Developing Mindfulness through Playing Tennis

I have enjoyed playing tennis since I was about 10 years old. It is only recently that I have come to realise what an opportunity playing tennis represents in terms of developing mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness in the following words:

Mindfulness is awareness that grows through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.

Paying attention

With tennis, you learn to focus and concentrate on the tennis ball and to tune out other distractions – planes flying overhead on their approach to the airport, voices from other courts, the sound of tennis balls being hit on courts, near and far.

If you entertain distractions – stop paying attention – you lose concentration and invariably mishit the ball, or worse, miss the ball entirely.

In this day and age, with “disrupted attention” and the decline in our capacity to focus on a task, practicing paying full attention to a tennis ball is a great way (and enjoyable means for some) to redress that declining capacity.

On purpose

Well, even in social tennis which I play on a weekly basis, the purpose is to win the point or the game for yourself and your partner.  There are times when you are more mindful, the purpose is the sheer enjoyment of playing the game.

It is only when you lose something that you really appreciate having had it.  Many years ago, when my back collapsed and I could not walk, let alone play tennis, I began to really appreciate the opportunity to play when I was fit enough (18 months later).  So now I remind myself what a privilege it is to be able to run and hit the ball and just enjoy the act of playing tennis and its associated pleasures – the conviviality of other social players, the new relationships that are formed, and the sense of satisfaction from the exercise and demonstration of some aspect of skill and competence in the game of tennis.  This certainly develops a sense of gratitude.

In the present moment

Sometimes when you play tennis, you become very aware of your surroundings – the feel of the wind, the freshness of the air and the smells of flowering plants and trees and freshly cut grass, the sound of birds flying overhead or the laughter and enjoyment of others.

You are really in the present moment in terms of your external environment. At other times, your focus on the ball makes you really conscious of what is happening here and now.

There are times when I just marvel at my mind’s capacity, almost instantaneously, to read the spin and speed of the ball coming to me, to get my body into position to return the shot, to assess the balance and positioning of the opposing players and to determine and execute a responding tennis shot with the right spin, angle and speed – certainly an instance of unconscious competence and a cause for delight in the moment.

Non-judgementally

On the tennis court, as in life and work, we can experience negative thoughts and doubts, emotions that distract us from the task at hand and cause us to lose concentration and focus.  You might be undermining your confidence and competence by the thoughts that pass through your mind – “I’ve missed three returns in a row!”, “What will my partner think?”, “The other players seem to be so good, can I give them a decent game?”.

So, you have to learn to let these thoughts pass you by and not entertain them or they really negatively impact your game.  You gain self-awareness about your anxieties and concerns, your self-evaluation and your assumptions about others and their needs.

You also learn self-management in terms of not getting upset or “sounding off” (or, in the extreme, smashing your racquet), when you miss a shot or fall behind in a game.  You have to learn to control your emotions – disappointment, frustration or even anger – and to channel the negative energy to a more positive focus.

In my situation, where I am older than most of the other social tennis players, I have to learn to deal with the negative impact of their assumptions.  Some people who have not played against or with me before, assume that being older I am slower to the ball and not able to hit a decent shot, so they will not hit the ball to me because they think that I will “muck” up the rally.  Others, who have played with me or against me on a number of occasions (or who know that I played competitive A Grade tennis for years), will not hit the ball to me in a rally because they are concerned that I will hit the winning shot and finish the rally.  The net result is the same – I feel excluded from some rallies.  I have had to learn to stay focused, to enjoy the moment and stay uncritical about these assumptions and how they play out for me.

Being mindful

What served as a catalyst for this post, is a description of being mindful during tennis which was recorded in a novel, Purity, by Jonathan Franzen.  Purity, or Pip as she was called was having an extended hit of tennis with her hitting partner, Justin.  Franzen describes Pip’s mindful experience in these words:

Pip was in an absolute groove with her forehand…They had impossibly long rallies, back and forth, whack and whack, rallies so long that she was giggling with happiness by the end of them.  The sun went down, the air was deliciously cool, and they kept hitting.  The ball bouncing up in a low arc, her eyes latching on to it, being sure to see it, just see it, not think and her body doing the rest without being asked to.  That instant of connecting, the satisfaction of reversing the ball’s inertia, the sweetness of the sweet spot…she was experiencing perfect contentment.  Yes, a kind of heaven: long rallies on an autumn evening, the exercise of skill in light still good enough to hit by, the faithful pock of a tennis ball. (p.545)

Playing tennis can help us to grow in mindfulness if we maintain our attention and focus, be conscious of our purpose in playing, experience and enjoy the moment and learn to manage our own negative self-judging and associated emotions.  It is a great learning opportunity for mindful play and the development of skills that can transfer to other arenas of our lives.

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

Image source: courtesy of skeeze on Pixabay

Mindfulness for Leadership

In his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Daniel Goleman discussed Altered Traits: The Benefits of Mindfulness for Leadership and Emotional Intelligence.  In this discussion, he drew on research that he described with his co-author Richard Davidson in their new book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

Daniel is the author of a number of other books including, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

In talking about the impact of mindfulness on leadership capability, Daniel drew on a select number of research articles used within his last co-authored book.  These were articles that met the tests of rigorous research that he and Richard Davidson employed in their book.

He distinguished the results achieved for different levels of meditators – the beginners, the long-term meditators and the “Olympian” meditators (e.g. Buddhist monks and members of contemplative orders such as the Carmelite nuns and priests).

He contends from the associated research that the benefits of meditation deepen and broaden the longer and more frequently you engage in meditation practice.

However, beginner meditators can gain some benefits that positively impact leadership capability, whether directly or indirectly.

Some of these findings for beginner meditators are:

1. Ability to focus better

This outcome is the primary subject of his book, Focus.  Because meditation involves focusing your mind on a particular object, person or activity, it naturally builds the capacity to maintain attention and restore attention when a distracting thought occurs.  The resultant mental fitness is akin to physical fitness attained through exercise or gym work – instead of physical power or stamina, the meditator gains the power of concentration.

2. Better utilisation of working memory

Paying attention through meditation practice enhances short-term memory which enables better retention and utilisation of information, gained through perception, for the purpose of decision-making and guiding behaviour.

3. Handle stress better

Neuroscience shows that meditators are better able to handle stress because our automatic response via the amygdala is not triggered so readily and recovery is quicker – two elements that together determine resilience.

4.Growth in kindness and compassion

A well-established finding is that those who practice loving kindness/compassion meditation actually tune into others’ needs better and are more likely to help.  These benefits are relatively immediate and kindness and compassion are seen increasingly as traits that define successful leaders.

Long-term meditators achieve greater and more sustainable benefits such as increased concentration ability, enhanced capacity to pick up on emotional cues because they are more able to be present to the other person, greater calming effects (felt emotionally and experienced biologically) and a higher-level capacity that is described as meta-awareness (the ability to observe our own thoughts and feelings).

As we grow in mindfulness through regular and sustained practice of different forms of meditation, we are able to build our leadership skills and capability which we can employ in any arena of our lives – be it work, home or community.

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

Image source: courtesy of MemoryCatcher on Pixabay

Sustaining Meditation Practice

In his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Elisha Goldstein discussed the theme, Towards Sustainable Happiness.  He covered the barriers to sustaining meditation practice and offered ways to overcome them. Elisha is the author of a number of books, including Uncovering Happiness and The Now Effect.

Elisha acknowledged that integrating a new habit, such as meditation, into our daily lives is a challenging task. Starting the habit is relatively easy but sustaining it over time can be extremely difficult.

He identified a number of barriers that make it difficult for us to achieve the desired integration:

1. Our negative bias

As we mentioned previously, our brain is wired to perceive danger and threat and persists in a negative orientation as an evolutionary safety mechanism. This manifests as doubts, anxiety or uncertainty when we are trying to sustain the habit of meditation. We tend to question not only the way we are meditating but also the utility (usefulness/ benefit) of meditation. We can focus on the effort involved without seeing the benefits.

2. Fractured attention

In this day and age, we are constantly interrupted by technology, advertising and noise pollution. Our attention is continuously fractured by interruption – we now talk about disruptive marketing as a means to capture the attention of our desired audience. This continuous disruption to our attention makes it increasingly difficult to meditate and feeds our doubts and uncertainties.

3. Our cultural environment

The acceptance of busyness as laudable and inactivity as blameworthy, translates into little tolerance for being still, taking time out or meditating. This means that there are very few positive models within our immediate environment to inspire us to sustain our meditation practice. There are few rewarding or supporting social cues that motivate us to maintain the effort.

4. Our loss of connectedness

The development of our social norms means that increasingly we are superficially connected to lots of people (via social media) and see ourselves as separate and independent. Images of meditation practitioners reinforce this separateness. However, neuroscience confirms the view that we are social beings that are interconnected and interdependent. We have a reliance on each other whether we are conscious of this or not. Research also highlights the fact that social isolation can lead to physical and mental illness including depression.

Elisha’s very strong recommendation, based on his own research and experience, is to work towards enriching our environment as a way of building sustainability in our meditation practice and enhancing our experience of happiness.

He suggests that this can be done in two ways, (1) enrich our physical environment, and (2) build social connections that provide positive social cues and inspiration.

On a physical level, we can surround ourselves with inspiring books and sayings, clear clutter than distracts us and detracts from the inner journey, value the beauty and calmness of our natural surroundings and develop a space that engenders calm and ease of meditation.

On a social level, we can get connected to like-minded people by participating in retreats, workshops, online conferences and courses. What is more likely to be sustaining for our meditation practice, however, is regular participation with a group of people who engage in meditation.

If we enrich our physical and social environments, we are better able to grow in mindfulness by sustaining our meditation practice, so that the benefits are longer lasting and flow into our everyday lives outside the meditative environment.

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

Image source: courtesy of RitaE on Pixabay

Being Mindful

When we first hear the idea of “being mindful”, we tend to associate the concept with thinking.  If we are asked to do something mindfully, we assume that this means tackling a task with a clear plan of how we will do it, having a contingency plan if things go wrong and being conscious of the consequences, intended or unintended, of our actions.

In contrast, “being mindful” in the context of mindfulness training involves being fully present and paying full attention to some aspect of our inner or outer landscape.

It is the opposite of being “lost in thought” – absorbed in the endless procession of ideas that pass through our mind, minute by minute.  Being mindful actually means shutting down our thoughts, being fully present and paying attention to our breathing, walking, eating, perceptions or some aspect of our body.

In somatic meditation, for example, we are focusing on our body through practices such as the whole body scan. This requires us to still our mind and focus our attention progressively on different parts of our body and release tension in our muscles as we undertake the scan.

Mindful breathing requires us to pay attention to our breathing while letting distracting thoughts pass us by. We need discipline to maintain our focus and avoid entertaining our passing thoughts.  They can be viewed as bubbles of water floating to the surface and disintegrating.

Being mindful builds our ability to focus, to be present in the moment.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful practices, we gain the benefit of clarity and calm in situations that would normally cause us stress.  Mindfulness also contributes to our health and well-being, builds our creative capacity and enables us to experience a pervaisve sense of happiness.

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

Image source: Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Why Happiness Grows with Mindful Practice

Chade-Meng Tan gave a presentation on mindfulness and happiness at an international conference on technology.   Meng (as he is called affectionately and respectfully by friends, colleagues and associates) painted a picture, through a series of metaphors, of progression in happiness as we grow in mindfulness.

Attention training and emotional control

At the earliest stage of attention training, through mindful breathing, we gain a level of control over our emotions – instead of our emotions controlling us, we stay in control.  Meng likened this to moving from being an unskilled rider at the beck of a wild horse (emotions), to a skilled rider who has the horse (emotions) under control.  This sense of control is a basis for happiness because, among other things, we will experience fewer regrets.  We will also be less “up and down” as a result of a shift in our emotions.

Self-awareness and self-mastery

As mindfulness training progresses through mindful practice, we gain mastery in two related areas, self-awareness and self-management.  Firstly, self-awareness enables us to understand the stressors in our life – what stresses us – and also to realise the nature and strength of our responses.  We gain insight into our contribution – through prior experience, negative thinking, assumptions and perceptual distortion- to the level of stress we experience.   Our perception of stress changes and we experience less stress as a result.  This is the basis for more frequent experience of happiness.

Self-awareness is the beginning of self-mastery, because we cannot achieve self-management without this self-knowledge.  Self-mastery enables us to remain calm and think clearly in situations where others “are stressed out”.  This calmness and clarity under stress signals leadership capability and may result in greater career success.  If nothing else it enables us to have the freedom of choice – the capacity to determine our response to stressors in the gap between stimulus and response.

Meng likens this stage to the effects of physical training – we gain mental and emotional fitness as we grow in mindfulness.  As with physical training, we find we are stronger, more resilient and happier as we develop our mindful practice.  The positive effects of mindfulness training are deeper and more sustainable than those flowing from physical training.

As Meng points out, based on the results of neuroscience research,:

What you think, what you do, and more importantly, what you pay attention to, changes the function and structure of your brain.

We develop more grey matter (our neo-cortex, the command centre of our brain thickens) and the amygdala  reduces (our potential emotional saboteur – the basis of our fight/ flight responses).  So our brain physically changes with mindful practice and locks in the positive effects, including the growth in happiness, that enable us to function better in all aspects of our life – work, career, relationships and leisure.

Discernment of emotions

Meng maintains, from more than a decade of evidence-based results, that our discernment of emotions increases dramatically as we grow in mindfulness.  He argues that we achieve high resolution in our perception of our emotional processes.  So not only are we better able to detect even small changes in our emotional process, but we can do so in real time – as they are happening.  This gives us useful and timely information so that we can view our emotional response objectively.

Thus we are able to make a perceptual shift so that we no longer think and say, “I am angry”, but rather “I am experiencing anger”.  This enables us to move from a perception that there is nothing we can do about this negative emotion, to one where we recognise that our emotions are something we can control.

Meng uses the analogy of the sky and clouds – your mind is the sky and emotions are the clouds.  This leads to the life-changing acknowledgement that “I am not my thoughts; I am not my emotions and my emotions are not me”.  This statement drew spontaneous applause from the audience because it was so liberating.

Mindful practice then enables us to view emotions as a feeling/expression in  our body, just like physical pain.  We are able then to treat them as separate from ourselves and thus controllable – which increases our experience of happiness .

Kindness habits

As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to demonstrate kindness to others.  Kindness has been shown to improve mental health and well-being, even if the kindness is expressed as a thought, rather than action.   Meng explains that even asking people to think kind thoughts about two other people – wishing happiness for them – for at least ten seconds a day can have life-changing effects.  As we reported earlier, we become what we focus on – thinking kind thoughts about others on a daily basis can make us a kind person.

Kindness reinforces all the benefits of mindful practice and enhances and enriches our state of happiness.

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

Image source: courtesy of RobinHiggins on Pixabay

Lifelong Learning Through Mindfulness

In their book, Organizational Change by Choice, Dexter Dunphy and Bob Dick quote an anonymous author who provides a very simple, behavioural description of the way we learn:

To look is one thing

To see what you look at is another

To understand what you see is a third

To learn from what you understand is something else

But to act on what you learn is all that really matters. (p.120)

The wisdom of this way of looking at learning was brought home to me during one of Bob Dick’s MBA classes that I attended many years ago (32 years ago to be exact). Bob was introducing us to the art of facilitating groups and understanding group dynamics.  He formed us into groups and each person in a group was assigned an observation task to undertake while the group simultaneously discussed a controversial topic – in my group’s case, “Should people who drink and drive be jailed?”

We each had to look for and observe some aspect of the group’s behaviour, e.g. amount of eye contact, level of dissent in the group, non-verbal behaviour, the level of participation and how people built on other’s ideas.  As the discussion progressed, it became quite heated and one of our group was showing signs non-verbally that he was becoming distressed by the discussion.  However, the person who was supposed to look for non-verbal behaviour in the group was totally oblivious of this distress and kept on pushing his point that drink drivers should not be jailed.  The distressed person finally got up and left the group.  The person who was supposed to observe non-verbal behaviour, immediately asked the group, “What did he do that for?”  It turned out that a friend of the distressed person had been killed by a drunken driver.

This experience really brought home to me very starkly that you can look and not see if you stop paying attention and lose focus on what you intend to observe.  If you then do not see what is happening, you will be unable to understand another person’s behaviour.  If you don’t understand the interaction, you will not learn how to adjust your own behaviour.  In the final analysis, you will not act in a way that puts the desired learning into practice – in the case of my example, you will not be able to effectively facilitate group processes.

To look in a meaningful way requires focus, purposeful noticing and full attention.  It is only then that we see in a way that enables learning.  So while we may be looking at the same scene or object we will see different things.

Understanding what we see requires an uncluttered mind and the capacity to maintain focus.  It is only through sustained seeing that we come to understand what we are actually looking at – to realise the impact of something for our lives and that of other people.  Focused attention builds our understanding because we are better able to access our subconscious and realise the connections between things that we perceive now or have perceived in the past.

Learning from what you understand is another level of challenge in the quest for lifelong learning.  Having understood something impacting our lives, we have to be able to think through the behavioural implications – its meaning for how we should act towards our self and/or others.

In the final analysis, what really matters is taking action in line with our understanding and learning – translating our learning into practice.  As I discussed in a previous post, it is one thing to look for and read about mindfulness, it’s another to understand the benefits of mindfulness, but it is something else to learn from your understanding of mindfulness how you should behave and, all that matters, is engaging in mindful practice – taking action by being mindful in our everyday lives.

So, being mindful can help us to engage in lifelong learning – to look, see, understand, learn and act on our learning in our everyday lives.  As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to focus, pay attention, gain insight and be conscious of what we are learning and what it means in our life.  Ultimately, we are better able to achieve congruence – to line up our actions with our thoughts and words.

Image source: Courtesy of Mojpe on Pixabay

Do You See What I See?

It is highly unlikely that you see what I see or what other people might see.

So much of what we see is filtered by our past experience and our thoughts and emotions generated by those experiences. So, what each of us see when experiencing a scene like the picture in this post of the Manly foreshore at sunrise, might be very different.

If you are a runner you might focus on the runner in the foreground, the idyllic environment for their run and their running style. If you have recently visited Stradbroke Island, you could be looking at the island in the background and searching for the tell tale sandhills while remembering an enjoyable aspect of your visit there.

If you have experienced a tsunami, the water and its calmness might remind you of your horrifying experience that followed in the wake of a calm sea. Instead of calming you, the scene might generate fear in you.

If you love trees you might focus on the different varieties of trees along the shorefront or notice the bright aura of the fir tree in the foreground.  If you have an interest in photography, you might critique the photo itself and its technical aspects of shade and light, contrast, background and foreground, positioning of key elements or the impact of the rising sun illuminating the image.  A landscape artist could be deciding whether to paint the scene in its totality or to focus on the trees.

If you are inwardly focused and preoccupied with worry or concerns about the day ahead, you might be unaware of what is actually in front of you.

What we attend to influences what we see or don’t see.  Our attention, in turn, is influenced very much by what has happened previously in our life and/or what is happening now for us.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has this to say about our limited perception and the influence of our thoughts and emotions on what we actually see:

Instead of experiencing the bare actuality of our senses, we are more experiencing our life through our thoughts about our experience – our preferences, likes, dislikes, our worries, concerns or addictions, and in a sense not fully inhabiting the full spectrum of our innate capability.

This is one reason why open awareness is a very important mindful practice if we want to grow in mindfulness and reach our full potential. Otherwise we can be lost in our thoughts and miss the world around us, its richness and beauty.

Image source: Copyright R. Passfield

Start Your Meeting With Reflection Time

When we arrive at a meeting, our thoughts are often elsewhere rather than in the room – with the unfinished task we have just left, the things that we have to do, the work that will not get done as a result of the meeting.

So we do not have a meeting of minds, because the minds of people “present” are elsewhere – we have a physical collection of people.  People are not present in the sense that their attention is not fully on the meeting, its purpose and goals.

What exacerbates this situation is that many people “at” the meeting are checking their phones for their latest emails or social media updates, doing their to-do lists or planning another activity.  This multitasking in itself is both personally injurious (can cause inflammation of the brain) and contaminates the meeting (inattention spreads).

What some organisations are starting to do now is to begin their meetings with a short reflection time (5-10 minutes) so that people can become grounded and really present.  Besides helping people to become focused on the meeting and its purpose, this reflection time reminds people why they are at the meeting and the need to attend to (pay attention to) what is going on.

At a recent mindfulness conference, a group of digital designers from a bank decided then and there that they would start their meetings with a ten minute reflection time.  They realised the power of reflection to develop focus and release creativity.

If you do build in time for reflection at the start of a meeting you will experience a heightened level of focused energy and strengthening of team spirit.  You will also be more productive as a team.  Residual resentments about missed opportunities will be less likely to contaminate the meeting process.

Starting your meetings with time for reflection also helps your team to grow in mindfulness and focused attention so that the benefits flow beyond the meeting.

Image Source: Courtesy of ForMyKerttu on Pixabay

Grow Mindfulness through Reflective Listening

Have you ever been in a “conversation” where the other person was obviously not listening?

They may have been distracted by their own thoughts, looking at their smart phone or watching things going on elsewhere.  While you are talking they could be keying on their computer, shuffling papers or doodling.  One cue that they are not listening is the lack of listening non-verbals, e.g. eye contact, facing you, conversation encouragers such as a nod or smile.

The non-listener will interrupt, talk over you, try to solve your problem before they know what it is and direct the conversation to their own issue or story.

Of course, each of us engages in one or more of these behaviours at one time or another.  The net result of the failure to listen is that the speaker becomes frustrated, annoyed and even aggressive in tone or posture.

When you really listen, you give the speaker the gift of affirmation – you affirm their existence, their worth and that you value them enough to pay attention to them (rather than to your own needs).

However, to listen reflectively you need to be present to the other person – to be mindful.  You can reflect what the speaker is saying through summarising, paraphrasing and checking for understanding.

Reflective listening requires focused attention – a key feature of mindfulness.  It is really a two-way street.  The more you listen and focus on someone talking, the more mindful you become; the more you develop the habit of mindfulness, the more you are able to listen reflectively.

You have to learn to use your ears more and your mouth less so you can focus on the other person and what they are saying.

Image source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com.