Mindfulness as Self-Observation

Brian Shiers suggests that underpinning mindfulness is self-observation, the foundation of self-awareness.  This means, in effect, that there is no one right way to meditate – that paying attention to and noticing ourselves, in whatever way, is essentially mindfulness.  While there is a tendency for people new to meditation to judge themselves against a presumed standard, the experience they are having in self-observation is what mindfulness is about, not some prescribed level of awareness.  Mindfulness practices are designed to stimulate this curiosity about oneself in an open, exploratory way.  Tara Brach describes this lifelong journey as “waking up” – a deep shift in inner awareness that leads to equanimity and increased empathy and compassion.

In a recent guided meditation podcast, Brian asked the question, “What is “Myself”? and he encouraged participants to activate their “observational mind” in a relaxed manner.  He maintained that the fundamental question, “What is the “self”? is both an ancient and a recent question (through the pursuit of neuroscience).

Is the “self” my body, my thoughts, my roles I undertake, my affiliations, my emotions or my mind?  Brian sited the work of Dan Siegel, a founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), who believes that the “self” is not only what we are born with, but also the cumulation of billions of impressions that we are exposed to through interactions with others – thus shaping our perceptions and responses.  Dan’s perspective reinforces the uniqueness of our “self”.  Brian suggests, then, that the self is “intertwined in inter- relationships” – the direct and indirect influence of others throughout our lives.

Researchers have yet to establish what the “mind” is, even with the advent of neuroscience.   Brain stated that neuroscientists at Stanford University have estimated that we generate between 65,000 and 90,000 thoughts per day.  We are reminded of the admonition of Jon Kabat-Zinn that “you are not your thoughts”, thoughts that come and go like bubbles in boiling water.  Brain suggests that the “enterprise of mindfulness” is “self-observation”, including bringing to conscious awareness and guidance, the unconscious, spontaneously occurring thoughts that pervade our minds.  So, from Brian’s perspective, mindfulness is the pursuit of self-awareness through observation of the various domains of our existence, including our bodies and our minds.

A process of self-observation

Brian’s guided meditation podcast takes you on a journey of paying attention to your “self” through a process of self-observation of body and mind – noticing your body on the chair, engaging in mindful breathing, noticing your thoughts (but not entertaining them), undertaking a body scan while releasing tension, and participating in a reflection.

The personal reflection involves identifying a positive trait in yourself, e.g. wisdom. loving kindness, gratitude, thoughtfulness or resilience; and exploring how it manifests, its impact on others and how you could further develop this trait. Brian offers some guided questions for the reflection:

  • What is happening when you exhibit this trait? (you can visualise it happening)
  • What impact does it have on others?
  • Who is a role model for you in respect of this trait?
  • Who could help you develop it?
  • How can you further develop this positive trait?

As we grow in mindfulness through self -observation during the process of meditation, we can better understand who we are, how we experience the world, and what we bring to our interactions with others. We can also identify strategies to strengthen our positive traits and increase our motivation to use them to create a better life for ourselves and others.

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Image – Personal reflection during sunrise, Wynnum, 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 the Momentum of Writing Your Blog

When I set out to write my blog on mindfulness, I intended to publish daily. I was able to maintain this for 3 months.  However, the cost in terms of the impact on my other work and family life was increasingly high.  When I explained to my friend and mentor, Bob Dick, that daily publishing was becoming onerous, he suggested that I aim to publish only three or four times a week.  He indicated that this would not affect my Google search results – and this has proven correct.

Publishing three or four times a week has freed me up to do other things, including my workshops, and enabled me to develop a pattern of research and writing that seems to work for me.  So, on the alternate days when I am not publishing, I identify a topic to write about and do the requisite research.  I am often able to create a first draft from this research so that when the publishing day arrives, I have a topic and some ideas recorded as an early draft.  I have also established the practice of doing my research and writing at a set time, usually early in the morning before I become embroiled in other commitments.

This process has enabled me to sustain my blog writing, freed up time for other things, and facilitated my own meditation practice.  For example, I am often able to undertake a meditation practice before I write it up or explain its nature and effectiveness.  The downside of my current schedule is that the regularity of the blog writing has impacted my practice of Tai Chi which I used to do daily.  The solution may be to undertake the Tai Chi on alternate days also.

What I find that really helps me to sustain my motivation and effort in writing the blog, is to spell out what the benefits of my writing are for my readers and myself.

Being clear about the benefits of writing your blog

My intention in writing the blog is to provide the following benefits to readers of my blog and acknowledged mindfulness practitioners:

  • Raise awareness of the resources on mindfulness (free and paid) that are available
  • Provide inspiration and hope through the stories of those who have successfully overcome life challenges and difficulties
  • Offer mindfulness practices that can help to ease the pain and suffering of depression, anxiety, chronic pain and other challenging life situations
  • Provide resources to help people deal with difficult emotions such as resentment and anger
  • Help more people to become aware of the benefits of mindfulness
  • Assist in the promotion and development of mindful leadership
  • Promote the writing, work and practice of genuine mindfulness practitioners
  • Share the relevant findings from the latest neuroscience research.

The benefits for me in writing this blog on mindfulness are:

  • Enables me to access and practice different meditations and mindfulness techniques
  • Keeps mindfulness at the forefront of my mind and thus facilitates my ability to integrate mindfulness into my daily life and work
  • Provides me with the desire and energy to do the research to identify resources, key people and the latest neuroscience developments
  • Keeps my mind active now that I no longer undertake my academic work and associated activities such as examining doctoral theses
  • Provides some structure to my life in a period of semi-retirement when I have lost the structure of daily work
  • Realises the advice of Jeri Sedlar and Rick Miners, “Don’t Retire, Rewire” – which is designed to maintain mental health and facilitate longevity
  • Provides content and mindfulness practices for my manager development workshops which now include a session on mindfulness
  • Provides the knowledge and motivation to develop other activities associated with helping people to develop mindfulness, such as podcasts and online conferences
  • Provides me with the opportunity to engage in meaningful work (rather than consuming all my time in front of the television)
  • Develops “deep focus” – the capacity to stay on task for lengthy periods without being diverted by enticements such as social media, email or desktop clutter
  • Enables me to tap into the benefits of mindfulness practice itself – e.g. clarity, calm, managing difficult emotions, self-awareness, self-regulation and creativity.

When you are clear about the benefits of your blog writing for yourself and others, the writing task becomes more enjoyable, achievable and rewarding.  In many ways, the more you write, the easier it becomes (although writer’s block can still occur on your off days).

We can grow in mindfulness if we bring clarity of intention and purpose to our writing through articulating the benefits of our writing for others and ourselves.  Establishing a sustainable schedule builds self-awareness (re procrastination and  avoidance behaviours) and develops the self-regulation that comes from a disciplined approach.  If we can employ mindfulness practices to support our writing, we can gain focus, clarity, insight and creativity.

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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.

Introducing Compassion into Leadership Development

In the previous post, I discussed the approach of YMCA of USA on how to build mindfulness into leadership development. The principles and strategies for the implementation of this change revolved around a core tenet of patience – moving gradually to insert mindfulness into existing leadership development programs. Wendy Saunders who has focused on compassion for many years identified the cultivation of compassion in the organisation as a more complex change process with some different challenges. This is despite the fact that YMCA is focused on compassionate action within the community and is totally dedicated to diversity and inclusion.

Most organisations today recognise the need for diversity and inclusion. While much progress has been achieved in creating diversity in workplaces, the real challenge has been translating that into compassionate action through conscious inclusion strategies and actions. YMCA of USA recognises that the nature of their organisation’s focus and their worldwide reach makes diversity and inclusion paramount. Their strong commitment in the area is reflected in conscious inclusion practices, including having a “supplier diversity program”.

What are the challenges in embedding compassion into leadership development?

Despite the focus of the YMCA of USA on compassionate action (as the reason for its existence), Wendy found that there were real challenges to integrating compassion into leadership development in the organisation:

  • some staff believed that there was no place for compassion in the workplace – a strong task and outcomes focus challenged the desirability of compassion (a people-focused activity). Resource constraints and the ever-increasing need for YMCA services would cement this belief.
  • others experienced “cognitive dissonance” resulting from what they perceived as decisions and actions by the organisation that were lacking in compassion, e.g. laying off staff.

The concept of compassionate love, the title of Wendy’s personal website, is often viewed as “touchy feely” – an arena where feelings and emotions are more openly expressed to the discomfort of others. Feelings and emotions are often suppressed in the workplace and people have real difficulty openly discussing them – particularly, not wanting to be seen as “soft”. However, the reality is that it takes real courage to show compassion.

Introducing compassion into leadership development

Wendy suggests that, given the nature of the challenges to embedding compassion into leadership development, a central strategy has to be introducing compassion through “conversation and dialogue”. She indicated that at a YMCA retreat attended by 400 people, most people expressed the desire for “more compassion in the workplace”.

Besides making compassion a part of the conversation and dialogue, other strategies include storytelling (making people aware of compassionate action taken by others), discussing the benefits of compassion and the neuroscience supporting it and helping leaders to be aware of the ways to model compassion in the workplace, such as:

  • the way they “see and treat” people in the workplace – overcoming basic attribution errors, including where they judge themselves by their intentions and others by their actions. Associated with this is the need to avoid ascribing a negative label to a person because of a single act or omission on their part
  • being aware of the suffering of others and taking action to redress the suffering e.g. constructive action to support someone experiencing a mental health issue, taking action to overcome a toxic work environment or being ready to explore the factors (external and internal) that may be affecting the work performance of a staff member
  • actively working on addressing their own “unconscious bias” and blind spots that potentially result in decisions that unknowingly cause unnecessary suffering for others
  • providing opportunities to practice compassion meditation and group activities to support meditation practices.

Resourcing compassion in the workplace

Wendy stressed the need to provide resources on compassion to help build the knowledge base of the leaders in the organisation and to engender a commitment beyond a single individual such as the CEO (who can change frequently). Resources include courses, books, videos, podcasts, research articles and presentations/workshops by experts in compassion. She recommended books such as The Mind of the Leader and Awakening Compassion at Work and highlighted the resources on compassion available on her own website.

Wendy also recommends a course that she participated in that really stimulated her longstanding interest in compassion – CBCT (Cognitively-Based Compassion Training) conducted by Emory University. She is continuing her own studies by completing an Executive Masters in Positive Leadership and Strategy. Her thesis will address approaches to compassionate reorganisation and the evidence in terms of positive outcomes for individuals and the organisations involved.

As leaders grow in mindfulness through integration of mindfulness into leadership development, they will be developing the awareness that provides the impetus for compassion. Providing specific strategies to engender compassion in the workplace, such as introducing and supporting compassion meditation, will enable leaders to model compassionate action for others.

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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.

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)

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.

Mindful City Initiative: Mindful.Org

In the previous post I discussed the Mindful City Project focused on a pilot in Highland Park, Illinois. This is only one example of the many initiatives being undertaken in the USA to develop mindful cities. Another key approach is the Mindful City Initiative undertaken by Mindful.Org. I will focus on this initiative in the current blog post.

Mindful City Initiative: Flint, Michigan

The Mindful City Initiative is a social intervention that is one of the three high-leveraged projects undertaken by The Foundation for a Mindful Society. The Foundation aims to improve wellness, health, compassion and kindness in all sectors of society through its publications, Mindful.Org and the Mindful Magazine, as well as projects which aim to cultivate and support mindfulness practices based on evidence-based research. It seeks to achieve these outcomes through an authentic approach to mindfulness that reflects the integrity of the not-for-profit Foundation.

Flint in Michigan is a city that has experienced major crises, e.g. reduction in the GMH workforce from 80.000 at its peak in 1978 to 8,000 by 2010 and lead contamination of its water. The Mindful City Initiative in Flint is designed to utilise mindfulness to assist the regeneration of the city so that it can become, once again, a thriving, healthy and resilient community.

In pursuit of this aim, a two-day workshop – developed and delivered by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) – was conducted for civic leaders encompassing leaders in businesses, education organisations, healthcare, and philanthropy. SIYLI provides leadership training in mindfulness and emotional intelligence, as well as extensive mindfulness resources, including the latest neuroscience research on mindfulness practices.

The leaders in Flint developed a vision of a “flourishing community” and sought the help of the Mindful City Initiative to develop leadership skills that will achieve active collaboration and innovation to realise their vision. Through this initiative, Mindful.org is linking the city leaders to teachers, partners and programs in the mindfulness arena, as well as providing access to their publications and mindfulness practices offered via their major social media site.

A further initiative is planned for Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The focus here is on “bringing together city leaders and neuroscientists” to enhance civic leadership skills to enable leaders in different sectors to work together to create a sustainable, “healthy community”.

Through social innovations such as the Mindful City Initiative, organisations are working to enable civil leaders to grow in mindfulness and transfer their knowledge, learning and experience to the broader community for the health, welfare and sustainability of their communities.

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Image by John Hain 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.

Developing Mindful Cities

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) conducts 2 day mindful leadership courses around the world based on the three pillars of mindfulness, neuroscience and emotional intelligence. Participants in these courses tend to be motivated to practice mindfulness and spread the learning and ideas to various local arenas such as schools, organisations and community settings. There are now movements underway to integrate these initiatives on a local level by developing “mindful cities”.

The Mindful City Project

One of the initiatives designed to aggregate local mindfulness activities is the Mindful City Project established by co-founders Deb Smolensky (CEO), Michelle Spehr and Ellen Rogin. Their approach is based on the three pillars of awareness, compassion (including self-compassion) and generosity. These pillars are underpinned by the knowledge, practices and insights emerging from neuroscience and emotional intelligence research.

In an interview with Jen Arnold, Deb and Michelle discussed their own background and experience with mindfulness and the motivation and purpose for the Mindful City Project. Deb mentioned that she had been introduced to mindfulness at age 10 by her drama teacher who taught his class to use body scan to overcome nervousness. In her twenties, she resorted to meditation to deal with her anxiety attacks.

Deb, Michelle and Ellen each have experience in the wellness arena, with Ellen’s experience focused on financial wellness. They saw the need to help communities to become more connected, collaborative and compassionate – to adopt a holistic approach to enable the whole community to thrive. The Mindful City Project initiative sets out to develop a framework that will enable both a common language and a set of practices (encapsulated in checklists). The aim is to provide education, resources and funding to enable leaders in city communities to progressively develop their own mindful city and to share their relevant knowledge and experience with leaders in other cities.

A beta mindful city project

Deb and Michelle discussed a pilot project in the city of Highland Park Illinois where they are working with three community groups – schools, businesses and public services such as hospitals and the military. A key intervention strategy is the development of a “layered form of education and practices” for each type of participant group.

For example, different seminars are conducted for students, teachers and parents – enabling reinforcement in all directions and exponential growth in the use of mindfulness practices. Schools are provided with a checklist of practice options that they can adopt – the practices covering each of the three pillars. A school, for example, could inculcate the practice of taking a mindful breath when the bell rings and/or instituting mindful pauses in classrooms.

A key pillar of the mindful city project is generosity. Schools can choose the level and breadth of their generosity endeavours, e.g. supporting a charity or adopting a pay it forward program. Deb and Michelle gave the example of a school that raised USD160,000 for childhood cancer.

In developing awareness in businesses, Deb and Michelle stated that they found the foundations for mindfulness already present in organisations in a number of forms:

  • emotional intelligence incorporated in leadership training
  • a focus on “unconscious bias” within diversity and inclusion training

Unfortunately, these mindfulness initiatives are often segregated and lose the opportunity for mutual reinforcement and the synergy that comes from a holistic approach. In the Mindful City Project approach, mindfulness training covers both internal and external elements:

  • internal – emotional intelligence and inner awareness
  • external – compassion and generosity

As people grow in mindfulness through education and mindfulness practices in schools, businesses and homes, the potential exists for leaders to build mindful cities that thrive on connection, collaboration and compassion. The Mindful City Project provides the resources and funding to enable cities to create their desired future.

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Image by Marion Wellmann 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.

Dealing with Your Feelings of Hurt and Resentment

When someone says or does something that hurts you or upsets you, you can jump to hasty judgments about the person – one hurtful event can precipitate your judgment that the person is superficial, thoughtless, vengeful, or any other derogatory assessment. Maintaining these thoughts enables you to justify your continual resentment about the individual.

In the previous post, I discussed how to overcome your hasty judgments through conscious breathing and noticing your thought stream. Here I want to explore meditation approaches to deal with the residual feelings of resentment, resulting from the hurtful words or actions of another person.

Noticing your thoughts and associated judgments

Building on the guided meditation provided in the previous post, it can be helpful to more fully explore your thoughts and associated judgments about a particular individual – basically, focusing more fully on your stream of thoughts about an individual which may be precipitating your negative feelings such as hurt, anxiety, anger or resentment. You can then follow your thought stream in relation to this person, e.g. “he is an attention seeker”, “a lazy person trading on his family’s influence”, “a troublemaker out to make life difficult” or “she is just another narcissistic person”. Having observed your thinking in relation to this “difficult” individual, you can explore the stereotype that you are accessing and note what limited information is shaping your hasty judgment.

Focusing on your feelings of hurt and resentment

The next step is to focus in on the feelings generated by your thoughts and judgments about the “difficult” individual. These feelings may be associated with an adverse interaction or a series of interactions. You need to name the feeling so that you can tame its intensity and its influence over your emotional state and your interactions with the individual (or your complaints to others about the individual). The challenge is to stay with the feeling and experience its intensity, while treating yourself with self-compassion, not negative judgment. What might be useful here is to use the R.A.I.N. meditation approach (recognise, accept, investigate, nurture).

Investigating your sensitivity

You might say by way of justification of your sustained resentment, that anyone in your position would have felt hurt. However, to maintain resentment towards an individual suggests a deep hurt born out of a specific sensitivity – such as feeling abandoned, abused, neglected or belittled in your past life (including in your childhood). As you identify and stay with the feeling of resentment, you can explore what in your past has given rise to your present emotions – what events or circumstances have increased your sensitivity in regard to the “difficult” individual’s words and actions. This requires a lot of personal honesty and what Brian Shiers describes as “granularity” in relation to your inner awareness. It is taking your meta awareness to another depth of self-understanding. Recognising these earlier influences on your reactivity will help you to understand your resentment and to sustain your self-compassion.

Exploring the other person’s perspective

In the heat of the moment of an adverse interaction, it is very difficult for you to see a conflict from the other person’s perspective. However, while you are developing your self-understanding through exploring your own sensitivities, you can explore the potential perspective of the other person and attempt to identify and understand the influences that may have shaped their perspective.

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) provides a three-step analysis of a conflict based on what is involved in any conflict, i.e. content, feelings, personal identity. Looking at the other person’s perspective from this angle creates the opportunity for understanding, tolerance and compassion. Mary Neal, in her book on her near death experience, makes the point that true compassion for another person flows from fully understanding the individual and the multiple influences that shaped that person’s perspective and behaviour. Some of these influences are socially constructed perspectives.

Understanding the ingrained impact of social conditioning

For example, Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist specialising in cognitive neuroimaging, maintains that there is no innate difference between a male and a female brain. In her book, The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain, she provides a compelling case that influences at play (such as family, society, work and education) create a “gendered world” which, in turn, shapes gendered brains through the process of brain plasticity which continuously creates and modifies our neural pathways. So our responses to stimuli are deeply wired in our brain and these embodied neural pathways can lead to unconscious, automatic reactivity. So, it is necessary to “know yourself” as well as to know the other, in order to clear away resentment and replace it with self-compassion and compassion for the other person.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on our thoughts, judgments, feelings and the influences shaping our reactivity (and that of other individuals), we can achieve a level of inner awareness and understanding that can reduce feelings of resentment and engender self-compassion and compassion for others.

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Image by Andi Graf 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.

What Does Neuroscience Tell Us About the Benefits of Mindfulness?

Continuous neuroscience research into the benefits of mindfulness has revealed supportive evidence that should encourage you to persist with mindfulness practices. While the neuroscience research into the power of mindfulness, and meditation specifically, is in its infancy, there are enough studies and research review articles to point to some real, measurable benefits.

Scientists still do not fully understand how the mind works but they have been able to identify the impact of meditation on the physical brain through Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI). Dusana Dorjee warns us, however, that science is a reductionist approach to the study of the mind and cannot effectively measure the whole range of states of awareness that can be achieved by the long-term meditator. Dusana is the author of
Neuroscience and Psychology of Meditation in Everyday Life: Searching for the Essence of Mind (2017).

How meditation changes the physical structure of the brain

A comprehensive review of neuroscience research into the impacts of mindfulness meditation undertaken by experienced meditators showed that eight regions of the brain were altered. Significantly, the regions of the brain that were positively impacted relate to:

  • capacity to be introspective and manage abstract ideas and, importantly, the ability to be aware of our own thinking
  • body awareness including touch, pain and proprioception
  • attention, self-control and regulation of emotions
  • ability to communicate effectively between the hemispheres of the brain (between right and left hemispheres).

Mindfulness meditation and happiness

Happiness can be developed as a skill and mindfulness meditation has a key role in its development. Well-being is increased, according to scientists at Wisconsin-Madison University, when the following capacities are enhanced:

  • ability to maintain positive emotions
  • rapidly recover from what is experienced as negative
  • engage in actions that manifest empathy and compassion
  • sustain attention in the present moment (and avoid mind-wandering).

Richard Davidson and Brianna S. Schuyler (2015) in their chapter, The Neuroscience of Happiness, draw on their mind research to argue that these capacities can be developed through training, especially mindfulness training and kindness/compassion meditation.

Research on the Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation by
Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015) demonstrates that meditation can reduce stress and increase performance because it switches off the brain’s anxiety- riddled, default-mode network (focused on the past/future) and activates the task-positive network. This latter network focuses on the present moment. As the brain can utilise only one of these networks at any one time, meditation – through creating the task of focusing on the breath, body scan or some other aspect – can activate present mindedness which leads to physical and mental health, while deactivating the default-mode which would otherwise lead to stress and ill-health.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and other mindful practices, we can enhance our performance and the wellness-generating structure of our brains and move from the stress-creating default mode to the task-positive mode of operating in our daily lives.

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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

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.

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

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.