Meditation for Working with Difficult Feelings and Pain

Diana Winston offers a meditation for Working With Difficulties that is brief, focused and eminently practical.  The seven-minute meditation is provided by her through the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).  Diana is Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC.  She is also the author of the recently published book,  The Little Book of Being.  Diana’s guided meditation on dealing with difficulties provides a relaxing image as she takes you through the steps of the meditation process.

Guided meditation for working with difficulties

The guided meditation has several basic steps that involve alternating between an experience of peace and restfulness and the disturbing sensations associated with difficulties.  The steps are detailed below:

  1. Adopt a comfortable position and become grounded through your breath, either by taking several deep breaths or just by tuning into your natural breathing pattern without trying to control its pace.
  2. Now find somewhere in your body that feels pleasant and restful – your fingers, hands, feet or ankles.  Touching your fingers together can be a very useful way to bring positive energy to your practice and provide an ongoing anchor for you.  As you get in touch with a pleasant part of your body, notice the sensations, the energetic flow, the warmth and comfort that surrounds you.  Luxuriate in the pleasure of this bodily awareness of positivity.  This step is important for you to be able to address your difficulty.
  3. This is the step that is really difficult – dealing directly with your difficult emotion(s) or bodily pain.  Now you need to face up to what is happening for you.  You might experience your difficulty as a pain in your shoulders, neck, back or somewhere else in your body.  If so, feel the tension or tightness and try to let go or soften your muscles in that area.  You might have to name the feelings you are experiencing to be able to tap into their bodily manifestations.  It is important to capture the difficult feelings along with their bodily expression or you will not be able to gain a degree of release as you progress the meditation.  However, it is equally important that you don’t “beat yourself up” if you can’t immediately tap into the feelings or painful sensations.  With practice, you will be able to see, and feel, through the veil that you use to cover these unpleasant experiences.
  4. Once again revisit the part of your body that provides you with a pleasant feeling and/or sensation (Step 2).
  5. Repeat step 3 – facing up to your difficulty both emotionally and physically. With these repeated steps, you may experience a lessening of your difficulty – it may be shrinking in size or power or visual representation (e.g. no longer a disturbing menace that takes your breath away or spasmic pain that makes you uptight or rigid).  Alternatively, you may experience your difficulty more intensely in the initial stages as you move past denial to acknowledgement and acceptance. Sometimes, it takes a while for us to accept that we are experiencing such strong, negative feelings.  You may also be used to ignoring bodily tension over a long period.   It is critical at this stage to treat yourself with loving kindness – rejecting any harsh judgment of yourself. 
  6. You can repeat these steps in one meditation session, dropping in and out of pleasant sensations.  If the difficulty is hard to shift in intensity, you may find it useful to repeat the meditation over several days or daily.  As you progress with this form of meditation, you will be able eventually to just give your difficulty “a sideways glance”, not becoming overwhelmed by its intensity or tenacity.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, our awareness of our difficulties expands as well as our understanding of how these difficult emotions or physical pain are experienced in our body.  This guided meditation for dealing with difficulties encourages us to move in and out of our discomfort to give us an emotional and physical break and to lessen the hold that the difficulty has over us.  With time, the impact of the difficulty will lessen, and we will be better able to deal with the stress involved.

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Image by Heike Frohnhoff 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.

Note: Multi-talented Heike Frohnhoff is also a Jazz Singer.

Curiosity and Compassion Towards a Family Member

Mitra Manesh, meditation teacher and founder of the mindfulness app Innermap, offers a guided meditation titled Curiosity and Compassion in the Family.  The focus of this meditation is as much about self-compassion as it is about compassion towards family members.  Like other guided meditations offered through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), Mitra’s meditation has a brief input but the 30-minute meditation podcast is primarily a meditation practice.  It progresses from a grounding exercise, through to an input on the challenge presented by family members, followed by two compassion exercises – one towards yourself, the other towards a family member.

Mitra defines mindfulness as “kind acceptance and awareness of our present moment experience”.  Underlying this approach is compassion (self-compassion and compassion towards others) and curiosity (the catalyst for awareness).

Becoming grounded – arriving at the meditation

Mitra encourages you to first find a position and posture that is comfortable and that will enable you to become grounded.  By bringing your attention to your intention for the meditation, you can physically and mentally arrive at the meditation.   You can start with some deep breaths followed by resting in your breathing.  Mitra suggests that you then scan your body to locate points where you experience comfort – allowing yourself to pay attention to the warmth, tingling or other pleasant sensation.  Invariably your mind will notice points of pain or discomfort – again bring your attention to each of these points and release the tension at that point, allowing yourself a sense of ease and relaxation.

At this stage, focusing on an anchor will help to maintain your groundedness as distracting thoughts will invariably intrude into your process of releasing and relaxing – bringing new tensions such as a sense of time urgency or the need to plan for tasks to be done.  Mitra suggests that you tell yourself that you don’t have to be anywhere else or to do anything else during the 30 minutes of this guided meditation.  The anchor can be a sound – internal such as the air conditioning or external such as the sound of birds.  It can be your breathing – returning to rest in the interval between your in-breath and your out-breath.  Whatever you do, don’t beat up on yourself for these distractions.

Family – a challenging environment

Mitra reminds us that meditation practice is designed to assist us to lead our day-to-day lives mindfully.  One of the most challenging arenas for mindful practice is the family – individual family members can be particularly challenging because of their personality, mental illness, life stresses or a multitude of other factors.  Even very experienced meditators find some family members to be particularly challenging.

One of the problems is that family members become too familiar – we have seen them often and we think we know them, understand them and can predict their behaviour.  However, the presumption of knowledge can result in a lack of curiosity and desire to understand – it can lead to hasty judgments and a lack of compassion. 

Curiosity, on the other hand, will lead us to understand the nature of the mental illness suffered by a family member.  We might presume we know about depression and how it plays out in their lives and yet we can judge them as lazy when they spend most of their day sleeping and continuously leave their room and surrounds in an absolute mess.  If we explore the nature of their illness we might discover, for example, that they are suffering from the complexity of schizoaffective disorder which may involve the symptoms of schizophrenia along with manic depression – a complex mix of disabling conditions that can lead to compulsive shopping, impulsive action, constant depression and the inability to communicate about their depression or hallucinatory episodes.  So, not only are they disabled by depression, but they are also incapacitated by the inability to seek social support.  We might think we know and understand about the mental illness of a family member but the complexity of the arena of mental health would suggest that we have little insight.  If you have never experienced the black dog of depression, you are unlikely to have a real sense of the depth and breadth of its disabling character. 

Mitra encourages us to become “unfamiliar” with our family members and to become instead curious about them – “but compassionately so”.  This includes “showing them who you are” while encouraging them to show themselves.

A self-compassion meditation

Mitra provides a self-compassion meditation (at the 11th minute mark) following the discussion of the family as the “most charged” arena of our lives.  Accordingly, she suggests beginning with a deep breath to release any tensions that may have accumulated during the discussion of family challenges.

She asks you to consider how your posture and breathing would be different if you were adopting a “compassionate curiosity” towards yourself. This compassionate curiosity, a sense of wonder, can be extended to curiosity about your bodily tensions and your feelings.  Are you feeling anxiety about a family member’s depression? Is your body tense, or your mind agitated or are you carrying feelings of resentment along with the bodily manifestations of this abiding anger?

What happens to your mind’s chatter and your body’s sensations when you extend forgiveness and compassion towards yourself for your self-absorption, hasty judgements, lack of understanding and self-satisfaction with “knowing” the other person.  Can you let go of all your self-stories and beliefs that block this self-compassion?  Compassionate curiosity enables you, ultimately, to rest in self-acceptance

You can ask yourself what you are needing and feeling at this point in the meditation and ask for the fulfillment of your needs as you touch your heart and feel the warmth therein. Mitra identifies some needs that you may have, including the need to forgive yourself for all the mistakes that you have made in your interactions with family members.

Compassion towards a family member

At the 28-minute mark of the guided meditation, Mitra suggests you focus on a family member, following your self-compassion meditation.  You could bring your attention to a family member with whom you have had a disturbing interaction.  Its important to bring that chosen person fully into focus.

You can request that you change your relationship to them, for, example, “May I be curious about you to understand you and to prevent myself from forming hasty judgments about you?”; “May I be genuinely compassionate towards you?”

Mitra suggests that you frame your request in terms of a single word that you can revisit from time to time, e.g. “understanding”.  The request could be framed as, “May I understand you and you understand me”.  Your compassionate curiosity will enable you to show yourself and your genuineness.

As we grow in mindfulness, through self-compassion meditation and extending compassion towards a family member, we can develop our compassionate curiosity towards ourselves and them and deepen our understanding and acceptance of them and ourselves.

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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 is Not Endurance or Acceptance of a Toxic Situation

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

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

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

Resilience and compassion: building motivation and capacity for action

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

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

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

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

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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.

Body Scan Meditation

Body scan meditation is a quick and easy way to access your relaxation response, an effective counter to stress and your automatic fight or flight response. Body scan meditation has the advantage of being flexible – you can use it anywhere at any time. You don’t have to undertake an extended body scan to realise its benefits.

Different purposes for the body scan

Olivier Devroede, author of the Mindfulness Based Happiness blog, explains that body scan in the yoga tradition is used for relaxation, whereas in some mindfulness traditions, the purpose is the development of acceptance. Jon Kabat-Zinn also provides a “bodyscape meditation“, incorporating a body scan, that is designed to enable you to become more aware of your body and its sensations and, through this meditation practice, become grounded in the present more readily.

Diana Winston, Director of Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC) offers a brief, 3-minute body scan that can enable you to quickly wind back your disabling response to a stressful situation. It can serve as a regular practice, too, that can progressively build automatic awareness of body sensations and emotional responses. Diana also offers a 13-minute body scan meditation for sleep when you are going to bed. At other times, you might actually be trying to avoid sleeping during meditation.

The basics of a body scan

Body scan is something that can be short or extended, incorporated into other forms of meditation and used flexibly for different purposes. While the intention of body scan meditations may vary, they have several basic elements in common. These relate to being grounded bodily and mentally, noticing your breathing and paying attention to your body and its sensations.

  1. Being grounded bodily – often this is achieved by paying attention to your posture, ensuring you are comfortable and relaxed, and upright if seated in a chair. There may be many times when you are unaware of your posture which can be a form of slouch, whether you are sitting or standing. Focusing on becoming grounded bodily, can help rectify this tendency to slouch throughout the day.
  2. Being grounded mentally – this basically involves bringing your full attention to the process of a body scan and your specific intention in undertaking it.
  3. Noticing your breathing – this can be a simple act of being aware of your breath and its characteristics (such as slow or fast, deep or shallow), without any effort to control your breathing. It can also be a more conscious approach where you take a couple of deep breaths to aid the process of relaxation and being grounded in the present. A deeper breathing approach is lower-belly breathing which can be incorporated into your body scan.
  4. Paying attention to the pressure on your body – this initial approach to increasing bodily awareness, involves noticing the pressure from the floor or your chair on your body at different points, e.g. on your back, feet, buttocks, shoulders. This is a form of conscious grounding – noticing the impact of your immediate physical environment on your body.
  5. Paying attention to your bodily sensations – this is the core activity in a body scan, the other activities serves as a warm-up or preparatory exercise. Here you are exploring your body, looking for any points of tightness, tension, pain or contraction. The aim is to progressively release or soften these points to free your body from its stress response. Developing your awareness about these points of tension, can help you to more quickly become aware of a negative emotional reaction to a stressful situation.
  6. Paying attention to your feelings – becoming aware of your bodily sensations can give you insight into how you are feeling about a situation or interaction. Often, we hide negative emotions, which further exacerbates the tension in our bodies. If you can get in touch with your negative feelings through a body scan, you can name these feelings and, over time, successfully control them. This last step represents the deepest approach to body scan meditation and the most time consuming method, as you need to undertake the precursor activities to get in touch with your bodily sensations and be in an open frame of mind to name those feelings.

As we grow in mindfulness through the different forms of body scan meditation, we increase our capacity to focus, enhance our self-awarenesss, develop our relaxation response, improve our self-regulation and increase our capacity to be in the moment.

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

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

Developing Inclusion through Mindfulness

In a previous post, I discussed the six core traits of inclusive leadership and acknowledged the role that mindfulness plays in developing inclusion in our thoughts and behaviour.  In this post, I would like to develop this theme further.

Inclusion involves openness and receptivity to what is different and diverse.  It is the foundation of real knowledge, insight and wisdom.  It involves more than being sensitive to diversity but also valuing and embracing it.  So, it entails not only a way of thinking but also a way of being in the world.

Through mindfulness, we can become aware of our implicit biases and emotional responses to people who are different from us.  We are then better able to manage our habituated responses and increase our response ability.

So much of our bias is unconscious and conditioned by our social, cultural, geographical and educational environments and associated experiences.  One way into our biases is through meditation on our emotional reactions to people and situations that challenge our view or perspective of the world.  Our feelings of discomfort can portend our inner bias and raise awareness of our tendencies to exclusivity.

If we can stop ourselves from reacting automatically, breathe deeply and consciously, notice and name our feelings, we can respond more appropriately and, eventually, act in a more proactive and inclusive manner.  If we reflect on the pattern of our thoughts and actions when we meditate, we can isolate negative emotional responses to a particular person or group.  Having identified the stimulus and the nature of our reaction, we are better placed to manage our response.

When we reflect through meditation on our thoughts in particular situations, we can more readily isolate our assumptions and stereotypes and understand how they are impacting our behaviour.  Through this increased self-awareness, we are better able to develop inclusive thoughts and actions.

Research has demonstrated that loving kindness meditation, which typically incorporates self-compassion and compassion towards others, can mitigate unconscious bias.  This approach to developing mindfulness places increased emphasis on similarities and entails expressing desire for increased well-being, happiness, equanimity and resilience for others.  Development of positive intentions towards others builds an inclusive frame of reference and affirmation of diversity.

As we grow in mindfulness, we see our biases in a clearer light, understand their impact on our behaviour and become more open and able to adopt inclusive behaviour.  Developing inclusion in our words and actions can be achieved through mindfulness if we consciously employ meditations that invoke acceptance and inclusion.

 

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

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Building Resilience

Resilience in a work context does not mean being able to endure a toxic work environment or unfair situation – it is not the equivalent of endurance.  Resilience is about our capacity to rebound or “bounce back” from a negative or personally challenging experience.

In a work situation, the negative experience could be the loss of a job, failure to gain a promotion, a conflict with a colleague or supervisor or an adverse experience with a customer or client.

Our life experiences, both positive and negative, shape who we are as does our responses to these experiences.  We can see negative experiences as learning opportunities or wallow in resentment that things did not turn out as we expected them to.

Building resilience

Through reflection and developing acceptance and self-compassion, we can change our perceptions and beliefs about ourselves and undesirable events. I have often found that not achieving the promotion I really wanted at the time, created the opportunity to move onto much more engaging and challenging work elsewhere – new work that took me out of my comfort zone but provided rich rewards.

We can learn to accept the things we cannot change but grow in insight about the things that we can change – including our own learned behaviour and fixed beliefs.  Matthew Johnstone in his short, illustrated book, The Big Little Book of Resilience, argues that we are capable of improving, evolving and developing after the “scar of life-altering events”.

Matthew also reinforces the fact that positive life experiences that we undertake voluntarily (e.g. studying a degree or engaging in a long “fun run” for charity) often involve challenges and setbacks and can serve to build resilience as we overcome the difficulties along the way.

Two mindfulness researchers in India maintain from their research that “mindfulness breeds resilience“:

Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally).

As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation (such as forgiveness meditation and gratitude meditation), we can  build resilience because mindfulness increases our “response ability” – our ability to extend the gap between stimulus and response and to develop a response that is constructive rather than destructive.  It also helps us to gain insight into our own biases, false assumptions and distorted perceptions that could otherwise lead to lingering discontent.

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

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Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): A Specialised Mindfulness Approach

In this blog I have been discussing different approaches to mindfulness and mindfulness meditation that are self-initiated and self-directed in the main.  Some of the approaches to mindfulness discussed entailed the involvement of a teacher or mentor to guide the participant through various forms of meditation.

One such approach is provided by the Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training conducted online by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.  Even in this course, led by teachers and mentors, there is ample scope for participants to pick and choose what types of meditations and mindfulness practices they will focus on – the choices are not individually focused or directed.

What is different about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT as the name suggests is an approach that provides therapists with a structured approach to mindfulness development for their clients.  This approach is therapist-led with a defined sequence of exercises designed to enable clients to move from the entrapment of destructive thinking to taking effective action guided by their values (committed action).  Colleagues vouch for the fact that ACT often achieves the desired results in therapeutic situations.

ACT aims to enable clients to experience a full, rich and meaningful life that is built on internal and external awareness.  The approach actively discourages ineffective avoidance strategies and encourages acceptance of pain as a natural part of a life that is lived fully.    Just as mindfulness trainers are exhorted to deepen their mindfulness practice, so too ACT therapists are encouraged to practise the ACT approach and exercises to be able to act more consciously and effectively in therapy sessions.

The ACT approach to mindfulness

Mindfulness in the context of ACT is defined by Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple, in terms of the quality of paying attention:

Mindfulness means paying attention with flexibility, openness and curiosity.

In this definition, mindfulness is explained in terms of three key elements – awareness through paying attention, an open attitude and flexible attention enabling a narrow or wider focus or a focus on the internal or the external.

ACT incorporates six core processes as part of its therapeutic approach:

  1. Being here now – consciously focusing on the here-and-now, including our inner and outer worlds.  Fundamentally, it is about being present in the moment, rather than lost in thought.
  2. Watch what you are thinking – this involves standing back from your thoughts and observing them in a detached way. It means not entertaining them and being caught up in them as if they are reality.  Mindfulness expert, Kabat-Zinn suggests that we view our thoughts as bubbles in boiling water floating to the surface and bursting.  He provides the liberating idea that “we are not our thoughts” nor should we be captured by the “narratives” in our head.   In ACT, the process of observing our thinking is called “cognitive diffusion”.
  3. Accepting and being open to painfulness – Russ Harris describes this process as “making room for painful feelings, sensations, urges, and emotions”.  ACT provides exercises to develop this acceptance.  In our mindfulness discussions, we have offered mindfulness practices such as forgiveness meditation to address this pain and suffering.
  4. Observing yourself – ACT encourages awareness through getting in touch with the “observing self” rather than the “thinking self”.   Russ Harris describes the former as “the aspect of us that is aware of whatever we’re thinking, feeling, sensing or doing in any moment”.  Mindfulness practitioners encourage meditation practices like somatic meditation to develop this awareness.
  5. Knowing what matters – getting in touch with the way we want to be in the world (our values).  Values guide behaviour, give meaning to our lives and facilitate decision making.  Consciousness about our values can enable us to lead our lives with energy and vitality and provide mindful leadership for others.
  6. Doing what it takes – this involves doing what it takes, despite pain and discomfort, to live out our values in daily life (described as “committed action” in ACT).  It requires congruence between our words and actions and a readiness to commit to “valued living”.

ACT is a therapeutic approach that aims to help clients grow in mindfulness in order to lead a life that is richer and more meaningful, while reducing the impact of harmful thoughts and narratives and pain-avoidance.

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

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Beyond R.A.I.N. – Remembering Self-Compasssion

In an earlier post, I discussed the R.A.I.N. meditation process – recognise, accept, investigate, nurture – as a way to address situations, including interactions with another, that generate strong negative feelings.  What happens, though, when your ineffective behaviour and negative feelings continue to recur after using the R.A.I.N. process?

We can be the captive of addiction, trapped in habituated responses to adverse stimuli, or stressed to the point that we have little control over our response when we are aggravated by an event or another person.  We may have lost our response ability through a lack of consciousness of our words and actions and their injurious impact on others, often unintended.

Tara Brach likens our daily life and its challenges to the waves of the ocean – we can’t stop the waves, but we can learn how to surf them so that we do not get “dumped” by them.  If we persist in blaming ourselves for falling off the surfboard of life occasionally, we can become paralysed by fear of failure.  This, in turn, can be compounded by our endless self-judging.

Self-judging imprisons us

We all have some form of negative self-evaluation – it may be stimulated by an event, adverse experience or over-reaction to a person we find annoying or critical of our behaviour.  We regularly blame ourselves or undervalue who we are or what we have contributed.  We might think that we do not “measure up” to our own standards, values or expectations or those of our family or significant other.

Our assessment of our response to a situation may be accurate in terms of inappropriateness, but the continual self-judging and self-denigrating disempowers us and detracts from our happiness and joy in life.  We become reluctant to engage effectively with our work colleagues, withdrawn in our conversations with our life partner or reticent to raise issues that affect us in other situations.   The way to regain our freedom and joy is through self-compassion.

Self-compassion frees us from the imprisonment of self-judging

Self-compassion enables us to break the trap of self-judging and be open to new responses to adverse situations.  It requires a radical self-acceptance and acknowledgement of what is human – our depth of suffering from previous experiences that manifests itself in our daily response to what is experienced as adverse events.  The perception of the impact of these events on us and our self-esteem is coloured by our recollections and interpretations of prior experiences.

As we grow in mindfulness through self-compassion meditation, we can break out of the cycle of self-judging and become open to different responses and to the freedom realised when we can break free of negative self-evaluations.

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

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Mindfulness and Response Ability

Mitra Manesh, in her podcast on Mindfulness and Responsibility, noted that the word “responsibility” has two components – “response” and “ability”.  Her discussion and guided meditation are aimed at expanding our ability to respond rather than react.

Mitra maintains that mindfulness meditation, encompassing mindful breathing and body scan, can increase our response options so that our life is not governed by reactivity.  To this end, she leads us in a guided meditation on two occasions throughout the podcast.

During her podcast, Mitra Manesh defines mindfulness as ‘kind awareness and acceptance of our present moment”.  She notes that mindfulness has three essential elements – kindness, acceptance and the present moment. As we grow in mindfulness, we increase our response choices so that we are not held captive to our habituated, reactive responses.

We can more readily accept the present moment with kindness towards ourselves and others.  Kindness towards ourselves requires self-compassion and self-acceptance.  Kindness towards others involves consideration and compassion – being thoughtful and empathetic towards others and their needs.

Reactivity

Typically, in a wide range of situations, we react without thinking or being aware of the consequences of our words or actions for ourselves or others.  If someone “steels” our parking space during busy Christmas shopping, we may have some choice words to say and/or gestures to make.  If someone’s behaviour sets off a trigger for us, we will often react in an inappropriate way, usually with a response whose intensity does not match the seemingly, insignificant word or action that triggered the response – we are in a heightened reactive mode.

Reactivity taps into habituated behaviour that we have developed over time in response to various stimuli in our lives – stimuli such as disturbing situations, annoying  people or frustrated expectations.

Mindfulness and response ability

Mindfulness enables us to identify the negative triggers, isolate our reactive response, name our feelings and provide us with a choice space between stimulus and response.  We are able to expand our choice of responses and maintain calmness and clarity despite the disturbing nature of the situation.

Mindfulness helps us to show up differently in our relationships.  Instead of reacting to conflict with our life partner or colleague by our habit of withdrawal, sullenness or hurtful words, we can have the presence of mind to avoid inflaming the situation and, instead, show consideration and kindness.  Habituated reactivity fractures relationships, mindful responsiveness enriches them.

Our response ability develops with meditation practice because it helps us to grow in self-awareness and self-management.   Mindfulness practice expands our response choices as we “walk the streets of life”.

Note: Mitra Manesh’s podcast is provided as one of the weekly mindfulness podcasts provided by the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA.

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

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Engaging With and Accepting Death

Annie Robinson, in her article, How Mindfulness Can Ease the Fear of Death and Dying, asserts that there is a strong movement in the West to reengage with death, encourage open conversations about death, and to pursue choices in dying that respect the values and vision of the dying person.  This is also the theme of Lucy Kalanithi’s TED talk and Paul Kalanithi’s book,  When Breath Becomes Air, which he wrote while suffering from terminal cancer.

There are a number of characteristics of this movement and approach which involve dying mindfully:

Acceptance of death

Acceptance involves not only acknowledging the onset of death but all the feelings and thoughts that go with it.  This includes denial, sadness, suffering, anger, fear, grief and sense of loss associated with declining mental and physical capacity as well as the ultimate separation from loved ones.  It also includes accepting the loss of our old identity and an envisioned future and progressively forging a new identity and vision of dying.  Mindful acceptance does not remove the suffering but can reduce the pain and fear of death.

Being attuned to sensory experience

This involves paying attention to our senses – touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell- and experiencing the sensations such as a beautiful scene or sweet-smelling flower to a heightened degree.  It involves resting in these sensations while we can still experience them.  Some of these sensations will be intensified as we focus on them with our waning energy.  Annie suggests that being attuned to our sensory experience can develop joy and mindfulness.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Coming to Our Senses, has demonstrated that focused attention on our senses can alleviate pain and help us to rewrite the narrative in our heads (including the narrative of fear and depression).

Finding balance through openness to love

Remaining open to love and caring of a partner, parents, children and relatives enables the dying person to find some level of balance as they alternate between pain and joy.  This requires vulnerability as their faculties decline and dependence increases; it also means that bitterness over loss on every dimension is not permitted to gain a stranglehold on emotions.  In his book, Paul Kalanithi was able to talk about marriage difficulties arising from his extreme workload as a neurosurgeon resident, working from 6am to late at night, 7 days a week.   His wife, Lucy, in the Epilogue to Paul’s book acknowledged that the cancer diagnosis enabled them to reinvigorate and deepen their love for each other and, in the face of  Paul’s dying, “to be vulnerable, kind, generous, grateful”.

Lucy wrote about the balance that emerged through their complete acceptance and trust in each other:

Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love (p.219)

Lucy acknowledged that as you grow in mindfulness, you can find joy amidst the pain and grief, meaning when all seems lost and a profound gratitude that engenders fortitude and courage.

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

Image source: courtesy of realworkhard on Pixabay

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