Identifying Our Assumptions through Mindfulness

One of the aspects of self-awareness that is important to master is the assumptions we carry with us that impact our thoughts, perceptions, interpretations, emotions and behaviour.  We can be aware of the negative impact on us of the assumptions of other people but be blind to our own assumptions and their negative impact on others.

Earlier I wrote about the impact for me of my social tennis partners making assumptions about my capacity to play tennis, given my age.  Last week I fell into the same trap through my assumptions about another player.

I was playing social tennis with three other players, one of whom was a woman.  She offered to play with the weaker player and I found this hard to accept initially because I assumed that she would be a weaker player, despite her size.  This proved to be a false assumption as the woman player turned out to be the best player of the four of us.

The woman player had a particular style of hitting her ground strokes which meant that the ball levelled out when it hit the ground, making it very difficult to get a racquet under the ball.  I spent most of the social game reframing my assumptions about the woman player and trying to counter her game.

The moral of the story is that assumptions can blind us to possibilities and reduce our capacity to cope with reality.  Assumptions are like tunnels – they can distort our perception of others and of everyday occurrences.

Incorrect assumptions are often the cause of conflict in relationships because we tend to make assumptions about the motivation of the other person.  They, in turn, make assumptions about our motivation and act on their own erroneous assumptions.  We respond having confirmed in our own mind that our assumption about them were correct (confirmatory bias).  And so a conflict spiral is created built on increasingly entrenched, but inaccurate assumptions.

As we grow in mindfulness we become aware of the assumptions we hold, how they play out in our thoughts and emotions and how they are manifest in our behaviour.  Through mindfulness we can increase our self-awareness in this area, better deal with the challenges of our life, enrich our relationships and develop our creativity.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Handling Fear with Mindfulness

In an earlier post, I described a meditation process for handling fear that Tara Brach described by the acronym, R.A.I.N. – standing for Recognise, Accept, Investigate and Nurture.  In the current discussion, I would like to introduce a mindfulness meditation for addressing fear that is discussed and facilitated by Diana Winston.

In the meditation podcast, Working with Fear, Diana describes a process involving a number of steps that help to soften our bodily response to fear.  Diana explains that fear is a natural response to a perception of threat either imagined or real.  This deeply-embed biological response to perceived threat has accounted for the survival of the human race.

Fear is endemic, often unfounded and poorly managed

Increasingly, we are exposed to situations and pressures that tend to induce fear and anxiety, even when the fears are baseless.  We live in a time when anxiety is endemic – we are surrounded by people (including famous actors, singers, writers and sports people) who suffer from all-consuming fear and anxiety.   Much of this fear and anxiety is unfounded.  Diana points out that a recent study by Cornell University found that “85% of the things that we worry about never come true.”

One of the problems with our fear response is that we typically try to resolve the fear by thinking – by trying to think our way out of fear with the net result that this creates a vicious circle.  We tend to indulge our worst scenario thinking, “What will happen if…”, and these thoughts can intensify our fear and anxiety.  Unresolved fear can ultimately lead to a condition that the Mayo Clinic describes as “generalized anxiety disorder.”

Mindfulness provides an effective alternative to trying to think our way through fear and Diana proposes a meditation process that incorporates the following steps:

  • Being grounded through our posture
  • Taking a number of deep breaths
  • Focusing on our breathing and where it is experienced in our body – a process of mindful breathing (for 5-10 minutes) to still the mind
  • Undertaking an overall body scan to  identify and release areas of felt tightness and tension (a quick scan/release process that takes in the whole body)
  • Bringing our fear or worry into focus by thinking about a particular source of fear (preferably, one that is not disabling or too intense)
  • Undertaking a body scan to identify where the fear is manifesting in a particular part of our body – e.g., our arms, legs, back, neck and/or stomach.
  • Softening the muscles in the identified area that is manifesting the fear
  • Repeating the process of checking and releasing the bodily manifestation of our anxiety ( 3 times overall)
  • Coming back to our breath for a brief time and then returning to full awareness.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditations focused on our fear response, we can progressively reduce the fear and replace a sense of anxiety with a calmness and creative approach to resolving our fears.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Focusing Inward to See Clearly

So much of our daily lives is taken up with focusing on things that are external to ourselves – social media, meetings, conversations about recent events, driving our car or trying to catch a train or bus to work.  Our thoughts are often racing as we plan, evaluate and critique.  As a consequence, we spend so little time focusing inward and getting in touch with our inner reality.

While our focus is external most of the time, it means that we are susceptible to being pushed and pulled by external forces – whether they relate to the internet, invasive advertising, loud conversations or the fast pace of life.

Focusing inward to see clearly

Diana Winston reminds us in her meditation podcast,  Focusing inward and seeing clearly, that mindfulness meditation can bring insight, clarity, creative solutions to problems and a new level of awareness of both our inner and outer reality.

The starting point is to become grounded by placing our feet firmly on the floor and closing our eyes (or looking downward).   This initial step is designed to move our attention from external things to our internal world.

We need a focus to maintain our attention to our inner world.  This focus could be our breathing or sounds.   However, the latter could distract us from our inner work because we are always interpreting sounds, comparing them or recalling memories that are stimulated by particular sounds.

A couple of deep breaths at the outset of our meditation can help us to let go and get focused on our breathing and where in our body it is most noticeable.  A progressive body scan can also help to fix our attention within.  We can feel the sensation of our feet touching the floor, the firmness of our back against our chair and the warmth/tingling in our hands as we progress our meditation.

We might also notice areas of tension in our body and progressively release this tension as we bring our attention to the relevant parts of our body.  This, in turn, can make us open to our feelings which we have been holding back – we could be anxious, frustrated, angry or feeling hurt.  By naming our feelings, we can gain control over them and sustain our attention on our inner focus.

Once we have stabilised our attention on our inner world, we can address several questions designed to deepen our personal insight and increase our clarity, for example:

As we grow in mindfulness through insight meditation, we can unearth new understandings and different perspectives on issues as well as creative solutions, we can really open up the spaciousness of our minds and achieve more of what we are capable of.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Cultivating Equanimity through Mindfulness Meditation

“Equanimity” connotes peace, balance, composure and acceptance in times that are good or bad.  The word itself can conjure up a sense of serenity. It is possible for some people to experience equanimity on a regular basis because of their personality or lived experience and education.

It is also possible to cultivate equanimity through both general meditation practice and more specific meditation that focuses on developing equanimity when confronted with life events, both those that are experienced as bad and those that seem good to us.

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast on Practising Equanimity which is designed to help us focus on life events that may be a source of disturbance to our equanimity so that we can learn to be with them without rancour or inflated elation.

Experiencing equanimity

Diana, in the prelude to her equanimity meditation, refers to the definition of mindfulness promoted by the Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre (MARC) at UCLA:

Mindful awareness can be defined as paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is.

She particularly focuses on the words, “a willingness to be with what is” – which, in one sense, defines equanimity.  So often we can be absorbed by what has happened in the past (with resentment, disappointment or bitterness) or obsessed about the future (with anxiety, agitation or disturbance).  In the process, we lose our sense of equilibrium and the experience of equanimity.

What we experience as good can also disturb our equanimity because it may be so good that we never want it to end – we want to hang onto the experience and become overly attached to it to the point that we are resentful when it ends.

So being present in the moment and accepting fully “what is” can be very  difficult.   Meditation can enable us to develop a sustained sense of calmness but we can still be put off balance by adverse events or experiences.  Our perception of the global situation may also upset our equanimity.

If we can learn through equanimity meditation to just be with whatever is present in our lives, we can reduce our emotional response, develop creative solutions and take informed action to create change rather than” working from reactivity”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice and specific equanimity meditation (focused on a disturbing or mood-altering event), we can increase our “response ability” and experience clarity and calmness.  Diana’s meditation podcast provides the opportunity to begin this journey to cultivate equanimity.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Being Grounded

So often we can be off-balance, caught up in concerns about the future or worry about the past.  Alternatively, our minds can be racing from one thought to another.

If we lack awareness in the present moment, we will miss opportunities, make poor decisions, create work and  stress for ourselves and find that our productivity, either at work or at home, suffers.

If we are grounded, small annoyances and setbacks do not disturb our equanimity and we can manage larger challenges more effectively because we are able to choose an appropriate response, rather than be caught up in the whirlwind of our thoughts and activities.

Ways to develop groundedness

Being gounded is important and underpins mindful living.  We need to stop our frenetic activity and  take time to get connected with nature or tuned into our body.  Another form of groundedness is to engage in mindful walking where we get in touch with the ground, or the floor if we are walking inside our house.

We can tune into our body through mindful breathing, a body scan or other form of somatic meditation.  Breathing is so fundamental to living that most mindfulness experts praise the benefits of mindful breathing – it has a calming effect, can be undertaken any where and is  a good way to begin most meditations.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Another form of meditation that enables you to become really grounded focuses on the energy that surrounds us – in the air, in nature, with people and animals.      Through this approach,  you are able to get in touch with the energy of the universe and experience the connectedness this entails.

As we grow in mindfulness through regular practice of different forms of meditation, we can become grounded more easily when we are in a stressful situation, or exposed to a negative trigger, or are becoming nervous when we have to perform.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Building Resilience

Resilience in a work context does not mean being able to endure a toxic work environment or unfair situation – it is not the equivalent of endurance.  Resilience is about our capacity to rebound or “bounce back” from a negative or personally challenging experience.

In a work situation, the negative experience could be the loss of a job, failure to gain a promotion, a conflict with a colleague or supervisor or an adverse experience with a customer or client.

Our life experiences, both positive and negative, shape who we are as does our responses to these experiences.  We can see negative experiences as learning opportunities or wallow in resentment that things did not turn out as we expected them to.

Building resilience

Through reflection and developing acceptance and self-compassion, we can change our perceptions and beliefs about ourselves and undesirable events. I have often found that not achieving the promotion I really wanted at the time, created the opportunity to move onto much more engaging and challenging work elsewhere – new work that took me out of my comfort zone but provided rich rewards.

We can learn to accept the things we cannot change but grow in insight about the things that we can change – including our own learned behaviour and fixed beliefs.  Matthew Johnstone in his short, illustrated book, The Big Little Book of Resilience, argues that we are capable of improving, evolving and developing after the “scar of life-altering events”.

Matthew also reinforces the fact that positive life experiences that we undertake voluntarily (e.g. studying a degree or engaging in a long “fun run” for charity) often involve challenges and setbacks and can serve to build resilience as we overcome the difficulties along the way.

Two mindfulness researchers in India maintain from their research that “mindfulness breeds resilience“:

Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally).

As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation (such as forgiveness meditation and gratitude meditation), we can  build resilience because mindfulness increases our “response ability” – our ability to extend the gap between stimulus and response and to develop a response that is constructive rather than destructive.  It also helps us to gain insight into our own biases, false assumptions and distorted perceptions that could otherwise lead to lingering discontent.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Intention Setting in the Morning

Mornings can be hectic times as we prepare for work and/or get the children to school. More often than not, we might have a quick snack which we “gobble down” and grab a coffee on the way to work.  We arrive at work and/or the school in a hurry, shouting at people who get in the road and clog up the traffic.

We are quickly lost in the pressing moments of the day – the phone calls, tasks, emails, meetings and whatever else consumes our focus and energy.  We rarely, if ever, ask ourselves, “What am I doing this for?”  So, we can end up going about our day mindlessly responding to whatever pressures, demands or obstacles cross our path.

Melli O’Brien suggests that you can break this cycle of endless “doing stuff” in a hurry, by engaging in a Morning Intention Setting Meditation.   The aim here is to set your intention for the day and align your day’s activities with your values, what gives meaning to your life and what makes you happy.  This intention will then flow through everything you do during the day  –  the way you communicate with people, how you spend your waiting time (e.g. waiting for a bus, taxi or a friend) and what you dedicate your time to.

Achieving an alignment between activity and your dreams, values, happiness and motivation gives you energy and provides a sense of calm and clarity.

Melli offers both a short version of this intention meditation (5 minutes) and a longer version (12 minutes).  You can access both versions on her Mrs.Mindfulness blog.

The blog is worth visiting to gain a better understanding of mindfulness, learn new mindfulness practices and join a community of people who are serious about making a difference in their own lives and that of others.

As you grow in mindfulness by the morning intention meditation, you can approach your day with renewed confidence, awareness and gratitude for the opportunities the day provides.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of dimitrisvetsikas1969 on Pixabay

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Randy Pausch on Resilience

Randy Pausch in his last lecture and in his book, The Last Lecture, had a lot to say about resilience.  His lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, designed to leave a life skills legacy for his children, focused on the realisation of childhood dreams.  Randy maintained that nothing should stop you from realising your childhood dreams and he illustrated this from his own life history.

He urged people to “never give up”.  He had wanted to go to Brown University, but they would not accept his application until he hounded them so much that they finally let him in.  His mentor, Andy van Dam, then urged Randy to do a PhD even though he himself wanted to get a job.  When Randy applied to Carnegie Mellon University to do a PhD, he was able to lodge his application with a letter of referral from his mentor.  However, he was still refused entry.

After exploring other options, he went back to his mentor who made a personal call to a colleague at Carnegie Mellon and arranged for Randy to be interviewed – which led to his admission to the PhD Program at the University.  Randy conceded that the advice to do a PhD was one of the best bits of advice he received – it enabled him to pursue his passion for “building virtual worlds”.

I had initially refused to undertake a PhD myself when I was working at Griffith University but my mentor, Professor Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt, encouraged me with the comment that, “You have a PhD inside you, if you don’t get it out, you will suffer for it”.  This also proved to be sound advice.  I did not have trouble with admission, being on the staff of the University, but I had great difficulty agreeing a focal topic and obtaining a supervisor.  I persisted for 18 months, with ongoing encouragement from my mentor, and then enrolled and received my PhD six years later.  The lesson, once again, was persistence pays and resilience enables you to overcome obstacles and brick walls to achieve your goals.

Brick walls and how to deal with them

Randy prided himself in his ability to break through “brick walls” – seemingly impregnable roadblocks – in his professional and academic life:

The brick walls are there to stop people who don’t want it badly enough.  They’re there to stop other people.

Randy stressed the importance of having specific dreams to pursue in life.  However, he had many obstacles along the way when pursuing his own childhood dreams:

  • He wanted to experience weightlessness but was initially refused permission by NASA to join his competition-winning students to experience this sensation.  So he talked NASA into allowing him to be a reporter to accompany his students and provide positive publicity for NASA.
  • As discussed above, his persistence got him into Brown University after an intiail knockback and resilience enabled him to pursue a PhD through Carnegie Mellon University
  • He also wanted to be a Disney Imagineer and went around the formal application process (which knocked him back), by arranging lunch with a key player in Disney who enabled him to take a sabbatical with Disney Imagineering   He had initially to bypass his Dean to obtain permission to pursue what was considered a crazy idea.
  • On entry to Disney, he found that he was not accepted at first by the designers who queried what useful skills an academic could have.  However, he worked very hard at gaining acceptance and used his academic skills to demonstrate how the process for a virtual ride could be made more efficient – this gained credibility and acceptance.  He was eventually offered a fulltime job at Disney Imagineering but negotiated a one day-a- week contract as a consultant instead, so that he could continue to teach at the University.  As Randy commented, “If you can find your footing between two cultures, sometimes you can have the best of both worlds”.
  • As a child he wanted to be Captain Kirk from Star Wars but this proved to be unrealistic.  What he did achieve through creativity, persistence and hard work, was a meeting from William Shatner (Kirk in the movie) who visited Randy’s virtual reality lab to see what technology, foreshadowed on Star Wars, had been realised in practice.  Despite scoffing from his colleagues about his passion for the movie, Randy was able to prove that this passion stood him in good stead during his career.

Throughout his life and career, Randy demonstrated time and again the true nature of resilience – the ability to bounce back quickly from setbacks and the willingness to persist over time with a goal despite roadblocks and “brick walls”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can strengthen our resilience and persistence in pursuit of our goals.  We will find ways around, over or through “brick walls” to enable us to achieve our meaningful life and career goals.  Mindfulness helps us to find creative ways to achieve our goals despite setbacks and blockages.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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The Last Lecture – Mindful Living

Randy Pausch, the author of The Last Lecture, was a Professor  of Computer Science at the Carnegie Mellon University specialising in the design of Virtual Reality.  He died from pancreatic cancer on 25 July 2008 after being diagnosed with the disease in the summer of 2006.

Randy’s book traces his life, his medical experience, giving his last lecture and his life’s lessons and achievements.  His Last Lecture, given on the 18th September 2007, was videotaped and is available here.   The lecture has been viewed by millions of people who admire Randy’s inspiration, insight, humour, intelligence and wisdom.

Randy, even though he was obviously dying from cancer at the time, wanted to leave a legacy for his three young children in terms of the lessons he had learned in life – often the hard way by making mistakes.  Some of his insights into the way to live your life are pertinent to developing mindfulness.

Lessons on mindfulness from Randy Pausch

I can’t recall Randy talking about mindfulness in his book or his lecture, but he did have some insights and values that I think are particularly relevant to mindfulness:

Show Gratitude

Being grateful for what you have and what people have done for you is important, because it is part of growing in self-awareness and understanding how you came to achieve what you have achieved.  Randy also talks about the “lost art of the thank-you note” as a timely way to express appreciation.

He went even further and decided to take his 15-member research team (working on virtual reality) to a week-long visit to Disney World in Florida.  Besides enjoying the entertainment, they were also able to take in some educational activities relevant to their studies and research.  He provided this expensive trip as a way to “pay it forward” his gratitude for the mentoring he received from Any van Dam.

Gratitude requires being present to notice what people have done for you and developing an appreciation mindset through gratitude meditation. Often, we are grateful, but fail to express it.   Through this form of meditation, we become more aware of the opportunities to show gratitude and ways to express it.

Seeking forgiveness genuinely

There are many times when we are hurt by the words and actions of others – it is part of being human on both sides of the hurt dyad.  We hurt others and they hurt us.  We can’t avoid this, although as we grow in mindfulness we become more aware of their feelings and what effect our words and actions have on them.

Randy stresses the importance of seeking forgiveness genuinely – in his own words, “A bad apology is worse than no apology”.  He argues that we should not apologise in such a way that we are not genuineor in a way that is designed only to obtain an apology from the other person.   While hurt can be a two-way street, it does not rectify the situation to actively seek an apology from the other party – they may apologise in their own due time.  If you want someone to change their behaviour, you are more likely to achieve this if you change your own behaviour first.

Forgiveness meditation helps us to develop the readiness and willingness to apologise for the hurt we cause others.  In the process of this meditation, we can ask for forgiveness from others – which makes us acutely aware of the reality that we are not the only one hurting.  Associated with this, is the need to also practise self-forgiveness meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and learning from the inspiration of others such as Randy Pausch, we can develop the awareness and mindset that makes us willing and able to show gratitude and to genuinely seek forgiveness.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of dimitrisvetsikas1969 on Pixabay

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Mindfulness and Dealing with Pain

Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Working with Pain, offers some suggestions on how meditation can be used to alleviate and/or manage pain better.  She highlights the fact that along with pain are the stories that we tell ourselves about the pain we are experiencing, e.g. “This pain will never go way.”, This is ruining my life.”, “I cannot cope with this pain.”  Diana suggests that the stories aggravate the suffering we experience with pain and only serve to amplify the pain through their negativity.

Pain and suffering are part of being human as we are reminded by the Buddhist tradition.  Diana quotes the often repeated saying, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”, to remind us that we have choices in how we deal with pain.  So, we are left with the challenge of managing the pain that occurs at different points of our life, whether the pain of loss or physical pain in some part or all of our body.   Dealing with chronic pain through mindfulness has been the focus of a lot of the pioneering work of Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Meditation for working with pain

Diana provides a meditation exercise for working with pain in her podcast mentioned above.  The meditation practice involves several discrete steps and is about 20 minutes in length:

1. Grounding – feet on the ground, arms relaxed on your lap or beside you (h0wever is comfortable), eyes closed or looking downwards, a few deep breaths to relax your body.

2. Focus on your breathing – focus your attention on wherever you can feel your breathing in your body (nose, mouth, chest, stomach). Don’t try to control you breathing but just notice it, e.g. the undulations of your stomach.  Get in touch with your in-breath and out-breath and the space between.  You can rest in the space.

3. Body scan – explore your body with your attention, noting as you progress from your head to your toes any points of tightness, tingling or other sensation.  Just notice as your attention moves over your body and let go as you experience the sensation. (The art of noticing is integral to mindfulness practice.)

4. Refocus on your breathing – now return to mindful breathing (3 above).  Spend a reasonable amount of time resting in this focus – about 10 minutes say.

5. Focus on a relaxed part of your body – the aim is to locate in your body a part (e.g. arm, leg, chest) that feels secure, relaxed, at peace and pain-free.  Rest for a time in this relaxed part of your body to enable the sensation of peace and calm to spread through your body.

6. Focus on your pain – now focus on that part of your body where you are experiencing the ongoing pain.  Feel the sensation of the pain and describe the sensation to yourself.  Now focus on the stories you have developed around the pain and let them go – they are fabrications created by your fight/flight response.  If you can, bring your focus to a point outside the area of pain as a prelude to completing the next step.

7. Re-focus on the relaxed part of your body – experience the restfulness here.

8. Re-focus on your breathing – gradually bring your attention back to your breathing.  After a time of mindful breathing, resume your daily activity.

As we grow in mindfulness though meditation, we can learn ways to reduce pain or better manage pain so that we can function normally.  It is important to master our stories that aggravate our suffering from pain.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of dimitrisvetsikas1969 on Pixabay

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