03 - Mindfulness and Divorce, with Aurora Johannson
Did you know that you and your kids can use mindfulness to help manage the stress of divorce? Aurora Johannson shares with us how you can use the strategy of mindfulness to reduce your stress levels and make better decisions. Aurora is a mediator, family lawyer, mindfulness teacher and yogi in Kelowna, British Columbia. She enjoys peacemaking, meditating, teaching and the interconnectedness of all things.
Your host, Christina Vinters, is a nationally designated Chartered Mediator on a mission to inspire and facilitate healthy family transitions. She is an “ex” Divorce Lawyer (Non-Practicing Member of the Bar), Author of Pathways to Amicable Divorce, and the DIY Divorce Manual, and Peacemaking Business Consultant.
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Christina: Hey everybody! Welcome to the Divorce Well Podcast, today I'm talking to Aurora Johannson. Aurora is a Mediator, Family Lawyer, and a Mindfulness and a Yoga instructor. She has been a practicing Family Lawyer for over 8 years and just recently has started an innovative new practice, a law, and mediation practice which integrates Mindfulness into all of her processes.
Divorce can be such a stressful transition even when you and your partner are doing your best to make things go as smoothly and respectfully as possible. Aurora shares how using Mindfulness can help you manage your stress and improve your decision making. Check it out, it's a really great discussion.
Welcome Aurora, thank you so much for being here today. And I’m really thrilled that you’re actually here in person. This is my first in-person interview.
Aurora: Oh it's very exciting for me too!
Christina: So why don't you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got interested in mindfulness.
Aurora: Well, I am a parent, I'm a family lawyer and have been since 2007. I have a partner who I've worked with for several years. And a few years ago I started getting, I guess getting burnt out from work and from just having so many, different things to do in a day. And the work wasn't feeling like it really jived with me anymore. It was taking more than it was giving, and my sister actually had some experience with mindfulness so already, she'd gone to a couple of silent meditation retreats and I started looking into it and I believe it was her who told me about an app called "Insight Timer". Once I got onto that the rest just sort of flowed, and the more I learned about it, the more it made total sense to me. And I found very little in the Mindful Meditation, and Mindfulness practices, and teachings to really argue with. It just went with my own personality and my understanding about the world. I'm a big believer in physics actually, rather than religion, you know the interconnectedness of all things is really like a physics concept. Looking at electrons, and how we're all made up of, stardust. Actually, but when you really take it down to like a particle level, or an electron level it's true. So, that was one of the concepts that I.. I liked that there was this scientific basis to it as well, and I've gone from there.
Christina: Okay, yeah I've been reading that there have been quite a few, studies done in recent years on the physiological effects and benefits of Mindfulness. But why don't we take a step back, and for people who are not familiar with the concept, can you describe what exactly Mindfulness is? What do you mean when you're talking about Mindfulness?
Aurora: Right, so backing out of the whole universe, and having to understand all of those things. It's really a very simple concept. Mindfulness is awareness of the present moment that you're in. Because we really can't be anywhere other than where we are right now, but, we spend a whole lot of time if not even most of our time, either in past things that have happened going through our mind. How we could've done them differently, maybe even congratulating ourselves for things that went well. Or in future, things that could happen, or are going to happen. Everything from what we need to make for dinner, and laundry we need to do, to where we want our careers to go, and relationships and things like that. That's not a bad thing, those are natural things. That's how we work as human beings, we plan and we learn from our past. However, there's a lot of enjoyment and clearheaded thinking to be gained from being able to be present. And a lot of, sort of calming mental health effect as well. So it's just being aware of your, present situation. Right now, right here, I'm sitting on a chair across from you. I can feel the carpet under my foot. I can see the table in front of me, I'm aware of the temperature in the room and I'm not zoning out, I'm actually zoning in. I'm really aware of what my body's doing. What I can see, hear, feel that sort of stuff.
Christina: So it sounds like something that you would be practicing, basically throughout your day, rather than during a specific period of time. For me Mindfulness, sort of blurred together with meditation? Is meditation part of Mindfulness? Is that part of how you achieve Mindfulness? How do those two things connect?
Aurora: That's a really good question because meditation... you know sitting out lotus pose and saying "Om", is where many people go right off the bat. When the thing about Mindfulness, but actually, you're absolutely right. Mindfulness is a practice, that we have throughout our day, and many people all people probably have moments of Mindfulness in their day. Say you, this is a classic one, say you drive home, it's a day that you're kind of tired you've been working, it's been a long day, you drive home and you realize that you can't remember all the turns that you took on the way home. That moment when you realize that, and you recognize "Oh I''m home, I'm sitting in my car here." That's you coming back to the present moment. And what Mindful practice really is, is doing that over and over and over and over again. So, when your mind wanders, and you recognize that it's wandered, bringing it back.
One of the Mindfulness practitioners I listen to, I can't remember the name of the top of my head, but they talk about it, it's like training a puppy. You call the puppy to you, if the puppy doesn't come the first time, you don't go and beat the puppy. You don't chastise the puppy, or yourself when your mind wanders. You just go and get the puppy and bring it back to you. And so, where that intersects with meditation is that meditation.. a daily practice of meditating, I missed mine this morning and that's okay. I'll try and fit it in later today. But daily practice of meditation helps you grow the neural pathways that you need to have to be able to bring that puppy of your mind back.
Christina: Okay, interesting. So the meditation is actually sort of like the training ground to help you with your mindfulness throughout the day.
Aurora: Right, it's kind of like going to the gym. Yeah.
Christina: Okay so what would you say are the benefits of Mindfulness, both in general and also within the legal process. Why is this something that people should be considering?
Aurora: So looking at Mindfulness as a remedial activity, helping you with the problem. It can help you reduce stress, just looking at it for a period with a positive standpoint. Even when you aren't having a stressor, and your practicing Mindfulness, you may find that situations that would've stressed you out before, are less stressful.
I'm a family lawyer, my clients have a lot of stress. I had a lot of stress. When I started practicing Mindfulness, I noticed that that went way down. And it sort of increased my capacity to deal with things. When you think about, this is something that I got from our colleague Henry Yampolsky, from taking a course with him on Mindful Mediation, when you have a bunch of stressors in your life, you may be finding yourself feeling maxed out like you're at maximum capacity. How can you change that? It seems like the vessel that is us, is the size that it is, how can we affect our capacity to deal with things. You can actually increase your capacity, the space that you have to process, information and challenges, by practicing Mindfulness. Scientifically you can also shrink your amygdala which is where a lot of your stress response arises, I believe that's your reptilian brain people call it sometimes you fight or flight center. And what you want to be able to do is to respond to things rather than react and so if that system is not super powerful, but your capacity system, your space, your mindful awareness, is what's been strengthened, then when something comes up that's stressful you'll have the facility within yourself to deal with it.
Christina: That's one of the things that I read recently, was that the amygdala would become less sensitive, so you're less likely in a stressful situation, to have that fight or flight response triggered and you can respond more rationally or productively rather than a knee-jerk type reaction.
Aurora: I believe that's correct. That's my understanding of it. And that it physiologically actually become smaller, so less sensitive and smaller. A lot of people are fond of saying that the neurons that fire together wire together, and so if your neurons that are firing all of the time are in that stress reactivity mode, those are the ones that are being enhanced and growing. And if you're practicing your daily meditation for 5 minutes or 10 minutes or half hour, then that's what's being strengthened.
Christina: So then as, a family lawyer, how do you see all of these benefiting your clients who are going through the separation process?
Aurora: Well, I noticed that my clients have tended over the years to be largely preoccupied, and I can think of many meetings and there are countless more that I can't recall, where people getting to a.. really like a trance, where they even look like they're looking into a far-off distance, when they're telling me their stories about things that have happened to them, or things they wished had gone differently, or fears that they have about what can happen in the future and it's really important for me to know that story. But I notice that they'll get repetitive about it, not just in a way that I need to hear what they have to say, but in a way that they're really repeating this past history, or fear to themselves over and over again. And I've used Mindfulness practice as I've actually used they like, alright let's come back to the room it seems like we are way far off and somewhere that where we don't know anything about what's going on in the future yet, or what could. And I get drawn down there as well. and I realize, wait a second where are we? We are not in this room. Let's come back to the room and look at what we actually have any control over, which is ourselves. So it empowers the clients to get out of that mode of trying to figure out what another human being is going to do and persuading them or cajoling them to do or not do that, and to come back to what actually they can control and when they realize "Hang on a second, I'm driving the bus that is my life, that person's not steering anything, they can influence me but I actually have a lot of control over what I do in my life and my choices". It puts them in a place where they're going to make much better decisions for their lives and their children's lives, in future setting up the life that they want, rather than just reacting or responding to this how they wish people would be or they fear people will be. Also, it helps them deal with stress...
Christina: Which is, of course, prevalent for most people throughout the process.
Aurora: Yes. Yes, I've seen people actually, I believe I was practicing Mindfulness techniques with my clients for years and not realizing what it was. And it was very satisfying to watch my clients transform from the time they would come to me often very stressed, they were sometimes overweight, underweight, really visibly anxious looking, to living their own lives. And that was really exciting for me. And I can remember one of my clients particularly, who was just quite birdlike and quivering with anxiety, and over the next year, she just blossomed she found new work that she was able to choose just deciding herself. She didn't have to worry about what her partner, who she didn't get along with, was going to say and things like that, just a lot of like self-determination. And what I used to say to people was, it's okay to go out and have fun, it's okay to figure out what you want to do and to do that, I think the Mindfulness is one of the things that helps them with that. Figure out what those things are.
Christina: Right. Are there particular situations, or people for whom you think that this Mindfulness practice would be really well-suited? Is that something that everybody should consider or are there certain things where you can say, you know if this applies to you or if that applies to you this might be of particular benefit and you should really think about trying it out.
Aurora: I would say that it can benefit anyone or everyone. It's really a non-invasive thing because it's only you examining yourself. And being present with yourself, listening to yourself. That said, I would say that anyone who's curious about it would probably really benefit from it, maybe more quickly because they may have a little bit more excitement about it. But once people are practicing it, and seeing the difference that it can make, I think just about anybody could benefit from it. The only caution I would say is that we have a number of, well... myriad coping mechanisms and psychologists would be the people to talk to about that but we have a number of coping mechanisms, things like denial for example, that are in place for a reason. So if someone is really, say using denial as a coping mechanism, it's not for me to try to re-orient them and bring them out of that. Because they're using it for a reason and if they're still using it, my understanding is that, that's because they're not ready to let go of it. So, the thing to just be aware of when practicing mindfulness is that you can come across thoughts that are disturbing or upsetting to you. And that is a good time to get some professional assistance, somebody like a counselor who can help you to find other coping mechanisms or help you to investigate those things just so you're not going it alone.
Christina: Yeah, that's really good to know. So when you're having more awareness about your thoughts you might actually end up having upsetting thoughts or realizations and then that has to be dealt in a healthy way.
Christina: And I will be having some interviews with a counselor, and a coach, and so they will be able to shed a little bit of light on that too.
Christina: So, would you say that these types of principles can be shared well with children?
Aurora: Definitely, definitely. I introduced my oldest son to some meditations on the insight timer, there was a 20-day challenge, 20-day learn to meditate challenge, and it was one minute at each day. So Day 1 is 60 seconds long. And he really enjoyed that, he did it in the evening just as he was going to bed. He'd lay down in bed and he plugged in his tablet and used that app and he's so proud that he did that. He learned a lot about it. He's 11 years old and so when people at school are making jokes about meditation and doing that classic Om pose, which is part of it, but it's not all of it, and not everybody has to do it that way. But he knows that that's not necessarily what meditation is about.
Christina: Right. That's impressive. So he got up to 20 minutes?
Aurora: He got up to 20 minutes and he still uses it sometimes to help him fall asleep. He gets attention issues and so sometimes in the night when it's time to go to sleep, his brain is really active. A lot of our brains are at that time. So to be able to come back from the thoughts to lying in bed.
Christina: Would you say that using an app like that is a helpful way to get anybody started?
Aurora: Absolutely. It's really approachable and there's more than one app out there.
Christina: This is not an advertisement for that app. We will not be sponsoring this.
Aurora: This is not an advertisement for that app. What I would say is to find a way in, that's mindfulness talk. But it's also for lay people. Find a way, just try it and there are so many different types of meditation out there. There are groups that you can be part of in person, you can do guided meditations. A lot of people find guided meditations great to start. And then what I found myself is I started with guided meditations and then the better I got it doing those, the more consistent I was, the more I actually really started to crave trying to do it on my own just with a timer. So I use a timer now often. But sometimes you know it's Friday or Saturday or something, and I just feel like something different, and I'll find a new guided meditation.
Christina: Can you describe one of those guided meditations? What is that? Like, what are they saying to you?
Aurora: How are they programming me?
Aurora: No way. They are not programming me at all. Um, all right. Well, a common one, this sort of a favorite of a lot of people is a body scan meditation. And that's where you might start sitting or lying down if you're feeling drowsy. You might start sitting up and eyes closed or open, but in a place where you won't be interrupted during the time of the meditation. Both the shortest body scans are both 15 minutes.
Christina: Oh that's a pretty long to start of.
Aurora: It is but because you have instructions, the time sort of flies by. it gives you prons of what you're thinking about now. So for example, the one I'm thinking about by Elisha Goldstein, he starts out in I believe your right big toe. And you just basically go through many different areas of your body, working from your toes up, so you just start by just feeling your right big toe. And then into the ball of your foot, and to the ankle, because you'll notice probably throughout today after having this conversation that there are lots of parts of your body you just completely ignore all day. But you can bring your awareness to them at any time.
Christina: So for people who are right now feeling stressed and busy and overwhelmed are ready, what would one of those one-minute meditations look like?
Aurora: A 1-minute meditation may look just like coming to a comfortable seated position, closing your eyes and watching your breath. Just for the minute. While watching even your chest rise and fall, or your belly rise and fall. Anything rhythmic that's going on in your body, whatever you feel is comfortable to you. And here is the key: when you notice your mind has wandered because everyone's does. You just bring your attention back to that rhythmic item. Over and over again. And you may notice at the end of a minute that it's wandered for the entire minute, or not. And there's no wrong way of doing it. You just bring your attention back.
Christina: And then noticing of the whole mind wandering, that's the actual success part rate is that you've noticed and now you're coming back.
Aurora: Exactly. And there's a micro and a macro level to that. So, on the micro level, it's within that meditation. You notice your mind has wandered and you come back. On a macro level, it's about getting your butt on the cushion, or the kitchen chair, wherever you medicate. And for me for example, I haven't done my meditation today so I know on a macro level, I need to get my butt in the chair later on today.
Or if it's weeks between the last time you meditated than today, coming back to the meditation, you'll notice you've wandered away from it, come back to it. And non-judgment is one of the main tenants of mindfulness philosophy. Not beating yourself up when your mind wanders. And noticing that, that instinct to trust yourself.
Christina: Right. So what recommendations do you have for people who are going through the process of separation right now, and are hoping to separate peacefully?
Aurora: That is a big question. I think learning is much about yourself as you can. Learning in terms of mindfulness, what does your mind wander off to, and bringing it back? The more you can know about yourself, the better decisions you can make. You can notice when you're motivated by fear. That's something that is unlikely to happen. You can notice when you're motivated by anger or spite, or when you're doing something self-destructive. Or that might not be the best thing for your children. I've seen so many people who just wanna do best for their kids, and who gets side-tracked on some sort of spiteful venture. And I think as a parent, I don't even really judge that. I used to judge that so harshly. And now I think, we all have lots of things that we do regularly where we go "that was not my best parenting moment". But it doesn't mean that I'm a bad mom. But I mindfully notice.
And then I can go to my son and say "that really wasn't very cool what I just said, and I'm really sorry, can we try over? Come back to where we wanna be?" So yeah, I would say that the more you can learn about yourself, the more aware you can become, the better decisions you'll make. And also, the more opportunity there will be free to experience. Enjoy, even while this process is happening.
Christina: That's something that a lot of people might not have even considered possible.
Aurora: That's true. People who are having divorces and separations often go about it either as something should be avoided entirely or something where if they work really, really, really hard at it and dedicate all their time to it, it would go by faster. Or it'll be more successful. And that just isn't the case. Often they just sort of get in an obsessive kind of a thing where it's consuming their lives. But it's also about proportion. If you have even 20 minutes a day where you are taking time out to tune in, maybe failure body or enjoy looking at flowers or whatever it is that you like and actually enjoy that cup of coffee or tea you're having actually taste it, what does the liquid feel like in your mouth stuff like that, that time is time where you weren't stressing about your divorce.
Christina: Excellent. Thank you so much for sharing all of this great information, Aurora.
Aurora: It's my pleasure. I hope people will get turned on about mindfulness because I really feel confident that it can help.