Anxiety Management with Mindfulness

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

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

Guided meditation for working with anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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Image by Patrik Houštecký from Pixabay

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

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

Meditating on Nature and Gratitude

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

Paying attention to the elements of nature

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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Image by Anh Lê khắc from Pixabay

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

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

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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Image by Eddie K from Pixabay

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

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

Meditation as a Process

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

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

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

Marvin’s guided meditation process

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

Managing Our Response to Uncertainty

In these challenging times, we often experience uncertainty and ambiguity which, in turn, leads to anxiety and depression.  At the very least, these conditions can make us feel uncomfortable, annoyed or ill at ease.  We normally want to be in control of our lives and have some certainty about our future.  We try to create some sense, order and meaningfulness for our future by developing our plans for our career, family interactions, travel and personal development.  In times of uncertainty like the present, we can become disoriented when these plans are disrupted, put on hold, deferred or cancelled altogether because of lockdowns, border closures, ill-health, international conflicts or major natural disasters.

We need some strategies to help us cope with this uncertainty and ambiguity. Over time, we have to develop ways to tolerate these setbacks and anxiety-inducing conditions.  The reality is that uncertainty and ambiguity are part of the human condition and cannot be avoided.  Diana Winston offers one way of addressing this uncertainty and managing our response to challenging times.  In her guided meditation podcast, Opening to Uncertainty, she provides a mindfulness meditation approach which she describes as “advanced practice” – not only is it challenging but also requires repetition and practice to enable us to widen our window of tolerance in the face of ever-increasing uncertainty and ambiguity.

Guided meditation on managing our response to uncertainty

  • Diana begins the guided meditation with an initial focus on body posture which should be relaxed and comfortable but involve conscious choice that enables freedom of breathing.  She begins the meditation practice encouraging multiple deep breaths that facilitate release of built-up tension and stress.  Diana encourages us to “relax into the present moment” and become conscious of our bodily sensations – especially pockets or points of uptightness.  As we wind down, we can progressively release specific points of tension. 
  • The next phase involves choosing an anchor that truly grounds us in the present and is unlikely to act as a trigger for heightened negative emotions or a trauma response.  We each have our negative triggers and varying levels of tolerance to specific difficult situations.  Our meditation anchor enables us to return to a chosen focus when we notice our mind wandering or when we experience strong challenging emotions. 
  • When negative emotions take over, we have the choice to work with the difficult emotion and its intensity (if we are at an advanced stage of meditation practice) or to use our anchor as a way to return to being grounded in the present moment. 
  • After addressing emotions around experienced anxiety, Diana moves the meditation to another stage where she encourages us to recall an occasion when we successfully dealt with some level of anxiety and ambiguity.  Associated with this, is recalling the feeling of dealing positively with the stress – we can try to recapture those positive emotions to strengthen our belief in our own capacity to deal with current challenges.  I found this activity particularly useful, because it is so easy to overlook past successes in dealing with anxiety when you are feeling overwhelmed with present challenges.
  • The next stage of the meditation involved loving-kindness towards ourself.  To begin with it is important to acknowledge that it is natural to feel anxiety in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity.  Diana recommends that once we acknowledge this naturalness, we can express a positive desire such as, “May I meet uncertainty with grace and ease.”  This request can be repeated as a way to reinforce the belief that we are able to manage uncertainty in whatever form it takes.

Reflection

I undertook this meditation on the day that I was due to receive my first COVID-19 vaccine.  I was uncertain about what vaccine I was going to receive and concerned about the after effects, given that I suffer from a wide range of sensitivities and allergies.  There was ambiguity to deal with as well – surrounding the availability of the different vaccines, their relative effectiveness and their after effects.  However, I found that Diana’s guided meditation helped me to become grounded and prepared for most contingencies.

In her meditation, Diana encourages us to approach uncertainty and our response with openness and curiosity and a “willingness to be with that experience”.  She stated that life has its “ups and downs” and sometimes terrible things happen as well as wonderful things.  She maintained that it is illusionary to believe that life is an even, untroubled flow – we will be challenged at times and be able to cope to varying degrees with what confronts us.  

Diana asserted that as we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we will be better able to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity and manage our response to challenging stressors and associated emotions.  However, she asserted that managing our response to uncertainty is a long-term process. Her guided meditation can help in that regard. 

Diana mentioned the availability of other MARC meditation podcasts via the UCLA  Mindful App.  Previously I have identified activities to maintain a positive mindset in the times of uncertainty and anxiety.  In this blog, too, I have covered other meditation approaches to managing our response to uncertainty:

  • Jill Satterfield provided a meditation on using breath as a restorative process in challenging times.
  • Diana Winston offered an approach which focuses strongly on gratitude.
  • Kristin Neff and Chris Germer provided a range of self-compassion practices to enable us to manage in challenging times, including the pandemic.  
  • MARC meditations incorporate a range of other meditations that can reduce anxiety in times of uncertainty and challenge.

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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.

Widening and Deepening Our Perspective on Nature

Louis Schwartzberg, in his presentation for the Nature Summit, reminded us that each of us has a unique perspective on nature shaped by our childhood experiences, our environmental influences and our culture.  In referring to his grandchildren, Louie argued that they viewed nature with “their eyes wide open”.  They asked basic, taken-for-granted questions like, “What is air?”, “What is water?”  I recall my very young granddaughter sitting on rocky ground in a parkland area studying the lizards and bugs around her in minute detail.  She spent an hour in her observations while the rest of us played tennis on a cement strip nearby.

Louie suggests that we need to develop our own “pathways of exploration” to widen and deepen our perspective on nature.  This pursuit taken with wide-eyed curiosity will open the world of wonder and awe that is readily available to us.  Louie’s macro, micro and time-lapse photography expands our visual capacity when viewing nature.  He not only accentuates the expansiveness of nature, makes visible the unseen but also contracts time by taking us on a “journey of time and space”.  His film, Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath our Feet, takes us underground to explore the internet-like network of Mycelium that lie beneath the mushrooms that are visible to our naked eye.  We are guided on this journey by Louie and world-famous mycologist, Paul Stamets, along with other highly informed commentators.

Louie maintains that the perspective of white Caucasians on nature is very different to that of indigenous people who grew up in an environment conscious of nature’s interconnectedness and educated to understand, respect and value nature.

An indigenous artist’s perspective on nature

In her presentation for the Nature Summit, Seeing Through the Lens of an Artist, Camille Seaman explained that very early in life she was taught that “we are connected to everything, that everything has a life force”.  Camille is an indigenous photographer who “focuses on fragile environments, extreme weather, and stark beauty of the natural world” with the purpose of demonstrating that humans and nature are not separate.  Her photography  is a call to understand and value our connectedness to nature and to take “ responsible action” to restore and preserve our increasingly fragile ecosystems.   Camille has specialised in polar photography and has provided several TED Talks on topics such as The Last Iceberg.

Camille explained that in her early childhood, her Grandfather taught her so much about an indigenous perspective on nature, on connectedness and on respect.  He would reverently refer to trees as relatives and would introduce her to each of the trees in the woods while she placed her hands on the tree.   When Camille would unnecessarily break branches from trees he would say to her, “If you think you are separate from the trees, see how long you can hold your breath”.   He highlighted the fact that you “cannot harm it [the tree] without harming yourself”.

Camille spoke of the interconnectedness of nature in many ways. For example, she indicated that clouds bring rain which provide water for plants which, in turn, feed animals.  She maintained that storms give new life and energy to the ground and help us to appreciate that all life is transitory.  She tells her own life story and development as a bi-polar photographer covering Antarctica and Artic Poles in a TED Talk titled, Connection and Purpose: Tales of a Polar Photographer.

In her Nature Summit presentation, Camille emphasised the need to spend time in stillness and silence before taking a nature photograph so that you can be truly immersed in whatever you are viewing and bring a new perspective to what you are seeing.  She maintains that stillness in nature enables you to dissolve “the veil of separateness”.   She stated that amazing synchronies can occur in this stillness, e.g., animals may come out from their hiding place.  Intriguingly, not long after I was listening to her presentation, I was in the backyard weeding our rock garden when two birds flew down and sat beside me – a mother and her young bird.  They started singing and responded when I (hoarsely) attempted to whistle in return.

Reflection

Nature is all around us and in constant motion and transition – most of which we are totally unaware of.  Photographers like Louie and Camille bring this movement and change to life so that we can see things that we would not normally notice, experience emotions often hidden from us and value our connectedness with nature.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can expand and deepen our perspective on nature and value our connectedness, leading to wise and purposeful action to preserve it.

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Image by Andrea Spallanzani from Pixabay

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

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

Developing Awareness to Live More Fully

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education, at MARC, UCLA offers a meditation podcast where she introduces a range of meditation practices.   Her guided meditation covers The Spectrum of Awareness Practices.  During the meditation, Diana likens the different practices to changing the lens and focus of a camera – from narrow to broad to panoramic.  Her aim is to open us up to the possibilities inherent in meditation practice so that we can choose a preferred awareness focus as a regular practice or seek variety by consciously “changing our lens”.   It is not her intention to provide an exhaustive list of meditation practices but to show that there is a broad spectrum in terms of what we can pay attention to and the resultant focus of our awareness.

The telephoto lens – narrow focus

The first meditation practice Diana introduces is what she describes as using a telephoto lens – homing in on a specific object of awareness and leaving awareness of other things in the background (as you would when you focus your camera on a bird in a tree in a distant location).  The focus can be your breath (the rise and fall of your abdomen), specific body sensation or a noise within your room.  As your mind wanders from this chosen anchor, you can bring it back into focus (as you would when adjusting a lens for greater clarity of an image).  This form of awareness meditation develops concentration, calmness, and clarity. 

Wide lens – broader focus

We can broaden our focus beyond our breathing to a particular body sensation or a difficult emotion that draws our attention away from our breath.   We could pay attention, for instance, to the sense of groundedness in our feet, the warm tingling in our fingers or the tightness in our shoulders.  With a difficult emotion, such as resentment, we could focus not only on the nature and intensity of the emotion but also its bodily manifestation, e.g., tightness in the chest, stiffness in the  jaw or pain in the neck.  We can name the emotion and describe its intensity to better tame it and bring it under control.  This broader form of awareness practice can help us to understand our emotions and our triggers, develop emotional regulation, build body awareness and increase our awareness of our mind-body-emotion connection.

Panoramic lens – being conscious of awareness itself

Here we broaden our attention beyond a chosen focus to what exists both within and without us.  It involves tapping into our natural awareness – a consciousness of what is going on inside us as well as around us, without any specific focus.  It requires opening up fully to our inner landscape and our external environment – taking in the sights, sounds, smells, touch, and taste of what we experience.  This is the spaciousness in which we become conscious of awareness itself.   Natural awareness helps us to cultivate openness and acceptance, curiosity and appreciation and a sense of wonder and awe.

Reflection

Diana introduces the spectrum of awareness as a way to broaden and enrich our meditation practice, increase our understanding of the nature of awareness and its pervasiveness, and enrich our daily life so that we can live more fully, engaging with ourselves and the world with heightened awareness and gratitude.  David Sinclair in his book, Lifespan, describes something of the richness of openness to natural awareness when he describes the experience of bushwalking with his family as “Searching for serenity.  Hearing stories. Finding Beauty. Making memories. Sharing wisdom.”

Diana describes natural awareness and other mindfulness practices in more detail in her book, The Little Book of BeingAs we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation, we can experience life more fully and enrich the lives of others from the fullness of our own life.

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

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

Becoming Grounded to Strengthen Your Intention

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

Guided meditation for groundedness

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

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

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

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

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

Setting intentions

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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Image by marijana1 from Pixabay

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

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

Developing an Anchor for Your Meditation

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

Bodily sensations as an anchor during meditation

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

Sound as an anchor during meditation

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

Reflection

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

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

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Image by Oleg Mityukhin 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.

Accessing the Power of Meditation and Loving Kindness

Barry Boyce, founding editor of Mindful.org, interviewed Sharon Salzberg, globally recognised meditation teacher, about the impact of meditation and loving kindness (about which Sharon is a world-renowned exponent).  In the interview, The Power of Loving-Kindness, Sharon explained how she had studied Eastern philosophy and learned about meditation by travelling to India, not the local meditation centre like you do today.  She was surprised that much of the Indian meditation practice that she learned focused on the breath, not the more esoteric approaches she had learned about.

Focusing on the breath

Sharon was at first taken aback by the simplicity of the breath focus.  However, she soon realised that while the idea is simple, the execution is difficult because it involves having to deal with racing thoughts that distracted her from her focus on her breath.   She found how hard it was to pay attention to her breath when “thoughts came tumbling down like a waterfall”.

At challenging times, when anxiety is high, our mind races away from our focus with some speed and intensity.  Bringing attention back to our breathing focus, is difficult to do but builds our “attention muscle”.  It enhances our power of concentration and our capacity to be with what is, whether it is the experience of well-being or the pain and suffering of challenging emotions.  Pausing to focus on our breath develops clarity and our capacity to lead with conviction.

The role of loving-kindness

There is a tendency is to give up in the face of the difficulty of focusing on our breath.  However, persistence really pays and creates the power to access equanimity, ease and creativity.  Sometimes, we are tempted to beat up on ourselves by saying, “We are not good at meditation and never will be?”; “It’s such a simple thing, why can’t I do it?”  “Other people seem to manage, why can’t I?”

This is where loving kindness has a role.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his definition of mindfulness, exhorts us to practise paying purposeful attention “non-judgmentally”.  It is the negative self-evaluation that creates the greatest barrier to meditation, not the fact that we have lots of distracting thoughts.  Thoughts are natural and will vary in content and frequency over time, reflecting what is going on in our life at that time.  Jon suggests that we treat thoughts as if they are bubbles floating to the surface in boiling water.

Sharon maintains that “kindness towards ourselves” is essential if we are going to be able to persist with meditation.  She argues that paying attention and kindness are inseparable – without self-compassion, you cannot sustain your attention.   The power of meditation lies not only in the increasing capacity to concentrate but also in the ability to develop robust self-esteem through loving-kindness.   Another dimension of this power is the ability to rest in our breath and bodily sensations in troubling times and times of turbulence in our life. Sharon explores fully the role of loving-kindness in her recent book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.

The power of connection

Through meditation and loving-kindness, we come to realise our connectedness to everyone and our connection with nature.  This is foundational to our ability to show compassion towards others.  If we can accept ourselves fully – with our flaws, hurtful behaviour and our complex emotions – we are better able to extend compassion and forgiveness to others and accept that they are only human too.

Through our sense of connection, we can tap into the “collective energy” that surrounds us, pursue our life purpose and make a real difference in the world.  Meditation becomes a power source, a way of accessing the power within and without – it becomes the conduit for our energy system.

Reflection

Meditation has a calming yet powerful effect.  When we are rattled or frazzled, our power of concentration is diminished, our thoughts become dispersed and our energy dissipated.   Paying attention to our breath with loving-kindness enables us to access our power source and to bring focused energy to our endeavours, whatever they may be.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, particularly through loving-kindness meditation, we can enhance our sense of connection to everybody and every living thing, build resilient self-esteem and draw on the power of focus.

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Image by Alexander Droeger 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.