Reflections on Personal Trauma  

In their book, What Happened to You?, Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey discuss sources of trauma and their impact on people’s lives.  Bruce draws on extensive research as a neuroscientist and years of clinical practice as a child psychologist.  Oprah explains that her insights are drawn from more than 50,000 interviews conducted over a lifetime of discussing trauma with people of all ages. 

I’ve been listening to the CD-Audio version of the book and it is quite fascinating to hear the interaction between the authors – Oprah and a world-famous brain and trauma expert – as they share personal stories and understanding about patterns in human behaviour catalysed by trauma.   The focus is not on “what’s wrong with you” but “what happened” for you.  After listening to the first few chapters focused on the biological, psychological and behavioural impacts of trauma, I thought it appropriate to share reflections on my own life stimulated by hearing the conversations between Bruce and Oprah. 

The conversations are very rich with personal stories, case studies and scientific insights (illustrated through very clear and cogently explained diagrams provided in PDF format).  They spontaneously stimulate personal recall and reflections and I have attempted to capture some of my insights about my personal experience in the following: 

Striving for balance 

Bruce and Oprah highlight the impact of trauma in creating a “distorted worldview” and throwing our overall stress response system “out of balance”.  This loss of balance results in “emotional dysregulation” and dysfunctional behaviour.  The stress response of a previously traumatised individual is “sensitive” to cues that are perceived as threatening and can lead to maladaptive behaviour because of distorted perception of the cue, e.g., a sound, sight, smell. 

I spent 18 months in an orphanage owing to my mother’s serious illness and my father’s posting overseas.  I was about four years old at the time and I recall that when I first left the orphanage I used to be terrified of the moon and adopted evasive behaviour – having not seen the moon before as a toddler.  My younger sister ran away from school in Year One because she was traumatised by the period that we spent in the orphanage separated from each other (boys and girls were kept apart).     

Oprah and Bruce make the point that we are continuously trying to seek balance in our life – we attempt to offset the pain of loneliness or the pain of fear by seeking “rewards”.  These rewards can take many forms but often lead to addiction – to drugs, alcohol, food, or aberrant behaviour.  The need-to-please is but one example of this ineffectual “seeking rewards” and I can identify that set of  behaviours in my early twenties.    

Bruce points out that the real rewards lie in realising our personal “rhythm” and achieving connectedness (and associated sense of belonging).  He maintains that each of us has a personal rhythm that is different for different individuals.  He mentions the response of a young child to behaviour designed to achieve a relaxing rhythm – we can relate to the child that needs to be hugged to “settle”, another that needs to be pushed in a pram, while a third child has to go for a drive in a car before they will settle (or alternatively, as I found with one of my young daughters, avoiding car trips and walking instead).   

Bruce suggests that each of us can increase our sense of calm and reduce agitation if we engage in activities that align with our personal rhythm – for me, that means engaging in the reflective activity of writing or walking, the smooth motion of Tai Chi or adopting a mindful approach to playing social tennis (through conscious breathing, visualisation, recall of personal competence in other settings and adopting an intentional mindset informed by reflection on my mistakes and behaviour during a game of tennis).   

Both Bruce and Oprah assert that we need a “healthy combination of rewards”, and that “personal connectedness” is the real reward that can offset the “pull of addictive behaviour”.  For both, connectedness in the form of “positive interaction with people” is not only rewarding but also assists with the development of emotional regulation (offsetting dysregulation).  I’ve found connectedness on a personal and professional level that has helped me to achieve a sense of balance and self-worth.   My current marriage (of 37 years) is especially affirming, and my professional relationships developed through my work in the action learning arena have countered any sense of isolation or negative thoughts of not contributing.   

Experience of being loved 

Both Oprah and Bruce argue that the way we were loved as children influences our capacity for love and the way we go about giving and receiving love.  A critical parent will beget a child who is sensitive to being criticised and yet be highly critical as a parent.   In their view, “safe and stable nurturing” is an essential environment for developing the capacity to love – the absence of such an environment can negatively impact our “regulatory network”, our neural development and biology, and lead to dysfunctional behaviour.  Oprah maintains that “dysfunction shows up in direct proportion to how you were or were not loved”.   Bruce argues that a pattern of love that is attentive, responsive and attuned creates predictability and develops resilience.   

My experience of being loved as I was growing up is very mixed.  I experienced unconditional love from my mother, while from my father my experience was one of disconnection and for the most part, disinterest.   While Oprah and Bruce discuss situations where an individual experiences genuine carer’s love in their early years and discuss, in-depth, the impacts of a lack of love, I have not yet encountered in their conversations a situation where the childhood experience of love is very mixed.   

My mother worked most of her life to keep the five of us fed and educated – at a time when the stay-at-home wife was the dominant role of women.  Her efforts were supported by food packages dropped off by volunteers of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  She desired the best for each of us and was warm and loving, always putting our needs before her own.  Oprah and Bruce highlight the positive impact of attentiveness to the needs of a child as a key to balanced personal development.    

In contrast, my father was absent for five years in my early childhood and when he returned (after fighting in World War 11 and being a member of the Occupation Forces in Japan), he became a violent alcoholic who frequently hurt my mother and made our life hell.  We often lived in fear as he was not only very strong but had been a very successful professional boxer. He created a fearful and unpredictable environment that left us all in a high state of arousal and anxiety.  His love was uncertain, punctuated as it was by periods of disinterest and angry outbursts.   I only understood years later that his “emotional dysregulation” was a result of his own traumas and PTSD (having been injured in the war by a bomb, captured and confined for three years in Changi prison in Singapore).  It is difficult to conceive of the horrors that he must have experienced and the flashbacks that tortured him.  

Bruce maintains that where a young child experiences unpredictable behaviour on the part of the caregiver, they can live in fear.  Besides the freeze/fight/flight pattern this can lead to dissociation – where we disengage from the external environment to focus on our inner world.  Bruce states that we each engage in dissociation when we allow our mind to wander or daydream.  It becomes a problem when this is a frequent behaviour or leads to an ever-deeper withdrawal.  My teachers used to write on my report card that I daydreamed excessively.  I can also recall times when I dissociated because the events that I was encountering were too fearful and/or conflicting for me to bear.  

Reflection 

I have experienced multiple traumas in my life and continuously seek to understand their impacts on my behaviour.  For instance, I find that I talk to women more easily than men (a residual effect of my ambiguous and unpredictable relationship with my father).  I also dislike elevators, preferring to walk up stairs – a result of being confined in an orphanage in my early years and being boarded in a convent in Grade 2, 100 kilometers from home and my parents.  Oprah and Bruce provide a very digestible way for each of us to explore the impact of trauma in our lives – and gain an understanding that can lead to behavioural change and genuine self-acceptance.  

I have found that as I grow in mindfulness through my research of trauma and practice of meditation and reflection, I have gained increasing self-awareness and emotional regulation.  It has helped me to experience calmness and develop resilience in my life.  

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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. 

Making a Difference by Spreading Kindness

Diana Winston from MARC, UCLA, offers a guided meditation podcast on “kindness” and she maintains that we can make a real difference in the world by spreading kindness at a time when there is so much local, national and international conflict.  Her loving kindness meditation cultivates mindfulness and a gratitude mindset for the practitioner and helps to diffuse anger and unkindness in the world.  We know from experience that if we extend a smile or thoughtfulness to another person, it is often reciprocated, just as abruptness and rudeness stimulates a reciprocal response.  Kindness is contagious and has a momentum of its own that leads to diffusion.

Diana reminds us that mindfulness involves being open and curious while accepting what is.  Openness extends to being thoughtful towards people we find “difficult” or who constantly annoy us.  Diana asserts, with conviction, that kindness is a natural property of the heart that we extend to others and also our pets.  Kindness in her words is “the desire for another person t be happy” and has a mental, emotional and behavioural aspect.  Mentally, it involves thinking kind thoughts and positive wishes for others; emotionally, it entails feeling kindly towards others and appreciating their uniqueness; and behaviourally, it means engaging in “acts of kindness”. 

Diana’s guided meditation focuses on “radiating loving kindness” through our thoughts and emotions and involves creative visualisation, the use of imagery.  She argues that kindness is inherent in mindfulness practice because it involves being willing to show up, to accept what is (including individual differences) and acknowledge connectedness to everybody and everything.  In her experience, not everyone will warm to this form of meditation as it involves visualising a “lake of kindness” .  However, for people who are not particularly visual, she offers the suggestion to focus on the positive thoughts and emotions behind the process. 

Guided meditation

Diana begins the meditation in the usual way encouraging us to adopt a relaxed and comfortable posture and to take a number of deep breaths to enable us to relax and focus on the mindfulness activity.  One of the aims of mindfulness mediation is to really focus on the present moment, avoiding obsessing about the past or becoming preoccupied with planning future activity (my main source of distraction!).  Diana moves onto encouraging us to focus on our own breathing in an accepting, non-controlling way. She suggests that our focus can be on the up and down movement of our abdomen or chest or the in and out flow of air through our nose.  She follows this activity with a focus on the sounds in the room or external environment, again just being open to what is sounding not trying to identify the source or interpret the meaning.   Diana suggests that if we become distracted (everyone does, even the mindfulness experts like Diana), we can re-focus on one of the anchors mentioned, e.g. our breathing or sounds.

Diana begins the visualisation process after about five minutes of silent meditation.  She encourages us to visualise walking with a companion (someone we admire or a close friend) beside a scintillating blue lake, whose radiance touches everything around it.  She calls this the “lake of kindness”.  After a short while, we enter the inviting waters with our companion, experiencing sensations of gentleness, warmth and immersiveness of the “kindness waters” – sensations that elicit feelings associated with kindness.  Now, we imagine our friends, who are on the bank of the lake, joining us in the water so that they too are immersed in kindness as the lake expands through displacement.

The challenging part of the guided meditation is envisaging other people, who we are not positive about, joining us in the “lake of kindness” – dissolving to some extent our reticence to be with them and encouraging us to extend kindness to them.  We are then all enveloped in the “kindness waters”.   We can then envisage the kindness waters moving into the ocean; up the rivers of villages, towns and cities; and extending to all the waterways of the world thus “suffusing the world with kindness”.

Reflection

Kindness is natural but we become absorbed in our thoughts, negative emotions, stereotypes and sense of superiority – thus precluding us from radiating warmth and kindness to others.  It behoves us to reflect on times when we have omitted to show kindness and to consciously undertake acts of kindness, such as sharing a meal with someone who usually eats alone.  We can genuinely make a difference in the lives of individuals and everyone we come in contact with, if we approach them with kindness in our heart, even through the simple act of smiling or sharing a book.

As we grow in mindfulness and kindness through loving kindness meditation, we can make a real difference in our own lives and spread kindness in the world.  For example, you often see people who have been given the opportunity to enter a line of traffic, extend this kindness to someone else further along the road.

Mindfulness meditations help us to reflect on our words and actions and their impact and reminds us that we are all connected as we share the fragility and vulnerability of the human condition.  It is a useful practice to reflect at the end of each day and think about our “acts of kindness” as well as when we overlooked an opportunity to be kind to someone.

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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.

The Essence of Happiness and How to Be Happy

In a culminating dialogue during the Science and Wisdom of Emotions Summit, the Dalai Lama, Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman focused on the nature of happiness and how to be happy in our day to day lives despite the turbulent waves that we may encounter.  The Dalai Lama maintained that genuine happiness is closely linked to our mental state.  Outside events such as the pandemic, employment situation and political upheaval can affect us but not to the same degree as our minds.  We have the capacity to train our minds so that we reduce “destructive emotions” and cultivate constructive/positive emotions.

The impact of destructive emotions

The Dalai Lama spoke of destructive emotions as emotions that harm others or ourselves. They distort our perception of reality and of other people, leading to fractured relationships and unhappiness.  The most destructive emotions are those of anger and hatred.  Anger, according to the Dalai Lama “robs us of discernment” – because of our distorted perception and emotional inflammation, we are unable to initiate an appropriate response or undertake “wise action

Destructive emotions unsettle our peace of mind and destroy our equilibrium and sense of ease and tranquility.  It destabilises us so that we are unable to think clearly or act skilfully.  Resentment, for example, that feeds anger can have its foundation in misperception – not understanding what is happening for the other person or what they intended by their words and/or actions.  We can be so preoccupied with our own perceived hurt, that we do not recognise the needs of another.  We can end up with a one-track mind, replaying hurtful incidents and fuelling our anger and unhappiness.

The Dalia Lama explained that we have “Three Doors of Action” – speech, body, and mind.  We interact with others and the world at large through these three doors.  While the mind is preeminent, what we say and how we present ourselves to the world also affect the balance of happiness and unhappiness in our life.  Even if our words do not disclose our anger our non-verbal behaviour – such as abruptness, avoidance, or ignoring someone – can betray how we really feel.

The impact of positive emotions

Positive emotions derive from understanding our connectedness to every living thing, especially to other people wherever they are in the world.   It means seeing the dignity in every person no matter their beliefs or their actions.  The Dalai Lama suggests that when we experience righteous anger over some injustice, acting out that anger through aggression does not respect the inherent goodness and dignity of the other person(s).  It only aggravates the situation and leads to a negative cycle of destructive relationships.

He maintains that it is possible and desirable to approach such unjust situations with curiosity and a desire to understand the perspective of the other person, even when you strongly disagree with them.  Compassion demands that we recognise that the other person may be acting out of ignorance, inherited bias or past hurt. 

Positive emotions lead to harmonious relationships and happiness.  They enable us to exercise “patience and forbearance” and to experience joy in our life. If we are considerate and empathetic, we not only help others we also help ourselves.  Positive emotions are “grounded in reason” and understanding of our connectedness to everyone, which is increasingly the case in the world today.   Destructive emotions, on the other hand, are not grounded in reason and can lead to reactivity and ill-considered responses.

Reflection

We can create or destroy our happiness by our words and actions.  If we operate as if our happiness depends solely on ourselves, what we can acquire and how we can control situations and other people, we will find that unhappiness is a constant state for us.  On the other hand, if we grow in mindfulness through regular mindfulness practices, we can experience “emotional hygiene” and realise genuine happiness.  We can identify when we are emotionally out of balance, have sufficient self-awareness to identify what is happening for us and be in a better position to act skilfully, rather than reactively and injuriously.

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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.

A Meditation: Valuing the Environment

Diana Winston of MARC, UCLA presented a guided meditation podcast, Earth Day Meditation, to celebrate the environment.  Her meditation podcast on Earth Day, April 22 2021, focused on appreciating and valuing the environment through our reflections and actions.  She reminded us that mindfulness involves present moment awareness which is often stimulated by nature when we go for a walk in a rainforest, swim in the ocean, spend time near a river or just enjoy our garden – the trees, plants, fresh air and sounds of birds.   Mindfulness is enhanced when we develop a sense of wonder and awe in the presence of the beauty of nature.

At one stage in the meditation, Diana asks us to remember the indigenous people who, through their stewardship of the land, preserved what we have to share and experience today.  Wynnum in Brisbane, the area in which I live, was named by the local Aboriginal people after the Pandanus Palm or breadfruit tree.  The local islands, such as Stradbroke Island, have a rich history of Aboriginal life, closeness to nature and caring for the land and bay.  Stradbroke Island is one of my favourite places to visit and relax in its relatively undeveloped beauty.  Part of valuing our environment is exploring our local environment history with openness and curiosity.

A guided meditation on the environment

Diana presents a guided meditation focused on the earth and its amazing features and places.  She suggests at the outset that we become grounded and pay attention to the sensations in our feet.  We might be experiencing tingling, warmth, heaviness, or other sensation.  By paying attention to our bodily sensations, particularly in our feet, we can experience a deepening connection to the earth.  We can feel the earth’s physical support which enables us to experience the richness of our life and our environment.

Meditating on place

Diana suggests later in the meditation that we focus on a place that is special to us, that engenders positive feelings.  We first picture the place and its physical characteristics – the terrain, bird and animal life, significant features, the presence or absence of water.  Moving on from capturing the physical aspects of the place that we are paying attention to in our minds, we are asked to capture some of the feelings that this place generates in us.

I found at this stage of the meditation that I focused on our local environment and particularly the Esplanade along the bay where I often walk with my wife.  I was able to experience wonder and awe, peace and ease,  relaxation and happiness as I pictured myself walking in company along the bayside paths through the trees, adjacent to the marina.  I recall the dolphins I saw in the marina and their playful nature.  I also felt a sense of connectedness to nature and people as I pictured the natural beauty of the place and people strolling happily along with their dogs, their children, and partners or by themselves.  I also felt energised by the images as I mentally explored my immediate environment and felt the energy that surrounded me both in nature itself and the people enjoying the bayside walk.

Reflection

This meditation enriched my appreciation of the environment that I have to experience daily.  It made me more aware of the richness of what surrounds me and the connection that I have to others who actively seek out the beauty of our bayside environment.  Diana asks us, in the spirit of Earth Day, to commit to one or more micro-gestures to care for our environment as we experience our sense of gratitude.

We often take our environment for granted but it will deteriorate if we do not value it and actively care for it. As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on our natural environment and all that it offers in terms of healing, tranquility, and connection, we can become more grateful for what we have at our doorstep and commit to caring for it.

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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.

Creating a Personal Transformation: Reframing Your Life

Tina Turner argues in her book, Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good,  that a transformation or total revolution of mind and heart takes considerable energy and courage.  It is clear that her own transformation was powered by the vibrational energy of her chanting.  What is not so clear is  that she was able to reframe her life through the insight and mindset gained through her research of Buddhism, particularly Nichiren Buddhism.

Tina asserted that if we never challenge our comfort zone or have it challenged through our life circumstances, we will not be able to realise our potential.  In her view, in challenge there is real learning and strength – a mindset that sees challenges as opportunities for insight, growth and development of resilience.

Tina challenged her own comfort zone by working with songs that she initially did not like and searching for some meaning in them that she could explore and express.  One such song, What’s Love Got to Do With It, became an international hit – like many other successful songs that she initially did not like, but pushed past her initial reaction to challenge herself.   

And so it is with us, if we hold back or procrastinate, we can deprive ourself of realising some element of our potential and our capacity to help others.  Our example alone of pushing through the comfort barrier can assist others who are struggling to achieve something important in their lives.  Tina argues that we can’t wait until we are fully confident of success (with no chance of failure) before we act – life is too short for such procrastination.

Our inherent connectedness

Tina maintains that an essential element in the growth of consciousness is the realisation, both conceptually and energetically, that we are connected to every other person and every living thing through our reliance on and contribution to the flow of universal energy.  She quotes Matin Luther King Jr. who puts this reality very simply by saying that we all belong to an “inescapable network of mutuality”. 

Tina points out that in this interconnected reality, there is no room for racism, ageism, sexism, or any other divisive discrimination.  In her view, we are like the dots in a Pointillism painting where coloured dots form a pattern that the eye can discern as an integrated image. Georges Seurat, an early proponent of this approach, maintains that “unifying diverse colors in this way made his art more brilliant”.  Tina used this analogy to express our interconnectedness because it “honours each colour, each dot, its distinct characteristics”. 

Tina was very conscious that every person has “great worth” and “inherent potential” that can be progressively released over a lifetime (as she has shown in her own life).  Recognition of the rich tapestry of difference makes our world an absorbing place to be.  This diversity of perspectives throws light on the unfathomable depth of our inner landscape, the pervasiveness of energy and its many forms and the infinite reach of our universe – undeniable grounds for wonder and awe

In acknowledgement of our inherent connectedness, many Nichiren Buddhists, in this day and age, have engagement and social activism “as a vital part of their practice”.  This is particularly true of Tina who has co-founded and contributed to the Beyond Music Project designed to “celebrate unity in its cultural diversity” through music.

Nichiren Buddhism and science

In her book, Tina explains how she developed her understanding of, and commitment to, Nichiren Buddhism.  She does not attempt to explain the science of Buddhism nor the neuroscience confirmation of its benefits but describes how it has transformed her heart and mind and underpinned her success in life.  

However, Susanne Matsudo-Killani and Yukio Matsudo, in their book, Transform your Energy – Change your life! : Nichiren Buddhism 3.0, draw on the metaphorical language of Nichiren to explore the links between his approach and that of quantum physics and bio-feedback which effectively “integrate energy and consciousness” in their explanations of nature and human reality.  As scientists begin to explore Meditation, Buddhism and Science, they are beginning to realise that these different worldviews are complementary and enrich each other.

Reflection

Tina has demonstrated that if we push our perceived personal boundaries, we can realise higher levels of awareness, consciousness, and achievement – we can actualize our hidden potential.  Buddhist practices enable us to tap into the universal energy that is within and around us. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, chanting and exploration of different worldviews, we can open our horizons, transform our hearts and minds, and make a real difference in our world.

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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: A Pathway to Wisdom

Recently Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Dr. Dilip Jeste, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, on the theme of wisdom and how to be wiser, faster.  Dilip’s research interests are aging and the neurobiological basis of wisdom.   His exploration of wisdom and the related personality trait of compassion is presented in his book, Wiser: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good.

During the podcast interview, Dilip focused on his obvious passion, the neurobiological basis of wisdom.  While stating that the research is in the early stages in terms of completeness and application, he did suggest that people who are wise are guided by the neocortex part of their brain (our logical, analytical capacity), while those who are unwise are more driven by their amygdala (responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response).

In the interview, Dilip explained that to undertake research into wisdom he had to first establish the measurable components of wisdom.  His research led him to identify the common elements in multiple published definitions of wisdom in scientific journals.  This enabled him to isolate six of the more commonly used components of wisdom.  What I wanted to do here is explore how mindfulness can help to develop each of these components – thus serving as a pathway to wisdom.  By way of corollary, I would suggest that the  journey towards mindfulness is a journey into wisdom and its many components.

Mindfulness and the components of wisdom

Dilip made the point that wisdom is not a single trait but a collection of of traits – like the personality trait of emotional intelligence, it has several components.  In the section below, I will explore the relationship between mindfulness and each of the six components of wisdom identified by Dilip.

  1. Self-reflection – this covers the ability to explore your inner landscape and analyse your behaviour in terms of responses to stimuli.   There are many mindfulness practices that cultivate this capacity, especially those that encourage exploration of thought patterns, including harmful negative self-stories.  Another example is the process of reducing resentment through reflection that I described in detail in an earlier post.  Additionally, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a highly developed mindfulness approach designed to guide self-reflection.  Dr. Russ Harris, a prominent practitioner and proponent of this approach, has made ACT accessible to individuals who are experiencing self-doubts and negative self-evaluation.  His humorous illustrated book, The Happiness Trap Pocketbook, provides a range of exercises that makes self-reflection accessible to anybody.  
  2. Prosocial behaviour – where the focus of attention is on the needs of others rather than being totally self-absorbed.  This component of wisdom is manifested in displaying empathy and/or taking compassionate action.   Listening mindfully to the stories of others can be a form of compassionate action.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware  of how our mindfulness positively impacts others, leading to a realisation that we are also engaging in mindfulness for others.  Loving-kindness meditation is another form of mindfulness practice that enables us to reach out to the needs of others.   More recently compassionate leadership has emerged as a prominent trend in leadership development, driven by the global pervasiveness of mindfulness practices.
  3. Emotional regulation – being able to control your emotions.  One of the more consistent outcomes identified in mindfulness research is self-regulation.  In their book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson highlighted the traits that are altered and sustained through meditation practices.   These included not only self-awareness and social awareness (leading to empathy and compassion)  but also what they call “self-management” (another term for emotional regulation).  Mindfulness practice can help us overcome our habituated behaviour and our typical response to negative stimuli. 
  4. Acceptance – being able to cope with uncertainty, ambiguity, and differing perspectives.  Acceptance according to some schools is a defining characteristic of mindfulness, e.g. Diana Winston in her meditation podcasts for MARC UCLA explains that mindfulness involves “paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is”.  Mindfulness meditation has been used to reduce anxiety in times of uncertainty.  Through mindfulness practice we can also unearth assumptions about differences in perspectives that create walls between us and other people we encounter in our daily lives.
  5. Decisiveness – making decisions despite uncertainties and adversity.  Mindfulness meditation can help us to address procrastination.  It can also improve our decision-making capacity by highlighting the thoughts and emotions behind our decision-making,   exposing our negative thoughts and helping us to maintain focus and achieve clarity.  The Mindful Nation UK report states that one of the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace is “improved comprehension and decision-making”.
  6. Spirituality – defined as “continuous connectedness” with something or someone.  The focus of connection could be the Bhagavad Gita, Buddha, God, nature, or soul.  Connectedness to nature and other people can be enhanced through mindfulness meditation.  Allyson Pimentel offers a mindfulness meditation designed to overcome the sense of separateness and strengthen connectedness.  Christine Jackman, in her book Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World, offers the view of a Benedictine monk that prayer itself is a form of meditation – by praying you are connecting with God or some other deity through mindfulness (p.72).

Reflection

This discussion highlights some of the ways that mindfulness can provide a pathway to wisdom – approaches to developing the components of wisdom.  As we explore each of these components within our mindfulness practice, we can move closer to wisdom.  We could focus on a single component to overcome a deficiency – e.g. Dilip stated that he was working on strengthening his “prosocial behaviour”, specifically compassion.  Alternatively, we can aim to grow in mindfulness and wisdom more broadly by adopting different mindfulness practices.  The research by Davidson and Goleman confirm that mindfulness meditation can alter our brains, our minds, and our bodies.

Dilip’s research confirmed that some people grow in wisdom with age through the recently identified facility of neuroplasticity.  He maintained that people who are active as they age – combined with an openness to new experiences and making changes in their life – can grow in wisdom.  In speaking of activity in this context, he referred to being “active physically, psychologically, socially, and cognitively”.  As we use different forms of mindfulness practices – e.g. mindful walking, mindful listening, mantra meditations, Tai Chi or yoga, journalling, loving-kindness meditation and mindfulness  research – we can increase our level of activity across the dimensions that Dilip identified.

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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.

Developing Compassionate Leadership through Mindfulness


The concept of “Compassionate Leadership” has its foundations in the global mindfulness movement.  One example of this foundation is the book by Amanda Sinclair, Leading Mindfully.  She has a chapter on Bringing Love and Compassion into Leadership in this very readable and eminently practical book.  In this chapter she draws on the example of Paul Roos, who coached Sydney Swans to their first AFL premiership.   

The emergence of compassionate leadership

LinkedIn published an article in 2014 on the benefits of compassionate leadership and the traits of compassionate leaders.  In 2017, Forbes produced an article on Compassionate Leadership: A Mindful Call to Lead from Both the Head and the Heart which tracks why compassionate leadership has evolved to its prominence today.  The article recognises the seminal work of Google in developing mindful leadership through The Search Inside Yourself Program which is now available world-wide through the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute.  The program was initially conducted over seven weeks in Google and is now offered globally as a two-day mindful leadership course covering mindfulness, emotional intelligence, neuroscience, and compassion.

The currency of the compassionate leadership approach has been reinforced by Forbes.  In January 2020, Forbes published an article, How to be a more compassionate leader (and why it’s so important), which provides some practical steps to develop compassionate leadership including compassionate listening and helping to make other people’s lives better.   

Developing compassionate leadership through mindfulness

In October 2020, Forbes published another article which recommends mindfulness practice as a way to develop Compassionate Leadership.  The author, Laurel Donnellan, drew on the work of Darrell Jones, General Manager of Chill.  Darrell recommends three basic elements – focus on inner transformation, value quality of mindfulness practice (however brief) over quantity (and the related “shoulds”) and find refuge in your practice whatever form it takes (e.g. meditation, Tai Chi, mindful reading or prayer) in challenging times, especially in times of grief.  Darrell also suggests that we focus on “togethering” – putting our connectedness before our separateness.  One way to do this is to consciously practise “compassionate listening” to those who have a different perspective or cultural background, seeking to create conversations that are inclusive.

During the Radical Compassion Challenge, both Jon Kabat-Zinn and Tara Brach reinforced the need for mindful listening to personal stories as a stimulus to compassionate action and highlighted mindfulness practice as a way to remove the blockages (such as fear of failure or unrealistic assumptions) to taking kindness-inspired action.

Chade-Meng Tan, author of Search Inside Yourself and founder of the Google program of the same name, stressed the role of mindfulness in developing personal insight, compassionate action, and the capacity to inspire others.  His personal vision is to contribute to world peace through the development of compassionate leadership globally and he views mindfulness as the pathway to achieve this goal. 

Many mindfulness practitioners and researchers see self-compassion, developed through mindfulness, as a source of insight and motivation for compassionate leadership.  Tara Brach, for instance, argues that mindfulness can help us to overcome negative self-evaluation, sensitize us to the needs and hurt of others and free us up for compassionate action.  Pema Chödrön maintains that “compassionate abiding” in our own pain and suffering as a form of mindful self-compassion builds resilience and acts as a doorway to compassion for others.  Kristin Neff, author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, maintains that self-compassion is not self-pity or self-indulgence but helps us to understand our connectedness to others through sharing the human condition of pain and suffering. 

Reflection

Mindfulness helps us overcome self-absorption, our sense of separateness, negative self-narratives and resentment and, in the process enables us to see more clearly our connectedness, identify our capacity to helps others and to find the courage and creativity to put our compassionate ideas into action.   As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection, and mindfulness practices, we build our capacity for compassionate leadership that not only enables us to take compassionate action but also inspires others to do likewise.

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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.

Developing Wisdom Through Meditation

In a recent interview for Mindful.org, Sharon Salzberg discussed The Power of Loving Kindness.  In the course of the interview, Sharon identified different ways that meditation can develop wisdom – the ability to make insightful judgments and sensible decisions based on our knowledge and experience.  Her wide-ranging conversation focused on a number of key insights that can help us to inform our judgements and guide our decision making.

Elements of wisdom developed through meditation

In her interview, Sharon shared several key insights into the way meditation can contribute to the development of wisdom:

  • Learning to accept what you can’t control – the starting point to develop wisdom is to acknowledge that many things are outside our control and to accept this fact despite our innate need for control.  Wasting energy and negative emotion on things outside our control only debilitates us and leaves us open to frustration and depression.
  • Realising that no matter the situation, you have agency – you can exercise agency (your capacity to act to have control over your inner landscape and over some elements of your external environment).   Viktor Frankl, author of Yes to Life in Spite of Everything, demonstrated control over his inner landscape during his internment in a concentration camp.  There is always something that you can do externally as well – you just need the space and time to be open to this possibility.  Even in this time of the global pandemic, people and organisations are finding creative ways to take action to exercise control over some elements of their life and work.  Wisdom recognises that you don’t need to feel entirely powerless.  As Sharon points out, “It’s an illusion to think that we are without any agency in our lives, any ability to act”.
  • Learning to use the gap that is available between stimulus and response – you can become convinced that your conditioned way of responding is the only way for you to react to a negative stimulus.  As Viktor Frankl maintains there is a gap between stimulus and response and therein lies your freedom to choose your action (“considered action” rather than reaction).  Meditation develops self-awareness, especially in relation to the negative stimuli that activate your fight/flight/freeze responses.  Meditation also builds self-regulation so that you can choose your response rather than be conditioned by your past experiences and habituated way of reacting.
  • There is a unique way for you to help others – you have a combination of life experiences, skills, personal attributes and knowledge/understanding that is different to anyone else.  Instead of trying to live up to others’ expectations, you can find a personal way to help through meditation and reflection – you can exercise sound judgment and creative decision making in relation to your potential contribution.  Sharon reinforces this when she suggests that you can “pay attention and look and listen for opportunities to help” that are in line with your capabilities and the challenges of the situation you are faced with.
  • Dealing effectively with difficult emotions – being with these emotions in all their pain and intensity instead of avoiding them and acting in a dysfunctional and hurtful way.  Feeling difficult emotions in your body and naming them in a granular way (e.g. anxiety, fear, shame) enables you to tame them and to convert negative energy into constructive action.
  • Appreciating moments of wellness and joy – it takes awareness in the moment to appreciate your experiences of beauty, joy and love.  Gratitude for these experiences enhances their impact on your overall wellbeing. Also, as Sharon maintains in her recent book, loving-kindness meditation is a revolutionary way to happiness.
  • Developing your sense of connectedness – when you experience wellness or complex emotions or become immersed in nature through meditation and reflection, you heighten your sense of connectedness to everyone else who is experiencing this range of human emotions and to every living thing.  Sharon notes that connectedness is the very fabric of life and if you treat yourself as separate, you are “fighting that reality”.  Loving-kindness meditation is a very effective way to reinforce and manifest our connectedness to others.

Reflection

It pays to think about, and experience, how meditation develops sound judgement and enables sensible decisions.  We so often relate meditation to rest and relaxation and overlook its power to facilitate effective action in a wide range of situations.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, our awareness of what is and what’s possible develops, our ability to manage ourselves (thoughts, emotions and actions) increases and our enhanced sense of connectedness becomes an inner source of energy and empowerment.

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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.

Don’t Wait to Forgive

In his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses in depth his first lesson, Don’t Wait, learned from many years of working with the process of dying and death.  He witnessed so many people dying while consumed by hatred, resentment, rage and anger.  He also gives examples of others who were able to offer profound forgiveness on their deathbed.  He urges us not to wait until we are dying to embrace forgiveness for ourselves and others.  He contends that all forgiveness is ultimately self-forgiveness and is hugely beneficial for us – mentally, physically and emotionally.

Resistance to forgiveness

Frank talks about our natural resistance to forgiveness – a form of self-protection, protecting our sense of right and wrong and our elevated sense of who we are.  To forgive is to acknowledge difficult emotions such as anger, regret and resentment.  We tend to run away from these feelings because they cause us pain.  However, the cost and pain of carrying resentment all our lives are far greater than the pain of facing up to those parts of ourselves we are embarrassed by or unwilling to acknowledge. 

We each have an area of darkness that we don’t like to shine a light on.  Recalling events also brings to mind and body, the recollection and re-experiencing of hurt – hurt from other’s words and actions, and also hurt and regret we feel for things that we have said and done that were hurtful towards other.   Facing up to the depth of our difficult emotions is critical for forgiveness and mental health.

Anger and resentment can consume us, constrict our capacity to express kindness and love towards others, even those in close relationships with us.  We can find ourselves constantly playing over events in our head as well as in our conversations, our hurt and resentment growing with each retelling.  Ultimately, forgiveness involves letting go – releasing ourselves from the sustained constriction of negative emotions and giving up others as objects of our resentment.  If we do not forgive others and our self, our difficult emotions find expression in self-defeating ways, including manifesting our anger in such a way that another innocent party is hurt by our outburst or abusive behaviour.

Frank points out that forgiveness does not mean to totally forget an event that was hurtful or condone the actions of another person that were unjust, hateful or revengeful   It does not require reconciliation – sharing your forgiveness with the other person.  It is an internal act encompassing mind, body and heart.  When we overcome the resistance to forgiveness, we open ourselves to kindness and love.

The long journey of forgiveness

As they say, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – forgiveness is a life-time pursuit, not something to begin at the end of life.  Frank recalls his own anger, rage and resentment towards a Colonel in a country at war, when the Colonel refused to assist a five-year old boy who eventually died a very painful death without the medical support the Colonel could have provided.  Frank points out that these complex emotions consumed him and sometimes found expression in his rage.  However, he instituted a daily ritual which, after many years, enabled him to let go of these emotions and find the freedom to forgive and love again.

Frank encourages us to start along the path of forgiveness by first taking on relatively small issues/events in our life, not the big all-consuming hatred or resentment.  He suggests even practicing with small annoyances such as being cut off by someone in traffic or having someone leave a wet towel lying on the bed.  You can progressively build up to dealing with the big issues/areas of resentment and anger.  The process of incorporating forgiveness meditation into your mindfulness practices can be a way to begin and to progress the long journey of forgiveness.

Forgiveness requires absolute  honesty (not projecting an image of ourselves as “perfect”), acknowledgement of our own part in a hurtful interaction, understanding of what is influencing the other person’s behaviour, recognition of our connectedness to everyone and a willingness to face up to, and fully experience, what we don’t like in our selves.   Frank’s strong exhortation is, “Don’t Wait!” until it is too late – until our deathbed when we could be consumed with anger, guilt, regret or rage.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through forgiveness meditation, mindfulness practices and honest reflection, we can more readily recognise when we need to forgive and the hurtfulness that we cause by our words and actions.  We can progressively face up to our “dark side” and our difficult emotions that are harmful to ourselves and others.  We can also bear the pain of naming these feelings and really experiencing their depth, distortion of reality and self-destructive nature.   Forgiveness builds our freedom to express kindness and appreciation and to love openly.

Frank maintains that the foundation for true forgiveness is learning to forgive ourselves with “compassion and mercy” – this is, in itself, a difficult journey and, ideally, a life-time pursuit.

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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.