Music and Meditation: The Key Role of Practice

Richard Wolf maintains that practice is a key element in meditation and playing a musical instrument.  Richard explores practice along with other parallels between meditation and playing music in his book, In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness. Previously, I explored his ideas on achieving harmony through music and meditation.

It is through practice that we can master playing an instrument or achieving a high standard in sport.  The same is true of meditation – our capacity to meditate and achieve its benefits is dependent on how well we practice.  The greater the regularity and length of our meditation practice, the greater are the benefits that accrue to us.

Practice and repetition

Practice requires repetition and may be experienced as boring, e.g. playing scales on a musical instrument.  However, as Richard notes, after a period of practicing, if we persist, we can be keen to “practice for practice sake”.  With sustained practice, comes the realisation that the practice itself achieves the desired benefits of competence, concentration, harmony and spontaneity.  This is as true of meditation as it is of practising a musical instrument.  It is similar with sporting practice. I recall practicing tennis drills with my brothers when we were playing A Grade tennis fixtures.  Repetition was a key part – hitting the ball up the line over and over or practising volleys again and again.  However, as we grew in competence, we would marvel at the shots we played, laugh at the fun we were having and experience a real sense of happiness.  We would look forward to our practice sessions.

As our meditation practice improves and starts to flow into our daily life, we begin to experience a greater variety of benefits which, in turn, feed our motivation to practice.  Richard suggests that this occurs because when you meditate, “your mental, emotional and physical awareness are the instrument you practice on”.  The essence of effective practice is to maintain focus in the present moment on what we are doing, whether playing a musical instrument or meditating on nature.

Breathing in time – treating your breath as a musical instrument

Richard highlights the role of beats in music and the need for a musician to master different times in music such as 4/4 time and 3/4 time (as in a waltz).  He suggests that “counting beats internally” is an essential component of mastering a musical instrument.  He proposes that as a form of meditation practice, you can adopt the parallel technique of “rhythmic breathing”, e.g. what he calls a “four-bar sequence”.   This involves holding your breath for four beats (counting to four) for each of the four “bars” involved in breathing – inhalation, holding, exhalation, holding. 

In his book, he offers other variations on this breathing sequence that you can adopt but stresses that the important thing is to go with whatever helps you to experience calm and equanimity.   It is vital not to beat up on yourself if you lose count in the middle of your practice – just start over again.  The outcome is achieving a mind-body rhythm that is beneficial to your sense of ease and wellness.

Reflection

Meditation practice becomes enjoyable as we grow in mindfulness.  This increasing inner and outer awareness flows into our daily life and brings a variety of benefits such as focus, productivity, creativity, calmness and richer relationships.  The benefits can grow exponentially if we sustain our meditation practice.  Rhythmic breathing can enhance our mind-body connection.

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

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Meditation: A Refuge in Difficult Times

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

Meditation as a refuge

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

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

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

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

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How to Be With Stress Rather Than Avoid It

Dr. Nate Klemp and Eric Langshur provide an interesting perspective on stress management in their article, Being With Stressful Moments Rather Than Avoiding Them. They contend that if we use mindfulness to do away with or avoid stress, we are not being mindful – we are not being with what is. They contend that our beliefs about stress frequently impede our capacity to deal with stress in our lives – our beliefs serve as a disabler rather than an enabler. Nate and Eric suggest a process that enables us to be with the stress rather than avoid it.

Stressors take many forms

There are many stressors that can occur in life through adverse situations, damaging relationships or one-off conversations. What is a stressor for one person may not be for another, partly because of the self-stories that we perpetuate. Our experience of stress varies over time – in one period of our lives, we can be relatively stress-free, while in another we can experience a range of stressors that build up and make us lose our patience and equilibrium.

Stress can arise at home through the suffering of a daughter or son, through conflict in intimate relationships or financial problems impacting our quality of life. Stress can arise at work through job overload, role conflict or ambiguity, conflict with colleagues or dealing with an unskilled manager. Stress is cumulative over time with each form of stress adding to another.

Our limiting beliefs about stress

Nate and Eric identify two primary beliefs that impede our capacity to deal with stress and lead us to try to avoid stress – which is an ever-present reality in our daily lives:

  1. The belief that we should get rid of stress from our lives – that we should always be in a state of ease and wellness. This belief can lead us to use mindfulness meditation to avoid stress rather than engage it as it is happening. The authors suggest that denying or trying to remove stress is not being mindful because mindfulness involves being “with whatever is arising, pleasurable, painful, comfortable, or uncomfortable” – not denying what is happening in our thoughts, feelings and bodily experience.
  2. The belief that stress is bad – that is should be avoided at all costs. Research shows that our “stress mindset” can change our experience of stress and that stress, provided it is not chronic, can be good for us because it promotes personal growth, both mentally and physically. Kelly McGonigal suggests ways to make stress our friend.

The combination of these beliefs can aggravate our experience of stress because it can lead us to feel resentful or angry that our sense of ease has been disturbed or destroyed.

Being with stress

Nate and Eric, who are the authors of the book Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Well-Being, offer a process to enable us to be with stress rather than avoid it. They describe this process as Notice-Shift-Rewire:

  • Notice – in common with other meditation practices, their process involves noticing what is. This requires us to be with our full experience – our feelings, our bodily sensations and our thoughts. They particularly focus on the thoughts/mindset relating to “stress aversion” – the desire to be free of all stress.
  • Shift – this requires shifting from judging the experience of stress as “bad” and acknowledging, non-judgmentally, the way we are experiencing the stress.
  • Rewire – staying with what we are experiencing in all its manifestations while letting go of attempts to avoid the stress.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices that help us to be with what is, we can develop our capacity to deal with stress, rather than avoid or deny it. The Notice-Shift-Rewire process can help us to be really present to what we are experiencing, more effectively “navigate stress” and build our resilience.

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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.

Finding the Well of Ease in Times of Anxiety

Diana Winston, in a guided meditation on anxiety provides a way to tap into the well of ease and peace that lies within each of us. Her meditation is titled Leaving Anxiety Street because we often feel at home in our anxiety – we tend to see anxiety as our residence, our natural habitat, and become blind to the ease of wellness within us that we can access at any time. Diana suggests that we can become lost in our own life dramas, our narratives and anticipations that feed our anxiety. The meditation she offers enables us to locate a new home that is built on the ease of wellness.

The well of ease

We have a natural tendency to a negative bias and often “fear the worst”, rather than anticipate the best. This bias serves to ingrain our anxiety so that we become stuck in the groove of negativity. However, deep within us lies the well of ease that we can access, a stillness and peace that is deep and boundless.

Diana likens this well of ease to the stillness and calm that lies deep below the turbulence of the waves. We can access this ease by looking below the surface of the waves that create turbulence in our lives. She suggests that the deeper you go, the vaster and more peaceful is the place that you will find. The more frequently you visit the well of ease through meditation, the more it will feel like home, and anxiety will begin to feel like a foreign place.

Accessing the well of ease and peace through meditation

Diana’s guided meditation for finding ease and peace involves a number of steps that progressively move us deeper into the well of ease:

  1. As usual the meditation begins with becoming physically grounded, beginning with a number of deep, conscious breaths. This is followed by adopting a posture that is supportive and upright on the chair, with your feet flat on the surface of the floor. Closing your eyes and placing your hands on your lap can facilitate focus on the meditation.
  2. Once grounded physically, the next step is a progressive body scan, moving from the feet to the jaw and forehead, at each point releasing the tension and softening the focal part of the body. This releases the bodily tension that accompanies anxiety – reflected in the tightness in your calves, the frown on your forehead, the stiff shoulders, the tight stomach muscles, the grinding of teeth and/or the soreness in your neck.
  3. As you relax and soften the muscles in your body, you can begin to focus on your breath wherever you experience the sensation of breathing – the rise and fall of your stomach, the flow of air in and out through your nose or the lift and fall of your chest. This process involves noticing your breath, not attempting to control it – letting go just like you need to do with the grip of your anxiety.
  4. You will invariably experience distractions as your memories and stories begin to play again, dragging your attention away from your breath. The process here involves sitting with and naming your feelings, not denying them because you should not be experiencing negative emotions such as sadness or resentment. Even anger can be a “powerful and healthy force in your life”, if you manage it rather than let it control you. Naming your feelings and experiencing their intensity can help you tame them.
  5. After you have accepted what is, your feelings and their intensity, you can move your focus back to your breath and the calmness that resides there, including the space between breaths.
  6. Next shift your focus to the sounds around you – sounds coming and going such as that of the birds or the wind. You might even be conscious of the stillness and silence that surrounds you wherever you are. This process of focusing on sounds can intensify your physical and mental grounding and create its own form of peace.
  7. Recall a time when you experienced a deep sense ease and peace and capture what it felt like – experience the sensations again as well as the calmness and sense of wellbeing you achieved.
  8. You can then repeat a desire such as, “May I continue to experience deep peace, joy and ease”.

Repetition deepens the well of ease

The more often you can repeat this meditation, the deeper will be the well of ease that you experience. You can use an anchor to access this well by having some physical action such as joining your fingers together and feeling the tingling, warmth and energy that courses through them. It is important to choose your own anchor but incorporate it as often as possible in your meditation practice – in this way, employing the anchor outside the meditation practice will more readily enable you to recapture the sense of ease and peace.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, our inner awareness increases, and we are able to access the deep well of ease that lies within each of us. Sustaining the practice of meditation will deepen the well which can be readily accessed through our personal anchor when we are not engaged in meditation.

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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.

Resilience and Positive Psychology

Louis Alloro, co-founder and faculty member for the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) at The Flourishing Center, recently presented a webinar on The Science of Resilience. In his presentation, he described resilience as the ability to persist in the face of adversity or setbacks in the pursuit of one’s goals. This approach focuses on perseverance when encountering blockages – a view that emphasizes the ongoing nature of resilience, rather than the espisodic view which describes resilience as “bouncing back” from some major adversity.

Positive Psychology and resilience

Positive Psychology has its foundations in the work of Dr. David Seligman, author of the books, Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness. David highlighted our capacity to live an optimally fulfilling life through training ourselves to think positively rather than indulge in negative or pessimistic thinking. Positive thinking keeps us open to possibilities, while pessimistic thinking focuses on barriers to achievement. Resilience builds through positive thinking, while pessimistic thinking leads us “to give up”.

In David’s view, “authentic happiness” is achieved by putting the spotlight on our strengths, not our deficiencies. This positive perspective enables us to develop what is best in ourselves, rather than being obsessed with where we “fall short” or where we deem ourselves to be “not good enough”. Focus on the positive aspects of ourselves enables the achievement of sustainable contentment or equanimity and releases the energy to build a better world. It shifts the emphasis from avoiding “mental illness” to developing “wellness”.

Our thinking shapes our emotions and behaviour

In his presentation, Louis discussed the ABC Model underpinning authentic happiness. “A” stands for the activating event (or stimulus), “B” for beliefs or thoughts about the event and “C” for consequences expressed in terms of emotions and behaviour. So, when something happens, we can view it positively or negatively and, depending on our beliefs or thoughts about the situation, we will experience emotions (positive or negative) which, in turn, leads to our behaviour. One of the easiest ways to view this cycle (optimistic or pessimistic) is to consider the possible range of responses to “being ignored by a colleague at work”.

Louis reminds us of the words of Viktor Frankl that there is a gap between stimulus and response, and that choice and consequent freedom lie in the gap. We can choose how we use the “gap” to shape our thinking about a situation and that choice determines our resilience and happiness. A fundamental way to do this is to bring mindful awareness to our intention (why we are doing what we are doing), to our attention (consciously paying attention) and to our attitude (one of accepting what is, openness to possibilities and curiosity about our inner and outer world).

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can progressively overcome our innate negative bias and build a positive orientation that develops our resilience, releases energy and opens the way for creative actions to deepen our wellness and happiness and contribute to a better world. Developing mindful awareness of what we bring to each situation – our intention, attention and attitude – enables us to be truly resilient in the face of difficulties and blockages (real or imagined).

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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.

What Does Neuroscience Tell Us About the Benefits of Mindfulness?

Continuous neuroscience research into the benefits of mindfulness has revealed supportive evidence that should encourage you to persist with mindfulness practices. While the neuroscience research into the power of mindfulness, and meditation specifically, is in its infancy, there are enough studies and research review articles to point to some real, measurable benefits.

Scientists still do not fully understand how the mind works but they have been able to identify the impact of meditation on the physical brain through Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI). Dusana Dorjee warns us, however, that science is a reductionist approach to the study of the mind and cannot effectively measure the whole range of states of awareness that can be achieved by the long-term meditator. Dusana is the author of
Neuroscience and Psychology of Meditation in Everyday Life: Searching for the Essence of Mind (2017).

How meditation changes the physical structure of the brain

A comprehensive review of neuroscience research into the impacts of mindfulness meditation undertaken by experienced meditators showed that eight regions of the brain were altered. Significantly, the regions of the brain that were positively impacted relate to:

  • capacity to be introspective and manage abstract ideas and, importantly, the ability to be aware of our own thinking
  • body awareness including touch, pain and proprioception
  • attention, self-control and regulation of emotions
  • ability to communicate effectively between the hemispheres of the brain (between right and left hemispheres).

Mindfulness meditation and happiness

Happiness can be developed as a skill and mindfulness meditation has a key role in its development. Well-being is increased, according to scientists at Wisconsin-Madison University, when the following capacities are enhanced:

  • ability to maintain positive emotions
  • rapidly recover from what is experienced as negative
  • engage in actions that manifest empathy and compassion
  • sustain attention in the present moment (and avoid mind-wandering).

Richard Davidson and Brianna S. Schuyler (2015) in their chapter, The Neuroscience of Happiness, draw on their mind research to argue that these capacities can be developed through training, especially mindfulness training and kindness/compassion meditation.

Research on the Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation by
Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015) demonstrates that meditation can reduce stress and increase performance because it switches off the brain’s anxiety- riddled, default-mode network (focused on the past/future) and activates the task-positive network. This latter network focuses on the present moment. As the brain can utilise only one of these networks at any one time, meditation – through creating the task of focusing on the breath, body scan or some other aspect – can activate present mindedness which leads to physical and mental health, while deactivating the default-mode which would otherwise lead to stress and ill-health.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and other mindful practices, we can enhance our performance and the wellness-generating structure of our brains and move from the stress-creating default mode to the task-positive mode of operating in our daily lives.

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

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Cultivating Awareness of Others through Mindfulness

In the previous post, I mentioned the triad of awareness – awareness of self, awareness of others and awareness of the world around us.  In this post, I want to focus on awareness of others.

It is very difficult to be aware of others and thoughtful towards them in the busyness of our daily lives and the incessant distractions posed by disruptive marketing.  Our attention is continuously pulled away from inner awareness and awareness of others.

Our lack of awareness of others is often displayed in our blind spots – we are impervious to the effects of our words and actions on others.  It takes a conscious effort to get in touch with our core blind spot which may be blinding us to the needs of others in particular situations – whether at work, at home, or in the community.

Awareness of others requires that we move away from self-absorption.  We can become so immersed in our own feelings – pain, anxiety, sadness, boredom – that we are not aware of the feelings and pain of others.  We can also be so lost in our thoughts – planning, analysing, critiquing – that there is no room for thoughts of others.

Mindfulness to cultivate awareness of others

Mindfulness meditation is a way to break out of the trap of self-absorption – what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as thinking that we are the centre of the world.  With conscious and consistent meditation practice, we can increase our awareness of, and empathy towards, others around us.

Loving kindness meditation, for example, enables us to think about others and express the desire for them to experience wellness and happiness.  It takes us outside our self to thoughts about others and their needs and desires.

A simple related exercise is to recall a situation that has occurred that has caused pain and suffering for someone else or a group of people and place yourself in their situation – “What would they be feeling if they have just lost their child through an accident?”   As you engage in empathetic consideration of the people involved – family, friends, colleagues – you can extend the desire for them to manage their grief and to eventually experience equanimity.  If you were to do this daily, this could help to cultivate awareness of others.

Forgiveness meditation is a way to take ourselves beyond focus on our own pain and hurt from an interaction with someone else, to thinking about and feeling for the other person in the interaction.  It takes considerable awareness to move beyond our own sense of pain and righteousness to reflect on what happened for the other person.  Forgiveness meditation is a powerful way to move beyond self-absorption to awareness of others.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can cultivate awareness of others – awareness of their pain, thoughts and needs.  We can move beyond being self-absorbed to being thoughtful of, and considerate towards, others.

 

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

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Mindfulness in Busy Workplaces

At the recent 19th International Mental Health Conference, Dr. Shahina Braganza explained how she and her colleagues introduced mindfulness into the Gold Coast Health Emergency Department.  Her presentation, oneED – Can we Embed a Wellness Program into a Busy Emergency Department?, was one of the highlights for me at the Mental Health Conference.

The wellness program incorporating mindfulness was appropriately titled, oneED, because it recognises that emergency departments are very much a team with high levels of interdependence amongst the various categories of staff who are focused on patient welfare in often demanding circumstances.  The wellness program is inclusive, covering both clinical and non-clinical staff.  The program focus was also broadened beyond mindfulness in recognition that not everyone is receptive to mindfulness as an approach and that other approaches, such as physical activity, can also lead to wellness

The emphasis on oneness is clearly articulated by the Director of Emergency Medicine, Dr. David Green, when discussing the oneEd program on video.  He emphasised that quality emergency patient outcomes are achieved “where everyone looks after everyone else” in the Department.

Developing mindfulness in a busy work environment

Shahina explained that the essence of introducing mindfulness into a busy emergency department was the ability to incorporate it into the daily flow of work.  While the program began with a one-day mindfulness course, other activities of the structured program are embedded in the daily routine.

A four-minute pause was introduced at handover time during shift transitions.  This was originally conducted daily and changed to weekly,  following consultation with the staff involved.  The pause may include sharing experiences, watching a brief mindfulness-related video and/or engaging in a 90 second sitting meditation.

Emergency staff are encouraged to engage in moments of mindfulness that are precipated by the experience of overwhelm and/or loss of focus, and aided by a series of flyers encouraging reflection and mindfulness.  A weekly, 30 minutes drop-in session is conducted on a voluntary basis to build the capacity of ED staff to engage in these mindfulness moments.

Shahina wrote a thought-provoking article on the program identifying the learnings from the development of the Mindful Emergency Room.  Of particular note in the article are the nine tips for implementing a wellness program in a busy workplace.  These tips incorporate sound change management principles related to a mindfulness approach.

One of the tips relates to joining forces with like-minded people and Shahina mentioned the banding together to form a group called WRaP EM (Wellness, Resilience and Performance) – incorporating a blog, guides and learning resources.  The blog provides an avenue for medical staff to share their wellness stories.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and encourage its adoption in the workplace, we can contribute to the effective achievement of organisational goals, a strong sense of connection and support, and the development of ever-widening circles of positive influence.

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

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Overcoming a Toxic Work Environment through Action Learning

Dr. Rod Waddington, PhD, recently published an article about his doctoral research which incorporated action learning as a central intervention.  His article, Improving the work climate in a TVET [Technical & Vocational Education} college through changing conversations, tracks his intervention as Human Resource Development (HRD) Manager in a college in South Africa that had five campuses.

Organisational toxicity and its impacts

The college was characterised by a toxic workplace that resulted in both physical and psychological problems for employees, both managers and staff.  Rod discussed the toxicity of the organisation in terms of the “toxic triangle” described in the article by Padilla, Hogan & Kaiser, The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments.

Rod was then able to address the three elements that contributed to toxicity in the college – toxic leaders, toxic followers and a toxic organisational context (systems, processes and procedures that enabled toxicity to develop and grow).  Toxic leaders were identified as displaying narcissistic tendencies and traits in that they micromanaged, abused and bullied staff, failed to address poor behaviour (in part, because of favouritism), threw tantrums and undermined engagement, productivity and wellness of managers and staff.

The Action Learning Group

Rod was able to create an action learning group (action learning set) comprising a representative group of nine managers who managed campuses and reported to the Corporate Centre where the HRD manager worked.   His description of this approach to organisational intervention was in terms of engaging people who were directly impacted by, and were contributeding to, the toxic organisational environment:

I had to learn to adopt an inclusive, participative, democratic paradigm to guide a bottom-up approach.  I thus recruited other managers as participants, co-researchers and change agents to constitute an action learning set. (p.9)

The Action Learning Process

Rod chose to use a process of drawing and story telling to capture the experiences and feelings of the managers who formed the action learning group.  He provided a large calico sheet for them to draw on and space around a central drawing of a river which symbolised the flow of events and the connectedness and interdependence of the group members.

In the first instance, the managers in the participating group were invited to identify events that contributed to their experience of trauma and stress.  The invitation to draw and use colours and shapes engaged their right brain and moved them away from their usual mode of thinking – thus providing some sense of safety in exchanging information that was self-disclosing and uncomfortable, leaving them vulnerable.

The story telling or narrative that followed the drawings enabled the managers to articulate what they each had been feeling for a long time but that they had denied, submerged and kept hidden from others.  The process gave them permission to be honest in their communication with each other because it helped them to realise that they were not alone in their experience of personal hurt and dissatisfaction.

The participating managers identified different feelings – a strong sense of abandonment through lack of support, devalued because they were not listened to, dehumanised because they were verbally abused and hopelessness because there was no positivity or direction provided.

In a second round of drawings, the managers were asked to develop a picture of a changed workplace which incorporated the values that had been denied through the toxicity of the work environment.  This second drawing enabled the managers to tap into a sense of empowerment and hope that they could create an environment conductive to improved personal physical and mental health and to the development of an organisation characterised by wellness and mutual respect.

Outcomes of the Action Learning Process

Participants started to admit their own feelings as well as the part they themselves played in perpetuating the toxic environment.  This growth in self-awareness enabled them to move from helplessness and self-blame to take up the “agency and responsibility” offered to them through the action learning process.  In this way, they developed skills in self-management.  Hence, the intervention overall enabled the development of managerial agency for the participant managers.

The focus of conversation amongst the managers moved from negative thoughts and stories to discussion focused on hope and aspiration.  A key outcome was the development of a sense of responsibility, not only for their own area of responsibility but also for the organisation as a whole.   This was reflected in the managers’ agreement to initiate a “values campaign” in their areas of responsibility based on five core values –  inclusiveness, participation, trust, empowerment and consultation.  They developed an agreed format for posters to be used as part of this “values advocacy”.

Through the processes of drawing, sharing and reflecting, participants built trust in each other, changed their mind-sets, developed better coping skills and increased resilience as proactive change managers.

The action learning process and the development of mindfulness

The action learning process enabled the participant managers to grow in mindfulness – becoming increasingly aware of themselves and the impact of their thoughts, feelings and behaviour on their organisational environment.  Along with this increased self-awareness, they developed enhanced self-management skills, taking up responsibility for shaping their work environment and becoming more assertive in communicating and pursuing their own needs and those of their staff.

The participant managers were able to develop awareness through a clear focus on improving a toxic work environment and doing so in a non-judgmental way, moving from self-blame and blaming others to acting to improve the situation for all who were experiencing the pain and suffering resulting from organisational toxicity.  So, they were motivated not only to remove their own pain and suffering but also that of others affected by the work environment. This then reflects compassion , a key feature of emotional intelligence and mindful leadership.

[Note: Dr. Rod Waddington published the abovementioned article with co-author, Leslie Wood, Research Professor, Faculty of Education Sciences, North-West University, South Africa.]

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

Image source: courtesy of acky24 on Pixabay

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