Sound Meditation and the Power of Music

In previous posts I have discussed the role of music as a pathway to mindfulness focussing on the features that music and meditation have in common such as inner harmony, patience and deep listening.  Alexandre Tannous has researched the role of music in therapy, in different cultures and philosophical perspectives.  In a recent presentation for The Being & Doing Summit, he emphasised the power of music to heal, express emotion and deepen our awareness.  He provides a range of sound meditations through his album, Sound Submersion – Volume 1, which incorporates musical instruments, such as the Tibetan Singing Bowl, that produce overtones.

Sound therapy

Sound therapy uses sonar frequencies to reignite and re-balance the energy frequency in the body.  It can lead to healing and deep calm by enabling people to use the body’s natural healing powers to promote health and inner harmony.  The applications of sound therapy are numerous, including its use with dementia and Alzheimer patients to stimulate memory recall.  A social worker, Dan Cohen, discovered the power of music, aligned to personal preference, to help Alzheimer patients to access memories that have been locked away and normally inaccessible to them.  The story of this amazing research was captured in the film, Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.  Sound therapy has also been used very effectively with seriously wounded veterans who can recapture or learn the skill of playing a musical instrument and discover a way to express their thoughts and feelings through music.

As an ethnomusicologist, Alexandre has travelled to over 40 countries to study music in different cultural and social settings.  While he acknowledges that sound therapy has had a major resurgence in recent times, he maintains that it is an ancient practice, especially in Eastern philosophies.  Alexandre explains that sound therapy often involves overtones, sound freqencies over and above a fundamental frequency, that we rarely hear because we are unaware of them and because the fundamental frequency is so strong that it dominates our hearing.  Alexandre’s music compositions focus on “overtone-emitting” musical instruments such as the Thai Gong employed in Thai and Burmese temples.

Sound and mindfulness

Alexandra’s audio recordings provide the basis for sound meditations using different instruments. He identifies multiple benefits of sound meditation based on his extensive research over many years.  Among the benefits are the development of inner harmony and equanimity, “ability to access and release trauma“, capacity to break habituated behaviour patterns that are unproductive, enhancement of self-awareness, development of higher levels of consciousness and stimulation of empathy and compassionate action.  In the final analysis, sound therapy builds our awareness muscle through enhancing our concentration, listening and focusing skills.

As with other forms of meditation, there will always be intrusive thoughts. Alexandre suggests that we just let them pass, not entertain them and return to our focus on the music.  Sound is truly transformative and if we adopt a deep listening posture during our sound meditation, it can improve our mental health and overall well-being.

Reflection

We often overlook the power of sound to deepen our consciousness and heal our mind and body.  As we grow in mindfulness through sound meditation, we can enrich our lives in multiple ways, not the least of these is enhancing our self-awareness and awareness of others.  Through sound meditation, we can build the capacity to deal with the waves of life – the ups and downs of everyday existence.

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

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

Music and Meditation: The Key Role of Practice

Richard Wolf maintains that practice is a key element in meditation and playing a musical instrument.  Richard explores practice along with other parallels between meditation and playing music in his book, In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness. Previously, I explored his ideas on achieving harmony through music and meditation.

It is through practice that we can master playing an instrument or achieving a high standard in sport.  The same is true of meditation – our capacity to meditate and achieve its benefits is dependent on how well we practice.  The greater the regularity and length of our meditation practice, the greater are the benefits that accrue to us.

Practice and repetition

Practice requires repetition and may be experienced as boring, e.g. playing scales on a musical instrument.  However, as Richard notes, after a period of practicing, if we persist, we can be keen to “practice for practice sake”.  With sustained practice, comes the realisation that the practice itself achieves the desired benefits of competence, concentration, harmony and spontaneity.  This is as true of meditation as it is of practising a musical instrument.  It is similar with sporting practice. I recall practicing tennis drills with my brothers when we were playing A Grade tennis fixtures.  Repetition was a key part – hitting the ball up the line over and over or practising volleys again and again.  However, as we grew in competence, we would marvel at the shots we played, laugh at the fun we were having and experience a real sense of happiness.  We would look forward to our practice sessions.

As our meditation practice improves and starts to flow into our daily life, we begin to experience a greater variety of benefits which, in turn, feed our motivation to practice.  Richard suggests that this occurs because when you meditate, “your mental, emotional and physical awareness are the instrument you practice on”.  The essence of effective practice is to maintain focus in the present moment on what we are doing, whether playing a musical instrument or meditating on nature.

Breathing in time – treating your breath as a musical instrument

Richard highlights the role of beats in music and the need for a musician to master different times in music such as 4/4 time and 3/4 time (as in a waltz).  He suggests that “counting beats internally” is an essential component of mastering a musical instrument.  He proposes that as a form of meditation practice, you can adopt the parallel technique of “rhythmic breathing”, e.g. what he calls a “four-bar sequence”.   This involves holding your breath for four beats (counting to four) for each of the four “bars” involved in breathing – inhalation, holding, exhalation, holding. 

In his book, he offers other variations on this breathing sequence that you can adopt but stresses that the important thing is to go with whatever helps you to experience calm and equanimity.   It is vital not to beat up on yourself if you lose count in the middle of your practice – just start over again.  The outcome is achieving a mind-body rhythm that is beneficial to your sense of ease and wellness.

Reflection

Meditation practice becomes enjoyable as we grow in mindfulness.  This increasing inner and outer awareness flows into our daily life and brings a variety of benefits such as focus, productivity, creativity, calmness and richer relationships.  The benefits can grow exponentially if we sustain our meditation practice.  Rhythmic breathing can enhance our mind-body connection.

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

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

Paying Attention to Your Breath and Body

Allyson Pimentel, a teacher at the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), offers a guided meditation podcast on the theme, Mindfulness of the Body and Breath.   She explains at the start of the meditation that mindfulness involves paying attention in a particular way that induces ease, restfulness and tranquillity.

Allyson focuses on three elements of paying attention that lead to inner and outer awareness:

  1. Purposefully – paying attention is undertaken consciously with clear intention and purpose
  2. Focusing on the present – paying attention to the present moment, not to what has gone before or to an anticipated future event
  3. Openly – paying attention with curiosity and willingness to be with what is, not ignoring what is unpleasant, painful or challenging.

Allyson reminds us that our breath and our body are always with us in the present moment, even if our mind is continuously wandering with endless thoughts.  Our body and breath provide the anchors in the turbulent sea of life.

Allyson cites lines from a poem, “I Go Among the Trees” by Wendell Berry, that capture this stillness:

All my stirring becomes quiet

Around me like circles on water.

My tasks lie in their places

Where I left them, asleep like

 cattle…

Guided meditation on your breath and body

The guided meditation provided by Allyson incorporates mindful breathing together with a thorough body scan.  After inviting us to sit “upright not uptight”, she encourages us to notice our breathing (its pace, length and evenness).  After inviting us to pay attention to our breath, she guides us in a progressive scanning of the body.

Two things that I noticed with the body scan are its completeness and the focus on openness. She guides us to pay attention to our head as well as the rest of our body – top of the head, our forehead, cheeks, eyes, mouth and tongue.  While Allyson asks us to release points of tension in our body during the body scan, she also suggests that we notice points of openness once tension has been released.

As we grow in mindfulness through paying attention in the present moment to our body and breath, we can become grounded, release tension in our body and experience the ease of acceptance.  We can learn to more skilfully and openly respond to the challenges of the many aspects of our daily life and extend kindness to ourselves and others we encounter. This, in turn, will lead to the experience of equanimity.

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

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

Develop Equanimity to Overcome Reactivity

Much of the time we are reactive because of our ingrained habituated responses.  These develop over time and can vary with different stimuli – a confronting email, a perception of criticism by a partner or colleague, thoughtlessness by another person or traffic delays.  Our responses may be precipitated by negative thoughts that generate emotions such as fear, anxiety, frustration or anger.  We then act out these emotions in a reactive way – not stopping to maintain our balance or evaluate the best possible response. As we have mentioned earlier, there is a gap between stimulus and response and within that gap are choices and associated freedom.  Developing equanimity helps us to better utilise the gap between stimulus and response and widens our potential response options – as it frees us from being captive to our habituated responses.

Equanimity is being able to maintain a state of calmness, balance or even-mindedness in the face of a situation that we find challenging – physically, mentally or emotionally.  It builds our capacity to overcome reactivity and enables us to accept what is, without reacting impulsively.  Diana Winston makes the point that equanimity is not passivity – acceptance of what is, does not mean avoiding taking action to redress injustice, insulting behaviour or meanness.  What equanimity does mean is acknowledging what is and the inherent challenge (e.g. illness, mental illness of a family member, or loss of a job), not railing against all and sundry for our “misfortune”, but actively pursuing redress – including building our capacity to remain calm in the face of life challenges.  Equanimity enables responsiveness that is positive and productive.

A meditation to develop equanimity

Meditation, by its very nature, helps to calm us and, in the process, develop equanimity.  Diana Winston, however, provides a specific “equanimity meditation” designed to build our capacity to retain our balance and to remain even minded when confronted with a life challenge.  She provides this meditation as part of the weekly guided meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA. Her guided meditation podcast, Equanimity and Non Reactivity, contains several steps:

  1. Grounding yourself in your chair by adopting a comfortable, upright posture; closing your eyes or looking down; and focusing your intention on the present – not thinking about the past or worrying about what is coming up.  Being present-in-the-moment is a calming activity that can build equanimity.
  2. Complete body scan – starting with your feet on the floor (feeling the firmness and envisaging the stable ground below); moving progressively through your body, while noticing and releasing any points of tensions (such as in your neck, shoulders, stomach, legs or hands).  You can begin to notice the sensations as you progress with your body scan – feeling the tingling in your fingers or the softness/looseness in your legs as you let go and allow the tension to drain away.  During the meditation, it pays to be conscious of a tendency to let your shoulders droop. [Note: this part of the meditation resonates with the first part of the Yoga Nigra Meditation focused on the physical body]
  3. Focus on your breathing – you focus on wherever in your body you can feel the sensation of your breathing, the in and out movement of your stomach or the air passing through your nose.  The process involves noticing, not controlling your breathing.  You can also rest in the gap between your in-breath and your out-breath.  You can extend the observation of your breathing to other parts of your body such as breathing through your mouth.
  4. Noticing sounds – now switch your attention to the sounds within and outside your room.  Again, the process involves noticing not interpreting or judging the sounds (whether they are pleasant or grating, for example).
  5. Anchoring yourself – you can choose to focus just on your breath or the sounds or adopt a position of natural awareness where you are open to the sense of being aware. Whatever you choose becomes your anchor that you can return to when your mind wanders.  It is natural to have passing thoughts and emotions – the important thing is not to entertain them or indulge them but to acknowledge them, for example, by saying to yourself, “I’m wandering again”.  Once you notice and acknowledge your diverting thoughts and/or emotions, you can return to your chosen anchor.
  6. Equanimity meditation – this involves two main parts that focus directly on developing calm, no matter what your stimulus is.  The first involves capturing a time when you were able to remain calm and balanced when confronted with a challenge – it is important to visualise the event and recapture the memory in all its richness including the stimulus, your initial thoughts/emotions, how you brought yourself under control and your calm response replacing what normally would have been a reactive response.  The second part involves envisaging a challenging situation you have to deal with; identifying what is your “normal” response; and picturing yourself tapping into your boundless internal equanimity, energy and awareness to adopt a response that is both creative and positive.

Diana maintains that this process of equanimity meditation builds your capacity to manage difficult challenges rather than revert to reactivity – that involves adopting habituated responses that are potentially injurious to yourself and others. On a personal note, I like listening to the calmness of Diana’s voice and hearing her highly developed insights as she leads me through a guided meditation process on the weekly podcasts.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditations such as the equanimity meditation, we can realise a new level of personal resilience through the development of calmness, balance and even-mindedness.  We will experience less reactivity in challenging situations and be open to more positive and helpful responses.

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Image – Heron on branch in Wynnum Creek, Brisbane

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.

Meditation: A Refuge in Difficult Times

Following the mass shootings in the US, Diana Winston provided a meditation podcast on the topic, Finding Refuge in Difficult Times.   Diana suggests that we could turn to meditation in these difficult times when we are confronted with senseless violence, international conflict over trade and territories and increased levels of uncertainty and vulnerability.  Mindfulness meditation can help us to develop many positive aspects in our lives including gratitude, compassion, calmness and clarity.  Diana maintains that in difficult times meditation practice can serve as a refuge for us – a place of quiet, equanimity and loving kindness.  Meditation in this context is not escapism but genuine facing of reality to restore our equilibrium and develop resourcefulness to meet the challenges that confront us daily.

Meditation as a refuge

Diana provides a meditation that is designed to achieve a sense of equanimity in difficult times. It addresses today’s challenges and their impact on our thoughts and emotions and, at the same time, provides a means to become grounded, resourceful and open-hearted.  There are four main elements to the meditation provided by Diana through MARC (Mindful Awareness Research Center) at UCLA:

  • Becoming Grounded – this is particularly important given that we can become unhinged, buffeted and disturbed by difficult times experienced in the world at large.  Tlhe concept of grounding evokes the image of solid earth underfoot and certainty and support when moving forward.  The meditation thus begins with ensuring we have our feet firmly planted on the floor so that we can feel the support of the earth by picturing the solid earth below us.  Out attention then moves to the firmness and uprightness of our back against the chair.  This feeling of solidity reinforces our sense of groundedness.  This, in turn, can be strengthened by focusing attention on the solid contact of our body with the seat of the chair. 
  • Breathing – breath is our life force and we take around 20,000 breaths a day.  It is a good thing that we do this unconsciously, without having to think or be focused.  However, focusing on our breath, paying attention to the act of breathing, is an important way of becoming grounded in life.  This stage of the meditation involves focusing on our in-breath and out-breath and the space in between.  It does not involve controlling our breath but just paying attention to what is happening naturally for us, despite the absence of conscious effort.   You can feel energy tingling in your fingers if you join them together while paying attention to your breath and this can serve as an anchor throughout the day whenever you feel the need to re-establish a sense of equilibrium and equanimity.  Accessing your boundless, inner energy resources in this way can build your ongoing resourcefulness and resilience.
  • Acceptanceaccepting what is and what we are experiencing.  This means owning our thoughts and feelings and acknowledging that reactions such as anxiety, concern, fear, uncertainty or doubt are normal, given the difficult world we live in.  It does not involve passivity, however, but noticing our reactions, not denying them nor indulging them.  It means handling our natural responses non-judgmentally and seeking to accept what is happening for us.  Diana suggests that we can even express this as a conscious desire such as, “May I accept what is”.
  • Offering compassion – this involves being empathetic towards people who are suffering – for example, as a result of a major adverse event.  Compassionate action in this situation can involve loving kindness meditation embracing all who are affected by a significant adverse event – extending to family, friends, colleagues, emergency responders and the community at large.  We can express the desire that all who are directly affected are protected from inner and outer harm; develop good health; find contentment and happiness; and experience the ease of wellness.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and grounding ourselves, we can learn to accept what is, access our inner resources and build our resourcefulness and resilience to face the difficult challenges of daily living in a complex and conflicted world.

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

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

When You are Waiting, Have Awareness as Your Default and not Your Phone

When we are kept waiting, we typically grab our phone to “fill in the time”.  We might check emails or social media or the latest news; our default is our phone, not taking the opportunity to develop awareness.  One of Diana Winston’s students told her that when he was waiting or had time on his hands, he no longer defaulted to his phone, but “defaulted to awareness”.  Diana Winston addresses this process in her book,  The Little Book of Being (p.184).

Default to awareness

When we are kept waiting for a bus to arrive or to see the doctor/dentist, or are stalled in traffic, we feel bored or ill at ease.  We can become agitated, annoyed or even angry – all of which can negatively impact our subsequent interactions with others. To alleviate this discomfort, we often resort to the phone as our default response.  However, the “waiting time” provides the perfect opportunity to further develop awareness.  The opportunities for this positive response are seemingly endless. During the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Program that I attended in Sydney, one of the participants reported that they practised mindful awareness whenever they waited for the jug to boil when making a cup of tea or coffee.  The participant reported that by building this habit into something he does on a regular basis, he was able to develop awareness as a part of his everyday activities.

Diana suggests that the way to drop into awareness instead of reaching for your phone is to begin by focusing on your feet.  You can feel the pressure of your feet on the floor or the ground and be conscious of this “grounding”.  You can then progress to getting in touch with your breathing and rest in the space between breaths.  This can be followed by a brief or elongated body scan (the duration of the scan depending on how long you have to wait).  You can then explore points of tension in your body and release the tension or soften the muscles involved.  If you are experiencing negative thoughts and/or feelings, you will inevitably feel tense in some part of your body – noticing and releasing tension develops your awareness.  If you begin to adopt these mindfulness practices on different occasions when you are waiting, you will find that you will “default to awareness” naturally – your phone will not be your “first port of call”.

If we use our waiting time as a conscious effort to grow in mindfulness, we can develop the habit of dropping into awareness, instead of reaching for our phone. We can explore either inner or outer awareness and develop our capacity for self-regulation and gratitude, as well as build calmness and equanimity in our lives.  Defaulting to our phone, on the other hand, increases the pace of our life and can intensify our agitation.

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

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

A Brief Meditation for Anxiety

In an earlier post, I discussed Tara Brach’s explanation of how anxiety-producing self-stories are maintained and the importance of meditation incorporating self-compassion and self-forgiveness to break the cycle of anxiety-producing thoughts.  I have also discussed different approaches to anxiety meditation.   In my last post, I explained Bob Stahl’s 30-minute meditation to reduce fear and anxiety that incorporates a comprehensive body scan and compassionate curiosity towards yourself and others.  This approach could be preceded by reflective writing, an approach Bob recommends for focusing on a single anxiety-producing experience which is explored in terms of its bodily, mental and emotional impact.  An alternative resource is the 30-minute meditation podcast provided by Diana Winston that seeks to deepen the well of ease, leading us to greater self-awareness and consciousness of the depth of our inner resources.

However, you may not have the time required to do these kinds of meditations or reflections.  If you are time-poor, you could practice a brief, three-minute anxiety meditation provided by Zindel Segal, co-developer of MBCT and co-author of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT] for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse.  This resource book for clinicians provides an in-depth explanation of the benefits and process of the three-minute meditation discussed in this blog post.

The Three-Minute Breathing Space

This meditation exercise is incorporated in the 8-week MBCT program and involves a process of awareness raising by assisting you to shift attention, to check-in on yourself and moved on beyond anxiety-producing thoughts. The Three-Minute Breathing Space meditation incorporates three core steps that are each of one-minute duration:

  • 1. Inner awareness of what is happening for you – exploring what is in your mind.  This involves getting in touch with, but not changing, the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that you are experiencing at this moment.  The first step thus involves shifting your attention to inner awareness of “what is”.  This is a passive activity – just watching what is happening for you, as if it is appearing on a “widescreen”.
  • 2. Creating a breathing space – moving away from the focus on your thoughts to a complete, undivided focus on your breath.  This grounding approach involves checking-in on the sensations of your body as you breath in and out.  You could concentrate on the rise and fall of your stomach as you take a breath and release it.  This calming breathing activity enables you to move away from whatever anxiety-provoking thoughts are preoccupying you and creating a “breathing space” to enable you to move on.  The secret is to give your mind a single thing to do – focus on your breath. 
  • 3. Expanding awareness – incorporating inner and outer awareness. The first step at this stage is to widen your awareness to your whole body – the sensation of sitting and its impact on every part of your body, your body on-the-chair.  Next you move your attention beyond your body to what is immediately impacting on it – the air flow on your body, the sounds reaching your ears. Finally, you move your attention to the room encasing your body.  You can then gradually return to full awareness by taking a few deep breaths and opening your eyes (if you have closed them to focus better).

As we grow in mindfulness through various forms of anxiety meditation, whether brief or extended, we can build the capacity to manage our anxiety-provoking thoughts and achieve a level of calm and equanimity that creates a sense of ease amongst the (sometimes turbulent) waves of life.

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

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

Developing Awareness to Overcome Craving and Addiction

In an earlier blog post, I discussed how cravings are formed and how mindfulness breaks the link between addictive behaviour and perceived rewards, drawing on the work of Jud Brewer. author of The Craving Mind: Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits. In a subsequent post, I discussed barriers to sustaining mindfulness practice and a four-step mindfulness practice for overcoming cravings and addictions.

In a recent presentation on the Brain Change Summit hosted by Sounds True, Jud elaborated further on how mindfulness breaks the “habit loop” of craving and addiction. He spoke of the “wedge of awareness” that mindfulness drives between a trigger (such as stress or negative emotion) and our habituated reactivity. He explained that mindfulness effectively disrupts the reward-based learning that is embedded in the craving/addiction cycle. In his view, mindfulness progressively establishes three different levels of awareness which he calls the “three gears of awareness”.

The three gears of awareness

Research undertaken by Jud and his colleagues demonstrates that if people are able to sustain meditation practice, they can realise a deepening level of inner awareness that breaks down the trigger-reward cycle involved in craving and addiction. Jud describes this progression in awareness in terms of three gears that release the power and potentiality of a person by enabling them to “move up a gear” – effectively changing the relationship between a trigger and the behavioural response. The three gears of awareness developed through mindfulness can be explained as follows:

  1. First gear: awareness of a “habit loop” – becoming conscious of the connection between a trigger, a behaviour and a reward that underlies a specific craving or addiction. The first step to breaking a habit is understanding how it is formed.
  2. Second gear: disillusionment with the reward – becoming aware that the “reward” does not work. For example, being mindful of your bodily sensations (taste, smell, touch) as you have a cigarette can make you realise how “disgusting” the cigarettes are. One respondent in a relevant mindfulness research project said (after paying attention to her bodily sensations when smoking), that her cigarette “smells like stinking cheese and tastes like chemicals”.
  3. Third gear: breaking free of the “caught up-ness” of the habit loop – works through a process of substitution of a better and higher reward. Through mindfulness you access your natural capacity to be “curious” – to observe and explore your emotions and reactions and name your feelings. Curiosity without habituated reactivity leads to a sense of expansiveness, peace of mind and equanimity – a higher level reward than flight behaviour. Jud suggests that R.A.I.N. meditation, breathing into strong emotions and loving kindness meditation can activate this third gear.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we can become aware of the habit loop reinforcing our craving or addiction, re-evaluate the rewards inherent in our habituated responses and begin to experience the freedom and peace which comes from the ability to be curious about our inner world, while being reaction-free.

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

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

How to Cultivate a Non-Judgmental Mind

Our mind is continuously scanning and judging our environment for our own good – to keep us safe. However, these judgments are often ill-informed, made on inadequate information and distorted by our assumptions and prejudices. It takes conscious effort to still our mind and become open to what is within and outside of ourselves. Mindfulness meditation and other mindful practices can enable us to open our minds and find the space to develop non-judgmental awareness, self-compassion and connectedness.

The busy, judgmental mind

Our minds engage in an endless process of commenting on our daily experiences – identifying what we like and dislike; complaining about everything from the weather to the quality of service (on the train or bus, or by the shop assistant); assessing others as thoughtless or inconsiderate or insensitive or tactless; worrying about future events; or replaying past words and actions while indulging in regret, shame or remorse.

We make “snap judgments” that colour our perception of things around us and other people. We might consider the woman who cuts in on us in traffic an aggressive person (attribution of a trait), typical of someone who drives a Mercedes (a prejudice or bias) and motivated by the belief that “time is money” (assumption). The reality may be that the woman is normally a careful, thoughtful driver who on this occasion is rushing a very sick daughter to hospital or is trying to rescue a teenage daughter who is stranded on a railway station by herself at night.

The effects of our judgmental mind

The problem with our snap judgments is that they are often wrong and provide a distorted view of reality. They can become habituated and automatic – resulting in our filtering reality so that we do not see what is really going on with people and events in our life. As recent as last week, I assumed that a young woman in my workshop had become intentionally disengaged (based on observation of some non-verbal behaviour). It turned out that she was suffering from a migraine headache.

A judgmental mind is a closed mind – not open to new perceptions or interpretations. When we are judgmental, we fail to listen to others, closing ourselves off from new learning and insights; we block the pursuit of alternative options in our decision-making processes; or blind ourselves to our contribution to a situation that we consider unsatisfactory. A very simple example of this latter effect is forgetting that “we are traffic too“.

Our harshest critic

Our own minds are our harshest critic – we berate our self for an oversight; castigate our self for doing or saying something that we judge as “stupid”; become frustrated or exasperated by our inability to overcome some inappropriate/undesirable behaviour that makes our personal interactions more difficult; or indulge in negativity, only to feel remorse or disgust with our self afterwards.

Our internal talk and incessant inner commentary on our words and actions can become our default mode network blocking out the opportunity to see things anew, develop more successful personal strategies and build supportive relationships. This state of mind can lead to depression and/or anxiety.

Mindfulness meditation to cultivate a non-judgmental mind

Dr. Mark Bertin, a developmental paediatrician, argues that meditation increases our awareness of our self and others, enables us to “face reality” and to cope with life’s challenges with a degree of equanimity. Mark is the author of Mindful Parenting for ADHD.. He provides a range of mindfulness resources for parents, children and adults generally.

An especially useful resource is the 15-minute, guided meditation that Mark provides which he calls Nonjudgmental Awareness Practice. This mindfulness meditation begins with a focus on “something you don’t like that much about yourself, or that you wish you didn’t have”. He stresses the need to identify something that is not too stressful but that causes some degree of discomfort in your life, for whatever reason.

This meditation is simple, clear and highly supportive. I would strongly recommend this meditation for anyone, but especially for those who do not like a lot of talking during a guided meditation. It is the kind of mindfulness meditation that is easy to develop into a regular habit for significant benefit to yourself. Other forms of mindfulness practice that can help to defuse the self-critic are self-compassion meditation or meditations focused on self-forgiveness.

As we grow in mindfulness meditations that explore our judgmental mind and inner critic, we can learn to separate our thoughts from what is real; develop openness to the world around us and others’ ideas, perspectives and experiences; and develop deeper relationships and connectedness with others. The effect of regular mindfulness practice is calmness and equanimity.

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

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

Observing Thoughts

Our thoughts can be like a whirlpool and take over our lives – generating fear, anxiety and depression. A single event may catalyse a “looping” of negative thoughts that become an endless cycle. I found this happening when I was recovering from the shock of my relative’s recent car accident. One way to steady your mind is to notice your thoughts and see them for what they are. Jon Kabat-Zinn offers a penetrating, 20-minute Guided Meditation on Observing Thoughts, and doing so non-judgmentally.

Thoughts feed on themselves

I found when reflecting on my relative’s car accident that I became preoccupied with what might have happened. Fortunately – despite rolling the car at 70 kph and ending up on a two lane, major road upside down – he suffered minor injuries, just bruising and soreness and no broken bones or head injuries. He was assessed as okay by Ambulance officers and cleared by the hospital after a 3 hour stay.

Despite this extremely fortunate outcome of the accident, my mind began to race – I could not stop thinking about what could have happened:

  • what if he had suffered a serious injury or died in the accident?
  • what if he had a passenger who was injured or killed?
  • what if people in other cars or pedestrians suffered also as a result of his accident?
  • what kind of police charge and consequences could he face if others were injured?
  • what would be the possible impact on the rest of his life?

These thoughts can become like a whirlpool or an endless loop. In the guided meditation mentioned above, Jon highlights how easily we fabricate thoughts, how readily they proliferate and how frequently they morph into other thoughts – taking us downstream in the flow of a strong, thought current.

Meditation to observe our thoughts non-judgmentally

Jon’s guided meditation on observing our thoughts is a gentle approach to raising our awareness, bringing our thoughts into focus and releasing them. He uses various metaphors to enable us to see our thoughts for what they are – clouds blowing by, bubbles floating to the surface of boiling water, ripples on a vast ocean or eddies in a stream. He encourages us not to entertain these thoughts but to observe them passing us by – avoiding any form of judgment or censure of ourselves.

The meditation leads to the ability to separate yourself from your thoughts and to “rest in awareness” – a place of calm, peace and equanimity. Liane Moriarty in her book, Nine Perfect Strangers, captures this sense of release in the thoughts expressed by one of her characters. The woman involved is one of the participants in a health retreat attended by nine people. Following periods of silence, meditation, mindful breathing, yoga and Tai Chi, she was able to observe:

At first, without the distraction of noise and conversation, Frances’s thoughts went around and around on a crazy, endless, repetitive loop…but the act of observing her looping thoughts seemed to slow them down until at last they came to a complete stop, and she’d found that for moments of time she thought…nothing. Nothing at all. Her mind was quite empty. And these moments were lovely. (p.200)

As we grow in mindfulness through practices such as meditation, Tai Chi, yoga and mindful breathing we can observe our thoughts, distance ourselves from them and the emotions they generate, and to see them as passing fabrications. We can free ourselves from the bonds of associated emotions such as fear, anxiety and depression, and experience tranquillity instead.

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Image by skeeze from Pixabay

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

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