Mindfulness and Action Learning: Building Self-Awareness

So far in this blog, I have explored how agency contributes to mental health and how both action learning and mindfulness build agency –  managerial agency and employee agency.

In this post, I want to explore one of the elements that action learning and mindfulness have in common – self-awareness.  To the extent that action learning and mindfulness are working towards a common goal, they can reinforce each other and, working in concert, help to transcend the barriers that impede the development of agency and mental health in the workplace.

Mindfulness and Action Learning: Building Self-Awareness

In 2013, I explored how action learning builds mindfulness in the workplace.  I focused very much on the respective contribution of action learning and mindfulness to the development of self-awareness.   In that blog post for our consultancy company, Merit Solutions, I concluded that action learning builds self-awareness through the norm of “supportive challenge” by peers, along with the challenge of “doing something significant about something imperative” which forces us to redefine our roles, our values and how we perceive ourselves.

I contended there that both action learning and mindfulness have a common goal of building self-awareness – freedom from false assumptions, from entrenched negative thoughts and stories and from narrow perspectives on what people are capable of achieving.  This self-awareness, in turn, builds agency and mental health.

In discussing what is definitive about action learning, Reg Revans, in his book, The Origins and Growth of Action Learning, explained that action learning, involving real commitment to action in the here-and-now, causes the participants to “become aware of their own values” and entails a “voyage of self-discovery” which enables them to “fix attention upon this inner and personal self”.  In the process of taking action after disclosing their own motives for change “to close and critical colleagues”, they are “obliged to explore that inner self otherwise taken for granted and never questioned”.  Critical but supportive colleagues help the action learner to assess their own ideas and outcomes in an often-hostile organisation environment and this, in turn, will “purge them of any lingering self-deception”.  Thus, action learning involves “development of the self by the mutual support of equals” who are also engaged in the “struggle to understand themselves”. (pp. 630-633).

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a global leader in the mindfulness movement, in an interview with Krista Tibbett, stated that mindfulness meditation results in a new level of self-awareness:

…you change your relationship to who you think you are as a person and in particular to the story of who you are or think you are.

As we grow in mindfulness and engage in action learning we realise that we are on a journey of self-discovery where the limitations of our thoughts and actions are exposed and we are forced to confront ourselves and the level of alignment between our words and actions.

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

Image source: courtesy of Gadini on Pixabay

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.

 

Agency through Action Learning

In a previous blog post I focused on agency and mental health – highlighting the mental health benefits that accrue when an employee is given the capacity to influence their workplace environment and to have a degree of power over the way things are done.  How then does a manager create a workplace environment that is conducive to mental health through employee agency?  One way to address this issue is for the manager to adopt an action learning approach.

Action learning and agency

Agency is a defining characteristic of action learning which involves learning with and through action and reflection on the consequences of your action, both intended and unintended.  It is typically conducted in groups within a workplace where employees are collaborating to improve the work environment and the way the work is being done.

Reg Revans, the acknowledged father of action learning, argues that the best way to improve a workplace and the way the work is done, is to involve the people who have the “here and now” responsibility for the work.  He suggests that you do not get a Professor of Medicine to solve the problems of nurses having to look after dying children – you get the nurses themselves together to explore the issues they are confronting, identify what creative solutions they could adopt and take action to implement them.

In the same way, Dr. Diana Austin found that the way to address the seemingly intractable problem of midwives experiencing trauma after the death of a baby and/or mother before, during or after birth, was to have the midwives share their thoughts and their feelings after experiencing such a critical incident.

In her presentation at the Learning for Change and Innovation World Congress in Adelaide in 2016, Diana explained that her research involved working with an “action group” of affected parties who gathered information about traumatic events and reactions from each other, from interviews with other affected parties and from external health professionals.

The “action group” identified the unconscious rules of the health professionals as the major impediment to improving the midwives’ work situation. The research resulted in the creative solution of an illustrated Critical Incidents e-book that addressed and challenged the fundamental assumptions underlying the unconscious rules.  The e-book is now accessible to all health professionals throughout NZ and the world.

Diana explained that the research by the “action group” led to some key organisational outcomes:

  • the conspiracy of silence about the personal impact of trauma after a critical incident was unearthed, challenged and removed
  • destructive assumptions and unconscious rules were surfaced and challenged
  • the e-book support package was created and made accessible to all
  • new supportive processes were implemented and self-compassion was encouraged (refer: Austin et al, After the Event: Debrief to Make a Difference)
  • a collaborative ethos was established that replaced the old ethos of “going-it-alone’ when suffering trauma after a critical incident.

Clearly, the activities of Diana and the “action group” not only improved the work environment and the way the work was done but went a long way to redressing the potential, long-term effects of experiencing trauma, by providing a supportive environment conducive to positive mental health.  In the final analysis, the action learning by the group provided increased agency through the ability to change their work environment and the way trauma of health professionals was handled.

As managers and leaders grow in mindfulness, they are better able to facilitate action learning processes within their organisation, thus increasing the agency of employees and improving mental health.

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

Image source: courtesy of Wetmount on Pixabay

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 Lessons from Reported Near-Death Experiences

In the previous post, I introduced meditating on death, discussed its benefits and shared some examples of this meditation approach.  Here, I want to discuss the lessons we can learn about mindfulness from people who have reported a near-death experience (NDE).

The ground-breaking research in this area was conducted by Dr. Raymond A Moody who first published his book in 1975, Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon – Survival of Bodily Death.  This research in the USA led to people all over the world reporting near-death experiences and opened up a whole new arena of research which continues today.  A research foundation has been established by Jody and Jeffrey Long to collect individual NDE stories from around the world and share research about NDE experiences.

Some scientists challenged the NDE stories and their associated conclusion of an afterlife – they considered it to be some form of aberration of the brain.  However, neuroscientist, Dr. Eben Alexander – originally one of the strongest opponents of the meaning of the NDE experience – had a near death experience himself when he suffered a seven day coma and his pre-frontal cortex shut down.  His documented experience and conclusions have challenged the scientific community.   His recent book records his initial doubts, his own NDE experience, his new understanding of consciousness and his life transformation, Living in a Mindful Universe: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Heart of Consciousness.

Mindfulness lessons from reported near-death experiences

One researcher decided to conduct research of NDEs in Australia as the focus of her doctoral research.  Dr. Cherie Sutherland PhD, interviewed 400 Australians who had a near death experience and published her results in a book, Transformed by the Light: Life After Near-Death Experiences.

Cherie defines a NDE experience as follows:

The near-death experience (NDE) is said to occur when a person is close to death (or in many cases actually clinically dead), and yet is resuscitated or somehow survives to recount an intense, meaningful experience.  (p.3)

Cherie found that most of the reported NDE experiences have some things in common – a compassionate life review, out-of-body experience, feelings of peace and well-being and a sense of timeliness.  This mirrors the NDE research results from elsewhere in the world.

The findings that were most common relate to the after-effects of an NDE experience, and these have particular relevance for mindfulness practice.  People who encounter a near-death experience typically have initial problems with “re-entry” into everyday life.  However, over time, they begin to reassess their values, the meaning of their lives and their priorities. They tend to transform themselves, and their life changes accord with mindfulness practice and the attendant growth in awareness.  People who encounter a near-death experience typically report:

  • profound self-awareness, equivalent to a series of in-depth psychoanalysis sessions with a therapist
  • increased sense of control over their lives and self-management
  • very strong desire to use their latent talents and abilities for the benefit of others
  • growth in self-concept, self-confidence and self-efficacy (belief in their capacity to achieve things)
  • increased patience and tolerance (not controlled by assumptions)
  • heightened appreciation and respect for nature
  • greater appreciation of others and “love for humanity”
  • greater understanding and insight
  • growth in compassion and a strong desire to work with those who are disadvantaged and “the grieving, the elderly and dying” – many made career changes including working in hospices for the dying
  • profound desire to learn – to gain self-knowledge, to develop their talents and to be a greater source of help to others
  • different attitudes to death and a loss of fear of death.

As we grow in mindfulness, we move closer to the life transformation displayed by people who have encountered a near-death experience and we begin to realise the benefits that come with sustaining mindfulness practice.

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

Image source: courtesy of  geralt on Pixabay

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.

 

 

Mindful Connection

Sharon Salzberg, in her presentation provided as part of the  Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, focused on the theme, The Art of Mindful Connection.  Sharon is the author of ten books, including Real Love.

Sharon made the point that real love is not a commodity to be exchanged, it is not simply about reciprocation -“I’ll do something for you, if you do something I want in return.”  In her view, love does not mean unwillingness to express your own needs or feelings or coming from a place of neediness.

At times, real love is “tough love”, expressed as a readiness to say “no”, when the context, situation or your needs require that response.  It does not mean just agreeing with the other person for the sake of peace or a false sense of making them happy.

Sharon spoke of love as a capacity – a capacity for real connection which flows out of being mindful.  Real love creates real connection and is developed through mindfulness practice and being mindful in the situation when we encounter people.

The problem is that we all bring our conditioning and assumptions to every interaction – some being more negatively impactful than others.  We each have our own conditioning and assumptions developed as a result of our family environment, our work experience and/or life events.

Our conditioning may mean that we are wary of dissenting, reticent to express our feelings and needs or have difficulty trusting others.  Adverse events in our life may contribute to a tendency to look for, and see, only the negatives we experience, e.g. when reviewing our day, we may only focus on what we did wrong, our lack of achievement and/or our disappointments.

Our assumptions play a major role in how we relate to others.  We can show interest in people (who we assess as interesting), look right past others or consider others to be not worth talking to.

Sharon told the story of a writer friend of hers who, on first sight of a woman who had approached him, assumed that she was not intelligent or not “with it”.  It turned out that the woman was very intelligent and was actually a professional proof-reader for a publisher.

This example resonated strongly with my experience of my own unfounded assumptions which I described in my previous post about removing blockages to learning and performance.

Sharon encourages us to engage in meditation practice and honestly confront ourselves – to look squarely at the impact of our conditioning and assumptions on our relations with others.

She suggests, for instance, that in conversations with ourselves that we ask penetrating questions.   We could ask, for example, “What groups do we think do not count?”, “Which of our assumptions were at play in a recent interaction with someone else that did not work out as we expected?” or “Who have we been avoiding and why?”

Sharon urges us to be honest with ourselves in these conversations and not let negative emotions such as shame or embarrassment get in the road of a genuine exploration of how our conditioning and assumptions play out in our daily interactions.

She suggests that unearthing these impediments creates a new freedom – a liberation from the constraints that prevent us from achieving mindful connection with others.  Mindfulness, in her view, is the gift of liberation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and conversations with ourselves, we can free ourselves from the conditioning and assumptions that hold us back from genuine engagement with others.  By becoming progressively unfettered in the way we relate and being able to give our full attention to the other person, we can create meaningful and mindful connections.

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

Image source: courtesy of sasint on Pixabay

Conversations with Ourselves Can Remove Blockages to Learning and Performance

Recently, I was watching some video presentations and podcasts on mindfulness, including a number available on YouTube.  I passed over a number of offerings for one reason or another.  However, in a conversation with myself about overlooking one presentation, I was suprised to realise that my decision was impacted by my unconscious bias.

I was ashamed to admit to myself that my unfounded assumptions got in the road and effectively became a block to learning.  I had decided not to listen to one person’s presentation because they appeared to be overweight (on the surface, an entirely non-rational omission).

However, once I unpacked my assumptions I came up with a rational basis for my decision.  My assumption stream seemed to go like this:

  1. a person who is overweight is not someone who has mastered self-management/self-control
  2. a person who has not mastered self-management cannot be someone who has developed a high degree of mindfulness
  3. I do not want to learn from someone who does not practise what they preach.

Besides the obvious unconscious bias in my decision to overlook this person, there are clear fallacies in my assumptions.  Firstly, someone being overweight may have nothing to do with self-management – it may be the result of a genetic condition.  Secondly, one cannot assume that if someone has not mastered one facet of their life, they have not achieved some level of self-management. Thirdly, a person who is overweight may be highly developed in mindfulness in many other arenas of their life and hence have a lot to offer someone like me who is still at the early stage of developing mindfulness.

After confronting my unconscious bias in my conversation with myself, I did listen to the person involved, who not only was an exceptional practitioner of mindfulness, but also taught others on a global basis.  So my assumptions almost created a block to learning for me.  Their presentation was rich and insightful, and I will certainly revisit it.

In a previous post, I mentioned the recommendation of Sakyong that we should regularly undertake a conversation with ourselves.  It is clear that this type of conversation can help us to identify our own biases and unfounded assumptions and realise how they impact on our learning and our personal effectiveness.

Patrick Chan, a member of the winning Canadian figure skating team at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, demonstrated that having a conversation with yourself can remove blockages to self-awareness and open the way to exceptional performance.  Chan had skated in the short program for the team’s event and had struggled with his first two jumps but went on to land the first two quads of his free skate.  His explanation of the transformation was reported as follows:

The Canadian admitted he was nervous and he “just had a conversation with myself” to get back his focus. “I achieved a big thing, which was to land the two big quads in one programme,” he said. “I’m going to hold this medal tight to me.” Chan, who won silver in the team and men’s singles events at Sochi 2014, is a three-time world champion but has never won Olympic gold until now. (emphasis added)

As we grow in mindfulness through having a conversation with ourselves on a regular basis, we can overcome the blockages to our learning and personal performance, whatever the arena of our activity.  We grow in self-awareness through this process as we encounter our unconscious biases, unfounded assumptions and emotional impediments.  We can also progressively build our self-management and self-control as we address these blockages.

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

Image source: courtesy of putevodnik on Pixabay

Realising the Benefits of Meditation

In an interview with Tami Simon as part of The Mindfulness and Meditation Summit, Dr. Richie Davidson spoke of the positive impacts of meditation both on our behaviour and our brain.  His presentation was based on the book, Altered Traits, that he co-authored with Daniel Goleman.

Among the many points that Dr. Davidson makes is the statement that there is a distinct increase in benefits gained for people who undertake retreats in addition to engaging in daily meditation practice. He surmises that the benefits are broader and more sustainable for retreat practitioners because we are invariably away from our normal daily environment and the associated reminders and triggers and are assisted by a leader who can guide us and provide feedback.

However, you do not have to go on retreat or undertake 10,000 hours of practice like full-time, contemplative monks, to realise the benefits of meditation.

What is important is sustaining practice – daily practice to build new habits and enhance our brain functioning.  The benefits grow with regularity of practice and the longer we sustain meditation practice in our lives.  So, the more experienced meditators are likely to gain greater benefits than those who persist only over a short period of time.

Scientific research has reinforced the positive impact of meditation on our behaviour .  We are better able to maintain focus and handle stress, are less reactive to triggers and more resilient in the face of difficult situations.  While we retain the capacity to experience the whole breadth of emotions [and may increase our capacity for expression of emotions], we are more in control of our response to these emotions.

A key behavioural change that has been evidenced in research is the reduction in “unconscious bias” and the negative impact of associated assumptions.  Dr. Davidson stated that the research highlights the fact that these particular changes “endure beyond the meditative state” and pervade a person’s life and way of being-in-the-world.

As a person practices meditation more and more, the positive after-effects become more enduring and habituated.  Dr. Davidson instanced the personal benefit of meditation for himself as a “reduction in volatility at work” in response to workplace triggers – a behavioural change readily acknowledged by his colleagues over time.

As we grow in mindfulness through sustained meditation practice, we are able to realise not only increasing benefits but also benefits that are more enduring and integrated into our daily behaviour and daily lives.

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

The Power of Awareness

In an interview with Tami Simon, Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach share their insights on The Power of Awareness to Change Your Life.   In exploring these ideas, I will be building on my previous post based on Albert Flynn DeSilver’s ideas about developing mindfulness and awakening through writing.

Jack & Tara have developed together an online course on The Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training.   They each bring to the training discussion and resources, more than 40 years of experience in mindfulness and awareness practice and training .

The first question that exercises your mind when you hear about what Jack and Tara offer is, “What is awareness?”  It is not something that can be accessed by definition or thought alone, because it is an experience of a stillness within, a quiet place that precedes thought and sensation.  It’s that realisation that you, the whole person – not a part of you – is aware of your thoughts and sensations as you are experiencing them.  As Tara explains:

Awareness is the silence that’s listening to the thoughts or listening to the sound; it’s more prior to any of the felt experience through our senses…And you can begin to intuit that there is a space of knowing that is always here and that we are not always aware of it, but it’s here.

That is why The Awareness Training is highly experiential with guided exercises and personal journaling to make explicit the learning and develop deeper insights.

In summarising the ideas presented in this interview, I have identified two key areas that manifest the power of awareness.

Sense of self – changing the narrative

Both Jack and Tara shared what was happening for them prior to awareness training.  They discussed their negative thoughts and the stories they told themselves which served to diminish who they actually were and what they were capable of.   They spoke of the constraints of their own narrative and the expectation entrapment that locked them into particular patterns of thinking and behaviour.

They see awareness as creating freedom from habituated denigration of self and the realisation of a real sense of self and creative capacity.   They maintain that through developing awareness, we can change our self-deprecating narrative, as we step back from our thoughts and perceptions and allow our true selves to emerge.

Relationship building

As we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we are better able to identify and manage the space between stimulus and response.  We gain a deep insight into what we bring to a relationship and the associated conflicts – we become more aware of our habituated responses in a conflict situation.  We gain a clearer realisation of our self-talk, our tendency to defensiveness, our self-protection born of childhood experiences and our inattentiveness when experiencing conflicted emotions.

Added to this self-awareness, is a clarity about our projections and assumptions about the other person and their behaviour, increased capacity to pay attention to the other person and an openness to their needs and perceptions.

Awareness enables us to deepen our relationships, as it frees us from habituated thoughts and responses and opens up the capacity to listen empathetically and respond creatively.

So, as we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we discover our true self and its potentiality and are able to deepen our relationships through a stronger sense of self and a heightened sensitivity towards the other person in the relationship.

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

Image source: courtesy of  johnhain on Pixabay

Mindfulness – Start Small, Start Right Now

The benefits of mindfulness seem enticing – not the least of which are improved mental health, clarity of mind and calmness.

Yet the change from the habit of busyness seems such a big step.  How do you go from filling every moment with activity – designed to keep up with a racing mind – to the ability to stop and “be in the moment”, fully present to  what is happening around you?

The first step is to change your underlying assumption that busyness will get you what you want – achievement, happiness and success.  Unless you change your underlying assumption, you will not be able to sustain a change in your habituated behaviour – you will keep returning to old habits when under stress.

The second step is to “start small, start now”. These are the words of wisdom from entrepreneur and marketing guru, Seth Godin who writes a daily blog.  Seth’s advice is:

Start small, start now.

This is better than “start big, start later”.

One advantage is that you don’t have to start perfect.

You can merely start.

While Seth is writing in the context of internet marketing, the above advice has application to many facets of life, not the least of which is how to grow in mindfulness.

In an earlier post, I suggested that to sustain mindfulness practice, you can begin with “one breath at a time” – practising mindful breathing.  To start small, is better than not to start at all.  If you begin with one simple mindful practice that breaks your current routine, you will be able to persist and progressively grow in mindfulness.  Persistence then brings its own reward – increasing benefits and reinforcement of your new habits.

The secret is to find a mindful practice, and timing for that practice, that suits you.  Everyone is different, you need to find your own starting point – your next step.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Assumptions Build Walls Between Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Cover image source: Courtesy of hbieser on Pixabay

Reframing Assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay