Natural Awareness through Nature

Natural awareness is often contrasted with meditation focused on numbers, the breath, sounds or particular sensations or feelings.  Natural awareness is not goal-focused – it is more about being aware of awareness itself, noticing that you are noticing.  So much of what we do in life is goal-focused – natural awareness provides a desirable shift that can lead to less stress, more openness and a greater sense of calm.  Rachelle Calvert encourages us to take our mindfulness practice outside so that we can feel more connected to the world around us and not be totally absorbed in having to “try” or “do”.   She draws on research results that demonstrate that “practicing mindfulness in nature”, leads to many benefits including improved heart health, concentration, relaxation and stress reduction.  Mark Coleman reminds us that a natural outcome of being mindful in nature is a sense of gratitude as well as wonder and awe inspired by nature’s beauty and resilience.

By developing natural awareness in nature through observation and listening, we can become more grounded, experience tranquility and begin to notice minute aspects of our natural environment that we have previously overlooked.   Diana Winston in her book, The Little Book of Being, identifies practices we can use to develop natural awareness and offers what she calls “markers” to test whether or not we have experienced “natural awareness”.   These include feelings of timelessness and ease; noticing that you are noticing; completely aware with all your senses open to your environment; and a restful mind that is open to what is passing by. 

An experience of natural awareness

I was recently strolling along the Mooloolaba Beach Boardwalk noticing the people passing by – couples of all ages out for a walk, men and women pushing prams, individuals leading dogs on a leash and the perennial runners, both individuals and groups.  Occasionally, a bush turkey would cross my path on its way to greener pastures.  While being aware of these movements, I was totally unaware of the vegetation beside the Boardwalk.  Once I realised this lack of awareness, I began to scan the vegetation either side of the path.  I became aware of tiny wildflowers partially hidden amongst the trees and grasses, trees twisted sideways turning towards the sun and all different kinds of leaves (broad and large, thin and small).  This cultivated, natural awareness enabled me to broaden the horizon of my awareness and instilled a greater sense of calm as I walked mindfully along the Boardwalk.

Diana Winston offers an exercise to experience what she calls, “the spectrum of awareness” – moving from a very narrow focus to a more panoramic, natural awareness view.  She uses fish in an aquarium for this exercise, moving from focus on a single plant, to movement of an individual fish and, finally, to a panoramic view taking in the fish, the aquarium and the surrounding environment.  As she observes as part of this exercise, natural awareness includes noticing our own bodily sensations and feelings in the present moment as we are experiencing the world around us with openness and curiosity.

Reflection

We can develop natural awareness through our everyday activities if we adopt a mindset that involves consciously noticing what we are doing and seeing, as well as what we are experiencing internally.  Diana Winston suggests that we can develop natural awareness even when doing the dishes; when we expertly handle a distraction while meditating; when consciously avoid foods that lead to inflammation or when we monitor how we spend our time. 

Focused meditation helps to develop natural awareness as we become increasing able to concentrate and pay attention with openness and curiosity.  As we grow in mindfulness through developing our capacity for natural awareness and engaging in formal meditation, we can experience a greater sense of tranquility, freedom from anxiety and a more complete alignment of our words and actions with our values and life purpose.

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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.

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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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.

Developing a Sense of Belonging through Mindfulness

In this era of widespread depression, loneliness and disconnection, it becomes critically important to rediscover and enhance our sense of connection.  Allyson Pimentel, in one of the UCLA guided meditation podcasts, reminds us that mindfulness can ignite our sense of belonging to ourselves, other people and the earth.  Mindfulness is a pathway to reaffirming our connectedness to everything.   In the podcast, Allyson draws on the book by Sebene Selassie, You Belong: A Call to Connection.  Selene makes a profound case for our connectedness, despite differences, when she writes, “although not one, not separate” and “although not separate, not the same”.  She affirms that much of life is paradoxical, but to deny this is to turn a blind eye to the reality of our human existence on earth. 

Allyson argues that the “delusion of separateness” contributes to depression and loneliness.  She states that we all belong “in every moment and to everything” despite our traumas, injustice and racism in the world, differences in language – culture – philosophy, the presence of hate and division, and the pervasive sense of disconnection and meaninglessness.  Building a sense of connection and belonging heals wounds and divisions, contributes to positive mental health and enriches our lived experience through joy, wonder, relatedness and consciously “being with”.  Mindfulness, with its focus on what is happening now and doing so with openness, curiosity and acceptance, intensifies our sense of belonging.  Paradoxically, being still and silent leads us to compassionate action towards others through recognition of our connectedness.

At any point in time, we can sense our connection to the community of people throughout the world who are meditating, doing Tai Chi or engaging in some other mindfulness practice; or experiencing chronic pain; or dealing with the impacts of adverse childhood experiences or other trauma; or trying to manage grief; or attempting to overcome an addiction or craving; or are experiencing anxiety and depression; or any other manifestation of the human condition.  We can also become more conscious of our connection to every other living being as well as our connection with nature.

Guided meditation on belonging

At the beginning of her guided meditation, Allyson encourages us to take a number of deep breaths so that we can feel the connection with the air and our surrounds as well as begin to become more grounded and connected to ourselves. At this point, I was reminded of Lulu & Mischka’s mantra meditation, Rainbow Light and the words:

When I breathe into my heart

I breathe into the heart of all beings

After this initial grounding, Allyson encourages us to connect with our breath, sounds in the room and beyond or our bodily sensations. In connecting to the sounds surrounding us, we can become conscious of what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as the soundscape in his book, Coming to Our Senses.  Allyson reminds us to just absorb the sounds, not try to identify or interpret them or create a story about them – just be with sounds, another form of connection and belonging.  We can extend our awareness to our other senses or what Jon describes as the “lightscape”, “touchscape”, “smellscape, “tastescape” and, ultimately, our “mindscape” – “the vast empty spaciousness that is awareness itself”.

Allyson suggests that another way to feel connected and belonging is to focus on our bodily sensations related to being supported by our chair, cushion, bed or floor – whatever is connecting  our bodies to something solid and unmoving.  Being with these sensations reinforces our supported connectedness and sense of belonging.

Reflection

In the final analysis, we can choose to focus on our differences and what separates us or, alternatively, to increase our consciousness about our connection and belongingness.  As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation, mantras, and daily mindfulness practices, we can gain an increased sense of connection and belonging and draw support and positive emotions from this growing awareness.

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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.

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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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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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 Your Thoughts with Mindfulness Meditation

Diana Winston, Mindfulness Educator at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), offers a guided meditation podcast on the topic, Working with Thoughts.  Diana reminds us that mindfulness involves paying attention in the midst of present moment experience and doing so on purpose and with a spirit of openness, curiosity, and acceptance.  She highlights the role of thoughts in our life and the possibility that they have been intensified and accelerated by the local and global experience of the pandemic.  Thoughts can arise anywhere, at any time, and in any location.  When we are in isolation, our thoughts may be about what we are missing out on or express fear about what might happen to us. 

Our thoughts can be helpful and highly productive at times leading to creative endeavours, compassionate action, or timely interventions in our own life or that of others.  Alternatively, they may be decidedly unhelpful, leading to self-loathing, inaction, or continuous suffering.  Thoughts are integral to our human existence – we have active brains constantly processing information coming through our senses.  We can manage our thoughts through mindfulness meditation if we understand how our thoughts can distract us and take over our everyday experience.

A fundamental principle espoused by Jon Kabat-Zinn is that “we are not our thoughts”.  Diana refers to the related Bumper Sticker that reads, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”.  We can easily become caught up in negative self-thoughts that become an endless cycle of devaluing ourselves and what we achieve in our daily lives.  Mindfulness meditation can help us to experience self-compassion and develop a balanced sense of our uniqueness and our accomplishments.

We can become “lost in thought”, unaware of what is going on around us or inside us.  This preoccupation with our thoughts can lead to self-absorption, a lack of awareness and insensitive words and actions.  We can often relate to James Joyce’s comment in The Dubliners that “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body”.

A guided meditation to manage your thoughts – returning to your body

In her meditation podcast, Diana encourages you to focus on your body.  She starts with a focus on posture and the sensation of your feet on the ground or floor and suggests that you first take a few deep breaths to help ground you in the present.  Her light body scan helps you to be aware of tension points in your body and to release any uptightness that may have resulted from your thoughts. You are encouraged to be conscious of any manifestation in your body of any unhelpful or harmful thoughts and to let them go.

Release from your negative thoughts and attendant painful bodily sensations is achieved through focusing on your meditation anchor.  You might begin with a focus on your breathing and progress to deep listening to sounds (without attempting to think about the source or to explore their emotional impact on you).  Diana suggests that using your bodily sensations as an anchor can help to ground you in your body which exists in the present moment.  You can focus on a particular part of your body to achieve this grounding, e.g., the heaviness in your feet, the tingling in your arms or the sensation of energy flowing through your conjoined fingers.

Your meditation anchor provides a means of keeping you connected to your body and to stop you drifting away in your thoughts.  It becomes a point of continuous return – constantly revisiting your anchor builds your capacity to control your thoughts and develops your “awareness muscle”.

Diana also recommends “labelling your thoughts” – identifying what type of thinking process you are involved in, e.g., planning the next day, evaluating someone else’s performance, criticising another’s behaviour, or indulging in self-criticism.  Like naming your emotions, labelling your thoughts enables you to tame them and create some distance from your thought process.  Overtime with meditation practice, you can begin to discern any regular thinking pattern such as my pattern of continuously planning my “next steps” during the day.

Using imagery in meditation to dissolve your thoughts

Imagery in meditation can also help you to manage your thoughts.  Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that you view your thoughts as bubbles in boiling water that burst as they reach the surface of the water.  Diana uses clouds as an image for your thoughts.  She suggests that you view the sky itself as the openness and expansiveness of your mind while your thoughts are passing clouds.  Sometimes the clouds are heavy and dark bringing a sense of sadness or overwhelm; other times the clouds might be wispy and flighty leaving a sense of lightness and joy.  You can imagine the clouds coming and going, passing you by as you stay grounded in your body.

Using substitution in meditation to change your thinking

Diana encourages you at an appropriate time to cultivate compassionate thoughts or gratitude to push aside negative thoughts that persist.  Compassion can enable you to substitute thinking about yourself with kind thoughts towards others who may be experiencing difficulty or suffering.  Gratitude pushes aside any thoughts of resentment or envy and enables you to savour what you have in your life.  These healthy ways of thinking can lead to happiness, ease, and wellness.

Reflection

Mindfulness meditation enables us to move from being captured by our thoughts to being grounded in our body.  It builds the capacity to be fully present to the richness of the present moment – whether that is being alone in our room, experiencing the stillness and silence of nature or interacting with others.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can progressively gain control over our thoughts and become more open to the possibilities in our life.  Freed from the tyranny of expectations and our own thoughts, we can experience happiness and the ease of wellness.

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Image by Benjamin Balazs 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.

Insight Meditation for Peace and Happiness

Mark Coleman offers an insight meditation podcast as part of the extended bonuses of the upgrade version of the Nature Summit.  He introduces the guided meditation as a mindfulness practice that is in line with the Vipassana tradition which seeks to develop deep personal insight to gain a peaceful, happy, and productive life.  The Vipassana meditation approach involves in-depth insight practice over ten days in a residential training environment with a rigid discipline code designed to remove all external distractions and facilitate sustained awareness.

Insight meditation focuses on exploration of  our inner landscape by paying attention to aspects of life as it is experienced – whether that is our breathing, our listening, or our bodily sensations.  It seeks to enable the practitioner to “see things as they really are” and not be blinded by self-delusion, difficult emotions, negative thoughts, or intense bodily sensations.  This intense self-observation and self-exploration highlight the interdependence of mind, body, and emotions.

Guided insight meditation

Mark’s light-touch, 30-minute meditation utilises some of the principles of Vipassana without the rigidity of the discipline code or the residential requirement.  His approach in the guided meditation is intended “to bring awareness to every aspect of your experience” as you are experiencing it.  It builds on and deepens mindfulness of breathing and extends paying attention to sounds and bodily sensations.  It has a similar slow-burn focus to Vipassana meditation to enable receptivity to what is occurring and how it is being experienced.  It takes “awareness” to another level.

At the hear of Mark’s approach is the desire to help you fully understand the mind-body connection and identify and eliminate patterns of thinking, sensing, feeling, and interpreting that cloud your connection to self and the world around you.  It is heavily embedded in your bodily experience and awareness of that experience.

Mark begins by having you focus first on your posture and any tightness in your body – encouraging you to progressively release tension in your jaw, neck, shoulders, stomach, and the muscles in your face and around your eyes.  Throughout the meditation he encourages you to not only be aware of aspects of your experience but be conscious of this focused awareness – being conscious that you are being aware, paying attention not only to the content of your awareness but also the process of being aware.

A graduated approach to paying attention

Mark begins the actual guided meditation by having you focus on the sounds that surround you and being conscious that you are actively listening.  He discourages interpreting the sounds, evaluating them as good or bad or thinking about the sounds (e.g., trying to work out where they are coming from).  He suggests that you “stay with the direct experience of hearing” so that you can be not only aware of the sounds but also the inevitable silence that occurs between them.

He then moves on to have you shift your attention to the experience of breathing, noting the qualities of your breathing – hurried or extended, smooth or stilted, deep or shallow.  As part of this intense but relaxed focus, he then gets you to pay attention to each breath as it is occurring – through a sustained focus on each in-breath, out-breath, and the pause between.  He suggests that you maintain a general awareness of your body as you await the next in-breath entering your body    through your nose.  At this stage, he reinforces his intention to help you “know what’s happening as it is happening”.

There will be times when you become “lost in thought” and lose your focus – this provides the opportunity to build awareness of your habituated thinking behaviour and become conscious of any pattern in your thoughts.  Constantly returning to your desired focus progressively builds your “awareness muscle”, something that is a widespread deficit in this era of incessant, intrusive, and sustained interruptions and distractions.

In the latter stages of the guided meditation, Mark addresses the issue of bodily sensations.  Again, the aim here is to build awareness through direct, conscious experience of what is happening for you.  So, Mark has you focus not only on the nature of the bodily sensation (unpleasant or pleasant) but also your relationship to it – how you are relating to the sensation, e.g., with avoidance, resistance, rejection, or persistence.  Strong feelings, including pain, will arise at different stages but this is natural as the inner barriers are removed and the sensation is experienced and explored directly.  Mark maintains that this level of engagement can lead to “ease”, no matter what you are experiencing.  Ultimately, it involves being honest and open with yourself about what you are experiencing.  This personal truthfulness underpins the GROW approach to overcoming mental health issues and a “disordered life”.

Clarity about your life purpose

The benefits of insight meditation include the experience of peace and happiness and clarity about your life purpose.  As the clutter of thoughts, sensations and emotions reduce, you are able to gain greater clarity about how you can contribute to making life better for other people,  You become clearer about your core skills, extent of your knowledge and the breath of your experience and can identify ways to contribute from this position of increased self-awareness.  Happiness is intensified when you can utilise your core attributes in pursuit of a purpose beyond yourself.

Reflection

Insight meditation uses our breathing as the anchor to enable us to explore our inner landscape – our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations.  The discipline of constantly returning to our breath when distractions occur helps to keep us grounded in the present experience.  This self-exploration highlights our personal barriers and how we react to what we are perceiving and experiencing in life.

As we grow in mindfulness though insight meditation, we gain a deepened self-awareness, heightened self-regulation and clarity about our life purpose.  This, in turn, engenders sustainable peace, happiness and productivity.
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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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