Mindfulness Practices to Develop Mental Health and Wellbeing

In these times of uncertainty and anxiety, mindfulness meditation can be an effective way to restore balance to our mental and emotional state.  These structured approaches can be readily reinforced by mindfulness practices that are more flexible and adaptable to our personal circumstances and preferences. 

Through mindfulness practices embedded in our daily life and routine, we can progressively achieve the situation where mindfulness is not just something we do, but the way we are in the world.  This enables us to show up in a mindful and compassionate way and have a positive influence on the people we interact with in our daily life.

Mindfulness practices that you can use to develop mental health and wellbeing

There are a wide range of mindfulness practices described in this blog and in other mindfulness resources.  Some of these could prove useful for you in this time of stress and uncertainty:

  • Mindful walking – consciously walking slowly and being aware of the pressure of your toes and soles on the ground.  There are a range of videos on mindful walking on YouTube©.
  • Mindful eating – eating slowly while being conscious of presentation (how it looks), taste, texture, aroma and touch.
  • Engaging with nature – Nature is a proven source of emotional healing and mental health.  There are a number of ways to experience the benefits of nature.
  • Exercising – There are endless books and articles on the benefits of exercise, and it is considered one of the antidotes for depression.  Some people prefer yoga as their form of exercise and Jill Satterfield has her own YouTube© Channel dedicated to ways to combine yoga with somatic awareness. 
  • Tai Chi – often called “mindfulness-in-action”.  Harvard Medical School recently published the results of extensive research into the benefits of Tai Chi and provided an explanation and exercises for each benefit in its publication, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.  The benefits of Tai Chi include less stress, a healthier heart, positive mood and a clearer mind as well as better balance and coordination and reduced physical pain.
  • Taking compassionate action – going beyond self-absorption to helping others in need.  An interesting new development is the Adopt a Grandparent Campaign (given the increased isolation of the elderly because of the Coronavirus).  Taking compassionate action can have numerous forms and is limited only by your awareness and creativity.  Compassionate action includes being aware of, and communicating with, a friend or family member who may be experiencing loneliness.
  • Use waiting time to develop awareness – our typical default when we have to wait for something is to grab for our phone.  We could use waiting time instead to develop our natural awareness.
  • Expressing gratitude – neuroscience has shown the benefits of gratitude for mental health and wellbeing, not only for the recipient of the expression of appreciation but also the giver.  However, you don’t even have to express appreciation to others to gain a health benefit from being grateful.  There are many ways to develop gratitude and reap its benefits.
  • Tuning into sounds – you can adopt a natural awareness approach by tuning into sounds around you (both your immediate surrounds and your external environment).  Alternatively, you can be more goal-focused in your awareness, e.g. focusing on the “room tone”.
  • Establishing a mindfulness reminder – we can use something that occurs frequently throughout our day to be reminded of the need to be mindful.   People have used a wide range of things as reminders, e.g. when the phone rings or when they boil the jug/make a cup of coffee, they take a few mindful breaths or steps.  All it takes, according to Chade-Meng Tan, author of Search Inside Yourself, is “one mindful breath a day”.

Create small habits to build sustainability

Clearly you can’t do it all and if you attempt to do too much, your new habit will not be sustainable.  Start small – Dr. V.J. Fogg suggests that you create tiny habits, breaking larger habits down to their “smallest accessible practice”.   Do something that fits with you personally – you don’t have to achieve what others are doing.  Be prepared to adopt a trial-and-error approach and change your habit(s) where appropriate – there is no one approach that suits everybody.

Building and maintaining a positive mindset

You can enhance your positive mindset by listening to presentations that are uplifting.  These can take the form of podcasts, videos or other sources of positively oriented communications.  TED Talks©, for example, offer “ideas worth sharing” and include inspirational stories, innovations and creative problem solving. 

There are numerous presenters who work in the mindfulness space and offer encouraging and supportive communications via videos and audio
podcasts.  One particular example that comes to mind is Dr. Jud Brewer who has commenced producing short 5-minute videos on his YouTube
Channel
© covering timely topics such as:

  • 5 simple habits for good mental hygiene
  • Using kindness to create connection during a crisis
  • Working with uncertainty
  • How to spread connection instead of contagion
  • How fear and uncertainty lead to anxiety.

One of Jud’s videos focuses on “how to stop compulsively checking the news”.  Even in the best of times, the news can be disturbing, disorienting and confusing, yet we are tempted to feast on the news.  Cilla Murphy, a teacher who has just experienced 7 weeks in lockdown in China offers a number of very important learnings from her experience and her advice about the news is:

Try not to listen to/read/watch too much media. It WILL drive you crazy. There is [such] a thing as too much!

Reflection

There are so many options in terms of mindfulness practices that can help us in times of uncertainty and anxiety.  We can become overwhelmed by the variety and endless choices.  The secret to habit change is to start small and maintain the new habit for a reasonable time (to test it and embed it in our daily life). 

One sustainable habit can lead to another…and another.  We should not be discouraged by the magnitude of the changes we need to make – we can chip away at them progressively with the aid of meditation and mindfulness practice.  It takes time to overcome our self-protective mechanisms if we are to achieve significant changes in our behaviour.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly self-aware, develop our focused intention and build resilience to overcome setbacks on the road to sustainable change.

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Image by RÜŞTÜ BOZKUŞ from Pixabay

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Grounding Yourself in Your Body in Times of Uncertainty

On the 5th March this year, Jill Satterfield conducted a meditation podcast as part of the series of weekly podcasts offered by The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  Her presentation was titled, Facilitating Ease: Breath as a Restorative Practice in These Times.  Jill’s presentation reflected her lifetime pursuit of mindfulness and somatic awareness.  She has meditated for most of her life (having been taught to meditate by her mother at the age of four).  She has participated in 150 silent retreats and is very well place to conduct personal coaching and training in “embodied mind” – how to be present and aware in our own bodies.

Jill has struggled with chronic pain for most of her life, undergoing multiple surgeries (including heart surgery).  Her somatic meditation has helped her overcome her physical pain but, as she herself maintains, the longest journey for her is overcoming emotional and mental pain.  Jill offers a form of “somatic practice” which integrates Indian yoga tradition with Buddhist meditation teaching.  She sees her meditation teaching as offering “ways to know the body intimately as a reflection of the mind” and “to know and work with what is discovered both somatically and cognitively”.

Becoming grounded in your body in these uncertain times

In her podcast, Jill offers a somatic meditation that enables you to become grounded in your body in times of uncertainty – at a time when we are all physically, mentally, emotionally and medically challenged with the advent of the Coronavirus.  Jill views mindfulness as “kindfulness”, a term developed by Ajahn Brahm.  In her view, meditation needs to be internally kind and supportive of yourself, others and the community at large.  She provides a guided meditation, a gentle “somatic practice”, that employs the following steps:

  • Begin by settling into your seat, comfortably – not strained or rigid.  This first instruction reinforces Jill’s emphasis on bodily sensations.
  • Close your eyes or look down – either way she suggests that you loosen your vision so that you soften both the back of your eyes and the corners.
  • Now progressively notice the weight of your bones in various parts of your body – the lightness of your toes in your shoes, the thickness of your bones in your legs and the heaviness of your hip bones.  Notice the support your bones provide as you sit in the chair.
  • Next sense your clothing on your skin – Jill suggests that you feel the difference in temperature between your skin covered by clothing and your uncovered skin exposed to the air.
  • Be with the gentleness of your breath at the entrance to your nostrils. Experience the softness and delicateness of the air flow through your nose.
  • Extend your inhalation by taking a deeper breath if is comfortable for you and notice the gentleness in the longer inhale.
  • Now extend the exhale gently – noticing the coolness of your breath and experience warmth throughout your body – in your chest, stomach and throat.  A useful way to feel the sensation of warmth embracing your body is to join your fingers together and feel the tingling that occurs there.
  • Notice the pause at the top of your exhale motion – to focus on this pause wait a second or two before exhalation to experience the stillness.
  • Notice the pause before the inhale – extend this for a second or two to experience the quietness and ease of the inward breath.
  • As you complete these four-part “breath rounds” (pause-exhale-pause-inhale) over a couple of minutes, draw on the support and imagery of nature – the gentle breeze through the leaves of the trees; the slow, breaking waves; or the silence and calmness of the mountains.
  • Feel the power of loving kindness and forgiveness flowing from your tranquillity and restfulness.

When distractions arise in this meditation, return to sensing the weight of your body on the chair – restore your groundedness.  As you slowly come to awareness at the end of the meditation, feel yourself coming to your senses more fully – take in the sights, sounds, smells, touch and taste that surround you as you feel more enlivened and relaxed.

Reflection

There is a certainty in our experience of our bodies in-the-moment and a tranquillity that arises from “resting in sensation”.  It is through our bodies that we can become truly grounded in the present.  As we grow in mindfulness, through somatic meditation and other somatic practices such as yoga, we can calm our “inner landscape”, still our mind and become increasingly open to our senses, our courage and creativity.  We can employ Jill’s somatic practice anywhere at any time to restore our sense of groundedness and experience ease and tranquillity.  Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us that through mindfulness we can move from doing to being present to the power of now.

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Image by Lara-yin from Pixabay

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Overcome Self-Protection to Create Personal Behavioural Change

Tami Simon, in a recent interview podcast, spoke to Dr. Lisa Lahey about her co-authored book, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.  Lisa is also a member of the faculty for the Inner MBA, jointly conducted by Sounds True in partnership with New York University, Wisdom 2.0 and LinkedIn.  In the interview, Lisa and Tami explore our self-protection mechanisms, the need for courage to overcome them and the importance of supportive challenge to sustain significant personal change.

Our self-protection mechanisms create an immunity to change

Our self-protection mechanisms are designed to protect our sense of self-worth and overall psychic health – they stop us from doing things that would be harmful to our psychic welfare.  Research and experience demonstrate, however, that that many people in organisations find it difficult to make positive behavioural changes that would make them a better staff member or manager.  For example, staff may not change inappropriate behaviour despite regular corrective feedback and a manager may not be able to delegate effectively despite their belief in the need for delegation.

Lisa maintains that the real barrier to these desirable behavioural changes is not a lack of procedural or technical knowledge but the need to change our “inner landscape” – made up of our beliefs, inner rules, feelings, self-stories and assumptions about our self, others, and our world.  Many behavioural changes in an organisational setting require these “adaptive changes” – becoming aware of the specific, inner landscape barriers to a focal behavioural change and working consciously to remove them.  This perspective advanced by Lisa lines up with our earlier discussion of “absolutes” and their impact on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Lisa likens our inner landscape to our immune system which is a self-protection mechanism designed to protect us against infection.  Our immune system, however, can also work against our physical welfare.  This can happen when it becomes hypersensitive to foods that would otherwise be good for us and creates inflammation in the form of rashes, hives, and other manifestations of food intolerance and allergies.  Another example is when the immune system rejects a liver or heart after a transplant.   Our inner landscape, just like the self-protective mechanism of our immune system, can work against making and sustaining desirable, personal behavioural change (whether within an organisational setting or in daily life with our family).

Making adaptive change through the “immunity change process”

In her Book, Immunity to Change, Lisa provides a detailed four-step process for making adaptive change which she calls “the immunity change process”.  In the podcast interview, she offered a brief description of each step and these are illustrated below:

  1. Have a clear goal in mind – Clarity around your behavioural change goal is critical because it enables a focused exploration of your “inner landscape”.  Lisa gave the example of her gaol to overcome the fear of public speaking.  Here I will focus on the goal of improving delegation as a manager, drawing on my experience working with managers over many years.
  2. Honest exploration of your self-sabotaging behaviours: As a manager, you might work against the achievement of your delegation goal by constant interference/ checking in with the person to whom you have delegated work (the delegatee), expressing a lack of trust in the delegatee’s ability to complete the work successfully, showing increasing signs of nervousness, and/or being unclear in your instructions/requirements when establishing the delegated task.  These behaviours can feed your anxiety cycle and thwart effective delegation to the delegatee and, at the same time, undermine their confidence so that they do not do the delegated job very well (an outcome that reinforces your belief system about the threats to your self-worth involved in delegating).
  3. Honest exploration of your inner self-protective goals:  These inner goals lie beneath your self-sabotaging behaviour and provide the unconscious rationale for behaving in a way that works against the achievement of your goal.  These self-protective goals could include trying to avoid the embarrassment of staff making mistakes, ensuring the security of your own job, maintaining a sense of superior knowledge and skills (“better than”) or avoiding being seen as lazy. 
  4. Identifying and challenging the underlying assumptions that give rise to the self-protective goals: These could include the assumption that if the delegatee becomes really good at their work your job will be at risk, they will see any poor work that you have done in relation to the delegated task,  they might do it the wrong way if you don’t constantly check on them, you will be seen as incompetent if they do the delegated task poorly or you will lose control of the task and the delegatee and reduce your influence.  These assumptions are interrelated and self-reinforcing, reducing your capacity to see possibilities and explore creative options.  Once these underlying assumptions have been surfaced, you can challenge them by exploring alternative assumptions.  Lisa suggests, for example, in relation to delegation, that the process could be seen as adding real value to the organisation and the delegatee by enabling them to be the best they can be.  This not only contributes more fully to the achievement of organisational goals but also builds staff motivation and mental health through providing a sense of agency.  Also, as neuroscientist Tali Sharot explains, you grow your influence by letting go.

Reflection

Our inner landscape acts as both a self-protective mechanism building our self-esteem and a self-sabotaging system that comes into play when we perceive that our self-worth is under threat.  As we grow in mindfulness through reflective processes such as the “immunity change process”, we can become more aware of our self-sabotaging behaviour, our unconscious self-protective goals and the underlying assumptions that hold them in place.  As we challenge our assumptions and associated expectations, we can break free of their hold over us and be open to creative options that we can pursue with courage and persistence.

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Image by Peter Perhac from Pixabay

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

A Meditation to Address Absolutes

In the previous post, I discussed the concept of absolutes advanced by Lance Allred.  Absolutes are those firm, unshakeable beliefs we hold about our self, others or the world around us.  They constrain our perspectives and influence our behaviour.  They are relatively immoveable and do not dissolve in the face of rational argument.  Absolutes shape our thoughts, feelings and reactions and impact our effectiveness and our relationships. They develop early in family life and are often reinforced culturally.  The downside of absolutes is that they stop us from realising our full potential – they act like clots in our circulatory system, stemming the flow of creativity and responsiveness.

A meditation to surface and address an absolute

It seems to me that the starting point for addressing the absolutes in our life is to begin with developing self-awareness and move to identifying strategies to self-regulate our reactions.  It is important to focus on one aspect of our present experience that we find unsatisfactory because of the negative thoughts and emotions that the experience elicits in us.  We are complex beings, so beginning with one relatively small absolute can develop our self-intimacy and improve our capacity to respond effectively without the baggage of our past.

There are several steps in the meditation:

  • Being grounded: It is important to become grounded so that you can achieve a sense of focus, balance and insight.  Being conscious of your posture and breathing helps to ground you in the present.
  • Deciding on an anchor: Your anchor is designed to enable you to come back into the focus of your meditation whenever you become aware that you have become distracted or diverted in your thinking.  The choice of anchors is a personal thing – I still like to feel the sensation of my fingers coming together.
  • Focus on an unsatisfactory experience: Decide what you are going to work on to unearth an absolute that is negatively impacting your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It could be some recent interaction or activity that made you upset or threw you off balance.  It does not have to be a major issue – in fact, initially it is better to start small. [I have started with the fact that I get upset and annoyed when I make a mistake at social tennis.]
  • Explore your emotions during the incident: What were you feeling?  What was the intensity of those feelings?  What was the catalyst for those feelings – what really happened?  Who were your feelings directed at – yourself or another person? [In my case, with my tennis mistakes my feelings were annoyance, frustration, anger and shame.]
  • What thoughts were behind your emotions: Why did you experience those emotions?  What was the incident triggering in you? What belief (absolute) about your self or the other person was driving your emotional response?  Whenever your thoughts include a “must” or “should”, you are beginning to access an absolute that is locking you into a response that reduces your flexibility and constrains your perspective.  [When I get upset with my tennis mistakes, my underlying thought or absolute is that “I must be seen to be competent at tennis.”] 
  • Explore the nature of your identified “absolute”: Take a close look at your absolute.  Is it a rational or realistic thought?  What is its origin? Is it embedded in a childhood experience or something that happened in later life?  Where did it come from and why is it persisting?  What does it say about your sense of self-worth – is your sense of who you are dependent on what someone else thinks or says?  [Tennis competence was a way to prove my worth – it generated respect and admiration.  It made me feel good about myself. My identity is tied up with the self-perception that I am a very good tennis player.]
  • What strategies could you adopt to reduce the impact of your “absolute”: The starting point is to acknowledge your absolute and how it is playing out in your life and relationships.  What could you do to reduce or avoid your negative, conditioned response?  Are there ways to build in a gap between the stimulus (the catalyst) and your response to give you the time and freedom to respond differently? Is there other offsetting, positive thoughts that you could entertain instead of your “absolute”?  [For my issue with tennis mistakes, one strategy has been to progressively loosen the relationship between my sense of self-worth and the outcome of the game – that is, not defining my sense of self- worth on whether I won or not.  This still leaves the issue of being upset with my tennis mistakes.  A strategy I am trying here is to express gratitude that I am able to play, that I can run and hit the ball, that I can hit some really good shots – that is, appreciating what I have and not focusing on the negatives and lack of accomplishment.]

Reflection

Even relatively minor “absolutes” are very hard to dislodge.  Using a meditation like the one described above can help to chip away at an absolute and reduce its hold on us by eroding our sense of certainty about the underlying belief, by seeing it for what it really is (e.g. illogical, unfounded or unnecessary) and developing alternative ways of thinking and feeling.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop deeper personal insight, identify how absolutes play out in our life and develop more creative and positive ways to respond to negatively experienced stimuli that will inevitably recur in our daily lives.

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Developing Mindfulness in Schools

Increasingly mindfulness is being introduced into schools for the benefit of teachers and students.   I previously discussed the work of Goldie Hawn and the MindUP program introduced extensively in schools across America.  Goldie explained the motivation for her work with schools and the reasons why children need mindfulness in an interview with Tami Simon.  The Australia and New Zealand Mental Health Association highlights the need to raise mental health awareness in schools because of the increasing level of mental illness amongst school age children and the adverse effects of social media together with study pressures and performance expectations (of others and themselves).  Research strongly supports the benefit of mindfulness for mental health.

Benefits of mindfulness in schools

Research into mindfulness practice in schools demonstrates that both students and teachers benefit.  Students develop greater capacity for attention and focus, increased self-awareness and better emotional self-regulation.  These outcomes in turn build their self-esteem and reduce stress and the incidence of anxiety and depression.  Teachers too experience similar outcomes and develop resilience to deal with setbacks and disappointments.  Patricia Jennings, author of Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom, identifies seven ways mindfulness can help teachers along with practices to support these outcomes.  These benefits include the capacity to slow down, build better relationships with students and handle difficult students more effectively.

Guidelines for the implementation of mindfulness in schools

The Smiling Mind organisation has developed guidelines based on research into successful implementation of their mindfulness programs in schools.  These evidence-based guidelines provide recommendations for the training of teachers and students in mindfulness as well as suggestions re the ideal duration and timing of daily mindfulness practices.  They strongly encourage the involvement of teachers in mindfulness practices so that they can act as models and a resource for students.  The guidelines recommend a whole-of-school approach to the development of mindfulness in schools, including the active involvement of school leaders and parents (where possible).  This wider level of involvement serves as positive reinforcement for the practice of mindfulness by students. 

Resources for mindfulness in schools

There is a growing mindfulness resource base for teachers, students and parents.  Here is a small sample of what is available:

  • Free mindfulness app: Smiling Mind offers a free mindfulness app that incorporates meditations and other mindfulness practices for use by teachers, students and parents.
  • Mindfulness videos and books: Grow Mindfully provides videos and a reading list for teachers and parents. 
  • Mindfulness training programs for teachers and students: Grow Mindfully and Smiling Mind offer these program.
  • Weekly meditation podcast: The weekly meditation podcast provided by the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) covers a wide range of possible meditation topics that can be incorporated in school-based meditations.

Reflection

Developing mindfulness in schools can help both students and teachers deal with the stresses of modern life and help them to enrich their relationships at school, work and home.  Modelling by teachers (and ideally by parents) will help to reinforce positive changes in self-awareness and self-regulation achieved by students through mindfulness practices.  As students and teachers grow in mindfulness through regular practice, they can experience life more fully and with a greater level of contentment.

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Using Singing Bowls in Meditation

Diana Winston in a recent meditation podcast was joined by Michael Perricone, musician and  Master of Tibetan Singing Bowls.  Diana provided guidelines for meditating with singing bowls as Michael generated music from the bowls.  At the outset, she indicated that meditating with the singing bowls was a pathway to natural awareness, a process of open awareness, not bounded by a specific focus other than the sounds of the bowls themselves.  The bowls provide sounds that give you a sense of the boundarylessness of natural awareness – like the spaciousness of the sky above.

Diana points out that we are always aware – we cannot switch off awareness, but we can focus it or be open to its universality by becoming conscious of awareness itself.  This openness to awareness is a declining capacity as we become lost in thought, time-poor and focused on material values.  I have previously discussed ways to develop natural awareness, and the Tibetan singing bowls offer another approach.   The singing bowls, like meditation bells, are made of a special combination of metals that heighten the vibrations of the bowls and the resultant resonance. 

The bowls have been used in mindfulness practice for centuries not only because they facilitate natural awareness but also because they enable relaxation and stress release.  They are now used in music therapy, massage and yoga sessions.  Michael offers a five-minute, Tibetan Singing Bowl Meditation on video using the bowls to illustrate their use in meditation.   Diana’s singing bowl meditation is a thirty-minute meditation accompanied by Michael playing the bowls.  The latter meditation is offered as part of the weekly meditation podcasts provided by MARC, UCLA.  Michael provides additional mindfulness resources, including links to mindfulness apps (such as the Headspace app) and online courses (e.g. The Mindful Living Course conducted by Elisha Goldstein).

Using the singing bowls in meditation

Diana begins her meditation podcast with an initial focus on becoming grounded through posture and a brief body scan designed to release tension in parts of the body such as tightness in your stomach or stiffness in your shoulders or legs.  She encourages you to take deep breaths to help you relax bodily.

Throughout the playing of the singing bowls, Diana provides support to enable you to be-with-the-sound as it reverberates around the room.  She suggests that if you find the sound of the bowls confusing, overwhelming or distressing that you can drop back to focusing on your breathing or the sensation of your feet on the floor or your fingers touching.   She also encourages you to refocus your listening to the sound of the bowls if you become diverted by your thoughts (e.g. trying to work out where to buy one of the bowls).  This process of constantly restoring your focus on the sound of the singing bowls can progressively build your awareness muscle and develop deep listening skills.

Reflection

I found the singing bowls a bit intense in a longer meditation (e.g. 30-minutes) when I first listened to them and thought that beginning with a shorter singing bowl meditation can help initially to develop this mindfulness practice.  Each person will experience the singing bowls differently, so the important thing that Diana stresses is personal choice – deciding how long you will practice meditation with the bowls and whether or not you will switch to another anchor, however temporarily.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can use practices such as the singing bowl meditation to deepen our self-awareness, awareness of others and the world around us, and awareness of our connectedness to everyone and everything else.

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Improving Your Tennis Performance through Tai Chi

Dr. Peter Wayne, Tai Chi researcher and long-time practitioner, contends that the principles of Tai Chi have a strong synergy with the physical and mental demands of many sports.  In his book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, he supports this contention with examples and scientific research.  In the book, he strongly suggests that sportspeople adopt Tai Chi as a form of cross-training, especially people engaged in the sports of tennis, golf or skiing where the positive impact on performance is more direct.  Throughout the book, he provides specific Tai Chi related exercises for each of these three sports.  

How Tai Chi practice improves tennis performance

Peter’s research led him to identify the eight active ingredients of Tai Chi which are the primary focus of his abovementioned book.  He was able to explain the power of Tai Chi to strengthen the mind-body connection – a key ingredient for effective performance in any sport.  Peter highlighted this connection in relation to tennis by drawing on Timothy Gallwey’s work in relation to the inner game of tennis which I discussed previously.  In particular, Peter focused on Timothy’s emphasis on self-observation, mental and bodily awareness and the need to be non-judgmental when making mistakes in tennis.

Peter also focused on the specific active ingredients of Tai Chi that had a profound positive impact on tennis performance:

  • Awareness (including focused-attention and mindfulness) – Tai Chi builds bodily awareness (positioning and movement), strengthens the capacity to focus (on the ball and the opposition), and develops the ability to be fully in the present moment.
  • Intention (includes expectation and belief) – associated with this is the power of visualization, an important ingredient in improving and sustaining sports performance.  Tai Chi training draws strongly on metaphor and imagery in relation to movement, drawing on images from nature such as the movement of clouds and the wings of a bird.  In his book, Peter draws heavily on the research into “motor imagery” and its positive effects on performance.  The focused attention and groundedness involved in Tai Chi help to reinforce self-belief and shut out the negative self-stories that can impact expectations e.g. “I’m going to lose this tennis set” or “I’m going to do a double fault” or “I can’t possibly handle his serve”. 
  • Grounded Movement – Peter explains that the principles of Tai Chi state that “all movement is started in the feet, steered by the waist, and administered by the hands” and this is reflected in the practice of Tai Chi.  This process of movement is built into tennis strokes such as the forehand and backhand and incorporated in basic tennis training [Early in my tennis playing experience, I would coach very young children in tennis basic steps and the coaching followed this pattern].  Peter provides a basic training exercise in his book that he calls Tai Chi Tennis which mirrors this grounded movement.
  • Balance (both physical and emotional) – Tai Chi involves considerable weight transfer from one leg to the other, from forward to backward.  Weight transfer and the related capacity to maintain balance are essential components of tennis shots, especially volleys and tennis smashes.  Emotional balance is linked to the inner game of tennis mentioned above, including the capacity to manage mistakes and deal with setbacks.

Reflection

Peter’s research and practice reinforces the power of Tai Chi to improve tennis performance. His committed, professional approach to Tai Chi over many years is highly inspirational as is his book that draws all this together in terms of “active ingredients”.  As we grow in mindfulness through the practice of Tai Chi and meditation, we can increase our bodily awareness, emotional and physical balance and draw heavily on the power of mindfulness to strengthen focused attention and intention.  The real benefits will come with regular practice. 

This writing and reflection strengthen my motivation to increase my practice of Tai Chi and other mindfulness practices that will, in turn, improve my tennis performance and increase my capacity to be-in-the-moment and experience all the positivity that this entails.

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Understanding the Science of Compassion

In her presentation on The Science of Compassion during the Mindful Healthcare Summit, Kelly McGonigal highlighted the body-mind impact of compassion and compassion training. Over the past 10 years she has worked with the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in the capacities of researcher and educator. Kelly was a co-author of the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training [CCT] and has undertaken research into its impacts on mind and body.

The mind-body effects of compassion training

The research undertaken by Kelly and her colleagues highlights the effects of compassion training on the mind and body. Kelly summarised these effects as follows:

  1. The process of compassion starts in the primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, which registers a form of “sympathetic stress”, experienced by the observing individual as sadness or suffering. At this stage a person can become overwhelmed, particularly where they become too identified with the person who they perceive as suffering in some way, e.g. through grief, chronic physical illness, relationship breakdown or mental illness. The person who is experiencing overwhelm may adopt flight behaviour by distancing themselves (mentally and/or physically).
  2. The next stage involves the pre-frontal cortex and other parts of the “midline structure of the brain”. Here the sympathetic sufferer, through a process of “social cognition”, can separate themselves from the perceived sufferer. They recognise the suffering of the “other” and understand that they have a relationship to that person (as part of humanity) but are quite distinct from that other person – they don’t take the suffering on-board or “own the suffering” of the other person. This ability to achieve separation mentally is critical for the balance and welfare of the observer and is foundational to their willingness and ability to act to relieve the suffering of others. Without this balance, the observer may experience what Richard Davidson described as “empathy fatigue”.
  3. When we actually take compassionate action to relieve the suffering of another, we experience the “reward system” – our brain releases dopamine which make us feel good, hopeful and courageous. It thus serves to strengthen our motivation to redress the suffering of others. It activates “the approach motivation system of the brain” – motivating us to act on environments that we experience as unjust or toxic.

As we grow in mindfulness through compassion meditation and compassion training, and take action to redress the suffering of others, we can experience an increasing capacity for compassionate action and strengthening motivation to act on unjust or toxic environments.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Resilience is Not Endurance or Acceptance of a Toxic Situation

Resilience is very much about “bouncing back” from adversity or setbacks. Richard Davidson in his research has shown that resilience can be measured in terms of the rapidity with which the body returns to its “baseline” – measured in terms of level of cortisol and the level of activation of the amygdala. He maintains that resilience is not acceptance or endurance of a toxic environment that is unjust or inappropriate.

Resilience can be built through developing life skills that enable you to move beyond significant adverse life events. Richard and his colleagues have identified conscious ways to build resilience by using meditation and mindfulness practices focused on developing bodily awareness, social connection, personal insight and life purpose.

Resilience does not lead to acceptance of a toxic situation but rather builds motivation and skill to address the situation effectively. Mindfulness practices designed to build resilience also strengthen your capacity to manage stresses experienced within a toxic situation by increasing self-awareness, enhancing self-regulation, improving clarity and calmness and releasing creativity.

Resilience and compassion: building motivation and capacity for action

In the previous post, I discussed social connection as one way to build resilience and compassion meditation (loving-kindness meditation) as a way to develop social connection. Professor David DeSteno, renowned psychologist and author of The Truth About Trust, maintains that the ability to build social connections through compassion (through assisting those in need) makes us more resilient over the longer term. 

Kelly McGonigal, in her presentation on The Science of Compassion during the Mindful Healthcare Summit, maintained that compassion benefits everyone in a system – the person who shows compassion, the recipient, colleagues and witnesses (e.g. the hundreds of thousands of people who have witnessed the compassionate action by Mo Cheeks).

Kelly’s research and that of her colleagues suggests that people who undertake training in compassion (such as Compassion Cultivation Training [CCT] offered by Stanford University) become strong and resilient advocates for system change where people are suffering. She maintains that participants in CCT are more able to effectively change a toxic situation through their hope, courage, renewed energy and strong social connection. She suggests that this “very work of change is a form of compassion”. On reflection, compassion appeared to be the driver in an earlier reported case where participants used action learning to redress a toxic work environment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditations designed to build resilience, we can increase our motivation and capacity to act effectively to change a toxic situation that is causing suffering for people. By building social connections through compassion, we not only strengthen our resilience, but also enhance our capacity to act effectively with hope and energy to address the suffering experienced within the toxic system.

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Image by Bruno Glätsch from Pixabay

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Shaping Our Brains to Build Resilience

Richard Davidson, Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds, recently addressed the Mindful Healthcare Summit on the topic The Science of Resilience. Richard, an internationally renowned neuroscientist, stated that his research and that of his colleagues has convinced him that we can shape our brains in a way that builds resilience and helps us to flourish rather than be tossed around “like a sailboat without a rudder on a turbulent sea”. Richard is the co-author with Daniel Goleman of the book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

What is resilience?

Richard defines resilience as “the rapidity with which you can recover from adversity”. Linda Graham described this trait as “bouncing back“. Richard stated that neuroscience can actually measure the rapidity of recovery by exploring (through brain imaging) two key aspects of the brain that feature in dealing with stress or adverse situations, (1) the level of cortisol released by the brain and (2) the degree to which the amygdala is activated.

He highlighted the brain’s plasticity as proof that we can train our minds and take more responsibility for shaping our brains and determining the direction of our brain plasticity – which most of the time occurs unwittingly through forces external and internal to ourselves. The key is to understand how our brain develops resilience and to make a commitment to shape our brain in a way that builds wellbeing rather than diminishes it.

How to shape our brain to build resilience

Richard suggests that to actively build resilience we need to develop in four key areas through focused meditations and aligned action:

  1. Awareness – he describes this as attention to our own bodies and the tension within. Mindful breathing and body scan can help to develop this awareness and related ability to be grounded in our bodies. Calmness and clarity emerge from this aspect of shaping our minds.
  2. Connection – having and nurturing harmonious and supportive relationships that provide an effective buffer for us when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Meditations that can help build social connection are the loving kindness and gratitude meditations. Positivity, expressions of appreciation and empathy can nurture these relationships.
  3. Insight – an in-depth knowledge of our personal narrative/self-story that generates negative self-evaluation and false beliefs that contribute to a lack of resilience and depression. We have to recognise these self-beliefs as merely thoughts, not reality. Meditations such as the R.A.I.N. meditation, S.B.N.R.R. process and reflections on resentment can help us shift this narrative from negative thoughts generating self-defeating emotions to a positive narrative that is enabling and builds resilience in the face of setbacks or adversity.
  4. Purpose – clarity about life purpose, and alignment of words and actions with this purpose, enable us to surf the waves of daily life and to manage the vicissitudes that inevitably disturb our equilibrium. Bill George describes your purpose as your True North and offers ways to discover it. In a previous post I offered a series of questions to help find your unique purpose and a path of action to pursue that purpose.

Developing a permeable self

Richard stated that the aspect of “insight” mentioned above is a key component of resilience. We tend to develop a fixed and stable view of our self which causes us problems in conflicted situations. It is this “fixed identity” that becomes challenged when our emotions overflow, especially when they “bleed” from one adverse interaction into another encounter. We need to be able to “shake loose the rigidity” by making our sense of self more permeable – open to new experiences, insights and feedback.

As we grow in mindfulness through exploring different forms of meditation on a consistent basis, we can develop a more balanced and permeable view of our self. We can build our resilience and wellbeing through developing awareness, connection, insight and purpose.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.