Breathing with the Earth

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC (UCLA), offers a unique perspective on developing mindfulness through breathing. In her meditation podcast, she introduces the idea of breathing with the earth – expanding consciousness of our own breathing to connect with the earth’s breath. She encourages us to deepen inner awareness of our breathing and, from this foundation, expand our outer awareness to connecting with every living creature and the earth’s breath. The process develops a sense of connectedness, calm and wonder.

The earth’s breath

Diana begins her meditation podcast by playing a video from Chilean artist, Glenda Leon. The video artistically depicts (with an embedded breathing sound) the earth breathing. Glenda has titled the video Cada Respire (Tierra), which is Portuguese for every earth breath. Diana suggests that as you watch the video you attune your own breathing to the sound of the earth breathing as depicted in the video.

In an article titled, The Earth Has Lungs. Watch Them Breathe, Robert Krulwich (writing for the National Geographic) highlights the NASA time lapse video depicting an “unimaginably vast planetary breathing system” over the cycle of a year. As the seasons change around the world, the growth of trees and their leaves (numbered in their trillions) act as the lungs of the earth breathing in carbon dioxide and releasing life giving oxygen. Robert highlights the fact that every leaf on every tree has thousands of “little breathing tubes called stoma” which enable the leaf to take in air from the outside. He uses a photograph by Robert Dash to illustrate the stoma on the surface of a leaf which has been magnified 150 times.

John Denver in the song Tremble If You Must recalls that “the trees are just leaves on a big breathing globe”. Eva Cassidy, in her amazing rendition of the song What a Wonderful World, reminds us that as we reflect on the ordinary things in our life, we can experience wonder if we open our eyes and minds. As we expand our consciousness of our breathing to that of the earth’s breath, we can experience connectedness and calm through awareness of the reality that surrounds us.

Breathing with the earth

Diana’s guided meditation provides a way to focus on your own breathing that serves as a gateway to breathing with the earth. For a start, she suggests that you become aware of your own breathing, focusing on your in-breath and out-breath wherever you can experience the act of breathing in your own body. This may be the air passing through your nose or the undulations in your abdomen or chest as you breathe in and out. You can expand this inner awareness to lower-belly breathing with a little practice.

Diana guides you to explore your breathing further by doing two things, (1) focusing on other parts of your body as you breathe, and (2) exploring the path of a single breath. She suggests that this expanded awareness can begin with focusing on parts of your body other than your torso to observe the sensations that accompany your breathing to see if their movements are attuned to your breathing, e.g. tingling in your fingers or feet. This can then be followed by observing the movement of a single breath through your body (if you cannot capture the explicit sensation, you can imagine this flow).

If you find that you become distracted from your focus on your breathing, you can let the thoughts or feelings pass and return to your breath. This requires discipline but will increase your capacity to focus over time. Once you have become grounded in your own breathing you can expand your awareness to the earth’s breath.

One way to consciously breathe with the earth is to envisage the earth breathing (aided by the earth breath video introduced above). This will build a strong sense of connectedness to the earth. You can then expand your awareness to the breathing of other people and every living creature on the earth.

What can strengthen your capacity to connect with the breath of the earth is to stand on the ground outside your home and feel the sensation of the earth’s movement, being conscious of the trees and plants and their life-giving breathing.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we can develop our inner awareness, enhance our external awareness, learn to breathe with the earth and build a sense of calm and connection to every living thing.

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Image by skeeze on 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.

Overcoming Agitation – A Calming Meditation

It’s so easy to become agitated in this fast-paced and demanding world. The environment we live in with its constant changes – economic, social, financial, climate, legal, electronic and political – demand incessant adaption. We can become so easily agitated by our daily experiences – our expectations not being met, having an unproductive day, managing ever-increasing costs and bureaucracy, being caught in endless traffic, managing a teenager who is pushing the boundaries in the search for self-identity and independence. Any one of these, a combination of them or other sources of agitation, can lead us to feel overwhelmed and “stressed out of our minds”.

Mindfulness meditation can help bring calm and clarity to our daily existence and reduce the level of stress we experience when things do not seem to go our way or frustrate our best intentions. There are an endless range of meditations that can help here – ranging from gratitude meditations to open awareness. The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) provides one such meditation designed to restore calm at a time when we are really agitated.

Overcoming agitation through a calming meditation

Rich Fernandez, CEO of SIYLI, provides a meditation podcast designed to focus attention and restore equilibrium and equanimity. The meditation employs what Rich calls “focused attention” – where the focus is on your breathing.

The 9-minute, focused attention meditation employs several steps:

  1. Making yourself comfortable in your chair, being conscious of your posture (releasing any tightness reflected in slouching)
  2. Notice your body’s sensations precipitated by your interaction with your external environment – the pressure of your body against the chair and your feet touching the ground.
  3. Bring your attention to your breathing, what Rich describes as the “circle of breathing” – the in-breath, pause and out-breath.
  4. Notice if your mind wanders from the focus on your breath and bring your attention back to your breath (the meditation develops the art of focused attention by training yourself to return to your focus).
  5. Treat yourself with loving kindness if you become distracted frequently – (scientific research informs us that we are normally distracted 50% of the time).
  6. Close the meditation with three deep breaths – this time controlling your breath (whereas in the earlier steps, you are just noticing your breathing, not attempting to control the process).

The focused attention meditation can be done anywhere, at any time. If you are really agitated before you start, you can extend the meditation, repeat it (at the time or sometime later) or supplement it with another form of meditation such as a body scan. Once again it is regular practice that develops the art of focused attention – maintaining your meditation practice is critical to restoring your equilibrium and equanimity. Without the calming effects of such a meditation, you can end up aggravating your situation by doing or saying something inappropriate.

As we grow in mindfulness through focused attention meditation, we can develop the capacity to calm ourselves when we become agitated. Regular practice of this meditation will enable us to restore our equilibrium and equanimity.

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Image source: courtesy of Skitterphoto on 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.

Why is it so Difficult to Serve-for-the-Match in Tennis?

I have been watching the live TV broadcast of the 2019 Australian Open. It is surprising how many players – great champions among them – who have great difficulty serving-for-the-match. The more they desire the win, the more often they fail at the final hurdle. There seems to be a number of contributing factors related to mindfulness that are behind this widespread difficulty – (1) anticipating the result, (2) negative self-evaluation for making mistakes and (3) fear of failure.

Living in the future: anticipating the result

Many players when they are so close to winning begin to think about what it would be like to win the prize money, hold the trophy aloft, receive the accolades of the crowd at the end of tennis tournament and gain new sponsorships. They lose focus on playing the game and instead begin to play the result in their head. The legends of tennis and other great players such as Sarina Williams emphasise the need to stay-in-the-moment and play each point as it comes, ignoring the score. Mindfulness training can help here because it builds that capacity to be in the moment and to stay focused.

Many quality tennis players develop their own anchors to remind themselves to stay calm and in-the-moment. The anchor could be a couple of deep breaths, mindful walking, stopping to focus on their breath for a few seconds or a speedy body scan and stress release, especially of the tension in their arms and shoulders. These anchors can be developed through mindfulness practice.

Living in the past: negative self-evaluation for making mistakes

So often even top players will make a double fault on their serve when serving-for-the-match. I have even seen both Nadal and Federer do this. The tension and stress of the moment can result in muscle tightness and weakness in the arms.

Mistakes at the final, critical stage can become more momentous in our eyes because of the potential consequences of these mistakes. So, the tendency to negative self-evaluation is heightened. This self-criticism can become self-defeating as it negatively impacts our self-confidence and self-esteem. The negative thoughts can swirl around in our heads at this time like a whirlpool -“Why did I do such a low percentage shot at this time?”; “What a stupid time to play a drop shot!”; or “Why did I go down the line when the whole court was open?”.

Under stress our judgement suffers, unless we have learned to manage the stress through mindfulness. If we continue with our negative self-evaluation, then we are sabotaging our winning position, as so often happens in tennis matches.

Fear of failure

Ivan Lendl is famous not only for his amazing achievements in tennis but also for his early failures in closing out matches when he was serving-for-the-match. He kept losing finals in major tournaments, but his real breakthrough came when he beat John McEnroe in the 1985 US Open final. He went from not being able to win a final to rarely losing one.

In reporting on Lendl’s 1985 US Open win, John Feinstein had this to say of the fear demons that had beset Ivan:

The demons have chased him around the world. From Paris to Sydney, from London to New York. Everywhere Ivan Lendl has gone, the fear has chased him. Burdened by his talent and penchant for failure when the pressure was greatest, he suffered with the knowledge that people respected his skills and questioned his courage.

Fear of failure can cause us to freeze, to intensify our negative self-evaluation and self-criticism for making mistakes. We can get into another negative spiral of thinking which is even more difficult to control – “What will people think/say about my failure?”; “I am letting down so many people who have helped me!; “What will my coach say?” or “So many people who have come to see the match will be disappointed (particularly likely if you are playing on your home turf)”.

Lendl overcame his fear, born of past failures to win major finals, and went on to win 8 major titles in all, and a total of 94 singles titles, achieving a match winning percentage of over 90% in five different years. Some commentators consider him to be the greatest tennis player to ever play the game

After his historic victory, Lendl commented about the destructive effect of fear in the closing stages of a tennis match:

The worst thing you can do is be afraid of something.

As I have discussed previously naming your feelings, e.g. fear of failure, can help you tame these emotions. The R.A.I.N. meditation is a specific meditation for addressing fear and overcoming the disabling effects that fear can have on you.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop anchors to help us stay in the moment at times of stress, to minimise our negative self-evaluation and face our fears so they do not disable us.

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

Image source: courtesy of mohamed_hassan 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. 

Being Vulnerable: How to Improve Our Relationships and Contribution

In the previous post I discussed Tara Brach’s presentation on vulnerability and intimacy and ways to overcome our defence mechanisms. In this blog post, I want to focus on becoming vulnerable to improve two aspects of our lives – our contribution and our relationships.

Vulnerability is universal

Vulnerability is “part and parcel” of being human. When you think about it most people you encounter in life will have experienced at least one trauma – a significant frightening or disturbing event – in their life at one time or another. A traumatic event may take many forms and people will react differently to varying events such as the death of a child, partner, parent, sibling or friend; the break-up of parents through divorce; a major car or workplace accident; loss of a job; experience of chronic illness and/or pain; severe financial difficulties resulting in the loss of a home; break-up of an intimate relationship; a period of mental illness; addiction to drugs or alcohol; or any manner of distressing events.

Tara makes the point that “the more wounding there has been, the greater are the defences”. We each have been wounded at some time through various events, traumatic or otherwise, that have intensified our sense of being vulnerable and precipitated our defence mechanisms designed to protect us from such vulnerability. Ian MacLaren recognised that everyone experiences vulnerability when he wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”.

Because of our past experiences, we may feel afraid to speak up, to take part in a group activity, to perform publicly, to engage in conversation or to give positive feedback to another person. We may feel that we will be rejected, laughed at, or cut out of a group. We might be concerned about experiencing embarrassment, lack of control or overt emotions expressed as tears.

How we hide our fear of being vulnerable

There are many ways that we can camouflage our fear of being vulnerable such as:

  1. excessive criticism of others, constant judging (people never measure up to our expectations)
  2. projection of our own fears or anxiety onto others (“they are too fearful or lack courage”)
  3. aggressive emotions such as anger, blame (fight behaviour)
  4. withdrawal through depression (flight behaviour)
  5. inertia (freeze behaviour)
  6. overcontrolling others
  7. overconsuming – food, social media, goods and services, drugs
  8. hiding behind a mask/role – being the boss, the helper or the victim

The problem is that these ways of hiding our feelings of vulnerability are often subtle, elaborate, sub-conscious and developed over long periods of time. It takes a concerted effort and continuous training to be able to identify our defence mechanisms and overcome them through sustained, focused attention in meditation.

Being vulnerable to improve our contribution

Tara at one stage in her presentation tells the story of how a disturbed teenager’s life turned around when he heard a monk sing a song both loudly and off-key in front of an audience. He was taken with the courage required by the monk to do that and make a “fool” of himself. The monk showed bravery by placing himself in a potentially embarrassing situation.

I previously recounted a similar story of coach Mo Cheeks (who could not sing in tune) getting up in front of thousands of people at a NBA playoff and helping a 13 year old girl complete the national anthem after she was overcome with nerves.

Both these stories illustrate the power of being vulnerable (overcoming our natural defence mechanisms) to make a contribution to others and the community generally. Mo’s action, for instance, has been a source of inspiration for more than half a million people who have viewed the video of his compassionate intervention.

Improving a relationship by being vulnerable

Tara tells another story of a mother who was feeling very vulnerable because her daughter had become addicted to heroin and was continuously in and out of treatment centres for her addiction. The mother hid her sense of powerlessness and being vulnerable by her angry, blaming and controlling behaviour towards her daughter. Through psychotherapy the mother was able to let go of her defences and need for control and provide compassionate support for her daughter – to be with her daughter in her struggle, trusting in her daughter’s own wisdom to break free of the addiction.

The daughter did succeed and overcame her addiction and the mother and daughter built a deep relationship through this mutual experience of vulnerability. The mother was able to overcome her defence mechanisms to provide constructive support that enabled her daughter and the relationship to move forward.

A meditation on vulnerability

In her presentation (at the 35.45-minute mark), Tara provides a basis for reflection on your own sense of vulnerability and how it is impacting your relationships. She suggests you focus first on a relationship that you want to improve in terms of closeness or one that is bogged down in a pattern of behaviour that is not constructive. The focal relationship can be with anyone – life partner, friend, child, sibling or work colleague.

The reflection then revolves around exploring the ways that you are creating separation through your own thoughts and actions. Tara provides some questions to explore how your vulnerability is impacting the relationship:

  1. in what ways are you protecting yourself in these interactions?
  2. are you judging the other person?
  3. are you projecting on the other person some expectation of how they should be?
  4. are you withholding yourself and pretending to be who you are not?
  5. are you trying to impress the other person by constantly explaining how good you are at some endeavour or how much better your trip or experience was?
  6. are you operating from a low level of trust of people generally?

Once you have addressed these questions, the process then involves getting in touch with how you feel in your body when you are defending yourself – are you uptight?; does your face reflect your intensity?; are you physically rigid?; or are you looking distracted (as you search for a self-protective response)?

You next ask yourself how would you manage if you let go of one or more of your defences in your interactions with this person – how will you need to feel differently? A visioning question can be helpful here – “What if I reduce my armour, what will our interaction be like and how will I cope with being seen to be flawed or being rejected or looking foolish”? You can ask yourself, “How likely is it that these outcomes I fear will actually occur?”

The final step is to face your fear and sense of being vulnerable, acknowledge it and use your breathing to bring it under control. You can adopt a mindful breathing approach, deepen your in-breath and out-breath or envisage the fear as you breathe in and envisage its release as you breathe out.

As we grow in mindfulness through noticing and managing our vulnerability through meditation practice, we can open ourselves up to more creative contributions to our community and to deeper and more meaningful relationships. As the defence barriers we construct begin to come down or weaken, we are able to free up our creative abilities and let people into our life.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt 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. 

Focused Attention: A Guided Meditation

In this era of constant, disruptive distractions we need to be able to develop the capacity to calm our minds and focus our attention on what is important in our lives. Without this capacity, we are at the mercy of stress and anxiety as we try to deal with the incessant demands on our minds. One way to restore equanimity when we are stressed “out-of-our-minds”, is to develop a simple practice of focused attention.

Rich Fernandez, co-founder of Wisdom Labs, provides a guided meditation that enables you to train your mind in focused attention. Rich’s meditation podcast is under ten minutes and provides a way to quickly and easily regain calmness when stressed through attention to the act of breathing which is an undervalued element of a healthy life.

Focused attention on your breathing

The focused attention meditation requires, in the first place, that you adopt a comfortable position and reduce visual distractions by closing your eyes or looking downwards. If you are physically uncomfortable or visually distracted, you will not be able to focus on your breathing.

Rich then suggests that you bring your total attention to the act of breathing as you experience it in your body. This experience will differ from person to person as levels of awareness differ immensely. For example, people who are trained in focused attention are much more aware of their breathing than others who have not undertaken this training.

To focus on your experience of breathing you begin to notice the flow of air into and out of your body and you identify where this bodily sensation is experienced in your own body – e.g. in your throat, chest or stomach. You can notice too whether your breathing is deep or shallow, slow or fast, even or rough. The intention is not to control your breathing, but just notice it in a very focused way.

As you bring your attention to your breathing, you can become more conscious of your in-breath, out-breath and the gap between these movements of breath. You can also rest in the gap to enhance your level of calmness and bring your bodily stress sensations under control.

Rich suggests that you end your focused attention meditation with a few deep, controlled breaths as a way to bring your attention back to where you are and what you have been doing before the meditation practice. Some people recommend that this practice of controlled breathing can also be used at the start of a meditation (as a way to release stress and bring attention to the breath).

Managing thought distractions

Everyone experiences distractions during meditation, whether you are an experienced meditator or not. Our thoughts wander endlessly, thousands of times a day. The art of developing focused attention is to notice your thoughts and “gently but firmly” bring your attention back to your breathing. The practice of managing your thought distractions develops the discipline necessary to control your thoughts so you are not held captive by them.

By focusing on your experience of breathing and maintaining your attention, despite the intermittent distraction of your thoughts, you develop the capacity to quickly and easily drop into a calm breathing pattern that enables you to wind down your level of stress and anxiety.

As we grow in mindfulness through focused attention meditation, we develop awareness of the level of stress we are experiencing and cultivate a way to manage that stress. This trained capacity builds our personal resilience and ability to respond appropriately in situations we experience as stressful.

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

Image source: courtesy of Antranias 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. 

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)

Image source: courtesy of Wokandapix 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.

Sustaining the Practice of Mindfulness: One Breath at a Time

You might have been inspired by a mindfulness workshop or the stories of other people who have experienced the benefits of mindfulness.

You could be convinced of these benefits by the neuroscience supporting mindfulness and just want to experience particular benefits yourself.

But all the knowledge, inspiration and desire alone will not help you to grow in mindfulness, if you don’t practice mindfulness.  You have to learn how to maintain the motivation for mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is like any other skill area – you need to practice to master the process and make it an integral part of your life.

Chade-Meng Tan, one of the creators of Google’s Search Inside Yourself course in mindfulness and emotional intelligence, likens sustaining mindfulness practice to developing the habit of going to the gym:

It is the same with sustaining a mindfulness practice.  You probably need some discipline in the beginning, but after a few months, you may notice dramatic changes in quality of life.  You become happier, calmer, more emotionally resilient, more energetic, and people like you more because your positivity emanates onto them.  You feel great about yourself.  And again, once you reach that point, it is so compelling, you just cannot not practice anymore. (Search Inside Yourself: The Secret Path to Unbreakable Concentration, Complete Relaxation, Total Self-Control, p.56)

Over the last ten years, Google has trained more than 4,500 staff and managers in mindfulness and emotional intelligence through their Search Inside Yourself course.  One thing the creators and facilitators of the course have learned is how to sustain mindfulness practice and realise its benefits.

Chade-Meng Tan shares his insights about a simple three-step process to sustain the practice of mindfulness:

  1. find a buddy to check in with on a weekly basis to share your mindfulness experience and make yourself accountable
  2. do less than you can manage so that it does not become onerous
  3. take one mindful breath a day.

Chade-Meng Tan explains the last step more fully below:

I may be the laziest mindfulness instructor in the world because I tell my students all they need to commit to is one mindful breath a day.  Just one.  Breathe in and breathe out mindfully, and your commitment for the day is fulfilled; everything else is a bonus. (Search Inside Yourself, p.58)

Practice increases our consciousness of mindfulness and its benefits.  It enables us to develop momentum that will help to sustain our commitment and motivation.

The secret is to develop a habit but start small with something that is easy to achieve.  This enables us to get over the early hurdles where practice is experienced as a chore.

If you don’t persist past the early resistance stage, you won’t experience the benefits of mindfulness.  So there is a lot of wisdom in starting with just one breath a day to grow mindfulness.

Image source: johnhain on Pixabay