Mindfulness – Being in the Moment

At the moment, I am writing from my room in the Hyatt Regency Hotel overlooking Darling Harbour in Sydney – certainly a location conducive to mindfulness.  Sydney Harbour, even on an overcast day as it is today, has a natural grandeur and beauty that induces awe.

I woke this morning and undertook the guided meditation on fear that I had written about previously. This meditation builds awareness of both our thought processes and the attendant bodily sensations.  It can lead to a calming of the mind and bodily relaxation.

Later, while I was reading Haruki Murakami’s novel, South of the Border, West of the Sun, I came across this profound statement which reflects the stance of being-in-the-moment:

Look at the rain long enough, with no thoughts in your head, and you gradually feel your body falling loose, shaking free the world’s reality. (p.86)

You can be-in-the-moment by focusing on some aspect of nature, your breathing, bodily sensations or sounds around you.  Mindfulness meditation helps you shed anxiety-inducing thoughts and free your body from  the tension or numbing effects of fear.

With clarity gained through mindfulness we can be in a better position to assess potential risks and more readily develop strategies that will enable us to reduce the risk and attendant fears.  So, it does not mean that we fail to act on realistic fears but that we learn to manage them constructively and respond appropriately.

Fear is a natural process as a form of self-protection but we can too easily see threats where they do not exist – the negative bias of our brains tends to work overtime so that we tend to anticipate the worst possible outcome, rather than what is most likely to happen.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can come to grips with our anxiety and fears, learn to name the feelings involved, understand how they are manifested in our bodies and develop calmness and clarity to manage them.

 

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

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Mindfulness for Leadership in the Digital Age

Many of the presentations during the Mindful Leadership Online Conference, 17-26 October 2018, focus on what it means to be a leader in the digital age.  Sky Jarrett, for example, discussed Thriving As a Leader in the Digital Age, and highlighted the role of mindfulness in achieving this goal.  Her presentation drew on her experience with Accenture – a global consulting firm – where she is an Executive Coach and Mindfulness Instructor.

As the digital age continues to advance relentlessly with the advent of artificial intelligence and robotics, leaders are faced with new and demanding challenges and the uncertainty that derives from continuous technological, ecological and economic disruption.  Life and work are becoming more complex with the generational shift and the growth in mental illness in the home and the workplace.

Thriving as a leader in the digital age through mindfulness

Sky identified how mindfulness can assist leaders to not only survive the digital era but to thrive and achieve greatness in their chosen arena of activity:

  • Calmness – mindfulness is necessary to develop calmness and equanimity in the face of organisational and community turbulence.  Sky likens the calmness developed through mindfulness meditation to the calm of the “eye of the storm”.  She suggests that the incorporation of mindfulness practice in the life of an executive is an “imperative” like the change from analogue to digital. It is critical for a leader to be grounded and not unsettled by digital turbulence if they are going to lead effectively.
  • Trust – Sky points to the fact that we are operating in a trust economy as part of the macro environment of the digital age.  Trust underpins relationships which are the lifeblood of an organisation or community.  Trust is built through integrity and consistency.  Increasingly, followers look to leaders for guidance, transparency, support and reliability.  Mindfulness builds self-awareness and self-management which are foundational to integrity and the development of trust.
  • Connection and collaboration – the digital age is the era of connectivity. Individuals, groups, organisations and communities are collaborating locally and globally – even competitors are collaborating to achieve common goals.  The complexity and speed of change means that leaders can no longer be isolates steeped in knowledge and relevant experience – they will become increasingly dependent on collaboration with others as change outpaces their ability “to keep up-to-date”.  Mindfulness helps a leader to experience, understand and value connectedness to themselves, others and the world around them.  It also enables them to build the capacity for collaboration and enlightened action in the world.
  • Self-improvement – for many years now, we have focused on externalities including the continuous improvement cycle in organisations.  The time has come for leaders to focus consistently on self-improvement, to take themselves as the the improvement project.  This will require developing emotional awareness through mindfulness and reflection on their thoughts and actions so that a leader can enhance their response ability.
  • Bodily intelligence – Sky suggests that leaders will need a greater connection to their bodies in the digital era.  Bodily intelligence, also termed kinaesthetic intelligence, will enable leaders to sense bodily when things are not right and to take constructive action.  Somatic meditation will assist leaders to enhance their bodily intelligence and to develop the leader’s capacity to trust their body’s intuition (“gut feeling”).
  • Being present – as we have reiterated in this blog, the capacity to be present is an essential skill of leadership, no matter what the era.  However, the digital era places greater demands on leaders to be genuinely present to others when interacting.  The challenge to being present in a digital era characterised by incessant “noise” and disruptive communication, is potentially overwhelming.  Mindfulness builds the capacity to shut our the noise and to fully focus on the person and task at hand.

There are many demands on leaders in the digital age, but as we grow in mindfulness we can bring calmness and equanimity to any situation, build trust and connectedness, focus on improving ourselves through reflection, more readily access our bodily intelligence and become more fully present in our daily interactions.

 

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

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Meditation and Mental Health

Jonathan Kryiger and Andrew H. Kemp, researchers at the University oF Sydney, discussed meditation and mental health in a blog post titled, Beyond Spirituality: the role of meditation in mental health.

in their article, they identify a number of benefits for mental health reported in research on meditation.  They indicate how meditation, both by expert practitioners and people who meditate for short periods of time, can result in positive changes in their body, brain, emotional regulation ability and rate of ageing.

Of particular note, is the ability of meditation to assist in the treatment and management of acute and chronic pain.  Particular forms of mindfulness meditation such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) demonstrate positive results in the treatment of mood disorders and anxiety.

Meditation and regulating emotions to achieve mental health

While the generic benefits noted above can be realised through different forms of meditation, the focus of mindfulness meditations can vary considerably.  Throughout this blog, we have mentioned some meditations that target specific negative emotional responses that are injurious to mental health:

  • Forgiveness meditation, in which we focus on forgiving another person who has caused us harm or hurt, aims to reduce resentment which can undermine our self-esteem, self-confidence and effectiveness
  • Self-forgiveness meditation targets the never-ending cycle of self-criticism and negative self-evaluation which brings with it debilitating shame and guilt
  • Gratitude meditation can help to reduce depression which can disable us from taking constructive action in the various arenas of our daily life
  • Equanimity meditation helps us to replace mental agitation and disappointment with calmness and self-assurance
  • R.A.I.N. meditation helps us to face the “fear within” and frees us from the disabling effects of fear and anxiety that hinder our capacity to live fully and creatively
  • Somatic meditation enables us to get in touch with our bodies and progressively remove the emotional imprint of adverse events or trauma manifested in muscle tightness or pain
  • Loving kindness meditation focused on others can take us beyond damaging self-absorption and self-preoccupation and free us to access peace and happiness through the appreciation of others and their contributions to the quality of our lives.

The weekly meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA can extend the range of meditations we employ to target unhelpful and unhealthy emotions that impact the quality of our mental health.

As we grow in mindfulness through focusing our meditations on replacing negative emotions with positive ones, we can experience real growth in our mental health and our capacity to live life fully and creatively, develop loving and fulfilling relationships and avoid the downward spiral of mental illness.

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

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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)

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Cultivating Equanimity through Mindfulness Meditation

“Equanimity” connotes peace, balance, composure and acceptance in times that are good or bad.  The word itself can conjure up a sense of serenity. It is possible for some people to experience equanimity on a regular basis because of their personality or lived experience and education.

It is also possible to cultivate equanimity through both general meditation practice and more specific meditation that focuses on developing equanimity when confronted with life events, both those that are experienced as bad and those that seem good to us.

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast on Practising Equanimity which is designed to help us focus on life events that may be a source of disturbance to our equanimity so that we can learn to be with them without rancour or inflated elation.

Experiencing equanimity

Diana, in the prelude to her equanimity meditation, refers to the definition of mindfulness promoted by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA:

Mindful awareness can be defined as paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is.

She particularly focuses on the words, “a willingness to be with what is” – which, in one sense, defines equanimity.  So often we can be absorbed by what has happened in the past (with resentment, disappointment or bitterness) or obsessed about the future (with anxiety, agitation or disturbance).  In the process, we lose our sense of equilibrium and the experience of equanimity.

What we experience as good can also disturb our equanimity because it may be so good that we never want it to end – we want to hang onto the experience and become overly attached to it to the point that we are resentful when it ends.

So being present in the moment and accepting fully “what is” can be very  difficult.   Meditation can enable us to develop a sustained sense of calmness but we can still be put off balance by adverse events or experiences.  Our perception of the global situation may also upset our equanimity.

If we can learn through equanimity meditation to just be with whatever is present in our lives, we can reduce our emotional response, develop creative solutions and take informed action to create change rather than” working from reactivity”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice and specific equanimity meditation (focused on a disturbing or mood-altering event), we can increase our “response ability” and experience clarity and calmness.  Diana’s meditation podcast provides the opportunity to begin this journey to cultivate equanimity.

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

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Paying Attention

Marvin Belzer provides guidance in a meditation podcast on “paying attention”.  Marvin was on the faculty of UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the time.  He has many years experience with practicising and teaching meditation, having taught a semester-long course on the theory and practice of mindfulness.  Among other things, he provides meditations for teens – ways for young people to learn to pay attention and to access calmness and clarity.

Marvin emphasises that “paying attention” is a natural ability that does not require forcing.  We can notice things, look at things closely, observe what is happening in front of us – it all comes naturally.  However, we have lost the art of focusing because of the distractions in our lives and, particularly, our endless thoughts.

To learn to pay attention again, we need to practise.  This practice ideally involves focusing on something simple – our breath, hand, bodily sensations or sounds around us.  If we keep the focus simple, we can more easily sustain our attention.  As Marvin points out, the process of stabilising our attention on something that is simple (and does not entice our thoughts to go wild), “automatically induces calmness”.  If we practise paying attention through daily meditation we also gain clarity, be able to think more clearly.

The challenge of losing attention

If our mind wanders, we do not need to consider this a failure, but “part and parcel” of the process – affirming, firstly, that our mind is active because an intelligent mind needs to exercise itself on something challenging, not something that is simple.

We will find that, as we attempt to pay attention, our mind will suddenly become absorbed in memories, thoughts, emotions or planning – like me, you could end up planning your next activity, working on your to-do-list, deciding how you are going to get to that meeting later in the day.

The important thing is to re-focus without blaming yourself or indulging in negative thoughts and stories about yourself and your perceived “weakness”.   A useful technique to use if your are distracted during a meditation is to make the distraction a part of the meditation itself.  Instead of consuming energy trying to get rid of the distraction (and distracting yourself more) just notice what is going on – “i see that I am feeling a bit anxious now and I sense a tightness in my shoulders”.  You can just name the emotion and feel the sensation in your body.

It is important to remember that you are not trying to perform for anyone else, even yourself.  You are not trying to meet anyone else’s rate of advancement.  Focusing on something simple is a neutral activity and encourages you to be calm and real – to give yourself permission to be-in-the-moment.

Paying attention meditation can open your mind and heart to creativity.  By stilling your mind, you are able to a access what Kabat-Zinn calls the “spaciousness” within.  You will gradually overcome your existing habit of “mind wandering” and be able to develop the sustained attention needed to fully access your creative mind.

The process of paying attention is integral to all forms of meditation, with the focus varying from one form of meditation to another.  In his podcast, Marvin Belzer leads you through a paying attention meditation that moves from a focus on breath, to listening to surrounding sounds,  to undertaking a form of somatic meditation – focusing on your body.  As we grow in mindfulness through practising paying attention in meditation, we can readily access calmness and clarity and open our minds to creativity.

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

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Become What You Practise

Last year, Dr. Shauna Shapiro gave a TEDx Talk on The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger.  In the presentation she highlighted the power of mindfulness practice by drawing on ancient wisdom and recent neuroscience.

Shauna maintained that one of the problems of modern society is that we hold ourselves up to impossible standards and expect perfection when this is not humanly possible.

Dr. Harriet Braiker epitomised this impossible goal when she wrote her 1986 book, The Type E Woman: How to Overcome the Stress of Being Everything to Everybody.  In that book, Harriet challenged women to stop trying to achieve perfection in all their multiple roles, e.g. the perfect spouse, mother, business partner/worker.  She argued that women where killing themselves trying to achieve the impossible.

Shauna stated that perfection was not possible but recent neuroscience has confirmed the long-held view that transformation is possible – we can learn, adapt and change.  Our minds are not a fixed entity but can be transformed through the facility of neuroplasticity.

Shauna who is a Professor of Psychology and co-author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness, found through her research that one of the most powerful means of personal transformation is mindfulness.  This discovery reinforced her own experience of the power of mindfulness when she suffered a serious illness in her teens and had to cope with a pervading sense of loneliness and fear.

In sharing the challenge of learning mindful breathing in a monastery in Thailand, Shauna expressed the frustration she experienced with her wandering mind making mindful breathing a very difficult challenge.  She came to realise that part of the work of mindfulness practice is “to train the mind to be here, where we already are”.

In her presentation, Shauna stopped for a moment to engage the audience in a brief grounding exercise, involving breathing and posture, to reinforce the fact that despite our very best conscious efforts, our mind continues to wander.  Unfortunately, as she illustrated, what happens is our mind then starts wandering into the negative self-evaluation terrain – “What’s wrong with me, other people are doing it right”.

Shauna recounted that her saviour in her time at the monastery was a visiting monk who shared with her the wisdom of five words – “what we practise grows stronger”.  If we practise negative self-evaluation or impatience or resentment, this becomes embedded in our neural pathways.  Alternatively, if we practise being calm and focused through mindfulness meditation, that is what we become.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice or Tai Chi, we refocus our minds, change our neural pathways and open ourselves up to personal transformation on many fronts, not the least of these being greater calmness and focus.

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

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Slow Down for Gratitude

In the previous post, I discussed being mindful at work.  Among, the suggested ways to be mindful in this environment were slowing down and being grateful.  If we slow the pace of our life wherever we are, we can focus on gratitude and develop not only a positive outlook on life but also the resilience to bounce back from setbacks, challenges and difficulties.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), maintains that mindfulness is very much about living more in the present moment.  In line with this view, she explains the nature of mindfulness in the following way:

Mindfulness is about paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is.

Diana provided this explanation when introducing a gratitude meditation as part of the UCLA’s free, weekly Mindful Awareness Podcasts.   In this podcast she highlights the value of being grateful for the small things that make up our daily lives, from moment to moment.

Gratitude for the small things in life

It is not a big deal to be grateful for the small things in our life that we take so much for granted.  We can overcome this lack of appreciation through overfamiliarity by slowing down what we are doing and expressing appreciation for the small things in our lives.  This can be done as part of a meditation process or “on-the-go-slow”.

Firstly, we can focus on our senses and the wondrous world that is open to us through sight, sound, touch, taste and hearing.   With sight alone, we have access to colours, shapes, lightness and darkness and the never-ending variety of the sky, the flowers and trees, the birds and the animals we encounter in nature.

With hearing, we can access a very wide variety of sounds, the nuances in people’s voices, the chorus of birds and the buzz of life around us.  Recently, I was playing a game of tennis against a young man who was deaf and his sister, and it prompted me in the moment to be grateful for my hearing.  He communicated with his sister by sign language but was unable to communicate with myself and my partner except by hand movements and limited facial expressions.  His hearing impediment clearly affected his game.  On reflection, I am now conscious that he could not hear the sound of the ball leaving the racquet and be able to judge the speed and distance of the ball that comes with hearing this sound.  So, there is a lot to be grateful for with the sense of hearing.

On another occasion, I was playing tennis with a male partner who was becoming increasingly agitated and frustrated with losing points because of his lack of timing and coordination.  The temptation was to join in with him and express my own frustration at my own lack of timing – negativity is contagious.  However, for once, I just expressed gratitude that I could be playing tennis after a long layoff, that I could run and still play some good shots.  I sensed, too, that my partner gained better self-control by the end of the game through the influence of my calmness and focus – positivity is contagious. If we slow down, and savour the moment and what we have, we can achieve better self-management through control over our emotions and our responses.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can more often be-in-the-moment, and develop our positive outlook on life and build our resilience in the face of setbacks, whether at work or play.

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

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Being Grateful

In the previous post, I discussed how savoring the moment and the experience of pleasantness nurtures the seeds of happiness.  This savoring of the many things in our life that generate positive feelings, leads naturally to a sense of gratitude.

Being grateful

Rachel Naomi Remen who suffered unbelievably from Crohn’s disease learned how her inner strength grew with appreciating the many things in her life that she took for granted.  Rachel writes in her best-selling book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, that appreciating the small things in life can make us strong enough to deal with the big things, such as cancer and chronic illness.  She encourages us to be grateful for “the grace of a hot cup of coffee, the presence of a friend, the blessing of having a new cake or soap or an hour without pain”.

These small things are so much a part of our daily life that we overlook them until we lose them.  The same applies to our health which we so often take for granted.  Tara Brach urges us to go beyond the “to-do list”, focused on doing things, to creating a “to-be list” that focuses on being.  Whether we call it “soul” or “life force” or “consciousness”, our inner resources develop as we nourish the sense of gratitude for what is a normal part of our daily life.

Cultivating gratitude

Tara suggests a number of ways to cultivate gratitude including engaging a “gratitude buddy” (who you email every day with your gratitude list), savoring moments of pleasantness, developing a gratitude journal and/or regularly undertaking a gratitude meditation.   As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, “we become what we pay attention to” – we become grateful by paying attention to the things that we are grateful for.

Gratitude enables us to deal with the challenges of daily life that would otherwise disturb our tranquility and calmness.  It opens us up  to appreciating and serving others through empathy and compassion.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become much more aware of what we value in our life, develop gratitude and build our inner resources and resilience.

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

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Nurturing the Seeds of Happiness

In the sixth week of the online, Power of Awareness Course, Tara Brach talked about nourishing the seeds of happiness.  This followed a video session on the standing meditation which an article in the Huffington Post describes as an established Buddhist approach.

Nurturing the moment requires being in the present, aware of what is happening within and outside ourselves.  As Tara points out, there are so many times during the day where we can experience some form of positive feeling – whether it be happiness, calm, appreciation, serenity, blessed, full of wonder, amazed, free, thankful, delighted or joyous.

Yet, because of the negativity bias of our brains – an evolutionary bias – we let these positive feelings wane or slip by and focus instead on the negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, dread, suspiciousness, nervousness, alarmed or scared.  We often dwell on the negative emotions and do not reinforce the positivity in our lives by savoring the moments of positive feelings.

Tara suggests that this focus on the negative is endemic in our society today:

Our attention fixates on what might go wrong and we are really imprinted – imprinted by experiences that bring up fear or pain and we are inclined to look for them.

Tara argues that we have a “happiness setpoint” that is biologically and biochemically conditioned, and that acts as a happiness thermostat to keep the lid on our happiness level.  To offset this bias towards the negative in our lives, we need to learn to savor the positive moments.

Savoring the moments of happiness

The best way to build a positive outlook on life is to savor the moments when we experience positive feelings.  I have written previously about specific things in your life that you can savour – your child’s development, friendship, your achievements and rewards, the space of being alone or the freedom of boredom.

In this current post, we are not focusing on a particular situation or person in our lives, but on the experience of happiness, in whatever form it takes.  However, it takes practice to overcome the entrenched habit of fixation on the negative and, in turn, establish “a new setpoint for our wellbeing”.

Tara suggests that one way to do this is through “conscious savoring” of the many pleasant feelings that we experience throughout our day.  In her words, “it is a commitment to pause when you are experiencing goodness or happiness or wonder or appreciation or joy or peace”.  The stimulus could be a sunrise over the mirror-like water, a pleasant recollection, the cool breeze on your face or the song of a newly arrived bird in the backyard.

You can savor the moment of happiness by pausing, stopping what you are doing momentarily, and breathing in the pleasure of the moment by taking a couple of deep, conscious breaths.  You can dwell with care and gratitude on the positive feelings you are experiencing, rather than rushing into another activity that may lead to anxiousness. This is very much a process of reflection-in-action.

As we grow in mindfulness through savoring the many different moments of happiness that occur in our lives, we become more aware of the richness of these feelings and the peace that resides within, and we learn to enrich our wellbeing through nurturing the seeds of happiness.

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

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