Living the Present Moment

The present moment is all we have – this very moment is our life.  Yet we spend so much time being someplace else.  We are thinking about what we have to do or wishing that our life was different.  We can be caught up in the emotions of envy, disappointment or regret and overlook what is happening now.

So often we look forward to an activity with a friend or colleague and yet when the moment arrives, we are thinking of something else – our focus is elsewhere other than the present moment.  When we can be really in the present moment we can savour being alone, being with someone we value and appreciate, experiencing the joy of our child’s development and happiness, or the beauty of the nature that surrounds us.

The role of meditation practice – bringing us back to the present moment

In one of her many meditation podcasts, Tara Brach coaxes us to show up fully for our life experiences, instead of being absorbed by our busyness.  She encourages us to be with our mind and our body in the moment.

Meditation practice trains us to bring our attention back to the present moment again and again.  It helps us to develop the discipline to stop our minds wandering or entertaining thoughts that take us away from the moment that we are experiencing, whatever form it takes.

If we can maintain meditation practice over a sustained period with a degree of frequency, we can begin to find that we tend to stop ourselves in the course of some experience and remind ourselves to savour the moment.  This present-mindedness can grow and develop and embrace more of our life and our interactions with others.  We can learn progressively to be truly present to ourselves and others.

As Tara points out the starting point is often getting in touch with our own bodies and our bodily sensations – whether it is the sensation of warmth or cold, tightness or softening, retracting or expanding.   What we develop through being in the present moment is gratitude and appreciation and we can experience joy and happiness through the process.  Tara describes what we develop through meditation practice in these words:

The art of appreciation and showing up for our life and living with more connection and gratitude. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can appreciate each moment and savour more of our life, instead of letting the present moment continuously pass us by.  Through regular and persistent meditation, we develop the art of bringing ourselves back to what we are experiencing in the moment.

 

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Caring through Mindfulness

Caring is integral to mindfulness – we pay attention in the moment with care and curiosity.  We can learn to care for others through  loving kindness meditation as well as learn to care for ourselves through self-compassion.

Diana Winston provides a meditation podcast on the subject of mindfulness and care and stresses the need to care for ourselves as well as for others.  She suggests that people often discount or devalue their inner experience or feelings and yet be consumed by care for others.

Diana asks an important question to enable us to be mindful about caring – her question is, “What or whom do you care for”.  For whom do you express care and concern – a son or daughter, partner, friend or people suffering adversity.  How wide is your circle of care and how deeply do you care?

These are challenging questions because they raise the issue of how often we express care and concern for others – how generous and expansive is our caring?  How many people do we let into our lives through concern, considerateness and thoughtfulness?

Caring through mindfulness

Caring can be the focus of our meditation once we have become grounded through placing our feet on the ground, adopting a restful position with our body (and especially our hands) and taking a few deep breaths.

Our concern and care of our body can then be expressed through a progressive body scan and relaxation of points of tension.  Focus on our breathing will assist us to pay attention to the theme of caring as mindful breathing steadies our mind and enables us to concentrate.

We can focus on an individual and express care for that person and tap into what it feels like to express this care – is the feeling one of warmth, love or genuine concern for their welfare?  How is this care manifested in our body?

We can also express appreciation for the fact that we do care for others and take the time to express that care in words and actions.  We can acknowledge that it is a gift to be able to be sensitive to others and their needs – to move beyond self-absorption to concern for others.

As we grow in mindfulness through caring meditation our circle of care and concern widens and deepens, and we are able to more readily extend care to ourselves.

 

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

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Meditation and Mental Health

Jonathan Kryiger and Andrew H. Kemp, researchers at the University oF Sydney, discussed meditation and mental health in a blog post titled, Beyond Spirituality: the role of meditation in mental health.

in their article, they identify a number of benefits for mental health reported in research on meditation.  They indicate how meditation, both by expert practitioners and people who meditate for short periods of time, can result in positive changes in their body, brain, emotional regulation ability and rate of ageing.

Of particular note, is the ability of meditation to assist in the treatment and management of acute and chronic pain.  Particular forms of mindfulness meditation such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) demonstrate positive results in the treatment of mood disorders and anxiety.

Meditation and regulating emotions to achieve mental health

While the generic benefits noted above can be realised through different forms of meditation, the focus of mindfulness meditations can vary considerably.  Throughout this blog, we have mentioned some meditations that target specific negative emotional responses that are injurious to mental health:

  • Forgiveness meditation, in which we focus on forgiving another person who has caused us harm or hurt, aims to reduce resentment which can undermine our self-esteem, self-confidence and effectiveness
  • Self-forgiveness meditation targets the never-ending cycle of self-criticism and negative self-evaluation which brings with it debilitating shame and guilt
  • Gratitude meditation can help to reduce depression which can disable us from taking constructive action in the various arenas of our daily life
  • Equanimity meditation helps us to replace mental agitation and disappointment with calmness and self-assurance
  • R.A.I.N. meditation helps us to face the “fear within” and frees us from the disabling effects of fear and anxiety that hinder our capacity to live fully and creatively
  • Somatic meditation enables us to get in touch with our bodies and progressively remove the emotional imprint of adverse events or trauma manifested in muscle tightness or pain
  • Loving kindness meditation focused on others can take us beyond damaging self-absorption and self-preoccupation and free us to access peace and happiness through the appreciation of others and their contributions to the quality of our lives.

The weekly meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA can extend the range of meditations we employ to target unhelpful and unhealthy emotions that impact the quality of our mental health.

As we grow in mindfulness through focusing our meditations on replacing negative emotions with positive ones, we can experience real growth in our mental health and our capacity to live life fully and creatively, develop loving and fulfilling relationships and avoid the downward spiral of mental illness.

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The Last Lecture – Mindful Living

Randy Pausch, the author of The Last Lecture, was a Professor  of Computer Science at the Carnegie Mellon University specialising in the design of Virtual Reality.  He died from pancreatic cancer on 25 July 2008 after being diagnosed with the disease in the summer of 2006.

Randy’s book traces his life, his medical experience, giving his last lecture and his life’s lessons and achievements.  His Last Lecture, given on the 18th September 2007, was videotaped and is available here.   The lecture has been viewed by millions of people who admire Randy’s inspiration, insight, humour, intelligence and wisdom.

Randy, even though he was obviously dying from cancer at the time, wanted to leave a legacy for his three young children in terms of the lessons he had learned in life – often the hard way by making mistakes.  Some of his insights into the way to live your life are pertinent to developing mindfulness.

Lessons on mindfulness from Randy Pausch

I can’t recall Randy talking about mindfulness in his book or his lecture, but he did have some insights and values that I think are particularly relevant to mindfulness:

Show Gratitude

Being grateful for what you have and what people have done for you is important, because it is part of growing in self-awareness and understanding how you came to achieve what you have achieved.  Randy also talks about the “lost art of the thank-you note” as a timely way to express appreciation.

He went even further and decided to take his 15-member research team (working on virtual reality) to a week-long visit to Disney World in Florida.  Besides enjoying the entertainment, they were also able to take in some educational activities relevant to their studies and research.  He provided this expensive trip as a way to “pay it forward” his gratitude for the mentoring he received from Any van Dam.

Gratitude requires being present to notice what people have done for you and developing an appreciation mindset through gratitude meditation. Often, we are grateful, but fail to express it.   Through this form of meditation, we become more aware of the opportunities to show gratitude and ways to express it.

Seeking forgiveness genuinely

There are many times when we are hurt by the words and actions of others – it is part of being human on both sides of the hurt dyad.  We hurt others and they hurt us.  We can’t avoid this, although as we grow in mindfulness we become more aware of their feelings and what effect our words and actions have on them.

Randy stresses the importance of seeking forgiveness genuinely – in his own words, “A bad apology is worse than no apology”.  He argues that we should not apologise in such a way that we are not genuineor in a way that is designed only to obtain an apology from the other person.   While hurt can be a two-way street, it does not rectify the situation to actively seek an apology from the other party – they may apologise in their own due time.  If you want someone to change their behaviour, you are more likely to achieve this if you change your own behaviour first.

Forgiveness meditation helps us to develop the readiness and willingness to apologise for the hurt we cause others.  In the process of this meditation, we can ask for forgiveness from others – which makes us acutely aware of the reality that we are not the only one hurting.  Associated with this, is the need to also practise self-forgiveness meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and learning from the inspiration of others such as Randy Pausch, we can develop the awareness and mindset that makes us willing and able to show gratitude and to genuinely seek forgiveness.

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Showing Up for Your Life

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Center (MARC), reminds us in a meditation podcast  that “moment by moment: this is your life”.  Like Kabat-Zinn, she encourages you to “show up for your life”.

Even when we have looked forward to something for a long time – a special dinner, a sporting occasion, catching up with a friend after a long period of absence – we can find ourselves distracted in the moment and miss out on so much of what is happening outside and inside us.

We could be in the presence of a child, our own or someone else’s, who is clearly in the moment, enjoying whatever activity they are fully engaged in – feeding themselves, playing with insects on the ground, laughing with a friend or riding a bike with abandon.  We can savor the moment and not try to hurry them on (or ourselves) to do something else.  As we become older, we begin to lose this skill of being-in-the-moment, of really showing up for our life.

We tend to focus on other things instead of just enjoying what is – we are always planning the next moment or two – not appreciating what is.  As we learn to regain the skill of being present and paying attention to the moment, we develop the capacity to do this anywhere, anytime – but it requires regular, meditation practice.  However, if we can develop this ability, our life can be so much richer because we can appreciate and savor more of what happens in our life.

A meditation for showing up in your life

This simple meditation to help you show up for your life involves a number of basic steps:

  1. Begin with physically grounding yourself in the present while sitting by having your feet on the ground or floor and your eyes closed or looking down (to maintain attention) and your hands in a comfortable position.  Now focus on your breath, wherever you feel it occurring – through your nose or mouth or in your chest.  Alternatively, take a couple of deep breaths, to relax yourself and sense your breathing.
  2. Focus on your body which is always present in the moment, despite the endless wandering of your mind.  Bring your attention to any points of tension in your body and feel the sensation of what is going on for you.  Begin to release the tension as your attention moves through your body, locating and releasing tight spots.  Be conscious of what this feels like and what emotions you are experiencing.
  3. Now recall a time when your were really in the moment – playing a sport, being with a friend, absorbing the beauty of nature.  How did you feel? What thoughts of appreciation were you expressing?  What was happening in your body?  Try to be with that moment and capture the richness of what you were experiencing in your mind and body.  You can express appreciation for the experience – that you were alive to what was happening, that you actually had the physical and mental capacity to fully experience it.
  4. Finally, bring your attention to the sounds that surround you – open your ears to the different sounds..  We often hear only what we want to hear because we are so focused on what is in our minds and we miss out on much of our life.  As you become immersed in sounds notice what is happening in your body.  Slowly open your eyes and bring your attention back to where you are now and what you are doing.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we develop the capacity to be more and more in-the-moment and to savor life’s riches.

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

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Grow Mindfulness through Humility

I have been discussing being mindful at work.  It seems appropriate to draw on the lessons from superb leaders who turned their companies into great companies that enjoyed longevity as well as success.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins identified what characterised these highly successful leaders.  It was not, as you might surmise, their outgoing nature, their capacity to “sing their own praises” or their readiness to boast about the achievements of their companies.  These great leaders were characterised by two key qualities, “personal humility and professional will” reflected in their quiet, almost shy, demeanour together with their determination and resilience

I want to concentrate on the “personal humility” quality here.  Humility is closely linked to mindfulness in that genuine humility requires a level of self-awareness that is realistic and accurate and not based on negative self-evaluation.

Developing mindfulness through personal humility

Personal humility is a “road less travelled”.  Most people are either boastful of their achievements (a habit cultivated by our competitive society) or dishonestly “modest”.  The middle road is difficult to achieve but beckons when you want to grow in mindfulness and achieve its attendant benefits.

Shamash Alidina, author of The Mindful Way Through Stress, provides some strategies to develop personal humility in his insightful and comprehensive article on how to be mindful at work:

  1. Develop mindfulness practices  – as we have seen through the blog posts on this site, mindfulness meditations and activities help you to develop a genuine self-awareness that is neither boastful nor involves “beating up on yourself”.  These practices enable you to move from self-absorption (talking about your own achievements all the time in conversations with others) to recognition of what others have contributed to your present success.
  2. Being conscious of who has helped you – at any point in time, you can take a few minutes to focus on who has helped you to be where you are.  Being conscious of what you have it terms of work, colleagues and professional networks, can help you to develop a fine-grained awareness of those who have contributed to making you who you are and what you have achieved.
  3. Show appreciation to those who have helped you – this can be expressed towards people who have done even the smallest thing to help you, e.g. finding a resource for you or linking you to another person or idea.  If you develop the habit of showing appreciation in your everyday life, then it becomes a spontaneous act to do so in your work situation/ professional life.  Often we appreciate someone’s words or actions but fail to communicate this to them – we assume they know.  Expression of appreciation is an act of gratitude that builds mindfulness.
  4. Value the opinion of others – it is so easy to quickly dismiss the perspective, opinions or  views of others as if our stance is the right one all the time. However, being humble demands a recognition of the limitations of our own perceptions, knowledge and skills and an openness to others through respectful listening for understanding.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices, being conscious of who has helped us and showing appreciation and respect for their help and alternative opinions, we can progressively develop a true personal humility.

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

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Loving Kindness Meditation Towards Others

In the previous post, I focused on loving kindness meditation for ourselves.  In this post, I will discuss extending loving kindness to others.  Often, though, these two approaches to loving kindness meditation are combined so that you can extend loving kindness to others and yourself in the one meditation.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) at the University of California, Los Angeles, provides an extended podcast for a loving kindness meditation that incorporates both approaches.  This is one of a series of weekly meditation podcasts provided by MARC.

Guidelines for a loving kindness meditation focused on others

Diana suggests that in the first place you need to approach the meditation with a sense of curiosity, openness to whatever arises and a willingness to be with “what is” – whatever that may be, positive or negative emotions.  She points out that whenever you try to cultivate a new meditation practice invariably obstacles will arise.  So, we need to be open and present to these potential blockages because they will increase our self-awareness and dealing with them will improve our self-management.

Preparation for this form of meditation requires that you adopt a comfortable position or yoga pose. As Jack Kornfield reminds us, it is very difficult to extend loving kindness to others when you have a sore back because of a lack of back support.

Being grounded at the outset is important as with other forms of meditation.  If you are sitting on a chair, this involves initially ensuring your feet are flat on the ground, you are sitting upright, your hands are in a comfortable position and you either close your eyes or look down to avoid distractions and centre your focus.  A couple of deep breaths, followed by mindful breathing, can help to clear your mind and relax your body.

Loving Kindness Meditation Process

Typically, you will focus on someone who you love or appreciate – your partner, family member, close friend or supportive colleague.  Ideally, it should be someone for whom you can readily develop kind thoughts and words of appreciation.

It is important to do two things – verbalise your kind thoughts and notice your bodily sensations.  Verbalising involves stating what you wish for the other person, e.g. strength, resilience, happiness, joy, peace or calmness.  It will help to envisage what you appreciate in the other person or what you love most about them, e.g. their generosity, sense of equity, courage, kindness to disadvantaged people, open heartedness, emotional support, balance or wisdom.

As you express kind thoughts in your meditation, you could notice your accompanying bodily sensations.  These will become more pronounced as you progress with your loving kindness meditation because you will start to experience feelings of wellness, peace and happiness.  These feelings can manifest in the slowing of your breath, a sense of calm or a slight vibration in your hands or feet as positive energy flows through you.

You can move onto other people who form part of your “field of love“.  As you extend loving kindness to different cohorts, others will come to mind and you can incorporate them in your focus.

The more difficult thing to do is to extend loving kindness to people you find difficult for one reason or another.  You soon learn what emotional blockages are getting in the road of your expressing positive feelings towards them.  Again, it is important to stay with these feelings and work through them.

What usually helps is incorporating loving kindness towards yourself.  This can be done by envisaging what someone in your “field of love” would extend to you.  It can also be strengthened by picturing a recent hug received from them – so that the positive emotions of feeling valued, appreciated and loved can be revisited.  Images, memories and sensations can heighten your positive feelings.

As you grow in mindfulness through loving kindness meditation, it will become easier and more natural to extend positive thoughts towards others.  Jack Kornfield and Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us that we become what we pay attention to.

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

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Loving Kindness Meditation Towards Our Self

In previous posts, I explored mindful self-compassion,  the challenges in extending compassion to yourself and the power of self-compassion to transform yourself.   I also discussed compassion meditation where we are extending compassion to others.

In these discussion about compassion, we focused on pain and suffering experienced by ourselves and/or others.  In contrast, in the loving kindness meditation, we are exploring what is good and lovable in ourselves and others.

Loving kindness meditation can focus on ourselves or others.  In this post, I will focus on extending loving kindness to ourselves; in a subsequent post, I will explore how to undertake loving kindness meditation towards others.

The basic approach to loving kindness meditation

Diana Winston describes loving kindness meditation as the explicit cultivation of “open heartedness”.  She explains that this is a natural human process and is not false or artificial.   Diana contrasts loving kindness meditation with basic mindfulness meditation in that in the latter, it is essential to stay in the moment, while in loving kindness meditation it is okay and important to be creative in exploring images and loving memories about ourselves or another.

Jack Kornfield, in the online Power of Awareness Course, suggests that there are three elements that traditionally form the framework for a loving kindness meditation:

  1. Intention to express loving kindness towards ourselves or someone else
  2. Envisaging love for oneself or for another
  3. Cultivating the art of loving kindness – developing our open heartedness.

The benefits of loving kindness are numerous and can impact every facet of our lives – our interpersonal relationships, our sense of presence and the way we view every living thing.  Loving kindness meditation towards our self can be difficult because our culture cultivates the opposite – a sense of unworthiness or negative self-evaluation.  Regular meditation practice can overcome these cultural barriers.

If we experience thoughts or feelings other than loving kindness towards ourselves, we can accept them and make them the focus of our meditation too.  When we name our unkind feelings, we can learn to tame them so that they do not prevent us from extending loving kindness towards our self.  Diana Winston suggests that, in this way, these obstacles can become a cleansing process to free ourselves for self-love.

The process of loving kindness meditation towards our self

Jack Kornfield suggests that after becoming grounded and focused on our breath, we can think of two people separately for whom we have an uncomplicated love and appreciation.   Once we have each person in focus, we can extend kind thoughts to each of them in turn  – wishing them health and wellbeing, hoping that they will be safe and strong, wanting them to be happy.

We can then envisage these people individually extending similar loving kindness towards our self.   We can imagine them saying similar words or expressing kind thoughts towards us – wishing for our happiness, wellness, safety and strength.   We can then rest in the warmth of love and appreciation – something that is often below our level of conscious awareness, but which we act on in our daily lives.

As we grow in mindfulness through loving kindness meditation towards ourselves, we make explicit what we know implicitly, silence the negative self-evaluations that otherwise persist in our thoughts and open ourselves to extending loving kindness to others.

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

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Savoring Your Child’s Development

It comes naturally to savor the early development of our children, particularly the milestone moments.  We can very easily experience gratitude, appreciation and delight with the first words spoken, the first time they crawled, or their first steps taken.

The intervening turbulent teens can dampen our enthusiasm and sense of gratitude and blind us to the opportunities to savor the moment in the child’s development.  When they insist on walking on the other side of the road when “with” you, get into trouble at school or meet your questions with a shrug or grunt, it is more difficult to find the moment to savor.

It gets even more difficult when the influence of their peers starts to outweigh your influence as a parent – as you start to lose a sense of control as they insist on their independence.  But there will be moments to savor if our vision is not clouded by negative thoughts and emotions.

One of these rare moments may be the expression of love and appreciation that may come in the form of a thoughtful birthday or Christmas present or some words written on a card that disclose a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude that provides a very pleasant surprise.  Certainly, a moment to savor.

Then there are those occasions when your normally mute teenager suffers from verbal diarrhoea when they are sitting next to you in the car as you take them to their favourite sporting or cultural event.  The act of sitting side-by-side seems to generate a flood of information that you have waited so long to hear.  A time to savor that sense of closeness and connection.

There will be lots of other moments in the life of your child that create delight and satisfaction, e.g. sporting, cultural or academic achievements; kindness and thoughtfulness shown to other children or adults – each represents a moment to savor.

However, as they grow older and move further away from us (either physically and/or psychologically) and develop new relationships and friends, it is very easy to overlook those precious moments that we could savor as an act of mindfulness.

There is the opportunity to appreciate that they have survived their teens and grown into young adults making their way in the world.  There are those occasions when you glimpse how they have matured, the respect that other adults show towards them, their wisdom in decision making, the values that you admire, their concern for the environment or disadvantaged groups, their genuine consideration for others, their willingness and readiness to help out, the time they started to cook for themselves (and occasionally for you) or their manifestations of empathy and compassion.  There are the successes that they achieve despite early setbacks and extreme difficulties.  Each of these moments in a child’s development can be savored.

As we grow in mindfulness, we more easily see the opportunities to savor our child’s development.  We are more able to make the most of those opportunities to develop a gratitude meditation.  Our mindful experience of appreciation and gratitude can lead to a loving-kindness meditation for those who feel isolated and sad through the loss of a child.  So, as we begin to develop the habit to savour the moment in our child’s development, we become more aware and connected to others.

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

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Savoring Friendship

Friendship is something we can take for granted until we lose a friend or move to another location or workplace and have to make new friends.  Losing a friend, whatever the cause, can leave a hole in our lives – a sense that we have lost something of ourselves.

There is something special about a close friend – the ability to take up where you left off after many years, the capacity to share most subjects, the ready understanding of your quirks, easy tolerance of your idiosyncrasies and understanding-in-common from a shared history (however short or long the shared experience).

Barry Boyce discusses this feeling of being “in sync” in terms of the neuroscience notion of “brain coupling”, the experience of being “like one brain”.  He goes on to elaborate:

I’m sure we have all felt that with a friend.  The sheer joy of a shared laugh.  The moments of listening when you need to be heard.  The shoulder to cry on.  Someone to share the ups and downs without caring which it is.

There is clearly something to savor in friendship – the ease of connection, the joy of “being with” someone, the ready tolerance, the sense that you are not alone (even if you have lost both your parents), the shared memories and stories, the emotional support and the supportive challenge that helps you to be a better person, parent, colleague or friend.

We need to take time out to value and savor these close friendships, whether they involve our life partner or people who live apart from us.  Sometimes savoring may lead to a loving-kindness meditation to express appreciation or gratitude for the friendship or to reach out compassionately to a friend in need who may be struggling through health issues or some form of loss.

Then too there are the friendships that we experience every day that we do not consider to be close relationships.  They may be supportive colleagues, the person serving us at the coffee shop, the owner of the newspaper shop or any number of acquaintances who we encounter regularly.  We should savor their friendliness, helpfulness, willingness to engage in conversation and the way that they can “brighten our day”.  These friendships are another form of human connection that enriches our lives – we can make them a source of mindful connection if we really savor the richness of being with them.

Even a simple smile for the person at the supermarket checkout counter can be an expression of appreciation and gratitude and a simple way to savor the moment through acknowledging their presence, friendship and assistance.

Savoring friendship does not always require loving-kindness meditation. As we grow in mindfulness, we can savor the moment when we experience friendship and be grateful of this gift that is often missing in the lives of people experiencing depression.

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

Image source: courtesy of cherylholt on Pixabay