Some Simple Gratitude Exercises

The expression of gratitude does not have to be confined to extended gratitude meditations.  In fact, the more often you can find simple ways to express gratitude, the more readily will you achieve a brain makeover from negative thoughts to a positive outlook and impact positively on those you interact with.  It is a two-way street though – an extended gratitude meditation can deepen your overall sense of gratitude while regular expressions of gratitude can keep this positive emotion top of mind and impact your behaviour on an ongoing basis.

Simple gratitude exercises

If you have a suite of simple gratitude exercises, you are more likely to practise them and extend your expression of gratitude throughout the day as different gratitude prompts occur.  Here are some gratitude exercises to get you started:

Making your “thank you” a conscious act

Stephanie Domet suggests that we can improve the quality of our daily expression of gratitude to others by being really present when we say “thank you”.  We can often be distracted, mouth the words as a matter of course without real feeling behind them or become focused on our next action without being really present to the person we are “communicating” with.  The person receiving the communication can sense whether you mean what you say or are just going through the motions.  If you are not present when you say the words, your positive intent is lost as are the benefits for yourself and the other person.

Savour the moment through your senses

Elaine Smookler provides a comprehensive explanation of a 5-minute exercise that involves progressively engaging each of your senses in-the-moment.  She maintains that this practice builds personal resilience when the waves of life wash over you – when things don’t turn out as you expected.  Elaine also provides a guided meditation podcast within her article.  This approach helps to switch your brain from a deficit mentality to one of appreciating life’s small blessings.

Reflecting on your day with gratitude

Towards the end of each day, it pays to look back on the day and reflect on what you have appreciated about your day – the people you have interacted with and the friendships involved, the opportunities that have come your way, the ease of conversation, the chance to achieve something worthwhile, acquiring new skills or knowledge (or enhancing existing knowledge/skills), gaining insights, growing in awareness (both internal and external).  The list of things to be grateful for goes on endlessly once you set your mind to it.  This simple exercise of appreciating the small things in life on a daily basis helps us to break free of self-doubt or negative thoughts and builds our confidence and potentiality.

Building gratitude into your daily life – choosing a simple or extended gratitude exercise

You can build your appreciation and sense of gratitude very quickly through these exercises and deepen your gratitude with more extended meditation practice.  The secret is to head down this path of appreciation and its attendant benefits by choosing something, a simple or extended practice, that you can build into your daily life.  It needs to be something that suits your lifestyle so that you can sustain it over time and make it an integral part of your life.  One gratitude practice will then lead to another and change your outlook on life as well as your interactions.

As you grow in mindfulness through simple gratitude exercises and/or extended gratitude meditation, you will build your awareness of the positive aspects of your life, develop greater resilience and strengthen your relationships.  Time spent reflecting on the things you appreciate each day will bring a rich reward.

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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Replacing Shame with Kind Attention

Shauna Shapiro, co-author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness, maintains that mindfulness practice involves more than paying attention.  In 2005, Shauna published an article with her colleagues titled Mechanisms of Mindfulness.  In that article, Shauna and her colleagues shared a model of mindfulness that shows that the effectiveness of mindful meditation depends on more than attention alone – it requires a positive interaction of intention, attention and attitude.

In one of her TEDx Talks, Shauna particularly focused on “attitude” because the attitude you bring to mindfulness practice actually grows stronger.  She maintained that her 20 years of mindfulness research confirmed categorically that mindfulness generates clear benefits for our mind and wellness.  However, these benefits are mediated by the attitude we bring to our mindfulness practice.

Shauna’s research and her own lived experience bore out the fact that everyone has a tendency to feel shame for some of the things that they have done in life and that during mindfulness practice, shame can take over and shut down our capacity to learn and develop.

What Shauna discovered was that the attitude required for effective mindfulness practice was one of “kind attention“.  In her view, it takes a lot of courage to face the parts of our self that we are ashamed of.  However, instead of dwelling on negative self-evaluation, which only grows stronger with attention, we need to be kind to ourselves and express self-love and self-compassion.  She found that the simple act of saying, “Good morning Shauna” each morning with her hand on her heart (as an expression of self-love), can begin the movement towards self-love and the ability to say, “Good morning Shauna, I love you”.

Shauna explained that at first this process feels awkward and trite, but she found from her own experience and mindfulness practice that it gradually replaces self-loathing with self-care.  She explained that what we pay attention to grows stronger.  So if we spend our day consumed by shame, frustration or anger, we are only strengthening these attitudes.  Whereas, if we focus on kind attention and genuine self-compassion, we strengthen those attitudes and thicken the part of the brain that enables learning, growth and transformation – a process called “cortical thickening“.

What is interesting is that not only does our neo-cortex thicken but also its connection to the “fear centre” (the amygdala) of our brain is weakened.  So that through continuously practising kind attention, we are better able to view the world and ourselves positively and act effectively in our environment, whether at work or at home.

Shauna told the story of a veteran who was consumed by shame for what he had done in the war zone but when he shared his story with other veterans, their compassion towards him helped to dissolve his entrenched sense of shame (contributing to his PTSD) and enabled him to experience self-compassion.  So, our compassionate attitude to others can also help them move beyond the disabling effects of shame.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practice imbued with kind attention and self-compassion, we strengthen our ability to concentrate, remain calm and make decisions that enable us to function effectively in our challenging world.

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay.

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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)

Image source: courtesy of Wokandapix on Pixabay

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Sustaining Meditation Practice

In his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Elisha Goldstein discussed the theme, Towards Sustainable Happiness.  He covered the barriers to sustaining meditation practice and offered ways to overcome them. Elisha is the author of a number of books, including Uncovering Happiness and The Now Effect.

Elisha acknowledged that integrating a new habit, such as meditation, into our daily lives is a challenging task. Starting the habit is relatively easy but sustaining it over time can be extremely difficult.

He identified a number of barriers that make it difficult for us to achieve the desired integration:

1. Our negative bias

As we mentioned previously, our brain is wired to perceive danger and threat and persists in a negative orientation as an evolutionary safety mechanism. This manifests as doubts, anxiety or uncertainty when we are trying to sustain the habit of meditation. We tend to question not only the way we are meditating but also the utility (usefulness/ benefit) of meditation. We can focus on the effort involved without seeing the benefits.

2. Fractured attention

In this day and age, we are constantly interrupted by technology, advertising and noise pollution. Our attention is continuously fractured by interruption – we now talk about disruptive marketing as a means to capture the attention of our desired audience. This continuous disruption to our attention makes it increasingly difficult to meditate and feeds our doubts and uncertainties.

3. Our cultural environment

The acceptance of busyness as laudable and inactivity as blameworthy, translates into little tolerance for being still, taking time out or meditating. This means that there are very few positive models within our immediate environment to inspire us to sustain our meditation practice. There are few rewarding or supporting social cues that motivate us to maintain the effort.

4. Our loss of connectedness

The development of our social norms means that increasingly we are superficially connected to lots of people (via social media) and see ourselves as separate and independent. Images of meditation practitioners reinforce this separateness. However, neuroscience confirms the view that we are social beings that are interconnected and interdependent. We have a reliance on each other whether we are conscious of this or not. Research also highlights the fact that social isolation can lead to physical and mental illness including depression.

Elisha’s very strong recommendation, based on his own research and experience, is to work towards enriching our environment as a way of building sustainability in our meditation practice and enhancing our experience of happiness.

He suggests that this can be done in two ways, (1) enrich our physical environment, and (2) build social connections that provide positive social cues and inspiration.

On a physical level, we can surround ourselves with inspiring books and sayings, clear clutter than distracts us and detracts from the inner journey, value the beauty and calmness of our natural surroundings and develop a space that engenders calm and ease of meditation.

On a social level, we can get connected to like-minded people by participating in retreats, workshops, online conferences and courses. What is more likely to be sustaining for our meditation practice, however, is regular participation with a group of people who engage in meditation.

If we enrich our physical and social environments, we are better able to grow in mindfulness by sustaining our meditation practice, so that the benefits are longer lasting and flow into our everyday lives outside the meditative environment.

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

Image source: courtesy of RitaE on Pixabay