’s MS nurses there’s your neurologist, and it’s always different people. So how, how would that how would mindfulness self compassion affect and adjust choosing people who are part of that team of people who are helping your treatment of MS?

Melanie Lown  35:44

Yeah, I love that question. I love to think of it as like curating your table of people. So you have, like, however many seats you want to have at your table, and you get to invite these people to sit down, I remember the beginning of my diagnosis, I felt, you know, like, I really only had the option of the doctor’s clinic that I could get into first. And over time, I’ve allowed myself to really curate, like you’re saying, like more of a group of people that I feel really aligned with, and that we see the treatment process, and just the whole, you know, experience the same. I think mindfulness is really important in this for several reasons. Of course, it allows us to understand what is important to us, it provides more insight into what we really prioritize in our treatment and in experience of our disease overall, which of course, is going to inform the doctors that we choose to work with. But it also brings about the beautiful construct of impermanence, and that this can change at any time, you know, just because you invite someone to sit at your table does not mean that they get a permanent seat at the table, as you change and as things evolve, not only with your disease, but with you because again, your disease is not a label that identifies your true core essence of who you are, that’s going to change or that could change. And so you might want to, you know, consider that the seats aren’t necessarily fixed, that they can rotate, or you can invite other people in, or you can choose to let someone not sit at your table anymore. And for self compassion, this was really key for me, when choosing to go on a DMT. At the beginning, I just looked at the risks solely, you know, I mean, talk about narrowing in on life preservation, that’s what I was looking at, I was not broadening my perspective to incorporate how these things could benefit me. And if I felt like the benefits were necessary to my experience, I ultimately decided that it was, you know, I made that decision in talking with my medical professional and doing my own research, and then also in sitting with myself and choosing that this felt inherently right. And that this was something I wanted to do. After I made that decision. First of all, I had to be soft with myself throughout that process, because it was a difficult, it was a difficult decision to come to for me personally. So I’m saying to myself throughout the process, like this is hard, it’s going to be okay. And this is hard. And you know, that is that is part of the experience, that’s okay. But then I also had to continue to be self compassionate with myself after I chose to do this. So like, every time I take my medication, because I’ve chose this decision with confidence. I say to myself, as I’m taking my medication, not out loud, just in my head, you know, this is benefiting me, this is something that I chose to do that is benefiting me, and this is for the good. And it’s not, you know, it’s not focusing on the risks, but it’s focusing on the benefits. That doesn’t mean the risks aren’t still there. And I’m aware of them. I’m balancing my achieving brain with my awakened brain, but that I’m choosing to focus on the benefits and allow those, you know, positive emotions to augment each other. So yeah, that’s how I believe mindfulness and self compassion is really important when we’re choosing our care team. And if we choose, you know, whether or not to take a DMT.

Geoff Allix  39:51

So a part of the podcast we have a coffee break series where we just talk to people who are following Overcoming MS. who don’t have a particular expertise typically. And it’s just really about just getting to know the people from the community. And I would say we always ask the same questions to them. And one of the questions is the things that they find hardest man in terms of the Overcoming MS pillars. And I would say that two thirds to three quarters, say mindfulness is the most. And I can kind of understand I mean, I would say, actually, that’s probably it’s the same for me, because it’s quite easy to because I just don’t eat dairy. And so it’s just a thing I don’t eat. It’s almost like, I didn’t have anything poisonous. But I wouldn’t have gone round at random mushrooms from the fields without identifying them first. It’s kind of like that. I don’t do that. Because I know it’s bad. It’s very easy. Exercise, it’s just a regular thing. Okay, you know, do these sessions. Okay, I know that. And mindfulness, I think, because it’s something that sort of fits in around anything else, it was sort of it is an easy one to let slip. And so personally, I don’t know what you’re going to say. But, um, personally, I find if I keep a journal of, so I keep a journal of everything I’ve done with sort of MS things that day. So it’s like, okay, these things I’ve done. And this was the mindfulness session that I did. And just because I write it down, then I just know that if I didn’t write down yesterday, or like, you know, I won’t be obsessive about it. But I know that I know if I’ve done it or not done it. And it’s I do it the same with I’m doing a thing at the moment where I’m doing a, just an app for press ups. And it’s sort of, apparently I’ll get you 100 Press ups. I don’t believe that, but okay. It’s like every other day, I’ve got to do so. And it just sort of like tells you, you got to be do like, if I keep with that, then I’ll certainly improve. And I’ve done this several times. And if I don’t write it down somewhere, I just start forgetting to do it. But it’s similar to that. So it’s a few things like, Okay, I’ll get these things done. So what would you say to people who find it difficult to, to bring mindfulness. And when I’m saying mindfulness, I mean, I’m taking any forms of meditation, mindfulness, or, you know, whatever they choose to do into their daily life, lifestyle.

Melanie Lown  42:23

So, you know, we can think of meditation. And mindfulness is actually two different things. Meditation is kind of the umbrella that mindfulness lives under. And there could be other things under that umbrella like yoga. But meditation is kind of an active practice. And mindfulness is what we’re focusing on coming back to the present moment, you know, non judgmental attachment to this moment. So I would say that it is a practice, and it is an activity just like exercise is an activity. Or just like not eating dairy is really a practice. So it’s not something that you’re going to get right away, or really ever get. And I think that’s really key. It can be very frustrating. My own experience is that, you know, okay, I have this really seemingly simple experience with meditation. And then the next day, I had a really frustrating hard time staying in the present moment. And then the next day was like, a little easier. And then the next day was like, really hard. It’s not linear at all. And that can actually make it fun and exciting. And if we look at it, non judgmentally can bring in the, the element of curiosity and playfulness to your practice, too. So I think infusing those concepts like curiosity, playfulness, non judgement, can be really key, because we’re not trying to, which, of course, in our western world, we want to achieve everything and do it the best, right? But that’s not really the goal. It’s about dropping into that true essence, understanding yourself gaining insight. And also, just coming back to the present moment, again, and again. More foundational tips that I would have is to start small, you know, even two, three minutes. You had mentioned Insight Timer, that’s a great app. I love Insight Timer. You can find teachers that really resonate with you. I should be on Insight Timer by the end of the year. So look out for me on there. Maybe some of my meditations will resonate with you, but yeah, I think finding someone that you feel is easy to listen to not distracting, but that is you know, just fits in your style of meditation because of course, you’re gonna come to it with a different, everyone’s going to have a different style of learning and how they want to meditate, which can also be fun to learn over time. And we’re gonna go back to self compassion, of course, you know, have compassion with yourself that even if it’s not the best meditation you’ve ever had, you gained, you know, zero insights, and were completely distracted. You sat down and you practiced, and it counts. And, yeah, just to be soft with yourself.

Geoff Allix  45:36

First I have to say there’s other apps and things available, as well as InsightTimer. We’ve mentioned that one, there’s, there’s Headspace. There’s all sorts of others Insight time is nice, because it’s free. Yeah. And it’s I think it’s on all the platforms. I think it can. I don’t think it’s on computers. I think it’s smartphones, but I do serve Yeah, to your phone, some Android and iPhone. So yeah. But there are lots of other ones. So we’re not promoting that necessarily.

Melanie Lown  46:01

No, no, we’re not. We’re not promoting it. Yeah, I do think I’ll also mention, though, just one reason why I am fond of it is because it has so many different teachers on it. So you can explore who resonates with you. But you can find teachers on YouTube, a lot of teachers on YouTube, as well that are free. And you can explore and play with different styles that resonate with you. I sent some suggestions that should be linked to this.

Geoff Allix  46:33

Yeah, there’s going to be show notes. If you’re watching on some sort of platform with notes underneath, it’ll be on there. If not, then you can check through the Overcoming MS website and this show notes, which have all the links, so yeah, perfect.

Melanie Lown  46:47

Yes. And there’s, oh, sorry, I was just gonna say, there’s also book recommendations and the articles that support some of this evidence, if you want to go check that out for yourself, too.

Geoff Allix  46:58

I just wanted to come back to the point you had then. Because I remember I had one amazing session of mindfulness, where my mind didn’t get distracted. And for quite a long time, I was just completely in the zone. And then afterwards, I thought, I’ve nailed this. Now I can do this. And what you were saying about the up and down I think then actually it was a problem. Because then I was a bit obsessed. I was like, why can’t I get back to the you know, I’ve worked out I can do it. So why can’t you do it every time but I think that’s something you need to learn is you can’t do it every time. And don’t beat yourself up. Because it’s because it was that moment of doing it. Like having an amazing session actually almost for a little while made things worse. Because I was like, Well, why can’t I do that well, right, I was judging myself.

Melanie Lown  47:54

Right? And, yeah, non judgmental awareness is one of the core qualities to mindfulness. And just remember, you know, as we were talking about your default mode network, that’s what meditation and mindfulness is over time quieting, and that’s active more than 50% of the time, it’s a, an unrealistic expectation to sit down and think I’m gonna have a beautiful session every time. And like you’re saying, you know, there is there is almost, if you can see a little bit of humor in it, you know, you have this great session, and then you have this expectation. And how frustrating it can be, you know, when you when you go in with that expectation, and it doesn’t happen. That is definitely reflective of my own experiences, too.

Geoff Allix  48:40

And with that, firstly, thank you very much for joining us.

Melanie Lown  48:46

Great, I really appreciate it.

Geoff Allix  48:48

And just to encourage people to do check out the show notes, because there’s lots of you provide lots of resources. So it’s really, really useful, and your own website as well, and everything is listed in the show notes, so check out the resources.

Melanie Lown  49:02

Yes, very much. Thank you.

Overcoming MS  49:07

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] We’d love to hear from you. Living well with MS podcast is for private non commercial use and exists to educate and inspire our community of listeners. We do not offer medical advice. For medical advice please contact your doctor or other licensed health care professional.

Melanie’s Recommended Books

  • The Awakened Brain by Dr. Lisa Miller
  • Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff
  • How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
  • Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
  • Cured by Jeffrey Rediger
  • Learned Hopefulness by Dr. Dan Tomasulo

Melanie’s Recommended Scientific Articles:

  • Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American psychologist, 60(7), 678.
  • Miller, L., Bansal, R., Wickramaratne, P., Hao, X., Tenke, C. E., Weissman, M. M., & Peterson, B. S. (2014). Neuroanatomical correlates of religiosity and spirituality: a study in adults at high and low familial risk for depression. JAMA psychiatry, 71(2), 128-135.
  • Miller, L., Wickramaratne, P., Gameroff, M. J., Sage, M., Tenke, C. E., & Weissman, M.M. (2012). Religiosity and major depression in adults at high risk: a ten-year prospective study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 169(1), 89-94.
  • Portnoff, L., McClintock, C., Lau, E., Choi, S., & Miller, L. (2017). Spirituality cuts in half the relative risk for depression: Findings from the United States, China, and India. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 4(1), 22.

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Melanie’s bio:

Melanie’s career

Melanie Lown helps individuals and organisations uncover inherent strength, balance, and ease through mindfulness and meditation workshops and consulting.

Melanie’s diagnosis

After journeying through a life-changing diagnosis with MS, Melanie became acutely aware that discomfort can serve as a gateway to equanimity and prosperity through mind, body, and spiritual engagement.

Melanie’s qualifications

Melanie holds an MA in Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. While at Columbia, she trained in the Spirituality, Mind, Body Institute and was a colleague in the Spirituality and Psychology Research Lab. Before her time at Columbia, Melanie was the Lab Manager for the Imagination and Cognition Lab in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. She has also studied at the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.

With her BA in Psychology and BFA in Dance, Melanie spent over a decade working in event production and teaching in public high schools.