Curiosity and Compassion Towards a Family Member

Mitra Manesh, meditation teacher and founder of the mindfulness app Innermap, offers a guided meditation titled Curiosity and Compassion in the Family.  The focus of this meditation is as much about self-compassion as it is about compassion towards family members.  Like other guided meditations offered through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), Mitra’s meditation has a brief input but the 30-minute meditation podcast is primarily a meditation practice.  It progresses from a grounding exercise, through to an input on the challenge presented by family members, followed by two compassion exercises – one towards yourself, the other towards a family member.

Mitra defines mindfulness as “kind acceptance and awareness of our present moment experience”.  Underlying this approach is compassion (self-compassion and compassion towards others) and curiosity (the catalyst for awareness).

Becoming grounded – arriving at the meditation

Mitra encourages you to first find a position and posture that is comfortable and that will enable you to become grounded.  By bringing your attention to your intention for the meditation, you can physically and mentally arrive at the meditation.   You can start with some deep breaths followed by resting in your breathing.  Mitra suggests that you then scan your body to locate points where you experience comfort – allowing yourself to pay attention to the warmth, tingling or other pleasant sensation.  Invariably your mind will notice points of pain or discomfort – again bring your attention to each of these points and release the tension at that point, allowing yourself a sense of ease and relaxation.

At this stage, focusing on an anchor will help to maintain your groundedness as distracting thoughts will invariably intrude into your process of releasing and relaxing – bringing new tensions such as a sense of time urgency or the need to plan for tasks to be done.  Mitra suggests that you tell yourself that you don’t have to be anywhere else or to do anything else during the 30 minutes of this guided meditation.  The anchor can be a sound – internal such as the air conditioning or external such as the sound of birds.  It can be your breathing – returning to rest in the interval between your in-breath and your out-breath.  Whatever you do, don’t beat up on yourself for these distractions.

Family – a challenging environment

Mitra reminds us that meditation practice is designed to assist us to lead our day-to-day lives mindfully.  One of the most challenging arenas for mindful practice is the family – individual family members can be particularly challenging because of their personality, mental illness, life stresses or a multitude of other factors.  Even very experienced meditators find some family members to be particularly challenging.

One of the problems is that family members become too familiar – we have seen them often and we think we know them, understand them and can predict their behaviour.  However, the presumption of knowledge can result in a lack of curiosity and desire to understand – it can lead to hasty judgments and a lack of compassion. 

Curiosity, on the other hand, will lead us to understand the nature of the mental illness suffered by a family member.  We might presume we know about depression and how it plays out in their lives and yet we can judge them as lazy when they spend most of their day sleeping and continuously leave their room and surrounds in an absolute mess.  If we explore the nature of their illness we might discover, for example, that they are suffering from the complexity of schizoaffective disorder which may involve the symptoms of schizophrenia along with manic depression – a complex mix of disabling conditions that can lead to compulsive shopping, impulsive action, constant depression and the inability to communicate about their depression or hallucinatory episodes.  So, not only are they disabled by depression, but they are also incapacitated by the inability to seek social support.  We might think we know and understand about the mental illness of a family member but the complexity of the arena of mental health would suggest that we have little insight.  If you have never experienced the black dog of depression, you are unlikely to have a real sense of the depth and breadth of its disabling character. 

Mitra encourages us to become “unfamiliar” with our family members and to become instead curious about them – “but compassionately so”.  This includes “showing them who you are” while encouraging them to show themselves.

A self-compassion meditation

Mitra provides a self-compassion meditation (at the 11th minute mark) following the discussion of the family as the “most charged” arena of our lives.  Accordingly, she suggests beginning with a deep breath to release any tensions that may have accumulated during the discussion of family challenges.

She asks you to consider how your posture and breathing would be different if you were adopting a “compassionate curiosity” towards yourself. This compassionate curiosity, a sense of wonder, can be extended to curiosity about your bodily tensions and your feelings.  Are you feeling anxiety about a family member’s depression? Is your body tense, or your mind agitated or are you carrying feelings of resentment along with the bodily manifestations of this abiding anger?

What happens to your mind’s chatter and your body’s sensations when you extend forgiveness and compassion towards yourself for your self-absorption, hasty judgements, lack of understanding and self-satisfaction with “knowing” the other person.  Can you let go of all your self-stories and beliefs that block this self-compassion?  Compassionate curiosity enables you, ultimately, to rest in self-acceptance

You can ask yourself what you are needing and feeling at this point in the meditation and ask for the fulfillment of your needs as you touch your heart and feel the warmth therein. Mitra identifies some needs that you may have, including the need to forgive yourself for all the mistakes that you have made in your interactions with family members.

Compassion towards a family member

At the 28-minute mark of the guided meditation, Mitra suggests you focus on a family member, following your self-compassion meditation.  You could bring your attention to a family member with whom you have had a disturbing interaction.  Its important to bring that chosen person fully into focus.

You can request that you change your relationship to them, for, example, “May I be curious about you to understand you and to prevent myself from forming hasty judgments about you?”; “May I be genuinely compassionate towards you?”

Mitra suggests that you frame your request in terms of a single word that you can revisit from time to time, e.g. “understanding”.  The request could be framed as, “May I understand you and you understand me”.  Your compassionate curiosity will enable you to show yourself and your genuineness.

As we grow in mindfulness, through self-compassion meditation and extending compassion towards a family member, we can develop our compassionate curiosity towards ourselves and them and deepen our understanding and acceptance of them and ourselves.

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Image by MorningbirdPhoto 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.

How Can We Manage When Our Daughter or Son is in Pain?


Susan Piver
, Creator of the Open Heart Project, addresses this question in response to an inquiry from one of her many followers. The danger when someone very close to us is suffering, is that we are tempted to take on their pain, to be so empathetic that we treat their suffering as if it is our own.

This identification with the sufferer was the very problem raised by Susan’s follower in relation to her daughter’s pain:

How do we prevent ourselves from hurting on behalf of the other person?…. Her pain feels like my pain, and makes me so upset and sad. 

Susan’s response is given by way of a brief input and a guided meditation. She asserts that you cannot prevent yourself from feeling the pain of someone close to you – to do so would stop you from feeling anything. You would effectively turn off your feelings to protect yourself but in the process destroy what makes us essentially human – the capacity to feel and be compassionate.

The damaging effects of closing your heart to pain

Susan uses the analogy of a gate which has two positions – open and closed. So our heart, or our feeling with and for another, tends to be in one or other of these positions – either open hearted or closed. Susan deliberately called her life’s work the Open Heart Project because it is essentially designed to help people to open up to the full range of their experience – beauty and darkness, happiness and pain, freedom and restraint.

Susan paints a graphic picture of the difference between an open heart and one that is closed by describing the difference as that “between awake and asleep, alive and numb, present and deluded”. She suggests, however, that you cannot just be totally identified with the other person’s pain – you have to be able to achieve a separation from the other’s suffering – not own the suffering of another. Richard Davidson describes this capacity as “social cognition” which his research into the science of compassion demonstrates is essential for the “balance and welfare” of the person observing the suffering.

Susan cautions that we need to be conscious of the “toll” that feeling for another’s suffering has on ourselves. In her view, shutting off our own pain to protect our self is really self-damaging because it numbs us. The way forward is to feel the pain but actively engage in genuine self-care, whatever form that can take for you personally (this could involve exercise, yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, prayer, time with family and/or friends, accessing social/professional support or a combination of these).

Managing through compassion meditation

One of the benefits of being able to manage the pain you experience when your daughter or son is suffering is that it lays the foundation, or “pathway” as Susan describes it, to genuine compassion for others. This capacity for genuine compassion can be further developed through different forms of compassion meditation. Daniel Goleman and his neuroscience colleagues have demonstrated through research that compassion meditation develops in people an “altered trait” that is evidenced through increased kindness and generosity.

Compassion meditation, often described as loving kindness meditation, frequently begins with extending kind thoughts to someone close to you, progressing to an acquaintance, to someone you have heard about or a group of people experiencing some form of suffering and finally taking in someone you find difficult. This expanding expression of compassion can be underpinned by self-compassion meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly aware of, and sensitive to, the pain and suffering of those close to us. If we shut off these empathetic feelings, we can numb ourselves to the full range of human experience and prevent ourselves from expressing our feelings. Active self-care is essential to manage the personal toll of being empathetic and maintaining an open heart. Compassion meditation can build our capacity to sustain compassionate action not only for those closest to us but to everyone, whether we like them or not.

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Image by Gerd Altmann 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.

Introducing Compassion into Leadership Development

In the previous post, I discussed the approach of YMCA of USA on how to build mindfulness into leadership development. The principles and strategies for the implementation of this change revolved around a core tenet of patience – moving gradually to insert mindfulness into existing leadership development programs. Wendy Saunders who has focused on compassion for many years identified the cultivation of compassion in the organisation as a more complex change process with some different challenges. This is despite the fact that YMCA is focused on compassionate action within the community and is totally dedicated to diversity and inclusion.

Most organisations today recognise the need for diversity and inclusion. While much progress has been achieved in creating diversity in workplaces, the real challenge has been translating that into compassionate action through conscious inclusion strategies and actions. YMCA of USA recognises that the nature of their organisation’s focus and their worldwide reach makes diversity and inclusion paramount. Their strong commitment in the area is reflected in conscious inclusion practices, including having a “supplier diversity program”.

What are the challenges in embedding compassion into leadership development?

Despite the focus of the YMCA of USA on compassionate action (as the reason for its existence), Wendy found that there were real challenges to integrating compassion into leadership development in the organisation:

  • some staff believed that there was no place for compassion in the workplace – a strong task and outcomes focus challenged the desirability of compassion (a people-focused activity). Resource constraints and the ever-increasing need for YMCA services would cement this belief.
  • others experienced “cognitive dissonance” resulting from what they perceived as decisions and actions by the organisation that were lacking in compassion, e.g. laying off staff.

The concept of compassionate love, the title of Wendy’s personal website, is often viewed as “touchy feely” – an arena where feelings and emotions are more openly expressed to the discomfort of others. Feelings and emotions are often suppressed in the workplace and people have real difficulty openly discussing them – particularly, not wanting to be seen as “soft”. However, the reality is that it takes real courage to show compassion.

Introducing compassion into leadership development

Wendy suggests that, given the nature of the challenges to embedding compassion into leadership development, a central strategy has to be introducing compassion through “conversation and dialogue”. She indicated that at a YMCA retreat attended by 400 people, most people expressed the desire for “more compassion in the workplace”.

Besides making compassion a part of the conversation and dialogue, other strategies include storytelling (making people aware of compassionate action taken by others), discussing the benefits of compassion and the neuroscience supporting it and helping leaders to be aware of the ways to model compassion in the workplace, such as:

  • the way they “see and treat” people in the workplace – overcoming basic attribution errors, including where they judge themselves by their intentions and others by their actions. Associated with this is the need to avoid ascribing a negative label to a person because of a single act or omission on their part
  • being aware of the suffering of others and taking action to redress the suffering e.g. constructive action to support someone experiencing a mental health issue, taking action to overcome a toxic work environment or being ready to explore the factors (external and internal) that may be affecting the work performance of a staff member
  • actively working on addressing their own “unconscious bias” and blind spots that potentially result in decisions that unknowingly cause unnecessary suffering for others
  • providing opportunities to practice compassion meditation and group activities to support meditation practices.

Resourcing compassion in the workplace

Wendy stressed the need to provide resources on compassion to help build the knowledge base of the leaders in the organisation and to engender a commitment beyond a single individual such as the CEO (who can change frequently). Resources include courses, books, videos, podcasts, research articles and presentations/workshops by experts in compassion. She recommended books such as The Mind of the Leader and Awakening Compassion at Work and highlighted the resources on compassion available on her own website.

Wendy also recommends a course that she participated in that really stimulated her longstanding interest in compassion – CBCT (Cognitively-Based Compassion Training) conducted by Emory University. She is continuing her own studies by completing an Executive Masters in Positive Leadership and Strategy. Her thesis will address approaches to compassionate reorganisation and the evidence in terms of positive outcomes for individuals and the organisations involved.

As leaders grow in mindfulness through integration of mindfulness into leadership development, they will be developing the awareness that provides the impetus for compassion. Providing specific strategies to engender compassion in the workplace, such as introducing and supporting compassion meditation, will enable leaders to model compassionate action for others.

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Image by TheDigitalArtist 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.

Understanding the Science of Compassion

In her presentation on The Science of Compassion during the Mindful Healthcare Summit, Kelly McGonigal highlighted the body-mind impact of compassion and compassion training. Over the past 10 years she has worked with the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in the capacities of researcher and educator. Kelly was a co-author of the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training [CCT] and has undertaken research into its impacts on mind and body.

The mind-body effects of compassion training

The research undertaken by Kelly and her colleagues highlights the effects of compassion training on the mind and body. Kelly summarised these effects as follows:

  1. The process of compassion starts in the primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, which registers a form of “sympathetic stress”, experienced by the observing individual as sadness or suffering. At this stage a person can become overwhelmed, particularly where they become too identified with the person who they perceive as suffering in some way, e.g. through grief, chronic physical illness, relationship breakdown or mental illness. The person who is experiencing overwhelm may adopt flight behaviour by distancing themselves (mentally and/or physically).
  2. The next stage involves the pre-frontal cortex and other parts of the “midline structure of the brain”. Here the sympathetic sufferer, through a process of “social cognition”, can separate themselves from the perceived sufferer. They recognise the suffering of the “other” and understand that they have a relationship to that person (as part of humanity) but are quite distinct from that other person – they don’t take the suffering on-board or “own the suffering” of the other person. This ability to achieve separation mentally is critical for the balance and welfare of the observer and is foundational to their willingness and ability to act to relieve the suffering of others. Without this balance, the observer may experience what Richard Davidson described as “empathy fatigue”.
  3. When we actually take compassionate action to relieve the suffering of another, we experience the “reward system” – our brain releases dopamine which make us feel good, hopeful and courageous. It thus serves to strengthen our motivation to redress the suffering of others. It activates “the approach motivation system of the brain” – motivating us to act on environments that we experience as unjust or toxic.

As we grow in mindfulness through compassion meditation and compassion training, and take action to redress the suffering of others, we can experience an increasing capacity for compassionate action and strengthening motivation to act on unjust or toxic environments.

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Image by Gerd Altmann 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 at Work

David Allan maintains that the best place to meditate is at work.  In part, this is because it is often in a work situation that you need to be calm and have a clear mind.  The cost of being frazzled at work is not only lost time through inability to focus but also lost creativity through inability to access the “spaciousness” of your mind.  You need to calm the busyness of your mind to access this creativity.

It is also very true that we spend so much of our time at work that a large part of our day (more than a third) is consumed with thinking and doing, not just being present.  This means, too, that we are not taking the opportunity to access the full benefits of our mindfulness practice developed elsewhere on a daily basis.

David Allan found that he was able to book a relatively underutilised room for 15 minutes a day to enable him to undertake some form of meditation at work on a daily basis.  He found that this short period of conscious mindfulness practice created real productivity benefits throughout his day and served to break the work stress cycle.

Ways to be mindful at work

In a comprehensive article, Shamash Alidina suggests ten ways to be more mindful at work.  I have identified four of these suggestions below that are readily implementable:

  1. Intent to be consciously present – this entails beginning your work day with the clear intent to be present as often as you can.  This intent extends to controlling your thoughts when on-task, maintaining focus even on mundane tasks, working a little slower when the opportunity presents (e.g. after a rush to meet a deadline) and reminding yourself of the very clear benefits for work and life offered by mindfulness.
  2. Use brief mindfulness exercises – there are many opportunities throughout the working day to engage in brief mindfulness exercises.  These could entail open awareness, awareness of our senses, mindful walking or a short compassion meditation.  Sometimes in the workplace we need to engage in a brief self-compassion meditation, instead of beating up on ourselves for a mistake or for unconsciously hurting someone else with our words  or actions.
  3. Overcome the temptation of multitasking – this means consciously avoiding distactions (such as checking social media or the news every few minutes), staying focused on a single task at a time and organising your day where possible so that you can do like tasks together.
  4. Use reminders of the need for mindfulness – Shamash has some detailed strategies here that are very helpful.  Some of these entail linking a work activity to a mindfulness practice, e.g. when the phone rings, taking a deep breath and reminding yourself to be fully present to the caller.   Gradually, with regular practice, these reminders can immediately elicit mindfulness.  Some people may find a mindfulness app an appropriate reminder or an aid to mindfulness at work.
Further ways to be mindful at work

Eckhart Tolle in his talk to Google staff suggested ways that they could be mindful at work, including mindful breathing at their workstation.  Another mindfulness practice that can be employed at your desk is to occasionally focus on physically grounding yourself by ensuring that your feet are flat on the floor and your legs and back are straight.   This can be combined with mindful breathing.  If you are facilitating a workshop you could practise mindfulness through a brief loving kindness meditation directed towards one individual who may be struggling or towards the whole participant group.

Grow in mindfulness at work

If we want to grow in mindfulness through our behaviour at work, we need the strong intent to make the most of the opportunities for mindfulness that work presents.  Regular practice of mindfulness elsewhere will help to build this intent as well as consciousness of the opportunities for mindfulness at work.  Starting small with a single mindfulness practice maintained over three weeks will mean that the practice, such as mindful walking, will become embedded in your daily routine.  You can progressively expand these focused practices so that you become unconsciously competent at utilising opportunities for mindfulness at work.

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

Image source: courtesy of FirmBee 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.

Compassion Meditation

Sometimes it is difficult to show compassion when we are suffering or in pain ourselves.  When we experience pain, particularly if it is intense and/or constant, we tend to become self-absorbed.  A lot of our attention, energy and focus go into managing the pain whether by distraction or different forms of alleviation such as painkillers, acupuncture or somatic meditation.

What we then tend to overlook is that there is “pain in the room”.  No matter what we are doing with or for others, such as sitting in a hospital waiting room or conducting a workshop, there are always people in the room who are suffering physically or otherwise.  We do not know what pain people are carrying – we can be fairly confident that suffering and pain exist in the room as it is part of the human condition.

Interestingly, neuroscience increasingly confirms that, with both animals and people, compassion for others is a basic, natural inclination.  In contrast, it seems that self-compassion does not come naturally.  This is explained, in part, by the fact that our brains have a negative bias as a self-protection mechanism.  This safety bias plays out through our amygdala, the most primitive part of our brain.  As we experience life, this negative bias gets reflected in our negative thoughts which means that we are often self-critical and “hard on ourselves”.

So self-absorption, because of our own pain and suffering or through dealing with negative thoughts,  means that our natural inclination to demonstrate compassion to others is suppressed or blocked out.

This is why loving kindness and compassion meditation has a role to play in our lives.  In presenting a series of loving kindness and compassion meditations during the Mindfulness and Meditation Summit, Sharon Salzberg offered a series of meditations, each with a different focus.  The  meditations included loving kindness for a struggling friend, a difficult person, a benefactor and for a group.  These are all designed to take us outside of ourselves and sensitize us to the thoughts and feelings of others.

Daniel Goleman, in his recent co-authored book, identifies compassion as an “altered trait” – a sustained trait resulting from loving kindness and compassion meditation.  The authors contend that neuroscience consistently confirms that compassion meditation results in increased kindness and generosity, even with beginner meditators.

As we grow in mindfulness through compassion meditation, we are more able to move beyond self-centred preoccupation in our thoughts and actions, and manifest real kindness and compassion towards others.

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

Image source: courtesy of jia3ep on Pixabay

Compassion and Neuroscience

In her presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Kelly McGonigal discussed The Neuroscience of Compassion.  Kelly is the author of The Science of Compassion and The Upside of Stress.

Kelly maintains that for compassion to be realised and sustained, the following six conditions must be present:

  1. awareness and recognition of suffering
  2. feeling of concern for, and connection to, the one who is suffering
  3. desire to relieve suffering
  4. belief that you can make a difference
  5. willingness to respond or take action
  6. warm glow/sense of satisfaction

She spoke about how compassion unfolds in the body, a mind-body state that has been verified by neuroscience.  Throughout her presentation she drew heavily on a neuroscience model of compassion developed by Ashar, Andrews-Hanna, Dimidjian & Wager (2016).  This systems-based model of the brain shows how the core functions of compassion are manifest in different parts of the brain, and each function can activate multiple parts of the brain simultaneously.

The three core functions identified in the neuroscience model of compassion are:

  1. Social cognition
  2. Visceral/emotional empathy
  3. Reward motivation

Social cognition has to do with the cognitive aspect of our social interactions – in other words, “how people process, store, and apply information about other people and social situations”.  Visceral/emotional empathy, on the other hand, is the emotional response generated in us when we connect with, or feel concern for, someone who is suffering.  Reward motivation relates to the personal, intrinsic satisfaction – warm inner glow – experienced when we are compassionate (which serves as a motivator of compassion).

Kelly maintains that all three brain functions have to be present, and effective, for sustainable compassion towards others and they need to be in balance.

For example, what potentially impedes effective social cognition is “dehumanization” of the observed individuals as a result of “unconscious bias” influencing our perception of others who differ in race, age or gender, or even in the sporting team they support.  Kelly reports, as did Dr. Richie Davidson, that meditation practices – such as loving-kindness and compassion meditation – can reduce such implicit bias and provide a more balanced social cognition that is not blind to the suffering and needs of a particular group.

Visceral/emotional empathy has to be balanced with reward motivation that can occur with compassionate action.  Kelly reports research that shows that if people are trained in empathetic meditation, without experiencing the reward component of compassion, they can potentially experience “empathetic distress”- a form of emotional overload resulting, in part, from too close an identification with the sufferer without the reward relief experienced through compassionate action.

This last imbalance resulting in “empathetic distress” has been observed in people in helping roles in difficult situations, e.g. war arenas.  Where helpers do not experience, or stop experiencing, the intrinsic rewards of compassionate action, they are prone to “burnout”.  Burnout occurs when we exhaust our reserve energies as a result of trying to close the gap between effort and intrinsic reward, in other words, we start working harder and harder for less and less positive outcome – we perceive that we are ceasing to make a difference.  Research has been shown that for sustainable compassionate action in these difficult arenas, helpers need to experience “reward motivation” – the intrinsic satisfaction sometimes experienced as  a warm inner glow.

Another important insight from neuroscience mentioned by Kelly is that we do not need to have self-compassion to be compassionate towards others.  Increasingly, compassion towards others is seen as an innate human capacity.  On the other hand, we seem to create all kinds of barriers to self-compassion such as fear, anxiety or anger.   Kelly maintains that the biggest barrier to self-compassion is the absence of the reward satisfaction when people feel the suffering of others, but do not experience the warm glow from taking action that makes a difference to someone’s suffering.

In summary, as we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness and compassionate meditation, we can reduce our unconscious biases, free ourselves from the inertia of “empathetic distress” and open our minds and bodies to compassionate action resulting in reward motivation that will sustain that compassion over time.

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

Image source: Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay