Mindfulness for Leadership in the Digital Age

Many of the presentations during the Mindful Leadership Online Conference, 17-26 October 2018, focus on what it means to be a leader in the digital age.  Sky Jarrett, for example, discussed Thriving As a Leader in the Digital Age, and highlighted the role of mindfulness in achieving this goal.  Her presentation drew on her experience with Accenture – a global consulting firm – where she is an Executive Coach and Mindfulness Instructor.

As the digital age continues to advance relentlessly with the advent of artificial intelligence and robotics, leaders are faced with new and demanding challenges and the uncertainty that derives from continuous technological, ecological and economic disruption.  Life and work are becoming more complex with the generational shift and the growth in mental illness in the home and the workplace.

Thriving as a leader in the digital age through mindfulness

Sky identified how mindfulness can assist leaders to not only survive the digital era but to thrive and achieve greatness in their chosen arena of activity:

  • Calmness – mindfulness is necessary to develop calmness and equanimity in the face of organisational and community turbulence.  Sky likens the calmness developed through mindfulness meditation to the calm of the “eye of the storm”.  She suggests that the incorporation of mindfulness practice in the life of an executive is an “imperative” like the change from analogue to digital. It is critical for a leader to be grounded and not unsettled by digital turbulence if they are going to lead effectively.
  • Trust – Sky points to the fact that we are operating in a trust economy as part of the macro environment of the digital age.  Trust underpins relationships which are the lifeblood of an organisation or community.  Trust is built through integrity and consistency.  Increasingly, followers look to leaders for guidance, transparency, support and reliability.  Mindfulness builds self-awareness and self-management which are foundational to integrity and the development of trust.
  • Connection and collaboration – the digital age is the era of connectivity. Individuals, groups, organisations and communities are collaborating locally and globally – even competitors are collaborating to achieve common goals.  The complexity and speed of change means that leaders can no longer be isolates steeped in knowledge and relevant experience – they will become increasingly dependent on collaboration with others as change outpaces their ability “to keep up-to-date”.  Mindfulness helps a leader to experience, understand and value connectedness to themselves, others and the world around them.  It also enables them to build the capacity for collaboration and enlightened action in the world.
  • Self-improvement – for many years now, we have focused on externalities including the continuous improvement cycle in organisations.  The time has come for leaders to focus consistently on self-improvement, to take themselves as the the improvement project.  This will require developing emotional awareness through mindfulness and reflection on their thoughts and actions so that a leader can enhance their response ability.
  • Bodily intelligence – Sky suggests that leaders will need a greater connection to their bodies in the digital era.  Bodily intelligence, also termed kinaesthetic intelligence, will enable leaders to sense bodily when things are not right and to take constructive action.  Somatic meditation will assist leaders to enhance their bodily intelligence and to develop the leader’s capacity to trust their body’s intuition (“gut feeling”).
  • Being present – as we have reiterated in this blog, the capacity to be present is an essential skill of leadership, no matter what the era.  However, the digital era places greater demands on leaders to be genuinely present to others when interacting.  The challenge to being present in a digital era characterised by incessant “noise” and disruptive communication, is potentially overwhelming.  Mindfulness builds the capacity to shut our the noise and to fully focus on the person and task at hand.

There are many demands on leaders in the digital age, but as we grow in mindfulness we can bring calmness and equanimity to any situation, build trust and connectedness, focus on improving ourselves through reflection, more readily access our bodily intelligence and become more fully present in our daily interactions.

 

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

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Meditation and Mental Health

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

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

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

Meditation and regulating emotions to achieve mental health

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

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

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

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

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Being Grounded

So often we can be off-balance, caught up in concerns about the future or worry about the past.  Alternatively, our minds can be racing from one thought to another.

If we lack awareness in the present moment, we will miss opportunities, make poor decisions, create work and  stress for ourselves and find that our productivity, either at work or at home, suffers.

If we are grounded, small annoyances and setbacks do not disturb our equanimity and we can manage larger challenges more effectively because we are able to choose an appropriate response, rather than be caught up in the whirlwind of our thoughts and activities.

Ways to develop groundedness

Being gounded is important and underpins mindful living.  We need to stop our frenetic activity and  take time to get connected with nature or tuned into our body.  Another form of groundedness is to engage in mindful walking where we get in touch with the ground, or the floor if we are walking inside our house.

We can tune into our body through mindful breathing, a body scan or other form of somatic meditation.  Breathing is so fundamental to living that most mindfulness experts praise the benefits of mindful breathing – it has a calming effect, can be undertaken any where and is  a good way to begin most meditations.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Another form of meditation that enables you to become really grounded focuses on the energy that surrounds us – in the air, in nature, with people and animals.      Through this approach,  you are able to get in touch with the energy of the universe and experience the connectedness this entails.

As we grow in mindfulness through regular practice of different forms of meditation, we can become grounded more easily when we are in a stressful situation, or exposed to a negative trigger, or are becoming nervous when we have to perform.

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Paying Attention

Marvin Belzer provides guidance in a meditation podcast on “paying attention”.  Marvin was on the faculty of UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the time.  He has many years experience with practicising and teaching meditation, having taught a semester-long course on the theory and practice of mindfulness.  Among other things, he provides meditations for teens – ways for young people to learn to pay attention and to access calmness and clarity.

Marvin emphasises that “paying attention” is a natural ability that does not require forcing.  We can notice things, look at things closely, observe what is happening in front of us – it all comes naturally.  However, we have lost the art of focusing because of the distractions in our lives and, particularly, our endless thoughts.

To learn to pay attention again, we need to practise.  This practice ideally involves focusing on something simple – our breath, hand, bodily sensations or sounds around us.  If we keep the focus simple, we can more easily sustain our attention.  As Marvin points out, the process of stabilising our attention on something that is simple (and does not entice our thoughts to go wild), “automatically induces calmness”.  If we practise paying attention through daily meditation we also gain clarity, be able to think more clearly.

The challenge of losing attention

If our mind wanders, we do not need to consider this a failure, but “part and parcel” of the process – affirming, firstly, that our mind is active because an intelligent mind needs to exercise itself on something challenging, not something that is simple.

We will find that, as we attempt to pay attention, our mind will suddenly become absorbed in memories, thoughts, emotions or planning – like me, you could end up planning your next activity, working on your to-do-list, deciding how you are going to get to that meeting later in the day.

The important thing is to re-focus without blaming yourself or indulging in negative thoughts and stories about yourself and your perceived “weakness”.   A useful technique to use if your are distracted during a meditation is to make the distraction a part of the meditation itself.  Instead of consuming energy trying to get rid of the distraction (and distracting yourself more) just notice what is going on – “i see that I am feeling a bit anxious now and I sense a tightness in my shoulders”.  You can just name the emotion and feel the sensation in your body.

It is important to remember that you are not trying to perform for anyone else, even yourself.  You are not trying to meet anyone else’s rate of advancement.  Focusing on something simple is a neutral activity and encourages you to be calm and real – to give yourself permission to be-in-the-moment.

Paying attention meditation can open your mind and heart to creativity.  By stilling your mind, you are able to a access what Kabat-Zinn calls the “spaciousness” within.  You will gradually overcome your existing habit of “mind wandering” and be able to develop the sustained attention needed to fully access your creative mind.

The process of paying attention is integral to all forms of meditation, with the focus varying from one form of meditation to another.  In his podcast, Marvin Belzer leads you through a paying attention meditation that moves from a focus on breath, to listening to surrounding sounds,  to undertaking a form of somatic meditation – focusing on your body.  As we grow in mindfulness through practising paying attention in meditation, we can readily access calmness and clarity and open our minds to creativity.

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Gratitude in Times of Difficulty

Having gratitude in times of difficulty can increase resilience and overcome depression, anxiety and despair.  Gratitude changes the quality of life that we are living as we gain better control over our thoughts and feelings and learn to accept what is.

As you develop this practice, you start to see things that you had not noticed before, the taken-for-granted things in your life.  Diana Winston recalls noticing the way sunlight reflects on a plant and the assorted colours that were in a painting on her wall.  She attributes this increased awareness and associated thankfulness to taking the time to slow down and meditate on the place where she was – very much a form of open awareness meditation.

So, mindfulness and gratitude go hand-in-hand, in a two-way reinforcement.  As you meditate, you become more aware of what you are grateful for and your growing gratitude, in turn, helps you to be more aware of positive experiences and people in your life.

Gratitude in times of difficulty

We so often miss the simple things of life that are before us and can act as a stimulus for gratitude.  In times of difficulty, it can be very hard to look beyond what we are experiencing and suffering from and, yet, the simple things in our life can be easily noticed and employed to pull us out of our self-absorption.   When we are experiencing difficulties, we often can’t see beyond what is challenging our equanimity.

Somatic meditation can be very helpful in times of challenge, whether the challenge relates to health of our body, our mental state or an external negative stimulus.  Adopting a meditative position, in the first instance, enables us to get in touch with our breathing and provides the stillness to observe our own body as we undertake a body scan and progressively release the tension within.

This physical grounding and release provides the foundation to turn our minds to what we are grateful for.  A recent experience may become the focus of your appreciation.  For example, in a recent meditation, the focus of my gratitude was a conversation I had the day before with a long-standing colleague and close friend.  I recalled the ease of the conversation as we were “shooting the breeze”, the deep connection through shared experiences and convictions, the exploration of new terrain, the supportive challenge to perspectives, the mutual respect and admiration and the challenge to identify what gives me a “buzz” at a time of semi-retirement.

Reflecting on this recent experience made me realize the warmth of the interaction and the things that I value about the friendship which lie below my consciousness because I have never attempted to express my gratitude for this profound connection.  Our meeting was not only a face-to-face conversation, but also a meeting of minds – a source of mutual enrichment.

As we grow in mindfulness through gratitude meditations, we start to see things that we have taken for granted, appreciate more deeply and explicitly what we value in our experiences and friendships and  strengthen our inner resources to deal with the challenges that confront us.

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

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Creativity through Mindfulness

Over several blog posts I have explored the relationship between mindfulness and creativity.  In this post, I want to bring these ideas together to provide a more complete picture of how to develop creativity through mindfulness.

Mindfulness creates the internal environment for creativity through the following:

Stillness and silence

We discussed previously how creative people use stillness and silence to access their inner resources including their imagination.  The busyness of life and constant thinking means we are rarely still or silent.  In the process, we cut ourselves off from creative insight.  Jon Kabat-Zinn and Reg Revans also remind us that exploring what we do not know or understand is the beginning of learning and creative solutions.   As we practice mindfulness through meditation, we engage in stillness and silence and open ourselves up to what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “deep interior capacities” that lie within the “spaciousness” of our minds.

Turning down negative thoughts

Mindfulness can make us aware of the negative thoughts that often block creativity and constitute self-sabotage.  Creative people like David Lynch, Amanda Sinclair, Elizabeth Gilbert and Seth Godin report the importance of turning down, or turning off, thoughts about potential failure or deemed personal inadequacy.  Seth even ascribes this self-sabotage to the “Lizard Brain”.  Sam Smith, singer-songwriter, during a recent interview while performing in London, spoke of the internal demons that beset him and almost prevented him from pursuing his highly successful songwriting and singing career.

Mindfulness enables us to address negative thoughts and stories and defuse their strength to release creativity.  Boy George in a recent coaching session with a very nervous performer on the TV show, The Voice, encouraged the singer to let go of preoccupation with what others might think of their performance:

I think you are someone who really thinks about what people think about you.  We do that as performers – it’s just one of those things, it’s like a default setting in out make-up.  We worry too much about what other people think of us and that can get in the way of what we do.  Don’t think about it too much is the key.

Positive anticipation instead of disabling fear

In a previous post, I discussed the research of Anna Steinhenge and her demonstration of how positive anticipation can overcome the disabling effects of fear and enable us to access clear thinking and creativity.  In this discussion, I explored the R.A.I.N. meditation process that enables us to face the fear within and conquer it so that we free ourselves for new insights and creative endeavour.   Through mindfulness meditation we learn to name our feelings in order to tame them.

Calming the busyness of our minds

Mindfulness enables us to calm our minds and free us from mental busyness or what Haruki Murakami describes as “convoluted waterways of my consciousness” that result in a “restless aquatic organism” .   Even experienced meditation practitioners will sometimes find their mind racing and being invaded with endless thoughts.  Kabat-Zin reminds us that this is part of the human condition and we will not be able to stop the thoughts.  He suggests that instead of entertaining these thoughts, we view them as bubbles in boiling water floating to the surface and bursting on reaching the extremities of the container – our minds.

Being present and grounded

Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, co-authors of The Mind of the Leader, stress the importance of leaders being present and grounded.   They argue that being present in conversations gains respect and facilitates open sharing of ideas.  Being grounded before beginning a conversation or meeting can enhance a leader’s capacity to listen, take in ideas and access their own creative potential.   Practicising somatic meditation, which incorporates many approaches to being grounded in our body, will strengthen our capacity to be present in the moment, stay grounded in the conversation and be open to creative ideas.

Acting on creative ideas with boldness and bravery

It is one thing to have creative ideas, it is another to have the necessary  boldness and bravery to implement creative ideas.  Amanda Sinclair points out in her book, Leading Mindfully, that creativity involves breaking with tradition, taking risks, trying out something new and having the self-esteem and resilience to be able to persist in the face of opposition – especially from those who have a vested interest in maintaining things the way they are.

Mindfulness helps us to maintain focus, to remain calm, build resilience in the face of opposition and setbacks, and to become braver and less fearful of the difficulties, dangers and risks involved in implementing creative ideas.

As we grow in mindfulness, we are able to access our inner resources through stillness and silence of meditation, overcome our fears, stay present and grounded, remain calm in the face of difficulties and develop boldness, bravery and resilience as we venture beyond “the tried and true”.

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

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Finding Yourself Through Mindfulness – Start Small, Start Now

The music world and fans are mourning the death of Avicii, Swedish DJ, who died recently in Oman at the age of 28.   Tim Bergling, known as Avicii, suffered ill-health for many years as a result of alcoholism and retired from touring in 2016 because life on the road did not agree with his introverted nature.  He found he was so nervous before a performance that he would turn to alcohol to overcome his nervousness and to give him encouragement and confidence to perform.   During his short life as a music producer, he inspired millions of other producers to explore their potentiality.

Two of his songs had a profound impact on me, not only because of their musicality, but also because of their lyrics.  These songs are Wake Me Up When it’s Over and What Are You Waiting For?  There are many interpretations of the lyrics of these songs, but recently I have come to interpret them in terms of mindfulness.

Wake me up when it’s all over

The lyrics of this song and the music are haunting and leave an indelible impact through the words, “All this time I was finding myself, and I
Didn’t know I was lost.”

So many of us have lost our way as the pressures of modern living close in on us.  Mindfulness is very much about “finding myself” – getting to know your real self and not the narrative you carry in your head.   So many people do not know that they are lost – that they have lost meaning in life because they are caught up with the unrelenting flow of expectations, their own and that of others.

Kabat-Zinn often quotes the words of James Joyce, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body”.  Because our lives are taken up with thinking instead of being, we spend so much of our time in our heads, disconnected from our bodies and the world around us.

Kabat-Zinn urges us to “reinhabit our bodies” that we have become disconnected from.  His book, Coming to Our Senses, stresses the need, both literally and metaphorically, to reconnect with our senses and the world around us by growing in awareness through mindfulness meditation.  He reminds us that we have only one life to live and we are living it now in the present moment.

Somatic meditation – incorporating practices such as mindful walking, Tai Chi and body scan – enable us to become grounded in what Kabat-Zinn calls our “embodied presence“.   Different forms of somatic meditation, for example, are used to help trauma victims to find themselves after the devastating and disorientating impact of the trauma experience.

What are you waiting for?

There is never a perfect time to start to grow in mindfulness and to reconnect with yourself.  Avicii asks us the penetrating question in his song –  You’re only livin’ once so tell me?  What are you, what are you waiting for?

Seth Godin, marketing guru and renowned, innovative author, urges us to “start small, start now” with any new endeavour.  There are many simple starting points to develop mindfulness that can lead to self-awareness and self-management and the associated benefits of calm, clarity and creativity.

Chade-Meng Tan, co-creator of Search Inside Yourself (Google’s course on mindfulness and emotional intelligence), urges us to “do less than we can imagine” but do it daily and consistently, even if it is  only “one mindful breath a day”.

In the hectic pace of modern living and the constant intrusion of disruptive marketing, we are beginning to suffer from the inability to focus and bring our attention to the present moment.  Neuroscience confirms the very lasting benefits for mental and physical health of growing in awareness of the present moment through mindfulness.

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

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Leading with Body Awareness

The early trait theories of leadership argued that to be an effective leader you needed to be male, charismatic and tall.  Clearly, this delineation can lead to discriminatory behaviour towards those who are female and short.

The earlier trait theories of leadership have been disproved and there is now a consensus that there is no universal list of traits that researchers can agree on as predictors of leadership ability.

Amanda Sinclair, author of Leading Mindfully,  points out that despite these emergent findings, myths still pervade about desirable traits that reinforce leadership viewed according to the male stereotype.  She suggests that women have been harshly judged against these unreal measures and have had to conform to standards of dress and behaviour that are more rigorous than those imposed on men.

Then again, as a female colleague of mine pointed out, some women dress provocatively in a work situation to draw attention to themselves.  As my colleague commented, this draws attention to their sexuality but detracts from perceptions of their competence.   So women are often confronted with a dilemma – conform to unfair standards or dress inappropriately.

Rather than accepting this dilemma, women and men can learn ways to present themselves bodily so that potential followers are not left experiencing discomfort or uncertainty about how to communicate with, or relate to, their leaders.

Increasingly, followers have been shown to prefer characteristics that are described as the soft skills – that is skills associated with emotional intelligence such as empathy, compassion, listening skills, communicating to inspire followers, congruence and creativity.

Through mindfulness, leaders can develop a presence (irrespective of physical height) that conveys a sense of balance and calm.  They can face problems with greater clarity and creativity.  Their very presence can communicate support and generate confidence in others who are faced with difficult situations.

Leaders need to be physically present to their staff so that their positive bodily influence can be experienced first-hand.  They also need to care for themselves bodily by looking after themselves so that they can withstand the stresses of their role but, at the same time, have real concern for the physical welfare of staff.

By building resilience through mindfulness practice, you can communicate non-verbally that they you are in control of yourself and the situation.  Even when you are not conscious of the impact of your demeanour, others take note and are influenced by how you present yourself – your bearing can communicate respect for others, personal confidence and self-awareness.

Somatic meditation is one way for a leader to get in touch with their bodies and their reality.  It enables them to be more conscious of how stress is stored in the body and emitted through physical actions and non-verbal activity.

Amanda also alludes to the research work of Norman Doidge and highlights the mind-body connection and the role of exercise such as yoga and walking in enhancing this connection and improving brain functioning.   In the light of this research and the foregoing discussion, Amanda exhorts leaders to be aware of the role of their bodies in the process of leadership:

Our bodies and physicality in leadership are gateways to important forms of intelligence, to wisdom and mindfulness.  They provide us with ways of noticing and revaluing the present, experiencing the full richness of the people and situations around us.  Physicality is not something to be ignored, suppressed or overcome in leadership, but a means of helping us live and lead more fully.  (p. 129)

As we grow in mindfulness, we become increasing aware of how we experience the world through our bodies and how others experience us as leaders through their perceptions of our bodily presence.

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

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Being Mindful

When we first hear the idea of “being mindful”, we tend to associate the concept with thinking.  If we are asked to do something mindfully, we assume that this means tackling a task with a clear plan of how we will do it, having a contingency plan if things go wrong and being conscious of the consequences, intended or unintended, of our actions.

In contrast, “being mindful” in the context of mindfulness training involves being fully present and paying full attention to some aspect of our inner or outer landscape.

It is the opposite of being “lost in thought” – absorbed in the endless procession of ideas that pass through our mind, minute by minute.  Being mindful actually means shutting down our thoughts, being fully present and paying attention to our breathing, walking, eating, perceptions or some aspect of our body.

In somatic meditation, for example, we are focusing on our body through practices such as the whole body scan. This requires us to still our mind and focus our attention progressively on different parts of our body and release tension in our muscles as we undertake the scan.

Mindful breathing requires us to pay attention to our breathing while letting distracting thoughts pass us by. We need discipline to maintain our focus and avoid entertaining our passing thoughts.  They can be viewed as bubbles of water floating to the surface and disintegrating.

Being mindful builds our ability to focus, to be present in the moment.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful practices, we gain the benefit of clarity and calm in situations that would normally cause us stress.  Mindfulness also contributes to our health and well-being, builds our creative capacity and enables us to experience a pervaisve sense of happiness.

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

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Mindful Practice: Lower-Belly Breathing

Lower-belly breathing or deep belly breathing is a form of somatic meditation as it entails not only mindful breathing but also awareness of bodily sensations.

It involves conscious breathing through your lower-belly, being aware of both the in-breath (through the nose) and the out-breath through the mouth.  You can place one hand on your lower-belly (below the navel) and the other on your diaphragm.

Now breathe into your lower-belly to a count of four, and exhale to a count of four, feeling the expulsion of breath through your diaphragm. You can complete a number of sets of this exercise and also combine it with holding your in-breath for a count of four and your exhalation for the same count.

This breathiing exercise can be done lying down or sitting up.  It is often recommended that you start with lying down and progress to sitting up.

In the following video, Christina Macias discusses the benefits of deep belly breathing – a foundational breathing exercise, and takes you through the basic steps involved (beginning at 6.45 minutes).

Christina Macias stresses the importance of balancing deep belly breathing with other forms of breathing, including conscious expansion of your rib cage.  Her instructional videos on her Facebook channel take you through the benefits and steps involved in each form of breathing exercise.

Lower-belly breathing is an easy way to grow mindfulness and increase your awareness – to take your awareness out of the stress-producing chatter in your head and grounding it in your body.

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