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)

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Managing Anxiety with Mindfulness

Bob Stahl, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, explains how mindfulness can help to manage anxiety in an article titled, Explore Anxiety with Mindfulness.   In the article, he explains the nature of anxiety and offers a mindfulness approach involving writing.  In another article discussed here he also provides a guided anxiety meditation.

The nature of anxiety

Bob explains that anxiety can arise at any time for anyone and can be episodic or chronic, mild or intense.  It can be precipitated by our family, work, relationship or financial situation.  Anxiety is not the sole province of people who are disadvantaged in some way – even the wealthy, the successful and elite sportspeople can, and do, suffer from anxiety.

Bob explains that anxiety is underpinned by fear catalysed by some event that caused you to worry and that becomes the focus of ongoing fearful anticipation.  Anxiety typically manifests in three ways – physically, mentally and emotionally.  Physically, anxiety can make you feel constricted, tied up in knots, smothered, having difficulty with breathing; mentally, you may be absorbed by thoughts that consume you with foreboding or restlessness; and emotionally, you may feel distress, lack the ability to concentrate and experience profound nervousness.  The physical, mental and emotional symptoms of anxiety can vary considerably for different people, as can their intensity and prevalence.

Managing anxiety with mindfulness

Mindfulness, in contrast to anxiety, can generate calm and clarity, the ability to be in-the-moment (not absorbed by the future), the capacity to develop self-awareness (of your body, your emotions and debilitating thoughts) and self-regulation.  Neuroscience has demonstrated unequivocally the positive benefits of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for anxiety , even for cases of extreme and/or chronic anxiety.

There are multiple approaches to developing mindfulness and Bob advocates two approaches that can assist in the management of anxiety, a writing exercise and a specific anxiety meditation.

A writing exercise for anxiety

In the abovementioned article, Bob explains his approach to using writing to alleviate anxiety.  It basically involves focusing on one experience of anxiety (that was not too intense) and exploring its impacts on you physically, mentally and emotionally.  He offers three core questions to explore a specific anxiety experience through writing your responses:

  1. What bodily sensations did you experience during the event?
  2. What thoughts or thinking processes were happening during the event?
  3. What emotions or feeling tones were present during that event?

Bob stresses the need to be grounded before you start reflecting and writing, be as specific as possible (to aid self-discovery) and to congratulate yourself for making the effort to explore the path to recovery (despite your uncertainty about the outcome).

A meditation for anxiety

In another article, Bob Stahl provides a detailed explanation and meditation podcast for a meditation on anxious emotions.  His written explanation of this meditation for anxiety provides you with step by step instructions on how to undertake this meditation.  His approach focuses on your bodily sensations and the associated feelings that arise as you reflect on an anxiety-inducing event/situation.

The guided meditation podcast that he also provides follows these suggested steps but also acts as an additional aid by enabling you to concentrate on your experience without having to read and supporting you through his calming voice.

Bob suggests again that you become grounded at the start of the meditation and that you acknowledge to yourself that you have taken an important step on the road to recovery.  This self-praise can be realised if you pause at the end of the meditation and take the time to bask in your achievement, rather than rushing off to do something else.

The writing exercise and meditation are complementary and can reinforce each other.  As you write you become more self-aware and this, in turn, enables you more easily to tap into your bodily sensations and feelings.

As you grow in mindfulness through writing and meditation, you can face your anxiety, increase your self-awareness and better manage your thoughts, physical reactions and emotions.   It takes courage and conviction to begin to manage anxiety through mindfulness, but many people have successfully walked this path, and this is in itself a source of encouragement.  Reading about these successes can help build your own courage and conviction.

 

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

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Finding Yourself Through Mindfulness – Start Small, Start Now

The music world and fans are mourning the death of Avicii, Swedish DJ, who died recently in Oman at the age of 28.   Tim Bergling, known as Avicii, suffered ill-health for many years as a result of alcoholism and retired from touring in 2016 because life on the road did not agree with his introverted nature.  He found he was so nervous before a performance that he would turn to alcohol to overcome his nervousness and to give him encouragement and confidence to perform.   During his short life as a music producer, he inspired millions of other producers to explore their potentiality.

Two of his songs had a profound impact on me, not only because of their musicality, but also because of their lyrics.  These songs are Wake Me Up When it’s Over and What Are You Waiting For?  There are many interpretations of the lyrics of these songs, but recently I have come to interpret them in terms of mindfulness.

Wake me up when it’s all over

The lyrics of this song and the music are haunting and leave an indelible impact through the words, “All this time I was finding myself, and I
Didn’t know I was lost.”

So many of us have lost our way as the pressures of modern living close in on us.  Mindfulness is very much about “finding myself” – getting to know your real self and not the narrative you carry in your head.   So many people do not know that they are lost – that they have lost meaning in life because they are caught up with the unrelenting flow of expectations, their own and that of others.

Kabat-Zinn often quotes the words of James Joyce, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body”.  Because our lives are taken up with thinking instead of being, we spend so much of our time in our heads, disconnected from our bodies and the world around us.

Kabat-Zinn urges us to “reinhabit our bodies” that we have become disconnected from.  His book, Coming to Our Senses, stresses the need, both literally and metaphorically, to reconnect with our senses and the world around us by growing in awareness through mindfulness meditation.  He reminds us that we have only one life to live and we are living it now in the present moment.

Somatic meditation – incorporating practices such as mindful walking, Tai Chi and body scan – enable us to become grounded in what Kabat-Zinn calls our “embodied presence“.   Different forms of somatic meditation, for example, are used to help trauma victims to find themselves after the devastating and disorientating impact of the trauma experience.

What are you waiting for?

There is never a perfect time to start to grow in mindfulness and to reconnect with yourself.  Avicii asks us the penetrating question in his song –  You’re only livin’ once so tell me?  What are you, what are you waiting for?

Seth Godin, marketing guru and renowned, innovative author, urges us to “start small, start now” with any new endeavour.  There are many simple starting points to develop mindfulness that can lead to self-awareness and self-management and the associated benefits of calm, clarity and creativity.

Chade-Meng Tan, co-creator of Search Inside Yourself (Google’s course on mindfulness and emotional intelligence), urges us to “do less than we can imagine” but do it daily and consistently, even if it is  only “one mindful breath a day”.

In the hectic pace of modern living and the constant intrusion of disruptive marketing, we are beginning to suffer from the inability to focus and bring our attention to the present moment.  Neuroscience confirms the very lasting benefits for mental and physical health of growing in awareness of the present moment through mindfulness.

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

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Online Meditation Training for Mindfulness Practitioners

Mindfulness Monthly is a paid service designed to enable practitioners, new and experienced alike, to join and contribute to an ever-evolving, global mindful community.   This service is provided through Sounds True and is hosted by Kelly Boys, a Master teacher of meditation practice.

Central to the program are monthly online sessions with leading mindfulness teachers.  Diana Winston, co-author of Fully Present: The Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness, will be conducting the April 2018 session on Forgiveness Meditation.  Each monthly session will focus on a mindfulness theme and introduce a meditation practice.  It will also provide opportunity for a break-out in small groups to discuss the focal issue, share experiences and ask questions.

The monthly sessions will be supplemented by weekly guided meditation resources covering a wide variety of themes and a private Facebook group to share ongoing practice and learning.  Participants in Mindfulness Monthly will have exposure to the latest mindfulness practices, research and relevant neuroscience findings from recognised world leaders.

The online community is designed to connect participants with other practitioners from around the world, develop a global mindful community and provide ongoing support for daily, mindfulness meditation practice.

Participants will have the opportunity to share the benefits of mindfulness meditation as they experience them and to learn new ways to grow in mindfulness.  They will also be able to discuss their questions and explore ways to overcome the barriers to daily meditation practice.

Opportunities will be provided to share articles and each month participants will receive a free gift from Sounds True in the form of a complete product. A live, online 75 minute Q & A session will be provided at the conclusion of the monthly sessions.

The organisers are looking to grow the global community of mindfulness practitioners and increase the number of people who can realise the benefits of mindfulness.  It is also their hope that participants will reach out to others to support them in their mindfulness endeavours.

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

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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)

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Mindfulness for Loneliness

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, suggests that there are 7 types of loneliness, each potentially serving as a constraint to happiness.   She stresses the importance of strong relationships to ameliorate the damaging mental and physical effects of loneliness, which is a growing problem in today’s society.  While we have never been so connected electronically, we have never been so disconnected on a deep, personal level.

Neuroscience shows that we are very much communal beings – needing social networks and social support.  However, there are real personal barriers to connecting at a deep level that prevent lonely people from engaging in social connection.

Recent research has highlighted the benefit of developing mindfulness to reduce or remove these barriers.  Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that mindful meditation reduced feelings of loneliness and increased immunity.

Mindfulness meditation is helpful for loneliness because it can make you aware of the feelings of isolation that you are developing, help you identify the triggers for these emotions, increase the space between stimulus and the feelings of loneliness (response) and enable you to manage these feelings.  Mindfulness, then, can help to eliminate unhelpful thoughts and actions that have become habituated over time and progressively break the cycle of loneliness.

Sophie Benbow, has found from her own experience that mindfulness reduces feelings of loneliness.  She suggests a number of mindfulness practices for coping with loneliness – these include dismissing negative thoughts, mindful breathing, body scan and  mindful walking.  She provides some guidelines for each of these suggestions.

Dr. Claudia Aguirre, neuroscientist and mind-body expert, maintains that lack of social skills is not the major cause of loneliness.  Reporting on new neuroscience research, she contends that our instinctive fight-flight response is the major cause of feelings of isolation and loneliness:

University of Chicago researchers investigating the neuroscience of loneliness found that a lonely brain is supremely in-tune with social cues, in particular the ones signaling a social threat. From an evolutionary perspective, feeling socially isolated triggers a cascade of neural mechanisms that puts us in a nervous and vigilant mode. People who feel lonely are subconsciously scanning their environment for hostility, which may overshadow the positive situations they encounter. 

She argues that this constant over-stimulation through vigilance is a contributing factor to mental and physical decline in people who experience chronic loneliness.  The recommendation of these researchers for people who experience chronic loneliness is “to get out of their heads”.  This recommendation is consistent with the advice of mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who argues that many of our emotional problems arise because we live in our minds, not in our bodies and the present moment.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn to recognise the triggers of feelings of isolation and loneliness, deal with negative thoughts and use our social skills to make meaningful connections with others.

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

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Why Happiness Grows with Mindful Practice

Chade-Meng Tan gave a presentation on mindfulness and happiness at an international conference on technology.   Meng (as he is called affectionately and respectfully by friends, colleagues and associates) painted a picture, through a series of metaphors, of progression in happiness as we grow in mindfulness.

Attention training and emotional control

At the earliest stage of attention training, through mindful breathing, we gain a level of control over our emotions – instead of our emotions controlling us, we stay in control.  Meng likened this to moving from being an unskilled rider at the beck of a wild horse (emotions), to a skilled rider who has the horse (emotions) under control.  This sense of control is a basis for happiness because, among other things, we will experience fewer regrets.  We will also be less “up and down” as a result of a shift in our emotions.

Self-awareness and self-mastery

As mindfulness training progresses through mindful practice, we gain mastery in two related areas, self-awareness and self-management.  Firstly, self-awareness enables us to understand the stressors in our life – what stresses us – and also to realise the nature and strength of our responses.  We gain insight into our contribution – through prior experience, negative thinking, assumptions and perceptual distortion- to the level of stress we experience.   Our perception of stress changes and we experience less stress as a result.  This is the basis for more frequent experience of happiness.

Self-awareness is the beginning of self-mastery, because we cannot achieve self-management without this self-knowledge.  Self-mastery enables us to remain calm and think clearly in situations where others “are stressed out”.  This calmness and clarity under stress signals leadership capability and may result in greater career success.  If nothing else it enables us to have the freedom of choice – the capacity to determine our response to stressors in the gap between stimulus and response.

Meng likens this stage to the effects of physical training – we gain mental and emotional fitness as we grow in mindfulness.  As with physical training, we find we are stronger, more resilient and happier as we develop our mindful practice.  The positive effects of mindfulness training are deeper and more sustainable than those flowing from physical training.

As Meng points out, based on the results of neuroscience research,:

What you think, what you do, and more importantly, what you pay attention to, changes the function and structure of your brain.

We develop more grey matter (our neo-cortex, the command centre of our brain thickens) and the amygdala  reduces (our potential emotional saboteur – the basis of our fight/ flight responses).  So our brain physically changes with mindful practice and locks in the positive effects, including the growth in happiness, that enable us to function better in all aspects of our life – work, career, relationships and leisure.

Discernment of emotions

Meng maintains, from more than a decade of evidence-based results, that our discernment of emotions increases dramatically as we grow in mindfulness.  He argues that we achieve high resolution in our perception of our emotional processes.  So not only are we better able to detect even small changes in our emotional process, but we can do so in real time – as they are happening.  This gives us useful and timely information so that we can view our emotional response objectively.

Thus we are able to make a perceptual shift so that we no longer think and say, “I am angry”, but rather “I am experiencing anger”.  This enables us to move from a perception that there is nothing we can do about this negative emotion, to one where we recognise that our emotions are something we can control.

Meng uses the analogy of the sky and clouds – your mind is the sky and emotions are the clouds.  This leads to the life-changing acknowledgement that “I am not my thoughts; I am not my emotions and my emotions are not me”.  This statement drew spontaneous applause from the audience because it was so liberating.

Mindful practice then enables us to view emotions as a feeling/expression in  our body, just like physical pain.  We are able then to treat them as separate from ourselves and thus controllable – which increases our experience of happiness .

Kindness habits

As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to demonstrate kindness to others.  Kindness has been shown to improve mental health and well-being, even if the kindness is expressed as a thought, rather than action.   Meng explains that even asking people to think kind thoughts about two other people – wishing happiness for them – for at least ten seconds a day can have life-changing effects.  As we reported earlier, we become what we focus on – thinking kind thoughts about others on a daily basis can make us a kind person.

Kindness reinforces all the benefits of mindful practice and enhances and enriches our state of happiness.

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

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Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief

As we grow in mindfulness we start to learn the many ways that mindfulness can improve the quality of our lives.

The quality of life of many chronic pain sufferers has been improved through mindfulness meditation for pain relief, pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

This resource which is available in CD format or audio download, provides an insight into how mindfulness can help you manage chronic pain as well as mindfulness meditations that can be used for pain relief.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), maintains that current neuroscience research supports the idea that the more we become aware of the pain in our body and mind, the better we are able to manage pain and improve the quality of our life.  The research shows that awareness of the body-in-pain compared to distraction from pain, has a greater benefit and provides a more sustainable release from the physical and emotional impact of chronic pain.

We all experience the unwanted parts of life, pain and suffering, at some time in our lives – some people for longer than others through the experience of chronic pain.  Mindfulness meditation can help us relieve not only the physical aspects of pain but also the emotional impacts which can take the form of frustration, depression, annoyance, anger and the inability to concentrate.  We can expend so much of our energy and focus just managing the pain that we are quickly exhausted and unable to concentrate.

Jon Kabat-Zinn provides an introduction to his mindfulness meditation for pain relief and this free resource, which includes meditation practice, can help you realise the potential benefits of this approach for improving the quality of your life:

Jon Kabat-Zinn assures us that through mindfulness meditation we can come to realise:

  1. we are not alone in experiencing pain; and
  2. learning to live with pain is possible.

He makes the salient point that managing pain is part of the work of mindfulness itself and that by participating in mindfulness meditation for pain relief, we are immersing ourselves in the global mindfulness movement that is raising global consciousness – people all around the world are becoming more mindful and we are contributing to this movement that promotes peace, harmony, loving kindness and awareness of others and nature.   Our self-compassion through pain management is contributing to compassion for others.

We can grow in mindfulness in many ways.  The drivers for our motivation to practice mindfulness can also be many and varied.  If you are a chronic pain sufferer, this experience could provide the motivation to develop mindfulness for pain relief.

 

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

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Mindfulness – Control, Health and Happiness

One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it develops our sense of control. To use an analogy, we begin to realise that we are the one pushing the buttons – our buttons are not being pushed by others, events or the environment.

As we grow in mindfulness, we begin to experience control over our emotions and our responses. We are less at the mercy of our triggers, panic attacks and other sources of stress.  We develop a growing sense of control over ourselves and our environment.

Mindful breathing, for example, is just one practice that enables us to gain control – control over our breathing which is essential to life.

In her 2017 book, The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot argues that:

The brain has evolved to control our bodies so that our bodies can manipulate our environments…Our biology is set up so that we are driven to be causal agents; we are internally rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction when we are in control, and internally punished with anxiety when we are not. (p.102)

Tali Sharot demonstrates through research findings that we have a very high need for control.  She maintains, for example, that aerophobia – the fear of flying – is essentially about the loss of control, we are in the “hands” of the pilot and the plane.  She suggests that suicide is an extreme response to the sense of being out of control, unable to control anything in one’s internal or external environment.

Tali Sharot draws on further research to argue that “people who feel in control are happier and healthier” (p. 95).  As you practice mindfulness, you increase your sense of control over your internal and external environments and enhance your health and happiness.

The more you practice mindfulness, the more you experience the sense of being in control and realise the positive benefits of mindful practice.

 

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Build Resilience Through Mindfulness

Linda Graham, in her book, Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, defines resilience as:

the capacity to respond to pressures and tragedies quickly, adaptively and effectively.

Shawn Anchor and Michelle Gielan in a HBR article suggest that resilience is about “how you recharge, not how you endure”. They argue that the misconception about resilience and endurance has led to the exponential rise in the “workaholic” with devastating effects on health, productivity and family relationships.

I have worked in many organisations where management has stated that staff needs to become “more resilient” when the staff were not coping with excessive workloads and unrealistic time pressures.  This perspective incorrectly equates resilience with endurance and potentially leads to burnout.

As Linda Graham notes, resilience is more about our capacity to “bounce back” from setbacks and this requires us to recharge our batteries on an ongoing basis. It also requires re-wiring our brains so that we overcome negative self perceptions and fear-inducing perceptions of daily occurences.

Neuroscience research has demonstrated that when we grow mindfulness and develop the capacity to be fully in the present moment, we can alter our brains and reshape our perecptions.  In the process, we can build our resilience.

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