Identifying and Managing Harmful Beliefs

Tara Brach provides an insightful article on the nature and impact of harmful beliefs.   She explains the well-known fact that our beliefs about ourselves and others (that we hold to be true), influence our thoughts which in turn generate emotions that then shape our behaviour – especially our responses to what we perceive as negative triggers.   Tara points out that often our beliefs cause us suffering because while they are real, they are not true.  The negative bias of our brains serves to sustain these harmful beliefs.

Our false beliefs can take many forms:

  • I am not good enough
  • They are out to undermine me
  • I am not doing enough
  • I don’t deserve to belong to this group
  • They don’t want me to be a part of this activity
  • I am bad.

These negative beliefs can develop at an early age and be reinforced by our cultural environment and own life experiences.  Parental influences can play a big role, e.g. if we cannot live up to their expectations musically, academically or with sport.  We may have experienced early separation from one or both our parents either temporarily or permanently.  This can reinforce our natural inclination to separateness – seeing our self as separate from others- and develop a sense of what Tara calls, “severed belonging”.

Our negative beliefs about our self or others can lead to defensiveness and inappropriate behaviour in conflict situations.  Our beliefs act as a way to protect ourselves when we are feeling vulnerable.  These beliefs are often below the conscious level and can lead to unconscious bias.  The problem arises when we then use our experience, impacted by distorted perceptions, to confirm our beliefs, thus leading to “confirmatory bias”.  Tara suggests that our beliefs can act as a veil through which we see and interpret the world.

The reality is that our beliefs about our self and others are merely representations that serve as as “maps” to negotiate our interactions in daily life.  The problem, though, is that “a map is not the territory”.  Sometimes our “maps” are accurate and useful; other times they are flawed, misleading and a source of suffering.

Identifying and managing harmful beliefs

Tara provides an eight minute meditation podcast on how to come to grips with harmful beliefs and to manage them effectively.  The starting point after becoming grounded is to reflect on a situation where you were in conflict with someone else.

Tara draws on the work of Byron Katie, author of The Four Questions, to provide a series of questions that you can pursue as part of this beliefs meditation:

  1. What belief or set of beliefs was I entertaining during the interaction – what did I believe was happening? (identifying beliefs)
  2. Are these beliefs true or did I invent them to protect myself? (remembering that beliefs can be real to us but not true)
  3. How is my life impacted by this belief or set of beliefs – what is it doing to my day-to-day experience (am I feeling stunted, controlled or imprisoned by the beliefs?)
  4. What is the underlying vulnerability embedded in my belief/set of beliefs – does this exploration reveal a pattern?
  5. What would my life be like if I no longer held this belief or set of beliefs? (would I feel freed, better able to express compassion toward myself and others and able to develop my response ability?)

The process of identifying false beliefs and their impact on our thoughts, emotions and behaviour can create a new level  of self-awareness.  Once we have gained this insight, the process of managing our beliefs involves “letting go“, so we can progressively release our self from the distortions of reality involved, increase our openness, develop creativity and improve our relationships.

As we grow in mindfulness through beliefs meditation and reflection on our  less-than-satisfactory interactions, we can identify and manage false beliefs that bring suffering to our daily lives and achieve a new level of vulnerability, not higher levels of protectionism.

 

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

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Maintaining Calm After a Hectic Day

Elisha Goldstein, creator of the Course in Mindful Living, offers a brief mindfulness meditation designed to enable you to “relax and retune” after a day that has proved hectic for you.

When we have been “rushed off our feet”, we find that our mind is racing, and our body is uptight.  We can be assailed with endless thoughts that make it difficult to function effectively in our home environment – we take our work stress home.  We might also find that we are unable to sleep as a result of our many thoughts – about what we did or did not do, what we can do to rectify an adverse situation or how we can avoid such a situation in the future – our mind experiences continuous churn.   The day becomes a blur as everything goes out of focus.

We take our stress home not only through the busyness of our mind but also because our body is uptight.  We can feel tension in many parts of our body simultaneously – in our forehead, shoulders, back, chin, arms, legs and fingers.  We cannot escape the stress of our hectic day because its effects are embedded in our bodily sensations.

Maintaining calm after a hectic day

Elisha’s brief relax and retune meditation enables us to wind back our mind and body so that we do not carry forward our work stress and negatively impact our home relationships.  It is a brief mindfulness exercise designed to quickly destress us so that we can function more effectively in our home environment.

As with most meditations, relax and retune meditation begins with adopting a comfortable position and shutting out visual distractions – all designed to enable you to be grounded in the moment.  The early phase involves a few deep breaths, breathing in through your nose and while breathing out through your mouth imagining a release of tension in your mind and body.

This relaxed state is consolidated by focusing your total awareness on your breath and resting in the natural flow of your breathing, being totally aware of your in-breath and consciously letting bodily tension flow out with each out-breath.  It is important at this stage not to try to control your breath because this can lead to your body “tightening up” – you need to remain loose and let your body control your breathing.  This requires a degree of “letting go” – being vulnerable in the moment.

This relax and retune meditation can be completed in six minutes or it may take longer if you choose to extend the focus on your breath. As we have mentioned previously, it is important to let any distracting or disturbing thoughts float by – and not entertain them.  As you become more practised with this meditation, you will not remove your intruding thoughts all together but become more practised at letting them go, noticed but unattended – just like unwelcome visitors.

Even if your meditation efforts are not entirely successful at the start, it is important to acknowledge your concerted efforts to achieve self-regulation that is built on a foundation of self-awareness.  It is also essential to avoid “beating up on yourself” because of an imperfect result.  Mastery comes with the persistence and consistency involved in sustaining meditation practice.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices such as the relax and retune meditation, we can become increasingly aware of the effects of stress on our mind and body and learn to develop ways to achieve self-regulation and, ultimately, self-mastery.  We can begin to practise ways to wind down after the stress of a hectic day.

 

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

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Loving-Kindness Meditation: A Form of Gratitude

Jon Kabat-Zinn provides an extended loving-kindness meditation that incorporates gratitude for the love of the people in your life who are close to you.  It also involves self-love and kindness towards others who may have hurt you in the past.

Jon makes the point that engaging in loving-kindness meditation on a regular basis equips us to deal with the ups and downs of life.  It especially enables us to tone down our anger or rage towards another person who may have hurt us.  Our expression of gratitude and kindness helps us to restore equanimity in our lives.

Feeling the love

The loving-kindness meditation offered by Jon begins with capturing the essence of the love that a really close person in our lives shows toward us.  It involves basking in the ways that this unconditional love is expressed towards us while appreciating what it means to be loved for who we are.  Once we have captured these feelings of being loved, we can express kindness towards this person by repeating Jon’s words in a conscious, meaningful and personal way:

May they be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May they be happy and contented. May they be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible. May they experience ease of well-being.

Loving-kindness towards yourself

Jon’s meditation moves onto expressing loving-kindness towards yourself. This involves moving beyond any negative thoughts, self-criticism or self-loathing and being open to loving yourself as you are, taking your cue from those who love you unconditionally.

It is often difficult to embrace self-love and kindness towards yourself but the practice develops a healthy self-regard that enables you to rise above the thoughts that would otherwise drag you down.  The meditation involves recognition of your basic humanity.  By using the above-mentioned kindness phrases towards yourself, you are wishing yourself safety, happiness, good health and overall well-being.  In other words, you are  being kind to yourself.

Loving-kindness towards someone who has hurt you

In the meditation that Jon provides, he progresses to having us think about someone who has actually hurt us in some way.  He is not asking us to forgive that person but to acknowledge their basic humanity, just as we have done for our self.  This entails moving beyond the hurt to expressing kindness to the person involved through using the kindness phrases provided above.  This loving-kindness meditation helps to dissolve our hurt and anger and to see the person as connected to us through our universal humanity.

Expanding the field of loving-kindness

Jon suggests that the field of loving-kindness can be limitless.  We can expand our focus in the meditation to include people in the immediate world around us or in the broader world – focusing on individuals or groups, e.g. expressing loving-kindness to people who are experiencing the trauma of a hurricane or to volunteers helping to fight poverty.

You do not have to extend your field of awareness during this form of meditation – you can choose to restrict your focus at any point.  You may find, particularly with an extended meditation, that you become easily distracted.  In this case, as Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests, you can notice your distracting thoughts and imagine them as bubbles that burst as they reach the surface of boiling water or burst as a result of you popping them.

Loving-kindness meditation helps you grow in awareness of, and gratitude towards, those around with whom you come into contact on a daily basis.  It opens you up to appreciating the significant others in your life and to extending positive thoughts to the broader community, so that your awareness of your connectedness expands.  This form of meditation can also help to reduce anger towards others who may have hurt you – it enables you to expand your response ability in the process.  As you grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness  meditation you increase your awareness of others and empathy towards them.

 

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

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Meditation for Letting Go

Sometimes we can become consumed by anger and be captured by the thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations that accompany anger.  Meditation provides a way to let go of anger and its associated ill-effects.

The catalyst for your anger may be that someone did or said something that you considered unfair.  It may be that what was said or done frustrated your ability to meet your goal of helping other people to achieve something important.  You could feel aggrieved that the thought, effort and cost that you incurred for someone were unappreciated and/or devalued.  It could be that comments made by someone else are patently untrue or distort the real picture of your involvement.

The harmful effects of sustained anger

The problem with anger is that it is such a strong emotion, that we tend to hang onto it – we do not let it go.  We might ruminate endlessly on what happened, providing justifications for ourselves – our words and actions.  We could deflect the implied criticism by denigrating the other person’s intellectual capability or perceptual capacity.  We could make assumptions about their motivation and even indulge in conspiracy theory.

An associated problem with indulging in angry thoughts and sensations is that it harms both us and our relationships.  We are harmed because the negative emotions consume mental and emotional energy, distract us from the present moment (and all that is good about the present) and destroy our equanimity.

Indulged anger can lead to retaliation that harms the relationship with the other person.  It can also contaminate our relationships with other people who are important to us such as our partner, a friend or our children.  As a result of our sustained anger, we may appear aloof, critical, grumpy or unsympathetic to these important people in our life.

A meditation for letting go

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast on letting go.  She emphasises the fact that when we indulge a strong emotion like anger, the bodily manifestation of this can be experienced as tightness, tension or soreness – a physical expression of holding on.  We can even experience shallowness of breath as we hold the negative emotions in our bodies.

The first level of release through meditation is to focus on your breath – the in-breath and out-breath.  This mindful breathing can be viewed as letting go with each out-breath, releasing the pent-up thoughts and emotions that make you uptight.

As you progress your meditation and begin to restore some semblance of relaxation, you can then address the “holding on” in your body.  Through a progressive body scan, you can identify the parts of your body that are giving expression to your anger – you can physically soften the muscles (facial, back, shoulder, neck or leg muscles) that have become hardened through holding onto your anger.

Once you have become experienced in meditation, you can then begin to reflect on your response to the negative trigger that set you off.  This opens the way to look at how you responded and whether there was an alternative way of responding other than defensiveness or attack (flight or fight).  You might discover (as I did recently) that active listening would have achieved a better outcome, an improved level of mutual understanding and reduced stress generated by angry thoughts and emotions.

Taking this further, you could explore a powerful mindfulness meditation that can help you overcome ongoing resentment by enabling you to put yourself in the position of the other person to appreciate how they experienced your interaction – to understand their perspective, their feelings and their needs in terms of maintaining their identity (their sense of self-worth, competence or reliability).  The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) recommends this meditation practice for handling residual emotions and resentment resulting from a conflictual interaction.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection we can practise letting go of anger and other negative emotions by focusing on our breath, bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts and behaviour in an interaction.  Through the resultant self-awareness, we can improve our response ability.  By exploring the interaction experience from the position of the other person, we can also increase our motivation and our options to behave differently for our own good and that of the person with whom we have interacted.

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

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Improved Decision Making through Mindfulness Meditation

There are times when we have great difficulty making a decision.  We may be confused by the many options, daunted by the task and overly concerned about the outcomes.  Sometimes, if we are anxious, even relatively small decisions can leave us paralysed.

Decision making can be painful particularly if you can see multiple options and your anxiety grows with the inability to choose between them.  Sometimes this anxiety is driven by a perfectionist streak – we may want to make sure we make the right or perfect decision.  Unfortunately, this is rarely obtainable because we are often making decisions in the context of inadequate information.  The information we do have may be clouded by our emotions or attachment to a particular option or outcome.

Indecisiveness too can be compounded for different personality types.  For example, the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator suggests that people who have a Perceiving (“P”) type personality prefer to remain open and gather more information before making a decision, while the Judging (“J”) type personality likes to get things decided.  These personality traits can  lead either to an inability to make decisions or the habit of making hasty decisions to relieve the tension of decision making.

Improving decision making through mindfulness meditation

Diana Winston from MARC at UCLA provides a meditation podcast to enable improved decision making.  She suggests that we can use mindfulness to focus on our thoughts and emotions during the decision-making process.  In her view we can learn to be present to whatever decision making turns up for us.   We can use the principles of mindfulness to bring awareness to the discomfort of trying to make a decision.

Sometimes this will involve showing self-compassion towards ourselves – accepting that we cannot make the perfect decision, even with full information.  It requires acceptance of the fact that our decision making will be inadequate at times, but that this will provide the opportunity to learn and grow.   Mindfulness meditation can enable us to make the best decision possible at the time, uncontaminated by emotions that can cloud our judgement.

If we bring openness and curiosity to what we are experiencing during decision making, we can name our feelings and learn to control them.  We can better understand the patterns embedded in our decision-making processes.  For instance, we may find that once we have to make a decision, we automatically drop into negative thinking which generates anxiety about the possible outcomes.  Through mindfulness meditation we can learn to control these negative thoughts and focus on addressing the issue and the information available without our negative thinking confounding the issue.

If our thoughts keep wandering or negative thoughts intrude during the process of mindfulness meditation, focusing on sounds can help anchor us as listening is a natural process that we can do with minimal effort.  Listening to sounds can enable us to return to mindful decision making.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn more about the pattern of thoughts and emotions behind our decision making, bring them into the spotlight, and develop better self-management techniques so that our decision making is not delayed unduly or contaminated by negative thoughts and emotions.  We can learn to be more compassionate towards ourselves.  Mindful breathing can help us too to manage the tension of decision making.

 

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

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Developing Inclusion through Mindfulness

In a previous post, I discussed the six core traits of inclusive leadership and acknowledged the role that mindfulness plays in developing inclusion in our thoughts and behaviour.  In this post, I would like to develop this theme further.

Inclusion involves openness and receptivity to what is different and diverse.  It is the foundation of real knowledge, insight and wisdom.  It involves more than being sensitive to diversity but also valuing and embracing it.  So, it entails not only a way of thinking but also a way of being in the world.

Through mindfulness, we can become aware of our implicit biases and emotional responses to people who are different from us.  We are then better able to manage our habituated responses and increase our response ability.

So much of our bias is unconscious and conditioned by our social, cultural, geographical and educational environments and associated experiences.  One way into our biases is through meditation on our emotional reactions to people and situations that challenge our view or perspective of the world.  Our feelings of discomfort can portend our inner bias and raise awareness of our tendencies to exclusivity.

If we can stop ourselves from reacting automatically, breathe deeply and consciously, notice and name our feelings, we can respond more appropriately and, eventually, act in a more proactive and inclusive manner.  If we reflect on the pattern of our thoughts and actions when we meditate, we can isolate negative emotional responses to a particular person or group.  Having identified the stimulus and the nature of our reaction, we are better placed to manage our response.

When we reflect through meditation on our thoughts in particular situations, we can more readily isolate our assumptions and stereotypes and understand how they are impacting our behaviour.  Through this increased self-awareness, we are better able to develop inclusive thoughts and actions.

Research has demonstrated that loving kindness meditation, which typically incorporates self-compassion and compassion towards others, can mitigate unconscious bias.  This approach to developing mindfulness places increased emphasis on similarities and entails expressing desire for increased well-being, happiness, equanimity and resilience for others.  Development of positive intentions towards others builds an inclusive frame of reference and affirmation of diversity.

As we grow in mindfulness, we see our biases in a clearer light, understand their impact on our behaviour and become more open and able to adopt inclusive behaviour.  Developing inclusion in our words and actions can be achieved through mindfulness if we consciously employ meditations that invoke acceptance and inclusion.

 

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

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Cultivating Awareness of Others through Mindfulness

In the previous post, I mentioned the triad of awareness – awareness of self, awareness of others and awareness of the world around us.  In this post, I want to focus on awareness of others.

It is very difficult to be aware of others and thoughtful towards them in the busyness of our daily lives and the incessant distractions posed by disruptive marketing.  Our attention is continuously pulled away from inner awareness and awareness of others.

Our lack of awareness of others is often displayed in our blind spots – we are impervious to the effects of our words and actions on others.  It takes a conscious effort to get in touch with our core blind spot which may be blinding us to the needs of others in particular situations – whether at work, at home, or in the community.

Awareness of others requires that we move away from self-absorption.  We can become so immersed in our own feelings – pain, anxiety, sadness, boredom – that we are not aware of the feelings and pain of others.  We can also be so lost in our thoughts – planning, analysing, critiquing – that there is no room for thoughts of others.

Mindfulness to cultivate awareness of others

Mindfulness meditation is a way to break out of the trap of self-absorption – what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as thinking that we are the centre of the world.  With conscious and consistent meditation practice, we can increase our awareness of, and empathy towards, others around us.

Loving kindness meditation, for example, enables us to think about others and express the desire for them to experience wellness and happiness.  It takes us outside our self to thoughts about others and their needs and desires.

A simple related exercise is to recall a situation that has occurred that has caused pain and suffering for someone else or a group of people and place yourself in their situation – “What would they be feeling if they have just lost their child through an accident?”   As you engage in empathetic consideration of the people involved – family, friends, colleagues – you can extend the desire for them to manage their grief and to eventually experience equanimity.  If you were to do this daily, this could help to cultivate awareness of others.

Forgiveness meditation is a way to take ourselves beyond focus on our own pain and hurt from an interaction with someone else, to thinking about and feeling for the other person in the interaction.  It takes considerable awareness to move beyond our own sense of pain and righteousness to reflect on what happened for the other person.  Forgiveness meditation is a powerful way to move beyond self-absorption to awareness of others.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can cultivate awareness of others – awareness of their pain, thoughts and needs.  We can move beyond being self-absorbed to being thoughtful of, and considerate towards, others.

 

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

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Identifying Our Blind Spots through Mindfulness

One of the realities of human existence is that we all have blind spots – what others see in our words and action but we can’t see ourselves.  Our blind spots may be obvious to other people who can see patterns in our behaviour.  The problem is that we can never eradicate our blind spots completely but we can learn to identify them and learn to better manage our responses – to effectively reduce the hurt to others and to ourselves.

Kelly Boys, author of The Blind Spot Effect: How to Stop Missing What’s Right in Front of You, suggests that our blind spots have a number of dimensions:

  • Visual– we actually have a physical blind spot in our eyes. You can check out your physical blind spot in each of your eyes through this link.
  • Attentional – we can suffer from an attentional blind spot because of our lack of ability to truly focus.  Daniel Goleman suggests that the capacity to focus involves the triad of awareness – focus on ourselves, focus on others and focus on the wider context.
  • Cognitive – these are the fixed thoughts we carry about the world and ourselves in the world – “I’m not good enough”, “The world is not safe”.  These may have worked for us over time but will lead us to diminish ourselves and devalue the energy and support of others.  Cognitive blind spots can cut us off from experiencing the world as it is and limit our opportunities.
  • Behavioural– we may be totally oblivious to persistent patterns in our behaviour that are very obvious to others.  It may be the way we respond to criticism or attempt to please others all the time -what Harriet Braiker calls, The Disease to Please.
Identifying the core blind spot

Kelly, in her interview with Tami Simon, offered a simple exercise to help people identify their core blind spot – “the way we hold our perception of ourselves and the world around us together”.  Identifying the core, which often relates to a sense of separateness, can lead to a major transformation in our lives.

Kelly suggests that being still and open to the present moment is a key way to access our blind spots and to understand the underlying pattern in our perceptual, cognitive and behavioural responses. In the exercise she led during the interview she encouraged people to become grounded; be open to, and aware of, their senses (sound, sight, breath) and to notice any tension, tightness or contraction in their body.  Staying with this bodily feeling is a way into understanding the underlying blind spot – “Where does this tension come from?’ “What am I saying to myself about my looks or capacity?’ “How am I perceiving the world or the actions of others?” “How am I planning to respond – why?”

As we persist with this kind of exercise, where we use our bodily awareness as the gateway to our blind spots, we can delve deeper into our core blind spot and open up the way to respond very differently – we can better understand our reactivity in certain situations and increase our response ability.  This self-awareness and self-regulation are key outcomes of mindfulness practice.

As we grow in mindfulness we begin to recognise patterns in our thoughts and behaviour and what we pay attention to.  If we persist in the relevant mindfulness exercise, we will come to understand our core blind spot. This growing realisation opens up new possibilities for us as we free ourselves from the limitations in our perceptions and responsiveness that arise through our blind spots.

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

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How Does Mindfulness Impact Our Behaviour?

Research on mindfulness suggests that through meditation practice we become more connected with ourselves and more in control of our thoughts, emotions and resulting behaviour.  In particular, mindfulness improves the frequency and quality of our paying attention in the present.

Research by scientists on the outcomes of mindfulness point to the development of compassion, reduced sense of isolation, increased resilience and ability to handle stress – all of which impact our behaviour.

Exploring how mindfulness impacts our behaviour

We have to ask ourselves how mindfulness practice changes our own behaviour.  Do we stop ourselves from writing that cutting email when we become angry at an email we received?  Do we immediately retaliate with counter accusations when criticised by someone else?  To what extent has our awareness and understanding of another’s pain increased our empathy and become reflected in compassionate behaviour?

One of the challenges we face in translating mindfulness practice into changed behaviour is that our habituated behaviour is very difficult to change.  Even as we develop mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we will still have to deal with negative thoughts and emotions that arise spontaneously despite our best intentions.  However, our capacity to deal with these challenges should develop so that our response ability increases and we can overcome our habit of responding inappropriately to words or actions that trigger us.

If we do feel agitated, we can have the presence of mind to stop and take a breath, observe what is happening inside ourselves and use the gap between the stimulus (the trigger) and our response to manage our behaviour better.

We can begin to see that we are moving towards more kindness in our interactions with others – it could be that we notice people more, stop and talk to people who seem lonely or depressed, demonstrate more thoughtfulness towards others we encounter in daily life.

A meditation to explore the impact of mindfulness on our behaviour

We can explore for ourselves what impact our meditation practice is having on our behaviour by way of checking our progress towards achieving the equanimity of mindfulness.  We can review how often we have used mindfulness as a form of self-intervention to prevent us from saying or doing something that we considered inappropriate.

Tara Brach asks some penetrating questions about the ways in which mindfulness has positively impacted our behaviour.  In the related meditation podcast, Tara encourages us to let go of the past and attend fully to the present moment.  This meditation is particularly useful if you have reviewed your behaviour and found that you did not act mindfully.  It is a calming meditation that is strongly situated in the present moment and in what you are experiencing within and aware of in your immediate surroundings.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we can begin to see clearly observable changes in our behaviour particularly in moments of stress or when our negative emotions are triggered.  We begin to notice our capacity to control our thoughts and emotions and increase our response ability – to respond in more appropriate ways that build relationships rather than damage them.

 

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

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Being Mindful of the Past and the Future

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and doing so in a way that is open to, and accepting of, whatever is the reality of our lives.  It means not resisting our lives but approaching our lives with curiosity and a willingness to be with the present moment.

We often hear in the context of mindfulness that it is important not to be lost in the past (which leads to depression) or in the future (which leads to anxiety).  However, the past and the future have a positive role to play in our lives.

Mindful of the past

The opposite to being mindful of the past is to be always living in the past – obsessing about what might have been, what we could have done.  It is replaying in our head the negative things we have done or experienced – going over and over them so that the past controls us.  We can become obsessed about the past and stuck on what happened, unable to let go.  This inevitably leads to disappointment, frustration, sadness, resentment and depression.

Being mindful of the past can involve a positive approach to life.  If we reflect on our actions and the outcomes, intended and unintended, we can learn from this process, if it is done in a non-judgmental way.   Through reflection, we can really grow in self-awareness and self-management, because we can recognise the negative triggers, our responses and alternative ways of acting and being-in-the-world.

When we engage in gratitude meditation we can revisit in a positive way what has happened for us in the past.  We can appreciate the skills we have developed, the opportunities to acquire qualifications, the support of our parents/siblings/friends, the synchronicity that flowed from our focus, and the opportunities that opened up for us because of our life circumstances.

Mindful of the future

Approaching the future mindlessly can involve obsessing about the negative things that can potentially happen in our lives.  The word “potentially” is used consciously here- much of what we imagine will never happen.  We can easily get into a spiral of negative thoughts that leads to catastrophising- envisaging the worst possible outcome.  Unfortunately, our minds have a negative bias but we can train our minds to be positive in outlook and open to opportunities that may come our way.  A morbid fixation on the future can only lead to fear, worry and anxiety and destroy our potential for happiness in the present.

We need to attend to the future and this can be healthy and positive.  We have to plan ahead for many things such as getting to work, what to wear, what to focus on for the day, what we will have for dinner, what social events we will engage in on the weekend and our upcoming holiday.   Such planning and thoughts about the future are natural.   However, if we become overly concerned about what might happen or how our life will turn out in the future, we can enter a negative anxiety spiral.

Being mindful of the future requires a healthy approach to planning (not planning obsessively) and a willingness to accept what arises in our lives despite our very best plans.  It also means not being controlled by the expectations of others or our own expectations of how things might work out.

A meditation on the past and the future

Tara Brach provides a meditation podcast on exploring the past and the future. In the meditation she encourages you to notice any tension in your body arising from thoughts about the past or the future.  She suggests that you do not entertain these thoughts but let them pass by like the train as you wait at the station.  Her advice is to continuously come back to the focus of your meditation, such as your breathing or sounds that surround you, whenever your mind wanders into the past or the present.

Tara suggests too that if you are focusing on sounds, you could try to tune into the furthest sound you can hear and to rest in the sense of expansiveness that results.  The primary goal, however, is to rest fully in the present.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we can become mindful of the past and the future and avoid being captured by either.  We can extract from the past and the future positive thoughts and avoid dwelling on the negative which can lead to sadness and unhappiness.  We can learn to happily appreciate the present moment – the summation of our past and the positive potentiality of our future.

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

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