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 Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre (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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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Remember the R.A.I.N.

R.A.I.N. is a meditation process designed to help you when you have a situation where you experience strong negative feelings towards another person.  The process was recently introduced by Tara Brach as part of the Power of Awareness Course.

The acronym stands for Recognise, Accept, Investigate and Nurture.  Each of these steps can be undertaken during a meditation following an interaction with another person – partner, colleague, child, boss- that disturbs your equilibrium or, if you have the presence of mind at the time, during the disturbing interaction itself.  Let’s have a look at what these steps involve.

Recognise your emotions

After adopting an introductory grounding meditation practice, you need to reflect on the upsetting interaction and try to recognise your feelings at the time.  As we mentioned previously, identifying and naming your feelings, enables you to tame them.  Sometimes, this can be a complicated mix of feelings and other times involve feelings reflecting two different orientations –  feelings about the other person and feelings about yourself. For example, you might feel frustration and anger towards the other person (especially, if their behaviour that has an adverse effect on you is repeated often).  You might also be anxious that the resulting conflict, and your own inappropriate response at the time, puts your relationship in jeopardy.

Accept the interaction and the contributing factors

Life is not simple – nor is it free from stress and conflict – we are all unique and have different ideas, values, preferences, behaviours and idiosyncrasies.  Accepting the reality of the adverse interaction is an important part of moving on.  You can wallow in your hurt feelings and maintain your resentment, but this will be detrimental to yourself and the other person.  Your anger will pervade your thoughts and distort your perception of the other person and also manifest itself in your behaviour towards them and others.  The way ahead is to process your residual feelings, accept what has happened and move onto the investigation step.

Investigate your feelings that occurred during the interaction

This is not a conceptual exercise, where you stay just with your thoughts and objective analysis.  It entails being fully embodied – noting where in your body the pain and hurt associated with the feelings resides.  What do the feelings do to your body?  Are the negative thoughts and feelings expressed as tension in your forehead, tightness in your shoulders, an ache in your back or  other physical manifestation?  Focusing on the areas of pain and aching, enables you to release the physical unease and the associated thoughts and feelings.

Nurture yourself through the process

It is important to treat yourself with kindness, not scorn or derision.  The latter approach leads to low self-esteem and the belief that you are unable to do anything about the relationship because you “lost it” or were inept in the interaction.  Caring for yourself is critical, otherwise distress about the other person’s words and actions can lead to distress about what you said and did.   This only exacerbates an unsettling experience.

As you emerge from the R.A.I.N. meditation, you will have a strong sense of freedom and the basis for a new relationship with the other person.  As you grow in mindfulness, you will be better able to undertake these steps during the interaction itself, rather than afterwards.  So the R.A.I.N. meditation can also help you with future interactions with the same person.

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Forgiveness Meditation

Forgiveness meditation embraces three aspects of forgiveness – forgiving ourselves, forgiving someone else who hurt us and asking for forgiveness from someone we have hurt.  These can be combined in one meditation or undertaken as separate meditations because of the level of emotion potentially involved.

A combined forgiveness meditation is offered by Diana Winston who provides this half-hour meditation through the weekly meditation podcast series produced by the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).  Diana is Director of Mindfulness Education at the Center.  The combined approach to forgiveness meditation could be appropriate where you have been involved in a divorce or relationship breakup – where both parties have hurt each other over time, culminating in the ending of the relationship.

Diana’s meditation, as with other forgiveness meditations, flows through a series of phases – mindful breathing, body scan, silent meditation – before focusing on each of the aspects of forgiveness.  These initial phases are designed to lower the level of physical and emotional agitation experienced when people are practicing forgiveness meditation.

Whether we are forgiving ourselves or others who have hurt us or asking for forgiveness from someone else, our physical and emotional responses are heightened.

Forgiving yourself

This is often the hardest forgiveness meditation to do, however, it is the foundation of giving forgiveness to, and seeking forgiveness from, others.  We carry so much baggage in terms of “beating up on ourselves” for past actions, thoughts or omissions.  This self-blame and self-loathing can undermine our sense of calm and equanimity.  The starting point is to acknowledge that being human means that we will act or think in ways that will hurt somebody, whether consciously or unconsciously.  It is not possible to go through life without acting or thinking in ways that we later regret because of their adverse impact on someone else.

We can remain stuck in the mire of self-loathing or acknowledge that we are human and will make mistakes. The “forgiving self” meditation enables us to express the simple statement, “I forgive myself”.   This may take time, and frequent meditations, to be experienced as real, but persistence pays and we will gradually be able to tone down our negative thoughts and feelings.

Forgiving others who hurt you

The focus on this aspect of forgiveness meditation is on clearing the resentment, or even hatred, towards another person who has hurt us by their words, actions or omissions.  We can carry this hurt like a virus that infects our daily life and manifests itself in unpredictable and undesirable ways.  Resentment can eat away at us and erode our self-esteem, our self-confidence and effectiveness in whatever role(s) we have in life.

Sometimes resentment towards others for past words or actions can be projected onto another person who acts as a trigger to set us off a train of negative thoughts and feelings.  One example of this is where we have been subjected to constant criticism by a significant person in our life, which makes us super-sensitive to criticism by others, whether real or only perceived.

When we fail to forgive others for past hurts, it is as if we are carrying the past forward to today and contaminating the present.  We keep the hurt alive, and even intensify it, by not letting go.  In an article on forgiveness, Elisha Goldstein quotes the famous statement by Lily  Tomlin, Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.  In the forgiveness article, Elisha also offers a brief forgiveness meditation practice designed to help people to let go of hurt and resentment.

Seeking forgiveness from those you have hurt

Invariably, we have hurt others by our words, actions and inaction.  We can carry around the burden of guilt or do something to release this burden.  Forgiveness meditation gives us the opportunity to address this guilt and awareness of the hurt to another person.  By focusing on our feelings and being empathetic towards the person who has been hurt by us, we can release ourselves from the chains of guilt, while acknowledging the hurt we have caused.  Otherwise, we will be burdened by the guilt and our life will be weighed down so that we are disabled in terms of experiencing the freedom of the moment.

A “seeking-for-forgiveness” meditation entails focusing on the person you have hurt and the pain you have caused them, while saying the words, “I have hurt you by my words and actions, I now seek your forgiveness”.  While engaging in this meditation, it is important to treat yourself with kindness (no matter how much you have hurt the other person, consciously of unconsciously).  You do not have to say the words to the other person who you have hurt – the readiness to do this may occur a lot later or the opportunity may never occur.

For each of the forgiveness meditations, you can get in touch with what is going on inside you – your thoughts, feelings and bodily reactions.  As you grow in mindfulness, and persist with the forgiveness meditation practice, you will have an increased sense of calm, happiness, freedom and peace. You will also experience greater empathy towards others and be kinder to yourself.

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

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Awareness and Happiness

Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield, when talking about the power of awareness, identified happiness as a very significant outcome of awareness training.  They explain this outcome in terms of three elements of awareness:

  1. being present
  2. overcoming negative bias
  3. appreciation and gratitude

Being present

If we live in the present, we are not encumbered by anxiety and fear about the future or disappointment and depression about the past.  “Now” is the focus and source of our wellbeing.  Both Jack and Tara point out the Dalai Lama as a prime example of happiness and joy (despite suffering as a result of the loss of culture, freedom and religion by his beloved country of Tibet).

After publishing his book on happiness, the Dalai Lama was asked what was the happiest moment of his life, and he replied after considering the question, “I think now”.  There is a stillness and calm and associated happiness with being able to be “in-the-now”.

Overcoming negative bias

Neuroscience has established that part of our genetic make-up is a negativity bias – we tend to see the negative in a situation and perceive threats even when there are none.   In the past, this has served the human species well and helped our species to survive.   Nowadays, it works against our happiness because we can easily overlook the positive and be blinded by a focus on what is wrong or not working out as we had planned.

As we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we are more readily able to focus on the positive in our lives and overcome our negative conditioning.   We are also better able to evaluate potential stressors and see them for what they are.   This opens us up to enjoying our life more and experiencing happiness more regularly.

Appreciation and gratitude

Awareness opens our minds and hearts and enables us to appreciate the good in our lives and express gratitude for what we have in terms of fitness and health, relationships, our lifestyle and our environment.  We become increasingly conscious of what surrounds us and become more open to joy and happiness.

Appreciation and gratitude serve as barriers to envy and resentment which can so readily diminish our happiness and destroy joy in our lives.

Jack Kornfield explains how mindfulness practices and awareness training increase the capacity for happiness in our lives:

These practices and trainings are really an invitation to allow not only well-being, but the innate happiness that appreciates the sunset and the reflected colors in the windows as the sun goes down, or in the puddles there on the street and the splashes and the smiles of the children as they stomp in the water and the mystery of life.

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