Mindfulness and Personal Transitions During Organisational Change

Change in our personal lives and in an organisational setting can generate anxiety, fear, insecurity and anger.  This discomfort can be expressed as resistance to change and lead to a wide range of unproductive behaviours that can be harmful to us as individuals as well as for the organisations we work in.  William and Susan Bridges identified three broad stages of personal transition in the context of organisational change.  In their 2017 book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, they explained that each of us go through these stages at different rates for different changes depending on the our perception of the impact of the changes.  The three stages they identified are (1) endings – where the focus is on loss, (2) neutral zone – involves a “wait and see” orientation and (3) new beginnings – putting commitment and energy behind the change.  Their book provides a range of managerial strategies that can be employed by organisations to help people transition from endings to new beginnings. They emphasize that without these strategies individuals and organisations can become stuck in either the endings stage or the neutral zone, resulting in illness and organisational decline.

Mindfulness and personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy Quan, a certified organisational change agent and creator of The Calm Monkey (Mindfulness Meditation in the Workplace), had a personal experience that gave her a deep insight into how people deal with a confronting and challenging change.  She was diagnosed with cancer after many years in multiple organisational change roles. This personal challenge led her to seek out mindfulness practices, and meditation in particular, to help her deal with this devastating illness.  Through her meditation practice she came to accept her illness and all that it entailed, and realised that she had a choice – she could view herself as a victim or take a proactive approach that would enable her to lead the best life possible, given her health setback.

This led to a further insight in that she realised that she could employ her understanding of organisational change and mindfulness to help others in an organisational setting.  She was able to draw on the research of William and Susan Bridges and developed a refined model of personal transitions.  She focused on the psychological change processes involved and identified five transition points in an individual’s psychological journey during organisational change:

  • Awareness: becoming aware of your thoughts, emotions, reactions and behaviour when facing the change
  • Understanding: gaining insight into the “why” of your holistic response – body and mind (recognising that this is a normal reaction to a confronting and challenging change)
  • Acceptance: accepting “what is”, not denying your current reality (e.g. a changed role, loss of a job or status)
  • Commitment: moving beyond acceptance to committing to adopt a positive, proactive response to improve your personal experience of the change, “taking things into your own hands” – self-management instead of reactivity
  • Advocacy: promoting the change and its positive elements if your energy level and role enable this.

Research into mindfulness and personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy was able to apply her insights in her work situation to help her colleagues through difficult change processes.  She moved beyond working with a small group to establishing a weekly mindfulness meditation “drop-in” where participants could share their experiences of change, both personal and organisational, and identify what they were trying to cope with and how they were going about it.  After a few years, she had 185 people on this drop-in program (highlighting the psychological challenge of organisational change) and this enabled her to undertake formal research of the impact of her approach of combining mindfulness with change management insights.

Her research was published in a study titled Dealing with Change Meditation Study which can be downloaded here.   Wendy indicated that her approach revolved around two key points of intervention, (1) raising awareness of the personal, holistic impact of a change process and (2) focusing on the future to develop a more constructive response so that the individual undergoing organisational change can have a better experience of the change and make decisions about their future.  Participants in the study were asked to focus on a challenging change and listen three times over a two-week period to a 15-minute, guided meditation focused on positively dealing with the change.

Resources for personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy, building on her own experience of combining mindfulness and organisational change insights, has developed several resources that people can use to assist their personal change processes or to facilitate the transition for others undergoing organisational change:

Wendy also provides a series of free and paid meditation podcasts on her website.

Reflection

I have been engaged in organisational change consultancy for over 40 years, and more recently undertaken extensive research and writing about mindfulness, as well as developing my own mindfulness practices, including meditation.  However, identifying a practical approach to combining the two related skill sets has alluded me to date.  Wendy, through her experience of a personal health crisis, has been able to introduce a very effective, evidence-based approach to using mindfulness to help people transition through organisational change processes.  She has been able to demonstrate that as we grow in mindfulness we can become more aware of our personal response to an organisational change, develop an increased understanding of the nature of that response, increase our acceptance of our changing reality and gradually build a commitment to shaping our future in a positive and constructive way.  Her work resonates with the insights and approach of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as well as that of Susan David who focuses on using mindfulness to develop “emotional agility”.

____________________________________________

Image by Geralt 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.

Deep Listening through Music and Meditation

Richard Wolf explores the parallels between playing a musical instrument and meditation in his book, In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness.  I have previously discussed his exploration of the parallels between music and meditation in relation to the role of practice and achieving inner harmony.  Richard maintains that a key parallel is the attainment of deep listening through music and meditation.

Deep listening through music

In Richard’s view, playing a musical instrument develops deep listening – musicians can discern many sonic elements such as tone, rhythm and harmonics.  He identifies 13 major sonic elements that accomplished musicians recognise and explains that these, in turn, have sub-elements.  Deep listening enables the musician to open themselves to the full spectrum of hearing music so that they can not only hear the music but feel it, in its never-ending range of emotional content – from sadness and grief to elation and jubilation.  Richard suggests that through practice and playing a musical instrument, you can “feel the music with your body and soul”.  Music, too, in his view enables the musician to “filter out” distorting elements within the musician themselves – their blind-spots, assumptions, biases and prejudices – so that their listening is not contaminated by their cognitive limitations.  They can move beyond their own narrowness into the breadth and depth of musical expression.

Deep listening through meditation

Sound is often used as one of the anchors for people who meditate to develop mindfulness.  Richard suggests that we can learn to listen to our breath in the same way that a musician listens to music, thus cultivating deep listening.  He argues that our breath is the “sound of your life” and that through the practice of listening to our breath we can begin to discern the different sonic components of our breath.  He offers several approaches to develop deep listening including the following:

  • Tuning into the sound of your breathing – accentuate the sound of your inhalation and exhalation and tune into these sounds and learn to discern their subtle differences.
  • Resting in the silence between breaths – focus on the silence that occurs after exhalation and before inhalation, resting in the peace and tranquillity that lies within.
  • Tuning into your environment – tune into the sounds in your environment, e.g. the “room tone” as well as the external environment and all the sounds from sources such as traffic, machinery, birds and other animals.  This exercise makes you realise how little you consciously listen to what is going on around you.

Richard also suggests that you can develop “dual awareness” by not only focusing on the sounds of your breath but simultaneously noticing the movement of your body – the rise and fall of your abdomen and chest or the flow of air through your nostrils.  This attunement of breath and body develops “multidimensional awareness” and facilitates the transition from goal-oriented awareness f

Deep listening through music and meditation

Richard explains that both music and meditation require sustained concentration and the capacity to “quiet the inner voice”.   In this way, music and meditation assists us to develop mindfulness and to access the benefits of mindfulness such as those identified by MAPPG in the Mindful Nation UK Report. He particularly emphasised that music and meditation take us beyond self-absorption to empathy and compassion. 

Reflection

Music and meditation help us to grow in mindfulness, develop concentration and facilitate deep listening.  We can become increasingly aware of the different sounds in our external environment and learn to discern the sonic elements in our own breathing.  Deep listening cultivates multidimensional awareness and a richer life experience though conscious tuning into sounds and achieving attunement between our breath and our body.  The quality of our listening can enhance our relationships, make workplaces more productive and lead to the wide-ranging benefits that mindfulness delivers.

____________________________________________

Image by skeeze 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.

A Mindful Check-In: Opening to Awareness

A mindful check-in is a way of becoming aware of your internal state at any point in your day.  You can check-in to your breath, your body sensations or your feelings.  You don’t have to adopt a particular posture or location – it is just a matter of tuning in to whatever is happening for you with curiosity and openness and without judgment.  Regular mindful check-ins help to build your awareness and to realise the benefits of mindfulness.

Benefits of mindfulness

Dr. Chris Walsh maintains that mindfulness achieves positive outcomes in three core areas of our lives:

  1. Richer pleasant experiences – so much of our life is lived in anticipation of the future or regret about the past.  We are often lost in our thoughts and become disconnected from the present moment.  The simple act of eating can be a totally unconscious activity, being unaware of our accompanying bodily sensations that potentially bring joy, e.g. a pleasant taste or aroma.  We walk at a fast pace rather than enjoy the experience of walking; we give a sidelong glance at a sunrise, rather than soaking up the brightness and energy of the experience.  We can be self-absorbed in conversations, rather than actively listening and building our relationships.  Mindfulness helps to enrich what is pleasurable in our lives – to notice and pay attention to the experience of joy and happiness in whatever form it takes.
  2. Improved capacity to manage difficult experiences – so often we are just reactive when an unpleasant experience or conflict triggers our habituated thoughts and emotions.  Through mindfulness, we can grow in the self-awareness necessary to observe, understand and manage our reactivity.  Mindfulness, then, gives us the ability to create space between the trigger and our response and to develop more productive and appropriate responses.  The Mindful Nation UK Report produced by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) gives evidence-based examples of these outcomes being achieved through mindfulness training.
  3. Effectively managing transitions – so much of our life is spent in transitioning from one situation to another.  We go from home to work, from one meeting to another, from one encounter to another, from work to home.  On a more macro level, we may transition from unmarried to married, from childless to children as part of the family, from marriage to separation and divorce.  Each of these transitions place new demands on our capacity to cope, on our even-mindedness and our resilience.  Mindfulness helps us to manage the inevitable emotional challenges inherent in change and to bring positive intentions and motivation to each form of transition and to achieve calmness and equanimity despite the personal turbulence engendered by the transition.

The check-in proposed by Chris is a way of bringing mindfulness to each of these core areas of our life and to tap into our inner resources so that we can live our lives more fully, less reactively and more flexibly.

The Mindful Check-in

Chris provides a podcast as well as a descriptive article on the check-in process.  His guided three-minute meditation in the podcast leads you through various stages of awareness – beginning with your breath and its characteristics, followed by noticing any points of bodily tension and observing the pattern of your thoughts (e.g. unfocused, confused, clear or erratic).  This awareness raising and acceptance-of-what-is leads to paying attention to any dominant thought that may be preoccupying you and then letting it go (stop entertaining it).  Finally, you can bring your awareness to your overall emotional state and name your feeling (without judgement). 

Chris, who developed mindfulness.org.au in 2004, provides a wide range of resources and a recently developed course, From Relaxation to Resilience.  This course has three different levels of participation depending on level of experience with mindfulness.  It is possible to obtain a reduced price through a Medicare rebate if a referral from a GP is obtained.  Chris offers blog articles on various aspects of mindfulness and emphasises employing evidence-based approaches.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and mindful check-ins, we can realise the benefits of mindfulness in the core areas of our lives – pleasant experiences, difficult situations and personal transitions.  Mindfulness equips us to live life more fully (appreciating its richness), manage challenging situations more effectively and make personal transitions more adaptively.

____________________________________________

Image by Sasin Tipchai 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.

Fearlessly Tackling Your Meaningful Work

In previous posts, I have explored the nature of procrastination, the need to bring the self-stories above the line and the importance of building the awareness muscle to be able to identify and challenge our self-defeating thoughts.  Leo Babauta takes this discussion a step further by arguing that we need to be fearless in the pursuit of our meaningful work – pursuing the work that is our life purpose despite our reservations, uncertainties and discomfort.  To fearlessly tackle our meaningful work takes bravery (facing pain without fear) and courage (facing pain despite the presence of fear).

Identifying your rationalisations

Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, argues that to pursue your life purpose represented by meaningful work, you need to face up to the rationalizations that your brain dreams up (a Zen Habits blog post).  He maintains that these rationalizations are really lies that your fearful brain invents to discourage you from taking creative action that is breaking new ground, uncertain in outcome and potentially creating discomfort for you.  The discomfort can take the form of psychological pain (e.g. embarrassment, shame, self-doubt) or physical pain (e.g. headache, bodily tension).   In discussing the numerous rationalization that your mind could think up, Leo suggests potential counters to the mind’s arguments – all of which are enlightening in themselves as they challenge your core self-beliefs.  His blog post serves as a comprehensive checklist to explore your own rationalizations.

Dealing with rationalizations

In his blog post, Leo provides a range of strategies that you can use to deal with the rationalizations that get in the road of you pursuing your meaningful work:

  • Write down your rationalizations (you can use Leo’s checklist as a catalyst) and come up with contrary arguments based on the evidence of your past experiences
  • Treat the rationalization for what they are – invented lies driven by fear and designed to stave off pain and/or discomfort.  Stop believing that they are real and will inevitably eventuate.
  • Avoid your brain’s attempt to negotiate its way out of starting, e.g. putting off the starting time because it is inconvenient or too soon.
  • START– however small a step.  Movement in the right direction overcomes inertia and creates a momentum.  Leo suggests that you practice “moving towards [not away from] what you resist”
  • Become aware that as you practise, movement towards your goal becomes easier – you will experience less resistance and begin to overcome your rationalizations through evidence-based achievement, e.g. the new belief, “I can do this task!”  Leo maintains that there are unexpected rewards for dealing with uncertainty.
  • Remind yourself of your intention – why this meaningful work is important to you.

The self-harm in rationalizations

Disconnection from meaningful work has been identified by Johann Hari as a key factor in the rise of depression and anxiety in today’s western world.  Our brains, through rationalizations, are creating self-harm by keeping us from connecting with what is meaningful to us – what gives purpose to our lives.  Leo is so committed to helping us move beyond fear and rationalizations, that he has created a significant training program, Fearless Purpose: Training with the Uncertainty & Anxiety of Your Meaningful Work, to help people realise their meaningful work, whether that is writing a book, starting a community organisation, beginning a new, and purposeful career or undertaking any other creative endeavour that we may be fearful about.  The program is comprehensive and includes an e-book, meditations, videos and a support community.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become aware of the rationalizations that our brain thinks up to stop us from pursuing what we know, deep down, to be our real, meaningful work – pursuits that help us to realise our life purpose.  Mindfulness can also help us to challenge these mental barriers and free ourselves to act with courage in the face of uncertainty.

____________________________________________

Image by Sasin Tipchai 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.

Music and Meditation: The Key Role of Practice

Richard Wolf maintains that practice is a key element in meditation and playing a musical instrument.  Richard explores practice along with other parallels between meditation and playing music in his book, In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness. Previously, I explored his ideas on achieving harmony through music and meditation.

It is through practice that we can master playing an instrument or achieving a high standard in sport.  The same is true of meditation – our capacity to meditate and achieve its benefits is dependent on how well we practice.  The greater the regularity and length of our meditation practice, the greater are the benefits that accrue to us.

Practice and repetition

Practice requires repetition and may be experienced as boring, e.g. playing scales on a musical instrument.  However, as Richard notes, after a period of practicing, if we persist, we can be keen to “practice for practice sake”.  With sustained practice, comes the realisation that the practice itself achieves the desired benefits of competence, concentration, harmony and spontaneity.  This is as true of meditation as it is of practising a musical instrument.  It is similar with sporting practice. I recall practicing tennis drills with my brothers when we were playing A Grade tennis fixtures.  Repetition was a key part – hitting the ball up the line over and over or practising volleys again and again.  However, as we grew in competence, we would marvel at the shots we played, laugh at the fun we were having and experience a real sense of happiness.  We would look forward to our practice sessions.

As our meditation practice improves and starts to flow into our daily life, we begin to experience a greater variety of benefits which, in turn, feed our motivation to practice.  Richard suggests that this occurs because when you meditate, “your mental, emotional and physical awareness are the instrument you practice on”.  The essence of effective practice is to maintain focus in the present moment on what we are doing, whether playing a musical instrument or meditating on nature.

Breathing in time – treating your breath as a musical instrument

Richard highlights the role of beats in music and the need for a musician to master different times in music such as 4/4 time and 3/4 time (as in a waltz).  He suggests that “counting beats internally” is an essential component of mastering a musical instrument.  He proposes that as a form of meditation practice, you can adopt the parallel technique of “rhythmic breathing”, e.g. what he calls a “four-bar sequence”.   This involves holding your breath for four beats (counting to four) for each of the four “bars” involved in breathing – inhalation, holding, exhalation, holding. 

In his book, he offers other variations on this breathing sequence that you can adopt but stresses that the important thing is to go with whatever helps you to experience calm and equanimity.   It is vital not to beat up on yourself if you lose count in the middle of your practice – just start over again.  The outcome is achieving a mind-body rhythm that is beneficial to your sense of ease and wellness.

Reflection

Meditation practice becomes enjoyable as we grow in mindfulness.  This increasing inner and outer awareness flows into our daily life and brings a variety of benefits such as focus, productivity, creativity, calmness and richer relationships.  The benefits can grow exponentially if we sustain our meditation practice.  Rhythmic breathing can enhance our mind-body connection.

____________________________________________

Image by Brenda Geisse 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.

Bringing Mindfulness to Your Motivations and Intentions

Diana Winston recently offered a meditation on the topic of mindfulness and intentions.  Diana is Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC, UCLA and the meditation was part of the weekly meditation podcasts offered by the Center.  The podcasts are accessible from the MARC website or via the UCLA Mindful App

Diana explained that an integral part of mindfulness is curiosity about our self, what we do and why we do it.  Many times, our intentions are not conscious – our thoughts and behaviour are often the result of habituated patterns.  We might sometimes do things because we think it is the “right thing to do” or because “others are doing it”.  As Diana points out, our motivations and intentions are often very complex, mixed in nature and not easily untangled.  She offers a guided meditation to unpack these motivations and, in particular, to explore the question, “Why do we meditate?”  If we are clear about the benefits that accrue for meditation practice, we are more likely to sustain the habit of meditating.  I find, for example, that clarity about my motivations is a key strategy for enabling me to sustain my practice of Tai Chi and writing this blog.

Meditation on intentions

Diana provides a meditation on intentions that has four key phases:

  1. Body scan – you begin by undertaking a comprehensive body scan, starting with the sensation of your feet on the floor and moving through your whole body.  I find that a body scan is easier to do if you are following the instruction of another person rather than if you try to do it under “your own steam”.
  2. Exploring why you meditate – what is it that keeps you going with meditation?  What are the benefits that you experience? The clearer you can be about the personal benefits for you – the intentions that shape your habit – the more likely you are to sustain the practice through difficult times or when you are time-poor.
  3. Grounding through your anchor – revisiting your personal anchor can help you to maintain your focus when negative thoughts or other distractions take your attention.  Your anchor can be your breath, focusing on sounds in the room (such as room tone), or getting in touch with a sensation in your body, e.g. the tingling when your fingers touch (my favourite). 
  4. Exploring why you do other activities – now you shift your attention to something else in your life to focus on your intention in doing that activity.  You can focus on a major activity that you regularly undertake and ask the fundamental question, “What am I doing this for?”  Alternatively, you can focus on a less significant activity that you want to gain some clarity about – it might be a commitment or task that you no longer want to undertake but continue to do so.  Diana cautions not to let yourself become frazzled if you cannot immediately find a focus for this phase of the meditation – you can always revisit the meditation at another time.  She also suggests that a few deep breaths taken during this part of the exercise can be helpful for finding and sustaining your focus.

Motivation for meditation

When I undertook this meditation, I was pleased that I was able to clarify and strengthen my motivation for persisting with regular meditation practice.  I was able to identify the following intentions behind my practice (you may have very different intentions based on your own life experience):

  1. Achieving calm – this is a key aspect of my intentions in meditation practice.  I find that calmness enables me to deal with the stresses of life and the inevitable traumas that I experience.  At the end of a recent workshop that I was co-facilitating, a participant came up to me and thanked me for my “calmness and creating a calming atmosphere”.
  2. Developing creativity – meditating releases my capacity to be creative in my writing and in designing and facilitating workshops for managers and leaders.
  3. Dealing with difficult emotions – there are several meditations that focus specifically on difficult emotions such as resentment or anger.  These meditations help me to temper the emotion and contribute to restoring my equilibrium.
  4. Reducing reactivity – there are so many things in life that can trigger a reaction, e.g. traffic jams, and I can become less reactive through my meditation practice (especially targeted mediations such as “You are traffic too” and “When you are waiting, have awareness as your default, not your phone”).  Now in traffic delays, I am able to revert to my anchor, fingers touching, to remain calm and increase my awareness.
  5. Improving relationships – meditation helps me to be more conscious of my thoughts and emotions in any interaction and assists me to be sufficiently present to actively listen to others I interact with, especially in close relationships (even if I don’t achieve this very well in a particular interaction, my awareness and reflection help me to resolve to do better the next time).  Awareness of my own thoughts and emotions improves my capacity to understand the dynamics occurring in my training groups.
  6. Health and healing – meditations focused on nature support my emotional stability and contribute to my overall wellness.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can develop greater clarity about the intentions behind our meditation practice and other significant activities in our life, sustain our motivation and enjoy the benefits that accrue both to ourselves and others we interact with.  We can begin to more fully realise the benefits of increasing inner and outer awareness. Meditation focused on our motivations and intentions can help us to make explicit the implicit motivation behind our actions and, in the process, to strengthen our motivation.

____________________________________________

Image by Alexas_Fotos 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.

Achieving Inner harmony through Music and Mindfulness

In his book, “In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness”, Richard Wolf likens practising a musical instrument to meditation practice – each builds our capacity for inner harmony.  He maintains that playing music draws our attention to vibration, sound, feelings and silence.  Meditation, too, can take the form of a focus on sounds, tuning into feelings, making space for silence and noticing vibrations within and without.

Inner harmony

Richard argues that when a musician is in the zone, they experience a perfect harmony between their mind, body and feelings – everything is in unison with the beat and rhythm of the music.  The musician loses this sense of harmony if they overthink the music – they need to maintain their focus to remain “in the flow”.   So, too, with meditation, when you can sustain your meditation practice, you can achieve an inner harmony whereby “your whole body is experienced as an organ of awareness”.

Music, too, sometimes involves alternating dissonance with harmony.  Dissonance in music can also lead to what is termed “harmonic resolution”.  Dissonance is an integral part of life – experienced within meditation as “unpleasant thoughts or emotions”.  This dissonance can be acknowledged, named and integrated into your acceptance of “what is” – surfing the waves of life.  Meditation enables us to experience ease amid the turbulence.

A harmonising practice – breathing in tune with room tone

Richard Wolf, an Emmy-Award winning composer and producer, states that every room has its own “room tone” – acknowledged by sound engineers who attempt to integrate room tone into a soundtrack for the purpose of achieving a sense of authenticity when someone hears the music.  He suggests that you can harmonise with room tone by first focusing on the sounds within a room – sounds emitted by computers, air conditioning, digital devices or the vibration resulting from wind on the walls.  Then when you are paying attention to the room tone, you can harmonise your breathing with it.

Reflection

The analogy of music as a bridge to mindfulness can open our awareness to the sounds, vibrations and silence that surround us.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can learn to harmonise our breathing with sounds beyond our bodies, e.g. the room tone. We can achieve inner harmony through sustained musical practice and/or meditation practice. Harmonising our breathing with room tone can deepen our awareness and provide an anchor to experience calm and ease when we are buffeted by demands, challenges, dilemmas and urgent tasks.  Tuning in to ourselves through meditation enables us to become more aware of “the ambient clutter of daily life”.

____________________________________________

Image by Lorri Lang 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.

Understanding Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress

In the previous post, I addressed the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of the observations of David Treleaven mentioned in the post, was the need for meditation teachers to develop an awareness of, and sensitivity to, the presence of people who are experiencing, or have experienced, trauma.  Failure to do this could lead to mindfulness activity that generates trauma stimuli leading to re-traumitisation.  Being trauma-sensitive means understanding the signs of post-traumatic stress as well as having the presence of mind to modify mindfulness practices to take account of people’s needs in this condition.

Recognising the signs of post-traumatic stress

Trauma results where a person experiences an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds their ability to cope and deal with the emotional fallout from that experience.  The effects vary with each individual and the nature of the traumatic event. Traumatic events can include the loss of a sibling or parent through death, separation from a parent at a young age, a life-threatening car accident or terrorist event, separation and divorce, a house fire, physical or sexual abuse or a natural disaster.

This variability in the nature and impact of traumatic events, and the individual’s reluctance to disclose through shame or the need to comply with an authority figure, means that it is often very difficult to ascertain whether a person has suffered from trauma and is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  According to several reports, up to 20% of people who experience a traumatic event together will experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

Trauma can impact a person’s thoughts, emotions, perceptions, level of arousal/reactivity and mood.  It can be reflected in behavioural change such as avoidance of a person or location, inability to sleep or sleeping too much, reliving the trauma through nightmares or flashbacks or withdrawal from social contacts or work colleagues.  The attendant emotions could be depression, anxiety and feeling unsafe.  Thoughts of suicide can also be one of the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The role of memory and embodiment

Peter Levine, in an interview with Serge Prengel, discussed the role of memory in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Peter is the author of the book, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in Search of the Past – A Practical Guide for Working With Traumatic Memory.  His book is ground-breaking in that he highlighted the role of “implicit memory” and showed how to treat trauma sufferers by accessing the “complex interplay of past and present, mind and body”.  He termed his methodology, “somatic experiencing”.

In the interview, Peter stressed that we have several different forms of memory and the ones that are particularly relevant to trauma are episodic or autobiographical memories, emotional memories and procedural or body memories.  Episodic memory, also termed “defining moments” by Serge the interviewer, though low in emotive content are nonetheless impactful. For example, Peter describes a teacher who acted as a mentor to him and instead of blaming him for poor judgement encouraged him to learn and explore his curiosity.  Other mentors in his life as he progressed through his studies modelled similar behaviour.  This, in turn, led him to a career choice as a professional mentor – so the episodic memory acted as a “trajectory” for his progress in life. 

Emotional memories, on the other hand, “though further out of the realm of awareness” are “very powerful and compelling” and shape how we behave in our life.  Some interaction from the past is encoded with a very strong emotion such as sadness, anger or fear.   The emotional memory can interfere with a current relationship when something or somebody acts as a reminder of the past interaction so that we can be overwhelmed with either a very strong negative or positive emotion. 

While emotional memories operate at a deep level, body memories are deeper still.  At one level, they have to do with the acquisition of motor learning and skills, e.g. riding a bike.  At another level, they are determinants of our approach or avoidance behaviour.  Peter gives the illustration of coming across a former classmate more than 30 years after their schooling and finding that he had a strong desire to approach and reconnect with him.  The classmate had been his protector at school when other children tried to bully him – hence his approach behaviour.  An example of avoidance behaviour conditioned by body memory is when someone who has previously experienced sexual abuse actually freezes when touched by a loving partner.

David Treleaven reinforced the relationship between trauma and body memory when he stated in his video presentation that “the respiratory system is intimately connected to our sympathetic nervous system which is totally tied to traumatic stress”.  He pointed to two books by Babette Rothschild that highlighted the close connection between trauma and body memory, The Body Remembers and Revolutionizing Trauma Treatment.   David also explained further why meditation exercises such as mindful breathing can activate trauma stimuli.  He drew on the differentiation between exteroception (body’s perception of external stimuli received through the senses) and interoception (sensing conditions within the body such as deep breathing or tightness of the chest).  Normally exteroceptors and interoceptors integrate (e.g. the external sensation of viewing a sunrise is matched with the internal sensation of a warm feeling in your chest and a sense of looseness in your hands and legs); with trauma sufferers, “the relationship between interoceptors and exteroceptors can go awry”.

Peter Levine emphasised the need to recognise that we have a “fluid identity” – while our identity is shaped by the past, and the interplay of multiple events and interactions, it is possible to gently, but surely, release the embodied memories and progressively unearth the richness, power and sense of connection of an identity not locked into painful memories.  He has dedicated his lifework to training individuals and professionals in understanding the role of the different memories and in learning to use his trauma treatment methodology, somatic experiencing.  Other professionals, through an understanding of the mind-body connection, employ somatic meditation to assist trauma sufferers.

Reflection

We can grow in mindfulness as we develop an awareness of the role that memory plays in our own thoughts, emotions, moods and behaviour and learn to recognise the signs of post-traumatic stress in others.  As we develop this heightened awareness, we can make appropriate modifications to our meditation teaching and deepen our own meditation practice and reflection.

____________________________________________

Image – Sunrise over the water, Wynnum, Brisbane

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.

Understanding Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

David Treleaven, through his doctoral dissertation and subsequent book, has raised awareness globally about the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  His book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, identifies three myths about mindfulness and trauma, discusses research-based case studies and offers clear options for the way forward.  His work is so critical to the teaching of mindfulness that Brown University has sought to integrate his work and findings into their Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute is exploring integration of David’s approach into their Mindful Leadership program.

Trauma and mindfulness

Trauma is described as “the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event”.  Many organisations and trainers/consultants/psychologists offer services, strategies and programs for trauma sufferers. Beyond Blue, for example, offers coping strategies and ways that friends and relatives can help someone close to them who is suffering from a traumatic event.

Mindfulness has become acknowledged as an effective way to deal with trauma.  For example, Boyd, Lanius and McKinnon (2018) concluded from a review of the relevant literature that mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches are effective in reducing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   They suggested that reduction in shame and self-blame could be key explanations of the efficacy of mindfulness-based approaches to PTSD.

David, however, warns that there are potential difficulties in using a mindfulness approach if practitioners are not sensitive to the interplay between mindfulness practices, beliefs about the universal efficacy of mindfulness and related messaging.  He points out that most people will experience at least one traumatic event in their life. So, in any one room of meditation participants, there is likely to be one or more people who are experiencing trauma in their lives.

David dedicates his life to making people aware of the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness through his book, videos, podcasts and workshops. He articulates his concerns about a lack of sensitivity to this issue amongst meditation teachers by identifying three “myths” about mindfulness and trauma that can potentially create harm for trauma sufferers.

Three myths about mindfulness and trauma

David’s research with trauma sufferers and practitioners in the field working with people who have experienced trauma, has led him to identify three “myths” (widely held false beliefs) that impede effective and safe use of mindfulness approaches. The myths are powerful determinants of the behaviour of mindfulness teachers:

  • Universality – David describes this myth as “one size fits all”.  However, David’s experience is that for some people who have experienced trauma, meditation can activate trauma stimuli so that the person re-experiences trauma.  As Peter Devine comments, “The nervous system can’t tell the difference between that [reliving the trauma] and the original trauma”.
  • Certainty – this myth relates to the assumption by meditation teachers that they will know when a person has experienced (or is currently experiencing) trauma.  David cites a case of a very experienced meditation teacher who failed to pick up the cues that some of his trainees were trauma sufferers.  He maintains that there are some very subtle non-verbal cues that can signal the existence of trauma, but it requires sensitised awareness to detect them.  He suggests that two major impediments that get in the road of someone openly disclosing their experience of trauma are (1) feelings of shame and (2) compliance (felt need to conform to an authority figure).
  • Neutrality – the myth that breath is always neutral, with no emotive content.  David recounts the experience of one person who was traumatised by a violent parent when a child.  Focusing on his breath “reconnected with the need to hide”, caused him to re-live his trauma and led to increased anxiety.  So, instead of being a calming anchor, mindful breathing acted as a trauma stimulus.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: some strategies

David provides considerable detail, explanation and case illustrations of these myths in his book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and in a video presentation on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, which was a promotional webinar for his course for practitioners on recognising trauma, responding to trauma and preventing the re-living of trauma during mindfulness practice.

In the video mentioned above, David suggests a range of strategies that address the limitations and potential damaging effects of the three myths:

  • Develop awareness about possible difficulties for people during mindfulness practices
  • Increase knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the signs of trauma
  • Provide space for people to experience different aspects of mindfulness practice and be ready to make modifications after asking, “What would work for you?”
  • Acknowledge at the outset that some people may have a very different experience to the calming effects of mindfulness meditation
  • Offer the opportunity for participants to approach you privately to have a conversation about their experience
  • Don’t reinforce the “shoulds” of mindfulness experience, e.g. avoid saying, “you should experience calm and peace”
  • Avoid “close and sustained attention to breath” as this may be a stimulus for re-experiencing trauma
  • Offer a range of options for people to practice mindfulness so that they can choose their own anchor for paying attention, e.g. breath, sounds, the sensation of the feet on the floor, feeling of the body on the chair or fingers touching each other.  According to David, Paula Ramirez, a Director of Breathe International, maintains that this choice of options gives participants a sense of agency (the opposite of a loss of control).

As we grow in mindfulness through our own meditation, research and reflection, we can become more sensitive to the needs of people who have suffered (or are suffering) trauma; be better able to respond to their needs; and also learn to adopt strategies that avoid re-traumatising participants in mindfulness training groups.

____________________________________________

Image by Anemone123 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.

Mindfulness as Self-Observation

Brian Shiers suggests that underpinning mindfulness is self-observation, the foundation of self-awareness.  This means, in effect, that there is no one right way to meditate – that paying attention to and noticing ourselves, in whatever way, is essentially mindfulness.  While there is a tendency for people new to meditation to judge themselves against a presumed standard, the experience they are having in self-observation is what mindfulness is about, not some prescribed level of awareness.  Mindfulness practices are designed to stimulate this curiosity about oneself in an open, exploratory way.  Tara Brach describes this lifelong journey as “waking up” – a deep shift in inner awareness that leads to equanimity and increased empathy and compassion.

In a recent guided meditation podcast, Brian asked the question, “What is “Myself”? and he encouraged participants to activate their “observational mind” in a relaxed manner.  He maintained that the fundamental question, “What is the “self”? is both an ancient and a recent question (through the pursuit of neuroscience).

Is the “self” my body, my thoughts, my roles I undertake, my affiliations, my emotions or my mind?  Brian sited the work of Dan Siegel, a founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), who believes that the “self” is not only what we are born with, but also the cumulation of billions of impressions that we are exposed to through interactions with others – thus shaping our perceptions and responses.  Dan’s perspective reinforces the uniqueness of our “self”.  Brian suggests, then, that the self is “intertwined in inter- relationships” – the direct and indirect influence of others throughout our lives.

Researchers have yet to establish what the “mind” is, even with the advent of neuroscience.   Brain stated that neuroscientists at Stanford University have estimated that we generate between 65,000 and 90,000 thoughts per day.  We are reminded of the admonition of Jon Kabat-Zinn that “you are not your thoughts”, thoughts that come and go like bubbles in boiling water.  Brain suggests that the “enterprise of mindfulness” is “self-observation”, including bringing to conscious awareness and guidance, the unconscious, spontaneously occurring thoughts that pervade our minds.  So, from Brian’s perspective, mindfulness is the pursuit of self-awareness through observation of the various domains of our existence, including our bodies and our minds.

A process of self-observation

Brian’s guided meditation podcast takes you on a journey of paying attention to your “self” through a process of self-observation of body and mind – noticing your body on the chair, engaging in mindful breathing, noticing your thoughts (but not entertaining them), undertaking a body scan while releasing tension, and participating in a reflection.

The personal reflection involves identifying a positive trait in yourself, e.g. wisdom. loving kindness, gratitude, thoughtfulness or resilience; and exploring how it manifests, its impact on others and how you could further develop this trait. Brian offers some guided questions for the reflection:

  • What is happening when you exhibit this trait? (you can visualise it happening)
  • What impact does it have on others?
  • Who is a role model for you in respect of this trait?
  • Who could help you develop it?
  • How can you further develop this positive trait?

As we grow in mindfulness through self -observation during the process of meditation, we can better understand who we are, how we experience the world, and what we bring to our interactions with others. We can also identify strategies to strengthen our positive traits and increase our motivation to use them to create a better life for ourselves and others.

____________________________________________

Image – Personal reflection during sunrise, Wynnum, Brisbane

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.