Depression and the Loss of Connection To Meaningful Work

Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, was concerned about the extraordinary rise in the use of antidepressant drugs in America and the associated total focus on biological causes of depression.  He set about doing worldwide research on the social factors contributing to depression.  He was particularly interested in precursor events or situations that led to a person experiencing depression.  His research led him to identify nine social factors that were contributing to the alarming rise in the incidence of depression and suicide.  As the title of his book indicates, each of these social factors related to a “lost connection.”  He describes the first of these causal factors as “disconnection from meaningful work”.

Loss of connection to meaningful work

Johann’s research (and that of his colleagues) covered a range of people engaged in different kinds of work, usually at lower levels in organisations.  They found that certain job characteristics contributed to a loss of meaning for the worker.  This disconnection with meaningful work resonates with the Job Characteristics Model developed by Hackman and Oldham in the 1970s as a basis for the design of jobs that generated positive psychological states such as the experience of meaningfulness and personal responsibility.

Johann, drawing on his own research and that of his colleagues, identified several job characteristics in different contexts that contributed to the loss of connection to meaningful work and resulted in people experiencing depression:

  • Lack of control over work – research into the high incidence of suicide amongst staff investigating tax returns in the Taxation Office in Britain found that a key contributing factor was the lack of control over their work.  No matter how hard they worked, the pile of work kept growing and they could never get on top of it.  The ability to control the work environment and how work is done, known as “agency”, has been the subject of much research into what constitutes a psychologically healthy work environment.
  • Lack of feedback – in the previous research, another factor identified as contributing to psychological illness was the lack of feedback about performance of the job.  No matter how well or how poorly the work was done, there was no feedback received from supervisors or managers.  This led to a sense of the work and the worker being devalued.  The disconnection between effort and “reward” in terms of positive feedback contributed to people feeling “irrelevant” – they felt that they were not important or relevant to what the organisation valued.
  • Lack of discretion – research into the experience of depression amongst typists in a typing pool demonstrated that a causal factor of depression was the lack of the ability to make decisions affecting the work and the typists’ output.  The typists were totally disempowered because work was given to them with instructions on how it was to be done by people they did not know; they lacked understanding of what the documents involved or meant; demand was endless; and they were unable to speak to each other.  The work was thus experienced as meaningless and “soul-destroying”.  This research, along with other studies, highlighted the fact that people lower in organisations experience greater stress than those at higher levels who have a lot of responsibility because the latter have more discretion over what they do and how they do it.
  • Lack of ability to make a difference – the example given by Johann related to a worker in a paint shop who spent all day adding tint to base paint and using a machine to mix the contents to provide paint with the colour requested by a customer.  The repetitious nature of this task and the associated boredom contributed to the worker experiencing a lack of meaning because he did not make a real difference in people’s lives.  Hackman and Oldham had previously identified “significance” of a job as a key element for a psychologically satisfying job.  Associated with that was the degree to which a job provided what they termed “task variety” and “skill variety”.  Work without variation and with no perceived impact, can be experienced as mind-numbing and deadening and lead to depression.

The loss of connection to meaningful work can be addressed at two levels.  Organisations can develop greater awareness about what constitutes unhealthy work design and remedy deficiencies in the design of jobs.  Action learning interventions can be helpful in this regard and, in the process, build employee’s self-awareness and sense of agency.

Workers, too, can develop inner awareness about what in their work is impacting their mental health and causing depression. They can explore this awareness through meditation and reflection and identify ways to remedy the situation.  As they grow in mindfulness, they may be able to identify why they are procrastinating and not removing themselves from a harmful work situation.  Johann found, for example, that the worker in the paint shop really wanted to change jobs and had already identified what job would give more meaning and joy for him.  However, he was held back by his perceived need to achieve the external rewards of life – better income and a good car.  Through meditation and reflection, it is possible to become more acutely aware of the cost of “staying’ versus changing and to be able to cope with the vulnerability involved in changing jobs.

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Image by Gerd Altmann 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.

Facing Up to Vulnerability

I am not a Buddhist.  However, I readily acknowledge that in the area of mindfulness I can learn from the oral tradition of the Buddha that has been passed down over more than 2,500 years through teachings and stories.  Tara Brach, practising Buddhist and international mindfulness teacher, shares one such story related to vulnerability, “I See You, Mara”.   Tara recounts that the Buddha when travelling and teaching often encountered a sense of vulnerability experienced as “fear of loss or rejection”.  His way to manage this fear was to name it and face it – he called the fear Mara (“the god of darkness”).  So, whenever he encountered such fear and sense of being vulnerable, he would say, “I See You, Mara”.

Facing up to vulnerability and naming our feelings

There are times when we feel intuitively that we should do something that would be helpful to others, but we become fearful and give into our sense of vulnerability.  For the Buddha, “Mara” epitomised this fear and vulnerability.  We could find our own name for this darkness that can overwhelm us and impede our ability to be intimate, creative or compassionate.  Whatever way we choose, the basic process involves naming our feelings when we feel blocked by a sense of vulnerability.  In this way, we can tame our feelings, draw on our strengths and reduce the inhibiting influence of feeling vulnerable

In a previous post, I discussed the genesis of our sense of vulnerability and offered a short meditation that Tara teaches to help us to open to our vulnerability in our everyday life.  However, we may be faced with a specific challenge represented by an opportunity to do something worthwhile for others and, despite the value of the proposed action, we find ourselves procrastinating out of fear of some adverse outcome.  On these occasions, we can face up to our procrastination self-stories and bring them above-the-line.

What can be helpful, too, is to explore whether there is an underlying adverse event (or series of events) that gave rise to our personal sense of vulnerability.  Have we experienced an occasion when we were deeply embarrassed, totally rejected or attacked for our ideas or efforts?  How is such an event playing out in our lives now?  In this reflection, we can relate our sense of vulnerability to its origins and our deeply held belief (however false), that a similar outcome will be experienced again if we challenge the “status quo” or advance ideas that are different to mainstream thinking.  This deeply held belief about adverse outcomes can immobilise us if it remains hidden and not exposed to the light of observation and reflection.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become increasingly aware of the impact of our past experience on our sense of vulnerability, begin to name our underlying feelings and access ways to face up to being vulnerable.  In this way, we can progressively release our capacity for intimacy, creativity and compassionate action.

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Image by Quinn Kampschroer 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.

A Meditation for Facing Fear and Anxiety

Bob Stahl, co-author of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook for Anxiety, provides a 30 -minute meditation for facing fear and anxiety that I will discuss in this post.  Bob is a Master Mindfulness Teacher who has developed multiple MBSR programs for hospitals and members of the medical professions.  He is active on multiple fronts – author, developer of the Mindfulness Training Institute, and a professional educator and innovator with the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

How meditation and mindfulness can help to reduce anxiety

Mindfulness can calm feelings of anxiety because it enables you to face fear and anxiety in all their intensity (rather than attempt avoidance which is harmful); it assists you to access the well of ease within you; and “creates space around your anxieties” so that you are not exhausted and totally consumed by their pervasiveness and relentlessness.

Our anxieties deepen when we indulge in harmful self-stories and thoughts about what might happen which typically involve “fearing the worst”.  These stories and thoughts can overwhelm us and take our focus away from the present moment and effective, mindful living.  The feelings of fear and anxiety can be experienced as a whirlpool with the sensation of being caught in an ever-deepening vortex of water – drowning in the whirling immersion.

Mindfulness and meditation can still the whirlpool of emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations; calm the mind and body; and open the way for creative exploration of options to address the presenting issues or catalyst for the anxiety and fear.

A meditation for facing fear and anxiety

At the heart of the anxiety meditation offered by Bob (Practice #2) is a body scan that not only opens awareness of what you are sensing in your body but also awareness of your debilitating thoughts and the full range and depth of emotions you are experiencing (which we often deny or avoid because they are too painful).

Bob proceeds through a series of steps that I will summarise below (however, I encourage you to undertake the anxiety meditation by listening to Bob):

  • 1. Congratulate yourself for taking the time and effort to undertake this meditation and to experience the vulnerability it entails.
  • 2.Undertake a preliminary check-in to sense how you are feeling, thinking and experiencing bodily sensations.  Reinforce your intention to face your fear and anxiety.
  • 3.Bring your attention to your breath gently – focusing on the rise and fall of your stomach as you breathe in and out.  Just breathe naturally without force to enable the calming influence of your breath to take over from the controlling influence of your thoughts and feelings.
  • 4.Shifting your focus to a body scan – the scan that Bob offers is very comprehensive, starting with your feet and ankles and working slowly through your whole body to the top of your head.  What adds to the power of this body scan is Bob’s way of linking each part of the body to its place in the body’s systems, e.g. your heart and circulatory system, your lungs and respiratory system. 
  • 5.Accept what happens as you “breathe into your whole body” – if there is tension or tightness, let it be,; if your body releases the tension, let that softening sensation be; or if thoughts and/or feelings arise, let them be.  Just stay with your breath, notice what is happening and let go – an act of trust in the process.
  • 6. Explore thoughts that generate fear or anxiety with compassionate curiosity – investigate gently their underlying causes and acknowledge this influence without trying to over-analyse.
  • 7.Extend compassion to your feelings – let them be to the level of intensity that you can handle.  Sometimes, this may mean just “wading into the water” of your anxiety.
  • 8. Become grounded in your breath again – withdraw from the compassionate inquiry to rest in the natural flow of your breathing.  You might find it useful to undertake this grounding at various stages throughout the meditation to lower the intensity of your thoughts/feelings. 
  • 9. Notice your thoughts – observe the ever-changing character of your thoughts and how they come and go.  Bob suggests you view them as “the clouds in the sky” passing by, rarely stopping as they are carried along by the breeze or wind.  See whatever happens as just “floating by”.
  • 10. Think of others who may be experiencing fear and anxiety – extend your wellness wishes to them in the hope that they too will become free.

As we grow in mindfulness through this anxiety meditation, we become better able to accept what is, experience our bodily sensations and feelings, break free of the stranglehold of our anxious thoughts and experience once again the ease of well-being.  Bob suggests that we view this anxiety meditation as an “internal weather report” and congratulate ourselves for being able to “acclimate ourselves to our fears”.

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Image by Gianni Crestani 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.

Bringing an Open Heart to Work

Susan Piver, author of Start Here Now: An Open-Hearted Guide to the Path and Practice of Meditation, presented recently at the Mindfulness@Work Summit on the topic, Create Open Heart Connections at Work.  She explained that having an “open heart” means “softening towards self and our experiences” – accepting ourselves and our life experiences as they are.  In her view it does not mean only having positive thoughts, just being nice all the time or being overly kind to everybody.  While Susan stresses the “softening” aspect of an open heart, she asserts very strongly that there is nothing weak about having an open-hearted stance – in fact, it takes incredible courage to truly face the reality of ourselves and our experience, not hiding behind a mask.  This openheartedness develops rich workplace relations built on respect and a profound recognition of connectedness – thus enabling creativity and innovation to flourish.

Hiding behind a mask

As mentioned in my previous post, we are constantly projecting onto others by judging them by their actions while thinking positively about ourselves because of our good intentions.  Many times, our judgments are projections of what we do not like about our self rather than an innate feature of the character of the other person.  We are not open to our blind spots or unconscious bias. We can carry resentment that is based on false assumptions and a lack of understanding.

We have this tendency to hold onto a self-image that protects our sense of self-worth and, at the same time, creates distance from others.  In contrast, being open hearted enables “respectful relationships” that are essential for workplace productivity, creativity and innovation.  Susan argues that Western society is obsessed with self-improvement but that the starting position for an individual is often self-delusion, a figment of our imagination rather than facing what is real about ourselves.  Even being perfect at meditation becomes a goal in itself.

Meditation as a pathway to an open heart

Meditation enables us to be with ourselves as we are – our feelings, thoughts, disappointments, hopes, anxieties and fears.  It involves a “softening to self” – a path of curiosity and self-discovery.  We begin to notice what is really there not what we think is, or should be, there.  It helps us to surf the waves of life rather than ignore that they exist.  However, an open heart is not achieved easily – it requires a fierce commitment and the courage to “free fall” without the support of self-delusion.

The resultant openness to our real self is liberating – it can be truly transformative.  Part of this outcome is acknowledgement and acceptance of our vulnerability, rather than a pretence of our strength and invincibility.  Susan points out too that the things that are valued in the workplace such as innovation, creativity, insight, wisdom and compassion all require “receptivity” – an openness to receiving, the capacity to be truly present and the ability to connect constructively.  An open heart helps us to negotiate work and life challenges and to engage with others in the workplace in a helpful and creative way. 

The Open Heart Project

The Open Heart Project, led by Susan Piver, is an international, online community of over 20,000 people who engage in ongoing mindfulness meditation practice and sharing.  It is designed to bring peace and harmony to the world through true self-compassion and in-depth relationships and connection.  Susan also offers free information and guided meditations to individuals who subscribe to her weekly newsletter through her blog page.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation that facilitates an open heart, we begin to see our self and our experiences as they truly are, develop genuine self-compassion and build constructive, productive and creative workplace relationships.

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Image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer 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.

Being in the Zone Through Mindfulness

George Mumford, Mindfulness and Performance Expert, recently presented during the Embodiment@Work online conference coordinated by the mindful leader organisation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to encouraging and supporting mindfulness and compassion in the workplace. George works with elite sports teams and individual elite athletes, business leaders and academics to help them to achieve their very best. He is the author of The Mindful Athlete: The Secrets to Pure Performance.

Flow requires integration of body, mind and emotion

George argues that athletes, leaders and academics only achieve flow when they have achieved integration of their body, mind and emotions. What often stops people achieving their potential is what goes on in their minds which, in turn, negatively impacts their emotions. He gave the example of a young elite basketballer who can achieve a 90% success rate for three-points shots in practice, yet in a game situation her success rate drops to 33%.

We have previously discussed why it is so hard to serve out a match in tennis and how even top tennis players (men and women) often have difficulty with this feature of playing tennis. In both these examples, it is what goes on inside someone’s head that makes the difference – a difference in mindset from a positive outlook to negative anticipation.

Once people can achieve an alignment of body, mind and emotions they are open to the insight, wisdom and high performance that epitomises “being in the zone”. George argues that you can’t wish yourself there, but you can develop mindfulness so that the chances of being in the zone are increased. He maintains that it requires being present in the moment and being in control of your mind and emotions – traits that develop through mindfulness practice.

Once you are in the zone, all that is required is to let it happen. You are typically not in control – things happen spontaneously. You make the right choices, execute perfectly and achieve success. I recall being in the zone on one occasion when playing tennis against a a very good player – everything I attempted worked, stroke play was effortless and choices of shot and strategy were made without conscious intervention. At the time, I said to myself, “Just enjoy the moment while it lasts”. It lasted two sets – after which time my opponent gave up, not having won a game.

George reinforces the fact that there exists a space between stimulus and response and we can learn to use that space to make conscious choices rather than act out habituated, reactive behaviour. This form of self-regulation is achieved through sustained mindfulness practice.

Developing a mindfulness mindset

George contends that is not enough to sit, be still and maintain silence. Mindfulness must become a way of life – a sustained mindset. This can be achieved, in part, by adopting a variety of mindfulness practices in different settings as illustrated in the pausing approach described earlier or making conscious efforts to incorporate practices such as mindful walking, intention forming, open awareness or mindful eating.

George suggests that these regular practices help to develop a mindfulness mindset, but they are insufficient of themselves. He argues that we need to attempt to be fully conscious in the moment by asking ourselves a set of questions as we engage in any activity:

  • What is going on for me bodily, in my mind and with my emotions?
  • How aligned are my words and actions with my goal, my overall purpose and who I want to be?
  • Have I got the right balance of energy and effort, or am I over-exerting myself and being so energetic that it is counter-productive?
  • Do I have a firm belief in my ability to achieve the outcome I am seeking?
  • Am I distracted by negative emotions (fear, anxiety) or the inability to concentrate because of a lack of focus in the situation?

Performance growth through discomfort and mistakes

Being in the zone is more likely to occur when we are in a learning mode – open to alternative ways of doing things and to the vulnerability that comes with making mistakes. Jacob Ham argues that to overcome fear and anxiety in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, we need to develop a “learning brain” and to quiet our “survival brain”.

George suggests that there is no growth without mistakes – we have to try out innovative ways of doing things but this requires being “comfortable with discomfort” and being ready to be self-forgiving for our mistakes (which are a part of every sport or leadership role). It also entails a readiness to be vulnerable and a willingness to learn from the mistakes we make and adapt to new situations we encounter.

As we grow in mindfulness through various forms of meditation, different mindfulness practices and conscious questioning and curiosity about our mind in the present moment, we can achieve “innovative action” and approach the unique reward of being in the zone (whatever our endeavour).

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Image by Erich Westendarp 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.

Inertia: A Sign of Feeling Vulnerable?

Previously, I explored ways to overcome our defence mechanisms designed to protect us from vulnerability. I’ve also explored how being vulnerable can improve our contribution and our relationships. In this post, I want to look at the relationship between inertia and feeling vulnerable.

Experiencing inertia

Inertia according to the Oxford Dictionary is a “tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged” – a trait often ascribed to bureaucratic organisations but experienced by most of us at some point in our lives. When I was an active academic, I used to be approached by potential higher degree students who would say, “I really want to do a doctoral degree, but I don’t seem to be able to get started.”

My first word of advice to them was not to start a doctoral degree – which involves study, research and concentrated effort over several years – unless they have a research topic that they are passionate about. Without the passion, research students are unable to sustain the effort and focus required to achieve their desired outcome, the award of a doctoral degree. This principle of passion and enthusiasm can apply to any endeavour requiring a sustained effort over a long period.

Behind inertia – feeling vulnerable

When the potential student reassures me that they have a topic that they are passionate about, I then explore with them why they have been unable to take action, to start on the path towards their degree. Invariably, their response identifies vulnerability as the source of their inertia – “I may not be intelligent enough to do the research.”; “No one may be interested in what I want to research!”; “I have not written anything lengthy before.”; “What if I fail the doctoral examination?”; “I don’t know anyone who could supervise me.”; “My writing may not be good enough.”; and similar expressions of feeling vulnerable.

Often the advice to people who are unable to make progress on something that they really want to achieve is to start somewhere, anywhere that will put them on the path to their desired outcome. In the case of a potential doctoral study, this may mean reading around the topic to explore the area, generate heightened interest or identify potential resource people. While this is very good advice, it may not overcome a person’s fear of feeling vulnerable, particularly if it is deep-seated – resulting from prior traumatic experiences or from being “wounded”.

Exploring the vulnerability behind inertia

Often, we need to deal with our deepest fears before we can move forward or take action on something that we really want to do. One way into this is to clearly identify the underlying sources of our sense of being vulnerable. This can be achieved progressively through meditation, but it will require complete honesty with our self. Excuses are often avoidance strategies, not legitimate reasons for not taking action.

You can start a meditation to explore your inertia by becoming grounded, through your posture and breathing in the first instance. You can gradually move to exploring the bodily sensations that arise when you focus on the endeavour you are trying to start on. You can notice these sensations – tightness, tension, nervous movements – and focus on them and try to release them through your breathing.

Once you have been able to settle down your bodily reactions, you can begin to explore the feelings behind the bodily sensations – fear, anxiety, concern, worried, wary, troubled, insecure, guarded, apprehensive or other associated feeling that indicates that you are feeling vulnerable. You need to be able to name your feelings to be able to reduce their impact and to release the hold on your energy. Once you have identified these feelings and faced them, you can move forward.

The next phase of this exploration of the vulnerability behind inertia is to identify the fear-inducing thoughts that you unconsciously entertain and that give rise to these feelings of being vulnerable. The thoughts could be, “I’m not good enough.”; “What if I fail?; “What if I make a fool of myself?”; “What If people see through me?”; “What if I get stuck and do not know what to say?’; “What if I have nothing really worthwhile to contribute?”; and so on. Invariably, you will be dealing with a lot of “what if’s” – betraying your mind’s negative orientation.

You can face these thoughts and deal with them by asking, “Is this outcome likely to happen?”; “What could I do to reduce the likelihood of it happening – how can I plan appropriately?”; “If it does happen, can I deal with it?” We tend to catastrophize – think of the worst possible outcome – which, in turn, blocks our taking action.

Once you have dealt with the sensations, feelings and thoughts associated with your inertia and sense of feeling vulnerable, you can move forward by planning and taking some action to move yourself towards your goal. It may take a number of practices of this meditation before you can move forward – the time and effort required will depend on how deeply embedded is your sense of vulnerability.

As we grow in mindfulness – awareness of our inner and outer reality -through meditation on our inertia and its manifestation (in our bodily sensations, our feelings and thoughts), we can release our blocked energy and gradually move forward to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves.

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

Image source: courtesy of MMckein on Pixabay

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

Being Vulnerable: How to Improve Our Relationships and Contribution

In the previous post I discussed Tara Brach’s presentation on vulnerability and intimacy and ways to overcome our defence mechanisms. In this blog post, I want to focus on becoming vulnerable to improve two aspects of our lives – our contribution and our relationships.

Vulnerability is universal

Vulnerability is “part and parcel” of being human. When you think about it most people you encounter in life will have experienced at least one trauma – a significant frightening or disturbing event – in their life at one time or another. A traumatic event may take many forms and people will react differently to varying events such as the death of a child, partner, parent, sibling or friend; the break-up of parents through divorce; a major car or workplace accident; loss of a job; experience of chronic illness and/or pain; severe financial difficulties resulting in the loss of a home; break-up of an intimate relationship; a period of mental illness; addiction to drugs or alcohol; or any manner of distressing events.

Tara makes the point that “the more wounding there has been, the greater are the defences”. We each have been wounded at some time through various events, traumatic or otherwise, that have intensified our sense of being vulnerable and precipitated our defence mechanisms designed to protect us from such vulnerability. Ian MacLaren recognised that everyone experiences vulnerability when he wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”.

Because of our past experiences, we may feel afraid to speak up, to take part in a group activity, to perform publicly, to engage in conversation or to give positive feedback to another person. We may feel that we will be rejected, laughed at, or cut out of a group. We might be concerned about experiencing embarrassment, lack of control or overt emotions expressed as tears.

How we hide our fear of being vulnerable

There are many ways that we can camouflage our fear of being vulnerable such as:

  1. excessive criticism of others, constant judging (people never measure up to our expectations)
  2. projection of our own fears or anxiety onto others (“they are too fearful or lack courage”)
  3. aggressive emotions such as anger, blame (fight behaviour)
  4. withdrawal through depression (flight behaviour)
  5. inertia (freeze behaviour)
  6. overcontrolling others
  7. overconsuming – food, social media, goods and services, drugs
  8. hiding behind a mask/role – being the boss, the helper or the victim

The problem is that these ways of hiding our feelings of vulnerability are often subtle, elaborate, sub-conscious and developed over long periods of time. It takes a concerted effort and continuous training to be able to identify our defence mechanisms and overcome them through sustained, focused attention in meditation.

Being vulnerable to improve our contribution

Tara at one stage in her presentation tells the story of how a disturbed teenager’s life turned around when he heard a monk sing a song both loudly and off-key in front of an audience. He was taken with the courage required by the monk to do that and make a “fool” of himself. The monk showed bravery by placing himself in a potentially embarrassing situation.

I previously recounted a similar story of coach Mo Cheeks (who could not sing in tune) getting up in front of thousands of people at a NBA playoff and helping a 13 year old girl complete the national anthem after she was overcome with nerves.

Both these stories illustrate the power of being vulnerable (overcoming our natural defence mechanisms) to make a contribution to others and the community generally. Mo’s action, for instance, has been a source of inspiration for more than half a million people who have viewed the video of his compassionate intervention.

Improving a relationship by being vulnerable

Tara tells another story of a mother who was feeling very vulnerable because her daughter had become addicted to heroin and was continuously in and out of treatment centres for her addiction. The mother hid her sense of powerlessness and being vulnerable by her angry, blaming and controlling behaviour towards her daughter. Through psychotherapy the mother was able to let go of her defences and need for control and provide compassionate support for her daughter – to be with her daughter in her struggle, trusting in her daughter’s own wisdom to break free of the addiction.

The daughter did succeed and overcame her addiction and the mother and daughter built a deep relationship through this mutual experience of vulnerability. The mother was able to overcome her defence mechanisms to provide constructive support that enabled her daughter and the relationship to move forward.

A meditation on vulnerability

In her presentation (at the 35.45-minute mark), Tara provides a basis for reflection on your own sense of vulnerability and how it is impacting your relationships. She suggests you focus first on a relationship that you want to improve in terms of closeness or one that is bogged down in a pattern of behaviour that is not constructive. The focal relationship can be with anyone – life partner, friend, child, sibling or work colleague.

The reflection then revolves around exploring the ways that you are creating separation through your own thoughts and actions. Tara provides some questions to explore how your vulnerability is impacting the relationship:

  1. in what ways are you protecting yourself in these interactions?
  2. are you judging the other person?
  3. are you projecting on the other person some expectation of how they should be?
  4. are you withholding yourself and pretending to be who you are not?
  5. are you trying to impress the other person by constantly explaining how good you are at some endeavour or how much better your trip or experience was?
  6. are you operating from a low level of trust of people generally?

Once you have addressed these questions, the process then involves getting in touch with how you feel in your body when you are defending yourself – are you uptight?; does your face reflect your intensity?; are you physically rigid?; or are you looking distracted (as you search for a self-protective response)?

You next ask yourself how would you manage if you let go of one or more of your defences in your interactions with this person – how will you need to feel differently? A visioning question can be helpful here – “What if I reduce my armour, what will our interaction be like and how will I cope with being seen to be flawed or being rejected or looking foolish”? You can ask yourself, “How likely is it that these outcomes I fear will actually occur?”

The final step is to face your fear and sense of being vulnerable, acknowledge it and use your breathing to bring it under control. You can adopt a mindful breathing approach, deepen your in-breath and out-breath or envisage the fear as you breathe in and envisage its release as you breathe out.

As we grow in mindfulness through noticing and managing our vulnerability through meditation practice, we can open ourselves up to more creative contributions to our community and to deeper and more meaningful relationships. As the defence barriers we construct begin to come down or weaken, we are able to free up our creative abilities and let people into our life.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

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

Overcoming Our Defences: Opening to Vulnerability

Tara Brach provides an extended, profound and thought-provoking talk and meditation on the topic of vulnerability and intimacy. She highlights the fact that our innate tendency to protect ourselves from vulnerability is something that we share with nature. Tara discusses the elaborate defence mechanisms that humans develop to ward off vulnerability and argues that these defences become a barrier to intimacy, creativity and a life lived fully. While it takes courage to let down our defences, the starting point is to deepen our awareness of our own individual defences through meditation and mindfulness.

Vulnerability – our common condition with animals and nature

Tara highlights the fact that experiencing vulnerability is part of our evolutionary condition – a condition we have in common with animals and nature. Cats for example hiss or spit when they are fearful and feel threatened. Hope Ferdowsian in her book, Phoenix Zones, emphasises the vulnerability we share with animals and highlights the need to “value vulnerability”. Joanne Kennell discuses some of the very strange ways plants protect themselves from predators to reduce their vulnerability. One of the more fascinating defence mechanisms is the complex defences created by the Bullhorn acacia tree which Joanne explains “house and feed aggressive ants” that, in turn, protect the plant from anything – plant, animal or fungi – that will threaten the plant.

It is natural for us as humans to feel vulnerable and just as natural for us to develop our own defence mechanisms. Tara points out, though, that what served originally as a productive defence mechanism can soon become an unhealthy habit that proves injurious to us. She mentions self-protecting defences such as pretences (pretending to be what we are not), hiding our feelings such as disappointment (to prevent exposing ourselves and our vulnerability) and withdrawing (physically and/or psychologically).

Our culture reinforces our innate tendency to hide our vulnerability because of the emphasis on being strong, competitive and independent, along with a focus on external things such as looks, dress and status. We want to be seen to be “cool”, “with-it” and confident.

Accessing our vulnerability


To overcome this innate and environmental conditioning to hide our vulnerability requires insight and courage. Tara explains that, because of the extent and depth of our conditioning, willpower alone will not remove our self-sabotaging defence mechanisms. What is needed is a deeper awareness of our individual defence mechanisms, insight into how they impact us and openness to the vulnerability that they hide.

Tara suggests that one way into our defences to achieve “de-armouring” is to answer a number of questions that are summarised below:

  1. Do I recognise my unique knowledge, skills and experience and am I prepared to use them to help create a better, healthier world?
  2. Am I aware of the many ways that I protect myself from being vulnerable?
  3. How do I relate to a sense of vulnerability when it arises in me?

A short meditation practice for accessing vulnerability

Tara offers a short meditation practice (at the 22.30 min mark) that can be undertaken at any point during the day – e.g. when you park your car or while you are walking. The basic process is to “stop and pause” to get in touch with your feelings of vulnerability – an approach you can use to get in contact with your “everyday vulnerability”.

You begin by closing your eyes or looking downwards and using your breath as a pathway to your vulnerability. As you breathe in, ask yourself “What is happening for me now?; In what way am I feeling vulnerable?; “How am I relating to this sense of being vulnerable?” As you breathe out release any physical tension associated with feeling vulnerable and open yourself to your potentiality.

Tara maintains that as we learn to “relate to” vulnerability, rather than “relate from” vulnerability, we are able to free ourselves from the limitations created by these feelings. Part of the power of this process comes from naming our feelings.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation and accessing our vulnerability we can become more aware of what makes us feel vulnerable and how we experience and relate to this vulnerability. We can begin to create an openness to being vulnerable and learn to relate to this feeling with understanding and acceptance of what is. This will enable us to move forward more courageously and creatively.

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

Image source: courtesy of ulleo on Pixabay

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

Identifying and Managing Harmful Beliefs

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

Our false beliefs can take many forms:

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

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

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

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

Identifying and managing harmful beliefs

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Image source: courtesy of rawpixel on Pixabay

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

The Hidden Challenges in Self-Compassion Meditation

In the previous post, I explored what happens when a negative experience continues to recur because of our habituated behaviour, even after employing the R.A.I.N. meditation process.  I then focused on using self-compassion to break the bonds of negative self-evaluation that inevitably occurs.

However, self-compassion, being kind to ourselves, brings up its own challenges and resistances.

Challenges embedded in self-compassion meditation
  1. The evasive end goal

How do you know you have arrived?  When can you say you have reached the end point – completed the journey of self-discovery through self-compassion?   There is no single end point – only a deeper level of progression into our inner world and what lies below the surface.

2. The defences we have developed

We avoid pain at every opportunity and self-compassion meditation makes us vulnerable – we have to visit the centre of our internal hurt.  We ward off this vulnerability by convincing ourselves that we must be doing it wrong because this keen sense of vulnerability should not be happening.

3. Failure to recognise the pervasiveness of our negative self-evaluations

There are typically so many moments and situations where we view ourselves as not measuring up or “falling short”.  It is so easy to deny or dismiss these negative self-evaluations with a flippant and groundless self-belief that “I am not like that”.   Yet the sense of “unworthiness” can impact every facet of our life at work, at home and in the community.  We lack trust in others because we are concerned that someone might find out what we are really like.

4. “False refuges” 

When we think we do not meet the expectations of our peers, family or society generally, we may employ strategies that Tara Brach calls “false refuges” – ways of numbing the pain of our shame or of competing to deflect self-examination and self-realisation.

5. Unable to give ourselves self-compassion because it is too big a challenge

People may say that they can’t experience the real sense of vulnerability nor give themselves self-compassion.  Tara Brach suggests that, in these situations, they at least should think of someone else who would be able and willing to offer them loving kindness.

Self-compassion requires vulnerability

Tara Brach, in the  Power of Awareness Course,  suggests that the beginning of self-compassion is:

To be able to see clearly that place of vulnerability and pain – that place of self-aversion, turned on ourselves.  The alchemy of self-compassion is to touch the place of vulnerability – to really feel the “ouch”, the place inside us that is really hurting.  In that place is a natural tenderness.

So, self-compassion is both feeling the pain and hurt of self-realisation and offering ourselves kindness and acceptance.  It is not a passive stance, but an active one of entering the pain zone while fortified by our own deep kindness and self-care.  It involves breaking down our defences, being open to the extent of our self-denigration and avoiding the “false refuges” that are forever a temptation to avoid pain.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices, we are better able to identify and remove our defences, to cope with the pain of realisation and to reach out to ourselves with loving kindness.

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

Image source: courtesy of Curriculum_Photografia on Pixabay

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