Do You Ever Stop to Watch the Sunset?

In a previous post, I discussed the benefits of being still – stopping the rush of our busy lives.

Sometimes, there is beauty before us and we fail to stop and look – we often do not see the sun setting on our day.

Each sunset produces an astonishing palette across the sky – a unique combination of colours and shapes that are often awe-inspiring.  Every day we are offered a different vision as the sun sets.  How often do you stop to see what is offered to you so freely?

We are so caught up with things to do that even if we want to stop to look at the sunset, we feel the pressure to keep moving and doing – we experience time pressure that shapes so much of how we live our lives.

Paulo Coelho, in his inimitable style, catches this tension perfectly when he describes how the central character in one of his books, Brida, experiences this challenge:

Whenever she sat still, just looking at something, she got the feeling that she was wasting precious time when she should be doing things or meeting people.  She could be spending her time so much better, because there was still so much to learn.  And yet, as the sun sunk lower on the horizon, and the clouds filled up with rays of gold and pink, Brida had the feeling that what she was struggling for in life was exactly this, to be able to sit one day and contemplate just such a sunset. (Brida, 2008, p.112)

Therein lies the challenge for us each day.  We can stop and look at the sunset as a form of mindful practice or carry on with our busy lives.  Each sunset offers us the opportunity to grow in open awareness and mindfulness.

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Mindful Walking on the Inside

In a previous post, I discussed various ways of mindful walking with an emphasis on walking outdoors.  Here I want to focus on a simple approach to mindful walking that can be used indoors, particularly when you are time-poor.

The basic process for mindful walking indoors is as follows:

  1. Work out where you are going to walk from and to
  2. Stand with your feet apart and be conscious of the soles of your feet on the floor
  3. Ground yourself mentally and physically
  4. Lift your right foot slowly
  5. Place the heel of your right foot slowly on the floor
  6. Gradually lower your foot so that the sole of your right foot is slowly flattening on the floor
  7. Lift your left foot slowly
  8. Place the heel of your left foot slowly on the floor
  9. Gradually lower your foot so that the sole of your left foot is slowly flattening on the floor.

Repeat steps 4-9 keeping your mind focused on your walking action.   You can start with your left foot if this is your preference.

As you become more conscious of mindful walking and begin to practise it indoors, you will notice many opportunities that arise where you can take a few minutes to practise, e.g. while waiting for the jug to boil, or waiting for your partner or children to get ready to go out.  You will also become more conscious of your walking when outdoors.

So often we “race from pillar to post” thinking about something we have to do or have failed to do or done wrongly.  We rush everywhere, even in our own home.

Mindful walking enables us to slow down, to be more conscious of the present and to appreciate what we have.  It can help us to reduce anxiety about the future and depression about the past.  It leads to peace, contentment and lowered stress.  With a clearer mind, you may also experience increased awareness and insight.

Mindful walking indoors is a simple, time-efficient way to grow mindfulness and to keep things in perspective.

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Grow Your Influence by Letting Go

In a previous post, we discussed how mindfulness helps us to increase our sense of control over our internal environment and responses to external stimuli.  However, there are times when we have to give up control over our external environment to enable others to gain a sense of control over their work or environment.

A fundamental dilemma in life is that to grow our influence we need to let go.  If we become too controlling, we get compliance from others but lose their commitment and energy – ultimately things get out of control.

If you are a manager or someone who has the power to delegate tasks to others, it is very difficult to let go.  However, if you fail to do so, your influence contracts, rather than grows.

We are afraid to let go because:

  • things might get out of hand
  • the other person does not have the knowledge or skills to do the task
  • other people may not have our level of knowledge or skill
  • we do not want to be embarrassed by the mistakes or failures of others
  • other people cannot do the task as well as us
  • we get a buzz from achieving things ourselves
  • we like to do things within our comfort zone, rather than things that challenge us.

All of these reasons for not letting go can be challenged but they often serve as barriers to delegating to others – in the final analysis, they can be seen as excuses.  The net result is that we end up overworked and other people are deprived of the opportunity to grow and develop, to achieve outcomes that are valued, to experience satisfaction for a job well done – importantly, if we retain control we limit their sense of agency and capacity to contribute.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot maintains that “control is tightly related to influence” and influence expands when we provide others with a sense of agency – the capacity to control their environment, power over the way things are done.  She argues:

The message, perhaps ironically, is that to influence actions, you need to give people a sense of control.  Eliminate the sense of agency and you get anger, frustration, and resistance.  Expand people’s sense of influence over their world and you increase their motivation and compliance.  (The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 87)

To give up control, however, we have to be in control of our own emotions and responses.  We have to manage our fear of loss of control over our immediate external environment by managing our internal environment. As explained in the previous post, as we grow in mindfulness, we grow in the capacity to develop control over our own emotions and responses.

Tali Sharot suggests that “there is nothing more terrifying than giving away control to another human being” and “this is why many managers feel the need to micromanage their teams”.  She offers advice to managers that resonates with developing mindfulness and awareness:

It is difficult to let go, but awarness can help.  Understanding why we are the way we are, and being conscious of our deeply rooted drive to make decisions, may help us hand over the wheel once in a while.  With awareness comes the understanding that giving away control…is a simple but largely effective way to increase people’s well-being and motivation. (The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 103)

She discusses examples of research projects in different contexts that provide evidence of the effectiveness of the fundamental principle of letting go to empower others by giving them a sense of agency.  One particular research project that resonated strongly with me was one involving the elderly in a nursing home where the fundamental questions framed by the researchers, Rodin and Langer, were:

What if the residents of a nursing home were given more choices, more responsibility, and a greater sense of agency?  Would they become healthier and happier?

To test these questions, the researchers set up an “agency floor” and a “no agency floor” where the former were given control over a range of decisions – a sense of agency not provided to the latter floor. The results are described by Tali Sharot as follows:

Three weeks later, when Rodin and Langer assessed the nursing home residents, they discovered that those individuals who’d been encouraged to take more control over their environments were the happiest and participated in the greatest number of activities.  Their mental alertness improved, and eighteen months later they were healthier than the residents on the “no agency” floor. (The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 97)

This research project has a personal interest for me because it reminds me of the activity of my brother, Pat Passfield, who provided other residents of his nursing home with a strong sense of agency.  He was recently nominated for a philanthropic award for his efforts to raise funds and improve conditions for other residents of the Jacobs Court aged care community at Sinnamon Village (80 years of Care – Wesley Mission, A joint Photojournalism Project between the Wesley Mission Queensland and Griffith University Queensland College of Art, p.22)

So if we learn to let go through developing mindfuless and awareness, we will be able to grow our influence by giving others a sense of agency and control over their environment – and contribute substantially to their health, well-being and happiness.

 

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Who is in the Shower With You?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in discussing sensory awareness as an aspect of mindfulness, asks the question, “Who is in the Shower With You?”

He makes the point that our minds are always wandering – even when we are in the shower.  We could be thinking of a conflict with someone at work, a criticism from the boss or poor performance by a colleague.  In consequence, we are not attending to the physical sensation of the water on our skin – we are someplace else, basically at work.

Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that sometimes our whole work team is in the shower with us as we reflect on a meeting while showering – who said what about what issue, what conflicts arose, what we are committed to do in the future, what changes are coming up.

He argues that we cannot access the healing power of mindfulness, if we are not present and fail to be aware of our sensory perceptions – the major theme of his book, Coming to Our Senses.

In the following video, Kabat-Zinn discusses other ways that we can become aware of our surrounds and our senses.  He maintains that to grow in mindfulness and access the healing power it generates, we need to come to our senses, both literally and metaphorically.

 

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Be Aware of Your Negative Comments

To grow in mindfulness, it is important to monitor the negative criticisms we direct to, or about, others.  Negativity can become a mindset where we only look for, and consequently see, inadequacies in others.  Before you realise it, your whole stance towards a person, or a group of people, can become negative – you become blind to their positive characteristics.

Negative criticisms can become contagious as you influence the mindset of the people you are speaking to.  People love to hear negative comments about others – it helps to build their own self-image.  This is particularly true of people who have low self-esteem.

There is some merit in the saying, “If you can’t say something positive about a person, don’t say anything.”  If our communication is positive we can help build up others and create a constructive environment.

Clearly, there are times when you have to exercise discernment and identify a person’s strengths and weaknesses, and in some situations, communicate weaknesses.  However, it is important to monitor our negative criticisms to see whether the communication of this “assessment” is desirable or necessary.

As the image for this post indicates, continuous negative criticism of other people sets up a vicious circle that is destructive and difficult to extricate yourself from without awareness of what is happening.

Monitoring our negative comments about others helps us to grow in awareness and mindfulness and gain a better insight into how our communications impact others.

Image Credit: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

 

Mindful Practice: Lower-Belly Breathing

Lower-belly breathing or deep belly breathing is a form of somatic meditation as it entails not only mindful breathing but also awareness of bodily sensations.

It involves conscious breathing through your lower-belly, being aware of both the in-breath (through the nose) and the out-breath through the mouth.  You can place one hand on your lower-belly (below the navel) and the other on your diaphragm.

Now breathe into your lower-belly to a count of four, and exhale to a count of four, feeling the expulsion of breath through your diaphragm. You can complete a number of sets of this exercise and also combine it with holding your in-breath for a count of four and your exhalation for the same count.

This breathiing exercise can be done lying down or sitting up.  It is often recommended that you start with lying down and progress to sitting up.

In the following video, Christina Macias discusses the benefits of deep belly breathing – a foundational breathing exercise, and takes you through the basic steps involved (beginning at 6.45 minutes).

Christina Macias stresses the importance of balancing deep belly breathing with other forms of breathing, including conscious expansion of your rib cage.  Her instructional videos on her Facebook channel take you through the benefits and steps involved in each form of breathing exercise.

Lower-belly breathing is an easy way to grow mindfulness and increase your awareness – to take your awareness out of the stress-producing chatter in your head and grounding it in your body.

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Somatic Meditation: A Pathway to Mindfulness and Trauma Healing

Somatic meditation involves grounding your meditation in your body and not in your mind.  We spend so much time in our minds, thinking about the past and the future.

This form of meditation enables us to take advantage of the “natural wakefulness” of our own bodies and to really connect with the present moment.

Conscious breathing is central to somatic meditation and this can take many forms such as:

  • lower belly breathing
  • whole body breathing

Somatic meditation also incorporates awareness about sensations in your body that you can develop through practices such as posture alignment, massage, mindful walking and progressive relaxation.

Dr. Catherine Kerr, through her neuroscience research, has shown that mindfulness-based body awareness (developed through conscious breathing and awareness of body sensations) can actually change your mind.

She demonstrates how somatic meditation can overcome negative thoughts and reduce depression, stress and distress from chronic pain.

Sandra Hotz, through her Body Centred Psychotherapy, uses somatic meditation for healing trauma.  Your many life experiences are not only stored in your mind but also in your body.  Somatic meditation can help to release deep and painful memories that are locked up within your body.

Sandra offers personal counselling as well as a range of meditation classes and courses, including courses in somatic meditation.

Somatic meditation takes so little time and effort but its benefits are far-reaching.  It will help you to achieve stillness and calm and to reduce the hectic pace of your life – it is one sure way to grow mindfulness.

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Some Environments are Conducive to Mindfulness

Some environments are conducive to mindfulness because of their natural beauty.  Stradbroke Island is one of these locations as the above image illustrates.

Stradbroke Island just off Cleveland in Moreton Bay has natural beauty, abundant bird life, large tracts of native trees and endless beaches. Whale viewing from Point Lookout is absorbing and causes you to marvel at the power and grace of these magnificent mammals.

Where else can you see Kangaroos grazing contentedly in the backyard or a Koala greeting you from a tree near the ferry terminal?

Dr. Bjarte Stubhaug, in an interview with Hanne Suorza, had this to say about nature and mindfulness:

Nature is always here and now. Your breath, your senses, anything around you. When you are being aware of the life within you and around you, you are being mindful of this present moment, and it will always calm you down. You can not do nature, you can just be there. Being is calming.

Whether we are on Stradbroke Island or somewhere else in nature, we can readily experience mindfulness, calm the mind and release negative emotions.  Open awareness when in nature can lead to inner awareness.

Image source: Copyright R. Passfield

Mindful Eating

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book, “Coming to Our Senses”, suggests that his call to awareness has to be interpreted both literally (being conscious of the senses of the body) and metaphorically (behaving sensibly).

He describes each of the senses as a terrain and discusses mindful eating in a section of his book called “tastescape” (“touch”, for example, constitutes the “touchscape”).

Kabat-Zinn argues that we often eat mindlessly, unaware of what we are eating, with limited consciousness of taste and texture (we are too busy talking or thinking about other things).  He suggests that we have lost the fundamental purpose of eating:

Thus eating has has become increasingly separated from survival and maintenance of life in our consciousness.  For the most part, we eat with great automaticity and little insight into its critical importance for us in sustaining life, and also in sustaining health (p.231).

In his Stress Reduction Clinic, he starts his training with getting people to eat a raisin slowly and sensuously because it brings participants into the moment, the present, and dispels all misunderstanding re the nature of meditation.  He suggests that such an exercise increases “wakefulness”:

Eating one raisin very very slowly invites you to drop right into knowing in ways that are effortless, totally natural, and entirely beyond words and thinking.   It is an invitation that is unusual only in that we tend to eat so automatically and unconsciously (p.230).

Not long after first reading about mindful eating in Kabat-Zinn’s book, I was travelling interstate and purchased a packet of “goodies” to eat, comprising almonds, pistachio nuts and cranberries.  I decided to experiment with mindful eating as he describes the process.

I started with an almond and felt the ridged exterior and firm texture with my tongue and gradually bit into its firm surface.  Slowly, I tasted the distinctive flavour of the almond and appreciated this sensation which tended to be short in duration.  I followed this up with putting a pistachio nut in my mouth and felt the smoothness and wave shape of its surfaces. As I bit into the pistachio, I had a stronger sense of flavour than with the almond and this tended to last a bit longer.  Lastly, I placed a cranberry in my mouth and felt its wrinkled and rough surface with my tongue.  Biting into the cranberry was a very different sensation again – an explosion of flavour that tended to linger.

Normally, I would have thrown a handful of these nuts and cranberries into my mouth and, in the process, lost the distinctive sensations of differences in taste and texture. Kabat-Zinn suggests that we often eat with “stunningly little awareness of what or how we are eating, how fast we are eating, what our food actually tastes like, and when our body is telling us it is time to stop” (p.232).

He suggests that if we take time for mindful eating we can experience the rewards both physically and psychically:

If we slow down a bit, we can intentionally bring awareness to tasting anything we are eating, to be with this mouthful of food, and to really taste it, chew it and know it before we swallow it. (p.233)

Elsewhere in “Coming to Our Senses”, Kabat-Zinn explores the connection between our brain and our senses, as well as with our memories and awareness.  To appreciate this, you just have remember the last time a bit of food evoked a distant memory.

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Opening Our Eyes – Growing Awareness

So often you look without seeing.  It’s as if your eyes are turned inward rather than outward – you are consumed in thought, not absorbed in what is before you.

Sometimes if you are open to experience, and present to what lies before you, it is possible to experience an awakening awareness of the beauty that surrounds you.

M.L. Stedman illustrates this exquisitely in their best-selling novel, “The Light Between the Oceans”.  The light refers to a lighthouse off the coast of Western Australia which is positioned between the intersection of two oceans, The Indian Ocean and The Great Southern Ocean.  In describing a particular location, one of the book’s characters recalls how they “had been struck by the emptiness of this place, like a blank canvas, when they arrived”.

However as awareness gradually dawned, they came to see the place through the eyes of others, “attuning to the subtle changes”:

The clouds, as they formed and grouped and wandered the sky; the shape of the waves, which would take their cue from the wind and the season and could, if you knew how to read them, tell you the next day’s weather.

This is the power of skilled novelists and people like Louie Schwartzberg, the time lapse photographer,  who enable us to look at nature through their lens and see it as they see it.

So it is often possible to just stop what you are doing, however briefly, to take in the beauty that surrounds you. In this way, you begin to build mindfulness practice.