What Will You Do With the Surplus in Your Life?

Seth Godin – the famous internet marketer, author and daily blogger – suggests that if we have personal safety, good health and food to sustain us, we are living with surplus in our lives – we have spare time and energy to devote to making a contribution to others and to the community at large.

In a recent blog post, he challenges us to think about how we will spend our surplus:

You have enough breathing room to devote an hour to watching TV, or having an argument you don’t need to have, or simply messing around online. You have time and leverage and technology and trust.

When you stop to think and reflect on your life, you begin to see what eats up your time.  Some things become a compulsion – they take over your life.  Meditation and other mindful practices can help you to see how you spend your time and help you to identify ways to expend the surplus that should be in your life.

Mindfulness also enables you to understand the leverage for change that you do have and to appreciate the trust that you have built up over time.  Technology, itself, provides incredible leverage power and opportunities to build trust and relationships. So whatever your surplus situation, as Seth suggests, there is opportunity to contribute – rather than just consume.

When you move into semi-retirement as I am starting to do, you have even more surplus on your hands.  It’s a challenge expressed eloquently by Jeri Sedlar and Rick Miners in their book, Don’t Retire, Rewire.  They argue that on retirement you have to find creative ways to expend the energy that you previously used in your work environment.  If you don’t find a way to use this surplus energy, your energy reserves can decline rapidly and you can also find that your life loses meaning.

When I confronted this challenge of using my surplus, I decided that a key way for me to contribute to others is to help people to grow in mindfulness through this blog and mindful workshops I run.  This way of spending my surplus enables me to utilise the core skills I have developed over my life – writing, researching and facilitating workshops – to help others deal with the winds of change in their lives and to build resilience, wellness and mental health.  Hopefully, it will also help others to overcome or stave off depression.

Of course, one of life’s lessons is that true happiness and fulfilment comes from helping others.  While my plan is altruistic, it also has resounding benefits for me – it gives meaning to my life; helps me to learn, grow and develop my mind; keeps the need for personal mindful practice at the forefront of my mind; and staves off depression (that can be precipitated by loss of work identity).

So, how will you answer Seth’s challenge – what will you do with the surplus in your life?

 

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The Winds of Change

One day I was observing some trees in the adjacent yard move in response to wind gusts that swirled around the yard.

It was like a choreographed performance.  Some branches danced rhythmically, others moved chaotically and one tree had branches that swayed together slowly in time as if synchronised.

As I became aware of these movements in response to the winds of change, I was inspired to write the following poem:

Wind-blown trees

Dancing rhythmically

Chaotic movement

Swaying in unison

Different trees, different responses.

 

I was reminded of the different responses we have to change and the significant events that affect our lives, e.g.  job changes or job losses.

Sometimes, we move with the change in our lives and take it in our stride while at other times the change creates chaos for us.  If we have strong emotional support, we may be able to move with the change rather than resist its pressures.

When we have built up resilience through mindful practice, we are better able to withstand the impact of major changes in our lives.  We are able to more readily bounce back from changes that unsettle us and upset our equilibrium.

The movement of trees in the face of wind symbolises how we can respond to change in our lives.  We can welcome the change, be overcome by the chaos it can create or respond flexibly to its pressures.  As we grow in mindfulness and experience the winds of change in our lives, we are better able to develop an appropriate response.

When we are buffeted by the winds of change, mindfulness helps us to respond constructuvely rather than destructively.  It enables us to stay centred.

Assumptions Build Walls Between Us

Assumptions about differences can build walls between us.  If we focus on what we assume are our differences, then we will emphasize what separates us, rather than what brings us together.  More often than not, our assumptions are wrong.

In one of his novels, After Dark, Haruki Murakami describes the experience of one of his key characters, Takahashi, who was required to attend and audit cases in the criminal court as part of his legal studies.  In the early stage of these visits to the court, Takahashi found that he could not relate to the people being charged with crime, their situation or their feelings – he would assume that “the ones on trial are not like me in any way”.

In speaking of this early experience of difference, Takahashi said, “Between the world they live in and the world I live in there’s this thick, high wall” (p. 96, emphasis added).

However, as he continued to attend the criminal court cases and listen to the testimonies and speeches, his assumption of the wall of difference between the accused and himself began to break down.  Takahashi describes this experience of the crumbling of his assumptions:

I became a lot less sure of myself.  In other words, I started seeing it like this: that there really was no such thing as a wall separating their world from mine.  Or if there is a wall, it was probably a flimsy one made of papier-mâché.  The second I leaned on it, I’d probably fall right through and end up on the other side.  Or maybe it’s that the other side has already managed to sneak its way inside of me, and we just haven’t noticed.  That’s how I feel.  It’s hard to put into words.(p.97)

His assumption of a wall of difference between the accused and himself completely broke down when one of the defendants was sentenced to death by hanging.  Takahashi found that he experienced a “deep emotional upset”, resulting in tremors going through his body and the inability to “stop shivering”.  In spite of himself, and his early assumptions about a lack of things in common with the accused, he experienced a deep level of empathy.

There is a famous video made in Demark that explores what we have in common, rather than the ways we are different.  The video, All That We Share, challenges our assumptions about differences and helps to break down the walls of intolerance.

 

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop increased awareness about our assumptions that build walls between us.  Being mindful of the damage our assumptions can create, leads us to challenge these assumptions and break down the walls that divide us.

Cover image source: Courtesy of hbieser on Pixabay

Reframing Assumptions

Our assumptions play a major role in our lives.  They shape our perceptions, influence our emotions and affect our responses to people and events.

On one occasion, I was talking to a colleague who had been using a collaborative approach to undertake local economic development in a regional area.  He was telling me about a community consultation meeting that he had conducted on the Sunday before.  As he spoke, he became progressively more upset, agitated and frustrated.

When I asked him why he was so upset, he told me that the Mayor of the town had turned up to the meeting.  He then proceeded to share his negative perception about his attendance – “Why was the Mayor at the meeting?”, “Why was he getting in the road of our project?”, “What was he hoping to gain by being there?”

When I asked about the Mayor’s behaviour during his participation in the meeting, it turned out that he had participated constructively like everyone else present.  My colleague’s negative assumptions about the Mayor’s motivation and intentions were influencing his perception, his emotions and his response.

I suggested that he could actually think differently about the Mayor’s attendance – he could reframe his assumptions.  I said that I do not know of many Mayors that would spend an entire day on a Sunday, away from their family, to attend a meeting that was entirely optional. I suggested that the Mayor could have attended the meeting because he was genuinely interested in local economic development and community welfare.

After thinking this through, my colleague started to see the Mayor’s attendance as a positive thing – a sign of support rather than an attempt to sabotage his own efforts.  By challenging his assumptions, my colleague could reframe the event and the participation of the Mayor – he saw the person and the situation in a new light.

Our assumptions play out in every sphere of our lives – at work, at home, in the community – and operate at an unconscious level.  As we grow in mindfulness and inner awareness, we are more likely to become aware of our assumptions and the negative impact they can have on our perception, our emotions and our responses to people and events.

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Being Mindful of Social Learning and its Impact on Our Behaviour

Social learning is learned behaviour that results from observing, modelling and imitating others.  We observe what others have done and note the consequences – this, in turn, influences our own behaviour.

We constantly seek to learn from others’ experiences through reviews on social media such as Facebook, Yelp, eBay and TripAdvisor.  We want to know what people thought of a movie, a restaurant, a seller or an overseas destination.

The problem arises when we follow others behaviour uncritically.  As Tali Sharot observes:

Our instinct is to imitate the choices of others, because we assume that others have information we do not.  However, other people’s decisions can stem from considerations that are irrelevant to us.  We need to be careful when following other’s choices, mindful that they may not be right for us.  (Tali Sharot – The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 160; emphasis added)

As we grow in mindfulness we can become more discerning and better able to evaluate social learning and its impact on our own behaviour.  Being mindful in this way enables us to reflect-in-action and change our behaviour when we are engaging in learned behaviour that we perceive may have undesirable outcomes.

 

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Do You Ever Stop to Watch the Sunset?

In a previous post, I discussed the benefits of being still – stopping the rush of our busy lives.

Sometimes, there is beauty before us and we fail to stop and look – we often do not see the sun setting on our day.

Each sunset produces an astonishing palette across the sky – a unique combination of colours and shapes that are often awe-inspiring.  Every day we are offered a different vision as the sun sets.  How often do you stop to see what is offered to you so freely?

We are so caught up with things to do that even if we want to stop to look at the sunset, we feel the pressure to keep moving and doing – we experience time pressure that shapes so much of how we live our lives.

Paulo Coelho, in his inimitable style, catches this tension perfectly when he describes how the central character in one of his books, Brida, experiences this challenge:

Whenever she sat still, just looking at something, she got the feeling that she was wasting precious time when she should be doing things or meeting people.  She could be spending her time so much better, because there was still so much to learn.  And yet, as the sun sunk lower on the horizon, and the clouds filled up with rays of gold and pink, Brida had the feeling that what she was struggling for in life was exactly this, to be able to sit one day and contemplate just such a sunset. (Brida, 2008, p.112)

Therein lies the challenge for us each day.  We can stop and look at the sunset as a form of mindful practice or carry on with our busy lives.  Each sunset offers us the opportunity to grow in open awareness and mindfulness.

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Trees as Sources of Meditation

Every tree is different – it has its own aura, energy field, colour, shape, life story and natural beauty.

Individual trees can be a great source of meditation – they embody many of the dilemmas of human existence.

It’s Jacaranda time in Brisbane when these trees cover the city with their purple blossoms.  It is also a time of dread for many children because it signals the approaching period of school exams.

I am reminded that some time ago I wrote a poem about Jacarandas when meditating on a particular tree.

The poem goes like this:

                  Radiant Beauty

Resplendent purple, a carpet of colour

Fully clothed in regal garment

Refreshing hue, eye-catching glow

Noticed from above and below

Radiant beauty, swiftly shed.

The Jacaranda tree was standing in the middle of a park covered in its distinctive purple blossoms – resplendent purple, fully clothed in regal garment.

Wherever you walk in Brisbane at this time of the year you will be walking below the refreshing hue and eye-catching glow of the Jacaranda. It’s an amazing sight when seen from below.  It is even more amazing when seen from above –noticed from above and below.  From the air, the whole city appears carpeted in purple.

One of the characteristics of this type of tree is that its purple blossoms last for such a short time – radiant beauty, swiftly shed.  It is a constant reminder that human beauty is ephemeral – so transitory, yet pursued endlessly by many people as if it defines a person’s worth.

As the Jacaranda trees shed their purple blossoms, they create a carpet of colour as illustrated in the image below:

If we grow in mindfulness through meditation and other mindful practices, we will be able to see beyond transitory, external beauty and see the real essence of a person.  We will learn to value each person’s uniqueness and their life story – just as we learn to value our own.

Image source:

Park Bench by Indy24 on Pixabay

 

Mindful Walking on the Inside

In a previous post, I discussed various ways of mindful walking with an emphasis on walking outdoors.  Here I want to focus on a simple approach to mindful walking that can be used indoors, particularly when you are time-poor.

The basic process for mindful walking indoors is as follows:

  1. Work out where you are going to walk from and to
  2. Stand with your feet apart and be conscious of the soles of your feet on the floor
  3. Ground yourself mentally and physically
  4. Lift your right foot slowly
  5. Place the heel of your right foot slowly on the floor
  6. Gradually lower your foot so that the sole of your right foot is slowly flattening on the floor
  7. Lift your left foot slowly
  8. Place the heel of your left foot slowly on the floor
  9. Gradually lower your foot so that the sole of your left foot is slowly flattening on the floor.

Repeat steps 4-9 keeping your mind focused on your walking action.   You can start with your left foot if this is your preference.

As you become more conscious of mindful walking and begin to practise it indoors, you will notice many opportunities that arise where you can take a few minutes to practise, e.g. while waiting for the jug to boil, or waiting for your partner or children to get ready to go out.  You will also become more conscious of your walking when outdoors.

So often we “race from pillar to post” thinking about something we have to do or have failed to do or done wrongly.  We rush everywhere, even in our own home.

Mindful walking enables us to slow down, to be more conscious of the present and to appreciate what we have.  It can help us to reduce anxiety about the future and depression about the past.  It leads to peace, contentment and lowered stress.  With a clearer mind, you may also experience increased awareness and insight.

Mindful walking indoors is a simple, time-efficient way to grow mindfulness and to keep things in perspective.

Image Source: Courtesy of Pexels on Pixabay

Grow Your Influence by Letting Go

In a previous post, we discussed how mindfulness helps us to increase our sense of control over our internal environment and responses to external stimuli.  However, there are times when we have to give up control over our external environment to enable others to gain a sense of control over their work or environment.

A fundamental dilemma in life is that to grow our influence we need to let go.  If we become too controlling, we get compliance from others but lose their commitment and energy – ultimately things get out of control.

If you are a manager or someone who has the power to delegate tasks to others, it is very difficult to let go.  However, if you fail to do so, your influence contracts, rather than grows.

We are afraid to let go because:

  • things might get out of hand
  • the other person does not have the knowledge or skills to do the task
  • other people may not have our level of knowledge or skill
  • we do not want to be embarrassed by the mistakes or failures of others
  • other people cannot do the task as well as us
  • we get a buzz from achieving things ourselves
  • we like to do things within our comfort zone, rather than things that challenge us.

All of these reasons for not letting go can be challenged but they often serve as barriers to delegating to others – in the final analysis, they can be seen as excuses.  The net result is that we end up overworked and other people are deprived of the opportunity to grow and develop, to achieve outcomes that are valued, to experience satisfaction for a job well done – importantly, if we retain control we limit their sense of agency and capacity to contribute.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot maintains that “control is tightly related to influence” and influence expands when we provide others with a sense of agency – the capacity to control their environment, power over the way things are done.  She argues:

The message, perhaps ironically, is that to influence actions, you need to give people a sense of control.  Eliminate the sense of agency and you get anger, frustration, and resistance.  Expand people’s sense of influence over their world and you increase their motivation and compliance.  (The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 87)

To give up control, however, we have to be in control of our own emotions and responses.  We have to manage our fear of loss of control over our immediate external environment by managing our internal environment. As explained in the previous post, as we grow in mindfulness, we grow in the capacity to develop control over our own emotions and responses.

Tali Sharot suggests that “there is nothing more terrifying than giving away control to another human being” and “this is why many managers feel the need to micromanage their teams”.  She offers advice to managers that resonates with developing mindfulness and awareness:

It is difficult to let go, but awarness can help.  Understanding why we are the way we are, and being conscious of our deeply rooted drive to make decisions, may help us hand over the wheel once in a while.  With awareness comes the understanding that giving away control…is a simple but largely effective way to increase people’s well-being and motivation. (The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 103)

She discusses examples of research projects in different contexts that provide evidence of the effectiveness of the fundamental principle of letting go to empower others by giving them a sense of agency.  One particular research project that resonated strongly with me was one involving the elderly in a nursing home where the fundamental questions framed by the researchers, Rodin and Langer, were:

What if the residents of a nursing home were given more choices, more responsibility, and a greater sense of agency?  Would they become healthier and happier?

To test these questions, the researchers set up an “agency floor” and a “no agency floor” where the former were given control over a range of decisions – a sense of agency not provided to the latter floor. The results are described by Tali Sharot as follows:

Three weeks later, when Rodin and Langer assessed the nursing home residents, they discovered that those individuals who’d been encouraged to take more control over their environments were the happiest and participated in the greatest number of activities.  Their mental alertness improved, and eighteen months later they were healthier than the residents on the “no agency” floor. (The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 97)

This research project has a personal interest for me because it reminds me of the activity of my brother, Pat Passfield, who provided other residents of his nursing home with a strong sense of agency.  He was recently nominated for a philanthropic award for his efforts to raise funds and improve conditions for other residents of the Jacobs Court aged care community at Sinnamon Village (80 years of Care – Wesley Mission, A joint Photojournalism Project between the Wesley Mission Queensland and Griffith University Queensland College of Art, p.22)

So if we learn to let go through developing mindfuless and awareness, we will be able to grow our influence by giving others a sense of agency and control over their environment – and contribute substantially to their health, well-being and happiness.

 

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Mindfulness – Control, Health and Happiness

One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it develops our sense of control. To use an analogy, we begin to realise that we are the one pushing the buttons – our buttons are not being pushed by others, events or the environment.

As we grow in mindfulness, we begin to experience control over our emotions and our responses. We are less at the mercy of our triggers, panic attacks and other sources of stress.  We develop a growing sense of control over ourselves and our environment.

Mindful breathing, for example, is just one practice that enables us to gain control – control over our breathing which is essential to life.

In her 2017 book, The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot argues that:

The brain has evolved to control our bodies so that our bodies can manipulate our environments…Our biology is set up so that we are driven to be causal agents; we are internally rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction when we are in control, and internally punished with anxiety when we are not. (p.102)

Tali Sharot demonstrates through research findings that we have a very high need for control.  She maintains, for example, that aerophobia – the fear of flying – is essentially about the loss of control, we are in the “hands” of the pilot and the plane.  She suggests that suicide is an extreme response to the sense of being out of control, unable to control anything in one’s internal or external environment.

Tali Sharot draws on further research to argue that “people who feel in control are happier and healthier” (p. 95).  As you practice mindfulness, you increase your sense of control over your internal and external environments and enhance your health and happiness.

The more you practice mindfulness, the more you experience the sense of being in control and realise the positive benefits of mindful practice.

 

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