Our Thoughts Can Affect Our Performance

In the previous post, I discussed how nervousness can affect your mind and body and impact your performance.  I also looked at two strategies – naming your feelings and accessing your success anchor – to gain control over your nervousness.  In this post, I want to focus on how our thoughts can affect our performance.

Our negative thoughts

When we are nervous or anxious about our performance before some public activity, our minds tend to race, and we lose control over our thinking. We can be bombarded with a whole host of negative thoughts – “What if I forget what I was going to say?”, “What will people think of me?”, “How will I ever recover if I embarrass myself in front of my colleagues?”,  “Will I cope if they reject me?”, or “What if I do not meet their expectations?”

These negative thoughts often lead to procrastination.  I have found many times that people fail to start something because of these kinds of negative thoughts.  Sometimes, these disabling thoughts are not at a conscious level – they may just manifest as nervousness or anxiety.  This is where an exercise to name your feelings and the thoughts that create them can be very helpful.

Reframing with positive thoughts

I was recently following up people by phone who had participated in one of my courses – effectively a coaching session.  I was wondering what was causing me to procrastinate.  I have facilitated hundreds of courses and the people I was ringing were participants on my most recent course and yet I was nervous about the phone activity.  I started to follow the suggested step of naming my emotions and identifying the thoughts that gave rise to them.  The thoughts predominantly related to, “Would I live up to their expectations?”, and “Could I actually provide them with some help with their practice or project?”.  Sometimes, our doubts are not rational, but they persist.

Getting in touch with my feelings and negative thoughts enabled me to move on and actually conduct the phone coaching discussions.  What I found was that by controlling my negative thoughts through mindfulness, I was able to change my mindset and view the phone coaching differently.  I came to appreciate the very positive aspects of this exercise and this helped me to reframe the activity as relationship building.  I found that the participants were actually putting into practice in their workplaces the skills we covered in the course and they were having a positive impact on their workplace and the people in their team (intrinsically rewarding feedback!).

I came to the realisation yet again (somewhat blocked by my current anxiety), that my major role was to listen and ask questions for clarification and understanding (mine and theirs).  The experience then was very reaffirming.  Reframing the activity in positive terms, rather than focusing on possible (but not probable) negative outcomes, freed me up to perform better in the coaching interviews.  However, I have a long way to go to be free of “ego” concerns.

Becoming free of ego concerns

When we revisit our concerns or negative thoughts, we often have in advance of some public activity, we begin to realise how much “ego” is involved.  We are concerned about our image – how we will be viewed or assessed, what impact our performance will have on us or our future, what impression we will make or how embarrassed will we be if we “fail”.

These issues constitute ego concerns.  Tom Cronin (The Stillness Project) in his blog post, How to Find the Confidence to Speak in Front of 300 People, suggests that controlling your ego is a key aspect of gaining that confidence.  The less ego plays in determining how you feel about your forthcoming performance, the better you are able to just be present and appreciate the moment. Your presence and sense of calm can be very effective in helping you access your creative abilities and best performance.  He recommends daily meditation as a way to dissolve the ego and gain peaceful presence, no matter what we are doing:

… meditation plays a HUGE role. In the stillness of meditation we connect with that unbounded state of peaceful presence, beyond the limits of the ego. The work is to put aside time to meditate, and then outside of meditation, to observe the difference between that which is ego and that which is not. 

To remove all ego from our thoughts and activities requires a very advanced state of mindfulness.  As Tom indicates, this is a lifetime pursuit, because ego often gets in the road of our performance and our ability to have a positive impact.  However, we cannot wait until we are cleansed of all ego before we perform.

I have successfully addressed 1,800 people at a World Congress in Cartagena, Colombia in South America.  The topic was on action learning and I was doing the opening address as President of the Action Learning and Action Research Association.  My luggage had not arrived by the start of the Congress, so I had to present in my jeans that I wore on the flight over and a colourful Cartegena t-shirt I bought in the street outside the Congress.

I had to let go of any ego concerns about my standard of dress (the other dignitaries were in suits) if I was to actually get up on the stage.  I think this need and the casualness of my dress helped me in my address – it was particularly well received by the Colombians who were present amongst the representatives from 61 countries.  I certainly had ego concerns but the momentousness of the occasion and the potential contribution of the Congress to global cooperation, helped me to get through and manage my nerves.  But you can see I still have ego concerns that are alive and active when I undertake a relatively simple phone coaching activity (as described above) – lots more meditation to do!!

As we grow in mindfulness, we can clear anticipatory, negative thoughts about our performance, identify and control our emotions and progressively remove our ego concerns.

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

Image source: courtesy of xusenru on Pixabay

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Calming the Busyness of Our Minds

Haruki Murakami, the famous Japanese author, in his book  A Wild Sheep Chase,  gives us an insight into the busyness of our minds when his lead character comments:

My body was hazed to the core, but my mind kept swimming swiftly around through the convoluted waterways of my consciousness, like a restless aquatic organism.

This churning of our brains, stimulated by endless disruptive advertising, means that we spend so little time just being still in both mind and body.  There is so much of life we miss out on because we are so unaware with our focus oscillating beyond the present to the past or the future.  As Andy Puddicombe suggests, it only takes ten minutes a day to be still and do nothing, while experiencing calmness and happiness – escaping the torment of a turbulent mind.

Jack Kornfield, in discussing awareness, tells the story of a famous violinist who took part in an experiment to demonstrate peoples’ lack of awareness.  The violinist was due to play in a concert on a particular night before 1,000 people.  However, during the day of the concert, he set up in a busy street in New York and started playing his violin in his inimitable, brilliant style.  At the end of the day, he had only $17 USD in his hat which he had left out for donations.  Very few people stopped to listen, only young children tended to stop and take in the music.

Most people who walked past the violinist, or hurried past, were “lost in thought” – unable to hear and focus on the beauty of the music.  If only we could recapture the wonder of young children who are intensely attuned to their senses and not yet captured by their minds.  To wonder at what we hear or see, taste or touch, or smell. requires us to be present like a child.  It takes awareness and the ability to still the ferment of our minds.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practice, we can learn to calm the busyness of our minds and to value stillness and silence – the nurturing environment for creativity and mental health and wellbeing.

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

Image source: courtesy of adege 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 Cravings and Addictions through Mindfulness Practice

In my previous blog post, I discussed Melli O’Brien’s interview with Judson Brewer, an expert in the use of mindfulness for overcoming cravings and addictions.  Jud, as he is called, is the author of a number of books, including The Craving Mind.

In the earlier blog post, I wrote about how addictions are formed and how mindfulness undermines both cravings and addictions through breaking the link between our addictive behaviours and our perceived rewards.

In this blog post, I will focus on the barriers that prevent us from using the power of mindfulness to break the shackles of cravings and addiction and present a mindfulness practice, recommended by both Melli and Jud, that will help to overcome those barriers and shackles.

Personal barriers to using mindfulness to overcome cravings and addiction

During the interview with Jud, Melli suggested that sometimes shame gets in the road of our recovery from addiction.   Craving and addiction feels so very personal that we are reluctant to own up to ourselves or others about its existence.  We want to avoid the pain of self-realisation.

We may be reluctant to give up the rewards associated with the addiction because they have become our crutch, e.g. to deal with stress; and we might be fearful that we will not be able to cope.

Melli also asked Jud what he personally experienced as barriers to daily mindfulness practice.  In his response, Jud identified three key things that made it difficult for him to sustain his daily mindfulness practice:

  1. growing in self-awareness that was painful – it became progressively clearer to Jud that he had caused suffering for other people in his life and this was difficult to face on an ongoing basis, and was humbling;
  2. being too intellectual in his practice – intellectualizing about some of the practices rather than just being-in-the-practice;
  3. doubting the efficacy of loving-kindness meditation; but finally, after a number of years, overcoming his assumptions and bias against the practice.

A four-step mindfulness practice for overcoming cravings and addiction

During the interview, Jud introduced the R.A.I.N. process as a mindfulness practice for breaking the habit loop of cravings and addiction.  The four-step process involves the following:

  1. Recognise – that you are caught up in a habit loop through a craving and recognise the addiction it creates when you give into the thoughts and emotions associated with the craving;
  2. Accept -that you have this craving and related addiction which, as Melli suggests, is a part of the “human condition”, that is part of being human;
  3. Investigate – what is happening in your body when the craving appears; what are the body sensations you are experiencing? what triggers the craving? what are the real outcomes/cost of the addiction (challenge the behaviour-reward link); experience the pleasantness of exploring your curiosity about yourself and your personal reactions to various triggers; enjoy the experience of getting to know yourself and who you really are.
  4. Non-identification – acknowledge that your cravings and addictions are not you; that you are not your thoughts; that you are not your emotions; and that underneath it all is you growing in awareness and becoming-in-the moment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we gain a better understanding of the personal barriers we create to stop ourselves using mindfulness to break the shackles of our cravings and addictions.  We can also learn mindfulness practices that can break through these barriers and the shackles that hold us captive to our own unhealthy habit loop.  In the final analysis, we learn to trust in the power of mindfulness and the resultant awareness.

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.

How Mindfulness Undermines Cravings and Addiction

Melli O’Brien recently interviewed Dr. Judson Brewer (known as Jud) who is Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Craving Mind.  Jud is an acknowledged international expert in training people in mindfulness to overcome addiction.

In the interview Jud explained the basic cause of addiction and shared neuroscience research that explained the impact of addiction on the brain and the counter-impact of mindfulness.

How addiction develops

The concept of “operant conditioning” developed by B.F. Skinner provides a fundamental explanation of how addiction develops.  Basically, certain behaviours lead to what we perceive as rewards.  So, if we continue to engage in those behaviours and receive the associated rewards, we positively reinforce the behaviours so that we are more inclined to repeat them – thus leading to cravings and addiction.

The craving and resultant addiction can be related to anything, e.g. food, sex, shopping, spending money, drinking alcohol, gambling or consuming drugs.  We unconsciously link the rewarded behaviour with something that is unpleasant – e.g. if we are stressed we may over-eat or drink alcohol excessively.  What we are attempting to do is to substitute something pleasurable for something that we find unpleasant, e.g. we eat dark chocolate (pleasure) to overcome the unpleasantness of stress.  So, stress acts as the trigger for our craving and addiction.

We consolidate our belief in the utility of dark chocolate to help us deal with stress by reminding ourselves of the latest research that shows the positive benefits of dark chocolate – thus we not only receive a physical reinforcement (pleasant taste) but also an emotional reinforcement (positive feelings for “eating what is good for me”).  Of course, we overlook the fact that the research on dark chocolate stresses the moderation required in eating the chocolate so that the positive benefits are not outweighed by negative impacts such as the amount of saturated facts consumed.

Mindfulness undermines addiction through a process of substitution

Jud pointed out in the interview that addiction activates a part of the brain that is called “the posterior cingulate cortex”; whereas, when we engage in mindfulness practice, the opposite happens – that region of the brain becomes deactivated.   Through mindfulness, then, we are substituting excitation of the brain (generated through craving and addiction) with restfulness.

Mindfulness for overcoming addiction works on two basic levels – firstly, as we look inward, we increase our awareness of the body sensations associated with our craving; and secondly, we sever the link between our addictive behaviour and the rewards we ascribe to that behaviour.  We effectively undermine the reinforcing link between the behaviour and the reward.

Substitution occurs on three levels:

  1. pleasant feelings associated with our addictive behaviour are replaced by the pleasure experienced when we are curious about, and investigate, the bodily sensations generated by our cravings and addiction (we are substituting one form of pleasure for another);
  2. seeking to have, or do more, is replaced by the act of noticing what is going on for us (we replace uncontrolled seeking with patient noticing of the bodily sensations experienced in craving something);
  3. temporary happiness derived from satisfying our craving is replaced by the realisation of more sustainable peace and joy.

In the final analysis, mindfulness breaks what Jud calls the “habit loop” of addiction with a new and rewarding “habit loop” – habituated behaviour whose rewards grow exponentially.  Jud reiterates that developing new habits, such as mindfulness, requires “dedicated practice every day”, which is one way to overcome the barriers to changing our behaviour.  Sustaining mindfulness practice, then, is critical to undermining cravings and addictions.

As we grow in mindfulness, we gain a better understanding of our craving and addiction and learn ways to use mindfulness to undermine the hold that cravings have on our thoughts and emotions.  We can learn to make more conscious choices in the process.

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

Image source: courtesy of  whekevi 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.

Conversation with Ourselves

Jon Kabat-Zinn maintains that we spend so much time removed from ourselves through thinking, that we need to “dial up ourselves” occasionally.   Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche suggests that the art of conversation begins with having an honest conversation with ourselves on a regular basis.  Sakyong is the author of a number of books, including, The Lost Art of Conversation: A Mindful Way to Connect with Others and Enrich Everyday Life.

Sakyong argues that very few people have really mastered the art of conversation.  Conversations in social situations or work situations can be very challenging – they can be painful or even boring.   Relating to people who are difficult behaviourally or who hold strong views that are very different to our own, can also present a real challenge to our equanimity.

So, it is important to be equipped with the art of identifying and dealing with our own emotions, otherwise we will respond inappropriately in these challenging conversations.  What we tend to do, however, is to hide from our emotions, deny them or avoid situations where our emotions will “run high”.  The problem is that despite our denials we tend to play out our emotions in the way we respond to others in conversation.

Our resentment can be reflected in our inattention, our anger expressed through trying to prove we are right, our disgust can be seen in our non-verbal behaviour or our disrespect through avoidance.  There is no real hiding from our emotions.  We may try to stay unaware of them or fail to pay attention to them, but they will assert themselves somehow.

It is common behaviour to avoid openly expressing our feelings, particularly in a work situation.   In such situations, too, we tend to discourage the expression of emotions because they make us feel uncomfortable.

However, in coming to grips with our own emotions, we build up strength, inner peace and even courage.  Sakyong points to the example of Nelson Mandela, who despite his many years in prison, decided while in his cell not to harbour bitterness towards those who had imprisoned him.  Mandela published his own conversations, reflections, correspondence and journal entries in his revealing book, Conversations With Myself, where he discloses his “troubled dreams”, struggles, uncertainties, hardships and victories.

Sakyong urges us to also have conversations with ourselves – meditating on our feelings and thoughts.  We need to get in touch with how we are really feeling – do we feel good?; are we anxious?;  are we preoccupied with a concern that is distracting us?; or are we fearful and defensive?   He warns about doing this half-heartedly and encourages us to bring to light our real feelings and “intelligences”.   We can have these personal conversations either through meditation or journaling (although there is a synergy to be gained by adopting both these practices).

As we grow in mindfulness through these conversations with ourselves, we can develop a heightened self-awareness and bring true character and respect for others to our conversations – and, in the process, realise true freedom.

As Nelson Mandela maintained:

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

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

Image source: courtesy of bebeairi on Pixabay

Being Mindful

When we first hear the idea of “being mindful”, we tend to associate the concept with thinking.  If we are asked to do something mindfully, we assume that this means tackling a task with a clear plan of how we will do it, having a contingency plan if things go wrong and being conscious of the consequences, intended or unintended, of our actions.

In contrast, “being mindful” in the context of mindfulness training involves being fully present and paying full attention to some aspect of our inner or outer landscape.

It is the opposite of being “lost in thought” – absorbed in the endless procession of ideas that pass through our mind, minute by minute.  Being mindful actually means shutting down our thoughts, being fully present and paying attention to our breathing, walking, eating, perceptions or some aspect of our body.

In somatic meditation, for example, we are focusing on our body through practices such as the whole body scan. This requires us to still our mind and focus our attention progressively on different parts of our body and release tension in our muscles as we undertake the scan.

Mindful breathing requires us to pay attention to our breathing while letting distracting thoughts pass us by. We need discipline to maintain our focus and avoid entertaining our passing thoughts.  They can be viewed as bubbles of water floating to the surface and disintegrating.

Being mindful builds our ability to focus, to be present in the moment.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful practices, we gain the benefit of clarity and calm in situations that would normally cause us stress.  Mindfulness also contributes to our health and well-being, builds our creative capacity and enables us to experience a pervaisve sense of happiness.

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

Image source: Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Do You See What I See?

It is highly unlikely that you see what I see or what other people might see.

So much of what we see is filtered by our past experience and our thoughts and emotions generated by those experiences. So, what each of us see when experiencing a scene like the picture in this post of the Manly foreshore at sunrise, might be very different.

If you are a runner you might focus on the runner in the foreground, the idyllic environment for their run and their running style. If you have recently visited Stradbroke Island, you could be looking at the island in the background and searching for the tell tale sandhills while remembering an enjoyable aspect of your visit there.

If you have experienced a tsunami, the water and its calmness might remind you of your horrifying experience that followed in the wake of a calm sea. Instead of calming you, the scene might generate fear in you.

If you love trees you might focus on the different varieties of trees along the shorefront or notice the bright aura of the fir tree in the foreground.  If you have an interest in photography, you might critique the photo itself and its technical aspects of shade and light, contrast, background and foreground, positioning of key elements or the impact of the rising sun illuminating the image.  A landscape artist could be deciding whether to paint the scene in its totality or to focus on the trees.

If you are inwardly focused and preoccupied with worry or concerns about the day ahead, you might be unaware of what is actually in front of you.

What we attend to influences what we see or don’t see.  Our attention, in turn, is influenced very much by what has happened previously in our life and/or what is happening now for us.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has this to say about our limited perception and the influence of our thoughts and emotions on what we actually see:

Instead of experiencing the bare actuality of our senses, we are more experiencing our life through our thoughts about our experience – our preferences, likes, dislikes, our worries, concerns or addictions, and in a sense not fully inhabiting the full spectrum of our innate capability.

This is one reason why open awareness is a very important mindful practice if we want to grow in mindfulness and reach our full potential. Otherwise we can be lost in our thoughts and miss the world around us, its richness and beauty.

Image source: Copyright R. Passfield

Living in the Present – Not the Future

 

Maria, in Paulo Coelho’s book, Eleven Minutes, records in her diary:

I spend all day …longing for work to begin, and, when I’m working, longing to get back to the boarding house.  In other words, I’m living the future not the present. (p.34, emphasis added)

Recent neuroscience research shows that we spend more than 50% of our time either in the past or in the future – we spend so little time in the present.

The downside of spending so much time “living the future” is that we can develop anxiety because we are constantly concerned about future events that may never happen.  We are also missing the opportunity to fully experience the present – to enjoy the beauty, relationships and positive experiences that surround us.

We also miss the opportunity to appreciate what we do have and be grateful for the many things that make our life enjoyable.

Living in the future can be precipitated by envy – we “want to have what they have got” and so we look to the future in the hope that we too will be like them.

One way to check whether you are living the future is to monitor your words:

  • I wish it was Friday
  • I can’t wait for the weekend
  • Summer holidays can’t come soon enough

If we find ourselves constantly expressing desire for the future rather than experiencing and enjoying the present, then we can stop talking this way – we have the power to shape our reality by choosing our words consciously.

The present moment is the only true reality.  If we miss it, we miss so much that life has to offer and potentially harm ourselves and our wellbeing.

Image Source: Copyright R. Passfield