Christmas: A Time for Kindness and Reflection

Christmas is a time for kindness and reflection. It brings out the kindness in people of all persuasions and provides a time to reflect on the year that has almost passed, as we count down the days to the end of the year.

A time for kindness

Christmas seems to bring out the best in many people – thoughtfulness of others and kindness towards to those who are less fortunate. I recall last year being in Bologna and watching a group of young people moving around the streets on Christmas Eve singing songs to homeless people and offering them gifts. This thoughtful action brought smiles to the faces of people who received this kindness, particularly as they sat huddled in blankets on a cold night approaching zero degrees.

Christmas is a time when families get together and share gifts, when mothers shop with their adult daughters and children wait with gleeful anticipation. It is really a time of giving not only of gifts but also time – time for others whether family, friends or those in need. Christmas is very much a testament to the human heart.

It is also a time to be mindful of others when we are driving in traffic, pressed for that parking space in the shopping centre, and queuing for high demand public transport or taxi/Uber services. It’s a time to take a break from the hurly-burly of the festive season and get in touch with our breathing and appreciate the many things we have to express gratitude for. We have only to think of people less fortunate than ourselves, e.g. experiencing loneliness at Christmas, to realise how much we have to be grateful for. There is so much that we take for granted in our daily lives.

A time for reflection

As we reflect on our past year, we can ask ourselves, “What have we done that contributes to our own mindfulness and that of others we interact with?” Have we been able to maintain a regular form of meditation, mindfulness practice or activity such as Tai Chi or yoga?

I know for myself it is easy to read about mindfulness and to write about it, but it is another thing to maintain regular mindfulness practice. It is difficult to sustain such practices in the face of daily pressures from work, family or the community generally. It pays at times like Christmas to reflect on our practice and identify ways to better maintain our chosen technique(s) for building mindfulness. The benefits can extend to every facet of our lives.

Christmas is a time to reflect in terms of what we have done to share the benefits of mindfulness with others who we come into contact with, either informally or more formally through workshops and training activities. If we have developed the gift of mindfulness, how can we best share this with others who are in need of its benefits – because of mental health issues, stress or time/work pressures?

As we grow in mindfulness, we can more readily extend thoughtfulness and kindness to others, reflect on what we are grateful for in our lives and seek ways to share the benefits of mindfulness with others. Sustaining our mindfulness practice provides the foundation for this growth in internal and external awareness.

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

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Identifying Our Blind Spots through Mindfulness

One of the realities of human existence is that we all have blind spots – what others see in our words and action but we can’t see ourselves.  Our blind spots may be obvious to other people who can see patterns in our behaviour.  The problem is that we can never eradicate our blind spots completely but we can learn to identify them and learn to better manage our responses – to effectively reduce the hurt to others and to ourselves.

Kelly Boys, author of The Blind Spot Effect: How to Stop Missing What’s Right in Front of You, suggests that our blind spots have a number of dimensions:

  • Visual– we actually have a physical blind spot in our eyes. You can check out your physical blind spot in each of your eyes through this link.
  • Attentional – we can suffer from an attentional blind spot because of our lack of ability to truly focus.  Daniel Goleman suggests that the capacity to focus involves the triad of awareness – focus on ourselves, focus on others and focus on the wider context.
  • Cognitive – these are the fixed thoughts we carry about the world and ourselves in the world – “I’m not good enough”, “The world is not safe”.  These may have worked for us over time but will lead us to diminish ourselves and devalue the energy and support of others.  Cognitive blind spots can cut us off from experiencing the world as it is and limit our opportunities.
  • Behavioural– we may be totally oblivious to persistent patterns in our behaviour that are very obvious to others.  It may be the way we respond to criticism or attempt to please others all the time -what Harriet Braiker calls, The Disease to Please.
Identifying the core blind spot

Kelly, in her interview with Tami Simon, offered a simple exercise to help people identify their core blind spot – “the way we hold our perception of ourselves and the world around us together”.  Identifying the core, which often relates to a sense of separateness, can lead to a major transformation in our lives.

Kelly suggests that being still and open to the present moment is a key way to access our blind spots and to understand the underlying pattern in our perceptual, cognitive and behavioural responses. In the exercise she led during the interview she encouraged people to become grounded; be open to, and aware of, their senses (sound, sight, breath) and to notice any tension, tightness or contraction in their body.  Staying with this bodily feeling is a way into understanding the underlying blind spot – “Where does this tension come from?’ “What am I saying to myself about my looks or capacity?’ “How am I perceiving the world or the actions of others?” “How am I planning to respond – why?”

As we persist with this kind of exercise, where we use our bodily awareness as the gateway to our blind spots, we can delve deeper into our core blind spot and open up the way to respond very differently – we can better understand our reactivity in certain situations and increase our response ability.  This self-awareness and self-regulation are key outcomes of mindfulness practice.

As we grow in mindfulness we begin to recognise patterns in our thoughts and behaviour and what we pay attention to.  If we persist in the relevant mindfulness exercise, we will come to understand our core blind spot. This growing realisation opens up new possibilities for us as we free ourselves from the limitations in our perceptions and responsiveness that arise through our blind spots.

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

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How Does Mindfulness Impact Our Behaviour?

Research on mindfulness suggests that through meditation practice we become more connected with ourselves and more in control of our thoughts, emotions and resulting behaviour.  In particular, mindfulness improves the frequency and quality of our paying attention in the present.

Research by scientists on the outcomes of mindfulness point to the development of compassion, reduced sense of isolation, increased resilience and ability to handle stress – all of which impact our behaviour.

Exploring how mindfulness impacts our behaviour

We have to ask ourselves how mindfulness practice changes our own behaviour.  Do we stop ourselves from writing that cutting email when we become angry at an email we received?  Do we immediately retaliate with counter accusations when criticised by someone else?  To what extent has our awareness and understanding of another’s pain increased our empathy and become reflected in compassionate behaviour?

One of the challenges we face in translating mindfulness practice into changed behaviour is that our habituated behaviour is very difficult to change.  Even as we develop mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we will still have to deal with negative thoughts and emotions that arise spontaneously despite our best intentions.  However, our capacity to deal with these challenges should develop so that our response ability increases and we can overcome our habit of responding inappropriately to words or actions that trigger us.

If we do feel agitated, we can have the presence of mind to stop and take a breath, observe what is happening inside ourselves and use the gap between the stimulus (the trigger) and our response to manage our behaviour better.

We can begin to see that we are moving towards more kindness in our interactions with others – it could be that we notice people more, stop and talk to people who seem lonely or depressed, demonstrate more thoughtfulness towards others we encounter in daily life.

A meditation to explore the impact of mindfulness on our behaviour

We can explore for ourselves what impact our meditation practice is having on our behaviour by way of checking our progress towards achieving the equanimity of mindfulness.  We can review how often we have used mindfulness as a form of self-intervention to prevent us from saying or doing something that we considered inappropriate.

Tara Brach asks some penetrating questions about the ways in which mindfulness has positively impacted our behaviour.  In the related meditation podcast, Tara encourages us to let go of the past and attend fully to the present moment.  This meditation is particularly useful if you have reviewed your behaviour and found that you did not act mindfully.  It is a calming meditation that is strongly situated in the present moment and in what you are experiencing within and aware of in your immediate surroundings.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we can begin to see clearly observable changes in our behaviour particularly in moments of stress or when our negative emotions are triggered.  We begin to notice our capacity to control our thoughts and emotions and increase our response ability – to respond in more appropriate ways that build relationships rather than damage them.

 

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

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Managing Expectations through Mindfulness

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

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

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

Managing expectations through mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Intention Setting in the Morning

Mornings can be hectic times as we prepare for work and/or get the children to school. More often than not, we might have a quick snack which we “gobble down” and grab a coffee on the way to work.  We arrive at work and/or the school in a hurry, shouting at people who get in the road and clog up the traffic.

We are quickly lost in the pressing moments of the day – the phone calls, tasks, emails, meetings and whatever else consumes our focus and energy.  We rarely, if ever, ask ourselves, “What am I doing this for?”  So, we can end up going about our day mindlessly responding to whatever pressures, demands or obstacles cross our path.

Melli O’Brien suggests that you can break this cycle of endless “doing stuff” in a hurry, by engaging in a Morning Intention Setting Meditation.   The aim here is to set your intention for the day and align your day’s activities with your values, what gives meaning to your life and what makes you happy.  This intention will then flow through everything you do during the day  –  the way you communicate with people, how you spend your waiting time (e.g. waiting for a bus, taxi or a friend) and what you dedicate your time to.

Achieving an alignment between activity and your dreams, values, happiness and motivation gives you energy and provides a sense of calm and clarity.

Melli offers both a short version of this intention meditation (5 minutes) and a longer version (12 minutes).  You can access both versions on her Mrs.Mindfulness blog.

The blog is worth visiting to gain a better understanding of mindfulness, learn new mindfulness practices and join a community of people who are serious about making a difference in their own lives and that of others.

As you grow in mindfulness by the morning intention meditation, you can approach your day with renewed confidence, awareness and gratitude for the opportunities the day provides.

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

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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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Become What You Practise

Last year, Dr. Shauna Shapiro gave a TEDx Talk on The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger.  In the presentation she highlighted the power of mindfulness practice by drawing on ancient wisdom and recent neuroscience.

Shauna maintained that one of the problems of modern society is that we hold ourselves up to impossible standards and expect perfection when this is not humanly possible.

Dr. Harriet Braiker epitomised this impossible goal when she wrote her 1986 book, The Type E Woman: How to Overcome the Stress of Being Everything to Everybody.  In that book, Harriet challenged women to stop trying to achieve perfection in all their multiple roles, e.g. the perfect spouse, mother, business partner/worker.  She argued that women where killing themselves trying to achieve the impossible.

Shauna stated that perfection was not possible but recent neuroscience has confirmed the long-held view that transformation is possible – we can learn, adapt and change.  Our minds are not a fixed entity but can be transformed through the facility of neuroplasticity.

Shauna who is a Professor of Psychology and co-author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness, found through her research that one of the most powerful means of personal transformation is mindfulness.  This discovery reinforced her own experience of the power of mindfulness when she suffered a serious illness in her teens and had to cope with a pervading sense of loneliness and fear.

In sharing the challenge of learning mindful breathing in a monastery in Thailand, Shauna expressed the frustration she experienced with her wandering mind making mindful breathing a very difficult challenge.  She came to realise that part of the work of mindfulness practice is “to train the mind to be here, where we already are”.

In her presentation, Shauna stopped for a moment to engage the audience in a brief grounding exercise, involving breathing and posture, to reinforce the fact that despite our very best conscious efforts, our mind continues to wander.  Unfortunately, as she illustrated, what happens is our mind then starts wandering into the negative self-evaluation terrain – “What’s wrong with me, other people are doing it right”.

Shauna recounted that her saviour in her time at the monastery was a visiting monk who shared with her the wisdom of five words – “what we practise grows stronger”.  If we practise negative self-evaluation or impatience or resentment, this becomes embedded in our neural pathways.  Alternatively, if we practise being calm and focused through mindfulness meditation, that is what we become.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice or Tai Chi, we refocus our minds, change our neural pathways and open ourselves up to personal transformation on many fronts, not the least of these being greater calmness and focus.

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

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Changing Your Mindset

Shamash Alidina, co-author of Mindfulness at Work for Dummies, suggests that one way to be mindful at work is to change our mindset.  In discussing how to grow mindfulness in a work situation, he identifies two key aspects that relate to our attitude or mental state – self-acceptance and a growth perspective.

The acceptance mindset

Accepting things the way they are in the first instance is a fundamental aspect of mindfulness.  Diana Winston reinforces the concept of acceptance in her definition of mindfulness:

Mindfulness is about paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is.

This means being in the moment with “what is”, accepting what you cannot change, and taking steps to address what can and should be changed.  Fundamental to this mindset is self-acceptance.

If we have made a mistake or overlooked something that should have been addressed, instead of “beating up on ourselves”, we can accept the situation and our role in the outcome and move forward.  If something “unfair” happens to us, we have the choice of carrying resentment and consuming wasted energy, or accepting the reality of what happened, however painful.  This radical acceptance does not mean agreeing with what has happened but accepting reality as it is, accepting the things that we cannot change.

This self-acceptance is fundamental to a growth mindset, because it starts with the acknowledgement and acceptance that we are not perfect, that we make mistakes, and have some deficiencies in knowledge and understanding.

The growth mindset

While accepting “what is” means not fighting against the reality of our own incompleteness, it does not mean accepting what we can change.  One thing we can change is ourselves – we can be open to developing our knowledge, skills, perspectives and attitudes.

This growth mindset is reinforced by the recent neuroscience discovery in the area of the neuroplasticity of the mind – the ability of the mind to change and adjust throughout our life.  It means that our brains are not fixed in our childhood or adolescent years, but can change neural pathways and connections as our brain absorbs and responds to new experiences and stimuli.  The starting point is openness to this possibility – a growth mindset.

A growth mindset, translated into the workplace, means a focus on continuous personal development, a willingness to learn from our experiences through reflection, a readiness to accept and seek critique of our words and actions, and openness to new experiences and challenges.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and mindfulness practice, we can develop both an acceptance mindset and a growth mindset.  These mental states, in turn, build mindfulness – our ability to be fully aware with “what is” in the present moment.

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

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Mindfulness at Work

David Allan maintains that the best place to meditate is at work.  In part, this is because it is often in a work situation that you need to be calm and have a clear mind.  The cost of being frazzled at work is not only lost time through inability to focus but also lost creativity through inability to access the “spaciousness” of your mind.  You need to calm the busyness of your mind to access this creativity.

It is also very true that we spend so much of our time at work that a large part of our day (more than a third) is consumed with thinking and doing, not just being present.  This means, too, that we are not taking the opportunity to access the full benefits of our mindfulness practice developed elsewhere on a daily basis.

David Allan found that he was able to book a relatively underutilised room for 15 minutes a day to enable him to undertake some form of meditation at work on a daily basis.  He found that this short period of conscious mindfulness practice created real productivity benefits throughout his day and served to break the work stress cycle.

Ways to be mindful at work

In a comprehensive article, Shamash Alidina suggests ten ways to be more mindful at work.  I have identified four of these suggestions below that are readily implementable:

  1. Intent to be consciously present – this entails beginning your work day with the clear intent to be present as often as you can.  This intent extends to controlling your thoughts when on-task, maintaining focus even on mundane tasks, working a little slower when the opportunity presents (e.g. after a rush to meet a deadline) and reminding yourself of the very clear benefits for work and life offered by mindfulness.
  2. Use brief mindfulness exercises – there are many opportunities throughout the working day to engage in brief mindfulness exercises.  These could entail open awareness, awareness of our senses, mindful walking or a short compassion meditation.  Sometimes in the workplace we need to engage in a brief self-compassion meditation, instead of beating up on ourselves for a mistake or for unconsciously hurting someone else with our words  or actions.
  3. Overcome the temptation of multitasking – this means consciously avoiding distactions (such as checking social media or the news every few minutes), staying focused on a single task at a time and organising your day where possible so that you can do like tasks together.
  4. Use reminders of the need for mindfulness – Shamash has some detailed strategies here that are very helpful.  Some of these entail linking a work activity to a mindfulness practice, e.g. when the phone rings, taking a deep breath and reminding yourself to be fully present to the caller.   Gradually, with regular practice, these reminders can immediately elicit mindfulness.  Some people may find a mindfulness app an appropriate reminder or an aid to mindfulness at work.
Further ways to be mindful at work

Eckhart Tolle in his talk to Google staff suggested ways that they could be mindful at work, including mindful breathing at their workstation.  Another mindfulness practice that can be employed at your desk is to occasionally focus on physically grounding yourself by ensuring that your feet are flat on the floor and your legs and back are straight.   This can be combined with mindful breathing.  If you are facilitating a workshop you could practise mindfulness through a brief loving kindness meditation directed towards one individual who may be struggling or towards the whole participant group.

Grow in mindfulness at work

If we want to grow in mindfulness through our behaviour at work, we need the strong intent to make the most of the opportunities for mindfulness that work presents.  Regular practice of mindfulness elsewhere will help to build this intent as well as consciousness of the opportunities for mindfulness at work.  Starting small with a single mindfulness practice maintained over three weeks will mean that the practice, such as mindful walking, will become embedded in your daily routine.  You can progressively expand these focused practices so that you become unconsciously competent at utilising opportunities for mindfulness at work.

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

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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.

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

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