Meditation for Letting Go

Sometimes we can become consumed by anger and be captured by the thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations that accompany anger.  Meditation provides a way to let go of anger and its associated ill-effects.

The catalyst for your anger may be that someone did or said something that you considered unfair.  It may be that what was said or done frustrated your ability to meet your goal of helping other people to achieve something important.  You could feel aggrieved that the thought, effort and cost that you incurred for someone were unappreciated and/or devalued.  It could be that comments made by someone else are patently untrue or distort the real picture of your involvement.

The harmful effects of sustained anger

The problem with anger is that it is such a strong emotion, that we tend to hang onto it – we do not let it go.  We might ruminate endlessly on what happened, providing justifications for ourselves – our words and actions.  We could deflect the implied criticism by denigrating the other person’s intellectual capability or perceptual capacity.  We could make assumptions about their motivation and even indulge in conspiracy theory.

An associated problem with indulging in angry thoughts and sensations is that it harms both us and our relationships.  We are harmed because the negative emotions consume mental and emotional energy, distract us from the present moment (and all that is good about the present) and destroy our equanimity.

Indulged anger can lead to retaliation that harms the relationship with the other person.  It can also contaminate our relationships with other people who are important to us such as our partner, a friend or our children.  As a result of our sustained anger, we may appear aloof, critical, grumpy or unsympathetic to these important people in our life.

A meditation for letting go

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast on letting go.  She emphasises the fact that when we indulge a strong emotion like anger, the bodily manifestation of this can be experienced as tightness, tension or soreness – a physical expression of holding on.  We can even experience shallowness of breath as we hold the negative emotions in our bodies.

The first level of release through meditation is to focus on your breath – the in-breath and out-breath.  This mindful breathing can be viewed as letting go with each out-breath, releasing the pent-up thoughts and emotions that make you uptight.

As you progress your meditation and begin to restore some semblance of relaxation, you can then address the “holding on” in your body.  Through a progressive body scan, you can identify the parts of your body that are giving expression to your anger – you can physically soften the muscles (facial, back, shoulder, neck or leg muscles) that have become hardened through holding onto your anger.

Once you have become experienced in meditation, you can then begin to reflect on your response to the negative trigger that set you off.  This opens the way to look at how you responded and whether there was an alternative way of responding other than defensiveness or attack (flight or fight).  You might discover (as I did recently) that active listening would have achieved a better outcome, an improved level of mutual understanding and reduced stress generated by angry thoughts and emotions.

Taking this further, you could explore a powerful mindfulness meditation that can help you overcome ongoing resentment by enabling you to put yourself in the position of the other person to appreciate how they experienced your interaction – to understand their perspective, their feelings and their needs in terms of maintaining their identity (their sense of self-worth, competence or reliability).  The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) recommends this meditation practice for handling residual emotions and resentment resulting from a conflictual interaction.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection we can practise letting go of anger and other negative emotions by focusing on our breath, bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts and behaviour in an interaction.  Through the resultant self-awareness, we can improve our response ability.  By exploring the interaction experience from the position of the other person, we can also increase our motivation and our options to behave differently for our own good and that of the person with whom we have interacted.

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Improved Decision Making through Mindfulness Meditation

There are times when we have great difficulty making a decision.  We may be confused by the many options, daunted by the task and overly concerned about the outcomes.  Sometimes, if we are anxious, even relatively small decisions can leave us paralysed.

Decision making can be painful particularly if you can see multiple options and your anxiety grows with the inability to choose between them.  Sometimes this anxiety is driven by a perfectionist streak – we may want to make sure we make the right or perfect decision.  Unfortunately, this is rarely obtainable because we are often making decisions in the context of inadequate information.  The information we do have may be clouded by our emotions or attachment to a particular option or outcome.

Indecisiveness too can be compounded for different personality types.  For example, the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator suggests that people who have a Perceiving (“P”) type personality prefer to remain open and gather more information before making a decision, while the Judging (“J”) type personality likes to get things decided.  These personality traits can  lead either to an inability to make decisions or the habit of making hasty decisions to relieve the tension of decision making.

Improving decision making through mindfulness meditation

Diana Winston from MARC at UCLA provides a meditation podcast to enable improved decision making.  She suggests that we can use mindfulness to focus on our thoughts and emotions during the decision-making process.  In her view we can learn to be present to whatever decision making turns up for us.   We can use the principles of mindfulness to bring awareness to the discomfort of trying to make a decision.

Sometimes this will involve showing self-compassion towards ourselves – accepting that we cannot make the perfect decision, even with full information.  It requires acceptance of the fact that our decision making will be inadequate at times, but that this will provide the opportunity to learn and grow.   Mindfulness meditation can enable us to make the best decision possible at the time, uncontaminated by emotions that can cloud our judgement.

If we bring openness and curiosity to what we are experiencing during decision making, we can name our feelings and learn to control them.  We can better understand the patterns embedded in our decision-making processes.  For instance, we may find that once we have to make a decision, we automatically drop into negative thinking which generates anxiety about the possible outcomes.  Through mindfulness meditation we can learn to control these negative thoughts and focus on addressing the issue and the information available without our negative thinking confounding the issue.

If our thoughts keep wandering or negative thoughts intrude during the process of mindfulness meditation, focusing on sounds can help anchor us as listening is a natural process that we can do with minimal effort.  Listening to sounds can enable us to return to mindful decision making.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn more about the pattern of thoughts and emotions behind our decision making, bring them into the spotlight, and develop better self-management techniques so that our decision making is not delayed unduly or contaminated by negative thoughts and emotions.  We can learn to be more compassionate towards ourselves.  Mindful breathing can help us too to manage the tension of decision making.

 

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Overcome Reactivity through Mindfulness

Throughout the day we are often on automatic pilot, reacting to events and to others in an unconscious way.  It may be that we react to something someone said or did – like hearing a perceived criticism or being cut off in traffic.  Our automatic response is to be angry or annoyed and to lash out at the other person either in word or action (or by sending that angry email response).

Tara Brach, in her meditation podcast, defines this reactivity as “reacting out of our habitual patterns without consciousness”.  All day and every day we will find ourselves in a reactive pattern, being totally unaware of where we are operating from.   Viktor Frankl reminds us that there is a space between stimulus and response and that we have the choice of whether we use the space to manage our response.  He suggests that in the space lies freedom and choice – the opportunity to break free from reactive responses and to exercise conscious choice in how we respond.

People are becoming increasingly reactive because we are fast losing the capacity to be in the present moment – to respond to life with full awareness.  The growth in the incidence and violence of “road rage” is evidence that people are reacting mindlessly when they experience some delay in traffic or are frustrated by the actions of another driver.  We can act out of impatience rather than being patient and understanding that we are traffic too.

If we practice reflection on our daily activities, we can begin to notice how reactive we often are.  It is a useful exercise to think about a single event where we were reactive and to capture the moment – thinking about what happened, how we felt both bodily and emotionally and how we responded.  We can then focus on what we could have done differently to avoid being reactive.

When we are in the midst of a situation that is stimulating a negative response in us, we can use the S.T.O.P. practice to create some space for ourselves and better manage our response.  Meditation practice can help us to more frequently access this process to pause and stop ourselves from being overly reactive.

Tara suggests that one of the easiest practices during meditation to become grounded in the present is to listen to the sounds that surround us – in a way that is neither interpreting or evaluating the sound.  For example, you might be fortunate enough to tune into the sound of rain as it falls, noticing the ever-changing pattern and different impacts as it hits the ground or buildings.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice and reflection, we can become more self-aware, more aware of our reactive responses and better able to consciously manage our response to life and the varying stimuli we encounter throughout the day and night.

 

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

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Bringing Mindfulness to Your Daily Life

Mindfulness is developed through meditation which can take many forms.  When you become adept at meditation, you can access mindfulness at any time of the day in the midst of undertaking any form of daily activity – walking, eating, talking, or driving.

You can develop the art of bringing mindful awareness to anything you do so that you can learn to be more fully in the present moment.   Mindfulness stops you from becoming lost either in the past or the future.

If you can access mindful awareness during your daily life, it can be a place of ease, wellbeing and peace – undisturbed by the waves of life’s vicissitudes.  Mindfulness is a lost art but with meditation practice it becomes more accessible, even easy.  However, the difficulty lies in remembering to access mindful awareness when you are caught up with your daily activity.

Tara Brach, in a meditation podcast, introduces a process called S.T.O.P. to increase your capacity to remember to engage mindfully in whatever you are doing.  This process can be undertaken in a short or very brief form or in a longer, more expanded way.

The S.T.O.P. practice

This practice can be undertaken at any time, particularly when you find yourself agitated or anxious.  The basic practice involves:

  • Stop – pause what you are doing or about to do
  • Take a breath – breathe in deeply and let out the tension with your out-breath
  • Observe – notice what is going on for you emotionally and physically (e.g. anger, tightness in the chest)
  • Proceed – respond with greater awareness and self-management.

This is a practice that can be undertaken at any time during the day in the midst of any activity.  You can stop yourself from your automatic fight or flight response and be more conscious of what is going on for you while also controlling your response.  With the S.T.O.P. practice you can gain more appropriate responsiveness to your daily life and progressively build your response ability.

Tara demonstrates both the short version and long form in her meditation podcast where she introduces the S.T.O.P. practice.  She states that most people seem to find the short version extremely helpful – with some people even using the practice just before a potentially stressful meeting.   Tara suggests that the practice enables you to “intercept reactivity” and to respond with mindful awareness.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and practices such as S.T.O.P., we can more readily access self-awareness and self-management.  We can learn to observe what is going on for us so that we do not react compulsively, but with a mindful awareness that enables us to more readily experience equanimity.

 

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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)

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How Does Mindfulness Impact Our Behaviour?

Research on mindfulness suggests that through meditation practice we become more connected with ourselves and more in control of our thoughts, emotions and resulting behaviour.  In particular, mindfulness improves the frequency and quality of our paying attention in the present.

Research by scientists on the outcomes of mindfulness point to the development of compassion, reduced sense of isolation, increased resilience and ability to handle stress – all of which impact our behaviour.

Exploring how mindfulness impacts our behaviour

We have to ask ourselves how mindfulness practice changes our own behaviour.  Do we stop ourselves from writing that cutting email when we become angry at an email we received?  Do we immediately retaliate with counter accusations when criticised by someone else?  To what extent has our awareness and understanding of another’s pain increased our empathy and become reflected in compassionate behaviour?

One of the challenges we face in translating mindfulness practice into changed behaviour is that our habituated behaviour is very difficult to change.  Even as we develop mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we will still have to deal with negative thoughts and emotions that arise spontaneously despite our best intentions.  However, our capacity to deal with these challenges should develop so that our response ability increases and we can overcome our habit of responding inappropriately to words or actions that trigger us.

If we do feel agitated, we can have the presence of mind to stop and take a breath, observe what is happening inside ourselves and use the gap between the stimulus (the trigger) and our response to manage our behaviour better.

We can begin to see that we are moving towards more kindness in our interactions with others – it could be that we notice people more, stop and talk to people who seem lonely or depressed, demonstrate more thoughtfulness towards others we encounter in daily life.

A meditation to explore the impact of mindfulness on our behaviour

We can explore for ourselves what impact our meditation practice is having on our behaviour by way of checking our progress towards achieving the equanimity of mindfulness.  We can review how often we have used mindfulness as a form of self-intervention to prevent us from saying or doing something that we considered inappropriate.

Tara Brach asks some penetrating questions about the ways in which mindfulness has positively impacted our behaviour.  In the related meditation podcast, Tara encourages us to let go of the past and attend fully to the present moment.  This meditation is particularly useful if you have reviewed your behaviour and found that you did not act mindfully.  It is a calming meditation that is strongly situated in the present moment and in what you are experiencing within and aware of in your immediate surroundings.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we can begin to see clearly observable changes in our behaviour particularly in moments of stress or when our negative emotions are triggered.  We begin to notice our capacity to control our thoughts and emotions and increase our response ability – to respond in more appropriate ways that build relationships rather than damage them.

 

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

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Being Mindful of the Past and the Future

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and doing so in a way that is open to, and accepting of, whatever is the reality of our lives.  It means not resisting our lives but approaching our lives with curiosity and a willingness to be with the present moment.

We often hear in the context of mindfulness that it is important not to be lost in the past (which leads to depression) or in the future (which leads to anxiety).  However, the past and the future have a positive role to play in our lives.

Mindful of the past

The opposite to being mindful of the past is to be always living in the past – obsessing about what might have been, what we could have done.  It is replaying in our head the negative things we have done or experienced – going over and over them so that the past controls us.  We can become obsessed about the past and stuck on what happened, unable to let go.  This inevitably leads to disappointment, frustration, sadness, resentment and depression.

Being mindful of the past can involve a positive approach to life.  If we reflect on our actions and the outcomes, intended and unintended, we can learn from this process, if it is done in a non-judgmental way.   Through reflection, we can really grow in self-awareness and self-management, because we can recognise the negative triggers, our responses and alternative ways of acting and being-in-the-world.

When we engage in gratitude meditation we can revisit in a positive way what has happened for us in the past.  We can appreciate the skills we have developed, the opportunities to acquire qualifications, the support of our parents/siblings/friends, the synchronicity that flowed from our focus, and the opportunities that opened up for us because of our life circumstances.

Mindful of the future

Approaching the future mindlessly can involve obsessing about the negative things that can potentially happen in our lives.  The word “potentially” is used consciously here- much of what we imagine will never happen.  We can easily get into a spiral of negative thoughts that leads to catastrophising- envisaging the worst possible outcome.  Unfortunately, our minds have a negative bias but we can train our minds to be positive in outlook and open to opportunities that may come our way.  A morbid fixation on the future can only lead to fear, worry and anxiety and destroy our potential for happiness in the present.

We need to attend to the future and this can be healthy and positive.  We have to plan ahead for many things such as getting to work, what to wear, what to focus on for the day, what we will have for dinner, what social events we will engage in on the weekend and our upcoming holiday.   Such planning and thoughts about the future are natural.   However, if we become overly concerned about what might happen or how our life will turn out in the future, we can enter a negative anxiety spiral.

Being mindful of the future requires a healthy approach to planning (not planning obsessively) and a willingness to accept what arises in our lives despite our very best plans.  It also means not being controlled by the expectations of others or our own expectations of how things might work out.

A meditation on the past and the future

Tara Brach provides a meditation podcast on exploring the past and the future. In the meditation she encourages you to notice any tension in your body arising from thoughts about the past or the future.  She suggests that you do not entertain these thoughts but let them pass by like the train as you wait at the station.  Her advice is to continuously come back to the focus of your meditation, such as your breathing or sounds that surround you, whenever your mind wanders into the past or the present.

Tara suggests too that if you are focusing on sounds, you could try to tune into the furthest sound you can hear and to rest in the sense of expansiveness that results.  The primary goal, however, is to rest fully in the present.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we can become mindful of the past and the future and avoid being captured by either.  We can extract from the past and the future positive thoughts and avoid dwelling on the negative which can lead to sadness and unhappiness.  We can learn to happily appreciate the present moment – the summation of our past and the positive potentiality of our future.

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

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Insights from Mindfulness

Matthew Brensilver teaches about the relationship between mindfulness and mental health based on his many years of research into treatments for addiction and resultant behaviours.  In one MARC meditation podcast he offers two key insights that derive from mindfulness.

In the podcast, he suggests that meditation practice itself is a form of training that opens us up to the potentiality of mindfulness.  It enables us to pay attention to our everyday experiences, getting in touch with our sensations and thoughts.  Matthew describes mindfulness as accepting our human condition in all its facets with openness and equanimity.  He maintains that this mindful stance generates two key insights.

Insight 1 – the difficulty of being human

If we learn through meditation to accept whatever comes our way, taking things as they are, we come to realise how difficult it is to be truly human.  This openness to experience from one moment to the next means accepting what is with equanimity – even if this involves challenges to our sense of self, career disappointment, interpersonal conflict or ill health.

It takes real courage to face the reality of our lives with full awareness, not hiding in denial or diverted by resentment.  Life often turns out to be very different to what we imagined or hoped for. Matthew states that mindfulness demands that we “make peace with the human condition” and live our lives with genuine acceptance moment to moment.  This is hard to do, even if we are able in the midst of things to express gratitude for what we do have or for the positive experiences we have had in our lives.

Insight 2 – we underestimate the capacity of our hearts and minds

Matthew suggests that our innate capacity is often obscured by aversion to difficulties, striving for “success” or the negative emotions generated by the everyday challenges of work and life.  Fear, for instance, can stop us from being creative and pursuing opportunities for personal growth and development.

Matthew argues that “sustained intention and attention” that develops with mindfulness enables us to tap into our real potential, including the ability to offer unconditional love and appreciation.  If we are able to maintain “continuity of awareness” we are able to access our full potentiality.

For Matthew, mindfulness involves not only being aware of our thoughts and emotions from moment to moment but also the ability to “pour awareness into our body” so that we are in touch with our bodily sensations as well.  He suggests that meditation helps to build this awareness because it offers the opportunity to “experience the dignity of upright posture” while, at the same time, feeling “the pull of gravity” on the rest of our body.

As we grow in mindfulness, we come to realise the difficulty of facing our human condition with equanimity, while at the same time experiencing the depth and breadth of our human potentiality.  Meditation practice helps us to accept what is and to more readily realise our full potential.

 

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

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Driving with Mindfulness

Often when you are driving you can become agitated, annoyed or frustrated by the traffic holdups caused by others.  Sharon Salzberg provides a timely reminder that “you are traffic too“.   We focus so much on our own needs in the heavy traffic situation that we lose sight of the needs of others.  Sharon puts this down to the “centrality of ourselves” – where the world revolves around our self-centredness, rather than other-centredness.

Diana Watson too in one of her MARC weekly meditation podcasts, provides us with a meditation that enables us to bring mindfulness on the road.  She describes one of her own experiences when she was running late to conduct a meditation and found her irritation and agitation rising.

Diana found that she was swamped with thoughts and emotions.  The thoughts reflected the negative bias of the brain – “I’m not going to make it on time”, “What will happen if I am late?”, “People may never come again if they are new to the meditation practice!   So, our minds can catastrophize any situation and unsettle us as we are driving.

Another source of emotional disturbance occurs if we then engage in self-recrimination or negative self-evaluation – “If only I had planned for traffic delays!”, “Why was I rushing out the door when I know that I need to have a strong presence of mind to conduct this mindfulness session?’

Bringing mindfulness to driving – noticing thoughts and emotions

What Diana found that she ended up doing was to start noticing, not entertaining, thoughts and emotions as they arose, e.g. “I am feeling anxious (or irritated)”, “I keep thinking that I will be late, and this causes me to become agitated”.   If we start naming our emotions, we can begin to control them.

She also suggests that we can focus on what is going on in our body as these emotions and precipitating thoughts arise.  We can notice the tightness in our chest, the pain in our neck or the onset of a worry headache.  If we can notice the thoughts and name the emotions, we can wind back our habituated response and calm ourselves.

Without this calming mindfulness on the road, we can end up taking more risks while driving, act out our anger and frustration through “road rage” or find ourselves making poor decisions about what choices to make to get to our destination.  Our growing agitation and impatience can frustrate our attempts to arrive on time.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice that grounds us in the present moment, we can more readily deal with situations such as driving in heavy traffic when our needs for timeliness are being frustrated.  We can also bring to the situation self-awareness and self-regulation so that we are not captive to  our negative thoughts and emotions – we can begin to drive mindfully.

 

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

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Three Dimensions of Awareness

In one of her many meditation podcasts, Diana Winston discusses three different dimensions of awareness and leads a meditation that explores each dimension.

Diana suggests that no one dimension is better than the others – each is appropriate for a particular time.  It is also possible and desirable to be able to move from one dimension of awareness to another – this may help when you are encountering the obstacle of restlessness or boredom in your meditation.  Sometimes, too, when you are tired you might find that an open, less exacting form of awareness is useful to help you to pay attention in the present moment with openness and curiosity.

  1. Narrow awareness – Diana likens this form of awareness to taking a photo with a telephoto lens where minute details are captured.  The image for this post by MabelAmber illustrates this focus – providing a close-up view of drops of water on the leaves of a plant.  Focusing on our breathing is an example of narrow awareness – and it can be hard work as we keep trying to return to our focus when our mind wanders, and thoughts interrupt the flow of our attention.
  2. Broad awareness – is like taking a panoramic picture of a landscape or seascape with a camera.  Here you are not focusing on detail but breadth and impact.  Open awareness is a good example of this as you are opening your awareness to multiple senses – sight, sounds, smells, taste and touch. Compared to narrow awareness, this can be a more restful meditation, like coasting on your bike after expending much effort peddling.
  3. Choiceless Awareness – as we are meditating, we can notice things happening in our awareness, e.g. change in our breathing, tension release in our body or strong emotions.  The nature of our awareness can shift over a single period of meditation.  We could begin with a narrow focus, open up to a broader focus by listening to the sounds that are coming to us from different directions and then attend to the emotions that those sounds elicit in us.  This ability to consciously shift the focus of our awareness can enhance our capacity to be present to whatever is occurring in our world.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice that employs the different dimensions of awareness we can build the skill to be really present in the moment of practice as well as in future situations involving interactions with others or undertaking a challenging and stressful task.  The capacity to be in the moment with openness and curiosity stays with us as we engage in our daily activities at work or at home.

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

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