Developing Choiceless Awareness

In the previous post, I discussed three dimensions of awareness in meditation – the narrow, broad and “choiceless awareness”.   In this post, I want to focus on the latter form of awareness that, to some degree, requires foundational skills in narrow awareness or focused awareness.

Choiceless awareness is a recognised form of meditation that has developed over time to increase self-awareness and self-regulation.  For example, Tara Brach offers a free, guided meditation on choiceless awareness which incorporates the use of the mantra “OM“.

Choiceless awareness is not directed to a specific focus as in narrow awareness focused on breath or sounds; it is open to whatever enters your inner awareness.  You might become aware of bodily sensations – pain, tightness, tingling or warmth – in your arms, legs, back, shoulders, feet or chest.

You could become aware of your thoughts as they enter your mind and notice whether they relate to analysing, planning, critiquing, estimating, organising or summarising.  You could ascertain whether your thoughts relate to the past or the future – whether they are concerned with past situations/events or anticipated situations/events.  The main thing is not to entertain the thoughts but to let them pass you by, like bubbles floating to the surface and bursting.

You could become aware of your emotions generated by your thoughts or sensations and become conscious of anxiety, fear, joy, peace, disappointment, hope or any other positive or negative emotion.  You could name the emotion and acknowledge it, e.g. I am feeling sad, and then move your awareness to what else is happening for you.

With choiceless awareness, the focus shifts constantly, and this can become disorientating.  What is recommended if this happens is to turn to focused awareness of your breathing to ground yourself again.  This is why it is suggested that even with choiceless awareness, the starting point should be some form of focused/narrow awareness so that you can return to the grounding offered by the narrower form of meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness by engaging in different forms of meditation, including choiceless awareness, we can increase our self-awareness and self-regulation and be better able to manage situations that are stressful.

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Three Dimensions of Awareness

In one of her many meditation podcasts, Diana Winston discusses three different dimensions of awareness and leads a meditation that explores each dimension.

Diana suggests that no one dimension is better than the others – each is appropriate for a particular time.  It is also possible and desirable to be able to move from one dimension of awareness to another – this may help when you are encountering the obstacle of restlessness or boredom in your meditation.  Sometimes, too, when you are tired you might find that an open, less exacting form of awareness is useful to help you to pay attention in the present moment with openness and curiosity.

  1. Narrow awareness – Diana likens this form of awareness to taking a photo with a telephoto lens where minute details are captured.  The image for this post by MabelAmber illustrates this focus – providing a close-up view of drops of water on the leaves of a plant.  Focusing on our breathing is an example of narrow awareness – and it can be hard work as we keep trying to return to our focus when our mind wanders, and thoughts interrupt the flow of our attention.
  2. Broad awareness – is like taking a panoramic picture of a landscape or seascape with a camera.  Here you are not focusing on detail but breadth and impact.  Open awareness is a good example of this as you are opening your awareness to multiple senses – sight, sounds, smells, taste and touch. Compared to narrow awareness, this can be a more restful meditation, like coasting on your bike after expending much effort peddling.
  3. Choiceless Awareness – as we are meditating, we can notice things happening in our awareness, e.g. change in our breathing, tension release in our body or strong emotions.  The nature of our awareness can shift over a single period of meditation.  We could begin with a narrow focus, open up to a broader focus by listening to the sounds that are coming to us from different directions and then attend to the emotions that those sounds elicit in us.  This ability to consciously shift the focus of our awareness can enhance our capacity to be present to whatever is occurring in our world.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice that employs the different dimensions of awareness we can build the skill to be really present in the moment of practice as well as in future situations involving interactions with others or undertaking a challenging and stressful task.  The capacity to be in the moment with openness and curiosity stays with us as we engage in our daily activities at work or at home.

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Developing Relational Mindfulness

Terry Real, in his podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True, introduced the concept of “relational mindfulness”.  He described this as a skill that we can develop through meditation and reflection.  It entails being able to be in-the-moment in your interactions within your close relationships and to respond from your “adult prefrontal cortex”, while being conscious of the potential, automatic and harmful response of your wounded child.

Relational mindfulness requires recognising that your close relationship is your “biosphere” – it is integral to your ecology.  Terry suggests that “thinking relationally is synonymous with thinking ecologically”.  This, in turn, requires humility – recognition of the mutuality of the relationship, moving beyond the hurt of your wounded child and acknowledging your mistakes and the hurt of the other person.  It also entails being conscious enough to avoid triggering a negative response from the wounded child of the other person in the relationship.

It takes a lot of self-monitoring and self-management developed through meditation and reflection to achieve the requisite humility.  If you can develop self-regulation, you are better able to access your considered, adult response rather than be at the mercy of your compulsive wounded child.

Taking a break to recover and commit to the welfare of the relationship

If, however, despite your best efforts, you are flooded emotionally when you are triggered by the actions or words of your partner, you can withdraw from the interaction.  Terry suggests that the adult, considerate way to do this is to state three things:

  1. your need to take a break to deal with your own emotions around the issue under discussion
  2. your desire to re-engage in a reasonable time, e.g. in an hour
  3. your willingness to think about how the needs of both of you can be met.

It is critical to see the conflicted interaction not as an opportunity to win or prove your partner wrong, but as a chance to take care of your partner (as well as gain increased self-awareness).  Taking care of your partner may mean apologising (this is where humility helps) and asking what you can do to help your partner or to make good their “hurt”.  Accusations targeted at the other’s wounded child only inflame the situation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection we can develop relational mindfulness in our everyday interactions within our close relationships.   Meditation practice and reflection on our interactions will help us build a relational mindset and develop adult responses in situations that trigger our wounded child.  This relational mindfulness, then, will enrich and sustain our close relationships.

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Getting in Touch with Your Wounded Child

Sounds True provides a wide range of mindfulness-related resources that can be viewed online.  These include podcast interviews with experts in mindfulness and online training courses including the audio learning series by Terry Real, Fierce Intimacy: Standing Up to One Another with Love.  The transcript for each free podcast interview is accessible online and the interview itself can be downloaded as an mp3.

Tami Simon, the founder of Sounds True, recently interviewed Terry Real, the author of a number of books including, The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Make Love Work.  In the podcast interview, Terry introduced one of his concepts which he called “the wounded child” – our automatic response when our sense of hurt is triggered.

As Terry pointed out, we all have a “wounded child” persona which is part of our make-up.   Our wounded child is easily triggered leading to reactive, thoughtless, compulsive, automatic responses that result from an emotional flooding that Terry describes as the “W-H-O-O-S-H, like a wave that overcomes you”.

The trigger that sets off your wounded child might be criticism, real or perceived.  You might have experienced criticism, blaming or accusations as a child from one of your parents.  This negative experience contributes to the development of your wounded child – in this case, identified as a sensitivity to criticism which leads to defensiveness on your part.  Even to this day as an adult, you may continue to experience criticism from a parent in relation to your clothes, your choice of a partner or your location, thus reinforcing your wounded child and related response.

We each have a wounded child that is easily triggered in a close relationship.  For me, “feeling abandoned” is my wounded child – I spent 18 months in an orphanage as a 3-4-year-old and 12 months in a boarding school, 100 kilometres from home, when in Grade 2.   These circumstances were beyond the control of my parents – my mother was seriously ill at the time and my father was overseas in Japan as part of the occupation forces.

Getting in touch with your wounded child

Through your meditation practices .you can become aware of your wounded child and how this persona is manifested in your emotions and behaviour in your close relationships.  You need to be able to reflect on what triggers you and how you respond.

In this regard, the SBNRR (stop, breathe, notice, reflect, respond) process may be helpful in-the-moment or subsequently when you reflect on what happened when you were triggered.

Michael Robotham, in his psychological thriller, The Secrets She Keeps, provides a perfect illustration of a wounded child in action (Meghan) and the response elicited from her husband, Jack (who was also operating from his wounded child persona).  Meghan describes the interaction:

Jack and I [Meghan] had a blazing row about money, which was merely the trigger.  It began when I reversed the car into a lamppost, denting the rear hatch-lid.  It was my fault.  I should have admitted my mistake, but I pushed back when Jack accused me of carelessness.  We fought… Jack has a similar stubborn streak, charging into every argument, wielding accusations like a bayonet.  Wounded I went low, almost begging him to overreact.  He did. (p. 47, emphasis added)

If both parties operate from their wounded child personas, the argument escalates, and the hurt is intensified.  One reaction leads to another, as the conflict deepens.  This is a lose-lose situation and the relationship itself suffers.

As we grow in mindfulness and reflection, we can become aware of our triggers, the nature of our wounded child and the responses we typically make to “what sets us off”.  Beyond self-awareness, is self-management and this requires another set of skills, including “relational mindfulness”, which I will discuss in the next post.

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

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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)

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The Problem with Identification

I was reflecting recently about why I get upset and disappointed when my sporting team loses a match.  I become annoyed when I perceive that the refereeing is biased (of course, this perception is strongly influenced by my own bias).

In part, I think that my emotional state is influenced by my expectations about how my team will, or should, perform.  I do like to be on the winning side in sport!

On further reflection, I have come to think that the basic problem is one of identification – identifying closely with the team involved.  So, their successes are my successes, their losses are mine also.  I have a sense of pride when they win and a sense of embarrassment when they lose badly.

In some sense then, I am giving over control of my emotions to the vicissitudes and uncertainty of a sporting outcome over which I have no control.   In other words, I am giving control of my emotions to some external event, rather than retaining my own inner, emotional control.

What I find is that through this strong identification, and the strong associated feelings, my calmness is replaced by agitation.  Instead of enjoying the sport as a form of entertainment and relaxation, I become stressed and annoyed.

However, the path to real happiness lies in self-awareness and self-management, not abrogating responsibility for self-control to some external event or the performance of a sporting team.

Reducing identification and loss of control over emotions

How do you reduce the identification with a sporting team if this identification often leaves you upset or, occasionally, on a high?  To me, the starting point is to recognise the level of identification involved and what “rewards” come with this identification.  It means naming the feelings involved and choosing to take back control by reducing my level of identification with the team.

Sometimes, it is as if identification with a sporting team is a way to fill an emotional void – to attempt to replace disappointment and frustration with elation and happiness.  However, the reverse can happen so that disappointment and frustration only deepen in the event of a loss by the team.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on our emotional responses in these situations, we can gain the necessary insight and self-awareness to reduce the power of identification and take back control of our emotions through self-management.

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

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Identifying Our Assumptions through Mindfulness

One of the aspects of self-awareness that is important to master is the assumptions we carry with us that impact our thoughts, perceptions, interpretations, emotions and behaviour.  We can be aware of the negative impact on us of the assumptions of other people but be blind to our own assumptions and their negative impact on others.

Earlier I wrote about the impact for me of my social tennis partners making assumptions about my capacity to play tennis, given my age.  Last week I fell into the same trap through my assumptions about another player.

I was playing social tennis with three other players, one of whom was a woman.  She offered to play with the weaker player and I found this hard to accept initially because I assumed that she would be a weaker player, despite her size.  This proved to be a false assumption as the woman player turned out to be the best player of the four of us.

The woman player had a particular style of hitting her ground strokes which meant that the ball levelled out when it hit the ground, making it very difficult to get a racquet under the ball.  I spent most of the social game reframing my assumptions about the woman player and trying to counter her game.

The moral of the story is that assumptions can blind us to possibilities and reduce our capacity to cope with reality.  Assumptions are like tunnels – they can distort our perception of others and of everyday occurrences.

Incorrect assumptions are often the cause of conflict in relationships because we tend to make assumptions about the motivation of the other person.  They, in turn, make assumptions about our motivation and act on their own erroneous assumptions.  We respond having confirmed in our own mind that our assumption about them were correct (confirmatory bias).  And so a conflict spiral is created built on increasingly entrenched, but inaccurate assumptions.

As we grow in mindfulness we become aware of the assumptions we hold, how they play out in our thoughts and emotions and how they are manifest in our behaviour.  Through mindfulness we can increase our self-awareness in this area, better deal with the challenges of our life, enrich our relationships and develop our creativity.

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

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Showing Up for Your Life

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Center (MARC), reminds us in a meditation podcast  that “moment by moment: this is your life”.  Like Kabat-Zinn, she encourages you to “show up for your life”.

Even when we have looked forward to something for a long time – a special dinner, a sporting occasion, catching up with a friend after a long period of absence – we can find ourselves distracted in the moment and miss out on so much of what is happening outside and inside us.

We could be in the presence of a child, our own or someone else’s, who is clearly in the moment, enjoying whatever activity they are fully engaged in – feeding themselves, playing with insects on the ground, laughing with a friend or riding a bike with abandon.  We can savor the moment and not try to hurry them on (or ourselves) to do something else.  As we become older, we begin to lose this skill of being-in-the-moment, of really showing up for our life.

We tend to focus on other things instead of just enjoying what is – we are always planning the next moment or two – not appreciating what is.  As we learn to regain the skill of being present and paying attention to the moment, we develop the capacity to do this anywhere, anytime – but it requires regular, meditation practice.  However, if we can develop this ability, our life can be so much richer because we can appreciate and savor more of what happens in our life.

A meditation for showing up in your life

This simple meditation to help you show up for your life involves a number of basic steps:

  1. Begin with physically grounding yourself in the present while sitting by having your feet on the ground or floor and your eyes closed or looking down (to maintain attention) and your hands in a comfortable position.  Now focus on your breath, wherever you feel it occurring – through your nose or mouth or in your chest.  Alternatively, take a couple of deep breaths, to relax yourself and sense your breathing.
  2. Focus on your body which is always present in the moment, despite the endless wandering of your mind.  Bring your attention to any points of tension in your body and feel the sensation of what is going on for you.  Begin to release the tension as your attention moves through your body, locating and releasing tight spots.  Be conscious of what this feels like and what emotions you are experiencing.
  3. Now recall a time when your were really in the moment – playing a sport, being with a friend, absorbing the beauty of nature.  How did you feel? What thoughts of appreciation were you expressing?  What was happening in your body?  Try to be with that moment and capture the richness of what you were experiencing in your mind and body.  You can express appreciation for the experience – that you were alive to what was happening, that you actually had the physical and mental capacity to fully experience it.
  4. Finally, bring your attention to the sounds that surround you – open your ears to the different sounds..  We often hear only what we want to hear because we are so focused on what is in our minds and we miss out on much of our life.  As you become immersed in sounds notice what is happening in your body.  Slowly open your eyes and bring your attention back to where you are now and what you are doing.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we develop the capacity to be more and more in-the-moment and to savor life’s riches.

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

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Building Self-Awareness Through Mindfulness Meditation

Daniel Goldman explains that emotional self-awareness is the ability to “recognize and understand our own emotional reactions”.  He maintains that it is the foundation competency for the development of emotional intelligence.  If we have self-awareness, we are better able to achieve self-management and be empathetic and compassionate towards others.

Building self-awareness through mindfulness meditation

Goleman maintains that one of the best ways to develop self-awareness is mindfulness meditation.  He states that  his review of research on mindfulness with Richard Davidson demonstrated that meditation lessens the amygdala control over our response to negative triggers; enables us to be more aware of, and reduce, mind wandering; enhances our concentration and, overall, makes us calmer under stress.  According to Goleman, there is considerable payoff from self-awareness.

Kabat-Zinn, in discussing meditation in his book, Coming to Our Senses, maintains that the purpose of mindfulness meditation is to “cultivate qualities of mind and heart conducive to breaking free from the fetters of our own persistent blindness and delusions” (p110).  He suggests that our innate ability to be aware of our emotions and thoughts has eroded over time, the decline being further exacerbated by the pressures of modern living.   What mindful awareness, “wakefulness”, has brought to society, in his view, is the possibility “to break out of seemingly endless cycles self-delusion, misperception, and mental affliction to an innate freedom, equanimity and wisdom” (p.113).

Goleman in his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, maintains that mindfulness meditation enables people not only to manage their attention but also their emotions (p.198).  As a result, one thing that such meditations can do is increase the response ability of people so that they are better able to create a gap between stimulus and response and choose constructive ways of responding.  He suggests that there is a very wide variety of meditations that can help people achieve the desired level of self-awareness.

Goleman, in his Focus book, also reports a conversation he had with Jon Kabat-Zinn about his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program (p.198).  In that conversation, Kabat-Zinn pointed out that people on their own accord changed their behaviour (e.g. stopped smoking) once they started “paying attention to their own inner states” – this happened despite the changed behaviour not being the focus of their meditation efforts.  Just developing self-awareness about their own feelings and stimuli enabled them to see what needed to be changed in their lives.

As people grow in mindfulness through meditation, they are better able to develop an understanding of their own emotions and thoughts and improve their response to stimuli that occur throughout their day.  In this way, they are calmer and more in control of their reaction to negative triggers.

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

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Remember the R.A.I.N.

R.A.I.N. is a meditation process designed to help you when you have a situation where you experience strong negative feelings towards another person.  The process was recently introduced by Tara Brach as part of the Power of Awareness Course.

The acronym stands for Recognise, Accept, Investigate and Nurture.  Each of these steps can be undertaken during a meditation following an interaction with another person – partner, colleague, child, boss- that disturbs your equilibrium or, if you have the presence of mind at the time, during the disturbing interaction itself.  Let’s have a look at what these steps involve.

Recognise your emotions

After adopting an introductory grounding meditation practice, you need to reflect on the upsetting interaction and try to recognise your feelings at the time.  As we mentioned previously, identifying and naming your feelings, enables you to tame them.  Sometimes, this can be a complicated mix of feelings and other times involve feelings reflecting two different orientations –  feelings about the other person and feelings about yourself. For example, you might feel frustration and anger towards the other person (especially, if their behaviour that has an adverse effect on you is repeated often).  You might also be anxious that the resulting conflict, and your own inappropriate response at the time, puts your relationship in jeopardy.

Accept the interaction and the contributing factors

Life is not simple – nor is it free from stress and conflict – we are all unique and have different ideas, values, preferences, behaviours and idiosyncrasies.  Accepting the reality of the adverse interaction is an important part of moving on.  You can wallow in your hurt feelings and maintain your resentment, but this will be detrimental to yourself and the other person.  Your anger will pervade your thoughts and distort your perception of the other person and also manifest itself in your behaviour towards them and others.  The way ahead is to process your residual feelings, accept what has happened and move onto the investigation step.

Investigate your feelings that occurred during the interaction

This is not a conceptual exercise, where you stay just with your thoughts and objective analysis.  It entails being fully embodied – noting where in your body the pain and hurt associated with the feelings resides.  What do the feelings do to your body?  Are the negative thoughts and feelings expressed as tension in your forehead, tightness in your shoulders, an ache in your back or  other physical manifestation?  Focusing on the areas of pain and aching, enables you to release the physical unease and the associated thoughts and feelings.

Nurture yourself through the process

It is important to treat yourself with kindness, not scorn or derision.  The latter approach leads to low self-esteem and the belief that you are unable to do anything about the relationship because you “lost it” or were inept in the interaction.  Caring for yourself is critical, otherwise distress about the other person’s words and actions can lead to distress about what you said and did.   This only exacerbates an unsettling experience.

As you emerge from the R.A.I.N. meditation, you will have a strong sense of freedom and the basis for a new relationship with the other person.  As you grow in mindfulness, you will be better able to undertake these steps during the interaction itself, rather than afterwards.  So the R.A.I.N. meditation can also help you with future interactions with the same person.

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

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