Finding Joy, Beauty and Healing through Nature in Challenging Times

Jon Kabat-Zinn when discussing mindfulness and resilience in difficult times stressed the need to be “still aware of beauty” in the midst of the challenges confronting us during the onset of the Coronavirus.  He suggested that despite the incredible heartbreak of these times, inspiration abounds, particularly in the beauty and resilience of nature.  Jon referred to the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist, who experienced his fellow monks dying from bombing raids by the Americans.  Amidst the grief during the burial of his friends, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Don’t forget to see the flowers blooming by the side of the road”.  Jon reminds us to lift our eyes beyond the present pain and fear and to be aware of nature and all its beauty and healing power.

Wise@Work recently provided a webinar with Mark Coleman presenting on the topic of Beauty, Joy and Resilience in the Midst of Adversity: the Healing Power of Nature.  Mark is a globally recognised meditation teacher, author of From Suffering to Peace: The True Promise of Mindfulness and the creator of the Mindfulness Institute.  Mark has a particular focus on being healed through nature by finding beauty and joy in experiencing nature mindfully.  He shares his unique insights drawn from mindfulness practices, research and experience in this area through his course, Awake in the Wild Nature Meditation.

Attending to nature and experiencing connectedness

What we pay attention to shapes our lives – our thoughts, feelings, mood and perspective.  In challenging times, we tend to become absorbed in what we have lost, obsess about the news and feel a loss of agency in many aspects of our life.  Our natural negative bias is strengthened, resulting in a continuous scanning of the environment (local and global) for threats, both real and imagined.

Mark maintains that we can restore our sense of equilibrium by paying attention to nature – attention being something that we can have agency over.  Through mindful attending to nature we can experience joy, peace, beauty and healing – experiences that are uplifting and energising.  He argues that as we become connected and aligned with nature, we can find our life purpose and delight in living or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it, “waking up to what is” as the “laboratory of life unfolds”. Mark quoted the words of Mary Oliver’s poem, Mindful, to reinforce his view of the joy in nature.

Nature as a source of sensory awareness and joy

We can refocus our attention by beginning to notice nature as it unfolds daily before us and enlivens our senses – seeing the exquisite beauty of the sun rising in the morning over the water, listening to the echoing sounds of birds as they awake to another day, smelling the ground and grass after a night’s rain, touching a furry leaf or tasting freshly picked fruit, herbs or vegetables.  There are many ways to tap into the beauty and healing power of nature – we just have to be alive to them and willing to create space in our lives to experience this unending source of joy.

Mark reminds us that we don’t have to go out into the wild or visit a rainforest to enjoy nature (the very words we use such as “enjoy” expresses nature’s potential).  We can venture into our yard and observe the blossoms on the trees, notice the first seedlings emerging from recently planted grass seeds, feel grounded on the solidity of the earth, smell the earthiness of the soil and hear the wind gently rustling the leaves of trees and plants.  We can even stay inside and connect with nature through pictures and images – the sunflowers in a field of grass, the small child leaning over to smell a flower in a rockery or the tall poplars lining an expanse of crops.  If we study the painting of the girl, we can observe the colour of the flowers, the shape of the leaves, the fallen branches and the stone paving – things that we may not have noticed before.

Reflection

I have always found trees a source of meditation and an inspiration for poems because they reflect the paradox of human existence – suffering and joy, life and death, disconnection and closeness, weak and strong, flexible and inflexible.

Nature surrounds us and is there before our eyes, ears and other senses – if we would only pay attention.  The time required is minimal and the rewards in terms of mental and physical health and overall wellbeing are great.  Nature is a free, ever-changing resource. 

As we grow in mindfulness through paying attention to nature and meditating on nature, we can experience a calmness, peace and joy amidst these turbulent times.  Like our breathing, nature is a refuge readily available to us to enjoy, a source of connection to other living things and means of healing through alignment.

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Image by Jill Wellington 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.

Reduce Emotional Inflammation with Reconnection to Nature

Tami Simon recently interviewed psychiatrist Dr. Lise Van Susteren on Emotional Inflammation as part of the Insights at the Edge podcast series.  Lise drew on her newly published book co-authored with Stacey Colino, Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times.  While the book was written before the onset of the Coronavirus, it is made even more relevant in these times of the global dislocation caused by the pandemic.  Lise maintains that emotional inflammation existing before the outbreak of the Coronavirus has been aggravated by the virus and its flow-on effects such as anxiety and grief and the unnatural states of social isolation and social distancing.

Prior to the onset of the Coronavirus, people were experiencing emotional inflammation as a result of our global and local environments impacted by climate change, gun violence, racial and refugee discrimination, economic disparity and turbulent economic conditions.  Lise acknowledged that the pre-existent emotional inflammation has been exacerbated by the advent of the Coronavirus.

She described out current conditions as a “fraught inflamed time” and encouraged us to be kind to ourselves and others as we work our way through the many challenges confronting us on a daily basis.  Lise maintained that individuals will deal with the challenges in different ways, e.g. some will keep themselves busy and get engaged with community work such as The Care Army, while others will use the time to retreat, read and reflect and/or listen to encouraging and inspiring podcasts.

Loss of connection to nature

I have previously discussed the impact of  the “nature-deficit disorder” and the loss of connection to nature and its healing powers.  Lise, who is a renowned climate change activist, argues that much of our emotional inflammation is caused by a loss of harmony with nature and its natural energy flows.  We have not only devastated our ecosystems (and the “immune system of the environment”) but also lost our capacity to be attuned to nature and its tranquillity and timelessness.

We have become time-poor, impatient, intolerant and stressed by the pressures that surround us and, increasingly, by the technologically paced character of our lives.  We refer to “slow mail” and “running out of time” on a consistent basis as our communications have increased in speed, simultaneously with increased expectations about response times and constant exposure to information overload – we are drowning in information and unrealistic expectations.

Lise is a firm believer that our ecology impacts our biology and she bases her assertions on sound scientific evidence.  She is at pains to point out that climate change has a devastating effect on our physical and mental health, a perspective reinforced by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).  Our physical and mental health is intimately linked to our connectedness to others and to nature.  Connection is a deeply felt need and frustration of this connection leads to physical and mental illness, including depression, ill-health and anxiety.

Reflection

Emotional inflammation is strongly associated with disconnection from nature.  Reconnection with, and respect for, nature can bring many health benefits and reduce the enervating effects of this “fraught inflamed time”.   Mindfulness practices involving breathing can help us to become better attuned to nature and more at peace with ourselves and others.  Nature is a rich source of healing and time spent being mindful in nature can assist us to develop the equanimity and creativity we need to navigate the unprecedented challenges of our time.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on nature, mindfulness practices and reflection on our way of living, we can begin to realise the critical role that nature plays in our health and wellbeing.

Peter Doherty, Nobel Prize winner for his work on infectious diseases, suggests, like Lise, that there are opportunities to be taken, and real lessons to be learned, from the current challenges of the Coronavirus:

We need to take this opportunity to rethink how we live in the world, what’s of value to us and start to look at what is really important. (Interview quoted in the Australian Financial Review, 9-10 May 2020, p.37).

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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.

Strategies for Couples to Cope While Working at Home during Quarantine

In a previous post I discussed Rick Hanson’s ideas about the intrapersonal and interpersonal challenges facing couples working from home during the quarantine conditions brought on by the Coronavirus.  In his podcast, Coping with Quarantine, Rick also explored strategies for couples to cope with these challenges.  His suggested strategies focused strongly on connection, contribution, control (inner and outer) and compassion.

Strategies for couples to cope with the challenges of working together at home during social isolation

  • Connection with others: the fundamental principle underpinning physical distancing is avoidance rather than contact and connection.  However, this does not prevent us from connecting with each other as a couple, with our family and friends or with colleagues.  All of the remote communication strategies are available to us – online video calls, telephone, social media and email.  There can be a tendency to let the physical distancing principles impact the rest of our behaviour.  However, now is the time to reconnect with others who are also feeling socially isolated.  As a couple, connection can take the form of increased hugs, considerateness, words of love and appreciation and thoughtful touch – all of which builds the relationship. It also involves avoiding the temptation to escalate an argument or conflict to prove you are right or to assuage your pride.  Fundamental to connection with your partner is listening for understanding, not interrupting but being open and vulnerable to the thoughts and feelings of your partner.  As Rick points out, listening provides you with the time to deeply connect with the other person and enables them to experience calm and clarity.  He reiterates Dan Siegel’s view that deep listening enables the communicator to “feel felt by the other person”.
  • Connection to nature:  we are connected to nature on multiple levels and it is possible through mindfulness practices, including mantra meditation, to experience this connection at a deep level.  When we experience our deep connection to nature, we can feel inspired, energised, positive and calm.  The very act of breathing and walking in nature regenerates our physical systems, clears our mind and helps us to reduce the power of our negative emotions.  Nature has its own healing capacity which we can tap into in multiple ways – if only we would stop long enough to let it happen.  
  • Contribution: there are so many people in need as a result of the pandemic.  There are also endless ways to contribute and help others, to draw on our creativity and resourcefulness.  For example, despite the lockdown in the Northern Territory in Australia, Arnhem Land artists are offering a series of free online concerts to lift people’s spirits and reinforce their connection to the land and the resilience of nature.  Thirty of Australia’s top singing stars have also collaborated to provide an online concert from their homes, Music From The Home Front, that is dedicated to people who are in the frontline of the fight against the Coronavirus.  Another exemplar of contribution in adversity is Nkosi Johnson who was born with HIV in South Africa and died at the age of 12.  In his short life, he dedicated himself to fighting, locally and globally, for the rights of HIV affected people in South Africa and beyond.  Nkosi is quoted as saying, “Do all you can with what you have in the time you have in the place you are”.
  • Controlling yourself and your environment: in times of crisis it is important to develop a sense of control over our difficult emotions and our immediate environment.  There is a growing pool of advice on managing anxiety and achieving mental and emotional balance during these times of uncertainty and social isolation.  In times of uncertainty we can achieve a sense of agency by controlling aspects of our immediate environment – whether that be tidying or renewing our garden, removing clutter from our workspace, developing new skills or getting our finances and accounts in order.
  • Compassionate thoughts and action: in the section above on contribution, I stressed the importance of finding ways to help and to take compassionate action.  However, action is not always possible because of our personal circumstances, including being confined to home as a high-risk person.  This is particularly where loving kindness meditation can be used to experience compassion towards others who are suffering and/or experiencing grief.  Everyday there are stories of individuals and families experiencing heart-breaking situations brought on by the Coronavirus.  We can keep these people in our thoughts and prayers and feel with them.

Reflection

Creating connection, making a contribution, achieving self-control and control over our immediate environment and offering compassion and loving kindness are ways forward for individuals and couples restricted to working from home.  Meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices will help us to grow in mindfulness and to develop the necessary self-awareness, awareness of others, self-regulation and presence of mind and body to bring these positive aspects into our lives as individuals and couples.

Chris James captures the essence of connection to nature in the songlet Tall Trees on his Enchant album:

Tall trees

Warm fire

Strong wind

Deep water

I feel it in my body

I feel it in my soul

Image by Andreas Danang Aprillianto 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.

Connection – a Deeply Felt Need

In these times of physical distancing precipitated by the Coronavirus, we can feel the need for connection more than ever.  We readily recognise the importance of social connection, our connection to other people, for our mental health and wellness, but often overlook our very real connection to nature and the physical world.

Connection in nature

Time-lapse photographer, filmmaker and producer, Louis Schwartzberg, reminds us that every living creature relies on other living creatures for its continued existence.  He illustrates this concept through his recent film, Fantastic Fungi, where he shows how the mycelium network mirrors the internet in its pervasiveness above and under the ground.  Mycelium is the vegetative branchlike structure that fruits to produce mushrooms and other fungi. They are critical to the “terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems” because of their role in decomposing organic material and contributing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  They are invisible but cover massive areas. providing nutrients to the fungi and serving as “biological filters” – a term developed by world famous mycologist Paul Stamets who was a significant contributor to Louis’ film.   In a recent TED© talk, Paul described six ways mushrooms can save the world, including treating viruses.

Louis, commenting on his movie, Fantastic Fungi, said that the real surprise for him in making the film about mycelium was the pervasiveness of connection.  He said that in these times of physical distancing (social isolation and social distancing), people are realising that what they want most is connection.   In Louis’s view, the core idea emerging from the film is that “connection is really nature’s instruction”.  

Our connection to nature

In Fungi Day Live, Louis led discussions with co-author, Paul Stamets; Jeremy Narby – anthropologist and author; Francoise Bourzat – author of Consciousness Medicine; and Jason Silva – filmmaker, author and creator of the FLOW SESSIONS podcast.  In discussing his short connection video, Jason explains that films provide a unique connection – enabling people to see the world from someone else’s perspective, to get inside their heads.  He firmly believes that his role as filmmaker is to share his insights, engage in “intersubjective communion with other people” and provide an experience of connection that is “beyond language”.  He cited astrophysicist, Neil de Grasse Tyson, to reinforce his passionate commitment to communicate about connection:

We are all connected. To each other biologically. To the earth chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.  

Paul Stamets maintains that the Coronavirus is a result of our destruction of the “immune system of the environment” through deforestation, pollution, monoculture and other non-economically and non- ecologically sustainable solutions.   Like the other presenters in Fungi Day Live, he asserts that we have failed to understand and respect nature – our source of inspiration, energy, wellness and breath.  Jeremy, too, maintains that we have become disconnected from nature and live our lives in cement blocks and travel around in “glass-and-metal-bubbles”. 

Reflection

These filmmakers, authors and researchers have spent a lifetime exploring, understanding and sharing about nature and its interconnectedness and our connection to it.  As Florence Williams asserts, we are suffering from “nature-deficit disorder” and separation from the healing benefits of nature.  Johann Hari argues that reconnection with nature and with each other is a means of overcoming depression and childhood trauma.  We can grow mindfulness through nature and experience its many physical and psychological benefits, including calmness and the experience of connection.  Lulu & Mischka provide us with one way to do this through their mantra meditations, including their “stillness in motion” mantra they sing while sailing with the whales.

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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 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.

A Framework for Reflection for Organisation Leaders

Chip Conley, author and hospitality entrepreneur, emphasised the importance of reflection, wisdom and lifelong learning for leaders.  He created the Modern Elder Academy to further that end.  He was especially interested in making the workplace a place for fullment, inspiration and self-actualization for employees – which he maintained was the means to achieve a sustainably successful organisation.  Chip acknowledged that his leadership philosophy was heavily influenced by the writing of two men Viktor Frankl and Abraham Maslow.

Viktor Frankl through his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, impressed on Chip the importance and power of a meaningful life for leaders and the critical role of leaders in providing an environment that is conducive to employees developing a “sense of purpose and meaning”.   Research has confirmed that a meaningful life is foundational to a person’s health, happiness and overall well-being.

Abraham Maslow and his work on developing a Hierarchy of Needs had a very profound effect on Chip and his approach to leadership, both as an owner/entrepreneur and a mentor to other leaders, especially the young founders of Airbnb.  Maslow’s work gave Chip an insight into how to develop a reflective framework to guide his own role as a leader and to assist other leaders to create meaningful work for employees.

A framework for reflection for organisational leaders – the transformative pyramid

Chip explained his reflection framework in a TED Talk© given in 2010 titled, Measuring What Makes Life Worthwhile.  He elaborated further on the evolution of the framework and how to put it into practice in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True.  He was particularly concerned about the challenge of applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to business and the management of employees.

What Chip realised is that, for employees, meaning provided inspiration which in turn developed intrinsic motivation.  He came up with the idea of a framework which he called the “transformative pyramid” – built on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which was illustrated as a five-level pyramid with physiological needs at the bottom of the pyramid and self-actualization at the top.

To simplify things and make his framework easy to implement, Chip developed his transformative pyramid as a three-level pyramid with “survival” at the bottom, “success” in the middle and “transformation” at the top.  He pointed out that many leaders focus only on the bottom of the pyramid, the survival needs, by using all their energy to create non-sustainable, extrinsic motivation in the form of pay, bonuses and financial rewards while ignoring what truly influences and shapes employee motivation.

In Chip’s model, “success” relates to recognition that an employee is achieving their role and contributing to the organisation.  He understood that positive feedback was a powerful motivator and that people often left their jobs because of the way they were treated, including feeling a sense that they had been “taken for granted” and their efforts were unrecognised.   Chip explained, by way of example, that during the dot-com crash, he introduced a process of recognition at his weekly managers’ meetings that not only provided some positive element to what was a relatively sober discussion but also helped to spread recognition and positivity throughout the organisation. 

The initiating process for giving recognition was simple – he introduced a ten-minute period at the end of each meeting where a manager would mention someone in one of the teams who “deserved recognition” for something they had done in the workplace or in the field.  This recognition was communicated personally to the individual involved who felt that they were “noticed” and respected, and their contribution was appreciated.  Chip suggested that great companies are differentiated by the fact that they are “first-class noticers”.

At the highest level of the transformation pyramid is personal reframing of work from “just a job” to something that is meaningful and worthwhile.  Chip suggested that this can be achieved by helping employees to understand the higher purpose of the organisation – the inspirational “why”,  and to find meaning in what they do by understanding the connection between their daily work and something broader that makes a difference in people’s lives.  

Chip indicated that he learned this lesson from a maid who had worked for a  long time in one of his hotels.  When he asked her why she seemed so happy doing mundane work every day (such as cleaning the toilets), she said that she was able “to create joy” for people who stayed in their hotel away from their home and often without their family or partner.  She was able to mentally connect what she did every day to a “noble purpose”.  This realisation and reframing were “transformative” for her – putting her mundane work in a totally different light and acting as a source of intrinsic motivation.

Chip encapsulated his “transformation pyramid” and its underlying principles in his book, PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow.  He encouraged leaders to use his framework to reflect on their relationships with their employees, customers and investors.  Since the first edition of the book, many organisations worldwide in different industries have used his framework to transform their businesses. In particular, they have found innovative ways to recognise the contribution of their employees.

Reflection

It is often the simplest ideas that have the greatest impact.  Chip demonstrated that focusing on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation was the way forward to transform companies and he proved this through his own roles as founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre and as mentor to the founders of Airbnb.  In the process, he addressed one of the key underlying problems associated with the growth of depression – the loss of connection to meaningful work.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can increase our understanding of leadership and what is meaningful in life for us and others, and notice, appreciate and provide recognition to people we encounter who contribute in whatever way to our own welfare and that of our organisations.  Noticing, appreciating and giving recognition require us to be present in the moment – a key aspect of mindfulness.  Being present builds awareness of our self and others.

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Image by Pete Linforth 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.

Trauma-Informed Mindfulness: Relationship Building through Music

Sam Himelstein has developed several basic principles and a series of guidelines to assist mindfulness teachers to sensitively work with people who are impacted by trauma. While these principles have been developed over more than a decade working with trauma-impacted teens, the principles and guidelines are also relevant to anyone working with adults who have experienced trauma. 

Relationship building through music

In his podcast interview with David Treleaven, Sam discussed a particular case that was a primary catalyst to the development of his principles and guidelines.  He provides a more detailed discussion of the case in his blog post, Trauma-Informed Mindfulness with Teenagers – 9 Guidelines.  The case involved a 17-year-old high school student, Jeanette, who had experienced a traumatic childhood with many categories of traumatic events in her life, including drug addiction of her father.  She had approached Sam, a registered psychologist, for help with her trauma-related issues.

During initial psychotherapy treatment, Sam was helping her to locate her estranged father so she could establish a connection with him.  However, before this reconnection happened, the young woman learned that her father had died from a drug overdose.  This intensified her trauma and when she presented at Sam’s clinic after the death of her father, she was unable to talk about her father, follow a line of discussion or formulate coherent sentences.  Sam described this in terms of “her brain down regulating”.

Sam’s first principle – “do no harm” – came into play as he realised that getting her to talk would take her outside her window of tolerance.  As he knew about her interest in music and her favourite genre, he intuitively realised that listening to music that she liked would enable her to establish some degree of equanimity, build trust and reinforce the relationship through a shared pleasant experience. 

As they listened to the music together, she slowly began to move her head in line with the beat and rhythm of the music.  Then, she began to talk.  Sam described the effect on Jeanette of listening to the music as regulating her central nervous system, bringing her back within the window of tolerance and enabling her to access her language ability so that she could express her emotions such as anger, grief and sadness.

Sam had realised that while Jeanette was positive about the utility of mindfulness in the context of therapy, “conventional talk therapy or mindfulness meditation wasn’t going to work”.  This music intervention was in line with what he described as practising an INCRA, an “inherently non-clinical relational activity” that is not a therapy technique in itself but effectively builds the relationship.  Sam discusses case studies where he has used INCRA in a clinical setting with teens in his forthcoming book, Trauma-Informed Mindfulness for Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can better access our intuition when working with or training people who have suffered trauma.   Being present to the person needing help will enable us to let go of conventional, trained responses and be open to activities that are non-clinical in nature but develop the relationship – the foundation for all helping.  Trauma-informed mindfulness, then, involves not only sensitivity to trauma-impacted people but also the flexibility to depart from habituated responses or processes.  Mindfulness helps us to tap into our innate curiosity and creativity.

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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 Do You Do if Mindfulness Does Not Reduce Your Symptoms of Anxiety or Depression?

I was approached recently by a young man who was experiencing severe anxiety.  He was able to cope well with his work but had all kinds of difficulties coping at home, including endless self-doubts, negative self-stories and an inability to relax or concentrate.  He indicated that he had “tried everything’ – meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection. 

He found, for example, that “reflection” only resulted in his entertaining negative thoughts about himself and re-visiting his destructive self-stories.  So, reflection for him resulted in a downward spiral rather than a release from self-deprecation.

What does “tried everything” mean?

The first consideration is how did he approach these attempts to develop mindfulness and reduce his symptoms?  Given the young man’s level of agitation, it was likely that his efforts were somewhat frantic and unfocussed.  One could question whether he engaged in a sustained meditation practice in a focused way, e.g. working on his self-stories with the aid of a meditation teacher or meditation group.

One of the issues is that there are so many different forms of meditation that it is tempting to “try them all” and flit from one form to another, without addressing your specific needs or the causal factors of your depression or anxiety.  This is where a professional psychologist or dedicated professional group could help.  Organisations like Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute can help by providing knowledge, resources, group support, access to programs and advice in identifying a suitable medical practitioner, psychologist or psychiatrist.  Other specialist carer support groups can assist people who are experiencing anxiety or depression as a result of caring for someone who has a long-term need for care and support.

The Mental Health Care Plan

You may need medication and/or the aid of an allied health professional to overcome depression and/or anxiety. In Australia, there is a specialist form of help that can be accessed through your local medical practitioner, the Mental Health Care Plan.   You explain your symptoms and needs to a doctor who develops a mental health treatment plan with you.  This may include medication, referral to an allied health professional such as a psychologist and/or other forms of activity designed to address your specific mental health condition.  Medicare will provide rebates for visits to an authorised health care professional where the visits have been the subject of referral by a medical practitioner as part of a Mental Health Care Plan.  The number of visits covered by Medicare rebate is 10 (subject to a confirming review by the doctor after the first six visits).

Advancing our understanding of the causes of depression and anxiety

Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, highlights recent research undertaken worldwide that shows that anti-depression medication can be effective in the short term to reduce symptoms but that, in the medium to long term, it typically has to be increased and can reduce in effectiveness over time.  In his book, Johann focuses on the social factors contributing to the global rise in depression and anxiety and proposes solutions that support rather than replace medication treatments, although some people are able to give up their medication after a period of successful use of one or more of these alternative approaches.

Johann identifies seven social factors that contribute to the rise in depression and anxiety, all relating to a loss of connection.  He describes them as “disconnection from”:

Johann acknowledges the research that shows that in some instances a person experiences depression and/or anxiety because of their genes or a brain change brought on by some life experience (pp. 143-155).

Reconnection: alternative anti-depressant treatments

Johann describes several ways to reconnect to overcome depression and anxiety.  These include reconnecting with others, with meaningful work, with nature and/or meaningful values. He also includes chapters on finding “sympathetic joy” while overcoming self-obsession (Chapter 20), and a compelling chapter on acknowledging and overcoming childhood trauma (Chapter 21).

What I found particularly intriguing, as well as very practical, was a chapter on “social prescribing” (Chapter 17).  In this chapter, Johann highlights the work of the Bromley-by-Bow Center which combines a medication approach (where deemed necessary) with hundreds of social programs.  This medical centre is very different to most doctor’s clinics that you would normally visit, both in terms of the orientation of the medical practitioner and the physical environment.  The emphasis is on listening, not medication prescription, and treatment is strongly oriented to “reconnection” strategies such as a walking group, employment skills group, start-up support to establish your own business and a casual group focused on “Create Your Future”.

What further intrigued me was the effectiveness of one project described by Johann through the experience of Lisa, who was experiencing severe depression.  The project was the brainchild of Dr. Sam Everington who was concerned about the over-reliance on anti-depression medication.  Basically, he assigned some of his patients to a community project focused on beautifying a strip of bushland that had become overgrown and neglected but was a popular walk-through. 

The group of people experiencing depression, who had difficulty interacting with anyone and typically kept to themselves, eventually started having conversations, sharing their life histories and their personal mental health challenges as well as plans to beautify the bushland strip.  They had to learn about the seasons, plants and their nutrition needs and how to plant and cultivate different kinds of plants.  They took pride in their project and started to gain confidence and competence.  A moving story was that of a person who had initially presented as very angry and aggressive who went out of his way to help two people who experienced learning difficulties.  Eventually, the members of the group decided to do a Certificate in Horticulture.

Johann pointed out that this creative project addressed two major reconnection needs – reconnection with others and with nature.  It can also be seen that each of these reconnections reinforces the other.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can be open to new ways of dealing with depression and anxiety.  We can learn to reconnect with key elements in our life that induce mentally healthy living, including mindful connection to others, spending time in nature, being grateful for what we have (rather than suffer “status anxiety”) and being willing to show compassion towards others.

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Image by Henning Westerkamp 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.

Bringing an Open Heart to Work

Susan Piver, author of Start Here Now: An Open-Hearted Guide to the Path and Practice of Meditation, presented recently at the Mindfulness@Work Summit on the topic, Create Open Heart Connections at Work.  She explained that having an “open heart” means “softening towards self and our experiences” – accepting ourselves and our life experiences as they are.  In her view it does not mean only having positive thoughts, just being nice all the time or being overly kind to everybody.  While Susan stresses the “softening” aspect of an open heart, she asserts very strongly that there is nothing weak about having an open-hearted stance – in fact, it takes incredible courage to truly face the reality of ourselves and our experience, not hiding behind a mask.  This openheartedness develops rich workplace relations built on respect and a profound recognition of connectedness – thus enabling creativity and innovation to flourish.

Hiding behind a mask

As mentioned in my previous post, we are constantly projecting onto others by judging them by their actions while thinking positively about ourselves because of our good intentions.  Many times, our judgments are projections of what we do not like about our self rather than an innate feature of the character of the other person.  We are not open to our blind spots or unconscious bias. We can carry resentment that is based on false assumptions and a lack of understanding.

We have this tendency to hold onto a self-image that protects our sense of self-worth and, at the same time, creates distance from others.  In contrast, being open hearted enables “respectful relationships” that are essential for workplace productivity, creativity and innovation.  Susan argues that Western society is obsessed with self-improvement but that the starting position for an individual is often self-delusion, a figment of our imagination rather than facing what is real about ourselves.  Even being perfect at meditation becomes a goal in itself.

Meditation as a pathway to an open heart

Meditation enables us to be with ourselves as we are – our feelings, thoughts, disappointments, hopes, anxieties and fears.  It involves a “softening to self” – a path of curiosity and self-discovery.  We begin to notice what is really there not what we think is, or should be, there.  It helps us to surf the waves of life rather than ignore that they exist.  However, an open heart is not achieved easily – it requires a fierce commitment and the courage to “free fall” without the support of self-delusion.

The resultant openness to our real self is liberating – it can be truly transformative.  Part of this outcome is acknowledgement and acceptance of our vulnerability, rather than a pretence of our strength and invincibility.  Susan points out too that the things that are valued in the workplace such as innovation, creativity, insight, wisdom and compassion all require “receptivity” – an openness to receiving, the capacity to be truly present and the ability to connect constructively.  An open heart helps us to negotiate work and life challenges and to engage with others in the workplace in a helpful and creative way. 

The Open Heart Project

The Open Heart Project, led by Susan Piver, is an international, online community of over 20,000 people who engage in ongoing mindfulness meditation practice and sharing.  It is designed to bring peace and harmony to the world through true self-compassion and in-depth relationships and connection.  Susan also offers free information and guided meditations to individuals who subscribe to her weekly newsletter through her blog page.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation that facilitates an open heart, we begin to see our self and our experiences as they truly are, develop genuine self-compassion and build constructive, productive and creative workplace relationships.

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Image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer 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.