Being Joyful for the Joy of Other People in Your Life

In a previous post I explored ways to cultivate joy in your life and provided a guided meditation on this practice.  The foundation for letting joy into your life is gratitude and the associated savouring of what is good in your life such as your achievements, friendships or your child’s development.  Genuine appreciation and gratitude displace the tendency to be envious of others’ success and joy.  However, we can work positively towards valuing and rejoicing in the good fortune of others, which in turn increases our own joy in life.

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast, Taking Joy in Others’ Joy, designed to help us to be joyful for the joy of other people in our life.  This guided meditation is offered as one of the many weekly podcasts provided by MARC at UCLA and available through their online archive.

Barriers to being joyful for others

Diana points out that it is natural to experience barriers to being joyful for others.  These may take the form of feeling envious of their success, coveting what they have (whether a possession or a person) or feeling an inexplicable sadness when we become aware of another’s joy.  One way to address these blockages is to identify what we are feeling and to name the feeling so that we can control it.  What we will often find is that our sense of shame (for experiencing strong negative feelings) will cause us to hide these feeling from our self (not own up to them) and/or to camouflage them when interacting with others.

Michelle De Kretser, in her book The Life to Come, gives a very good illustration of this camouflaging of feelings of envy.  Michelle, when discussing the relationship between Cassie (a creative writing student) and her friend, Pippa (a successful, published novelist), highlighted how we can avoid confronting the unwelcome feeling of envy:

Cassie had hit on the strategy of dousing the envy that flickered up in her around Pippa with a stream of (fabricated) compliments.

While this approach may hide our true feelings from others, it does not address the underlying barrier to being joyful for the joy of other people in our life.  Being honest with our self about our true feelings, naming them and understanding how they reflect in our behaviour can help us to reduce the barrier.  Diana offers a supportive approach in her guided meditation podcast mentioned above.

A guided meditation on empathetic joy

In addition to addressing negative feelings that act as barriers to being joyful for others, it can be helpful for us to take a constructive approach through regular meditations designed to develop empathetic joy – appreciating the joy of others resulting from a specific accomplishment or the experience of good fortune.  The joy of others may arise through their concerted efforts to develop a skill, overcome a difficulty or achieve something that is important to them. 

The starting point of this meditation is to become grounded through your posture, mental focus and the process of using an anchor to maintain your attention and relaxed state of mind and body.  Once you have achieved this groundedness for a reasonably sustained period (e.g. 10 minutes), you can shift your focus to cultivating empathetic joy.

Firstly, you focus on the good fortune or enjoyment of someone who is close to you, with whom you have a strong relationship.  You can then picture their joy or enjoyment over a specific accomplishment or piece of good fortune and extend the desire for their joy to be increased and sustained, e.g. “May you continue to be happy and joyful and experience further success and happiness in your life.”

The next focus in your meditation is on a person with whom you experience some degree of discomfort over their success (avoid focusing on someone whom you are totally envious about) – you might have a twinge of envy that you do not entertain or dwell on to any significant degree.  In your meditation, you then apply a similar expression of good will towards this other person, moving beyond negative thoughts or feelings (as you bring them into focus), to a genuine expression of good will – wishing them increased, sustained joy and happiness.

Reflection

Being joyful for the joy of other people in your life, can be very challenging in some situations.  Where we have strong negative feelings towards them (e.g. envy or covetousness), we will experience barriers to rejoicing in another’s joy.  Being honest with our self about these feelings, their origin and strength, will help to remove these barriers.  The regular practice of the empathetic joy meditation can serve as a supportive practice to cultivate the capacity to be joyful for the joy of others and to experience vicarious joy.  As we grow in mindfulness through these types of loving kindness meditations and reflection on our behaviour, we can increase our self-awareness; develop self-regulation of our thoughts, feelings and behaviour; and build our connectedness to others around us.

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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.

Developing Gratitude through Meditation

Diana Winston recently conducted a meditation podcast on the theme of Gratitude, prompted by the imminent celebration of Thanksgiving in the USA.  Diana, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC, observed that as people grow in mindfulness, they become more appreciative of different aspects of their life and work.  Often, we operate on autopilot and as a result so much of our life passes us by – we are not conscious of what is happening for us or how we got to where we arrived.  There is so much of our life that we take for granted, especially the simplest things like being able to breathe, walk, listen and converse.  Through meditation we can become more focused on, and appreciative of, the present moment.

The benefits of gratitude

The benefits of gratitude are so great that it is well worthwhile consciously building appreciation as an integral part of your life.  Research in this area consistently shows that gratitude contributes substantially to the development of positive emotions such as happiness, resilience, and joy as well as the displacement of negative or “toxic emotions” such as resentment and anger that can gradually erode your sense of equanimity and contentment. 

Developing gratitude through a personal reminder

It Is usually when we lose something that we begin to really appreciate what we have.  For instance, one of the discs in my back collapsed in 1997, so for 18 months I was in extreme pain from sciatica – having difficulty standing and walking (and being unable to play my favourite sport of tennis).  Now when I am playing social tennis, I try to appreciate the fact that I can run, hit the ball and participate in rallies.  I am trying to make each mistake that I make a prompt or reminder to appreciate what I can do, rather than focus on what I did wrong when attempting to hit the ball.  Developing a relevant, personal reminder (based on your life experience) is one way to build gratitude and appreciation into your daily life.

Developing gratitude through meditation

Another way to consciously develop gratitude is to practice a gratitude meditation.  Diana offers one way to approach this in her meditation podcast.  The steps involved are:

  • Grounding yourself in your body through being conscious of your posture (the pressure of your body on the chair and your feet on the floor), and undertaking a body scan exploring points of tightness and releasing any tension that exists in places like your shoulders, jaw or arms.  The grounding can be strengthened by closing your eyes or looking down and/or touching your fingers together and feeling the sensation of your bodily energy flow.
  • Establishing an anchor for your meditation – this can be the experience of your natural breathing process wherever it is readily felt by you (in your chest or abdomen or through your nose), listening to sounds in your room or focusing on a particular body sensation (such as your fingers touching or your feet on the ground).
  • Appreciating the present moment – Diana introduces a 15-minute period of stillness and silence in this next stage of the meditation.  The basic approach is to focus on your anchor, appreciate that you can experience the positive benefits of your personal anchor (breathing, listening or feeling) and naming any distraction (e.g. “thinking”, “avoiding”, “wandering”, “complaining”) before restoring your focus to your anchor. Instead of beating up on yourself for being distracted (a normal part of the human condition), you can appreciate your capacity to be aware that you have lost your focus, that you have developed an anchor to return to, that you have the capacity to restore your focus and that, in the process, you are building your awareness muscle.  [I began to appreciate my capacity to focus on an anchor after I conducted a mindfulness session in my manager development course. One of the course participants commented that the meditation component did nothing for her because her mind was so agitated that she could not still her mind at all.  This person suffered from severe anxiety as a result of post-traumatic stress.  Fortunately, in line with the guidelines for trauma-sensitive mindfulness, I had offered everyone the choice of not participating in the exercise if they did not want to or were unable to for whatever reason.]
  • Free association – Diana suggests that you let your mind focus on something or someone that you appreciate in the present moment.  If you are in an intimate relationship, you could appreciate, or be grateful for, the opportunities to share your successes or failures, the times of quietness spent comfortably together, the chance to go walking  together in a pleasant environment, being able to enjoy a movie or a special location with each other, the pleasant feelings of friendship, sharing ideas and plans or the sense of support and unconditional love. 

Reflection

There are so many things to appreciate in our lives and to be truly grateful for – many of which we take for granted.  For instance, we can savour friendship, our achievements and rewards, the development of our children or, counterintuitively, savour being alone or experiencing boredom.  As we grow in mindfulness through daily personal reminders or formal gratitude meditations, we can develop an ever-present sense of appreciation and accrue the desirable benefits of being grateful.

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Image by Susan Cipriano 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.

Depression, Loneliness and the Loss of Connection to Other People

In my previous post, I discussed the loss of connection to meaningful work as one social factor impacting the rise of depression and anxiety.  Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, found through his research, and that of his colleagues, that another major contributor to depression is the growing disconnection from other people being experienced in Western societies today.  This disconnection from others has led to an epidemic of loneliness in Britain, America and Australia.  The U.K. Government, in recognition of this growing social problem, has appointed a Minister for Loneliness.

Social change and the rise of loneliness

Robert Putnam, through research over more than 25 years covering almost 500,00 interviewees, provided evidence that people are becoming increasing disconnected from family, social groups, the wider community and neighbours.  The title of his landmark book incorporating this social research, Bowling Alone, captures the essence of his findings – people are now bowling on their own in a dedicated lane instead of bowling in a group as was the practice previously.  The level of volunteering has dropped dramatically as has active participation in what Robert terms “democratic structures”.

Johann suggests that this increasing tendency to “go it alone” is compounded by the often-repeated advice that change begins with you and that no one can help you but yourself – you have to fix yourself unaided.  He points out that this advice is contrary to the history of humanity which evidences our tribal nature and co-dependence.  Our forebears had to cooperate to survive – going it alone led to extinction.

The physical health costs of loneliness

Johann draws on the results of a range of research projects to demonstrate that loneliness dramatically increases the risk of catching infection and of dying from a serious health problem such as heart attack or cancer (risks like those of a person who is obese). The research highlights the fact that loneliness leads to an increased heart rate and production of stress-related cortisol (similar to what happens when a person is attacked physically).

The link between loneliness and depression

In his Lost Connections book, Johann draws heavily on the extensive research conducted by John Cacioppo into the link between depression and loneliness and the essential nature of the experience of loneliness.  John established that loneliness preceded the emergence of depressive symptoms in one of his many studies.  In another study he found that people who revisited a period of intense loneliness became “radically more depressed”, whereas people who recaptured a period of real connection to another person became “radically less depressed”.

These findings led John to ask the question, “What is loneliness?”  He established several key points through this basic inquiry:

  • loneliness is not the same as “being alone” – you can be alone and live alone and not feel lonely or depressed
  • you can feel lonely in a crowded place or even within your own family – the presence alone of others does not ward off a sense of loneliness
  • loneliness arises in the absence of connection with someone or a group of people with whom you can readily share experiences of joy or distress.

John argues that people need a “two-way” relationship where things that matter are shared for mutual benefit – the sharing needs to be “meaningful” for both people. He suggests that this element of exchange and mutual assistance is the “missing ingredient” needed to overcome loneliness.

Sarah Silverman (comedian, actor, singer and writer) in conversation with Amanda De Cadenet described her own experience of depression as “desperately homesick but home”. Being at home physically does not guarantee protection against depression – from feeling sad, anxious and negative; experiencing low self-esteem; and being fearful that people will dislike you. Johann suggests that Sarah’s allusion to “homesickness at home” highlights the fact that our conception of “home” has “shrivelled” from our sense of community as “home” to the four walls of our house.

The “snowball effect” of loneliness

Sarah, in her interview, also makes the point that self-deprecation, which is the hallmark of a lot of stand-up comedy, has its downside in that it leads to actual self-deprecation and depression, which becomes self-obsessive, shutting out other people. She argues that “if you can be okay with yourself, you can have a lot more room to have other people in your life”. If you feel lonely and depressed you will have low self-esteem and avoid social contact – leading to a “snowball effect” compounding your loneliness.

Johann discusses the “snowball effect” of loneliness in terms of both perception of threat and accelerated response time to potential threat. People who are lonely tend to exhibit “micro-awakenings”, a trait common amongst people who are anxious because they don’t feel protected when asleep. This state of “hypervigilance” leads to the perception of threat even when it does not exist (or experience of a slight when none is intended). The research quoted by Johann shows too that people who are experiencing loneliness tend to react twice as quickly to perceived threat as those who are not lonely.

Breaking out of loneliness

Johann argues that people experiencing loneliness are forever scanning their environment for threats because they do not feel as if anyone is looking after them – they perceive that no one “has their back”. He maintains that what they need is more love and kindness together with reassurance.

Dr. Hilarie Cash, who has extensively researched addiction to gaming and the internet, maintains that these addictions are often an attempt to escape from the sense of loneliness. She argues that what is needed is “connection with one another in a safe, caring way” – a face-to-face connection not a remote, superficial interaction mediated by a screen.

In a brief video about overcoming isolation, John Cacioppo explains how people have successfully overcome extreme isolation and loneliness. He maintains that breaking out of loneliness requires a change in cognition (the way we think about ourselves and others) as well as approaching others “in a way that is positive, in a way that is engaging and that is mutually enjoyable”.

How mindfulness can help to overcome loneliness and depression

One of the first thoughts that comes to mind is that meditation can assist us to overcome feelings of hurt and resentment. It can help us to find ways of forgiving ourselves and others. Through mindfulness practices, we can achieve calm, clarity and self-regulation (of our thoughts, emotions and actions).

Mindfulness can help us savour what we have – our work, our children, our friendships and the present moment. It can help us to slow down and express genuine gratitude which generates positive energy and builds relationships. Overall, mindfulness can help us to cultivate awareness of others, overcome self-absorption and engage in “compassion in action“. As we grow in mindfulness, we can move beyond loneliness and depression, learn to value ourselves, appreciate the present moment and reach out to others through reflective listening and compassionate action.

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Image by dima_goroziya 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.

Gratitude in Times of Difficulty

Having gratitude in times of difficulty can increase resilience and overcome depression, anxiety and despair.  Gratitude changes the quality of life that we are living as we gain better control over our thoughts and feelings and learn to accept what is.

As you develop this practice, you start to see things that you had not noticed before, the taken-for-granted things in your life.  Diana Winston recalls noticing the way sunlight reflects on a plant and the assorted colours that were in a painting on her wall.  She attributes this increased awareness and associated thankfulness to taking the time to slow down and meditate on the place where she was – very much a form of open awareness meditation.

So, mindfulness and gratitude go hand-in-hand, in a two-way reinforcement.  As you meditate, you become more aware of what you are grateful for and your growing gratitude, in turn, helps you to be more aware of positive experiences and people in your life.

Gratitude in times of difficulty

We so often miss the simple things of life that are before us and can act as a stimulus for gratitude.  In times of difficulty, it can be very hard to look beyond what we are experiencing and suffering from and, yet, the simple things in our life can be easily noticed and employed to pull us out of our self-absorption.   When we are experiencing difficulties, we often can’t see beyond what is challenging our equanimity.

Somatic meditation can be very helpful in times of challenge, whether the challenge relates to health of our body, our mental state or an external negative stimulus.  Adopting a meditative position, in the first instance, enables us to get in touch with our breathing and provides the stillness to observe our own body as we undertake a body scan and progressively release the tension within.

This physical grounding and release provides the foundation to turn our minds to what we are grateful for.  A recent experience may become the focus of your appreciation.  For example, in a recent meditation, the focus of my gratitude was a conversation I had the day before with a long-standing colleague and close friend.  I recalled the ease of the conversation as we were “shooting the breeze”, the deep connection through shared experiences and convictions, the exploration of new terrain, the supportive challenge to perspectives, the mutual respect and admiration and the challenge to identify what gives me a “buzz” at a time of semi-retirement.

Reflecting on this recent experience made me realize the warmth of the interaction and the things that I value about the friendship which lie below my consciousness because I have never attempted to express my gratitude for this profound connection.  Our meeting was not only a face-to-face conversation, but also a meeting of minds – a source of mutual enrichment.

As we grow in mindfulness through gratitude meditations, we start to see things that we have taken for granted, appreciate more deeply and explicitly what we value in our experiences and friendships and  strengthen our inner resources to deal with the challenges that confront us.

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

Image source: courtesy of dh_creative on Pixabay

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.

Savoring Friendship

Friendship is something we can take for granted until we lose a friend or move to another location or workplace and have to make new friends.  Losing a friend, whatever the cause, can leave a hole in our lives – a sense that we have lost something of ourselves.

There is something special about a close friend – the ability to take up where you left off after many years, the capacity to share most subjects, the ready understanding of your quirks, easy tolerance of your idiosyncrasies and understanding-in-common from a shared history (however short or long the shared experience).

Barry Boyce discusses this feeling of being “in sync” in terms of the neuroscience notion of “brain coupling”, the experience of being “like one brain”.  He goes on to elaborate:

I’m sure we have all felt that with a friend.  The sheer joy of a shared laugh.  The moments of listening when you need to be heard.  The shoulder to cry on.  Someone to share the ups and downs without caring which it is.

There is clearly something to savor in friendship – the ease of connection, the joy of “being with” someone, the ready tolerance, the sense that you are not alone (even if you have lost both your parents), the shared memories and stories, the emotional support and the supportive challenge that helps you to be a better person, parent, colleague or friend.

We need to take time out to value and savor these close friendships, whether they involve our life partner or people who live apart from us.  Sometimes savoring may lead to a loving-kindness meditation to express appreciation or gratitude for the friendship or to reach out compassionately to a friend in need who may be struggling through health issues or some form of loss.

Then too there are the friendships that we experience every day that we do not consider to be close relationships.  They may be supportive colleagues, the person serving us at the coffee shop, the owner of the newspaper shop or any number of acquaintances who we encounter regularly.  We should savor their friendliness, helpfulness, willingness to engage in conversation and the way that they can “brighten our day”.  These friendships are another form of human connection that enriches our lives – we can make them a source of mindful connection if we really savor the richness of being with them.

Even a simple smile for the person at the supermarket checkout counter can be an expression of appreciation and gratitude and a simple way to savor the moment through acknowledging their presence, friendship and assistance.

Savoring friendship does not always require loving-kindness meditation. As we grow in mindfulness, we can savor the moment when we experience friendship and be grateful of this gift that is often missing in the lives of people experiencing depression.

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

Image source: courtesy of cherylholt on Pixabay