Building Cognitive Resilience through Mindfulness

Research conducted by Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell supports the view that mindfulness builds cognitive resilience – “the ability to overcome negative effects or stress on cognitive functioning” (as defined by Staal and colleagues).  In times of stress or serious setbacks, we can experience cognitive confusion and disorientation.  When the perceived threat to our wellbeing is considerable our “thinking brain” tends to shut down and our “survival brain” takes over – we can be controlled by our negative emotions and engage in fight, flight or freeze behaviour.  In these challenging times we can experience emotional inflammation as we are challenged on many fronts.

The impact of information overload

Information overload is a characteristic of our times with the ever-present and pervasive information highway.  With COVID19, we not only have to cope with the emotional strain of illness and death amongst our families , friends and colleagues but also the vast amounts of complex health advice and restrictions – information that is often conflicting and exacerbated by misinformation peddled by vested interests.  

The stress of information overload can be compounded by what Jamie and Rosie refer to as a our “digital and media diet” – a bias towards distressing information, rather than information that inspires, uplifts, or motivates.  An obsession with the news can be a daily diet of information that disturbs, distresses, distracts and debilitates us and severely limits our effective cognitive functioning.

Unfortunately, our natural tendency is to close down emotionally and avoid facing the pain of negative emotions.  We can block out difficult emotions such as fear, anxiety, and depression until such time as they take their toll on our physical health.  Liz Stanley, for example, explains how she lost her sight temporarily by “soldiering on” despite traumatic stress.

The role of mindfulness in developing cognitive resilience

Mindfulness practices can help us face raw and difficult emotions such as fear and build resilience through accepting our current reality, rather than denying its existence.   Rick Hanson, for example, provides a meditation practice designed to turn fear into resilience.   Bob Stahl, meditation teacher and author, offers a mindfulness practice to address fear and anxiety that are exacerbated by negative self-stories.

Mindfulness meditation can be a source of refuge in times of turbulence when we feel our minds and emotions whirling.  It enables us to restore our equilibrium and find peace and calm despite the waves of change and challenge crashing down on us.   We can build our resilience by taking time out to become grounded and to reconnect with ourselves. 

Jamie and Rosie point out the research that demonstrates that mindfulness can enhance both working memory and long-term memory.  Working memory constitutes our temporary storage facility that enables us to utilise information to effectively make decisions, act wisely and communicate appropriately.  It can become overwhelmed and degraded by stress and trauma and negatively impact our window of tolerance – narrowing it and thus reducing our capacity to cope with further stressors, however minor.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness we can increase our sense of agency in the face of stress and setbacks by facing up to our negative emotions and diffusing their impact, accessing our memory and cognitive faculties without the befuddlement of emotional overload, making sound choices about information that we expose ourselves to and developing groundedness despite the turbulent winds of change.  In this way, we can progressively build our cognitive resilience by reducing the negative impacts of stress on our cognitive functions and limiting emotional turmoil.  Hence, we will be better able to access our creative faculties and take wise actions such as scenario thinking to deal with ongoing stressors. 

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Image by Leni_und_Tom 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 Pandemic and Narrowing of the Window of Tolerance

David Treleaven and Liz Stanley discussed the current pandemic In their interview podcast on Widening the Window of Tolerance.  They both asserted that COVID-19 had effectively narrowed the window of tolerance of many people.  There are many people who are becoming increasingly stressed and traumatised by unfolding events, whether because of the death of relatives and friends, loss of a job, dislocation from their normal place of work (and way of working) and/or stringent “lockdowns”.

Narrowing the window of tolerance

In these very challenging times, people are becoming controlled by their “survival brain” – resorting to a fight, flight or freeze response.  Their window of tolerance is becoming narrowed, both in terms of their inner tolerance of challenges and external tolerance of differences.  Everything has been “thrown up in the air” so that they have lost their grounding in accurate perception and balanced body sensations. 

Polarisation , racism, and hate thrive in this disrupted state as people seek refuge in their “own tribe” (flight) and attack others who are different from themselves (fight).  Liz suggested that many people are “uncomfortable in their own skin” so that lockdowns and movement restrictions , creating disconnection, exacerbate the tendency to dysregulation (inability to control emotions).   The sense of hopelessness and helplessness in facing continuous and growing uncertainty adds to the incidence of anxiety and depression.

A compounding factor is that social media becomes what Liz calls an “echo chamber” – it gives unregulated voice to “dysregulated communications” that increase the tendency towards polarisation.  People retreat to social media and television only to find that these media are increasingly disorientating and disturbing.    

Further compounding the issues for individuals is the fact that we tend to make a “bargain” with ourselves – e.g. we can put up with lockdown for three weeks by adding some new routines such as working different hours, taking more regular breaks and expanding project timelines.  However, when other people blatantly and inconsiderately breach lockdown regulations or social distancing requirements leading to further lockdowns, conforming people can feel betrayed – intensifying a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

Hope and widening the window of tolerance

In the previous post I discussed trauma-sensitive mindfulness and widening the window of tolerance.    Liz provides several strategies in her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.  In the interview podcast she shared some of her own strategies for becoming grounded during the current health and economic crisis – mindfulness meditation, gardening, walking and playing with the dog, and focusing on connectedness to others.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® provides detailed strategies and tools to navigate effectively through times of trauma and stress.  She makes the point that whenever we are controlled by our “survival brain”, we are disconnected from our “thinking brain” and shut off from the opportunity to access our creativity and ingenuity. In discussing “hope” in the current challenging times, David noted that the tendency to “hyperfocus on what is not working” (as he has done at times) tends to narrow the window of tolerance and our capacity to cope.  He suggests that accessing stories of successful transition can help to widen our window of tolerance, e.g. successful career changes by people who have lost their jobs. Another strategy that he suggests is to effectively reframe what is happening.  By way of example, he draws on the comments of Adrienne Maree Brown in her article on living through the unveiling:

Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered, we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

Liz reinforces this view when she suggests that it is really only in times of turbulence when everything seems to be “thrown up in the air”, that genuine and sustainable change can happen.

Reflection

As David suggests, we can choose to stay in the fog bank by continuing to absorb negative messages, both external and internal, or we can free ourselves from this befuddled state by growing in mindfulness and developing our own strategies to build resilience and stay grounded.

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Image by My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: 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 for Grief and Loss

The sense of grief and loss can be overwhelming in these challenging times of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Maybe we have lost a relative, friend or colleague to the virus or we are experiencing the loss of the way things used to be – the levity and gaiety of daily interactions, the structure and social intercourse of a common workplace, the freedom of movement and access, the enjoyment of our favourite sport or pastime or the security, success and predictability of our business.  It is easy to beat up on ourselves and say, “I should be over this by now” or “Why aren’t I more positive like other people?”  Grief and loss have their own individual expression and it takes time and space to deal with the intensity of these difficult emotions.

Meditation as a refuge

Whatever is the cause of our sense of grief and loss, meditation can serve as a refugea place of safety, security and equanimity in the midst of everything that is unsettling.  It enables us to accept what is and move forward, even with tentative ideas and steps.  Meditation provides a grounding when the sense of loss is swirling around us, encompassing our thoughts and emotions.

We can become grounded through our breath – noticing the in-breath and out-breath and the rise and fall of our abdomen or chest.  We can rest in the space between our in-breath and out-breath and envisage kindness and strength flowing into us while tension and unease flows out of us.

We can sense the solid feeling of the floor or ground whether we are sitting, lying, standing or walking during our meditation.  As we do a body scan, we can notice our bodily sensations and points of tension – caused by suppressing the sense of grief and loss and holding back the natural flow of difficult emotions.  We can breathe into these places of tautness and pain and allow our emotions to surface and release.

We can feel the flow of energy, warmth and strength move through us as we sense the tingling in our hands and feet or through our fingers touching each other.  We can sense surrounding sounds by tuning into the room tone or the sounds surrounding us in the open – the breeze blowing, leaves in the trees rustling or the birds chirping or singing.  We can become immersed in the energetic field of our surround-sound as we allow ourselves to experience focused attention.

Meditation for grief and loss

We can use general forms of emotion meditation or a structured approach such as the R.A.I.N. process (recognise, allow, investigate, nurture).  Alternatively, we can use a specific meditation focused on grief and loss.  For example, Diana Winston, author of The Little Book of Being, offers a guided meditation podcast on Working with Grief and Loss.  

Her approach begins with grounding processes such as those described above but then moves onto dealing directly with the emotions of grief and loss.  She suggests at the outset of her focus on grief and loss (22min. mark), that you envisage a time when you were held tightly and securely and encompassed in love and compassion – whether by a parent, intimate partner or a close friend.  Diana encourages you to dwell in this feeling of being surrounded by support and strength, a feeling that can be reinforced by feeling the solidity of the floor or ground beneath your feet or body.

Diana encourages you to notice your feelings of sadness whether it is for yourself, others close to you or people in your neighbourhood or interstate (as with the rising number of deaths from Coronavirus in the State of Victoria, Australia).  She suggests that you allow the emotions and bodily sensations to manifest themselves – whether feelings of anxiety, constriction or heaviness of mind and heart.  She stresses the importance of staying grounded throughout by simultaneously being connected to something solid – a memory of being held warmly or the solidity of the earth beneath your feet.

While experiencing these emotions, especially if you are feeling regret at failing to appreciate what you had or connecting with a loved one, it is vital to show yourself kindness and self-compassion and to reassure yourself with words like, “I can get through this”, and “I have the support of others wherever in the world they might be”.  You can extend your compassion to others who are experiencing their own form of loss and grief, especially those in Beirut at the moment.  Tara reminds us to accept what is and to acknowledge that “we are all in this together”.

Reflection

It is natural to feel grief and loss in challenging times like those we are all experiencing differentially at the moment wherever we are in the world.  Denying those feelings can intensify them and lead to harmful and unproductive behaviour and negatively impact our interactions.  Meditation provides a refuge and a way to face our difficult emotions with kindness and self-compassion.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can find the resilience and strength to persist in the face of adversity and restore our equanimity no matter what the circumstances that challenge our ability to cope.

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Image by Nikolaus Bader 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.

Building Resilience through Compassion Towards Others

In a previous post, I discussed Pema Chödrön’s ideas of developing resilience through self-compassion by “compassionate abiding” in our own pain and suffering during these challenging times of the pandemic.  This entails abiding in, or dropping into, the full depth of our painful experience through our bodily sensations and conscious breathing.  As we undertake slow, conscious breathing we hold our suffering with self-kindness and warmth.  Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Warriors of Light, remind us to “breathe into our hearts” because breath is our chariot enabling us to face the unknown and stand on our own.

In her interview podcast with Tami Simon of Sounds True, Pema extended the concept of compassionate abiding by moving beyond self-compassion to compassion towards others.  She maintained that embracing the pain and suffering of others particularly in these times, when everyone is suffering in one form or another, contributes to our resilience – we realise we are not alone and we are able to move beyond self-absorption and “panic storylines” to extending kindness to others.

Pain and suffering: a doorway to compassion for others

In these challenging times of the Coronavirus, we can be very sure that there are millions of people around the world who are experiencing suffering like we are.  People are experiencing all forms of loss – of loved ones, their jobs, their business incomes, their health, their financial security or their homes.  They may have become physically disconnected from their workplaces, their family and their friends, even stranded in a foreign country because of international travel restrictions.  They could be healthcare professionals working on the frontline and/or living away from their families for a number of months to protect their loved ones from cross-infection.  We can be very confident that there are people around the world who are feeling pain and suffering like we are.

Pema argues that abiding with compassion in our own pain and suffering is the doorway opening us to compassion towards others.  In experiencing fully our own suffering, not denying its intensity or pervasiveness, we develop a deep sense of connection with others who are also suffering at this time.  Pema spoke of the principle of Tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “taking in and sending out” – taking in our own experience of pain and suffering and sending out desire for relief for others.  She suggests that once we become grounded in our own suffering (this may take 10-20 minutes), we can take in the suffering of others.  On our in-breath we can imagine others who are experiencing similar pain and suffering and on our out-breath, wish them relief and insight to enable them to move beyond their own discomfort, distress, grief or loneliness.  Connectedness and resilience lie in this mutual experiencing.

Pema maintains that we do not have to confine this compassion towards others to a time of extreme challenge, we can use our pain and suffering as the doorway to compassion and connectedness at other times.  We may be experiencing distress because a family member is suffering from Alzheimer’s or feeling panic and anxiety because someone we are carer for is experiencing the black dog of depression.  At these times, we can drop into conscious breathing, embracing our distress and anxiety with kindness, and gradually move beyond this abiding self-compassion to compassion towards others who are experiencing the intensity of our own emotions. 

Reflection

I think that Pema’s profound insight into compassionate abiding opens the way to develop self-compassion, compassion towards others and personal resilience.  As we grow in mindfulness through conscious breathing and extending relief to others, we can move beyond our self-destructive narratives, restore our inner equilibrium and peace, and develop the resilience to not only survive these challenging times but also be able to extend help and support to others. 

Compassion towards others can be expressed in many ways even in these times of social distancing – the virtual choir of women physicians singing “Rise Again” is but one example of many where people are moving beyond their own overwhelming challenges and distress to reach out to others.

Pema provides multiple resources including her many books, her free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön  and her online course, Freedom to Love, which expands on the principles and practice of compassionate abiding.

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Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski 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.

Resilience through Self-Compassion

Sounds True founder, Tami Simon, recently interviewed Pema Chödrön as part of the podcast series, Resilience in Challenging Times.  The theme of Pema’s interview podcast was Compassionate Abiding – an emphasis on building resilience by abiding in, or inhabiting, difficult emotions while extending loving-kindness to our self and others.  Her focus was on ways to become “embodied” – being fully in touch with the physical manifestations of our feelings. 

Pema acknowledged that many people worldwide are feeling lost and experiencing “groundlessness”.  This is normal and natural in these challenging times when everything has been upended – intrastate, interstate and international travel, location of work, availability of work, education of children and adults, health risks, financial security and relationships.  We are now having to connect from a distance – with our colleagues, friends and extended family.  People in the streets, cafés and shops are wearing masks and observing social distancing – avoidance is the new norm in interactions.

Becoming grounded in your body

With this pervasive upheaval, it is difficult to stay grounded and avoid being swept away by a torrent of difficult emotions. Pema maintains that the one, immediately accessible control point is your body.  Your difficult emotions can manifest in your body as tightness in your chest, pain in your arms or legs, headaches, upset stomach, racing pulse or any other physical form of constriction, acceleration or discomfort.   Pema contends that the pathway to resilience lies in immersing yourself in your feelings and associated bodily sensations through your breathing.  She argues that it is important to “lean into your sharp points and fully experience them”.

Pema offered a breathing exercise during her interview podcast (at the 16-minute mark).  She encouraged listeners to get comfortable (sitting, lying or walking) and to ask themselves, “What does a specific feeling (e.g. anxiety) feel like in my body?’  You are encouraged to explore the depth and breadth of the feeling through self-observation and self-exploration – locating the point(s) of manifestation of the feeling in your body. 

Conscious breathing with kindness and self-compassion

Having named your feeling and fully experienced its manifestation in your body, the next step is to take three conscious breaths – breathing in and out deeply, feeling your lungs expand with the in-breath and experiencing a sense of release/relief on your out-breath.  Pema argues that in this way we are accessing the “wisdom of our emotions” – emotions that have been shaped by our personality, life experiences and responses to triggers.  This process can be repeated over a longer period if the level of personal agitation is high.  Pema mentioned that in one of her recent experiences of a difficult emotion, it took her half an hour to achieve equilibrium and peace through this breathing exercise.

For some people, the focus on breath may be too traumatic because it generates painful flashbacks to adverse childhood experiences or too demanding because of respiratory difficulties or other physical disability.  In this scenario, Pema suggests that embracing yourself, rocking, tapping or a more analytical approach could work to tame the emotions and dampen the associated feelings.

As you breathe into and out of your feelings, it is important to extend loving-kindness to yourself – avoiding negative self-talk that is debilitating and disabling.  Each person has a different way of expressing self-compassion and acknowledgement of their inherent goodness.  Pema maintains that “the essence of bravery is being without deception” – having the courage to face up to what we are not happy with in ourselves, as well as what we admire.  By holding our faults, deficiencies and prejudices in loving kindness and understanding, we can move beyond self-deception, self-loathing and self-recrimination.  It takes a brave person to face the reality of what they feel and why, and to open themselves to self-intimacy and self-empowerment.   Pema suggests that as we extend kindness to our self, we imagine our heart opening wide and filling an ever-expanding space.

Reflection

Pema is a humorous, grounded and practical meditation teacher who has written many books including Start Where Your Are and When Things Fall Apart.  She provides a free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön.  Pema has also developed an online course, Freedom to Love, covering the principles and practices mentioned in this blog post as well as a penetrating exploration of resilience through compassion towards others.

After many years of meditation and teaching, Pema Chödrön has developed a quiet, down-to-earth, insightful approach that makes you want to learn more from her.  To me, she evidences the calmness and peace that she promotes. 

Consistent with other mindfulness teachers, Pema encourages spending time in nature, walking and other forms of movement.  As we grow in mindfulness through our breathing, self-exploration and self-intimacy, we can better access our own sense of peace and resilience in the face of very challenging times.

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Image by jplenio – My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: 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.

Grounding Yourself in Your Body in Times of Uncertainty

On the 5th March this year, Jill Satterfield conducted a meditation podcast as part of the series of weekly podcasts offered by The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  Her presentation was titled, Facilitating Ease: Breath as a Restorative Practice in These Times.  Jill’s presentation reflected her lifetime pursuit of mindfulness and somatic awareness.  She has meditated for most of her life (having been taught to meditate by her mother at the age of four).  She has participated in 150 silent retreats and is very well place to conduct personal coaching and training in “embodied mind” – how to be present and aware in our own bodies.

Jill has struggled with chronic pain for most of her life, undergoing multiple surgeries (including heart surgery).  Her somatic meditation has helped her overcome her physical pain but, as she herself maintains, the longest journey for her is overcoming emotional and mental pain.  Jill offers a form of “somatic practice” which integrates Indian yoga tradition with Buddhist meditation teaching.  She sees her meditation teaching as offering “ways to know the body intimately as a reflection of the mind” and “to know and work with what is discovered both somatically and cognitively”.

Becoming grounded in your body in these uncertain times

In her podcast, Jill offers a somatic meditation that enables you to become grounded in your body in times of uncertainty – at a time when we are all physically, mentally, emotionally and medically challenged with the advent of the Coronavirus.  Jill views mindfulness as “kindfulness”, a term developed by Ajahn Brahm.  In her view, meditation needs to be internally kind and supportive of yourself, others and the community at large.  She provides a guided meditation, a gentle “somatic practice”, that employs the following steps:

  • Begin by settling into your seat, comfortably – not strained or rigid.  This first instruction reinforces Jill’s emphasis on bodily sensations.
  • Close your eyes or look down – either way she suggests that you loosen your vision so that you soften both the back of your eyes and the corners.
  • Now progressively notice the weight of your bones in various parts of your body – the lightness of your toes in your shoes, the thickness of your bones in your legs and the heaviness of your hip bones.  Notice the support your bones provide as you sit in the chair.
  • Next sense your clothing on your skin – Jill suggests that you feel the difference in temperature between your skin covered by clothing and your uncovered skin exposed to the air.
  • Be with the gentleness of your breath at the entrance to your nostrils. Experience the softness and delicateness of the air flow through your nose.
  • Extend your inhalation by taking a deeper breath if is comfortable for you and notice the gentleness in the longer inhale.
  • Now extend the exhale gently – noticing the coolness of your breath and experience warmth throughout your body – in your chest, stomach and throat.  A useful way to feel the sensation of warmth embracing your body is to join your fingers together and feel the tingling that occurs there.
  • Notice the pause at the top of your exhale motion – to focus on this pause wait a second or two before exhalation to experience the stillness.
  • Notice the pause before the inhale – extend this for a second or two to experience the quietness and ease of the inward breath.
  • As you complete these four-part “breath rounds” (pause-exhale-pause-inhale) over a couple of minutes, draw on the support and imagery of nature – the gentle breeze through the leaves of the trees; the slow, breaking waves; or the silence and calmness of the mountains.
  • Feel the power of loving kindness and forgiveness flowing from your tranquillity and restfulness.

When distractions arise in this meditation, return to sensing the weight of your body on the chair – restore your groundedness.  As you slowly come to awareness at the end of the meditation, feel yourself coming to your senses more fully – take in the sights, sounds, smells, touch and taste that surround you as you feel more enlivened and relaxed.

Reflection

There is a certainty in our experience of our bodies in-the-moment and a tranquillity that arises from “resting in sensation”.  It is through our bodies that we can become truly grounded in the present.  As we grow in mindfulness, through somatic meditation and other somatic practices such as yoga, we can calm our “inner landscape”, still our mind and become increasingly open to our senses, our courage and creativity.  We can employ Jill’s somatic practice anywhere at any time to restore our sense of groundedness and experience ease and tranquillity.  Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us that through mindfulness we can move from doing to being present to the power of now.

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Image by Lara-yin 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.

What Does Love Mean?

In a previous post I explored ways to sustain an intimate relationship.  But what does love mean?  We use the word so loosely – referring to everything from a dessert to a location to an intimate friend.  Mitra Manesh explores this question in her guided meditation podcast, Meaning of Love – one of the many weekly meditation podcasts from MARC, UCLA.  Mitra is a mindfulness teacher with MARC, creator of the Inner Map app and provider of mindfulness teaching through her short videos on Vimeo©.  She has worked extensively to bring mindfulness to the corporate world, combining Eastern and Western perspectives.

Guided meditation on the meaning of love

Mitra begins her guided meditation by suggesting that you first become grounded by using your hands as the anchor.  She suggests that you can focus on the pressure of your hands on your lap, the touching of your fingers together or the up and down movement of your hands on your stomach as you breath in and out.  Whatever hand anchor you choose, the idea is to gently bring your mind back to this anchor whenever your mind wanders. 

Once you have become grounded, you can explore “love as connection”.  Mitra’s guided meditation is based on the idea that the connection underpinning love occurs at four levels – the physical, intellectual, emotional and universal levels.  The meditation follows a progression from a focus on the physical to universal connectedness and incorporates connection to self (experiencing self-love):

  • Physical connection – here the initial focus is on a pleasant body sensation such as the warmth of your fingers touching, the softness of the palm of your hand or the firmness of your feet on the floor. Once you have experienced this pleasant bodily sensation, you can extend your focus to the recollection of the pleasantness of a physical connection to another person such as a hug or a kiss.  When you have achieved awareness of physical connection and experienced pleasant recollections, you can gently move on.
  • Intellectual connection – firstly focus on connecting to your own mind – what is going on in your head.  Mitra suggests that you envisage your thoughts as clouds coming and going, merging and dissipating – blown by the winds of change.  This is a pleasant change from other forms of meditation where you are discouraged from being distracted by your thoughts.  Here the idea is to notice what is going on in the process of your thinking – how one idea leads to another, how ideas connect you to past experiences and how ideas flow through you endlessly.  You can expand this intellectual focus to recollecting a recent experience where you felt a strong intellectual connection to a colleague, a family member or an intimate partner.  You can then move on to the next level of connection.
  • Emotional connection – this is the level we often associate with love, but genuine love operates at all levels.  Here you first focus on a pleasant emotion that you may be experiencing at this moment – enjoying the contentment, pleasure or happiness that arises through this mindful awareness.  If your current emotion is experienced as unpleasant, Mitra suggests that you look inside yourself to see what unfilled need is giving rise to this negative experience.  Again, if you wish to extend your sense of emotional connection to another person you can recollect a time when you were with someone, a friend or partner, where you had a real sense of emotional connection – whether the experience was one of joy, peace, safety, comfort or other positive feeling. 
  • Universal or spiritual connection – this is not an aspect that Mitra dwells on in her guided meditation.  However, we can focus on human connectedness and our connectedness to nature to gain a sense of the universality of our connection. 

Tara Brach, in her brief talk on the meaning of love, discusses the “aliveness of connection” and the translation of this universal connection into compassionate action.  To illustrate this connection to all living things, she tells the story of a prisoner who saved a pigeon from stoning by another prisoner by saying simply. “Don’t do that – that bird has my wings.”  Tara argues that radical compassion has all the elements of love including caring, forgiving and appreciating.  She illustrates the multiple meanings given to “love” by sharing stories of how 8 year old children described love. One child, for example, had this to say on the meaning of love:

When you tell someone something bad about yourself and you are frightened that they won’t love you anymore, but then you are surprised that they love you even more!

Reflection

Love has multiple levels and is expressed in many different ways. As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and compassionate action, we can learn to appreciate self-love and love for others that we experience at all levels – the physical, intellectual, emotional and universal levels.  The essence of love is connection and mindfulness practices can help us to better understand and enhance these connections.

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Image by Annie Spratt 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.

Being Joyful for the Joy of Other People in Your Life

In a previous post I explored ways to cultivate joy in your life and provided a guided meditation on this practice.  The foundation for letting joy into your life is gratitude and the associated savouring of what is good in your life such as your achievements, friendships or your child’s development.  Genuine appreciation and gratitude displace the tendency to be envious of others’ success and joy.  However, we can work positively towards valuing and rejoicing in the good fortune of others, which in turn increases our own joy in life.

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast, Taking Joy in Others’ Joy, designed to help us to be joyful for the joy of other people in our life.  This guided meditation is offered as one of the many weekly podcasts provided by MARC at UCLA and available through their online archive.

Barriers to being joyful for others

Diana points out that it is natural to experience barriers to being joyful for others.  These may take the form of feeling envious of their success, coveting what they have (whether a possession or a person) or feeling an inexplicable sadness when we become aware of another’s joy.  One way to address these blockages is to identify what we are feeling and to name the feeling so that we can control it.  What we will often find is that our sense of shame (for experiencing strong negative feelings) will cause us to hide these feeling from our self (not own up to them) and/or to camouflage them when interacting with others.

Michelle De Kretser, in her book The Life to Come, gives a very good illustration of this camouflaging of feelings of envy.  Michelle, when discussing the relationship between Cassie (a creative writing student) and her friend, Pippa (a successful, published novelist), highlighted how we can avoid confronting the unwelcome feeling of envy:

Cassie had hit on the strategy of dousing the envy that flickered up in her around Pippa with a stream of (fabricated) compliments.

While this approach may hide our true feelings from others, it does not address the underlying barrier to being joyful for the joy of other people in our life.  Being honest with our self about our true feelings, naming them and understanding how they reflect in our behaviour can help us to reduce the barrier.  Diana offers a supportive approach in her guided meditation podcast mentioned above.

A guided meditation on empathetic joy

In addition to addressing negative feelings that act as barriers to being joyful for others, it can be helpful for us to take a constructive approach through regular meditations designed to develop empathetic joy – appreciating the joy of others resulting from a specific accomplishment or the experience of good fortune.  The joy of others may arise through their concerted efforts to develop a skill, overcome a difficulty or achieve something that is important to them. 

The starting point of this meditation is to become grounded through your posture, mental focus and the process of using an anchor to maintain your attention and relaxed state of mind and body.  Once you have achieved this groundedness for a reasonably sustained period (e.g. 10 minutes), you can shift your focus to cultivating empathetic joy.

Firstly, you focus on the good fortune or enjoyment of someone who is close to you, with whom you have a strong relationship.  You can then picture their joy or enjoyment over a specific accomplishment or piece of good fortune and extend the desire for their joy to be increased and sustained, e.g. “May you continue to be happy and joyful and experience further success and happiness in your life.”

The next focus in your meditation is on a person with whom you experience some degree of discomfort over their success (avoid focusing on someone whom you are totally envious about) – you might have a twinge of envy that you do not entertain or dwell on to any significant degree.  In your meditation, you then apply a similar expression of good will towards this other person, moving beyond negative thoughts or feelings (as you bring them into focus), to a genuine expression of good will – wishing them increased, sustained joy and happiness.

Reflection

Being joyful for the joy of other people in your life, can be very challenging in some situations.  Where we have strong negative feelings towards them (e.g. envy or covetousness), we will experience barriers to rejoicing in another’s joy.  Being honest with our self about these feelings, their origin and strength, will help to remove these barriers.  The regular practice of the empathetic joy meditation can serve as a supportive practice to cultivate the capacity to be joyful for the joy of others and to experience vicarious joy.  As we grow in mindfulness through these types of loving kindness meditations and reflection on our behaviour, we can increase our self-awareness; develop self-regulation of our thoughts, feelings and behaviour; and build our connectedness to others around us.

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Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay

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

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

How to Let Go of Tension as a Leader

In her book The Zen Leader Ginny Whitelaw explains that to achieve real change in the way we lead, we need to make a number of “flips” (10 in fact), and one of them is “from tension to extension”.  Each of the flips involve reframing – changing the way we think about our self, others and our situation. 

Tension is mirrored in the body

When we are tense, we contract our body, blocking the flow of energy and our capacity to make a real impact.  The words we use to describe a tense person convey this idea of contraction – “uptight”, “wound up like a spring”, “ready to pounce”.  Tension affects not only our thoughts, emotions and behaviour, it is mirrored in our bodies through muscle pain, a stiff neck, headaches, swollen and sore ankles or back pain.  Sometimes tension can be experienced as overall body pain or fibromyalgia.

The paradox is that we need the process of tension and muscle contraction to be able to move – to move the bones in our arms and legs for instance.  So physical tension and contraction are natural processes and Ginny explains how they function for body movement through her in-depth biophysical knowledge.  She also points out, however, that the problem arises when the process becomes stuck, just as we can become stuck through our tension – unable to move forward, resistant to change, unwilling to explore new ways or unable to see a way ahead.

Impact of tension in a leader

Research has consistently confirmed that our mood as a leader is contagious – if we are negative, we develop a negatively oriented team.  Some of the impacts of tension in a leader are disengagement of staff (through poor leader modelling), withholding of information (for fear of an angry reaction), conflict between staff (a lack of cohesion and common goals) and inertia (absence of positive leadership energy).  So, there are very real costs for the tense leader, including staff avoidance.

Extension: how to let go of tension as a leader

The concept of extension (or expansion) builds on Ginny’s earlier discussion of the flip from “coping to transforming”.  She points out that the concept of moving from contraction (tension) to extension underpins much of Eastern philosophy and martial arts such as Tai Chi.  Contraction constricts, extension releases energy.  The challenge for a leader is to be able to move beyond the feeling of being “stuck” to achieving flow and productivity and engagement.

Ginny illustrates the power of extension by a brief physical exercise that involves contracting the muscles in the arms to create movement and then extending them to realise the flow of energy through the extended arm and hand.  She suggests that there are three principles underlying the flip from tension to extension:

  1. Rhythmic movement not relentless pushing or forcing – when we are tense, we break our natural rhythms of sleep, breathing, regeneration and relaxation and we fail to find time to unwind.  Ginny argues that we need to recharge ourselves like we do our phone battery – by plugging into our internal and external energy sources.  She suggests that we take brief breaks of two minutes every 90 minutes (others suggest every hour) supplemented by extended breaks of 30 minutes to undertake exercise or meditation (or Tai Chi) once or twice a day.  We have previously offered the practice of making awareness (and not your phone) your default when waiting, enabling you to tap into the natural rhythm of your breathing and the flow of universal energy that surrounds you.
  2. Develop downward energy flow to offset the tendency to move energy up – the words we use reflect this redirection.  When we are tense, we are “uptight” in more ways than one, when we are opening to expanding and redirecting our energy, we are grounded, calm and begin to “settle down”.  Ginny maintains that we can direct our energy downwards to our hara, our energetic center, through deep breathing and centering exercises that she offers on her Zen Leader website.
  3. Direct energy out, not in – outwards energy is needed to generate a vision, develop and implement a strategy and pursue achievement of goals.  Ginny describes a simple physical exercise to illustrate this energy flow and develop the practice of energy alignment. 

Building on these three principles, Ginny offers a series of reflective questions designed to help us to generate more energy and achieve a better alignment of our energy with our purpose.  She reinforces the power of mindfulness practices to “free up energy”.

Reflection

Many of us are tense as a result of time pressures, work and family challenges and/or the demands of caring for a relative or friend.  We intensify this tension through trying to live up to the assumed expectations of others and own unrealistic expectations.  Tension affects our thoughts, feelings, behaviour and our bodies.  It constricts and diverts our energy leading to exhaustion, frustration and feeling drained.  Extension practices build energy, achieve resonance and encourage engagement.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can free up our energy flow and progressively build our energy alignment.

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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.

How to Cope with Uncertainty

Recently, Diana Winston offered a meditation podcast on the topic, Dealing with Uncertainty.  This was at a time of heightened uncertainty generated by the California wildfires that were threatening people’s lives and homes.  Uncertainty arises when we do not know what will happen in the future, we have a sense of being out of control and we fear that the future holds potentially damaging outcomes for us physically, emotionally, financially or socially.  Diana emphasised that uncertainty is an integral aspect of the world we live in today – in our increasingly global environment and resultant interdependence, many things are uncontrollable and beyond our capacity to influence.

Diana reminds us that we cannot deny the uncertainty of our reality, but we can learn to manage its impact on our lives – on our thinking, feelings, behaviour and relationships.  Our anxiety in the face of this ever-encroaching uncertainty is exacerbated by our brain’s negative bias – often fearing the worst to enable us to prepare for fight or flight.  We tend to anticipate negative outcomes from many activities such as a medical diagnosis and we begin to worry in anticipation of this unwelcome outcome.  Diana maintains that meditation can provide a place of refuge when we experience uncertainty and the associated fear and anxiety – a secure retreat away from the waves of uncertainty that besiege us.

Meditation as an anchor in a turbulent sea

Diana offers several steps in her guided mediation for dealing with anxiety (MARC, UCLA).  The meditation practice is designed to engender a sense of solace when uncertainty seems overwhelming:

  • Adopt a comfortable position and allow your body to begin to experience relaxation.
  • Focus attention on your body beginning with your breath as it courses through you.  You can ground this attention by focusing on the expansion and contraction of your chest or abdomen.
  • Feel the sensation of your breath – coolness, energy flow, evenness.
  • Choose an anchor – e.g. your breath, sounds in the room or a bodily sensation such as tingling in your fingers when they are pressed together, or the feel of your feet placed firmly on the floor.  You can then return to your anchor whenever you become unfocused or distracted by thoughts or sensations such as an itch or pain in a part of your body.
  • Notice any wandering off task and name what is happening e.g. lost in my thoughts; feeling anxious.  Once you have named what is happening, return to your anchor.
  • Notice any sensation of discomfort or disturbing thought – give it some space and pay attention to it with kindness.  You can change your posture if this helps or, alternatively, accept what is happening and plan to take action later, e.g. put some dermatitis cream on an itch.
  • Express appreciation for your safety, protection and wellness.
  • Extend your sense of gratitude to people engaged in making others safe and protecting them from harm, e.g. volunteers, the police and firefighters.
  • Focus on the groundedness of your body, take a deep breath and return to awareness of your surroundings.

Reflection

Meditation can help us to grow in mindfulness – awareness of our external reality and internal reactions such as fear and anxiety in the face of uncertainty.  Meditation provides a refuge and a source of solace in the face of life’s uncertainty.  The anchor we develop through meditation can serve us well throughout our daily lives, at work or at home.  Mindfulness can help us scare away the darkness of uncertainty so that we can achieve what the singer, Passenger, suggests:

Feel, feel like you still have a choice
If we all light up, we can scare away the dark.

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Image by Jerzy Górecki 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.