From Outer Landscape to Inner Landscape: The Growth of Awareness

In my previous post, I discussed mountains and rivers as a source of meditation and their predominance in Chinese landscape art. I also focused on the Shan shui tradition of landscape painting where the artists expressed their thoughts and emotions about a physical landscape in their painting.  In this way, they revealed something of their inner landscape.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Coming to Our Senses, describes each of the traditional five senses in terms of a landscape, e.g tastescape and touchscape.  After discussing each of the five senses, he introduces “mindscape” and describes its role as follows:

…ultimately it all comes down to what we call, by extension, mindscape.  Without the discerning capacity  of our minds, there would be no knowing of any landscape, inner or outer.  When we become aware, when we rest in the knowing, we are resting in the deep essence of mindscape, the vast empty spaciousness that is awareness itself.  (p. 234, emphases added)

He maintains that as we grow in mindfulness, we can gradually gain access to mindscape – that unadulterated awareness that is a deep insight into our inner landscape and our outer reality.

With this awareness comes the realisation that everything is passing – our sensations, thoughts and emotions.  They are here today and gone tomorrow.

Awareness increases our insight into our inner landscape and how we tend to cling to things that we want. It enables us to let go of our disappointments generated by the past and fears about the future.

Awareness leads to full acceptance of ourselves as we are – with our bodies and our quirks.  However, being able to access full awareness, mindscape, does not mean that we will not go backwards towards lacking acceptance or engaging in internal conflict.  As Kabat-Zinn points out “that is part of the human condition”.

He goes on to say, encouragingly:

But, there may very well be a gradual shift in the balance over time, from more inner conflict to more equanimity, from more anger to more compassion, from predominantly seeing only appearances to a deep apprehending of the actuality of things. Or there may be so at times  but not at other times. (p. 235)

As we grow in mindfulness, we begin to see things as they actually are – we become less likely to project onto people, things or events, our negative perceptions shaped by our own life experiences.

Accessing mindscape, opens us up to full awareness of our inner landscape so that we can realise our full, creative potentiality, develop deep insight and self-compassion as well as compassion for others. In this state, we can find true peace and tranquility

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

Image source: courtesy of  johnhain on Pixabay

Mountains and Water: Source of Meditation

I took the photo above when returning at dusk from a boat trip on Lake Como as the mist descended on the mountains and water.

When viewing this scene as it appears,  you could focus on what you can see.  You could look at the shapes, the trees, the contrast of light and dark, the colours and the sun reflecting on the rippling water.  Alternatively, you could focus on any one of the other four senses – taste, touch, hearing or smell.

We are reminded by Buddhism that there is also a sixth sense, the mind.  It influences our perceptions through our thoughts, emotions and mental images. (China Buddhism Encyclopedia)  So when actually experiencing this scene, you could experience peace, tranquility or even anxiety.

As we have mentioned previously, what you see is not what I see because of our different experiences and our interpretation of those experiences. Our minds, like our other senses, are continuously free roaming – they are not in our direct control unless we reign them in as we grow in mindfulness.

It is interesting that mountains and water featured very prominently in Chinese landscape painting over the centuries and in different traditions.  Mountains and water had different meanings within the various traditions of Chinese landscape art. For some, it evoked a sense of freedom, for others, the perfect balance between Yin and Yang energy. (Karen Albert, Mountains and Water in Chinese Art).

Shan shui (literally, “mountain-water”) landscape painting, for instance, sought to give expression to the artist’s inner landscape – thoughts and feelings generated by nature – rather than provide an accurate representation of reality. (“Shan shui”, Wikipedia.org)

As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of nature and to use mountains and water as a source of meditation – opening up the possibility of exploring our own internal landscape.

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

We Need Support to Build Mindfulness

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Coming to Our Senses, reminds us that we need support for our meditation if we are to build mindfulness. This support may take the form of a routine, technique, books, audio tapes or a support group. He cautions, however, that we need to gradually reduce our reliance on this support. Otherwise, we will create dependence on one form which will result in goal displacement.

He likens meditation support to scaffolding which is used to build a house. Eventually, however, the scaffolding has to be taken down once the house is built. It may be used again if there is a need for house restoration or renovation. So it is with the support for our meditation.

Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that if we do not eventually remove the scaffolding, our support mechanisms, we will not realise the deeper levels of mindfulness that enable us to gain penetrative insight into our real selves and our full potentiality. The deeper levels of mindfulness are only reached as we remove the barriers to this insight.

He likens the deeper levels of mindfulness to the insight of Michelangelo.  He is reputed to have said that he sees the final form of his sculpture in the block of marble. His work as a sculptor is to chip away the bits of marble that prevent the final sculpture from emerging – he works to remove the barriers to emergence of the final perfect form.

As we grow in mindfulness through an ever-widening range of mindful practices we remove the blockages to achieving deep insight and reduce our dependence on particular support mechanisms. Mindfulness becomes increasingly a part of our daily life and way of being in the world with all its distractions and disturbances.

Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that we are aiming for what the Tibetans describe as a state of non- meditation as we gradually remove the scaffolding that is our meditation support system:

That scaffolding is helpful in aiming and sustaining your practice, yet it is also important to see through it to actually be practicing. Both are operative simultaneously moment by moment as you sit, as you rest in awareness, as you practice in any way, beyond the reaches of the conceptual mind and its ceaseless proliferation of stories even, or we could say, especially, stories about meditation and you. (Coming to Our Senses, p. 100)

By gradually removing the scaffolding, we are moving our focus from our support mechanisms to actually being mindful.

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

Image source: Courtesy of Hans on Pixabay

 

 

Dementia, Ageing and Mindfulness

We all experience physical degeneration of the brain through ageing.  However, the impact of this degeneration varies from person to person.  There are genetic factors that come to play but also life experiences and lifestyle.

Professor Michael Ridding of the University of Adelaide argues that “cognitive reserve” explains to some extent how some people can continue to maintain effective cognitive function despite the presence of significant physical brain damage.

He explains the concept of “cognitive reserve” as follows:

This is a concept used to explain a person’s capacity to maintain normal cognitive function in the presence of brain pathology [physical brain degeneration or atrophy].  To put it simply, some people have better cognitive reserve than others.

He goes on to explain that life experiences such as education level, amount of social interaction and occupations that place a lot of demand on our brain and capacity to think (such as managerial or professional roles) all contribute to the development of “cognitive reserve”.

Our brain incorporates multiple pathways and connections that break down over time.  However, as indicated in a previous post, brain plasticity enables us to develop new pathways and connections.  This is why it is recommended that we learn a new language or do crosswords to help stave off dementia if we are not doing cognitively demanding work.

Mindfulness is another lifestyle factor that can contribute to the capacity to function effectively despite physical brain degeneration.   In fact, mindfulness has been shown to restore brain grey matter and reduce the thickness of that part of the brain, the amygdala, that controls our fight/flight response (including panic attacks).

A recent review of the research literature on the relationship between meditation and “grey matter atrophy” [physical brain decline], suggests that meditation results in an increase in “grey matter volume”, offsetting decline in brain function.  The effect of meditation is considered to enhance “learning, memory and emotional control, as well as activities like self-awareness and compassion”,  thus slowing down the onset of dementia.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can offset the natural decline in our physical brain and ward off, or diminish, the effects of dementia.

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

Image sources: Courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Creating a Workplace Culture of Well-Being Through Mindfulness

In a recent McKinsey Quarterly article, the authors challenged what they call “neuromyths” – basically, misunderstandings arising from misguided interpretations of neuroscience findings.  They argued that many leadership development programs are based on these “neuromyths” and result in considerable waste of financial resources and employee time.

One of the myths that the authors challenge is the concept that the brain’s development is fixed at an early age and that little change in the brain’s structure can occur over a person’s lifetime.  However, recent neuroscience has shown that rather than being fixed in structure, the brain exhibits “plasticity” throughout our lives.  The research of this phenomenon has been described as follows:

Brain plasticity science is the study of a physical process. Gray matter can actually shrink or thicken; neural connections can be forged and refined or weakened and severed. Changes in the physical brain manifest as changes in our abilities.

Research into the power of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction demonstrates, for example, that there is a real physical change in brain gray matter resulting in increased capacity in areas such as learning and memory processes and emotional self-regulation.

Health insurer, Aetna, has taken this research seriously and built their employee development programs around the ability of mindfulness practices to enhance mental capacity and reduce stress.  By 2015, more than twenty five percent of their 50,000 employees had participated in at least one form of mindfulness training.   Aetna’s aim was to reduce stress in the workplace and the associated loss of productivity and employee well-being, while simultaneously generating high performance.

As a result of realised benefits in the workplace, Aetna has increased their commitment to mindfulness training for employees.  In 2017, they created a Mindfulness Center with the explicit aim of “developing a workplace culture of well-being“.  The Center provides mindfulness activities a number of times each week and is designed to host future presentations and courses conducted by experts in the area of mindfulness.

Aetna has made this very substantial investment in mindfulness training because they have seen that their managers and staff, as they grow in mindfulness, reduce their stress, increase their resilience and develop high performance.

Aetna is certainly not alone in investing in mindfulness training for managers and employees – and in realising the associated benefits.  Google, for example, has trained more than 4,500 of their employees in mindfulness and emotional intelligence over the last 10 years.  The derivative program developed by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) is providing mindfulness training to leaders in thousands of organisations in the public and private sector on an ongoing global basis.

A recent Mindful Leaders Forum in Sydney was an extension of a forum that is contributing to the global development of mindfulness in the corporate world:

In three years, 1500 executives from more than 350 companies have come together to explore a new style of leadership.  It’s all about helping individuals, teams and organisations to thrive in the digital age.  It’s part of a global movement that’s sweeping across the corporate world where innovative companies such as Google, LinkedIn and the Harvard Business School are using evidence-based tools to unleash creativity, productivity and purpose-driven performance.

The Sydney-based forum included presentations by Marque Lawyers, Westpac Bank, e-Bay, Australian Army and Medibank.

Organisations world-wide are investing in the development of mindful leaders who can build a workplace well-being culture that generates the dual goals of employee wellness and high performance.

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

Image source: Courtesy of WolfBlur on Pixabay

 

Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief

As we grow in mindfulness we start to learn the many ways that mindfulness can improve the quality of our lives.

The quality of life of many chronic pain sufferers has been improved through mindfulness meditation for pain relief, pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

This resource which is available in CD format or audio download, provides an insight into how mindfulness can help you manage chronic pain as well as mindfulness meditations that can be used for pain relief.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), maintains that current neuroscience research supports the idea that the more we become aware of the pain in our body and mind, the better we are able to manage pain and improve the quality of our life.  The research shows that awareness of the body-in-pain compared to distraction from pain, has a greater benefit and provides a more sustainable release from the physical and emotional impact of chronic pain.

We all experience the unwanted parts of life, pain and suffering, at some time in our lives – some people for longer than others through the experience of chronic pain.  Mindfulness meditation can help us relieve not only the physical aspects of pain but also the emotional impacts which can take the form of frustration, depression, annoyance, anger and the inability to concentrate.  We can expend so much of our energy and focus just managing the pain that we are quickly exhausted and unable to concentrate.

Jon Kabat-Zinn provides an introduction to his mindfulness meditation for pain relief and this free resource, which includes meditation practice, can help you realise the potential benefits of this approach for improving the quality of your life:

Jon Kabat-Zinn assures us that through mindfulness meditation we can come to realise:

  1. we are not alone in experiencing pain; and
  2. learning to live with pain is possible.

He makes the salient point that managing pain is part of the work of mindfulness itself and that by participating in mindfulness meditation for pain relief, we are immersing ourselves in the global mindfulness movement that is raising global consciousness – people all around the world are becoming more mindful and we are contributing to this movement that promotes peace, harmony, loving kindness and awareness of others and nature.   Our self-compassion through pain management is contributing to compassion for others.

We can grow in mindfulness in many ways.  The drivers for our motivation to practice mindfulness can also be many and varied.  If you are a chronic pain sufferer, this experience could provide the motivation to develop mindfulness for pain relief.

 

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

Image source: Courtesy of Sae Kawaii on Pixabay

 

Defuse Negative Thoughts and Stories

Negative thoughts are a part of living – we all tend to have them. However, if we entertain them, they undermine our self-belief and self-confidence.  They can be persistent and destructive.

Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us, “We are not our thoughts”.  Our minds make up negative stories all the time and we come to believe that these stories identify who we are – they are just fabrications, not reality.

One of the key contributions of The Happiness Trap Pocketbook by Russ Harris and Bev Aisbett is the range of defusion strategies they offer to disarm negative thinking and reduce its hold and power over us.

They suggest one simple defusion strategy that we can apply to any negative thought:

Pick an upsetting thought, and silently repeat it, putting these words in front of it: ‘I’m having the thought that…’

Now try it again with this phrase: ‘I notice I’m having the thought that …’

Can you feel the thought lose some of its impact? (p.54)

This defusion strategy can be used for any unhelpful thought at any time, no matter where you are.  You can progressively learn to dissociate yourself from negative thoughts and recognise that they do not represent who you are.  You are better than your negative thoughts which tend to put you in the worst possible light.  Such thoughts result from the brain’s bias towards the negative as a self-preservation mechanism.

As you grow in mindfulness through regular mindful practice you will become more aware of these negative thoughts and have the presence of mind to use the suggested defusion strategy.  You will become increasingly conscious of the hold these thoughts have on you and how they impact negatively on your self-confidence and willingness to extend yourself and take on new challenges.

Negative thoughts hold us back, diminish our sense of accomplishment and reduce our effectiveness and capacity to make a difference in our own lives and that of others.  The suggested defusion strategy is your weapon against this erosion of who you are.

 

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

Image source: Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Looking For Inspiration

Inspiration is everywhere if we just look out for it.  However, as mentioned in the previous post, we tend to become focused on negative news, rather than positive stories.  Inspiration leads to health and well-being, while negative-oriented news creates distraction and emotional disturbance – especially where events are sensationalised to create the maximum emotional impact.

One of the very helpful sources of inspirational stories is TED Talks – an endless source of video presentations on every conceivable topic by numerous people from different corners of the world who have achieved much to improve the human condition.

One such talk was given by Dr. Lucy Kalanithi – What Makes Life Worth Living in the Face of Death?  In this outstanding presentation, Lucy discusses how she and her husband Paul, a neuroscientist, coped with the knowledge that at the age of 37 he was dying from Stage IV lung cancer.

In her optimistic -and sometimes humourous – talk, Lucy makes some key points:

  • the critical importance to keep talking to each other, with no topic off limits
  • realising that the person who is dying must work to reshape their identity
  • making conscious choices together about ongoing health care
  • learning to accept the pain of your dying partner
  • finding beauty and purpose amidst the sadness
  • learning that resilience, in this situation, means bouncing back to real living without denying the reality of impending death.

The video of the presentation by Dr. Lucy Kalanithi is given below:

Besides building bonfires on the beach and watching the sunset with her friends, Lucy found that “exercise and mindfulness meditation helped a lot” after Paul’s death.

Both Paul and Lucy were noted for their compassion towards others. As they were able to grow in mindfulness through this compassion and their intense living-in-the moment, they were better able to cope with the reality of Paul’s terminal illness.

 

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

Image source: Courtesy of martythelewis on Pixabay

Lifelong Learning Through Mindfulness

In their book, Organizational Change by Choice, Dexter Dunphy and Bob Dick quote an anonymous author who provides a very simple, behavioural description of the way we learn:

To look is one thing

To see what you look at is another

To understand what you see is a third

To learn from what you understand is something else

But to act on what you learn is all that really matters. (p.120)

The wisdom of this way of looking at learning was brought home to me during one of Bob Dick’s MBA classes that I attended many years ago (32 years ago to be exact). Bob was introducing us to the art of facilitating groups and understanding group dynamics.  He formed us into groups and each person in a group was assigned an observation task to undertake while the group simultaneously discussed a controversial topic – in my group’s case, “Should people who drink and drive be jailed?”

We each had to look for and observe some aspect of the group’s behaviour, e.g. amount of eye contact, level of dissent in the group, non-verbal behaviour, the level of participation and how people built on other’s ideas.  As the discussion progressed, it became quite heated and one of our group was showing signs non-verbally that he was becoming distressed by the discussion.  However, the person who was supposed to look for non-verbal behaviour in the group was totally oblivious of this distress and kept on pushing his point that drink drivers should not be jailed.  The distressed person finally got up and left the group.  The person who was supposed to observe non-verbal behaviour, immediately asked the group, “What did he do that for?”  It turned out that a friend of the distressed person had been killed by a drunken driver.

This experience really brought home to me very starkly that you can look and not see if you stop paying attention and lose focus on what you intend to observe.  If you then do not see what is happening, you will be unable to understand another person’s behaviour.  If you don’t understand the interaction, you will not learn how to adjust your own behaviour.  In the final analysis, you will not act in a way that puts the desired learning into practice – in the case of my example, you will not be able to effectively facilitate group processes.

To look in a meaningful way requires focus, purposeful noticing and full attention.  It is only then that we see in a way that enables learning.  So while we may be looking at the same scene or object we will see different things.

Understanding what we see requires an uncluttered mind and the capacity to maintain focus.  It is only through sustained seeing that we come to understand what we are actually looking at – to realise the impact of something for our lives and that of other people.  Focused attention builds our understanding because we are better able to access our subconscious and realise the connections between things that we perceive now or have perceived in the past.

Learning from what you understand is another level of challenge in the quest for lifelong learning.  Having understood something impacting our lives, we have to be able to think through the behavioural implications – its meaning for how we should act towards our self and/or others.

In the final analysis, what really matters is taking action in line with our understanding and learning – translating our learning into practice.  As I discussed in a previous post, it is one thing to look for and read about mindfulness, it’s another to understand the benefits of mindfulness, but it is something else to learn from your understanding of mindfulness how you should behave and, all that matters, is engaging in mindful practice – taking action by being mindful in our everyday lives.

So, being mindful can help us to engage in lifelong learning – to look, see, understand, learn and act on our learning in our everyday lives.  As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to focus, pay attention, gain insight and be conscious of what we are learning and what it means in our life.  Ultimately, we are better able to achieve congruence – to line up our actions with our thoughts and words.

Image source: Courtesy of Mojpe on Pixabay

Seeing Mindfulness Everywhere – Awareness Grows with Practice

As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware of the multiple ways mindfulness is manifested in other people’s words and actions.

We may be reading a novel and notice one of the characters tuning into their senses through open awareness or stopping to watch a sunset.

We could also come across the biography of a person who lives a life full of awareness and compassion for people who are suffering illness and are disadvantaged.  Amanda McClelland’s autobiography, Emergencies Only, is one example of this.  Her life story is a testament to her resilience and commitment in the face of unbelievable poverty, epidemics and natural disasters and evidences her mindfulness and extraordinary level of emotional intelligence.

We might also be listening to Eva Cassidy’s rendition of the song, Imagine,  and notice John Lennon’s call to live for today, rather than dying for tomorrow:

Imagine all the people living for today.

As you listen to the singing of Eva Cassidy, you will also hear John Lennon’s expressed hope, Imagine all the people living in peace – a potential outcome of global mindfulness:

 

Whether we are observing others, reading or listening to music, we can become more conscious of mindfulness manifested in the lives of others and be reminded of the benefits of mindfulness for our own lives.

Image source: Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay