Healing the Wounds of Trauma

Corey De Vos of Integral Life and Ryan Oelke discussed the need to address the effects of trauma at sometime in our life.  Their discussion, Inhabit Your Wound, was wide-ranging and covered the impacts of trauma, barriers to addressing the wounds and processes for uncovering the wisdom that lies beneath the pain of trauma.  They suggest that each of us has our own “unique constellation of trauma” but if the wounds are addressed with a gentle curiosity, social support, professional help and self-compassion, they can release new insights and energy to enable us to more fully realise our purpose in life.

Trauma tends to impact many facets of our life, often below the level of consciousness.  It might be reflected in irrational fears, reluctance to appear in public, constant anxiety and depression, inability to develop and/or maintain intimate relationships, eating disorders or addiction, indecisiveness, inability to hold down a job or an overall sense of lack of meaning and purpose.  Many things can trigger a trauma response, including objects, people, news, conversations and observing a violent incident – because trauma impacts at a “cellular level”. Trauma can leave us directionless, powerless, confused and disoriented.

Barriers to healing the wounds of trauma

Corey and Ryan maintain that the shadow of trauma follows us throughout life, but we typically have defence mechanisms to prevent us from dealing with the pain and healing the wounds.  The memory of a trauma is often submerged below our level of consciousness because we sense that recollection is potentially too painful.  We may even have experienced dissociation to keep the memory away from our inner awareness.  We may have developed an internal narrative that is based on denial – “it really didn’t happen” – and this acts as a barrier to exploration and healing from trauma.

Ryan and Corey also observe that sometimes we could be part of a collective trauma experienced as a result of systemic discrimination or jointly experienced life events.  These life events could take the form of war, mass incarceration, natural disasters or a terrorist incident.  They can lead to “culturally inherited dramas” imprinted on our psyche.  Experience with religion during childhood or later in life can leave its own “baggage” and can be “harder to unpack” and deal with because it can become caught up with other traumatic experiences.  Corey and Ryan suggest that sometimes people want to hold onto their trauma because it makes them feel special and may even elicit a desired, sympathetic response from others (neediness in this area my be symptomatic of the trauma itself).

Processes to heal the wounds of trauma

We may have developed the ability to operate productively and confidently with our work environment but become aware of some disfunction in other arenas of our life.  Alternatively, we may have noticed a habituated and unhelpful response to a specific kind of incident such as personal criticism, open conflict or someone challenging our ideas or perspective.  These experiences can be the catalyst to deal with the “residual effect” of trauma and provide the necessary motivation to change our behaviour.

Corey and Ryan suggest, in line with Jon Kabat-Zinn, that a potential starting point is to “reinhabit our body” – to start noticing our bodily sensations and reactions.  This can lead to curiosity about what has triggered these responses and what prior experiences underly the nature and intensity of our response.  Ryan suggests that we need to work with any resistance we may experience in our body, but we should proceed slowly with a tender and caring curiosity.  A key here is our readiness to open the wounds and our resilience in dealing with the result – timing and support are of the essence.  Somatic meditation has proven to be an effective way to deal with the wounds of trauma and it is often undertaken with professionally trained facilitators.

There are a wide range of therapists to assist anyone who wants to deal with trauma and its effects.  Some employ cognitive approaches (such as Dialectic Behaviour Therapy) requiring voicing our thoughts, feelings and assumptions, others use less cognitive approaches such as art or music as tools for therapy.  A more recent development is the use of equine (horse) therapy which may be more appropriate for someone who loves animals and particularly horses.  Organisations such as Beyond Blue provide links to resource centres and professional therapists and others such as the Black Dog Institute offer support groups.  Keith Witt offers two books, Shadow Light and Shadow Light Workbook, that provide insights into our trauma-induced, unconscious responses and offer practices to illuminate the nature and potentiality of our “shadow self”.

The experience of Clare Bowditch in healing the wounds of trauma

Clare Bowditch – singer, songwriter and actor – captured her healing journey in her “no holds barred”, personal memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl.  Clare indicated that she wrote the story of her early life to encourage others to speak to someone and seek assistance if they are suffering from the effects of trauma, especially if they are experiencing anxiety and/or depression.  She describes in detail her own battle with anxiety and depression brought on by adverse childhood experiences and the trauma of seeing her sister die at the age of seven, after two years of hospitalisation with a rare, incurable illness that progressively eroded her muscles and caused paralysis. 

Clare, like Corey and Ryan, stressed the critical importance of relationships (family and friends) for her successful healing journey.  She encourages people to set out on the painful journey because it is “well worth it”, even if it turns out to be tougher than you first thought.  Clare experienced a nervous breakdown – she had fled to London, unprepared economically and emotionally, after she experienced shame and depression following a relationship breakup.  She experienced severe symptoms of her trauma wounds such as an inability to listen to music, write songs, watch TV, listen to the radio, eat well, sleep adequately or go outside.  She was consumed by all kinds of irrational fears and images of death (grieving her sister’s death).   Her response was to return home to her family and spend up to six months healing herself including meditating and learning about the impact of stress and unhealthy foods on the body’s nervous system.

Clare was able to reframe her nervous breakdown as a “nervous breakthrough” because “it was at this time that I got a really deep sense of what made sense to me, which was music” (p. 326).  She had finally found herself.  She rediscovered her need to be creative, to avoid things that did not make sense to her and to sing and write songs that really spoke her truth – her real, raw feelings.  She stated that the journey required the discipline to control her negative self-talk, the insight to realise that despite her life circumstances she had a choice in how she responded and the courage and resilience to persist despite setbacks.

Consistent with Corey and Ryan, Clare maintains that it is important to celebrate the small steps forward because they collectively make up the journey:

… a career is a thing that’s made up of one tiny step, one small act of courage after the other.  It’s only really when you look back later that it all makes sense. (p.313)

Reflection

Trauma affects many people in multiple, idiosyncratic ways.  The problem is that it works away as our shadow self and unconsciously impacts our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, behaviour and responses to triggers.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and self-observation, we are better able to gain insight into how we have been impacted, to develop the courage to address our trauma-induced wounds and move forward (however slowly) to realise our life purpose. 

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

Living with Purpose

Ginny Whitelaw introduced her Lead with Purpose online training program In an interview with David Riordan of Integral Life.  Basically, the program is about living with purpose because it is not only about leading in an organisational setting but extends to every area of our life, including family and community.  During the interview, Ginny explains in detail what the course covers, the practices employed, and the perspective offered.  She particularly emphasises the non-religious orientation of the course even though it draws on Zen philosophy and is part of the many leadership development programs available through the Institute for Zen Leadership.  Ginny maintains that unlike many leadership programs that are highly conceptual in nature, the Lead with Purpose program is very much about mind-body connection – it highlights the need to achieve this integration of mind and body if a leader is to achieve realisation of their ideas and purpose.  Integral Life offers other enlightening interviews in their series of podcasts, as well as courses.

The influences behind the Lead with Purpose Course

Ginny brings to the course her doctoral studies in biophysics, a sound understanding of recent neuroscience research, training in and practice of Zen philosophy, training in martial arts (Aikido black belt, level 5 achieved as well as training others) and her experience as a senior manger in NASA (coordinating groups that support the International Space Station).  So, her training covers mind and body and their intimate connection – and she incorporates this uniquely shaped perspective in the training course.

To Ginny, the Zen approach is about direct experience of the mind-body connection and aims to deepen and enrich this sense of connection.  This is achieved in part through physical practices focused on the breath and moving focus away from analysis and obsession with using the brain to work things out.   The practices are designed to centre and stabilise the energy of the body and make it available as a rich resource to pursue our life purpose.

These practices heighten our intuition and sensitivity to the body’s signals and develop our insight into our fundamental purpose in life and the pathway to pursue it.  Ginny points out that our individual purpose is what differentiates each of us and our connection within and with others enables us to manifest that unique purpose in our lives, whatever arena we are operating in.   She maintains that this centredness enables us to influence others effectively whether in a meeting, a public presentation, in our family relationships or when engaging with the wider community.

Some of the modern-day issues addressed in Lead with Purpose

In today’s fast paced world with ever increasing demands and rapid change on every front, we often express frustration in three main areas – (1) lack of time, (2) lack of energy and (3) inability to translate ideas into action.

  1. Ginny explains in the interview that the course changes our relationship to time so that we are not racing against time but are focused on the now and being fully engaged with our situation.  She points out that participants in the course develop a different perspective on time and no longer see time as something separate but experience time through their continuous, personal evolution.
  2. Ginny addresses the lack of energy by maintaining that often we are unproductive because we get distracted from our purpose and energy gets “siphoned off’ into other pursuits.  The Lead with Purpose course through its centredness in the body builds energy and enables real resonance to be achieved by a person who is leading.  She explains that “as the body relaxes, energy flows”.  Ginny describes four basic “energy patterns” that exist in our nervous system and that are foundational to her approach in the course.  She maintains that we each prefer a particular pattern which reflects our personality (and influencing style) but we need to develop the capacity to use the “right energy at the right time” – a specific focus of the course.  As we increase our internal connectedness between body and mind, we can use our heightened energy to influence externally – to manifest our dreams and purpose.
  3. Often our attempts to translate our ideas into action are thwarted by our internal barriers (such as negative self-talk) as well as external barriers related to organisational, personal or community readiness to change.  The Lead with Purpose course creates a heightened sensitivity to what is possible, to the opportunities that open up and to a way forward in pursuit of our purpose.

Ginny explains that through the program, participants create an “intuitive connection’ with the situation in which they lead and an “empathetic connection” with their followers, collaborators or co-creators.

Clare Bowditch – a journey into leading with purpose

Clare Bowditch – singer, songwriter, and actor – is a person of exceptional talent in many arenas. She is the winner of an Aria Award as the best female vocalist and was nominated for a Logie for her acting role in the TV series, Offspring. She has won many awards, toured with famous singers like Leonard Cohen, and developed as a radio presenter and entrepreneur.  She recently released her memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl: The stories we tell ourselves and what happens when we believe them. The memoir recounts an extended personal journey to find her purpose and pursue it with her total focus and centred energy.

Clare suffered numerous dark days through depression, catalysed by childhood trauma through the death of her young sister and adverse childhood experiences through her abusive treatment at school and elsewhere because she was considered “fat”.  She was filled with self-doubts about her talent, fears about future events and a sense of guilt over the death of her sister and her failure to do more to save her (a totally irrational belief given that her older sister died at the age of seven from a rare and incurable disease).

Clare describes in graphic detail the self-talk that debilitated her for much of her early life and clouded her view of her life purpose.  The memoir is also a story of courage, resilience and persistence in the pursuit of her life purpose. Clare adopted multiple approaches to acknowledge her true purpose, accept it and pursue it with a singular, focused energy.  Her strategies included:

  • Drawing on the support of her family and friends (including a “healing friend”)
  • Engaging in meditation (however imperfect)
  • Listening to her body and the signals it was conveying about her fears, her energy, her passion and her happiness
  • Naming negative self-talk as “Frank” and developing a way to shut Frank up and ignore “his” messages (she called it FOF)
  • Developing a personalised approach to relaxing herself (FAFL – Face, Accept, Float and Let time pass).

Clare had to offload the “shoulds” that beset her throughout her life to enable her to identify her differentiation as a singer/songwriter in terms of speaking with her real voice – becoming her “resonant self”, reflecting her true feelings and beliefs.

Reflection

Ginny’s discussion of her course, Lead with Purpose, helps us to realise the blockages that prevent us from identifying, accepting and pursuing our life purpose.  She provides a pathway forward built on an intensive mind-body connection that removes these blocks to insight and energy.  Clare Bowditch provides a model of the courage, resilience and persistence required to truly align our energies with our purpose.  As we grow in mindfulness through physical practices, meditation and reconnection, we can develop a clarity and resonance that enables us to create a real difference in our world.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

Fearlessly Tackling Your Meaningful Work

In previous posts, I have explored the nature of procrastination, the need to bring the self-stories above the line and the importance of building the awareness muscle to be able to identify and challenge our self-defeating thoughts.  Leo Babauta takes this discussion a step further by arguing that we need to be fearless in the pursuit of our meaningful work – pursuing the work that is our life purpose despite our reservations, uncertainties and discomfort.  To fearlessly tackle our meaningful work takes bravery (facing pain without fear) and courage (facing pain despite the presence of fear).

Identifying your rationalisations

Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, argues that to pursue your life purpose represented by meaningful work, you need to face up to the rationalizations that your brain dreams up (a Zen Habits blog post).  He maintains that these rationalizations are really lies that your fearful brain invents to discourage you from taking creative action that is breaking new ground, uncertain in outcome and potentially creating discomfort for you.  The discomfort can take the form of psychological pain (e.g. embarrassment, shame, self-doubt) or physical pain (e.g. headache, bodily tension).   In discussing the numerous rationalization that your mind could think up, Leo suggests potential counters to the mind’s arguments – all of which are enlightening in themselves as they challenge your core self-beliefs.  His blog post serves as a comprehensive checklist to explore your own rationalizations.

Dealing with rationalizations

In his blog post, Leo provides a range of strategies that you can use to deal with the rationalizations that get in the road of you pursuing your meaningful work:

  • Write down your rationalizations (you can use Leo’s checklist as a catalyst) and come up with contrary arguments based on the evidence of your past experiences
  • Treat the rationalization for what they are – invented lies driven by fear and designed to stave off pain and/or discomfort.  Stop believing that they are real and will inevitably eventuate.
  • Avoid your brain’s attempt to negotiate its way out of starting, e.g. putting off the starting time because it is inconvenient or too soon.
  • START– however small a step.  Movement in the right direction overcomes inertia and creates a momentum.  Leo suggests that you practice “moving towards [not away from] what you resist”
  • Become aware that as you practise, movement towards your goal becomes easier – you will experience less resistance and begin to overcome your rationalizations through evidence-based achievement, e.g. the new belief, “I can do this task!”  Leo maintains that there are unexpected rewards for dealing with uncertainty.
  • Remind yourself of your intention – why this meaningful work is important to you.

The self-harm in rationalizations

Disconnection from meaningful work has been identified by Johann Hari as a key factor in the rise of depression and anxiety in today’s western world.  Our brains, through rationalizations, are creating self-harm by keeping us from connecting with what is meaningful to us – what gives purpose to our lives.  Leo is so committed to helping us move beyond fear and rationalizations, that he has created a significant training program, Fearless Purpose: Training with the Uncertainty & Anxiety of Your Meaningful Work, to help people realise their meaningful work, whether that is writing a book, starting a community organisation, beginning a new, and purposeful career or undertaking any other creative endeavour that we may be fearful about.  The program is comprehensive and includes an e-book, meditations, videos and a support community.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become aware of the rationalizations that our brain thinks up to stop us from pursuing what we know, deep down, to be our real, meaningful work – pursuits that help us to realise our life purpose.  Mindfulness can also help us to challenge these mental barriers and free ourselves to act with courage in the face of uncertainty.

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Image by Sasin Tipchai 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.

Disconnection from Childhood Trauma: A Potential Determinant of Depression and Ill-Health

Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, identified seven social causes of depression including the loss of connection to other people.  One of the surprising findings in his discussions with researchers and his colleagues, was the link between obesity, childhood trauma and depression.  In the final analysis, collectively they established that in many instances unresolved childhood trauma was a determinant of obesity and depression. 

Obesity and depression

Johann drew on the ground-breaking research of Dr. Vincent Felitti, Founding Chairman of the Department of Preventative Medicine of Kaiser Permanente – a fully integrated medical provider offering not only health care plans but also services such as specialist medical practitioners, a dynamic medical school, mental health services and education and an affordable housing initiative.  Kaiser Permanente views a healthy life for all as a cause to pursue, and is a pioneer in offering seamless health services along with leading edge research into preventative methods and treatment approaches.

Kaiser Permanente commissioned Vincent to undertake research into obesity because it was becoming the major factor in the growth of its operational costs.  Vincent started out by using a specialised diet plan supported by vitamin supplements that was designed to help obese people lose weight.  This approach appeared highly successful on early indications, but Vincent noticed that the people most successful at losing weight were dropping out of the program and returning to their eating habits and becoming overweight again.  Additionally, they often experienced depression, suicidal thoughts, rage or panic. 

Research by way of interview of 286 participants dropping out of the obesity program established that most had been sexually abused or experienced some other form of childhood trauma.   Obesity was their way to deal with the aftereffects of childhood trauma, including fear of sexual assault and the desire to hide their shame.

Childhood trauma and depression

Vincent was surprised by the findings of the initial study and realised that research of childhood history as a determinant of adult ill health had been avoided previously because of shame, secrecy and the taboo nature of the topic.  Yet his early findings established that childhood trauma played out powerfully decades later in terms of emotional state, biomedical disease and life expectancy.  He found, for example, that 55% of participants in the obesity study had suffered childhood sexual abuse.

The link between obesity, depression and childhood trauma was not well received by the established medical profession.  The video, A Tribute to Dr. Vincent Felitti, highlights the scorn he experienced when first announcing his findings at a medical conference and demonstrates the resilience of a man who had the courage to back his research and the bravery to pursue his creativity.

Vincent was convinced that he had to undertake research with a larger and broader sample of people to establish the credibility of his findings.  Through Kaiser Permanente’s processes of capturing the medical history of patients he was able, in collaboration with Dr. Robert Anda of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), to add additional questions relating to life history.  The questions picked up on the 10 types of childhood trauma identified by participants in the earlier study. The 17,500 participants involved in the second study were representative of the broader population of California where the study was done.  They were middle class with an average age of 57 and were employed.

The research titled the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE) highlighted even more surprising results.  Two thirds of the participants in the research program had experienced one or more traumatic events.  One in nine had experienced 5 or more adverse childhood events.  They also established that the higher the number of different adverse childhood events experienced by an individual (their ACE Score), the greater the likelihood of that person committing suicide.

Typical strategies adopted by individuals to cope with the impacts of childhood trauma only exacerbate the problem of ill health, e.g. smoking or over-eating.  Vincent maintained that the experience of chronic, unrelieved stress affects the nervous system and the brain and can produce “the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals in a person’s body”, leading to suppression of the immune system.

What can be done about childhood trauma?

I have previously discussed principles and guidelines for trauma-informed mindfulness practice.  Johann Hari, in the section of his book on reconnection strategies offered several strategies that could have a positive effect on the negative impacts of childhood trauma, such as obesity and depression.  His recommended reconnection strategies include social prescribing and reconnection with nature, meaningful work and meaningful values.

Vincent Felitti, too, was concerned that people who had experienced childhood trauma need some form of hope about their ability to redress its negative effects.  He decided to do further research involving medical practitioners who were treating patients through Kaiser Permanente.  He provided them with a few simple questions to ask patients that related to life history and covered childhood experiences, and asked them to express genuine empathy and respect for the patient. 

Vincent found that the participants showed “a significant reduction in illness” once a patient shared their story of childhood trauma with a doctor.  He thought that the explanation for this was twofold – (1) the person was sharing their story with another person for the first time and (2) the recipient of the disclosure was a trusted authority figure who treated them with kindness and respect.  He postulated that the intermediate effects related to the fact that the experience removed the shame and self-loathing associated with the adverse childhood event.  The association of the childhood trauma with the experience of humiliation was broken. Vincent acknowledged that this was an area for further research.

Vincent argued that the ultimate solution to childhood trauma lay in “primary prevention” and advocated for the integration of their research findings into primary care medical practice.  He also supported the development of a life experience questionnaire reporting on childhood trauma as a part of a patient’s medical record that could subsequently be viewed by the treating doctor.  A healing conversation could take place if the patient was willing and able to share their story.

David Treleaven warns, however, that when dealing with someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is imperative not to tackle the trauma experience head-on.  He advocates a trauma-sensitive mindfulness approach.  Sam Himelstein also cautions against the use of direct questioning and talking where a person is outside their window of tolerance

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through research, meditation and reflection, we can begin to recognise the impact of our own experience of childhood trauma and address the negative impacts it has on our own life and relationships. We can also become sensitised to the experience of others who have experienced adverse childhood events and take this into account when dealing with individuals and groups who are seeking to use a mindfulness approach to improve their quality of life.

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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.

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.

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.

A Reflection: Seeing Our Self in Our Children

In our leadership/management development workshops, my colleague and I often have participants identify what their staff say or do that annoys them. Then we ask them to think about what they say and do that would annoy their boss. They are frequently surprised that their staff’s words and actions often reflect their own annoying habits. They are surprised too that this process of using their staff as a mirror opens up the possibility of their being honest with themselves. So too, we can use our children as a mirror into our own behaviour.

Seeing our self in our children

When we look at our son or daughter, we might acknowledge that they regularly withhold information or only provide information that puts them in a good light – and we might think of them as deceitful. They might regularly lie to us or mislead us – and we might think of them as dishonest. They might never clean their room or leave things lying around the house for us to trip over – and we might think of them as thoughtless. They might throw tantrums or angry fits when they don’t get their way – we might think of them as manipulative. They might be self-absorbed, ignoring your needs at any point in time – we might think of them as inconsiderate. They might carry grudges or disappointment for a very long time – we might think of them as resentful. They might accuse us of something they do themselves – we might think of them as incongruous.

Whatever negative characteristics we attribute to our children can serve as a mirror into our own words and behaviour – as reflecting who we really are. Often our self-reflection is full of “shoulds” and self-deception as we hide our real self behind a mask. Again, we may judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions, rather than by what we say and do.

It is a revealing and challenging reflection to apply the negative attributes that we ascribe to our children to our own self. We could ask our self for instance, “In what way do my words and behaviour in my relationships show that I am deceitful, dishonest, thoughtless, manipulative, inconsiderate, resentful or incongruous?” The adjectives themselves carry such negative connotations that we are reluctant to ascribe them to ourselves, yet we might ascribe them to our children. Facing up to the reality of ourselves as both meeting our own expectations and falling short is very challenging – but it is the road to an open heart and all the happiness and effectiveness that this portends.

Extending the reflectionlooking deeper into the mirror

It is challenging enough to acknowledge our own negative attributes; it is even more challenging to extend the reflection to look at how our words and actions impact or shape the words and behaviour of our children. We can readily deny that we have influence, either directly or indirectly, on what they say or do, but we are part of their learning environment – an influential force in shaping their character for life. Owning up to this impact takes considerable courage, insight and self-awareness.

However, whatever negative traits we attribute to our self through this reflective exercise does not define who we are – we are much more than the sum of these negative attributes. We have to move beyond the shame we feel (with the self-realisation from this reflection), to the genuine exploration of our inner depth and extend self-forgiveness and loving kindness to our self as we move forward.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation and reflection on seeing our self in our children, we can progressively overcome our self-deception, develop inner awareness, build understanding and tolerance and develop an open heart. We need to nurture ourselves through self-forgiveness and loving kindness if we are going to be able to deal with the emerging self-awareness.

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Image by Alexandr Ivanov 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.

Resilience is Not Endurance or Acceptance of a Toxic Situation

Resilience is very much about “bouncing back” from adversity or setbacks. Richard Davidson in his research has shown that resilience can be measured in terms of the rapidity with which the body returns to its “baseline” – measured in terms of level of cortisol and the level of activation of the amygdala. He maintains that resilience is not acceptance or endurance of a toxic environment that is unjust or inappropriate.

Resilience can be built through developing life skills that enable you to move beyond significant adverse life events. Richard and his colleagues have identified conscious ways to build resilience by using meditation and mindfulness practices focused on developing bodily awareness, social connection, personal insight and life purpose.

Resilience does not lead to acceptance of a toxic situation but rather builds motivation and skill to address the situation effectively. Mindfulness practices designed to build resilience also strengthen your capacity to manage stresses experienced within a toxic situation by increasing self-awareness, enhancing self-regulation, improving clarity and calmness and releasing creativity.

Resilience and compassion: building motivation and capacity for action

In the previous post, I discussed social connection as one way to build resilience and compassion meditation (loving-kindness meditation) as a way to develop social connection. Professor David DeSteno, renowned psychologist and author of The Truth About Trust, maintains that the ability to build social connections through compassion (through assisting those in need) makes us more resilient over the longer term. 

Kelly McGonigal, in her presentation on The Science of Compassion during the Mindful Healthcare Summit, maintained that compassion benefits everyone in a system – the person who shows compassion, the recipient, colleagues and witnesses (e.g. the hundreds of thousands of people who have witnessed the compassionate action by Mo Cheeks).

Kelly’s research and that of her colleagues suggests that people who undertake training in compassion (such as Compassion Cultivation Training [CCT] offered by Stanford University) become strong and resilient advocates for system change where people are suffering. She maintains that participants in CCT are more able to effectively change a toxic situation through their hope, courage, renewed energy and strong social connection. She suggests that this “very work of change is a form of compassion”. On reflection, compassion appeared to be the driver in an earlier reported case where participants used action learning to redress a toxic work environment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditations designed to build resilience, we can increase our motivation and capacity to act effectively to change a toxic situation that is causing suffering for people. By building social connections through compassion, we not only strengthen our resilience, but also enhance our capacity to act effectively with hope and energy to address the suffering experienced within the toxic system.

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Image by Bruno Glätsch 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.

Our Self-Stories Perpetuate Anxiety

We live in an anxious world where the prevalence of anxiety disorder has reached epidemic proportions in Australia, even in primary school children. This increasing level of anxiety disorder is mirrored in the reported experience in America. Underlying this growth in anxiety are self-stories that have a significant, negative impact on relationships. A core problem encountered when trying to eliminate these negative self-stories is the range of forces that keep them in place and cement their hold over us.

Tara Brach, in her course on overcoming negative beliefs and patterns of thought, argues that fear-based stories dominate our mental maps. In respect to our relationships, these stories suggest what we should be and what others should be – an impossible realisation that generates anxiety because of the gap between our self-perception/ perception of others and some idealised reality.

How self-stories are maintained

Tara argues that there are three factors that sustain our self-stories and perpetuate our anxiety:

  1. Our self-stories involve “deep groves in the psyche” – we continuously repeat an inner dialogue that creates neural pathways that deepen over time as the cycle of thought- fear-manifestation becomes more deeply embedded through repetition. Fear generates a biochemical reaction which becomes an automated response and maintains the experience of anxiety as a persistent state.
  2. We are reticent to share our self-stories that betray our uncertainty, anxiety and inability to cope. We keep them to ourselves and, because we do not expose them to the “light of day” by sharing them with others, we become more and more captured by them and identified with them over time.
  3. We cling to these negative self-stories because they give us a semblance of control which is illusory. We maintain these stories because they are reinforced by our distorted perception of our past experience. As Tara points out, we prefer to have “a deficient map rather than no map at all” – even though this gives us a false sense of security. The “disease to please” is one such deficient map.

Breaking the cycle of anxiety-producing self-stories

Tara maintains that it takes a lot of courage, persistence and self-compassion to break down the anxiety-inducing, negative self-stories. The more difficult self-stories to counter are those that are based on a perception that our life situation will only worsen not get better – a precursor to depression.

It takes courage to face up to the self-stories that negatively impact our relationships and to look beyond the stories to what underlies them, e.g. fear of rejection. It takes persistence to continue this self-exploration despite relapses brought on by self-recrimination over beliefs such as “this should not be happening to me” or “I should not be like this”. In the final analysis, it requires self-compassion and self-forgiveness to break out of the vicious cycle of self-talk that perpetuates anxiety.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can throw some light on our self-stories that negatively impact our relationships. With courage and persistence, we can break the anxiety-producing cycle of these stories by accessing self-compassion and self-forgiveness.

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Image by skeeze on 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.