Committed Mindfulness Practice to Challenge our Self-Stories

Tara Brach reminds us why our negative self-stories are so persistent and difficult to dislodge. Sometimes our stories can help to protect us by warning us about real dangers. Often our self-stories are based on an irrational fear that has its origins in our childhood. If we are to challenge these stories and change our negative thoughts, beliefs and patterns of behaviour we need to be committed to a consistent mindfulness practice that unearths the stories damaging our lives and our relationships.

Stories can blind us to creative options

Fear-based stories tend to cloud our perceptions and obscure our thinking, so that creative exploration of options is closed off to us. If we are dealing with difficulties in our relationships or undertaking a challenging task, we can be blinded by the negative self-stories that capture our thinking and lock out consideration of alternative approaches. It is in stillness and silence that we can access our creativity – the noise of incessant negative, inner dialogue can disable us because the embedded fear triggers the amygdala (the most primitive part of our brain) and our automatic fight/flight response.

The starting point for self-exploration

The starting point for self-exploration can be identification of a blockage to taking action on some issue or problem, whether associated with a relationship or an endeavour. If we find we are procrastinating, if is a sure sign that some form of negative self-story is playing in the background, on an unconscious level. As we discussed previously, the challenge is to bring these stories “above the line” – into our conscious awareness.

When we are faced with a perceived threat or the possibility of embarrassment, we tend to fall back on the illusory sense of control embodied in our self-stories and fail to exercise the values that we espouse as important such as “honesty, collaboration and fairness”. Bob Dick, in his research paper on Rethinking Leadership, asserts that in this scenario we try to “control the situation” and, in the process, desert our espoused values. Our sole focus is on self-protection.

Challenging our self-stories through a commitment to mindfulness practice

While ever we remain unaware of our negative self-stories or fail to face up to them when we become aware of their existence, we will be held captive and blinded by them. They can be persistent and pervasive. Addressing them in a single mindfulness session will be inadequate to prevent their recurrence. Negative self-stories are like weeds – you remove them from some aspect of your life, and they pop up elsewhere in a slightly different form. Even with persistent and focused meditation, negative self-stories will not be removed entirely. However, their negative impact on our lives will be reduced with committed mindfulness practice – what Tara calls “dedicated practice”. She encourages us, in the words of Henri Nouwen, “to push aside and silence the many voices” that question our worthiness and basic goodness.

The difficulty in trying to build any new, positive habit is being able to sustain the effort. Without sustained mindfulness practice, however, our self-stories will continue to hold us to ransom and control our beliefs, thoughts and actions. We need to become conscious of the damaging effects of these stories and to frequently recall the benefits of the freedom and creativity afforded to us through mindfulness practice. We can reinforce our commitment by revisiting the sense of expansiveness and self-realisation that mindfulness releases in us.

As we grow in mindfulness, through reflection and committed mindfulness practice, we can engage in self-exploration, unearth our negative self-stories and their damaging effects, experience openness to self-realisation and creativity, and rest in the calmness of our relaxed breathing.

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Image by skeeze on 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.

The Self-Story Behind Procrastination: Bringing the Story Above the Line

In a previous post, we explored the storytelling mind that leads to self-stories that negatively impact our relationships and thwart our endeavours. The impact of these stories is that we become stuck in a pattern of responses (or lack of response) that impedes our progress towards successfully accomplishing our goals. Procrastination, the art of “putting off” some action, is one such habituated pattern.

The self-stories behind procrastination

Procrastination can block us at any time in relation to any endeavour. Behind procrastination there is often a self-story based on fear. It can take many forms and block us from taking action:

  • “I might appear as a fraud or hypocrite because I do not always do what I encourage others to do.”
  • “I could appear stupid because people might not understand what I am getting at.”
  • “I could make a fool of myself because I lack the intelligence to take on this endeavour and be successful.”
  • “I may not be able to live up to the expectations of others if I start on this project.”
  • “What would happen if I fail?”
  • “Will people be upset with me and think less of me if it does not work out really well?”
  • “What will happen to my reputation if things go wrong and don’t turn out as I had promised?”
  • “How can I possibly live up to so many diverse expectations of me?”

Bringing the procrastination self-stories “above the line”

Fear embedded in our self-stories can block us from taking action. The first step to redressing this situation is to identify, or “throw light on”, the stories that underpin our fear. In the previous post, I discussed the “circle of awareness” that depicts our unconscious awareness as existing “below the line”. Tara Brach suggests that the aim in dealing with mental and emotional blocks to our progress is to bring these underlying self-stories “above the line” so that we can loosen the hold of our false beliefs and self-defeating stories.

You can bring the self-stories into conscious awareness (above-the-line awareness), by taking several steps that can break your procrastination pattern:

  1. Identify the self-stories that are blocking your progress, naming the story – “What are you saying to yourself when confronted with a challenging or stretching endeavour?”
  2. Get in touch with the feelings that are generated by your procrastination self-stories
  3. Revisit the parental influences that underly the stories that you are telling yourself
  4. Examine any pattern that may be occurring in your stories
  5. Reflect on any life experiences that have served to “solidify” your false beliefs and self-stories – What has happened in your life to reinforce these beliefs and stories?

The impact of life experiences in solidifying self-stories was brought home to me during a workshop I was facilitating on the power of positive feedback. One manager reflected on why she had stopped giving positive feedback to her staff over the previous five years. She recalled a negative experience of giving positive feedback to a staff member where the recipient turned on her and was abusive towards her. The manager from then on maintained the self-story, “Whenever I give positive feedback, the person receiving it will attack me.” It was only when she reflected on the previous negative experience and brought her self-story to light, i.e. above the line, that she could see what had been holding her back from using the power of positive feedback. She resolved “then and there” to begin again to give positive feedback in a timely, sincere and specific manner that would ensure her success in this endeavour.

Self-stories that lead to procrastination lose their power over time if brought into the full light of consciousness, so that they can be seen for what they are – seemingly true but fundamentally false. Tara encourages the regular practice of bringing self-stories above the line – they will recur throughout your life as you face new challenges or may take on a new shape (as Tara publicly acknowledges, her own self-story challenge has oscillated between “self-deflation” [less than others…] to “self-inflation” [more than others…]).

The repetition of the practice of bringing self-stories above the line, creates new neural pathways so that the self-defeating stories are eventually replaced by self-enabling beliefs and stories. You can strengthen these new neural pathways by developing success “anchors” – alternative stories of successful outcomes that you have achieved.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can develop the capacity to throw light on our procrastination self-stories and bring them “above the line” by naming them, identifying patterns of false beliefs, disowning self-defeating stories and creating new neural pathways that facilitate our pursuit of successful, creative endeavours.

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Image by MabelAmber on 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.

Expose Self-Stories Through Awareness Raising

Tara Brach in her course on negative beliefs and thoughts highlights the fact that as humans we have a “storytelling mind”. We develop “self-stories” that influence the way we view ourselves, perceive others and relate to the world at large. These self-stories evolve over time and exist below our level of consciousness. Tara maintains that we can overcome the limitations of these stories about our self by “shining a light” on them through awareness raising – achieved through mindfulness practices.

Our storytelling mind

Archaeologists, through the discovery of drawings and fossils, argue that humans developed the capacity for abstract thought more than 100,000 years ago. This enabled humans to think about things beyond their immediate observations – to envision, engage in symbolic thinking and develop language.

The capacity for abstract thinking underlies our innate preoccupation with developing stories, especially self-stories. Many of our self-stories, however, are fear-based Joseph Campbell described this propensity for fear as the “survival brain”. We fear physical and or psychological harm because of our human origins. Jacob Ham contrasts the survival brain with what he calls the “learning brain”. The former is totally focused on potential threats and is fearful about new situations and ambiguity, whereas the latter is open to new experiences and the challenges inherent in ambiguity – it is not preoccupied with avoiding mistakes.

Self-stories are unconscious – beyond awareness

Our self-stories develop through parental influences, social factors and our own life experiences. The messages we receive from our parents and society at large, influence the formation of our self-stories which, in turn, impact our relationships and our endeavours. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes these stories as “narratives” that can control our thinking, emotions and behaviour.

While self-stories influence our perception of threats and drive our behaviour, they are below conscious awareness. Joseph Campbell highlights this aspect with his concept of the “Circle of Awareness“. He suggests that we can think of our “self” or “psyche” as illustrated by a circle with a line through it – above the line represents conscious awareness and below the line represents our unconscious. We can increase our conscious awareness (above the line segment) by accessing our unconscious awareness through mindfulness.

As humans we have what scientists describe as meta-cognition – the ability to “think about thinking”. In other, words we have the capacity to access our thoughts, our stories and our internal representations of external reality. This meta-cognitive ability enables us to access our unconscious stories through awareness-raising processes designed to expose these self-stories.

Exposing our self-stories through awareness raising

Tara offers a very simple way to access your self-stories that may be locking you into ways of feeling and behaving. This mindfulness practice can be undertaken once you have grounded yourself through conscious bodily awareness and mindful breathing.

The practice entails picturing a time and place where you were with your parents as a child – e.g. the dinner table, the card table, on the sofa watching TV or lying on the floor with the pet dog. Now you turn your attention to your parents and how they are viewing and interacting with you – are they making eye contact at all, asking your views, listening to you mindfully or are they communicating with you without eye contact, ignoring your presence or talking over the top of you all the time. What messages are you receiving from this “interaction”?

In various, subtle ways, often below their level of consciousness, your parents are communicating messages to you and about you. These messages and others you receive, can shape your self-stories, e.g.

  • I need to go out of my way to attract attention, so that people will acknowledge me and value my opinion
  • I need to be nice and constantly meet other’s needs to be sure that I can be loved and valued (a self-story that can lead to “the disease to please“)
  • I should be “seen and not heard”
  • I will only be accepted when I am successful with everything I do
  • I cannot make a mistake, otherwise I will be rejected
  • Risk is to be avoided at all costs
  • I have to show people how intelligent, capable and accomplished I am before people will listen to me and take me seriously.

Tara argues that when you can name your self-stories, they lose their power to control you – to influence your thoughts, emotions and behaviour.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can expose our self-stories, increase our awareness of how they impact our lives and relationships and reduce their (unconscious) hold over us.

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Image source: courtesy of johnhain on 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.

Loosening the Hold of False Beliefs

In a previous post, I explored the nature of harmful beliefs, how they arise and the negative impact they have in our lives. In this post, I want to focus on ways to challenge and manage these harmful beliefs and how to progressively break free of their hold over us – releasing the tight fist that constrains our interactions with others and blocks our creativity.

Again, I will be drawing on the wisdom and insight offered by Tara Brach in her new course, Releasing Negative Beliefs & Thought Patterns: Using Mindfulness to Break Out of the Trance.   Tara argues that the way to break free of the hold of our false beliefs is to recognise them for what they are, investigate them and their impact in our lives and practice mindful awareness to ground ourselves in reality, rather than live out a figment of our imagination.

False beliefs – their true nature

Tara explains that many of the beliefs we hold about ourselves and others are not only harmful but are untrue – they are false beliefs. She maintains that they are “true but not real”. The beliefs are true in the sense that we create them in our minds and experience them in our bodies – whether the tightness of fear, the restlessness of anxiety or the unsettled stomach flowing from worry. Tara cites Hildegard de Bingen who speaks of the impact of our beliefs in terms of creating an interpretation of reality – developing a mental map that is not the territory or as Hildegard describes the unreality of our self-beliefs, “An interpreted world is not a home”.

So, the starting point for loosening the hold of these false beliefs is to recognise them for what they are – an interpretation we impose on the world and people around us. We substitute our beliefs about ourselves and others for the real world – “we are unworthy and unlovable”; “they are more intelligent and resourceful”; “we do not deserve people’s appreciation or kindness”; “they are so much more accepted and accomplished than us”.

False beliefs can lead to “the disease to please”

False beliefs can lead to what Hariet Braiker describes as The Disease to Please. This “disease” manifests in a number of ways and can lead to “people-pleasing habits” designed to gain another person’s approval. The people-pleasing person puts the needs of everyone else before their own which leads to personal overload and ill-health. They may denigrate their own contribution and over-inflate the contribution of others. These behaviours are self-defeating because the perceived ingratiating behaviour is viewed by others as insincere and “over-the-top” – thus negatively impacting significant relationships.

False beliefs about oneself lie at the heart of these habits and are reflected in a mindset that “being nice” will ward off rejection or harm by others – a potential rejection or harming perceived as warranted by us because we believe that we are “unworthy” or “unlovable”. These deep-seated, self-beliefs can arise from past adverse or traumatic experiences, including abuse by our parents or others.

Investigating false beliefs

Tara suggests that false beliefs about ourselves and others can be sustained by us because they are never subject to investigation or personal inquiry. She provides a series of questions that can help with this inquiry and lead to enhanced self-awareness. I have reframed the questions below which can be explored in a meditation session on a conflictual encounter or a blocked endeavour:

  1. What is my belief that is getting in the way? – naming the belief to tame its impacts
  2. How true is this belief or is it simply untrue?
  3. What happens for me when I entertain this belief – in what ways do I suffer, and my relationships/endeavours suffer, because of this belief?
  4. What would my experience of relationships (or of the achievement of creative endeavours) be like if I no longer entertained this belief?

Tara suggests that the release from false beliefs is a progressive “letting go” that can be blocked sometimes by our need for control. In letting go of false beliefs, we can experience uncertainty and insecurity because we have created a vacuum – we have not replaced these beliefs with ones that are grounded in reality. Through meditation, we can learn to substitute beliefs that affirm our worth, our lovability and our good intentions.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on conflicted situations or blocked endeavours, we can name our false beliefs, challenge their distortion of reality and loosen their hold on us. This will free us to engage more fully and positively in relationships and release our energy for creative endeavours.

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Image source: courtesy of johnhain on 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.

Breaking Out of Our Belief Trance

Tara Brach suggests that we often live in a self-absorbed trance generated by our false beliefs about ourselves and our learned beliefs about others. She offers ways to address these beliefs and their damaging effects in her new course, Releasing Negative Beliefs & Thought Patterns: Using Mindfulness to Break Out of the Trance.   Her mindfulness course, involving 26 lectures and 2.5 hours of video, provides ways to identify and manage our harmful beliefs

How harmful beliefs arise

Harmful beliefs about ourselves and our self-worth develop at an early age through a range of influences – parental, peer and/or religious education. Our parents can sow the seeds for a diminished self-esteem by reminding us that we are not as good as some comparative child, a sibling or classmate. We might be told that our academic or sporting achievements fall below their expectations of us or what they themselves achieved. Our peers are constantly comparing us to themselves and other peers as they too are consumed by the self-absorption trance. Our religious education might reinforce our low self-esteem by telling us that we are inherently “bad” and sinful.

These influences on the formation of our negative self-beliefs can be compounded by traumatic childhood experiences such as getting lost in a store, being placed in an orphanage for a period or being left in the custody of one parent following a divorce. These experiences can deepen our sense of rejection and heighten our beliefs about our “unworthiness” or our sense of being “unlovable”. Over time, these beliefs can become deeply embedded in our psyche and confirmed by our unconscious bias towards a negative interpretation of events impacting us.

Impact of harmful beliefs

Our self-beliefs play out in our thoughts and emotions and impact our interactions with others. Negative beliefs leading to diminished self-evaluation can reinforce our sense of separateness and the need to protect our self from others who might further damage our self-esteem.

We may try to conceal our shame or project it onto others through anger and resentment. Underlying our interactions is a constant fear that we will be damaged by others – a fear reinforced by our past experiences. We may have difficulty developing close relationships (we keep trying to “keep our distance”), building motivation to take on new challenges or overcoming a deepening sadness or depression. We begin to see the world and others through dark clouds that distort our perception of people and reality and their inherent beauty.

Breaking out of the belief trance

Tara’s course is designed to help us to identify our harmful beliefs, understand how they play out in our life and interaction with others and develop techniques and strategies to limit the harm caused to our self and others as a result of these beliefs.

She offers, among other things, a brief guided meditation focused on a recent, conflicted interaction we have had with someone else. After taking time to become grounded, she suggests that you focus on the conflicted interaction and explore your self-beliefs that are playing out from your side of the conflict. You might ask yourself, “What nerve is the interaction activating? (e.g. a fear of criticism); “What am I doing to the other person in the conflict? (e.g. destructive criticism or calling them names); or “What am I doing to protect myself and my sense of self-worth (e.g. justifying my words and/or behaviour).

Having teased out what is going on for you in the interaction in terms of personal sensitivities and your self-protective behaviour, you can begin to explore the self-beliefs that underlie your part in the interaction. These may not be immediately evident as they are so deeply embedded and reinforced, but over time they will emerge from the mist of self-deflection. If you repeat the guided meditation on harmful beliefs following other conflicted interactions, you can gradually begin to see more clearly and notice a pattern of behaviour, thoughts and underlying beliefs. Once you have identified what is going on for you, you are better placed to manage your personal interactions.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on our conflicted interactions, we can become more attentive to what is happening for us, understand our part in the conflict, identify our harmful self-beliefs and progressively manage our beliefs, thoughts, emotions and behaviours. We can become more connected to the world and others and less insistent on defining and reinforcing our separateness. In this growing self-realisation lies the seeds of compassion.

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Image source: courtesy of Skitterphoto on 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.

Developing Mindfulness through Managing Making Mistakes in Tennis

You might wonder what mindfulness has to do with making mistakes at tennis. If you learn to effectively manage making mistakes at tennis you can achieve two important mindfulness skills, (1) accepting what is and (2) reducing negative self-evaluation.

Accepting what is – you will always make mistakes in tennis

Tomaz Mencinger, Slovenian tennis coach, reminds us that no one has zero tennis mistakes, no matter what their level. If you watched world no.3, Roger Federer, play 20 year old, Greek tennis player, Stefanos Tsitsipas, at the 2019 Australian Open, you will have noticed how many mistakes Federer made, even on his trusty backhand – a total of 55 unforced errors. This level of errors occurred even though there were only a few points difference influencing the final result – Stefanos Tsitsipas won 6-7, 7-6, 7-5, 7-6.

The reality is that tennis is such a complex game for mind and body that it is inevitable that you will make mistakes – everyone does, no matter what their level of competence and mental capacity. Tomaz reminds us, in his landmark article on making mistakes in tennis, that a part of the brain, the cerebellum, controls our movement, coordination of muscle activity and our balance at any point. The cerebellum is taught over time through our training and activity how to assess what kind of bodily response is needed to respond to the challenge of a tennis shot from an opposing player. As Tomaz points out in his profile story, hand-eye-coordination, for instance, can be developed through various sports and utilised by our brains to direct our bodily response in tennis.

When you think about what is required to hit a tennis shot in response to a shot from another player, you can begin to realise how complex the response mechanism is and how easy it is to make a mistake in tennis. For starters, the brain must register the speed, spin and likely trajectory of the opponent’s shot (data taken from observing the force applied, the angle of the racquet, positioning of the body, experience of the opponent’s shot-making, how the shot is being disguised and the overall game strategy of the opponent). Your brain then has to direct your physical response – which is limited by your awareness, physical capacity, energy level, skill and prior experience. On top of this, as Roger Federer found in his match against Tsitsipas, a changing environment can impact the effectiveness of your shot-making (e.g. if the balls are heavier because of the night atmosphere or from closure of the roof over the tennis court).

You might think that as you improve through coaching and training, you will be free of mistakes in tennis. Tomaz argues that this is an impossible ask – you will continue to make mistakes no matter how proficient you become at shot-making. Part of the explanation for this is that as you become more competent, you take more risks and try to make more difficult shots, e.g. attempting to create greater angle, slice, depth and/or speed with your volley. So, we are programmed to make mistakes, even though we can play better shots more consistently with practice and coaching. Tomaz maintains that our percentage of errors over shots remains relatively the same over time, even as we improve our proficiency in playing tennis.

Of course, as you age, you lose some of your capacity – your eyesight declines, your reflexes slow, your mobility reduces and your muscle power declines (even when you undertake exercises to reduce the rate of decline). All these declining physical features impact both what your mind sees and interprets and how well your body can respond to the messages from your cerebellum. So, as you age, you not only need to accept making mistakes but that the rate of mistakes will more likely increase owing to declining mental and bodily facilities.

Tara Brach reminds us that a “willingness to be with what is” represents a core component of mindfulness along with internal and external awareness and open curiosity. Accepting that you will make mistakes in tennis is a good discipline for developing the mindset of accepting “what is”. This does not mean that you do not try to improve your technique, fitness, and balance – your ongoing enjoyment of the game will depend on observable improvements that you can make, e.g. better speed and/or placement of your serve, more effective and penetrating volleys or more consistent backhand shots.

You could also focus on improving mental resilience as the inner game of tennis is as important as its external manifestation. What goes on in your mind during a tennis game can dramatically affect the outcome and your level of enjoyment. Learning to deal with negative self-evaluation after a mistake is a key element of this positive mental state.

Reducing negative self-evaluation

I have written a lot about negative self-evaluation and the positive impact that mindfulness can have on redressing the negative outcomes of such evaluations. Tennis with its mistake-prone nature provides a great opportunity for us to practise overcoming our negative self-evaluations and be more mindful of the enjoyment of playing tennis and interacting with others.

A starting point is to develop self-awareness around your own response to making mistakes. Do you frown, pout, scowl, hit a shot in anger, swear, psychologically withdraw or bounce your racquet. These are external manifestations of a state of frustration at making mistakes in tennis. They reflect an unrealistic expectation that you can be mistake-free in tennis – no one can! So, a key aspect of self-regulation and associated mindfulness, is to adjust your expectations of yourself when playing tennis.

Typically, we will engage in negative self-evaluation when we make a mistake – “What a silly thing to do”; “How could I possibly miss such a simple shot?”; “People will think I can’t play tennis”; “How stupid am I”; or “I’m letting my partner down”. We will blame the mistake on the fact that we did not bend our knees far enough, took our eyes off the ball, lost concentration, misjudged the speed of the ball, and many other defects in our game. The problem with negative self-evaluation is that it does not improve our game but leads to lower self-esteem and loss of confidence – all of which, in turn, negatively impacts our tennis game and increases the likelihood of errors.

Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us that mindfulness entails being in the present moment non-judgmentally. If we learn to manage our negative self-evaluation when making mistakes in tennis, we can develop mindfulness – awareness in, and of, the moment, without resorting to negative self-judgment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and by effectively managing making mistakes in tennis, we can have a more productive game, interact more positively with others and really enjoy the experience of being able to play tennis. Effective management of mistake-making in tennis involves accepting that mistakes will happen and avoiding negative self-evaluations as a result.

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

Image source: courtesy of moerschy 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. 

Developing a Balanced Mind

Tara Brach in her meditation podcast on Creating a Balanced Mind, reminds us that a key element of mindfulness is accepting what is, being able to remain calm in the face of the ups and downs of life. She argues that meditation enables us to develop a balanced mind, calmness in the face of the various vicissitudes of life. Tara also offers a specific meditation that focuses on developing that calmness and equanimity.

Accepting the ups and downs of life

We have all experienced aspects of life that are disconcerting or even distressing – whether ill-health, ageing, trauma, pain, disappointment or loss. We would much prefer a life of pleasure rather than pain, one of praise rather than blame or criticism. Mindfulness helps us surf the waves of life and prevent us from drowning in the downsides that we experience as part of being human.

Mindfulness developed through meditation enables us to accept what is – mentally and emotionally acknowledging what is happening to us but maintaining our calmness and balance despite the stresses of life. If we are ageing, for example, there is no point in railing against the progressive loss of our faculties, both physical and mental. We can take constructive steps to redress our situation or slow our decline, but accepting what is requires a balanced mind, a capacity to maintain calmness, rather than agitation, in the face of the downsides of life.

Sometimes it helps to reframe a situation that we are experiencing – being able to look at the bright side. Recently, I was getting upset that I could not play some tennis shots that I used to be able to do. This was during a doubles match involving two young people as opponents. I found it embarrassing that I was not able to hit some simple shots. What had happened was that I had lost strength in my wrist and forearm through injury. I could continue to be upset and get “down in the dumps” or, alternatively, I could accept the situation calmly, take some constructive action, and reframe the experience.

On reflection, after undertaking the balanced mind meditation discussed below, I was able to see that the fact that I was not able to use my full power at tennis, enabled the young people to be successful, practise their shots and learn to develop tennis strategy during a game. The meditation has helped me to do two things – (1) take constructive action to strengthen my arm and wrist through exercises and (2) reframe the situation in a positive way as an opportunity for the young people to explore their own developing capacities. The calmness achieved in meditation can enable us to reframe our situation and more readily accept what is.

Developing a balanced mind meditation

In the meditation podcast mentioned above, Tara provides a specific meditation designed to develop a balanced mind – calmness in the face of the downsides of life. This meditation begins with being grounded through our posture and conscious breathing. The first stage may involve taking a number of deep breaths and breathing out to relieve any tension in your mind and body.

Tara spends considerable time helping you to tap into your breathing and where you feel it in your body. She also suggests listening to the sounds around you, without interpretation or evaluation of the sounds. Tara maintains that mindful breathing or mindful listening can serve as anchor during your meditation. I find, however, that it is easier for me to stay grounded if I focus on my breath rather than sounds, the latter tends to be distracting for me (unless conscious listening is the primary focus of my meditation, as when I am enjoying the sounds of birds in a natural setting).

One thing that I find grounding is the way I position my hands during a meditation. I have my hands resting in a relaxed manner on my thighs but with my fingers on one hand touching those on the other hand. I find that I experience strong sensations through my fingers during meditation, such as tingling, warmth and energy flow. The simple process of bringing my fingers together can increase my grounding during meditation and can be an anchor that I can recall at any time or anywhere during the day to access calmness and a balanced mind.

Tara suggests that if you experience a compelling distraction during the meditation, you can focus on the distraction temporarily, but build the discipline to return to your meditation focus. For example, if you experience pain in your forearm, you can focus on that part of your body and soften your muscles to release the tension, then return to the focus of your meditation. This builds your capacity to focus and to sustain your calmness in the face of setbacks.

Capturing the experience of calmness

Tara suggests that during the meditation discussed above, you can become aware of the calmness and equanimity you experience in the process of the meditation. The meditation itself involves developing calmness through focusing on something other than what upsets you, e.g. focusing on your breathing or sounds around you. As you experience a sense of ease and peace, you can dwell on those feelings to reinforce what a balanced mind is like and what meditation can do to help you achieve this state.

She also offers a further way to reinforce the sense of calmness by having you recapture a pleasant experience where you felt at ease and calm, e.g. enjoying nature, being with friends, executing a successful tennis shot, being still on a beach or staying calm in a crisis.

The meditation can be concluded by thinking of a future, potentially stressful event and exploring acceptance of the event, e.g. a biopsy, and picturing yourself meeting the event and its outcomes with calmness and equanimity.

As we grow in mindfulness through the balanced mind meditation, we can approach the downsides of life and daily stressors with calmness, rather than anger, resentment or frustration. This opens the way for calmness, clarity, reframing and achieving equanimity, despite the upsetting waves of life.

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

Image source: courtesy of bertvthul 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. 

Overcoming Our Defences: Opening to Vulnerability

Tara Brach provides an extended, profound and thought-provoking talk and meditation on the topic of vulnerability and intimacy. She highlights the fact that our innate tendency to protect ourselves from vulnerability is something that we share with nature. Tara discusses the elaborate defence mechanisms that humans develop to ward off vulnerability and argues that these defences become a barrier to intimacy, creativity and a life lived fully. While it takes courage to let down our defences, the starting point is to deepen our awareness of our own individual defences through meditation and mindfulness.

Vulnerability – our common condition with animals and nature

Tara highlights the fact that experiencing vulnerability is part of our evolutionary condition – a condition we have in common with animals and nature. Cats for example hiss or spit when they are fearful and feel threatened. Hope Ferdowsian in her book, Phoenix Zones, emphasises the vulnerability we share with animals and highlights the need to “value vulnerability”. Joanne Kennell discuses some of the very strange ways plants protect themselves from predators to reduce their vulnerability. One of the more fascinating defence mechanisms is the complex defences created by the Bullhorn acacia tree which Joanne explains “house and feed aggressive ants” that, in turn, protect the plant from anything – plant, animal or fungi – that will threaten the plant.

It is natural for us as humans to feel vulnerable and just as natural for us to develop our own defence mechanisms. Tara points out, though, that what served originally as a productive defence mechanism can soon become an unhealthy habit that proves injurious to us. She mentions self-protecting defences such as pretences (pretending to be what we are not), hiding our feelings such as disappointment (to prevent exposing ourselves and our vulnerability) and withdrawing (physically and/or psychologically).

Our culture reinforces our innate tendency to hide our vulnerability because of the emphasis on being strong, competitive and independent, along with a focus on external things such as looks, dress and status. We want to be seen to be “cool”, “with-it” and confident.

Accessing our vulnerability


To overcome this innate and environmental conditioning to hide our vulnerability requires insight and courage. Tara explains that, because of the extent and depth of our conditioning, willpower alone will not remove our self-sabotaging defence mechanisms. What is needed is a deeper awareness of our individual defence mechanisms, insight into how they impact us and openness to the vulnerability that they hide.

Tara suggests that one way into our defences to achieve “de-armouring” is to answer a number of questions that are summarised below:

  1. Do I recognise my unique knowledge, skills and experience and am I prepared to use them to help create a better, healthier world?
  2. Am I aware of the many ways that I protect myself from being vulnerable?
  3. How do I relate to a sense of vulnerability when it arises in me?

A short meditation practice for accessing vulnerability

Tara offers a short meditation practice (at the 22.30 min mark) that can be undertaken at any point during the day – e.g. when you park your car or while you are walking. The basic process is to “stop and pause” to get in touch with your feelings of vulnerability – an approach you can use to get in contact with your “everyday vulnerability”.

You begin by closing your eyes or looking downwards and using your breath as a pathway to your vulnerability. As you breathe in, ask yourself “What is happening for me now?; In what way am I feeling vulnerable?; “How am I relating to this sense of being vulnerable?” As you breathe out release any physical tension associated with feeling vulnerable and open yourself to your potentiality.

Tara maintains that as we learn to “relate to” vulnerability, rather than “relate from” vulnerability, we are able to free ourselves from the limitations created by these feelings. Part of the power of this process comes from naming our feelings.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation and accessing our vulnerability we can become more aware of what makes us feel vulnerable and how we experience and relate to this vulnerability. We can begin to create an openness to being vulnerable and learn to relate to this feeling with understanding and acceptance of what is. This will enable us to move forward more courageously and creatively.

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

Image source: courtesy of ulleo 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. 

Developing Trust and Your Sense of Belonging

Tara Brach in a video presentation on Basic Trust highlights the importance of trust and a sense of belonging in our lives. She stresses the role of trust in shaping our view of ourselves, the quality of our relationships and our perception of the world around us. Tara contrasts this positive sense with the distrust and sense of separation that can pervade our view of ourselves, others we encounter and the world at large.

The sense of separation versus the sense of belonging

Tara suggests that our sense of separation is part of our evolutionary condition – we develop a sense of our separate self very early on. However, our culture and our parental influences can potentially drive a wedge between ourselves and our sense of belonging. If in our early stage of development, our needs are not recognised or met, we begin to sense that we are “not good enough” – we begin to feel separation and distrust. Our culture stresses the importance of “making it” – whether in terms of economic status, job role, relationship status or intelligence levels. If we have not made it in terms of cultural expectations, then we feel we are not a genuine part of our group or community.

If we are different at school – failing to fall into the narrow band of children gifted with left-brain intelligence – we can feel less than others, even though we may excel at other forms of intelligence, such as spatial intelligene or musical intelligence. If our personality is different from the dominant personality type in our work organisation, we can feel less than others or even a “misfit”.

There are many ways we can receive messages about our separateness or not being good enough to belong. Many religions reinforce our “sinfulness” or unworthiness, highlighting what is deficient in us rather than what is good and kind in our nature. As we feel a sense of separateness, we tend to build up our defences to protect our fragile ego and this can lead to a tendency to only see the defects in others, to become blinded to what is good in them.

A sense of belonging builds trust

Much of what we hear about ourselves and reinforce in our own narratives, is that we do not belong. However, if we can develop a sense of our own goodness and that of others we can learn to trust ourselves and those around us and be less ego-driven and self-protective. Tara suggests a brief meditation to highlight our sense of belonging that involves several core questions:

  • To what extent do we belong to our bodies (accepting them as they are)?
  • How much are we in touch with our own heart and kind feelings?
  • How strong is our feeling of belonging in our significant relationship?
  • Do we experience a sense of belonging in our family?
  • How much are we connected to the people around us, in our work or our community?
Developing a sense of trust and belonging

The absence of trust impacts our sense of belonging.  However, we can build our sense of trust in ourselves and others by meditating on (1) our inherent goodness and (2) the goodness in others.  We can become aware of our inherent goodness by focusing on our appreciation of beauty in nature, in music, or in art; by a sense of gratitude for kindnesses extended to ourselves or others; by experiencing a collective sense of joy when someone overcomes adversity; or by valuing the connection with family or friends.

Our sense of our own goodness can be realised through the experience of positive emotions through music or musical performances.  We can perceive our own thoughtfulness when we go out of our way to help someone in need.  Our essential goodness is evident when we appreciate when someone else has a achieved mastery of some skill or activity.  It is at times like these that we feel “at home” with ourselves and who we are.

Tara provides a brief guided meditation (at the 31.55min. mark) that helps us to feel good about ourselves and identify the goodness in others around us.  She strongly suggests that we share our appreciation of others with them directly – we all need reinforcement of our essential goodness to build our trust and sense of belonging. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on the inherent goodness of ourselves and others, we experience a freedom from the binds of negative self-evaluation and become more open to acts of kindness and creative use of our core skills and knowledge in the service of others.  Meditation helps us to “lift the veil” on our goodness and to see ourselves as we really are in our essence.

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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. 

Compassion: Exploring “Where Does it Hurt?”

Tara Brach in presenting during the encore of the Mindful Leadership Summit, discussed the nature of compassion and how to develop it through mindfulness.  Tara’s talk was titled, “Radical Compassion: Awakening Our Naturally Wise & Loving Hearts“.  She highlighted the fact that our limbic system (emotional part of our brain) often blocks our compassion.  She offered a short meditation to help us to get in touch with understanding ourselves and to free up our “naturally loving” and compassionate heart.

Perpetuating the “Unreal Other”

Tara spoke about our tendency, and her own, to negatively impact close relationships through treating the other person as an “unreal other”.  This involves being blind to their existence and needs because of our pursuit of our own needs for reassurance, confirmation of our own worth, sense of power and control or many other emotional needs that arise from our desire to protect our self-esteem.   This preoccupation with fulfilling our own needs leads to judging others, instead of showing compassion towards them.

At the same time, we are captured by the “shoulds” that play out in our minds through social conditioning.   The “shoulds” tell us what we should do or look like, how to behave or what to say.  These mental messages perpetuate self-judgment which, in turn, blocks our sensitivity to the needs of others and our compassionate action.  Mindfulness can help us to get in touch with this constant negative self-evaluation and open the way for our compassionate action.

The difference between compassion and empathy

Tara pointed out that compassion arises out of mindfulness, whereas empathy engages our limbic (emotional) system.  Too much empathy can lead to burnout, resulting from taking on the pain and suffering of others.  She points out that neuroscience demonstrates that compassion and empathy light up different parts of the brain.  Compassion engages the neo-cortex and is linked to our motor system – compassion is about understanding another’s pain and taking action to redress it.  Empathy is another form of “resonance” but it results in immersion in another’s pain.

A short meditation: “Where does it hurt?”

Tara offered a brief meditation to help us to get in touch with how the limbic system sabotages our compassion.  The meditation begins with recalling an interaction that upset us or made us angry.  Once we have this firmly in our recollection, we can then explore what was going on for us. What made us angry and what does this say about our response?  What emotions were at play for us?  Were we experiencing fear, shame, disappointment or some other emotion?  What deeply-felt, but hidden need drove this emotion?  If we can get in touch with this emotion and the need underlying it, we are better placed to be open to compassion.

Once we can get in touch with our own needs and how they play out in our interactions, we can begin to understand that similar needs and reactions are playing out for those we interact with.  Tara points out that we all have “a foot caught in a trap”.  For some, it may be the weight of expectations or anxiety over doing the right thing; for others, it may be grief over a recent loss or the pain and stigma of sexual abuse.  Once we move beyond self-absorption, we can recognise the pain of others and extend a helping, compassionate hand.   We can ask them, “Where does it hurt?, and we can be more sensitive to their response because we have explored our own personal hurts.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can better understand ourselves, our needs and the hidden drivers of our emotions and responses in interactions with others.  This will pave the way for us to be open to compassionate action towards others, including those who are close to us.

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

Image source: courtesy of eliola 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.