Understanding the Process of Emotions

Dr. Eve Ekman recently presented a session on Overcoming Negativity and Judgement as part of the Wise@Work Virtual Communities series organised by Wisdom Labs.  Eve’s professional work focuses on developing emotional awareness, compassion and mindfulness. In pursuit of this goal, she draws on her knowledge, research and experience in areas such as integrative medicine, clinical social work and contemplative science. The mission of Wisdom Labs is to improve mental health in the workplace and the organisation offers guided virtual communities and a stress reduction app as a means to pursue these goals.  The positive outcomes from these tools are reduction in workplace stress, combating loneliness and burnout and improvement in teamwork.

Eve facilitates the Cultivating Emotional Balance Online Course and is Director of Training at the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), University of California Berkeley.  Eve demonstrates the benefits of her yoga and meditation practice in her concise, calm, practical and insightful presentations in many contexts, including in large organisations around the world.   Her video presentation on cultivating emotional balance and fluency at the 2013 Summer Institute for Educators (GGSC) is another example of the depth and passion of her work in developing emotional awareness

The process of emotions

Eve made the point at the outset that we have to understand the nature of emotions if we are going to learn how to keep them under control.  She explained that emotions are more than feelings (e.g. feeling good or bad about something).  In her view (informed by scientific research), emotions are really a process – a process involving “a trigger, an experience and a response”.

The trigger for a feeling of frustration and anger in the workplace could be something like the internet freezing continuously, someone who continually talks loudly in your open office workspace or the fact that your views and suggestions are ignored by management.   Working from home in the current lockdown environment of the Coronavirus can provide multiple triggers for frustration such as distractions, inadequate computer resources and managers who lack an understanding of your personal situation and associated difficulties (such as young children at home).   

Our experience of frustration and anger and associated thoughts of unfairness have a “biological correlate” – in other words, our thoughts and feelings are reflected in our body.  We may feel “uptight”, experience soreness in our back, arms or legs or have a stiff neck or headache.  Our response to the trigger and associated feelings and bodily sensations, can be mild, measured, “over-the-top” or involve some form of calming of ourselves and our emotions.

Eve suggests that we draw on integrative science (Western and Eastern approaches) to identify emotions as “constructive or destructive in how they are enacted” – in other words, how we respond, how our emotions play out in our words and actions.  Whether we choose a constructive or destructive way to act out our emotions will depend on how well we have our emotions under control at the time. 

The capacity to consciously chose an appropriate response to our triggers and associated feelings is described as emotional fluency or as Susan David calls it, “emotional agility”.  Eve’s facilitation in workplaces and her research, confirm that meditation and mindfulness practices are a pathway to developing emotional fluency/agility.   Without awareness of our emotions and how we enact them, we can be easily captured and controlled by them, resulting in harmful interactions and poor decision making.

Reflection

Viktor Frankl reminds us that between a stimulus (a trigger) and our response, there is a gap – wherein lies the opportunity to exercise choice in how we respond, and in the process, free ourselves from the enslavement of our emotions.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices we can build our self-awareness in relation to our triggers, thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and habituated responses and develop self-regulation to deal with our emotions constructively.

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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.

A Reflection to Address Absolutes

In the previous post, I discussed the concept of absolutes advanced by Lance Allred.  Absolutes are those firm, unshakeable beliefs we hold about our self, others or the world around us.  They constrain our perspectives and influence our behaviour.  They are relatively immoveable and do not dissolve in the face of rational argument.  Absolutes shape our thoughts, feelings and reactions and impact our effectiveness and our relationships. They develop early in family life and are often reinforced culturally.  The downside of absolutes is that they stop us from realising our full potential – they act like clots in our circulatory system, stemming the flow of creativity and responsiveness.

A reflection to surface and address an absolute

It seems to me that the starting point for addressing the absolutes in our life is to begin with developing self-awareness and move to identifying strategies to self-regulate our reactions.  It is important to focus on one aspect of our present experience that we find unsatisfactory because of the negative thoughts and emotions that the experience elicits in us.  We are complex beings, so beginning with one relatively small absolute can develop our self-awareness and improve our capacity to respond effectively without the baggage of our past.

There are several steps in the meditation:

  • Being grounded: It is important to become grounded so that you can achieve a sense of focus, balance and insight.  Being conscious of your posture and breathing helps to ground you in the present.
  • Deciding on an anchor: Your anchor is designed to enable you to come back into the focus of your reflection whenever you become aware that you have become distracted or diverted in your thinking.  The choice of anchors is a personal thing – I still like to feel the sensation of my fingers coming together.
  • Focus on an unsatisfactory experience: Decide what you are going to work on to unearth an absolute that is negatively impacting your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It could be some recent interaction or activity that made you upset or threw you off balance.  It does not have to be a major issue – in fact, initially it is better to start small. [I have started with the fact that I get upset and annoyed when I make a mistake at social tennis.]
  • Explore your emotions during the incident: What were you feeling?  What was the intensity of those feelings?  What was the catalyst for those feelings – what really happened?  Who were your feelings directed at – yourself or another person? [In my case, with my tennis mistakes my feelings were annoyance, frustration, anger and shame.]
  • What thoughts were behind your emotions: Why did you experience those emotions?  What was the incident triggering in you? What belief (absolute) about your self or the other person was driving your emotional response?  Whenever your thoughts include a “must” or “should”, you are beginning to access an absolute that is locking you into a response that reduces your flexibility and constrains your perspective.  [When I get upset with my tennis mistakes, my underlying thought or absolute is that “I must be seen to be competent at tennis.”] 
  • Explore the nature of your identified “absolute”: Take a close look at your absolute.  Is it a rational or realistic thought?  What is its origin? Is it embedded in a childhood experience or something that happened in later life?  Where did it come from and why is it persisting?  What does it say about your sense of self-worth – is your sense of who you are dependent on what someone else thinks or says?  [Tennis competence was a way to prove my worth – it generated respect and admiration.  It made me feel good about myself. My identity is tied up with the self-perception that I am a very good tennis player.]
  • What strategies could you adopt to reduce the impact of your “absolute”: The starting point is to acknowledge your absolute and how it is playing out in your life and relationships.  What could you do to reduce or avoid your negative, conditioned response?  Are there ways to build in a gap between the stimulus (the catalyst) and your response to give you the time and freedom to respond differently? Are there other offsetting, positive thoughts that you could entertain instead of your “absolute”?  [For my issue with tennis mistakes, one strategy has been to progressively loosen the relationship between my sense of self-worth and the outcome of the game – that is, not measuring my sense of self- worth on whether I won or not.  This still leaves the issue of being upset with my tennis mistakes.  A strategy I am trying here is to express gratitude that I am able to play, that I can run and hit the ball, that I can hit some really good shots – that is, appreciating what I have and not focusing on the negatives and lack of accomplishment.]

Reflection

Even relatively minor “absolutes” are very hard to dislodge.  Using a reflection like the one described above can help to chip away at an absolute and reduce its hold on us by eroding our sense of certainty about the underlying belief, by seeing it for what it really is (e.g. illogical, unfounded or unnecessary) and developing alternative ways of thinking and feeling.  As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness, we can develop deeper personal insight, identify how absolutes play out in our life and develop more creative and positive ways to respond to negatively experienced stimuli that will inevitably recur in our daily lives.

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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.

What it Means to be a Tough Male Today: Strength through Adversity and Vulnerability

In a recent interview podcast, Tami Simon spoke to former NBA star Lance Allred about his book which focuses on changes to what it means to be a “tough” male in times of adversity.  Lance is the author of The New Alpha Male: How to Win the Game When the Rules Are Changing.   As the first legally deaf player in the NBA, Lance missed hearing a number of plays but he brought to the game a keen sense of sight and intuition – he was able, for example, to develop heightened peripheral vision and the capacity to read body language through intuition rather than analysis.

Lance explains in his interview (as part of the Insights at the Edge podcast series) that he was raised as a child in America to become the classical Alpha Male – dominant, powerful and focused on the external signs of success that were associated with materialistic values (what you possess) and “superior conceit” (“better than” or “superior to”).  The catalyst for his change of perspective on what it means to be male was the sudden end to his NBA career (precipitated by the Global Economic Crisis) and nervous breakdown which resulted in thoughts of suicide.

Characteristics of males who successfully persevere despite adversity

In the interview, Lance describes the seven characteristics of what he terms the “New Alpha Male”.  The characteristics are strongly aligned to mindfulness and Lance describes them as the “seven principles of perseverance” when faced with today’s life challenges:

  1. Accountability: Lance argues that we need to own our feelings and avoid hiding them through “false bravado”.   He maintains that to be accountable we have to cast off those embedded self-stories that lead to envy and aggression and own our real feelings, instead of playing the victim or the child throwing a tantrum.
  2. Integrity: Speaking your “authentic truth” – not showing one side to a valued audience and another worse side to people viewed as lesser in importance. This entails working towards personal integration as a lifetime pursuit and being congruent as a leader.
  3. Compassion: Understanding that others are in pain and can often cause you hurt as a result of their pain (e.g. pain resulting from adverse childhood experiences).  It entails being willing to forgive others and show compassion towards them and their suffering.
  4. Intimacy: Being able to have the “intimate conversations” that express how you really feel but also being able to “own your side of the street” – what you have contributed to the conflict.  Lance talks about “self-intimacy” which is effectively a very deep level of self-awareness along with the courage to own up to what you are thinking and feeling.  The resultant vulnerability becomes a strength, not a weakness.
  5. Adaptability: Being able to deal with “extreme discomfort” including feeling alone because you are not conforming to other people’s expectations – people who do not see you for “who you truly are” and what you are capable of.
  6. Acceptance: This is the precursor to surrender.  Acceptance entails acknowledging mistakes but working to overcome them for your own benefit as well as that of others affected by your mistakes or inadequacies.  Surrender goes one step further in accepting “what is” after you have given your all to a particular pursuit or dream.  Lance explains that acceptance and surrender in turn involve both heartbreak and gratitude – willingness to learn through heartbreak and gratitude for what you have achieved.
  7. Choice: A fundamental principle underlying perseverance. This involves showing up in your life – choosing to start again after some “failure”, not being afraid of failure.  In the final analysis it means to “be a leader of your own life”.

Reflection

Lance puts forward the challenge of conscious choice and mindful action – being willing to overcome our self-stories, moving beyond our comfort zone, being truly accountable and authentic about our thoughts and feelings and being compassionate and forgiving towards others.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the self-awareness and self-intimacy that underpins his principles of perseverance and progressively move towards personal integration.

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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.

Using Singing Bowls in Meditation

Diana Winston in a recent meditation podcast was joined by Michael Perricone, musician and  Master of Tibetan Singing Bowls.  Diana provided guidelines for meditating with singing bowls as Michael generated music from the bowls.  At the outset, she indicated that meditating with the singing bowls was a pathway to natural awareness, a process of open awareness, not bounded by a specific focus other than the sounds of the bowls themselves.  The bowls provide sounds that give you a sense of the boundarylessness of natural awareness – like the spaciousness of the sky above.

Diana points out that we are always aware – we cannot switch off awareness, but we can focus it or be open to its universality by becoming conscious of awareness itself.  This openness to awareness is a declining capacity as we become lost in thought, time-poor and focused on material values.  I have previously discussed ways to develop natural awareness, and the Tibetan singing bowls offer another approach.   The singing bowls, like meditation bells, are made of a special combination of metals that heighten the vibrations of the bowls and the resultant resonance. 

The bowls have been used in mindfulness practice for centuries not only because they facilitate natural awareness but also because they enable relaxation and stress release.  They are now used in music therapy, massage and yoga sessions.  Michael offers a five-minute, Tibetan Singing Bowl Meditation on video using the bowls to illustrate their use in meditation.   Diana’s singing bowl meditation is a thirty-minute meditation accompanied by Michael playing the bowls.  The latter meditation is offered as part of the weekly meditation podcasts provided by MARC, UCLA.  Michael provides additional mindfulness resources, including links to mindfulness apps (such as the Headspace app) and online courses (e.g. The Mindful Living Course conducted by Elisha Goldstein).

Using the singing bowls in meditation

Diana begins her meditation podcast with an initial focus on becoming grounded through posture and a brief body scan designed to release tension in parts of the body such as tightness in your stomach or stiffness in your shoulders or legs.  She encourages you to take deep breaths to help you relax bodily.

Throughout the playing of the singing bowls, Diana provides support to enable you to be-with-the-sound as it reverberates around the room.  She suggests that if you find the sound of the bowls confusing, overwhelming or distressing that you can drop back to focusing on your breathing or the sensation of your feet on the floor or your fingers touching.   She also encourages you to refocus your listening to the sound of the bowls if you become diverted by your thoughts (e.g. trying to work out where to buy one of the bowls).  This process of constantly restoring your focus on the sound of the singing bowls can progressively build your awareness muscle and develop deep listening skills.

Reflection

I found the singing bowls a bit intense in a longer meditation (e.g. 30-minutes) when I first listened to them and thought that beginning with a shorter singing bowl meditation can help initially to develop this mindfulness practice.  Each person will experience the singing bowls differently, so the important thing that Diana stresses is personal choice – deciding how long you will practice meditation with the bowls and whether or not you will switch to another anchor, however temporarily.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can use practices such as the singing bowl meditation to deepen our self-awareness, awareness of others and the world around us, and awareness of our connectedness to everyone and everything else.

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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 and the Art of Forgiveness

In a previous post, I highlighted the need for compassion and forgiveness to sustain a second marriage.  However, forgiveness is a need in all facets of our relationships because we can experience a grievance or hurt wherever we are – at work, at home or in our daily activity outside these spheres.  Dr. Fred Luskin, an international expert in forgiveness, explains that there are three main aspects of a grievance, wherever or whenever it is experienced:

  • Exaggerating the personal offense we experience
  • Blaming someone else for our negative feelings
  • Developing a grievance story.

In his book, Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for Healthy and Lasting Relationships, Fred draws on research to demonstrate that forgiveness leads to a sense of peace as well as physical and emotional welfare.  In contrast, maintaining a grudge, grievance or anger results in illness, a loss of personal power (you become controlled by your emotions) and an inability to focus on the task at hand.  The very words we use – such as “consumed by envy” – evoke the destructive power of grievances and sustained anger.

Developing the art of forgiveness through mindfulness

Fred points out that, contrary to popular belief, forgiveness is not about the other person by whom you feel aggrieved, it is about yourself – your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and consequent behaviour.  He contends that the focus in forgiveness is self-awareness and self-regulation, not reconciliation.  Some of the mindfulness practices that can help you develop the art of forgiveness include:

  • Mindful breathing: Fred offers a specific, brief practice here.  He suggests that you take three deep breaths.  When inhaling, you focus on the movement of your stomach as it fills with air.  As you exhale, you concentrate on your stomach softening (and the sense of release).  On your third deep breath, Fred suggests that you bring your focus to something or someone you love or a thing of beauty – filling your mind with something positive which can serve to displace negative thoughts and emotions.
  • Naming your feelings:  Fred suggests that through reflection you seek to identify the catalyst for your grievance and name the feelings that you experienced.  He argues that your past experiences may have influenced your feelings, but you experience them in the present and you are responsible for them (not the person you blame for those feelings).  Once you name your feelings, you can take ownership of them and effectively tame them (you control them, they don’t control you).  You can also identify how you have exaggerated the personal offense that you have experienced and what expectations or assumptions underlie that sense of being offended.  Fred maintains that we each carry around in our head what he calls “unenforceable rules”.
  • Choosing your channel: Fred proposes that we learn to replace the “grievance channel” (where we repeat our “grievance story” to ourselves and others) with more positive channels such as those focused on gratitude, love and beauty (especially the beauty of nature).  In his book, he offers multiple suggestions on how to switch “channels” throughout the day.  If we achieve this switch on a regular basis, we naturally develop our “forgiveness channel” because appreciation, a sense of beauty and feelings of love displace negative feelings of hurt, anger and resentment.  The art of forgiveness can be further developed by reading about, or listening to, stories of courageous acts of forgiveness by others.

Fred suggests that we need to become aware of the space in our minds that we are allocating to our grievance – how much of our time and energy are being consumed by accommodating and entertaining our grievances.

Reflection

To develop the art of forgiveness, we need to be conscious of the thoughts and emotions we are cultivating through the stories in our head – we become what we focus on, the choice is ours to be bitter or appreciative.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more self-aware of our “unenforceable rules” in the form of unrealistic expectations or unfounded assumptions, more readily name our feelings and learn to achieve self-regulation by consciously choosing to entertain positive thoughts and feelings of love and appreciation.

In reflecting on what unenforceable rules we carry in our head, I am reminded of an observation by Michelle De Kretser in her book, The Life to Come, when talking about Pippa’s reflections about her family friend Rashida (a Muslim born in India):

There was a whisper in Pippa’s brain, like a subdued, left-hand accompaniment to her thoughts, and this whisper was of the opinion that Rashida should be grateful that white people overlooked the double handicap of her religion and race.  [p. 221, emphasis added]

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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.

Self-Compassion for Healthy Eating

Marsha Hudnall, President and Co-owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run (a whole-body wellness retreat), offers an interesting perspective on how to develop healthy eating – whether that involves avoiding overeating, under-eating or eating foods that we know cause inflammation through allergy or intolerance.  Marsha in her article on this topic suggests that self-compassion is the missing factor in enabling us to persist with healthy eating

Often when we stray from the ideal approach to healthy eating that meets our specific needs, we berate ourselves for our failure to stick to the right path.  Marsha has been a pioneer in the field of non-diet and alternative approaches to healthy eating through her writing, teaching and her work as a board member of the Center for Mindful Eating.   She explains her personal experience and perspective on mindful eating in a Mindful Dietician podcast.  Marsha offers advice too for people who are on dietary restrictions as a result of a health condition – available in a paid webinar titled, When the Doctor Says No.

Self-Compassion for healthy eating

Self-compassion has been the life pursuit of Kristin Neff who stresses the importance of self-kindness to overcome negative thinking in the face of set-backs or temporary defeats.  Kristin reinforces the need to recognise that we share a common humanity and part of our life experience is larger than ourselves (we are not the only one encountering life challenges).  She stresses the role of mindfulness in dealing with thoughts and feelings that damage our self-image and using mindful approaches to grow self-awareness and self-regulation.

In her podcast interview mentioned above, Marsha identifies two key barriers to effective self-compassion – the social and personal obsession with body image (and related materialistic values) and the relentless pursuit of perfectionism.  In relation to perfectionism, she argues that we need to acknowledge that we cannot be perfect – we will make mistakes and poor choices.  This acceptance opens the way to new learning, new habits and thoughtful responses to life crises.  This fundamental realisation was a real breakthrough for tennis player Ash Barty who became Number 1 in the world in 2019.

Mindfulness and mindful eating

Marsha stated that her introduction to mindful eating occurred when Jon Kabat-Zinn visited the Green Mountain retreat center.  She came to understand that mindfulness was essentially about awareness and understanding of the influences shaping our responses and the potentiality of making different choices – choosing between a range of options rather than being locked into a single way of doing things, e.g. mindful eating instead of dieting.  Marsha alluded to the perspective of her mother-in-law, Thelma (Founder of Green Mountain), who talked about “the plank of choice” versus the “diet tightrope”. 

Marsha broadens our perspective on mindful eating when she offers suggestions in her article on ways to bring self-compassion to the process of eating:

  • Give up a fixed way of thinking – what Marsha calls “black and white thinking”.  She suggests, for example, that pizza should not always be branded as bad for you – it may be the best choice when celebrating an achievement with friends. You can be mindful of others, the occasion and the flexibility you have on that occasion – rather than adopting a fixed position that leads to subsequent dissatisfaction for not having “participated” fully in the celebration. In her podcast interview, Marsha argues that we need to adopt a “middle-ground” instead of pursuing unattainable perfection.
  • Become aware of your negative self-talk when eating – Marsha suggests that you write down these thoughts, and also have prepared responses that you can adopt when the debilitating self-critique starts up.
  • Practice giving yourself kind responses – do this whenever a negative thought enters your mind during the day.  The more you do it, the easier it gets and it quickly becomes a default way of thinking – just as awareness practice while waiting can replace the default mode of grabbing your mobile phone to fill the gap.

Drawing on her own personal experience and awareness of research findings, Marsha maintains that mindfulness can help us to contribute more positively and successfully to our own family, work and professional arena.  She observed that as you practice mindfulness, you become more aware of the subtleties of being mindful and its impacts in every arena of your life.  Marsha noted, too, that exploring neuroscience and an understanding of the brain, better equips us to deal with our daily challenges.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that drive us to unhealthy eating and related practices and build the resilience to achieve self-regulation in our eating habits.  Mindful eating involves more than just eating slowly, it also extends to identifying and managing our negative self-talk that can occur while we are eating and other times throughout the day.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness and Personal Transitions During Organisational Change

Change in our personal lives and in an organisational setting can generate anxiety, fear, insecurity and anger.  This discomfort can be expressed as resistance to change and lead to a wide range of unproductive behaviours that can be harmful to us as individuals as well as for the organisations we work in.  William and Susan Bridges identified three broad stages of personal transition in the context of organisational change.  In their 2017 book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, they explained that each of us go through these stages at different rates for different changes depending on the our perception of the impact of the changes.  The three stages they identified are (1) endings – where the focus is on loss, (2) neutral zone – involves a “wait and see” orientation and (3) new beginnings – putting commitment and energy behind the change.  Their book provides a range of managerial strategies that can be employed by organisations to help people transition from endings to new beginnings. They emphasize that without these strategies individuals and organisations can become stuck in either the endings stage or the neutral zone, resulting in illness and organisational decline.

Mindfulness and personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy Quan, a certified organisational change agent and creator of The Calm Monkey (Mindfulness Meditation in the Workplace), had a personal experience that gave her a deep insight into how people deal with a confronting and challenging change.  She was diagnosed with cancer after many years in multiple organisational change roles. This personal challenge led her to seek out mindfulness practices, and meditation in particular, to help her deal with this devastating illness.  Through her meditation practice she came to accept her illness and all that it entailed, and realised that she had a choice – she could view herself as a victim or take a proactive approach that would enable her to lead the best life possible, given her health setback.

This led to a further insight in that she realised that she could employ her understanding of organisational change and mindfulness to help others in an organisational setting.  She was able to draw on the research of William and Susan Bridges and developed a refined model of personal transitions.  She focused on the psychological change processes involved and identified five transition points in an individual’s psychological journey during organisational change:

  • Awareness: becoming aware of your thoughts, emotions, reactions and behaviour when facing the change
  • Understanding: gaining insight into the “why” of your holistic response – body and mind (recognising that this is a normal reaction to a confronting and challenging change)
  • Acceptance: accepting “what is”, not denying your current reality (e.g. a changed role, loss of a job or status)
  • Commitment: moving beyond acceptance to committing to adopt a positive, proactive response to improve your personal experience of the change, “taking things into your own hands” – self-management instead of reactivity
  • Advocacy: promoting the change and its positive elements if your energy level and role enable this.

Research into mindfulness and personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy was able to apply her insights in her work situation to help her colleagues through difficult change processes.  She moved beyond working with a small group to establishing a weekly mindfulness meditation “drop-in” where participants could share their experiences of change, both personal and organisational, and identify what they were trying to cope with and how they were going about it.  After a few years, she had 185 people on this drop-in program (highlighting the psychological challenge of organisational change) and this enabled her to undertake formal research of the impact of her approach of combining mindfulness with change management insights.

Her research was published in a study titled Dealing with Change Meditation Study which can be downloaded here.   Wendy indicated that her approach revolved around two key points of intervention, (1) raising awareness of the personal, holistic impact of a change process and (2) focusing on the future to develop a more constructive response so that the individual undergoing organisational change can have a better experience of the change and make decisions about their future.  Participants in the study were asked to focus on a challenging change and listen three times over a two-week period to a 15-minute, guided meditation focused on positively dealing with the change.

Resources for personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy, building on her own experience of combining mindfulness and organisational change insights, has developed several resources that people can use to assist their personal change processes or to facilitate the transition for others undergoing organisational change:

Wendy also provides a series of free and paid meditation podcasts on her website.

Reflection

I have been engaged in organisational change consultancy for over 40 years, and more recently undertaken extensive research and writing about mindfulness, as well as developing my own mindfulness practices, including meditation.  However, identifying a practical approach to combining the two related skill sets has alluded me to date.  Wendy, through her experience of a personal health crisis, has been able to introduce a very effective, evidence-based approach to using mindfulness to help people transition through organisational change processes.  She has been able to demonstrate that as we grow in mindfulness we can become more aware of our personal response to an organisational change, develop an increased understanding of the nature of that response, increase our acceptance of our changing reality and gradually build a commitment to shaping our future in a positive and constructive way.  Her work resonates with the insights and approach of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as well as that of Susan David who focuses on using mindfulness to develop “emotional agility”.

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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.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Providing A Choice of Anchors

David Treleaven recently published a book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness. The book enables mindfulness trainers to recognise a trauma-affected individual, provide appropriate modifications to their mindfulness processes and avoid aggravating the individual’s trauma experience.

David argues that two factors are foundational to trauma-sensitive mindfulness, (1) choice and (2) anchors.  He observes that people who are trauma-affected have experienced an unwanted negative event that endangered them, a total loss of control over the situation and a lack of agency (capacity to influence the outcomes).  Providing choice, especially in relation to anchors, is critical for the welfare of the trauma-affected individual – it avoids reactivating the sense of helplessness associated with the traumatic event and reduces the likelihood of triggering a painful “body memory”.

Providing a choice of anchors – internal sensations

An anchor enables an individual to become grounded in the present moment despite being buffeted by distractions, negative self-stories or endless thoughts.  The choice of an anchor is a very personal aspect of mindfulness – it relates to an individual’s preferences, physical capacity and emotional state.  An anchor enables a person to experience ease and emotional stability.

Jessica Morey, an experienced teacher of trauma-sensitive meditation, begins a meditation training session by offering participants a choice of three internally-focused anchors – a bodily sensation, attention to sound within their immediate environment (e.g. the “room tone”) or a breath sensation (air moving through the nostrils, abdomen rising and falling or movement of the chest).

Participants are given the opportunity to try out these different anchors over a five-minute period and to make a choice of an anchor for practice over a further period.  Providing this choice of anchors avoids locking individuals into a mindfulness process that can act as a trigger for reexperiencing trauma, e.g. sustained focus on breathing.

Alternative anchors – external sensing

David notes that the five senses offer further choices of anchors – in addition to the internally focused anchors suggested by Jessica.  The senses enable a participant in meditation training to focus on some aspect of their external environment:

  • Hearing – tuning in to the external sounds such as birds singing, the wind blowing or traffic flowing past.  The downside of this approach is that it may trigger our innate tendency to interpret sounds and this may lead to focusing on a particular sound – trying to identify it and its potential source. So, this may serve as a distraction pulling us away from experiencing (the “being” mode) to explaining (the “thinking” mode).  The aim here is to pay attention to the experience of hearing, not to focus on a single sound. Sam Himelstein has found that listening to music can be a very effective anchor for a person who is in a highly traumatised state – choosing music that aligns with the individual’s musical preferences can serve as a powerful anchor.
  • Touch – a trauma-affected person could have an object, e.g. a crystal or a stone, that provides comfort and reassurance and enables them to become grounded in the present moment through the sensation of touch.
  • Seeing – taking in the natural surroundings, e.g. by observing closely the foliage of a tree – its colours, shape and texture or observing the patterns in the clouds.

Other options include sensations of smell or taste.  However, in my view, these tend to be less neutral in character and can re-traumatise a trauma-affected person.

David Treleaven offers a wide range of resources to help meditation trainers build their awareness, skills and options in the area of trauma-sensitive mindfulness (TSM).  These include an online training course, interview podcasts, a TSM Starter Kit (incorporating an introductory video and a comprehensive “TSM Solutions Checklist”) and a live meetup of the TSM Community (registered members of a community of TSM-aware practitioners).

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, research and reflection, we can become more flexible about how we offer mindfulness training.  A trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness requires an awareness of the manifestations of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), identification of different sources of anchors and the willingness and capacity to offer participants the choice of an anchor and an approach to mindfulness.  This means that we need to move beyond our own fixation with “meditation logistics” and be flexible enough to offer trauma-informed mindfulness practices.

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Image – Trees on the foreshore, Wynnum, Brisbane

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Understanding Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

David Treleaven, through his doctoral dissertation and subsequent book, has raised awareness globally about the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  His book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, identifies three myths about mindfulness and trauma, discusses research-based case studies and offers clear options for the way forward.  His work is so critical to the teaching of mindfulness that Brown University has sought to integrate his work and findings into their Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute is exploring integration of David’s approach into their Mindful Leadership program.

Trauma and mindfulness

Trauma is described as “the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event”.  Many organisations and trainers/consultants/psychologists offer services, strategies and programs for trauma sufferers. Beyond Blue, for example, offers coping strategies and ways that friends and relatives can help someone close to them who is suffering from a traumatic event.

Mindfulness has become acknowledged as an effective way to deal with trauma.  For example, Boyd, Lanius and McKinnon (2018) concluded from a review of the relevant literature that mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches are effective in reducing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   They suggested that reduction in shame and self-blame could be key explanations of the efficacy of mindfulness-based approaches to PTSD.

David, however, warns that there are potential difficulties in using a mindfulness approach if practitioners are not sensitive to the interplay between mindfulness practices, beliefs about the universal efficacy of mindfulness and related messaging.  He points out that most people will experience at least one traumatic event in their life. So, in any one room of meditation participants, there is likely to be one or more people who are experiencing trauma in their lives.

David dedicates his life to making people aware of the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness through his book, videos, podcasts and workshops. He articulates his concerns about a lack of sensitivity to this issue amongst meditation teachers by identifying three “myths” about mindfulness and trauma that can potentially create harm for trauma sufferers.

Three myths about mindfulness and trauma

David’s research with trauma sufferers and practitioners in the field working with people who have experienced trauma, has led him to identify three “myths” (widely held false beliefs) that impede effective and safe use of mindfulness approaches. The myths are powerful determinants of the behaviour of mindfulness teachers:

  • Universality – David describes this myth as “one size fits all”.  However, David’s experience is that for some people who have experienced trauma, meditation can activate trauma stimuli so that the person re-experiences trauma.  As Peter Devine comments, “The nervous system can’t tell the difference between that [reliving the trauma] and the original trauma”.
  • Certainty – this myth relates to the assumption by meditation teachers that they will know when a person has experienced (or is currently experiencing) trauma.  David cites a case of a very experienced meditation teacher who failed to pick up the cues that some of his trainees were trauma sufferers.  He maintains that there are some very subtle non-verbal cues that can signal the existence of trauma, but it requires sensitised awareness to detect them.  He suggests that two major impediments that get in the road of someone openly disclosing their experience of trauma are (1) feelings of shame and (2) compliance (felt need to conform to an authority figure).
  • Neutrality – the myth that breath is always neutral, with no emotive content.  David recounts the experience of one person who was traumatised by a violent parent when a child.  Focusing on his breath “reconnected with the need to hide”, caused him to re-live his trauma and led to increased anxiety.  So, instead of being a calming anchor, mindful breathing acted as a trauma stimulus.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: some strategies

David provides considerable detail, explanation and case illustrations of these myths in his book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and in a video presentation on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, which was a promotional webinar for his course for practitioners on recognising trauma, responding to trauma and preventing the re-living of trauma during mindfulness practice.

In the video mentioned above, David suggests a range of strategies that address the limitations and potential damaging effects of the three myths:

  • Develop awareness about possible difficulties for people during mindfulness practices
  • Increase knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the signs of trauma
  • Provide space for people to experience different aspects of mindfulness practice and be ready to make modifications after asking, “What would work for you?”
  • Acknowledge at the outset that some people may have a very different experience to the calming effects of mindfulness meditation
  • Offer the opportunity for participants to approach you privately to have a conversation about their experience
  • Don’t reinforce the “shoulds” of mindfulness experience, e.g. avoid saying, “you should experience calm and peace”
  • Avoid “close and sustained attention to breath” as this may be a stimulus for re-experiencing trauma
  • Offer a range of options for people to practice mindfulness so that they can choose their own anchor for paying attention, e.g. breath, sounds, the sensation of the feet on the floor, feeling of the body on the chair or fingers touching each other.  According to David, Paula Ramirez, a Director of Breathe International, maintains that this choice of options gives participants a sense of agency (the opposite of a loss of control).

As we grow in mindfulness through our own meditation, research and reflection, we can become more sensitive to the needs of people who have suffered (or are suffering) trauma; be better able to respond to their needs; and also learn to adopt strategies that avoid re-traumatising participants in mindfulness training groups.

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Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Reasons Why Meaningless Values Lead to Depression

In the previous post I explored Johann Hari’s discussion of the research demonstrating that disconnection from meaningful values – expressed as obsession with materialism – leads to depression and anxiety. In this post I will explore the reasons why this occurs. 

Four reasons why meaningless values lead to depression

In identifying why materialism leads to depression, Johann draws on the research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser and his colleague, Professor Richard Ryan, one of the acknowledged world leaders in understanding human motivation.  Based on their work and his own research, Johann identifies four main reasons for the consuming sadness experienced by people who relentlessly pursue materialistic values that focus on extrinsic rewards (Lost Connections, pp. 97-99).

1. Damages relations with other people

The research shows that people who primarily pursue materialistic values experience “shorter relationships” that are of lesser quality than their peers who focus more on intrinsic values.  Materialistic-oriented people are more concerned about superficial things such as another person’s looks, their ability to impress others and their material possessions, than they are about the innate qualities of the person.  Their focus on external qualities makes it more likely to end a relationship because they invariably find someone who possesses these external qualities to a greater degree.  Their self-absorption also means that their partner in a relationship is also more likely to separate from them.  People who are out to impress others as their major motivator are very poor at reflective listening as they are more likely to interrupt and divert a conversation so that the focus is on them and their accomplishments.  Listening is the lifeblood of a sustainable relationship and has profound effects on the its quality.

2. Deprives them of the joy of being in the present moment

Because a materialistic person is always seeking more or pursuing an elusive goal over which they have no control, they are more likely to be frequently frustrated and disappointed.  They tend to be driven and impatient in the pursuit of their external goals and they experience time-pressures continuously. It is difficult for them to be fully engaged in the present moment and to experience the joy that derives from present awareness.  The researchers point out, too, that the pursuit of materialistic values results in the inability to experience “flow states” – being in the zone where you are hyper-focused and highly creative and productive. 

3. Become dependent on how other people think of them

Other’s opinions become the driver for the materialistic person’s words and actions.  They seek to gain positive assessment by others of their looks, their possessions (e.g. clothes and cars) and their income and social standing.  They tend to pursue relationships for what they can get out of them in terms of extrinsic rewards.  They can never be satisfied and often engage in attempts to outdo others.  The researchers point out that materialistic-oriented people are also more sensitive to feeling slighted, even when no slight is intended – because of their sensitivity to others’ opinions, they can more easily feel criticised and be hurt by seemingly harmless comments.  This can result in their being “on edge” all the time when with other people.  Their sense of self-worth becomes “contingent on the opinion of others” which, in turn, can lead to negative self-evaluation and self-deprecation.

4. Frustrates innate human needs

Tim Kasser observed that a core reason why materialism leads to depression is that it ultimately frustrates a person’s innate needs – needs such as the desire for meaningful connection with others; realising a sense of competence in their endeavours; a sense of autonomy and being in-control; and wanting to do, and achieve, something meaningful in their lives.  Depression and anxiety will grow over time when these real, innate human needs are not met.

We can choose how we spend our time and energy

Johann observes that time is limited and that our day is like a pie with defined parameters.  The way we carve up our day – how we allocate our time to aspects of our life – will significantly affect whether we realise joy and happiness or depression and anxiety.  If we can align the way we spend our time to the pursuit of meaningful values, we can experience mentally healthy states of positivity, joy, happiness and gratitude. The more time we spend on materialistic goals, the lower will be our “personal well-being”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we are better able to notice the impact that the pursuit of materialistic values has on our quality of life – our relationships, our joy, our sense of self-worth.  We will have a clearer idea of how well we meet our innate needs and how we can improve on their fulfillment.  Importantly, we will better understand the sources of our frustration and anger and be able to improve our self-regulation.  By developing mindfulness, we will more often experience the joy of being in the zone – of experiencing “flow states”.

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Image by KarinKarin from Pixabay

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.