Mindfulness as Self-Observation

Brian Shiers suggests that underpinning mindfulness is self-observation, the foundation of self-awareness.  This means, in effect, that there is no one right way to meditate – that paying attention to and noticing ourselves, in whatever way, is essentially mindfulness.  While there is a tendency for people new to meditation to judge themselves against a presumed standard, the experience they are having in self-observation is what mindfulness is about, not some prescribed level of awareness.  Mindfulness practices are designed to stimulate this curiosity about oneself in an open, exploratory way.  Tara Brach describes this lifelong journey as “waking up” – a deep shift in inner awareness that leads to equanimity and increased empathy and compassion.

In a recent guided meditation podcast, Brian asked the question, “What is “Myself”? and he encouraged participants to activate their “observational mind” in a relaxed manner.  He maintained that the fundamental question, “What is the “self”? is both an ancient and a recent question (through the pursuit of neuroscience).

Is the “self” my body, my thoughts, my roles I undertake, my affiliations, my emotions or my mind?  Brian sited the work of Dan Siegel, a founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), who believes that the “self” is not only what we are born with, but also the cumulation of billions of impressions that we are exposed to through interactions with others – thus shaping our perceptions and responses.  Dan’s perspective reinforces the uniqueness of our “self”.  Brian suggests, then, that the self is “intertwined in inter- relationships” – the direct and indirect influence of others throughout our lives.

Researchers have yet to establish what the “mind” is, even with the advent of neuroscience.   Brain stated that neuroscientists at Stanford University have estimated that we generate between 65,000 and 90,000 thoughts per day.  We are reminded of the admonition of Jon Kabat-Zinn that “you are not your thoughts”, thoughts that come and go like bubbles in boiling water.  Brain suggests that the “enterprise of mindfulness” is “self-observation”, including bringing to conscious awareness and guidance, the unconscious, spontaneously occurring thoughts that pervade our minds.  So, from Brian’s perspective, mindfulness is the pursuit of self-awareness through observation of the various domains of our existence, including our bodies and our minds.

A process of self-observation

Brian’s guided meditation podcast takes you on a journey of paying attention to your “self” through a process of self-observation of body and mind – noticing your body on the chair, engaging in mindful breathing, noticing your thoughts (but not entertaining them), undertaking a body scan while releasing tension, and participating in a reflection.

The personal reflection involves identifying a positive trait in yourself, e.g. wisdom. loving kindness, gratitude, thoughtfulness or resilience; and exploring how it manifests, its impact on others and how you could further develop this trait. Brian offers some guided questions for the reflection:

  • What is happening when you exhibit this trait? (you can visualise it happening)
  • What impact does it have on others?
  • Who is a role model for you in respect of this trait?
  • Who could help you develop it?
  • How can you further develop this positive trait?

As we grow in mindfulness through self -observation during the process of meditation, we can better understand who we are, how we experience the world, and what we bring to our interactions with others. We can also identify strategies to strengthen our positive traits and increase our motivation to use them to create a better life for ourselves and others.

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Image – Personal reflection during sunrise, Wynnum, Brisbane

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Develop Equanimity to Overcome Reactivity

Much of the time we are reactive because of our ingrained habituated responses.  These develop over time and can vary with different stimuli – a confronting email, a perception of criticism by a partner or colleague, thoughtlessness by another person or traffic delays.  Our responses may be precipitated by negative thoughts that generate emotions such as fear, anxiety, frustration or anger.  We then act out these emotions in a reactive way – not stopping to maintain our balance or evaluate the best possible response. As we have mentioned earlier, there is a gap between stimulus and response and within that gap are choices and associated freedom.  Developing equanimity helps us to better utilise the gap between stimulus and response and widens our potential response options – as it frees us from being captive to our habituated responses.

Equanimity is being able to maintain a state of calmness, balance or even-mindedness in the face of a situation that we find challenging – physically, mentally or emotionally.  It builds our capacity to overcome reactivity and enables us to accept what is, without reacting impulsively.  Diana Winston makes the point that equanimity is not passivity – acceptance of what is, does not mean avoiding taking action to redress injustice, insulting behaviour or meanness.  What equanimity does mean is acknowledging what is and the inherent challenge (e.g. illness, mental illness of a family member, or loss of a job), not railing against all and sundry for our “misfortune”, but actively pursuing redress – including building our capacity to remain calm in the face of life challenges.  Equanimity enables responsiveness that is positive and productive.

A meditation to develop equanimity

Meditation, by its very nature, helps to calm us and, in the process, develop equanimity.  Diana Winston, however, provides a specific “equanimity meditation” designed to build our capacity to retain our balance and to remain even minded when confronted with a life challenge.  She provides this meditation as part of the weekly guided meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA. Her guided meditation podcast, Equanimity and Non Reactivity, contains several steps:

  1. Grounding yourself in your chair by adopting a comfortable, upright posture; closing your eyes or looking down; and focusing your intention on the present – not thinking about the past or worrying about what is coming up.  Being present-in-the-moment is a calming activity that can build equanimity.
  2. Complete body scan – starting with your feet on the floor (feeling the firmness and envisaging the stable ground below); moving progressively through your body, while noticing and releasing any points of tensions (such as in your neck, shoulders, stomach, legs or hands).  You can begin to notice the sensations as you progress with your body scan – feeling the tingling in your fingers or the softness/looseness in your legs as you let go and allow the tension to drain away.  During the meditation, it pays to be conscious of a tendency to let your shoulders droop. [Note: this part of the meditation resonates with the first part of the Yoga Nigra Meditation focused on the physical body]
  3. Focus on your breathing – you focus on wherever in your body you can feel the sensation of your breathing, the in and out movement of your stomach or the air passing through your nose.  The process involves noticing, not controlling your breathing.  You can also rest in the gap between your in-breath and your out-breath.  You can extend the observation of your breathing to other parts of your body such as breathing through your mouth.
  4. Noticing sounds – now switch your attention to the sounds within and outside your room.  Again, the process involves noticing not interpreting or judging the sounds (whether they are pleasant or grating, for example).
  5. Anchoring yourself – you can choose to focus just on your breath or the sounds or adopt a position of natural awareness where you are open to the sense of being aware. Whatever you choose becomes your anchor that you can return to when your mind wanders.  It is natural to have passing thoughts and emotions – the important thing is not to entertain them or indulge them but to acknowledge them, for example, by saying to yourself, “I’m wandering again”.  Once you notice and acknowledge your diverting thoughts and/or emotions, you can return to your chosen anchor.
  6. Equanimity meditation – this involves two main parts that focus directly on developing calm, no matter what your stimulus is.  The first involves capturing a time when you were able to remain calm and balanced when confronted with a challenge – it is important to visualise the event and recapture the memory in all its richness including the stimulus, your initial thoughts/emotions, how you brought yourself under control and your calm response replacing what normally would have been a reactive response.  The second part involves envisaging a challenging situation you have to deal with; identifying what is your “normal” response; and picturing yourself tapping into your boundless internal equanimity, energy and awareness to adopt a response that is both creative and positive.

Diana maintains that this process of equanimity meditation builds your capacity to manage difficult challenges rather than revert to reactivity – that involves adopting habituated responses that are potentially injurious to yourself and others. On a personal note, I like listening to the calmness of Diana’s voice and hearing her highly developed insights as she leads me through a guided meditation process on the weekly podcasts.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditations such as the equanimity meditation, we can realise a new level of personal resilience through the development of calmness, balance and even-mindedness.  We will experience less reactivity in challenging situations and be open to more positive and helpful responses.

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Image – Heron on branch in Wynnum Creek, Brisbane

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Meditation: A Refuge in Difficult Times

Following the mass shootings in the US, Diana Winston provided a meditation podcast on the topic, Finding Refuge in Difficult Times.   Diana suggests that we could turn to meditation in these difficult times when we are confronted with senseless violence, international conflict over trade and territories and increased levels of uncertainty and vulnerability.  Mindfulness meditation can help us to develop many positive aspects in our lives including gratitude, compassion, calmness and clarity.  Diana maintains that in difficult times meditation practice can serve as a refuge for us – a place of quiet, equanimity and loving kindness.  Meditation in this context is not escapism but genuine facing of reality to restore our equilibrium and develop resourcefulness to meet the challenges that confront us daily.

Meditation as a refuge

Diana provides a meditation that is designed to achieve a sense of equanimity in difficult times. It addresses today’s challenges and their impact on our thoughts and emotions and, at the same time, provides a means to become grounded, resourceful and open-hearted.  There are four main elements to the meditation provided by Diana through MARC (Mindful Awareness Research Center) at UCLA:

  • Becoming Grounded – this is particularly important given that we can become unhinged, buffeted and disturbed by difficult times experienced in the world at large.  Tlhe concept of grounding evokes the image of solid earth underfoot and certainty and support when moving forward.  The meditation thus begins with ensuring we have our feet firmly planted on the floor so that we can feel the support of the earth by picturing the solid earth below us.  Out attention then moves to the firmness and uprightness of our back against the chair.  This feeling of solidity reinforces our sense of groundedness.  This, in turn, can be strengthened by focusing attention on the solid contact of our body with the seat of the chair. 
  • Breathing – breath is our life force and we take around 20,000 breaths a day.  It is a good thing that we do this unconsciously, without having to think or be focused.  However, focusing on our breath, paying attention to the act of breathing, is an important way of becoming grounded in life.  This stage of the meditation involves focusing on our in-breath and out-breath and the space in between.  It does not involve controlling our breath but just paying attention to what is happening naturally for us, despite the absence of conscious effort.   You can feel energy tingling in your fingers if you join them together while paying attention to your breath and this can serve as an anchor throughout the day whenever you feel the need to re-establish a sense of equilibrium and equanimity.  Accessing your boundless, inner energy resources in this way can build your ongoing resourcefulness and resilience.
  • Acceptanceaccepting what is and what we are experiencing.  This means owning our thoughts and feelings and acknowledging that reactions such as anxiety, concern, fear, uncertainty or doubt are normal, given the difficult world we live in.  It does not involve passivity, however, but noticing our reactions, not denying them nor indulging them.  It means handling our natural responses non-judgmentally and seeking to accept what is happening for us.  Diana suggests that we can even express this as a conscious desire such as, “May I accept what is”.
  • Offering compassion – this involves being empathetic towards people who are suffering – for example, as a result of a major adverse event.  Compassionate action in this situation can involve loving kindness meditation embracing all who are affected by a significant adverse event – extending to family, friends, colleagues, emergency responders and the community at large.  We can express the desire that all who are directly affected are protected from inner and outer harm; develop good health; find contentment and happiness; and experience the ease of wellness.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and grounding ourselves, we can learn to accept what is, access our inner resources and build our resourcefulness and resilience to face the difficult challenges of daily living in a complex and conflicted world.

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Image by O12 from Pixabay

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Curiosity and Compassion Towards a Family Member

Mitra Manesh, meditation teacher and founder of the mindfulness app Innermap, offers a guided meditation titled Curiosity and Compassion in the Family.  The focus of this meditation is as much about self-compassion as it is about compassion towards family members.  Like other guided meditations offered through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), Mitra’s meditation has a brief input but the 30-minute meditation podcast is primarily a meditation practice.  It progresses from a grounding exercise, through to an input on the challenge presented by family members, followed by two compassion exercises – one towards yourself, the other towards a family member.

Mitra defines mindfulness as “kind acceptance and awareness of our present moment experience”.  Underlying this approach is compassion (self-compassion and compassion towards others) and curiosity (the catalyst for awareness).

Becoming grounded – arriving at the meditation

Mitra encourages you to first find a position and posture that is comfortable and that will enable you to become grounded.  By bringing your attention to your intention for the meditation, you can physically and mentally arrive at the meditation.   You can start with some deep breaths followed by resting in your breathing.  Mitra suggests that you then scan your body to locate points where you experience comfort – allowing yourself to pay attention to the warmth, tingling or other pleasant sensation.  Invariably your mind will notice points of pain or discomfort – again bring your attention to each of these points and release the tension at that point, allowing yourself a sense of ease and relaxation.

At this stage, focusing on an anchor will help to maintain your groundedness as distracting thoughts will invariably intrude into your process of releasing and relaxing – bringing new tensions such as a sense of time urgency or the need to plan for tasks to be done.  Mitra suggests that you tell yourself that you don’t have to be anywhere else or to do anything else during the 30 minutes of this guided meditation.  The anchor can be a sound – internal such as the air conditioning or external such as the sound of birds.  It can be your breathing – returning to rest in the interval between your in-breath and your out-breath.  Whatever you do, don’t beat up on yourself for these distractions.

Family – a challenging environment

Mitra reminds us that meditation practice is designed to assist us to lead our day-to-day lives mindfully.  One of the most challenging arenas for mindful practice is the family – individual family members can be particularly challenging because of their personality, mental illness, life stresses or a multitude of other factors.  Even very experienced meditators find some family members to be particularly challenging.

One of the problems is that family members become too familiar – we have seen them often and we think we know them, understand them and can predict their behaviour.  However, the presumption of knowledge can result in a lack of curiosity and desire to understand – it can lead to hasty judgments and a lack of compassion. 

Curiosity, on the other hand, will lead us to understand the nature of the mental illness suffered by a family member.  We might presume we know about depression and how it plays out in their lives and yet we can judge them as lazy when they spend most of their day sleeping and continuously leave their room and surrounds in an absolute mess.  If we explore the nature of their illness we might discover, for example, that they are suffering from the complexity of schizoaffective disorder which may involve the symptoms of schizophrenia along with manic depression – a complex mix of disabling conditions that can lead to compulsive shopping, impulsive action, constant depression and the inability to communicate about their depression or hallucinatory episodes.  So, not only are they disabled by depression, but they are also incapacitated by the inability to seek social support.  We might think we know and understand about the mental illness of a family member but the complexity of the arena of mental health would suggest that we have little insight.  If you have never experienced the black dog of depression, you are unlikely to have a real sense of the depth and breadth of its disabling character. 

Mitra encourages us to become “unfamiliar” with our family members and to become instead curious about them – “but compassionately so”.  This includes “showing them who you are” while encouraging them to show themselves.

A self-compassion meditation

Mitra provides a self-compassion meditation (at the 11th minute mark) following the discussion of the family as the “most charged” arena of our lives.  Accordingly, she suggests beginning with a deep breath to release any tensions that may have accumulated during the discussion of family challenges.

She asks you to consider how your posture and breathing would be different if you were adopting a “compassionate curiosity” towards yourself. This compassionate curiosity, a sense of wonder, can be extended to curiosity about your bodily tensions and your feelings.  Are you feeling anxiety about a family member’s depression? Is your body tense, or your mind agitated or are you carrying feelings of resentment along with the bodily manifestations of this abiding anger?

What happens to your mind’s chatter and your body’s sensations when you extend forgiveness and compassion towards yourself for your self-absorption, hasty judgements, lack of understanding and self-satisfaction with “knowing” the other person.  Can you let go of all your self-stories and beliefs that block this self-compassion?  Compassionate curiosity enables you, ultimately, to rest in self-acceptance

You can ask yourself what you are needing and feeling at this point in the meditation and ask for the fulfillment of your needs as you touch your heart and feel the warmth therein. Mitra identifies some needs that you may have, including the need to forgive yourself for all the mistakes that you have made in your interactions with family members.

Compassion towards a family member

At the 28-minute mark of the guided meditation, Mitra suggests you focus on a family member, following your self-compassion meditation.  You could bring your attention to a family member with whom you have had a disturbing interaction.  Its important to bring that chosen person fully into focus.

You can request that you change your relationship to them, for, example, “May I be curious about you to understand you and to prevent myself from forming hasty judgments about you?”; “May I be genuinely compassionate towards you?”

Mitra suggests that you frame your request in terms of a single word that you can revisit from time to time, e.g. “understanding”.  The request could be framed as, “May I understand you and you understand me”.  Your compassionate curiosity will enable you to show yourself and your genuineness.

As we grow in mindfulness, through self-compassion meditation and extending compassion towards a family member, we can develop our compassionate curiosity towards ourselves and them and deepen our understanding and acceptance of them and ourselves.

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Image by MorningbirdPhoto from Pixabay

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Accessing the “Spaciousness Within” through Mindfulness

Often, we are at our “wit’s end” trying to solve problems, overcome challenges or address conflicts. Deborah Eden Tull reminds us that through meditation and mindfulness practice, we can access what she calls the “spaciousness within” – wherein lies peace, calmness, creativity and well-being. In a meditation podcast for the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), Deborah provides two guided meditations and commentary to help us to access this spaciousness while listening to her and to continue to do so beyond the specific meditations.

Initial brief meditation – arriving at the present moment

At the beginning of her podcast, Deborah provides a way for you to transfer your attention from what you have been doing to arriving at being present in-the-moment. This assumes that you still have some level of involvement in your previous activity despite changing your location or attempting to change your focus.

As part of the process of becoming grounded, Deborah suggests that you make yourself comfortable in the first instance through a conscious, restful posture and then begin with a few conscious breaths to help you to become centred. The next part of this centring meditation involves a progressive process of getting in touch with your thoughts, then feelings and finally the bodily sensations that have accompanied you to your meditation exercise.

Following the development of this inner awareness, she suggests that you get in touch with your personal motivation for undertaking the meditation or listening to her podcast – what is it that you are hoping to achieve for yourself? This initial brief meditation closes with taking a deep, full-body breath to open yourself to the experience of listening to her commentary and undertaking the subsequent meditation practice.

Reflection – observing people texting while walking

As part of her commentary on accessing our inner spaciousness, Deborah reflected on observing people on the university campus texting while they were walking between buildings/ classes. She observed that this practice actually builds our habit of busyness – the antithesis of developing the spaciousness within. This multi-tasking activity strengthens our conditioning to be always busy – thinking, planning, evaluating, dramatizing, revisiting the past (depression), anticipating the future (anxiety) – and builds on our overall penchant for distraction.

We can choose to cultivate a life of serenity, ease, calmness and resilience through developing present moment awareness or opt for a life that intensifies restlessness, dis-ease, agitation and fragility. Deborah reminds us that the quality of our life experience is determined by the focus of our attention.   

Her second meditation (beginning at the 14-minute mark) helps you to cultivate the spaciousness within through a focus on your breathing and exploration of the imagery of the ocean.

Mindful breathing and ocean imagery

Deborah’s second guided meditation focuses on breathing. She reminds us that this meditation process should be free of the everyday habit of striving or seeking to change ourselves for the better. It is very much about being rather than doing.

In focussing on your breathing in this meditation exercise, you learn to develop awareness about your breathing in the moment – whether your breathing is deep or shallow, fast or slow, even or choppy. You are encouraged to rest in your breathing and accept it the way it is – not trying to force a desired pattern on your breathing.

Following this focus on breathing, Deborah asks you to imagine an ocean – the turbulence of the waves above and the stillness and vastness of the water below. She encourages you to envisage the calm waters below the waves as the mirror of your “spaciousness within”.

Accessing the spaciousness within

You can choose to develop awareness of the spaciousness within through formal meditation or through informal practices such as mindful eating, mindful walking or stopping/ pausing in the midst of a situation to ground yourself in the present moment.

As we develop mindfulness through formal meditation and other mindful practices, we can access the spaciousness within and experience calmness, resilience, creativity, ease and well-being to improve the quality of our lives.

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

Image source: courtesy of Pexels on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Cultivating Equanimity through Mindfulness Meditation

“Equanimity” connotes peace, balance, composure and acceptance in times that are good or bad.  The word itself can conjure up a sense of serenity. It is possible for some people to experience equanimity on a regular basis because of their personality or lived experience and education.

It is also possible to cultivate equanimity through both general meditation practice and more specific meditation that focuses on developing equanimity when confronted with life events, both those that are experienced as bad and those that seem good to us.

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast on Practising Equanimity which is designed to help us focus on life events that may be a source of disturbance to our equanimity so that we can learn to be with them without rancour or inflated elation.

Experiencing equanimity

Diana, in the prelude to her equanimity meditation, refers to the definition of mindfulness promoted by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA:

Mindful awareness can be defined as paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is.

She particularly focuses on the words, “a willingness to be with what is” – which, in one sense, defines equanimity.  So often we can be absorbed by what has happened in the past (with resentment, disappointment or bitterness) or obsessed about the future (with anxiety, agitation or disturbance).  In the process, we lose our sense of equilibrium and the experience of equanimity.

What we experience as good can also disturb our equanimity because it may be so good that we never want it to end – we want to hang onto the experience and become overly attached to it to the point that we are resentful when it ends.

So being present in the moment and accepting fully “what is” can be very  difficult.   Meditation can enable us to develop a sustained sense of calmness but we can still be put off balance by adverse events or experiences.  Our perception of the global situation may also upset our equanimity.

If we can learn through equanimity meditation to just be with whatever is present in our lives, we can reduce our emotional response, develop creative solutions and take informed action to create change rather than” working from reactivity”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice and specific equanimity meditation (focused on a disturbing or mood-altering event), we can increase our “response ability” and experience clarity and calmness.  Diana’s meditation podcast provides the opportunity to begin this journey to cultivate equanimity.

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

Image source: courtesy of Bess-Hamiti on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.