Developing Kindness through Meditation

Neuroscientists tell us that we become what we focus on because the act of focusing and paying attention creates new or deepened neural pathways in our brain.  So if we are constantly obsessed with criticism – finding fault – then this stance begins to pervade our whole life, and nothing will ever satisfy us.  So too if we develop kindness through meditation, our thoughts and actions become kinder towards ourselves and others.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA, offers a specific guided meditation designed to develop kindness.  This meditation podcast is one of the weekly podcasts offered by Diana or one of her colleagues on a weekly basis through MARC – drawing on personal experience, dedicated research and the wisdom of the global mindfulness community.  The kindness meditation as with most MARC meditations begins with being grounded and then moves to offering kindness to ourselves followed by kindness to others.

Becoming grounded in meditation

There are multiple ways to become grounded – becoming focused, still and fully present.  Often, we can start with deep breathing to enable our body and mind to relax and increase awareness of our bodily sensations.  This enables our focus to move inwards and away from the distractions and intensity of the day – away from the anxiety, negative thoughts and worries associated with meeting deadlines, doing presentations, dealing with conflict or challenging interactions with colleagues or salespeople in stores and supermarkets.

Once we gain some sense of balance and ease with deep breathing, we can move on to undertake a body scan.  This entails progressively noticing the various parts of our body and related bodily sensations, releasing any tension and tightness as we progress.  We can observe the firmness of our feet on the floor, straightness of our back, weight of our thighs on the seat, the pressure on our back from the chair and the tingling and warmth from energy flow in our fingers.  Observation will lead to awareness of tension which we can release as we go – tautness in our shoulders and arms, rigidity in our stomach, stiffness in our neck or tightness in our jaw, forehead or around the eyes.  It is important to focus on tension release and not seek to work out why we are so uptight or tense or, even more importantly, to avoid “beating up” on ourselves or being unkind towards our self because of the “failing” or deficiency” represented by our tension.

Finding our anchor in meditation

The next stage of the meditation is to find an anchor that we can continuously return to in the event of distractions or loss of focus – an anchor to stop us from being carried away by the tide of our thoughts or emotions.  An anchor is a personal choice – what works for one person, may not work for another.  Typically people choose their breath, sounds in the room or some physical contact point.

You can focus in on your breath – bringing your attention to where you most readily experience breathing – in your chest, through your nose or in your abdomen. For instance, you can increase your awareness of the rise and fall of your abdomen with each breath and choose to rest in the space between your in-breath and out-breath.

Another possible anchor is listening to the sounds in your room – listening without interpreting, not trying to identify the nature or source of a sound and avoiding assigning a feeling, positive or negative, to the sound.  You can develop a personal preference for using your “room tone” as your anchor.

Choosing a physical contact point in your body is a useful anchor because it enables you to ground yourself wherever you happen to be – whether at work or home or travelling.  It can help you to turn to awareness rather than your phone whenever you have waiting time.  An example is to focus on the firmness of your feet on the ground, the floor of your room or the floor of your car (when it is not moving!).  My personal preference is to anchor myself by joining my fingers together and feeling the sensations of warmth, energy and strength that course through the points of contact of the fingers.

Whatever you choose as an anchor, the purpose is to be enable you to return your attention to the focus of your meditation and, in the process, build your awareness muscle.  As Diana reminds us, “minds do wander” – we can become “lost in thought”, distracted by what’s happening around us,  planning our day, worrying about an important meeting, thinking of the next meal, analysing a political situation or indulging in any one of numerous ways that we “live in our minds”.

Throughout the process of grounding, it is important to be kind to our self – not berating our self for inattention or loss of focus, not assigning negative labels to our self, such as “weak”, “distractible”, or any other derogatory term.

Kindness meditation

The kindness meditation begins with focusing on someone who is dear to us – our life partner, a family member, a work colleague or a close friend.  Once you have brought the person into focus, the aim is to extend kind intentions to them – you might wish them peace and tranquillity, protection and safety, good health and strength, happiness and equanimity, the ease of wellness or a combination of these desirable states.

You can now envisage yourself receiving similar or different expressions of kind intentions from the same person.  This can be difficult to do – so we need to be patient with this step and allow our self to be unsuccessful at the start (without self-criticism or unkindness towards our self).  We can try to become absorbed in, and fully present to, the positive feeling of being appreciated and loved. Drawing on our memories of past expressions of kindness by the focal person towards us, can help us overcome the barriers to self-kindness.

You can extend your meditation by focusing your loving kindness meditation on others, particularly those people you have difficulty with or are constantly in conflict with.  We can also extend our kindness meditation by forgiving our self and others for hurt that has been caused.

Reflection

Kindness meditation helps us to grow in mindfulness – to become more aware of others, the ways we tend to diminish our self, our bodily sensations and our thoughts and feelings.  It assists us to develop self-regulation – learning to maintain focus and attention, controlling our anger and criticism (of our self and others) and being open to opportunities and possibilities.   Through the focus on kindness, we can become kinder to our self and others (even those we have difficulty with).

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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.

Deep Listening through Music and Meditation

Richard Wolf explores the parallels between playing a musical instrument and meditation in his book, In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness.  I have previously discussed his exploration of the parallels between music and meditation in relation to the role of practice and achieving inner harmony.  Richard maintains that a key parallel is the attainment of deep listening through music and meditation.

Deep listening through music

In Richard’s view, playing a musical instrument develops deep listening – musicians can discern many sonic elements such as tone, rhythm and harmonics.  He identifies 13 major sonic elements that accomplished musicians recognise and explains that these, in turn, have sub-elements.  Deep listening enables the musician to open themselves to the full spectrum of hearing music so that they can not only hear the music but feel it, in its never-ending range of emotional content – from sadness and grief to elation and jubilation.  Richard suggests that through practice and playing a musical instrument, you can “feel the music with your body and soul”.  Music, too, in his view enables the musician to “filter out” distorting elements within the musician themselves – their blind-spots, assumptions, biases and prejudices – so that their listening is not contaminated by their cognitive limitations.  They can move beyond their own narrowness into the breadth and depth of musical expression.

Deep listening through meditation

Sound is often used as one of the anchors for people who meditate to develop mindfulness.  Richard suggests that we can learn to listen to our breath in the same way that a musician listens to music, thus cultivating deep listening.  He argues that our breath is the “sound of your life” and that through the practice of listening to our breath we can begin to discern the different sonic components of our breath.  He offers several approaches to develop deep listening including the following:

  • Tuning into the sound of your breathing – accentuate the sound of your inhalation and exhalation and tune into these sounds and learn to discern their subtle differences.
  • Resting in the silence between breaths – focus on the silence that occurs after exhalation and before inhalation, resting in the peace and tranquillity that lies within.
  • Tuning into your environment – tune into the sounds in your environment, e.g. the “room tone” as well as the external environment and all the sounds from sources such as traffic, machinery, birds and other animals.  This exercise makes you realise how little you consciously listen to what is going on around you.

Richard also suggests that you can develop “dual awareness” by not only focusing on the sounds of your breath but simultaneously noticing the movement of your body – the rise and fall of your abdomen and chest or the flow of air through your nostrils.  This attunement of breath and body develops “multidimensional awareness” and facilitates the transition from goal-oriented awareness f

Deep listening through music and meditation

Richard explains that both music and meditation require sustained concentration and the capacity to “quiet the inner voice”.   In this way, music and meditation assists us to develop mindfulness and to access the benefits of mindfulness such as those identified by MAPPG in the Mindful Nation UK Report. He particularly emphasised that music and meditation take us beyond self-absorption to empathy and compassion. 

Reflection

Music and meditation help us to grow in mindfulness, develop concentration and facilitate deep listening.  We can become increasingly aware of the different sounds in our external environment and learn to discern the sonic elements in our own breathing.  Deep listening cultivates multidimensional awareness and a richer life experience though conscious tuning into sounds and achieving attunement between our breath and our body.  The quality of our listening can enhance our relationships, make workplaces more productive and lead to the wide-ranging benefits that mindfulness delivers.

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Image by skeeze 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.

Tuning Into Sound

Diana Winston provided a meditation podcast on the topic, Listening to Sound, as part of the weekly offering by MARC (Mindful Awareness Research Center, UCLA).  Diana’s main theme was that there are times when sound “intrudes” into our meditation practice and we have a choice in how we respond.  We can become agitated and irritated or we can use the sound as the focus of our meditation.  She suggested that in taking the latter path, we are building our capacity to deal with the sounds and other unpleasant experiences that ‘intrude” in our daily life.

I can relate to this situation as I was recently meditating when workmen began hammering and sawing in the house next to mine.  I found I was really annoyed and resented this intrusion into my quiet time and solitude.  It had taken some discipline that morning to undertake my meditation in the first place.  My reaction at the time was to abandon my meditation – my level of annoyance impeded my capacity to focus.  Often our negative response in these situations is exacerbated by the expectations that we bring to our meditation, such as the expectation of absolute quiet.

Diana makes the point, though, that mindfulness “is not about seclusion” – it is about being with what is in the moment, whatever we are faced with.  The sound intrusion could be traffic noise, house renovations or heavy earth moving equipment.   As Diana observes, there is an alternative response other than our habituated flight or fight response.  We can focus on the sound and make that the object of our meditation.  She offered a hearing meditation in her podcast to build this capacity to deal with intrusive sounds and other “intrusions” in our life – experiences that clash with our expectations.

A hearing meditation – tuning into sound

The hearing meditation begins with the normal practice of becoming grounded and focused.   Diana then takes you through several steps that progressively build your awareness muscle:

  1. Focus your attention on the sounds in the room, the room tone, and include external sounds that may be penetrating your room space.  Here it is important to avoid pursuing what Diana calls “your story” about the sound – your interpretation of the nature of the sound, your emotional labelling of the sound as good or bad or your recollection of similar sounds in your prior experience.  The challenge is to just focus on the sound itself – tuning into it and the sensation of hearing it.
  2. Turn your focus now to some significant sensation in your body – it could be the groundedness of your feet on the floor or the energy and warmth flowing through your fingers or your feet.
  3. Your focus now switches to your breathing – to a part of the body where you can experience the act of breathing such as your abdomen, chest or nostrils.  Notice the “in” and “out” breath and the effect on your body with the rising or falling of your abdomen/chest or the flow of air through your nostrils.
  4. Finally, choose an anchor – the sound, the bodily sensation or the breath – to sustain the meditation over the remainder of your meditation session.  If you find the sound disturbing, take a few deep breaths and let out the sense of irritation – just let it be and return to your focus on your anchor.  Intruding thoughts and feelings are “part and parcel” of meditative practice, even for experienced meditators.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices and hearing meditation, we can progressively build our capacity to deal with the intrusions in our daily life that challenge our expectations.  The hearing meditation itself strengthens our awareness muscle and builds our resilience in the face of setbacks. 

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Image by skeeze 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.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Providing A Choice of Anchors

David Treleaven recently published a book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness. The book enables mindfulness trainers to recognise a trauma-affected individual, provide appropriate modifications to their mindfulness processes and avoid aggravating the individual’s trauma experience.

David argues that two factors are foundational to trauma-sensitive mindfulness, (1) choice and (2) anchors.  He observes that people who are trauma-affected have experienced an unwanted negative event that endangered them, a total loss of control over the situation and a lack of agency (capacity to influence the outcomes).  Providing choice, especially in relation to anchors, is critical for the welfare of the trauma-affected individual – it avoids reactivating the sense of helplessness associated with the traumatic event and reduces the likelihood of triggering a painful “body memory”.

Providing a choice of anchors – internal sensations

An anchor enables an individual to become grounded in the present moment despite being buffeted by distractions, negative self-stories or endless thoughts.  The choice of an anchor is a very personal aspect of mindfulness – it relates to an individual’s preferences, physical capacity and emotional state.  An anchor enables a person to experience ease and emotional stability.

Jessica Morey, an experienced teacher of trauma-sensitive meditation, begins a meditation training session by offering participants a choice of three internally-focused anchors – a bodily sensation, attention to sound within their immediate environment (e.g. the “room tone”) or a breath sensation (air moving through the nostrils, abdomen rising and falling or movement of the chest).

Participants are given the opportunity to try out these different anchors over a five-minute period and to make a choice of an anchor for practice over a further period.  Providing this choice of anchors avoids locking individuals into a mindfulness process that can act as a trigger for reexperiencing trauma, e.g. sustained focus on breathing.

Alternative anchors – external sensing

David notes that the five senses offer further choices of anchors – in addition to the internally focused anchors suggested by Jessica.  The senses enable a participant in meditation training to focus on some aspect of their external environment:

  • Hearing – tuning in to the external sounds such as birds singing, the wind blowing or traffic flowing past.  The downside of this approach is that it may trigger our innate tendency to interpret sounds and this may lead to focusing on a particular sound – trying to identify it and its potential source. So, this may serve as a distraction pulling us away from experiencing (the “being” mode) to explaining (the “thinking” mode).  The aim here is to pay attention to the experience of hearing, not to focus on a single sound. Sam Himelstein has found that listening to music can be a very effective anchor for a person who is in a highly traumatised state – choosing music that aligns with the individual’s musical preferences can serve as a powerful anchor.
  • Touch – a trauma-affected person could have an object, e.g. a crystal or a stone, that provides comfort and reassurance and enables them to become grounded in the present moment through the sensation of touch.
  • Seeing – taking in the natural surroundings, e.g. by observing closely the foliage of a tree – its colours, shape and texture or observing the patterns in the clouds.

Other options include sensations of smell or taste.  However, in my view, these tend to be less neutral in character and can re-traumatise a trauma-affected person.

David Treleaven offers a wide range of resources to help meditation trainers build their awareness, skills and options in the area of trauma-sensitive mindfulness (TSM).  These include an online training course, interview podcasts, a TSM Starter Kit (incorporating an introductory video and a comprehensive “TSM Solutions Checklist”) and a live meetup of the TSM Community (registered members of a community of TSM-aware practitioners).

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, research and reflection, we can become more flexible about how we offer mindfulness training.  A trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness requires an awareness of the manifestations of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), identification of different sources of anchors and the willingness and capacity to offer participants the choice of an anchor and an approach to mindfulness.  This means that we need to move beyond our own fixation with “meditation logistics” and be flexible enough to offer trauma-informed mindfulness practices.

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Image – Trees on the foreshore, 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.

Achieving Inner harmony through Music and Mindfulness

In his book, “In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness”, Richard Wolf likens practising a musical instrument to meditation practice – each builds our capacity for inner harmony.  He maintains that playing music draws our attention to vibration, sound, feelings and silence.  Meditation, too, can take the form of a focus on sounds, tuning into feelings, making space for silence and noticing vibrations within and without.

Inner harmony

Richard argues that when a musician is in the zone, they experience a perfect harmony between their mind, body and feelings – everything is in unison with the beat and rhythm of the music.  The musician loses this sense of harmony if they overthink the music – they need to maintain their focus to remain “in the flow”.   So, too, with meditation, when you can sustain your meditation practice, you can achieve an inner harmony whereby “your whole body is experienced as an organ of awareness”.

Music, too, sometimes involves alternating dissonance with harmony.  Dissonance in music can also lead to what is termed “harmonic resolution”.  Dissonance is an integral part of life – experienced within meditation as “unpleasant thoughts or emotions”.  This dissonance can be acknowledged, named and integrated into your acceptance of “what is” – surfing the waves of life.  Meditation enables us to experience ease amid the turbulence.

A harmonising practice – breathing in tune with room tone

Richard Wolf, an Emmy-Award winning composer and producer, states that every room has its own “room tone” – acknowledged by sound engineers who attempt to integrate room tone into a soundtrack for the purpose of achieving a sense of authenticity when someone hears the music.  He suggests that you can harmonise with room tone by first focusing on the sounds within a room – sounds emitted by computers, air conditioning, digital devices or the vibration resulting from wind on the walls.  Then when you are paying attention to the room tone, you can harmonise your breathing with it.

Reflection

The analogy of music as a bridge to mindfulness can open our awareness to the sounds, vibrations and silence that surround us.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can learn to harmonise our breathing with sounds beyond our bodies, e.g. the room tone. We can achieve inner harmony through sustained musical practice and/or meditation practice. Harmonising our breathing with room tone can deepen our awareness and provide an anchor to experience calm and ease when we are buffeted by demands, challenges, dilemmas and urgent tasks.  Tuning in to ourselves through meditation enables us to become more aware of “the ambient clutter of daily life”.

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Image by Lorri Lang 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.