The Challenge of Finding Silence

I have been reading Christine Jackman’s book, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World, which inspired me to write about the power of silence and to offer a guided meditation to quiet the mind.  I had expected that the book, a personal journey written from the perspective of a very busy and much-travelled journalist, would be a quick and easy read.   It is very easy to read given Christine’s mastery of the written word and her skill in storytelling.  However, it is quite a profound, personal exploration into the challenge of finding silence in a busy world (internally as well as externally “on-the-go”).  Trent Dalton describes this exploration as “treading bravely, beautifully into the wonder of silence”.

Barriers to silence

Christine describes in humourous detail her visit to a health retreat on the Gold Coast in Queensland.  While humour is her tool to disarm the reader, the description of her stay at the retreat is very honest and personally disclosing as she lays bare the barriers that she experienced in attempting to find silence.  She had to find her way through a labyrinth of thorny issues to achieve some insight into silence and its transformative power.

Christine had decided to observe silence during the retreat (where no one else was observing such a challenging discipline).  She even had a sign on her clothes explaining that she was observing silence.  The barriers she encountered were her own self-doubts and negative messages, her projection of the expectations of others and her habituated behaviour.  So, the barriers included a lifelong accumulation of negative self-evaluations, living up to the expectations of others and learned responses to negative stimuli. 

As Christine progressively worked her way through these issues that are not readily overcome, she emerged, however briefly, in a clearing where she was able to experience silence – achieved through a bush walk during which Christine held “a soft focus “ on her senses.  By tuning into her senses, she was absorbed in savouring the present moment.  She was able to let go of the busyness of her life – both internally and externally.

In the metaphorical clearing, Christine discovered a heightened awareness, a state in which her senses became “more acute’ – a state arrived at by doing nothing , including internal commentary.  She had already asked herself how comfortable she could be when confronted with being alone in silence – “Stripped of the ability to curate and present myself to others, who was I really?”

After experiencing the power of silence, Christine wanted to be able to sustain the deep tranquility and peace she had enjoyed . However, after returning to her normal, busy life she found that she was “no closer to working out how to build silence into my daily life”.  

Sustaining the silence

After several years of re-absorption into her busy life, Christine set out on another personal journey.  This time her journey took her to a Benedictine monastery because she had learned that a central rule of the Benedictine tradition was “the pre-eminence of silence”.  She visited New Camaldoli, a Benedictine monastery situated in a remote area of the Californian coast.  The hermitage hosts guests who want to participate in a residential retreat.  Christine participated in communal prayer in the mornings and Vespers and meditation in the evenings and filled her days with hiking and reading. 

In her book, Christine shares something of what she read – she found she resonated with Thoreau’s Walden, particularly where he describes the “quiet desperation” of people’s lives and the reason he went for walks in the woods was because he “wished to live life deliberately”.  She found that her experience at Camaldoli confounded her when she experienced something “both familiar and foreign” – including the fact that the sun seemed to sink into the ocean in the evenings whereas on the East coast of Australia where she lived, the sun rose from the ocean in the mornings.  Christine found that the silence and reflection afforded by the environment enabled her to experience serenity but she had realised that these feelings did not stick – she was unable to sustain them.

I look forward with anticipation to reading about the next chapter in her life of her exploration, titled “contemplation” – an interest that was stimulated by her reading Michael Casey’s book, Strangers to the City.

Reflection

In many ways , Christine’s book is a story of a journey that we all experience in some form or other – the quest for peace and tranquility in a busy world.  We find that silence, which is the gateway to this world of serenity and ease, is both elusive and ephemeral – and Christine’s story is a personal account of this journey and accompanying experiences.  For me, however, her story precipitates a number of personal recollections that are very strong to this day – it is as though I have shared something of her journey.  For example, I had also visited a heath retreat on the Gold Coast and could relate, in part, to her experience.

Christine’s description of the view from the Camaldoli monastery on a mountain top to the water below reminds me of the time that my wife and I attended Vespers at Eibingen Abbey, a community of Benedictine nuns, founded by Hildegard of Bingen (a true exemplar of stillness and silence and the creative genius that lies beneath).  At the time, we were staying on holiday in a friend’s place at Bingen on the Rhine in Germany.  The image above is a photo I took from Bingen looking across the Rhine towards Rüdesheim with the monastery in the background .

Christine’s description of monastic life brought back to me memories of my five years of silence as a contemplative monk in the Whitefriars Carmelite monastery at Donvale Victoria during the late 1960’s.  This involved a balanced life of prayer, meditation, Gregorian chant, physical activity on our dairy farm and extensive study (including reading and discussing the mammoth work of Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy)

Christine through her disarming honesty, transparency and clarity of writing takes each of us on a journey with her.  We can each see in our own lives, reflections of her struggle with the busyness of life and her search for serenity through silence – which she describes as “a space in which I could finally stop”.

As we grow in mindfulness by finding the silence and stillness in our own lives, we can develop an intimate self-awareness, learn to manage our difficult emotions, and achieve self-regulation in terms of our habituated behaviour.  In the silence if we persist, we can find tranquility, resilience, and creativity.

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Image Source – Photo by Ron Passfield, Looking from Bingen to Rüdesheim

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.

Quieting Your Mind to Bring Silence into Your Life

Allyson Pimentel, psychologist and mindfulness teacher, recently provided a guided meditation podcast on Keeping Quiet.  In the meditation, she stressed the importance of silence in our lives, particularly in these challenging times when people are experiencing fear, anxiety, uncertainty, worry, concern for their children and anger.   Allyson explained that mindfulness meditation involved “quieting the mind” while “opening the heart” – opening to compassion towards ourselves and towards others.  She maintained that by quieting the mind and experiencing the ensuing stillness and silence we can access our creativity and choose wise action.  In the silence of our inner landscape lies insight, strength, resilience, and the courage to take innovative action.

Allyson pointed out that by quieting the mind, we can deal with difficult emotions – we can stop ourselves from revisiting the past (our mistakes and inadequacies) and the associated depression and regrets, and we can stop predicting a negative future and the associated worry and anxiety.  In quietness and stillness, we can find the ease of the present moment, of being with “what is”.   Allyson drew on the words of  Pablo Neruda in his poem Keeping Quiet to envisage the outcome of each of us being quiet and doing nothing in the moment:

…perhaps a huge silence might interrupt the sadness of never understanding ourselves.

A guided meditation to quiet the mind

In her meditation podcast, Allyson offers a guided meditation designed to help you to quiet your mind – a mindfulness meditation characterised by extended periods of silence.  She suggests at the outset that you take a deep in-breath and enjoy an elongated out-breath as a way of settling into the present and the meditation.

Once you have settled, Allyson suggests that you begin to focus on your bodily sensations.  She encourages you to find a sensation in your body that you find pleasurable and to stay with the pleasure of the moment – quieting the mind and returning to your focus whenever distracting thoughts or emotions interfere.

You could focus on the pleasurable sensation of placing your fingers together – experiencing the sensation of touch and being touched, the tingling in your fingers, the feeling of warmth and energy coursing through your fingers, the sense of connectedness, the feeling of strength and power as you press them together and the sensation of gentleness as you lighten your touch.

Alternatively, you could focus on your breath, not trying to control it but just tapping into your process and sensations of breathing.  Here you might notice the coolness of the breath in your nose as you inhale, the sounds as you exhale, the sense of being alive and a sense of connection to every other living, breathing human or animal.

Reflection

The intensity of our pleasurable sensations can deepen with frequent practice. If we can quieten our minds often enough and for extended periods, we will experience the ease of being with the present moment and the power that this give us to manage our day and our life.  As we grow in mindfulness, our very presence can positively influence others and help them to deal with the waves and vicissitudes of their lives.  Our mindfulness can be for others as well as for ourselves.  We can not only bring the benefits of quieting the mind to ourselves but also extend them to others through our daily interactions.

Pablo maintains that if we can collectively quiet our minds and resist the urge to “keep our lives moving”, many of our global issues would be open to resolution as we moved together in an unfamiliar way:

It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines…

The weekly meditation podcasts conducted by MARC at UCLA provide what Allyson describes in her guided meditation as “companionable silence” – a way of regularly being quiet together and experiencing the power of silence.

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Image by Jaesung An 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.

Accessing the Power of Silence

Every hour of every day we are assailed by noise that sometimes seems deafening.  Christine Jackman eloquently describes this noise pollution in her own busy life.  In her book, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World, she provides insights into the practices and strategies she employed to slow down, quiet the noise and access the power of silence.  She describes these quiet practices as “slithers, slices and slabs of silence” (QWeekend, 21-22 November 2020, p.26).

Noise pollution in our lives

We are so often unaware of the intrusiveness, stress, and distraction that noise pollution creates in our lives.  In our own homes we are pinged by fridge doors when the doors are left open, by the car when the lights are left on, by our phone when we receive a text message, by the dishwasher & washing machine when a load is completed, by the oven when the programmed time is up, by the computer game when we “score” and by the computer when an email is received.   We can also add the ringing of mobile and landline phones, the chimes of the doorbell (or the thud of the metal door knocker), the sound of music/arguments/renovations from our neighbours or the internal air flow noise of our air conditioner (compounded by external sounds of the fan and hot air extractor).

We could reasonably expect that when we are unfortunate enough to be hospitalised that we will have access to quiet time.  However, the reality in hospitals is a constant cacophony of sounds – the sound of the food trolley rattling as it does its rounds, of the rolling noise of mobile X-Ray equipment, of bedside monitors, of conversations of patients with visitors, of conversations between nurses and doctors and nurses, of cleaners gathering waste…and so on.

Christine points out in her book that the cumulative effect of these sounds can lead to disorientation, depression, inertia, and an inability to sleep or concentrate.  She recommends that we have to break out of the habit of blithely accepting the noises in our life and to take proactive action to remove them or to remove ourselves to engage in some form of creative or collaborative endeavour.

Practices to access the power of silence

One of the challenges is to stop long enough to understand the nature of stillness and access the power of silence. In her book, Christine offers a wide range of practices to access stillness and silence.  Here are some of the ones that she found useful and others that form part of my mindfulness practice:

  • “Holding space” in conversation – this entails listening for understanding and viewing the interaction with someone else essentially as a shared space whereby you are able to pause long enough to let them occupy the space with their words.
  • Observing nature closely – the focus could be a leaf, a bird, a butterfly, a tree or still water.  Here the idea is to pay particular attention for a reasonable time to visually absorb what is before you – whether it is something near or distant.
  • Using an app to undertake a brief meditation practice – there are a wide range of mindfulness apps that can be used for this purpose.  The meditation can be quite brief or extended, depending on how much time you choose to make available for the activity.
  • Utilising waiting time for a moment of quietness – I use the process of bringing my fingers from both hands together as a way of focusing on my breath and/or the sensations in my fingertips as they touch each other.  We spend so much time in waiting that this idle time provides a great opportunity to appreciate the power of focus, stillness and silence.
  • Walking mindfully – a way to slow the busyness of your life is to consciously slow your walking pace and be open to whatever comes to you in that moment.
  • Changing your access to media – many authors, including Christine, suggest that we could create space for stillness and silence in our lives by undertaking a “social media diet”.   This means restricting the amount of time and frequency of our access to social media.
  • Adopt a “Digital Sabbath” – taking a complete rest from your digital technology on one day a week.  This is a major ask for people who are addicted to the news and the words, dress, and actions of “social influencers”.
  • Breathing meditation – there are many forms of breath meditations but one of them is to tune into your own breathing by noticing the rise and fall of your stomach or chest.
  • Tuning into birds – as you walk outside your house, listen attentively to the singing of the birds around you.

Reflection

Developing the practice of accessing stillness and silence throughout the day can have considerable benefits for our mental and physical health, as well as for our ecology.  Acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hempton warns that unless we preserve “natural silence”, it will be lost forever “in the ever-rising din of manmade noise”.  In his book, One Square Inch of Silence, he describes his travels across America while recording the “natural voices of the American landscape” – his contribution to their preservation.

There were many responses to what has been termed “lockdown life” during the pandemic.  Some people, however, were able to find stillness and silence by developing their gardens, eating mindfully (e.g. while eating a mandarin), becoming grounded and connected to nature through their landscape, developing “latent talents” (such as painting), reading and listening to music (QWeekend, 21-22 November 2020, pp.12-14).

As we grow in mindfulness through stillness and silence and quiet reflection, we can learn to value silence in our life and nature, reduce the busyness of our lives and become more grounded and connected with ourselves and others.

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Image Source: Ron Passfield –  “Quiet Reflection” – Manly Marina at sunrise

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.

Silence and Connection: Finding Peace in a Turbulent World

Last night I had the privilege of accompanying my wife to a fund-raising event at Stepping Stone Clubhouse in Brisbane – an organisation dedicated to enabling people with mental illness to rebuild and enrich their lives.  The speaker for the night’s event was Trent Dalton, author of two recent books that were the focus of his discussion.  Trent has become a best-selling author as a result of the first of the two books, The Boy Who Swallowed the Universe which features two boys who experience the darkness of adverse childhood experiences.  The second book he spoke energetically about is his recently released novel, All Our Shimmering Skies – two girls experiencing trauma feature prominently in this book which is also an expression of hope, of wonder and life’s endless mysteries and miracles.

Life beyond trauma

Trent had many adverse childhood experiences and related trauma – including an alcoholic father, heroin-addicted mother, heroin dealer stepfather and a criminal baby sitter.  His two novels then are part autobiographical, part fiction and part fantasy (“gifts dropping from the sky”).   His two daughters had questioned him as to why he wrote the first of the two books with boys as the focal characters when he in fact had two daughters.  So, two girls featured in the Shimmering Skies novel.

Trent mentioned that even though the books begin with darkness in the characters’ lives, they end with hope and wonder.  He wanted to inspire his daughters to be strong and resilient despite what life brings in the way of obstacles and adversity.  He also wanted them to believe in hope and a life beyond trauma as reflected in his own life – now as a multiple award-winning author who is internationally recognised for his writing craft and storytelling.

Finding peace in silence and connection

Trent spoke of his close connection to place and nature.   His home suburb, Brisbane’s western suburb of Darra, features strongly in his writing as does Darwin which he visited a number of times, mainly on assignment as a journalist.  He described with a sense of awe the natural beauty experienced during a guided walk through Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia.  His closeness to nature is reflected in his wonder at even the smallest living creatures.

His connection to family and friends provided a very real grounding and enabled him to rest in the strength of these relationships.  Of particular note is his comment about how one of his daughters brought him very much “back to earth” after a whirlwind tour following his highly successful book, The Boy Who Swallowed the Universe.  At one stage when he was at home and dropping naturally into his effervescent storytelling mode, his 11 year daughter said something to the effect, “You don’t have to impress us now – you just have to be Dad to us.”

Trent’s Shimmering Skies novel captures something of the stillness and reflection he experienced observing the night sky through his window in Darwin or from his writer’s den in Brisbane.  His valuing of silence and stillness is reflected in his comment on Christine Jackman’s novel, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World:

…a deeply personal assignment: treading bravely, beautifully into the wonder of silence.

Christine reminds us that life is full of noise, distraction and setbacks and yet there exists the wonder of stillness and silence – the unnameable space in which one was free to think and breathe and simply be.   We just have to learn ways to access the silence in our lives – something I experienced at 5 am this morning when I walked along the Manly Esplanade in Brisbane as the sun rose and reflected on the shimmering water of the marina.

Reflection

Trent was able to inhabit the wounds of his trauma by revisiting his adverse childhood experiences through the key characters in his two books.  In discussing his books and his life, he was able to be completely transparent and honest about his background, his challenges, and his small triumphs.  This openness and curiosity about life are hallmarks of mindful living.  By growing in mindfulness through reflection, writing and wonder, he could appreciate his connection to everything and his close relationships which are so central to his life and work.

I find it humbling and a source of gratitude that I personally was able to live a life of silence and contemplation for five years after leaving home and traumatic circumstances.  I have lived through many adverse childhood experiences in my early childhood and traumatic events later in life.  I found solace and peace in stillness and silence.

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Image by Ron Passfield – Sunrise at Manly Esplanade

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.

Building Cognitive Resilience through Mindfulness

Research conducted by Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell supports the view that mindfulness builds cognitive resilience – “the ability to overcome negative effects or stress on cognitive functioning” (as defined by Staal and colleagues).  In times of stress or serious setbacks, we can experience cognitive confusion and disorientation.  When the perceived threat to our wellbeing is considerable our “thinking brain” tends to shut down and our “survival brain” takes over – we can be controlled by our negative emotions and engage in fight, flight or freeze behaviour.  In these challenging times we can experience emotional inflammation as we are challenged on many fronts.

The impact of information overload

Information overload is a characteristic of our times with the ever-present and pervasive information highway.  With COVID19, we not only have to cope with the emotional strain of illness and death amongst our families , friends and colleagues but also the vast amounts of complex health advice and restrictions – information that is often conflicting and exacerbated by misinformation peddled by vested interests.  

The stress of information overload can be compounded by what Jamie and Rosie refer to as a our “digital and media diet” – a bias towards distressing information, rather than information that inspires, uplifts, or motivates.  An obsession with the news can be a daily diet of information that disturbs, distresses, distracts and debilitates us and severely limits our effective cognitive functioning.

Unfortunately, our natural tendency is to close down emotionally and avoid facing the pain of negative emotions.  We can block out difficult emotions such as fear, anxiety, and depression until such time as they take their toll on our physical health.  Liz Stanley, for example, explains how she lost her sight temporarily by “soldiering on” despite traumatic stress.

The role of mindfulness in developing cognitive resilience

Mindfulness practices can help us face raw and difficult emotions such as fear and build resilience through accepting our current reality, rather than denying its existence.   Rick Hanson, for example, provides a meditation practice designed to turn fear into resilience.   Bob Stahl, meditation teacher and author, offers a mindfulness practice to address fear and anxiety that are exacerbated by negative self-stories.

Mindfulness meditation can be a source of refuge in times of turbulence when we feel our minds and emotions whirling.  It enables us to restore our equilibrium and find peace and calm despite the waves of change and challenge crashing down on us.   We can build our resilience by taking time out to become grounded and to reconnect with ourselves. 

Jamie and Rosie point out the research that demonstrates that mindfulness can enhance both working memory and long-term memory.  Working memory constitutes our temporary storage facility that enables us to utilise information to effectively make decisions, act wisely and communicate appropriately.  It can become overwhelmed and degraded by stress and trauma and negatively impact our window of tolerance – narrowing it and thus reducing our capacity to cope with further stressors, however minor.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness we can increase our sense of agency in the face of stress and setbacks by facing up to our negative emotions and diffusing their impact, accessing our memory and cognitive faculties without the befuddlement of emotional overload, making sound choices about information that we expose ourselves to and developing groundedness despite the turbulent winds of change.  In this way, we can progressively build our cognitive resilience by reducing the negative impacts of stress on our cognitive functions and limiting emotional turmoil.  Hence, we will be better able to access our creative faculties and take wise actions such as scenario thinking to deal with ongoing stressors. 

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Image by Leni_und_Tom 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.

Enhancing Receptivity through Mindfulness

Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell maintain from their research that mindfulness enhances our receptivity thus enabling us to reclaim our attention and sense of agency – our sense of the ability to positively influence our relationships and our external environment.  According to their research, mindfulness increases our receptivity in a number of ways – widening the “bandwidth of perception”, overcoming unhelpful habituated responses, reducing our distorted perceptions,  improving our relationships, and developing our “don’t know mind”. 

Widening the bandwidth of perception

Mindfulness increases our capacity to take in information through its emphasis on acceptance of “what is”, consciously noticing bodily sensations and heightened development of our senses.  Acceptance is a precondition for action, not inaction – if we cannot accept what is happening to us (e.g. through internal dialogue such as “Why me?”, “What have I done to deserve this?” or “This can’t be happening to me”), then we cannot move forward and take constructive action to redress our situation. 

Mindfulness meditation often focuses on our bodily sensations – we are encouraged to notice what is happening in us bodily when we experience difficult emotions.  By noticing our bodily sensations, we are better able to name our emotions and tame them. Our bodies are windows to our feelings – by paying attention to them we widen the bandwidth of our perception and gain better access to our inner landscape.

Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book, Coming to Our Senses, shows us how to access all our senses – e.g., our seeing,  touchscape, soundscape, smellscape, tastescape – to enable us to heal ourselves and act positively on our world.  Being open to our senses enhances the depth and width of our perception and increases our sense of connection with nature – developing a sense of empowerment and resulting in healing ourselves.

Overcoming unhelpful habituated responses

As we come to understand our inner landscape through mindfulness, we gain insight into our negative triggers and their origins. This leads to awareness of our reactivity and habituated responses.  Often, we are triggered by our distorted perceptions that arise because of our bias, projections, prejudice, and unfounded assumptions.  As we unearth these distortions in perception through mindfulness meditation, we are better able to understand their influence over us and what we perceive, and to exercise control over our reactions.

Improving our relationships

Through mindfulness, we not only reduce our perceptual distortions but also emotional baggage that can destroy relationships.  We are able to bring to the relationship increased self-awareness and self-regulation.  For example, by reflecting on any resentment we carry towards another person, we can come to see their side of the story, understand where they are coming from and reduce our self-absorption and hurt – thus healing our relationship.  Through mindfulness we can also bring to the relationship an increased consciousness of our inner landscape, a sense of personal empowerment (not disabling dependence) and a growing capacity to feel and express empathy.  We are better able to engage in active listening because we can be present in the moment of the conversation, attentive to non-verbal cues and less defensive and self-protective.  Mantra meditations, as one form of mindfulness, can increase our capacity for deep listening.

Developing our “don’t know mind”

Jamie and Rosie write about the “beginner’s mind” developed through openness and curiosity  – which are hallmarks of mindfulness according to the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).  In discussing the lessons from death and dying, Frank Ostaseski encourages us to develop what he calls, the “don’t know mind” which has the same characteristics of openness and curiosity and he suggests that these characteristics can be developed through mindfulness meditation.  The result is that we are able to enter conversations with others not trying to be “interesting” but demonstrating being “interested in” the other person – a stance that enhances trust and relationships.  Mindfulness enables us to listen for understanding rather than attempting to always persuade others to our point of view – in the process, developing our influence and strengthening our relationships.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can strengthen our sense of agency by developing our receptivity – to information and to others.  We can gain better awareness of our distorted perceptions and their impacts, develop greater self-control over our reactions to negative triggers, improve our relationships and grow our influence through our curiosity and openness.  Our enhanced perceptual bandwidth developed through paying attention to our senses gives us uncluttered access to our inner landscape and the healing power and sense of empowerment of our natural landscape.

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Image by yamabon 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.

Reclaiming Attention through Mindfulness

In a recent research paper published by the mindfulnessinitiative.org, Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell identified how mindfulness strengthens agency in these challenging times.  Their paper focuses on three main outcomes of mindfulness that build agency.  The first of these was “perceiving, gathering and processing information”.  Drawing on extensive research, they showed how mindfulness builds our capacities in these areas by progressively developing our attention, receptivity and “cognitive resilience”.

Reclaiming attention

By definition, mindfulness involves “paying attention in the present moment” to develop awareness.  Mindfulness meditation builds our “awareness muscle” by helping us to overcome distractions while focusing on an anchor.  We can become distracted by our own incessant thoughts, our basic drives and the relentless marketing that stimulates our desire to have, hold and enjoy.  Through mindfulness, we can progressively regain control over our attention and direct it to more meaningful and healthful endeavours.

In discussing “reclaiming attention”, Jamie and Rosie make the point that what we attend to creates our reality.  They draw on the work by cognitive neuroscientist Professor Stanislas Dehaene featured in his 2020 book, How We Learn, when they maintain that what we choose to pay attention to, shapes our inner and outer world – “our brains and our whole reality”.  

The lack of paying attention in a meaningful and healthful way can lead to disconnection – a loss of connection to others, meaningful work, and  childhood traumas.  This disconnectedness, in turn, can result in alienation and loneliness along with depression and anxiety.  Mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, can help us to train our attention so that we can value our external connectedness, build our inner landscape, and manage difficult emotions.

Reflection

The paper by Jamie and Rosie reinforce the idea that we have choice – we can choose what we pay attention to and how we pay attention.  We can create our own reality – the quality of our life, our health, and our relationships.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can build our agency – our capacity to act on our inner and outer world.  So, mindfulness will not only help us to realise effective self-care in these challenging times, but also enable us to have the awareness and focus to act wisely in the world for the benefit of others.

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Image by yamabon 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.

Healing from Trauma and Building Resilience to Manage Stress

Liz Stanley recently provided an introductory webinar for her course on Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)®.  The webinar explains the components of the course and how it helps people recover from trauma and enable anyone to build resilience and effectively manage stress.  She also discusses the traumas she has experienced, her personal search for healing and resilience and her in-depth training including her doctorate. 

The components of MMFT®

The online course covers 8 modules over 8 weeks (that you can undertake within your own time and availability).  The first four modules provide the framework to understand how stress and trauma affects us and provides an insight into the neurobiology involved.  As she explains in the webinar, stress and trauma reduce our window of tolerance (our tolerance of stress arousal).  In her view, each of us have our own window of tolerance which has been shaped from birth, and continuously widened or narrowed through our life experiences, encounter with trauma, our lifestyle choices and our stress response (creating implicit learning about what is threatening). 

If we are within our window of tolerance, we are better able to access our thinking brain (enabling accurate perception, clarity of thinking and wise decision making); when we are outside our window of tolerance we are captured by our survival brain and habituated stress responses in terms of bodily sensations, difficult emotions and harmful choices.

Liz explains that the second group of four modules of the MMFT® course deal with habits and related habituated responses, making effective decisions, managing difficult emotions and chronic pain, as well as ways to be more effective in our interpersonal interactions.  The course includes stress and trauma-sensitive mindfulness practices, ”somatic experiencing” and a unique sequence of exercises designed to achieve grounding and enable movement “from dysregulation to self-regulation”.

Liz’s course is offered through Sounds True and has been validated extensively through evidence-based research that has confirmed results in terms of improvements in cognitive performance, strengthened resilience and improved self-regulation, as well as positive developments in other areas of self-management.

Widening the Window of Tolerance

Liz explains that our repetitive experiences impact our implicit knowledge and shape our brains and neuroception (perception of threat/ safety).  We can choose experiences that are beneficial or others that are harmful – we have choice in how our brain is shaped and adapts (neuroplasticity).

In the MMFT introductory webinar and in her book, Widen the Window, Liz offers five lifestyle choices that can serve to widen our window of tolerance:

  1. Sleep
  2. Diet
  3. Exercise
  4. Awareness and reflection
  5. Social connection

She explains that the course details the beneficial effects of each of these elements and also the detrimental effects caused by their absence or deprivation.  She particularly notes the benefits of awareness and reflection.  Liz explains that awareness can be built through mindfulness practices, Tai Chi and yoga while reflective practices involve reflective thinking such as journalling, reading poems, reflecting on scriptural passages or work experiences and their implications, or maintaining some form of gratitude diary.  She highlights the benefits of mindfulness and reflective practices in terms of calmness, clarity, self-awareness, focus, resilience and intention building.

One of Liz’s key messages is that resilience is something that we can learn and develop through beneficial choices.  The result is that we will be better able to manage stress, heal from trauma and access our thinking brain which enables us to think clearly and creatively and choose wise actions – rather than be captive to stress-induced confusion and harmful habituated responses.

Reflection

Liz’s course focuses on how to heal from past, stressful experiences and how to deal effectively with future stressful situations, whether internal (e.g. chronic anxiety) or external (e.g. job loss or interpersonal conflict).  She emphasises the need for consistency not only in making beneficial lifestyle choices but also through engaging in regular mindfulness and reflective practices.   As we grow in mindfulness and the associated awareness of thoughts, emotions, and bodily responses, we can widen our window of tolerance and deal more effectively with the stressors in our life.

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Image by Candid_Shots 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.

The Pandemic and Narrowing of the Window of Tolerance

David Treleaven and Liz Stanley discussed the current pandemic In their interview podcast on Widening the Window of Tolerance.  They both asserted that COVID-19 had effectively narrowed the window of tolerance of many people.  There are many people who are becoming increasingly stressed and traumatised by unfolding events, whether because of the death of relatives and friends, loss of a job, dislocation from their normal place of work (and way of working) and/or stringent “lockdowns”.

Narrowing the window of tolerance

In these very challenging times, people are becoming controlled by their “survival brain” – resorting to a fight, flight or freeze response.  Their window of tolerance is becoming narrowed, both in terms of their inner tolerance of challenges and external tolerance of differences.  Everything has been “thrown up in the air” so that they have lost their grounding in accurate perception and balanced body sensations. 

Polarisation , racism, and hate thrive in this disrupted state as people seek refuge in their “own tribe” (flight) and attack others who are different from themselves (fight).  Liz suggested that many people are “uncomfortable in their own skin” so that lockdowns and movement restrictions , creating disconnection, exacerbate the tendency to dysregulation (inability to control emotions).   The sense of hopelessness and helplessness in facing continuous and growing uncertainty adds to the incidence of anxiety and depression.

A compounding factor is that social media becomes what Liz calls an “echo chamber” – it gives unregulated voice to “dysregulated communications” that increase the tendency towards polarisation.  People retreat to social media and television only to find that these media are increasingly disorientating and disturbing.    

Further compounding the issues for individuals is the fact that we tend to make a “bargain” with ourselves – e.g. we can put up with lockdown for three weeks by adding some new routines such as working different hours, taking more regular breaks and expanding project timelines.  However, when other people blatantly and inconsiderately breach lockdown regulations or social distancing requirements leading to further lockdowns, conforming people can feel betrayed – intensifying a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

Hope and widening the window of tolerance

In the previous post I discussed trauma-sensitive mindfulness and widening the window of tolerance.    Liz provides several strategies in her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.  In the interview podcast she shared some of her own strategies for becoming grounded during the current health and economic crisis – mindfulness meditation, gardening, walking and playing with the dog, and focusing on connectedness to others.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® provides detailed strategies and tools to navigate effectively through times of trauma and stress.  She makes the point that whenever we are controlled by our “survival brain”, we are disconnected from our “thinking brain” and shut off from the opportunity to access our creativity and ingenuity. In discussing “hope” in the current challenging times, David noted that the tendency to “hyperfocus on what is not working” (as he has done at times) tends to narrow the window of tolerance and our capacity to cope.  He suggests that accessing stories of successful transition can help to widen our window of tolerance, e.g. successful career changes by people who have lost their jobs. Another strategy that he suggests is to effectively reframe what is happening.  By way of example, he draws on the comments of Adrienne Maree Brown in her article on living through the unveiling:

Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered, we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

Liz reinforces this view when she suggests that it is really only in times of turbulence when everything seems to be “thrown up in the air”, that genuine and sustainable change can happen.

Reflection

As David suggests, we can choose to stay in the fog bank by continuing to absorb negative messages, both external and internal, or we can free ourselves from this befuddled state by growing in mindfulness and developing our own strategies to build resilience and stay grounded.

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Image by My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: 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.