Shaping Our Brains to Build Resilience

Richard Davidson, Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds, recently addressed the Mindful Healthcare Summit on the topic The Science of Resilience. Richard, an internationally renowned neuroscientist, stated that his research and that of his colleagues has convinced him that we can shape our brains in a way that builds resilience and helps us to flourish rather than be tossed around “like a sailboat without a rudder on a turbulent sea”. Richard is the co-author with Daniel Goleman of the book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

What is resilience?

Richard defines resilience as “the rapidity with which you can recover from adversity”. Linda Graham described this trait as “bouncing back“. Richard stated that neuroscience can actually measure the rapidity of recovery by exploring (through brain imaging) two key aspects of the brain that feature in dealing with stress or adverse situations, (1) the level of cortisol released by the brain and (2) the degree to which the amygdala is activated.

He highlighted the brain’s plasticity as proof that we can train our minds and take more responsibility for shaping our brains and determining the direction of our brain plasticity – which most of the time occurs unwittingly through forces external and internal to ourselves. The key is to understand how our brain develops resilience and to make a commitment to shape our brain in a way that builds wellbeing rather than diminishes it.

How to shape our brain to build resilience

Richard suggests that to actively build resilience we need to develop in four key areas through focused meditations and aligned action:

  1. Awareness – he describes this as attention to our own bodies and the tension within. Mindful breathing and body scan can help to develop this awareness and related ability to be grounded in our bodies. Calmness and clarity emerge from this aspect of shaping our minds.
  2. Connection – having and nurturing harmonious and supportive relationships that provide an effective buffer for us when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Meditations that can help build social connection are the loving kindness and gratitude meditations. Positivity, expressions of appreciation and empathy can nurture these relationships.
  3. Insight – an in-depth knowledge of our personal narrative/self-story that generates negative self-evaluation and false beliefs that contribute to a lack of resilience and depression. We have to recognise these self-beliefs as merely thoughts, not reality. Meditations such as the R.A.I.N. meditation, S.B.N.R.R. process and reflections on resentment can help us shift this narrative from negative thoughts generating self-defeating emotions to a positive narrative that is enabling and builds resilience in the face of setbacks or adversity.
  4. Purpose – clarity about life purpose, and alignment of words and actions with this purpose, enable us to surf the waves of daily life and to manage the vicissitudes that inevitably disturb our equilibrium. Bill George describes your purpose as your True North and offers ways to discover it. In a previous post I offered a series of questions to help find your unique purpose and a path of action to pursue that purpose.

Developing a permeable self

Richard stated that the aspect of “insight” mentioned above is a key component of resilience. We tend to develop a fixed and stable view of our self which causes us problems in conflicted situations. It is this “fixed identity” that becomes challenged when our emotions overflow, especially when they “bleed” from one adverse interaction into another encounter. We need to be able to “shake loose the rigidity” by making our sense of self more permeable – open to new experiences, insights and feedback.

As we grow in mindfulness through exploring different forms of meditation on a consistent basis, we can develop a more balanced and permeable view of our self. We can build our resilience and wellbeing through developing awareness, connection, insight and purpose.

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

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Happiness Through Mindfulness

Shinzen Young, an internationally renowned meditation teacher, identified multiple ways that mindfulness meditation can contribute to our experience of happiness. In one of his videos – titled Why Meditate? – he identifies five specific aspects contributing to happiness that are enhanced by meditation. I will discuss these aspects below.

Five ways meditation contributes to happiness

  1. Managing pain – neuroscience research strongly supports the view that meditation can reduce the suffering experienced by people in chronic pain. Jon Kabat-Zinn, through his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program, has shown that meditation can provide genuine pain relief. Diana Winston highlights the fact that pain is an inevitable part of human existence, but we have the choice through meditation of reducing our sense of pain (which is often exacerbated by the stories we tell ourselves and others about being-in-pain). She offers a meditation practice for dealing with pain.
  2. Heightened fulfillment – a sense of satisfaction from doing what you set out to do or realising some aspects of what you see as your real purpose in life. Stephen Cope explains how meditation can assist us to progress along the four-stage path to realising and actioning our true purpose.
  3. Understanding our self – Shinzen maintains that meditation leads to a deep level of self-understanding, learning who we really are. This self-awareness develops through meditation as we progressively challenge our self-stories and negative self-evaluation.
  4. Improvements in behaviour – through meditation we can identify our reactivity and the inappropriate ways we behave. We can also develop the intention to change our behaviour, the motivation to realise this change and the reinforcement of the change through savouring achievements in desired behavioural change.
  5. Contribution through selfless service – a spirit of serving the needs of others and helping them to realise happiness in their lives. This sense of service brings its own personal rewards and, according to Richard Barrett, represents the highest level of psychosocial development. Shinzen argues that this level of achievement is the natural outcome from realising the other four aspects of happiness mentioned above.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we can suffer less from our pain, experience fulfillment in our life, develop a deeper self-understanding, achieve desired behavioural changes and be in a good place personally to contribute to the service of others and their achievement of happiness. In turn, we will enhance our own experience of happiness and the equanimity of a life well-lived.

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

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Saying “Yes” to What We Are Feeling Now

Tara Brach highlights the fact that we spend a lot of our time in a belief trance, lost in thought and focused on going somewhere – looking towards what is coming up in the future. We overlook the present which is the real source of happiness, creativity and calm. She tells the story of the Dalai Lama being interviewed and being asked “What is the happiest moment of your life?” He responded, after a thoughtful moment, “Now”.

Tara suggests that we are strongly conditioned to not be present but to be “on our way to somewhere else”. We view some future moment as the most important in our life when the present moment is really the most important – it is what really matters. This leads to an honest inquiry, “What is it that takes us away from the present?” We can check in on ourselves as each day progresses and become more aware of what is consuming our thoughts.

What is going on for us in our virtual reality?

Tara points out that we are effectively living in a “virtual reality” – disconnected from our senses and the world around us as we become totally absorbed in our thoughts. Underlying this state of “lost in thought” are our embedded wants and fears – what we think we want and what we fear . We become preoccupied with the thought that something is not quite right, that something that should be here is missing. Invariably, this leads to the conclusion that there is “something wrong with our self”.

This preoccupation with deficit in our life leads to a sense of unworthiness. Tara maintains that meditation is a way to wake up from this preoccupation with negative self-evaluation. She explains that meditation has two “wings” – the awareness wing that notices what is going on for us and the kindness wing that treats us with self-compassion. In the final analysis, meditation leads us to accept ourselves non-judgmentally.

A guided meditation – coming home to “yes’

Tara provides a guided practice which she calls, Coming Home to Yes. After becoming grounded through your breathing, you are encouraged to focus on a conflict that is current in your life that generates “difficult emotions”, but that is not overly dramatic. The practice involves exploring the two wings of meditation – awareness and self-compassion.

The focal situation needs to be something that created strong negative emotions such as resentment or envy or that resulted in your acting in a way that you wished you hadn’t – that led to some regret. The meditation involves visualising the catalytic situation and revisiting the strong emotions generated – experiencing them in their full depth and breadth.

When you are able to name your feelings, you can focus on the nature of your reactivity – is it reflected in fight, flight or freezing? Tara encourages you to notice what you are doing when you are trying to resume control – to prevent the reactivity by saying “no” to your emotions, disowning them because they make you feel “less”. You can sense the “no” in your body, mind and heart – opening to the very real experience of your resistance to these negative emotions.

After interrupting the reflective process with a few deep breaths, you can revisit the situation, the triggers, the emotions and instead of saying “no”, you can say “yes” – letting the strong negative emotions “just be”, not denying or acting on them. This gives yourself permission to own these feelings – to allow what is. It does not mean that you automatically accept the actions of the other person, but that you allow yourself to feel anger or hurt, to be real in the situation. You can sense the experience of “yes” in your body so that you can revisit this sensation when a situation in the future engenders strong negative emotions. As Tara points out, in the process you are experiencing the two wings of meditation, awareness and self-compassion.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection on our strong negative emotions, we can learn to own the emotions rather than denying them or acting on them. We can say “yes” to their existence.

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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.

Compassion: Exploring “Where Does it Hurt?”

Tara Brach in presenting during the encore of the Mindful Leadership Summit, discussed the nature of compassion and how to develop it through mindfulness.  Tara’s talk was titled, “Radical Compassion: Awakening Our Naturally Wise & Loving Hearts“.  She highlighted the fact that our limbic system (emotional part of our brain) often blocks our compassion.  She offered a short meditation to help us to get in touch with understanding ourselves and to free up our “naturally loving” and compassionate heart.

Perpetuating the “Unreal Other”

Tara spoke about our tendency, and her own, to negatively impact close relationships through treating the other person as an “unreal other”.  This involves being blind to their existence and needs because of our pursuit of our own needs for reassurance, confirmation of our own worth, sense of power and control or many other emotional needs that arise from our desire to protect our self-esteem.   This preoccupation with fulfilling our own needs leads to judging others, instead of showing compassion towards them.

At the same time, we are captured by the “shoulds” that play out in our minds through social conditioning.   The “shoulds” tell us what we should do or look like, how to behave or what to say.  These mental messages perpetuate self-judgment which, in turn, blocks our sensitivity to the needs of others and our compassionate action.  Mindfulness can help us to get in touch with this constant negative self-evaluation and open the way for our compassionate action.

The difference between compassion and empathy

Tara pointed out that compassion arises out of mindfulness, whereas empathy engages our limbic (emotional) system.  Too much empathy can lead to burnout, resulting from taking on the pain and suffering of others.  She points out that neuroscience demonstrates that compassion and empathy light up different parts of the brain.  Compassion engages the neo-cortex and is linked to our motor system – compassion is about understanding another’s pain and taking action to redress it.  Empathy is another form of “resonance” but it results in immersion in another’s pain.

A short meditation: “Where does it hurt?”

Tara offered a brief meditation to help us to get in touch with how the limbic system sabotages our compassion.  The meditation begins with recalling an interaction that upset us or made us angry.  Once we have this firmly in our recollection, we can then explore what was going on for us. What made us angry and what does this say about our response?  What emotions were at play for us?  Were we experiencing fear, shame, disappointment or some other emotion?  What deeply-felt, but hidden need drove this emotion?  If we can get in touch with this emotion and the need underlying it, we are better placed to be open to compassion.

Once we can get in touch with our own needs and how they play out in our interactions, we can begin to understand that similar needs and reactions are playing out for those we interact with.  Tara points out that we all have “a foot caught in a trap”.  For some, it may be the weight of expectations or anxiety over doing the right thing; for others, it may be grief over a recent loss or the pain and stigma of sexual abuse.  Once we move beyond self-absorption, we can recognise the pain of others and extend a helping, compassionate hand.   We can ask them, “Where does it hurt?, and we can be more sensitive to their response because we have explored our own personal hurts.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can better understand ourselves, our needs and the hidden drivers of our emotions and responses in interactions with others.  This will pave the way for us to be open to compassionate action towards others, including those who are close to us.

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

Image source: courtesy of eliola on Pixabay

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Overcoming the Obstacle of Doubt During Meditation

I have previously discussed a range of obstacles that can impact on our attempts at meditation – aversion, sleepiness, desire and restlessness. Today I want to concentrate on “doubt” as an obstacle or source of distraction during meditation.

Doubt is a common experience during meditation, particularly for people who are at the early stages of meditation practice.  We can doubt ourselves. whether we are doing it right or whether we are progressing at some ideal rate.  We can also doubt the process of meditation itself because we are so easily distracted, or we may not be experiencing the benefits that are claimed for meditation practice.

It is a common experience in learning any new skill, such as playing tennis, that we will have doubts and some confusion about what we are trying to learn.  It is also easy to give up when we are in the early stages because we are conscious of our incompetence.  Early on in meditation practice we are assailed with all kinds of obstacles and we can experience the strong temptation to give it away.  However, persistence pays in meditation as in other facets of our life.

We can find it really difficult to deal with the endless thoughts that assail us during meditation – the distraction of things to do, mistakes made, future pleasant events and related desire, impending difficulties or current challenges.  By letting these thoughts pass us by and returning to our focus, we are building our “meditation muscle” – our capacity to restore our focus no matter what the distraction or how often distractions occur.

With persistence in meditation we are able to bring our renewed level of self-awareness and self-management more and more into our daily lives – to overcome the challenges, tests of our patience and disturbances to our equanimity.

Overcoming doubt during meditation

Diana Winston, in her meditation podcast on managing doubt during meditation, provides us with some sound advice on ways to overcome these doubts as we meditate:

  • Accept the doubts – acknowledge the doubt as the reality of “what is” for you at the present moment. Focusing on the doubt and its manifestation in your body, enables you to name your feelings associated with the doubt and to “look it in the face”, rather than hide from it.
  • Don’t beat up on yourself – doubts assail everyone, particularly in the early stages of engaging in meditation practice.  The doubts themselves can lead to negative self-evaluation if you think you are the only one who has doubts.
  • Spend more time on being grounded during meditation – this process can take us out of our doubts and ground us more fully in the present moment.  Diana suggests, for example, spending more time on scanning your body for tension and letting go to soften the muscles in your abdomen, shoulders, back or neck.  Another suggestion she makes is to focus on the sounds around you – listening to them without judgement as to whether you like them or not, just focusing on the sound itself.
  • Remind yourself of your motivation in doing meditation – are you practising meditation to gain self-control, improved concentration, calmness in the face of stress, improved resilience in dealing with difficult situations or general wellness? If you can focus in on your motivation, you will be better able to sustain your meditation practice.  Learning any new skill takes time and practice and a sustained vision of the end goal.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can overcome doubts that serve as obstacles to our progress.  We can avoid the self-defeating cycle of indulging our doubts – our indulged doubts impact the effectiveness of our meditation which, in turn, increases our doubts about the value of meditation for us when we are already time-poor.

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

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Overcoming Aversion as a Barrier to Meditation

One of the weekly MARC meditation podcasts addresses the issue of overcoming aversion as a barrier to meditation.  Aversion is the last of five obstacles to meditation covered by Diana Winston in a series of meditations aimed to remove the barriers that stop us meditating or divert our attention during meditation.  In a previous post, for example, we discussed ‘desire‘ as one of these obstacles.

Diana points out that aversion may arise through boredom with the practice of meditation, resentment of the time that needs to be set aside to maintain daily meditation practice, or residual negative feelings from something in our lives.  These feelings may be anger over a job loss, frustration about not making progress with a project or residual feelings from conflict with someone at work or at home.   These negative feelings can result in our feeling reluctant to even start our meditation.

Diana suggests that the feeling itself – whether boredom, anger, resentment or frustration – is the starting point.  Just noticing what we are feeling, acknowledging it and understanding how it has arisen, can be the focus of our meditation.  We do not need to focus elsewhere or be tied to a routine or prescribed topic.  It’s enough to deal with ‘what is’ – what we are thinking and feeling in the moment.

What is important though is to treat ourselves with loving kindness – not beating up on ourselves for a lack of interest at the time or the presence of negative residual feelings.  A way to negate this negative self-evaluation is to engage in a further meditation focused on loving kindness towards our self.

Loving kindness meditation in the event of aversion to meditation practice

Loving kindness meditation can focus on our self and/or others – these can also be combined.  When using the loving kindness approach, it is recommended to start with loving kindness towards others and to use the resultant experience of ‘warmth’ to turn the focus onto yourself.

Having first become grounded, the meditation begins with a focus on someone you admire or love.   After imagining the person of your choice, the meditation begins with wishing them wellness, e.g. “May you experience strength, health and happiness.”

This then flows onto loving kindness meditation towards yourself.  Here, you extend to yourself similar wellness wishes and avoid any judgmental thoughts that could diminish your self-esteem.  The reality is that even experienced meditators encounter obstacles to their meditation practice, including aversion.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can learn to handle whatever comes our way, including obstacles such as aversion.  Loving kindness meditation extended to others and to our self, can free us from negative self-evaluation in the event of experiencing a meditation obstacle.

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

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Being Mindful About Our Thoughts

Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Mindfulness of Thoughts, explains the role thoughts can play in our lives and provides options for using mindfulness meditation to control our thoughts.

Thoughts have a powerful influence over our lives – they can be positive or negative with consequential impacts on the way we see and experience the world.  They can express our perceptions of others and our experiences.  Our thoughts can extend to our needs such as who I wish to marry, where I would like to live, my ideal job, what I want to study/research or what I am going to do with the surplus in my life.

We also have thoughts that contribute to our pain and suffering such as negative self-evaluation, anxious thoughts, thoughts about grief or thoughts that engender negative emotions such as rage, anger, frustration or envy.

Being mindful about our thoughts

Mindfulness can really help us to manage our thoughts.  Diana suggests that a fundamental rule is, “Don’t believe everything you think”.  Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us too, “We are not our thoughts”.  Thoughts can be seen as real but, in reality, they are just passing through our mind, unless we cultivate and encourage them.

We can be trapped by our thoughts or create some space so that we have times when we are free from them.  Freedom comes from just noticing our thoughts as they pass by rather than being enmeshed in them and acting them out, particularly where they are negative.

Diana uses the metaphor of a passing train as a way to illustrate how one thought leads to another, which leads to another…as if they are coupled or joined together.  They become like a “thought train that leads us down a particular track”.  Before you know it, a lot of time can elapse and you begin to wonder where the time has gone – you have been lost in your thoughts.

By being in the present moment through mindfulness, you can stop yourself from going down that particular track that your thoughts are leading you along. Diana suggests that an alternative position is to visualize yourself staying on the platform and watching the thoughts go by, avoiding getting on the thought train, just letting the train go past.

Meditations to control our thoughts

We can build awareness by focusing on our breathing while noticing when thoughts arise and then returning to our focus – our breath.  This practice of noticing, not cultivating our thoughts, and returning to our focus, is a powerful way to achieve equanimity and avoid being disturbed and captured by our thoughts that can lead to a negative spiral.

A second meditation practice is to actually notice a thought and pay attention to it for a brief interval – just noticing it briefly and returning to our focus.  It becomes like a temporary aside.  We could notice that we are engaged in planning, critiquing or other frequent forms of our mental activity.

A third meditation practice is open awareness – like noticing thoughts as if they are clouds in the sky passing by us as the wind blows them along in a hazy way.

Each of these meditation practices can help us to be mindful about our thoughts and to learn to control them so that they do not control us and the way we experience, and relate to, the world.  Diana, in her meditation podcast, leads us through each of these meditation practices to enable us to experience the sense of freedom and control that comes from release from the binds of our thoughts.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices that address our thoughts, we can develop a sense of peace and control and free ourselves to show up for our lives – not being held back by the heavy anchor of negative thoughts.

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

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Meditation and Mental Health

Jonathan Kryiger and Andrew H. Kemp, researchers at the University oF Sydney, discussed meditation and mental health in a blog post titled, Beyond Spirituality: the role of meditation in mental health.

in their article, they identify a number of benefits for mental health reported in research on meditation.  They indicate how meditation, both by expert practitioners and people who meditate for short periods of time, can result in positive changes in their body, brain, emotional regulation ability and rate of ageing.

Of particular note, is the ability of meditation to assist in the treatment and management of acute and chronic pain.  Particular forms of mindfulness meditation such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) demonstrate positive results in the treatment of mood disorders and anxiety.

Meditation and regulating emotions to achieve mental health

While the generic benefits noted above can be realised through different forms of meditation, the focus of mindfulness meditations can vary considerably.  Throughout this blog, we have mentioned some meditations that target specific negative emotional responses that are injurious to mental health:

  • Forgiveness meditation, in which we focus on forgiving another person who has caused us harm or hurt, aims to reduce resentment which can undermine our self-esteem, self-confidence and effectiveness
  • Self-forgiveness meditation targets the never-ending cycle of self-criticism and negative self-evaluation which brings with it debilitating shame and guilt
  • Gratitude meditation can help to reduce depression which can disable us from taking constructive action in the various arenas of our daily life
  • Equanimity meditation helps us to replace mental agitation and disappointment with calmness and self-assurance
  • R.A.I.N. meditation helps us to face the “fear within” and frees us from the disabling effects of fear and anxiety that hinder our capacity to live fully and creatively
  • Somatic meditation enables us to get in touch with our bodies and progressively remove the emotional imprint of adverse events or trauma manifested in muscle tightness or pain
  • Loving kindness meditation focused on others can take us beyond damaging self-absorption and self-preoccupation and free us to access peace and happiness through the appreciation of others and their contributions to the quality of our lives.

The weekly meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA can extend the range of meditations we employ to target unhelpful and unhealthy emotions that impact the quality of our mental health.

As we grow in mindfulness through focusing our meditations on replacing negative emotions with positive ones, we can experience real growth in our mental health and our capacity to live life fully and creatively, develop loving and fulfilling relationships and avoid the downward spiral of mental illness.

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)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay.

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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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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.