Expressing Emotions or Being Imprisoned by Avoidance

Edith Eger In her book, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, discusses the “the imprisonment of avoidance” – the refusal to express challenging emotions.  She maintains that avoiding feelings through suppression leads to depression – the opposite involves release through expression.  We can supress our feelings for many reasons, e.g. to avoid the pain and hurt of recollection or to protect others from seeing us as vulnerable and suffering. 

If we are suffering from past hurts or trauma we can try to shield loved ones from the discomfort that comes with the expression of strong feelings.  In the process, we are not being honest and we are also depriving them of the opportunity to express empathy and love.  We can also unconsciously train our children to avoid the expression of feelings when they are hurt or upset.   We can try to diminish their feelings out of our own discomfort or sense of sadness.  We might say, “Don’t cry, there will be other opportunities to go to parties”, “You’ll forget about this tomorrow”, “Look how many friends you do have who let you play”, or “Let’s get some ice cream and make the pain go away!” (we can try to substitute something  pleasurable to avoid the expression of pain and hurt, thus setting in place habituated avoidance behaviour).

Edith suggests that sometimes we suppress our feelings by trying to convince ourselves that we are happy and joyful when this is patently not true.  We might even resort to affirmations to hide our true feelings.  This form of subterfuge only acerbates our feelings because it denies our reality – the depth and breadth of our true feelings.  Edith encourages us “to feel so you can heal” because “you can’t heal what you don’t feel”.   Sometimes our underlying feelings can be mired in resentment and can be unearthed through a guided reflection.

There is a real cost to ourselves in avoidance.  Despite our very best efforts, emotions are embodied – they manifest in our bodies as physical tension/pain and/or result in emotional or physical illness.  By not living our truth or accepting the reality of how we are feeling, we undermine our own integrity and personal integration.   Edith provides a detailed and graphic example of the impact of unexpressed feelings on a women who experienced incomprehensible violence by a family member.  Her life was lived in fear and loneliness because she never owned up to her feelings of rage, anger and deep fear of the perpetrator.

There may be times in conversation with a friend that we withhold a true expression of our feelings about some matter relevant to our relationship with them.  Edith suggests that we can revisit the conversation mentally, work out what we should have said and then approach the relevant person at a suitable time and in a neutral place to express our real feelings.  We could even start by practising with restaurant waitresses and expressing our honest feelings about a meal (rather than hiding our true feelings because we do not want to hurt or embarrass them). 

Facing up to our feelings and naming them provides a real release.  Edith suggests that we can practise this by stopping ourselves at any time during the day and naming our emotion, whether positive or challenging,  in the present moment.  This is not only a form of mindfulness practice but is also a way to increase self-awareness and develop honesty about our feelings both to ourselves and others.

Edith explains that sometimes this challenge to express rather than supress feelings appears overwhelming.  She writes about her inability to face the Auschwitz Museum for fear of the pain of recollection of her parent’s murder and her own torture and starvation as a prisoner in the concentration camp.  It took her a lot of courage after 10 years to visit the Museum and she describes in detail what she felt when confronted with images of emaciated people, the cattle trains and arrival platform.  She found herself cringing and curled herself up into a tight ball in a dark corner of the Museum – overwhelmed by grief, pain, anguish and anger.  However, revisiting the trauma and owning the depth of her feelings provided a new level of release to enable her to be even more productive and helpful in her ongoing work as a trauma consultant – she had finally gained release from the imprisonment of avoidance.

Reflection

Edith’s own life experience, which she shares so freely in her books, bears out how difficult it is to free ourselves from the imprisonment of avoidance.  It may take many years of progressive inner work, and trying out various ways of overcoming our entrapment, to achieve some degree of freedom and realise ease and joy.  However, suppression leads to ongoing suffering and depression.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become increasingly self-aware of the different ways we avoid expressing our true emotions, develop the courage to own up to these emotions and achieve the resilience required to break free of the imprisonment of avoidance. _________________________________

Image source: 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.

Illness and the Impact of Our Psychological and Social Environment

Over the past couple of blog posts, I have focused on the manifestation of trauma and adverse childhood experiences in our negative self-thoughts and addictive behaviours.  Drawing on the work of Dr. Gabor Maté in the area of compassionate inquiry, I have also discussed how the compassionate approach to addiction is to look beneath the self-destructive behaviour to the person and pain that lies beneath.   In this post, I want to explore more of Gabor’s ideas about the negative impact of adverse psychological and social environments and how they lead to chronic disease.

Gabor suggests that a fundamental flaw of the traditional medical model is the separation of mind and body and viewing a person in isolation from their psychological and social environment.  This leads to a symptomatic perspective on illness and the use of medications to redress the symptoms.  He suggests that these deficiencies in the approach of traditional medical practice are no more highlighted than in the pursuit of the search for a cure for cancer.  He draws on the work of a holistic wellness expert who illustrates this flawed thinking by arguing that the research of individual cells for the source of cancer is like exploring the combustion engine as the cause of traffic jams.  

Gabor strongly maintains that his years of family medical practice and his role as Coordinator of palliative services (end-of-life care) for a hospital have convinced him that underlying all chronic disease, without exception, is a deficient psychological and social environment of the individual involved.  His assertion is based, in part, on the assumption that a defective social and psychological environment negatively impacts the immune system as well as other bodily systems (such as the respiratory and cardiovascular systems) that are inextricably interconnected.  He asserts in live with Buddhist philosophy that everything is connected to everything else and that “nothing exists on its own”.  He cites the Buddhist concept of life as the “interconnection of co-arising phenomena”.

He argues that in line with this perspective which reflects the reality of human existence, that a leaf and raindrop should be viewed not as isolated occurrences but as resulting from the interplay of soil, compost, sky, sun, rain and atmospheric conditions.  Louie Schwartzberg would add the role too of mycelium (mushrooms and their internet-like connected tentacles beneath the earth).  Gabor maintains that we have to take a “biocycle, social approach” to really address the causes of chronic illness.

The impacts of injurious psychological and social environments

Gabor in his YouTube© talk on “When the Body Says No”, draws on scientific studies to demonstrate the connection between stress and disease.  He maintains that an injurious psychological and social environment has major implications for the development of illness.  He illustrates this interconnection, for example, by discussing the impact of stressed parents on the physical welfare of a child.  Parents themselves can be stressed by their environments (economic and social systems, the presence or threat of war, racism) and/or their own lived experience of trauma or adverse childhood experiences.  The child, in consequence of this psychological/social environment, is stressed and scan suffer from asthma (which itself is treated with stress hormones to open the airways and reduce inflammation, resulting in the adrenal system becoming overcharged).

The parents’ stress is contagious – the child is aware of their own body and the impacts of parental stress on their bodily sensations.  The pain of the parent, mother and/or father, is experienced by the child but the real problem is that this pain “never gets discharged”.  Gabor cites Australian research that demonstrates that our bodies adapt to our psychological and social environment (as well as our physical environment).  He maintains that some of this adaption is helpful in the short term but in the longer term results in adverse bodily manifestations such as elevated blood pressure, heightened stroke risk, unhealthy sugar levels, arteriosclerosis and defective immune system.

Gabor also refers to research that shows that if a woman is both stressed (psychological environment) and isolated (social environment) her chances of a lump in her breast being diagnosed as malignant are increased immensely.  This research reinforces the interplay of illness and the psychological/social environment of an individual.  Other research shows that if one partner of an elderly couple dies, and the other partner is left bereaved and isolated, there are deleterious changes in the surviving partner’s immune, nervous, hormonal and cardiovascular systems, resulting in a “significant risk of dying”.

The development of illness through the suppression of challenging emotions and our own needs

Gabor demonstrates that suppression of challenging emotions such as anger negatively impacts the immune system and other connected bodily systems.  A person may suppress expressions of anger to gain and/or maintain parental affection and affiliation (because their absence is too painful).  The result of suppression of challenging emotions is “suppression of the immune system”. 

Gabor argues that a  key contributor to disease is a personal stance that is forever worrying about other people’s psychological needs while “ignoring your own needs”.  This can manifest as feeling responsible for the feelings of others and avoiding any words or actions that might disappoint them.  Gabor argues then that there are four significant risk factors that contribute to chronic illness and are life-threatening (18 minute mark of his talk):

  1. Ignoring your own emotional needs to cater for the perceived needs of others
  2. Identifying yourself with duty and responsibility in a way that is rigid (at the cost of your own authenticity, thus creating an external locus of control)
  3. Repressing challenging emotions such as anger or resentment
  4. Believing that you are responsible for how other people feel and, in consequence, trying assiduously not to disappoint them (and, as a result, never saying “no” when you should do so for your own health and welfare).

Gabor contends that “attachment” is the “most important dynamic in human life”.  Without it, we cannot survive as infants or adults.  We seek “closeness and proximity” with another so that we “are taken care of”.   He maintains that pathologies arise when our attachment needs are not met. This, in turn, leads to frustration of our other basic need, the need for “authenticity” – which he expresses in terms of our ability to be in touch with, and listen to, our “gut feelings”.  Gabor instances the  “please love me syndrome” of Robin Williams as an underlying cause of his depression and chronic illness,  leading to his death by suicide.

Reflection

We cannot ignore the impact of our psychological and social environment on our physical health.  At the same time, we have to recognise that we are contributing to the creation of a psychological and social environment that could be healing or harmful for others, especially if we are in a caring or managerial role.  Gabor explains his ideas about stress and illness in his book, When The Body Says No: The Cost Of Hidden Stress.  He also provides training and further resources on his website, The Wisdom of Trauma.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly self-aware and aware of our impacts on the physical health and psychological welfare of others.  We can be more determined to take compassionate action, to look beneath self-destructive behaviours to find the person desirous of wellness and associated ease.

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Image by Pete Linforth 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.

Mindfulness Meditation for Anxiety

Diana Winston introduced the use of mindfulness meditation to reduce anxiety in a recent guided meditation podcast through the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  The catalyst for the meditation was the anxiety she experienced listening to the news one morning before undertaking her daily  meditation.  She explained that she normally began her day meditating before anything else.  On the occasion she described, Diana started the day with listening to the news – a departure from her normal routine.  Starting the day with meditation is often recommended by mindfulness experts as a way to set your intentions for the day and strengthen your capacity to manage the challenges that will inevitably occur in the day ahead.  

Diana found the news disturbing and she found herself very anxious – an anxiety that she experienced physically as well as emotionally and intellectually.  In these situations when we experience news that is traumatic, upsetting or triggering, our minds tend to move to the worst possible scenario…”What if..”, ‘How will they cope?”  Diana decided to turn to mindfulness meditation as a way to manage her anxiety and disturbed mind.

Guided mindfulness meditation for anxiety

Diana’s approach to the guided meditation followed a number of steps:

  • Grounding – starting with a couple of deep breaths, you can begin to release some of the bodily tension through your out-breath.  Next, adopt a comfortable posture wherever you are undertaking the meditation – on a chair, lying on the ground, sitting on the floor or lying on a bed.  The central focus of the meditation is to pay attention to the sensation of solidity provided by the ground – you can access this sensation by focusing on your feet on the floor, your body on the ground, or the bed or chair on the floor which, in turn, is linked to the earth via the foundations of your house/building.  It is important to use whatever imagery or bodily sensation is useful to enable you to feel “solid” and grounded.  This is your return point throughout the meditation.
  • Body scan – begin a non-specific body scan by exploring wherever there is tension in your body.  When you locate an area or point that is tense, you can bring your attention to this point and consciously breathe out to releases this tension (you may need to do this a couple of times, if you are particularly uptight).
  • Choosing an anchor – one of the issues with anxiety is a racing mind, so it is important to have an anchor to constantly bring your mind back to your desired focus.  There are many choices for an anchor – your breath, the sounds in your room or externally, your hands resting easily on your lap.  However, it is important to choose something that does not itself trigger further anxiety, stress or trauma.  Diana suggests that you can always use the grounding sensation itself or focus on an object (e.g. a painting or a tree) which itself can lock in your attention.
  • Exploring bodily manifestations of anxiety – to achieve equanimity you have to be able to face your anxiety and the bodily manifestations that it generates, but this can be done gradually.  You may want to start with a small source of anxiety in the first place as Diana suggests.  Alternatively, you may find it important to focus on the anxiety that is really troubling you the most, so you can create a sense of ease as you go about your day.  Whatever anxiety-generating event/incident you choose, it is important to feel how it is experienced in your body.  Your mind-body connection means that feelings find expression in your body, whether experienced as good or bad.  The task here is to tap into how you are experiencing your anxiety or disturbed feeling in your body – it could be tightness in your neck or arms, soreness in your shoulders or legs, a queasy stomach, tightness in your forehead or any other bodily sensation or combination of sensations. The important thing is to get in touch with a bodily sensation at this stage and focus on it so that you can work towards its release.
  • Revisiting your groundedness – Diana advises you to take the previous step progressively and iteratively.  So you might start with a particular sensation and experience it fully and then return to your sense of groundedness, so the anxious sensation does not throw you off-balance.  By sensing, releasing, re-grounding, you can progressively cleanse your body of the tension – this, in turn, will help to reduce your anxiety-provoking thoughts and associated emotions.  The intensity of your anxiety will affect how long or how often you need to employ this meditation.  Small steps can have large effects with persistence.
  • Loving-kindness to yourself – in all this, it is important to realise that we all experience anxiety at different times and events in our lives. It is vital to be kind to yourself and not berate yourself for your assumed “weakness”, “over-sensitivity” or “softness”.  It is human to feel fear and to experience uncertainty, especially in today’s world of the pandemic and racial, national and international conflicts.  Part of caring for yourself in the middle of your anxiety is to tell yourself that it is okay to feel anxious, the feelings will pass and external events will change; and to acknowledge that there are many things that you do not have control over.
  • Loving-kindness towards others – this involves extending kind and empathetic thoughts to others who are experiencing anxiety or are the subject of your worry and concern.  There may be people who are experiencing local conflicts or threatening situations that you are anxious about.  Accepting that you cannot control the situation is a starting point and then offering them kindness in your thoughts may be all you can possibly do.  If you can take compassionate action, then, this will help them and yourself.

Reflection

The MARC meditation podcasts are provided on the UCLA website and via an app, and are offered to enable us to “develop self-awareness, emotional regulation and increased well-being”.  Diana makes the point that mindfulness meditation on anxiety equips us to deal with life’s difficulties and challenging emotions.  Persistent practice can deepen our resolve, strengthen our connectedness and achieve better integration of our mind and body.  As we grow in mindfulness, we will be able to choose wise actions, overcome habituated responses and achieve equanimity and ease.

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Image by Aneta Rog 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.

Equanimity and Fragility of the Human Condition

Martin Brensilver, meditation teacher at UCLA, provides a guided meditation podcast on Equanimity as a Facet of Mindfulness.  In the process he explores the nature of equanimity and argues that it is not the same as passivity – it is not inaction or indifference in the face of human suffering in the world.  For Martin, equanimity involves “having a relationship with one’s deep sensory experience right now” – engaging with our deepest thoughts and feelings in the moment.  It involves being open to the full poignancy of the human condition – not deadening our experience of life but drawing out the sadness and melodrama of the human condition.  Mindfulness enables us to meet this intensity with “patience, love and tolerance” and a “soft heart”.

Martin stresses that equanimity is a fine balance between suppression of what we are feeling and thinking and becoming totally caught up in those thoughts and feelings.  Equanimity involves being fully present to our bodily sensations and open to fully experiencing our challenging emotions.  What equanimity brings to our lives is the capacity to overcome the “compulsion to act out our preferences” – the temptation to succumb to our habituated responses in the face of challenging thoughts and emotions.

Martin observes that there are times when meditation is “not fun at all”.  To be silent and still, in whatever posture we adopt, can unearth strong emotions and racing thoughts.  It can be a catalyst for uncomfortable bodily sensations.  What it does, however, is “open our hearts to ourselves” and what we are experiencing. 

The fragility of the human condition

Martin gave a talk in May 2020 as part of a retreat for Buddhist practitioners.  The podcast of the talk is titled, Vulnerability, Porousness, Equanimity, and Love.  The talk is fairly conceptual and focuses on the difference between classical Buddhist thinking on vulnerability versus modern-day Buddhist thinking.  However, Martin makes a number of points relevant to our discussion about the human condition by drawing on the work of several authors.

One of these writers is Adam Phillips, author of Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.  Adam suggests that we long for a different life from what we are experiencing.  We can become focused on “needs unmet”, “desires unfulfilled” and “roads not taken” – effectively “falling short” of our potential.  These are the “lives unlived” that we imagine could have been possible and this can lead to a sense of unrest and even “rage”.

Martin compares the human condition to that of the fragility of a plant and contrasts it to the solidity of a jewel.  He refers to Susan David’s comment that “life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility”.  In her book, Emotional Agility, Susan asserts that life involves sadness, fragility and anxiety and we need to acknowledge this, but to live our life more fully requires the courage to go beyond our comfort zone and manage our fear about uncertainty and ambiguity. 

Martin asserts that the pandemic has highlighted the downside of interdependence as well as the upside.  He suggests that we have been experiencing the “porousness of the boundary between self and world” – the pandemic has injected itself into millions of lives in numerous countries so that we are conscious that we are “living in precariousness”, we cannot ignore the fragility of the human condition.  Martin reaffirms Susan’s contention that failure to accept this vulnerability is a “major source of inhumanity” – the harmful withholding of care, concern and compassion.  He maintains that, in contrast, embracing vulnerability fully, (and with It, the possibility of rejection) leads to softening the heart and opening to patience, tolerance and care.

Developing equanimity

Martin draws on the work of Sara Lazar, a scientist researching meditation and yoga.  Sara and her colleagues in a joint research paper define equanimity as “an even-minded state” or an even disposition towards all experiences no matter their source or how they are experienced (e.g., pleasant or unpleasant).

Martin summarises Sara’s thoughts about developing the key aspects of equanimity as follows:

  1. Widen our perspective – when we are in pain or feel vulnerable (e.g. because of the pandemic), our focus narrows and we can easily lose perspective.  Martin suggests that one way to widen our perspective is to envisage the vastness of space or the time the light from stars take to journey to us.  We could also envisage the earth in space and billions of people living in diverse countries, timeframes and cultures.
  2. More readily engage in sensory experience – as suggested earlier, this means not denying experience or associated emotions but embracing them fully.  If we can accept not suppress what we are experiencing then we are better able to ride out the “the winds of feelings”, rather than tightly bracing against them.  This principle is captured in a very practical way by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book, Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using Mindfulness Meditation.
  3. Disengage from evaluative (judgemental) thinking and reactive behaviour – we have to overcome the unevenness of our response to challenging emotions and events conditioned by our habituated behaviour.  This takes a quiet confidence that is born of courage and self-awareness.  Despite our best efforts, our equanimity can ebb and flow but as we work with our deepest emotions we can widen our window of tolerance so that we are “not afraid to be overrun by experience”.

Reflection

Martin reinforces the fact that equanimity is not a steady state – it can have its ups and downs. As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can develop this “even-minded state” and ready disposition towards the challenging experiences and emotions of our life.  We can become increasingly self-aware and learn to overcome our reactivity and learned responses to stressors. 

Increasingly, we can build what Martin describes as “courageous confidence” – a healthy confidence not born of conceit but deeply embedded in consciousness of the fragility of the human condition.  We can progressively move away from acquisitiveness and self-absorption to care and compassionate action for others who together with us are experiencing life’s frailties, uncertainties and challenges.  

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Image by Anant Sharma 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.

Adversity, Resilience and Happiness: A Chanting and Meditation Pathway

Tina Turner experienced an incredible amount of adversity – an abusive marital relationship, stalled singing career, severe illness (including a stroke and kidney failure), all preceded by adverse childhood experiences (including parents who constantly fought, divorced and abandoned her).  At age 34, still in her destructive relationship, Tina discovered Buddhist chanting and meditation and this eventually changed her life, giving her the courage to break off her damaging relationship and launch her solo career.  Tina explains her journey in her new book,  Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good.

The chant that changed her life

Tina explains how she discovered the power of the Daimoku – the chanting of the Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.  This mantra is central to Buddhist practice and millions of people around the world practise it every day.  Orlando Bloom, the English actor, is also a strong advocate and practitioner of this mantra.

Tina maintains that chanting the Buddhist mantra generates vibrational energy and positive Karma in a person’s life.  She explains “Karma” as “the sum of all your actions – thoughts, words and deeds”  and suggests that it is like a “balance sheet” reflecting the net balance of the positive and negative actions of your life.  Karma “determines our dominant life condition”.

Tina maintains that chanting the mantra is doing a workout for your spirit and likens it to a physical workout that conditions you for physical exertion and sporting activities.  She suggests that the time spent in daily chanting should be influenced by the level of your karma limitations (excess negative over positive energy), your life condition and the magnitude of your dreams. 

Tina writes that she spent many hours a day chanting when she was in a karmic low and experiencing adverse life conditions while still holding onto very big dreams.  She found that the very positive results she achieved with her chanting acted as reinforcement to maintain her daily practice.  She was, however, able to modify the time spent on chanting as her life became more balanced.  Tina suggests that even 15 minutes chanting the Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo mantra each day, can be beneficial for your life condition and the achievement of your dreams.

Buddhist wisdom – the Ten Worlds

In her book, Tina introduces the “Ten Worlds” of Buddhism that describe our “life condition” and likens them to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She explains that our life condition encompasses our thoughts, moods, and our overall wellbeing which, in turn, influence how we view ourselves and others, our emotional disposition, our decisions and actions.  Tina compares the lower levels of the Ten Worlds to the lower levels of the hierarchy of needs such as physiological needs, safety, need for belonging and self-esteem. 

In Tina’s view, the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy, self-actualization, accords with elements of the top four Buddhist Worlds, namely Learning, Realization, Compassion, and Buddhahood (complete freedom, endless courage, wholeness, a sense of connection to the “life force” of the universe).  Both Learning and Realization are developed through learning and reflecting on our own experiences and insights and that of others.

Tina found that one of the attractions of the Buddhist concept of Ten Worlds was the idea that you can progress directly from the bottom level to the top levels through concerted inner work, working daily on enriching your inner landscape. Her pathway was that of Buddhist chanting and meditation.  She maintains that we each have to find our own pathway to live more fully.

Reflection

Tina has demonstrated throughout her life the capacity to bounce back from physical, emotional and relationship challenges – she has shown resilience in the face of adversity.  In the process, she has been able to achieve deep happiness.  As she points out, we all seek happiness but it is invariably “elusive”.  Sustaining a state of happiness is a challenge. 

Tina was able to grow in mindfulness and awareness through Buddhist chanting and meditation and found that her daily practice enabled her to rise above challenging emotions and circumstances, enrich her life, and achieve her wildest dreams.  For each of us there is a potential pathway to resilience and happiness and the realisation of our dreams and life purpose. 

As Tina states in her book Happiness Becomes You:

Each of us is born, I believe, with a

unique mission, a purpose in life that

only we can fulfill.

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Image by Наталья Данильченко from Pixabay

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

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

Building the Capacity to be in the Present Moment

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA, offers a guided meditation podcast on the topic, Back to the Basics.  This is one of the hundreds of free weekly meditation podcasts offered by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA.

In the guided meditation, Diana reminds us that the fundamental purpose of meditations is to build our “capacity to be in the present moment” – in a way that is open, curious, and accepting of what is.  There are numerous forms of meditation available today but they basically aim to develop this capacity so that in the daily challenges of life, such as conflict with a spouse, colleague, or a friend, we can draw on the calmness, equanimity and wise action that is available to us through mindfulness practice.  People can choose a form of meditation that suits their interest, lifestyle, and physical capacity, e.g., transcendental meditation, movement meditations such as Tai Chi or yoga, or singing meditations such as the various forms of mantra meditation.

Diana points out that the increasing volume of research conducted by MARC and other centres around the world confirm the capacity of meditation to improve our stress response, physical health and immune system; reduce chronic pain; and overcome anxiety and depression, especially through mindfulness programs such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).  The research also confirms that meditation can help children, even those with ADHD, to improve their capacity to pay attention.  These findings have led to the explosion of mindfulness practices in schools around the world, such as the MindUP Program developed by the Goldie Hawn Foundation in America.

A guided meditation – returning to the basics

In her guided meditation, Diana revisited the basic components of a meditation practice:

  • Comfortable position – this can be sitting, lying down (on the floor, grass, or beach), standing up or some form of mindful movement (e.g., mindful walking or Tai Chi).  The aim is to achieve a position that is free from bodily stress, so that discomfort does not become a distraction in itself.
  • Controlling visual stimulation – in a still meditation, people close their eyes or look downwards to avoid visual distractions.  In a movement meditation the person’s gaze is typically unfocused but the internal focus is on body position and movement.  In a mantra meditation, the internal focus is on the sounds and meaning of the sung mantras – visual stimulation may assist both aspects such as in evidence in the stillness in motion mantra sung by Lulu & Mischka.  Natural awareness allows visual stimulation because you are opening yourself to what is around you (and doing so without a specific goal in mind).
  • Choosing an anchor – in a still meditation, the anchor can be breath, sound, or bodily sensations (e.g., tingling in the feet or hands).  In a movement meditation, the body and motion become the anchor. The aim of the anchor, whether in a still or movement meditation, is to have a specific focus to return to when distractions take us away from the purpose of our meditation (distractions such as planning, worrying, or analysing).
  • Silence – this is a common component of many forms of meditation (apart from those that involve singing, chanting, music or speaking which seek to achieve an inner silence).  Diana typically incorporates a period of stillness and silence in her guided meditations. 

Whatever the form of meditation, the primary purpose is to be-in-the-present-movement.  Diana suggests, for example, that if a really strong emotion or physical sensation intrudes, that your focus could temporarily shift to that emotion or sensation before returning to your anchor.  Normally emotions and bodily sensations exist in the background, rather than the foreground of your meditation (unless you are consciously addressing a challenging emotion such as resentment or anger).

Reflection

There are many paths to the same end – being fully in the present moment.  What is important is being able to transfer the state of mindfulness to our everyday life – what Sam Himelstein calls mindfulness-in-action.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can capture the power of the present moment, maintain calmness in challenging moments and choose wise actions to address our situation.

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Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay

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

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

Meditation on Courage

Diana Winston recently offered a guided meditation on the topic, “Mindfulness, Courage and RBG” in honour of the life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the US Supreme Court who died on 18 September 2020 at the age of 87.  RBG was a popular figure admired for her intellectual prowess and fierce determination to support the rights of women and native Americans.  During her tenure as a Supreme Court judge she tirelessly opposed gender discrimination and supported the right of women to have an abortion.  She changed the course of the American legal system through her dissenting judgements including her influential role in the development of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

In her meditation podcast, Diana portrayed Justice Ginsburg as the epitome of courage – displaying “strength of heart” in the face of powerful opposition and ongoing difficulties and challenges.  Despite being daunted by the task ahead, Justice Ginsburg pursued her convictions over a lifetime and took each step towards realisation of her goals even in the face of fear.  Although she was a “tiny person” she was a very deliberate and articulate person who had a “commanding presence”.  These characteristics were lauded by Judy Cohen and Betsy West, filmmakers and directors of the 2018 film on Justice Ginsburg’s extraordinary life, simply titled RBG.

Courage meditation

Diana begins her courage meditation podcast (at the 5-minute mark) by encouraging relaxed breathing and a body scan followed by a focus on sounds.  She uses these initial processes to help you achieve grounding in the moment.

Diana then asks you to recall a moment when you displayed courage in the face of strong opposition, challenges, and difficulties.  Your display of courage might involve a single event in your life or a protracted effort to achieve some level of justice, equity, or recognition.  It might have occurred in a work context, within your family environment, in a not-for-profit endeavour or in a sporting context.  Diana suggests that if you cannot think of when you displayed courage in your own life, you might reflect on the courageous life of Justice Ginsburg.

In the latter stages of the meditation, Diana asks you to capture what it felt like in mind and body to display courage and resilience in a challenging situation.  This reflection could generate both positive emotions (e.g. a sense of achievement/contribution) and a challenging emotion such as resentment (for the opposition you experienced).   It is important to be with these emotions and capture the whole-body experience of being courageous.

Reflection

Once we have captured what it means to be courageous in our lives, it is worth reflecting on what things/issues/ideals motivated us to be proactive in the face of challenging odds.  As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness, we are better able to tap into what provides the energy for us to initiate and/or sustain courageous action.  We can gain a greater insight into our life purpose, our innate creativity, and our capacity to make a difference in our own life and that of others.

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Image by Alexas_Fotos 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.

Self-Care and Care for Others in Challenging Times

Resilience is a constant theme of podcasts, online courses, and conferences in these challenging times.  One outstanding example of this is the interview podcast conducted with Michelle Maldonado  by Mindful.org.  Michelle discussed Resilience for Divided Times – the challenge of maintaining equilibrium in times of divisions on the grounds of race, nationality, gender, wealth and health.  The pandemic has unsettled everyone and challenged our way of operating day-to-day and, in the process, heightened anxiety and unearthed deep divisions previously hidden by the routines and busyness of daily life.  IN the interview, Michelle highlights the need for self-care, self-awareness, and pursuit of our own individual contribution to the service of others.

Self-Care for resilience

Without self-care we are unable to care for others and are more likely to contribute to divisions rather than their resolution.  Michelle emphasises the need to get in touch with our challenging emotions and not push them away or ignore them.  She quotes her father who used to say, “No way to it but through it”.  Michelle suggests that with escalating personal challenges, the need for self-care increases and demands that we increase the frequency, duration, and variety of our self-care approaches and mindfulness strategies if we are to build resilience and maintain our balance.   

Many people are finding it difficult to sleep in the current challenging times because of worries about health, finances, employment or restrictions on movement and access.  Michelle shared her own approach to overcoming the inability to go to sleep.  She maintains that often sleep eludes us because our mind is unsettled or constantly ruminating.  Her recommendation is to meditate or write a journal before going to bed to provide a “dump” for the mind and to still the mind’s incessant activity.  This mental activity can be complemented by a “body scan” to identify and release points of tension.  If you wake up prematurely, Michelle encourages you to practise a form of breathing involving exhaling longer than you inhale (e.g. a count of 7 on the exhale and 5 on the inhale) – an approach that activates the parasympathetic nervous system.  An alternative is to get up and write.

Self-awareness to take wise action

Michelle argues that if we lack self-awareness, we can unconsciously inflame divisions by our words and actions.  She maintains that each of us is constantly engaged in perception and prediction – both of which are influenced by our past experiences, including our childhood.  Our perception and prediction can generate a wide array of emotions including anticipation, sense of hopelessness, exhaustion, and excitement. 

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of our biases, predispositions, and distorted perceptions and create the space to think and act more consciously, skilfully, and compassionately (towards our self and others).  Michelle tells the story of how working closely with Federal Enforcement Officers totally changed her perception of these officers – an erroneous perception built up through newspaper and TV reports.  She saw their humanity, kindness, and concern for others. The danger is that we tend “to lump all people together” – whether they are of a particular location, race, profession, political affiliation, or gender orientation.  We need to challenge our assumptions through curiosity and honest self-inquiry so that we can create the space to understand where others are coming from and be able to take “wise action”, not action fuelled by ignorance, fear, hatred or misunderstanding.  

Contributing to the service of others

When we are confronted with the magnitude of suffering, mental illness, and uncertainty in these pandemic times, we can have a strong desire to help others but can feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task.  Michelle assures us that there is a unique way for each of us to make a contribution to the welfare of others.  She suggests that you can sit with the challenge of identifying your role and contribution to the service of others, think about it and attempt to write it down (to provide clarity and order for your thoughts).  With patience and persistence, you can gain the necessary insight to take the first steps and have the courage to “concretize and manifest what is yours to do”.  This may involve overcoming your natural tendency to procrastinate.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through self-care and developing self-awareness, we are better placed to identify any distortions in our perceptions and projections and to manage challenging emotions.  We can build resilience and contribute in a unique way to healing divisions and helping others to achieve the ease of wellness.  

Michelle offers a brief G.R.A.C.E. meditation by way of reflection and integration of her discussion (at the 29-minute mark).  The meditation encompasses gathering attention; recalling intention; attuning to self and others; considering what would serve your self-care needs and the needs of others at this moment; and engaging ethically through deciding one wise action you can take (a first step).

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Image by Dimitris Vetsikas 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.

Mindfulness Strategies for Well-Being

Dr. Trisha Macnair, in her book Live Well, offers 100 ways to develop well-being.  Trisha has been a medical doctor for over thirty years and developed a speciality in “active ageing”.  Her book is focused on developing a healthy and long life and her many simple ways of achieving this include suggestions re nutrition, exercise and lifestyle.  Here I will focus on Trisha’s suggestions that relate to mindfulness.

Mindfulness for a healthy and long life

Trisha recommends several well-being strategies that are directly related to mindfulness:

  • Meditation – the psychological and physical benefits of meditation are well researched and documented.  Besides being a calming influence and source of tranquillity, meditation improves clarity and creativity and can contribute to mental health by helping to reduce negative thoughts, improve mood, develop wisdom and manage challenging emotions.   
  • Find your happy – underlying Trisha’s suggestions in relation to enjoying the physical and mental health benefits of being happy, is a focus on mindfulness.  This involves awareness of what contributes to happiness and unhappiness in our lives, tuning into experiences of well-being, and making time for ourselves to enable self-care.
  • Keep moving – several of Trisha’s recommendations relate to movement and she extols the physical benefits of walking, yoga and Tai Ch.  The mental health benefits of these practices can be enhanced by adopting mindful walking, treating Tai Chi as meditation-in -motion with conscious breathing and bodily awareness, and focusing on the meditative elements of yoga. 
  • Spending time in nature – the benefits of time spent in nature are increasingly being linked to improved physical and mental health and longevity.  The mental health benefits of nature can be enriched by meditating on the elements of nature, being conscious of the healing power of nature and developing our capacity for sensory awareness while in nature.
  • Doing acts of kindness – the happiness benefits of doing good deeds are well researched.  Mindfulness itself can have really positive outcomes for others as well as ourselves by improving many aspects of our interactions – our mood, ability and willingness to listen for understanding, capacity to regulate our emotions and express “sympathetic joy” and our sense of gratitude (not allowing envy to grow).  Loving-kindness meditation can also enable us to draw energy and vitality from our sense of connectedness to others and facilitate compassionate action.  Through mindfulness we can discover our unique way(s) to contribute to the well-being of others through specific acts of kindness.

Reflection

Trisha reminds us that there are many simple and readily accessible ways that we can use to develop our well-being and a healthy and long life.  The benefits of many of the practices she suggests can be enhanced as we grow in mindfulness.  Meditation itself brings substantial physical and mental health benefits.  The cumulative effects of the suggested practices can be life-changing because they are mutually self-reinforcing. 

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Image by Alessandro Squassoni 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.

Bringing Challenging Emotions to Awareness

Often our tendency with challenging emotions is to push them away or ignore them.  We may disown these thoughts and challenging emotions because we feel shame that we are experiencing intense anger, continuous resentment or persistent bitterness. Sometimes, if we entertain them and play the triggering situation over and over in our minds, these emotions take over our life, our reactions and interactions.  We may harbour resentment and continuously engage in harmful and unproductive thoughts, e.g. “Why me?”, “Wait till I get the chance to pay them back!” or “What have I done to deserve this?”  Our thoughts emerge from our inner hurt and overtake us.  

A guided meditation to bring challenging emotions to awareness

Tom Heah, accredited UCLA meditation teacher, provides a guided meditation podcast focused on Meeting Challenging Emotions with Awareness.  Tom maintains, like other meditation teachers, that it is important to allow these emotions, face them fully and own them, while treating ourselves with kindness and compassion.  

He suggests that we can grow in mindfulness and the capacity for a healthy response by meditating on a triggering situation and allowing the stimulated emotion to be with you.  He encourages you to feel the emotions in your body – sense its location, strength and size.  Tom recommends giving a label to your emotion – naming your feelings – so that you can better manage them.  He argues that being clear about how you really feel (not diminishing it or hiding its nature or intensity), will help you to respond appropriately rather than reactively.

As you open your “awareness to whatever feelings arise” such as loneliness, anger or frustration, you will experience bodily sensations such as tightness in the chest, pain in your arms/back or constriction of your breathing.  Tom maintains that it is important to allow these bodily sensations but support yourself with conscious breathing.  He suggests that you can think of breathing in self-kindness, love and caring and breathing out tension, pain and anxiety.   Your breath can be your emotions release valve.

Reflection

Tom’s process enables us to reflect on a past event that triggered challenging emotions.  However, if you are in the situation that is triggering your strong emotional response, you can adopt the S.T.O.P. process suggested by Tara Brach.  This process – stop, take a breath, observe, respond – enables you to pause before responding and assists you to regain control.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we will be better able to manage our challenging emotions in-the-moment.  This self-regulation takes considerable self-awareness and heightened self-control, both of which can be developed over time.  Tom reminds us that emotions can have a “limited timespan” if we readily face them and their bodily manifestations and don’t brush them aside, ignore them or engage in endless negative thinking.

Tom offers a range of free guided meditation podcasts and paid training courses, including a course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for which he is highly qualified and experienced.

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Image by かねのり 三浦 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.