Building Cognitive Resilience through Mindfulness

Research conducted by Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell supports the view that mindfulness builds cognitive resilience – “the ability to overcome negative effects or stress on cognitive functioning” (as defined by Staal and colleagues).  In times of stress or serious setbacks, we can experience cognitive confusion and disorientation.  When the perceived threat to our wellbeing is considerable our “thinking brain” tends to shut down and our “survival brain” takes over – we can be controlled by our negative emotions and engage in fight, flight or freeze behaviour.  In these challenging times we can experience emotional inflammation as we are challenged on many fronts.

The impact of information overload

Information overload is a characteristic of our times with the ever-present and pervasive information highway.  With COVID19, we not only have to cope with the emotional strain of illness and death amongst our families , friends and colleagues but also the vast amounts of complex health advice and restrictions – information that is often conflicting and exacerbated by misinformation peddled by vested interests.  

The stress of information overload can be compounded by what Jamie and Rosie refer to as a our “digital and media diet” – a bias towards distressing information, rather than information that inspires, uplifts, or motivates.  An obsession with the news can be a daily diet of information that disturbs, distresses, distracts and debilitates us and severely limits our effective cognitive functioning.

Unfortunately, our natural tendency is to close down emotionally and avoid facing the pain of negative emotions.  We can block out difficult emotions such as fear, anxiety, and depression until such time as they take their toll on our physical health.  Liz Stanley, for example, explains how she lost her sight temporarily by “soldiering on” despite traumatic stress.

The role of mindfulness in developing cognitive resilience

Mindfulness practices can help us face raw and difficult emotions such as fear and build resilience through accepting our current reality, rather than denying its existence.   Rick Hanson, for example, provides a meditation practice designed to turn fear into resilience.   Bob Stahl, meditation teacher and author, offers a mindfulness practice to address fear and anxiety that are exacerbated by negative self-stories.

Mindfulness meditation can be a source of refuge in times of turbulence when we feel our minds and emotions whirling.  It enables us to restore our equilibrium and find peace and calm despite the waves of change and challenge crashing down on us.   We can build our resilience by taking time out to become grounded and to reconnect with ourselves. 

Jamie and Rosie point out the research that demonstrates that mindfulness can enhance both working memory and long-term memory.  Working memory constitutes our temporary storage facility that enables us to utilise information to effectively make decisions, act wisely and communicate appropriately.  It can become overwhelmed and degraded by stress and trauma and negatively impact our window of tolerance – narrowing it and thus reducing our capacity to cope with further stressors, however minor.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness we can increase our sense of agency in the face of stress and setbacks by facing up to our negative emotions and diffusing their impact, accessing our memory and cognitive faculties without the befuddlement of emotional overload, making sound choices about information that we expose ourselves to and developing groundedness despite the turbulent winds of change.  In this way, we can progressively build our cognitive resilience by reducing the negative impacts of stress on our cognitive functions and limiting emotional turmoil.  Hence, we will be better able to access our creative faculties and take wise actions such as scenario thinking to deal with ongoing stressors. 

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

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

Mindfulness for Others

In a previous post, I discussed mindfulness for ourselves and others.  In this particular post, I will explore specific ways in which our mindfulness helps others.  Mindfulness is not only about developing calmness and relaxation for ourselves; it also involves being aware of our connectedness and the impact that our words and actions have on the well-being of others.  It pays to be conscious of how we positively impact the welfare of others as this can motivate us to sustain our regular practice of mindfulness.

Ways in which our mindfulness practice helps others

Often, we are not conscious of the impact of our words and actions on others, but every interaction has consequences, whether helpful or harmful.  Here are six ways our mindfulness can be helpful for others:

1. Mood contamination: Research confirms that our mood is contagious, especially if we are a leader (formal or informal).  We can all relate to an intimate relationship situation or work situations where one person’s “bad mood” contaminates the relationship or the work environment.  We often speak of toxic workplaces where a negative or cynical emotional environment, emanating from one person or a group, is harmful and negatively affects our  life outside work as a well as within it.  Research shows that mindfulness practices such as Tai Chi lead to an improved mood – a more positive, energetic and empowered outlook on life, which positively impacts those around us.  Mindfulness practices enable us to bring calmness and equanimity to our workplace or interactions away from work – our calm demeanour can develop calmness in others.  This was brought home to me in a recent workshop at the end of a 4-month management development program that I was co-facilitating.  A participant approached me and thanked me for the workshops we had conducted and especially for my “calmness” because it created a very positive learning environment for her.  I was not conscious of my own calmness, let alone the impact that it was having on participants.  However, I was conscious of the fact that I had been undertaking mindfulness practices such as meditation, Tai Chi and reflection leading up to, and during, the program.   

2. Listening for understanding: One of the kindest things we can do for others is to be really present to them and actively listen to what they have to say.  This entails listening for understanding, being curious about the other person and their life situation – not interrupting and trying to establish our credibility by telling stories about ourselves and our achievements.  Listening communicates that we value the other person, that we acknowledge their uniqueness (in the best sense of the word) and that we are interested in them and what they have to say.  It also involves what Frank Ostaseski describes as cultivating a “don’t know mind” – a mental state that is curious and willing to learn from everyone, including children.

3. Self-regulation: With the degree of self-awareness and self-control that we develop over time through mindfulness practices, we are less likely to “fly off the handle” or use angry words or actions towards others.  We are better able to identify the negative stimuli that trigger us (e.g. an explicit or implied criticism) and respond more appropriately when interacting with others.  It does not mean that we are never triggered by others but that we have more effective ways to deal with negative stimuli.  We are also less likely to harbour resentment if we undertake mindful reflection on our past experiences in which we felt hurt.

4. Sense of connection leading to kindness: One of the key outcomes of mindfulness practices is the development of our sense of connection.  Through awareness of our connectedness, especially through a shared sense of pain and suffering in these challenging times, we are more empathetic towards others.  We are more likely to take compassionate action towards those in need – compassion that is enhanced by mindfulness practices such as loving-kindness meditation.

5. Gratitude: Through mindfulness practices we can readily develop gratitude towards others and savour what we have in life. We can really appreciate our friendships, intimate relationships and our work colleagues – and be willing to express our gratitude.  Where there is a strong sense of gratitude, there is no room for the destructive force of envy.  Gratitude meditation helps us to savour every aspect of our life, so that we consciously savour what we have in our life and our unique experiences.  It also enables us to value our minds and bodies and bodily sensations, rather than indulging our harmful inner-critic or feeling the need to please in an unhealthy way.

6. Sympathetic joy: Mindfulness enables us to experience joy when others achieve or experience good things in their life.  We are not mired in envy because they have achieved something that we have not.  We can be positive and joyful for their good fortune and express our sympathetic joy to them.  This stance communicates valuing the other person and actively builds relationships, rather than diminish them through “superiority conceit”.

Reflection

Being conscious of the potential positive impact of our mindfulness for others, enables us to sustain our mindfulness practices and enhances our relationships, whether passing or intimate.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can bring to our interactions a sense of calm and a positive mood, increasing self-regulation, enhanced ability to be present and listen to others, a strong sense of appreciation and a developing sympathetic joy that enables us to rejoice in the good fortune of others. 

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Image Source: Ron Passfield 16.8.2020

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.

Transformation through Meditation

Sohini Trehan writes about the transformative powers of a particular form of meditation – Bija Mantra.  This form of meditation uses specific sounds or mantras aligned to the seven chakras of the body.  Sohini suggests that the literal meaning of “mantra” is “to liberate one’s mind” and mantra meditations serve to “create transformation”.  She states that the emerging research in psychoacoustics reinforces the “vibrational energy” of sound and its healing power for mind, body and emotions. 

In a previous post, we discussed the experience of Tina Malia and her emergence from her “dark night of the soul” through the transformative power of Japa – in her case, the combination of the Ram mantra with the use of beads.  Tina spoke of her transformation from a total loss of meaning to a deep well of energy and creativity.   Some experts believe that the depth of depression experienced in the dark night of the soul is what is necessary to achieve a truly deep transformation.

This transformation occurs because the depth of depression derives from the fact that we become detached from our meaning anchors – all our constructs about meaning break down so that things like material success, being seen to be competent or creative or becoming famous or popular, cease to have meaning anymore.  As a result, we have to search inside ourselves for something deeper and more meaningful – a true purpose to our lives.   This purpose does not have to be ground-breaking or earthshattering – it has to be aligned to our specific life experience and our real gifts and contribute to something greater than ourselves.

Meditation brings true peace and transforms suffering

In an interview with Oprah, Thich Nhat Hahn maintained that meditation brings true peace, even in the midst of the turbulent waves of life.  He also stated that meditation develops compassion which, in turn, “transforms suffering in you and the other person”.  He suggested that what is needed is deep listening for understanding, what he calls “compassionate listening” – listening without judgment. By being fully present to the other person, we can enable them to release their pain and suffering.  In the process, we come to understand their perspective and deepen our understanding of our own perspective. 

Mindfulness meditation dramatically increases our response ability so that we are not overcome by difficult emotions,  chained by resentment or captured by envy.  Meditation transforms reactivity into a positive way to respond  – overcoming our habituated way of reacting and developing our power and energy.  Likewise, as Rick Hanson argues, meditation can transform fear into resilience.

Reflection

It is so easy to undervalue the transformative power of meditation because we often adopt a piecemeal approach to developing the habit of meditation.  The real transformative benefits of meditation are experienced when it is practiced daily over an extended period.  This requires discipline and a sound appreciation of the power of meditation to transform our lives, our happiness and our energy.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation (especially mantra meditation) and mindfulness practices throughout our day, we will experience the pervasive effect of meditation on our lives.  As Oprah commented to Thich Nhat Hahn, other people will feel calm just by being in our presence.

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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.

Mantra Meditations for Calm, Peace and Energy

Mantra meditation involves the repetition of a sound, word or phrase during meditation.  The mantra can be repeated silently, spoken or chanted, sometimes accompanied by music.   The singing of mantras can provide variation through intonation, pace, pitch, and volume.  The content can be rich in meaning drawing on ancient traditions or simply a single word.  Instrumentation can be added and often involves guitar, harmonium and/or flute. 

Famous yogi-musician, Girish, combines neuroscience and the art of singing mantras in his book, Music and Mantras: The Yoga of Mindful Singing for Health, Happiness, Peace and Prosperity.  Girish maintains that “Mantra is a sound vibration through which we mindfully focus our thoughts, our feelings, and our highest intention”.  In this statement he captures not only the power of focus inherent in chanted mantra meditations but also the energetic effect of the vibrations of music and singing. 

Singing of mantras has gained a resurgence through the development of the relatively new discipline of music therapy and the advent of neuroscience along with the understanding of the vibrational energy of sound and voice.

The benefits of mantra meditations

Like any meditation, mantras build attention and capacity to focus which in itself has a beneficial effect.  Typically practitioners return to their focus whenever a distracting thought interferes with their concentration on the mantra.  Neuroscience has highlighted this benefit and explained how meditation positively impacts the mind, emotions and the body. 

Susan Moran focuses on the distinctive nature of mantra meditations and summarises the science that supports this approach to meditation.  In her article, she identifies several research-based benefits:

  • Reduces distractions generated by the default-mode network of our brains (with its inherent negative bias)
  • Minimises negative self-talk that leads to depression
  • Activates the “relaxation response” and builds resilience in the face of stress.

Turning depression into a deep well of calm, peace and centredness through mantra meditation

The beneficial effects of mantra meditations were clearly articulated by Tina Malia in her interview with Kara Johnstad.   Tina Malia is globally famous for her song writing, singing, instrumentation and integration of different mantra traditions, and at the time of the interview, was working on her seventh album.

Tina told the story of her very deep depression in her twenties and her experience of the “dark night of the soul”.  She indicated that she had all the trappings of external success but experienced despair and a “deep, deep aching loneliness” that would not go away – she lost her meaning in life and considered ending her life through suicide.   At the time, she was a backing singer for world music singer/songwriter Jai Uttal and his band.  Jai suggested that she start a daily practice of Japa – silently singing the Ram mantra meditation while passing beads through her fingers.

Tina reports that this practice which she undertook conscientiously every day, although having little effect in the first few weeks, enabled her to find peace, harmony and an inner well of calm and creative energy.  She explained that it “completely lifted me out of despair” and she still continued the practice daily at the time of the interview.  She finds chanting mantra meditations a tool for helping her when she feels frazzled at busy times while touring the world.   She describes her silent mantra meditations as a well – an internal source of pure water that brings the experience of visiting a calming, familiar room. 

Kara Johnstad, who is herself a visionary singer-songwriter, describes chanting mantra meditations as creating “a higher vibrational field” that protects us against the turbulence of daily life and its many challenges.

Reflection

I have found just listening to the chanting of mantra meditations very calming, particularly those of Lulu & Mischka and the many mantra meditations of Deva Premal & Miten.  From my reading and listening to Tina’s story, it is clear that the real benefit of chanting mantra meditations comes not only from repetition of the mantra but from daily practice over an extended period (in Tina’s case over many months and years). 

It takes time to absorb the positive messages of a mantra into our consciousness so that over time it displaces our negative self-thoughts.  Tina suggests that mantra meditations are like a tool to explore our inner reality, “a shovel to go inside and dig”.  In this way we can develop a deep level of self-intimacy.

As we grow in mindfulness through chanting mantra meditations, we can unearth our disturbing negative thoughts and difficult emotions and replace them with a deep well of calm, peace and energy. Tina has demonstrated yet again that discipline creates freedom and success.  Her latest album, Anahata (Heart Wide Open) can be obtained through Sounds True.

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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.

Finding Stillness and Joy in Turbulent Times With Mantra Meditations

Mantra meditation involves the repetition of a word or phrase while meditating.  It typically combines mindfulness meditation with some form of chanting.  It is an ancient meditation practice that has deep roots and is experiencing a resurgence in these turbulent times.  Mantra meditations can be sung by an individual, group or choir and accompanied by music and/or calming visuals provided via video.  These meditations through sound and vision often capture our connection with nature.

For example, the Epic Choir’s rendition of the Om SO HUM Mantra meditation simulates the movement of butterflies as the sound of singing rises and falls rhythmically.  The epitomy of connection with nature in mantra meditation is provided by Lulu & Mischka’s video of “stillness in motion” which incorporates their chanting accompanied by guitar playing with visuals of sailing and singing with whales. 

Lulu & Mischka – exemplars of the practice and benefits of mantra meditation

Lulu and Mischka are global exponents of the art of mantra meditation and have recorded two albums and produced a songbook in e-book form, as well as conducted workshops, concerts and retreats around the world.  They recently provided mantra meditations over six days accompanied by Lulu’s harmonium and Mischka’s guitar playing as a contribution to inner peace in these turbulent times. 

Lulu & Mischka describe themselves as “musicians and inner peace facilitators” who offer “joyful chanting and effortless meditation”.  The capacity of mantra meditation to calm the nervous system, reduce emotional reactivity and destructive self-stories has been researched and validated by researchers at Linköping University, in Sweden.  Other researchers have demonstrated consistently that “focused attention practices” such as meditation in its many forms develop “attention and awareness” while reducing self-obsession and harmful reactivity.  Mantra meditations build our awareness of our connectedness to each other and to nature.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and mantra meditations, we can achieve a stillness and inner peace in these turbulent times when everything is changing through the disruptive impact of the Coronavirus – through the constant and unpredictable disruption to our social, financial, employment, health, education and familial environments.   Lulu & Mischka demonstrate in their own lives and their mantra meditations that that this approach to mindfulness can bring calm and joy to our lives – providing a retreat from the waves of uncertainty.

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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 Yourself in Times of Crisis

Susan David was recently interviewed as part the Ted Connects© series of talks.  Susan spoke on the topic, How to be Your Best Self in Times of Crisis.  She maintained that “life’s beauty is inseparable from it’s fragility” and provided a number of ways to manage yourself in times of crisis.  She emphasised the importance of facing our difficult emotions, naming our feelings, being curious about what our emotions are telling us, developing our sense of agency and finding ways to help other people.  Susan stressed that underpinning her approach is the concept of “emotional agility” – the core of which involves “radical acceptance” of our emotions and self-compassion.

The fragility of life

Susan reminds us that the Coronavirus highlights the fragility of life. This fragility, however, is part of our everyday life experience. We love someone then lose them, we enjoy good health then experience illness, we savour time with our children only to watch them grow up and leave home.  The problem for us is that our social narrative, the stories we tell ourselves as a society, is so focused on the importance of always achieving, being fit and happy and appearing to be always in control.  There is an inherent denial of the reality of death and the fragility of life – we have to appear to be strong and deny our difficult emotions.

Facing our difficult emotions

Susan stressed the importance of overcoming our habituated way of responding to difficult emotions.  We typically deny them, turn away from them and, yet, end up stuck in them or “marinating in it” as Rick Hanson, in his Being Well Podcast, describes the resultant state of self-absorption.  Susan maintains the critical importance of facing our emotions and owning them, not letting them own us.  This involves naming our feelings not in a broad way such as “I’m feeling stressed” but in what she calls a “granular” way or fine-grained identification of exactly what we are feeling, e.g. disappointment, resentment, anger, fear or anxiety.  It is only by truly facing and naming our difficult feelings that we can tame them, stop them from owning us.  Susan points out that this self-regulation is a key facet of mindfulness.

Being curious about our difficult emotions

This is a form of self-observation and self-exploration. It’s being curious about what our difficult emotions are telling us about ourselves and what we value.  Strong emotions are indicators of what is important to us but, at the time, perceived as lacking in our personal situation.  Loneliness, for example, is experienced as disconnection from others and tells us how much we value relationships and connection.  Social distancing and social isolation, as a result of the Coronavirus, have compounded our feelings of loneliness.  So, it’s important to move towards ways of re-connecting, if not face-to face, by phone and online communication. 

Developing our sense of agency

Susan argues that in these times when everything seems out of control, it is important to develop “pockets of control” to enable us to develop our sense of agency – our capacity to control some aspect of our life and our immediate environment.  These arenas of control can be minute things like deciding what three things you want to do today, developing a menu plan for the week, setting up a daily routine (especially when you are working at home with children present) or changing the way you normally do things to adapt to changing circumstances.  It may be that you decide to master the skill of online communication – developing new capacities as well as gaining control.  Some people look to regain control and appreciation over their own yard or garden.  My wife and I have recently bought a coffee-making machine so that we can better control our expenditure on coffee, increase our control over how our cappuccinos or Piccolos are made and limit our time and social exposure by avoiding having to go out and queue up for a take-way coffee.

Sense of agency can extend to appreciating what we have and savouring it.  The Coronavirus attacks our respiratory system, quite literally taking our breath away.  We can begin to really value our breathing through various forms of meditation which can ground us in our body in these times of uncertainty and anxiety.  As we learn to control our breathing through meditation, we can develop ways to calm ourselves in times of crisis and stress.  Our calmness is reflected in our breathing, as is our agitation. 

Helping others in need

Besides showing compassion towards ourselves (in owning and accepting our emotions and what they tell us about ourselves), it is important to move beyond self-absorption to thinking of others and undertaking compassionate action towards them.  This may mean a simple phone call to an elderly relative who is in lock-down in a retirement village or contacting someone you have not spoken to for a while.  Everyday we hear about people showing random acts of kindness and generosity towards others.

For example, our weekend newspaper reported about the wife of a doctor on the frontline of the fight against the Coronavirus.  He has decided to live apart from the family for six months to protect them from contracting the virus.  Despite her resultant loneliness, his wife is creating homemade meals for him and his fellow health workers and enlisting the support of neighbours, friends and anyone else to do likewise so that these frontline workers don’t have to rely on unhealthy take-aways to sustain them during their very long hours of courageously caring for others.  Susan challenges each of us with the question, “How can we help in little and big ways?” – how can we demonstrate being part of a community and being “values-connected”?

Reflection

In times like the present with the Coronavirus impacting every facet of our lives, we begin to wonder how we will all cope.  Susan expresses great optimism that the crisis will enable people to be their “best self” and daily we see evidence of this.  Susan points to the history of people handling crises with courage, wisdom, compassion and mutual kindness (witness the recent wildfires in Australia).  As we grow in mindfulness and learn to face our difficult emotions through meditation and reflection, we can understand better what our emotions are telling us, regain our sense of agency and begin to show compassionate action towards others in need.  Mindfulness helps us to be calm, resilient and hopeful.  

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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.

Turning Fear into Resilience in the Time of the Coronavirus

Rick Hanson recently produced a Being Well Podcast focused on Fear in the Time of the Coronavirus.  He provided strategies to deal with fear (both rational and irrational) and to convert fear to resilience by drawing on our inner resources – determination, true grit, courage and creativity.  Rick is the author of Resilient: Find your inner Strength and provides numerous resources on his website to help us develop resilience, wisdom, happiness and mindful relationships.  

His emphasis is on building personal agency.  With the Coronavirus impacting every facet of our lives and reducing our sense of control over our home and work environment, we are experiencing a loss of our “sense of agency”.   We often try to redress this lack of a sense of agency by adopting ineffective ways to regain control over our environments, e.g. panic buying of water, toilet paper and sanitisers.  We can feel helpless and, in consequence, resort to ways of coping that result in misplaced and unproductive effort.

Anxiety can operate on a number of dimensions – e.g. unhelpful or useful anxiety.  At the extreme, we can be too anxious (disabled by our fear) which is unhelpful and harmful to our mental health, overall wellness and our relationships.  Useful anxiety, the mind’s warning system, can create a sense of urgency/intense focus and stimulate constructive action and a strong sense of agency which, in turn, cultivates resilience.  Alternatively, we can be consumed by our sense of helplessness and end up “marinating in it” – to the point where we experience depression and the associated inertia.

Turning fear into resilience

Rick suggest three processes you can adopt to move from helplessness to a sense of agency and personal resilience.  The basic steps involve:

  1. Being fully with your current experience – facing your difficult thoughts and emotions and the reality of the challenges both present and ahead.  This means naming your feelings (such as anxiety, pain, fear, frustration) and being with them, not denying them out of a need to appear totally in control.  It means not giving into your “shoulds” that come with your absolutes.  It is human and normal to be anxious and fearful when confronted with the reality of the Coronavirus.  The choice lies in deciding whether to maintain a sense of helplessness or to move towards a sense of agency and control.
  2. Release thoughts and emotions that are harmful – This includes letting go of obsessive thinking and the endless cycle of “what if” (catastrophising).  It means to treat our emotions as data informing us about a threat to our wellbeing.  We are more than our thoughts and emotions.  It means avoiding absorption with the latest media posts and news, when we cannot do anything about the reported information, or the situations involved.   The reporting is typically sensationalist, alarmist and distorted and is designed to induce fear and dependence.  Don’t sweat the news for your own personal welfare and mental health.
  3. Shift your attention to what would be beneficial for you and others you interact with or service – this means focusing on what you can do in the situation, given all the constraints that you are experiencing.  It means moving from inertness to being creative in the way you spend your time – finding things to focus on and do that are helpful to yourself, your family and those you interact with.  This could involve rethinking your workday, using online communication technology (such as Zoom) or reengineering your business (adopting take-away options, providing delivery services, or switching manufacturing to a much-needed resource in the current crisis, e.g. rum and gin distilleries producing bottles of sanitisers).  The oft-spoken saying – “necessity is the mother of invention” – is particularly true at this time.  The opportunity exists to use this time of social isolation, social distancing and business lockdown to develop new horizons and new skills.  Adopting activities that promote a positive mindset can be helpful here.

Tools to overcome unhelpful anxiety

Rick offered a range of suggestions that can enable you to overcome harmful anxiety and move to proactive action to do things that are beneficial for yourself and others.

  1. Use your breathing to calm your body – Rick suggests taking three breaths (exhalation longer than inhalation, giving a resting state of the body).  There are multiple ways you can use your breath to calm yourself and restore your equanimity, e.g. the somatic awareness approach recommended by Jill Satterfield or “breathing in time” suggested by Richard Wolf.
  2. Tune into your inner strength – revisit your determination, courage, and resilience to strengthen your inner reserves.  It can be helpful here to visualise success in your adaptive endeavours and/or reflect on past experiences where you have drawn on these personal strengths to overcome adversity or seemingly impossible challenges.
  3. Social support – appreciating the care and support that others show towards you, including your partner, family, friends and colleagues.   It also extends to caring for others and engaging others in the process of caring and providing social support to the less fortunate.
  4. Plan and act – appraise the situation and plan some action, however small, that will move you forward.  Rick reinforces the view that “action forces out anxiety”.  Positive action can change our mental state.
  5. When you feel okay, internalize the feeling – we tend to take it for granted that we will feel okay.  However, in times of stress and uncertainty, it is important to notice when you are feeling okay and internalise this feeling of coping well to strengthen it.  This positive self-feedback builds self-efficacy which means that you are building up your belief in your capacity to manage stressful situations.

Reflection

Fear can be disabling if we let it grow unabated.  It is natural to feel anxiety and fear when things are so uncertain, and everything associated with our normal life seems out of our control.  Fear, however, can be harmful unless we look at it fully in the face and understand what it is telling us about the situation we find ourselves in.  There are ways to calm our mind, emotions and our body if we choose.  There are also constructive things that we can do to manage our situation and our emotional response.  As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness, we can turn fear into resilience by being able to regulate our response and draw on our inner strength to meet the challenges with determination, courage and creativity.

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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.

How to Let Go of Tension as a Leader

In her book The Zen Leader Ginny Whitelaw explains that to achieve real change in the way we lead, we need to make a number of “flips” (10 in fact), and one of them is “from tension to extension”.  Each of the flips involve reframing – changing the way we think about our self, others and our situation. 

Tension is mirrored in the body

When we are tense, we contract our body, blocking the flow of energy and our capacity to make a real impact.  The words we use to describe a tense person convey this idea of contraction – “uptight”, “wound up like a spring”, “ready to pounce”.  Tension affects not only our thoughts, emotions and behaviour, it is mirrored in our bodies through muscle pain, a stiff neck, headaches, swollen and sore ankles or back pain.  Sometimes tension can be experienced as overall body pain or fibromyalgia.

The paradox is that we need the process of tension and muscle contraction to be able to move – to move the bones in our arms and legs for instance.  So physical tension and contraction are natural processes and Ginny explains how they function for body movement through her in-depth biophysical knowledge.  She also points out, however, that the problem arises when the process becomes stuck, just as we can become stuck through our tension – unable to move forward, resistant to change, unwilling to explore new ways or unable to see a way ahead.

Impact of tension in a leader

Research has consistently confirmed that our mood as a leader is contagious – if we are negative, we develop a negatively oriented team.  Some of the impacts of tension in a leader are disengagement of staff (through poor leader modelling), withholding of information (for fear of an angry reaction), conflict between staff (a lack of cohesion and common goals) and inertia (absence of positive leadership energy).  So, there are very real costs for the tense leader, including staff avoidance.

Extension: how to let go of tension as a leader

The concept of extension (or expansion) builds on Ginny’s earlier discussion of the flip from “coping to transforming”.  She points out that the concept of moving from contraction (tension) to extension underpins much of Eastern philosophy and martial arts such as Tai Chi.  Contraction constricts, extension releases energy.  The challenge for a leader is to be able to move beyond the feeling of being “stuck” to achieving flow and productivity and engagement.

Ginny illustrates the power of extension by a brief physical exercise that involves contracting the muscles in the arms to create movement and then extending them to realise the flow of energy through the extended arm and hand.  She suggests that there are three principles underlying the flip from tension to extension:

  1. Rhythmic movement not relentless pushing or forcing – when we are tense, we break our natural rhythms of sleep, breathing, regeneration and relaxation and we fail to find time to unwind.  Ginny argues that we need to recharge ourselves like we do our phone battery – by plugging into our internal and external energy sources.  She suggests that we take brief breaks of two minutes every 90 minutes (others suggest every hour) supplemented by extended breaks of 30 minutes to undertake exercise or meditation (or Tai Chi) once or twice a day.  We have previously offered the practice of making awareness (and not your phone) your default when waiting, enabling you to tap into the natural rhythm of your breathing and the flow of universal energy that surrounds you.
  2. Develop downward energy flow to offset the tendency to move energy up – the words we use reflect this redirection.  When we are tense, we are “uptight” in more ways than one, when we are opening to expanding and redirecting our energy, we are grounded, calm and begin to “settle down”.  Ginny maintains that we can direct our energy downwards to our hara, our energetic center, through deep breathing and centering exercises that she offers on her Zen Leader website.
  3. Direct energy out, not in – outwards energy is needed to generate a vision, develop and implement a strategy and pursue achievement of goals.  Ginny describes a simple physical exercise to illustrate this energy flow and develop the practice of energy alignment. 

Building on these three principles, Ginny offers a series of reflective questions designed to help us to generate more energy and achieve a better alignment of our energy with our purpose.  She reinforces the power of mindfulness practices to “free up energy”.

Reflection

Many of us are tense as a result of time pressures, work and family challenges and/or the demands of caring for a relative or friend.  We intensify this tension through trying to live up to the assumed expectations of others and own unrealistic expectations.  Tension affects our thoughts, feelings, behaviour and our bodies.  It constricts and diverts our energy leading to exhaustion, frustration and feeling drained.  Extension practices build energy, achieve resonance and encourage engagement.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can free up our energy flow and progressively build our energy alignment.

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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.

Music and Meditation: The Key Role of Practice

Richard Wolf maintains that practice is a key element in meditation and playing a musical instrument.  Richard explores practice along with other parallels between meditation and playing music in his book, In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness. Previously, I explored his ideas on achieving harmony through music and meditation.

It is through practice that we can master playing an instrument or achieving a high standard in sport.  The same is true of meditation – our capacity to meditate and achieve its benefits is dependent on how well we practice.  The greater the regularity and length of our meditation practice, the greater are the benefits that accrue to us.

Practice and repetition

Practice requires repetition and may be experienced as boring, e.g. playing scales on a musical instrument.  However, as Richard notes, after a period of practicing, if we persist, we can be keen to “practice for practice sake”.  With sustained practice, comes the realisation that the practice itself achieves the desired benefits of competence, concentration, harmony and spontaneity.  This is as true of meditation as it is of practising a musical instrument.  It is similar with sporting practice. I recall practicing tennis drills with my brothers when we were playing A Grade tennis fixtures.  Repetition was a key part – hitting the ball up the line over and over or practising volleys again and again.  However, as we grew in competence, we would marvel at the shots we played, laugh at the fun we were having and experience a real sense of happiness.  We would look forward to our practice sessions.

As our meditation practice improves and starts to flow into our daily life, we begin to experience a greater variety of benefits which, in turn, feed our motivation to practice.  Richard suggests that this occurs because when you meditate, “your mental, emotional and physical awareness are the instrument you practice on”.  The essence of effective practice is to maintain focus in the present moment on what we are doing, whether playing a musical instrument or meditating on nature.

Breathing in time – treating your breath as a musical instrument

Richard highlights the role of beats in music and the need for a musician to master different times in music such as 4/4 time and 3/4 time (as in a waltz).  He suggests that “counting beats internally” is an essential component of mastering a musical instrument.  He proposes that as a form of meditation practice, you can adopt the parallel technique of “rhythmic breathing”, e.g. what he calls a “four-bar sequence”.   This involves holding your breath for four beats (counting to four) for each of the four “bars” involved in breathing – inhalation, holding, exhalation, holding. 

In his book, he offers other variations on this breathing sequence that you can adopt but stresses that the important thing is to go with whatever helps you to experience calm and equanimity.   It is vital not to beat up on yourself if you lose count in the middle of your practice – just start over again.  The outcome is achieving a mind-body rhythm that is beneficial to your sense of ease and wellness.

Reflection

Meditation practice becomes enjoyable as we grow in mindfulness.  This increasing inner and outer awareness flows into our daily life and brings a variety of benefits such as focus, productivity, creativity, calmness and richer relationships.  The benefits can grow exponentially if we sustain our meditation practice.  Rhythmic breathing can enhance our mind-body connection.

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Image by Brenda Geisse 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.

Achieving Inner harmony through Music and Mindfulness

In his book, “In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness”, Richard Wolf likens practising a musical instrument to meditation practice – each builds our capacity for inner harmony.  He maintains that playing music draws our attention to vibration, sound, feelings and silence.  Meditation, too, can take the form of a focus on sounds, tuning into feelings, making space for silence and noticing vibrations within and without.

Inner harmony

Richard argues that when a musician is in the zone, they experience a perfect harmony between their mind, body and feelings – everything is in unison with the beat and rhythm of the music.  The musician loses this sense of harmony if they overthink the music – they need to maintain their focus to remain “in the flow”.   So, too, with meditation, when you can sustain your meditation practice, you can achieve an inner harmony whereby “your whole body is experienced as an organ of awareness”.

Music, too, sometimes involves alternating dissonance with harmony.  Dissonance in music can also lead to what is termed “harmonic resolution”.  Dissonance is an integral part of life – experienced within meditation as “unpleasant thoughts or emotions”.  This dissonance can be acknowledged, named and integrated into your acceptance of “what is” – surfing the waves of life.  Meditation enables us to experience ease amid the turbulence.

A harmonising practice – breathing in tune with room tone

Richard Wolf, an Emmy-Award winning composer and producer, states that every room has its own “room tone” – acknowledged by sound engineers who attempt to integrate room tone into a soundtrack for the purpose of achieving a sense of authenticity when someone hears the music.  He suggests that you can harmonise with room tone by first focusing on the sounds within a room – sounds emitted by computers, air conditioning, digital devices or the vibration resulting from wind on the walls.  Then when you are paying attention to the room tone, you can harmonise your breathing with it.

Reflection

The analogy of music as a bridge to mindfulness can open our awareness to the sounds, vibrations and silence that surround us.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can learn to harmonise our breathing with sounds beyond our bodies, e.g. the room tone. We can achieve inner harmony through sustained musical practice and/or meditation practice. Harmonising our breathing with room tone can deepen our awareness and provide an anchor to experience calm and ease when we are buffeted by demands, challenges, dilemmas and urgent tasks.  Tuning in to ourselves through meditation enables us to become more aware of “the ambient clutter of daily life”.

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Image by Lorri Lang 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.