Managing Yourself in Times of Crisis

Susan David was recently interviewed as part the Ted Connects© series of talks.  Susan spoke on the topic, How to be Your Best Self in Times of Crisis.  She maintained that “life’s beauty is inseparable from it’s fragility” and provided a number of ways to manage yourself in times of crisis.  She emphasised the importance of facing our difficult emotions, naming our feelings, being curious about what our emotions are telling us, developing our sense of agency and finding ways to help other people.  Susan stressed that underpinning her approach is the concept of “emotional agility” – the core of which involves “radical acceptance” of our emotions and self-compassion.

The fragility of life

Susan reminds us that the Coronavirus highlights the fragility of life. This fragility, however, is part of our everyday life experience. We love someone then lose them, we enjoy good health then experience illness, we savour time with our children only to watch them grow up and leave home.  The problem for us is that our social narrative, the stories we tell ourselves as a society, is so focused on the importance of always achieving, being fit and happy and appearing to be always in control.  There is an inherent denial of the reality of death and the fragility of life – we have to appear to be strong and deny our difficult emotions.

Facing our difficult emotions

Susan stressed the importance of overcoming our habituated way of responding to difficult emotions.  We typically deny them, turn away from them and, yet, end up stuck in them or “marinating in it” as Rick Hanson, in his Being Well Podcast, describes the resultant state of self-absorption.  Susan maintains the critical importance of facing our emotions and owning them, not letting them own us.  This involves naming our feelings not in a broad way such as “I’m feeling stressed” but in what she calls a “granular” way or fine-grained identification of exactly what we are feeling, e.g. disappointment, resentment, anger, fear or anxiety.  It is only by truly facing and naming our difficult feelings that we can tame them, stop them from owning us.  Susan points out that this self-regulation is a key facet of mindfulness.

Being curious about our difficult emotions

This is a form of self-observation and self-exploration. It’s being curious about what our difficult emotions are telling us about ourselves and what we value.  Strong emotions are indicators of what is important to us but, at the time, perceived as lacking in our personal situation.  Loneliness, for example, is experienced as disconnection from others and tells us how much we value relationships and connection.  Social distancing and social isolation, as a result of the Coronavirus, have compounded our feelings of loneliness.  So, it’s important to move towards ways of re-connecting, if not face-to face, by phone and online communication. 

Developing our sense of agency

Susan argues that in these times when everything seems out of control, it is important to develop “pockets of control” to enable us to develop our sense of agency – our capacity to control some aspect of our life and our immediate environment.  These arenas of control can be minute things like deciding what three things you want to do today, developing a menu plan for the week, setting up a daily routine (especially when you are working at home with children present) or changing the way you normally do things to adapt to changing circumstances.  It may be that you decide to master the skill of online communication – developing new capacities as well as gaining control.  Some people look to regain control and appreciation over their own yard or garden.  My wife and I have recently bought a coffee-making machine so that we can better control our expenditure on coffee, increase our control over how our cappuccinos or Piccolos are made and limit our time and social exposure by avoiding having to go out and queue up for a take-way coffee.

Sense of agency can extend to appreciating what we have and savouring it.  The Coronavirus attacks our respiratory system, quite literally taking our breath away.  We can begin to really value our breathing through various forms of meditation which can ground us in our body in these times of uncertainty and anxiety.  As we learn to control our breathing through meditation, we can develop ways to calm ourselves in times of crisis and stress.  Our calmness is reflected in our breathing, as is our agitation. 

Helping others in need

Besides showing compassion towards ourselves (in owning and accepting our emotions and what they tell us about ourselves), it is important to move beyond self-absorption to thinking of others and undertaking compassionate action towards them.  This may mean a simple phone call to an elderly relative who is in lock-down in a retirement village or contacting someone you have not spoken to for a while.  Everyday we hear about people showing random acts of kindness and generosity towards others.

For example, our weekend newspaper reported about the wife of a doctor on the frontline of the fight against the Coronavirus.  He has decided to live apart from the family for six months to protect them from contracting the virus.  Despite her resultant loneliness, his wife is creating homemade meals for him and his fellow health workers and enlisting the support of neighbours, friends and anyone else to do likewise so that these frontline workers don’t have to rely on unhealthy take-aways to sustain them during their very long hours of courageously caring for others.  Susan challenges each of us with the question, “How can we help in little and big ways?” – how can we demonstrate being part of a community and being “values-connected”?

Reflection

In times like the present with the Coronavirus impacting every facet of our lives, we begin to wonder how we will all cope.  Susan expresses great optimism that the crisis will enable people to be their “best self” and daily we see evidence of this.  Susan points to the history of people handling crises with courage, wisdom, compassion and mutual kindness (witness the recent wildfires in Australia).  As we grow in mindfulness and learn to face our difficult emotions through meditation and reflection, we can understand better what our emotions are telling us, regain our sense of agency and begin to show compassionate action towards others in need.  Mindfulness helps us to be calm, resilient and hopeful.  

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Image by ShonEjai from Pixabay

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

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

Turning Fear into Resilience in the Time of the Coronavirus

Rick Hanson recently produced a Being Well Podcast focused on Fear in the Time of the Coronavirus.  He provided strategies to deal with fear (both rational and irrational) and to convert fear to resilience by drawing on our inner resources – determination, true grit, courage and creativity.  Rick is the author of Resilient: Find your inner Strength and provides numerous resources on his website to help us develop resilience, wisdom, happiness and mindful relationships.  

His emphasis is on building personal agency.  With the Coronavirus impacting every facet of our lives and reducing our sense of control over our home and work environment, we are experiencing a loss of our “sense of agency”.   We often try to redress this lack of a sense of agency by adopting ineffective ways to regain control over our environments, e.g. panic buying of water, toilet paper and sanitisers.  We can feel helpless and, in consequence, resort to ways of coping that result in misplaced and unproductive effort.

Anxiety can operate on a number of dimensions – e.g. unhelpful or useful anxiety.  At the extreme, we can be too anxious (disabled by our fear) which is unhelpful and harmful to our mental health, overall wellness and our relationships.  Useful anxiety, the mind’s warning system, can create a sense of urgency/intense focus and stimulate constructive action and a strong sense of agency which, in turn, cultivates resilience.  Alternatively, we can be consumed by our sense of helplessness and end up “marinating in it” – to the point where we experience depression and the associated inertia.

Turning fear into resilience

Rick suggest three processes you can adopt to move from helplessness to a sense of agency and personal resilience.  The basic steps involve:

  1. Being fully with your current experience – facing your difficult thoughts and emotions and the reality of the challenges both present and ahead.  This means naming your feelings (such as anxiety, pain, fear, frustration) and being with them, not denying them out of a need to appear totally in control.  It means not giving into your “shoulds” that come with your absolutes.  It is human and normal to be anxious and fearful when confronted with the reality of the Coronavirus.  The choice lies in deciding whether to maintain a sense of helplessness or to move towards a sense of agency and control.
  2. Release thoughts and emotions that are harmful – This includes letting go of obsessive thinking and the endless cycle of “what if” (catastrophising).  It means to treat our emotions as data informing us about a threat to our wellbeing.  We are more than our thoughts and emotions.  It means avoiding absorption with the latest media posts and news, when we cannot do anything about the reported information, or the situations involved.   The reporting is typically sensationalist, alarmist and distorted and is designed to induce fear and dependence.  Don’t sweat the news for your own personal welfare and mental health.
  3. Shift your attention to what would be beneficial for you and others you interact with or service – this means focusing on what you can do in the situation, given all the constraints that you are experiencing.  It means moving from inertness to being creative in the way you spend your time – finding things to focus on and do that are helpful to yourself, your family and those you interact with.  This could involve rethinking your workday, using online communication technology (such as Zoom) or reengineering your business (adopting take-away options, providing delivery services, or switching manufacturing to a much-needed resource in the current crisis, e.g. rum and gin distilleries producing bottles of sanitisers).  The oft-spoken saying – “necessity is the mother of invention” – is particularly true at this time.  The opportunity exists to use this time of social isolation, social distancing and business lockdown to develop new horizons and new skills.  Adopting activities that promote a positive mindset can be helpful here.

Tools to overcome unhelpful anxiety

Rick offered a range of suggestions that can enable you to overcome harmful anxiety and move to proactive action to do things that are beneficial for yourself and others.

  1. Use your breathing to calm your body – Rick suggests taking three breaths (exhalation longer than inhalation, giving a resting state of the body).  There are multiple ways you can use your breath to calm yourself and restore your equanimity, e.g. the somatic awareness approach recommended by Jill Satterfield or “breathing in time” suggested by Richard Wolf.
  2. Tune into your inner strength – revisit your determination, courage, and resilience to strengthen your inner reserves.  It can be helpful here to visualise success in your adaptive endeavours and/or reflect on past experiences where you have drawn on these personal strengths to overcome adversity or seemingly impossible challenges.
  3. Social support – appreciating the care and support that others show towards you, including your partner, family, friends and colleagues.   It also extends to caring for others and engaging others in the process of caring and providing social support to the less fortunate.
  4. Plan and act – appraise the situation and plan some action, however small, that will move you forward.  Rick reinforces the view that “action forces out anxiety”.  Positive action can change our mental state.
  5. When you feel okay, internalize the feeling – we tend to take it for granted that we will feel okay.  However, in times of stress and uncertainty, it is important to notice when you are feeling okay and internalise this feeling of coping well to strengthen it.  This positive self-feedback builds self-efficacy which means that you are building up your belief in your capacity to manage stressful situations.

Reflection

Fear can be disabling if we let it grow unabated.  It is natural to feel anxiety and fear when things are so uncertain, and everything associated with our normal life seems out of our control.  Fear, however, can be harmful unless we look at it fully in the face and understand what it is telling us about the situation we find ourselves in.  There are ways to calm our mind, emotions and our body if we choose.  There are also constructive things that we can do to manage our situation and our emotional response.  As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness, we can turn fear into resilience by being able to regulate our response and draw on our inner strength to meet the challenges with determination, courage and creativity.

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Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness Meditation to Reduce Anxiety in Times of Uncertainty

In these times of increasing uncertainty, compounded by the global spread of the Coronavirus, the level of anxiety in individuals and the community at large can intensify (you only have to notice panic buying to witness anxiety contagion).  Anxiety impacts every facet of our lives – our relationships, problem solving, decision making and communication.  We can become abrupt with our significant others, quick to anger, argumentative, determined to prove we are right or hyper-critical of their words and action – all traits likely to damage close relationships which are built on mutual respect and appreciation.

Research also shows, for example, that 7% of people in Europe are frequently lonely.  The loneliness epidemic experienced in Australia, US and UK (where they have a cross-Government strategy to tackle the challenges involved) is exacerbated by the need to engage in social distancing, social isolation and, in increasing numbers, to work from home.  For people who are used to social contact and interaction at work, working from home can compound the loneliness problem. 

Added to the isolation from social work contacts is the banning of the normal places of social gatherings outside work such as restaurants, sporting events, concerts, university classes and professional conferences.  So, it is extremely difficult for people experiencing new levels and increased frequency of loneliness to find social support, other than electronically.  This puts pressure on people, young and old, to learn new ways of communicating (abbreviated social media messaging will not fill the void). Fortunately, new technologies for online communication such as Zoom have really helped to address the growing problem of physical isolation and its attendant problem of loneliness.

With more people out of work each day as businesses close under Government direction or because they are no longer viable in a social distancing environment, increasing numbers of people are experiencing economic anxiety and depression – they cannot see a way out of their current, seemingly intractable, financial problems. 

Before the Coronavirus, depression was already a major health issue in communities around the world.  Isolation and loss of employment – two very significant factors in precipitating or aggravating depression – are likely to accelerate the already exponential growth in depression in the community unless new ways are instituted by Governments, communities and entrepreneurs to redeploy people to arenas of employment experiencing growth in demand (such as healthcare support, farming and Coronavirus contact tracing) and individuals are able to find ways to address their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Mindfulness meditation – a way to address anxiety, loneliness and depression

Neuroscience research, such as that conducted by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), demonstrates the power of mindfulness and related meditation practices to eliminate anxiety, overcome loneliness and reduce depression.  A search on “meditation” in the search block of this blog will highlight many meditation practices for individuals to address these mental health challenges.  Some examples are:

MARC provides weekly meditation podcasts on a very wide range of topics.  These can be accessed either through their website or via the UCLA App providing “meditations for well-being”.   These meditations can be supplemented and reinforced by other mindfulness practices.

Reflection

The advent of the Coronavirus has compounded the problem of mental illness in communities around the world leading to growing anxiety, loneliness and depression.  People who previously did not experience these adverse mental health conditions are now succumbing to their widespread community encroachment.  Research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation is an antidote to these mental health challenges and is a source of overall wellbeing. 

The personal challenge is to overcome our initial reservations and disbelief and to take advantage of the numerous sources of mindfulness meditation available to us.  At first, we are inclined to believe that the challenge to our mental health and welfare is too great and that meditation is too simple a solution.  However, beginning with some small meditation practice and maintaining it daily, can make a very significant positive impact on our mental and emotional state.

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Image by Shahariar Lenin from Pixabay

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

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

What’s Holding You Back?

In a penetrating video presentation, Lance Allred asks the questions, “What is Your Polygamy?”  Polygamy in the context of his talk is a metaphor for the “absolutes” that we carry in our head from childhood (absolutes that have been reinforced by our own self-stories and by the projections of others).   Lance was raised in a polygamous Mormon community established by his grandfather. The community’s beliefs were very “black and white” – no room for grey.  Polygamy was practised because of the belief that the more wives you had, the closer you were to God. 

Lance’s absolutes included the following:

  • He had to prove himself to God and man because he was born defective as a legally deaf child
  • Mormonism is the one true faith and you can only get to Heaven if you are faithful to Mormon beliefs.

Lance escaped from the Mormon community at the age of 13 years, but he maintains that it is taking him a lifetime to escape his “absolutes”.  He did become the first legally deaf NBA player, but this became another trap – he became captured by the lights and accolades to the point were his sense of self-worth was dependent on the views of others.  He won the praise of others but began to lose his integrity.  He was so caught up with defining himself as an elite basketball player that when he was cut from the NBA team, he was severely depressed and entertained suicidal thoughts.

What are your absolutes?

Our absolutes are “culturally indoctrinated” and embedded in our everyday language – they live underneath the “shoulds”, the “musts” and the “have to’s” that we tell ourselves daily and use as excuses when confronted by personal challenges or the requests of others (either explicit or implicit requests).

Lance contends that knowing our “absolutes” is a journey into “self-intimacy” and overcoming them is a lifetime challenge of moving outside our “comfort zone”.   He argues persuasively that “we were not born to be caged within our comfort zones” – places of comfort created by our absolutes that we mistakenly view as giving us certainty in an increasingly uncertain and ambivalent world.

Our absolutes hold us back from becoming what we are capable of being.  We fear failure because with new endeavours we will need to move beyond what we know and are comfortable with.  We are concerned about what people will think of us if we don’t succeed in our endeavour, particularly if we put ourselves “out there”.  Lance, however, maintains that “you are bulletproof if your worth is not tied to an outcome” – in his view, by being authentic and true to yourself, you can overcome fear and rest in the knowledge that your worth can never be challenged or questioned.  Growth comes through discomfort, and failure contributes to growth because it precipitates deep learning about our self, our perceptions and our absolutes.

Reg Revans, the father of action learning maintained a similar argument, when he said:

If you try to do something significant about something imperative, you will come up against how you view yourself and how you define your role. 

Don’t let others determine what you are capable of

Lance stated that others can reinforce the cage of your comfort zone by projecting onto you their own absolutes and/or fears.  He tells the story of his first game as an NBA player that he came to play because someone was injured, and a replacement was not readily available.  The coach told him not to try to do too much, just settle for one or two goals and lots of defence.  He was effectively communicating his belief that Lance could not accomplish more because of his deafness disability.  Lance went on to score 30 goals in his first game as well as 10 rebounds.  His message as a result – “don’t define yourself by your disability and don’t let others determine what you are capable of”. 

Often people associate deafness with both physical and intellectual disability.  As Lance stated, the greatest challenge he had to face with his disability was not the disability itself, but others’ perceptions of who he was and what he was capable of.

Lance had been profoundly deaf since birth and had difficulty talking in a way that people could understand.  He spent thousands of hours in speech therapy and has become an accomplished public speaker and author.  I discussed his latest book, The New Alpha Male, in a previous post.

Reflection

In another video presentation, Lance contends that moving beyond our absolutes and associated fears takes perseverance and grit, traits that he maintains define leadership.  I can relate to the need for perseverance and grit in moving beyond peoples’ expectations of what you are capable of when you experience a disability. 

In 1974, a disc in my back collapsed resulting in my inability to walk or even stand without extreme sciatic pain.  I was told that I would never play tennis again. However, over 18 months, I undertook every form of therapy I could lay my hands on – chiropractic treatment, remedial massage therapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, light gym work, physiotherapy and osteopathy.  When using the exercise bike in a gym (I hate gyms!), I would envisage playing tennis again.  My osteopath, Dr. Graham Lyttle, got me back on deck and I having been playing social tennis weekly for the last 40 plus years.

I can also relate to Lance’s concept of “absolutes”.  As I used to play tennis fixtures at an “A” Grade level, I have carried in my head the absolute that I should not make a mistake at tennis.  Managing my expectations around this personal absolute, has been a constant challenge.  I can take to heart Lance’s exhortation that if your self-worth is not tied to an outcome, you can overcome your absolutes and become what you are capable of being.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become aware of our absolutes and how they play out in our lives and develop the self-regulation and courage required to move outside our comfort zone and realise our full potential.  We can move beyond our procrastination and undertake our meaningful work.

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Image by ambroo from Pixabay

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

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

Creating a Positive Future in a Climate-Changed World

Diana Winston recently provided a meditation podcast entitled, Envisioning a Positive Future in Our World.  The podcast was timely given the devastating fires across Australia in the months preceding and following the presentation and the ongoing challenge of gaining control over fires that continue to rage.  Diana’s guided meditation was a part of the weekly podcasts offered by MARC, UCLA.  Diana emphasised the need to draw on mindfulness for strength and resilience, to envisage a better future and to collaborate to achieve a better world.

The immeasurable impact of the Australian bushfires

The devastating impact of the Australian bushfires and wildfires was brought into sharp relief by the ABC Four Corners© program, Black Summer, aired on 3rd February 2020.  The program incorporated video footage from various areas and stages of the fires along with discussions by people who had survived the fires and lost their homes and/or family members, firefighters who described what it was like to be in thick of the fires, evacuation centre volunteers and elected officials living in areas impacted by the fires. 

Michael Pengilly, Mayor of Kangaroo Island in South Australia, summed up the extent of the physical devastation when he said:

So far this bushfire season, almost 12 million hectares have burned.  At least a billion native animals have died.  More than 3,000 homes have been destroyed and 33 people have lost their lives.

He pointed out that there were still bushfires creating havoc across Australia at the time of the TV program. 

Firefighters and people who had lost their homes and loved ones spoke of the trauma resulting from the fires, the fear of losing their lives, the 48 hours of blackness and the suffocating smoke that burned into your throat and lungs.  Aaron Salway, who lost his father and brother in the bushfires, spoke of the immeasurable impact on themselves and children who have experienced and survived the fires:

This fire I’ll never forget.  I don’t think my kids will ever forget it. It’s something that’s going to be scarred into my brain.  I don’t ever want to see it again.

When you see pictures of 60 metre high flames; raging fires driven by gale force winds (in excess of 80 kph); exhausted firefighters who have just heard that two of their colleagues had died in a fire truck rollover caused by a fallen tree; and flying embers moving at high speed horizontal to the ground, you understand that the emotional scars are deep and very real. 

Some of the lessons from the Australian bushfires

The fires brought to the fore the courage and resilience of individuals and communities when confronted with a crisis of this scale.  One such inspiring example was that of members of a Muslim Community who travelled for five hours to cook for exhausted firefighters in East Gippsland in Victoria and arranged five truckloads of donated goods to be delivered to people in fire-affected communities.

The firefighters (many of whom were volunteers) who risked their lives, and in some cases lost their lives, showed incredible commitment to helping others to deal with the frightening challenge of the fires raging out of control.  

One of the key lessons of the fires was what people could achieve when they pulled together, pooled their resources, supported each other emotionally and concerned themselves with the safety of others.  The questions and answers during the video episode highlighted some other key lessons:

  • The climate-changed world is a “new normal”
  • Unless people of different political persuasions can pull together and collaborate, there is no way that the situation can be redressed and the prognosis for the future be improved
  • Leaders at every level need to move beyond petty differences and demonstrate true leadership – marshalling committed followers to work towards creating a positive future
  • Australia must find ways to tap into the indigenous knowledge of landscape management – learning about and respecting the environment and related ecosystems.

Tackling climate change as individuals

In introducing her podcast, Diana highlighted an article by Emma Morris in the New York Times on January 10, 2020.  In the article, titled  How to Stop Freaking Out and Tackle Climate Change, Emma provides a sound five-point plan that individuals can pursue to move beyond paralysis by fear to constructive engagement:

  1. Ditch the shame
  2. Focus on the systems, not yourself
  3. Join an effective group
  4. Define your role
  5. Know what you are fighting for, not just what you are fighting against.

The last point demands moving beyond blaming to collaborative endeavour.  Emma’s plan shows what individuals can do to create a positive future for their children and grandchildren.

Diana draws on this discussion to incorporate a visioning exercise in her guided meditation.  After an introductory period focused on becoming grounded, Diana suggests that people engaging in the meditation begin to envision what a renewed environment would look like in terms of flourishing trees, clean air, running water, clear skies, happy children, healthy and diverse wildlife, numerous birds and butterflies – a very different picture to one of darkened skies, dense and suffocating smoke, children distressed about their future environment, blackened trees and flora and burned/dead animals (many of them in danger of extinction).  Diana maintains that the future is ours to create.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can build our resilience; better appreciate our connectedness to others and our natural world; develop our motivation to collaborate and take compassionate action; overcome our biases and assumptions; and develop our personal role in helping to shape a positive future in our climate-changed world.

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Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay

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

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

Deepening the Mind-Body Connection through Tai Chi

In the very early stages of this blog I discussed Tai Chi as a pathway to mindfulness.  I also highlighted the challenges I experienced in maintaining daily practice of Tai Chi along with meditation and writing this blog, when I still had a range of professional and personal  commitments to fulfill on a regular basis.   I concluded then that keeping the benefits of Tai Chi at the forefront of my mind, aligning my Tai Chi practice with the timing of my highest energy levels (I’m a morning person) and continuously reading and writing about Tai Chi would build my motivation for daily practice.

In 2018, I explored the benefits of Tai Chi for the mind-body connection based mainly on research that had been conducted at various centres of research at UCLA such as those focused on psychoneuroimmunology and East-West Medicine. This current post highlights the work of Dr. Peter Wayne who is associated with the Harvard Medical School.

Peter Wayne, who has spent decades practising, studying and researching Tai Chi, stresses the power of Tai Chi to deepen the mind-body connection.  Peter is the Research Director for the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and the founder of The Tree of Life Tai Chi Center

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi

In 2013, Peter published a book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, summarizing the research around Tai Chi and highlighting what he calls the “eight active ingredients of Tai Chi” which he had developed through his own research and the teaching of Tai Chi Masters.   These ingredients focus on the “biological mechanisms” that contribute to the wide-ranging benefits of Tai Chi including those related to cognition, breathing and neuromuscular control.  Peter points out that this focus on active ingredients helps him in multiple ways – in shaping a curriculum for teaching Tai Chi, in communicating with members of the medical profession and in establishing clinical trials.

In an interview with Dan Kleiman about his research and teaching, Peter explained that his early study of evolutionary biology and ecological modelling helped him to develop a systems perspective that is holistic in orientation and strongly akin to Chinese Medicine.  His orientation to integrative medicine and his mind-body perspective on Tai Chi flow from this early academic training and related research experience.  In a technical presentation Neuroscience in the Body: Perspectives at the Periphery, Peter highlights the downside of having multiple medical specialisations that contribute to “reductionist thinking” and blind us to the whole-body benefits of interventions such as Tai Chi.

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi identified in his book highlight his integrative, systems perspective:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Intention
  3. Structural integration
  4. Relaxation (of the mind and body)
  5. Strengthening and building flexibility
  6. Freer breathing
  7. Social interaction and community (if done in a group)
  8. Embodied philosophy and ritual.

Deepening the mind-body connection through Tai Chi

Peter explained in his interview with Dan Kleiman that the integrative nature of Tai Chi and its capacity to deepen the mind-body connection is demonstrated in the focus on mindful breathing (which is common to all martial arts).  He pointed out that mindful breathing requires improved posture; positively impacts your nervous system, cardiovascular system and mood; and stills what Seth Godin calls the “Lizard Brain” through enhancing the power of focus.  In Peter’s view, an ecological perspective on health recognises that all these processes of body and mind are intertwined and mutually interdependent.

In his neuroscience presentation mentioned above, Peter described Tai Chi as a “multi-component mind-body exercise”.  He stressed the interaction of mind-body through Tai Chi by stating that it “integrates slow intentional movement with breathing and multiple cognitive skills”. The cognitive skills he refers to include body awareness, focus and visioning using imagery.

He illustrated the benefits of the mind-body connection involved in Tai Chi by mentioning several research studies that show two key outcomes (1) the primary risk factor in falls of people over 65 is “fear of falling” and (2) Tai Chi has been shown to reduce the fear of falling by 35%.  Tai Chi achieves this result not only by strengthening muscles and improving coordination and sensation (especially in the feet), but also by reducing falling anxiety, increasing exercise self-efficacy and improving the “executive function” of the brain.  Peter suggests that Tai Chi is a “gateway exercise” – increasing people’s confidence to try other things that lead to overall wellbeing.

Reflection

Research into the impacts of Tai Chi reinforce its power to improve our mind and body and the mind-body connection that is so critical for daily functioning, quality of life and longevity.  I have already identified the personal benefits that motivate me to practise Tai Chi.  However, Peter’s research and presentation has increased my desire to improve the frequency of my Tai Chi practice. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, research and reflection, we gain a better understanding of the mind-body connection, the impacts of our thinking and self-stories on our intentions and the blockages that impede putting our resolutions into effect, particularly at this time of the year (with the start of 2020).  I can look forward to improved Tai Chi practice and the multiple personal benefits that can accrue (not the least of these being to improve my tennis game!).

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Image by Antonika Chanel from Pixabay

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

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

Developing Our Inner Life as a Leader

As we grow in mindfulness, we develop our inner life – realising a deeper self-awareness, developing increased understanding of the nature and strength of our personal triggers and building a greater understanding of, and tolerance for, other people’s differences.  This enriched inner life builds our capacity for insight, resilience, creativity and integration of our words and actions with our life purpose – all essential traits of effective leadership.  Ginny Whitelaw, in her book The Zen Leader, describes this reframing and reorientation of a leader as a flip from “Out There” to “In Here”.

We create our world “out there”

Ginny explains that what we consider to be “out there” (external reality) is, in fact, a projection of our inner world.  Drawing on her study of biophysics, martial arts and Zen philosophy, Ginny marshals her arguments to demonstrate that our external world as we perceive and experience it, is mostly of our own making.  Her argument revolves around several key insights:

  • Limited perception – Ginny points out that our human capacity is to perceive external reality in two or three dimensions (the latter achieved mainly by artists and architects).  She maintains that our external world exists in ten dimensions, most of which are outside our awareness.
  • Cultural filters – our national culture, the world we are raised in, creates filters that shape our perceptions, beliefs, words and actions.   Naomi Osaka (Japanese tennis star), for example, explained in an interview for the Brisbane International that she was bemused by the enthusiasm, boisterousness and naturalness of Australian tennis spectators – which she pleasantly experienced as a sharp contrast to the “politeness” of Japanese tennis spectators.
  • Personal triggers – what we experience individually and differentially as negative triggers is shaped by our early life experiences which heighten our sensitivity to different interactions – a sensitivity that can be reflected in a constant need for control, an overwhelming drive to prove that we are “better than”, an obsessive need to please so that we are liked, or the continuous perception of criticism of ourselves by others.  These negative triggers are often the result of distorted perception of our external world – for example, we see criticism where none is intended or where the opposite is intended.
  • Expectations – our expectations reflect our self-image and influence how we experience others’ interactions with us.  Ginny maintains that through our expectations “we’ve pre-tuned our senses to notice only certain things and to place certain interpretations on them”.  Our expectations that reside “in here” create the world we experience as “out there”.

So, what we experience as “out there” is highly subjective and is of our own creation – we are constantly making our own world.  There are inherent deficiencies and dangers for leaders in assuming that what we perceive and experience, is “real” and is the only reality.  Reg Revans, the father of the action learning approach to leadership development, warns us that if we assume that we know what is real we are going to cause trouble for ourselves and others.  Politicians frequently attempt to shape our perceptions of reality by stating unequivocally that “the reality is…” (invariably something of their own making that serves their purpose).

Developing our inner life (as a leader)

In her book on Zen leadership, Ginny offers some penetrating exercises that address our individual distortions of “out there” and enrich our inner life (what is “in here”) thus empowering us to “lead fearlessly” but attuned to others’ reality and own purpose.  These reflective exercises fall into several categories:

  • What World do You Make? – this exercise built around personal skills and traits as well as values that you hold strongly, develops an insight into how you shape your world in a typical week. (p.86)
  • Turning a Difficult Relationship – involves reflecting on an interaction with curiosity and openness to ascertain what you personally brought to the interaction (in terms of perceptions and triggers).  It entails looking into the mirror, discovering the fear at the root of your perception and behaviour and “claiming your power” by naming and facing your fear. (p.97)
  • Sitting Meditation as a Core Practice – Ginny offers a guided meditation based on sitting and grounding that releases tension, develops deep body-mind relaxation and provides the opportunity to gain greater awareness of what is “in here” and “out there” for you. (p.101)

Ginny’s book is rich with insights and personal exercises and reflections to deepen self-awareness, enhance self-regulation and develop ways to empower yourself to take your place fully in the world (not constrained by distorted perceptions, unfounded assumptions and projections or unexposed fears).

Reflection

Our life experience and our personal responses provide a rich store for reflection and insight.  Developing our inner life is not a luxury for a leader – it is an imperative because leaders are able to influence others and to enrich their lives.  The starting point is acknowledging and accepting that the world we experience is something of our own making and that we can remake our world (and help others to do likewise) by growing in mindfulness through meditation (such as the sitting meditation proposed by Ginny), by reflection (such as focusing on what we brough to a difficult interaction) and by open exploration (seeking with curiosity to identify our personal “imprint” of our world).

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

Developing Resonance through Listening: Leadership in Action

In a previous post I discussed leadership as resonance, drawing on the work of biophysicist Ginny Whitelaw.  Fundamental to this concept is the role of a leader as an “energy concentrator” – capturing, focusing and amplifying energy.  This process is a two-way street.  The leader generates energy alignment and amplification through developing a vision, shaping team culture and enabling the transformation of creative energy into innovation.  On the other hand, the leader captures the energy of his or her followers through listening – being in tune with their energy vibration, removing political and organisational blockages and providing energetic support.  This is very much a form of bottom-up management, in contrast to the former way of concentrating energy through vision and culture which is a top-down approach.  Listening, then, is a means of achieving resonance – aligning with and amplifying energy vibrations from followers.

Listening as resonance

A common expression used to describe the act of listening is to say that people who are actively listening in a conversation are on the “same wavelength” – their energy vibrations are aligned.  Ginny, drawing on neuroscience research, maintains that this statement is both metaphorically and literally true – if the leader is actively listening, they are matching the brain waves of the communicator, making a map of the other person’s energy vibrations within their own brain.  This is what Ginny calls “connected communication”.  As she points out, when we are on the same wavelength, we have access to a deeper level of understanding and information exchange.  This is in direct contrast to parallel conversations where there are no connections and people are “talking past” each other.  In Ginny’s words, listening involves a sensitivity to the point that the conversation changes us and has a healing effect.

Disconnected communication – a lack of listening and dissipation of energy

Communication is a form of energy exchange that can be either employed to make things happen or dissipated through failure to listen by either party in a conversation.  In organisations, it is all too common for staff to lose heart and energy when their leader fails to listen, to be in tune with what they are saying.  This can happen in communications about ideas for improvement, expression of dissatisfaction about some aspect of the workplace or work practices or identification of potential risks.  Leaders can tune out through a need to maintain control, through their own busyness or habit of interrupting the speaker or diverting unpleasant or challenging conversations.  Leaders often attempt to solve the problems of followers before they have heard and understood what the real problem is.

Developing resonance through listening

Leaders can develop their capacity to listen effectively and develop resonance – energy alignment and amplification – through mindfulness practices.  These can take many forms as discussed in this blog – such as meditations to address fear, the need for control, resentment or negative self-talk.  A very useful strategy is to reflect on a situation where you failed to listen effectively.  You can ask the following questions in your reflection:

  • What was the situation and the nature of the conversation?
  • What was happening for me in terms of my thoughts or feelings?
  • To what extent was my need for control involved?
  • How did the exchange impact my sense of self-worth or self-identity?
  • What was my mindset in the interaction?
  • What intention did I bring to the conversation?
  • What words or actions did I use to curtail, redirect or end the conversation?
  • What negative impact did I have on the energy of the communicator?

Honest answers to these penetrating questions can enable you to increase your self-awareness, remove blockages to your listening and open the way to develop resonance through effective listening.

Reflection

The way we listen as leaders can build resonance or dissipate energy.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices in our daily life or reflection on our words and action, we can better attune ourselves to what others are saying – both in terms of the content and significance of their communication. We will be better able to match and amplify their energy and facilitate the transformation of ideas into action.  Mindfulness enables us to be present in the moment, aware of our own emotions and that of others and builds the capacity to self-regulate our words and actions.  Connected communication is a challenge but it is essential to leadership effectiveness as research and our own experience continuously affirms. ___________________________________________

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

How to Cope with Uncertainty

Recently, Diana Winston offered a meditation podcast on the topic, Dealing with Uncertainty.  This was at a time of heightened uncertainty generated by the California wildfires that were threatening people’s lives and homes.  Uncertainty arises when we do not know what will happen in the future, we have a sense of being out of control and we fear that the future holds potentially damaging outcomes for us physically, emotionally, financially or socially.  Diana emphasised that uncertainty is an integral aspect of the world we live in today – in our increasingly global environment and resultant interdependence, many things are uncontrollable and beyond our capacity to influence.

Diana reminds us that we cannot deny the uncertainty of our reality, but we can learn to manage its impact on our lives – on our thinking, feelings, behaviour and relationships.  Our anxiety in the face of this ever-encroaching uncertainty is exacerbated by our brain’s negative bias – often fearing the worst to enable us to prepare for fight or flight.  We tend to anticipate negative outcomes from many activities such as a medical diagnosis and we begin to worry in anticipation of this unwelcome outcome.  Diana maintains that meditation can provide a place of refuge when we experience uncertainty and the associated fear and anxiety – a secure retreat away from the waves of uncertainty that besiege us.

Meditation as an anchor in a turbulent sea

Diana offers several steps in her guided mediation for dealing with anxiety (MARC, UCLA).  The meditation practice is designed to engender a sense of solace when uncertainty seems overwhelming:

  • Adopt a comfortable position and allow your body to begin to experience relaxation.
  • Focus attention on your body beginning with your breath as it courses through you.  You can ground this attention by focusing on the expansion and contraction of your chest or abdomen.
  • Feel the sensation of your breath – coolness, energy flow, evenness.
  • Choose an anchor – e.g. your breath, sounds in the room or a bodily sensation such as tingling in your fingers when they are pressed together, or the feel of your feet placed firmly on the floor.  You can then return to your anchor whenever you become unfocused or distracted by thoughts or sensations such as an itch or pain in a part of your body.
  • Notice any wandering off task and name what is happening e.g. lost in my thoughts; feeling anxious.  Once you have named what is happening, return to your anchor.
  • Notice any sensation of discomfort or disturbing thought – give it some space and pay attention to it with kindness.  You can change your posture if this helps or, alternatively, accept what is happening and plan to take action later, e.g. put some dermatitis cream on an itch.
  • Express appreciation for your safety, protection and wellness.
  • Extend your sense of gratitude to people engaged in making others safe and protecting them from harm, e.g. volunteers, the police and firefighters.
  • Focus on the groundedness of your body, take a deep breath and return to awareness of your surroundings.

Reflection

Meditation can help us to grow in mindfulness – awareness of our external reality and internal reactions such as fear and anxiety in the face of uncertainty.  Meditation provides a refuge and a source of solace in the face of life’s uncertainty.  The anchor we develop through meditation can serve us well throughout our daily lives, at work or at home.  Mindfulness can help us scare away the darkness of uncertainty so that we can achieve what the singer, Passenger, suggests:

Feel, feel like you still have a choice
If we all light up, we can scare away the dark.

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Image by Jerzy Górecki from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness and Personal Transitions During Organisational Change

Change in our personal lives and in an organisational setting can generate anxiety, fear, insecurity and anger.  This discomfort can be expressed as resistance to change and lead to a wide range of unproductive behaviours that can be harmful to us as individuals as well as for the organisations we work in.  William and Susan Bridges identified three broad stages of personal transition in the context of organisational change.  In their 2017 book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, they explained that each of us go through these stages at different rates for different changes depending on the our perception of the impact of the changes.  The three stages they identified are (1) endings – where the focus is on loss, (2) neutral zone – involves a “wait and see” orientation and (3) new beginnings – putting commitment and energy behind the change.  Their book provides a range of managerial strategies that can be employed by organisations to help people transition from endings to new beginnings. They emphasize that without these strategies individuals and organisations can become stuck in either the endings stage or the neutral zone, resulting in illness and organisational decline.

Mindfulness and personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy Quan, a certified organisational change agent and creator of The Calm Monkey (Mindfulness Meditation in the Workplace), had a personal experience that gave her a deep insight into how people deal with a confronting and challenging change.  She was diagnosed with cancer after many years in multiple organisational change roles. This personal challenge led her to seek out mindfulness practices, and meditation in particular, to help her deal with this devastating illness.  Through her meditation practice she came to accept her illness and all that it entailed, and realised that she had a choice – she could view herself as a victim or take a proactive approach that would enable her to lead the best life possible, given her health setback.

This led to a further insight in that she realised that she could employ her understanding of organisational change and mindfulness to help others in an organisational setting.  She was able to draw on the research of William and Susan Bridges and developed a refined model of personal transitions.  She focused on the psychological change processes involved and identified five transition points in an individual’s psychological journey during organisational change:

  • Awareness: becoming aware of your thoughts, emotions, reactions and behaviour when facing the change
  • Understanding: gaining insight into the “why” of your holistic response – body and mind (recognising that this is a normal reaction to a confronting and challenging change)
  • Acceptance: accepting “what is”, not denying your current reality (e.g. a changed role, loss of a job or status)
  • Commitment: moving beyond acceptance to committing to adopt a positive, proactive response to improve your personal experience of the change, “taking things into your own hands” – self-management instead of reactivity
  • Advocacy: promoting the change and its positive elements if your energy level and role enable this.

Research into mindfulness and personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy was able to apply her insights in her work situation to help her colleagues through difficult change processes.  She moved beyond working with a small group to establishing a weekly mindfulness meditation “drop-in” where participants could share their experiences of change, both personal and organisational, and identify what they were trying to cope with and how they were going about it.  After a few years, she had 185 people on this drop-in program (highlighting the psychological challenge of organisational change) and this enabled her to undertake formal research of the impact of her approach of combining mindfulness with change management insights.

Her research was published in a study titled Dealing with Change Meditation Study which can be downloaded here.   Wendy indicated that her approach revolved around two key points of intervention, (1) raising awareness of the personal, holistic impact of a change process and (2) focusing on the future to develop a more constructive response so that the individual undergoing organisational change can have a better experience of the change and make decisions about their future.  Participants in the study were asked to focus on a challenging change and listen three times over a two-week period to a 15-minute, guided meditation focused on positively dealing with the change.

Resources for personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy, building on her own experience of combining mindfulness and organisational change insights, has developed several resources that people can use to assist their personal change processes or to facilitate the transition for others undergoing organisational change:

Wendy also provides a series of free and paid meditation podcasts on her website.

Reflection

I have been engaged in organisational change consultancy for over 40 years, and more recently undertaken extensive research and writing about mindfulness, as well as developing my own mindfulness practices, including meditation.  However, identifying a practical approach to combining the two related skill sets has alluded me to date.  Wendy, through her experience of a personal health crisis, has been able to introduce a very effective, evidence-based approach to using mindfulness to help people transition through organisational change processes.  She has been able to demonstrate that as we grow in mindfulness we can become more aware of our personal response to an organisational change, develop an increased understanding of the nature of that response, increase our acceptance of our changing reality and gradually build a commitment to shaping our future in a positive and constructive way.  Her work resonates with the insights and approach of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as well as that of Susan David who focuses on using mindfulness to develop “emotional agility”.

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Image by Geralt from Pixabay

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

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