Develop Equanimity to Overcome Reactivity

Much of the time we are reactive because of our ingrained habituated responses.  These develop over time and can vary with different stimuli – a confronting email, a perception of criticism by a partner or colleague, thoughtlessness by another person or traffic delays.  Our responses may be precipitated by negative thoughts that generate emotions such as fear, anxiety, frustration or anger.  We then act out these emotions in a reactive way – not stopping to maintain our balance or evaluate the best possible response. As we have mentioned earlier, there is a gap between stimulus and response and within that gap are choices and associated freedom.  Developing equanimity helps us to better utilise the gap between stimulus and response and widens our potential response options – as it frees us from being captive to our habituated responses.

Equanimity is being able to maintain a state of calmness, balance or even-mindedness in the face of a situation that we find challenging – physically, mentally or emotionally.  It builds our capacity to overcome reactivity and enables us to accept what is, without reacting impulsively.  Diana Winston makes the point that equanimity is not passivity – acceptance of what is, does not mean avoiding taking action to redress injustice, insulting behaviour or meanness.  What equanimity does mean is acknowledging what is and the inherent challenge (e.g. illness, mental illness of a family member, or loss of a job), not railing against all and sundry for our “misfortune”, but actively pursuing redress – including building our capacity to remain calm in the face of life challenges.  Equanimity enables responsiveness that is positive and productive.

A meditation to develop equanimity

Meditation, by its very nature, helps to calm us and, in the process, develop equanimity.  Diana Winston, however, provides a specific “equanimity meditation” designed to build our capacity to retain our balance and to remain even minded when confronted with a life challenge.  She provides this meditation as part of the weekly guided meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA. Her guided meditation podcast, Equanimity and Non Reactivity, contains several steps:

  1. Grounding yourself in your chair by adopting a comfortable, upright posture; closing your eyes or looking down; and focusing your intention on the present – not thinking about the past or worrying about what is coming up.  Being present-in-the-moment is a calming activity that can build equanimity.
  2. Complete body scan – starting with your feet on the floor (feeling the firmness and envisaging the stable ground below); moving progressively through your body, while noticing and releasing any points of tensions (such as in your neck, shoulders, stomach, legs or hands).  You can begin to notice the sensations as you progress with your body scan – feeling the tingling in your fingers or the softness/looseness in your legs as you let go and allow the tension to drain away.  During the meditation, it pays to be conscious of a tendency to let your shoulders droop. [Note: this part of the meditation resonates with the first part of the Yoga Nigra Meditation focused on the physical body]
  3. Focus on your breathing – you focus on wherever in your body you can feel the sensation of your breathing, the in and out movement of your stomach or the air passing through your nose.  The process involves noticing, not controlling your breathing.  You can also rest in the gap between your in-breath and your out-breath.  You can extend the observation of your breathing to other parts of your body such as breathing through your mouth.
  4. Noticing sounds – now switch your attention to the sounds within and outside your room.  Again, the process involves noticing not interpreting or judging the sounds (whether they are pleasant or grating, for example).
  5. Anchoring yourself – you can choose to focus just on your breath or the sounds or adopt a position of natural awareness where you are open to the sense of being aware. Whatever you choose becomes your anchor that you can return to when your mind wanders.  It is natural to have passing thoughts and emotions – the important thing is not to entertain them or indulge them but to acknowledge them, for example, by saying to yourself, “I’m wandering again”.  Once you notice and acknowledge your diverting thoughts and/or emotions, you can return to your chosen anchor.
  6. Equanimity meditation – this involves two main parts that focus directly on developing calm, no matter what your stimulus is.  The first involves capturing a time when you were able to remain calm and balanced when confronted with a challenge – it is important to visualise the event and recapture the memory in all its richness including the stimulus, your initial thoughts/emotions, how you brought yourself under control and your calm response replacing what normally would have been a reactive response.  The second part involves envisaging a challenging situation you have to deal with; identifying what is your “normal” response; and picturing yourself tapping into your boundless internal equanimity, energy and awareness to adopt a response that is both creative and positive.

Diana maintains that this process of equanimity meditation builds your capacity to manage difficult challenges rather than revert to reactivity – that involves adopting habituated responses that are potentially injurious to yourself and others. On a personal note, I like listening to the calmness of Diana’s voice and hearing her highly developed insights as she leads me through a guided meditation process on the weekly podcasts.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditations such as the equanimity meditation, we can realise a new level of personal resilience through the development of calmness, balance and even-mindedness.  We will experience less reactivity in challenging situations and be open to more positive and helpful responses.

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Image – Heron on branch in Wynnum Creek, 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.

Developing Awareness to Overcome Craving and Addiction

In an earlier blog post, I discussed how cravings are formed and how mindfulness breaks the link between addictive behaviour and perceived rewards, drawing on the work of Jud Brewer. author of The Craving Mind: Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits. In a subsequent post, I discussed barriers to sustaining mindfulness practice and a four-step mindfulness practice for overcoming cravings and addictions.

In a recent presentation on the Brain Change Summit hosted by Sounds True, Jud elaborated further on how mindfulness breaks the “habit loop” of craving and addiction. He spoke of the “wedge of awareness” that mindfulness drives between a trigger (such as stress or negative emotion) and our habituated reactivity. He explained that mindfulness effectively disrupts the reward-based learning that is embedded in the craving/addiction cycle. In his view, mindfulness progressively establishes three different levels of awareness which he calls the “three gears of awareness”.

The three gears of awareness

Research undertaken by Jud and his colleagues demonstrates that if people are able to sustain meditation practice, they can realise a deepening level of inner awareness that breaks down the trigger-reward cycle involved in craving and addiction. Jud describes this progression in awareness in terms of three gears that release the power and potentiality of a person by enabling them to “move up a gear” – effectively changing the relationship between a trigger and the behavioural response. The three gears of awareness developed through mindfulness can be explained as follows:

  1. First gear: awareness of a “habit loop” – becoming conscious of the connection between a trigger, a behaviour and a reward that underlies a specific craving or addiction. The first step to breaking a habit is understanding how it is formed.
  2. Second gear: disillusionment with the reward – becoming aware that the “reward” does not work. For example, being mindful of your bodily sensations (taste, smell, touch) as you have a cigarette can make you realise how “disgusting” the cigarettes are. One respondent in a relevant mindfulness research project said (after paying attention to her bodily sensations when smoking), that her cigarette “smells like stinking cheese and tastes like chemicals”.
  3. Third gear: breaking free of the “caught up-ness” of the habit loop – works through a process of substitution of a better and higher reward. Through mindfulness you access your natural capacity to be “curious” – to observe and explore your emotions and reactions and name your feelings. Curiosity without habituated reactivity leads to a sense of expansiveness, peace of mind and equanimity – a higher level reward than flight behaviour. Jud suggests that R.A.I.N. meditation, breathing into strong emotions and loving kindness meditation can activate this third gear.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we can become aware of the habit loop reinforcing our craving or addiction, re-evaluate the rewards inherent in our habituated responses and begin to experience the freedom and peace which comes from the ability to be curious about our inner world, while being reaction-free.

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Image by Gerd Altmann 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.

Plumbing the Depths: Exploring the Shadow

Tami Simon recently interviewed Dr. Robert Augustus Masters, author of a number of books, including, Bringing the Shadow Out of the Dark: Breaking Free from the Hidden Forces That Drive You.  Robert explained in his interview that each of us is influenced by our shadow, born of early life experiences and associated conditioning.  We can access this shadow through observing our reactivity to the words and actions of others and exploring this responsiveness in terms of the forces underlying what is often our inappropriate behaviour.  He explains that it takes courage, patience and persistence to plumb the depths of our shadow.

A near-death experience leads to self-exploration

Robert explained the concept of the shadow and its impact by sharing his own experience of plumbing the depths after a near-death experience (NDE).  He had started a community designed to develop the spirituality of participants but what started out as an open community became a cult, closed in on itself and impervious to outside influence or internal dissent.  He became delusional, enamoured with his own power and importance, and blinded by pride precipitated by the belief that he had arrived spiritually.

His near-death experience resulted from a rash action – imbibing a drug that was immediately harmful, causing him to lapse into unconsciousness and to stop breathing.   In exploring the catalyst for this impulsive action, he discovered that his pride had led him to become aggressive and totally lacking in empathy.  

Plumbing the depths: exploring the shadow

The near-death experience forced Robert to plumb the depths of his shadow – a shadow that was characterised by a belief in shaming as a basis for spiritual growth and a blindness to the harmful impact of his words and actions on those around him (members of his own community).  He discovered painfully that this desire to shame, together with his empathetic blindness, had its origins in his early life experiences where he was constantly shamed by his father (for his own good) and protected himself by becoming aggressive (fight).  His alternative was flight – disassociate himself from what was happening and retreat into himself.

Through his exploration of his shadow and its origins from his early conditioning, he became aware of his reactivity and learned the difference between healthy anger and aggressiveness.  Healthy anger maintains a sensitivity and empathy for the person who was the trigger for the angry response; aggresiveness seeks to diminish them, attack them or belittle them to prove that we are right.   This aggressive response can be during the event (face-to-face) or afterwards, as we indulge our sense of hurt  and avoid letting go.

Robert explained that he had to become intimate with the pain of the shame that resulted from the realisation of how he had hurt people in his community.  He had to look at the pain in all its dimensions (colour, shape, depth), name the source of pain and expose himself to the vulnerability that this exploration of the shadow entailed.  As he explored the depths of his shadow, he brought to light painful memories of his childhood conditioning.  The sensations associated with these deep emotional experiences were also felt in various parts of his body.

Coming out the other side from deep exploration of the shadow enabled Robert to develop “emotional resonance” (empathy), a healthy anger response and the realisation that he, like everyone else, is a work-in-progress.  Based on his experience, Robert recommended that we face up to the pain beneath our reactivity, explore the depths of our shadow and move to free ourselves from the hidden forces that drive us.  As we pull the veil aside, we come closer to understanding our responses and the triggers that set us off.

To assist with the exploration of the shadow, Robert suggested that after we experience a strong reactivity in an interaction with another person, we ask ourselves, “How old do I feel when I act this way?’  This could help us to get in touch with the conditioning we experienced as a child.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection on our reactivity, we enhance our self-awareness, develop insight into the impact of our words and actions and learn to expand our response ability, including communicating a genuine expression of sorrow for the hurt caused to another person.

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

Image source: courtesy of Giuliamar on Pixabay

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Identifying Our Blind Spots through Mindfulness

One of the realities of human existence is that we all have blind spots – what others see in our words and action but we can’t see ourselves.  Our blind spots may be obvious to other people who can see patterns in our behaviour.  The problem is that we can never eradicate our blind spots completely but we can learn to identify them and learn to better manage our responses – to effectively reduce the hurt to others and to ourselves.

Kelly Boys, author of The Blind Spot Effect: How to Stop Missing What’s Right in Front of You, suggests that our blind spots have a number of dimensions:

  • Visual– we actually have a physical blind spot in our eyes. You can check out your physical blind spot in each of your eyes through this link.
  • Attentional – we can suffer from an attentional blind spot because of our lack of ability to truly focus.  Daniel Goleman suggests that the capacity to focus involves the triad of awareness – focus on ourselves, focus on others and focus on the wider context.
  • Cognitive – these are the fixed thoughts we carry about the world and ourselves in the world – “I’m not good enough”, “The world is not safe”.  These may have worked for us over time but will lead us to diminish ourselves and devalue the energy and support of others.  Cognitive blind spots can cut us off from experiencing the world as it is and limit our opportunities.
  • Behavioural– we may be totally oblivious to persistent patterns in our behaviour that are very obvious to others.  It may be the way we respond to criticism or attempt to please others all the time -what Harriet Braiker calls, The Disease to Please.
Identifying the core blind spot

Kelly, in her interview with Tami Simon, offered a simple exercise to help people identify their core blind spot – “the way we hold our perception of ourselves and the world around us together”.  Identifying the core, which often relates to a sense of separateness, can lead to a major transformation in our lives.

Kelly suggests that being still and open to the present moment is a key way to access our blind spots and to understand the underlying pattern in our perceptual, cognitive and behavioural responses. In the exercise she led during the interview she encouraged people to become grounded; be open to, and aware of, their senses (sound, sight, breath) and to notice any tension, tightness or contraction in their body.  Staying with this bodily feeling is a way into understanding the underlying blind spot – “Where does this tension come from?’ “What am I saying to myself about my looks or capacity?’ “How am I perceiving the world or the actions of others?” “How am I planning to respond – why?”

As we persist with this kind of exercise, where we use our bodily awareness as the gateway to our blind spots, we can delve deeper into our core blind spot and open up the way to respond very differently – we can better understand our reactivity in certain situations and increase our response ability.  This self-awareness and self-regulation are key outcomes of mindfulness practice.

As we grow in mindfulness we begin to recognise patterns in our thoughts and behaviour and what we pay attention to.  If we persist in the relevant mindfulness exercise, we will come to understand our core blind spot. This growing realisation opens up new possibilities for us as we free ourselves from the limitations in our perceptions and responsiveness that arise through our blind spots.

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

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

Overcome Reactivity through Mindfulness

Throughout the day we are often on automatic pilot, reacting to events and to others in an unconscious way.  It may be that we react to something someone said or did – like hearing a perceived criticism or being cut off in traffic.  Our automatic response is to be angry or annoyed and to lash out at the other person either in word or action (or by sending that angry email response).

Tara Brach, in her meditation podcast, defines this reactivity as “reacting out of our habitual patterns without consciousness”.  All day and every day we will find ourselves in a reactive pattern, being totally unaware of where we are operating from.   Viktor Frankl reminds us that there is a space between stimulus and response and that we have the choice of whether we use the space to manage our response.  He suggests that in the space lies freedom and choice – the opportunity to break free from reactive responses and to exercise conscious choice in how we respond.

People are becoming increasingly reactive because we are fast losing the capacity to be in the present moment – to respond to life with full awareness.  The growth in the incidence and violence of “road rage” is evidence that people are reacting mindlessly when they experience some delay in traffic or are frustrated by the actions of another driver.  We can act out of impatience rather than being patient and understanding that we are traffic too.

If we practice reflection on our daily activities, we can begin to notice how reactive we often are.  It is a useful exercise to think about a single event where we were reactive and to capture the moment – thinking about what happened, how we felt both bodily and emotionally and how we responded.  We can then focus on what we could have done differently to avoid being reactive.

When we are in the midst of a situation that is stimulating a negative response in us, we can use the S.T.O.P. practice to create some space for ourselves and better manage our response.  Meditation practice can help us to more frequently access this process to pause and stop ourselves from being overly reactive.

Tara suggests that one of the easiest practices during meditation to become grounded in the present is to listen to the sounds that surround us – in a way that is neither interpreting or evaluating the sound.  For example, you might be fortunate enough to tune into the sound of rain as it falls, noticing the ever-changing pattern and different impacts as it hits the ground or buildings.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice and reflection, we can become more self-aware, more aware of our reactive responses and better able to consciously manage our response to life and the varying stimuli we encounter throughout the day and night.

 

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

Image source: courtesy of RobbinHiggins on Pixabay

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

Mindfulness and Response Ability

Mitra Manesh, in her podcast on Mindfulness and Responsibility, noted that the word “responsibility” has two components – “response” and “ability”.  Her discussion and guided meditation are aimed at expanding our ability to respond rather than react.

Mitra maintains that mindfulness meditation, encompassing mindful breathing and body scan, can increase our response options so that our life is not governed by reactivity.  To this end, she leads us in a guided meditation on two occasions throughout the podcast.

During her podcast, Mitra Manesh defines mindfulness as ‘kind awareness and acceptance of our present moment”.  She notes that mindfulness has three essential elements – kindness, acceptance and the present moment. As we grow in mindfulness, we increase our response choices so that we are not held captive to our habituated, reactive responses.

We can more readily accept the present moment with kindness towards ourselves and others.  Kindness towards ourselves requires self-compassion and self-acceptance.  Kindness towards others involves consideration and compassion – being thoughtful and empathetic towards others and their needs.

Reactivity

Typically, in a wide range of situations, we react without thinking or being aware of the consequences of our words or actions for ourselves or others.  If someone “steels” our parking space during busy Christmas shopping, we may have some choice words to say and/or gestures to make.  If someone’s behaviour sets off a trigger for us, we will often react in an inappropriate way, usually with a response whose intensity does not match the seemingly, insignificant word or action that triggered the response – we are in a heightened reactive mode.

Reactivity taps into habituated behaviour that we have developed over time in response to various stimuli in our lives – stimuli such as disturbing situations, annoying  people or frustrated expectations.

Mindfulness and response ability

Mindfulness enables us to identify the negative triggers, isolate our reactive response, name our feelings and provide us with a choice space between stimulus and response.  We are able to expand our choice of responses and maintain calmness and clarity despite the disturbing nature of the situation.

Mindfulness helps us to show up differently in our relationships.  Instead of reacting to conflict with our life partner or colleague by our habit of withdrawal, sullenness or hurtful words, we can have the presence of mind to avoid inflaming the situation and, instead, show consideration and kindness.  Habituated reactivity fractures relationships, mindful responsiveness enriches them.

Our response ability develops with meditation practice because it helps us to grow in self-awareness and self-management.   Mindfulness practice expands our response choices as we “walk the streets of life”.

Note: Mitra Manesh’s podcast is provided as one of the weekly mindfulness podcasts provided by the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA.

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

Image source: courtesy of Curriculum_Photografia on Pixabay

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Recognising Our Emotions and Our Feelings

In the previous post, I explored the benefits of mindful breathing in terms of increased self-awareness and self-management and the capacity to become more in touch with our breathing.  As we develop our mindfulness practice, we are able to move beyond breathing mindfully to recognise our emotions and feeling states.

The emotional roller-coaster of life

Feelings are “part and parcel” of being human.   If we ignore them or suppress how we feel, emotions will take over our lives – we will be controlled and overwhelmed by them.  Previously, we saw the physical and psychological damage caused by suppressed feelings in a toxic work environment and when midwives suffered trauma in silence following a critical incident.

We can allow emotions to work for us or against us – we can learn to recognise them and treat them with loving awareness and kindness.  Too often we attempt to deny or ignore our painful feelings because they cause discomfort and upset our expectation of a pleasant life.  Jack Kornfield, in the Power of Awareness Course, reminds us that we seek to make our life comfortable in so many ways – we seek the comfort of air conditioning or a soft pillow or mattress.  He points our that we try to deny the conflicting reality of being human – lives that engender joy and pain; praise and blame; elation and depression; happiness and sadness; gain and loss.

We assume that things will go along as expected – until we are confronted with a serious illness or a substantial loss or defeat.  Jon Kabat-Zin suggests that it is “certifiably absurd” to assume that things will always go on the way they are now.  He argues that “stress really has to do with wanting things to stay the same when they are inevitably going to change” – the fundamental “law of impermanence”.

Mindfulness and recognising our emotions

Mindfulness meditation can give us the capacity to handle the wide range of emotions that we will have to deal with in life.  This is not to say that we will not experience upsets or “come to grief”, but that we will reduce our reactivity to these emotions and regain balance more easily – we will have the ability to “bounce back” more quickly.  In other words, we will develop our resilience.  Jack Kornfield reminds us that recent neuroscience research confirms the view that mindfulness builds resilience and creates a “window of tolerance” – a greater openness to life events that we experience as adverse or painful.

Matt Glaetzer epitomised this expanded tolerance of adverse events in the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, in 2018.  Matt was world champion and Commonwealth Games record holder for a sprint cycling event he contested and was also the fastest qualifier for the 2018 sprint event.  Yet he was beaten by the slowest qualifier, Malaysian Muhammad Sahrom, and was eliminated from the race and did not make the quarter finals.  Matt was “gutted” and devastated by this defeat and the loss of a real gold medal chance.

However, Matt had to race the 1,000 metre individual cycling sprint the following day.  He went on to win this time trial race and the Gold Medal.  When asked how he recovered his balance, Matt stated that “I had to regroup, sometimes things don’t go the way you plan them”.   He sought out the support of family, team mates and friends; said a prayer; and reset his mind to get his “head space in the right area“.  This changed mindset involved not wallowing in his utter disappointment but focusing on winning a gold medal for Australia.   Matt faced the depth of his emotions and feelings after the embarrassing loss and focused his mind on his next goal, rather than “beat up” on himself for making a bad tactical error in the first race.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can liberate ourselves from the potential tyranny of our emotions by recognising them for what they are, by understanding their influence on our thinking and behaviour and by taking constructive steps to manage our emotions to  gain self-acceptance and balance and avoid reactivity.

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

Image source: courtesy of alfcermed 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.