How to Sustain the Practice of Meditation

Marvin Belzer, Assistant Director of MARC, UCLA, in a recent guided meditation podcast provides some insights into what is required to sustain the practice of meditation.  He suggests, for example, that “willingness” is the essence of sustainability in relation to meditation.  We have to be willing to give it a go, be patient to stay with the process and avoid any attempt or pressure  to achieve perfection.  Some of his insights for sustainability, after 30 years of his own mindfulness practice, include the following.

Choose an anchor that is natural and comfortable for you

It is really important to choose an anchor that is easy for you and assists you to sustain the effort needed for meditation.   An anchor helps you to focus your attention, sustain the focus and serves as a point of return when you experience distractions.  The more common anchors are sounds (within your room or external), bodily sensations and your breath.  With sounds, it is important to just tune into what is happening around you but not attempt to identify the sounds (or source) or evaluate them in terms of pleasant/unpleasant, soft/loud or any other evaluation criteria.  The essence of sound as an effective anchor is the process of “tuning in”.   A focus on bodily sensations can be achieved through a body scan or a simple focus on a particular area of your body.  With your breath as an anchor, it helps to focus on where you experience the process of breathing, e.g., abdomen, nose or chest.  You are not attempting to control your breath but just to pay attention to the “in-breath”, the “out-breath” and the space between.  I find that a focus on breathing is easier for me than sounds because I find the latter distracting if I am inside a room.  However, if I am outside, I find it easier to focus on the sounds of birds, both those that are nearby and those further away.  It is important to be aware of the need to choose a “trauma-sensitive” anchor if a particular anchor elicits a trauma response (a rare occurrence, but a reality for some people).

Keep it simple

Marvin emphasises the simplicity of meditation.  You do not have to “perform” or achieve “mastery” to gain the benefits of meditation practice.  It does not involve a process of ongoing measurement or evaluation against some yardstick.  There will be days when meditation will feel easy and natural and other days when it is difficult because of what is going on in your life at the time and your level of health/wellness.  The amount of time you have available for meditation can also impact your experience of it. 

Choose a meditation practice suited to you and your available time

You do not have to master all possible forms of meditation (which are numerous).  For sustainability, it is important that you try to focus on a particular form of meditation that suits you and your lifestyle.  Some people like to sit quietly in their home, others like to meditate externally in nature, while others like an active meditation process such as movement meditation.  Some people prefer to employ meditation within a yoga framework.  I find that Tai Chi is the form of meditation that I can practise more regularly because I have spent a lot of my life in activities such as playing tennis, bike riding, competitive athletics and walking.   Some people find that mantra meditations or chanting suits them best and their situation.  Tina Turner, for example, found that chanting a particular mantra enabled her to achieve balance in times of adversity, which were sometimes extreme such as being an abusive relationship.

Remind yourself of the benefits that accrue as you meditate

Recalling the benefits of meditation practice provides positive reinforcement for your practice and helps you to sustain the effort.  Invariably, you can experience calmness, equanimity and clarity if you persist.  However, there may be particular benefits that you experience that are personal to you, e.g., reduction in difficult emotions, better stress management or ease in daily life.  I find that Tai Chi helps me to play tennis better because it improves my reflexes, coordination, concentration and flexibility.  The flow-over benefits of Tai Chi for my tennis performance (and enjoyment of social tennis) are a source of reinforcement for my mindfulness practice. 

Reflection

Marvin reinforces the need to not be discouraged when you experience distractions such as planning thinking or strong emotions.  It is natural, no matter how experienced you are, to find distractions intruding into your meditation practice.  You can acknowledge the distracting thought or planning process and return to your focus.  I find that planning my day is a major source of distraction for me during meditation but recognising this, I have adopted the practice of just naming what is happening and returning to my anchor.  Marvin suggests that with emotions you experience during meditation, you can just notice what they are like and how you experience them in your body, e.g. anxiety might be experienced as tightness in your chest or stomach.  After tuning in to the emotion and its bodily manifestation, he encourages you to return to your anchor.  The very act of continually returning to your anchor after a distraction serves to build your awareness muscle and your capacity to sustain concentration.  As we grow in mindfulness through sustained meditation practice, we will experience an ever-widening range of benefits that will serve, in turn, to reinforce our practice.

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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.

Guided Mindful Movement Meditation

Tom Heah, a highly accredited mindfulness teacher, provides a guided meditation podcast on mindful movement, his particular area of expertise.  Tom was an Occupational Therapist in Vancouver Canada until 2021 when he switched to offering mindfulness training to the Vancouver Center which focused on mental health and substance abuse.  Tom has conducted many mindfulness training courses, including Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindful Awareness Practices (MAPs).  He offers free access to guided audio versions of mindfulness practices incorporated in these courses – they are available for streaming and/or download.  His recent mindful movement meditation was offered as the last of the 2022 weekly, UCLA online meditations.  From 12 January 2023, the weekly meditations will resume as in-person, face-to-face sessions at the Hammer Museum with live streaming.  The guided meditations will continue to be available in audio podcast form after the resumption.

Tom discusses the nature of mindfulness in terms of focusing on the internal and external sensations of the present moment.  He suggests that this involves openness, interest and curiosity about our current reality, both internal and external.  By focusing on the present moment, we resist the natural urge to ruminate about the past (experiences, mistakes, losses) or to worry about the future.  Tom maintains that cultivated present moment awareness enables us to show up in the various arenas of our lives.

Tom highlights the fact that despite the festivities of the Christmas season, many people will be experiencing sadness through loss, isolation, loneliness, illness or conflict with relatives.  He observes that people often cannot sit still when they are stressed – so he focuses on mindful movement in his guided meditation.

Guided mindful movement meditation

From the outset of the mindful movement meditation, Tom stresses the need to stay within our own physical limits, engaging in the suggested movements only to the extent that they do not cause pain.  The fundamental idea of mindful movement is to move parts of our body while breathing in a controlled way.  The aim then is to focus on the bodily sensations experienced with each form of movement.  Guided movements can be undertaken either standing or sitting, allowing for variations for the chosen posture.

In the guided movement meditation, Tom skilfully directs our movements while guiding our breathing – all the time reminding us not to stop breathing.  Some of the movements involve raising both arms, moving our arms sideways and slowly moving the neck in a number of directions.  It is important to follow the guidance provided so that we can remain focused on our bodily sensations, without thinking about the next step.

After completing the movement meditation, Tom guides us on a silent, still meditation where we can focus on an anchor of our choice to enable us to return to our focus when we become distracted by thinking or planning.  The anchor could be our breathing, sounds that surround us or some form of bodily sensation such as our fingers touching.

Reflection

The guided meditation provided by Tom is one of the many meditations that involve mindful movement.  Others include Tai Chi and Yoga.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful movement meditations, we can develop new perspectives on old problems, respond to triggers in a more skilful way and experience greater ease and restfulness.  Our increased bodily awareness can help us to better access the wisdom of the body and develop openness to our intuition.

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

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

Mindfulness as a Way of Letting Go

Allyson Pimentel. mindfulness teacher with the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA, offers a guided meditation podcast titled, Mindfulness as Letting Go and Letting Be.  She describes the meditation as a Compassionate Body Scan and notes that it’s an adaption from a book by Susan Pollak, Thomas Pedulla and Ronald D. Siegel, Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy.  While the Compassionate Body Scan is one of the many meditations offered for therapists working with clients, it has wider application for every-day use by non-therapists.  To this end, the authors offer a series of audio meditation podcasts for personal use in downloadable format, along with handouts that list the steps in each mindfulness practice..

The Letting Go meditation offered by Allyson at the end of the 2022 is very timely as it coincides with a time when we have a natural tendency to review our year and begin to make resolutions about changes we want to make in our life.  This could mean breaking free of the ties that bind us, e.g., shame, expectations, perfectionism, or fear of failure.   It might entail overcoming self-protection or false beliefs that are preventing us from undertaking needed personal change.  Alternatively, it could involve letting go of difficult emotions, such as anger, hatred and resentment. 

Allyson reminds us that mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment as it is – not as we wish it to be. In this sense, it requires us to let go of “fantasy” and get in touch with our reality as it is, not distorted by wishful thinking.  Her guided meditation involves adopting an attitude of compassion towards ourselves as we scan our bodies and get in touch with the here-and-now bodily sensations we are experiencing.  Unlike some other forms of body scan, the focus of the compassionate body scan is not on release of tension but softening the sensation – staying with the discomfort and noticing how it changes over time as you soften its intensity.  Allyson points out that the process “can begin to soften the hardened, contracted aspects of our life, our bodies, our minds”.  

Guided meditation

At the outset. Allyson explains that letting go within the meditation is not an active process such as throwing out unwanted materials but a passive process of “letting be” – noticing and accepting what is.  The goal is to develop “clear insight” into our current reality as reflected in our bodily sensations.  Freedom lies in relating to ‘what is” with kindness and self-compassion, however painful.  She quotes an insightful poem by a friend that acknowledges “the pain of letting go what defines yourself”. 

During the guided meditation, Allyson helps us to focus on various body parts, starting with our forehead and extending to our feet, all the time bringing compassion to ourselves.  This is a particular form of meditation that is better with a guide as it helps us to focus on our bodily sensations and supports us to soften our sensations rather than adopt the habituated behaviour of attempting to remove or release them.   The meditation component of the podcast is about 20 minutes.

Reflection

During the guided meditation, I became conscious of my efforts at letting go when playing social tennis.  After having played team tennis competitions for two decades, I had developed an ingrained “need to win”.  I have had to progressively curb my need to win each point, each game, my own service game and eventually each set.   Underpinning this letting go is the need to let go of the image of myself as a very fit 40 year old playing A-Grade tennis.  The reality is that I am 76 years of age and losing strength in my arms, wrists and legs – my current reality, not my “fantasy’.  The last milestone in letting go of my “need-to-win” mindset, is being able to genuinely “savour the wins of others” – the winning shots of my opponents.

At the outset of the guided meditation, Allyson encourages us to take in our environment.  Fortuitously, I had decided to undertake the guided meditation while seated on our back deck – not in my office as I usually do.   The environment I was able to take in was very calming and pleasant – the warm sun of a Summer’s afternoon, glimpses of Moreton Bay and the islands, a very blue cloudless sky, a gentle cooling breeze and the sounds of Rainbow Lorikeets returning to their nightly resting place.

Gabor Maté, leading trauma expert, reminds us in his latest book, The Myth of Normal, that healing “starts with waking up…to what our bodies are expressing and our minds are suppressing”.  Edith Eger, holocaust survivor and world-renowned psychologist, suggests that what we need to do is to “remove the concentration camp of our mind”  – thus choosing freedom over victimhood.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and guided meditations, we grow in self-awareness – awareness of our bodies, our mindset, the thoughts and emotions that are holding us back from genuine healing and growth.  We need to give ourselves compassion and kindness as we are letting go.  Allyson maintains that this process enables us to live our life with greater wisdom and skills and greater compassion towards others.

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

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

Resting in Your Body

Vy Van Le provides a guided meditation podcast focused on becoming reacquainted with your body as part of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) weekly meditation sessions conducted in person at the Hammer Museum and online via Zoom.  Vy is a highly qualified mindfulness trainer and coach who facilitates the Mindful Awareness Practices Classes at MARC, UCLA. 

Vy’s background before becoming a mindfulness practitioner and trainer was in maths, biotech business development and management consulting.  Through mindfulness practice and training, she realised that she spent so much time in her head, disconnected from her body.  She could relate to James Joyce’s comment in The Dubliners , “Mr. Puddy lived a short distance from his body”.  This realisation led her to focus on embodiment mindful practices and to provide mindfulness training to individuals of all ages ranging from teenagers to retirees, as well as professionals particularly those in healthcare.

Vy contends that we are often numb to our bodies and that it is important to cultivate a relationship with our body and the intuitive wisdom and “gut feeling” of our body.  She maintains that the body is a doorway to the present moment and bodily awareness is a means of developing self-compassion and aliveness.  Vy argues that somatic meditation can help us to achieve a genuine connection with ourselves in a world where disconnection is a source of widespread depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.

Guided meditation for resting in your body

In the guided meditation podcast, Vy encourages you to concentrate on bodily sensations as you undertake a body scan.  Her scan process is focused more on awareness of bodily sensations than release of related tension in specific bodily parts.  However, one of the participants in her recent meditation session commented that “her shoulders were relaxed by the end of the meditation”, instead of raised in a tense position “as if carrying the weight of the world”.

Vy encourages you to progressively scan your body which is something that you can do at anytime or anywhere.  You might, for instance, notice the following sensations in parts of your body indicated below;

  • Thighs – the pressure from your chair or floor; muscle movement or tautness; sense of being held up/supported
  • Feet – sense of groundedness and connection to the earth; swelling or numbness; soreness from walking or running
  • Toes – tingling; flexing; cramping; alive or lifeless
  • Shoulders – soreness; stiffness; arched or compacted; strong or week
  • Fingers – tingling; stiffness; knuckle soreness; sense of control
  • Forehead – tightness; creasing; pain; agitation; clarity or calmness
  • Arms – muscle twitching; aches; sense of strength and self-reliance
  • Knees – softness behind the knee; soreness or tingling; sense of being supported
  • Chest or abdomen – the rise and fall with breathing; tight or relaxed
  • Nose – warmth or coolness from the in and out breath; blocked or open.

Your breath, feet and fingers can be anchors in this developing sea of awareness about your body.  You can re-focus on any of these aspects if your mind becomes a source of distraction.  Repeatedly returning to an anchor develops your awareness muscle and heightens your connectedness to your body.

While it is useful for you to undertake this form of body scan meditation yourself as a regular practice, it is really helpful in establishing the practice to be guided by a skill facilitator like Vy.  This enables you to concentrate on your inner and outer bodily sensations and not have to think about the next step – to just go with the flow of her guidance. 

Reflection

I found this guided meditation, led by Vy, to be particularly restful.  It developed a sense of resting in my body, away from the thoughts and cares of the world.  There is something peaceful and encouraging about being fully connected with your own body.  In lots of ways, this body scan meditation can be a source of refuge in difficult times.  It is amazing how often we ignore our body –  even trying to “soldier on” when we are experiencing post-traumatic stress effects from adverse childhood or adult experiences. 

Oprah Winfrey provides evidence of this “masking” in her co-authored book, What Happened to You?, when she quotes a discussion with Cynthia Bond, author of Ruby,   Cynthis described the devastating impact on her whole life and career from trauma, including sexual abuse as a child.   Cynthia explained that she tried unsuccessfully to “bury it”, hoping “that the ache would go away”.

The guided scan mediation offered by Vy helps us to grow in mindfulness – to become increasingly self-aware in relation to our body, to develop a sense of self-gentleness and self-compassion and to become more fully alive and present to our current reality. 

I realised during the course of the guided meditation that my mindfulness practice when waiting, e.g., at traffic lights, is a form of embodied meditation.  Instead of becoming annoyed with the traffic or particular drivers, I focus on my joined fingers that are resting on my lap and concentrate on the sensations I am experiencing through my fingertips, e.g., warmth, tingling, blood flow, and soreness (sometimes).   This embodied practice is really grounding for me and increases my bodily awareness.

Embodiment has become a strongly emerging theme in the mindfulness movement, e.g., The Embodiment Conference provides access to many experts in areas such as dance and creativity, yoga, trauma and social change, and movement and anatomy.  Free access is provided from 10th-14th December 2022.

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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.

Manage Emotions through Savoring Life

Allyson Pimentel in a recent meditation podcast reminds us to savour life and the opportunities it presents to experience positive emotions such as joy, appreciation and love.   Allyson describes “savoring” as a form of mindfulness with a specific focus and purpose – in savoring we pay attention to the things that we enjoy and relish, lingering on the positive feelings that emerge spontaneously when we focus on what is good in our life.  While savoring is pleasurable, it does not deny the reality of what is difficult in our life such as challenging emotions.  However, this practice enables us to bring positivity to our life by paying attention to “what feels good, what provides relief”.

There are very clear benefits of savoring, including increased happiness, improved physical and mental health and better performance.    Research has shown that both older people and younger students experience greater happiness through savoring, not only from savoring what is present in their life at the moment but also what they have experienced in the past.  Savoring can lead to optimism about the future, improved self-esteem and greater resilience in the face of stress.  People who savour life bring appreciation and positivity to their relationships, enhance their performance through clearer focus and concentration, and gain greater access to their intuition and creativity – partly because they are not burdened or blinded by negative thoughts and an inherently, human negative bias.

Guided meditation

Allyson encourages us at the outset to make ourselves comfortable in whatever posture we choose as a prelude to the experience of pleasure through the savoring of sensations.  She begins the meditation practice by encouraging us to focus on a part of the body that brings ease or pleasure at the moment.  It could be the firmness of the feet on the ground and the attendant sense of security, the tingling and warmth in fingers that are joined together or the sensation of our thighs pressing against the chair.  She also suggests that this savoring meditation can be taken outdoors and enhanced by the experience of nature – its beauty, sounds, diversity and smells.

Once we find a bodily focus for the experience of ease, Allyson encourages us to bathe in the positive sensations associated with the pleasurable feelings.  This may mean, for instance, paying sustained attention to the tingling in our joined fingers while feeling the sense of relaxation and calm as our breathing itself slows and we become free from our continuous focus on our thoughts.  This process is fundamentally becoming grounded in the here-and-now experience of our pleasurable bodily sensations and bringing full awareness to their impact on us and our sense of ease and pleasure.

Next, Allyson asks us to recall a recent event that we found pleasurable and a source of joy.  It could be a recent interaction with someone new, an experience of competence when cooking or playing an instrument or any activity that we can recall as a source of pleasure.  She suggests that we recapture the feelings of the moment of that activity and bathe in the feelings and attendant bodily sensations – did we find ourselves relaxing, appreciating what we have, sensing a connection, enjoying conversation or valuing someone’s company and friendship?  I found for this activity that I recalled an interaction with someone I had not met before who was interested in what I do and have done, who shared some of their own story and rapidly built rapport through a communicated sense of curiosity, interest and shared common experiences.  It left me with a sense of warmth, strengthened self-esteem and feelings of connectedness.

Allyson then asks us to choose another recent activity/event that was a source of pleasure and again recapture the feelings of joy and ease as we bring the activity/event into focus, bathing in our positive feelings and bodily sensations.  For this second reflection, I recalled my recent experience of being able to play my tennis shots more consistently, to recapture shots I have been unable to play for a while and to feel more comfortable and at ease with my game.  I bathed in my sense of restored competence, the unsolicited praise of my tennis partners, and the comments from my opponents expressing appreciation for the extended and challenging rallies.  I recaptured my feelings of joy in being able to experience competence that has come from many years of playing and competing in tennis fixtures.  This flowed into an overall appreciation of the ability to play tennis that has enabled me to play social games in France, England, New Zealand and New Guinea – a passport to engagement and connection with others wherever they reside.

Reflection

Savouring the people, events and things in our everyday life enables us in grow in mindfulness through being mindful of the many aspects of our life as they occur – it does not require formal meditation (although the capacity to savour can be enhanced by guided meditations such as that provided by Allyson).

Our everyday life is full of opportunities to appreciate, and express gratitude for, the things that bring us joy and a sense of pleasure and relief – savouring can serve as an oasis amidst the busyness and challenges of life.  Over time, we can develop a growing awareness of the sources of pleasure in our lives and enhance their positive impact on us and our relationships.

There is so much we can savour – the development of our children, friendships, our achievements and rewards, the joy of others, and life itself.  Allyson quotes Adrienne Maree Brown, author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, who argues that there is freedom in savoring pleasure and that it “feels good to do good” in the world.  Blair Christie, in her TED Talk “The Simple Act of Marveling”, argues that this savoring activity can “take you on a journey that leads to action” that can change our world and the world at large.  Marveling, she suggests, is a great source of grounding and stress release.

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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.

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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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.

Meditating on Nature and Gratitude

Mark Coleman provides a guided meditation podcast on nature and gratitude that reinforces the theme of his work which is to “bring awareness to every aspect of our experience”.  He maintains that this form of meditation is designed to cultivate “a grateful heart and appreciative mind”.  He argues that appreciation of nature is not just an intellectual exercise but involves a heartfelt engagement with nature and its beauty, variety and expansiveness.  In the meditation, he steps us through various ways of focusing on elements of nature so that we can express our gratitude and appreciation for all that exists around us.

Paying attention to the elements of nature

As he progresses through the guided meditation, Mark draws our attention to different elements of nature that are readily accessible to us but often overlooked or cursorily observed.  Below are some of the elements that he encourages us to pay closer attention to, with a grateful heart and appreciative mind:

  • Sunrise – we can look at a sunrise and marvel at its magnitude, the endless changing patterns and shapes of clouds and colour of the sky.  In my location, near the bay and a large marina, I have the additional opportunity to observe the outlines of boats and sails reflected in the water as the sun rises of a morning – something that is a continuous source of amazement.   The presence of photographers lining the foreshore with their tripods attests to the beauty of the morning sunrise over the water and its power to attract attention.  The sunrise heralds a day of potential and promise.
  • Sounds– we often experience the sounds of birds as background noise rather than something that we notice and consciously pay attention to.  We can distinguish the cooing of doves nestling and nesting in trees, the squawking of rainbow lorikeets, the enthusiastic sound of kookaburras welcoming the morning’s light and the penetrating call of the curlew piercing the stillness and silence of the night.  The eerie curlew’s call and its hypnotic effect are exquisitely captured by Karen Manton in her novel, The Curlew’s Eye.
  • Flight patterns of birds – we can learn to pay attention to the flight patterns of different birds. We can come to appreciate the speedy swooping and swerving of swallows as they skim across the water or fly rapidly around building structures, the quiet flight and landing of pairs of rosellas or the raucous, flighty behaviour of large flocks of lorikeets, especially at dusk near the seaside (or bayside, in my location).  We can also notice the tentative steps and flight of baby birds and their incessant cries for food.
  • Rain – we can pay attention to the sounds of rain and appreciate its role in invigorating plants, filling depleted dams and providing life-giving resources to communities of people and animals devastated by fire or drought.  In another podcast, Mark reminds us of the capacity of rain to increase our awareness of the interconnectedness of nature.  Rainbows that accompany rain are a continuous source of wonder. 
  • Our own body – Mark reminds us to notice and admire the miracle of our own body – its complexity, utility, inner connectedness and interconnectedness with nature.  He suggests that we pay attention (with appreciation) to the oxygen that we absorb from trees and plants, while acknowledging how valuable and mysterious is this interplay between humans and nature.  The recent research on the role of our microbiome and its connection to illness, inflammation and eyesight, reminds us that, despite the wealth of knowledge, scientific methods and technology, our experts are still trying to fathom the depths of the mystery of our bodies and minds and their interconnectedness.  We are just beginning to learn about the intelligence of the heart and of the gut.  The HeartMath Institute helps us to understand heart-brain science and to access “the heart’s intuitive guidance” through achieving “coherent alignment” of our physical, emotional and mental systems.   We can learn to appreciate and value our brain and our own special capabilities such as analytical skills, capacity to see patterns, attention to detail, creativity and/or strategic thinking.  Through appreciating these capacities, we will savour our subconscious mind and readily “mind our brain”.
  • Our breath – the breath reinforces the miracle of life.  We know that people who experienced the COVID19 virus often had severe difficulties breathing.   Our breath is normally so automatic (luckily!) that we take it for granted.  Mindful breathing can enable us to be grateful for each breath, to develop our self-awareness and access calmness and equanimity.  Richard Wolf, author of In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness, encourages us to listen to the “sonic qualities” of our breath and offers ways to tune our breath to music beats – what he calls “breathing in time

Reflection

Meditating on nature and gratitude encourages us to open up our senses and consciously pay attention to the world around us.  It makes us appreciate that we can hear, smell, see, touch and taste (if these senses are intact).  Many things we take for granted such as smell and taste were lost to people suffering from the COVID19 virus.  It’s often through the temporary loss of things that we learn to appreciate them.  Ideally our sense of gratitude is always present and often expressed even through micro-gestures.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation, observation and reflection, we can more readily develop a grateful heart and appreciative mind, enhance our sense of wonder and awe, and savour what we have in our everyday lives.  Mantra meditations can be very helpful in enabling us to appreciate nature, our mind-body connection and the interconnection of everything.  Lulu & Mischka’s mantra meditation, Stillness in Motion, performed while sailing and singing with whales, reminds us of our connection with the earth, the stars, the waves and the light in other people’s eyes.

Environmental educator, Costa Georgiadis, maintains that our connection to nature and appreciation of all that it offers begins with gardening in our own “backyard”.  He offers multiple ways to get closer to nature and appreciate what it has to offer in his new book, Costa’s World: Gardening for the SOIL, the SOUL and the SUBURBS.

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Image by Anh Lê khắc 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 of Our Immediate Environment

Costa Georgiadis maintains that a return to the simple things of life, such as a home garden, is essential in these challenging times.  Costa is an environmental educator, TV presenter, landscape architect and host of ABC’s Gardening Australia.  His passion for sustainability has its origins in the care and concern for the environment instilled into him at an early age by his grandparents.  His recent book, Costa’s World: Gardening for the SOIL, the SOUL and the SUBURBS, is more than a wonderfully illustrated and informative gardening book – its is really a book about living and restoring, replenishing and re-invigorating our immediate home environment.  He argues for achieving biodiversity, reducing waste and living mindfully in our immediate environment.

Costa contends that at the heart of sustainability is the ability to separate needs from wants – something we do when we go camping.  He uses the analogy that we are “campers” on this earth and we need to be conscious of our imprint day to day, while being able to create an environment that nurtures, protects and sustains us .  His book is imbued with his enthusiasm, humour, energy, conviction and down-to earth practicality.

Getting to know our microenvironment

Costa is a great believer in diaries and logs for getting to know our microenvironment – he argues that grounded data is pure gold.  He also maintains that we really need to get to know microclimates – to understand the climate of our neighbourhood in terms of the variability of the temperature, the timing and volume of rain, and the extremes of heat and cold.   Costa argues that we have to inform ourselves of our local, grounded seasons not just the four traditional European seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – that we are familiar with.  He suggests that we can draw on indigenous knowledge  and descriptions of seasons to better inform ourselves.  He reminds us that seasons shape our lives – they influence what we eat, what we wear, how we spend our time, and the amount of time we spend indoors or outdoors.

Costa has a series of questions that we can ask ourselves to better understand our immediate environment.  They cover issues such as the source of prevailing winds, the physical landscape, tree placements and impacts of fences and structures.  He argues that developing awareness about these environmental elements and the location of our living space can helps us to prevent waste, save energy and invest time and energy in productive, sustainable practices.

Sustaining and regenerating our microenvironment

Throughout his book, Costa provides multiple ways we can restore, replenish and enrich the biodiversity of our immediate environment – the source of life and sustainability.   Here are some of the areas that he explores with practical hints on how to progress them:

  • Composting – Costa contends that in composting we are “bringing dead things back to life”.  He argues that anyone can compost as all the required materials are readily available – kitchen food scraps, leaves, grass clippings, used newspapers, paper & cardboard, twigs and sticks.  He provides detailed instructions with clear illustrations to get us started and practical ways to make the ongoing process easy.  He contends that in composting we are reducing waste and landfill, developing great soil and “making new friends in the community” by inviting worms and multiple insects to break down the composting ingredients. Birds too will happily visit to feed on the worms and contribute their droppings.  He also recommends the ShareWaste app as a way to engage a wider community of people in your local area in the composting process.
  • Enriching our soil – Costa maintains that “healthy soil is teeming with life”.  He encourages us to really observe our soil – its colour, texture, feel, and smell.  He offers multiple ways to test our soil and to enrich it, all the while raising awareness about the soil needs of different plants such as native and indigenous plants.  Costa encourages us to develop a partnership with our soil which is critical to our survival individually and as a species.  Composting has a key role here as it not only increases organic matter in our soil but enables us to get closer to the soil by investing time and energy in regenerating it.
  • Reducing water usage – being conscious of our consumption and waste of water.  Costa suggests that a salutary lesson is to observe the number of times in a day that we access a water outlet and to ask ourselves how we can reduce our water use. 
  • Plastic-free initiatives – here Costa encourages us to start “breaking up with plastic” by reducing our dependence on it.  He offers ways to achieve this “breakup” which include avoiding the use of plastic straws, drink bottles, and cutlery.  He also encourages us to influence others to overcome the habit of single-use plastic which has become so much a part of our lives in modern times..
  • Conscious consumption – Costa suggests that we become conscious of the origins and ingredients of our consumable items such as coffee, tea, clothes, soaps, detergents and toilet paper.  He provides a series of questions we can ask ourselves to increase our awareness of the impact of these consumables on our microenvironment.  

Reflection

I feel that I have not done justice to Costa’s book in this brief review.  He achieves a wonderful balance between depth of information and practicality of application.  His book is replete with examples, activities, projects and guides as well as reinforcing illustrations and quotes.  His enthusiasm for replenishing our immediate environments is motivating and energising. Costa shares a lifetime of study, research and education in his book and maintains that activism for us is “performing day-to-day actions” in our microenvironments.

As we grow in mindfulness through time spent in nature, gardening and observing our immediate environment, we can better appreciate our world, contribute to sustainability and develop an improved environment for succeeding generations.  Gardening can enhance our awareness, give us greater access to the healing power of nature and enrich our lives through increased texture, colour, feel and interest.  It also gives us the opportunity to learn as we try out new plants, locations and soil enrichments – we can learn through doing and reflecting on the outcomes both intended and unintended.

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Image by phamphuonglinh 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.

Barriers to Overcoming the Anxiety Habit Loop

In previous posts I have discussed Judson Brewer’s concept of the habit loop underpinning anxiety, addiction and craving and his mindfulness processes for overcoming anxiety.  Central to his process for overcoming anxiety, is understanding the trigger-behaviour-reward process, the need to honestly and openly explore the realised rewards and costs of a particular behaviour and the willingness to update the reward value in our mind in the light of this learning.  In this post on barriers to using Judson’s process to overcome anxiety, I will explore further some of the ideas presented in his book, Unwinding Anxiety: Train Your Brain to Heal Your Mind.  I will also link this discussion to other ideas on barriers to mindfulness that I have written about earlier. 

Barriers to overcoming the anxiety habit loop

Below are some of the barriers I have identified in reading Judson’s book but supplemented by my earlier discussions:

  • Obsession with the news – we can feast on the news as if our lives depended on it.  At every opportunity, we might be seen accessing our mobile phones to find out the latest news.   We can do this while waiting, instead of using this down-time to build our awareness.   The problem is that the news is typically dominated by adverse events and people’s suffering as well as portents of disaster.  It is often unnerving, adds to anxiety and causes disquiet.  If we become obsessed with the news, we are not creating the space for stillness and calm that would enable us to be mindful about our habituated behaviour and its real rewards (outcomes). 
  • Closed worldview – pursuing the news is what Judson describes as “deprivation curiosity” where our motivation is to address a deficit in our knowledge where the reward is discovery of the up-to-date information.  However, this process constitutes a closed system because closure is achieved once the void (missing information) is filled.  We can also adopt a closed worldview by trying to protect ourselves from disconcerting or uncomfortable information, and related feelings, about our habituated behaviour and its impact on our wellbeing and the welfare of others.  Judson argues that what we need to pursue is “interest curiosity” where the process of curiosity is reward in itself because it is open-ended, never dries up and exposes us to the rewards of joy, wonder and awe.  He suggests that interest curiosity feels better when we compare it to “the scratchy, closed-down itch of deprivation”.
  • Review and regret approach – this habituated behaviour constitutes another closed circuit in that it leads us to self-flagellation and negative self-appraisal whenever we revert to our bad habit or make a mistake.   Judson suggests that what is needed here is “forgiveness and moving on and up”.  This reflective approach opens the way to real learning and sustained habit change.  We can beat up on ourself for mistakes but this only feeds the anxiety habit cycle and contributes to depression.  In contrast, If we adopt a growth mindset, we can see each experience, and attempt to overcome our anxiety habit loop, as an opportunity to learn and grow.  Our actions serve to give us feedback about outcomes, both intended and unintended – and this is the way we learn.
  • Lacking persistence – in this era of the desire for immediate satisfaction, it is easy to lose heart and give up before our goal is realised, even if we have made some progress along the way to reducing our anxiety level.  We can overlook the fact that our habituated behaviour has been developed over many years and, in some instances, has resulted from a traumatic event or adverse childhood experience.  It will take a concerted effort over an extended period of time to overcome an anxiety habit loop.   Judson suggests that it will take “short moments, many times” and a willingness to persist with the process of “kind curiosity” to unearth our anxiety habit loop and the underpinning reward system. 
  • Unchanged reward value – we can mindlessly accept the existing reward value that keeps our anxiety habit loop locked in thus creating a barrier to change.  Alternatively, we can actively seek to update our reward value with disenchanting information (which we typically ignore).  We tend to see only the positive aspects of a habituated behaviour (e.g. avoidance of discomfort, pain, embarrassment  or hurtful self-disclosure).  Judson likens this barrier to a “chocolate experiment” where people failed to realise when eating more and more chocolate turned an otherwise pleasurable experience into one that caused displeasure.  We can either not notice or ignore the “turning point” and fail to develop a real updated, assessment of a reward value.   This often occurs with people whose underlying anxiety drives a habit of procrastination.
  • Focus on reasoning rather than feeling – Judson argues that thinking and rationalisation will only go so far in terms of sustainable habit change.  While as humans we need thinking to problem solve, be creative and plan, rational argument has little impact on entrenched habits.  A more holistic approach of sustained personal inquiry is required to unearth not only our thoughts but emotions and bodily sensations that inform us about what is happening in the moment when we resort to our habituated responses. Focusing on our feelings in the moment gives us a way to understand the drivers behind habit formation and maintenance, and enables us to develop the requisite insight to update our “reward value” of the habituated behaviour.

Ways to overcome the barriers to unwinding anxiety

In his Unwinding Anxiety book, Judson discusses a one-week silent retreat that he and a colleague provided for members of the US women’s Olympic water-polo team (who were back to back gold medal winners).  He explained that a real breakthrough for members of the team in developing holistic, interest curiosity was achieved by having participants repeat the sound “hmm” as a mantra.   This sound when repeated tends to engender openness, wonder and awe while clearing the mind of its tendency to engage in worry and negative self-judgment.  Judson suggests that this practice can be employed whenever we become stuck in our meditation attempts, experience panic or encounter internal barriers to overcoming our anxiety habit loop.  It enables us to tap into bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions.

Judson also provides a process for experiencing a closed versus an open mindset.  This entails recalling in full colour and richness an anxious event followed by recalling a joyful event.  He explains that this process of observing bodily sensations generated by the different events forms part of the first day of his Unwinding Anxiety app.

Another source of encouragement to maintain persistence and adopt an open, learning mindset is provided by Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Metamorphosis.  The words of this mantra effectively describe the process of the sustained effort and open mindset required to achieve transformative change and encourages us to “not give up” but “trust the process” and be open to breaking with our old ways.  If we sing the mantra along with Lulu & Mischka, we can reinforce our desire to persist until we overcome our anxiety habit.

Reflection

Clearly the unwinding anxiety process proposed by Judson has application in many arenas, including in sports.   This got me thinking about an issue I am having with my tennis game when playing social tennis.   I have played tennis since I was about 12 years old (and probably earlier but I can’t think back that far).  I have used a single-handed backhand all my life but as I get older, my wrists and arms are becoming weaker (despite my occasional efforts to strengthen them with exercises).  So, for my 75th birthday, I requested three tennis lessons from a coach to learn how to do a double-handed backhand.  By the end of the third half hour lesson, I could manage a rally with the coach using my newly “acquired” double-handed backhand.  The problem is that I am experiencing an emotional blockage that is stopping me from using the new stroke at social tennis – I keep reverting to my single-handed backhand.

When I read about the habit loop and the need to change/update the reward value (in my mind) attributed to a particular behaviour in order to change the habit, I realised that what was keeping my old habit (single-handed backhand) in place was the failure to update the reward value of this behaviour.  I still seemed to be assuming that it was a reliable stroke preventing me from making mistakes and enabling me to keep the ball in play or win a rally.  The reality is that my single-handed backhand is no longer reliable and I do make lots of mistakes with it.  So I need to update the reward value that I attribute to this stroke and accept that in the earlier stages of a changeover to the new double-handed stroke, I will probably make more mistakes.  However, the bigger, better offer (BBO) is a stronger, double-handed stroke capable of winning a rally.  By being unwilling to use my double-handed backhand, I am adopting a closed mindset and depriving myself of the opportunity to learn through doing and reflecting on the outcomes.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, kind curiosity and mantra meditations, we can develop the persistence and courage to explore our anxiety habit loop and its reward value.  With a sustained concerted effort, we can begin to overcome our anxiety habit loop as we update our reward value and develop substitute rewards that are bigger and better than what we currently rely on, consciously or unconsciously.

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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.

Developing Awareness to Overcome Anxiety

Judson Brewer, world-renowned clinical psychologist and neuroscientist, maintains that mindfulness through a three-geared awareness process can break the anxiety habit loop.  His latest book,  Unwinding Anxiety: Train Your Brain to Heal Your Mind, provides a guide on how to develop the requisite awareness.  His clinical practice and scientific research in relation to cravings and addictions, the focus of his first book The Craving Mind, led naturally to his understanding of anxiety and how the anxiety habit is formed and overcome.

Judson argues that anxiety hides in our habits.  Underpinning cravings, addiction and anxiety is the fundamental habit loop which develops through operant conditioning – reinforcement of a behaviour through a rewards system.  We experience some kind of trigger which leads to a habituated response that brings a personalised reward.  For example, if you experience a stressful event/day (trigger), you might come home and have a drink of alcohol (behaviour) which enables you to deaden your distress and distracts you from it (reward).  In the process, you are setting up a habit loop which becomes increasingly entrenched because your behavioural response (drinking alcohol) becomes habituated and you progressively need more and more alcohol to deaden the pain and achieve the necessary level of distraction.     

The reward value concept

Judson explains in his latest book that the reward experienced after a habituated behaviour is not a single element creating the habit.  According to him, the way the brain works is that it establishes a reward value for a particular behavioural response that not only involves the present moment reward but also the recollection of the accumulated rewards associated with prior occurrences of that behavioural response.   So, the reward value attributed by the brain to a behavioural response (such as drinking alcohol after a stress trigger) is an accumulation of prior experiences that were deemed positive (such as drinking alcohol in good company in a stunning location) – all of which can distort the real value of the reward and further entrench the behaviour.

Breaking the habit loop or anxiety cycle

Judson points out that the way to break the habit loop or anxiety cycle involves fundamentally developing awareness of the habit loop and establishing a realistic and holistic assessment of the “reward” in the present moment.  For example, if our to-do list acts as an anxiety trigger leading to procrastination (behaviour) which provides the reward of avoidance, we can in-the-moment recall that the procrastination behaviour itself has adverse effects such as leading to criticism for delays and/or intensifying the level of experienced anxiety.   This heightened awareness may also be developed “reflexively” (reflecting on the trigger-behaviour-reward loop after the event) if the experience is relatively recent and the recall is rich in content.  These options of present moment awareness or reflexivity relate to what we have discussed previously as reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. 

Developing holistic awareness

The fundamental problem with a habit loop is that our recall is often biased and defective.  We tend to overlook the adverse effects of a behavioural response and focus only on the positive, immediate effects (such as deadening or distraction).  In developing awareness of a habit loop or chronic anxiety, we need to adopt a more holistic and balanced approach – we need to become aware of the impacts of a behavioural response on our bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings as well as broader impacts such as on our work, our relationships and our environment.  Just providing an intellectual rationalisation for the desired changed behaviour is normally not enough to create the behaviour we desire – it ignores the power of emotions embedded in bodily sensations.  Judson points out that our survival needs (manifested through difficult emotions and bodily sensations) are more powerful than our need to overcome “cognitive dissonance” (where our rationalisations of a behavioural response conflict with our evidence-based experience).

Kind curiosity

Judson encourages the pursuit of “kind curiosity” to enable us to develop a more holistic and realistic assessment of the personally assigned “reward value” of a behavioural response.  Curiosity is a natural habit (evident in children and somewhat deadened in adults because of “mass distraction”) that can be encouraged and cultivated.  Unfettered curiosity can lead to unearthing disconcerting facts that may disarm, disillusion or distress us – it can challenge our self-concept in relation to our sense wholeness and genuine goodness.  Judson points out the importance of accompanying this heightened curiosity with forgiveness and loving kindness towards ourself – hence, the concept of kind curiosity.  Interestingly, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness includes the concept of purposefully paying attention in the present moment and doing so “non-judgmentally”.

Reflection

Once-off awareness raising is most likely to be ineffective in changing a habit and is definitely not going to overcome chronic anxiety.  We cannot expect to overcome habits that are entrenched and developed over many years (often since childhood). What is required is sustained kind curiosity and ongoing awareness raising.  Through sustained effort, we can substitute a more realistic reward value for the one that we have developed in our mind over time – which is why Judson suggests that we can unwind our anxiety by training our brain, through awareness training, to heal our mind.  Over time, too, we can develop what he calls a “bigger, better offer” (BBO) to offset the current reward value driving the existing anxiety habit loop.  He suggests that mindfulness might “fit the bill” here as it provides a wide range of benefits, without the adverse effect of substituting one bad habit for another (e.g. substituting lollies for alcohol).

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become aware of our triggers, our habituated behavioural responses and gain insight into the reward value that we attribute to our responses.  We can also learn to substitute more rewarding responses that will encourage the development of changed habits that have positive outcomes.  If we revert to old habits in times of extreme stress, it is important to avoid negative self-talk and self-denigrations and we can do this by extending forgiveness to ourself.

Throughout his book on anxiety, Judson draws on illustrations and validation from users of hist three  apps focused on cravings (e.g. over-eating), addiction (e.g. to smoking) and anxiety.  What these app-based programs provide is a readily accessible way to monitor yourself throughout the day and progressively substitute holistic rewards for those that are currently entrenching unhealthy habits.

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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.