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.

Being Disconnected from Meaningful Values Leads to Depression

In previous posts I highlighted the relationship between depression and being disconnected from what is meaningful in terms of work and in terms of relationships with other people.  In this post, I want to draw further on the work of Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, by focusing on the loss of connection to meaningful values.

Being disconnected from meaningful values

In Chapter 8 of his book (pp. 91-105), Johann identifies a third social factor contributing to the rise of depression and anxiety – disconnection from meaningful values.  In this section, he draws heavily on the ground-breaking research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser who explored in depth how our cultural values contribute to the rise of depression and anxiety in today’s Western society. 

Tim was motivated in his search for meaningful values through the music of Bob Dylan and John Lennon and his own independent inquiry into the nature of authenticity while studying at Vanderbilt University, a learning institution committed to curiosity.  Tim was curious about the reason why there was such an increase in the incidence of depression and anxiety in today’s world.  He spent more than 25 years researching and working with colleagues to find the answers.

Tim drew on the work of philosophers and research by others that established that the stronger a person focuses on materialistic values (such as wanting more money and possessions and wanting to be viewed highly by others), the more likely they are to experience depression.  He conducted his own experiments as well and learned that those who gave priority to materialistic values experienced less joy and lived a poorer quality of life than those who primarily pursued meaningful values.  Johann describes Tim’s research projects in detail in his book, Lost Connections.

Materialistic values pursue extrinsic rewards

Philosophers have identified two different types of human motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation seeks an external reward in the form of money, status, recognition or being liked and admired. Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is associated with internal personal rewards that flow from undertaking something for its own sake such as working to make a difference in the world, developing meaningful and supportive relationships, showing compassion towards someone in need or playing an instrument for the sheer joy it brings.  Materialistic values focus on extrinsic rewards and do not add meaning to a person’s life.

Tim engaged 200 people in completing a “mood diary” over a period so that he could establish the outcomes for people who primarily pursued extrinsic goals versus those who pursued intrinsic goals.  He was startled by the results – people who focused on, and achieved, extrinsic goals did not experience any appreciable increase in happiness in their daily life, despite the extraordinary amount of time and energy that they put into pursuing those extrinsic goals (e.g. gaining a promotion, purchasing a new car, buying the latest smart phone).   In contrast, people who pursued, and achieved, their intrinsic goals were “significantly happier” and experienced a decline in depression and anxiety.  These people set goals such as improving the way they related to others and supported those in need.

Johann points out that we all pursue both extrinsic and intrinsic goals and the associated rewards.  However, the challenge is to achieve the right balance – ensuring that materialistic values do not dominate our lives and lead to depression and anxiety.  We are constantly confronted with the choice of whether we pursue an extrinsic goal or an intrinsic one – such as whether we stay longer at work and earn more overtime money or go home to our young family and enhance our relationships with our partner and/or children.

I was recently confronted with such a choice – the choice between an extrinsic goal and an intrinsic one.  I was asked to write a book on action learning and the extrinsic rewards offered were to earn money for the work, receive royalties on an ongoing basis and, in the process, make a name for myself by way of my “legacy”.  The cost for me was to give up writing this blog on mindfulness, as the book would be all-consuming – I would have to give up what I consider to be making a real difference in some people’s lives (including my own) in favour of realising some extrinsic rewards.  I chose to turn down the offer to write the book and to continue to research and write about ways to grow in mindfulness via this blog.  The challenge for me was to put an important intrinsic goal ahead of offered extrinsic rewards.

We can become consumed by materialistic values and the associated extrinsic rewards by spending more and more time and energy in their pursuit, despite their achievement providing less and less satisfaction.  People, for example, chase the next promotion and movement up the ranks and are often prepared to sacrifice their personal values and joy to “get there”.

Western society encourages and reinforces materialistic values

Our consumer society cultivates extrinsic values and advertisers persistently encourage us to have the better car, to look better, to buy eye-catching jewellery, to upgrade our home (in terms of size and/or location) and to attract admiration.  Porsche, for example, in promoting its latest SUV, the E-PACE, describes the new “luxury” vehicle as having “head-turning good looks” – reinforcing the “look-at-me” values of Western society. 

The selfie revolution is another example of our pursuit of “looking good” on social media.  Technologists have pandered to this trend by developing the “selfie drone” which has now morphed into the “dronie” that enables you to focus on your group and yourself and also to back away to highlight your location, thus providing that extra “WOW factor”.  Some selfie drones even let you upload your shots directly to social media – meeting our need for immediacy and convenience. Taking selfies, by itself, does not mean you are pursuing materialistic values – some people use selfies solely for their family album or to share with family connections. The problem comes when taking selfies consumes us and their sole purpose is to establish our (superior) “value” in the eyes of other people.

Each year at Christmas time, there is a rush to have the latest and best toys/games/technologies that are available – what was the benchmark last year is now superseded by something more costly and peer pressure reinforces the “need” for this purchase.  Our children thus become indoctrinated very early into the “must have’ social norms and lose sight of what really makes them happy such as the sheer joy of playing a game with friends in the yard or park.

Our culture drives the desire for extrinsic rewards to the point where our elected officials feel it necessary to misuse their positions of trust to increase their own wealth through corruption.  More than fifty wealthy American parents were recently charged with admissions fraud through a scam designed to get their children admitted to “elite” universities.

Johann points out that multiple studies show that depression and anxiety will be experienced by people who pursue materialistic goals relentlessly – irrespective of their age, social standing or economic means.  He argues that just as junk food creates toxins in our bodies, “junk values” produce “psychological toxins” that invariably lead to depression and anxiety (p.97).

Becoming mindful about our lives and our values

Tim Kasser, in an interview in 2016, encouraged us to reflect on how we spend our time and energy.  He suggested that we look at what we really value and how that is reflected in our life.  He asks us to seriously look at how we act out what we claim to be important in our lives and how well we make time for the things that are important to us.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and mindfulness practices, we can identify the ways in which our words and actions do not align with the values that provide meaning and happiness in our lives.  We can explore ways to make better use of our time, not to pursue materialistic values, but to pursue intrinsic values that provide lasting satisfaction such as making a difference in the world, being fully in the present moment and connecting meaningfully with others. 

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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.

How To View Stress to Improve Health and Happiness

Kelly McGonigal presented a talk on How to Make Stress Your Friend that challenged the way we think about stress and the bodily response to stress. Her talk could have been subtitled, How to think about stress to improve your longevity. Kelly draws on research that demonstrates how we think about stress can impact negatively or positively on our physical and mental health during the experience of stress and beyond.

How we can view our bodily responses to stress

When we experience stress our bodies respond in predictable ways. Our heart may be racing or pounding, we tend to breathe faster, and we can break out into a sweat. How we view these bodily responses to stress determines the short-term and long-term effects of stress on our wellness, heart condition and longevity.

If we view these bodily responses as a positive response to stress, we are better able to cope with the current stress and future stressors. Kelly argues that our perception of these responses makes all the difference. We can view them as an indication that our body is preparing us and energising us for the perceived challenge that precipitated our stress. World-famous aerialist Nik Wallenda maintains that this positive perception of the bodily stress response enabled him to walk on a tightrope across a 400 metre gap in the Grand Canyon.

Kelly argues that we should view the pounding heart as readying us for constructive action; the heightened breathing rate is providing more oxygen to the brain to enable it to function better. The net result of viewing these bodily responses as positive is that we can experience less anxiety in the face of stress and feel more confident in meeting the inherent challenges.

Kelly points out that what is particularly amazing is that instead of the blood vessels in your heart constricting (as they do when you view stress negatively), the blood vessels actually remain relaxed when the bodily stress response is viewed positively. She notes that the relaxation of the blood vessels in the heart is similar to what happens when we experience positive emotions of joy and courage.

Stress makes you more social

One of the key effects of stress is that the pituitary gland in your body increases your level of oxytocin (known as the “cuddle hormone“) which tends to move you to strengthen close social relationships. This facet of the stress response prompts you to seek and give social support. Kelly maintains that your stress response “wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you”. It also stimulates you to reach out and help others in need – which, in turn, can increase your oxytocin levels. Thus stress can help us to accept compassion make us more compassionate.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation, research and reflection, we can learn to view our bodily response to stress in a positive light, reduce the negative physical and mental impacts of stress on ourselves and strengthen our commitment to compassionate action.

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Image: Sunrise in Manly, Queensland, taken on 1 July 2019

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.

Stop Complaining and Whinging: A Mindfulness Approach

When we complain, we are expressing dissatisfacion with someone, something, or some event. When we whinge we are involved in repeated complaining. Complaining and whinging can become habituated behaviours that are difficult to change. Left unattended, these behaviours can become toxic for ourselves and those around us. However, they can be successfully addressed by a mindfulness approach.

Michael Dawson explains how he attempted to stop his own complaining and whinging behaviour. He decided that he would attempt to stop any form of complaining and whinging over an extended period of 21 days but found that it took him six months to achieve the targeted period. He found that the process of complaining and whinging pervaded his life – at work, at home and en route to various places. The first benefit of his focus on his behaviour was a growing awareness of how often he indulged in making a complaint or whinging – the beginning of mindfulness.

Why is it so difficult to stop complaining and whinging?

Complaining and whinging can very easily become an unhealthy habit. It can be reinforced by others around us. We can use it as a conversation opener – there is nothing surer to generate a response than to articulate a complaint about something. This behaviour is often unconscious and can become a constant part of our life without our being aware that it is happening – unless someone tells us that is what is happening. We can end up complaining about every aspect of our life – the weather, our boss, our life partner, our work, our location, our colleagues, and a former associate or partner. This fault-finding behaviour can become pervasive and very difficult to stop.

Another reinforcing factor is that complaining and whinging activate the negative bias of our brain. The result is that we see only the dark clouds, rather than the “silver lining”. We can develop an unconscious, negative bias that can be further reinforced by social media comments and caustic criticism. It can become hard to resist the temptation to participate in the negative commentary.

The effects of complaining and whinging

The preoccupation with what is negative in our lives can lead to depression. It creates a mindset that is unbalanced and blinds us to what is good, joyful and beautiful in our lives. It can become a deep grove that is difficult to shift because the associated neural pathways have been continually strengthened by reinforcement.

Complaining and whinging can negatively impact our relationships at work and at home. People around us will come to resent our negative bias and, where possible, avoid us or act aggressively towards us. Our negative mindset and its effects on others can lead us to slip into cynicism where we begin to distrust the motives of others, and this, in turn, can drain the energy of other people. So, we end up with a vicious circle, compounded by our lack of internal and external awareness. To avoid self-analysis, we will then begin to blame others for our deteriorating relationships.

A mindfulness approach to stop complaining and whinging

Michael described his mindfulness exercise to stop complaining and whinging in his life. However, any mindfulness activity designed to increase our awareness of our undesirable behaviour in this area can be a useful means to stop this habit.

If you regularly write a diary, you can make complaining and whinging behaviour a focus of your diary entries – recording how often these behaviours occur and what the catalysts are for your repeated behaviour. You might also reflect on an incident where someone you interact with regularly makes an observation about you such as, “you are always negative”.

At other times, you might meditate on a recent conflict that has occurred and explore whether you had engaged in expressing a complaint or whinging about something the other person has done or failed to do. The aim is to firstly raise your awareness of what you are doing and its effects on yourself and others and then progressively stopping yourself from engaging in complaining or whinging. You can begin to move from reflection-on-action to reflecting-in-action, developing the skill to stop yourself in the course of engaging in this negative behaviour.

If our complaints are directed at the clutter in our life, we can learn from Marie Kondo’s philosophy of developing a mindset focused on what brings joy to our life. In her book, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Japanese Art of Tidying, she identifies ways to develop a joy-oriented mindset through our approach to tidying our house. This requires reflection on what brings joy to us from amongst our collections of clothes, books, papers and miscellaneous items.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection, self-observation and guided sorting, we can become more aware of our complaining and whinging habit and develop the motivation to change our behaviour to improve our own quality of life and the richness of our relationships. By adopting a mindfulness approach, we can develop self-regulation, a sense of self-control and calmness.

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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.

Happiness Through Mindful Eating

Megrette Fletcher reminds us that mindful eating can be a source of happiness in multiple ways. Mindful eating not only brings physical health benefits through improved digestion but also mental and emotional benefits through savoring the senses, enjoying the pleasure of eating tasty food, experiencing gratitude for the food that we have and enjoying the company of others.

The happiness benefits of mindful eating

When we are conscious enough to eat mindfully, we can be more in tune with our senses. This involves not only taste but other senses as well. We can enjoy the smell of freshly cooked food with the different aromas of spices, sauces and the core ingredients. We can experience the benefits of texture through touch as well as through our mouths (maybe this is why cooking shows put so much emphasis on incorporating different textures in our cooking). Sight plays a key role in mindful eating as we learn to appreciate presentation, including the varying colours of different foods and the artful colour matching. Sounds when eating, too, can play a role in our experience of happiness during mindful eating (providing they are experienced as pleasant, such as the crunch sound from eating pork crackling).

We can enjoy the pleasure of stopping from the busyness of our work and other responsibilities and savour the moment. There is a sense of satisfaction that derives from stopping, focusing and experiencing the moment – increasing our awareness that we are enjoying good food. There is also a sense of accomplishment when we can concentrate on the act of eating itself.

There are clear mental health benefits and positive emotions elicited when we express gratitude for the food we eat. Gratitude can emerge when we are mindful of the good fortune of having food to eat, enjoying plenitude (where many in the world have insufficient food) and experiencing quality ingredients and inventive cooking.

Being mindful of the company we enjoy when we eat is a key element in the happiness experienced through mindful eating. We can experience the pleasure of eating as a family on a regular basis or on special occasions where the extended family gets together. We can enjoy the company of colleagues and friends with whom we share a breakfast, lunch or dinner meal or just a cup of coffee. The experience of positive relationships enriches our lives and this benefit is accentuated when we mindfully share a meal together.

An article on the mindful.org website offers 7 reminders for mindful eating. The article provides seven practical ways to eat mindfully to experience nourishment of the mind and emotions, as well as of the body.

As we grow in mindfulness and awareness of the moment through mindful eating, we can experience genuine happiness and joy, enhance our positive mental state and develop a deep sense of gratitude for all that we are privileged to experience in life.

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

Image source: courtesy of moerschy 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. 

Living the Present Moment

The present moment is all we have – this very moment is our life.  Yet we spend so much time being someplace else.  We are thinking about what we have to do or wishing that our life was different.  We can be caught up in the emotions of envy, disappointment or regret and overlook what is happening now.

So often we look forward to an activity with a friend or colleague and yet when the moment arrives, we are thinking of something else – our focus is elsewhere other than the present moment.  When we can be really in the present moment we can savour being alone, being with someone we value and appreciate, experiencing the joy of our child’s development and happiness, or the beauty of the nature that surrounds us.

The role of meditation practice – bringing us back to the present moment

In one of her many meditation podcasts, Tara Brach coaxes us to show up fully for our life experiences, instead of being absorbed by our busyness.  She encourages us to be with our mind and our body in the moment.

Meditation practice trains us to bring our attention back to the present moment again and again.  It helps us to develop the discipline to stop our minds wandering or entertaining thoughts that take us away from the moment that we are experiencing, whatever form it takes.

If we can maintain meditation practice over a sustained period with a degree of frequency, we can begin to find that we tend to stop ourselves in the course of some experience and remind ourselves to savour the moment.  This present-mindedness can grow and develop and embrace more of our life and our interactions with others.  We can learn progressively to be truly present to ourselves and others.

As Tara points out the starting point is often getting in touch with our own bodies and our bodily sensations – whether it is the sensation of warmth or cold, tightness or softening, retracting or expanding.   What we develop through being in the present moment is gratitude and appreciation and we can experience joy and happiness through the process.  Tara describes what we develop through meditation practice in these words:

The art of appreciation and showing up for our life and living with more connection and gratitude. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can appreciate each moment and savour more of our life, instead of letting the present moment continuously pass us by.  Through regular and persistent meditation, we develop the art of bringing ourselves back to what we are experiencing in the moment.

 

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

Image source: courtesy of Pexels 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.

Feeling Joy for Others

We have so many opportunities to feel joy for others and to extend our desire for their joy to grow and continue.  However, we can be held back by feelings of envy or jealousy about their good fortune, especially if it comes at our own expense, e.g. when someone gets “our” carpark spot during the mad Christmas shopping period.

Meditating with a focus on feeling joy for others who have experienced good fortune, achieved an outstanding outcome or been publicly acknowledged for their achievement, can take us outside our self-absorption,  build our capacity for “empathetic joy” and warm our own hearts through “vicarious joy” and the experience of happiness for them.

Diana Winston provides a meditation podcast on feeling joy for others in which she guides us through the process of focusing on the joy that someone else has experienced as a result of their good fortune.

Feeling joy for others meditation

Once you have achieved the initial meditative state of being grounded, you can identify someone or group of people who have experienced joy and happiness as a result of some event, achievement or fortuitous gift.

As you focus on the joyful experience of another person or group, try to place yourself in that experience – feeling what they must be feeling, appreciating what they are grateful for.  You can use images to intensify this identification and what Diana calls “appreciative joy”.

Once you have been able to clearly focus on the joy of another you can then express the wish that their good fortune continues and that their joy grows and develops in a sustainable way.  This expression of good will can offset constant exposure to the media’s focus on peoples’ ill fortune.

There is something special about this feeling joy for others meditation in that it takes us away from self-centredness, opens our eyes to the rivers of goodness in the world and enhances our sense of gratitude.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware of others and their experience of joy in times of good fortune and more generous through our appreciative stance engendered through meditation where we focus on others’ joy.

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

Image source: courtesy of MinistaJazz 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.

Engaging With and Accepting Death

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

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

Acceptance of death

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

Being attuned to sensory experience

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

Finding balance through openness to love

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

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

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

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

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

Image source: courtesy of realworkhard on Pixabay

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Savor the Moment

It is interesting that we are frequently exhorted to “seize the day” – to make the most of the moment for our personal advantage.  It implies haste and possession – two primary descriptors of today’s fast-paced, “get ahead” world.

Barry Bryce, Editor-in-Chief of the Mindful Magazine and mindful.org, provides a very different exhortation in his article, Get Real with Everything: A Savoring Practice.

The article resulted from Barry’s commitment to maintain a savoring practice over a week-long period.  Through this practice, he came to identify seven ways that we could actually savor the moment.

“Savor” is not a term in common usage today as it implies a counter-cultural orientation.   The word in its American English form means:

To enjoy food or an experience slowly, in order to appreciate it as much as possible.

This is the meaning of “savor” behind Barry’s article.  His encouragement to savor everything relates to not only experiences we view as positive but also to those that, on the surface, appear negative.  Savoring these latter moments requires a positive stance – being able to perceive the positive in each situation irrespective of how it first appears.

In this post, I will concentrate on the first of those experiences that we normally view as positive – when things are good for us.

Savor the joy

Underpinning Barry’s orientation in the article is appreciation or gratitude for any experience in your life.  This perspective not only requires slowing down, but also overcoming a “taken-for-granted” attitude.

Barry suggests that when things are going well, you would naturally be able to savor the resultant happiness and joy.   He found that this was more difficult than he had imagined.  This is partly because we take things for granted and because there are different levels of savoring.  On the more immediate level, you can savor the smell of the flowers and trees, the rustle of the wind, the song of birds, the sight of a sunrise or sunset or the sheer joy of being able to walk or to do so in the fresh, open air.

At another level, that Barry refers to, is consciousness about your body and how it is naturally in-the-moment and in synch with what you are doing, e.g. walking.  This is appreciation of the way our body parts work together in unison to enable the act of walking.  I alluded to something similar in my recent article on developing mindfulness through tennis, when I expressed appreciation of the moment when the body and mind work in unison to assess the speed and spin of a tennis ball and to create a return tennis shot.

To savor the joy of the moment also entails overcoming the urge to “get somewhere” or to “do something” – both being obsessions of our times.  As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, we spend so much time “doing” that we have lost the art of “being”.

Mindful walking and mindful eating are other forms of meditation that entail savoring the joy of our actions and sensations in-the-moment.

As we grow in mindfulness through savoring the moment we are able to enjoy a richer and more rewarding life, to value what we have at the most basic level and to experience real happiness and joy.

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

Image source: courtesy of  MiguelRPerez on Pixabay

Awareness and Happiness

Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield, when talking about the power of awareness, identified happiness as a very significant outcome of awareness training.  They explain this outcome in terms of three elements of awareness:

  1. being present
  2. overcoming negative bias
  3. appreciation and gratitude

Being present

If we live in the present, we are not encumbered by anxiety and fear about the future or disappointment and depression about the past.  “Now” is the focus and source of our wellbeing.  Both Jack and Tara point out the Dalai Lama as a prime example of happiness and joy (despite suffering as a result of the loss of culture, freedom and religion by his beloved country of Tibet).

After publishing his book on happiness, the Dalai Lama was asked what was the happiest moment of his life, and he replied after considering the question, “I think now”.  There is a stillness and calm and associated happiness with being able to be “in-the-now”.

Overcoming negative bias

Neuroscience has established that part of our genetic make-up is a negativity bias – we tend to see the negative in a situation and perceive threats even when there are none.   In the past, this has served the human species well and helped our species to survive.   Nowadays, it works against our happiness because we can easily overlook the positive and be blinded by a focus on what is wrong or not working out as we had planned.

As we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we are more readily able to focus on the positive in our lives and overcome our negative conditioning.   We are also better able to evaluate potential stressors and see them for what they are.   This opens us up to enjoying our life more and experiencing happiness more regularly.

Appreciation and gratitude

Awareness opens our minds and hearts and enables us to appreciate the good in our lives and express gratitude for what we have in terms of fitness and health, relationships, our lifestyle and our environment.  We become increasingly conscious of what surrounds us and become more open to joy and happiness.

Appreciation and gratitude serve as barriers to envy and resentment which can so readily diminish our happiness and destroy joy in our lives.

Jack Kornfield explains how mindfulness practices and awareness training increase the capacity for happiness in our lives:

These practices and trainings are really an invitation to allow not only well-being, but the innate happiness that appreciates the sunset and the reflected colors in the windows as the sun goes down, or in the puddles there on the street and the splashes and the smiles of the children as they stomp in the water and the mystery of life.

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

Image source: courtesy of AbelEscobar on Pixabay