Deepening the Mind-Body Connection through Tai Chi

In the very early stages of this blog I discussed Tai Chi as a pathway to mindfulness.  I also highlighted the challenges I experienced in maintaining daily practice of Tai Chi along with meditation and writing this blog, when I still had a range of professional and personal  commitments to fulfill on a regular basis.   I concluded then that keeping the benefits of Tai Chi at the forefront of my mind, aligning my Tai Chi practice with the timing of my highest energy levels (I’m a morning person) and continuously reading and writing about Tai Chi would build my motivation for daily practice.

In 2018, I explored the benefits of Tai Chi for the mind-body connection based mainly on research that had been conducted at various centres of research at UCLA such as those focused on psychoneuroimmunology and East-West Medicine. This current post highlights the work of Dr. Peter Wayne who is associated with the Harvard Medical School.

Peter Wayne, who has spent decades practising, studying and researching Tai Chi, stresses the power of Tai Chi to deepen the mind-body connection.  Peter is the Research Director for the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and the founder of The Tree of Life Tai Chi Center

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi

In 2013, Peter published a book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, summarizing the research around Tai Chi and highlighting what he calls the “eight active ingredients of Tai Chi” which he had developed through his own research and the teaching of Tai Chi Masters.   These ingredients focus on the “biological mechanisms” that contribute to the wide-ranging benefits of Tai Chi including those related to cognition, breathing and neuromuscular control.  Peter points out that this focus on active ingredients helps him in multiple ways – in shaping a curriculum for teaching Tai Chi, in communicating with members of the medical profession and in establishing clinical trials.

In an interview with Dan Kleiman about his research and teaching, Peter explained that his early study of evolutionary biology and ecological modelling helped him to develop a systems perspective that is holistic in orientation and strongly akin to Chinese Medicine.  His orientation to integrative medicine and his mind-body perspective on Tai Chi flow from this early academic training and related research experience.  In a technical presentation Neuroscience in the Body: Perspectives at the Periphery, Peter highlights the downside of having multiple medical specialisations that contribute to “reductionist thinking” and blind us to the whole-body benefits of interventions such as Tai Chi.

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi identified in his book highlight his integrative, systems perspective:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Intention
  3. Structural integration
  4. Relaxation (of the mind and body)
  5. Strengthening and building flexibility
  6. Freer breathing
  7. Social interaction and community (if done in a group)
  8. Embodied philosophy and ritual.

Deepening the mind-body connection through Tai Chi

Peter explained in his interview with Dan Kleiman that the integrative nature of Tai Chi and its capacity to deepen the mind-body connection is demonstrated in the focus on mindful breathing (which is common to all martial arts).  He pointed out that mindful breathing requires improved posture; positively impacts your nervous system, cardiovascular system and mood; and stills what Seth Godin calls the “Lizard Brain” through enhancing the power of focus.  In Peter’s view, an ecological perspective on health recognises that all these processes of body and mind are intertwined and mutually interdependent.

In his neuroscience presentation mentioned above, Peter described Tai Chi as a “multi-component mind-body exercise”.  He stressed the interaction of mind-body through Tai Chi by stating that it “integrates slow intentional movement with breathing and multiple cognitive skills”. The cognitive skills he refers to include body awareness, focus and visioning using imagery.

He illustrated the benefits of the mind-body connection involved in Tai Chi by mentioning several research studies that show two key outcomes (1) the primary risk factor in falls of people over 65 is “fear of falling” and (2) Tai Chi has been shown to reduce the fear of falling by 35%.  Tai Chi achieves this result not only by strengthening muscles and improving coordination and sensation (especially in the feet), but also by reducing falling anxiety, increasing exercise self-efficacy and improving the “executive function” of the brain.  Peter suggests that Tai Chi is a “gateway exercise” – increasing people’s confidence to try other things that lead to overall wellbeing.

Reflection

Research into the impacts of Tai Chi reinforce its power to improve our mind and body and the mind-body connection that is so critical for daily functioning, quality of life and longevity.  I have already identified the personal benefits that motivate me to practise Tai Chi.  However, Peter’s research and presentation has increased my desire to improve the frequency of my Tai Chi practice. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, research and reflection, we gain a better understanding of the mind-body connection, the impacts of our thinking and self-stories on our intentions and the blockages that impede putting our resolutions into effect, particularly at this time of the year (with the start of 2020).  I can look forward to improved Tai Chi practice and the multiple personal benefits that can accrue (not the least of these being to improve my tennis game!).

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Image by Antonika Chanel 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.

Your Brain: A Source of Wonder in the Game of Life

The brain is amazing when you think about how much information it processes and how that influences our emotional and bodily response.  We have deeply embedded neural pathways that serve as short-cuts for determining an appropriate response.  However, our self-stories shaped by early childhood experiences can distort our perception and lead to inappropriate responses to situations that serve as triggers.

I am always amazed at the functioning of the brain when I play tennis.  When you think about it, the brain is taking in so many variables when a person serves or hits to you (all absorbed at an exceptional speed):

  • wind speed and direction
  • level of lighting
  • ambient sounds
  • sound of the ball on the racquet of the server
  • speed of the ball
  • nature of the spin on the ball (e.g. top-spin, slice, backspin)
  • relational information (where you are in the court and where your opponents are positioned)
  • attention level and readiness of your opponents
  • elevation of the ball (impacting the landing and bounce)
  • expected landing point of the ball
  • the nature and height of the bounce of the ball.

When you are receiving the tennis ball and returning your shot, your brain is determining how to respond to the information absorbed when the ball is hit by your opponent.  Again, your self-stories come into play here.  The inner game of tennis is critical as your self-belief impacts the choices you make re shot selection. 

When you think about it, you must make an instant decision about how you are going to respond to the serve/shot by your opponent:

  • the nature of your shot (e.g. forehand or backhand)
  • direction of your shot
  • speed and spin of your shot
  • positioning of your body for your returning shot.

How is it that your body responds unconsciously in some situations and does the perfect shot?  For example, when the ball is hit deep to your backhand side and your opponents are at the net, you automatically do a backhand, half-volley lob into the open court.  Some key influences here are your level of tennis competence (e.g. unconsciously competent as in the example situation) and memory embedded in your body.  Body memory is itself a complex process involving different elements such as proprioception (e.g. the capacity to know where a part of the body is such as the hand when you cannot see it).

Body memory is reinforced when you go to sit in the driver’s seat of your car and land with a thud (after your 6 feet 3 inches son has lowered the seat to suit his driving position).  Another example is when you are trying to put the forks away after dishwashing and someone has changed the positioning of the forks in the cutlery drawer (the other forks are not where you unconsciously attempt to place the clean ones).  The role of body memory in relation to trauma is well researched and documented which is why somatic meditation often plays a key role in recovery from trauma.

 Reflection

The brain is a source of wonder and yet we take it for granted so much of the time.  As we grow in mindfulness and awareness through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection, we can better appreciate the complexity and ingenuity of our brain, its role in our daily living and sporting activities and express gratitude for the wonder of it.  We are also better able to manage mistakes we make when playing tennis or undertaking other activities requiring complex information processing.

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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.

Being in the Zone Through Mindfulness

George Mumford, Mindfulness and Performance Expert, recently presented during the Embodiment@Work online conference coordinated by the mindful leader organisation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to encouraging and supporting mindfulness and compassion in the workplace. George works with elite sports teams and individual elite athletes, business leaders and academics to help them to achieve their very best. He is the author of The Mindful Athlete: The Secrets to Pure Performance.

Flow requires integration of body, mind and emotion

George argues that athletes, leaders and academics only achieve flow when they have achieved integration of their body, mind and emotions. What often stops people achieving their potential is what goes on in their minds which, in turn, negatively impacts their emotions. He gave the example of a young elite basketballer who can achieve a 90% success rate for three-points shots in practice, yet in a game situation her success rate drops to 33%.

We have previously discussed why it is so hard to serve out a match in tennis and how even top tennis players (men and women) often have difficulty with this feature of playing tennis. In both these examples, it is what goes on inside someone’s head that makes the difference – a difference in mindset from a positive outlook to negative anticipation.

Once people can achieve an alignment of body, mind and emotions they are open to the insight, wisdom and high performance that epitomises “being in the zone”. George argues that you can’t wish yourself there, but you can develop mindfulness so that the chances of being in the zone are increased. He maintains that it requires being present in the moment and being in control of your mind and emotions – traits that develop through mindfulness practice.

Once you are in the zone, all that is required is to let it happen. You are typically not in control – things happen spontaneously. You make the right choices, execute perfectly and achieve success. I recall being in the zone on one occasion when playing tennis against a a very good player – everything I attempted worked, stroke play was effortless and choices of shot and strategy were made without conscious intervention. At the time, I said to myself, “Just enjoy the moment while it lasts”. It lasted two sets – after which time my opponent gave up, not having won a game.

George reinforces the fact that there exists a space between stimulus and response and we can learn to use that space to make conscious choices rather than act out habituated, reactive behaviour. This form of self-regulation is achieved through sustained mindfulness practice.

Developing a mindfulness mindset

George contends that is not enough to sit, be still and maintain silence. Mindfulness must become a way of life – a sustained mindset. This can be achieved, in part, by adopting a variety of mindfulness practices in different settings as illustrated in the pausing approach described earlier or making conscious efforts to incorporate practices such as mindful walking, intention forming, open awareness or mindful eating.

George suggests that these regular practices help to develop a mindfulness mindset, but they are insufficient of themselves. He argues that we need to attempt to be fully conscious in the moment by asking ourselves a set of questions as we engage in any activity:

  • What is going on for me bodily, in my mind and with my emotions?
  • How aligned are my words and actions with my goal, my overall purpose and who I want to be?
  • Have I got the right balance of energy and effort, or am I over-exerting myself and being so energetic that it is counter-productive?
  • Do I have a firm belief in my ability to achieve the outcome I am seeking?
  • Am I distracted by negative emotions (fear, anxiety) or the inability to concentrate because of a lack of focus in the situation?

Performance growth through discomfort and mistakes

Being in the zone is more likely to occur when we are in a learning mode – open to alternative ways of doing things and to the vulnerability that comes with making mistakes. Jacob Ham argues that to overcome fear and anxiety in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, we need to develop a “learning brain” and to quiet our “survival brain”.

George suggests that there is no growth without mistakes – we have to try out innovative ways of doing things but this requires being “comfortable with discomfort” and being ready to be self-forgiving for our mistakes (which are a part of every sport or leadership role). It also entails a readiness to be vulnerable and a willingness to learn from the mistakes we make and adapt to new situations we encounter.

As we grow in mindfulness through various forms of meditation, different mindfulness practices and conscious questioning and curiosity about our mind in the present moment, we can achieve “innovative action” and approach the unique reward of being in the zone (whatever our endeavour).

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Image by Erich Westendarp 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.

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

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.

Why is it so Difficult to Serve-for-the-Match in Tennis?

I have been watching the live TV broadcast of the 2019 Australian Open. It is surprising how many players – great champions among them – who have great difficulty serving-for-the-match. The more they desire the win, the more often they fail at the final hurdle. There seems to be a number of contributing factors related to mindfulness that are behind this widespread difficulty – (1) anticipating the result, (2) negative self-evaluation for making mistakes and (3) fear of failure.

Living in the future: anticipating the result

Many players when they are so close to winning begin to think about what it would be like to win the prize money, hold the trophy aloft, receive the accolades of the crowd at the end of tennis tournament and gain new sponsorships. They lose focus on playing the game and instead begin to play the result in their head. The legends of tennis and other great players such as Sarina Williams emphasise the need to stay-in-the-moment and play each point as it comes, ignoring the score. Mindfulness training can help here because it builds that capacity to be in the moment and to stay focused.

Many quality tennis players develop their own anchors to remind themselves to stay calm and in-the-moment. The anchor could be a couple of deep breaths, mindful walking, stopping to focus on their breath for a few seconds or a speedy body scan and stress release, especially of the tension in their arms and shoulders. These anchors can be developed through mindfulness practice.

Living in the past: negative self-evaluation for making mistakes

So often even top players will make a double fault on their serve when serving-for-the-match. I have even seen both Nadal and Federer do this. The tension and stress of the moment can result in muscle tightness and weakness in the arms.

Mistakes at the final, critical stage can become more momentous in our eyes because of the potential consequences of these mistakes. So, the tendency to negative self-evaluation is heightened. This self-criticism can become self-defeating as it negatively impacts our self-confidence and self-esteem. The negative thoughts can swirl around in our heads at this time like a whirlpool -“Why did I do such a low percentage shot at this time?”; “What a stupid time to play a drop shot!”; or “Why did I go down the line when the whole court was open?”.

Under stress our judgement suffers, unless we have learned to manage the stress through mindfulness. If we continue with our negative self-evaluation, then we are sabotaging our winning position, as so often happens in tennis matches.

Fear of failure

Ivan Lendl is famous not only for his amazing achievements in tennis but also for his early failures in closing out matches when he was serving-for-the-match. He kept losing finals in major tournaments, but his real breakthrough came when he beat John McEnroe in the 1985 US Open final. He went from not being able to win a final to rarely losing one.

In reporting on Lendl’s 1985 US Open win, John Feinstein had this to say of the fear demons that had beset Ivan:

The demons have chased him around the world. From Paris to Sydney, from London to New York. Everywhere Ivan Lendl has gone, the fear has chased him. Burdened by his talent and penchant for failure when the pressure was greatest, he suffered with the knowledge that people respected his skills and questioned his courage.

Fear of failure can cause us to freeze, to intensify our negative self-evaluation and self-criticism for making mistakes. We can get into another negative spiral of thinking which is even more difficult to control – “What will people think/say about my failure?”; “I am letting down so many people who have helped me!; “What will my coach say?” or “So many people who have come to see the match will be disappointed (particularly likely if you are playing on your home turf)”.

Lendl overcame his fear, born of past failures to win major finals, and went on to win 8 major titles in all, and a total of 94 singles titles, achieving a match winning percentage of over 90% in five different years. Some commentators consider him to be the greatest tennis player to ever play the game

After his historic victory, Lendl commented about the destructive effect of fear in the closing stages of a tennis match:

The worst thing you can do is be afraid of something.

As I have discussed previously naming your feelings, e.g. fear of failure, can help you tame these emotions. The R.A.I.N. meditation is a specific meditation for addressing fear and overcoming the disabling effects that fear can have on you.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop anchors to help us stay in the moment at times of stress, to minimise our negative self-evaluation and face our fears so they do not disable us.

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

Image source: courtesy of mohamed_hassan 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 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. 

Overcoming the Obstacle of Doubt During Meditation

I have previously discussed a range of obstacles that can impact on our attempts at meditation – aversion, sleepiness, desire and restlessness. Today I want to concentrate on “doubt” as an obstacle or source of distraction during meditation.

Doubt is a common experience during meditation, particularly for people who are at the early stages of meditation practice.  We can doubt ourselves. whether we are doing it right or whether we are progressing at some ideal rate.  We can also doubt the process of meditation itself because we are so easily distracted, or we may not be experiencing the benefits that are claimed for meditation practice.

It is a common experience in learning any new skill, such as playing tennis, that we will have doubts and some confusion about what we are trying to learn.  It is also easy to give up when we are in the early stages because we are conscious of our incompetence.  Early on in meditation practice we are assailed with all kinds of obstacles and we can experience the strong temptation to give it away.  However, persistence pays in meditation as in other facets of our life.

We can find it really difficult to deal with the endless thoughts that assail us during meditation – the distraction of things to do, mistakes made, future pleasant events and related desire, impending difficulties or current challenges.  By letting these thoughts pass us by and returning to our focus, we are building our “meditation muscle” – our capacity to restore our focus no matter what the distraction or how often distractions occur.

With persistence in meditation we are able to bring our renewed level of self-awareness and self-management more and more into our daily lives – to overcome the challenges, tests of our patience and disturbances to our equanimity.

Overcoming doubt during meditation

Diana Winston, in her meditation podcast on managing doubt during meditation, provides us with some sound advice on ways to overcome these doubts as we meditate:

  • Accept the doubts – acknowledge the doubt as the reality of “what is” for you at the present moment. Focusing on the doubt and its manifestation in your body, enables you to name your feelings associated with the doubt and to “look it in the face”, rather than hide from it.
  • Don’t beat up on yourself – doubts assail everyone, particularly in the early stages of engaging in meditation practice.  The doubts themselves can lead to negative self-evaluation if you think you are the only one who has doubts.
  • Spend more time on being grounded during meditation – this process can take us out of our doubts and ground us more fully in the present moment.  Diana suggests, for example, spending more time on scanning your body for tension and letting go to soften the muscles in your abdomen, shoulders, back or neck.  Another suggestion she makes is to focus on the sounds around you – listening to them without judgement as to whether you like them or not, just focusing on the sound itself.
  • Remind yourself of your motivation in doing meditation – are you practising meditation to gain self-control, improved concentration, calmness in the face of stress, improved resilience in dealing with difficult situations or general wellness? If you can focus in on your motivation, you will be better able to sustain your meditation practice.  Learning any new skill takes time and practice and a sustained vision of the end goal.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can overcome doubts that serve as obstacles to our progress.  We can avoid the self-defeating cycle of indulging our doubts – our indulged doubts impact the effectiveness of our meditation which, in turn, increases our doubts about the value of meditation for us when we are already time-poor.

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

Image source: courtesy of danymena88 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.

Slow Down for Gratitude

In the previous post, I discussed being mindful at work.  Among, the suggested ways to be mindful in this environment were slowing down and being grateful.  If we slow the pace of our life wherever we are, we can focus on gratitude and develop not only a positive outlook on life but also the resilience to bounce back from setbacks, challenges and difficulties.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), maintains that mindfulness is very much about living more in the present moment.  In line with this view, she explains the nature of mindfulness in the following way:

Mindfulness is about paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is.

Diana provided this explanation when introducing a gratitude meditation as part of the UCLA’s free, weekly Mindful Awareness Podcasts.   In this podcast she highlights the value of being grateful for the small things that make up our daily lives, from moment to moment.

Gratitude for the small things in life

It is not a big deal to be grateful for the small things in our life that we take so much for granted.  We can overcome this lack of appreciation through overfamiliarity by slowing down what we are doing and expressing appreciation for the small things in our lives.  This can be done as part of a meditation process or “on-the-go-slow”.

Firstly, we can focus on our senses and the wondrous world that is open to us through sight, sound, touch, taste and hearing.   With sight alone, we have access to colours, shapes, lightness and darkness and the never-ending variety of the sky, the flowers and trees, the birds and the animals we encounter in nature.

With hearing, we can access a very wide variety of sounds, the nuances in people’s voices, the chorus of birds and the buzz of life around us.  Recently, I was playing a game of tennis against a young man who was deaf and his sister, and it prompted me in the moment to be grateful for my hearing.  He communicated with his sister by sign language but was unable to communicate with myself and my partner except by hand movements and limited facial expressions.  His hearing impediment clearly affected his game.  On reflection, I am now conscious that he could not hear the sound of the ball leaving the racquet and be able to judge the speed and distance of the ball that comes with hearing this sound.  So, there is a lot to be grateful for with the sense of hearing.

On another occasion, I was playing tennis with a male partner who was becoming increasingly agitated and frustrated with losing points because of his lack of timing and coordination.  The temptation was to join in with him and express my own frustration at my own lack of timing – negativity is contagious.  However, for once, I just expressed gratitude that I could be playing tennis after a long layoff, that I could run and still play some good shots.  I sensed, too, that my partner gained better self-control by the end of the game through the influence of my calmness and focus – positivity is contagious. If we slow down, and savour the moment and what we have, we can achieve better self-management through control over our emotions and our responses.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can more often be-in-the-moment, and develop our positive outlook on life and build our resilience in the face of setbacks, whether at work or play.

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

Image source: courtesy of dh_creative on Pixabay

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Savoring Your Achievements and Rewards

In his recent article on savoring practices, Barry Bryce, editor of mindful.org, suggests that we could savour our achievements and associated rewards to develop our mindfulness.

So often we move from one form of achievement to another – we might be writing, developing, creating, encouraging, inspiring or contributing on an ongoing basis.  These achievements can be in any arena of our lives – work, home or community.  We become so busy “doing” that we fail to savor the moment and the achievement involved.

According to the living Oxford Dictionary, an achievement is:

A thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage.

So an achievement is no mean feat – it is something requiring effort, skill and/or courage that has a successful outcome.  It is interesting that many people when asked to share an achievement have difficulty identifying one.  However, when helped to explore their work and life, they are sometimes able to list a number of achievements.  This indicates that personal achievements are not “top of mind” and are rarely savored.

Savoring your achievements

Part of the problem is that people often think that acknowledging and/or sharing achievements is boasting – a term that has many negative connotations and a very strong association with stereotypes.  While this perspective may prevent you from sharing your achievements publicly, it should not stop you from savoring them privately.

Savoring an achievement develops appreciation and gratitude for the gifts, skills, opportunities, resources and support that we so often take for granted.  It can build self-confidence and self-efficacy (the belief in our capacity to successfully undertake a specific task).  It enables us to grow in mindfulness as we increase our awareness in-the-moment of how we have used our skills, effort and/or courage to accomplish some outcome.  If the intent of savoring the achievement is to express appreciation and gratitude, this deepens our mindful practice.

Savoring our own achievements builds a positive perspective, reduces the possibility of envy and helps us to  acknowledge and appreciate the achievements of others.

Savoring your rewards

We can savor the rewards associated with our achievements by firstly identifying them and then appreciating them.  Rewards may take the form of intrinsic satisfaction, external recognition, a sense of purpose and contribution, physical or monetary outcomes, positive emotions, or increased connection with other people and/or our community.

Rewards are reinforcing – they strengthen our self-belief, encourage us to further achievements and increase the likelihood that we will be successful again.  Savoring rewards keeps these outcomes at the forefront of our minds and provides motivation for further achievement.

A personal reflection on savoring

In reflecting on what I have written above, I suddenly realised that I have been savoring achievement in one area of my life for many years – in playing tennis.  During a game of tennis, I try to remember at least one shot that I executed very well and achieved what I set out to achieve.  I now have a video archive in my head of numerous shots that I value as achievements – they involved the successful exercise of effort and skill, and sometimes, courage.  I learnt early on in playing tennis that part of the mental game of tennis is to focus on what you do right, not what you do wrong.  For me, one of the consistent rewards of these achievements, that I truly savor, is the sense of competence that I experience.  Another reward that I savor is reinforcement of my ability to execute a specific shot very well, e.g. a half-volley, a topspin lob or a drive volley.

If you practice savoring your achievements and the associated rewards, you will grow in mindfulness and increase your ability to be fully present in the moment. The development of mindfulness brings its own rewards of calm, clarity, creativity and consideration of others.

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

Image source: courtesy of Pezibear on Pixabay

Savor the Moment

It is interesting that we are frequently exhorted to “seize the day” – to make the most of the moment for our personal advantage.  It implies haste and possession – two primary descriptors of today’s fast-paced, “get ahead” world.

Barry Bryce, Editor-in-Chief of the Mindful Magazine and mindful.org, provides a very different exhortation in his article, Get Real with Everything: A Savoring Practice.

The article resulted from Barry’s commitment to maintain a savoring practice over a week-long period.  Through this practice, he came to identify seven ways that we could actually savor the moment.

“Savor” is not a term in common usage today as it implies a counter-cultural orientation.   The word in its American English form means:

To enjoy food or an experience slowly, in order to appreciate it as much as possible.

This is the meaning of “savor” behind Barry’s article.  His encouragement to savor everything relates to not only experiences we view as positive but also to those that, on the surface, appear negative.  Savoring these latter moments requires a positive stance – being able to perceive the positive in each situation irrespective of how it first appears.

In this post, I will concentrate on the first of those experiences that we normally view as positive – when things are good for us.

Savor the joy

Underpinning Barry’s orientation in the article is appreciation or gratitude for any experience in your life.  This perspective not only requires slowing down, but also overcoming a “taken-for-granted” attitude.

Barry suggests that when things are going well, you would naturally be able to savor the resultant happiness and joy.   He found that this was more difficult than he had imagined.  This is partly because we take things for granted and because there are different levels of savoring.  On the more immediate level, you can savor the smell of the flowers and trees, the rustle of the wind, the song of birds, the sight of a sunrise or sunset or the sheer joy of being able to walk or to do so in the fresh, open air.

At another level, that Barry refers to, is consciousness about your body and how it is naturally in-the-moment and in synch with what you are doing, e.g. walking.  This is appreciation of the way our body parts work together in unison to enable the act of walking.  I alluded to something similar in my recent article on developing mindfulness through tennis, when I expressed appreciation of the moment when the body and mind work in unison to assess the speed and spin of a tennis ball and to create a return tennis shot.

To savor the joy of the moment also entails overcoming the urge to “get somewhere” or to “do something” – both being obsessions of our times.  As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, we spend so much time “doing” that we have lost the art of “being”.

Mindful walking and mindful eating are other forms of meditation that entail savoring the joy of our actions and sensations in-the-moment.

As we grow in mindfulness through savoring the moment we are able to enjoy a richer and more rewarding life, to value what we have at the most basic level and to experience real happiness and joy.

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

Image source: courtesy of  MiguelRPerez on Pixabay