Anxiety Management with Mindfulness

Diana Winston offers a mindfulness meditation podcast, Working with Anxiety, as one of the weekly meditations conducted by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  As Director of Mindfulness Education for MARC, Diana frequently leads these weekly meditations.  She stresses that mindfulness enables us to be more fully in the present moment and to accept what is in our life (including anxiety) with curiosity and openness.

Diana maintains that mindfulness helps us to work effectively with anxiety because it, (1) enables us to be present in the moment, rather than absorbed in the past or the future; (2) facilitates reframing of our experience, and (3) provides a place of rest and ease from the turbulence and waves of daily life.  As Diana asserts, anxiety is part and parcel of daily life, given the human condition and the uncertainty of the world around us today.  The world situation with the global pandemic and devastating conflict between Russia and Ukraine add to anxiety-producing situations we experience on the home and local front.  In consequence, there is an increase in mental health issues along with restricted resources to deal with explosive demand.

Guided meditation for working with anxiety

Diana’s approach is consistent with trauma-sensitive mindfulness in that she allows a choice of posture, meditation anchor and overall focus.  She encourages us to find a posture that is comfortable with eyes closed or open (ideally, looking down).  At the beginning of the meditation, she has us focus on something that gives us a sense of being grounded and supported by something of strength, e.g. our feet on the ground/floor or back against the chair.  It is important to tap into something that enables us to slow our minds and calm our feelings

Diana then suggests that we focus on our breath as a neutral experience of the present moment.  For some people, breath may not be a neutral aspect and could in fact trigger a trauma response. So, she offers an alternative focus such as sounds in the environment, the room tone or rhythm in some music.  Whatever we choose as an anchor, we can return to it whenever we notice our thoughts distracting us and leading to anxiety-producing images, recollections or anticipations.

The next stage of the guided meditation involves focus on some source of anxiety and exploring the bodily sensations associated with it.  Diana suggests that if we are new to meditation we should focus on a minor source of anxiety rather than a major issue.  Whatever our focal anxiety source, the idea is to notice what is happening in our body, e.g. tightness around our neck and shoulders, quickening or unevenness of our breath or pain in our back.  By bringing our consciousness to these bodily sensations, we can work to release the tension involved and restore some level of equanimity.

Diana suggests that at any stage we could use imagery as a way to achieve an anchor that gives us strength and/or a sense of peace.  The image could be of a tall mountain withstanding the buffeting of strong winds and rain or a still lake reflecting surrounding trees and supporting the smooth gliding of swans or ducks.  Imagery can take us out of our anxiety-producing imagination and transport us to a place of strength and/or peace.

In the final stage of the meditation, Diana encourages us to offer ourselves loving-kindness, acknowledging that we are only human after all and that the world is anxiety-producing.  She urges us to extend positive thoughts towards ourselves, rather then beat ourselves up for our fragility.  We could focus on times when we have demonstrated resilience to overcome difficulties, extended compassionate action to those in need or expressed gratitude for all that we have. 

Reflection

There are many tools to help us work with, and manage, anxiety.  These include chanting and/or mantra meditations such as the calming mantra produced by Lulu & Mischka, Stillness in Motion – Sailing and Singing with whales.   As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, chanting, mantras or other mindfulness practices, we can learn to be more fully present in the moment, to manage our anxiety-producing thoughts, regulate our emotions and find the peace and ease that lie within.

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Image by Patrik Houštecký 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.

Under the influence of Thich Nhat Hanh

In a prelude to a guided meditation podcast, Remembering Thich Nhat Hanh, Diana Winston spoke with reverence about the life of Thich Nhat Hanh and his global influence.  Nhat Hanh, who died aged ninety-five in Vietnam on January 22 2022, was a Zen Master, peace activist, poet and author of over 100 books focused mainly on mindfulness and peace.  He established multiple Buddhist communities around the world and is considered the “Father of Western mindfulness”.  He exerted a global influence throughout his teaching life conducting numerous retreats and speaking with influencers such as the World Bank, Google and the U.S. Congress.

During the Vietnam war Nhat Hanh introduced the concept of “Engaged Buddhism” and led Buddhist monks in actions designed to help people of Vietnam who were suffering from the drastic effects of the extended conflict and regular bombing.  He argued that mindfulness increases our capacity to “see” but that this insight needs to be translated into compassionate action.   Nhat Hanh established the Plum Village in France, the largest Buddhist community in the world and an international practice center for followers of his mindfulness approach.  The influence of Thich Nhat Hanh is so pervasive that it is not possible to do its credit in this short blog post.  However, his teachings and meditations are readily accessible via Plum Village videos on YouTube and his full life history on the Plum Village website.

Guided meditation

Diana Winston, at the outset of her podcast meditation, acknowledged the profound influence that Nhat Hanh had over her mindfulness practice and that of numerous other mindfulness teachers and practitioners around the world.  She stressed Nhat Hanh’s influence over the practice of bringing mindfulness into everyday life and emphasised the benefits of mindfulness meditation in terms of stress reduction, overcoming anxiety and depression, managing pain, improving mood and developing a positive mindset and emotions.

After suggesting a comfortable, focused posture, Diana begins the meditation with the encouragement to take a couple of deep breaths, recalling the words of Nhat Hanh “Breathing in, I calm the breath; breathing out, I smile”.  She reminds us to identify any points of tension in our body and to soften those points to release the tension.

Next Diana asks us to focus on our breath – the process of breathing, whether the awareness is through the movement of air through our nose or the undulations of our chest or abdomen.  This is a passive observation, not trying to control the breath, but following it as it happens naturally in our body. 

She then suggests that we focus on the sounds that surround us – again passively, allowing the sounds to reach us without attempting interpretation or evaluation (in terms of pleasant or unpleasant).  

Diana maintains that it is only natural for thoughts and feelings to intrude and distract us from our chosen focus.  However, she recommends that we use our breath or sounds as our anchor to bring us back to our focus.  An alternative is to focus on bodily sensations such as those of our feet on the ground or our fingers touching each other causing tingling, warmth or a sensation of flow.  I like to use fingers touching as my anchor and I find that when I am waiting for something (e.g. a traffic light) I can touch my fingers and immediately drop into a breath consciousness that is calming.  

Diana observes that there are times when strong feelings will emerge, depending on what is going on in our lives at the time.  She suggests that we face these feelings and allow them to manifest without staying absorbed in them.  I noted that at one point in the meditation, I experienced a profound sense of sadness precipitated by the distressing events in Ukraine. I was able to stay with the sadness for a time and then restore the focus on my anchor, the sensations in my joined fingers.   The period of ten minutes silence at the end of the meditation podcast enabled me to deepen my focus.

Reflection

In her meditation podcast, Diana recalls Thich Nhat Hanh’s comments about death and dying.  In his video podcast on the topic, Where do we go when we die?, Nhat Hanh reminds us that cells in our body are dying all the time and new cells are being born – so, death and birth are part of every moment of our life.  He maintains that the disintegration of our body at death does not mean we cease to exist.  In his view, our words and actions continue to influence others – so, after we die, we continue in all the people who have come under our influence (or will come under our influence in the future).  He indicated that when he died he would continue in the lives of many thousands of people through the books he has written, the videos he has created and the podcasts that live on after him.

Sounds True provides a video of Nhat Hanh, the artist, as he engages in calligraphy as a form of mindfulness, using the in-breath and out-breath.  In one calligraphy, he likens the continuation of our lives in different forms to a cloud that never dies.

Diana states that the global mindfulness movement represents in many ways the continuation of the life of Nhat Hanh.  She asks us, “How are you going to enable the continuation of Nhat Hanh’s life in your own life?”. As we grow in mindfulness, we are continuing the life and tradition of Nhat Hanh and gaining access to the benefits of mindfulness including calmness, emotion regulation, insight, resilience and the courage to take compassionate action.

Thich Nhat Hahn made a hugely significant contribution to the global mindfulness movement and world peace (he was nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize).  Nhat Hanh left us a huge store of resources to enable us to plumb the depths of his teachings and his indomitable spirit, and to continue his life’s work to create a “beloved community”.  In all his life, throughout  the challenges of suffering, grief and disappointment, he “practised a lot of breathing, coming back to himself”.  Mindful breathing provided his grounding during all phases of his life, especially in the face of violence against the Vietnamese people, his followers and social workers.

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Image by Karl Egger 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.

Being Mindful 0f Our Thoughts

Tom Heah presented a guided meditation podcast on Mindfulness of Thoughts through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  Tom reminds us that we are often lost in thought either about the past or the future – all of which detracts from fully experiencing the present moment.  In relation to the past, we might be absorbed by regrets about what we have done or failed to do; disappointed that certain outcomes (sporting, academic or otherwise) did not meet our expectations; or depressed about a broken relationship or lack of achievement or advancement.  In relation to the future, we might be worried about the unintended consequences of our words and/or actions; concerned about loss of physical/mental capacities; or anxious about our financial situation or the pervasiveness of the pandemic. 

Tom Heah is an occupational therapist and an experienced meditation trainer and practitioner with many years’ experience training facilitators of programs such as MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy).   He has a low-key and reassuring way of facilitating meditations and provides strong encouragement to “have a go” and try different approaches.

Guided meditation

Tom begins the guided meditation by suggesting that we focus first on “arriving” – being really present in body, emotions and mind.   He encourages us no matter what our posture is (e.g. sitting, standing, lying down or walking) to become very conscious of our bodily sensations – are we bringing any physical tension or tightness to the meditation?  He suggests we welcome any feelings that we may have at the start and to acknowledge their existence without blame or concern to shift them.  As part of this grounding process, Tom asks us to tune into sounds around us without interpreting them or seeking to evaluate them in terms of pleasant or unpleasant – acknowledging that these sounds just exist outside of ourself but within our soundscape.

Tom then uses our bodily sensations as an anchor before moving onto the potentially disarming and distracting element of our thoughts.  He encourages us to feel the solidness beneath our feet (whether through sensing the floor or the earth).  He switches our focus to our palms – firstly, placing our palms downturned on our lap, followed by having them in an upright position and becoming aware of the different sensations associated with these alternative positions (e.g. tightness, tingling or warmth).   This process can be followed by a full body scan moving from the top of our head to the souls of our feet.

When we have achieved some level of groundedness and being present to what is, Tom suggests that we become aware of our thoughts – their content, focus and associated feelings.  He draws on the work of Joseph Goldstein, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, to assert that thoughts lead to action that, in turn,  lead to consequences.  To change the consequences, we need to change our thoughts but the starting point is awareness of our thoughts, their patterns and their reactivity to negative triggers.  Joseph maintains that awareness of our thoughts leads to an “opening of the mind”.

Associated with our thoughts are emotions that are manifest in our body.  Tom encourages us to return to our anchor, bodily sensations, to tap into the embodiment of our thought-provoked emotions.  Again, we can become aware of the bodily sensations associated with particular emotions (e.g. anger can be reflected in muscular spasms or tightness; depression may be experienced as inertia; and nonspecific anxiety can manifest as fibromyalgia).

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness and become more aware of our thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations through meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can learn to accept what is and achieve a level of groundedness and emotional control.  Associated with these outcomes are increased resilience and heightened creativity in dealing with challenging situations and experiences.

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Image by Engin Akyurt 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.

Managing Fear and Anxiety through Mindfulness Meditation

Diana Winston, Director of the Mindfulness Education Division in UCLA, provides a guided meditation podcast on the use of mindfulness to manage fear and anxiety.  She suggests that our fears can be real (e.g. a physical threat) or imagined (e.g. anxiety about some perceived future scenario which may never happen).  Fear is focused on perceptions about the present moment whereas anxiety tends to be longer term and related to imagined adverse futures in whatever form they may take.

We can be fearful about the risk of contracting the Coronavirus, COVID19, and experiencing the associated debilitating effects of this pandemic.  We might also be putting off our meaningful work because of unfounded rationalisations about what might go wrong.  We might have found that a generalised state of anxiety has disabled us and  that our fear response has blocked us from our creativity and capacity to perform at a competent level.  Our fear response can be manifested behaviourally as fight, flight or freeze.

In the guided meditation, Diana offers a four stage meditation process to address whatever form our fear or anxiety takes.  She maintains that a mindfulness approach can not only increase self-awareness and regulation of our emotions but also enable us to restore our centredness and strengthen our wellbeing and the associated ease.

The four-stage approach to managing fear and anxiety through mindfulness meditation

Diana’s four stage approach incorporates becoming physically grounded, exploring what is happening in the moment, accessing the “wisdom mind” and extending loving kindness towards yourself.  The processes in each of the four stages can be summarised as follows:

  • Stage 1 – This involves establishing a sense of physical groundedness by feeling your feet on the floor and experiencing the solidity, physical support and stability beneath you.  The associated feelings can be strengthened by picturing the solid earth beneath, no matter how much your are above ground level at the time of the meditation. ‘
  • Stage 2 – Here you are encouraged to face the fear in its various manifestations – bodily sensations, racing mind and unsettling feelings.  The core question is, What does fear feel like?  Do you experience increase heart rate, sweating, headache or a “clenched stomach”.  What thoughts are generating your fear and/or anxiety and what negative thoughts and worldview are you adopting?  What is happening for you emotionally, e.g. crying, withdrawing, being angry and/or aggressive or experiencing inertia?
  • Stage 3 – Once you achieve a degree of calmness, you can seek to access your “wisdom mind” which deserts you when you are in turmoil.  Mindfulness can provide a pathway to wisdom and open the door to our intuition and creativity.  Sharon Salzberg  maintains that meditation can stimulate our innate wisdom through recognition of agency, appreciating moments of joy and richness, identifying boundaries of control, strengthening our sense of connectedness (replacing a sense of aloneness) and assisting us to deal effectively with difficult thoughts and emotions.
  • Stage 4 – Here you are encouraged to tap into loving kindness towards yourself – providing understanding, a non-judgmental stance and reassurance. You can extend towards yourself the same thoughtfulness, forgiveness and generosity that you show towards others in need. 

Reflection

If we are anxious, we may need to explore a range of regular practices to restore balance in our life.   Judson Brewer, in his book Unwinding Anxiety, maintains that mindfulness does not stop anxious thoughts or change them but “changes our relationship to those thoughts and emotions”.  He offers a “mindfulness personality quiz” to help you identify your behavioural patterns and provides ways to “train your brain to heal your mind”.

Meditation and other mindfulness practices such as chanting help us to reframe our life and overcome adversity by developing insight and resilience.   As we grow in mindfulness, we can deepen our self-awareness, regain control over our thoughts and emotions and build the resilience required to live in these challenging times.

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians 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.

Exploring the Spectrum of Awareness through Fish in an Aquarium

Diana Winston previously introduced the concept of the spectrum of awareness – moving from a narrow lens through a wide lens to a panoramic view.  In a recent guided meditation podcast, Diana illustrated how to practice these different types of awareness through meditating with fish in an aquarium.   She suggested that observing fish in an aquarium with varying focus enables us to develop our understanding of the different ways we can pay attention – from a very narrow and sustained focus to a totally open awareness that takes in all that is occurring in our range of vision as well as what is happening internally.  Diana used the Aquarium of the Pacific webcam to enable participants to practice these different types of awareness.

Adopting a narrow awareness

Diana progressively introduced a range of awareness practices after having participants relax and adopt a comfortable, upright (if possible) position.  This can be preceded by slow, deep breathing to bring awareness to the present moment.  In the narrow awareness stage, Diana suggests that you focus on a plant at the bottom of the aquarium where there are a number of bright, green plants.  The chosen plant serves as an anchor throughout the meditation with the fish.  Once you have chosen a plant, she suggests that you maintain your focus on this particular plant and, if distractions occur, return your focus to the plant.  This practice of returning to your anchor builds your awareness muscle.  It is natural for your attention to wander, particularly where you have a lot of movement in front of you as in the aquarium.  A brightly coloured fish, a ghostly stingray or a sleek shark may pull your attention away – you can then just restore your focus to your chosen plant.

Widening awareness to movement of particular fish

Diana explained that this form of widened awareness can be activated by an investigative stance – e.g. exploring the movement of a fish as it passes in front of you from bottom to top, diagonally from corner to corner or from side to side, eventually disappearing from view.  Sometimes this widened focus can take in the synchronised swimming of a group of fish, moving artistically in pairs or threes.  Diana encourages you after following the movement of a particular fish or group of fish to return to your plant focus, again strengthening your capacity for paying attention and concentrating on a particular object.

Taking a panoramic view

Diana recommends that before expanding your awareness, you allow your body to soften and settle back to facilitate taking in the full screen, taking in everything that is happening in front of you in the aquarium.  As you observe the totality of the scene in front of you, you can notice the different colours of the fish (ranging from black to a bight orange), different shaped bodies and heads, varying speed of movement (from fast to very slow).   You can take in the ease and smoothness of movement of the different species in the aquarium, including varying movement of fins and tails.  You can extend your awareness further to take in the water itself, including the disturbance of the surface of the water as the continuous movement causes motion in the water itself.   Diana suggests that if at any time the scene and broader focus becomes overwhelming, you can return your focus to your plant anchor within the aquarium (e.g. some people may experience a sensation of giddiness with all the movement, colour, and glistening scales).

An addendum to this panoramic focus is to notice what is going on inside you, your own throughs and feelings.  This is in line with the definition of mindfulness used by MARC in their online and drop-in meditation sessions – paying attention in the moment with openness, curiosity and acceptance of what is occurring for you.  Your emotions may include calmness and peace, a sense of wonder and awe, or appreciation and gratitude. You can also check in with your associated bodily sensations at the time.  Diana encourages you, too, to become conscious of “who is noticing” being aware of your awareness – a uniquely human property as illustrated by clinical psychologist Noam Shpancer in his book, The Good Psychologist, when he compares the capacities of a human being to that of a zebra .

Reflection

I had become aware of the spectrum of awareness through a previous post I had written based on one of Diana’s earlier guided meditations.  Coincidentally, I recalled this practice when I was having my lunch on the deck at my home.  When I finished my lunch (which I did not eat very mindfully!), I decided to take a panoramic view of what I could see from the deck, including the far away waters of Moreton Bay.  I noticed the trees and plants, the different shaped leaves, varying movement with the wind in the trees, newly formed and colourful spring growth and the sounds and movement of birds penetrating my visual space.  This process of widened awareness was very calming and peaceful.

As we grow in mindfulness through observation, meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can build our capacity to focus and concentrate, to appreciate and savour what is around us and to get in touch with the healing power of nature.

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians 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.

Meditation as a Process

Marvin Belzer, meditation teacher and faculty member of the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, offers a guided meditation, Mindful Monday, as part of the regular guided meditation sessions provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.   In a recent Mindful Monday podcast, he focused on the process of meditation and as well as offering a guided silent meditation.

Marvin stressed that the process of meditation does not involve rush to get somewhere and is not about “doing” which is typical of our daily life as we seek to achieve things in family life, work and recreation.  While meditation does require “effort” it is a subtle process, unlike our exertions to achieve things in life.  To be effective in meditation we have to give ourselves permission not to aim for “getting things done”.

Marvin explained that the process of meditation involves directing attention to something specific that is occurring in our everyday life.  It can involve the sounds that surround us, our breath or our bodily sensations.  Marvin maintains that meditation cultivates concentration – a skill that can flow over to every area of our life and enhance our relationships, e.g. through deep listening.  Focusing on something that is neutral can be calming and provide clarity.  

Marvin’s guided meditation process

Marvin’s process began with several deep breaths to relax your body and ground yourself in the present moment.  It also helps at this stage to reaffirm your intention in meditating.  He followed this up with a focus on ambient sounds – the sounds that enter your awareness from outside your immediate location.  This can be difficult for some people because our natural tendency is to analyse sounds, identify their source and categorise them as good or bad, intrusive or relaxing, harmful or helpful.  In focusing on sounds, it is important to suspend intellectual activity and just experience the sounds as they are in the present moment.

Distractions such as planning the day’s activities or worrying about some future event are a natural part of the process.  Marvin stresses that the experience of meditation is a very personal thing that can be impacted by our emotions at the time, our intellectual preoccupations and our life conditioning.  There is no right way or perfect end result – there is a continuous process of focusing, being distracted, and returning to our focus – a cycle that builds our awareness muscle.  Jon Kabat-Zinn maintains that while mindfulness meditation involves “paying attention on purpose”, it also requires a non-judgmental frame of mind – not evaluating ourselves against some perfect model, process or way of “doing meditation”.

Marvin suggests that you do a light body scan at the outset to ascertain any points of tension and to notice your posture which should be relaxed but enable you to be alert to what is happening for you.  An alternative at this stage, particularly if you are feeling stressed, is to do a full body scan which can enable you to progressively release tension wherever it is experienced in your body.  Your body and specific bodily sensations can become the focus of your meditation, e.g. paying attention to the vibrations in your joined fingers or your feet on the floor or ground.  You can also tune into the physical sensation of experiencing fear, anxiety or sorrow – noticing where in your body a strong emotion is being manifested.  Marvin points out that this process of paying attention to the embodiment of an emotion can serve as a refuge from the disturbance of challenging emotions.

Another source of achieving calm that Marvin identifies is your breath.  He suggests that you can rest in your breathing – paying attention to where in your body you can experience your breath in the moment, e.g. the movement of your chest or abdomen or the flow of air through your nose.  This process does not involve controlling your breath but experiencing it as it is – slow or fast, light or deep, even or uneven.  We are always breathing as a natural process of being alive, so resting in your breath can serve as a refuge at any time throughout your day.  Through meditation practice, you can drop automatically into the calming influence of your breath – just as performers and elite athletes do when they are about to perform or compete. If you associate breath awareness with a bodily sensation such as vibrations when your fingers are joined during regular meditation practice, then the act of bringing your fingers together (e.g., when waiting for something or somebody) can activate breath consciousness and the calming influence of breathing.

Reflection

Meditation is a process, not a goal post.  Regular practice enables us to find calm in the midst of the waves of life.  It is important to remain non-judgmental.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation in whatever form we choose, we can develop calmness and tranquility and have a genuine source of refuge when times become challenging or we begin to become overwhelmed by emotions.  Our constant focus during meditation serves as an anchor in life when we encounter the turbulence of challenging times.

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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.

Balancing Compassion with Equanimity

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC UCLA, offers a meditation podcast on the theme, The Balance of Compassion and Equanimity.  This is one of the weekly meditations provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC).  Currently, the meditations are offered via the Zoom platform and are recorded and uploaded for ongoing access.  They are also readily available via the UCLA Mindful app which provides “meditations for well-being”.

Guided meditation on balancing compassion with equanimity

In these challenging times it is easy to experience “compassion fatigue” or burnout.  The pandemic alone has brought death and grief, pain and suffering, job losses, homelessness, suicides, mental illness, business rundown/closure, family separations and divided communities (around issues such as border closures, vaccination distribution, mask wearing and mandatory vaccination).  Many places are experiencing natural disasters including earthquakes, wild fires, floods and tornados.   There are international conflicts creating an endless stream of refugees as well as people who are trapped in a violent and inhuman environment.   We do not have look too far to be surrounded by pain and suffering in this world of conflict and challenge.

In her guided meditation Diana maintains that in these times, it is common for people to experience a lack of balance and overwhelm.  She suggests that one way through the dilemma of finding a balance between compassion and equanimity is to take refuge in meditation.  Her recommended meditation practice involves both expression of compassion and a retreat into equanimity.  This can be a once-off approach.  However, if we are dealing with considerable imbalance and/or overwhelm we can repeat the process on a regular basis.  This will also be necessary if we find ourselves in a state of compassion burnout where we can longer feel for others who are in pain and suffering.

Diana begins the mediation by having us take a few deep breaths to release tension we may feel as a result of experiencing strong feelings of compassion.  She suggests that we become conscious of our posture and the groundedness provided by our feet on the floor or our body on the ground (if lying down outside in nature).  Initially, she encourages us to identify physical points of tension so that we can consciously release them.  Diana then progressively moves us through the process of exploring several anchors for our meditation – our breathing (movement in our abdomen or chest), external sounds or some bodily sensation.

Compassion meditation

Diana starts with a focus on compassion and invites us to bring to mind a particular group of people or an individual who we know are in pain and suffering.  She suggests that we start with something that is not a source of overwhelm (so that we can manage the emotions involved).  Diana then encourages us to find some words that enable us to express our compassion towards the chosen group or individual, e.g., “May your suffering be alleviated”.  If we can find our own words to express compassion, it will enable us to genuinely feel that we are extending kindness to others.

Equanimity meditation

Following the focus on compassion, Diana suggests that we take a form of refuge in equanimity meditation.  In this context the retreat to equanimity is achieved by refocusing on our chosen anchor.  It might be our breathing or sounds or a particular bodily sensation.  I have frequently focused on my fingers joined on my lap during meditation – feeling the warmth, the tingling and the flow of blood and energy.   In times when I am waiting or experiencing strong emotions, I can resort to this practice and simultaneously tap into my breathing.  The combination of these anchors – joined fingers and breath – are achieved by regular practice creating the association between them.  Each person has their own way of becoming deeply grounded and restoring balance and equanimity.

Reflection

Diane calls the  meditation practice she facilitated, the “black belt of meditation” – it can be extremely difficult to deal with the attendant emotions, achieve balance and restore equanimity.  What we are trying to achieve is acceptance of what is, while offering genuine compassion to those who are suffering.  There are so many things that are outside our control that acceptance, along with taking compassionate action where possible, is the way forward.  As mentioned earlier, a “rinse and repeat” process may be required to achieve a consistent level of equanimity.

Allyson Pimentel, another MARC meditation teacher, offers an alternative guided meditation on focusing on the elements of nature to achieve equanimity – calmness can be achieved by connecting with the elements of earth, water,  fire, air and space.   Martin Brensilver, in a different MARC meditation, maintains that equanimity can also be strengthened by widening our perspective, reducing our focus on evaluative thinking (e.g., resorting to absolutes of right and wrong) and intensifying our sensory experience (which increases our groundedness).  Gratitude meditation can also help us to restore our balance and calmness. 

As we grow in mindfulness through alternating compassion and equanimity meditation practice, we can progressively gain emotional regulation, develop a balanced compassion and experience equanimity and the ease of wellness.  We can also find creative ways to provide compassionate action for others who are experiencing pain and suffering.  Meditation and mindfulness practices enable us to access the deep well within ourself to provide strength and support to 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.

Guided Meditation to Develop the Awareness Muscle

Allyson Pimentel provided a guided meditation podcast through MARC UCLA titled, Begin Again – a process designed to develop concentration and build the “awareness muscle”.   This meditation builds increased awareness of the present moment because it requires us to pay attention as the meditation unfolds – in particular, noticing when our mind wanders away from our primary focus.  Allyson suggests that we need to be “curious about being curious” – that we approach the challenge of paying attention with openness, a sense of wonder, curiosity and exploration.

Allyson emphasises the point that our minds are designed to think, imagine, envision and dream.  It is natural for us to “wander off”, lose focus and entertain the “blur of the past” or the anticipation of the future.  She suggests that no matter what the level of our experience with meditation is, we can alternate between “wakefulness and sleepiness” – which can be interpreted both literally and metaphorically.  

Allyson reminds us that the meaning of the word “begin” is “to come into being”.  She suggests that we are so focused on “doing” that we lose sight of “being” – of appreciating and valuing our present moment experience.  Her guided meditation encourages wakefulness – being fully aware of the present moment and noticing when our attention wanders.   The process of continually returning to our focus – restoring our attention – builds our awareness muscle.  Developing this skill is particularly critical in the digital age which is becoming characterised by the “loss of attention, consciousness and awareness” through online marketing and the role of social media and social influencers.

One of the key things to be aware of during this meditation is the tendency to judge ourselves for our “failure to concentrate” or “stay in the moment”.  We can become critical of our performance, disappointed and angry with ourselves, and frustrated with our lack of progress.  Our current “performance culture” tends to cultivate this judgmental stance.  Allyson stresses the need for loving kindness towards ourselves to overcome these negative thoughts and assessments.

Guided meditation for developing the awareness muscle

Allyson’s guided meditation (which begins at 9 minutes, 20 seconds) has a number of stages that can be followed in sequence or changed to suit your situation:

  • Posture – after taking and releasing a few deep breaths, the aim is to adopt a posture that is conducive to wakefulness to the present moment.  This may entail closing your eyes (to avoid distraction) and adopting an upright posture (as Allyson suggests, as if a sturdy, straight, “big oak tree is behind your back”).  She maintains that this is a way to achieve an “embodied sense of wakefulness”, so that your body posture reflects what you are seeking to achieve in your meditation.  Noticing your posture throughout the meditation can enhance your wakefulness – and may require you to correct a slouch if that occurs.
  • Focus on sounds – one way to achieve an anchor focused on the present moment is to pay attention to sounds both internal and external to your room.  It is important to let the sounds come and go and not entertain them by trying to work out their source.  For some people, sounds themselves may be distracting and this step could be omitted.
  • Focus on breathing – here it is important to become conscious of your breathing – its strength, speed, evenness and regularity – without trying to control it.  As you drop into your breath, you can experience calmness, expansiveness and energy as you open to the life that is within you. 
  • Notice the “tone of your mind” – throughout the meditation you are encouraged to notice what is happening in your mind.  You might find yourself engaged in self-criticism for wandering off – a state that can be overcome by loving kindness and patience.  It also pays to remind yourself that having to “begin again” to re-focus, is progressively building your awareness muscle – which will enrich your life in all its spheres. No matter how many times you have to start over, you are building towards awareness and its inherent richness.

Reflection

This meditation can be challenging, especially in our early stages of adopting meditation practice or if we are feeling agitated about something that is happening to us or others who are close to us (or to others who we know are experiencing terror elsewhere).  The real benefits of this meditation can readily flow over into our daily life and help us to achieve calmness and equanimity in the face of life’s challenges.

 As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and beginning again when our minds wander, we can begin to discern patterns in our wandering – e.g., planning our day, preparing a shopping list, indulging resentment or stressing about possible, future challenges.  This increased self-awareness can help us to develop specific strategies to strengthen our capacity to concentrate and focus our energy.

Allyson suggests that we take to heart Carl Jung’s comment:

Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes.

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Image by Josep Monter Martinez 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.

Mindfulness Meditation for Anxiety

Diana Winston introduced the use of mindfulness meditation to reduce anxiety in a recent guided meditation podcast through the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  The catalyst for the meditation was the anxiety she experienced listening to the news one morning before undertaking her daily  meditation.  She explained that she normally began her day meditating before anything else.  On the occasion she described, Diana started the day with listening to the news – a departure from her normal routine.  Starting the day with meditation is often recommended by mindfulness experts as a way to set your intentions for the day and strengthen your capacity to manage the challenges that will inevitably occur in the day ahead.  

Diana found the news disturbing and she found herself very anxious – an anxiety that she experienced physically as well as emotionally and intellectually.  In these situations when we experience news that is traumatic, upsetting or triggering, our minds tend to move to the worst possible scenario…”What if..”, ‘How will they cope?”  Diana decided to turn to mindfulness meditation as a way to manage her anxiety and disturbed mind.

Guided mindfulness meditation for anxiety

Diana’s approach to the guided meditation followed a number of steps:

  • Grounding – starting with a couple of deep breaths, you can begin to release some of the bodily tension through your out-breath.  Next, adopt a comfortable posture wherever you are undertaking the meditation – on a chair, lying on the ground, sitting on the floor or lying on a bed.  The central focus of the meditation is to pay attention to the sensation of solidity provided by the ground – you can access this sensation by focusing on your feet on the floor, your body on the ground, or the bed or chair on the floor which, in turn, is linked to the earth via the foundations of your house/building.  It is important to use whatever imagery or bodily sensation is useful to enable you to feel “solid” and grounded.  This is your return point throughout the meditation.
  • Body scan – begin a non-specific body scan by exploring wherever there is tension in your body.  When you locate an area or point that is tense, you can bring your attention to this point and consciously breathe out to releases this tension (you may need to do this a couple of times, if you are particularly uptight).
  • Choosing an anchor – one of the issues with anxiety is a racing mind, so it is important to have an anchor to constantly bring your mind back to your desired focus.  There are many choices for an anchor – your breath, the sounds in your room or externally, your hands resting easily on your lap.  However, it is important to choose something that does not itself trigger further anxiety, stress or trauma.  Diana suggests that you can always use the grounding sensation itself or focus on an object (e.g. a painting or a tree) which itself can lock in your attention.
  • Exploring bodily manifestations of anxiety – to achieve equanimity you have to be able to face your anxiety and the bodily manifestations that it generates, but this can be done gradually.  You may want to start with a small source of anxiety in the first place as Diana suggests.  Alternatively, you may find it important to focus on the anxiety that is really troubling you the most, so you can create a sense of ease as you go about your day.  Whatever anxiety-generating event/incident you choose, it is important to feel how it is experienced in your body.  Your mind-body connection means that feelings find expression in your body, whether experienced as good or bad.  The task here is to tap into how you are experiencing your anxiety or disturbed feeling in your body – it could be tightness in your neck or arms, soreness in your shoulders or legs, a queasy stomach, tightness in your forehead or any other bodily sensation or combination of sensations. The important thing is to get in touch with a bodily sensation at this stage and focus on it so that you can work towards its release.
  • Revisiting your groundedness – Diana advises you to take the previous step progressively and iteratively.  So you might start with a particular sensation and experience it fully and then return to your sense of groundedness, so the anxious sensation does not throw you off-balance.  By sensing, releasing, re-grounding, you can progressively cleanse your body of the tension – this, in turn, will help to reduce your anxiety-provoking thoughts and associated emotions.  The intensity of your anxiety will affect how long or how often you need to employ this meditation.  Small steps can have large effects with persistence.
  • Loving-kindness to yourself – in all this, it is important to realise that we all experience anxiety at different times and events in our lives. It is vital to be kind to yourself and not berate yourself for your assumed “weakness”, “over-sensitivity” or “softness”.  It is human to feel fear and to experience uncertainty, especially in today’s world of the pandemic and racial, national and international conflicts.  Part of caring for yourself in the middle of your anxiety is to tell yourself that it is okay to feel anxious, the feelings will pass and external events will change; and to acknowledge that there are many things that you do not have control over.
  • Loving-kindness towards others – this involves extending kind and empathetic thoughts to others who are experiencing anxiety or are the subject of your worry and concern.  There may be people who are experiencing local conflicts or threatening situations that you are anxious about.  Accepting that you cannot control the situation is a starting point and then offering them kindness in your thoughts may be all you can possibly do.  If you can take compassionate action, then, this will help them and yourself.

Reflection

The MARC meditation podcasts are provided on the UCLA website and via an app, and are offered to enable us to “develop self-awareness, emotional regulation and increased well-being”.  Diana makes the point that mindfulness meditation on anxiety equips us to deal with life’s difficulties and challenging emotions.  Persistent practice can deepen our resolve, strengthen our connectedness and achieve better integration of our mind and body.  As we grow in mindfulness, we will be able to choose wise actions, overcome habituated responses and achieve equanimity and ease.

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Image by Aneta Rog 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.

Managing Chronic Pain with Mindfulness

Christiane Wolf , MD, PhD, provided an encouraging meditation podcast on the topic of employing mindfulness to manage chronic pain and the mind’s activity that exacerbates our feelings of pain.  In her guided meditation, The Past and the Future Pain Story: Working with Pain in the Present Moment, shespoke of the role that rehashing the past and/or rehearsing the future plays in our experience of pain and offered ways to reduce the mind’s influence over our pain experience.   Christiane is the author of Outsmart Your Pain – Mindfulness and Self-Compassion to Help You Leave Chronic Pain Behind, and is a meditation teacher who offers audio meditations and mindfulness videos on her website. 

Guided meditation on mindfulness for managing chronic pain

Christiane begins her guided meditation with ensuring your posture is comfortable and well-grounded (whether in a chair, couch or on the ground).  To help with grounding, she suggests that you focus on the solid sensation of your feet on whatever surface you are on.  Closing your eyes for the sake of strengthening your focus on your meditation is offered as an optional extra.  Christiane recommends some bodily movement, such as turning your neck or rolling your shoulders, as a way to improve your comfort level when undertaking the meditation.

The next phase of the guided meditation entails focusing on your breath.  Here, Christiane encourages you to really feel your breath by both deepening and lengthening your breathing. An alternative to using the breath as an anchor is to focus on sounds around you or the sensation in your feet or your hands.  She maintains that a meditation anchor is based in the body and its senses to enable a focus other than being “lost in thought”.  It’s a place to return to whenever thinking distracts you from the primary focus of your meditation.

How the brain exacerbates our feelings of pain

Christiane points out that our brain has a major role in how we experience pain whether the pain derives from chronic physical pain or enduring uncomfortable feelings, emotions, or thoughts.  To build your awareness of the mind’s influence she suggests that firstly you explore the “past pain story” – what you are telling yourself about the origins of the pain (e.g., “outside my control”), how it was experienced in the past, or mistakes/poor decisions that led to your pain.  She argues that the mind through recalling the past pain is trying to protect you from its recurrence or to prevent the same mistakes/poor decisions that may have occurred in your past.  Sometimes the recollection of the previous intensity of the pain serves to strengthen your resolve to avoid the pain and/or the factors that contributed to it.

Once you have explored the past pain story, Christiane encourages you to explore the “future pain story” – what is it that you are anticipating will happen in the future as a result of your pain? (typically, we envisage the worst); how does your future story make you feel? (e.g., anxious, uncertain, fearful, resentful, or sad).   

Christiane argues that the past and future pain stories are like baggage that you carry around that increases the load of your pain and exacerbates your feelings of pain.  She uses imagery to help you reduce your pain – she suggests you view the past and future pain stories as a heavy suitcase, weighing you down.  Her recommendation is that you view yourself putting the suitcase (of stories) down on the ground so you are relieved of its added weight and can gain clarity about the nature of your pain and role of your brain in rehashing past pain or anticipating future pain.  It is important to reflect, at this stage, on what is left of your pain after the stories are removed or have been put away.

Widening the focus

Christiane recommends “widening the lens of your focus” at the end of the guided meditation.  This entails initially focusing on people you know who are experiencing suffering or pain and wishing them strength and healing.  She encourages  you to then expand your focus to include people anywhere in the world who are experiencing pain or grief as a result of the COVID19 pandemic, a natural disaster, or the collapse of a building as in Miami recently.   Her desire is that you extend loving kindness to these people.  

Reflection

Christiane’s approach enables us to “unpack” the thoughts and feelings that accompany chronic pain – she puts the spotlight on the role of the brain in creating past and future pain stories to enable us to lighten the load.  In the guided meditation, she suggests ways to lighten the load using mindfulness.  In her book she provides additional exercises, meditations, and reflections to enable us to effectively manage chronic pain and suffering.

She encourages us to explore our pain with openness and curiosity to better understand and manage it.  She suggests that we should not begin her mindfulness approach with a really difficult pain but ease into it gradually starting with some form of suffering that is not so complex or challenging.

When I followed the guided meditation, I decided to focus on the challenge I have with dermatitis and associated food intolerances.  I had suffered dermatitis over the whole of my body in 2017.  In recalling this event during the meditation,  I realised that my “past pain story” focused on the extreme discomfort of the condition and the disappointment of having to limit severely what I ate and drank during a visit to Northern Italy – no wine, coffees, pasta, desserts, etc.  However, my current experience of dermatitis is very limited compared to then but I do have a “future pain story” that anticipates what would happen if the inflammation blew out again.  I found the guided meditation lightened the load of the past feelings of disappointment and the anticipatory feelings of anxiety and fear. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can understand our pain better and learn ways to manage our chronic condition.  We can also develop the strength to deal with the difficult emotions associated with chronic pain and suffering, including resentment.

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Image by JUNO KWON 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.