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.

Forgiveness: A Reflection

In a previous post I discussed an important topic, Don’t Wait to Forgive, based on the book by Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations.  Forgiveness is something that we tend to put off because it is too self-revealing and painful.  Frank suggests that we have to face up to who we really are and not who we project ourselves to be.  We have to look in the mirror, not into an internally fabricated image that shows ourselves in the best possible light.  The honesty required is disarming and can be disturbing.   Experience and research suggest that some principles can help us along the way:

  • Be grounded and relaxed – Forgiveness is a difficult pursuit at the best of times.  However, if you are agitated or highly distracted, it is extremely difficult to focus on forgiving yourself or someone else.  The starting point is to become grounded and relaxed.  Grounding in the present moment can involve tapping into your breath, your bodily sensations or the sounds around you.  I find sometimes that sounds can themselves be distracting because I am always trying to interpret them.  I like using a particular body sensation as a means of grounding, e.g. the sensation of fingers on both hands touching.  I find that I can use this practice anywhere, whether waiting for something or someone, or beginning a meditation.  It can quickly induce relaxation and focus for me.  Each person will have their preferred approach to grounding and relaxation – for some people, it may involve a full body scan to identify and release tension.
  • Manage distractions – Distractions are a natural, human frailty – they pull us away from our focus.  However, they can be more persistent and intensive when we are trying to focus on forgiveness because of the level of discomfort that we may feel when dealing with our shame.   Having a “home” or anchor such as our breath can enable us to restore our focus.  Persistence in returning to our focus builds our “attention muscle” over time – a necessary strength if we are to progress in our goal of developing forgiveness.
  • Start small – Self-intimacy around our need for forgiveness (for the multiple ways in which we have hurt others) can be overwhelming if we take on too much at once.  When you think about it, our need for forgiveness can be pervasive – impacting every facet of our interactions in close relationships, with work colleagues or with strangers in the street or shops.  We can think of times when we have interrupted someone, ignored people, been harsh towards them or spoken ill of them.   There are times when we have taken out our frustration or anger on someone who is not the trigger for our difficult emotions.  We can begin by focusing on a small, recent incident where we have caused hurt or harm to someone and gradually build to more confronting issues, situations or emotions.  Mitra Manesh in her guided meditation podcast on forgiveness suggests that a simple way to start might be to bring a particular person to mind and mentally say, “For all the pain and suffering I may have caused you, I ask for your forgiveness”.  This kind of catch-all statement avoids going into all the detail of an interaction.  Sometimes we can become distracted by what Diana Winston describes as “being lost in the story” – we can end up recalling blow by blow what happened, indulging in blame and self-righteousness.   Forgiveness is not a process of justifying our words or actions.
  • Forgiveness is healing for ourselves – We have to bring loving kindness to our forgiveness practice whatever form it takes – loving kindness for our self as well as for the person we are forgiving.  The process is not designed to “beat up on” our self but to face up to the reality of what we have said or done or omitted to do that has been hurtful for someone else.  It’s releasing that negative, built-up energy that is stored in difficult emotions and is physically, mentally and emotionally harmful to our self.  It is recognising that holding onto regret, anger, resentment or guilt can be toxic to our overall wellness.  However, like giving up smoking, it takes time, persistence and frequent revisiting of our motivation.

As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness through meditation, reflection and daily mindfulness practices, we can learn to face up to our real self and our past and seek forgiveness.  However challenging this may be, we need to begin the journey for our own welfare and that of others we interact with.  Diana Winston in her forgiveness meditation podcast reminds us that mindfulness involves “being in the present moment with openness and curiosity” together with a “willingness to be with what is” – it entails honest self-exploration.  She cites Lily Tomlin who maintains that forgiveness involves “giving up all hope for a better past” – seeing our past with clear sight and honesty.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

Don’t Wait to Forgive

In his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses in depth his first lesson, Don’t Wait, learned from many years of working with the process of dying and death.  He witnessed so many people dying while consumed by hatred, resentment, rage and anger.  He also gives examples of others who were able to offer profound forgiveness on their deathbed.  He urges us not to wait until we are dying to embrace forgiveness for ourselves and others.  He contends that all forgiveness is ultimately self-forgiveness and is hugely beneficial for us – mentally, physically and emotionally.

Resistance to forgiveness

Frank talks about our natural resistance to forgiveness – a form of self-protection, protecting our sense of right and wrong and our elevated sense of who we are.  To forgive is to acknowledge difficult emotions such as anger, regret and resentment.  We tend to run away from these feelings because they cause us pain.  However, the cost and pain of carrying resentment all our lives are far greater than the pain of facing up to those parts of ourselves we are embarrassed by or unwilling to acknowledge. 

We each have an area of darkness that we don’t like to shine a light on.  Recalling events also brings to mind and body, the recollection and re-experiencing of hurt – hurt from other’s words and actions, and also hurt and regret we feel for things that we have said and done that were hurtful towards other.   Facing up to the depth of our difficult emotions is critical for forgiveness and mental health.

Anger and resentment can consume us, constrict our capacity to express kindness and love towards others, even those in close relationships with us.  We can find ourselves constantly playing over events in our head as well as in our conversations, our hurt and resentment growing with each retelling.  Ultimately, forgiveness involves letting go – releasing ourselves from the sustained constriction of negative emotions and giving up others as objects of our resentment.  If we do not forgive others and our self, our difficult emotions find expression in self-defeating ways, including manifesting our anger in such a way that another innocent party is hurt by our outburst or abusive behaviour.

Frank points out that forgiveness does not mean to totally forget an event that was hurtful or condone the actions of another person that were unjust, hateful or revengeful   It does not require reconciliation – sharing your forgiveness with the other person.  It is an internal act encompassing mind, body and heart.  When we overcome the resistance to forgiveness, we open ourselves to kindness and love.

The long journey of forgiveness

As they say, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – forgiveness is a life-time pursuit, not something to begin at the end of life.  Frank recalls his own anger, rage and resentment towards a Colonel in a country at war, when the Colonel refused to assist a five-year old boy who eventually died a very painful death without the medical support the Colonel could have provided.  Frank points out that these complex emotions consumed him and sometimes found expression in his rage.  However, he instituted a daily ritual which, after many years, enabled him to let go of these emotions and find the freedom to forgive and love again.

Frank encourages us to start along the path of forgiveness by first taking on relatively small issues/events in our life, not the big all-consuming hatred or resentment.  He suggests even practicing with small annoyances such as being cut off by someone in traffic or having someone leave a wet towel lying on the bed.  You can progressively build up to dealing with the big issues/areas of resentment and anger.  The process of incorporating forgiveness meditation into your mindfulness practices can be a way to begin and to progress the long journey of forgiveness.

Forgiveness requires absolute  honesty (not projecting an image of ourselves as “perfect”), acknowledgement of our own part in a hurtful interaction, understanding of what is influencing the other person’s behaviour, recognition of our connectedness to everyone and a willingness to face up to, and fully experience, what we don’t like in our selves.   Frank’s strong exhortation is, “Don’t Wait!” until it is too late – until our deathbed when we could be consumed with anger, guilt, regret or rage.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through forgiveness meditation, mindfulness practices and honest reflection, we can more readily recognise when we need to forgive and the hurtfulness that we cause by our words and actions.  We can progressively face up to our “dark side” and our difficult emotions that are harmful to ourselves and others.  We can also bear the pain of naming these feelings and really experiencing their depth, distortion of reality and self-destructive nature.   Forgiveness builds our freedom to express kindness and appreciation and to love openly.

Frank maintains that the foundation for true forgiveness is learning to forgive ourselves with “compassion and mercy” – this is, in itself, a difficult journey and, ideally, a life-time pursuit.

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Image by Лечение наркомании 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.