Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity

Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, explained that early brain researchers discovered what became known as “neuroplasticity”:

They showed that the brain changed its very structure with each activity it performed, perfecting its circuits so it was better suited to the task at hand.  If certain “parts” failed, then other parts sometimes take over. (p.xv)

For example, people who meditate or teach meditation have been shown to have a thicker insula – a part of the brain that is activated by paying close attention to something (p.290).

Dr. Bruno Cayoun observed that neuroscience has demonstrated that brain plasticity explains how mindfulness training increases our perceptual ability leading to a greater sense of self control and self-awareness.  Perceptual ability, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “the ability to be able to deal with and give meaning to sensory stimuli”.

Research conducted jointly by the Fudan University in China and the University of South Florida showed that Tai Chi- often described as “meditation-in-motion” – actually increased the size of the brain of seniors who practised Tai Chi for 40 weeks and did so at least three times per week.  Tai Chi has many other benefits and these are discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Norman Doidge discusses the work of Michael Merzenich, Emeritus Professor in neurophysiology, who started a company called Posit Science to extend neuroplasticity of the brains of people as they age, as well as extend their lifespan (p.85).  Professor Merzenich maintains that, if we are in the older age group, we may not have been developing our brain plasticity since middle age because we are often working off already mastered knowledge and skills.

So, learning new skills such as mindfulness meditation and Tai Chi, with the attention and concentration required, will help to alleviate this problem of mental decline.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and approaches such as Tai Chi, we increase the size of our brain, enhance brain plasticity and enjoy the consequential benefits such as self-awareness and self-control.

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

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Leading with Body Awareness

The early trait theories of leadership argued that to be an effective leader you needed to be male, charismatic and tall.  Clearly, this delineation can lead to discriminatory behaviour towards those who are female and short.

The earlier trait theories of leadership have been disproved and there is now a consensus that there is no universal list of traits that researchers can agree on as predictors of leadership ability.

Amanda Sinclair, author of Leading Mindfully,  points out that despite these emergent findings, myths still pervade about desirable traits that reinforce leadership viewed according to the male stereotype.  She suggests that women have been harshly judged against these unreal measures and have had to conform to standards of dress and behaviour that are more rigorous than those imposed on men.

Then again, as a female colleague of mine pointed out, some women dress provocatively in a work situation to draw attention to themselves.  As my colleague commented, this draws attention to their sexuality but detracts from perceptions of their competence.   So women are often confronted with a dilemma – conform to unfair standards or dress inappropriately.

Rather than accepting this dilemma, women and men can learn ways to present themselves bodily so that potential followers are not left experiencing discomfort or uncertainty about how to communicate with, or relate to, their leaders.

Increasingly, followers have been shown to prefer characteristics that are described as the soft skills – that is skills associated with emotional intelligence such as empathy, compassion, listening skills, communicating to inspire followers, congruence and creativity.

Through mindfulness, leaders can develop a presence (irrespective of physical height) that conveys a sense of balance and calm.  They can face problems with greater clarity and creativity.  Their very presence can communicate support and generate confidence in others who are faced with difficult situations.

Leaders need to be physically present to their staff so that their positive bodily influence can be experienced first-hand.  They also need to care for themselves bodily by looking after themselves so that they can withstand the stresses of their role but, at the same time, have real concern for the physical welfare of staff.

By building resilience through mindfulness practice, you can communicate non-verbally that they you are in control of yourself and the situation.  Even when you are not conscious of the impact of your demeanour, others take note and are influenced by how you present yourself – your bearing can communicate respect for others, personal confidence and self-awareness.

Somatic meditation is one way for a leader to get in touch with their bodies and their reality.  It enables them to be more conscious of how stress is stored in the body and emitted through physical actions and non-verbal activity.

Amanda also alludes to the research work of Norman Doidge and highlights the mind-body connection and the role of exercise such as yoga and walking in enhancing this connection and improving brain functioning.   In the light of this research and the foregoing discussion, Amanda exhorts leaders to be aware of the role of their bodies in the process of leadership:

Our bodies and physicality in leadership are gateways to important forms of intelligence, to wisdom and mindfulness.  They provide us with ways of noticing and revaluing the present, experiencing the full richness of the people and situations around us.  Physicality is not something to be ignored, suppressed or overcome in leadership, but a means of helping us live and lead more fully.  (p. 129)

As we grow in mindfulness, we become increasing aware of how we experience the world through our bodies and how others experience us as leaders through their perceptions of our bodily presence.

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

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Mindfulness for Loneliness

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, suggests that there are 7 types of loneliness, each potentially serving as a constraint to happiness.   She stresses the importance of strong relationships to ameliorate the damaging mental and physical effects of loneliness, which is a growing problem in today’s society.  While we have never been so connected electronically, we have never been so disconnected on a deep, personal level.

Neuroscience shows that we are very much communal beings – needing social networks and social support.  However, there are real personal barriers to connecting at a deep level that prevent lonely people from engaging in social connection.

Recent research has highlighted the benefit of developing mindfulness to reduce or remove these barriers.  Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that mindful meditation reduced feelings of loneliness and increased immunity.

Mindfulness meditation is helpful for loneliness because it can make you aware of the feelings of isolation that you are developing, help you identify the triggers for these emotions, increase the space between stimulus and the feelings of loneliness (response) and enable you to manage these feelings.  Mindfulness, then, can help to eliminate unhelpful thoughts and actions that have become habituated over time and progressively break the cycle of loneliness.

Sophie Benbow, has found from her own experience that mindfulness reduces feelings of loneliness.  She suggests a number of mindfulness practices for coping with loneliness – these include dismissing negative thoughts, mindful breathing, body scan and  mindful walking.  She provides some guidelines for each of these suggestions.

Dr. Claudia Aguirre, neuroscientist and mind-body expert, maintains that lack of social skills is not the major cause of loneliness.  Reporting on new neuroscience research, she contends that our instinctive fight-flight response is the major cause of feelings of isolation and loneliness:

University of Chicago researchers investigating the neuroscience of loneliness found that a lonely brain is supremely in-tune with social cues, in particular the ones signaling a social threat. From an evolutionary perspective, feeling socially isolated triggers a cascade of neural mechanisms that puts us in a nervous and vigilant mode. People who feel lonely are subconsciously scanning their environment for hostility, which may overshadow the positive situations they encounter. 

She argues that this constant over-stimulation through vigilance is a contributing factor to mental and physical decline in people who experience chronic loneliness.  The recommendation of these researchers for people who experience chronic loneliness is “to get out of their heads”.  This recommendation is consistent with the advice of mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who argues that many of our emotional problems arise because we live in our minds, not in our bodies and the present moment.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn to recognise the triggers of feelings of isolation and loneliness, deal with negative thoughts and use our social skills to make meaningful connections with others.

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

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Savor The Space Of Being Alone

People who experience loneliness as a constant state are prone to all kinds of issues such as disinterest, disengagement and depression as well as physical illness.  The feeling of loneliness is a serious issue today, not only for older people but also the young, including school children.

People can feel lonely even in a crowd or large group if they feel they do not belong, especially if no one reaches out to them with compassion to draw them into the wider circle.  The UK Government is so concerned about the impact of loneliness on people’s health and welfare that they have appointed a Minister of Loneliness.

Gretchen Rubin points out, however, that being alone is not the same as loneliness which feels draining, distracting, and upsetting.  In her view, being alone or experiencing solitude can be peaceful, creative and restorative – it all depends on how you use the time when alone.  Gretchen is the author of The Happiness Project.

Introverts may crave time alone after suffering extended periods of exposure to others; extroverts, on the other hand, may crave the company of friends because they derive their energy from social interaction.

Whether we are introverts or extroverts, we can have the tendency to use alone-time to occupy ourselves rather than confront ourselves.  We may experience boredom and look for ways to allay this feeling rather than savor the opportunity and freedom it presents.

Being alone creates the space and opportunity to attend to our own internal and external environment.  We can get in touch with our own feelings, rather than ignore them; we can question who we are and what we stand for, rather than hiding from ourselves.  This exploration of our internal landscape may turn up some unpleasant findings, but we are then in a position to deal with the issues involved.

We can also really take notice of our external environment – getting in touch with all our senses in a peaceful and calming way.  Haruki Murakami, author of Norwegian Wood, gives a wonderful illustration of focus on the sense of sight when one of his characters describes what he sees:

Every now and then, red birds with tufts on their heads would flit across our path, brilliant against the blue sky.  The fields around us were filled with white and blue and yellow flowers, and bees buzzed everywhere.  Moving ahead, one step at a time, I thought of nothing but the scene passing before my eyes. (p.180)

You can sense the contentment expressed here – something that we can experience in our time alone.

The 5 minute gratitude practice advanced by Elaine Smookler enables us to use our outer landscape to explore our inner world of feelings, especially of appreciation.  This is an excellent way to use the space in our lives provided by being alone.

Being alone frees us from the need to talk, to engage with others, or to follow the conversation.  It provides the opportunity to explore within and without.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we will be better able to savour being alone and the opportunity it provides to explore our inner and outer landscape.  This can be a source of self-awareness and other-awareness, of contentment and of appreciation and gratitude.

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

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Savor the Freedom of Boredom

Barry Boyce, Editor of mindful.org, suggests that boredom provides the opportunity to free yourself from the need to continually occupy your mind, be productive or entertain yourself.

This idea of savoring the opportunity that boredom provides takes the idea of savoring to another level – to achieve this we need to reframe what we would normally consider to be a negative experience.

Increasingly, in moments of inactivity, we tend to fill up the time by accessing our mobile phone – checking emails, viewing the news, connecting via social media or searching for a store, product or the meaning of a word.

Boredom creates stress for many people because of our need to be “doing” all the time, a need created and sustained by today’s fast-paced world and work intensification.

The boring tasks and situations – washing the dishes, doing housework, waiting for a bus, train or plane – can free you up to engage in some form of meditation or savoring something you experience as positive in your life, such as the development of your child.   Some people attach a particular meditation practice to a boring event, e.g. waiting for the jug to boil or waiting for transportation.

Elaine Smookler offers a 5-minute gratitude practice which enables you to appreciate what is good in your life by focusing, in turn, on each of your senses.  This puts into practice the exhortation of Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness.

Boredom has many faces and is not a simple concept or experience.  However, there is increasing agreement that out of boredom is born creativity – it can provide the stimulus and space for new ideas and ways of doing things.  It can also help us to recognise the lack of challenge in our work or life generally, motivate us to change jobs or explore the surplus in our lives.

In boredom there is opportunity – something to savor in a world obsessed with continuous doing and achieving.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can reframe boredom, savor the latent opportunity involved and have the presence of mind to utilise our down-time to enhance our meditation practice, develop creative solutions or explore constructive ways to utilise the surplus in our lives.

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

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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)

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Mindful Connection

Sharon Salzberg, in her presentation provided as part of the  Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, focused on the theme, The Art of Mindful Connection.  Sharon is the author of ten books, including Real Love.

Sharon made the point that real love is not a commodity to be exchanged, it is not simply about reciprocation -“I’ll do something for you, if you do something I want in return.”  In her view, love does not mean unwillingness to express your own needs or feelings or coming from a place of neediness.

At times, real love is “tough love”, expressed as a readiness to say “no”, when the context, situation or your needs require that response.  It does not mean just agreeing with the other person for the sake of peace or a false sense of making them happy.

Sharon spoke of love as a capacity – a capacity for real connection which flows out of being mindful.  Real love creates real connection and is developed through mindfulness practice and being mindful in the situation when we encounter people.

The problem is that we all bring our conditioning and assumptions to every interaction – some being more negatively impactful than others.  We each have our own conditioning and assumptions developed as a result of our family environment, our work experience and/or life events.

Our conditioning may mean that we are wary of dissenting, reticent to express our feelings and needs or have difficulty trusting others.  Adverse events in our life may contribute to a tendency to look for, and see, only the negatives we experience, e.g. when reviewing our day, we may only focus on what we did wrong, our lack of achievement and/or our disappointments.

Our assumptions play a major role in how we relate to others.  We can show interest in people (who we assess as interesting), look right past others or consider others to be not worth talking to.

Sharon told the story of a writer friend of hers who, on first sight of a woman who had approached him, assumed that she was not intelligent or not “with it”.  It turned out that the woman was very intelligent and was actually a professional proof-reader for a publisher.

This example resonated strongly with my experience of my own unfounded assumptions which I described in my previous post about removing blockages to learning and performance.

Sharon encourages us to engage in meditation practice and honestly confront ourselves – to look squarely at the impact of our conditioning and assumptions on our relations with others.

She suggests, for instance, that in conversations with ourselves that we ask penetrating questions.   We could ask, for example, “What groups do we think do not count?”, “Which of our assumptions were at play in a recent interaction with someone else that did not work out as we expected?” or “Who have we been avoiding and why?”

Sharon urges us to be honest with ourselves in these conversations and not let negative emotions such as shame or embarrassment get in the road of a genuine exploration of how our conditioning and assumptions play out in our daily interactions.

She suggests that unearthing these impediments creates a new freedom – a liberation from the constraints that prevent us from achieving mindful connection with others.  Mindfulness, in her view, is the gift of liberation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and conversations with ourselves, we can free ourselves from the conditioning and assumptions that hold us back from genuine engagement with others.  By becoming progressively unfettered in the way we relate and being able to give our full attention to the other person, we can create meaningful and mindful connections.

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)

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Conversation with Ourselves

Jon Kabat-Zinn maintains that we spend so much time removed from ourselves through thinking, that we need to “dial up ourselves” occasionally.   Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche suggests that the art of conversation begins with having an honest conversation with ourselves on a regular basis.  Sakyong is the author of a number of books, including, The Lost Art of Conversation: A Mindful Way to Connect with Others and Enrich Everyday Life.

Sakyong argues that very few people have really mastered the art of conversation.  Conversations in social situations or work situations can be very challenging – they can be painful or even boring.   Relating to people who are difficult behaviourally or who hold strong views that are very different to our own, can also present a real challenge to our equanimity.

So, it is important to be equipped with the art of identifying and dealing with our own emotions, otherwise we will respond inappropriately in these challenging conversations.  What we tend to do, however, is to hide from our emotions, deny them or avoid situations where our emotions will “run high”.  The problem is that despite our denials we tend to play out our emotions in the way we respond to others in conversation.

Our resentment can be reflected in our inattention, our anger expressed through trying to prove we are right, our disgust can be seen in our non-verbal behaviour or our disrespect through avoidance.  There is no real hiding from our emotions.  We may try to stay unaware of them or fail to pay attention to them, but they will assert themselves somehow.

It is common behaviour to avoid openly expressing our feelings, particularly in a work situation.   In such situations, too, we tend to discourage the expression of emotions because they make us feel uncomfortable.

However, in coming to grips with our own emotions, we build up strength, inner peace and even courage.  Sakyong points to the example of Nelson Mandela, who despite his many years in prison, decided while in his cell not to harbour bitterness towards those who had imprisoned him.  Mandela published his own conversations, reflections, correspondence and journal entries in his revealing book, Conversations With Myself, where he discloses his “troubled dreams”, struggles, uncertainties, hardships and victories.

Sakyong urges us to also have conversations with ourselves – meditating on our feelings and thoughts.  We need to get in touch with how we are really feeling – do we feel good?; are we anxious?;  are we preoccupied with a concern that is distracting us?; or are we fearful and defensive?   He warns about doing this half-heartedly and encourages us to bring to light our real feelings and “intelligences”.   We can have these personal conversations either through meditation or journaling (although there is a synergy to be gained by adopting both these practices).

As we grow in mindfulness through these conversations with ourselves, we can develop a heightened self-awareness and bring true character and respect for others to our conversations – and, in the process, realise true freedom.

As Nelson Mandela maintained:

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

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

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Mindfulness and The Art of Conversation

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, in his presentation provided as part of the  Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, focused on the theme, Mindfulness and the Art of Conversation.  Sakyong is the author of a number of books, including, The Lost Art of Conversation: A Mindful Way to Connect with Others and Enrich Everyday Life.

Sakyong emphasised the need for meditation in these troubled times, both locally and globally.  He identified that there is a lot of fear and uncertainty around threats to world peace and environmental deterioration.  He stressed the importance of not only meditating but also engaging with others in conversation.

The one thing we can do in times of such uncertainty and anxiety is connecting with others through communication.  In Sakyong’s view, transformation at a personal and social level have come about when people connect with each other and share.

Communication is a basic need, it is available to us all at any time and is a natural activity of being human.   Sometimes, we experience difficulty in our conversations and at other times it seems so easy and rewarding.

Despite being connected technologically like never before, a lot of our connections are superficial, as are our “conversations”.   We have tended to lose real connection with people around us, who are with us on a daily basis.

Despite experiencing a great sense of warmth and happiness from our good conversations, we tend not to properly engage with people because of our busy lives.  Despite our development on a global basis, we seem to have lost the art of conversation – which can connect us at a time when so many things have the effect of keeping us apart from each other.

Even just acknowledging another person can be empowering for them, just as ignoring them can make them feel demeaned and disempowered.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can more readily connect with others, engage in active listening and communicate empathy – all of which values the other person and empowers them to be their real self.

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

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