Developing Kindness through Meditation

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

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

Becoming grounded in meditation

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

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

Finding our anchor in meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kindness meditation

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

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

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

Reflection

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

_____________________________________

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

How to Cope with Uncertainty

Recently, Diana Winston offered a meditation podcast on the topic, Dealing with Uncertainty.  This was at a time of heightened uncertainty generated by the California wildfires that were threatening people’s lives and homes.  Uncertainty arises when we do not know what will happen in the future, we have a sense of being out of control and we fear that the future holds potentially damaging outcomes for us physically, emotionally, financially or socially.  Diana emphasised that uncertainty is an integral aspect of the world we live in today – in our increasingly global environment and resultant interdependence, many things are uncontrollable and beyond our capacity to influence.

Diana reminds us that we cannot deny the uncertainty of our reality, but we can learn to manage its impact on our lives – on our thinking, feelings, behaviour and relationships.  Our anxiety in the face of this ever-encroaching uncertainty is exacerbated by our brain’s negative bias – often fearing the worst to enable us to prepare for fight or flight.  We tend to anticipate negative outcomes from many activities such as a medical diagnosis and we begin to worry in anticipation of this unwelcome outcome.  Diana maintains that meditation can provide a place of refuge when we experience uncertainty and the associated fear and anxiety – a secure retreat away from the waves of uncertainty that besiege us.

Meditation as an anchor in a turbulent sea

Diana offers several steps in her guided mediation for dealing with anxiety (MARC, UCLA).  The meditation practice is designed to engender a sense of solace when uncertainty seems overwhelming:

  • Adopt a comfortable position and allow your body to begin to experience relaxation.
  • Focus attention on your body beginning with your breath as it courses through you.  You can ground this attention by focusing on the expansion and contraction of your chest or abdomen.
  • Feel the sensation of your breath – coolness, energy flow, evenness.
  • Choose an anchor – e.g. your breath, sounds in the room or a bodily sensation such as tingling in your fingers when they are pressed together, or the feel of your feet placed firmly on the floor.  You can then return to your anchor whenever you become unfocused or distracted by thoughts or sensations such as an itch or pain in a part of your body.
  • Notice any wandering off task and name what is happening e.g. lost in my thoughts; feeling anxious.  Once you have named what is happening, return to your anchor.
  • Notice any sensation of discomfort or disturbing thought – give it some space and pay attention to it with kindness.  You can change your posture if this helps or, alternatively, accept what is happening and plan to take action later, e.g. put some dermatitis cream on an itch.
  • Express appreciation for your safety, protection and wellness.
  • Extend your sense of gratitude to people engaged in making others safe and protecting them from harm, e.g. volunteers, the police and firefighters.
  • Focus on the groundedness of your body, take a deep breath and return to awareness of your surroundings.

Reflection

Meditation can help us to grow in mindfulness – awareness of our external reality and internal reactions such as fear and anxiety in the face of uncertainty.  Meditation provides a refuge and a source of solace in the face of life’s uncertainty.  The anchor we develop through meditation can serve us well throughout our daily lives, at work or at home.  Mindfulness can help us scare away the darkness of uncertainty so that we can achieve what the singer, Passenger, suggests:

Feel, feel like you still have a choice
If we all light up, we can scare away the dark.

____________________________________________

Image by Jerzy Górecki from Pixabay

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

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

Develop Equanimity to Overcome Reactivity

Much of the time we are reactive because of our ingrained habituated responses.  These develop over time and can vary with different stimuli – a confronting email, a perception of criticism by a partner or colleague, thoughtlessness by another person or traffic delays.  Our responses may be precipitated by negative thoughts that generate emotions such as fear, anxiety, frustration or anger.  We then act out these emotions in a reactive way – not stopping to maintain our balance or evaluate the best possible response. As we have mentioned earlier, there is a gap between stimulus and response and within that gap are choices and associated freedom.  Developing equanimity helps us to better utilise the gap between stimulus and response and widens our potential response options – as it frees us from being captive to our habituated responses.

Equanimity is being able to maintain a state of calmness, balance or even-mindedness in the face of a situation that we find challenging – physically, mentally or emotionally.  It builds our capacity to overcome reactivity and enables us to accept what is, without reacting impulsively.  Diana Winston makes the point that equanimity is not passivity – acceptance of what is, does not mean avoiding taking action to redress injustice, insulting behaviour or meanness.  What equanimity does mean is acknowledging what is and the inherent challenge (e.g. illness, mental illness of a family member, or loss of a job), not railing against all and sundry for our “misfortune”, but actively pursuing redress – including building our capacity to remain calm in the face of life challenges.  Equanimity enables responsiveness that is positive and productive.

A meditation to develop equanimity

Meditation, by its very nature, helps to calm us and, in the process, develop equanimity.  Diana Winston, however, provides a specific “equanimity meditation” designed to build our capacity to retain our balance and to remain even minded when confronted with a life challenge.  She provides this meditation as part of the weekly guided meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA. Her guided meditation podcast, Equanimity and Non Reactivity, contains several steps:

  1. Grounding yourself in your chair by adopting a comfortable, upright posture; closing your eyes or looking down; and focusing your intention on the present – not thinking about the past or worrying about what is coming up.  Being present-in-the-moment is a calming activity that can build equanimity.
  2. Complete body scan – starting with your feet on the floor (feeling the firmness and envisaging the stable ground below); moving progressively through your body, while noticing and releasing any points of tensions (such as in your neck, shoulders, stomach, legs or hands).  You can begin to notice the sensations as you progress with your body scan – feeling the tingling in your fingers or the softness/looseness in your legs as you let go and allow the tension to drain away.  During the meditation, it pays to be conscious of a tendency to let your shoulders droop. [Note: this part of the meditation resonates with the first part of the Yoga Nigra Meditation focused on the physical body]
  3. Focus on your breathing – you focus on wherever in your body you can feel the sensation of your breathing, the in and out movement of your stomach or the air passing through your nose.  The process involves noticing, not controlling your breathing.  You can also rest in the gap between your in-breath and your out-breath.  You can extend the observation of your breathing to other parts of your body such as breathing through your mouth.
  4. Noticing sounds – now switch your attention to the sounds within and outside your room.  Again, the process involves noticing not interpreting or judging the sounds (whether they are pleasant or grating, for example).
  5. Anchoring yourself – you can choose to focus just on your breath or the sounds or adopt a position of natural awareness where you are open to the sense of being aware. Whatever you choose becomes your anchor that you can return to when your mind wanders.  It is natural to have passing thoughts and emotions – the important thing is not to entertain them or indulge them but to acknowledge them, for example, by saying to yourself, “I’m wandering again”.  Once you notice and acknowledge your diverting thoughts and/or emotions, you can return to your chosen anchor.
  6. Equanimity meditation – this involves two main parts that focus directly on developing calm, no matter what your stimulus is.  The first involves capturing a time when you were able to remain calm and balanced when confronted with a challenge – it is important to visualise the event and recapture the memory in all its richness including the stimulus, your initial thoughts/emotions, how you brought yourself under control and your calm response replacing what normally would have been a reactive response.  The second part involves envisaging a challenging situation you have to deal with; identifying what is your “normal” response; and picturing yourself tapping into your boundless internal equanimity, energy and awareness to adopt a response that is both creative and positive.

Diana maintains that this process of equanimity meditation builds your capacity to manage difficult challenges rather than revert to reactivity – that involves adopting habituated responses that are potentially injurious to yourself and others. On a personal note, I like listening to the calmness of Diana’s voice and hearing her highly developed insights as she leads me through a guided meditation process on the weekly podcasts.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditations such as the equanimity meditation, we can realise a new level of personal resilience through the development of calmness, balance and even-mindedness.  We will experience less reactivity in challenging situations and be open to more positive and helpful responses.

____________________________________________

Image – Heron on branch in Wynnum Creek, Brisbane

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

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

Overcome Reactivity through Mindfulness

Throughout the day we are often on automatic pilot, reacting to events and to others in an unconscious way.  It may be that we react to something someone said or did – like hearing a perceived criticism or being cut off in traffic.  Our automatic response is to be angry or annoyed and to lash out at the other person either in word or action (or by sending that angry email response).

Tara Brach, in her meditation podcast, defines this reactivity as “reacting out of our habitual patterns without consciousness”.  All day and every day we will find ourselves in a reactive pattern, being totally unaware of where we are operating from.   Viktor Frankl reminds us that there is a space between stimulus and response and that we have the choice of whether we use the space to manage our response.  He suggests that in the space lies freedom and choice – the opportunity to break free from reactive responses and to exercise conscious choice in how we respond.

People are becoming increasingly reactive because we are fast losing the capacity to be in the present moment – to respond to life with full awareness.  The growth in the incidence and violence of “road rage” is evidence that people are reacting mindlessly when they experience some delay in traffic or are frustrated by the actions of another driver.  We can act out of impatience rather than being patient and understanding that we are traffic too.

If we practice reflection on our daily activities, we can begin to notice how reactive we often are.  It is a useful exercise to think about a single event where we were reactive and to capture the moment – thinking about what happened, how we felt both bodily and emotionally and how we responded.  We can then focus on what we could have done differently to avoid being reactive.

When we are in the midst of a situation that is stimulating a negative response in us, we can use the S.T.O.P. practice to create some space for ourselves and better manage our response.  Meditation practice can help us to more frequently access this process to pause and stop ourselves from being overly reactive.

Tara suggests that one of the easiest practices during meditation to become grounded in the present is to listen to the sounds that surround us – in a way that is neither interpreting or evaluating the sound.  For example, you might be fortunate enough to tune into the sound of rain as it falls, noticing the ever-changing pattern and different impacts as it hits the ground or buildings.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice and reflection, we can become more self-aware, more aware of our reactive responses and better able to consciously manage our response to life and the varying stimuli we encounter throughout the day and night.

 

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

Image source: courtesy of RobbinHiggins 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.

Showing Up for Your Life

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Center (MARC), reminds us in a meditation podcast  that “moment by moment: this is your life”.  Like Kabat-Zinn, she encourages you to “show up for your life”.

Even when we have looked forward to something for a long time – a special dinner, a sporting occasion, catching up with a friend after a long period of absence – we can find ourselves distracted in the moment and miss out on so much of what is happening outside and inside us.

We could be in the presence of a child, our own or someone else’s, who is clearly in the moment, enjoying whatever activity they are fully engaged in – feeding themselves, playing with insects on the ground, laughing with a friend or riding a bike with abandon.  We can savor the moment and not try to hurry them on (or ourselves) to do something else.  As we become older, we begin to lose this skill of being-in-the-moment, of really showing up for our life.

We tend to focus on other things instead of just enjoying what is – we are always planning the next moment or two – not appreciating what is.  As we learn to regain the skill of being present and paying attention to the moment, we develop the capacity to do this anywhere, anytime – but it requires regular, meditation practice.  However, if we can develop this ability, our life can be so much richer because we can appreciate and savor more of what happens in our life.

A meditation for showing up in your life

This simple meditation to help you show up for your life involves a number of basic steps:

  1. Begin with physically grounding yourself in the present while sitting by having your feet on the ground or floor and your eyes closed or looking down (to maintain attention) and your hands in a comfortable position.  Now focus on your breath, wherever you feel it occurring – through your nose or mouth or in your chest.  Alternatively, take a couple of deep breaths, to relax yourself and sense your breathing.
  2. Focus on your body which is always present in the moment, despite the endless wandering of your mind.  Bring your attention to any points of tension in your body and feel the sensation of what is going on for you.  Begin to release the tension as your attention moves through your body, locating and releasing tight spots.  Be conscious of what this feels like and what emotions you are experiencing.
  3. Now recall a time when your were really in the moment – playing a sport, being with a friend, absorbing the beauty of nature.  How did you feel? What thoughts of appreciation were you expressing?  What was happening in your body?  Try to be with that moment and capture the richness of what you were experiencing in your mind and body.  You can express appreciation for the experience – that you were alive to what was happening, that you actually had the physical and mental capacity to fully experience it.
  4. Finally, bring your attention to the sounds that surround you – open your ears to the different sounds..  We often hear only what we want to hear because we are so focused on what is in our minds and we miss out on much of our life.  As you become immersed in sounds notice what is happening in your body.  Slowly open your eyes and bring your attention back to where you are now and what you are doing.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we develop the capacity to be more and more in-the-moment and to savor life’s riches.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt 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.