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.

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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.

Understanding the Science of Compassion

In her presentation on The Science of Compassion during the Mindful Healthcare Summit, Kelly McGonigal highlighted the body-mind impact of compassion and compassion training. Over the past 10 years she has worked with the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in the capacities of researcher and educator. Kelly was a co-author of the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training [CCT] and has undertaken research into its impacts on mind and body.

The mind-body effects of compassion training

The research undertaken by Kelly and her colleagues highlights the effects of compassion training on the mind and body. Kelly summarised these effects as follows:

  1. The process of compassion starts in the primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, which registers a form of “sympathetic stress”, experienced by the observing individual as sadness or suffering. At this stage a person can become overwhelmed, particularly where they become too identified with the person who they perceive as suffering in some way, e.g. through grief, chronic physical illness, relationship breakdown or mental illness. The person who is experiencing overwhelm may adopt flight behaviour by distancing themselves (mentally and/or physically).
  2. The next stage involves the pre-frontal cortex and other parts of the “midline structure of the brain”. Here the sympathetic sufferer, through a process of “social cognition”, can separate themselves from the perceived sufferer. They recognise the suffering of the “other” and understand that they have a relationship to that person (as part of humanity) but are quite distinct from that other person – they don’t take the suffering on-board or “own the suffering” of the other person. This ability to achieve separation mentally is critical for the balance and welfare of the observer and is foundational to their willingness and ability to act to relieve the suffering of others. Without this balance, the observer may experience what Richard Davidson described as “empathy fatigue”.
  3. When we actually take compassionate action to relieve the suffering of another, we experience the “reward system” – our brain releases dopamine which make us feel good, hopeful and courageous. It thus serves to strengthen our motivation to redress the suffering of others. It activates “the approach motivation system of the brain” – motivating us to act on environments that we experience as unjust or toxic.

As we grow in mindfulness through compassion meditation and compassion training, and take action to redress the suffering of others, we can experience an increasing capacity for compassionate action and strengthening motivation to act on unjust or toxic environments.

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Image by Gerd Altmann 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.

What Does Neuroscience Tell Us About the Benefits of Mindfulness?

Continuous neuroscience research into the benefits of mindfulness has revealed supportive evidence that should encourage you to persist with mindfulness practices. While the neuroscience research into the power of mindfulness, and meditation specifically, is in its infancy, there are enough studies and research review articles to point to some real, measurable benefits.

Scientists still do not fully understand how the mind works but they have been able to identify the impact of meditation on the physical brain through Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI). Dusana Dorjee warns us, however, that science is a reductionist approach to the study of the mind and cannot effectively measure the whole range of states of awareness that can be achieved by the long-term meditator. Dusana is the author of
Neuroscience and Psychology of Meditation in Everyday Life: Searching for the Essence of Mind (2017).

How meditation changes the physical structure of the brain

A comprehensive review of neuroscience research into the impacts of mindfulness meditation undertaken by experienced meditators showed that eight regions of the brain were altered. Significantly, the regions of the brain that were positively impacted relate to:

  • capacity to be introspective and manage abstract ideas and, importantly, the ability to be aware of our own thinking
  • body awareness including touch, pain and proprioception
  • attention, self-control and regulation of emotions
  • ability to communicate effectively between the hemispheres of the brain (between right and left hemispheres).

Mindfulness meditation and happiness

Happiness can be developed as a skill and mindfulness meditation has a key role in its development. Well-being is increased, according to scientists at Wisconsin-Madison University, when the following capacities are enhanced:

  • ability to maintain positive emotions
  • rapidly recover from what is experienced as negative
  • engage in actions that manifest empathy and compassion
  • sustain attention in the present moment (and avoid mind-wandering).

Richard Davidson and Brianna S. Schuyler (2015) in their chapter, The Neuroscience of Happiness, draw on their mind research to argue that these capacities can be developed through training, especially mindfulness training and kindness/compassion meditation.

Research on the Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation by
Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015) demonstrates that meditation can reduce stress and increase performance because it switches off the brain’s anxiety- riddled, default-mode network (focused on the past/future) and activates the task-positive network. This latter network focuses on the present moment. As the brain can utilise only one of these networks at any one time, meditation – through creating the task of focusing on the breath, body scan or some other aspect – can activate present mindedness which leads to physical and mental health, while deactivating the default-mode which would otherwise lead to stress and ill-health.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and other mindful practices, we can enhance our performance and the wellness-generating structure of our brains and move from the stress-creating default mode to the task-positive mode of operating in our daily lives.

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Image by Gerd Altmann 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.

The Benefits of Gratitude

Increasingly research into gratitude has highlighted the benefits of being grateful and expressing that feeling through thought, writing or action.

Neuroscientist, Glenn Fox, in his article, “What the brain reveals about gratitude“, argues that scientific studies have established that expressing gratitude can improve your health, your relationships and your overall happiness.  He also asserts that recent research demonstrates that gratitude alleviates depression.

In support of this view, Joel Wong and Joshua Brown established through their research that gratitude practice helps people who experience mental health issues as well as people who are mentally healthy.  They postulate that practising gratitude displaces “toxic emotions” such as anger and resentment through the cultivation of positive emotions such as appreciation.

Wong & Brown, drawing on their research, demonstrate that just the act of expressing gratitude has substantial personal benefits and that sharing the expression of gratitude is not essential to realise these benefits.  Their research entailed a control group of participants writing “gratitude letters”.  They established that the benefits of being grateful grow over time and that there are sustained, positive effects on the brain, including “greater neural sensitivity in the prefrontal cortex” which leads to improved mental health over time.

They comment insightfully:

Much of our time and energy is spent pursuing things that we currently don’t have.  Gratitude reverses our priorities to help us appreciate the people and things that we do have.

Robert Emmons in his ground-breaking article, “Why gratitude is good“, shares the results of research undertaken with his colleagues and lists the demonstrated physical, psychological and social benefits of gratitude.  He asserts that gratitude entails more than appreciating what is good in our life – it also involves acknowledging the people who have enabled that “goodness”.  This entails recognising that the source of what we experience as good is often someone outside of ourselves.

The researchers designing these research studies often had participants produce a gratitude journal – recording on a regular basis the things that they are grateful for.  We can generate the positive energy of gratitude by reflecting on what is good in our past life or in the present.

As we grow in mindfulness through gratitude meditation, we train our brain to recognise what is good in our life, to appreciate the contribution of others to our happiness and mental health and to express that gratitude often and spontaneously. Through this state of positivity, we are better able to handle the challenges and stresses in our life.

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

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.

Coping with Trauma by Re-Connecting

In the previous discussion, I identified ways to access your inner resources to cope with trauma.  The problem with trauma, as Tara Brach points out, is that we become cut off from our brain and from our relationships.

This separation from ourselves and others impedes our ability to access our inner resources. There are a number of things that we can do to move past these blockages and find some peace.

Connecting with the present moment

One of the issues with trauma is that we can keep visiting the traumatic event(s) and the associated feelings, so we are re-living the past.  Resourcing begins with being in the present – being able to focus on the positives in our life including our achievements.  For example, we can connect with nature through open awareness – listening to the birds, smelling the flowers and trees, feeling the breeze on our face, observing the sky and clouds and touching the fibrous stems of a plant.

Connecting with our anxiety and aversion

When we find that every fibre of our body resists delving into the depths of our pain and grief, we can make the anxiety or aversion the focus of our meditation.  This involves being open to the anxiety involved and, instead of pushing it down deeper, we can establish a relationship with the feeling of aversion.  One way to do this is to explore the relationship that is demanded by the aversion – what is it asking of us?  Another way is to disarm it by picturing an image of the aversion- a cartoon character, an archetype (e.g. a witch) or a monster – and giving it a name such as “Mister Magoo”.  When the anxiety, fear or aversion rears its ugly head, we can then say – “So, Mister Magoo, I see you are back, what do you want this time?”

Connecting to daily practice

Sometimes, we find that we cannot maintain a daily practice of meditation – we may lack the discipline or motivation.  If we are driven by “shoulds”, we will be unable to sustain the habit of meditation.  However, if we revisit our intention – purpose for engaging in meditation – we can find the necessary discipline and motivation to restore our meditation practice.  Affirming to ourselves the benefits we seek, will help us to keep on track and overcome minor deviations from daily practice.  Sitting in the place we always sit for meditation can help, even if we can only do it briefly.  Journaling about the resistance we are feeling and recording how long we practised, can bring to light a pattern in our thinking and behaviour.  Also, by naming the resistance, we can tame it.

Connecting with our body

Sometimes we cannot feel an emotion in our body – we can become numb to our feelings.  We may feel, as a result, that we lack something that others possess when they can describe the impact of a feeling in their body in terms of colour, shape, intensity or location.  Again, practice helps.  When we feel a strong emotion such as kindness or disgust during our daily activity, we can try to notice our bodily reaction, exploring what is happening in our body no matter how minor or weak the impact.  Regular practice of this noticing will heighten our awareness and open us up to sensing our body’s reaction to particular emotions.  At first, it may be just a general sensation, but over time the features of the sensation will come into clearer focus.

Connecting to the community of suffering and love

The reality is that at any one time, most people are experiencing some form of suffering, whether physical, mental or a combination – suffering is a part of the human condition.  If we can move beyond our own suffering and its intensity we can connect to others who are experiencing similar suffering or something different and more intense – compassion for others can take us outside of ourselves.  There is also the wider “field of love” that we can tap into – be it from our friends, family or the community generally.  There is a sea of kindness everywhere, if we only look for it.

Connecting to a source of wisdom

We can imagine a wise person besides us as we try to make decisions that affect our life and wellbeing.  This can be a religious figure or someone who has taught or mentored us in life.  We can envisage talking to them about our issue and the decision we need to make.  This is a way to tap into universal wisdom.  We might raise our aversion, anxiety or resistance as a topic of conversation and the focus of a decision.

Through these means of connection, we can realise that we are not alone, that we do not need to be “cut off”.  We can feel the strength of everything and everyone around us and rest in that awareness.  As we grow in mindfulness through connection practices, we can break free of the sense of separateness, numbness and overwhelm and feel energised to deal with our deeper feelings generated by the experience of trauma.

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

Image source: courtesy of markusspiske on Pixabay

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 and Neuroplasticity

Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, explained that early brain researchers discovered what became known as “neuroplasticity”:

They showed that the brain changed its very structure with each activity it performed, perfecting its circuits so it was better suited to the task at hand.  If certain “parts” failed, then other parts sometimes take over. (p.xv)

For example, people who meditate or teach meditation have been shown to have a thicker insula – a part of the brain that is activated by paying close attention to something (p.290).

Dr. Bruno Cayoun observed that neuroscience has demonstrated that brain plasticity explains how mindfulness training increases our perceptual ability leading to a greater sense of self control and self-awareness.  Perceptual ability, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “the ability to be able to deal with and give meaning to sensory stimuli”.

Research conducted jointly by the Fudan University in China and the University of South Florida showed that Tai Chi- often described as “meditation-in-motion” – actually increased the size of the brain of seniors who practised Tai Chi for 40 weeks and did so at least three times per week.  Tai Chi has many other benefits and these are discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Norman Doidge discusses the work of Michael Merzenich, Emeritus Professor in neurophysiology, who started a company called Posit Science to extend neuroplasticity of the brains of people as they age, as well as extend their lifespan (p.85).  Professor Merzenich maintains that, if we are in the older age group, we may not have been developing our brain plasticity since middle age because we are often working off already mastered knowledge and skills.

So, learning new skills such as mindfulness meditation and Tai Chi, with the attention and concentration required, will help to alleviate this problem of mental decline.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and approaches such as Tai Chi, we increase the size of our brain, enhance brain plasticity and enjoy the consequential benefits such as self-awareness and self-control.

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

Image source: courtesy of ArtsyBee on Pixabay

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.