Developing a Relationship with Nature

Louie Schwartzberg reminds us that nature is a source of wonder (exploring and admiring) and awe (questioning the “how”).  In his view, nature effectively represents the intersection between art and science.  Art explores the “why” and generates admiration and inspiration through demonstrating the interconnectedness of everything and exposing nature’s beauty, even in the mundane; science, on the other hand,  encourages questioning with curiosity and openness while exploring the “how”, e.g., how do nectar feeding bats pollinate cacti and create milk to feed their young?

It is particularly apt then, that Louie’s podcast is titled Wonder and Awe which explores the intersection between  art and science through interviews with musicians such as Lisbeth Scott and scientists like mycologist William Padilla Brown.   There is so much of nature that is unknown and invisible to us and these artists and scientists along with Louie’s time-lapse photography help us to deepen our relationship with nature.

Developing an intimate relationship with nature

uie offered his perspective on the need for an intimate relationship with nature during his presentation, True Romance: Falling in Love with Nature, at the recent Nature Summit.  He highlighted the fact that the pandemic has created a “mental wellness barrier” for a lot of people and that nature has a healing quality.  He is now creating digital nature imagery for use in hospitals as a healing modality.  This “visual healing” has been scientifically proven to achieve “shorter length of stay in hospital, increased pain tolerance and decreased anxiety”

The pandemic has created opportunities for people to appreciate what they normally take for granted – the ability to go for a walk in nature, to connect with friends and family, to spend time alone away from the “madding crowd” and associated noise.  It has helped us to be more introspective and value what we have, as so much and so many have been lost.

Louie maintains that if we can develop an intimate relationship with nature through frequent mindful visits to natural environments and personal research (including videos, podcasts and articles), we can begin to care about the sustainability of our planet.  He pointed out that while a lot of scientific research has helped us understand the threats to our natural environment, the wealth of data has failed to achieve any appreciable shift in people’s behaviour in relation to nature’s fragility. 

He points out that our capacity to view nature is considerably limited  – effectively we are able to view the equivalent of one octave of an eight-octave scale.  Through his photography he makes so much more of the beauty of nature visible to us  – by filming at 1,000 frames per second he can enable us to see something that happens in one third of a second, actually 15 times longer.  Hence, he helps us to “explore beyond the one octave”.

Louie contends that the heart has greater influence over behaviour than the head – when our relationship with nature is one of loving and appreciating it, we are more inclined to engage in caring behaviour towards it.  We will be more careful about our paper use (because of its impact on trees), we will avoid plastic bags as much as possible (because of the impact on our oceans and marine life), we will plant a vegetable garden (because it provides us with a closeness to nature and fresh, uncontaminated food).

Reflection

There is so much to learn about nature and our interconnectedness with it – it is a lifetime pursuit.  We can grow in mindfulness as we spend more time in and with nature and adopt nature meditations.  Another way into building our relationship with nature is participating in mantra meditations that incorporate wonder and awe of nature such as Lulu & Mischka’s “Stillness in Motion” filmed with the whales in Byron Bay, Queensland.

Artist, David Hockney, reminds us:

The world is very, very beautiful, but you’ve got to look hard and closely to notice that beauty.

(Source: The Art of Living, Martin Gayford, The Weekend Australian, pgs. 10-12)

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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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.

Understanding and Appreciating the Interconnectedness of Nature

Mark Coleman in one of his nature meditation podcasts highlights the role of rain and its interconnectedness with other elements of nature and human life.  He was recording the meditation while standing on a mountainside with mist, coldness and dampness resulting from recent rains.  His meditation focused on rain and its beneficial effects for nature and humans.

He spoke of rains reducing the risk of fire, energising the earth and filling rivers inviting the annual migration of salmon from the sea to the rivers in California.  He described the rain as “drops of interconnectedness” and explained how clouds evaporate and produce rain, hail and snow which feeds the creeks, rivers and ponds and brings new life to many living creatures.  Mark spoke of the “gift of water” that we take so much for granted and he described the earthy smell after the rain has fallen and left its moisture on an otherwise parched earth.

Mark drew on Mary Oliver’s Poem, Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me, to highlight the interconnectedness of rain and the sky, trees, plant life and ourselves as humans living in nature under the stars.  We see the life-giving nature of rain after it falls on dry and browning grass.  It always amazes me how a seemingly dead stretch of grass can come to life and appear beautifully green after overnight rain.  We can see indoor plants that are wilting with leaves that are browning or yellowing on the edges suddenly come to life and thrive when placed in the rain.

Rain, in Marks’ words, are part of the “fabric of connection” that is foundational to the natural world and our human existence. He reminds us that plants breathe out what we breathe in and breathe in what we breathe out – they are like our external, earthy lungs, enabling a vital relationship between humans and trees.

The Earth Law Center discusses other areas of interconnectedness that impact our human existence, e.g., the role of Krill in the marine ecosystem and fungi in the forest ecosystem.  They highlight that a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of ecosystems and human life has helped people modify their behaviour and contribute to protecting the environment – they describe the new environmentally aware behaviours as “nature connectedness behavior” and list consumption of organic products and a vegan diet as elements of this enlightened behaviour.

Reflection

We pursue our busy lives so often without an awareness of our interconnection with nature and each other.  As we stop, listen, and learn, we can become more conscious of this interconnectedness and its many dimensions.  As we grow in mindfulness through nature meditation and experiencing silence in nature, we can begin to understand, appreciate, and value this interconnectedness.  Otherwise, we can continue blindly damaging our life-giving ecosystems that we rely on for our very breath and continued existence.

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

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

Insight Meditation for Peace and Happiness

Mark Coleman offers an insight meditation podcast as part of the extended bonuses of the upgrade version of the Nature Summit.  He introduces the guided meditation as a mindfulness practice that is in line with the Vipassana tradition which seeks to develop deep personal insight to gain a peaceful, happy, and productive life.  The Vipassana meditation approach involves in-depth insight practice over ten days in a residential training environment with a rigid discipline code designed to remove all external distractions and facilitate sustained awareness.

Insight meditation focuses on exploration of  our inner landscape by paying attention to aspects of life as it is experienced – whether that is our breathing, our listening, or our bodily sensations.  It seeks to enable the practitioner to “see things as they really are” and not be blinded by self-delusion, difficult emotions, negative thoughts, or intense bodily sensations.  This intense self-observation and self-exploration highlight the interdependence of mind, body, and emotions.

Guided insight meditation

Mark’s light-touch, 30-minute meditation utilises some of the principles of Vipassana without the rigidity of the discipline code or the residential requirement.  His approach in the guided meditation is intended “to bring awareness to every aspect of your experience” as you are experiencing it.  It builds on and deepens mindfulness of breathing and extends paying attention to sounds and bodily sensations.  It has a similar slow-burn focus to Vipassana meditation to enable receptivity to what is occurring and how it is being experienced.  It takes “awareness” to another level.

At the hear of Mark’s approach is the desire to help you fully understand the mind-body connection and identify and eliminate patterns of thinking, sensing, feeling, and interpreting that cloud your connection to self and the world around you.  It is heavily embedded in your bodily experience and awareness of that experience.

Mark begins by having you focus first on your posture and any tightness in your body – encouraging you to progressively release tension in your jaw, neck, shoulders, stomach, and the muscles in your face and around your eyes.  Throughout the meditation he encourages you to not only be aware of aspects of your experience but be conscious of this focused awareness – being conscious that you are being aware, paying attention not only to the content of your awareness but also the process of being aware.

A graduated approach to paying attention

Mark begins the actual guided meditation by having you focus on the sounds that surround you and being conscious that you are actively listening.  He discourages interpreting the sounds, evaluating them as good or bad or thinking about the sounds (e.g., trying to work out where they are coming from).  He suggests that you “stay with the direct experience of hearing” so that you can be not only aware of the sounds but also the inevitable silence that occurs between them.

He then moves on to have you shift your attention to the experience of breathing, noting the qualities of your breathing – hurried or extended, smooth or stilted, deep or shallow.  As part of this intense but relaxed focus, he then gets you to pay attention to each breath as it is occurring – through a sustained focus on each in-breath, out-breath, and the pause between.  He suggests that you maintain a general awareness of your body as you await the next in-breath entering your body    through your nose.  At this stage, he reinforces his intention to help you “know what’s happening as it is happening”.

There will be times when you become “lost in thought” and lose your focus – this provides the opportunity to build awareness of your habituated thinking behaviour and become conscious of any pattern in your thoughts.  Constantly returning to your desired focus progressively builds your “awareness muscle”, something that is a widespread deficit in this era of incessant, intrusive, and sustained interruptions and distractions.

In the latter stages of the guided meditation, Mark addresses the issue of bodily sensations.  Again, the aim here is to build awareness through direct, conscious experience of what is happening for you.  So, Mark has you focus not only on the nature of the bodily sensation (unpleasant or pleasant) but also your relationship to it – how you are relating to the sensation, e.g., with avoidance, resistance, rejection, or persistence.  Strong feelings, including pain, will arise at different stages but this is natural as the inner barriers are removed and the sensation is experienced and explored directly.  Mark maintains that this level of engagement can lead to “ease”, no matter what you are experiencing.  Ultimately, it involves being honest and open with yourself about what you are experiencing.  This personal truthfulness underpins the GROW approach to overcoming mental health issues and a “disordered life”.

Clarity about your life purpose

The benefits of insight meditation include the experience of peace and happiness and clarity about your life purpose.  As the clutter of thoughts, sensations and emotions reduce, you are able to gain greater clarity about how you can contribute to making life better for other people,  You become clearer about your core skills, extent of your knowledge and the breath of your experience and can identify ways to contribute from this position of increased self-awareness.  Happiness is intensified when you can utilise your core attributes in pursuit of a purpose beyond yourself.

Reflection

Insight meditation uses our breathing as the anchor to enable us to explore our inner landscape – our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations.  The discipline of constantly returning to our breath when distractions occur helps to keep us grounded in the present experience.  This self-exploration highlights our personal barriers and how we react to what we are perceiving and experiencing in life.

As we grow in mindfulness though insight meditation, we gain a deepened self-awareness, heightened self-regulation and clarity about our life purpose.  This, in turn, engenders sustainable peace, happiness and productivity.
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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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

Being Mindful of Breathing

The upgrade version of the Nature Summit provides a number of meditation podcasts that offer a range of guided meditations.  In one of these, Mark Coleman – meditation teacher, coach, and therapist – leads a guided meditation on the Mindfulness of Breathing.  This is one of three meditations that he offers as an upgrade bonus that normally make up his CD meditation series, The Art of Mindfulness: Meditations for Awareness, Insight, Relaxation and Peace.  Mark is a co-founder of The Mindfulness Training Institute and the Nature Summit.

A guided meditation on the mindfulness of breathing

Mark’s meditation on breathing begins with encouraging you to adopt a comfortable position and become conscious of the pressure of your feet on the floor.

He then provides a series of mindfulness activities designed to heighten awareness of breathing and its beneficial effects on mind and body.  His instructions for this mindful breathing practice are below:

  • Begin with a light body scan checking for, and releasing, any point of tension.  You can scan the more  common places of tension – your shoulders, neck muscles, face and eye muscles, feet and ankles.  I find that typically my shoulders are raised and tense, so I have to learn to let go at this stage of the meditation.
  • You can now focus on an area of your body where you can sense your breathing – it could be the flow of air in and out of your nose, the undulation of your chest or the rise and fall of your abdomen.  Try to pay attention to your breath and how you are experiencing it – fast or slow, deep or shallow, long or short. The idea is not to try to control your breath but just observe how it is for you.
  • Mark suggests that once you have been able to focus on a location of your experience of breathing that you take time to pay full attention to the in-breath and then the out-breath – just focusing on how they are occurring.
  • You can then move on to observing the gap or silence between your in-breath and your out-breath – lengthening the gap if you desire.  Mark notes that during this stage of the breathing meditation (or one of the earlier stages) it is normal to be beset with distractions from your focus on breathing – images, emotions, planning, questioning, going over the past or thinking about the future.  He suggests that when you notice a distraction, name it for what it is without self-criticism and return to your focus. He maintains that noticing the distraction and its nature in the moment is actually an act of mindfulness (paying attention on purpose in the present moment and doing so non-judgmentally).  By naming the type of distraction, you may actually observe a pattern in your distracted thinking (mine is typically “planning”).
  • If strong bodily sensations arise, you can put attention on breath in the background while you deal with the sensation such as pain, tingling or soreness.  Similarly, if a strong emotion occurs, you can temporarily focus on it, name the emotion, and explore its bodily manifestation.   Mark suggests that you avoid letting your thinking about the emotion take over but stick with its actual physical manifestation.  Thoughts can reinforce an emotion, embed it more deeply and make it difficult to return to your focus on breathing.

Variations on the theme of mindfulness of breathing

Richard Wolf, author of In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness, discusses the practice of “rhythmic breathing” when exploring the interplay between music and mindfulness.  He also offers several breathing practices that involve breathing in-time to music beats such as 4/4 or ¾ time.  He suggests that you can develop this further by adopting what he calls the “four-bar sequence” – basically alternating inhalation and exhalation with holding your breath and doing each aspect for the equivalent of four bars. 

Richard encourages us to not only observe our breathing closely but notice its sonic qualities as well. He maintains that the process of conscious breathing is a meditative practice that builds mindfulness.  He argues that regular practice of breathing meditation linked to music can help us to develop “deep listening”, a skill that underpins quality relationships.

 Reflection

Our breath is with us in every moment and by paying attention to our breathing in the ways suggested, we can become more grounded in the present and less disturbed by ups and downs of life.  As we grow in self-awareness through breathing meditations, we can deepen our self-awareness and emotional regulation and  being more fully present to others through improved concentration and deep listening.

Mark extends the practice of mindful breathing and deep listening beyond our room to outside in nature and the wild.  He offers free daily nature meditations as well as Awake in the Wild Teacher Training.  He is the author of A Walk in the Wild: A Buddhist Walk through Nature – Meditations, Reflections and Practices.

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

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

Enriching Your Life Through Nature

Over the past few days, I participated in a number of sessions of the online Nature Summit (11-17 May 2021) and found it very inspiring, enlightening and encouraging.  I subsequently upgraded from the free version and gained lifetime access to the 30+ presentations (both audio and video versions) as well as extensive bonuses.  The bonuses included access to the 35 sessions from the 2020 Global Summit on Mindfulness and Compassion together with other resources such as meditations and mindfulness practices.

The themes of the Nature Summit included developing mindfulness and deep listening through nature; finding wellness, healing, and creativity in nature; nature-based leadership; and protecting the environment.  The Summit provided a holistic approach to the beauty, wonder and power of nature.

Becoming grounded in nature

One of the key speakers was Kaira Jewel Lingo, mindfulness teacher, educator and editor for Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Planting Seeds: Practising Mindfulness with Children.  Kaira focuses heavily on mindfulness in education and shares the wisdom of her 20+ years of mindfulness practice including years spent in Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery as a Buddhist nun where she developed her commitment to his tradition of Engaged Mindfulness

During the Summit Kaira discussed how the earth engenders a sense of belonging and connectedness.  She shared Thich Nhat Khan’s daily practice of a one-hour community walk in nature, interspersed with a 20-minute sitting meditation.  She explained that the communal walk done slowly with full attention and with “loving steps on the earth” brings awareness of a perspective that is larger than ourselves.  Kaira maintains that this close engagement with the earth takes us outside ourselves – outside self-absorption, the busyness of daily life and the afflictions of modern living.  

Kaira also discussed the mindfulness practice of lying prostrate on the earth.  Through “touching the earth” we can release our suffering and frustrations and imbibe its energy and resilience.  She suggested that this practice can also connect us to the healing power of nature.  One of the interesting exercises she does with school children is to have them touch a tree while blindfolded, then run and locate the tree without the blindfold, but relying solely on their sense of touch.  Kaira laments how under-utilised our senses are, especially our vision which accounts for “80% of attention”.

Caring for the environment

Jane Hirshfield – poet, editor, translator, and author – in her session during the Nature Summit, discussed how nature engenders “a creative awakening”.  Jane, as an internationally acclaimed poet, has become widely known for “working at the intersection of poetry, the sciences, and the crisis of the biosphere”. 

As a trained Zen practitioner, she has a deep commitment to pursue mindfulness through nature.  Her daily “trundling” in nature reinforces her view that the “natural world is the first field of [mindfulness] practice”.  She argues that our environmental crisis has arisen through a lack of adequate mindfulness, of awareness of nature and our co-dependence.  She maintains that “awareness is the ground for change”.  Appreciating nature, its energy and beauty, develops the desire to protect it.

Jane indicated that after the election of Donald Trump, she took political action every day to protect the environment through her poetry, essays and writing letters to people in power.  Donald Trump’s actions on the fifth day of his presidential office inspired a ground-breaking poem, “On the Fifth Day” that went viral and was read out by Jane at a protest march for scientists and the environment.  On his fifth day as President, Donald Trump had ordered the removal of any reference to climate change from the Government’s website and forbade environmental scientists employed by the Government to speak in any public domain about climate change.   Jane spoke about the resultant rise in “eco-poetics” and “poets for science”.

Jane explained that she writes her poetry not as a political action but more as a person finding her way in life and trying to meet daily challenges.  However, given her focus and standing, she has been cast as a climate change activist who is grateful to the natural world for enabling her to pay attention, to achieve balance in her life and to see reality as it really is.  While she is an extreme introvert, she engages in extroverted activities such as public speaking to communicate the urgency of the message about avoiding extinction that will occur if we keep destroying our planet.  Jane suggests that we each need to go outside our comfort zone and contribute “one small decibel in the chorus of sanity” – to add our voice and skills to achieving balance on a personal and an environmental level.

Reflection

There are many ways to discover the benefits of nature.  The Nature Summit provided a wide range of meditation and mindfulness practices that centred on nature.  Many of the presenters noted that if we really appreciate the beauty of nature, we will be moved and motivated to protect it.  As we grow in mindfulness through nature meditations, mindful walking, and other mindfulness practices, we can experience the healing power of nature, our connectedness to every living thing and gain the courage and resilience to adopt a form of Engaged Mindfulness that utilises our core competencies and the learning from our life experiences.  Jane’s latest book of poems, Ledger, is a call for “personal, ecological and political reckoning”.

Growth in awareness of nature and its beauty will motivate us to protect the natural treasures that we are able to enjoy.  Meditating on the elements of nature can bring equanimity to our lives despite the turbulent waves of our human existence.   

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Image by Valiphotos 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.

Gaining Support in Difficult Times through Mindfulness

Allyson Pimentel offers a meditation podcast on the topic of “Mindfulness as Support”.  In the guided meditation, presented as a teacher at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), Allyson reminds us of the power of mindfulness to provide a refuge in challenging times, whether the source of difficulty is at home or at work.  She suggests that mindfulness, being in the present moment and accepting what is, enables us to navigate troubled waters by helping us to access our inner peace and equanimity and providing the opportunity to experience a wider perspective than a total focus on the present troubles or pain.

Mindfulness as nourishment for carers

Carers have a particularly challenging time as they not only have to deal with their own difficulties but also the suffering and difficulties of others such as Alzheimer’s Disease experienced by a loved on.  There is not only the challenge of seeing someone else suffer but also the need to manage the emotional contamination of another’s pain and personal distress.

Allyson reminds us that mindfulness enables us to broaden our perspective beyond the immediate, perceived suffering to other things that are good in our lives and that of others.  We can pay attention to the broader environment of sounds and laughter, open our minds to all that we have received in life  and that another person has received.  This “wider aperture” brings with it appreciation that beyond immediate difficulties and suffering is relief.  Allyson likens it to going from the centre of a dark wood to coming to the edge where light streams in and lush green plains open before us. 

Extending beyond ourselves

In the guided meditation, Allyson encourages us to think about others beyond our immediate sphere who might be experiencing suffering and personal difficulties, whether that involves pandemic-induced illness, addiction, loss of job or home, disconnection from family and friends, mental illness, or financial difficulties.  She suggests that we try to encompass others by focusing on them and their needs and wishing them peace, tranquility, and ease.  We can also envisage them offering us empathetic support in return.

Mindfulness as support for business owners

The Smiling Mind organisation reminds us that small business owners can gain support from mindfulness particularly in these difficult times of the pandemic and associated economic difficulties.   Small business owners have to deal with the daily challenges of managing their cash flow, engaging and retaining staff, dealing with business uncertainties and political changes,  managing multiple demands on their time and skills and establishing a work-life balance.  On top of this is the ever-present challenge of maintaining quality relationships at home with partners and children while their minds are full of business-related information and endless to-do lists.

Mindfulness enables small business owners to manage stress more effectively, achieve increased self-awareness and awareness of others, build their powers of concentration and cultivate their creativity.  It provides a refuge from daily turbulent waves and a place to recuperate and restore perspective.  Mindfulness also helps small business owners to develop resilience, to improve their deep listening skills and their relationships, and to realise much-needed, regenerative sleep.

Smiling Mind, in association with MYOB, offers a free mindfulness app with a special Small Business Program within the “At Work” section of the app.  They also have specific blog posts dedicated to how mindfulness can support business owners manage their day-to-day challenges.

Mindfulness as support for people with addictions

In a previous post I discussed how mindfulness through growing self-awareness can break down the “trigger-reward” cycle involved in addiction.  I also discussed the barriers to undertake and sustain mindfulness practice to overcome addiction and offered a four-step mindfulness practice to overcome these barriers.  In cases of serious addiction, mindfulness can support and reinforce therapies offered by professionals such as psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and psychologists.  Just as with trauma healing, people with addictions may need the support of professionals to overcome self-destructive behaviours.

The COVID-19 pandemic while providing some people with relief from time and work pressures and the unsustainable pace of life, has also led to increased alcohol and drug addiction, especially amongst older people such as “Baby-Boomers”.  In an interview podcast, Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke discussed the adverse impact of the pandemic on mental health as well as increased levels of addiction.  She explained that pandemic-related isolation is compounding difficulties for people with mental health issues and addiction and this is in addition to other new life stressors generated by the pandemic, e.g., uncertainties concerning employment and personal health, fear of infection of themselves and loved ones, financial difficulties, the breaking down of established life patterns and thwarting of future plans.

In recognition of the pandemic-induced growth in addiction of all forms, organisations such as ARK Behavioral Health provide a range of services as well as Covid-19 Mental Health and Addiction Resources.  Their insight into the adverse impact of alcohol abuse on immunity and vulnerability to COVID-19 infection is illuminating.  The pandemic resources provided are comprehensive as are the levels of care that ARK Behavioral Health professionals provide.

Reflection

Destructive emotions such as anger and resentment and related behaviours such as addiction can be injurious to the mental health and happiness of anyone as well as to that of their partners and children.  As people grow in mindfulness through regular mindfulness practices, they can experience support to address destructive emotions and addictive behaviours. Mindfulness develops self-awareness and emotion regulation and cultivates conscious choice and wise action.  Mindfulness can also provide support and reinforcement for situations where professional help is required to overcome addiction or heal from trauma.

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Image by Rebecca Tregear 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 Essence of Happiness and How to Be Happy

In a culminating dialogue during the Science and Wisdom of Emotions Summit, the Dalai Lama, Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman focused on the nature of happiness and how to be happy in our day to day lives despite the turbulent waves that we may encounter.  The Dalai Lama maintained that genuine happiness is closely linked to our mental state.  Outside events such as the pandemic, employment situation and political upheaval can affect us but not to the same degree as our minds.  We have the capacity to train our minds so that we reduce “destructive emotions” and cultivate constructive/positive emotions.

The impact of destructive emotions

The Dalai Lama spoke of destructive emotions as emotions that harm others or ourselves. They distort our perception of reality and of other people, leading to fractured relationships and unhappiness.  The most destructive emotions are those of anger and hatred.  Anger, according to the Dalai Lama “robs us of discernment” – because of our distorted perception and emotional inflammation, we are unable to initiate an appropriate response or undertake “wise action

Destructive emotions unsettle our peace of mind and destroy our equilibrium and sense of ease and tranquility.  It destabilises us so that we are unable to think clearly or act skilfully.  Resentment, for example, that feeds anger can have its foundation in misperception – not understanding what is happening for the other person or what they intended by their words and/or actions.  We can be so preoccupied with our own perceived hurt, that we do not recognise the needs of another.  We can end up with a one-track mind, replaying hurtful incidents and fuelling our anger and unhappiness.

The Dalia Lama explained that we have “Three Doors of Action” – speech, body, and mind.  We interact with others and the world at large through these three doors.  While the mind is preeminent, what we say and how we present ourselves to the world also affect the balance of happiness and unhappiness in our life.  Even if our words do not disclose our anger our non-verbal behaviour – such as abruptness, avoidance, or ignoring someone – can betray how we really feel.

The impact of positive emotions

Positive emotions derive from understanding our connectedness to every living thing, especially to other people wherever they are in the world.   It means seeing the dignity in every person no matter their beliefs or their actions.  The Dalai Lama suggests that when we experience righteous anger over some injustice, acting out that anger through aggression does not respect the inherent goodness and dignity of the other person(s).  It only aggravates the situation and leads to a negative cycle of destructive relationships.

He maintains that it is possible and desirable to approach such unjust situations with curiosity and a desire to understand the perspective of the other person, even when you strongly disagree with them.  Compassion demands that we recognise that the other person may be acting out of ignorance, inherited bias or past hurt. 

Positive emotions lead to harmonious relationships and happiness.  They enable us to exercise “patience and forbearance” and to experience joy in our life. If we are considerate and empathetic, we not only help others we also help ourselves.  Positive emotions are “grounded in reason” and understanding of our connectedness to everyone, which is increasingly the case in the world today.   Destructive emotions, on the other hand, are not grounded in reason and can lead to reactivity and ill-considered responses.

Reflection

We can create or destroy our happiness by our words and actions.  If we operate as if our happiness depends solely on ourselves, what we can acquire and how we can control situations and other people, we will find that unhappiness is a constant state for us.  On the other hand, if we grow in mindfulness through regular mindfulness practices, we can experience “emotional hygiene” and realise genuine happiness.  We can identify when we are emotionally out of balance, have sufficient self-awareness to identify what is happening for us and be in a better position to act skilfully, rather than reactively and injuriously.

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Image by Sasin Tipchai 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 Training in Compassion

The Science and Wisdom of Emotions Summit conducted online from 2-5 May 2021 provided access to 30 of the world’s experts in the areas of compassion, mental health, well-being, wisdom, neuroscience, emotional intelligence and trauma counselling.  Access to the full recordings and transcripts are thoughtfully provided on a sliding scale, generosity-based pricing structure – with all levels of purchase receiving the full package together with the gift of free access for a friend, colleague, or family member.

There was so much covered in the Summit that is relevant to mindfulness.  However, in this post I want to look at compassion from the perspective offered by a one of the presenters.

Research into developing compassion

I have mentioned earlier in this blog the work of Richard Richardson and Daniel Goleman, authors of Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, whose review of research studies confirmed that compassion meditation developed the traits of kindness and compassion.  In the Summit, Dr. Sona Dimidjian, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, shared her own research work on the development of compassion. 

Sona had been concerned about the lack of research into the transfer of compassion training to the practice of compassion in daily life and set about establishing a participative research project to find out what works and for whom.  She was particularly interested, especially in our current environment of racialism and inequity, to establish what are the “barriers and facilitators” of bringing compassion into everyday life.

Fundamental to Sona’s approach, was engaging participants in her research in every phase of the research process – formulating questions, deciding the methodology and collaboratively undertaking the research.  She involved educators, young people and those experiencing mental health issues.  One such collaborative study led to the conclusion that brief compassion training (20 minutes a day compassion meditation practice) increased participants compassion while daily exposure to images of people suffering actually led to a decline in compassion.

One unexpected result from the study was that teachers, one of the core groups that Sona sought to help, became particularly concerned about the impact of their daily exposure to the suffering of their students and their parents.  The teachers indicated that they lacked training in self-care and care for their student children and yet they aspired to be kind and compassionate.   

This concern of the teachers led to another collaborative research project with educators to co-design a course in compassion that would lead to compassionate action on the part of the teachers.  The resultant program, Masters in Teacher Leadership, is available through Colorado University and incorporates a Certificate level component on Cultivating Compassion and Dignity in Ourselves and Our Schools.  Sona’s hope is that teachers become true models of compassion while teaching their students to be compassionate.

Compassion and dignity

While the abovementioned course incorporates self-compassion, fundamental to the content and approach is the recognition that compassion involves “honouring dignity within each other” – recognising the dignity of each person, irrespective of their race, religion, skin colour, gender (or identification as non-binary or non-gendered), sexual preference, culture or country of origin.  Compassion is inclusive and non-discriminatory.  It actively works against the prevailing ethos, created through “systematic conditioning”, that fails to see our common humanity and connectedness.

Compassion involves deep listening and the capacity to hear the perspective of another while seeking to understand and value the learning and diverse experiences of other people.  It involves curiosity blended with tenderness and caring.  Compassion training through mindfulness incorporates “mental training’ (involving both thinking and emotional elements) and serves to preclude reactive responses to those who are suffering (which Sona points out sometimes aggravates the suffering of others through a lack of understanding).  The mindfulness training involved in compassion training, on the other hand, enables the participant to “act more skilfully” and take compassionate action in their day-to-day interactions.

Compassion involves “seeing one another in our fullness”, in all our diversity and complexity.  Surprisingly, Sona found that the digital world, accessed through programs like Zoom, enables participants to have greater access to each other’s life – you get to see the bookshelves, dogs coming in and out of a room, children demanding attention or partners moving about undertaking their daily activities, the room layout and house surrounds (in some cases).  Sona points out that this is a much richer perspective than the perception of a person created by the role that they occupy – you get to see and engage differently through a more complete perception of a person in their natural environment.

Reflection

Reading something of Sona’s clinical research history and work on the ground with educators, new mothers and expectant mothers and youth experiencing mental health issues, you begin to appreciate that her life and work epitomises compassion-in-action.  In fact, one of her personal goals is to strengthen her own mindfulness practices to enable her to pursue compassion in her own life by avoiding the interference of her own biases and living with integrity and congruity with the compassionate values that she promotes.  Sona generously shares her research and insights through her Mind & Life Podcast.

Sona’s life and dedication pursued in a spirit of humility, openness and curiosity provides an exemplar for how we could pursue compassion through our own life and work and daily interactions with others.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the insight and commitment to enhance our deep listening skills and build the courage to take compassionate action in a skilful way.

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Image by Juanita Foucault 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.