Accessing the Power of Gratitude

Many writers and researchers today report on the power of gratitude while drawing on neuroscience research and reports of individuals who have changed their life for the better by developing a gratitude mindset.  Kute Blackson, in a video podcast on the topic, maintains that gratitude has an expansive characteristic – the more you are grateful and express thanks for, the more you will experience things to be grateful for.  He also contends that being grateful creates true personal freedom – you will no longer be held hostage by the need for more material goods.  If you develop a gratitude mindset, there are so many things to be grateful for in your life, both large and small.  Genuine gratitude allows no room for envy of what others have or obsession with “wants”.

Developing a gratitude mindset involves focusing on what we have and/or have access to – so it is an abundance mentality.  It contrasts sharply with the anxiety and resentment that flow from a deficit mentality where the focus is on what you do not have or have access to.  Gratitude, then, is at the root of happiness, displacing dissatisfaction about the absence of something – it entails present moment awareness and thankfulness.  Wong & Brown argue that “gratitude reverses our priorities” and contributes to positive mental health and the alleviation of mental ill-health resulting from “toxic emotions”.

The power of gratitude

The benefits from gratitude are multifaceted.  Kurt, drawing on neuroscience research, contends that gratitude positively impacts our “physiology, biochemistry, brain waves, and nervous system”.   As you delve into the articles and research on gratitude, you can gain an appreciation of the awesome power of gratitude.   Gratitude has the power to enrich your life because it:

  • Develops resilience
  • Opens up possibilities and abundance
  • Creates true freedom from the “wants” and the “need to have”
  • Makes you more fully in the present moment – what do I have now?
  • Generates positive energy for yourself and those around you
  • Diffuses toxic emotions such as envy, resentment and greed
  • Strengthens relationships through appreciation and trust
  • Makes you more open and receptive to change in your life (including what appears to be adverse changes)
  • Enables you to access your inner resources and creativity (because you are not blinded by challenging emotions or distorted perceptions)
  • Helps overcome boredom, difficulties, complaining & feeling overwhelmed
  • Develops feelings of joy and happiness (link to TED talk with over 8.8 millions views)
  • Strengthens our sense of connection to everybody and everything (including our planet).

Accessing the power of gratitude

There are many pathways to gratitude and the associated feelings of happiness and joy.  We have only to set the intention to develop a gratitude mindset and then sustain one or two practices over a period of about three months.  The practices can be quite simple such as a few minutes spent daily in the morning to think about what we are grateful for or an end-of-the day review that reflects on what was good in our life.   Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, suggests that the holiday season is a “time for gratitude” and offers multiple ways to express appreciation.

Journalling is a key activity for developing a gratitude mindset.  This can be done daily, weekly or at irregular intervals.  Like all habits, frequency builds competence.  There are many readily accessible resources and guides for gratitude journalling online.  Rick Hansen, for example, suggests the daily habit of journalling a response to three questions, “someone I’m grateful for?”, “something I’m grateful for?” and “an event I’m grateful for?”.   Mindful.org provides an illustrated Mindful Gratitude Journal including illustrations, 15 gratitude meditations, the science of gratitude, stimulus stories and ideas and ample space for recording your own thoughts.  Mindful also offers a 12-minute meditation podcast on cultivating gratitude for small things.

For many people, nature and music provide the stimulus for gratitude as they can inspire wonder and awe.  Louie Schwartzberg, time-lapse photographer and cinematographer, has developed a stunning video, Gratitude Revealed, which brings together nature imagery, music composition by Lisbeth Scott and commentary by some of the world’s leaders in gratitude and mindfulness, including Brother David Steindl-Rast.  Brother David is the author of Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fulness.

Reflection

The current period of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, reminds us that gratitude and generosity go hand-in-hand.  These celebratory days encourage us to express our gratitude by sharing our good fortune with others. 

As we grow in mindfulness, we gain increasing awareness of what we could be grateful for – nature, the people in our lives (past and present), the opportunities we are afforded, the things we possess and the access we have been given to a multitude of things that bring joy (such as music, sport, art and technology).  We are also motivated to express our gratitude and appreciation in all areas of our life.  Gratitude journalling in its many forms is a mindfulness practice that can help us develop a gratitude mindset – a sure path to happiness, positive mental health and creative endeavor.

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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 Meditation – Being With Things As They Are

Allyson Pimentel presented a guided meditation on “Mindfulness” for the MARC, UCLA  meditation podcast series.  In the meditation, she described mindfulness as paying attention in the present moment with an attitude of acceptance and kindness and a  “willingness to be with things as they are”.   She suggested that mindfulness can be either formal (as with the UCLA guided meditations) or informal  (occurring  throughout our day as we focus on the present moment).

Mindfulness then entails paying attention in a kind way to things as they are occurring in our life in the present moment – not wishing them to be different or to go away.  In this regard, Allyson maintained that mindfulness meditation can serve as a refuge – a safe place to nourish, restore and renew ourselves in challenging times.  We can feel overwhelmed by external events (such as  storms and severe weather events) or internal experiences (such as challenging emotions, deprecating thoughts or painful bodily sensations).   Mindfulness meditation offers the opportunity to regain our equilibrium when faced with these challenges.

Allyson likens mindfulness meditation to a “wildlife reserve” where our own “animal bodies” are protected, kept safe and nurtured so that we can cultivate the “beauty” of kindness, gratitude, generosity and wisdom.  Mindfulness meditation, then, can be a place of quiet restoration, renewal of our sense of wonder and gratitude and a means to mind-body balance.

Guided mindfulness meditation

Allyson progresses through the meditation by focusing in turn on bodily sensations, challenging emotions, disturbing thoughts and the ease and calmness of our breath:

  • Bodily sensations – we are asked to focus on a part of our body where we feel tightness and to be with this bodily sensation in all its dimensions (such as soreness, pain, tension).  Allyson invites us to soften this part of our body and allow some degree of ease to permeate our bodily sensation.  This involves a process of recognition and acceptance of what we are experiencing in the moment, rather than rejection or fighting against the sensations.  After focusing on a particular bodily part and accompanying tight sensation, we are encouraged to undertake a process of progressive body scan and relaxation.
  • Challenging emotions – we now focus on any challenging emotion such as resentment, anger, frustration or annoyance.  This involves being with the emotion, not attempting to deny it.  It requires an openness to what is – in all its amplitude and disturbance.  Again the process involves recognition and softening towards what we are experiencing, not hardening our hearts.
  • Disturbing thoughts – we might be simultaneously experiencing disturbing thoughts such as negative self-evaluation and self-censure.  As we get in touch with these thoughts and their impacts on our body and emotions, we can learn to diffuse them by accepting their presence and being with their intensity, while acknowledging that “we are not our thoughts”.
  • Breathing – finally, we can take refuge in our breath which is ever present to us.  We can focus on our breath wherever we experience it in our body, e.g., our chest, abdomen or nose.  This involves acceptance of the nature of our breath, not trying to control it.  As we tune into and listen to our breath, we can experience ease and freedom.

Reflection

At the end of the guided meditation, Allyson invited us to observe any aspect of our body that still feels tense or tight and to be with the sensation.  At the time, I had a tightness in my right ankle from a bit of swelling there.   The act of focusing and softening eased the sensation of tightness and pain.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and informal mindfulness practices throughout our day, we can access the well of ease, experience a refuge from challenges we are encountering and restore our equilibrium and sense of balance.

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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.

                                                                                                        

Life Shaping Events and People: Finding Our Way Home

In an earlier post, I explored the concept of authenticity and ways to develop it – after listening to a presentation by Jeff Brown at the Surrender Summit.  This exposure to Jeff and his thinking stimulated my reading of his early book, Soulshaping, A Journey of Self-Creation – a revealing memoir that tracks his outer and inner journey.  As a result of the heartfelt responses to this book, Jeff came to understand that he was not alone in experiencing life’s challenges and exploring the inner journey to seek out peace, happiness and fulfillment.   He comments that he came to realise that “so many of us have walked the same trauma trails and endured hardships”. 

Jeff contends that his disenchantment with his early adult life was a result of following the “false-path”, instead of the “true-path” – alignment with his unique, profound life purpose.  He points out that the world we live in values external achievements not inner progress and constantly distracts us from our life purpose with false rewards and endless enticements designed to capture our attention and cultivate our obsessions.

His personal story captured in Soulshaping describes how he started on his journey to authenticity by listening to his “inner voice” (which he calls “Little Missy”) and exploring his true-path with its multiple challenges and turning points.  He argues that the inner voice is “the little voice that knows”, is persistent and unrelenting and contains what he describes as “the karmic blueprint for our destiny”.  The challenge is to allow this inner voice to reach our consciousness and influence our words and actions and, ultimately, shape our life choices.

However, the journey to authenticity – alignment with our life purpose – requires what Jeff describes as “gut wrenching, self-admission” because it is only when we expose what is really inside of us that we are able to “liberate our own voice”.  Admitting “who we are”, and not persisting with our social disguises (the face we present to the world), is essential for our liberation to a life of joy, profound realisation of our connectedness and experience of the well of ease with its inherent peace and tranquility – a stark contrast to the hurly-burly world we normally inhabit with its unceasing expectations.

Writing our way to our inner home

Jeff suggests that one way to access our true-path and the attendant inner sense of contentment and aliveness, is to begin writing to remove our “emotional debris” and uncover our inner voice.  To this end, I have enrolled in his online writing course, Writing Your Way Home, and I have set out on my own writing journey while concurrently exploring Jeff’s journey through reading Soulshaping and his latter book, Grounded Spirituality.  My core writing project will be a reflective memoir focused on acknowledging the people who have shaped, or are shaping, my life.

In a moment of synchronicity, I recently listened to an interview with Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, as he was discussing the fact that his life at the time involved parallel endeavours – his writings on emotional and social intelligence and his exploration of meditation through research and long-standing meditation practice.  He disclosed that he was pursuing these endeavours on two fronts simultaneously by writing another book about emotional intelligence and writing what he called a “spiritual memoir”.  He indicated that this latter inner journey was about the people who influenced him over his life and enabled him to be the person he is (and the person he is becoming).  Daniel indicated that he was thoroughly enjoying his memoir endeavour and that he was initially writing it for himself, not necessarily for publication.

Jeff indicated that we each have events and interactions with people in our life that shape us and our way of life.  Sometimes these events are traumatic and/or the people we encounter seek to turn us from our path through belittlement, envy or active discouragement.  Others seek to support us to be the best we can be and assist us to explore, and stay on, our true path.  As we are often reminded, “it is not what we experience in life (including traumas) that matters, but how we respond to life shaping events and people”.  In reading about Jeff’s “journey into self-creation”, I came to see some parallels in my life with events and people that were life shaping for him.

Life shaping events and people

Jeff describes a number of key events and people who influenced the direction of his life and his pursuit of a writing path as a manifestation of his profound life purpose.  As I read about his life, I experienced flashbacks to my own life as well as an intense motivation to begin writing my reflective memoir.  I am strongly convinced that the simultaneous pursuit of his writing course and his life story will provide the fuel to energise my memoir writing and help to sustain me in this endeavour.  Already, I have found the following parallels in life shaping events and people:

Adverse childhood experiences

In common with Jeff (and many other people), I had a number of adverse childhood experiences.  Jeff describes having a father who wished Jeff had not been born (he wanted a girl, not a boy) and who was violent and abusive towards him, always seeking to diminish him and his achievements.  He also had a mother who lived a life of “poverty trauma” and resorted to a world of fantasy as a way to cope with life’s harshness.  She “closed her heart” to protect herself.  Jeff experienced a life that was tumultuous and destructive as a result of the overflow of his parents’ challenging emotions and the constant state of conflict between them.

I had a similar upbringing with an alcoholic father who was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his imprisonment for three years in the Changi Prisoner of War Camp.  He sought to drown his pain through alcohol and, while not physically abusive towards me, he would physically attack my mother and, on at least one occasion, put her in hospital with broken ribs.  I can relate strongly to what Jeff describes as the verbal assaults of his mother which drove his father “deeper into darkness”.  I can hear my mother berating my father about his drinking and wasting our family income, and the resultant shouting and escalating conflict.  None of us, including my father who had no psychological or government support (apart from a miserly pension), had any idea of the impact of PTSD on a person’s life and family. 

In contrast to Jeff’s mother, my mother lived in the real world but experienced a life punctuated by illness and grief (her four month old son died of a brain tumour when I was 4 years old).  She found her life purpose in raising her other five children, including me, and continually sacrificed herself for our physical, emotional and intellectual welfare (professional support for our emotional welfare was unachievable).  She worked endlessly at the local Woolworths to sustain us and provide for our private school education.  She had high hopes for each of us and encouraged us in whatever we wanted to pursue in our sport, study or work.  Unlike Jeff’s mother, she opened her heart to anyone in need and, in turn, accepted food packages from Vinnies to enable us to live from week to week. 

Career misfit

Jeff describes his very successful entry into a high powered career as a defence lawyer.  It was only as his Bar Admission Exams approached that he began to have doubts about whether this was a false path or a true path for him even though it involved the defence of innocent people who had been subjected to a miscarriage of justice.  His inner voice (Little Missy) created some cognitive dissonance for him by suggesting that he was only pursuing the external accoutrements of being a lawyer – fame, visibility, high income and social standing.  Ironically, it was when he was trying on a new suit for Court appearances (a clothing accoutrement) that he heard that persistent inner voice yet again, “Who are you, really?”

He arrived at a crossroads when he was due to sign a lease for a legal office to share with potential law partners.  At the time, he was pulled by the Warrior in him and his survival instinct to sign up to an externally rewarding life as a defence lawyer in partnership with supportive colleagues.  He described this period of sleeplessness, agitation and hellish indecision as being caught “between direction and exploration”, where he was unable to surrender to the joy of the unknown nor to experience the relief and certainty that came from “knowing where I am headed”.   It was when he was in Santorini in Greece that he began to write a journal which led ultimately to his “calling” and true path of being a writer.  He refused to sign the lease because his life as a defence lawyer seemed to him to be “living in disguise”, not living his real, unique self.

Immediately after I finished high school, I entered a novitiate in Sydney (about 1,000 kilometres from my home in Brisbane) and became an inductee into the life of Catholic priesthood as a contemplative monk.  After completing my first year and confirmation in the religious Order, I moved to Whitefriars Seminary in Melbourne (a further 800 kilometres from home) to complete my studies and training before ordination.  However, after four years there, I decided that this was not the career for me and returned home with $100 and the suit on my back.  I had previously committed to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as part of my confirmation.  The decision to leave required formal approval from Rome to release me from my vows.

While I was studying in Melbourne, I consistently scored 90% in the annual oral exams for my various studies in philosophy and theology.  It was suggested that I was earmarked to complete a doctorate in theology in Rome because of my academic ability and “model” behaviour as a monk dedicated to daily silence, meditation and study.  However, I suffered from severe migraines and constant anxiety about my home situation where the conflict and domestic violence was relentless.  I came to think that I had undertaken the vocation as a priest as an escape from my distressful home situation and to win the approval of my mother who was very religious.  In some sense I was living my mother’s desire for my career – which filled a deep-seated need on her part.   Like Jeff, I was torn between “direction and exploration”. 

I had all the accoutrements of success – a sense of doing something worthwhile, high standing in the community and amongst my tutors and colleagues, a very balanced lifestyle and enjoyment of the journey.  However, my inner voice caused me to be dissatisfied and I left the Order as I approached ordination as a priest.   I had experienced an overwhelming sense of responsibility to the community generally and to my parents in particular.  As it turned out, sometime after I returned home, I took my mother away from my father for her own safety (but this is another story).  Both my parents blossomed when they were separated and I went on to pursue marriage and a career in the public service.

Reflection

Jeff recalls that as he set out to write a book that “talked about spirituality through the vehicle of my own journey”, he became caught up in self-deprecation.  He was “riddled with shame and doubt”, questioning whether anyone would want to read about his “miserable journey”.  While he recognised that the process of exploring his historical inner landscape through writing was therapeutic for himself, he doubted whether anyone else would benefit from it.  His experience after publishing his book certainly put paid to these doubts about the beneficial effects of his writing for others who read his Soulshaping book.  

Jeff encourages each of us to explore our life story and share it with others.   His writing course provides the psychological support and technical knowhow, including insights into how to get published.  He offers Soulshaping as a flexible template to assist us on our writing journey. His hope is that some of the themes he has written about will resonate with the reader/writer and provide the encouragement to follow our own true path.

Like Jeff, I have had considerable self-doubts about the benefit of writing my own memoir.  However, I am encouraged by his experience and support and the resonance I have already experienced with some of the themes in his recorded journey.  I am continuously flooded with recollections, insights and ideas now that I have chosen my reflective memoir as my core writing project.  I am excited by the prospect of researching aspects of my life and recording my growing self-awareness.  I am also flooded with feelings of gratitude towards the people who have helped shape and enrich my life.  I can already envision my memoir as an e-book, illustrated with historical images from significant events in my life.

As I continue to grow in mindfulness through my regular practice of meditation, Tai Chi and reflection (including writing this blog), I look forward to exploring further my inner landscape, gaining in self-awareness and emotional regulation and experiencing the joy of creative writing grounded in lived experience.

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Image by Robert C 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.

Ways to Manage Ourself During Difficult Times

The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA offers weekly guided meditation podcasts on a wide range of topics and issues.  In one of the recent meditation podcasts Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC focused on “Practices in Difficult Times” – providing several mindfulness practices designed to help us achieve calmness, manage our challenging emotions and express compassion to ourselves and to others who are suffering.

Diana highlighted the fact that challenging events such as the mass shootings in America and the war in Ukraine can generate “emotional inflammation” in us – we can feel strong emotions of anger, grief, rage or sadness.  We might feel overwhelmed by others’ inconceivable pain and loss and our own emotional response.  We might be confused and continually ask ourselves, “Why the children?”, “Why Ukraine?” or “When will this emotional and physical devastation stop?”

Diana draws on mindfulness practices to help us deal with these challenging times and the emotions they elicit in us.  She reminds us that mindfulness involves placing our attention fully on the present moment while being open and curious and accepting what is in our present internal and external reality. 

Three mindfulness practices for difficult times

The three mindfulness practices offered by Diana are described, in turn, in the following discussion:

  1. Calming Practices: Here we are encouraged to tap into the body’s own capacity to generate calm and ease.  The primary aim is to achieve groundedness in a way that is conducive to our present needs.  We could start by taking a couple of deep breaths and releasing them slowly to let go of the tension within us.  There is the option to find a place of ease in our body and focus in on it, e.g., our arms beside our body, our relaxed legs or our fingers joined and pulsating with energy.  Diana particularly stressed the power of “feeling the support of the earth” through our feet on the floor or the ground.  Our breath with its natural rhythm can provide a basis for experiencing calm and ease (unless, of course, focusing on our breath acts as a trauma stimulus).  If attention to our breath is calming, there are many ways to access a relaxed state through mindful breathing  practices.  We could adopt “micro-practices” such as the  4-7-8 breathing practice often used in yoga, the breathing in time practices (using our breath as a musical instrument) or we could pay attention to the internal physical sensations of our breathing – e.g., the rising and falling of our abdomen or the feeling of air moving in and out of our nose.  Diana suggests another alternative is to pay full attention to the sounds in the room or what is being generated externally (especially if we are in a natural setting with the sounds of birds, waves, or wind).  Sound can also be used as a calming mindfulness practice as we listen to and sing mantra meditations provided by people like Lulu & Mischka (such as their Rainbow Light song as part of their peaceful Horizon album).
  2. Holding strong emotions: Normally, people tend to suppress challenging emotions, deny them, or deflect their attention from them by numbing themselves with some form of addictive behaviour such as drinking excessive alcohol, overeating, taking illegal drugs or over-spending while shopping compulsively.  Mindfulness experts and psychologists remind us that we need to face up to our emotions or they will cause disruptions in our lives through some form of mental and/or physical illness.  Diana encourages us in this guided meditation to pay attention to our challenging emotions and observe how they are manifesting in our body, e.g. tightness in the chest, pain in the arms or neck, headaches, overall stiffness or fibromyalgia (non-specific whole-body pain).  Holding on to these strong emotions enables us to deal with them directly and use the healing power of our mind and body to dissipate them.  If we experience overwhelm while confronting our strong emotions, we can return to our meditation anchor which could be our breath, external sounds, bodily sensations or music.
  3. Compassion practice: Diana explains that compassion practice in this context involves ourselves as well as others who may be experiencing suffering and loss.  She encourages us to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion as we struggle to deal with our challenging emotions and our misguided attempts to ignore them or numb them.  She suggests, then, that we extend loving kindness to others in the world who are experiencing pain, devastation, grief and anger.  Diana offers  a possible expression of compassion for others in the form of a statement of desire, “May you be freed from pain and suffering and find contentment and ease”.

Reflection

We have a deep well of ease in our bodies that we can access at any time, if only we can let go of our damaging thoughts.  As we grow in mindfulness through calming practices, facing our challenging emotions and practising compassion towards ourselves and others, we can gain the insight, courage and capacity to manage ourselves during difficult times.  Mindfulness enables us to achieve emotional regulation, self-awareness and the creative drive to be the best we can be.  Challenging emotions, left unchecked or ignored, can undermine our endeavours at home or at work.

Over time we can develop a regular mindfulness practice that suits our make-up and that we can undertake on a daily basis (e.g., Tai Chi, mantra meditations, chanting or yoga).  This core mindfulness practice can be supplemented by micro-practices that we engage in throughout the day (e.g., when washing our hands, during waiting times, or when boiling the jug).  The compound effect of these core and micro-practices is a calm state of mind, enhanced patience and conscious 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.

Manage Emotions through Savoring Life

Allyson Pimentel in a recent meditation podcast reminds us to savour life and the opportunities it presents to experience positive emotions such as joy, appreciation and love.   Allyson describes “savoring” as a form of mindfulness with a specific focus and purpose – in savoring we pay attention to the things that we enjoy and relish, lingering on the positive feelings that emerge spontaneously when we focus on what is good in our life.  While savoring is pleasurable, it does not deny the reality of what is difficult in our life such as challenging emotions.  However, this practice enables us to bring positivity to our life by paying attention to “what feels good, what provides relief”.

There are very clear benefits of savoring, including increased happiness, improved physical and mental health and better performance.    Research has shown that both older people and younger students experience greater happiness through savoring, not only from savoring what is present in their life at the moment but also what they have experienced in the past.  Savoring can lead to optimism about the future, improved self-esteem and greater resilience in the face of stress.  People who savour life bring appreciation and positivity to their relationships, enhance their performance through clearer focus and concentration, and gain greater access to their intuition and creativity – partly because they are not burdened or blinded by negative thoughts and an inherently, human negative bias.

Guided meditation

Allyson encourages us at the outset to make ourselves comfortable in whatever posture we choose as a prelude to the experience of pleasure through the savoring of sensations.  She begins the meditation practice by encouraging us to focus on a part of the body that brings ease or pleasure at the moment.  It could be the firmness of the feet on the ground and the attendant sense of security, the tingling and warmth in fingers that are joined together or the sensation of our thighs pressing against the chair.  She also suggests that this savoring meditation can be taken outdoors and enhanced by the experience of nature – its beauty, sounds, diversity and smells.

Once we find a bodily focus for the experience of ease, Allyson encourages us to bathe in the positive sensations associated with the pleasurable feelings.  This may mean, for instance, paying sustained attention to the tingling in our joined fingers while feeling the sense of relaxation and calm as our breathing itself slows and we become free from our continuous focus on our thoughts.  This process is fundamentally becoming grounded in the here-and-now experience of our pleasurable bodily sensations and bringing full awareness to their impact on us and our sense of ease and pleasure.

Next, Allyson asks us to recall a recent event that we found pleasurable and a source of joy.  It could be a recent interaction with someone new, an experience of competence when cooking or playing an instrument or any activity that we can recall as a source of pleasure.  She suggests that we recapture the feelings of the moment of that activity and bathe in the feelings and attendant bodily sensations – did we find ourselves relaxing, appreciating what we have, sensing a connection, enjoying conversation or valuing someone’s company and friendship?  I found for this activity that I recalled an interaction with someone I had not met before who was interested in what I do and have done, who shared some of their own story and rapidly built rapport through a communicated sense of curiosity, interest and shared common experiences.  It left me with a sense of warmth, strengthened self-esteem and feelings of connectedness.

Allyson then asks us to choose another recent activity/event that was a source of pleasure and again recapture the feelings of joy and ease as we bring the activity/event into focus, bathing in our positive feelings and bodily sensations.  For this second reflection, I recalled my recent experience of being able to play my tennis shots more consistently, to recapture shots I have been unable to play for a while and to feel more comfortable and at ease with my game.  I bathed in my sense of restored competence, the unsolicited praise of my tennis partners, and the comments from my opponents expressing appreciation for the extended and challenging rallies.  I recaptured my feelings of joy in being able to experience competence that has come from many years of playing and competing in tennis fixtures.  This flowed into an overall appreciation of the ability to play tennis that has enabled me to play social games in France, England, New Zealand and New Guinea – a passport to engagement and connection with others wherever they reside.

Reflection

Savouring the people, events and things in our everyday life enables us in grow in mindfulness through being mindful of the many aspects of our life as they occur – it does not require formal meditation (although the capacity to savour can be enhanced by guided meditations such as that provided by Allyson).

Our everyday life is full of opportunities to appreciate, and express gratitude for, the things that bring us joy and a sense of pleasure and relief – savouring can serve as an oasis amidst the busyness and challenges of life.  Over time, we can develop a growing awareness of the sources of pleasure in our lives and enhance their positive impact on us and our relationships.

There is so much we can savour – the development of our children, friendships, our achievements and rewards, the joy of others, and life itself.  Allyson quotes Adrienne Maree Brown, author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, who argues that there is freedom in savoring pleasure and that it “feels good to do good” in the world.  Blair Christie, in her TED Talk “The Simple Act of Marveling”, argues that this savoring activity can “take you on a journey that leads to action” that can change our world and the world at large.  Marveling, she suggests, is a great source of grounding and stress release.

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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 in Everyday Life

Rachel Kable – author, podcaster, blogger and mindfulness coach from Victoria in Australia –  recently participated in a podcast interview with Dr. Justin Puder.  In the course of the interview, she explained that when she first started out practising mindfulness in the more formal way of meditating (e.g. focusing on her breath), she had great difficulty and did not like it at all.  At the time she lived very much in the past and the future, not the present.  She would review past performance and prepare to-do lists for future activities to the point where she would lie awake at night, not being able to quiet her mind.  To sit still and focus on the moment was a real challenge and counter-intuitive.

However, Rachel persisted with formal practice because she had heard of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and wanted to experience them for herself and to share them with others.  As she persisted in her more formal efforts, she found that mindfulness practice increased her ability to focus and concentrate, enabled her to sleep more restfully and fully, enhanced her relationships (e.g. through being present to the person speaking and listening actively, not distractedly) and improving her capacity to be creative in her career endeavours.

Rachel also discovered that she could bring mindfulness to everyday life and the things she already did each day, e.g. cleaning the house, washing the dishes, preparing the meal, driving the car, eating her meals, or sitting on her deck (which provided the opportunity for engaging in “natural awareness”, taking in the sounds, sights, and smells already present to her).  Consequently, she decided that the focus of her mindfulness coaching would be on helping people to bring mindfulness to the activities of everyday life.  To this end, she has developed her blog covering things like self-care, meditation techniques, and simple living.  Rachel’s podcast series, which at the time of writing has 322 episodes, provides lots of practical advice on how to be mindful in everyday life, dealing with issues such as challenging emotions, expectations, stress, decision making and negative self-evaluation.

Rachel has also written a book, The Mindful Kind Book, wherein she provides practical advice and tools to manage overwhelm and stress, enjoy life more, improve resilience to handle setbacks and to practise mindfulness as a form of self-care when engaging in everyday activities, including work.  Her interview is one of many conducted by Dr. Justin Puder who has developed the podcast series, Drop In with Dr. J.

Reflection

Tennis is a very important part of my life and my exercise activity and has been since I was in Primary School (about 10 years of age).   Rachel’s podcast interview reminded me that I need to bring mindfulness more to the fore when playing tennis.  I have certainly used reflection-on-action in the past when looking at how I play tennis.  Through reflection, I have become more conscious of the importance of savouring the moment when playing tennis; addressing my “habit loop” (and related reward system) when experiencing blockages to trying out new tennis strokes; being able to constructively manage mistakes when playing social tennis; and identifying the behavioural and cognitive blind spots that are impeding my tennis performance.

I am often conscious of the technical aspects of playing tennis, e.g. keeping your eyes on the ball, preparing for a tennis shot, choosing the right shot, deciding the stance and position to receive a serve, and identifying the gaps in which to play a shot.  I can become more conscious of when my attention strays to what is happening on one of the other eleven occupied courts and bring my attention back to my own tennis game.

What Rachel’s comments remind me to do is to face my emotions in the moment when playing tennis (e.g. anxiety, fear), name them and decide how to manage them – rather than ignore or suppress them.  It also means acknowledging to myself (and challenging) my self-imposed expectations that impede my performance and enjoyment of the game. 

Rachel reminds us that mindfulness can be practised in every aspect of our life, even having lunch.  For me, for example, that means eating my lunch mindfully, savouring the taste, texture and aroma of what I am eating – not processing emails or planning my day as I eat. 

As we grow in mindfulness through formal processes such as meditation, Tai Chi, or yoga, we can more readily bring mindfulness to our everyday life whether that is driving a car in traffic, sitting on our back deck, working in our garden or just taking a walk.  Mindfulness can accompany us wherever we go and whatever we do – if we only let ourselves drop into present moment awareness.

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Image by Peter H 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.

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.