Developing Awareness to Live More Fully

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education, at MARC, UCLA offers a meditation podcast where she introduces a range of meditation practices.   Her guided meditation covers The Spectrum of Awareness Practices.  During the meditation, Diana likens the different practices to changing the lens and focus of a camera – from narrow to broad to panoramic.  Her aim is to open us up to the possibilities inherent in meditation practice so that we can choose a preferred awareness focus as a regular practice or seek variety by consciously “changing our lens”.   It is not her intention to provide an exhaustive list of meditation practices but to show that there is a broad spectrum in terms of what we can pay attention to and the resultant focus of our awareness.

The telephoto lens – narrow focus

The first meditation practice Diana introduces is what she describes as using a telephoto lens – homing in on a specific object of awareness and leaving awareness of other things in the background (as you would when you focus your camera on a bird in a tree in a distant location).  The focus can be your breath (the rise and fall of your abdomen), specific body sensation or a noise within your room.  As your mind wanders from this chosen anchor, you can bring it back into focus (as you would when adjusting a lens for greater clarity of an image).  This form of awareness meditation develops concentration, calmness, and clarity. 

Wide lens – broader focus

We can broaden our focus beyond our breathing to a particular body sensation or a difficult emotion that draws our attention away from our breath.   We could pay attention, for instance, to the sense of groundedness in our feet, the warm tingling in our fingers or the tightness in our shoulders.  With a difficult emotion, such as resentment, we could focus not only on the nature and intensity of the emotion but also its bodily manifestation, e.g., tightness in the chest, stiffness in the  jaw or pain in the neck.  We can name the emotion and describe its intensity to better tame it and bring it under control.  This broader form of awareness practice can help us to understand our emotions and our triggers, develop emotional regulation, build body awareness and increase our awareness of our mind-body-emotion connection.

Panoramic lens – being conscious of awareness itself

Here we broaden our attention beyond a chosen focus to what exists both within and without us.  It involves tapping into our natural awareness – a consciousness of what is going on inside us as well as around us, without any specific focus.  It requires opening up fully to our inner landscape and our external environment – taking in the sights, sounds, smells, touch, and taste of what we experience.  This is the spaciousness in which we become conscious of awareness itself.   Natural awareness helps us to cultivate openness and acceptance, curiosity and appreciation and a sense of wonder and awe.

Reflection

Diana introduces the spectrum of awareness as a way to broaden and enrich our meditation practice, increase our understanding of the nature of awareness and its pervasiveness, and enrich our daily life so that we can live more fully, engaging with ourselves and the world with heightened awareness and gratitude.  David Sinclair in his book, Lifespan, describes something of the richness of openness to natural awareness when he describes the experience of bushwalking with his family as “Searching for serenity.  Hearing stories. Finding Beauty. Making memories. Sharing wisdom.”

Diana describes natural awareness and other mindfulness practices in more detail in her book, The Little Book of BeingAs we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation, we can experience life more fully and enrich the lives of others from the fullness of our own life.

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

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Mindfulness, Attention and Learning

Research has consistently shown that mindfulness can build our attention and concentration.   Mindfulness, by definition, involves paying attention in a purposeful way “with openness and curiosity”.  Mindfulness helps us to reclaim our attention and strengthen our concentration.  Attention is one of the four pillars of learning, according to leading neuroscientist, Stanislas Dehaene.   In his book, How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain, he identifies the four pillars as follows:

  1. Attention – adds amplification to the information that we choose to focus on; it brings into clearer focus the detail and implications of what we are hearing and seeing.
  2. Active engagement – through curiosity, constantly testing our internal hypotheses and models of the external world; contrasted with passive learning where we only take in what others teach us.
  3. Error feedback – helps us to correct our hypotheses/models through comparison with reality; what happens when acting in the real world serves to provide feedback – confirmation or the need for correction/change.
  4. Consolidation – moves us to a state of “unconscious competence”; where we act automatically, but appropriately, in response to external stimuli.  Making explicit our own learning and restful sleep assist this process of consolidation.

Attention’s role in learning

Stanislas highlights the fact that today we encounter multiple sources of distraction, including that of digital noise, which negatively impacts our attention and capacity to learn.  Developing our attention, according to his research and that of other researchers, has three core benefits in terms of the learning process:

  1. Alerting – changes our level of vigilance by signalling when we need to pay attention.
  2. Orientating – indicates what we need to pay attention to and, in the process, highlights the detail of what we are interested in.
  3. Executive attention – the contribution here is on the how, the way in which to respond to the stimulus/task/challenge.

The growth of the executive function, tied to self-regulation, is itself a lifetime learning process.  This function involves engaging the pre-frontal cortex of the brain  – making decisions based on analysis and timely adaption rather than habituated and inappropriate responses.  Stanislas demonstrates through sharing the results of different experiments how the pre-frontal cortex and this executive function develops from the age of 12 months and reaches a mature level around 20 years of age.  These studies are fascinating in that they highlight how the brain attempts to process information that is seemingly contradictory and/or challenging to our habituated responses learned through prior experiences and information processing.  He contends that the development of our pre-frontal cortex as we mature in age spontaneously results in the “development of attention and executive control”.

Stanislas cautions that we can still make mistakes and take inappropriate action through our selective perception as adults.  Perception of threat (real or imagined), for example, can lead to the dominance of our amygdala and disengagement of our pre-frontal cortex, leading to a fight, flight or freeze response – resulting sometimes in an inappropriate action rather than “wise action” that can be developed through mindfulness.   

However, Stanislas also emphasises that even in adulthood our brains are capable of plasticity – changing physical shape (including reducing the size of the amygdala and increasing the size of the pre-frontal cortex) and, in the process, strengthening executive control.  Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, highlights the research that demonstrates how mindfulness increases this neuroplasticity.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can enhance our attention and concentration – key components of learning identified by Stanislas.  Concurrently, we can develop our self-awareness and self-regulation, learn to overcome habituated responses, and choose wise actions.  Mindfulness improves our information processing by helping us to reclaim our attention in the face of endless distractions, including digital noise and overload.  The openness and curiosity cultivated through mindfulness enriches our capacity to grow and learn. 

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

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Developing Inner Silence through Sound Meditations and Music

Christine Jackman describes silence as the space in which one was “free to breathe and simply be”.  It is a space without speaking or being spoken to.  In the context of mindfulness, silence does not mean the absence of sound, just the absence of unwanted inner and outer noise – freedom from the noise pollution of our minds and of a busy world.  It is a refuge – a place of retreat from inner chatter and outer noise.  In stillness and silence, we can find inner peace and tranquility.

Sound and mindfulness

Many mindfulness practices involve being still and listening to sounds, either the room tone or external sounds from wind, rain, birds, or other sounds.  The aim of these practices is to maintain focus on sound and keep our minds free from other distractions.   Sound meditations can strengthen our concentration and listening skills and  contribute to our overall well-being.  Sound can also be provided as an anchor for people involved in trauma-sensitive mindfulness

What we are aiming to achieve in sound-based mindfulness practices is an inner silence and harmony – turning off self-stories, negative thoughts, interpretations, or projections.  Basically, it involves tuning out of the inner dialogue by tuning into sound.  We strengthen our awareness muscle when we are able to return to our inner silence and focus whenever distracting thoughts occur.

Music as a pathway to inner silence

Christine Jackman, in her book Turning Down the Noise, describes her search for “the quiet power of silence” in her busy world.  She found inner silence in a number of places, including while participating in Vespers in a Benedictine Monastery – an evening prayer that is recited or sung. 

Another form of ecclesiastical music, Gregorian Chant, has developed over many years by monastic orders dedicated to prayer and silence as a way to develop inner silence – the focus on singing meaningful phrases to the sound of monotonal music serves to shut out distractions and build inner peace and harmony.

Mantra meditations often employ a musical instrument (e.g., a drum or guitar) together with chanting long-established phrases that evoke positive emotions such as peace, harmony, relationships, or connectedness to nature or a higher being.  Repetition of the lyrics enables a deeper penetration into the meaning of the words that are sung mindfully and facilitates a deepening inner silence and tranquility.

The silence between the notes

Richard Wolf, author of In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness, identified what he called “12 bridges to mindfulness” created by music.  These include deep listening and “sympathetic vibrations”.  Richard argues that music is a key to inner silence, one of the bridges to mindfulness.  He makes the point that silence is embedded in music – music notations for the duration of a note are matched by “an equal notation for the duration of silence” between the notes.  He mentions Miles Davis’ emphasis on the “connection between the role of silence in music and in life”.

Some music composers pay particular attention to silence within their compositions.  Richard refers, for example, to the work of John Cage and his important piece of music, 4’33”, in which the pianist begins by not playing but sitting still for 4 minutes 33 seconds as a way of “drawing  the audience’s attention to the process of listening itself”.  This engenders a particular form of participation whereby the audience through their silence become part of the performance.

Reflection

This blog post was stimulated by a conversation I had with a musician friend of mine who played the guitar professionally, both as an individual and as a member of a band.  We had been discussing music and mindfulness when he mentioned a story about how he had become distracted during a performance.  He was playing guitar with his group on a footpath outside a building when a car pulled up and two men hopped out of the car and headed towards the musicians.  My friend immediately began to think, “Are they going to disturb us?” or “Are they interested in the music?” 

As he thought about the possibilities, he became mentally distracted, lost his place in the music, and played some wrong notes.  Up until the distraction, his band was exhibiting some of the characteristics identified by Richard Wolf as bridges to mindfulness , e.g., concentration, harmony, and sympathetic vibration.  However, as a result of regular music practice, my friend was able to restore his focus and catch up with the music and his other band members very quickly.

The positive influence between mindfulness and music is bi-directional – it operates in both directions. As we grow in mindfulness, our capacity to play music, sing and listen deeply, develops; as we play music, practise playing and sing, we can grow in mindfulness because music can provide the bridge to inner silence.  Mindfulness practice and music practice both build our power of concentration, our awareness muscle, our ability to achieve resonance with others, and our overall well-being.  Richard highlights the positive impact of inner silence on our relationships when he writes, The ability to silence the inner voice creates the conditions for truly hearing the voices of others.

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

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Accessing the Power of Meditation and Loving Kindness

Barry Boyce, founding editor of Mindful.org, interviewed Sharon Salzberg, globally recognised meditation teacher, about the impact of meditation and loving kindness (about which Sharon is a world-renowned exponent).  In the interview, The Power of Loving-Kindness, Sharon explained how she had studied Eastern philosophy and learned about meditation by travelling to India, not the local meditation centre like you do today.  She was surprised that much of the Indian meditation practice that she learned focused on the breath, not the more esoteric approaches she had learned about.

Focusing on the breath

Sharon was at first taken aback by the simplicity of the breath focus.  However, she soon realised that while the idea is simple, the execution is difficult because it involves having to deal with racing thoughts that distracted her from her focus on her breath.   She found how hard it was to pay attention to her breath when “thoughts came tumbling down like a waterfall”.

At challenging times, when anxiety is high, our mind races away from our focus with some speed and intensity.  Bringing attention back to our breathing focus, is difficult to do but builds our “attention muscle”.  It enhances our power of concentration and our capacity to be with what is, whether it is the experience of well-being or the pain and suffering of challenging emotions.  Pausing to focus on our breath develops clarity and our capacity to lead with conviction.

The role of loving-kindness

There is a tendency is to give up in the face of the difficulty of focusing on our breath.  However, persistence really pays and creates the power to access equanimity, ease and creativity.  Sometimes, we are tempted to beat up on ourselves by saying, “We are not good at meditation and never will be?”; “It’s such a simple thing, why can’t I do it?”  “Other people seem to manage, why can’t I?”

This is where loving kindness has a role.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his definition of mindfulness, exhorts us to practise paying purposeful attention “non-judgmentally”.  It is the negative self-evaluation that creates the greatest barrier to meditation, not the fact that we have lots of distracting thoughts.  Thoughts are natural and will vary in content and frequency over time, reflecting what is going on in our life at that time.  Jon suggests that we treat thoughts as if they are bubbles floating to the surface in boiling water.

Sharon maintains that “kindness towards ourselves” is essential if we are going to be able to persist with meditation.  She argues that paying attention and kindness are inseparable – without self-compassion, you cannot sustain your attention.   The power of meditation lies not only in the increasing capacity to concentrate but also in the ability to develop robust self-esteem through loving-kindness.   Another dimension of this power is the ability to rest in our breath and bodily sensations in troubling times and times of turbulence in our life. Sharon explores fully the role of loving-kindness in her recent book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.

The power of connection

Through meditation and loving-kindness, we come to realise our connectedness to everyone and our connection with nature.  This is foundational to our ability to show compassion towards others.  If we can accept ourselves fully – with our flaws, hurtful behaviour and our complex emotions – we are better able to extend compassion and forgiveness to others and accept that they are only human too.

Through our sense of connection, we can tap into the “collective energy” that surrounds us, pursue our life purpose and make a real difference in the world.  Meditation becomes a power source, a way of accessing the power within and without – it becomes the conduit for our energy system.

Reflection

Meditation has a calming yet powerful effect.  When we are rattled or frazzled, our power of concentration is diminished, our thoughts become dispersed and our energy dissipated.   Paying attention to our breath with loving-kindness enables us to access our power source and to bring focused energy to our endeavours, whatever they may be.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, particularly through loving-kindness meditation, we can enhance our sense of connection to everybody and every living thing, build resilient self-esteem and draw on the power of focus.

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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.

Sound Meditation and the Power of Music

In previous posts I have discussed the role of music as a pathway to mindfulness focussing on the features that music and meditation have in common such as inner harmony, patience and deep listening.  Alexandre Tannous has researched the role of music in therapy, in different cultures and philosophical perspectives.  In a recent presentation for The Being & Doing Summit, he emphasised the power of music to heal, express emotion and deepen our awareness.  He provides a range of sound meditations through his album, Sound Submersion – Volume 1, which incorporates musical instruments, such as the Tibetan Singing Bowl, that produce overtones.

Sound therapy

Sound therapy uses sonar frequencies to reignite and re-balance the energy frequency in the body.  It can lead to healing and deep calm by enabling people to use the body’s natural healing powers to promote health and inner harmony.  The applications of sound therapy are numerous, including its use with dementia and Alzheimer patients to stimulate memory recall.  A social worker, Dan Cohen, discovered the power of music, aligned to personal preference, to help Alzheimer patients to access memories that have been locked away and normally inaccessible to them.  The story of this amazing research was captured in the film, Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.  Sound therapy has also been used very effectively with seriously wounded veterans who can recapture or learn the skill of playing a musical instrument and discover a way to express their thoughts and feelings through music.

As an ethnomusicologist, Alexandre has travelled to over 40 countries to study music in different cultural and social settings.  While he acknowledges that sound therapy has had a major resurgence in recent times, he maintains that it is an ancient practice, especially in Eastern philosophies.  Alexandre explains that sound therapy often involves overtones, sound freqencies over and above a fundamental frequency, that we rarely hear because we are unaware of them and because the fundamental frequency is so strong that it dominates our hearing.  Alexandre’s music compositions focus on “overtone-emitting” musical instruments such as the Thai Gong employed in Thai and Burmese temples.

Sound and mindfulness

Alexandra’s audio recordings provide the basis for sound meditations using different instruments. He identifies multiple benefits of sound meditation based on his extensive research over many years.  Among the benefits are the development of inner harmony and equanimity, “ability to access and release trauma“, capacity to break habituated behaviour patterns that are unproductive, enhancement of self-awareness, development of higher levels of consciousness and stimulation of empathy and compassionate action.  In the final analysis, sound therapy builds our awareness muscle through enhancing our concentration, listening and focusing skills.

As with other forms of meditation, there will always be intrusive thoughts. Alexandre suggests that we just let them pass, not entertain them and return to our focus on the music.  Sound is truly transformative and if we adopt a deep listening posture during our sound meditation, it can improve our mental health and overall well-being.

Reflection

We often overlook the power of sound to deepen our consciousness and heal our mind and body.  As we grow in mindfulness through sound meditation, we can enrich our lives in multiple ways, not the least of these is enhancing our self-awareness and awareness of others.  Through sound meditation, we can build the capacity to deal with the waves of life – the ups and downs of everyday existence.

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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.

Cultivating Concentration through Meditation

In some traditions, concentration is seen as separate from but essential to mindfulness. Concentration is described as “one-pointed focus” or bringing our attention to a single focus in a unified way. Concentration is thus viewed as the servant and enabler of mindful awareness – both inner and outer awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn maintains that “concentration is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice” and that as we cultivate our concentration we increase our capacity for mindfulness – becoming fully aware in the moment.

Cultivating concentration through meditation

Diana Winston in a guided meditation on Cultivating Concentration offers four breath-based meditation practices that can build concentration and enable us to stop our minds floating in multiple directions as random thoughts assail us. While we are naturally able to concentrate to achieve a task (e.g. write a business plan, read a blog post, carry on a conversation), we have lost the art of single-minded focus owing to the level of distraction that surrounds us at any point in time. Jon Kabat-Zinn, for example, maintains that we are “perpetually self-distracting”.

Diana suggests that some simple meditation practices can cultivate our concentration, and through repetition, develop the capacity to maintain our concentration over longer periods of time. She drew on research conducted at UCLA that demonstrated that adolescents and adults with ADHD who persisted with meditation practice over eight weeks, improved their ability to maintain their focus, even when there were many things competing for their attention.

Meditation practices to cultivate concentration

  1. feeling the breath – concentrating on the act of breathing by focusing on where in your body you experience your breathing. For example, this could involve focusing on your breathing as you feel it in your nose, abdomen or chest. This requires focused attention on the breath, not attempting to control it.
  2. naming the act of breathing – here you concentrate on your breathing, and as you do so, describe what is happening, “breath in, breath out”, “chest rising, chest falling”. This focuses your mind on what is happening in your body as your breathe.
  3. counting your breaths – as you breathe, count each breath. Diana suggests that you count 1 to 10 and then begin again. Whenever, your mind wanders from counting your breaths, she encourages you to start your count again. As an alternative to the ten count, you can adopt the practice of counting to 50, as proposed in the “awareness-focus-loop” approach.
  4. using the gap – there is a natural gap between your “in” and “out” breath that you can focus on. As you complete each “in” and “out” breath, take your focus to a part of your body (e.g. your hands or feet) before you begin the next breath. This process can serve to reinforce that part of your body as an anchor for your mindfulness.

In each of these meditation exercises, it is important that you develop the capacity to return to your focus once a distracting thought intervenes. This strengthens your concentration power and increases your capacity to be mindful when undertaking any activity in your daily life.

We can grow in mindfulness by cultivating the power of our concentration through specifically targeted meditation practices that aim to develop the ability to sustain a single focus over an extended period of time. As our concentration power develops, our inner and outer awareness deepen and become richer and more life-enhancing.

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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.

Trees Can Help to Limit Your Stress

I have been fascinated by trees for a long time – amazed by their growth, their energy and their role in human ecology. At a metaphorical level, trees reflect the enigmas of human existence. Jill Suttie in her article, How Trees Help You to Stress Less, highlights the research that demonstrates the way trees can benefit us in terms of stress reduction.

The stress-reduction benefits of trees

  • Trees can reduce anxiety and depression and build positive traits such as enhanced energy levels. A research study, conducted in different areas of Japan and reported in 2018, showed that walking through a forest had greater positive effects than walking through city streets – the former environment serving to lower stress levels, elevate mood and generate more energy. The researchers concluded that forest environments would be an essential contributor to maintaining mental health in the future.
  • Dr. Qing Li promotes the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” as a way to reduce stress and blood pressure while strengthening the immune system. His promotion of immersion in the forest environment is designed as an antidote to what Richard Louv describes as “nature-deficit disorder” with its attendant negative effects of poor concentration, mental and physical illness and under-developed sensory perception. Richard argues that the intensification of city living and addiction to social media and mobile technologies, means that we are spending increasing amounts of our day alienated from nature and from the benefits of savouring trees in their natural environment.
  • A study conducted with Polish youths spending 15 minutes in “forest bathing” during a winter period showed, too, that the tree environment had significant positive “emotional, restorative and vitalizing effects” for those who participated in the study.

As we grow in mindfulness through exposure to trees and nature, we can experience reduction in stress, elevation of mood and improved energy levels. Meditating on trees can enhance the benefits of exposure to these natural sources of energy and life-giving oxygen. Reflecting on their shape, size and stature can increase our awareness of the enigmas of human existence.

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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 and Meditation for Elite Athletes

Patrick Chan used mindfulness to excel at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.  His first round performance for the team figure skating event was badly hampered by nerves and he did not score well.  However by talking to himself, confronting the expectations of his team and his own debilitating emotions, he was able to achieve the top score in his next round and help Canada win the Olympic Gold medal for the event.

Jon Kabat-Zinn taught meditation to the 1984 US Olympic rowing team – a team that went on to win 2 gold medals, 5 silver and 1 bronze.   Jon maintains that to get into the “zone” of peak performance on a regular basis you need to meditate to train yourself mentally.

Richmond Football Club – AFL Premiership Winners through Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation training helped Richmond win the 2017 AFL premiership.   The initiative started in 2015 with Dylan Grimes, Richmond defender, who was very frustrated and dissatisfied with his ability to maintain his performance at an elite level.  He read a number of books about mindfulness and how it could enhance performance.  In particular, he was impressed with the idea of achieving “flow” proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

People who experience flow in their endeavours achieve optimal performance, increase their creativity and experience real joy and happiness.   The Richmond Football Club engaged Emma Murray, high performance and mindfulness coach, to help all team members achieve their optimal level.  She was able to help players develop self-awareness, build focus and concentration and to help each other when one of the team was becoming distracted or unfocused.  She successfully established new norms such as individual players openly admitting the impact of their thoughts on their performance, sharing doubts and concerns and, overall, being vulnerable – a counter-cultural position.

Richmond players readily acknowledged the role of Emma’s teaching in mindfulness and meditation in helping them win the premiership.  For example, Dean Martin, winner of the Brownlow Medal, mentioned Emma’s contribution to Richmond’s performance after the game.

Konrad Marshall, author of A Season with Richmond: Yellow & Black, also provided a detailed description of Emma’s work with the football players and the effectiveness of her mindfulness and meditation approach.

NBA Athletes

Laura Chang in an article for mindfulnessmuse.com reminds us of the mindfulness practice of top NBA athletes who before the start of a game focus internally to “get into the zone” and build attention and concentration.  She suggests that we can all learn from these elite athletes to increase our own focus and productivity and proposes a mindfulness practice for improved performance.

Mindfulness Exercise for Improved Performance

Laura offers a 5-step mindfulness exercise that is designed to improve attention during physical activities.  The process, explained in detail in her article, is discussed in terms of the acronym, B.A.S.I.C. :

  • Body – body awareness
  • Arousal Level – notice the nature of your arousal
  • Self-Talk – what are you saying to yourself and what impact is it having on your performance?
  • Imagery – what images are you entertaining and do they reinforce excellent performance?
  • Concentration – notice the nature and quality of your concentration and focus and its impact on your performance.

This process is designed to enhance self-awareness and self-management and, in the process, build the capacity to maintain attention and focus at a high level.

As elite athletes grow in mindfulness they are better able to manage their negative thoughts and images, to maintain concentration and focus, to be creative and to achieve optimal performance.

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

Image source: courtesy of xusenru on Pixabay

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Developing Mindfulness through Playing Tennis

I have enjoyed playing tennis since I was about 10 years old. It is only recently that I have come to realise what an opportunity playing tennis represents in terms of developing mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness in the following words:

Mindfulness is awareness that grows through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.

Paying attention

With tennis, you learn to focus and concentrate on the tennis ball and to tune out other distractions – planes flying overhead on their approach to the airport, voices from other courts, the sound of tennis balls being hit on courts, near and far.

If you entertain distractions – stop paying attention – you lose concentration and invariably mishit the ball, or worse, miss the ball entirely.

In this day and age, with “disrupted attention” and the decline in our capacity to focus on a task, practicing paying full attention to a tennis ball is a great way (and enjoyable means for some) to redress that declining capacity.

On purpose

Well, even in social tennis which I play on a weekly basis, the purpose is to win the point or the game for yourself and your partner.  There are times when you are more mindful, the purpose is the sheer enjoyment of playing the game.

It is only when you lose something that you really appreciate having had it.  Many years ago, when my back collapsed and I could not walk, let alone play tennis, I began to really appreciate the opportunity to play when I was fit enough (18 months later).  So now I remind myself what a privilege it is to be able to run and hit the ball and just enjoy the act of playing tennis and its associated pleasures – the conviviality of other social players, the new relationships that are formed, and the sense of satisfaction from the exercise and demonstration of some aspect of skill and competence in the game of tennis.  This certainly develops a sense of gratitude.

In the present moment

Sometimes when you play tennis, you become very aware of your surroundings – the feel of the wind, the freshness of the air and the smells of flowering plants and trees and freshly cut grass, the sound of birds flying overhead or the laughter and enjoyment of others.

You are really in the present moment in terms of your external environment. At other times, your focus on the ball makes you really conscious of what is happening here and now.

There are times when I just marvel at my mind’s capacity, almost instantaneously, to read the spin and speed of the ball coming to me, to get my body into position to return the shot, to assess the balance and positioning of the opposing players and to determine and execute a responding tennis shot with the right spin, angle and speed – certainly an instance of unconscious competence and a cause for delight in the moment.

Non-judgementally

On the tennis court, as in life and work, we can experience negative thoughts and doubts, emotions that distract us from the task at hand and cause us to lose concentration and focus.  You might be undermining your confidence and competence by the thoughts that pass through your mind – “I’ve missed three returns in a row!”, “What will my partner think?”, “The other players seem to be so good, can I give them a decent game?”.

So, you have to learn to let these thoughts pass you by and not entertain them or they really negatively impact your game.  You gain self-awareness about your anxieties and concerns, your self-evaluation and your assumptions about others and their needs.

You also learn self-management in terms of not getting upset or “sounding off” (or, in the extreme, smashing your racquet), when you miss a shot or fall behind in a game.  You have to learn to control your emotions – disappointment, frustration or even anger – and to channel the negative energy to a more positive focus.

In my situation, where I am older than most of the other social tennis players, I have to learn to deal with the negative impact of their assumptions.  Some people who have not played against or with me before, assume that being older I am slower to the ball and not able to hit a decent shot, so they will not hit the ball to me because they think that I will “muck” up the rally.  Others, who have played with me or against me on a number of occasions (or who know that I played competitive A Grade tennis for years), will not hit the ball to me in a rally because they are concerned that I will hit the winning shot and finish the rally.  The net result is the same – I feel excluded from some rallies.  I have had to learn to stay focused, to enjoy the moment and stay uncritical about these assumptions and how they play out for me.

Being mindful

What served as a catalyst for this post, is a description of being mindful during tennis which was recorded in a novel, Purity, by Jonathan Franzen.  Purity, or Pip as she was called was having an extended hit of tennis with her hitting partner, Justin.  Franzen describes Pip’s mindful experience in these words:

Pip was in an absolute groove with her forehand…They had impossibly long rallies, back and forth, whack and whack, rallies so long that she was giggling with happiness by the end of them.  The sun went down, the air was deliciously cool, and they kept hitting.  The ball bouncing up in a low arc, her eyes latching on to it, being sure to see it, just see it, not think and her body doing the rest without being asked to.  That instant of connecting, the satisfaction of reversing the ball’s inertia, the sweetness of the sweet spot…she was experiencing perfect contentment.  Yes, a kind of heaven: long rallies on an autumn evening, the exercise of skill in light still good enough to hit by, the faithful pock of a tennis ball. (p.545)

Playing tennis can help us to grow in mindfulness if we maintain our attention and focus, be conscious of our purpose in playing, experience and enjoy the moment and learn to manage our own negative self-judging and associated emotions.  It is a great learning opportunity for mindful play and the development of skills that can transfer to other arenas of our lives.

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

Image source: courtesy of skeeze on Pixabay

Mindfulness for Leadership

In his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Daniel Goleman discussed Altered Traits: The Benefits of Mindfulness for Leadership and Emotional Intelligence.  In this discussion, he drew on research that he described with his co-author Richard Davidson in their new book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

Daniel is the author of a number of other books including, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

In talking about the impact of mindfulness on leadership capability, Daniel drew on a select number of research articles used within his last co-authored book.  These were articles that met the tests of rigorous research that he and Richard Davidson employed in their book.

He distinguished the results achieved for different levels of meditators – the beginners, the long-term meditators and the “Olympian” meditators (e.g. Buddhist monks and members of contemplative orders such as the Carmelite nuns and priests).

He contends from the associated research that the benefits of meditation deepen and broaden the longer and more frequently you engage in meditation practice.

However, beginner meditators can gain some benefits that positively impact leadership capability, whether directly or indirectly.

Some of these findings for beginner meditators are:

1. Ability to focus better

This outcome is the primary subject of his book, Focus.  Because meditation involves focusing your mind on a particular object, person or activity, it naturally builds the capacity to maintain attention and restore attention when a distracting thought occurs.  The resultant mental fitness is akin to physical fitness attained through exercise or gym work – instead of physical power or stamina, the meditator gains the power of concentration.

2. Better utilisation of working memory

Paying attention through meditation practice enhances short-term memory which enables better retention and utilisation of information, gained through perception, for the purpose of decision-making and guiding behaviour.

3. Handle stress better

Neuroscience shows that meditators are better able to handle stress because our automatic response via the amygdala is not triggered so readily and recovery is quicker – two elements that together determine resilience.

4.Growth in kindness and compassion

A well-established finding is that those who practice loving kindness/compassion meditation actually tune into others’ needs better and are more likely to help.  These benefits are relatively immediate and kindness and compassion are seen increasingly as traits that define successful leaders.

Long-term meditators achieve greater and more sustainable benefits such as increased concentration ability, enhanced capacity to pick up on emotional cues because they are more able to be present to the other person, greater calming effects (felt emotionally and experienced biologically) and a higher-level capacity that is described as meta-awareness (the ability to observe our own thoughts and feelings).

As we grow in mindfulness through regular and sustained practice of different forms of meditation, we are able to build our leadership skills and capability which we can employ in any arena of our lives – be it work, home or community.

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

Image source: courtesy of MemoryCatcher on Pixabay