Insights from Mindfulness

Matthew Brensilver teaches about the relationship between mindfulness and mental health based on his many years of research into treatments for addiction and resultant behaviours.  In one MARC meditation podcast he offers two key insights that derive from mindfulness.

In the podcast, he suggests that meditation practice itself is a form of training that opens us up to the potentiality of mindfulness.  It enables us to pay attention to our everyday experiences, getting in touch with our sensations and thoughts.  Matthew describes mindfulness as accepting our human condition in all its facets with openness and equanimity.  He maintains that this mindful stance generates two key insights.

Insight 1 – the difficulty of being human

If we learn through meditation to accept whatever comes our way, taking things as they are, we come to realise how difficult it is to be truly human.  This openness to experience from one moment to the next means accepting what is with equanimity – even if this involves challenges to our sense of self, career disappointment, interpersonal conflict or ill health.

It takes real courage to face the reality of our lives with full awareness, not hiding in denial or diverted by resentment.  Life often turns out to be very different to what we imagined or hoped for. Matthew states that mindfulness demands that we “make peace with the human condition” and live our lives with genuine acceptance moment to moment.  This is hard to do, even if we are able in the midst of things to express gratitude for what we do have or for the positive experiences we have had in our lives.

Insight 2 – we underestimate the capacity of our hearts and minds

Matthew suggests that our innate capacity is often obscured by aversion to difficulties, striving for “success” or the negative emotions generated by the everyday challenges of work and life.  Fear, for instance, can stop us from being creative and pursuing opportunities for personal growth and development.

Matthew argues that “sustained intention and attention” that develops with mindfulness enables us to tap into our real potential, including the ability to offer unconditional love and appreciation.  If we are able to maintain “continuity of awareness” we are able to access our full potentiality.

For Matthew, mindfulness involves not only being aware of our thoughts and emotions from moment to moment but also the ability to “pour awareness into our body” so that we are in touch with our bodily sensations as well.  He suggests that meditation helps to build this awareness because it offers the opportunity to “experience the dignity of upright posture” while, at the same time, feeling “the pull of gravity” on the rest of our body.

As we grow in mindfulness, we come to realise the difficulty of facing our human condition with equanimity, while at the same time experiencing the depth and breadth of our human potentiality.  Meditation practice helps us to accept what is and to more readily realise our full potential.

 

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

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The Freedom of Possibilities Versus The Tyranny of Expectations


John Moffitt, author of Emotional Chaos to Clarity, writes comprehensively in a blog post about the tyranny of expectations.  He suggests that expectations lock us into a limited future with a fixed view of desired outcomes.  We have expectations of ourselves and of others and they, in turn, have expectations of us.

In contrast, possibilities arise in the present moment if we are tuned into what is happening in the here and now.   If we are present to our situation, whatever it may be, we are able to tap our imagination and intellect, achieve clarity about the situation and come up with creative options.

Expectations can tie us to a particular outcome and lead to disappointment when that outcome is not realised.  Even when the desired outcome is achieved, we can feel dissatisfied that it did not meet our expectations in terms of happiness, joy or success.  This results in what John describes as the tyranny of expectations and he illustrates this by giving an example of a woman held captive by her expectations:

Our discussion revealed that she repeatedly experienced being disappointed whenever she actually got what she sought.  In response, she would create new expectations, and the cycle would repeat itself.

No one is free from expectations, even yogis who can become trapped by their expectations of what they will achieve through sustained meditation practice.  They can become attached to a desired outcome, so much so that they defeat the very purpose of meditation which is to be in-the-moment with whatever is present in their lives.

John suggests that some people go to the other extreme and give up on expectations for fear of being disappointed – they do not pursue their values in day-to-day living.  They can experience depression as well as anger and frustration.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on our expectations in any given situation, we can learn to understand ourselves and to realise the very powerful role that expectations can play in our lives.  Working from the possibilities of the present moment, we can reduce the power of expectations and realise true happiness.

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

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Handling Fear with Mindfulness

In an earlier post, I described a meditation process for handling fear that Tara Brach described by the acronym, R.A.I.N. – standing for Recognise, Accept, Investigate and Nurture.  In the current discussion, I would like to introduce a mindfulness meditation for addressing fear that is discussed and facilitated by Diana Winston.

In the meditation podcast, Working with Fear, Diana describes a process involving a number of steps that help to soften our bodily response to fear.  Diana explains that fear is a natural response to a perception of threat either imagined or real.  This deeply-embed biological response to perceived threat has accounted for the survival of the human race.

Fear is endemic, often unfounded and poorly managed

Increasingly, we are exposed to situations and pressures that tend to induce fear and anxiety, even when the fears are baseless.  We live in a time when anxiety is endemic – we are surrounded by people (including famous actors, singers, writers and sports people) who suffer from all-consuming fear and anxiety.   Much of this fear and anxiety is unfounded.  Diana points out that a recent study by Cornell University found that “85% of the things that we worry about never come true.”

One of the problems with our fear response is that we typically try to resolve the fear by thinking – by trying to think our way out of fear with the net result that this creates a vicious circle.  We tend to indulge our worst scenario thinking, “What will happen if…”, and these thoughts can intensify our fear and anxiety.  Unresolved fear can ultimately lead to a condition that the Mayo Clinic describes as “generalized anxiety disorder.”

Mindfulness provides an effective alternative to trying to think our way through fear and Diana proposes a meditation process that incorporates the following steps:

  • Being grounded through our posture
  • Taking a number of deep breaths
  • Focusing on our breathing and where it is experienced in our body – a process of mindful breathing (for 5-10 minutes) to still the mind
  • Undertaking an overall body scan to  identify and release areas of felt tightness and tension (a quick scan/release process that takes in the whole body)
  • Bringing our fear or worry into focus by thinking about a particular source of fear (preferably, one that is not disabling or too intense)
  • Undertaking a body scan to identify where the fear is manifesting in a particular part of our body – e.g., our arms, legs, back, neck and/or stomach.
  • Softening the muscles in the identified area that is manifesting the fear
  • Repeating the process of checking and releasing the bodily manifestation of our anxiety ( 3 times overall)
  • Coming back to our breath for a brief time and then returning to full awareness.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditations focused on our fear response, we can progressively reduce the fear and replace a sense of anxiety with a calmness and creative approach to resolving our fears.

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

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Nurturing the Seeds of Happiness

In the sixth week of the online, Power of Awareness Course, Tara Brach talked about nourishing the seeds of happiness.  This followed a video session on the standing meditation which an article in the Huffington Post describes as an established Buddhist approach.

Nurturing the moment requires being in the present, aware of what is happening within and outside ourselves.  As Tara points out, there are so many times during the day where we can experience some form of positive feeling – whether it be happiness, calm, appreciation, serenity, blessed, full of wonder, amazed, free, thankful, delighted or joyous.

Yet, because of the negativity bias of our brains – an evolutionary bias – we let these positive feelings wane or slip by and focus instead on the negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, dread, suspiciousness, nervousness, alarmed or scared.  We often dwell on the negative emotions and do not reinforce the positivity in our lives by savoring the moments of positive feelings.

Tara suggests that this focus on the negative is endemic in our society today:

Our attention fixates on what might go wrong and we are really imprinted – imprinted by experiences that bring up fear or pain and we are inclined to look for them.

Tara argues that we have a “happiness setpoint” that is biologically and biochemically conditioned, and that acts as a happiness thermostat to keep the lid on our happiness level.  To offset this bias towards the negative in our lives, we need to learn to savor the positive moments.

Savoring the moments of happiness

The best way to build a positive outlook on life is to savor the moments when we experience positive feelings.  I have written previously about specific things in your life that you can savour – your child’s development, friendship, your achievements and rewards, the space of being alone or the freedom of boredom.

In this current post, we are not focusing on a particular situation or person in our lives, but on the experience of happiness, in whatever form it takes.  However, it takes practice to overcome the entrenched habit of fixation on the negative and, in turn, establish “a new setpoint for our wellbeing”.

Tara suggests that one way to do this is through “conscious savoring” of the many pleasant feelings that we experience throughout our day.  In her words, “it is a commitment to pause when you are experiencing goodness or happiness or wonder or appreciation or joy or peace”.  The stimulus could be a sunrise over the mirror-like water, a pleasant recollection, the cool breeze on your face or the song of a newly arrived bird in the backyard.

You can savor the moment of happiness by pausing, stopping what you are doing momentarily, and breathing in the pleasure of the moment by taking a couple of deep, conscious breaths.  You can dwell with care and gratitude on the positive feelings you are experiencing, rather than rushing into another activity that may lead to anxiousness. This is very much a process of reflection-in-action.

As we grow in mindfulness through savoring the many different moments of happiness that occur in our lives, we become more aware of the richness of these feelings and the peace that resides within, and we learn to enrich our wellbeing through nurturing the seeds of happiness.

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

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Creativity through Mindfulness

Over several blog posts I have explored the relationship between mindfulness and creativity.  In this post, I want to bring these ideas together to provide a more complete picture of how to develop creativity through mindfulness.

Mindfulness creates the internal environment for creativity through the following:

Stillness and silence

We discussed previously how creative people use stillness and silence to access their inner resources including their imagination.  The busyness of life and constant thinking means we are rarely still or silent.  In the process, we cut ourselves off from creative insight.  Jon Kabat-Zinn and Reg Revans also remind us that exploring what we do not know or understand is the beginning of learning and creative solutions.   As we practice mindfulness through meditation, we engage in stillness and silence and open ourselves up to what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “deep interior capacities” that lie within the “spaciousness” of our minds.

Turning down negative thoughts

Mindfulness can make us aware of the negative thoughts that often block creativity and constitute self-sabotage.  Creative people like David Lynch, Amanda Sinclair, Elizabeth Gilbert and Seth Godin report the importance of turning down, or turning off, thoughts about potential failure or deemed personal inadequacy.  Seth even ascribes this self-sabotage to the “Lizard Brain”.  Sam Smith, singer-songwriter, during a recent interview while performing in London, spoke of the internal demons that beset him and almost prevented him from pursuing his highly successful songwriting and singing career.

Mindfulness enables us to address negative thoughts and stories and defuse their strength to release creativity.  Boy George in a recent coaching session with a very nervous performer on the TV show, The Voice, encouraged the singer to let go of preoccupation with what others might think of their performance:

I think you are someone who really thinks about what people think about you.  We do that as performers – it’s just one of those things, it’s like a default setting in out make-up.  We worry too much about what other people think of us and that can get in the way of what we do.  Don’t think about it too much is the key.

Positive anticipation instead of disabling fear

In a previous post, I discussed the research of Anna Steinhenge and her demonstration of how positive anticipation can overcome the disabling effects of fear and enable us to access clear thinking and creativity.  In this discussion, I explored the R.A.I.N. meditation process that enables us to face the fear within and conquer it so that we free ourselves for new insights and creative endeavour.   Through mindfulness meditation we learn to name our feelings in order to tame them.

Calming the busyness of our minds

Mindfulness enables us to calm our minds and free us from mental busyness or what Haruki Murakami describes as “convoluted waterways of my consciousness” that result in a “restless aquatic organism” .   Even experienced meditation practitioners will sometimes find their mind racing and being invaded with endless thoughts.  Kabat-Zin reminds us that this is part of the human condition and we will not be able to stop the thoughts.  He suggests that instead of entertaining these thoughts, we view them as bubbles in boiling water floating to the surface and bursting on reaching the extremities of the container – our minds.

Being present and grounded

Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, co-authors of The Mind of the Leader, stress the importance of leaders being present and grounded.   They argue that being present in conversations gains respect and facilitates open sharing of ideas.  Being grounded before beginning a conversation or meeting can enhance a leader’s capacity to listen, take in ideas and access their own creative potential.   Practicising somatic meditation, which incorporates many approaches to being grounded in our body, will strengthen our capacity to be present in the moment, stay grounded in the conversation and be open to creative ideas.

Acting on creative ideas with boldness and bravery

It is one thing to have creative ideas, it is another to have the necessary  boldness and bravery to implement creative ideas.  Amanda Sinclair points out in her book, Leading Mindfully, that creativity involves breaking with tradition, taking risks, trying out something new and having the self-esteem and resilience to be able to persist in the face of opposition – especially from those who have a vested interest in maintaining things the way they are.

Mindfulness helps us to maintain focus, to remain calm, build resilience in the face of opposition and setbacks, and to become braver and less fearful of the difficulties, dangers and risks involved in implementing creative ideas.

As we grow in mindfulness, we are able to access our inner resources through stillness and silence of meditation, overcome our fears, stay present and grounded, remain calm in the face of difficulties and develop boldness, bravery and resilience as we venture beyond “the tried and true”.

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

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Accessing Our Inner Resources to Cope With Trauma

Mindfulness through “resourcing meditation” can help us to cope with trauma.  It does not replace the need for therapeutic assistance but complements therapy and facilitates the process of dealing with deeply held fear or grief.

The causes of trauma

Trauma can be experienced by anyone at any stage of life.  The associated experience of profound psychological distress can result from a natural disaster such as a cyclone or earthquake; a personal life event such as the death of a parent. life partner or a child; being involved in a serious car or transport accident; the experience of going to war or being a prisoner of war; experiencing a vicious relationship break-up; being a person displaced by war; experiencing a toxic work environment over an extended period; being a refugee attacked by pirates when trying to flee a war-torn country by boat (the experience of Anh Do).

People in helping professions can experience vicarious trauma by virtue of supporting others who have had a traumatic experience. So midwives in a hospital can experience trauma when a mother and/or baby dies; professionals providing access to legal aid can be overcome by constant exposure to the recounting of traumatic experiences by clients; police, ambulance drivers and paramedics can experience vicarious trauma as a result of the work they do with victims of crime or serious car accidents; and police and their life partners, too, can experience trauma vicariously as a result of the death of a colleague through violence.

The effects of trauma

Just as the causes of trauma can be many and varied, so too are the effects experienced by people who have been traumatised.  Some people experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  This usually occurs when a person experiences an event that is personally life-threatening to themselves or others and is more likely in situations where a pre-existing mental illness is present, and/or a series of traumatic events are involved, such as sexual abuse.  People who have PTSD will experience “feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror” and tend to replay the traumatic event(s) over and over, so that their intense anxiety condition becomes locked in.

The spectrum of responses to the experience of trauma is very wide – from numbness and inertia to aggression and violence.  People who experience trauma can become withdrawn and avoid interactions; experience de-sensitisation to the people and situations they have to deal with; experience on-going depression; become cynical or distrustful in their interactions; or experience a profound and enduring sadness.  They may question their self-worth and accomplishments; experience difficulty in relaxing and sleeping; or be overcome by a deep sense of grief (where someone significant to them has died).

Accessing our internal resources

In a previous post, I wrote about how to use the R.A.I.N. meditation process to deal with fear and anxiety.  However, in cases of trauma and intense grief, we may not be able to plumb the depths of our feelings because the experience would be too painful and/or cause flashbacks to the traumatic event(s).

Tara Brach, in the course on the Power of Awareness, described how to access internal resources to cope initially with the psychological pain experienced with trauma.  Drawing on her own experience with trauma victims and sound research in the area, she suggests a number of ways to resource ourselves:

  • Physical grounding – this involves getting in touch with the feeling of our feet on the ground and our buttocks on the chair.  The physical sensation of contact with the ground or chair is important because it enables us to link the sense of safety and security through sitting or standing with our psychological experience.
  • Breathing deeply and slowly – this could begin with lengthening our in-breath and out-breath and move to mindful breathing, which includes paying attention to the space between.
  • Touch – touching our heart or stomach with some loving gesture that brings warmth to relax our body.
  • Talking to ourselves – we can use comforting and supportive words while engaged in conversation with ourselves.
  • Envisaging our allies – there may be relatives or friends in our life who provide very strong emotional support and constant affirmation of our self-worth.  There are others such as members of a support group for a chronic illness or for loss of a child or loved one.  Bringing these people to mind together with the feelings of kindness and encouragement they engender, can build our inner resources to cope with trauma.
  • Revisiting a place of peace or relaxation – we can do this physically or just by visioning what it was like to be in our favourite place.  It could be by the bay or at the seaside, in the mountains or on the deck in our home-anywhere that gives us strength, renews our spirit and intensifies our feelings of security.

Whatever process we use for inner resourcing, it is important to get in touch with what positive effects we are feeling in our body, as well as in our minds.  Tara Brach, in the Power of Awareness course, encourages us to use resourcing meditations based on the above listed pathways to tap into, and strengthen, our inner resources.   She argues that these meditations are a true refuge, unlike the false refuges of drugs or alcohol.

Being able to deal with trauma through the R.A.I.N. meditation process (plumbing the depths of our fear or grief) may take months of resourcing ourselves before we can confront the depths of our emotions, but Tara’s own counselling experience with people who have suffered trauma (including PTSD) confirms that it is possible to emerge from the depths to live a balanced and happy life.

As we grow in mindfulness through resourcing meditations, we strengthen our inner resources to cope with the profound psychological effects of a trauma and build up our capacity to deal with the resultant debilitating emotions.

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

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Facing the Fear Within

We have explored the R.A.I.N. meditation process in a preliminary manner.  Now we will look at how R.A.I.N. can help us deal with those deep-seated fears that take control of us, reduce our capacity to live life fully and prevent us from showing others loving kindness.

The disabling effects of fear and anxiety

Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience, discovered that young rats who had played and frolicked together became totally inhibited when a piece of cat’s hair was introduced into their cage – creating an immediate fear response and disabling anxiety.  Jaak believed that in-depth insight into the behaviour of animals helped us to better understand human emotions.

Anna Steinhenge explored whether fear and the associated anxiety induced a similar inhibiting effect in humans.  She found that in competitive situations where people viewed the outcome with positive anticipation, they were readily able to access clear thinking and creativity; in contrast, where people were anxious about the outcome, their creativity and critical faculties were impeded, and they tended to engage in cheating or unethical behaviour to win.  One only has to look at the behaviour of the leadership group in the Australian Cricket team during the third test in South Africa to confirm this perspective – they were anxious that they could not win the third test, when the score was tied at one test each, so they engaged in ball tampering.

Using the R.A.I.N. meditation process to face and conquer the fear within
Recognise the fear

The first step is to recognise the fear for what it is – to face it fully, understand how it impacts our body and impedes our mind.  Avoiding facing the fear only makes it stronger and weakens our capacity to manage the fear and its disabling effects.

Kayakers, for example, have shown that when caught up in a whirlpool that is sucking them deeper into the water, they need to relax and go with the direction of the sucking force, rather than fighting the whirlpool which only saps their strength.  They need to go to the bottom of the whirlpool to survive.  So too with fear, we need to access the depths of the fear itself before we can be freed from its inhibiting effects.

Accepting the existence of fear

We need to accept that the fear is part of our life but learn how to gradually disassociate from it so that we are not identified with it.  Tara Brach tells the story of a woman suffering from PTSD who, while sitting on a park bench, envisaged her fear beside her while she continued to explore her connectedness to nature – to the birds, flowers and trees surrounding her.

Investigating our fear

Tara suggests that we explore the nature of our fear and even question what it is like, where it lies within us, how deep and dense it is.  She suggests that we explore our relationship with fear and determine what fear is expecting of us and how we want to relate to our fear.  We could question where fear resides in our body and how it manifests itself through pain and physical disturbance – headaches, muscle soreness, cramps, twitching or shaking.

Nurturing ourselves through fear

Trying to discount fear by purely rational processes will not remove the fear but only make it go underground, away from our consciousness.  We need to see the fear for what it is in all its manifestations but treat ourselves with kindness.  This may mean pulling away temporarily from facing our fear and its intensity to rebuild our resources and strengthen our resolve.  This is a gentle way to treat ourselves if we become overwhelmed when facing the depth of our fear.  After rebuilding our resources, we can resume the P.A.I.N. meditation process by again grounding our body and mind through mindful breathing.

Plumbing the depths

Tara Brach suggests that the P.A.I.N. meditation process can be employed to handle any deeply-felt, negative emotion such as grief, anguish or self-disgust, as well as fear.  In the course on the Power of Awareness, Tara discussed Leaning into Fear and highlighted the process of facing fear by quoting David Whyte’s poem, The Well of Grief, which also uses the analogy of “plumbing the depths”:

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,

     the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

As we grow in mindfulness through the P.A.I.N. meditation process, we develop the courage to plumb the depths of our fear and enable ourselves to be free of its inhibitions and disabling effects.  This process of inner exploration will gradually unearth the depths of our internal resources and capacity to handle deeply-felt emotions such as fear and grief.

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

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Agency and Mental Health

Trade Union Congress (TUC), in their 2015 document, Work and Wellbeing: A Trade Union Resource, included concern about the management style adopted in some dysfunctional organisations and the negative impact that this had on “worker involvement, and the level of control a worker has over their work” (p.5).

Agency and Worker Participation

What the TUC is referring to here in terms of worker involvement and control over work, is often referred to as “agency” – the capacity of a worker to influence their workplace environment and to have a degree of power over the way things are done.

As discussed in an earlier post, Grow Your Influence by Letting Go, many managers are reluctant to delegate authority and responsibility for a wide range of reasons.  As pointed out in the previous blog post, most of these reasons for not delegating and sharing power are not valid and come from a fear of loss of control.  Mindfulness practices can help a manager to get in touch with, and overcome, these often-baseless fears.

The narcissistic manager represents the extreme case of not letting go because they need to be “in control” and will micro-manage to achieve a sense of total control, which is an illusory goal.  Narcissistic managers, then, work directly against this goal of agency and deprive workers of the mental health benefits that accrue to those who experience a strong sense of agency.  The behaviour of these managers in denying agency, leads to frustration, anger and mental illness.

Agency and Mental Health

The TUC report on wellbeing in the workplace, contrasts four worker situations (pp.3-5):

  1. unemployed people – substantially higher rates of mental health illness and suicide than those employed
  2. not employed in paid work – but who have access to a reasonable income level, and achieve lots of social interaction through community or other voluntary work – do not have increased physical or mental health risks
  3. employed in low pay work – with long working hours or little agency (control over their work environment and how the work is done) – “suffer the same health problems as those who are unemployed”.
  4. employed in productive workplaces – where there is a high level of agency for workers, effective people management policies and trust between managers and employees – a healthy workplace with low risk of mental health issues arising from the workplace.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, author of The Influential Mind, reinforces the strong relationship between the sense of agency and mental health when she stated that research shows that being able to control our environment “helps us thrive and survive”.

As managers grow in mindfulness they are able to increase their level of self-awareness, address their fears such as fear of loss of control and develop healthy workplaces where trust abounds, employees experience real agency and people management policies support the full engagement of employees.

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

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Opening to Creativity through Mindfulness

Professor Amanda Sinclair, in her book Leading Mindfully, devotes a chapter to the theme, Opening to Creativity.   She argues that one of the ways that mindfulness releases creativity is through “turning down” the self-judging function of our brain which invariable acts to thwart creative activity.  This negative self-assessment is a major blockage to creativity.

Amanda writes about the negative thoughts and stories that were circulating in her head as she contemplated writing her book – “no one would be interested in reading it”, “it will be just another management/leadership book”, “academics will view it as lacking rigour because it will include anecdotal information”.  These negative messages blocking creativity delayed her writing, and even as she wrote, they took on different forms in a sub-conscious attempt to undermine her creativity.

Once Amanda started writing, she was able to quiet this internal chatter through mindfulness and give herself permission to create the book.  She was able to tap into her research, life experiences and the experiences of her friends, contacts and colleagues to craft a book that was a different contribution because of her original integration of her perspectives developed over a lifetime of insights.

For instance, Amanda was able to draw on the seemingly devastating experience of Jill Bolte Taylor, who suffered a stroke at the age 0f 37.   Jill, a brain scientist, gave a TED Talk, My Stroke of Insight, about how her brain had changed physically because of damage to parts of her brain, including the areas that controlled speech and “self-talk”.   In her presentation, she explains how the stroke and resultant physical damage to her brain gave her the freedom and permission to be creative.  She no longer had to manage the negative thoughts and stories because her brain could no longer produce them and thus they were not able to impede her mind’s creative endeavours.

Amanda’s experience in starting out on her new book writing venture, after having successfully written other books,  resonates with the experience of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray Love.  In her TED Talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius, Elizabeth spoke about the fear-based, negative talk that almost immobilised her writing following the stellar and unexpected success of this earlier book.  Her internal message, reinforced continuously by others, was fundamentally a concern that she could never match the success of Eat, Pray, Love and that her life would be a failure.   Elizabeth described her succeeding book that was about to be published  “as the dangerously, frighteningly, over-anticipated follow up to my freakish success”.

Elizabeth, through developing her insight and self-awareness, found a unique strategy to quiet her negative thinking to enable her to create the follow-up book.  She ascribed her creativity to some divine genius within her that she could blame in the event of failure (as long as she did her bit of daily, disciplined writing).

Seth Godin, author and entrepreneur, considered one of the most influential thinkers in business, maintains that we each have to find a way to quiet The Lizard Brain, the amygdala, which sabotages our creative efforts through fear-based messages.  Mindfulness is one way to address these negative thoughts and to become open to creativity.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can release our creative capacity from the capriciousness and irrationality of our internal negative messages that assault us whenever we risk creative endeavours.  Mindfulness enables us to “turn down” the internal chatter and be open to creatvity.

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

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Engaging With and Accepting Death

Annie Robinson, in her article, How Mindfulness Can Ease the Fear of Death and Dying, asserts that there is a strong movement in the West to reengage with death, encourage open conversations about death, and to pursue choices in dying that respect the values and vision of the dying person.  This is also the theme of Lucy Kalanithi’s TED talk and Paul Kalanithi’s book,  When Breath Becomes Air, which he wrote while suffering from terminal cancer.

There are a number of characteristics of this movement and approach which involve dying mindfully:

Acceptance of death

Acceptance involves not only acknowledging the onset of death but all the feelings and thoughts that go with it.  This includes denial, sadness, suffering, anger, fear, grief and sense of loss associated with declining mental and physical capacity as well as the ultimate separation from loved ones.  It also includes accepting the loss of our old identity and an envisioned future and progressively forging a new identity and vision of dying.  Mindful acceptance does not remove the suffering but can reduce the pain and fear of death.

Being attuned to sensory experience

This involves paying attention to our senses – touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell- and experiencing the sensations such as a beautiful scene or sweet-smelling flower to a heightened degree.  It involves resting in these sensations while we can still experience them.  Some of these sensations will be intensified as we focus on them with our waning energy.  Annie suggests that being attuned to our sensory experience can develop joy and mindfulness.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Coming to Our Senses, has demonstrated that focused attention on our senses can alleviate pain and help us to rewrite the narrative in our heads (including the narrative of fear and depression).

Finding balance through openness to love

Remaining open to love and caring of a partner, parents, children and relatives enables the dying person to find some level of balance as they alternate between pain and joy.  This requires vulnerability as their faculties decline and dependence increases; it also means that bitterness over loss on every dimension is not permitted to gain a stranglehold on emotions.  In his book, Paul Kalanithi was able to talk about marriage difficulties arising from his extreme workload as a neurosurgeon resident, working from 6am to late at night, 7 days a week.   His wife, Lucy, in the Epilogue to Paul’s book acknowledged that the cancer diagnosis enabled them to reinvigorate and deepen their love for each other and, in the face of  Paul’s dying, “to be vulnerable, kind, generous, grateful”.

Lucy wrote about the balance that emerged through their complete acceptance and trust in each other:

Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love (p.219)

Lucy acknowledged that as you grow in mindfulness, you can find joy amidst the pain and grief, meaning when all seems lost and a profound gratitude that engenders fortitude and courage.

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

Image source: courtesy of realworkhard on Pixabay

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