Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity

Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, explained that early brain researchers discovered what became known as “neuroplasticity”:

They showed that the brain changed its very structure with each activity it performed, perfecting its circuits so it was better suited to the task at hand.  If certain “parts” failed, then other parts sometimes take over. (p.xv)

For example, people who meditate or teach meditation have been shown to have a thicker insula – a part of the brain that is activated by paying close attention to something (p.290).

Dr. Bruno Cayoun observed that neuroscience has demonstrated that brain plasticity explains how mindfulness training increases our perceptual ability leading to a greater sense of self control and self-awareness.  Perceptual ability, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “the ability to be able to deal with and give meaning to sensory stimuli”.

Research conducted jointly by the Fudan University in China and the University of South Florida showed that Tai Chi- often described as “meditation-in-motion” – actually increased the size of the brain of seniors who practised Tai Chi for 40 weeks and did so at least three times per week.  Tai Chi has many other benefits and these are discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Norman Doidge discusses the work of Michael Merzenich, Emeritus Professor in neurophysiology, who started a company called Posit Science to extend neuroplasticity of the brains of people as they age, as well as extend their lifespan (p.85).  Professor Merzenich maintains that, if we are in the older age group, we may not have been developing our brain plasticity since middle age because we are often working off already mastered knowledge and skills.

So, learning new skills such as mindfulness meditation and Tai Chi, with the attention and concentration required, will help to alleviate this problem of mental decline.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and approaches such as Tai Chi, we increase the size of our brain, enhance brain plasticity and enjoy the consequential benefits such as self-awareness and self-control.

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

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Leading with Body Awareness

The early trait theories of leadership argued that to be an effective leader you needed to be male, charismatic and tall.  Clearly, this delineation can lead to discriminatory behaviour towards those who are female and short.

The earlier trait theories of leadership have been disproved and there is now a consensus that there is no universal list of traits that researchers can agree on as predictors of leadership ability.

Amanda Sinclair, author of Leading Mindfully,  points out that despite these emergent findings, myths still pervade about desirable traits that reinforce leadership viewed according to the male stereotype.  She suggests that women have been harshly judged against these unreal measures and have had to conform to standards of dress and behaviour that are more rigorous than those imposed on men.

Then again, as a female colleague of mine pointed out, some women dress provocatively in a work situation to draw attention to themselves.  As my colleague commented, this draws attention to their sexuality but detracts from perceptions of their competence.   So women are often confronted with a dilemma – conform to unfair standards or dress inappropriately.

Rather than accepting this dilemma, women and men can learn ways to present themselves bodily so that potential followers are not left experiencing discomfort or uncertainty about how to communicate with, or relate to, their leaders.

Increasingly, followers have been shown to prefer characteristics that are described as the soft skills – that is skills associated with emotional intelligence such as empathy, compassion, listening skills, communicating to inspire followers, congruence and creativity.

Through mindfulness, leaders can develop a presence (irrespective of physical height) that conveys a sense of balance and calm.  They can face problems with greater clarity and creativity.  Their very presence can communicate support and generate confidence in others who are faced with difficult situations.

Leaders need to be physically present to their staff so that their positive bodily influence can be experienced first-hand.  They also need to care for themselves bodily by looking after themselves so that they can withstand the stresses of their role but, at the same time, have real concern for the physical welfare of staff.

By building resilience through mindfulness practice, you can communicate non-verbally that they you are in control of yourself and the situation.  Even when you are not conscious of the impact of your demeanour, others take note and are influenced by how you present yourself – your bearing can communicate respect for others, personal confidence and self-awareness.

Somatic meditation is one way for a leader to get in touch with their bodies and their reality.  It enables them to be more conscious of how stress is stored in the body and emitted through physical actions and non-verbal activity.

Amanda also alludes to the research work of Norman Doidge and highlights the mind-body connection and the role of exercise such as yoga and walking in enhancing this connection and improving brain functioning.   In the light of this research and the foregoing discussion, Amanda exhorts leaders to be aware of the role of their bodies in the process of leadership:

Our bodies and physicality in leadership are gateways to important forms of intelligence, to wisdom and mindfulness.  They provide us with ways of noticing and revaluing the present, experiencing the full richness of the people and situations around us.  Physicality is not something to be ignored, suppressed or overcome in leadership, but a means of helping us live and lead more fully.  (p. 129)

As we grow in mindfulness, we become increasing aware of how we experience the world through our bodies and how others experience us as leaders through their perceptions of our bodily presence.

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

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Leading Mindfully: Stop Chasing Authenticity

Amanda Sinclair, in her book Leading Mindfully, cautions against the endless chase of authenticity or of the holy grail of authentic leadership.

In the first place, Amanda notes that “authenticity” is not a personal attribute or characteristic; it is an attribution by others.  People may deem you to be an authentic leader by your words and actions and their alignment, by your readiness to “put your money where your mouth is” or your willingness to admit your mistakes.

People readily follow leaders who are authentic – leaders who possess self-awareness, whose words and actions accord with their stated values, who are able to listen empathetically and value others’ perspectives and who willingly risk the vulnerability of personal disclosure.   Followers know where they stand, they can place trust in the leader, they sense that their own ideas will be heard and treated on their merits and they are more willing to step outside their own comfort zone as a result of the risk taking and openness of the leader.

The problem arises where a leader chases the “authentic leader” model as if it is some unerring means of gaining commitment and performance from others.  The endless pursuit of “selfies” with significant people and the temptation to create their own personal brand modelled on idealised leader characteristics can lead to self-absorption, rather than the leadership of others.

If we become obsessed with how we are viewed by others, our energy and attention becomes inner-directed, moving us further away from being fully present in the moment.  We are then unable to read others’ needs or to notice the challenges confronting our organisation.  This self-referential behaviour leads to distortion of perception and perpetuation of bias and stereotyping.

Perception of a leader’s authenticity will flow naturally for a leader who practices mindfulness and, in consequence leads mindfully – fully attuned to their inner and outer worlds and demonstrating high levels of self-management.

Amanda concludes that by “setting aside the hunger for self” through mindfulness practice, we can gain real authenticity in the sight of others:

“Being me” takes up energy and attention while I seek to make sure I come across in the right way, or alternatively descend into a cycle of self-recrimination when it doesn’t all go to plan.  In contrast, mindfulness gives us ways of pausing and noticing when the need to be someone stops us from really being here and now. (p.172)

So, as we grow in mindfulness, we can stop chasing authenticity, get in touch with our self-absorption, increase our other-awareness and gain self-mastery.

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

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Mindfulness for Loneliness

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, suggests that there are 7 types of loneliness, each potentially serving as a constraint to happiness.   She stresses the importance of strong relationships to ameliorate the damaging mental and physical effects of loneliness, which is a growing problem in today’s society.  While we have never been so connected electronically, we have never been so disconnected on a deep, personal level.

Neuroscience shows that we are very much communal beings – needing social networks and social support.  However, there are real personal barriers to connecting at a deep level that prevent lonely people from engaging in social connection.

Recent research has highlighted the benefit of developing mindfulness to reduce or remove these barriers.  Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that mindful meditation reduced feelings of loneliness and increased immunity.

Mindfulness meditation is helpful for loneliness because it can make you aware of the feelings of isolation that you are developing, help you identify the triggers for these emotions, increase the space between stimulus and the feelings of loneliness (response) and enable you to manage these feelings.  Mindfulness, then, can help to eliminate unhelpful thoughts and actions that have become habituated over time and progressively break the cycle of loneliness.

Sophie Benbow, has found from her own experience that mindfulness reduces feelings of loneliness.  She suggests a number of mindfulness practices for coping with loneliness – these include dismissing negative thoughts, mindful breathing, body scan and  mindful walking.  She provides some guidelines for each of these suggestions.

Dr. Claudia Aguirre, neuroscientist and mind-body expert, maintains that lack of social skills is not the major cause of loneliness.  Reporting on new neuroscience research, she contends that our instinctive fight-flight response is the major cause of feelings of isolation and loneliness:

University of Chicago researchers investigating the neuroscience of loneliness found that a lonely brain is supremely in-tune with social cues, in particular the ones signaling a social threat. From an evolutionary perspective, feeling socially isolated triggers a cascade of neural mechanisms that puts us in a nervous and vigilant mode. People who feel lonely are subconsciously scanning their environment for hostility, which may overshadow the positive situations they encounter. 

She argues that this constant over-stimulation through vigilance is a contributing factor to mental and physical decline in people who experience chronic loneliness.  The recommendation of these researchers for people who experience chronic loneliness is “to get out of their heads”.  This recommendation is consistent with the advice of mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who argues that many of our emotional problems arise because we live in our minds, not in our bodies and the present moment.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn to recognise the triggers of feelings of isolation and loneliness, deal with negative thoughts and use our social skills to make meaningful connections with others.

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

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Savor The Space Of Being Alone

People who experience loneliness as a constant state are prone to all kinds of issues such as disinterest, disengagement and depression as well as physical illness.  The feeling of loneliness is a serious issue today, not only for older people but also the young, including school children.

People can feel lonely even in a crowd or large group if they feel they do not belong, especially if no one reaches out to them with compassion to draw them into the wider circle.  The UK Government is so concerned about the impact of loneliness on people’s health and welfare that they have appointed a Minister of Loneliness.

Gretchen Rubin points out, however, that being alone is not the same as loneliness which feels draining, distracting, and upsetting.  In her view, being alone or experiencing solitude can be peaceful, creative and restorative – it all depends on how you use the time when alone.  Gretchen is the author of The Happiness Project.

Introverts may crave time alone after suffering extended periods of exposure to others; extroverts, on the other hand, may crave the company of friends because they derive their energy from social interaction.

Whether we are introverts or extroverts, we can have the tendency to use alone-time to occupy ourselves rather than confront ourselves.  We may experience boredom and look for ways to allay this feeling rather than savor the opportunity and freedom it presents.

Being alone creates the space and opportunity to attend to our own internal and external environment.  We can get in touch with our own feelings, rather than ignore them; we can question who we are and what we stand for, rather than hiding from ourselves.  This exploration of our internal landscape may turn up some unpleasant findings, but we are then in a position to deal with the issues involved.

We can also really take notice of our external environment – getting in touch with all our senses in a peaceful and calming way.  Haruki Murakami, author of Norwegian Wood, gives a wonderful illustration of focus on the sense of sight when one of his characters describes what he sees:

Every now and then, red birds with tufts on their heads would flit across our path, brilliant against the blue sky.  The fields around us were filled with white and blue and yellow flowers, and bees buzzed everywhere.  Moving ahead, one step at a time, I thought of nothing but the scene passing before my eyes. (p.180)

You can sense the contentment expressed here – something that we can experience in our time alone.

The 5 minute gratitude practice advanced by Elaine Smookler enables us to use our outer landscape to explore our inner world of feelings, especially of appreciation.  This is an excellent way to use the space in our lives provided by being alone.

Being alone frees us from the need to talk, to engage with others, or to follow the conversation.  It provides the opportunity to explore within and without.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we will be better able to savour being alone and the opportunity it provides to explore our inner and outer landscape.  This can be a source of self-awareness and other-awareness, of contentment and of appreciation and gratitude.

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

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Savor the Freedom of Boredom

Barry Boyce, Editor of mindful.org, suggests that boredom provides the opportunity to free yourself from the need to continually occupy your mind, be productive or entertain yourself.

This idea of savoring the opportunity that boredom provides takes the idea of savoring to another level – to achieve this we need to reframe what we would normally consider to be a negative experience.

Increasingly, in moments of inactivity, we tend to fill up the time by accessing our mobile phone – checking emails, viewing the news, connecting via social media or searching for a store, product or the meaning of a word.

Boredom creates stress for many people because of our need to be “doing” all the time, a need created and sustained by today’s fast-paced world and work intensification.

The boring tasks and situations – washing the dishes, doing housework, waiting for a bus, train or plane – can free you up to engage in some form of meditation or savoring something you experience as positive in your life, such as the development of your child.   Some people attach a particular meditation practice to a boring event, e.g. waiting for the jug to boil or waiting for transportation.

Elaine Smookler offers a 5-minute gratitude practice which enables you to appreciate what is good in your life by focusing, in turn, on each of your senses.  This puts into practice the exhortation of Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness.

Boredom has many faces and is not a simple concept or experience.  However, there is increasing agreement that out of boredom is born creativity – it can provide the stimulus and space for new ideas and ways of doing things.  It can also help us to recognise the lack of challenge in our work or life generally, motivate us to change jobs or explore the surplus in our lives.

In boredom there is opportunity – something to savor in a world obsessed with continuous doing and achieving.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can reframe boredom, savor the latent opportunity involved and have the presence of mind to utilise our down-time to enhance our meditation practice, develop creative solutions or explore constructive ways to utilise the surplus in our lives.

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

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Savoring Your Child’s Development

It comes naturally to savor the early development of our children, particularly the milestone moments.  We can very easily experience gratitude, appreciation and delight with the first words spoken, the first time they crawled, or their first steps taken.

The intervening turbulent teens can dampen our enthusiasm and sense of gratitude and blind us to the opportunities to savor the moment in the child’s development.  When they insist on walking on the other side of the road when “with” you, get into trouble at school or meet your questions with a shrug or grunt, it is more difficult to find the moment to savor.

It gets even more difficult when the influence of their peers starts to outweigh your influence as a parent – as you start to lose a sense of control as they insist on their independence.  But there will be moments to savor if our vision is not clouded by negative thoughts and emotions.

One of these rare moments may be the expression of love and appreciation that may come in the form of a thoughtful birthday or Christmas present or some words written on a card that disclose a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude that provides a very pleasant surprise.  Certainly, a moment to savor.

Then there are those occasions when your normally mute teenager suffers from verbal diarrhoea when they are sitting next to you in the car as you take them to their favourite sporting or cultural event.  The act of sitting side-by-side seems to generate a flood of information that you have waited so long to hear.  A time to savor that sense of closeness and connection.

There will be lots of other moments in the life of your child that create delight and satisfaction, e.g. sporting, cultural or academic achievements; kindness and thoughtfulness shown to other children or adults – each represents a moment to savor.

However, as they grow older and move further away from us (either physically and/or psychologically) and develop new relationships and friends, it is very easy to overlook those precious moments that we could savor as an act of mindfulness.

There is the opportunity to appreciate that they have survived their teens and grown into young adults making their way in the world.  There are those occasions when you glimpse how they have matured, the respect that other adults show towards them, their wisdom in decision making, the values that you admire, their concern for the environment or disadvantaged groups, their genuine consideration for others, their willingness and readiness to help out, the time they started to cook for themselves (and occasionally for you) or their manifestations of empathy and compassion.  There are the successes that they achieve despite early setbacks and extreme difficulties.  Each of these moments in a child’s development can be savored.

As we grow in mindfulness, we more easily see the opportunities to savor our child’s development.  We are more able to make the most of those opportunities to develop a gratitude meditation.  Our mindful experience of appreciation and gratitude can lead to a loving-kindness meditation for those who feel isolated and sad through the loss of a child.  So, as we begin to develop the habit to savour the moment in our child’s development, we become more aware and connected to others.

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

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Savoring Friendship

Friendship is something we can take for granted until we lose a friend or move to another location or workplace and have to make new friends.  Losing a friend, whatever the cause, can leave a hole in our lives – a sense that we have lost something of ourselves.

There is something special about a close friend – the ability to take up where you left off after many years, the capacity to share most subjects, the ready understanding of your quirks, easy tolerance of your idiosyncrasies and understanding-in-common from a shared history (however short or long the shared experience).

Barry Boyce discusses this feeling of being “in sync” in terms of the neuroscience notion of “brain coupling”, the experience of being “like one brain”.  He goes on to elaborate:

I’m sure we have all felt that with a friend.  The sheer joy of a shared laugh.  The moments of listening when you need to be heard.  The shoulder to cry on.  Someone to share the ups and downs without caring which it is.

There is clearly something to savor in friendship – the ease of connection, the joy of “being with” someone, the ready tolerance, the sense that you are not alone (even if you have lost both your parents), the shared memories and stories, the emotional support and the supportive challenge that helps you to be a better person, parent, colleague or friend.

We need to take time out to value and savor these close friendships, whether they involve our life partner or people who live apart from us.  Sometimes savoring may lead to a loving-kindness meditation to express appreciation or gratitude for the friendship or to reach out compassionately to a friend in need who may be struggling through health issues or some form of loss.

Then too there are the friendships that we experience every day that we do not consider to be close relationships.  They may be supportive colleagues, the person serving us at the coffee shop, the owner of the newspaper shop or any number of acquaintances who we encounter regularly.  We should savor their friendliness, helpfulness, willingness to engage in conversation and the way that they can “brighten our day”.  These friendships are another form of human connection that enriches our lives – we can make them a source of mindful connection if we really savor the richness of being with them.

Even a simple smile for the person at the supermarket checkout counter can be an expression of appreciation and gratitude and a simple way to savor the moment through acknowledging their presence, friendship and assistance.

Savoring friendship does not always require loving-kindness meditation. As we grow in mindfulness, we can savor the moment when we experience friendship and be grateful of this gift that is often missing in the lives of people experiencing depression.

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

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Savoring Your Achievements and Rewards

In his recent article on savoring practices, Barry Bryce, editor of mindful.org, suggests that we could savour our achievements and associated rewards to develop our mindfulness.

So often we move from one form of achievement to another – we might be writing, developing, creating, encouraging, inspiring or contributing on an ongoing basis.  These achievements can be in any arena of our lives – work, home or community.  We become so busy “doing” that we fail to savor the moment and the achievement involved.

According to the living Oxford Dictionary, an achievement is:

A thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage.

So an achievement is no mean feat – it is something requiring effort, skill and/or courage that has a successful outcome.  It is interesting that many people when asked to share an achievement have difficulty identifying one.  However, when helped to explore their work and life, they are sometimes able to list a number of achievements.  This indicates that personal achievements are not “top of mind” and are rarely savored.

Savoring your achievements

Part of the problem is that people often think that acknowledging and/or sharing achievements is boasting – a term that has many negative connotations and a very strong association with stereotypes.  While this perspective may prevent you from sharing your achievements publicly, it should not stop you from savoring them privately.

Savoring an achievement develops appreciation and gratitude for the gifts, skills, opportunities, resources and support that we so often take for granted.  It can build self-confidence and self-efficacy (the belief in our capacity to successfully undertake a specific task).  It enables us to grow in mindfulness as we increase our awareness in-the-moment of how we have used our skills, effort and/or courage to accomplish some outcome.  If the intent of savoring the achievement is to express appreciation and gratitude, this deepens our mindful practice.

Savoring our own achievements builds a positive perspective, reduces the possibility of envy and helps us to  acknowledge and appreciate the achievements of others.

Savoring your rewards

We can savor the rewards associated with our achievements by firstly identifying them and then appreciating them.  Rewards may take the form of intrinsic satisfaction, external recognition, a sense of purpose and contribution, physical or monetary outcomes, positive emotions, or increased connection with other people and/or our community.

Rewards are reinforcing – they strengthen our self-belief, encourage us to further achievements and increase the likelihood that we will be successful again.  Savoring rewards keeps these outcomes at the forefront of our minds and provides motivation for further achievement.

A personal reflection on savoring

In reflecting on what I have written above, I suddenly realised that I have been savoring achievement in one area of my life for many years – in playing tennis.  During a game of tennis, I try to remember at least one shot that I executed very well and achieved what I set out to achieve.  I now have a video archive in my head of numerous shots that I value as achievements – they involved the successful exercise of effort and skill, and sometimes, courage.  I learnt early on in playing tennis that part of the mental game of tennis is to focus on what you do right, not what you do wrong.  For me, one of the consistent rewards of these achievements, that I truly savor, is the sense of competence that I experience.  Another reward that I savor is reinforcement of my ability to execute a specific shot very well, e.g. a half-volley, a topspin lob or a drive volley.

If you practice savoring your achievements and the associated rewards, you will grow in mindfulness and increase your ability to be fully present in the moment. The development of mindfulness brings its own rewards of calm, clarity, creativity and consideration of others.

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

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Savor the Moment

It is interesting that we are frequently exhorted to “seize the day” – to make the most of the moment for our personal advantage.  It implies haste and possession – two primary descriptors of today’s fast-paced, “get ahead” world.

Barry Bryce, Editor-in-Chief of the Mindful Magazine and mindful.org, provides a very different exhortation in his article, Get Real with Everything: A Savoring Practice.

The article resulted from Barry’s commitment to maintain a savoring practice over a week-long period.  Through this practice, he came to identify seven ways that we could actually savor the moment.

“Savor” is not a term in common usage today as it implies a counter-cultural orientation.   The word in its American English form means:

To enjoy food or an experience slowly, in order to appreciate it as much as possible.

This is the meaning of “savor” behind Barry’s article.  His encouragement to savor everything relates to not only experiences we view as positive but also to those that, on the surface, appear negative.  Savoring these latter moments requires a positive stance – being able to perceive the positive in each situation irrespective of how it first appears.

In this post, I will concentrate on the first of those experiences that we normally view as positive – when things are good for us.

Savor the joy

Underpinning Barry’s orientation in the article is appreciation or gratitude for any experience in your life.  This perspective not only requires slowing down, but also overcoming a “taken-for-granted” attitude.

Barry suggests that when things are going well, you would naturally be able to savor the resultant happiness and joy.   He found that this was more difficult than he had imagined.  This is partly because we take things for granted and because there are different levels of savoring.  On the more immediate level, you can savor the smell of the flowers and trees, the rustle of the wind, the song of birds, the sight of a sunrise or sunset or the sheer joy of being able to walk or to do so in the fresh, open air.

At another level, that Barry refers to, is consciousness about your body and how it is naturally in-the-moment and in synch with what you are doing, e.g. walking.  This is appreciation of the way our body parts work together in unison to enable the act of walking.  I alluded to something similar in my recent article on developing mindfulness through tennis, when I expressed appreciation of the moment when the body and mind work in unison to assess the speed and spin of a tennis ball and to create a return tennis shot.

To savor the joy of the moment also entails overcoming the urge to “get somewhere” or to “do something” – both being obsessions of our times.  As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, we spend so much time “doing” that we have lost the art of “being”.

Mindful walking and mindful eating are other forms of meditation that entail savoring the joy of our actions and sensations in-the-moment.

As we grow in mindfulness through savoring the moment we are able to enjoy a richer and more rewarding life, to value what we have at the most basic level and to experience real happiness and joy.

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

Image source: courtesy of  MiguelRPerez on Pixabay