Mindfulness as a Pathway to Gratitude

Diana Winston offers a way to develop and express gratitude through a guided meditation podcast.  She reminds us that mindfulness is about being in the present moment and paying attention to what is, while being open and curious.  She maintains that being mindful in the present moment, no matter what is happening, can create the space and sense of appreciation to enable gratitude to arise.   

Gratitude can develop and grow as we pay attention to what we are grateful for – we become what we choose to regularly focus on, e.g., compassion, kindness or gratitude.  When we are present to the moment, not self-absorbed or lost in thought, we can more readily appreciate aspects of our life and our environment.  We tend to see things more clearly, not lost in the fog of emotions such as resentment, anger, or frustration.

Guided gratitude meditation

Diana provides this meditation as part of the weekly meditation podcasts provided by UCLA through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).  She takes us through a process of paying attention in the moment with a period of silence followed by a focus on being grateful.

The guided meditation has a number of steps:

  • Grounding – as with normal meditation practice, Diana’s process begins with being grounded through adopting a comfortable posture whether you are sitting, standing, or lying down for the meditation.  This is followed by taking a deep breath and using the outbreath to release any tensions, thoughts, or distractions.  At the same time, you can express gratitude for being able to breathe normally, something that we take for granted.  While expressing this appreciation, you could think of those who are suffering respiratory problems because of COVID-19 and offer compassion towards them, including a desire for their return to wellness.
  • Becoming aware – Diana suggests that you first focus on your body, then your mind and finally any emotions.  With your body, you can be focus on comfort, discomfort, aches or pains or any bodily sensation that you are aware of at the time.  You can pay attention to your thoughts and notice what your mind is doing, being aware of your tendency to plan, critique, analyse, evaluate or other regular mental activity that you may engage in.  Moving onto your emotions, you can become more conscious of how you are feeling – anxious, joyful, enthusiastic or sad – while accepting what is.  In this meditation, the aim is not to dwell on these bodily sensations, thoughts, or emotions, but to notice that they are with us at the moment.
  • Choosing an anchor – Diana offers a range of anchors such as your breath, bodily sensation (e.g., in your fingers or feet), sounds around you or an aspect of nature, such as a tree.  The anchor serves to bring your attention back once you become distracted by your thoughts.  The process of refocusing after distractions acts to strengthen your “awareness muscle”.

Focusing in on what you are grateful for

After a period of silence and practising stillness, Diana suggests that you bring to mind something or someone for which you are grateful.  This could be something you particularly appreciate in your life –  your location and its advantages, the opportunity to go for morning walks in a pleasant environment, the beauty of surrounding nature, the pleasure and comfort of your own home, the extraordinary capacity of your brain, the ability to move and engage in physical activity, or anything else that is a source of thankfulness.  

Alternatively, you could focus on a person in your life that you are really grateful for – in the process, paying attention to what you appreciate about them, e.g., their intelligence, thoughtfulness, support, kindness, sense of equity, willingness to share their feelings, openness, faithfulness, or any other traits that come to mind.

Whether you are focusing on someone or something, you can dwell on the sense of appreciation and gratitude that they are part of your life at the moment.  Keeping a focus on gratitude helps us to develop this very positive emotion that not only influences how we show up in the world and the nature of our interactions but is also great for our mental health

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, especially through gratitude meditation and expressions of appreciation, we will become more positive and appreciative of our life and less likely to indulge negative emotions such as resentment, envy, or frustration.

Recently I was playing social tennis with a male partner who was a very good player but who became increasingly annoyed and upset that his timing was out of kilter, resulting in multiple errors.  As emotional states are contagious, I could have become very negative about my own game and tennis mistakes.  However, through the practice of mindfulness, I was able instead to focus on the fact that I was able to play; that my body was holding up for this activity despite my age; and that I was able to take pleasure in any good shots I played.  This led me during the next day to focus on the micro skills that I was able  to use while playing tennis, e.g., serve, volley, play a forehand or backhand, run to the ball, and also judge the speed, direction, and spin of the ball.

Gratitude developed through mindfulness can positively impact every activity of our life.

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

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

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Self-Care for Mental Health Professionals

In his book, Trauma Informed-Mindfulness With Teens, Sam Himelstein stresses the need for self-care for mental health professionals dealing with traumatised teens.   His final chapter is devoted to self-care and professional practice.  Dr. Cirecie West-Olatunji, counsellor educator,  also stresses the need for self-care for professionals working with people experiencing traumatic stress.  Her video presentation is available as part of the courses provided by the Mental Health Academy.   Both experts in the area of counselling for trauma highlight the impact of vicarious trauma, especially the risk of mental health professionals experiencing compassion fatigue.

Mindfulness for self-care

Sam himself experienced trauma in his early 20s when he lost his sister through suicide. He makes the point that most health professionals will have experienced trauma of some kind and that this experience leaves them open to triggering their own traumatic response through exposure to the trauma stories of other people.  Cirecie highlights the fact that the trauma stimulus can be exacerbated where the professional has previously experienced combined or cumulative trauma. 

Sam emphasises the role of mindfulness in helping the professional to deal with their own re-traumatisation as a result of interaction with others and their emotionally draining stories.  He stresses the role of a personal mindfulness practice in helping him deal with the trauma of his sister’s suicide.

Sam  suggests that a personal approach to mindfulness as a protective mechanism could involve the following:

  • Silent retreat(s): Sam found these exceedingly helpful because they enable you to fully experience your emotions, gain a deep insight into your inner landscape and develop strategies to maintain or regain your equilibrium.
  • Formal practice: this entails inculcating a regular mindfulness practice (either sitting, standing, or walking) where you engage in some form of formal meditation.  This helps to build your concentration to enable deep listening, empathetic response, and the ability to promote wise action.  It also assists you to deal with your own difficult emotions (such as anger, resentment, or frustration), challenge self-defeating narratives and develop resilience in the face of challenging interactions.
  • Beyond meditation: Sam suggests that bringing mindfulness into your everyday life (in daily activities such as walking, washing clothes, eating, shopping), is effectively “mindfulness-in-action”.  It is particularly relevant to your relationships and interactions with others, especially in times of conflict.  One way to develop the necessary calmness and equanimity in the face of emotional challenges is to practice reflection-on-action to eventually cultivate the capacity to reflect-in-action, in the course of something adverse happening to you (whether that adversity is real or imagined).  Sam stresses the importance of daily mindfulness practices in controlling the “ego” which can get out of hand when  it perceives a threat (physical, emotional, or intellectual).

Professional development

Both Sam and Cirecie stress the importance of professional development to build competence and confidence to enable you to operate effectively within your chosen arena of professional practice.  For Sam this is the arena of traumatised youth, especially those who have been incarcerated.  He offers specialised training for health professionals through his Center for Adolescent Studies.  Cirecie’s professional arena includes trauma stress service delivery and training professionals who provide counselling in different countries following disasters such as earthquakes and pandemics.  She conducts research and training through her Xula Center for Traumatic Stress Research.

Cirecie stresses the need to gain control over your workload and, where necessary, seek to negotiate a lighter load (for your psychological welfare and that of your clients).  She maintains that every mental health professional, irrespective of their level of experience and training, has their window of tolerance beyond which they are unable to function effectively.  She gave an example of how a racist client triggered her and how  her experience in working in South Africa with a community where people were consistently dying from AIDS took her outside her window of tolerance and led to a severe illness.  In both cases, she sought professional counselling and recommends this form of professional development for other mental health professionals.

Cirecie highlights the importance of self-knowledge and self-awareness as critical factors in professional counselling, particularly understanding your own negative triggers.  She encourages too the development of your own professional support network that you can draw on for knowledge, experience, resources, and emotional support.  

In Cirecie’s view, personal and professional development extends to conscious awareness of the physical and psychological health risks inherent in the role of a mental health professional.  She urges appropriate preparation for the role through education which will provide motivation for health self-care (e.g., exercise, stretching (to release physical tension), diet, and drinking water).

Reflection

There are many reasons why mental health professionals do not undertake adequate self-care.  When working with clients who have suffered trauma or are currently experiencing trauma, it is critical that the health professional takes time for self-care to enable them to function at their best for the sake of their clients, as well as for their own welfare.  Mindfulness practice is recognised as a key component of this necessary self-care.  As mental health professionals grow in mindfulness, they are better able to identify personal triggers, develop resilience for their challenging work and build the capacity to engage in deep listening.  However, mindfulness practice needs to be supported by an appropriate lifestyle. 

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

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

Becoming Grounded to Strengthen Your Intention

We have all experienced being “knocked off centre” and becoming “ungrounded” in the challenging times of the past year (2020).  Now, as we look forward to the new year (2021), it might be helpful to restore our groundedness and reset our intentions.  Diana Winston of MARC UCLA offers a meditation podcast to enable us to achieve these goals.  Her guided meditation, Getting Grounded and Setting Intentions, offers a timely process.

Guided meditation for groundedness

Diana suggests that you begin by taking a couple of deep breaths and as you are exhaling to release the tension and anxiety that you have experienced in being able to arrive at this point.  She then focuses heavily on posture as a means to achieve groundedness.  You are encouraged to have your feet flat on the floor; to adopt an upright, relaxed position for your back; to find a comfortable position for your hands; and to either close your eyes or look downwards to reduce distractions.

To begin with, the primary focus is on your feet.  By focusing on your feet, you can feel the bodily sensations of being supported. You might feel the firmness of the floor beneath the softness of the carpet or the hardness of floor tiles.  Diana encourages you too to envisage beyond the floor to the walls supporting the floor and the ground that is always there, in turn, supporting the walls themselves.  As you focus on the sensations in your feet, you may feel a sense of support, strength, and earthly energy.  You might feel as though your feet are becoming thicker and drawing in warmth and energy – a sense that your support base is expanding.

Diana also offers other choices that can supplement or replace the focus on sensations in your feet (as an anchor to return to when distractions inevitably intervene):

  • Breath – you can focus in on your breath in its natural state without any attempt to control it.  You pay attention to wherever you can sense your breathing and become conscious of the rise and fall of your abdomen or chest or, alternatively, the sensation of air passing in and out of your nose. 
  • Room tone/sounds – here you pay attention to sounds in the room firstly and then to external sounds.  This requires you to avoid interpreting the sounds or identifying their origins or your assessment of them as good or bad.  For some people, opening up their attention to sounds can itself be a distraction and may make it very difficult for them to sustain their focus. 
  • Hands – you can join your fingers together and pay attention to the sensations from the connection.  You may feel warmth, tingling, softness or firmness.  If you persist with this focus, you might experience soreness that is present in your wrist or arm – you can be open to this sensation and focus on self-healing.

Diana has an extended session of silence in this meditation to enable you to really focus in on bodily sensations and the feeling of support that is readily available to you at any time – the more you practise this meditation by setting time aside, the easier it will be to access the sense of support in times when you are feeling really challenged by restrictions, loss, isolation, or disconnection.

Setting intentions

Diana further invites you to revisit the past year and all the challenges that it involved – What did you feel? What did you lose? What was most challenging for you?  She suggests applying a “light touch” to these reflections, not getting lost in the challenging emotions involved.

She then suggests that you recall what inspired you during these challenging times – the selflessness of frontline health professionals caring for COVID-19 patients in ICU and elsewhere, the generosity of individuals, the sense of reconnection with loved ones (even though it might have been virtually), the dedication of emergency personnel (ambulance, police, border officers,  paramedics) and the resilience of people who experienced grief and trauma and yet continued to assist others. 

In the light of these latter inspiring and energizing reflections, Diana encourages you to revisit your New Year’s resolutions or to set new resolutions.  She particularly encourages you to draw on the lessons you have learned through experiencing the past year and what they  signal as a way forward for you.  You might envisage a different world where empathy, compassion, kindness, and consideration replace racial discrimination, self-centredness, violence and hatred.

This consideration of what might be could be the catalyst for you to strengthen your intention to make a positive contribution to your family, your community and the world at large.  Through your interconnectedness, how you are in the world influences those around you and beyond.  It might be that you firm up your intention of providing more emotional and practical support to someone close to you who is experiencing difficulties; it could be becoming more patient with someone at your work who is slow and/or annoying;  or resolving to truly listen to people, especially when they are expressing a personal need.

Reflection

We have at our disposal a ready means to feel grounded and deepen our resolve to pursue our best intentions so that they translate into positive actions.  This will enable us to make better choices and not indulge in habituated responses that can have negative impacts.  As we grow in mindfulness, through meditations focused on becoming grounded and setting our intentions, we can be a positive force in the lives of others, both those who are close and others who are distant.  Diana’s meditation podcast is one way to enable us to move from self-absorption to embracing people in need, locally and globally.  

You can change the negative tenor of social media around a topic by adopting a positive approach.  For instance, the arrival in Melbourne of professional tennis players for the Australian Open has created a real stir. On the one hand, some players have complained that they are locked up in a quarantine hotel room for two weeks because someone on their plane has the COVID-19 virus.  Some Australians stuck overseas are expressing bitterness that they are unable to return home because of the global situation while the Australian Open tennis players arrive from all around the world on chartered flights.   People living in Melbourne have expressed the view that the players are “spoilt brats” because they themselves have experienced one of the most stringent lockdowns anywhere in the world and for an extended period.

The voice of reason and compassion in all this turmoil was that of Australian Olympic swimmer, Cate Campbell.  She suggested publicly that expressing bitterness, envy and resentment is only making a difficult situation worse.  She encouraged all Australians to show empathy towards the tennis players and to truly understand what loss they are experiencing by their enforced confinement before one of the world’s major tennis tournaments.  As an elite sports person, she knows only too well what deprivation of practice before a very significant event means for other professionals.

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

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

Mind Your Brain

In the previous post, I discussed the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease on the mental. emotional and physical capacities of the affected person.  I particularly emphasised the importance of self-care for the carer whose life is increasingly disrupted and made more stressful because of the cognitive, emotional and financial drain on their personal resources. 

Alzheimer’s disease and the associated  disorder of dementia are becoming increasingly prevalent in society as our populations age.  The Alzheimer’s Association maintains that there are 342,000 people in Australia living with dementia and 44 million worldwide.  The Harvard Medical School notes that Alzheimer’s disease is the major cause of dementia. 

When you come into close contact with someone who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, you begin to realise the need to savour your brain as a source of wonder in everyday life.  As you see the progressive loss of key faculties by another person, you begin to realise how much we rely on our brains to live effectively and happily in our day-to-day existence. 

It is often only when we lose something, or see others lose something that we value, that we begin to really appreciate what we have.  The same is true of our brains.  And yet, as Andy Puddicombe points out in a YouTube video, we spend more time looking after our hair or car than we do our brains – the source of our thoughts, creativity, happiness, and practical skills.  Andy suggests that all It takes is 10 mindful minutes each day to begin to mind our brains.

Protective measures

The Harvard Medical School, in their publication on Alzheimer’s disease and its treatment, suggest a range of protective measures that people can take to either avoid Alzheimer’s or to slow the progress of the disease.  They point out however that scientists have not found a cure for Alzheimer’s or found definitive ways to prevent its occurrence – there are still many unknowns in relation to the disease, including the actual impact of genetic factors.  The Harvard Medical School, however, notes that lifestyle factors are a major influence on preventing the disease or slowing its progress.

In line with many other sources such as the National Institute of Aging, the Harvard Medical School recommends exercise, diet, weight reduction, restful sleep and mental stimulation as protective measures.  They remind us that what is good for our brain and body is also good for our heart.

The Harvard Medical School provides health reports on the benefits and techniques for different exercise routines.  They particularly stress the multiple benefits of walking in their publication Walking for Health, including the positive impacts on blood pressure, memory, heart health and weight.  Walking is one of the easiest and most accessible forms of exercise and they suggest that it is a good place to start for people who are not used to exercising.  In a related article they identify 5 Surprising Benefits of Walking.

The recommendation re restful sleep accords with the research by Stanislas Dehaene, author of the book How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain.  Stanislas highlights the key role of sleep in consolidation of learning – in making our learning explicit and building “unconscious competence”.

Mental stimulation as a way to mind your brain

The Harvard Medical School maintains that while level of education has a positive effect on maintaining a healthy brain  (through the process of creating “cognitive reserve” in the form of neurotransmitters and brain cells), what is more important as you age is to engage in activities that stimulate the brain.  They suggest, like the Institute of Aging’s recommendations re “cognitive training”, that mentally stimulating activities such as playing music, reading, writing, doing puzzles and playing games, can help to develop and maintain a healthy brain despite physically ageing.  There are many very active and inspiring octogenarians who provide testament to this possibility.

Minding your brain through mindfulness

Harvard Medical School, in the previously mentioned publication on Alzheimer’s, illustrates how this disease actually shrinks the physical brain as a result of the ”massive loss of brain cells” – which, in turn, “damages areas involved in thought, planning, memory, mood and behavior”.  In contrast, Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman in their book,  Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body, reveal that mindfulness meditation actually increases the neo-cortex area of the brain.

They also contend that mindfulness meditation can shape your brain to build resilience.  Drawing on the science of meditation they maintain that focused meditation and aligned action can develop the traits necessary for personal resilience – positive connections, awareness, insight into your inner landscape, clarity of purpose and a permeable self.  

One of the positive effects of mindfulness meditation is better use and development of your working memory which is an area negatively impacted by Alzheimer’s disease.   The act of paying attention facilitates short term memory thus enabling better retention and use of information for improved decision-making and behavioural choices.  Harvard Medical School has a series of articles on improving your memory and a comprehensive report on how to keep your brain healthy in the face of age-related memory loss.

Specific mindfulness activities have particular effects relevant to minding your brain.  Tai Chi, for example, enables you to deepen the mind-body connection as well as improve physical health, psychological well-being and overall energy levels (thus facilitating other forms of exercise such as walking). 

Reflection

Harvard Medical School emphasises the need to mind your memory to offset the occurrence of memory lapses which are a natural part of the ageing process.  Looking after our memory can be one of the many protective measures that we can employ to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and its multiple debilitating effects. 

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation and other mindfulness practices such as Tai Chi, we can enhance our working memory, build resilience, develop our physical brain, and improve our overall psychological well-being which further reduces the strain on our brain brought on by life’s stressors.  Developing the habit of mindfulness is a very sound and healthy resolution for the New Year.

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Image by Mabel Amber 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.

Alzheimer’s Disease – Self-Care for the Carer

If you have a family member or friend suffering from Alzheimer’s disease you may find yourself suddenly thrust into a carer’s role, often with little preparation and understanding of that role.  The tendency is to “soldier on” through all the difficulties and ignore the emotional toll on yourself.  However, there are many resources and people willing to help and mindfulness can play a role in your self-care.

You may be witnessing the cognitive and behavioural decline of someone you love who not so long ago was vital, well-read, highly competent, intelligent, and very aware of current events and global trends.  Now you are having to contend with the emotional, financial, and time-consuming toll of caring for someone who has Alzheimer’s (on top of your daily work and life with their own challenges).

Dealing with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

You may have to deal progressively with some or all of the following effects that Alzheimer’s has on your loved one:

  • Disorientation: losing track of where they are; thinking that they are in hospital or just out of hospital when neither is true; thinking they are in a location where they lived many years prior; assuming that their location is somewhere that happened to be mentioned in casual conversation.
  • Rapid memory loss: forgetting what they set out to do and constantly forgetting in the course of some action, e.g., finding their phone, having a shower, locating an object – the result is that everything takes so much longer and tests your patience (despite your good intentions).
  • Loss of practical skills; unable to do normal daily tasks such as cooking, keeping accounts, paying bills, driving the car or operate the TV remote.
  • Mood or personality changes: going from pleasantness to anger and aggression, happy to discontent, calm to agitated, confident to fearful, purposeful to suffering apathy and inertia; or any of the other possible mood/personality swings.
  • Indulging in unusual behaviours: constantly packing up the house expecting to be moved, indulging in unsafe behaviours (e.g., ladder climbing when they are unsteady), tendency to wander and lose their way (even in very familiar territory).
  • Confusion: forgetting who individuals are and their relationships, constantly losing things, thinking that a past event is happening in the present and preparing for it with some anxiety.
  • Difficulty with self-expression: unable to find the words to express what they want to say.

Each of these symptoms is taxing for the carer as well as the person suffering from Alzheimer’s.  As a carer, you may not know what to say, you can become confused about what is true and what is imagined, and you can become uncertain about the best way forward and the decisions that need to be made.

Self-care for the carer

There are many things that a carer for an Alzheimer’s sufferer can do to proactively care for their own welfare and psychological health:

  • Inform yourself about Alzheimer’s disease – understanding the disease helps you to make better decisions, reduce some of the uncertainty you are encountering and provides insights into how best to help the person experiencing Alzheimer’s.  One of the best resources around that is also very readable is Harvard Medical School’s report, Alzheimer’s Disease: A guide to diagnosis, treatment, and caregiving.  This publication details the symptoms of the disease, the impact on the brain and its structure, progression pathways, and, most importantly, incorporates a special section on Caregiving: Day-to-day challenges and beyond.  Understanding the decisions that need to be made, the options available and their impacts, makes it easier to make sound decisions amid the uncertainty and disruption surrounding the role of carer for an Alzheimer’s sufferer.
  • Gaining support from relatives and friends: typically, there is a tendency to “go it alone”, however, the role of carer for an Alzheimer’s sufferer is incredibly personally taxing.  Harvard Health describes caring for someone with Alzheimer’s as “one of the toughest jobs in the world “ and that your own life will be “dramatically altered” in this carer role.  It is vital that you “share the load” with relatives and friends where possible, e.g., with tasks such as visiting the person who is experiencing Alzheimer, talking through decisions, or sharing the financial burden.
  • Drawing on professionals and networks: It is important to draw on the collective knowledge of expert medical professionals such as the family doctor and appropriate specialist services such as a geriatrician or gerontologist. There are also support networks such as Alzheimer’s Association that provides support groups and professional information informed by research.  There are also carer support groups, such as Arafmi, for people caring for those suffering from a mental illness or “psychosocial disability”.
  • Exercise: physical exercise can reduce stress, enhance capacity to deal with stressors and provide the opportunity to “clear the head” and /or think more clearly about decisions to be made and options that can be explored.
  • Take time out: taking time for yourself such as a weekend or week away.  This is more manageable if you have already shared your situation with family and friends and drawn on their support.  It would also enable you to be more mindful about your own life and needs and options going forward. 
  • Developing mindfulness practices: mindfulness has a wide range of benefits that can assist in your role of carer.  For example, mindfulness can help you build resilience; manage uncertainty; develop calmness; deal constructively with difficult emotions such as anger, resentment, and frustration; and improve your psychological health overall.

Reflection

Alzheimer’s is an incredibly draining illness both for the sufferer and the carer. It takes its toll emotionally, physically, cognitively, and financially. It is vitally important for carers to be very conscious about the need for self-care and to be committed to being proactive about mindfulness practice.  As carers grow in mindfulness, they are better able to manage the multiple stressors involved and to achieve a level of equanimity even amid the disruption, uncertainty and turbulence involved in caring for someone with Alzheimer’s.  There are numerous resources available to assist carers and help them to make sound decisions and take wise action. 

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

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

Mindfulness, Attention and Learning

Research has consistently shown that mindfulness can build our attention and concentration.   Mindfulness, by definition, involves paying attention in a purposeful way “with openness and curiosity”.  Mindfulness helps us to reclaim our attention and strengthen our concentration.  Attention is one of the four pillars of learning, according to leading neuroscientist, Stanislas Dehaene.   In his book, How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain, he identifies the four pillars as follows:

  1. Attention – adds amplification to the information that we choose to focus on; it brings into clearer focus the detail and implications of what we are hearing and seeing.
  2. Active engagement – through curiosity, constantly testing our internal hypotheses and models of the external world; contrasted with passive learning where we only take in what others teach us.
  3. Error feedback – helps us to correct our hypotheses/models through comparison with reality; what happens when acting in the real world serves to provide feedback – confirmation or the need for correction/change.
  4. Consolidation – moves us to a state of “unconscious competence”; where we act automatically, but appropriately, in response to external stimuli.  Making explicit our own learning and restful sleep assist this process of consolidation.

Attention’s role in learning

Stanislas highlights the fact that today we encounter multiple sources of distraction, including that of digital noise, which negatively impacts our attention and capacity to learn.  Developing our attention, according to his research and that of other researchers, has three core benefits in terms of the learning process:

  1. Alerting – changes our level of vigilance by signalling when we need to pay attention.
  2. Orientating – indicates what we need to pay attention to and, in the process, highlights the detail of what we are interested in.
  3. Executive attention – the contribution here is on the how, the way in which to respond to the stimulus/task/challenge.

The growth of the executive function, tied to self-regulation, is itself a lifetime learning process.  This function involves engaging the pre-frontal cortex of the brain  – making decisions based on analysis and timely adaption rather than habituated and inappropriate responses.  Stanislas demonstrates through sharing the results of different experiments how the pre-frontal cortex and this executive function develops from the age of 12 months and reaches a mature level around 20 years of age.  These studies are fascinating in that they highlight how the brain attempts to process information that is seemingly contradictory and/or challenging to our habituated responses learned through prior experiences and information processing.  He contends that the development of our pre-frontal cortex as we mature in age spontaneously results in the “development of attention and executive control”.

Stanislas cautions that we can still make mistakes and take inappropriate action through our selective perception as adults.  Perception of threat (real or imagined), for example, can lead to the dominance of our amygdala and disengagement of our pre-frontal cortex, leading to a fight, flight or freeze response – resulting sometimes in an inappropriate action rather than “wise action” that can be developed through mindfulness.   

However, Stanislas also emphasises that even in adulthood our brains are capable of plasticity – changing physical shape (including reducing the size of the amygdala and increasing the size of the pre-frontal cortex) and, in the process, strengthening executive control.  Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, highlights the research that demonstrates how mindfulness increases this neuroplasticity.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can enhance our attention and concentration – key components of learning identified by Stanislas.  Concurrently, we can develop our self-awareness and self-regulation, learn to overcome habituated responses, and choose wise actions.  Mindfulness improves our information processing by helping us to reclaim our attention in the face of endless distractions, including digital noise and overload.  The openness and curiosity cultivated through mindfulness enriches our capacity to grow and learn. 

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

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

Welcoming the Richness of Our Life

Allyson Pimentel, psychologist and meditation teacher, often focuses on connection to overcome a sense of separation.   In her recent meditation podcast, her topic was Sit So You Can Stand – suggesting that through meditation we are better able to deal with life vicissitudes.  Her underlying theme was welcoming everything into your life – accepting “what is” with openness and curiosity.  Through openness and freedom from assumptions and stereotypes , we can truly appreciate the richness of our lives.

The richness of our life

There are so many things that we take for granted in our life.  Gratitude meditation and the mindfulness practice of savouring what we have, can enrich our life, develop positive mental health, and reduce negative feelings associated with envy or resentment. In the introduction to her meditation podcast, Allyson takes these considerations one step further.  She focuses on the richness and diversity of the people with whom we connect and, in particular, with those engaged in the virtual meditation practice that she was facilitating.

Allyson read a short anonymous piece called, Radical Welcome.  The text highlights the process of welcoming everyone and acknowledging the diversity and richness of all who are present – welcoming those who are child carers/elder carers/ mental health supporters; those who have a fast internet connection/ slow connection/ disrupted connection; those who bring greater diversity to the meditation through differences in ethnicity, race, or ancestral origin; those who are experiencing the ease of wellness together with those who are suffering from chronic illness.  The welcoming process was inclusive of gender and religious differences; of the young and not so young; of those who educate and those who are learning; of the doubts, questions, uncertainty and searching of people present; of the hearts, minds, and bodies of all who form part of the common endeavour.

To give some practical application of the welcoming process, Allyson encouraged everyone to look at the “gallery view” of those who were present and to wave to acknowledge others.  Looking at everybody opens our eyes and minds to the diversity of those present and this is enhanced if people have previously identified their location in the text box.  These practices in a virtual meditation environment help to make us more aware of the richness and diversity of people we interact with a on a daily basis – we are often too preoccupied with ourselves, our stories, our needs and our perceptions to appreciate what others bring to our lives.  To reinforce this connectedness, Allyson began the podcast meditation with an invitation to take a collective, deep breath while noticing the infusion of energy on the in-breath and the release of tension on the out-breath.

Guided meditation

 In the guided meditation, Allyson encouraged us to feel the support of the chair and the earth, to tap into our natural breathing process, and to progressively focus on the noises in the room – including their coming and going and the silences in between.  She stressed the importance of choosing an anchor that we can return to if we are distracted by our thoughts, e.g., by worries, negative self-evaluations, or planning our day. 

Most of the meditation was undertaken in silence – with a focus on the sense of connection with everyone  present, while acknowledging the richness of diversity.  

Reflection

Allyson’s podcast meditation offers us an opportunity to call to mind the differences we encounter in people we interact with on a daily basis.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditations such as this podcast, we can become more conscious of the differences in the people we encounter and the potential richness of the interaction.  Mindfulness also makes us more aware of our own perceptions, biases and assumptions that could act as barriers to truly acknowledging others, mindfully listening to them, and valuing their differences.   Creativity and innovation lie within diversity if we adopt openness and curiosity to learn about, and understand, differences.

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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.

A Meditation for Situational Anxiety

The meditation described here is one of many podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  The presenter is Diana Watson, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC and author of The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness.  In the book, Diana explains the nature of natural awareness and how to develop it.

Diana is the main presenter of the MARC meditation podcasts that cover a wide range of topics designed to build self-awareness, increase self-regulation, and enhance overall well-being.  Diana describes the weekly meditation sessions as an oasis in the midst of our turbulent and challenging times.  In the meditation podcast described in this blog post Diana focuses on the topic, Are You Anxious?  The meditation is particularly powerful for people dealing with situational anxiety, e.g., awaiting a medical diagnosis or preparing for a job interview.  

The meditation may not work for some people who are experiencing a continuous state of non-specific anxiety.  The work of Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections, may be useful here.  Also , people who have experienced childhood trauma may find the trauma-sensitive mindfulness approaches more in keeping with their present experience.

The mind-body connection in anxiety

When we experience the emotion of anxiety, we become conscious of the close mind-body connection involved.  Anxiety can be felt in the body in many ways, e.g., “butterflies in the stomach”, aches and pains in arms and/or legs, tightness in the chest or constriction or soreness of the throat.  Simultaneously, we will be experiencing negative thoughts such as imagining the worst possible scenario, questioning our ability to cope, recalling previous “failures” or envisaging a poor outcome.  The combination of thoughts and uncomfortable bodily sensations creates a vicious cycle with one reinforcing the other.

What compounds the difficulty of dealing with anxiety is that it has a bad name – it is considered a bad emotion.  Karla McLaren, author of Embracing Anxiety, suggests that anxiety is a necessary emotion within which lies the wisdom to identify and support constructive action to deal with our challenges, tasks, and expectations. She offers ways to access the “genius of anxiety” to channel the inherent energy towards constructive action (instead of repression or suppression of the feeling).

A guided meditation for situational anxiety

Diana’s podcast begins with a grounding exercise covering breath, bodily sensations, and sounds.  Grounding is particularly relevant to dealing with anxiety because, as Johann points out, this emotion often arises from a sense of disconnection.   In the meditation, Diana strongly encourages us to feel the support of the chair, the earth, and our immediate environment – an approach designed to alleviate feeling unsupported in facing the challenges of life and to reinforce a sense of connectedness.

The next phase of the meditation focuses on our uncomfortable bodily sensations – getting in touch with, and reconnecting to, our bodies. It involves noticing how our body is responding to the emotion of anxiety and progressively releasing any tension, tightness, or constriction through a proactive body scan.

Moving beyond bodily sensations, Diana encourages us to address our negative thoughts by drawing on our inner wisdom to ask a series of challenging questions – what Karla calls “conscious questioning”.  This approach taps into previous achievements, challenges unfounded assumptions and catastrophe thinking and seeks to identify one or more constructive steps that can be taken to reduce anxiety and progress the task, project, or other challenging endeavour.

Diana rounds off her guided meditation on situational anxiety by encouraging us to engage in a loving kindness meditation – extending kindness to ourselves and others, particularly to those who are also experiencing anxiety.

Reflection

I recently used this guided meditation to help me deal with a challenging situation.  I found the body scan enlightening in the sense of unearthing and dealing with the uncomfortable bodily sensations associated with my anxiety.  The “conscious questioning” was also very constructive.  As we grow in mindfulness through guided meditations, whether face-to-face or via a podcast, we can increase our self-awareness (especially in relation to how our body and mind work in unison), develop our self-regulation by reducing reactivity and increase our sense of well-being and the associated ease.

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Image by Lars Eriksson 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.

Creating a Meaningful Story for Your Life

Tami Simon, CEO of Sounds True, interviewed Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond as part of her Insights at the Edge podcast series.  Rebecca and Lily are the authors of the newly published (January 2021) book, What’s Your Story? : A Journal for Everyday Evolution. The book provides deeply personal insights into what constitutes a meaningful life as a well as interactive, reflective questions designed to help the reader to revisit and rewrite the story of their own life.  Both authors are accomplished writers and activists with quite diverse backgrounds. Their collaborative writing over the past ten years to produce the book is a profound endeavour in its own right.  They share a common and very strong belief that in writing our own story with honesty, fearlessness, and persistence, we can rewrite our past and reshape our future so that we live a more meaningful life.

An opening reflective question

During the podcast interview, Tami asked Rebecca and Lily about the first question in their book which is, What is your first memory?  This question is penetrating in that it requires the reader to identify a memory that they really experienced and own.  It means unravelling the self-stories from what has been communicated by parents, society at large, national culture, workplace culture or formal education.  It means getting to the heart of what we actually believe and practice.  For Lily, the catalyst for the question was the experience of her mother dying from cancer; for Rebecca, the catalytic event was the divorce of her parents.  In both cases they were faced with the fundamental question of What story have I been telling myself about my life?  Which leads to the question, How limiting or empowering is my self-story?

A closing reflective question

The interview discussing the book – What’s My Story? – gravitated to the final reflective question How do I define a life well lived?  This question is designed to be proactive – to stimulate not only reflection but future action.  The question is intended to have us look back from our future deathbed and review how we have spent our life and how we had wished to spend it.  It means, in Rebecca’s terms, what would enable me to die peacefully when reviewing my life’s contribution and legacy?  The question for both authors revolved around, What is a meaningful life? How can I now live my life in a way that is congruent with what gives my life meaning, satisfaction and a sense of positive contribution to my relationships, my community, and the world at large?

Lily and Rebecca talked about how these questions and their personal responses are influencing the way they live now – even at the micro-level.  Throughout their book they ask the reader to reflect on what was meaningful in their past, what is meaningful in their present life and what would give meaning to the rest of their life – a potential catalyst for rewriting our own stories.  What could be useful in this personal pursuit of “a life well-lived” are the lessons from death and dying provided by Frank Ostaseski.

The science of a meaningful life

Several authors for the Greater Good Magazine collaborated on an article titled, The Top 10 Insights from “The Science of a Meaningful Life” in 2020.  The magazine itself is a production of the Greater Good Science Center, The University of California, Berkeley.  The authors drew on the work of multiple researchers in their network and  viewed the identified elements as a source of hope in these challenging times when the pandemic has led to many people experiencing conflict, loneliness, illness, and grief.

The authors draw on the concept of a “psychologically rich life” as a framework for their suggestions for a meaningful life:

  • Collaborating in learning with others
  • Connecting with other people by phone rather than text or social media
  • Expressing kindness and gratitude to others (which are contagious)
  • Being more extroverted in engagement with others (especially beneficial for introverts)
  • Engaging with diverse cultures that can serve to challenge our stereotypes
  • Seeking out challenging and varied experiences
  • Working in organisations that consciously pursue social justice both within and without
  • Exploring ways to be more motivated to express empathy.

Reflection

It is a sobering exercise to ask ourselves these reflective questions that represent the lived experiences of the authors.  What is also relevant to this reflection are the lessons from death and dying advanced by Frank Ostaseski.  The challenge is to work out how we define a “life well lived”.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can gain greater clarity about what a meaningful life is for us and have the courage and resilience to pursue it in our chosen field of endeavour.

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Image by Marcel S. 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.

Making a New Year’s Resolution

At this time of the year, we are encouraged to make New Year’s resolutions covering each of the major areas of our life, e.g., relationships, health, fitness, work, and finances.  What we typically do is end up with a list of things to improve on.  Sometimes they remain just a list and are not actioned.  Other times we add them to our very full to-do list and they become another stressor and ammunition for beating up on ourselves if we don’t achieve them. 

It is interesting that experts in the area of habit formation suggest that we focus on a single habit in a single arena of our life and make an achievable resolution in relation to one aspect of this arena.  Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits blog with a readership in excess of 2 million, is a strong advocate of focusing on a single habit and he reinforces this approach in his book, The Habit Guidebook: My Most Effective Habit Methods & Solutions.  Seth Godin, famous internet marketer and author of more than a dozen New York bestsellers, argues that you should start small, start now.

The role of mindfulness in habit formation

Leo maintains that mindfulness has a role to play In helping us to pursue our focused resolution and develop a new habit.  Mindfulness helps us to overcome negative thoughts, avoid procrastination, develop self-reinforcing strategies, appreciate our achievements (however small) and improve our overall self-management.  Leo argues that the self-awareness that we gain through mindfulness makes us conscious of the things that trigger undesirable habits, enables recognition of habituated responses, and serves as a refuge when the habit-pull becomes intense.  So, there are many ways that mindfulness can underpin and strengthen our New Year’s resolution.

Developing a habit of mindfulness

The advantage of concentrating on a mindfulness practice is that the benefits flow into all arenas of our life because so much of our life is interconnected.  We can see this in operation when we begin with a single habit in other arenas, e.g., our daily walk.  If we walk regularly, we tend to want to eat better, we get fitter, our mood improves and we are better able to relate effectively with others.  As mentioned above, mindfulness has this overflow effect through its power to develop focus, self-awareness, and self-regulation.

There are some key strategies that facilitate developing and sustaining a habit of mindfulness:

  • Start small – Chade-Meng Tan, author of  Search Inside Yourself and one of the creators of Google’s course of the samename,recommends starting with one breath at a time
  • Develop a daily routine – build towards a daily practice.  This may take some time – choosing an appropriate practice and finding the right part of the day to practice.
  • Link the mindfulness practice to other things that you do daily  – this ensures that at least daily you are engaged in your mindfulness practice.  For example, I link a mindfulness practice to waiting time (which occurs often throughout a day, e.g., waiting for traffic lights to change).
  • Don’t beat up on yourself – if you miss a day here or there, do not cultivate negative self-talk such as “I’m hopeless, I can’t even maintain a single, small habit”.
  • Appreciate and reinforce your newly acquired habit – remind yourself of the benefits that you are gaining through your new habit. One way to reinforce your practice and maintain your motivation is to develop a personal mnemonic that captures the benefits you are experiencing.

Reflection

Focusing on one small habit initially provides flow-on benefits and tends to permeate many aspects of our life.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can be more present to what is happening around us, more able to engage in deep listening to others and be increasingly appreciative of the benefits that a new habit brings to our daily life.

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Image by alexvi82 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.