Developing Sustainable Intimate Relationships through Mindfulness

Wendy Strgar, intimate relationship expert and author, stresses the role of mindfulness as a pathway to developing a sustainable intimate relationship.  In her books and blog she openly shares the ups and downs, troughs and deep valleys, of the 30 plus years of her relationship with her husband.  Her blog, Making Love Sustainable, has a category of posts devoted to mindfulness.  Wendy’s first book, Love That Works: A Guide to Enduring Intimacy, highlights developing intimate relationships as a learning journey for both partners.  Her latter book which provides a guide to awakening and sustaining intimate relationships focuses on “deep presence” and “attention” as key ingredients of a sustainable and rich intimate life.  I will draw on this latter book to share some of Wendy’s insights into how to sustain an intimate relationship through mindfulness.

Mindfulness for developing and sustaining an intimate relationship

There are very clear lessons in Wendy’s second book on sustaining intimate relationships that link directly to the nature of mindfulness as defined by Jon Kabat-Zin and the definition provided by Diana Winston.  Here are some key points that Wendy makes about developing and sustaining an intimate relationship:

  • Paying attention: Wendy’s longest chapter is devoted to this topic which she considers makes the difference between “fleeting pleasure and lasting happiness” in a relationship.  Her broader focus for a discussion of attention is being fully engaged in something that you love, that enriches you and makes you fully yourself.   A narrower focus that she emphasises is paying attention to your thoughts about yourself and your partner – since our thoughts create our reality.  In practice, this means dealing with negative self-stories on the one hand and developing a growing consciousness of how we think about our partner (a neglected area of personal inquiry).  As we have mentioned previously, “we are not our thoughts” nor is our partner solely what we think they are.
  • Being present: Wendy emphasises presence and being in the moment as key ways to communicate love and respect in an intimate relationship. If our mind is continuously wandering and we are lost in thought (about our “to-do list” for example), we cannot be truly present to the other person. In her blog post, Gifting Your Real Presence, she discusses the relationship benefits of being fully present and ways to achieve real presence.
  • Deep listening: the art of deep listening involves both paying attention and being present.  Wendy suggests that these aspects in combination develop the capacity for “full-body attention” and enable our partner to “feel truly heard”.  This art of listening requires that we do not “try to solve the other person’s problems or to steer the conversation” to something about ourselves and our achievements (to avoid the emotive content of the conversation).  In Wendy’s view, “attentive listening” serves to “enliven our intimate connection”.
  • Being non-judgemental: it is very easy to become obsessed with the negative spiral of identifying our partner’s faults and deficiencies (often to defend our own position or our sense of self-worth).  We can get into the negative habit of highlighting their lack of congruence – the inconsistency between their words (particularly their advice to us) and their actions. Again, paying attention to our thoughts about our partner will surface this tendency to judge and/or project our negative traits onto our intimate partner.
  • Developing the intention to focus on the relationship: Wendy suggests that an intimate relationship should be viewed as a container or environment that sustains “an atmosphere hospitable to love” (and intimacy).  This entails focusing on cultivating the relationship rather than the singular pursuit of our own needs at our partner’s expense or subservience to the assumed needs of our partner out of a sense of obligation.  Focusing on the relationship could also mean exploring the “unwritten rules” in the relationship. When we focus on cultivating the relationship atmosphere we can also think of the analogy of a garden.  Wendy suggests an intimate relationship needs the fertile soil of “showing up” in the relationship (translates to “sharing”), the pure water of setting aside time for intimacy, and the fresh air of clear and unambiguous communication.  
  • Bringing openness and curiosity to the relationship: this aspect lines up with Diana Winston’s explanation of mindfulness.  This entails a readiness to learn about our-self-in-the-relationship (through self-observation) and to get to know and understand our partner intimately – including their needs and preferences, communication style and their energy pattern.

Reflection

Developing a sustainable intimate relationship involves a lifetime pursuit of learning and focused intention to cultivate a loving environment for the relationship (rather than just accepting established patterns of saying and doing things which may be injurious to sustainability).  As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn to pay attention, be fully present, listen deeply, observe non-judgmentally and develop self-awareness and an unadulterated awareness of our partner (not contaminated by our unfulfilled need for attention derived from a deficient childhood).  Being mindful in an intimate relationship does not involve losing our self in the relationship but finding our self through the relationship.  It entails showing up fully in our life to enrich the relationship and engender intimacy through mutual appreciation and gratitude.

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Image by Sasin Tipchai 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.

Developing Kindness through Meditation

Neuroscientists tell us that we become what we focus on because the act of focusing and paying attention creates new or deepened neural pathways in our brain.  So if we are constantly obsessed with criticism – finding fault – then this stance begins to pervade our whole life, and nothing will ever satisfy us.  So too if we develop kindness through meditation, our thoughts and actions become kinder towards ourselves and others.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA, offers a specific guided meditation designed to develop kindness.  This meditation podcast is one of the weekly podcasts offered by Diana or one of her colleagues on a weekly basis through MARC – drawing on personal experience, dedicated research and the wisdom of the global mindfulness community.  The kindness meditation as with most MARC meditations begins with being grounded and then moves to offering kindness to ourselves followed by kindness to others.

Becoming grounded in meditation

There are multiple ways to become grounded – becoming focused, still and fully present.  Often, we can start with deep breathing to enable our body and mind to relax and increase awareness of our bodily sensations.  This enables our focus to move inwards and away from the distractions and intensity of the day – away from the anxiety, negative thoughts and worries associated with meeting deadlines, doing presentations, dealing with conflict or challenging interactions with colleagues or salespeople in stores and supermarkets.

Once we gain some sense of balance and ease with deep breathing, we can move on to undertake a body scan.  This entails progressively noticing the various parts of our body and related bodily sensations, releasing any tension and tightness as we progress.  We can observe the firmness of our feet on the floor, straightness of our back, weight of our thighs on the seat, the pressure on our back from the chair and the tingling and warmth from energy flow in our fingers.  Observation will lead to awareness of tension which we can release as we go – tautness in our shoulders and arms, rigidity in our stomach, stiffness in our neck or tightness in our jaw, forehead or around the eyes.  It is important to focus on tension release and not seek to work out why we are so uptight or tense or, even more importantly, to avoid “beating up” on ourselves or being unkind towards our self because of the “failing” or deficiency” represented by our tension.

Finding our anchor in meditation

The next stage of the meditation is to find an anchor that we can continuously return to in the event of distractions or loss of focus – an anchor to stop us from being carried away by the tide of our thoughts or emotions.  An anchor is a personal choice – what works for one person, may not work for another.  Typically people choose their breath, sounds in the room or some physical contact point.

You can focus in on your breath – bringing your attention to where you most readily experience breathing – in your chest, through your nose or in your abdomen. For instance, you can increase your awareness of the rise and fall of your abdomen with each breath and choose to rest in the space between your in-breath and out-breath.

Another possible anchor is listening to the sounds in your room – listening without interpreting, not trying to identify the nature or source of a sound and avoiding assigning a feeling, positive or negative, to the sound.  You can develop a personal preference for using your “room tone” as your anchor.

Choosing a physical contact point in your body is a useful anchor because it enables you to ground yourself wherever you happen to be – whether at work or home or travelling.  It can help you to turn to awareness rather than your phone whenever you have waiting time.  An example is to focus on the firmness of your feet on the ground, the floor of your room or the floor of your car (when it is not moving!).  My personal preference is to anchor myself by joining my fingers together and feeling the sensations of warmth, energy and strength that course through the points of contact of the fingers.

Whatever you choose as an anchor, the purpose is to be enable you to return your attention to the focus of your meditation and, in the process, build your awareness muscle.  As Diana reminds us, “minds do wander” – we can become “lost in thought”, distracted by what’s happening around us,  planning our day, worrying about an important meeting, thinking of the next meal, analysing a political situation or indulging in any one of numerous ways that we “live in our minds”.

Throughout the process of grounding, it is important to be kind to our self – not berating our self for inattention or loss of focus, not assigning negative labels to our self, such as “weak”, “distractible”, or any other derogatory term.

Kindness meditation

The kindness meditation begins with focusing on someone who is dear to us – our life partner, a family member, a work colleague or a close friend.  Once you have brought the person into focus, the aim is to extend kind intentions to them – you might wish them peace and tranquillity, protection and safety, good health and strength, happiness and equanimity, the ease of wellness or a combination of these desirable states.

You can now envisage yourself receiving similar or different expressions of kind intentions from the same person.  This can be difficult to do – so we need to be patient with this step and allow our self to be unsuccessful at the start (without self-criticism or unkindness towards our self).  We can try to become absorbed in, and fully present to, the positive feeling of being appreciated and loved. Drawing on our memories of past expressions of kindness by the focal person towards us, can help us overcome the barriers to self-kindness.

You can extend your meditation by focusing your loving kindness meditation on others, particularly those people you have difficulty with or are constantly in conflict with.  We can also extend our kindness meditation by forgiving our self and others for hurt that has been caused.

Reflection

Kindness meditation helps us to grow in mindfulness – to become more aware of others, the ways we tend to diminish our self, our bodily sensations and our thoughts and feelings.  It assists us to develop self-regulation – learning to maintain focus and attention, controlling our anger and criticism (of our self and others) and being open to opportunities and possibilities.   Through the focus on kindness, we can become kinder to our self and others (even those we have difficulty with).

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Image by John Hain 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.

How to Let Joy into Your Life

Diana Winston recently provided a meditation podcast on Opening to Joy.  She reinforced that mindfulness is about openness to the present moment in a curious and non-judgmental way.  Diana thought that this particular meditation is relevant in December when we are constantly being exhorted to be “joyful” – when many of us are experiencing emotions other than joy owing to anxiety, depression, or serious setbacks (physical, emotional or financial) at this time of the year.  It is also a time when we can experience extreme levels of exhaustion if we have been working intensely throughout the year or spending lengthy and stressful  days as a carer.  Diana offered this guided meditation as Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA as part of the weekly meditation podcasts presented by MARC.

We can find that at this time of the year our negative feelings can be magnified as the pressure of family celebrations mounts, distressing memories of recent (or even long-past) adverse events well up or existing painful emotions such as loneliness become intensified because we are feeling left out or overlooked or misunderstood or marginalised.  Some people have very recently lost family members as a result of bush fires, car accidents, or other misadventures – while others experience recollections of these devastating events occurring at this time of the year in the past.  It takes a lot of time, focus and energy to heal the wounds of past trauma.

Diana encourages us to be kind to ourselves through self-compassion as well as to show compassion for others.  She encourages us to explore mindful approaches to equanimity to allow peace and joy to re-enter our life if we are experiencing negative emotions or distress.  To this end, she is offering an online course Cultivating Forgiveness as part of the many courses presented by MARC.

Encouraging joy in your life through mindfulness

When we practice mindfulness, we are opening ourselves to joy and contentment – to experiencing what is, in an accepting and kind way.  It does not have to be a laugh-out-loud happiness but can be something small and subtle.  Joy can range from something that is profoundly felt to a simple sense of being content with life at the present moment. It can be the sensation of mindfully taking a walk by the sea, drinking a cappuccino, being fully present and mindfully listening to someone – joy can happen just by being fully here and showing up in our lives.  The act of gratitude for the positive things in our life – savouring our child’s development, our achievements, our friendships – can release us from unease or resentment and let joy into our life.

A guided meditation on cultivating joy

Diana provided a specific guided meditation on how to cultivate joy in your life during the podcast.  The basic steps are as follows:

  • Begin by experiencing being grounded through your feet on the floor, your thighs resting on the chair, your back upright but not strained – developing a sense of stability and being supported.
  • Progressively scan your body and loosen any muscle that may be tight or tense including your feet, legs, arms, wrist, neck, shoulders, shoulder blades, lower back and your face and forehead – your whole body, opening to a sense of well-being and ease.  You can take deep breaths as you progress with your scan and use the outbreath as a way to release tension and let in ease.
  • Now focus on something that will serve as an anchor in the event of distraction – the sensation of your breathing in some part of your body or the sounds in the room (without interrogation of their nature, source, volume or pleasantness).  You can also use the dual process of focusing on the sensation of your fingers being joined while at the same time experiencing your breathing in some part of your body where your attention can focus.  When you experience distractions such as planning, thinking, evaluating or worrying, redirect your mind to the present and your anchor to stay with the sense of ease, rather than the experience of unease.  This process of redirecting attention builds your awareness muscle and increases the prospect of experiencing joy in your life.
  • While you are being anchored through your breathing or sound, be conscious of the peace or contentment you are experiencing.  Pay attention to the joy that arises from being mindful – being fully in the present moment with openness and curiosity and wonderment. 
  • Now focus in on a specific, recent experience of joy – e.g. being with a loved one, sharing an experience with a friend, enjoying company over lunch or dinner, walking in a rainforest, or enjoying the sense of competence when playing tennis or any other sport.  Try to recapture the moment, the sensations, feelings, thoughts and the resultant joy – stay with these feelings and positive thoughts.  You can express gratitude for being able to have such an experience and to have the capacity to recapture it.

The art of cultivating joy flows from our conscious efforts to develop mindfulness and live our lives as fully as we can in the present moment.

Reflection

We can cultivate joy in our lives through mindfulness practices, meditation, reflection and expressing gratitude.  A meditation specifically designed to cultivate joy can assist us to grow in mindfulness and, as a result, more frequently capture and savour the experience of joy in our everyday lives.  We can cultivate joy by being mindful in our words and actions.

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Image by Daniela Dimitrova 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.

Self-Compassion for Healthy Eating

Marsha Hudnall, President and Co-owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run (a whole-body wellness retreat), offers an interesting perspective on how to develop healthy eating – whether that involves avoiding overeating, under-eating or eating foods that we know cause inflammation through allergy or intolerance.  Marsha in her article on this topic suggests that self-compassion is the missing factor in enabling us to persist with healthy eating

Often when we stray from the ideal approach to healthy eating that meets our specific needs, we berate ourselves for our failure to stick to the right path.  Marsha has been a pioneer in the field of non-diet and alternative approaches to healthy eating through her writing, teaching and her work as a board member of the Center for Mindful Eating.   She explains her personal experience and perspective on mindful eating in a Mindful Dietician podcast.  Marsha offers advice too for people who are on dietary restrictions as a result of a health condition – available in a paid webinar titled, When the Doctor Says No.

Self-Compassion for healthy eating

Self-compassion has been the life pursuit of Kristin Neff who stresses the importance of self-kindness to overcome negative thinking in the face of set-backs or temporary defeats.  Kristin reinforces the need to recognise that we share a common humanity and part of our life experience is larger than ourselves (we are not the only one encountering life challenges).  She stresses the role of mindfulness in dealing with thoughts and feelings that damage our self-image and using mindful approaches to grow self-awareness and self-regulation.

In her podcast interview mentioned above, Marsha identifies two key barriers to effective self-compassion – the social and personal obsession with body image (and related materialistic values) and the relentless pursuit of perfectionism.  In relation to perfectionism, she argues that we need to acknowledge that we cannot be perfect – we will make mistakes and poor choices.  This acceptance opens the way to new learning, new habits and thoughtful responses to life crises.  This fundamental realisation was a real breakthrough for tennis player Ash Barty who became Number 1 in the world in 2019.

Mindfulness and mindful eating

Marsha stated that her introduction to mindful eating occurred when Jon Kabat-Zinn visited the Green Mountain retreat center.  She came to understand that mindfulness was essentially about awareness and understanding of the influences shaping our responses and the potentiality of making different choices – choosing between a range of options rather than being locked into a single way of doing things, e.g. mindful eating instead of dieting.  Marsha alluded to the perspective of her mother-in-law, Thelma (Founder of Green Mountain), who talked about “the plank of choice” versus the “diet tightrope”. 

Marsha broadens our perspective on mindful eating when she offers suggestions in her article on ways to bring self-compassion to the process of eating:

  • Give up a fixed way of thinking – what Marsha calls “black and white thinking”.  She suggests, for example, that pizza should not always be branded as bad for you – it may be the best choice when celebrating an achievement with friends. You can be mindful of others, the occasion and the flexibility you have on that occasion – rather than adopting a fixed position that leads to subsequent dissatisfaction for not having “participated” fully in the celebration. In her podcast interview, Marsha argues that we need to adopt a “middle-ground” instead of pursuing unattainable perfection.
  • Become aware of your negative self-talk when eating – Marsha suggests that you write down these thoughts, and also have prepared responses that you can adopt when the debilitating self-critique starts up.
  • Practice giving yourself kind responses – do this whenever a negative thought enters your mind during the day.  The more you do it, the easier it gets and it quickly becomes a default way of thinking – just as awareness practice while waiting can replace the default mode of grabbing your mobile phone to fill the gap.

Drawing on her own personal experience and awareness of research findings, Marsha maintains that mindfulness can help us to contribute more positively and successfully to our own family, work and professional arena.  She observed that as you practice mindfulness, you become more aware of the subtleties of being mindful and its impacts in every arena of your life.  Marsha noted, too, that exploring neuroscience and an understanding of the brain, better equips us to deal with our daily challenges.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that drive us to unhealthy eating and related practices and build the resilience to achieve self-regulation in our eating habits.  Mindful eating involves more than just eating slowly, it also extends to identifying and managing our negative self-talk that can occur while we are eating and other times throughout the day.

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Image by John Hain 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.

Being Disconnected from Meaningful Values Leads to Depression

In previous posts I highlighted the relationship between depression and being disconnected from what is meaningful in terms of work and in terms of relationships with other people.  In this post, I want to draw further on the work of Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, by focusing on the loss of connection to meaningful values.

Being disconnected from meaningful values

In Chapter 8 of his book (pp. 91-105), Johann identifies a third social factor contributing to the rise of depression and anxiety – disconnection from meaningful values.  In this section, he draws heavily on the ground-breaking research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser who explored in depth how our cultural values contribute to the rise of depression and anxiety in today’s Western society. 

Tim was motivated in his search for meaningful values through the music of Bob Dylan and John Lennon and his own independent inquiry into the nature of authenticity while studying at Vanderbilt University, a learning institution committed to curiosity.  Tim was curious about the reason why there was such an increase in the incidence of depression and anxiety in today’s world.  He spent more than 25 years researching and working with colleagues to find the answers.

Tim drew on the work of philosophers and research by others that established that the stronger a person focuses on materialistic values (such as wanting more money and possessions and wanting to be viewed highly by others), the more likely they are to experience depression.  He conducted his own experiments as well and learned that those who gave priority to materialistic values experienced less joy and lived a poorer quality of life than those who primarily pursued meaningful values.  Johann describes Tim’s research projects in detail in his book, Lost Connections.

Materialistic values pursue extrinsic rewards

Philosophers have identified two different types of human motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation seeks an external reward in the form of money, status, recognition or being liked and admired. Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is associated with internal personal rewards that flow from undertaking something for its own sake such as working to make a difference in the world, developing meaningful and supportive relationships, showing compassion towards someone in need or playing an instrument for the sheer joy it brings.  Materialistic values focus on extrinsic rewards and do not add meaning to a person’s life.

Tim engaged 200 people in completing a “mood diary” over a period so that he could establish the outcomes for people who primarily pursued extrinsic goals versus those who pursued intrinsic goals.  He was startled by the results – people who focused on, and achieved, extrinsic goals did not experience any appreciable increase in happiness in their daily life, despite the extraordinary amount of time and energy that they put into pursuing those extrinsic goals (e.g. gaining a promotion, purchasing a new car, buying the latest smart phone).   In contrast, people who pursued, and achieved, their intrinsic goals were “significantly happier” and experienced a decline in depression and anxiety.  These people set goals such as improving the way they related to others and supported those in need.

Johann points out that we all pursue both extrinsic and intrinsic goals and the associated rewards.  However, the challenge is to achieve the right balance – ensuring that materialistic values do not dominate our lives and lead to depression and anxiety.  We are constantly confronted with the choice of whether we pursue an extrinsic goal or an intrinsic one – such as whether we stay longer at work and earn more overtime money or go home to our young family and enhance our relationships with our partner and/or children.

I was recently confronted with such a choice – the choice between an extrinsic goal and an intrinsic one.  I was asked to write a book on action learning and the extrinsic rewards offered were to earn money for the work, receive royalties on an ongoing basis and, in the process, make a name for myself by way of my “legacy”.  The cost for me was to give up writing this blog on mindfulness, as the book would be all-consuming – I would have to give up what I consider to be making a real difference in some people’s lives (including my own) in favour of realising some extrinsic rewards.  I chose to turn down the offer to write the book and to continue to research and write about ways to grow in mindfulness via this blog.  The challenge for me was to put an important intrinsic goal ahead of offered extrinsic rewards.

We can become consumed by materialistic values and the associated extrinsic rewards by spending more and more time and energy in their pursuit, despite their achievement providing less and less satisfaction.  People, for example, chase the next promotion and movement up the ranks and are often prepared to sacrifice their personal values and joy to “get there”.

Western society encourages and reinforces materialistic values

Our consumer society cultivates extrinsic values and advertisers persistently encourage us to have the better car, to look better, to buy eye-catching jewellery, to upgrade our home (in terms of size and/or location) and to attract admiration.  Porsche, for example, in promoting its latest SUV, the E-PACE, describes the new “luxury” vehicle as having “head-turning good looks” – reinforcing the “look-at-me” values of Western society. 

The selfie revolution is another example of our pursuit of “looking good” on social media.  Technologists have pandered to this trend by developing the “selfie drone” which has now morphed into the “dronie” that enables you to focus on your group and yourself and also to back away to highlight your location, thus providing that extra “WOW factor”.  Some selfie drones even let you upload your shots directly to social media – meeting our need for immediacy and convenience. Taking selfies, by itself, does not mean you are pursuing materialistic values – some people use selfies solely for their family album or to share with family connections. The problem comes when taking selfies consumes us and their sole purpose is to establish our (superior) “value” in the eyes of other people.

Each year at Christmas time, there is a rush to have the latest and best toys/games/technologies that are available – what was the benchmark last year is now superseded by something more costly and peer pressure reinforces the “need” for this purchase.  Our children thus become indoctrinated very early into the “must have’ social norms and lose sight of what really makes them happy such as the sheer joy of playing a game with friends in the yard or park.

Our culture drives the desire for extrinsic rewards to the point where our elected officials feel it necessary to misuse their positions of trust to increase their own wealth through corruption.  More than fifty wealthy American parents were recently charged with admissions fraud through a scam designed to get their children admitted to “elite” universities.

Johann points out that multiple studies show that depression and anxiety will be experienced by people who pursue materialistic goals relentlessly – irrespective of their age, social standing or economic means.  He argues that just as junk food creates toxins in our bodies, “junk values” produce “psychological toxins” that invariably lead to depression and anxiety (p.97).

Becoming mindful about our lives and our values

Tim Kasser, in an interview in 2016, encouraged us to reflect on how we spend our time and energy.  He suggested that we look at what we really value and how that is reflected in our life.  He asks us to seriously look at how we act out what we claim to be important in our lives and how well we make time for the things that are important to us.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and mindfulness practices, we can identify the ways in which our words and actions do not align with the values that provide meaning and happiness in our lives.  We can explore ways to make better use of our time, not to pursue materialistic values, but to pursue intrinsic values that provide lasting satisfaction such as making a difference in the world, being fully in the present moment and connecting meaningfully with others. 

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Image by KarinKarin 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.

Carers Need Self-Care

Much of the focus in the resources on mindfulness is on ways to help people who are suffering from conditions that are debilitating such as mental illness or chronic pain.  Very little of the resources focus on ways to help carers in their role – ways to manage the physical and psychological toll of caring for someone else on a constant and extended basis.  Carers are the overlooked group – forgotten by others and themselves.

Carers: people who care and support others

Carers come in all shapes and sizes  – adults looking after ageing parents who may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; siblings caring for a family member who has a mental health condition such as schizophrenia, anxiety or depression; or anyone caring for someone suffering from a physical condition such as paraplegia, chronic pain or cancer.  According to Carers Australia, carers are people who provide unpaid care and support to family members and friends who have a disability, mental illness, chronic condition, terminal illness, an alcohol or other drug issue or who are frail aged.

The toll of caring

The “burden of care” can be felt both physically and psychologically.  The physical toll for carers can be excessive – they can become exhausted and/or accident-prone, suffer from sleep disorders or experience bodily symptoms of stress such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue or related conditions like fibromyalgia. The physical toll of caring can be experienced as cumulative stress and lead to chronic conditions that adversely affect the carer’s long-term health.

The psychological toll of caring can also be cumulative in nature and extremely variable in its impact.  Carers can experience negative emotions such as resentment or anger, despite their compassion towards the person who is being cared for.  They can become extremely frustrated over the paucity of time available for themselves, the opportunity cost in terms of inability to travel or to be away for any length of time, the lack of freedom (feeling tied down), the lack of improvement in the condition of the person being cared for or the financial impost of caring (preventing desired savings/purchases or home improvements). 

Carers do not have inexhaustible personal resources – physical, psychological and financial.  They can suffer from compassion fatigue which can be hastened by emotional contagion resulting from close observation of, and identification with, the pain of a loved one.  Hence, carers can experience depression, anxiety or grief – reflecting the emotional state of their loved ones who are suffering.

The toll on carers has been the subject of extensive research.  For example, Emma Stein studied the psychological impact on older female carers engaged in informal aged care.  Sally Savage and Susan Bailey reviewed the literature on the mental health impact on the carer of their caregiving role and found that the impact was highly variable and moderated by factors such as the relationship between caregiver and receiver and the level of social support for the carer.

Being mindful of your needs as a carer

The fundamental problem is that carers become so other-focused that they overlook their own needs – their need for rest, time away, relaxation and enjoyment.  Normal needs can become intensified by the burden of care and the associated physical and psychological stressors.  Carers tend to neglect their own needs in the service of others.  However, in the process, they endanger their own mental and physical health and, potentially, inhibit their capacity to sustain quality care.

Carers can inform themselves of the inherent physical and psychological consequences of being a caregiver, particularly if this involves intensive, long-term caring of a close loved one (where feelings are heightened, and the personal costs intensified).  Mental Health Carers Australia highlights the fact that people who care for someone with a mental health illness are increasingly at risk of “developing a mental illness themselves”.

Self-care for the carer

One of the more effective ways that carers can look after themselves is to draw on support networks – whether they involve family, colleagues or friends; broad social networks; or specific networks designed for carers.  Arafmi, for example, provides carer support for caregivers of people with a mental illness and their services include a 24-hour carer helpline, carers forum, blog, educational resources, workshops and carer support groups. Carers Queensland provides broader-based carer resources and support groups.

Carers tend to go it alone, not wanting to burden others with “their” problem(s).  They are inclined to refuse help from others when it is offered because of embarrassment, fear of dependency, concern for the other person offering help, inability to “let go” or any other inhibiting emotion or thought pattern – in the process, they may stop themselves from sharing the load.

Carers could seek professional help from qualified professionals such as medical doctors or psychologists if they notice that they are experiencing physical or psychological symptoms resulting from carer stress.

Mindfulness for carers

Carers can use mindfulness practices, reflection and meditation to help them cope with the physical and emotional stresses of caregiving.  Specific meditations can address negative feelings, especially those of resentment and the associated guilt.  Mindfulness practices can introduce processes that enable the carer to wind down and relax – such as mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating or using awareness as the default when caught up with “waiting” (a constant companion of the carer role).

Carers can employ techniques such as body scan to relax their bodies and release physical tension.  Deep, conscious breathing can also help in times of intense stress such as when experiencing panic. For people who are religious, prayer can help to provide calm and hope.

Dr. Chris Walsh (mindfulness.org.au), offers a simple mindfulness exercise for self-care by carers in his website article, Caring for CarersThe exercise involves focusing, re-centering, imagining and noticing (thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations).

As carers grow in mindfulness, they can become more aware of the stress they are under and the physical and psychological toll involved. This growing awareness can lead to effective self-care through social and professional support and meditation and/or mindfulness practices. Mindfulness can help carers develop resilience and calmness in the face of their stressful caregiver role.

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Image by Sabine van Erp 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.

Mindfulness and the Mind-Body Connection

Dr. Cheryl Rezek, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, in her video presentation, What is mindfulness, stresses the connection between mind and body.  She highlights the fact that stress is not only experienced in the mind through perception of threat but also in the body in the form of stomach aches, headaches, pain in the shoulder or other parts of the body and many forms of physical illnesses.  Cheryl draws on neuroscience research to demonstrate the positive impact of mindfulness on the body and the brain.

What is mindfulness?

Cheryl discusses mindfulness in terms of “focus with intention” – designed to become more aware of what is happening inside of us as well as around us. She stresses the role of context in shaping who and what we are.  In her own practice and research, she seeks to integrate insights from biology, sociology and psychology – a holistic perspective on the forces shaping our makeup and the way we experience the world.  For example, like Johann Hari, she sees negative childhood experiences as contributing to the likelihood of experiencing depression in adulthood.  Our social environment – whether family, work or community, in isolation or conjointly – shape our perceptions.  Cheryl’s holistic approach is reflected in her training in the interrelated disciplines of clinical psychology, psychotherapy, play therapy, family therapy and mindfulness.

She reminds us that children are naturally mindful as they negotiate their world – they are curious and open, asking questions, exploring nature and wondering about their own bodily sensations.  I recall recently playing tennis with my grandson in a clearing in a wooded area while my granddaughter sat on the grass and explored everything in her immediate environment- the grass, wildflowers, leaves and anything that wriggled or moved.  Her attention was totally focused for an hour on whatever she could see, touch or smell.

Applications of mindfulness

In her presentation, Cheryl discusses the numerous applications of mindfulness – from dealing with chronic pain to managing mental illness.  Her own writings reflect this diversity of mindfulness applications.  For instance, she talks about how mindfulness can help people manage contracting cancer and undergoing treatment – her ideas are explained in her book, Managing Cancer Symptoms: the Mindful WayShe also discusses the application of mindfulness to dealing with Anxiety and Depression.

Cheryl stresses the importance of seeing mindfulness in its broadest context – not confined to the act of meditation but extending to being mindful in our everyday activities such as walking, listening, eating, attending meetings, waiting and washing the dishes.  She offers an app, iMindfulness on the go, to encourage people to be mindful when in transit or engaging in any of their daily activities.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become aware of the opportunities to be mindful in our everyday activities.  Practice of simple mindfulness activities builds our inner and outer awareness and helps us to better navigate the stresses of life.

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Image – Painting by a Chinese-born artist who experiences the mental health condition of Schizophrenia

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.

When You are Waiting, Have Awareness as Your Default and not Your Phone

When we are kept waiting, we typically grab our phone to “fill in the time”.  We might check emails or social media or the latest news; our default is our phone, not taking the opportunity to develop awareness.  One of Diana Winston’s students told her that when he was waiting or had time on his hands, he no longer defaulted to his phone, but “defaulted to awareness”.  Diana Winston addresses this process in her book,  The Little Book of Being (p.184).

Default to awareness

When we are kept waiting for a bus to arrive or to see the doctor/dentist, or are stalled in traffic, we feel bored or ill at ease.  We can become agitated, annoyed or even angry – all of which can negatively impact our subsequent interactions with others. To alleviate this discomfort, we often resort to the phone as our default response.  However, the “waiting time” provides the perfect opportunity to further develop awareness.  The opportunities for this positive response are seemingly endless. During the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Program that I attended in Sydney, one of the participants reported that they practised mindful awareness whenever they waited for the jug to boil when making a cup of tea or coffee.  The participant reported that by building this habit into something he does on a regular basis, he was able to develop awareness as a part of his everyday activities.

Diana suggests that the way to drop into awareness instead of reaching for your phone is to begin by focusing on your feet.  You can feel the pressure of your feet on the floor or the ground and be conscious of this “grounding”.  You can then progress to getting in touch with your breathing and rest in the space between breaths.  This can be followed by a brief or elongated body scan (the duration of the scan depending on how long you have to wait).  You can then explore points of tension in your body and release the tension or soften the muscles involved.  If you are experiencing negative thoughts and/or feelings, you will inevitably feel tense in some part of your body – noticing and releasing tension develops your awareness.  If you begin to adopt these mindfulness practices on different occasions when you are waiting, you will find that you will “default to awareness” naturally – your phone will not be your “first port of call”.

If we use our waiting time as a conscious effort to grow in mindfulness, we can develop the habit of dropping into awareness, instead of reaching for our phone. We can explore either inner or outer awareness and develop our capacity for self-regulation and gratitude, as well as build calmness and equanimity in our lives.  Defaulting to our phone, on the other hand, increases the pace of our life and can intensify our agitation.

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Image by Quinn Kampschroer 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.

Cultivating Concentration through Meditation

In some traditions, concentration is seen as separate from but essential to mindfulness. Concentration is described as “one-pointed focus” or bringing our attention to a single focus in a unified way. Concentration is thus viewed as the servant and enabler of mindful awareness – both inner and outer awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn maintains that “concentration is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice” and that as we cultivate our concentration we increase our capacity for mindfulness – becoming fully aware in the moment.

Cultivating concentration through meditation

Diana Winston in a guided meditation on Cultivating Concentration offers four breath-based meditation practices that can build concentration and enable us to stop our minds floating in multiple directions as random thoughts assail us. While we are naturally able to concentrate to achieve a task (e.g. write a business plan, read a blog post, carry on a conversation), we have lost the art of single-minded focus owing to the level of distraction that surrounds us at any point in time. Jon Kabat-Zinn, for example, maintains that we are “perpetually self-distracting”.

Diana suggests that some simple meditation practices can cultivate our concentration, and through repetition, develop the capacity to maintain our concentration over longer periods of time. She drew on research conducted at UCLA that demonstrated that adolescents and adults with ADHD who persisted with meditation practice over eight weeks, improved their ability to maintain their focus, even when there were many things competing for their attention.

Meditation practices to cultivate concentration

  1. feeling the breath – concentrating on the act of breathing by focusing on where in your body you experience your breathing. For example, this could involve focusing on your breathing as you feel it in your nose, abdomen or chest. This requires focused attention on the breath, not attempting to control it.
  2. naming the act of breathing – here you concentrate on your breathing, and as you do so, describe what is happening, “breath in, breath out”, “chest rising, chest falling”. This focuses your mind on what is happening in your body as your breathe.
  3. counting your breaths – as you breathe, count each breath. Diana suggests that you count 1 to 10 and then begin again. Whenever, your mind wanders from counting your breaths, she encourages you to start your count again. As an alternative to the ten count, you can adopt the practice of counting to 50, as proposed in the “awareness-focus-loop” approach.
  4. using the gap – there is a natural gap between your “in” and “out” breath that you can focus on. As you complete each “in” and “out” breath, take your focus to a part of your body (e.g. your hands or feet) before you begin the next breath. This process can serve to reinforce that part of your body as an anchor for your mindfulness.

In each of these meditation exercises, it is important that you develop the capacity to return to your focus once a distracting thought intervenes. This strengthens your concentration power and increases your capacity to be mindful when undertaking any activity in your daily life.

We can grow in mindfulness by cultivating the power of our concentration through specifically targeted meditation practices that aim to develop the ability to sustain a single focus over an extended period of time. As our concentration power develops, our inner and outer awareness deepen and become richer and more life-enhancing.

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Image by athree23 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.

Resilience and Positive Psychology

Louis Alloro, co-founder and faculty member for the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) at The Flourishing Center, recently presented a webinar on The Science of Resilience. In his presentation, he described resilience as the ability to persist in the face of adversity or setbacks in the pursuit of one’s goals. This approach focuses on perseverance when encountering blockages – a view that emphasizes the ongoing nature of resilience, rather than the espisodic view which describes resilience as “bouncing back” from some major adversity.

Positive Psychology and resilience

Positive Psychology has its foundations in the work of Dr. David Seligman, author of the books, Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness. David highlighted our capacity to live an optimally fulfilling life through training ourselves to think positively rather than indulge in negative or pessimistic thinking. Positive thinking keeps us open to possibilities, while pessimistic thinking focuses on barriers to achievement. Resilience builds through positive thinking, while pessimistic thinking leads us “to give up”.

In David’s view, “authentic happiness” is achieved by putting the spotlight on our strengths, not our deficiencies. This positive perspective enables us to develop what is best in ourselves, rather than being obsessed with where we “fall short” or where we deem ourselves to be “not good enough”. Focus on the positive aspects of ourselves enables the achievement of sustainable contentment or equanimity and releases the energy to build a better world. It shifts the emphasis from avoiding “mental illness” to developing “wellness”.

Our thinking shapes our emotions and behaviour

In his presentation, Louis discussed the ABC Model underpinning authentic happiness. “A” stands for the activating event (or stimulus), “B” for beliefs or thoughts about the event and “C” for consequences expressed in terms of emotions and behaviour. So, when something happens, we can view it positively or negatively and, depending on our beliefs or thoughts about the situation, we will experience emotions (positive or negative) which, in turn, leads to our behaviour. One of the easiest ways to view this cycle (optimistic or pessimistic) is to consider the possible range of responses to “being ignored by a colleague at work”.

Louis reminds us of the words of Viktor Frankl that there is a gap between stimulus and response, and that choice and consequent freedom lie in the gap. We can choose how we use the “gap” to shape our thinking about a situation and that choice determines our resilience and happiness. A fundamental way to do this is to bring mindful awareness to our intention (why we are doing what we are doing), to our attention (consciously paying attention) and to our attitude (one of accepting what is, openness to possibilities and curiosity about our inner and outer world).

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can progressively overcome our innate negative bias and build a positive orientation that develops our resilience, releases energy and opens the way for creative actions to deepen our wellness and happiness and contribute to a better world. Developing mindful awareness of what we bring to each situation – our intention, attention and attitude – enables us to be truly resilient in the face of difficulties and blockages (real or imagined).

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Image by athree23 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.