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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Mindful Leadership: Being Present

One of the core skills of leadership is the ability to be fully present when interacting with others – whether with managers, non-managerial employees or other stakeholders.  Being present underpins the capacity to influence.  It is the precondition for effective listening, providing feedback and generating the engagement of employees.

Effective listening

To actively listen, you have to be really present to the person you are attempting to engage with.  It means being able to focus on the person speaking and tuning in to their words, nonverbal behaviour and the emotions underlying their communication.  It also requires the ability to reflect back to the other person not only what they are saying but also the emotions behind the words and the intensity of those emotions.  This enables the speaker to feel truly heard.  Being present in such interactions means effectively that you are open to the influence of the speaker – not shut off from their desire to engender some change in what is happening.

To tune into another person requires you to tune out of your own thoughts and to control your own preconceptions and assumptions.  Reflection following an interaction can help you to identify what got in the road of effective listening.

Providing feedback

Being present is an essential requirement for providing effective feedback – whether positive feedback or corrective feedback.  To be able to give positive feedback that is specific, genuine and timely, you need to be able to observe behaviour that should be acknowledged and rewarded with praise.  You need to be present to notice the desired behaviour in the first place.

Providing corrective feedback for inappropriate behaviour or inadequate performance also requires you to be fully present and to manage your own feelings in the situation.  Once you have spelt out the core behavioural or performance issue, you need to be able to actively listen to understand what is going on for the other person – what is impacting their behaviour/performance.  You may even find, in the process, that you have contributed to the problem through lack of clarity of instructions/expectations or inadequate training.   Openness to these possibilities requires being present and attentive to the person you are providing corrective feedback to.

Engagement of employees

Employees, whether managers or non-managerial employees, respect a leader who can actively listen and provided accurate feedback, whether positive or corrective.  They understand and appreciate that by your being present and attentive, you are demonstrating respect for them, their skills and their contributions – the foundation for true employee engagement.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we are better able to be fully present to provide effective listening and feedback to engender commitment and contribution of our followers, whether managers or non-managerial employees.  Being present is the outcome of continuous meditation practice and reflection undertaken on a regular basis.

 

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

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Driving with Mindfulness

Often when you are driving you can become agitated, annoyed or frustrated by the traffic holdups caused by others.  Sharon Salzberg provides a timely reminder that “you are traffic too“.   We focus so much on our own needs in the heavy traffic situation that we lose sight of the needs of others.  Sharon puts this down to the “centrality of ourselves” – where the world revolves around our self-centredness, rather than other-centredness.

Diana Watson too in one of her MARC weekly meditation podcasts, provides us with a meditation that enables us to bring mindfulness on the road.  She describes one of her own experiences when she was running late to conduct a meditation and found her irritation and agitation rising.

Diana found that she was swamped with thoughts and emotions.  The thoughts reflected the negative bias of the brain – “I’m not going to make it on time”, “What will happen if I am late?”, “People may never come again if they are new to the meditation practice!   So, our minds can catastrophize any situation and unsettle us as we are driving.

Another source of emotional disturbance occurs if we then engage in self-recrimination or negative self-evaluation – “If only I had planned for traffic delays!”, “Why was I rushing out the door when I know that I need to have a strong presence of mind to conduct this mindfulness session?’

Bringing mindfulness to driving – noticing thoughts and emotions

What Diana found that she ended up doing was to start noticing, not entertaining, thoughts and emotions as they arose, e.g. “I am feeling anxious (or irritated)”, “I keep thinking that I will be late, and this causes me to become agitated”.   If we start naming our emotions, we can begin to control them.

She also suggests that we can focus on what is going on in our body as these emotions and precipitating thoughts arise.  We can notice the tightness in our chest, the pain in our neck or the onset of a worry headache.  If we can notice the thoughts and name the emotions, we can wind back our habituated response and calm ourselves.

Without this calming mindfulness on the road, we can end up taking more risks while driving, act out our anger and frustration through “road rage” or find ourselves making poor decisions about what choices to make to get to our destination.  Our growing agitation and impatience can frustrate our attempts to arrive on time.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice that grounds us in the present moment, we can more readily deal with situations such as driving in heavy traffic when our needs for timeliness are being frustrated.  We can also bring to the situation self-awareness and self-regulation so that we are not captive to  our negative thoughts and emotions – we can begin to drive mindfully.

 

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

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Developing Choiceless Awareness

In the previous post, I discussed three dimensions of awareness in meditation – the narrow, broad and “choiceless awareness”.   In this post, I want to focus on the latter form of awareness that, to some degree, requires foundational skills in narrow awareness or focused awareness.

Choiceless awareness is a recognised form of meditation that has developed over time to increase self-awareness and self-regulation.  For example, Tara Brach offers a free, guided meditation on choiceless awareness which incorporates the use of the mantra “OM“.

Choiceless awareness is not directed to a specific focus as in narrow awareness focused on breath or sounds; it is open to whatever enters your inner awareness.  You might become aware of bodily sensations – pain, tightness, tingling or warmth – in your arms, legs, back, shoulders, feet or chest.

You could become aware of your thoughts as they enter your mind and notice whether they relate to analysing, planning, critiquing, estimating, organising or summarising.  You could ascertain whether your thoughts relate to the past or the future – whether they are concerned with past situations/events or anticipated situations/events.  The main thing is not to entertain the thoughts but to let them pass you by, like bubbles floating to the surface and bursting.

You could become aware of your emotions generated by your thoughts or sensations and become conscious of anxiety, fear, joy, peace, disappointment, hope or any other positive or negative emotion.  You could name the emotion and acknowledge it, e.g. I am feeling sad, and then move your awareness to what else is happening for you.

With choiceless awareness, the focus shifts constantly, and this can become disorientating.  What is recommended if this happens is to turn to focused awareness of your breathing to ground yourself again.  This is why it is suggested that even with choiceless awareness, the starting point should be some form of focused/narrow awareness so that you can return to the grounding offered by the narrower form of meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness by engaging in different forms of meditation, including choiceless awareness, we can increase our self-awareness and self-regulation and be better able to manage situations that are stressful.

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

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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)

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Overcoming Aversion as a Barrier to Meditation

One of the weekly MARC meditation podcasts addresses the issue of overcoming aversion as a barrier to meditation.  Aversion is the last of five obstacles to meditation covered by Diana Winston in a series of meditations aimed to remove the barriers that stop us meditating or divert our attention during meditation.  In a previous post, for example, we discussed ‘desire‘ as one of these obstacles.

Diana points out that aversion may arise through boredom with the practice of meditation, resentment of the time that needs to be set aside to maintain daily meditation practice, or residual negative feelings from something in our lives.  These feelings may be anger over a job loss, frustration about not making progress with a project or residual feelings from conflict with someone at work or at home.   These negative feelings can result in our feeling reluctant to even start our meditation.

Diana suggests that the feeling itself – whether boredom, anger, resentment or frustration – is the starting point.  Just noticing what we are feeling, acknowledging it and understanding how it has arisen, can be the focus of our meditation.  We do not need to focus elsewhere or be tied to a routine or prescribed topic.  It’s enough to deal with ‘what is’ – what we are thinking and feeling in the moment.

What is important though is to treat ourselves with loving kindness – not beating up on ourselves for a lack of interest at the time or the presence of negative residual feelings.  A way to negate this negative self-evaluation is to engage in a further meditation focused on loving kindness towards our self.

Loving kindness meditation in the event of aversion to meditation practice

Loving kindness meditation can focus on our self and/or others – these can also be combined.  When using the loving kindness approach, it is recommended to start with loving kindness towards others and to use the resultant experience of ‘warmth’ to turn the focus onto yourself.

Having first become grounded, the meditation begins with a focus on someone you admire or love.   After imagining the person of your choice, the meditation begins with wishing them wellness, e.g. “May you experience strength, health and happiness.”

This then flows onto loving kindness meditation towards yourself.  Here, you extend to yourself similar wellness wishes and avoid any judgmental thoughts that could diminish your self-esteem.  The reality is that even experienced meditators encounter obstacles to their meditation practice, including aversion.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can learn to handle whatever comes our way, including obstacles such as aversion.  Loving kindness meditation extended to others and to our self, can free us from negative self-evaluation in the event of experiencing a meditation obstacle.

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

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Being Mindful About Our Thoughts

Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Mindfulness of Thoughts, explains the role thoughts can play in our lives and provides options for using mindfulness meditation to control our thoughts.

Thoughts have a powerful influence over our lives – they can be positive or negative with consequential impacts on the way we see and experience the world.  They can express our perceptions of others and our experiences.  Our thoughts can extend to our needs such as who I wish to marry, where I would like to live, my ideal job, what I want to study/research or what I am going to do with the surplus in my life.

We also have thoughts that contribute to our pain and suffering such as negative self-evaluation, anxious thoughts, thoughts about grief or thoughts that engender negative emotions such as rage, anger, frustration or envy.

Being mindful about our thoughts

Mindfulness can really help us to manage our thoughts.  Diana suggests that a fundamental rule is, “Don’t believe everything you think”.  Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us too, “We are not our thoughts”.  Thoughts can be seen as real but, in reality, they are just passing through our mind, unless we cultivate and encourage them.

We can be trapped by our thoughts or create some space so that we have times when we are free from them.  Freedom comes from just noticing our thoughts as they pass by rather than being enmeshed in them and acting them out, particularly where they are negative.

Diana uses the metaphor of a passing train as a way to illustrate how one thought leads to another, which leads to another…as if they are coupled or joined together.  They become like a “thought train that leads us down a particular track”.  Before you know it, a lot of time can elapse and you begin to wonder where the time has gone – you have been lost in your thoughts.

By being in the present moment through mindfulness, you can stop yourself from going down that particular track that your thoughts are leading you along. Diana suggests that an alternative position is to visualize yourself staying on the platform and watching the thoughts go by, avoiding getting on the thought train, just letting the train go past.

Meditations to control our thoughts

We can build awareness by focusing on our breathing while noticing when thoughts arise and then returning to our focus – our breath.  This practice of noticing, not cultivating our thoughts, and returning to our focus, is a powerful way to achieve equanimity and avoid being disturbed and captured by our thoughts that can lead to a negative spiral.

A second meditation practice is to actually notice a thought and pay attention to it for a brief interval – just noticing it briefly and returning to our focus.  It becomes like a temporary aside.  We could notice that we are engaged in planning, critiquing or other frequent forms of our mental activity.

A third meditation practice is open awareness – like noticing thoughts as if they are clouds in the sky passing by us as the wind blows them along in a hazy way.

Each of these meditation practices can help us to be mindful about our thoughts and to learn to control them so that they do not control us and the way we experience, and relate to, the world.  Diana, in her meditation podcast, leads us through each of these meditation practices to enable us to experience the sense of freedom and control that comes from release from the binds of our thoughts.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices that address our thoughts, we can develop a sense of peace and control and free ourselves to show up for our lives – not being held back by the heavy anchor of negative thoughts.

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

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Identifying Our Assumptions through Mindfulness

One of the aspects of self-awareness that is important to master is the assumptions we carry with us that impact our thoughts, perceptions, interpretations, emotions and behaviour.  We can be aware of the negative impact on us of the assumptions of other people but be blind to our own assumptions and their negative impact on others.

Earlier I wrote about the impact for me of my social tennis partners making assumptions about my capacity to play tennis, given my age.  Last week I fell into the same trap through my assumptions about another player.

I was playing social tennis with three other players, one of whom was a woman.  She offered to play with the weaker player and I found this hard to accept initially because I assumed that she would be a weaker player, despite her size.  This proved to be a false assumption as the woman player turned out to be the best player of the four of us.

The woman player had a particular style of hitting her ground strokes which meant that the ball levelled out when it hit the ground, making it very difficult to get a racquet under the ball.  I spent most of the social game reframing my assumptions about the woman player and trying to counter her game.

The moral of the story is that assumptions can blind us to possibilities and reduce our capacity to cope with reality.  Assumptions are like tunnels – they can distort our perception of others and of everyday occurrences.

Incorrect assumptions are often the cause of conflict in relationships because we tend to make assumptions about the motivation of the other person.  They, in turn, make assumptions about our motivation and act on their own erroneous assumptions.  We respond having confirmed in our own mind that our assumption about them were correct (confirmatory bias).  And so a conflict spiral is created built on increasingly entrenched, but inaccurate assumptions.

As we grow in mindfulness we become aware of the assumptions we hold, how they play out in our thoughts and emotions and how they are manifest in our behaviour.  Through mindfulness we can increase our self-awareness in this area, better deal with the challenges of our life, enrich our relationships and develop our creativity.

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

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