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.

Natural Awareness through Nature

Natural awareness is often contrasted with meditation focused on numbers, the breath, sounds or particular sensations or feelings.  Natural awareness is not goal-focused – it is more about being aware of awareness itself, noticing that you are noticing.  So much of what we do in life is goal-focused – natural awareness provides a desirable shift that can lead to less stress, more openness and a greater sense of calm.  Rachelle Calvert encourages us to take our mindfulness practice outside so that we can feel more connected to the world around us and not be totally absorbed in having to “try” or “do”.   She draws on research results that demonstrate that “practicing mindfulness in nature”, leads to many benefits including improved heart health, concentration, relaxation and stress reduction.  Mark Coleman reminds us that a natural outcome of being mindful in nature is a sense of gratitude as well as wonder and awe inspired by nature’s beauty and resilience.

By developing natural awareness in nature through observation and listening, we can become more grounded, experience tranquility and begin to notice minute aspects of our natural environment that we have previously overlooked.   Diana Winston in her book, The Little Book of Being, identifies practices we can use to develop natural awareness and offers what she calls “markers” to test whether or not we have experienced “natural awareness”.   These include feelings of timelessness and ease; noticing that you are noticing; completely aware with all your senses open to your environment; and a restful mind that is open to what is passing by. 

An experience of natural awareness

I was recently strolling along the Mooloolaba Beach Boardwalk noticing the people passing by – couples of all ages out for a walk, men and women pushing prams, individuals leading dogs on a leash and the perennial runners, both individuals and groups.  Occasionally, a bush turkey would cross my path on its way to greener pastures.  While being aware of these movements, I was totally unaware of the vegetation beside the Boardwalk.  Once I realised this lack of awareness, I began to scan the vegetation either side of the path.  I became aware of tiny wildflowers partially hidden amongst the trees and grasses, trees twisted sideways turning towards the sun and all different kinds of leaves (broad and large, thin and small).  This cultivated, natural awareness enabled me to broaden the horizon of my awareness and instilled a greater sense of calm as I walked mindfully along the Boardwalk.

Diana Winston offers an exercise to experience what she calls, “the spectrum of awareness” – moving from a very narrow focus to a more panoramic, natural awareness view.  She uses fish in an aquarium for this exercise, moving from focus on a single plant, to movement of an individual fish and, finally, to a panoramic view taking in the fish, the aquarium and the surrounding environment.  As she observes as part of this exercise, natural awareness includes noticing our own bodily sensations and feelings in the present moment as we are experiencing the world around us with openness and curiosity.

Reflection

We can develop natural awareness through our everyday activities if we adopt a mindset that involves consciously noticing what we are doing and seeing, as well as what we are experiencing internally.  Diana Winston suggests that we can develop natural awareness even when doing the dishes; when we expertly handle a distraction while meditating; when consciously avoid foods that lead to inflammation or when we monitor how we spend our time. 

Focused meditation helps to develop natural awareness as we become increasing able to concentrate and pay attention with openness and curiosity.  As we grow in mindfulness through developing our capacity for natural awareness and engaging in formal meditation, we can experience a greater sense of tranquility, freedom from anxiety and a more complete alignment of our words and actions with our values and life purpose.

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Image by Waldemar Zielinski from Pixabay

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

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

How to Overcome being Imprisoned by Self-Neglect

Edith Eger in her book The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, discusses the “the prison of self-neglect”.   Habituated behaviours that underlie self-neglect can arise through adverse childhood experiences, an abusive relationship or a deficient developmental environment.  Edith suggests that self-neglect often arises because of unmet childhood needs – specifically the need for “attention, affection and approval”.   Our own needs are neglected in order to fill the gap left by unfulfilled childhood needs.  So we pursue the “A’s” (mentioned above) at the expense of our present needs.  An aspect of self-neglect is the avoidance of expressing strong emotions for fear of causing  discomfort to others.

Factors leading to self-neglect

We might have had parents who offered conditional love – on condition that we met their high standards in sport, academic or other achievements.  Their expectations about our performance can create a dependency whereby we are forever seeking approval or acceptance.  We might have suffered neglect as a child through the conscious choice of parents or their own adverse circumstances.  This can lead to our continuously seeking attention.  In one of my workshops, one participant proved to be continually disruptive through constant challenge to anything other participants said.  It turned out she was seeking attention and approval because she was denied this as a very young child – being expected to contribute meaningfully to adult conversation when still very young.

Sometimes self-neglect can arise as a result of the role we played as a child or young adult.  Family circumstances may have led to our being the “responsible one”, “the carer” or “the earner”.  These roles may have been necessary at the time but the unspoken expectation that comes with the role can continue into adulthood.  Edith recounts the story of a client who was imprisoned by the self-expectations that arose as a result of a childhood role as the “reliable one”.  This led to continual self-neglect in pursuit of other people’s needs – often unexpressed but assumed.  The result was personal burnout as well as depriving others of the opportunity to develop independence.  Sometimes creating dependence on ourselves fulfills our desire to be needed.  This was something that Gabor Maté discussed as contributing to his need to be a workaholic medical practitioner.

Gabor maintains that underlying many addictions is an unmet need arising from early childhood.  The addiction, whatever form it takes, is an ineffectual way to address the pain arising from parental neglect, abuse or inattention.  His “compassionate inquiry” approach is designed to unearth the early triggering event(s), the resultant negative self-message and the reward sought through the addictive behaviour.

Overcoming the imprisonment of self-neglect

The fundamental rule to freeing ourselves from the prison of self-neglect, is to begin to put ourselves back into the picture, to have self and our needs as part of the equation when trying to decide how to spend our energy and time.  Edith suggests that there are a number of ways to do this:

  1. Savour the things and people in our life that bring us joy.  We can start small with a few minutes each morning spent appreciating the little things in our life –  noticing a new leaf or flower on an indoor plant, reflecting on a picture or painting that generates positive feelings, or valuing a person who has shown us kindness, thoughtfulness or generosity.  Savouring what is good in our life can extend to appreciating the development of our children, accomplishments and rewards, the wonders of our subconscious mind, the capacity to think and create and our relationships (even our relatives).  We can actively seek to let joy into our lives.
  2. Appreciating nature – nature has a healing power and enables us to cultivate all our senses and develop our sense of wonder and awe.   In nature, we can be lost in the beauty, the sounds, the textures and the smells that surround us.   We can actually find ourselves in this process of being lost in something immense and awe-inspiring that is beyond ourselves.
  3. Edith herself adopted an affirmation that expresses something of her uniqueness and what she has been able to contribute to the world.  We can all find the words to reflect the positive things we have contributed to others and what makes us a truly unique person.  In the process, we can value the people who helped make us who we are – our parents and their positive traits, our mentors and their wisdom, and our teachers who willingly shared their knowledge and insights.
  4. Reflect on an occasion where you were asked for something or to do something.  Ask yourself what were your thoughts and feelings at the time.  What was driving your choices?  How much of looking after yourself was reflected in your response.  How could you have responded in a way that did not involve self-neglect, e.g. expressing your true feelings.  Are there habituated behaviours that you engage in that continually overlook your own needs?
  5. Explore the balance in your life.  Edith suggests that we keep a record (for a short period) of how we spend our day in terms of how we allocate time to work, play and love.  Does work absorb all our time and energy at the expense of our needs for nurturing, relaxation and time to ourselves.  How often do we allow ourselves to become absorbed in a hobby, creation or charitable activities or just enjoy social activities with friends or family.

Reflection

With the busyness of life, it is so easy to lose ourselves through self-neglect. There are often hidden forces underpinning this neglect, so self-exploration is important to unearth what drives our behaviour.  As we grow in mindfulness through observation and reflection, we can gain the necessary self-awareness and insight to understand ourselves and develop the courage to make changes to the way we live our life. 

Edith maintains that we do not change until we are ready to make the change and often this is driven by a need to change habits that no longer serve us in a positive way.  Any changes we make to our behaviour, no matter how small, need to be reinforced by savouring our achievement.   From Edith’s perspective, change involves the process of “finding the real you”. 

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Image by Perez Vöcking from Pixabay

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

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

Expressing Emotions or Being Imprisoned by Avoidance

Edith Eger In her book, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, discusses the “the imprisonment of avoidance” – the refusal to express challenging emotions.  She maintains that avoiding feelings through suppression leads to depression – the opposite involves release through expression.  We can supress our feelings for many reasons, e.g. to avoid the pain and hurt of recollection or to protect others from seeing us as vulnerable and suffering. 

If we are suffering from past hurts or trauma we can try to shield loved ones from the discomfort that comes with the expression of strong feelings.  In the process, we are not being honest and we are also depriving them of the opportunity to express empathy and love.  We can also unconsciously train our children to avoid the expression of feelings when they are hurt or upset.   We can try to diminish their feelings out of our own discomfort or sense of sadness.  We might say, “Don’t cry, there will be other opportunities to go to parties”, “You’ll forget about this tomorrow”, “Look how many friends you do have who let you play”, or “Let’s get some ice cream and make the pain go away!” (we can try to substitute something  pleasurable to avoid the expression of pain and hurt, thus setting in place habituated avoidance behaviour).

Edith suggests that sometimes we suppress our feelings by trying to convince ourselves that we are happy and joyful when this is patently not true.  We might even resort to affirmations to hide our true feelings.  This form of subterfuge only acerbates our feelings because it denies our reality – the depth and breadth of our true feelings.  Edith encourages us “to feel so you can heal” because “you can’t heal what you don’t feel”.   Sometimes our underlying feelings can be mired in resentment and can be unearthed through a guided reflection.

There is a real cost to ourselves in avoidance.  Despite our very best efforts, emotions are embodied – they manifest in our bodies as physical tension/pain and/or result in emotional or physical illness.  By not living our truth or accepting the reality of how we are feeling, we undermine our own integrity and personal integration.   Edith provides a detailed and graphic example of the impact of unexpressed feelings on a women who experienced incomprehensible violence by a family member.  Her life was lived in fear and loneliness because she never owned up to her feelings of rage, anger and deep fear of the perpetrator.

There may be times in conversation with a friend that we withhold a true expression of our feelings about some matter relevant to our relationship with them.  Edith suggests that we can revisit the conversation mentally, work out what we should have said and then approach the relevant person at a suitable time and in a neutral place to express our real feelings.  We could even start by practising with restaurant waitresses and expressing our honest feelings about a meal (rather than hiding our true feelings because we do not want to hurt or embarrass them). 

Facing up to our feelings and naming them provides a real release.  Edith suggests that we can practise this by stopping ourselves at any time during the day and naming our emotion, whether positive or challenging,  in the present moment.  This is not only a form of mindfulness practice but is also a way to increase self-awareness and develop honesty about our feelings both to ourselves and others.

Edith explains that sometimes this challenge to express rather than supress feelings appears overwhelming.  She writes about her inability to face the Auschwitz Museum for fear of the pain of recollection of her parent’s murder and her own torture and starvation as a prisoner in the concentration camp.  It took her a lot of courage after 10 years to visit the Museum and she describes in detail what she felt when confronted with images of emaciated people, the cattle trains and arrival platform.  She found herself cringing and curled herself up into a tight ball in a dark corner of the Museum – overwhelmed by grief, pain, anguish and anger.  However, revisiting the trauma and owning the depth of her feelings provided a new level of release to enable her to be even more productive and helpful in her ongoing work as a trauma consultant – she had finally gained release from the imprisonment of avoidance.

Reflection

Edith’s own life experience, which she shares so freely in her books, bears out how difficult it is to free ourselves from the imprisonment of avoidance.  It may take many years of progressive inner work, and trying out various ways of overcoming our entrapment, to achieve some degree of freedom and realise ease and joy.  However, suppression leads to ongoing suffering and depression.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become increasingly self-aware of the different ways we avoid expressing our true emotions, develop the courage to own up to these emotions and achieve the resilience required to break free of the imprisonment of avoidance. _________________________________

Image source: Pixabay

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

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

Integrating Gratitude with Loving Kindness Meditation

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

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

Guided meditation incorporating gratitude and loving kindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

Managing Fear and Anxiety through Mindfulness Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

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

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

Exploring the Spectrum of Awareness through Fish in an Aquarium

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

Adopting a narrow awareness

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

Widening awareness to movement of particular fish

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

Taking a panoramic view

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

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

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

Managing Chronic Pain with Mindfulness

Christiane Wolf , MD, PhD, provided an encouraging meditation podcast on the topic of employing mindfulness to manage chronic pain and the mind’s activity that exacerbates our feelings of pain.  In her guided meditation, The Past and the Future Pain Story: Working with Pain in the Present Moment, shespoke of the role that rehashing the past and/or rehearsing the future plays in our experience of pain and offered ways to reduce the mind’s influence over our pain experience.   Christiane is the author of Outsmart Your Pain – Mindfulness and Self-Compassion to Help You Leave Chronic Pain Behind, and is a meditation teacher who offers audio meditations and mindfulness videos on her website. 

Guided meditation on mindfulness for managing chronic pain

Christiane begins her guided meditation with ensuring your posture is comfortable and well-grounded (whether in a chair, couch or on the ground).  To help with grounding, she suggests that you focus on the solid sensation of your feet on whatever surface you are on.  Closing your eyes for the sake of strengthening your focus on your meditation is offered as an optional extra.  Christiane recommends some bodily movement, such as turning your neck or rolling your shoulders, as a way to improve your comfort level when undertaking the meditation.

The next phase of the guided meditation entails focusing on your breath.  Here, Christiane encourages you to really feel your breath by both deepening and lengthening your breathing. An alternative to using the breath as an anchor is to focus on sounds around you or the sensation in your feet or your hands.  She maintains that a meditation anchor is based in the body and its senses to enable a focus other than being “lost in thought”.  It’s a place to return to whenever thinking distracts you from the primary focus of your meditation.

How the brain exacerbates our feelings of pain

Christiane points out that our brain has a major role in how we experience pain whether the pain derives from chronic physical pain or enduring uncomfortable feelings, emotions, or thoughts.  To build your awareness of the mind’s influence she suggests that firstly you explore the “past pain story” – what you are telling yourself about the origins of the pain (e.g., “outside my control”), how it was experienced in the past, or mistakes/poor decisions that led to your pain.  She argues that the mind through recalling the past pain is trying to protect you from its recurrence or to prevent the same mistakes/poor decisions that may have occurred in your past.  Sometimes the recollection of the previous intensity of the pain serves to strengthen your resolve to avoid the pain and/or the factors that contributed to it.

Once you have explored the past pain story, Christiane encourages you to explore the “future pain story” – what is it that you are anticipating will happen in the future as a result of your pain? (typically, we envisage the worst); how does your future story make you feel? (e.g., anxious, uncertain, fearful, resentful, or sad).   

Christiane argues that the past and future pain stories are like baggage that you carry around that increases the load of your pain and exacerbates your feelings of pain.  She uses imagery to help you reduce your pain – she suggests you view the past and future pain stories as a heavy suitcase, weighing you down.  Her recommendation is that you view yourself putting the suitcase (of stories) down on the ground so you are relieved of its added weight and can gain clarity about the nature of your pain and role of your brain in rehashing past pain or anticipating future pain.  It is important to reflect, at this stage, on what is left of your pain after the stories are removed or have been put away.

Widening the focus

Christiane recommends “widening the lens of your focus” at the end of the guided meditation.  This entails initially focusing on people you know who are experiencing suffering or pain and wishing them strength and healing.  She encourages  you to then expand your focus to include people anywhere in the world who are experiencing pain or grief as a result of the COVID19 pandemic, a natural disaster, or the collapse of a building as in Miami recently.   Her desire is that you extend loving kindness to these people.  

Reflection

Christiane’s approach enables us to “unpack” the thoughts and feelings that accompany chronic pain – she puts the spotlight on the role of the brain in creating past and future pain stories to enable us to lighten the load.  In the guided meditation, she suggests ways to lighten the load using mindfulness.  In her book she provides additional exercises, meditations, and reflections to enable us to effectively manage chronic pain and suffering.

She encourages us to explore our pain with openness and curiosity to better understand and manage it.  She suggests that we should not begin her mindfulness approach with a really difficult pain but ease into it gradually starting with some form of suffering that is not so complex or challenging.

When I followed the guided meditation, I decided to focus on the challenge I have with dermatitis and associated food intolerances.  I had suffered dermatitis over the whole of my body in 2017.  In recalling this event during the meditation,  I realised that my “past pain story” focused on the extreme discomfort of the condition and the disappointment of having to limit severely what I ate and drank during a visit to Northern Italy – no wine, coffees, pasta, desserts, etc.  However, my current experience of dermatitis is very limited compared to then but I do have a “future pain story” that anticipates what would happen if the inflammation blew out again.  I found the guided meditation lightened the load of the past feelings of disappointment and the anticipatory feelings of anxiety and fear. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can understand our pain better and learn ways to manage our chronic condition.  We can also develop the strength to deal with the difficult emotions associated with chronic pain and suffering, including resentment.

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Image by JUNO KWON from Pixabay

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

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

A Meditation: Valuing the Environment

Diana Winston of MARC, UCLA presented a guided meditation podcast, Earth Day Meditation, to celebrate the environment.  Her meditation podcast on Earth Day, April 22 2021, focused on appreciating and valuing the environment through our reflections and actions.  She reminded us that mindfulness involves present moment awareness which is often stimulated by nature when we go for a walk in a rainforest, swim in the ocean, spend time near a river or just enjoy our garden – the trees, plants, fresh air and sounds of birds.   Mindfulness is enhanced when we develop a sense of wonder and awe in the presence of the beauty of nature.

At one stage in the meditation, Diana asks us to remember the indigenous people who, through their stewardship of the land, preserved what we have to share and experience today.  Wynnum in Brisbane, the area in which I live, was named by the local Aboriginal people after the Pandanus Palm or breadfruit tree.  The local islands, such as Stradbroke Island, have a rich history of Aboriginal life, closeness to nature and caring for the land and bay.  Stradbroke Island is one of my favourite places to visit and relax in its relatively undeveloped beauty.  Part of valuing our environment is exploring our local environment history with openness and curiosity.

A guided meditation on the environment

Diana presents a guided meditation focused on the earth and its amazing features and places.  She suggests at the outset that we become grounded and pay attention to the sensations in our feet.  We might be experiencing tingling, warmth, heaviness, or other sensation.  By paying attention to our bodily sensations, particularly in our feet, we can experience a deepening connection to the earth.  We can feel the earth’s physical support which enables us to experience the richness of our life and our environment.

Meditating on place

Diana suggests later in the meditation that we focus on a place that is special to us, that engenders positive feelings.  We first picture the place and its physical characteristics – the terrain, bird and animal life, significant features, the presence or absence of water.  Moving on from capturing the physical aspects of the place that we are paying attention to in our minds, we are asked to capture some of the feelings that this place generates in us.

I found at this stage of the meditation that I focused on our local environment and particularly the Esplanade along the bay where I often walk with my wife.  I was able to experience wonder and awe, peace and ease,  relaxation and happiness as I pictured myself walking in company along the bayside paths through the trees, adjacent to the marina.  I recall the dolphins I saw in the marina and their playful nature.  I also felt a sense of connectedness to nature and people as I pictured the natural beauty of the place and people strolling happily along with their dogs, their children, and partners or by themselves.  I also felt energised by the images as I mentally explored my immediate environment and felt the energy that surrounded me both in nature itself and the people enjoying the bayside walk.

Reflection

This meditation enriched my appreciation of the environment that I have to experience daily.  It made me more aware of the richness of what surrounds me and the connection that I have to others who actively seek out the beauty of our bayside environment.  Diana asks us, in the spirit of Earth Day, to commit to one or more micro-gestures to care for our environment as we experience our sense of gratitude.

We often take our environment for granted but it will deteriorate if we do not value it and actively care for it. As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on our natural environment and all that it offers in terms of healing, tranquility, and connection, we can become more grateful for what we have at our doorstep and commit to caring for it.

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Image by holgerheinze0 from Pixabay

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

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

Accessing the Genius of Anxiety for Improved Mental Health

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

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

Trauma and anxiety

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

The genius of anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different anxiety orientations: planner vs procrastinator

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

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

Reflection

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

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Image by Lars Eriksson from Pixabay

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

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