Dealing with Guilt and Shame on the Death of a Son or Daughter

In the previous post, I wrote about how storytelling helped Tiffany Barton deal with grief and loss on the suicide death of her son, Cosmo.  She talked about her letter and poem, Young Death, that Nick Cave published in his book, Faith, Hope & Carnage.  She expressed gratitude that Nick’s wife, Susie Cave (née Bick), allowed him to share her “guilt and shame” in his book because it helped Tiffany “so much to know I wasn’t alone”.  Tiffany also stated that in sharing her own story publicly in the Weekend Magazine, she felt “some relief from pain” and “some forgiveness”.  Her experience and that of Nick reinforces the wisdom of Annie Brewster in her book, The Healing Power of Storytelling: Using Personal Narrative to Navigate Illness, Trauma and Loss.

Forgiveness: Release from guilt and shame

The latter part of Nick’s book is devoted to forgiveness and the idea of making amends.   He indicated that he and Susie were “looking the wrong way at the wrong time”.   He suggested that everything they do now is designed “to seek forgiveness by making amends”.   Tiffany related to that statement and indicated that her public storytelling was designed to help anyone else who is also wrestling “with guilt, shame and self-loathing” as a result of the suicide death of their son or daughter. Nick devotes a whole chapter (chapter 15) of his book to the theme of “Absolution”.

Nick found recording the Skelton Tree album in Brighton particularly challenging as he had to drive each day past the cliffs were his son Arthur died and past the Church where he was buried.  Even moving to Paris to finish the recordings did not assuage his sadness or sense of guilt.  What did effectively provide some form of “exoneration” and inner peace was the Andrew Dominik’s documentary, One More Time with Feeling.  The documentary captures the final recording sessions of Skeleton Tree by Nick and his band, The Bad Seeds, following the death of his son.  It also incorporates Nick’s reflections and those of his wife, Susie.   Nick explains that the documentary seemed like it did something for Arthur – “bring him back into the world”.   It served as a form of release for his own sense of helplessness and guilt and enabled him to experience “a kind of peace, an internal silence and calmness”, even when driving past the cliffs where Arthur died.

Finding forgiveness in working with clay

Nick found his way to forgiveness not only through his music but also through working with clay and developing figurines “in the Staffordshire style”.  He became obsessed with this project pursuing it intensely because he was totally absorbed by it and experienced flow through the deep concentration involved.  Nick found the process therapeutic, permeating his dreams and consuming much of his time when he was awake.  He indicated that part of the attraction of working with clay was that the process was “something very direct and elemental”.   Nick found that the medium “felt liberating, also very healing”.

Sean O’Hagan, Nick’s interviewer for the Faith, Hope & Carnage book, was intrigued by Nick’s compulsion with the clay figurines and asked about the portrayal of the epic journey involved, a seeming allegory.  Nick responded that the figurines were not intended to be directly about Arthur but, in the final analysis, had something to do with his death – there is a gesture of atonement involved in the final sculpture that is titled “Devil’s Forgiveness”.  When asked directly whether the figurine epic is “an allegory about forgiveness”, Nick found it difficult to articulate exactly what the figurines meant.  However, despite himself, the figurines, and the story they portrayed,  spoke to him “directly and explicitly”.   He found that the “plain and explicit nature” of the figurines related to him “the larger and unambiguous meaning of his predicament”.

Nick explained that the theme running through each of the sculptures, and the underlining story, is “the need to be forgiven” which he maintains is at the centre of his life and that of Susie and, as such, acts as a “motivating force”.   Nick stated that the Faith, Hope & Carnage book, his live performances, albums (Skeleton Tree, Carnage and Ghosteen), The Red Hand Files, and his In Conversations events, are all asking for absolution – “to be released from my own personal culpability”.  He also maintained that all the work that they do – he (with his creative works) and Susie (with her “ghost-like dresses”) are asking for forgiveness and saying that they are sorry for what happened to Arthur.  In his own words, Nick asserts, “There is not a song or word or a stitch that is not asking for forgiveness”.

Reflection

It is not possible to fathom the depth of grief and feelings of guilt and shame experienced by a parent on the death of a son or daughter.  Grief expresses itself in unique ways – for some it is totally consuming and takes over their life.  For others, it seems to be a passing feeling that becomes buried before it can become an all-consuming pain.  Some retreat into isolation , others “party on” while attempting to “drown their sorrows”.

The road to self-forgiveness and absolution is a long and winding road, and often a tortuous path.  It is highly individualised as reflected in Nick’s figurine epic and Susie’s dress designs.  Each person has to find their own way through the darkness of grief, guilt and shame.  For Nick and Susie, the road to release was paved with creativity – but never dissolving the underlying sadness.

Nick mentioned that meditating enabled him to access his better, sympathetic self.  In contrast, when he stopped meditating, his life tended “to slip back into chaos, low level depression and anger”.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can progressively deal with our challenging feelings of grief, guilt and shame and find a way to support others through empathy and compassionate action, whatever unique form that takes.  Through his pain, Nick reminds us to savour the “the precious nature of things” and the world at large.

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Image by Sergio Cerrato – Italia 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 and the resources to support the blog.

What Happened to You?

I have been listening to the CD-audio version of What Happened to You?  – Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.  In the audio, the creators Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey, share their experiences and insights – Bruce from a neuroscience and clinical perspective and Oprah from the stories she has gleaned from thousands of interviews of traumatised people.  The audio represents the crystallisation of ideas resulting from an ongoing conversation between the two creators over more than thirty years.   It highlights the complexity of trauma and the multi-faceted nature of effective healing from trauma.

In listening to the audio, you automatically explore, “what happened to you?” in your own early childhood.  The prevalence of trauma and its impacts suggests that most of us in some way experienced one of more adverse childhood experiences (ACE).  Every day you hear of traumatic events globally as well as locally  – such as the Sea World helicopter collision on the Gold Coast.  Survivors and witnesses, as well as grieving relatives and friends, would have been traumatised by the accident.  Some of the survivors have to experience the trauma of multiple surgeries as well.

We are frequently exposed to the traumatic experiences of others, including prominent people who describe their upbringing and provide insights into trauma and its impacts by way of their memoirs.   For example, Bertie Blackman, singer and artist, writes in her memoir, Bohemian Negligence, that she was sexually abused at a young age by a “friend of the family”.  Tove Ditlevsen, famous Danish poet and author, explained in her memoir, Childhood, Youth and Dependency, that she had a violent mother who beat her indiscriminately and was unpredictable, inflexible and critical.   Tove’s dream of becoming a poet was a source of belittlement by others, and disbelief and denigration from her parents and beloved brother.  She was also ostracized at school because she was seen to be “different”.

What happened to you or did not happen for you?

Bruce and Oprah explain that the more we understand the nature of trauma and its many forms and manifestations, we are better able to be compassionate towards others and ourselves when we observe aberrant behaviour on their part or our own.  This can lead to forgiveness of others and ourselves, as well as healing from the impacts of trauma which are pervasive and influence our relationships and communication.    

Oprah and Bruce explain that trauma shapes “our brains, our biases, our systems” – it influences our worldview and the way we perceive ourselves.  A teenager, for example, who experiences roughness and brutality by a policeman when innocent or engaged in some trivial misdemeanour, will view police as “fearful”, not trustworthy and cruel. This traumatic experience builds an implicit bias on the teenager’s part in respect of all police.  Our experience (or lack of direct experience) of people of a different race or nationality to our own can shape our biases.  These biases can be confirmed by observing non-conformist behaviour or seeing images of adverse events involving people of that race or nationality.

Our own trauma is unique in that traumatic experiences and their impact vary from individual to individual in terms of their nature, intensity, diversity and duration.  We each bring to the table of life imprinting from our early life experiences that shape who we are and how we respond under stress.  People with unresolved trauma have “sensitised stress responses” which can be manifested in overreaction, aggression, physical withdrawal, anxiety or dissociation.

Bruce and Oprah make the point that our modern day living conflicts with what is necessary to achieve healing from trauma.  They highlight the emphasis today on superficial relations and communications (e.g. selfies, likes, texts) at the expense of reciprocal relationships involving conversation, sharing, storytelling and empathy.  They discuss the “sensory cacophony of the modern world” – creating discordant sounds, confronting images and information overload.  Oprah and Bruce maintain too, like Johann Hari, that the disconnection and isolation of modern living contribute substantially to the growth of depression, anxiety and suicide.

In contrast, Bruce recounts his experience of Māori culture through an intensive immersion over two days – experiencing firsthand their holistic healing approach and the centrality of relationships characterised by “rich relational density [versus superficiality] and developmental density [involving ages ranging from babies to the aged]”.  Given the nature of trauma, Bruce argues for the development of “stable, supportive, patient and consistent” relationships to offset the impact of developmental relationships that were unpredictable, inconsistent, hurtful, demeaning or neglectful

Reflection

If we reflect on our actions and reactions to daily events and interactions with other people, we can begin to see patterns in our behaviour, e.g., avoidance of conflict, the need to please, or implicit bias in relation to particular groups of people.  Gaining an understanding of trauma, its impacts and conditioned behavioural responses, will enable us to establish causal links between what has happened to us (or “not happened for us”) and how we behave in specific situations, e.g., when criticised, threatened or praised.  Memoirs can be instructive in this regard.

If we consciously grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can gain the self-awareness necessary to understand ourselves and to develop loving kindness towards ourselves and others.  If we also consciously try to build and sustain supportive, enduring relationships we can move along the path to self-regulation and healing from trauma.  These healing relationships can extend beyond our immediate family to colleagues, friends, our extended family and interest groups (such as hobby, book, faith or aged-based groups).

Bruce and Oprah reinforce the importance of the mind/body connection and highlight the value of movement such as dance, Tai Chi, movement meditation, exercise and reconnection with nature for healing from trauma.  They also advocate bodily-oriented approaches such as massage, somatic meditation, and resting in your body/breath. There are many resources available to help us heal from trauma and develop resilience to face life’s challenges.  Sounds True, for example, offers a Healing Trauma Program involving some of the world’s top trauma recovery experts.  They also provide a Trauma and the Embodied Brain course led by Bonnie Badenoch, author of The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.

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Image by Ben Kerckx 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.

Undertaking a Life Review

In a previous post I discussed the life review process when it occurs during a near-death experience or when a person is dying.  While millions of people have reported near-death experiences (NDE’s), not everyone has the privilege of having this experience.  If we wait till we are dying, we may find that we are overwhelmed with regrets, rather than experiencing the joy of having created positive ripple effects in our life, especially in our latter years.

It is possible to undertake a life review at any point in our life and to benefit ourselves and others we interact with as a result.  The life review process, even self-initiated, can be a forbidding task.  People find that early in life (especially as teenagers) we tend to be more reckless and less sensitive to the needs of others.  Jeff Janssen, in his video podcast interview with Kirsty Salisbury offers two questions which may be too daunting as a starting point:

  1. Which events/situations would you look forward to seeing and feeling again?
  2. Which events/situations do you dread seeing and feeling again?

We can build towards a situation where the events/situations we look forward to re-visiting (in all their visual and emotional elements) dominate our life review towards the end of our life.  This can be achieved by beginning on the path to a complete life review – taken in your own time and own way.

Chunking to manage the life review task

You might adopt a process of chunking up the life review task – breaking it into manageable chunks.  Shelly Tygielski, in her online course on the Power of Showing Up,  decided to focus on self-care in her life review after receiving a diagnosis which indicated that she would go blind without radical medical treatment – which subsequently failed.   She adopted the process of chunking up the self-care life review by looking at the different spheres in her life, e.g. work, home, social and community.  Community was included because she believes strongly that self-care is ultimately for enabling one to participate in a unique way in community care.  The result of such a review could be a comprehensive self-care plan that serves our needs and, at the same, time contribute to the wellbeing of others that we interact with daily.

Using role reversal to access others’ perspectives.

Jeff also adopts another approach to a life review by using a role reversal process.  He suggests for example, that if he was in his son’s place, how would he view his father?; or if he was in his wife’s place, how would she view him as a spouse?  We can ask similar questions in relation to our colleagues, family members or clients/customers.  This can be enlightening in terms of the ripple effect of our words, omissions and actions and can identify ways to ensure that we are choosing to create positive rather than negative ripples.  

Life purpose review

Consistently we are told that pursuing a life purpose beyond ourself adds meaning to our lives and is foundational to achieving happiness, joy and self-fulfilment.  In a life review, we can explore how we are pursuing a life purpose that engages us in community care.  We can ask ourselves two basic questions:

  1. What is my unique combination of experience (including trauma), skills, knowledge and abilities?
  2. How can I better use these to advance community care in my immediate environment and/or the wider community?

If we answer these questions honestly and pursue the insights gained we can begin to generate more positive ripple effects in the lives of others (and our own life).

Questions from lessons learned through near-death experiences

In the summary of his book, 10 Life-Changing Lessons from Heaven (based on reported NDE’s), Jeff provides a series of questions around each chapter that addressing a separate lesson or recommended way of living our life.  Even without reading the book, you can use the questions as a form of life review (of course, if you read the book, you will gain so much more meaning, insight and “how to” information).  You could for example explore these sample questions or others provided by Jeff:

  • How have your fears held you back and limited you?;
  • Where in your life do you need to summon the courage to jump?
  • Can you think of any situations where the Ripple Effect of your actions have had a negative effect on others? What was this effect and how far did the ripple effect extend?
  • Which individuals or groups might you not fully understand or accept?

Reflection

There are many approaches we can use to begin on the path to a life review.  Undertaking a life review is a massive task and can be managed through chunking up the task by choosing a manageable focus and starting point (e.g. self-care plan, role reversal reflection, life purpose review, or specific lessons from NDE’s or from death and dying).

We can engage in self-pity and get lost in the adversity caused by our past words and/or actions, or offer ourselves self-compassion and forgiveness and move forward with a life review process that engenders a commitment to creating positive ripples in our life and that of others in the community.

As we engage in mindfulness practices, we can grow in mindfulness in every aspect of our daily life, gain self-awareness and insight into our impact on others and have the courage to change for the better.

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Image by Public Co 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.

The Ripple Effect of Your Life – Choosing What Effect You Will Have

Authors who have reported research into near-death experiences (NDE’s) invariably describe the “life review” as an integral part of the experience, along with many other elements.  While researchers and writers in the area of NDE’s confirm that every near-death experience is different in its dimensions and intensity for everyone (no two are exactly the same), they consistently report on the high level of incidences of people experiencing a life review during their NDE.  The character of the life review is typically individualised also.

The nature of the life review is richly described by Jeff Janssen, author of Your Life’s Ripple Effect: Discover How and Why Your Life Really Matters.  Jeff has researched more than 3,500 NDE cases and reported in depth on their nature and their impact on the individual involved.   He discusses his research findings and his book in a video podcast interview with Kirsty Salisbury.  Jeff explains the nature of life reviews along a number of dimensions and provides illustrations of each dimension from actual near-death experiences.  The dimensions include microscopic focus, panoramic view of the ripple effect of a person’s life and the resultant profound understanding experienced by the individual involved:

  • Microscopic focus: Jeff describes the level of detail experienced by many people undergoing a life review during their near-death experience.  He explains that the life review can encompass a person’s life from birth to the present day (or periods within) and entail highlighting every thought, word, action and feeling experienced by the individual involved over the span of the review.  Not only does this involve vivid recall but what is also exposed is person’s reasons for acting (or re-acting) in the way they did.  This microscopic view means that the individual involved cannot hide the real reasons through self-justifications, lack of self-insight or unfounded assumptions – the underpinning motivations and precursors are in the spotlight.
  • Ripple effects: Not only are the individual’s words, actions and reasons exposed but also the impact that these have on individuals who are directly impacted by them.  This is experienced in high definition – feeling the physical impact of a slap or punch, experiencing the pain, anguish, frustration and anger of another resulting from the focal individual’s words and actions.  So not only do you experience your own thoughts and feelings but also those of people directly impacted.  The ripple effect is disclosed through being able to observe what the impacted individual does as a result of the interaction with you – passing on their anger, resentment or other feelings to family members, co-workers and anyone else they interact with.  Orthopaedic Surgeon Dr. Mary Neal in her book chapter, Death on the River,  discusses her life review during her near death experience and explains that no event or words in her life were seen in isolation but starkly in terms of their “unseen ripple effects”.  She saw the impact of her words and actions on others “dozens of times removed” from the immediate situation and understood that “every human interaction” has a far more significant effect than we can possibly imagine with our limited vision and insight.  The effects of words and actions that express love and kindness towards another person appear in the life review as amplified feelings of joy, gratitude and appreciation by the recipients and others.
  • Profound understanding: people who report having a life review during their near-death experience also report that if there are witnesses present who can see the life review (in all its high definition visuals, e.g. in shared death experiences), they do not judge the person having the review.  Jeff confirms that this is true also of other beings who are seen by some people to be present, including the Supreme Being (or “God” for some people).  There is no external judgment as the life review proceeds, only one’s own evaluation based on full information, understanding and insight that is engendered by the life review process.  Kirsty and Jeff suggest that the life review serves to identify areas for learning and development – what they describe as “soul purpose”, e.g. to develop greater patience or empathy.  The life review can also throw light on one’s life purpose and may even show the way forward by identifying a unique way to contribute to the welfare of the broader community and the world at large.

Choosing the effect you will have

There is little we can do about our past words, actions and omissions other than seek and/or give forgiveness – a forgiveness meditation can be helpful here.  Research into life after a NDE and life review indicates that people affected by the experience tend to change their words and actions so that they will have a positive ripple effect in their interactions.  Jeff describes these changes on his website and I have summarised them here:

More of:

  • Focus on living a life of contribution and personal meaning
  • Courage and fearlessness to live authentically
  • Offering unconditional love
  • Purposely living life to the full
  • Peace, patience and joy.

Less of:

  • Being a victim and passive in the face of challenges
  • Focus on materialistic values
  • Hatred and envy of others
  • Being stressed and overwhelmed
  • Concern about what others think about them.

As a result of this changed orientation to a positive ripple effect in their lives, people left soul-destroying jobs, increased their connectedness with others (family, friends, colleagues) and ceased to gossip about or bad-mouth others. Some even chose to work with the dying in a hospice setting.

In his earlier book, 10 Life Changing Lessons from Heaven, Jeff identifies how we can increase the positive ripple effect from our words and actions – we can choose what kind of ripple effect we will have in the rest of our life.  The lessons include learning, loving, trusting, and appreciating without limit while fearlessly pursuing a purposeful life in the service of others.  These lessons from near-death experiences resonate strongly with what Frank Ostaseski describes as the “lessons from death and dying” – gleaned from providing end-of-life care to over a thousand people who have died in a hospice environment.

Reflection

Throughout his book on the 10 lessons, Jeff offers exercises to make us think about what we need to change in our lives.  He also offers a series of questions on his website that address each of the 10 lessons, including “accept non-judgmentally” and “appreciate regularly”.  He encourages us to explore these with our friends or a community of care.

Even small acts of kindness have a positive flow on effect and cause ripples that may improve the quality of other peoples’ lives.  One small example of this is the daily ritual of the “waving man”, Peter Van Beek,  who waved to everyone who passed him in a car as he stood near a roundabout with a broad and welcoming smile – the positive ripple effect of this small action was reported recently on his death.

The challenge as Kirsty points out is to avoid being obsessed with our past life and things that we cannot change but to look ahead and change our words and actions while pursuing a life of purpose, meaning and contribution.  As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and other mindfulness activities, we can develop the necessary self-awareness, insight, courage and fearlessness to make our life matter for others.

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Image by Peter H 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.

 

Cultivating Curiosity and Openness

Frank Ostaseski in his presentations during the Healing Healthcare Summit focused on openness and curiosity.  In the process, he revisited two of the key lessons of living and dying that he had previously written about – (1) welcome everything, push nothing away and (2) cultivate a don’t know mind.

Openness – welcome everything

Frank suggests that we need to be able to meet whatever our life circumstances bring our way and do so in a way that we are open to the full range of thoughts and emotions involved.  He reminds us that life is a series of constant changes, e.g. loss of a job, death of a close family member, change In financial circumstances or location.  He encourages us to meet these changes as if welcoming a familiar person at our front door.  He draws on James Baldwin’s insightful comment for his rationale – “Nothing can be changed, if it is not first faced”.

Frank reminds us that denial or ignoring unpleasant experiences does not create freedom, only servitude.  He encourages “fearless receptivity” – awareness of fear without imprisonment by it.  He maintains that mindfulness involves moment to moment awareness of everything we are experiencing – bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions.  In this openness lies true freedom – because we are fully aware of what is happening to us and conscious of our habituated responses and yet able to regulate our emotions and explore alternative ways of responding.

Frank suggests that sometimes mindfulness practices involving “precise attention” to a single thing, e.g. a word or our breathing can create something of a struggle or tension in our minds and somewhat defeat the purpose of the practice.  He contends that the practice of “open boundless awareness”, sometimes called “natural awareness”, can be more liberating when we feel constrained by a focused meditation practice.  He offers awareness of the sky and its vastness as an example.  He also provides a mini-practice that can help to engender this sense of boundlessness.

In the mini-practice, Frank encourages us first to become grounded and relaxed so that we can focus on the meditation.  He then encourages us to take in the space above us, to our left, then to our right, followed by the space below and in front of us.  An alternative to this, is to focus on the sounds that surround us, progressively shifting our focus onto the soundscape in the directions that Frank mentions above.   Frank suggests that we treat distracting thoughts like birds flying past, not landing or hovering above.

Becoming more curious and less critical

This topic was the theme of his second presentation during the Summit and aligns with his exhortation to “cultivate a don’t know mind”.  Frank argues that mindfulness is not about searching for some future enlightenment goal but becoming “up close and personal” with ourselves.  He contends that our aim is to become “intimate” with ourselves and every aspect of our lives, pleasant and unpleasant.  He explains that this is the path to true liberation and reinforces the view that “the path is right beneath your feet”. 

In cultivating intimacy with ourselves we will become aware of parts of ourselves that we do not like.  In Frank’s view, the inherent challenge is to be able to “tolerate intimacy” – be able to fully face up to who we are really, warts and all.  In his podcast interview with Whit Missildine, Frank addressed the question, “What if you witnessed a thousand deaths?”  – a question that was based on his personal experience as End-of-Life Teacher, Founding Director of the Zen Hospice Project and Director of the Metta Institute.  Frank maintained that the ways we define ourselves will be stripped away in the process of dying and death.  He contends that throughout life we live a delusion about ourselves – we project an image that is not our real self, but our imagined or idealised self.  He has witnessed numerous people expressing regret as they lay dying – regrets about what they have done of failed to do.  In dying, we are confronted with who we really are. 

Frank maintains that when people are dying they have no interest in, or energy for, maintaining an illusion of who they are and cease to be concerned about what others think about them.   He suggests that it behoves us during life to express remorse rather than regret – because remorse confronts the unpleasant side of ourselves and motivates us to avoid similar actions or omissions in the future.  As we grow in intimacy with ourselves through meditation, we can progressively strip away the illusions about who we are through a process of loving kindness and forgiveness towards ourselves, avoiding harsh self-criticism.

Frank argues that In developing intimacy with ourselves, we become acutely aware that we are not separate but connected to everyone.  He maintains that in this deep learning about ourselves, we develop a “deep sense of belonging” – an acute recognition of our interdependence and a strong desire to move beyond our limiting self-centredness.  He suggests that a simple practice is to just “pause” throughout our day, taking a break from the busyness of life, and to focus on our experience as it is occurring.  Frank contends that “mindfulness emerges from a relaxed heart and mind”.

Reflection

Frank has learned so much through observing the process of dying and death and willingly shares the lessons he has learned.  He explains that he learns from the dying as they learn from him – there is a reciprocity about his engagement with them.  He is humbled and amazed by what he learns and yet he recognises that he still harbours a fear of death because of its uncertainty.  Frank has detailed his lessons learned in his book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully.

Regrets are a natural response in the event of someone dying who is close to us (or not as close as they should have been).  I can certainly acknowledge that I had regrets on the recent death of my brother Pat.  However, as Frank suggests, remorse is a better option.  With remorse we can revisit what we have said and done or failed to say and do, give ourselves forgiveness and express the intention to do better in the future. We can reflect on our individual regrets and ask ourselves:

  • What will I do more of in the future?
  • What will I do less of?
  • What will I stop doing?
  • What will I start doing?

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can develop intimacy with ourselves, recognise our connectedness, deepen our connection with others and learn the profound lessons from death and dying.  

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Image by Tommy_Rau from Pixabay

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

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

Barriers to Overcoming the Anxiety Habit Loop

In previous posts I have discussed Judson Brewer’s concept of the habit loop underpinning anxiety, addiction and craving and his mindfulness processes for overcoming anxiety.  Central to his process for overcoming anxiety, is understanding the trigger-behaviour-reward process, the need to honestly and openly explore the realised rewards and costs of a particular behaviour and the willingness to update the reward value in our mind in the light of this learning.  In this post on barriers to using Judson’s process to overcome anxiety, I will explore further some of the ideas presented in his book, Unwinding Anxiety: Train Your Brain to Heal Your Mind.  I will also link this discussion to other ideas on barriers to mindfulness that I have written about earlier. 

Barriers to overcoming the anxiety habit loop

Below are some of the barriers I have identified in reading Judson’s book but supplemented by my earlier discussions:

  • Obsession with the news – we can feast on the news as if our lives depended on it.  At every opportunity, we might be seen accessing our mobile phones to find out the latest news.   We can do this while waiting, instead of using this down-time to build our awareness.   The problem is that the news is typically dominated by adverse events and people’s suffering as well as portents of disaster.  It is often unnerving, adds to anxiety and causes disquiet.  If we become obsessed with the news, we are not creating the space for stillness and calm that would enable us to be mindful about our habituated behaviour and its real rewards (outcomes). 
  • Closed worldview – pursuing the news is what Judson describes as “deprivation curiosity” where our motivation is to address a deficit in our knowledge where the reward is discovery of the up-to-date information.  However, this process constitutes a closed system because closure is achieved once the void (missing information) is filled.  We can also adopt a closed worldview by trying to protect ourselves from disconcerting or uncomfortable information, and related feelings, about our habituated behaviour and its impact on our wellbeing and the welfare of others.  Judson argues that what we need to pursue is “interest curiosity” where the process of curiosity is reward in itself because it is open-ended, never dries up and exposes us to the rewards of joy, wonder and awe.  He suggests that interest curiosity feels better when we compare it to “the scratchy, closed-down itch of deprivation”.
  • Review and regret approach – this habituated behaviour constitutes another closed circuit in that it leads us to self-flagellation and negative self-appraisal whenever we revert to our bad habit or make a mistake.   Judson suggests that what is needed here is “forgiveness and moving on and up”.  This reflective approach opens the way to real learning and sustained habit change.  We can beat up on ourself for mistakes but this only feeds the anxiety habit cycle and contributes to depression.  In contrast, If we adopt a growth mindset, we can see each experience, and attempt to overcome our anxiety habit loop, as an opportunity to learn and grow.  Our actions serve to give us feedback about outcomes, both intended and unintended – and this is the way we learn.
  • Lacking persistence – in this era of the desire for immediate satisfaction, it is easy to lose heart and give up before our goal is realised, even if we have made some progress along the way to reducing our anxiety level.  We can overlook the fact that our habituated behaviour has been developed over many years and, in some instances, has resulted from a traumatic event or adverse childhood experience.  It will take a concerted effort over an extended period of time to overcome an anxiety habit loop.   Judson suggests that it will take “short moments, many times” and a willingness to persist with the process of “kind curiosity” to unearth our anxiety habit loop and the underpinning reward system. 
  • Unchanged reward value – we can mindlessly accept the existing reward value that keeps our anxiety habit loop locked in thus creating a barrier to change.  Alternatively, we can actively seek to update our reward value with disenchanting information (which we typically ignore).  We tend to see only the positive aspects of a habituated behaviour (e.g. avoidance of discomfort, pain, embarrassment  or hurtful self-disclosure).  Judson likens this barrier to a “chocolate experiment” where people failed to realise when eating more and more chocolate turned an otherwise pleasurable experience into one that caused displeasure.  We can either not notice or ignore the “turning point” and fail to develop a real updated, assessment of a reward value.   This often occurs with people whose underlying anxiety drives a habit of procrastination.
  • Focus on reasoning rather than feeling – Judson argues that thinking and rationalisation will only go so far in terms of sustainable habit change.  While as humans we need thinking to problem solve, be creative and plan, rational argument has little impact on entrenched habits.  A more holistic approach of sustained personal inquiry is required to unearth not only our thoughts but emotions and bodily sensations that inform us about what is happening in the moment when we resort to our habituated responses. Focusing on our feelings in the moment gives us a way to understand the drivers behind habit formation and maintenance, and enables us to develop the requisite insight to update our “reward value” of the habituated behaviour.

Ways to overcome the barriers to unwinding anxiety

In his Unwinding Anxiety book, Judson discusses a one-week silent retreat that he and a colleague provided for members of the US women’s Olympic water-polo team (who were back to back gold medal winners).  He explained that a real breakthrough for members of the team in developing holistic, interest curiosity was achieved by having participants repeat the sound “hmm” as a mantra.   This sound when repeated tends to engender openness, wonder and awe while clearing the mind of its tendency to engage in worry and negative self-judgment.  Judson suggests that this practice can be employed whenever we become stuck in our meditation attempts, experience panic or encounter internal barriers to overcoming our anxiety habit loop.  It enables us to tap into bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions.

Judson also provides a process for experiencing a closed versus an open mindset.  This entails recalling in full colour and richness an anxious event followed by recalling a joyful event.  He explains that this process of observing bodily sensations generated by the different events forms part of the first day of his Unwinding Anxiety app.

Another source of encouragement to maintain persistence and adopt an open, learning mindset is provided by Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Metamorphosis.  The words of this mantra effectively describe the process of the sustained effort and open mindset required to achieve transformative change and encourages us to “not give up” but “trust the process” and be open to breaking with our old ways.  If we sing the mantra along with Lulu & Mischka, we can reinforce our desire to persist until we overcome our anxiety habit.

Reflection

Clearly the unwinding anxiety process proposed by Judson has application in many arenas, including in sports.   This got me thinking about an issue I am having with my tennis game when playing social tennis.   I have played tennis since I was about 12 years old (and probably earlier but I can’t think back that far).  I have used a single-handed backhand all my life but as I get older, my wrists and arms are becoming weaker (despite my occasional efforts to strengthen them with exercises).  So, for my 75th birthday, I requested three tennis lessons from a coach to learn how to do a double-handed backhand.  By the end of the third half hour lesson, I could manage a rally with the coach using my newly “acquired” double-handed backhand.  The problem is that I am experiencing an emotional blockage that is stopping me from using the new stroke at social tennis – I keep reverting to my single-handed backhand.

When I read about the habit loop and the need to change/update the reward value (in my mind) attributed to a particular behaviour in order to change the habit, I realised that what was keeping my old habit (single-handed backhand) in place was the failure to update the reward value of this behaviour.  I still seemed to be assuming that it was a reliable stroke preventing me from making mistakes and enabling me to keep the ball in play or win a rally.  The reality is that my single-handed backhand is no longer reliable and I do make lots of mistakes with it.  So I need to update the reward value that I attribute to this stroke and accept that in the earlier stages of a changeover to the new double-handed stroke, I will probably make more mistakes.  However, the bigger, better offer (BBO) is a stronger, double-handed stroke capable of winning a rally.  By being unwilling to use my double-handed backhand, I am adopting a closed mindset and depriving myself of the opportunity to learn through doing and reflecting on the outcomes.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, kind curiosity and mantra meditations, we can develop the persistence and courage to explore our anxiety habit loop and its reward value.  With a sustained concerted effort, we can begin to overcome our anxiety habit loop as we update our reward value and develop substitute rewards that are bigger and better than what we currently rely on, consciously or unconsciously.

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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.

Developing Awareness to Overcome Anxiety

Judson Brewer, world-renowned clinical psychologist and neuroscientist, maintains that mindfulness through a three-geared awareness process can break the anxiety habit loop.  His latest book,  Unwinding Anxiety: Train Your Brain to Heal Your Mind, provides a guide on how to develop the requisite awareness.  His clinical practice and scientific research in relation to cravings and addictions, the focus of his first book The Craving Mind, led naturally to his understanding of anxiety and how the anxiety habit is formed and overcome.

Judson argues that anxiety hides in our habits.  Underpinning cravings, addiction and anxiety is the fundamental habit loop which develops through operant conditioning – reinforcement of a behaviour through a rewards system.  We experience some kind of trigger which leads to a habituated response that brings a personalised reward.  For example, if you experience a stressful event/day (trigger), you might come home and have a drink of alcohol (behaviour) which enables you to deaden your distress and distracts you from it (reward).  In the process, you are setting up a habit loop which becomes increasingly entrenched because your behavioural response (drinking alcohol) becomes habituated and you progressively need more and more alcohol to deaden the pain and achieve the necessary level of distraction.     

The reward value concept

Judson explains in his latest book that the reward experienced after a habituated behaviour is not a single element creating the habit.  According to him, the way the brain works is that it establishes a reward value for a particular behavioural response that not only involves the present moment reward but also the recollection of the accumulated rewards associated with prior occurrences of that behavioural response.   So, the reward value attributed by the brain to a behavioural response (such as drinking alcohol after a stress trigger) is an accumulation of prior experiences that were deemed positive (such as drinking alcohol in good company in a stunning location) – all of which can distort the real value of the reward and further entrench the behaviour.

Breaking the habit loop or anxiety cycle

Judson points out that the way to break the habit loop or anxiety cycle involves fundamentally developing awareness of the habit loop and establishing a realistic and holistic assessment of the “reward” in the present moment.  For example, if our to-do list acts as an anxiety trigger leading to procrastination (behaviour) which provides the reward of avoidance, we can in-the-moment recall that the procrastination behaviour itself has adverse effects such as leading to criticism for delays and/or intensifying the level of experienced anxiety.   This heightened awareness may also be developed “reflexively” (reflecting on the trigger-behaviour-reward loop after the event) if the experience is relatively recent and the recall is rich in content.  These options of present moment awareness or reflexivity relate to what we have discussed previously as reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. 

Developing holistic awareness

The fundamental problem with a habit loop is that our recall is often biased and defective.  We tend to overlook the adverse effects of a behavioural response and focus only on the positive, immediate effects (such as deadening or distraction).  In developing awareness of a habit loop or chronic anxiety, we need to adopt a more holistic and balanced approach – we need to become aware of the impacts of a behavioural response on our bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings as well as broader impacts such as on our work, our relationships and our environment.  Just providing an intellectual rationalisation for the desired changed behaviour is normally not enough to create the behaviour we desire – it ignores the power of emotions embedded in bodily sensations.  Judson points out that our survival needs (manifested through difficult emotions and bodily sensations) are more powerful than our need to overcome “cognitive dissonance” (where our rationalisations of a behavioural response conflict with our evidence-based experience).

Kind curiosity

Judson encourages the pursuit of “kind curiosity” to enable us to develop a more holistic and realistic assessment of the personally assigned “reward value” of a behavioural response.  Curiosity is a natural habit (evident in children and somewhat deadened in adults because of “mass distraction”) that can be encouraged and cultivated.  Unfettered curiosity can lead to unearthing disconcerting facts that may disarm, disillusion or distress us – it can challenge our self-concept in relation to our sense wholeness and genuine goodness.  Judson points out the importance of accompanying this heightened curiosity with forgiveness and loving kindness towards ourself – hence, the concept of kind curiosity.  Interestingly, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness includes the concept of purposefully paying attention in the present moment and doing so “non-judgmentally”.

Reflection

Once-off awareness raising is most likely to be ineffective in changing a habit and is definitely not going to overcome chronic anxiety.  We cannot expect to overcome habits that are entrenched and developed over many years (often since childhood). What is required is sustained kind curiosity and ongoing awareness raising.  Through sustained effort, we can substitute a more realistic reward value for the one that we have developed in our mind over time – which is why Judson suggests that we can unwind our anxiety by training our brain, through awareness training, to heal our mind.  Over time, too, we can develop what he calls a “bigger, better offer” (BBO) to offset the current reward value driving the existing anxiety habit loop.  He suggests that mindfulness might “fit the bill” here as it provides a wide range of benefits, without the adverse effect of substituting one bad habit for another (e.g. substituting lollies for alcohol).

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become aware of our triggers, our habituated behavioural responses and gain insight into the reward value that we attribute to our responses.  We can also learn to substitute more rewarding responses that will encourage the development of changed habits that have positive outcomes.  If we revert to old habits in times of extreme stress, it is important to avoid negative self-talk and self-denigrations and we can do this by extending forgiveness to ourself.

Throughout his book on anxiety, Judson draws on illustrations and validation from users of hist three  apps focused on cravings (e.g. over-eating), addiction (e.g. to smoking) and anxiety.  What these app-based programs provide is a readily accessible way to monitor yourself throughout the day and progressively substitute holistic rewards for those that are currently entrenching unhealthy habits.

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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.

Compassionate Action through Grief

Rosie Ayliffe in her book, Far from Home, tells the story of how her grief after the murder of her 21 year old daughter, Mia, in a hostel in Queensland in 2016 energised her to fight for legislative reform for Australian backpackers.  She tracks the early life of her vivacious daughter who loved people and travel, shares the rawness of her grief and exposes the exploitation of backpackers who engage in the 88 days farm work requirement to qualify for a visa to stay in Australia for a second year.  Rosie describes her work to uncover the extent of the injustice towards backpackers and her campaign to redress the lack of registration and controls over the farm work scheme.

Rosie’s research fuelled by her grief and her fury over the widespread exploitation of backpackers from overseas came at considerable personal cost, not the least being reliving the nightmare of her daughter’s savage murder and that of Tom Jackson who tried to come to her aid.  In her quest to right the unspeakable wrongs, she left no stone unturned to seek justice for her daughter, Tom and the countless backpackers who had suffered as a participant in the scheme.  She met opposition from farmers, union officials, politicians and others with a vested interest in maintain the status quo.

Rosie, an experienced journalist who had travelled the world, was not put off by this opposition but was inspired by the love she had for Mia and the endless expressions of love and grief from Mia’s friends around the world.  Rosie built a network of support in Australia including the parents of Tom Jackson and organisations like the Salvation Army who had been working to support backpackers and redress the wrongs they experienced.  She also built alliances with people in England, her home country, where many people had agitated for, and achieved, a modern slavery act. 

Rosie Ayliffe on Australia Story

Rosie’s grief permeates her story and is never far from the surface.  She recounts the arduous task of creating Part 1 and Part 2 of Long Way from Home for the TV show Australia Story.  There were not only the exertions involved in filming and retakes but also the energy and effort for the additional research required and the unsettling visit to the hostel in North Queensland where Mia died.  Rosie was able to create the expose through the support of her friends, colleagues and the creators and film crew of Australis Story.   The TV show gave increased exposure to the issues for backpackers including the psychological, financial and sexual exploitation.  This, in turn, led Rosie to make a contribution to an inquiry underpinning moves for a modern slavery act in Australia.

Reform and Compassionate Action

Rosie’s efforts and determination contributed substantially to the development and promulgation of the Queensland State legislation known as the Labour Hire Licensing Act 2017 and the Federal Legislation, The Modern Slavery Act 2018.   Rosie’s story is one of love, loss and unrelenting courage written with the exemplary writing skill of a journalist, compassion of a mother, and resilience to unearth the adverse circumstances contributing to her daughter’s death.  Mia herself is never far from the surface nor is the rawness of Rosie’s grief.  As Rosie points out, grief and its expression are different for everyone and cannot be quantified or compared.  She maintains that grief for the loss of a  child is especially traumatic and enduring for a parent because there are “so many painful reminders, so many missed moments, so much wasted potential”.

Despite her grief and her anger, Rosie was able to rise above the debilitating effects of her loss, learn again to be grateful for life and show compassionate action towards the parents of the mentally ill person who murdered her daughter through her expressions of forgiveness and understanding and desire to build a relationship with them.  Therein lies the true character of Rosie, her love of others and deep, abiding compassion.

Reflection

Rosie’s story is moving, challenging and inspiring. It moves us to share the grief and sense of loss, it challenges us to take compassionate action towards others who may have hurt us and inspires us to appreciate life and the present moment, because the human condition is fragile and life is transitory.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, expressions of gratitude and reflection on our life and friendships, we can develop a deep sense of appreciation and the courage for compassionate action.

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Image by fotografierende 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.

Cultivating Kindness through Meditation

In a recent meditation podcast, Diana Winston discussed Meditation and Kindness.  She maintained that kindness is “embedded in meditation” because to meditate we have to be able to do so “non-judgmentally”.  Even when our mind wanders, which is a natural human characteristic, we can return to our focus without beating up on ourselves.  We can acknowledge that in this era of disruptive advertising and the incessant pull of “weapons of mass distraction”, we are going to become “lost in thought” at times and lose our focus.  Our concerns and worries about the past or future will also intrude.  However, to be kind to ourselves and achieve the refuge inherent in meditation practice we have to avoid engaging in “negative self-stories” such as, “I am hopeless at meditation”, “I will never master the art of meditating” or “I’m bad at everything I do”.

Meditation as kindness to our self

The practice of meditation is itself an act of kindness towards our self.  When we meditate, we open a rich store of benefits, not the least of these is the increasing capacity to handle our difficult emotions and our destructive thoughts.  Meditation builds our “awareness muscle” and strengthens our capacity to pay attention.  It can serve to enrich our relationships by building our ability to engage in “deep listening”.  Kelly Noonan Gores, in her book, Heal: Discover the Unlimited Potential and Awaken the Powerful Healer Within, stresses the healing effects of meditation, especially meditation practices involving mantras, positive imagining, gratitude and forgiveness.  Mindfulness practices can help carers engage in effective self-care in the face of all the demands on their time, energy, and emotions.

Meditation as kindness to others

While there are specific loving-kindness meditations designed to offer kindness to others, the very practice of meditation brings benefits to others because of our improved awareness of our emotions, thoughts and actions and their impact; increased emotional self-regulation; and enhanced capacity for listening, empathy and compassionate action.

Guided meditation on kindness

During the podcast, Diana offers a guided meditation on kindness that extends beyond self-kindness to kindness towards others.  She begins with encouraging a couple of deep breaths to release accumulated stress and bodily tension.  As she describes the meditation process, she adopts a trauma-sensitive mindfulness approach by offering a choice of anchors such as the breath, sounds, and bodily sensations, to enable us to focus our attention.  Diana suggests that if very strong emotions or pervasive thoughts intrude on our meditation practice, we can temporarily turn our attention to them, explore their origins and significance and then return to our anchor.

Reflection

There are so many benefits to be gained from meditation, not the least of these being kindness towards our self and others and the capacity to heal ourselves.  There are many forms of meditation – we have only to explore what approach is best for our self and this may vary over time.  As we grow in mindfulness through regular meditation practice, we will realise the multiple benefits of meditation and this will be self-reinforcing.  However, we need kindness and persistence, particularly in the early stages, where we can be discouraged by our “conscious incompetence”.

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Image by Kirill Lyadvinsky 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 Power of Meditation and Loving Kindness

Barry Boyce, founding editor of Mindful.org, interviewed Sharon Salzberg, globally recognised meditation teacher, about the impact of meditation and loving kindness (about which Sharon is a world-renowned exponent).  In the interview, The Power of Loving-Kindness, Sharon explained how she had studied Eastern philosophy and learned about meditation by travelling to India, not the local meditation centre like you do today.  She was surprised that much of the Indian meditation practice that she learned focused on the breath, not the more esoteric approaches she had learned about.

Focusing on the breath

Sharon was at first taken aback by the simplicity of the breath focus.  However, she soon realised that while the idea is simple, the execution is difficult because it involves having to deal with racing thoughts that distracted her from her focus on her breath.   She found how hard it was to pay attention to her breath when “thoughts came tumbling down like a waterfall”.

At challenging times, when anxiety is high, our mind races away from our focus with some speed and intensity.  Bringing attention back to our breathing focus, is difficult to do but builds our “attention muscle”.  It enhances our power of concentration and our capacity to be with what is, whether it is the experience of well-being or the pain and suffering of challenging emotions.  Pausing to focus on our breath develops clarity and our capacity to lead with conviction.

The role of loving-kindness

There is a tendency is to give up in the face of the difficulty of focusing on our breath.  However, persistence really pays and creates the power to access equanimity, ease and creativity.  Sometimes, we are tempted to beat up on ourselves by saying, “We are not good at meditation and never will be?”; “It’s such a simple thing, why can’t I do it?”  “Other people seem to manage, why can’t I?”

This is where loving kindness has a role.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his definition of mindfulness, exhorts us to practise paying purposeful attention “non-judgmentally”.  It is the negative self-evaluation that creates the greatest barrier to meditation, not the fact that we have lots of distracting thoughts.  Thoughts are natural and will vary in content and frequency over time, reflecting what is going on in our life at that time.  Jon suggests that we treat thoughts as if they are bubbles floating to the surface in boiling water.

Sharon maintains that “kindness towards ourselves” is essential if we are going to be able to persist with meditation.  She argues that paying attention and kindness are inseparable – without self-compassion, you cannot sustain your attention.   The power of meditation lies not only in the increasing capacity to concentrate but also in the ability to develop robust self-esteem through loving-kindness.   Another dimension of this power is the ability to rest in our breath and bodily sensations in troubling times and times of turbulence in our life. Sharon explores fully the role of loving-kindness in her recent book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.

The power of connection

Through meditation and loving-kindness, we come to realise our connectedness to everyone and our connection with nature.  This is foundational to our ability to show compassion towards others.  If we can accept ourselves fully – with our flaws, hurtful behaviour and our complex emotions – we are better able to extend compassion and forgiveness to others and accept that they are only human too.

Through our sense of connection, we can tap into the “collective energy” that surrounds us, pursue our life purpose and make a real difference in the world.  Meditation becomes a power source, a way of accessing the power within and without – it becomes the conduit for our energy system.

Reflection

Meditation has a calming yet powerful effect.  When we are rattled or frazzled, our power of concentration is diminished, our thoughts become dispersed and our energy dissipated.   Paying attention to our breath with loving-kindness enables us to access our power source and to bring focused energy to our endeavours, whatever they may be.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, particularly through loving-kindness meditation, we can enhance our sense of connection to everybody and every living thing, build resilient self-esteem and draw on the power of focus.

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Image by Alexander Droeger 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.