Focusing Inward to See Clearly

So much of our daily lives is taken up with focusing on things that are external to ourselves – social media, meetings, conversations about recent events, driving our car or trying to catch a train or bus to work.  Our thoughts are often racing as we plan, evaluate and critique.  As a consequence, we spend so little time focusing inward and getting in touch with our inner reality.

While our focus is external most of the time, it means that we are susceptible to being pushed and pulled by external forces – whether they relate to the internet, invasive advertising, loud conversations or the fast pace of life.

Focusing inward to see clearly

Diana Winston reminds us in her meditation podcast,  Focusing inward and seeing clearly, that mindfulness meditation can bring insight, clarity, creative solutions to problems and a new level of awareness of both our inner and outer reality.

The starting point is to become grounded by placing our feet firmly on the floor and closing our eyes (or looking downward).   This initial step is designed to move our attention from external things to our internal world.

We need a focus to maintain our attention to our inner world.  This focus could be our breathing or sounds.   However, the latter could distract us from our inner work because we are always interpreting sounds, comparing them or recalling memories that are stimulated by particular sounds.

A couple of deep breaths at the outset of our meditation can help us to let go and get focused on our breathing and where in our body it is most noticeable.  A progressive body scan can also help to fix our attention within.  We can feel the sensation of our feet touching the floor, the firmness of our back against our chair and the warmth/tingling in our hands as we progress our meditation.

We might also notice areas of tension in our body and progressively release this tension as we bring our attention to the relevant parts of our body.  This, in turn, can make us open to our feelings which we have been holding back – we could be anxious, frustrated, angry or feeling hurt.  By naming our feelings, we can gain control over them and sustain our attention on our inner focus.

Once we have stabilised our attention on our inner world, we can address several questions designed to deepen our personal insight and increase our clarity, for example:

As we grow in mindfulness through insight meditation, we can unearth new understandings and different perspectives on issues as well as creative solutions, we can really open up the spaciousness of our minds and achieve more of what we are capable of.

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Mindfulness and Dealing with Pain

Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Working with Pain, offers some suggestions on how meditation can be used to alleviate and/or manage pain better.  She highlights the fact that along with pain are the stories that we tell ourselves about the pain we are experiencing, e.g. “This pain will never go way.”, This is ruining my life.”, “I cannot cope with this pain.”  Diana suggests that the stories aggravate the suffering we experience with pain and only serve to amplify the pain through their negativity.

Pain and suffering are part of being human as we are reminded by the Buddhist tradition.  Diana quotes the often repeated saying, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”, to remind us that we have choices in how we deal with pain.  So, we are left with the challenge of managing the pain that occurs at different points of our life, whether the pain of loss or physical pain in some part or all of our body.   Dealing with chronic pain through mindfulness has been the focus of a lot of the pioneering work of Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Meditation for working with pain

Diana provides a meditation exercise for working with pain in her podcast mentioned above.  The meditation practice involves several discrete steps and is about 20 minutes in length:

1. Grounding – feet on the ground, arms relaxed on your lap or beside you (h0wever is comfortable), eyes closed or looking downwards, a few deep breaths to relax your body.

2. Focus on your breathing – focus your attention on wherever you can feel your breathing in your body (nose, mouth, chest, stomach). Don’t try to control you breathing but just notice it, e.g. the undulations of your stomach.  Get in touch with your in-breath and out-breath and the space between.  You can rest in the space.

3. Body scan – explore your body with your attention, noting as you progress from your head to your toes any points of tightness, tingling or other sensation.  Just notice as your attention moves over your body and let go as you experience the sensation. (The art of noticing is integral to mindfulness practice.)

4. Refocus on your breathing – now return to mindful breathing (3 above).  Spend a reasonable amount of time resting in this focus – about 10 minutes say.

5. Focus on a relaxed part of your body – the aim is to locate in your body a part (e.g. arm, leg, chest) that feels secure, relaxed, at peace and pain-free.  Rest for a time in this relaxed part of your body to enable the sensation of peace and calm to spread through your body.

6. Focus on your pain – now focus on that part of your body where you are experiencing the ongoing pain.  Feel the sensation of the pain and describe the sensation to yourself.  Now focus on the stories you have developed around the pain and let them go – they are fabrications created by your fight/flight response.  If you can, bring your focus to a point outside the area of pain as a prelude to completing the next step.

7. Re-focus on the relaxed part of your body – experience the restfulness here.

8. Re-focus on your breathing – gradually bring your attention back to your breathing.  After a time of mindful breathing, resume your daily activity.

As we grow in mindfulness though meditation, we can learn ways to reduce pain or better manage pain so that we can function normally.  It is important to master our stories that aggravate our suffering from pain.

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Paying Attention

Marvin Belzer provides guidance in a meditation podcast on “paying attention”.  Marvin was on the faculty of UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the time.  He has many years experience with practicising and teaching meditation, having taught a semester-long course on the theory and practice of mindfulness.  Among other things, he provides meditations for teens – ways for young people to learn to pay attention and to access calmness and clarity.

Marvin emphasises that “paying attention” is a natural ability that does not require forcing.  We can notice things, look at things closely, observe what is happening in front of us – it all comes naturally.  However, we have lost the art of focusing because of the distractions in our lives and, particularly, our endless thoughts.

To learn to pay attention again, we need to practise.  This practice ideally involves focusing on something simple – our breath, hand, bodily sensations or sounds around us.  If we keep the focus simple, we can more easily sustain our attention.  As Marvin points out, the process of stabilising our attention on something that is simple (and does not entice our thoughts to go wild), “automatically induces calmness”.  If we practise paying attention through daily meditation we also gain clarity, be able to think more clearly.

The challenge of losing attention

If our mind wanders, we do not need to consider this a failure, but “part and parcel” of the process – affirming, firstly, that our mind is active because an intelligent mind needs to exercise itself on something challenging, not something that is simple.

We will find that, as we attempt to pay attention, our mind will suddenly become absorbed in memories, thoughts, emotions or planning – like me, you could end up planning your next activity, working on your to-do-list, deciding how you are going to get to that meeting later in the day.

The important thing is to re-focus without blaming yourself or indulging in negative thoughts and stories about yourself and your perceived “weakness”.   A useful technique to use if your are distracted during a meditation is to make the distraction a part of the meditation itself.  Instead of consuming energy trying to get rid of the distraction (and distracting yourself more) just notice what is going on – “i see that I am feeling a bit anxious now and I sense a tightness in my shoulders”.  You can just name the emotion and feel the sensation in your body.

It is important to remember that you are not trying to perform for anyone else, even yourself.  You are not trying to meet anyone else’s rate of advancement.  Focusing on something simple is a neutral activity and encourages you to be calm and real – to give yourself permission to be-in-the-moment.

Paying attention meditation can open your mind and heart to creativity.  By stilling your mind, you are able to a access what Kabat-Zinn calls the “spaciousness” within.  You will gradually overcome your existing habit of “mind wandering” and be able to develop the sustained attention needed to fully access your creative mind.

The process of paying attention is integral to all forms of meditation, with the focus varying from one form of meditation to another.  In his podcast, Marvin Belzer leads you through a paying attention meditation that moves from a focus on breath, to listening to surrounding sounds,  to undertaking a form of somatic meditation – focusing on your body.  As we grow in mindfulness through practising paying attention in meditation, we can readily access calmness and clarity and open our minds to creativity.

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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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Replacing Shame with Kind Attention

Shauna Shapiro, co-author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness, maintains that mindfulness practice involves more than paying attention.  In 2005, Shauna published an article with her colleagues titled Mechanisms of Mindfulness.  In that article, Shauna and her colleagues shared a model of mindfulness that shows that the effectiveness of mindful meditation depends on more than attention alone – it requires a positive interaction of intention, attention and attitude.

In one of her TEDx Talks, Shauna particularly focused on “attitude” because the attitude you bring to mindfulness practice actually grows stronger.  She maintained that her 20 years of mindfulness research confirmed categorically that mindfulness generates clear benefits for our mind and wellness.  However, these benefits are mediated by the attitude we bring to our mindfulness practice.

Shauna’s research and her own lived experience bore out the fact that everyone has a tendency to feel shame for some of the things that they have done in life and that during mindfulness practice, shame can take over and shut down our capacity to learn and develop.

What Shauna discovered was that the attitude required for effective mindfulness practice was one of “kind attention“.  In her view, it takes a lot of courage to face the parts of our self that we are ashamed of.  However, instead of dwelling on negative self-evaluation, which only grows stronger with attention, we need to be kind to ourselves and express self-love and self-compassion.  She found that the simple act of saying, “Good morning Shauna” each morning with her hand on her heart (as an expression of self-love), can begin the movement towards self-love and the ability to say, “Good morning Shauna, I love you”.

Shauna explained that at first this process feels awkward and trite, but she found from her own experience and mindfulness practice that it gradually replaces self-loathing with self-care.  She explained that what we pay attention to grows stronger.  So if we spend our day consumed by shame, frustration or anger, we are only strengthening these attitudes.  Whereas, if we focus on kind attention and genuine self-compassion, we strengthen those attitudes and thicken the part of the brain that enables learning, growth and transformation – a process called “cortical thickening“.

What is interesting is that not only does our neo-cortex thicken but also its connection to the “fear centre” (the amygdala) of our brain is weakened.  So that through continuously practising kind attention, we are better able to view the world and ourselves positively and act effectively in our environment, whether at work or at home.

Shauna told the story of a veteran who was consumed by shame for what he had done in the war zone but when he shared his story with other veterans, their compassion towards him helped to dissolve his entrenched sense of shame (contributing to his PTSD) and enabled him to experience self-compassion.  So, our compassionate attitude to others can also help them move beyond the disabling effects of shame.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practice imbued with kind attention and self-compassion, we strengthen our ability to concentrate, remain calm and make decisions that enable us to function effectively in our challenging world.

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

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Strategies to Handle Restlessness During Meditation

Restlessness during meditation is experienced by everyone, even the advanced meditator.  It is important to be with the moment and be non-judgmental with ourselves, avoiding the temptation to “beat up on ourselves”.  So, part of dealing with restlessness during meditation is accepting what is and what is happening to us without self-censure.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), reminds us of the essence of mindfulness:

Paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is.

Diana in a meditation podcast on restlessness as an obstacle to meditation offers four strategies to deal with this restlessness which can be experienced in our mind and manifested in our body in the form of tightness/tension or the need to keep changing our posture.  These strategies require a consciousness about what is happening in our mind and/or body during meditation and a willingness “to be with what is”.

Strategies to handle restlessness during meditation

The strategies discussed by Diana incorporate a change in the focus of your meditation or a momentary change in your posture:

  1. Narrowed focused – you can narrow your focus so that you are concentrating even more closely on your breath.  You can observe the beginning (in-breath), the middle (space between in-breath and out-breath) and the ending (out-breath).  You could narrow your focus like the child in the image above who is totally absorbed in their play with a bucket at the beach.  This response to restlessness entails stillness combined with a narrowed focus.
  2. Widened focus – an alternative to narrowing your focus during meditation is to do the opposite, widen the focus of your attention.  One thing that you could focus on is the sounds that you hear, bringing your attention to listening.  Your focus could shift from the sounds that are nearby to those that are the furthest away.  Widening your focus entails changing your attention away from the mind’s relentless activity to what is happening aurally in the present moment.
  3. Focus on the restlessness – you can focus on the restlessness itself.  This involves paying attention to what is going on in your mind and your body.  You could name the mental restlessness by saying something like, “There you are again Mr. Restless drawing my attention away”.  You could then get in touch with your body to feel the impact of the restless mind and to notice “how” and “where”the restlessness is being experienced in your body.
  4. Change of posture – this involves a slight change of posture to re-focus your mind.  You may find, for example, that your shoulders have slumped slightly, so you could straighten them.  You may have crossed your feet and no longer have the soles of your feet on the ground.  Correcting your posture can bring you back to the present moment and what is the purpose of your meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness through the regular practice of meditation, we can more easily adopt strategies to deal with restlessness during meditation.  Persistence with meditation practice brings its own rewards.

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

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Creativity Lies in Stillness and Silence

In 2015, GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland) displayed 200 visual works of David Lynch including lithographs, photos, paintings, video art and photo collages.   David epitomises creativity – he is an American  filmmaker, artist, actor, musician and photographer and is considered by The Guardian to be “the most important Director of this era”.

The creative power of silence

In an interview on ABC Radio National in March 2015, David spoke about creative control and in the course of his interview, he stated that “the silence within has infinite dynamism”.   In his view, creative ideas come from within.   You start with an intention to develop an idea and then, if you are patient and focused, you suddenly see it and feel it as it reaches full consciousness.  He discusses open awareness (for instance, focusing attention on the beauty of a cherry tree) that stimulates wonder and the incessant desire to understand your world.

Jane Dawson in an article on reflection and creativity, contends that creative expression is thwarted by the busyness of life, especially in educational institutions.  She argues for the need for  “space for silence” to cultivate and pursue creativity and suggests that meditation provides that space.

The creative power of stillness

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his 2011 interview with Krista Tippett, maintains that “spaciousness is already in the mind”.  The way to access this spaciousness that is the fountain of creativity is to develop intimacy with it – to be open to its power through the stillness of meditation.

Jon argues that one of the real barriers to developing creativity is our lack of training in the “deep interior capacities” of attention and awareness.  He argues that all our training is focused on thinking, so that we cut ourselves off from imagination and creativity by focusing on only one aspect of the mind’s capacities.   Whereas the real gateway to creativity is “the stillness of awareness of not knowing” – of being aware of what we do not know and what we do not understand.  Creativity is not achieved by being contented with the knowledge that we already hold.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and openness to our life and our world, we can cultivate the power of silence and stillness to access our innate imagination and creativity.

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

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Engaging With and Accepting Death

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

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

Acceptance of death

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

Being attuned to sensory experience

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

Finding balance through openness to love

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

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

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

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

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

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Mindfulness and Yoga for Addiction Release

In a discussion of the interaction between mind, body and spirit, Surbhi Khanna & Jeffrey Greeson acknowledge the complementarity of yoga and meditation – both require paying attention to experiences and related emotions as they happen.

They suggest that the “loss-addiction cycle” arises from a number of sources:

Addictions are born as a result of ‘mindless’ states involving escapist attitudes, automatic thinking, emotional reactivity and social isolation.

Breaking the addiction cycle – using yoga and meditation together

The addicted person turns to a form of gratification to fill the void left by sadness and loss.  The void maybe filled by an addiction to smoking, drinking alcohol or using any other substance or activity in a repeated, mindless way.  The problem, of course, is that the addiction, whatever form it takes, fails to overcome the sense of loss, isolation or disconnection.  The addicted person then increases the use of the substance or activity and seeks to intensify the momentary pleasure they experience.  These further cement the “loss-addiction cycle”.

The authors assert that practices such as yoga and meditation improve attention and concentration and enhance the ability to self-observe and regulate emotions.  They maintain that optimal treatment and prevention of addiction and recovery from it, can be achieved by using yoga and meditation in concert.  They point out that further evidence-based research needs to be undertaken taking into account different kinds of addiction and differences in gender, demography and orientation (physical, mental or spiritual).

Khanna and Greeson, however, contend that the growing empirical research and conceptual development of the underpinnings of meditation and yoga, support the view that the combination of these two modalities can break the cycle of stress, negative thoughts and emotions and the resultant addictive behaviour.

Yoga and meditation are complementary and mutually reinforcing.  As you use these modalities together they can help you grow in mindfulness and reduce or avoid the mindless pursuit of addictions.  When used in concert, yoga and meditation can improve self-awareness and self-management.

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

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Mindfulness and Meditation for Elite Athletes

Patrick Chan used mindfulness to excel at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.  His first round performance for the team figure skating event was badly hampered by nerves and he did not score well.  However by talking to himself, confronting the expectations of his team and his own debilitating emotions, he was able to achieve the top score in his next round and help Canada win the Olympic Gold medal for the event.

Jon Kabat-Zinn taught meditation to the 1984 US Olympic rowing team – a team that went on to win 2 gold medals, 5 silver and 1 bronze.   Jon maintains that to get into the “zone” of peak performance on a regular basis you need to meditate to train yourself mentally.

Richmond Football Club – AFL Premiership Winners through Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation training helped Richmond win the 2017 AFL premiership.   The initiative started in 2015 with Dylan Grimes, Richmond defender, who was very frustrated and dissatisfied with his ability to maintain his performance at an elite level.  He read a number of books about mindfulness and how it could enhance performance.  In particular, he was impressed with the idea of achieving “flow” proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

People who experience flow in their endeavours achieve optimal performance, increase their creativity and experience real joy and happiness.   The Richmond Football Club engaged Emma Murray, high performance and mindfulness coach, to help all team members achieve their optimal level.  She was able to help players develop self-awareness, build focus and concentration and to help each other when one of the team was becoming distracted or unfocused.  She successfully established new norms such as individual players openly admitting the impact of their thoughts on their performance, sharing doubts and concerns and, overall, being vulnerable – a counter-cultural position.

Richmond players readily acknowledged the role of Emma’s teaching in mindfulness and meditation in helping them win the premiership.  For example, Dean Martin, winner of the Brownlow Medal, mentioned Emma’s contribution to Richmond’s performance after the game.

Konrad Marshall, author of Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond, also provided a detailed description of Emma’s work with the football players and the effectiveness of her mindfulness and meditation approach.

NBA Athletes

Laura Chang in an article for mindfulnessmuse.com reminds us of the mindfulness practice of top NBA athletes who before the start of a game focus internally to “get into the zone” and build attention and concentration.  She suggests that we can all learn from these elite athletes to increase our own focus and productivity and proposes a mindfulness practice for improved performance.

Mindfulness Exercise for Improved Performance

Laura offers a 5-step mindfulness exercise that is designed to improve attention during physical activities.  The process, explained in detail in her article, is discussed in terms of the acronym, B.A.S.I.C. :

  • Body – body awareness
  • Arousal Level – notice the nature of your arousal
  • Self-Talk – what are you saying to yourself and what impact is it having on your performance?
  • Imagery – what images are you entertaining and do they reinforce excellent performance?
  • Concentration – notice the nature and quality of your concentration and focus and its impact on your performance.

This process is designed to enhance self-awareness and self-management and, in the process, build the capacity to maintain attention and focus at a high level.

As elite athletes grow in mindfulness they are better able to manage their negative thoughts and images, to maintain concentration and focus, to be creative and to achieve optimal performance.

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

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