How Does Mindfulness Impact Our Behaviour?

Research on mindfulness suggests that through meditation practice we become more connected with ourselves and more in control of our thoughts, emotions and resulting behaviour.  In particular, mindfulness improves the frequency and quality of our paying attention in the present.

Research by scientists on the outcomes of mindfulness point to the development of compassion, reduced sense of isolation, increased resilience and ability to handle stress – all of which impact our behaviour.

Exploring how mindfulness impacts our behaviour

We have to ask ourselves how mindfulness practice changes our own behaviour.  Do we stop ourselves from writing that cutting email when we become angry at an email we received?  Do we immediately retaliate with counter accusations when criticised by someone else?  To what extent has our awareness and understanding of another’s pain increased our empathy and become reflected in compassionate behaviour?

One of the challenges we face in translating mindfulness practice into changed behaviour is that our habituated behaviour is very difficult to change.  Even as we develop mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we will still have to deal with negative thoughts and emotions that arise spontaneously despite our best intentions.  However, our capacity to deal with these challenges should develop so that our response ability increases and we can overcome our habit of responding inappropriately to words or actions that trigger us.

If we do feel agitated, we can have the presence of mind to stop and take a breath, observe what is happening inside ourselves and use the gap between the stimulus (the trigger) and our response to manage our behaviour better.

We can begin to see that we are moving towards more kindness in our interactions with others – it could be that we notice people more, stop and talk to people who seem lonely or depressed, demonstrate more thoughtfulness towards others we encounter in daily life.

A meditation to explore the impact of mindfulness on our behaviour

We can explore for ourselves what impact our meditation practice is having on our behaviour by way of checking our progress towards achieving the equanimity of mindfulness.  We can review how often we have used mindfulness as a form of self-intervention to prevent us from saying or doing something that we considered inappropriate.

Tara Brach asks some penetrating questions about the ways in which mindfulness has positively impacted our behaviour.  In the related meditation podcast, Tara encourages us to let go of the past and attend fully to the present moment.  This meditation is particularly useful if you have reviewed your behaviour and found that you did not act mindfully.  It is a calming meditation that is strongly situated in the present moment and in what you are experiencing within and aware of in your immediate surroundings.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we can begin to see clearly observable changes in our behaviour particularly in moments of stress or when our negative emotions are triggered.  We begin to notice our capacity to control our thoughts and emotions and increase our response ability – to respond in more appropriate ways that build relationships rather than damage them.

 

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

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Insights from Mindfulness

Matthew Brensilver teaches about the relationship between mindfulness and mental health based on his many years of research into treatments for addiction and resultant behaviours.  In one MARC meditation podcast he offers two key insights that derive from mindfulness.

In the podcast, he suggests that meditation practice itself is a form of training that opens us up to the potentiality of mindfulness.  It enables us to pay attention to our everyday experiences, getting in touch with our sensations and thoughts.  Matthew describes mindfulness as accepting our human condition in all its facets with openness and equanimity.  He maintains that this mindful stance generates two key insights.

Insight 1 – the difficulty of being human

If we learn through meditation to accept whatever comes our way, taking things as they are, we come to realise how difficult it is to be truly human.  This openness to experience from one moment to the next means accepting what is with equanimity – even if this involves challenges to our sense of self, career disappointment, interpersonal conflict or ill health.

It takes real courage to face the reality of our lives with full awareness, not hiding in denial or diverted by resentment.  Life often turns out to be very different to what we imagined or hoped for. Matthew states that mindfulness demands that we “make peace with the human condition” and live our lives with genuine acceptance moment to moment.  This is hard to do, even if we are able in the midst of things to express gratitude for what we do have or for the positive experiences we have had in our lives.

Insight 2 – we underestimate the capacity of our hearts and minds

Matthew suggests that our innate capacity is often obscured by aversion to difficulties, striving for “success” or the negative emotions generated by the everyday challenges of work and life.  Fear, for instance, can stop us from being creative and pursuing opportunities for personal growth and development.

Matthew argues that “sustained intention and attention” that develops with mindfulness enables us to tap into our real potential, including the ability to offer unconditional love and appreciation.  If we are able to maintain “continuity of awareness” we are able to access our full potentiality.

For Matthew, mindfulness involves not only being aware of our thoughts and emotions from moment to moment but also the ability to “pour awareness into our body” so that we are in touch with our bodily sensations as well.  He suggests that meditation helps to build this awareness because it offers the opportunity to “experience the dignity of upright posture” while, at the same time, feeling “the pull of gravity” on the rest of our body.

As we grow in mindfulness, we come to realise the difficulty of facing our human condition with equanimity, while at the same time experiencing the depth and breadth of our human potentiality.  Meditation practice helps us to accept what is and to more readily realise our full potential.

 

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

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What Is You Unique Purpose in Life?

In the previous post on Finding Your True Purpose, I drew on the interview podcast by Stephen Cope.  In that post, I explored what Stephen refers to as the “four-stage path of action”.  The first stage, however, discerning your true purpose, is where people often become stuck and unable to move forward, for multiple reasons (including doubts).

Stephen suggests several ways to help you progress in deciding what is your unique purpose in life – what best utilises your knowledge, skills and personality for the greater good.  This can be a challenging task and may take some time to discern – it could involve immersing yourself in an area of interest to establish the needs that are present in that arena.  Research may precede action.

What is your unique purpose in life?

Some of Stephen’s suggestions may help with gaining clarity about your unique purpose.   He suggests that you can focus on three areas to gain further insight into any “unconscious obstacles”.

  1. What lights you up? – what in your life generates positive energy, captures your commitment or engages you over lengthy periods?  The way to access this is to write a list of things that light you up, without censoring the list.  Look for themes or connections amongst items on your list, and you may find a pointer to your unique purpose.
  2. What is your deepest duty right now? – you will have duties as an employee, friend, colleague, parent, citizen, partner.  What duty flowing from any of these roles is felt so deeply that if you do not fulfil it, “you will feel a profound sense of self-betrayal”?
  3. What personal challenges do you face? – do you have a health issue, relationship challenge, a problem involving your child or children or a workplace issue?  What do these challenges inspire you to do? It may mean helping others to show self-care or establishing a support group for parents who have lost a child or for people experiencing work stress.  Some people have established a foundation or committee to enable them to engage others in supporting them in their endeavours to do something for the common good.

Famous people such as Gandhi and Robert Frost found their unique purpose and proceeded  to develop what Stephen calls “unified action” – where you increase your focus on the area of interest and peel away anything that is not contributing to your unique  purpose.     Extraordinary people have achieved extraordinary outcomes but there are many more “ordinary people” who have excelled at what they do because they have realised a singular focus and a commitment to act in accord with that focus.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection (particularly on our interests, our duties and our challenges), we can gain clarity about our unique purpose, find creative ways to fine tune our actions and increase the integration of that purpose into our daily lives.

 

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

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Identifying Our Assumptions through Mindfulness

One of the aspects of self-awareness that is important to master is the assumptions we carry with us that impact our thoughts, perceptions, interpretations, emotions and behaviour.  We can be aware of the negative impact on us of the assumptions of other people but be blind to our own assumptions and their negative impact on others.

Earlier I wrote about the impact for me of my social tennis partners making assumptions about my capacity to play tennis, given my age.  Last week I fell into the same trap through my assumptions about another player.

I was playing social tennis with three other players, one of whom was a woman.  She offered to play with the weaker player and I found this hard to accept initially because I assumed that she would be a weaker player, despite her size.  This proved to be a false assumption as the woman player turned out to be the best player of the four of us.

The woman player had a particular style of hitting her ground strokes which meant that the ball levelled out when it hit the ground, making it very difficult to get a racquet under the ball.  I spent most of the social game reframing my assumptions about the woman player and trying to counter her game.

The moral of the story is that assumptions can blind us to possibilities and reduce our capacity to cope with reality.  Assumptions are like tunnels – they can distort our perception of others and of everyday occurrences.

Incorrect assumptions are often the cause of conflict in relationships because we tend to make assumptions about the motivation of the other person.  They, in turn, make assumptions about our motivation and act on their own erroneous assumptions.  We respond having confirmed in our own mind that our assumption about them were correct (confirmatory bias).  And so a conflict spiral is created built on increasingly entrenched, but inaccurate assumptions.

As we grow in mindfulness we become aware of the assumptions we hold, how they play out in our thoughts and emotions and how they are manifest in our behaviour.  Through mindfulness we can increase our self-awareness in this area, better deal with the challenges of our life, enrich our relationships and develop our creativity.

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

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Being Grounded

So often we can be off-balance, caught up in concerns about the future or worry about the past.  Alternatively, our minds can be racing from one thought to another.

If we lack awareness in the present moment, we will miss opportunities, make poor decisions, create work and  stress for ourselves and find that our productivity, either at work or at home, suffers.

If we are grounded, small annoyances and setbacks do not disturb our equanimity and we can manage larger challenges more effectively because we are able to choose an appropriate response, rather than be caught up in the whirlwind of our thoughts and activities.

Ways to develop groundedness

Being gounded is important and underpins mindful living.  We need to stop our frenetic activity and  take time to get connected with nature or tuned into our body.  Another form of groundedness is to engage in mindful walking where we get in touch with the ground, or the floor if we are walking inside our house.

We can tune into our body through mindful breathing, a body scan or other form of somatic meditation.  Breathing is so fundamental to living that most mindfulness experts praise the benefits of mindful breathing – it has a calming effect, can be undertaken any where and is  a good way to begin most meditations.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Another form of meditation that enables you to become really grounded focuses on the energy that surrounds us – in the air, in nature, with people and animals.      Through this approach,  you are able to get in touch with the energy of the universe and experience the connectedness this entails.

As we grow in mindfulness through regular practice of different forms of meditation, we can become grounded more easily when we are in a stressful situation, or exposed to a negative trigger, or are becoming nervous when we have to perform.

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

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Building Resilience

Resilience in a work context does not mean being able to endure a toxic work environment or unfair situation – it is not the equivalent of endurance.  Resilience is about our capacity to rebound or “bounce back” from a negative or personally challenging experience.

In a work situation, the negative experience could be the loss of a job, failure to gain a promotion, a conflict with a colleague or supervisor or an adverse experience with a customer or client.

Our life experiences, both positive and negative, shape who we are as does our responses to these experiences.  We can see negative experiences as learning opportunities or wallow in resentment that things did not turn out as we expected them to.

Building resilience

Through reflection and developing acceptance and self-compassion, we can change our perceptions and beliefs about ourselves and undesirable events. I have often found that not achieving the promotion I really wanted at the time, created the opportunity to move onto much more engaging and challenging work elsewhere – new work that took me out of my comfort zone but provided rich rewards.

We can learn to accept the things we cannot change but grow in insight about the things that we can change – including our own learned behaviour and fixed beliefs.  Matthew Johnstone in his short, illustrated book, The Big Little Book of Resilience, argues that we are capable of improving, evolving and developing after the “scar of life-altering events”.

Matthew also reinforces the fact that positive life experiences that we undertake voluntarily (e.g. studying a degree or engaging in a long “fun run” for charity) often involve challenges and setbacks and can serve to build resilience as we overcome the difficulties along the way.

Two mindfulness researchers in India maintain from their research that “mindfulness breeds resilience“:

Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally).

As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation (such as forgiveness meditation and gratitude meditation), we can  build resilience because mindfulness increases our “response ability” – our ability to extend the gap between stimulus and response and to develop a response that is constructive rather than destructive.  It also helps us to gain insight into our own biases, false assumptions and distorted perceptions that could otherwise lead to lingering discontent.

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

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Gratitude in Times of Difficulty

Having gratitude in times of difficulty can increase resilience and overcome depression, anxiety and despair.  Gratitude changes the quality of life that we are living as we gain better control over our thoughts and feelings and learn to accept what is.

As you develop this practice, you start to see things that you had not noticed before, the taken-for-granted things in your life.  Diana Winston recalls noticing the way sunlight reflects on a plant and the assorted colours that were in a painting on her wall.  She attributes this increased awareness and associated thankfulness to taking the time to slow down and meditate on the place where she was – very much a form of open awareness meditation.

So, mindfulness and gratitude go hand-in-hand, in a two-way reinforcement.  As you meditate, you become more aware of what you are grateful for and your growing gratitude, in turn, helps you to be more aware of positive experiences and people in your life.

Gratitude in times of difficulty

We so often miss the simple things of life that are before us and can act as a stimulus for gratitude.  In times of difficulty, it can be very hard to look beyond what we are experiencing and suffering from and, yet, the simple things in our life can be easily noticed and employed to pull us out of our self-absorption.   When we are experiencing difficulties, we often can’t see beyond what is challenging our equanimity.

Somatic meditation can be very helpful in times of challenge, whether the challenge relates to health of our body, our mental state or an external negative stimulus.  Adopting a meditative position, in the first instance, enables us to get in touch with our breathing and provides the stillness to observe our own body as we undertake a body scan and progressively release the tension within.

This physical grounding and release provides the foundation to turn our minds to what we are grateful for.  A recent experience may become the focus of your appreciation.  For example, in a recent meditation, the focus of my gratitude was a conversation I had the day before with a long-standing colleague and close friend.  I recalled the ease of the conversation as we were “shooting the breeze”, the deep connection through shared experiences and convictions, the exploration of new terrain, the supportive challenge to perspectives, the mutual respect and admiration and the challenge to identify what gives me a “buzz” at a time of semi-retirement.

Reflecting on this recent experience made me realize the warmth of the interaction and the things that I value about the friendship which lie below my consciousness because I have never attempted to express my gratitude for this profound connection.  Our meeting was not only a face-to-face conversation, but also a meeting of minds – a source of mutual enrichment.

As we grow in mindfulness through gratitude meditations, we start to see things that we have taken for granted, appreciate more deeply and explicitly what we value in our experiences and friendships and  strengthen our inner resources to deal with the challenges that confront us.

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

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Loving Kindness Meditation Towards Our Self

In previous posts, I explored mindful self-compassion,  the challenges in extending compassion to yourself and the power of self-compassion to transform yourself.   I also discussed compassion meditation where we are extending compassion to others.

In these discussion about compassion, we focused on pain and suffering experienced by ourselves and/or others.  In contrast, in the loving kindness meditation, we are exploring what is good and lovable in ourselves and others.

Loving kindness meditation can focus on ourselves or others.  In this post, I will focus on extending loving kindness to ourselves; in a subsequent post, I will explore how to undertake loving kindness meditation towards others.

The basic approach to loving kindness meditation

Diana Winston describes loving kindness meditation as the explicit cultivation of “open heartedness”.  She explains that this is a natural human process and is not false or artificial.   Diana contrasts loving kindness meditation with basic mindfulness meditation in that in the latter, it is essential to stay in the moment, while in loving kindness meditation it is okay and important to be creative in exploring images and loving memories about ourselves or another.

Jack Kornfield, in the online Power of Awareness Course, suggests that there are three elements that traditionally form the framework for a loving kindness meditation:

  1. Intention to express loving kindness towards ourselves or someone else
  2. Envisaging love for oneself or for another
  3. Cultivating the art of loving kindness – developing our open heartedness.

The benefits of loving kindness are numerous and can impact every facet of our lives – our interpersonal relationships, our sense of presence and the way we view every living thing.  Loving kindness meditation towards our self can be difficult because our culture cultivates the opposite – a sense of unworthiness or negative self-evaluation.  Regular meditation practice can overcome these cultural barriers.

If we experience thoughts or feelings other than loving kindness towards ourselves, we can accept them and make them the focus of our meditation too.  When we name our unkind feelings, we can learn to tame them so that they do not prevent us from extending loving kindness towards our self.  Diana Winston suggests that, in this way, these obstacles can become a cleansing process to free ourselves for self-love.

The process of loving kindness meditation towards our self

Jack Kornfield suggests that after becoming grounded and focused on our breath, we can think of two people separately for whom we have an uncomplicated love and appreciation.   Once we have each person in focus, we can extend kind thoughts to each of them in turn  – wishing them health and wellbeing, hoping that they will be safe and strong, wanting them to be happy.

We can then envisage these people individually extending similar loving kindness towards our self.   We can imagine them saying similar words or expressing kind thoughts towards us – wishing for our happiness, wellness, safety and strength.   We can then rest in the warmth of love and appreciation – something that is often below our level of conscious awareness, but which we act on in our daily lives.

As we grow in mindfulness through loving kindness meditation towards ourselves, we make explicit what we know implicitly, silence the negative self-evaluations that otherwise persist in our thoughts and open ourselves to extending loving kindness to others.

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

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Self-Compassion Can Transform You

Over the last couple of posts I discussed how self-compassion can free us from the bonds of self-judging and explored some of the challenges involved in self-compassion meditation, including breaking through our defences and denial.

In this post, I want to share two stories told by Tara Brach of how self-compassion can transform our lives.

From prison bully to freedom

Tara Brach has worked extensively in prisons teaching mindfulness to prisoners.  In the course on the Power of Awareness,  she tells the story of a woman in prison who was a tough bully and very mean but who came to one of her 6 weeks courses.  During the course she heard the words of the poem, Please Call Me by My True Names by Thich Nhat Hanh.

These were the words of the poem that broke through the defences of the woman prisoner:

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

In the preamble to the poem, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that had he been born in the same place as the pirate and lived in the same demeaning conditions, he would have been the pirate.  He goes on to explain that this realisation releases our compassion towards ourselves and others.

The woman prisoner realised that she too was suffering through the circumstances of her life and this realisation enabled her to be kind and compassionate to herself, to stop viewing herself as “bad” and to refrain from acting out her hurt and suffering through meanness to other prisoners.

Tara Brach explained that often we block self-compassion by telling ourselves that others have had it worse, so we should not be acting out our own suffering and pain.

From self-loathing to self-compassion

Tara Brach tells the story of a woman who knew that her ex-husband abused her daughter.  She could not face the pain of this knowledge, so she turned to alcohol to hide her shame, anger and self-loathing.

Her transformation came when, in desperation, she sought the advice of a priest who showed her (by drawing as small circle on her hand), that she was living in a small destructive circle of anger and self-aversion.  She had cut herself off from truly living and experiencing the world around her because she could not face the pain within.  The priest placed his large hand over hers to symbolise that there was a larger field of kindness and forgiveness that she could access to free herself from the tyranny and blindness of self-loathing.

As she meditated thinking of the hand of mercy covering her narrow circle of life, she came to realise that kindness and self-compassion lay within – it is inborn and accessible if only we are open to it.

Through meditation we can grow in mindfulness and come to the realisation of our own pain and suffering that blocks our self-compassion.  If we persist with meditation practice, we can open our hearts to innate kindness towards ourselves and be more present to the beauty of the world around us.

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

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The Hidden Challenges in Self-Compassion Meditation

In the previous post, I explored what happens when a negative experience continues to recur because of our habituated behaviour, even after employing the R.A.I.N. meditation process.  I then focused on using self-compassion to break the bonds of negative self-evaluation that inevitably occurs.

However, self-compassion, being kind to ourselves, brings up its own challenges and resistances.

Challenges embedded in self-compassion meditation
  1. The evasive end goal

How do you know you have arrived?  When can you say you have reached the end point – completed the journey of self-discovery through self-compassion?   There is no single end point – only a deeper level of progression into our inner world and what lies below the surface.

2. The defences we have developed

We avoid pain at every opportunity and self-compassion meditation makes us vulnerable – we have to visit the centre of our internal hurt.  We ward off this vulnerability by convincing ourselves that we must be doing it wrong because this keen sense of vulnerability should not be happening.

3. Failure to recognise the pervasiveness of our negative self-evaluations

There are typically so many moments and situations where we view ourselves as not measuring up or “falling short”.  It is so easy to deny or dismiss these negative self-evaluations with a flippant and groundless self-belief that “I am not like that”.   Yet the sense of “unworthiness” can impact every facet of our life at work, at home and in the community.  We lack trust in others because we are concerned that someone might find out what we are really like.

4. “False refuges” 

When we think we do not meet the expectations of our peers, family or society generally, we may employ strategies that Tara Brach calls “false refuges” – ways of numbing the pain of our shame or of competing to deflect self-examination and self-realisation.

5. Unable to give ourselves self-compassion because it is too big a challenge

People may say that they can’t experience the real sense of vulnerability nor give themselves self-compassion.  Tara Brach suggests that, in these situations, they at least should think of someone else who would be able and willing to offer them loving kindness.

Self-compassion requires vulnerability

Tara Brach, in the  Power of Awareness Course,  suggests that the beginning of self-compassion is:

To be able to see clearly that place of vulnerability and pain – that place of self-aversion, turned on ourselves.  The alchemy of self-compassion is to touch the place of vulnerability – to really feel the “ouch”, the place inside us that is really hurting.  In that place is a natural tenderness.

So, self-compassion is both feeling the pain and hurt of self-realisation and offering ourselves kindness and acceptance.  It is not a passive stance, but an active one of entering the pain zone while fortified by our own deep kindness and self-care.  It involves breaking down our defences, being open to the extent of our self-denigration and avoiding the “false refuges” that are forever a temptation to avoid pain.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices, we are better able to identify and remove our defences, to cope with the pain of realisation and to reach out to ourselves with loving kindness.

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

Image source: courtesy of Curriculum_Photografia 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.