Mindfulness and The Art of Conversation

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, in his presentation provided as part of the  Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, focused on the theme, Mindfulness and the Art of Conversation.  Sakyong is the author of a number of books, including, The Lost Art of Conversation: A Mindful Way to Connect with Others and Enrich Everyday Life.

Sakyong emphasised the need for meditation in these troubled times, both locally and globally.  He identified that there is a lot of fear and uncertainty around threats to world peace and environmental deterioration.  He stressed the importance of not only meditating but also engaging with others in conversation.

The one thing we can do in times of such uncertainty and anxiety is connecting with others through communication.  In Sakyong’s view, transformation at a personal and social level have come about when people connect with each other and share.

Communication is a basic need, it is available to us all at any time and is a natural activity of being human.   Sometimes, we experience difficulty in our conversations and at other times it seems so easy and rewarding.

Despite being connected technologically like never before, a lot of our connections are superficial, as are our “conversations”.   We have tended to lose real connection with people around us, who are with us on a daily basis.

Despite experiencing a great sense of warmth and happiness from our good conversations, we tend not to properly engage with people because of our busy lives.  Despite our development on a global basis, we seem to have lost the art of conversation – which can connect us at a time when so many things have the effect of keeping us apart from each other.

Even just acknowledging another person can be empowering for them, just as ignoring them can make them feel demeaned and disempowered.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can more readily connect with others, engage in active listening and communicate empathy – all of which values the other person and empowers them to be their real self.

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

Image source: courtesy of klimkin on Pixabay

Developing Mindfulness through Playing Tennis

I have enjoyed playing tennis since I was about 10 years old. It is only recently that I have come to realise what an opportunity playing tennis represents in terms of developing mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness in the following words:

Mindfulness is awareness that grows through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.

Paying attention

With tennis, you learn to focus and concentrate on the tennis ball and to tune out other distractions – planes flying overhead on their approach to the airport, voices from other courts, the sound of tennis balls being hit on courts, near and far.

If you entertain distractions – stop paying attention – you lose concentration and invariably mishit the ball, or worse, miss the ball entirely.

In this day and age, with “disrupted attention” and the decline in our capacity to focus on a task, practicing paying full attention to a tennis ball is a great way (and enjoyable means for some) to redress that declining capacity.

On purpose

Well, even in social tennis which I play on a weekly basis, the purpose is to win the point or the game for yourself and your partner.  There are times when you are more mindful, the purpose is the sheer enjoyment of playing the game.

It is only when you lose something that you really appreciate having had it.  Many years ago, when my back collapsed and I could not walk, let alone play tennis, I began to really appreciate the opportunity to play when I was fit enough (18 months later).  So now I remind myself what a privilege it is to be able to run and hit the ball and just enjoy the act of playing tennis and its associated pleasures – the conviviality of other social players, the new relationships that are formed, and the sense of satisfaction from the exercise and demonstration of some aspect of skill and competence in the game of tennis.  This certainly develops a sense of gratitude.

In the present moment

Sometimes when you play tennis, you become very aware of your surroundings – the feel of the wind, the freshness of the air and the smells of flowering plants and trees and freshly cut grass, the sound of birds flying overhead or the laughter and enjoyment of others.

You are really in the present moment in terms of your external environment. At other times, your focus on the ball makes you really conscious of what is happening here and now.

There are times when I just marvel at my mind’s capacity, almost instantaneously, to read the spin and speed of the ball coming to me, to get my body into position to return the shot, to assess the balance and positioning of the opposing players and to determine and execute a responding tennis shot with the right spin, angle and speed – certainly an instance of unconscious competence and a cause for delight in the moment.

Non-judgementally

On the tennis court, as in life and work, we can experience negative thoughts and doubts, emotions that distract us from the task at hand and cause us to lose concentration and focus.  You might be undermining your confidence and competence by the thoughts that pass through your mind – “I’ve missed three returns in a row!”, “What will my partner think?”, “The other players seem to be so good, can I give them a decent game?”.

So, you have to learn to let these thoughts pass you by and not entertain them or they really negatively impact your game.  You gain self-awareness about your anxieties and concerns, your self-evaluation and your assumptions about others and their needs.

You also learn self-management in terms of not getting upset or “sounding off” (or, in the extreme, smashing your racquet), when you miss a shot or fall behind in a game.  You have to learn to control your emotions – disappointment, frustration or even anger – and to channel the negative energy to a more positive focus.

In my situation, where I am older than most of the other social tennis players, I have to learn to deal with the negative impact of their assumptions.  Some people who have not played against or with me before, assume that being older I am slower to the ball and not able to hit a decent shot, so they will not hit the ball to me because they think that I will “muck” up the rally.  Others, who have played with me or against me on a number of occasions (or who know that I played competitive A Grade tennis for years), will not hit the ball to me in a rally because they are concerned that I will hit the winning shot and finish the rally.  The net result is the same – I feel excluded from some rallies.  I have had to learn to stay focused, to enjoy the moment and stay uncritical about these assumptions and how they play out for me.

Being mindful

What served as a catalyst for this post, is a description of being mindful during tennis which was recorded in a novel, Purity, by Jonathan Franzen.  Purity, or Pip as she was called was having an extended hit of tennis with her hitting partner, Justin.  Franzen describes Pip’s mindful experience in these words:

Pip was in an absolute groove with her forehand…They had impossibly long rallies, back and forth, whack and whack, rallies so long that she was giggling with happiness by the end of them.  The sun went down, the air was deliciously cool, and they kept hitting.  The ball bouncing up in a low arc, her eyes latching on to it, being sure to see it, just see it, not think and her body doing the rest without being asked to.  That instant of connecting, the satisfaction of reversing the ball’s inertia, the sweetness of the sweet spot…she was experiencing perfect contentment.  Yes, a kind of heaven: long rallies on an autumn evening, the exercise of skill in light still good enough to hit by, the faithful pock of a tennis ball. (p.545)

Playing tennis can help us to grow in mindfulness if we maintain our attention and focus, be conscious of our purpose in playing, experience and enjoy the moment and learn to manage our own negative self-judging and associated emotions.  It is a great learning opportunity for mindful play and the development of skills that can transfer to other arenas of our lives.

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

Image source: courtesy of skeeze on Pixabay

The Mindfulness Initiative: Mindfulness in the Workplace

The Mindfulness Initiative is a policy group that developed following mindfulness training for British MPs, peers and staff and now works with politicians from around the world.  It helped UK politicians to establish a Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG).

It is interesting to note that the primary patrons of the policy group are Emeritus Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn and Ruby Wax, comedian, who has completed a Masters in mindfulness-based, cognitive therapy at the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre.

The Mindful Initiative also assisted the MAPPG to undertake a parliamentary inquiry into mental health in a number of arenas, resulting in the production, after 8 parliamentary sittings, of the Mindful Nation UK report.

Shortly afterwards in 2016, The Mindfulness Initiative published a new document, developed by the Private Sector Working Party, which was called, Building the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace.   This document is the primary focus of my post.

The latter document focused on mindfulness in the workplace and provides an explanation of mindfulness, identifies the potential benefits for business and discusses workplace implementation issues and strategies.  The ideas advanced in Building the Case are strongly supported by reported research and shared experience captured in documented, organisational case studies.

It provides an excellent starting point for any organisation envisaging the development and implementation of a mindfulness program for their executives, managers and staff.  Besides individual mindfulness training, it also touches on organisational mindfulness as a cultural approach.

One significant point that Building the Case makes is that mindfulness is not the province of a particular religion, such as Buddhism.  The report contends, based on the work of Dane (2011) and Kabat-Zinn (2005), that:

mindfulness is best considered an inherent human capacity akin to language acquisition; a capacity that enables people to focus on what they experience in the moment, inside themselves as well as in their environment, with an attitude of openness, curiosity and care.

The problem of course is that with life in our fast-paced world, obsession with social media and concerted efforts by interested parties to disrupt our attention, we are fast losing the power to concentrate and focus – we increasingly experience “disrupted attention” and recent research confirms that our attention span is declining rapidly.  Additional research demonstrates that we spend almost 50% of our time thinking about the future or the past and not being present to our internal or external environment.

We also carry with us memories, emotions, prejudices and biases that distort our perception of reality.  This, in turn, results in workplace stress, mental illness and declining productivity.

The Building the Case report highlights the potential business benefits that accrue from the pursuit of mindfulness, focusing on:

  • enhanced well-being and resilience
  • improved relationships and collaboration
  • enhanced performance
  • improved leadership
  • better decision-making
  • growth in creativity and innovation.

To ensure that people approach the implementation of workplace mindfulness programs in a level-headed way, the report challenges a number of myths about mindfulness and addresses the issues involved.

Of particular note, is the emphasis on regular practice of meditation and organisational support mechanisms beyond the initial training to sustain mindfulness within the organisation.

It is clear from the research and case studies cited, that as people in the workplace grow in mindfulness and sustain their meditation practice, they experience real personal benefits that, in turn, flow onto the organisation, work teams and colleagues.

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

Image source: courtesy of Free-Photos on Pixabay

Mindfulness: Commitment to Awareness

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his presentation provided as part of the  Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, focused on the theme, Fully Embodied as You Are.  Jon is the author of a number of books, including Coming to Our Senses and Full Catastrophe Living.

A quote from his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, throws some light on his chosen theme for this presentation:

Mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface with this moment in full awareness, with the intention to embody as best we can an orientation of calmness, mindfulness, and equanimity right here and right now.

So fundamentally, mindfulness is a commitment to cultivate awareness so that in any given moment we can embody calmness and the clarity that comes with progressively waking up to full awareness.

We grow in mindfulness through meditation practice which can take many different forms or as Jon describes it, “many different doors to the one room”.  Just as there are different regimes to build fitness and stamina, there are multiple doorways to mindfulness – mindful breathing, mindful eating, mindful walking, kindness/compassion meditation, mindfulness yoga and body scan being just a few of the many options.  Jon encourages us to be creative in our exploration of meditation practice.

Awareness through meditation awakens us to our own likes and dislikes, our biases and prejudices and how we harm others, often unconsciously, through insecurity, uncertainty, doubts, mental/physical pain and resentments.

As we become increasingly aware of our internal landscape, we learn to recognise how we place ourselves at the centre of things – it is all about us and our world, our future, our well-being and our security.  In this sense, we each have some of the characteristics of a narcissistic person.  Mindfulness, however, helps us to become more unselfish, interconnected and compassionate.

He suggests two simple practices to increase our wakefulness:

(1) each time you take a seat, see it as a new beginning, grounding yourself in the present;

(2) when you wake of a morning, lie in bed for five to 10 minutes, and practice the body scan so that you can be fully awake and, in Jon’s words, “fully embodied”.

The more we grow in mindfulness, through daily meditation over increasingly longer periods, we leave behind our self-interested focus and become more other-focused and interconnected and more aware of our impact on others.

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

Image source: courtesy of  johnhain on Pixabay

Developing Habits through Mindfulness

In his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Leo Babauta discussed the topic, Mindfulness: The Key to Habit Change.  He is the author of the e-book, The Habit Guidebook: My Most Effective Habit Methods & Solutions and the creator of the Zen Habits blog.

Leo spoke about how to develop habits through mindfulness and ways to deal with the obstacles that you will invariably encounter.  He had to overcome multiple bad habits – addiction to smoking, eating unhealthy foods and leading a sedentary life.  The costs for him were not only bad health but also lack of time for his wife and children and serious debt – all affecting his quality of life.

However, Leo overcame all these bad habits through mindfulness and now has a blog about developing habits, which he updates regularly for his two million readers.  Suffice it to say, he no longer has a debt problem, is healthy, has lost a lot of weight and has been able to run a marathon and spend quality time with his family.

Developing a single habit

When we are confronted with a whole host of things that we need to change in our lives, as Leo was, we tend to think that one small change is insufficient to make a difference.  However, Leo’s advice echoes that of Seth Godin and others who have achieved great things in their lives – start small, start now, be consistent and be accountable to yourself and others.

When we first start on a new habit, we are enthusiastic about the possibilities for how it could turn our life around. It is important not to get carried away by this early enthusiasm and try to do too much too soon.  Otherwise, you will not be able to sustain the effort with the result that the habit will not last and you will not experience the desired benefits.

Again, the advice is to start small, but with one habit.  Leo argues that focusing on a single habit that will potentially lead to your end goal, e.g. giving up smoking, is more sustainable than focusing on a goal that is too far into the future and more uncertain of attainment – which can result in deferral of happiness until the end goal is achieved.  When you focus on a small, achievable habit, you can experience happiness each time with the achievement of that one small step.  This, in turn, provides positive reinforcement for the new habit.

He suggests linking the new habit to something you already do daily, e.g. making a cup of tea/coffee.  This then becomes a trigger or reminder to undertake the new habit.  You can also strengthen your resolve through building in accountability – telling someone else what you intend to do, having an accountability buddy or someone who undertakes the habit/practice with you , e.g. a running partner.

Developing a habit through mindfulness

Leo suggests supporting this one, new habit with mindfulness practice.  The new habit may be to start walking, running or writing or doing yoga.    The mindfulness practice can itself be small, e.g. a short mindful breathing meditation.  The meditation, itself, may be the initial habit you are trying to develop, or it can be used to support the development of another habit.

Leo’s own experience demonstrates the power of mindfulness to overcome obstacles to forming a new habit.  You can stop yourself, tune into your breath and observe what is happening for you.  You can deal with obstacles as they arise.

For example, if you tend to put things off, rationalise why you are re-engaging in the bad habit or expressing negative thoughts about your ability to perform, then these thoughts can be observed through your mindful breathing practice.  You can see these things happening while meditating and treat them as obstacles that are trying to get in the road of your achieving your goal.  You can stand back from them and reduce their power by treating them as passing thoughts.  You can then resume your practice of your new habit.

If you feel the pull of an urge – to sleep in, to smoke or to eat unhealthy food – you can work with that urge through mindful breathing.  You can observe the urge, its strengthening power, it’s rationalisation – and gradually reduce the pull of this urge by viewing it while meditating.  As you breathe mindfully, focus on the urge until it subsides.

Mindfulness not only helps you overcome obstacles to forming a new habit, it increases your self-awareness and builds your capacity for self-management.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation practice, we can progressively develop new positive habits and regain control over our lives.  The secret is to start small with one habit, be consistent in practising the habit and support the development of the habit with mindfulness that can address the obstacles as they arise – and they do arise for everyone.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence

In a recent discussion, Daniel Goleman spoke of the influence of mindfulness on emotional intelligence.  In this discussion, he relied heavily on rigorous research that he and his co-author, Richard Davidson, drew on to write their book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

In an earlier book, Daniel had explained how emotional intelligence influenced decision-making, thinking processes and success in leadership and other roles.

In discussing the research behind his new book, Daniel focused on “altered traits” only – those characteristics that tended to be sustained over time, outside the meditative state.

His conclusions from the rigorous scientific studies focused on a number of aspects of emotional intelligence:

1. Self-awareness

The foundational element of emotional intelligence is self-awareness.  This is developed through mindfulness.  People who grow in mindfulness, through meditation practice, are better able to identify their own emotions and the impact that they themselves have on others – through their words and actions.

2. Self-management

The research strongly supports the contention that people who develop mindfulness can understand the triggers that set them off, can more readily gain control over impulse responses and are better able to stay calm even when under stress.  This self-management capacity is very important for people in leadership roles as others take their emotional cues from them.

Self-management, in turn, helps people to stay focused and positive in pursuit of goals, despite setbacks.  It helps us to ride out the waves that disturb the calmness in the ocean of life.

3. Social awareness

Mindfulness helps people recognise social cues and the feelings of others.  It contributes to empathy, particularly where people engage in kindness and compassion meditation.

4.Relationship management

The rigorous research is not strong in supporting the contention that mindfulness enables people to inspire others, coach/mentor people effectively and handle conflict.  However, anecdotal evidence and intuitive thinking suggests that self-awareness, awareness of others’ feelings and the capacity to self-manage, would all contribute to effective people management, but may not be the sole influence in the development of the requisite skill-set.

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

Image source: courtesy of Quangpraha on Pixabay

Mindfulness for Leadership

In his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Daniel Goleman discussed Altered Traits: The Benefits of Mindfulness for Leadership and Emotional Intelligence.  In this discussion, he drew on research that he described with his co-author Richard Davidson in their new book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

Daniel is the author of a number of other books including, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

In talking about the impact of mindfulness on leadership capability, Daniel drew on a select number of research articles used within his last co-authored book.  These were articles that met the tests of rigorous research that he and Richard Davidson employed in their book.

He distinguished the results achieved for different levels of meditators – the beginners, the long-term meditators and the “Olympian” meditators (e.g. Buddhist monks and members of contemplative orders such as the Carmelite nuns and priests).

He contends from the associated research that the benefits of meditation deepen and broaden the longer and more frequently you engage in meditation practice.

However, beginner meditators can gain some benefits that positively impact leadership capability, whether directly or indirectly.

Some of these findings for beginner meditators are:

1. Ability to focus better

This outcome is the primary subject of his book, Focus.  Because meditation involves focusing your mind on a particular object, person or activity, it naturally builds the capacity to maintain attention and restore attention when a distracting thought occurs.  The resultant mental fitness is akin to physical fitness attained through exercise or gym work – instead of physical power or stamina, the meditator gains the power of concentration.

2. Better utilisation of working memory

Paying attention through meditation practice enhances short-term memory which enables better retention and utilisation of information, gained through perception, for the purpose of decision-making and guiding behaviour.

3. Handle stress better

Neuroscience shows that meditators are better able to handle stress because our automatic response via the amygdala is not triggered so readily and recovery is quicker – two elements that together determine resilience.

4.Growth in kindness and compassion

A well-established finding is that those who practice loving kindness/compassion meditation actually tune into others’ needs better and are more likely to help.  These benefits are relatively immediate and kindness and compassion are seen increasingly as traits that define successful leaders.

Long-term meditators achieve greater and more sustainable benefits such as increased concentration ability, enhanced capacity to pick up on emotional cues because they are more able to be present to the other person, greater calming effects (felt emotionally and experienced biologically) and a higher-level capacity that is described as meta-awareness (the ability to observe our own thoughts and feelings).

As we grow in mindfulness through regular and sustained practice of different forms of meditation, we are able to build our leadership skills and capability which we can employ in any arena of our lives – be it work, home or community.

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

Image source: courtesy of MemoryCatcher on Pixabay

Sustaining Meditation Practice

In his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Elisha Goldstein discussed the theme, Towards Sustainable Happiness.  He covered the barriers to sustaining meditation practice and offered ways to overcome them. Elisha is the author of a number of books, including Uncovering Happiness and The Now Effect.

Elisha acknowledged that integrating a new habit, such as meditation, into our daily lives is a challenging task. Starting the habit is relatively easy but sustaining it over time can be extremely difficult.

He identified a number of barriers that make it difficult for us to achieve the desired integration:

1. Our negative bias

As we mentioned previously, our brain is wired to perceive danger and threat and persists in a negative orientation as an evolutionary safety mechanism. This manifests as doubts, anxiety or uncertainty when we are trying to sustain the habit of meditation. We tend to question not only the way we are meditating but also the utility (usefulness/ benefit) of meditation. We can focus on the effort involved without seeing the benefits.

2. Fractured attention

In this day and age, we are constantly interrupted by technology, advertising and noise pollution. Our attention is continuously fractured by interruption – we now talk about disruptive marketing as a means to capture the attention of our desired audience. This continuous disruption to our attention makes it increasingly difficult to meditate and feeds our doubts and uncertainties.

3. Our cultural environment

The acceptance of busyness as laudable and inactivity as blameworthy, translates into little tolerance for being still, taking time out or meditating. This means that there are very few positive models within our immediate environment to inspire us to sustain our meditation practice. There are few rewarding or supporting social cues that motivate us to maintain the effort.

4. Our loss of connectedness

The development of our social norms means that increasingly we are superficially connected to lots of people (via social media) and see ourselves as separate and independent. Images of meditation practitioners reinforce this separateness. However, neuroscience confirms the view that we are social beings that are interconnected and interdependent. We have a reliance on each other whether we are conscious of this or not. Research also highlights the fact that social isolation can lead to physical and mental illness including depression.

Elisha’s very strong recommendation, based on his own research and experience, is to work towards enriching our environment as a way of building sustainability in our meditation practice and enhancing our experience of happiness.

He suggests that this can be done in two ways, (1) enrich our physical environment, and (2) build social connections that provide positive social cues and inspiration.

On a physical level, we can surround ourselves with inspiring books and sayings, clear clutter than distracts us and detracts from the inner journey, value the beauty and calmness of our natural surroundings and develop a space that engenders calm and ease of meditation.

On a social level, we can get connected to like-minded people by participating in retreats, workshops, online conferences and courses. What is more likely to be sustaining for our meditation practice, however, is regular participation with a group of people who engage in meditation.

If we enrich our physical and social environments, we are better able to grow in mindfulness by sustaining our meditation practice, so that the benefits are longer lasting and flow into our everyday lives outside the meditative environment.

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

Image source: courtesy of RitaE on Pixabay

What’s Stopping You from Meditating?

In his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Dan Harris discussed Tackling the Myths, Misconceptions, and Self-Deceptions That Stop You from Meditating.  Dan is the author of 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Works – A True Story.   He wrote this book after exploring meditation following a panic attack on live TV.   Dan also produced a series of free podcasts with leaders in mindfulness and an App, 10% Happier: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.

This presentation was based on research that Dan undertook on a road trip with meditation teacher, Jeff Warren, for their new book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.

Dan identified a number of barriers that people put up that stop them from meditating.  We will explore some of them here (the names of the barriers have been changed for this post – the essence is the same):

1. My mind is too full

This is a myth based on an unfounded belief that you will never be able to clear your mind sufficiently for meditation.  It assumes that you are different to everyone else who is attempting to meditate, but recognises the challenge of endless thoughts impacting your meditation (a situation experienced by everyone who meditates, even the most experienced meditators).

2.Time poor

This is the belief that there is no spare time in your life for meditation.  It assumes that your time allocation is immutable and that you have your priorities right.  There are clearly special challenges for some individuals such as parents with young children who persist in destroying any routine that you attempt to develop.  However, even in this situation, it is possible to grab some time here or there to do mindful walking, mindful eating and/or mindful breathing.  It may mean that your meditation practice is initially broken into small chunks throughout the day.  As Chade-Meng Tan suggests, one mindful breath a day will “start the ball rolling”.

3.Lacking self-compassion

Some people, especially those lacking in self-compassion, see time spent in meditation as being selfish and experience guilt if they allocate time for this activity.  This is particularly true for people who suffer “empathetic distress”.  Self-care really enables the carer to better provide for others and to sustain their effort on others’ behalf.

4.Don’t want to stand out

Some people create a barrier to meditation because they think that they will be seen as soft or weird – they are frightened to stand out as different.  People in occupations such as the Police Service/Force, may fear that they will be called a “softie”.  There is a lack of recognition that the capacity to be present in the moment, to deal with stressful situations with calm and clarity and to develop creativity are outcomes from meditation that enhance a police officer’s capabilty.

5.Fear of losing your “edge”

This baseless fear comes from observing the “laid-back” nature, persistent calmness, of some experienced meditators.  As Dan Harris argues in his book, meditation helps to reduce stress while maintaining, and in fact, strengthening your “edge” – whatever that may be.  This is why famous actresses such as Goldie Hawn, as well as leading CEOs and professional people, meditate on a daily basis.

6.Fear of what you might find “within”

This is a serious concern about exploring your inner landscape for fear of what might turn up in terms of anxieties, distrust, hatred, negative self-perception or any other negative emotion.  Mindfulness experts would argue that i is better to surface these issues so that you can deal with them, rather than having them undermine you on a daily basis because they are hidden and potentially out-of-control.

7.I can’t maintain the habit of meditation

You need to build in some form of support system to enable you to sustain the practice of meditation.  This could be a routine (starting small), joining a group who meditate regularly, working with a buddy, stimulating your interest and motivation through reading, practising with audio tapes/CDs or developing a meditation habit attached to some other thing that you do regularly such as boiling the jug for a cup of tea or coffee.

Meditation enables us to grow in mindfulness and to realise the attendant benefits.  Persistence brings its own rewards as we deepen our meditation practice.

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

Compassion and Neuroscience

In her presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Kelly McGonigal discussed The Neuroscience of Compassion.  Kelly is the author of The Science of Compassion and The Upside of Stress.

Kelly maintains that for compassion to be realised and sustained, the following six conditions must be present:

  1. awareness and recognition of suffering
  2. feeling of concern for, and connection to, the one who is suffering
  3. desire to relieve suffering
  4. belief that you can make a difference
  5. willingness to respond or take action
  6. warm glow/sense of satisfaction

She spoke about how compassion unfolds in the body, a mind-body state that has been verified by neuroscience.  Throughout her presentation she drew heavily on a neuroscience model of compassion developed by Ashar, Andrews-Hanna, Dimidjian & Wager (2016).  This systems-based model of the brain shows how the core functions of compassion are manifest in different parts of the brain, and each function can activate multiple parts of the brain simultaneously.

The three core functions identified in the neuroscience model of compassion are:

  1. Social cognition
  2. Visceral/emotional empathy
  3. Reward motivation

Social cognition has to do with the cognitive aspect of our social interactions – in other words, “how people process, store, and apply information about other people and social situations”.  Visceral/emotional empathy, on the other hand, is the emotional response generated in us when we connect with, or feel concern for, someone who is suffering.  Reward motivation relates to the personal, intrinsic satisfaction – warm inner glow – experienced when we are compassionate (which serves as a motivator of compassion).

Kelly maintains that all three brain functions have to be present, and effective, for sustainable compassion towards others and they need to be in balance.

For example, what potentially impedes effective social cognition is “dehumanization” of the observed individuals as a result of “unconscious bias” influencing our perception of others who differ in race, age or gender, or even in the sporting team they support.  Kelly reports, as did Dr. Richie Davidson, that meditation practices – such as loving-kindness and compassion meditation – can reduce such implicit bias and provide a more balanced social cognition that is not blind to the suffering and needs of a particular group.

Visceral/emotional empathy has to be balanced with reward motivation that can occur with compassionate action.  Kelly reports research that shows that if people are trained in empathetic meditation, without experiencing the reward component of compassion, they can potentially experience “empathetic distress”- a form of emotional overload resulting, in part, from too close an identification with the sufferer without the reward relief experienced through compassionate action.

This last imbalance resulting in “empathetic distress” has been observed in people in helping roles in difficult situations, e.g. war arenas.  Where helpers do not experience, or stop experiencing, the intrinsic rewards of compassionate action, they are prone to “burnout”.  Burnout occurs when we exhaust our reserve energies as a result of trying to close the gap between effort and intrinsic reward, in other words, we start working harder and harder for less and less positive outcome – we perceive that we are ceasing to make a difference.  Research has been shown that for sustainable compassionate action in these difficult arenas, helpers need to experience “reward motivation” – the intrinsic satisfaction sometimes experienced as  a warm inner glow.

Another important insight from neuroscience mentioned by Kelly is that we do not need to have self-compassion to be compassionate towards others.  Increasingly, compassion towards others is seen as an innate human capacity.  On the other hand, we seem to create all kinds of barriers to self-compassion such as fear, anxiety or anger.   Kelly maintains that the biggest barrier to self-compassion is the absence of the reward satisfaction when people feel the suffering of others, but do not experience the warm glow from taking action that makes a difference to someone’s suffering.

In summary, as we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness and compassionate meditation, we can reduce our unconscious biases, free ourselves from the inertia of “empathetic distress” and open our minds and bodies to compassionate action resulting in reward motivation that will sustain that compassion over time.

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

Image source: Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay