The Power of Awareness: Mindful Breathing

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, in their online Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training, stress the importance of mindful breathing as a universal practice that is foundational to developing mindfulness.  Jack not only leads participants in a mindful breathing practice, but also explains the rich rewards of this practice.

Why practice mindful breathing?

Mindful breathing is, perhaps, the simplest and most accessible mindfulness practice.  It can be done anywhere, anytime because we are always breathing, whether we are conscious of it or not.  Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that it is lucky that our breathing is not dependant on conscious thought, otherwise we would stop breathing because we are so often unaware of what is going on within and around us.

In a talk to Google staff, he explained to the managers and programmers present that they could easily take a few moments and do mindful breathing at their desk during the day.  Mindful breathing is so powerful because it gives us access to both self-awareness and self-management.

Developing self-awareness through mindful breathing

Jack talks about breathing mindfully as opening a window to ourselves.  If we are having trouble starting the practice – by locating a place in our body where we sense our breath (e.g. in our chest, throat, nose or stomach) – then this tells us something about our lack of awareness.

As a window, mindful breathing allows us to look in on ourselves – to notice the thoughts and their content that pass through our minds, to sense the tightness in various parts of our body and to understand the link between our emotions and our bodily reactions, e.g. fear creating tightness in our chest, nervousness causing us to shake.  We become acutely aware of our emotions and the connection between our mind and emotions and our emotions and our body.

The secret to mindful breathing is to not entertain our thoughts but to let them float by, while noticing what they are telling us about ourselves.  What do we think about most – is our mind always in the past or the future?  Do our thoughts depress us or create anxiety?  Are we always planning, not stopping to experience the moment?

Developing self-management through mindful breathing

Even the way we are breathing is rich with information about ourselves – is our breathing getting faster (anxiety coming on) or slower (learning to relax).  Are we becoming conscious of the space between our in-breath and our out-breath?  With our growth in self-awareness comes the opportunity to develop self-management.

Conscious breathing is used worldwide for self-management in a range of contexts – midwives encourage birthing mothers to breathe slowly and deeply; remedial massage therapists encourage you to breathe through the pain; and people who teach singing, like Chris James, begin with explaining to people how to breathe properly to release the tension in our bodies and vocal cords.

We know intuitively that if we slow down our breathing, we can become more relaxed and less anxious.   Some self-management practices, such as the SBNRR process previously explained in relation to managing negative triggers, begin with stopping and breathing consciously but slowly.

Mindful breathing practice itself does not require us to control our breath, but to notice it by focusing on where we can sense it in our bodies.  Increasingly, we become aware of the stillness and spaciousness in mindful breathing.  However, it does take practice to realise the full benefits of mindful breathing.

Jack suggests that, as a starting point, we practice breathing mindfully twice a day for five minutes each time.  He suggests that if we do this at a regular place and time, the habit will be sustained.  The secret to success in developing awareness is to start small, but start now.

Breathing mindfully helps us to slow the pace of our life, to access our creativity and to develop calm and clarity.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we open the window to self-awareness and enhance our capacity for self-management.

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Further Reflections on an Action Learning Intervention

This post represents a further reflection on the action learning intervention undertaken by Dr. Rod Waddington in South Africa.  It follows on from my previous reflections on the values differences between narcissism and action learning.

In another earlier post, I highlighted the need to support mindfulness training with organisational interventions designed to address things like over-work, lack of agency, managerial style and toxicity.  This was the perspective of the union body in the UK and the Mindful UK Report.   Now I turn to ways that mindfulness could strengthen an action learning intervention that did address these identified issues.

In the current reflection, I want to highlight the role that mindfulness could play in enhancing the outcomes of the action learning intervention by focusing on self-awareness and resilience.

Mindfulness strengthening self-awareness

One of the outcomes that Rod’s intervention in an education setting in South Africa had in common with Dr. Diana Austin’s intervention in a health setting in New Zealand, is the personal disclosure by participants of what they were experiencing and feeling and what contributed to their pain and suffering.  In the case of the college, the disclosure related to the style of management and the toxicity of the workplace; in the health setting, midwives identified the lack of support that they received following a critical incident.

In both cases, participants had suffered in silence and not shared with others what was happening for them – they were engaged in a “conspiracy of silence”.  The collaborative environment provided by action learning enabled them to feel safe and to be open about what they really thought and felt.

If mindfulness training had preceded these interventions, participants could be more aware of themselves and more willing to share at a deeper level. Mindfulness brings with it self-awareness and increased insight into factors impacting thoughts, feelings and reactions.  Participants would also be better placed to support each other through the disclosure experience.

Mindfulness strengthening resilience

If participants in an action learning program had been exposed to mindfulness over a reasonable period and had undertaken regular practice, they would have brought a higher level of resilience to the action learning intervention.  This, in turn, would contribute to the ability to sustain the outcomes of the intervention as participants would be better able to manage setbacks and difficulties.

The potential contribution of mindfulness for an action learning intervention

As potential participants in an action learning intervention grow in mindfulness through meditation training, they bring to the intervention a greater capacity to contribute openness and honesty, make the most of the opportunities for increased agency and contribute to the sustainability of the intervention through their enhanced resilience.

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Overcoming a Toxic Work Environment through Action Learning

Dr. Rod Waddington, PhD, recently published an article about his doctoral research which incorporated action learning as a central intervention.  His article, Improving the work climate in a TVET [Technical & Vocational Education} college through changing conversations, tracks his intervention as Human Resource Development (HRD) Manager in a college in South Africa that had five campuses.

Organisational toxicity and its impacts

The college was characterised by a toxic workplace that resulted in both physical and psychological problems for employees, both managers and staff.  Rod discussed the toxicity of the organisation in terms of the “toxic triangle” described in the article by Padilla, Hogan & Kaiser, The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments.

Rod was then able to address the three elements that contributed to toxicity in the college – toxic leaders, toxic followers and a toxic organisational context (systems, processes and procedures that enabled toxicity to develop and grow).  Toxic leaders were identified as narcissistic managers who micromanaged, abused and bullied staff, failed to address poor behaviour (in part, because of favouritism), threw tantrums and undermined engagement, productivity and wellness of managers and staff.

The Action Learning Group

Rod was able to create an action learning group (action learning set) comprising a representative group of nine managers who managed campuses and reported to the Corporate Centre where the HRD manager worked.   His description of this approach to organisational intervention was in terms of engaging people who were directly impacted by, and were contributeding to, the toxic organisational environment:

I had to learn to adopt an inclusive, participative, democratic paradigm to guide a bottom-up approach.  I thus recruited other managers as participants, co-researchers and change agents to constitute an action learning set. (p.9)

The Action Learning Process

Rod chose to use a process of drawing and story telling to capture the experiences and feelings of the managers who formed the action learning group.  He provided a large calico sheet for them to draw on and space around a central drawing of a river which symbolised the flow of events and the connectedness and interdependence of the group members.

In the first instance, the managers in the participating group were invited to identify events that contributed to their experience of trauma and stress.  The invitation to draw and use colours and shapes engaged their right brain and moved them away from their usual mode of thinking – thus providing some sense of safety in exchanging information that was self-disclosing and uncomfortable, leaving them vulnerable.

The story telling or narrative that followed the drawings enabled the managers to articulate what they each had been feeling for a long time but that they had denied, submerged and kept hidden from others.  The process gave them permission to be honest in their communication with each other because it helped them to realise that they were not alone in their experience of personal hurt and dissatisfaction.

The participating managers identified different feelings – a strong sense of abandonment through lack of support, devalued because they were not listened to, dehumanised because they were verbally abused and hopelessness because there was no positivity or direction provided.

In a second round of drawings, the managers were asked to develop a picture of a changed workplace which incorporated the values that had been denied through the toxicity of the work environment.  This second drawing enabled the managers to tap into a sense of empowerment and hope that they could create an environment conductive to improved personal physical and mental health and to the development of an organisation characterised by wellness and mutual respect.

Outcomes of the Action Learning Process

Participants started to admit their own feelings as well as the part they themselves played in perpetuating the toxic environment.  This growth in self-awareness enabled them to move from helplessness and self-blame to take up the “agency and responsibility” offered to them through the action learning process.  In this way, they developed skills in self-management.  Hence, the intervention overall enabled the development of managerial agency for the participant managers.

The focus of conversation amongst the managers moved from negative thoughts and stories to discussion focused on hope and aspiration.  A key outcome was the development of a sense of responsibility, not only for their own area of responsibility but also for the organisation as a whole.   This was reflected in the managers’ agreement to initiate a “values campaign” in their areas of responsibility based on five core values –  inclusiveness, participation, trust, empowerment and consultation.  They developed an agreed format for posters to be used as part of this “values advocacy”.

Through the processes of drawing, sharing and reflecting, participants built trust in each other, changed their mind-sets, developed better coping skills and increased resilience as proactive change managers.

The action learning process and the development of mindfulness

The action learning process enabled the participant managers to grow in mindfulness – becoming increasingly aware of themselves and the impact of their thoughts, feelings and behaviour on their organisational environment.  Along with this increased self-awareness, they developed enhanced self-management skills, taking up responsibility for shaping their work environment and becoming more assertive in communicating and pursuing their own needs and those of their staff.

The participant managers were able to develop awareness through a clear focus on improving a toxic work environment and doing so in a non-judgmental way, moving from self-blame and blaming others to acting to improve the situation for all who were experiencing the pain and suffering resulting from organisational toxicity.  So, they were motivated not only to remove their own pain and suffering but also that of others affected by the work environment. This then reflects compassion , a key feature of emotional intelligence and mindful leadership.

[Note: Dr. Rod Waddington published the abovementioned article with co-author, Leslie Wood, Research Professor, Faculty of Education Sciences, North-West University, South Africa.]

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Mindfulness, Action Learning and Reflection

In a previous post, I discussed how action learning and mindfulness can be mutually reinforcing in terms of building self-awareness.  With action learning, the catalyst for self-awareness and redefinition of self and role are the external challenges that confront the limitations of your own sense of self.  For mindfulness, the pursuit of awareness leads to the exploration of your own thoughts and emotions in everyday life and particularly in relationships and interactions.

Reflection in action learning moves from the outside to the inside, while reflection in mindfulness moves from the inside to the outside.  Hence, action learning and mindfulness are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

In this post, I want to explore how action learning and mindfulness are mutually reinforcing in relation to development of the art of reflection.

Reflection

Reflection is a process of exploring our understandings and feelings we have identified as part of a review of our actions and their outcomes, intended and unintended, or a process of exploring both our understandings and feelings that we are experiencing during the course of some action or inaction.

Donald Schön (1983), author of The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, argues that reflection defines the professional and he differentiates between reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action, the former occurring after we have taken some action, the latter involving reflection in the course of taking action.

Reflection-on-action

Reflection-on-action is often referred to as “reflective practice” which can be defined in the following way:

Reflective practice occurs when you explore an experience you have had to identify what happened, and what your role in the experience was – including your behaviour and thinking, and related emotions.

We reflect on our experiences to understand what we and others have contributed to a situation and its outcomes, so that we can improve our contribution and the outcomes in future situations.

Mindfulness prepares us for the reflective practice involved in action learning.  If we are mindful, we are more aware of our environment, our thoughts, emotions and actions.  Hence, we are more present to the situation and better able to notice and recall what transpired when we planned and took action.  This leads to a clearer perception of our role in the planning and action.  We also have a clearer understanding of what happened, consequences intended and unintended, and why those occurred.

Mindfulness also builds self-management so that we are better able to reflect on what transpired because our reflections are not clouded by unresolved feelings or distorted recall that is influenced by “confirmatory bias” – in other words, we can avoid “reading into’ an experience an assumption that we confirm by selectively revisiting what happened.  Without effective self-management, we can delude ourselves that our reflections on our experiences are accurate when, in fact, they are clouded by our biased perceptions and assumptions (some of which we have developed to protect our self-esteem).

Mindfulness, then helps us to better reflect on action because we are more present when we undertake the action.  We are more tuned to our senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell – more perceptive as a result.  Our recollection of what happened, both in terms of ourselves and others, is more accurate because we are more aware when the action is taking place and less biased when reflecting on what took place.

Reflection-in-action

Donald Schön (1983) describes reflection-in-action as a process whereby we stop ourselves in the course of taking action and change our approach to improve our outcomes:

The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation. (p.68)

Mindfulness also makes us better able to reflect-in-action because we are more aware of ourselves and our environment.  It can help us to stop and reflect in the course of planning or taking action based on our plans (or actions taken spontaneously or reactively).

Our improved self-management achieved through mindfulness helps us to retain our balance while taking action and gives us the capacity to effectively manage negative triggers.

Mindfulness, Action Learning and Reflection

Mindfulness enriches both reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action, while action learning acts as a catalyst to mindful reflection on our actions and their consequences.  We need to be mindful to be able to reflect-in-action – being present with full awareness.  So mindfulness and action learning enrich each other.  The more we practice reflection on our actions, the more we are able to spontaneously reflect-in-action.

Action learning typically involves working, and reflecting, in a group so that we can be open to “supportive challenge” by others in the group, resulting in challenge to our assumptions and perspectives.  Adelle Bish and Bob Dick, in their conference paper, Reflection for everyone, highlight the fact that reflection in an action learning context can be “seen as having two dimensions, one individual and intrapersonal and the other interpersonal and interactive” (p.11).  These different dimensions are considered to “reinforce and build on each other” (p.12)  Mindfulness enhances the individual/ intrapersonal dimension by virtue of the distinct personal benefits that accrue through mindfulness practice, and also enhances interpersonal relationships.

As we grow in mindfulness, our awareness of ourselves, our interactions and our environment grow and enable us to engage more effectively in action learning – we become more perceptive, more present, more creative and bring calmness and clarity to the situation.  Mindfulness and action learning, acting in concert, are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

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

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Action Learning and Mindfulness: Admitting What We Do Not Know

In the previous post, I  explained how action learning and mindfulness shared the goal of building self-awareness – drawing on the work of Professor Reg Revans and Emeritus Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn.

On the surface, mindfulness and action learning would appear antithetical – mindfulness involves being still, present in the moment and internally focused; action learning involves taking action to create future improvements in an external situation.   The more you explore the nature of mindfulness and action learning, the more you realise how much they have in common and how they are complementary, interdependent and mutually beneficial for workplace mental health.

Both action learning and mindfulness develop trust in the workplace, enable agency, build personal capacity, value honesty, engender confidence and build resilience.  A key aspect that they have in common is encouraging us to admit what we do not know – an admission that is the foundation for acquiring new knowledge.

Action learning and admitting what we do not know

Reg Revans , the father of action learning, in an interview in Brisbane in 1990, spoke about the need to develop “questioning insight” to be able to deal with the complexity of reality.  He maintained that we cannot rely on what we know, nor the knowledge of experts, but we need to admit what we do not know and ask fresh questions.  Of course, this stance attracted the ire of university professors because it questioned their position of being the fountains of knowledge.

Reg recalled his days working as a physicist in the famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University, before he became a Professor of Management.  At the time, they had 10 Nobel Prize winners at Cavendish.  Reg stated that these great intellectuals had a weekly seminar that you could participate in only on the condition that you were willing to share what you did not know.  Lord Rutherford, for example, would turn up and state how impressed he was with his own ignorance.

Reg suggested that admitting what you do not know, rather than trying to convince others of how much you do know, is the beginning of learning and the road to wisdom.  He argued that “expert knowledge is necessary but insufficient” and does not equip us with how to deal with new conditions that are complex, uncertain and/or ambiguous.

Reg also pointed out that action learning puts the first emphasis on “what you do not know” and then explores how to address this ignorance.  He maintained very strongly that:

If I run away with the idea that I understand everything there is because I am expertly qualified, I’m not only going to get into trouble, but people around me too.

Action learning, then, is about framing the right questions to explore arenas of new knowledge and understanding, when confronted with conditions of uncertainty.  It is about exploring ignorance, not boasting about how much we know.

Mindfulness and admitting what we do not know

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in an interview with Krista Tippett, explained that much of our learning at school is about “thinking” and ways to understand things with our minds.  Education at school often does not equip us to tap into our creative capacities because creativity requires stillness and silence, not the ferment of mental exertion- argument and counter-argument.

Jon stated that we need to balance out thinking with other capacities such as imagination and that creativity comes out of heightened awareness – preceded by not knowing or understanding.  He argued that thinking can get in the road of creativity:

So rather than just sort of keeping tabs of what we know, it’s really helpful to be aware of how much we don’t know. And when we know what we don’t know, well, then that’s the cutting edge of which all science unfolds.

Jon considered that scientists (like Reg Revans and his scientific colleagues) make great meditators because “they’re comfortable with that idea of wanting to know what they don’t know”.   He maintains that the history of science is a story of remarkable insights, ‘Eureka moments‘.

Jon stated that it is not as if these moments of insight arise by banging your head against a wall to force the insight.  It is when “you have gone as far as thought can take you” and you “rest in awareness” that the insight comes to you – it may even be that you have fallen asleep and then you wake up with the insight or solution.

When I was writing up my doctorate, I took a holiday break with my wife and children and we visited Brown Lake on Stradbroke Island one day.  I was not thinking about my doctoral study but as I watched my children playing in the water and took in the beauty of the surroundings, a theoretical model came to me that summarised the contribution of my thesis – I was able to develop this later and incorporate it in my thesis.

There were many times when I wrote a thesis chapter that I had difficulty summarising the chapter in a conclusion.  I would invariably “sleep on it” and the conclusion would be fully formed in my head the next morning.   It seems that as you stop trying to work out something from what you know already at a conscious level, your sub-conscious mind is freed to make new connections and generate insights from connecting thoughts that you have not seen as connected before.  It also seems that you have to provide the sub-conscious with some focus – what Revans describe as a “fresh question” or what Kabat-Zinn discusses as seemingly insolvable problems.

As we grow in mindfulness and action learning and acknowledge what we do not know, we become more open to the creative power that lies within us and to powerful new insights.

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

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Mindfulness and Action Learning: Building Self-Awareness

So far in this blog, I have explored how agency contributes to mental health and how both action learning and mindfulness build agency –  managerial agency and employee agency.

In this post, I want to explore one of the elements that action learning and mindfulness have in common – self-awareness.  To the extent that action learning and mindfulness are working towards a common goal, they can reinforce each other and, working in concert, help to transcend the barriers that impede the development of agency and mental health in the workplace.

Mindfulness and Action Learning: Building Self-Awareness

In 2013, I explored how action learning builds mindfulness in the workplace.  I focused very much on the respective contribution of action learning and mindfulness to the development of self-awareness.   In that blog post for our consultancy company, Merit Solutions, I concluded that action learning builds self-awareness through the norm of “supportive challenge” by peers, along with the challenge of “doing something significant about something imperative” which forces us to redefine our roles, our values and how we perceive ourselves.

I contended there that both action learning and mindfulness have a common goal of building self-awareness – freedom from false assumptions, from entrenched negative thoughts and stories and from narrow perspectives on what people are capable of achieving.  This self-awareness, in turn, builds agency and mental health.

In discussing what is definitive about action learning, Reg Revans, in his book, The Origins and Growth of Action Learning, explained that action learning, involving real commitment to action in the here-and-now, causes the participants to “become aware of their own values” and entails a “voyage of self-discovery” which enables them to “fix attention upon this inner and personal self”.  In the process of taking action after disclosing their own motives for change “to close and critical colleagues”, they are “obliged to explore that inner self otherwise taken for granted and never questioned”.  Critical but supportive colleagues help the action learner to assess their own ideas and outcomes in an often-hostile organisation environment and this, in turn, will “purge them of any lingering self-deception”.  Thus, action learning involves “development of the self by the mutual support of equals” who are also engaged in the “struggle to understand themselves”. (pp. 630-633).

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a global leader in the mindfulness movement, in an interview with Krista Tibbett, stated that mindfulness meditation results in a new level of self-awareness:

…you change your relationship to who you think you are as a person and in particular to the story of who you are or think you are.

As we grow in mindfulness and engage in action learning we realise that we are on a journey of self-discovery where the limitations of our thoughts and actions are exposed and we are forced to confront ourselves and the level of alignment between our words and actions.

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

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Mindfulness: Enabling Sustainable Agency in the Workplace

In a previous post on agency and mental health, I stressed the need to create healthy workplace environments where employees had a sense of control over their workplace environment and the authority and responsibility to decide how the work is done.

Mindfulness enables worker agency by impacting positively on both the manager and the employee and thus enabling the development of employee agency – which is conducive to mental health.

Mindfulness and the Manager: Enabling Agency

Managers need to cope with their own thoughts and emotions when providing agency (some control and power) to employees.  There is a natural fear of loss of control which can impede the delegation of authority and responsibility to employees.  There is also the ongoing concern when things do not turn out as hoped for or mistakes are made.  Managers need the self-awareness and self-management skills developed through mindfulness, if they are to remain calm and to resist the temptation to curtail employee agency to prevent any reoccurrence.

The more positive and healthy perspective is to encourage honesty when mistakes are made, to undertake a systemic analysis of what went wrong (rather than an inquisition of the individual involved) and enable all concerned to learn from what happened.  This requires robust self-esteem on the part of the manager and a willingness to trust employees – a trust that helps to develop a constructive, mentally healthy environment.  This does not preclude the manager from ensuring that adequate training is provided to employees to undertake the tasks assigned to them.

The manager’s calmness, self-control and empathy in an apparent crisis (developed through mindfulness practices), will inspire employees and build their trust, confidence and risk-taking as they move outside their comfort zone and take up the opportunities presented by increased agency – increased authority and responsibility over their work environment and how work is done.

Mindfulness and the Employee: Building Capacity for Agency

Mindfulness builds the capacity of employees to contribute effectively in an organisation by taking up the authority, responsibility and opportunity provided by increased agency.

Like the manager, employees need to develop self-awareness (understanding their own thoughts and emotions) and self-management (keeping their thoughts and emotions under control).  It is natural for employees to feel fearful as they move outside their comfort zone (typically based on dependence) to exercise more independence and judgment.

Some employees are reluctant to agree outcomes and outputs in advance, even while having control over how they are achieved, because this freedom of choice and agency brings with it a new level of responsibility.  Self-awareness and self-management developed through mindfulness, and support of an empathetic manager, can help employees to take on the responsibility associated with increased agency.

Mindfulness, too, enables employees to develop clarity in relation to their role and responsibilities while enabling them to develop creative solutions.  It also helps them to build resilience, not in the sense of endurance of unreasonable demands, but in the sense of being able to bounce back from difficulties and setbacks when pursuing specific goals and outcomes in the workplace.

Relationships in the workplace are enhanced as employees develop social skills through mindfulness training and become better able to contribute to the team effort and collaborative endeavours.

Mindfulness: Enabling Managers and Employees to Build Sustainable Agency 

Mindfulness, then, enables managers to offer increased agency to employees and, in turn, assists employees to take up the opportunities and responsibility that come with increased agency.  These mutually reinforcing outcomes of mindfulness training, not only enhance productivity in the workplace but also employee wellness.

As Tali Sharot points out in her research-based book, The Influential Mind:

Just giving people a little responsibility, and reminding them that they had a choice, enhanced their well-being (p.98).

As managers grow in mindfulness, they are better equipped to provide the psychological and productivity benefits of giving increased agency to employees; on the other hand, employees trained in mindfulness are more able to take up the responsibilities and opportunities entailed in increased agency and to enjoy the satisfaction and well-being that results.

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

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Mindfulness Lessons from Reported Near-Death Experiences

In the previous post, I introduced meditating on death, discussed its benefits and shared some examples of this meditation approach.  Here, I want to discuss the lessons we can learn about mindfulness from people who have reported a near-death experience (NDE).

The ground-breaking research in this area was conducted by Dr. Raymond A Moody who first published his book in 1975, Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon – Survival of Bodily Death.  This research in the USA led to people all over the world reporting near-death experiences and opened up a whole new arena of research which continues today.  A research foundation has been established by Jody and Jeffrey Long to collect individual NDE stories from around the world and share research about NDE experiences.

Some scientists challenged the NDE stories and their associated conclusion of an afterlife – they considered it to be some form of aberration of the brain.  However, neuroscientist, Dr. Eben Alexander – originally one of the strongest opponents of the meaning of the NDE experience – had a near death experience himself when he suffered a seven day coma and his pre-frontal cortex shut down.  His documented experience and conclusions have challenged the scientific community.   His recent book records his initial doubts, his own NDE experience, his new understanding of consciousness and his life transformation, Living in a Mindful Universe: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Heart of Consciousness.

Mindfulness lessons from reported near-death experiences

One researcher decided to conduct research of NDEs in Australia as the focus of her doctoral research.  Dr. Cherie Sutherland PhD, interviewed 400 Australians who had a near death experience and published her results in a book, Transformed by the Light: Life After Near-Death Experiences.

Cherie defines a NDE experience as follows:

The near-death experience (NDE) is said to occur when a person is close to death (or in many cases actually clinically dead), and yet is resuscitated or somehow survives to recount an intense, meaningful experience.  (p.3)

Cherie found that most of the reported NDE experiences have some things in common – a compassionate life review, out-of-body experience, feelings of peace and well-being and a sense of timeliness.  This mirrors the NDE research results from elsewhere in the world.

The findings that were most common relate to the after-effects of an NDE experience, and these have particular relevance for mindfulness practice.  People who encounter a near-death experience typically have initial problems with “re-entry” into everyday life.  However, over time, they begin to reassess their values, the meaning of their lives and their priorities. They tend to transform themselves, and their life changes accord with mindfulness practice and the attendant growth in awareness.  People who encounter a near-death experience typically report:

  • profound self-awareness, equivalent to a series of in-depth psychoanalysis sessions with a therapist
  • increased sense of control over their lives and self-management
  • very strong desire to use their latent talents and abilities for the benefit of others
  • growth in self-concept, self-confidence and self-efficacy (belief in their capacity to achieve things)
  • increased patience and tolerance (not controlled by assumptions)
  • heightened appreciation and respect for nature
  • greater appreciation of others and “love for humanity”
  • greater understanding and insight
  • growth in compassion and a strong desire to work with those who are disadvantaged and “the grieving, the elderly and dying” – many made career changes including working in hospices for the dying
  • profound desire to learn – to gain self-knowledge, to develop their talents and to be a greater source of help to others
  • different attitudes to death and a loss of fear of death.

As we grow in mindfulness, we move closer to the life transformation displayed by people who have encountered a near-death experience and we begin to realise the benefits that come with sustaining mindfulness practice.

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Mindfulness and Yoga for Addiction Release

In a discussion of the interaction between mind, body and spirit, Surbhi Khanna & Jeffrey Greeson acknowledge the complementarity of yoga and meditation – both require paying attention to experiences and related emotions as they happen.

They suggest that the “loss-addiction cycle” arises from a number of sources:

Addictions are born as a result of ‘mindless’ states involving escapist attitudes, automatic thinking, emotional reactivity and social isolation.

Breaking the addiction cycle – using yoga and meditation together

The addicted person turns to a form of gratification to fill the void left by sadness and loss.  The void maybe filled by an addiction to smoking, drinking alcohol or using any other substance or activity in a repeated, mindless way.  The problem, of course, is that the addiction, whatever form it takes, fails to overcome the sense of loss, isolation or disconnection.  The addicted person then increases the use of the substance or activity and seeks to intensify the momentary pleasure they experience.  These further cement the “loss-addiction cycle”.

The authors assert that practices such as yoga and meditation improve attention and concentration and enhance the ability to self-observe and regulate emotions.  They maintain that optimal treatment and prevention of addiction and recovery from it, can be achieved by using yoga and meditation in concert.  They point out that further evidence-based research needs to be undertaken taking into account different kinds of addiction and differences in gender, demography and orientation (physical, mental or spiritual).

Khanna and Greeson, however, contend that the growing empirical research and conceptual development of the underpinnings of meditation and yoga, support the view that the combination of these two modalities can break the cycle of stress, negative thoughts and emotions and the resultant addictive behaviour.

Yoga and meditation are complementary and mutually reinforcing.  As you use these modalities together they can help you grow in mindfulness and reduce or avoid the mindless pursuit of addictions.  When used in concert, yoga and meditation can improve self-awareness and self-management.

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

Image source: courtesy of SofieZborilova on Pixabay

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

Mindfulness and Meditation for Elite Athletes

Patrick Chan used mindfulness to excel at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.  His first round performance for the team figure skating event was badly hampered by nerves and he did not score well.  However by talking to himself, confronting the expectations of his team and his own debilitating emotions, he was able to achieve the top score in his next round and help Canada win the Olympic Gold medal for the event.

Jon Kabat-Zinn taught meditation to the 1984 US Olympic rowing team – a team that went on to win 2 gold medals, 5 silver and 1 bronze.   Jon maintains that to get into the “zone” of peak performance on a regular basis you need to meditate to train yourself mentally.

Richmond Football Club – AFL Premiership Winners through Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation training helped Richmond win the 2017 AFL premiership.   The initiative started in 2015 with Dylan Grimes, Richmond defender, who was very frustrated and dissatisfied with his ability to maintain his performance at an elite level.  He read a number of books about mindfulness and how it could enhance performance.  In particular, he was impressed with the idea of achieving “flow” proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

People who experience flow in their endeavours achieve optimal performance, increase their creativity and experience real joy and happiness.   The Richmond Football Club engaged Emma Murray, high performance and mindfulness coach, to help all team members achieve their optimal level.  She was able to help players develop self-awareness, build focus and concentration and to help each other when one of the team was becoming distracted or unfocused.  She successfully established new norms such as individual players openly admitting the impact of their thoughts on their performance, sharing doubts and concerns and, overall, being vulnerable – a counter-cultural position.

Richmond players readily acknowledged the role of Emma’s teaching in mindfulness and meditation in helping them win the premiership.  For example, Dean Martin, winner of the Brownlow Medal, mentioned Emma’s contribution to Richmond’s performance after the game.

Konrad Marshall, author of Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond, also provided a detailed description of Emma’s work with the football players and the effectiveness of her mindfulness and meditation approach.

NBA Athletes

Laura Chang in an article for mindfulnessmuse.com reminds us of the mindfulness practice of top NBA athletes who before the start of a game focus internally to “get into the zone” and build attention and concentration.  She suggests that we can all learn from these elite athletes to increase our own focus and productivity and proposes a mindfulness practice for improved performance.

Mindfulness Exercise for Improved Performance

Laura offers a 5-step mindfulness exercise that is designed to improve attention during physical activities.  The process, explained in detail in her article, is discussed in terms of the acronym, B.A.S.I.C. :

  • Body – body awareness
  • Arousal Level – notice the nature of your arousal
  • Self-Talk – what are you saying to yourself and what impact is it having on your performance?
  • Imagery – what images are you entertaining and do they reinforce excellent performance?
  • Concentration – notice the nature and quality of your concentration and focus and its impact on your performance.

This process is designed to enhance self-awareness and self-management and, in the process, build the capacity to maintain attention and focus at a high level.

As elite athletes grow in mindfulness they are better able to manage their negative thoughts and images, to maintain concentration and focus, to be creative and to achieve optimal performance.

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

Image source: courtesy of xusenru on Pixabay

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