Developing Kindness through Meditation

Neuroscientists tell us that we become what we focus on because the act of focusing and paying attention creates new or deepened neural pathways in our brain.  So if we are constantly obsessed with criticism – finding fault – then this stance begins to pervade our whole life, and nothing will ever satisfy us.  So too if we develop kindness through meditation, our thoughts and actions become kinder towards ourselves and others.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA, offers a specific guided meditation designed to develop kindness.  This meditation podcast is one of the weekly podcasts offered by Diana or one of her colleagues on a weekly basis through MARC – drawing on personal experience, dedicated research and the wisdom of the global mindfulness community.  The kindness meditation as with most MARC meditations begins with being grounded and then moves to offering kindness to ourselves followed by kindness to others.

Becoming grounded in meditation

There are multiple ways to become grounded – becoming focused, still and fully present.  Often, we can start with deep breathing to enable our body and mind to relax and increase awareness of our bodily sensations.  This enables our focus to move inwards and away from the distractions and intensity of the day – away from the anxiety, negative thoughts and worries associated with meeting deadlines, doing presentations, dealing with conflict or challenging interactions with colleagues or salespeople in stores and supermarkets.

Once we gain some sense of balance and ease with deep breathing, we can move on to undertake a body scan.  This entails progressively noticing the various parts of our body and related bodily sensations, releasing any tension and tightness as we progress.  We can observe the firmness of our feet on the floor, straightness of our back, weight of our thighs on the seat, the pressure on our back from the chair and the tingling and warmth from energy flow in our fingers.  Observation will lead to awareness of tension which we can release as we go – tautness in our shoulders and arms, rigidity in our stomach, stiffness in our neck or tightness in our jaw, forehead or around the eyes.  It is important to focus on tension release and not seek to work out why we are so uptight or tense or, even more importantly, to avoid “beating up” on ourselves or being unkind towards our self because of the “failing” or deficiency” represented by our tension.

Finding our anchor in meditation

The next stage of the meditation is to find an anchor that we can continuously return to in the event of distractions or loss of focus – an anchor to stop us from being carried away by the tide of our thoughts or emotions.  An anchor is a personal choice – what works for one person, may not work for another.  Typically people choose their breath, sounds in the room or some physical contact point.

You can focus in on your breath – bringing your attention to where you most readily experience breathing – in your chest, through your nose or in your abdomen. For instance, you can increase your awareness of the rise and fall of your abdomen with each breath and choose to rest in the space between your in-breath and out-breath.

Another possible anchor is listening to the sounds in your room – listening without interpreting, not trying to identify the nature or source of a sound and avoiding assigning a feeling, positive or negative, to the sound.  You can develop a personal preference for using your “room tone” as your anchor.

Choosing a physical contact point in your body is a useful anchor because it enables you to ground yourself wherever you happen to be – whether at work or home or travelling.  It can help you to turn to awareness rather than your phone whenever you have waiting time.  An example is to focus on the firmness of your feet on the ground, the floor of your room or the floor of your car (when it is not moving!).  My personal preference is to anchor myself by joining my fingers together and feeling the sensations of warmth, energy and strength that course through the points of contact of the fingers.

Whatever you choose as an anchor, the purpose is to be enable you to return your attention to the focus of your meditation and, in the process, build your awareness muscle.  As Diana reminds us, “minds do wander” – we can become “lost in thought”, distracted by what’s happening around us,  planning our day, worrying about an important meeting, thinking of the next meal, analysing a political situation or indulging in any one of numerous ways that we “live in our minds”.

Throughout the process of grounding, it is important to be kind to our self – not berating our self for inattention or loss of focus, not assigning negative labels to our self, such as “weak”, “distractible”, or any other derogatory term.

Kindness meditation

The kindness meditation begins with focusing on someone who is dear to us – our life partner, a family member, a work colleague or a close friend.  Once you have brought the person into focus, the aim is to extend kind intentions to them – you might wish them peace and tranquillity, protection and safety, good health and strength, happiness and equanimity, the ease of wellness or a combination of these desirable states.

You can now envisage yourself receiving similar or different expressions of kind intentions from the same person.  This can be difficult to do – so we need to be patient with this step and allow our self to be unsuccessful at the start (without self-criticism or unkindness towards our self).  We can try to become absorbed in, and fully present to, the positive feeling of being appreciated and loved. Drawing on our memories of past expressions of kindness by the focal person towards us, can help us overcome the barriers to self-kindness.

You can extend your meditation by focusing your loving kindness meditation on others, particularly those people you have difficulty with or are constantly in conflict with.  We can also extend our kindness meditation by forgiving our self and others for hurt that has been caused.

Reflection

Kindness meditation helps us to grow in mindfulness – to become more aware of others, the ways we tend to diminish our self, our bodily sensations and our thoughts and feelings.  It assists us to develop self-regulation – learning to maintain focus and attention, controlling our anger and criticism (of our self and others) and being open to opportunities and possibilities.   Through the focus on kindness, we can become kinder to our self and others (even those we have difficulty with).

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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.

Developing Compassionate Action through Mindfulness and Listening to Personal Stories

Tara Brach recently spoke to Jon Kabat-Zinn on the theme of How Mindfulness Can Heal the World.  This discussion took place as part of the online Radical Compassion Challenge held over ten days in January 2020.  Jon’s central theme was that that it is not enough “to sit on the cushion” and meditate at a time when the world is experiencing such suffering, injustice, racial divisions and hatred; the challenge is to take compassionate action, activated by our growing awareness of our own reality and that of the world around us developed through mindfulness.

Many doors to one room

Jon argued that there are “many doors to the one room” – not only in terms of how we deal with the “agitation” we experience in today’s world but also in terms of how we individually respond by taking action.  Mindfulness can help us deal with our fear and anxiety either through experiencing that fear at a fully emotional and bodily level or by examining the fear conceptually to see its origins and its manifestation in our behaviour e.g. by blaming or judging.  The compassionate action we take will depend on our circumstances, our abilities and our self-awareness.  Jon, for example, stated that the Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program he developed was a political and compassionate action designed to relieve suffering at a time when professors at his institution, MIT, were developing weapons of mass destruction for the Vietnam War.  Tara, too, has taken compassionate action in many ways, including the establishment of Sounds True, a multimedia publishing company with a mission “To Wake Up the World”.

The role of personal stories and mindful listening

Both Jon and Tara highlighted the need to hear the stories of people who are less privileged than ourselves (e.g. in terms of their race, education, background, mental health, intellectual and physical abilities, careers, opportunities and overall wellness).  While they acknowledge that mindfulness is necessary to develop awareness of ourselves and the world around us, it is insufficient by itself to stimulate compassionate action.  Personal stories of suffering in its many forms can help us identify how we can take action and provide the emotional stimulus to act.  Stories in the mental health arena, such as What It’s Like to Survive Depression … Again and Again, can stimulate compassionate action.

Mindfulness can help us to develop our life purpose, build resilience and develop creativity but the real challenge is to channel these into compassionate action.  We are sure to encounter blockages such as our unrealistic expectations, biased assumptions, fear of failure and mistakes, but our growing awareness can help to overcome these.  The challenge is to find the momentum to begin and to revisit our motivation to sustain our effort and have a real impact on some aspect of the suffering of others.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware of the suffering and pain of people in the world around us.  This awareness can translate into compassionate action if we listen mindfully to the stories of people who are less privileged than ourselves.  Self-awareness can heighten our acknowledgement of how much we are privileged in so many ways and help us to identify both an arena for personal action and a point of intervention.  This will demand overcoming procrastination and the fears that hold our inaction in place.

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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.

Self-Compassion for Healthy Eating

Marsha Hudnall, President and Co-owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run (a whole-body wellness retreat), offers an interesting perspective on how to develop healthy eating – whether that involves avoiding overeating, under-eating or eating foods that we know cause inflammation through allergy or intolerance.  Marsha in her article on this topic suggests that self-compassion is the missing factor in enabling us to persist with healthy eating

Often when we stray from the ideal approach to healthy eating that meets our specific needs, we berate ourselves for our failure to stick to the right path.  Marsha has been a pioneer in the field of non-diet and alternative approaches to healthy eating through her writing, teaching and her work as a board member of the Center for Mindful Eating.   She explains her personal experience and perspective on mindful eating in a Mindful Dietician podcast.  Marsha offers advice too for people who are on dietary restrictions as a result of a health condition – available in a paid webinar titled, When the Doctor Says No.

Self-Compassion for healthy eating

Self-compassion has been the life pursuit of Kristin Neff who stresses the importance of self-kindness to overcome negative thinking in the face of set-backs or temporary defeats.  Kristin reinforces the need to recognise that we share a common humanity and part of our life experience is larger than ourselves (we are not the only one encountering life challenges).  She stresses the role of mindfulness in dealing with thoughts and feelings that damage our self-image and using mindful approaches to grow self-awareness and self-regulation.

In her podcast interview mentioned above, Marsha identifies two key barriers to effective self-compassion – the social and personal obsession with body image (and related materialistic values) and the relentless pursuit of perfectionism.  In relation to perfectionism, she argues that we need to acknowledge that we cannot be perfect – we will make mistakes and poor choices.  This acceptance opens the way to new learning, new habits and thoughtful responses to life crises.  This fundamental realisation was a real breakthrough for tennis player Ash Barty who became Number 1 in the world in 2019.

Mindfulness and mindful eating

Marsha stated that her introduction to mindful eating occurred when Jon Kabat-Zinn visited the Green Mountain retreat center.  She came to understand that mindfulness was essentially about awareness and understanding of the influences shaping our responses and the potentiality of making different choices – choosing between a range of options rather than being locked into a single way of doing things, e.g. mindful eating instead of dieting.  Marsha alluded to the perspective of her mother-in-law, Thelma (Founder of Green Mountain), who talked about “the plank of choice” versus the “diet tightrope”. 

Marsha broadens our perspective on mindful eating when she offers suggestions in her article on ways to bring self-compassion to the process of eating:

  • Give up a fixed way of thinking – what Marsha calls “black and white thinking”.  She suggests, for example, that pizza should not always be branded as bad for you – it may be the best choice when celebrating an achievement with friends. You can be mindful of others, the occasion and the flexibility you have on that occasion – rather than adopting a fixed position that leads to subsequent dissatisfaction for not having “participated” fully in the celebration. In her podcast interview, Marsha argues that we need to adopt a “middle-ground” instead of pursuing unattainable perfection.
  • Become aware of your negative self-talk when eating – Marsha suggests that you write down these thoughts, and also have prepared responses that you can adopt when the debilitating self-critique starts up.
  • Practice giving yourself kind responses – do this whenever a negative thought enters your mind during the day.  The more you do it, the easier it gets and it quickly becomes a default way of thinking – just as awareness practice while waiting can replace the default mode of grabbing your mobile phone to fill the gap.

Drawing on her own personal experience and awareness of research findings, Marsha maintains that mindfulness can help us to contribute more positively and successfully to our own family, work and professional arena.  She observed that as you practice mindfulness, you become more aware of the subtleties of being mindful and its impacts in every arena of your life.  Marsha noted, too, that exploring neuroscience and an understanding of the brain, better equips us to deal with our daily challenges.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that drive us to unhealthy eating and related practices and build the resilience to achieve self-regulation in our eating habits.  Mindful eating involves more than just eating slowly, it also extends to identifying and managing our negative self-talk that can occur while we are eating and other times throughout the day.

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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.

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)

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.

Meditation: A Refuge in Difficult Times

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

Meditation as a refuge

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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

How to 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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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.

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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Image by Momentmal 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.

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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Image by athree23 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.

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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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.