Overcoming Aversion as a Barrier to Meditation

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

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

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

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

Loving kindness meditation in the event of aversion to meditation practice

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

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

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

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

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Overcoming the Obstacle of Desire During Meditation

There are many obstacles that arise while we are meditating and trying to develop mindfulness.  For example, we can fall asleep during meditation and I previously discussed Jack Kornfield’s ideas for overcoming this obstacle during meditation.

Diana Winston has also explored some obstacles to meditation in her podcasts offered through the weekly MARC meditation podcast series.  What I want to focus on in this post is her discussion of “desire” as an obstacle and her suggested ways of dealing with it.

During the day, we may spend a lot of time revisiting recent pleasant experiences, anticipating future enjoyable events or fantasising about some ideal image of our self engaged in a satisfying activity.  These reflective or anticipatory thoughts can express our desires or cravings and become a barrier to meditation.  However, we have to learn to control our thoughts during meditation.

For example, we may be meditating through focusing on our breath and find our mind wandering to the forthcoming overseas trip or dinner date.  Diana offers a meditation to help remove the obstacle of desire and restore our focus.

Overcoming the obstacle of desire during meditation

Desire and wanting are natural human emotions but they can get in the road of our developing mindfulness through meditation.  The first step in reducing desire during meditation is to become grounded.  Being grounded enables us to shift the focus from our thoughts to our breath and the physical sensations of muscular tension.

Once we have relaxed into a meditative state, we can then bring our attention to the present moment and become aware of the desire – its nature, strength and pattern. We can also notice how we experience the desire in our body, how it is manifested – whether through shallowness of breath, muscular tightness, racing thoughts or any other manifestation.

Having become aware of the desire and its physical and emotional impact, we are then able to choose not to act on it – to develop some degree of self-management towards it.  So, through clearly seeing the nature and strength of a desire during meditation, we are better able to manage it and not be diverted by it or react to it.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we become more adept in being grounded, in fully facing our distracting desires and learning to manage them so that we are not at their mercy.

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Being Mindful About Our Thoughts

Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Mindfulness of Thoughts, explains the role thoughts can play in our lives and provides options for using mindfulness meditation to control our thoughts.

Thoughts have a powerful influence over our lives – they can be positive or negative with consequential impacts on the way we see and experience the world.  They can express our perceptions of others and our experiences.  Our thoughts can extend to our needs such as who I wish to marry, where I would like to live, my ideal job, what I want to study/research or what I am going to do with the surplus in my life.

We also have thoughts that contribute to our pain and suffering such as negative self-evaluation, anxious thoughts, thoughts about grief or thoughts that engender negative emotions such as rage, anger, frustration or envy.

Being mindful about our thoughts

Mindfulness can really help us to manage our thoughts.  Diana suggests that a fundamental rule is, “Don’t believe everything you think”.  Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us too, “We are not our thoughts”.  Thoughts can be seen as real but, in reality, they are just passing through our mind, unless we cultivate and encourage them.

We can be trapped by our thoughts or create some space so that we have times when we are free from them.  Freedom comes from just noticing our thoughts as they pass by rather than being enmeshed in them and acting them out, particularly where they are negative.

Diana uses the metaphor of a passing train as a way to illustrate how one thought leads to another, which leads to another…as if they are coupled or joined together.  They become like a “thought train that leads us down a particular track”.  Before you know it, a lot of time can elapse and you begin to wonder where the time has gone – you have been lost in your thoughts.

By being in the present moment through mindfulness, you can stop yourself from going down that particular track that your thoughts are leading you along. Diana suggests that an alternative position is to visualize yourself staying on the platform and watching the thoughts go by, avoiding getting on the thought train, just letting the train go past.

Meditations to control our thoughts

We can build awareness by focusing on our breathing while noticing when thoughts arise and then returning to our focus – our breath.  This practice of noticing, not cultivating our thoughts, and returning to our focus, is a powerful way to achieve equanimity and avoid being disturbed and captured by our thoughts that can lead to a negative spiral.

A second meditation practice is to actually notice a thought and pay attention to it for a brief interval – just noticing it briefly and returning to our focus.  It becomes like a temporary aside.  We could notice that we are engaged in planning, critiquing or other frequent forms of our mental activity.

A third meditation practice is open awareness – like noticing thoughts as if they are clouds in the sky passing by us as the wind blows them along in a hazy way.

Each of these meditation practices can help us to be mindful about our thoughts and to learn to control them so that they do not control us and the way we experience, and relate to, the world.  Diana, in her meditation podcast, leads us through each of these meditation practices to enable us to experience the sense of freedom and control that comes from release from the binds of our thoughts.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices that address our thoughts, we can develop a sense of peace and control and free ourselves to show up for our lives – not being held back by the heavy anchor of negative thoughts.

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Mindfulness for Overcoming Resentment

Resentment towards another person, organisation or group can hold us captive and lead us to give away control of our emotions to others.  It also has the ability to linger and smoulder long after the initial catalyst has passed or even been forgotten.

Our resentment may flow from someone or a group that has frustrated our expectations or impeded our goals or done something that we experienced as harmful to us personally.  Unless we let it go and dissolve its power, resentment can eat away at us and negatively impact our quality of life and the quality of our relationships.

Overcoming resentment through mindfulness

There are several mindfulness practices that can help us to let go of resentment.  Here are three processes:

Forgiveness Meditation

Forgiveness meditation is one way to use mindfulness to overcome resentment towards a person and has proven to build understanding and empathy.  It is designed to replace resentment with thoughtfulness and loving kindness

Dealing with conflict

During a two-day course on mindful leadership conducted by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, I learned a process that related to conflict resolution but was also designed to build understanding and tolerance of others and to dissolve the blocking effects of resentment.  As part of the process, you had to reflect on the conflict incident and put yourself in the place of the other person with whom you had a conflict and towards whom you felt some resentment.

The conflict process acknowledges that for both parties in a conflict there are three levels of issues at play – (1) content, (2) feelings & (3) identity.  So when you begin to reflect mindfully on what is happening for the other person, you ask the following questions from their perspective:

  1. Content (What happened from their perspective?)
  2. Feelings (How do I think they felt?)
  3. Identity (What might have been at stake for them in terms of their sense of competence, their thoughts about their own goodness and lovability?)

By reflecting mindfully about what was going on for the person in the conflict that we felt some resentment towards, we can experience the resentment dissolving and empathy replacing it. As we ask ourselves the same questions, we can begin to realise that we are all very human and that we misunderstand each other and make mistakes which we may later regret.

Being mindful of the potential damaging effects of resentment

If we are able to get in touch with our feelings at a point in time and name our feelings as resentment, we can reflect on what that feeling is doing to us both bodily and emotionally.  If we focus on these damaging effects and project them into the long-term, we will come to realise that we have to let the resentment go and move on, just as Khaled Hosseini described.

Khaled, in his book A Thousand Splendid Suns, has one of his lead characters, Laila, refuse to give into resentment:

But Laila has decided she will not be crippled by resentment.  Mariam wouldn’t want it that way.  What’s the sense? she would say, with a smile both innocent and wise.  What good is it, Laila Jo?  And so Laila has resigned herself to moving on. (p.399)

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we come to realise the damaging power and hold of resentment and to learn ways to overcome it.  In the process, we can develop understanding of, and empathy for, others.

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Feeling Joy for Others

We have so many opportunities to feel joy for others and to extend our desire for their joy to grow and continue.  However, we can be held back by feelings of envy or jealousy about their good fortune, especially if it comes at our own expense, e.g. when someone gets “our” carpark spot during the mad Christmas shopping period.

Meditating with a focus on feeling joy for others who have experienced good fortune, achieved an outstanding outcome or been publicly acknowledged for their achievement, can take us outside our self-absorption,  build our capacity for “empathetic joy” and warm our own hearts through “vicarious joy” and the experience of happiness for them.

Diana Winston provides a meditation podcast on feeling joy for others in which she guides us through the process of focusing on the joy that someone else has experienced as a result of their good fortune.

Feeling joy for others meditation

Once you have achieved the initial meditative state of being grounded, you can identify someone or group of people who have experienced joy and happiness as a result of some event, achievement or fortuitous gift.

As you focus on the joyful experience of another person or group, try to place yourself in that experience – feeling what they must be feeling, appreciating what they are grateful for.  You can use images to intensify this identification and what Diana calls “appreciative joy”.

Once you have been able to clearly focus on the joy of another you can then express the wish that their good fortune continues and that their joy grows and develops in a sustainable way.  This expression of good will can offset constant exposure to the media’s focus on peoples’ ill fortune.

There is something special about this feeling joy for others meditation in that it takes us away from self-centredness, opens our eyes to the rivers of goodness in the world and enhances our sense of gratitude.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware of others and their experience of joy in times of good fortune and more generous through our appreciative stance engendered through meditation where we focus on others’ joy.

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Mindfulness in Busy Workplaces

At the recent 19th International Mental Health Conference, Dr. Shahina Braganza explained how she and her colleagues introduced mindfulness into the Gold Coast Health Emergency Department.  Her presentation, oneED – Can we Embed a Wellness Program into a Busy Emergency Department?, was one of the highlights for me at the Mental Health Conference.

The wellness program incorporating mindfulness was appropriately titled, oneED, because it recognises that emergency departments are very much a team with high levels of interdependence amongst the various categories of staff who are focused on patient welfare in often demanding circumstances.  The wellness program is inclusive, covering both clinical and non-clinical staff.  The program focus was also broadened beyond mindfulness in recognition that not everyone is receptive to mindfulness as an approach and that other approaches, such as physical activity, can also lead to wellness

The emphasis on oneness is clearly articulated by the Director of Emergency Medicine, Dr. David Green, when discussing the oneEd program on video.  He emphasised that quality emergency patient outcomes are achieved “where everyone looks after everyone else” in the Department.

Developing mindfulness in a busy work environment

Shahina explained that the essence of introducing mindfulness into a busy emergency department was the ability to incorporate it into the daily flow of work.  While the program began with a one-day mindfulness course, other activities of the structured program are embedded in the daily routine.

A four-minute pause was introduced at handover time during shift transitions.  This was originally conducted daily and changed to weekly,  following consultation with the staff involved.  The pause may include sharing experiences, watching a brief mindfulness-related video and/or engaging in a 90 second sitting meditation.

Emergency staff are encouraged to engage in moments of mindfulness that are precipated by the experience of overwhelm and/or loss of focus, and aided by a series of flyers encouraging reflection and mindfulness.  A weekly, 30 minutes drop-in session is conducted on a voluntary basis to build the capacity of ED staff to engage in these mindfulness moments.

Shahina wrote a thought-provoking article on the program identifying the learnings from the development of the Mindful Emergency Room.  Of particular note in the article are the nine tips for implementing a wellness program in a busy workplace.  These tips incorporate sound change management principles related to a mindfulness approach.

One of the tips relates to joining forces with like-minded people and Shahina mentioned the banding together to form a group called WRaP EM (Wellness, Resilience and Performance) – incorporating a blog, guides and learning resources.  The blog provides an avenue for medical staff to share their wellness stories.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and encourage its adoption in the workplace, we can contribute to the effective achievement of organisational goals, a strong sense of connection and support, and the development of ever-widening circles of positive influence.

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Meditation and Mental Health

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

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

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

Meditation and regulating emotions to achieve mental health

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

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

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

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

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The Freedom of Possibilities Versus The Tyranny of Expectations


John Moffitt, author of Emotional Chaos to Clarity, writes comprehensively in a blog post about the tyranny of expectations.  He suggests that expectations lock us into a limited future with a fixed view of desired outcomes.  We have expectations of ourselves and of others and they, in turn, have expectations of us.

In contrast, possibilities arise in the present moment if we are tuned into what is happening in the here and now.   If we are present to our situation, whatever it may be, we are able to tap our imagination and intellect, achieve clarity about the situation and come up with creative options.

Expectations can tie us to a particular outcome and lead to disappointment when that outcome is not realised.  Even when the desired outcome is achieved, we can feel dissatisfied that it did not meet our expectations in terms of happiness, joy or success.  This results in what John describes as the tyranny of expectations and he illustrates this by giving an example of a woman held captive by her expectations:

Our discussion revealed that she repeatedly experienced being disappointed whenever she actually got what she sought.  In response, she would create new expectations, and the cycle would repeat itself.

No one is free from expectations, even yogis who can become trapped by their expectations of what they will achieve through sustained meditation practice.  They can become attached to a desired outcome, so much so that they defeat the very purpose of meditation which is to be in-the-moment with whatever is present in their lives.

John suggests that some people go to the other extreme and give up on expectations for fear of being disappointed – they do not pursue their values in day-to-day living.  They can experience depression as well as anger and frustration.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on our expectations in any given situation, we can learn to understand ourselves and to realise the very powerful role that expectations can play in our lives.  Working from the possibilities of the present moment, we can reduce the power of expectations and realise true happiness.

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

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The Problem with Identification

I was reflecting recently about why I get upset and disappointed when my sporting team loses a match.  I become annoyed when I perceive that the refereeing is biased (of course, this perception is strongly influenced by my own bias).

In part, I think that my emotional state is influenced by my expectations about how my team will, or should, perform.  I do like to be on the winning side in sport!

On further reflection, I have come to think that the basic problem is one of identification – identifying closely with the team involved.  So, their successes are my successes, their losses are mine also.  I have a sense of pride when they win and a sense of embarrassment when they lose badly.

In some sense then, I am giving over control of my emotions to the vicissitudes and uncertainty of a sporting outcome over which I have no control.   In other words, I am giving control of my emotions to some external event, rather than retaining my own inner, emotional control.

What I find is that through this strong identification, and the strong associated feelings, my calmness is replaced by agitation.  Instead of enjoying the sport as a form of entertainment and relaxation, I become stressed and annoyed.

However, the path to real happiness lies in self-awareness and self-management, not abrogating responsibility for self-control to some external event or the performance of a sporting team.

Reducing identification and loss of control over emotions

How do you reduce the identification with a sporting team if this identification often leaves you upset or, occasionally, on a high?  To me, the starting point is to recognise the level of identification involved and what “rewards” come with this identification.  It means naming the feelings involved and choosing to take back control by reducing my level of identification with the team.

Sometimes, it is as if identification with a sporting team is a way to fill an emotional void – to attempt to replace disappointment and frustration with elation and happiness.  However, the reverse can happen so that disappointment and frustration only deepen in the event of a loss by the team.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on our emotional responses in these situations, we can gain the necessary insight and self-awareness to reduce the power of identification and take back control of our emotions through self-management.

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Managing Expectations through Mindfulness

Expectations play such a significant place in our lives – we have expectations of ourselves and others in our daily activities.   We expect ourselves to be able to perform well (or exceptionally) in our work, our sport and home life.  We have expectations of others in terms of their words and actions and the level of support they provide to us.

Sometimes we can be captured by external expectations in terms of fitness, health, the way we look, our level of income, where we live and what we wear.  Dr. Harrier B. Braiker captures the essence of this “disease” – fulfilling everyone’s expectations of you to avoid rejection and anger – in her new book, The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome.  Harriet is the author of the 1986 book, The Type E Woman: How to Overcome the Stress of Being Everything to Everybody (reprinted in 2006), in which she challenges “erroneous expectations”.

Expectations can often lead to conflict.  If someone does not fulfil our expectations through their words or behaviour, then we can be upset, annoyed, angry or resentful.  This may extend even to the simplest tasks around the house as well as in the workplace where we have expectations of our managers, colleagues and peers.  Mindfulness can help us gain self-awareness and self-management with respect to our expectations.

Managing expectations through mindfulness

George Pitagorsky, in his article, Using Mindfulness to Manage Your Expectations, focuses on expectations in a work situation, but the principles apply to any context.  He suggests two key strategies for using mindfulness to manage expectations at work:

  1. Being mindful at the outset of a project to ensure that expectations of all involved are aligned.
  2. When expectations are thwarted, being mindful of the feelings you experience and learning to use the gap between stimulus and response to self-manage.

George is the author of Managing Expectations: A Mindful Approach to Achieving Success.  His book which focuses on the experience of a Project Manager involved in organisational transition “explores how to apply a mindful, compassionate, and practical approach to satisfying expectations in any situation”.

Phillip Moffitt discusses the Tyranny of Expectations and argues that living in the now, developed through meditation practice, is the way to free ourselves from this tyranny manifested in the endless cycle of ever-increasing expectations.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness meditation practices, we can become more aware of the nature and impact of our own expectations and those of other people and develop our “response ability“, so that we are not held captive by our expectations or those of others.

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

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