Achieving Flow through Preparation, Focus and Attention

In an earlier post, I talked about our loss of attention through the “fire hose” of continual information dissemination and the incessant temptation of social media.  I mentioned that one of the costs of this overload and overwhelm is a loss of the capacity to achieve “flow” – a state of total immersion, energizing involvement and continuous enjoyment when undertaking a meaningful endeavour.

On reflection after writing this post, I realised that I achieve flow in two arenas of my life, one resulting in the intermittent experience of flow and the other involving a sustained flow experience – also known as “being-in-the zone”.  The two arenas of my life where I achieve some degree of flow are (1) playing social tennis and (2) researching and writing this blog.

Achieving flow while playing social tennis

What I have found while playing social tennis is that I experience periods of “flow”, sometimes during a set and other times during a point. My “preparation ritual” includes Tai Chi and this enables me, among other things, to focus on my opponent hitting the ball, observing the spin and trajectory of the shot, noticing the location of other players and choosing a return shot that takes into account this focused information.  Invariably, when I make a mistake, it is because I have been distracted by what is going on at other nearby courts (e.g. coaching lessons), resulting in my losing attention. 

My experience of flow while playing social tennis is episodic – with one exception many years ago when I achieved the experience of being-in-the-zone over two complete sets.  This early experience involved a sustained sense of flow with heightened enjoyment as a result of my seemingly, easy competence with all tennis strokes – e.g. serve returns on forehand and backhand, lobs, smashes and serving (including a second serve ace which shocked me and my opponent). 

Normally, however, I experience flow during tennis when I play a particular point during a game.  It can involve a long rally, a well-placed drive or a winning volley.  Sometimes, I play a shot that my opponents/partner marvel at, e.g. a half-volley drop shot or a half-volley backhand lob diagonally across the court when both opponents are at the net.  In these circumstances, my body is reacting instinctively, not consciously, and I am playing a shot that I have neither been taught nor have practised.  This experience is often described as achieving “unconscious competence” – you don’t have to think about shot making, it just comes naturally without any conscious intervention.  I attribute this instinctive response and the episodic experience of flow to my remote preparation (many years of playing and practising tennis) and my proximate preparation ritual which involves Tai Chi.

Achieving flow while researching and writing

I can relate to Johann Hari’s experience of achieving flow when researching and writing.  Johann described this in detail in his latest book,  Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention.  I started researching and writing the Grow Mindfulness Blog in July 2016.  I have now written more than 660 blog posts – on my calculation, in excess of 350,000 words.  I started out having difficulty writingmore than 400 words.  Now I find I have to discipline myself to keep each post to around 1,000 words or less (with the exception of top-of-the-head posts like this one).  I find writing my blog posts easy, enjoyable and productive (I can use some of the material in my manager development workshops).  I lose all sense of time and can easily create a blog post non-stop for 2 to 3 hours (I have to discipline myself to take a break after an hour).  This indicates that when writing my blog posts I can achieve flow or be lost “in-the-zone”.

I think two core things have contributed to my ability to achieve flow while researching and writing the blog.  Firstly, I have chosen a focus for the blog – mindfulness – that has become a massive area of development worldwide – in health, business, education, sports and community.  There is now an endless stream of podcasts, research papers, articles, blogs, online conferences/summits, and readily accessible mindfulness practices such as tradition-based meditations and mantra meditations.  My research area, growing mindfulness, is a treasure trove of ideas and practices and endlessly rewarding.  Each “upturned stone” reveals a new area for exploration.

Secondly, besides the limitless resource material available for research and developing my own practice, I have unconsciously instituted what Johann describes as the three pre-conditions for achieving flow – adopting a single focus, pursuing meaning and extending myself (through acquiring and sharing new knowledge and mindfulness practices).  I have to use discipline to maintain my particular focus for a blog post when researching because of the volume of material available ( I draw on a skill I developed when researching and writing my PhD – noting down for later research ideas or resource people that are interesting but not directly related to my focal topic). I also learnt a couple of years ago that, if I wanted to get into flow and stay in flow, I had to avoid reading my email before or during the process of writing (removing another possible source of distraction).  One think that does help my focus during writing is music, either specific Mozart music for concentration or mantra meditations by Lulu & Mischka.

Hugh Van Cuylenburg mentions a further pre-condition for achieving flow – a preparation ritual -which he describes in his book, Let Go.  I have adopted this practice for my writing endeavours (as well as my social tennis).  I often do my research – listening, reading or trying a meditation practice – as part of my preparation ritual.  This gives me a flow of ideas.  I will then “sleep on it” overnight and let my subconscious mind go to work to identify connections and expand on the ideas.  I write my blog post the following morning (I am a “morning person” – mornings are when I am most productive).  In this way, I am able to produce connections to previous posts I have written and/or researched, my past and current experiences, topical information, excerpts from novels I am reading, and conversations I have had.  These connections “just come to me”. 

Reflection

In addition to the proximate preparation rituals I adopt for playing tennis and writing my blog, I also engage in regular mindfulness practices, including Tai Chi and different forms of meditation (including mantra meditations).  These practices also extend to mindful eating and “mindful waiting”.   In this way, I try to develop what George Mumford describes as a “mindfulness mindset” –  achieved through adopting a variety of mindfulness practices appropriate to particular settings and time available.  These can incorporate “micro-practices”, forming part of a self-care plan.  As we adopt regular mindfulness practices, we can grow in mindfulness and achieve the realisation of flow in various arenas of our life and our different endeavours.  This can enhance our happiness and sense of who we are and contribute to achievement of our life purpose.

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Image by 춘성 강 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.

Authentic Connection and Friendship through Vulnerability

In a previous post, I discussed Hugh Van Cuylenburg’s book, Let Go: It’s time to let go of shame, expectation and our addiction to social media.  In that discussion, I highlighted Hugh’s very strong conviction that vulnerability leads to authentic connections, which are essential for positive mental health.  This conviction led to the creation, with his brother Josh and Ryan Shelton, of a podcast titled The Imperfects.  Interestingly, the first episode of the podcast involved an extended interview with Missy Higgins.

Hugh chose Missy Higgins for this first episode because he had noticed on her Instagram that she was reading Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression This choice proved a masterstroke as it set the foundation for subsequent episodes where people were encouraged to share their vulnerabilities and struggles.  Missy Higgins proved to be disarmingly honest, open and highly vulnerable.

Missy Higgins – disclosing vulnerabilities

There were a number of key areas of her life that Missy Higgins explored with Hugh in the podcast   (August, 2019), which was titled, Quitting Music, Depression & Connection.   Here are some of the vulnerabilities she discussed:

  • Depression – Missy Higgins explained that she had suffered from depression, on and off, for most of her life – she started seeing a therapist in year 11 after she became paralysed by overwhelm and collapsed.  This led to her medically-prescribed use of anti-depressants which she needs to go back to occasionally.  Missy Higgins explained that the medication enabled her to continue to do things that are good for her health such as practising mindfulness, exercising and connecting with friends and family (rather than isolating herself, a tendency reinforced by her introverted personality).   Johann Hari reinforced the value of connections and showed that there are seven social factors that exist today that represent lost connections and lead to depression and anxiety.
  • The images portrayed in magazines and social media – Missy Higgins found that the messages from social media, such as “you are not good enough”, contributed to her depression.  She indicated that women are particularly prone to these messages that communicate unrealistic and contradictory expectations, such as “you must be fit, curvy and thin”.  She felt under incredible pressure to “look good” all the time, stay thin and avoid going grey as she aged.   Missy Higgins referred to the absence of authentic role models to counteract the influence of perfect women portrayed through filters and “Photoshop”, which enables subscribers to “retouch and remix pics”.
  • Journalists’ pressure to expose her sexuality – Missy Higgins is an introvert and by nature a very private person.  However, journalists insisted on her disclosing her sexual preferences which was detrimental to her mental health and quite traumatic at a time when she was trying to work out her sexuality herself.   She noted that they were trying to “squeeze this vulnerable, personal information out of her”.  The constant harassment by journalists took its toll on her mental health.  Eventually, when she was ready, she disclosed that she was “bisexual”.  In a recent interview with Anh Do she stated that discussing her sexuality now was “really easy for me, because I don’t have anything to hide”.
  • Parenting challenge –  In a follow-up podcast interview (June, 2021) Missy Higgins spoke earnestly about how “emotionally exhausting” parenting two children was for herself and her husband, Dan.  She admitted that her children don’t like the food she cooks and hate to hear her sing at home (her source of sanity and happiness in the house!). Her son dislikes her favourite song, Special Two, and does everything possible to disturb and distract her when she is trying to compose songs on the piano.  Missy Higgins noted that “you don’t get much back” in “appreciation and reciprocity” from children, especially when they are young.  She stated that the difficulties with children and their behaviour are compounded when parents bring different “parenting styles” to a marriage so much so that she and Dan “can’t stand to be around each other” when the children are playing up.  Missy Higgins also observed that the “emotional overload” of parenting was exacerbated by the pandemic lockdown in Melbourne, leading to what has been described as “emotional inflammation”.

Turning points in Missy Higgin’s life

In the podcast, Missy Higgins described a number of key turning points in her life when she was at her lowest level of energy and mental health:

  • Touring in the US: Missy Higgins toured America for two and a half years in her early twenties to promote her songs on behalf of her record label at the time, Warner Brothers.  The experience, which included performing 260 concerts in a year, left her miserable and lonely.  Her loneliness resulted from loss of connection to family and friends in Australia and the pressures from her recording agent who were focused on achieving higher rankings for her songs on the music record charts and resultant increased revenue.  Added to this, was the pressure to write songs that were not true to her preferred type of music with its authenticity and openness.
  • Missy Higgins returned to Melbourne but found she was ill-at-ease in her home town.  She needed to escape from “prying eyes” and the artificiality of her life in America.  In 2006, Missy Higgins moved to Broome in Western Australia, the gateway to the Kimberley considered one of the great wildernesses of the world.  Broome is noted for its multiculturalism, camel rides on the beach at sunset, thriving foodie scene, natural wonders and a pearl farm.  Missy Higgins found that people in Broome were non-judgmental, treated each other “as humans” and were very linked to nature through their language and behaviour.  She stated that the constant exposure to the elements, such as monsoons, made you realise “how small your are”.  She was able to nourish herself through pursuits such as camping, bushwalking and “sitting on the beach under stars”.  After 8 months, she was able to return to Melbourne.
  • Experiencing writer’s block: After returning from Broome to Melbourne, Missy Higgins hired a flat and set up her piano and guitars to concentrate on writing songs.  She had experienced writer’s block and was trying to find a way to regain inspiration and energy for writing.  So she adopted the approach of people like Nicholas Cage and dressed for work each morning and worked a nine to five day on her writing.  However, this approach did not work for her.  She told her manager that she could no longer compose songs and that he was not to bring performance offers to her.  However, after 12 months of this imposed silence, he took the risk to present her with an offer that was too good to refuse.
  • Missy Higgins had received an offer from Sarah McLachlan to join her on a resurrected “Lilith Fair” tour in the US in mid-2010.  The Lilith Fair tours were a massive hit from 1997-1999, involving all-female festival performers and generating millions of dollars for charities.  Missy Higgins decided to join the tour and found that her positive feelings about composing songs came back to her.  She had dismissed writing songs and singing as a selfish pursuit that did nothing to make a difference in the world.  However, her fans reaction to her performances with Sarah in the US, provided endless “gratitude stories” and appreciation for how her songs over the years had made such a difference in their lives.  Missy Higgins realised then and there that her life purpose and contribution to the world flowed from writing and performing songs that communicated down-to-earth, honest feelings.
  • Avoiding criticism on social media – Missy Higgins admitted that she has always been sensitive to criticism.  There was a period before she went to Broome where she would spend a lot of time on social media and become obsessed about people leaving negative comments about her band, its composition and related decisions.  She became overwhelmed by the negativity because she tended to ignore the compliments and focus only on the negative (our brains have a negative bias).  Missy Higgins was so devastated by the negativity towards her that she did not leave the house.  Her manager, however, insisted that she had to get away from social media and stop looking for negative criticism.  He told her, “You are going to keeping reading until you find something negative” and reinforced the view that she had a tendency to hold onto the negative.  Missy Higgins stated in the podcast interview that she has “never read anything since” and this commitment was reinforced through her time in Broome.

Reflection

Missy Higgins contended “it’s a very radical act to show yourself and to love yourself” in the current social climate where everything and everyone is curated to show their “best self”.  She stated that as a performer she still has a “persona” that she puts forward in her performances.  Hugh suggested that the lyrics of her songs expressed vulnerability.  Missy Higgins responded by saying that “there is a huge difference between vulnerable in your lyrics and being vulnerable in person”.    She commented that lyrics can be shrouded in metaphor, mystery and abstraction.

Missy Higgins suggested that over time you can develop a mindset of “I have nothing to be ashamed of”, which opens the way to mutual sharing of vulnerability with another person.  She maintains that mutual vulnerability results in a “beautiful communion where both of you are recognising that you are just human” – thus acknowledging the shared human condition, vulnerability and the inability to keep everything together all the time.  Her friendship with Hugh is one example of this “beautiful communion”.  I found that being exposed to her vulnerability through The Imperfects motivated me to listen more often to her songs.  I started with the video of her live performance on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House in 2019.  I immediately found that her songs, performance and commentary had new meaning and significance for me – a new level of communion and understanding between artist and fan.

People have commented that one of the things that appeals about The Imperfects podcast is the deep friendship that is evident between Hugh, Josh and Ryan.  This comment reinforced Hugh’s conviction that vulnerability builds authentic connection and friendship.  Each of the key hosts of the podcast series have individually shared their own vulnerability in addition to adding self-disclosure to the interview responses of guests.  Hugh strongly encourages anyone to find someone to share their vulnerability with – a friend, family member, colleague, therapist – whoever they can trust with this precious, personal sharing.  Missy Higgins stated that being personally vulnerable overcomes the exhausting task of avoiding disclosing anything personal.

We can increase our self disclosure and vulnerability as we grow in mindfulness because we are able to develop a balanced perspective that recognises that we all share a vulnerable human condition that is uncertain and somewhat frightening.  Missy Higgins wrote a song about this common condition and the fact that everything is going so fast.  In introducing the song We Run So Fast during a TED× Talk, she advocated “just sitting still” and “letting time envelop you”. 

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Image by Terri Sharp 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.

Letting Go: Breaking Free of the Ties That Bind Us

In his earlier book, The Resilience Project, Hugh Van Cuylenburg discussed his search for the way to develop resilience to meet the demands of these challenging times.  In a previous post, I explained  Hugh’s  GEM pathway to resilience – gratitude, empathy and mindfulness.  This book proved to be a bestseller and Hugh has gone on to present talks to 1,500 schools, elite Australian sports teams and clubs (covering cricket, soccer, AFL and Rugby League) as well as presentations to numerous businesses and organisations.  

When reading The Resilience Project and/or hearing Hugh speak, you could be forgiven for thinking that he was one person who “had it all together”, that he was “on top of things” in his life.  However, in his follow-up book, Let Go, he exposes his own vulnerabilities and weaknesses and argues that “it’s time to let go of shame, expectations and our addiction to social media”.   Let Go could be subtitled, “The 101 Ways I have Stuffed Up in My life” or alternatively, “How My Human Foibles Have Undermined My Resilience”.   This is a disarmingly honest account of his personal vulnerabilities and how they have played out in his life.

Hugh covers a range of topics that highlight his vulnerabilities and offers suggestions on how we can address our own vulnerabilities and learn to “let go”.   Throughout the book, he generously shares what he has learnt from his therapy with Anita and discussions with Ben Crowe (famous mindset coach of people like Ash Barty).  Hugh covers  topics that are natural human reactions to the fragility and uncertainty of the human condition.   His key topics include the following that most people can relate to:

  • Shame: feelings of shame can arise from things we have done or failed to do, from negative self-talk (generated in childhood or later in adulthood) or from perceptions of what other people think or feel about us.  Hugh illustrates this by his own inaction in relation to his sister, Georgia, who suffered from mental health issues and the “shame stories” he told himself.  He reminds us that shame and associated guilt have been clinically linked to all kinds of psychological problems.  Hugh argues that we need to understand the nature of the shame that we feel and learn new, healthy ways to respond to it.  He offers a three-step process to address our shame, including sharing our shame with someone (as the hiding of shame, rather than the shame itself, causes us psychological problems).
  • Expectations:  Hugh shares stories of how his own “unreasonable expectations” caused him stress and worry in his life.  The expectations that we place on ourselves can cover any or all aspects of our life – our physical fitness, weight, academic achievements, professional life, home roles, house care or contributions to society.  We can create a living hell through these expectations that are self-fabricated and their effects can impact on others.  Hugh speaks with honesty and openness about instances in his professional speaking life where his unreasonable expectations almost derailed him.  One of the ways he was able to manage the situations was to share his vulnerability at the time and encouraged others to do likewise.  He drew strength from Frou Frou’s rendition of the song, “Let Go” and particularly the lyric, “There’s beauty in the breakdown”.  Hugh also discusses how we can become captive to the expectations of others and the freedom we can enjoy when we break free of what others have called “the tyranny of expectations”.  He offers a series of questions to address the expectations of others and the suggestion to write down the answers and then challenge the truth or otherwise of these recorded expectations. 
  • Perfectionism:  while Hugh provides a serious discussion of perfectionism and the “inner dialogue” that can plague us in every area of our life, he illustrates the hold of perfectionism by sharing a hilarious anecdote about “one (not so) perfect day”.   The story relates to  an invitation to Missy Higgins and family to join his family for a meal.  He had established a friendship with Missy Higgins who wrote the forward to his earlier book, The Resilience Project.  He was so anxious to make everything right for the day that he ended up creating a “disaster” where everything went wrong, Including his artificial grass catching fire.  He encourages us to overcome perfectionism through self-compassion and the honest exploration of all the areas of our life where our “perfectionism rules” and to challenge ourselves about “what would happen if these things weren’t perfect”.
  • Fear of Failure – Hugh illustrates this “phobia” with a humorous description of an embarrassing encounter with Hamish Blake at a café.  Hugh admired Hamish immensely and had been a long-term fan and so wanted the encounter to go well.  However, his “fear of failure” left him tongue-tied resulting in an embarrassing interaction (for both Hugh and Hamish).  Hugh goes on to discuss “atychiphobia” which he describes as “the abnormal, unwarranted and persistent fear of failure” which can result in all kinds of emotional and physical symptoms, including panic attacks.  He makes the point that some level of fear of failure can be healthy because it inspires sound preparation and conscious performance. However, an unhealthy level of fear of failure can lead us to procrastinate, avoid making an effort or miss the opportunity to pursue our life goals and make a contribution to the wellness of others.  Hugh offers an exercise on “how to let go of fear of failure”.

Reflection

One of the most profound things that Hugh asserts is that our vulnerabilities can build authentic connections.  We begin to realise that we all share the same fragility even though it may have different manifestations in each of us.  Throughout his Let Go book, Hugh explains his developing relationship with Hamish and Ryan Shelton.  It was the realisation that each of them experienced the struggle with “shame, expectation and the fear of failure” that led to the development of the podcast, The Imperfects in 2019.  Hugh and his colleagues (brother Josh and Ryan Shelton) also developed a sub-group of The Imperfect podcasts that they titled The Vulnerabilitea House which was designed to enable people to share, over a cup of tea, “something honest and a little vulnerable”.   Vulnerabilitea House interviewees included Peter Helliar, Martin Heppell and Missy Higgins, as well as Hugh, Josh and Ryan.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become aware of what is holding us back in terms of shame, expectations, perfectionism and fear of failure. This self-awareness, along with self-compassion, provides the motivation to face our frailties and the courage and persistence “to do the inside work” necessary to “let go” and break free from the ties that bind us.

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Image by Сергей Корчанов 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)

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