Developing Inclusion through Mindfulness

In a previous post, I discussed the six core traits of inclusive leadership and acknowledged the role that mindfulness plays in developing inclusion in our thoughts and behaviour.  In this post, I would like to develop this theme further.

Inclusion involves openness and receptivity to what is different and diverse.  It is the foundation of real knowledge, insight and wisdom.  It involves more than being sensitive to diversity but also valuing and embracing it.  So, it entails not only a way of thinking but also a way of being in the world.

Through mindfulness, we can become aware of our implicit biases and emotional responses to people who are different from us.  We are then better able to manage our habituated responses and increase our response ability.

So much of our bias is unconscious and conditioned by our social, cultural, geographical and educational environments and associated experiences.  One way into our biases is through meditation on our emotional reactions to people and situations that challenge our view or perspective of the world.  Our feelings of discomfort can portend our inner bias and raise awareness of our tendencies to exclusivity.

If we can stop ourselves from reacting automatically, breathe deeply and consciously, notice and name our feelings, we can respond more appropriately and, eventually, act in a more proactive and inclusive manner.  If we reflect on the pattern of our thoughts and actions when we meditate, we can isolate negative emotional responses to a particular person or group.  Having identified the stimulus and the nature of our reaction, we are better placed to manage our response.

When we reflect through meditation on our thoughts in particular situations, we can more readily isolate our assumptions and stereotypes and understand how they are impacting our behaviour.  Through this increased self-awareness, we are better able to develop inclusive thoughts and actions.

Research has demonstrated that loving kindness meditation, which typically incorporates self-compassion and compassion towards others, can mitigate unconscious bias.  This approach to developing mindfulness places increased emphasis on similarities and entails expressing desire for increased well-being, happiness, equanimity and resilience for others.  Development of positive intentions towards others builds an inclusive frame of reference and affirmation of diversity.

As we grow in mindfulness, we see our biases in a clearer light, understand their impact on our behaviour and become more open and able to adopt inclusive behaviour.  Developing inclusion in our words and actions can be achieved through mindfulness if we consciously employ meditations that invoke acceptance and inclusion.

 

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

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Cultivating Awareness of Others through Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness to cultivate awareness of others

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Caring through Mindfulness

Caring is integral to mindfulness – we pay attention in the moment with care and curiosity.  We can learn to care for others through  loving kindness meditation as well as learn to care for ourselves through self-compassion.

Diana Winston provides a meditation podcast on the subject of mindfulness and care and stresses the need to care for ourselves as well as for others.  She suggests that people often discount or devalue their inner experience or feelings and yet be consumed by care for others.

Diana asks an important question to enable us to be mindful about caring – her question is, “What or whom do you care for”.  For whom do you express care and concern – a son or daughter, partner, friend or people suffering adversity.  How wide is your circle of care and how deeply do you care?

These are challenging questions because they raise the issue of how often we express care and concern for others – how generous and expansive is our caring?  How many people do we let into our lives through concern, considerateness and thoughtfulness?

Caring through mindfulness

Caring can be the focus of our meditation once we have become grounded through placing our feet on the ground, adopting a restful position with our body (and especially our hands) and taking a few deep breaths.

Our concern and care of our body can then be expressed through a progressive body scan and relaxation of points of tension.  Focus on our breathing will assist us to pay attention to the theme of caring as mindful breathing steadies our mind and enables us to concentrate.

We can focus on an individual and express care for that person and tap into what it feels like to express this care – is the feeling one of warmth, love or genuine concern for their welfare?  How is this care manifested in our body?

We can also express appreciation for the fact that we do care for others and take the time to express that care in words and actions.  We can acknowledge that it is a gift to be able to be sensitive to others and their needs – to move beyond self-absorption to concern for others.

As we grow in mindfulness through caring meditation our circle of care and concern widens and deepens, and we are able to more readily extend care to ourselves.

 

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

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Overcoming Aversion as a Barrier to Meditation

One of the weekly MARC meditation podcasts addresses the issue of overcoming aversion as a barrier to meditation.  Aversion is the last of five obstacles to meditation covered by Diana Winston in a series of meditations aimed to remove the barriers that stop us meditating or divert our attention during meditation.  In a previous post, for example, we discussed ‘desire‘ as one of these obstacles.

Diana points out that aversion may arise through boredom with the practice of meditation, resentment of the time that needs to be set aside to maintain daily meditation practice, or residual negative feelings from something in our lives.  These feelings may be anger over a job loss, frustration about not making progress with a project or residual feelings from conflict with someone at work or at home.   These negative feelings can result in our feeling reluctant to even start our meditation.

Diana suggests that the feeling itself – whether boredom, anger, resentment or frustration – is the starting point.  Just noticing what we are feeling, acknowledging it and understanding how it has arisen, can be the focus of our meditation.  We do not need to focus elsewhere or be tied to a routine or prescribed topic.  It’s enough to deal with ‘what is’ – what we are thinking and feeling in the moment.

What is important though is to treat ourselves with loving kindness – not beating up on ourselves for a lack of interest at the time or the presence of negative residual feelings.  A way to negate this negative self-evaluation is to engage in a further meditation focused on loving kindness towards our self.

Loving kindness meditation in the event of aversion to meditation practice

Loving kindness meditation can focus on our self and/or others – these can also be combined.  When using the loving kindness approach, it is recommended to start with loving kindness towards others and to use the resultant experience of ‘warmth’ to turn the focus onto yourself.

Having first become grounded, the meditation begins with a focus on someone you admire or love.   After imagining the person of your choice, the meditation begins with wishing them wellness, e.g. “May you experience strength, health and happiness.”

This then flows onto loving kindness meditation towards yourself.  Here, you extend to yourself similar wellness wishes and avoid any judgmental thoughts that could diminish your self-esteem.  The reality is that even experienced meditators encounter obstacles to their meditation practice, including aversion.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can learn to handle whatever comes our way, including obstacles such as aversion.  Loving kindness meditation extended to others and to our self, can free us from negative self-evaluation in the event of experiencing a meditation obstacle.

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

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Meditation and Mental Health

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

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

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

Meditation and regulating emotions to achieve mental health

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

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

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

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

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

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Loving Kindness Meditation Towards Others

In the previous post, I focused on loving kindness meditation for ourselves.  In this post, I will discuss extending loving kindness to others.  Often, though, these two approaches to loving kindness meditation are combined so that you can extend loving kindness to others and yourself in the one meditation.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) at the University of California, Los Angeles, provides an extended podcast for a loving kindness meditation that incorporates both approaches.  This is one of a series of weekly meditation podcasts provided by MARC.

Guidelines for a loving kindness meditation focused on others

Diana suggests that in the first place you need to approach the meditation with a sense of curiosity, openness to whatever arises and a willingness to be with “what is” – whatever that may be, positive or negative emotions.  She points out that whenever you try to cultivate a new meditation practice invariably obstacles will arise.  So, we need to be open and present to these potential blockages because they will increase our self-awareness and dealing with them will improve our self-management.

Preparation for this form of meditation requires that you adopt a comfortable position or yoga pose. As Jack Kornfield reminds us, it is very difficult to extend loving kindness to others when you have a sore back because of a lack of back support.

Being grounded at the outset is important as with other forms of meditation.  If you are sitting on a chair, this involves initially ensuring your feet are flat on the ground, you are sitting upright, your hands are in a comfortable position and you either close your eyes or look down to avoid distractions and centre your focus.  A couple of deep breaths, followed by mindful breathing, can help to clear your mind and relax your body.

Loving Kindness Meditation Process

Typically, you will focus on someone who you love or appreciate – your partner, family member, close friend or supportive colleague.  Ideally, it should be someone for whom you can readily develop kind thoughts and words of appreciation.

It is important to do two things – verbalise your kind thoughts and notice your bodily sensations.  Verbalising involves stating what you wish for the other person, e.g. strength, resilience, happiness, joy, peace or calmness.  It will help to envisage what you appreciate in the other person or what you love most about them, e.g. their generosity, sense of equity, courage, kindness to disadvantaged people, open heartedness, emotional support, balance or wisdom.

As you express kind thoughts in your meditation, you could notice your accompanying bodily sensations.  These will become more pronounced as you progress with your loving kindness meditation because you will start to experience feelings of wellness, peace and happiness.  These feelings can manifest in the slowing of your breath, a sense of calm or a slight vibration in your hands or feet as positive energy flows through you.

You can move onto other people who form part of your “field of love“.  As you extend loving kindness to different cohorts, others will come to mind and you can incorporate them in your focus.

The more difficult thing to do is to extend loving kindness to people you find difficult for one reason or another.  You soon learn what emotional blockages are getting in the road of your expressing positive feelings towards them.  Again, it is important to stay with these feelings and work through them.

What usually helps is incorporating loving kindness towards yourself.  This can be done by envisaging what someone in your “field of love” would extend to you.  It can also be strengthened by picturing a recent hug received from them – so that the positive emotions of feeling valued, appreciated and loved can be revisited.  Images, memories and sensations can heighten your positive feelings.

As you grow in mindfulness through loving kindness meditation, it will become easier and more natural to extend positive thoughts towards others.  Jack Kornfield and Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us that we become what we pay attention to.

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

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Loving Kindness Meditation Towards Our Self

In previous posts, I explored mindful self-compassion,  the challenges in extending compassion to yourself and the power of self-compassion to transform yourself.   I also discussed compassion meditation where we are extending compassion to others.

In these discussion about compassion, we focused on pain and suffering experienced by ourselves and/or others.  In contrast, in the loving kindness meditation, we are exploring what is good and lovable in ourselves and others.

Loving kindness meditation can focus on ourselves or others.  In this post, I will focus on extending loving kindness to ourselves; in a subsequent post, I will explore how to undertake loving kindness meditation towards others.

The basic approach to loving kindness meditation

Diana Winston describes loving kindness meditation as the explicit cultivation of “open heartedness”.  She explains that this is a natural human process and is not false or artificial.   Diana contrasts loving kindness meditation with basic mindfulness meditation in that in the latter, it is essential to stay in the moment, while in loving kindness meditation it is okay and important to be creative in exploring images and loving memories about ourselves or another.

Jack Kornfield, in the online Power of Awareness Course, suggests that there are three elements that traditionally form the framework for a loving kindness meditation:

  1. Intention to express loving kindness towards ourselves or someone else
  2. Envisaging love for oneself or for another
  3. Cultivating the art of loving kindness – developing our open heartedness.

The benefits of loving kindness are numerous and can impact every facet of our lives – our interpersonal relationships, our sense of presence and the way we view every living thing.  Loving kindness meditation towards our self can be difficult because our culture cultivates the opposite – a sense of unworthiness or negative self-evaluation.  Regular meditation practice can overcome these cultural barriers.

If we experience thoughts or feelings other than loving kindness towards ourselves, we can accept them and make them the focus of our meditation too.  When we name our unkind feelings, we can learn to tame them so that they do not prevent us from extending loving kindness towards our self.  Diana Winston suggests that, in this way, these obstacles can become a cleansing process to free ourselves for self-love.

The process of loving kindness meditation towards our self

Jack Kornfield suggests that after becoming grounded and focused on our breath, we can think of two people separately for whom we have an uncomplicated love and appreciation.   Once we have each person in focus, we can extend kind thoughts to each of them in turn  – wishing them health and wellbeing, hoping that they will be safe and strong, wanting them to be happy.

We can then envisage these people individually extending similar loving kindness towards our self.   We can imagine them saying similar words or expressing kind thoughts towards us – wishing for our happiness, wellness, safety and strength.   We can then rest in the warmth of love and appreciation – something that is often below our level of conscious awareness, but which we act on in our daily lives.

As we grow in mindfulness through loving kindness meditation towards ourselves, we make explicit what we know implicitly, silence the negative self-evaluations that otherwise persist in our thoughts and open ourselves to extending loving kindness to others.

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

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Savoring Your Child’s Development

It comes naturally to savor the early development of our children, particularly the milestone moments.  We can very easily experience gratitude, appreciation and delight with the first words spoken, the first time they crawled, or their first steps taken.

The intervening turbulent teens can dampen our enthusiasm and sense of gratitude and blind us to the opportunities to savor the moment in the child’s development.  When they insist on walking on the other side of the road when “with” you, get into trouble at school or meet your questions with a shrug or grunt, it is more difficult to find the moment to savor.

It gets even more difficult when the influence of their peers starts to outweigh your influence as a parent – as you start to lose a sense of control as they insist on their independence.  But there will be moments to savor if our vision is not clouded by negative thoughts and emotions.

One of these rare moments may be the expression of love and appreciation that may come in the form of a thoughtful birthday or Christmas present or some words written on a card that disclose a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude that provides a very pleasant surprise.  Certainly, a moment to savor.

Then there are those occasions when your normally mute teenager suffers from verbal diarrhoea when they are sitting next to you in the car as you take them to their favourite sporting or cultural event.  The act of sitting side-by-side seems to generate a flood of information that you have waited so long to hear.  A time to savor that sense of closeness and connection.

There will be lots of other moments in the life of your child that create delight and satisfaction, e.g. sporting, cultural or academic achievements; kindness and thoughtfulness shown to other children or adults – each represents a moment to savor.

However, as they grow older and move further away from us (either physically and/or psychologically) and develop new relationships and friends, it is very easy to overlook those precious moments that we could savor as an act of mindfulness.

There is the opportunity to appreciate that they have survived their teens and grown into young adults making their way in the world.  There are those occasions when you glimpse how they have matured, the respect that other adults show towards them, their wisdom in decision making, the values that you admire, their concern for the environment or disadvantaged groups, their genuine consideration for others, their willingness and readiness to help out, the time they started to cook for themselves (and occasionally for you) or their manifestations of empathy and compassion.  There are the successes that they achieve despite early setbacks and extreme difficulties.  Each of these moments in a child’s development can be savored.

As we grow in mindfulness, we more easily see the opportunities to savor our child’s development.  We are more able to make the most of those opportunities to develop a gratitude meditation.  Our mindful experience of appreciation and gratitude can lead to a loving-kindness meditation for those who feel isolated and sad through the loss of a child.  So, as we begin to develop the habit to savour the moment in our child’s development, we become more aware and connected to others.

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

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Savoring Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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