FF 14: ‘Mindfulness for families’ with Charlotte Thaarup

Children’s chiropractor, Dr. Dorte Bladt, discusses the practice of mindfulness with Charlotte Thaarup of The Mindfulness Clinic.

Intro: Flourishing Families with Dorte Bladt, the Switched-On Kids chiropractor and her passionate friends sharing the secret of inspiring wellness to help your families thrive.

Dorte Bladt: I’ve got Charlotte Thaarup here today. I’m very excited. She’s from The Mindfulness Clinic. Charlotte, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Charlotte Thaarup: Well, I’m in a very privileged position because I work with what I’m most passionate about and I know it works. I see it on a daily basis. So, I work with mindfulness, and I have for the last 10 to 15 years. Of course, it’s extremely researched. They have 150,000 research documents and articles on it. Many of them are nonsense ones but nonetheless, it points to their effectiveness. Of course, what it does is that it mirrors and matches the ancient practice of mindfulness which sits within Buddhism and it matches that beautifully, so that’s exciting.  

Dorte Bladt: Just to make sure that we know that we’re all on the same page – what is mindfulness?

Charlotte Thaarup: That’s a good question because I think there’s so many different definitions. Some define the practice, some the outcome – that’s confusing in itself. So, if you are doing mindfulness, it’s a “doing” thing. It’s not something you can read in a book. Reading about mindfulness is not going to make you mindful because it requires awareness, so it is a practice where we start to get to know our minds. Of course, our mind is a result of our past, so we start to observe how the mind works so that we can direct it more in wholesome ways and away from unwholesome. That’s really what we’re doing.

Dorte Bladt: Can you give me an example because that sounds very beautiful, but I’m not quite sure if I can see it in my head.

Charlotte Thaarup: So you’ll notice thoughts – thoughts pop up all the time. You’ll also notice sensations – feelings in your body arise all the time, so when you observe something that comes up that’s not very pleasant, let’s say you observe jealousy, and you’ll notice that as a sensation that sort of sits in the chest and in the gut. You can go, “whoa, I better just breathe a little bit now so that doesn’t become a really big cloud.”

That’s one example when you catch it in the body and you just sit with it and you know it is a visitor. It’s not a truth. You can just be with it. You might notice a thought that goes, “oh, I don’t know why he’s saying that. What a stupid thing to say,” and you go, “whoa, whoa, whoa. Let me not continue further on that one.” Just take a few breaths and calm down and then see other options of thinking, because every time you think of a thought that’s kind of charged in that way, you’re strengthening what we call the angry, greedy, arrogant, reactive wolf within, and what you want to do is you want to kind of dial that down. Every time you follow those neural pathways you strengthen it.

We want to really dial that one down while we enhance the other. I think that’s what we’re talking about today, how we enhance the happy, healthy, wholesome wolf within and one of those ways, of course, is gratitude.

Dorte Bladt: Okay, so going back to that, you say we have thoughts that are going on in the back of the head, and I think we all do, we have several types and lots of stuff going on. What I’m finding is that I myself frequently realise that I don’t hear the voice. It’s sitting almost like the subconscious.

Charlotte Thaarup: Yes, an undercurrent.

Dorte Bladt: But is that a voice that you work with in mindfulness?

Charlotte Thaarup: I love that question because the first practice of mindfulness is not mindfulness of thought. Actually, that’s the last. The first one is mindfulness of the body. If you have undercurrents, which we all do, of kind of negative or frustrated, stressful, resentful, impatient, which again we all do, then you will notice that actually they arise from a body state that matches that. It’s so clear that, from a very calm and contented body state, those thoughts cannot arise. So, that means when you’re working on keeping your body calm you’ll also naturally have a calmer mind.  

Therefore the first practice in mindfulness is mindfulness of the body. That means we’re always checking in with where is your body at? When the body is an anxious or uptight or what we call charged state then our first responsibility is to calm that down.

Dorte Bladt: How would you do that?

Charlotte Thaarup: I love that question, too. The first thing is to pay attention to where that charge is in the body. You can also – and this works really, really powerfully – you can simply place your hand over your body, over your heart or where the charge is, and then you pay attention to the warmth and you’re just in the mind reassure the body, “dear body, it’s okay. It’s okay. We’re safe and all is well.”  

That just down-regulates and you’ll notice it happens very, very quickly. Even if you’re prone to panic attacks you can do that. You may, if it’s a panic attack, need a little bit more of an attention grabber, which could be a slight pinch in the inner arm, because as soon as you pinch and you feel the pain your attention goes to the pain and away from the generation of the anxiety. Does that make sense?

Dorte Bladt: Totally.

Charlotte Thaarup: You can also, of course, do what we call the five magic breaths, and it’s all on my website, where you’re just doing a longer out-breath and in-breath which gets you into the parasympathetic nervous system, but sometimes if we have a real charge, we can’t even access that so the body is the first place to down-regulate.

Dorte Bladt: Very good. How would you explain that to, let’s say, a school child because I’m sure you’re aware that kids are under more stress than they’ve probably ever been before, and I have definitely experienced a lot of kids that come in and have issues with anxiety and they’ve got nightmares, they’ve got a lot of stuff going on. Does this work in children?

Charlotte Thaarup: Yes, beautifully. Actually, I had a young girl – she was only 11 – who came in and I showed her the little panic attack interrupter of the pinch. She came in the next time and she said, “look at all my bruises.”

Dorte Bladt: Poor thing

Charlotte Thaarup: But that’s much better than training the wrong neural pathways.  So absolutely they get it. They also get it from the perspective of “your dear body just wants you to be safe” and it gets a little overactive in that way. It is your job to check out is there a real danger and if there isn’t, then you calm it down – but don’t rely on the mind. Look around and see; if there’s no great buses coming your way, most likely you are safe, because the mind, once your body is charged, as we said before, is going to look for the dangers. That’s how it’s trained.  

So children like the idea that, “oh, so I have to work in collaboration, in effect, with my body to calm it down”. So when my heart is racing, I can just put my hand over there and I can say to the heart, “dear heart, it’s okay. We’re safe and all is well. We’re safe and all is well.” Children get it very quickly.  

Dorte Bladt: Children probably actually get it quicker than the rest of us that are going to sit there and think “is that going to work? How is that going to work? How is that going to affect the hormones?”

Charlotte Thaarup: That’s right. I had a lovely friend who said to me, I just want to tell you how it worked for my son. She’s been doing the Dear Body Program and so she shared that with him when he was sick, and he was really in a state, and she said, “let’s just sit and talk to your dear body.”  

And he just put his little hand, he’s six, his hand on his body and he just kept caressing the body and going, “dear body, dear body,” and he just, of course, got out of that very anxious and upset sick state to a calm and he said, “my body is a little better now, mummy.”  

Dorte Bladt: That’s beautiful.

Charlotte Thaarup: So children get it.

Dorte Bladt: So there’s a lot of advice around suggesting we should meditate every day, but what’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

Charlotte Thaarup: I’d say that mindfulness is a type of meditation. Meditation can be a guided meditation. There are many different types of meditations but mindfulness is a practice. It’s a type of meditation where we’re really observing the mind. That’s the key thing. So, you might have some lovely meditations where you’re sort of following a wandering path or being with nice light, etcetera. That’s all good and lovely but it’s not mindfulness training.  

So technically speaking, it doesn’t help you get to know your mind.  It takes you to a good place and it strengthens the right neural pathways but it doesn’t get you to know the mind. That’s where the power is in order to create, to feed the right wolf, if you like, getting to know it.  

Dorte Bladt: I might be putting words into your mouth here but what I hear you say is it’s almost like mindfulness is a way of living, where mindfulness is retreating a little bit from living. Am I wrong?

Charlotte Thaarup: That meditation is?

Dorte Bladt: Meditation is a place where you sit down, you remove yourself, you go for your wandering path uphill to the beautiful waterfall.

Charlotte Thaarup: Yes, like an escape almost.

Dorte Bladt: Yes, like you are removing yourself from the situation. What I hear you say is mindfulness is almost something that you’re doing with your eyes open. You’re in a situation. You might be in front of a teacher that’s a little bit scary and you can actually, at that particular point, in a conscious way tell your body to do what it maybe would be better off doing rather than going into this panic state.

Charlotte Thaarup: Yes. Yes and no, because what you’re describing is the mindful way of living where you’re observing in life what’s going on and down-regulating. However, it’s very hard to catch yourself out in that way unless you do some formal practice, so all the good research is based on a minimum of 10 minutes a day over an 8-9 week period, because that down-regulates your system in the first place.  

It also sharpens your attention muscles so that you start to be able to observe what’s actually going on and of course you generally become more aware. So, then we have informal practice and formal. Some of the ones I actually talked about before are informal practices but we shouldn’t ignore the formal practice. It’s really, really important. Particularly if you’re feeling high levels of anxiety, your 10 minutes a day is all it takes to make a big difference in your life. You just start to sleep better, for instance, and we know that not sleeping is one of the early indicators of mental illness and all sorts of mental challenges, if you like. So mindfulness is very, very linked to creating much better sleep. Quality and length of sleep. So the formal practice, don’t ever ignore that or dial that down.  

Dorte Bladt: Okay. I want to return to that in a minute but I just heard you say a couple of times “down-regulating the system” and you also mentioned the “parasympathetic system”. Can you maybe explain a little bit about what you mean by that?

Charlotte Thaarup: So, we have something called the amygdala that some of your listeners may know about, and they’re deeply embedded in the old brain. They are little threat-alerters, if you like, so as soon as there’s a perception of threat, they get activated. When they’re activated, we see the world through a perspective of danger-danger, problems-problems.  

When it activates, the body changes actually. It changes from being potentially in a calm state, what we call the parasympathetic. It’s also called the rest-and-digest state.  That’s actually supposed to be our home base. It activates us into another state that’s about getting away from danger or moving towards what we think is going to feel good.

In that state, there’s kind of a depletion of resources, if you like, if it’s sustained. It’s a fantastic thing for just that little energiser, if you like, to move us up and get us into what we need to get away from or get towards something, but the problem is, in our culture more and more, we’ve kind of moved in there so we’re constantly living in that state. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. You can think of the analogy being firemen.  If there’s no fire, then what are they doing? They’re cooking, talking, preparing, maintaining, etcetera. Then the bell rings and they go out to the fire. Maybe some of us are living as if we’re always out putting out fires. Of course, they burn out and so do we.

Dorte Bladt: Burn out, yeah, literally.

Charlotte Thaarup: That’s right.

Dorte Bladt: Absolutely.

Charlotte Thaarup: Sorry, I didn’t answer that. The down-regulation is when you observe that you are in that state and then you bring yourself back to the rest-and-digest or the parasympathetic. You do that just by making a long out-breath and in-breath, by putting your hand on your chest and saying to your body, because it brings you into the present and the present you is not generating stress.

Dorte Bladt: That’s beautiful. That’s very nice. So, we’re talking about gratitude and gratitude being a type of mindfulness state, I suppose.

Charlotte Thaarup: Well, we talk about really from that perspective kind of strengthening the healthy. So, the healthy, wholesome wolf within and gratitude, along with love and compassion and joy is one of those domains that we strengthen. So, gratitude is a beautiful, healthy mind state. We all know that. If your listeners want to go and just put their hands like in the praying position and then bow their head and say, “thank you” just try that for a moment. “Thank you.”

Dorte Bladt: Am I supposed to think what I was just thinking?

Charlotte Thaarup:  Yeah, you do that.

Dorte Bladt: I’m thinking “thank you”.

Charlotte Thaarup: What do you observe?  

Dorte Bladt: I actually observe a really nice light spreading out on top of my head.  It’s a bit like sunshine, sunrise. It’s very nice.

Charlotte Thaarup: It’s beautiful, isn’t it? So simple. You also notice a calming instantly.  A muting of the self and a calming. So, we consider that gratitude has always been part of human lives through our religions and we’ve kind of dropped it. We used to say grace. We used to do offerings and things and now we don’t do any of that and it’s at a great loss, because we almost do the opposite. We sort of sit in this idea that we deserve – we deserve everything, but no one – on the way into this life – promised that you’re going to get a special deal. Actually, we want but we were promised nothing.  Really, that’s the truth. We were promised nothing and when we really sit with that and we get, wow, we were promised nothing, then everything is kind of a bonus and that brings us to gratitude.

Dorte Bladt: That is a very good state to be in.

Charlotte Thaarup: Yeah.

Dorte Bladt: Taking you back to “we were promised nothing”, well, we’ve been born in Australia.

Charlotte Thaarup: Yes, at the right time – but you weren’t. We weren’t born in Australia, but in a Western-safe world at a time.

Dorte Bladt: So what can people do? Walking around with your hands folded on your chest is maybe not going to work so well. Are there other ways we can reach this state?

Charlotte Thaarup: Well, you notice that within a split second you were there so there’s no reason you can’t when you go to the toilet to do that. You go to the toilet many times a day and you get sort of a double dose of pleasure, right?  

You can do it when you wake up. You can do it between meetings. You can say a little grace and that before you start your food, for instance. There’s lots of ways we can integrate that little pause of opening the heart and bowing the head. That’s in effect what we’re doing. That I’m just a little human and I am grateful for the journey and the experience.

Dorte Bladt: So you mentioned… I can’t remember. That might have been before we started, but you mentioned the traditions that we have had and many cultures have that have integrated. This seems like the traditions that we have now are more of an escape, whether that’s watching something on TV or watching something on your phone, but it almost seems to be like a flight away from our present state. How do you feel that we can potentially create more of that grounded presence into our culture in 2018?

Charlotte Thaarup: Again, we come back to the body. So, when you sit down in a chair… and children are really easy to get into the body because they are in the body in the first years. We all are. So, the problem – we just get out of them when we start to identify with our heads, so we get back into the body. As we’re sitting on a chair, you become curious around the sensations of your bottom against the seat, of your feet against the floor, of your hands, of what you see, of what you hear, what you taste and what you smell. So, you come back to your senses. It’s actually a really rich place to be in.

Dorte Bladt: Yes. Almost a little bit of a moment when you point it out like that. Lots of things to pay attention to.

Charlotte Thaarup: That’s right and as soon as we’re in this with our senses, we’re present. Also, I think we’d be kind of curious with ourselves and what am I trying to escape from? Some of it just bad habits. You know, social media and those things are geared towards addiction. They give us a little dopamine squirt that is just a little hormone that squirts so that we keep doing it. Is it all right when you’re 84 to have spent a lot of time on that? The average amount of hours that Australians spend in front of a screen right now are 46 hours a week.

Dorte Bladt: Per week!

Charlotte Thaarup: So is that a good use of time?

Dorte Bladt: 46 hours a week that’s more than the minimum weekly work hour or work time.

Charlotte Thaarup: That’s right.

Dorte Bladt: That is outrageous.

Charlotte Thaarup: Many of us, of course, use screens for work as well, but nonetheless does it deliver the life quality? Or just take a moment of gratitude, for instance, and notice the difference. What are the experiences? Which are the wolves you want to feed in that space?  

Then there’s a lovely little gratitude practice that’s an ancient – sort of a mature person’s gratitude practice, because many of these things, like gratitude, it gets hijacked by the West. It becomes kind of… I always think of candy floss. It becomes like a candy floss thing rather than really substantial, nurturing practice that they intended to be. Whether you do that with your partner or with your children at night or whatever, it’s very simple. You just say, “what have I received?”

Dorte Bladt: Today? As in, this is the tradition you’re trying to make for a night time ritual?

Charlotte Thaarup: Yes. Exactly. “What have I received?” “What have I given?” And then, “What difficulties may I have caused?”  

Sometimes we think, “oh, that’s a bit hmm-hmm” but just the fact that we perhaps had chicken for dinner that means that something suffered for us, and it brings us back into humility, so for the grace of God, and which brings us back into gratitude. So it’s a lovely, round, circular practice of gratitude, appreciation, humility and reflection.

Dorte Bladt: That’s very nice. Do you have any experience with that particular practice with children? Like you say, it’s easy to do with children, but what are the changes that you have observed, maybe?

Charlotte Thaarup: I get lovely stories back from… so I mainly work with adults apart from our Mindful Caring Program. It’s so lovely that parents will say how they’ve shared this with their children and then the children will catch them out. They go, “oh, but mummy…” So the children become the teachers because they take to it so quickly.

Dorte Bladt: Coming back to being present in the body, they’re much better at not getting lost in all those thoughts that are going around and around and around. “Now, I need to… I know I’m reading you a bedtime story but really I have to go fill the dishwasher and I should put another load on in the washing machine and, oh, my goodness, lunches for tomorrow!” We’re just on that merry-go-round of what’s next, what’s next?

Charlotte Thaarup: Indeed. That’s right and I don’t want to add to the pressure of parenting because I think there’s so much we’re bombarded with but personally, I think apart from the basic things – ensuring that your children sleep and get some good food and lots of hugs and love, it is that you are in a state of calm for much of the time, because we know that little brains form in relation to big brains, so you’re contagious. Your words become their inner dialogue. So that calm state is a huge gift you can give to your children and also in terms of not generating their anxiety any further.  

Dorte Bladt: How many of us have experienced that where you hear your child say something that you think you’re not saying but it’s in your head and you think, “oh, my goodness! Where did you learn that phrase?” And you know that you might not say it in front of them but you think it. It’s like, oh, caught out.

Charlotte Thaarup: That’s right and our states are contagious. Work by Dr Dan Siegel, it’s very, very clear that you may not say a word, but almost the content, the state of your brain is being downloaded. So watch your state.

Dorte Bladt: Easier said than done but it can be done.

Charlotte Thaarup: But the good thing is we know how. We know how.  

Dorte Bladt: So we know how by what? Coming back into the brain?

Charlotte Thaarup: Down-regulating. Becoming aware. Your daily mindfulness practice. They’re five magic breaths, longer out-breath and in-breath. I have a lot of free resources on my website so you can just go to www.themindfulnessclinic.com.au.  There’s eight weeks of daily email reminders that are free. There’s all the nine mindfulness trainings that are free and lots of additional resources, because it makes a better world, to be honest.  

Dorte Bladt: So you have what? Nine? What did you say?

Charlotte Thaarup: So they’re the formal practices of the 10-minute mindfulness practice. There is a gratitude one there too. There’s self-compassion, there’s a goodnight one, there’s all different ones. If you’re new to it, I would suggest that you start with the gratitude. That’s a nice one, but also just the basic, what we call the ABCD, which is your basic attention training. There’s lots of research on the website around why that’s a good place to start. We know that our ability to manage attention is the most powerful predictor of a good life.  

Dorte Bladt: I have been interested in that. Can you tell me more?

Charlotte Thaarup: Well, the study is based on, you might have heard the Marshmallow Experiment. Have you heard of that?

Dorte Bladt: Yes.

Charlotte Thaarup: For the listeners who are not aware of it, it was done I think about 40 years ago in New Zealand. A group of children had a marshmallow placed in front of them and then the teacher says, “if you don’t eat that by the time I go and come back, you’ll get a second one.” A third ate it straightaway, a third waited, and a third was somewhere in between.  

So, 35 years later the researchers went back and interviewed these children and they were curious around how they had fared. What they found was those children that had managed their attention… and of course there are a couple of elements to that.  Like if they kept looking at the marshmallow, it would have gone. So they had to shift their attention from that and maintain it on something else and, at the same time, remember the reward.

There are kind of three domains in attention management. They found that those who had had, in every way, had better lives and that was much more of a predictor of a good life than the school they went to, the postcode, the profession of their parents and all of those other… and that’s from a very basic test around you haven’t gone to prison, you’re considered that you have a good family, stable family life, a good job, a good income, etcetera, which is really exciting but not surprising. Everywhere your attention goes, that’s where your experience flows. So you’re constantly experiencing things according to where your attention is and you’re forming your brain according to where your attention is.  

Dorte Bladt: It’s interesting that that whole thing of I remember hearing about this story but talking more about the delayed gratification. At the time when people told me about it, it had more to do with that thing of you will put in the work now and you will reap the benefits later. So they were talking about better education and maybe being able to build for a bigger…

Charlotte Thaarup: Reward.

Dorte Bladt: Yes, you can get a bigger house or whatever, but it is interesting that it actually affects everything else that you’re doing in all areas of your life… but yes, it makes sense if you can keep your attention on other tasks that is of most benefit to you and not what’s right in front of you makes perfect sense.

Charlotte, I thank you for your time. Can you just run through again, because it was a very long website, where can people get a hold of you?

Charlotte Thaarup: It’s the www.themindfulnessclinic.com.au and there are lots of resources in there. All the audios, the guided meditations, your eight weeks of free mindfulness reminder emails and many other good things, there’s podcasts and lots of things there, so enjoy.

Dorte Bladt: Sounds great. Thank you so much for coming.

Charlotte Thaarup: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Outro: The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Family Chiropractic or the host. Brought to you by Family Chiropractic Centre Charlestown, serving the families in Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and Charlestown.