Mindfulness Practices to Develop Mental Health and Wellbeing

In these times of uncertainty and anxiety, mindfulness meditation can be an effective way to restore balance to our mental and emotional state.  These structured approaches can be readily reinforced by mindfulness practices that are more flexible and adaptable to our personal circumstances and preferences. 

Through mindfulness practices embedded in our daily life and routine, we can progressively achieve the situation where mindfulness is not just something we do, but the way we are in the world.  This enables us to show up in a mindful and compassionate way and have a positive influence on the people we interact with in our daily life.

Mindfulness practices that you can use to develop mental health and wellbeing

There are a wide range of mindfulness practices described in this blog and in other mindfulness resources.  Some of these could prove useful for you in this time of stress and uncertainty:

  • Mindful walking – consciously walking slowly and being aware of the pressure of your toes and soles on the ground.  There are a range of videos on mindful walking on YouTube©.
  • Mindful eating – eating slowly while being conscious of presentation (how it looks), taste, texture, aroma and touch.
  • Engaging with nature – Nature is a proven source of emotional healing and mental health.  There are a number of ways to experience the benefits of nature.
  • Exercising – There are endless books and articles on the benefits of exercise, and it is considered one of the antidotes for depression.  Some people prefer yoga as their form of exercise and Jill Satterfield has her own YouTube© Channel dedicated to ways to combine yoga with somatic awareness. 
  • Tai Chi – often called “mindfulness-in-action”.  Harvard Medical School recently published the results of extensive research into the benefits of Tai Chi and provided an explanation and exercises for each benefit in its publication, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.  The benefits of Tai Chi include less stress, a healthier heart, positive mood and a clearer mind as well as better balance and coordination and reduced physical pain.
  • Taking compassionate action – going beyond self-absorption to helping others in need.  An interesting new development is the Adopt a Grandparent Campaign (given the increased isolation of the elderly because of the Coronavirus).  Taking compassionate action can have numerous forms and is limited only by your awareness and creativity.  Compassionate action includes being aware of, and communicating with, a friend or family member who may be experiencing loneliness.
  • Use waiting time to develop awareness – our typical default when we have to wait for something is to grab for our phone.  We could use waiting time instead to develop our natural awareness.
  • Expressing gratitude – neuroscience has shown the benefits of gratitude for mental health and wellbeing, not only for the recipient of the expression of appreciation but also the giver.  However, you don’t even have to express appreciation to others to gain a health benefit from being grateful.  There are many ways to develop gratitude and reap its benefits.
  • Tuning into sounds – you can adopt a natural awareness approach by tuning into sounds around you (both your immediate surrounds and your external environment).  Alternatively, you can be more goal-focused in your awareness, e.g. focusing on the “room tone”.
  • Establishing a mindfulness reminder – we can use something that occurs frequently throughout our day to be reminded of the need to be mindful.   People have used a wide range of things as reminders, e.g. when the phone rings or when they boil the jug/make a cup of coffee, they take a few mindful breaths or steps.  All it takes, according to Chade-Meng Tan, author of Search Inside Yourself, is “one mindful breath a day”.

Create small habits to build sustainability

Clearly you can’t do it all and if you attempt to do too much, your new habit will not be sustainable.  Start small – Dr. V.J. Fogg suggests that you create tiny habits, breaking larger habits down to their “smallest accessible practice”.   Do something that fits with you personally – you don’t have to achieve what others are doing.  Be prepared to adopt a trial-and-error approach and change your habit(s) where appropriate – there is no one approach that suits everybody.

Building and maintaining a positive mindset

You can enhance your positive mindset by listening to presentations that are uplifting.  These can take the form of podcasts, videos or other sources of positively oriented communications.  TED Talks©, for example, offer “ideas worth sharing” and include inspirational stories, innovations and creative problem solving. 

There are numerous presenters who work in the mindfulness space and offer encouraging and supportive communications via videos and audio
podcasts.  One particular example that comes to mind is Dr. Jud Brewer who has commenced producing short 5-minute videos on his YouTube
Channel
© covering timely topics such as:

  • 5 simple habits for good mental hygiene
  • Using kindness to create connection during a crisis
  • Working with uncertainty
  • How to spread connection instead of contagion
  • How fear and uncertainty lead to anxiety.

One of Jud’s videos focuses on “how to stop compulsively checking the news”.  Even in the best of times, the news can be disturbing, disorienting and confusing, yet we are tempted to feast on the news.  Cilla Murphy, a teacher who has just experienced 7 weeks in lockdown in China offers a number of very important learnings from her experience and her advice about the news is:

Try not to listen to/read/watch too much media. It WILL drive you crazy. There is [such] a thing as too much!

Reflection

There are so many options in terms of mindfulness practices that can help us in times of uncertainty and anxiety.  We can become overwhelmed by the variety and endless choices.  The secret to habit change is to start small and maintain the new habit for a reasonable time (to test it and embed it in our daily life). 

One sustainable habit can lead to another…and another.  We should not be discouraged by the magnitude of the changes we need to make – we can chip away at them progressively with the aid of meditation and mindfulness practice.  It takes time to overcome our self-protective mechanisms if we are to achieve significant changes in our behaviour.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly self-aware, develop our focused intention and build resilience to overcome setbacks on the road to sustainable change.

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Image by RÜŞTÜ BOZKUŞ 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.

What Does Love Mean?

In a previous post I explored ways to sustain an intimate relationship.  But what does love mean?  We use the word so loosely – referring to everything from a dessert to a location to an intimate friend.  Mitra Manesh explores this question in her guided meditation podcast, Meaning of Love – one of the many weekly meditation podcasts from MARC, UCLA.  Mitra is a mindfulness teacher with MARC, creator of the Inner Map app and provider of mindfulness teaching through her short videos on Vimeo©.  She has worked extensively to bring mindfulness to the corporate world, combining Eastern and Western perspectives.

Guided meditation on the meaning of love

Mitra begins her guided meditation by suggesting that you first become grounded by using your hands as the anchor.  She suggests that you can focus on the pressure of your hands on your lap, the touching of your fingers together or the up and down movement of your hands on your stomach as you breath in and out.  Whatever hand anchor you choose, the idea is to gently bring your mind back to this anchor whenever your mind wanders. 

Once you have become grounded, you can explore “love as connection”.  Mitra’s guided meditation is based on the idea that the connection underpinning love occurs at four levels – the physical, intellectual, emotional and universal levels.  The meditation follows a progression from a focus on the physical to universal connectedness and incorporates connection to self (experiencing self-love):

  • Physical connection – here the initial focus is on a pleasant body sensation such as the warmth of your fingers touching, the softness of the palm of your hand or the firmness of your feet on the floor. Once you have experienced this pleasant bodily sensation, you can extend your focus to the recollection of the pleasantness of a physical connection to another person such as a hug or a kiss.  When you have achieved awareness of physical connection and experienced pleasant recollections, you can gently move on.
  • Intellectual connection – firstly focus on connecting to your own mind – what is going on in your head.  Mitra suggests that you envisage your thoughts as clouds coming and going, merging and dissipating – blown by the winds of change.  This is a pleasant change from other forms of meditation where you are discouraged from being distracted by your thoughts.  Here the idea is to notice what is going on in the process of your thinking – how one idea leads to another, how ideas connect you to past experiences and how ideas flow through you endlessly.  You can expand this intellectual focus to recollecting a recent experience where you felt a strong intellectual connection to a colleague, a family member or an intimate partner.  You can then move on to the next level of connection.
  • Emotional connection – this is the level we often associate with love, but genuine love operates at all levels.  Here you first focus on a pleasant emotion that you may be experiencing at this moment – enjoying the contentment, pleasure or happiness that arises through this mindful awareness.  If your current emotion is experienced as unpleasant, Mitra suggests that you look inside yourself to see what unfilled need is giving rise to this negative experience.  Again, if you wish to extend your sense of emotional connection to another person you can recollect a time when you were with someone, a friend or partner, where you had a real sense of emotional connection – whether the experience was one of joy, peace, safety, comfort or other positive feeling. 
  • Universal or spiritual connection – this is not an aspect that Mitra dwells on in her guided meditation.  However, we can focus on human connectedness and our connectedness to nature to gain a sense of the universality of our connection. 

Tara Brach, in her brief talk on the meaning of love, discusses the “aliveness of connection” and the translation of this universal connection into compassionate action.  To illustrate this connection to all living things, she tells the story of a prisoner who saved a pigeon from stoning by another prisoner by saying simply. “Don’t do that – that bird has my wings.”  Tara argues that radical compassion has all the elements of love including caring, forgiving and appreciating.  She illustrates the multiple meanings given to “love” by sharing stories of how 8 year old children described love. One child, for example, had this to say on the meaning of love:

When you tell someone something bad about yourself and you are frightened that they won’t love you anymore, but then you are surprised that they love you even more!

Reflection

Love has multiple levels and is expressed in many different ways. As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and compassionate action, we can learn to appreciate self-love and love for others that we experience at all levels – the physical, intellectual, emotional and universal levels.  The essence of love is connection and mindfulness practices can help us to better understand and enhance these connections.

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Image by Annie Spratt 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.

Creating a Positive Future in a Climate-Changed World

Diana Winston recently provided a meditation podcast entitled, Envisioning a Positive Future in Our World.  The podcast was timely given the devastating fires across Australia in the months preceding and following the presentation and the ongoing challenge of gaining control over fires that continue to rage.  Diana’s guided meditation was a part of the weekly podcasts offered by MARC, UCLA.  Diana emphasised the need to draw on mindfulness for strength and resilience, to envisage a better future and to collaborate to achieve a better world.

The immeasurable impact of the Australian bushfires

The devastating impact of the Australian bushfires and wildfires was brought into sharp relief by the ABC Four Corners© program, Black Summer, aired on 3rd February 2020.  The program incorporated video footage from various areas and stages of the fires along with discussions by people who had survived the fires and lost their homes and/or family members, firefighters who described what it was like to be in thick of the fires, evacuation centre volunteers and elected officials living in areas impacted by the fires. 

Michael Pengilly, Mayor of Kangaroo Island in South Australia, summed up the extent of the physical devastation when he said:

So far this bushfire season, almost 12 million hectares have burned.  At least a billion native animals have died.  More than 3,000 homes have been destroyed and 33 people have lost their lives.

He pointed out that there were still bushfires creating havoc across Australia at the time of the TV program. 

Firefighters and people who had lost their homes and loved ones spoke of the trauma resulting from the fires, the fear of losing their lives, the 48 hours of blackness and the suffocating smoke that burned into your throat and lungs.  Aaron Salway, who lost his father and brother in the bushfires, spoke of the immeasurable impact on themselves and children who have experienced and survived the fires:

This fire I’ll never forget.  I don’t think my kids will ever forget it. It’s something that’s going to be scarred into my brain.  I don’t ever want to see it again.

When you see pictures of 60 metre high flames; raging fires driven by gale force winds (in excess of 80 kph); exhausted firefighters who have just heard that two of their colleagues had died in a fire truck rollover caused by a fallen tree; and flying embers moving at high speed horizontal to the ground, you understand that the emotional scars are deep and very real. 

Some of the lessons from the Australian bushfires

The fires brought to the fore the courage and resilience of individuals and communities when confronted with a crisis of this scale.  One such inspiring example was that of members of a Muslim Community who travelled for five hours to cook for exhausted firefighters in East Gippsland in Victoria and arranged five truckloads of donated goods to be delivered to people in fire-affected communities.

The firefighters (many of whom were volunteers) who risked their lives, and in some cases lost their lives, showed incredible commitment to helping others to deal with the frightening challenge of the fires raging out of control.  

One of the key lessons of the fires was what people could achieve when they pulled together, pooled their resources, supported each other emotionally and concerned themselves with the safety of others.  The questions and answers during the video episode highlighted some other key lessons:

  • The climate-changed world is a “new normal”
  • Unless people of different political persuasions can pull together and collaborate, there is no way that the situation can be redressed and the prognosis for the future be improved
  • Leaders at every level need to move beyond petty differences and demonstrate true leadership – marshalling committed followers to work towards creating a positive future
  • Australia must find ways to tap into the indigenous knowledge of landscape management – learning about and respecting the environment and related ecosystems.

Tackling climate change as individuals

In introducing her podcast, Diana highlighted an article by Emma Morris in the New York Times on January 10, 2020.  In the article, titled  How to Stop Freaking Out and Tackle Climate Change, Emma provides a sound five-point plan that individuals can pursue to move beyond paralysis by fear to constructive engagement:

  1. Ditch the shame
  2. Focus on the systems, not yourself
  3. Join an effective group
  4. Define your role
  5. Know what you are fighting for, not just what you are fighting against.

The last point demands moving beyond blaming to collaborative endeavour.  Emma’s plan shows what individuals can do to create a positive future for their children and grandchildren.

Diana draws on this discussion to incorporate a visioning exercise in her guided meditation.  After an introductory period focused on becoming grounded, Diana suggests that people engaging in the meditation begin to envision what a renewed environment would look like in terms of flourishing trees, clean air, running water, clear skies, happy children, healthy and diverse wildlife, numerous birds and butterflies – a very different picture to one of darkened skies, dense and suffocating smoke, children distressed about their future environment, blackened trees and flora and burned/dead animals (many of them in danger of extinction).  Diana maintains that the future is ours to create.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can build our resilience; better appreciate our connectedness to others and our natural world; develop our motivation to collaborate and take compassionate action; overcome our biases and assumptions; and develop our personal role in helping to shape a positive future in our climate-changed world.

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Image by Johannes Plenio 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.

Developing Compassionate Action through Mindfulness and Listening to Personal Stories

Tara Brach recently spoke to Jon Kabat-Zinn on the theme of How Mindfulness Can Heal the World.  This discussion took place as part of the online Radical Compassion Challenge held over ten days in January 2020.  Jon’s central theme was that that it is not enough “to sit on the cushion” and meditate at a time when the world is experiencing such suffering, injustice, racial divisions and hatred; the challenge is to take compassionate action, activated by our growing awareness of our own reality and that of the world around us developed through mindfulness.

Many doors to one room

Jon argued that there are “many doors to the one room” – not only in terms of how we deal with the “agitation” we experience in today’s world but also in terms of how we individually respond by taking action.  Mindfulness can help us deal with our fear and anxiety either through experiencing that fear at a fully emotional and bodily level or by examining the fear conceptually to see its origins and its manifestation in our behaviour e.g. by blaming or judging.  The compassionate action we take will depend on our circumstances, our abilities and our self-awareness.  Jon, for example, stated that the Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program he developed was a political and compassionate action designed to relieve suffering at a time when professors at his institution, MIT, were developing weapons of mass destruction for the Vietnam War.  Tara, too, has taken compassionate action in many ways, including the establishment of Sounds True, a multimedia publishing company with a mission “To Wake Up the World”.

The role of personal stories and mindful listening

Both Jon and Tara highlighted the need to hear the stories of people who are less privileged than ourselves (e.g. in terms of their race, education, background, mental health, intellectual and physical abilities, careers, opportunities and overall wellness).  While they acknowledge that mindfulness is necessary to develop awareness of ourselves and the world around us, it is insufficient by itself to stimulate compassionate action.  Personal stories of suffering in its many forms can help us identify how we can take action and provide the emotional stimulus to act.  Stories in the mental health arena, such as What It’s Like to Survive Depression … Again and Again, can stimulate compassionate action.

Mindfulness can help us to develop our life purpose, build resilience and develop creativity but the real challenge is to channel these into compassionate action.  We are sure to encounter blockages such as our unrealistic expectations, biased assumptions, fear of failure and mistakes, but our growing awareness can help to overcome these.  The challenge is to find the momentum to begin and to revisit our motivation to sustain our effort and have a real impact on some aspect of the suffering of others.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware of the suffering and pain of people in the world around us.  This awareness can translate into compassionate action if we listen mindfully to the stories of people who are less privileged than ourselves.  Self-awareness can heighten our acknowledgement of how much we are privileged in so many ways and help us to identify both an arena for personal action and a point of intervention.  This will demand overcoming procrastination and the fears that hold our inaction in place.

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.

Doing That Meaningful Work You Have Been Avoiding

Leo Babauta, creator of the blog Zen Habits, reminds us that we each invariably have one meaningful task, endeavour or initiative that we keep putting off.  We find excuses, maintain our busyness, visit the fridge, go out for coffee or adopt any number of tactics to avoid facing up to the challenge of doing the one meaningful thing that we know we ought to do.  Leo describes this process of procrastination as our “habituated avoidance.”

What meaningful work are you avoiding?

Your avoidance may relate to developing a solution to a seemingly intractable problem; doing that significant blog post about a controversial topic; engaging with a particular ethnic group; volunteering your services to a charity; offering a special service to a group in need; joining a Men’s Shed; or undertaking any other meaningful work. 

Factors that could contribute to your habituated avoidance of the meaningful work can be many and varied, e.g. the work takes you out of your comfort zone; there is a chance you could be embarrassed; you may “fail” in what you are setting out to do; it could require significant courage to undertake the work; you could be perceived to be an “upstart”; or you might be challenged because you lack specific professional qualifications.

One of the things that I have been putting off that would fall into this category of meaningful work is the development and conduct of guided meditations via an online conference platform.  The reality is that through this blog (with over 350 posts) and its numerous hyperlinks to resources, I have what I need to create these guided meditations.  I also have experience conducting online conferences and have access to an online conference platform.  But what is stopping me from developing these valuable events?  I know that part of the reason is my uncertainty about the reliability of the online conference platform (or is this just an excuse?).  I find that even in the downtime between meetings with clients, planning training activities, facilitating workshops and writing this blog, I do not embrace the challenge of creating these online guided meditations – even when I have surplus time in my life.  To me, an important first step is to revisit the reason why the avoided “work” is significant or meaningful.

Revisiting your intention

Why is the work/task/endeavour meaningful?  What group or individual (family member, friend or work colleague) will benefit from your undertaking this work?  What are their needs that you can meet or partially address? In what way would your activity make a difference or improve the quality of their life? 

For example, The process of online guided meditations would enable me to help people who are experiencing anxiety or depression, mental health conditions that have reached epidemic proportions.  It would provide a way for them to connect with other people, use mindfulness to address some aspect of their adverse mental health condition, become aware of resources and support that are available to them and learn techniques and mindfulness practices that they can use outside the guided meditation experience.

Revisiting your intention in doing the meaningful work is important to tap into the motivation and energy needed to take the necessary steps to make that meaningful endeavour happen.  Spending time meditating on this intention can help to energise you to take action – and overcome the internal objections, self-doubts and excuses for inaction.  Leo offers three easy ways to translate this intention into action.

A simple Three-Step Method for getting your meaningful work done

Leo offers a 3-step method that is simple, time efficient and workable (he uses it himself with great effect! – you don’t create a blog with 2 million readers without successfully pushing through the inertia or the procrastination barrier).

  1. Create a space (a brief period that you can free up) – Leo suggests that this can even be 15 minutes, but it  is important to start now (or very soon so you don’t put it off).
  2. Meditate on meaning and feelings – tap back into your intention and what gives the planned work meaning or significance.  Having captured this meaning in your mind, do a body scan to tap into any fear, resistance, tension, anxiety or worry that you may be experiencing as the meaningful work comes clearer into focus – in the process release the tightness, pain or soreness.  Then really focus your attention on the people you will be helping – tap into your feelings, sense of loving-kindness, towards them (and experience your own positive emotions that accompany compassionate action).
  3. Do the smallest next step – do something that will progress your meaningful work, no matter how small it seems to you.  Translating intention into action, however small, sets your momentum in the right direction.  Small actions build to larger steps which, in turn, increase energy; provide reinforcement; develop motivation; and offer personal reward.

As you adopt these techniques for advancing your meaningful work, you will grow in mindfulness (internal and external awareness) and build your capacity to pursue creative endeavours to make a real difference for individuals or a group.  The insights gained will help you overcome inertia in relation to other things that you need to get done and the experience of overcoming procrastination in relation to your meaningful work, will flow into other arenas of your life.

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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.

Depression, Loneliness and the Loss of Connection to Other People

In my previous post, I discussed the loss of connection to meaningful work as one social factor impacting the rise of depression and anxiety.  Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, found through his research, and that of his colleagues, that another major contributor to depression is the growing disconnection from other people being experienced in Western societies today.  This disconnection from others has led to an epidemic of loneliness in Britain, America and Australia.  The U.K. Government, in recognition of this growing social problem, has appointed a Minister for Loneliness.

Social change and the rise of loneliness

Robert Putnam, through research over more than 25 years covering almost 500,00 interviewees, provided evidence that people are becoming increasing disconnected from family, social groups, the wider community and neighbours.  The title of his landmark book incorporating this social research, Bowling Alone, captures the essence of his findings – people are now bowling on their own in a dedicated lane instead of bowling in a group as was the practice previously.  The level of volunteering has dropped dramatically as has active participation in what Robert terms “democratic structures”.

Johann suggests that this increasing tendency to “go it alone” is compounded by the often-repeated advice that change begins with you and that no one can help you but yourself – you have to fix yourself unaided.  He points out that this advice is contrary to the history of humanity which evidences our tribal nature and co-dependence.  Our forebears had to cooperate to survive – going it alone led to extinction.

The physical health costs of loneliness

Johann draws on the results of a range of research projects to demonstrate that loneliness dramatically increases the risk of catching infection and of dying from a serious health problem such as heart attack or cancer (risks like those of a person who is obese). The research highlights the fact that loneliness leads to an increased heart rate and production of stress-related cortisol (similar to what happens when a person is attacked physically).

The link between loneliness and depression

In his Lost Connections book, Johann draws heavily on the extensive research conducted by John Cacioppo into the link between depression and loneliness and the essential nature of the experience of loneliness.  John established that loneliness preceded the emergence of depressive symptoms in one of his many studies.  In another study he found that people who revisited a period of intense loneliness became “radically more depressed”, whereas people who recaptured a period of real connection to another person became “radically less depressed”.

These findings led John to ask the question, “What is loneliness?”  He established several key points through this basic inquiry:

  • loneliness is not the same as “being alone” – you can be alone and live alone and not feel lonely or depressed
  • you can feel lonely in a crowded place or even within your own family – the presence alone of others does not ward off a sense of loneliness
  • loneliness arises in the absence of connection with someone or a group of people with whom you can readily share experiences of joy or distress.

John argues that people need a “two-way” relationship where things that matter are shared for mutual benefit – the sharing needs to be “meaningful” for both people. He suggests that this element of exchange and mutual assistance is the “missing ingredient” needed to overcome loneliness.

Sarah Silverman (comedian, actor, singer and writer) in conversation with Amanda De Cadenet described her own experience of depression as “desperately homesick but home”. Being at home physically does not guarantee protection against depression – from feeling sad, anxious and negative; experiencing low self-esteem; and being fearful that people will dislike you. Johann suggests that Sarah’s allusion to “homesickness at home” highlights the fact that our conception of “home” has “shrivelled” from our sense of community as “home” to the four walls of our house.

The “snowball effect” of loneliness

Sarah, in her interview, also makes the point that self-deprecation, which is the hallmark of a lot of stand-up comedy, has its downside in that it leads to actual self-deprecation and depression, which becomes self-obsessive, shutting out other people. She argues that “if you can be okay with yourself, you can have a lot more room to have other people in your life”. If you feel lonely and depressed you will have low self-esteem and avoid social contact – leading to a “snowball effect” compounding your loneliness.

Johann discusses the “snowball effect” of loneliness in terms of both perception of threat and accelerated response time to potential threat. People who are lonely tend to exhibit “micro-awakenings”, a trait common amongst people who are anxious because they don’t feel protected when asleep. This state of “hypervigilance” leads to the perception of threat even when it does not exist (or experience of a slight when none is intended). The research quoted by Johann shows too that people who are experiencing loneliness tend to react twice as quickly to perceived threat as those who are not lonely.

Breaking out of loneliness

Johann argues that people experiencing loneliness are forever scanning their environment for threats because they do not feel as if anyone is looking after them – they perceive that no one “has their back”. He maintains that what they need is more love and kindness together with reassurance.

Dr. Hilarie Cash, who has extensively researched addiction to gaming and the internet, maintains that these addictions are often an attempt to escape from the sense of loneliness. She argues that what is needed is “connection with one another in a safe, caring way” – a face-to-face connection not a remote, superficial interaction mediated by a screen.

In a brief video about overcoming isolation, John Cacioppo explains how people have successfully overcome extreme isolation and loneliness. He maintains that breaking out of loneliness requires a change in cognition (the way we think about ourselves and others) as well as approaching others “in a way that is positive, in a way that is engaging and that is mutually enjoyable”.

How mindfulness can help to overcome loneliness and depression

One of the first thoughts that comes to mind is that meditation can assist us to overcome feelings of hurt and resentment. It can help us to find ways of forgiving ourselves and others. Through mindfulness practices, we can achieve calm, clarity and self-regulation (of our thoughts, emotions and actions).

Mindfulness can help us savour what we have – our work, our children, our friendships and the present moment. It can help us to slow down and express genuine gratitude which generates positive energy and builds relationships. Overall, mindfulness can help us to cultivate awareness of others, overcome self-absorption and engage in “compassion in action“. As we grow in mindfulness, we can move beyond loneliness and depression, learn to value ourselves, appreciate the present moment and reach out to others through reflective listening and compassionate action.

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Image by dima_goroziya 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.

Carers Need Self-Care

Much of the focus in the resources on mindfulness is on ways to help people who are suffering from conditions that are debilitating such as mental illness or chronic pain.  Very little of the resources focus on ways to help carers in their role – ways to manage the physical and psychological toll of caring for someone else on a constant and extended basis.  Carers are the overlooked group – forgotten by others and themselves.

Carers: people who care and support others

Carers come in all shapes and sizes  – adults looking after ageing parents who may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; siblings caring for a family member who has a mental health condition such as schizophrenia, anxiety or depression; or anyone caring for someone suffering from a physical condition such as paraplegia, chronic pain or cancer.  According to Carers Australia, carers are people who provide unpaid care and support to family members and friends who have a disability, mental illness, chronic condition, terminal illness, an alcohol or other drug issue or who are frail aged.

The toll of caring

The “burden of care” can be felt both physically and psychologically.  The physical toll for carers can be excessive – they can become exhausted and/or accident-prone, suffer from sleep disorders or experience bodily symptoms of stress such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue or related conditions like fibromyalgia. The physical toll of caring can be experienced as cumulative stress and lead to chronic conditions that adversely affect the carer’s long-term health.

The psychological toll of caring can also be cumulative in nature and extremely variable in its impact.  Carers can experience negative emotions such as resentment or anger, despite their compassion towards the person who is being cared for.  They can become extremely frustrated over the paucity of time available for themselves, the opportunity cost in terms of inability to travel or to be away for any length of time, the lack of freedom (feeling tied down), the lack of improvement in the condition of the person being cared for or the financial impost of caring (preventing desired savings/purchases or home improvements). 

Carers do not have inexhaustible personal resources – physical, psychological and financial.  They can suffer from compassion fatigue which can be hastened by emotional contagion resulting from close observation of, and identification with, the pain of a loved one.  Hence, carers can experience depression, anxiety or grief – reflecting the emotional state of their loved ones who are suffering.

The toll on carers has been the subject of extensive research.  For example, Emma Stein studied the psychological impact on older female carers engaged in informal aged care.  Sally Savage and Susan Bailey reviewed the literature on the mental health impact on the carer of their caregiving role and found that the impact was highly variable and moderated by factors such as the relationship between caregiver and receiver and the level of social support for the carer.

Being mindful of your needs as a carer

The fundamental problem is that carers become so other-focused that they overlook their own needs – their need for rest, time away, relaxation and enjoyment.  Normal needs can become intensified by the burden of care and the associated physical and psychological stressors.  Carers tend to neglect their own needs in the service of others.  However, in the process, they endanger their own mental and physical health and, potentially, inhibit their capacity to sustain quality care.

Carers can inform themselves of the inherent physical and psychological consequences of being a caregiver, particularly if this involves intensive, long-term caring of a close loved one (where feelings are heightened, and the personal costs intensified).  Mental Health Carers Australia highlights the fact that people who care for someone with a mental health illness are increasingly at risk of “developing a mental illness themselves”.

Self-care for the carer

One of the more effective ways that carers can look after themselves is to draw on support networks – whether they involve family, colleagues or friends; broad social networks; or specific networks designed for carers.  Arafmi, for example, provides carer support for caregivers of people with a mental illness and their services include a 24-hour carer helpline, carers forum, blog, educational resources, workshops and carer support groups. Carers Queensland provides broader-based carer resources and support groups.

Carers tend to go it alone, not wanting to burden others with “their” problem(s).  They are inclined to refuse help from others when it is offered because of embarrassment, fear of dependency, concern for the other person offering help, inability to “let go” or any other inhibiting emotion or thought pattern – in the process, they may stop themselves from sharing the load.

Carers could seek professional help from qualified professionals such as medical doctors or psychologists if they notice that they are experiencing physical or psychological symptoms resulting from carer stress.

Mindfulness for carers

Carers can use mindfulness practices, reflection and meditation to help them cope with the physical and emotional stresses of caregiving.  Specific meditations can address negative feelings, especially those of resentment and the associated guilt.  Mindfulness practices can introduce processes that enable the carer to wind down and relax – such as mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating or using awareness as the default when caught up with “waiting” (a constant companion of the carer role).

Carers can employ techniques such as body scan to relax their bodies and release physical tension.  Deep, conscious breathing can also help in times of intense stress such as when experiencing panic. For people who are religious, prayer can help to provide calm and hope.

Dr. Chris Walsh (mindfulness.org.au), offers a simple mindfulness exercise for self-care by carers in his website article, Caring for CarersThe exercise involves focusing, re-centering, imagining and noticing (thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations).

As carers grow in mindfulness, they can become more aware of the stress they are under and the physical and psychological toll involved. This growing awareness can lead to effective self-care through social and professional support and meditation and/or mindfulness practices. Mindfulness can help carers develop resilience and calmness in the face of their stressful caregiver role.

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Image by Sabine van Erp 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.

Facing Up to Vulnerability

I am not a Buddhist.  However, I readily acknowledge that in the area of mindfulness I can learn from the oral tradition of the Buddha that has been passed down over more than 2,500 years through teachings and stories.  Tara Brach, practising Buddhist and international mindfulness teacher, shares one such story related to vulnerability, “I See You, Mara”.   Tara recounts that the Buddha when travelling and teaching often encountered a sense of vulnerability experienced as “fear of loss or rejection”.  His way to manage this fear was to name it and face it – he called the fear Mara (“the god of darkness”).  So, whenever he encountered such fear and sense of being vulnerable, he would say, “I See You, Mara”.

Facing up to vulnerability and naming our feelings

There are times when we feel intuitively that we should do something that would be helpful to others, but we become fearful and give into our sense of vulnerability.  For the Buddha, “Mara” epitomised this fear and vulnerability.  We could find our own name for this darkness that can overwhelm us and impede our ability to be intimate, creative or compassionate.  Whatever way we choose, the basic process involves naming our feelings when we feel blocked by a sense of vulnerability.  In this way, we can tame our feelings, draw on our strengths and reduce the inhibiting influence of feeling vulnerable

In a previous post, I discussed the genesis of our sense of vulnerability and offered a short meditation that Tara teaches to help us to open to our vulnerability in our everyday life.  However, we may be faced with a specific challenge represented by an opportunity to do something worthwhile for others and, despite the value of the proposed action, we find ourselves procrastinating out of fear of some adverse outcome.  On these occasions, we can face up to our procrastination self-stories and bring them above-the-line.

What can be helpful, too, is to explore whether there is an underlying adverse event (or series of events) that gave rise to our personal sense of vulnerability.  Have we experienced an occasion when we were deeply embarrassed, totally rejected or attacked for our ideas or efforts?  How is such an event playing out in our lives now?  In this reflection, we can relate our sense of vulnerability to its origins and our deeply held belief (however false), that a similar outcome will be experienced again if we challenge the “status quo” or advance ideas that are different to mainstream thinking.  This deeply held belief about adverse outcomes can immobilise us if it remains hidden and not exposed to the light of observation and reflection.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become increasingly aware of the impact of our past experience on our sense of vulnerability, begin to name our underlying feelings and access ways to face up to being vulnerable.  In this way, we can progressively release our capacity for intimacy, creativity and compassionate action.

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Image by Quinn Kampschroer 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 To View Stress to Improve Health and Happiness

Kelly McGonigal presented a talk on How to Make Stress Your Friend that challenged the way we think about stress and the bodily response to stress. Her talk could have been subtitled, How to think about stress to improve your longevity. Kelly draws on research that demonstrates how we think about stress can impact negatively or positively on our physical and mental health during the experience of stress and beyond.

How we can view our bodily responses to stress

When we experience stress our bodies respond in predictable ways. Our heart may be racing or pounding, we tend to breathe faster, and we can break out into a sweat. How we view these bodily responses to stress determines the short-term and long-term effects of stress on our wellness, heart condition and longevity.

If we view these bodily responses as a positive response to stress, we are better able to cope with the current stress and future stressors. Kelly argues that our perception of these responses makes all the difference. We can view them as an indication that our body is preparing us and energising us for the perceived challenge that precipitated our stress. World-famous aerialist Nik Wallenda maintains that this positive perception of the bodily stress response enabled him to walk on a tightrope across a 400 metre gap in the Grand Canyon.

Kelly argues that we should view the pounding heart as readying us for constructive action; the heightened breathing rate is providing more oxygen to the brain to enable it to function better. The net result of viewing these bodily responses as positive is that we can experience less anxiety in the face of stress and feel more confident in meeting the inherent challenges.

Kelly points out that what is particularly amazing is that instead of the blood vessels in your heart constricting (as they do when you view stress negatively), the blood vessels actually remain relaxed when the bodily stress response is viewed positively. She notes that the relaxation of the blood vessels in the heart is similar to what happens when we experience positive emotions of joy and courage.

Stress makes you more social

One of the key effects of stress is that the pituitary gland in your body increases your level of oxytocin (known as the “cuddle hormone“) which tends to move you to strengthen close social relationships. This facet of the stress response prompts you to seek and give social support. Kelly maintains that your stress response “wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you”. It also stimulates you to reach out and help others in need – which, in turn, can increase your oxytocin levels. Thus stress can help us to accept compassion make us more compassionate.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation, research and reflection, we can learn to view our bodily response to stress in a positive light, reduce the negative physical and mental impacts of stress on ourselves and strengthen our commitment to compassionate action.

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Image: Sunrise in Manly, Queensland, taken on 1 July 2019

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.