Meditation as a Process

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

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

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

Marvin’s guided meditation process

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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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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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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.

A Meditation for Grief and Loss

The sense of grief and loss can be overwhelming in these challenging times of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Maybe we have lost a relative, friend or colleague to the virus or we are experiencing the loss of the way things used to be – the levity and gaiety of daily interactions, the structure and social intercourse of a common workplace, the freedom of movement and access, the enjoyment of our favourite sport or pastime or the security, success and predictability of our business.  It is easy to beat up on ourselves and say, “I should be over this by now” or “Why aren’t I more positive like other people?”  Grief and loss have their own individual expression and it takes time and space to deal with the intensity of these difficult emotions.

Meditation as a refuge

Whatever is the cause of our sense of grief and loss, meditation can serve as a refugea place of safety, security and equanimity in the midst of everything that is unsettling.  It enables us to accept what is and move forward, even with tentative ideas and steps.  Meditation provides a grounding when the sense of loss is swirling around us, encompassing our thoughts and emotions.

We can become grounded through our breath – noticing the in-breath and out-breath and the rise and fall of our abdomen or chest.  We can rest in the space between our in-breath and out-breath and envisage kindness and strength flowing into us while tension and unease flows out of us.

We can sense the solid feeling of the floor or ground whether we are sitting, lying, standing or walking during our meditation.  As we do a body scan, we can notice our bodily sensations and points of tension – caused by suppressing the sense of grief and loss and holding back the natural flow of difficult emotions.  We can breathe into these places of tautness and pain and allow our emotions to surface and release.

We can feel the flow of energy, warmth and strength move through us as we sense the tingling in our hands and feet or through our fingers touching each other.  We can sense surrounding sounds by tuning into the room tone or the sounds surrounding us in the open – the breeze blowing, leaves in the trees rustling or the birds chirping or singing.  We can become immersed in the energetic field of our surround-sound as we allow ourselves to experience focused attention.

Meditation for grief and loss

We can use general forms of emotion meditation or a structured approach such as the R.A.I.N. process (recognise, allow, investigate, nurture).  Alternatively, we can use a specific meditation focused on grief and loss.  For example, Diana Winston, author of The Little Book of Being, offers a guided meditation podcast on Working with Grief and Loss.  

Her approach begins with grounding processes such as those described above but then moves onto dealing directly with the emotions of grief and loss.  She suggests at the outset of her focus on grief and loss (22min. mark), that you envisage a time when you were held tightly and securely and encompassed in love and compassion – whether by a parent, intimate partner or a close friend.  Diana encourages you to dwell in this feeling of being surrounded by support and strength, a feeling that can be reinforced by feeling the solidity of the floor or ground beneath your feet or body.

Diana encourages you to notice your feelings of sadness whether it is for yourself, others close to you or people in your neighbourhood or interstate (as with the rising number of deaths from Coronavirus in the State of Victoria, Australia).  She suggests that you allow the emotions and bodily sensations to manifest themselves – whether feelings of anxiety, constriction or heaviness of mind and heart.  She stresses the importance of staying grounded throughout by simultaneously being connected to something solid – a memory of being held warmly or the solidity of the earth beneath your feet.

While experiencing these emotions, especially if you are feeling regret at failing to appreciate what you had or connecting with a loved one, it is vital to show yourself kindness and self-compassion and to reassure yourself with words like, “I can get through this”, and “I have the support of others wherever in the world they might be”.  You can extend your compassion to others who are experiencing their own form of loss and grief, especially those in Beirut at the moment.  Tara reminds us to accept what is and to acknowledge that “we are all in this together”.

Reflection

It is natural to feel grief and loss in challenging times like those we are all experiencing differentially at the moment wherever we are in the world.  Denying those feelings can intensify them and lead to harmful and unproductive behaviour and negatively impact our interactions.  Meditation provides a refuge and a way to face our difficult emotions with kindness and self-compassion.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can find the resilience and strength to persist in the face of adversity and restore our equanimity no matter what the circumstances that challenge our ability to cope.

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Image by Nikolaus Bader 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.

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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Image by enriquelopezgarre 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.

Building Resilience through Compassion Towards Others

In a previous post, I discussed Pema Chödrön’s ideas of developing resilience through self-compassion by “compassionate abiding” in our own pain and suffering during these challenging times of the pandemic.  This entails abiding in, or dropping into, the full depth of our painful experience through our bodily sensations and conscious breathing.  As we undertake slow, conscious breathing we hold our suffering with self-kindness and warmth.  Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Warriors of Light, remind us to “breathe into our hearts” because breath is our chariot enabling us to face the unknown and stand on our own.

In her interview podcast with Tami Simon of Sounds True, Pema extended the concept of compassionate abiding by moving beyond self-compassion to compassion towards others.  She maintained that embracing the pain and suffering of others particularly in these times, when everyone is suffering in one form or another, contributes to our resilience – we realise we are not alone and we are able to move beyond self-absorption and “panic storylines” to extending kindness to others.

Pain and suffering: a doorway to compassion for others

In these challenging times of the Coronavirus, we can be very sure that there are millions of people around the world who are experiencing suffering like we are.  People are experiencing all forms of loss – of loved ones, their jobs, their business incomes, their health, their financial security or their homes.  They may have become physically disconnected from their workplaces, their family and their friends, even stranded in a foreign country because of international travel restrictions.  They could be healthcare professionals working on the frontline and/or living away from their families for a number of months to protect their loved ones from cross-infection.  We can be very confident that there are people around the world who are feeling pain and suffering like we are.

Pema argues that abiding with compassion in our own pain and suffering is the doorway opening us to compassion towards others.  In experiencing fully our own suffering, not denying its intensity or pervasiveness, we develop a deep sense of connection with others who are also suffering at this time.  Pema spoke of the principle of Tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “taking in and sending out” – taking in our own experience of pain and suffering and sending out desire for relief for others.  She suggests that once we become grounded in our own suffering (this may take 10-20 minutes), we can take in the suffering of others.  On our in-breath we can imagine others who are experiencing similar pain and suffering and on our out-breath, wish them relief and insight to enable them to move beyond their own discomfort, distress, grief or loneliness.  Connectedness and resilience lie in this mutual experiencing.

Pema maintains that we do not have to confine this compassion towards others to a time of extreme challenge, we can use our pain and suffering as the doorway to compassion and connectedness at other times.  We may be experiencing distress because a family member is suffering from Alzheimer’s or feeling panic and anxiety because someone we are carer for is experiencing the black dog of depression.  At these times, we can drop into conscious breathing, embracing our distress and anxiety with kindness, and gradually move beyond this abiding self-compassion to compassion towards others who are experiencing the intensity of our own emotions. 

Reflection

I think that Pema’s profound insight into compassionate abiding opens the way to develop self-compassion, compassion towards others and personal resilience.  As we grow in mindfulness through conscious breathing and extending relief to others, we can move beyond our self-destructive narratives, restore our inner equilibrium and peace, and develop the resilience to not only survive these challenging times but also be able to extend help and support to others. 

Compassion towards others can be expressed in many ways even in these times of social distancing – the virtual choir of women physicians singing “Rise Again” is but one example of many where people are moving beyond their own overwhelming challenges and distress to reach out to others.

Pema provides multiple resources including her many books, her free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön  and her online course, Freedom to Love, which expands on the principles and practice of compassionate abiding.

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Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski 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.