Mindfulness Practices to Develop Mental Health and Wellbeing

In these times of uncertainty and anxiety, mindfulness meditation can be an effective way to restore balance to our mental and emotional state.  These structured approaches can be readily reinforced by mindfulness practices that are more flexible and adaptable to our personal circumstances and preferences. 

Through mindfulness practices embedded in our daily life and routine, we can progressively achieve the situation where mindfulness is not just something we do, but the way we are in the world.  This enables us to show up in a mindful and compassionate way and have a positive influence on the people we interact with in our daily life.

Mindfulness practices that you can use to develop mental health and wellbeing

There are a wide range of mindfulness practices described in this blog and in other mindfulness resources.  Some of these could prove useful for you in this time of stress and uncertainty:

  • Mindful walking – consciously walking slowly and being aware of the pressure of your toes and soles on the ground.  There are a range of videos on mindful walking on YouTube©.
  • Mindful eating – eating slowly while being conscious of presentation (how it looks), taste, texture, aroma and touch.
  • Engaging with nature – Nature is a proven source of emotional healing and mental health.  There are a number of ways to experience the benefits of nature.
  • Exercising – There are endless books and articles on the benefits of exercise, and it is considered one of the antidotes for depression.  Some people prefer yoga as their form of exercise and Jill Satterfield has her own YouTube© Channel dedicated to ways to combine yoga with somatic awareness. 
  • Tai Chi – often called “mindfulness-in-action”.  Harvard Medical School recently published the results of extensive research into the benefits of Tai Chi and provided an explanation and exercises for each benefit in its publication, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.  The benefits of Tai Chi include less stress, a healthier heart, positive mood and a clearer mind as well as better balance and coordination and reduced physical pain.
  • Taking compassionate action – going beyond self-absorption to helping others in need.  An interesting new development is the Adopt a Grandparent Campaign (given the increased isolation of the elderly because of the Coronavirus).  Taking compassionate action can have numerous forms and is limited only by your awareness and creativity.  Compassionate action includes being aware of, and communicating with, a friend or family member who may be experiencing loneliness.
  • Use waiting time to develop awareness – our typical default when we have to wait for something is to grab for our phone.  We could use waiting time instead to develop our natural awareness.
  • Expressing gratitude – neuroscience has shown the benefits of gratitude for mental health and wellbeing, not only for the recipient of the expression of appreciation but also the giver.  However, you don’t even have to express appreciation to others to gain a health benefit from being grateful.  There are many ways to develop gratitude and reap its benefits.
  • Tuning into sounds – you can adopt a natural awareness approach by tuning into sounds around you (both your immediate surrounds and your external environment).  Alternatively, you can be more goal-focused in your awareness, e.g. focusing on the “room tone”.
  • Establishing a mindfulness reminder – we can use something that occurs frequently throughout our day to be reminded of the need to be mindful.   People have used a wide range of things as reminders, e.g. when the phone rings or when they boil the jug/make a cup of coffee, they take a few mindful breaths or steps.  All it takes, according to Chade-Meng Tan, author of Search Inside Yourself, is “one mindful breath a day”.

Create small habits to build sustainability

Clearly you can’t do it all and if you attempt to do too much, your new habit will not be sustainable.  Start small – Dr. V.J. Fogg suggests that you create tiny habits, breaking larger habits down to their “smallest accessible practice”.   Do something that fits with you personally – you don’t have to achieve what others are doing.  Be prepared to adopt a trial-and-error approach and change your habit(s) where appropriate – there is no one approach that suits everybody.

Building and maintaining a positive mindset

You can enhance your positive mindset by listening to presentations that are uplifting.  These can take the form of podcasts, videos or other sources of positively oriented communications.  TED Talks©, for example, offer “ideas worth sharing” and include inspirational stories, innovations and creative problem solving. 

There are numerous presenters who work in the mindfulness space and offer encouraging and supportive communications via videos and audio
podcasts.  One particular example that comes to mind is Dr. Jud Brewer who has commenced producing short 5-minute videos on his YouTube
Channel
© covering timely topics such as:

  • 5 simple habits for good mental hygiene
  • Using kindness to create connection during a crisis
  • Working with uncertainty
  • How to spread connection instead of contagion
  • How fear and uncertainty lead to anxiety.

One of Jud’s videos focuses on “how to stop compulsively checking the news”.  Even in the best of times, the news can be disturbing, disorienting and confusing, yet we are tempted to feast on the news.  Cilla Murphy, a teacher who has just experienced 7 weeks in lockdown in China offers a number of very important learnings from her experience and her advice about the news is:

Try not to listen to/read/watch too much media. It WILL drive you crazy. There is [such] a thing as too much!

Reflection

There are so many options in terms of mindfulness practices that can help us in times of uncertainty and anxiety.  We can become overwhelmed by the variety and endless choices.  The secret to habit change is to start small and maintain the new habit for a reasonable time (to test it and embed it in our daily life). 

One sustainable habit can lead to another…and another.  We should not be discouraged by the magnitude of the changes we need to make – we can chip away at them progressively with the aid of meditation and mindfulness practice.  It takes time to overcome our self-protective mechanisms if we are to achieve significant changes in our behaviour.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly self-aware, develop our focused intention and build resilience to overcome setbacks on the road to sustainable change.

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

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

Using Singing Bowls in Meditation

Diana Winston in a recent meditation podcast was joined by Michael Perricone, musician and  Master of Tibetan Singing Bowls.  Diana provided guidelines for meditating with singing bowls as Michael generated music from the bowls.  At the outset, she indicated that meditating with the singing bowls was a pathway to natural awareness, a process of open awareness, not bounded by a specific focus other than the sounds of the bowls themselves.  The bowls provide sounds that give you a sense of the boundarylessness of natural awareness – like the spaciousness of the sky above.

Diana points out that we are always aware – we cannot switch off awareness, but we can focus it or be open to its universality by becoming conscious of awareness itself.  This openness to awareness is a declining capacity as we become lost in thought, time-poor and focused on material values.  I have previously discussed ways to develop natural awareness, and the Tibetan singing bowls offer another approach.   The singing bowls, like meditation bells, are made of a special combination of metals that heighten the vibrations of the bowls and the resultant resonance. 

The bowls have been used in mindfulness practice for centuries not only because they facilitate natural awareness but also because they enable relaxation and stress release.  They are now used in music therapy, massage and yoga sessions.  Michael offers a five-minute, Tibetan Singing Bowl Meditation on video using the bowls to illustrate their use in meditation.   Diana’s singing bowl meditation is a thirty-minute meditation accompanied by Michael playing the bowls.  The latter meditation is offered as part of the weekly meditation podcasts provided by MARC, UCLA.  Michael provides additional mindfulness resources, including links to mindfulness apps (such as the Headspace app) and online courses (e.g. The Mindful Living Course conducted by Elisha Goldstein).

Using the singing bowls in meditation

Diana begins her meditation podcast with an initial focus on becoming grounded through posture and a brief body scan designed to release tension in parts of the body such as tightness in your stomach or stiffness in your shoulders or legs.  She encourages you to take deep breaths to help you relax bodily.

Throughout the playing of the singing bowls, Diana provides support to enable you to be-with-the-sound as it reverberates around the room.  She suggests that if you find the sound of the bowls confusing, overwhelming or distressing that you can drop back to focusing on your breathing or the sensation of your feet on the floor or your fingers touching.   She also encourages you to refocus your listening to the sound of the bowls if you become diverted by your thoughts (e.g. trying to work out where to buy one of the bowls).  This process of constantly restoring your focus on the sound of the singing bowls can progressively build your awareness muscle and develop deep listening skills.

Reflection

I found the singing bowls a bit intense in a longer meditation (e.g. 30-minutes) when I first listened to them and thought that beginning with a shorter singing bowl meditation can help initially to develop this mindfulness practice.  Each person will experience the singing bowls differently, so the important thing that Diana stresses is personal choice – deciding how long you will practice meditation with the bowls and whether or not you will switch to another anchor, however temporarily.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can use practices such as the singing bowl meditation to deepen our self-awareness, awareness of others and the world around us, and awareness of our connectedness to everyone and everything else.

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

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

How Could Mindfulness Help to Sustain and Nurture Relationships in a Second Marriage?

Tami Simon recently conducted a podcast interview with Terry Gaspard on navigating the challenges of a second marriage.  Terry is a college professor, author and very successful couples therapist.  In the interview, Terry drew on her book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around.  Both Tami and Terry pointed to the divorce static that highlighted the difficulty of a second marriage – while 50% of first marriages end in divorce, this figure rises to 60% for second marriages.

Second marriages entail the added complexity of increased financial expenses, the challenge of blending families (where there are children involved) and the intellectual and emotional baggage from the previous intimate relationships.  As the two insightful women discussed the topic of sustaining a second marriage from ideas and perspectives developed through their own research and personal experience, it occurred to me that mindfulness could help partners develop the insights and skills required to effectively and happily navigate the many challenges involved in a second marriage.

Mindfulness for accepting “what is” in terms of partner differences

In a previous post, I explained that Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC, incorporates “accepting what is” as an integral part of mindfulness.  Neither speaker in the podcast interview mentioned above thought that this entailed a totally passive position in relation to differences in partners in an intimate relationship.  While they recognised from research that 70% of differences in a relationship cannot be changed, they did identify ways to negotiate some differences.  Terry suggested, however, that some differences can involve what she calls “deal breakers” and these may need to be resolved with the help of a couples therapist if the second marriage relationship is to be sustained.

Terry drew on hundreds of interviews of couples and her own relationships to develop her book.  She maintained that trying to change the other person in a second marriage to be like yourself or some ideal image very often leads to divorce in a second marriage.  She points out that you will not change a person’s basic personality in a relationship – “morning people” do not automatically become “night people”, for instance, or introverts change readily into extroverts.  These are deep differences that cannot be changed, but if partners in a second marriage accept what is in terms of these more profound differences, it is possible to work towards various accommodations over time that make the relationship workable and rewarding.  Terry offers some suggestions in the podcast and in her book to address these differences.

Mindfulness for self-awareness

Research has consistently demonstrated that mindfulness develops self-awareness and the associated skill of self-regulation.  Self-awareness is critical to negotiate several significant hurdles in a second marriage:

  • Intellectual and emotional baggage – whether we like it or not, our past is in our present.  Each person in a second marriage brings their own baggage, both in terms of thoughts and feelings, to the new relationship.  We can act these out unconsciously and damage our relationship(s).  It may be that we bring to the second relationship a lack of trust, unresolved hurt, resentment or fears. Terry suggests that often rebound second relationships do not work because individuals have not taken the time and space required to heal from the damages of the prior relationship.  Mindfulness can help us to see what our personal “baggage” is and how it plays out in the conflicts we have in our second marriage, the points of irritation or the frustration and resentment that we experience towards our partner. 
  • Unrealistic expectations – we all develop expectations of ourselves and others that at times prove to be unrealistic.  Terry particularly mentions the challenge of blending two families in a second marriage and the unrealistic expectations that arise around this difficult endeavour. She contends that it takes at least four years for a partner in a second marriage to negotiate and achieve a balanced relationship with a stepchild (even longer for “stepchildren”).  Through meditation and reflection, we can become aware of our expectations and the influence they are having on our intimate relationship.  We can create the freedom of possibility by gaining release from the tyranny of unrealistic expectations of our self and our partner.

Compassion and forgiveness

Compassion and forgiveness are required in an intimate relationship because grievances will occur on the part of either or both parties.  Terry draws on the work of Fred Luskin, an expert in forgiveness, who talks about the “grievance story” or narrative that we develop when we are hurt in a relationship.  Grievance stories are effectively negative self-stories focused on our hurt that result from unresolved grievances we carry towards our partner over one or more incidents occurring in our second marriage.  They Invariably involve an unbalanced perspective, blaming the other person and some form of “punishment”, e.g. through personal attack (e.g. nagging) or withdrawal.

Acknowledging these harmful narratives and dealing with them through meditation and reflection can heal our wounds and enable us to participate more fully and constructively in our intimate relationship.  Fred’s book, Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Lasting Relationship, offers processes to overcome grievance stories.  It also provides an understanding of the nature of forgiveness, the underpinning science, the benefits of forgiveness and how to develop forgiveness (especially through the “gratitude channel”).

Reflection

After almost 35 years in a second marriage, I can readily relate to the issues described by Tami and Terry and the need for the perspectives and skills that they discuss to sustain a second marriage.  Their insights and strategies are particularly relevant, practical and workable.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the acceptance, self-awareness and forgiveness necessary to deepen, enrich and sustain a second intimate relationship.  A key ingredient for success seems to be to develop a “growth mindset” along with tolerance.

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

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

Self-Praise for Health and Wellness and to Make a Difference

In a recent email newsletter, Leo Babauta reminded us of the need to “train your mind with praise”.  So often we beat up on ourselves for falling short, for failure to perform to expectations (ours and others) or for an oversight or omission.  Our negative self-stories take over and cause us to procrastinate and avoid pursuing what is really meaningful in our life.  Leo argues that “shame is a bad teacher” – praise for our self serves to reinforce positive thoughts, emotions and behaviour and leads to good outcomes for others.  Leo readily shared how he uses self-praise to strengthen the good habits in his life.  Elsewhere he freely shared what enabled him to change his life when he was in a bad place.

Christine Wesson reminds us that the benefits of self-praise include growth of self-confidence. She highlights the fact that what we focus on develops and grows (whether positive or negative) and that, if we appreciate ourselves, others take their cue from our demeanour and appreciate us as well.

What can you praise yourself for today?

You can praise yourself for the numerous positive, small things you do in your day such as:

  • Stopping what you were doing and attentively listening to your child or partner
  • Being fully present when you give your partner a “good morning” kiss
  • Writing that piece for your blog or newsletter or service provider
  • Reading something about an act of kindness
  • Expressing genuine appreciation to someone – your partner, child, waiter/waitress, taxi driver
  • Responding promptly to an enquiry from a friend, relative, client or customer
  • Genuinely sharing your feelings with someone close to you
  • Making time to be with a friend
  • Offering to give someone a lift
  • Letting someone into the traffic line who was obviously at a disadvantage
  • Making good use of waiting time to focus on awareness (and not your phone)
  • Stopping to appreciate the beauty of nature – the ocean, sunset, sunrise, trees, flowers or birds
  • Helping someone in need
  • Expressing loving kindness towards someone or a group in your meditation
  • Taking time to exercise – Tai Chi, walking, gym work, playing tennis, going for a run
  • Resisting the temptation to do something else while taking a phone call – being fully present to the speaker.

Really, the list is endless – there is so much that you do during any one day that is praiseworthy – that makes life better for yourself or someone else.  You do not have to realise major accomplishments to make a difference in the world – it is the small things that add up to significant positive outcomes for yourself (and your capacity to be kind to others), your mood (which is contagious), your interactions with others and your close relationships.

Just as it is important to give ourselves praise, it is also vital to provide positive feedback to others in the form of genuine appreciation that is timely and specific – you can make their day with a simple act of praise.

Reflection

It seems to be anti-cultural to praise ourselves – it is a lot easier to be “down on our self”.  Self-praise builds self-confidence and helps to reinforce our positive thinking and behaviour.  It serves to push aside our negative self-stories.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn to appreciate and praise what we do that is healthy for our self and makes a difference (however small) in the lives of people we interact with. It does not take a lot of time to praise our self, but the effect is cumulative and flows over to all the arenas of our life (whether home, work or sports activity).

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

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

Developing Kindness through Meditation

Neuroscientists tell us that we become what we focus on because the act of focusing and paying attention creates new or deepened neural pathways in our brain.  So if we are constantly obsessed with criticism – finding fault – then this stance begins to pervade our whole life, and nothing will ever satisfy us.  So too if we develop kindness through meditation, our thoughts and actions become kinder towards ourselves and others.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA, offers a specific guided meditation designed to develop kindness.  This meditation podcast is one of the weekly podcasts offered by Diana or one of her colleagues on a weekly basis through MARC – drawing on personal experience, dedicated research and the wisdom of the global mindfulness community.  The kindness meditation as with most MARC meditations begins with being grounded and then moves to offering kindness to ourselves followed by kindness to others.

Becoming grounded in meditation

There are multiple ways to become grounded – becoming focused, still and fully present.  Often, we can start with deep breathing to enable our body and mind to relax and increase awareness of our bodily sensations.  This enables our focus to move inwards and away from the distractions and intensity of the day – away from the anxiety, negative thoughts and worries associated with meeting deadlines, doing presentations, dealing with conflict or challenging interactions with colleagues or salespeople in stores and supermarkets.

Once we gain some sense of balance and ease with deep breathing, we can move on to undertake a body scan.  This entails progressively noticing the various parts of our body and related bodily sensations, releasing any tension and tightness as we progress.  We can observe the firmness of our feet on the floor, straightness of our back, weight of our thighs on the seat, the pressure on our back from the chair and the tingling and warmth from energy flow in our fingers.  Observation will lead to awareness of tension which we can release as we go – tautness in our shoulders and arms, rigidity in our stomach, stiffness in our neck or tightness in our jaw, forehead or around the eyes.  It is important to focus on tension release and not seek to work out why we are so uptight or tense or, even more importantly, to avoid “beating up” on ourselves or being unkind towards our self because of the “failing” or deficiency” represented by our tension.

Finding our anchor in meditation

The next stage of the meditation is to find an anchor that we can continuously return to in the event of distractions or loss of focus – an anchor to stop us from being carried away by the tide of our thoughts or emotions.  An anchor is a personal choice – what works for one person, may not work for another.  Typically people choose their breath, sounds in the room or some physical contact point.

You can focus in on your breath – bringing your attention to where you most readily experience breathing – in your chest, through your nose or in your abdomen. For instance, you can increase your awareness of the rise and fall of your abdomen with each breath and choose to rest in the space between your in-breath and out-breath.

Another possible anchor is listening to the sounds in your room – listening without interpreting, not trying to identify the nature or source of a sound and avoiding assigning a feeling, positive or negative, to the sound.  You can develop a personal preference for using your “room tone” as your anchor.

Choosing a physical contact point in your body is a useful anchor because it enables you to ground yourself wherever you happen to be – whether at work or home or travelling.  It can help you to turn to awareness rather than your phone whenever you have waiting time.  An example is to focus on the firmness of your feet on the ground, the floor of your room or the floor of your car (when it is not moving!).  My personal preference is to anchor myself by joining my fingers together and feeling the sensations of warmth, energy and strength that course through the points of contact of the fingers.

Whatever you choose as an anchor, the purpose is to be enable you to return your attention to the focus of your meditation and, in the process, build your awareness muscle.  As Diana reminds us, “minds do wander” – we can become “lost in thought”, distracted by what’s happening around us,  planning our day, worrying about an important meeting, thinking of the next meal, analysing a political situation or indulging in any one of numerous ways that we “live in our minds”.

Throughout the process of grounding, it is important to be kind to our self – not berating our self for inattention or loss of focus, not assigning negative labels to our self, such as “weak”, “distractible”, or any other derogatory term.

Kindness meditation

The kindness meditation begins with focusing on someone who is dear to us – our life partner, a family member, a work colleague or a close friend.  Once you have brought the person into focus, the aim is to extend kind intentions to them – you might wish them peace and tranquillity, protection and safety, good health and strength, happiness and equanimity, the ease of wellness or a combination of these desirable states.

You can now envisage yourself receiving similar or different expressions of kind intentions from the same person.  This can be difficult to do – so we need to be patient with this step and allow our self to be unsuccessful at the start (without self-criticism or unkindness towards our self).  We can try to become absorbed in, and fully present to, the positive feeling of being appreciated and loved. Drawing on our memories of past expressions of kindness by the focal person towards us, can help us overcome the barriers to self-kindness.

You can extend your meditation by focusing your loving kindness meditation on others, particularly those people you have difficulty with or are constantly in conflict with.  We can also extend our kindness meditation by forgiving our self and others for hurt that has been caused.

Reflection

Kindness meditation helps us to grow in mindfulness – to become more aware of others, the ways we tend to diminish our self, our bodily sensations and our thoughts and feelings.  It assists us to develop self-regulation – learning to maintain focus and attention, controlling our anger and criticism (of our self and others) and being open to opportunities and possibilities.   Through the focus on kindness, we can become kinder to our self and others (even those we have difficulty with).

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

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

Improving Your Tennis Performance through Tai Chi

Dr. Peter Wayne, Tai Chi researcher and long-time practitioner, contends that the principles of Tai Chi have a strong synergy with the physical and mental demands of many sports.  In his book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, he supports this contention with examples and scientific research.  In the book, he strongly suggests that sportspeople adopt Tai Chi as a form of cross-training, especially people engaged in the sports of tennis, golf or skiing where the positive impact on performance is more direct.  Throughout the book, he provides specific Tai Chi related exercises for each of these three sports.  

How Tai Chi practice improves tennis performance

Peter’s research led him to identify the eight active ingredients of Tai Chi which are the primary focus of his abovementioned book.  He was able to explain the power of Tai Chi to strengthen the mind-body connection – a key ingredient for effective performance in any sport.  Peter highlighted this connection in relation to tennis by drawing on Timothy Gallwey’s work in relation to the inner game of tennis which I discussed previously.  In particular, Peter focused on Timothy’s emphasis on self-observation, mental and bodily awareness and the need to be non-judgmental when making mistakes in tennis.

Peter also focused on the specific active ingredients of Tai Chi that had a profound positive impact on tennis performance:

  • Awareness (including focused-attention and mindfulness) – Tai Chi builds bodily awareness (positioning and movement), strengthens the capacity to focus (on the ball and the opposition), and develops the ability to be fully in the present moment.
  • Intention (includes expectation and belief) – associated with this is the power of visualization, an important ingredient in improving and sustaining sports performance.  Tai Chi training draws strongly on metaphor and imagery in relation to movement, drawing on images from nature such as the movement of clouds and the wings of a bird.  In his book, Peter draws heavily on the research into “motor imagery” and its positive effects on performance.  The focused attention and groundedness involved in Tai Chi help to reinforce self-belief and shut out the negative self-stories that can impact expectations e.g. “I’m going to lose this tennis set” or “I’m going to do a double fault” or “I can’t possibly handle his serve”. 
  • Grounded Movement – Peter explains that the principles of Tai Chi state that “all movement is started in the feet, steered by the waist, and administered by the hands” and this is reflected in the practice of Tai Chi.  This process of movement is built into tennis strokes such as the forehand and backhand and incorporated in basic tennis training [Early in my tennis playing experience, I would coach very young children in tennis basic steps and the coaching followed this pattern].  Peter provides a basic training exercise in his book that he calls Tai Chi Tennis which mirrors this grounded movement.
  • Balance (both physical and emotional) – Tai Chi involves considerable weight transfer from one leg to the other, from forward to backward.  Weight transfer and the related capacity to maintain balance are essential components of tennis shots, especially volleys and tennis smashes.  Emotional balance is linked to the inner game of tennis mentioned above, including the capacity to manage mistakes and deal with setbacks.

Reflection

Peter’s research and practice reinforces the power of Tai Chi to improve tennis performance. His committed, professional approach to Tai Chi over many years is highly inspirational as is his book that draws all this together in terms of “active ingredients”.  As we grow in mindfulness through the practice of Tai Chi and meditation, we can increase our bodily awareness, emotional and physical balance and draw heavily on the power of mindfulness to strengthen focused attention and intention.  The real benefits will come with regular practice. 

This writing and reflection strengthen my motivation to increase my practice of Tai Chi and other mindfulness practices that will, in turn, improve my tennis performance and increase my capacity to be-in-the-moment and experience all the positivity that this entails.

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

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

Developing Compassionate Action through Mindfulness and Listening to Personal Stories

Tara Brach recently spoke to Jon Kabat-Zinn on the theme of How Mindfulness Can Heal the World.  This discussion took place as part of the online Radical Compassion Challenge held over ten days in January 2020.  Jon’s central theme was that that it is not enough “to sit on the cushion” and meditate at a time when the world is experiencing such suffering, injustice, racial divisions and hatred; the challenge is to take compassionate action, activated by our growing awareness of our own reality and that of the world around us developed through mindfulness.

Many doors to one room

Jon argued that there are “many doors to the one room” – not only in terms of how we deal with the “agitation” we experience in today’s world but also in terms of how we individually respond by taking action.  Mindfulness can help us deal with our fear and anxiety either through experiencing that fear at a fully emotional and bodily level or by examining the fear conceptually to see its origins and its manifestation in our behaviour e.g. by blaming or judging.  The compassionate action we take will depend on our circumstances, our abilities and our self-awareness.  Jon, for example, stated that the Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program he developed was a political and compassionate action designed to relieve suffering at a time when professors at his institution, MIT, were developing weapons of mass destruction for the Vietnam War.  Tara, too, has taken compassionate action in many ways, including the establishment of Sounds True, a multimedia publishing company with a mission “To Wake Up the World”.

The role of personal stories and mindful listening

Both Jon and Tara highlighted the need to hear the stories of people who are less privileged than ourselves (e.g. in terms of their race, education, background, mental health, intellectual and physical abilities, careers, opportunities and overall wellness).  While they acknowledge that mindfulness is necessary to develop awareness of ourselves and the world around us, it is insufficient by itself to stimulate compassionate action.  Personal stories of suffering in its many forms can help us identify how we can take action and provide the emotional stimulus to act.  Stories in the mental health arena, such as What It’s Like to Survive Depression … Again and Again, can stimulate compassionate action.

Mindfulness can help us to develop our life purpose, build resilience and develop creativity but the real challenge is to channel these into compassionate action.  We are sure to encounter blockages such as our unrealistic expectations, biased assumptions, fear of failure and mistakes, but our growing awareness can help to overcome these.  The challenge is to find the momentum to begin and to revisit our motivation to sustain our effort and have a real impact on some aspect of the suffering of others.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware of the suffering and pain of people in the world around us.  This awareness can translate into compassionate action if we listen mindfully to the stories of people who are less privileged than ourselves.  Self-awareness can heighten our acknowledgement of how much we are privileged in so many ways and help us to identify both an arena for personal action and a point of intervention.  This will demand overcoming procrastination and the fears that hold our inaction in place.

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

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

Developing Our Inner Life as a Leader

As we grow in mindfulness, we develop our inner life – realising a deeper self-awareness, developing increased understanding of the nature and strength of our personal triggers and building a greater understanding of, and tolerance for, other people’s differences.  This enriched inner life builds our capacity for insight, resilience, creativity and integration of our words and actions with our life purpose – all essential traits of effective leadership.  Ginny Whitelaw, in her book The Zen Leader, describes this reframing and reorientation of a leader as a flip from “Out There” to “In Here”.

We create our world “out there”

Ginny explains that what we consider to be “out there” (external reality) is, in fact, a projection of our inner world.  Drawing on her study of biophysics, martial arts and Zen philosophy, Ginny marshals her arguments to demonstrate that our external world as we perceive and experience it, is mostly of our own making.  Her argument revolves around several key insights:

  • Limited perception – Ginny points out that our human capacity is to perceive external reality in two or three dimensions (the latter achieved mainly by artists and architects).  She maintains that our external world exists in ten dimensions, most of which are outside our awareness.
  • Cultural filters – our national culture, the world we are raised in, creates filters that shape our perceptions, beliefs, words and actions.   Naomi Osaka (Japanese tennis star), for example, explained in an interview for the Brisbane International that she was bemused by the enthusiasm, boisterousness and naturalness of Australian tennis spectators – which she pleasantly experienced as a sharp contrast to the “politeness” of Japanese tennis spectators.
  • Personal triggers – what we experience individually and differentially as negative triggers is shaped by our early life experiences which heighten our sensitivity to different interactions – a sensitivity that can be reflected in a constant need for control, an overwhelming drive to prove that we are “better than”, an obsessive need to please so that we are liked, or the continuous perception of criticism of ourselves by others.  These negative triggers are often the result of distorted perception of our external world – for example, we see criticism where none is intended or where the opposite is intended.
  • Expectations – our expectations reflect our self-image and influence how we experience others’ interactions with us.  Ginny maintains that through our expectations “we’ve pre-tuned our senses to notice only certain things and to place certain interpretations on them”.  Our expectations that reside “in here” create the world we experience as “out there”.

So, what we experience as “out there” is highly subjective and is of our own creation – we are constantly making our own world.  There are inherent deficiencies and dangers for leaders in assuming that what we perceive and experience, is “real” and is the only reality.  Reg Revans, the father of the action learning approach to leadership development, warns us that if we assume that we know what is real we are going to cause trouble for ourselves and others.  Politicians frequently attempt to shape our perceptions of reality by stating unequivocally that “the reality is…” (invariably something of their own making that serves their purpose).

Developing our inner life (as a leader)

In her book on Zen leadership, Ginny offers some penetrating exercises that address our individual distortions of “out there” and enrich our inner life (what is “in here”) thus empowering us to “lead fearlessly” but attuned to others’ reality and own purpose.  These reflective exercises fall into several categories:

  • What World do You Make? – this exercise built around personal skills and traits as well as values that you hold strongly, develops an insight into how you shape your world in a typical week. (p.86)
  • Turning a Difficult Relationship – involves reflecting on an interaction with curiosity and openness to ascertain what you personally brought to the interaction (in terms of perceptions and triggers).  It entails looking into the mirror, discovering the fear at the root of your perception and behaviour and “claiming your power” by naming and facing your fear. (p.97)
  • Sitting Meditation as a Core Practice – Ginny offers a guided meditation based on sitting and grounding that releases tension, develops deep body-mind relaxation and provides the opportunity to gain greater awareness of what is “in here” and “out there” for you. (p.101)

Ginny’s book is rich with insights and personal exercises and reflections to deepen self-awareness, enhance self-regulation and develop ways to empower yourself to take your place fully in the world (not constrained by distorted perceptions, unfounded assumptions and projections or unexposed fears).

Reflection

Our life experience and our personal responses provide a rich store for reflection and insight.  Developing our inner life is not a luxury for a leader – it is an imperative because leaders are able to influence others and to enrich their lives.  The starting point is acknowledging and accepting that the world we experience is something of our own making and that we can remake our world (and help others to do likewise) by growing in mindfulness through meditation (such as the sitting meditation proposed by Ginny), by reflection (such as focusing on what we brough to a difficult interaction) and by open exploration (seeking with curiosity to identify our personal “imprint” of our world).

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

Self-Compassion for Healthy Eating

Marsha Hudnall, President and Co-owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run (a whole-body wellness retreat), offers an interesting perspective on how to develop healthy eating – whether that involves avoiding overeating, under-eating or eating foods that we know cause inflammation through allergy or intolerance.  Marsha in her article on this topic suggests that self-compassion is the missing factor in enabling us to persist with healthy eating

Often when we stray from the ideal approach to healthy eating that meets our specific needs, we berate ourselves for our failure to stick to the right path.  Marsha has been a pioneer in the field of non-diet and alternative approaches to healthy eating through her writing, teaching and her work as a board member of the Center for Mindful Eating.   She explains her personal experience and perspective on mindful eating in a Mindful Dietician podcast.  Marsha offers advice too for people who are on dietary restrictions as a result of a health condition – available in a paid webinar titled, When the Doctor Says No.

Self-Compassion for healthy eating

Self-compassion has been the life pursuit of Kristin Neff who stresses the importance of self-kindness to overcome negative thinking in the face of set-backs or temporary defeats.  Kristin reinforces the need to recognise that we share a common humanity and part of our life experience is larger than ourselves (we are not the only one encountering life challenges).  She stresses the role of mindfulness in dealing with thoughts and feelings that damage our self-image and using mindful approaches to grow self-awareness and self-regulation.

In her podcast interview mentioned above, Marsha identifies two key barriers to effective self-compassion – the social and personal obsession with body image (and related materialistic values) and the relentless pursuit of perfectionism.  In relation to perfectionism, she argues that we need to acknowledge that we cannot be perfect – we will make mistakes and poor choices.  This acceptance opens the way to new learning, new habits and thoughtful responses to life crises.  This fundamental realisation was a real breakthrough for tennis player Ash Barty who became Number 1 in the world in 2019.

Mindfulness and mindful eating

Marsha stated that her introduction to mindful eating occurred when Jon Kabat-Zinn visited the Green Mountain retreat center.  She came to understand that mindfulness was essentially about awareness and understanding of the influences shaping our responses and the potentiality of making different choices – choosing between a range of options rather than being locked into a single way of doing things, e.g. mindful eating instead of dieting.  Marsha alluded to the perspective of her mother-in-law, Thelma (Founder of Green Mountain), who talked about “the plank of choice” versus the “diet tightrope”. 

Marsha broadens our perspective on mindful eating when she offers suggestions in her article on ways to bring self-compassion to the process of eating:

  • Give up a fixed way of thinking – what Marsha calls “black and white thinking”.  She suggests, for example, that pizza should not always be branded as bad for you – it may be the best choice when celebrating an achievement with friends. You can be mindful of others, the occasion and the flexibility you have on that occasion – rather than adopting a fixed position that leads to subsequent dissatisfaction for not having “participated” fully in the celebration. In her podcast interview, Marsha argues that we need to adopt a “middle-ground” instead of pursuing unattainable perfection.
  • Become aware of your negative self-talk when eating – Marsha suggests that you write down these thoughts, and also have prepared responses that you can adopt when the debilitating self-critique starts up.
  • Practice giving yourself kind responses – do this whenever a negative thought enters your mind during the day.  The more you do it, the easier it gets and it quickly becomes a default way of thinking – just as awareness practice while waiting can replace the default mode of grabbing your mobile phone to fill the gap.

Drawing on her own personal experience and awareness of research findings, Marsha maintains that mindfulness can help us to contribute more positively and successfully to our own family, work and professional arena.  She observed that as you practice mindfulness, you become more aware of the subtleties of being mindful and its impacts in every arena of your life.  Marsha noted, too, that exploring neuroscience and an understanding of the brain, better equips us to deal with our daily challenges.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that drive us to unhealthy eating and related practices and build the resilience to achieve self-regulation in our eating habits.  Mindful eating involves more than just eating slowly, it also extends to identifying and managing our negative self-talk that can occur while we are eating and other times throughout the day.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

Healing the Impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences and Childhood Trauma

The classic study on Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) conducted by CDC-Kaiser Permanente with more than 17,000 members of a health organisation found that two thirds had suffered at least one ACE and more than 20% reported suffering three or more adverse experiences in childhood.  Adverse childhood experiences cover the whole gamut of experiences resulting in immediate and long-term effects on a child – the experiences cover aspects such as physical, psychological or sexual abuse, violence in the home, mental illness of carers, separation from parents at an early age, divorce or suicide within the family.  ACEs occur irrespective of gender, culture, context or economic status – although, children in poverty situations are more likely to experience ACEs.  The range of adverse childhood experiences is extensive, their incidence is extremely high, and their impacts are long-lasting.

The impacts of adverse childhood experiences

This is an area that has been extensively researched and documented.  CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) summarises the long-terms effects of ACEs in terms of their physiological, mental, relationship and behavioural impacts.  The impacts are far-reaching and long-lasting.  Nadine Burke Harris found in her research that toxic stress arising from adverse childhood experiences changes a person’s biological and neurological make-up and can result in an over-active stress response.  

Nadine was inspired by the ACE study mentioned above and undertook extensive reading of research results and conducted her own research.  In a TED talk, she shared her conclusions that early childhood experiences and related trauma impacted every area of a developing mind and body:

High doses of adversity [in childhood] not only affect our brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.

Preventing and healing the impacts of adverse childhood experiences

Nadine has dedicated her life and work to redressing the impacts of adverse childhood experiences and related childhood trauma. In 2007, she founded, as medical director, the Bayview Child Health Center (BCHC) which is not only focused on individual child health and wellness but also activism, education and community development.

Also, as a founding member and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, Nadine has contributed substantially on a global basis to the development and implementation of strategies to prevent and heal the impacts of adverse childhood experiences in individuals, communities and society generally.  Some of the strategies developed by the Center and other activists in the area include:

  • Parental education in childhood development, sources of stress, the impacts of adverse childhood experiences and positive parenting
  • Multidisciplinary health care teams for children and youth
  • Screening for adverse childhood experiences by primary medical health practitioners and paediatricians
  • Community development to create social support systems and collaborative caring environments
  • Interventions in schools and political systems to raise awareness, support policies and action plans
  • Dissemination of the latest research into the nature and impacts of adverse childhood experiences.
  • Carer support centres
  • Early detection, intervention and home visitations for identified at-risk situations for children
  • Enabling reconnection with others through social prescribing and encouraging reconnection with nature
  • Adopting the guidelines and principles of trauma-informed mindfulness.

Nadine has documented her research and work in the area through her recent book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity.  Together with other concerned professionals, parents and community members from the Center for Youth Wellness, Nadine has contributed to the development of the Stress Health website designed to help carers and parents to develop the basic components of a child’s life that will protect them, or help to heal them, from toxic stress.  The website provides an ACE quiz based on the original ACE study to help you identify for yourself or your child the level of toxic stress experienced in childhood.  On completing the quiz, you are given access to several suggested strategies for stress reduction, including mindfulness.

Reflection

Many of us have experienced one or more adverse childhood events.  The care and concern of a loving friend or relative may have been instrumental in helping us to overcome or, at least, reduce the impacts of these experiences in our life, work and relationships.  Other formative experiences such as personal study, community engagement or personal development may have helped also.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a deepened self-awareness and understanding of the impacts of adverse childhood experiences in our own lives, and increase our capacity for self-regulation to reduce those impacts.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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