Barriers to Loving Kindness

Sharon Salzberg has trained people, on a global basis, in the art of loving kindness and compassion.  She offers ways to undertake loving-kindness meditation in her books, videos and blog posts.  For example, in a blog post for mindful.org, she described a practice that helps people connect with kindness in a world where people increasingly feel disconnected.

In discussing mindful connection in a recent presentation, Sharon alluded to potential barriers to loving kindness.  The following barriers can be identified from her presentation:

Centrality of ourselves

Sharon describes “centrality” as a serious impediment to loving kindness as the primary focus is on ourselves, our needs, our priorities and our happiness.  Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to this barrier as “the story of me” – where I am the producer, the central character and actor in the story about me.

Sharon suggests that we can overcome our tendency to “centrality” when we gain insight into the pain associated with this positioning of ourselves.  We can come to this realisation through meditation or reflection on a challenging life event – when we begin to understand that placing ourselves at the centre of everything is the root cause of our loneliness, sense of disconnection, boredom and frustration.

Disconnected worldview

We often hear media reports that state that it was fortunate that the flood, cyclone or bushfire did not strike “here” but passed us by and struck “over there”.  This worldview conveys a sense of disconnection – as if what happens “there” has no impact or implication for us “here”.

This worldview is extremely narrow even taking into account our economic, ecological, financial and political interdependence.  It does not recognise the interconnection at a human level with families, friends, colleagues and relatives involved.  At a deeper level, it fails to recognise our interdependence with nature and the interconnection of all humanity.

Loving kindness and compassion meditation can open us up to recognition of these interdependencies and interconnections.  We can also monitor our own words on a daily basis to ensure that we do not unwittingly promote a narrow, distorted worldview.

Beliefs about love

There are many connotations of the word “love” but it has become synonymous with “romantic love”.  This leads to the belief that love is a feeling and that to love someone you have to like them or approve of them.  If you view love as connection, then love is seen as a capacity to connect -something that can be cultivated.  Love, then, is independent of whether you like a person or not.

The belief that compassion is solely an inner state

It is true that compassion is developed through loving-kindness and compassion meditation.  However, as Sharon points out it is actually a “movement toward” rather than a “movement within”.  The latter can lead to “empathetic distress”.   Compassion is the recognition of someone’s suffering and the desire to act to alleviate it in some way, while recognising that in many situations we cannot act directly to affect the pain and suffering of another person.

Compassion in day-to-day life can be expressed through active listening and what Sharon calls “spy consciousness” – where we turn our attention to our own thoughts and motivation in a situation to assess whether we are acting from a compassionate, considerate stance or from one of “centrality”.

Judging ourselves

We all carry a degree of prejudice and unconscious bias but there is nothing to be gained from beating up on ourselves, disliking who we are or belittling ourselves.  What is needed is compassion for ourselves and recognition that these deficiencies are a part of the human condition.  Sharon argues that self-loathing does not lead to transformation whereas compassion for ourselves is transformative.

As we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness practices, we begin to recognise at a deeper level that we are connected to everybody else and we start to cultivate love for others that is a true form of connection.

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

Image source:  Courtesy of  brenkee on Pixabay

Compassion Meditation

Sometimes it is difficult to show compassion when we are suffering or in pain ourselves.  When we experience pain, particularly if it is intense and/or constant, we tend to become self-absorbed.  A lot of our attention, energy and focus go into managing the pain whether by distraction or different forms of alleviation such as painkillers, acupuncture or somatic meditation.

What we then tend to overlook is that there is “pain in the room”.  No matter what we are doing with or for others, such as sitting in a hospital waiting room or conducting a workshop, there are always people in the room who are suffering physically or otherwise.  We do not know what pain people are carrying – we can be fairly confident that suffering and pain exist in the room as it is part of the human condition.

Interestingly, neuroscience increasingly confirms that, with both animals and people, compassion for others is a basic, natural inclination.  In contrast, it seems that self-compassion does not come naturally.  This is explained, in part, by the fact that our brains have a negative bias as a self-protection mechanism.  This safety bias plays out through our amygdala, the most primitive part of our brain.  As we experience life, this negative bias gets reflected in our negative thoughts which means that we are often self-critical and “hard on ourselves”.

So self-absorption, because of our own pain and suffering or through dealing with negative thoughts,  means that our natural inclination to demonstrate compassion to others is suppressed or blocked out.

This is why loving kindness and compassion meditation has a role to play in our lives.  In presenting a series of loving kindness and compassion meditations during the Mindfulness and Meditation Summit, Sharon Salzberg offered a series of meditations, each with a different focus.  The  meditations included loving kindness for a struggling friend, a difficult person, a benefactor and for a group.  These are all designed to take us outside of ourselves and sensitize us to the thoughts and feelings of others.

Daniel Goleman, in his recent co-authored book, identifies compassion as an “altered trait” – a sustained trait resulting from loving kindness and compassion meditation.  The authors contend that neuroscience consistently confirms that compassion meditation results in increased kindness and generosity, even with beginner meditators.

As we grow in mindfulness through compassion meditation, we are more able to move beyond self-centred preoccupation in our thoughts and actions, and manifest real kindness and compassion towards others.

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

Image source: courtesy of jia3ep on Pixabay

Mindfulness for Leadership

In his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Daniel Goleman discussed Altered Traits: The Benefits of Mindfulness for Leadership and Emotional Intelligence.  In this discussion, he drew on research that he described with his co-author Richard Davidson in their new book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

Daniel is the author of a number of other books including, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

In talking about the impact of mindfulness on leadership capability, Daniel drew on a select number of research articles used within his last co-authored book.  These were articles that met the tests of rigorous research that he and Richard Davidson employed in their book.

He distinguished the results achieved for different levels of meditators – the beginners, the long-term meditators and the “Olympian” meditators (e.g. Buddhist monks and members of contemplative orders such as the Carmelite nuns and priests).

He contends from the associated research that the benefits of meditation deepen and broaden the longer and more frequently you engage in meditation practice.

However, beginner meditators can gain some benefits that positively impact leadership capability, whether directly or indirectly.

Some of these findings for beginner meditators are:

1. Ability to focus better

This outcome is the primary subject of his book, Focus.  Because meditation involves focusing your mind on a particular object, person or activity, it naturally builds the capacity to maintain attention and restore attention when a distracting thought occurs.  The resultant mental fitness is akin to physical fitness attained through exercise or gym work – instead of physical power or stamina, the meditator gains the power of concentration.

2. Better utilisation of working memory

Paying attention through meditation practice enhances short-term memory which enables better retention and utilisation of information, gained through perception, for the purpose of decision-making and guiding behaviour.

3. Handle stress better

Neuroscience shows that meditators are better able to handle stress because our automatic response via the amygdala is not triggered so readily and recovery is quicker – two elements that together determine resilience.

4.Growth in kindness and compassion

A well-established finding is that those who practice loving kindness/compassion meditation actually tune into others’ needs better and are more likely to help.  These benefits are relatively immediate and kindness and compassion are seen increasingly as traits that define successful leaders.

Long-term meditators achieve greater and more sustainable benefits such as increased concentration ability, enhanced capacity to pick up on emotional cues because they are more able to be present to the other person, greater calming effects (felt emotionally and experienced biologically) and a higher-level capacity that is described as meta-awareness (the ability to observe our own thoughts and feelings).

As we grow in mindfulness through regular and sustained practice of different forms of meditation, we are able to build our leadership skills and capability which we can employ in any arena of our lives – be it work, home or community.

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

Image source: courtesy of MemoryCatcher on Pixabay

Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace

If you revisit the previous post and listen to Goldie Hawn’s statement about the tools and skills that children are given in MindUP™ , you come to realise that she is creating the foundations for mentally healthy workplaces . As Goldie pointed out, she set about creating a new culture, conducive to world peace, by developing children as future leaders with dignity and humanity.

In their guide, Mental Health at Work, produced by Portner Press, the authors discuss the need to create a workplace culture that is conducive to developing and maintaining mental health in the workplace. What they identify as the elements that go into making a mentally healthy workplace culture align very well with Goldie’s focus and goals.

They also align very closely with the manager development work I have been doing over more than a decade with my colleague, Julie Cork.  The Confident People Management Program that we have been facilitating for over 2,000 managers is a longitudinal, action learning program of four to six months focused on people management skills.

To create a culture that is conducive to mental health in the workplace, requires, fundamentally, an awareness of, and willingness to address, the basic needs of staff.  Staff have three basic needs, (1) tell me what is expected of me, (2) give me honest feedback about how I am doing, and (3) provide me with the resources to meet the expectations of the job.

Job expectations

Clarity around job expectations is particularly critical for creating a workplace environment that is conducive to mental health. Much stress, conflict and mental illness is caused by unclear job expectations which are manifested in role confusion, role ambiguity and/or role overlap.

Communication of expectations should cover both performance expectations and behavioural expectations. Performance expectations, in terms of the quantity and quality of work to be done, have to be reasonable and not excessive. It is okay to establish high expectations as long as you enable negotiation of those expectations and provide the requisite level of support to achieve the desired outcomes.

The other aspect of job expectations is behavioural standards. It is one thing to communicate workplace values, e.g. professionalism, it is another thing to explain these values in behavioural terms so that staff understand what is required of them behaviourally. So for a value like professionalism, a manager would need to ask, “What does professionalism look like behaviourally in our workplace context?” (or, alternatively, “what would be considered unprofessional behaviour in our context?”).

Clarity around job expectations, both performance and behavioural, is a critical first step for a mentally healthy workplace.

Feedback

An essential component for a workplace culture that is conducive to mental health is regular feedback about performance and behaviour. This involves both positive and corrective feedback.

Positive feedback builds a person’s self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy. It respects and values their contribution and encourages positivity in the workplace.

Corrective feedback is designed to correct performance/ behaviour so that the staff member can meet the job expectations. If it is provided in a professional manner it can be generate respect – the focus being on the performance/ behaviour, not the person or their personality.

In both forms of feedback, it is important that the feedback is timely, specific, accurate and sincere.

Resources

It is unreasonable and damaging to mental health to provide staff with resources that are inadequate to enable them to meet job expectations – this includes the provision of training in both performance and behavioural requirements. In terms of assisting people who have mental health issues, it is important to provide access to independent, external health professionals to give adequate support for the individual involved. What is often overlooked is the need to train managers in how to deal with mental health issues in the workplace – resulting in managers experiencing undue stress and, potentially, burnout.

Listening for understanding

If a manager is to genuinely meet the needs of staff, they have to have skills in active listening. One component of this is empathetic listening skills – the ability to understand the emotions involved for the other person, to empathise with them and to work with them to help alleviate the associated pain where possible.

Being present

Underpinning the above elements of a healthy workplace culture is the capacity of a manager to be really present to their staff.  Listening for understanding, communicating expectations and providing feedback (both positive and corrective), require the manager to be in-the-moment and really present to their staff.

As managers grow in mindfulness, they are better able to create workplace environments conducive to mental health. Kindness and gratitude form part of the emergent skill-set and these, in turn, contribute mental health and happiness, not only for staff but also for the manager.

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

Image source:  Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Kindness Grows

Kindness is any act of thoughtfulness, service or generosity that is a response to the need of another person.  A positive aspect of kindness is that it is contagious – its positive influence grows of its own momentum.

Seth Godin alludes to this growth feature of kindness when he wrote in his blog:

Kindness ratchets up. It leads to more kindness.  It can create trust and openness and truth and enthusiasm and patience and possibility.

You might be able to recall when this happened for you. I can recall my own positive feelings yesterday when a waitress helped my wife and I to put on our heavy coats to protect against the cold as we left the restaurant to step out into what felt like 4 degrees.  We were visiting Ravenna in northern Italy for the day and this was our first visit.

The waitress, who was in the process of closing up after lunch on Boxing Day, went out of her way to ask where we were from. When we answered that we were from Australia, she shared her story of 9 months in Australia, including visiting our home town in Brisbane. She also disclosed that she was originally from Sweden.  This kindness of engaging us in conversation at the end of the meal served to cap off a wonderful meal and was one of a number of acts of kindness we experienced during our lunch at the restaurant.  She may not have realised that this was the first real conversation we had experienced in 4 weeks in Italy.  We could not speak Italian but the waitress spoke English fluently.

On Christmas night, we encountered another kind act by a group of about 10 young singers and a guitarist who were travelling the streets in 3 degrees temperature and singing to individual homeless people in the streets.  They sang the song, “We wish you a Merry Christmas” in a number of languages and left a gift for the homeless person.

I was pleased to learn that my son and his girlfriend, both in their twenties, spent time on Christmas Day helping a charity to serve meals to homeless people.

You can engage in kindness at any time and in any way – you can be really creative about how you show kindness to others. Kindness.org offers suggestions on how to be kind and shares stories of other peoples’ acts of kindness by way of inspiration.

In my discussion of empathy as part of emotional intelligence and mindful leadership, I highlighted the fact that kindness is one manifestation of empathetic behaviour.  People who are self-absorbed are unable to perceive the needs of others or respond to those needs in a kind way.  As you grow in mindfulness, your capacity for kindness grows and you are able to be more of a positive influence in the lives of others.

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

Image source: courtesy of skeeze on Pixabay

Mindful Leadership: Empathy

 

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute draws on Evan Thompson’s (2001) explanation of the nature of empathy that identifies two key aspects:

(a) The ability to experience and understand what others feel

(b) while maintaining a clear discernment about your own and the other person’s feeling and perspectives.

(Empathy and Consciousness, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, 1-32)

So the first aspect of empathy is the capacity to experience what the other person is experiencing from their perspective.  It is like, metaphorically, standing in their place, realising and understanding what they are thinking and feeling.  It is not trying to provide a psychological solution or judging the emotion of the other person.  At the heart of empathy is understanding both intellectually and emotionally what is involved for the other person.

Secondly, it is the discernment ability to separate the other person’s emotion from your own.  It is not owning the other person’s feelings as if they were your own. This ability to differentiate yourself and your feelings from the other person and their feelings is critical.  An inability to do this means that you will eventually suffer from empathy overload, which can be harmful to you and reduces your capacity to help the other person.  Total identification with the other person is not the goal of a healthy approach to empathy.

There are a number of ways to enhance your empathy.  Here I will discuss three strategies:

1.Understanding and appreciating similarities

Foundational to empathy is self-awareness and the ability to recognise similarities between ourself and other people.  When we focus on differences, we are less able to empathise with others and are more inclined to make assumptions about others.  It is interesting, too, that we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions and judge others by their presumed motivation.  We all know that there can be a huge gap between intention and action.

2. Empathetic listening

Empathetic listening involves not only attending to what someone’s is saying (the words), but also the feelings (the emotions) behind the words. It includes the capacity to not only reflect back the content of the other person’s communication, but also the ability to reflect back the emotion and depth of emotion  involved.  This is often very difficult to do, given our busy lives and our tendency to run away from emotional encounters – either withdrawing physically or psychologically by tuning out.  As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to stay present to the other person and listen empathetically.

3 Kindness

Simple acts of kindness, helping another in difficulty, builds empathy as it relies on awareness of another’s predicament and a willingness to take some action towards assisting that person.  If you are looking for inspiration for your own acts of kindness, here are some websites that may help:

Random Acts of Kindness

Kindness.org

103 Random Acts of Kindness

As you grow in mindfulness you develop your capacity to be empathetic, as empathy requires you to be present on purpose and non-judgementally.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Mindful Self-Compassion

Compassion is an integral element of mindfulness and emotional intelligence.

It involves being concerned for the pain and suffering of others, having the desire to reduce that suffering and taking action, at whatever level, to redress the suffering of others.   Taking action is a key aspect that differentiates compassion from empathy.

Self-compassion, then, is exercising compassion towards ourselves – ultimately, it means doing things to reduce our own self-initiated pain and suffering.

As we mentioned in a previous post, our minds tend automatically towards negative thoughts.  We are critical of ourselves, dwell on failures, feel embarrassed when we make a mistake and carry shame with us to our own detriment and that of others.

Diana Austin, in her doctoral study of midwives in New Zealand, found, for instance, that the sense of shame and self-blame impacted severely the ability of midwives to recover from the trauma of critical incidents.  Her study resulted in an e-book tool designed to promote self care and kindness towards self in the event of a health professional experiencing a critical event.

The Critical Incidents E-Book contains stories, information and practical advice for health professionals and their managers when mistakes happen and things go wrong.  In the final analysis, the e-book is a journey into self-compassion for those experiencing the depths of self-blame, shame and questioning of their own competence and ability to support others professionally.

Kristin Neff, one of the founders of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, identified three components of self-compassion:

  • physical warmth
  • gentle touch
  • soothing vocalization

In her video describing these three components, Kristin suggests a number of self-compassion practices that draw on these components.  For example, she recommends self-hugging and a simple exercise involving placing your hands over your chest while communicating care and tenderness towards yourself.

More detail on these self-compassion exercises can be found in the video below where Kristin Neff describes exactly how to do them:

As you grow in mindfulness you become more aware of self-criticism and the ways in which you blame yourself, and you gain the presence of mind to counter these self-initiated attacks on your self-esteem and sense of self-worth.  Mindful self-compassion exercises build mindfulness and develop self-care and kindness.  The more we are kind to ourselves, the more sensitive we become to the needs of others.

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

Image source: Courtesy of johnhain  on Pixabay