Your Brain: A Source of Wonder in the Game of Life

The brain is amazing when you think about how much information it processes and how that influences our emotional and bodily response.  We have deeply embedded neural pathways that serve as short-cuts for determining an appropriate response.  However, our self-stories shaped by early childhood experiences can distort our perception and lead to inappropriate responses to situations that serve as triggers.

I am always amazed at the functioning of the brain when I play tennis.  When you think about it, the brain is taking in so many variables when a person serves or hits to you (all absorbed at an exceptional speed):

  • wind speed and direction
  • level of lighting
  • ambient sounds
  • sound of the ball on the racquet of the server
  • speed of the ball
  • nature of the spin on the ball (e.g. top-spin, slice, backspin)
  • relational information (where you are in the court and where your opponents are positioned)
  • attention level and readiness of your opponents
  • elevation of the ball (impacting the landing and bounce)
  • expected landing point of the ball
  • the nature and height of the bounce of the ball.

When you are receiving the tennis ball and returning your shot, your brain is determining how to respond to the information absorbed when the ball is hit by your opponent.  Again, your self-stories come into play here.  The inner game of tennis is critical as your self-belief impacts the choices you make re shot selection. 

When you think about it, you must make an instant decision about how you are going to respond to the serve/shot by your opponent:

  • the nature of your shot (e.g. forehand or backhand)
  • direction of your shot
  • speed and spin of your shot
  • positioning of your body for your returning shot.

How is it that your body responds unconsciously in some situations and does the perfect shot?  For example, when the ball is hit deep to your backhand side and your opponents are at the net, you automatically do a backhand, half-volley lob into the open court.  Some key influences here are your level of tennis competence (e.g. unconsciously competent as in the example situation) and memory embedded in your body.  Body memory is itself a complex process involving different elements such as proprioception (e.g. the capacity to know where a part of the body is such as the hand when you cannot see it).

Body memory is reinforced when you go to sit in the driver’s seat of your car and land with a thud (after your 6 feet 3 inches son has lowered the seat to suit his driving position).  Another example is when you are trying to put the forks away after dishwashing and someone has changed the positioning of the forks in the cutlery drawer (the other forks are not where you unconsciously attempt to place the clean ones).  The role of body memory in relation to trauma is well researched and documented which is why somatic meditation often plays a key role in recovery from trauma.

 Reflection

The brain is a source of wonder and yet we take it for granted so much of the time.  As we grow in mindfulness and awareness through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection, we can better appreciate the complexity and ingenuity of our brain, its role in our daily living and sporting activities and express gratitude for the wonder of it.  We are also better able to manage mistakes we make when playing tennis or undertaking other activities requiring complex information processing.

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Image by John Hain 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.

Dealing with the Inner Critic through Self-Compassion

Clare Bowditch – singer, storyteller and actor – recently released a biography titled, Your Own Kind of Girl.   In the book, which she had been attempting to write since she was 21, Clare discusses how she dealt with her inner critic which was all encompassing and destructive.  Clare writes that the book is “about the stories we tell ourselves, and what happens when we believe them”.  She lived in hope that someone would tell her that she was “more than” her grief, her failures and the negative stories about herself that she constantly carried in her head.  Clare explained that the title of the book is drawn from a song she wrote in 2008 and, to this day, she is immensely moved by the lyrics in the second verse, including the words, “You are fine, you’re more than enough”.  The book is about her painful journey to come to this realisation – a journey that is a common story for many people, particularly women.

The debilitating effects of the inner critic

In an earlier blog post, I spoke about the negative self-stories that we perpetuate, partly because our brain has a negative bias but also because of social pressures and the materialistic values that are propagated on an hourly basis through intrusive advertising and image making in videos and films.  Our self-stories can undermine our self-esteem, entrap us in a sense of helplessness and create a negative spiral leading to anxiety and depression.  These stories, often based on irrational fears, can become deeply ingrained and extremely difficult to shift.  They can blind us to creative options, block the realisation of our potential and harm our interpersonal relations.

Self-compassion to overcome the inner critic and negative self-stories

Tara Brach recently released a book titled Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and the World with the practice of R.A.I.N.  This meditation practice involves four basic steps – recognise, accept, investigate and nurture.  Tara provides a brief example of this process in a 9-minute, guided meditation, Reflection: Healing Self-Blame.   Below are some of the key points in this meditation that is based on the R.A.I.N. approach:

  • The starting point is to recognise some aspect of your life where your inner critic is active.  It does not have to be a major example of self-denigration – it could be some relatively minor self-critique, e.g. focusing on your failure sometimes to really listen to someone or diverting a conversation to establish your credentials.   The important thing is to have a focus for this meditation.  More complete self-awareness can grow out of recognising even a small aspect of the inner critic in our life – this can puncture a hole in the wall of self-protection that blocks our self-realisation. 
  • As we progress in the meditation, we come to a point of self-acceptance. This involves acknowledging what we say and do but also accepting that we have an innate goodness and that we are not defined by our thoughts – that we are “more than” our negative self-evaluation.  In Clare’s words, “You are fine, you’re more than enough”.
  • Our investigation of the impacts of our inner critic extends to recognising bodily sensations as well as feelings that flow from the inroads that negative self-stories make on our sense of self-worth.  We can experience tension in our muscles, pain (e.g. in our arms, neck and back), headaches or a nervous twitch when our inner critic is running rampant in our thoughts.  A body scan and progressive tension release can help here.  The key thing is to experience the impact of our negative self-story in a holistic way – this builds awareness and increases our understanding of the negative impacts of our inner critic.
  • Lastly, we reach the stage of self-nurturing in the meditation process.  This can be expressed physically by placing your hand on your heart or mentally through naming the self-criticism and countering with expression of self-forgiveness, acknowledgement of your positive contributions and achievements and gratitude for all that you have in life – opening yourself to what is good in you and what is wonderful in the world around you.

Reflection

Our inner critic is deeply entrenched and can be very damaging to our self personally, and to our relations, both at work and at home.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and especially the R.A.I.N. meditation, we can become more aware of our inner critic (negative self-stories), understand its impacts physically and mentally and develop strategies to counter its inroads into our sense of self-worth.  As both Clare and Tara point out, dealing with the inner critic can create a new sense of freedom and realisation of our true potential.

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Image by John Hain 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.

Ways to Develop Gratitude

In a previous post I offered a specific gratitude meditation presented by Diana Winston through the MARC weekly meditation podcasts.  I also mentioned the practice of developing personal reminders to appreciate some aspect of your life – I mentioned in my case using mistakes in tennis (of which there are many) to savour the capacity to run, hit the ball and engage in social activity with friends.  Here I would like to discuss different forms of meditation and mindfulness practices that can also assist in developing a deeper sense of gratitude that can increase our enjoyment of life and improve our relationships.

Gratitude meditations and mindfulness practices

Some of these meditations or practices can become part of your daily life or employed on a one-off basis.  The important thing is to incorporate some form of gratitude practice on a regular basis because as Jon Kabat-Zin reminds us, “we become what we pay attention to”. So, focusing on gratitude makes us grateful.  Here are some relevant meditations/practices:

  • Loving-kindness meditation – this form of meditation can enable us to appreciate ourselves as we are (rather than wishing we were different) and the people who positively impact our lives.  Jon Kabat-Zin provides an all-embracing loving-kindness meditation that extends also to people who may have hurt us and to whoever in the world is in need.   Expressing kindness to others engenders appreciation for what we have.
  • Journalling – there are many forms of gratitude journal that can be used as part of your mindfulness practice.  Jason Marsh provides some sound, research-based tips for keeping a gratitude journal – including the benefit of regular, rather daily gratitude journalling.  Ryder Carroll in his Bullet Journal Method (pp. 185-187) identifies ways to incorporate gratitude in his approach to journalling.  Rick Hanson suggests that a gratitude journal can focus on three simple aspects of your life – things that I am grateful for, people that I appreciate and events that I value.  Our journalling can also cover the people in our lives who have imparted their knowledge and experience as mentors, guides, parents, carers or coaches – in Aboriginal terms, it involves expressing appreciation for a Goondeen, a wise person who is a source of wisdom and understanding.
  • Sharing your gratitude – Tara Brach suggests engaging a gratitude buddy to support your practice of expressing gratitude.  She recommends developing the practice of regularly sharing your expressions of gratitude with one other person, e.g. by email or text.  Your buddy can support your positive intentions through regular contact.
  • Appreciating the momentNicole Bayes-Fleming offers meditations for “resting in the flow” (19 minutes) and savouring the moment through your senses (5 minutes).  These gratitude practices help to displace harmful thoughts and to build appreciation for the simple things in life.  Chris Walsh encourages the practice of mindful check-in, particularly during transitions in life, as a way to tap into the benefits of being grateful (including cultivating resilience).
  • Developing sympathetic joy – this process replaces envy with valuing and rejoicing in the success of others.  Johann Hari describes a form of loving-kindness meditation that can develop sympathetic joy by savouring the achievements of others as well your own.
  • Somatic meditation – developing awareness of your body and bodily sensations.  There are various forms of somatic meditation, e.g. lower-belly breathing and body scan.  Somatic meditation has proven to be particularly powerful in developing gratitude in times of difficulty.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become aware of the many people and things in our life that we can be grateful for.  Focusing regularly on these positive aspects of our daily life can displace negative thoughts and engender the many proven benefits of gratitude. 

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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.

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.

Cultivating Healthy Confidence

Rick Hanson, in his podcast interview – Confidence or Narcissism? – reinforced the concept of a narcissism spectrum.  He indicated, from his clinical experience, that the extreme end of the spectrum – narcissistic personality disorder – is rare (less than 1% of the population).  However, narcissistic tendencies exist in all of us to a greater or lesser degree.  Rick provides examples, for instance, of what a 70% level of narcissistic tendencies in a person would look like behaviourally, compared to a level of 20%.  He suggests that at the 70% level, a defining characteristic is self-absorption to the point of harming others; while at the 20-30% level, a sense of entitlement is involved that results in others feeling subtly devalued.

Rick reinforced the view that there are ways to cultivate a healthy confidence to address our narcissistic tendencies.  In the previous post, I highlighted Ash Barty as an excellent role model to aspire to in developing the necessary traits.

Why do we need to develop a healthy confidence?

According to Rick, a healthy confidence involves acknowledging that you are “basically a good person with desirable traits”.  Fundamentally, the development of a healthy confidence requires “having and taking in positive experiences” (in contrast to experiencing childhood trauma in its many forms and playing out the trauma in narcissistic tendencies).   Rick suggests that deprivation in terms of normal “narcissistic supplies” in childhood, can lead to deficiencies in behaviour as an adult (including attempts to fill the void from childhood).  Normal “narcissistic supplies” take the form of physical and emotional availability by carers, accurate reading of signals and needs of a child and a genuine desire to respond in such a way as to cater for, not dismiss, the fundamental needs of the child – the needs for “comfort, soothing and affection” and to have a “sense that they are special”.

How do we cultivate healthy confidence?

Rick reinforced the importance of valuing and fully (mentally and bodily) feeling positive experiences whenever they occur throughout the day.  These can take the form of positive “narcissistic supplies” such as:

  • experiencing active listening (that affirms your worth as a person)
  • receiving an expression of gratitude for what you have done to help someone
  • being acknowledged for one of your own special traits such as wisdom, calmness, flexibility
  • experiencing sensitive understanding and appreciation of what you are feeling in a difficult personal situation (such as a relative who has a mental health issue).

Rick suggests that we should really savour these experiences, dwell on them and “replay the movie of a [positive] conversation” – and do so multiple times a day (as he did to redress his own narcissistic tendencies). 

Rick’s interviewer, Forrest Hanson – creator of the Eusophi (Good Knowledge) website – suggests that another way to develop healthy confidence is to work backwards from self-observation – observation of our own narcissistic tendencies at play, e.g. the need to gain others’ attention all the time.  He maintains that being aware of these tendencies and their negative impacts (e.g. people choosing to avoid us) can serve as a motivator for us to change.  Forrest’s mental frame on healthy confidence versus narcissistic tendencies is his suggestion that the former involves valuing oneself “from the inside out”, while the latter involves valuing oneself “from the outside in” – needing external validation to affirm your own worth.

Reflection

Most of us have experienced some form of deprivation of healthy “narcissistic supplies” in our childhood.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the self-awareness and honesty to recognise and acknowledge how these deficits play out in our adult lives. By constantly savouring positive experiences, we can redress the balance and build towards a healthy confidence that can be a more effective guide of how to behave in our daily lives, in a work context and within our intimate/family relationships.

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Image by Евгения Кец from Pixabay

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

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

How to Overcome Negative Self-Talk through Kindness to Yourself

Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, recently wrote a comprehensive blog post on the importance of self-kindness to achieve your potential.  In his post, How to Be Kind to Yourself & Still Get Stuff Done, emphasised the disabling effects of negative self-talk, the potentiality in releasing yourself from a focus on your deficiencies, defects and mistakes and the power of self-kindness to achieve this release.  Leo is a leading expert on the formation and maintenance of healthy and productive habits, the author of Zen Habits: Handbook for Life and the developer of the Fearless Training Program.

How negative self-talk disables you

Your brain has an inherent negative bias, so it is so easy to constantly focus on what you have not done well, your defects and deficiencies and your mistakes.  This negative self-talk can lead to depression (regret over the past) and anxiety (about possible future mistakes).  It also engenders fear of failure and prevents you from achieving what you can achieve.  It serves as an anchor holding you in place and preventing you from moving forward.  Negative self-stories, if entertained, can lead to a disabling spiral.

You might find yourself saying things like:

  • Why did I do that?
  • What a stupid thing to do!
  • When will I ever learn?
  • Why can’t I be like other people, efficient and competent?
  • If only I could think before I leap!
  • Why do I make so many mistakes? – no one else does!
  • If only I was more careful, more useful, more thoughtful or more attentive!

…and so, your self-talk can go on and on, disabling yourself in the process.

Overcoming negative self-talk through self-kindness

Leo suggests that being kind to yourself is a way to negate the disabling effects of negative self-talk that focuses on your blemishes, mistakes or incompetence.  He proposes several ways to practise self-kindness: 

  • Give yourself compassion – instead of beating up on yourself when you get things wrong, have some compassion, positive feelings toward yourself whereby you wish yourself success, peace and contentment.
  • Focus on your good intentions – you may have stuffed up by being impatient in the moment, by a rash or harmful statement or by making a poor decision, but you can still recognise in yourself your good intentions, the effort you put in and the learning that resulted. 
  • Be grateful for what you have – rather than focus on your defects or deficiencies. Gratitude is the door to equanimity and peace.  You can focus on the very things you take for granted – being able to walk or run, gather information and make decisions, listen and understand, breathe and experience the world through your senses, be alive and capable, form friendships and positive relationships.  You can heighten your experience of the world by paying attention to each of your senses such as smelling the flowers, noticing the birds, hearing sounds, touching the texture of leaves, tasting something pleasant in a mindful way.

I found that when I was playing competitive tennis, that what worked for me was to ignore my mistakes and visually capture shots that I played particularly well – ones that achieved what I set out to achieve.  I now have a videotape stored in my mind that I can play back to myself highlighting my best forehands, backhands, smashes and volleys.  You can do this for any small achievement or accomplishment.  The secret here is that this self-affirmation builds self-efficacy – your belief in your capacity to do a specific task to a high level. 

These strategies and ways to be kind to yourself are enabling, rather than disabling.  They provide you with the confidence to move forward and realise your potential.  They stop you from holding yourself back and procrastinating out of fear that you will make a mistake, make a mess of things or stuff up completely.

Ways to achieve what you set out to accomplish

Leo maintains that being kind to yourself enables you to achieve creative things for yourself and the good of others.  He proposes several ways to build on the potentiality of kindness to yourself:

  • Do positive things:  these are what is good for yourself and enable you to be good towards others.  They can include things like yoga, meditation, mindful walking, taking time to reflect, Tai Chi, spending time in nature, savouring the development of your children, eating well and mindfully.
  • Avoid negative things – stop doing things that harm yourself or others.  Acknowledge the things that you do that are harming yourself or others. Recognise the negative effects of these harmful words and actions – be conscious of their effects on your body, your mind, your relationships and your contentment.  Resolve to avoid these words and actions out of self-love and love for others.
  • Go beyond yourself – extend your loving kindness to others through meditation and compassionate action designed to address their needs whether that is a need for support, comfort or to redress a wrong they have suffered.  Here Leo asks the penetrating question, “Can you see their concerns, feel their pain and struggle, and become bigger than your self-concern and serve them as well?”  He argues that going beyond yourself is incredibly powerful because it creates meaning for yourself, stimulates your drive to turn intention into action and brings its own rewards in the form of happiness and contentment – extending kindness to others is being kind to yourself.

Reflection

There are so many ways that we can be kind to our self and build our capacity and confidence to do things for our self as well as others.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the negative self-stories that hold us back, be more open and able to be kind to our self, be grateful for all that we have and find creative ways to help others in need.  We can overcome fear and procrastination by actively building on the potential of self-kindness.  As Leo suggests, self-kindness enables us to get stuff done that we ought to do for our self and others.

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Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

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

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

How to Cope with Uncertainty

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

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

Meditation as an anchor in a turbulent sea

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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Image by Jerzy Górecki from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness as Self-Observation

Brian Shiers suggests that underpinning mindfulness is self-observation, the foundation of self-awareness.  This means, in effect, that there is no one right way to meditate – that paying attention to and noticing ourselves, in whatever way, is essentially mindfulness.  While there is a tendency for people new to meditation to judge themselves against a presumed standard, the experience they are having in self-observation is what mindfulness is about, not some prescribed level of awareness.  Mindfulness practices are designed to stimulate this curiosity about oneself in an open, exploratory way.  Tara Brach describes this lifelong journey as “waking up” – a deep shift in inner awareness that leads to equanimity and increased empathy and compassion.

In a recent guided meditation podcast, Brian asked the question, “What is “Myself”? and he encouraged participants to activate their “observational mind” in a relaxed manner.  He maintained that the fundamental question, “What is the “self”? is both an ancient and a recent question (through the pursuit of neuroscience).

Is the “self” my body, my thoughts, my roles I undertake, my affiliations, my emotions or my mind?  Brian sited the work of Dan Siegel, a founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), who believes that the “self” is not only what we are born with, but also the cumulation of billions of impressions that we are exposed to through interactions with others – thus shaping our perceptions and responses.  Dan’s perspective reinforces the uniqueness of our “self”.  Brian suggests, then, that the self is “intertwined in inter- relationships” – the direct and indirect influence of others throughout our lives.

Researchers have yet to establish what the “mind” is, even with the advent of neuroscience.   Brain stated that neuroscientists at Stanford University have estimated that we generate between 65,000 and 90,000 thoughts per day.  We are reminded of the admonition of Jon Kabat-Zinn that “you are not your thoughts”, thoughts that come and go like bubbles in boiling water.  Brain suggests that the “enterprise of mindfulness” is “self-observation”, including bringing to conscious awareness and guidance, the unconscious, spontaneously occurring thoughts that pervade our minds.  So, from Brian’s perspective, mindfulness is the pursuit of self-awareness through observation of the various domains of our existence, including our bodies and our minds.

A process of self-observation

Brian’s guided meditation podcast takes you on a journey of paying attention to your “self” through a process of self-observation of body and mind – noticing your body on the chair, engaging in mindful breathing, noticing your thoughts (but not entertaining them), undertaking a body scan while releasing tension, and participating in a reflection.

The personal reflection involves identifying a positive trait in yourself, e.g. wisdom. loving kindness, gratitude, thoughtfulness or resilience; and exploring how it manifests, its impact on others and how you could further develop this trait. Brian offers some guided questions for the reflection:

  • What is happening when you exhibit this trait? (you can visualise it happening)
  • What impact does it have on others?
  • Who is a role model for you in respect of this trait?
  • Who could help you develop it?
  • How can you further develop this positive trait?

As we grow in mindfulness through self -observation during the process of meditation, we can better understand who we are, how we experience the world, and what we bring to our interactions with others. We can also identify strategies to strengthen our positive traits and increase our motivation to use them to create a better life for ourselves and others.

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Image – Personal reflection during sunrise, Wynnum, Brisbane

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

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

Reasons Why Meaningless Values Lead to Depression

In the previous post I explored Johann Hari’s discussion of the research demonstrating that disconnection from meaningful values – expressed as obsession with materialism – leads to depression and anxiety. In this post I will explore the reasons why this occurs. 

Four reasons why meaningless values lead to depression

In identifying why materialism leads to depression, Johann draws on the research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser and his colleague, Professor Richard Ryan, one of the acknowledged world leaders in understanding human motivation.  Based on their work and his own research, Johann identifies four main reasons for the consuming sadness experienced by people who relentlessly pursue materialistic values that focus on extrinsic rewards (Lost Connections, pp. 97-99).

1. Damages relations with other people

The research shows that people who primarily pursue materialistic values experience “shorter relationships” that are of lesser quality than their peers who focus more on intrinsic values.  Materialistic-oriented people are more concerned about superficial things such as another person’s looks, their ability to impress others and their material possessions, than they are about the innate qualities of the person.  Their focus on external qualities makes it more likely to end a relationship because they invariably find someone who possesses these external qualities to a greater degree.  Their self-absorption also means that their partner in a relationship is also more likely to separate from them.  People who are out to impress others as their major motivator are very poor at reflective listening as they are more likely to interrupt and divert a conversation so that the focus is on them and their accomplishments.  Listening is the lifeblood of a sustainable relationship and has profound effects on the its quality.

2. Deprives them of the joy of being in the present moment

Because a materialistic person is always seeking more or pursuing an elusive goal over which they have no control, they are more likely to be frequently frustrated and disappointed.  They tend to be driven and impatient in the pursuit of their external goals and they experience time-pressures continuously. It is difficult for them to be fully engaged in the present moment and to experience the joy that derives from present awareness.  The researchers point out, too, that the pursuit of materialistic values results in the inability to experience “flow states” – being in the zone where you are hyper-focused and highly creative and productive. 

3. Become dependent on how other people think of them

Other’s opinions become the driver for the materialistic person’s words and actions.  They seek to gain positive assessment by others of their looks, their possessions (e.g. clothes and cars) and their income and social standing.  They tend to pursue relationships for what they can get out of them in terms of extrinsic rewards.  They can never be satisfied and often engage in attempts to outdo others.  The researchers point out that materialistic-oriented people are also more sensitive to feeling slighted, even when no slight is intended – because of their sensitivity to others’ opinions, they can more easily feel criticised and be hurt by seemingly harmless comments.  This can result in their being “on edge” all the time when with other people.  Their sense of self-worth becomes “contingent on the opinion of others” which, in turn, can lead to negative self-evaluation and self-deprecation.

4. Frustrates innate human needs

Tim Kasser observed that a core reason why materialism leads to depression is that it ultimately frustrates a person’s innate needs – needs such as the desire for meaningful connection with others; realising a sense of competence in their endeavours; a sense of autonomy and being in-control; and wanting to do, and achieve, something meaningful in their lives.  Depression and anxiety will grow over time when these real, innate human needs are not met.

We can choose how we spend our time and energy

Johann observes that time is limited and that our day is like a pie with defined parameters.  The way we carve up our day – how we allocate our time to aspects of our life – will significantly affect whether we realise joy and happiness or depression and anxiety.  If we can align the way we spend our time to the pursuit of meaningful values, we can experience mentally healthy states of positivity, joy, happiness and gratitude. The more time we spend on materialistic goals, the lower will be our “personal well-being”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we are better able to notice the impact that the pursuit of materialistic values has on our quality of life – our relationships, our joy, our sense of self-worth.  We will have a clearer idea of how well we meet our innate needs and how we can improve on their fulfillment.  Importantly, we will better understand the sources of our frustration and anger and be able to improve our self-regulation.  By developing mindfulness, we will more often experience the joy of being in the zone – of experiencing “flow states”.

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Image by KarinKarin 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.