Forgiving Others

Carrying anger and resentment towards others can be destructive and eat away at you, your tranquility, peace and happiness.  Harbouring grudges only leads to physical illness and negatively impacts your behaviour in every arena – in the home, at work and in the community.

We can see how hatred has affected generations of people in Israel and Palestine, Bosnia and Serbia.  People suffer for hundreds of years because of these conflicts and entrenched hatred.  The practice of forgiveness can lift the “burden of the past from our hearts”.  It can free us from the endless cycle of suffering.

Jack Kornfield tells the story of two ex-prisoners of war who were having a conversation and one asks the other whether they have forgiven their captors.  The other person responds to the effect that there is no way they could forgive their captors.  The first ex-prisoner responded, “So, they still have you in prison, don’t they!” – enslaved by his resentment and hatred.

Jack tells another story that reflects a different outcome resulting from forgiveness by a husband after a very difficult divorce resulting in legal action to keep him away from his children and the mother trying to turn their children against their father.  The husband decided that he had to forgive his ex-wife because as he said, “I will not bequeath a legacy of bitterness to my children.”  This forgiving stance – despite the pain, despair and suffering at the hands of another – took considerable courage and compassion.

Sometimes we hurt, betray or harm someone else knowingly; other times, we do it unknowingly.  There are even times when we numb ourselves to the potential hurt suffered by another because of our actions or inaction.  Hurting others is a part of being human because our perceptions and insight are limited as is our capacity to deal with perceived hurt to ourselves – we often want to hit back by our words, actions or omissions. We are very vulnerable and, while we can be kind and thoughtful at times, we can harbour resentment and anger, even at the slightest provocation.

As we grow in mindfulness through forgiveness meditation, we become sensitized to the impact of our actions and the hurt we cause others, we become more open and free from the burden of guilt from our past actions and more watchful to avoid hurting others in the future.  There is freedom in forgiveness.

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Self-Forgiveness

We have all hurt ourselves and other people during our lives – it’s part of being human.  Unfortunately, we can carry around the associated guilt, negative self-evaluation, and sense of unworthiness that act as a dead weight holding us back and weighing us down.

Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are essential for our mental health and wellbeing and for the development of wisdom.  Sometimes, the accumulated guilt for the hurts we have caused seems too great for us to tackle it.  The sense of guilt and shame becomes buried deeply in our psyche as we avoid confronting the hurt we have created by our words, actions or omissions.  Self-forgiveness is the way forward and the means to release ourselves from the tyranny of guilt.

However, we can often be held back by the misconceptions and unfounded beliefs we hold about forgiveness meditation Jack Kornfield identifies three myths that get in the road of our practising self-forgiveness:

  • Myth 1: Forgiveness is a sign of weakness – in reality, forgiveness requires considerable courage to “confront our demons” and deal with the pain of self-discovery.  The demand for courage is especially pertinent when addiction is involved.
  • Myth 2: Forgiveness means we are condoning the hurtful action – in fact, we often resolve never to do that hurtful action again or to avoid the situation where we are tempted to react inappropriately.  If we fail to address the guilt and shame, we are held captive and are more likely to take that hurtful action again
  • Myth 3: Forgiveness is a quick fix – it can be far from this.  Jack Kornfield recalled a mindfulness teacher that requested that he do a 5-minute forgiveness exercise 300 times over a number of months.  If we undertake forgiveness meditation, we can procrastinate or fall into the trap of the opposite of forgiveness (blame, self-loathing).  Sometimes self-forgiveness will involve a lot of pain, regression, diversion and ongoing effort to avoid falling back into a lack of loving kindness.

Self-forgiveness is something we have to keep working at as we go deeper into our feelings of shame and guilt and their hidden sources.  Jack Kornfield suggests that self-forgiveness releases us from the burden of the past and allows us to open to our heartfelt sense of our own goodness.

As we grow in mindfulness through self-forgiveness meditation, we can gain a sense of freedom to be ourselves, a newfound self-respect and energy for kindness and compassion towards others.  We will become less self-absorbed and weighed down and feel free to open up to others.

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Creativity through Mindfulness

Over several blog posts I have explored the relationship between mindfulness and creativity.  In this post, I want to bring these ideas together to provide a more complete picture of how to develop creativity through mindfulness.

Mindfulness creates the internal environment for creativity through the following:

Stillness and silence

We discussed previously how creative people use stillness and silence to access their inner resources including their imagination.  The busyness of life and constant thinking means we are rarely still or silent.  In the process, we cut ourselves off from creative insight.  Jon Kabat-Zinn and Reg Revans also remind us that exploring what we do not know or understand is the beginning of learning and creative solutions.   As we practice mindfulness through meditation, we engage in stillness and silence and open ourselves up to what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “deep interior capacities” that lie within the “spaciousness” of our minds.

Turning down negative thoughts

Mindfulness can make us aware of the negative thoughts that often block creativity and constitute self-sabotage.  Creative people like David Lynch, Amanda Sinclair, Elizabeth Gilbert and Seth Godin report the importance of turning down, or turning off, thoughts about potential failure or deemed personal inadequacy.  Seth even ascribes this self-sabotage to the “Lizard Brain”.  Sam Smith, singer-songwriter, during a recent interview while performing in London, spoke of the internal demons that beset him and almost prevented him from pursuing his highly successful songwriting and singing career.

Mindfulness enables us to address negative thoughts and stories and defuse their strength to release creativity.  Boy George in a recent coaching session with a very nervous performer on the TV show, The Voice, encouraged the singer to let go of preoccupation with what others might think of their performance:

I think you are someone who really thinks about what people think about you.  We do that as performers – it’s just one of those things, it’s like a default setting in out make-up.  We worry too much about what other people think of us and that can get in the way of what we do.  Don’t think about it too much is the key.

Positive anticipation instead of disabling fear

In a previous post, I discussed the research of Anna Steinhenge and her demonstration of how positive anticipation can overcome the disabling effects of fear and enable us to access clear thinking and creativity.  In this discussion, I explored the R.A.I.N. meditation process that enables us to face the fear within and conquer it so that we free ourselves for new insights and creative endeavour.   Through mindfulness meditation we learn to name our feelings in order to tame them.

Calming the busyness of our minds

Mindfulness enables us to calm our minds and free us from mental busyness or what Haruki Murakami describes as “convoluted waterways of my consciousness” that result in a “restless aquatic organism” .   Even experienced meditation practitioners will sometimes find their mind racing and being invaded with endless thoughts.  Kabat-Zin reminds us that this is part of the human condition and we will not be able to stop the thoughts.  He suggests that instead of entertaining these thoughts, we view them as bubbles in boiling water floating to the surface and bursting on reaching the extremities of the container – our minds.

Being present and grounded

Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, co-authors of The Mind of the Leader, stress the importance of leaders being present and grounded.   They argue that being present in conversations gains respect and facilitates open sharing of ideas.  Being grounded before beginning a conversation or meeting can enhance a leader’s capacity to listen, take in ideas and access their own creative potential.   Practicising somatic meditation, which incorporates many approaches to being grounded in our body, will strengthen our capacity to be present in the moment, stay grounded in the conversation and be open to creative ideas.

Acting on creative ideas with boldness and bravery

It is one thing to have creative ideas, it is another to have the necessary  boldness and bravery to implement creative ideas.  Amanda Sinclair points out in her book, Leading Mindfully, that creativity involves breaking with tradition, taking risks, trying out something new and having the self-esteem and resilience to be able to persist in the face of opposition – especially from those who have a vested interest in maintaining things the way they are.

Mindfulness helps us to maintain focus, to remain calm, build resilience in the face of opposition and setbacks, and to become braver and less fearful of the difficulties, dangers and risks involved in implementing creative ideas.

As we grow in mindfulness, we are able to access our inner resources through stillness and silence of meditation, overcome our fears, stay present and grounded, remain calm in the face of difficulties and develop boldness, bravery and resilience as we venture beyond “the tried and true”.

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

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Action Learning, Mindfulness and Mental Health in the Workplace

Over the past few months I have been exploring the linkages amongst action learning, mindfulness and mental health.  I have found that action learning and mindfulness are complementary and enable the development of an organisational culture that is conducive to mental health. The image above represents my current conceptualisation of the relationships amongst action learning, mindfulness and mental health.

Mental illness in the workplace

The pressures of modern life have led to the increasing incidence of people in the workplace suffering from mental illness.  This is compounded by the increase in the number of narcissistic managers.  My own experience of consulting to organisations over many years has highlighted for me the urgency of taking action in the area of mental health in the workplace.

One particular consulting experience involved helping a manager and their group to become more effective.  The senior manager exhibited high levels of narcissistic behaviours, the middle manager –  while sincere and very conscientious – lacked self-awareness and interpersonal skills and one of the team leaders was suffering from Asperger Syndrome.  This workplace environment was toxic for the mental health of all involved, including myself as a consultant.

Action learning and toxic work environments

In the course of my research and work as an organisational consultant and academic, I came across an action learning intervention in an educational context in South Africa that addressed the mental health issues resulting from a toxic workplace.  This doctoral study has been published in article form and is described in my post on overcoming a toxic work environment through action learning.

Around the same time, I had the good fortune to study another doctorate that addressed the trauma experienced by midwives in a hospital in New Zealand.  This research used action learning to change the culture from a punitive one to a culture that supported health professionals suffering trauma, reduced the impact of the traumatic event and enabled them to be more resilient in the face of the trauma experience. I discussed this case in my blog post on agency through action learning.

Creating a mentally healthy workplace through action learning

Reflecting on these two studies about action learning and toxic workplaces raised my awareness of the positive mental health implications of the action learning-based, manager development that I had been conducting with my colleague, Julie Cork, over more than a decade.  I came to conceptualise that manager development program as creating a mentally healthy workplace through action learning.  The perception of this program as developing a culture conducive to mental health in the workplace was reinforced by a report by two lawyers titled, Mental Health at Work.

When facilitating the Confident People Management (CPM) Program with Julie, we have the participating managers identify the characteristics of their worst and best managers.  Then we ask them to identify their feelings when working for the best managers and then when working for the worst managers.  Over more than a decade there has been almost unanimity over more than 80 programs in terms of the relevant managerial characteristics and the resultant feelings of subordinate staff.  This is independent of whether the participants are from the capital city or regional areas and does not differ substantially amongst participants of different occupations and professions – whether the participants are police officers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, mental health professionals, nurses, hospital managers or public servants engaged in child safety, accounting or marketing roles. Participant managers know intuitively what managerial behaviours are conducive to mental health and what are injurious.  We set about in the CPM to develop the characteristics of “good managers” in the program.

Mindfulness and mental health in the workplace

The research supporting the positive impact of mindfulness on mental health and its role in overcoming mental illness is growing exponentially.  The ever-growing research base in this area led to The Mindfulness Initiative in the UK and the creation of the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG).

The benefits of mindfulness for mental health in the workplace were then documented in two very significant reports, Mindful Nation UK and Building the Business Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace.  I have discussed this proactivity in the UK and the associated reports in a post, The Mindfulness Initiative: Mindfulness in the Workplace.

The Mindful Nation UK report incorporates feedback from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) which argues strongly that mindfulness alone will not solve the problems of toxic work environments.  They contend that organisations need proactive interventions (not just isolated mindfulness training) to ensure that organisational culture is conducive to employee well-being.  I have argued that action learning is an intervention that can develop a culture conducive to mental health.

In my discussions I take this conclusion one step further by contending that action learning and mindfulness are complementary and contribute to mental health through the development of agency and self-awareness.

Action learning and mindfulness as complementary interventions.

Reflection is integral to action learning and some mindfulness practices rely on reflection on events and personal responses to build awareness.  I have discussed the similarities and differences in these reflective practices within the two approaches in a post titled, Mindfulness, Action Learning and Reflection.

Elsewhere, I have shown  how action learning can contribute to the development of mindfulness through “supportive challenge”, mutual respect, equality and “non-judgmental feedback”.  This discussion is available in a blog post, titled Developing Mindfulness Through Action Learning.

After discussing the complementarity between action learning and mindfulness, I wrote a reflection on the previously mentioned action learning intervention designed to change a toxic work environment in an educational setting.  In this reflection, I discussed how mindfulness training could have helped the participants to exercise more fully the responsibility that came with agency.  In a subsequent post, I looked at how mindfulness expands our response ability.

In a further reflection on both the doctoral studies mentioned above, I highlighted the capacity of mindfulness to break through the “conspiracy of silence” about mental health in organisations and to strengthen both self-awareness and resilience.

The complementarity betwen action learning and mindfulness in terms of developing a culture conducive to mental health comes into sharper focus when we consider the contribution of each to “agency” and “self-awareness” in the workplace.

Action learning and mindfulness develop agency in the workplace

Drawing on the work of Tali Sharot, author of The Influential Mind, I have shown how agency is a necessary prerequisite for mental health in the workplace.  I have also explained how action learning can contribute to both employee agency and managerial agency.  One of the things that stop managers from providing employees with agency (control over their work environment and the way their work is done) is fear of loss of control.  Mindfulness enables a manager to overcome this fear, provide agency to employees and grow their own influence in the process.

I contend further that mindfulness enables agency to be sustained in the workplace for both managers and employees.  Managers are better able to realise their potential by “letting go” and enabling employee agency.  Employees, in turn, build their capacity to take up the agency provided through their own pursuit of mindfulness.  “Sustainable agency” is an organisational condition that provides a nurturing environment for managerial and employee growth and for the mental health of all concerned.

Action learning and mindfulness develop self-awareness in the workplace

When you look at the underpinning philosophy of both action learning and mindfulness you find that both actively work towards achieving self-awareness by removing the blindness of false assumptions, unconscious bias, prejudice, and self-limiting “narratives”.

Action learning and mindfulness can thus act together to build self-awareness, a precondition for mental health.  In the process, they provide the payoff from self-awareness in terms of increased responsiveness, creativity and self-management.  Action learning and mindfulness also enhance self-awareness by encouraging us to admit what we do not know.

As managers grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices they are better able to contribute to action learning and to build a culture that is conducive to mental health.  Mindfulness helps both managers and employees to develop deeper self-awareness and to build their capacity to take up the agency provided, thus leading to a more sustainable organisational capacity for agency.

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

Image source: Ron Passfield, Copyright. 2018

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Loving Kindness Meditation Towards Others

In the previous post, I focused on loving kindness meditation for ourselves.  In this post, I will discuss extending loving kindness to others.  Often, though, these two approaches to loving kindness meditation are combined so that you can extend loving kindness to others and yourself in the one meditation.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) at the University of California, Los Angeles, provides an extended podcast for a loving kindness meditation that incorporates both approaches.  This is one of a series of weekly meditation podcasts provided by MARC.

Guidelines for a loving kindness meditation focused on others

Diana suggests that in the first place you need to approach the meditation with a sense of curiosity, openness to whatever arises and a willingness to be with “what is” – whatever that may be, positive or negative emotions.  She points out that whenever you try to cultivate a new meditation practice invariably obstacles will arise.  So, we need to be open and present to these potential blockages because they will increase our self-awareness and dealing with them will improve our self-management.

Preparation for this form of meditation requires that you adopt a comfortable position or yoga pose. As Jack Kornfield reminds us, it is very difficult to extend loving kindness to others when you have a sore back because of a lack of back support.

Being grounded at the outset is important as with other forms of meditation.  If you are sitting on a chair, this involves initially ensuring your feet are flat on the ground, you are sitting upright, your hands are in a comfortable position and you either close your eyes or look down to avoid distractions and centre your focus.  A couple of deep breaths, followed by mindful breathing, can help to clear your mind and relax your body.

Loving Kindness Meditation Process

Typically, you will focus on someone who you love or appreciate – your partner, family member, close friend or supportive colleague.  Ideally, it should be someone for whom you can readily develop kind thoughts and words of appreciation.

It is important to do two things – verbalise your kind thoughts and notice your bodily sensations.  Verbalising involves stating what you wish for the other person, e.g. strength, resilience, happiness, joy, peace or calmness.  It will help to envisage what you appreciate in the other person or what you love most about them, e.g. their generosity, sense of equity, courage, kindness to disadvantaged people, open heartedness, emotional support, balance or wisdom.

As you express kind thoughts in your meditation, you could notice your accompanying bodily sensations.  These will become more pronounced as you progress with your loving kindness meditation because you will start to experience feelings of wellness, peace and happiness.  These feelings can manifest in the slowing of your breath, a sense of calm or a slight vibration in your hands or feet as positive energy flows through you.

You can move onto other people who form part of your “field of love“.  As you extend loving kindness to different cohorts, others will come to mind and you can incorporate them in your focus.

The more difficult thing to do is to extend loving kindness to people you find difficult for one reason or another.  You soon learn what emotional blockages are getting in the road of your expressing positive feelings towards them.  Again, it is important to stay with these feelings and work through them.

What usually helps is incorporating loving kindness towards yourself.  This can be done by envisaging what someone in your “field of love” would extend to you.  It can also be strengthened by picturing a recent hug received from them – so that the positive emotions of feeling valued, appreciated and loved can be revisited.  Images, memories and sensations can heighten your positive feelings.

As you grow in mindfulness through loving kindness meditation, it will become easier and more natural to extend positive thoughts towards others.  Jack Kornfield and Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us that we become what we pay attention to.

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

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Loving Kindness Meditation Towards Our Self

In previous posts, I explored mindful self-compassion,  the challenges in extending compassion to yourself and the power of self-compassion to transform yourself.   I also discussed compassion meditation where we are extending compassion to others.

In these discussion about compassion, we focused on pain and suffering experienced by ourselves and/or others.  In contrast, in the loving kindness meditation, we are exploring what is good and lovable in ourselves and others.

Loving kindness meditation can focus on ourselves or others.  In this post, I will focus on extending loving kindness to ourselves; in a subsequent post, I will explore how to undertake loving kindness meditation towards others.

The basic approach to loving kindness meditation

Diana Winston describes loving kindness meditation as the explicit cultivation of “open heartedness”.  She explains that this is a natural human process and is not false or artificial.   Diana contrasts loving kindness meditation with basic mindfulness meditation in that in the latter, it is essential to stay in the moment, while in loving kindness meditation it is okay and important to be creative in exploring images and loving memories about ourselves or another.

Jack Kornfield, in the online Power of Awareness Course, suggests that there are three elements that traditionally form the framework for a loving kindness meditation:

  1. Intention to express loving kindness towards ourselves or someone else
  2. Envisaging love for oneself or for another
  3. Cultivating the art of loving kindness – developing our open heartedness.

The benefits of loving kindness are numerous and can impact every facet of our lives – our interpersonal relationships, our sense of presence and the way we view every living thing.  Loving kindness meditation towards our self can be difficult because our culture cultivates the opposite – a sense of unworthiness or negative self-evaluation.  Regular meditation practice can overcome these cultural barriers.

If we experience thoughts or feelings other than loving kindness towards ourselves, we can accept them and make them the focus of our meditation too.  When we name our unkind feelings, we can learn to tame them so that they do not prevent us from extending loving kindness towards our self.  Diana Winston suggests that, in this way, these obstacles can become a cleansing process to free ourselves for self-love.

The process of loving kindness meditation towards our self

Jack Kornfield suggests that after becoming grounded and focused on our breath, we can think of two people separately for whom we have an uncomplicated love and appreciation.   Once we have each person in focus, we can extend kind thoughts to each of them in turn  – wishing them health and wellbeing, hoping that they will be safe and strong, wanting them to be happy.

We can then envisage these people individually extending similar loving kindness towards our self.   We can imagine them saying similar words or expressing kind thoughts towards us – wishing for our happiness, wellness, safety and strength.   We can then rest in the warmth of love and appreciation – something that is often below our level of conscious awareness, but which we act on in our daily lives.

As we grow in mindfulness through loving kindness meditation towards ourselves, we make explicit what we know implicitly, silence the negative self-evaluations that otherwise persist in our thoughts and open ourselves to extending loving kindness to others.

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

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Coping with Trauma by Re-Connecting

In the previous discussion, I identified ways to access your inner resources to cope with trauma.  The problem with trauma, as Tara Brach points out, is that we become cut off from our brain and from our relationships.

This separation from ourselves and others impedes our ability to access our inner resources. There are a number of things that we can do to move past these blockages and find some peace.

Connecting with the present moment

One of the issues with trauma is that we can keep visiting the traumatic event(s) and the associated feelings, so we are re-living the past.  Resourcing begins with being in the present – being able to focus on the positives in our life including our achievements.  For example, we can connect with nature through open awareness – listening to the birds, smelling the flowers and trees, feeling the breeze on our face, observing the sky and clouds and touching the fibrous stems of a plant.

Connecting with our anxiety and aversion

When we find that every fibre of our body resists delving into the depths of our pain and grief, we can make the anxiety or aversion the focus of our meditation.  This involves being open to the anxiety involved and, instead of pushing it down deeper, we can establish a relationship with the feeling of aversion.  One way to do this is to explore the relationship that is demanded by the aversion – what is it asking of us?  Another way is to disarm it by picturing an image of the aversion- a cartoon character, an archetype (e.g. a witch) or a monster – and giving it a name such as “Mister Magoo”.  When the anxiety, fear or aversion rears its ugly head, we can then say – “So, Mister Magoo, I see you are back, what do you want this time?”

Connecting to daily practice

Sometimes, we find that we cannot maintain a daily practice of meditation – we may lack the discipline or motivation.  If we are driven by “shoulds”, we will be unable to sustain the habit of meditation.  However, if we revisit our intention – purpose for engaging in meditation – we can find the necessary discipline and motivation to restore our meditation practice.  Affirming to ourselves the benefits we seek, will help us to keep on track and overcome minor deviations from daily practice.  Sitting in the place we always sit for meditation can help, even if we can only do it briefly.  Journaling about the resistance we are feeling and recording how long we practised, can bring to light a pattern in our thinking and behaviour.  Also, by naming the resistance, we can tame it.

Connecting with our body

Sometimes we cannot feel an emotion in our body – we can become numb to our feelings.  We may feel, as a result, that we lack something that others possess when they can describe the impact of a feeling in their body in terms of colour, shape, intensity or location.  Again, practice helps.  When we feel a strong emotion such as kindness or disgust during our daily activity, we can try to notice our bodily reaction, exploring what is happening in our body no matter how minor or weak the impact.  Regular practice of this noticing will heighten our awareness and open us up to sensing our body’s reaction to particular emotions.  At first, it may be just a general sensation, but over time the features of the sensation will come into clearer focus.

Connecting to the community of suffering and love

The reality is that at any one time, most people are experiencing some form of suffering, whether physical, mental or a combination – suffering is a part of the human condition.  If we can move beyond our own suffering and its intensity we can connect to others who are experiencing similar suffering or something different and more intense – compassion for others can take us outside of ourselves.  There is also the wider “field of love” that we can tap into – be it from our friends, family or the community generally.  There is a sea of kindness everywhere, if we only look for it.

Connecting to a source of wisdom

We can imagine a wise person besides us as we try to make decisions that affect our life and wellbeing.  This can be a religious figure or someone who has taught or mentored us in life.  We can envisage talking to them about our issue and the decision we need to make.  This is a way to tap into universal wisdom.  We might raise our aversion, anxiety or resistance as a topic of conversation and the focus of a decision.

Through these means of connection, we can realise that we are not alone, that we do not need to be “cut off”.  We can feel the strength of everything and everyone around us and rest in that awareness.  As we grow in mindfulness through connection practices, we can break free of the sense of separateness, numbness and overwhelm and feel energised to deal with our deeper feelings generated by the experience of trauma.

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

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Accessing Our Inner Resources to Cope With Trauma

Mindfulness through “resourcing meditation” can help us to cope with trauma.  It does not replace the need for therapeutic assistance but complements therapy and facilitates the process of dealing with deeply held fear or grief.

The causes of trauma

Trauma can be experienced by anyone at any stage of life.  The associated experience of profound psychological distress can result from a natural disaster such as a cyclone or earthquake; a personal life event such as the death of a parent. life partner or a child; being involved in a serious car or transport accident; the experience of going to war or being a prisoner of war; experiencing a vicious relationship break-up; being a person displaced by war; experiencing a toxic work environment over an extended period; being a refugee attacked by pirates when trying to flee a war-torn country by boat (the experience of Anh Do).

People in helping professions can experience vicarious trauma by virtue of supporting others who have had a traumatic experience. So midwives in a hospital can experience trauma when a mother and/or baby dies; professionals providing access to legal aid can be overcome by constant exposure to the recounting of traumatic experiences by clients; police, ambulance drivers and paramedics can experience vicarious trauma as a result of the work they do with victims of crime or serious car accidents; and police and their life partners, too, can experience trauma vicariously as a result of the death of a colleague through violence.

The effects of trauma

Just as the causes of trauma can be many and varied, so too are the effects experienced by people who have been traumatised.  Some people experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  This usually occurs when a person experiences an event that is personally life-threatening to themselves or others and is more likely in situations where a pre-existing mental illness is present, and/or a series of traumatic events are involved, such as sexual abuse.  People who have PTSD will experience “feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror” and tend to replay the traumatic event(s) over and over, so that their intense anxiety condition becomes locked in.

The spectrum of responses to the experience of trauma is very wide – from numbness and inertia to aggression and violence.  People who experience trauma can become withdrawn and avoid interactions; experience de-sensitisation to the people and situations they have to deal with; experience on-going depression; become cynical or distrustful in their interactions; or experience a profound and enduring sadness.  They may question their self-worth and accomplishments; experience difficulty in relaxing and sleeping; or be overcome by a deep sense of grief (where someone significant to them has died).

Accessing our internal resources

In a previous post, I wrote about how to use the R.A.I.N. meditation process to deal with fear and anxiety.  However, in cases of trauma and intense grief, we may not be able to plumb the depths of our feelings because the experience would be too painful and/or cause flashbacks to the traumatic event(s).

Tara Brach, in the course on the Power of Awareness, described how to access internal resources to cope initially with the psychological pain experienced with trauma.  Drawing on her own experience with trauma victims and sound research in the area, she suggests a number of ways to resource ourselves:

  • Physical grounding – this involves getting in touch with the feeling of our feet on the ground and our buttocks on the chair.  The physical sensation of contact with the ground or chair is important because it enables us to link the sense of safety and security through sitting or standing with our psychological experience.
  • Breathing deeply and slowly – this could begin with lengthening our in-breath and out-breath and move to mindful breathing, which includes paying attention to the space between.
  • Touch – touching our heart or stomach with some loving gesture that brings warmth to relax our body.
  • Talking to ourselves – we can use comforting and supportive words while engaged in conversation with ourselves.
  • Envisaging our allies – there may be relatives or friends in our life who provide very strong emotional support and constant affirmation of our self-worth.  There are others such as members of a support group for a chronic illness or for loss of a child or loved one.  Bringing these people to mind together with the feelings of kindness and encouragement they engender, can build our inner resources to cope with trauma.
  • Revisiting a place of peace or relaxation – we can do this physically or just by visioning what it was like to be in our favourite place.  It could be by the bay or at the seaside, in the mountains or on the deck in our home-anywhere that gives us strength, renews our spirit and intensifies our feelings of security.

Whatever process we use for inner resourcing, it is important to get in touch with what positive effects we are feeling in our body, as well as in our minds.  Tara Brach, in the Power of Awareness course, encourages us to use resourcing meditations based on the above listed pathways to tap into, and strengthen, our inner resources.   She argues that these meditations are a true refuge, unlike the false refuges of drugs or alcohol.

Being able to deal with trauma through the R.A.I.N. meditation process (plumbing the depths of our fear or grief) may take months of resourcing ourselves before we can confront the depths of our emotions, but Tara’s own counselling experience with people who have suffered trauma (including PTSD) confirms that it is possible to emerge from the depths to live a balanced and happy life.

As we grow in mindfulness through resourcing meditations, we strengthen our inner resources to cope with the profound psychological effects of a trauma and build up our capacity to deal with the resultant debilitating emotions.

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

Image source: courtesy of Maialisa on Pixabay

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.

Facing the Fear Within

We have explored the R.A.I.N. meditation process in a preliminary manner.  Now we will look at how R.A.I.N. can help us deal with those deep-seated fears that take control of us, reduce our capacity to live life fully and prevent us from showing others loving kindness.

The disabling effects of fear and anxiety

Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience, discovered that young rats who had played and frolicked together became totally inhibited when a piece of cat’s hair was introduced into their cage – creating an immediate fear response and disabling anxiety.  Jaak believed that in-depth insight into the behaviour of animals helped us to better understand human emotions.

Anna Steinhenge explored whether fear and the associated anxiety induced a similar inhibiting effect in humans.  She found that in competitive situations where people viewed the outcome with positive anticipation, they were readily able to access clear thinking and creativity; in contrast, where people were anxious about the outcome, their creativity and critical faculties were impeded, and they tended to engage in cheating or unethical behaviour to win.  One only has to look at the behaviour of the leadership group in the Australian Cricket team during the third test in South Africa to confirm this perspective – they were anxious that they could not win the third test, when the score was tied at one test each, so they engaged in ball tampering.

Using the R.A.I.N. meditation process to face and conquer the fear within
Recognise the fear

The first step is to recognise the fear for what it is – to face it fully, understand how it impacts our body and impedes our mind.  Avoiding facing the fear only makes it stronger and weakens our capacity to manage the fear and its disabling effects.

Kayakers, for example, have shown that when caught up in a whirlpool that is sucking them deeper into the water, they need to relax and go with the direction of the sucking force, rather than fighting the whirlpool which only saps their strength.  They need to go to the bottom of the whirlpool to survive.  So too with fear, we need to access the depths of the fear itself before we can be freed from its inhibiting effects.

Accepting the existence of fear

We need to accept that the fear is part of our life but learn how to gradually disassociate from it so that we are not identified with it.  Tara Brach tells the story of a woman suffering from PTSD who, while sitting on a park bench, envisaged her fear beside her while she continued to explore her connectedness to nature – to the birds, flowers and trees surrounding her.

Investigating our fear

Tara suggests that we explore the nature of our fear and even question what it is like, where it lies within us, how deep and dense it is.  She suggests that we explore our relationship with fear and determine what fear is expecting of us and how we want to relate to our fear.  We could question where fear resides in our body and how it manifests itself through pain and physical disturbance – headaches, muscle soreness, cramps, twitching or shaking.

Nurturing ourselves through fear

Trying to discount fear by purely rational processes will not remove the fear but only make it go underground, away from our consciousness.  We need to see the fear for what it is in all its manifestations but treat ourselves with kindness.  This may mean pulling away temporarily from facing our fear and its intensity to rebuild our resources and strengthen our resolve.  This is a gentle way to treat ourselves if we become overwhelmed when facing the depth of our fear.  After rebuilding our resources, we can resume the P.A.I.N. meditation process by again grounding our body and mind through mindful breathing.

Plumbing the depths

Tara Brach suggests that the P.A.I.N. meditation process can be employed to handle any deeply-felt, negative emotion such as grief, anguish or self-disgust, as well as fear.  In the course on the Power of Awareness, Tara discussed Leaning into Fear and highlighted the process of facing fear by quoting David Whyte’s poem, The Well of Grief, which also uses the analogy of “plumbing the depths”:

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,

     the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

As we grow in mindfulness through the P.A.I.N. meditation process, we develop the courage to plumb the depths of our fear and enable ourselves to be free of its inhibitions and disabling effects.  This process of inner exploration will gradually unearth the depths of our internal resources and capacity to handle deeply-felt emotions such as fear and grief.

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

Image source: courtesy of AdinaVoicu on Pixabay

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.

Break the Vicious Cycle of Destructuve Criticism with Mindfulness

The movie, “Loveless” depicts the escalating costs of the vicious cycle of destructive criticism in a graphic manner.  The movie is set in Russia and was directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev and co-written with Oleg Negi.

The couple involved in the movie are separated and in the process of divorce but are consumed by anger, frustration and hatred for each, despite each having established a relationship with a new partner.  The movie brings into stark relief the impact of their vehemence on the life of their 12-year-old son, who is seen as cowering and crying when the parents verbally abuse each other in a escalating tirade of insults and name-calling.  The son is invisible to them as they pursue their mindless criticisms of each other.

The climax of the movie comes when the son disappears, and the parents are forced through police inaction to join in the volunteers’ search for their son.  In summary, not only is their son’s life impacted negatively but so also are their new relationships as the toxicity of unresolved resentment eats away at them.

We can be caught up in a cycle of destructive criticism when relationships go bad, when we are frustrated that our expectations are not realised or when we become absorbed in the pain of hurts from another by replaying them in our mind.  Sometimes, our criticism is a projection of our own sense of inadequacy or ineffectiveness.  The cycle of negative criticism, and its costs, are compounded when each party attempts to inflict ever greater pain on the other by caustic and demeaning remarks.

Breaking the cycle of destructive criticism by mindfulness

The cycle of negative criticism is difficult to break as each party is mindlessly attacking the other without any thought of the long-term consequences for themselves or the other person.

Margaret Cullen suggests a three-step mindfulness process to wind back resentment and hurt and break the cycle of destructive criticism:

  1. Get in touch with your thoughts and name your feelings and their intensity.  Take advantage of the space between stimulus (the other person’s words and/or actions) and your own response.  Avoid reactivity that will have you saying something you later regret and add to the destructive cycle of abusive criticism.
  2. Undertake and honest and open conversation – explain what happened and how it made you feel.  Avoid blaming and name-calling in this conversation and use empathetic listening to rebuild trust.  You have to take this step to break out of the cycle or you will be consumed by resentment, as portrayed in the movie, “Loveless”.  If you want a relationship to improve, you have to change your response, not deepen the hurt experienced by the other person.
  3. You can let go of disappointment and bitterness by undertaking a forgiveness meditation – which can be directed to yourself and/or the other person.  Holding onto resentment can only harm you both in the short term and the long term.  It will contaminate your relationships at home and at work.  Forgiveness, on the other hand, creates freedom.

As we grow in mindfulness through regular meditation, we increase our response ability and develop ways to handle personal criticism.  This enables us to avoid the cycle of destructive criticism which is so injurious to ourselves and our relationships.

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

Image source: courtesy of KERBSTONE on Pixabay

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.