Mindfulness and Training in Compassion

The Science and Wisdom of Emotions Summit conducted online from 2-5 May 2021 provided access to 30 of the world’s experts in the areas of compassion, mental health, well-being, wisdom, neuroscience, emotional intelligence and trauma counselling.  Access to the full recordings and transcripts are thoughtfully provided on a sliding scale, generosity-based pricing structure – with all levels of purchase receiving the full package together with the gift of free access for a friend, colleague, or family member.

There was so much covered in the Summit that is relevant to mindfulness.  However, in this post I want to look at compassion from the perspective offered by a one of the presenters.

Research into developing compassion

I have mentioned earlier in this blog the work of Richard Richardson and Daniel Goleman, authors of Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, whose review of research studies confirmed that compassion meditation developed the traits of kindness and compassion.  In the Summit, Dr. Sona Dimidjian, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, shared her own research work on the development of compassion. 

Sona had been concerned about the lack of research into the transfer of compassion training to the practice of compassion in daily life and set about establishing a participative research project to find out what works and for whom.  She was particularly interested, especially in our current environment of racialism and inequity, to establish what are the “barriers and facilitators” of bringing compassion into everyday life.

Fundamental to Sona’s approach, was engaging participants in her research in every phase of the research process – formulating questions, deciding the methodology and collaboratively undertaking the research.  She involved educators, young people and those experiencing mental health issues.  One such collaborative study led to the conclusion that brief compassion training (20 minutes a day compassion meditation practice) increased participants compassion while daily exposure to images of people suffering actually led to a decline in compassion.

One unexpected result from the study was that teachers, one of the core groups that Sona sought to help, became particularly concerned about the impact of their daily exposure to the suffering of their students and their parents.  The teachers indicated that they lacked training in self-care and care for their student children and yet they aspired to be kind and compassionate.   

This concern of the teachers led to another collaborative research project with educators to co-design a course in compassion that would lead to compassionate action on the part of the teachers.  The resultant program, Masters in Teacher Leadership, is available through Colorado University and incorporates a Certificate level component on Cultivating Compassion and Dignity in Ourselves and Our Schools.  Sona’s hope is that teachers become true models of compassion while teaching their students to be compassionate.

Compassion and dignity

While the abovementioned course incorporates self-compassion, fundamental to the content and approach is the recognition that compassion involves “honouring dignity within each other” – recognising the dignity of each person, irrespective of their race, religion, skin colour, gender (or identification as non-binary or non-gendered), sexual preference, culture or country of origin.  Compassion is inclusive and non-discriminatory.  It actively works against the prevailing ethos, created through “systematic conditioning”, that fails to see our common humanity and connectedness.

Compassion involves deep listening and the capacity to hear the perspective of another while seeking to understand and value the learning and diverse experiences of other people.  It involves curiosity blended with tenderness and caring.  Compassion training through mindfulness incorporates “mental training’ (involving both thinking and emotional elements) and serves to preclude reactive responses to those who are suffering (which Sona points out sometimes aggravates the suffering of others through a lack of understanding).  The mindfulness training involved in compassion training, on the other hand, enables the participant to “act more skilfully” and take compassionate action in their day-to-day interactions.

Compassion involves “seeing one another in our fullness”, in all our diversity and complexity.  Surprisingly, Sona found that the digital world, accessed through programs like Zoom, enables participants to have greater access to each other’s life – you get to see the bookshelves, dogs coming in and out of a room, children demanding attention or partners moving about undertaking their daily activities, the room layout and house surrounds (in some cases).  Sona points out that this is a much richer perspective than the perception of a person created by the role that they occupy – you get to see and engage differently through a more complete perception of a person in their natural environment.

Reflection

Reading something of Sona’s clinical research history and work on the ground with educators, new mothers and expectant mothers and youth experiencing mental health issues, you begin to appreciate that her life and work epitomises compassion-in-action.  In fact, one of her personal goals is to strengthen her own mindfulness practices to enable her to pursue compassion in her own life by avoiding the interference of her own biases and living with integrity and congruity with the compassionate values that she promotes.  Sona generously shares her research and insights through her Mind & Life Podcast.

Sona’s life and dedication pursued in a spirit of humility, openness and curiosity provides an exemplar for how we could pursue compassion through our own life and work and daily interactions with others.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the insight and commitment to enhance our deep listening skills and build the courage to take compassionate action in a skilful way.

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Image by Juanita Foucault 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.

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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Image by JamesDeMers 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.

What Does Love Mean?

In a previous post I explored ways to sustain an intimate relationship.  But what does love mean?  We use the word so loosely – referring to everything from a dessert to a location to an intimate friend.  Mitra Manesh explores this question in her guided meditation podcast, Meaning of Love – one of the many weekly meditation podcasts from MARC, UCLA.  Mitra is a mindfulness teacher with MARC, creator of the Inner Map app and provider of mindfulness teaching through her short videos on Vimeo©.  She has worked extensively to bring mindfulness to the corporate world, combining Eastern and Western perspectives.

Guided meditation on the meaning of love

Mitra begins her guided meditation by suggesting that you first become grounded by using your hands as the anchor.  She suggests that you can focus on the pressure of your hands on your lap, the touching of your fingers together or the up and down movement of your hands on your stomach as you breath in and out.  Whatever hand anchor you choose, the idea is to gently bring your mind back to this anchor whenever your mind wanders. 

Once you have become grounded, you can explore “love as connection”.  Mitra’s guided meditation is based on the idea that the connection underpinning love occurs at four levels – the physical, intellectual, emotional and universal levels.  The meditation follows a progression from a focus on the physical to universal connectedness and incorporates connection to self (experiencing self-love):

  • Physical connection – here the initial focus is on a pleasant body sensation such as the warmth of your fingers touching, the softness of the palm of your hand or the firmness of your feet on the floor. Once you have experienced this pleasant bodily sensation, you can extend your focus to the recollection of the pleasantness of a physical connection to another person such as a hug or a kiss.  When you have achieved awareness of physical connection and experienced pleasant recollections, you can gently move on.
  • Intellectual connection – firstly focus on connecting to your own mind – what is going on in your head.  Mitra suggests that you envisage your thoughts as clouds coming and going, merging and dissipating – blown by the winds of change.  This is a pleasant change from other forms of meditation where you are discouraged from being distracted by your thoughts.  Here the idea is to notice what is going on in the process of your thinking – how one idea leads to another, how ideas connect you to past experiences and how ideas flow through you endlessly.  You can expand this intellectual focus to recollecting a recent experience where you felt a strong intellectual connection to a colleague, a family member or an intimate partner.  You can then move on to the next level of connection.
  • Emotional connection – this is the level we often associate with love, but genuine love operates at all levels.  Here you first focus on a pleasant emotion that you may be experiencing at this moment – enjoying the contentment, pleasure or happiness that arises through this mindful awareness.  If your current emotion is experienced as unpleasant, Mitra suggests that you look inside yourself to see what unfilled need is giving rise to this negative experience.  Again, if you wish to extend your sense of emotional connection to another person you can recollect a time when you were with someone, a friend or partner, where you had a real sense of emotional connection – whether the experience was one of joy, peace, safety, comfort or other positive feeling. 
  • Universal or spiritual connection – this is not an aspect that Mitra dwells on in her guided meditation.  However, we can focus on human connectedness and our connectedness to nature to gain a sense of the universality of our connection. 

Tara Brach, in her brief talk on the meaning of love, discusses the “aliveness of connection” and the translation of this universal connection into compassionate action.  To illustrate this connection to all living things, she tells the story of a prisoner who saved a pigeon from stoning by another prisoner by saying simply. “Don’t do that – that bird has my wings.”  Tara argues that radical compassion has all the elements of love including caring, forgiving and appreciating.  She illustrates the multiple meanings given to “love” by sharing stories of how 8 year old children described love. One child, for example, had this to say on the meaning of love:

When you tell someone something bad about yourself and you are frightened that they won’t love you anymore, but then you are surprised that they love you even more!

Reflection

Love has multiple levels and is expressed in many different ways. As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and compassionate action, we can learn to appreciate self-love and love for others that we experience at all levels – the physical, intellectual, emotional and universal levels.  The essence of love is connection and mindfulness practices can help us to better understand and enhance these connections.

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Image by Annie Spratt 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.

Kindness and Meditation

Gloria Kamler recently presented a MARC meditation podcast titled, Body and BreathGloria teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs as a faculty member of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).  She draws on more than 20 years’ experience educating people in mindfulness meditation.

In her podcast, Gloria emphasised the benefits of mindfulness for everyday living.  She stressed the importance of mindfulness in difficult times.  From her perspective, mindfulness is fundamentally training our ability to focus and pay attention while meditation is the gym where we build our “mental biceps” – where we develop the part of our brain that enables us to deal with difficulties other than by the auto-pilot mode of fight, flight or freeze. In Gloria’s view, mindfulness builds our capacity for self-regulation, to make considered decisions, to follow through with our intentions and agreements and to deal more skilfully with the waves of life with their undulating calm and turbulence.   She argues that mindfulness enables us to “fire on all cylinders” when confronted with difficulties, rather than become locked into what she calls, “the cycle of reactivity”.  

Kindness and meditation

Gloria maintains that, in essence, mindfulness is about kindness and caring – for ourselves and others.  Being mindful requires non-judgment of ourselves in the first instance and extending this stance to others – this sometimes requires forgiveness on our part.

Part of self-kindness is noticing what we are experiencing and accepting what is.  It also means being able to appreciate and savour the pleasant things that are happening in our lives, even at the simplest level.

In the guided meditation that Gloria offers as a part of her podcast (at the 15-minute mark), she leads us in a progressive body scan and breath meditation.  She stresses the role of noticing and naming distractions and returning to our focus as a way of building our “mental biceps” and our “awareness muscle”. 

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware of what is happening for us – our thoughts, feelings, interactions, and automatic responses (borne of prior conditioning and/or adverse childhood experiences).  Through development of our “mental biceps” in meditation, we can build our capacity to regulate our emotions, make sound decisions and translate our good intentions into action.  As we develop our personal mindfulness anchors in meditation, we can return to the calmness and equanimity afforded by mindfulness and provide kindness to our self 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.

Leading with Mindful Pauses

Janice Marturano, Founder of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, suggests that to be an excellent leader we need to develop the habit of adding purposeful pauses to our daily activity. Janice reminds us that we spend so much of our day on “autopilot” – unaware of our words and actions and their impact on others. We can be consumed by activity and become oblivious of our lack of congruence – the failure to align our words and actions with what creates meaning in our lives.

Benefits of mindful pauses

Mindful pauses enable us to free ourselves from the endless, captive busyness of work life. They provide the silence and stillness to free up our creativity and develop our expansiveness. In the process, we can increase our self-awareness, improve our self-regulation and begin to identify the negative impacts of our words and behaviour.

Janice argues that a key consequence of purposeful pauses is that we are better able to be fully present and this impacts very positively on others around us, particularly when we are in a leadership role. She suggests that being present “communicates respect, true collaboration and caring”. People readily notice when we are truly present or when we are absent-minded.

Ways to add mindful pauses to your daily work life

Janice suggests three steps to integrate purposeful pauses into your daily work life:

  1. Choose an activity that you do daily, e.g. walking to the photocopy machine, going to the coffee machine or accessing your email.
  2. Be fully present for the activity – be really aware of what you are doing and pay full attention to the task. You could employ mindful walking if that is relevant or just stop and pause and form a mindful intention before engaging in the task, e.g. before reading your email. The essential element is to focus on what you are doing, not being distracted by anything else.
  3. Bring your wandering mind back to your task non-judgmentally – it is only natural for your mind to wander and become absorbed in planning, evaluating or critiquing. Conscious re-focusing trains your mind to recognise how often your are not really present and builds your capacity, over time, to deepen your focus. If you adopt a non-judgmental attitude to your tendency to wander off task, you can also develop self-compassion which strengthens your capacity to be compassionate towards others.

Janice notes that by tying your mindful pauses to an already-established activity, you are not adding anything onerous to your working day. The ease of adopting this practice makes it more sustainable. In another article, Janice offers advice on five ways to find time to pause in your everyday life.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindful practices such as purposeful pauses at work, we heighten our self-awareness, strengthen our self-regulation and increase the positive impact of our presence as a leader.

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Image by Hans Braxmeier 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.

Caring through Mindfulness

Caring is integral to mindfulness – we pay attention in the moment with care and curiosity.  We can learn to care for others through  loving kindness meditation as well as learn to care for ourselves through self-compassion.

Diana Winston provides a meditation podcast on the subject of mindfulness and care and stresses the need to care for ourselves as well as for others.  She suggests that people often discount or devalue their inner experience or feelings and yet be consumed by care for others.

Diana asks an important question to enable us to be mindful about caring – her question is, “What or whom do you care for”.  For whom do you express care and concern – a son or daughter, partner, friend or people suffering adversity.  How wide is your circle of care and how deeply do you care?

These are challenging questions because they raise the issue of how often we express care and concern for others – how generous and expansive is our caring?  How many people do we let into our lives through concern, considerateness and thoughtfulness?

Caring through mindfulness

Caring can be the focus of our meditation once we have become grounded through placing our feet on the ground, adopting a restful position with our body (and especially our hands) and taking a few deep breaths.

Our concern and care of our body can then be expressed through a progressive body scan and relaxation of points of tension.  Focus on our breathing will assist us to pay attention to the theme of caring as mindful breathing steadies our mind and enables us to concentrate.

We can focus on an individual and express care for that person and tap into what it feels like to express this care – is the feeling one of warmth, love or genuine concern for their welfare?  How is this care manifested in our body?

We can also express appreciation for the fact that we do care for others and take the time to express that care in words and actions.  We can acknowledge that it is a gift to be able to be sensitive to others and their needs – to move beyond self-absorption to concern for others.

As we grow in mindfulness through caring meditation our circle of care and concern widens and deepens, and we are able to more readily extend care to ourselves.

 

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

Image source: courtesy of MabelAmber on Pixabay

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.

 

Remember the R.A.I.N.

R.A.I.N. is a meditation process designed to help you when you have a situation where you experience strong negative feelings towards another person.  The process was recently introduced by Tara Brach as part of the Power of Awareness Course.

The acronym stands for Recognise, Accept, Investigate and Nurture.  Each of these steps can be undertaken during a meditation following an interaction with another person – partner, colleague, child, boss- that disturbs your equilibrium or, if you have the presence of mind at the time, during the disturbing interaction itself.  Let’s have a look at what these steps involve.

Recognise your emotions

After adopting an introductory grounding meditation practice, you need to reflect on the upsetting interaction and try to recognise your feelings at the time.  As we mentioned previously, identifying and naming your feelings, enables you to tame them.  Sometimes, this can be a complicated mix of feelings and other times involve feelings reflecting two different orientations –  feelings about the other person and feelings about yourself. For example, you might feel frustration and anger towards the other person (especially, if their behaviour that has an adverse effect on you is repeated often).  You might also be anxious that the resulting conflict, and your own inappropriate response at the time, puts your relationship in jeopardy.

Accept the interaction and the contributing factors

Life is not simple – nor is it free from stress and conflict – we are all unique and have different ideas, values, preferences, behaviours and idiosyncrasies.  Accepting the reality of the adverse interaction is an important part of moving on.  You can wallow in your hurt feelings and maintain your resentment, but this will be detrimental to yourself and the other person.  Your anger will pervade your thoughts and distort your perception of the other person and also manifest itself in your behaviour towards them and others.  The way ahead is to process your residual feelings, accept what has happened and move onto the investigation step.

Investigate your feelings that occurred during the interaction

This is not a conceptual exercise, where you stay just with your thoughts and objective analysis.  It entails being fully embodied – noting where in your body the pain and hurt associated with the feelings resides.  What do the feelings do to your body?  Are the negative thoughts and feelings expressed as tension in your forehead, tightness in your shoulders, an ache in your back or  other physical manifestation?  Focusing on the areas of pain and aching, enables you to release the physical unease and the associated thoughts and feelings.

Nurture yourself through the process

It is important to treat yourself with kindness, not scorn or derision.  The latter approach leads to low self-esteem and the belief that you are unable to do anything about the relationship because you “lost it” or were inept in the interaction.  Caring for yourself is critical, otherwise distress about the other person’s words and actions can lead to distress about what you said and did.   This only exacerbates an unsettling experience.

As you emerge from the R.A.I.N. meditation, you will have a strong sense of freedom and the basis for a new relationship with the other person.  As you grow in mindfulness, you will be better able to undertake these steps during the interaction itself, rather than afterwards.  So the R.A.I.N. meditation can also help you with future interactions with the same person.

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

Image source: courtesy of Curriculum_Photografia on Pixabay

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.