Cultivating Awareness of Others through Mindfulness

In the previous post, I mentioned the triad of awareness – awareness of self, awareness of others and awareness of the world around us.  In this post, I want to focus on awareness of others.

It is very difficult to be aware of others and thoughtful towards them in the busyness of our daily lives and the incessant distractions posed by disruptive marketing.  Our attention is continuously pulled away from inner awareness and awareness of others.

Our lack of awareness of others is often displayed in our blind spots – we are impervious to the effects of our words and actions on others.  It takes a conscious effort to get in touch with our core blind spot which may be blinding us to the needs of others in particular situations – whether at work, at home, or in the community.

Awareness of others requires that we move away from self-absorption.  We can become so immersed in our own feelings – pain, anxiety, sadness, boredom – that we are not aware of the feelings and pain of others.  We can also be so lost in our thoughts – planning, analysing, critiquing – that there is no room for thoughts of others.

Mindfulness to cultivate awareness of others

Mindfulness meditation is a way to break out of the trap of self-absorption – what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as thinking that we are the centre of the world.  With conscious and consistent meditation practice, we can increase our awareness of, and empathy towards, others around us.

Loving kindness meditation, for example, enables us to think about others and express the desire for them to experience wellness and happiness.  It takes us outside our self to thoughts about others and their needs and desires.

A simple related exercise is to recall a situation that has occurred that has caused pain and suffering for someone else or a group of people and place yourself in their situation – “What would they be feeling if they have just lost their child through an accident?”   As you engage in empathetic consideration of the people involved – family, friends, colleagues – you can extend the desire for them to manage their grief and to eventually experience equanimity.  If you were to do this daily, this could help to cultivate awareness of others.

Forgiveness meditation is a way to take ourselves beyond focus on our own pain and hurt from an interaction with someone else, to thinking about and feeling for the other person in the interaction.  It takes considerable awareness to move beyond our own sense of pain and righteousness to reflect on what happened for the other person.  Forgiveness meditation is a powerful way to move beyond self-absorption to awareness of others.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can cultivate awareness of others – awareness of their pain, thoughts and needs.  We can move beyond being self-absorbed to being thoughtful of, and considerate towards, others.

 

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Mindfulness for Overcoming Resentment

Resentment towards another person, organisation or group can hold us captive and lead us to give away control of our emotions to others.  It also has the ability to linger and smoulder long after the initial catalyst has passed or even been forgotten.

Our resentment may flow from someone or a group that has frustrated our expectations or impeded our goals or done something that we experienced as harmful to us personally.  Unless we let it go and dissolve its power, resentment can eat away at us and negatively impact our quality of life and the quality of our relationships.

Overcoming resentment through mindfulness

There are several mindfulness practices that can help us to let go of resentment.  Here are three processes:

Forgiveness Meditation

Forgiveness meditation is one way to use mindfulness to overcome resentment towards a person and has proven to build understanding and empathy.  It is designed to replace resentment with thoughtfulness and loving kindness

Dealing with conflict

During a two-day course on mindful leadership conducted by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, I learned a process that related to conflict resolution but was also designed to build understanding and tolerance of others and to dissolve the blocking effects of resentment.  As part of the process, you had to reflect on the conflict incident and put yourself in the place of the other person with whom you had a conflict and towards whom you felt some resentment.

The conflict process acknowledges that for both parties in a conflict there are three levels of issues at play – (1) content, (2) feelings & (3) identity.  So when you begin to reflect mindfully on what is happening for the other person, you ask the following questions from their perspective:

  1. Content (What happened from their perspective?)
  2. Feelings (How do I think they felt?)
  3. Identity (What might have been at stake for them in terms of their sense of competence, their thoughts about their own goodness and lovability?)

By reflecting mindfully about what was going on for the person in the conflict that we felt some resentment towards, we can experience the resentment dissolving and empathy replacing it. As we ask ourselves the same questions, we can begin to realise that we are all very human and that we misunderstand each other and make mistakes which we may later regret.

Being mindful of the potential damaging effects of resentment

If we are able to get in touch with our feelings at a point in time and name our feelings as resentment, we can reflect on what that feeling is doing to us both bodily and emotionally.  If we focus on these damaging effects and project them into the long-term, we will come to realise that we have to let the resentment go and move on, just as Khaled Hosseini described.

Khaled, in his book A Thousand Splendid Suns, has one of his lead characters, Laila, refuse to give into resentment:

But Laila has decided she will not be crippled by resentment.  Mariam wouldn’t want it that way.  What’s the sense? she would say, with a smile both innocent and wise.  What good is it, Laila Jo?  And so Laila has resigned herself to moving on. (p.399)

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we come to realise the damaging power and hold of resentment and to learn ways to overcome it.  In the process, we can develop understanding of, and empathy for, others.

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Meditation and Mental Health

Jonathan Kryiger and Andrew H. Kemp, researchers at the University oF Sydney, discussed meditation and mental health in a blog post titled, Beyond Spirituality: the role of meditation in mental health.

in their article, they identify a number of benefits for mental health reported in research on meditation.  They indicate how meditation, both by expert practitioners and people who meditate for short periods of time, can result in positive changes in their body, brain, emotional regulation ability and rate of ageing.

Of particular note, is the ability of meditation to assist in the treatment and management of acute and chronic pain.  Particular forms of mindfulness meditation such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) demonstrate positive results in the treatment of mood disorders and anxiety.

Meditation and regulating emotions to achieve mental health

While the generic benefits noted above can be realised through different forms of meditation, the focus of mindfulness meditations can vary considerably.  Throughout this blog, we have mentioned some meditations that target specific negative emotional responses that are injurious to mental health:

  • Forgiveness meditation, in which we focus on forgiving another person who has caused us harm or hurt, aims to reduce resentment which can undermine our self-esteem, self-confidence and effectiveness
  • Self-forgiveness meditation targets the never-ending cycle of self-criticism and negative self-evaluation which brings with it debilitating shame and guilt
  • Gratitude meditation can help to reduce depression which can disable us from taking constructive action in the various arenas of our daily life
  • Equanimity meditation helps us to replace mental agitation and disappointment with calmness and self-assurance
  • R.A.I.N. meditation helps us to face the “fear within” and frees us from the disabling effects of fear and anxiety that hinder our capacity to live fully and creatively
  • Somatic meditation enables us to get in touch with our bodies and progressively remove the emotional imprint of adverse events or trauma manifested in muscle tightness or pain
  • Loving kindness meditation focused on others can take us beyond damaging self-absorption and self-preoccupation and free us to access peace and happiness through the appreciation of others and their contributions to the quality of our lives.

The weekly meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA can extend the range of meditations we employ to target unhelpful and unhealthy emotions that impact the quality of our mental health.

As we grow in mindfulness through focusing our meditations on replacing negative emotions with positive ones, we can experience real growth in our mental health and our capacity to live life fully and creatively, develop loving and fulfilling relationships and avoid the downward spiral of mental illness.

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Building Resilience

Resilience in a work context does not mean being able to endure a toxic work environment or unfair situation – it is not the equivalent of endurance.  Resilience is about our capacity to rebound or “bounce back” from a negative or personally challenging experience.

In a work situation, the negative experience could be the loss of a job, failure to gain a promotion, a conflict with a colleague or supervisor or an adverse experience with a customer or client.

Our life experiences, both positive and negative, shape who we are as does our responses to these experiences.  We can see negative experiences as learning opportunities or wallow in resentment that things did not turn out as we expected them to.

Building resilience

Through reflection and developing acceptance and self-compassion, we can change our perceptions and beliefs about ourselves and undesirable events. I have often found that not achieving the promotion I really wanted at the time, created the opportunity to move onto much more engaging and challenging work elsewhere – new work that took me out of my comfort zone but provided rich rewards.

We can learn to accept the things we cannot change but grow in insight about the things that we can change – including our own learned behaviour and fixed beliefs.  Matthew Johnstone in his short, illustrated book, The Big Little Book of Resilience, argues that we are capable of improving, evolving and developing after the “scar of life-altering events”.

Matthew also reinforces the fact that positive life experiences that we undertake voluntarily (e.g. studying a degree or engaging in a long “fun run” for charity) often involve challenges and setbacks and can serve to build resilience as we overcome the difficulties along the way.

Two mindfulness researchers in India maintain from their research that “mindfulness breeds resilience“:

Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally).

As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation (such as forgiveness meditation and gratitude meditation), we can  build resilience because mindfulness increases our “response ability” – our ability to extend the gap between stimulus and response and to develop a response that is constructive rather than destructive.  It also helps us to gain insight into our own biases, false assumptions and distorted perceptions that could otherwise lead to lingering discontent.

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The Last Lecture – Mindful Living

Randy Pausch, the author of The Last Lecture, was a Professor  of Computer Science at the Carnegie Mellon University specialising in the design of Virtual Reality.  He died from pancreatic cancer on 25 July 2008 after being diagnosed with the disease in the summer of 2006.

Randy’s book traces his life, his medical experience, giving his last lecture and his life’s lessons and achievements.  His Last Lecture, given on the 18th September 2007, was videotaped and is available here.   The lecture has been viewed by millions of people who admire Randy’s inspiration, insight, humour, intelligence and wisdom.

Randy, even though he was obviously dying from cancer at the time, wanted to leave a legacy for his three young children in terms of the lessons he had learned in life – often the hard way by making mistakes.  Some of his insights into the way to live your life are pertinent to developing mindfulness.

Lessons on mindfulness from Randy Pausch

I can’t recall Randy talking about mindfulness in his book or his lecture, but he did have some insights and values that I think are particularly relevant to mindfulness:

Show Gratitude

Being grateful for what you have and what people have done for you is important, because it is part of growing in self-awareness and understanding how you came to achieve what you have achieved.  Randy also talks about the “lost art of the thank-you note” as a timely way to express appreciation.

He went even further and decided to take his 15-member research team (working on virtual reality) to a week-long visit to Disney World in Florida.  Besides enjoying the entertainment, they were also able to take in some educational activities relevant to their studies and research.  He provided this expensive trip as a way to “pay it forward” his gratitude for the mentoring he received from Any van Dam.

Gratitude requires being present to notice what people have done for you and developing an appreciation mindset through gratitude meditation. Often, we are grateful, but fail to express it.   Through this form of meditation, we become more aware of the opportunities to show gratitude and ways to express it.

Seeking forgiveness genuinely

There are many times when we are hurt by the words and actions of others – it is part of being human on both sides of the hurt dyad.  We hurt others and they hurt us.  We can’t avoid this, although as we grow in mindfulness we become more aware of their feelings and what effect our words and actions have on them.

Randy stresses the importance of seeking forgiveness genuinely – in his own words, “A bad apology is worse than no apology”.  He argues that we should not apologise in such a way that we are not genuineor in a way that is designed only to obtain an apology from the other person.   While hurt can be a two-way street, it does not rectify the situation to actively seek an apology from the other party – they may apologise in their own due time.  If you want someone to change their behaviour, you are more likely to achieve this if you change your own behaviour first.

Forgiveness meditation helps us to develop the readiness and willingness to apologise for the hurt we cause others.  In the process of this meditation, we can ask for forgiveness from others – which makes us acutely aware of the reality that we are not the only one hurting.  Associated with this, is the need to also practise self-forgiveness meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and learning from the inspiration of others such as Randy Pausch, we can develop the awareness and mindset that makes us willing and able to show gratitude and to genuinely seek forgiveness.

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

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Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): A Specialised Mindfulness Approach

In this blog I have been discussing different approaches to mindfulness and mindfulness meditation that are self-initiated and self-directed in the main.  Some of the approaches to mindfulness discussed entailed the involvement of a teacher or mentor to guide the participant through various forms of meditation.

One such approach is provided by the Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training conducted online by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.  Even in this course, led by teachers and mentors, there is ample scope for participants to pick and choose what types of meditations and mindfulness practices they will focus on – the choices are not individually focused or directed.

What is different about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT as the name suggests is an approach that provides therapists with a structured approach to mindfulness development for their clients.  This approach is therapist-led with a defined sequence of exercises designed to enable clients to move from the entrapment of destructive thinking to taking effective action guided by their values (committed action).  Colleagues vouch for the fact that ACT often achieves the desired results in therapeutic situations.

ACT aims to enable clients to experience a full, rich and meaningful life that is built on internal and external awareness.  The approach actively discourages ineffective avoidance strategies and encourages acceptance of pain as a natural part of a life that is lived fully.    Just as mindfulness trainers are exhorted to deepen their mindfulness practice, so too ACT therapists are encouraged to practise the ACT approach and exercises to be able to act more consciously and effectively in therapy sessions.

The ACT approach to mindfulness

Mindfulness in the context of ACT is defined by Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple, in terms of the quality of paying attention:

Mindfulness means paying attention with flexibility, openness and curiosity.

In this definition, mindfulness is explained in terms of three key elements – awareness through paying attention, an open attitude and flexible attention enabling a narrow or wider focus or a focus on the internal or the external.

ACT incorporates six core processes as part of its therapeutic approach:

  1. Being here now – consciously focusing on the here-and-now, including our inner and outer worlds.  Fundamentally, it is about being present in the moment, rather than lost in thought.
  2. Watch what you are thinking – this involves standing back from your thoughts and observing them in a detached way. It means not entertaining them and being caught up in them as if they are reality.  Mindfulness expert, Kabat-Zinn suggests that we view our thoughts as bubbles in boiling water floating to the surface and bursting.  He provides the liberating idea that “we are not our thoughts” nor should we be captured by the “narratives” in our head.   In ACT, the process of observing our thinking is called “cognitive diffusion”.
  3. Accepting and being open to painfulness – Russ Harris describes this process as “making room for painful feelings, sensations, urges, and emotions”.  ACT provides exercises to develop this acceptance.  In our mindfulness discussions, we have offered mindfulness practices such as forgiveness meditation to address this pain and suffering.
  4. Observing yourself – ACT encourages awareness through getting in touch with the “observing self” rather than the “thinking self”.   Russ Harris describes the former as “the aspect of us that is aware of whatever we’re thinking, feeling, sensing or doing in any moment”.  Mindfulness practitioners encourage meditation practices like somatic meditation to develop this awareness.
  5. Knowing what matters – getting in touch with the way we want to be in the world (our values).  Values guide behaviour, give meaning to our lives and facilitate decision making.  Consciousness about our values can enable us to lead our lives with energy and vitality and provide mindful leadership for others.
  6. Doing what it takes – this involves doing what it takes, despite pain and discomfort, to live out our values in daily life (described as “committed action” in ACT).  It requires congruence between our words and actions and a readiness to commit to “valued living”.

ACT is a therapeutic approach that aims to help clients grow in mindfulness in order to lead a life that is richer and more meaningful, while reducing the impact of harmful thoughts and narratives and pain-avoidance.

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

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Forgiving Others

Carrying anger and resentment towards others can be destructive and eat away at you, your tranquility, peace and happiness.  Harbouring grudges only leads to physical illness and negatively impacts your behaviour in every arena – in the home, at work and in the community.

We can see how hatred has affected generations of people in Israel and Palestine, Bosnia and Serbia.  People suffer for hundreds of years because of these conflicts and entrenched hatred.  The practice of forgiveness can lift the “burden of the past from our hearts”.  It can free us from the endless cycle of suffering.

Jack Kornfield tells the story of two ex-prisoners of war who were having a conversation and one asks the other whether they have forgiven their captors.  The other person responds to the effect that there is no way they could forgive their captors.  The first ex-prisoner responded, “So, they still have you in prison, don’t they!” – enslaved by his resentment and hatred.

Jack tells another story that reflects a different outcome resulting from forgiveness by a husband after a very difficult divorce resulting in legal action to keep him away from his children and the mother trying to turn their children against their father.  The husband decided that he had to forgive his ex-wife because as he said, “I will not bequeath a legacy of bitterness to my children.”  This forgiving stance – despite the pain, despair and suffering at the hands of another – took considerable courage and compassion.

Sometimes we hurt, betray or harm someone else knowingly; other times, we do it unknowingly.  There are even times when we numb ourselves to the potential hurt suffered by another because of our actions or inaction.  Hurting others is a part of being human because our perceptions and insight are limited as is our capacity to deal with perceived hurt to ourselves – we often want to hit back by our words, actions or omissions. We are very vulnerable and, while we can be kind and thoughtful at times, we can harbour resentment and anger, even at the slightest provocation.

As we grow in mindfulness through forgiveness meditation, we become sensitized to the impact of our actions and the hurt we cause others, we become more open and free from the burden of guilt from our past actions and more watchful to avoid hurting others in the future.  There is freedom in forgiveness.

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

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Self-Forgiveness

We have all hurt ourselves and other people during our lives – it’s part of being human.  Unfortunately, we can carry around the associated guilt, negative self-evaluation, and sense of unworthiness that act as a dead weight holding us back and weighing us down.

Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are essential for our mental health and wellbeing and for the development of wisdom.  Sometimes, the accumulated guilt for the hurts we have caused seems too great for us to tackle it.  The sense of guilt and shame becomes buried deeply in our psyche as we avoid confronting the hurt we have created by our words, actions or omissions.  Self-forgiveness is the way forward and the means to release ourselves from the tyranny of guilt.

However, we can often be held back by the misconceptions and unfounded beliefs we hold about forgiveness meditation Jack Kornfield identifies three myths that get in the road of our practising self-forgiveness:

  • Myth 1: Forgiveness is a sign of weakness – in reality, forgiveness requires considerable courage to “confront our demons” and deal with the pain of self-discovery.  The demand for courage is especially pertinent when addiction is involved.
  • Myth 2: Forgiveness means we are condoning the hurtful action – in fact, we often resolve never to do that hurtful action again or to avoid the situation where we are tempted to react inappropriately.  If we fail to address the guilt and shame, we are held captive and are more likely to take that hurtful action again
  • Myth 3: Forgiveness is a quick fix – it can be far from this.  Jack Kornfield recalled a mindfulness teacher that requested that he do a 5-minute forgiveness exercise 300 times over a number of months.  If we undertake forgiveness meditation, we can procrastinate or fall into the trap of the opposite of forgiveness (blame, self-loathing).  Sometimes self-forgiveness will involve a lot of pain, regression, diversion and ongoing effort to avoid falling back into a lack of loving kindness.

Self-forgiveness is something we have to keep working at as we go deeper into our feelings of shame and guilt and their hidden sources.  Jack Kornfield suggests that self-forgiveness releases us from the burden of the past and allows us to open to our heartfelt sense of our own goodness.

As we grow in mindfulness through self-forgiveness meditation, we can gain a sense of freedom to be ourselves, a newfound self-respect and energy for kindness and compassion towards others.  We will become less self-absorbed and weighed down and feel free to open up to others.

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

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Break the Vicious Cycle of Destructuve Criticism with Mindfulness

The movie, “Loveless” depicts the escalating costs of the vicious cycle of destructive criticism in a graphic manner.  The movie is set in Russia and was directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev and co-written with Oleg Negi.

The couple involved in the movie are separated and in the process of divorce but are consumed by anger, frustration and hatred for each, despite each having established a relationship with a new partner.  The movie brings into stark relief the impact of their vehemence on the life of their 12-year-old son, who is seen as cowering and crying when the parents verbally abuse each other in a escalating tirade of insults and name-calling.  The son is invisible to them as they pursue their mindless criticisms of each other.

The climax of the movie comes when the son disappears, and the parents are forced through police inaction to join in the volunteers’ search for their son.  In summary, not only is their son’s life impacted negatively but so also are their new relationships as the toxicity of unresolved resentment eats away at them.

We can be caught up in a cycle of destructive criticism when relationships go bad, when we are frustrated that our expectations are not realised or when we become absorbed in the pain of hurts from another by replaying them in our mind.  Sometimes, our criticism is a projection of our own sense of inadequacy or ineffectiveness.  The cycle of negative criticism, and its costs, are compounded when each party attempts to inflict ever greater pain on the other by caustic and demeaning remarks.

Breaking the cycle of destructive criticism by mindfulness

The cycle of negative criticism is difficult to break as each party is mindlessly attacking the other without any thought of the long-term consequences for themselves or the other person.

Margaret Cullen suggests a three-step mindfulness process to wind back resentment and hurt and break the cycle of destructive criticism:

  1. Get in touch with your thoughts and name your feelings and their intensity.  Take advantage of the space between stimulus (the other person’s words and/or actions) and your own response.  Avoid reactivity that will have you saying something you later regret and add to the destructive cycle of abusive criticism.
  2. Undertake and honest and open conversation – explain what happened and how it made you feel.  Avoid blaming and name-calling in this conversation and use empathetic listening to rebuild trust.  You have to take this step to break out of the cycle or you will be consumed by resentment, as portrayed in the movie, “Loveless”.  If you want a relationship to improve, you have to change your response, not deepen the hurt experienced by the other person.
  3. You can let go of disappointment and bitterness by undertaking a forgiveness meditation – which can be directed to yourself and/or the other person.  Holding onto resentment can only harm you both in the short term and the long term.  It will contaminate your relationships at home and at work.  Forgiveness, on the other hand, creates freedom.

As we grow in mindfulness through regular meditation, we increase our response ability and develop ways to handle personal criticism.  This enables us to avoid the cycle of destructive criticism which is so injurious to ourselves and our relationships.

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What is Required to be A Mindfulness Meditation Trainer

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach in a recent video session, Answering the Call, discussed their advanced training for people who want to become certified mindfulness meditation trainers and identified what is required to be a trainer in this area.

Personal prerequisites to become a mindfulness meditation trainer

Tara and Jack discussed a number of prerequisites including heartfelt intention and an experience base to enable sharing realised, personal benefits from mindfulness practice.   To start on this journey, potential meditation trainers must have a genuine desire to share their knowledge, skills and experience for the benefit of others who may be dealing with difficulties in coping with everyday life. So, the starting point is a desire to share in an understanding and compassionate way.

A related prerequisite is experience of daily meditation practice and its benefits.  This is critical as genuine sharing can motivate others.  The experience base of personal meditation practice is essential to be in a position to guide others and respond knowledgably to penetrating questions.

Personal skills and perspectives required for Meditation trainers

It takes courage to set out on this journey, together with trust in your own capabilities to teach meditation practice.  Self-awareness, gained through daily meditation practice, is important to enable you to monitor what you are thinking, feeling and doing and what impact these are having on others. Associated with this, is a willingness to be vulnerable in the course of teaching meditation.   Forgiveness meditation, as taught by Diana Winston, can be very helpful in this regard.

A fundamental skill in any form of coaching or training is the ability to listen for understanding.  Effective listening builds trust and relationships and is a basis for credibility as it demonstrates that you have your “ego” under control, do not push your own agenda and can effectively manage your own emotions.  Listening communicates that you value the relationship, are open to the needs of others and are willing to help them explore possible solutions to problems they are experiencing.

Self-management, then, is critical to become an effective mindfulness meditation trainer.  This extends to issues of money, power and sex.  It is easy to become carried away with the power of influence that you will enjoy (particularly if you do not have your ego under control).  Having unresolved needs can make you more vulnerable to the temptation to misuse your power to gain favours, whether sexual or monetary.  Therefore a strong commitment to ethical practice is essential.

As you grow in mindfulness through your own daily meditation practice, you will develop the desire to share the benefits with others to help them cope with the pressures of modern life.  You will be well placed if you have developed self-awareness and self-management and have a depth of experience to enable sharing in a confident and trusting way.  The process of teaching meditation, in turn, will build your own mindfulness, confidence and trust in your capacity to teach.

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

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