Simple Steps for Self-Care

These are challenging times that place stress on every aspect of our lives.  The natural human tendency is to go with the flow and try to keep up with all kinds of commitments – family, community and work.  We can succumb to the pace of modern life and the expectations of achievement that we place on ourselves and that we think others expect of us.  However, there are real physical and mental costs associated with engaging life at an unnatural pace.  Psychologists, for example, warn of ‘emotional inflammation’ resulting from the pandemic and, more recently, from the war in Ukraine.  Self-care is now more important than ever.

In these times of endless challenge, self-care becomes critical for our mental and physical welfare. The Self-Care Summit (May 10-16) sought to identify the issues involved, the personal and social barriers and ways to achieve self-care in everyday life.  The first speaker at the Summit, Renée Trudeau, provided a solid foundation and strong motivation for self-care.  After more than 20 years working with individuals and organisations on self-care approaches, she was able to distil the wisdom of her research, of workshop participants and of her own practice, into simple steps for self -care.  Some of her suggestions are discussed in this blog post.

Self-care in everyday life

Renée asserts that self-care is “not about self-improvement or self-indulgence” but “meeting yourself where you are” at the moment by “pausing, tuning in and asking, What do I need ?”.  It entails having the courage to break out of the expectation bind that locks you into unhealthy pursuits and giving yourself “what you most need” at the time.  So, for Renée, self-care is a moment by moment endeavour, not a ritualised practice developed by someone who is peddling self-care products. Renée is the author of two books including Nurturing the Soul of Your Family: 10 Ways to Reconnect and Find Peace in Everyday LifeIn her books, blog, workshops and presentations, she offers many simple steps for self-care that you can undertake at any time in the midst of everyday life.  Some of her suggestions include the following:

  • Monitoring your self-talk: we often talk harshly to ourselves when we make a mistake or fail to realise an outcome.  We can denigrate ourselves in an uncaring and unkind way.  Negative self-talk includes the harsh tone of voice we use when we speak to ourselves about our shortfalls.  Renée maintains that we would not talk like that to a 3-year old child.  She suggests having a picture of yourself when you were between the ages of 3-5 years and think about how you would talk to your young self in the picture.  Being conscious of our inner dialogue is very important for self-care – kindness begins at home!   Self-care includes not putting yourself down.
  • Cultivating a desired way of showing up: Renée alluded to Michael Phelps’ rigorous routine before starting a swimming race at the Olympics.  His established routine included eating a set breakfast, stretching, mix-style swimming and listening to music – all designed to enable him to show up for his race in his very best condition and frame of mind.  Renée suggests that you could establish a morning routine so that you can “cultivate a state of being to show up the way you want to” – in other words, having the presence of mind, focus and calmness to be the best you can be for your day’s endeavours.  Your routine may entail mindfulness practices such as yoga, Tai Chi, meditation or mindful walking.  Whatever you choose needs to be practised consistently to achieve the desired benefits. Interestingly, I have adopted the practice of Tai Chi as a preparation routine before I play social tennis so that I show up in the right frame of mind and with my body and mind attuned to concentration, bending, balance and conscious breathing.
  • Starting your day intentionally: forming a clear intention for the day can shape your words and actions and have very positive effects on your outcomes.  The catalyst for this intention-shaping can be a prayer, inspirational reading, mindfulness practice or gratitude journalling (so you turn up from a place of appreciation).  The practice of intention-shaping can extend to your work by forming a clear intention before a meeting – How do I want to show up for this meeting?; Should I go out of my way to include a team member who always seems excluded?; Can I relate to the person I tend to ignore?; Can I consciously practice active listening during the meeting?.
  • Giving and receiving morning hugs: Renée also suggests that giving and receiving hugs in the morning with your partner, other family members or your favourite pet, can have a very positive benefit for your wellbeing.  This tends to reaffirm to yourself that you are lovable and loving.  The hugs with family members can be accompanied by words of endearment, encouragement or well-wishes for the forthcoming day.
  • Early morning body scan: Renée indicated that she undertakes a body scan before getting out of bed of a morning.  A body scan enables you to locate points of tension in the body and release them through consciously paying attention to them.  The process increases body awareness by identifying how your body is manifesting any felt stress or challenge.  This practice can enable you to start the day in a state of calm rather than being uptight from anticipatory stress.
  • In-the-moment journalling:  Renée describes this as “quickie journalling”.  The idea is to tap into your feelings, needs and wants at any moment of time, particularly if you are feeling stressed, out of balance or upset.  She suggests that you ask yourself the following three questions to get you going with your self-insight journalling and then choose one thing to work with:
  • How do I feel?
  • What do I need?
  • What do I want?
  • Really listen to your body:  You may often notice when other people are stressed when they sigh, loudly exclaim something like “Damn!” or throw something down heavily on the desk.  But how often do you monitor your own bodily signs of stress?  Renée encourages you to really “listen to your body”.  She stated that sighing is a signal for her to attend to her needs to de-stress and recover her calmness.
  • Monthly intention: At the start of each month, Renée reviews her physical, emotional and spiritual needs at the time to identify one simple thing to do for the month to act out of self-care.  The process involves tuning into yourself and identifying “what is calling you to do” for your own self-care. One of her decisions was “to do less” which resulted in an “expanse of unscheduled time” and more time for self-care.
  • Personal Planning Retreat: Every 90 days, Renée takes a full 9 to 5 day to step away, move to a different environment and identify what is draining her.  She offers hints on how to undertake such a personal retreat in a place that you find inspiring and energising.

Reflection

It is so easy to be captured by the to-do list, work and family pressures and the social “shoulds”.  Taking time out for self-care is essential for our wellbeing.  As Renée points out, the way forward does not require big steps or expensive options, but simple steps for personal self-care, taken in the moment.

A nutritionist recently advised a member of our family that they are not digesting their food properly and need to chew each mouthful of solid food up to 30 times to aid digestion.  I have started to adopt this practice as a form of mindful eating and nutritional self-care. I’m finding I am more conscious of the different textures and flavours of the food I eat when I adopt this practice.

As we grow in mindfulness through consciously exploring self-care we can enrich our self-awareness, expand our response options, regulate our stress and emotions and increase our calm, confidence and courage.

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Image by Frauke Riether from Pixabay

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

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

Healing Trauma – Dealing with the Visceral Imprint

In a previous post I discussed the complexity of trauma and the need to adopt treatment practices that recognise and respect this complexity.  Bessel van der Kolk in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma, expresses serious concern with the overreliance on medication to treat trauma, especially for returning veterans suffering from PTSD.  He contends that “drugs cannot cure trauma” but only serve to “dampen down” manifestations of a “disturbed physiology” such as violence, overwhelm and uncontrolled anger.  He argues that the side effects of reliance on drug therapy include addiction, lessening the capacity for self-regulation and blocking the senses that otherwise would be the source of pleasure and motivation, emotion and pain. In his view, the treatment aim is not to “blunt emotional sensitivity” but to achieve integration of the traumatic experience into a person’s “arc of life”.

Bessel argues that a traumatised person’s basic challenge in recovery is to re-establish ownership of themselves – the whole person, mind, body and soul.  He contends that this plays out as a fourfold challenge – (1) developing ways to become focused and calm, (2) sustaining calmness when confronted with stimuli such as noise, images and smells that otherwise would trigger a traumatised response,  (3) becoming fully engaged with life and relationships and (4) being open to one’s real self without hiding behind “secrets” that are designed as self-protection (e.g. against shame and self-loathing).  Bessel suggests that the effectiveness of each of the four approaches can vary with the individual and the stage of the healing process.  He illustrates through case studies that the healing journey can be a life-long process with occasional or frequent relapses.

Bessel maintains that, in the long run, confronting the traumatic event(s) in all their horror  is necessary for healing.  However, he cautions about rushing this process without first building a person’s capacity to cope with the fullness of the “visceral imprint” and its related sensitivities (e.g. to specific sounds, smells, thoughts).  Confronting the harsh reality of the precipitating event(s) too soon, when the person is ill-equipped, can lead to an individual being re-traumatised.

Bessel contends that the focus of recovery has to switch from the “rational brain” to the “emotional brain” which manifests trauma in the form of physical sensations impacting the heart, breathing, voice, gut and movement of the body (e.g. resulting in bodily movements “that signify collapse, rigidity, rage or defensiveness”.)  The overall aim is to restore the “the balance between the rational brain and the emotional brain”, because in a traumatised person the rational brain is often overwhelmed by the emotional brain that can “see” danger where it does not exist and inappropriately activates a fight, flight or freeze response

Healing modalities for trauma that recognise the mind-body-emotion connection

Throughout his book, Bessel discusses a range of trauma healing modalities that he has researched and practiced with his clients. His approach is quite eclectic, drawing on both Western and Eastern healing traditions.  He demonstrates through case histories that one modality more than another, or a particular mix of modalities, may prove effective in individual cases.   He appears to adopt a trail-and-error approach to achieve the best fit for a traumatised individual, informed in part by their life skills and the precipitating trauma event.  Some of the healing modalities he adopts are identified below:

  • Controlled breathing – here he encourages slow, deep breathing that that tap into the parasympathetic nervous system and its capacity to reduce arousal and induce calm.  Breathing also serves to enhance oxygen flow to energise the body.
  • Movement modalities – these can include Tai Chi, yoga, martial arts and the rhythmic movement associated with African drumming.  Bessel notes that each of these modalities simultaneously involve not only movement but also breathing and meditation.
  • Mindfulness practices – Bessel points out that traumatised people often avoid their challenging feelings and related bodily sensations.  Mindfulness which generates self-awareness enables the traumatised person to notice their feelings and sensations and the precipitating triggers.  This can lead to emotional regulation, rather than emotional overwhelm which can occur when people try to ignore or hide their real feelings and sensations.  Peter Levine’s “somatic experiencing” approach is an example of a related mindfulness practice that can contribute to healing trauma.
  • Singing – can engage the whole person (body, mind, soul and emotions).  Effective singing requires appropriate posture and breath control, opening up the airways and, at the same time, releasing emotions.  In group sessions with singing teacher, Chris James, I have often observed the spontaneous flow of emotions as people, both men and women, become more engaged and absorbed in the process, learn to let themselves go and find their “natural voice”.  Chris maintains that singing enhances “vibrational awareness”, engenders “self-discovery” and builds “conscious presence”.
  • Chanting and mantra meditationschanting can reduce depression, increase positivity and heighten relaxation.  It has been proven to be effective in helping veterans suffering from PTSD.  Tina Turner found Buddhist chanting to be very effective in overcoming her trauma and re-building her singing career.  Likewise, mantra meditations (that typically incorporate chants) can lead to calm, peace and energy and enable reintegration of body, mind, emotion and spirit.

Reflection

Bessel encourages the use of multiple healing modalities when working with traumatised individuals.  He suggests too that the modalities described above can help anyone deal with life’s challenges, restore balance and build energy.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and related mindfulness practices, we can gain self-awareness, develop self-management and heal from trauma and the scars of adverse experiences, whether in childhood or adulthood.

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Image by Đạt Lê 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.

Widening Awareness Through Meditation and Singing Bowls

Diana Winston introduced the use of singing bowls in meditation when she provided a guided meditation podcast with Master Tibetan musicians Michael and Jahna Perricone.  Diana called her celebration with singing bowls Glimpses of Being and provided a way of developing “varying awareness” by moving from a narrow focus to a very wide focus of attention.  She maintained that the singing bowls are conducive to meditation and can take us deeper into the meditative state.

Guided meditation to widen awareness

Diana begins her guided meditation by encouraging us to take deep breaths and employ the out-breath as a form of release from any tension spots in the body.  She suggests that, besides grounding ourselves in our body (through deep breaths and sensing the groundedness of our feet), we consciously focus on our intention for the meditation – thus grounding both body and mind. 

The next step involved mindful breathing – being aware of how our breathing affects our body.  We can focus on where in our body we most experience our breath – through our nose, the undulations of our chest, or the in and out movement of our abdomen.  Once we are grounded in the bodily sensation of breathing, we can then focus on the breath itself and its pattern – slow/fast, deep/shallow, heavy/light – without trying to control it. 

The third stage of the meditation involved tuning into the Tibetan singing bowls and allowing the vibrations to penetrate our body.  With practice we can align our bodily resonance to that of the singing bowls.  Diana forewarns us that music and singing can unearth a wide range of emotions both positive and challenging.  These emotions can range from elation, relief or joy to sadness, grief or anger.  Being with the emotions without being overcome by them is a key to gaining equanimity.  Denial leads to submerging and intensifying emotions while acceptance and openness lead to release and freedom.  Diana maintains that it is important to experience the emotion as it is at the moment.

In the final stages of the guided meditation, Diana uses nature imagery to help us widen our awareness.  She suggests that we look at the sky (or imagine it) and notice its openness and expansiveness.  We can imagine the clouds passing by – sometimes light and fluffy and, at other times, wild and stormy.  Diana encourages us to “rest in awareness” – to take in the expansiveness and unboundedness of the sky and the sounds emitted by the singing bowls and the accompanying Tibetan singing provided by Jahna Perricone.   Diana maintains that despite the turbulence of the surface, beneath the waves lies stillness and silence – an analogy for our capacity to find refuge from troubling events through meditation and to build our resilience.   Tina Turner, through her chanting, demonstrated the power of music and meditation to overcome personal adversity, develop resilience and experience happiness.

Reflection

Michael and Jahna Perricone describe their workshops as “sound baths” where Michael’s playing of the Tibetan bowls is accompanied by Jahna’s singing of Tibetan songs.  I remember experiencing a sound bath when I participated in a singing residential retreat with Chris James.  We had been formed into pods and members of each pod began toning over a volunteer participant lying on the floor, effectively soaking them in directed sound.  The experience is very profound and moving – not only the sense of the loving kindness being extended towards you but also the resonance achieved in your body as the reverberations of the chanting flow over and through you.  This is a special experience and it would be even more enhanced with singing accompanied by the skilful playing of Tibetan music bowls. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and tapping into the resonance of music, singing bowls, Tibetan singing or chanting, we can access the stillness and silence within – a source of resilience, insight, courage and happiness.  Once we have discovered our own inner depths and expansiveness, we can revisit it at any time.

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Image by magicbowls 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.

Guided Meditation to Develop the Awareness Muscle

Allyson Pimentel provided a guided meditation podcast through MARC UCLA titled, Begin Again – a process designed to develop concentration and build the “awareness muscle”.   This meditation builds increased awareness of the present moment because it requires us to pay attention as the meditation unfolds – in particular, noticing when our mind wanders away from our primary focus.  Allyson suggests that we need to be “curious about being curious” – that we approach the challenge of paying attention with openness, a sense of wonder, curiosity and exploration.

Allyson emphasises the point that our minds are designed to think, imagine, envision and dream.  It is natural for us to “wander off”, lose focus and entertain the “blur of the past” or the anticipation of the future.  She suggests that no matter what the level of our experience with meditation is, we can alternate between “wakefulness and sleepiness” – which can be interpreted both literally and metaphorically.  

Allyson reminds us that the meaning of the word “begin” is “to come into being”.  She suggests that we are so focused on “doing” that we lose sight of “being” – of appreciating and valuing our present moment experience.  Her guided meditation encourages wakefulness – being fully aware of the present moment and noticing when our attention wanders.   The process of continually returning to our focus – restoring our attention – builds our awareness muscle.  Developing this skill is particularly critical in the digital age which is becoming characterised by the “loss of attention, consciousness and awareness” through online marketing and the role of social media and social influencers.

One of the key things to be aware of during this meditation is the tendency to judge ourselves for our “failure to concentrate” or “stay in the moment”.  We can become critical of our performance, disappointed and angry with ourselves, and frustrated with our lack of progress.  Our current “performance culture” tends to cultivate this judgmental stance.  Allyson stresses the need for loving kindness towards ourselves to overcome these negative thoughts and assessments.

Guided meditation for developing the awareness muscle

Allyson’s guided meditation (which begins at 9 minutes, 20 seconds) has a number of stages that can be followed in sequence or changed to suit your situation:

  • Posture – after taking and releasing a few deep breaths, the aim is to adopt a posture that is conducive to wakefulness to the present moment.  This may entail closing your eyes (to avoid distraction) and adopting an upright posture (as Allyson suggests, as if a sturdy, straight, “big oak tree is behind your back”).  She maintains that this is a way to achieve an “embodied sense of wakefulness”, so that your body posture reflects what you are seeking to achieve in your meditation.  Noticing your posture throughout the meditation can enhance your wakefulness – and may require you to correct a slouch if that occurs.
  • Focus on sounds – one way to achieve an anchor focused on the present moment is to pay attention to sounds both internal and external to your room.  It is important to let the sounds come and go and not entertain them by trying to work out their source.  For some people, sounds themselves may be distracting and this step could be omitted.
  • Focus on breathing – here it is important to become conscious of your breathing – its strength, speed, evenness and regularity – without trying to control it.  As you drop into your breath, you can experience calmness, expansiveness and energy as you open to the life that is within you. 
  • Notice the “tone of your mind” – throughout the meditation you are encouraged to notice what is happening in your mind.  You might find yourself engaged in self-criticism for wandering off – a state that can be overcome by loving kindness and patience.  It also pays to remind yourself that having to “begin again” to re-focus, is progressively building your awareness muscle – which will enrich your life in all its spheres. No matter how many times you have to start over, you are building towards awareness and its inherent richness.

Reflection

This meditation can be challenging, especially in our early stages of adopting meditation practice or if we are feeling agitated about something that is happening to us or others who are close to us (or to others who we know are experiencing terror elsewhere).  The real benefits of this meditation can readily flow over into our daily life and help us to achieve calmness and equanimity in the face of life’s challenges.

 As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and beginning again when our minds wander, we can begin to discern patterns in our wandering – e.g., planning our day, preparing a shopping list, indulging resentment or stressing about possible, future challenges.  This increased self-awareness can help us to develop specific strategies to strengthen our capacity to concentrate and focus our energy.

Allyson suggests that we take to heart Carl Jung’s comment:

Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes.

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Image by Josep Monter Martinez from Pixabay

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

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

Managing Your Thoughts with Mindfulness Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using imagery in meditation to dissolve your thoughts

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

Using substitution in meditation to change your thinking

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

Reflection

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

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Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

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

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

Understanding and Appreciating the Interconnectedness of Nature

Mark Coleman in one of his nature meditation podcasts highlights the role of rain and its interconnectedness with other elements of nature and human life.  He was recording the meditation while standing on a mountainside with mist, coldness and dampness resulting from recent rains.  His meditation focused on rain and its beneficial effects for nature and humans.

He spoke of rains reducing the risk of fire, energising the earth and filling rivers inviting the annual migration of salmon from the sea to the rivers in California.  He described the rain as “drops of interconnectedness” and explained how clouds evaporate and produce rain, hail and snow which feeds the creeks, rivers and ponds and brings new life to many living creatures.  Mark spoke of the “gift of water” that we take so much for granted and he described the earthy smell after the rain has fallen and left its moisture on an otherwise parched earth.

Mark drew on Mary Oliver’s Poem, Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me, to highlight the interconnectedness of rain and the sky, trees, plant life and ourselves as humans living in nature under the stars.  We see the life-giving nature of rain after it falls on dry and browning grass.  It always amazes me how a seemingly dead stretch of grass can come to life and appear beautifully green after overnight rain.  We can see indoor plants that are wilting with leaves that are browning or yellowing on the edges suddenly come to life and thrive when placed in the rain.

Rain, in Marks’ words, are part of the “fabric of connection” that is foundational to the natural world and our human existence. He reminds us that plants breathe out what we breathe in and breathe in what we breathe out – they are like our external, earthy lungs, enabling a vital relationship between humans and trees.

The Earth Law Center discusses other areas of interconnectedness that impact our human existence, e.g., the role of Krill in the marine ecosystem and fungi in the forest ecosystem.  They highlight that a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of ecosystems and human life has helped people modify their behaviour and contribute to protecting the environment – they describe the new environmentally aware behaviours as “nature connectedness behavior” and list consumption of organic products and a vegan diet as elements of this enlightened behaviour.

Reflection

We pursue our busy lives so often without an awareness of our interconnection with nature and each other.  As we stop, listen, and learn, we can become more conscious of this interconnectedness and its many dimensions.  As we grow in mindfulness through nature meditation and experiencing silence in nature, we can begin to understand, appreciate, and value this interconnectedness.  Otherwise, we can continue blindly damaging our life-giving ecosystems that we rely on for our very breath and continued existence.

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Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

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

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

Insight Meditation for Peace and Happiness

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

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

Guided insight meditation

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

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

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

A graduated approach to paying attention

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

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

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

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

Clarity about your life purpose

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

Aligning with What is Good and Healthy in Our Lives through Mindfulness

Allyson Pimentel, meditation teacher with MARC, provided a recent meditation podcast on the topic, Mindfulness as Alignment with the Good.  The catalyst for her online session was a walk with her dog in the bright morning sun, surrounded by the sound of birds, the beauty of flowers and trees, and the kind acknowledgement of neighbours.  What particularly came home to her was the  heightened receptivity that comes with mindfulness practice along with what is good in our life.

When we practice mindfulness in these challenging times we are returning to stillness amongst the turbulence of a pandemic and political unrest, seeking groundedness in the face of disturbing and disorienting news, exploring harmony in a world torn by racial hatred and the income divide, finding silence amidst the noise of a busy life, and resting in peace and tranquility.  As we deepen our practice, we become more connected to nature and to each other – we can picture other people around the world engaged like us in meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, or the singing of mantras.   We can sense the collectivity of everything, the growing alignment with what is good not only in our own lives but also in  the lives of others worldwide.

Allyson stressed that what we have in mindfulness is totally portable – we can take it with us wherever we go.  We have our breath, widening awareness of our senses and the capacity to feel warmth towards others with a kind heart.  Mindfulness engenders gratitude, wisdom, generosity, and compassion towards ourselves and others.  We can be mindful for others because of our calmness, self-regulation, openness, and willingness to listen for understanding.  We can bring to our daily interactions a healthy mind free from self-absorption, negative self-talk, resentment, or anger, so that we not only improve our own mental health but also impact positively the mental health of others.

Guided meditation for developing mindfulness and alignment with what is good

Allyson’s guided meditation during the podcast focused initially on our breath and achieving groundedness by sensing how we are supported by our chair and our feet on the ground.  She suggested that we take a collective, deep inhalation and exhalation and then rest in the natural movement of our breathing, focusing on the expansion of our chest or abdomen or the movement of the air through our nose.

She then encouraged us to focus on the sounds that surround us – room tone, sounds in nature or traffic on our roads.  Once we had been able to pay attention purposely and non-judgmentally to external sounds, she encouraged us to shift our attention to internal sounds – the sounds of our own breath, sighing, rumbling, clicking.

In the final stages of the meditation, Allyson suggested we focus in turn on two key questions:

  1. What is it I need now – what kind of support do I want?
  2. What can I do to provide support to others?

Support for others could be the simple act of ringing someone to see how they are going, connecting on Zoom, or meeting up in person with someone who you have not seen for a while or who is experiencing some difficulty. 

Reflection

It is easy to be thrown off balance or to become disoriented and anxious in these challenging times.  Mindfulness offers the chance to seek refuge in stillness and silence and to appreciate what is good in our life.  Allyson maintains that as we grow in mindfulness, we are contributing to what is good and wholesome in our own lives and the lives of others we interact with – whether face-to-face or virtually.  By reminding ourselves of this contribution of mindfulness, we can better sustain our practice and realise its benefits for ourselves and others.

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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.

Quieting Your Mind to Bring Silence into Your Life

Allyson Pimentel, psychologist and mindfulness teacher, recently provided a guided meditation podcast on Keeping Quiet.  In the meditation, she stressed the importance of silence in our lives, particularly in these challenging times when people are experiencing fear, anxiety, uncertainty, worry, concern for their children and anger.   Allyson explained that mindfulness meditation involved “quieting the mind” while “opening the heart” – opening to compassion towards ourselves and towards others.  She maintained that by quieting the mind and experiencing the ensuing stillness and silence we can access our creativity and choose wise action.  In the silence of our inner landscape lies insight, strength, resilience, and the courage to take innovative action.

Allyson pointed out that by quieting the mind, we can deal with difficult emotions – we can stop ourselves from revisiting the past (our mistakes and inadequacies) and the associated depression and regrets, and we can stop predicting a negative future and the associated worry and anxiety.  In quietness and stillness, we can find the ease of the present moment, of being with “what is”.   Allyson drew on the words of  Pablo Neruda in his poem Keeping Quiet to envisage the outcome of each of us being quiet and doing nothing in the moment:

…perhaps a huge silence might interrupt the sadness of never understanding ourselves.

A guided meditation to quiet the mind

In her meditation podcast, Allyson offers a guided meditation designed to help you to quiet your mind – a mindfulness meditation characterised by extended periods of silence.  She suggests at the outset that you take a deep in-breath and enjoy an elongated out-breath as a way of settling into the present and the meditation.

Once you have settled, Allyson suggests that you begin to focus on your bodily sensations.  She encourages you to find a sensation in your body that you find pleasurable and to stay with the pleasure of the moment – quieting the mind and returning to your focus whenever distracting thoughts or emotions interfere.

You could focus on the pleasurable sensation of placing your fingers together – experiencing the sensation of touch and being touched, the tingling in your fingers, the feeling of warmth and energy coursing through your fingers, the sense of connectedness, the feeling of strength and power as you press them together and the sensation of gentleness as you lighten your touch.

Alternatively, you could focus on your breath, not trying to control it but just tapping into your process and sensations of breathing.  Here you might notice the coolness of the breath in your nose as you inhale, the sounds as you exhale, the sense of being alive and a sense of connection to every other living, breathing human or animal.

Reflection

The intensity of our pleasurable sensations can deepen with frequent practice. If we can quieten our minds often enough and for extended periods, we will experience the ease of being with the present moment and the power that this give us to manage our day and our life.  As we grow in mindfulness, our very presence can positively influence others and help them to deal with the waves and vicissitudes of their lives.  Our mindfulness can be for others as well as for ourselves.  We can not only bring the benefits of quieting the mind to ourselves but also extend them to others through our daily interactions.

Pablo maintains that if we can collectively quiet our minds and resist the urge to “keep our lives moving”, many of our global issues would be open to resolution as we moved together in an unfamiliar way:

It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines…

The weekly meditation podcasts conducted by MARC at UCLA provide what Allyson describes in her guided meditation as “companionable silence” – a way of regularly being quiet together and experiencing the power of silence.

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Image by Jaesung An 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 Silence

Every hour of every day we are assailed by noise that sometimes seems deafening.  Christine Jackman eloquently describes this noise pollution in her own busy life.  In her book, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World, she provides insights into the practices and strategies she employed to slow down, quiet the noise and access the power of silence.  She describes these quiet practices as “slithers, slices and slabs of silence” (QWeekend, 21-22 November 2020, p.26).

Noise pollution in our lives

We are so often unaware of the intrusiveness, stress, and distraction that noise pollution creates in our lives.  In our own homes we are pinged by fridge doors when the doors are left open, by the car when the lights are left on, by our phone when we receive a text message, by the dishwasher & washing machine when a load is completed, by the oven when the programmed time is up, by the computer game when we “score” and by the computer when an email is received.   We can also add the ringing of mobile and landline phones, the chimes of the doorbell (or the thud of the metal door knocker), the sound of music/arguments/renovations from our neighbours or the internal air flow noise of our air conditioner (compounded by external sounds of the fan and hot air extractor).

We could reasonably expect that when we are unfortunate enough to be hospitalised that we will have access to quiet time.  However, the reality in hospitals is a constant cacophony of sounds – the sound of the food trolley rattling as it does its rounds, of the rolling noise of mobile X-Ray equipment, of bedside monitors, of conversations of patients with visitors, of conversations between nurses and doctors and nurses, of cleaners gathering waste…and so on.

Christine points out in her book that the cumulative effect of these sounds can lead to disorientation, depression, inertia, and an inability to sleep or concentrate.  She recommends that we have to break out of the habit of blithely accepting the noises in our life and to take proactive action to remove them or to remove ourselves to engage in some form of creative or collaborative endeavour.

Practices to access the power of silence

One of the challenges is to stop long enough to understand the nature of stillness and access the power of silence. In her book, Christine offers a wide range of practices to access stillness and silence.  Here are some of the ones that she found useful and others that form part of my mindfulness practice:

  • “Holding space” in conversation – this entails listening for understanding and viewing the interaction with someone else essentially as a shared space whereby you are able to pause long enough to let them occupy the space with their words.
  • Observing nature closely – the focus could be a leaf, a bird, a butterfly, a tree or still water.  Here the idea is to pay particular attention for a reasonable time to visually absorb what is before you – whether it is something near or distant.
  • Using an app to undertake a brief meditation practice – there are a wide range of mindfulness apps that can be used for this purpose.  The meditation can be quite brief or extended, depending on how much time you choose to make available for the activity.
  • Utilising waiting time for a moment of quietness – I use the process of bringing my fingers from both hands together as a way of focusing on my breath and/or the sensations in my fingertips as they touch each other.  We spend so much time in waiting that this idle time provides a great opportunity to appreciate the power of focus, stillness and silence.
  • Walking mindfully – a way to slow the busyness of your life is to consciously slow your walking pace and be open to whatever comes to you in that moment.
  • Changing your access to media – many authors, including Christine, suggest that we could create space for stillness and silence in our lives by undertaking a “social media diet”.   This means restricting the amount of time and frequency of our access to social media.
  • Adopt a “Digital Sabbath” – taking a complete rest from your digital technology on one day a week.  This is a major ask for people who are addicted to the news and the words, dress, and actions of “social influencers”.
  • Breathing meditation – there are many forms of breath meditations but one of them is to tune into your own breathing by noticing the rise and fall of your stomach or chest.
  • Tuning into birds – as you walk outside your house, listen attentively to the singing of the birds around you.

Reflection

Developing the practice of accessing stillness and silence throughout the day can have considerable benefits for our mental and physical health, as well as for our ecology.  Acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hempton warns that unless we preserve “natural silence”, it will be lost forever “in the ever-rising din of manmade noise”.  In his book, One Square Inch of Silence, he describes his travels across America while recording the “natural voices of the American landscape” – his contribution to their preservation.

There were many responses to what has been termed “lockdown life” during the pandemic.  Some people, however, were able to find stillness and silence by developing their gardens, eating mindfully (e.g. while eating a mandarin), becoming grounded and connected to nature through their landscape, developing “latent talents” (such as painting), reading and listening to music (QWeekend, 21-22 November 2020, pp.12-14).

As we grow in mindfulness through stillness and silence and quiet reflection, we can learn to value silence in our life and nature, reduce the busyness of our lives and become more grounded and connected with ourselves and others.

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Image Source: Ron Passfield –  “Quiet Reflection” – Manly Marina at sunrise

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.