Accessing the Genius of Anxiety for Improved Mental Health

Karla McLaren discussed embracing anxiety in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True when having a conversation about Making Friends with Anxiety … And All Your Other Emotions.   Karla was able to draw on her own life experience and her recent book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.   She has spent a lifetime researching and writing about emotions.

In a previous post, I explored Karla’s concept of emotions as storing energy and providing a message and wisdom.  I also discussed effective ways to draw on the energy and wisdom of emotions.  Karla emphasised the importance of not attributing the characteristics of “good” or “bad” to emotions, including difficult emotions.  In her view there are real lessons and ways to move forward hidden in each emotion, even anxiety.

Trauma and anxiety

Karla herself experienced childhood trauma and many of her insights are drawn from her experience in overcoming the associated anxiety and depression.  Like other people who have been traumatised, Karla has had to deal with anxiety and depression throughout her life.  She found that she was ignorant about these emotions and tended to repress or suppress them.   However, through reading and research she has been able to develop practical approaches to addressing anxiety and depression.  She has learned to befriend these emotions and now views depression as enforced slowing down and redirection and has developed the ability to draw on the “genius of anxiety”.

The genius of anxiety

In her interview with Elizabeth Markle on embracing anxiety, Karla emphasised that anxiety is “an essential source of foresight, intuition, and energy for completing your tasks and projects”.  As with any emotion we have a choice – we can suppress, repress or “over-express” anxiety or, alternatively, listen to the message and wisdom that lies within this emotion.  We need to understand that emotion is a process – trigger, experience, response – we have a choice in how we respond to what triggers us and the feelings we experience as a result.

Karla suggests that the appropriate response to situational anxiety is to channel the energy of the emotion towards completing a task or project – much as a canal channels water.  Repression or suppression of anxiety blocks the energy flow, while over-expressing anxiety through panicked or frantic activity can dissipate the energy rather than direct it.  A starting point for channelling the energy of anxiety is “conscious questioning” – e.g. “What brought on this feeling?” and “What truly needs to get done?”   This approach enables you to work with, rather than against, the energy of anxiety and to simultaneously care for yourself by downregulating the impact of the emotion on your thoughts and feelings. 

Karla continued her discussion of “conscious questioning” for anxiety by referring to a sample of other questions featured in her book, Embracing Anxiety (p.85):

  • what are your strengths and resources?
  • are there any upcoming deadlines?
  • have you achieved or completed something similar in the past?
  • can you delegate any tasks or ask for help?
  • what is one small task you can complete tonight or today?

Karla argues that this approach involves “leaning into anxiety”, not artificially calming yourself.  She also alludes to the research that demonstrates that accurate naming of our emotions and identifying the level of intensity of them is another effective form of downregulating emotions.  To this end she encourages us to develop our emotion vocabulary and offers her blog as a starting point for emotion identification.  In her book she offers ways of describing different levels of emotional intensity, for example, low anxiety is described as apprehensive, mild anxiety as edgy or nervous and intense anxiety as overwrought or super-energised.

Karla suggests too that yoga and mindfulness are effective ways of downregulating that can assist the process of conscious questioning.  She offered very brief meditation to illustrate this calming effect.  The meditation basically involved focusing on the quietest sound in the room.  Karla provides a range of practices for each emotion in her book,

Different anxiety orientations: planner vs procrastinator

Karla drew on the work of Mary Lamia, author of What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success, to differentiate between two main manifestations of anxiety – planning anxiety and procrastination anxiety.  The planner maintains a low level of anxiety continuously and has a task “to-do” list(s) to manage their anxiety about getting things done.  The procrastinator, on the other hand, does not make lists but works to deadlines and has an immense burst of anxiety and energy the night before a deadline is due (and often achieves the task in the early or late hours of the morning).  The procrastinator can “chill out” while waiting for the deadline, the task person has difficulty “chilling”.

Mary points out that what is different in the two approaches to task achievement has to do with “when their emotions are activated and what activates them”.  The procrastinator, for example, is motivated by the imminent deadline and experiences “deadline energy”; the planner is motivated by the need to keep task commitments under control.   Understanding the difference between these two sources of motivating anxiety and your personal preference in how to get things done, can reduce conflict in a relationship and support success where partners have a different orientation.   Maria discusses the potential clash in orientation between procrastinators and non-procrastinators in her Psychology Today blog.

Reflection

Mindfulness practices along with conscious questioning and reflection can help us to focus the emotional energy of anxiety.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can better identify our emotions, understand what motivates others and increase our response ability

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Image by Lars Eriksson 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.

Understanding the Process of Emotions

Dr. Eve Ekman recently presented a session on Overcoming Negativity and Judgement as part of the Wise@Work Virtual Communities series organised by Wisdom Labs.  Eve’s professional work focuses on developing emotional awareness, compassion and mindfulness. In pursuit of this goal, she draws on her knowledge, research and experience in areas such as integrative medicine, clinical social work and contemplative science. The mission of Wisdom Labs is to improve mental health in the workplace and the organisation offers guided virtual communities and a stress reduction app as a means to pursue these goals.  The positive outcomes from these tools are reduction in workplace stress, combating loneliness and burnout and improvement in teamwork.

Eve facilitates the Cultivating Emotional Balance Online Course and is Director of Training at the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), University of California Berkeley.  Eve demonstrates the benefits of her yoga and meditation practice in her concise, calm, practical and insightful presentations in many contexts, including in large organisations around the world.   Her video presentation on cultivating emotional balance and fluency at the 2013 Summer Institute for Educators (GGSC) is another example of the depth and passion of her work in developing emotional awareness

The process of emotions

Eve made the point at the outset that we have to understand the nature of emotions if we are going to learn how to keep them under control.  She explained that emotions are more than feelings (e.g. feeling good or bad about something).  In her view (informed by scientific research), emotions are really a process – a process involving “a trigger, an experience and a response”.

The trigger for a feeling of frustration and anger in the workplace could be something like the internet freezing continuously, someone who continually talks loudly in your open office workspace or the fact that your views and suggestions are ignored by management.   Working from home in the current lockdown environment of the Coronavirus can provide multiple triggers for frustration such as distractions, inadequate computer resources and managers who lack an understanding of your personal situation and associated difficulties (such as young children at home).   

Our experience of frustration and anger and associated thoughts of unfairness have a “biological correlate” – in other words, our thoughts and feelings are reflected in our body.  We may feel “uptight”, experience soreness in our back, arms or legs or have a stiff neck or headache.  Our response to the trigger and associated feelings and bodily sensations, can be mild, measured, “over-the-top” or involve some form of calming of ourselves and our emotions.

Eve suggests that we draw on integrative science (Western and Eastern approaches) to identify emotions as “constructive or destructive in how they are enacted” – in other words, how we respond, how our emotions play out in our words and actions.  Whether we choose a constructive or destructive way to act out our emotions will depend on how well we have our emotions under control at the time. 

The capacity to consciously chose an appropriate response to our triggers and associated feelings is described as emotional fluency or as Susan David calls it, “emotional agility”.  Eve’s facilitation in workplaces and her research, confirm that meditation and mindfulness practices are a pathway to developing emotional fluency/agility.   Without awareness of our emotions and how we enact them, we can be easily captured and controlled by them, resulting in harmful interactions and poor decision making.

Reflection

Viktor Frankl reminds us that between a stimulus (a trigger) and our response, there is a gap – wherein lies the opportunity to exercise choice in how we respond, and in the process, free ourselves from the enslavement of our emotions.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices we can build our self-awareness in relation to our triggers, thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and habituated responses and develop self-regulation to deal with our emotions constructively.

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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.

Overcome Your Habituated Way of Reacting and Restore Your Energy and Power

In her podcast interview with Tami Simon, Dr. Lise Van Susteren identified four patterns of reaction to life challenges that she describes as “survival strategies”.  If we can understand these patterns of behaviour, we can regulate our normal way of responding to stimuli we encounter in life and develop more tolerance towards others.  In her book on Emotional Inflammation, co-authored with Stacey Colino, Lise offers a process to discover our triggers and recapture our balance, energy and power.  The book spells out the 7-step process, called RESTORE, and looks at ways we can personalise this process in line with our preferred survival strategy.

Four survival strategies that become habitual behaviour patterns

Lise maintains that the four survival strategies she has identified are based on solid empirical evidence and her own life experience.  She suggests that your preferred survival strategy is shaped not only by your personality and temperament but also by your life experiences and the people who influenced you throughout your life.  The four survival strategies are:

  • Nervous – fearful and anxious because they are able to clearly see dangers, both present and pending, and are capable of providing a warning and catalyst for action through their vigilance and thorough research (they “run the numbers”).
  • Molten – angry and outraged response to situations that are perceived as immoral, unjust or irresponsible and that constitute grounds for justifiable anger.
  • Revved – frantic response to the needs of others leading to ignoring own needs and resultant personal exhaustion.
  • Retreating:  a reflective and considered response that exhibits humility and compassion for others while exercising patience in the pursuit of resolution of issues and challenges.

Lise identified herself as a person who adopts the “revved” survival strategy.  She cannot say “no” to requests and finds herself in a whirlwind of activity giving talks and presentations and writing articles and other publications.  She identified Greta Thunberg’s “How Dare You” speech to world leaders, participating in the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, as an example of a “molten” survival strategy – her words and actions precipitating a global, youth climate change movement.  In reflecting on my own response to the Coronavirus and its resultant impacts, I can identify my survival strategy as “retreating” – which is clearly shaped by my life experiences and the people who were most influential in impacting my thoughts and actions in response to anxious and challenging times. 

Lise suggests that if you can understand your habituated survival strategy, you will not only be more tolerant of others but also be better able to respond differently and more effectively when the occasion demands it – because you will have been able to reduce your “emotional inflammation”. She proposes the RESTORE process as a way to achieve these ends.

The RESTORE process

Lise maintains that the RESTORE process is a pathway to overcoming habituated responses to the things that trigger us while providing us with a means to regain our equilibrium and power to contribute to a better world.  Each of the seven steps of the process draws its name from one of the letters of the word, “restore”:

  • Recognise your feelings – identify and name your feelings, not denying or avoiding them.  The more you deny your feelings, the stronger they become and the greater is their influence over your words and behaviour leading to an increasing number of negative, unintended consequences.  This also involves getting in touch with your body and what it is telling you about your level of stress and agitation and the difficult emotions you are experiencing, particularly in situations where you perceive you have no control over what is happening.
  • Examine your triggers – gain an understanding of your triggers and their impact on your words and actions.  This involves a willingness to reflect on situations that led to a high level of reactivity on your part.  It also entails identifying the people and experiences that have shaped your habituated, unhelpful responses.  The process previously described for dealing with resentment is an example of this self-exploration.   Both this step and the former require self-observation and self-intimacy that can be developed through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection. 
  • Steady the natural rhythm of your bodybreathing with the earth, somatic meditation and mindfulness practices help to restore your equilibrium that arises when you are attuned to the natural rhythm of your body. 
  • Think yourself into a safe space – often we are overcome by negative self-talk which makes us inflexible and destroys our equilibrium.  Working with your mind is necessary to achieve emotional agility and the capacity to adapt to ever-increasing stress situations. Jon Kabat-Zinn provides a cautionary reminder that “you are not your thoughts” – they are like passing clouds, while you are the peaceful and resilient reality behind those clouds. 
  • Obey your body – this entails self-care including physical exercise, practices like Tai Chi and yoga, avoiding foods that your body experiences as harmful, reducing stress by achieving a better work-life balance and using self-care services especially if you are a carer.
  • Reconnect with nature – Lise suggests thatyou can “reclaim the gifts of nature” by accessing its healing benefits and its capacity to stimulate appreciation and gratitude and inspire awe.  Mike Coleman offers online courses on nature meditation to assist you to reconnect with nature.
  • Exercise your power – Lise argues that to consolidate your newfound equilibrium and power, you can become an “upstander” instead of a “bystander” – taking effective action in the world (e.g. on climate change) out of a sense of thoughtfulness, compassion, self-belief and hope.  This is the pathway to joy – pursuing a purpose beyond yourself that reduces self-absorption.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through nature meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection, we can deepen our self-awareness and tolerance, build our understanding of what triggers our unhelpful responses, develop equilibrium and reconnect with our personal energy and power to create positive change in the world. 

Throughout our restorative approaches we need to practise self-compassion, not beating up on ourselves for any shortcomings or shortfalls.  Louise Hay recommends that we practise the affirmation, you’re always doing the best you can with the understanding and awareness and knowledge you have.

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Image by NickyPe 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.

A Reflection to Address Absolutes

In the previous post, I discussed the concept of absolutes advanced by Lance Allred.  Absolutes are those firm, unshakeable beliefs we hold about our self, others or the world around us.  They constrain our perspectives and influence our behaviour.  They are relatively immoveable and do not dissolve in the face of rational argument.  Absolutes shape our thoughts, feelings and reactions and impact our effectiveness and our relationships. They develop early in family life and are often reinforced culturally.  The downside of absolutes is that they stop us from realising our full potential – they act like clots in our circulatory system, stemming the flow of creativity and responsiveness.

A reflection to surface and address an absolute

It seems to me that the starting point for addressing the absolutes in our life is to begin with developing self-awareness and move to identifying strategies to self-regulate our reactions.  It is important to focus on one aspect of our present experience that we find unsatisfactory because of the negative thoughts and emotions that the experience elicits in us.  We are complex beings, so beginning with one relatively small absolute can develop our self-awareness and improve our capacity to respond effectively without the baggage of our past.

There are several steps in the meditation:

  • Being grounded: It is important to become grounded so that you can achieve a sense of focus, balance and insight.  Being conscious of your posture and breathing helps to ground you in the present.
  • Deciding on an anchor: Your anchor is designed to enable you to come back into the focus of your reflection whenever you become aware that you have become distracted or diverted in your thinking.  The choice of anchors is a personal thing – I still like to feel the sensation of my fingers coming together.
  • Focus on an unsatisfactory experience: Decide what you are going to work on to unearth an absolute that is negatively impacting your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It could be some recent interaction or activity that made you upset or threw you off balance.  It does not have to be a major issue – in fact, initially it is better to start small. [I have started with the fact that I get upset and annoyed when I make a mistake at social tennis.]
  • Explore your emotions during the incident: What were you feeling?  What was the intensity of those feelings?  What was the catalyst for those feelings – what really happened?  Who were your feelings directed at – yourself or another person? [In my case, with my tennis mistakes my feelings were annoyance, frustration, anger and shame.]
  • What thoughts were behind your emotions: Why did you experience those emotions?  What was the incident triggering in you? What belief (absolute) about your self or the other person was driving your emotional response?  Whenever your thoughts include a “must” or “should”, you are beginning to access an absolute that is locking you into a response that reduces your flexibility and constrains your perspective.  [When I get upset with my tennis mistakes, my underlying thought or absolute is that “I must be seen to be competent at tennis.”] 
  • Explore the nature of your identified “absolute”: Take a close look at your absolute.  Is it a rational or realistic thought?  What is its origin? Is it embedded in a childhood experience or something that happened in later life?  Where did it come from and why is it persisting?  What does it say about your sense of self-worth – is your sense of who you are dependent on what someone else thinks or says?  [Tennis competence was a way to prove my worth – it generated respect and admiration.  It made me feel good about myself. My identity is tied up with the self-perception that I am a very good tennis player.]
  • What strategies could you adopt to reduce the impact of your “absolute”: The starting point is to acknowledge your absolute and how it is playing out in your life and relationships.  What could you do to reduce or avoid your negative, conditioned response?  Are there ways to build in a gap between the stimulus (the catalyst) and your response to give you the time and freedom to respond differently? Are there other offsetting, positive thoughts that you could entertain instead of your “absolute”?  [For my issue with tennis mistakes, one strategy has been to progressively loosen the relationship between my sense of self-worth and the outcome of the game – that is, not measuring my sense of self- worth on whether I won or not.  This still leaves the issue of being upset with my tennis mistakes.  A strategy I am trying here is to express gratitude that I am able to play, that I can run and hit the ball, that I can hit some really good shots – that is, appreciating what I have and not focusing on the negatives and lack of accomplishment.]

Reflection

Even relatively minor “absolutes” are very hard to dislodge.  Using a reflection like the one described above can help to chip away at an absolute and reduce its hold on us by eroding our sense of certainty about the underlying belief, by seeing it for what it really is (e.g. illogical, unfounded or unnecessary) and developing alternative ways of thinking and feeling.  As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness, we can develop deeper personal insight, identify how absolutes play out in our life and develop more creative and positive ways to respond to negatively experienced stimuli that will inevitably recur in our daily lives.

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Image by John Hain 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.

Healing the Wounds of Trauma

Corey De Vos of Integral Life and Ryan Oelke discussed the need to address the effects of trauma at sometime in our life.  Their discussion, Inhabit Your Wound, was wide-ranging and covered the impacts of trauma, barriers to addressing the wounds and processes for uncovering the wisdom that lies beneath the pain of trauma.  They suggest that each of us has our own “unique constellation of trauma” but if the wounds are addressed with a gentle curiosity, social support, professional help and self-compassion, they can release new insights and energy to enable us to more fully realise our purpose in life.

Trauma tends to impact many facets of our life, often below the level of consciousness.  It might be reflected in irrational fears, reluctance to appear in public, constant anxiety and depression, inability to develop and/or maintain intimate relationships, eating disorders or addiction, indecisiveness, inability to hold down a job or an overall sense of lack of meaning and purpose.  Many things can trigger a trauma response, including objects, people, news, conversations and observing a violent incident – because trauma impacts at a “cellular level”. Trauma can leave us directionless, powerless, confused and disoriented.

Barriers to healing the wounds of trauma

Corey and Ryan maintain that the shadow of trauma follows us throughout life, but we typically have defence mechanisms to prevent us from dealing with the pain and healing the wounds.  The memory of a trauma is often submerged below our level of consciousness because we sense that recollection is potentially too painful.  We may even have experienced dissociation to keep the memory away from our inner awareness.  We may have developed an internal narrative that is based on denial – “it really didn’t happen” – and this acts as a barrier to exploration and healing from trauma.

Ryan and Corey also observe that sometimes we could be part of a collective trauma experienced as a result of systemic discrimination or jointly experienced life events.  These life events could take the form of war, mass incarceration, natural disasters or a terrorist incident.  They can lead to “culturally inherited dramas” imprinted on our psyche.  Experience with religion during childhood or later in life can leave its own “baggage” and can be “harder to unpack” and deal with because it can become caught up with other traumatic experiences.  Corey and Ryan suggest that sometimes people want to hold onto their trauma because it makes them feel special and may even elicit a desired, sympathetic response from others (neediness in this area my be symptomatic of the trauma itself).

Processes to heal the wounds of trauma

We may have developed the ability to operate productively and confidently with our work environment but become aware of some disfunction in other arenas of our life.  Alternatively, we may have noticed a habituated and unhelpful response to a specific kind of incident such as personal criticism, open conflict or someone challenging our ideas or perspective.  These experiences can be the catalyst to deal with the “residual effect” of trauma and provide the necessary motivation to change our behaviour.

Corey and Ryan suggest, in line with Jon Kabat-Zinn, that a potential starting point is to “reinhabit our body” – to start noticing our bodily sensations and reactions.  This can lead to curiosity about what has triggered these responses and what prior experiences underly the nature and intensity of our response.  Ryan suggests that we need to work with any resistance we may experience in our body, but we should proceed slowly with a tender and caring curiosity.  A key here is our readiness to open the wounds and our resilience in dealing with the result – timing and support are of the essence.  Somatic meditation has proven to be an effective way to deal with the wounds of trauma and it is often undertaken with professionally trained facilitators.

There are a wide range of therapists to assist anyone who wants to deal with trauma and its effects.  Some employ cognitive approaches (such as Dialectic Behaviour Therapy) requiring voicing our thoughts, feelings and assumptions, others use less cognitive approaches such as art or music as tools for therapy.  A more recent development is the use of equine (horse) therapy which may be more appropriate for someone who loves animals and particularly horses.  Organisations such as Beyond Blue provide links to resource centres and professional therapists and others such as the Black Dog Institute offer support groups.  Keith Witt offers two books, Shadow Light and Shadow Light Workbook, that provide insights into our trauma-induced, unconscious responses and offer practices to illuminate the nature and potentiality of our “shadow self”.

The experience of Clare Bowditch in healing the wounds of trauma

Clare Bowditch – singer, songwriter and actor – captured her healing journey in her “no holds barred”, personal memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl.  Clare indicated that she wrote the story of her early life to encourage others to speak to someone and seek assistance if they are suffering from the effects of trauma, especially if they are experiencing anxiety and/or depression.  She describes in detail her own battle with anxiety and depression brought on by adverse childhood experiences and the trauma of seeing her sister die at the age of seven, after two years of hospitalisation with a rare, incurable illness that progressively eroded her muscles and caused paralysis. 

Clare, like Corey and Ryan, stressed the critical importance of relationships (family and friends) for her successful healing journey.  She encourages people to set out on the painful journey because it is “well worth it”, even if it turns out to be tougher than you first thought.  Clare experienced a nervous breakdown – she had fled to London, unprepared economically and emotionally, after she experienced shame and depression following a relationship breakup.  She experienced severe symptoms of her trauma wounds such as an inability to listen to music, write songs, watch TV, listen to the radio, eat well, sleep adequately or go outside.  She was consumed by all kinds of irrational fears and images of death (grieving her sister’s death).   Her response was to return home to her family and spend up to six months healing herself including meditating and learning about the impact of stress and unhealthy foods on the body’s nervous system.

Clare was able to reframe her nervous breakdown as a “nervous breakthrough” because “it was at this time that I got a really deep sense of what made sense to me, which was music” (p. 326).  She had finally found herself.  She rediscovered her need to be creative, to avoid things that did not make sense to her and to sing and write songs that really spoke her truth – her real, raw feelings.  She stated that the journey required the discipline to control her negative self-talk, the insight to realise that despite her life circumstances she had a choice in how she responded and the courage and resilience to persist despite setbacks.

Consistent with Corey and Ryan, Clare maintains that it is important to celebrate the small steps forward because they collectively make up the journey:

… a career is a thing that’s made up of one tiny step, one small act of courage after the other.  It’s only really when you look back later that it all makes sense. (p.313)

Reflection

Trauma affects many people in multiple, idiosyncratic ways.  The problem is that it works away as our shadow self and unconsciously impacts our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, behaviour and responses to triggers.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and self-observation, we are better able to gain insight into how we have been impacted, to develop the courage to address our trauma-induced wounds and move forward (however slowly) to realise our life purpose. 

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Image by John Hain 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.

Kindness and Meditation

Gloria Kamler recently presented a MARC meditation podcast titled, Body and BreathGloria teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs as a faculty member of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).  She draws on more than 20 years’ experience educating people in mindfulness meditation.

In her podcast, Gloria emphasised the benefits of mindfulness for everyday living.  She stressed the importance of mindfulness in difficult times.  From her perspective, mindfulness is fundamentally training our ability to focus and pay attention while meditation is the gym where we build our “mental biceps” – where we develop the part of our brain that enables us to deal with difficulties other than by the auto-pilot mode of fight, flight or freeze. In Gloria’s view, mindfulness builds our capacity for self-regulation, to make considered decisions, to follow through with our intentions and agreements and to deal more skilfully with the waves of life with their undulating calm and turbulence.   She argues that mindfulness enables us to “fire on all cylinders” when confronted with difficulties, rather than become locked into what she calls, “the cycle of reactivity”.  

Kindness and meditation

Gloria maintains that, in essence, mindfulness is about kindness and caring – for ourselves and others.  Being mindful requires non-judgment of ourselves in the first instance and extending this stance to others – this sometimes requires forgiveness on our part.

Part of self-kindness is noticing what we are experiencing and accepting what is.  It also means being able to appreciate and savour the pleasant things that are happening in our lives, even at the simplest level.

In the guided meditation that Gloria offers as a part of her podcast (at the 15-minute mark), she leads us in a progressive body scan and breath meditation.  She stresses the role of noticing and naming distractions and returning to our focus as a way of building our “mental biceps” and our “awareness muscle”. 

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware of what is happening for us – our thoughts, feelings, interactions, and automatic responses (borne of prior conditioning and/or adverse childhood experiences).  Through development of our “mental biceps” in meditation, we can build our capacity to regulate our emotions, make sound decisions and translate our good intentions into action.  As we develop our personal mindfulness anchors in meditation, we can return to the calmness and equanimity afforded by mindfulness and provide kindness to our self and others.

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Image by John Hain 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.

Mindfulness as Self-Observation

Brian Shiers suggests that underpinning mindfulness is self-observation, the foundation of self-awareness.  This means, in effect, that there is no one right way to meditate – that paying attention to and noticing ourselves, in whatever way, is essentially mindfulness.  While there is a tendency for people new to meditation to judge themselves against a presumed standard, the experience they are having in self-observation is what mindfulness is about, not some prescribed level of awareness.  Mindfulness practices are designed to stimulate this curiosity about oneself in an open, exploratory way.  Tara Brach describes this lifelong journey as “waking up” – a deep shift in inner awareness that leads to equanimity and increased empathy and compassion.

In a recent guided meditation podcast, Brian asked the question, “What is “Myself”? and he encouraged participants to activate their “observational mind” in a relaxed manner.  He maintained that the fundamental question, “What is the “self”? is both an ancient and a recent question (through the pursuit of neuroscience).

Is the “self” my body, my thoughts, my roles I undertake, my affiliations, my emotions or my mind?  Brian sited the work of Dan Siegel, a founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), who believes that the “self” is not only what we are born with, but also the cumulation of billions of impressions that we are exposed to through interactions with others – thus shaping our perceptions and responses.  Dan’s perspective reinforces the uniqueness of our “self”.  Brian suggests, then, that the self is “intertwined in inter- relationships” – the direct and indirect influence of others throughout our lives.

Researchers have yet to establish what the “mind” is, even with the advent of neuroscience.   Brain stated that neuroscientists at Stanford University have estimated that we generate between 65,000 and 90,000 thoughts per day.  We are reminded of the admonition of Jon Kabat-Zinn that “you are not your thoughts”, thoughts that come and go like bubbles in boiling water.  Brain suggests that the “enterprise of mindfulness” is “self-observation”, including bringing to conscious awareness and guidance, the unconscious, spontaneously occurring thoughts that pervade our minds.  So, from Brian’s perspective, mindfulness is the pursuit of self-awareness through observation of the various domains of our existence, including our bodies and our minds.

A process of self-observation

Brian’s guided meditation podcast takes you on a journey of paying attention to your “self” through a process of self-observation of body and mind – noticing your body on the chair, engaging in mindful breathing, noticing your thoughts (but not entertaining them), undertaking a body scan while releasing tension, and participating in a reflection.

The personal reflection involves identifying a positive trait in yourself, e.g. wisdom. loving kindness, gratitude, thoughtfulness or resilience; and exploring how it manifests, its impact on others and how you could further develop this trait. Brian offers some guided questions for the reflection:

  • What is happening when you exhibit this trait? (you can visualise it happening)
  • What impact does it have on others?
  • Who is a role model for you in respect of this trait?
  • Who could help you develop it?
  • How can you further develop this positive trait?

As we grow in mindfulness through self -observation during the process of meditation, we can better understand who we are, how we experience the world, and what we bring to our interactions with others. We can also identify strategies to strengthen our positive traits and increase our motivation to use them to create a better life for ourselves and others.

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Image – Personal reflection during sunrise, Wynnum, 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.

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.

Our Past is in Our Present

Dr. Matthew Brensilver, a teacher at MARC UCLA, focuses on the relationship between mindfulness and mental health.  In his guided meditation on The Present is Made of Our Past, he explores the connection between the present and the past.  When we are present, we are not absorbed by the past or anxiously anticipating the future.  Matthew points out, however, that “in some sense, the present is composed of nothing but the past”.  This is a challenging idea for those of us who have been exposed to the unerring emphasis on being present.

Expressing the past in the present

In this present moment, you are giving expression to everything you experienced in the past – the habits you developed over time, the conditioning you experienced in different aspects of your life and the momentum (in career, life & relationships) that you have achieved.  So, the present is composed of these many elements.  In Matthew’s perspective, the present can be viewed as “making peace with the past” – combining gratitude with loving-kindness.

The past is present through your memories (not only of events or situations but also of the emotions involved at the time).  It is also present in what Matthew describes as “habit energies” – your habituated way of doing things, of relating and responding.  The past is present in your thoughts and feelings that arise from different stimuli – patterned as they are on previous experiences, responses and outcomes for yourself and others.

Your habits can be good for you or harmful.  Mindfulness enables you to appreciate your good habits and the benefits that accrue to you and others when you act out these habits.  Mindfulness also makes you aware of unhealthy habits that condition you to respond in ways that have a deleterious effect on you and others.  You become more aware of the existence of these habits, their origins, the strength of their hold on you and their harmful effects. Over time, your mindfulness practice can release you from the hold of these habits and assist you to transform yourself.  For example, you can develop the ability of reflective listening where before you constantly interrupted others and failed to actively listen to what they had to say.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can better integrate our past with our present, understand the influences shaping our responses, improve our self-regulation and bring an enlightened sense of gratitude to others and loving-kindness to ourselves and our everyday experience.

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Image – Noosa, Queensland, 18 May 2019 (7.45 am)

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.

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.