Introducing Compassion into Leadership Development

In the previous post, I discussed the approach of YMCA of USA on how to build mindfulness into leadership development. The principles and strategies for the implementation of this change revolved around a core tenet of patience – moving gradually to insert mindfulness into existing leadership development programs. Wendy Saunders who has focused on compassion for many years identified the cultivation of compassion in the organisation as a more complex change process with some different challenges. This is despite the fact that YMCA is focused on compassionate action within the community and is totally dedicated to diversity and inclusion.

Most organisations today recognise the need for diversity and inclusion. While much progress has been achieved in creating diversity in workplaces, the real challenge has been translating that into compassionate action through conscious inclusion strategies and actions. YMCA of USA recognises that the nature of their organisation’s focus and their worldwide reach makes diversity and inclusion paramount. Their strong commitment in the area is reflected in conscious inclusion practices, including having a “supplier diversity program”.

What are the challenges in embedding compassion into leadership development?

Despite the focus of the YMCA of USA on compassionate action (as the reason for its existence), Wendy found that there were real challenges to integrating compassion into leadership development in the organisation:

  • some staff believed that there was no place for compassion in the workplace – a strong task and outcomes focus challenged the desirability of compassion (a people-focused activity). Resource constraints and the ever-increasing need for YMCA services would cement this belief.
  • others experienced “cognitive dissonance” resulting from what they perceived as decisions and actions by the organisation that were lacking in compassion, e.g. laying off staff.

The concept of compassionate love, the title of Wendy’s personal website, is often viewed as “touchy feely” – an arena where feelings and emotions are more openly expressed to the discomfort of others. Feelings and emotions are often suppressed in the workplace and people have real difficulty openly discussing them – particularly, not wanting to be seen as “soft”. However, the reality is that it takes real courage to show compassion.

Introducing compassion into leadership development

Wendy suggests that, given the nature of the challenges to embedding compassion into leadership development, a central strategy has to be introducing compassion through “conversation and dialogue”. She indicated that at a YMCA retreat attended by 400 people, most people expressed the desire for “more compassion in the workplace”.

Besides making compassion a part of the conversation and dialogue, other strategies include storytelling (making people aware of compassionate action taken by others), discussing the benefits of compassion and the neuroscience supporting it and helping leaders to be aware of the ways to model compassion in the workplace, such as:

  • the way they “see and treat” people in the workplace – overcoming basic attribution errors, including where they judge themselves by their intentions and others by their actions. Associated with this is the need to avoid ascribing a negative label to a person because of a single act or omission on their part
  • being aware of the suffering of others and taking action to redress the suffering e.g. constructive action to support someone experiencing a mental health issue, taking action to overcome a toxic work environment or being ready to explore the factors (external and internal) that may be affecting the work performance of a staff member
  • actively working on addressing their own “unconscious bias” and blind spots that potentially result in decisions that unknowingly cause unnecessary suffering for others
  • providing opportunities to practice compassion meditation and group activities to support meditation practices.

Resourcing compassion in the workplace

Wendy stressed the need to provide resources on compassion to help build the knowledge base of the leaders in the organisation and to engender a commitment beyond a single individual such as the CEO (who can change frequently). Resources include courses, books, videos, podcasts, research articles and presentations/workshops by experts in compassion. She recommended books such as The Mind of the Leader and Awakening Compassion at Work and highlighted the resources on compassion available on her own website.

Wendy also recommends a course that she participated in that really stimulated her longstanding interest in compassion – CBCT (Cognitively-Based Compassion Training) conducted by Emory University. She is continuing her own studies by completing an Executive Masters in Positive Leadership and Strategy. Her thesis will address approaches to compassionate reorganisation and the evidence in terms of positive outcomes for individuals and the organisations involved.

As leaders grow in mindfulness through integration of mindfulness into leadership development, they will be developing the awareness that provides the impetus for compassion. Providing specific strategies to engender compassion in the workplace, such as introducing and supporting compassion meditation, will enable leaders to model compassionate action for others.

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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.

Cultivating Concentration through Meditation

In some traditions, concentration is seen as separate from but essential to mindfulness. Concentration is described as “one-pointed focus” or bringing our attention to a single focus in a unified way. Concentration is thus viewed as the servant and enabler of mindful awareness – both inner and outer awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn maintains that “concentration is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice” and that as we cultivate our concentration we increase our capacity for mindfulness – becoming fully aware in the moment.

Cultivating concentration through meditation

Diana Winston in a guided meditation on Cultivating Concentration offers four breath-based meditation practices that can build concentration and enable us to stop our minds floating in multiple directions as random thoughts assail us. While we are naturally able to concentrate to achieve a task (e.g. write a business plan, read a blog post, carry on a conversation), we have lost the art of single-minded focus owing to the level of distraction that surrounds us at any point in time. Jon Kabat-Zinn, for example, maintains that we are “perpetually self-distracting”.

Diana suggests that some simple meditation practices can cultivate our concentration, and through repetition, develop the capacity to maintain our concentration over longer periods of time. She drew on research conducted at UCLA that demonstrated that adolescents and adults with ADHD who persisted with meditation practice over eight weeks, improved their ability to maintain their focus, even when there were many things competing for their attention.

Meditation practices to cultivate concentration

  1. feeling the breath – concentrating on the act of breathing by focusing on where in your body you experience your breathing. For example, this could involve focusing on your breathing as you feel it in your nose, abdomen or chest. This requires focused attention on the breath, not attempting to control it.
  2. naming the act of breathing – here you concentrate on your breathing, and as you do so, describe what is happening, “breath in, breath out”, “chest rising, chest falling”. This focuses your mind on what is happening in your body as your breathe.
  3. counting your breaths – as you breathe, count each breath. Diana suggests that you count 1 to 10 and then begin again. Whenever, your mind wanders from counting your breaths, she encourages you to start your count again. As an alternative to the ten count, you can adopt the practice of counting to 50, as proposed in the “awareness-focus-loop” approach.
  4. using the gap – there is a natural gap between your “in” and “out” breath that you can focus on. As you complete each “in” and “out” breath, take your focus to a part of your body (e.g. your hands or feet) before you begin the next breath. This process can serve to reinforce that part of your body as an anchor for your mindfulness.

In each of these meditation exercises, it is important that you develop the capacity to return to your focus once a distracting thought intervenes. This strengthens your concentration power and increases your capacity to be mindful when undertaking any activity in your daily life.

We can grow in mindfulness by cultivating the power of our concentration through specifically targeted meditation practices that aim to develop the ability to sustain a single focus over an extended period of time. As our concentration power develops, our inner and outer awareness deepen and become richer and more life-enhancing.

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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.

Resilience and Positive Psychology

Louis Alloro, co-founder and faculty member for the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) at The Flourishing Center, recently presented a webinar on The Science of Resilience. In his presentation, he described resilience as the ability to persist in the face of adversity or setbacks in the pursuit of one’s goals. This approach focuses on perseverance when encountering blockages – a view that emphasizes the ongoing nature of resilience, rather than the espisodic view which describes resilience as “bouncing back” from some major adversity.

Positive Psychology and resilience

Positive Psychology has its foundations in the work of Dr. David Seligman, author of the books, Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness. David highlighted our capacity to live an optimally fulfilling life through training ourselves to think positively rather than indulge in negative or pessimistic thinking. Positive thinking keeps us open to possibilities, while pessimistic thinking focuses on barriers to achievement. Resilience builds through positive thinking, while pessimistic thinking leads us “to give up”.

In David’s view, “authentic happiness” is achieved by putting the spotlight on our strengths, not our deficiencies. This positive perspective enables us to develop what is best in ourselves, rather than being obsessed with where we “fall short” or where we deem ourselves to be “not good enough”. Focus on the positive aspects of ourselves enables the achievement of sustainable contentment or equanimity and releases the energy to build a better world. It shifts the emphasis from avoiding “mental illness” to developing “wellness”.

Our thinking shapes our emotions and behaviour

In his presentation, Louis discussed the ABC Model underpinning authentic happiness. “A” stands for the activating event (or stimulus), “B” for beliefs or thoughts about the event and “C” for consequences expressed in terms of emotions and behaviour. So, when something happens, we can view it positively or negatively and, depending on our beliefs or thoughts about the situation, we will experience emotions (positive or negative) which, in turn, leads to our behaviour. One of the easiest ways to view this cycle (optimistic or pessimistic) is to consider the possible range of responses to “being ignored by a colleague at work”.

Louis reminds us of the words of Viktor Frankl that there is a gap between stimulus and response, and that choice and consequent freedom lie in the gap. We can choose how we use the “gap” to shape our thinking about a situation and that choice determines our resilience and happiness. A fundamental way to do this is to bring mindful awareness to our intention (why we are doing what we are doing), to our attention (consciously paying attention) and to our attitude (one of accepting what is, openness to possibilities and curiosity about our inner and outer world).

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can progressively overcome our innate negative bias and build a positive orientation that develops our resilience, releases energy and opens the way for creative actions to deepen our wellness and happiness and contribute to a better world. Developing mindful awareness of what we bring to each situation – our intention, attention and attitude – enables us to be truly resilient in the face of difficulties and blockages (real or imagined).

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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.

Can Your Experience Compassion Fatigue?

Kelly McGonigal in her presentation for the Mindful Healthcare Summit challenged the widely held belief that you cannot experience compassion fatigue. Many people contend that compassion fatigue does not occur because the heart is capable of endless kindness and love for others. Kelly maintains that motivation and goodness of heart are not sufficient to prevent the depression and burnout that can result from compassion fatigue. She asserts that compassion has to be supported by adequate self-care if it is to be sustained.

Compassion and the stress response

Kelly argues that compassion is like the stress response when viewed physiologically. Compassion floods the body with hormones such as dopamine and marshals the body’s energy to relieve the suffering of others. However, while this can be very energising and exciting in the short term, compassion takes its toll in the longer term both bodily and mentally, as we do not have endless physical and mental reserves.

The possibility of compassion fatigue can be increased where a helping professional or carer experiences vicarious trauma or moral distress – the latter being defined as being required to do things that clash with a person’s values or moral perspective, a frequently occurring ethical dilemma within the medical profession.

Compassion fatigue

Kelly suggests that compassion fatigue occurs when a person lacks the energy and resources to pursue their motivation to care in such way that it achieves personal satisfaction (activates the reward system). Outcomes achieved fall short of personal expectations and/or the expectations of others, despite the strength of the caring intention. The compassionate person feels exhausted and feels that the more they give the less they experience satisfaction – the gap between input of energy/time and the expected satisfaction increases, leading to burnout. The depletion of energy and satisfaction could be the result of factors outside the helper’s/carer’s control – such as structural blockages, breakdown in information exchange, overwork or under-resourcing.

Compassion needs nourishment

One of the issues that exacerbates the problem of compassion fatigue is the belief in the endless capacity of an individual to be compassionate through the goodness of their heart or the purity of their intentions. As a result of this false belief, helpers/carers fail to take the necessary actions to nourish themselves (and their compassionate action) and/or are reluctant to accept compassion extended to them by others.

Personal nourishment can take many forms – getting adequate sleep, meditation (especially self-compassion meditation), listening to relaxing/inspiring music, prayer (whatever form it takes) or drawing strength and healing from nature. It also requires an openness to receiving compassion from others – challenging false beliefs such as “no one else can do this”, “I will be seen to be weak if I accept help from others”, “I really shouldn’t pander to my own needs by having that short break or having a reasonable period for lunch”, “I can’t afford to become dependent on others for assistance”. Additionally, positive social connection– to offset the tendency to withdraw under extreme stress– is a critical source of self-nourishment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation our awareness of others’ suffering and our motivation to help are heightened. The capacity for compassionate action is not limitless and needs nourishment. Central to this nourishment is self-compassion.

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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.

Shaping Our Brains to Build Resilience

Richard Davidson, Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds, recently addressed the Mindful Healthcare Summit on the topic The Science of Resilience. Richard, an internationally renowned neuroscientist, stated that his research and that of his colleagues has convinced him that we can shape our brains in a way that builds resilience and helps us to flourish rather than be tossed around “like a sailboat without a rudder on a turbulent sea”. Richard is the co-author with Daniel Goleman of the book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

What is resilience?

Richard defines resilience as “the rapidity with which you can recover from adversity”. Linda Graham described this trait as “bouncing back“. Richard stated that neuroscience can actually measure the rapidity of recovery by exploring (through brain imaging) two key aspects of the brain that feature in dealing with stress or adverse situations, (1) the level of cortisol released by the brain and (2) the degree to which the amygdala is activated.

He highlighted the brain’s plasticity as proof that we can train our minds and take more responsibility for shaping our brains and determining the direction of our brain plasticity – which most of the time occurs unwittingly through forces external and internal to ourselves. The key is to understand how our brain develops resilience and to make a commitment to shape our brain in a way that builds wellbeing rather than diminishes it.

How to shape our brain to build resilience

Richard suggests that to actively build resilience we need to develop in four key areas through focused meditations and aligned action:

  1. Awareness – he describes this as attention to our own bodies and the tension within. Mindful breathing and body scan can help to develop this awareness and related ability to be grounded in our bodies. Calmness and clarity emerge from this aspect of shaping our minds.
  2. Connection – having and nurturing harmonious and supportive relationships that provide an effective buffer for us when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Meditations that can help build social connection are the loving kindness and gratitude meditations. Positivity, expressions of appreciation and empathy can nurture these relationships.
  3. Insight – an in-depth knowledge of our personal narrative/self-story that generates negative self-evaluation and false beliefs that contribute to a lack of resilience and depression. We have to recognise these self-beliefs as merely thoughts, not reality. Meditations such as the R.A.I.N. meditation, S.B.N.R.R. process and reflections on resentment can help us shift this narrative from negative thoughts generating self-defeating emotions to a positive narrative that is enabling and builds resilience in the face of setbacks or adversity.
  4. Purpose – clarity about life purpose, and alignment of words and actions with this purpose, enable us to surf the waves of daily life and to manage the vicissitudes that inevitably disturb our equilibrium. Bill George describes your purpose as your True North and offers ways to discover it. In a previous post I offered a series of questions to help find your unique purpose and a path of action to pursue that purpose.

Developing a permeable self

Richard stated that the aspect of “insight” mentioned above is a key component of resilience. We tend to develop a fixed and stable view of our self which causes us problems in conflicted situations. It is this “fixed identity” that becomes challenged when our emotions overflow, especially when they “bleed” from one adverse interaction into another encounter. We need to be able to “shake loose the rigidity” by making our sense of self more permeable – open to new experiences, insights and feedback.

As we grow in mindfulness through exploring different forms of meditation on a consistent basis, we can develop a more balanced and permeable view of our self. We can build our resilience and wellbeing through developing awareness, connection, insight and purpose.

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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.

Practical Mindfulness for Profound Effects

In the recent online Mindful Healthcare Summit, Jon Kabat-Zinn spoke about the profound effects of practical mindfulness. While the context he spoke about was the healthcare arena – doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and related roles – his comments have universal application because they relate to us as human beings and are built on the latest neuroscience findings.

Getting out of our heads

Jon describes us as “perpetually self-distracting” – we continuously distract ourselves from the task at hand through our thoughts which are incessantly active. Disruptive advertising in social media aid and abet this self-distraction to the point where mobile devices are now described as “weapons of mass distraction“.

Jon encourages us to be awake to the world around us – to the people and nature that surround us. He suggests we need to move out of the “thought realm” into the “awake realm”. He comments that when we are in the shower in the morning, we are more likely to be mentally at a meeting rather than aware of the sensation of the water on our skin. When we arrive at work, we are likely to be thinking about, and talking about, the traffic we encountered on the way.

He suggests that a very simple practical exercise when we wake up is to be consciously aware of our body – to “really wake up” and feel the sensation in our legs, our feet, our arms. He urges us not to start the day by getting lost in thought but to start by inhabiting our own body. When we do so, we open ourselves to the profound effects of being present in the moment, of being open to our capacity for focus and inner creativity.

Listening to others

Jon maintains that “listening is a huge part of mindfulness practice”. To truly listen, you need to be present to the other person – not lost in your own thoughts. When you attend to the other person through active listening, they “feel met, seen and encountered”. Jon draws on the work of Dr. Ron Epstein to support this assertion. Ron, the author of Attending: Medicine, Mindfulness and Humanity, established through his research and medical practice that “attending” achieved improved health outcomes for both the patient and the doctor.

Being fully present

Jon maintains that while meditation and other mindfulness practices build your awareness, the essence of mindfulness is to be fully present whatever you are doing. He argues that “the kindest thing you can do to yourself is to be present in the moment”. Jon reminds us that “tomorrow is uncertain, yesterday is over” so to live in the past or the future is self-defeating, disabling and potentially harmful to our health and well-being. He encourages us to meet each day (which is all that we have) with a clear intention – a commitment to make a positive and caring contribution to whatever is our life/work endeavour. This will have the profound effect of enhancing our own mental health and resilience, while creating an environment that is mentally healthy for others.

Tapping into our inner resources

Sometimes we can be so focused on the needs (or expectations) of others that we overlook the need for self-caring in the face of the stresses of life and work. He challenges us to befriend our self by tapping into our deep inner resources and “boundaryless awareness“. He contends from his own research and practice in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) that our bodies are “intrinsically and genetically self-healing” and that we are our own “deepest resource for health and well-being”. We need to access these healing inner resources through the practice of mindfulness in our daily life and work.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindful action in our life and work and mindfulness practices, we can tap our limitless inner resources, become increasingly self-healing, develop mentally healthy environments for others and achieve a higher level of fulfillment and happiness.

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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 Mindful Cities

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) conducts 2 day mindful leadership courses around the world based on the three pillars of mindfulness, neuroscience and emotional intelligence. Participants in these courses tend to be motivated to practice mindfulness and spread the learning and ideas to various local arenas such as schools, organisations and community settings. There are now movements underway to integrate these initiatives on a local level by developing “mindful cities”.

The Mindful City Project

One of the initiatives designed to aggregate local mindfulness activities is the Mindful City Project established by co-founders Deb Smolensky (CEO), Michelle Spehr and Ellen Rogin. Their approach is based on the three pillars of awareness, compassion (including self-compassion) and generosity. These pillars are underpinned by the knowledge, practices and insights emerging from neuroscience and emotional intelligence research.

In an interview with Jen Arnold, Deb and Michelle discussed their own background and experience with mindfulness and the motivation and purpose for the Mindful City Project. Deb mentioned that she had been introduced to mindfulness at age 10 by her drama teacher who taught his class to use body scan to overcome nervousness. In her twenties, she resorted to meditation to deal with her anxiety attacks.

Deb, Michelle and Ellen each have experience in the wellness arena, with Ellen’s experience focused on financial wellness. They saw the need to help communities to become more connected, collaborative and compassionate – to adopt a holistic approach to enable the whole community to thrive. The Mindful City Project initiative sets out to develop a framework that will enable both a common language and a set of practices (encapsulated in checklists). The aim is to provide education, resources and funding to enable leaders in city communities to progressively develop their own mindful city and to share their relevant knowledge and experience with leaders in other cities.

A beta mindful city project

Deb and Michelle discussed a pilot project in the city of Highland Park Illinois where they are working with three community groups – schools, businesses and public services such as hospitals and the military. A key intervention strategy is the development of a “layered form of education and practices” for each type of participant group.

For example, different seminars are conducted for students, teachers and parents – enabling reinforcement in all directions and exponential growth in the use of mindfulness practices. Schools are provided with a checklist of practice options that they can adopt – the practices covering each of the three pillars. A school, for example, could inculcate the practice of taking a mindful breath when the bell rings and/or instituting mindful pauses in classrooms.

A key pillar of the mindful city project is generosity. Schools can choose the level and breadth of their generosity endeavours, e.g. supporting a charity or adopting a pay it forward program. Deb and Michelle gave the example of a school that raised USD160,000 for childhood cancer.

In developing awareness in businesses, Deb and Michelle stated that they found the foundations for mindfulness already present in organisations in a number of forms:

  • emotional intelligence incorporated in leadership training
  • a focus on “unconscious bias” within diversity and inclusion training

Unfortunately, these mindfulness initiatives are often segregated and lose the opportunity for mutual reinforcement and the synergy that comes from a holistic approach. In the Mindful City Project approach, mindfulness training covers both internal and external elements:

  • internal – emotional intelligence and inner awareness
  • external – compassion and generosity

As people grow in mindfulness through education and mindfulness practices in schools, businesses and homes, the potential exists for leaders to build mindful cities that thrive on connection, collaboration and compassion. The Mindful City Project provides the resources and funding to enable cities to create their desired future.

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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.

Overcoming Procrastination by Building the Awareness Muscle

We can handle procrastination by adopting the direct approach of focusing on a task that we are putting off and exploring through meditation what is the self-story behind the procrastination. This involves bringing the story “above the line” – bringing the messages we are telling our self to the level of conscious awareness. However, procrastination may be a habit related to a range of activities and the habit will often be accompanied by inertia – a lack of energy to move forward. In this case, it could be useful to attack the problem of procrastination indirectly by building what I call, your “awareness muscle”.

Building your awareness muscle

Tony Stubblebine offers a meditation exercise that can progressively develop your awareness muscle (or what he describes as your “mental muscle”). His exercise is a variation on mindful breathing that takes distractions or mental diversions as a source of awareness strengthening. His argument is that every time that your focus wanders represents an opportunity to increase your awareness of what is going on for you and hence building your awareness muscle – both the mental element and the energetic element in terms of readiness/energy to deal with the feelings/emotions behind the wandering.

Tony sees the exercise involving restoring your focus to your breath, after naming your source of distraction, as a form of “reps” like you would undertake in a gym or a series of exercises with a personal trainer. The “reps” serve to build the capability to undertake a given activity when the demand arises e.g. running a race, lifting heavy weights, undertaking housework, handling a stressful job (or in our case here, dealing with a specific procrastination). The repeated action of bringing your attention back to your focus, after raising your awareness, is embedding a “focus-awareness-focus” mental cycle that can be applied anywhere to any activity. Tony describes this cycle as the “Awareness-Focus Loop”.

Utilising the “Awareness-Focus Loop”

Tony describes an “I Am Aware” meditation that can take five to ten minutes of your time. The basic four-step approach is as follows:

  1. make yourself comfortable and close your eyes
  2. Focus on your breathing by counting 1 to 50 (or more if you want to extend the meditation for mental endurance training)
  3. Whenever your mind wanders away from the focus on your breath, pay attention to what is happening and frame it as a “I am aware that…” statement. This needs to be a complete sentence to elevate the unconscious source of wandering to the conscious level e.g. “I am aware that I am thinking of a major meeting coming up later today”; “I am aware that I am getting anxious about what I forgot to do this morning”; or “I am aware that I am wondering whether I got the job I applied for a week ago”.
  4. When you have noticed and named your distraction, you resume your focus on counting your breaths from where you left off counting. I found that I lost track of where I was up to in my counting once a distraction set in. If this happens, you can restart your counting somewhere, without cheating to get to the end in a hurry.

Using your awareness muscle to deal with a specific procrastination

Having developed your awareness muscle, you can now apply this mental capacity, and associated energetic impetus, to dealing with a procrastination over a specific task. Once you notice yourself procrastinating you can use your highly developed awareness muscle to become aware of the anxiety underlying the procrastination, name the anxiety and related feelings (e.g. fear) and deal with the anxiety without seeking a diversion or some form of flight.

The mindfulness exercise serves as a form of mental training that can develop the self-regulation necessary to overcome your natural tendency to avoid what is perceived as painful or personally challenging. The awareness muscle has stored the history of your personal distraction tendencies and these can be more readily noticed and dealt with.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation exercises designed to build our awareness muscle, we can develop the consciousness, willingness and strength to deal with procrastination as it occurs in our daily lives. The “I am aware that…” meditation is designed for this specific purpose.

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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.

Trees Can Help to Limit Your Stress

I have been fascinated by trees for a long time – amazed by their growth, their energy and their role in human ecology. At a metaphorical level, trees reflect the enigmas of human existence. Jill Suttie in her article, How Trees Help You to Stress Less, highlights the research that demonstrates the way trees can benefit us in terms of stress reduction.

The stress-reduction benefits of trees

  • Trees can reduce anxiety and depression and build positive traits such as enhanced energy levels. A research study, conducted in different areas of Japan and reported in 2018, showed that walking through a forest had greater positive effects than walking through city streets – the former environment serving to lower stress levels, elevate mood and generate more energy. The researchers concluded that forest environments would be an essential contributor to maintaining mental health in the future.
  • Dr. Qing Li promotes the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” as a way to reduce stress and blood pressure while strengthening the immune system. His promotion of immersion in the forest environment is designed as an antidote to what Richard Louv describes as “nature-deficit disorder” with its attendant negative effects of poor concentration, mental and physical illness and under-developed sensory perception. Richard argues that the intensification of city living and addiction to social media and mobile technologies, means that we are spending increasing amounts of our day alienated from nature and from the benefits of savouring trees in their natural environment.
  • A study conducted with Polish youths spending 15 minutes in “forest bathing” during a winter period showed, too, that the tree environment had significant positive “emotional, restorative and vitalizing effects” for those who participated in the study.

As we grow in mindfulness through exposure to trees and nature, we can experience reduction in stress, elevation of mood and improved energy levels. Meditating on trees can enhance the benefits of exposure to these natural sources of energy and life-giving oxygen. Reflecting on their shape, size and stature can increase our awareness of the enigmas of human existence.

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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 Awareness to Overcome Craving and Addiction

In an earlier blog post, I discussed how cravings are formed and how mindfulness breaks the link between addictive behaviour and perceived rewards, drawing on the work of Jud Brewer. author of The Craving Mind: Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits. In a subsequent post, I discussed barriers to sustaining mindfulness practice and a four-step mindfulness practice for overcoming cravings and addictions.

In a recent presentation on the Brain Change Summit hosted by Sounds True, Jud elaborated further on how mindfulness breaks the “habit loop” of craving and addiction. He spoke of the “wedge of awareness” that mindfulness drives between a trigger (such as stress or negative emotion) and our habituated reactivity. He explained that mindfulness effectively disrupts the reward-based learning that is embedded in the craving/addiction cycle. In his view, mindfulness progressively establishes three different levels of awareness which he calls the “three gears of awareness”.

The three gears of awareness

Research undertaken by Jud and his colleagues demonstrates that if people are able to sustain meditation practice, they can realise a deepening level of inner awareness that breaks down the trigger-reward cycle involved in craving and addiction. Jud describes this progression in awareness in terms of three gears that release the power and potentiality of a person by enabling them to “move up a gear” – effectively changing the relationship between a trigger and the behavioural response. The three gears of awareness developed through mindfulness can be explained as follows:

  1. First gear: awareness of a “habit loop” – becoming conscious of the connection between a trigger, a behaviour and a reward that underlies a specific craving or addiction. The first step to breaking a habit is understanding how it is formed.
  2. Second gear: disillusionment with the reward – becoming aware that the “reward” does not work. For example, being mindful of your bodily sensations (taste, smell, touch) as you have a cigarette can make you realise how “disgusting” the cigarettes are. One respondent in a relevant mindfulness research project said (after paying attention to her bodily sensations when smoking), that her cigarette “smells like stinking cheese and tastes like chemicals”.
  3. Third gear: breaking free of the “caught up-ness” of the habit loop – works through a process of substitution of a better and higher reward. Through mindfulness you access your natural capacity to be “curious” – to observe and explore your emotions and reactions and name your feelings. Curiosity without habituated reactivity leads to a sense of expansiveness, peace of mind and equanimity – a higher level reward than flight behaviour. Jud suggests that R.A.I.N. meditation, breathing into strong emotions and loving kindness meditation can activate this third gear.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we can become aware of the habit loop reinforcing our craving or addiction, re-evaluate the rewards inherent in our habituated responses and begin to experience the freedom and peace which comes from the ability to be curious about our inner world, while being reaction-free.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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