Meditation: A Refuge in Difficult Times

Following the mass shootings in the US, Diana Winston provided a meditation podcast on the topic, Finding Refuge in Difficult Times.   Diana suggests that we could turn to meditation in these difficult times when we are confronted with senseless violence, international conflict over trade and territories and increased levels of uncertainty and vulnerability.  Mindfulness meditation can help us to develop many positive aspects in our lives including gratitude, compassion, calmness and clarity.  Diana maintains that in difficult times meditation practice can serve as a refuge for us – a place of quiet, equanimity and loving kindness.  Meditation in this context is not escapism but genuine facing of reality to restore our equilibrium and develop resourcefulness to meet the challenges that confront us daily.

Meditation as a refuge

Diana provides a meditation that is designed to achieve a sense of equanimity in difficult times. It addresses today’s challenges and their impact on our thoughts and emotions and, at the same time, provides a means to become grounded, resourceful and open-hearted.  There are four main elements to the meditation provided by Diana through MARC (Mindful Awareness Research Center) at UCLA:

  • Becoming Grounded – this is particularly important given that we can become unhinged, buffeted and disturbed by difficult times experienced in the world at large.  Tlhe concept of grounding evokes the image of solid earth underfoot and certainty and support when moving forward.  The meditation thus begins with ensuring we have our feet firmly planted on the floor so that we can feel the support of the earth by picturing the solid earth below us.  Out attention then moves to the firmness and uprightness of our back against the chair.  This feeling of solidity reinforces our sense of groundedness.  This, in turn, can be strengthened by focusing attention on the solid contact of our body with the seat of the chair. 
  • Breathing – breath is our life force and we take around 20,000 breaths a day.  It is a good thing that we do this unconsciously, without having to think or be focused.  However, focusing on our breath, paying attention to the act of breathing, is an important way of becoming grounded in life.  This stage of the meditation involves focusing on our in-breath and out-breath and the space in between.  It does not involve controlling our breath but just paying attention to what is happening naturally for us, despite the absence of conscious effort.   You can feel energy tingling in your fingers if you join them together while paying attention to your breath and this can serve as an anchor throughout the day whenever you feel the need to re-establish a sense of equilibrium and equanimity.  Accessing your boundless, inner energy resources in this way can build your ongoing resourcefulness and resilience.
  • Acceptanceaccepting what is and what we are experiencing.  This means owning our thoughts and feelings and acknowledging that reactions such as anxiety, concern, fear, uncertainty or doubt are normal, given the difficult world we live in.  It does not involve passivity, however, but noticing our reactions, not denying them nor indulging them.  It means handling our natural responses non-judgmentally and seeking to accept what is happening for us.  Diana suggests that we can even express this as a conscious desire such as, “May I accept what is”.
  • Offering compassion – this involves being empathetic towards people who are suffering – for example, as a result of a major adverse event.  Compassionate action in this situation can involve loving kindness meditation embracing all who are affected by a significant adverse event – extending to family, friends, colleagues, emergency responders and the community at large.  We can express the desire that all who are directly affected are protected from inner and outer harm; develop good health; find contentment and happiness; and experience the ease of wellness.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and grounding ourselves, we can learn to accept what is, access our inner resources and build our resourcefulness and resilience to face the difficult challenges of daily living in a complex and conflicted world.

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Cultivating Attention Through Mindfulness

Matthew Brensilver, in a guided meditation provided through MARC UCLA, emphasises the essential character of attention and its role in building our inner and outer awareness while contributing to a life that is fully lived.  In his preliminary discussion as an introduction to his meditation on Attention as Our Most Basic Currency, he highlights the erosion of our attention span, the “fragmentation of our attention” and the resultant turmoil of many lives today. 

In Matthew’s view, mindfulness practice “cultivates attention”, builds resilience and engenders peace and tranquillity.  He suggests that attention is “our basic currency” – it provides the means for us to be fully human and experience life in all its richness.

Distraction creates a low attention span and devalues our “currency”

There are so many things that compete for our attention and distract us from the inherent potentiality of the present moment.  Our everyday behaviours contribute to this erosion of attention. For example, while we are waiting for a bus, a service or a friend, our default is to pull out our phone rather than to take the opportunity to increase our awareness through focused attention.  Our mobile phone leads us down the path of endless distraction – it’s almost an escape route from the reality of our daily lives. 

We might feast on the news, get lost in the external (but empty) validation provided by social media “likes” or explore the endless trails offered by disruptive advertising.  This simple device that has become known as “Wireless Mass Distraction” (WMD) erodes the power of focused attention and reduces the opportunities to grow in inner and outer awareness.  The obsession with “selfies” via the phone is an emerging social behaviour that intensifies the power of phones to be a source of mass distraction and to create a low-attention-span culture.

Distraction is used as a way to free us from boredom, rather than embrace it and savour the freedom it provides.  So, instead of taking the opportunity to harness our attention and grow our awareness, we resort to activities that take our mind elsewhere and fragment out attention and diminish our attentional power.

Mindfulness practice and attention

While there are numerous mindfulness practices and meditations, Matthew suggests that mindfulness, in essence, is “paying attention to our lives”. This allows us to accept “what is” (with all its challenges and imperfections) and to experience the richness of our life more fully.   Distraction, on the other hand, fragments our attention and blinds us to our inner and outer reality.  It’s almost like we are constantly running away from what is within us for fear that we may not like what we see. 

Mindfulness practice enables us to pay attention to – to face up to – what we are really thinking and feeling, the expression of these thoughts and feelings through our bodily sensations and the impact we are having on others.  Through mindfulness practice, we can learn how our past plays out in the present.  It also enables us to draw on the healing power of nature, the personal empowerment of appreciation and gratitude and the stillness that enables us to access and grow our creativity.

As we cultivate our attention and grow in mindfulness, we are better able to experience the richness of our human existence, enjoy greater peace and harmony and access our endless inner resources to meet the vicissitudes of our daily lives.

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Our Past is in Our Present

Dr. Matthew Brensilver, a teacher at MARC UCLA, focuses on the relationship between mindfulness and mental health.  In his guided meditation on The Present is Made of Our Past, he explores the connection between the present and the past.  When we are present, we are not absorbed by the past or anxiously anticipating the future.  Matthew points out, however, that “in some sense, the present is composed of nothing but the past”.  This is a challenging idea for those of us who have been exposed to the unerring emphasis on being present.

Expressing the past in the present

In this present moment, you are giving expression to everything you experienced in the past – the habits you developed over time, the conditioning you experienced in different aspects of your life and the momentum (in career, life & relationships) that you have achieved.  So, the present is composed of these many elements.  In Matthew’s perspective, the present can be viewed as “making peace with the past” – combining gratitude with loving-kindness.

The past is present through your memories (not only of events or situations but also of the emotions involved at the time).  It is also present in what Matthew describes as “habit energies” – your habituated way of doing things, of relating and responding.  The past is present in your thoughts and feelings that arise from different stimuli – patterned as they are on previous experiences, responses and outcomes for yourself and others.

Your habits can be good for you or harmful.  Mindfulness enables you to appreciate your good habits and the benefits that accrue to you and others when you act out these habits.  Mindfulness also makes you aware of unhealthy habits that condition you to respond in ways that have a deleterious effect on you and others.  You become more aware of the existence of these habits, their origins, the strength of their hold on you and their harmful effects. Over time, your mindfulness practice can release you from the hold of these habits and assist you to transform yourself.  For example, you can develop the ability of reflective listening where before you constantly interrupted others and failed to actively listen to what they had to say.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can better integrate our past with our present, understand the influences shaping our responses, improve our self-regulation and bring an enlightened sense of gratitude to others and loving-kindness to ourselves and our everyday experience.

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Image – Noosa, Queensland, 18 May 2019 (7.45 am)

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

A Guided Meditation on Self-Compassion

Diana Winston provides a guided meditation on self-compassion as part of the weekly offerings of meditation podcasts from the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.   These weekly podcasts are also available via the UCLA Mindful App.  

Diana explains that the tendency to be self-critical – to disown parts of ourselves that we don’t like – is universal, not the province of a single age group, gender or ethnic group.  We can hear our own voice telling us that we are “stupid” “undeserving”, “inconsiderate” or some other self-demeaning term.  These inner voices focus on our flaws and not our essential goodness or kindness.

In line with the research and philosophy of Kristin Neff, Diana encourages us through self-compassion meditation to accept ourselves as we are with all our warts and flaws and to recognise that in common with the rest of humanity we make mistakes, make poor decisions and say or do things that we later regret.

A guided self-compassion meditation

In her introduction to a guided meditation on self-compassion, Diana leads us through a basic process for becoming grounded – adopting a comfortable position, taking a couple of deep breaths and engaging in a body scan to release points of tension to enable us to become focused on the task at hand. Diana then takes us through three basic steps of a self-compassion meditation:

  • 1. Mindful awareness of our negative “voices” – getting in touch with the self-criticism in our heads and being able to accept ourselves as we are, with all our faults, failings and mistakes.  This does not mean engaging with the voices but noticing what they are saying and accepting that we are not perfect.
  • 2. Recognising that flaws are an integral part of our shared humanity – acknowledging that this is part of the human condition.  No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes – we have this in common with the rest of humanity.  We can then offer self-forgiveness and kindness to ourselves.
  • 3. Extending kindness to others – when we recognise that we share a flawed existence with the rest of humanity, we are better able to offer kindness towards others.  We can start by expressing gratitude to the people we admire and acknowledging how they enrich our lives. We can then extend this kindness to wishing them and others safety, health, happiness and the ease of wellness.

As we grow in mindfulness through awareness of our negative voices and our inherent flaws, we can learn to accept ourselves as we are, acknowledge our shared humanity and extend self-compassion to ourselves and kindness to others.

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Image by Ioannis Ioannidis from Pixabay

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

From Goal Focused Meditation to Natural Awareness

Diana Winston, in her most recent book, The Little Book of Being, differentiates between two main forms of meditation.  One meditation approach Diana identifies as the classical method – requiring considerable effort and focused on an object (e.g. breath or sound) and a goal (e.g. calmness, self-management, stress reduction); the other is focused on what she terms “natural awareness”.  She makes the point early in the book that in her early meditation practice she exhausted herself and became depressed and self-loathing by falling into the trap of becoming overly goal and object focused.  Her personal release came with the realisation of the power of natural awareness.  Her teaching is built on many years of personal meditation practice and deep insight into what enables people to live life fully and to be their authentic self.

When Diana became Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC (UCLA) she was determined to introduce other people to the practice of natural awareness.  Her book shows the evolution in her thinking and practice and her conclusion that people should practise both classical meditation and natural awareness as they are mutually reinforcing and complementary.   Classical meditation builds the power of focus and concentration together with present-centred awareness required to develop the habit of natural awareness. 

The nature of natural awareness

The approach to meditation that Diana promotes is called natural awareness because it entails practising what we experience naturally.  People can recall their own experiences of being in the moment, just being somewhere, or being in the zone in a sports or work arena.  Awareness is a natural capacity that has been diminished over time and lost in the fog of our own self-stories and beliefs, the incessant distractions drawing us away from the present moment and the time urgency that drives our goal-directed behaviour.  We become time-poor, driven (e.g. as reflected in impatient driver behaviour) and focused on the past or the future – leading to a form of depression or anxiety.  Natural awareness offers instead a sense of letting go – resulting in restfulness and equanimity.  Loch Kelly, In an interview with Tami Simon, describes natural awareness as effortless mindfulness.

According to Diana, natural awareness is a way of knowing and a state of being wherein our focus is on awareness itself rather than on things we are aware of (p.12). She offers a series of “markers” you can use to test whether you have experienced natural awareness (p.13).

Recollection: a starting point for natural awareness

Diana offers a recollection exercise as an introduction to natural awareness – using memories to recapture past, personal experience of natural awareness. The basic approach is to recall a time (in a relaxed way, not forced) when you had a sense of just being – experiencing heightened attention, a strong sense of connection, openness to what was happening or a profound sense of peace. The occasion could be viewing a sunrise/sunset, experiencing awe in the presence of pounding waves, a burst of creativity, a joyful conversation with a friend or being in natural surrounds where the beauty is breathtaking.

Now try to capture the time and experience in all its detail – where you were, what you were doing, feeling and sensing (touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing). The final step is to tap into what is happening for you with this recollection, e.g. tranquility, connection or ease. You can then rest in this awareness.

As we grow in mindfulness, through classical meditation and specific natural awareness practices, our capacity for inner and outer awareness expands and natural awareness becomes accessible to us on a daily/hourly basis.

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Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Cultivating Concentration through Meditation

In some traditions, concentration is seen as separate from but essential to mindfulness. Concentration is described as “one-pointed focus” or bringing our attention to a single focus in a unified way. Concentration is thus viewed as the servant and enabler of mindful awareness – both inner and outer awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn maintains that “concentration is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice” and that as we cultivate our concentration we increase our capacity for mindfulness – becoming fully aware in the moment.

Cultivating concentration through meditation

Diana Winston in a guided meditation on Cultivating Concentration offers four breath-based meditation practices that can build concentration and enable us to stop our minds floating in multiple directions as random thoughts assail us. While we are naturally able to concentrate to achieve a task (e.g. write a business plan, read a blog post, carry on a conversation), we have lost the art of single-minded focus owing to the level of distraction that surrounds us at any point in time. Jon Kabat-Zinn, for example, maintains that we are “perpetually self-distracting”.

Diana suggests that some simple meditation practices can cultivate our concentration, and through repetition, develop the capacity to maintain our concentration over longer periods of time. She drew on research conducted at UCLA that demonstrated that adolescents and adults with ADHD who persisted with meditation practice over eight weeks, improved their ability to maintain their focus, even when there were many things competing for their attention.

Meditation practices to cultivate concentration

  1. feeling the breath – concentrating on the act of breathing by focusing on where in your body you experience your breathing. For example, this could involve focusing on your breathing as you feel it in your nose, abdomen or chest. This requires focused attention on the breath, not attempting to control it.
  2. naming the act of breathing – here you concentrate on your breathing, and as you do so, describe what is happening, “breath in, breath out”, “chest rising, chest falling”. This focuses your mind on what is happening in your body as your breathe.
  3. counting your breaths – as you breathe, count each breath. Diana suggests that you count 1 to 10 and then begin again. Whenever, your mind wanders from counting your breaths, she encourages you to start your count again. As an alternative to the ten count, you can adopt the practice of counting to 50, as proposed in the “awareness-focus-loop” approach.
  4. using the gap – there is a natural gap between your “in” and “out” breath that you can focus on. As you complete each “in” and “out” breath, take your focus to a part of your body (e.g. your hands or feet) before you begin the next breath. This process can serve to reinforce that part of your body as an anchor for your mindfulness.

In each of these meditation exercises, it is important that you develop the capacity to return to your focus once a distracting thought intervenes. This strengthens your concentration power and increases your capacity to be mindful when undertaking any activity in your daily life.

We can grow in mindfulness by cultivating the power of our concentration through specifically targeted meditation practices that aim to develop the ability to sustain a single focus over an extended period of time. As our concentration power develops, our inner and outer awareness deepen and become richer and more life-enhancing.

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

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.