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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Handling Fear with Mindfulness

In an earlier post, I described a meditation process for handling fear that Tara Brach described by the acronym, R.A.I.N. – standing for Recognise, Accept, Investigate and Nurture.  In the current discussion, I would like to introduce a mindfulness meditation for addressing fear that is discussed and facilitated by Diana Winston.

In the meditation podcast, Working with Fear, Diana describes a process involving a number of steps that help to soften our bodily response to fear.  Diana explains that fear is a natural response to a perception of threat either imagined or real.  This deeply-embed biological response to perceived threat has accounted for the survival of the human race.

Fear is endemic, often unfounded and poorly managed

Increasingly, we are exposed to situations and pressures that tend to induce fear and anxiety, even when the fears are baseless.  We live in a time when anxiety is endemic – we are surrounded by people (including famous actors, singers, writers and sports people) who suffer from all-consuming fear and anxiety.   Much of this fear and anxiety is unfounded.  Diana points out that a recent study by Cornell University found that “85% of the things that we worry about never come true.”

One of the problems with our fear response is that we typically try to resolve the fear by thinking – by trying to think our way out of fear with the net result that this creates a vicious circle.  We tend to indulge our worst scenario thinking, “What will happen if…”, and these thoughts can intensify our fear and anxiety.  Unresolved fear can ultimately lead to a condition that the Mayo Clinic describes as “generalized anxiety disorder.”

Mindfulness provides an effective alternative to trying to think our way through fear and Diana proposes a meditation process that incorporates the following steps:

  • Being grounded through our posture
  • Taking a number of deep breaths
  • Focusing on our breathing and where it is experienced in our body – a process of mindful breathing (for 5-10 minutes) to still the mind
  • Undertaking an overall body scan to  identify and release areas of felt tightness and tension (a quick scan/release process that takes in the whole body)
  • Bringing our fear or worry into focus by thinking about a particular source of fear (preferably, one that is not disabling or too intense)
  • Undertaking a body scan to identify where the fear is manifesting in a particular part of our body – e.g., our arms, legs, back, neck and/or stomach.
  • Softening the muscles in the identified area that is manifesting the fear
  • Repeating the process of checking and releasing the bodily manifestation of our anxiety ( 3 times overall)
  • Coming back to our breath for a brief time and then returning to full awareness.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditations focused on our fear response, we can progressively reduce the fear and replace a sense of anxiety with a calmness and creative approach to resolving our fears.

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Focusing Inward to See Clearly

So much of our daily lives is taken up with focusing on things that are external to ourselves – social media, meetings, conversations about recent events, driving our car or trying to catch a train or bus to work.  Our thoughts are often racing as we plan, evaluate and critique.  As a consequence, we spend so little time focusing inward and getting in touch with our inner reality.

While our focus is external most of the time, it means that we are susceptible to being pushed and pulled by external forces – whether they relate to the internet, invasive advertising, loud conversations or the fast pace of life.

Focusing inward to see clearly

Diana Winston reminds us in her meditation podcast,  Focusing inward and seeing clearly, that mindfulness meditation can bring insight, clarity, creative solutions to problems and a new level of awareness of both our inner and outer reality.

The starting point is to become grounded by placing our feet firmly on the floor and closing our eyes (or looking downward).   This initial step is designed to move our attention from external things to our internal world.

We need a focus to maintain our attention to our inner world.  This focus could be our breathing or sounds.   However, the latter could distract us from our inner work because we are always interpreting sounds, comparing them or recalling memories that are stimulated by particular sounds.

A couple of deep breaths at the outset of our meditation can help us to let go and get focused on our breathing and where in our body it is most noticeable.  A progressive body scan can also help to fix our attention within.  We can feel the sensation of our feet touching the floor, the firmness of our back against our chair and the warmth/tingling in our hands as we progress our meditation.

We might also notice areas of tension in our body and progressively release this tension as we bring our attention to the relevant parts of our body.  This, in turn, can make us open to our feelings which we have been holding back – we could be anxious, frustrated, angry or feeling hurt.  By naming our feelings, we can gain control over them and sustain our attention on our inner focus.

Once we have stabilised our attention on our inner world, we can address several questions designed to deepen our personal insight and increase our clarity, for example:

As we grow in mindfulness through insight meditation, we can unearth new understandings and different perspectives on issues as well as creative solutions, we can really open up the spaciousness of our minds and achieve more of what we are capable of.

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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 Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre (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.

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The 4P’s of Mindfulness in the Workplace

Caroline Welch, Co-founder with Dan Siegel of the Mindsight Institute, presented at the Mindfulness at Work Summit on the topic of the 4P’s of mindfulness at work.   This topic will be covered at length in her new book, The Mindful Woman: From Chaos to Calm, when it is released in 2019.  Caroline’s aim with the book is to encourage and support women to develop the confidence to handle life’s many challenges.

The 4P’s represent ways of bringing mindfulness to the workplace despite the busyness of our lives.  The challenge of being mindful at work is made more difficult for women because of the many roles they play and the challenging questions such as, “When should I go back to work after the birth of my child?”, “Can I maintain a career if I take time off?” “How do I overcome the guilt of leaving my child in childcare during the day?”  The difficulty, and associated stress,  is aggravated by the Type E Woman who attempts to be “everything to everybody”.

Caroline identified the 4P’s as Presence, Pacing, Prioritizing and Pivoting:

  1. Presence – this is foundational and it means being-in-the-moment, realizing that things in life are transitory, consciously being present to people when communicating with them and developing open awareness to appreciate what life provides.  Presence is cultivated by mindfulness practice – a daily routine that develops awareness as a habit that will sustain “presence” at work or in the home.  Given the challenge of “finding the time” to practice, Caroline suggests adopting a “ruthless” commitment to a single practice that is adopted for whatever time you have available, even one minute or “one breath at a time” – attaching the practice to something you already do can assist to make the practice both easily remembered and sustainable.
  2. Pacing – this is dealing with the “impatience of youth”.  Increasingly we want to achieve all at once, particularly in our 20’s or 30’s.  Caroline suggests that we should think in broader timespans than just the immediate day, month or year. It means accepting that you cannot achieve everything in life at once, that life is  very much about phases with each phase enabling the following phase. It also means accepting the fact that people are living longer nowadays – so everything does not have to be achieved now.
  3. Prioritizing – means being conscious of our values (and those of the organisation) while working through the endless priorities that confront us in the workplace.  This also implies letting go of things and delegating to others, or not doing things that are relatively meaningless.  With this comes the realization that yesterday’s priorities are today’s waste bin submissions.  We need to ask ourselves, “What really matters?
  4. Pivoting – this entails being able to pay attention to the relevant data that confronts us daily and being able to make decisions on that data.  This focused attention may mean that you have to leave a job, change career direction, or take on a part-tine or a full-time role, depending on your circumstances.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice with “ruthless” commitment to a daily practice we can gradually realize the 4P’s of being mindful at work with less stress, more satisfying achievements and a healthier life.

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Building Self-Awareness Through Mindfulness Meditation

Daniel Goldman explains that emotional self-awareness is the ability to “recognize and understand our own emotional reactions”.  He maintains that it is the foundation competency for the development of emotional intelligence.  If we have self-awareness, we are better able to achieve self-management and be empathetic and compassionate towards others.

Building self-awareness through mindfulness meditation

Goleman maintains that one of the best ways to develop self-awareness is mindfulness meditation.  He states that  his review of research on mindfulness with Richard Davidson demonstrated that meditation lessens the amygdala control over our response to negative triggers; enables us to be more aware of, and reduce, mind wandering; enhances our concentration and, overall, makes us calmer under stress.  According to Goleman, there is considerable payoff from self-awareness.

Kabat-Zinn, in discussing meditation in his book, Coming to Our Senses, maintains that the purpose of mindfulness meditation is to “cultivate qualities of mind and heart conducive to breaking free from the fetters of our own persistent blindness and delusions” (p110).  He suggests that our innate ability to be aware of our emotions and thoughts has eroded over time, the decline being further exacerbated by the pressures of modern living.   What mindful awareness, “wakefulness”, has brought to society, in his view, is the possibility “to break out of seemingly endless cycles self-delusion, misperception, and mental affliction to an innate freedom, equanimity and wisdom” (p.113).

Goleman in his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, maintains that mindfulness meditation enables people not only to manage their attention but also their emotions (p.198).  As a result, one thing that such meditations can do is increase the response ability of people so that they are better able to create a gap between stimulus and response and choose constructive ways of responding.  He suggests that there is a very wide variety of meditations that can help people achieve the desired level of self-awareness.

Goleman, in his Focus book, also reports a conversation he had with Jon Kabat-Zinn about his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program (p.198).  In that conversation, Kabat-Zinn pointed out that people on their own accord changed their behaviour (e.g. stopped smoking) once they started “paying attention to their own inner states” – this happened despite the changed behaviour not being the focus of their meditation efforts.  Just developing self-awareness about their own feelings and stimuli enabled them to see what needed to be changed in their lives.

As people grow in mindfulness through meditation, they are better able to develop an understanding of their own emotions and thoughts and improve their response to stimuli that occur throughout their day.  In this way, they are calmer and more in control of their reaction to negative triggers.

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Replacing Shame with Kind Attention

Shauna Shapiro, co-author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness, maintains that mindfulness practice involves more than paying attention.  In 2005, Shauna published an article with her colleagues titled Mechanisms of Mindfulness.  In that article, Shauna and her colleagues shared a model of mindfulness that shows that the effectiveness of mindful meditation depends on more than attention alone – it requires a positive interaction of intention, attention and attitude.

In one of her TEDx Talks, Shauna particularly focused on “attitude” because the attitude you bring to mindfulness practice actually grows stronger.  She maintained that her 20 years of mindfulness research confirmed categorically that mindfulness generates clear benefits for our mind and wellness.  However, these benefits are mediated by the attitude we bring to our mindfulness practice.

Shauna’s research and her own lived experience bore out the fact that everyone has a tendency to feel shame for some of the things that they have done in life and that during mindfulness practice, shame can take over and shut down our capacity to learn and develop.

What Shauna discovered was that the attitude required for effective mindfulness practice was one of “kind attention“.  In her view, it takes a lot of courage to face the parts of our self that we are ashamed of.  However, instead of dwelling on negative self-evaluation, which only grows stronger with attention, we need to be kind to ourselves and express self-love and self-compassion.  She found that the simple act of saying, “Good morning Shauna” each morning with her hand on her heart (as an expression of self-love), can begin the movement towards self-love and the ability to say, “Good morning Shauna, I love you”.

Shauna explained that at first this process feels awkward and trite, but she found from her own experience and mindfulness practice that it gradually replaces self-loathing with self-care.  She explained that what we pay attention to grows stronger.  So if we spend our day consumed by shame, frustration or anger, we are only strengthening these attitudes.  Whereas, if we focus on kind attention and genuine self-compassion, we strengthen those attitudes and thicken the part of the brain that enables learning, growth and transformation – a process called “cortical thickening“.

What is interesting is that not only does our neo-cortex thicken but also its connection to the “fear centre” (the amygdala) of our brain is weakened.  So that through continuously practising kind attention, we are better able to view the world and ourselves positively and act effectively in our environment, whether at work or at home.

Shauna told the story of a veteran who was consumed by shame for what he had done in the war zone but when he shared his story with other veterans, their compassion towards him helped to dissolve his entrenched sense of shame (contributing to his PTSD) and enabled him to experience self-compassion.  So, our compassionate attitude to others can also help them move beyond the disabling effects of shame.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practice imbued with kind attention and self-compassion, we strengthen our ability to concentrate, remain calm and make decisions that enable us to function effectively in our challenging world.

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

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Being Mindful at Work

In the previous post, I wrote about mindfulness at work and identified some ways to be mindful while working.  Here, I want to take this further by suggesting some other strategies, again using the article by Shamash Alidina for my inspiration:

1.Slow down

In slowing down, we can become more aware of our inner thoughts and outer environment.  If you find yourself rushing from place to place, you can slow down and engage in some form of mindful walking.  Often we are rushing, not because of a deadline, but because this haste behaviour has become habituated.  You can pull yourself up in the act of rushing around and just take a few steps at a slower pace.  You might ask yourself, “Why am I in such a hurry?”  This mindful practice can start with your behaviour when getting to work, so that when at work you are already conscious of your hurrying behaviour and more able to “slow down to speed up”.

2.Treat stress as your friend

This approach seems counter-intuitive.  Most of what you read about stress is how harmful it is to your health.  Yet there is an optimum amount of stress that improves your health, energy and productivity.  Without sufficient challenge we suffer boredom and malaise; too much stress leads to “frazzle”.   Kelly McGonigal, in her TED talk, encourages you to “make stress your friend”.  Research shows that how you perceive stress can, in fact, influence the way stress impacts you.  If you have a positive perception of stress – you see your pounding heart as energising you and getting more oxygen to your brain – you are able progressively to reduce your physical response to stress and to increase your capacity to manage it.  So, in a lot of ways, it is “all in your head”.   Being mindful, you can get in touch with what is going on in your body, and instead of panicking, you can view this bodily response as “readiness for action”.

3.Develop a gratitude bias

We hear about the negativity bias of our brains, but it is possible to develop a “positivity bias”.  Kabat-Zinn suggests that you become what you pay attention to, e.g. you can become grateful, compassionate or empathetic by focusing on these aspects through mindfulness meditation.   Being mindful of what you have and expressing gratitude for these things “has a positive impact on your creativity, health, working relationships, and quality of work”.  Instead of focusing on the aspects of your job that you do not like, you could look at what you do have that you appreciate – expressing gratitude for the fact that you have a job, that you can make a difference, have a supportive boss, have colleagues who are collaborative or have highpoints in your day when you realise that you are doing something meaningful.  You can substitute a positivity bias for a negativity bias, by frequent and regular recall of what you appreciate in your work.

Your thoughts play a large role in how you experience the world and your associated mental health and mood.  As you grow in mindfulness through the practice of being mindful at work, your thoughts become more positive and your brain becomes “more efficient, focused, effective at communicating with others, and better at learning new skills”.

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Loving Kindness Meditation Towards Our Self

In previous posts, I explored mindful self-compassion,  the challenges in extending compassion to yourself and the power of self-compassion to transform yourself.   I also discussed compassion meditation where we are extending compassion to others.

In these discussion about compassion, we focused on pain and suffering experienced by ourselves and/or others.  In contrast, in the loving kindness meditation, we are exploring what is good and lovable in ourselves and others.

Loving kindness meditation can focus on ourselves or others.  In this post, I will focus on extending loving kindness to ourselves; in a subsequent post, I will explore how to undertake loving kindness meditation towards others.

The basic approach to loving kindness meditation

Diana Winston describes loving kindness meditation as the explicit cultivation of “open heartedness”.  She explains that this is a natural human process and is not false or artificial.   Diana contrasts loving kindness meditation with basic mindfulness meditation in that in the latter, it is essential to stay in the moment, while in loving kindness meditation it is okay and important to be creative in exploring images and loving memories about ourselves or another.

Jack Kornfield, in the online Power of Awareness Course, suggests that there are three elements that traditionally form the framework for a loving kindness meditation:

  1. Intention to express loving kindness towards ourselves or someone else
  2. Envisaging love for oneself or for another
  3. Cultivating the art of loving kindness – developing our open heartedness.

The benefits of loving kindness are numerous and can impact every facet of our lives – our interpersonal relationships, our sense of presence and the way we view every living thing.  Loving kindness meditation towards our self can be difficult because our culture cultivates the opposite – a sense of unworthiness or negative self-evaluation.  Regular meditation practice can overcome these cultural barriers.

If we experience thoughts or feelings other than loving kindness towards ourselves, we can accept them and make them the focus of our meditation too.  When we name our unkind feelings, we can learn to tame them so that they do not prevent us from extending loving kindness towards our self.  Diana Winston suggests that, in this way, these obstacles can become a cleansing process to free ourselves for self-love.

The process of loving kindness meditation towards our self

Jack Kornfield suggests that after becoming grounded and focused on our breath, we can think of two people separately for whom we have an uncomplicated love and appreciation.   Once we have each person in focus, we can extend kind thoughts to each of them in turn  – wishing them health and wellbeing, hoping that they will be safe and strong, wanting them to be happy.

We can then envisage these people individually extending similar loving kindness towards our self.   We can imagine them saying similar words or expressing kind thoughts towards us – wishing for our happiness, wellness, safety and strength.   We can then rest in the warmth of love and appreciation – something that is often below our level of conscious awareness, but which we act on in our daily lives.

As we grow in mindfulness through loving kindness meditation towards ourselves, we make explicit what we know implicitly, silence the negative self-evaluations that otherwise persist in our thoughts and open ourselves to extending loving kindness to others.

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Mindfulness and Response Ability

Mitra Manesh, in her podcast on Mindfulness and Responsibility, noted that the word “responsibility” has two components – “response” and “ability”.  Her discussion and guided meditation are aimed at expanding our ability to respond rather than react.

Mitra maintains that mindfulness meditation, encompassing mindful breathing and body scan, can increase our response options so that our life is not governed by reactivity.  To this end, she leads us in a guided meditation on two occasions throughout the podcast.

During her podcast, Mitra Manesh defines mindfulness as ‘kind awareness and acceptance of our present moment”.  She notes that mindfulness has three essential elements – kindness, acceptance and the present moment. As we grow in mindfulness, we increase our response choices so that we are not held captive to our habituated, reactive responses.

We can more readily accept the present moment with kindness towards ourselves and others.  Kindness towards ourselves requires self-compassion and self-acceptance.  Kindness towards others involves consideration and compassion – being thoughtful and empathetic towards others and their needs.

Reactivity

Typically, in a wide range of situations, we react without thinking or being aware of the consequences of our words or actions for ourselves or others.  If someone “steels” our parking space during busy Christmas shopping, we may have some choice words to say and/or gestures to make.  If someone’s behaviour sets off a trigger for us, we will often react in an inappropriate way, usually with a response whose intensity does not match the seemingly, insignificant word or action that triggered the response – we are in a heightened reactive mode.

Reactivity taps into habituated behaviour that we have developed over time in response to various stimuli in our lives – stimuli such as disturbing situations, annoying  people or frustrated expectations.

Mindfulness and response ability

Mindfulness enables us to identify the negative triggers, isolate our reactive response, name our feelings and provide us with a choice space between stimulus and response.  We are able to expand our choice of responses and maintain calmness and clarity despite the disturbing nature of the situation.

Mindfulness helps us to show up differently in our relationships.  Instead of reacting to conflict with our life partner or colleague by our habit of withdrawal, sullenness or hurtful words, we can have the presence of mind to avoid inflaming the situation and, instead, show consideration and kindness.  Habituated reactivity fractures relationships, mindful responsiveness enriches them.

Our response ability develops with meditation practice because it helps us to grow in self-awareness and self-management.   Mindfulness practice expands our response choices as we “walk the streets of life”.

Note: Mitra Manesh’s podcast is provided as one of the weekly mindfulness podcasts provided by the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA.

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