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.

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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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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.

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

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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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