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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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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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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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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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.

Maintaining the Christmas Spirit

Christmas is a time when we can experience strong positive emotions such as kindness, joy, gratitude, generosity, empathy, and compassion.  We can also be more considerate, thoughtful, patient, and understanding. The difficulty is maintaining the Christmas spirit throughout the rest of the year – how can we continue to experience these positive emotions and engage in these positive behaviours when we encounter the daily pressures of work, relationships, and expectations (our own and those of others)?

Tailoring mindfulness practice

There are many ways to build positivity and maintain positive emotions and behaviours.  Diet and exercise are two of the most popular approaches.  Seeking silence in a busy life amid the noise pollution of the surrounding world is another.  Mindfulness practice can help us to find the balance and equanimity necessary to manage the daily challenges that can upset our peace of mind and positivity.

What helps to sustain mindfulness practice is finding and tailoring a practice that meets our needs in an arena where we would like to improve ourselves and our reactions, and that can be embedded in our daily routine.  It is important that the mindfulness practice, however brief, is conducted on a daily basis so that it can become a habituated behaviour.

I have found, for example, that one arena where I can become frustrated and annoyed is when playing social tennis.  Part of the issue is my own expectations about how well I should be able to play.  Having played tennis for more than fifty years, with many of those years engaged in competitive tennis, I have the expectation that I should be able to play better than a lot of people.  This expectation, however, does not consider the decline in flexibility, reflexes, strength, and mobility that occurs as we age.  So, I need to manage my expectations, strengthen my sense of gratitude (e.g., about being able to move and play tennis at all!) and learn to manage my reactions to  personal disappointment with the way I am playing on a particular occasion.

What I have found is that mindfulness practices help me to improve my gratitude, reduce my expectations and manage my reactions.  What has been of particular benefit to me is Tai Chi – a form of mindfulness practice that directly impacts my tennis playing in a positive way.  The desire to play tennis well and enjoy the experience adds motivation to my Tai Chi practice. It has become a practice that meets my needs at the moment for self-regulation and that enables me to improve my positive experience in an arena (social tennis) that I thoroughly enjoy.

Developing a personal mnemonic

People often use affirmations to help embed a belief, a behaviour, or an orientation.  Another way to achieve these outcomes is to develop a personal mnemonic that captures the core benefits that you are seeking.  For example, with Tai Chi I have developed the following mnemonic that keeps the benefits of this practice at the forefront of my mind, strengthens the desire to practice and reinforces the positive outcomes that I experience.

My mnemonic for capturing the benefits of Tai Chi for my tennis is as follows:

  • F – flexibility in muscles and overall movement is increased considerably
  • R – reflexes are improved and increased in speed of response
  • A – awareness is heightened of every aspect of tennis play (e.g., movement of the ball, environmental factors, other players)
  • I – intention, integration and interaction are strengthened
  • C – coordination and concentration (which go hand-in-hand) are enhanced along with balance
  • H – heart health improved through better circulation and improved breathing
  • E  – energy and motivation are improved.

The mnemonic stands for “fraiche” – a term which itself has positive connotations when viewed as a delectable dessert.  

Reflection

Developing our own mnemonic is one way of reminding ourselves of the benefits of a personalised mindfulness practice and will enable us to maintain our motivation and increase the frequency of our practice.  As we grow in mindfulness through our personalised practice, we can maintain the positive emotions and behaviours that are characteristic of the Christmas spirit.

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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.

Using Imagery to Handle Difficult Situations

Diana Winston in the last MARC meditation podcast of 2020 provided a guided meditation on Handling Difficult Situations with Wisdom and Compassion.  She uses imagery for the guided meditation – a process she has used previously for a kindness meditation.  However, the focal image differs in the two meditations – the current meditation involves picturing a wise, compassionate person while the previous one involved the image of a “kindness pond”.  At the outset of the difficult situation meditation, Diana encourages you to envisage the mediation as an “inner oasis”, a refuge in times of stress.

Guided meditation on handling difficult situations

Difficult situations can be many and varied – e.g., a close relative suffering from dementia, conflict in the family, falling out with a partner or friend, personal illness or chronic pain, serious financial loss or job loss.  The starting point is to accept what is – not disowning it but being prepared to be with  what is happening without judgment, recrimination, or resentment.

Diana suggests that you begin the meditation with a couple of deep breaths – using the exhale phase to release any build-up of tension (this could involve multiple deep breaths if your tension is very high).  The grounding phase of the meditation focuses strongly on posture and the sensation of being supported – by the chair, the floor, and the ground.  This initial postural focus enables you to become grounded in stillness and silence.

Moving beyond the initial focus, you can re-focus on your bodily sensations and your emotions. Diana leads you in a simple body scan looking for particular points of tension such as in your back, arms, or shoulders, so that you can progressively release what is holding you back. 

Once you have achieved some level of groundedness in stillness and silence, you can focus on an anchor of your choice.  It could be observing your breathing, listening to sounds internal and/or external to your space, or paying attention to the sensation in your feet or when your fingers from each hand are touching.  The anchor serves as a home base whenever distracting thoughts intervene and capture your attention.

Introducing imagery into your guided meditation

Diana suggests that you focus on the image of a person you consider the wisest and most compassionate person you know (or know of).  It could be a current or past mentor, a health professional, or the Dalai Lama – the choice is yours.   

Once you have a person in mind, you think about what advice they would give you in relation to your current difficulty – “what would they suggest that you do or say?”   For example, when I did this meditation what came to me was the need to listen more and  interrupt less as a way to help another person who was experiencing considerable difficulties on a health and work front.  Deep listening is perhaps the kindest think you can do for a person in difficulty – it is a way to develop empathy and compassion.

The final stage of the meditation involves asking your imagined wise and compassionate person for a gift.  In my case, for example, I asked for patience, kindness, and sensitivity to the needs of others who are experiencing difficult situations.

Reflection

Imagery for people who are visuals can be a powerful way into profound meditation.  We can all enhance our perception and capacity for imagination by developing our visual intelligence.  One of the challenges in this meditation is to avoid becoming embroiled in re-living the difficult situation rather than maintaining attention and focus on achieving wise and compassionate action.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we will become better able to draw on a range of mindfulness practices to deal with difficult situations and approach them with both wisdom (through in-depth understanding) and compassion towards ourselves.  The benefits of doing so include realising peace and tranquility amid the turbulence, accessing our creativity to achieve wise action, and extending empathy and compassionate action to others in need.

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Image by Franz Bachinger from Pixabay

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

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

Finding Silence Amid the Noise and Busyness at Work

Christine Jackman, in her book Turning Down the Noise, highlights the noise and busyness at work as barriers to achieving silence and mindfulness.  These barriers are compounded by an emerging cultural norm that she calls “performative busyness” – “where contributions that are quick, disruptive and loud” are valued more highly than the reflective, considered responses to organisational issues and problems.   This norm values busyness above reflection.  The cost to organisations and individuals is tremendous in terms of lost productivity, stifling of creativity and increased stress levels resulting in lost motivation, depression, and burnout.

The “performative busyness” norm

In many organisations, being busy, or at least appearing to be busy, has become the norm.  This elevation of “busyness” was highlighted by an engaging study by Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of The Time Bind, who demonstrated (among other things) the negative impact of the busyness norm on the implementation of family-friendly policies.  If you did not work long hours and appeared to be busy all the time, you were viewed as unmotivated, lacking in commitment.  The net result was that those (mainly women) who sought to access the family-friendly policy to take time off for pressing family needs were often refused or treated poorly for their “obvious lack of work motivation”.  Arlie documents the ever-increasing cost to the family and the workplace of this debilitating dilemma confronting caregivers.

I once worked as a consultant to an organisation where performative busyness was the norm and treated as a corporate value by managers.  Busyness became equated with importance.  If a manager was “too busy” to attend meetings, or if there was an extended lead-time before you could have a meeting with a manager, they were considered V.I.P.’s (Very Important Persons).  This emphasis on “performative busyness” was in direct contrast to the client-facing areas where the highest value was placed on client service, rather than self-importance.   The client service areas were often frustrated by the need for the central service areas to reinforce their busyness and importance by creating unnecessary work for the client service areas.  This centric-focused busyness negatively impacted staff morale and effectiveness in the client service areas as well as client relations.

The  “open office” bind

Open office designs were introduced for efficiency reasons and to achieve higher productivity and collaboration.  Cost efficiencies have been achieved in many places because of the reduced cost of office outfitting but human efficiency has declined.   Two Professors at Harvard University, Ethan Bernstein and Stephan Turban, reported in 2018 that their research demonstrated that open offices actually led to a decline in both productivity and collaboration, owing to the heightened noise levels and the lack of privacy.   Research too has highlighted the negative impact that open offices can have on employee’s mental health because of factors like noise, overcrowding, isolation, and distractions. 

It is interesting that during a recent virtual training course I was conducting, a number of managers reported that they were better able to build a relationship with staff who were introverts while working from home in a virtual environment.  They explained that their relationships improved and they put this down to the fact that they were no longer impeded by the noise level and lack of privacy of the open office.

Meetings and more meetings

Christine refers to what she calls the “ritual meeting” – the meeting that occurs at a set time each day or week and has been in existence for a considerable period (so that it has now become a ritual but participants may have lost sight of its original purpose or the original need may have actually ceased to exist).  She maintains that often too many people attend these meetings for no appreciable achievement with no one counting the cost or seeking to improve the outcomes. Christine points out that these ritual meetings feed performative busyness behaviour because they enable managers to book out their days by attending endless meetings and thus appearing extremely busy.

In another organisational consultancy, I was working with a group of eight organisational leaders, whose salaries averaged AUD$400,000.  They were wanting to improve their effectiveness but expressed concern that the real problem lay with the “managers down there who were not accountable”.  It turned out, however, that the leaders met ritually every Friday afternoon for four hours and typically had no appreciable outcome from these meetings (and hence nothing to report to their next level managers). Despite the fact that they were aware of the cost of the meetings and their ineffectiveness, none of the leaders chose to do anything about them.  They were blind to the fact that they themselves were not accountable for the way they used their time and the organisation’s finances and resources. They were oblivious of the lack of congruence of their behaviour with their stated value of “accountability”.

Reflection

There are many barriers to silence in our lives including digital noise, overload, the discomfort of others, and busyness at work.  Silence can be found in natural sounds and music which enable us to cultivate deep listening and an inner silence.  However, seeking silence does not mean that we have to hide away from the world or not take action against injustices or inequity.

Christine points out in her penultimate chapter, that there is a real trade-off between silence and activity.  In a very well-researched and insightful chapter, she points out that it is not an either-or situation.  The challenge is to find silence within our roles whether they be at work, at home as a parent or partner, or in a broader community setting.  She provides a “Silence: How-to Guide” at the end of her book to assist us in this task.  I have incorporated some of these ideas as well as my own mindfulness practices in a previous post about accessing the power of silence.

As we grow in mindfulness, through our pursuit of stillness and inner silence amid our daily life and work, we can find a deep inner peace, calmness, and creativity, as well as a harbour or refuge in challenging times and periods of difficult emotions.  In a personal Epilogue of her book, Christine tells the story of how, as her father lay dying, she was able to move past emotional turbulence and turmoil to sit in silence with him as he died – it was then that she truly found silence.

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Image by Robert C 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.

Nature’s Call to Silence

As mentioned previously, silence as a facilitator of mindfulness does not involve the absence of sound.   Gordon Hempton – sound recordist, acoustic ecologist, and activist for silence in the world – maintains that silence is “an acoustic state , free of intrusions of modern, man-made noise”.  He has spent his life work recording natural sounds and advocating for the preservation of the silence of nature and the development of our capacities to really hear and listen to the natural sounds to be found in forests, treed spaces, beaches, rivers and wherever nature is calling.  His book, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet, recounts the recording of his auditory journey across America and the discovery of one of the quietest places in the world in the form of the Hoh River Valley rainforest in Olympic National Park, close to Washington. 

Gordon Hempton maintains that each place is a unique combination of sounds and encourages us to really listen to heighten our perception of the “soundtracks” that surround  us and to become aware of the “quiet between the notes”.  According to him, nature’s silence is everything and encapsulates “who we were, who we are, and who we need to be”. By “self-quieting” through the art of listening we can become awake to silence and the experience of just being-in-nature.

The healing power of nature

In her book, Turning Down the Noise, Christine Jackman devotes an entire chapter to “nature” and the research highlighting the healing power of nature, and the role of the Japanese practice of “Forest Bathing”.   The research demonstrates how nature can reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and improve mood.  Other research indicates that by becoming absorbed in nature, we can find real joy and beauty in our lives and reduce the “emotional inflammation” resulting from “nature-deficit disorder” and the stresses of challenging times such as the pervasive presence of the pandemic. 

Reflection

It is only when you attempt to tune into the natural sounds within your immediate suburban environment that you become acutely aware of the level of noise pollution that you experience regularly – the sounds of radios and advertising, traffic noise (buses, trains, cars, planes, and trucks) and the heavily polluting noise of equipment used in house building, renovation and repair, and grounds maintenance.  This is in addition to the digital noise that we experience through our mobile phones and computers, e.g., social media and incessant, disruptive advertising.

We can grow in mindfulness and realise the associated benefits if we can make the time to experience nature in pristine locations such as rainforests, undeveloped beaches, and quiet rivers.  As we learn the art of self-quieting by paying attention to the sounds and silence of our natural sounds, unpolluted by man-made noise, we can find a calmness and equanimity that reflects our natural environment.

A stunning resource in this area is the On Being podcast produced by Krista Tippett who interviews people, such as Gordon Hempton,  who can throw light on “what it means to be human”. Gordon asserts in his interview with Krista that when we listen to the silence of nature “our listening horizon extends”.

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Image by Ben Travis 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.