Meditation for Letting Go

Sometimes we can become consumed by anger and be captured by the thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations that accompany anger.  Meditation provides a way to let go of anger and its associated ill-effects.

The catalyst for your anger may be that someone did or said something that you considered unfair.  It may be that what was said or done frustrated your ability to meet your goal of helping other people to achieve something important.  You could feel aggrieved that the thought, effort and cost that you incurred for someone were unappreciated and/or devalued.  It could be that comments made by someone else are patently untrue or distort the real picture of your involvement.

The harmful effects of sustained anger

The problem with anger is that it is such a strong emotion, that we tend to hang onto it – we do not let it go.  We might ruminate endlessly on what happened, providing justifications for ourselves – our words and actions.  We could deflect the implied criticism by denigrating the other person’s intellectual capability or perceptual capacity.  We could make assumptions about their motivation and even indulge in conspiracy theory.

An associated problem with indulging in angry thoughts and sensations is that it harms both us and our relationships.  We are harmed because the negative emotions consume mental and emotional energy, distract us from the present moment (and all that is good about the present) and destroy our equanimity.

Indulged anger can lead to retaliation that harms the relationship with the other person.  It can also contaminate our relationships with other people who are important to us such as our partner, a friend or our children.  As a result of our sustained anger, we may appear aloof, critical, grumpy or unsympathetic to these important people in our life.

A meditation for letting go

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast on letting go.  She emphasises the fact that when we indulge a strong emotion like anger, the bodily manifestation of this can be experienced as tightness, tension or soreness – a physical expression of holding on.  We can even experience shallowness of breath as we hold the negative emotions in our bodies.

The first level of release through meditation is to focus on your breath – the in-breath and out-breath.  This mindful breathing can be viewed as letting go with each out-breath, releasing the pent-up thoughts and emotions that make you uptight.

As you progress your meditation and begin to restore some semblance of relaxation, you can then address the “holding on” in your body.  Through a progressive body scan, you can identify the parts of your body that are giving expression to your anger – you can physically soften the muscles (facial, back, shoulder, neck or leg muscles) that have become hardened through holding onto your anger.

Once you have become experienced in meditation, you can then begin to reflect on your response to the negative trigger that set you off.  This opens the way to look at how you responded and whether there was an alternative way of responding other than defensiveness or attack (flight or fight).  You might discover (as I did recently) that active listening would have achieved a better outcome, an improved level of mutual understanding and reduced stress generated by angry thoughts and emotions.

Taking this further, you could explore a powerful mindfulness meditation that can help you overcome ongoing resentment by enabling you to put yourself in the position of the other person to appreciate how they experienced your interaction – to understand their perspective, their feelings and their needs in terms of maintaining their identity (their sense of self-worth, competence or reliability).  The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) recommends this meditation practice for handling residual emotions and resentment resulting from a conflictual interaction.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection we can practise letting go of anger and other negative emotions by focusing on our breath, bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts and behaviour in an interaction.  Through the resultant self-awareness, we can improve our response ability.  By exploring the interaction experience from the position of the other person, we can also increase our motivation and our options to behave differently for our own good and that of the person with whom we have interacted.

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Being Mindful of the Past and the Future

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and doing so in a way that is open to, and accepting of, whatever is the reality of our lives.  It means not resisting our lives but approaching our lives with curiosity and a willingness to be with the present moment.

We often hear in the context of mindfulness that it is important not to be lost in the past (which leads to depression) or in the future (which leads to anxiety).  However, the past and the future have a positive role to play in our lives.

Mindful of the past

The opposite to being mindful of the past is to be always living in the past – obsessing about what might have been, what we could have done.  It is replaying in our head the negative things we have done or experienced – going over and over them so that the past controls us.  We can become obsessed about the past and stuck on what happened, unable to let go.  This inevitably leads to disappointment, frustration, sadness, resentment and depression.

Being mindful of the past can involve a positive approach to life.  If we reflect on our actions and the outcomes, intended and unintended, we can learn from this process, if it is done in a non-judgmental way.   Through reflection, we can really grow in self-awareness and self-management, because we can recognise the negative triggers, our responses and alternative ways of acting and being-in-the-world.

When we engage in gratitude meditation we can revisit in a positive way what has happened for us in the past.  We can appreciate the skills we have developed, the opportunities to acquire qualifications, the support of our parents/siblings/friends, the synchronicity that flowed from our focus, and the opportunities that opened up for us because of our life circumstances.

Mindful of the future

Approaching the future mindlessly can involve obsessing about the negative things that can potentially happen in our lives.  The word “potentially” is used consciously here- much of what we imagine will never happen.  We can easily get into a spiral of negative thoughts that leads to catastrophising- envisaging the worst possible outcome.  Unfortunately, our minds have a negative bias but we can train our minds to be positive in outlook and open to opportunities that may come our way.  A morbid fixation on the future can only lead to fear, worry and anxiety and destroy our potential for happiness in the present.

We need to attend to the future and this can be healthy and positive.  We have to plan ahead for many things such as getting to work, what to wear, what to focus on for the day, what we will have for dinner, what social events we will engage in on the weekend and our upcoming holiday.   Such planning and thoughts about the future are natural.   However, if we become overly concerned about what might happen or how our life will turn out in the future, we can enter a negative anxiety spiral.

Being mindful of the future requires a healthy approach to planning (not planning obsessively) and a willingness to accept what arises in our lives despite our very best plans.  It also means not being controlled by the expectations of others or our own expectations of how things might work out.

A meditation on the past and the future

Tara Brach provides a meditation podcast on exploring the past and the future. In the meditation she encourages you to notice any tension in your body arising from thoughts about the past or the future.  She suggests that you do not entertain these thoughts but let them pass by like the train as you wait at the station.  Her advice is to continuously come back to the focus of your meditation, such as your breathing or sounds that surround you, whenever your mind wanders into the past or the present.

Tara suggests too that if you are focusing on sounds, you could try to tune into the furthest sound you can hear and to rest in the sense of expansiveness that results.  The primary goal, however, is to rest fully in the present.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we can become mindful of the past and the future and avoid being captured by either.  We can extract from the past and the future positive thoughts and avoid dwelling on the negative which can lead to sadness and unhappiness.  We can learn to happily appreciate the present moment – the summation of our past and the positive potentiality of our future.

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Overcoming Aversion as a Barrier to Meditation

One of the weekly MARC meditation podcasts addresses the issue of overcoming aversion as a barrier to meditation.  Aversion is the last of five obstacles to meditation covered by Diana Winston in a series of meditations aimed to remove the barriers that stop us meditating or divert our attention during meditation.  In a previous post, for example, we discussed ‘desire‘ as one of these obstacles.

Diana points out that aversion may arise through boredom with the practice of meditation, resentment of the time that needs to be set aside to maintain daily meditation practice, or residual negative feelings from something in our lives.  These feelings may be anger over a job loss, frustration about not making progress with a project or residual feelings from conflict with someone at work or at home.   These negative feelings can result in our feeling reluctant to even start our meditation.

Diana suggests that the feeling itself – whether boredom, anger, resentment or frustration – is the starting point.  Just noticing what we are feeling, acknowledging it and understanding how it has arisen, can be the focus of our meditation.  We do not need to focus elsewhere or be tied to a routine or prescribed topic.  It’s enough to deal with ‘what is’ – what we are thinking and feeling in the moment.

What is important though is to treat ourselves with loving kindness – not beating up on ourselves for a lack of interest at the time or the presence of negative residual feelings.  A way to negate this negative self-evaluation is to engage in a further meditation focused on loving kindness towards our self.

Loving kindness meditation in the event of aversion to meditation practice

Loving kindness meditation can focus on our self and/or others – these can also be combined.  When using the loving kindness approach, it is recommended to start with loving kindness towards others and to use the resultant experience of ‘warmth’ to turn the focus onto yourself.

Having first become grounded, the meditation begins with a focus on someone you admire or love.   After imagining the person of your choice, the meditation begins with wishing them wellness, e.g. “May you experience strength, health and happiness.”

This then flows onto loving kindness meditation towards yourself.  Here, you extend to yourself similar wellness wishes and avoid any judgmental thoughts that could diminish your self-esteem.  The reality is that even experienced meditators encounter obstacles to their meditation practice, including aversion.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can learn to handle whatever comes our way, including obstacles such as aversion.  Loving kindness meditation extended to others and to our self, can free us from negative self-evaluation in the event of experiencing a meditation obstacle.

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Mindfulness for Overcoming Resentment

Resentment towards another person, organisation or group can hold us captive and lead us to give away control of our emotions to others.  It also has the ability to linger and smoulder long after the initial catalyst has passed or even been forgotten.

Our resentment may flow from someone or a group that has frustrated our expectations or impeded our goals or done something that we experienced as harmful to us personally.  Unless we let it go and dissolve its power, resentment can eat away at us and negatively impact our quality of life and the quality of our relationships.

Overcoming resentment through mindfulness

There are several mindfulness practices that can help us to let go of resentment.  Here are three processes:

Forgiveness Meditation

Forgiveness meditation is one way to use mindfulness to overcome resentment towards a person and has proven to build understanding and empathy.  It is designed to replace resentment with thoughtfulness and loving kindness

Dealing with conflict

During a two-day course on mindful leadership conducted by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, I learned a process that related to conflict resolution but was also designed to build understanding and tolerance of others and to dissolve the blocking effects of resentment.  As part of the process, you had to reflect on the conflict incident and put yourself in the place of the other person with whom you had a conflict and towards whom you felt some resentment.

The conflict process acknowledges that for both parties in a conflict there are three levels of issues at play – (1) content, (2) feelings & (3) identity.  So when you begin to reflect mindfully on what is happening for the other person, you ask the following questions from their perspective:

  1. Content (What happened from their perspective?)
  2. Feelings (How do I think they felt?)
  3. Identity (What might have been at stake for them in terms of their sense of competence, their thoughts about their own goodness and lovability?)

By reflecting mindfully about what was going on for the person in the conflict that we felt some resentment towards, we can experience the resentment dissolving and empathy replacing it. As we ask ourselves the same questions, we can begin to realise that we are all very human and that we misunderstand each other and make mistakes which we may later regret.

Being mindful of the potential damaging effects of resentment

If we are able to get in touch with our feelings at a point in time and name our feelings as resentment, we can reflect on what that feeling is doing to us both bodily and emotionally.  If we focus on these damaging effects and project them into the long-term, we will come to realise that we have to let the resentment go and move on, just as Khaled Hosseini described.

Khaled, in his book A Thousand Splendid Suns, has one of his lead characters, Laila, refuse to give into resentment:

But Laila has decided she will not be crippled by resentment.  Mariam wouldn’t want it that way.  What’s the sense? she would say, with a smile both innocent and wise.  What good is it, Laila Jo?  And so Laila has resigned herself to moving on. (p.399)

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we come to realise the damaging power and hold of resentment and to learn ways to overcome it.  In the process, we can develop understanding of, and empathy for, others.

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Meditation and Mental Health

Jonathan Kryiger and Andrew H. Kemp, researchers at the University oF Sydney, discussed meditation and mental health in a blog post titled, Beyond Spirituality: the role of meditation in mental health.

in their article, they identify a number of benefits for mental health reported in research on meditation.  They indicate how meditation, both by expert practitioners and people who meditate for short periods of time, can result in positive changes in their body, brain, emotional regulation ability and rate of ageing.

Of particular note, is the ability of meditation to assist in the treatment and management of acute and chronic pain.  Particular forms of mindfulness meditation such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) demonstrate positive results in the treatment of mood disorders and anxiety.

Meditation and regulating emotions to achieve mental health

While the generic benefits noted above can be realised through different forms of meditation, the focus of mindfulness meditations can vary considerably.  Throughout this blog, we have mentioned some meditations that target specific negative emotional responses that are injurious to mental health:

  • Forgiveness meditation, in which we focus on forgiving another person who has caused us harm or hurt, aims to reduce resentment which can undermine our self-esteem, self-confidence and effectiveness
  • Self-forgiveness meditation targets the never-ending cycle of self-criticism and negative self-evaluation which brings with it debilitating shame and guilt
  • Gratitude meditation can help to reduce depression which can disable us from taking constructive action in the various arenas of our daily life
  • Equanimity meditation helps us to replace mental agitation and disappointment with calmness and self-assurance
  • R.A.I.N. meditation helps us to face the “fear within” and frees us from the disabling effects of fear and anxiety that hinder our capacity to live fully and creatively
  • Somatic meditation enables us to get in touch with our bodies and progressively remove the emotional imprint of adverse events or trauma manifested in muscle tightness or pain
  • Loving kindness meditation focused on others can take us beyond damaging self-absorption and self-preoccupation and free us to access peace and happiness through the appreciation of others and their contributions to the quality of our lives.

The weekly meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA can extend the range of meditations we employ to target unhelpful and unhealthy emotions that impact the quality of our mental health.

As we grow in mindfulness through focusing our meditations on replacing negative emotions with positive ones, we can experience real growth in our mental health and our capacity to live life fully and creatively, develop loving and fulfilling relationships and avoid the downward spiral of mental illness.

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Cultivating Equanimity through Mindfulness Meditation

“Equanimity” connotes peace, balance, composure and acceptance in times that are good or bad.  The word itself can conjure up a sense of serenity. It is possible for some people to experience equanimity on a regular basis because of their personality or lived experience and education.

It is also possible to cultivate equanimity through both general meditation practice and more specific meditation that focuses on developing equanimity when confronted with life events, both those that are experienced as bad and those that seem good to us.

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast on Practising Equanimity which is designed to help us focus on life events that may be a source of disturbance to our equanimity so that we can learn to be with them without rancour or inflated elation.

Experiencing equanimity

Diana, in the prelude to her equanimity meditation, refers to the definition of mindfulness promoted by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA:

Mindful awareness can be defined as paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is.

She particularly focuses on the words, “a willingness to be with what is” – which, in one sense, defines equanimity.  So often we can be absorbed by what has happened in the past (with resentment, disappointment or bitterness) or obsessed about the future (with anxiety, agitation or disturbance).  In the process, we lose our sense of equilibrium and the experience of equanimity.

What we experience as good can also disturb our equanimity because it may be so good that we never want it to end – we want to hang onto the experience and become overly attached to it to the point that we are resentful when it ends.

So being present in the moment and accepting fully “what is” can be very  difficult.   Meditation can enable us to develop a sustained sense of calmness but we can still be put off balance by adverse events or experiences.  Our perception of the global situation may also upset our equanimity.

If we can learn through equanimity meditation to just be with whatever is present in our lives, we can reduce our emotional response, develop creative solutions and take informed action to create change rather than” working from reactivity”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice and specific equanimity meditation (focused on a disturbing or mood-altering event), we can increase our “response ability” and experience clarity and calmness.  Diana’s meditation podcast provides the opportunity to begin this journey to cultivate equanimity.

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Emotional Intelligence Competency – Adaptability

Daniel Goleman, in his interview for the online 2018 Mindfulness at Work Summit identified “adaptability” as the one of the emotional intelligence competencies that fall under the self-management group of competencies.

Adaptability is often assessed during job interviews for manager positions because the pace of social change, the convergence of technological innovations and economic discontinuities demand adaption by managers who have responsibility for people, infrastructure and financial resources.

As Reg Revans, the father of action learning, pointed out very early, “The past is no precedent for the future”.  This is especially true in turbulent times.  The maxim also applies to employees other than managers as they are frequently required to adapt to structural change, job redesign, system innovations and procedural improvements.  A lack of adaptability can be manifested in people who are focused on the past rather than embracing the opportunities presented by organisational changes.

Goleman suggests that resilience is different to adaptability in the sense that it is more about a person’s capacity to bounce back from setbacks or personal difficulties.  The time required to restore equilibrium after a major upset or source of distress is a measure of a person’s resilience and, in that sense, is considered by Goleman as more an aspect of another emotional intelligence competency that he terms, “emotional self-control”.

Adaptability, in his view, is more about being agile, being able to move with the times rather than becoming fixated with the way things are now.  According to Goleman, research conducted by Richard Boyatzis confirms the view that high adaptability is not only a good predictor of career success but also of overall life satisfaction and happiness.

If you are lost in resentment or anxiety, it is very difficult to be adaptable because you are preoccupied with other time scenarios in the past or the future.

As people grow in mindfulness through meditation, they can gain the self-awareness to identify their own thoughts and emotions that block their adaptability and impede their progress in life.

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Changing Your Mindset

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

The acceptance mindset

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

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

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

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

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

The growth mindset

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

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

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

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

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Forgiving Others

Carrying anger and resentment towards others can be destructive and eat away at you, your tranquility, peace and happiness.  Harbouring grudges only leads to physical illness and negatively impacts your behaviour in every arena – in the home, at work and in the community.

We can see how hatred has affected generations of people in Israel and Palestine, Bosnia and Serbia.  People suffer for hundreds of years because of these conflicts and entrenched hatred.  The practice of forgiveness can lift the “burden of the past from our hearts”.  It can free us from the endless cycle of suffering.

Jack Kornfield tells the story of two ex-prisoners of war who were having a conversation and one asks the other whether they have forgiven their captors.  The other person responds to the effect that there is no way they could forgive their captors.  The first ex-prisoner responded, “So, they still have you in prison, don’t they!” – enslaved by his resentment and hatred.

Jack tells another story that reflects a different outcome resulting from forgiveness by a husband after a very difficult divorce resulting in legal action to keep him away from his children and the mother trying to turn their children against their father.  The husband decided that he had to forgive his ex-wife because as he said, “I will not bequeath a legacy of bitterness to my children.”  This forgiving stance – despite the pain, despair and suffering at the hands of another – took considerable courage and compassion.

Sometimes we hurt, betray or harm someone else knowingly; other times, we do it unknowingly.  There are even times when we numb ourselves to the potential hurt suffered by another because of our actions or inaction.  Hurting others is a part of being human because our perceptions and insight are limited as is our capacity to deal with perceived hurt to ourselves – we often want to hit back by our words, actions or omissions. We are very vulnerable and, while we can be kind and thoughtful at times, we can harbour resentment and anger, even at the slightest provocation.

As we grow in mindfulness through forgiveness meditation, we become sensitized to the impact of our actions and the hurt we cause others, we become more open and free from the burden of guilt from our past actions and more watchful to avoid hurting others in the future.  There is freedom in forgiveness.

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Break the Vicious Cycle of Destructuve Criticism with Mindfulness

The movie, “Loveless” depicts the escalating costs of the vicious cycle of destructive criticism in a graphic manner.  The movie is set in Russia and was directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev and co-written with Oleg Negi.

The couple involved in the movie are separated and in the process of divorce but are consumed by anger, frustration and hatred for each, despite each having established a relationship with a new partner.  The movie brings into stark relief the impact of their vehemence on the life of their 12-year-old son, who is seen as cowering and crying when the parents verbally abuse each other in a escalating tirade of insults and name-calling.  The son is invisible to them as they pursue their mindless criticisms of each other.

The climax of the movie comes when the son disappears, and the parents are forced through police inaction to join in the volunteers’ search for their son.  In summary, not only is their son’s life impacted negatively but so also are their new relationships as the toxicity of unresolved resentment eats away at them.

We can be caught up in a cycle of destructive criticism when relationships go bad, when we are frustrated that our expectations are not realised or when we become absorbed in the pain of hurts from another by replaying them in our mind.  Sometimes, our criticism is a projection of our own sense of inadequacy or ineffectiveness.  The cycle of negative criticism, and its costs, are compounded when each party attempts to inflict ever greater pain on the other by caustic and demeaning remarks.

Breaking the cycle of destructive criticism by mindfulness

The cycle of negative criticism is difficult to break as each party is mindlessly attacking the other without any thought of the long-term consequences for themselves or the other person.

Margaret Cullen suggests a three-step mindfulness process to wind back resentment and hurt and break the cycle of destructive criticism:

  1. Get in touch with your thoughts and name your feelings and their intensity.  Take advantage of the space between stimulus (the other person’s words and/or actions) and your own response.  Avoid reactivity that will have you saying something you later regret and add to the destructive cycle of abusive criticism.
  2. Undertake and honest and open conversation – explain what happened and how it made you feel.  Avoid blaming and name-calling in this conversation and use empathetic listening to rebuild trust.  You have to take this step to break out of the cycle or you will be consumed by resentment, as portrayed in the movie, “Loveless”.  If you want a relationship to improve, you have to change your response, not deepen the hurt experienced by the other person.
  3. You can let go of disappointment and bitterness by undertaking a forgiveness meditation – which can be directed to yourself and/or the other person.  Holding onto resentment can only harm you both in the short term and the long term.  It will contaminate your relationships at home and at work.  Forgiveness, on the other hand, creates freedom.

As we grow in mindfulness through regular meditation, we increase our response ability and develop ways to handle personal criticism.  This enables us to avoid the cycle of destructive criticism which is so injurious to ourselves and our relationships.

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