Develop Equanimity to Overcome Reactivity

Much of the time we are reactive because of our ingrained habituated responses.  These develop over time and can vary with different stimuli – a confronting email, a perception of criticism by a partner or colleague, thoughtlessness by another person or traffic delays.  Our responses may be precipitated by negative thoughts that generate emotions such as fear, anxiety, frustration or anger.  We then act out these emotions in a reactive way – not stopping to maintain our balance or evaluate the best possible response. As we have mentioned earlier, there is a gap between stimulus and response and within that gap are choices and associated freedom.  Developing equanimity helps us to better utilise the gap between stimulus and response and widens our potential response options – as it frees us from being captive to our habituated responses.

Equanimity is being able to maintain a state of calmness, balance or even-mindedness in the face of a situation that we find challenging – physically, mentally or emotionally.  It builds our capacity to overcome reactivity and enables us to accept what is, without reacting impulsively.  Diana Winston makes the point that equanimity is not passivity – acceptance of what is, does not mean avoiding taking action to redress injustice, insulting behaviour or meanness.  What equanimity does mean is acknowledging what is and the inherent challenge (e.g. illness, mental illness of a family member, or loss of a job), not railing against all and sundry for our “misfortune”, but actively pursuing redress – including building our capacity to remain calm in the face of life challenges.  Equanimity enables responsiveness that is positive and productive.

A meditation to develop equanimity

Meditation, by its very nature, helps to calm us and, in the process, develop equanimity.  Diana Winston, however, provides a specific “equanimity meditation” designed to build our capacity to retain our balance and to remain even minded when confronted with a life challenge.  She provides this meditation as part of the weekly guided meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA. Her guided meditation podcast, Equanimity and Non Reactivity, contains several steps:

  1. Grounding yourself in your chair by adopting a comfortable, upright posture; closing your eyes or looking down; and focusing your intention on the present – not thinking about the past or worrying about what is coming up.  Being present-in-the-moment is a calming activity that can build equanimity.
  2. Complete body scan – starting with your feet on the floor (feeling the firmness and envisaging the stable ground below); moving progressively through your body, while noticing and releasing any points of tensions (such as in your neck, shoulders, stomach, legs or hands).  You can begin to notice the sensations as you progress with your body scan – feeling the tingling in your fingers or the softness/looseness in your legs as you let go and allow the tension to drain away.  During the meditation, it pays to be conscious of a tendency to let your shoulders droop. [Note: this part of the meditation resonates with the first part of the Yoga Nigra Meditation focused on the physical body]
  3. Focus on your breathing – you focus on wherever in your body you can feel the sensation of your breathing, the in and out movement of your stomach or the air passing through your nose.  The process involves noticing, not controlling your breathing.  You can also rest in the gap between your in-breath and your out-breath.  You can extend the observation of your breathing to other parts of your body such as breathing through your mouth.
  4. Noticing sounds – now switch your attention to the sounds within and outside your room.  Again, the process involves noticing not interpreting or judging the sounds (whether they are pleasant or grating, for example).
  5. Anchoring yourself – you can choose to focus just on your breath or the sounds or adopt a position of natural awareness where you are open to the sense of being aware. Whatever you choose becomes your anchor that you can return to when your mind wanders.  It is natural to have passing thoughts and emotions – the important thing is not to entertain them or indulge them but to acknowledge them, for example, by saying to yourself, “I’m wandering again”.  Once you notice and acknowledge your diverting thoughts and/or emotions, you can return to your chosen anchor.
  6. Equanimity meditation – this involves two main parts that focus directly on developing calm, no matter what your stimulus is.  The first involves capturing a time when you were able to remain calm and balanced when confronted with a challenge – it is important to visualise the event and recapture the memory in all its richness including the stimulus, your initial thoughts/emotions, how you brought yourself under control and your calm response replacing what normally would have been a reactive response.  The second part involves envisaging a challenging situation you have to deal with; identifying what is your “normal” response; and picturing yourself tapping into your boundless internal equanimity, energy and awareness to adopt a response that is both creative and positive.

Diana maintains that this process of equanimity meditation builds your capacity to manage difficult challenges rather than revert to reactivity – that involves adopting habituated responses that are potentially injurious to yourself and others. On a personal note, I like listening to the calmness of Diana’s voice and hearing her highly developed insights as she leads me through a guided meditation process on the weekly podcasts.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditations such as the equanimity meditation, we can realise a new level of personal resilience through the development of calmness, balance and even-mindedness.  We will experience less reactivity in challenging situations and be open to more positive and helpful responses.

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Image – Heron on branch in Wynnum Creek, Brisbane

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

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

Sustaining Mindfulness Practice with Daily Reminders

Tara Brach maintains that sustained mindfulness practice can lead to the development of natural awareness.  Sustaining mindfulness practice has its own challenges with the constant demand on our time and the pace of life today.  The never-ending time pressures continuously absorb our attention and intensify the pace of our life and leave little time for meditation or other mindfulness practices.  The anomaly is that until we slow down in some small way, we are unable to see the opportunities to be mindful or to create space in our lives. Tara suggests that the way forward is to create regular reminders in our daily life that will serve as catalysts to help us to drop into brief mindfulness practices, whatever form we choose to use at the time.  

Developing reminders to sustain mindfulness practice

In her book,  The Little Book of Being (p.179), Tara provides suggestions for practical reminders that you can employ throughout the day to serve as prompts to engage in some form of mindfulness practice – even if meditation is not a practical option at the time.  The potential reminders are limited only by your imagination – what suits one person will not fit with the lifestyle of another.  Here are some suggestions:

  • You could place paintings as prompts for mindfulness practice and build a strong association between the painting(s) and being mindful.   I have a painting in my office by a Chinese artist, who was supported by MIFQ, which reminds me to “smell the roses”  – to take time out to experience and appreciate nature
  • You could develop the habit of using waiting time as a reminder to default to awareness instead of defaulting to your phone.  In this way, you will be filling-in-time by building a constructive habit that will enable you to better manage the stresses of daily life.
  • Have verbal reminders such as quotes or charts on your wall to remind you of the need to have a mindful moment – e.g. to get in touch with your breathing.  The words you choose are not the key element here, what is important is the meaning you attribute to them and how well they motivate you to stop and take a mindful moment.
  • When walking to a meeting or from the car park to the shops, you can remind yourself that if you slow your walking down you can begin to slow down the pace of your life.  Mindful walking brings lots of benefits.  However, our walking pace tends to reflect the frenetic pace of our lives.
  • Boiling the jug can serve as a reminder to take a few mindful breaths.  This can happen regularly throughout the day and provide the frequency and repetition that supports the development of a positive habit.
  • Leo Babauta suggests that you link drinking a glass of water to some form of self-care. He maintains that self-love is a sadly neglected area of our lives – we are so ready to be critical of, angry with, or disappointed in, ourselves. Leo offers a process for using the act of drinking water as a reminder to express self-love.
  • If you are fortunate enough to observe the sunrise daily, you could use this opportunity as a prompt to be still, develop inner awareness and tap into your creativity.

Reminders strategically placed throughout our day can help us to grow in mindfulness and associated natural awareness.  These can prompt us to take time out for a mindful moment and can also anchor us during the turbulence of the waves of daily life.

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Image: Sunrise at Wynnum, Queensland 24 July 2019

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

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

The Lifelong Journey into Inner and Outer Awareness

Diana Winston in her book , The Little Book of Being, suggests that if we let our meditation and mindfulness practices slip, our achievement of natural awareness will diminish and the change in this direction will become “dormant”.  She argues for “lifelong practice” to keep “our meditation vibrant and interesting” (p.206).

The lifelong journey into inner awareness

There are times when we gain insight into who we really are and how we respond to various stimuli.  We may surprise ourselves when we discover the level of resentment we still carry towards someone for an action that occurred many years ago; or we might gain insight into the ways we express anger covertly; or unconsciously seek the approval of others.  These insights gained throughout our journey into inner awareness through meditation and mindfulness practices can be translated progressively into behavioural change.

We might gain clarity about the factors influencing our responses – we come to an understanding of the influence of early parental criticism on our current behaviour; or time spent away from our parents when very young (e.g. under five); or loss of a sibling; or being a child of an alcoholic parent.  While our understanding grows of the impact of these influences, it takes a lifelong journey to break free of the hold of these influences and to translate these insights into new behaviours.

We might experience what Tara describes as a “waking up” and the associated deep shift inside ourselves which is difficult to explain but finds expression in increased tolerance of others, heightened sensitivity or a readily accessible stillness and calm in times of crisis. Despite these shifts, we might still be prone to anger when caught in traffic while rushing to get somewhere; still interrupt people’s conversation to divert the conversation to ourselves; still fail to express our real feelings; or still indulge in any other form of inadequate or inappropriate behaviour.  Despite the experience of a deep personal shift in inner awareness, we have not arrived at the end of the journey because meditation is not a “quick fix” – it’s a pathway to guide us on the journey into the unknown.

The lifelong journey into outer awareness

Through our meditation and mindfulness practices, we can increase our natural awareness – attain increasing awareness in the present moment of what and who is around us.  We can begin to appreciate the beauty of a sunrise as it occurs and bask in its unique configuration and colour; we can be increasingly cognisant of, and sensitive to, the pain of others; we can become aware of how grateful we are for the things that we have and/or can do in life – and yet, at other times, we may be oblivious of what is around us (the beauty of nature or the sounds of birds) and fail to notice, or act to relieve, someone’s suffering or pain because of self-preservation.

Outer awareness grows over time with regular practice but can become blurred by the intensity of our thoughts or feelings – the inner fog.  We need to continually pull back the screen of our self-preoccupation and self-projection to allow the light of natural awareness to shine on the world and people around us.  Outer awareness requires a lifelong journey into wonder through growing curiosity and openness (repressing the need to judge).

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and mindfulness practices, our natural awareness grows so that we can be more in-the -moment.  We can gain progressive insight into ourselves; the influences shaping our behaviour and responses; and attain ever increasing inner awareness to the point of experiencing a major shift or “waking up”.  We can broaden our outer awareness and our attunement to, and connection with, other people. All the time, though, we will develop a deepening insight into how long the journey is to attain inner and outer awareness – the realisation of the need for a lifelong journey.

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Image: Sunrise at Wynnum, Queensland 10 July 2019

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

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

From Goal Focused Meditation to Natural Awareness

Diana Winston, in her most recent book, The Little Book of Being, differentiates between two main forms of meditation.  One meditation approach Diana identifies as the classical method – requiring considerable effort and focused on an object (e.g. breath or sound) and a goal (e.g. calmness, self-management, stress reduction); the other is focused on what she terms “natural awareness”.  She makes the point early in the book that in her early meditation practice she exhausted herself and became depressed and self-loathing by falling into the trap of becoming overly goal and object focused.  Her personal release came with the realisation of the power of natural awareness.  Her teaching is built on many years of personal meditation practice and deep insight into what enables people to live life fully and to be their authentic self.

When Diana became Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC (UCLA) she was determined to introduce other people to the practice of natural awareness.  Her book shows the evolution in her thinking and practice and her conclusion that people should practise both classical meditation and natural awareness as they are mutually reinforcing and complementary.   Classical meditation builds the power of focus and concentration together with present-centred awareness required to develop the habit of natural awareness. 

The nature of natural awareness

The approach to meditation that Diana promotes is called natural awareness because it entails practising what we experience naturally.  People can recall their own experiences of being in the moment, just being somewhere, or being in the zone in a sports or work arena.  Awareness is a natural capacity that has been diminished over time and lost in the fog of our own self-stories and beliefs, the incessant distractions drawing us away from the present moment and the time urgency that drives our goal-directed behaviour.  We become time-poor, driven (e.g. as reflected in impatient driver behaviour) and focused on the past or the future – leading to a form of depression or anxiety.  Natural awareness offers instead a sense of letting go – resulting in restfulness and equanimity.  Loch Kelly, In an interview with Tami Simon, describes natural awareness as effortless mindfulness.

According to Diana, natural awareness is a way of knowing and a state of being wherein our focus is on awareness itself rather than on things we are aware of (p.12). She offers a series of “markers” you can use to test whether you have experienced natural awareness (p.13).

Recollection: a starting point for natural awareness

Diana offers a recollection exercise as an introduction to natural awareness – using memories to recapture past, personal experience of natural awareness. The basic approach is to recall a time (in a relaxed way, not forced) when you had a sense of just being – experiencing heightened attention, a strong sense of connection, openness to what was happening or a profound sense of peace. The occasion could be viewing a sunrise/sunset, experiencing awe in the presence of pounding waves, a burst of creativity, a joyful conversation with a friend or being in natural surrounds where the beauty is breathtaking.

Now try to capture the time and experience in all its detail – where you were, what you were doing, feeling and sensing (touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing). The final step is to tap into what is happening for you with this recollection, e.g. tranquility, connection or ease. You can then rest in this awareness.

As we grow in mindfulness, through classical meditation and specific natural awareness practices, our capacity for inner and outer awareness expands and natural awareness becomes accessible to us on a daily/hourly basis.

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Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

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

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