Dealing with the Inner Critic through Self-Compassion

Clare Bowditch – singer, storyteller and actor – recently released a biography titled, Your Own Kind of Girl.   In the book, which she had been attempting to write since she was 21, Clare discusses how she dealt with her inner critic which was all encompassing and destructive.  Clare writes that the book is “about the stories we tell ourselves, and what happens when we believe them”.  She lived in hope that someone would tell her that she was “more than” her grief, her failures and the negative stories about herself that she constantly carried in her head.  Clare explained that the title of the book is drawn from a song she wrote in 2008 and, to this day, she is immensely moved by the lyrics in the second verse, including the words, “You are fine, you’re more than enough”.  The book is about her painful journey to come to this realisation – a journey that is a common story for many people, particularly women.

The debilitating effects of the inner critic

In an earlier blog post, I spoke about the negative self-stories that we perpetuate, partly because our brain has a negative bias but also because of social pressures and the materialistic values that are propagated on an hourly basis through intrusive advertising and image making in videos and films.  Our self-stories can undermine our self-esteem, entrap us in a sense of helplessness and create a negative spiral leading to anxiety and depression.  These stories, often based on irrational fears, can become deeply ingrained and extremely difficult to shift.  They can blind us to creative options, block the realisation of our potential and harm our interpersonal relations.

Self-compassion to overcome the inner critic and negative self-stories

Tara Brach recently released a book titled Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and the World with the practice of R.A.I.N.  This meditation practice involves four basic steps – recognise, accept, investigate and nurture.  Tara provides a brief example of this process in a 9-minute, guided meditation, Reflection: Healing Self-Blame.   Below are some of the key points in this meditation that is based on the R.A.I.N. approach:

  • The starting point is to recognise some aspect of your life where your inner critic is active.  It does not have to be a major example of self-denigration – it could be some relatively minor self-critique, e.g. focusing on your failure sometimes to really listen to someone or diverting a conversation to establish your credentials.   The important thing is to have a focus for this meditation.  More complete self-awareness can grow out of recognising even a small aspect of the inner critic in our life – this can puncture a hole in the wall of self-protection that blocks our self-realisation. 
  • As we progress in the meditation, we come to a point of self-acceptance. This involves acknowledging what we say and do but also accepting that we have an innate goodness and that we are not defined by our thoughts – that we are “more than” our negative self-evaluation.  In Clare’s words, “You are fine, you’re more than enough”.
  • Our investigation of the impacts of our inner critic extends to recognising bodily sensations as well as feelings that flow from the inroads that negative self-stories make on our sense of self-worth.  We can experience tension in our muscles, pain (e.g. in our arms, neck and back), headaches or a nervous twitch when our inner critic is running rampant in our thoughts.  A body scan and progressive tension release can help here.  The key thing is to experience the impact of our negative self-story in a holistic way – this builds awareness and increases our understanding of the negative impacts of our inner critic.
  • Lastly, we reach the stage of self-nurturing in the meditation process.  This can be expressed physically by placing your hand on your heart or mentally through naming the self-criticism and countering with expression of self-forgiveness, acknowledgement of your positive contributions and achievements and gratitude for all that you have in life – opening yourself to what is good in you and what is wonderful in the world around you.

Reflection

Our inner critic is deeply entrenched and can be very damaging to our self personally, and to our relations, both at work and at home.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and especially the R.A.I.N. meditation, we can become more aware of our inner critic (negative self-stories), understand its impacts physically and mentally and develop strategies to counter its inroads into our sense of self-worth.  As both Clare and Tara point out, dealing with the inner critic can create a new sense of freedom and realisation of our true potential.

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Image by John Hain 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.

Mindfulness and Personal Transitions During Organisational Change

Change in our personal lives and in an organisational setting can generate anxiety, fear, insecurity and anger.  This discomfort can be expressed as resistance to change and lead to a wide range of unproductive behaviours that can be harmful to us as individuals as well as for the organisations we work in.  William and Susan Bridges identified three broad stages of personal transition in the context of organisational change.  In their 2017 book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, they explained that each of us go through these stages at different rates for different changes depending on the our perception of the impact of the changes.  The three stages they identified are (1) endings – where the focus is on loss, (2) neutral zone – involves a “wait and see” orientation and (3) new beginnings – putting commitment and energy behind the change.  Their book provides a range of managerial strategies that can be employed by organisations to help people transition from endings to new beginnings. They emphasize that without these strategies individuals and organisations can become stuck in either the endings stage or the neutral zone, resulting in illness and organisational decline.

Mindfulness and personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy Quan, a certified organisational change agent and creator of The Calm Monkey (Mindfulness Meditation in the Workplace), had a personal experience that gave her a deep insight into how people deal with a confronting and challenging change.  She was diagnosed with cancer after many years in multiple organisational change roles. This personal challenge led her to seek out mindfulness practices, and meditation in particular, to help her deal with this devastating illness.  Through her meditation practice she came to accept her illness and all that it entailed, and realised that she had a choice – she could view herself as a victim or take a proactive approach that would enable her to lead the best life possible, given her health setback.

This led to a further insight in that she realised that she could employ her understanding of organisational change and mindfulness to help others in an organisational setting.  She was able to draw on the research of William and Susan Bridges and developed a refined model of personal transitions.  She focused on the psychological change processes involved and identified five transition points in an individual’s psychological journey during organisational change:

  • Awareness: becoming aware of your thoughts, emotions, reactions and behaviour when facing the change
  • Understanding: gaining insight into the “why” of your holistic response – body and mind (recognising that this is a normal reaction to a confronting and challenging change)
  • Acceptance: accepting “what is”, not denying your current reality (e.g. a changed role, loss of a job or status)
  • Commitment: moving beyond acceptance to committing to adopt a positive, proactive response to improve your personal experience of the change, “taking things into your own hands” – self-management instead of reactivity
  • Advocacy: promoting the change and its positive elements if your energy level and role enable this.

Research into mindfulness and personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy was able to apply her insights in her work situation to help her colleagues through difficult change processes.  She moved beyond working with a small group to establishing a weekly mindfulness meditation “drop-in” where participants could share their experiences of change, both personal and organisational, and identify what they were trying to cope with and how they were going about it.  After a few years, she had 185 people on this drop-in program (highlighting the psychological challenge of organisational change) and this enabled her to undertake formal research of the impact of her approach of combining mindfulness with change management insights.

Her research was published in a study titled Dealing with Change Meditation Study which can be downloaded here.   Wendy indicated that her approach revolved around two key points of intervention, (1) raising awareness of the personal, holistic impact of a change process and (2) focusing on the future to develop a more constructive response so that the individual undergoing organisational change can have a better experience of the change and make decisions about their future.  Participants in the study were asked to focus on a challenging change and listen three times over a two-week period to a 15-minute, guided meditation focused on positively dealing with the change.

Resources for personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy, building on her own experience of combining mindfulness and organisational change insights, has developed several resources that people can use to assist their personal change processes or to facilitate the transition for others undergoing organisational change:

Wendy also provides a series of free and paid meditation podcasts on her website.

Reflection

I have been engaged in organisational change consultancy for over 40 years, and more recently undertaken extensive research and writing about mindfulness, as well as developing my own mindfulness practices, including meditation.  However, identifying a practical approach to combining the two related skill sets has alluded me to date.  Wendy, through her experience of a personal health crisis, has been able to introduce a very effective, evidence-based approach to using mindfulness to help people transition through organisational change processes.  She has been able to demonstrate that as we grow in mindfulness we can become more aware of our personal response to an organisational change, develop an increased understanding of the nature of that response, increase our acceptance of our changing reality and gradually build a commitment to shaping our future in a positive and constructive way.  Her work resonates with the insights and approach of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as well as that of Susan David who focuses on using mindfulness to develop “emotional agility”.

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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.

Mindfulness – A Pathway to Emotional Agility

Dr. Susan David in her 2017 TEDWomen’s Talk, spoke about the gift and power of emotional courage – the willingness to face our emotions in all their diversity and strength.  She stated that research demonstrates that denying or suppressing emotions leads to strengthening emotions and can make people aggressive. Other research shows that such denial or suppression induces unhealthy coping behaviours and contributes to serious mental and physical health problems. Sometimes we suppress emotions because we think that this is what we should do – we take our cues from social norms or established unwritten rules operating in the workplace.   

In her book, Emotional Agility, Susan argues that radical acceptance of our emotions, however difficult, is essential to be able to bounce back from setbacks and lead a productive, happy life.  Her main premise is that denial of emotions develops personal rigidity – the inability to be flexible and move with the ups and downs of life.  She maintains that, on the other hand, radical acceptance of emotions builds resilience and “emotional agility” – the capacity to deal with the complexity of an uncertain and ever-changing world. 

Susan warns us about the “tyranny of positive” – the social expectation that we do not express what is viewed as negative emotions – such as anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment or envy.  We are expected in many situations “to put on a brave face” and deny how we really feel.  She discusses the “destructive power of denial” not only in terms of being injurious to health and well-being but also in disabling us and preventing us from developing effective or creative responses to our situation. 

How to overcome rigidity and build emotional agility

In her presentation and book, Susan offers several suggestions that can assist us to develop emotional agility:

  • Stop labelling emotions as “good” or bad” – they are just feelings that we experience as a result of our perceptions and are a part of normal, daily living
  • Change your mindset to accept that “discomfort is the price of a meaningful life” – a way of living that is designed to make a difference for ourselves and others. This is a part of accepting “what is”.
  • Name your feelings but do so accurately and specifically – so instead of saying “I’m stressed” (a generic state), identify the real feeling in all it’s intensity and contours, e.g. “I’m bitterly disappointed because I missed out on that promotion” or “I am continually very resentful that Joe caused me so much work and embarrassment by his words and actions”.  We tend to fudge the emotion to take some of the heat and negativity out of it.  Accurate description and radical acceptance of our emotions lead to a genuine release and frees us to explore productive ways of thinking and acting.  This may entail a progressive realisation of the true nature of our feelings as we reflect or meditate, e.g. by undertaking the R.A.I.N. meditation
  • Recall Susan’s statement that “emotions are data, not directives” – we can establish control over our emotions through meditation and by developing self-regulation.  The starting point is naming and accepting them. 
  • Ask yourself, “What is my emotion telling me about my current situation” – e.g. “Is it informing me that my current job is destroying my motivation and/or deskilling me?

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the true nature of our feelings, name them accurately and accept them as part of trying to live a life aligned with our values and what is meaningful for us.  It sometimes takes time to unearth the real nature and intensity of our feelings because we so often disown them.  Persistence in our self-exploration and self-compassion opens the way for us to be more emotionally agile and more open to life’s experiences, including the potentially challenging aspects of moving outside our comfort zone.                      

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Image by Holger Langmaier 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.

A Mindful Check-In: Opening to Awareness

A mindful check-in is a way of becoming aware of your internal state at any point in your day.  You can check-in to your breath, your body sensations or your feelings.  You don’t have to adopt a particular posture or location – it is just a matter of tuning in to whatever is happening for you with curiosity and openness and without judgment.  Regular mindful check-ins help to build your awareness and to realise the benefits of mindfulness.

Benefits of mindfulness

Dr. Chris Walsh maintains that mindfulness achieves positive outcomes in three core areas of our lives:

  1. Richer pleasant experiences – so much of our life is lived in anticipation of the future or regret about the past.  We are often lost in our thoughts and become disconnected from the present moment.  The simple act of eating can be a totally unconscious activity, being unaware of our accompanying bodily sensations that potentially bring joy, e.g. a pleasant taste or aroma.  We walk at a fast pace rather than enjoy the experience of walking; we give a sidelong glance at a sunrise, rather than soaking up the brightness and energy of the experience.  We can be self-absorbed in conversations, rather than actively listening and building our relationships.  Mindfulness helps to enrich what is pleasurable in our lives – to notice and pay attention to the experience of joy and happiness in whatever form it takes.
  2. Improved capacity to manage difficult experiences – so often we are just reactive when an unpleasant experience or conflict triggers our habituated thoughts and emotions.  Through mindfulness, we can grow in the self-awareness necessary to observe, understand and manage our reactivity.  Mindfulness, then, gives us the ability to create space between the trigger and our response and to develop more productive and appropriate responses.  The Mindful Nation UK Report produced by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) gives evidence-based examples of these outcomes being achieved through mindfulness training.
  3. Effectively managing transitions – so much of our life is spent in transitioning from one situation to another.  We go from home to work, from one meeting to another, from one encounter to another, from work to home.  On a more macro level, we may transition from unmarried to married, from childless to children as part of the family, from marriage to separation and divorce.  Each of these transitions place new demands on our capacity to cope, on our even-mindedness and our resilience.  Mindfulness helps us to manage the inevitable emotional challenges inherent in change and to bring positive intentions and motivation to each form of transition and to achieve calmness and equanimity despite the personal turbulence engendered by the transition.

The check-in proposed by Chris is a way of bringing mindfulness to each of these core areas of our life and to tap into our inner resources so that we can live our lives more fully, less reactively and more flexibly.

The Mindful Check-in

Chris provides a podcast as well as a descriptive article on the check-in process.  His guided three-minute meditation in the podcast leads you through various stages of awareness – beginning with your breath and its characteristics, followed by noticing any points of bodily tension and observing the pattern of your thoughts (e.g. unfocused, confused, clear or erratic).  This awareness raising and acceptance-of-what-is leads to paying attention to any dominant thought that may be preoccupying you and then letting it go (stop entertaining it).  Finally, you can bring your awareness to your overall emotional state and name your feeling (without judgement). 

Chris, who developed mindfulness.org.au in 2004, provides a wide range of resources and a recently developed course, From Relaxation to Resilience.  This course has three different levels of participation depending on level of experience with mindfulness.  It is possible to obtain a reduced price through a Medicare rebate if a referral from a GP is obtained.  Chris offers blog articles on various aspects of mindfulness and emphasises employing evidence-based approaches.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and mindful check-ins, we can realise the benefits of mindfulness in the core areas of our lives – pleasant experiences, difficult situations and personal transitions.  Mindfulness equips us to live life more fully (appreciating its richness), manage challenging situations more effectively and make personal transitions more adaptively.

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Image by Sasin Tipchai 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.

Paying Attention to Your Breath and Body

Allyson Pimentel, a teacher at the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), offers a guided meditation podcast on the theme, Mindfulness of the Body and Breath.   She explains at the start of the meditation that mindfulness involves paying attention in a particular way that induces ease, restfulness and tranquillity.

Allyson focuses on three elements of paying attention that lead to inner and outer awareness:

  1. Purposefully – paying attention is undertaken consciously with clear intention and purpose
  2. Focusing on the present – paying attention to the present moment, not to what has gone before or to an anticipated future event
  3. Openly – paying attention with curiosity and willingness to be with what is, not ignoring what is unpleasant, painful or challenging.

Allyson reminds us that our breath and our body are always with us in the present moment, even if our mind is continuously wandering with endless thoughts.  Our body and breath provide the anchors in the turbulent sea of life.

Allyson cites lines from a poem, “I Go Among the Trees” by Wendell Berry, that capture this stillness:

All my stirring becomes quiet

Around me like circles on water.

My tasks lie in their places

Where I left them, asleep like

 cattle…

Guided meditation on your breath and body

The guided meditation provided by Allyson incorporates mindful breathing together with a thorough body scan.  After inviting us to sit “upright not uptight”, she encourages us to notice our breathing (its pace, length and evenness).  After inviting us to pay attention to our breath, she guides us in a progressive scanning of the body.

Two things that I noticed with the body scan are its completeness and the focus on openness. She guides us to pay attention to our head as well as the rest of our body – top of the head, our forehead, cheeks, eyes, mouth and tongue.  While Allyson asks us to release points of tension in our body during the body scan, she also suggests that we notice points of openness once tension has been released.

As we grow in mindfulness through paying attention in the present moment to our body and breath, we can become grounded, release tension in our body and experience the ease of acceptance.  We can learn to more skilfully and openly respond to the challenges of the many aspects of our daily life and extend kindness to ourselves and others we encounter. This, in turn, will lead to the experience of equanimity.

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Image by John Hain 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.

Develop Equanimity to Overcome Reactivity

Much of the time we are reactive because of our ingrained habituated responses.  These develop over time and can vary with different stimuli – a confronting email, a perception of criticism by a partner or colleague, thoughtlessness by another person or traffic delays.  Our responses may be precipitated by negative thoughts that generate emotions such as fear, anxiety, frustration or anger.  We then act out these emotions in a reactive way – not stopping to maintain our balance or evaluate the best possible response. As we have mentioned earlier, there is a gap between stimulus and response and within that gap are choices and associated freedom.  Developing equanimity helps us to better utilise the gap between stimulus and response and widens our potential response options – as it frees us from being captive to our habituated responses.

Equanimity is being able to maintain a state of calmness, balance or even-mindedness in the face of a situation that we find challenging – physically, mentally or emotionally.  It builds our capacity to overcome reactivity and enables us to accept what is, without reacting impulsively.  Diana Winston makes the point that equanimity is not passivity – acceptance of what is, does not mean avoiding taking action to redress injustice, insulting behaviour or meanness.  What equanimity does mean is acknowledging what is and the inherent challenge (e.g. illness, mental illness of a family member, or loss of a job), not railing against all and sundry for our “misfortune”, but actively pursuing redress – including building our capacity to remain calm in the face of life challenges.  Equanimity enables responsiveness that is positive and productive.

A meditation to develop equanimity

Meditation, by its very nature, helps to calm us and, in the process, develop equanimity.  Diana Winston, however, provides a specific “equanimity meditation” designed to build our capacity to retain our balance and to remain even minded when confronted with a life challenge.  She provides this meditation as part of the weekly guided meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA. Her guided meditation podcast, Equanimity and Non Reactivity, contains several steps:

  1. Grounding yourself in your chair by adopting a comfortable, upright posture; closing your eyes or looking down; and focusing your intention on the present – not thinking about the past or worrying about what is coming up.  Being present-in-the-moment is a calming activity that can build equanimity.
  2. Complete body scan – starting with your feet on the floor (feeling the firmness and envisaging the stable ground below); moving progressively through your body, while noticing and releasing any points of tensions (such as in your neck, shoulders, stomach, legs or hands).  You can begin to notice the sensations as you progress with your body scan – feeling the tingling in your fingers or the softness/looseness in your legs as you let go and allow the tension to drain away.  During the meditation, it pays to be conscious of a tendency to let your shoulders droop. [Note: this part of the meditation resonates with the first part of the Yoga Nigra Meditation focused on the physical body]
  3. Focus on your breathing – you focus on wherever in your body you can feel the sensation of your breathing, the in and out movement of your stomach or the air passing through your nose.  The process involves noticing, not controlling your breathing.  You can also rest in the gap between your in-breath and your out-breath.  You can extend the observation of your breathing to other parts of your body such as breathing through your mouth.
  4. Noticing sounds – now switch your attention to the sounds within and outside your room.  Again, the process involves noticing not interpreting or judging the sounds (whether they are pleasant or grating, for example).
  5. Anchoring yourself – you can choose to focus just on your breath or the sounds or adopt a position of natural awareness where you are open to the sense of being aware. Whatever you choose becomes your anchor that you can return to when your mind wanders.  It is natural to have passing thoughts and emotions – the important thing is not to entertain them or indulge them but to acknowledge them, for example, by saying to yourself, “I’m wandering again”.  Once you notice and acknowledge your diverting thoughts and/or emotions, you can return to your chosen anchor.
  6. Equanimity meditation – this involves two main parts that focus directly on developing calm, no matter what your stimulus is.  The first involves capturing a time when you were able to remain calm and balanced when confronted with a challenge – it is important to visualise the event and recapture the memory in all its richness including the stimulus, your initial thoughts/emotions, how you brought yourself under control and your calm response replacing what normally would have been a reactive response.  The second part involves envisaging a challenging situation you have to deal with; identifying what is your “normal” response; and picturing yourself tapping into your boundless internal equanimity, energy and awareness to adopt a response that is both creative and positive.

Diana maintains that this process of equanimity meditation builds your capacity to manage difficult challenges rather than revert to reactivity – that involves adopting habituated responses that are potentially injurious to yourself and others. On a personal note, I like listening to the calmness of Diana’s voice and hearing her highly developed insights as she leads me through a guided meditation process on the weekly podcasts.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditations such as the equanimity meditation, we can realise a new level of personal resilience through the development of calmness, balance and even-mindedness.  We will experience less reactivity in challenging situations and be open to more positive and helpful responses.

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Image – Heron on branch in Wynnum Creek, Brisbane

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.

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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Image by MorningbirdPhoto 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.

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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Image by Bruno Glätsch 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.

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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Image source: courtesy of Ataner007 on 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.