A Brief Meditation for Anxiety

In an earlier post, I discussed Tara Brach’s explanation of how anxiety-producing self-stories are maintained and the importance of meditation incorporating self-compassion and self-forgiveness to break the cycle of anxiety-producing thoughts.  I have also discussed different approaches to anxiety meditation.   In my last post, I explained Bob Stahl’s 30-minute meditation to reduce fear and anxiety that incorporates a comprehensive body scan and compassionate curiosity towards yourself and others.  This approach could be preceded by reflective writing, an approach Bob recommends for focusing on a single anxiety-producing experience which is explored in terms of its bodily, mental and emotional impact.  An alternative resource is the 30-minute meditation podcast provided by Diana Winston that seeks to deepen the well of ease, leading us to greater self-awareness and consciousness of the depth of our inner resources.

However, you may not have the time required to do these kinds of meditations or reflections.  If you are time-poor, you could practice a brief, three-minute anxiety meditation provided by Zindel Segal, co-developer of MBCT and co-author of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT] for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse.  This resource book for clinicians provides an in-depth explanation of the benefits and process of the three-minute meditation discussed in this blog post.

The Three-Minute Breathing Space

This meditation exercise is incorporated in the 8-week MBCT program and involves a process of awareness raising by assisting you to shift attention, to check-in on yourself and moved on beyond anxiety-producing thoughts. The Three-Minute Breathing Space meditation incorporates three core steps that are each of one-minute duration:

  • 1. Inner awareness of what is happening for you – exploring what is in your mind.  This involves getting in touch with, but not changing, the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that you are experiencing at this moment.  The first step thus involves shifting your attention to inner awareness of “what is”.  This is a passive activity – just watching what is happening for you, as if it is appearing on a “widescreen”.
  • 2. Creating a breathing space – moving away from the focus on your thoughts to a complete, undivided focus on your breath.  This grounding approach involves checking-in on the sensations of your body as you breath in and out.  You could concentrate on the rise and fall of your stomach as you take a breath and release it.  This calming breathing activity enables you to move away from whatever anxiety-provoking thoughts are preoccupying you and creating a “breathing space” to enable you to move on.  The secret is to give your mind a single thing to do – focus on your breath. 
  • 3. Expanding awareness – incorporating inner and outer awareness. The first step at this stage is to widen your awareness to your whole body – the sensation of sitting and its impact on every part of your body, your body on-the-chair.  Next you move your attention beyond your body to what is immediately impacting on it – the air flow on your body, the sounds reaching your ears. Finally, you move your attention to the room encasing your body.  You can then gradually return to full awareness by taking a few deep breaths and opening your eyes (if you have closed them to focus better).

As we grow in mindfulness through various forms of anxiety meditation, whether brief or extended, we can build the capacity to manage our anxiety-provoking thoughts and achieve a level of calm and equanimity that creates a sense of ease amongst the (sometimes turbulent) waves of life.

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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.

A Meditation for Facing Fear and Anxiety

Bob Stahl, co-author of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook for Anxiety, provides a 30 -minute meditation for facing fear and anxiety that I will discuss in this post.  Bob is a Master Mindfulness Teacher who has developed multiple MBSR programs for hospitals and members of the medical professions.  He is active on multiple fronts – author, developer of the Mindfulness Training Institute, and a professional educator and innovator with the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

How meditation and mindfulness can help to reduce anxiety

Mindfulness can calm feelings of anxiety because it enables you to face fear and anxiety in all their intensity (rather than attempt avoidance which is harmful); it assists you to access the well of ease within you; and “creates space around your anxieties” so that you are not exhausted and totally consumed by their pervasiveness and relentlessness.

Our anxieties deepen when we indulge in harmful self-stories and thoughts about what might happen which typically involve “fearing the worst”.  These stories and thoughts can overwhelm us and take our focus away from the present moment and effective, mindful living.  The feelings of fear and anxiety can be experienced as a whirlpool with the sensation of being caught in an ever-deepening vortex of water – drowning in the whirling immersion.

Mindfulness and meditation can still the whirlpool of emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations; calm the mind and body; and open the way for creative exploration of options to address the presenting issues or catalyst for the anxiety and fear.

A meditation for facing fear and anxiety

At the heart of the anxiety meditation offered by Bob (Practice #2) is a body scan that not only opens awareness of what you are sensing in your body but also awareness of your debilitating thoughts and the full range and depth of emotions you are experiencing (which we often deny or avoid because they are too painful).

Bob proceeds through a series of steps that I will summarise below (however, I encourage you to undertake the anxiety meditation by listening to Bob):

  • 1. Congratulate yourself for taking the time and effort to undertake this meditation and to experience the vulnerability it entails.
  • 2.Undertake a preliminary check-in to sense how you are feeling, thinking and experiencing bodily sensations.  Reinforce your intention to face your fear and anxiety.
  • 3.Bring your attention to your breath gently – focusing on the rise and fall of your stomach as you breathe in and out.  Just breathe naturally without force to enable the calming influence of your breath to take over from the controlling influence of your thoughts and feelings.
  • 4.Shifting your focus to a body scan – the scan that Bob offers is very comprehensive, starting with your feet and ankles and working slowly through your whole body to the top of your head.  What adds to the power of this body scan is Bob’s way of linking each part of the body to its place in the body’s systems, e.g. your heart and circulatory system, your lungs and respiratory system. 
  • 5.Accept what happens as you “breathe into your whole body” – if there is tension or tightness, let it be,; if your body releases the tension, let that softening sensation be; or if thoughts and/or feelings arise, let them be.  Just stay with your breath, notice what is happening and let go – an act of trust in the process.
  • 6. Explore thoughts that generate fear or anxiety with compassionate curiosity – investigate gently their underlying causes and acknowledge this influence without trying to over-analyse.
  • 7.Extend compassion to your feelings – let them be to the level of intensity that you can handle.  Sometimes, this may mean just “wading into the water” of your anxiety.
  • 8. Become grounded in your breath again – withdraw from the compassionate inquiry to rest in the natural flow of your breathing.  You might find it useful to undertake this grounding at various stages throughout the meditation to lower the intensity of your thoughts/feelings. 
  • 9. Notice your thoughts – observe the ever-changing character of your thoughts and how they come and go.  Bob suggests you view them as “the clouds in the sky” passing by, rarely stopping as they are carried along by the breeze or wind.  See whatever happens as just “floating by”.
  • 10. Think of others who may be experiencing fear and anxiety – extend your wellness wishes to them in the hope that they too will become free.

As we grow in mindfulness through this anxiety meditation, we become better able to accept what is, experience our bodily sensations and feelings, break free of the stranglehold of our anxious thoughts and experience once again the ease of well-being.  Bob suggests that we view this anxiety meditation as an “internal weather report” and congratulate ourselves for being able to “acclimate ourselves to our fears”.

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Image by Gianni Crestani 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.

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.

From Goal Focused Meditation to Natural Awareness

Diana Winston, in her most recent book, The Little Book of Being, differentiates between two main forms of meditation.  One meditation approach Diana identifies as the classical method – requiring considerable effort and focused on an object (e.g. breath or sound) and a goal (e.g. calmness, self-management, stress reduction); the other is focused on what she terms “natural awareness”.  She makes the point early in the book that in her early meditation practice she exhausted herself and became depressed and self-loathing by falling into the trap of becoming overly goal and object focused.  Her personal release came with the realisation of the power of natural awareness.  Her teaching is built on many years of personal meditation practice and deep insight into what enables people to live life fully and to be their authentic self.

When Diana became Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC (UCLA) she was determined to introduce other people to the practice of natural awareness.  Her book shows the evolution in her thinking and practice and her conclusion that people should practise both classical meditation and natural awareness as they are mutually reinforcing and complementary.   Classical meditation builds the power of focus and concentration together with present-centred awareness required to develop the habit of natural awareness. 

The nature of natural awareness

The approach to meditation that Diana promotes is called natural awareness because it entails practising what we experience naturally.  People can recall their own experiences of being in the moment, just being somewhere, or being in the zone in a sports or work arena.  Awareness is a natural capacity that has been diminished over time and lost in the fog of our own self-stories and beliefs, the incessant distractions drawing us away from the present moment and the time urgency that drives our goal-directed behaviour.  We become time-poor, driven (e.g. as reflected in impatient driver behaviour) and focused on the past or the future – leading to a form of depression or anxiety.  Natural awareness offers instead a sense of letting go – resulting in restfulness and equanimity.  Loch Kelly, In an interview with Tami Simon, describes natural awareness as effortless mindfulness.

According to Diana, natural awareness is a way of knowing and a state of being wherein our focus is on awareness itself rather than on things we are aware of (p.12). She offers a series of “markers” you can use to test whether you have experienced natural awareness (p.13).

Recollection: a starting point for natural awareness

Diana offers a recollection exercise as an introduction to natural awareness – using memories to recapture past, personal experience of natural awareness. The basic approach is to recall a time (in a relaxed way, not forced) when you had a sense of just being – experiencing heightened attention, a strong sense of connection, openness to what was happening or a profound sense of peace. The occasion could be viewing a sunrise/sunset, experiencing awe in the presence of pounding waves, a burst of creativity, a joyful conversation with a friend or being in natural surrounds where the beauty is breathtaking.

Now try to capture the time and experience in all its detail – where you were, what you were doing, feeling and sensing (touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing). The final step is to tap into what is happening for you with this recollection, e.g. tranquility, connection or ease. You can then rest in this awareness.

As we grow in mindfulness, through classical meditation and specific natural awareness practices, our capacity for inner and outer awareness expands and natural awareness becomes accessible to us on a daily/hourly basis.

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Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

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

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

Finding the Well of Ease in Times of Anxiety

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

The well of ease

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

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

Accessing the well of ease and peace through meditation

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

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

Repetition deepens the well of ease

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

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

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

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

Dealing with Your Feelings of Hurt and Resentment

When someone says or does something that hurts you or upsets you, you can jump to hasty judgments about the person – one hurtful event can precipitate your judgment that the person is superficial, thoughtless, vengeful, or any other derogatory assessment. Maintaining these thoughts enables you to justify your continual resentment about the individual.

In the previous post, I discussed how to overcome your hasty judgments through conscious breathing and noticing your thought stream. Here I want to explore meditation approaches to deal with the residual feelings of resentment, resulting from the hurtful words or actions of another person.

Noticing your thoughts and associated judgments

Building on the guided meditation provided in the previous post, it can be helpful to more fully explore your thoughts and associated judgments about a particular individual – basically, focusing more fully on your stream of thoughts about an individual which may be precipitating your negative feelings such as hurt, anxiety, anger or resentment. You can then follow your thought stream in relation to this person, e.g. “he is an attention seeker”, “a lazy person trading on his family’s influence”, “a troublemaker out to make life difficult” or “she is just another narcissistic person”. Having observed your thinking in relation to this “difficult” individual, you can explore the stereotype that you are accessing and note what limited information is shaping your hasty judgment.

Focusing on your feelings of hurt and resentment

The next step is to focus in on the feelings generated by your thoughts and judgments about the “difficult” individual. These feelings may be associated with an adverse interaction or a series of interactions. You need to name the feeling so that you can tame its intensity and its influence over your emotional state and your interactions with the individual (or your complaints to others about the individual). The challenge is to stay with the feeling and experience its intensity, while treating yourself with self-compassion, not negative judgment. What might be useful here is to use the R.A.I.N. meditation approach (recognise, accept, investigate, nurture).

Investigating your sensitivity

You might say by way of justification of your sustained resentment, that anyone in your position would have felt hurt. However, to maintain resentment towards an individual suggests a deep hurt born out of a specific sensitivity – such as feeling abandoned, abused, neglected or belittled in your past life (including in your childhood). As you identify and stay with the feeling of resentment, you can explore what in your past has given rise to your present emotions – what events or circumstances have increased your sensitivity in regard to the “difficult” individual’s words and actions. This requires a lot of personal honesty and what Brian Shiers describes as “granularity” in relation to your inner awareness. It is taking your meta awareness to another depth of self-understanding. Recognising these earlier influences on your reactivity will help you to understand your resentment and to sustain your self-compassion.

Exploring the other person’s perspective

In the heat of the moment of an adverse interaction, it is very difficult for you to see a conflict from the other person’s perspective. However, while you are developing your self-understanding through exploring your own sensitivities, you can explore the potential perspective of the other person and attempt to identify and understand the influences that may have shaped their perspective.

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) provides a three-step analysis of a conflict based on what is involved in any conflict, i.e. content, feelings, personal identity. Looking at the other person’s perspective from this angle creates the opportunity for understanding, tolerance and compassion. Mary Neal, in her book on her near death experience, makes the point that true compassion for another person flows from fully understanding the individual and the multiple influences that shaped that person’s perspective and behaviour. Some of these influences are socially constructed perspectives.

Understanding the ingrained impact of social conditioning

For example, Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist specialising in cognitive neuroimaging, maintains that there is no innate difference between a male and a female brain. In her book, The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain, she provides a compelling case that influences at play (such as family, society, work and education) create a “gendered world” which, in turn, shapes gendered brains through the process of brain plasticity which continuously creates and modifies our neural pathways. So our responses to stimuli are deeply wired in our brain and these embodied neural pathways can lead to unconscious, automatic reactivity. So, it is necessary to “know yourself” as well as to know the other, in order to clear away resentment and replace it with self-compassion and compassion for the other person.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on our thoughts, judgments, feelings and the influences shaping our reactivity (and that of other individuals), we can achieve a level of inner awareness and understanding that can reduce feelings of resentment and engender self-compassion and compassion for others.

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Image by Andi Graf 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.

Overcoming Procrastination by Building the Awareness Muscle

We can handle procrastination by adopting the direct approach of focusing on a task that we are putting off and exploring through meditation what is the self-story behind the procrastination. This involves bringing the story “above the line” – bringing the messages we are telling our self to the level of conscious awareness. However, procrastination may be a habit related to a range of activities and the habit will often be accompanied by inertia – a lack of energy to move forward. In this case, it could be useful to attack the problem of procrastination indirectly by building what I call, your “awareness muscle”.

Building your awareness muscle

Tony Stubblebine offers a meditation exercise that can progressively develop your awareness muscle (or what he describes as your “mental muscle”). His exercise is a variation on mindful breathing that takes distractions or mental diversions as a source of awareness strengthening. His argument is that every time that your focus wanders represents an opportunity to increase your awareness of what is going on for you and hence building your awareness muscle – both the mental element and the energetic element in terms of readiness/energy to deal with the feelings/emotions behind the wandering.

Tony sees the exercise involving restoring your focus to your breath, after naming your source of distraction, as a form of “reps” like you would undertake in a gym or a series of exercises with a personal trainer. The “reps” serve to build the capability to undertake a given activity when the demand arises e.g. running a race, lifting heavy weights, undertaking housework, handling a stressful job (or in our case here, dealing with a specific procrastination). The repeated action of bringing your attention back to your focus, after raising your awareness, is embedding a “focus-awareness-focus” mental cycle that can be applied anywhere to any activity. Tony describes this cycle as the “Awareness-Focus Loop”.

Utilising the “Awareness-Focus Loop”

Tony describes an “I Am Aware” meditation that can take five to ten minutes of your time. The basic four-step approach is as follows:

  1. make yourself comfortable and close your eyes
  2. Focus on your breathing by counting 1 to 50 (or more if you want to extend the meditation for mental endurance training)
  3. Whenever your mind wanders away from the focus on your breath, pay attention to what is happening and frame it as a “I am aware that…” statement. This needs to be a complete sentence to elevate the unconscious source of wandering to the conscious level e.g. “I am aware that I am thinking of a major meeting coming up later today”; “I am aware that I am getting anxious about what I forgot to do this morning”; or “I am aware that I am wondering whether I got the job I applied for a week ago”.
  4. When you have noticed and named your distraction, you resume your focus on counting your breaths from where you left off counting. I found that I lost track of where I was up to in my counting once a distraction set in. If this happens, you can restart your counting somewhere, without cheating to get to the end in a hurry.

Using your awareness muscle to deal with a specific procrastination

Having developed your awareness muscle, you can now apply this mental capacity, and associated energetic impetus, to dealing with a procrastination over a specific task. Once you notice yourself procrastinating you can use your highly developed awareness muscle to become aware of the anxiety underlying the procrastination, name the anxiety and related feelings (e.g. fear) and deal with the anxiety without seeking a diversion or some form of flight.

The mindfulness exercise serves as a form of mental training that can develop the self-regulation necessary to overcome your natural tendency to avoid what is perceived as painful or personally challenging. The awareness muscle has stored the history of your personal distraction tendencies and these can be more readily noticed and dealt with.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation exercises designed to build our awareness muscle, we can develop the consciousness, willingness and strength to deal with procrastination as it occurs in our daily lives. The “I am aware that…” meditation is designed for this specific purpose.

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Image by A. Debus 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.

Becoming Healed by Nature

In the previous post, I discussed the stress-reduction effects of trees.  Florence Williams takes this discussion and research focus further when she explores the healing power of nature. Florence, a journalist and writer, is the author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative. She draws on the latest science, proven practices from around the world and individual case studies to promote the healing power of nature.

Experiencing “nature-deficit disorder”

In a TED Talk given in 2016, Florence described the effects of her own nature-deficit disorder resulting from moving home from the openness of the wilderness environment of Boulder, Colorado to the dense, built environment of Washington D.C. She explained that her sense of wellbeing declined rapidly – she experienced depression, anxiety, irritability and a “sluggish brain”. She was hyper-sensitive to the sounds of planes and noise pollution that surrounded her. However, her saving experience was to be assigned to write for Outside Magazine about the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” (Shinrin-yoku) – absorbing nature through your senses
(sights, sounds, smell, touch, taste). This, in turn, stimulated her interest in the power of nature to make us happier, healthier and more creative.

Global trend to use the power of nature to heal

Following on from the research and writing project in Japan, Florence undertook a global project on behalf of National Geographic. In researching practices involving the use of nature for healing, she discovered different practices in a range of countries. Besides Japan’s “forest therapy trails”, Korea has established “healing forests” along with “forest healing rangers” to take children on programs designed to overcome everything from digital addiction to bullying. Based on their experience and scientific research, Finland has recommended that people spend at least 5 hours a month in nature – a minimum that reflects how nature-deprived we are in the cities of the world. where so much time is spent indoors and on digital devices.

Florence describes the research and practices she uncovered in her global project in a video presentation titled, Your Brain on Nature. This video summarises her book on the power of nature to heal. She gives examples from across the world where nature has been used to help troubled teenagers, people suffering from depression, adults who have experienced trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and people working in jobs that create a lot of stress such as the role of firefighters.

In her introductory chapter, Florence points to Wordsworth and Beethoven as creative people who drew their inspiration from nature, thus serving as forerunners to modern day neuroscience research which is exploring the impact of nature on our brains – and on our health, happiness and creativity. She points out that the research from the Mappiness app (daily mood monitoring by thousands of people over an extended period) concluded that people are much happier outdoors in nature than they are in urban environments devoid of natural features. She notes the research by Elisabeth Nisbit and John Zelenski that suggests that because of our habitual “disconnection from nature” we tend to “underestimate the psychological benefits of nature”. Their research highlighted that even green spaces in urban environments can elevate mood and generate happiness.

Science shows us how we can be healed by nature

In a landmark article on the impact of time in nature on our wellbeing, Kevin Loria advances 12 science-based reasons we should spend more time outside:

  1. improves short-term memory
  2. helps us to de-stress
  3. can reduce inflammation
  4. reduces fatigue by restoring energy
  5. helps overcome depression and anxiety
  6. my have a protective impact on vision (e.g. reduced rate of myopia)
  7. improves capacity to focus
  8. enhances creativity
  9. improves the immune system
  10. lowers blood pressure
  11. promotes the production of anti-cancer proteins
  12. lowers the risk of an early death.

The science in support of the benefits of nature on health, happiness and creativity is building rapidly as scientists and medical professionals become increasingly aware of the negative impacts of “nature-deficit disorder”.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindful immersion in nature and growing awareness of nature’s healing powers, we can begin to enjoy the benefits of improved health, happiness and creativity. In turn, we can deepen our awe of nature – its energy, beauty and majesty.

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Image by Sven Lachmann 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.

Trees Can Help to Limit Your Stress

I have been fascinated by trees for a long time – amazed by their growth, their energy and their role in human ecology. At a metaphorical level, trees reflect the enigmas of human existence. Jill Suttie in her article, How Trees Help You to Stress Less, highlights the research that demonstrates the way trees can benefit us in terms of stress reduction.

The stress-reduction benefits of trees

  • Trees can reduce anxiety and depression and build positive traits such as enhanced energy levels. A research study, conducted in different areas of Japan and reported in 2018, showed that walking through a forest had greater positive effects than walking through city streets – the former environment serving to lower stress levels, elevate mood and generate more energy. The researchers concluded that forest environments would be an essential contributor to maintaining mental health in the future.
  • Dr. Qing Li promotes the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” as a way to reduce stress and blood pressure while strengthening the immune system. His promotion of immersion in the forest environment is designed as an antidote to what Richard Louv describes as “nature-deficit disorder” with its attendant negative effects of poor concentration, mental and physical illness and under-developed sensory perception. Richard argues that the intensification of city living and addiction to social media and mobile technologies, means that we are spending increasing amounts of our day alienated from nature and from the benefits of savouring trees in their natural environment.
  • A study conducted with Polish youths spending 15 minutes in “forest bathing” during a winter period showed, too, that the tree environment had significant positive “emotional, restorative and vitalizing effects” for those who participated in the study.

As we grow in mindfulness through exposure to trees and nature, we can experience reduction in stress, elevation of mood and improved energy levels. Meditating on trees can enhance the benefits of exposure to these natural sources of energy and life-giving oxygen. Reflecting on their shape, size and stature can increase our awareness of the enigmas of human existence.

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Image by Sven Lachmann 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.

How to Cultivate a Non-Judgmental Mind

Our mind is continuously scanning and judging our environment for our own good – to keep us safe. However, these judgments are often ill-informed, made on inadequate information and distorted by our assumptions and prejudices. It takes conscious effort to still our mind and become open to what is within and outside of ourselves. Mindfulness meditation and other mindful practices can enable us to open our minds and find the space to develop non-judgmental awareness, self-compassion and connectedness.

The busy, judgmental mind

Our minds engage in an endless process of commenting on our daily experiences – identifying what we like and dislike; complaining about everything from the weather to the quality of service (on the train or bus, or by the shop assistant); assessing others as thoughtless or inconsiderate or insensitive or tactless; worrying about future events; or replaying past words and actions while indulging in regret, shame or remorse.

We make “snap judgments” that colour our perception of things around us and other people. We might consider the woman who cuts in on us in traffic an aggressive person (attribution of a trait), typical of someone who drives a Mercedes (a prejudice or bias) and motivated by the belief that “time is money” (assumption). The reality may be that the woman is normally a careful, thoughtful driver who on this occasion is rushing a very sick daughter to hospital or is trying to rescue a teenage daughter who is stranded on a railway station by herself at night.

The effects of our judgmental mind

The problem with our snap judgments is that they are often wrong and provide a distorted view of reality. They can become habituated and automatic – resulting in our filtering reality so that we do not see what is really going on with people and events in our life. As recent as last week, I assumed that a young woman in my workshop had become intentionally disengaged (based on observation of some non-verbal behaviour). It turned out that she was suffering from a migraine headache.

A judgmental mind is a closed mind – not open to new perceptions or interpretations. When we are judgmental, we fail to listen to others, closing ourselves off from new learning and insights; we block the pursuit of alternative options in our decision-making processes; or blind ourselves to our contribution to a situation that we consider unsatisfactory. A very simple example of this latter effect is forgetting that “we are traffic too“.

Our harshest critic

Our own minds are our harshest critic – we berate our self for an oversight; castigate our self for doing or saying something that we judge as “stupid”; become frustrated or exasperated by our inability to overcome some inappropriate/undesirable behaviour that makes our personal interactions more difficult; or indulge in negativity, only to feel remorse or disgust with our self afterwards.

Our internal talk and incessant inner commentary on our words and actions can become our default mode network blocking out the opportunity to see things anew, develop more successful personal strategies and build supportive relationships. This state of mind can lead to depression and/or anxiety.

Mindfulness meditation to cultivate a non-judgmental mind

Dr. Mark Bertin, a developmental paediatrician, argues that meditation increases our awareness of our self and others, enables us to “face reality” and to cope with life’s challenges with a degree of equanimity. Mark is the author of Mindful Parenting for ADHD.. He provides a range of mindfulness resources for parents, children and adults generally.

An especially useful resource is the 15-minute, guided meditation that Mark provides which he calls Nonjudgmental Awareness Practice. This mindfulness meditation begins with a focus on “something you don’t like that much about yourself, or that you wish you didn’t have”. He stresses the need to identify something that is not too stressful but that causes some degree of discomfort in your life, for whatever reason.

This meditation is simple, clear and highly supportive. I would strongly recommend this meditation for anyone, but especially for those who do not like a lot of talking during a guided meditation. It is the kind of mindfulness meditation that is easy to develop into a regular habit for significant benefit to yourself. Other forms of mindfulness practice that can help to defuse the self-critic are self-compassion meditation or meditations focused on self-forgiveness.

As we grow in mindfulness meditations that explore our judgmental mind and inner critic, we can learn to separate our thoughts from what is real; develop openness to the world around us and others’ ideas, perspectives and experiences; and develop deeper relationships and connectedness with others. The effect of regular mindfulness practice is calmness and equanimity.

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Image by Mingusin 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.