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.

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.

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.

Turning Your Life Around – a Buddhist Perspective

In her book Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good, Tina Turner identifies a number of ways to achieve our full potential and realise happiness in our lives.  In a previous post I discussed how she chanted the Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo mantra as a way to tap into her fundamental Buddha nature which releases “limitless courage, wisdom and compassion” to overcome any obstacle or challenge in life. However, along the way she encountered the pull down to a lower life condition created by negative self-stories.

Tina experienced negative self-talk that saw her as not beautiful, not talented, or too fat.  These messages were reinforced by her interpretation of her mother’s behaviour – her neglect and desertion as well as her preferential treatment of her sister.  We can each develop specific negative self-talk through our experiences of the words and behaviour of our parents, our “friends”, classmates, teachers, or the community generally. 

When we entertain these thoughts, they begin to have a life of their own and can be a powerful pull away from the realisation of our potential and our happiness.  The strength of these negative thoughts, as in Tina’s case, can be reinforced by the press and/or social media which can be particularly unkind, hurtful, and damaging to self-esteem.  

Overcoming the negative self-talk

Tina’s Buddhist beliefs enabled her to see the good in everyone, including herself – to understand the inherent Buddha nature of everyone.  This strong belief in the core value and worth of everyone, which can have its origins in any philosophy or religion, can be a strong antidote to negative self-talk.

A key strategy that Tina employed and that is advocated by mindfulness experts such as Jon Kabat-Zin is to assert that “we are not our thoughts” – that we are much more than our limiting self-talk.  This recognition and constant affirmation are powerful ways to break free from the holds of negative self-perception.

Tina reaffirms the positive energy and self-talk that is generated by chanting the powerful Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo mantra or other forms of mantra singing.  The vibrational energy and resultant healing in mantra singing are confirmed by neuroscientists.   Tina maintains that we can each have our own preferred way of tapping into positive energy whether that be singing, listening to music, observing nature, walking or exercising.   The important process is to find a way to replace the disabling energy of negative self-talk with the powerful energy of whatever stimulates positive energy and resonance for us.

Reframing our difficulties and challenges

Despite our best efforts to generate positive energy, we can be thrown off balance by life-changing difficulties or challenges such as illnesses, loss of a job, death in the family, deterioration of another family member or other forms of emotional overload.  Workload and the challenges of being a carer can add to the tendency to lose our balance and develop negativity. 

Tina draws on the work of Nichiren and his restatement of the Buddhist concept of “changing poison into medicine” – turning challenges and setbacks as opportunities for learning and to grow stronger, enhancing our “courage, wisdom and compassion”.  When she was about to perform after a night of celebrating the close of a very successful music tour, she was low in energy and high in reticence but found the strength to do her chanting and remind herself that hidden treasures lie in life’s challenges.  She went on stage to conduct a highly successful event.  She did not let old habits and negative self-talk destroy her positive energy but overcame them through chanting and waking up to the beauty in her life, including the pleasure on people’s faces when they heard her sing.

Reflection

Tina presents a positive approach to dealing with negative self-talk and life’s challenges and setbacks and demonstrates in her own life how to turn your life around, develop resilience and achieve sustainable happiness.   There is a general consensus that chanting mindfully is itself a form of meditation that can enhance our capacity to be present in the moment, enrich our inner landscape and increase our inner strength.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can experience the ease of wellness, the energy of connectedness and the insight to pursue out life’s purpose and passion.

Tina’s book is enlightening, engaging and enriching. It’s readability and attractiveness is created by her rich story-telling, her openness and her vulnerability.

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Image by Kanenori 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.

Adversity, Resilience and Happiness: A Chanting and Meditation Pathway

Tina Turner experienced an incredible amount of adversity – an abusive marital relationship, stalled singing career, severe illness (including a stroke and kidney failure), all preceded by adverse childhood experiences (including parents who constantly fought, divorced and abandoned her).  At age 34, still in her destructive relationship, Tina discovered Buddhist chanting and meditation and this eventually changed her life, giving her the courage to break off her damaging relationship and launch her solo career.  Tina explains her journey in her new book,  Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good.

The chant that changed her life

Tina explains how she discovered the power of the Daimoku – the chanting of the Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.  This mantra is central to Buddhist practice and millions of people around the world practise it every day.  Orlando Bloom, the English actor, is also a strong advocate and practitioner of this mantra.

Tina maintains that chanting the Buddhist mantra generates vibrational energy and positive Karma in a person’s life.  She explains “Karma” as “the sum of all your actions – thoughts, words and deeds”  and suggests that it is like a “balance sheet” reflecting the net balance of the positive and negative actions of your life.  Karma “determines our dominant life condition”.

Tina maintains that chanting the mantra is doing a workout for your spirit and likens it to a physical workout that conditions you for physical exertion and sporting activities.  She suggests that the time spent in daily chanting should be influenced by the level of your karma limitations (excess negative over positive energy), your life condition and the magnitude of your dreams. 

Tina writes that she spent many hours a day chanting when she was in a karmic low and experiencing adverse life conditions while still holding onto very big dreams.  She found that the very positive results she achieved with her chanting acted as reinforcement to maintain her daily practice.  She was, however, able to modify the time spent on chanting as her life became more balanced.  Tina suggests that even 15 minutes chanting the Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo mantra each day, can be beneficial for your life condition and the achievement of your dreams.

Buddhist wisdom – the Ten Worlds

In her book, Tina introduces the “Ten Worlds” of Buddhism that describe our “life condition” and likens them to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She explains that our life condition encompasses our thoughts, moods, and our overall wellbeing which, in turn, influence how we view ourselves and others, our emotional disposition, our decisions and actions.  Tina compares the lower levels of the Ten Worlds to the lower levels of the hierarchy of needs such as physiological needs, safety, need for belonging and self-esteem. 

In Tina’s view, the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy, self-actualization, accords with elements of the top four Buddhist Worlds, namely Learning, Realization, Compassion, and Buddhahood (complete freedom, endless courage, wholeness, a sense of connection to the “life force” of the universe).  Both Learning and Realization are developed through learning and reflecting on our own experiences and insights and that of others.

Tina found that one of the attractions of the Buddhist concept of Ten Worlds was the idea that you can progress directly from the bottom level to the top levels through concerted inner work, working daily on enriching your inner landscape. Her pathway was that of Buddhist chanting and meditation.  She maintains that we each have to find our own pathway to live more fully.

Reflection

Tina has demonstrated throughout her life the capacity to bounce back from physical, emotional and relationship challenges – she has shown resilience in the face of adversity.  In the process, she has been able to achieve deep happiness.  As she points out, we all seek happiness but it is invariably “elusive”.  Sustaining a state of happiness is a challenge. 

Tina was able to grow in mindfulness and awareness through Buddhist chanting and meditation and found that her daily practice enabled her to rise above challenging emotions and circumstances, enrich her life, and achieve her wildest dreams.  For each of us there is a potential pathway to resilience and happiness and the realisation of our dreams and life purpose. 

As Tina states in her book Happiness Becomes You:

Each of us is born, I believe, with a

unique mission, a purpose in life that

only we can fulfill.

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Image by Наталья Данильченко 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.

Change Your Perspective and Change Your Life

Foundational to Hugh Van Cuylenburg’ Resilience Project is a change in perspective and in his book on the topic he provides evidence of people who have turned their lives around through a change in their perspective.  He urges us strongly to focus on what we have, not what we lack.  He maintains that this change develops the positive emotions of appreciation and gratitude that replace the negative emotions of envy and resentment.  He points out too that it replaces depression about the past and/or anxiety about the future with the capacity to live the present moment more fully.

Underpinning the gratitude perspective is a change in our point of reference – from comparing ourselves to those who have more, to making the comparison with others who have considerably less.  His story of the Indian boy, Stanzin, highlights the impact of this different way of looking at things.   Stanzin was one of the most destitute children he met in India but the happiest person he had ever met – he appreciated everything in his life (no matter how old, broken, or impoverished). 

Hugh worked with elite sportspeople including NRL and ARL football players.  He mentions that at least five elite athletes changed their lives dramatically by implementing a daily gratitude journal – going from suicidal thoughts to appreciating the richness of their lives.

From loss and failure to learning and understanding

Hugh suggests that loss and failure can be seen in a very different light if we change our perspective.  If we view them as opportunities and lessons to be learned and realise that they are often the result of our own unmet expectations, we can move away from depression and anxiety to understanding and valuing the experience.  In each of life’s experiences, there is something to learn.  If we always experience “success” we can harbour false assumptions about what “made” our success, not realising our underlying deficiencies (often propped up by others).

Associated with this change in perspective is moving from self-absorption and self-congratulation to acknowledging the very rich contribution of the many people who have had a positive influence on our life (including our parents who provided our “gene pool”).  This latter thought came to me this morning when I was making an entry in my gratitude journal.  I was able to write, “I appreciate my genetic legacy from my father – athleticism, resilience and stamina, and from my mother – kindness, compassion, understanding and patience.”

It also means moving away from the perspective of “better than” to realistically appreciating our strengths and limitations – a change in perspective from “superior conceit” to a “healthy confidence”.  This change can result in improved behaviour together with happiness and contentment.

From “clients” to “friends”

Hugh mentions that at some stage in introducing students, elite sportspeople, and businesspeople to his GEM pathway, he started to view them as “friends”, instead of “clients” who paid for his services.  He viewed his role as helping people and building relationships, not engaging in a money-making venture.  This made the experience richer for himself and others he interacted with.  He gained many friends and was better able to help them as a result.  It also meant that sometimes he offered his services for free to people or organisations that had limited resources.

From “outcomes” to “process”

Both Louie Schwartzberg and Lindsey Stirling, award-winning creative producers of film and music, stress the importance of focusing on the process, not the final outcomes.  This involves enjoying the moment and fully experiencing making film or making music or engaging in any other creative endeavour.  In our organisational consulting work, my colleague and I have moved from a focus on outcomes to designing a process that enables people to “have the conversations that they need to have”.  This reduces the stress of process design because there are so many factors that influence the outcomes over which you have no control – what you can control is how well you design the intervention process.  This shift in perspective from outcomes to process provides the freedom to explore innovative and creative ways to work with people, music, or photography.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the perspectives and expectations that create our self-sabotaging behaviours and limit our options.  Changing our perspectives can significantly change our lives for the better, increase our happiness and strengthen our resilience in the face of setbacks and failures. Perspective change can open the way for the exploration of creative options in all our endeavours – family, work, and sport.

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Image by Renan Brun 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 Self-Sabotage through Social Media

Hugh Van Cuylenburg has developed the GEM pathway to happiness which entails three core elements – gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness.   In his book, The Resilience Project, he describes the origins of his approach, the impact of practising GEM and its effectiveness in helping people to move from depression about the past or anxiety about the future.  He has found that his approach has been effective for school children, elite sportspeople, and businesspeople in small and large organisations.  At the heart of his approach, is the tenet that happiness lies in “being” and appreciating what we have, not in “having” and resenting what we do not have.  Hugh gives concrete examples of where practising the simple process of a gratitude journal has enabled people to overcome suicidal thoughts and find happiness in their life, their relationships, their business accomplishments and/or their sporting endeavours.

Developing mindfulness practices

Hugh described how his school children in India looked forward to their daily 30-minute meditation each morning at school.  In Australia, he had his students take a mindful walk around an oval before school started and observe and record “five things they heard, saw and felt” on their walks each day.  He basically encouraged them to pay attention to their senses so that they could live their day more fully, with increased awareness.  Hugh highlighted the studies that demonstrate the positive impact of mindfulness practices (e.g., meditation, body scan, mindful breathing) on adolescent stress, depression, and anxiety.  These impacts have explained the global development of mindfulness in schools, including the MindUP Program developed by Goldie Hawn and her foundation.

I have written earlier about the benefits of mindfulness meditation for adults, including the development of wisdom, calmness, clarity, and self-awareness.  Mindfulness practices can also help to “mind  your brain”, an otherwise neglected resource.  The challenge is to find a way to practise mindfulness daily in whatever form suits us personally.  Regularity, repetition, and practice build capability, provide constant positive reinforcement, and develop “unconscious competence”.  Hugh demonstrated through his real-life stories how we become what we focus on – the simple act of a daily gratitude journal leads to gratitude-in-the moment; practising loving-kindness meditation develops kindness and compassionate action; and regular reflection-on-action enables the capacity for reflection-in-action.

Self-sabotage in the pursuit of mindfulness

Despite our best intentions in practising mindfulness, we can easily sabotage our own efforts.  Self-sabotage can take many forms, including obsession with the news, overuse of our mobile phones or addiction to social media.  We can grab for our phones when we are waiting for something or someone, instead of using the opportunity to develop awareness. 

Hugh warns about the negative impacts of social media and its harmful effects on our minds.  He explains how social media giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter use “persuasive technologies” to distract us and capture our attention – because “eyes-on-a-page” readily translates to revenue dollars through advertising.  Your likes and dislikes are tracked continuously so that you can be fed advertisements for what you most likely desire and are willing to buy.  The benefits of any particular product or service are embellished – you do not buy a car, you buy “envy”, “status”, “luxury” or “visibility”.  

Hugh points out that social media and constant, easy access via mobile phones have become integral to the “attention economy” that feeds off our tendency for distractedness – distraction from ourselves, our pressures. and relationships.  Disruptive marketing through “pop-ups” and “behavioural retargeting” are designed to pull your attention away to what social media advertisers want you to pay attention to.  By engaging endlessly in consuming social media, we are self-sabotaging our mindfulness – our capacity to pay attention on purpose in the present moment with wonder and awe and an openness to what is real and meaningful in our life.

Hugh recommends several strategies to reclaim “what the attention economy has taken from you”:

  • Delete Facebook from your phones
  • Turn off notifications on your phones
  • Rearrange your home screen to display what you want to focus on and delete what you are unhealthily addicted to
  • Leave home without your phone (at least occasionally when it is not necessary to have it with you).

Our level of resistance to any or all of these recommendations reflects our level of capture by the psychological manipulation of the attention economy.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can access a wide array of benefits that enable us to live more  happily and aware.  However, if we obsess over the news or social media and become captured by our mobile phones, we will sabotage our efforts to mind our brains, build emotional resilience and achieve tranquility and ease.

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Image by Thomas Ulrich 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 Pathway to Resilience and Happiness

Hugh Van Cuylenburg has written a life-changing book which Missy Higgins describes as “hilarious, inspiring and heartbreakingly vulnerable”.   Hugh is a great storyteller and his stories, provided both verbally and in writing, have changed the lives of thousands of people, from school children to elite sportspeople.  His book, The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness through Gratitude, Empathy & Mindfulness, provides a very clear pathway to resilience and happiness.  It is admirably digestible and eminently practical – which partly explains its amazing influence on so many lives.

Hugh summarises his pathway in the mnemonic, GEM, and the three powerful words that these letters represent – Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness.  He developed his approach while in India working as a volunteer teacher in an incredibly poor village – where children often could not go to school, had no shoes, little food and no electricity or sanitation.  He could not work out why the children at the school were so unbelievably happy despite their destitute conditions.  He found the answer by observing the children and their practices closely and discovered that their resilience and happiness had its foundation in gratitude (appreciating what they do have), empathy (showing care and concern for others) and mindfulness (being mindful and developing this through meditation).

His message has been taken up not only by schools throughout Australia but also by elite sporting clubs such as the NRL team, Melbourne Storm and the AFL team, Collingwood.  He tells the story, for example, of a Collingwood player who wrote a three-letter word on his wrist to remind himself during a game of the things that he is grateful for so that he could push aside negative thoughts and anxiety that arise when engaged in a highly competitive match.   

Hugh’s pathway to happiness and resilience applies to each of us in our everyday life.  The three elements of his approach are not new – we have covered many aspects of these in this blog as the result of the work of many other people.  What Hugh presents in simple, digestible language and illustrative stories, is a very clear pathway integrating the three GEM elements that can be practised daily and that are mutually reinforcing – just like exercising, appropriate nutrition and yoga/ Tai Chi are mutually reinforcing, with each of these elements building on, and assisting us to achieve, the others.

The GEM pathway to happiness and resilience

Hugh refined his approach when he completed a Master of Education by focusing all his study and assignments on the mental health and wellness of adolescents.  He was also able to learn about the neuroscience that underpinned his approach (he provides references to the scientific papers in his “Notes” at the end of the book).

What was a catalyst for Hugh’s passionate pursuit of the issue of resilience was his own traumatic experience as a teenager trying to cope with his younger sister’s anorexia nervosa.  At the time, he did not understand what was happening to her and why she behaved the way she did, and did not show empathy for her plight.  He failed to realise that she was mentally ill, not just suffering a physical malady, malnutrition, that could be overcome just by eating more.  He became acutely aware as an adult of the “concentric circles of suffering” (for siblings, parents, friends, and teachers) that mental illness can create.  

I will discuss each of the elements of GEM below:

Gratitude – Hugh suggests that this means appreciating what we have rather than focusing on what we lack.  He tells the story of Stanzin, one of his students in India, who despite his impoverished circumstances was grateful for everything in his life – his gratitude was pervasive and continuous.  Stanzin often pointed out to Hugh things that he was grateful for – his friends, being able to go to school, having shoes to wear and even receiving a plain bowl of rice for lunch. He was incredibly grateful for his rusted, broken-down play equipment (such as a swing) – something that in our Western society would initiate a complaint.  Stanzin focused on what he had, not what he did not possess – avoiding negative emotions of discontent, resentment, or anger, and developing a positive mindset. 

Hugh recommends a daily gratitude journal as a way to build resilience and happiness.  This is a recommendation and practice of many people.  In the previous post, I spoke of the twice-daily practice of gratitude journalling of Lindsey Stirling, the hugely successful songwriter, violinist, and dancer.  Gwen Cherne, the first Commissioner for Veteran Family Advocacy, who agitates for veterans and their families battling mental stress, stated that she writes a gratitude journal every night (her story is featured in the Weekend Australian Magazine, March 6-7, 2021, pp.13-16).   Hugh, Lindsey, and Gwen have each experienced considerable trauma in their lives and each has shown the resilience to be able to “bounce back” and experience happiness in pursuing their life purpose in contributing to the welfare and joy of others.

Empathy – being able to feel for others by consciously thinking about what they might be experiencing intellectually and emotionally.  Hugh points to the neuroscience that reinforces the fact that practising empathy develops kindness and motivates compassionate actionSimon Sinek suggests that in a work situation an empathetic leader is “more concerned about the human being not their output”.  The young boy Stanzin, who made a lasting impression on Hugh, was continuously empathetic – going out of his way to help others in need, e.g., sitting with children who were alone during the lunch hour.  Hugh recalled that in contrast, he himself was not empathetic to his young sister as a teenager and was not able understand her suffering and feel with and for her.  A key component of empathy is deep listening – openness to other’s stories and their perspectives.

Mindfulness – being present in the moment while adopting an open, curious, accepting, and non-judgmental attitude.  Hugh learned through his experience in India that practising mindfulness through meditation was a way of “taking greater control of your mind and, therefore, of your life”.  The children in the village school where he taught began each day with a 30-minute meditation,  At first, he was sceptical about the practice but soon found that he could focus so much more on the present moment, and not become absorbed by anxiety about the future or depression about the past.  He found that Stanzin was a living example of the benefits of mindfulness meditation.  The young boy would be constantly mindful of what where the positive things in his village life.  Mindfulness develops both gratitude and empathy.  

Developing the GEM pathway to happiness and resilience

In his book, The Resilience Project, Hugh provides a section at the back where he offers some exercises that can help us to develop gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness – some of which he has used in schools throughout Australia.  The Coles Group have implemented a range of practices drawn from The Resilience Project. 

Simon Sinek suggests that a simple way to practise empathy in everyday life is to let the person into traffic ahead of you if they are stuck in a side street or are attempting to cut in front of you.  He argues that you never know why they are trying to enter the traffic or are in a hurry to get somewhere.  They could, for example, be dealing with an emergency – a sick parent/child, an accident at home, someone dying in hospital, or anxiety about a child stranded at night at a lonely, dark railway station. 

Reflection

Taken together the elements of the GEM pathway can lead to happiness and resilience.  The stories Hugh tells, and the research he draws on, reinforce the benefits of his approach.  The widespread adoption of the principles of The Resilience Project attests to its effectiveness. 

Hugh also stresses the importance of connection and has exercises that can help us renew our connections given that they have been eroded through social media and the distancing created by the pandemic.  He stresses that practising GEM is even more urgent in these challenging times.  He maintains too that we must go beyond connection itself and take wise and compassionate action to redress the suffering and pain of others, e.g., asking “R U OK?”

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and practising gratitude and empathy, we can develop self-awareness, self-regulation and compassionate action and gain increasing insight into our life purpose. As Hugh observes, every challenge is an opportunity to realise our potential and our capacity to contribute positively to the lives of others.

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Image by billy cedeno 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.

Exploring Healing and Creativity through Music and Nature Imagery

Louie Schwartzberg, time-lapse photographer and filmmaker, in a recent Wonder and Awe podcast, interviewed Lindsey Stirling, internationally famous songwriter, violinist and dancer.  They explored the role of music and nature imagery in self-healing and in stimulating energy and creativity.  Louie and Lindsey have collaborated on a number of projects, including The Big Sur – shown during the podcast interview and featured in Louie’s Moving Art video on Netflix. They identified one key aspect that their individual artistry has in common – Lindsey’s classical music and videos and Louie’s nature photography and videos – both have no words.  They pointed out that in a world of information overload they offer inspiration, a personal emotional journey, self-awareness, and self-healing.   Lyrics, in contrast, can take us down the track of the thoughts and emotions portrayed by the creator.

Healing from grief through music

Lindsey spoke of her grief with the loss of her father and her best friend in the one year, and how she turned to music as a form of self-therapy to deal with her sense of loss and associated grief.  Her album, Brave Enough, enabled her to pour out her grief and to be “brave enough” to feel the intensity of her difficult emotions.  She said that every song on the album was inspired by her feelings of grief and loss.  In her reflection on the loss through Lymphoma, of her keyboard player and best friend, Jason Gaviati, she indicated that the true path to success is being able to “rise from failure”, time and time again.  She stated that her album and related Brave enough tour were about “the courage to feel, to feel everything”.

She wrote the instrumental song Guardian which highlights the way her own grief became transformed into connection.  Working with Mako, she was able to hear the words that expressed her grief in a song called, Lose You Now.  She wanted this music to be light and conducive to reminiscing (e.g., the Monarch butterfly represented her friend Jason) while building hope for the future, despite the sadness of the past.   Louie commended her for her inner strength and ability to manage the challenges of “the journey of life” with all its waves and vicissitudes.

Bouncing back from setbacks and failure

Lindsey Stirling was buzzed off by Piers Morgan during the quarter-finals of America’s Got Talent and was rejected by the judges who variously said she was “not good enough”, “would not fill a concert hall in Las Vegas” and was “not a world-class violinist”.  All of which made her work harder at both her music and her dancing.  Lindsey’s accomplishments since then are mind-boggling.  By 2017, she had 600 Million views of her music/dance videos on her YouTube Channel and, at time of writing, this number has grown to 3 Billion views of her 100 videos.  She made history with her 5 top-selling albums and filled concert halls everywhere (her “Brave Enough tour” involved 83 concerts in 20 countries).  Also, Lindsey and her dancing partner were second on Season 25 (2017) of Dancing With The  Stars (DWTS). As she has proven in her own life, “bouncing back” from setbacks is an essential element in her success.

Parents as models and inspiration

When asked by Louie how she had developed her passion for music, dance and storytelling in song, Lindsey maintained that her earliest influences were her parents who exposed her to the arts, especially classical music.  Her mother was creative in her sewing endeavours, a skill that Lindsey also shared, while her father’s creativity was expressed through writing stories that he often read to her.  Lindsey identified her storytelling as her “greatest gift”.

Gratitude in the midst of loss and pain

Lindsey tells the story of how painful it was to be at the bedside as she and her sister watched her father die of cancer.  In those moments of extreme sadness, they found the inspiration and energy to tell each other stories of their childhood memories of being with their father.  Amidst the tears and pain, she felt an intense sense of gratitude for having had such a life together and a rich store of  wonderful memories.  

This experience was replicated when she took on the challenging task of dancing and playing the violin while hanging from her hair to create the video for the song, Crystallize.  The excruciatingly painful training over three months for this achievement has been  recorded in her Hair Hanging Vlog.  Despite the pain, Lindsey was able to feel gratitude for the feelings of beauty and power that the final performance engendered in her.  Her basic message is that we are all capable of what at first seems impossible because we have achieved hard things before.    She reiterated that “courage and faith can be found through the fear”  and that “gratitude can be discovered by our losses”.

Developing resilience through gratitude

Louie observed that research has demonstrated that gratitude develops resilience.  He maintained that if your mind is filled with thoughts of gratitude, there is no room for negative thoughts.  Both Lindsey and Louie agreed that if you focus on what you have, rather than what you do not have, you are healing yourself, building your energy and opening yourself to creativity.  As Louie stated, “If every experience is a gift, then your only attitude is gratitude”.   As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, “we become what we focus on”.   Lindsey illustrates this idea through her practice of writing in a gratitude journal each morning and night.  She maintained that this practice that started as a chore is now something she looks forward to and enables her to frequently be grateful in the moment.

Lindsey noted that while being able to play the violin, write songs and dance are gifts in themselves, her special gift that she realizes when performing is an “intense connection” with people in her audience as she looks into their eyes while performing.  For her, this is a special place where she sees the beauty in everyone and is consumed with love.

Lindsey has established the Upside Fund to provide financial assistance to people experiencing financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic.  She started this fund, which accepts donations, after her father died in hospital and she began each Christmas to pay the hospital medical bills of 10 people.  The name of the fund is based on the idea that we can each “lift where stand” – we are each in a unique position to contribute to the welfare of others based on our life circumstances, location, and the gifts that we are grateful for.  Lindsey particularly works through her fan base to build the fund and support people in need.

Mindfulness, music, nature, and dance

I have previously explored the relationship between mindfulness and playing a musical instrument.  Lindsey stated that when she plays the violin for herself (not for her work) she finds it meditative.  She is completely in the moment when she dances and particularly when she is doing so in nature.

Louie as an “action man” is not a practitioner of formal meditation – he experiences his mindfulness through immersion in nature which he contends increases his capacity for “courage, creativity, kindness and compassion”.

Both Louie and Lindsey suggest that to be more mindful and focused on the moment that we should not be obsessed with the end goal but experience the process fully, whether it is playing an instrument, learning a dance, taking time-lapse photography, or developing a video.  Louie stated that after 40 years of time-lapse photography, he has only a total of 16 hours of high-quality film – he indicated that a day’s work would typically produce 2 seconds of useful film.  To him the process of observing and photographing the beauty of nature is what brings him joy, healing, and happiness.  He can walk in nature when not filming and notice the quality of light and how it reflects on plants and flowers.  He can walk mindfully in nature, engaging all his senses.

Louie articulated his belief that nature cultivates gratitude and mindfulness when he presented a Ted Talk on the theme, Nature, Beauty, and Gratitude, which featured his movie titled Gratitude that incorporated his time-lapse photography and his fundamental belief about the need to be grateful for everything in life.

Reflection

Nature stimulates reflection, healing, energy, gratitude, and creativity.  Music and dance, in their many forms, can have similar outcomes.  We have a choice in terms of how we spend our time and what we consume mentally and emotionally.  We can grow in mindfulness and enjoy all its benefits through exposure to nature, music and dance or we can become overwhelmed by information and the news and the negativity that they often engender.

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Image by sun liming 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.

Domestic Violence: A Catalyst for Pursuing Life Purpose

The challenge we are confronted with during various stages of our life is to decide what is our purpose in life.  Finding that unique purpose can lead to a singular focus, total commitment and “unified action”, where your contribution to community – utilising your unique knowledge, skills, experiences, insights, and connections – becomes your unifying focus.  Trent Dalton, journalist and author of  All Our Shimmering Skies, tells the story of how domestic and family violence became the catalyst for Nicolle Edwards and husband Gareth to identify and pursue their life purpose in the form of RizeUp Australia, a registered charity providing concrete support to women and families fleeing domestic violence.

Trent’s story, Hands & Hearts in the Australian Weekend Magazine (12-13 December 2020), describes the practical help that RizeUp provides in terms of furnishing a house for domestic and family violence refugees.  With the help of a large social media following and a very large group of volunteers, Nicolle and Gareth provide home-making support for DV refugees when they move out of a Women’s Shelter to often-unfurnished, emergency  accommodation.  The list of furniture and accessories provided at no cost (or fuss), including bedding and basic appliances, is extensive and very impressive – all provided and set up for free through donations of goods and money and the donation of time and effort by volunteers in the RizeUp network.  Nicolle comments in the article that the “sigh of relief” of the recipient mother is motivation enough for her to dedicate herself to this life purpose.

Nicole realised that she could help domestic violence refugees and their children when she turned to social media to provide help to a DV refugee very early on (before RizeUp was created in 2015).  She was amazed at the response and with Gareth created the RizeUp network, which has now set up more than 980 homes for DV refugees and their families.  The RizeUp Facebook page provides many photos showing volunteers at work and the kind of practical home support provided by the network.   Nicole and Gareth demonstrate the strength and sensitivity required to pursue your life purpose.

My story – my experience of domestic and family violence

I experienced domestic and family violence as a child because my father, who was suffering from PTSD, had become an alcoholic. I heard the many shouting fights between my mother and father because he was spending so much of our income on alcohol.  I do recall our family at one stage living off food donations from the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  I also recall the times when my mother ended up in hospital after particularly violent arguments.   

I left home immediately after Grade 12 to study in Victoria and when I returned five years later the situation had not improved.  So, one day when my father was at work, I helped my mother pack her things and moved the both of us to a small house at the back of a shop.  The strangely happy part of the story is that after my parents divorced, my father remarried, gave up alcohol and walked every day for an hour for his physical and mental health.  He also used to drive my mother to church each Sunday after the separation.

It is only as I grew older that I realised how little support there was for my father whose nerves were shattered after serving in the Australian Army in Singapore in the Second World War.  He had been a prisoner-of-war in Changi prison for 18 months following the capture of Singapore by the Japanese.  Stephen Wynn describes life after The Surrender of Singapore as “three years of hell”.  Not long after my father’s release from Changi, he was deployed as part of the Allied Occupation Forces in Japan.

On reflecting on these early life experiences of domestic violence, I believe that they have unconsciously motivated me to work towards developing mentally healthy workplaces and communities both in my consulting and writing.  In my organisational consulting work, I have particularly worked with managers to build managerial mindfulness – consciousness about the impact that their words and actions have on the development of a productive and mentally healthy workplace.  In writing this blog, I have focused on mindfulness, mental health, trauma, and leadership as my contribution to providing individuals in the community and managers with resources, practices, and processes to create a mentally healthy life.

What is your story?

Recently, Tami Simon from Sounds True introduced a new publication written by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond who took ten years to develop and refine the reflective processes incorporated in their book.  The transformative and interactive journal, titled  What’s Your Story: A Journal for Everyday Evolution, provides a series of strategic questions to help you reflect on your life story (by theme and/or area of your life).  The deeply penetrating questions are designed to challenge self-limiting beliefs and throw light on a possible path forward.  The authors hope to enable you “to begin living your most authentic, creative, and meaningful life”.

Reflection

Sometimes the search for our life purpose is confounding and confusing – it seems to go around in circles before achieving some degree of clarity.  Our life purpose might prove illusive because it can be changing over time. As we gain greater personal insight and experience different catalytic events, we may find that what was truly purposeful and meaningful at one point in our life, is no longer adequate or energizing. As we grow in mindfulness through journalling, meditation and reflection, we can develop an expanded view of what we are capable of, build the courage to pursue our unique purpose, and positively impact others and ourselves. It is in achieving alignment with our life purpose that we find meaning and happiness.

Another useful resource is an eight-week course, Your True Calling, which is available online at Sounds True.  The author Stephen Cope, wrote the book, The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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