Developing an Anchor for Your Meditation

A meditation anchor serves to stabilise your thoughts when your mind starts to wander during a meditation exercise.  It is a way to secure your focus and restore your attention when you are invariably beset by distracting thoughts – a common occurrence for both experienced and inexperienced meditators.  An anchor is a personal choice and what works at one time may not work in another situation.  Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Alternatives to Breath Awareness, highlights the difficulties that people are experiencing with breath as an anchor while wild fires are raging in California.  People who suffer from respiratory problems, either chronically or intermittently, may also find that breathing is a difficult anchor to use during meditation.  Diana suggests bodily sensations or sounds as alternatives to breath awareness that can serve as an anchor during meditation.

Bodily sensations as an anchor during meditation

Often guided meditations begin with a focus on bodily sensations, e.g. feeling the firmness of the floor or ground beneath your feet.  This focus can be expanded to noticing the warmth or energy flow through your fingers when they are touching.   You might alternatively focus on the breeze on your face, the sensation of uprightness in your chair, the support beneath your body from the  ground or the sense of strength in your core.  Personal preference plays a big part in choosing a bodily sensation as an anchor during meditation.  It is important that it is emotionally neutral and does not evoke either strong emotions or racing thoughts.  The anchor is designed to bring stability when everything around you is constantly changing, including your thoughts and emotions.

Sound as an anchor during meditation

Diana frequently recommends sounds as an anchor for meditation during her MARC meditation podcasts.  The challenge here is to avoid evaluating the sound (e.g. in terms of whether it is good or annoying) or analyzing it (e.g. trying to identify the source of the sound).  Evaluation or analysis can take you away from your meditation focus and set in train a whole new line of thinking.   The sounds you choose can be anything that is relatively neutral.  Every room has its own room tone, and this can be an anchor.  If you tune into sounds, it can be useful to listen for the hardest to hear sound which intensifies your attention on listening.  When engaging in mindful walking in the outdoors, it can be very rewarding to use the sound of birds surrounding you as an anchor.

Reflection

I recall that when we had the bushfires in Queensland, I found it very difficult to use breath as a meditation anchor because of the amount of smoke and ash in the air.  I resorted to using the bodily sensation of fingers touching each other as an alternative.  This has served me well ever since as I use this anchor during waiting time to increase my awareness.

The main point is to choose something as an anchor that works for you (this may require some experimentation) and being able to adapt as your circumstances change.  What works at one time, may not work at another time.  As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation and developing our awareness muscle through effective meditation anchors, we will be better able to ride the waves of daily life and the challenges they present.

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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 for Sports Performance

In an earlier post, I discussed how playing tennis can develop mindfulness through building the capacity to pay attention in the present moment for the purpose of competing and being able to do so non-judgmentally (suspending self-criticism).  The very act of managing making mistakes in tennis helps to develop acceptance of what is and to reduce negative self-evaluation.  While tennis can help us to grow in mindfulness, using mindfulness practices on a regular basis develops our tennis performance.  Hence, playing tennis and mindfulness are mutually reinforcing.   I particularly noticed this mutual influence while watching some of the women’s matches during the US Open.

Being in the zone

Victoria Azarenka (unseeded) beat Elise Mertens (16th seed) 6-1, 6-0 in the US Open quarter-final round.  She achieved this despite not having played in a quarter-final since the 2016 Australian Open (Victoria gave birth to her son Leo in December 2016 and took a 9 month break from tennis during a lengthy custody battle for her son).  In her interview following the match with Elise, Victoria described how she saw the ball so large and with a bright yellow colour (she could even read the “US Open” imprint on the ball).  She also commented on the fact that the ball seemed to always be where she needed in order to hit the shot she wanted to play (in reality, it is likely that she had moved to be in the right spot to play the ball).   In the match, Victoria displayed heightened sensory perception, anticipation, and flexibility of movement.

The interviewer suggested that what Victoria was describing was known as “being in the zone” – an experience reported by many committed sports people such as car racing drivers and cricketers.  Mindfulness can develop the capacity to be-in-the zone as it achieves increased integration of body, mind and emotions – an alignment necessary to achieve the “flow” of being-in-the-zone.  Mindfulness practices such as yoga and Tai Chi can enhance sports performance and the likelihood of being-the-zone by developing bodily awareness, focused intention, groundedness and balance.

Finding the calm mind

Victoria lost 6-1 in the first set of the semi-final against Serena Williams who was determined to assert her ascendency as early as possible and to keep the rallies short (she had played four tough three-set matches leading up to this match).   However, Victoria went on to win the next two sets 6-3, 6-3.   When asked on interview how she went on to win after such a devastating start to the match, Victoria commented that Serena had dug her “in a big hole” and she had to “climb her way out”. 

She was able to do this because of the work she had been doing “to find the calm mind”.  She explained that she had learned to change her mindset from that of victim always seeking to ask why bad things were happening to her.  She stated that she recognised that she was responsible for what she did and how she reacted to situations and this had enabled her to “become a better person”.  Previously, Victoria had been noted for her on-court emotional outbursts that impeded her performance and progress as a professional tennis player.  During Serena’s lengthy injury break at a critical time in the match, Victoria was able to close her eyes and go inside herself and draw on her inner strength.

Mindfulness builds calmness and tranquility even in challenging times, develops self-awareness and helps us overcome negative self-evaluations.  It enables us to realise that there is a space between stimulus and response and that we have a choice in how we react to negative stimuli or testing situations.  Sharon Salzberg maintains that mindfulness develops wisdom in multiple ways including accepting what is beyond your control, managing your emotions and response and appreciating moments of wellness and joy.  Over the course of the US Open matches, Victoria frequently expressed her freedom from expectations and sheer joy at being able to participate in the competition and to play champions of Serena’s calibre.   

Body awareness and movement

At the start of the second set in her semi-final, Victoria began energetically bopping up and down.  During an interview following the match, she was asked what she was thinking when she “started to bop around at the baseline”.  Victoria explained that she was conscious of her need to bring her energy level up and movement was her way of doing that.  She was also able to tap into the fact that she started each day with a smile on her face and spent time on self-care to “focus her attention and energy”.

Processes such as body scan meditation can build body awareness, identify energy blocks, and provide a way to release tensions and the aftermath of traumas.   Mindful movement through yoga or Tai Chi can serve to build the mind-body connection and activate the body’s energy flow.

Reflection

Christian Straka, former tennis coach for Victoria Azarenka, is also a mindfulness facilitator with UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC).  He has created a specialized approach to mindset training by developing methodologies that apply “evidence-based mindfulness techniques in sports”. 

Many sportspeople consciously develop mindfulness to enhance their sports performance.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can access multiple benefits that facilitate achievement of high-performance levels in sports, as well as in our work and everyday life.  As with the pursuit of any competence, these benefits are more extensive and sustainable with regular practice.

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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.

Accessing the Genius of Anxiety for Improved Mental Health

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

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

Trauma and anxiety

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

The genius of anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different anxiety orientations: planner vs procrastinator

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

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

Reflection

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

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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.

Understanding the Message and Wisdom of Difficult Emotions

In a recent interview podcast, Tami Simon of Sounds True recorded a conversation with Karla McLaren, author of The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You.   The interview covered a range of emotions and the message and wisdom that lie beneath each one.  Karla’s primary focus was on emphasizing that emotions are not good or bad but serve to help us in various ways to change our situation and/or our behaviour.  In her view, emotions are a hidden source of wisdom that we should listen to rather than seek to control or dismiss.  Karla noted that people often deflect their attention from difficult emotions and try to displace them with “happier” experiences – thus missing the message of emotions.

Emotions hold a huge amount of energy

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla highlights the huge amount of energy that is stored in emotions, especially those that we label as “bad”.   The unproductive ways to deal with these emotions (and the energy stored within them) is either to suppress or repress them.  Suppression involves consciously distracting ourselves from the discomfort of these emotions and trying to meet the unrealistic ideal of an “always happy” person.  It can be okay as a short-term solution, but if the emotion (e.g. anger) remains unaddressed then it can lead to dysfunctional and harmful behaviour as we express our emotions in an unhelpful way.  

Repression, on the other hand, involves unconscious avoidance of emotions (a response partly conditioned by our upbringing and our perceptions of other people’s views).   The energy stored in repressed emotions can manifest itself in a depleted immune system and physical symptoms such as muscle pain and fatigue as well as the associated increased risk of serious illness such as cardiovascular disease.  You can see the negative impact of repressed emotions such as anger  operating in the workplace when someone at work blasts you for something that was a very minor mistake – you cop an “emotional dump” that is a response completely disproportionate to the nature of your error (but that manifests the accumulated energy of a repressed emotion).

Emotions are not good or bad

By naming difficult emotions as “bad”, we perpetuate our reluctance to face them and understand their message and wisdom.  Instead we increase our motivation to suppress or repress them because we fear what others might think, even if we express them in an entirely appropriate way.  Karla suggests too that when we label some emotions as “good” we are potentially setting ourselves up for disappointment or negative self-evaluation – because we perceive that we don’t feel as positive as others expect or express our good emotions in a way expected by others.

According to Karla, what lies behind calling emotions “bad” or “good” is an “attribution error” – we erroneously blame our emotions for the precipitating situation or trigger.   Our difficult emotions do not create our problems (like the health and economic impacts of the Coronavirus) – they exist to help us deal with our problems and difficult situations, if only we would listen to the message they convey.

Understanding the message and wisdom of difficult emotions

The first task is to name your feelings in a fine-grained way or what Susan David calls developing a granular description of your feelings.  This involves avoiding generalisations such as “I feel upset” and being more precise about the feelings involved such as anger, fear or anxiety.  Until you can name and compassionately accept your difficult emotions, you will be unable to understand what they are telling you.

According to Karla, each emotion has its own message.  For example, depression arising from a specific situation reduces your energy and slows you down so that you can see when something is not right, and you need to change the situation.  Karla maintains that depression “removes energy when we are going in the wrong way to do the wrong things for the wrong reason”.   On the other hand, anger helps you to establish boundaries (e.g. constant interruptions or intrusions into your personal space) and fear helps you to get really focused on the present moment and to draw on your insight and intuition to address the trigger for your fear.

Karla maintains that the current challenging times of the Coronavirus is resulting in people experiencing dyads or triads of emotions – she sees, for example, evidence of people simultaneously experiencing sadness, depression and grief.  In her view, sadness in this context is a message to let go of something that no longer works or applies (e.g. working in a workplace during pandemic restrictions) and grief is a natural emotion when you have lost someone or something – it is about taking the time to grieve and allowing for the fact that grief is experienced and expressed differently by different people and its expression changes over time.

Effective ways to draw on the message and wisdom of emotions

Karla emphasised the importance of being grounded when you attempt to deal with difficult emotions.  In her interview podcast with Tami Simon, she described a process based on deep breathing and sighing and complete focus on the present moment and your bodily sensations.  She suggested, for instance, that you feel the sensation of your bottom on the seat and your feet on the floor and listen to the sounds that surround you.

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla provides many experiential exercises to draw out the wisdom hidden in a wide range of emotions including anger, fear, jealousy and shame.  Through these exercises you can gain emotional fluency in dealing with your own and others’ emotions.  Karla stresses the importance of understanding a particular emotion and being able to differentiate it from other emotions, e.g. differentiating between sadness and grief.  This clarity about the nature of a particular emotion enables you to identify practices to understand and act on the message and wisdom inherent in the emotion.  She provides an alphabetical list of emotions and links to relevant blog posts on her website as well as videos on different emotions on her YouTube© playlist.

Another strategy that Karla mentioned is that of “conscious questioning” which she describes in detail in her latest book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.  In the interview podcast, Karla provided an example of this process that can be used in relation to panic.  For example, you can ask yourself, “What is the basis of my fear and the likelihood that what I fear will happen?” or “Can I avoid the situation that has the potential to harm me and is making me fearful?”  In the latter case, you might put off a visit to a food store at a busy time for fear of contamination from the Coronavirus.  Panic can help us to realise a potentially dangerous situation and enable us to take action to avoid the situation.   If your panic is chronic and not situational, other approaches such as managing your morning panic attack might help.

Reflection

Karla draws on her own life experience of dealing with her difficult emotions as well as a lifetime of research into emotions, their manifestation and effective ways of dealing with them.  As we grow in mindfulness and understanding through experiential exercises, reflection, conscious questioning and meditation we can access the messages and wisdom hidden in our emotions and develop emotional fluency.  Through these mindfulness practices we can safely negotiate difficult emotions and restore our equilibrium in any situation.

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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.

Understanding the Process of Emotions

Dr. Eve Ekman recently presented a session on Overcoming Negativity and Judgement as part of the Wise@Work Virtual Communities series organised by Wisdom Labs.  Eve’s professional work focuses on developing emotional awareness, compassion and mindfulness. In pursuit of this goal, she draws on her knowledge, research and experience in areas such as integrative medicine, clinical social work and contemplative science. The mission of Wisdom Labs is to improve mental health in the workplace and the organisation offers guided virtual communities and a stress reduction app as a means to pursue these goals.  The positive outcomes from these tools are reduction in workplace stress, combating loneliness and burnout and improvement in teamwork.

Eve facilitates the Cultivating Emotional Balance Online Course and is Director of Training at the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), University of California Berkeley.  Eve demonstrates the benefits of her yoga and meditation practice in her concise, calm, practical and insightful presentations in many contexts, including in large organisations around the world.   Her video presentation on cultivating emotional balance and fluency at the 2013 Summer Institute for Educators (GGSC) is another example of the depth and passion of her work in developing emotional awareness

The process of emotions

Eve made the point at the outset that we have to understand the nature of emotions if we are going to learn how to keep them under control.  She explained that emotions are more than feelings (e.g. feeling good or bad about something).  In her view (informed by scientific research), emotions are really a process – a process involving “a trigger, an experience and a response”.

The trigger for a feeling of frustration and anger in the workplace could be something like the internet freezing continuously, someone who continually talks loudly in your open office workspace or the fact that your views and suggestions are ignored by management.   Working from home in the current lockdown environment of the Coronavirus can provide multiple triggers for frustration such as distractions, inadequate computer resources and managers who lack an understanding of your personal situation and associated difficulties (such as young children at home).   

Our experience of frustration and anger and associated thoughts of unfairness have a “biological correlate” – in other words, our thoughts and feelings are reflected in our body.  We may feel “uptight”, experience soreness in our back, arms or legs or have a stiff neck or headache.  Our response to the trigger and associated feelings and bodily sensations, can be mild, measured, “over-the-top” or involve some form of calming of ourselves and our emotions.

Eve suggests that we draw on integrative science (Western and Eastern approaches) to identify emotions as “constructive or destructive in how they are enacted” – in other words, how we respond, how our emotions play out in our words and actions.  Whether we choose a constructive or destructive way to act out our emotions will depend on how well we have our emotions under control at the time. 

The capacity to consciously chose an appropriate response to our triggers and associated feelings is described as emotional fluency or as Susan David calls it, “emotional agility”.  Eve’s facilitation in workplaces and her research, confirm that meditation and mindfulness practices are a pathway to developing emotional fluency/agility.   Without awareness of our emotions and how we enact them, we can be easily captured and controlled by them, resulting in harmful interactions and poor decision making.

Reflection

Viktor Frankl reminds us that between a stimulus (a trigger) and our response, there is a gap – wherein lies the opportunity to exercise choice in how we respond, and in the process, free ourselves from the enslavement of our emotions.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices we can build our self-awareness in relation to our triggers, thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and habituated responses and develop self-regulation to deal with our emotions constructively.

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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.

Resilience through Self-Compassion

Sounds True founder, Tami Simon, recently interviewed Pema Chödrön as part of the podcast series, Resilience in Challenging Times.  The theme of Pema’s interview podcast was Compassionate Abiding – an emphasis on building resilience by abiding in, or inhabiting, difficult emotions while extending loving-kindness to our self and others.  Her focus was on ways to become “embodied” – being fully in touch with the physical manifestations of our feelings. 

Pema acknowledged that many people worldwide are feeling lost and experiencing “groundlessness”.  This is normal and natural in these challenging times when everything has been upended – intrastate, interstate and international travel, location of work, availability of work, education of children and adults, health risks, financial security and relationships.  We are now having to connect from a distance – with our colleagues, friends and extended family.  People in the streets, cafés and shops are wearing masks and observing social distancing – avoidance is the new norm in interactions.

Becoming grounded in your body

With this pervasive upheaval, it is difficult to stay grounded and avoid being swept away by a torrent of difficult emotions. Pema maintains that the one, immediately accessible control point is your body.  Your difficult emotions can manifest in your body as tightness in your chest, pain in your arms or legs, headaches, upset stomach, racing pulse or any other physical form of constriction, acceleration or discomfort.   Pema contends that the pathway to resilience lies in immersing yourself in your feelings and associated bodily sensations through your breathing.  She argues that it is important to “lean into your sharp points and fully experience them”.

Pema offered a breathing exercise during her interview podcast (at the 16-minute mark).  She encouraged listeners to get comfortable (sitting, lying or walking) and to ask themselves, “What does a specific feeling (e.g. anxiety) feel like in my body?’  You are encouraged to explore the depth and breadth of the feeling through self-observation and self-exploration – locating the point(s) of manifestation of the feeling in your body. 

Conscious breathing with kindness and self-compassion

Having named your feeling and fully experienced its manifestation in your body, the next step is to take three conscious breaths – breathing in and out deeply, feeling your lungs expand with the in-breath and experiencing a sense of release/relief on your out-breath.  Pema argues that in this way we are accessing the “wisdom of our emotions” – emotions that have been shaped by our personality, life experiences and responses to triggers.  This process can be repeated over a longer period if the level of personal agitation is high.  Pema mentioned that in one of her recent experiences of a difficult emotion, it took her half an hour to achieve equilibrium and peace through this breathing exercise.

For some people, the focus on breath may be too traumatic because it generates painful flashbacks to adverse childhood experiences or too demanding because of respiratory difficulties or other physical disability.  In this scenario, Pema suggests that embracing yourself, rocking, tapping or a more analytical approach could work to tame the emotions and dampen the associated feelings.

As you breathe into and out of your feelings, it is important to extend loving-kindness to yourself – avoiding negative self-talk that is debilitating and disabling.  Each person has a different way of expressing self-compassion and acknowledgement of their inherent goodness.  Pema maintains that “the essence of bravery is being without deception” – having the courage to face up to what we are not happy with in ourselves, as well as what we admire.  By holding our faults, deficiencies and prejudices in loving kindness and understanding, we can move beyond self-deception, self-loathing and self-recrimination.  It takes a brave person to face the reality of what they feel and why, and to open themselves to self-intimacy and self-empowerment.   Pema suggests that as we extend kindness to our self, we imagine our heart opening wide and filling an ever-expanding space.

Reflection

Pema is a humorous, grounded and practical meditation teacher who has written many books including Start Where Your Are and When Things Fall Apart.  She provides a free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön.  Pema has also developed an online course, Freedom to Love, covering the principles and practices mentioned in this blog post as well as a penetrating exploration of resilience through compassion towards others.

After many years of meditation and teaching, Pema Chödrön has developed a quiet, down-to-earth, insightful approach that makes you want to learn more from her.  To me, she evidences the calmness and peace that she promotes. 

Consistent with other mindfulness teachers, Pema encourages spending time in nature, walking and other forms of movement.  As we grow in mindfulness through our breathing, self-exploration and self-intimacy, we can better access our own sense of peace and resilience in the face of very challenging times.

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Image by jplenio – My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: 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.

Tapping into Our Positive Energy Force

In a recent presentation as part of the You Can Heal Your Life Summit, Rajshree Patel emphasised that our breath is our life force.   She elaborates on this idea extensively in her book, The Power of Vital Force: Fuel Your Energy, Purpose and Performance with Ancient Secrets of Breath and Meditation.  She maintains that many people achieve “success”, but their harmful emotional life and/or turbulent relationships drain their energy and ensure that they are not happy.  Rajshree argues that they have not learnt to master their inner landscape – their thoughts, emotions and feelings.  For her, breathing is the gateway to life’s balance, energy and happiness.

In an interview recorded in a Moonshots Podcast, Rajshree argued that true self-awareness arises through our vital life force, the breath.  She stated that meditation is “the ability to perceive what is going on in your inner world as it is”.  For her, conscious breathing initiates meditation and enables you to achieve a level of perception of your inner landscape that gives you access to your innate power, potential and energy. Meditation through conscious breathing precipitates calmness, clarity and tranquillity – realised through evenness of our breath.  Rajshree pointed out that there is a proven relationship between how we breathe and our thoughts and emotions.  For example, research has demonstrated that a specific pattern of breathing occurs when people are shown photos depicting different emotions such as anger and fear.  The breathing pattern changes with each different emotion displayed.

Rajshree offers three ways to access our breath and suggests that these are pathways to meditation appropriate to different situations.  The three patterns she identifies are deep breathing, deep calm breathing and reset breathing.

Deep breathing

Conscious breathing brings us into the present moment, away from anxiety and fear about the future and from anger and resentment about the past.  Deep breathing is a mindfulness practice that builds our capacity to be in the present moment and tap into our internal power and energy source at any time during the day.  We might adopt this practice before we start our working day, after conducting a workshop or before beginning a meeting.  Rajshree reminds us that the in-breath draws in energy and vitality while the out-breath releases toxins and pent-up feelings.

The process of deep breathing involves placing your hand on your abdomen and taking a deep breath in, pushing your abdomen out.  Rajshree explains that often we take a shallow breath, drawing our abdomen in and trying to fill our chest with our breath.  She maintains that it is really important in deep breathing to expand the abdomen because this enables you to release “emotional blockages” that are held within this part of the body.  The in-breath should be taken as long as possible with a slow, controlled out-breath.  Having your hand on your abdomen helps you to be conscious of expanding your abdomen, rather than contracting it – of releasing emotion, not trapping it within you.  Rajshree suggests that you take 10 deep breaths at least three times a day – as practice builds awareness and competence.

Deep calm breathing

This form of breathing is designed to clear difficult emotions that may arise after a day’s work where you experience deadlines, noise, interruptions, unrealistic expectations, information overload and the resultant stress and overwhelm.  In a sense, deep calm breathing is a form of “letting go”.  If we don’t do this then we can become locked in a pattern of negative thoughts and emotions that finds expression in traffic rage, conflict with our partner or failure to listen empathetically to our children.  Little annoyances can catalyse a disproportionate, angry response.

The process of deep calm breathing involves deep abdomen breathing once again but this time you take in a deep breath and when you think you can’t breathe in anymore, you draw in more breath and then release the breath after a brief holding of the breath.  Rajshree maintains that this form of breathing breaks the link between mind, body and stress – releasing difficult emotions before they find expression in negative patterns of behaviour towards others.  She suggests that this mindfulness practice should be employed at the end of each working day before you leave the office or when you finish your workday when working from home. Doing 10 deep calm breaths at the end of the working day prevents negative emotions from taking hold and enables you to achieve a relative level of calm to face the rest of your day.

Reset breathing

This mindfulness practice is called “reset breathing” because the idea is to change your breathing from the form of breathing you take on after an experience of considerable agitation, e.g. conflict with your spouse, partner, boss or colleague; difficulty in getting to work on time; a spiteful interaction with a stranger or any other activity that raises your ire or upsets you unduly.  If we let this agitation fester, it drains our energy and frustrates our positive intentions.   As Rajshree points out, “our quality of life is directly related to our minds” and if we waste energy reliving the past and being resentful about our interactions, we destroy our chance of being happy, vibrant and energetic.

The process of reset breathing involves firstly recapturing the experience that caused you agitation.  Rajshree suggests that you close your eyes and try to envisage as fully as possible what you experienced at the time – your thoughts, actions, emotions and bodily sensations, as well as your perceptions of other people and your immediate environment.  After you have fully captured the precipitating experience, you take in a deep breath through your mouth followed by a sudden exhale accompanied by sounding “hmmm”!  Rajshree maintains that the vibration caused by this explosive sound is felt effectively between the eyes and positively activates the pituitary gland

Reflection

Our breathing occurs unconsciously moment by moment all day, every day that we are alive.  It is readily accessible wherever we are.  Breath is our life force and constant source of energy.  Conscious breathing, in whatever form it takes, enables us to access this life force and release difficult emotions and toxins in our physical system.  Our mind-body connection is clearly manifested through our breathing patterns.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing practices, reflection and other forms of meditation, we can achieve a profound level of self-awareness and an enhanced level of self-regulation and tap into our life purpose and creative energy.  Conscious breathing provides release from negative emotions and positively impacts the human body’s “energy system”. 

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Image by enriquelopezgarre 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.

Self-Compassion in Times of Uncertainty and the Coronavirus

There are many people offering ways to manage anxiety and fear in these times of uncertainty brought on by the global Coronavirus.  Psychologist Rick Hanson, for example,  provides multiple online mindfulness resources including the Wise Brain Bulletin.  In the latest issue (Volume 14.2), Kristin Neff and Chris Germer offer 10 self-compassion practices for self-management during this time of the pandemic.  Self-compassion is about being compassionate towards ourselves despite our mistakes, deficiencies and perceived weaknesses.  It takes time and effort to build self-compassion, particularly if we are used to negative self-talk, berating ourselves for our mistakes or constantly comparing ourselves to others (and coming up short in our own estimation).

Elsewhere, Kristin provides a video explanation of the concept of self-compassion, discusses the three components of self-compassion and offers exercises on how to develop each of these.  She also offers a range of guided meditations and exercises on the website for the  Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.   Kristin and Chris are co-developers of the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSP) Program designed for those who want to explore more fully the richness of this mindfulness approach.  They are very well qualified to teach mindfulness and compassion (for ourselves and others).

Additional Approaches to developing self-compassion

There are multiple resources and exercises available to help you build self-compassion.  Some that are very accessible and easy to use are:

  • Compassionate body scan: a 20-minute progressive body scan that focuses attention on different parts of the body and treats each part of the body with kind awareness and tension release.  The guided body scan is offered in separate audio recordings by both Kristin and Chris.
  • Mood tracking: an essential element in building the self-awareness necessary for developing self-compassion and improved mental health.  There are many mood tracker apps that help you identify your triggers and enable you to gain control over your emotional responses.  Steve Scott provides a review of the 14 best mood tracker apps available today.  These apps provide a ready means of tracking stimuli and your responses in terms of moods/feelings.

Reflection

Self-compassion is the antidote to negative self-evaluation, just as gratitude and savouring what we have reduces competitive comparison and envy.  As we grow in mindfulness and self-compassion through meditation, mindfulness practices/exercises and reflection on the triggers that precipitate our strong emotional responses, we can progressively develop self-intimacy and the self-regulation necessary to identify our negative triggers and control our responses.

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Image by Stephen Cruickshank from Pixabay

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

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

How to Maintain Mental and Emotional Balance When Physically Isolated

Previously I have spoken about mindfulness practices as a way to handle the mental and emotional challenges inherent in the current Coronavirus and the imposition of social isolation and social distancing.   What I have covered there is a list of discrete practices that can help us to manage the overwhelm associated with these times of uncertainty and anxiety.  Arjuna Ardagh, author of Radical Brilliance: How and Why People Have Original Life Changing Ideas, offers a more holistic approach that recognises the mind-body connection.  His tips on maintaining emotional and mental wellness are mutually reinforcing and place the body as central to emotional and mental stability in our current environment.

A holistic approach to mental and emotional wellbeing

Arjuna highlighted some of the unproductive and potentially aggravating practices that people are engaging in to release tension and stress at this time, e.g. spending many hours on social media and indulging in the blame game and conspiracy thinking or turning to alcohol or drugs to numb the mind and distract from the fear and anxiety that people are feeling.  He suggests that this current pandemic challenge provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to develop self-intimacy and learn to change our mental and emotional state through holistic practices.

In his short tips video (17 minutes), Arjuna proposes four integrated approaches or types of practices that are designed to strengthen the mind-body connection while releasing negative energy and building positivity:

  1. Removing physical blockages – this entails elements such as stretching and moving emotion though your body.  Arjuna suggests that you identify and practice a physical expression of the emotion that you are feeling, e.g. fear may be experienced bodily as a curled-up posture and then released through stretching to one’s full height.  Frustration, on the other hand, might be expressed by an angry, explosive gesture and a prolonged cry of anguish such as “Aargh”.  This bodily approach releases inhibiting emotions locked away in your body and opens the way for developing a “positive disposition”.
  2. Relax into awareness – this can take many forms such as somatic meditation, the use of singing bowls as described in a MARC podcast, exploring natural awareness (opening to the infinite reality that is accessible through our senses),  or deep listening to classical music, singing of mantra meditations or “sacred acoustics”.  Arjuna maintains that all that is really required here is to be “naturally curious” about the sensations that you are experiencing in the present moment (including awareness of the fact that YOU are doing the experiencing).
  3. Enter the flow – this approach involves engaging the flow of energy through your body.  There are a range of Eastern practices that can help you achieve this but one of the best and well-researched practices is Tai Chi.  Arjuna asserts that if you can engage in the process of flow (even through dancing to music), you not only release energy throughout your body but also emotion – you can experience the joy and ease of wellbeing.
  4. Use thought creatively – Arjuna suggests that after you have removed blockages, experienced deep awareness and engaged your energy flow, you are well placed to engage your uncluttered mind.  So, instead of marinating in negative thoughts that generate complex and harmful emotions, you can begin to write creatively in a journal or blog or create a video podcast that reflects your positive, energetic flow.

Arjuna maintains that if you practice each of these approaches each day, however briefly and in whatever form you choose, you can release the hold of your complex emotions and develop emotional and mental wellness.

Reflection

Arjuna’s approach involves a progressive release of creative energy, moving from clearing blockages to engaging the senses in awareness and tapping into the energy flow of the body.  The outcome is creative expression and resolution of perceived, impenetrable challenges.  His approach is deeply embedded in the mind-body connection and employs integrated approaches that open up a wealth of possibilities.  As we grow in mindfulness through adopting these holistic practices, we can more readily access our creativity, build resilience, manage our confounding thoughts and emotions and experience the peace and ease of wellness.

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Image by Friedrich Frühling from Pixabay

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

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

A Reflection to Address Absolutes

In the previous post, I discussed the concept of absolutes advanced by Lance Allred.  Absolutes are those firm, unshakeable beliefs we hold about our self, others or the world around us.  They constrain our perspectives and influence our behaviour.  They are relatively immoveable and do not dissolve in the face of rational argument.  Absolutes shape our thoughts, feelings and reactions and impact our effectiveness and our relationships. They develop early in family life and are often reinforced culturally.  The downside of absolutes is that they stop us from realising our full potential – they act like clots in our circulatory system, stemming the flow of creativity and responsiveness.

A reflection to surface and address an absolute

It seems to me that the starting point for addressing the absolutes in our life is to begin with developing self-awareness and move to identifying strategies to self-regulate our reactions.  It is important to focus on one aspect of our present experience that we find unsatisfactory because of the negative thoughts and emotions that the experience elicits in us.  We are complex beings, so beginning with one relatively small absolute can develop our self-awareness and improve our capacity to respond effectively without the baggage of our past.

There are several steps in the meditation:

  • Being grounded: It is important to become grounded so that you can achieve a sense of focus, balance and insight.  Being conscious of your posture and breathing helps to ground you in the present.
  • Deciding on an anchor: Your anchor is designed to enable you to come back into the focus of your reflection whenever you become aware that you have become distracted or diverted in your thinking.  The choice of anchors is a personal thing – I still like to feel the sensation of my fingers coming together.
  • Focus on an unsatisfactory experience: Decide what you are going to work on to unearth an absolute that is negatively impacting your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It could be some recent interaction or activity that made you upset or threw you off balance.  It does not have to be a major issue – in fact, initially it is better to start small. [I have started with the fact that I get upset and annoyed when I make a mistake at social tennis.]
  • Explore your emotions during the incident: What were you feeling?  What was the intensity of those feelings?  What was the catalyst for those feelings – what really happened?  Who were your feelings directed at – yourself or another person? [In my case, with my tennis mistakes my feelings were annoyance, frustration, anger and shame.]
  • What thoughts were behind your emotions: Why did you experience those emotions?  What was the incident triggering in you? What belief (absolute) about your self or the other person was driving your emotional response?  Whenever your thoughts include a “must” or “should”, you are beginning to access an absolute that is locking you into a response that reduces your flexibility and constrains your perspective.  [When I get upset with my tennis mistakes, my underlying thought or absolute is that “I must be seen to be competent at tennis.”] 
  • Explore the nature of your identified “absolute”: Take a close look at your absolute.  Is it a rational or realistic thought?  What is its origin? Is it embedded in a childhood experience or something that happened in later life?  Where did it come from and why is it persisting?  What does it say about your sense of self-worth – is your sense of who you are dependent on what someone else thinks or says?  [Tennis competence was a way to prove my worth – it generated respect and admiration.  It made me feel good about myself. My identity is tied up with the self-perception that I am a very good tennis player.]
  • What strategies could you adopt to reduce the impact of your “absolute”: The starting point is to acknowledge your absolute and how it is playing out in your life and relationships.  What could you do to reduce or avoid your negative, conditioned response?  Are there ways to build in a gap between the stimulus (the catalyst) and your response to give you the time and freedom to respond differently? Are there other offsetting, positive thoughts that you could entertain instead of your “absolute”?  [For my issue with tennis mistakes, one strategy has been to progressively loosen the relationship between my sense of self-worth and the outcome of the game – that is, not measuring my sense of self- worth on whether I won or not.  This still leaves the issue of being upset with my tennis mistakes.  A strategy I am trying here is to express gratitude that I am able to play, that I can run and hit the ball, that I can hit some really good shots – that is, appreciating what I have and not focusing on the negatives and lack of accomplishment.]

Reflection

Even relatively minor “absolutes” are very hard to dislodge.  Using a reflection like the one described above can help to chip away at an absolute and reduce its hold on us by eroding our sense of certainty about the underlying belief, by seeing it for what it really is (e.g. illogical, unfounded or unnecessary) and developing alternative ways of thinking and feeling.  As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness, we can develop deeper personal insight, identify how absolutes play out in our life and develop more creative and positive ways to respond to negatively experienced stimuli that will inevitably recur in our daily lives.

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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.