Building Cognitive Resilience through Mindfulness

Research conducted by Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell supports the view that mindfulness builds cognitive resilience – “the ability to overcome negative effects or stress on cognitive functioning” (as defined by Staal and colleagues).  In times of stress or serious setbacks, we can experience cognitive confusion and disorientation.  When the perceived threat to our wellbeing is considerable our “thinking brain” tends to shut down and our “survival brain” takes over – we can be controlled by our negative emotions and engage in fight, flight or freeze behaviour.  In these challenging times we can experience emotional inflammation as we are challenged on many fronts.

The impact of information overload

Information overload is a characteristic of our times with the ever-present and pervasive information highway.  With COVID19, we not only have to cope with the emotional strain of illness and death amongst our families , friends and colleagues but also the vast amounts of complex health advice and restrictions – information that is often conflicting and exacerbated by misinformation peddled by vested interests.  

The stress of information overload can be compounded by what Jamie and Rosie refer to as a our “digital and media diet” – a bias towards distressing information, rather than information that inspires, uplifts, or motivates.  An obsession with the news can be a daily diet of information that disturbs, distresses, distracts and debilitates us and severely limits our effective cognitive functioning.

Unfortunately, our natural tendency is to close down emotionally and avoid facing the pain of negative emotions.  We can block out difficult emotions such as fear, anxiety, and depression until such time as they take their toll on our physical health.  Liz Stanley, for example, explains how she lost her sight temporarily by “soldiering on” despite traumatic stress.

The role of mindfulness in developing cognitive resilience

Mindfulness practices can help us face raw and difficult emotions such as fear and build resilience through accepting our current reality, rather than denying its existence.   Rick Hanson, for example, provides a meditation practice designed to turn fear into resilience.   Bob Stahl, meditation teacher and author, offers a mindfulness practice to address fear and anxiety that are exacerbated by negative self-stories.

Mindfulness meditation can be a source of refuge in times of turbulence when we feel our minds and emotions whirling.  It enables us to restore our equilibrium and find peace and calm despite the waves of change and challenge crashing down on us.   We can build our resilience by taking time out to become grounded and to reconnect with ourselves. 

Jamie and Rosie point out the research that demonstrates that mindfulness can enhance both working memory and long-term memory.  Working memory constitutes our temporary storage facility that enables us to utilise information to effectively make decisions, act wisely and communicate appropriately.  It can become overwhelmed and degraded by stress and trauma and negatively impact our window of tolerance – narrowing it and thus reducing our capacity to cope with further stressors, however minor.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness we can increase our sense of agency in the face of stress and setbacks by facing up to our negative emotions and diffusing their impact, accessing our memory and cognitive faculties without the befuddlement of emotional overload, making sound choices about information that we expose ourselves to and developing groundedness despite the turbulent winds of change.  In this way, we can progressively build our cognitive resilience by reducing the negative impacts of stress on our cognitive functions and limiting emotional turmoil.  Hence, we will be better able to access our creative faculties and take wise actions such as scenario thinking to deal with ongoing stressors. 

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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.

Enhancing Receptivity through Mindfulness

Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell maintain from their research that mindfulness enhances our receptivity thus enabling us to reclaim our attention and sense of agency – our sense of the ability to positively influence our relationships and our external environment.  According to their research, mindfulness increases our receptivity in a number of ways – widening the “bandwidth of perception”, overcoming unhelpful habituated responses, reducing our distorted perceptions,  improving our relationships, and developing our “don’t know mind”. 

Widening the bandwidth of perception

Mindfulness increases our capacity to take in information through its emphasis on acceptance of “what is”, consciously noticing bodily sensations and heightened development of our senses.  Acceptance is a precondition for action, not inaction – if we cannot accept what is happening to us (e.g. through internal dialogue such as “Why me?”, “What have I done to deserve this?” or “This can’t be happening to me”), then we cannot move forward and take constructive action to redress our situation. 

Mindfulness meditation often focuses on our bodily sensations – we are encouraged to notice what is happening in us bodily when we experience difficult emotions.  By noticing our bodily sensations, we are better able to name our emotions and tame them. Our bodies are windows to our feelings – by paying attention to them we widen the bandwidth of our perception and gain better access to our inner landscape.

Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book, Coming to Our Senses, shows us how to access all our senses – e.g., our seeing,  touchscape, soundscape, smellscape, tastescape – to enable us to heal ourselves and act positively on our world.  Being open to our senses enhances the depth and width of our perception and increases our sense of connection with nature – developing a sense of empowerment and resulting in healing ourselves.

Overcoming unhelpful habituated responses

As we come to understand our inner landscape through mindfulness, we gain insight into our negative triggers and their origins. This leads to awareness of our reactivity and habituated responses.  Often, we are triggered by our distorted perceptions that arise because of our bias, projections, prejudice, and unfounded assumptions.  As we unearth these distortions in perception through mindfulness meditation, we are better able to understand their influence over us and what we perceive, and to exercise control over our reactions.

Improving our relationships

Through mindfulness, we not only reduce our perceptual distortions but also emotional baggage that can destroy relationships.  We are able to bring to the relationship increased self-awareness and self-regulation.  For example, by reflecting on any resentment we carry towards another person, we can come to see their side of the story, understand where they are coming from and reduce our self-absorption and hurt – thus healing our relationship.  Through mindfulness we can also bring to the relationship an increased consciousness of our inner landscape, a sense of personal empowerment (not disabling dependence) and a growing capacity to feel and express empathy.  We are better able to engage in active listening because we can be present in the moment of the conversation, attentive to non-verbal cues and less defensive and self-protective.  Mantra meditations, as one form of mindfulness, can increase our capacity for deep listening.

Developing our “don’t know mind”

Jamie and Rosie write about the “beginner’s mind” developed through openness and curiosity  – which are hallmarks of mindfulness according to the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).  In discussing the lessons from death and dying, Frank Ostaseski encourages us to develop what he calls, the “don’t know mind” which has the same characteristics of openness and curiosity and he suggests that these characteristics can be developed through mindfulness meditation.  The result is that we are able to enter conversations with others not trying to be “interesting” but demonstrating being “interested in” the other person – a stance that enhances trust and relationships.  Mindfulness enables us to listen for understanding rather than attempting to always persuade others to our point of view – in the process, developing our influence and strengthening our relationships.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can strengthen our sense of agency by developing our receptivity – to information and to others.  We can gain better awareness of our distorted perceptions and their impacts, develop greater self-control over our reactions to negative triggers, improve our relationships and grow our influence through our curiosity and openness.  Our enhanced perceptual bandwidth developed through paying attention to our senses gives us uncluttered access to our inner landscape and the healing power and sense of empowerment of our natural landscape.

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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.

Healing from Trauma and Building Resilience to Manage Stress

Liz Stanley recently provided an introductory webinar for her course on Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)®.  The webinar explains the components of the course and how it helps people recover from trauma and enable anyone to build resilience and effectively manage stress.  She also discusses the traumas she has experienced, her personal search for healing and resilience and her in-depth training including her doctorate. 

The components of MMFT®

The online course covers 8 modules over 8 weeks (that you can undertake within your own time and availability).  The first four modules provide the framework to understand how stress and trauma affects us and provides an insight into the neurobiology involved.  As she explains in the webinar, stress and trauma reduce our window of tolerance (our tolerance of stress arousal).  In her view, each of us have our own window of tolerance which has been shaped from birth, and continuously widened or narrowed through our life experiences, encounter with trauma, our lifestyle choices and our stress response (creating implicit learning about what is threatening). 

If we are within our window of tolerance, we are better able to access our thinking brain (enabling accurate perception, clarity of thinking and wise decision making); when we are outside our window of tolerance we are captured by our survival brain and habituated stress responses in terms of bodily sensations, difficult emotions and harmful choices.

Liz explains that the second group of four modules of the MMFT® course deal with habits and related habituated responses, making effective decisions, managing difficult emotions and chronic pain, as well as ways to be more effective in our interpersonal interactions.  The course includes stress and trauma-sensitive mindfulness practices, ”somatic experiencing” and a unique sequence of exercises designed to achieve grounding and enable movement “from dysregulation to self-regulation”.

Liz’s course is offered through Sounds True and has been validated extensively through evidence-based research that has confirmed results in terms of improvements in cognitive performance, strengthened resilience and improved self-regulation, as well as positive developments in other areas of self-management.

Widening the Window of Tolerance

Liz explains that our repetitive experiences impact our implicit knowledge and shape our brains and neuroception (perception of threat/ safety).  We can choose experiences that are beneficial or others that are harmful – we have choice in how our brain is shaped and adapts (neuroplasticity).

In the MMFT introductory webinar and in her book, Widen the Window, Liz offers five lifestyle choices that can serve to widen our window of tolerance:

  1. Sleep
  2. Diet
  3. Exercise
  4. Awareness and reflection
  5. Social connection

She explains that the course details the beneficial effects of each of these elements and also the detrimental effects caused by their absence or deprivation.  She particularly notes the benefits of awareness and reflection.  Liz explains that awareness can be built through mindfulness practices, Tai Chi and yoga while reflective practices involve reflective thinking such as journalling, reading poems, reflecting on scriptural passages or work experiences and their implications, or maintaining some form of gratitude diary.  She highlights the benefits of mindfulness and reflective practices in terms of calmness, clarity, self-awareness, focus, resilience and intention building.

One of Liz’s key messages is that resilience is something that we can learn and develop through beneficial choices.  The result is that we will be better able to manage stress, heal from trauma and access our thinking brain which enables us to think clearly and creatively and choose wise actions – rather than be captive to stress-induced confusion and harmful habituated responses.

Reflection

Liz’s course focuses on how to heal from past, stressful experiences and how to deal effectively with future stressful situations, whether internal (e.g. chronic anxiety) or external (e.g. job loss or interpersonal conflict).  She emphasises the need for consistency not only in making beneficial lifestyle choices but also through engaging in regular mindfulness and reflective practices.   As we grow in mindfulness and the associated awareness of thoughts, emotions, and bodily responses, we can widen our window of tolerance and deal more effectively with the stressors in our life.

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

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

Resonance and the Art of Leveraging Energy through Meditation

Yesterday Ginny Whitelaw conducted a global Zoom launch for her new book, Resonate: Zen and the Way of Making a Difference.  Ginny contends that resonance is the “lynchpin” between our inner and outer world, it connects inner energy with outer energy.  She explained that energy is everywhere, everything is in a state of vibration.  If we can achieve integration of mind and body by developing awareness through meditation, we are capable of vibrating with many energies that enable us to create change in our world – personal, inter-personal and social change.

Resonance as alignment and amplification

Resonance involves “vibrating with” – achieving alignment with, and amplification of, energy.  Ginny pointed out that resonance is a “fact” – there are measurable, characteristic ways in which vibration occurs when energies come together.  For example, she provided an experiential exercise where participants in the Zoom meeting could experience in their body, the vibrations from the music of a large church organ.  When the notes were deep, people felt the vibrations in the lower part of their bodies, e.g. in their feet; in contrast, when the notes were high, the vibration was felt higher in the body.  She reinforced this experience with a final exercise that involved making sounds such as “oh”, “om” and “ng”, while progressively experiencing the different sounds in the relevant Chakra level of the body, e.g. the deep “oh” sound aligned with the “root chakra”, while the “ng” sound was experienced in the “crown chakra”.

Ginny explained that energy vibrations and rhythms surround us in daily life.  The vibrations of sound waves, the movement of a swing, and the differential impact of small and big waves are some of the ways that we can perceive energy and resonance in action.   According to Ginny, “energy creates form” and “form shapes energy”, e.g. when the flow of water down a rockface gouges out a clear channel for the water to follow over time.  So too, energy perceived through the senses can change our neurons, changing our form within us and shaping our energy output.

Leveraging energy through mindful meditation

Ginny pointed out that through breath meditation, employing deep breathing, we can slow our thoughts and calm our body.  The integration of the mind-body connection through different forms of meditation and other mindfulness practices, enables us to develop calm energy which impacts those around us.  She views meditation as improving our own resonant instrument, taming the dissipated energy of the ego, fears, and impulses.  Meditation heightens our sensitivity and enables us to overcome habituated responses.  Our life experiences influence our perceptions and emotions as we become sensitised to negative triggers that evoke difficult emotions that serve to misdirect our focus and energy.  Meditation helps us to tame the energy of difficult emotions, and to understand their message and wisdom so that we can redirect their energy and take appropriate action.

During the online launch, Ginny provided a three-step meditation process designed to change the “inner dialogue” and release energy (as if we are overcoming a “cramp” or energy blockage):

  1. Breathe deeply and lengthen your exhale beyond that of the inhale.
  2. Envisage someone in your group or team experiencing difficulty and direct kind thoughts and positive energy towards them.
  3. Focus on something in the room that you love to look at or experience and then “tune into” why you like that particular object.  Progressively let your heart expand to take in your whole room or external environment.

Ginny maintains that as our inner reality changes through meditation, our outer experience changes. We become more open to what is around us and better able to use our gifts to help others – achieving greater flow in our lives through alignment with our life purpose.   We can more readily tune into the wavelength of others and respond more appropriately and creatively.  Our inner energy flow and mind-body alignment shape the way we interact with the world and bring about personal, interpersonal, and social change.

Ginny highlights the need for leaders to develop leadership agility by adopting different energy patterns.  She maintains that leadership is about resonance, a skill developed by deep listening to others.   Listening, in turn, requires being in the moment, fully present, and consciously attuned to the other person and the source and direction of their energy.  This capacity for attunement is developed through meditation and mindfulness practices. 

Reflection

The challenge for us is to achieve what Ginny calls “the foundational flip” – the capacity to  overcome self-absorption and direct our energy outwards for the good of others.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can become more attuned to the energy that surrounds us, more flexible and adaptable in leading others and more focused and energised to achieve our life purpose and make a positive difference in the lives of others.

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

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

Developing Wisdom Through Meditation

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

Elements of wisdom developed through meditation

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

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

Reflection

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

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Image by Nadege Burness 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.

A Meditation for Grief and Loss

The sense of grief and loss can be overwhelming in these challenging times of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Maybe we have lost a relative, friend or colleague to the virus or we are experiencing the loss of the way things used to be – the levity and gaiety of daily interactions, the structure and social intercourse of a common workplace, the freedom of movement and access, the enjoyment of our favourite sport or pastime or the security, success and predictability of our business.  It is easy to beat up on ourselves and say, “I should be over this by now” or “Why aren’t I more positive like other people?”  Grief and loss have their own individual expression and it takes time and space to deal with the intensity of these difficult emotions.

Meditation as a refuge

Whatever is the cause of our sense of grief and loss, meditation can serve as a refugea place of safety, security and equanimity in the midst of everything that is unsettling.  It enables us to accept what is and move forward, even with tentative ideas and steps.  Meditation provides a grounding when the sense of loss is swirling around us, encompassing our thoughts and emotions.

We can become grounded through our breath – noticing the in-breath and out-breath and the rise and fall of our abdomen or chest.  We can rest in the space between our in-breath and out-breath and envisage kindness and strength flowing into us while tension and unease flows out of us.

We can sense the solid feeling of the floor or ground whether we are sitting, lying, standing or walking during our meditation.  As we do a body scan, we can notice our bodily sensations and points of tension – caused by suppressing the sense of grief and loss and holding back the natural flow of difficult emotions.  We can breathe into these places of tautness and pain and allow our emotions to surface and release.

We can feel the flow of energy, warmth and strength move through us as we sense the tingling in our hands and feet or through our fingers touching each other.  We can sense surrounding sounds by tuning into the room tone or the sounds surrounding us in the open – the breeze blowing, leaves in the trees rustling or the birds chirping or singing.  We can become immersed in the energetic field of our surround-sound as we allow ourselves to experience focused attention.

Meditation for grief and loss

We can use general forms of emotion meditation or a structured approach such as the R.A.I.N. process (recognise, allow, investigate, nurture).  Alternatively, we can use a specific meditation focused on grief and loss.  For example, Diana Winston, author of The Little Book of Being, offers a guided meditation podcast on Working with Grief and Loss.  

Her approach begins with grounding processes such as those described above but then moves onto dealing directly with the emotions of grief and loss.  She suggests at the outset of her focus on grief and loss (22min. mark), that you envisage a time when you were held tightly and securely and encompassed in love and compassion – whether by a parent, intimate partner or a close friend.  Diana encourages you to dwell in this feeling of being surrounded by support and strength, a feeling that can be reinforced by feeling the solidity of the floor or ground beneath your feet or body.

Diana encourages you to notice your feelings of sadness whether it is for yourself, others close to you or people in your neighbourhood or interstate (as with the rising number of deaths from Coronavirus in the State of Victoria, Australia).  She suggests that you allow the emotions and bodily sensations to manifest themselves – whether feelings of anxiety, constriction or heaviness of mind and heart.  She stresses the importance of staying grounded throughout by simultaneously being connected to something solid – a memory of being held warmly or the solidity of the earth beneath your feet.

While experiencing these emotions, especially if you are feeling regret at failing to appreciate what you had or connecting with a loved one, it is vital to show yourself kindness and self-compassion and to reassure yourself with words like, “I can get through this”, and “I have the support of others wherever in the world they might be”.  You can extend your compassion to others who are experiencing their own form of loss and grief, especially those in Beirut at the moment.  Tara reminds us to accept what is and to acknowledge that “we are all in this together”.

Reflection

It is natural to feel grief and loss in challenging times like those we are all experiencing differentially at the moment wherever we are in the world.  Denying those feelings can intensify them and lead to harmful and unproductive behaviour and negatively impact our interactions.  Meditation provides a refuge and a way to face our difficult emotions with kindness and self-compassion.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can find the resilience and strength to persist in the face of adversity and restore our equanimity no matter what the circumstances that challenge our ability to cope.

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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.

Self-acceptance and Overcoming Negative Thoughts

Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Professor Steven Hayes co-founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  In the interview podcast, Steven focused on Self-Acceptance and Perspective-Taking.  Fundamental to the ACT approach is the capacity to “step Back” from the inner critic, notice the negative thoughts that are being generated and listening to those thoughts with a sense of curiosity to understand what is going on.  It involves being vulnerable to, rather than hiding away from, the hurt entailed in negative self-evaluation.  Added to this facing up to the inner critic are defusion techniques, such as perspective-taking, designed to create distance from the thoughts by seeing that they are not facts, only “streams of words” or momentary sensations.

Acceptance of thoughts and sensations

Steven explains that “acceptance” in the context of ACT involves acknowledging these negative thoughts as a gift to be explored, not something to be accepted passively or tolerated as if they were true and readily verifiable.  It involves recognising the wisdom embedded in our difficult emotions because they serve to illuminate something that we care about deeply. 

This involves the flexibility to acknowledge the gap between our thoughts and our inner awareness of them and the capacity to take what is useful in those thoughts to motive us to act on them to achieve a positive outcome that we value.   It is about regaining control over our inner world so that we can live our life “with meaning and purpose” – the core theme of Steven’s latest book, A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Towards What Really Matters.

Steven illustrates this acceptance approach by discussing negativity around body image and how to turn this into effective problem solving – rather than being trapped in the unfounded message of the inner critic that relates body weight to ugliness or lack of attractiveness.  He suggests as a starting point to revisit your past to see where the mental connection between body weight and ugliness originated, e.g. it might have had its origins in bullying at school by other students who were jealous of your academic or sporting success.  Following this exploration, you can use one of the many defusion strategies in ACT that can take away the power of this autosuggestion.  Russ Harris, ACT practitioner, provides a great set of defusion strategies in his humorous, illustrated book, The Happiness Trap Pocketbook – a very readable and accessible guidebook for personal change. 

Perspective-taking: a defusion strategy to create space and disempower the inner critic

Steven highly recommends “perspective-taking” as a defusion strategy to enable you to step back from negative thoughts and create enough space to disempower them.   There are many ways to undertake perspective-taking.  Steven describes one process in his interview podcast that he asserts will work even when you lack knowledge of mindfulness, ACT or any other related modality.  The steps he describes are as follows:

  1. Picture yourself struggling with the negative critic you are confronting (with your eyes closed or looking downwards to reduce distractions)
  2. Notice that it is a part of you that is noticing your struggle
  3. Now take that part of yourself that is noticing and tune into your body seeing yourself watching the struggle (you can even tune into the earliest occurrence of these negative thoughts) – in the process show self-compassion towards yourself
  4. Then ask yourself, “Is this person loveable, wholesome or empathetic?’ 
  5. Picture yourself sitting there observing this loveable, wholesome person from a short distance – as in a movie
  6. Imagine remembering 10 years from now how you looked as you struggled with the inner critic – picture yourself sitting in a chair or on the floor still struggling the same way
  7. You can ask yourself then, if you were observing this struggle in this future time, “What words of wisdom would you offer yourself?”
  8. Then bring yourself back to the present by grounding yourself in your body.

In this interaction, your wisdom will emerge, and you can offer yourself encouraging words such as “you can move on”.  According to Steven, research shows that “human intelligence in inherently self-compassionate” – the thought processes above enable you to tap that self-compassion.  He maintains that this form of perspective-taking is itself “very healing”.

Reflection

We can become overwhelmed by our inner critic if we give it free play, without challenge.  So often, we avoid facing up to what is painful.  The Inner MBA, developed by Tami Simon and colleagues, provides one avenue to explore our inner landscape, and defusing strategies offer many ways to break the hold of our inner critic.  Mindfulness practices provide a further avenue for facing up to our negative thoughts and related disabling beliefs.

As we grow in mindfulness through these processes, we can break the hold of the inner critic, gain a truer self-awareness, embrace self-compassion and emerge with a sense of freedom and alignment with our life purpose.

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Image by NickyPe 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.

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.

Don’t Wait to Forgive

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

Resistance to forgiveness

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

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

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

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

The long journey of forgiveness

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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Image by Лечение наркомании 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.

Accessing the Genius of Anxiety for Improved Mental Health

Karla McLaren discussed embracing anxiety in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True when having a conversation about Making Friends with Anxiety … And All Your Other Emotions.   Karla was able to draw on her own life experience and her recent book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.   She has spent a lifetime researching and writing about emotions.

In a previous post, I explored Karla’s concept of emotions as storing energy and providing a message and wisdom.  I also discussed effective ways to draw on the energy and wisdom of emotions.  Karla emphasised the importance of not attributing the characteristics of “good” or “bad” to emotions, including difficult emotions.  In her view there are real lessons and ways to move forward hidden in each emotion, even anxiety.

Trauma and anxiety

Karla herself experienced childhood trauma and many of her insights are drawn from her experience in overcoming the associated anxiety and depression.  Like other people who have been traumatised, Karla has had to deal with anxiety and depression throughout her life.  She found that she was ignorant about these emotions and tended to repress or suppress them.   However, through reading and research she has been able to develop practical approaches to addressing anxiety and depression.  She has learned to befriend these emotions and now views depression as enforced slowing down and redirection and has developed the ability to draw on the “genius of anxiety”.

The genius of anxiety

In her interview with Elizabeth Markle on embracing anxiety, Karla emphasised that anxiety is “an essential source of foresight, intuition, and energy for completing your tasks and projects”.  As with any emotion we have a choice – we can suppress, repress or “over-express” anxiety or, alternatively, listen to the message and wisdom that lies within this emotion.  We need to understand that emotion is a process – trigger, experience, response – we have a choice in how we respond to what triggers us and the feelings we experience as a result.

Karla suggests that the appropriate response to situational anxiety is to channel the energy of the emotion towards completing a task or project – much as a canal channels water.  Repression or suppression of anxiety blocks the energy flow, while over-expressing anxiety through panicked or frantic activity can dissipate the energy rather than direct it.  A starting point for channelling the energy of anxiety is “conscious questioning” – e.g. “What brought on this feeling?” and “What truly needs to get done?”   This approach enables you to work with, rather than against, the energy of anxiety and to simultaneously care for yourself by downregulating the impact of the emotion on your thoughts and feelings. 

Karla continued her discussion of “conscious questioning” for anxiety by referring to a sample of other questions featured in her book, Embracing Anxiety (p.85):

  • what are your strengths and resources?
  • are there any upcoming deadlines?
  • have you achieved or completed something similar in the past?
  • can you delegate any tasks or ask for help?
  • what is one small task you can complete tonight or today?

Karla argues that this approach involves “leaning into anxiety”, not artificially calming yourself.  She also alludes to the research that demonstrates that accurate naming of our emotions and identifying the level of intensity of them is another effective form of downregulating emotions.  To this end she encourages us to develop our emotion vocabulary and offers her blog as a starting point for emotion identification.  In her book she offers ways of describing different levels of emotional intensity, for example, low anxiety is described as apprehensive, mild anxiety as edgy or nervous and intense anxiety as overwrought or super-energised.

Karla suggests too that yoga and mindfulness are effective ways of downregulating that can assist the process of conscious questioning.  She offered very brief meditation to illustrate this calming effect.  The meditation basically involved focusing on the quietest sound in the room.  Karla provides a range of practices for each emotion in her book,

Different anxiety orientations: planner vs procrastinator

Karla drew on the work of Mary Lamia, author of What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success, to differentiate between two main manifestations of anxiety – planning anxiety and procrastination anxiety.  The planner maintains a low level of anxiety continuously and has a task “to-do” list(s) to manage their anxiety about getting things done.  The procrastinator, on the other hand, does not make lists but works to deadlines and has an immense burst of anxiety and energy the night before a deadline is due (and often achieves the task in the early or late hours of the morning).  The procrastinator can “chill out” while waiting for the deadline, the task person has difficulty “chilling”.

Mary points out that what is different in the two approaches to task achievement has to do with “when their emotions are activated and what activates them”.  The procrastinator, for example, is motivated by the imminent deadline and experiences “deadline energy”; the planner is motivated by the need to keep task commitments under control.   Understanding the difference between these two sources of motivating anxiety and your personal preference in how to get things done, can reduce conflict in a relationship and support success where partners have a different orientation.   Maria discusses the potential clash in orientation between procrastinators and non-procrastinators in her Psychology Today blog.

Reflection

Mindfulness practices along with conscious questioning and reflection can help us to focus the emotional energy of anxiety.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can better identify our emotions, understand what motivates others and increase our response ability

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Image by Lars Eriksson 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.