Being Present to the Power of the Now

Jon Kabat-Zinn, international expert in mindfulness and its positive effects on mental health, provides some important insights about being present in-the-moment.  Jon, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are,  presented on Mindfulness Monthly, and focused on mindfulness for living each day.  His emphasis was on the fact that mindfulness meditation is not an end in itself but a preparation for, or conditioning for, everyday living.

He argues that through mindfulness we develop the capacity to cope with everyday life and its challenges and demands – whether emotional, physical, economic or relationship-based.  He urges mindfulness practitioners to avoid the temptation to pursue the ideal meditation practice or the achievement of a particular level of awareness as a goal in itself.  He argues that the “Now” is the practice ground for mindfulness – being open to, and fully alive to, the reality of what is.  Being-in-the-moment can make us aware of the inherent beauty of the present and the creative possibilities that are open to us.

Dropping in on the now

Jon suggests that we “drop in on the now” as a regular practice to keep us in touch with what is happening to us and around us.  This involves being willing to accept whatever comes our way – whether good fortune or adversity, joy or pain.  

He maintains that being present entails embracing the “full catastrophe of human living”- the theme of his book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness.  This means accepting whatever is unfolding in the moment, whether “challenging, intoxicating or painful”.  It also means not seeing the present through the prism of our expectations, but through an open-heartedness.  As we have previously discussed, so much of what we see is conditioned by our beliefs, unless we build awareness of our unconscious biases through meditation and reflection.  Being mindful at work through short mindfulness practices can assist us to drop in on the now.

Taking our practice into the real world

Jon challenges us to take our practice of mindfulness into the real world of work, family and community.  He expresses concern about the hatred and delusion that is evident in so much of our world today – a state of intoxication flowing from a complete disconnection with, and avoidance of, the human mind and heart.

Jon urges us to do whatever we are able, within our own realms of activity, to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion and extend this orientation to everyone we interact with – whether in an official/work capacity or in a personal role interacting with people such as the Uber driver, the waiter/waitress, checkout person or our neighbour.  We are all interconnected in so many ways and on so many levels – as an embodied part of the universal energy field

Jon reminds us that increasingly science is recognising the positive benefits of mindfulness for individuals and the community at large. He stressed that neuroscience research shows that mindfulness affects many aspects of the brain – level of brain activity, structure of the brain and the adaptability of the brain (neuroplasticity).  Mindfulness also builds what is termed “functional connectivity” – the creation of new neural pathways that build new links to enable parts of the brain to communicate with each other.  Without mindfulness practice much of this connectivity remains dormant.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more present to what is happening now in various spheres of our lives, become more aware of latent opportunities and creative possibilities and more willing and able to extend compassion, forgiveness and kindness to others we interact with.  We can progressively shed the belief blinkers that blind us to the needs of others and the ways that we could serve our communities and help to develop wellness and happiness in others.

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

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Developing Kindness through Meditation and Imagery

Diana Winston in one of her weekly meditation podcasts introduces a kindness meditation that employs guided imagery.  The key approach is to create a positive image and mentally invite others in to join you in that place.  This immersion in the present moment not only reduces stress and anxiety but develops a kindness orientation that can flow into your daily life.

Paying attention with kindness – cultivating a kindness orientation

Fundamental to this approach is paying attention with kindness – a form of mindfulness that envelops others through our care and concern.  Often, we are unaware of others, even those close to us, because we are absorbed in planning the future to reduce anxiety or ruminating about what might have been in the past.  We can become absorbed in disappointment over unrealised expectations

Guided imagery meditation proposed by Diana can take us outside of our self-absorption and open ourselves to kindness towards others.  Neuroscience, through discovery of the neuroplasticity of the brain, has reinforced the fact that what we actively cultivate in our minds will shape our future thoughts, emotions and actions.  Regular practice of kindness meditation creates new neural pathways so that we will find that we become more thoughtful and kinder – we become what we cultivate.  This principle is embedded in the story of The Grinch.

The Grinch in Dr. Seuss’ book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, cultivated meanness through his thoughts, words and actions and became progressively meaner to the point that he stole everyone’s Christmas presents and trees.  He was ultimately undone by the kindness of little Cindy Lou and her community who invited him to a Christmas meal despite his meanness to them.  At the meal, he shared his realisation of the value of kindness by making a toast, To kindness and love, the things we need most.  Kindness meditation practice shapes our orientation and is contagious, infecting those around us.

Developing kindness through meditation and imagery

In her guided meditation podcast, Diana leads us in an approach to meditation that incorporates guided imagery.  First, however, she guides us to become grounded through posture, focus and bodily awareness.  This state of being in the present moment can be anchored by focusing on our breathing or sounds around us (without interpretation, being-with-the-sound).  

Diana uses the imagery of a pond as a metaphor for kindness (starting at the 20.44mins point of the podcast).  The pond contains “kindness waters” that surround anyone who enters the pond.  The meditation involves progressively picturing people entering the pond and being embraced by the waters that spread happiness, protection, well-being and contentment.

As we grow in mindfulness through the practice of kindness meditation aided by imagery, we can become more kind and caring through cultivating a kindness orientation.  Our words and actions, in turn, influence others so that kindness grows around us. 

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

Image source: courtesy of MabelAmber 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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Changing Your Mindset

Shamash Alidina, co-author of Mindfulness at Work for Dummies, suggests that one way to be mindful at work is to change our mindset.  In discussing how to grow mindfulness in a work situation, he identifies two key aspects that relate to our attitude or mental state – self-acceptance and a growth perspective.

The acceptance mindset

Accepting things the way they are in the first instance is a fundamental aspect of mindfulness.  Diana Winston reinforces the concept of acceptance in her definition of mindfulness:

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

This means being in the moment with “what is”, accepting what you cannot change, and taking steps to address what can and should be changed.  Fundamental to this mindset is self-acceptance.

If we have made a mistake or overlooked something that should have been addressed, instead of “beating up on ourselves”, we can accept the situation and our role in the outcome and move forward.  If something “unfair” happens to us, we have the choice of carrying resentment and consuming wasted energy, or accepting the reality of what happened, however painful.  This radical acceptance does not mean agreeing with what has happened but accepting reality as it is, accepting the things that we cannot change.

This self-acceptance is fundamental to a growth mindset, because it starts with the acknowledgement and acceptance that we are not perfect, that we make mistakes, and have some deficiencies in knowledge and understanding.

The growth mindset

While accepting “what is” means not fighting against the reality of our own incompleteness, it does not mean accepting what we can change.  One thing we can change is ourselves – we can be open to developing our knowledge, skills, perspectives and attitudes.

This growth mindset is reinforced by the recent neuroscience discovery in the area of the neuroplasticity of the mind – the ability of the mind to change and adjust throughout our life.  It means that our brains are not fixed in our childhood or adolescent years, but can change neural pathways and connections as our brain absorbs and responds to new experiences and stimuli.  The starting point is openness to this possibility – a growth mindset.

A growth mindset, translated into the workplace, means a focus on continuous personal development, a willingness to learn from our experiences through reflection, a readiness to accept and seek critique of our words and actions, and openness to new experiences and challenges.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and mindfulness practice, we can develop both an acceptance mindset and a growth mindset.  These mental states, in turn, build mindfulness – our ability to be fully aware with “what is” in the present moment.

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

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Tai Chi and the Mind-Body Connection

In a previous post when discussing mindfulness and neuroplasticity, I mentioned that Tai Chi actually develops the mind physically by increasing the size of the insula in the brain.

Tai Chi is one of the mind-body techniques that form part of Traditional Chinese Medicine and is based on Chinese philosophy incorporating Taoism and Confucianism.  Tai Chi involves a combination of slow movements, body postures and mindful breathing.  In Chinese philosophy terms, it facilitates the flow of Qi, “life energy”.

Tai Chi has been shown to improve muscle strength, balance and flexibility and, when used in conjunction with Western Medicine, helps patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Arthritis and low bone density as well as helping people to recover from the effects of a stroke.

The real benefits of Tai Chi flow from its capacity to simultaneously develop the mind and body of the practitioner and thus enhance their mind-body connection.  Alzheimer’s disease is a clear example of the mind-body connection because as the mind deteriorates so does the body.  Tai Chi has been shown to combat Alzheimer’s.

The power of Tai Chi to develop the mind derives from the state of “relaxed concentration” achieved by focusing on the coordination of mind and body in a series of slow, balanced and rhythmic movements, while focusing on a single thought.  The focused attention develops mindfulness, improves memory and strengthens concentration.  Dr. Shin Lin, in a talk at the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, provided research results to show that Tai Chi produces new neurons during regular practice which suppress stress and build memory.

Dr. Lin indicated that Tai Chi, besides producing stress release, also improves immunity and eases chronic pain and fatigue.  Professor Michael R. Irwin, Medical Doctor and Director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, has demonstrated in his research that Tai Chi “promotes improvements in health functioning, viral specific immunity, and inflammation”.  His area of research and practice is focused on the mind-body connection – “Psychoneuroimmunology” involves the “study of the interaction between the psychological processes and the nervous and immunity systems of the human body”.

I have found from personal experience that Taoist Tai Chi helps both my mind (concentration, focus and creativity) and my body (energy, balance and fitness). I use the evidence of the mind-body benefits of Tai Chi to motivate my daily practice.

Karl Romain, in discussing how Tai Chi trains the brain, suggests that if you cannot find time for meditation and Tai Chi, practise your Tai Chi because it has a meditation element, as well as provides benefits for your mind-body connection.  I think the two practices, meditation and Tai Chi, are highly complementary and my personal goal is to achieve daily mindfulness practices that include both traditions.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and/or Tai Chi, we develop improved health and wellness, develop our minds and deepen our mind-body connection.

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

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.

Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity

Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, explained that early brain researchers discovered what became known as “neuroplasticity”:

They showed that the brain changed its very structure with each activity it performed, perfecting its circuits so it was better suited to the task at hand.  If certain “parts” failed, then other parts sometimes take over. (p.xv)

For example, people who meditate or teach meditation have been shown to have a thicker insula – a part of the brain that is activated by paying close attention to something (p.290).

Dr. Bruno Cayoun observed that neuroscience has demonstrated that brain plasticity explains how mindfulness training increases our perceptual ability leading to a greater sense of self control and self-awareness.  Perceptual ability, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “the ability to be able to deal with and give meaning to sensory stimuli”.

Research conducted jointly by the Fudan University in China and the University of South Florida showed that Tai Chi- often described as “meditation-in-motion” – actually increased the size of the brain of seniors who practised Tai Chi for 40 weeks and did so at least three times per week.  Tai Chi has many other benefits and these are discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Norman Doidge discusses the work of Michael Merzenich, Emeritus Professor in neurophysiology, who started a company called Posit Science to extend neuroplasticity of the brains of people as they age, as well as extend their lifespan (p.85).  Professor Merzenich maintains that, if we are in the older age group, we may not have been developing our brain plasticity since middle age because we are often working off already mastered knowledge and skills.

So, learning new skills such as mindfulness meditation and Tai Chi, with the attention and concentration required, will help to alleviate this problem of mental decline.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and approaches such as Tai Chi, we increase the size of our brain, enhance brain plasticity and enjoy the consequential benefits such as self-awareness and self-control.

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

Image source: courtesy of ArtsyBee on Pixabay

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.