Developing Awareness to Overcome Craving and Addiction

In an earlier blog post, I discussed how cravings are formed and how mindfulness breaks the link between addictive behaviour and perceived rewards, drawing on the work of Jud Brewer. author of The Craving Mind: Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits. In a subsequent post, I discussed barriers to sustaining mindfulness practice and a four-step mindfulness practice for overcoming cravings and addictions.

In a recent presentation on the Brain Change Summit hosted by Sounds True, Jud elaborated further on how mindfulness breaks the “habit loop” of craving and addiction. He spoke of the “wedge of awareness” that mindfulness drives between a trigger (such as stress or negative emotion) and our habituated reactivity. He explained that mindfulness effectively disrupts the reward-based learning that is embedded in the craving/addiction cycle. In his view, mindfulness progressively establishes three different levels of awareness which he calls the “three gears of awareness”.

The three gears of awareness

Research undertaken by Jud and his colleagues demonstrates that if people are able to sustain meditation practice, they can realise a deepening level of inner awareness that breaks down the trigger-reward cycle involved in craving and addiction. Jud describes this progression in awareness in terms of three gears that release the power and potentiality of a person by enabling them to “move up a gear” – effectively changing the relationship between a trigger and the behavioural response. The three gears of awareness developed through mindfulness can be explained as follows:

  1. First gear: awareness of a “habit loop” – becoming conscious of the connection between a trigger, a behaviour and a reward that underlies a specific craving or addiction. The first step to breaking a habit is understanding how it is formed.
  2. Second gear: disillusionment with the reward – becoming aware that the “reward” does not work. For example, being mindful of your bodily sensations (taste, smell, touch) as you have a cigarette can make you realise how “disgusting” the cigarettes are. One respondent in a relevant mindfulness research project said (after paying attention to her bodily sensations when smoking), that her cigarette “smells like stinking cheese and tastes like chemicals”.
  3. Third gear: breaking free of the “caught up-ness” of the habit loop – works through a process of substitution of a better and higher reward. Through mindfulness you access your natural capacity to be “curious” – to observe and explore your emotions and reactions and name your feelings. Curiosity without habituated reactivity leads to a sense of expansiveness, peace of mind and equanimity – a higher level reward than flight behaviour. Jud suggests that R.A.I.N. meditation, breathing into strong emotions and loving kindness meditation can activate this third gear.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we can become aware of the habit loop reinforcing our craving or addiction, re-evaluate the rewards inherent in our habituated responses and begin to experience the freedom and peace which comes from the ability to be curious about our inner world, while being reaction-free.

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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.

Mindfulness for Life Challenges and Related Shock

I recently experienced a challenging event involving a relative, and both my wife and I were shocked by the unexpected turn of events. This led me to search for mindfulness resources on facing life challenges and related shock. My research turned up an article by Melli O’Brien, known fondly as Mrs. Mindfulness. Melli’s article is titled, How to Use Mindfulness in Times of Crisis and Challenge.

Melli shared her personal experience of challenge and shock resulting in a personal crisis for herself and her partner. In the space of one week, her partner’s uncle died, and his father suffered a life-threatening heart attack that resulted in many hours spent by Melli and her partner in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of a local hospital. Melli recounts how she used mindfulness to deal with this crisis in her life.  She describes how she drew on techniques learned through the Mindfulness Summit (for which she is a host, co-founder and speaker), as well as her daily mindfulness practice. Melli summarises these techniques in terms of five main mindfulness methods that she and her partner employed to deal with the life crisis that was confronting them.

Five mindfulness techniques for life challenges and shock

  1. The 3-Breath Hug – Melli mentioned that this technique was introduced during the Mindfulness Summit by Kristen Race. It basically entailed hugging each other for the equivalent of three breaths. Melli explained how this simple mindfulness practice enabled her and her partner to ground themselves and provide each other with support and love.  In my recent crisis, involving a relative who rolled their car at 70 kph, my wife and I spontaneously hugged each other and the relative in turn, to express our gratitude, support, understanding and empathy. This simple process can be incredibly grounding when you are awash with multiple emotions associated with shock.
  2. A mindful mantra to accept what is – Melli used the mantra, “This Too”, as a way to express acceptance of the reality of the present moment and to overcome resistance to “what is”. She explains that it is self-defeating to fight the emotions of fear, anxiety, and a sense of loss that accompany a life challenge and the associated shock. In a previous post I discussed Tara Brach’s approach to this acceptance in terms of saying “yes to what we are feeling now.
  3. Conscious breaths – Melli describes this as “one conscious breath” but mentions that it may involve more than one breath taken consciously. Conscious breathing is a mindfulness technique recommended when people are experiencing anxiety. It is often used at the beginning of a meditation as a way of being grounded.
  4. Creative connection – Melli refers to the session at the Mindfulness Summit conducted by Danny Penman who introduced “colouring in” as a daily practice to develop creativity along with mindfulness.  So Melli and her companions used the time in the waiting room at the hospital to create coloured pictures to relieve the emotional stress of waiting and to provide some colourful pictures for the hospital room of her partner’s father.
  5. Maintaining daily mindfulness practice – Melli was able to continue her daily mindfulness routine to nurture and nourish herself as the life challenges and stress tended to drain her energy.  As she points out, our typical response in times of acute stress is to stop our mindfulness practices, over-indulge in food and alcohol and generally seek ways to substitute pleasure for the pain of facing up to our emotions.

As we grow in mindfulness through various practices that help to ground us and give us renewed strength, we are better able to handle life challenges and related shock.  We can develop acceptance of the challenges and learn to live with the intense emotions involved.

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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.

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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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.

Committed Mindfulness Practice to Challenge our Self-Stories

Tara Brach reminds us why our negative self-stories are so persistent and difficult to dislodge. Sometimes our stories can help to protect us by warning us about real dangers. Often our self-stories are based on an irrational fear that has its origins in our childhood. If we are to challenge these stories and change our negative thoughts, beliefs and patterns of behaviour we need to be committed to a consistent mindfulness practice that unearths the stories damaging our lives and our relationships.

Stories can blind us to creative options

Fear-based stories tend to cloud our perceptions and obscure our thinking, so that creative exploration of options is closed off to us. If we are dealing with difficulties in our relationships or undertaking a challenging task, we can be blinded by the negative self-stories that capture our thinking and lock out consideration of alternative approaches. It is in stillness and silence that we can access our creativity – the noise of incessant negative, inner dialogue can disable us because the embedded fear triggers the amygdala (the most primitive part of our brain) and our automatic fight/flight response.

The starting point for self-exploration

The starting point for self-exploration can be identification of a blockage to taking action on some issue or problem, whether associated with a relationship or an endeavour. If we find we are procrastinating, if is a sure sign that some form of negative self-story is playing in the background, on an unconscious level. As we discussed previously, the challenge is to bring these stories “above the line” – into our conscious awareness.

When we are faced with a perceived threat or the possibility of embarrassment, we tend to fall back on the illusory sense of control embodied in our self-stories and fail to exercise the values that we espouse as important such as “honesty, collaboration and fairness”. Bob Dick, in his research paper on Rethinking Leadership, asserts that in this scenario we try to “control the situation” and, in the process, desert our espoused values. Our sole focus is on self-protection.

Challenging our self-stories through a commitment to mindfulness practice

While ever we remain unaware of our negative self-stories or fail to face up to them when we become aware of their existence, we will be held captive and blinded by them. They can be persistent and pervasive. Addressing them in a single mindfulness session will be inadequate to prevent their recurrence. Negative self-stories are like weeds – you remove them from some aspect of your life, and they pop up elsewhere in a slightly different form. Even with persistent and focused meditation, negative self-stories will not be removed entirely. However, their negative impact on our lives will be reduced with committed mindfulness practice – what Tara calls “dedicated practice”. She encourages us, in the words of Henri Nouwen, “to push aside and silence the many voices” that question our worthiness and basic goodness.

The difficulty in trying to build any new, positive habit is being able to sustain the effort. Without sustained mindfulness practice, however, our self-stories will continue to hold us to ransom and control our beliefs, thoughts and actions. We need to become conscious of the damaging effects of these stories and to frequently recall the benefits of the freedom and creativity afforded to us through mindfulness practice. We can reinforce our commitment by revisiting the sense of expansiveness and self-realisation that mindfulness releases in us.

As we grow in mindfulness, through reflection and committed mindfulness practice, we can engage in self-exploration, unearth our negative self-stories and their damaging effects, experience openness to self-realisation and creativity, and rest in the calmness of our relaxed breathing.

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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.

Body Scan Meditation

Body scan meditation is a quick and easy way to access your relaxation response, an effective counter to stress and your automatic fight or flight response. Body scan meditation has the advantage of being flexible – you can use it anywhere at any time. You don’t have to undertake an extended body scan to realise its benefits.

Different purposes for the body scan

Olivier Devroede, author of the Mindfulness Based Happiness blog, explains that body scan in the yoga tradition is used for relaxation, whereas in some mindfulness traditions, the purpose is the development of acceptance. Jon Kabat-Zinn also provides a “bodyscape meditation“, incorporating a body scan, that is designed to enable you to become more aware of your body and its sensations and, through this meditation practice, become grounded in the present more readily.

Diana Winston, Director of Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC) offers a brief, 3-minute body scan that can enable you to quickly wind back your disabling response to a stressful situation. It can serve as a regular practice, too, that can progressively build automatic awareness of body sensations and emotional responses. Diana also offers a 13-minute body scan meditation for sleep when you are going to bed. At other times, you might actually be trying to avoid sleeping during meditation.

The basics of a body scan

Body scan is something that can be short or extended, incorporated into other forms of meditation and used flexibly for different purposes. While the intention of body scan meditations may vary, they have several basic elements in common. These relate to being grounded bodily and mentally, noticing your breathing and paying attention to your body and its sensations.

  1. Being grounded bodily – often this is achieved by paying attention to your posture, ensuring you are comfortable and relaxed, and upright if seated in a chair. There may be many times when you are unaware of your posture which can be a form of slouch, whether you are sitting or standing. Focusing on becoming grounded bodily, can help rectify this tendency to slouch throughout the day.
  2. Being grounded mentally – this basically involves bringing your full attention to the process of a body scan and your specific intention in undertaking it.
  3. Noticing your breathing – this can be a simple act of being aware of your breath and its characteristics (such as slow or fast, deep or shallow), without any effort to control your breathing. It can also be a more conscious approach where you take a couple of deep breaths to aid the process of relaxation and being grounded in the present. A deeper breathing approach is lower-belly breathing which can be incorporated into your body scan.
  4. Paying attention to the pressure on your body – this initial approach to increasing bodily awareness, involves noticing the pressure from the floor or your chair on your body at different points, e.g. on your back, feet, buttocks, shoulders. This is a form of conscious grounding – noticing the impact of your immediate physical environment on your body.
  5. Paying attention to your bodily sensations – this is the core activity in a body scan, the other activities serves as a warm-up or preparatory exercise. Here you are exploring your body, looking for any points of tightness, tension, pain or contraction. The aim is to progressively release or soften these points to free your body from its stress response. Developing your awareness about these points of tension, can help you to more quickly become aware of a negative emotional reaction to a stressful situation.
  6. Paying attention to your feelings – becoming aware of your bodily sensations can give you insight into how you are feeling about a situation or interaction. Often, we hide negative emotions, which further exacerbates the tension in our bodies. If you can get in touch with your negative feelings through a body scan, you can name these feelings and, over time, successfully control them. This last step represents the deepest approach to body scan meditation and the most time consuming method, as you need to undertake the precursor activities to get in touch with your bodily sensations and be in an open frame of mind to name those feelings.

As we grow in mindfulness through the different forms of body scan meditation, we increase our capacity to focus, enhance our self-awarenesss, develop our relaxation response, improve our self-regulation and increase our capacity to be in the moment.

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Image source: courtesy of Ataner007 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.

Accessing the “Spaciousness Within” through Mindfulness

Often, we are at our “wit’s end” trying to solve problems, overcome challenges or address conflicts. Deborah Eden Tull reminds us that through meditation and mindfulness practice, we can access what she calls the “spaciousness within” – wherein lies peace, calmness, creativity and well-being. In a meditation podcast for the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), Deborah provides two guided meditations and commentary to help us to access this spaciousness while listening to her and to continue to do so beyond the specific meditations.

Initial brief meditation – arriving at the present moment

At the beginning of her podcast, Deborah provides a way for you to transfer your attention from what you have been doing to arriving at being present in-the-moment. This assumes that you still have some level of involvement in your previous activity despite changing your location or attempting to change your focus.

As part of the process of becoming grounded, Deborah suggests that you make yourself comfortable in the first instance through a conscious, restful posture and then begin with a few conscious breaths to help you to become centred. The next part of this centring meditation involves a progressive process of getting in touch with your thoughts, then feelings and finally the bodily sensations that have accompanied you to your meditation exercise.

Following the development of this inner awareness, she suggests that you get in touch with your personal motivation for undertaking the meditation or listening to her podcast – what is it that you are hoping to achieve for yourself? This initial brief meditation closes with taking a deep, full-body breath to open yourself to the experience of listening to her commentary and undertaking the subsequent meditation practice.

Reflection – observing people texting while walking

As part of her commentary on accessing our inner spaciousness, Deborah reflected on observing people on the university campus texting while they were walking between buildings/ classes. She observed that this practice actually builds our habit of busyness – the antithesis of developing the spaciousness within. This multi-tasking activity strengthens our conditioning to be always busy – thinking, planning, evaluating, dramatizing, revisiting the past (depression), anticipating the future (anxiety) – and builds on our overall penchant for distraction.

We can choose to cultivate a life of serenity, ease, calmness and resilience through developing present moment awareness or opt for a life that intensifies restlessness, dis-ease, agitation and fragility. Deborah reminds us that the quality of our life experience is determined by the focus of our attention.   

Her second meditation (beginning at the 14-minute mark) helps you to cultivate the spaciousness within through a focus on your breathing and exploration of the imagery of the ocean.

Mindful breathing and ocean imagery

Deborah’s second guided meditation focuses on breathing. She reminds us that this meditation process should be free of the everyday habit of striving or seeking to change ourselves for the better. It is very much about being rather than doing.

In focussing on your breathing in this meditation exercise, you learn to develop awareness about your breathing in the moment – whether your breathing is deep or shallow, fast or slow, even or choppy. You are encouraged to rest in your breathing and accept it the way it is – not trying to force a desired pattern on your breathing.

Following this focus on breathing, Deborah asks you to imagine an ocean – the turbulence of the waves above and the stillness and vastness of the water below. She encourages you to envisage the calm waters below the waves as the mirror of your “spaciousness within”.

Accessing the spaciousness within

You can choose to develop awareness of the spaciousness within through formal meditation or through informal practices such as mindful eating, mindful walking or stopping/ pausing in the midst of a situation to ground yourself in the present moment.

As we develop mindfulness through formal meditation and other mindful practices, we can access the spaciousness within and experience calmness, resilience, creativity, ease and well-being to improve the quality of our lives.

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

Image source: courtesy of Pexels 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.

Developing a Balanced Mind

Tara Brach in her meditation podcast on Creating a Balanced Mind, reminds us that a key element of mindfulness is accepting what is, being able to remain calm in the face of the ups and downs of life. She argues that meditation enables us to develop a balanced mind, calmness in the face of the various vicissitudes of life. Tara also offers a specific meditation that focuses on developing that calmness and equanimity.

Accepting the ups and downs of life

We have all experienced aspects of life that are disconcerting or even distressing – whether ill-health, ageing, trauma, pain, disappointment or loss. We would much prefer a life of pleasure rather than pain, one of praise rather than blame or criticism. Mindfulness helps us surf the waves of life and prevent us from drowning in the downsides that we experience as part of being human.

Mindfulness developed through meditation enables us to accept what is – mentally and emotionally acknowledging what is happening to us but maintaining our calmness and balance despite the stresses of life. If we are ageing, for example, there is no point in railing against the progressive loss of our faculties, both physical and mental. We can take constructive steps to redress our situation or slow our decline, but accepting what is requires a balanced mind, a capacity to maintain calmness, rather than agitation, in the face of the downsides of life.

Sometimes it helps to reframe a situation that we are experiencing – being able to look at the bright side. Recently, I was getting upset that I could not play some tennis shots that I used to be able to do. This was during a doubles match involving two young people as opponents. I found it embarrassing that I was not able to hit some simple shots. What had happened was that I had lost strength in my wrist and forearm through injury. I could continue to be upset and get “down in the dumps” or, alternatively, I could accept the situation calmly, take some constructive action, and reframe the experience.

On reflection, after undertaking the balanced mind meditation discussed below, I was able to see that the fact that I was not able to use my full power at tennis, enabled the young people to be successful, practise their shots and learn to develop tennis strategy during a game. The meditation has helped me to do two things – (1) take constructive action to strengthen my arm and wrist through exercises and (2) reframe the situation in a positive way as an opportunity for the young people to explore their own developing capacities. The calmness achieved in meditation can enable us to reframe our situation and more readily accept what is.

Developing a balanced mind meditation

In the meditation podcast mentioned above, Tara provides a specific meditation designed to develop a balanced mind – calmness in the face of the downsides of life. This meditation begins with being grounded through our posture and conscious breathing. The first stage may involve taking a number of deep breaths and breathing out to relieve any tension in your mind and body.

Tara spends considerable time helping you to tap into your breathing and where you feel it in your body. She also suggests listening to the sounds around you, without interpretation or evaluation of the sounds. Tara maintains that mindful breathing or mindful listening can serve as anchor during your meditation. I find, however, that it is easier for me to stay grounded if I focus on my breath rather than sounds, the latter tends to be distracting for me (unless conscious listening is the primary focus of my meditation, as when I am enjoying the sounds of birds in a natural setting).

One thing that I find grounding is the way I position my hands during a meditation. I have my hands resting in a relaxed manner on my thighs but with my fingers on one hand touching those on the other hand. I find that I experience strong sensations through my fingers during meditation, such as tingling, warmth and energy flow. The simple process of bringing my fingers together can increase my grounding during meditation and can be an anchor that I can recall at any time or anywhere during the day to access calmness and a balanced mind.

Tara suggests that if you experience a compelling distraction during the meditation, you can focus on the distraction temporarily, but build the discipline to return to your meditation focus. For example, if you experience pain in your forearm, you can focus on that part of your body and soften your muscles to release the tension, then return to the focus of your meditation. This builds your capacity to focus and to sustain your calmness in the face of setbacks.

Capturing the experience of calmness

Tara suggests that during the meditation discussed above, you can become aware of the calmness and equanimity you experience in the process of the meditation. The meditation itself involves developing calmness through focusing on something other than what upsets you, e.g. focusing on your breathing or sounds around you. As you experience a sense of ease and peace, you can dwell on those feelings to reinforce what a balanced mind is like and what meditation can do to help you achieve this state.

She also offers a further way to reinforce the sense of calmness by having you recapture a pleasant experience where you felt at ease and calm, e.g. enjoying nature, being with friends, executing a successful tennis shot, being still on a beach or staying calm in a crisis.

The meditation can be concluded by thinking of a future, potentially stressful event and exploring acceptance of the event, e.g. a biopsy, and picturing yourself meeting the event and its outcomes with calmness and equanimity.

As we grow in mindfulness through the balanced mind meditation, we can approach the downsides of life and daily stressors with calmness, rather than anger, resentment or frustration. This opens the way for calmness, clarity, reframing and achieving equanimity, despite the upsetting waves of life.

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

Image source: courtesy of bertvthul 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. 

Bringing Intention to Your New Year Resolutions

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast in which she provides a way to deepen intention when making New year resolutions. The meditation combines both reflection and goal setting and aims to replace the usual beginning-of-the -year wish list with a firm, focused intention on making a real change in your life.

Diana begins the meditation with a process for becoming grounded. In this meditation practice, she focuses first on a body scan that involves paying attention progressively to the points of contact of your body with the chair that you are sitting on and the floor you are touching with your feet. The body scan is followed by mindful breathing as a way to deepen your inner awareness – noticing your breathing, but not trying to control it. Diana suggests that the mindful breathing approach can be supplemented by paying attention to the sounds around you – without judgment or interpretation. Once you become anchored in either your breathing or through tuning into surrounding sounds, you can move onto the next stage of the meditation practice, reflection.

Reflecting on the past year

Diana proposes that a reflection on the past year should precede goal setting for the new year. The reflection has two parts – (1) what was good about the previous year and (2) what was not so good. In relation to the first – the good aspects – the idea is to focus on what brought you peace, joy or happiness. Here you can express gratitude for all that you experienced as good in your life.

In the second part, you can identify what was not so good in terms of what you did that impacted negatively on yourself or others. This begins the process of identifying what you want to change in your life. The not-so-good aspects may have resulted from not appreciating what was good in your life at the time or they may represent an unhealthy habit that has adverse effects on your life. Diana maintains that it is important at this stage of the meditation to treat yourself with loving kindness and not become absorbed in self-blame and self-denigration.

Bringing intention to your new year resolution

The final stage of the meditation practice is to focus on what you want to change in your life – choosing one thing that will have a significant effect on your life and those you interact with. Just building mindfulness through meditation practice itself impacts positively the people around you as you are better able to express loving kindness towards others and yourself.

The important point here is to focus on one thing or aspect of your behaviour that you want to change in your life. Too many resolutions dissipate energy and weaken intention. Focusing on one thing at a time builds intention and resolve.

Once you have a behavioural goal clearly in mind, a way to strengthen your intention is to envision what your life will be like when you achieve your behavioural goal – what will be happening differently?; what positive impacts will it have on your stress levels/ experience of equanimity?; and what will it mean for the quality of your relationships? The more you can focus on the envisioned positive outcomes, the stronger will be your intention and resolve to achieve your goal.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and developing our focused intention to create change in our lives, we can progressively remove the unhealthy habits that are negatively impacting our lives and those around us.

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

Image source: courtesy of TeamXris 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.