Handling Fear with Mindfulness

In an earlier post, I described a meditation process for handling fear that Tara Brach described by the acronym, R.A.I.N. – standing for Recognise, Accept, Investigate and Nurture.  In the current discussion, I would like to introduce a mindfulness meditation for addressing fear that is discussed and facilitated by Diana Winston.

In the meditation podcast, Working with Fear, Diana describes a process involving a number of steps that help to soften our bodily response to fear.  Diana explains that fear is a natural response to a perception of threat either imagined or real.  This deeply-embed biological response to perceived threat has accounted for the survival of the human race.

Fear is endemic, often unfounded and poorly managed

Increasingly, we are exposed to situations and pressures that tend to induce fear and anxiety, even when the fears are baseless.  We live in a time when anxiety is endemic – we are surrounded by people (including famous actors, singers, writers and sports people) who suffer from all-consuming fear and anxiety.   Much of this fear and anxiety is unfounded.  Diana points out that a recent study by Cornell University found that “85% of the things that we worry about never come true.”

One of the problems with our fear response is that we typically try to resolve the fear by thinking – by trying to think our way out of fear with the net result that this creates a vicious circle.  We tend to indulge our worst scenario thinking, “What will happen if…”, and these thoughts can intensify our fear and anxiety.  Unresolved fear can ultimately lead to a condition that the Mayo Clinic describes as “generalized anxiety disorder.”

Mindfulness provides an effective alternative to trying to think our way through fear and Diana proposes a meditation process that incorporates the following steps:

  • Being grounded through our posture
  • Taking a number of deep breaths
  • Focusing on our breathing and where it is experienced in our body – a process of mindful breathing (for 5-10 minutes) to still the mind
  • Undertaking an overall body scan to  identify and release areas of felt tightness and tension (a quick scan/release process that takes in the whole body)
  • Bringing our fear or worry into focus by thinking about a particular source of fear (preferably, one that is not disabling or too intense)
  • Undertaking a body scan to identify where the fear is manifesting in a particular part of our body – e.g., our arms, legs, back, neck and/or stomach.
  • Softening the muscles in the identified area that is manifesting the fear
  • Repeating the process of checking and releasing the bodily manifestation of our anxiety ( 3 times overall)
  • Coming back to our breath for a brief time and then returning to full awareness.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditations focused on our fear response, we can progressively reduce the fear and replace a sense of anxiety with a calmness and creative approach to resolving our fears.

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

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The Last Lecture – Mindful Living

Randy Pausch, the author of The Last Lecture, was a Professor  of Computer Science at the Carnegie Mellon University specialising in the design of Virtual Reality.  He died from pancreatic cancer on 25 July 2008 after being diagnosed with the disease in the summer of 2006.

Randy’s book traces his life, his medical experience, giving his last lecture and his life’s lessons and achievements.  His Last Lecture, given on the 18th September 2007, was videotaped and is available here.   The lecture has been viewed by millions of people who admire Randy’s inspiration, insight, humour, intelligence and wisdom.

Randy, even though he was obviously dying from cancer at the time, wanted to leave a legacy for his three young children in terms of the lessons he had learned in life – often the hard way by making mistakes.  Some of his insights into the way to live your life are pertinent to developing mindfulness.

Lessons on mindfulness from Randy Pausch

I can’t recall Randy talking about mindfulness in his book or his lecture, but he did have some insights and values that I think are particularly relevant to mindfulness:

Show Gratitude

Being grateful for what you have and what people have done for you is important, because it is part of growing in self-awareness and understanding how you came to achieve what you have achieved.  Randy also talks about the “lost art of the thank-you note” as a timely way to express appreciation.

He went even further and decided to take his 15-member research team (working on virtual reality) to a week-long visit to Disney World in Florida.  Besides enjoying the entertainment, they were also able to take in some educational activities relevant to their studies and research.  He provided this expensive trip as a way to “pay it forward” his gratitude for the mentoring he received from Any van Dam.

Gratitude requires being present to notice what people have done for you and developing an appreciation mindset through gratitude meditation. Often, we are grateful, but fail to express it.   Through this form of meditation, we become more aware of the opportunities to show gratitude and ways to express it.

Seeking forgiveness genuinely

There are many times when we are hurt by the words and actions of others – it is part of being human on both sides of the hurt dyad.  We hurt others and they hurt us.  We can’t avoid this, although as we grow in mindfulness we become more aware of their feelings and what effect our words and actions have on them.

Randy stresses the importance of seeking forgiveness genuinely – in his own words, “A bad apology is worse than no apology”.  He argues that we should not apologise in such a way that we are not genuineor in a way that is designed only to obtain an apology from the other person.   While hurt can be a two-way street, it does not rectify the situation to actively seek an apology from the other party – they may apologise in their own due time.  If you want someone to change their behaviour, you are more likely to achieve this if you change your own behaviour first.

Forgiveness meditation helps us to develop the readiness and willingness to apologise for the hurt we cause others.  In the process of this meditation, we can ask for forgiveness from others – which makes us acutely aware of the reality that we are not the only one hurting.  Associated with this, is the need to also practise self-forgiveness meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and learning from the inspiration of others such as Randy Pausch, we can develop the awareness and mindset that makes us willing and able to show gratitude and to genuinely seek forgiveness.

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

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Emotional Self-Awareness

Daniel Goleman, in his interview for the online Mindfulness at Work Summit in June 2018, introduced what he calls the 12 competencies of emotional intelligence.  He has recently rethought the emotional intelligence framework and now has four main groups of competencies (instead of the original five) – (1) self-awareness, (2) self-management, (3) social awareness and (4) relationship management – and 12 competencies that sit under the various groupings.  Emotional self-awareness is the sole competency listed under the first grouping.

Understanding “emotional intelligence”

In the interview with Mo Edjlali, President of Mindful Leader, Daniel explained that the term, “emotional intelligence”, challenges people to think about dealing with emotions intelligently, not being under their control nor ignoring them.  He maintained that emotions are “part and parcel” of life and that whatever we do, even if we think we are being rational or analytical, emotions underpin our choices – our thoughts and actions.

This was brought home to me in a recent conversation with a colleague who was describing a number of actions she had taken to help a homeless person she met when interstate.  She had spoken to this person and got to know their domestic violence situation and decided to provide the person with a meal.  This led to helping her in other ways including providing a particular style of footwear required for a job the person was applying for.  After sharing the story, my colleague then identified the emotions she was feeling as a result of her decision and her compassionate actions.  She was asking herself, “For whose benefit am I doing this?”(uncertainty), “Am I doing this because it makes me feel good?”(doubt), and “What expectations am I creating in this person and can I meet them?”(fear/anxiety).

So, to achieve anything, whether improved productivity or compassionate action, we need to be able to intelligently manage the emotions involved.  Daniel mentioned that in recent workshops in Nashville and Romania, different organisations and different countries, participants realised that when they talk about the characteristics of their best and worst bosses, they are talking about dimensions of emotional intelligence.  My colleague and I have undertaken this exercise with over two thousand managers over more than a decade in our Confident People Management Program, and we have found that people intuitively know what are the characteristics of the best and worst managers and can identify their own feelings when working for either category of manager.  There is remarkable unanimity across multiple groups in multiple locations.  The characteristics could be readily matched to Daniel’s 4 groupings and the 12 competencies of emotional intelligence. Emotional self-awareness is the first and foundational competency described by him.

What is “emotional self-awareness”?

If you have “emotional self-awareness” you have developed  awareness about some personal aspects such as:

  • what you do well and what you do not do well
  • what you are feeling and why you are feeling that way
  • how your feelings impact your thoughts
  • how your feelings and thoughts impact your performance
  • why you are doing what you are doing or being able to answer, what am I doing this for? – your purpose/meaning.

Emotional self-awareness underpins everything because it is the gateway to self-improvement – in all its mutliple aspects, including acquiring the other emotional intelligence competencies.

Daniel suggests that you may not achieve complete emotional self-awareness if you rely on mindfulness alone.  He argues that because of the internal and individual focus of mindfulness, you may be unaware of blind spots.  He suggests that mindfulness in combination with 360-degree feedback can help you to identify and act on these blind spots or hidden gaps in emotional intelligence competencies.  He has developed, with his colleague Richard Boyatzis, an Emotional and Social Competence Inventory (ESCI 360) as a 360-degree feedback instrument to measure the twelve emotional intelligence competencies and to enable identification of blind spots in relation to the competencies.

As Daniel acknowledges, a competent coach can also help in this area of developing accurate emotional self-awareness.  I recall coaching a manager where his blind spot was defensiveness and it was only after providing persistent and constant feedback over a few months that he finally accepted that he was being defensive.  He was then able to demonstrate emotional self-awareness by pulling himself up whenever he started to get defensive and, in the process, name his feelings.   Mindfulness can also help us to accept feedback that is uncomfortable but accurate.

Another route to developing emotional self-awareness and overcoming blind spots is participation in an action learning group where the group norm is “supportive challenge” and feedback is designed to help you be the best you can be and to achieve the best outcomes for your project and yourself.   The action learning set may be less contaminated by political considerations (such as fear of repercussions) or revengeful action, than a 360-degree feedback process.  The honesty norm underpinning action learning may also help to ensure that the feedback is uncontaminated.

As we grow in mindfulness and engage with others through feedback we can develop increased emotional self-awareness and be able to act on the feedback given.

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

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Meditate with Intention

In the previous post, Replacing Shame with Kind Attention, I introduced the IAA model of mindfulness developed by Shauna Shapiro and colleagues.  The model depicts a  process incorporating intention, awareness and attitude, with each element reinforcing the other two.  In that post, I focused on “attitude” and explored the fundamental stance of “kind intention”, that Shauna relates to caring, gentleness, trust and compassion towards ourselves. Thus “attitude” in this model relates to the “how” we need to meditate to develop mindfulness and realise its benefits.

In the current post, I want to focus on the “intention” component of the IAA model.  Shauna describes this as foundational to the Model.   In a video presentation about the model, she quotes the definition of mindfulness that she developed with Linda Carlson in 2006:

The awareness that arises out of intentionally paying attention in an open, kind and discerning way.

Meditating with intention is basically being conscious of the “why” – the intent or purpose for your meditation.  She describes “intention” as “setting the compass” of the heart – not a destination but a direction.

 Jon Kabat-Zinn reinforces the importance of intention when he states that “your intentions set the stage for what is possible”. He explains that he initially thought that the act of meditating was sufficient in itself, but soon came to learn that for personal growth and change to occur, we need to have some aspiration or vision that provides the purpose for meditation practice. Shauna Shapiro, in her own 1992 research, found that intention moves along a “continuum from self-regulation, to self-exploration and finally, to self-liberation” (which, in turn, leads to “compassionate action”).

Shauna’s study confirmed that intention determined the outcomes of meditation, so that if your focus is self-regulation that is what you will achieve.  Hence, we need to meditate-with-intent, so that our personal vision and underlying values can be manifested in our words and actions.  This then enables us to “rest in the moment” and have stability and clarity about our life.  We meditate to realise our personal aspirations in our day-to-day lives, from moment to moment.

As we grow in mindfulness, we sharpen our intention in meditation which progressively becomes an evolving, dynamic motivation for a desired way of life.  The more we develop mindfulness, the more we can consciously pursue what we value and realise it our life.

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

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Grow Mindfulness through Humility

I have been discussing being mindful at work.  It seems appropriate to draw on the lessons from superb leaders who turned their companies into great companies that enjoyed longevity as well as success.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins identified what characterised these highly successful leaders.  It was not, as you might surmise, their outgoing nature, their capacity to “sing their own praises” or their readiness to boast about the achievements of their companies.  These great leaders were characterised by two key qualities, “personal humility and professional will” reflected in their quiet, almost shy, demeanour together with their determination and resilience

I want to concentrate on the “personal humility” quality here.  Humility is closely linked to mindfulness in that genuine humility requires a level of self-awareness that is realistic and accurate and not based on negative self-evaluation.

Developing mindfulness through personal humility

Personal humility is a “road less travelled”.  Most people are either boastful of their achievements (a habit cultivated by our competitive society) or dishonestly “modest”.  The middle road is difficult to achieve but beckons when you want to grow in mindfulness and achieve its attendant benefits.

Shamash Alidina, author of The Mindful Way Through Stress, provides some strategies to develop personal humility in his insightful and comprehensive article on how to be mindful at work:

  1. Develop mindfulness practices  – as we have seen through the blog posts on this site, mindfulness meditations and activities help you to develop a genuine self-awareness that is neither boastful nor involves “beating up on yourself”.  These practices enable you to move from self-absorption (talking about your own achievements all the time in conversations with others) to recognition of what others have contributed to your present success.
  2. Being conscious of who has helped you – at any point in time, you can take a few minutes to focus on who has helped you to be where you are.  Being conscious of what you have it terms of work, colleagues and professional networks, can help you to develop a fine-grained awareness of those who have contributed to making you who you are and what you have achieved.
  3. Show appreciation to those who have helped you – this can be expressed towards people who have done even the smallest thing to help you, e.g. finding a resource for you or linking you to another person or idea.  If you develop the habit of showing appreciation in your everyday life, then it becomes a spontaneous act to do so in your work situation/ professional life.  Often we appreciate someone’s words or actions but fail to communicate this to them – we assume they know.  Expression of appreciation is an act of gratitude that builds mindfulness.
  4. Value the opinion of others – it is so easy to quickly dismiss the perspective, opinions or  views of others as if our stance is the right one all the time. However, being humble demands a recognition of the limitations of our own perceptions, knowledge and skills and an openness to others through respectful listening for understanding.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices, being conscious of who has helped us and showing appreciation and respect for their help and alternative opinions, we can progressively develop a true personal humility.

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

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Mindfulness at Work

David Allan maintains that the best place to meditate is at work.  In part, this is because it is often in a work situation that you need to be calm and have a clear mind.  The cost of being frazzled at work is not only lost time through inability to focus but also lost creativity through inability to access the “spaciousness” of your mind.  You need to calm the busyness of your mind to access this creativity.

It is also very true that we spend so much of our time at work that a large part of our day (more than a third) is consumed with thinking and doing, not just being present.  This means, too, that we are not taking the opportunity to access the full benefits of our mindfulness practice developed elsewhere on a daily basis.

David Allan found that he was able to book a relatively underutilised room for 15 minutes a day to enable him to undertake some form of meditation at work on a daily basis.  He found that this short period of conscious mindfulness practice created real productivity benefits throughout his day and served to break the work stress cycle.

Ways to be mindful at work

In a comprehensive article, Shamash Alidina suggests ten ways to be more mindful at work.  I have identified four of these suggestions below that are readily implementable:

  1. Intent to be consciously present – this entails beginning your work day with the clear intent to be present as often as you can.  This intent extends to controlling your thoughts when on-task, maintaining focus even on mundane tasks, working a little slower when the opportunity presents (e.g. after a rush to meet a deadline) and reminding yourself of the very clear benefits for work and life offered by mindfulness.
  2. Use brief mindfulness exercises – there are many opportunities throughout the working day to engage in brief mindfulness exercises.  These could entail open awareness, awareness of our senses, mindful walking or a short compassion meditation.  Sometimes in the workplace we need to engage in a brief self-compassion meditation, instead of beating up on ourselves for a mistake or for unconsciously hurting someone else with our words  or actions.
  3. Overcome the temptation of multitasking – this means consciously avoiding distactions (such as checking social media or the news every few minutes), staying focused on a single task at a time and organising your day where possible so that you can do like tasks together.
  4. Use reminders of the need for mindfulness – Shamash has some detailed strategies here that are very helpful.  Some of these entail linking a work activity to a mindfulness practice, e.g. when the phone rings, taking a deep breath and reminding yourself to be fully present to the caller.   Gradually, with regular practice, these reminders can immediately elicit mindfulness.  Some people may find a mindfulness app an appropriate reminder or an aid to mindfulness at work.
Further ways to be mindful at work

Eckhart Tolle in his talk to Google staff suggested ways that they could be mindful at work, including mindful breathing at their workstation.  Another mindfulness practice that can be employed at your desk is to occasionally focus on physically grounding yourself by ensuring that your feet are flat on the floor and your legs and back are straight.   This can be combined with mindful breathing.  If you are facilitating a workshop you could practise mindfulness through a brief loving kindness meditation directed towards one individual who may be struggling or towards the whole participant group.

Grow in mindfulness at work

If we want to grow in mindfulness through our behaviour at work, we need the strong intent to make the most of the opportunities for mindfulness that work presents.  Regular practice of mindfulness elsewhere will help to build this intent as well as consciousness of the opportunities for mindfulness at work.  Starting small with a single mindfulness practice maintained over three weeks will mean that the practice, such as mindful walking, will become embedded in your daily routine.  You can progressively expand these focused practices so that you become unconsciously competent at utilising opportunities for mindfulness at work.

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

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Barriers Experienced During Walking Meditation

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, in the Power of Awareness Meditation Training Course, identified a number of barriers that you could experience during a walking meditation.   These relate to your internal thoughts and feelings and your physical balance.

I discuss three of these barriers below and offer some suggested strategies to overcome them:

  1. Loss of balance – you can experience a loss of balance because of the unusual slowness of the practice of walking meditation.  The way around this barrier is to go a little faster until you find a speed that enables you to walk with ease and maintain your balance.  Over time and with further practice, you will be able to walk more slowly without losing your balance.
  2. Invading thoughts – despite your intention to still your mind and the incessant internal chatter, you may find that, since you have stopped rushing to go somewhere,  your mind will become hyper-active.  You could be invaded with all kinds of thoughts, e.g. thoughts related to planning, negative self-evaluation, problem solving, or anticipation of a future event.  The secret here is not to entertain these thoughts but let them float by and bring yourself back to your focus on your bodily sensations.  This serves as good training for any form of meditation.  In terms of negative self-evaluation, it is important to remember that there is no right way as far as walking meditation goes.  You have to find the approach and location to suit yourself.  The main thing to achieve is slowing down with a focus  on bodily sensations.
  3. Strong emotions – sometimes when you slow down your pace of life through a walking meditation, some deep feelings emerge.  They could be feelings of anger, grief, disgust or any other strong feeling.  It is as if the hectic pace of life has enabled you to hide away from these feelings and avoid noticing them and naming your feelings.  The feelings refuse to stay submerged when your focus turns from rushing  to meet external expectations to focusing on you internal state, both physical and emotional.  In this scenario, it is possible to stop walking and begin a standing meditation where you pay attention to the strong feeling, accept its existence, investigate its impact on your body and nurture yourself by drawing on your internal resources – a process we discussed as R.A.I.N meditation.  When you have the strong feelings under control, you can resume your walking meditation.

As you grow in mindfulness through standing and walking meditations, you will develop strategies to overcome the barriers to your focus and, in the process, acquire a core skill that will positively impact other forms of meditation and your daily life.  Focus is the foundation for awareness,  productivity, creativity and social skills.

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

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Standing and Walking Meditation

Standing and walking meditations have the common aims of helping us to get in touch with our bodies, to become grounded, to slow down the pace of our lives and to clear our minds of constant chatter.  I have previously written about mindful walking and here I want to talk about using standing and walking meditations together.

Standing meditation  

The idea in the combination approach is to use standing meditations as bookends for a walking meditation – that is, as you complete each forward and return leg of a walking meditation, you stop and complete a standing meditation.

The standing meditation begins with being aware of the feel of your feet on the floor, then being conscious of the muscles that support your upright position.  You can hold your arms in any number of ways – with your hands loosely in front of you, your arms hanging loosely beside your body or joined loosely behind your back.  I find that with my arms hanging loosely beside my body, I almost immediately find the tension draining out of my arms and hands.

The standing meditation can involve mindful breathing, body scan, inner awareness or open awareness – taking in sounds, sights, and smells.  The key aim is to be present in the moment, in touch with your inner and outer reality.

Walking meditation

There are many forms of walking meditation and what I will cover here is an approach that is used in combination with standing meditations.  Walking meditations are valuable because we spend so much of our day moving around, typically racing from one place to another in pursuit of our time-poor way of life.  All the time as we move, our minds are also racing – we become caught up in thinking about what needs to be done, planning our actions or feeling concerned about possible undesirable outcomes.

Walking meditation enables us to get in touch with our body and at the same time to notice what thoughts are continuously preoccupying us.  I found for instance that the thoughts that continually invaded my consciousness as I was doing a walking meditation all related to some form of planning or other related thinking activity – planning for the things that needed to be done after the meditation or the following days.

Tara Brach suggests that if you walk indoors, it is useful to have a walking space that is 15 to 30 steps in length.  This means, in effect, that there is no end goal in terms of where you are trying to get to physically – which counters our daily habit of being goal directed in every movement.  Instead, with the walking meditation we are very present to each step, each movement forward – not pursuing an end goal.  It also provides the opportunity to undertake a standing meditation at each end of the walking space to add increased stillness and serenity to our mindful walking practice.

The idea is to start to walk a little bit more slowly than you usually walk and, at the same time, to pay attention to the sensations in parts of your body, e.g. your feet, lower legs, arms, chest and thighs.  In contrast to your standing or sitting meditation, your breathing will tend to be in the background and your bodily sensations in the foreground.

The basic idea is to become conscious of lifting your feet, stepping out and landing your feet in front of you.  The standing meditation at the end of each leg of the walking space involves pausing and stillness and thus deepening your grounding and your awareness of the present moment.

As we grow in mindfulness through combining standing and walking meditations, we become more grounded, more conscious of our bodily sensations and tensions, more in tune with our present reality and better able to be still and silent and to open ourselves to the richness within and without.

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

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Gratitude in Times of Difficulty

Having gratitude in times of difficulty can increase resilience and overcome depression, anxiety and despair.  Gratitude changes the quality of life that we are living as we gain better control over our thoughts and feelings and learn to accept what is.

As you develop this practice, you start to see things that you had not noticed before, the taken-for-granted things in your life.  Diana Winston recalls noticing the way sunlight reflects on a plant and the assorted colours that were in a painting on her wall.  She attributes this increased awareness and associated thankfulness to taking the time to slow down and meditate on the place where she was – very much a form of open awareness meditation.

So, mindfulness and gratitude go hand-in-hand, in a two-way reinforcement.  As you meditate, you become more aware of what you are grateful for and your growing gratitude, in turn, helps you to be more aware of positive experiences and people in your life.

Gratitude in times of difficulty

We so often miss the simple things of life that are before us and can act as a stimulus for gratitude.  In times of difficulty, it can be very hard to look beyond what we are experiencing and suffering from and, yet, the simple things in our life can be easily noticed and employed to pull us out of our self-absorption.   When we are experiencing difficulties, we often can’t see beyond what is challenging our equanimity.

Somatic meditation can be very helpful in times of challenge, whether the challenge relates to health of our body, our mental state or an external negative stimulus.  Adopting a meditative position, in the first instance, enables us to get in touch with our breathing and provides the stillness to observe our own body as we undertake a body scan and progressively release the tension within.

This physical grounding and release provides the foundation to turn our minds to what we are grateful for.  A recent experience may become the focus of your appreciation.  For example, in a recent meditation, the focus of my gratitude was a conversation I had the day before with a long-standing colleague and close friend.  I recalled the ease of the conversation as we were “shooting the breeze”, the deep connection through shared experiences and convictions, the exploration of new terrain, the supportive challenge to perspectives, the mutual respect and admiration and the challenge to identify what gives me a “buzz” at a time of semi-retirement.

Reflecting on this recent experience made me realize the warmth of the interaction and the things that I value about the friendship which lie below my consciousness because I have never attempted to express my gratitude for this profound connection.  Our meeting was not only a face-to-face conversation, but also a meeting of minds – a source of mutual enrichment.

As we grow in mindfulness through gratitude meditations, we start to see things that we have taken for granted, appreciate more deeply and explicitly what we value in our experiences and friendships and  strengthen our inner resources to deal with the challenges that confront us.

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

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Action Learning, Mindfulness and Mental Health in the Workplace

Over the past few months I have been exploring the linkages amongst action learning, mindfulness and mental health.  I have found that action learning and mindfulness are complementary and enable the development of an organisational culture that is conducive to mental health. The image above represents my current conceptualisation of the relationships amongst action learning, mindfulness and mental health.

Mental illness in the workplace

The pressures of modern life have led to the increasing incidence of people in the workplace suffering from mental illness.  This is compounded by the increase in the number of narcissistic managers.  My own experience of consulting to organisations over many years has highlighted for me the urgency of taking action in the area of mental health in the workplace.

One particular consulting experience involved helping a manager and their group to become more effective.  The senior manager exhibited high levels of narcissistic behaviours, the middle manager –  while sincere and very conscientious – lacked self-awareness and interpersonal skills and one of the team leaders was suffering from Asperger Syndrome.  This workplace environment was toxic for the mental health of all involved, including myself as a consultant.

Action learning and toxic work environments

In the course of my research and work as an organisational consultant and academic, I came across an action learning intervention in an educational context in South Africa that addressed the mental health issues resulting from a toxic workplace.  This doctoral study has been published in article form and is described in my post on overcoming a toxic work environment through action learning.

Around the same time, I had the good fortune to study another doctorate that addressed the trauma experienced by midwives in a hospital in New Zealand.  This research used action learning to change the culture from a punitive one to a culture that supported health professionals suffering trauma, reduced the impact of the traumatic event and enabled them to be more resilient in the face of the trauma experience. I discussed this case in my blog post on agency through action learning.

Creating a mentally healthy workplace through action learning

Reflecting on these two studies about action learning and toxic workplaces raised my awareness of the positive mental health implications of the action learning-based, manager development that I had been conducting with my colleague, Julie Cork, over more than a decade.  I came to conceptualise that manager development program as creating a mentally healthy workplace through action learning.  The perception of this program as developing a culture conducive to mental health in the workplace was reinforced by a report by two lawyers titled, Mental Health at Work.

When facilitating the Confident People Management (CPM) Program with Julie, we have the participating managers identify the characteristics of their worst and best managers.  Then we ask them to identify their feelings when working for the best managers and then when working for the worst managers.  Over more than a decade there has been almost unanimity over more than 80 programs in terms of the relevant managerial characteristics and the resultant feelings of subordinate staff.  This is independent of whether the participants are from the capital city or regional areas and does not differ substantially amongst participants of different occupations and professions – whether the participants are police officers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, mental health professionals, nurses, hospital managers or public servants engaged in child safety, accounting or marketing roles. Participant managers know intuitively what managerial behaviours are conducive to mental health and what are injurious.  We set about in the CPM to develop the characteristics of “good managers” in the program.

Mindfulness and mental health in the workplace

The research supporting the positive impact of mindfulness on mental health and its role in overcoming mental illness is growing exponentially.  The ever-growing research base in this area led to The Mindfulness Initiative in the UK and the creation of the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG).

The benefits of mindfulness for mental health in the workplace were then documented in two very significant reports, Mindful Nation UK and Building the Business Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace.  I have discussed this proactivity in the UK and the associated reports in a post, The Mindfulness Initiative: Mindfulness in the Workplace.

The Mindful Nation UK report incorporates feedback from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) which argues strongly that mindfulness alone will not solve the problems of toxic work environments.  They contend that organisations need proactive interventions (not just isolated mindfulness training) to ensure that organisational culture is conducive to employee well-being.  I have argued that action learning is an intervention that can develop a culture conducive to mental health.

In my discussions I take this conclusion one step further by contending that action learning and mindfulness are complementary and contribute to mental health through the development of agency and self-awareness.

Action learning and mindfulness as complementary interventions.

Reflection is integral to action learning and some mindfulness practices rely on reflection on events and personal responses to build awareness.  I have discussed the similarities and differences in these reflective practices within the two approaches in a post titled, Mindfulness, Action Learning and Reflection.

Elsewhere, I have shown  how action learning can contribute to the development of mindfulness through “supportive challenge”, mutual respect, equality and “non-judgmental feedback”.  This discussion is available in a blog post, titled Developing Mindfulness Through Action Learning.

After discussing the complementarity between action learning and mindfulness, I wrote a reflection on the previously mentioned action learning intervention designed to change a toxic work environment in an educational setting.  In this reflection, I discussed how mindfulness training could have helped the participants to exercise more fully the responsibility that came with agency.  In a subsequent post, I looked at how mindfulness expands our response ability.

In a further reflection on both the doctoral studies mentioned above, I highlighted the capacity of mindfulness to break through the “conspiracy of silence” about mental health in organisations and to strengthen both self-awareness and resilience.

The complementarity betwen action learning and mindfulness in terms of developing a culture conducive to mental health comes into sharper focus when we consider the contribution of each to “agency” and “self-awareness” in the workplace.

Action learning and mindfulness develop agency in the workplace

Drawing on the work of Tali Sharot, author of The Influential Mind, I have shown how agency is a necessary prerequisite for mental health in the workplace.  I have also explained how action learning can contribute to both employee agency and managerial agency.  One of the things that stop managers from providing employees with agency (control over their work environment and the way their work is done) is fear of loss of control.  Mindfulness enables a manager to overcome this fear, provide agency to employees and grow their own influence in the process.

I contend further that mindfulness enables agency to be sustained in the workplace for both managers and employees.  Managers are better able to realise their potential by “letting go” and enabling employee agency.  Employees, in turn, build their capacity to take up the agency provided through their own pursuit of mindfulness.  “Sustainable agency” is an organisational condition that provides a nurturing environment for managerial and employee growth and for the mental health of all concerned.

Action learning and mindfulness develop self-awareness in the workplace

When you look at the underpinning philosophy of both action learning and mindfulness you find that both actively work towards achieving self-awareness by removing the blindness of false assumptions, unconscious bias, prejudice, and self-limiting “narratives”.

Action learning and mindfulness can thus act together to build self-awareness, a precondition for mental health.  In the process, they provide the payoff from self-awareness in terms of increased responsiveness, creativity and self-management.  Action learning and mindfulness also enhance self-awareness by encouraging us to admit what we do not know.

As managers grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices they are better able to contribute to action learning and to build a culture that is conducive to mental health.  Mindfulness helps both managers and employees to develop deeper self-awareness and to build their capacity to take up the agency provided, thus leading to a more sustainable organisational capacity for agency.

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

Image source: Ron Passfield, Copyright. 2018

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