The Final Stages of the Hero’s Journey for the Frontline Midwife

In a previous post, I discussed the story of Anna Kent as a midwife volunteering in South Sudan in terms of the first 8 stages of the Hero’s Journey.  What I will discuss now is her Sudan story expressed in terms of the final stages of the hero’s journey (Stage 9-12).  I’ll be drawing again on her book, Frontline Midwife: My Story of Survival and Keeping Others Safe, in which she tells her story in graphic detail.

The final four stages of the hero’s journey – stages 9 to 12

The final four stages of her hero’s journey in South Sudan were deeply formative and life-changing and enabled Anna to develop a new perspective, skills and determination to help others in need wherever they were in the world:

9. Reward – there is no doubt that Anna emerged a stronger person as a result of overcoming personal challenges, including self-doubts and questioning of her obsession with volunteering.  The reward, too, that she experienced involved saving the lives of mothers, children and babies.  However, she had to deal with the sense of guilt she felt for the death of baby Mariam.  James tried to reassure her that she was not responsible for the death of the baby – in his words, “it was everyone in the world’s fault”.  She accepted intellectually that “every aid worker has a patient they carry in their conscience”.   Emotionally, though it was a continuous challenge to overcome the sense of guilt which pervaded her nightmares as she relived the traumatic event.  Unfortunately, our brains carry a negative bias – we see the negative much more strongly than the positive.  For a time, Anna found that her negative thoughts overwhelmed her rewarding thoughts – her personal satisfaction that she had saved many lives who otherwise would have died without her skilled and brave intervention.

10. The Road Back – this is both a physical journey and a metaphorical one.  On the physical level, it involves returning to her “ordinary world” – life with her boyfriend Jack in their comfy home in Nottingham.  The metaphorical aspect relates to being comfortable with her new self in an environment that is starkly different on every dimension to the one she was leaving in South Sudan.  It also meant dealing with the grief of leaving her mentor, James, her colleagues and the Sudanese people who she grew to love and admire for their courage, gentleness and stoicism.  Her short recreation spells during her volunteering in South Sudan forewarned her of the pending difficulty of the “road back”.  She found on her brief recreation trips that she could not share with Jack the horrors and traumas she had experienced and realised that she was totally lacking in libido.  Friends would ask about the exciting bits of her story but all she could share were her stories about snakes, not the reality of the poverty, harshness, and deprivation of the basic rights of women in South Sudan.  She found that she and Jack had so little to talk about, and their time together involved lots of silence as Anna tried to come to grips with crossing the threshold back into her former life. 

11. Resurrection – on her return home Anna broke off her relationship with Jack and moved to her parent’s home.  This created significant stress for her as she was unable to talk to her parents about her Sudan experiences or her reasons for breaking up with Jack – both these topics were too raw and traumatic.  In speaking with James her mentor, she shared her angst and he informed her that he had experienced similar dislocation and disorientation on his return from volunteering abroad.  James suggested that he made the mistake of “trying to be the person I once was when that person has gone”.  Anna recognised that everything changes with overseas service in a different culture and land where deprivation is rife – your values and perspectives change and you see “luxuries” and waste with new, intolerant eyes.  The way home for her involved a dying to the old person she once was and becoming a new, stronger, values-driven person. 

12. Return with the Elixir – another phase in Anna’s transition to her new persona began with entering a share house with two other nurses.  What she found was the ability to party together and share their experiences in a way that was cathartic.  Out of this period came a very strong resolution by Anna to build on her newly acquired midwife capabilities.  She enrolled in a midwifery degree at Nottingham University and had a very rewarding and enlightening work experience in Ethiopia as a student midwife.  She felt stronger and better prepared for subsequent volunteering missions involving Haiti following the earthquake in 2010 and Bangladesh working with Rohingya refugees – and these experiences entailed different journeys with new challenges and companions (as discussed in her book). 

Reflection

Throughout her hero’s journey in Sudan and beyond, Anna had to face her traumas which had “many heads” and in the process develop her resilience.  An experienced volunteer nurse, Anita, had told her “you’re gonna have to work out how to sit with these painful feelings without reacting to them”.  Like James, Anita suggested that meditation would be helpful as well as focusing on what has been achieved, not what her inner critic perceived as a “failure”.  James even suggested that Anna meditate for “an hour every day” and often encouraged her to be in the moment and experience what was before her – e.g., children playing with kites made from sticks, and the earth glowing from the setting sun. 

Anna demonstrated that as we grow in mindfulness through meditation (no matter how difficult we find it) and other mindfulness practices such as being in the moment, we can learn to regulate our emotions, deepen our self-awareness and develop resilience.

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Image by Steve Buissinne 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.

Mindfulness on the Path of a Hero’s Journey

Anna Kent has provided a thought-provoking memoir in her book, Frontline Midwife: My Story of Survival and Keeping Others Safe.  The “frontline” theme of her memoir enriches our understanding of this concept.  Anna’s story recounts how she undertook nine months service with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF) in South Sudan – where the population had suffered civil war for fifty years, with ongoing outbreaks of conflict despite a peace settlement.

Anna whose background was as a nurse in a hospital Emergency Department (ED) in the UK found herself as an accidental midwife.  There was no one else available to do the task because there were no trained midwives in South Sudan at the time because of the civil war and its impacts.  As I read her “heart-wrenching tale”, I recalled Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero’s Journey

Anna’s story is told with unassumed humility, raw emotion, and acknowledgement of her fears, frailties and vulnerability.  As nurses tend to do, she provides graphic descriptions of the medical challenges she confronts and provides a warning at the front of the book in terms of potential triggers for people who have experienced birth-related injuries, maternal death, loss of a baby or gender-based violence.

The first eight stages of the hero’s journey – a structured view

As  you read Anna’s memoir, you can begin to map Joseph Campbell’s twelve stages of the hero’s journey throughout her account.  I have attempted to link her story to the first eight stages in this blog post:

  1. Ordinary world – Before her journey, Anna enjoyed a comfortable life with her kind and musically talented boyfriend, Jack, and a home in Nottingham which included “an airy, high-ceilinged bedroom”.  Her normal professional world was that of a highly qualified ED nurse at the Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham, where she coordinated a major trauma unit.  To prepare herself for her work in South Sudan, she undertook a number of voluntary shifts in the maternity unit while on leave, completed a diploma in tropical nursing and volunteered for a brief placement at a Zambian Hospital in a rural district.  Additionally, she completed a pre-departure course conducted in Germany by Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
  2. Call to adventure: Ever since an early age in her childhood, Anna felt the call to do something about the suffering and pain she saw every day on TV and in the newspapers.   She felt a strong urge to help alleviate the overwhelming suffering she observed, especially that experienced by children like herself.  As an adult, she experienced “complicated reasons” for wanting to volunteer and help those in need of relief from pain and suffering.
  3. Refusal of the call:  As she was packing for her trip, Anna was almost overcome by her fears and uncertainty.  She felt ill-prepared for what lay ahead and concerned about leaving her boyfriend and all the comforts of her everyday existence.   She could acutely feel the tug to stay and not take the perilous journey involved in work in South Sudan.  She also wondered about her comfy life, “Why isn’t this enough for me?”
  4. Meeting the mentor: At Loki, in north-west Kenya, Anna underwent a week-long training that included how to survive a kidnapping, emergency evacuation, and working in isolation.  She was informed that there was no internet access because computers melted in the heat and was warned about landmines, poisonous snakes and scorpions.   She was told about her onsite mentor who she would meet on arrival in Tam, South Sudan.  All she knew about him was that he was over sixty years old and “eccentric”.
  5. Crossing the threshold: Anna crossed the threshold in more ways than one.  She flew to Tam in a rambling, old aid plane which was the main transport for people and supplies to this remote area of South Sudan.  The flight itself involved being thrown into the reality of war-torn Sudan with bandaged passengers and a woman covered in a bundle of rags lying on a stretcher on the floor of the plane.  She was dying and had an IV line connected to her arm and attached via string to the seat’s edge.  The French nurse attending to her indicated that the woman would be delivered to the MSF Hospital in Leer, the State’s capital.  Anna was very aware that back in the UK, this woman would have had the best of care including drips and monitors and would not have had to suffer the indignity of travelling on the floor’s plane.  She was informed that Tam itself suffers from a drastic shortage of pain relievers, antibiotics and other medical necessities.  After offloading the dying woman and other passengers in need of urgent medical attention, the plane flew onto Tam where Anna would be working.  Her plane eventually lands roughly on the mud landing strip that reflected the terrain – hot, barren and forbidding. 
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: The heat and oppressive conditions are the enemy.  Anna meets her mentor, James, a very experienced nurse and she took an immediate dislike to him.  His joviality in the face of unmitigated horrors does not ring true and she can’t make him out.  This uncertain relationship with someone whom she will have to depend on, added to her discomfiture.  She identified an ally in another female nurse who supports her in the early days of her volunteer work in Tam.  However, she is horrified by her sleeping conditions – she is in a tent with James nearby in another tent, both located within the dirt compound that is also traversed by poisonous snakes and scorpions.   On top of this are the conditions for patients, many of whom walk many miles to attend the clinic even when seriously ill.   The waiting room is effectively the “Waiting Tree” where patients huddle under the limited protection provided by a tree within the dirt compound.  The stream of patients is endless (Anna and James treat 1,000 patients in a month) and the diversity and complexity of illnesses is scarry.   The makeshift wards are overrun with some patients having to lie on mattresses in the dirt compound.  There are continuous life and death decisions determining who will be airlifted to the hospital in Leer, given the restricted availability and limited capacity of the aid plane, and the resources at the hospital itself.  
  7. Approach to the inmost cave: The death of a young boy became a crisis point for Anna.  Her inner conflict intensified, doubts about her own capability in such trying conditions resurfaced, and she experienced emotional turmoil and overwhelm at the sight of unmitigated suffering, pain and death.  She was tense about what further trauma lay ahead.  Her salvation came in the form of lengthy, tent-to-tent conversations at night with James , her mentor.  Unburdening herself with him and talking through what she was experiencing in an open and honest way changed their relationship.  It helped her deal with her emotional crisis  These conversations  enabled her to reflect on her challenging experiences as they occurred and voice her worst fears.  He offered her reassurance and emotional support.  James introduced her to the power of mindfulness for dealing with turbulent emotions.  Anna came to value his advice, his philosophy of life and his positive psychology.
  8. Ordeal: The ultimate ordeal for Anna and the medical team arrived in the form a 16 year old pregnant girl who was in deep distress and agonising pain.  Anna played a major role in successfully delivering premature triplets and helping to save the young girl’s life as she was in acute danger of dying from excessive bleeding resulting from postpartum haemorrhage”.  This experience gave Anna the ultimate high so that she felt like a “hero” and suddenly understood why she had volunteered for such physically and emotionally draining work. She believed at the time that the high from this event would enable her to ride out the lows.  The image of the young mother walking home with her triplets in a basket on her head reminded Anna of what was possible in saving others and to value her own contribution.

Reflection

Anna’s story lends itself to mindful reading which according to Mirabai Bush “moves the reader into a calm awareness, allowing for a profound experience and understanding”.  It requires full attention, avoidance of distractions and openness to thoughts and feelings as they emerge throughout the reading process.  This story is rich in self-disclosure, replete with expression of emotions and immersive in its description of the context and physical environment.  Anna encourages us to join her on her hero’s journey into the challenging unknown and land of profound suffering.

Her efforts to grow in mindfulness through micro-practices increased her self-awareness and emotional regulation and enabled her to deal more effectively with the challenges that she had to meet on a daily basis.

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Image by Eszter Hornyai from Pixabay

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

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

Managing Conflict

Recently the First Person Plural: EI and Beyond podcast featured Professor George Hohlrieser (Lausanne, Switzerland) discussing, How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict.  The podcast series involving collaboration between Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence), his son Hanuman Goleman and Emotional Intelligence (EI) coach Elizabeth Solomon, is designed to raise listeners’ awareness through stories provided on interview by inspiring people.   The hope is that listeners can grow in mindfulness and resilience in living proactively within the systems that surround them – within their personal, social, natural and global systems.

George works with multiple Fortune 500 companies as a clinical and organisational consultant.  He recounts during the podcast the story of how he became an accidental hostage negotiator while working for the police.  He has continued working in hostage negotiation (sometimes at considerable personal risk), as well as working with people who are suicidal.  George is an internationally renowned speaker and best-selling author.  His widely acclaimed book, Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance, is undergoing revision and updating and will be published on 30 November 2022.  In the book, he recounts compelling stories of real hostage situations and draws out the psychological principles that enable hostage negotiators to be successful.

Conflict management principles

During the podcast, George explained some of the principles that underpin his approach to conflict resolution and how they can apply to leaders who are attempting to influence others and develop high performance teams:

  • Don’t be a hostage: people can be a hostage to others – their children, parents, teachers, bosses, clients, suppliers or employees.  A hostage thinks they are powerless and the pandemic generated feelings of helplessness in a lot of people.  Not thinking like a hostage involves, among other things, thinking clearly about a desired outcome and establishing a positive mindset about that outcome.   It also involves establishing a secure personal base, not being hostage to your own emotions.
  • Become a secure base: manage your own fight/flight/freeze response so that you are not caught up in what Daniel Goleman describes as the “amygdala hijack”.  Develop calmness so that you “see opportunities not threats”.  George mentioned that in his leadership development programs he does not use the traditional Harvard case studies but tells participants that the case study is “you” – building self-awareness, developing insight and courage and tapping into personal intuition and creativity.  Being calm and secure builds trust – an essential element for conflict resolution and management.
  • Tell it like it is: George argues that you should not “sugar coat” the unsatisfactory situation, e.g. poor performance or inappropriate behaviour.  He gives the example of telling someone that “you are too aggressive with clients – that needs to change”.    
  • Address the conflict directly: George uses the analogy, “put the fish on the table” – drawing from his experience working with fishermen in Sicily who were scaling and cleaning fish on a table, removing the bloody, smelly bits and preparing the fish for the “great fish dinner a the end of the day”  The analogy means addressing the conflict not ignoring it (“not putting the fish under the table”), dealing up front with the messiness of the issues and looking forward to a positive resolution.
  • The person is not the problem: George maintains that you should not “write off” the person(s) involved, e.g. “they are just argumentative, nasty or thoughtless”.  He argues that there is a real problem underlying a conflict situation, e.g. the person may feel slighted or disrespected; they may feel taken for granted when passed over for a promotion or project; or they could be experiencing distress in a home situation.  He illustrated this principle by telling the story about a father involved in a hostage situation – it was not that he was a “naturally violent person” but that he had been prevented from seeing his child (locked out by unreasonable access rules).  The core problem in this situation was the inability of the father to see his child and the solution lay in finding a way for the father to gain access to his child.
  • Identify the “pain point”: George argued that you make little progress in managing conflict if you focus on “selling points” versus “pain points”.  This requires active listening, not trying to persuade.  The pain point is often related to a loss – past, present, future or anticipated.  He mentioned Warren Bennis’ idea of “hidden grief” – that leaders are often blind to their own underlying sense of grief and can be grieving over things that happened many years earlier.  George illustrated this point by recounting the stories of two CEO’s who committed suicide out of a sense of grief over some situation – economic or workplace related.
  • Be caring: listen for understanding and be willing to be empathetic.  Express the desire for their wellbeing and demonstrate a caring attitude.  George suggests that this creates a bond even with people you might consider your “enemy”.  Bonding helps to dissolve conflict.
  • Be daring: learning a new skill such as conflict management takes you outside your “comfort zone”. Be willing to dare yourself as any new talent you desire to develop requires daring on your part – facing the fear, acknowledging the challenge and preparing yourself.  Daring your employees by presenting them with challenging work or projects, develops and motivates them.
  • Ask questions: George suggests that asking questions empowers the other person, even in a situation where a person is suicidal.  Curiosity can communicate care and concern.  Questioning can help to explore the “pain point(s)” and to work towards a solution that they can accept.
  • Provide choice: avoid a “command and control” approach as this damages bonding and trust.  The command and control approach does not motivate – it disempowers and disables people.  It can lead to compliance, but not sustainable change. Provide choice wherever possible so that the person feels a sense of agency in relation to the underlying issue.

Reflection

George’s approach to conflict resolution has been developed through his experiences as a hostage negotiator and working with people who have suicidal intentions.  He has also refined his approach through working with organisational leaders around the world to help them implement the fundamental conflict management principles he has developed.  He emphasises that conflict management involves both caring and daring – it challenges us to move outside our comfort zone to achieve a resolution.   It requires us to avoid relying on positional power and instead employ the personal power associated with integrity, humility and compassion.

His approach requires us to grow in mindfulness so that we gain the necessary self-awareness and insight into our inner landscape to operate from a calm and secure place.  Mindfulness helps us to achieve the emotional regulation involved in dealing with conflictual situations and working to de-escalate the emotional tension involved.  Reflection on our own resentment(s) can assist us to achieve calm, caring and daring.

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Image by iqbal nuril anwar 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.

Simple Steps for Self-Care

These are challenging times that place stress on every aspect of our lives.  The natural human tendency is to go with the flow and try to keep up with all kinds of commitments – family, community and work.  We can succumb to the pace of modern life and the expectations of achievement that we place on ourselves and that we think others expect of us.  However, there are real physical and mental costs associated with engaging life at an unnatural pace.  Psychologists, for example, warn of ‘emotional inflammation’ resulting from the pandemic and, more recently, from the war in Ukraine.  Self-care is now more important than ever.

In these times of endless challenge, self-care becomes critical for our mental and physical welfare. The Self-Care Summit (May 10-16) sought to identify the issues involved, the personal and social barriers and ways to achieve self-care in everyday life.  The first speaker at the Summit, Renée Trudeau, provided a solid foundation and strong motivation for self-care.  After more than 20 years working with individuals and organisations on self-care approaches, she was able to distil the wisdom of her research, of workshop participants and of her own practice, into simple steps for self -care.  Some of her suggestions are discussed in this blog post.

Self-care in everyday life

Renée asserts that self-care is “not about self-improvement or self-indulgence” but “meeting yourself where you are” at the moment by “pausing, tuning in and asking, What do I need ?”.  It entails having the courage to break out of the expectation bind that locks you into unhealthy pursuits and giving yourself “what you most need” at the time.  So, for Renée, self-care is a moment by moment endeavour, not a ritualised practice developed by someone who is peddling self-care products. Renée is the author of two books including Nurturing the Soul of Your Family: 10 Ways to Reconnect and Find Peace in Everyday LifeIn her books, blog, workshops and presentations, she offers many simple steps for self-care that you can undertake at any time in the midst of everyday life.  Some of her suggestions include the following:

  • Monitoring your self-talk: we often talk harshly to ourselves when we make a mistake or fail to realise an outcome.  We can denigrate ourselves in an uncaring and unkind way.  Negative self-talk includes the harsh tone of voice we use when we speak to ourselves about our shortfalls.  Renée maintains that we would not talk like that to a 3-year old child.  She suggests having a picture of yourself when you were between the ages of 3-5 years and think about how you would talk to your young self in the picture.  Being conscious of our inner dialogue is very important for self-care – kindness begins at home!   Self-care includes not putting yourself down.
  • Cultivating a desired way of showing up: Renée alluded to Michael Phelps’ rigorous routine before starting a swimming race at the Olympics.  His established routine included eating a set breakfast, stretching, mix-style swimming and listening to music – all designed to enable him to show up for his race in his very best condition and frame of mind.  Renée suggests that you could establish a morning routine so that you can “cultivate a state of being to show up the way you want to” – in other words, having the presence of mind, focus and calmness to be the best you can be for your day’s endeavours.  Your routine may entail mindfulness practices such as yoga, Tai Chi, meditation or mindful walking.  Whatever you choose needs to be practised consistently to achieve the desired benefits. Interestingly, I have adopted the practice of Tai Chi as a preparation routine before I play social tennis so that I show up in the right frame of mind and with my body and mind attuned to concentration, bending, balance and conscious breathing.
  • Starting your day intentionally: forming a clear intention for the day can shape your words and actions and have very positive effects on your outcomes.  The catalyst for this intention-shaping can be a prayer, inspirational reading, mindfulness practice or gratitude journalling (so you turn up from a place of appreciation).  The practice of intention-shaping can extend to your work by forming a clear intention before a meeting – How do I want to show up for this meeting?; Should I go out of my way to include a team member who always seems excluded?; Can I relate to the person I tend to ignore?; Can I consciously practice active listening during the meeting?.
  • Giving and receiving morning hugs: Renée also suggests that giving and receiving hugs in the morning with your partner, other family members or your favourite pet, can have a very positive benefit for your wellbeing.  This tends to reaffirm to yourself that you are lovable and loving.  The hugs with family members can be accompanied by words of endearment, encouragement or well-wishes for the forthcoming day.
  • Early morning body scan: Renée indicated that she undertakes a body scan before getting out of bed of a morning.  A body scan enables you to locate points of tension in the body and release them through consciously paying attention to them.  The process increases body awareness by identifying how your body is manifesting any felt stress or challenge.  This practice can enable you to start the day in a state of calm rather than being uptight from anticipatory stress.
  • In-the-moment journalling:  Renée describes this as “quickie journalling”.  The idea is to tap into your feelings, needs and wants at any moment of time, particularly if you are feeling stressed, out of balance or upset.  She suggests that you ask yourself the following three questions to get you going with your self-insight journalling and then choose one thing to work with:
  • How do I feel?
  • What do I need?
  • What do I want?
  • Really listen to your body:  You may often notice when other people are stressed when they sigh, loudly exclaim something like “Damn!” or throw something down heavily on the desk.  But how often do you monitor your own bodily signs of stress?  Renée encourages you to really “listen to your body”.  She stated that sighing is a signal for her to attend to her needs to de-stress and recover her calmness.
  • Monthly intention: At the start of each month, Renée reviews her physical, emotional and spiritual needs at the time to identify one simple thing to do for the month to act out of self-care.  The process involves tuning into yourself and identifying “what is calling you to do” for your own self-care. One of her decisions was “to do less” which resulted in an “expanse of unscheduled time” and more time for self-care.
  • Personal Planning Retreat: Every 90 days, Renée takes a full 9 to 5 day to step away, move to a different environment and identify what is draining her.  She offers hints on how to undertake such a personal retreat in a place that you find inspiring and energising.

Reflection

It is so easy to be captured by the to-do list, work and family pressures and the social “shoulds”.  Taking time out for self-care is essential for our wellbeing.  As Renée points out, the way forward does not require big steps or expensive options, but simple steps for personal self-care, taken in the moment.

A nutritionist recently advised a member of our family that they are not digesting their food properly and need to chew each mouthful of solid food up to 30 times to aid digestion.  I have started to adopt this practice as a form of mindful eating and nutritional self-care. I’m finding I am more conscious of the different textures and flavours of the food I eat when I adopt this practice.

As we grow in mindfulness through consciously exploring self-care we can enrich our self-awareness, expand our response options, regulate our stress and emotions and increase our calm, confidence and courage.

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Image by Frauke Riether 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.

Barriers to Communicating with Confidence

In a Sounds True interview podcast, Tami Simon interviewed Patricia Stark about confidence in public communication situations such as speeches, presentations, workshops, job interviews and various forms of artistic performance.   Patricia is an acclaimed executive coach and an expert in body language as well as having substantial experience as a presenter and producer on radio and TV.  She spoke extensively about her book, Calmfidence: How to Trust Yourself, Tame Your Inner Critic, and Shine in Any Spotlight

Patricia explained that she coined the word Calmfidence to highlight what her experience in communicating in the public arena has taught her – you cannot have confidence without inner calm.  She argues that an external show of confidence is not enough – you can be disarmed if something does not go the way you expect.  Under the pressure of the moment, you can easily lose track of what you want to say or experience an inability to “think straight”.  Physiologically, you can experience the shakes, blanking out, headaches or pain in various parts of your body.  Inner calm enables you to manage both your psychological and physical response.  It facilitates emotional regulation and provides ways to dampen your physiological response.

Patricia explained that calmness underpinned confidence and involved trusting yourself and having a very clear idea of who you are and want to be.  This enables you to develop less reactivity in situations that do not turn out as you expect and to communicate with genuineness and authenticity.

Barriers to confidence

We each have barriers that prevent us from communicating confidently and these barriers are highly individual in origin and intensity.  Some of these barriers relate to past experiences while others are generated by the circumstances arising at the time of communicating publicly:

Past history – we each bring to a situation our experiences from the past that can create issues for us in terms of our confidence.  We could have been bullied at school or work, made fun of by our peers face-to-face or on social media, made embarrassing mistakes or observed someone experiencing vicarious trauma during a confronting workshop.  These negative experiences can make us prone to fearing an unsuccessful outcome when undertaking a public speaking endeavour and can even cause us to freeze during a job interview. I recall interviewing a manager for a job and at one stage he was unable to speak and actually had difficulty breathing.  Through pacing, I was able to help him begin to breathe slowly and deeply and settle down for the rest of the interview.  Patricia suggests that these past bad experiences need to be explored through “inner work” to bring them more into consciousness so that you can be aware of how they are playing out in your public interactions. She also suggests that you remind yourself why you are communicating with others and what benefit can accrue for them.

Perfectionism – can prevent us from even starting a public communication endeavour for fear of making mistakes.  We will always be waiting for the right time which may never occur.  Perfectionism can cause us to question what we have done in a public communication situation and generate a continuous cycle of “shoulds” and “what if’s”, e.g. “I should have started another way”, “What if I had given more examples?”  We can beat up on ourselves for mistakes or alternatively see them as an opportunity to grow and develop our public speaking skills.  Patricia suggests that we adopt a “growth mindset” which involves seeking continuous self-improvement in our practice while viewing mistakes as a learning experience on the path to personal improvement.  She suggests that it is unrealistic to expect not to make mistakes because of our human limitations and noted that in the public media arena it is a given that you will sometimes make mistakes.  In her view, often “good enough” is what is required and perfectionism can cause us to “freeze”, prevent flexibility and impede our ability to get in the zone and experience “flow”.   Like Seth Godin, Patricia suggests that it is better to “start small” to develop the confidence and calmness required to communicate publicly than to not engage in public communication because the task we set ourselves is too big a challenge.

Negative self-talk – these are the thoughts that we are not good enough or that we have no right to put ourselves “out there”.  Tina Turner explained that these thoughts can prevent you from making your unique contribution to the world and to positive experiences of other people. Tina actively developed her “inner landscape” through chanting and meditation and this enabled her to move beyond her “comfort zone” and realise her potential in performing for thousands of people.  She was able to see the growth potential and “hidden treasures” that lie in life’s challenges, including public communication and performances.  Tina recognised that we are not our negative thoughts but have the capacity to let them go and replace them with positive thoughts and expectations of success.

Reflection

Patricia indicated that she had a “painfully shy childhood” – she experienced panic at school, had other people take her place in the line at the shop to buy her lunch and would be shaking whenever she had to do a public presentation at school or college.  She has developed many exercises and tools to develop a calm confidence which has helped her in her worklife and enabled her to help over 2,000 clients who have sought her assistance and guidance.  She provides these tools and exercises in her book which offers very practical approaches to overcoming fear and anxiety around public communication.

Most people experience fear and anxiety around public communication, even seasoned performers. such as Tina Turner. As we grow in mindfulness through deep reflection, meditation and other mindfulness activities we can gain the self-awareness, courage and emotional regulation to enable us to achieve “Calmfidence” when engaging in public communications.  Mindfulness activities assist us to expand our response ability.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

Balancing Compassion with Equanimity

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

Guided meditation on balancing compassion with equanimity

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

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

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

Compassion meditation

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

Equanimity meditation

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

Body Scan Meditation – Being Present to Yourself

Gloria Kamler, stress-reduction expert and meditation teacher, provides a body scan meditation as one of the many UCLA weekly meditation podcasts.  Gloria has been a meditation practitioner for more than 30 years and talks enthusiastically about the many benefits of mindfulness meditation.  In the introduction to this guided meditation, she maintains that a body scan meditation can help us slow down, wake up to life and gain clarity about our purpose.  She suggests that instead of floating like a balloon on the winds of life, we can choose how we want to live and be able to “show up for your life”.

Gloria argues that focusing on the body via a scan helps you to develop “moment by moment awareness” that can lead to equanimity.  She maintains that our minds can lead us astray and delude us, while our body “always speaks the truth” if only we tap into it and pay attention to what we are sensing.  Through a body scan, we can access a different part of our brain, develop self-caring and caring for others and build emotional regulation.  

Body scan meditation

In her guided body scan meditation Gloria helps us to work progressively from our head to our feet dwelling on different parts of the body as we scan for tension, e.g. tightness in our neck, pain in our back, a tight furrowed brow, aching ankles or soreness in our knees.  Recognising these sensations puts us in touch with our own bodies – it makes us present to ourselves and grounds us in the present moment as we experience it.  Progressive releasing of tension as we bring our attention to different parts of our body, can create a sense of calmness and control.  It can lift our spirits and help us to be ready for the day’s challenges and opportunities.

Awareness of positive sensations as we undertake the body scan can heighten our mood, develop confidence to move forward and strengthen our resolve.  We could feel the firmness and solidity of our feet on the ground, energetic tingling in our fingers and arms and a calmness in our breathing – all of which portend and support our ability to surf the waves of life and make a real contribution to the lives of others, whether that is a simple smile, a random act of kindness, or compassionate action.   In caring for ourselves through our body scan, we can be open to caring about, and caring for, others.

We can begin to realise that everyone is at some time experiencing some form of pain – mental and/or physical.  We can feel connected to others just as we sense the deep interconnectedness of the parts of our body.  The process of the body scan, like that of Tai Chi, helps us to appreciate the mind-body connection – if we are not at one with our body, we can be “all at sea” with our thoughts and emotions.

Reflection

A body scan meditation can really help us if our mind is racing or we are distracted by anxious thoughts.  Becoming grounded in our body is the fastest route to being grounded in the present because our body is always present to us at every moment of every day – we just have to tune into it.  As we grow in mindfulness through body scan meditations, we can access our capacity for conscious choice, emotional regulation and equanimity.  We can approach life’s challenges with calmness, insight and openness to what is.

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Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

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

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

Developing Awareness to Live More Fully

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education, at MARC, UCLA offers a meditation podcast where she introduces a range of meditation practices.   Her guided meditation covers The Spectrum of Awareness Practices.  During the meditation, Diana likens the different practices to changing the lens and focus of a camera – from narrow to broad to panoramic.  Her aim is to open us up to the possibilities inherent in meditation practice so that we can choose a preferred awareness focus as a regular practice or seek variety by consciously “changing our lens”.   It is not her intention to provide an exhaustive list of meditation practices but to show that there is a broad spectrum in terms of what we can pay attention to and the resultant focus of our awareness.

The telephoto lens – narrow focus

The first meditation practice Diana introduces is what she describes as using a telephoto lens – homing in on a specific object of awareness and leaving awareness of other things in the background (as you would when you focus your camera on a bird in a tree in a distant location).  The focus can be your breath (the rise and fall of your abdomen), specific body sensation or a noise within your room.  As your mind wanders from this chosen anchor, you can bring it back into focus (as you would when adjusting a lens for greater clarity of an image).  This form of awareness meditation develops concentration, calmness, and clarity. 

Wide lens – broader focus

We can broaden our focus beyond our breathing to a particular body sensation or a difficult emotion that draws our attention away from our breath.   We could pay attention, for instance, to the sense of groundedness in our feet, the warm tingling in our fingers or the tightness in our shoulders.  With a difficult emotion, such as resentment, we could focus not only on the nature and intensity of the emotion but also its bodily manifestation, e.g., tightness in the chest, stiffness in the  jaw or pain in the neck.  We can name the emotion and describe its intensity to better tame it and bring it under control.  This broader form of awareness practice can help us to understand our emotions and our triggers, develop emotional regulation, build body awareness and increase our awareness of our mind-body-emotion connection.

Panoramic lens – being conscious of awareness itself

Here we broaden our attention beyond a chosen focus to what exists both within and without us.  It involves tapping into our natural awareness – a consciousness of what is going on inside us as well as around us, without any specific focus.  It requires opening up fully to our inner landscape and our external environment – taking in the sights, sounds, smells, touch, and taste of what we experience.  This is the spaciousness in which we become conscious of awareness itself.   Natural awareness helps us to cultivate openness and acceptance, curiosity and appreciation and a sense of wonder and awe.

Reflection

Diana introduces the spectrum of awareness as a way to broaden and enrich our meditation practice, increase our understanding of the nature of awareness and its pervasiveness, and enrich our daily life so that we can live more fully, engaging with ourselves and the world with heightened awareness and gratitude.  David Sinclair in his book, Lifespan, describes something of the richness of openness to natural awareness when he describes the experience of bushwalking with his family as “Searching for serenity.  Hearing stories. Finding Beauty. Making memories. Sharing wisdom.”

Diana describes natural awareness and other mindfulness practices in more detail in her book, The Little Book of BeingAs we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation, we can experience life more fully and enrich the lives of others from the fullness of our own life.

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Image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer 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.