The Challenge of Mindfulness in the Digital Age

Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness teacher and creator of MBSR, recently presented a workshop during the Mindfulness & Compassion Week (June 6- 13, 2021).  Jon’s focus was on mindfulness in the digital age. He addressed both the downside and upside of digitisation and noted particularly the benefits accrued through online communication during pandemic-related lockdowns.  In this post, I want to focus on the downside of the digital age – the challenge it poses to our ability to pay attention on purpose , non-judgmentally, in the present moment.

Jon was especially concerned about the manipulation of our minds and attention through social media and other online communication channels.  He drew on the work of the Centre for Humane Technology to explore both the human costs of the digital age.  He strongly encouraged exploration of this website and its podcasts along with the film, The Social Dilemma, which he suggested should be viewed multiple times. 

The downside of the digital age – the loss of attention, consciousness, and awareness

Jon maintained that in the digital world it has become hard to discriminate between what is true and what is false, between what is fact and what is myth.  He argued that we have “lost agency” and levels of decision making through social media and related digital technologies and the embedded “surveillance capitalism”.  The language we encounter is manipulative and “propels us out of the moment” – we lose our grounding in the present moment.  We are told that a video is “a must watch”, we are warned that we will “miss out” if we do not take a particular action and we are enticed to act to gain “rewards”, some of which are spurious.  Jon points out that the incessant barrage of information/misinformation and constant attempt to capture our attention leads to dysregulation in our life, adversely affecting our breathing, eating and sleep.

He argued that the greatest need for humanity today is to address the “loss of awareness” – the lack of consciousness that we are losing control over our minds, destroying our environment, and wrecking the lives of people through perpetual, disruptive advertising that attempts to capture our attention and steel our focus.  He encouraged us to increase our awareness of the impacts of the digital age so that we can live our life more fully in the present moment and not be caught up in the mainstream culture of acquisition (vs savouring), of form (vs substance), of envy (vs gratitude), and of self-absorption (vs compassion).

Our diverted attention

The Centre for Humane Technology works tirelessly to help us to develop the awareness of the downside of the digital age, especially through their insightful podcast series, Your Undivided Attention.  One example of this powerful message is the podcast, When Attention Went on Sale, which features an interview with Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads.

Tim maintained that the “commodification of our attention” actually began with the introduction of ad-supported newspapers.  The readers became the product, the focus shifted from a dissemination of the “truth model” to that of the “attention model” and we became the “puppets” of attention-grabbing advertising and media.  The content focus shifted to what shocks (death and violence), what titillates (sexualisation) and what raises curiosity (misleading headings).  The media exploited emotions of fear, scepticism, greed, and envy.   Early on, advertising posters with the work of famous artists were deployed throughout Paris as a means to invade people’s attention.  They were eventually removed when Parisians complained that they invaded their attention and were a blight on the landscape.

Commercial interests now drive the competition for our attention and television offers “precise marketing” through creating an “emotional resonance” with the viewer, heightened by the visual medium.  Human attention is being harvested in the pursuit of “economic and attention power” – attention gained by TV stations leads to higher ratings which leads to more advertising and revenue.  Wu describes this process as the “harvesting of human consciousness” in an environment that is scarily unrestrained and unregulated.  We can observe the resultant imbalance in information dissemination when we notice that a TV Program designed to provide an “alternative perspective” on the news of the day devotes more time to advertisements (reinforcing mainstream culture) than to alternative commentary during a one-hour program.  Viewers of ad-driven TV stations often engage in “channel surfing” to evade ads but this leads to what Jon calls “fragmented attention”.

Our attention is up for sale through Google ads where buyers of ad exposure in search results actually bid for the right to appear higher in the listed results.  While quality (relevance, originality, and depth of content) is an espoused determinant of ranking, price plays a major role and advertisers are encouraged to “outbid” each other for our attention. 

Social media has had a significant impact on attention distraction and distortion.  This has accelerated with the emergence of “selfies” (obsession with self over being present to the moment and location), the commodification of bodies (via private membership of TikTok for example), and “follower ads” on LinkedIn and other online advertising media.  The concept of “friends” (as per Facebook) has moved from “a bond of mutual affection” to that of a relatively disinterested follower and “friends” are purchased via online marketing organisations to boost one’s social presence. Positive product reviews by friends are harvested to build Google rankings – companies even pursue us relentlessly to gain our “review” (even when they have misled us about a product offering).

The game is all about grabbing “eyes on the page” (and Google, for example, measures pages visited, time spent on a page, and percentage of people who view only the “landing page” as they “surf”).  There is now software available to track your eyes as they view a webpage (with eye movement displayed via a heatmap).  We are becoming conditioned to providing those “eyes on the page” – “pop-ups” encourage us to register for continuous information/ad exposure and whenever we have to spend time waiting, our default action is to reach, unthinkingly, for our mobile phone.

The concept of “social influencers” has emerged to identify influential people who have the power to affect our buying decisions and who work in collaboration with brands who use their influence to persuade us to make purchases.  The source of the influencer’s power (e.g., celebrity status, expertise, sexual appeal) and the relative extent of their power (how many followers) is variable.  In consequence, influencers are viewed by brands as “social relationship assets” of variable worth.

Mobile phones are increasingly part of everyday life for people enabling constant access to the Internet, social media and to disruptive “notifications”.   Some people become obsessed with “keeping up-to-date” via social media and constantly access their phones (even sleep with them).  Others feast on the news with all its inherent biases, selective reporting and tailored reinforcement of the receiver’s views, perspectives, and politics. 

Supermarkets employ email-based rewards systems built around receipt scanning and identification of individuals’ typical shopping  basket.  They also attempt to widen purchasing choices by introducing bonus-boosted products not normally purchased by an individual.   Buyers can be “led” to purchase products they do not need or want.  The rewards system works on the principle of intermittent reinforcement employed by gambling machines where ongoing “jackpots” are given to entice the gambler to continue spending.

In summary, in a digital world there are so many mechanisms at play to capture our attention and multiple drivers such as profit, profile enhancement and social influence to sustain these constant, concerted efforts to distract us and divert our attention. This makes it increasingly difficult to be mindful in our everyday life unless we take conscious steps to develop mindfulness to counteract the adverse impact of these online media.

Reflection

Jon also discussed the many benefits of the digital age and this will be the subject of a subsequent post.  Whether we accrue these benefits or suffer the adverse effects of the digital age, comes down to our own choices and behaviour.

Jon emphasised the need to be very aware of the impact of digitisation on our behaviour.  He suggested, for instance, that we should be particularly mindful of our mobile phone use and its potential adverse effects on our quality of life and our relationships.

Jon maintained that the discipline of daily mindfulness meditation can flow over into every aspect of our lives including our use of digital media.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop increased self-awareness,  improved self-regulation, and enhanced insight into the adverse impacts of our own behaviour with respect to digital media.

Self-reflection on our use of digital media and its impacts on our relationships, on our level of personal stress and on our ability to concentrate and be productive, can provide the impetus for behaviour change.  The following reflective questions could serve as a starting point:

  • To what extent is your focus on social media reducing your span of attention?
  • How often is access to your mobile phone your default behaviour when you have to spend time waiting?
  • How often are you distracted by social media when in conversation with an individual or a group?
  • To what extent does social media determine the content of your conversations, e.g., how often do you share rumours, myths, scandals, and what “celebrities” are doing?
  • How much do you rely on social influencers for your purchase decisions?
  • To what extent does the time you spend on social media limit your time spent in nature, experiencing its numerous benefits?
  • Does your social media presence contribute to the quality of life of other people?

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Image by wei zhu 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.

Widening and Deepening Our Perspective on Nature

Louis Schwartzberg, in his presentation for the Nature Summit, reminded us that each of us has a unique perspective on nature shaped by our childhood experiences, our environmental influences and our culture.  In referring to his grandchildren, Louie argued that they viewed nature with “their eyes wide open”.  They asked basic, taken-for-granted questions like, “What is air?”, “What is water?”  I recall my very young granddaughter sitting on rocky ground in a parkland area studying the lizards and bugs around her in minute detail.  She spent an hour in her observations while the rest of us played tennis on a cement strip nearby.

Louie suggests that we need to develop our own “pathways of exploration” to widen and deepen our perspective on nature.  This pursuit taken with wide-eyed curiosity will open the world of wonder and awe that is readily available to us.  Louie’s macro, micro and time-lapse photography expands our visual capacity when viewing nature.  He not only accentuates the expansiveness of nature, makes visible the unseen but also contracts time by taking us on a “journey of time and space”.  His film, Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath our Feet, takes us underground to explore the internet-like network of Mycelium that lie beneath the mushrooms that are visible to our naked eye.  We are guided on this journey by Louie and world-famous mycologist, Paul Stamets, along with other highly informed commentators.

Louie maintains that the perspective of white Caucasians on nature is very different to that of indigenous people who grew up in an environment conscious of nature’s interconnectedness and educated to understand, respect and value nature.

An indigenous artist’s perspective on nature

In her presentation for the Nature Summit, Seeing Through the Lens of an Artist, Camille Seaman explained that very early in life she was taught that “we are connected to everything, that everything has a life force”.  Camille is an indigenous photographer who “focuses on fragile environments, extreme weather, and stark beauty of the natural world” with the purpose of demonstrating that humans and nature are not separate.  Her photography  is a call to understand and value our connectedness to nature and to take “ responsible action” to restore and preserve our increasingly fragile ecosystems.   Camille has specialised in polar photography and has provided several TED Talks on topics such as The Last Iceberg.

Camille explained that in her early childhood, her Grandfather taught her so much about an indigenous perspective on nature, on connectedness and on respect.  He would reverently refer to trees as relatives and would introduce her to each of the trees in the woods while she placed her hands on the tree.   When Camille would unnecessarily break branches from trees he would say to her, “If you think you are separate from the trees, see how long you can hold your breath”.   He highlighted the fact that you “cannot harm it [the tree] without harming yourself”.

Camille spoke of the interconnectedness of nature in many ways. For example, she indicated that clouds bring rain which provide water for plants which, in turn, feed animals.  She maintained that storms give new life and energy to the ground and help us to appreciate that all life is transitory.  She tells her own life story and development as a bi-polar photographer covering Antarctica and Artic Poles in a TED Talk titled, Connection and Purpose: Tales of a Polar Photographer.

In her Nature Summit presentation, Camille emphasised the need to spend time in stillness and silence before taking a nature photograph so that you can be truly immersed in whatever you are viewing and bring a new perspective to what you are seeing.  She maintains that stillness in nature enables you to dissolve “the veil of separateness”.   She stated that amazing synchronies can occur in this stillness, e.g., animals may come out from their hiding place.  Intriguingly, not long after I was listening to her presentation, I was in the backyard weeding our rock garden when two birds flew down and sat beside me – a mother and her young bird.  They started singing and responded when I (hoarsely) attempted to whistle in return.

Reflection

Nature is all around us and in constant motion and transition – most of which we are totally unaware of.  Photographers like Louie and Camille bring this movement and change to life so that we can see things that we would not normally notice, experience emotions often hidden from us and value our connectedness with nature.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can expand and deepen our perspective on nature and value our connectedness, leading to wise and purposeful action to preserve it.

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Image by Andrea Spallanzani 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.

Developing a Relationship with Nature

Louie Schwartzberg reminds us that nature is a source of wonder (exploring and admiring) and awe (questioning the “how”).  In his view, nature effectively represents the intersection between art and science.  Art explores the “why” and generates admiration and inspiration through demonstrating the interconnectedness of everything and exposing nature’s beauty, even in the mundane; science, on the other hand,  encourages questioning with curiosity and openness while exploring the “how”, e.g., how do nectar feeding bats pollinate cacti and create milk to feed their young?

It is particularly apt then, that Louie’s podcast is titled Wonder and Awe which explores the intersection between  art and science through interviews with musicians such as Lisbeth Scott and scientists like mycologist William Padilla Brown.   There is so much of nature that is unknown and invisible to us and these artists and scientists along with Louie’s time-lapse photography help us to deepen our relationship with nature.

Developing an intimate relationship with nature

uie offered his perspective on the need for an intimate relationship with nature during his presentation, True Romance: Falling in Love with Nature, at the recent Nature Summit.  He highlighted the fact that the pandemic has created a “mental wellness barrier” for a lot of people and that nature has a healing quality.  He is now creating digital nature imagery for use in hospitals as a healing modality.  This “visual healing” has been scientifically proven to achieve “shorter length of stay in hospital, increased pain tolerance and decreased anxiety”

The pandemic has created opportunities for people to appreciate what they normally take for granted – the ability to go for a walk in nature, to connect with friends and family, to spend time alone away from the “madding crowd” and associated noise.  It has helped us to be more introspective and value what we have, as so much and so many have been lost.

Louie maintains that if we can develop an intimate relationship with nature through frequent mindful visits to natural environments and personal research (including videos, podcasts and articles), we can begin to care about the sustainability of our planet.  He pointed out that while a lot of scientific research has helped us understand the threats to our natural environment, the wealth of data has failed to achieve any appreciable shift in people’s behaviour in relation to nature’s fragility. 

He points out that our capacity to view nature is considerably limited  – effectively we are able to view the equivalent of one octave of an eight-octave scale.  Through his photography he makes so much more of the beauty of nature visible to us  – by filming at 1,000 frames per second he can enable us to see something that happens in one third of a second, actually 15 times longer.  Hence, he helps us to “explore beyond the one octave”.

Louie contends that the heart has greater influence over behaviour than the head – when our relationship with nature is one of loving and appreciating it, we are more inclined to engage in caring behaviour towards it.  We will be more careful about our paper use (because of its impact on trees), we will avoid plastic bags as much as possible (because of the impact on our oceans and marine life), we will plant a vegetable garden (because it provides us with a closeness to nature and fresh, uncontaminated food).

Reflection

There is so much to learn about nature and our interconnectedness with it – it is a lifetime pursuit.  We can grow in mindfulness as we spend more time in and with nature and adopt nature meditations.  Another way into building our relationship with nature is participating in mantra meditations that incorporate wonder and awe of nature such as Lulu & Mischka’s “Stillness in Motion” filmed with the whales in Byron Bay, Queensland.

Artist, David Hockney, reminds us:

The world is very, very beautiful, but you’ve got to look hard and closely to notice that beauty.

(Source: The Art of Living, Martin Gayford, The Weekend Australian, pgs. 10-12)

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Image by Bessi 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.

Finding Your Life Purpose

In his book, The Human Quest for Meaning, Paul Wong maintains that finding a unique purpose that transcends yourself and realises your full potential as one of the pillars of a meaningful life.   Identifying and pursuing your life purpose is a key ingredient to experiencing happiness in your life.  People often experience dissatisfaction and unhappiness if they are not able to use their core skills, knowledge, and experience in the pursuit of something that is meaningful and transcends themselves.  Each of us is attempting to create a meaningful story for our life that is not constrained by limiting, negative self-talk.

There are many pathways to identifying and pursuing your life purpose and each of us has to find our own path.  For some, the catalyst for finding their life purpose is a life crisis experienced by themselves, e.g., a life-threatening illness or major job loss; for others, the catalyst can be observing others experiencing extreme or destitute conditions.  Some people consciously pursue their life purpose through meditation and mindfulness practices and find the strength and sensitivity to pursue their life purpose.

Discovering and pursuing life purpose through nature

Ruth Allen, author of Grounded: How Connection with Nature can Improve Our Mental and Physical Wellbeing, tells the story of how she was totally absorbed by nature as a child and loved being amongst trees and wildlife.   Motivated by this love of nature, she decided to complete a degree in geology and undertake related PhD research.  However, she found that she ended up further and further away from nature as she pursued her research and work in a laboratory studying tiny samples through a microscope.  

Ruth lost the sense of the expansiveness and the interconnectedness of nature and her own connection with it.   She decided that to identify her true purpose in life, she had to get back into nature which she did over a number of years in forests and the wild.  She had lost her way and sought to rebalance her life through her immersion in nature.  She eventually discovered her life purpose as a counsellor and eco-psychotherapist helping other people to regain balance in their life through connection with nature.  She is able to use eco-therapies in her outdoor practice and to motivate others to connect to nature through her speaking, writing and adventure modelling.

Discovering and pursuing life purpose through meditation and chanting

Tina Turner tells the story of how she overcame the various traumas in her life through meditation and chanting.  She felt totally disillusioned with life and distressed by her abusive relationship.  By persistent, daily practice of Buddhist meditation and chanting, she was able to find the energy, insight, and courage to pursue her life purpose as a singer who moved people and a social activist through her work as co-founder and contributor to the Beyond Music Project which seeks to develop connectedness and unity through the celebration of cultural diversity. Despite her adversity, she was able to develop resilience and happiness in pursuit of a meaningful and rewarding life.

Motivated to a life of compassionate action after observing the desperate plight of other people

There are numerous instances where people have discovered their life purpose by observing the destitution, desperation, or debilitating life of others.  Here are some examples:

  • Nicolle Edwards and husband Gareth set up the domestic violence support service RizeUp Australia when they observed the plight of women fleeing domestic violence with their children.  Their focus is on providing the set-up requirements for emergency housing and they have established the charity to gather donations (money and furniture) to support their work in helping domestic violence victims transition into a different housing environment.  They have been surprised by the level of support that they have been able to muster through unified action in pursuit of what has become their life purpose.
  • Isabel Allende, in her recent book The Soul of a Woman, recounts how through her research of violence against women (including a visit to a small community of women in Kenya whose lives had been devastated by war and AIDS), she was moved to establish the Isabelle Allende Foundation whose mission is to empower women to “to secure reproductive rights, economic independence and freedom from violence”.  Isabel’s poignant and soul-searching memoir, Paula, written during her daughter’s fatal, porphyria-induced coma was an outstanding success and generated the income which Isabel used to create the Foundation.  She sees her life purpose as enabling women to be safe, valued and loved and to have empowerment through control over their own bodies and personal resources.  Isabel pursues her life purpose through her Foundation and her writing – she has written 26 books selling over 74 million copies.
  • Olga Murray, a highly successful and widely respected lawyer, was moved by the impoverishment of children in Nepal when she visited Kathmandu and observed their destitute conditions, including young girls being sold into slavery and prostitution during a Festival.   She established the Nepal Youth Foundation in 1990 to provide children who were the most impoverished with “education, housing, medical care and human rights.”   She has continued to work to support the Foundation in her 90’s and the Foundation continues to save girls from slavery through their “indentured daughters” program.
  • Goldie Hawn, through her own experience of panic attacks as a child, developed a very strong empathy for children suffering unhappiness and depression through mental illness.  She had used meditation throughout her own life to develop self-awareness and manage her own emotional stress and she became acutely aware of how mindfulness enables children to manage the stresses of their lives.  This led her to establish the Goldie Hawn Foundation which developed the MindUP program which employs educational programs to facilitate the well-being of children.  The programs for both children and teachers are soundly based on “neuroscience, mindfulness awareness, positive psychology and social-emotional learning (SEL)”.

Reflection

Many things can be a catalyst for discovering our life purpose and providing the energy and motivation to pursue it with courage and focused action.   As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection on our life experiences, we can develop the insight to identify our unique purpose and the resilience to pursue it through compassionate action.

Hugh Van Cuylenburg developed the GEM pathway to happiness and resilience – gratitude, empathy, mindfulness – after a visit to a poor village in India.  He now pursues his life purpose as a motivational speaker and writer working with multiple organisations, including elite sport’s teams.

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Image by Vikramjit Kakati 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.

Managing Your Thoughts with Mindfulness Meditation

Diana Winston, Mindfulness Educator at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), offers a guided meditation podcast on the topic, Working with Thoughts.  Diana reminds us that mindfulness involves paying attention in the midst of present moment experience and doing so on purpose and with a spirit of openness, curiosity, and acceptance.  She highlights the role of thoughts in our life and the possibility that they have been intensified and accelerated by the local and global experience of the pandemic.  Thoughts can arise anywhere, at any time, and in any location.  When we are in isolation, our thoughts may be about what we are missing out on or express fear about what might happen to us. 

Our thoughts can be helpful and highly productive at times leading to creative endeavours, compassionate action, or timely interventions in our own life or that of others.  Alternatively, they may be decidedly unhelpful, leading to self-loathing, inaction, or continuous suffering.  Thoughts are integral to our human existence – we have active brains constantly processing information coming through our senses.  We can manage our thoughts through mindfulness meditation if we understand how our thoughts can distract us and take over our everyday experience.

A fundamental principle espoused by Jon Kabat-Zinn is that “we are not our thoughts”.  Diana refers to the related Bumper Sticker that reads, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”.  We can easily become caught up in negative self-thoughts that become an endless cycle of devaluing ourselves and what we achieve in our daily lives.  Mindfulness meditation can help us to experience self-compassion and develop a balanced sense of our uniqueness and our accomplishments.

We can become “lost in thought”, unaware of what is going on around us or inside us.  This preoccupation with our thoughts can lead to self-absorption, a lack of awareness and insensitive words and actions.  We can often relate to James Joyce’s comment in The Dubliners that “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body”.

A guided meditation to manage your thoughts – returning to your body

In her meditation podcast, Diana encourages you to focus on your body.  She starts with a focus on posture and the sensation of your feet on the ground or floor and suggests that you first take a few deep breaths to help ground you in the present.  Her light body scan helps you to be aware of tension points in your body and to release any uptightness that may have resulted from your thoughts. You are encouraged to be conscious of any manifestation in your body of any unhelpful or harmful thoughts and to let them go.

Release from your negative thoughts and attendant painful bodily sensations is achieved through focusing on your meditation anchor.  You might begin with a focus on your breathing and progress to deep listening to sounds (without attempting to think about the source or to explore their emotional impact on you).  Diana suggests that using your bodily sensations as an anchor can help to ground you in your body which exists in the present moment.  You can focus on a particular part of your body to achieve this grounding, e.g., the heaviness in your feet, the tingling in your arms or the sensation of energy flowing through your conjoined fingers.

Your meditation anchor provides a means of keeping you connected to your body and to stop you drifting away in your thoughts.  It becomes a point of continuous return – constantly revisiting your anchor builds your capacity to control your thoughts and develops your “awareness muscle”.

Diana also recommends “labelling your thoughts” – identifying what type of thinking process you are involved in, e.g., planning the next day, evaluating someone else’s performance, criticising another’s behaviour, or indulging in self-criticism.  Like naming your emotions, labelling your thoughts enables you to tame them and create some distance from your thought process.  Overtime with meditation practice, you can begin to discern any regular thinking pattern such as my pattern of continuously planning my “next steps” during the day.

Using imagery in meditation to dissolve your thoughts

Imagery in meditation can also help you to manage your thoughts.  Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that you view your thoughts as bubbles in boiling water that burst as they reach the surface of the water.  Diana uses clouds as an image for your thoughts.  She suggests that you view the sky itself as the openness and expansiveness of your mind while your thoughts are passing clouds.  Sometimes the clouds are heavy and dark bringing a sense of sadness or overwhelm; other times the clouds might be wispy and flighty leaving a sense of lightness and joy.  You can imagine the clouds coming and going, passing you by as you stay grounded in your body.

Using substitution in meditation to change your thinking

Diana encourages you at an appropriate time to cultivate compassionate thoughts or gratitude to push aside negative thoughts that persist.  Compassion can enable you to substitute thinking about yourself with kind thoughts towards others who may be experiencing difficulty or suffering.  Gratitude pushes aside any thoughts of resentment or envy and enables you to savour what you have in your life.  These healthy ways of thinking can lead to happiness, ease, and wellness.

Reflection

Mindfulness meditation enables us to move from being captured by our thoughts to being grounded in our body.  It builds the capacity to be fully present to the richness of the present moment – whether that is being alone in our room, experiencing the stillness and silence of nature or interacting with others.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can progressively gain control over our thoughts and become more open to the possibilities in our life.  Freed from the tyranny of expectations and our own thoughts, we can experience happiness and the ease of wellness.

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Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

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

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

Understanding and Appreciating the Interconnectedness of Nature

Mark Coleman in one of his nature meditation podcasts highlights the role of rain and its interconnectedness with other elements of nature and human life.  He was recording the meditation while standing on a mountainside with mist, coldness and dampness resulting from recent rains.  His meditation focused on rain and its beneficial effects for nature and humans.

He spoke of rains reducing the risk of fire, energising the earth and filling rivers inviting the annual migration of salmon from the sea to the rivers in California.  He described the rain as “drops of interconnectedness” and explained how clouds evaporate and produce rain, hail and snow which feeds the creeks, rivers and ponds and brings new life to many living creatures.  Mark spoke of the “gift of water” that we take so much for granted and he described the earthy smell after the rain has fallen and left its moisture on an otherwise parched earth.

Mark drew on Mary Oliver’s Poem, Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me, to highlight the interconnectedness of rain and the sky, trees, plant life and ourselves as humans living in nature under the stars.  We see the life-giving nature of rain after it falls on dry and browning grass.  It always amazes me how a seemingly dead stretch of grass can come to life and appear beautifully green after overnight rain.  We can see indoor plants that are wilting with leaves that are browning or yellowing on the edges suddenly come to life and thrive when placed in the rain.

Rain, in Marks’ words, are part of the “fabric of connection” that is foundational to the natural world and our human existence. He reminds us that plants breathe out what we breathe in and breathe in what we breathe out – they are like our external, earthy lungs, enabling a vital relationship between humans and trees.

The Earth Law Center discusses other areas of interconnectedness that impact our human existence, e.g., the role of Krill in the marine ecosystem and fungi in the forest ecosystem.  They highlight that a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of ecosystems and human life has helped people modify their behaviour and contribute to protecting the environment – they describe the new environmentally aware behaviours as “nature connectedness behavior” and list consumption of organic products and a vegan diet as elements of this enlightened behaviour.

Reflection

We pursue our busy lives so often without an awareness of our interconnection with nature and each other.  As we stop, listen, and learn, we can become more conscious of this interconnectedness and its many dimensions.  As we grow in mindfulness through nature meditation and experiencing silence in nature, we can begin to understand, appreciate, and value this interconnectedness.  Otherwise, we can continue blindly damaging our life-giving ecosystems that we rely on for our very breath and continued existence.

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Image by Steve Buissinne 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.

Insight Meditation for Peace and Happiness

Mark Coleman offers an insight meditation podcast as part of the extended bonuses of the upgrade version of the Nature Summit.  He introduces the guided meditation as a mindfulness practice that is in line with the Vipassana tradition which seeks to develop deep personal insight to gain a peaceful, happy, and productive life.  The Vipassana meditation approach involves in-depth insight practice over ten days in a residential training environment with a rigid discipline code designed to remove all external distractions and facilitate sustained awareness.

Insight meditation focuses on exploration of  our inner landscape by paying attention to aspects of life as it is experienced – whether that is our breathing, our listening, or our bodily sensations.  It seeks to enable the practitioner to “see things as they really are” and not be blinded by self-delusion, difficult emotions, negative thoughts, or intense bodily sensations.  This intense self-observation and self-exploration highlight the interdependence of mind, body, and emotions.

Guided insight meditation

Mark’s light-touch, 30-minute meditation utilises some of the principles of Vipassana without the rigidity of the discipline code or the residential requirement.  His approach in the guided meditation is intended “to bring awareness to every aspect of your experience” as you are experiencing it.  It builds on and deepens mindfulness of breathing and extends paying attention to sounds and bodily sensations.  It has a similar slow-burn focus to Vipassana meditation to enable receptivity to what is occurring and how it is being experienced.  It takes “awareness” to another level.

At the hear of Mark’s approach is the desire to help you fully understand the mind-body connection and identify and eliminate patterns of thinking, sensing, feeling, and interpreting that cloud your connection to self and the world around you.  It is heavily embedded in your bodily experience and awareness of that experience.

Mark begins by having you focus first on your posture and any tightness in your body – encouraging you to progressively release tension in your jaw, neck, shoulders, stomach, and the muscles in your face and around your eyes.  Throughout the meditation he encourages you to not only be aware of aspects of your experience but be conscious of this focused awareness – being conscious that you are being aware, paying attention not only to the content of your awareness but also the process of being aware.

A graduated approach to paying attention

Mark begins the actual guided meditation by having you focus on the sounds that surround you and being conscious that you are actively listening.  He discourages interpreting the sounds, evaluating them as good or bad or thinking about the sounds (e.g., trying to work out where they are coming from).  He suggests that you “stay with the direct experience of hearing” so that you can be not only aware of the sounds but also the inevitable silence that occurs between them.

He then moves on to have you shift your attention to the experience of breathing, noting the qualities of your breathing – hurried or extended, smooth or stilted, deep or shallow.  As part of this intense but relaxed focus, he then gets you to pay attention to each breath as it is occurring – through a sustained focus on each in-breath, out-breath, and the pause between.  He suggests that you maintain a general awareness of your body as you await the next in-breath entering your body    through your nose.  At this stage, he reinforces his intention to help you “know what’s happening as it is happening”.

There will be times when you become “lost in thought” and lose your focus – this provides the opportunity to build awareness of your habituated thinking behaviour and become conscious of any pattern in your thoughts.  Constantly returning to your desired focus progressively builds your “awareness muscle”, something that is a widespread deficit in this era of incessant, intrusive, and sustained interruptions and distractions.

In the latter stages of the guided meditation, Mark addresses the issue of bodily sensations.  Again, the aim here is to build awareness through direct, conscious experience of what is happening for you.  So, Mark has you focus not only on the nature of the bodily sensation (unpleasant or pleasant) but also your relationship to it – how you are relating to the sensation, e.g., with avoidance, resistance, rejection, or persistence.  Strong feelings, including pain, will arise at different stages but this is natural as the inner barriers are removed and the sensation is experienced and explored directly.  Mark maintains that this level of engagement can lead to “ease”, no matter what you are experiencing.  Ultimately, it involves being honest and open with yourself about what you are experiencing.  This personal truthfulness underpins the GROW approach to overcoming mental health issues and a “disordered life”.

Clarity about your life purpose

The benefits of insight meditation include the experience of peace and happiness and clarity about your life purpose.  As the clutter of thoughts, sensations and emotions reduce, you are able to gain greater clarity about how you can contribute to making life better for other people,  You become clearer about your core skills, extent of your knowledge and the breath of your experience and can identify ways to contribute from this position of increased self-awareness.  Happiness is intensified when you can utilise your core attributes in pursuit of a purpose beyond yourself.

Reflection

Insight meditation uses our breathing as the anchor to enable us to explore our inner landscape – our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations.  The discipline of constantly returning to our breath when distractions occur helps to keep us grounded in the present experience.  This self-exploration highlights our personal barriers and how we react to what we are perceiving and experiencing in life.

As we grow in mindfulness though insight meditation, we gain a deepened self-awareness, heightened self-regulation and clarity about our life purpose.  This, in turn, engenders sustainable peace, happiness and productivity.
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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.

Being Mindful of Breathing

The upgrade version of the Nature Summit provides a number of meditation podcasts that offer a range of guided meditations.  In one of these, Mark Coleman – meditation teacher, coach, and therapist – leads a guided meditation on the Mindfulness of Breathing.  This is one of three meditations that he offers as an upgrade bonus that normally make up his CD meditation series, The Art of Mindfulness: Meditations for Awareness, Insight, Relaxation and Peace.  Mark is a co-founder of The Mindfulness Training Institute and the Nature Summit.

A guided meditation on the mindfulness of breathing

Mark’s meditation on breathing begins with encouraging you to adopt a comfortable position and become conscious of the pressure of your feet on the floor.

He then provides a series of mindfulness activities designed to heighten awareness of breathing and its beneficial effects on mind and body.  His instructions for this mindful breathing practice are below:

  • Begin with a light body scan checking for, and releasing, any point of tension.  You can scan the more  common places of tension – your shoulders, neck muscles, face and eye muscles, feet and ankles.  I find that typically my shoulders are raised and tense, so I have to learn to let go at this stage of the meditation.
  • You can now focus on an area of your body where you can sense your breathing – it could be the flow of air in and out of your nose, the undulation of your chest or the rise and fall of your abdomen.  Try to pay attention to your breath and how you are experiencing it – fast or slow, deep or shallow, long or short. The idea is not to try to control your breath but just observe how it is for you.
  • Mark suggests that once you have been able to focus on a location of your experience of breathing that you take time to pay full attention to the in-breath and then the out-breath – just focusing on how they are occurring.
  • You can then move on to observing the gap or silence between your in-breath and your out-breath – lengthening the gap if you desire.  Mark notes that during this stage of the breathing meditation (or one of the earlier stages) it is normal to be beset with distractions from your focus on breathing – images, emotions, planning, questioning, going over the past or thinking about the future.  He suggests that when you notice a distraction, name it for what it is without self-criticism and return to your focus. He maintains that noticing the distraction and its nature in the moment is actually an act of mindfulness (paying attention on purpose in the present moment and doing so non-judgmentally).  By naming the type of distraction, you may actually observe a pattern in your distracted thinking (mine is typically “planning”).
  • If strong bodily sensations arise, you can put attention on breath in the background while you deal with the sensation such as pain, tingling or soreness.  Similarly, if a strong emotion occurs, you can temporarily focus on it, name the emotion, and explore its bodily manifestation.   Mark suggests that you avoid letting your thinking about the emotion take over but stick with its actual physical manifestation.  Thoughts can reinforce an emotion, embed it more deeply and make it difficult to return to your focus on breathing.

Variations on the theme of mindfulness of breathing

Richard Wolf, author of In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness, discusses the practice of “rhythmic breathing” when exploring the interplay between music and mindfulness.  He also offers several breathing practices that involve breathing in-time to music beats such as 4/4 or ¾ time.  He suggests that you can develop this further by adopting what he calls the “four-bar sequence” – basically alternating inhalation and exhalation with holding your breath and doing each aspect for the equivalent of four bars. 

Richard encourages us to not only observe our breathing closely but notice its sonic qualities as well. He maintains that the process of conscious breathing is a meditative practice that builds mindfulness.  He argues that regular practice of breathing meditation linked to music can help us to develop “deep listening”, a skill that underpins quality relationships.

 Reflection

Our breath is with us in every moment and by paying attention to our breathing in the ways suggested, we can become more grounded in the present and less disturbed by ups and downs of life.  As we grow in self-awareness through breathing meditations, we can deepen our self-awareness and emotional regulation and  being more fully present to others through improved concentration and deep listening.

Mark extends the practice of mindful breathing and deep listening beyond our room to outside in nature and the wild.  He offers free daily nature meditations as well as Awake in the Wild Teacher Training.  He is the author of A Walk in the Wild: A Buddhist Walk through Nature – Meditations, Reflections and Practices.

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Image by John Hain 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.

Enriching Your Life Through Nature

Over the past few days, I participated in a number of sessions of the online Nature Summit (11-17 May 2021) and found it very inspiring, enlightening and encouraging.  I subsequently upgraded from the free version and gained lifetime access to the 30+ presentations (both audio and video versions) as well as extensive bonuses.  The bonuses included access to the 35 sessions from the 2020 Global Summit on Mindfulness and Compassion together with other resources such as meditations and mindfulness practices.

The themes of the Nature Summit included developing mindfulness and deep listening through nature; finding wellness, healing, and creativity in nature; nature-based leadership; and protecting the environment.  The Summit provided a holistic approach to the beauty, wonder and power of nature.

Becoming grounded in nature

One of the key speakers was Kaira Jewel Lingo, mindfulness teacher, educator and editor for Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Planting Seeds: Practising Mindfulness with Children.  Kaira focuses heavily on mindfulness in education and shares the wisdom of her 20+ years of mindfulness practice including years spent in Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery as a Buddhist nun where she developed her commitment to his tradition of Engaged Mindfulness

During the Summit Kaira discussed how the earth engenders a sense of belonging and connectedness.  She shared Thich Nhat Khan’s daily practice of a one-hour community walk in nature, interspersed with a 20-minute sitting meditation.  She explained that the communal walk done slowly with full attention and with “loving steps on the earth” brings awareness of a perspective that is larger than ourselves.  Kaira maintains that this close engagement with the earth takes us outside ourselves – outside self-absorption, the busyness of daily life and the afflictions of modern living.  

Kaira also discussed the mindfulness practice of lying prostrate on the earth.  Through “touching the earth” we can release our suffering and frustrations and imbibe its energy and resilience.  She suggested that this practice can also connect us to the healing power of nature.  One of the interesting exercises she does with school children is to have them touch a tree while blindfolded, then run and locate the tree without the blindfold, but relying solely on their sense of touch.  Kaira laments how under-utilised our senses are, especially our vision which accounts for “80% of attention”.

Caring for the environment

Jane Hirshfield – poet, editor, translator, and author – in her session during the Nature Summit, discussed how nature engenders “a creative awakening”.  Jane, as an internationally acclaimed poet, has become widely known for “working at the intersection of poetry, the sciences, and the crisis of the biosphere”. 

As a trained Zen practitioner, she has a deep commitment to pursue mindfulness through nature.  Her daily “trundling” in nature reinforces her view that the “natural world is the first field of [mindfulness] practice”.  She argues that our environmental crisis has arisen through a lack of adequate mindfulness, of awareness of nature and our co-dependence.  She maintains that “awareness is the ground for change”.  Appreciating nature, its energy and beauty, develops the desire to protect it.

Jane indicated that after the election of Donald Trump, she took political action every day to protect the environment through her poetry, essays and writing letters to people in power.  Donald Trump’s actions on the fifth day of his presidential office inspired a ground-breaking poem, “On the Fifth Day” that went viral and was read out by Jane at a protest march for scientists and the environment.  On his fifth day as President, Donald Trump had ordered the removal of any reference to climate change from the Government’s website and forbade environmental scientists employed by the Government to speak in any public domain about climate change.   Jane spoke about the resultant rise in “eco-poetics” and “poets for science”.

Jane explained that she writes her poetry not as a political action but more as a person finding her way in life and trying to meet daily challenges.  However, given her focus and standing, she has been cast as a climate change activist who is grateful to the natural world for enabling her to pay attention, to achieve balance in her life and to see reality as it really is.  While she is an extreme introvert, she engages in extroverted activities such as public speaking to communicate the urgency of the message about avoiding extinction that will occur if we keep destroying our planet.  Jane suggests that we each need to go outside our comfort zone and contribute “one small decibel in the chorus of sanity” – to add our voice and skills to achieving balance on a personal and an environmental level.

Reflection

There are many ways to discover the benefits of nature.  The Nature Summit provided a wide range of meditation and mindfulness practices that centred on nature.  Many of the presenters noted that if we really appreciate the beauty of nature, we will be moved and motivated to protect it.  As we grow in mindfulness through nature meditations, mindful walking, and other mindfulness practices, we can experience the healing power of nature, our connectedness to every living thing and gain the courage and resilience to adopt a form of Engaged Mindfulness that utilises our core competencies and the learning from our life experiences.  Jane’s latest book of poems, Ledger, is a call for “personal, ecological and political reckoning”.

Growth in awareness of nature and its beauty will motivate us to protect the natural treasures that we are able to enjoy.  Meditating on the elements of nature can bring equanimity to our lives despite the turbulent waves of our human existence.   

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Image by Valiphotos 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.

Valuing our Capacity to Think, Concentrate and Relate

If you are close to someone who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease or other form of dementia, you can experience a deep sense of sadness to witness the decline in their mental and physical capacities.  Someone who was previously very alert and focused, widely read and highly articulate can become confused and disconnected.  It is very taxing mentally, emotionally, and physically to witness the progressive decline which continues unabated at different rates for different dementia sufferers.  It can also take its toll in terms of time taken to meet the sufferer’s growing needs and the associated changes in their life situation (e.g., finding suitable aged care, selling their house/unit).

One of the challenging aspects for close family carers is the progressive dismantling of the life of the person with dementia through the distribution of their personal property (household furniture, photos, books, personal records, family history records, work projects and documentation) and the sharing of articles of clothing and household items that hold strong memories.  The new aged-care accommodation of the dementia sufferer will often provide only a very limited space for storing a few pieces of treasured furniture and artifacts such as paintings, vases, and sculptures. 

Over time, the dementia sufferer will lose recollection of people they were once very close to, including family members.  They will not remember visits to their aged care centre by family members and wonder why they have not seen them in years.  They can also begin to imagine dramatic situations such as the loss of an infant that did not actually occur – an imagined event that is highly distressing for themselves and also for carers who have to deal with the sufferer’s distress.

The collective impact on the carer reinforces the need for carers of close relatives with dementia to be very conscientious about self-care and find ways to wind down, share the load and express their feelings, including sadness.

Valuing our capacity to think, concentrate and relate

We take so much for granted and it is only when we lose some faculty or capacity or see someone close to us lose their abilities that we begin to think about what we should be doing to care for ourselves and value our own capacities.  At one level, we need to mind our brain – care for our mind and capacity to think, focus and concentrate.  At another level, it means valuing the people in our life and strengthening our relationships.  Mindfulness has a role to play here and has demonstrated benefits both in terms of our mental capacities and the quality of our relationships.

Valuing what we have involves regularly savouring our life – our health, our relationships, our achievements, our work and the growth and development of our children.  It means appreciating our natural environment and our home, as well as all the people who have helped us make a start in life and achieve what we have.  In the final analysis, it means valuing our wellness and doing what we can to sustain it and experience the well of ease that is available to us through mindfulness meditation..

Reflection

There is an old saying, “You can’t take it with you when you die”.  No matter how much we accumulate and achieve in life, we cannot take it with us when we die.  Seeing the dismantling of a person’s life who is suffering from dementia and witnessing the dispersal of their property are stark and sobering reminders of this reality.

Mindfulness experts often encourage meditation on death and dying to be able to keep our life in perspective and to prioritise the people and things that matter, rather than accumulation of assets and transitory successes.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection, and other mindfulness practices, we begin to appreciate the need for balance in our lives and gradually develop the ability to strengthen our mental capacities, grow in self-awareness and build stronger relationships.  We learn to savour the present moment fully.

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Image by Dim Hou 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.