Building the Capacity to be in the Present Moment

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA, offers a guided meditation podcast on the topic, Back to the Basics.  This is one of the hundreds of free weekly meditation podcasts offered by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA.

In the guided meditation, Diana reminds us that the fundamental purpose of meditations is to build our “capacity to be in the present moment” – in a way that is open, curious, and accepting of what is.  There are numerous forms of meditation available today but they basically aim to develop this capacity so that in the daily challenges of life, such as conflict with a spouse, colleague, or a friend, we can draw on the calmness, equanimity and wise action that is available to us through mindfulness practice.  People can choose a form of meditation that suits their interest, lifestyle, and physical capacity, e.g., transcendental meditation, movement meditations such as Tai Chi or yoga, or singing meditations such as the various forms of mantra meditation.

Diana points out that the increasing volume of research conducted by MARC and other centres around the world confirm the capacity of meditation to improve our stress response, physical health and immune system; reduce chronic pain; and overcome anxiety and depression, especially through mindfulness programs such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).  The research also confirms that meditation can help children, even those with ADHD, to improve their capacity to pay attention.  These findings have led to the explosion of mindfulness practices in schools around the world, such as the MindUP Program developed by the Goldie Hawn Foundation in America.

A guided meditation – returning to the basics

In her guided meditation, Diana revisited the basic components of a meditation practice:

  • Comfortable position – this can be sitting, lying down (on the floor, grass, or beach), standing up or some form of mindful movement (e.g., mindful walking or Tai Chi).  The aim is to achieve a position that is free from bodily stress, so that discomfort does not become a distraction in itself.
  • Controlling visual stimulation – in a still meditation, people close their eyes or look downwards to avoid visual distractions.  In a movement meditation the person’s gaze is typically unfocused but the internal focus is on body position and movement.  In a mantra meditation, the internal focus is on the sounds and meaning of the sung mantras – visual stimulation may assist both aspects such as in evidence in the stillness in motion mantra sung by Lulu & Mischka.  Natural awareness allows visual stimulation because you are opening yourself to what is around you (and doing so without a specific goal in mind).
  • Choosing an anchor – in a still meditation, the anchor can be breath, sound, or bodily sensations (e.g., tingling in the feet or hands).  In a movement meditation, the body and motion become the anchor. The aim of the anchor, whether in a still or movement meditation, is to have a specific focus to return to when distractions take us away from the purpose of our meditation (distractions such as planning, worrying, or analysing).
  • Silence – this is a common component of many forms of meditation (apart from those that involve singing, chanting, music or speaking which seek to achieve an inner silence).  Diana typically incorporates a period of stillness and silence in her guided meditations. 

Whatever the form of meditation, the primary purpose is to be-in-the-present-movement.  Diana suggests, for example, that if a really strong emotion or physical sensation intrudes, that your focus could temporarily shift to that emotion or sensation before returning to your anchor.  Normally emotions and bodily sensations exist in the background, rather than the foreground of your meditation (unless you are consciously addressing a challenging emotion such as resentment or anger).

Reflection

There are many paths to the same end – being fully in the present moment.  What is important is being able to transfer the state of mindfulness to our everyday life – what Sam Himelstein calls mindfulness-in-action.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can capture the power of the present moment, maintain calmness in challenging moments and choose wise actions to address our situation.

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

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

Becoming Grounded to Strengthen Your Intention

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

Guided meditation for groundedness

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

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

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

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

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

Setting intentions

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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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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.

Self-Care in Challenging Times

Diana Winston provides a meditation podcast on the need for self-care in these challenging times when every aspect of our external environment is being disrupted – our health, politics, economy, society and climate.  Added to this, is the rising unemployment precipitated by pandemic-induced responses designed to restrict movement and resulting in business upheavals, shutdowns, and permanent closures.  The inner environment for many people is in turmoil – mental health issues are growing exponentially as people experience grief, anxiety, anger, and depression.  Overt racism is on the rise as people project their anger and frustration on those less able to cope.  

The demand for help is overwhelming on many fronts.   The temptation, according to Diana, is to be so focused on caring for others that we ignore self-care – leading to exhaustion, burnout and personal overwhelm.  Diana’s podcast is designed to help us to find our balance in the face of these overwhelming needs– her guided meditation being one of the many weekly podcasts provided by The Mindfulness Research Centre (MARC) , UCLA.

The need for self-care

Diana makes the point that it is more powerful and helpful to provide help and assistance from a place of equanimity than one of frazzle and burnout – it is more productive to provide from our personal overflow than from our depletion.  Being frenzied and frazzled is not helpful to others nor to our own wellbeing.  The challenge is to find the balance between the many demands of life – our families, relationships, work – and our desire to give support to others in need, whatever form that takes.  Diana stresses the need for self-care to achieve the necessary balance and personal overflow to be able to give from a centre of calmness and gratitude.  She quotes Thomas Merton who maintained that trying to achieve “a multitude of conflicting concerns” can lead to “violence” towards self.

Ways to achieve self-care

There are a many ways to achieve self-care, several of them are already described in this blog.  Diana emphasises the role of meditation in enabling us to provide self-care simultaneously for mind, body, and heart.  Meditation helps us deal with challenging emotions such as feelings of resentment, to handle negative self-evaluation and to find creative ways to give without self-depletion.  It enables us to find equanimity amidst the current turmoil of life.

For some people, movement in the form of exercise, yoga, Tai Chi, walking, or riding is an important component of their self-care.  Personal preferences are important here so that our choices address our personal needs of achieving inner harmony and life balance.  Lulu & Mischka remind us that mantra meditation is another form of self-care – integrating body, mind, and heart, especially if heartfelt and meaningful chanting is combined with movement such as swaying or rhythmic dancing.  Meditation in its many forms enables us to re-generate and to leverage energy in a  unique way.  Some meditation practitioners such as Melli O’Brien of Mindfulness.com offer a free meditation app with several meditations relevant for our times.

Guided meditation on self-care

In her guided meditation on self-care, Diana begins with helping you to become grounded through deep breathing followed by attending silently to the natural rhythm of your own breath.  She encourages you to choose an anchor such as your breath, the sounds surrounding you or bodily sensations (such as the warmth, tingling or a flow sensation in your fingers or feet).   The anchor is designed to bring you back to your focus when distracting thoughts appear.

Diana then encourages you to envisage what it would be like to feel really balanced while at the same time caring for others and yourself and contributing purposefully and meaningfully  to your work or role in life.  Her aim is to encourage you to experience this balance and sense of satisfaction as a motivation to make some small change in your life to achieve a better balance.  She encourages you as a part of the meditation to make a commitment to achieve that one small, re-balancing activity.  For some people, this change may actually involve taking on some form of caring for others if they are not already engaged in helping others.

Reflection

It is easy to lose ourselves in these challenging times when everything is in a state of flux.  Meditation and other forms of self-care can assist us to balance our lives and re-generate and increase our positive energy flow in such a way that we can provide support for others while maintaining our own equilibrium.  As we grow in mindfulness, we enrich our inner landscape, revitalise ourselves and become more open to possibilities both in terms of self-care and caring for others.  We can find our unique way to help and to take wise action to achieve our intentions.

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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.

Developing an Anchor for Your Meditation

A meditation anchor serves to stabilise your thoughts when your mind starts to wander during a meditation exercise.  It is a way to secure your focus and restore your attention when you are invariably beset by distracting thoughts – a common occurrence for both experienced and inexperienced meditators.  An anchor is a personal choice and what works at one time may not work in another situation.  Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Alternatives to Breath Awareness, highlights the difficulties that people are experiencing with breath as an anchor while wild fires are raging in California.  People who suffer from respiratory problems, either chronically or intermittently, may also find that breathing is a difficult anchor to use during meditation.  Diana suggests bodily sensations or sounds as alternatives to breath awareness that can serve as an anchor during meditation.

Bodily sensations as an anchor during meditation

Often guided meditations begin with a focus on bodily sensations, e.g. feeling the firmness of the floor or ground beneath your feet.  This focus can be expanded to noticing the warmth or energy flow through your fingers when they are touching.   You might alternatively focus on the breeze on your face, the sensation of uprightness in your chair, the support beneath your body from the  ground or the sense of strength in your core.  Personal preference plays a big part in choosing a bodily sensation as an anchor during meditation.  It is important that it is emotionally neutral and does not evoke either strong emotions or racing thoughts.  The anchor is designed to bring stability when everything around you is constantly changing, including your thoughts and emotions.

Sound as an anchor during meditation

Diana frequently recommends sounds as an anchor for meditation during her MARC meditation podcasts.  The challenge here is to avoid evaluating the sound (e.g. in terms of whether it is good or annoying) or analyzing it (e.g. trying to identify the source of the sound).  Evaluation or analysis can take you away from your meditation focus and set in train a whole new line of thinking.   The sounds you choose can be anything that is relatively neutral.  Every room has its own room tone, and this can be an anchor.  If you tune into sounds, it can be useful to listen for the hardest to hear sound which intensifies your attention on listening.  When engaging in mindful walking in the outdoors, it can be very rewarding to use the sound of birds surrounding you as an anchor.

Reflection

I recall that when we had the bushfires in Queensland, I found it very difficult to use breath as a meditation anchor because of the amount of smoke and ash in the air.  I resorted to using the bodily sensation of fingers touching each other as an alternative.  This has served me well ever since as I use this anchor during waiting time to increase my awareness.

The main point is to choose something as an anchor that works for you (this may require some experimentation) and being able to adapt as your circumstances change.  What works at one time, may not work at another time.  As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation and developing our awareness muscle through effective meditation anchors, we will be better able to ride the waves of daily life and the challenges they present.

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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.

Tuning into our Sense of Well-Being

Diana Winston in a guided meditation podcast from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center focuses on Accessing Our Fundamental Well-Being.  She likens this process to tuning into a wellness radio station that is always there.  In these challenging times, however, we are often tuned into the “station” that evokes anxiety, fear, distress and unease.  Diana points out that much of what is happening in the world around us is outside our control – by focusing on the “station” that generates challenging emotions, we are moving further and further away from our fundamental well-being.  She offers a mindfulness process to enable us to tune into our sense of well-being that is always accessible to us, if only we would open our awareness to what resides within us – a process she calls natural awareness.

Guided meditation on accessing our sense of well-being

Diana guides us through this meditation by offering a series of steps:

  1. Grounding: beginning with a few deep breaths and sensing the in-breath and out-breath, you can move your attention to the rest of your body.  Here the focus is on the sensation of your body touching parts of your chair and the floor. 
  2. Embracing feelings of warmth: instead of paying attention to tension points, in this exercise you focus on the parts of your body where the sensation is one of warmth and feeling good, e.g. the tingling in your hands or fingers or the solidity of your feet on the floor.  The idea here is to soak up the sense of well-being that these bodily sensations generate.
  3. Choosing an anchor: you will find that your attention wanders from time to time, e.g. planning your day instead of being in the moment.  You can choose an anchor such as your breath, the sensation of your fingers touching each other or the surrounding sounds to bring your attention back to the present moment experience of well-being.  If you have experienced trauma or had an adverse childhood experience, then it pays to be very conscious of the anchor you choose – you need to avoid an anchor that will act as a trigger to relive a traumatic event.
  4. Revisiting an experience of well-being: once you have chosen an anchor and absorbed a present moment experience of well-being, you can recall a past experience of well-being.  It could be walking along a bayside esplanade in the early hours of the morning, an enjoyable meal with friends, an experience of being-in-the-zone in a sporting activity or listening to classical music or recorded sounds of nature.  Whatever the well-being experience, try to recall as much of the detail as possible – the bodily sensations and positive emotions you experienced – and become absorbed in your sense of well-being.

Reflection

We can experience many instances of well-being throughout our day or over a week.   However, we are often not consciously aware of the positive feelings, strength and equanimity that these experiences generate.  One strategy to capture the moment and the well-being feeling is to express gratitude for all the elements that make up your experience – e.g. if you are having a bayside walk, you can be grateful for the cool breeze, the reflections in the water, the bird life surrounding you, the enjoyable company and the beauty of the sunrise.  As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to consciously absorb the profound sense of well-being at the centre of our being and draw strength and resilience from this source.  Diana reminds us to let joy and wellness into our life.

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

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

A Reflection to Address Absolutes

In the previous post, I discussed the concept of absolutes advanced by Lance Allred.  Absolutes are those firm, unshakeable beliefs we hold about our self, others or the world around us.  They constrain our perspectives and influence our behaviour.  They are relatively immoveable and do not dissolve in the face of rational argument.  Absolutes shape our thoughts, feelings and reactions and impact our effectiveness and our relationships. They develop early in family life and are often reinforced culturally.  The downside of absolutes is that they stop us from realising our full potential – they act like clots in our circulatory system, stemming the flow of creativity and responsiveness.

A reflection to surface and address an absolute

It seems to me that the starting point for addressing the absolutes in our life is to begin with developing self-awareness and move to identifying strategies to self-regulate our reactions.  It is important to focus on one aspect of our present experience that we find unsatisfactory because of the negative thoughts and emotions that the experience elicits in us.  We are complex beings, so beginning with one relatively small absolute can develop our self-awareness and improve our capacity to respond effectively without the baggage of our past.

There are several steps in the meditation:

  • Being grounded: It is important to become grounded so that you can achieve a sense of focus, balance and insight.  Being conscious of your posture and breathing helps to ground you in the present.
  • Deciding on an anchor: Your anchor is designed to enable you to come back into the focus of your reflection whenever you become aware that you have become distracted or diverted in your thinking.  The choice of anchors is a personal thing – I still like to feel the sensation of my fingers coming together.
  • Focus on an unsatisfactory experience: Decide what you are going to work on to unearth an absolute that is negatively impacting your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It could be some recent interaction or activity that made you upset or threw you off balance.  It does not have to be a major issue – in fact, initially it is better to start small. [I have started with the fact that I get upset and annoyed when I make a mistake at social tennis.]
  • Explore your emotions during the incident: What were you feeling?  What was the intensity of those feelings?  What was the catalyst for those feelings – what really happened?  Who were your feelings directed at – yourself or another person? [In my case, with my tennis mistakes my feelings were annoyance, frustration, anger and shame.]
  • What thoughts were behind your emotions: Why did you experience those emotions?  What was the incident triggering in you? What belief (absolute) about your self or the other person was driving your emotional response?  Whenever your thoughts include a “must” or “should”, you are beginning to access an absolute that is locking you into a response that reduces your flexibility and constrains your perspective.  [When I get upset with my tennis mistakes, my underlying thought or absolute is that “I must be seen to be competent at tennis.”] 
  • Explore the nature of your identified “absolute”: Take a close look at your absolute.  Is it a rational or realistic thought?  What is its origin? Is it embedded in a childhood experience or something that happened in later life?  Where did it come from and why is it persisting?  What does it say about your sense of self-worth – is your sense of who you are dependent on what someone else thinks or says?  [Tennis competence was a way to prove my worth – it generated respect and admiration.  It made me feel good about myself. My identity is tied up with the self-perception that I am a very good tennis player.]
  • What strategies could you adopt to reduce the impact of your “absolute”: The starting point is to acknowledge your absolute and how it is playing out in your life and relationships.  What could you do to reduce or avoid your negative, conditioned response?  Are there ways to build in a gap between the stimulus (the catalyst) and your response to give you the time and freedom to respond differently? Are there other offsetting, positive thoughts that you could entertain instead of your “absolute”?  [For my issue with tennis mistakes, one strategy has been to progressively loosen the relationship between my sense of self-worth and the outcome of the game – that is, not measuring my sense of self- worth on whether I won or not.  This still leaves the issue of being upset with my tennis mistakes.  A strategy I am trying here is to express gratitude that I am able to play, that I can run and hit the ball, that I can hit some really good shots – that is, appreciating what I have and not focusing on the negatives and lack of accomplishment.]

Reflection

Even relatively minor “absolutes” are very hard to dislodge.  Using a reflection like the one described above can help to chip away at an absolute and reduce its hold on us by eroding our sense of certainty about the underlying belief, by seeing it for what it really is (e.g. illogical, unfounded or unnecessary) and developing alternative ways of thinking and feeling.  As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness, we can develop deeper personal insight, identify how absolutes play out in our life and develop more creative and positive ways to respond to negatively experienced stimuli that will inevitably recur in our daily lives.

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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 Singing Bowls in Meditation

Diana Winston in a recent meditation podcast was joined by Michael Perricone, musician and  Master of Tibetan Singing Bowls.  Diana provided guidelines for meditating with singing bowls as Michael generated music from the bowls.  At the outset, she indicated that meditating with the singing bowls was a pathway to natural awareness, a process of open awareness, not bounded by a specific focus other than the sounds of the bowls themselves.  The bowls provide sounds that give you a sense of the boundarylessness of natural awareness – like the spaciousness of the sky above.

Diana points out that we are always aware – we cannot switch off awareness, but we can focus it or be open to its universality by becoming conscious of awareness itself.  This openness to awareness is a declining capacity as we become lost in thought, time-poor and focused on material values.  I have previously discussed ways to develop natural awareness, and the Tibetan singing bowls offer another approach.   The singing bowls, like meditation bells, are made of a special combination of metals that heighten the vibrations of the bowls and the resultant resonance. 

The bowls have been used in mindfulness practice for centuries not only because they facilitate natural awareness but also because they enable relaxation and stress release.  They are now used in music therapy, massage and yoga sessions.  Michael offers a five-minute, Tibetan Singing Bowl Meditation on video using the bowls to illustrate their use in meditation.   Diana’s singing bowl meditation is a thirty-minute meditation accompanied by Michael playing the bowls.  The latter meditation is offered as part of the weekly meditation podcasts provided by MARC, UCLA.  Michael provides additional mindfulness resources, including links to mindfulness apps (such as the Headspace app) and online courses (e.g. The Mindful Living Course conducted by Elisha Goldstein).

Using the singing bowls in meditation

Diana begins her meditation podcast with an initial focus on becoming grounded through posture and a brief body scan designed to release tension in parts of the body such as tightness in your stomach or stiffness in your shoulders or legs.  She encourages you to take deep breaths to help you relax bodily.

Throughout the playing of the singing bowls, Diana provides support to enable you to be-with-the-sound as it reverberates around the room.  She suggests that if you find the sound of the bowls confusing, overwhelming or distressing that you can drop back to focusing on your breathing or the sensation of your feet on the floor or your fingers touching.   She also encourages you to refocus your listening to the sound of the bowls if you become diverted by your thoughts (e.g. trying to work out where to buy one of the bowls).  This process of constantly restoring your focus on the sound of the singing bowls can progressively build your awareness muscle and develop deep listening skills.

Reflection

I found the singing bowls a bit intense in a longer meditation (e.g. 30-minutes) when I first listened to them and thought that beginning with a shorter singing bowl meditation can help initially to develop this mindfulness practice.  Each person will experience the singing bowls differently, so the important thing that Diana stresses is personal choice – deciding how long you will practice meditation with the bowls and whether or not you will switch to another anchor, however temporarily.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can use practices such as the singing bowl meditation to deepen our self-awareness, awareness of others and the world around us, and awareness of our connectedness to everyone and everything else.

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Image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer 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.

What Does Love Mean?

In a previous post I explored ways to sustain an intimate relationship.  But what does love mean?  We use the word so loosely – referring to everything from a dessert to a location to an intimate friend.  Mitra Manesh explores this question in her guided meditation podcast, Meaning of Love – one of the many weekly meditation podcasts from MARC, UCLA.  Mitra is a mindfulness teacher with MARC, creator of the Inner Map app and provider of mindfulness teaching through her short videos on Vimeo©.  She has worked extensively to bring mindfulness to the corporate world, combining Eastern and Western perspectives.

Guided meditation on the meaning of love

Mitra begins her guided meditation by suggesting that you first become grounded by using your hands as the anchor.  She suggests that you can focus on the pressure of your hands on your lap, the touching of your fingers together or the up and down movement of your hands on your stomach as you breath in and out.  Whatever hand anchor you choose, the idea is to gently bring your mind back to this anchor whenever your mind wanders. 

Once you have become grounded, you can explore “love as connection”.  Mitra’s guided meditation is based on the idea that the connection underpinning love occurs at four levels – the physical, intellectual, emotional and universal levels.  The meditation follows a progression from a focus on the physical to universal connectedness and incorporates connection to self (experiencing self-love):

  • Physical connection – here the initial focus is on a pleasant body sensation such as the warmth of your fingers touching, the softness of the palm of your hand or the firmness of your feet on the floor. Once you have experienced this pleasant bodily sensation, you can extend your focus to the recollection of the pleasantness of a physical connection to another person such as a hug or a kiss.  When you have achieved awareness of physical connection and experienced pleasant recollections, you can gently move on.
  • Intellectual connection – firstly focus on connecting to your own mind – what is going on in your head.  Mitra suggests that you envisage your thoughts as clouds coming and going, merging and dissipating – blown by the winds of change.  This is a pleasant change from other forms of meditation where you are discouraged from being distracted by your thoughts.  Here the idea is to notice what is going on in the process of your thinking – how one idea leads to another, how ideas connect you to past experiences and how ideas flow through you endlessly.  You can expand this intellectual focus to recollecting a recent experience where you felt a strong intellectual connection to a colleague, a family member or an intimate partner.  You can then move on to the next level of connection.
  • Emotional connection – this is the level we often associate with love, but genuine love operates at all levels.  Here you first focus on a pleasant emotion that you may be experiencing at this moment – enjoying the contentment, pleasure or happiness that arises through this mindful awareness.  If your current emotion is experienced as unpleasant, Mitra suggests that you look inside yourself to see what unfilled need is giving rise to this negative experience.  Again, if you wish to extend your sense of emotional connection to another person you can recollect a time when you were with someone, a friend or partner, where you had a real sense of emotional connection – whether the experience was one of joy, peace, safety, comfort or other positive feeling. 
  • Universal or spiritual connection – this is not an aspect that Mitra dwells on in her guided meditation.  However, we can focus on human connectedness and our connectedness to nature to gain a sense of the universality of our connection. 

Tara Brach, in her brief talk on the meaning of love, discusses the “aliveness of connection” and the translation of this universal connection into compassionate action.  To illustrate this connection to all living things, she tells the story of a prisoner who saved a pigeon from stoning by another prisoner by saying simply. “Don’t do that – that bird has my wings.”  Tara argues that radical compassion has all the elements of love including caring, forgiving and appreciating.  She illustrates the multiple meanings given to “love” by sharing stories of how 8 year old children described love. One child, for example, had this to say on the meaning of love:

When you tell someone something bad about yourself and you are frightened that they won’t love you anymore, but then you are surprised that they love you even more!

Reflection

Love has multiple levels and is expressed in many different ways. As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and compassionate action, we can learn to appreciate self-love and love for others that we experience at all levels – the physical, intellectual, emotional and universal levels.  The essence of love is connection and mindfulness practices can help us to better understand and enhance these connections.

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Image by Annie Spratt 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 Kindness through Meditation

Neuroscientists tell us that we become what we focus on because the act of focusing and paying attention creates new or deepened neural pathways in our brain.  So if we are constantly obsessed with criticism – finding fault – then this stance begins to pervade our whole life, and nothing will ever satisfy us.  So too if we develop kindness through meditation, our thoughts and actions become kinder towards ourselves and others.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA, offers a specific guided meditation designed to develop kindness.  This meditation podcast is one of the weekly podcasts offered by Diana or one of her colleagues on a weekly basis through MARC – drawing on personal experience, dedicated research and the wisdom of the global mindfulness community.  The kindness meditation as with most MARC meditations begins with being grounded and then moves to offering kindness to ourselves followed by kindness to others.

Becoming grounded in meditation

There are multiple ways to become grounded – becoming focused, still and fully present.  Often, we can start with deep breathing to enable our body and mind to relax and increase awareness of our bodily sensations.  This enables our focus to move inwards and away from the distractions and intensity of the day – away from the anxiety, negative thoughts and worries associated with meeting deadlines, doing presentations, dealing with conflict or challenging interactions with colleagues or salespeople in stores and supermarkets.

Once we gain some sense of balance and ease with deep breathing, we can move on to undertake a body scan.  This entails progressively noticing the various parts of our body and related bodily sensations, releasing any tension and tightness as we progress.  We can observe the firmness of our feet on the floor, straightness of our back, weight of our thighs on the seat, the pressure on our back from the chair and the tingling and warmth from energy flow in our fingers.  Observation will lead to awareness of tension which we can release as we go – tautness in our shoulders and arms, rigidity in our stomach, stiffness in our neck or tightness in our jaw, forehead or around the eyes.  It is important to focus on tension release and not seek to work out why we are so uptight or tense or, even more importantly, to avoid “beating up” on ourselves or being unkind towards our self because of the “failing” or deficiency” represented by our tension.

Finding our anchor in meditation

The next stage of the meditation is to find an anchor that we can continuously return to in the event of distractions or loss of focus – an anchor to stop us from being carried away by the tide of our thoughts or emotions.  An anchor is a personal choice – what works for one person, may not work for another.  Typically people choose their breath, sounds in the room or some physical contact point.

You can focus in on your breath – bringing your attention to where you most readily experience breathing – in your chest, through your nose or in your abdomen. For instance, you can increase your awareness of the rise and fall of your abdomen with each breath and choose to rest in the space between your in-breath and out-breath.

Another possible anchor is listening to the sounds in your room – listening without interpreting, not trying to identify the nature or source of a sound and avoiding assigning a feeling, positive or negative, to the sound.  You can develop a personal preference for using your “room tone” as your anchor.

Choosing a physical contact point in your body is a useful anchor because it enables you to ground yourself wherever you happen to be – whether at work or home or travelling.  It can help you to turn to awareness rather than your phone whenever you have waiting time.  An example is to focus on the firmness of your feet on the ground, the floor of your room or the floor of your car (when it is not moving!).  My personal preference is to anchor myself by joining my fingers together and feeling the sensations of warmth, energy and strength that course through the points of contact of the fingers.

Whatever you choose as an anchor, the purpose is to be enable you to return your attention to the focus of your meditation and, in the process, build your awareness muscle.  As Diana reminds us, “minds do wander” – we can become “lost in thought”, distracted by what’s happening around us,  planning our day, worrying about an important meeting, thinking of the next meal, analysing a political situation or indulging in any one of numerous ways that we “live in our minds”.

Throughout the process of grounding, it is important to be kind to our self – not berating our self for inattention or loss of focus, not assigning negative labels to our self, such as “weak”, “distractible”, or any other derogatory term.

Kindness meditation

The kindness meditation begins with focusing on someone who is dear to us – our life partner, a family member, a work colleague or a close friend.  Once you have brought the person into focus, the aim is to extend kind intentions to them – you might wish them peace and tranquillity, protection and safety, good health and strength, happiness and equanimity, the ease of wellness or a combination of these desirable states.

You can now envisage yourself receiving similar or different expressions of kind intentions from the same person.  This can be difficult to do – so we need to be patient with this step and allow our self to be unsuccessful at the start (without self-criticism or unkindness towards our self).  We can try to become absorbed in, and fully present to, the positive feeling of being appreciated and loved. Drawing on our memories of past expressions of kindness by the focal person towards us, can help us overcome the barriers to self-kindness.

You can extend your meditation by focusing your loving kindness meditation on others, particularly those people you have difficulty with or are constantly in conflict with.  We can also extend our kindness meditation by forgiving our self and others for hurt that has been caused.

Reflection

Kindness meditation helps us to grow in mindfulness – to become more aware of others, the ways we tend to diminish our self, our bodily sensations and our thoughts and feelings.  It assists us to develop self-regulation – learning to maintain focus and attention, controlling our anger and criticism (of our self and others) and being open to opportunities and possibilities.   Through the focus on kindness, we can become kinder to our self and others (even those we have difficulty with).

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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.