When You are Waiting, Have Awareness as Your Default and not Your Phone

When we are kept waiting, we typically grab our phone to “fill in the time”.  We might check emails or social media or the latest news; our default is our phone, not taking the opportunity to develop awareness.  One of Diana Winston’s students told her that when he was waiting or had time on his hands, he no longer defaulted to his phone, but “defaulted to awareness”.  Diana Winston addresses this process in her book,  The Little Book of Being (p.184).

Default to awareness

When we are kept waiting for a bus to arrive or to see the doctor/dentist, or are stalled in traffic, we feel bored or ill at ease.  We can become agitated, annoyed or even angry – all of which can negatively impact our subsequent interactions with others. To alleviate this discomfort, we often resort to the phone as our default response.  However, the “waiting time” provides the perfect opportunity to further develop awareness.  The opportunities for this positive response are seemingly endless. During the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Program that I attended in Sydney, one of the participants reported that they practised mindful awareness whenever they waited for the jug to boil when making a cup of tea or coffee.  The participant reported that by building this habit into something he does on a regular basis, he was able to develop awareness as a part of his everyday activities.

Diana suggests that the way to drop into awareness instead of reaching for your phone is to begin by focusing on your feet.  You can feel the pressure of your feet on the floor or the ground and be conscious of this “grounding”.  You can then progress to getting in touch with your breathing and rest in the space between breaths.  This can be followed by a brief or elongated body scan (the duration of the scan depending on how long you have to wait).  You can then explore points of tension in your body and release the tension or soften the muscles involved.  If you are experiencing negative thoughts and/or feelings, you will inevitably feel tense in some part of your body – noticing and releasing tension develops your awareness.  If you begin to adopt these mindfulness practices on different occasions when you are waiting, you will find that you will “default to awareness” naturally – your phone will not be your “first port of call”.

If we use our waiting time as a conscious effort to grow in mindfulness, we can develop the habit of dropping into awareness, instead of reaching for our phone. We can explore either inner or outer awareness and develop our capacity for self-regulation and gratitude, as well as build calmness and equanimity in our lives.  Defaulting to our phone, on the other hand, increases the pace of our life and can intensify our agitation.

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Image by Quinn Kampschroer 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.

The Lifelong Journey into Inner and Outer Awareness

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

The lifelong journey into inner awareness

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

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

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

The lifelong journey into outer awareness

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

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

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

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Image: Sunrise at Wynnum, Queensland 10 July 2019

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

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

A Brief Meditation for Anxiety

In an earlier post, I discussed Tara Brach’s explanation of how anxiety-producing self-stories are maintained and the importance of meditation incorporating self-compassion and self-forgiveness to break the cycle of anxiety-producing thoughts.  I have also discussed different approaches to anxiety meditation.   In my last post, I explained Bob Stahl’s 30-minute meditation to reduce fear and anxiety that incorporates a comprehensive body scan and compassionate curiosity towards yourself and others.  This approach could be preceded by reflective writing, an approach Bob recommends for focusing on a single anxiety-producing experience which is explored in terms of its bodily, mental and emotional impact.  An alternative resource is the 30-minute meditation podcast provided by Diana Winston that seeks to deepen the well of ease, leading us to greater self-awareness and consciousness of the depth of our inner resources.

However, you may not have the time required to do these kinds of meditations or reflections.  If you are time-poor, you could practice a brief, three-minute anxiety meditation provided by Zindel Segal, co-developer of MBCT and co-author of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT] for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse.  This resource book for clinicians provides an in-depth explanation of the benefits and process of the three-minute meditation discussed in this blog post.

The Three-Minute Breathing Space

This meditation exercise is incorporated in the 8-week MBCT program and involves a process of awareness raising by assisting you to shift attention, to check-in on yourself and moved on beyond anxiety-producing thoughts. The Three-Minute Breathing Space meditation incorporates three core steps that are each of one-minute duration:

  • 1. Inner awareness of what is happening for you – exploring what is in your mind.  This involves getting in touch with, but not changing, the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that you are experiencing at this moment.  The first step thus involves shifting your attention to inner awareness of “what is”.  This is a passive activity – just watching what is happening for you, as if it is appearing on a “widescreen”.
  • 2. Creating a breathing space – moving away from the focus on your thoughts to a complete, undivided focus on your breath.  This grounding approach involves checking-in on the sensations of your body as you breath in and out.  You could concentrate on the rise and fall of your stomach as you take a breath and release it.  This calming breathing activity enables you to move away from whatever anxiety-provoking thoughts are preoccupying you and creating a “breathing space” to enable you to move on.  The secret is to give your mind a single thing to do – focus on your breath. 
  • 3. Expanding awareness – incorporating inner and outer awareness. The first step at this stage is to widen your awareness to your whole body – the sensation of sitting and its impact on every part of your body, your body on-the-chair.  Next you move your attention beyond your body to what is immediately impacting on it – the air flow on your body, the sounds reaching your ears. Finally, you move your attention to the room encasing your body.  You can then gradually return to full awareness by taking a few deep breaths and opening your eyes (if you have closed them to focus better).

As we grow in mindfulness through various forms of anxiety meditation, whether brief or extended, we can build the capacity to manage our anxiety-provoking thoughts and achieve a level of calm and equanimity that creates a sense of ease amongst the (sometimes turbulent) waves of life.

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Image by Daniel Nebreda 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.

From Goal Focused Meditation to Natural Awareness

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

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

The nature of natural awareness

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

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

Recollection: a starting point for natural awareness

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

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

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

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Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

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

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

Ways To Discover the Benefits of Nature

In earlier posts I discussed the healing benefits of nature and the ways that trees can reduce stress. Jill Suttie in her article Why is Nature So Good for Your Mental Health, points to recent research that demonstrates that awe experienced in nature is a source of well-being and decreased symptoms of stress. How then can we discover these benefits of nature in our everyday life?

Ways to discover the benefits of nature

Heather Hurlock, Mindful Digital Editor, discusses three ways that we can access these benefits:

  1. Savour your neighbourhood nature – so much of our observation is superficial as we race from one task to another. You can look out the window and admire the tree on the footpath or notice the species of trees in your tree-lined street. You can closely observe the clouds that provide fascinating shapes, patterns and colours. If you live near water, a river or the bay, you can take a mindful walk along its shores taking in the sunrise/sunset, the ebb and flow of the water and the patterns that are formed through the movement of the water. Alternatively, you can absorb the stillness of the water on a calm, cool day. You might be privileged to share the awe of a visitor to your area who sees your natural surrounds with a fresh set of eyes – not through sight dulled by routine.
  2. Soak up the healing power of a forest – trees reduce agitation and stress and are good for the health of your heart. Forest Bathing – a mindful, slow walk through the trees in a forest – is a great source of mental health and wellness. The stillness and resilience of a forest can be a source of awe and well-being. A forest can intensify your awareness of your senses – through the sounds of birds, the sights of colour/shape/patterns, the smell of the flora, the roughness and contour of the bark as you touch it and the taste of native fruit. Individual trees can be a source of meditation.
  3. Finding a moment to experience awe in nature – it can be humbling and also increase your sense of connectedness that can lead to increased cooperativeness and compassion. You can learn to breathe with the earth and experience gratitude for all that nature offers as well as for what you have in your life. The sense of awe can be experienced within you own backyard or in a mindful garden walk through a botanical garden. Heather recommends the guided awe walk as another way to access the benefits of nature.

As we grow in mindfulness through being in, and closely observing nature, we can enhance our outer awareness and achieve calm, well-being and awe. The healing powers of nature generally, and trees in particular, are well-researched and documented. We can discover these benefits by exploring different ways to access nature, whether in our neighbourhood or in a forest or a botanical garden.

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Image: Manly Foreshore, Moreton Bay, Queensland, taken on 2 July 2019

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

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

Cultivating Concentration through Meditation

In some traditions, concentration is seen as separate from but essential to mindfulness. Concentration is described as “one-pointed focus” or bringing our attention to a single focus in a unified way. Concentration is thus viewed as the servant and enabler of mindful awareness – both inner and outer awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn maintains that “concentration is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice” and that as we cultivate our concentration we increase our capacity for mindfulness – becoming fully aware in the moment.

Cultivating concentration through meditation

Diana Winston in a guided meditation on Cultivating Concentration offers four breath-based meditation practices that can build concentration and enable us to stop our minds floating in multiple directions as random thoughts assail us. While we are naturally able to concentrate to achieve a task (e.g. write a business plan, read a blog post, carry on a conversation), we have lost the art of single-minded focus owing to the level of distraction that surrounds us at any point in time. Jon Kabat-Zinn, for example, maintains that we are “perpetually self-distracting”.

Diana suggests that some simple meditation practices can cultivate our concentration, and through repetition, develop the capacity to maintain our concentration over longer periods of time. She drew on research conducted at UCLA that demonstrated that adolescents and adults with ADHD who persisted with meditation practice over eight weeks, improved their ability to maintain their focus, even when there were many things competing for their attention.

Meditation practices to cultivate concentration

  1. feeling the breath – concentrating on the act of breathing by focusing on where in your body you experience your breathing. For example, this could involve focusing on your breathing as you feel it in your nose, abdomen or chest. This requires focused attention on the breath, not attempting to control it.
  2. naming the act of breathing – here you concentrate on your breathing, and as you do so, describe what is happening, “breath in, breath out”, “chest rising, chest falling”. This focuses your mind on what is happening in your body as your breathe.
  3. counting your breaths – as you breathe, count each breath. Diana suggests that you count 1 to 10 and then begin again. Whenever, your mind wanders from counting your breaths, she encourages you to start your count again. As an alternative to the ten count, you can adopt the practice of counting to 50, as proposed in the “awareness-focus-loop” approach.
  4. using the gap – there is a natural gap between your “in” and “out” breath that you can focus on. As you complete each “in” and “out” breath, take your focus to a part of your body (e.g. your hands or feet) before you begin the next breath. This process can serve to reinforce that part of your body as an anchor for your mindfulness.

In each of these meditation exercises, it is important that you develop the capacity to return to your focus once a distracting thought intervenes. This strengthens your concentration power and increases your capacity to be mindful when undertaking any activity in your daily life.

We can grow in mindfulness by cultivating the power of our concentration through specifically targeted meditation practices that aim to develop the ability to sustain a single focus over an extended period of time. As our concentration power develops, our inner and outer awareness deepen and become richer and more life-enhancing.

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Image by athree23 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.

Breathing with the Earth

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC (UCLA), offers a unique perspective on developing mindfulness through breathing. In her meditation podcast, she introduces the idea of breathing with the earth – expanding consciousness of our own breathing to connect with the earth’s breath. She encourages us to deepen inner awareness of our breathing and, from this foundation, expand our outer awareness to connecting with every living creature and the earth’s breath. The process develops a sense of connectedness, calm and wonder.

The earth’s breath

Diana begins her meditation podcast by playing a video from Chilean artist, Glenda Leon. The video artistically depicts (with an embedded breathing sound) the earth breathing. Glenda has titled the video Cada Respire (Tierra), which is Portuguese for every earth breath. Diana suggests that as you watch the video you attune your own breathing to the sound of the earth breathing as depicted in the video.

In an article titled, The Earth Has Lungs. Watch Them Breathe, Robert Krulwich (writing for the National Geographic) highlights the NASA time lapse video depicting an “unimaginably vast planetary breathing system” over the cycle of a year. As the seasons change around the world, the growth of trees and their leaves (numbered in their trillions) act as the lungs of the earth breathing in carbon dioxide and releasing life giving oxygen. Robert highlights the fact that every leaf on every tree has thousands of “little breathing tubes called stoma” which enable the leaf to take in air from the outside. He uses a photograph by Robert Dash to illustrate the stoma on the surface of a leaf which has been magnified 150 times.

John Denver in the song Tremble If You Must recalls that “the trees are just leaves on a big breathing globe”. Eva Cassidy, in her amazing rendition of the song What a Wonderful World, reminds us that as we reflect on the ordinary things in our life, we can experience wonder if we open our eyes and minds. As we expand our consciousness of our breathing to that of the earth’s breath, we can experience connectedness and calm through awareness of the reality that surrounds us.

Breathing with the earth

Diana’s guided meditation provides a way to focus on your own breathing that serves as a gateway to breathing with the earth. For a start, she suggests that you become aware of your own breathing, focusing on your in-breath and out-breath wherever you can experience the act of breathing in your own body. This may be the air passing through your nose or the undulations in your abdomen or chest as you breathe in and out. You can expand this inner awareness to lower-belly breathing with a little practice.

Diana guides you to explore your breathing further by doing two things, (1) focusing on other parts of your body as you breathe, and (2) exploring the path of a single breath. She suggests that this expanded awareness can begin with focusing on parts of your body other than your torso to observe the sensations that accompany your breathing to see if their movements are attuned to your breathing, e.g. tingling in your fingers or feet. This can then be followed by observing the movement of a single breath through your body (if you cannot capture the explicit sensation, you can imagine this flow).

If you find that you become distracted from your focus on your breathing, you can let the thoughts or feelings pass and return to your breath. This requires discipline but will increase your capacity to focus over time. Once you have become grounded in your own breathing you can expand your awareness to the earth’s breath.

One way to consciously breathe with the earth is to envisage the earth breathing (aided by the earth breath video introduced above). This will build a strong sense of connectedness to the earth. You can then expand your awareness to the breathing of other people and every living creature on the earth.

What can strengthen your capacity to connect with the breath of the earth is to stand on the ground outside your home and feel the sensation of the earth’s movement, being conscious of the trees and plants and their life-giving breathing.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we can develop our inner awareness, enhance our external awareness, learn to breathe with the earth and build a sense of calm and connection to every living thing.

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Image by skeeze on 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.