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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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 Digital Noise and Overload

I have previously discussed the barriers to achieving silence in this busy world including the discomfort of others and internal barriers such as self-doubts and negative messages.  Christine Jackman, author of Turning Down the Noise, acknowledges that even as she wrote this book, she was beset with self-doubts including, “Who will read this?” Christine reminds us that it is not only internal noise that we have to deal with but also digital noise that causes overload, both mental and emotional.  “Information overload” has become vey much a part of our language as we struggle to handle the endless flood of information from social media, TV, and email.  However, as Christine points out, the real toll of overload is on the emotional level.

The emotional toll of digital noise and overload

The social media giants such as Facebook, Apple and Twitter aim to distract us by drawing our attention away to something they want us to spend time on or purchase.  Christine cites research that shows the effect of headline grabbing by Facebook and Twitter – identifying what particular headlines are best able to grab our attention and induce us to click through to the article or message.  These headlines use emotive words to capture our attention, employ high profile people, promote conflict, and engage “polarising emotions”.   The negative emotional impact of digital noise  is compounded by cyberbullying and trolling

Research into the negative impact of digital noise, intensified by the advent of the smartphone, demonstrates that the associated noise pollution results in decline of cognitive abilities, increase in sleep disturbance and development of mental health issues such as anxiety, disconnection, loneliness, and depression.  In stark contrast, Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman, in their book, Altered Traits, have demonstrated that the stillness and silence embedded in mindfulness meditation results in four positive outcomes, (1) increased concentration and focus, (2) improved self-regulation in the face of stress, (3) heightened self-awareness and (4) increased empathy and compassion.  The latter outcome is enhanced considerably by specific loving-kindness meditation

The need for supportive lifestyle changes

Christine explored mindfulness meditation as a way to quiet the mind and “counter the toxic effects of digital noise and overload”.  She decided to practice meditation for 30 minutes each day, split into two 15-minute sessions – one in the morning (when I find it best to meditate) and the other in the night before going to bed.  This level of committed mindfulness practice is sustainable in a  busy life and the evening session can prove to be an antidote to sleeplessness. 

Mindfulness practice needs to be supplemented by supportive lifestyle changes.  Christine chose to remove social media apps from her phone and introduced a range of other changes, some of which are discussed in her “Silence: A How-to Guide” at the end of her book.  She still had to deal with the negative chatter from her “Monkey Mind” when she was experiencing tiredness or boredom or feeling threatened.  However, she found that through her mindfulness practice she had quietened digital noise and overload and was better able to recognise the “noise” from her Monkey Mind as well as disarm the resultant self-doubts.

Reflection

Mindfulness practice, including meditation, can help us to maintain our stillness and equilibrium in the face of digital noise, overload, and the resultant stress.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop increased self-awareness and self-acceptance and more readily deal with our negative thoughts.  Associated with that is increase in the capacity to reduce our reactivity to negative triggers and to take wise action.  However, mindfulness practice needs to be supported by other compatible lifestyle changes which reciprocally are enabled by quieting the mind.

It is interesting that even in times of success, we can be assailed by negative thoughts that can impact our self-esteem and derail us from our life purpose.  Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the highly successful book Eat, Pray, Love, explains this dynamic in her TED Talk, Success, failure and the drive to keep creating.  Elizabeth suggests that the route to equilibrium is “to find your way home again” – and meditation can help us on this journey to “whatever it is that we love beyond ourselves” and to which we can dedicate our energies with “singular devotion”, our life purpose.  She explains in another talk that our current work-from-home situations created by the pandemic represent a great opportunity to confront our fears and use reflection, meditation, and mindfulness practices to develop self-awareness and self-regulation.

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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.

Domestic Violence: A Catalyst for Pursuing Life Purpose

The challenge we are confronted with during various stages of our life is to decide what is our purpose in life.  Finding that unique purpose can lead to a singular focus, total commitment and “unified action”, where your contribution to community – utilising your unique knowledge, skills, experiences, insights, and connections – becomes your unifying focus.  Trent Dalton, journalist and author of  All Our Shimmering Skies, tells the story of how domestic and family violence became the catalyst for Nicolle Edwards and husband Gareth to identify and pursue their life purpose in the form of RizeUp Australia, a registered charity providing concrete support to women and families fleeing domestic violence.

Trent’s story, Hands & Hearts in the Australian Weekend Magazine (12-13 December 2020), describes the practical help that RizeUp provides in terms of furnishing a house for domestic and family violence refugees.  With the help of a large social media following and a very large group of volunteers, Nicolle and Gareth provide home-making support for DV refugees when they move out of a Women’s Shelter to often-unfurnished, emergency  accommodation.  The list of furniture and accessories provided at no cost (or fuss), including bedding and basic appliances, is extensive and very impressive – all provided and set up for free through donations of goods and money and the donation of time and effort by volunteers in the RizeUp network.  Nicolle comments in the article that the “sigh of relief” of the recipient mother is motivation enough for her to dedicate herself to this life purpose.

Nicole realised that she could help domestic violence refugees and their children when she turned to social media to provide help to a DV refugee very early on (before RizeUp was created in 2015).  She was amazed at the response and with Gareth created the RizeUp network, which has now set up more than 980 homes for DV refugees and their families.  The RizeUp Facebook page provides many photos showing volunteers at work and the kind of practical home support provided by the network.   Nicole and Gareth demonstrate the strength and sensitivity required to pursue your life purpose.

My story – my experience of domestic and family violence

I experienced domestic and family violence as a child because my father, who was suffering from PTSD, had become an alcoholic. I heard the many shouting fights between my mother and father because he was spending so much of our income on alcohol.  I do recall our family at one stage living off food donations from the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  I also recall the times when my mother ended up in hospital after particularly violent arguments.   

I left home immediately after Grade 12 to study in Victoria and when I returned five years later the situation had not improved.  So, one day when my father was at work, I helped my mother pack her things and moved the both of us to a small house at the back of a shop.  The strangely happy part of the story is that after my parents divorced, my father remarried, gave up alcohol and walked every day for an hour for his physical and mental health.  He also used to drive my mother to church each Sunday after the separation.

It is only as I grew older that I realised how little support there was for my father whose nerves were shattered after serving in the Australian Army in Singapore in the Second World War.  He had been a prisoner-of-war in Changi prison for 18 months following the capture of Singapore by the Japanese.  Stephen Wynn describes life after The Surrender of Singapore as “three years of hell”.  Not long after my father’s release from Changi, he was deployed as part of the Allied Occupation Forces in Japan.

On reflecting on these early life experiences of domestic violence, I believe that they have unconsciously motivated me to work towards developing mentally healthy workplaces and communities both in my consulting and writing.  In my organisational consulting work, I have particularly worked with managers to build managerial mindfulness – consciousness about the impact that their words and actions have on the development of a productive and mentally healthy workplace.  In writing this blog, I have focused on mindfulness, mental health, trauma, and leadership as my contribution to providing individuals in the community and managers with resources, practices, and processes to create a mentally healthy life.

What is your story?

Recently, Tami Simon from Sounds True introduced a new publication written by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond who took ten years to develop and refine the reflective processes incorporated in their book.  The transformative and interactive journal, titled  What’s Your Story: A Journal for Everyday Evolution, provides a series of strategic questions to help you reflect on your life story (by theme and/or area of your life).  The deeply penetrating questions are designed to challenge self-limiting beliefs and throw light on a possible path forward.  The authors hope to enable you “to begin living your most authentic, creative, and meaningful life”.

Reflection

Sometimes the search for our life purpose is confounding and confusing – it seems to go around in circles before achieving some degree of clarity.  Our life purpose might prove illusive because it can be changing over time. As we gain greater personal insight and experience different catalytic events, we may find that what was truly purposeful and meaningful at one point in our life, is no longer adequate or energizing. As we grow in mindfulness through journalling, meditation and reflection, we can develop an expanded view of what we are capable of, build the courage to pursue our unique purpose, and positively impact others and ourselves. It is in achieving alignment with our life purpose that we find meaning and happiness.

Another useful resource is an eight-week course, Your True Calling, which is available online at Sounds True.  The author Stephen Cope, wrote the book, The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling.

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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.

Aligning with What is Good and Healthy in Our Lives through Mindfulness

Allyson Pimentel, meditation teacher with MARC, provided a recent meditation podcast on the topic, Mindfulness as Alignment with the Good.  The catalyst for her online session was a walk with her dog in the bright morning sun, surrounded by the sound of birds, the beauty of flowers and trees, and the kind acknowledgement of neighbours.  What particularly came home to her was the  heightened receptivity that comes with mindfulness practice along with what is good in our life.

When we practice mindfulness in these challenging times we are returning to stillness amongst the turbulence of a pandemic and political unrest, seeking groundedness in the face of disturbing and disorienting news, exploring harmony in a world torn by racial hatred and the income divide, finding silence amidst the noise of a busy life, and resting in peace and tranquility.  As we deepen our practice, we become more connected to nature and to each other – we can picture other people around the world engaged like us in meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, or the singing of mantras.   We can sense the collectivity of everything, the growing alignment with what is good not only in our own lives but also in  the lives of others worldwide.

Allyson stressed that what we have in mindfulness is totally portable – we can take it with us wherever we go.  We have our breath, widening awareness of our senses and the capacity to feel warmth towards others with a kind heart.  Mindfulness engenders gratitude, wisdom, generosity, and compassion towards ourselves and others.  We can be mindful for others because of our calmness, self-regulation, openness, and willingness to listen for understanding.  We can bring to our daily interactions a healthy mind free from self-absorption, negative self-talk, resentment, or anger, so that we not only improve our own mental health but also impact positively the mental health of others.

Guided meditation for developing mindfulness and alignment with what is good

Allyson’s guided meditation during the podcast focused initially on our breath and achieving groundedness by sensing how we are supported by our chair and our feet on the ground.  She suggested that we take a collective, deep inhalation and exhalation and then rest in the natural movement of our breathing, focusing on the expansion of our chest or abdomen or the movement of the air through our nose.

She then encouraged us to focus on the sounds that surround us – room tone, sounds in nature or traffic on our roads.  Once we had been able to pay attention purposely and non-judgmentally to external sounds, she encouraged us to shift our attention to internal sounds – the sounds of our own breath, sighing, rumbling, clicking.

In the final stages of the meditation, Allyson suggested we focus in turn on two key questions:

  1. What is it I need now – what kind of support do I want?
  2. What can I do to provide support to others?

Support for others could be the simple act of ringing someone to see how they are going, connecting on Zoom, or meeting up in person with someone who you have not seen for a while or who is experiencing some difficulty. 

Reflection

It is easy to be thrown off balance or to become disoriented and anxious in these challenging times.  Mindfulness offers the chance to seek refuge in stillness and silence and to appreciate what is good in our life.  Allyson maintains that as we grow in mindfulness, we are contributing to what is good and wholesome in our own lives and the lives of others we interact with – whether face-to-face or virtually.  By reminding ourselves of this contribution of mindfulness, we can better sustain our practice and realise its benefits for ourselves and others.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

Developing Inner Silence through Sound Meditations and Music

Christine Jackman describes silence as the space in which one was “free to breathe and simply be”.  It is a space without speaking or being spoken to.  In the context of mindfulness, silence does not mean the absence of sound, just the absence of unwanted inner and outer noise – freedom from the noise pollution of our minds and of a busy world.  It is a refuge – a place of retreat from inner chatter and outer noise.  In stillness and silence, we can find inner peace and tranquility.

Sound and mindfulness

Many mindfulness practices involve being still and listening to sounds, either the room tone or external sounds from wind, rain, birds, or other sounds.  The aim of these practices is to maintain focus on sound and keep our minds free from other distractions.   Sound meditations can strengthen our concentration and listening skills and  contribute to our overall well-being.  Sound can also be provided as an anchor for people involved in trauma-sensitive mindfulness

What we are aiming to achieve in sound-based mindfulness practices is an inner silence and harmony – turning off self-stories, negative thoughts, interpretations, or projections.  Basically, it involves tuning out of the inner dialogue by tuning into sound.  We strengthen our awareness muscle when we are able to return to our inner silence and focus whenever distracting thoughts occur.

Music as a pathway to inner silence

Christine Jackman, in her book Turning Down the Noise, describes her search for “the quiet power of silence” in her busy world.  She found inner silence in a number of places, including while participating in Vespers in a Benedictine Monastery – an evening prayer that is recited or sung. 

Another form of ecclesiastical music, Gregorian Chant, has developed over many years by monastic orders dedicated to prayer and silence as a way to develop inner silence – the focus on singing meaningful phrases to the sound of monotonal music serves to shut out distractions and build inner peace and harmony.

Mantra meditations often employ a musical instrument (e.g., a drum or guitar) together with chanting long-established phrases that evoke positive emotions such as peace, harmony, relationships, or connectedness to nature or a higher being.  Repetition of the lyrics enables a deeper penetration into the meaning of the words that are sung mindfully and facilitates a deepening inner silence and tranquility.

The silence between the notes

Richard Wolf, author of In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness, identified what he called “12 bridges to mindfulness” created by music.  These include deep listening and “sympathetic vibrations”.  Richard argues that music is a key to inner silence, one of the bridges to mindfulness.  He makes the point that silence is embedded in music – music notations for the duration of a note are matched by “an equal notation for the duration of silence” between the notes.  He mentions Miles Davis’ emphasis on the “connection between the role of silence in music and in life”.

Some music composers pay particular attention to silence within their compositions.  Richard refers, for example, to the work of John Cage and his important piece of music, 4’33”, in which the pianist begins by not playing but sitting still for 4 minutes 33 seconds as a way of “drawing  the audience’s attention to the process of listening itself”.  This engenders a particular form of participation whereby the audience through their silence become part of the performance.

Reflection

This blog post was stimulated by a conversation I had with a musician friend of mine who played the guitar professionally, both as an individual and as a member of a band.  We had been discussing music and mindfulness when he mentioned a story about how he had become distracted during a performance.  He was playing guitar with his group on a footpath outside a building when a car pulled up and two men hopped out of the car and headed towards the musicians.  My friend immediately began to think, “Are they going to disturb us?” or “Are they interested in the music?” 

As he thought about the possibilities, he became mentally distracted, lost his place in the music, and played some wrong notes.  Up until the distraction, his band was exhibiting some of the characteristics identified by Richard Wolf as bridges to mindfulness , e.g., concentration, harmony, and sympathetic vibration.  However, as a result of regular music practice, my friend was able to restore his focus and catch up with the music and his other band members very quickly.

The positive influence between mindfulness and music is bi-directional – it operates in both directions. As we grow in mindfulness, our capacity to play music, sing and listen deeply, develops; as we play music, practise playing and sing, we can grow in mindfulness because music can provide the bridge to inner silence.  Mindfulness practice and music practice both build our power of concentration, our awareness muscle, our ability to achieve resonance with others, and our overall well-being.  Richard highlights the positive impact of inner silence on our relationships when he writes, The ability to silence the inner voice creates the conditions for truly hearing the voices of others.

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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.

Barriers to Silence: Discomfort of Others

In a previous post, I discussed the challenges Christine Jackman experienced in attempting to find silence as a retreat from the busyness of her life.  I explained then that she encountered a number of barriers early on in her quest – her own negative self-stories, her worry about the perceived expectations and thoughts of others and her own habituated behaviours.  She found silence in participating in a number of retreats at Benedictine monasteries but the challenge then was how to sustain the practice of silence once she returned to her normal life as an investigative journalist.  In her book, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World,  Christine identifies another barrier – the discomfort experienced by others when she mentioned her pursuit of silence.

Discomfort of others as a barrier

Christine writes about her experience when invited by a friend to join a book club meeting.  As usually happens at such an event, people started sharing what they were doing.  When Christine’s turn came to speak, she debated with herself whether or not to mention her silent retreat but decided to go ahead.  The responses she received confirmed her expectations and the reason for her initial reticence.

Christine was met by a stunned silence when she mentioned her pursuit of a silence of a different kind.  The other participants were somewhat speechless – despite being intelligent and well-informed.  Her admission about seeking silence in her life was considered too left-field.  As Christine commented in her book, her pursuit of silence was unfamiliar and too challenging to those in “a world where being busy is considered a virtue”, or a sign of productivity.

This discomfort of people with being silent and “doing nothing” was brought home again to me in a recent conversation with a friend who has been a lifetime sailor, making extended sailing trips during her life such as from Australia to America.  In a discussion with friends, she mentioned that she had just returned (by boat) from a 3-months sailing trip from Brisbane to the Whitsunday Islands in the Great Barrier Reef (around 1,000 kilometres). 

My friend was met with a stunned silence and then the inveterate questioning, “But what did you do all that time? “How did you occupy yourself?”  They could not fathom spending anywhere near that amount of time being still and doing nothing.  My friend, being a very experienced long-distance sailor, was able to respond, “I was just being – taking in the water, the whales, the sunrises and sunsets, the fish, the horizon” – she had been experiencing the unfathomable benefits of silence and “natural awareness”.

Neither Christine nor my sailing friend were put off by the stunned silences or interminable questioning of others.  Christine noted that she was more perturbed by her inability to articulate why she was engaged in what was considered an “unusual thing” – the pursuit of silence.  She found that she could not muster a “compelling , rational argument” for something that “defies conventional description”.  So, someone lacking the deep experience of silence and/or having a limited conviction of the benefits of silence, can be easily put off by the discomfort of others who actually begin to wonder about your sanity – because your behaviour and commitment are so counter-cultural.

Reflection

The expectations of others and the associated discomfort can play on our mind whether they are expressed covertly (by looks or silence) or overtly (by words and actions).  To maintain our commitment to silence as with any other attempt to reduce the busyness of our life, we need to have the conviction, resilience, and courage to persist despite the discomfort of others who want us to “be like them” and not “stand out from the crowd”.

I recall working with a group of managers as part of our managerial mindfulness training program.  One of the participants, a nurse unit manager, indicated that she worked from 7am to 7pm every working day.  When undertaking a reflective exercise on what messages she was conveying by her behaviour, she realised that her own habit of working very long hours was contributing to an unhealthy work environment – she was conveying that “busyness and extended working hours are viewed as signs of productivity” and therefore desirable.

However, as soon as she implemented a plan to reduce her working hours, her staff were uncomfortable and questioned her about “why she had lost her motivation?”  In their view, if you were not continually busy and working long hours, you lacked commitment.  Fortunately, the positive benefits in terms of work-life balance and her unerring conviction of the benefits for her staff of reducing her working hours were enough to enable her to sustain her new practice of working reasonable hours.

The evidence is mounting that as we grow in mindfulness through stillness and silence, we begin to experience wide-ranging benefits such as clarity, calmness, and resilience.  The dilemma, however, is that thinking about silence will not realise the benefits – we have to experience being still and silent in our daily lives to achieve its benefits.  Without the reinforcement of the benefits, it is difficult to sustain the practice and commitment in the face of the incessant discomfort of others.  Meditation practice, incorporating stillness and silence, builds positive habits and sustained practice brings enduring benefits.

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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.

Clear the Clutter, Make Room for Love in Your Life

I woke up this morning with this blog title in my head but I am not sure where it came from.  I have not been reading about clutter lately– maybe, it is an unconscious realisation that the time has come to attack my home office clutter again.  My wife and I made a concerted effort to clear clutter in my home office a few months ago in one of our recreational breaks.  We achieved clearing some paper clutter, re-organising books and bookshelves, and rearranging some furniture.  It created a sense of space and some degree of control.  One of the drivers for the change was Zoom meetings and conferences – the need to replace the creamy blank wall behind me with something a bit more engaging.

Behind me, I now have a tidy bookcase with some books thematically arranged (not alphabetically, that would be going too far!).  So, I have groupings of books on mindfulness and self-development; action learning and action research; and manager & organisational development.  These are three core areas I work in.  One of the immediate benefits for me is that I can now readily find book references when I am writing my blog or preparing a manager development session.

I suspect that part of the reason for thinking about this topic again is that with the pandemic challenges and restrictions we will not be going overseas or interstate this year.  This means that our Christmas break will provide some time to clean up, renovate and generally tidy up the house.

Clutter takes up space physically and mentally

Many of us lead busy lives with little time for cleaning up behind us as we rush through the commitments of each day.  Clutter not only takes up physical space but it is also ever-present, sapping our energy.  We waste time trying to find things that should be ready to hand (I have been as guilty of this as anyone). 

I have recently created some  piles of “stuff to file” in a fit of clearing clutter.  One of my difficulties is throwing away papers/articles that “I might need later”.  The reality is that I rarely get to use any of them and, besides,  I often have electronic copies or links to their location online – I really do not need the hard copies.  However, there is also an emotional attachment to some papers or articles – they are mementos of conquests, achievements, struggles, written work, or moments of joy.  Sorting out “need” from emotional attachment can be very difficult.  In the meantime, the piles of stuff (not only papers) create an energy drag because they always appear on my mental to-do list (I don’t record them on my written to-do list – I might have to do something about them if I did!).

Make room for love in your life

Clutter experts tell us that clearing clutter enables us to “reclaim our life”, and can make a “huge difference to our happiness and productivity”.  Clutter represents stored energy.  Clearing clutter can improve our lifestyle and help us to restore our priorities, such as making room and time for those we love.  

Marie Kondo argues that it is all a matter of mindset and the development of the habit of tidying once a major clean-up is undertaken.  She also suggests that you should clear things up by theme (e.g. books, clothes) rather than by rooms or locations within the house.  However, we may not have time  to clear our clutter on a large scale or the commitment to undertake the level of disciplined rigour that Marie suggests.  To me, making progress in clearing clutter does provide, as Marie suggests, a sense of achievement and motivation to develop and sustain the habit of tidying up.  Marie’s philosophy is that big wins early on, provide the fuel for sustaining the effort of clutter clearing.

Reflection

The title of this post and subsequent discussion suggest that there is an opportunity cost to clutter.  One aspect of that cost is losing time and energy for those we love.  Clutter, too, can be one of the blockages to finding stillness and silence in our life and the opportunity to grow in mindfulness. Christine Jackman, in her book Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World, maintains that our busyness and cluttered lives stop us from really listening to those we love and hearing the important stories in our daily life, e.g. stories from partners and children.  She argues that listening for understanding “is as simple as pausing in silence and opening our hearts”.

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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: A Pathway to Wisdom

Recently Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Dr. Dilip Jeste, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, on the theme of wisdom and how to be wiser, faster.  Dilip’s research interests are aging and the neurobiological basis of wisdom.   His exploration of wisdom and the related personality trait of compassion is presented in his book, Wiser: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good.

During the podcast interview, Dilip focused on his obvious passion, the neurobiological basis of wisdom.  While stating that the research is in the early stages in terms of completeness and application, he did suggest that people who are wise are guided by the neocortex part of their brain (our logical, analytical capacity), while those who are unwise are more driven by their amygdala (responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response).

In the interview, Dilip explained that to undertake research into wisdom he had to first establish the measurable components of wisdom.  His research led him to identify the common elements in multiple published definitions of wisdom in scientific journals.  This enabled him to isolate six of the more commonly used components of wisdom.  What I wanted to do here is explore how mindfulness can help to develop each of these components – thus serving as a pathway to wisdom.  By way of corollary, I would suggest that the  journey towards mindfulness is a journey into wisdom and its many components.

Mindfulness and the components of wisdom

Dilip made the point that wisdom is not a single trait but a collection of of traits – like the personality trait of emotional intelligence, it has several components.  In the section below, I will explore the relationship between mindfulness and each of the six components of wisdom identified by Dilip.

  1. Self-reflection – this covers the ability to explore your inner landscape and analyse your behaviour in terms of responses to stimuli.   There are many mindfulness practices that cultivate this capacity, especially those that encourage exploration of thought patterns, including harmful negative self-stories.  Another example is the process of reducing resentment through reflection that I described in detail in an earlier post.  Additionally, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a highly developed mindfulness approach designed to guide self-reflection.  Dr. Russ Harris, a prominent practitioner and proponent of this approach, has made ACT accessible to individuals who are experiencing self-doubts and negative self-evaluation.  His humorous illustrated book, The Happiness Trap Pocketbook, provides a range of exercises that makes self-reflection accessible to anybody.  
  2. Prosocial behaviour – where the focus of attention is on the needs of others rather than being totally self-absorbed.  This component of wisdom is manifested in displaying empathy and/or taking compassionate action.   Listening mindfully to the stories of others can be a form of compassionate action.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware  of how our mindfulness positively impacts others, leading to a realisation that we are also engaging in mindfulness for others.  Loving-kindness meditation is another form of mindfulness practice that enables us to reach out to the needs of others.   More recently compassionate leadership has emerged as a prominent trend in leadership development, driven by the global pervasiveness of mindfulness practices.
  3. Emotional regulation – being able to control your emotions.  One of the more consistent outcomes identified in mindfulness research is self-regulation.  In their book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson highlighted the traits that are altered and sustained through meditation practices.   These included not only self-awareness and social awareness (leading to empathy and compassion)  but also what they call “self-management” (another term for emotional regulation).  Mindfulness practice can help us overcome our habituated behaviour and our typical response to negative stimuli. 
  4. Acceptance – being able to cope with uncertainty, ambiguity, and differing perspectives.  Acceptance according to some schools is a defining characteristic of mindfulness, e.g. Diana Winston in her meditation podcasts for MARC UCLA explains that mindfulness involves “paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is”.  Mindfulness meditation has been used to reduce anxiety in times of uncertainty.  Through mindfulness practice we can also unearth assumptions about differences in perspectives that create walls between us and other people we encounter in our daily lives.
  5. Decisiveness – making decisions despite uncertainties and adversity.  Mindfulness meditation can help us to address procrastination.  It can also improve our decision-making capacity by highlighting the thoughts and emotions behind our decision-making,   exposing our negative thoughts and helping us to maintain focus and achieve clarity.  The Mindful Nation UK report states that one of the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace is “improved comprehension and decision-making”.
  6. Spirituality – defined as “continuous connectedness” with something or someone.  The focus of connection could be the Bhagavad Gita, Buddha, God, nature, or soul.  Connectedness to nature and other people can be enhanced through mindfulness meditation.  Allyson Pimentel offers a mindfulness meditation designed to overcome the sense of separateness and strengthen connectedness.  Christine Jackman, in her book Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World, offers the view of a Benedictine monk that prayer itself is a form of meditation – by praying you are connecting with God or some other deity through mindfulness (p.72).

Reflection

This discussion highlights some of the ways that mindfulness can provide a pathway to wisdom – approaches to developing the components of wisdom.  As we explore each of these components within our mindfulness practice, we can move closer to wisdom.  We could focus on a single component to overcome a deficiency – e.g. Dilip stated that he was working on strengthening his “prosocial behaviour”, specifically compassion.  Alternatively, we can aim to grow in mindfulness and wisdom more broadly by adopting different mindfulness practices.  The research by Davidson and Goleman confirm that mindfulness meditation can alter our brains, our minds, and our bodies.

Dilip’s research confirmed that some people grow in wisdom with age through the recently identified facility of neuroplasticity.  He maintained that people who are active as they age – combined with an openness to new experiences and making changes in their life – can grow in wisdom.  In speaking of activity in this context, he referred to being “active physically, psychologically, socially, and cognitively”.  As we use different forms of mindfulness practices – e.g. mindful walking, mindful listening, mantra meditations, Tai Chi or yoga, journalling, loving-kindness meditation and mindfulness  research – we can increase our level of activity across the dimensions that Dilip identified.

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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.

Thanksgiving: A Time to Revitalise our Gratitude Practices

The US celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday 26 November this year.  It was also formally celebrated in other places around the world while in Australia informal celebrations occurred as American organisations shared their Thanksgiving Day exhortations and practices.  This was followed by intensive sales campaigns under the banners of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  It is easy to lose sight of the message of Thanksgiving in the flurry and frenzy of the constant encouragement to buy and acquire.   Acquisition is suddenly valued more than appreciation.

The value of gratitude

Gratitude is important for our relationships and our mental health.  Expressing appreciation to another person in a relationship is a way of valuing them and what they say and do.  It builds trust and affection and overcomes the tendency to “take someone for granted” which is, certainly, an intimacy dampener.

Neuroscience has demonstrated the benefits that gratitude has for our mental health and overall well-being.  It can alleviate depression, replace toxic emotions such as anger, envy, and resentment and develop a positive attitude to life which is, in itself, conducive to mental health.  Karen Newell, for example, explains from her research how gratitude builds positive energy.  She encourages us to be grateful not only for things that are present in our life today but also for the experiences and people from our past, especially our parents and mentors.

Sustaining gratitude practices

There are numerous ways to express gratitude and appreciation.  The challenge, like all good habits, is to build gratitude practices into our daily life, however brief or informal.  Some people adopt a gratitude journal as a way to express appreciation and progressively build a deep and abiding sense of gratitude.  Others link expressions of appreciation to other activities undertaken during the day.  For example, when boiling the jug, you could express appreciation for access to fresh water (something that many people in the world do not have) or the food that you are about to eat.  While waiting during the day, you could choose to reflect on what you are grateful for rather than dive for your phone.

Gratitude meditation is a sound way to progressively build awareness and appreciation for everything that enriches our life on a day to day basis.  We can learn to savour our relationships, achievements, the development of our children, the skills and capacities that we have developed over time and life itself.  Developing a gratitude mindset can help us to experience joy in our life, not only for what we have received, but also for the achievement of others through empathetic joy.  Being grateful is a great motivator for taking compassionate action, which not only benefits others but also ourselves.

Reflection

The benefits of gratitude and appreciation are numerous and can positively impact many aspects of our life if only we can slow down for gratitude.   We have to learn to create space in our busy lives for stillness and silence so that we can grow in awareness of what we have to appreciate and continue to express our gratitude whether internally or through external communication.   Gratitude can improve the quality of our life and, at the same time, positively impact those around us.  As we grow in mindfulness through our gratitude practices, reflection and meditation, we can experience greater joy in our lives, enrich our relationships and make a real difference in our world – a world torn by envy, hatred, resentment, bias and discrimination and the great divide between the “have’s” and “have-not’s”.

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Image by 춘성 강 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.

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The Challenge of Finding Silence

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

Barriers to silence

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

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

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

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

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

Sustaining the silence

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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