The Challenge of Mindfulness in the Digital Age

Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness teacher and creator of MBSR, recently presented a workshop during the Mindfulness & Compassion Week (June 6- 13, 2021).  Jon’s focus was on mindfulness in the digital age. He addressed both the downside and upside of digitisation and noted particularly the benefits accrued through online communication during pandemic-related lockdowns.  In this post, I want to focus on the downside of the digital age – the challenge it poses to our ability to pay attention on purpose , non-judgmentally, in the present moment.

Jon was especially concerned about the manipulation of our minds and attention through social media and other online communication channels.  He drew on the work of the Centre for Humane Technology to explore both the human costs of the digital age.  He strongly encouraged exploration of this website and its podcasts along with the film, The Social Dilemma, which he suggested should be viewed multiple times. 

The downside of the digital age – the loss of attention, consciousness, and awareness

Jon maintained that in the digital world it has become hard to discriminate between what is true and what is false, between what is fact and what is myth.  He argued that we have “lost agency” and levels of decision making through social media and related digital technologies and the embedded “surveillance capitalism”.  The language we encounter is manipulative and “propels us out of the moment” – we lose our grounding in the present moment.  We are told that a video is “a must watch”, we are warned that we will “miss out” if we do not take a particular action and we are enticed to act to gain “rewards”, some of which are spurious.  Jon points out that the incessant barrage of information/misinformation and constant attempt to capture our attention leads to dysregulation in our life, adversely affecting our breathing, eating and sleep.

He argued that the greatest need for humanity today is to address the “loss of awareness” – the lack of consciousness that we are losing control over our minds, destroying our environment, and wrecking the lives of people through perpetual, disruptive advertising that attempts to capture our attention and steel our focus.  He encouraged us to increase our awareness of the impacts of the digital age so that we can live our life more fully in the present moment and not be caught up in the mainstream culture of acquisition (vs savouring), of form (vs substance), of envy (vs gratitude), and of self-absorption (vs compassion).

Our diverted attention

The Centre for Humane Technology works tirelessly to help us to develop the awareness of the downside of the digital age, especially through their insightful podcast series, Your Undivided Attention.  One example of this powerful message is the podcast, When Attention Went on Sale, which features an interview with Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads.

Tim maintained that the “commodification of our attention” actually began with the introduction of ad-supported newspapers.  The readers became the product, the focus shifted from a dissemination of the “truth model” to that of the “attention model” and we became the “puppets” of attention-grabbing advertising and media.  The content focus shifted to what shocks (death and violence), what titillates (sexualisation) and what raises curiosity (misleading headings).  The media exploited emotions of fear, scepticism, greed, and envy.   Early on, advertising posters with the work of famous artists were deployed throughout Paris as a means to invade people’s attention.  They were eventually removed when Parisians complained that they invaded their attention and were a blight on the landscape.

Commercial interests now drive the competition for our attention and television offers “precise marketing” through creating an “emotional resonance” with the viewer, heightened by the visual medium.  Human attention is being harvested in the pursuit of “economic and attention power” – attention gained by TV stations leads to higher ratings which leads to more advertising and revenue.  Wu describes this process as the “harvesting of human consciousness” in an environment that is scarily unrestrained and unregulated.  We can observe the resultant imbalance in information dissemination when we notice that a TV Program designed to provide an “alternative perspective” on the news of the day devotes more time to advertisements (reinforcing mainstream culture) than to alternative commentary during a one-hour program.  Viewers of ad-driven TV stations often engage in “channel surfing” to evade ads but this leads to what Jon calls “fragmented attention”.

Our attention is up for sale through Google ads where buyers of ad exposure in search results actually bid for the right to appear higher in the listed results.  While quality (relevance, originality, and depth of content) is an espoused determinant of ranking, price plays a major role and advertisers are encouraged to “outbid” each other for our attention. 

Social media has had a significant impact on attention distraction and distortion.  This has accelerated with the emergence of “selfies” (obsession with self over being present to the moment and location), the commodification of bodies (via private membership of TikTok for example), and “follower ads” on LinkedIn and other online advertising media.  The concept of “friends” (as per Facebook) has moved from “a bond of mutual affection” to that of a relatively disinterested follower and “friends” are purchased via online marketing organisations to boost one’s social presence. Positive product reviews by friends are harvested to build Google rankings – companies even pursue us relentlessly to gain our “review” (even when they have misled us about a product offering).

The game is all about grabbing “eyes on the page” (and Google, for example, measures pages visited, time spent on a page, and percentage of people who view only the “landing page” as they “surf”).  There is now software available to track your eyes as they view a webpage (with eye movement displayed via a heatmap).  We are becoming conditioned to providing those “eyes on the page” – “pop-ups” encourage us to register for continuous information/ad exposure and whenever we have to spend time waiting, our default action is to reach, unthinkingly, for our mobile phone.

The concept of “social influencers” has emerged to identify influential people who have the power to affect our buying decisions and who work in collaboration with brands who use their influence to persuade us to make purchases.  The source of the influencer’s power (e.g., celebrity status, expertise, sexual appeal) and the relative extent of their power (how many followers) is variable.  In consequence, influencers are viewed by brands as “social relationship assets” of variable worth.

Mobile phones are increasingly part of everyday life for people enabling constant access to the Internet, social media and to disruptive “notifications”.   Some people become obsessed with “keeping up-to-date” via social media and constantly access their phones (even sleep with them).  Others feast on the news with all its inherent biases, selective reporting and tailored reinforcement of the receiver’s views, perspectives, and politics. 

Supermarkets employ email-based rewards systems built around receipt scanning and identification of individuals’ typical shopping  basket.  They also attempt to widen purchasing choices by introducing bonus-boosted products not normally purchased by an individual.   Buyers can be “led” to purchase products they do not need or want.  The rewards system works on the principle of intermittent reinforcement employed by gambling machines where ongoing “jackpots” are given to entice the gambler to continue spending.

In summary, in a digital world there are so many mechanisms at play to capture our attention and multiple drivers such as profit, profile enhancement and social influence to sustain these constant, concerted efforts to distract us and divert our attention. This makes it increasingly difficult to be mindful in our everyday life unless we take conscious steps to develop mindfulness to counteract the adverse impact of these online media.

Reflection

Jon also discussed the many benefits of the digital age and this will be the subject of a subsequent post.  Whether we accrue these benefits or suffer the adverse effects of the digital age, comes down to our own choices and behaviour.

Jon emphasised the need to be very aware of the impact of digitisation on our behaviour.  He suggested, for instance, that we should be particularly mindful of our mobile phone use and its potential adverse effects on our quality of life and our relationships.

Jon maintained that the discipline of daily mindfulness meditation can flow over into every aspect of our lives including our use of digital media.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop increased self-awareness,  improved self-regulation, and enhanced insight into the adverse impacts of our own behaviour with respect to digital media.

Self-reflection on our use of digital media and its impacts on our relationships, on our level of personal stress and on our ability to concentrate and be productive, can provide the impetus for behaviour change.  The following reflective questions could serve as a starting point:

  • To what extent is your focus on social media reducing your span of attention?
  • How often is access to your mobile phone your default behaviour when you have to spend time waiting?
  • How often are you distracted by social media when in conversation with an individual or a group?
  • To what extent does social media determine the content of your conversations, e.g., how often do you share rumours, myths, scandals, and what “celebrities” are doing?
  • How much do you rely on social influencers for your purchase decisions?
  • To what extent does the time you spend on social media limit your time spent in nature, experiencing its numerous benefits?
  • Does your social media presence contribute to the quality of life of other people?

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

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

Mindfulness, Attention and Learning

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

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

Attention’s role in learning

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

Developing Inner Silence through Sound Meditations and Music

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

Sound and mindfulness

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

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

Music as a pathway to inner silence

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

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

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

The silence between the notes

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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 Gratitude through Meditation

Diana Winston recently conducted a meditation podcast on the theme of Gratitude, prompted by the imminent celebration of Thanksgiving in the USA.  Diana, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC, observed that as people grow in mindfulness, they become more appreciative of different aspects of their life and work.  Often, we operate on autopilot and as a result so much of our life passes us by – we are not conscious of what is happening for us or how we got to where we arrived.  There is so much of our life that we take for granted, especially the simplest things like being able to breathe, walk, listen and converse.  Through meditation we can become more focused on, and appreciative of, the present moment.

The benefits of gratitude

The benefits of gratitude are so great that it is well worthwhile consciously building appreciation as an integral part of your life.  Research in this area consistently shows that gratitude contributes substantially to the development of positive emotions such as happiness, resilience, and joy as well as the displacement of negative or “toxic emotions” such as resentment and anger that can gradually erode your sense of equanimity and contentment. 

Developing gratitude through a personal reminder

It Is usually when we lose something that we begin to really appreciate what we have.  For instance, one of the discs in my back collapsed in 1997, so for 18 months I was in extreme pain from sciatica – having difficulty standing and walking (and being unable to play my favourite sport of tennis).  Now when I am playing social tennis, I try to appreciate the fact that I can run, hit the ball and participate in rallies.  I am trying to make each mistake that I make a prompt or reminder to appreciate what I can do, rather than focus on what I did wrong when attempting to hit the ball.  Developing a relevant, personal reminder (based on your life experience) is one way to build gratitude and appreciation into your daily life.

Developing gratitude through meditation

Another way to consciously develop gratitude is to practice a gratitude meditation.  Diana offers one way to approach this in her meditation podcast.  The steps involved are:

  • Grounding yourself in your body through being conscious of your posture (the pressure of your body on the chair and your feet on the floor), and undertaking a body scan exploring points of tightness and releasing any tension that exists in places like your shoulders, jaw or arms.  The grounding can be strengthened by closing your eyes or looking down and/or touching your fingers together and feeling the sensation of your bodily energy flow.
  • Establishing an anchor for your meditation – this can be the experience of your natural breathing process wherever it is readily felt by you (in your chest or abdomen or through your nose), listening to sounds in your room or focusing on a particular body sensation (such as your fingers touching or your feet on the ground).
  • Appreciating the present moment – Diana introduces a 15-minute period of stillness and silence in this next stage of the meditation.  The basic approach is to focus on your anchor, appreciate that you can experience the positive benefits of your personal anchor (breathing, listening or feeling) and naming any distraction (e.g. “thinking”, “avoiding”, “wandering”, “complaining”) before restoring your focus to your anchor. Instead of beating up on yourself for being distracted (a normal part of the human condition), you can appreciate your capacity to be aware that you have lost your focus, that you have developed an anchor to return to, that you have the capacity to restore your focus and that, in the process, you are building your awareness muscle.  [I began to appreciate my capacity to focus on an anchor after I conducted a mindfulness session in my manager development course. One of the course participants commented that the meditation component did nothing for her because her mind was so agitated that she could not still her mind at all.  This person suffered from severe anxiety as a result of post-traumatic stress.  Fortunately, in line with the guidelines for trauma-sensitive mindfulness, I had offered everyone the choice of not participating in the exercise if they did not want to or were unable to for whatever reason.]
  • Free association – Diana suggests that you let your mind focus on something or someone that you appreciate in the present moment.  If you are in an intimate relationship, you could appreciate, or be grateful for, the opportunities to share your successes or failures, the times of quietness spent comfortably together, the chance to go walking  together in a pleasant environment, being able to enjoy a movie or a special location with each other, the pleasant feelings of friendship, sharing ideas and plans or the sense of support and unconditional love. 

Reflection

There are so many things to appreciate in our lives and to be truly grateful for – many of which we take for granted.  For instance, we can savour friendship, our achievements and rewards, the development of our children or, counterintuitively, savour being alone or experiencing boredom.  As we grow in mindfulness through daily personal reminders or formal gratitude meditations, we can develop an ever-present sense of appreciation and accrue the desirable benefits of being grateful.

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

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

Cultivating Attention Through Mindfulness

Matthew Brensilver, in a guided meditation provided through MARC UCLA, emphasises the essential character of attention and its role in building our inner and outer awareness while contributing to a life that is fully lived.  In his preliminary discussion as an introduction to his meditation on Attention as Our Most Basic Currency, he highlights the erosion of our attention span, the “fragmentation of our attention” and the resultant turmoil of many lives today. 

In Matthew’s view, mindfulness practice “cultivates attention”, builds resilience and engenders peace and tranquillity.  He suggests that attention is “our basic currency” – it provides the means for us to be fully human and experience life in all its richness.

Distraction creates a low attention span and devalues our “currency”

There are so many things that compete for our attention and distract us from the inherent potentiality of the present moment.  Our everyday behaviours contribute to this erosion of attention. For example, while we are waiting for a bus, a service or a friend, our default is to pull out our phone rather than to take the opportunity to increase our awareness through focused attention.  Our mobile phone leads us down the path of endless distraction – it’s almost an escape route from the reality of our daily lives. 

We might feast on the news, get lost in the external (but empty) validation provided by social media “likes” or explore the endless trails offered by disruptive advertising.  This simple device that has become known as “Wireless Mass Distraction” (WMD) erodes the power of focused attention and reduces the opportunities to grow in inner and outer awareness.  The obsession with “selfies” via the phone is an emerging social behaviour that intensifies the power of phones to be a source of mass distraction and to create a low-attention-span culture.

Distraction is used as a way to free us from boredom, rather than embrace it and savour the freedom it provides.  So, instead of taking the opportunity to harness our attention and grow our awareness, we resort to activities that take our mind elsewhere and fragment out attention and diminish our attentional power.

Mindfulness practice and attention

While there are numerous mindfulness practices and meditations, Matthew suggests that mindfulness, in essence, is “paying attention to our lives”. This allows us to accept “what is” (with all its challenges and imperfections) and to experience the richness of our life more fully.   Distraction, on the other hand, fragments our attention and blinds us to our inner and outer reality.  It’s almost like we are constantly running away from what is within us for fear that we may not like what we see. 

Mindfulness practice enables us to pay attention to – to face up to – what we are really thinking and feeling, the expression of these thoughts and feelings through our bodily sensations and the impact we are having on others.  Through mindfulness practice, we can learn how our past plays out in the present.  It also enables us to draw on the healing power of nature, the personal empowerment of appreciation and gratitude and the stillness that enables us to access and grow our creativity.

As we cultivate our attention and grow in mindfulness, we are better able to experience the richness of our human existence, enjoy greater peace and harmony and access our endless inner resources to meet the vicissitudes of our daily lives.

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

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

Cultivating Concentration through Meditation

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

Cultivating concentration through meditation

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

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

Meditation practices to cultivate concentration

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming the Tyranny of Email

Every time I facilitate a manager development course, the topic of email arises along with an expression of hopelessness – people are suffering from the tyranny of email. They often feel out of control, overwhelmed by the volume of email and stressed by the “implied” deadlines involved. People sometimes perceive their inbox as a “ticking timebomb” if they don’t immediately process email as it arrives.

The emotional burden of email

Our communication patterns and related expectations have accelerated since the days of “slow mail” – the hand-written letter. The expectations of a timely response have grown with the increased speed of communication – how often are you asked, “I just sent you an email (or text message), didn’t you receive it?” The expectation of a speedy response is implied along with the underlying assumption that their communication is the only thing you have to deal with during the day.

Leo Babauta, author of the Zen Habits blog and related eBooks, found that reading his email before he got out of bed was actually a procrastination habit – putting off getting out of bed and also delaying doing something productive like researching, writing or planning his day. I have found that if I focus on writing a blog post before I read my email, I am much more productive and less distracted. I can relegate email to the role of a secondary, rather than primary, priority.

Recent research has shown that if you access your phone first thing in the morning (to check emails, texts and Instagram notifications), you are limiting your productivity and capacity for creative problem solving, adding stress to your life and making yourself unhappy.

The tyranny of email – capturing your attention

Besides adding to your stress, the volume of email and its implied deadlines serve to capture your attention and distract you from more important things that you are doing or have to do. Email is a form of disruptive technology more often driven by people who are actively trying to gain your attention to pursue their own ends. If you let it, email takes over your life, determines your priorities and undermines your capacity to focus.

Frequent checking of email takes you off-task and reduces your productivity because you have to take time to reset your brain when you return to your task at hand. Research has found that people who check their email only three times a day (instead of the average of 15 times per day) experience less stress, are more productive and achieve a greater sense of satisfaction during the day because they are better able to accomplish desired results.

How often do you find yourself following a “link-chain” in an email and going completely off-task to explore the latest news, social media post or “lifestyle” comment? Some people are driven by the desire for the latest news and pursuit of this desire consumes time and energy. If you find that you have no surplus in your life, you might find that your email-reading habits consume much of the space in your life.

A mindful way to handle email

Leo Babauta provides an approach to handling email which he calls, A Mindful Guide to Email in 20 Minutes a Day. The essence of his approach is to avoid starting the day reading email, allocate 20 minutes for reading email, have a system for sorting through your daily inbox, take action appropriately and reduce your inbox flow by unsubscribing from electronic newsletters, notifications, etc.

His system identifies three kinds of action that you can take:

  1. delete (or store in a folder for future reference if you are going to use it later)
  2. action in two minutes (brief responses where required)
  3. add to your to-do list (if you need to take action that will be longer than 2 minutes).

One of the problems with email is that we become indecisive and put off action on individual items, only to return later and repeat the process – this is a waste of time and a major source of distraction. Having a clear system enables you to regain control from the tyranny of email, so that you are in the “driver’s seat”.

Leo’s final piece of advice is to treat the process of email as a mindful endeavour – undertaken consciously, thoughtfully, with compassion and kindness. It is important to realise that email amplifies the message because of the proximity of the screen – so, for instance, writing in all capitals is effectively experienced as shouting. Mindfulness, too, is developed if we express gratitude for the opportunity that email provides, especially being able to connect with others and maintain valuable relationships.

As we grow in mindfulness by treating email as a conscious, mindful endeavour undertaken in a systematic (rather than chaotic) way, we learn to overcome the tyranny of email, regain control over our priorities and improve our productivity.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

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 a Balanced Mind

Tara Brach in her meditation podcast on Creating a Balanced Mind, reminds us that a key element of mindfulness is accepting what is, being able to remain calm in the face of the ups and downs of life. She argues that meditation enables us to develop a balanced mind, calmness in the face of the various vicissitudes of life. Tara also offers a specific meditation that focuses on developing that calmness and equanimity.

Accepting the ups and downs of life

We have all experienced aspects of life that are disconcerting or even distressing – whether ill-health, ageing, trauma, pain, disappointment or loss. We would much prefer a life of pleasure rather than pain, one of praise rather than blame or criticism. Mindfulness helps us surf the waves of life and prevent us from drowning in the downsides that we experience as part of being human.

Mindfulness developed through meditation enables us to accept what is – mentally and emotionally acknowledging what is happening to us but maintaining our calmness and balance despite the stresses of life. If we are ageing, for example, there is no point in railing against the progressive loss of our faculties, both physical and mental. We can take constructive steps to redress our situation or slow our decline, but accepting what is requires a balanced mind, a capacity to maintain calmness, rather than agitation, in the face of the downsides of life.

Sometimes it helps to reframe a situation that we are experiencing – being able to look at the bright side. Recently, I was getting upset that I could not play some tennis shots that I used to be able to do. This was during a doubles match involving two young people as opponents. I found it embarrassing that I was not able to hit some simple shots. What had happened was that I had lost strength in my wrist and forearm through injury. I could continue to be upset and get “down in the dumps” or, alternatively, I could accept the situation calmly, take some constructive action, and reframe the experience.

On reflection, after undertaking the balanced mind meditation discussed below, I was able to see that the fact that I was not able to use my full power at tennis, enabled the young people to be successful, practise their shots and learn to develop tennis strategy during a game. The meditation has helped me to do two things – (1) take constructive action to strengthen my arm and wrist through exercises and (2) reframe the situation in a positive way as an opportunity for the young people to explore their own developing capacities. The calmness achieved in meditation can enable us to reframe our situation and more readily accept what is.

Developing a balanced mind meditation

In the meditation podcast mentioned above, Tara provides a specific meditation designed to develop a balanced mind – calmness in the face of the downsides of life. This meditation begins with being grounded through our posture and conscious breathing. The first stage may involve taking a number of deep breaths and breathing out to relieve any tension in your mind and body.

Tara spends considerable time helping you to tap into your breathing and where you feel it in your body. She also suggests listening to the sounds around you, without interpretation or evaluation of the sounds. Tara maintains that mindful breathing or mindful listening can serve as anchor during your meditation. I find, however, that it is easier for me to stay grounded if I focus on my breath rather than sounds, the latter tends to be distracting for me (unless conscious listening is the primary focus of my meditation, as when I am enjoying the sounds of birds in a natural setting).

One thing that I find grounding is the way I position my hands during a meditation. I have my hands resting in a relaxed manner on my thighs but with my fingers on one hand touching those on the other hand. I find that I experience strong sensations through my fingers during meditation, such as tingling, warmth and energy flow. The simple process of bringing my fingers together can increase my grounding during meditation and can be an anchor that I can recall at any time or anywhere during the day to access calmness and a balanced mind.

Tara suggests that if you experience a compelling distraction during the meditation, you can focus on the distraction temporarily, but build the discipline to return to your meditation focus. For example, if you experience pain in your forearm, you can focus on that part of your body and soften your muscles to release the tension, then return to the focus of your meditation. This builds your capacity to focus and to sustain your calmness in the face of setbacks.

Capturing the experience of calmness

Tara suggests that during the meditation discussed above, you can become aware of the calmness and equanimity you experience in the process of the meditation. The meditation itself involves developing calmness through focusing on something other than what upsets you, e.g. focusing on your breathing or sounds around you. As you experience a sense of ease and peace, you can dwell on those feelings to reinforce what a balanced mind is like and what meditation can do to help you achieve this state.

She also offers a further way to reinforce the sense of calmness by having you recapture a pleasant experience where you felt at ease and calm, e.g. enjoying nature, being with friends, executing a successful tennis shot, being still on a beach or staying calm in a crisis.

The meditation can be concluded by thinking of a future, potentially stressful event and exploring acceptance of the event, e.g. a biopsy, and picturing yourself meeting the event and its outcomes with calmness and equanimity.

As we grow in mindfulness through the balanced mind meditation, we can approach the downsides of life and daily stressors with calmness, rather than anger, resentment or frustration. This opens the way for calmness, clarity, reframing and achieving equanimity, despite the upsetting waves of life.

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

Image source: courtesy of bertvthul on Pixabay

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. 

Focused Attention: A Guided Meditation

In this era of constant, disruptive distractions we need to be able to develop the capacity to calm our minds and focus our attention on what is important in our lives. Without this capacity, we are at the mercy of stress and anxiety as we try to deal with the incessant demands on our minds. One way to restore equanimity when we are stressed “out-of-our-minds”, is to develop a simple practice of focused attention.

Rich Fernandez, co-founder of Wisdom Labs, provides a guided meditation that enables you to train your mind in focused attention. Rich’s meditation podcast is under ten minutes and provides a way to quickly and easily regain calmness when stressed through attention to the act of breathing which is an undervalued element of a healthy life.

Focused attention on your breathing

The focused attention meditation requires, in the first place, that you adopt a comfortable position and reduce visual distractions by closing your eyes or looking downwards. If you are physically uncomfortable or visually distracted, you will not be able to focus on your breathing.

Rich then suggests that you bring your total attention to the act of breathing as you experience it in your body. This experience will differ from person to person as levels of awareness differ immensely. For example, people who are trained in focused attention are much more aware of their breathing than others who have not undertaken this training.

To focus on your experience of breathing you begin to notice the flow of air into and out of your body and you identify where this bodily sensation is experienced in your own body – e.g. in your throat, chest or stomach. You can notice too whether your breathing is deep or shallow, slow or fast, even or rough. The intention is not to control your breathing, but just notice it in a very focused way.

As you bring your attention to your breathing, you can become more conscious of your in-breath, out-breath and the gap between these movements of breath. You can also rest in the gap to enhance your level of calmness and bring your bodily stress sensations under control.

Rich suggests that you end your focused attention meditation with a few deep, controlled breaths as a way to bring your attention back to where you are and what you have been doing before the meditation practice. Some people recommend that this practice of controlled breathing can also be used at the start of a meditation (as a way to release stress and bring attention to the breath).

Managing thought distractions

Everyone experiences distractions during meditation, whether you are an experienced meditator or not. Our thoughts wander endlessly, thousands of times a day. The art of developing focused attention is to notice your thoughts and “gently but firmly” bring your attention back to your breathing. The practice of managing your thought distractions develops the discipline necessary to control your thoughts so you are not held captive by them.

By focusing on your experience of breathing and maintaining your attention, despite the intermittent distraction of your thoughts, you develop the capacity to quickly and easily drop into a calm breathing pattern that enables you to wind down your level of stress and anxiety.

As we grow in mindfulness through focused attention meditation, we develop awareness of the level of stress we are experiencing and cultivate a way to manage that stress. This trained capacity builds our personal resilience and ability to respond appropriately in situations we experience as stressful.

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

Image source: courtesy of Antranias on Pixabay

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

Mindfulness Practice for Overcoming Unhealthy Habits

Leo Babauta, creator of zenhabits.net, suggests that underpinning our unhealthy habits is a “craving for wholeness”.  In his view – whether we are obsessed with the news, shopping, food, sex, social media or partying – we are looking for something to redress our loneliness, sense of disconnection or feeling of incompleteness.

Mindfulness practice to overcome unhealthy habits

Leo advocates a mindfulness practice that incorporates four main steps:

  1. Pause and be still.  Don’t seek distractions or ways to entertain yourself.
  2. Feel the discomfort of loneliness, isolation or disconnection that is driving you.  Realise that unhappy habits can entrench your sense of loneliness.  Get in touch with your uncertainty and explore what makes your life meaningful.
  3. Notice the goodness in your heart.  You care about others and about yourself.  Recall moments when you have shown loving kindness or consideration towards others.
  4. Connect with a sense of wholeness both within and without (outside of yourself).  Marvel at the integration of your mind, body and spirit and the interconnectedness of nature.

Leo, author  of The Habit Guide Ebook, describes the mindfulness practice in more detail in an article on his Zen Habits blog, The Craving for Wholeness That Drives Our Activities.  He suggests that you can rest in the awareness of the sense of wholeness in everything, including nature.  Let nature be your ally in your search for wholeness.

The Interconnectedness of Nature

Louie Schwartzberg, time-lapse photographer and film director, reminds us that nature is a source of mindfulness because everything in nature is interconnected and we are connected to it.  He explains that every living thing is dependent on another living thing and illustrates this through his film, The Wings of Life, which was presented at a TED Talk, The Hidden Beauty of Pollination.

Louie Schwartzberg is currently working on a crowd-funded film, Fantastic Fungi, in collaboration with authors, artists, doctors (oncologists, integrative medicine experts) and scientists (mycologist, ecologists, philosoforager).

In a short teaser film for Fantastic Fungi, Louie Schwartzberg explains the interconnectedness of nature manifested through mushrooms:

Plants need soil. Where does soil come from? It comes from the largest organism on the planet that heals you, that can feed you, that can clean up a toxic oil spill, that can even shift your consciousness.  It’s mycelium.  Mycelium is the root structure under budding mushrooms.  It’s like the Internet – a vast underground exchange [intelligent & communication] network that transfers nutrients from one plant to another.

Louie Schwartzberg has spent his whole working life to show us, in living vibrant colour and film, how nature inspires wonder through its wholeness and interconnectedness.  Leo Babauta, through his mindfulness practice, encourages us to to reflect on this wholeness and our interconnection with everything.

As we grow in mindfulness, we come to realise that we are not alone or disconnected – that we are connected to a vast wholeness manifested in nature and in the intricacy of the interconnection of our body, mind and spirit.  Mindful awareness of this connectedness is a pathway to overcoming unhealthy habits.

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

Image source: courtesy of astama81 on Pixabay

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.