Changing Our Inner Landscape to Achieve Freedom

In her book The Choice: A True Story of Hope, Dr. Edith Eger tracks her journey from imprisonment in Auschwitz, to her physical liberation and, finally, her personal freedom from the imprisonment of her “inner landscape”.   She had been transported to Auschwitz by cattle train with her parents and sister and had experienced unbelievable maltreatment through torture and starvation following the murder of her parents in the gas chamber the day after they arrived at the concentration camp.

Edith contends, in concert with her mentor and friend Viktor Frankl,  that “our worst experiences can be our best teachers”.   In her later book, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, she has detailed practical steps to overcome the mental imprisonment that can occur through grief, anger, guilt, shame and other difficult emotions and experiences.  Edith does not sugar-coat the reality of daily life.  She maintains that traumatic events, setbacks, disappointments, illness and the resultant suffering are part and parcel of the human condition with its uncertainty, ambiguity and challenges.  In alignment with Gabor Maté, she argues that it is not what happens to us in life that determines our mental health, but how we relate to these experiences and their impacts  – and this is a matter of conscious choice.

Choosing freedom over victimhood

One of the 12 lessons Edith writes about in her book The Gift is freedom from “the prison of victimhood”.   She asserts that playing the victim rewards us by enabling us to blame others for our situation and avoid responsibility for our own response to our adverse experience.  This is in line with Judson Brewer’s concept of the habit loop (trigger-reward-behaviour) that provides reinforcement for habituated behaviour such as addiction and cravings.  In the victimhood context, the trigger can be any recollection or trauma stimulus event; the reward is avoidance of responsibility (not having to do anything different); and the behaviour can find expression in depression, anxiety addiction, or any number of self-destructive behaviours.   

Edith maintains that a sign of victimhood is continuously asking, “Why me?”.  In contrast, the road to personal freedom requires the question, “What now?” – given what has happened what do I need to do to survive and what do I want to achieve in the future.  This goal-directed response builds hope and energy to move forward.  The alternative is to wallow in the continuous self-story of “poor me!”.   Edith who has extensive experience as a clinical psychologist and trauma counsellor provides many accounts in her book of people, including herself, who have been able to make the choice to exchange victimhood for energetic hope and achievement. 

Edith reinforces the view that the pursuit of inner freedom is a lifetime task and she commented that even as she wrote her book, The Gift, she still experienced “flashbacks and nightmares”.  She told Gabor that his Holocaust experience would always be with him because of the embodiment of trauma.  They both agree from their own personal experience, their work as clinical psychologists and trauma counsellors and their underpinning research, that what is required to find freedom is inner work.

Edith also contends that the pursuit of inner freedom is a never-ending process of finding your “true self”.  It is a journey of self-discovery – of unearthing our inner resources, enlisting our creativity and clarifying our purpose in life.  It ultimately involves identifying the ways we can make a contribution to the welfare and wellness of others.  Edith found her path in her writing, her counselling work helping others who have experienced adverse childhood experiences and trauma and public speaking such as her TED talk, The Journey of Grieving, Feeling and Healing.   In her book, she also describes the journey to freedom from victimhood of her eldest daughter who experienced brain injury as a result of a serious fall.  Edith points out that her daughter, at one stage, actually challenged her for treating her daughter as a victim.  As Edith comments, we can assign a victim role to other people as well as ourselves, thus locking in a negative and disabling self-belief.

Reflection

I am confident that we can each identify a period in our lives, even the present day, when we felt like, and talked like, a victim.  Very few people have lived their lives free of adverse childhood experiences or other traumas – whether they involve a  relationship breakup, hurtful divorce, death of a loved one, serious injury and disablement or diagnosed life-threatening chronic illness. 

As we grow in mindfulness, we can explore our inner landscape, grow in self-awareness, identify our negative self-talk, and develop the insight and courage to pursue our personal freedom and our life purpose.

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Image by Petya Georgieva 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.

Developing a Sense of Belonging through Mindfulness

In this era of widespread depression, loneliness and disconnection, it becomes critically important to rediscover and enhance our sense of connection.  Allyson Pimentel, in one of the UCLA guided meditation podcasts, reminds us that mindfulness can ignite our sense of belonging to ourselves, other people and the earth.  Mindfulness is a pathway to reaffirming our connectedness to everything.   In the podcast, Allyson draws on the book by Sebene Selassie, You Belong: A Call to Connection.  Selene makes a profound case for our connectedness, despite differences, when she writes, “although not one, not separate” and “although not separate, not the same”.  She affirms that much of life is paradoxical, but to deny this is to turn a blind eye to the reality of our human existence on earth. 

Allyson argues that the “delusion of separateness” contributes to depression and loneliness.  She states that we all belong “in every moment and to everything” despite our traumas, injustice and racism in the world, differences in language – culture – philosophy, the presence of hate and division, and the pervasive sense of disconnection and meaninglessness.  Building a sense of connection and belonging heals wounds and divisions, contributes to positive mental health and enriches our lived experience through joy, wonder, relatedness and consciously “being with”.  Mindfulness, with its focus on what is happening now and doing so with openness, curiosity and acceptance, intensifies our sense of belonging.  Paradoxically, being still and silent leads us to compassionate action towards others through recognition of our connectedness.

At any point in time, we can sense our connection to the community of people throughout the world who are meditating, doing Tai Chi or engaging in some other mindfulness practice; or experiencing chronic pain; or dealing with the impacts of adverse childhood experiences or other trauma; or trying to manage grief; or attempting to overcome an addiction or craving; or are experiencing anxiety and depression; or any other manifestation of the human condition.  We can also become more conscious of our connection to every other living being as well as our connection with nature.

Guided meditation on belonging

At the beginning of her guided meditation, Allyson encourages us to take a number of deep breaths so that we can feel the connection with the air and our surrounds as well as begin to become more grounded and connected to ourselves. At this point, I was reminded of Lulu & Mischka’s mantra meditation, Rainbow Light and the words:

When I breathe into my heart

I breathe into the heart of all beings

After this initial grounding, Allyson encourages us to connect with our breath, sounds in the room and beyond or our bodily sensations. In connecting to the sounds surrounding us, we can become conscious of what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as the soundscape in his book, Coming to Our Senses.  Allyson reminds us to just absorb the sounds, not try to identify or interpret them or create a story about them – just be with sounds, another form of connection and belonging.  We can extend our awareness to our other senses or what Jon describes as the “lightscape”, “touchscape”, “smellscape, “tastescape” and, ultimately, our “mindscape” – “the vast empty spaciousness that is awareness itself”.

Allyson suggests that another way to feel connected and belonging is to focus on our bodily sensations related to being supported by our chair, cushion, bed or floor – whatever is connecting  our bodies to something solid and unmoving.  Being with these sensations reinforces our supported connectedness and sense of belonging.

Reflection

In the final analysis, we can choose to focus on our differences and what separates us or, alternatively, to increase our consciousness about our connection and belongingness.  As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation, mantras, and daily mindfulness practices, we can gain an increased sense of connection and belonging and draw support and positive emotions from this growing awareness.

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Image by Eddie K 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.

Compassionate Action through Grief

Rosie Ayliffe in her book, Far from Home, tells the story of how her grief after the murder of her 21 year old daughter, Mia, in a hostel in Queensland in 2016 energised her to fight for legislative reform for Australian backpackers.  She tracks the early life of her vivacious daughter who loved people and travel, shares the rawness of her grief and exposes the exploitation of backpackers who engage in the 88 days farm work requirement to qualify for a visa to stay in Australia for a second year.  Rosie describes her work to uncover the extent of the injustice towards backpackers and her campaign to redress the lack of registration and controls over the farm work scheme.

Rosie’s research fuelled by her grief and her fury over the widespread exploitation of backpackers from overseas came at considerable personal cost, not the least being reliving the nightmare of her daughter’s savage murder and that of Tom Jackson who tried to come to her aid.  In her quest to right the unspeakable wrongs, she left no stone unturned to seek justice for her daughter, Tom and the countless backpackers who had suffered as a participant in the scheme.  She met opposition from farmers, union officials, politicians and others with a vested interest in maintain the status quo.

Rosie, an experienced journalist who had travelled the world, was not put off by this opposition but was inspired by the love she had for Mia and the endless expressions of love and grief from Mia’s friends around the world.  Rosie built a network of support in Australia including the parents of Tom Jackson and organisations like the Salvation Army who had been working to support backpackers and redress the wrongs they experienced.  She also built alliances with people in England, her home country, where many people had agitated for, and achieved, a modern slavery act. 

Rosie Ayliffe on Australia Story

Rosie’s grief permeates her story and is never far from the surface.  She recounts the arduous task of creating Part 1 and Part 2 of Long Way from Home for the TV show Australia Story.  There were not only the exertions involved in filming and retakes but also the energy and effort for the additional research required and the unsettling visit to the hostel in North Queensland where Mia died.  Rosie was able to create the expose through the support of her friends, colleagues and the creators and film crew of Australis Story.   The TV show gave increased exposure to the issues for backpackers including the psychological, financial and sexual exploitation.  This, in turn, led Rosie to make a contribution to an inquiry underpinning moves for a modern slavery act in Australia.

Reform and Compassionate Action

Rosie’s efforts and determination contributed substantially to the development and promulgation of the Queensland State legislation known as the Labour Hire Licensing Act 2017 and the Federal Legislation, The Modern Slavery Act 2018.   Rosie’s story is one of love, loss and unrelenting courage written with the exemplary writing skill of a journalist, compassion of a mother, and resilience to unearth the adverse circumstances contributing to her daughter’s death.  Mia herself is never far from the surface nor is the rawness of Rosie’s grief.  As Rosie points out, grief and its expression are different for everyone and cannot be quantified or compared.  She maintains that grief for the loss of a  child is especially traumatic and enduring for a parent because there are “so many painful reminders, so many missed moments, so much wasted potential”.

Despite her grief and her anger, Rosie was able to rise above the debilitating effects of her loss, learn again to be grateful for life and show compassionate action towards the parents of the mentally ill person who murdered her daughter through her expressions of forgiveness and understanding and desire to build a relationship with them.  Therein lies the true character of Rosie, her love of others and deep, abiding compassion.

Reflection

Rosie’s story is moving, challenging and inspiring. It moves us to share the grief and sense of loss, it challenges us to take compassionate action towards others who may have hurt us and inspires us to appreciate life and the present moment, because the human condition is fragile and life is transitory.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, expressions of gratitude and reflection on our life and friendships, we can develop a deep sense of appreciation and the courage for compassionate action.

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Image by fotografierende 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.

Achieving the Benefits of Meditation Through Regular Practice

In his Mindful Monday podcast on the 9th of August, Marvin Belzer emphasised the importance of keeping meditation simple, especially when we are new to meditation – focusing on something that is simple and real such as our breath, ambient sounds, or bodily sensations.  He stressed that this simple focus enables us to experience what is happening now for us and leads to realising the many benefits of meditation such as calmness, clarity and concentration – each of which flows over into other areas of our lives such as family, work, sport and relationships.  He highlighted the need to relax into our meditation, not trying to force specific outcome.  The process of meditation that he described is similar to what I explained previously, though on this occasion there was more time devoted to silent meditation.

In a subsequent podcast on 16th of August, Marvin stressed the need for effort and patience to realise meditation’s benefits – we cannot rush the results.  He maintained that we are not aiming for perfection but need to recognise the nature of the human condition – a realisation that cultivates humility and the acceptance that we have very little control over much of our life.  However, what we can control is our ability to direct our attention – a skill that underpins much of success in life.  Controlling our attention is “doable” if we make the effort of regular meditation practice.  Marvin suggests that what helps here is humour as we recognise the frailty of our ability to concentrate for any sustained period of time without distractions.

The benefits of regular meditation practice

While sustained meditation practice can be difficult, the benefits that accrue are worth the effort and persistence involved.  These benefits include:

  • Creativity – we can develop creative solutions to our everyday problems and realise creativity in our work life.  Creativity is cultivated in an environment of stillness and silence – an environment where our mind is uncluttered and we are not overwhelmed by challenging emotions.
  • Clarity – meditation helps us to clear our minds and open ourselves to self-awareness and to insights into what we bring to a situation.  It also throws light on our life purpose – how we can utilise our life experience, skills, knowledge and values to create a better world, whether locally or globally.
  • Resilience – as we become more grounded through meditation, we can bounce back quicker and easier from setbacks and disappointments.  Meditation builds resilience because it helps us to clear false beliefs, regain perspective and overcome “emotional inflammation” that is prevalent in these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Calmness and equanimity – as we become more grounded in our breath which is always with us while we are alive, we can experience calmness and face the vicissitudes of life with equanimity.  We can use symbolic actions, such as joining our fingers, at any time during the day to recapture this sense of calm and stability.
  • Compassion – as we come to accept our own frailty in the face of life’s challenges, we can become more empathetic towards others and more motivated to take compassionate action to alleviate the pain and suffering of others.

Reflection

Meditation requires effort but multiple benefits accrue if we can sustain regular practice.  If we are not too hard on ourselves – not seeking perfection in meditation practice – we can more readily sustain the motivation to undertake regular practice, no matter how boring the process may feel at times.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more tolerant of ourselves and others, appreciate our life and live it more fully.

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Image by Iso Tuor 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.

Equanimity and Fragility of the Human Condition

Martin Brensilver, meditation teacher at UCLA, provides a guided meditation podcast on Equanimity as a Facet of Mindfulness.  In the process he explores the nature of equanimity and argues that it is not the same as passivity – it is not inaction or indifference in the face of human suffering in the world.  For Martin, equanimity involves “having a relationship with one’s deep sensory experience right now” – engaging with our deepest thoughts and feelings in the moment.  It involves being open to the full poignancy of the human condition – not deadening our experience of life but drawing out the sadness and melodrama of the human condition.  Mindfulness enables us to meet this intensity with “patience, love and tolerance” and a “soft heart”.

Martin stresses that equanimity is a fine balance between suppression of what we are feeling and thinking and becoming totally caught up in those thoughts and feelings.  Equanimity involves being fully present to our bodily sensations and open to fully experiencing our challenging emotions.  What equanimity brings to our lives is the capacity to overcome the “compulsion to act out our preferences” – the temptation to succumb to our habituated responses in the face of challenging thoughts and emotions.

Martin observes that there are times when meditation is “not fun at all”.  To be silent and still, in whatever posture we adopt, can unearth strong emotions and racing thoughts.  It can be a catalyst for uncomfortable bodily sensations.  What it does, however, is “open our hearts to ourselves” and what we are experiencing. 

The fragility of the human condition

Martin gave a talk in May 2020 as part of a retreat for Buddhist practitioners.  The podcast of the talk is titled, Vulnerability, Porousness, Equanimity, and Love.  The talk is fairly conceptual and focuses on the difference between classical Buddhist thinking on vulnerability versus modern-day Buddhist thinking.  However, Martin makes a number of points relevant to our discussion about the human condition by drawing on the work of several authors.

One of these writers is Adam Phillips, author of Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.  Adam suggests that we long for a different life from what we are experiencing.  We can become focused on “needs unmet”, “desires unfulfilled” and “roads not taken” – effectively “falling short” of our potential.  These are the “lives unlived” that we imagine could have been possible and this can lead to a sense of unrest and even “rage”.

Martin compares the human condition to that of the fragility of a plant and contrasts it to the solidity of a jewel.  He refers to Susan David’s comment that “life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility”.  In her book, Emotional Agility, Susan asserts that life involves sadness, fragility and anxiety and we need to acknowledge this, but to live our life more fully requires the courage to go beyond our comfort zone and manage our fear about uncertainty and ambiguity. 

Martin asserts that the pandemic has highlighted the downside of interdependence as well as the upside.  He suggests that we have been experiencing the “porousness of the boundary between self and world” – the pandemic has injected itself into millions of lives in numerous countries so that we are conscious that we are “living in precariousness”, we cannot ignore the fragility of the human condition.  Martin reaffirms Susan’s contention that failure to accept this vulnerability is a “major source of inhumanity” – the harmful withholding of care, concern and compassion.  He maintains that, in contrast, embracing vulnerability fully, (and with It, the possibility of rejection) leads to softening the heart and opening to patience, tolerance and care.

Developing equanimity

Martin draws on the work of Sara Lazar, a scientist researching meditation and yoga.  Sara and her colleagues in a joint research paper define equanimity as “an even-minded state” or an even disposition towards all experiences no matter their source or how they are experienced (e.g., pleasant or unpleasant).

Martin summarises Sara’s thoughts about developing the key aspects of equanimity as follows:

  1. Widen our perspective – when we are in pain or feel vulnerable (e.g. because of the pandemic), our focus narrows and we can easily lose perspective.  Martin suggests that one way to widen our perspective is to envisage the vastness of space or the time the light from stars take to journey to us.  We could also envisage the earth in space and billions of people living in diverse countries, timeframes and cultures.
  2. More readily engage in sensory experience – as suggested earlier, this means not denying experience or associated emotions but embracing them fully.  If we can accept not suppress what we are experiencing then we are better able to ride out the “the winds of feelings”, rather than tightly bracing against them.  This principle is captured in a very practical way by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book, Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using Mindfulness Meditation.
  3. Disengage from evaluative (judgemental) thinking and reactive behaviour – we have to overcome the unevenness of our response to challenging emotions and events conditioned by our habituated behaviour.  This takes a quiet confidence that is born of courage and self-awareness.  Despite our best efforts, our equanimity can ebb and flow but as we work with our deepest emotions we can widen our window of tolerance so that we are “not afraid to be overrun by experience”.

Reflection

Martin reinforces the fact that equanimity is not a steady state – it can have its ups and downs. As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can develop this “even-minded state” and ready disposition towards the challenging experiences and emotions of our life.  We can become increasingly self-aware and learn to overcome our reactivity and learned responses to stressors. 

Increasingly, we can build what Martin describes as “courageous confidence” – a healthy confidence not born of conceit but deeply embedded in consciousness of the fragility of the human condition.  We can progressively move away from acquisitiveness and self-absorption to care and compassionate action for others who together with us are experiencing life’s frailties, uncertainties and challenges.  

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Image by Anant Sharma 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.

Insights from Mindfulness

Matthew Brensilver teaches about the relationship between mindfulness and mental health based on his many years of research into treatments for addiction and resultant behaviours.  In one MARC meditation podcast he offers two key insights that derive from mindfulness.

In the podcast, he suggests that meditation practice itself is a form of training that opens us up to the potentiality of mindfulness.  It enables us to pay attention to our everyday experiences, getting in touch with our sensations and thoughts.  Matthew describes mindfulness as accepting our human condition in all its facets with openness and equanimity.  He maintains that this mindful stance generates two key insights.

Insight 1 – the difficulty of being human

If we learn through meditation to accept whatever comes our way, taking things as they are, we come to realise how difficult it is to be truly human.  This openness to experience from one moment to the next means accepting what is with equanimity – even if this involves challenges to our sense of self, career disappointment, interpersonal conflict or ill health.

It takes real courage to face the reality of our lives with full awareness, not hiding in denial or diverted by resentment.  Life often turns out to be very different to what we imagined or hoped for. Matthew states that mindfulness demands that we “make peace with the human condition” and live our lives with genuine acceptance moment to moment.  This is hard to do, even if we are able in the midst of things to express gratitude for what we do have or for the positive experiences we have had in our lives.

Insight 2 – we underestimate the capacity of our hearts and minds

Matthew suggests that our innate capacity is often obscured by aversion to difficulties, striving for “success” or the negative emotions generated by the everyday challenges of work and life.  Fear, for instance, can stop us from being creative and pursuing opportunities for personal growth and development.

Matthew argues that “sustained intention and attention” that develops with mindfulness enables us to tap into our real potential, including the ability to offer unconditional love and appreciation.  If we are able to maintain “continuity of awareness” we are able to access our full potentiality.

For Matthew, mindfulness involves not only being aware of our thoughts and emotions from moment to moment but also the ability to “pour awareness into our body” so that we are in touch with our bodily sensations as well.  He suggests that meditation helps to build this awareness because it offers the opportunity to “experience the dignity of upright posture” while, at the same time, feeling “the pull of gravity” on the rest of our body.

As we grow in mindfulness, we come to realise the difficulty of facing our human condition with equanimity, while at the same time experiencing the depth and breadth of our human potentiality.  Meditation practice helps us to accept what is and to more readily realise our full potential.

 

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

Image source: courtesy of ernestoeslava on Pixabay

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