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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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.

Life Review:  How are You Protecting Your Attention?

Previously I discussed the prospect of undertaking a personal life review by chunking up the task and focusing on some aspect of your life, e.g. self-care plan, putting yourself in other’s shoes (role reversal), reviewing your life purpose (what gives meaning to your life) or addressing the questions that arise from near-death experiences or the experiences of the dying.  Here I focus on your capacity to pay attention and ways to protect it as a part of a life review (how you spend your time and energy).

In his latest book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, Johann Hari, warns us that our capacity for paying attention is being stolen from us hourly, every day.  He researched and wrote the book because he found that his attention span and that of others was diminishing rapidly.  He found, for example, that he no longer was engaged in “sustained reading’ of novels, a pastime he loved.  He pointed out that because of the pace of life and our expectations (our own and that of others), we have resorted to multitasking. Research increasingly points out that multitasking, designed for computer processing, is undermining our ability to pay attention and our capacity to focus.

Johann maintains that multitasking continuously serves up distractions (the next task before the current one is completed), causes us to “switch” and lose time restarting, and robs us of the power of immersion which enables us to gain depth of insight through recognition of connections.  I used to tell my doctoral students that they will not be able to contribute new knowledge (a basic doctoral requirement) unless they spend the time to focus and immerse themselves totally in their topic (always setting aside interesting ideas that do not relate directly to their focus).   One consequence of multitasking is that we gain only superficial knowledge, miss important insights and undermine our capacity to reflect-in-action and reflect-on-action.

A digital retreat

Johann adopted a radical solution to restore his capacity to pay attention.  He took a “digital retreat” far away in a reasonably remote place without access to the internet.  He had a phone with no internet access (for emergencies only) and a laptop that served as a word processor only (not having internet access).  He found that the three months he spent in this retreat from digital overload challenged him immensely.  He noted that he continuously sought his phone as his default when he was bored and that he could not write because of his mental disturbance through lack of access to external news and information.  He allowed himself morning newspapers which served to keep him up to date but were well within his capacity to understand and absorb (unlike the usual information overload and overwhelm that normally arrives via the internet and social media that felt like “having your mouth on water from a fire hose”).  He suggested that the speed of information flow that we are bombarded with is effectively “a constant drip-feed of anxiety provoking factoids” (information that is unreliable but treated as if it were fact).

As Johann regained his balance through spending time in nature and enjoying the surrounding waters of his beachside location, he found that he could slowly begin to focus on writing a new book which he had been planning for some time.  His capacity to pay attention returned as well as his creativity.  He found that once again he was “in the flow” –  a state that he commonly achieved earlier on when researching and/or writing.

Undermining our “flow”

Johann suggests that the continuous flow of internet-based information and habitual tendency to access it is “crippling our flow states”.  He draws on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who coined the phrase “flow”.  People who achieve “flow” or are “in-the-zone” tend to sustain their attention and focus (without distraction), lose track of time and achieve optimal performance in whatever endeavour they are undertaking.  Johann, drawing on the work of Mihaly maintains that to achieve flow, you need to satisfy three conditions – (1) have a single focus/goal, (2) which involves something that is meaningful, and (3) incorporates a  “stretch” element (not too easy but not way beyond your capabilities, in other words, extends your capacities.)

Johann developed a close friendship with Mihaly and, in his “Stolen Focus” book, provides a unique insight into Mihaly’s life and how he developed the concept of “flow”.  This makes interesting reading and reinforces Mihaly’s orientation to “positive psychology” and his rejection of the deterministic approach of B.F. Skinner and his processes of “positive reinforcement” and “negative reinforcement” used to train animals, especially pigeons.  Johann, like Mihaly, contends that we have a choice – we can choose “fragmentation” (continue to live a life of distraction, information overload and emotional inflammation) or adopt the practices that lead to a life of “flow”. 

Reflection

When you read Johann Hari’s research and deep reflection in his Stolen Focus book, you become increasingly aware of the denigration of our capacity to pay attention and focus.   His work prompts a number of questions that could be used as a basis for a life review:

  • How are you using mindfulness practices to develop your openness to change?
  • Do you take “pauses” amongst the busyness of life to regain focus and clarity?
  • Are you obsessed with the news?
  • Are you willing to take a “digital detox” to overcome what Hugh Van Cuylenburg describes as “addiction to social media”.

Johann undertook an extended “digital detox” through his digital retreat and his “Stolen Focus” book (with its research of over 250 scientists) provides indisputable evidence of his ability to regain his capacity to pay attention and focus, and achieve flow.

As we adopt different mindfulness practices or undertake a regular practice such as Tai Chi or Yoga we can grow in mindfulness and gain insight into our “inner landscape”, develop our courage and motivation to change and achieve increased powers of attention and focus.  This will bring more frequent incidences of flow in our lives and help us to experience a greater sense of achievement, joy and happiness.  A starting point is to review our life and explore what we are doing to protect (or undermine) our attention and focus.  Daniel Goleman reminds us in this era of chronic distractedness that Focus is the Hidden Driver of Excellence – a conclusion he reached through exploration of the science of attention.

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

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

    

A Compassionate Approach to Addiction

Gabor Maté argues for a compassionate approach to addiction in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.   He points out that Portugal has successfully decriminalised the personal use of drugs that were previously illicit with the result that they have seen “a reduction in drug habits, less criminality, and more people in treatment”.

However, he maintains that a key success factor in this decriminalised approach is the development of effective rehabilitation processes and comprehensive resources to support them.   Such rehabilitation approaches need to be viewed as ongoing and long-term as well as “patiently pursued and compassionately conducted”.  Gabor claims too that Portugal’s success in decriminalisation of personal drug use is influencing the development  of a more compassionate approach in Norway and Canada.

Gabor contends that addictions. no matter what their form or manifestation, in very many cases have their origins in the pain resulting from adverse childhood experiences.   For example, in his book he explains that the self-harm (lacerations) employed by “Arlene” creates pain that obliterates, however briefly, “the pain of a larger hurt deep in the psyche” – a deep pain resulting from sexual exploitation when she was young.

Parents reaction to addiction suffered by their adult child or children often involves hurt or anger, instead of understanding and compassion.  This censorious stance is underpinned by self-blame and a lack of self-awareness.

Gabor maintains that parents should not be blamed for their children’s addictive behaviour – they have most likely experienced intergenerational trauma and “unwittingly bequeathed” to their children their “own unresolved or unconscious trauma”.  They have tried to cope with their own pain by what Johann Hari describes as “disconnection from childhood trauma” in his book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression.  

Adopting a holistic approach

Gabor also argues that a holistic approach to addiction in all its forms requires teaching people ways of self-care including meditation and other mindfulness practices as well as what he describes as “body-work” which covers practices such as yoga and Tai Chi and other forms of martial arts.  Included in self-care approaches would be training in nutrition and overall stress management approaches such as reconnection to nature.

While Gabor acknowledges the benefits of 12-step approaches like that adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and GROW, he asserts that these approaches are not for everyone and other methods may be more appropriate for some people.  He argues for an approach that he calls “compassionate inquiry” which is based on trauma-informed understanding and a depth of inquiry that pursues causal factors rather than just seeks alleviation of symptoms. 

The aim of compassionate inquiry is to help the person suffering addiction to identify the trauma/traumas that they have experienced early in life, to isolate the resultant negative self-messaging and to ultimately confront and name the underlying pain they are seeking to alleviate through their ineffectual addictive behaviour.

Reflection

Underpinning Gabor’s compassionate approach is his unshakeable belief, informed by research and decades of field work, that addiction “arises from thwarted love” and that it is “one of the commonest and most human manifestations of torment”.  He maintains that the addicted person is constantly seeking external solutions for their internal “insatiable yearning for relief and fulfillment” – a state he describes as the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and body-work practices such as Tai Chi we can enhance our self-awareness, reduce self-blame and increase our understanding and compassion towards ourselves and others who are addicted.

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

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

A Meditation for Situational Anxiety

The meditation described here is one of many podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  The presenter is Diana Watson, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC and author of The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness.  In the book, Diana explains the nature of natural awareness and how to develop it.

Diana is the main presenter of the MARC meditation podcasts that cover a wide range of topics designed to build self-awareness, increase self-regulation, and enhance overall well-being.  Diana describes the weekly meditation sessions as an oasis in the midst of our turbulent and challenging times.  In the meditation podcast described in this blog post Diana focuses on the topic, Are You Anxious?  The meditation is particularly powerful for people dealing with situational anxiety, e.g., awaiting a medical diagnosis or preparing for a job interview.  

The meditation may not work for some people who are experiencing a continuous state of non-specific anxiety.  The work of Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections, may be useful here.  Also , people who have experienced childhood trauma may find the trauma-sensitive mindfulness approaches more in keeping with their present experience.

The mind-body connection in anxiety

When we experience the emotion of anxiety, we become conscious of the close mind-body connection involved.  Anxiety can be felt in the body in many ways, e.g., “butterflies in the stomach”, aches and pains in arms and/or legs, tightness in the chest or constriction or soreness of the throat.  Simultaneously, we will be experiencing negative thoughts such as imagining the worst possible scenario, questioning our ability to cope, recalling previous “failures” or envisaging a poor outcome.  The combination of thoughts and uncomfortable bodily sensations creates a vicious cycle with one reinforcing the other.

What compounds the difficulty of dealing with anxiety is that it has a bad name – it is considered a bad emotion.  Karla McLaren, author of Embracing Anxiety, suggests that anxiety is a necessary emotion within which lies the wisdom to identify and support constructive action to deal with our challenges, tasks, and expectations. She offers ways to access the “genius of anxiety” to channel the inherent energy towards constructive action (instead of repression or suppression of the feeling).

A guided meditation for situational anxiety

Diana’s podcast begins with a grounding exercise covering breath, bodily sensations, and sounds.  Grounding is particularly relevant to dealing with anxiety because, as Johann points out, this emotion often arises from a sense of disconnection.   In the meditation, Diana strongly encourages us to feel the support of the chair, the earth, and our immediate environment – an approach designed to alleviate feeling unsupported in facing the challenges of life and to reinforce a sense of connectedness.

The next phase of the meditation focuses on our uncomfortable bodily sensations – getting in touch with, and reconnecting to, our bodies. It involves noticing how our body is responding to the emotion of anxiety and progressively releasing any tension, tightness, or constriction through a proactive body scan.

Moving beyond bodily sensations, Diana encourages us to address our negative thoughts by drawing on our inner wisdom to ask a series of challenging questions – what Karla calls “conscious questioning”.  This approach taps into previous achievements, challenges unfounded assumptions and catastrophe thinking and seeks to identify one or more constructive steps that can be taken to reduce anxiety and progress the task, project, or other challenging endeavour.

Diana rounds off her guided meditation on situational anxiety by encouraging us to engage in a loving kindness meditation – extending kindness to ourselves and others, particularly to those who are also experiencing anxiety.

Reflection

I recently used this guided meditation to help me deal with a challenging situation.  I found the body scan enlightening in the sense of unearthing and dealing with the uncomfortable bodily sensations associated with my anxiety.  The “conscious questioning” was also very constructive.  As we grow in mindfulness through guided meditations, whether face-to-face or via a podcast, we can increase our self-awareness (especially in relation to how our body and mind work in unison), develop our self-regulation by reducing reactivity and increase our sense of well-being and the associated ease.

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Image by Lars Eriksson 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.

Connection – a Deeply Felt Need

In these times of physical distancing precipitated by the Coronavirus, we can feel the need for connection more than ever.  We readily recognise the importance of social connection, our connection to other people, for our mental health and wellness, but often overlook our very real connection to nature and the physical world.

Connection in nature

Time-lapse photographer, filmmaker and producer, Louis Schwartzberg, reminds us that every living creature relies on other living creatures for its continued existence.  He illustrates this concept through his recent film, Fantastic Fungi, where he shows how the mycelium network mirrors the internet in its pervasiveness above and under the ground.  Mycelium is the vegetative branchlike structure that fruits to produce mushrooms and other fungi. They are critical to the “terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems” because of their role in decomposing organic material and contributing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  They are invisible but cover massive areas. providing nutrients to the fungi and serving as “biological filters” – a term developed by world famous mycologist Paul Stamets who was a significant contributor to Louis’ film.   In a recent TED© talk, Paul described six ways mushrooms can save the world, including treating viruses.

Louis, commenting on his movie, Fantastic Fungi, said that the real surprise for him in making the film about mycelium was the pervasiveness of connection.  He said that in these times of physical distancing (social isolation and social distancing), people are realising that what they want most is connection.   In Louis’s view, the core idea emerging from the film is that “connection is really nature’s instruction”.  

Our connection to nature

In Fungi Day Live, Louis led discussions with co-author, Paul Stamets; Jeremy Narby – anthropologist and author; Francoise Bourzat – author of Consciousness Medicine; and Jason Silva – filmmaker, author and creator of the FLOW SESSIONS podcast.  In discussing his short connection video, Jason explains that films provide a unique connection – enabling people to see the world from someone else’s perspective, to get inside their heads.  He firmly believes that his role as filmmaker is to share his insights, engage in “intersubjective communion with other people” and provide an experience of connection that is “beyond language”.  He cited astrophysicist, Neil de Grasse Tyson, to reinforce his passionate commitment to communicate about connection:

We are all connected. To each other biologically. To the earth chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.  

Paul Stamets maintains that the Coronavirus is a result of our destruction of the “immune system of the environment” through deforestation, pollution, monoculture and other non-economically and non- ecologically sustainable solutions.   Like the other presenters in Fungi Day Live, he asserts that we have failed to understand and respect nature – our source of inspiration, energy, wellness and breath.  Jeremy, too, maintains that we have become disconnected from nature and live our lives in cement blocks and travel around in “glass-and-metal-bubbles”. 

Reflection

These filmmakers, authors and researchers have spent a lifetime exploring, understanding and sharing about nature and its interconnectedness and our connection to it.  As Florence Williams asserts, we are suffering from “nature-deficit disorder” and separation from the healing benefits of nature.  Johann Hari argues that reconnection with nature and with each other is a means of overcoming depression and childhood trauma.  We can grow mindfulness through nature and experience its many physical and psychological benefits, including calmness and the experience of connection.  Lulu & Mischka provide us with one way to do this through their mantra meditations, including their “stillness in motion” mantra they sing while sailing with the whales.

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

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

Turning From Envy to Valuing the Success of Others

Johann Hari, in his  book Lost Connections, discusses various ways to achieve reconnection to other people, to meaningful work and to meaningful values.  In looking at ways to reconnect with others he maintains that the challenge is to overcome self-addiction (what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “myself as the center of the universe”), and transition to valuing the success of others (what Johann calls “sympathetic joy”).  To illustrate this transition, he tells the story of his friend Rachel who was consumed by envy – a divisive emotion that is socially constructed.

Envy – a socially constructed emotion

Rachel was able to describe how she experienced disappointment, sadness and depression when others succeeded at the expense of her own self-evaluation.  She explained that she had become driven by society’s values that encouraged comparison, competition and materialistic values – a society that was based on the assumption that if others achieved power or success there was less to go around for herself (a “zero-sum” perspective).

She lacked happiness and joy in her life because she always came up lacking when comparing herself with others – whether the basis of comparison was financial or professional success, the quality of her home or car or her level of visibility/perceived credentials.  This led increasingly to disconnection from others, in part because she could not express appreciation for their achievements and distanced herself to reduce her envy.

In Johann’s book, Rachel describes how she was able to turn from envy to valuing the success of others – how she was able to progressively experience and express “sympathetic joy”.

Developing sympathetic joy through loving-kindness meditation

Rachel explains how she turned to loving-kindness meditation as a pathway to overcome the pressure of society’s expectations and her socially constructed envy.  Overcoming addiction to self was a slow journey, but as she began to express positive emotions towards others when they “succeeded”, she was able to release the stranglehold of society’s expectations embed in her sense of self.

There are various forms of loving-kindness meditation and the form Rachel described entailed the following steps:

  • You picture yourself being successful in some arena of activity and allow the resultant joy to flow through you – experiencing it holistically in mind, body and emotion
  • You then visualise someone you love succeeding in some endeavour, and again open yourself fully to the resultant joy
  • You progressively focus on success and joy in relation to someone you don’t know well or are not close to, then someone you dislike and lastly someone for whom you have a strong dislike.

This loving-kindness meditation – expressing happiness for the success of others – eventually erodes envy and replaces it with appreciation, valuing others and experiencing real joy (that is no longer solely dependent on your own success but also embraces the success of others).

Reflection

We can move from envy to sympathetic joy as we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness meditation and reflection.  As the neuroscientists continually reminds us, “we become what we focus on” – if we focus on valuing the success of others (in whatever arena) we will experience joy, if we continue to envy the success of others, we will become consumed by envy and resentment and become disconnected from others.  Sympathetic joy is a pathway to personal happiness, whereas envy leads to sadness, depression and despair because our self-evaluation is based on distorted comparison with others.

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Image by Eric Michelat 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.

Fearlessly Tackling Your Meaningful Work

In previous posts, I have explored the nature of procrastination, the need to bring the self-stories above the line and the importance of building the awareness muscle to be able to identify and challenge our self-defeating thoughts.  Leo Babauta takes this discussion a step further by arguing that we need to be fearless in the pursuit of our meaningful work – pursuing the work that is our life purpose despite our reservations, uncertainties and discomfort.  To fearlessly tackle our meaningful work takes bravery (facing pain without fear) and courage (facing pain despite the presence of fear).

Identifying your rationalisations

Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, argues that to pursue your life purpose represented by meaningful work, you need to face up to the rationalizations that your brain dreams up (a Zen Habits blog post).  He maintains that these rationalizations are really lies that your fearful brain invents to discourage you from taking creative action that is breaking new ground, uncertain in outcome and potentially creating discomfort for you.  The discomfort can take the form of psychological pain (e.g. embarrassment, shame, self-doubt) or physical pain (e.g. headache, bodily tension).   In discussing the numerous rationalization that your mind could think up, Leo suggests potential counters to the mind’s arguments – all of which are enlightening in themselves as they challenge your core self-beliefs.  His blog post serves as a comprehensive checklist to explore your own rationalizations.

Dealing with rationalizations

In his blog post, Leo provides a range of strategies that you can use to deal with the rationalizations that get in the road of you pursuing your meaningful work:

  • Write down your rationalizations (you can use Leo’s checklist as a catalyst) and come up with contrary arguments based on the evidence of your past experiences
  • Treat the rationalization for what they are – invented lies driven by fear and designed to stave off pain and/or discomfort.  Stop believing that they are real and will inevitably eventuate.
  • Avoid your brain’s attempt to negotiate its way out of starting, e.g. putting off the starting time because it is inconvenient or too soon.
  • START– however small a step.  Movement in the right direction overcomes inertia and creates a momentum.  Leo suggests that you practice “moving towards [not away from] what you resist”
  • Become aware that as you practise, movement towards your goal becomes easier – you will experience less resistance and begin to overcome your rationalizations through evidence-based achievement, e.g. the new belief, “I can do this task!”  Leo maintains that there are unexpected rewards for dealing with uncertainty.
  • Remind yourself of your intention – why this meaningful work is important to you.

The self-harm in rationalizations

Disconnection from meaningful work has been identified by Johann Hari as a key factor in the rise of depression and anxiety in today’s western world.  Our brains, through rationalizations, are creating self-harm by keeping us from connecting with what is meaningful to us – what gives purpose to our lives.  Leo is so committed to helping us move beyond fear and rationalizations, that he has created a significant training program, Fearless Purpose: Training with the Uncertainty & Anxiety of Your Meaningful Work, to help people realise their meaningful work, whether that is writing a book, starting a community organisation, beginning a new, and purposeful career or undertaking any other creative endeavour that we may be fearful about.  The program is comprehensive and includes an e-book, meditations, videos and a support community.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become aware of the rationalizations that our brain thinks up to stop us from pursuing what we know, deep down, to be our real, meaningful work – pursuits that help us to realise our life purpose.  Mindfulness can also help us to challenge these mental barriers and free ourselves to act with courage in the face of uncertainty.

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

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

Creative Collaboration Versus Craving for Attention

In several earlier posts I shared Johann Hari’s research about the social factors contributing to the rise of depression and anxiety in the Western world. Of particular significance was his finding that the loss of connection to meaningful values – evidenced by the rise of materialistic values – was a major social factor leading to depression. Inherent in this increase in materialism is concern for what other people think about us and the need to attract attention to ourselves – hence, the rise of the “selfie” and “dronie”.  Johann explained why the obsessive concern for what others think about us leads to depression – its negative impact on our relationships, reduction in our capacity to enjoy the present moment, our over-dependence on the opinions of others and the resultant frustration of our innate human needs

How does this craving for attention arise?

Sarah Valencia Botto, a researcher in early childhood development, explored the question, “When do kids start to care about the opinions of others?  In her TED Talk presentation, she provided video evidence that our concern for what others think begins as early as when we are toddlers.  Sarah suggests that as parents we unconsciously cultivate this concern through our words, actions and the choices we make about what we spend out time on.  She suggests that we are continuously informing our children (whether we are conscious of this or not) about what is “likeable, valuable and praise-worthy, and what is not”.

The problem then arises that social media reinforces our craving for attention.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt explains that our craving for attention through obsession with the number of “followers” and “likes” leads to a loss of creativity, a sense of being inadequate and inevitable disappointment.  He suggests that the “attention-driven model” of social media means that the technology giants are relentlessly making profits from our attention-seeking behaviour.  He argues that creativity develops when we “pay attention”, not when we “seek attention”.   Tristram Harris goes even further suggesting that tech companies control the thoughts of billions of people by tricks that use our own psychology, e.g. craving for attention, to gain our attention and direct our thoughts.  They pander to our need for attention and over-concern with the opinions of others.  

Creative collaboration instead of competitive attention-seeking

Joseph explained that creativity is developed through collaboration (not competition for attention) and, in line with this belief, he has established an online platform to promote and cultivate collaboration in the arts.  He has also started a series of podcasts involving interviews with key people that focus on Creative Processing – how creative people do what they do and how creative collaboration actually works.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can build our capacity to pay attention, to collaborate with others and to open ourselves to our creative capacities.  Craving attention, on the other hand, undermines our creativity and our innate human needs and leads to disappointment and depression.  Collaboration develops our creativity; competition for attention destroys it.

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Image by Anemone123 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.

What Do You Do if Mindfulness Does Not Reduce Your Symptoms of Anxiety or Depression?

I was approached recently by a young man who was experiencing severe anxiety.  He was able to cope well with his work but had all kinds of difficulties coping at home, including endless self-doubts, negative self-stories and an inability to relax or concentrate.  He indicated that he had “tried everything’ – meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection. 

He found, for example, that “reflection” only resulted in his entertaining negative thoughts about himself and re-visiting his destructive self-stories.  So, reflection for him resulted in a downward spiral rather than a release from self-deprecation.

What does “tried everything” mean?

The first consideration is how did he approach these attempts to develop mindfulness and reduce his symptoms?  Given the young man’s level of agitation, it was likely that his efforts were somewhat frantic and unfocussed.  One could question whether he engaged in a sustained meditation practice in a focused way, e.g. working on his self-stories with the aid of a meditation teacher or meditation group.

One of the issues is that there are so many different forms of meditation that it is tempting to “try them all” and flit from one form to another, without addressing your specific needs or the causal factors of your depression or anxiety.  This is where a professional psychologist or dedicated professional group could help.  Organisations like Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute can help by providing knowledge, resources, group support, access to programs and advice in identifying a suitable medical practitioner, psychologist or psychiatrist.  Other specialist carer support groups can assist people who are experiencing anxiety or depression as a result of caring for someone who has a long-term need for care and support.

The Mental Health Care Plan

You may need medication and/or the aid of an allied health professional to overcome depression and/or anxiety. In Australia, there is a specialist form of help that can be accessed through your local medical practitioner, the Mental Health Care Plan.   You explain your symptoms and needs to a doctor who develops a mental health treatment plan with you.  This may include medication, referral to an allied health professional such as a psychologist and/or other forms of activity designed to address your specific mental health condition.  Medicare will provide rebates for visits to an authorised health care professional where the visits have been the subject of referral by a medical practitioner as part of a Mental Health Care Plan.  The number of visits covered by Medicare rebate is 10 (subject to a confirming review by the doctor after the first six visits).

Advancing our understanding of the causes of depression and anxiety

Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, highlights recent research undertaken worldwide that shows that anti-depression medication can be effective in the short term to reduce symptoms but that, in the medium to long term, it typically has to be increased and can reduce in effectiveness over time.  In his book, Johann focuses on the social factors contributing to the global rise in depression and anxiety and proposes solutions that support rather than replace medication treatments, although some people are able to give up their medication after a period of successful use of one or more of these alternative approaches.

Johann identifies seven social factors that contribute to the rise in depression and anxiety, all relating to a loss of connection.  He describes them as “disconnection from”:

Johann acknowledges the research that shows that in some instances a person experiences depression and/or anxiety because of their genes or a brain change brought on by some life experience (pp. 143-155).

Reconnection: alternative anti-depressant treatments

Johann describes several ways to reconnect to overcome depression and anxiety.  These include reconnecting with others, with meaningful work, with nature and/or meaningful values. He also includes chapters on finding “sympathetic joy” while overcoming self-obsession (Chapter 20), and a compelling chapter on acknowledging and overcoming childhood trauma (Chapter 21).

What I found particularly intriguing, as well as very practical, was a chapter on “social prescribing” (Chapter 17).  In this chapter, Johann highlights the work of the Bromley-by-Bow Center which combines a medication approach (where deemed necessary) with hundreds of social programs.  This medical centre is very different to most doctor’s clinics that you would normally visit, both in terms of the orientation of the medical practitioner and the physical environment.  The emphasis is on listening, not medication prescription, and treatment is strongly oriented to “reconnection” strategies such as a walking group, employment skills group, start-up support to establish your own business and a casual group focused on “Create Your Future”.

What further intrigued me was the effectiveness of one project described by Johann through the experience of Lisa, who was experiencing severe depression.  The project was the brainchild of Dr. Sam Everington who was concerned about the over-reliance on anti-depression medication.  Basically, he assigned some of his patients to a community project focused on beautifying a strip of bushland that had become overgrown and neglected but was a popular walk-through. 

The group of people experiencing depression, who had difficulty interacting with anyone and typically kept to themselves, eventually started having conversations, sharing their life histories and their personal mental health challenges as well as plans to beautify the bushland strip.  They had to learn about the seasons, plants and their nutrition needs and how to plant and cultivate different kinds of plants.  They took pride in their project and started to gain confidence and competence.  A moving story was that of a person who had initially presented as very angry and aggressive who went out of his way to help two people who experienced learning difficulties.  Eventually, the members of the group decided to do a Certificate in Horticulture.

Johann pointed out that this creative project addressed two major reconnection needs – reconnection with others and with nature.  It can also be seen that each of these reconnections reinforces the other.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can be open to new ways of dealing with depression and anxiety.  We can learn to reconnect with key elements in our life that induce mentally healthy living, including mindful connection to others, spending time in nature, being grateful for what we have (rather than suffer “status anxiety”) and being willing to show compassion towards others.

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Image by Henning Westerkamp 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.

Reasons Why Meaningless Values Lead to Depression

In the previous post I explored Johann Hari’s discussion of the research demonstrating that disconnection from meaningful values – expressed as obsession with materialism – leads to depression and anxiety. In this post I will explore the reasons why this occurs. 

Four reasons why meaningless values lead to depression

In identifying why materialism leads to depression, Johann draws on the research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser and his colleague, Professor Richard Ryan, one of the acknowledged world leaders in understanding human motivation.  Based on their work and his own research, Johann identifies four main reasons for the consuming sadness experienced by people who relentlessly pursue materialistic values that focus on extrinsic rewards (Lost Connections, pp. 97-99).

1. Damages relations with other people

The research shows that people who primarily pursue materialistic values experience “shorter relationships” that are of lesser quality than their peers who focus more on intrinsic values.  Materialistic-oriented people are more concerned about superficial things such as another person’s looks, their ability to impress others and their material possessions, than they are about the innate qualities of the person.  Their focus on external qualities makes it more likely to end a relationship because they invariably find someone who possesses these external qualities to a greater degree.  Their self-absorption also means that their partner in a relationship is also more likely to separate from them.  People who are out to impress others as their major motivator are very poor at reflective listening as they are more likely to interrupt and divert a conversation so that the focus is on them and their accomplishments.  Listening is the lifeblood of a sustainable relationship and has profound effects on the its quality.

2. Deprives them of the joy of being in the present moment

Because a materialistic person is always seeking more or pursuing an elusive goal over which they have no control, they are more likely to be frequently frustrated and disappointed.  They tend to be driven and impatient in the pursuit of their external goals and they experience time-pressures continuously. It is difficult for them to be fully engaged in the present moment and to experience the joy that derives from present awareness.  The researchers point out, too, that the pursuit of materialistic values results in the inability to experience “flow states” – being in the zone where you are hyper-focused and highly creative and productive. 

3. Become dependent on how other people think of them

Other’s opinions become the driver for the materialistic person’s words and actions.  They seek to gain positive assessment by others of their looks, their possessions (e.g. clothes and cars) and their income and social standing.  They tend to pursue relationships for what they can get out of them in terms of extrinsic rewards.  They can never be satisfied and often engage in attempts to outdo others.  The researchers point out that materialistic-oriented people are also more sensitive to feeling slighted, even when no slight is intended – because of their sensitivity to others’ opinions, they can more easily feel criticised and be hurt by seemingly harmless comments.  This can result in their being “on edge” all the time when with other people.  Their sense of self-worth becomes “contingent on the opinion of others” which, in turn, can lead to negative self-evaluation and self-deprecation.

4. Frustrates innate human needs

Tim Kasser observed that a core reason why materialism leads to depression is that it ultimately frustrates a person’s innate needs – needs such as the desire for meaningful connection with others; realising a sense of competence in their endeavours; a sense of autonomy and being in-control; and wanting to do, and achieve, something meaningful in their lives.  Depression and anxiety will grow over time when these real, innate human needs are not met.

We can choose how we spend our time and energy

Johann observes that time is limited and that our day is like a pie with defined parameters.  The way we carve up our day – how we allocate our time to aspects of our life – will significantly affect whether we realise joy and happiness or depression and anxiety.  If we can align the way we spend our time to the pursuit of meaningful values, we can experience mentally healthy states of positivity, joy, happiness and gratitude. The more time we spend on materialistic goals, the lower will be our “personal well-being”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we are better able to notice the impact that the pursuit of materialistic values has on our quality of life – our relationships, our joy, our sense of self-worth.  We will have a clearer idea of how well we meet our innate needs and how we can improve on their fulfillment.  Importantly, we will better understand the sources of our frustration and anger and be able to improve our self-regulation.  By developing mindfulness, we will more often experience the joy of being in the zone – of experiencing “flow states”.

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Image by KarinKarin 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.