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.

___________________________________________

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.

Growth through Mindfulness in the Moment

n a recent interview podcast, Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul Guided Journal: Writing Practices to Journey Beyond Yourself and The Surrender Experiment: My Journey into Life’s PerfectionMichael made his teachings available in the form of a series of podcasts covering his perspective on spirituality and being in the moment.  The podcast I want to focus on in this post is one Michael titled, Giving Meaning to the Time Between Your Birth and Your Death.  Michael offers several insights that can enable us to experience the moment, live life fully and joyfully and realise what he terms “spiritual growth”.  His insights revolve around our “acquisitions”, our conditional “okay inside” mindset and our tendency to be “bothering” about life instead of experiencing it.

Our tendency to want to acquire

Michael’s salient point here is that whatever we acquire with our short life on this planet, we cannot take with us at our death – whether it be our house, money, car, marriage, status or personal looks.  Yet we spend so much of our lives trying to acquire more.  We look to have a bigger house in a better location with more comforts; to make more money to be able to purchase the things that we desire to own; to have a newer car with more comforts and features.   As Michael points out, these desired “acquisitions” do little to resolve the issue that we are “not okay inside” – they do not provide lasting satisfaction or happiness.  The reality is that we spend much of our life in fruitless pursuit of what we want to acquire – none of which we can take with us when we inevitably die.

Our conditional “okay inside” mindset

Often we believe that we will be “okay inside” if our life was different to what it is.  If we were someone who was brighter, more educated, better looking or married to someone who was eminently flexible and available.  We are not okay because we cannot accept “what is”.  He points out that we carry a lot of “garbage inside” that impacts our experience of the world.  Some of this is related to our expectations and our perception of the expectations of others. Part of it relates to a false belief about what brings happiness and fulfillment.  He makes the humbling point that we are fortunate to live on earth with all its richness in nature, people, places and beauty– even though it is a speck of dust in a vast universe that is mind-boggling in its magnitude. 

Being “bothered” by life instead of experiencing it

Michael maintains that a lot of our ”not-okayness” relates to the fact that we let a lot of life “bother us”.  We are bothered by the slowness of the car in front of us, by the lack of our favourite dessert in the supermarket, by the annoying habits of our partner, by the lack of comfort of a chair, by the fact that a restaurant meal did not turn out as well as expected, by…  Because of our “bothered” frame of mind, we do experience life as it is.  Michael maintains that each experience has personal growth potential – we can learn and grow through every experience, no matter how small. 

We just need to “work on ourself” and recognise that we are bringing to each situation a pre-set idea of how it should be.  We seek to have others be like we want them to be so we don’t have to change the way we are.  We become locked into our way of doing things and stay like we are, unwilling to evolve and be what we are capable of being.

Experience, according to Michael, is a teacher but often we do not want to learn the lesson that experience brings. He argues that “every moment is designed for our growth” and part of the meaning of life is to realise this growth by “getting rid of why we are not okay”.  Often current experience can be a catalyst for memories of past bad experiences that we linger over and sometimes build resentment about.   Michael argues that these can leave a “scar” unless we learn to let them go – so much of what he suggested related to “letting go”.  If we can let go of the “garbage inside”, we can truly experience joy in the moment and free ourselves to feel the beauty that surrounds us and our own openness to life and living.

Reflection

Michael’s podcasts offer real insights into the ways that we block our own happiness and the realisation of our true growth and potential.  He offers an online course through Sounds True that inculcates his teachings and cultivates the mindset and habits that enable us to be “okay inside” so that we can experience the world as a place of growth and joy.  His course, Living from a Place of Surrender: The Untethered Soul in Action, incorporates video sessions and journalling for self-reflection.

Throughout his podcast, Michael illustrated his points by making frequent reference to tennis, my favourite sport.  He suggested that the experience of playing tennis has growth potential embedded in it.  If we make a mistake and hit the ball into the net, we could rail against the wind, the court conditions, the unpredictability of our opponent’s game or the tension of our racquet strings or become bothered by what others might think of us and our competence as a tennis player. 

Alternatively, we could experience gratitude for the opportunity to play tennis (which millions of people in the world do not have); appreciation that we can run and hit the ball (which many people in the world can’t do); acceptance that mistakes are an integral part of playing tennis (despite how competent we are at tennis);  wonder at the capacity of the human mind to rapidly process all the information required to execute a tennis shot;  and learning from what we did wrong in trying to play the shot (positioning, stroke choice, speed and direction of our tennis shot).

As we grow in mindfulness by working on ourselves through meditation, self-reflection and insight courses, we can be more open to experience and less bothered when things don’t turn out as we expect them to.  We can feel joy instead of disappointment, gratitude instead of envy and wonder instead of feeling uninspired.   

___________________________________________

Image by Antonio López from Pixabay

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

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

Managing Our Response to Uncertainty

In these challenging times, we often experience uncertainty and ambiguity which, in turn, leads to anxiety and depression.  At the very least, these conditions can make us feel uncomfortable, annoyed or ill at ease.  We normally want to be in control of our lives and have some certainty about our future.  We try to create some sense, order and meaningfulness for our future by developing our plans for our career, family interactions, travel and personal development.  In times of uncertainty like the present, we can become disoriented when these plans are disrupted, put on hold, deferred or cancelled altogether because of lockdowns, border closures, ill-health, international conflicts or major natural disasters.

We need some strategies to help us cope with this uncertainty and ambiguity. Over time, we have to develop ways to tolerate these setbacks and anxiety-inducing conditions.  The reality is that uncertainty and ambiguity are part of the human condition and cannot be avoided.  Diana Winston offers one way of addressing this uncertainty and managing our response to challenging times.  In her guided meditation podcast, Opening to Uncertainty, she provides a mindfulness meditation approach which she describes as “advanced practice” – not only is it challenging but also requires repetition and practice to enable us to widen our window of tolerance in the face of ever-increasing uncertainty and ambiguity.

Guided meditation on managing our response to uncertainty

  • Diana begins the guided meditation with an initial focus on body posture which should be relaxed and comfortable but involve conscious choice that enables freedom of breathing.  She begins the meditation practice encouraging multiple deep breaths that facilitate release of built-up tension and stress.  Diana encourages us to “relax into the present moment” and become conscious of our bodily sensations – especially pockets or points of uptightness.  As we wind down, we can progressively release specific points of tension. 
  • The next phase involves choosing an anchor that truly grounds us in the present and is unlikely to act as a trigger for heightened negative emotions or a trauma response.  We each have our negative triggers and varying levels of tolerance to specific difficult situations.  Our meditation anchor enables us to return to a chosen focus when we notice our mind wandering or when we experience strong challenging emotions. 
  • When negative emotions take over, we have the choice to work with the difficult emotion and its intensity (if we are at an advanced stage of meditation practice) or to use our anchor as a way to return to being grounded in the present moment. 
  • After addressing emotions around experienced anxiety, Diana moves the meditation to another stage where she encourages us to recall an occasion when we successfully dealt with some level of anxiety and ambiguity.  Associated with this, is recalling the feeling of dealing positively with the stress – we can try to recapture those positive emotions to strengthen our belief in our own capacity to deal with current challenges.  I found this activity particularly useful, because it is so easy to overlook past successes in dealing with anxiety when you are feeling overwhelmed with present challenges.
  • The next stage of the meditation involved loving-kindness towards ourself.  To begin with it is important to acknowledge that it is natural to feel anxiety in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity.  Diana recommends that once we acknowledge this naturalness, we can express a positive desire such as, “May I meet uncertainty with grace and ease.”  This request can be repeated as a way to reinforce the belief that we are able to manage uncertainty in whatever form it takes.

Reflection

I undertook this meditation on the day that I was due to receive my first COVID-19 vaccine.  I was uncertain about what vaccine I was going to receive and concerned about the after effects, given that I suffer from a wide range of sensitivities and allergies.  There was ambiguity to deal with as well – surrounding the availability of the different vaccines, their relative effectiveness and their after effects.  However, I found that Diana’s guided meditation helped me to become grounded and prepared for most contingencies.

In her meditation, Diana encourages us to approach uncertainty and our response with openness and curiosity and a “willingness to be with that experience”.  She stated that life has its “ups and downs” and sometimes terrible things happen as well as wonderful things.  She maintained that it is illusionary to believe that life is an even, untroubled flow – we will be challenged at times and be able to cope to varying degrees with what confronts us.  

Diana asserted that as we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we will be better able to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity and manage our response to challenging stressors and associated emotions.  However, she asserted that managing our response to uncertainty is a long-term process. Her guided meditation can help in that regard. 

Diana mentioned the availability of other MARC meditation podcasts via the UCLA  Mindful App.  Previously I have identified activities to maintain a positive mindset in the times of uncertainty and anxiety.  In this blog, too, I have covered other meditation approaches to managing our response to uncertainty:

  • Jill Satterfield provided a meditation on using breath as a restorative process in challenging times.
  • Diana Winston offered an approach which focuses strongly on gratitude.
  • Kristin Neff and Chris Germer provided a range of self-compassion practices to enable us to manage in challenging times, including the pandemic.  
  • MARC meditations incorporate a range of other meditations that can reduce anxiety in times of uncertainty and challenge.

___________________________________________

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.

Balancing Compassion with Equanimity

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC UCLA, offers a meditation podcast on the theme, The Balance of Compassion and Equanimity.  This is one of the weekly meditations provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC).  Currently, the meditations are offered via the Zoom platform and are recorded and uploaded for ongoing access.  They are also readily available via the UCLA Mindful app which provides “meditations for well-being”.

Guided meditation on balancing compassion with equanimity

In these challenging times it is easy to experience “compassion fatigue” or burnout.  The pandemic alone has brought death and grief, pain and suffering, job losses, homelessness, suicides, mental illness, business rundown/closure, family separations and divided communities (around issues such as border closures, vaccination distribution, mask wearing and mandatory vaccination).  Many places are experiencing natural disasters including earthquakes, wild fires, floods and tornados.   There are international conflicts creating an endless stream of refugees as well as people who are trapped in a violent and inhuman environment.   We do not have look too far to be surrounded by pain and suffering in this world of conflict and challenge.

In her guided meditation Diana maintains that in these times, it is common for people to experience a lack of balance and overwhelm.  She suggests that one way through the dilemma of finding a balance between compassion and equanimity is to take refuge in meditation.  Her recommended meditation practice involves both expression of compassion and a retreat into equanimity.  This can be a once-off approach.  However, if we are dealing with considerable imbalance and/or overwhelm we can repeat the process on a regular basis.  This will also be necessary if we find ourselves in a state of compassion burnout where we can longer feel for others who are in pain and suffering.

Diana begins the mediation by having us take a few deep breaths to release tension we may feel as a result of experiencing strong feelings of compassion.  She suggests that we become conscious of our posture and the groundedness provided by our feet on the floor or our body on the ground (if lying down outside in nature).  Initially, she encourages us to identify physical points of tension so that we can consciously release them.  Diana then progressively moves us through the process of exploring several anchors for our meditation – our breathing (movement in our abdomen or chest), external sounds or some bodily sensation.

Compassion meditation

Diana starts with a focus on compassion and invites us to bring to mind a particular group of people or an individual who we know are in pain and suffering.  She suggests that we start with something that is not a source of overwhelm (so that we can manage the emotions involved).  Diana then encourages us to find some words that enable us to express our compassion towards the chosen group or individual, e.g., “May your suffering be alleviated”.  If we can find our own words to express compassion, it will enable us to genuinely feel that we are extending kindness to others.

Equanimity meditation

Following the focus on compassion, Diana suggests that we take a form of refuge in equanimity meditation.  In this context the retreat to equanimity is achieved by refocusing on our chosen anchor.  It might be our breathing or sounds or a particular bodily sensation.  I have frequently focused on my fingers joined on my lap during meditation – feeling the warmth, the tingling and the flow of blood and energy.   In times when I am waiting or experiencing strong emotions, I can resort to this practice and simultaneously tap into my breathing.  The combination of these anchors – joined fingers and breath – are achieved by regular practice creating the association between them.  Each person has their own way of becoming deeply grounded and restoring balance and equanimity.

Reflection

Diane calls the  meditation practice she facilitated, the “black belt of meditation” – it can be extremely difficult to deal with the attendant emotions, achieve balance and restore equanimity.  What we are trying to achieve is acceptance of what is, while offering genuine compassion to those who are suffering.  There are so many things that are outside our control that acceptance, along with taking compassionate action where possible, is the way forward.  As mentioned earlier, a “rinse and repeat” process may be required to achieve a consistent level of equanimity.

Allyson Pimentel, another MARC meditation teacher, offers an alternative guided meditation on focusing on the elements of nature to achieve equanimity – calmness can be achieved by connecting with the elements of earth, water,  fire, air and space.   Martin Brensilver, in a different MARC meditation, maintains that equanimity can also be strengthened by widening our perspective, reducing our focus on evaluative thinking (e.g., resorting to absolutes of right and wrong) and intensifying our sensory experience (which increases our groundedness).  Gratitude meditation can also help us to restore our balance and calmness. 

As we grow in mindfulness through alternating compassion and equanimity meditation practice, we can progressively gain emotional regulation, develop a balanced compassion and experience equanimity and the ease of wellness.  We can also find creative ways to provide compassionate action for others who are experiencing pain and suffering.  Meditation and mindfulness practices enable us to access the deep well within ourself to provide strength and support to others.

_______________________________________

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

The Courage of Simone Biles

Simone Biles, considered one of the greatest female gymnasts of all time, had a rocky road at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (23 July to 8 August 2021) that had been delayed because of the pandemic.  Simone, who has won 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, experienced mental health issues at the Olympics and opted to withdraw from the US team event after completing only one of the four components in the artistic gymnastics competition.  She also withdrew from individual events including the all-round gymnastic competition. 

However, Simone returned for one event, the balanced beam, to win a bronze medal in a tight finish.  Her courage and resilience in the face of her mental health issues is a source of inspiration for many others, including elite athletes who suffer from the burden of expectations.  Her courage is immortalised in the Binge© movie about her life – the 2018 movie, The Simone Biles Story – Courage to Soar, which among other things depicts her adverse childhood experiences which included foster care.

Mental health issue – the Twisties

During the final of her first event, the vault, as part of the US Gymnastic team, Simone experienced the “twisties” which can be very dangerous because it involves disorientation through loss of spatial awareness while twisting and turning in the air and attempting to land.  It can cause serious injury such as that experienced by British gymnast, Claudia Fragapane, during the 2016 Olympics.  Claudia explained that Simone would have experienced the “twisties” as a mental block resulting from too much pressure – unrealistic expectations that fail to acknowledge that world-class gymnasts, while being able to perform “superhuman” feats, are in fact human and vulnerable. 

As Simone herself commented, “At the end of the day, we’re not just entertainment, we’re human” and gymnasts not only have to manage the intricacies and demands of the sport but also “things behind the scenes”. In her case, one of the sad and disturbing things that happened during the Olympics was the unexpected death of her aunt, which occurred two days before her return to compete on the balance beam.

The courage to return

Simone returned to the Olympic competition to compete in the individual balance beam final where she won a bronze medal.  She displayed incredible courage to return and risk injury but had clearly developed a balanced perspective through her mental health crisis.  She said of her Olympic Bronze Medal, that it “means more than all the golds” because of the courage and resilience she had to draw on over the previous five years and the week of the Olympics. She also indicated that she valued her “physical and mental health” above all the medals.

During her break from the pressure of the 2020 Olympic competition, Simone spent time utilising the training facilities of Juntendo University which is located just outside Tokyo.  There she was able to regain her balance and confidence to enable her to return for the individual balanced beam event. She publicly expressed her deep gratitude for their support and technical assistance.  To acknowledge their support publicly when she herself was in the limelight demonstrated her humility, appreciation and healthy confidence.   

Simone is globally acknowledged for achieving “gravity-defying” feats that no one else has been able to achieve.  After this Olympics, her personal achievement in dealing with her mental health issue will rank up there with her physical achievements and inspire many others to seek help and grow through their challenges.

Reflection

When we are confronted with unrealistic expectations we can become both disturbed and distracted and lose perspective.  Sometimes, it requires “time out” (as in basketball and beach volleyball) to assess what is going on and to regain our perspective.  Simone showed us that she had the courage to declare her difficult mental state and to take time out to find her balance (physically and emotionally) and restore her perspective.

It took even more courage to return to the Olympic competition despite the sometimes vitriolic media commentary that saw her as “deserting her teammates”.  She had to face not only her inner demons but also the external, unthinking critics who lacked understanding and compassion.  Simone also demonstrated courage in bringing “the topic of conversation on mental health to light” which she stated “meant the world” to her.

Simone was willing to disclose what action she had taken to be able to return to the competition and she did so to express her gratitude to people who helped her in the intervening period.  As I discussed previously, gratitude is one thing that Naomi Osaka uses to help her become grounded in challenging situations.  Ash Barty, too, has gratitude as a foundational value.

We can develop our own resilience and courage by using meditation, reflection and other practices to grow in mindfulness.  This will help us to explore our inner landscape and our habituated responses and enable us to develop healthy confidence and a balanced perspective.

___________________________________

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.

Mental Health and the Burden of Expectations for Elite Athletes

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics brought the issue of the mental health of elite athletes into the spotlight with the open admission of mental health issues by Naomi Osaka (World No.2 tennis player) and Simone Biles (American gymnast considered one of the greatest gymnast ever).  Both elite athletes acknowledge that their performance and capacity to participate to the best of their ability was impacted by mental health issues.  One of the key stressors for both these athletes was the burden of expectations, their own and that of other people, including the press and social media.

Naomi Osaka and mental health

In winning the 2019 Australian Open singles title, Naomi Osaka was the epitome of mindfulness in action – displaying resilience in the face of setbacks and disappointments, overcoming negative thoughts and drawing on gratitude as a means to stay grounded in the present moment.  Yet by the middle of 2021, Naomi was experiencing severe mental health issues that led her to withdraw from the French Open after winning her first round match.

Naomi explained that she had experienced “long bouts of depression” since her win over Serena Williams at the US Open in 2018.  She found giving post-match interviews particularly difficult because she is an introvert and inherently shy and has trouble dealing with the public scrutiny and criticism of the way she plays a match.  Because of these difficulties, she publicly stated that she would not give post-match interviews during the 2021 French Open.  This attracted a vehement response from an unforgiving press and social media that had created her social persona and related performance expectations.  Added to the stress of the moment was a fine of $15,000 for refusing to be interviewed after her first round win, along with the threat of expulsion from the French Open (along with other Grand Slam events).

Some people rallied around Naomi and praised her for her willingness to publicly acknowledge her mental health issues, her judgment in taking a “mental health break” to concentrate on “self-care”, and her desire to avoid being a “distraction” from the main event.  Some ruthlessly and with no compassion judged her as weak and suggested she toughen up.  So the very criticism she had wanted to avoid was heaped on her after her decision to withdraw for mental health reasons. 

It is understandable then that Naomi (with the memory of the trauma of the French Open still raw and real), should play a “loose game” when losing her Olympic third round match to world No. 42 Marketa Vondrousova.  Naomi admitted that she found the pressure of expectation too difficult to handle.  She had been made the “face of the Olympics”, had her first round match delayed so that she could light the Olympic Torch at the Opening Ceremony and carried with her the hope of her entire country, Japan (the host of the Olympics).

Barney Ronay wrote a scathing piece during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics about the role of media in Big Sport creating a “24-hour rolling hell” amid what he described as an “endlessly hostile kind of unregulated social experiment”.  He points out that the athletes carry the weight of unrealistic expectations to be brilliant all the time, to assuage the sadness and despair of individual nations with rays of hope and achievement and fulfill political desires and sponsor demands.  He argues that the world has become “a place of unceasing noise, reverence, poison, expectation” where athletes who have had a disrupted preparation in the face of pandemic uncertainty are subjected to the amplification of their mistakes and the associated “unkind words” voiced by caustic observers. 

Naomi, in an insightful essay in Time Magazine after her French Open withdrawal, expressed her disappointment and regret that she was subjected to detailed, public scrutiny of her mental health condition by the press and French Open organisers.  She explained that this invasion of privacy aggravated her mental illness at the time (and subsequently, through the memory of these painful events).  She asked for “empathy” and “privacy” from the press.

There is now a special three-part Netflix documentary on Naomi Osaka which will help people to understand the influences in her life, the pressures she is under and the ways she seeks to manage overwhelming expectations.

Reflection

Privately, we each carry expectations of elite athletes and at times express criticism of their performance without knowing what is happening in their lives at a point in time or understanding the pressures they are under. It might be more helpful, caring and compassionate to refrain from our criticisms and focus on what the athlete has had to go through to achieve an elite performance level.

I have just finished reading Tania Chandler’s novel, All That I Remember About Dean Cole, which tracks the journey of a young woman from trauma to triumph.  This penetrating and “compelling portrait” of mental illness is insightful and engaging.  In an interview about her book, Tania explained that the book is “about memory, time, mental illness, perception, and perspective”.  She stated that she drew on her lived experience of mental illness in her book as well as thorough research into areas such as trauma, mental health, depression, schizophrenia, psychosis, caring for people with mental illness, burns care, terror attacks and synaesthesia

Tania’s book can help us become more aware that people we interact with daily are all subject to the influence of past events whether they experienced psychological control in a relationship, sexual abuse, physical abuse, trauma, social conditioning, parental neglect, an alcoholic parent, parental divorce or any of the multitude forms of adverse childhood experiences.  This should encourage us to be more empathetic and compassionate towards others. 

As we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can enhance our sensitivity and compassion, develop insight into mental illness and its behavioural manifestations and learn ways to develop self-care, gratitude and compassionate thoughts and action.  In the process, we can develop our resilience in dealing with challenging times, ill-health, disappointments and setbacks.  We can grow in awareness of the impact of our words and actions and learn to overcome habituated responses such as criticism.

_______________________________________

Image Source: Ron Passfield (Point Lookout, Stradbroke Island)

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.

Finding Your Life Purpose

In his book, The Human Quest for Meaning, Paul Wong maintains that finding a unique purpose that transcends yourself and realises your full potential as one of the pillars of a meaningful life.   Identifying and pursuing your life purpose is a key ingredient to experiencing happiness in your life.  People often experience dissatisfaction and unhappiness if they are not able to use their core skills, knowledge, and experience in the pursuit of something that is meaningful and transcends themselves.  Each of us is attempting to create a meaningful story for our life that is not constrained by limiting, negative self-talk.

There are many pathways to identifying and pursuing your life purpose and each of us has to find our own path.  For some, the catalyst for finding their life purpose is a life crisis experienced by themselves, e.g., a life-threatening illness or major job loss; for others, the catalyst can be observing others experiencing extreme or destitute conditions.  Some people consciously pursue their life purpose through meditation and mindfulness practices and find the strength and sensitivity to pursue their life purpose.

Discovering and pursuing life purpose through nature

Ruth Allen, author of Grounded: How Connection with Nature can Improve Our Mental and Physical Wellbeing, tells the story of how she was totally absorbed by nature as a child and loved being amongst trees and wildlife.   Motivated by this love of nature, she decided to complete a degree in geology and undertake related PhD research.  However, she found that she ended up further and further away from nature as she pursued her research and work in a laboratory studying tiny samples through a microscope.  

Ruth lost the sense of the expansiveness and the interconnectedness of nature and her own connection with it.   She decided that to identify her true purpose in life, she had to get back into nature which she did over a number of years in forests and the wild.  She had lost her way and sought to rebalance her life through her immersion in nature.  She eventually discovered her life purpose as a counsellor and eco-psychotherapist helping other people to regain balance in their life through connection with nature.  She is able to use eco-therapies in her outdoor practice and to motivate others to connect to nature through her speaking, writing and adventure modelling.

Discovering and pursuing life purpose through meditation and chanting

Tina Turner tells the story of how she overcame the various traumas in her life through meditation and chanting.  She felt totally disillusioned with life and distressed by her abusive relationship.  By persistent, daily practice of Buddhist meditation and chanting, she was able to find the energy, insight, and courage to pursue her life purpose as a singer who moved people and a social activist through her work as co-founder and contributor to the Beyond Music Project which seeks to develop connectedness and unity through the celebration of cultural diversity. Despite her adversity, she was able to develop resilience and happiness in pursuit of a meaningful and rewarding life.

Motivated to a life of compassionate action after observing the desperate plight of other people

There are numerous instances where people have discovered their life purpose by observing the destitution, desperation, or debilitating life of others.  Here are some examples:

  • Nicolle Edwards and husband Gareth set up the domestic violence support service RizeUp Australia when they observed the plight of women fleeing domestic violence with their children.  Their focus is on providing the set-up requirements for emergency housing and they have established the charity to gather donations (money and furniture) to support their work in helping domestic violence victims transition into a different housing environment.  They have been surprised by the level of support that they have been able to muster through unified action in pursuit of what has become their life purpose.
  • Isabel Allende, in her recent book The Soul of a Woman, recounts how through her research of violence against women (including a visit to a small community of women in Kenya whose lives had been devastated by war and AIDS), she was moved to establish the Isabelle Allende Foundation whose mission is to empower women to “to secure reproductive rights, economic independence and freedom from violence”.  Isabel’s poignant and soul-searching memoir, Paula, written during her daughter’s fatal, porphyria-induced coma was an outstanding success and generated the income which Isabel used to create the Foundation.  She sees her life purpose as enabling women to be safe, valued and loved and to have empowerment through control over their own bodies and personal resources.  Isabel pursues her life purpose through her Foundation and her writing – she has written 26 books selling over 74 million copies.
  • Olga Murray, a highly successful and widely respected lawyer, was moved by the impoverishment of children in Nepal when she visited Kathmandu and observed their destitute conditions, including young girls being sold into slavery and prostitution during a Festival.   She established the Nepal Youth Foundation in 1990 to provide children who were the most impoverished with “education, housing, medical care and human rights.”   She has continued to work to support the Foundation in her 90’s and the Foundation continues to save girls from slavery through their “indentured daughters” program.
  • Goldie Hawn, through her own experience of panic attacks as a child, developed a very strong empathy for children suffering unhappiness and depression through mental illness.  She had used meditation throughout her own life to develop self-awareness and manage her own emotional stress and she became acutely aware of how mindfulness enables children to manage the stresses of their lives.  This led her to establish the Goldie Hawn Foundation which developed the MindUP program which employs educational programs to facilitate the well-being of children.  The programs for both children and teachers are soundly based on “neuroscience, mindfulness awareness, positive psychology and social-emotional learning (SEL)”.

Reflection

Many things can be a catalyst for discovering our life purpose and providing the energy and motivation to pursue it with courage and focused action.   As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection on our life experiences, we can develop the insight to identify our unique purpose and the resilience to pursue it through compassionate action.

Hugh Van Cuylenburg developed the GEM pathway to happiness and resilience – gratitude, empathy, mindfulness – after a visit to a poor village in India.  He now pursues his life purpose as a motivational speaker and writer working with multiple organisations, including elite sport’s teams.

__________________________________________

Image by Vikramjit Kakati from Pixabay

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

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

Managing Your Thoughts with Mindfulness Meditation

Diana Winston, Mindfulness Educator at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), offers a guided meditation podcast on the topic, Working with Thoughts.  Diana reminds us that mindfulness involves paying attention in the midst of present moment experience and doing so on purpose and with a spirit of openness, curiosity, and acceptance.  She highlights the role of thoughts in our life and the possibility that they have been intensified and accelerated by the local and global experience of the pandemic.  Thoughts can arise anywhere, at any time, and in any location.  When we are in isolation, our thoughts may be about what we are missing out on or express fear about what might happen to us. 

Our thoughts can be helpful and highly productive at times leading to creative endeavours, compassionate action, or timely interventions in our own life or that of others.  Alternatively, they may be decidedly unhelpful, leading to self-loathing, inaction, or continuous suffering.  Thoughts are integral to our human existence – we have active brains constantly processing information coming through our senses.  We can manage our thoughts through mindfulness meditation if we understand how our thoughts can distract us and take over our everyday experience.

A fundamental principle espoused by Jon Kabat-Zinn is that “we are not our thoughts”.  Diana refers to the related Bumper Sticker that reads, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”.  We can easily become caught up in negative self-thoughts that become an endless cycle of devaluing ourselves and what we achieve in our daily lives.  Mindfulness meditation can help us to experience self-compassion and develop a balanced sense of our uniqueness and our accomplishments.

We can become “lost in thought”, unaware of what is going on around us or inside us.  This preoccupation with our thoughts can lead to self-absorption, a lack of awareness and insensitive words and actions.  We can often relate to James Joyce’s comment in The Dubliners that “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body”.

A guided meditation to manage your thoughts – returning to your body

In her meditation podcast, Diana encourages you to focus on your body.  She starts with a focus on posture and the sensation of your feet on the ground or floor and suggests that you first take a few deep breaths to help ground you in the present.  Her light body scan helps you to be aware of tension points in your body and to release any uptightness that may have resulted from your thoughts. You are encouraged to be conscious of any manifestation in your body of any unhelpful or harmful thoughts and to let them go.

Release from your negative thoughts and attendant painful bodily sensations is achieved through focusing on your meditation anchor.  You might begin with a focus on your breathing and progress to deep listening to sounds (without attempting to think about the source or to explore their emotional impact on you).  Diana suggests that using your bodily sensations as an anchor can help to ground you in your body which exists in the present moment.  You can focus on a particular part of your body to achieve this grounding, e.g., the heaviness in your feet, the tingling in your arms or the sensation of energy flowing through your conjoined fingers.

Your meditation anchor provides a means of keeping you connected to your body and to stop you drifting away in your thoughts.  It becomes a point of continuous return – constantly revisiting your anchor builds your capacity to control your thoughts and develops your “awareness muscle”.

Diana also recommends “labelling your thoughts” – identifying what type of thinking process you are involved in, e.g., planning the next day, evaluating someone else’s performance, criticising another’s behaviour, or indulging in self-criticism.  Like naming your emotions, labelling your thoughts enables you to tame them and create some distance from your thought process.  Overtime with meditation practice, you can begin to discern any regular thinking pattern such as my pattern of continuously planning my “next steps” during the day.

Using imagery in meditation to dissolve your thoughts

Imagery in meditation can also help you to manage your thoughts.  Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that you view your thoughts as bubbles in boiling water that burst as they reach the surface of the water.  Diana uses clouds as an image for your thoughts.  She suggests that you view the sky itself as the openness and expansiveness of your mind while your thoughts are passing clouds.  Sometimes the clouds are heavy and dark bringing a sense of sadness or overwhelm; other times the clouds might be wispy and flighty leaving a sense of lightness and joy.  You can imagine the clouds coming and going, passing you by as you stay grounded in your body.

Using substitution in meditation to change your thinking

Diana encourages you at an appropriate time to cultivate compassionate thoughts or gratitude to push aside negative thoughts that persist.  Compassion can enable you to substitute thinking about yourself with kind thoughts towards others who may be experiencing difficulty or suffering.  Gratitude pushes aside any thoughts of resentment or envy and enables you to savour what you have in your life.  These healthy ways of thinking can lead to happiness, ease, and wellness.

Reflection

Mindfulness meditation enables us to move from being captured by our thoughts to being grounded in our body.  It builds the capacity to be fully present to the richness of the present moment – whether that is being alone in our room, experiencing the stillness and silence of nature or interacting with others.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can progressively gain control over our thoughts and become more open to the possibilities in our life.  Freed from the tyranny of expectations and our own thoughts, we can experience happiness and the ease of wellness.

__________________________________________

Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

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

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

A Meditation: Valuing the Environment

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

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

A guided meditation on the environment

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

Meditating on place

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

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

Reflection

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

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

________________________________

Image by holgerheinze0 from Pixabay

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

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

Activating Gratitude through Micro-Gestures

LaRayia Gaston, author of Love Without Reason, spoke to Tami Simon of Sounds True in an interview podcast that covered her book as well as her life and work amongst the homeless in Los Angeles.  LaRayia is the founder of Lunch on Me, a charity offering fresh vegan and organic food to the homeless by accessing left-over food from cafes and restaurants that otherwise would be wasted.  She did extensive research to develop a supply chain and distribution process to ensure that people on the street received quality, fresh food.

LaRayia spoke about her difficult life with her own mother who was full of anger and resentment and engaged in destructive behaviours.   In contrast, her Grandmother was a constant source of inspiration through her unconditional love and her ability to spread love to whoever she met, wherever she went.  In her own words, LaRayia maintained that her Grandmother taught her to “love without reason”.  LaRayia decided that she did not want to “sit in the pain of anger and resentment” and the negative energy involved but wanted to share her positive energy and love.

Activating gratitude

LaRayia maintained that it is not enough to write our gratitude journals in the comfort of our homes – we have to translate that gratitude into compassionate action for those who are less fortunate than ourselves. We have to activate our gratitude.  She suggests that anyone can achieve this by adopting “micro-gestures” of kindness, thoughtfulness, and love.  For example, you could buy someone a bottle of water or a coffee, especially someone who has been seeking donations at the front of a store. 

LaRayia made a habit of carrying bottles of water and granola bars in her car that she could distribute to whoever might need one. Taking time to talk to someone on the street, who may look dishevelled, can be another micro-gesture expressing kindness and love – ignoring the appearance of a torn shirt, old jacket, and untidy beard to see the person beyond.  LaRayia contends that she is not asking people to “change the whole world” but to act on “what’s in front of us”.  She also stated that it is one thing to give when asked, it’s another level of awareness and action to notice a need and respond without being asked.

Barriers to activating gratitude and love for others

One of the barriers identified by LaRayia is our “scarcity mindset” – no matter what we have, it is never enough.  Another is what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as always rushing to “be someplace else”, rather than being in the present moment.  LaRayia argues that it takes discipline to be present and to take compassionate action towards those in need.  She practices meditation and develops her deep awareness of her connectedness to everybody, no matter where they live or how poor they are.

Another key barrier to activating gratitude and spreading kindness is the rationalisations that we use to avoid taking compassionate action, e.g., when we consider giving money to homeless people – “They will only spend it on drugs or alcohol”, “If only these people would work hard like us, they would not need assistance – helping them only makes them lazier”.  As LaRayia points out, these assumptions and preconceptions blind us and disable us from taking action – the fact is, we do not know what these people have experienced, the hurt they have felt or the way they have been treated in the past.  We know, however, for example, that young people who are homeless have often been the victim of domestic violence or sexual harassment or sexual assault.

LaRayia addressed the issue of “fear of rejection” in her interview podcast – a very common barrier to extending kindness to others.  We often think, “What if they turn down my offer of help, would I cope with the embarrassment of rejection”? She stated quite clearly that taking compassionate action is exposing ourselves to vulnerability, but it is a cost we have to pay to be kind.  A wonderful example of compassionate action while being vulnerable is that of Coach Mo Cheeks’ action to help a young singer complete the National Anthem at the start of a major basketball playoff – the singer had forgotten the lyrics and Mo helped her out by singing with her despite not being a great singer himself.  LaRayia suggests that the way forward is not to focus on “outcomes” but to concentrate on the process of spreading kindness, thoughtfulness, and love.  A focus on outcomes can entrap us and lead to disappointment and discouragement.  On the other hand, focusing on the person in front of us can lead to mutual benefit and healing.

A two-way street

Neuroscience research confirms the benefits that accrue to people who show kindness and gratitude to others.  LaRayia stated that this exchange is “not a one-way street”.  This was especially brought home to her when she was experiencing disabling grief on the death of her beloved Grandmother.  She decided to spend time with the homeless as a way to find herself again and heal from her grief. Her experience is recorded in her documentary, 43 Days on Skid Row.  LaRayia found that homeless people were the most generous people she had ever met – they gave despite their need while we often give from our surplus.  She argues that in giving both people learn and heal.

Reflection

One of the tenets of Lunch on Me is “radical self-love is the foundation for permanent healing”.  When we show kindness and love to others in need, we are showing respect and building their self-esteem.  If we show avoidance, disdain, or look down on the homeless, we are reinforcing any sense they may have that they are “not worthy” of respect or love.  

LaRayia encourages us to engage with others from our rich store of innate love rather from a perspective of emptiness.  She notes our obsessive need to accumulate wealth and possessions which do not bring lasting happiness.  The reality is that when we die or if we suffer Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, we can take none of this with us – people set about disposing of our possessions and dismantling our life’s accumulation.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a deeper sense of connection with everyone, no matter what their status, wealth or appearance is.  We can also develop the courage and creativity to overcome the barriers to activating our gratitude and adopt a daily practice of micro-gestures of empathy and compassion.  LaRayia offers many suggestions for micro-gestures and relevant meditations/reflections in her book.

_________________________________

Image by Hieu Van 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.