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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Image by Waldemar Zielinski 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.

Anxiety Management with Mindfulness

Diana Winston offers a mindfulness meditation podcast, Working with Anxiety, as one of the weekly meditations conducted by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  As Director of Mindfulness Education for MARC, Diana frequently leads these weekly meditations.  She stresses that mindfulness enables us to be more fully in the present moment and to accept what is in our life (including anxiety) with curiosity and openness.

Diana maintains that mindfulness helps us to work effectively with anxiety because it, (1) enables us to be present in the moment, rather than absorbed in the past or the future; (2) facilitates reframing of our experience, and (3) provides a place of rest and ease from the turbulence and waves of daily life.  As Diana asserts, anxiety is part and parcel of daily life, given the human condition and the uncertainty of the world around us today.  The world situation with the global pandemic and devastating conflict between Russia and Ukraine add to anxiety-producing situations we experience on the home and local front.  In consequence, there is an increase in mental health issues along with restricted resources to deal with explosive demand.

Guided meditation for working with anxiety

Diana’s approach is consistent with trauma-sensitive mindfulness in that she allows a choice of posture, meditation anchor and overall focus.  She encourages us to find a posture that is comfortable with eyes closed or open (ideally, looking down).  At the beginning of the meditation, she has us focus on something that gives us a sense of being grounded and supported by something of strength, e.g. our feet on the ground/floor or back against the chair.  It is important to tap into something that enables us to slow our minds and calm our feelings

Diana then suggests that we focus on our breath as a neutral experience of the present moment.  For some people, breath may not be a neutral aspect and could in fact trigger a trauma response. So, she offers an alternative focus such as sounds in the environment, the room tone or rhythm in some music.  Whatever we choose as an anchor, we can return to it whenever we notice our thoughts distracting us and leading to anxiety-producing images, recollections or anticipations.

The next stage of the guided meditation involves focus on some source of anxiety and exploring the bodily sensations associated with it.  Diana suggests that if we are new to meditation we should focus on a minor source of anxiety rather than a major issue.  Whatever our focal anxiety source, the idea is to notice what is happening in our body, e.g. tightness around our neck and shoulders, quickening or unevenness of our breath or pain in our back.  By bringing our consciousness to these bodily sensations, we can work to release the tension involved and restore some level of equanimity.

Diana suggests that at any stage we could use imagery as a way to achieve an anchor that gives us strength and/or a sense of peace.  The image could be of a tall mountain withstanding the buffeting of strong winds and rain or a still lake reflecting surrounding trees and supporting the smooth gliding of swans or ducks.  Imagery can take us out of our anxiety-producing imagination and transport us to a place of strength and/or peace.

In the final stage of the meditation, Diana encourages us to offer ourselves loving-kindness, acknowledging that we are only human after all and that the world is anxiety-producing.  She urges us to extend positive thoughts towards ourselves, rather then beat ourselves up for our fragility.  We could focus on times when we have demonstrated resilience to overcome difficulties, extended compassionate action to those in need or expressed gratitude for all that we have. 

Reflection

There are many tools to help us work with, and manage, anxiety.  These include chanting and/or mantra meditations such as the calming mantra produced by Lulu & Mischka, Stillness in Motion – Sailing and Singing with whales.   As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, chanting, mantras or other mindfulness practices, we can learn to be more fully present in the moment, to manage our anxiety-producing thoughts, regulate our emotions and find the peace and ease that lie within.

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Image by Patrik Houštecký 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.

Under the influence of Thich Nhat Hanh

In a prelude to a guided meditation podcast, Remembering Thich Nhat Hanh, Diana Winston spoke with reverence about the life of Thich Nhat Hanh and his global influence.  Nhat Hanh, who died aged ninety-five in Vietnam on January 22 2022, was a Zen Master, peace activist, poet and author of over 100 books focused mainly on mindfulness and peace.  He established multiple Buddhist communities around the world and is considered the “Father of Western mindfulness”.  He exerted a global influence throughout his teaching life conducting numerous retreats and speaking with influencers such as the World Bank, Google and the U.S. Congress.

During the Vietnam war Nhat Hanh introduced the concept of “Engaged Buddhism” and led Buddhist monks in actions designed to help people of Vietnam who were suffering from the drastic effects of the extended conflict and regular bombing.  He argued that mindfulness increases our capacity to “see” but that this insight needs to be translated into compassionate action.   Nhat Hanh established the Plum Village in France, the largest Buddhist community in the world and an international practice center for followers of his mindfulness approach.  The influence of Thich Nhat Hanh is so pervasive that it is not possible to do its credit in this short blog post.  However, his teachings and meditations are readily accessible via Plum Village videos on YouTube and his full life history on the Plum Village website.

Guided meditation

Diana Winston, at the outset of her podcast meditation, acknowledged the profound influence that Nhat Hanh had over her mindfulness practice and that of numerous other mindfulness teachers and practitioners around the world.  She stressed Nhat Hanh’s influence over the practice of bringing mindfulness into everyday life and emphasised the benefits of mindfulness meditation in terms of stress reduction, overcoming anxiety and depression, managing pain, improving mood and developing a positive mindset and emotions.

After suggesting a comfortable, focused posture, Diana begins the meditation with the encouragement to take a couple of deep breaths, recalling the words of Nhat Hanh “Breathing in, I calm the breath; breathing out, I smile”.  She reminds us to identify any points of tension in our body and to soften those points to release the tension.

Next Diana asks us to focus on our breath – the process of breathing, whether the awareness is through the movement of air through our nose or the undulations of our chest or abdomen.  This is a passive observation, not trying to control the breath, but following it as it happens naturally in our body. 

She then suggests that we focus on the sounds that surround us – again passively, allowing the sounds to reach us without attempting interpretation or evaluation (in terms of pleasant or unpleasant).  

Diana maintains that it is only natural for thoughts and feelings to intrude and distract us from our chosen focus.  However, she recommends that we use our breath or sounds as our anchor to bring us back to our focus.  An alternative is to focus on bodily sensations such as those of our feet on the ground or our fingers touching each other causing tingling, warmth or a sensation of flow.  I like to use fingers touching as my anchor and I find that when I am waiting for something (e.g. a traffic light) I can touch my fingers and immediately drop into a breath consciousness that is calming.  

Diana observes that there are times when strong feelings will emerge, depending on what is going on in our lives at the time.  She suggests that we face these feelings and allow them to manifest without staying absorbed in them.  I noted that at one point in the meditation, I experienced a profound sense of sadness precipitated by the distressing events in Ukraine. I was able to stay with the sadness for a time and then restore the focus on my anchor, the sensations in my joined fingers.   The period of ten minutes silence at the end of the meditation podcast enabled me to deepen my focus.

Reflection

In her meditation podcast, Diana recalls Thich Nhat Hanh’s comments about death and dying.  In his video podcast on the topic, Where do we go when we die?, Nhat Hanh reminds us that cells in our body are dying all the time and new cells are being born – so, death and birth are part of every moment of our life.  He maintains that the disintegration of our body at death does not mean we cease to exist.  In his view, our words and actions continue to influence others – so, after we die, we continue in all the people who have come under our influence (or will come under our influence in the future).  He indicated that when he died he would continue in the lives of many thousands of people through the books he has written, the videos he has created and the podcasts that live on after him.

Sounds True provides a video of Nhat Hanh, the artist, as he engages in calligraphy as a form of mindfulness, using the in-breath and out-breath.  In one calligraphy, he likens the continuation of our lives in different forms to a cloud that never dies.

Diana states that the global mindfulness movement represents in many ways the continuation of the life of Nhat Hanh.  She asks us, “How are you going to enable the continuation of Nhat Hanh’s life in your own life?”. As we grow in mindfulness, we are continuing the life and tradition of Nhat Hanh and gaining access to the benefits of mindfulness including calmness, emotion regulation, insight, resilience and the courage to take compassionate action.

Thich Nhat Hahn made a hugely significant contribution to the global mindfulness movement and world peace (he was nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize).  Nhat Hanh left us a huge store of resources to enable us to plumb the depths of his teachings and his indomitable spirit, and to continue his life’s work to create a “beloved community”.  In all his life, throughout  the challenges of suffering, grief and disappointment, he “practised a lot of breathing, coming back to himself”.  Mindful breathing provided his grounding during all phases of his life, especially in the face of violence against the Vietnamese people, his followers and social workers.

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Image by Karl Egger 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.

Reflecting on Our Past Year and Planning Our Future

Allyson Pimentel, meditation teacher with UCLA’s mindfulness education and research center, offered a guided meditation podcast on the theme, Mindfulness and End of Year Reflections, as part of the weekly meditation podcasts conducted in collaboration with the Hammer Museum.  In the podcast, Allyson drew on the work of Amanda Gorman, appointed the first US National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017.

Amanda also wrote and delivered the Presidential inauguration poem, The Hill We Climb, for the inauguration of  President Joe Biden.  In her poem, Amanda encourages us to acknowledge the past –  the pains, divisions and the victories over challenges.  At the same time, she exhorts us to see the light in our past difficulties – despite the grief, hurt and tiredness – and to recognize the growth, the hope and persistence we displayed.   In looking to the future, Amanda encourages us to “rebuild, reconcile and recover” and reminds us that “to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside”.    

In the introduction to her guided meditation, Allyson draws on Amanda’s latest book of poems, Call Us What We Carry, to inspire reflection and forward planning.  In particular, she focuses on the poem, What We Carry, which in Allyson’s words “captures the essence of mindfulness”.  The poem grounds us in the dampness of the earth and reminds us that even what is grimy, mired and marred can be a gift and a source of wonder (a perspective we experienced as children sitting on the ground or the grass or playing on the river’s edge).  Amanda reassures us that even if we are not clear about “what we have left behind”, we are enough “for what we have left” in our life.

Guided meditation as an end of year reflection

At the outset, Allyson encourages us to become grounded in the present moment – being conscious of whatever we bring to the meditation including our aches and pains, reticence or excitement, readiness or unease.  She acknowledges at the outset that there are times when stability of presence and its associated calm and quietness are not readily accessible – but still encourages us to try to relax and focus.

The next stage of the guided meditation involves focusing on the sounds both within us and around us.  Within us, it could be the sound of our outbreath, ringing in our ears, or the rumbling of a hungry stomach or upset microbiome. The sounds surrounding us could be traffic noise, birds singing, the rustling of trees, the cough of a family member, music from our neighbour or  footsteps on the stairs to our meditation place.   Allyson encourages us to tune into the sounds without interpretation or any effort to control or edit them.

Next, we are encouraged to place an upturned palm on our lap – symbolic of openness to all that we have experienced in the past year.   Allyson draws on the words of Amanda’s poem to suggest that our palms  are “open but unemptied”.   We can focus on the past year with its achievements, challenges and set-backs – looking clearly at the things we have done that we are proud of and those we wished we hadn’t been engaged in.  We are challenged to look at both our successes and failures, our compassion towards others as well as our unkind words and actions.

As we reflect over our past words and actions, Allyson encourages us to turn our palm downwards on our lap and draw on the warmth and reassurance of our body.  This is symbolic of receiving self-love and kindness towards ourself as well as forgiveness.  We can tune into the bodily sensations flowing from this sensory experience of acceptance and support.

Finally, Allyson encourages us to think about “how we wish to walk into tomorrow” – to decide how we are going to turn up in the world.  This decision can be informed by what we were dissatisfied in relation to our words and actions in the past.

Reflection

At the outset of the podcast, Alyson reminds us that mindfulness and the Hammer Museum have a common goal “to bring the light of awareness” to every aspect of our lives, including our experiences of art, poetry, music, disillusionment, joy, relationships, inspiration and wonder.  She expresses the hope that as we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can live with more justice, a sense of openness and spaciousness, and a feeling of being strongly grounded and in control of our emotions, however difficult.

Amanda Gorman offers both enlightenment and hope and the firm belief that we can rise to the occasion of positively shaping the future for the generations to come – a future that is not built on division but on our connectedness and interdependence.  Diana Winston encourages us to bring intention to our New Year resolution, while Leo Babauta suggests that focusing on a single resolve, such as daily mindfulness practice, can have flow-on effects to many facets of our lives.

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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.

Developing Natural Awareness through Observation and Listening

On New Year’s day, I was sitting on my deck at home and immediately thought about Diana Winston’s discussion of natural awareness.  All I wanted to do was sit there, observe and listen.  It was as if I was being transported into a different world where nature was supreme and everything else faded in the distance.

As I looked out from the deck I could see the waters of Moreton Bay in the distance through a gap in the trees that afforded a glimpse of the bay and the island not far from the shore.  It was one of those days when the sun was warm, the sky was blue and there was an eerie stillness in the air.  The trees glistened with drops of water after many days of rain.  There was a clarity about the view and a coolness in the air despite the summer weather beginning to warm up.

I could hear the birds in the foreground and background –  Doves cooing persistently, Butcherbirds stretching their necks to break into song and raucous Rainbow Lorikeets breaking the silence with their fast flapping wings as they sped by screeching.   The air was suddenly filled with loud sounds as a Kookaburra landed nearby to let out its laughing call.

I began to observe more closely my pot plants on the table, cupboard and floor of the deck.  I was able to notice new growth with emerging leaves and buds, the thickening of stems and the increasing individuality of the plants as they matured in their pots and took in the air and sunlight.  Some succulents had very shiny leaves, others were tall and imposing, while a small group hung over their pots and extended their reach to the floor.  Another variegated plant that was previously close to death now displayed its bright colours and scalloped edges in a new location on the deck that afforded lots of air, light and access to light rain.

The sky was a bright blue with light, passing clouds moving slowly and forming unusual shapes.  The many birds that surrounded me seemed to rejoice in the clear skies, the gentle breeze and the brightening sunlight.

Reflection

I am reminded of Costa Georgiadis exhortation in his book, Costa’s World: Gardening for the SOIL, the SOUL and the SUBURBS, that we should become more mindful of our immediate environment as we move through it and around it, often totally unaware of its beauty, variety and earthiness and its ability to make us grounded.  Deepak Chopra reminds us of the healing power of “earthing” – consciously grounding ourselves by walking barefoot on the earth or grass.

Diana, in her book The Little Book of Being, also offers ways to develop natural awareness and encourages us to monitor our sensations throughout the day, engage in deep listening and avoid unnecessary aggravation either of our emotions or our microbiome (through the ingestion of inflammatory foods).

As we develop natural awareness and grow in mindfulness through meditation and conscious observation and listening, we can achieve a sense of tranquility, gratitude and peace amid what is increasingly a turbulent world.  Our own backyard can be where we earth and become grounded.

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Image by Perez Vöcking 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.

Integrating Gratitude with Loving Kindness Meditation

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) UCLA offered a guided meditation podcast integrating gratitude and loving kindness.  Her guided meditation, Extending Loving Kindness & Gratitude Practice, is designed to use the energy and warmth of gratitude practice to extend our loving kindness beyond ourselves to others in our life to whom we are truly grateful. 

Diana’s meditation is one of the weekly meditation podcasts offered by MARC with a view to helping participants grow in self-awareness, develop emotion regulation and attain an overall sense of wellbeing and ease.  The approach of the MARC meditations is to enable us to focus fully on  “present moment experience” while adopting an open and curious perspective and accepting “what is”.

Guided meditation incorporating gratitude and loving kindness

At the outset, Diana encourages us to adopt a comfortable position, whether sitting on a chair, lying down or adopting a cross-legged siting posture.  She makes the valid point that is difficult to extend loving kindness to others when we are not physically comfortable.  She suggests that we begin with a few deep breaths to ease some of the tension in our bodies and to ground us in the moment.  Associated with this is the encouragement to be with what is – to acknowledge and accept our mental state, our feelings of reluctance or enthusiasm for the meditation or our agitation about something external to the present moment.

The anchor for this meditation is initially focusing on something that we are really grateful for – whatever that might be in the physical, intellectual, emotional, relational  or financial realms of our lives.  Because so many of my friends and family lack physical mobility at the moment (owing to illness and/or aging), I focused with gratitude and appreciation on my ability to walk, run on a tennis court, and play tennis well.  I began to appreciate that I had been coached in tennis very well at an early age and that I now had a range of tennis strokes and strategies that I can use to really enjoy my social tennis.  I thought of how much playing tennis had become a positive, grounding part of my life through fixtures, competitions and social tennis groups (both intimate and broad).

The next phase of the meditation focuses on someone in our life we really appreciate – a partner, child, friend, colleague, mentor or anyone else who is a positive influence in our life and a source of joy.  I focused on my life partner of forty years and expressed appreciation for her sustained love, kindness and warmth;  her intellectual and problem-solving capacity; her generosity towards others in need; her courage and resilience in the face of difficult situations; her willingness and ability to listen for understanding; and her desire and ability to be a very strong support for our two adult children. 

Diana encourages us to allow the feelings of gratitude to flow through our body – to capture the embodiment of our appreciation in the moment.  These feelings can then energise our desire to express loving kindness towards our chosen person.  The loving kindness can be expressed in many ways but often includes a desire for the person to be protected and to be safe from harm of all kinds (both internal and external); to realise a state of happiness and contentment; to achieve improved physical and mental health; and to experience a deep and abiding send of ease (a rare occurrence in these challenging times). 

As we extend loving kindness to the person we have been focusing on, we can begin to imagine this loving kindness being reciprocated – we can envisage ourselves as the recipient of loving kindness being extending to us.  We might mentally revisit a recent experience where the person has shown love and warmth towards us (e.g. by placing their arms around us, holding hands or offering a hug of appreciation or empathy).   Again ,we can focus on our embodiment of these reciprocated feelings – how do they make us feel in our body in the present moment?  What is that the other person sees in us and what else should we be grateful for?

Diana asks us to think of another person to whom we are grateful and begin to identify what it is about them that we are grateful for.  It may be that they nurtured us in a time of challenge, came to our rescue when we were in need, or became the person to offer “a shoulder to cry on” when we were suffering and/or experiencing grief.  At this stage of the meditation, I thought of my colleague of 15 years.  I expressed appreciation for her wisdom and calmness; her flexibility and understanding; her courage and willingness to meet challenges head on; her work ethic and persistence; her active commitment to fairness and equity; her genuine care and concern for our clients; and her kindness and generosity to anyone in need (often at great personal expense).

The reflection made me realise how lucky I am to have such a colleague and to know that in any situation we encounter I can rely on her for her considered and apt response.  Diana suggests that after this experience of appreciation and gratitude, we again express loving kindness towards them in our own words as befit the individual involved.

The final stage of this guided meditation is to focus on people who might be suffering – experiencing chronic illness or fatigue, addiction, the COVID19 virus, or the extreme challenges of war/refugee experience. We can extend loving kindness to our chosen group of people – wishing that their suffering be alleviated; that amidst the pain they can have moments of peace; that they are able to meet their challenges with acceptance, resilience and courage; and that they are eventually free from their suffering so that they can experience wellness and ease.

Reflection

There will be times when we cannot feel loving kindness – particularly to those who have hurt us or whose words and actions are continually challenging.  In these situations, instead of indulging in self-denigrating thoughts and feelings, we can extend loving kindness to ourselves

We can also explore an internal form of compassionate curiosity – whereby we envisage what traumas a person with an addiction has experienced in their lives and what might be the messages they are giving themselves about their “worth”.  Gabor Maté explains this approach in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.

As we grow in mindfulness, through gratitude and loving kindness mediation, we can begin to appreciate the many people and things we take for granted in our lives, grow in kindness towards others and ourself, and move beyond a self-referential and self-centred world to engage in compassionate action.  Loving kindness meditation helps us to appreciate what is good in others as well as in ourselves.

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Image by John Hain 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.

Managing Fear and Anxiety through Mindfulness Meditation

Diana Winston, Director of the Mindfulness Education Division in UCLA, provides a guided meditation podcast on the use of mindfulness to manage fear and anxiety.  She suggests that our fears can be real (e.g. a physical threat) or imagined (e.g. anxiety about some perceived future scenario which may never happen).  Fear is focused on perceptions about the present moment whereas anxiety tends to be longer term and related to imagined adverse futures in whatever form they may take.

We can be fearful about the risk of contracting the Coronavirus, COVID19, and experiencing the associated debilitating effects of this pandemic.  We might also be putting off our meaningful work because of unfounded rationalisations about what might go wrong.  We might have found that a generalised state of anxiety has disabled us and  that our fear response has blocked us from our creativity and capacity to perform at a competent level.  Our fear response can be manifested behaviourally as fight, flight or freeze.

In the guided meditation, Diana offers a four stage meditation process to address whatever form our fear or anxiety takes.  She maintains that a mindfulness approach can not only increase self-awareness and regulation of our emotions but also enable us to restore our centredness and strengthen our wellbeing and the associated ease.

The four-stage approach to managing fear and anxiety through mindfulness meditation

Diana’s four stage approach incorporates becoming physically grounded, exploring what is happening in the moment, accessing the “wisdom mind” and extending loving kindness towards yourself.  The processes in each of the four stages can be summarised as follows:

  • Stage 1 – This involves establishing a sense of physical groundedness by feeling your feet on the floor and experiencing the solidity, physical support and stability beneath you.  The associated feelings can be strengthened by picturing the solid earth beneath, no matter how much your are above ground level at the time of the meditation. ‘
  • Stage 2 – Here you are encouraged to face the fear in its various manifestations – bodily sensations, racing mind and unsettling feelings.  The core question is, What does fear feel like?  Do you experience increase heart rate, sweating, headache or a “clenched stomach”.  What thoughts are generating your fear and/or anxiety and what negative thoughts and worldview are you adopting?  What is happening for you emotionally, e.g. crying, withdrawing, being angry and/or aggressive or experiencing inertia?
  • Stage 3 – Once you achieve a degree of calmness, you can seek to access your “wisdom mind” which deserts you when you are in turmoil.  Mindfulness can provide a pathway to wisdom and open the door to our intuition and creativity.  Sharon Salzberg  maintains that meditation can stimulate our innate wisdom through recognition of agency, appreciating moments of joy and richness, identifying boundaries of control, strengthening our sense of connectedness (replacing a sense of aloneness) and assisting us to deal effectively with difficult thoughts and emotions.
  • Stage 4 – Here you are encouraged to tap into loving kindness towards yourself – providing understanding, a non-judgmental stance and reassurance. You can extend towards yourself the same thoughtfulness, forgiveness and generosity that you show towards others in need. 

Reflection

If we are anxious, we may need to explore a range of regular practices to restore balance in our life.   Judson Brewer, in his book Unwinding Anxiety, maintains that mindfulness does not stop anxious thoughts or change them but “changes our relationship to those thoughts and emotions”.  He offers a “mindfulness personality quiz” to help you identify your behavioural patterns and provides ways to “train your brain to heal your mind”.

Meditation and other mindfulness practices such as chanting help us to reframe our life and overcome adversity by developing insight and resilience.   As we grow in mindfulness, we can deepen our self-awareness, regain control over our thoughts and emotions and build the resilience required to live in these challenging times.

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians 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.

Exploring the Spectrum of Awareness through Fish in an Aquarium

Diana Winston previously introduced the concept of the spectrum of awareness – moving from a narrow lens through a wide lens to a panoramic view.  In a recent guided meditation podcast, Diana illustrated how to practice these different types of awareness through meditating with fish in an aquarium.   She suggested that observing fish in an aquarium with varying focus enables us to develop our understanding of the different ways we can pay attention – from a very narrow and sustained focus to a totally open awareness that takes in all that is occurring in our range of vision as well as what is happening internally.  Diana used the Aquarium of the Pacific webcam to enable participants to practice these different types of awareness.

Adopting a narrow awareness

Diana progressively introduced a range of awareness practices after having participants relax and adopt a comfortable, upright (if possible) position.  This can be preceded by slow, deep breathing to bring awareness to the present moment.  In the narrow awareness stage, Diana suggests that you focus on a plant at the bottom of the aquarium where there are a number of bright, green plants.  The chosen plant serves as an anchor throughout the meditation with the fish.  Once you have chosen a plant, she suggests that you maintain your focus on this particular plant and, if distractions occur, return your focus to the plant.  This practice of returning to your anchor builds your awareness muscle.  It is natural for your attention to wander, particularly where you have a lot of movement in front of you as in the aquarium.  A brightly coloured fish, a ghostly stingray or a sleek shark may pull your attention away – you can then just restore your focus to your chosen plant.

Widening awareness to movement of particular fish

Diana explained that this form of widened awareness can be activated by an investigative stance – e.g. exploring the movement of a fish as it passes in front of you from bottom to top, diagonally from corner to corner or from side to side, eventually disappearing from view.  Sometimes this widened focus can take in the synchronised swimming of a group of fish, moving artistically in pairs or threes.  Diana encourages you after following the movement of a particular fish or group of fish to return to your plant focus, again strengthening your capacity for paying attention and concentrating on a particular object.

Taking a panoramic view

Diana recommends that before expanding your awareness, you allow your body to soften and settle back to facilitate taking in the full screen, taking in everything that is happening in front of you in the aquarium.  As you observe the totality of the scene in front of you, you can notice the different colours of the fish (ranging from black to a bight orange), different shaped bodies and heads, varying speed of movement (from fast to very slow).   You can take in the ease and smoothness of movement of the different species in the aquarium, including varying movement of fins and tails.  You can extend your awareness further to take in the water itself, including the disturbance of the surface of the water as the continuous movement causes motion in the water itself.   Diana suggests that if at any time the scene and broader focus becomes overwhelming, you can return your focus to your plant anchor within the aquarium (e.g. some people may experience a sensation of giddiness with all the movement, colour, and glistening scales).

An addendum to this panoramic focus is to notice what is going on inside you, your own throughs and feelings.  This is in line with the definition of mindfulness used by MARC in their online and drop-in meditation sessions – paying attention in the moment with openness, curiosity and acceptance of what is occurring for you.  Your emotions may include calmness and peace, a sense of wonder and awe, or appreciation and gratitude. You can also check in with your associated bodily sensations at the time.  Diana encourages you, too, to become conscious of “who is noticing” being aware of your awareness – a uniquely human property as illustrated by clinical psychologist Noam Shpancer in his book, The Good Psychologist, when he compares the capacities of a human being to that of a zebra .

Reflection

I had become aware of the spectrum of awareness through a previous post I had written based on one of Diana’s earlier guided meditations.  Coincidentally, I recalled this practice when I was having my lunch on the deck at my home.  When I finished my lunch (which I did not eat very mindfully!), I decided to take a panoramic view of what I could see from the deck, including the far away waters of Moreton Bay.  I noticed the trees and plants, the different shaped leaves, varying movement with the wind in the trees, newly formed and colourful spring growth and the sounds and movement of birds penetrating my visual space.  This process of widened awareness was very calming and peaceful.

As we grow in mindfulness through observation, meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can build our capacity to focus and concentrate, to appreciate and savour what is around us and to get in touch with the healing power of nature.

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians 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.

Managing Our Response to Uncertainty

In these challenging times, we often experience uncertainty and ambiguity which, in turn, leads to anxiety and depression.  At the very least, these conditions can make us feel uncomfortable, annoyed or ill at ease.  We normally want to be in control of our lives and have some certainty about our future.  We try to create some sense, order and meaningfulness for our future by developing our plans for our career, family interactions, travel and personal development.  In times of uncertainty like the present, we can become disoriented when these plans are disrupted, put on hold, deferred or cancelled altogether because of lockdowns, border closures, ill-health, international conflicts or major natural disasters.

We need some strategies to help us cope with this uncertainty and ambiguity. Over time, we have to develop ways to tolerate these setbacks and anxiety-inducing conditions.  The reality is that uncertainty and ambiguity are part of the human condition and cannot be avoided.  Diana Winston offers one way of addressing this uncertainty and managing our response to challenging times.  In her guided meditation podcast, Opening to Uncertainty, she provides a mindfulness meditation approach which she describes as “advanced practice” – not only is it challenging but also requires repetition and practice to enable us to widen our window of tolerance in the face of ever-increasing uncertainty and ambiguity.

Guided meditation on managing our response to uncertainty

  • Diana begins the guided meditation with an initial focus on body posture which should be relaxed and comfortable but involve conscious choice that enables freedom of breathing.  She begins the meditation practice encouraging multiple deep breaths that facilitate release of built-up tension and stress.  Diana encourages us to “relax into the present moment” and become conscious of our bodily sensations – especially pockets or points of uptightness.  As we wind down, we can progressively release specific points of tension. 
  • The next phase involves choosing an anchor that truly grounds us in the present and is unlikely to act as a trigger for heightened negative emotions or a trauma response.  We each have our negative triggers and varying levels of tolerance to specific difficult situations.  Our meditation anchor enables us to return to a chosen focus when we notice our mind wandering or when we experience strong challenging emotions. 
  • When negative emotions take over, we have the choice to work with the difficult emotion and its intensity (if we are at an advanced stage of meditation practice) or to use our anchor as a way to return to being grounded in the present moment. 
  • After addressing emotions around experienced anxiety, Diana moves the meditation to another stage where she encourages us to recall an occasion when we successfully dealt with some level of anxiety and ambiguity.  Associated with this, is recalling the feeling of dealing positively with the stress – we can try to recapture those positive emotions to strengthen our belief in our own capacity to deal with current challenges.  I found this activity particularly useful, because it is so easy to overlook past successes in dealing with anxiety when you are feeling overwhelmed with present challenges.
  • The next stage of the meditation involved loving-kindness towards ourself.  To begin with it is important to acknowledge that it is natural to feel anxiety in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity.  Diana recommends that once we acknowledge this naturalness, we can express a positive desire such as, “May I meet uncertainty with grace and ease.”  This request can be repeated as a way to reinforce the belief that we are able to manage uncertainty in whatever form it takes.

Reflection

I undertook this meditation on the day that I was due to receive my first COVID-19 vaccine.  I was uncertain about what vaccine I was going to receive and concerned about the after effects, given that I suffer from a wide range of sensitivities and allergies.  There was ambiguity to deal with as well – surrounding the availability of the different vaccines, their relative effectiveness and their after effects.  However, I found that Diana’s guided meditation helped me to become grounded and prepared for most contingencies.

In her meditation, Diana encourages us to approach uncertainty and our response with openness and curiosity and a “willingness to be with that experience”.  She stated that life has its “ups and downs” and sometimes terrible things happen as well as wonderful things.  She maintained that it is illusionary to believe that life is an even, untroubled flow – we will be challenged at times and be able to cope to varying degrees with what confronts us.  

Diana asserted that as we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we will be better able to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity and manage our response to challenging stressors and associated emotions.  However, she asserted that managing our response to uncertainty is a long-term process. Her guided meditation can help in that regard. 

Diana mentioned the availability of other MARC meditation podcasts via the UCLA  Mindful App.  Previously I have identified activities to maintain a positive mindset in the times of uncertainty and anxiety.  In this blog, too, I have covered other meditation approaches to managing our response to uncertainty:

  • Jill Satterfield provided a meditation on using breath as a restorative process in challenging times.
  • Diana Winston offered an approach which focuses strongly on gratitude.
  • Kristin Neff and Chris Germer provided a range of self-compassion practices to enable us to manage in challenging times, including the pandemic.  
  • MARC meditations incorporate a range of other meditations that can reduce anxiety in times of uncertainty and challenge.

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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.

Balancing Compassion with Equanimity

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC UCLA, offers a meditation podcast on the theme, The Balance of Compassion and Equanimity.  This is one of the weekly meditations provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC).  Currently, the meditations are offered via the Zoom platform and are recorded and uploaded for ongoing access.  They are also readily available via the UCLA Mindful app which provides “meditations for well-being”.

Guided meditation on balancing compassion with equanimity

In these challenging times it is easy to experience “compassion fatigue” or burnout.  The pandemic alone has brought death and grief, pain and suffering, job losses, homelessness, suicides, mental illness, business rundown/closure, family separations and divided communities (around issues such as border closures, vaccination distribution, mask wearing and mandatory vaccination).  Many places are experiencing natural disasters including earthquakes, wild fires, floods and tornados.   There are international conflicts creating an endless stream of refugees as well as people who are trapped in a violent and inhuman environment.   We do not have look too far to be surrounded by pain and suffering in this world of conflict and challenge.

In her guided meditation Diana maintains that in these times, it is common for people to experience a lack of balance and overwhelm.  She suggests that one way through the dilemma of finding a balance between compassion and equanimity is to take refuge in meditation.  Her recommended meditation practice involves both expression of compassion and a retreat into equanimity.  This can be a once-off approach.  However, if we are dealing with considerable imbalance and/or overwhelm we can repeat the process on a regular basis.  This will also be necessary if we find ourselves in a state of compassion burnout where we can longer feel for others who are in pain and suffering.

Diana begins the mediation by having us take a few deep breaths to release tension we may feel as a result of experiencing strong feelings of compassion.  She suggests that we become conscious of our posture and the groundedness provided by our feet on the floor or our body on the ground (if lying down outside in nature).  Initially, she encourages us to identify physical points of tension so that we can consciously release them.  Diana then progressively moves us through the process of exploring several anchors for our meditation – our breathing (movement in our abdomen or chest), external sounds or some bodily sensation.

Compassion meditation

Diana starts with a focus on compassion and invites us to bring to mind a particular group of people or an individual who we know are in pain and suffering.  She suggests that we start with something that is not a source of overwhelm (so that we can manage the emotions involved).  Diana then encourages us to find some words that enable us to express our compassion towards the chosen group or individual, e.g., “May your suffering be alleviated”.  If we can find our own words to express compassion, it will enable us to genuinely feel that we are extending kindness to others.

Equanimity meditation

Following the focus on compassion, Diana suggests that we take a form of refuge in equanimity meditation.  In this context the retreat to equanimity is achieved by refocusing on our chosen anchor.  It might be our breathing or sounds or a particular bodily sensation.  I have frequently focused on my fingers joined on my lap during meditation – feeling the warmth, the tingling and the flow of blood and energy.   In times when I am waiting or experiencing strong emotions, I can resort to this practice and simultaneously tap into my breathing.  The combination of these anchors – joined fingers and breath – are achieved by regular practice creating the association between them.  Each person has their own way of becoming deeply grounded and restoring balance and equanimity.

Reflection

Diane calls the  meditation practice she facilitated, the “black belt of meditation” – it can be extremely difficult to deal with the attendant emotions, achieve balance and restore equanimity.  What we are trying to achieve is acceptance of what is, while offering genuine compassion to those who are suffering.  There are so many things that are outside our control that acceptance, along with taking compassionate action where possible, is the way forward.  As mentioned earlier, a “rinse and repeat” process may be required to achieve a consistent level of equanimity.

Allyson Pimentel, another MARC meditation teacher, offers an alternative guided meditation on focusing on the elements of nature to achieve equanimity – calmness can be achieved by connecting with the elements of earth, water,  fire, air and space.   Martin Brensilver, in a different MARC meditation, maintains that equanimity can also be strengthened by widening our perspective, reducing our focus on evaluative thinking (e.g., resorting to absolutes of right and wrong) and intensifying our sensory experience (which increases our groundedness).  Gratitude meditation can also help us to restore our balance and calmness. 

As we grow in mindfulness through alternating compassion and equanimity meditation practice, we can progressively gain emotional regulation, develop a balanced compassion and experience equanimity and the ease of wellness.  We can also find creative ways to provide compassionate action for others who are experiencing pain and suffering.  Meditation and mindfulness practices enable us to access the deep well within ourself to provide strength and support to others.

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Image by John Hain 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.