A Reflection: Seeing Our Self in Our Children

In our leadership/management development workshops, my colleague and I often have participants identify what their staff say or do that annoys them. Then we ask them to think about what they say and do that would annoy their boss. They are frequently surprised that their staff’s words and actions often reflect their own annoying habits. They are surprised too that this process of using their staff as a mirror opens up the possibility of their being honest with themselves. So too, we can use our children as a mirror into our own behaviour.

Seeing our self in our children

When we look at our son or daughter, we might acknowledge that they regularly withhold information or only provide information that puts them in a good light – and we might think of them as deceitful. They might regularly lie to us or mislead us – and we might think of them as dishonest. They might never clean their room or leave things lying around the house for us to trip over – and we might think of them as thoughtless. They might throw tantrums or angry fits when they don’t get their way – we might think of them as manipulative. They might be self-absorbed, ignoring your needs at any point in time – we might think of them as inconsiderate. They might carry grudges or disappointment for a very long time – we might think of them as resentful. They might accuse us of something they do themselves – we might think of them as incongruous.

Whatever negative characteristics we attribute to our children can serve as a mirror into our own words and behaviour – as reflecting who we really are. Often our self-reflection is full of “shoulds” and self-deception as we hide our real self behind a mask. Again, we may judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions, rather than by what we say and do.

It is a revealing and challenging reflection to apply the negative attributes that we ascribe to our children to our own self. We could ask our self for instance, “In what way do my words and behaviour in my relationships show that I am deceitful, dishonest, thoughtless, manipulative, inconsiderate, resentful or incongruous?” The adjectives themselves carry such negative connotations that we are reluctant to ascribe them to ourselves, yet we might ascribe them to our children. Facing up to the reality of ourselves as both meeting our own expectations and falling short is very challenging – but it is the road to an open heart and all the happiness and effectiveness that this portends.

Extending the reflectionlooking deeper into the mirror

It is challenging enough to acknowledge our own negative attributes; it is even more challenging to extend the reflection to look at how our words and actions impact or shape the words and behaviour of our children. We can readily deny that we have influence, either directly or indirectly, on what they say or do, but we are part of their learning environment – an influential force in shaping their character for life. Owning up to this impact takes considerable courage, insight and self-awareness.

However, whatever negative traits we attribute to our self through this reflective exercise does not define who we are – we are much more than the sum of these negative attributes. We have to move beyond the shame we feel (with the self-realisation from this reflection), to the genuine exploration of our inner depth and extend self-forgiveness and loving kindness to our self as we move forward.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation and reflection on seeing our self in our children, we can progressively overcome our self-deception, develop inner awareness, build understanding and tolerance and develop an open heart. We need to nurture ourselves through self-forgiveness and loving kindness if we are going to be able to deal with the emerging self-awareness.

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Image by Alexandr Ivanov 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.

Finding the Well of Ease in Times of Anxiety

Diana Winston, in a guided meditation on anxiety provides a way to tap into the well of ease and peace that lies within each of us. Her meditation is titled Leaving Anxiety Street because we often feel at home in our anxiety – we tend to see anxiety as our residence, our natural habitat, and become blind to the ease of wellness within us that we can access at any time. Diana suggests that we can become lost in our own life dramas, our narratives and anticipations that feed our anxiety. The meditation she offers enables us to locate a new home that is built on the ease of wellness.

The well of ease

We have a natural tendency to a negative bias and often “fear the worst”, rather than anticipate the best. This bias serves to ingrain our anxiety so that we become stuck in the groove of negativity. However, deep within us lies the well of ease that we can access, a stillness and peace that is deep and boundless.

Diana likens this well of ease to the stillness and calm that lies deep below the turbulence of the waves. We can access this ease by looking below the surface of the waves that create turbulence in our lives. She suggests that the deeper you go, the vaster and more peaceful is the place that you will find. The more frequently you visit the well of ease through meditation, the more it will feel like home, and anxiety will begin to feel like a foreign place.

Accessing the well of ease and peace through meditation

Diana’s guided meditation for finding ease and peace involves a number of steps that progressively move us deeper into the well of ease:

  1. As usual the meditation begins with becoming physically grounded, beginning with a number of deep, conscious breaths. This is followed by adopting a posture that is supportive and upright on the chair, with your feet flat on the surface of the floor. Closing your eyes and placing your hands on your lap can facilitate focus on the meditation.
  2. Once grounded physically, the next step is a progressive body scan, moving from the feet to the jaw and forehead, at each point releasing the tension and softening the focal part of the body. This releases the bodily tension that accompanies anxiety – reflected in the tightness in your calves, the frown on your forehead, the stiff shoulders, the tight stomach muscles, the grinding of teeth and/or the soreness in your neck.
  3. As you relax and soften the muscles in your body, you can begin to focus on your breath wherever you experience the sensation of breathing – the rise and fall of your stomach, the flow of air in and out through your nose or the lift and fall of your chest. This process involves noticing your breath, not attempting to control it – letting go just like you need to do with the grip of your anxiety.
  4. You will invariably experience distractions as your memories and stories begin to play again, dragging your attention away from your breath. The process here involves sitting with and naming your feelings, not denying them because you should not be experiencing negative emotions such as sadness or resentment. Even anger can be a “powerful and healthy force in your life”, if you manage it rather than let it control you. Naming your feelings and experiencing their intensity can help you tame them.
  5. After you have accepted what is, your feelings and their intensity, you can move your focus back to your breath and the calmness that resides there, including the space between breaths.
  6. Next shift your focus to the sounds around you – sounds coming and going such as that of the birds or the wind. You might even be conscious of the stillness and silence that surrounds you wherever you are. This process of focusing on sounds can intensify your physical and mental grounding and create its own form of peace.
  7. Recall a time when you experienced a deep sense ease and peace and capture what it felt like – experience the sensations again as well as the calmness and sense of wellbeing you achieved.
  8. You can then repeat a desire such as, “May I continue to experience deep peace, joy and ease”.

Repetition deepens the well of ease

The more often you can repeat this meditation, the deeper will be the well of ease that you experience. You can use an anchor to access this well by having some physical action such as joining your fingers together and feeling the tingling, warmth and energy that courses through them. It is important to choose your own anchor but incorporate it as often as possible in your meditation practice – in this way, employing the anchor outside the meditation practice will more readily enable you to recapture the sense of ease and peace.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, our inner awareness increases, and we are able to access the deep well of ease that lies within each of us. Sustaining the practice of meditation will deepen the well which can be readily accessed through our personal anchor when we are not engaged in meditation.

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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.

How Can We Manage When Our Daughter or Son is in Pain?


Susan Piver
, Creator of the Open Heart Project, addresses this question in response to an inquiry from one of her many followers. The danger when someone very close to us is suffering, is that we are tempted to take on their pain, to be so empathetic that we treat their suffering as if it is our own.

This identification with the sufferer was the very problem raised by Susan’s follower in relation to her daughter’s pain:

How do we prevent ourselves from hurting on behalf of the other person?…. Her pain feels like my pain, and makes me so upset and sad. 

Susan’s response is given by way of a brief input and a guided meditation. She asserts that you cannot prevent yourself from feeling the pain of someone close to you – to do so would stop you from feeling anything. You would effectively turn off your feelings to protect yourself but in the process destroy what makes us essentially human – the capacity to feel and be compassionate.

The damaging effects of closing your heart to pain

Susan uses the analogy of a gate which has two positions – open and closed. So our heart, or our feeling with and for another, tends to be in one or other of these positions – either open hearted or closed. Susan deliberately called her life’s work the Open Heart Project because it is essentially designed to help people to open up to the full range of their experience – beauty and darkness, happiness and pain, freedom and restraint.

Susan paints a graphic picture of the difference between an open heart and one that is closed by describing the difference as that “between awake and asleep, alive and numb, present and deluded”. She suggests, however, that you cannot just be totally identified with the other person’s pain – you have to be able to achieve a separation from the other’s suffering – not own the suffering of another. Richard Davidson describes this capacity as “social cognition” which his research into the science of compassion demonstrates is essential for the “balance and welfare” of the person observing the suffering.

Susan cautions that we need to be conscious of the “toll” that feeling for another’s suffering has on ourselves. In her view, shutting off our own pain to protect our self is really self-damaging because it numbs us. The way forward is to feel the pain but actively engage in genuine self-care, whatever form that can take for you personally (this could involve exercise, yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, prayer, time with family and/or friends, accessing social/professional support or a combination of these).

Managing through compassion meditation

One of the benefits of being able to manage the pain you experience when your daughter or son is suffering is that it lays the foundation, or “pathway” as Susan describes it, to genuine compassion for others. This capacity for genuine compassion can be further developed through different forms of compassion meditation. Daniel Goleman and his neuroscience colleagues have demonstrated through research that compassion meditation develops in people an “altered trait” that is evidenced through increased kindness and generosity.

Compassion meditation, often described as loving kindness meditation, frequently begins with extending kind thoughts to someone close to you, progressing to an acquaintance, to someone you have heard about or a group of people experiencing some form of suffering and finally taking in someone you find difficult. This expanding expression of compassion can be underpinned by self-compassion meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly aware of, and sensitive to, the pain and suffering of those close to us. If we shut off these empathetic feelings, we can numb ourselves to the full range of human experience and prevent ourselves from expressing our feelings. Active self-care is essential to manage the personal toll of being empathetic and maintaining an open heart. Compassion meditation can build our capacity to sustain compassionate action not only for those closest to us but to everyone, whether we like them or not.

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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.

Bringing an Open Heart to Work

Susan Piver, author of Start Here Now: An Open-Hearted Guide to the Path and Practice of Meditation, presented recently at the Mindfulness@Work Summit on the topic, Create Open Heart Connections at Work.  She explained that having an “open heart” means “softening towards self and our experiences” – accepting ourselves and our life experiences as they are.  In her view it does not mean only having positive thoughts, just being nice all the time or being overly kind to everybody.  While Susan stresses the “softening” aspect of an open heart, she asserts very strongly that there is nothing weak about having an open-hearted stance – in fact, it takes incredible courage to truly face the reality of ourselves and our experience, not hiding behind a mask.  This openheartedness develops rich workplace relations built on respect and a profound recognition of connectedness – thus enabling creativity and innovation to flourish.

Hiding behind a mask

As mentioned in my previous post, we are constantly projecting onto others by judging them by their actions while thinking positively about ourselves because of our good intentions.  Many times, our judgments are projections of what we do not like about our self rather than an innate feature of the character of the other person.  We are not open to our blind spots or unconscious bias. We can carry resentment that is based on false assumptions and a lack of understanding.

We have this tendency to hold onto a self-image that protects our sense of self-worth and, at the same time, creates distance from others.  In contrast, being open hearted enables “respectful relationships” that are essential for workplace productivity, creativity and innovation.  Susan argues that Western society is obsessed with self-improvement but that the starting position for an individual is often self-delusion, a figment of our imagination rather than facing what is real about ourselves.  Even being perfect at meditation becomes a goal in itself.

Meditation as a pathway to an open heart

Meditation enables us to be with ourselves as we are – our feelings, thoughts, disappointments, hopes, anxieties and fears.  It involves a “softening to self” – a path of curiosity and self-discovery.  We begin to notice what is really there not what we think is, or should be, there.  It helps us to surf the waves of life rather than ignore that they exist.  However, an open heart is not achieved easily – it requires a fierce commitment and the courage to “free fall” without the support of self-delusion.

The resultant openness to our real self is liberating – it can be truly transformative.  Part of this outcome is acknowledgement and acceptance of our vulnerability, rather than a pretence of our strength and invincibility.  Susan points out too that the things that are valued in the workplace such as innovation, creativity, insight, wisdom and compassion all require “receptivity” – an openness to receiving, the capacity to be truly present and the ability to connect constructively.  An open heart helps us to negotiate work and life challenges and to engage with others in the workplace in a helpful and creative way. 

The Open Heart Project

The Open Heart Project, led by Susan Piver, is an international, online community of over 20,000 people who engage in ongoing mindfulness meditation practice and sharing.  It is designed to bring peace and harmony to the world through true self-compassion and in-depth relationships and connection.  Susan also offers free information and guided meditations to individuals who subscribe to her weekly newsletter through her blog page.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation that facilitates an open heart, we begin to see our self and our experiences as they truly are, develop genuine self-compassion and build constructive, productive and creative workplace relationships.

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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.

Introducing Compassion into Leadership Development

In the previous post, I discussed the approach of YMCA of USA on how to build mindfulness into leadership development. The principles and strategies for the implementation of this change revolved around a core tenet of patience – moving gradually to insert mindfulness into existing leadership development programs. Wendy Saunders who has focused on compassion for many years identified the cultivation of compassion in the organisation as a more complex change process with some different challenges. This is despite the fact that YMCA is focused on compassionate action within the community and is totally dedicated to diversity and inclusion.

Most organisations today recognise the need for diversity and inclusion. While much progress has been achieved in creating diversity in workplaces, the real challenge has been translating that into compassionate action through conscious inclusion strategies and actions. YMCA of USA recognises that the nature of their organisation’s focus and their worldwide reach makes diversity and inclusion paramount. Their strong commitment in the area is reflected in conscious inclusion practices, including having a “supplier diversity program”.

What are the challenges in embedding compassion into leadership development?

Despite the focus of the YMCA of USA on compassionate action (as the reason for its existence), Wendy found that there were real challenges to integrating compassion into leadership development in the organisation:

  • some staff believed that there was no place for compassion in the workplace – a strong task and outcomes focus challenged the desirability of compassion (a people-focused activity). Resource constraints and the ever-increasing need for YMCA services would cement this belief.
  • others experienced “cognitive dissonance” resulting from what they perceived as decisions and actions by the organisation that were lacking in compassion, e.g. laying off staff.

The concept of compassionate love, the title of Wendy’s personal website, is often viewed as “touchy feely” – an arena where feelings and emotions are more openly expressed to the discomfort of others. Feelings and emotions are often suppressed in the workplace and people have real difficulty openly discussing them – particularly, not wanting to be seen as “soft”. However, the reality is that it takes real courage to show compassion.

Introducing compassion into leadership development

Wendy suggests that, given the nature of the challenges to embedding compassion into leadership development, a central strategy has to be introducing compassion through “conversation and dialogue”. She indicated that at a YMCA retreat attended by 400 people, most people expressed the desire for “more compassion in the workplace”.

Besides making compassion a part of the conversation and dialogue, other strategies include storytelling (making people aware of compassionate action taken by others), discussing the benefits of compassion and the neuroscience supporting it and helping leaders to be aware of the ways to model compassion in the workplace, such as:

  • the way they “see and treat” people in the workplace – overcoming basic attribution errors, including where they judge themselves by their intentions and others by their actions. Associated with this is the need to avoid ascribing a negative label to a person because of a single act or omission on their part
  • being aware of the suffering of others and taking action to redress the suffering e.g. constructive action to support someone experiencing a mental health issue, taking action to overcome a toxic work environment or being ready to explore the factors (external and internal) that may be affecting the work performance of a staff member
  • actively working on addressing their own “unconscious bias” and blind spots that potentially result in decisions that unknowingly cause unnecessary suffering for others
  • providing opportunities to practice compassion meditation and group activities to support meditation practices.

Resourcing compassion in the workplace

Wendy stressed the need to provide resources on compassion to help build the knowledge base of the leaders in the organisation and to engender a commitment beyond a single individual such as the CEO (who can change frequently). Resources include courses, books, videos, podcasts, research articles and presentations/workshops by experts in compassion. She recommended books such as The Mind of the Leader and Awakening Compassion at Work and highlighted the resources on compassion available on her own website.

Wendy also recommends a course that she participated in that really stimulated her longstanding interest in compassion – CBCT (Cognitively-Based Compassion Training) conducted by Emory University. She is continuing her own studies by completing an Executive Masters in Positive Leadership and Strategy. Her thesis will address approaches to compassionate reorganisation and the evidence in terms of positive outcomes for individuals and the organisations involved.

As leaders grow in mindfulness through integration of mindfulness into leadership development, they will be developing the awareness that provides the impetus for compassion. Providing specific strategies to engender compassion in the workplace, such as introducing and supporting compassion meditation, will enable leaders to model compassionate action for others.

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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.

How to Build Mindfulness into Leadership Development

Wendy Saunders, Senior Member of Leadership Development at YMCA of USA, presented at the recent Mindfulness@Work Summit on the topic, Embedding Mindfulness and Compassion in Leadership Development.  She discussed the principles her organisation employed to build mindfulness into leadership development.  In the process, Wendy identified the challenges the leadership development group encountered along the way and the strategies they employed to overcome them.

YMCA of USA is a diverse, massive organisation comprising women, men and children amongst its 20,000 staff and hundreds of thousands of volunteers.  Besides the central resource centre responsible for activities such as leadership development, there are 2,700 YMCAs spread across the country.  The areas of focus of “the Y” are “youth development, healthy living and social responsibility”.

Wendy explained that YMCA of USA offers layered leadership development programs comprising the following:

  • Executive Development Institute
  • CEO Preparation Institute
  • Leadership Certification courses covering three levels – (1) team leader, (2) multi-team managers and (3) organisational leaders.

The fundamental challenge was how to build mindfulness into ongoing leadership development activities that were built on a “cause-driven leadership” model incorporating experiential learning.

Principles and strategies for building mindfulness into leadership development

During her presentation, Wendy identified some key principles and strategies that helped YMCA of USA integrate mindfulness into the existing suite of leadership development offerings:

  • have patience – a fundamental requirement for success. Wendy explained that the leadership development team had been working for 5 years to get to where they are now with mindfulness integration and they still had a long way to go to achieving the goal of embedding mindfulness into all leadership development programs of YMCA of USA
  • make small insertions – in line with the patience principle, a starting strategy is to make “small insertions” into existing leadership programs, adopting a gradual approach to building mindfulness integration
  • offer short meditations – while experienced meditators practise meditation for 30 minutes or an hour a day, meditations incorporated into leadership development programs should be brief so that they can be experienced as realistic and achievable
  • build on what already exists – e.g. mindfulness was built onto the emotional intelligence focus of the Executive Leadership Institute. This is in line with the approach of the two-day Mindful Leadership training provided by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute which incorporates the three pillars of mindfulness, emotional intelligence and neuroscience
  • make it experiential so that participants can experience the benefits of mindfulness through different meditations and mindfulness practices
  • offer an introduction to mindfulness workshop on an optional basis and when mindfulness integration is bedded down, make some elements compulsory (e.g. the online Introduction to Mindfulness Workshop is now mandatory for participants in the Executive Development Institute)
  • assist people to discover the “faith inclusive” nature of mindfulness – YMCA of USA set up a task force of people who practise different religions to help them explore the compatibility of mindfulness with their religions
  • offer ongoing related workshops – to enrich the conversations about mindfulness, assist mindfulness practice and encourage reflection
  • match the mindfulness content to the focus and level of the leadership program – e.g. for CEO development the YMCA of USA has focused on mindfulness for creativity to assist CEOs to build a culture of innovation; for the team leader development course they are planning to introduce basic level mindfulness approaches and concepts such as mindful breathing, how to reduce stress and increase productivity, how to build intention
  • complement development courses with extensive resources such as books, articles, podcasts, links to guided meditations, mindfulness blogs.

As leaders in organisation grow in mindfulness through the progressive and carefully planned integration of mindfulness into leadership development programs, the organisation can experience the benefits of improved productivity, increased levels of staff engagement, better organisational integration and improved outcomes for clients and customers.

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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.

Cultivating Concentration through Meditation

In some traditions, concentration is seen as separate from but essential to mindfulness. Concentration is described as “one-pointed focus” or bringing our attention to a single focus in a unified way. Concentration is thus viewed as the servant and enabler of mindful awareness – both inner and outer awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn maintains that “concentration is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice” and that as we cultivate our concentration we increase our capacity for mindfulness – becoming fully aware in the moment.

Cultivating concentration through meditation

Diana Winston in a guided meditation on Cultivating Concentration offers four breath-based meditation practices that can build concentration and enable us to stop our minds floating in multiple directions as random thoughts assail us. While we are naturally able to concentrate to achieve a task (e.g. write a business plan, read a blog post, carry on a conversation), we have lost the art of single-minded focus owing to the level of distraction that surrounds us at any point in time. Jon Kabat-Zinn, for example, maintains that we are “perpetually self-distracting”.

Diana suggests that some simple meditation practices can cultivate our concentration, and through repetition, develop the capacity to maintain our concentration over longer periods of time. She drew on research conducted at UCLA that demonstrated that adolescents and adults with ADHD who persisted with meditation practice over eight weeks, improved their ability to maintain their focus, even when there were many things competing for their attention.

Meditation practices to cultivate concentration

  1. feeling the breath – concentrating on the act of breathing by focusing on where in your body you experience your breathing. For example, this could involve focusing on your breathing as you feel it in your nose, abdomen or chest. This requires focused attention on the breath, not attempting to control it.
  2. naming the act of breathing – here you concentrate on your breathing, and as you do so, describe what is happening, “breath in, breath out”, “chest rising, chest falling”. This focuses your mind on what is happening in your body as your breathe.
  3. counting your breaths – as you breathe, count each breath. Diana suggests that you count 1 to 10 and then begin again. Whenever, your mind wanders from counting your breaths, she encourages you to start your count again. As an alternative to the ten count, you can adopt the practice of counting to 50, as proposed in the “awareness-focus-loop” approach.
  4. using the gap – there is a natural gap between your “in” and “out” breath that you can focus on. As you complete each “in” and “out” breath, take your focus to a part of your body (e.g. your hands or feet) before you begin the next breath. This process can serve to reinforce that part of your body as an anchor for your mindfulness.

In each of these meditation exercises, it is important that you develop the capacity to return to your focus once a distracting thought intervenes. This strengthens your concentration power and increases your capacity to be mindful when undertaking any activity in your daily life.

We can grow in mindfulness by cultivating the power of our concentration through specifically targeted meditation practices that aim to develop the ability to sustain a single focus over an extended period of time. As our concentration power develops, our inner and outer awareness deepen and become richer and more life-enhancing.

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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.

Resilience and Positive Psychology

Louis Alloro, co-founder and faculty member for the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) at The Flourishing Center, recently presented a webinar on The Science of Resilience. In his presentation, he described resilience as the ability to persist in the face of adversity or setbacks in the pursuit of one’s goals. This approach focuses on perseverance when encountering blockages – a view that emphasizes the ongoing nature of resilience, rather than the espisodic view which describes resilience as “bouncing back” from some major adversity.

Positive Psychology and resilience

Positive Psychology has its foundations in the work of Dr. David Seligman, author of the books, Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness. David highlighted our capacity to live an optimally fulfilling life through training ourselves to think positively rather than indulge in negative or pessimistic thinking. Positive thinking keeps us open to possibilities, while pessimistic thinking focuses on barriers to achievement. Resilience builds through positive thinking, while pessimistic thinking leads us “to give up”.

In David’s view, “authentic happiness” is achieved by putting the spotlight on our strengths, not our deficiencies. This positive perspective enables us to develop what is best in ourselves, rather than being obsessed with where we “fall short” or where we deem ourselves to be “not good enough”. Focus on the positive aspects of ourselves enables the achievement of sustainable contentment or equanimity and releases the energy to build a better world. It shifts the emphasis from avoiding “mental illness” to developing “wellness”.

Our thinking shapes our emotions and behaviour

In his presentation, Louis discussed the ABC Model underpinning authentic happiness. “A” stands for the activating event (or stimulus), “B” for beliefs or thoughts about the event and “C” for consequences expressed in terms of emotions and behaviour. So, when something happens, we can view it positively or negatively and, depending on our beliefs or thoughts about the situation, we will experience emotions (positive or negative) which, in turn, leads to our behaviour. One of the easiest ways to view this cycle (optimistic or pessimistic) is to consider the possible range of responses to “being ignored by a colleague at work”.

Louis reminds us of the words of Viktor Frankl that there is a gap between stimulus and response, and that choice and consequent freedom lie in the gap. We can choose how we use the “gap” to shape our thinking about a situation and that choice determines our resilience and happiness. A fundamental way to do this is to bring mindful awareness to our intention (why we are doing what we are doing), to our attention (consciously paying attention) and to our attitude (one of accepting what is, openness to possibilities and curiosity about our inner and outer world).

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can progressively overcome our innate negative bias and build a positive orientation that develops our resilience, releases energy and opens the way for creative actions to deepen our wellness and happiness and contribute to a better world. Developing mindful awareness of what we bring to each situation – our intention, attention and attitude – enables us to be truly resilient in the face of difficulties and blockages (real or imagined).

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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.

Can Your Experience Compassion Fatigue?

Kelly McGonigal in her presentation for the Mindful Healthcare Summit challenged the widely held belief that you cannot experience compassion fatigue. Many people contend that compassion fatigue does not occur because the heart is capable of endless kindness and love for others. Kelly maintains that motivation and goodness of heart are not sufficient to prevent the depression and burnout that can result from compassion fatigue. She asserts that compassion has to be supported by adequate self-care if it is to be sustained.

Compassion and the stress response

Kelly argues that compassion is like the stress response when viewed physiologically. Compassion floods the body with hormones such as dopamine and marshals the body’s energy to relieve the suffering of others. However, while this can be very energising and exciting in the short term, compassion takes its toll in the longer term both bodily and mentally, as we do not have endless physical and mental reserves.

The possibility of compassion fatigue can be increased where a helping professional or carer experiences vicarious trauma or moral distress – the latter being defined as being required to do things that clash with a person’s values or moral perspective, a frequently occurring ethical dilemma within the medical profession.

Compassion fatigue

Kelly suggests that compassion fatigue occurs when a person lacks the energy and resources to pursue their motivation to care in such way that it achieves personal satisfaction (activates the reward system). Outcomes achieved fall short of personal expectations and/or the expectations of others, despite the strength of the caring intention. The compassionate person feels exhausted and feels that the more they give the less they experience satisfaction – the gap between input of energy/time and the expected satisfaction increases, leading to burnout. The depletion of energy and satisfaction could be the result of factors outside the helper’s/carer’s control – such as structural blockages, breakdown in information exchange, overwork or under-resourcing.

Compassion needs nourishment

One of the issues that exacerbates the problem of compassion fatigue is the belief in the endless capacity of an individual to be compassionate through the goodness of their heart or the purity of their intentions. As a result of this false belief, helpers/carers fail to take the necessary actions to nourish themselves (and their compassionate action) and/or are reluctant to accept compassion extended to them by others.

Personal nourishment can take many forms – getting adequate sleep, meditation (especially self-compassion meditation), listening to relaxing/inspiring music, prayer (whatever form it takes) or drawing strength and healing from nature. It also requires an openness to receiving compassion from others – challenging false beliefs such as “no one else can do this”, “I will be seen to be weak if I accept help from others”, “I really shouldn’t pander to my own needs by having that short break or having a reasonable period for lunch”, “I can’t afford to become dependent on others for assistance”. Additionally, positive social connection– to offset the tendency to withdraw under extreme stress– is a critical source of self-nourishment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation our awareness of others’ suffering and our motivation to help are heightened. The capacity for compassionate action is not limitless and needs nourishment. Central to this nourishment is self-compassion.

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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.