Recognising Our Emotions and Our Feelings

In the previous post, I explored the benefits of mindful breathing in terms of increased self-awareness and self-management and the capacity to become more in touch with our breathing.  As we develop our mindfulness practice, we are able to move beyond breathing mindfully to recognise our emotions and feeling states.

The emotional roller-coaster of life

Feelings are “part and parcel” of being human.   If we ignore them or suppress how we feel, emotions will take over our lives – we will be controlled and overwhelmed by them.  Previously, we saw the physical and psychological damage caused by suppressed feelings in a toxic work environment and when midwives suffered trauma in silence following a critical incident.

We can allow emotions to work for us or against us – we can learn to recognise them and treat them with loving awareness and kindness.  Too often we attempt to deny or ignore our painful feelings because they cause discomfort and upset our expectation of a pleasant life.  Jack Kornfield, in the Power of Awareness Course, reminds us that we seek to make our life comfortable in so many ways – we seek the comfort of air conditioning or a soft pillow or mattress.  He points our that we try to deny the conflicting reality of being human – lives that engender joy and pain; praise and blame; elation and depression; happiness and sadness; gain and loss.

We assume that things will go along as expected – until we are confronted with a serious illness or a substantial loss or defeat.  Jon Kabat-Zin suggests that it is “certifiably absurd” to assume that things will always go on the way they are now.  He argues that “stress really has to do with wanting things to stay the same when they are inevitably going to change” – the fundamental “law of impermanence”.

Mindfulness and recognising our emotions

Mindfulness meditation can give us the capacity to handle the wide range of emotions that we will have to deal with in life.  This is not to say that we will not experience upsets or “come to grief”, but that we will reduce our reactivity to these emotions and regain balance more easily – we will have the ability to “bounce back” more quickly.  In other words, we will develop our resilience.  Jack Kornfield reminds us that recent neuroscience research confirms the view that mindfulness builds resilience and creates a “window of tolerance” – a greater openness to life events that we experience as adverse or painful.

Matt Glaetzer epitomised this expanded tolerance of adverse events in the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, in 2018.  Matt was world champion and Commonwealth Games record holder for a sprint cycling event he contested and was also the fastest qualifier for the 2018 sprint event.  Yet he was beaten by the slowest qualifier, Malaysian Muhammad Sahrom, and was eliminated from the race and did not make the quarter finals.  Matt was “gutted” and devastated by this defeat and the loss of a real gold medal chance.

However, Matt had to race the 1,000 metre individual cycling sprint the following day.  He went on to win this time trial race and the Gold Medal.  When asked how he recovered his balance, Matt stated that “I had to regroup, sometimes things don’t go the way you plan them”.   He sought out the support of family, team mates and friends; said a prayer; and reset his mind to get his “head space in the right area“.  This changed mindset involved not wallowing in his utter disappointment but focusing on winning a gold medal for Australia.   Matt faced the depth of his emotions and feelings after the embarrassing loss and focused his mind on his next goal, rather than “beat up” on himself for making a bad tactical error in the first race.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can liberate ourselves from the potential tyranny of our emotions by recognising them for what they are, by understanding their influence on our thinking and behaviour and by taking constructive steps to manage our emotions to  gain self-acceptance and balance and avoid reactivity.

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

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The Power of Awareness: Mindful Breathing

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, in their online Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training, stress the importance of mindful breathing as a universal practice that is foundational to developing mindfulness.  Jack not only leads participants in a mindful breathing practice, but also explains the rich rewards of this practice.

Why practice mindful breathing?

Mindful breathing is, perhaps, the simplest and most accessible mindfulness practice.  It can be done anywhere, anytime because we are always breathing, whether we are conscious of it or not.  Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that it is lucky that our breathing is not dependant on conscious thought, otherwise we would stop breathing because we are so often unaware of what is going on within and around us.

In a talk to Google staff, he explained to the managers and programmers present that they could easily take a few moments and do mindful breathing at their desk during the day.  Mindful breathing is so powerful because it gives us access to both self-awareness and self-management.

Developing self-awareness through mindful breathing

Jack talks about breathing mindfully as opening a window to ourselves.  If we are having trouble starting the practice – by locating a place in our body where we sense our breath (e.g. in our chest, throat, nose or stomach) – then this tells us something about our lack of awareness.

As a window, mindful breathing allows us to look in on ourselves – to notice the thoughts and their content that pass through our minds, to sense the tightness in various parts of our body and to understand the link between our emotions and our bodily reactions, e.g. fear creating tightness in our chest, nervousness causing us to shake.  We become acutely aware of our emotions and the connection between our mind and emotions and our emotions and our body.

The secret to mindful breathing is to not entertain our thoughts but to let them float by, while noticing what they are telling us about ourselves.  What do we think about most – is our mind always in the past or the future?  Do our thoughts depress us or create anxiety?  Are we always planning, not stopping to experience the moment?

Developing self-management through mindful breathing

Even the way we are breathing is rich with information about ourselves – is our breathing getting faster (anxiety coming on) or slower (learning to relax).  Are we becoming conscious of the space between our in-breath and our out-breath?  With our growth in self-awareness comes the opportunity to develop self-management.

Conscious breathing is used worldwide for self-management in a range of contexts – midwives encourage birthing mothers to breathe slowly and deeply; remedial massage therapists encourage you to breathe through the pain; and people who teach singing, like Chris James, begin with explaining to people how to breathe properly to release the tension in our bodies and vocal cords.

We know intuitively that if we slow down our breathing, we can become more relaxed and less anxious.   Some self-management practices, such as the SBNRR process previously explained in relation to managing negative triggers, begin with stopping and breathing consciously but slowly.

Mindful breathing practice itself does not require us to control our breath, but to notice it by focusing on where we can sense it in our bodies.  Increasingly, we become aware of the stillness and spaciousness in mindful breathing.  However, it does take practice to realise the full benefits of mindful breathing.

Jack suggests that, as a starting point, we practice breathing mindfully twice a day for five minutes each time.  He suggests that if we do this at a regular place and time, the habit will be sustained.  The secret to success in developing awareness is to start small, but start now.

Breathing mindfully helps us to slow the pace of our life, to access our creativity and to develop calm and clarity.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we open the window to self-awareness and enhance our capacity for self-management.

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Calming the Busyness of Our Minds

Haruki Murakami, the famous Japanese author, in his book  A Wild Sheep Chase,  gives us an insight into the busyness of our minds when his lead character comments:

My body was hazed to the core, but my mind kept swimming swiftly around through the convoluted waterways of my consciousness, like a restless aquatic organism.

This churning of our brains, stimulated by endless disruptive advertising, means that we spend so little time just being still in both mind and body.  There is so much of life we miss out on because we are so unaware with our focus oscillating beyond the present to the past or the future.  As Andy Puddicombe suggests, it only takes ten minutes a day to be still and do nothing, while experiencing calmness and happiness – escaping the torment of a turbulent mind.

Jack Kornfield, in discussing awareness, tells the story of a famous violinist who took part in an experiment to demonstrate peoples’ lack of awareness.  The violinist was due to play in a concert on a particular night before 1,000 people.  However, during the day of the concert, he set up in a busy street in New York and started playing his violin in his inimitable, brilliant style.  At the end of the day, he had only $17 USD in his hat which he had left out for donations.  Very few people stopped to listen, only young children tended to stop and take in the music.

Most people who walked past the violinist, or hurried past, were “lost in thought” – unable to hear and focus on the beauty of the music.  If only we could recapture the wonder of young children who are intensely attuned to their senses and not yet captured by their minds.  To wonder at what we hear or see, taste or touch, or smell. requires us to be present like a child.  It takes awareness and the ability to still the ferment of our minds.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practice, we can learn to calm the busyness of our minds and to value stillness and silence – the nurturing environment for creativity and mental health and wellbeing.

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

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Mindfulness, Action Learning and Reflection

In a previous post, I discussed how action learning and mindfulness can be mutually reinforcing in terms of building self-awareness.  With action learning, the catalyst for self-awareness and redefinition of self and role are the external challenges that confront the limitations of your own sense of self.  For mindfulness, the pursuit of awareness leads to the exploration of your own thoughts and emotions in everyday life and particularly in relationships and interactions.

Reflection in action learning moves from the outside to the inside, while reflection in mindfulness moves from the inside to the outside.  Hence, action learning and mindfulness are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

In this post, I want to explore how action learning and mindfulness are mutually reinforcing in relation to development of the art of reflection.

Reflection

Reflection is a process of exploring our understandings and feelings we have identified as part of a review of our actions and their outcomes, intended and unintended, or a process of exploring both our understandings and feelings that we are experiencing during the course of some action or inaction.

Donald Schön (1983), author of The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, argues that reflection defines the professional and he differentiates between reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action, the former occurring after we have taken some action, the latter involving reflection in the course of taking action.

Reflection-on-action

Reflection-on-action is often referred to as “reflective practice” which can be defined in the following way:

Reflective practice occurs when you explore an experience you have had to identify what happened, and what your role in the experience was – including your behaviour and thinking, and related emotions.

We reflect on our experiences to understand what we and others have contributed to a situation and its outcomes, so that we can improve our contribution and the outcomes in future situations.

Mindfulness prepares us for the reflective practice involved in action learning.  If we are mindful, we are more aware of our environment, our thoughts, emotions and actions.  Hence, we are more present to the situation and better able to notice and recall what transpired when we planned and took action.  This leads to a clearer perception of our role in the planning and action.  We also have a clearer understanding of what happened, consequences intended and unintended, and why those occurred.

Mindfulness also builds self-management so that we are better able to reflect on what transpired because our reflections are not clouded by unresolved feelings or distorted recall that is influenced by “confirmatory bias” – in other words, we can avoid “reading into’ an experience an assumption that we confirm by selectively revisiting what happened.  Without effective self-management, we can delude ourselves that our reflections on our experiences are accurate when, in fact, they are clouded by our biased perceptions and assumptions (some of which we have developed to protect our self-esteem).

Mindfulness, then helps us to better reflect on action because we are more present when we undertake the action.  We are more tuned to our senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell – more perceptive as a result.  Our recollection of what happened, both in terms of ourselves and others, is more accurate because we are more aware when the action is taking place and less biased when reflecting on what took place.

Reflection-in-action

Donald Schön (1983) describes reflection-in-action as a process whereby we stop ourselves in the course of taking action and change our approach to improve our outcomes:

The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation. (p.68)

Mindfulness also makes us better able to reflect-in-action because we are more aware of ourselves and our environment.  It can help us to stop and reflect in the course of planning or taking action based on our plans (or actions taken spontaneously or reactively).

Our improved self-management achieved through mindfulness helps us to retain our balance while taking action and gives us the capacity to effectively manage negative triggers.

Mindfulness, Action Learning and Reflection

Mindfulness enriches both reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action, while action learning acts as a catalyst to mindful reflection on our actions and their consequences.  We need to be mindful to be able to reflect-in-action – being present with full awareness.  So mindfulness and action learning enrich each other.  The more we practice reflection on our actions, the more we are able to spontaneously reflect-in-action.

Action learning typically involves working, and reflecting, in a group so that we can be open to “supportive challenge” by others in the group, resulting in challenge to our assumptions and perspectives.  Adelle Bish and Bob Dick, in their conference paper, Reflection for everyone, highlight the fact that reflection in an action learning context can be “seen as having two dimensions, one individual and intrapersonal and the other interpersonal and interactive” (p.11).  These different dimensions are considered to “reinforce and build on each other” (p.12)  Mindfulness enhances the individual/ intrapersonal dimension by virtue of the distinct personal benefits that accrue through mindfulness practice, and also enhances interpersonal relationships.

As we grow in mindfulness, our awareness of ourselves, our interactions and our environment grow and enable us to engage more effectively in action learning – we become more perceptive, more present, more creative and bring calmness and clarity to the situation.  Mindfulness and action learning, acting in concert, are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

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

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Training the Mindfulness Trainers

In their report, Mindful Nation UK, the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) expressed concern that many people offering mindfulness training to organisations are not adequately trained or not trained at all.  When there is any major movement, there are all sorts of people who “get on the bandwagon” to make a name for themselves and/or to make large profits.  For example, Reg Revans, the father of action learning, complained that unqualified and unskilled people were offering action learning consultancy at USD$10,000 per day and were in it only for the money.

MAPPG stated at the time (2015) that there seemed to be no recognised way for trainers in mindfulness to gain appropriate training and certification. This gap in training and certification is closing with a number of reputable organisations moving to ensure that people who offer training in meditation are themselves properly trained and certified.

Training and Certification for Trainers in Mindfulness and Meditation

Sounds True, is a multimedia publisher founded by Tami Simon in 1985.  The organisation provides resources and training to enable personal transformation with a strong emphasis on mindfulness and meditation.

Resources include free weekly audio interviews with inspiring speakers such as Goldie Hawn, downloads of videos & other publications, and online training tools.   These resources are provided to support you in your own mindfulness journey.

The Mindful Nation UK report acknowledged the growth of digital mindfulness training in many organisations throughout the UK and viewed it positively as a means of extending access to mindfulness training in the workplace as well as providing back-up resources for trainer-led mindfulness activities.  The report acknowledged, however, that there needs to be more research to support the efficacy of digitally-based programs (p.43).

Sounds True combines the best of both worlds – interaction with mindfulness trainers along with digital delivery – in a series of offerings that are available, some paid and others free.  For example, the recent Mindfulness and Meditation Summit, one of a number throughout the year, included video presentations by leading mindfulness trainers such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach with Q & A sessions at the end of each presentation.  The summit was offered free during the live presentations by 32 speakers over 10 days, along with guided audio meditation practices.  A paid, upgrade option is also available to be able to download the video presentations and additional resources from the completed summit.

Sounds True also offers more formal training for potential teachers of mindfulness and meditation.  A paid, online course, The Power of Awareness, offered over 7 weeks by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach includes live video presentations (downloadable), online library resources and other gifts.  The online course offers both interactive and personal study resources:

  1. 26 mindfulness training sessions recorded live and available on video for download
  2. Personal Mentor and Group Online Study Sessions
  3. Resources for guided meditation practices
  4. Workbook incorporating reflections
  5. Exercises for personal journaling.

Completion of the Power of Awareness Course entitles the participant to a Certificate of Completion provided jointly by The Greater Good Science Center at The University of California, Berkeley and The Awareness Training Institute (ATI).

As you grow in mindfulness and experience its many benefits, you will feel compelled to share your experience and insights with others.  One way to do this is to provide training in meditation and mindfulness.  However, you really need to have established your own mindfulness practices and undertaken adequate training to be able to effectively helps others as a teacher.

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

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Benefits of Mindfulness in the Workplace

The Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) commissioned a report titled, Mindful Nation UK.   The report covers the role of mindfulness in health, in education, in the criminal justice system and in the workplace.  It draws on research and shared experience of the benefits of mindfulness in these sectors.

Mental Illness in the Workplace

In relation to mindfulness in the workplace, Mindful Nation expressed concern at the rising costs to industry and government (estimated to be in the billions of pounds) resulting from absenteeism, unemployment and “presenteeism” caused by mental illness.  The causes of the mental illness are identified as stress leading to depression and anxiety.  The challenges of the normal working environment are also compounded by structural change brought on by the advance of information technology and robotics.

Benefits of Mindfulness in the Workplace

MAPPG was impressed by the wide range of research that has been conducted and the adoption of mindfulness in many large companies in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors throughout the UK.  However, the report highlighted the need for more in-depth research into mindfulness in the workplace and its benefits – noting that reported benefits include:

  • positive impacts on burnout, wellbeing and stress
  • improved focus and cognitive skills
  • improved creative problem-solving skills
  • better comprehension and decision making
  • improved reaction time.

Research results in specific workplaces were reported as:

  • School teachers – improved emotional skills and greater sensitivity and positivity
  • First responders (e.g. police and fire services) – quicker recovery, more sleep, less emotional reactivity and better memory utilisation and immune response
  • US companies – improvements in emotional intelligence giving rise to better decision making
  • Judiciary (US intervention) – reduced bias and assumptions along with enhanced focus, attention and reflection
  • Health professional – increase in the quality of care through improved empathy and compassion.

The 2015 Mindful Nation UK report recommended strongly that The National Institute of Health Research seek funding and undertake research to close the gap in quality research support for the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace.  The report, however, concludes from two reported studies that:

Even brief periods of mindfulness practice can lead to objectively measured higher cognitive skills such as improved reaction times, comprehension scores, working memory functioning and decision-making. (p.41)

As managers and leaders grow in mindfulness through a diversity of mindfulness practices in the workplace we should see a reduction in workplace mental illness and in the flow-on organisational and social costs.  The research needs to identify what mindfulness activities best produce specific positive individual and organisational outcomes.

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

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Mindfulness Lessons from Reported Near-Death Experiences

In the previous post, I introduced meditating on death, discussed its benefits and shared some examples of this meditation approach.  Here, I want to discuss the lessons we can learn about mindfulness from people who have reported a near-death experience (NDE).

The ground-breaking research in this area was conducted by Dr. Raymond A Moody who first published his book in 1975, Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon – Survival of Bodily Death.  This research in the USA led to people all over the world reporting near-death experiences and opened up a whole new arena of research which continues today.  A research foundation has been established by Jody and Jeffrey Long to collect individual NDE stories from around the world and share research about NDE experiences.

Some scientists challenged the NDE stories and their associated conclusion of an afterlife – they considered it to be some form of aberration of the brain.  However, neuroscientist, Dr. Eben Alexander – originally one of the strongest opponents of the meaning of the NDE experience – had a near death experience himself when he suffered a seven day coma and his pre-frontal cortex shut down.  His documented experience and conclusions have challenged the scientific community.   His recent book records his initial doubts, his own NDE experience, his new understanding of consciousness and his life transformation, Living in a Mindful Universe: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Heart of Consciousness.

Mindfulness lessons from reported near-death experiences

One researcher decided to conduct research of NDEs in Australia as the focus of her doctoral research.  Dr. Cherie Sutherland PhD, interviewed 400 Australians who had a near death experience and published her results in a book, Transformed by the Light: Life After Near-Death Experiences.

Cherie defines a NDE experience as follows:

The near-death experience (NDE) is said to occur when a person is close to death (or in many cases actually clinically dead), and yet is resuscitated or somehow survives to recount an intense, meaningful experience.  (p.3)

Cherie found that most of the reported NDE experiences have some things in common – a compassionate life review, out-of-body experience, feelings of peace and well-being and a sense of timeliness.  This mirrors the NDE research results from elsewhere in the world.

The findings that were most common relate to the after-effects of an NDE experience, and these have particular relevance for mindfulness practice.  People who encounter a near-death experience typically have initial problems with “re-entry” into everyday life.  However, over time, they begin to reassess their values, the meaning of their lives and their priorities. They tend to transform themselves, and their life changes accord with mindfulness practice and the attendant growth in awareness.  People who encounter a near-death experience typically report:

  • profound self-awareness, equivalent to a series of in-depth psychoanalysis sessions with a therapist
  • increased sense of control over their lives and self-management
  • very strong desire to use their latent talents and abilities for the benefit of others
  • growth in self-concept, self-confidence and self-efficacy (belief in their capacity to achieve things)
  • increased patience and tolerance (not controlled by assumptions)
  • heightened appreciation and respect for nature
  • greater appreciation of others and “love for humanity”
  • greater understanding and insight
  • growth in compassion and a strong desire to work with those who are disadvantaged and “the grieving, the elderly and dying” – many made career changes including working in hospices for the dying
  • profound desire to learn – to gain self-knowledge, to develop their talents and to be a greater source of help to others
  • different attitudes to death and a loss of fear of death.

As we grow in mindfulness, we move closer to the life transformation displayed by people who have encountered a near-death experience and we begin to realise the benefits that come with sustaining mindfulness practice.

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

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Overcoming Cravings and Addictions through Mindfulness Practice

In my previous blog post, I discussed Melli O’Brien’s interview with Judson Brewer, an expert in the use of mindfulness for overcoming cravings and addictions.  Jud, as he is called, is the author of a number of books, including The Craving Mind.

In the earlier blog post, I wrote about how addictions are formed and how mindfulness undermines both cravings and addictions through breaking the link between our addictive behaviours and our perceived rewards.

In this blog post, I will focus on the barriers that prevent us from using the power of mindfulness to break the shackles of cravings and addiction and present a mindfulness practice, recommended by both Melli and Jud, that will help to overcome those barriers and shackles.

Personal barriers to using mindfulness to overcome cravings and addiction

During the interview with Jud, Melli suggested that sometimes shame gets in the road of our recovery from addiction.   Craving and addiction feels so very personal that we are reluctant to own up to ourselves or others about its existence.  We want to avoid the pain of self-realisation.

We may be reluctant to give up the rewards associated with the addiction because they have become our crutch, e.g. to deal with stress; and we might be fearful that we will not be able to cope.

Melli also asked Jud what he personally experienced as barriers to daily mindfulness practice.  In his response, Jud identified three key things that made it difficult for him to sustain his daily mindfulness practice:

  1. growing in self-awareness that was painful – it became progressively clearer to Jud that he had caused suffering for other people in his life and this was difficult to face on an ongoing basis, and was humbling;
  2. being too intellectual in his practice – intellectualizing about some of the practices rather than just being-in-the-practice;
  3. doubting the efficacy of loving-kindness meditation; but finally, after a number of years, overcoming his assumptions and bias against the practice.

A four-step mindfulness practice for overcoming cravings and addiction

During the interview, Jud introduced the R.A.I.N. process as a mindfulness practice for breaking the habit loop of cravings and addiction.  The four-step process involves the following:

  1. Recognise – that you are caught up in a habit loop through a craving and recognise the addiction it creates when you give into the thoughts and emotions associated with the craving;
  2. Accept -that you have this craving and related addiction which, as Melli suggests, is a part of the “human condition”, that is part of being human;
  3. Investigate – what is happening in your body when the craving appears; what are the body sensations you are experiencing? what triggers the craving? what are the real outcomes/cost of the addiction (challenge the behaviour-reward link); experience the pleasantness of exploring your curiosity about yourself and your personal reactions to various triggers; enjoy the experience of getting to know yourself and who you really are.
  4. Non-identification – acknowledge that your cravings and addictions are not you; that you are not your thoughts; that you are not your emotions; and that underneath it all is you growing in awareness and becoming-in-the moment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we gain a better understanding of the personal barriers we create to stop ourselves using mindfulness to break the shackles of our cravings and addictions.  We can also learn mindfulness practices that can break through these barriers and the shackles that hold us captive to our own unhealthy habit loop.  In the final analysis, we learn to trust in the power of mindfulness and the resultant awareness.

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

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How Mindfulness Undermines Cravings and Addiction

Melli O’Brien recently interviewed Dr. Judson Brewer (known as Jud) who is Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Craving Mind.  Jud is an acknowledged international expert in training people in mindfulness to overcome addiction.

In the interview Jud explained the basic cause of addiction and shared neuroscience research that explained the impact of addiction on the brain and the counter-impact of mindfulness.

How addiction develops

The concept of “operant conditioning” developed by B.F. Skinner provides a fundamental explanation of how addiction develops.  Basically, certain behaviours lead to what we perceive as rewards.  So, if we continue to engage in those behaviours and receive the associated rewards, we positively reinforce the behaviours so that we are more inclined to repeat them – thus leading to cravings and addiction.

The craving and resultant addiction can be related to anything, e.g. food, sex, shopping, spending money, drinking alcohol, gambling or consuming drugs.  We unconsciously link the rewarded behaviour with something that is unpleasant – e.g. if we are stressed we may over-eat or drink alcohol excessively.  What we are attempting to do is to substitute something pleasurable for something that we find unpleasant, e.g. we eat dark chocolate (pleasure) to overcome the unpleasantness of stress.  So, stress acts as the trigger for our craving and addiction.

We consolidate our belief in the utility of dark chocolate to help us deal with stress by reminding ourselves of the latest research that shows the positive benefits of dark chocolate – thus we not only receive a physical reinforcement (pleasant taste) but also an emotional reinforcement (positive feelings for “eating what is good for me”).  Of course, we overlook the fact that the research on dark chocolate stresses the moderation required in eating the chocolate so that the positive benefits are not outweighed by negative impacts such as the amount of saturated facts consumed.

Mindfulness undermines addiction through a process of substitution

Jud pointed out in the interview that addiction activates a part of the brain that is called “the posterior cingulate cortex”; whereas, when we engage in mindfulness practice, the opposite happens – that region of the brain becomes deactivated.   Through mindfulness, then, we are substituting excitation of the brain (generated through craving and addiction) with restfulness.

Mindfulness for overcoming addiction works on two basic levels – firstly, as we look inward, we increase our awareness of the body sensations associated with our craving; and secondly, we sever the link between our addictive behaviour and the rewards we ascribe to that behaviour.  We effectively undermine the reinforcing link between the behaviour and the reward.

Substitution occurs on three levels:

  1. pleasant feelings associated with our addictive behaviour are replaced by the pleasure experienced when we are curious about, and investigate, the bodily sensations generated by our cravings and addiction (we are substituting one form of pleasure for another);
  2. seeking to have, or do more, is replaced by the act of noticing what is going on for us (we replace uncontrolled seeking with patient noticing of the bodily sensations experienced in craving something);
  3. temporary happiness derived from satisfying our craving is replaced by the realisation of more sustainable peace and joy.

In the final analysis, mindfulness breaks what Jud calls the “habit loop” of addiction with a new and rewarding “habit loop” – habituated behaviour whose rewards grow exponentially.  Jud reiterates that developing new habits, such as mindfulness, requires “dedicated practice every day”, which is one way to overcome the barriers to changing our behaviour.  Sustaining mindfulness practice, then, is critical to undermining cravings and addictions.

As we grow in mindfulness, we gain a better understanding of our craving and addiction and learn ways to use mindfulness to undermine the hold that cravings have on our thoughts and emotions.  We can learn to make more conscious choices in the process.

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

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Mindfulness Practice for Overcoming Unhealthy Habits

Leo Babauta, creator of zenhabits.net, suggests that underpinning our unhealthy habits is a “craving for wholeness”.  In his view – whether we are obsessed with the news, shopping, food, sex, social media or partying – we are looking for something to redress our loneliness, sense of disconnection or feeling of incompleteness.

Mindfulness practice to overcome unhealthy habits

Leo advocates a mindfulness practice that incorporates four main steps:

  1. Pause and be still.  Don’t seek distractions or ways to entertain yourself.
  2. Feel the discomfort of loneliness, isolation or disconnection that is driving you.  Realise that unhappy habits can entrench your sense of loneliness.  Get in touch with your uncertainty and explore what makes your life meaningful.
  3. Notice the goodness in your heart.  You care about others and about yourself.  Recall moments when you have shown loving kindness or consideration towards others.
  4. Connect with a sense of wholeness both within and without (outside of yourself).  Marvel at the integration of your mind, body and spirit and the interconnectedness of nature.

Leo, author  of The Habit Guide Ebook, describes the mindfulness practice in more detail in an article on his Zen Habits blog, The Craving for Wholeness That Drives Our Activities.  He suggests that you can rest in the awareness of the sense of wholeness in everything, including nature.  Let nature be your ally in your search for wholeness.

The Interconnectedness of Nature

Louie Schwartzberg, time-lapse photographer and film director, reminds us that nature is a source of mindfulness because everything in nature is interconnected and we are connected to it.  He explains that every living thing is dependent on another living thing and illustrates this through his film, The Wings of Life, which was presented at a TED Talk, The Hidden Beauty of Pollination.

Louie Schwartzberg is currently working on a crowd-funded film, Fantastic Fungi, in collaboration with authors, artists, doctors (oncologists, integrative medicine experts) and scientists (mycologist, ecologists, philosoforager).

In a short teaser film for Fantastic Fungi, Louie Schwartzberg explains the interconnectedness of nature manifested through mushrooms:

Plants need soil. Where does soil come from? It comes from the largest organism on the planet that heals you, that can feed you, that can clean up a toxic oil spill, that can even shift your consciousness.  It’s mycelium.  Mycelium is the root structure under budding mushrooms.  It’s like the Internet – a vast underground exchange [intelligent & communication] network that transfers nutrients from one plant to another.

Louie Schwartzberg has spent his whole working life to show us, in living vibrant colour and film, how nature inspires wonder through its wholeness and interconnectedness.  Leo Babauta, through his mindfulness practice, encourages us to to reflect on this wholeness and our interconnection with everything.

As we grow in mindfulness, we come to realise that we are not alone or disconnected – that we are connected to a vast wholeness manifested in nature and in the intricacy of the interconnection of our body, mind and spirit.  Mindful awareness of this connectedness is a pathway to overcoming unhealthy habits.

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

Image source: courtesy of astama81 on Pixabay

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