Observing Thoughts

Our thoughts can be like a whirlpool and take over our lives – generating fear, anxiety and depression. A single event may catalyse a “looping” of negative thoughts that become an endless cycle. I found this happening when I was recovering from the shock of my relative’s recent car accident. One way to steady your mind is to notice your thoughts and see them for what they are. Jon Kabat-Zinn offers a penetrating, 20-minute Guided Meditation on Observing Thoughts, and doing so non-judgmentally.

Thoughts feed on themselves

I found when reflecting on my relative’s car accident that I became preoccupied with what might have happened. Fortunately – despite rolling the car at 70 kph and ending up on a two lane, major road upside down – he suffered minor injuries, just bruising and soreness and no broken bones or head injuries. He was assessed as okay by Ambulance officers and cleared by the hospital after a 3 hour stay.

Despite this extremely fortunate outcome of the accident, my mind began to race – I could not stop thinking about what could have happened:

  • what if he had suffered a serious injury or died in the accident?
  • what if he had a passenger who was injured or killed?
  • what if people in other cars or pedestrians suffered also as a result of his accident?
  • what kind of police charge and consequences could he face if others were injured?
  • what would be the possible impact on the rest of his life?

These thoughts can become like a whirlpool or an endless loop. In the guided meditation mentioned above, Jon highlights how easily we fabricate thoughts, how readily they proliferate and how frequently they morph into other thoughts – taking us downstream in the flow of a strong, thought current.

Meditation to observe our thoughts non-judgmentally

Jon’s guided meditation on observing our thoughts is a gentle approach to raising our awareness, bringing our thoughts into focus and releasing them. He uses various metaphors to enable us to see our thoughts for what they are – clouds blowing by, bubbles floating to the surface of boiling water, ripples on a vast ocean or eddies in a stream. He encourages us not to entertain these thoughts but to observe them passing us by – avoiding any form of judgment or censure of ourselves.

The meditation leads to the ability to separate yourself from your thoughts and to “rest in awareness” – a place of calm, peace and equanimity. Liane Moriarty in her book, Nine Perfect Strangers, captures this sense of release in the thoughts expressed by one of her characters. The woman involved is one of the participants in a health retreat attended by nine people. Following periods of silence, meditation, mindful breathing, yoga and Tai Chi, she was able to observe:

At first, without the distraction of noise and conversation, Frances’s thoughts went around and around on a crazy, endless, repetitive loop…but the act of observing her looping thoughts seemed to slow them down until at last they came to a complete stop, and she’d found that for moments of time she thought…nothing. Nothing at all. Her mind was quite empty. And these moments were lovely. (p.200)

As we grow in mindfulness through practices such as meditation, Tai Chi, yoga and mindful breathing we can observe our thoughts, distance ourselves from them and the emotions they generate, and to see them as passing fabrications. We can free ourselves from the bonds of associated emotions such as fear, anxiety and depression, and experience tranquillity instead.

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

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Maintaining the Daily Practice of Tai Chi

Despite my very best intentions, I find it difficult to maintain the daily practice of Tai Chi. There are always other things that I have to do and physical impediments that provide excuses (legitimate and otherwise) that I use to avoid the practice of Tai Chi.

In reflecting on my current lack of consistency, I have identified some strategies that I will put into place to increase the regularity of my practice:

Review my daily schedule

I find I become locked into habits (such as the timing of my morning cup of coffee) that make it difficult for me to fit in a Tai Chi practice. I also find that I am more likely to practice in the morning when I am fresh, rather than the afternoon when I am tired. What I have to do is establish a fixed time each morning when I undertake my Tai Chi practice. As my early morning has an established routine that operates on most days, I have to find space within that routine to ensure that I can practise. When the routine is broken, e.g. on days when I am facilitating a workshop or attending a meeting, I need to mentally lock in another practice time for that day.

Revisit the benefits of Tai Chi

I have previously written about Tai Chi in terms of the physical and mental health benefits and the benefits for the mind and the mind-body connection. Mentally revisiting these benefits on a regular basis can enhance my motivation to undertake the daily practice of Tai Chi. I find, too, that there are very clear benefits for my tennis that result from Tai Chi. I am very motivated to practice this meditation-in-motion on the days that I play tennis. Recently, I noticed difficulty in maintaining my balance on the court and this has encouraged me to increase my practice. So, it seems if you can relate the benefits of regular practice to some specific activity or outcome you already have a high motivation for, it is a lot easier to maintain your practice.

Reading about Tai Chi and its benefits

If I read about Tai Chi and its benefits, I am more motivated to undertake my routine practice. There are numerous articles, books, blogs and research reports about the benefits that can help me to keep the benefits front-of-mind. There are also videos that reinforce people’s positive experience and the research findings. Building in the habit to access these resources on a regular basis, particularly when my motivation is flagging, is a good way to strengthen my resolve to keep up my practice.

Reflecting on the benefits experienced

If I reflect on how Tai Chi has benefited me in a particular situation such as after a game of tennis, I am better able to cement the benefits in my mind and strengthen my motivation. For example, there have been times when I was regularly practising Tai Chi that I noticed that I could play a good tennis shot even when off-balance. Reflecting on this specific benefit reinforces the value for me of maintaining my practice.

Revising my expectations

I regularly have some form of surgery to identify (biopsy) or remove (excision) a skin cancer (the result of playing daytime tennis over several decades in Queensland). My tendency is to stop Tai Chi altogether to prevent aggravating the resulting wound (this could be for a period of four weeks). What would be a better process would be to at least undertake the warm-up exercises (basically involving the hands and arms) at the time when I would normally do my regular practice. This reduced level of activity still maintains the habit of regular practice and keeps Tai Chi top-of-mind. By reducing my practice expectations in line with my physical capacity at the time, I will be able to further embed my practice, rather than break my practice habit.

As we grow in mindfulness through the daily practice of Tai Chi or other mindfulness practice such as meditation, we can experience the pervasive benefits of such practices that, in turn, reinforce our motivation – thus creating a “virtuous circle”.

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

Image source: courtesy of Alexandra_Koch on Pixabay

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Movement and Mindfulness

Often meditation techniques involve sitting still in a relaxed, grounded, upright posture with your hands in a comfortable position; alternatively, they can involve lying down on the floor or the ground. In either case, these mindfulness approaches involve immobility – they are designed to create stillness in both your mind and your body. However, one can make a case for supplementing these immobile meditation techniques with mindfulness practices that involve movement.

The need for movement

Much has been written about the impact of a sedentary lifestyle on our physical and mental health and overall wellbeing. There is also increasing research about the health benefits of walking. Movement exercises our muscles and activates the various systems of our body, e.g. cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive systems. So movement is essential for good physical health. Physical exercise, too, helps to reduce the symptoms of depression.

Another consideration as the population ages, is that physical capacity declines progressively as we age. For example, the Harvard Medical School recently released a report on Preventing Falls and highlighted the fact that from our 50s onwards, our balance can be adversely affected by a number of factors. They highlight the impact of aging on our gait (the distinctive way we walk – encompassing aspects such as pace, weight transfer, stride length, swing of the leg and foot placement pressure). According to the report, our gait is considerably affected by the time we reach 70, even if fit:

Gait often changes with age. For example, healthy people in their 70s generally have a 10% to 20% reduction in the speed of their gait and the length of their stride compared with healthy people in their 20s.

This physical decline is accelerated where no movement or exercise is undertaken on a regular basis.

Combining movement and mindfulness

Two key ways to achieve the combination of mindfulness and movement to help redress physical and mental decline are mindful walking and Tai Chi. While mindful walking in the open brings the added benefits of engaging with nature, mindful walking on the inside (indoors) can be more readily accessible, especially when the weather is inclement and uninviting.

Earlier in this blog, I discussed the many physical, mental and emotional benefits of Tai Chi, including enhanced mind-body connection. A recent Harvard Medical School report, An Introduction to Tai Chi, reinforces these benefits and highlights the research showing that Tai Chi develops a “sharper mind”, offsetting the natural decline in your mental faculties, which can lead to dementia.

Whether you engage in mindful walking, Tai Chi or yoga, these practices have in common “meditation-in-motion” and strengthen the mind-body connection. So, combining movement and meditation, simultaneously strengthens our mental and physical capacities and their interconnection.

As we grow in mindfulness through combining meditation and movement, we can supplement and enhance the many benefits of sitting, standing or lying meditations. We can reduce the mental and physical decline that comes with age and improve our overall capacities, especially the connection between mind and body.

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

Image source: courtesy of silviarita on Pixabay

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Christmas: A Time for Kindness and Reflection

Christmas is a time for kindness and reflection. It brings out the kindness in people of all persuasions and provides a time to reflect on the year that has almost passed, as we count down the days to the end of the year.

A time for kindness

Christmas seems to bring out the best in many people – thoughtfulness of others and kindness towards to those who are less fortunate. I recall last year being in Bologna and watching a group of young people moving around the streets on Christmas Eve singing songs to homeless people and offering them gifts. This thoughtful action brought smiles to the faces of people who received this kindness, particularly as they sat huddled in blankets on a cold night approaching zero degrees.

Christmas is a time when families get together and share gifts, when mothers shop with their adult daughters and children wait with gleeful anticipation. It is really a time of giving not only of gifts but also time – time for others whether family, friends or those in need. Christmas is very much a testament to the human heart.

It is also a time to be mindful of others when we are driving in traffic, pressed for that parking space in the shopping centre, and queuing for high demand public transport or taxi/Uber services. It’s a time to take a break from the hurly-burly of the festive season and get in touch with our breathing and appreciate the many things we have to express gratitude for. We have only to think of people less fortunate than ourselves, e.g. experiencing loneliness at Christmas, to realise how much we have to be grateful for. There is so much that we take for granted in our daily lives.

A time for reflection

As we reflect on our past year, we can ask ourselves, “What have we done that contributes to our own mindfulness and that of others we interact with?” Have we been able to maintain a regular form of meditation, mindfulness practice or activity such as Tai Chi or yoga?

I know for myself it is easy to read about mindfulness and to write about it, but it is another thing to maintain regular mindfulness practice. It is difficult to sustain such practices in the face of daily pressures from work, family or the community generally. It pays at times like Christmas to reflect on our practice and identify ways to better maintain our chosen technique(s) for building mindfulness. The benefits can extend to every facet of our lives.

Christmas is a time to reflect in terms of what we have done to share the benefits of mindfulness with others who we come into contact with, either informally or more formally through workshops and training activities. If we have developed the gift of mindfulness, how can we best share this with others who are in need of its benefits – because of mental health issues, stress or time/work pressures?

As we grow in mindfulness, we can more readily extend thoughtfulness and kindness to others, reflect on what we are grateful for in our lives and seek ways to share the benefits of mindfulness with others. Sustaining our mindfulness practice provides the foundation for this growth in internal and external awareness.

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

Image source: courtesy of agnessatalalaevO on Pixabay

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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)

Image source: courtesy of vuongbibiptp on Pixabay

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Tai Chi and the Mind-Body Connection

In a previous post when discussing mindfulness and neuroplasticity, I mentioned that Tai Chi actually develops the mind physically by increasing the size of the insula in the brain.

Tai Chi is one of the mind-body techniques that form part of Traditional Chinese Medicine and is based on Chinese philosophy incorporating Taoism and Confucianism.  Tai Chi involves a combination of slow movements, body postures and mindful breathing.  In Chinese philosophy terms, it facilitates the flow of Qi, “life energy”.

Tai Chi has been shown to improve muscle strength, balance and flexibility and, when used in conjunction with Western Medicine, helps patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Arthritis and low bone density as well as helping people to recover from the effects of a stroke.

The real benefits of Tai Chi flow from its capacity to simultaneously develop the mind and body of the practitioner and thus enhance their mind-body connection.  Alzheimer’s disease is a clear example of the mind-body connection because as the mind deteriorates so does the body.  Tai Chi has been shown to combat Alzheimer’s.

The power of Tai Chi to develop the mind derives from the state of “relaxed concentration” achieved by focusing on the coordination of mind and body in a series of slow, balanced and rhythmic movements, while focusing on a single thought.  The focused attention develops mindfulness, improves memory and strengthens concentration.  Dr. Shin Lin, in a talk at the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, provided research results to show that Tai Chi produces new neurons during regular practice which suppress stress and build memory.

Dr. Lin indicated that Tai Chi, besides producing stress release, also improves immunity and eases chronic pain and fatigue.  Professor Michael R. Irwin, Medical Doctor and Director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, has demonstrated in his research that Tai Chi “promotes improvements in health functioning, viral specific immunity, and inflammation”.  His area of research and practice is focused on the mind-body connection – “Psychoneuroimmunology” involves the “study of the interaction between the psychological processes and the nervous and immunity systems of the human body”.

I have found from personal experience that Taoist Tai Chi helps both my mind (concentration, focus and creativity) and my body (energy, balance and fitness). I use the evidence of the mind-body benefits of Tai Chi to motivate my daily practice.

Karl Romain, in discussing how Tai Chi trains the brain, suggests that if you cannot find time for meditation and Tai Chi, practise your Tai Chi because it has a meditation element, as well as provides benefits for your mind-body connection.  I think the two practices, meditation and Tai Chi, are highly complementary and my personal goal is to achieve daily mindfulness practices that include both traditions.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and/or Tai Chi, we develop improved health and wellness, develop our minds and deepen our mind-body connection.

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.

Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity

Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, explained that early brain researchers discovered what became known as “neuroplasticity”:

They showed that the brain changed its very structure with each activity it performed, perfecting its circuits so it was better suited to the task at hand.  If certain “parts” failed, then other parts sometimes take over. (p.xv)

For example, people who meditate or teach meditation have been shown to have a thicker insula – a part of the brain that is activated by paying close attention to something (p.290).

Dr. Bruno Cayoun observed that neuroscience has demonstrated that brain plasticity explains how mindfulness training increases our perceptual ability leading to a greater sense of self control and self-awareness.  Perceptual ability, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “the ability to be able to deal with and give meaning to sensory stimuli”.

Research conducted jointly by the Fudan University in China and the University of South Florida showed that Tai Chi- often described as “meditation-in-motion” – actually increased the size of the brain of seniors who practised Tai Chi for 40 weeks and did so at least three times per week.  Tai Chi has many other benefits and these are discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Norman Doidge discusses the work of Michael Merzenich, Emeritus Professor in neurophysiology, who started a company called Posit Science to extend neuroplasticity of the brains of people as they age, as well as extend their lifespan (p.85).  Professor Merzenich maintains that, if we are in the older age group, we may not have been developing our brain plasticity since middle age because we are often working off already mastered knowledge and skills.

So, learning new skills such as mindfulness meditation and Tai Chi, with the attention and concentration required, will help to alleviate this problem of mental decline.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and approaches such as Tai Chi, we increase the size of our brain, enhance brain plasticity and enjoy the consequential benefits such as self-awareness and self-control.

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

Image source: courtesy of ArtsyBee 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.

 

Tai Chi – A Pathway to Mindfulness

Tai Chi is described as “poetry in motion” and is a popular pathway to the development of mindfulness. It builds the connection between body, mind and spirit.

I first encountered Tai Chi practice when, as a manager in the public service in the 1980s, I engaged a Tai Chi instructor to conduct training for myself and my staff on a weekly basis.  At the time I felt extraordinarily uncoordinated but persisted with the practice in the weekly lessons, only to drop away as pressure of work took over.

In 2014 my wife and I undertook the beginners class in Taoist Tai Chi before going overseas to Europe.  I think it certainly helped our fitness and presence of mind.  More recently, I returned to the weekly beginners classes but was unable to maintain attendance and learn the full 108 movements owing to work commitments.

The Tai Chi classes provide social support and motivation to master the art of Tai Chi. However, I became discouraged with the classes because I could not keep up owing to my work-induced absences.  However, I had really appreciated the benefits of practising Taoist Tai Chi, so I located a training video that takes you through the first 17 moves and now I attempt to use this video to practise Taoist Tai Chi on a daily basis.  This video takes you through the steps very slowly with a clear explanation:

The advantage of this video is that the 17 moves take only about 4 minutes and they can be completed in sets of three or more repetitions. The creators of the video also provide a practice video for the highly recommended warm-up exercises.

As with mastery of anything, Taoist Tai Chi requires regular practice, ideally on a daily basis. The more frequently you practise, the greater are the benefits you can experience in terms of physical and mental health and the growth of mindfulness.

Tai Chi is an antidote to the business of life and work. As the Fung Loy Kok Institute of Taoism (FLK) observes:

Taoist Tai Chi® arts offer a powerful opportunity to unplug from our phones, tablets and computers, and reconnect with the world.

There are many health benefits attributed to Tai Chi.  The Taoist Tai Chi Society of Australia explains the basis for these benefits as follows:

The significant degree of turning and stretching in each of the movements, combined with the adaptability of the form to suit individual needs, are just some of the factors that contribute to its focus on restoring, improving and maintaining health. 

The specific health benefits they identify include:

  • improved circulation
  • improved balance and posture
  • increased strength and flexibility
  • reduced stress
  • alleviation of the symptoms of illness such as arthritis, high blood pressure and migraine.

Tai Chi, like mindfulness, develops calmness, focus, concentration and clarity.