Finding Equanimity through Meditating on the Elements of Nature

Allyson Pimentel offers a guided meditation podcast focusing on five elements of nature – earth, water, fire, air and space.  Her meditation, The Elemental Nature of Equanimity, is available through the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) where she is a meditation teacher.   In her guided meditations, Allyson highlights equanimity and a strong sense of connection as key benefits of mindfulness, whether focusing on the elements, our breath or our body.   In the elemental meditation she grounds us in the present moment through nature.  She speaks of equanimity as “the steadiness and responsivity of a mind that is settled”. 

Allyson states that equanimity provides us with balance when encountering the waves of life, however turbulent.  Being connected to the elements of nature calms us and gives us access to creative resolution of our problems and issues.  She refers, for example, to Ruth King, author of Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out, who in a recently published article emphasised the power of meditating on nature to develop equanimity in a “racialized world”.

Equanimity through five elements of nature

There are many ways to connect with nature.  However, Allyson’s approach can be followed anywhere.  You do not have to go for a bush walk or visit the ocean, you let your mind and body embrace the elements wherever you are.  By reflecting on the elements of nature, you can sense their “strength, fluidity, heat and softness”.  Her process involves a number of steps that move you deeper into connection with nature and a sense of equilibrium:

  • Grounding – Allyson begins by encouraging you to become grounded through your breath (a few, conscious deep breaths) and your body (sensing your body on your chair).
  • Connecting with the element of earth: this element can be experienced inside and outside your body.  You can sense the solidity of your body an its integrated form, the sensation of pressure at different points on your chair and the sensation of your fingers resting on your lap or touching each other, providing a conduit for heat and energy.  Moving your awareness to the earthiness outside your body, you can sense the form and strength of the earth – the mountains, trees and ground. 
  • Connecting with the element of water: again, water can be experienced within and without your body. So much of the composition of your body is water and other fluids such as blood coursing through your veins.  You can move your attention to water existing outside your body – the trickle of a stream over rocks, the power and incessant energy of waves crashing on the beach or the majesty of a waterfall.  You can sense the fluidity of water both within and without, encompassing you in the flow of energy and care.
  • Connecting with the element of fire:  you can start by sensing the heat in your body – the warmth in your hands and feet, your out-breath warming your in-breath, inner “combustion on a cellular level” and your whole body radiating the energy of heat.  You can think of your passions in life and how they ignite the heat in your body and generate the propensity to act, change and transform the external world.  Switching your attention to outside your body, you can marvel at the life-sustaining heat of the sun – radiating light, warmth and energy.
  • Connecting with the element of air: this brings us the full cycle to your breath – your in-breath and out-breath.  You can immerse yourself in the connectedness of the reciprocal exchange of air between your body and your external environment, “offering and receiving”.
  • Connecting with the element of space:  You can sense the space between your in-breath and out-breath and rest in this space.   You can immerse yourself in the limitless spaciousness that surrounds you.
  • Being absorbed in your connection:  Allyson suggests that the last 10 minutes of your meditation could involve revisiting one or more sources of connection with the elements of nature and absorbing the deep sense of connection, tranquillity and equanimity that arises through this awareness and absorption.

Reflection

This elemental meditation induces a sense of calm and connection with everything around us.  It reinforces how little we observe about ourselves and nature that surrounds us.  It brings into sharper relief the energy, tranquillity and equanimity that is readily accessible to us if we slow down to fully experience the present moment. An alternative version of this form of meditation is available from Ayya Khema’s article, The Elemental Self: Connecting with earth, fire, water and air within us, connects us with all of existence.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on the elements of nature, we can more readily access the balance of equanimity, the energy within and without and our creativity to accept “what is” – whatever form it takes, including the grief, pain, anxiety and anger brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic.

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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.

Moving from Separation to Connection

Allyson Pimentel, a teacher at the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), provided a guided meditation podcast on the theme, From Separation to Connection, Silence to Speaking Truth, Stillness to Action. Allyson’s emphasis was on the power of meditation to increase our sense of connection, build our capacity to speak truthfully with courage and to take compassionate action.  Her meditation focus was on developing groundedness and stability through breath and formed part of the weekly, mindfulness awareness podcasts provided by MARC, UCLA.

Allyson explained that we are all connected in so many ways.  This sense of connection is heightened by the global pandemic and global social activity to redress injustice and inequality, epitomised by the Black Lives Matter movement.  This movement against violence towards black people has reverberated around the world with protest marches in many countries to show solidarity with those fighting against injustice. 

Sports teams are conducting public rituals to show solidarity and those who continue to promote hate and racism are being excluded from media forums that would otherwise give voice to their divisive comments.   Allyson noted that division and violence on racial grounds derives from a distorted sense of “separateness”, not recognizing our underlying connection to all other humans.  A  focus on separateness can breed “superior conceit”, a need to demonstrate that someone is “better than” another person.

Allyson’s professional work is focused on bringing mindfulness to bear on mental health issues and treatment.   She discussed mindfulness as paying attention to the present moment with kindness, curiosity and a sense of connection.  She stressed that breath meditation can help us to develop a strong sense of stability, self-compassion and compassion towards others.  She encouraged people participating in her presentation on Zoom to focus on one other individual participating in the global mindfulness awareness meditation and notice their face, their name, and their “place” and wish them protection, safety from harm, wellness and ease.  This process can deepen our sense of connection.

A breath meditation

During her Zoom drop-in session, Allyson offered a 20 minute breath meditation.  Her process involved a strong focus on our in-breath and out-breath and the space in between.  Allyson began the meditation by having all participants take a deep in-breath and let out an elongated out-breath while picturing their connection with others in the session doing the same thing – to create a sense of connection by breathing “as one”.   She suggested that people view the in-breath as self-compassion and the out-breath as compassion towards others, alternating between receiving and giving.

After this initial exercise during the guided meditation, Allyson encouraged participants to focus on their bodily sensations to become grounded fully in the moment – sensing their feet on the floor or ground and feeling the pressure of their body against their chair.   She suggested that if mental or emotional distractions intervened, returning to our bodily sensations is a way to refocus back on the breath.  A way to regain focus is to feel the breath moving the body (e.g. the in and out sensation of the diaphragm) and to feel the breath moving through the body – while recognising that many people around the world are experiencing constricted breathing through illness and/or inequity.

Allyson maintains that breath meditation and entering into silence fortifies us, provides stability and groundedness and enables us “to act for the good of others and to speak truth from our power”.  She suggests that meditation practice builds the personal resources to “speak wisely, truly and compassionately” in the face of unconscionable inequity.

Reflection

During the meditation session, Allyson quoted the One Breath poem written by Mark Arthur – a very moving reflection on connectedness and “collective social suffering”.  Mark exhorts us not to turn away but to turn towards the “deep, deep wound” as a way to express self-compassion. Then with loving kindness, “speak and act from the heart” with awareness that there is no separation between them and us, only connection through birth, breathing, living and death.

The space that lies between our in-breath and out-breath can be a place of rest and tranquillity and a source of spaciousness.  As we grow in mindfulness through breath meditation and exploring our connectedness to all human beings, we can access this spaciousness and learn to extend our thoughts and actions compassionately 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.

Understanding the Process of Emotions

Dr. Eve Ekman recently presented a session on Overcoming Negativity and Judgement as part of the Wise@Work Virtual Communities series organised by Wisdom Labs.  Eve’s professional work focuses on developing emotional awareness, compassion and mindfulness. In pursuit of this goal, she draws on her knowledge, research and experience in areas such as integrative medicine, clinical social work and contemplative science. The mission of Wisdom Labs is to improve mental health in the workplace and the organisation offers guided virtual communities and a stress reduction app as a means to pursue these goals.  The positive outcomes from these tools are reduction in workplace stress, combating loneliness and burnout and improvement in teamwork.

Eve facilitates the Cultivating Emotional Balance Online Course and is Director of Training at the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), University of California Berkeley.  Eve demonstrates the benefits of her yoga and meditation practice in her concise, calm, practical and insightful presentations in many contexts, including in large organisations around the world.   Her video presentation on cultivating emotional balance and fluency at the 2013 Summer Institute for Educators (GGSC) is another example of the depth and passion of her work in developing emotional awareness

The process of emotions

Eve made the point at the outset that we have to understand the nature of emotions if we are going to learn how to keep them under control.  She explained that emotions are more than feelings (e.g. feeling good or bad about something).  In her view (informed by scientific research), emotions are really a process – a process involving “a trigger, an experience and a response”.

The trigger for a feeling of frustration and anger in the workplace could be something like the internet freezing continuously, someone who continually talks loudly in your open office workspace or the fact that your views and suggestions are ignored by management.   Working from home in the current lockdown environment of the Coronavirus can provide multiple triggers for frustration such as distractions, inadequate computer resources and managers who lack an understanding of your personal situation and associated difficulties (such as young children at home).   

Our experience of frustration and anger and associated thoughts of unfairness have a “biological correlate” – in other words, our thoughts and feelings are reflected in our body.  We may feel “uptight”, experience soreness in our back, arms or legs or have a stiff neck or headache.  Our response to the trigger and associated feelings and bodily sensations, can be mild, measured, “over-the-top” or involve some form of calming of ourselves and our emotions.

Eve suggests that we draw on integrative science (Western and Eastern approaches) to identify emotions as “constructive or destructive in how they are enacted” – in other words, how we respond, how our emotions play out in our words and actions.  Whether we choose a constructive or destructive way to act out our emotions will depend on how well we have our emotions under control at the time. 

The capacity to consciously chose an appropriate response to our triggers and associated feelings is described as emotional fluency or as Susan David calls it, “emotional agility”.  Eve’s facilitation in workplaces and her research, confirm that meditation and mindfulness practices are a pathway to developing emotional fluency/agility.   Without awareness of our emotions and how we enact them, we can be easily captured and controlled by them, resulting in harmful interactions and poor decision making.

Reflection

Viktor Frankl reminds us that between a stimulus (a trigger) and our response, there is a gap – wherein lies the opportunity to exercise choice in how we respond, and in the process, free ourselves from the enslavement of our emotions.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices we can build our self-awareness in relation to our triggers, thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and habituated responses and develop self-regulation to deal with our emotions constructively.

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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.

Resilience through Self-Compassion

Sounds True founder, Tami Simon, recently interviewed Pema Chödrön as part of the podcast series, Resilience in Challenging Times.  The theme of Pema’s interview podcast was Compassionate Abiding – an emphasis on building resilience by abiding in, or inhabiting, difficult emotions while extending loving-kindness to our self and others.  Her focus was on ways to become “embodied” – being fully in touch with the physical manifestations of our feelings. 

Pema acknowledged that many people worldwide are feeling lost and experiencing “groundlessness”.  This is normal and natural in these challenging times when everything has been upended – intrastate, interstate and international travel, location of work, availability of work, education of children and adults, health risks, financial security and relationships.  We are now having to connect from a distance – with our colleagues, friends and extended family.  People in the streets, cafés and shops are wearing masks and observing social distancing – avoidance is the new norm in interactions.

Becoming grounded in your body

With this pervasive upheaval, it is difficult to stay grounded and avoid being swept away by a torrent of difficult emotions. Pema maintains that the one, immediately accessible control point is your body.  Your difficult emotions can manifest in your body as tightness in your chest, pain in your arms or legs, headaches, upset stomach, racing pulse or any other physical form of constriction, acceleration or discomfort.   Pema contends that the pathway to resilience lies in immersing yourself in your feelings and associated bodily sensations through your breathing.  She argues that it is important to “lean into your sharp points and fully experience them”.

Pema offered a breathing exercise during her interview podcast (at the 16-minute mark).  She encouraged listeners to get comfortable (sitting, lying or walking) and to ask themselves, “What does a specific feeling (e.g. anxiety) feel like in my body?’  You are encouraged to explore the depth and breadth of the feeling through self-observation and self-exploration – locating the point(s) of manifestation of the feeling in your body. 

Conscious breathing with kindness and self-compassion

Having named your feeling and fully experienced its manifestation in your body, the next step is to take three conscious breaths – breathing in and out deeply, feeling your lungs expand with the in-breath and experiencing a sense of release/relief on your out-breath.  Pema argues that in this way we are accessing the “wisdom of our emotions” – emotions that have been shaped by our personality, life experiences and responses to triggers.  This process can be repeated over a longer period if the level of personal agitation is high.  Pema mentioned that in one of her recent experiences of a difficult emotion, it took her half an hour to achieve equilibrium and peace through this breathing exercise.

For some people, the focus on breath may be too traumatic because it generates painful flashbacks to adverse childhood experiences or too demanding because of respiratory difficulties or other physical disability.  In this scenario, Pema suggests that embracing yourself, rocking, tapping or a more analytical approach could work to tame the emotions and dampen the associated feelings.

As you breathe into and out of your feelings, it is important to extend loving-kindness to yourself – avoiding negative self-talk that is debilitating and disabling.  Each person has a different way of expressing self-compassion and acknowledgement of their inherent goodness.  Pema maintains that “the essence of bravery is being without deception” – having the courage to face up to what we are not happy with in ourselves, as well as what we admire.  By holding our faults, deficiencies and prejudices in loving kindness and understanding, we can move beyond self-deception, self-loathing and self-recrimination.  It takes a brave person to face the reality of what they feel and why, and to open themselves to self-intimacy and self-empowerment.   Pema suggests that as we extend kindness to our self, we imagine our heart opening wide and filling an ever-expanding space.

Reflection

Pema is a humorous, grounded and practical meditation teacher who has written many books including Start Where Your Are and When Things Fall Apart.  She provides a free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön.  Pema has also developed an online course, Freedom to Love, covering the principles and practices mentioned in this blog post as well as a penetrating exploration of resilience through compassion towards others.

After many years of meditation and teaching, Pema Chödrön has developed a quiet, down-to-earth, insightful approach that makes you want to learn more from her.  To me, she evidences the calmness and peace that she promotes. 

Consistent with other mindfulness teachers, Pema encourages spending time in nature, walking and other forms of movement.  As we grow in mindfulness through our breathing, self-exploration and self-intimacy, we can better access our own sense of peace and resilience in the face of very challenging times.

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Image by jplenio – My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness and Resilience in Challenging Times

The Awake Network and Mindful.org have collaborated to provide a free resource for healthcare professionals in the form of The Mindful Healthcare Speaker Series.  Jon Kabat-Zinn speaking on Mindfulness and Resilience in Challenging Times was the first in the series of six speakers.   While Jon is not an MD, he has a PhD in Medicine and focuses on mindfulness in medication, healthcare and society.

Jon and host, Dr. Reena Kotecha, spoke of the enormity of the challenges facing everyone with the advent of the Coronavirus and especially the frontline healthcare professionals who, in many instances, lack adequate resources and training to deal with the magnitude of this pandemic.  They spoke of the trauma experienced by these healthcare professionals who are witnessing the suffering and death of so many people.  Reena spoke of one frontline female doctor who had to move out of home to live in a hotel for three months to protect her mother who was suffering from cancer. 

A truly disturbing event was the suicide death of Dr. Lorna M. Breen, an emergency center doctor, who continually witnessed the very worst of the impact of the Coronavirus on people, including people dying at the hospital before they could be removed from the ambulance.   Her heroic efforts to save people through her frontline medical work contributed to her own death.  Jon reiterated that mindfulness does not lessen the enormity of the physical and mental health impact of the pandemic on the lives of healthcare professionals but emphasised that mindfulness acts as a ballast to provide stability in the face of the turbulent winds created by the pandemic.

Mindfulness as ballast for stability

Jon referred to the 25 years of quality scientific research that showed the benefits of mindfulness, extending to positively altering the structure of the brain, increasing functional connectivity (e.g. of the mind-body connection) and enhancing neuroplasticity.   Neuroscientist Richard Davidson co-authored a book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, and demonstrated the powerful effect mindfulness had on building resilience.

Jon spoke of “full catastrophe living” and emphasised that it is truly human to experience fear, anxiety and grief.  He argued that mental health is enhanced by feeling and accepting everything we experience, rather than denying its existence or intensity.  He stated that no matter how emotionally rending our circumstances are we can find refuge in mindfulness, by being “in the present moment, moment by moment”.  In this way, we are better able to recover from the “trauma” of the present reality and to do so without total depletion of ourselves.   

Mindfulness as awareness

Jon maintained that “we are not our narrative” – we are not our negative self-talk that diminishes us and depletes our energy in the face of life challenges.  He argues that our life is “one seamless whole” – our mind, body, thoughts and emotions.  In his view, our breath serves as the integrating factor and energy force.  Awareness of our breath in the present moment enables us “to get out of the wind” and “to recalibrate, recover and respond instead of reacting”.  To reinforce this message, he provided a guided meditation during his presentation focused on the breath for about ten minutes (at the 30-minute mark).

Jon maintained that awareness of our breath can enable us to be fully awake to what is going on inside us and to be more deeply connected to others.  He argued that we don’t have to achieve a particular goal – to become more or better – in his view, “we are already okay”.  In these challenging times, what is needed to help ourselves and others we interact with is to be authentically present, without a “mask” (metaphorically speaking), but with openness and vulnerability. 

Reflection

Jon highlighted the importance of trusting our “human creativity” when confronted with the need to help people who are stressed out by the pandemic.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we not only build our resilience in managing our personal challenges but also “modulate the tendency to put self ahead of everyone else” – we can diminish our self-absorption and self-doubt.  He maintained that awareness of our breathing reinforces our ecological connectedness.  

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Image by Jill Wellington 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.

Stillness of Mind and Body through Mantra Meditations

Lulu & Mischka recorded the final day of their 6-day online journey into mantra meditation that brought together hundreds of people around the world at this time of anxiety and uncertainty brought on by the Coronavirus. Their chanting and accompanying music on the guitar and harmonium provided a haven in these turbulent times.  Their harmonies are enriched by Lulu’s operatically trained voice that transports you into another reality – beyond fear and anxiety. 

In today’s recorded session, Lulu & Mischka focused on the mantra, Jaya Ganesha, which they translate to mean:

Ease and flow wherever we go, open to the mystery each day. Calling for protection on our journey, guidance and blessings on our way.  Bless away the obstacles, open to the miracles.

Inherent in the mantra is acceptance of what is and letting go of the resistance that aggravates the suffering of the present moment.  Their mantra meditations can bring “openness of the heart, quietness of the mind and comfort of the body” in times of enforced lockdowns, social distancing and social isolation.  They have designed an online mantra meditation course to enable their global audience to continue their journey into inner peace.

Incorporating yoga breathing

At the beginning of their mantra meditation sessions, Lulu & Mischka incorporate yoga breathing and often finish with this practice. Lulu describes this process as deep breathing, as if drawing breath through a straw – the inbreath moving from the lower abdomen, expanding the lungs and filling the chest.   The outbreath reverses this process and enables release of tension, stress and resentment.

The deep breathing enhances the calming influence of the chanting and movement that forms part of their daily ritual that they share with others through their recorded music such as the Enchanted CD which is available as a download.  Lulu and Mischka are strong supporters of the charity, A Sound Life, that helps people in need to improve their wellbeing through yoga, meditation and music.

Reflection

There is something about Lulu & Mischka and their approach to mantra meditation that is engaging and effortless and appeals to people around the world.  Their international festival appearances attest to this appeal. The combination of chanting accompanied by deep breathing and musical instruments (the harmonium and guitar) act as a form of music therapy that is capable of transporting us beyond the pain and preoccupations of the present to a place of calm and equanimity.  As we grow in mindfulness through mantra meditation, we can find an inner peace, a strengthened resolve and a willingness to extend compassionate action to others.

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Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness Meditation to Reduce Anxiety in Times of Uncertainty

In these times of increasing uncertainty, compounded by the global spread of the Coronavirus, the level of anxiety in individuals and the community at large can intensify (you only have to notice panic buying to witness anxiety contagion).  Anxiety impacts every facet of our lives – our relationships, problem solving, decision making and communication.  We can become abrupt with our significant others, quick to anger, argumentative, determined to prove we are right or hyper-critical of their words and action – all traits likely to damage close relationships which are built on mutual respect and appreciation.

Research also shows, for example, that 7% of people in Europe are frequently lonely.  The loneliness epidemic experienced in Australia, US and UK (where they have a cross-Government strategy to tackle the challenges involved) is exacerbated by the need to engage in social distancing, social isolation and, in increasing numbers, to work from home.  For people who are used to social contact and interaction at work, working from home can compound the loneliness problem. 

Added to the isolation from social work contacts is the banning of the normal places of social gatherings outside work such as restaurants, sporting events, concerts, university classes and professional conferences.  So, it is extremely difficult for people experiencing new levels and increased frequency of loneliness to find social support, other than electronically.  This puts pressure on people, young and old, to learn new ways of communicating (abbreviated social media messaging will not fill the void). Fortunately, new technologies for online communication such as Zoom have really helped to address the growing problem of physical isolation and its attendant problem of loneliness.

With more people out of work each day as businesses close under Government direction or because they are no longer viable in a social distancing environment, increasing numbers of people are experiencing economic anxiety and depression – they cannot see a way out of their current, seemingly intractable, financial problems. 

Before the Coronavirus, depression was already a major health issue in communities around the world.  Isolation and loss of employment – two very significant factors in precipitating or aggravating depression – are likely to accelerate the already exponential growth in depression in the community unless new ways are instituted by Governments, communities and entrepreneurs to redeploy people to arenas of employment experiencing growth in demand (such as healthcare support, farming and Coronavirus contact tracing) and individuals are able to find ways to address their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Mindfulness meditation – a way to address anxiety, loneliness and depression

Neuroscience research, such as that conducted by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), demonstrates the power of mindfulness and related meditation practices to eliminate anxiety, overcome loneliness and reduce depression.  A search on “meditation” in the search block of this blog will highlight many meditation practices for individuals to address these mental health challenges.  Some examples are:

MARC provides weekly meditation podcasts on a very wide range of topics.  These can be accessed either through their website or via the UCLA App providing “meditations for well-being”.   These meditations can be supplemented and reinforced by other mindfulness practices.

Reflection

The advent of the Coronavirus has compounded the problem of mental illness in communities around the world leading to growing anxiety, loneliness and depression.  People who previously did not experience these adverse mental health conditions are now succumbing to their widespread community encroachment.  Research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation is an antidote to these mental health challenges and is a source of overall wellbeing. 

The personal challenge is to overcome our initial reservations and disbelief and to take advantage of the numerous sources of mindfulness meditation available to us.  At first, we are inclined to believe that the challenge to our mental health and welfare is too great and that meditation is too simple a solution.  However, beginning with some small meditation practice and maintaining it daily, can make a very significant positive impact on our mental and emotional state.

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Image by Shahariar Lenin 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.

Grounding Yourself in Your Body in Times of Uncertainty

On the 5th March this year, Jill Satterfield conducted a meditation podcast as part of the series of weekly podcasts offered by The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  Her presentation was titled, Facilitating Ease: Breath as a Restorative Practice in These Times.  Jill’s presentation reflected her lifetime pursuit of mindfulness and somatic awareness.  She has meditated for most of her life (having been taught to meditate by her mother at the age of four).  She has participated in 150 silent retreats and is very well place to conduct personal coaching and training in “embodied mind” – how to be present and aware in our own bodies.

Jill has struggled with chronic pain for most of her life, undergoing multiple surgeries (including heart surgery).  Her somatic meditation has helped her overcome her physical pain but, as she herself maintains, the longest journey for her is overcoming emotional and mental pain.  Jill offers a form of “somatic practice” which integrates Indian yoga tradition with Buddhist meditation teaching.  She sees her meditation teaching as offering “ways to know the body intimately as a reflection of the mind” and “to know and work with what is discovered both somatically and cognitively”.

Becoming grounded in your body in these uncertain times

In her podcast, Jill offers a somatic meditation that enables you to become grounded in your body in times of uncertainty – at a time when we are all physically, mentally, emotionally and medically challenged with the advent of the Coronavirus.  Jill views mindfulness as “kindfulness”, a term developed by Ajahn Brahm.  In her view, meditation needs to be internally kind and supportive of yourself, others and the community at large.  She provides a guided meditation, a gentle “somatic practice”, that employs the following steps:

  • Begin by settling into your seat, comfortably – not strained or rigid.  This first instruction reinforces Jill’s emphasis on bodily sensations.
  • Close your eyes or look down – either way she suggests that you loosen your vision so that you soften both the back of your eyes and the corners.
  • Now progressively notice the weight of your bones in various parts of your body – the lightness of your toes in your shoes, the thickness of your bones in your legs and the heaviness of your hip bones.  Notice the support your bones provide as you sit in the chair.
  • Next sense your clothing on your skin – Jill suggests that you feel the difference in temperature between your skin covered by clothing and your uncovered skin exposed to the air.
  • Be with the gentleness of your breath at the entrance to your nostrils. Experience the softness and delicateness of the air flow through your nose.
  • Extend your inhalation by taking a deeper breath if is comfortable for you and notice the gentleness in the longer inhale.
  • Now extend the exhale gently – noticing the coolness of your breath and experience warmth throughout your body – in your chest, stomach and throat.  A useful way to feel the sensation of warmth embracing your body is to join your fingers together and feel the tingling that occurs there.
  • Notice the pause at the top of your exhale motion – to focus on this pause wait a second or two before exhalation to experience the stillness.
  • Notice the pause before the inhale – extend this for a second or two to experience the quietness and ease of the inward breath.
  • As you complete these four-part “breath rounds” (pause-exhale-pause-inhale) over a couple of minutes, draw on the support and imagery of nature – the gentle breeze through the leaves of the trees; the slow, breaking waves; or the silence and calmness of the mountains.
  • Feel the power of loving kindness and forgiveness flowing from your tranquillity and restfulness.

When distractions arise in this meditation, return to sensing the weight of your body on the chair – restore your groundedness.  As you slowly come to awareness at the end of the meditation, feel yourself coming to your senses more fully – take in the sights, sounds, smells, touch and taste that surround you as you feel more enlivened and relaxed.

Reflection

There is a certainty in our experience of our bodies in-the-moment and a tranquillity that arises from “resting in sensation”.  It is through our bodies that we can become truly grounded in the present.  As we grow in mindfulness, through somatic meditation and other somatic practices such as yoga, we can calm our “inner landscape”, still our mind and become increasingly open to our senses, our courage and creativity.  We can employ Jill’s somatic practice anywhere at any time to restore our sense of groundedness and experience ease and tranquillity.  Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us that through mindfulness we can move from doing to being present to the power of now.

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Image by Lara-yin 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.

Deepening the Mind-Body Connection through Tai Chi

In the very early stages of this blog I discussed Tai Chi as a pathway to mindfulness.  I also highlighted the challenges I experienced in maintaining daily practice of Tai Chi along with meditation and writing this blog, when I still had a range of professional and personal  commitments to fulfill on a regular basis.   I concluded then that keeping the benefits of Tai Chi at the forefront of my mind, aligning my Tai Chi practice with the timing of my highest energy levels (I’m a morning person) and continuously reading and writing about Tai Chi would build my motivation for daily practice.

In 2018, I explored the benefits of Tai Chi for the mind-body connection based mainly on research that had been conducted at various centres of research at UCLA such as those focused on psychoneuroimmunology and East-West Medicine. This current post highlights the work of Dr. Peter Wayne who is associated with the Harvard Medical School.

Peter Wayne, who has spent decades practising, studying and researching Tai Chi, stresses the power of Tai Chi to deepen the mind-body connection.  Peter is the Research Director for the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and the founder of The Tree of Life Tai Chi Center

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi

In 2013, Peter published a book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, summarizing the research around Tai Chi and highlighting what he calls the “eight active ingredients of Tai Chi” which he had developed through his own research and the teaching of Tai Chi Masters.   These ingredients focus on the “biological mechanisms” that contribute to the wide-ranging benefits of Tai Chi including those related to cognition, breathing and neuromuscular control.  Peter points out that this focus on active ingredients helps him in multiple ways – in shaping a curriculum for teaching Tai Chi, in communicating with members of the medical profession and in establishing clinical trials.

In an interview with Dan Kleiman about his research and teaching, Peter explained that his early study of evolutionary biology and ecological modelling helped him to develop a systems perspective that is holistic in orientation and strongly akin to Chinese Medicine.  His orientation to integrative medicine and his mind-body perspective on Tai Chi flow from this early academic training and related research experience.  In a technical presentation Neuroscience in the Body: Perspectives at the Periphery, Peter highlights the downside of having multiple medical specialisations that contribute to “reductionist thinking” and blind us to the whole-body benefits of interventions such as Tai Chi.

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi identified in his book highlight his integrative, systems perspective:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Intention
  3. Structural integration
  4. Relaxation (of the mind and body)
  5. Strengthening and building flexibility
  6. Freer breathing
  7. Social interaction and community (if done in a group)
  8. Embodied philosophy and ritual.

Deepening the mind-body connection through Tai Chi

Peter explained in his interview with Dan Kleiman that the integrative nature of Tai Chi and its capacity to deepen the mind-body connection is demonstrated in the focus on mindful breathing (which is common to all martial arts).  He pointed out that mindful breathing requires improved posture; positively impacts your nervous system, cardiovascular system and mood; and stills what Seth Godin calls the “Lizard Brain” through enhancing the power of focus.  In Peter’s view, an ecological perspective on health recognises that all these processes of body and mind are intertwined and mutually interdependent.

In his neuroscience presentation mentioned above, Peter described Tai Chi as a “multi-component mind-body exercise”.  He stressed the interaction of mind-body through Tai Chi by stating that it “integrates slow intentional movement with breathing and multiple cognitive skills”. The cognitive skills he refers to include body awareness, focus and visioning using imagery.

He illustrated the benefits of the mind-body connection involved in Tai Chi by mentioning several research studies that show two key outcomes (1) the primary risk factor in falls of people over 65 is “fear of falling” and (2) Tai Chi has been shown to reduce the fear of falling by 35%.  Tai Chi achieves this result not only by strengthening muscles and improving coordination and sensation (especially in the feet), but also by reducing falling anxiety, increasing exercise self-efficacy and improving the “executive function” of the brain.  Peter suggests that Tai Chi is a “gateway exercise” – increasing people’s confidence to try other things that lead to overall wellbeing.

Reflection

Research into the impacts of Tai Chi reinforce its power to improve our mind and body and the mind-body connection that is so critical for daily functioning, quality of life and longevity.  I have already identified the personal benefits that motivate me to practise Tai Chi.  However, Peter’s research and presentation has increased my desire to improve the frequency of my Tai Chi practice. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, research and reflection, we gain a better understanding of the mind-body connection, the impacts of our thinking and self-stories on our intentions and the blockages that impede putting our resolutions into effect, particularly at this time of the year (with the start of 2020).  I can look forward to improved Tai Chi practice and the multiple personal benefits that can accrue (not the least of these being to improve my tennis game!).

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Image by Antonika Chanel 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.

Healing the Wounds of Trauma

Corey De Vos of Integral Life and Ryan Oelke discussed the need to address the effects of trauma at sometime in our life.  Their discussion, Inhabit Your Wound, was wide-ranging and covered the impacts of trauma, barriers to addressing the wounds and processes for uncovering the wisdom that lies beneath the pain of trauma.  They suggest that each of us has our own “unique constellation of trauma” but if the wounds are addressed with a gentle curiosity, social support, professional help and self-compassion, they can release new insights and energy to enable us to more fully realise our purpose in life.

Trauma tends to impact many facets of our life, often below the level of consciousness.  It might be reflected in irrational fears, reluctance to appear in public, constant anxiety and depression, inability to develop and/or maintain intimate relationships, eating disorders or addiction, indecisiveness, inability to hold down a job or an overall sense of lack of meaning and purpose.  Many things can trigger a trauma response, including objects, people, news, conversations and observing a violent incident – because trauma impacts at a “cellular level”. Trauma can leave us directionless, powerless, confused and disoriented.

Barriers to healing the wounds of trauma

Corey and Ryan maintain that the shadow of trauma follows us throughout life, but we typically have defence mechanisms to prevent us from dealing with the pain and healing the wounds.  The memory of a trauma is often submerged below our level of consciousness because we sense that recollection is potentially too painful.  We may even have experienced dissociation to keep the memory away from our inner awareness.  We may have developed an internal narrative that is based on denial – “it really didn’t happen” – and this acts as a barrier to exploration and healing from trauma.

Ryan and Corey also observe that sometimes we could be part of a collective trauma experienced as a result of systemic discrimination or jointly experienced life events.  These life events could take the form of war, mass incarceration, natural disasters or a terrorist incident.  They can lead to “culturally inherited dramas” imprinted on our psyche.  Experience with religion during childhood or later in life can leave its own “baggage” and can be “harder to unpack” and deal with because it can become caught up with other traumatic experiences.  Corey and Ryan suggest that sometimes people want to hold onto their trauma because it makes them feel special and may even elicit a desired, sympathetic response from others (neediness in this area my be symptomatic of the trauma itself).

Processes to heal the wounds of trauma

We may have developed the ability to operate productively and confidently with our work environment but become aware of some disfunction in other arenas of our life.  Alternatively, we may have noticed a habituated and unhelpful response to a specific kind of incident such as personal criticism, open conflict or someone challenging our ideas or perspective.  These experiences can be the catalyst to deal with the “residual effect” of trauma and provide the necessary motivation to change our behaviour.

Corey and Ryan suggest, in line with Jon Kabat-Zinn, that a potential starting point is to “reinhabit our body” – to start noticing our bodily sensations and reactions.  This can lead to curiosity about what has triggered these responses and what prior experiences underly the nature and intensity of our response.  Ryan suggests that we need to work with any resistance we may experience in our body, but we should proceed slowly with a tender and caring curiosity.  A key here is our readiness to open the wounds and our resilience in dealing with the result – timing and support are of the essence.  Somatic meditation has proven to be an effective way to deal with the wounds of trauma and it is often undertaken with professionally trained facilitators.

There are a wide range of therapists to assist anyone who wants to deal with trauma and its effects.  Some employ cognitive approaches (such as Dialectic Behaviour Therapy) requiring voicing our thoughts, feelings and assumptions, others use less cognitive approaches such as art or music as tools for therapy.  A more recent development is the use of equine (horse) therapy which may be more appropriate for someone who loves animals and particularly horses.  Organisations such as Beyond Blue provide links to resource centres and professional therapists and others such as the Black Dog Institute offer support groups.  Keith Witt offers two books, Shadow Light and Shadow Light Workbook, that provide insights into our trauma-induced, unconscious responses and offer practices to illuminate the nature and potentiality of our “shadow self”.

The experience of Clare Bowditch in healing the wounds of trauma

Clare Bowditch – singer, songwriter and actor – captured her healing journey in her “no holds barred”, personal memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl.  Clare indicated that she wrote the story of her early life to encourage others to speak to someone and seek assistance if they are suffering from the effects of trauma, especially if they are experiencing anxiety and/or depression.  She describes in detail her own battle with anxiety and depression brought on by adverse childhood experiences and the trauma of seeing her sister die at the age of seven, after two years of hospitalisation with a rare, incurable illness that progressively eroded her muscles and caused paralysis. 

Clare, like Corey and Ryan, stressed the critical importance of relationships (family and friends) for her successful healing journey.  She encourages people to set out on the painful journey because it is “well worth it”, even if it turns out to be tougher than you first thought.  Clare experienced a nervous breakdown – she had fled to London, unprepared economically and emotionally, after she experienced shame and depression following a relationship breakup.  She experienced severe symptoms of her trauma wounds such as an inability to listen to music, write songs, watch TV, listen to the radio, eat well, sleep adequately or go outside.  She was consumed by all kinds of irrational fears and images of death (grieving her sister’s death).   Her response was to return home to her family and spend up to six months healing herself including meditating and learning about the impact of stress and unhealthy foods on the body’s nervous system.

Clare was able to reframe her nervous breakdown as a “nervous breakthrough” because “it was at this time that I got a really deep sense of what made sense to me, which was music” (p. 326).  She had finally found herself.  She rediscovered her need to be creative, to avoid things that did not make sense to her and to sing and write songs that really spoke her truth – her real, raw feelings.  She stated that the journey required the discipline to control her negative self-talk, the insight to realise that despite her life circumstances she had a choice in how she responded and the courage and resilience to persist despite setbacks.

Consistent with Corey and Ryan, Clare maintains that it is important to celebrate the small steps forward because they collectively make up the journey:

… a career is a thing that’s made up of one tiny step, one small act of courage after the other.  It’s only really when you look back later that it all makes sense. (p.313)

Reflection

Trauma affects many people in multiple, idiosyncratic ways.  The problem is that it works away as our shadow self and unconsciously impacts our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, behaviour and responses to triggers.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and self-observation, we are better able to gain insight into how we have been impacted, to develop the courage to address our trauma-induced wounds and move forward (however slowly) to realise our life purpose. 

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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