Meditation and Mental Health

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

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

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

Meditation and regulating emotions to achieve mental health

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

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

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

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

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

Image source: courtesy of Wokandapix on Pixabay

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Replacing Shame with Kind Attention

Shauna Shapiro, co-author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness, maintains that mindfulness practice involves more than paying attention.  In 2005, Shauna published an article with her colleagues titled Mechanisms of Mindfulness.  In that article, Shauna and her colleagues shared a model of mindfulness that shows that the effectiveness of mindful meditation depends on more than attention alone – it requires a positive interaction of intention, attention and attitude.

In one of her TEDx Talks, Shauna particularly focused on “attitude” because the attitude you bring to mindfulness practice actually grows stronger.  She maintained that her 20 years of mindfulness research confirmed categorically that mindfulness generates clear benefits for our mind and wellness.  However, these benefits are mediated by the attitude we bring to our mindfulness practice.

Shauna’s research and her own lived experience bore out the fact that everyone has a tendency to feel shame for some of the things that they have done in life and that during mindfulness practice, shame can take over and shut down our capacity to learn and develop.

What Shauna discovered was that the attitude required for effective mindfulness practice was one of “kind attention“.  In her view, it takes a lot of courage to face the parts of our self that we are ashamed of.  However, instead of dwelling on negative self-evaluation, which only grows stronger with attention, we need to be kind to ourselves and express self-love and self-compassion.  She found that the simple act of saying, “Good morning Shauna” each morning with her hand on her heart (as an expression of self-love), can begin the movement towards self-love and the ability to say, “Good morning Shauna, I love you”.

Shauna explained that at first this process feels awkward and trite, but she found from her own experience and mindfulness practice that it gradually replaces self-loathing with self-care.  She explained that what we pay attention to grows stronger.  So if we spend our day consumed by shame, frustration or anger, we are only strengthening these attitudes.  Whereas, if we focus on kind attention and genuine self-compassion, we strengthen those attitudes and thicken the part of the brain that enables learning, growth and transformation – a process called “cortical thickening“.

What is interesting is that not only does our neo-cortex thicken but also its connection to the “fear centre” (the amygdala) of our brain is weakened.  So that through continuously practising kind attention, we are better able to view the world and ourselves positively and act effectively in our environment, whether at work or at home.

Shauna told the story of a veteran who was consumed by shame for what he had done in the war zone but when he shared his story with other veterans, their compassion towards him helped to dissolve his entrenched sense of shame (contributing to his PTSD) and enabled him to experience self-compassion.  So, our compassionate attitude to others can also help them move beyond the disabling effects of shame.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practice imbued with kind attention and self-compassion, we strengthen our ability to concentrate, remain calm and make decisions that enable us to function effectively in our challenging world.

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain 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.

Self-Forgiveness

We have all hurt ourselves and other people during our lives – it’s part of being human.  Unfortunately, we can carry around the associated guilt, negative self-evaluation, and sense of unworthiness that act as a dead weight holding us back and weighing us down.

Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are essential for our mental health and wellbeing and for the development of wisdom.  Sometimes, the accumulated guilt for the hurts we have caused seems too great for us to tackle it.  The sense of guilt and shame becomes buried deeply in our psyche as we avoid confronting the hurt we have created by our words, actions or omissions.  Self-forgiveness is the way forward and the means to release ourselves from the tyranny of guilt.

However, we can often be held back by the misconceptions and unfounded beliefs we hold about forgiveness meditation Jack Kornfield identifies three myths that get in the road of our practising self-forgiveness:

  • Myth 1: Forgiveness is a sign of weakness – in reality, forgiveness requires considerable courage to “confront our demons” and deal with the pain of self-discovery.  The demand for courage is especially pertinent when addiction is involved.
  • Myth 2: Forgiveness means we are condoning the hurtful action – in fact, we often resolve never to do that hurtful action again or to avoid the situation where we are tempted to react inappropriately.  If we fail to address the guilt and shame, we are held captive and are more likely to take that hurtful action again
  • Myth 3: Forgiveness is a quick fix – it can be far from this.  Jack Kornfield recalled a mindfulness teacher that requested that he do a 5-minute forgiveness exercise 300 times over a number of months.  If we undertake forgiveness meditation, we can procrastinate or fall into the trap of the opposite of forgiveness (blame, self-loathing).  Sometimes self-forgiveness will involve a lot of pain, regression, diversion and ongoing effort to avoid falling back into a lack of loving kindness.

Self-forgiveness is something we have to keep working at as we go deeper into our feelings of shame and guilt and their hidden sources.  Jack Kornfield suggests that self-forgiveness releases us from the burden of the past and allows us to open to our heartfelt sense of our own goodness.

As we grow in mindfulness through self-forgiveness meditation, we can gain a sense of freedom to be ourselves, a newfound self-respect and energy for kindness and compassion towards others.  We will become less self-absorbed and weighed down and feel free to open up to others.

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

Image source: courtesy of BenteBoe 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.

Mindful Connection

Sharon Salzberg, in her presentation provided as part of the  Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, focused on the theme, The Art of Mindful Connection.  Sharon is the author of ten books, including Real Love.

Sharon made the point that real love is not a commodity to be exchanged, it is not simply about reciprocation -“I’ll do something for you, if you do something I want in return.”  In her view, love does not mean unwillingness to express your own needs or feelings or coming from a place of neediness.

At times, real love is “tough love”, expressed as a readiness to say “no”, when the context, situation or your needs require that response.  It does not mean just agreeing with the other person for the sake of peace or a false sense of making them happy.

Sharon spoke of love as a capacity – a capacity for real connection which flows out of being mindful.  Real love creates real connection and is developed through mindfulness practice and being mindful in the situation when we encounter people.

The problem is that we all bring our conditioning and assumptions to every interaction – some being more negatively impactful than others.  We each have our own conditioning and assumptions developed as a result of our family environment, our work experience and/or life events.

Our conditioning may mean that we are wary of dissenting, reticent to express our feelings and needs or have difficulty trusting others.  Adverse events in our life may contribute to a tendency to look for, and see, only the negatives we experience, e.g. when reviewing our day, we may only focus on what we did wrong, our lack of achievement and/or our disappointments.

Our assumptions play a major role in how we relate to others.  We can show interest in people (who we assess as interesting), look right past others or consider others to be not worth talking to.

Sharon told the story of a writer friend of hers who, on first sight of a woman who had approached him, assumed that she was not intelligent or not “with it”.  It turned out that the woman was very intelligent and was actually a professional proof-reader for a publisher.

This example resonated strongly with my experience of my own unfounded assumptions which I described in my previous post about removing blockages to learning and performance.

Sharon encourages us to engage in meditation practice and honestly confront ourselves – to look squarely at the impact of our conditioning and assumptions on our relations with others.

She suggests, for instance, that in conversations with ourselves that we ask penetrating questions.   We could ask, for example, “What groups do we think do not count?”, “Which of our assumptions were at play in a recent interaction with someone else that did not work out as we expected?” or “Who have we been avoiding and why?”

Sharon urges us to be honest with ourselves in these conversations and not let negative emotions such as shame or embarrassment get in the road of a genuine exploration of how our conditioning and assumptions play out in our daily interactions.

She suggests that unearthing these impediments creates a new freedom – a liberation from the constraints that prevent us from achieving mindful connection with others.  Mindfulness, in her view, is the gift of liberation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and conversations with ourselves, we can free ourselves from the conditioning and assumptions that hold us back from genuine engagement with others.  By becoming progressively unfettered in the way we relate and being able to give our full attention to the other person, we can create meaningful and mindful connections.

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

Image source: courtesy of sasint on Pixabay

Mindful Self-Compassion

Compassion is an integral element of mindfulness and emotional intelligence.

It involves being concerned for the pain and suffering of others, having the desire to reduce that suffering and taking action, at whatever level, to redress the suffering of others.   Taking action is a key aspect that differentiates compassion from empathy.

Self-compassion, then, is exercising compassion towards ourselves – ultimately, it means doing things to reduce our own self-initiated pain and suffering.

As we mentioned in a previous post, our minds tend automatically towards negative thoughts.  We are critical of ourselves, dwell on failures, feel embarrassed when we make a mistake and carry shame with us to our own detriment and that of others.

Diana Austin, in her doctoral study of midwives in New Zealand, found, for instance, that the sense of shame and self-blame impacted severely the ability of midwives to recover from the trauma of critical incidents.  Her study resulted in an e-book tool designed to promote self care and kindness towards self in the event of a health professional experiencing a critical event.

The Critical Incidents E-Book contains stories, information and practical advice for health professionals and their managers when mistakes happen and things go wrong.  In the final analysis, the e-book is a journey into self-compassion for those experiencing the depths of self-blame, shame and questioning of their own competence and ability to support others professionally.

Kristin Neff, one of the founders of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, identified three components of self-compassion:

  • physical warmth
  • gentle touch
  • soothing vocalization

In her video describing these three components, Kristin suggests a number of self-compassion practices that draw on these components.  For example, she recommends self-hugging and a simple exercise involving placing your hands over your chest while communicating care and tenderness towards yourself.

More detail on these self-compassion exercises can be found in the video below where Kristin Neff describes exactly how to do them:

As you grow in mindfulness you become more aware of self-criticism and the ways in which you blame yourself, and you gain the presence of mind to counter these self-initiated attacks on your self-esteem and sense of self-worth.  Mindful self-compassion exercises build mindfulness and develop self-care and kindness.  The more we are kind to ourselves, the more sensitive we become to the needs of others.

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

Image source: Courtesy of johnhain  on Pixabay