Being Mindful About Our Thoughts

Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Mindfulness of Thoughts, explains the role thoughts can play in our lives and provides options for using mindfulness meditation to control our thoughts.

Thoughts have a powerful influence over our lives – they can be positive or negative with consequential impacts on the way we see and experience the world.  They can express our perceptions of others and our experiences.  Our thoughts can extend to our needs such as who I wish to marry, where I would like to live, my ideal job, what I want to study/research or what I am going to do with the surplus in my life.

We also have thoughts that contribute to our pain and suffering such as negative self-evaluation, anxious thoughts, thoughts about grief or thoughts that engender negative emotions such as rage, anger, frustration or envy.

Being mindful about our thoughts

Mindfulness can really help us to manage our thoughts.  Diana suggests that a fundamental rule is, “Don’t believe everything you think”.  Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us too, “We are not our thoughts”.  Thoughts can be seen as real but, in reality, they are just passing through our mind, unless we cultivate and encourage them.

We can be trapped by our thoughts or create some space so that we have times when we are free from them.  Freedom comes from just noticing our thoughts as they pass by rather than being enmeshed in them and acting them out, particularly where they are negative.

Diana uses the metaphor of a passing train as a way to illustrate how one thought leads to another, which leads to another…as if they are coupled or joined together.  They become like a “thought train that leads us down a particular track”.  Before you know it, a lot of time can elapse and you begin to wonder where the time has gone – you have been lost in your thoughts.

By being in the present moment through mindfulness, you can stop yourself from going down that particular track that your thoughts are leading you along. Diana suggests that an alternative position is to visualize yourself staying on the platform and watching the thoughts go by, avoiding getting on the thought train, just letting the train go past.

Meditations to control our thoughts

We can build awareness by focusing on our breathing while noticing when thoughts arise and then returning to our focus – our breath.  This practice of noticing, not cultivating our thoughts, and returning to our focus, is a powerful way to achieve equanimity and avoid being disturbed and captured by our thoughts that can lead to a negative spiral.

A second meditation practice is to actually notice a thought and pay attention to it for a brief interval – just noticing it briefly and returning to our focus.  It becomes like a temporary aside.  We could notice that we are engaged in planning, critiquing or other frequent forms of our mental activity.

A third meditation practice is open awareness – like noticing thoughts as if they are clouds in the sky passing by us as the wind blows them along in a hazy way.

Each of these meditation practices can help us to be mindful about our thoughts and to learn to control them so that they do not control us and the way we experience, and relate to, the world.  Diana, in her meditation podcast, leads us through each of these meditation practices to enable us to experience the sense of freedom and control that comes from release from the binds of our thoughts.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices that address our thoughts, we can develop a sense of peace and control and free ourselves to show up for our lives – not being held back by the heavy anchor of negative thoughts.

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

Image source: courtesy of abogawat on Pixabay

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Our Thoughts Can Affect Our Performance

In the previous post, I discussed how nervousness can affect your mind and body and impact your performance.  I also looked at two strategies – naming your feelings and accessing your success anchor – to gain control over your nervousness.  In this post, I want to focus on how our thoughts can affect our performance.

Our negative thoughts

When we are nervous or anxious about our performance before some public activity, our minds tend to race, and we lose control over our thinking. We can be bombarded with a whole host of negative thoughts – “What if I forget what I was going to say?”, “What will people think of me?”, “How will I ever recover if I embarrass myself in front of my colleagues?”,  “Will I cope if they reject me?”, or “What if I do not meet their expectations?”

These negative thoughts often lead to procrastination.  I have found many times that people fail to start something because of these kinds of negative thoughts.  Sometimes, these disabling thoughts are not at a conscious level – they may just manifest as nervousness or anxiety.  This is where an exercise to name your feelings and the thoughts that create them can be very helpful.

Reframing with positive thoughts

I was recently following up people by phone who had participated in one of my courses – effectively a coaching session.  I was wondering what was causing me to procrastinate.  I have facilitated hundreds of courses and the people I was ringing were participants on my most recent course and yet I was nervous about the phone activity.  I started to follow the suggested step of naming my emotions and identifying the thoughts that gave rise to them.  The thoughts predominantly related to, “Would I live up to their expectations?”, and “Could I actually provide them with some help with their practice or project?”.  Sometimes, our doubts are not rational, but they persist.

Getting in touch with my feelings and negative thoughts enabled me to move on and actually conduct the phone coaching discussions.  What I found was that by controlling my negative thoughts through mindfulness, I was able to change my mindset and view the phone coaching differently.  I came to appreciate the very positive aspects of this exercise and this helped me to reframe the activity as relationship building.  I found that the participants were actually putting into practice in their workplaces the skills we covered in the course and they were having a positive impact on their workplace and the people in their team (intrinsically rewarding feedback!).

I came to the realisation yet again (somewhat blocked by my current anxiety), that my major role was to listen and ask questions for clarification and understanding (mine and theirs).  The experience then was very reaffirming.  Reframing the activity in positive terms, rather than focusing on possible (but not probable) negative outcomes, freed me up to perform better in the coaching interviews.  However, I have a long way to go to be free of “ego” concerns.

Becoming free of ego concerns

When we revisit our concerns or negative thoughts, we often have in advance of some public activity, we begin to realise how much “ego” is involved.  We are concerned about our image – how we will be viewed or assessed, what impact our performance will have on us or our future, what impression we will make or how embarrassed will we be if we “fail”.

These issues constitute ego concerns.  Tom Cronin (The Stillness Project) in his blog post, How to Find the Confidence to Speak in Front of 300 People, suggests that controlling your ego is a key aspect of gaining that confidence.  The less ego plays in determining how you feel about your forthcoming performance, the better you are able to just be present and appreciate the moment. Your presence and sense of calm can be very effective in helping you access your creative abilities and best performance.  He recommends daily meditation as a way to dissolve the ego and gain peaceful presence, no matter what we are doing:

… meditation plays a HUGE role. In the stillness of meditation we connect with that unbounded state of peaceful presence, beyond the limits of the ego. The work is to put aside time to meditate, and then outside of meditation, to observe the difference between that which is ego and that which is not. 

To remove all ego from our thoughts and activities requires a very advanced state of mindfulness.  As Tom indicates, this is a lifetime pursuit, because ego often gets in the road of our performance and our ability to have a positive impact.  However, we cannot wait until we are cleansed of all ego before we perform.

I have successfully addressed 1,800 people at a World Congress in Cartagena, Colombia in South America.  The topic was on action learning and I was doing the opening address as President of the Action Learning and Action Research Association.  My luggage had not arrived by the start of the Congress, so I had to present in my jeans that I wore on the flight over and a colourful Cartegena t-shirt I bought in the street outside the Congress.

I had to let go of any ego concerns about my standard of dress (the other dignitaries were in suits) if I was to actually get up on the stage.  I think this need and the casualness of my dress helped me in my address – it was particularly well received by the Colombians who were present amongst the representatives from 61 countries.  I certainly had ego concerns but the momentousness of the occasion and the potential contribution of the Congress to global cooperation, helped me to get through and manage my nerves.  But you can see I still have ego concerns that are alive and active when I undertake a relatively simple phone coaching activity (as described above) – lots more meditation to do!!

As we grow in mindfulness, we can clear anticipatory, negative thoughts about our performance, identify and control our emotions and progressively remove our ego concerns.

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

Image source: courtesy of xusenru on Pixabay

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

 

Naming Your Feelings to Tame Them

In the previous post, I discussed recognising our feelings.  This involved firstly, acknowledging that a very wide range of emotions are the essence of being human, and secondly, using mindfulness to get in touch with the feelings we are experiencing.  In this post, we take this process one step further by naming our individual feelings

Why name your feelings?

In his book, Mindsight, Dan Siegel argues that we “Name It to Tame It” – in other words, by naming our feelings we are better able to control them or, at least, lessen their impact as Professor Matthew D. Lieberman found in his research.

Dan argues that to say “I feel angry” is a very different statement, both in content and impact, than the words “I am angry”.  The latter tends to define us as angry person, whereas the former helps us to recognise that we are not our feelings – we are a lot more than what we feel.  Feelings come and go in nature and intensity – our essence remains.  Naming our feelings in a gentle, non-judgmental way affirms our self-worth and opens up the opportunity to master our feelings.

Naming your feelings gives you a sense of power over them and a freedom from servitude to them.  It also creates new perspectives and a spaciousness for the release of creativity.  As Dr. Ornish noted:

When you take time for your feelings, you become less stressed and you can think more clearly and creatively, making it easier to find constructive solutions.

The challenge of naming your feelings

Often we suppress our feeling or deny them because we are embarrassed to admit that we have those feelings.  Another issue is that often they come in a bundled format – a number of intertwined feelings linked together by a stimulus event or thought.  So, it is often hard to untangle them to identify and name each one.

Jack Kornfield tells the story of his encounter with a young man who said that he was depressed.  So Jack sat with him and entered into a conversation to help him to find out what was happening emotionally for him.  The young man started talking and first identified being worried, then angry, then discouraged, then sad – and finally, he was able to see a way ahead rather than being held captive by this undigested mix of feelings.  I had a similar experience recently, where I passed through a progressive range of feelings – unease, anxiety, fear, anger, empathy – only to identify creative solutions to the issue that was disturbing me.

Thus we need to take time to get in touch with our feelings and to name them.  Sometimes, we can be lost for words to name our feelings.  However, there are a wide range of resources such as the list of feelings (pleasant and unpleasant/difficult).  These feeling words open up the opportunity to get in touch with, and be more descriptive of, what we are actually feeling (rather than using a vague catch-all descriptor which does not strengthen our sense of emotional control).

Jack Kornfield suggests a meditation to help here as well.  It involves the typical process of mindful breathing followed by body scan and then identifying any feeling that you are experiencing through your body – it could be tightness brought on by anxiety, a tingling sensation from nervousness or a speeding-up of your breath resulting from a felt fear.  Acknowledging this feeling and naming it, without judgement, is the first step to dealing with it and gaining self-mastery.  After naming one feeling, you can move onto another feeling during this meditation process.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness meditation on our feelings we gain the insight to name and tame those feelings and open up new perspectives on, and solutions for, existing problems.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

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

Agency and Mental Health

Trade Union Congress (TUC), in their 2015 document, Work and Wellbeing: A Trade Union Resource, included concern about the management style adopted in some dysfunctional organisations and the negative impact that this had on “worker involvement, and the level of control a worker has over their work” (p.5).

Agency and Worker Participation

What the TUC is referring to here in terms of worker involvement and control over work, is often referred to as “agency” – the capacity of a worker to influence their workplace environment and to have a degree of power over the way things are done.

As discussed in an earlier post, Grow Your Influence by Letting Go, many managers are reluctant to delegate authority and responsibility for a wide range of reasons.  As pointed out in the previous blog post, most of these reasons for not delegating and sharing power are not valid and come from a fear of loss of control.  Mindfulness practices can help a manager to get in touch with, and overcome, these often-baseless fears.

The narcissistic manager represents the extreme case of not letting go because they need to be “in control” and will micro-manage to achieve a sense of total control, which is an illusory goal.  Narcissistic managers, then, work directly against this goal of agency and deprive workers of the mental health benefits that accrue to those who experience a strong sense of agency.  The behaviour of these managers in denying agency, leads to frustration, anger and mental illness.

Agency and Mental Health

The TUC report on wellbeing in the workplace, contrasts four worker situations (pp.3-5):

  1. unemployed people – substantially higher rates of mental health illness and suicide than those employed
  2. not employed in paid work – but who have access to a reasonable income level, and achieve lots of social interaction through community or other voluntary work – do not have increased physical or mental health risks
  3. employed in low pay work – with long working hours or little agency (control over their work environment and how the work is done) – “suffer the same health problems as those who are unemployed”.
  4. employed in productive workplaces – where there is a high level of agency for workers, effective people management policies and trust between managers and employees – a healthy workplace with low risk of mental health issues arising from the workplace.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, author of The Influential Mind, reinforces the strong relationship between the sense of agency and mental health when she stated that research shows that being able to control our environment “helps us thrive and survive”.

As managers grow in mindfulness they are able to increase their level of self-awareness, address their fears such as fear of loss of control and develop healthy workplaces where trust abounds, employees experience real agency and people management policies support the full engagement of employees.

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

Image source: courtesy of kalhh on Pixabay

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

Grow Your Influence by Letting Go

In a previous post, we discussed how mindfulness helps us to increase our sense of control over our internal environment and responses to external stimuli.  However, there are times when we have to give up control over our external environment to enable others to gain a sense of control over their work or environment.

A fundamental dilemma in life is that to grow our influence we need to let go.  If we become too controlling, we get compliance from others but lose their commitment and energy – ultimately things get out of control.

If you are a manager or someone who has the power to delegate tasks to others, it is very difficult to let go.  However, if you fail to do so, your influence contracts, rather than grows.

We are afraid to let go because:

  • things might get out of hand
  • the other person does not have the knowledge or skills to do the task
  • other people may not have our level of knowledge or skill
  • we do not want to be embarrassed by the mistakes or failures of others
  • other people cannot do the task as well as us
  • we get a buzz from achieving things ourselves
  • we like to do things within our comfort zone, rather than things that challenge us.

All of these reasons for not letting go can be challenged but they often serve as barriers to delegating to others – in the final analysis, they can be seen as excuses.  The net result is that we end up overworked and other people are deprived of the opportunity to grow and develop, to achieve outcomes that are valued, to experience satisfaction for a job well done – importantly, if we retain control we limit their sense of agency and capacity to contribute.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot maintains that “control is tightly related to influence” and influence expands when we provide others with a sense of agency – the capacity to control their environment, power over the way things are done.  She argues:

The message, perhaps ironically, is that to influence actions, you need to give people a sense of control.  Eliminate the sense of agency and you get anger, frustration, and resistance.  Expand people’s sense of influence over their world and you increase their motivation and compliance.  (The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 87)

To give up control, however, we have to be in control of our own emotions and responses.  We have to manage our fear of loss of control over our immediate external environment by managing our internal environment. As explained in the previous post, as we grow in mindfulness, we grow in the capacity to develop control over our own emotions and responses.

Tali Sharot suggests that “there is nothing more terrifying than giving away control to another human being” and “this is why many managers feel the need to micromanage their teams”.  She offers advice to managers that resonates with developing mindfulness and awareness:

It is difficult to let go, but awarness can help.  Understanding why we are the way we are, and being conscious of our deeply rooted drive to make decisions, may help us hand over the wheel once in a while.  With awareness comes the understanding that giving away control…is a simple but largely effective way to increase people’s well-being and motivation. (The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 103)

She discusses examples of research projects in different contexts that provide evidence of the effectiveness of the fundamental principle of letting go to empower others by giving them a sense of agency.  One particular research project that resonated strongly with me was one involving the elderly in a nursing home where the fundamental questions framed by the researchers, Rodin and Langer, were:

What if the residents of a nursing home were given more choices, more responsibility, and a greater sense of agency?  Would they become healthier and happier?

To test these questions, the researchers set up an “agency floor” and a “no agency floor” where the former were given control over a range of decisions – a sense of agency not provided to the latter floor. The results are described by Tali Sharot as follows:

Three weeks later, when Rodin and Langer assessed the nursing home residents, they discovered that those individuals who’d been encouraged to take more control over their environments were the happiest and participated in the greatest number of activities.  Their mental alertness improved, and eighteen months later they were healthier than the residents on the “no agency” floor. (The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 97)

This research project has a personal interest for me because it reminds me of the activity of my brother, Pat Passfield, who provided other residents of his nursing home with a strong sense of agency.  He was recently nominated for a philanthropic award for his efforts to raise funds and improve conditions for other residents of the Jacobs Court aged care community at Sinnamon Village (80 years of Care – Wesley Mission, A joint Photojournalism Project between the Wesley Mission Queensland and Griffith University Queensland College of Art, p.22)

So if we learn to let go through developing mindfuless and awareness, we will be able to grow our influence by giving others a sense of agency and control over their environment – and contribute substantially to their health, well-being and happiness.

 

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Mindfulness – Control, Health and Happiness

One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it develops our sense of control. To use an analogy, we begin to realise that we are the one pushing the buttons – our buttons are not being pushed by others, events or the environment.

As we grow in mindfulness, we begin to experience control over our emotions and our responses. We are less at the mercy of our triggers, panic attacks and other sources of stress.  We develop a growing sense of control over ourselves and our environment.

Mindful breathing, for example, is just one practice that enables us to gain control – control over our breathing which is essential to life.

In her 2017 book, The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot argues that:

The brain has evolved to control our bodies so that our bodies can manipulate our environments…Our biology is set up so that we are driven to be causal agents; we are internally rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction when we are in control, and internally punished with anxiety when we are not. (p.102)

Tali Sharot demonstrates through research findings that we have a very high need for control.  She maintains, for example, that aerophobia – the fear of flying – is essentially about the loss of control, we are in the “hands” of the pilot and the plane.  She suggests that suicide is an extreme response to the sense of being out of control, unable to control anything in one’s internal or external environment.

Tali Sharot draws on further research to argue that “people who feel in control are happier and healthier” (p. 95).  As you practice mindfulness, you increase your sense of control over your internal and external environments and enhance your health and happiness.

The more you practice mindfulness, the more you experience the sense of being in control and realise the positive benefits of mindful practice.

 

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