Mindfulness and Meditation for Elite Athletes

Patrick Chan used mindfulness to excel at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.  His first round performance for the team figure skating event was badly hampered by nerves and he did not score well.  However by talking to himself, confronting the expectations of his team and his own debilitating emotions, he was able to achieve the top score in his next round and help Canada win the Olympic Gold medal for the event.

Jon Kabat-Zinn taught meditation to the 1984 US Olympic rowing team – a team that went on to win 2 gold medals, 5 silver and 1 bronze.   Jon maintains that to get into the “zone” of peak performance on a regular basis you need to meditate to train yourself mentally.

Richmond Football Club – AFL Premiership Winners through Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation training helped Richmond win the 2017 AFL premiership.   The initiative started in 2015 with Dylan Grimes, Richmond defender, who was very frustrated and dissatisfied with his ability to maintain his performance at an elite level.  He read a number of books about mindfulness and how it could enhance performance.  In particular, he was impressed with the idea of achieving “flow” proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

People who experience flow in their endeavours achieve optimal performance, increase their creativity and experience real joy and happiness.   The Richmond Football Club engaged Emma Murray, high performance and mindfulness coach, to help all team members achieve their optimal level.  She was able to help players develop self-awareness, build focus and concentration and to help each other when one of the team was becoming distracted or unfocused.  She successfully established new norms such as individual players openly admitting the impact of their thoughts on their performance, sharing doubts and concerns and, overall, being vulnerable – a counter-cultural position.

Richmond players readily acknowledged the role of Emma’s teaching in mindfulness and meditation in helping them win the premiership.  For example, Dean Martin, winner of the Brownlow Medal, mentioned Emma’s contribution to Richmond’s performance after the game.

Konrad Marshall, author of Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond, also provided a detailed description of Emma’s work with the football players and the effectiveness of her mindfulness and meditation approach.

NBA Athletes

Laura Chang in an article for mindfulnessmuse.com reminds us of the mindfulness practice of top NBA athletes who before the start of a game focus internally to “get into the zone” and build attention and concentration.  She suggests that we can all learn from these elite athletes to increase our own focus and productivity and proposes a mindfulness practice for improved performance.

Mindfulness Exercise for Improved Performance

Laura offers a 5-step mindfulness exercise that is designed to improve attention during physical activities.  The process, explained in detail in her article, is discussed in terms of the acronym, B.A.S.I.C. :

  • Body – body awareness
  • Arousal Level – notice the nature of your arousal
  • Self-Talk – what are you saying to yourself and what impact is it having on your performance?
  • Imagery – what images are you entertaining and do they reinforce excellent performance?
  • Concentration – notice the nature and quality of your concentration and focus and its impact on your performance.

This process is designed to enhance self-awareness and self-management and, in the process, build the capacity to maintain attention and focus at a high level.

As elite athletes grow in mindfulness they are better able to manage their negative thoughts and images, to maintain concentration and focus, to be creative and to achieve optimal performance.

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

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Mindfulness for University Students

In an earlier post, I discussed mindfulness for school children and explained the ground-breaking work of Goldie Hawn in providing training in mindful awareness and brain science to hundreds of thousands of teachers and children.

In this post, I want to focus on mindfulness for university students and highlight the mindfulness resources that are now increasingly available in universities throughout Australia.

The challenges confronting university students

University students face many challenges that can upset their balance and equanimity and contribute to distress.  Overseas students studying in Australia, for example, may have the challenge of mastering a new language, developing new friends and overcoming the sense of isolation and loneliness.   The process of integration and “finding their place” is compounded by cultural differences associated with norms that impact behavioural expectations generally, as well as in tutorials and lectures.

University students might experience performance stress resulting from assessment requirements such as assignments, projects and exams – often occurring across more than one subject simultaneously.  Sometimes, this performance stress and related anxiety is self-imposed through the desire to achieve a certain minimum GPA to gain entry to an Honours or Master’s course or program.  Other times, the performance stress is generated by the expectations of students’ parents, employer or relatives.  Peers, too, can add to the pressure when they are quick to point out any shortfall in assessment results or make unfavourable comparisons.

University students may experience exclusion from the “in-group” on the grounds of race, gender, sexual preference, dress standards or another discriminating basis.  Students at live-in university colleges may find it hard to fit into the prevailing college culture and norms.  They might even be excluded on the grounds of failing to form an intimate relationship within the college community.  The recent Human Rights Commission report into sexual harassment and sexual assaults in universities in Australia gave a challenging insight into the prevalence of, and devastating impact of, sexual abuse experienced by many university students.

Relationship breakups are a common experience for university students through the pressure of study and assignment commitments, differing expectations and values and the unusual circumstances of university life.  These relationship break-ups can lead to emotional turmoil and distress.  Relationship problems and other stressors can be exacerbated by financial difficulties.

The onset of assessment deadlines can result in panic attacks, nervousness, anxiety and add stressors to relationships that are already stressful.  The level of stress experienced by university students in Australis was highlighted by the report of a recent research project.  The research, conducted jointly by Headspace and the National Union of Students, surveyed 2,600 Australian tertiary education students.  The report disclosed a very alarming level of anxiety among the TAFE and university students surveyed – “35 per cent experiencing self-harm or suicidal thoughts in the past 12 months”.

Mindfulness Resources in Universities

Universities have started to realise the impact of multiple stressors on students’ ability to concentrate and perform academically and to sustain commitment to their courses (drop-out rates have been increasing).

Most universities now, especially through their counselling services, have established a suite of mindfulness resources for their students.  They promote these on the grounds that they will increase concentration, clarity and focus; reduce stress; enhance physical and mental health;  improve quality of life and relationships; and help to develop positive attitudes and happiness.

RMIT, for example, provides a series of six conversations incorporating introductions, audios and exercise worksheets.  The conversations are based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which involves a core message – “accept what is out of your personal control, and commit to action that improves and enriches your life”.   The RMIT ACT Conversations cover the following topics:

  1. Language creates conflict
  2. Action & experience versus thought and emotion
  3. Acceptance, willingness and inclusion
  4. Mindfulness and being present
  5. Your values and direction
  6. Committed action

In line with many mindfulness trainers and practitoners, RMIT stresses the critical role of the exercises and mindfulness practice.   A local resource that reinforces RMIT’s ACT approach is the very readable, humorously illustrated and practice-oriented workbook, The Happiness Trap Pocketbook, produced by Dr. Russ Harris and Bev Aisbett.

James Cook University provides a Relaxation, Meditation and Mindfulness PDF with links to Smiling Mind Mindfulness Meditation, free meditation resources and classes, 6 mindfulness exercises to try, quick relaxation techniques and exercises.

Links to other free mindfulness resources designed for university students include the following:

Additionally, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) through its Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) has the following free resources:

There are numerous resources for university students to grow in mindfulness and improve the quality of their university life, enhance their close relationships and achieve the level of academic performance they are capable of.

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

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Tai Chi and the Mind-Body Connection

In a previous post when discussing mindfulness and neuroplasticity, I mentioned that Tai Chi actually develops the mind physically by increasing the size of the insula in the brain.

Tai Chi is one of the mind-body techniques that form part of Traditional Chinese Medicine and is based on Chinese philosophy incorporating Taoism and Confucianism.  Tai Chi involves a combination of slow movements, body postures and mindful breathing.  In Chinese philosophy terms, it facilitates the flow of Qi, “life energy”.

Tai Chi has been shown to improve muscle strength, balance and flexibility and, when used in conjunction with Western Medicine, helps patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Arthritis and low bone density as well as helping people to recover from the effects of a stroke.

The real benefits of Tai Chi flow from its capacity to simultaneously develop the mind and body of the practitioner and thus enhance their mind-body connection.  Alzheimer’s disease is a clear example of the mind-body connection because as the mind deteriorates so does the body.  Tai Chi has been shown to combat Alzheimer’s.

The power of Tai Chi to develop the mind derives from the state of “relaxed concentration” achieved by focusing on the coordination of mind and body in a series of slow, balanced and rhythmic movements, while focusing on a single thought.  The focused attention develops mindfulness, improves memory and strengthens concentration.  Dr. Shin Lin, in a talk at the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, provided research results to show that Tai Chi produces new neurons during regular practice which suppress stress and build memory.

Dr. Lin indicated that Tai Chi, besides producing stress release, also improves immunity and eases chronic pain and fatigue.  Professor Michael R. Irwin, Medical Doctor and Director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, has demonstrated in his research that Tai Chi “promotes improvements in health functioning, viral specific immunity, and inflammation”.  His area of research and practice is focused on the mind-body connection – “Psychoneuroimmunology” involves the “study of the interaction between the psychological processes and the nervous and immunity systems of the human body”.

I have found from personal experience that Taoist Tai Chi helps both my mind (concentration, focus and creativity) and my body (energy, balance and fitness). I use the evidence of the mind-body benefits of Tai Chi to motivate my daily practice.

Karl Romain, in discussing how Tai Chi trains the brain, suggests that if you cannot find time for meditation and Tai Chi, practise your Tai Chi because it has a meditation element, as well as provides benefits for your mind-body connection.  I think the two practices, meditation and Tai Chi, are highly complementary and my personal goal is to achieve daily mindfulness practices that include both traditions.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and/or Tai Chi, we develop improved health and wellness, develop our minds and deepen our mind-body connection.

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

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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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