The Impermanence of Everything and the Preciousness of Life

In Part 1 of his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses his first invitation and principle for living, “Don’t Wait”.  Frank, as founder of a hospice and end-of-life carer, has cared for more than a thousand patients during their dying process and death.  In this first part of his book, he highlights the impermanence of everything and the preciousness of each moment of living.   

Frank has been a companion to the deepest grief of friends and relatives of the dying and experienced a depth of vicarious grief that is difficult to conceive – it’s as if the collective grief of others had beset him and brought him to his knees, both physically and metaphorically.  Fortuitously, he was a colleague and friend of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross at the time who supported him in his grief and his work as an end-of-life carer.  Elizabeth developed the classic concept of the five stages of dealing with death and loss in her book On Death and Dying and was also the author of Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss.

The impermanence of everything

If nothing else, the Coronavirus reinforces the impermanence of everything through its pervasive impact on every facet of our daily lives – our home, work location, transportation, schooling and education, shopping, spending, entertainment, health, finances, sport and our very daily interactions and movements.  The on-off nature and varying intensity of imposed restrictions serve to reinforce this message of the changeability of everything.  In these challenging times, we are called to adapt to the unpredictability of our work, our changing home arrangements, the extreme challenge to our health and welfare, and the uncertainty of our income and overall finances.

Without the pandemic, we can still become aware of impermanence – the birth and death cycle for humans, animals and nature.   Relationships end, animals are killed and eaten by other animals in the endless pursuit of food and survival and leaves fall off trees to become life-giving compost for new plant growth.  

The impermanence of everything was brought home to me by two recent incidents.  The first was the disturbing story of a nurse killed suddenly in our city while cycling to work.  Her husband indicated that their day started as normal with a coffee and breakfast together but ended tragically when the nurse was only metres away from her work at the hospital.

The second experience of impermanence occurred when I was walking along the foreshore of Moreton Bay near our home.  I was watching the small fish full of life darting back and forth in the marina when a fast-moving bird dived into the water and retrieved one of the fish for its food – only to be followed by other birds dive-bombing the school of little fish. 

The preciousness of life

Frank describes the process of dying as a “stripping away” of everything including our sense of “self” – our sense of who we think we are and should be, all our roles such as husband/wife, partner, parent, neighbour.  We lose our professional identity, our personal orientation, e.g. as a “people person” and our comparative self-assessment such as well-off or impoverished and successful or an abject failure.  Frank reinforces his view of the inadequacy of the medical model to explain the breadth and depth of the “stripping away” at death.  He maintains that in dying everything is released/dissolved – “the gross physical elements of the body, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, conditioning all dissolving”.  Frank asserts that what is left to discover is “something more elemental and connective” that constitutes the real essence of human nature.

Our awareness of impermanence, accentuated by illness, can lead to anxiety or a readiness to appreciate and savour the preciousness of life, of our relationships and of nature.   Through appreciating the pervasiveness of impermanence, we can more readily accept change and more willingly give up our attachments – the things that we hold onto to define our self and our worth.   This is where meditation can help us both in fully living and preparing for dying and death.

The “Don’t Wait” principle reminds us of the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the timing of our death – that it will happen, but we don’t know when or how.  This principle encourages us to value every moment we are alive and to savour what we have in life and the experiences of living.  Frank’s heart attack reinforced this message for him – his sense of self and perception of himself as the “strong one” helping everyone else in need was completely undone.  He encourages us to be curious about ourselves and our preferences/attitudes/ biases and to work at letting go of the identities that we have become attached to.

 Frank maintains that “softening around these identities, we will feel less constraint, more immediacy and presence”.  I am learning the profound truth of this statement through softening my identification with being a “good” tennis player who never or rarely makes mistakes.  Instead of wallowing in negative self-evaluation, I am beginning to enjoy the freedom of progressively loosening this unsustainable identification as I grow older and less physically able.

Reflection

Frank’s book would have to be the easiest and most-engrossing personal development book I have had the privilege to read, and, at the same time, the most profound.  As someone who has had a deep interest in, and knowledge of, his subject, he can communicate his ideas in simple language and practical illustrations.  Each paragraph contains exquisite morsels of wisdom and the book is replete with moving but brief stories that impress indelibly – so, even if you don’t remember the exact wording of his principles, you certainly remember the stories that illustrate them.  Frank’s writing reflects the calmness, humility and depth of insight and wisdom that is evident in his many conversations and podcast interviews about the process of dying and “The Five Invitations”.

“Don’t Wait” is a challenging principle but Coronavirus has forced us to stop, reassess and protect ourselves and others.  It has been the catalyst for incredible acts of courage and kindness – by our health professionals and people from all walks of life.  The Pandemic Kindness group on Facebook©, with over half a million members, is but one of many efforts to encourage and support random acts of kindness in these challenging times.

The “Don’t Wait” principle incorporates many invitations to create change in our lives.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become increasingly aware of our attachments (including to harmful self-narratives) and progressively develop the discipline and self-regulation to create real change in our lives to live with more appreciation, thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion.  We can learn to savour every moment of our life and everything that it entails.

__________________________________________

Image by christels 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.

Healthy Confidence or Superior Conceit?

In a previous post I discussed how mindfulness can be an effective antidote to narcissism, both in curbing our own narcissistic tendencies and managing the aftermath of a relationship with a narcissistic boss or intimate partner.  I also highlighted the work of Rick Hanson who promotes healthy confidence to achieve an effective balance between needing to be seen as superior and developing a grounded but strong sense of self.  Rick pursues this dilemma in his podcast titled, Confidence or Narcissism?  One of our challenges in developing healthy confidence is to find effective role models  – many of our leaders in government, business and sport have failed to resolve this dilemma in their public lives.

Superior conceit displayed by sports stars – defective role models

In the earlier blog post, I shared Bonnie Duran’s perspective on narcissism where she relates it to the Buddhist concept of superior conceit – the need to be “better than” or “superior to”.  Bonnie explains superior conceit in one of her podcast talks titled, Conceit and Latent Torments.

There are many instances of elite sportsmen and sportswomen displaying superior conceit and related narcissistic behaviour.  For example, narcissistic behaviours have been exhibited by international tennis stars who:

  • Abuse chair umpires and line umpires
  • Throw their racquets in disgust or anger and/or throw tantrums on the tennis court if things don’t go their way
  • Demonstrate a total lack of empathy or concern for the feelings of others
  • Boast about how much they have earned from tennis and their total asset worth (as if their financial resources are a measure of their personal worth)
  • Show a lack of respect for their opponents and/or tennis fans
  • Seek to win at any cost, even if this means cheating or bullying others.

Ash Barty – an effective role model for healthy confidence

Ash Barty has achieved more in one year (2019) than most tennis players (male or female) achieve in a lifetime.  She reached World Number 1 ranking in June 2019 (and held it at the end of the year) and won the French Open, the Birmingham Classic, the Miami Open, and the WTA Women’s Finals – Shenzhen (after being runner-up at the China Open).  Ash was the winner of a tour-topping 52 matches

On top of these achievements, she has been awarded (in 2019) the Don Award (by Sport Australia Hall of Fame), the Women’s Health Sportswoman of the Year, and the ITP Fed Cup Heart Award (for outstanding courage and distinctive representation & commitment).   The individual Don Award is for an Australian athlete “who, by their achievements and example over the last 12 months, are considered to have the capacity to most inspire the nation”.   These awards recognise that in so many ways Ash is a role model, not only for sportspeople but all of us who aspire to achieve “healthy confidence” and its attendant rewards.  Her status as a role model for other Indigenous women had been recognised in 2018 when she was named Australia’s first National Indigenous Tennis Ambassador.

Ash demonstrates healthy confidence through the following traits:

  • Resilience in the face of adversity and setbacks
  • Recognition of the need to take time out to achieve a better balance in her life and master self-management (she spent 18 months playing state-level cricket)
  • Respect for tennis opponents, officials and fans (a trait that is widely acknowledged and appreciated)
  • Empathy and compassion for others
  • Authenticity and humility
  • Amazing capacity to focus and sustain her concentration
  • Valuing and publicly recognising her support team.

Ash readily acknowledges the profound contribution of her mentor and mindset coach, Ben Crowe, in shaping her outstanding success.  Ben observed that, in addition to the abovementioned traits, Ash demonstrates the following characteristics:

  • Acknowledges that there is strength in vulnerability, rather than needing to claim or pursue perfection
  • Recognises that she can “write her own story”, not accept habituated, negative self-stories
  • Has the ability to let go of the things she cannot control while maintaining focus on what is under her control
  • Does not let tennis define who she is, but pursues her true self and values depth of character
  • Is prepared to put in the hard work to achieve continuous self-improvement and excellence.

His insightful and revealing explanation of the underlying philosophy that he has been able to impart to Ash explains why she is an exemplar of healthy confidence. 

One of the problems for us in trying to develop our own healthy confidence is that bad behaviour has dominated the attention of mainstream media, whereas Ash’s exemplary behaviour has been buried under the controversy associated with narcissistic behaviour displayed by some international tennis players.  Kate O’Halloran, writing for the ABC, expressed the hope that Ash’s French Open win will turn the spotlight more on “an exemplary sportswoman whose respected demeanour and success” has failed to attract the media attention that it deserves.

Reflection

There are some very profound lessons for us in the philosophy and behaviour of Ash Barty and some ideas about how we might develop our own healthy confidence.  However, we should be careful of joining the chorus to criticise the narcissistic behaviour of individual international sports stars while indulging in narcissistic tendencies ourselves. 

We can ask ourselves when the last time was that we made a point of highlighting our qualifications or the nature and breadth of our experience when meeting someone for the first time? When did we attempt to outdo someone else’s story (about the drama we experienced, the places we have seen or the achievements we have realised)? How often do we interrupt others’ conversations to focus attention on ourselves? When have we thought that our car/house/dress attire is better than that of someone else’s?  Do we ever measure our personal worth in terms of the assets we have or the importance of our job?  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become progressively more aware of our own narcissistic tendencies and begin to develop a healthy confidence and deep sense of our real self.

____________________________________________

Image by Alexas_Fotos 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.

Trauma-Informed Mindfulness: Principles for Effective Helping

Sam Himelstein has specialised for more than 12 years in using mindfulness to help teenagers impacted by trauma.   In a podcast interview with David Treleaven, Sam explained in depth his approach to teaching mindfulness to teens affected by trauma, as well as the evolving principles that shape his practice. While his focus is primarily on teens and educating others to work with teens, his approach and principles have relevance to anyone who is using mindfulness to assist people impacted by trauma (or anyone who is teaching mindfulness where a participant is a trauma sufferer).  He has developed his principles through ongoing reflection on practice.

Sam is a psychologist and youth worker and the author of A Mindfulness-Based Approach to Working with High-Risk Adolescents and the forthcoming book, Trauma-Informed Mindfulness for Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.  He is also the founder of the Center for Adolescent Studies.

Principles for trauma-informed mindfulness practice

In discussing his approach to working with teens impacted by trauma, including incarcerated youth, Sam identified several principles that guide his practice:

  • Avoid “adultism” – the assumption that as an adult you are superior to teens and have a lot to teach youth and they have very little in the way of wisdom to offer.  Associated with this false belief, is the assumption that you know best what is good for them – implying that they should learn from your teachings (that you try to impose on them).  This also involves recognising the wisdom they gained in their transition to a teenager. [You can also test your assumptions when working with adults – do you assume that they have no insights into the nature and practice of mindfulness?]
  • Work from where they are at – do not begin with formal meditation as they are unlikely to be ready for this.
  • Focus on relationship-building – consciously build trust in every aspect of your interaction, as their level of trusting others will have been severely damaged by their trauma experience(s). 
  • Assist teens to become comfortable with “sitting with themselves” and exploring “inner awareness”.
  • Be genuinely curious about what is happening for them and what they are doing to cope – bring an open mind to the interaction.  It can be helpful to identify and test your own assumptions before interacting.
  • Develop your own mindfulness continuously – your inner and outer awareness – and learn to let go of “ego” and the need to control the process.

Reflection

When teaching mindfulness to adults and youth, we need to be aware of the possibility that they may have been impacted by trauma(s) in their life.  Being conscious of the principles employed by Sam will help us to demonstrate sensitivity, build trust and relationships, and work at their pace – rather than to a pre-ordained progress schedule.  It will be imperative for us to grow in mindfulness – becoming fully aware of the assumptions we bring to the teaching/interaction, letting go of ego and the need for control, and genuinely engaging with curiosity, humility and openness.

____________________________________________

Image by Lubos Houska 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 Relational Mindfulness

Terry Real, in his podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True, introduced the concept of “relational mindfulness”.  He described this as a skill that we can develop through meditation and reflection.  It entails being able to be in-the-moment in your interactions within your close relationships and to respond from your “adult prefrontal cortex”, while being conscious of the potential, automatic and harmful response of your wounded child.

Relational mindfulness requires recognising that your close relationship is your “biosphere” – it is integral to your ecology.  Terry suggests that “thinking relationally is synonymous with thinking ecologically”.  This, in turn, requires humility – recognition of the mutuality of the relationship, moving beyond the hurt of your wounded child and acknowledging your mistakes and the hurt of the other person.  It also entails being conscious enough to avoid triggering a negative response from the wounded child of the other person in the relationship.

It takes a lot of self-monitoring and self-management developed through meditation and reflection to achieve the requisite humility.  If you can develop self-regulation, you are better able to access your considered, adult response rather than be at the mercy of your compulsive wounded child.

Taking a break to recover and commit to the welfare of the relationship

If, however, despite your best efforts, you are flooded emotionally when you are triggered by the actions or words of your partner, you can withdraw from the interaction.  Terry suggests that the adult, considerate way to do this is to state three things:

  1. your need to take a break to deal with your own emotions around the issue under discussion
  2. your desire to re-engage in a reasonable time, e.g. in an hour
  3. your willingness to think about how the needs of both of you can be met.

It is critical to see the conflicted interaction not as an opportunity to win or prove your partner wrong, but as a chance to take care of your partner (as well as gain increased self-awareness).  Taking care of your partner may mean apologising (this is where humility helps) and asking what you can do to help your partner or to make good their “hurt”.  Accusations targeted at the other’s wounded child only inflame the situation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection we can develop relational mindfulness in our everyday interactions within our close relationships.   Meditation practice and reflection on our interactions will help us build a relational mindset and develop adult responses in situations that trigger our wounded child.  This relational mindfulness, then, will enrich and sustain our close relationships.

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

Image source: courtesy of cocoparisienne 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.

Grow Mindfulness through Humility

I have been discussing being mindful at work.  It seems appropriate to draw on the lessons from superb leaders who turned their companies into great companies that enjoyed longevity as well as success.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins identified what characterised these highly successful leaders.  It was not, as you might surmise, their outgoing nature, their capacity to “sing their own praises” or their readiness to boast about the achievements of their companies.  These great leaders were characterised by two key qualities, “personal humility and professional will” reflected in their quiet, almost shy, demeanour together with their determination and resilience

I want to concentrate on the “personal humility” quality here.  Humility is closely linked to mindfulness in that genuine humility requires a level of self-awareness that is realistic and accurate and not based on negative self-evaluation.

Developing mindfulness through personal humility

Personal humility is a “road less travelled”.  Most people are either boastful of their achievements (a habit cultivated by our competitive society) or dishonestly “modest”.  The middle road is difficult to achieve but beckons when you want to grow in mindfulness and achieve its attendant benefits.

Shamash Alidina, author of The Mindful Way Through Stress, provides some strategies to develop personal humility in his insightful and comprehensive article on how to be mindful at work:

  1. Develop mindfulness practices  – as we have seen through the blog posts on this site, mindfulness meditations and activities help you to develop a genuine self-awareness that is neither boastful nor involves “beating up on yourself”.  These practices enable you to move from self-absorption (talking about your own achievements all the time in conversations with others) to recognition of what others have contributed to your present success.
  2. Being conscious of who has helped you – at any point in time, you can take a few minutes to focus on who has helped you to be where you are.  Being conscious of what you have it terms of work, colleagues and professional networks, can help you to develop a fine-grained awareness of those who have contributed to making you who you are and what you have achieved.
  3. Show appreciation to those who have helped you – this can be expressed towards people who have done even the smallest thing to help you, e.g. finding a resource for you or linking you to another person or idea.  If you develop the habit of showing appreciation in your everyday life, then it becomes a spontaneous act to do so in your work situation/ professional life.  Often we appreciate someone’s words or actions but fail to communicate this to them – we assume they know.  Expression of appreciation is an act of gratitude that builds mindfulness.
  4. Value the opinion of others – it is so easy to quickly dismiss the perspective, opinions or  views of others as if our stance is the right one all the time. However, being humble demands a recognition of the limitations of our own perceptions, knowledge and skills and an openness to others through respectful listening for understanding.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices, being conscious of who has helped us and showing appreciation and respect for their help and alternative opinions, we can progressively develop a true personal humility.

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

Image source: courtesy of Wokandapix 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.