Mindfulness Meditation to Reduce Anxiety in Times of Uncertainty

In these times of increasing uncertainty, compounded by the global spread of the Coronavirus, the level of anxiety in individuals and the community at large can intensify (you only have to notice panic buying to witness anxiety contagion).  Anxiety impacts every facet of our lives – our relationships, problem solving, decision making and communication.  We can become abrupt with our significant others, quick to anger, argumentative, determined to prove we are right or hyper-critical of their words and action – all traits likely to damage close relationships which are built on mutual respect and appreciation.

Research also shows, for example, that 7% of people in Europe are frequently lonely.  The loneliness epidemic experienced in Australia, US and UK (where they have a cross-Government strategy to tackle the challenges involved) is exacerbated by the need to engage in social distancing, social isolation and, in increasing numbers, to work from home.  For people who are used to social contact and interaction at work, working from home can compound the loneliness problem. 

Added to the isolation from social work contacts is the banning of the normal places of social gatherings outside work such as restaurants, sporting events, concerts, university classes and professional conferences.  So, it is extremely difficult for people experiencing new levels and increased frequency of loneliness to find social support, other than electronically.  This puts pressure on people, young and old, to learn new ways of communicating (abbreviated social media messaging will not fill the void). Fortunately, new technologies for online communication such as Zoom have really helped to address the growing problem of physical isolation and its attendant problem of loneliness.

With more people out of work each day as businesses close under Government direction or because they are no longer viable in a social distancing environment, increasing numbers of people are experiencing economic anxiety and depression – they cannot see a way out of their current, seemingly intractable, financial problems. 

Before the Coronavirus, depression was already a major health issue in communities around the world.  Isolation and loss of employment – two very significant factors in precipitating or aggravating depression – are likely to accelerate the already exponential growth in depression in the community unless new ways are instituted by Governments, communities and entrepreneurs to redeploy people to arenas of employment experiencing growth in demand (such as healthcare support, farming and Coronavirus contact tracing) and individuals are able to find ways to address their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Mindfulness meditation – a way to address anxiety, loneliness and depression

Neuroscience research, such as that conducted by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), demonstrates the power of mindfulness and related meditation practices to eliminate anxiety, overcome loneliness and reduce depression.  A search on “meditation” in the search block of this blog will highlight many meditation practices for individuals to address these mental health challenges.  Some examples are:

MARC provides weekly meditation podcasts on a very wide range of topics.  These can be accessed either through their website or via the UCLA App providing “meditations for well-being”.   These meditations can be supplemented and reinforced by other mindfulness practices.

Reflection

The advent of the Coronavirus has compounded the problem of mental illness in communities around the world leading to growing anxiety, loneliness and depression.  People who previously did not experience these adverse mental health conditions are now succumbing to their widespread community encroachment.  Research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation is an antidote to these mental health challenges and is a source of overall wellbeing. 

The personal challenge is to overcome our initial reservations and disbelief and to take advantage of the numerous sources of mindfulness meditation available to us.  At first, we are inclined to believe that the challenge to our mental health and welfare is too great and that meditation is too simple a solution.  However, beginning with some small meditation practice and maintaining it daily, can make a very significant positive impact on our mental and emotional state.

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Image by Shahariar Lenin 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 Go Beyond Just Coping as a Leader

Ginny Whitelaw published a book on The Zen Leader in which she integrates her experience as a senior manager at NASA, a Zen Master and martial arts expert as well as her doctoral study of biophysics and personal experience of life’s challenges and difficulties, including divorce.  She draws heavily on the mind-body connection to provide a pathway for leaders to “lead fearlessly” and in a way that integrates mind, body and spirit.  Her pathway is presented in the form of 10 “flips” which she describes as inverting old ways of thinking through processes of reframing “your sense of self and the world” [imagine “flipping over” an omelette when cooking breakfast!].  Throughout the book, Ginny provides insights, practices, exercises and “takeaways” to help us embed Zen Leadership into our words and actions as a leader. 

From just coping to transforming self and others

The first of the “flips” Ginny introduces is flipping from “coping to transforming”.  For her, coping is reflected in blaming behaviour (blaming others, the system and anything external to oneself), denial or being blind to the reality of a situation and your part in it.  She notes that this unproductive and energy sapping behaviour often has its origins in adverse childhood experiences.  To reinforce this message, Ginny provides an example of a leader who refused to accept performance feedback in coaching sessions but was subsequently able to link his obstructive stance to a childhood trauma. 

Ginny explains that the real breakthrough came with acceptance – acknowledging that the feedback was true, rather than trying to fend it off or rationalise it.  I had a similar experience with a leader that I was coaching who refused to accept the fact that he was defensive, until the fifth coaching session when he acknowledged his counter-productive behaviour flowing from adverse childhood experiences. He unwittingly reinforced the concept of the mind-body connection when he stated that the insight was like a “blow to his stomach”.  As Ginny points out, acceptance replaces anger with joy, “being stuck” with creativity and debilitation with enthusiastic pursuit of solutions to problems and difficulties that previously appeared insurmountable.

Finding the energy to transform self and others

Much of Ginny’s approach is presented within a framework of energy obstruction and release.  For her, leadership is about achieving resonance, both internally and externally. She provides a simple practice to enable energy release and focus when confronted with a problematic or challenging situation.  The practice entails three steps – relax, enter and add value.  The core process is “enter” which draws heavily on Ginny’s deep recognition of the mind-body connection.  Entering entails fully immersing yourself in the situation, including its impact on your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. She describes this process as “entering the eye of the storm” and encourages this approach because from there the only path for your energy is “out” – towards transformation of self, others and the situation.  

This transformative approach of “relax, enter and add value” is in line with many mindfulness practices that involve relaxation and grounding, noticing and accepting what is personally experienced and changing the way you think, feel and act in line with the resultant insights.  To strengthen the ability to move beyond just coping to transforming, Ginny provides a further in-depth exercise that enables you to move from problem thinking to opportunity perception and creative resolution.  She also offers an online course titled Lead with Purpose to enable you to realise your best self as a leader and add real value to the world.

Reflection

As Ginny points out, much of the issue of just coping comes from our habituated, unproductive behaviours that flow from our early life experiences.  Entering fully into the problem situation, instead of blocking the realisation of our part in it, creates the possibility for transformation of our self, others and the situation.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices, insight exercises and reflection, we can come to accept our personal blockages to energy release and free up avenues for creative resolution.

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Image by Myriam Zilles 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.

Develop Equanimity to Overcome Reactivity

Much of the time we are reactive because of our ingrained habituated responses.  These develop over time and can vary with different stimuli – a confronting email, a perception of criticism by a partner or colleague, thoughtlessness by another person or traffic delays.  Our responses may be precipitated by negative thoughts that generate emotions such as fear, anxiety, frustration or anger.  We then act out these emotions in a reactive way – not stopping to maintain our balance or evaluate the best possible response. As we have mentioned earlier, there is a gap between stimulus and response and within that gap are choices and associated freedom.  Developing equanimity helps us to better utilise the gap between stimulus and response and widens our potential response options – as it frees us from being captive to our habituated responses.

Equanimity is being able to maintain a state of calmness, balance or even-mindedness in the face of a situation that we find challenging – physically, mentally or emotionally.  It builds our capacity to overcome reactivity and enables us to accept what is, without reacting impulsively.  Diana Winston makes the point that equanimity is not passivity – acceptance of what is, does not mean avoiding taking action to redress injustice, insulting behaviour or meanness.  What equanimity does mean is acknowledging what is and the inherent challenge (e.g. illness, mental illness of a family member, or loss of a job), not railing against all and sundry for our “misfortune”, but actively pursuing redress – including building our capacity to remain calm in the face of life challenges.  Equanimity enables responsiveness that is positive and productive.

A meditation to develop equanimity

Meditation, by its very nature, helps to calm us and, in the process, develop equanimity.  Diana Winston, however, provides a specific “equanimity meditation” designed to build our capacity to retain our balance and to remain even minded when confronted with a life challenge.  She provides this meditation as part of the weekly guided meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA. Her guided meditation podcast, Equanimity and Non Reactivity, contains several steps:

  1. Grounding yourself in your chair by adopting a comfortable, upright posture; closing your eyes or looking down; and focusing your intention on the present – not thinking about the past or worrying about what is coming up.  Being present-in-the-moment is a calming activity that can build equanimity.
  2. Complete body scan – starting with your feet on the floor (feeling the firmness and envisaging the stable ground below); moving progressively through your body, while noticing and releasing any points of tensions (such as in your neck, shoulders, stomach, legs or hands).  You can begin to notice the sensations as you progress with your body scan – feeling the tingling in your fingers or the softness/looseness in your legs as you let go and allow the tension to drain away.  During the meditation, it pays to be conscious of a tendency to let your shoulders droop. [Note: this part of the meditation resonates with the first part of the Yoga Nigra Meditation focused on the physical body]
  3. Focus on your breathing – you focus on wherever in your body you can feel the sensation of your breathing, the in and out movement of your stomach or the air passing through your nose.  The process involves noticing, not controlling your breathing.  You can also rest in the gap between your in-breath and your out-breath.  You can extend the observation of your breathing to other parts of your body such as breathing through your mouth.
  4. Noticing sounds – now switch your attention to the sounds within and outside your room.  Again, the process involves noticing not interpreting or judging the sounds (whether they are pleasant or grating, for example).
  5. Anchoring yourself – you can choose to focus just on your breath or the sounds or adopt a position of natural awareness where you are open to the sense of being aware. Whatever you choose becomes your anchor that you can return to when your mind wanders.  It is natural to have passing thoughts and emotions – the important thing is not to entertain them or indulge them but to acknowledge them, for example, by saying to yourself, “I’m wandering again”.  Once you notice and acknowledge your diverting thoughts and/or emotions, you can return to your chosen anchor.
  6. Equanimity meditation – this involves two main parts that focus directly on developing calm, no matter what your stimulus is.  The first involves capturing a time when you were able to remain calm and balanced when confronted with a challenge – it is important to visualise the event and recapture the memory in all its richness including the stimulus, your initial thoughts/emotions, how you brought yourself under control and your calm response replacing what normally would have been a reactive response.  The second part involves envisaging a challenging situation you have to deal with; identifying what is your “normal” response; and picturing yourself tapping into your boundless internal equanimity, energy and awareness to adopt a response that is both creative and positive.

Diana maintains that this process of equanimity meditation builds your capacity to manage difficult challenges rather than revert to reactivity – that involves adopting habituated responses that are potentially injurious to yourself and others. On a personal note, I like listening to the calmness of Diana’s voice and hearing her highly developed insights as she leads me through a guided meditation process on the weekly podcasts.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditations such as the equanimity meditation, we can realise a new level of personal resilience through the development of calmness, balance and even-mindedness.  We will experience less reactivity in challenging situations and be open to more positive and helpful responses.

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Image – Heron on branch in Wynnum Creek, Brisbane

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.

When You are Waiting, Have Awareness as Your Default and not Your Phone

When we are kept waiting, we typically grab our phone to “fill in the time”.  We might check emails or social media or the latest news; our default is our phone, not taking the opportunity to develop awareness.  One of Diana Winston’s students told her that when he was waiting or had time on his hands, he no longer defaulted to his phone, but “defaulted to awareness”.  Diana Winston addresses this process in her book,  The Little Book of Being (p.184).

Default to awareness

When we are kept waiting for a bus to arrive or to see the doctor/dentist, or are stalled in traffic, we feel bored or ill at ease.  We can become agitated, annoyed or even angry – all of which can negatively impact our subsequent interactions with others. To alleviate this discomfort, we often resort to the phone as our default response.  However, the “waiting time” provides the perfect opportunity to further develop awareness.  The opportunities for this positive response are seemingly endless. During the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Program that I attended in Sydney, one of the participants reported that they practised mindful awareness whenever they waited for the jug to boil when making a cup of tea or coffee.  The participant reported that by building this habit into something he does on a regular basis, he was able to develop awareness as a part of his everyday activities.

Diana suggests that the way to drop into awareness instead of reaching for your phone is to begin by focusing on your feet.  You can feel the pressure of your feet on the floor or the ground and be conscious of this “grounding”.  You can then progress to getting in touch with your breathing and rest in the space between breaths.  This can be followed by a brief or elongated body scan (the duration of the scan depending on how long you have to wait).  You can then explore points of tension in your body and release the tension or soften the muscles involved.  If you are experiencing negative thoughts and/or feelings, you will inevitably feel tense in some part of your body – noticing and releasing tension develops your awareness.  If you begin to adopt these mindfulness practices on different occasions when you are waiting, you will find that you will “default to awareness” naturally – your phone will not be your “first port of call”.

If we use our waiting time as a conscious effort to grow in mindfulness, we can develop the habit of dropping into awareness, instead of reaching for our phone. We can explore either inner or outer awareness and develop our capacity for self-regulation and gratitude, as well as build calmness and equanimity in our lives.  Defaulting to our phone, on the other hand, increases the pace of our life and can intensify our agitation.

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Image by Quinn Kampschroer 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 Brief Meditation for Anxiety

In an earlier post, I discussed Tara Brach’s explanation of how anxiety-producing self-stories are maintained and the importance of meditation incorporating self-compassion and self-forgiveness to break the cycle of anxiety-producing thoughts.  I have also discussed different approaches to anxiety meditation.   In my last post, I explained Bob Stahl’s 30-minute meditation to reduce fear and anxiety that incorporates a comprehensive body scan and compassionate curiosity towards yourself and others.  This approach could be preceded by reflective writing, an approach Bob recommends for focusing on a single anxiety-producing experience which is explored in terms of its bodily, mental and emotional impact.  An alternative resource is the 30-minute meditation podcast provided by Diana Winston that seeks to deepen the well of ease, leading us to greater self-awareness and consciousness of the depth of our inner resources.

However, you may not have the time required to do these kinds of meditations or reflections.  If you are time-poor, you could practice a brief, three-minute anxiety meditation provided by Zindel Segal, co-developer of MBCT and co-author of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT] for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse.  This resource book for clinicians provides an in-depth explanation of the benefits and process of the three-minute meditation discussed in this blog post.

The Three-Minute Breathing Space

This meditation exercise is incorporated in the 8-week MBCT program and involves a process of awareness raising by assisting you to shift attention, to check-in on yourself and moved on beyond anxiety-producing thoughts. The Three-Minute Breathing Space meditation incorporates three core steps that are each of one-minute duration:

  • 1. Inner awareness of what is happening for you – exploring what is in your mind.  This involves getting in touch with, but not changing, the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that you are experiencing at this moment.  The first step thus involves shifting your attention to inner awareness of “what is”.  This is a passive activity – just watching what is happening for you, as if it is appearing on a “widescreen”.
  • 2. Creating a breathing space – moving away from the focus on your thoughts to a complete, undivided focus on your breath.  This grounding approach involves checking-in on the sensations of your body as you breath in and out.  You could concentrate on the rise and fall of your stomach as you take a breath and release it.  This calming breathing activity enables you to move away from whatever anxiety-provoking thoughts are preoccupying you and creating a “breathing space” to enable you to move on.  The secret is to give your mind a single thing to do – focus on your breath. 
  • 3. Expanding awareness – incorporating inner and outer awareness. The first step at this stage is to widen your awareness to your whole body – the sensation of sitting and its impact on every part of your body, your body on-the-chair.  Next you move your attention beyond your body to what is immediately impacting on it – the air flow on your body, the sounds reaching your ears. Finally, you move your attention to the room encasing your body.  You can then gradually return to full awareness by taking a few deep breaths and opening your eyes (if you have closed them to focus better).

As we grow in mindfulness through various forms of anxiety meditation, whether brief or extended, we can build the capacity to manage our anxiety-provoking thoughts and achieve a level of calm and equanimity that creates a sense of ease amongst the (sometimes turbulent) waves of life.

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Image by Daniel Nebreda from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness and Dealing with Pain

Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Working with Pain, offers some suggestions on how meditation can be used to alleviate and/or manage pain better.  She highlights the fact that along with pain are the stories that we tell ourselves about the pain we are experiencing, e.g. “This pain will never go way.”, This is ruining my life.”, “I cannot cope with this pain.”  Diana suggests that the stories aggravate the suffering we experience with pain and only serve to amplify the pain through their negativity.

Pain and suffering are part of being human as we are reminded by the Buddhist tradition.  Diana quotes the often repeated saying, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”, to remind us that we have choices in how we deal with pain.  So, we are left with the challenge of managing the pain that occurs at different points of our life, whether the pain of loss or physical pain in some part or all of our body.   Dealing with chronic pain through mindfulness has been the focus of a lot of the pioneering work of Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Meditation for working with pain

Diana provides a meditation exercise for working with pain in her podcast mentioned above.  The meditation practice involves several discrete steps and is about 20 minutes in length:

1. Grounding – feet on the ground, arms relaxed on your lap or beside you (h0wever is comfortable), eyes closed or looking downwards, a few deep breaths to relax your body.

2. Focus on your breathing – focus your attention on wherever you can feel your breathing in your body (nose, mouth, chest, stomach). Don’t try to control you breathing but just notice it, e.g. the undulations of your stomach.  Get in touch with your in-breath and out-breath and the space between.  You can rest in the space.

3. Body scan – explore your body with your attention, noting as you progress from your head to your toes any points of tightness, tingling or other sensation.  Just notice as your attention moves over your body and let go as you experience the sensation. (The art of noticing is integral to mindfulness practice.)

4. Refocus on your breathing – now return to mindful breathing (3 above).  Spend a reasonable amount of time resting in this focus – about 10 minutes say.

5. Focus on a relaxed part of your body – the aim is to locate in your body a part (e.g. arm, leg, chest) that feels secure, relaxed, at peace and pain-free.  Rest for a time in this relaxed part of your body to enable the sensation of peace and calm to spread through your body.

6. Focus on your pain – now focus on that part of your body where you are experiencing the ongoing pain.  Feel the sensation of the pain and describe the sensation to yourself.  Now focus on the stories you have developed around the pain and let them go – they are fabrications created by your fight/flight response.  If you can, bring your focus to a point outside the area of pain as a prelude to completing the next step.

7. Re-focus on the relaxed part of your body – experience the restfulness here.

8. Re-focus on your breathing – gradually bring your attention back to your breathing.  After a time of mindful breathing, resume your daily activity.

As we grow in mindfulness though meditation, we can learn ways to reduce pain or better manage pain so that we can function normally.  It is important to master our stories that aggravate our suffering from pain.

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

Image source: courtesy of dimitrisvetsikas1969 on Pixabay

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.