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.

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Barriers Experienced During Walking Meditation

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, in the Power of Awareness Meditation Training Course, identified a number of barriers that you could experience during a walking meditation.   These relate to your internal thoughts and feelings and your physical balance.

I discuss three of these barriers below and offer some suggested strategies to overcome them:

  1. Loss of balance – you can experience a loss of balance because of the unusual slowness of the practice of walking meditation.  The way around this barrier is to go a little faster until you find a speed that enables you to walk with ease and maintain your balance.  Over time and with further practice, you will be able to walk more slowly without losing your balance.
  2. Invading thoughts – despite your intention to still your mind and the incessant internal chatter, you may find that, since you have stopped rushing to go somewhere,  your mind will become hyper-active.  You could be invaded with all kinds of thoughts, e.g. thoughts related to planning, negative self-evaluation, problem solving, or anticipation of a future event.  The secret here is not to entertain these thoughts but let them float by and bring yourself back to your focus on your bodily sensations.  This serves as good training for any form of meditation.  In terms of negative self-evaluation, it is important to remember that there is no right way as far as walking meditation goes.  You have to find the approach and location to suit yourself.  The main thing to achieve is slowing down with a focus  on bodily sensations.
  3. Strong emotions – sometimes when you slow down your pace of life through a walking meditation, some deep feelings emerge.  They could be feelings of anger, grief, disgust or any other strong feeling.  It is as if the hectic pace of life has enabled you to hide away from these feelings and avoid noticing them and naming your feelings.  The feelings refuse to stay submerged when your focus turns from rushing  to meet external expectations to focusing on you internal state, both physical and emotional.  In this scenario, it is possible to stop walking and begin a standing meditation where you pay attention to the strong feeling, accept its existence, investigate its impact on your body and nurture yourself by drawing on your internal resources – a process we discussed as R.A.I.N meditation.  When you have the strong feelings under control, you can resume your walking meditation.

As you grow in mindfulness through standing and walking meditations, you will develop strategies to overcome the barriers to your focus and, in the process, acquire a core skill that will positively impact other forms of meditation and your daily life.  Focus is the foundation for awareness,  productivity, creativity and social skills.

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

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Standing and Walking Meditation

Standing and walking meditations have the common aims of helping us to get in touch with our bodies, to become grounded, to slow down the pace of our lives and to clear our minds of constant chatter.  I have previously written about mindful walking and here I want to talk about using standing and walking meditations together.

Standing meditation  

The idea in the combination approach is to use standing meditations as bookends for a walking meditation – that is, as you complete each forward and return leg of a walking meditation, you stop and complete a standing meditation.

The standing meditation begins with being aware of the feel of your feet on the floor, then being conscious of the muscles that support your upright position.  You can hold your arms in any number of ways – with your hands loosely in front of you, your arms hanging loosely beside your body or joined loosely behind your back.  I find that with my arms hanging loosely beside my body, I almost immediately find the tension draining out of my arms and hands.

The standing meditation can involve mindful breathing, body scan, inner awareness or open awareness – taking in sounds, sights, and smells.  The key aim is to be present in the moment, in touch with your inner and outer reality.

Walking meditation

There are many forms of walking meditation and what I will cover here is an approach that is used in combination with standing meditations.  Walking meditations are valuable because we spend so much of our day moving around, typically racing from one place to another in pursuit of our time-poor way of life.  All the time as we move, our minds are also racing – we become caught up in thinking about what needs to be done, planning our actions or feeling concerned about possible undesirable outcomes.

Walking meditation enables us to get in touch with our body and at the same time to notice what thoughts are continuously preoccupying us.  I found for instance that the thoughts that continually invaded my consciousness as I was doing a walking meditation all related to some form of planning or other related thinking activity – planning for the things that needed to be done after the meditation or the following days.

Tara Brach suggests that if you walk indoors, it is useful to have a walking space that is 15 to 30 steps in length.  This means, in effect, that there is no end goal in terms of where you are trying to get to physically – which counters our daily habit of being goal directed in every movement.  Instead, with the walking meditation we are very present to each step, each movement forward – not pursuing an end goal.  It also provides the opportunity to undertake a standing meditation at each end of the walking space to add increased stillness and serenity to our mindful walking practice.

The idea is to start to walk a little bit more slowly than you usually walk and, at the same time, to pay attention to the sensations in parts of your body, e.g. your feet, lower legs, arms, chest and thighs.  In contrast to your standing or sitting meditation, your breathing will tend to be in the background and your bodily sensations in the foreground.

The basic idea is to become conscious of lifting your feet, stepping out and landing your feet in front of you.  The standing meditation at the end of each leg of the walking space involves pausing and stillness and thus deepening your grounding and your awareness of the present moment.

As we grow in mindfulness through combining standing and walking meditations, we become more grounded, more conscious of our bodily sensations and tensions, more in tune with our present reality and better able to be still and silent and to open ourselves to the richness within and without.

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

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Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): A Specialised Mindfulness Approach

In this blog I have been discussing different approaches to mindfulness and mindfulness meditation that are self-initiated and self-directed in the main.  Some of the approaches to mindfulness discussed entailed the involvement of a teacher or mentor to guide the participant through various forms of meditation.

One such approach is provided by the Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training conducted online by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.  Even in this course, led by teachers and mentors, there is ample scope for participants to pick and choose what types of meditations and mindfulness practices they will focus on – the choices are not individually focused or directed.

What is different about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT as the name suggests is an approach that provides therapists with a structured approach to mindfulness development for their clients.  This approach is therapist-led with a defined sequence of exercises designed to enable clients to move from the entrapment of destructive thinking to taking effective action guided by their values (committed action).  Colleagues vouch for the fact that ACT often achieves the desired results in therapeutic situations.

ACT aims to enable clients to experience a full, rich and meaningful life that is built on internal and external awareness.  The approach actively discourages ineffective avoidance strategies and encourages acceptance of pain as a natural part of a life that is lived fully.    Just as mindfulness trainers are exhorted to deepen their mindfulness practice, so too ACT therapists are encouraged to practise the ACT approach and exercises to be able to act more consciously and effectively in therapy sessions.

The ACT approach to mindfulness

Mindfulness in the context of ACT is defined by Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple, in terms of the quality of paying attention:

Mindfulness means paying attention with flexibility, openness and curiosity.

In this definition, mindfulness is explained in terms of three key elements – awareness through paying attention, an open attitude and flexible attention enabling a narrow or wider focus or a focus on the internal or the external.

ACT incorporates six core processes as part of its therapeutic approach:

  1. Being here now – consciously focusing on the here-and-now, including our inner and outer worlds.  Fundamentally, it is about being present in the moment, rather than lost in thought.
  2. Watch what you are thinking – this involves standing back from your thoughts and observing them in a detached way. It means not entertaining them and being caught up in them as if they are reality.  Mindfulness expert, Kabat-Zinn suggests that we view our thoughts as bubbles in boiling water floating to the surface and bursting.  He provides the liberating idea that “we are not our thoughts” nor should we be captured by the “narratives” in our head.   In ACT, the process of observing our thinking is called “cognitive diffusion”.
  3. Accepting and being open to painfulness – Russ Harris describes this process as “making room for painful feelings, sensations, urges, and emotions”.  ACT provides exercises to develop this acceptance.  In our mindfulness discussions, we have offered mindfulness practices such as forgiveness meditation to address this pain and suffering.
  4. Observing yourself – ACT encourages awareness through getting in touch with the “observing self” rather than the “thinking self”.   Russ Harris describes the former as “the aspect of us that is aware of whatever we’re thinking, feeling, sensing or doing in any moment”.  Mindfulness practitioners encourage meditation practices like somatic meditation to develop this awareness.
  5. Knowing what matters – getting in touch with the way we want to be in the world (our values).  Values guide behaviour, give meaning to our lives and facilitate decision making.  Consciousness about our values can enable us to lead our lives with energy and vitality and provide mindful leadership for others.
  6. Doing what it takes – this involves doing what it takes, despite pain and discomfort, to live out our values in daily life (described as “committed action” in ACT).  It requires congruence between our words and actions and a readiness to commit to “valued living”.

ACT is a therapeutic approach that aims to help clients grow in mindfulness in order to lead a life that is richer and more meaningful, while reducing the impact of harmful thoughts and narratives and pain-avoidance.

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

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Strategies to Handle Restlessness During Meditation

Restlessness during meditation is experienced by everyone, even the advanced meditator.  It is important to be with the moment and be non-judgmental with ourselves, avoiding the temptation to “beat up on ourselves”.  So, part of dealing with restlessness during meditation is accepting what is and what is happening to us without self-censure.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), reminds us of the essence of mindfulness:

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

Diana in a meditation podcast on restlessness as an obstacle to meditation offers four strategies to deal with this restlessness which can be experienced in our mind and manifested in our body in the form of tightness/tension or the need to keep changing our posture.  These strategies require a consciousness about what is happening in our mind and/or body during meditation and a willingness “to be with what is”.

Strategies to handle restlessness during meditation

The strategies discussed by Diana incorporate a change in the focus of your meditation or a momentary change in your posture:

  1. Narrowed focused – you can narrow your focus so that you are concentrating even more closely on your breath.  You can observe the beginning (in-breath), the middle (space between in-breath and out-breath) and the ending (out-breath).  You could narrow your focus like the child in the image above who is totally absorbed in their play with a bucket at the beach.  This response to restlessness entails stillness combined with a narrowed focus.
  2. Widened focus – an alternative to narrowing your focus during meditation is to do the opposite, widen the focus of your attention.  One thing that you could focus on is the sounds that you hear, bringing your attention to listening.  Your focus could shift from the sounds that are nearby to those that are the furthest away.  Widening your focus entails changing your attention away from the mind’s relentless activity to what is happening aurally in the present moment.
  3. Focus on the restlessness – you can focus on the restlessness itself.  This involves paying attention to what is going on in your mind and your body.  You could name the mental restlessness by saying something like, “There you are again Mr. Restless drawing my attention away”.  You could then get in touch with your body to feel the impact of the restless mind and to notice “how” and “where”the restlessness is being experienced in your body.
  4. Change of posture – this involves a slight change of posture to re-focus your mind.  You may find, for example, that your shoulders have slumped slightly, so you could straighten them.  You may have crossed your feet and no longer have the soles of your feet on the ground.  Correcting your posture can bring you back to the present moment and what is the purpose of your meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness through the regular practice of meditation, we can more easily adopt strategies to deal with restlessness during meditation.  Persistence with meditation practice brings its own rewards.

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

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Gratitude in Times of Difficulty

Having gratitude in times of difficulty can increase resilience and overcome depression, anxiety and despair.  Gratitude changes the quality of life that we are living as we gain better control over our thoughts and feelings and learn to accept what is.

As you develop this practice, you start to see things that you had not noticed before, the taken-for-granted things in your life.  Diana Winston recalls noticing the way sunlight reflects on a plant and the assorted colours that were in a painting on her wall.  She attributes this increased awareness and associated thankfulness to taking the time to slow down and meditate on the place where she was – very much a form of open awareness meditation.

So, mindfulness and gratitude go hand-in-hand, in a two-way reinforcement.  As you meditate, you become more aware of what you are grateful for and your growing gratitude, in turn, helps you to be more aware of positive experiences and people in your life.

Gratitude in times of difficulty

We so often miss the simple things of life that are before us and can act as a stimulus for gratitude.  In times of difficulty, it can be very hard to look beyond what we are experiencing and suffering from and, yet, the simple things in our life can be easily noticed and employed to pull us out of our self-absorption.   When we are experiencing difficulties, we often can’t see beyond what is challenging our equanimity.

Somatic meditation can be very helpful in times of challenge, whether the challenge relates to health of our body, our mental state or an external negative stimulus.  Adopting a meditative position, in the first instance, enables us to get in touch with our breathing and provides the stillness to observe our own body as we undertake a body scan and progressively release the tension within.

This physical grounding and release provides the foundation to turn our minds to what we are grateful for.  A recent experience may become the focus of your appreciation.  For example, in a recent meditation, the focus of my gratitude was a conversation I had the day before with a long-standing colleague and close friend.  I recalled the ease of the conversation as we were “shooting the breeze”, the deep connection through shared experiences and convictions, the exploration of new terrain, the supportive challenge to perspectives, the mutual respect and admiration and the challenge to identify what gives me a “buzz” at a time of semi-retirement.

Reflecting on this recent experience made me realize the warmth of the interaction and the things that I value about the friendship which lie below my consciousness because I have never attempted to express my gratitude for this profound connection.  Our meeting was not only a face-to-face conversation, but also a meeting of minds – a source of mutual enrichment.

As we grow in mindfulness through gratitude meditations, we start to see things that we have taken for granted, appreciate more deeply and explicitly what we value in our experiences and friendships and  strengthen our inner resources to deal with the challenges that confront us.

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

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Being Grateful

In the previous post, I discussed how savoring the moment and the experience of pleasantness nurtures the seeds of happiness.  This savoring of the many things in our life that generate positive feelings, leads naturally to a sense of gratitude.

Being grateful

Rachel Naomi Remen who suffered unbelievably from Crohn’s disease learned how her inner strength grew with appreciating the many things in her life that she took for granted.  Rachel writes in her best-selling book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, that appreciating the small things in life can make us strong enough to deal with the big things, such as cancer and chronic illness.  She encourages us to be grateful for “the grace of a hot cup of coffee, the presence of a friend, the blessing of having a new cake or soap or an hour without pain”.

These small things are so much a part of our daily life that we overlook them until we lose them.  The same applies to our health which we so often take for granted.  Tara Brach urges us to go beyond the “to-do list”, focused on doing things, to creating a “to-be list” that focuses on being.  Whether we call it “soul” or “life force” or “consciousness”, our inner resources develop as we nourish the sense of gratitude for what is a normal part of our daily life.

Cultivating gratitude

Tara suggests a number of ways to cultivate gratitude including engaging a “gratitude buddy” (who you email every day with your gratitude list), savoring moments of pleasantness, developing a gratitude journal and/or regularly undertaking a gratitude meditation.   As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, “we become what we pay attention to” – we become grateful by paying attention to the things that we are grateful for.

Gratitude enables us to deal with the challenges of daily life that would otherwise disturb our tranquility and calmness.  It opens us up  to appreciating and serving others through empathy and compassion.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become much more aware of what we value in our life, develop gratitude and build our inner resources and resilience.

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

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Who Are You Really?

You might identify yourself with one of the many roles that you have – mother, daughter, wife, sister, aunty, grandmother – or a past role, e.g. ex-wife.  Alternatively, you might describe yourself in terms of your profession.  However, you are more than your many roles or your profession.

You might identify with a demographic characteristic such as your race, age, gender, socio-economic status or nationality.  However, you are more than any demographic characteristic or the sum of those characteristics.

You could identify yourself in terms of a disability or a perceived deficiency such as disorganised, clumsy or lacking flexibility; but you are not your disability or your deficiency – imagined or real.

Jon Kabat-Zinn maintains that you are not your thoughts – you are not the narrative in your head or your negative self-evaluation.

So, who are you really?

Consciousness – more than your brain.

Scientists have identified the many parts, functions, and conditions associated with the complex organ – your human brain.  They have been able to highlight the impact of perceptions and emotions on various parts of the brain.   They can show how your brain interacts with your senses and interprets sensory data.   However, you are not your brain or any  characteristic of it – you are more than your brain.

While scientists are increasingly gaining intimate knowledge of the brain and its functions, they have not yet been able to explain what your “consciousness” or “awareness” is.  Numerous articles have been written about consciousness but each has failed to provide an adequate theory to explain the nature of consciousness – which is considered to be “the last frontier of science“.  Scientists struggle even to explain why consciousness is so baffling.

You can be conscious of your own thoughts or your connection with other people and with nature or be aware of the existence of your sub-conscious and its impact on your thoughts, memories and creativity.

Getting to know who you really are is a lifetime pursuit of self-awareness as you delve into the depths of your consciousness and explore the vast “spaciousness” that is involved.

Jack Kornfield suggests that you can narrow your awareness to an experience, such as listening to the birds in the tree, or expand it by opening “the lens of consciousness so that it can become like the sky or space”.

As you grow in mindfulnes through mindfulness meditation, you can deepen your self-awareness and explore who you really are – beyond the boundaries of your self-limiting identification.  It’s in this expanded awareness that you can find happiness, creativity and calmness.  Otherwise, you cannot realise your full potentiality.

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

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Forgiving Others

Carrying anger and resentment towards others can be destructive and eat away at you, your tranquility, peace and happiness.  Harbouring grudges only leads to physical illness and negatively impacts your behaviour in every arena – in the home, at work and in the community.

We can see how hatred has affected generations of people in Israel and Palestine, Bosnia and Serbia.  People suffer for hundreds of years because of these conflicts and entrenched hatred.  The practice of forgiveness can lift the “burden of the past from our hearts”.  It can free us from the endless cycle of suffering.

Jack Kornfield tells the story of two ex-prisoners of war who were having a conversation and one asks the other whether they have forgiven their captors.  The other person responds to the effect that there is no way they could forgive their captors.  The first ex-prisoner responded, “So, they still have you in prison, don’t they!” – enslaved by his resentment and hatred.

Jack tells another story that reflects a different outcome resulting from forgiveness by a husband after a very difficult divorce resulting in legal action to keep him away from his children and the mother trying to turn their children against their father.  The husband decided that he had to forgive his ex-wife because as he said, “I will not bequeath a legacy of bitterness to my children.”  This forgiving stance – despite the pain, despair and suffering at the hands of another – took considerable courage and compassion.

Sometimes we hurt, betray or harm someone else knowingly; other times, we do it unknowingly.  There are even times when we numb ourselves to the potential hurt suffered by another because of our actions or inaction.  Hurting others is a part of being human because our perceptions and insight are limited as is our capacity to deal with perceived hurt to ourselves – we often want to hit back by our words, actions or omissions. We are very vulnerable and, while we can be kind and thoughtful at times, we can harbour resentment and anger, even at the slightest provocation.

As we grow in mindfulness through forgiveness meditation, we become sensitized to the impact of our actions and the hurt we cause others, we become more open and free from the burden of guilt from our past actions and more watchful to avoid hurting others in the future.  There is freedom in forgiveness.

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

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Self-Forgiveness

We have all hurt ourselves and other people during our lives – it’s part of being human.  Unfortunately, we can carry around the associated guilt, negative self-evaluation, and sense of unworthiness that act as a dead weight holding us back and weighing us down.

Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are essential for our mental health and wellbeing and for the development of wisdom.  Sometimes, the accumulated guilt for the hurts we have caused seems too great for us to tackle it.  The sense of guilt and shame becomes buried deeply in our psyche as we avoid confronting the hurt we have created by our words, actions or omissions.  Self-forgiveness is the way forward and the means to release ourselves from the tyranny of guilt.

However, we can often be held back by the misconceptions and unfounded beliefs we hold about forgiveness meditation Jack Kornfield identifies three myths that get in the road of our practising self-forgiveness:

  • Myth 1: Forgiveness is a sign of weakness – in reality, forgiveness requires considerable courage to “confront our demons” and deal with the pain of self-discovery.  The demand for courage is especially pertinent when addiction is involved.
  • Myth 2: Forgiveness means we are condoning the hurtful action – in fact, we often resolve never to do that hurtful action again or to avoid the situation where we are tempted to react inappropriately.  If we fail to address the guilt and shame, we are held captive and are more likely to take that hurtful action again
  • Myth 3: Forgiveness is a quick fix – it can be far from this.  Jack Kornfield recalled a mindfulness teacher that requested that he do a 5-minute forgiveness exercise 300 times over a number of months.  If we undertake forgiveness meditation, we can procrastinate or fall into the trap of the opposite of forgiveness (blame, self-loathing).  Sometimes self-forgiveness will involve a lot of pain, regression, diversion and ongoing effort to avoid falling back into a lack of loving kindness.

Self-forgiveness is something we have to keep working at as we go deeper into our feelings of shame and guilt and their hidden sources.  Jack Kornfield suggests that self-forgiveness releases us from the burden of the past and allows us to open to our heartfelt sense of our own goodness.

As we grow in mindfulness through self-forgiveness meditation, we can gain a sense of freedom to be ourselves, a newfound self-respect and energy for kindness and compassion towards others.  We will become less self-absorbed and weighed down and feel free to open up to others.

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

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