Meditation for Letting Go

Sometimes we can become consumed by anger and be captured by the thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations that accompany anger.  Meditation provides a way to let go of anger and its associated ill-effects.

The catalyst for your anger may be that someone did or said something that you considered unfair.  It may be that what was said or done frustrated your ability to meet your goal of helping other people to achieve something important.  You could feel aggrieved that the thought, effort and cost that you incurred for someone were unappreciated and/or devalued.  It could be that comments made by someone else are patently untrue or distort the real picture of your involvement.

The harmful effects of sustained anger

The problem with anger is that it is such a strong emotion, that we tend to hang onto it – we do not let it go.  We might ruminate endlessly on what happened, providing justifications for ourselves – our words and actions.  We could deflect the implied criticism by denigrating the other person’s intellectual capability or perceptual capacity.  We could make assumptions about their motivation and even indulge in conspiracy theory.

An associated problem with indulging in angry thoughts and sensations is that it harms both us and our relationships.  We are harmed because the negative emotions consume mental and emotional energy, distract us from the present moment (and all that is good about the present) and destroy our equanimity.

Indulged anger can lead to retaliation that harms the relationship with the other person.  It can also contaminate our relationships with other people who are important to us such as our partner, a friend or our children.  As a result of our sustained anger, we may appear aloof, critical, grumpy or unsympathetic to these important people in our life.

A meditation for letting go

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast on letting go.  She emphasises the fact that when we indulge a strong emotion like anger, the bodily manifestation of this can be experienced as tightness, tension or soreness – a physical expression of holding on.  We can even experience shallowness of breath as we hold the negative emotions in our bodies.

The first level of release through meditation is to focus on your breath – the in-breath and out-breath.  This mindful breathing can be viewed as letting go with each out-breath, releasing the pent-up thoughts and emotions that make you uptight.

As you progress your meditation and begin to restore some semblance of relaxation, you can then address the “holding on” in your body.  Through a progressive body scan, you can identify the parts of your body that are giving expression to your anger – you can physically soften the muscles (facial, back, shoulder, neck or leg muscles) that have become hardened through holding onto your anger.

Once you have become experienced in meditation, you can then begin to reflect on your response to the negative trigger that set you off.  This opens the way to look at how you responded and whether there was an alternative way of responding other than defensiveness or attack (flight or fight).  You might discover (as I did recently) that active listening would have achieved a better outcome, an improved level of mutual understanding and reduced stress generated by angry thoughts and emotions.

Taking this further, you could explore a powerful mindfulness meditation that can help you overcome ongoing resentment by enabling you to put yourself in the position of the other person to appreciate how they experienced your interaction – to understand their perspective, their feelings and their needs in terms of maintaining their identity (their sense of self-worth, competence or reliability).  The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) recommends this meditation practice for handling residual emotions and resentment resulting from a conflictual interaction.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection we can practise letting go of anger and other negative emotions by focusing on our breath, bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts and behaviour in an interaction.  Through the resultant self-awareness, we can improve our response ability.  By exploring the interaction experience from the position of the other person, we can also increase our motivation and our options to behave differently for our own good and that of the person with whom we have interacted.

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Improved Decision Making through Mindfulness Meditation

There are times when we have great difficulty making a decision.  We may be confused by the many options, daunted by the task and overly concerned about the outcomes.  Sometimes, if we are anxious, even relatively small decisions can leave us paralysed.

Decision making can be painful particularly if you can see multiple options and your anxiety grows with the inability to choose between them.  Sometimes this anxiety is driven by a perfectionist streak – we may want to make sure we make the right or perfect decision.  Unfortunately, this is rarely obtainable because we are often making decisions in the context of inadequate information.  The information we do have may be clouded by our emotions or attachment to a particular option or outcome.

Indecisiveness too can be compounded for different personality types.  For example, the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator suggests that people who have a Perceiving (“P”) type personality prefer to remain open and gather more information before making a decision, while the Judging (“J”) type personality likes to get things decided.  These personality traits can  lead either to an inability to make decisions or the habit of making hasty decisions to relieve the tension of decision making.

Improving decision making through mindfulness meditation

Diana Winston from MARC at UCLA provides a meditation podcast to enable improved decision making.  She suggests that we can use mindfulness to focus on our thoughts and emotions during the decision-making process.  In her view we can learn to be present to whatever decision making turns up for us.   We can use the principles of mindfulness to bring awareness to the discomfort of trying to make a decision.

Sometimes this will involve showing self-compassion towards ourselves – accepting that we cannot make the perfect decision, even with full information.  It requires acceptance of the fact that our decision making will be inadequate at times, but that this will provide the opportunity to learn and grow.   Mindfulness meditation can enable us to make the best decision possible at the time, uncontaminated by emotions that can cloud our judgement.

If we bring openness and curiosity to what we are experiencing during decision making, we can name our feelings and learn to control them.  We can better understand the patterns embedded in our decision-making processes.  For instance, we may find that once we have to make a decision, we automatically drop into negative thinking which generates anxiety about the possible outcomes.  Through mindfulness meditation we can learn to control these negative thoughts and focus on addressing the issue and the information available without our negative thinking confounding the issue.

If our thoughts keep wandering or negative thoughts intrude during the process of mindfulness meditation, focusing on sounds can help anchor us as listening is a natural process that we can do with minimal effort.  Listening to sounds can enable us to return to mindful decision making.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn more about the pattern of thoughts and emotions behind our decision making, bring them into the spotlight, and develop better self-management techniques so that our decision making is not delayed unduly or contaminated by negative thoughts and emotions.  We can learn to be more compassionate towards ourselves.  Mindful breathing can help us too to manage the tension of decision making.

 

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How Does Mindfulness Impact Our Behaviour?

Research on mindfulness suggests that through meditation practice we become more connected with ourselves and more in control of our thoughts, emotions and resulting behaviour.  In particular, mindfulness improves the frequency and quality of our paying attention in the present.

Research by scientists on the outcomes of mindfulness point to the development of compassion, reduced sense of isolation, increased resilience and ability to handle stress – all of which impact our behaviour.

Exploring how mindfulness impacts our behaviour

We have to ask ourselves how mindfulness practice changes our own behaviour.  Do we stop ourselves from writing that cutting email when we become angry at an email we received?  Do we immediately retaliate with counter accusations when criticised by someone else?  To what extent has our awareness and understanding of another’s pain increased our empathy and become reflected in compassionate behaviour?

One of the challenges we face in translating mindfulness practice into changed behaviour is that our habituated behaviour is very difficult to change.  Even as we develop mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we will still have to deal with negative thoughts and emotions that arise spontaneously despite our best intentions.  However, our capacity to deal with these challenges should develop so that our response ability increases and we can overcome our habit of responding inappropriately to words or actions that trigger us.

If we do feel agitated, we can have the presence of mind to stop and take a breath, observe what is happening inside ourselves and use the gap between the stimulus (the trigger) and our response to manage our behaviour better.

We can begin to see that we are moving towards more kindness in our interactions with others – it could be that we notice people more, stop and talk to people who seem lonely or depressed, demonstrate more thoughtfulness towards others we encounter in daily life.

A meditation to explore the impact of mindfulness on our behaviour

We can explore for ourselves what impact our meditation practice is having on our behaviour by way of checking our progress towards achieving the equanimity of mindfulness.  We can review how often we have used mindfulness as a form of self-intervention to prevent us from saying or doing something that we considered inappropriate.

Tara Brach asks some penetrating questions about the ways in which mindfulness has positively impacted our behaviour.  In the related meditation podcast, Tara encourages us to let go of the past and attend fully to the present moment.  This meditation is particularly useful if you have reviewed your behaviour and found that you did not act mindfully.  It is a calming meditation that is strongly situated in the present moment and in what you are experiencing within and aware of in your immediate surroundings.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we can begin to see clearly observable changes in our behaviour particularly in moments of stress or when our negative emotions are triggered.  We begin to notice our capacity to control our thoughts and emotions and increase our response ability – to respond in more appropriate ways that build relationships rather than damage them.

 

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Mindful Leadership: Being Present

One of the core skills of leadership is the ability to be fully present when interacting with others – whether with managers, non-managerial employees or other stakeholders.  Being present underpins the capacity to influence.  It is the precondition for effective listening, providing feedback and generating the engagement of employees.

Effective listening

To actively listen, you have to be really present to the person you are attempting to engage with.  It means being able to focus on the person speaking and tuning in to their words, nonverbal behaviour and the emotions underlying their communication.  It also requires the ability to reflect back to the other person not only what they are saying but also the emotions behind the words and the intensity of those emotions.  This enables the speaker to feel truly heard.  Being present in such interactions means effectively that you are open to the influence of the speaker – not shut off from their desire to engender some change in what is happening.

To tune into another person requires you to tune out of your own thoughts and to control your own preconceptions and assumptions.  Reflection following an interaction can help you to identify what got in the road of effective listening.

Providing feedback

Being present is an essential requirement for providing effective feedback – whether positive feedback or corrective feedback.  To be able to give positive feedback that is specific, genuine and timely, you need to be able to observe behaviour that should be acknowledged and rewarded with praise.  You need to be present to notice the desired behaviour in the first place.

Providing corrective feedback for inappropriate behaviour or inadequate performance also requires you to be fully present and to manage your own feelings in the situation.  Once you have spelt out the core behavioural or performance issue, you need to be able to actively listen to understand what is going on for the other person – what is impacting their behaviour/performance.  You may even find, in the process, that you have contributed to the problem through lack of clarity of instructions/expectations or inadequate training.   Openness to these possibilities requires being present and attentive to the person you are providing corrective feedback to.

Engagement of employees

Employees, whether managers or non-managerial employees, respect a leader who can actively listen and provided accurate feedback, whether positive or corrective.  They understand and appreciate that by your being present and attentive, you are demonstrating respect for them, their skills and their contributions – the foundation for true employee engagement.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we are better able to be fully present to provide effective listening and feedback to engender commitment and contribution of our followers, whether managers or non-managerial employees.  Being present is the outcome of continuous meditation practice and reflection undertaken on a regular basis.

 

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

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Driving with Mindfulness

Often when you are driving you can become agitated, annoyed or frustrated by the traffic holdups caused by others.  Sharon Salzberg provides a timely reminder that “you are traffic too“.   We focus so much on our own needs in the heavy traffic situation that we lose sight of the needs of others.  Sharon puts this down to the “centrality of ourselves” – where the world revolves around our self-centredness, rather than other-centredness.

Diana Watson too in one of her MARC weekly meditation podcasts, provides us with a meditation that enables us to bring mindfulness on the road.  She describes one of her own experiences when she was running late to conduct a meditation and found her irritation and agitation rising.

Diana found that she was swamped with thoughts and emotions.  The thoughts reflected the negative bias of the brain – “I’m not going to make it on time”, “What will happen if I am late?”, “People may never come again if they are new to the meditation practice!   So, our minds can catastrophize any situation and unsettle us as we are driving.

Another source of emotional disturbance occurs if we then engage in self-recrimination or negative self-evaluation – “If only I had planned for traffic delays!”, “Why was I rushing out the door when I know that I need to have a strong presence of mind to conduct this mindfulness session?’

Bringing mindfulness to driving – noticing thoughts and emotions

What Diana found that she ended up doing was to start noticing, not entertaining, thoughts and emotions as they arose, e.g. “I am feeling anxious (or irritated)”, “I keep thinking that I will be late, and this causes me to become agitated”.   If we start naming our emotions, we can begin to control them.

She also suggests that we can focus on what is going on in our body as these emotions and precipitating thoughts arise.  We can notice the tightness in our chest, the pain in our neck or the onset of a worry headache.  If we can notice the thoughts and name the emotions, we can wind back our habituated response and calm ourselves.

Without this calming mindfulness on the road, we can end up taking more risks while driving, act out our anger and frustration through “road rage” or find ourselves making poor decisions about what choices to make to get to our destination.  Our growing agitation and impatience can frustrate our attempts to arrive on time.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice that grounds us in the present moment, we can more readily deal with situations such as driving in heavy traffic when our needs for timeliness are being frustrated.  We can also bring to the situation self-awareness and self-regulation so that we are not captive to  our negative thoughts and emotions – we can begin to drive mindfully.

 

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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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