Pathways to Gratitude and Joy

Neuroscience research has demonstrated that gratitude is a source of wellness and joy if we choose to practise it on a regular basis.  Louie Schwartzberg in his latest film, Gratitude Revealed, identifies a number of pathways that can develop gratitude and appreciation in our lives and lead to health, happiness and lasting joy.  Louie – time-lapse photographer, director and producer – takes us on a journey through nature, the eyes of children and lives of insightful people.  He comments in a subsequent panel Q & A video that the Gratitude Revealed film contains many wise “one-liners” from inspiring people as well as some stunning cinematography.  The music for the film is provided by Lisbeth Scott – singer, songwriter and composer – who Louie interviewed as part of his podcast series.

Pathways to gratitude

Throughout Gratitude Revealed Louie explores different pathways to gratitude with his guests and provides illuminating comments about each pathway, some of which I explore in the following:

  • Curiosity – is a basic human attribute that leads us to explore the world around us, the people in our lives and the concepts we encounter in our reading, discussions and games.  How often have we seen a toddler pick up a leaf or a stone and examine it, look underneath some branches to see what lies beneath, gaze into pools of water at the seaside to see if there are any living creatures there, or feel the texture of the grass or the ground to judge its softness or hardness?   Unfortunately, as we grow older we can lose the art of being inquisitive and curious about things.  However, if we can cultivate curiosity, we open ourselves to marvel at the intricacies of things in our environment, the power of our subconscious, the expansiveness of knowledge and the inexhaustible complexity of the human body (including the emerging understanding of the “brain-gut connection” and the heart’s intelligence).   Curiosity leads us to explore the ineffable, to seek to understand the mystery of life and to explore relationships with people we encounter.  Ultimately, curiosity leads us to appreciate what is and to be grateful for our discoveries as well as our capacity for exploration.  Albert Einstein was a strong advocate for curiosity and acknowledged that it lay at the root of his knowledge and wisdom – “The important thing is to never stop questioning. Never lose a holy curiosity”.
  • Nature – is a source of wonder and awe which leads us to be grateful that we can perceive its beauty, complexity and interconnectedness through our five senses – what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes in his book, Coming to Our Senses, as our sightscape, soundscape, touchscape, smellscape, and tastescape.   Louie encourages us to develop an intimate relationship with nature because nature, and nature imagery, can be incredibly healing and can develop a deep appreciation and gratitude for our interconnectedness and interdependence.  Louie’s Wonder and Awe Podcastexplores the intersection of science and art (the “why” of art and the ”how” of science).  There are multiple ways to engage with nature including gardening, walking in a rainforest or on a beach and mindful photography – we just have to form the intention to make the most of our natural environment that surrounds us daily.
  • Music – cultivates wonder and awe, healing and creativity. Louie highlighted the power of music to transport us beyond the present moment concerns and anxieties and to still the mind.  Music taps into our positive emotions and stimulates gratitude for the beauty, variety and nuances of sound.  Sound therapy can heal us from trauma and depression and help us to appreciate what we have that is positive in our lives.  Mantra meditations can promote calm, peace and stillness of mind and, in the process, open our hearts and minds to the power and energy of the present moment.  Music deepens our spirit and helps us to value our lives while expressing gratitude for all that we have.
  • Mindfulness – by definition, it involves being fully in the present moment and paying attention to something or someone with openness, curiosity and acceptance of what is.  Michael Beckwith reminds us in the movie that we should be “grateful for the challenges in our life” because they help us to realise our potential and develop resilience.  Louie suggests that mindfulness “is being present like the film itself” – open to wonder and able to “relish the mysteries of life” that are revealed by paying focused attention in the “now”.

Reflection

None of the pathways I discussed above are discrete – they are overlapping, reinforcing and compounding in nature.  Together, these pathways engender appreciation and gratitude and stimulate happiness and joy.  Louie and his presenters on Gratitude Revealed  highlight the fact that “busyness” in our lives can create a block to gratitude and blind us to what is happening within and around us.  In contrast, gratitude blocks out envy and self-absorption.  As Louie comments, “Focusing on what we do have, leaves little in your heart for what we don’t have”.

In the film, Brother David Steindl-Rast, developer of gratefulness.org, distinguishes between appreciation and gratitude.   He states that appreciation is an in-the-moment experience while gratitude is “what we remember that opens our hearts”.   Interestingly,  when I am playing tennis, I often internally express appreciation for being able to participate and play a good shot or two.  However, after watching Gratitude Revealed, I experienced a real sense of gratitude based on my memory of all the events and experiences that enable me to play social tennis at the age of 76. 

In particular, I am grateful for:

  • the opportunity to be coached in my teens by a tennis player who had been selected for the Australian Davis Cup Team
  • having practised tennis drills and played games of tennis with my brothers and my niece
  • having played competitive tennis over 5 years with a team drawn from members of my extended family
  • being trained as a sprinter in a GPS school (improved my capacity to move around the tennis court)
  • the opportunity to play tennis for my school, for Brisbane ((against Gympie) and for the Queensland Tax Office (in the annual Taxation Intestate Tennis Carnivals)
  • being able to play social tennis with a closed group of six quality players over a period in excess of 10 years
  • the opportunity to play tennis on different surfaces including bitumen, ant-bed, grass, clay and flexipave
  • being able to play socially in Port Moresby, Auckland, Lake Annecy (France) and Boroughbridge (Yorkshire, UK)
  • developing a wide range of shots through tennis coaching, practice and competitions, e.g., slice, topspin, back spin, under spin, side spin (out-swinger & in-swinger), volley, one-handed and two-handed backhand, half volley, drive volley, drop shot, lob, smash and, recently, half-volley drop shot
  • being able to play social tennis with an open group in my 50’s, 60’s and 70’s (now)
  • discovering the benefits of Tai Chi and how it improves my tennis game.

As we grow in mindfulness and gratitude, we enrich our lives, deepen our happiness and joy and build our resilience and capacity for creative endeavour.  Music and nature can inspire us if we are fully present to experiencing them and our natural curiosity can open our hearts to appreciating whatever we experience.

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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.

Natural Awareness through Nature

Natural awareness is often contrasted with meditation focused on numbers, the breath, sounds or particular sensations or feelings.  Natural awareness is not goal-focused – it is more about being aware of awareness itself, noticing that you are noticing.  So much of what we do in life is goal-focused – natural awareness provides a desirable shift that can lead to less stress, more openness and a greater sense of calm.  Rachelle Calvert encourages us to take our mindfulness practice outside so that we can feel more connected to the world around us and not be totally absorbed in having to “try” or “do”.   She draws on research results that demonstrate that “practicing mindfulness in nature”, leads to many benefits including improved heart health, concentration, relaxation and stress reduction.  Mark Coleman reminds us that a natural outcome of being mindful in nature is a sense of gratitude as well as wonder and awe inspired by nature’s beauty and resilience.

By developing natural awareness in nature through observation and listening, we can become more grounded, experience tranquility and begin to notice minute aspects of our natural environment that we have previously overlooked.   Diana Winston in her book, The Little Book of Being, identifies practices we can use to develop natural awareness and offers what she calls “markers” to test whether or not we have experienced “natural awareness”.   These include feelings of timelessness and ease; noticing that you are noticing; completely aware with all your senses open to your environment; and a restful mind that is open to what is passing by. 

An experience of natural awareness

I was recently strolling along the Mooloolaba Beach Boardwalk noticing the people passing by – couples of all ages out for a walk, men and women pushing prams, individuals leading dogs on a leash and the perennial runners, both individuals and groups.  Occasionally, a bush turkey would cross my path on its way to greener pastures.  While being aware of these movements, I was totally unaware of the vegetation beside the Boardwalk.  Once I realised this lack of awareness, I began to scan the vegetation either side of the path.  I became aware of tiny wildflowers partially hidden amongst the trees and grasses, trees twisted sideways turning towards the sun and all different kinds of leaves (broad and large, thin and small).  This cultivated, natural awareness enabled me to broaden the horizon of my awareness and instilled a greater sense of calm as I walked mindfully along the Boardwalk.

Diana Winston offers an exercise to experience what she calls, “the spectrum of awareness” – moving from a very narrow focus to a more panoramic, natural awareness view.  She uses fish in an aquarium for this exercise, moving from focus on a single plant, to movement of an individual fish and, finally, to a panoramic view taking in the fish, the aquarium and the surrounding environment.  As she observes as part of this exercise, natural awareness includes noticing our own bodily sensations and feelings in the present moment as we are experiencing the world around us with openness and curiosity.

Reflection

We can develop natural awareness through our everyday activities if we adopt a mindset that involves consciously noticing what we are doing and seeing, as well as what we are experiencing internally.  Diana Winston suggests that we can develop natural awareness even when doing the dishes; when we expertly handle a distraction while meditating; when consciously avoid foods that lead to inflammation or when we monitor how we spend our time. 

Focused meditation helps to develop natural awareness as we become increasing able to concentrate and pay attention with openness and curiosity.  As we grow in mindfulness through developing our capacity for natural awareness and engaging in formal meditation, we can experience a greater sense of tranquility, freedom from anxiety and a more complete alignment of our words and actions with our values and life purpose.

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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 Curiosity and Openness

Frank Ostaseski in his presentations during the Healing Healthcare Summit focused on openness and curiosity.  In the process, he revisited two of the key lessons of living and dying that he had previously written about – (1) welcome everything, push nothing away and (2) cultivate a don’t know mind.

Openness – welcome everything

Frank suggests that we need to be able to meet whatever our life circumstances bring our way and do so in a way that we are open to the full range of thoughts and emotions involved.  He reminds us that life is a series of constant changes, e.g. loss of a job, death of a close family member, change In financial circumstances or location.  He encourages us to meet these changes as if welcoming a familiar person at our front door.  He draws on James Baldwin’s insightful comment for his rationale – “Nothing can be changed, if it is not first faced”.

Frank reminds us that denial or ignoring unpleasant experiences does not create freedom, only servitude.  He encourages “fearless receptivity” – awareness of fear without imprisonment by it.  He maintains that mindfulness involves moment to moment awareness of everything we are experiencing – bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions.  In this openness lies true freedom – because we are fully aware of what is happening to us and conscious of our habituated responses and yet able to regulate our emotions and explore alternative ways of responding.

Frank suggests that sometimes mindfulness practices involving “precise attention” to a single thing, e.g. a word or our breathing can create something of a struggle or tension in our minds and somewhat defeat the purpose of the practice.  He contends that the practice of “open boundless awareness”, sometimes called “natural awareness”, can be more liberating when we feel constrained by a focused meditation practice.  He offers awareness of the sky and its vastness as an example.  He also provides a mini-practice that can help to engender this sense of boundlessness.

In the mini-practice, Frank encourages us first to become grounded and relaxed so that we can focus on the meditation.  He then encourages us to take in the space above us, to our left, then to our right, followed by the space below and in front of us.  An alternative to this, is to focus on the sounds that surround us, progressively shifting our focus onto the soundscape in the directions that Frank mentions above.   Frank suggests that we treat distracting thoughts like birds flying past, not landing or hovering above.

Becoming more curious and less critical

This topic was the theme of his second presentation during the Summit and aligns with his exhortation to “cultivate a don’t know mind”.  Frank argues that mindfulness is not about searching for some future enlightenment goal but becoming “up close and personal” with ourselves.  He contends that our aim is to become “intimate” with ourselves and every aspect of our lives, pleasant and unpleasant.  He explains that this is the path to true liberation and reinforces the view that “the path is right beneath your feet”. 

In cultivating intimacy with ourselves we will become aware of parts of ourselves that we do not like.  In Frank’s view, the inherent challenge is to be able to “tolerate intimacy” – be able to fully face up to who we are really, warts and all.  In his podcast interview with Whit Missildine, Frank addressed the question, “What if you witnessed a thousand deaths?”  – a question that was based on his personal experience as End-of-Life Teacher, Founding Director of the Zen Hospice Project and Director of the Metta Institute.  Frank maintained that the ways we define ourselves will be stripped away in the process of dying and death.  He contends that throughout life we live a delusion about ourselves – we project an image that is not our real self, but our imagined or idealised self.  He has witnessed numerous people expressing regret as they lay dying – regrets about what they have done of failed to do.  In dying, we are confronted with who we really are. 

Frank maintains that when people are dying they have no interest in, or energy for, maintaining an illusion of who they are and cease to be concerned about what others think about them.   He suggests that it behoves us during life to express remorse rather than regret – because remorse confronts the unpleasant side of ourselves and motivates us to avoid similar actions or omissions in the future.  As we grow in intimacy with ourselves through meditation, we can progressively strip away the illusions about who we are through a process of loving kindness and forgiveness towards ourselves, avoiding harsh self-criticism.

Frank argues that In developing intimacy with ourselves, we become acutely aware that we are not separate but connected to everyone.  He maintains that in this deep learning about ourselves, we develop a “deep sense of belonging” – an acute recognition of our interdependence and a strong desire to move beyond our limiting self-centredness.  He suggests that a simple practice is to just “pause” throughout our day, taking a break from the busyness of life, and to focus on our experience as it is occurring.  Frank contends that “mindfulness emerges from a relaxed heart and mind”.

Reflection

Frank has learned so much through observing the process of dying and death and willingly shares the lessons he has learned.  He explains that he learns from the dying as they learn from him – there is a reciprocity about his engagement with them.  He is humbled and amazed by what he learns and yet he recognises that he still harbours a fear of death because of its uncertainty.  Frank has detailed his lessons learned in his book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully.

Regrets are a natural response in the event of someone dying who is close to us (or not as close as they should have been).  I can certainly acknowledge that I had regrets on the recent death of my brother Pat.  However, as Frank suggests, remorse is a better option.  With remorse we can revisit what we have said and done or failed to say and do, give ourselves forgiveness and express the intention to do better in the future. We can reflect on our individual regrets and ask ourselves:

  • What will I do more of in the future?
  • What will I do less of?
  • What will I stop doing?
  • What will I start doing?

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can develop intimacy with ourselves, recognise our connectedness, deepen our connection with others and learn the profound lessons from death and dying.  

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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.

Identifying Our Blind Spots Through Observation and Reflection

Kelly Boys, author of The Blind Spot Effect: How to Stop Missing What’s Right in Front of You, highlights the fact that blind spots have multiple dimensions, including cognitive (the way we think) and behavioural (what we actually do in response to stimuli).   In an earlier post I explored these dimensions in more detail and shared Kelly’s approach to identifying our core blind spot involving a meditative exercise that focuses on our bodily sensations and the underlying cognitive message that we are giving ourselves.

Our blind spots can impact every facet of our lives, including our relationships, work endeavours, sport activities, exercise routines and our diet and nutrition.  Through mindfulness and employing observation and reflection we can gradually recognise our blind spots and work to overcome them.  This is a life-time pursuit that needs to be worked at consistently and persistently.  Our blind spots are often manifest in our reactivity to stimuli whatever form they take.  Underlying our reactivity can be negative self-talk, prior adverse experiences, assumptions or resentment.  Tara Brach offers a simple S.T.O.P. practice that can be used, particularly when we are anxious or agitated, to overcome our habitual behaviour  (whether fight, flight or freeze) in a particular situation. 

In a recent post, I compared playing tennis to day-to-day life emphasising the uncertainty,  the mental and emotional challenges and the constant need for adaption that they have in common. 

Reflection

Being a “tennis tragic”, I have been watching the Australian Open Tennis Championship, particularly the matches played by Ash Barty, World Number 1 Australian tennis player.  In the process, I have been able to observe the behaviour of players and reflect on their mental attitudes, especially when they were challenged by falling behind in the score.  Some players became despondent and were able to regroup, others let out their frustrations in a show of anger (e.g. by smashing racquets), while others succumbed to the weight of expectations – their own and that of others especially the World Press.

While watching tennis matches during the Australian Open I was able to reflect on my own tennis game and, despite having played tennis for more than 60 years, I learned two key things through observation and reflection that will enable me to improve my social tennis games and enjoy them more, even while aging.   One had to do with a behavioural blind spot and the other with a cognitive blind spot.

My first revelation involved a behavioural blind spot that related to how I had my hands placed on my racquet as I waited for a tennis serve from my opponent.  Having just learned the technical aspects of a two-handed backhand, after 60 years of using a single-handed backhand, I was curious as to how two-handed backhand players prepared to receive serves in excess of 180 kph.  It surprised me that they could be prepared to use a single-handed forehand or a two-handed backhand with little loss of flow in transition.  Through observation, I learned that when receiving a serve they held the racquet differently to what I had been taught when using a single-handed backhand.  It made me realise that instead of having the left hand loosely supporting the right hand like I have been doing, they were already prepared to play a two-handed backhand by having a firm grip with their left hand in the right position on the racquet. 

From this I learned why I was having trouble accessing my two-handed backhand when I was waiting for a serve.  With my usual way of preparing for a tennis serve, I had firstly to move from holding the tennis racquet loosely with my left hand to achieving a firmer grip higher on the racquet (above my right hand) – all of which took too much time and impeded my readiness to receive a serve.  The new stance for me will be uncomfortable for a time.  This experience reinforces the point that we can have behavioural blind spots in any aspect of our lives, even something as simple as how we hold a tennis racquet.

My second revelation involved a cognitive blind spot in relation to the “slice tennis shot”.   When I learned to play tennis the slice tennis shot was part of your tennis armoury, but not your primary shot.  I have often used the slice tennis shot when out of position or when I have difficulty handling the power of an opponent’s shot.  However, I always viewed it as an inferior tennis shot – one played from a position of weakness.

However, after watching Ash Barty’s dominance using the “slice shot” as a primary tennis stroke, I have had to change my mindset and elevate the slice to at least an equal part of my tennis armoury along with a flat or top-spin forehand.  This has been a mental block for me in the past.  But now I have realised that the move from an Eastern forehand grip to a Western grip (sometimes extreme) has meant that a lot of players are unable to effectively play or handle the slice tennis shot.  The reasons are explained by Jon Crim in his overview of the Western grip.  This means that times have changed yet again and that the slice tennis shot (mainly through the success of Ash) has now achieved a status equal to that of the top-spin forehand.   While the top-spin forehand gives the tennis player an advantage in net clearance and depth of shot, it has the inbuilt disadvantage of making it more difficult to play the slice shot which tends to go lower over the net and stay quite low on impact, as well as having a “shooting” effect.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, observation and reflection we can develop curiosity about our blind spots, enhanced self-awareness and the capacity to overcome our habituated responses.  The insights gained can open up the opportunity for more joy and success in our relationships, work endeavours and sporting activities.  As Kelly points out, unless we observe and reflect on our thoughts and behaviour, we can miss what is right in front of us because of our blind spots.

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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, 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)

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.

Welcoming the Richness of Our Life

Allyson Pimentel, psychologist and meditation teacher, often focuses on connection to overcome a sense of separation.   In her recent meditation podcast, her topic was Sit So You Can Stand – suggesting that through meditation we are better able to deal with life vicissitudes.  Her underlying theme was welcoming everything into your life – accepting “what is” with openness and curiosity.  Through openness and freedom from assumptions and stereotypes , we can truly appreciate the richness of our lives.

The richness of our life

There are so many things that we take for granted in our life.  Gratitude meditation and the mindfulness practice of savouring what we have, can enrich our life, develop positive mental health, and reduce negative feelings associated with envy or resentment. In the introduction to her meditation podcast, Allyson takes these considerations one step further.  She focuses on the richness and diversity of the people with whom we connect and, in particular, with those engaged in the virtual meditation practice that she was facilitating.

Allyson read a short anonymous piece called, Radical Welcome.  The text highlights the process of welcoming everyone and acknowledging the diversity and richness of all who are present – welcoming those who are child carers/elder carers/ mental health supporters; those who have a fast internet connection/ slow connection/ disrupted connection; those who bring greater diversity to the meditation through differences in ethnicity, race, or ancestral origin; those who are experiencing the ease of wellness together with those who are suffering from chronic illness.  The welcoming process was inclusive of gender and religious differences; of the young and not so young; of those who educate and those who are learning; of the doubts, questions, uncertainty and searching of people present; of the hearts, minds, and bodies of all who form part of the common endeavour.

To give some practical application of the welcoming process, Allyson encouraged everyone to look at the “gallery view” of those who were present and to wave to acknowledge others.  Looking at everybody opens our eyes and minds to the diversity of those present and this is enhanced if people have previously identified their location in the text box.  These practices in a virtual meditation environment help to make us more aware of the richness and diversity of people we interact with a on a daily basis – we are often too preoccupied with ourselves, our stories, our needs and our perceptions to appreciate what others bring to our lives.  To reinforce this connectedness, Allyson began the podcast meditation with an invitation to take a collective, deep breath while noticing the infusion of energy on the in-breath and the release of tension on the out-breath.

Guided meditation

 In the guided meditation, Allyson encouraged us to feel the support of the chair and the earth, to tap into our natural breathing process, and to progressively focus on the noises in the room – including their coming and going and the silences in between.  She stressed the importance of choosing an anchor that we can return to if we are distracted by our thoughts, e.g., by worries, negative self-evaluations, or planning our day. 

Most of the meditation was undertaken in silence – with a focus on the sense of connection with everyone  present, while acknowledging the richness of diversity.  

Reflection

Allyson’s podcast meditation offers us an opportunity to call to mind the differences we encounter in people we interact with on a daily basis.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditations such as this podcast, we can become more conscious of the differences in the people we encounter and the potential richness of the interaction.  Mindfulness also makes us more aware of our own perceptions, biases and assumptions that could act as barriers to truly acknowledging others, mindfully listening to them, and valuing their differences.   Creativity and innovation lie within diversity if we adopt openness and curiosity to learn about, and understand, differences.

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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.

Silence and Connection: Finding Peace in a Turbulent World

Last night I had the privilege of accompanying my wife to a fund-raising event at Stepping Stone Clubhouse in Brisbane – an organisation dedicated to enabling people with mental illness to rebuild and enrich their lives.  The speaker for the night’s event was Trent Dalton, author of two recent books that were the focus of his discussion.  Trent has become a best-selling author as a result of the first of the two books, The Boy Who Swallowed the Universe which features two boys who experience the darkness of adverse childhood experiences.  The second book he spoke energetically about is his recently released novel, All Our Shimmering Skies – two girls experiencing trauma feature prominently in this book which is also an expression of hope, of wonder and life’s endless mysteries and miracles.

Life beyond trauma

Trent had many adverse childhood experiences and related trauma – including an alcoholic father, heroin-addicted mother, heroin dealer stepfather and a criminal baby sitter.  His two novels then are part autobiographical, part fiction and part fantasy (“gifts dropping from the sky”).   His two daughters had questioned him as to why he wrote the first of the two books with boys as the focal characters when he in fact had two daughters.  So, two girls featured in the Shimmering Skies novel.

Trent mentioned that even though the books begin with darkness in the characters’ lives, they end with hope and wonder.  He wanted to inspire his daughters to be strong and resilient despite what life brings in the way of obstacles and adversity.  He also wanted them to believe in hope and a life beyond trauma as reflected in his own life – now as a multiple award-winning author who is internationally recognised for his writing craft and storytelling.

Finding peace in silence and connection

Trent spoke of his close connection to place and nature.   His home suburb, Brisbane’s western suburb of Darra, features strongly in his writing as does Darwin which he visited a number of times, mainly on assignment as a journalist.  He described with a sense of awe the natural beauty experienced during a guided walk through Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia.  His closeness to nature is reflected in his wonder at even the smallest living creatures.

His connection to family and friends provided a very real grounding and enabled him to rest in the strength of these relationships.  Of particular note is his comment about how one of his daughters brought him very much “back to earth” after a whirlwind tour following his highly successful book, The Boy Who Swallowed the Universe.  At one stage when he was at home and dropping naturally into his effervescent storytelling mode, his 11 year daughter said something to the effect, “You don’t have to impress us now – you just have to be Dad to us.”

Trent’s Shimmering Skies novel captures something of the stillness and reflection he experienced observing the night sky through his window in Darwin or from his writer’s den in Brisbane.  His valuing of silence and stillness is reflected in his comment on Christine Jackman’s novel, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World:

…a deeply personal assignment: treading bravely, beautifully into the wonder of silence.

Christine reminds us that life is full of noise, distraction and setbacks and yet there exists the wonder of stillness and silence – the unnameable space in which one was free to think and breathe and simply be.   We just have to learn ways to access the silence in our lives – something I experienced at 5 am this morning when I walked along the Manly Esplanade in Brisbane as the sun rose and reflected on the shimmering water of the marina.

Reflection

Trent was able to inhabit the wounds of his trauma by revisiting his adverse childhood experiences through the key characters in his two books.  In discussing his books and his life, he was able to be completely transparent and honest about his background, his challenges, and his small triumphs.  This openness and curiosity about life are hallmarks of mindful living.  By growing in mindfulness through reflection, writing and wonder, he could appreciate his connection to everything and his close relationships which are so central to his life and work.

I find it humbling and a source of gratitude that I personally was able to live a life of silence and contemplation for five years after leaving home and traumatic circumstances.  I have lived through many adverse childhood experiences in my early childhood and traumatic events later in life.  I found solace and peace in stillness and silence.

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Image by Ron Passfield – Sunrise at Manly Esplanade

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.

Forgiveness: A Reflection

In a previous post I discussed an important topic, Don’t Wait to Forgive, based on the book by Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations.  Forgiveness is something that we tend to put off because it is too self-revealing and painful.  Frank suggests that we have to face up to who we really are and not who we project ourselves to be.  We have to look in the mirror, not into an internally fabricated image that shows ourselves in the best possible light.  The honesty required is disarming and can be disturbing.   Experience and research suggest that some principles can help us along the way:

  • Be grounded and relaxed – Forgiveness is a difficult pursuit at the best of times.  However, if you are agitated or highly distracted, it is extremely difficult to focus on forgiving yourself or someone else.  The starting point is to become grounded and relaxed.  Grounding in the present moment can involve tapping into your breath, your bodily sensations or the sounds around you.  I find sometimes that sounds can themselves be distracting because I am always trying to interpret them.  I like using a particular body sensation as a means of grounding, e.g. the sensation of fingers on both hands touching.  I find that I can use this practice anywhere, whether waiting for something or someone, or beginning a meditation.  It can quickly induce relaxation and focus for me.  Each person will have their preferred approach to grounding and relaxation – for some people, it may involve a full body scan to identify and release tension.
  • Manage distractions – Distractions are a natural, human frailty – they pull us away from our focus.  However, they can be more persistent and intensive when we are trying to focus on forgiveness because of the level of discomfort that we may feel when dealing with our shame.   Having a “home” or anchor such as our breath can enable us to restore our focus.  Persistence in returning to our focus builds our “attention muscle” over time – a necessary strength if we are to progress in our goal of developing forgiveness.
  • Start small – Self-intimacy around our need for forgiveness (for the multiple ways in which we have hurt others) can be overwhelming if we take on too much at once.  When you think about it, our need for forgiveness can be pervasive – impacting every facet of our interactions in close relationships, with work colleagues or with strangers in the street or shops.  We can think of times when we have interrupted someone, ignored people, been harsh towards them or spoken ill of them.   There are times when we have taken out our frustration or anger on someone who is not the trigger for our difficult emotions.  We can begin by focusing on a small, recent incident where we have caused hurt or harm to someone and gradually build to more confronting issues, situations or emotions.  Mitra Manesh in her guided meditation podcast on forgiveness suggests that a simple way to start might be to bring a particular person to mind and mentally say, “For all the pain and suffering I may have caused you, I ask for your forgiveness”.  This kind of catch-all statement avoids going into all the detail of an interaction.  Sometimes we can become distracted by what Diana Winston describes as “being lost in the story” – we can end up recalling blow by blow what happened, indulging in blame and self-righteousness.   Forgiveness is not a process of justifying our words or actions.
  • Forgiveness is healing for ourselves – We have to bring loving kindness to our forgiveness practice whatever form it takes – loving kindness for our self as well as for the person we are forgiving.  The process is not designed to “beat up on” our self but to face up to the reality of what we have said or done or omitted to do that has been hurtful for someone else.  It’s releasing that negative, built-up energy that is stored in difficult emotions and is physically, mentally and emotionally harmful to our self.  It is recognising that holding onto regret, anger, resentment or guilt can be toxic to our overall wellness.  However, like giving up smoking, it takes time, persistence and frequent revisiting of our motivation.

As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness through meditation, reflection and daily mindfulness practices, we can learn to face up to our real self and our past and seek forgiveness.  However challenging this may be, we need to begin the journey for our own welfare and that of others we interact with.  Diana Winston in her forgiveness meditation podcast reminds us that mindfulness involves “being in the present moment with openness and curiosity” together with a “willingness to be with what is” – it entails honest self-exploration.  She cites Lily Tomlin who maintains that forgiveness involves “giving up all hope for a better past” – seeing our past with clear sight and honesty.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

Developing Sustainable Intimate Relationships through Mindfulness

Wendy Strgar, intimate relationship expert and author, stresses the role of mindfulness as a pathway to developing a sustainable intimate relationship.  In her books and blog she openly shares the ups and downs, troughs and deep valleys, of the 30 plus years of her relationship with her husband.  Her blog, Making Love Sustainable, has a category of posts devoted to mindfulness.  Wendy’s first book, Love That Works: A Guide to Enduring Intimacy, highlights developing intimate relationships as a learning journey for both partners.  Her latter book which provides a guide to awakening and sustaining intimate relationships focuses on “deep presence” and “attention” as key ingredients of a sustainable and rich intimate life.  I will draw on this latter book to share some of Wendy’s insights into how to sustain an intimate relationship through mindfulness.

Mindfulness for developing and sustaining an intimate relationship

There are very clear lessons in Wendy’s second book on sustaining intimate relationships that link directly to the nature of mindfulness as defined by Jon Kabat-Zin and the definition provided by Diana Winston.  Here are some key points that Wendy makes about developing and sustaining an intimate relationship:

  • Paying attention: Wendy’s longest chapter is devoted to this topic which she considers makes the difference between “fleeting pleasure and lasting happiness” in a relationship.  Her broader focus for a discussion of attention is being fully engaged in something that you love, that enriches you and makes you fully yourself.   A narrower focus that she emphasises is paying attention to your thoughts about yourself and your partner – since our thoughts create our reality.  In practice, this means dealing with negative self-stories on the one hand and developing a growing consciousness of how we think about our partner (a neglected area of personal inquiry).  As we have mentioned previously, “we are not our thoughts” nor is our partner solely what we think they are.
  • Being present: Wendy emphasises presence and being in the moment as key ways to communicate love and respect in an intimate relationship. If our mind is continuously wandering and we are lost in thought (about our “to-do list” for example), we cannot be truly present to the other person. In her blog post, Gifting Your Real Presence, she discusses the relationship benefits of being fully present and ways to achieve real presence.
  • Deep listening: the art of deep listening involves both paying attention and being present.  Wendy suggests that these aspects in combination develop the capacity for “full-body attention” and enable our partner to “feel truly heard”.  This art of listening requires that we do not “try to solve the other person’s problems or to steer the conversation” to something about ourselves and our achievements (to avoid the emotive content of the conversation).  In Wendy’s view, “attentive listening” serves to “enliven our intimate connection”.
  • Being non-judgemental: it is very easy to become obsessed with the negative spiral of identifying our partner’s faults and deficiencies (often to defend our own position or our sense of self-worth).  We can get into the negative habit of highlighting their lack of congruence – the inconsistency between their words (particularly their advice to us) and their actions. Again, paying attention to our thoughts about our partner will surface this tendency to judge and/or project our negative traits onto our intimate partner.
  • Developing the intention to focus on the relationship: Wendy suggests that an intimate relationship should be viewed as a container or environment that sustains “an atmosphere hospitable to love” (and intimacy).  This entails focusing on cultivating the relationship rather than the singular pursuit of our own needs at our partner’s expense or subservience to the assumed needs of our partner out of a sense of obligation.  Focusing on the relationship could also mean exploring the “unwritten rules” in the relationship. When we focus on cultivating the relationship atmosphere we can also think of the analogy of a garden.  Wendy suggests an intimate relationship needs the fertile soil of “showing up” in the relationship (translates to “sharing”), the pure water of setting aside time for intimacy, and the fresh air of clear and unambiguous communication.  
  • Bringing openness and curiosity to the relationship: this aspect lines up with Diana Winston’s explanation of mindfulness.  This entails a readiness to learn about our-self-in-the-relationship (through self-observation) and to get to know and understand our partner intimately – including their needs and preferences, communication style and their energy pattern.

Reflection

Developing a sustainable intimate relationship involves a lifetime pursuit of learning and focused intention to cultivate a loving environment for the relationship (rather than just accepting established patterns of saying and doing things which may be injurious to sustainability).  As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn to pay attention, be fully present, listen deeply, observe non-judgmentally and develop self-awareness and an unadulterated awareness of our partner (not contaminated by our unfulfilled need for attention derived from a deficient childhood).  Being mindful in an intimate relationship does not involve losing our self in the relationship but finding our self through the relationship.  It entails showing up fully in our life to enrich the relationship and engender intimacy through mutual appreciation and gratitude.

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Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

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

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

How to Resolve a Dilemma or Conflicting Polarities as a Leader

Often a leader is faced with resolving a dilemma or deciding between two different options that represent opposite polarities and are supported by different groups of people.  Each of the parties, too, that support opposite perspectives are very ready to highlight the deficiencies of the other party’s perspective and ignore the deficiencies of their own option.  The leader then is confronted with an “either or” situation.  Both options have advantages and disadvantages.

The tendency is for the leader to come down on the side of one option or other because it might appear as the “lesser of two evils”.   But even this solution depends on what priority the leader is assigning to the adverse impacts of the options – for themselves, the opposing groups, for consumers/clients or for the wider community. 

Ginny Whitelaw in her book The Zen Leader suggests that each of us resolves the tension of a dilemma on a very regular basis when we are breathing.  The actions of inhalation and exhalation are polar opposites, and each has advantages and disadvantages.  For example, when we inhale, we can take in oxygen and refresh our blood; when we exhale, we can remove carbon dioxide and relax our body and mind.  Each action – inhale or exhale – when taken to extremes (like holding our breath for too long) can have serious adverse effects on our health and wellbeing.  Neither action is sufficient of itself to sustain life.

Ginny points out that for a leader to lead effectively and in a fearless way, they must move away from “either or” thinking and reframe the issue or problem.  She argues that this involves a flip “from Or to And”.  Ginny suggests that in the tension of a dilemma or opposite polarities lies a creative solution.

How to resolve a dilemma or conflicting polarities

Ginny maintains in her book that the real impediment to moving to the And position (resolving the dilemma), is when a leader or a group becomes locked into one option by overstating the benefits of their solution and highlighting the deficiencies of the opposing solution, while simultaneously underplaying the deficiencies of their own solution and the benefits of the opposing solution.  This occurs frequently in organisational settings when leaders and their managers are engaged in strategic planning involving decisions re product/service offerings, pricing, place of operation, marketing approach or target customers/clients.

Ginny proposes a process she describes as a “paradox map” which has four quadrants that participants can work through to find a solution that encompasses the best of both options, while reducing the downsides of each.  This process entails seeking out the resolution of the tension between opposites by focusing on the And.

My colleague and friend Bob Dick has described a similar process over many years which he calls “option one-and-a-half”.  Bob provides a detailed process for a leader to work with a group to resolve conflicting polarities or opposing positions on an issue or problem.  His group process entails identifying the advantages and disadvantages of each option and then employing a creative group problem solving process and voting to come up with a solution that incorporates the best of each option.

As I was thinking about this challenge of moving “from Or to And”, I encountered a situation where my partner and I were trying to decide how to arrange a meeting with a mutual friend who lived on an island about 45 minutes by sea from our location.  I was strongly of the view that we should take a car across in the car ferry because it was convenient, provided independence and enabled flexibility when we were on the island.   My friend argued that the cost of the car ferry would be exorbitant considering we were only attending a lunch meeting and would not need the flexibility of our own car while on the island. 

After exploring the advantages and disadvantages of each solution we came up with the idea of having our friend travel to a location on the mainland that involved a similar travel time for each of us, reduced the costs for us and fitted in with other reasons our island friend wanted to come to the mainland.  The final solution incorporated the best of both initial, opposing options – reduced cost, flexibility, independence and a bonus of being able to extend an invitation to another mutual friend to join our “catch-up” meeting on the mainland.

Reflection

Being able to flip from an “either-or” position to what Ginny describes as a position of “And“, enables us to resolve dilemmas, reduce conflict and identify creative solutions incorporating the best of opposing options.  Underlying the process involved is the ability to move from a fixed position of “being right” to being able to explore the perspective of the other person or group.  This entails mindful listening and the capacity to be open to alternative perspectives and solutions.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices, reflection and exploration of alternatives, we can develop the necessary self-awareness, self-management and creative capacity to have the openness and curiosity to achieve the personal flexibility required.

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Image by Dirk Wouters from Pixabay

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

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