Deepening the Mind-Body Connection through Tai Chi

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

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

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

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi

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

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

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

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

Deepening the mind-body connection through Tai Chi

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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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.

How to Let Joy into Your Life

Diana Winston recently provided a meditation podcast on Opening to Joy.  She reinforced that mindfulness is about openness to the present moment in a curious and non-judgmental way.  Diana thought that this particular meditation is relevant in December when we are constantly being exhorted to be “joyful” – when many of us are experiencing emotions other than joy owing to anxiety, depression, or serious setbacks (physical, emotional or financial) at this time of the year.  It is also a time when we can experience extreme levels of exhaustion if we have been working intensely throughout the year or spending lengthy and stressful  days as a carer.  Diana offered this guided meditation as Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA as part of the weekly meditation podcasts presented by MARC.

We can find that at this time of the year our negative feelings can be magnified as the pressure of family celebrations mounts, distressing memories of recent (or even long-past) adverse events well up or existing painful emotions such as loneliness become intensified because we are feeling left out or overlooked or misunderstood or marginalised.  Some people have very recently lost family members as a result of bush fires, car accidents, or other misadventures – while others experience recollections of these devastating events occurring at this time of the year in the past.  It takes a lot of time, focus and energy to heal the wounds of past trauma.

Diana encourages us to be kind to ourselves through self-compassion as well as to show compassion for others.  She encourages us to explore mindful approaches to equanimity to allow peace and joy to re-enter our life if we are experiencing negative emotions or distress.  To this end, she is offering an online course Cultivating Forgiveness as part of the many courses presented by MARC.

Encouraging joy in your life through mindfulness

When we practice mindfulness, we are opening ourselves to joy and contentment – to experiencing what is, in an accepting and kind way.  It does not have to be a laugh-out-loud happiness but can be something small and subtle.  Joy can range from something that is profoundly felt to a simple sense of being content with life at the present moment. It can be the sensation of mindfully taking a walk by the sea, drinking a cappuccino, being fully present and mindfully listening to someone – joy can happen just by being fully here and showing up in our lives.  The act of gratitude for the positive things in our life – savouring our child’s development, our achievements, our friendships – can release us from unease or resentment and let joy into our life.

A guided meditation on cultivating joy

Diana provided a specific guided meditation on how to cultivate joy in your life during the podcast.  The basic steps are as follows:

  • Begin by experiencing being grounded through your feet on the floor, your thighs resting on the chair, your back upright but not strained – developing a sense of stability and being supported.
  • Progressively scan your body and loosen any muscle that may be tight or tense including your feet, legs, arms, wrist, neck, shoulders, shoulder blades, lower back and your face and forehead – your whole body, opening to a sense of well-being and ease.  You can take deep breaths as you progress with your scan and use the outbreath as a way to release tension and let in ease.
  • Now focus on something that will serve as an anchor in the event of distraction – the sensation of your breathing in some part of your body or the sounds in the room (without interrogation of their nature, source, volume or pleasantness).  You can also use the dual process of focusing on the sensation of your fingers being joined while at the same time experiencing your breathing in some part of your body where your attention can focus.  When you experience distractions such as planning, thinking, evaluating or worrying, redirect your mind to the present and your anchor to stay with the sense of ease, rather than the experience of unease.  This process of redirecting attention builds your awareness muscle and increases the prospect of experiencing joy in your life.
  • While you are being anchored through your breathing or sound, be conscious of the peace or contentment you are experiencing.  Pay attention to the joy that arises from being mindful – being fully in the present moment with openness and curiosity and wonderment. 
  • Now focus in on a specific, recent experience of joy – e.g. being with a loved one, sharing an experience with a friend, enjoying company over lunch or dinner, walking in a rainforest, or enjoying the sense of competence when playing tennis or any other sport.  Try to recapture the moment, the sensations, feelings, thoughts and the resultant joy – stay with these feelings and positive thoughts.  You can express gratitude for being able to have such an experience and to have the capacity to recapture it.

The art of cultivating joy flows from our conscious efforts to develop mindfulness and live our lives as fully as we can in the present moment.

Reflection

We can cultivate joy in our lives through mindfulness practices, meditation, reflection and expressing gratitude.  A meditation specifically designed to cultivate joy can assist us to grow in mindfulness and, as a result, more frequently capture and savour the experience of joy in our everyday lives.  We can cultivate joy by being mindful in our words and actions.

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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.

Kindness and Meditation

Gloria Kamler recently presented a MARC meditation podcast titled, Body and BreathGloria teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs as a faculty member of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).  She draws on more than 20 years’ experience educating people in mindfulness meditation.

In her podcast, Gloria emphasised the benefits of mindfulness for everyday living.  She stressed the importance of mindfulness in difficult times.  From her perspective, mindfulness is fundamentally training our ability to focus and pay attention while meditation is the gym where we build our “mental biceps” – where we develop the part of our brain that enables us to deal with difficulties other than by the auto-pilot mode of fight, flight or freeze. In Gloria’s view, mindfulness builds our capacity for self-regulation, to make considered decisions, to follow through with our intentions and agreements and to deal more skilfully with the waves of life with their undulating calm and turbulence.   She argues that mindfulness enables us to “fire on all cylinders” when confronted with difficulties, rather than become locked into what she calls, “the cycle of reactivity”.  

Kindness and meditation

Gloria maintains that, in essence, mindfulness is about kindness and caring – for ourselves and others.  Being mindful requires non-judgment of ourselves in the first instance and extending this stance to others – this sometimes requires forgiveness on our part.

Part of self-kindness is noticing what we are experiencing and accepting what is.  It also means being able to appreciate and savour the pleasant things that are happening in our lives, even at the simplest level.

In the guided meditation that Gloria offers as a part of her podcast (at the 15-minute mark), she leads us in a progressive body scan and breath meditation.  She stresses the role of noticing and naming distractions and returning to our focus as a way of building our “mental biceps” and our “awareness muscle”. 

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware of what is happening for us – our thoughts, feelings, interactions, and automatic responses (borne of prior conditioning and/or adverse childhood experiences).  Through development of our “mental biceps” in meditation, we can build our capacity to regulate our emotions, make sound decisions and translate our good intentions into action.  As we develop our personal mindfulness anchors in meditation, we can return to the calmness and equanimity afforded by mindfulness and provide kindness to our self and others.

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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.

The Challenge of Maintaining Your Meditation Practice

Brian Shiers suggests that one of the problems in attempting to maintain your practice is that creating new habits requires replacing old habits with the new.  He cites Neil Donald Walsh who maintains that, “yearning for a new way will not produce it, only ending the old way can do that”.  Brian draws on the neuroscience finding that our habits develop through neurological patterning, the development of new neural pathways reinforced by personally valued rewards.  The problem is that multiple repetitions are required to replace the old “habit-loop” with a new, sustainable pattern.  Often our rationalisations take over – such as “maybe I will do it later”, “it is not a good time now”, or “I am too restless at the moment” – and interrupt repetition of our practice.

To assist in the process of sustaining your practice, Brain offers a meditation podcast titled, How to Rediscover Your Practice, in which he offers a way to enrich your practice of mindful breathing and establish sense-based cues to regenerate your practice.  Brian’s guided meditation is part of the weekly meditation podcasts offered by MARC, UCLA.

A guided meditation for maintaining your practice

Brian’s meditation process involves several steps as follows:

  • Listen to the end of the gong from a meditation bell made especially for its resonance – this initiates the process of paying attention through activation of your sense of hearing.  A normal bell could be substituted for this initial step.
  • Notice what is going on for you in this moment – What are you thinking? How are you orientating your body? What are you feeling about what is happening for you as you begin your practice?  Brian maintains that self-observation is the essence of mindfulness.
  • Form your practice intention – focus on your intention in undertaking your practice.  This may involve a desire to build your concentration, to realise calm and tranquillity or to master the art of being still and silent.
  • Feel your breath in your body – consciously focus on one of the five places that you can feel your breath in your body – the rising and falling or your stomach or your chest, the movement of air through your nostrils or your open mouth or the sensation of breathing at the back of your throat.
  • Notice the thoughts that pass through your mind – thoughts come and go throughout our day and the time spent in meditation is no exception to this natural process.  Be conscious that your thoughts are drawing your focus away from your breath, but don’t entertain them.  Return to your intended focus and progressively build your attention muscle.
  • Accept what is – accept the fact that you may be tired, restless, easily distracted or frustrated by your attempts to maintain your focus.  Observing and accepting your present state is integral to mindfulness.
  • Extend your focus to seeing – add the sense of seeing by extending your focus to a single, egg-size object while simultaneously maintaining your focus on your breath.
  • Extend your focusing to include sound – while maintaining your focus on your breath and your external visual image, extend your focus to the sound in your room, taking in the room tone.

Reflection

This guided meditation helps to develop mindfulness because it not only builds the power of paying attention but also provides sense-cues that will prompt your meditation practice.  I have found, for example, that by focusing on the view of the waters and islands in the bay from my home deck, I can very quickly drop into a focus on my breathing.  This outer awareness acts as a cue to inner awareness.  The enriched experience of meditation from the focus on several senses also facilitates the maintenance of meditation practice and the capacity to progressively grow in mindfulness.

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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.

How to Cope with Uncertainty

Recently, Diana Winston offered a meditation podcast on the topic, Dealing with Uncertainty.  This was at a time of heightened uncertainty generated by the California wildfires that were threatening people’s lives and homes.  Uncertainty arises when we do not know what will happen in the future, we have a sense of being out of control and we fear that the future holds potentially damaging outcomes for us physically, emotionally, financially or socially.  Diana emphasised that uncertainty is an integral aspect of the world we live in today – in our increasingly global environment and resultant interdependence, many things are uncontrollable and beyond our capacity to influence.

Diana reminds us that we cannot deny the uncertainty of our reality, but we can learn to manage its impact on our lives – on our thinking, feelings, behaviour and relationships.  Our anxiety in the face of this ever-encroaching uncertainty is exacerbated by our brain’s negative bias – often fearing the worst to enable us to prepare for fight or flight.  We tend to anticipate negative outcomes from many activities such as a medical diagnosis and we begin to worry in anticipation of this unwelcome outcome.  Diana maintains that meditation can provide a place of refuge when we experience uncertainty and the associated fear and anxiety – a secure retreat away from the waves of uncertainty that besiege us.

Meditation as an anchor in a turbulent sea

Diana offers several steps in her guided mediation for dealing with anxiety (MARC, UCLA).  The meditation practice is designed to engender a sense of solace when uncertainty seems overwhelming:

  • Adopt a comfortable position and allow your body to begin to experience relaxation.
  • Focus attention on your body beginning with your breath as it courses through you.  You can ground this attention by focusing on the expansion and contraction of your chest or abdomen.
  • Feel the sensation of your breath – coolness, energy flow, evenness.
  • Choose an anchor – e.g. your breath, sounds in the room or a bodily sensation such as tingling in your fingers when they are pressed together, or the feel of your feet placed firmly on the floor.  You can then return to your anchor whenever you become unfocused or distracted by thoughts or sensations such as an itch or pain in a part of your body.
  • Notice any wandering off task and name what is happening e.g. lost in my thoughts; feeling anxious.  Once you have named what is happening, return to your anchor.
  • Notice any sensation of discomfort or disturbing thought – give it some space and pay attention to it with kindness.  You can change your posture if this helps or, alternatively, accept what is happening and plan to take action later, e.g. put some dermatitis cream on an itch.
  • Express appreciation for your safety, protection and wellness.
  • Extend your sense of gratitude to people engaged in making others safe and protecting them from harm, e.g. volunteers, the police and firefighters.
  • Focus on the groundedness of your body, take a deep breath and return to awareness of your surroundings.

Reflection

Meditation can help us to grow in mindfulness – awareness of our external reality and internal reactions such as fear and anxiety in the face of uncertainty.  Meditation provides a refuge and a source of solace in the face of life’s uncertainty.  The anchor we develop through meditation can serve us well throughout our daily lives, at work or at home.  Mindfulness can help us scare away the darkness of uncertainty so that we can achieve what the singer, Passenger, suggests:

Feel, feel like you still have a choice
If we all light up, we can scare away the dark.

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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.

A Reflection Meditation to Access Your Inner Wisdom

Diana Winston provides a reflection meditation podcast to enable us to access our inner wisdom.  We are so often absorbed with thinking our way through issues and challenges that we block access to our inner wisdom.  She suggests that if we shut down our thinking and just listen to our inner wisdom, we will arrive at creative insights and a way to move forward, ideally in line with our life purpose.  The reflection meditation is offered as one of the weekly meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) which aims through research and education to promote the practice and benefits of mindful awareness for people of all ages.

Reflection meditation for accessing inner wisdom

Diana’s 30-minute reflection meditation podcast basically has two phases – (1) relaxation and (2) opening to inner wisdom:

  1. In the first phase, you are introduced to a light body scan followed by a focus on an anchor of your choice such as breath, touch or sound.  You are encouraged to avoid entertaining distracting thoughts and to return to your meditation anchor once you are conscious of being distracted. 
  2. In the second phase, the emphasis is on listening to your inner wisdom while focusing on an aspect of your life that you want to improve, e.g. how to improve your relationship, how to enhance your well-being or develop your creativity.   The challenge here is to avoid thinking about the question – avoid trying to resolve your question cognitively.  This requires settling your mind, quieting your brain.  You are attempting to access your intuition rather than your rational, logical thinking.  Whenever your mind wanders, bring your focus back to your anchor and your inner wisdom.

To access the deeper levels of our inner wisdom takes time and lots of practice over a sustained period.  Karen Brody maintains that a quicker way to access deeper levels of consciousness is by using the Yoga Nidra Meditation discussed previously.

Reflection

We spend so much of our time trying to think our way through issues and life challenges and ignore our intuition and inner wisdom.  As we grow in mindfulness through various forms of meditation such as the reflection meditation, we can develop ways of accessing deeper levels of consciousness and bring our inner wisdom to bear on the questions that challenge us in 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.

How to Develop Patience through Meditation

Diana Winston, in her meditation podcast, Practicing Patience, suggests that patience is an expression of mindfulness.   Patience involves being present in a purposeful, non-judgmental way.  It requires self-awareness, self-regulation and, in the final analysis, a willingness to be with “what is”.   Her guided meditation that follows this explanation is one of the many and varied, weekly meditation podcasts offered by MARC (UCLA).  Diana is the principal meditation teacher but is very ably assisted by guest meditation teachers such as Matthew Brensilver, Mitra Manesh and Brian Shiers. 

What makes us impatient?

The Cambridge Dictionary explains that we become impatient in two primary situations that frustrate our goal orientation, (1) where we are held up and have to wait when we are trying to go somewhere and (2) where we perceive that we are not achieving something fast enough that we are excited by.   So, impatience involves a lack of tolerance of the present situation where we must wait or of our rate of progression to a desired future state.  Richard Wolf explains that learning a new piece of music requires practice, patience and persistence, but we can be impatient with our rate of progress towards mastery.  The tendency, then, is to become judgmental and self-critical.  

The sources of our impatience can be numerous, e.g. stopped by a traffic light, held up by a slow driver or a cyclist in our car lane, experiencing writer’s block, an inability to master some aspect of a desired sporting skill, a mental blockage when presenting an idea, cooking a meal that overheats or becomes burnt, delays that make us late for a meeting or when preparing a meal for guests or any other sources of frustration of the achievement of our goals.

When we are impatient, we can experience a wide range of negative emotions such as annoyance, agitation, anxiety, anger or resentment.  We can become overwhelmed, make poor decisions and behave rashly. In contrast, patience can lead to many positive outcomes – it is a common belief that “patience is a virtue” because it leads to many benefits such as maintaining peace and equanimity, keeping things in perspective, opening up opportunities and enriching relationships.

A meditation for developing patience

Diana in her meditation podcast provides a meditation designed to develop patience and cultivate the associated benefits.  The patience meditation has several steps:

  1. Become grounded and focused – using your personal choice of an anchor such as your breath, sound or bodily sensation.
  2. Envisage a time when you were impatient – identify your thoughts, capture and name your feelings and revisit your bodily sensations
  3. Envisage a time when you were patient – again experience what it was like in respect of your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations
  4. Re-envisage the situation where you were impatient – this time picture yourself being patient and in control.  Try to capture the positive thoughts, feelings and sensations that accompany being patient in that situation.

This meditation, if repeated with some regularity, can help you to develop patience and experience the many positive benefits that accrue.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through patience meditation, we can learn to transform situations where we have been impatient into ones where we are patient.  In this way, we can develop our patience and realise the many benefits that accrue with the practice of patience.

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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.

Tuning Into Sound

Diana Winston provided a meditation podcast on the topic, Listening to Sound, as part of the weekly offering by MARC (Mindful Awareness Research Center, UCLA).  Diana’s main theme was that there are times when sound “intrudes” into our meditation practice and we have a choice in how we respond.  We can become agitated and irritated or we can use the sound as the focus of our meditation.  She suggested that in taking the latter path, we are building our capacity to deal with the sounds and other unpleasant experiences that ‘intrude” in our daily life.

I can relate to this situation as I was recently meditating when workmen began hammering and sawing in the house next to mine.  I found I was really annoyed and resented this intrusion into my quiet time and solitude.  It had taken some discipline that morning to undertake my meditation in the first place.  My reaction at the time was to abandon my meditation – my level of annoyance impeded my capacity to focus.  Often our negative response in these situations is exacerbated by the expectations that we bring to our meditation, such as the expectation of absolute quiet.

Diana makes the point, though, that mindfulness “is not about seclusion” – it is about being with what is in the moment, whatever we are faced with.  The sound intrusion could be traffic noise, house renovations or heavy earth moving equipment.   As Diana observes, there is an alternative response other than our habituated flight or fight response.  We can focus on the sound and make that the object of our meditation.  She offered a hearing meditation in her podcast to build this capacity to deal with intrusive sounds and other “intrusions” in our life – experiences that clash with our expectations.

A hearing meditation – tuning into sound

The hearing meditation begins with the normal practice of becoming grounded and focused.   Diana then takes you through several steps that progressively build your awareness muscle:

  1. Focus your attention on the sounds in the room, the room tone, and include external sounds that may be penetrating your room space.  Here it is important to avoid pursuing what Diana calls “your story” about the sound – your interpretation of the nature of the sound, your emotional labelling of the sound as good or bad or your recollection of similar sounds in your prior experience.  The challenge is to just focus on the sound itself – tuning into it and the sensation of hearing it.
  2. Turn your focus now to some significant sensation in your body – it could be the groundedness of your feet on the floor or the energy and warmth flowing through your fingers or your feet.
  3. Your focus now switches to your breathing – to a part of the body where you can experience the act of breathing such as your abdomen, chest or nostrils.  Notice the “in” and “out” breath and the effect on your body with the rising or falling of your abdomen/chest or the flow of air through your nostrils.
  4. Finally, choose an anchor – the sound, the bodily sensation or the breath – to sustain the meditation over the remainder of your meditation session.  If you find the sound disturbing, take a few deep breaths and let out the sense of irritation – just let it be and return to your focus on your anchor.  Intruding thoughts and feelings are “part and parcel” of meditative practice, even for experienced meditators.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices and hearing meditation, we can progressively build our capacity to deal with the intrusions in our daily life that challenge our expectations.  The hearing meditation itself strengthens our awareness muscle and builds our resilience in the face of setbacks. 

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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.

Bringing Mindfulness to Your Motivations and Intentions

Diana Winston recently offered a meditation on the topic of mindfulness and intentions.  Diana is Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC, UCLA and the meditation was part of the weekly meditation podcasts offered by the Center.  The podcasts are accessible from the MARC website or via the UCLA Mindful App

Diana explained that an integral part of mindfulness is curiosity about our self, what we do and why we do it.  Many times, our intentions are not conscious – our thoughts and behaviour are often the result of habituated patterns.  We might sometimes do things because we think it is the “right thing to do” or because “others are doing it”.  As Diana points out, our motivations and intentions are often very complex, mixed in nature and not easily untangled.  She offers a guided meditation to unpack these motivations and, in particular, to explore the question, “Why do we meditate?”  If we are clear about the benefits that accrue for meditation practice, we are more likely to sustain the habit of meditating.  I find, for example, that clarity about my motivations is a key strategy for enabling me to sustain my practice of Tai Chi and writing this blog.

Meditation on intentions

Diana provides a meditation on intentions that has four key phases:

  1. Body scan – you begin by undertaking a comprehensive body scan, starting with the sensation of your feet on the floor and moving through your whole body.  I find that a body scan is easier to do if you are following the instruction of another person rather than if you try to do it under “your own steam”.
  2. Exploring why you meditate – what is it that keeps you going with meditation?  What are the benefits that you experience? The clearer you can be about the personal benefits for you – the intentions that shape your habit – the more likely you are to sustain the practice through difficult times or when you are time-poor.
  3. Grounding through your anchor – revisiting your personal anchor can help you to maintain your focus when negative thoughts or other distractions take your attention.  Your anchor can be your breath, focusing on sounds in the room (such as room tone), or getting in touch with a sensation in your body, e.g. the tingling when your fingers touch (my favourite). 
  4. Exploring why you do other activities – now you shift your attention to something else in your life to focus on your intention in doing that activity.  You can focus on a major activity that you regularly undertake and ask the fundamental question, “What am I doing this for?”  Alternatively, you can focus on a less significant activity that you want to gain some clarity about – it might be a commitment or task that you no longer want to undertake but continue to do so.  Diana cautions not to let yourself become frazzled if you cannot immediately find a focus for this phase of the meditation – you can always revisit the meditation at another time.  She also suggests that a few deep breaths taken during this part of the exercise can be helpful for finding and sustaining your focus.

Motivation for meditation

When I undertook this meditation, I was pleased that I was able to clarify and strengthen my motivation for persisting with regular meditation practice.  I was able to identify the following intentions behind my practice (you may have very different intentions based on your own life experience):

  1. Achieving calm – this is a key aspect of my intentions in meditation practice.  I find that calmness enables me to deal with the stresses of life and the inevitable traumas that I experience.  At the end of a recent workshop that I was co-facilitating, a participant came up to me and thanked me for my “calmness and creating a calming atmosphere”.
  2. Developing creativity – meditating releases my capacity to be creative in my writing and in designing and facilitating workshops for managers and leaders.
  3. Dealing with difficult emotions – there are several meditations that focus specifically on difficult emotions such as resentment or anger.  These meditations help me to temper the emotion and contribute to restoring my equilibrium.
  4. Reducing reactivity – there are so many things in life that can trigger a reaction, e.g. traffic jams, and I can become less reactive through my meditation practice (especially targeted mediations such as “You are traffic too” and “When you are waiting, have awareness as your default, not your phone”).  Now in traffic delays, I am able to revert to my anchor, fingers touching, to remain calm and increase my awareness.
  5. Improving relationships – meditation helps me to be more conscious of my thoughts and emotions in any interaction and assists me to be sufficiently present to actively listen to others I interact with, especially in close relationships (even if I don’t achieve this very well in a particular interaction, my awareness and reflection help me to resolve to do better the next time).  Awareness of my own thoughts and emotions improves my capacity to understand the dynamics occurring in my training groups.
  6. Health and healing – meditations focused on nature support my emotional stability and contribute to my overall wellness.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can develop greater clarity about the intentions behind our meditation practice and other significant activities in our life, sustain our motivation and enjoy the benefits that accrue both to ourselves and others we interact with.  We can begin to more fully realise the benefits of increasing inner and outer awareness. Meditation focused on our motivations and intentions can help us to make explicit the implicit motivation behind our actions and, in the process, to strengthen our motivation.

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Image by Alexas_Fotos 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.

Mindfulness as Self-Observation

Brian Shiers suggests that underpinning mindfulness is self-observation, the foundation of self-awareness.  This means, in effect, that there is no one right way to meditate – that paying attention to and noticing ourselves, in whatever way, is essentially mindfulness.  While there is a tendency for people new to meditation to judge themselves against a presumed standard, the experience they are having in self-observation is what mindfulness is about, not some prescribed level of awareness.  Mindfulness practices are designed to stimulate this curiosity about oneself in an open, exploratory way.  Tara Brach describes this lifelong journey as “waking up” – a deep shift in inner awareness that leads to equanimity and increased empathy and compassion.

In a recent guided meditation podcast, Brian asked the question, “What is “Myself”? and he encouraged participants to activate their “observational mind” in a relaxed manner.  He maintained that the fundamental question, “What is the “self”? is both an ancient and a recent question (through the pursuit of neuroscience).

Is the “self” my body, my thoughts, my roles I undertake, my affiliations, my emotions or my mind?  Brian sited the work of Dan Siegel, a founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), who believes that the “self” is not only what we are born with, but also the cumulation of billions of impressions that we are exposed to through interactions with others – thus shaping our perceptions and responses.  Dan’s perspective reinforces the uniqueness of our “self”.  Brian suggests, then, that the self is “intertwined in inter- relationships” – the direct and indirect influence of others throughout our lives.

Researchers have yet to establish what the “mind” is, even with the advent of neuroscience.   Brain stated that neuroscientists at Stanford University have estimated that we generate between 65,000 and 90,000 thoughts per day.  We are reminded of the admonition of Jon Kabat-Zinn that “you are not your thoughts”, thoughts that come and go like bubbles in boiling water.  Brain suggests that the “enterprise of mindfulness” is “self-observation”, including bringing to conscious awareness and guidance, the unconscious, spontaneously occurring thoughts that pervade our minds.  So, from Brian’s perspective, mindfulness is the pursuit of self-awareness through observation of the various domains of our existence, including our bodies and our minds.

A process of self-observation

Brian’s guided meditation podcast takes you on a journey of paying attention to your “self” through a process of self-observation of body and mind – noticing your body on the chair, engaging in mindful breathing, noticing your thoughts (but not entertaining them), undertaking a body scan while releasing tension, and participating in a reflection.

The personal reflection involves identifying a positive trait in yourself, e.g. wisdom. loving kindness, gratitude, thoughtfulness or resilience; and exploring how it manifests, its impact on others and how you could further develop this trait. Brian offers some guided questions for the reflection:

  • What is happening when you exhibit this trait? (you can visualise it happening)
  • What impact does it have on others?
  • Who is a role model for you in respect of this trait?
  • Who could help you develop it?
  • How can you further develop this positive trait?

As we grow in mindfulness through self -observation during the process of meditation, we can better understand who we are, how we experience the world, and what we bring to our interactions with others. We can also identify strategies to strengthen our positive traits and increase our motivation to use them to create a better life for ourselves and others.

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Image – Personal reflection during sunrise, Wynnum, Brisbane

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.