Building Tolerance through Understanding

We have each experienced situations where someone seems to overact to what appears to be a minor stimulus – a sound, a sight, something said, or a gentle touch on the arm.   For example, I have seen people become hysterical while just observing a one-on-one facilitation process or hearing a very loud note sung close to them.  More than likely, we have each observed a disruptive person in a team meeting or training course, someone who is withdrawn and refuses to engage in conversation or someone who is overly aggressive.  Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey in their e-book, What Happened to You? maintain that understanding the impact of trauma on others helps us to build tolerance for what seems initially to be aberrant behaviour.  They argue that the foundation for that understanding is learning about how our brains operate.

Understanding how our brains work

Bruce illustrates the processes of the brain by showing an inverted triangle with the cortex at the top and the “lower brain” or reptilian brain at the bottom.  While the cortex enables us to think, create and plan and is conscious of time (past, present and future), the lower part of the brain has no sense of time but serves to regulate bodily functions.   The fundamental problem with our emotional and behavioural response to stimuli is that all sensory input (perceptions) are first processed in the lower part of the brain and interpreted there after matching with prior experiences (which are stored along with the emotional content).  This is why someone who shares a disturbing event with others can become quite emotional even when the event occurred many years before.

The associated problem is that sensory input (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell) can stimulate recall of a traumatic experience – “a powerful, frightening or isolating sensory experience”.  Bruce discusses a case study of a veteran of the Korean war experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  The sound of a motorcycle backfiring would generate an “extreme survival response” such as immediately lying prone on the ground behind some form of shelter.  David comments that what was originally an “adaptive protective memory” (for surviving in the trenches “where you had to keep your head down”), had become a maladaptive behavioural response.  The veteran’s life became “miserable” because he was frequently startled, always on the alert (scanning a room or the environment continuously) and often “jumpy”.

Maladaptive responses

Oprah pointed out that people like the veteran who have maladaptive responses to stimuli, often ask “What’s wrong with me?”  The book she has produced with David, changes the focus to “What happened to you”.  Understanding what people have experienced and the depth of the impact on their lives helps to build tolerance and empathy, and ideally, compassionate action.  David explained that for each of us “every moment builds upon all other moments that come before”.  The net result of our personal history shaping our brain’s development is that “each of our brains are unique” – our experiences, traumatic and otherwise, shape our perceptions of the world, what we feel and how we respond.

Oprah describes in detail her own traumatic experiences and maintains from her numerous interviews with people who have experienced trauma, that the result is often self-sabotage in the form of addiction, abuse, promiscuity or “the need-to-please”.  She argues that there is considerable work to be done by the individual and their therapist to identify the trauma-inducing event, the “evocative cues”,  and the related emotional and behavioral responses. 

Reflection

We can become more tolerant of other people if we acknowledge David’s findings (developed through neuroscience and clinical practice) that “each of us sees and understands the world in a unique way” – and this conclusion applies to us also!  Our view of the world is not the only view nor is it necessarily complete, accurate or uncontaminated by our life experiences.  We are challenged to recognise our own fallibility, especially if we too have had traumatic experiences that will have shaped our perceptions and responses.  We can build our tolerance of others too if we work to understand what trauma does to the brain and its impact on behavioural responses.  David suggests that we approach others with a degree of “curiosity”, wanting to understand what happened to them (not what’s wrong with them).  Frank Ostaseski, author of The Five Invitations,  encourages us to cultivate openness and curiosity – to replace criticism with understanding.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, journalling, research and meditation, we can develop greater openness and curiosity, increase our self-awareness (including of the impacts of trauma on our own emotional and behavioural responses) and cultivate understanding, empathy and compassion.

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

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

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.

Creating a Meaningful Story for Your Life

Tami Simon, CEO of Sounds True, interviewed Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond as part of her Insights at the Edge podcast series.  Rebecca and Lily are the authors of the newly published (January 2021) book, What’s Your Story? : A Journal for Everyday Evolution. The book provides deeply personal insights into what constitutes a meaningful life as a well as interactive, reflective questions designed to help the reader to revisit and rewrite the story of their own life.  Both authors are accomplished writers and activists with quite diverse backgrounds. Their collaborative writing over the past ten years to produce the book is a profound endeavour in its own right.  They share a common and very strong belief that in writing our own story with honesty, fearlessness, and persistence, we can rewrite our past and reshape our future so that we live a more meaningful life.

An opening reflective question

During the podcast interview, Tami asked Rebecca and Lily about the first question in their book which is, What is your first memory?  This question is penetrating in that it requires the reader to identify a memory that they really experienced and own.  It means unravelling the self-stories from what has been communicated by parents, society at large, national culture, workplace culture or formal education.  It means getting to the heart of what we actually believe and practice.  For Lily, the catalyst for the question was the experience of her mother dying from cancer; for Rebecca, the catalytic event was the divorce of her parents.  In both cases they were faced with the fundamental question of What story have I been telling myself about my life?  Which leads to the question, How limiting or empowering is my self-story?

A closing reflective question

The interview discussing the book – What’s My Story? – gravitated to the final reflective question How do I define a life well lived?  This question is designed to be proactive – to stimulate not only reflection but future action.  The question is intended to have us look back from our future deathbed and review how we have spent our life and how we had wished to spend it.  It means, in Rebecca’s terms, what would enable me to die peacefully when reviewing my life’s contribution and legacy?  The question for both authors revolved around, What is a meaningful life? How can I now live my life in a way that is congruent with what gives my life meaning, satisfaction and a sense of positive contribution to my relationships, my community, and the world at large?

Lily and Rebecca talked about how these questions and their personal responses are influencing the way they live now – even at the micro-level.  Throughout their book they ask the reader to reflect on what was meaningful in their past, what is meaningful in their present life and what would give meaning to the rest of their life – a potential catalyst for rewriting our own stories.  What could be useful in this personal pursuit of “a life well-lived” are the lessons from death and dying provided by Frank Ostaseski.

The science of a meaningful life

Several authors for the Greater Good Magazine collaborated on an article titled, The Top 10 Insights from “The Science of a Meaningful Life” in 2020.  The magazine itself is a production of the Greater Good Science Center, The University of California, Berkeley.  The authors drew on the work of multiple researchers in their network and  viewed the identified elements as a source of hope in these challenging times when the pandemic has led to many people experiencing conflict, loneliness, illness, and grief.

The authors draw on the concept of a “psychologically rich life” as a framework for their suggestions for a meaningful life:

  • Collaborating in learning with others
  • Connecting with other people by phone rather than text or social media
  • Expressing kindness and gratitude to others (which are contagious)
  • Being more extroverted in engagement with others (especially beneficial for introverts)
  • Engaging with diverse cultures that can serve to challenge our stereotypes
  • Seeking out challenging and varied experiences
  • Working in organisations that consciously pursue social justice both within and without
  • Exploring ways to be more motivated to express empathy.

Reflection

It is a sobering exercise to ask ourselves these reflective questions that represent the lived experiences of the authors.  What is also relevant to this reflection are the lessons from death and dying advanced by Frank Ostaseski.  The challenge is to work out how we define a “life well lived”.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can gain greater clarity about what a meaningful life is for us and have the courage and resilience to pursue it in our chosen field of endeavour.

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Image by Marcel S. 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.

Appreciating the Jacaranda

For a long time now, I have viewed trees as a source of meditation and of poetry.  The title of this post is really a metaphor for appreciating our own life and the uniqueness of others.   Jacarandas in Brisbane flower during October/November which is around exam time and their stunning display of purple flowers serves as a reminder of all we have accomplished in formal learning and all the people who have helped us in these achievements.  So, Jacarandas help us to appreciate our life and what we have achieved.  At the same time, they remind us that outward success is ephemeral – impermanent and quickly fading, which is a characteristic of the Jacaranda flowers.  

Savouring your achievements 

In a previous post I discussed in detail how savouring your achievements can be a mindful exercise in appreciating your opportunities in life and valuing what you have been able to achieve through the assistance of others.  Reflection on your study achievements can build confidence and a sense of self-efficacy – your belief in being able to achieve a particular outcome through focus and effort.  You can reflect on what it took personally to graduate at school, university and/or a TAFE College 

You can be grateful that you have acquired the knowledge and skills that come with your study achievements and that have opened the way for many other opportunities in life, e.g. the nature of the work that you do, the opportunity to travel or the ability to build relationships and interact effectively with others. 

Acknowledging the contribution of others 

Recognising that your achievements were accomplished through the support of others is a great leveler and a source of appreciation and gratitude.  Those who have contributed to your achievements could include your parents, schoolteachers, educators, lecturers, trade trainers, or professors. Some had a role to play in your formative years, others in your adulthood as you made your way in the world.  You can value their contributions to your personal growth in knowledge and skill.  

Of particular importance, is focusing on the people who played a significant role at different turning points in your life.  They could be mentors, coaches, friends, bosses, or relatives.  It pays to spend time to focus on a particular individual who has influenced the way you think, how you go about your work, how you relate to others and/or what you consider important.  It may be someone who encouraged you and supported you to believe in yourself and what you are capable of.  This type of reflection reinforces our connectedness and interdependence and can deepen our humility and gratitude.   

Radiant beauty, quickly shed 

A key source of insight when observing or reflecting on Jacarandas is the ephemeral nature of their beauty.  I once captured this thought in a poem about Jacarandas when I wrote, “radiant beauty, quickly shed”.  This is a reminder that external signs of success can quickly fade or disappear – as many people have found during the onset of the global pandemic.  Thomas Merton reminded us that what is important is the “inner landscape”, not externalities, when he wrote:  

If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for… 

Savouring our achievements is not designed to be an exercise in considering ourselves to be “better than” others; it is designed to help us to realise the gifts, talents, knowledge, skills and supports that we have to enable us to make a contribution to the welfare of others.  It is one way to help us overcome the barriers to achieving our unique contribution and life purpose.   We can be prompted to ask ourselves, “What am I doing with my life and all that I have been given in terms of opportunities, knowledge, skills and insights?” 

Frank Ostaseski reminds us that one of the lessons from death and dying is the need to cultivate a “don’t know” mind – a mind that is “open, receptive and full of wonder” and willing to learn from anyone, even young children.  He suggests that we need to develop our curiosity and instead of trying to prove that we are “interesting” or learned in our interactions with others, that we focus instead on being  “interested in” others. 

Reflection 

Savouring our achievements can be a source of appreciation and gratitude.  Remembering that our external success is ephemeral and that what is important is our contribution to the welfare of others, can be a source of humility and motivation to pursue our life purpose.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can progressively develop our “inner landscape”, gain insight into our life purpose, and develop the courage and creativity to make our unique contribution. 

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Image by Christian Abella from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness for Others

In a previous post, I discussed mindfulness for ourselves and others.  In this particular post, I will explore specific ways in which our mindfulness helps others.  Mindfulness is not only about developing calmness and relaxation for ourselves; it also involves being aware of our connectedness and the impact that our words and actions have on the well-being of others.  It pays to be conscious of how we positively impact the welfare of others as this can motivate us to sustain our regular practice of mindfulness.

Ways in which our mindfulness practice helps others

Often, we are not conscious of the impact of our words and actions on others, but every interaction has consequences, whether helpful or harmful.  Here are six ways our mindfulness can be helpful for others:

1. Mood contamination: Research confirms that our mood is contagious, especially if we are a leader (formal or informal).  We can all relate to an intimate relationship situation or work situations where one person’s “bad mood” contaminates the relationship or the work environment.  We often speak of toxic workplaces where a negative or cynical emotional environment, emanating from one person or a group, is harmful and negatively affects our  life outside work as a well as within it.  Research shows that mindfulness practices such as Tai Chi lead to an improved mood – a more positive, energetic and empowered outlook on life, which positively impacts those around us.  Mindfulness practices enable us to bring calmness and equanimity to our workplace or interactions away from work – our calm demeanour can develop calmness in others.  This was brought home to me in a recent workshop at the end of a 4-month management development program that I was co-facilitating.  A participant approached me and thanked me for the workshops we had conducted and especially for my “calmness” because it created a very positive learning environment for her.  I was not conscious of my own calmness, let alone the impact that it was having on participants.  However, I was conscious of the fact that I had been undertaking mindfulness practices such as meditation, Tai Chi and reflection leading up to, and during, the program.   

2. Listening for understanding: One of the kindest things we can do for others is to be really present to them and actively listen to what they have to say.  This entails listening for understanding, being curious about the other person and their life situation – not interrupting and trying to establish our credibility by telling stories about ourselves and our achievements.  Listening communicates that we value the other person, that we acknowledge their uniqueness (in the best sense of the word) and that we are interested in them and what they have to say.  It also involves what Frank Ostaseski describes as cultivating a “don’t know mind” – a mental state that is curious and willing to learn from everyone, including children.

3. Self-regulation: With the degree of self-awareness and self-control that we develop over time through mindfulness practices, we are less likely to “fly off the handle” or use angry words or actions towards others.  We are better able to identify the negative stimuli that trigger us (e.g. an explicit or implied criticism) and respond more appropriately when interacting with others.  It does not mean that we are never triggered by others but that we have more effective ways to deal with negative stimuli.  We are also less likely to harbour resentment if we undertake mindful reflection on our past experiences in which we felt hurt.

4. Sense of connection leading to kindness: One of the key outcomes of mindfulness practices is the development of our sense of connection.  Through awareness of our connectedness, especially through a shared sense of pain and suffering in these challenging times, we are more empathetic towards others.  We are more likely to take compassionate action towards those in need – compassion that is enhanced by mindfulness practices such as loving-kindness meditation.

5. Gratitude: Through mindfulness practices we can readily develop gratitude towards others and savour what we have in life. We can really appreciate our friendships, intimate relationships and our work colleagues – and be willing to express our gratitude.  Where there is a strong sense of gratitude, there is no room for the destructive force of envy.  Gratitude meditation helps us to savour every aspect of our life, so that we consciously savour what we have in our life and our unique experiences.  It also enables us to value our minds and bodies and bodily sensations, rather than indulging our harmful inner-critic or feeling the need to please in an unhealthy way.

6. Sympathetic joy: Mindfulness enables us to experience joy when others achieve or experience good things in their life.  We are not mired in envy because they have achieved something that we have not.  We can be positive and joyful for their good fortune and express our sympathetic joy to them.  This stance communicates valuing the other person and actively builds relationships, rather than diminish them through “superiority conceit”.

Reflection

Being conscious of the potential positive impact of our mindfulness for others, enables us to sustain our mindfulness practices and enhances our relationships, whether passing or intimate.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can bring to our interactions a sense of calm and a positive mood, increasing self-regulation, enhanced ability to be present and listen to others, a strong sense of appreciation and a developing sympathetic joy that enables us to rejoice in the good fortune of others. 

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Image Source: Ron Passfield 16.8.2020

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.

The Impermanence of Everything and the Preciousness of Life

In Part 1 of his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses his first invitation and principle for living, “Don’t Wait”.  Frank, as founder of a hospice and end-of-life carer, has cared for more than a thousand patients during their dying process and death.  In this first part of his book, he highlights the impermanence of everything and the preciousness of each moment of living.   

Frank has been a companion to the deepest grief of friends and relatives of the dying and experienced a depth of vicarious grief that is difficult to conceive – it’s as if the collective grief of others had beset him and brought him to his knees, both physically and metaphorically.  Fortuitously, he was a colleague and friend of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross at the time who supported him in his grief and his work as an end-of-life carer.  Elizabeth developed the classic concept of the five stages of dealing with death and loss in her book On Death and Dying and was also the author of Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss.

The impermanence of everything

If nothing else, the Coronavirus reinforces the impermanence of everything through its pervasive impact on every facet of our daily lives – our home, work location, transportation, schooling and education, shopping, spending, entertainment, health, finances, sport and our very daily interactions and movements.  The on-off nature and varying intensity of imposed restrictions serve to reinforce this message of the changeability of everything.  In these challenging times, we are called to adapt to the unpredictability of our work, our changing home arrangements, the extreme challenge to our health and welfare, and the uncertainty of our income and overall finances.

Without the pandemic, we can still become aware of impermanence – the birth and death cycle for humans, animals and nature.   Relationships end, animals are killed and eaten by other animals in the endless pursuit of food and survival and leaves fall off trees to become life-giving compost for new plant growth.  

The impermanence of everything was brought home to me by two recent incidents.  The first was the disturbing story of a nurse killed suddenly in our city while cycling to work.  Her husband indicated that their day started as normal with a coffee and breakfast together but ended tragically when the nurse was only metres away from her work at the hospital.

The second experience of impermanence occurred when I was walking along the foreshore of Moreton Bay near our home.  I was watching the small fish full of life darting back and forth in the marina when a fast-moving bird dived into the water and retrieved one of the fish for its food – only to be followed by other birds dive-bombing the school of little fish. 

The preciousness of life

Frank describes the process of dying as a “stripping away” of everything including our sense of “self” – our sense of who we think we are and should be, all our roles such as husband/wife, partner, parent, neighbour.  We lose our professional identity, our personal orientation, e.g. as a “people person” and our comparative self-assessment such as well-off or impoverished and successful or an abject failure.  Frank reinforces his view of the inadequacy of the medical model to explain the breadth and depth of the “stripping away” at death.  He maintains that in dying everything is released/dissolved – “the gross physical elements of the body, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, conditioning all dissolving”.  Frank asserts that what is left to discover is “something more elemental and connective” that constitutes the real essence of human nature.

Our awareness of impermanence, accentuated by illness, can lead to anxiety or a readiness to appreciate and savour the preciousness of life, of our relationships and of nature.   Through appreciating the pervasiveness of impermanence, we can more readily accept change and more willingly give up our attachments – the things that we hold onto to define our self and our worth.   This is where meditation can help us both in fully living and preparing for dying and death.

The “Don’t Wait” principle reminds us of the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the timing of our death – that it will happen, but we don’t know when or how.  This principle encourages us to value every moment we are alive and to savour what we have in life and the experiences of living.  Frank’s heart attack reinforced this message for him – his sense of self and perception of himself as the “strong one” helping everyone else in need was completely undone.  He encourages us to be curious about ourselves and our preferences/attitudes/ biases and to work at letting go of the identities that we have become attached to.

 Frank maintains that “softening around these identities, we will feel less constraint, more immediacy and presence”.  I am learning the profound truth of this statement through softening my identification with being a “good” tennis player who never or rarely makes mistakes.  Instead of wallowing in negative self-evaluation, I am beginning to enjoy the freedom of progressively loosening this unsustainable identification as I grow older and less physically able.

Reflection

Frank’s book would have to be the easiest and most-engrossing personal development book I have had the privilege to read, and, at the same time, the most profound.  As someone who has had a deep interest in, and knowledge of, his subject, he can communicate his ideas in simple language and practical illustrations.  Each paragraph contains exquisite morsels of wisdom and the book is replete with moving but brief stories that impress indelibly – so, even if you don’t remember the exact wording of his principles, you certainly remember the stories that illustrate them.  Frank’s writing reflects the calmness, humility and depth of insight and wisdom that is evident in his many conversations and podcast interviews about the process of dying and “The Five Invitations”.

“Don’t Wait” is a challenging principle but Coronavirus has forced us to stop, reassess and protect ourselves and others.  It has been the catalyst for incredible acts of courage and kindness – by our health professionals and people from all walks of life.  The Pandemic Kindness group on Facebook©, with over half a million members, is but one of many efforts to encourage and support random acts of kindness in these challenging times.

The “Don’t Wait” principle incorporates many invitations to create change in our lives.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become increasingly aware of our attachments (including to harmful self-narratives) and progressively develop the discipline and self-regulation to create real change in our lives to live with more appreciation, thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion.  We can learn to savour every moment of our life and everything that it entails.

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Image by christels 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.

Meditation as Preparation for Dying

Meditating on death helps us to appreciate both the preciousness of life and its precariousness. Thinking about death and the dying process serves to motivate us to live our lives more fully and more aligned to our true purpose in life.  Much as we might like to, death is not something to be swept under the carpet – it is an every life reality.  Meditation itself can help us to prepare for death by helping us to face up to its reality and consciously build the capacity to die peacefully, with acceptance and equanimity.

The reality of our death

Irrespective of our belief about the existence of an afterlife, there are some inescapable facts about death and dying that we each have to face (not deny or ignore, despite cultural “taboos”):

  • The certainty of our death
  • The uncertainty of the timing of our death
  • The unknown about how we will die – there are so many potential internal and external causes of our death
  • The remaining span of our life is decreasing with each day (we are getting closer to death with each day we are alive – our life is inevitably running out, like the waters in an outgoing tide).

We can live our  life in the light of the lessons from death and dying or continue to ignore death’s reality.  One of the lessons Frank Ostaseski learned from observing the dying and practising meditation is that meditation is itself like the dying process.

What meditation and the dying process have in common

Frank identified a number of common elements between the dying process and meditation:

  • Stillness and silence
  • Being fully in the present moment
  • A focus on our inner life – “profound inquiry into the nature of self’
  • Accessing our inner wisdom
  • Progressive release from attachments
  • Deep sense of humility
  • Deep sense of expansiveness and connection to nature and everyone

The benefits of meditation for the dying process

The dying process is a solitary event – no external person or possession or power or wealth or physical beauty can assist us in the process of accepting the inevitable.  What can help us to make the transition easier at the time of death is release from all attachment, comfort with deep self-exploration and reconciliation with ourselves and with others.  What will help too are the positive states that we have formed through meditation – compassion, self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others, patience, wisdom and peace.  The more positive our life has been, the better we will be able to accept all that is happening to us at the time of death. 

Frank suggests that we should aim to replace guilt with remorse – not drowning in our guilt but expressing remorse for having hurt others.  Remorse then motivates us to do better and avoid hurting the people we interact with.  Forgiveness meditation is a powerful aid in this transformation.

Reflection

Once we accept that life is running out like the tide, we can value and appreciate every moment that we are alive, develop loving-kindness and build positive experiences where we contribute to the welfare of others.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, and especially by meditating on our death, we can create the positive states of acceptance, peace, tranquillity and compassion that will assist us in the dying process.  Meditation helps us to understand and accept the reality of our death and to prepare us for the inevitable (but uncertain) end to our life.

Frank’s book, The Five Invitations: Discover What Death Can Teach Us About Living Life Fully, can provide us with insights into the dying process and the lessons we can learn and, in the process, build our motivation to develop and sustain a daily meditation practice.

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Image by sabri ismail 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.