Accessing Doorways to the Present Moment

Vy Le, international meditation teacher, provided a guided meditation podcast on Doorways to the Present Moment as part of the weekly meditation series offered by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  Vy is the Founder and Managing Director of the In Wave Group dedicated to developing a culture of well-being and resilience in organisations through mindfulness practices. 

In her MARC guided meditation Vy mentioned that she had qualifications in maths and computers and was heavily engaged in left-brain activities until she realised that she was “not really embodying her experiences” – being engaged in mental activity and not being aware of the present moment and all that it communicated.  She reinforced Diane Winston’s definition of mindfulness as paying attention in the present moment not only with curiosity and openness but also with acceptance of what is.

Vy explained that our breath, five senses and our body provide ready access and the doorway to the present moment – if only we pay attention to them.  We are so trained from our school days to pay attention to external sources, at the expense of “listening to ourselves”.   We need to tune into what is going on in our inner landscape – incorporating our sensescape, bodyscape, heartscape and breathscape.  Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book Coming to Our Senses teaches us ways to access our senses.

Vy makes the point that at any moment we are breathing, experiencing the world through our senses, having bodily sensations, and feeling emotions.  If we just stop and focus on one of these doorways we can gain access to the numerous benefits of mindfulness, including calmness, ease and equanimity.    

Guided meditation – exploring the doorways to the present moment

Through her guided meditation, Vy introduces us to each of the doorways to the present moment – breath, senses, bodily sensations and feelings:

  • Breath – Vy begins with encouraging us to take a number of deep breaths and release our breath and related bodily tension through extended out-breaths.  During the meditation, she explains how to tap into our breathing by focusing on the undulations in our chest or abdomen or consciously experiencing our in-breath and out-breath through our nose.  She notes that at anytime or anywhere, we can access the natural flow of our breath through our body – always occurring in the present moment. 
  • Senses – as the meditation progresses, Vy encourages us first to tune into her voice then the sounds in our room and external sounds (our soundscape).  She moves on progressively to focusing on our sense of smell, sight, touch and taste – the latter may involve sensing the taste of a recent coffee or elements of a meal.   We so often overlook the sense of taste when we are eating – fixated as we often are on our thoughts and plans. Mindful eating can be one way to utilise the sense of taste to stay in the present moment rather than focus on the past or future.
  • Bodily sensations – Vy encourages us to feel the sensations in our feet such as warmth, connectedness to the floor or earth, or a sense of solidity/security through groundedness.  She then has us explore sensations in our own bodies – in our arms and legs (including the pressure of the chair on the back of our thighs), our chest and abdomen, and our face and forehead (releasing any frown or tightness).  She suggests that we note any areas of tension or ease as we go.  Vy also points out that by joining our fingers together we can sense the aliveness in our bodies through the resultant warmth, tingling and vibrations.  This practice can also help us to tune into our breath simultaneously and assist us to increase our awareness at times of waiting (for example, when waiting for traffic lights).
  • Heartscape – towards the end of the guided meditation, Vy encourages us to focus on our feelings, what is going on inside us. We may become aware of sadness, joy, disappointment, gratitude, resentment and even grief – emotions that have become clouded by the flurry of everyday life.

Reflection

Vy’s  guided meditation offers practical ways to access the present moment through the doorways provided by our breath, senses, bodily sensations and feelings.   We can grow in mindfulness by daily accessing these doorways to the present moment.  This will require developing a mindset about the value and benefits of mindfulness and engaging in micro-practices on a regular basis so that we can develop the habit of being fully present to our experiences.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

Overcoming Anxiety

Presenters at the Anxiety Super Conference reinforced the view that adverse childhood experiences provided the foundation for anxiety in later life.  The early childhood experiences could involve sexual and/or physical abuse, psychological control, cruelty, demeaning words and actions or any other form of adversity that undermines a child’s self-esteem, sense of self-worth and security.  The effects of adverse childhood experiences are long-lasting, sometimes a whole lifetime.  I find it amazing that in my seventies, I am still anxious in confined spaces, especially lifts.  I track this anxiety back to 18 months of confinement in an orphanage when I was 4 years old and separated in the complex from my younger sister.

We are told that there is wisdom in anxiety and it can be good for us, e.g. warning us about an unhealthy situation, either self-generated or other-generated.  It can also be useful when it activates focus and energy when pursuing our goals, whether at work, in sport or in our homes.  Anxiety is counterproductive when it undermines our confidence or causes us to freeze, dissociate or engage in destructive, addictive habits.  However, the path to overcoming debilitating anxiety does not lie in avoidance or denial, but in truly facing up to anxiety and related fears.   The presenters at the Anxiety Super Conference provided ways to overcome anxiety, many of them embedded in the body, such as Restorative Yoga offered by Adelene Cheong.

Anxiety Loops

Amber Benziger, who spoke at the Anxiety Super Conference, provides a short video on the nature of anxiety loops that potentially generate escalating fear.  She suggests that experiences like the pandemic can intensify uncertainty around day-to-day activities like getting the children to school, retaining a job or maintaining physical and mental health.  The uncertainty can provoke anxiety about how to handle the resultant disruption and disconnect with established routines.  This, in turn, can lead to physical manifestations of heightened anxiety such as increased heartrate, headaches, or pain in the arms , legs, neck or back (through tightened muscles and constriction of blood flow).  The physical symptoms can activate negative thoughts such as, “Why haven’t I prepared for this?” “I am not a good parent/spouse/colleague”, “Why can’t I cope with this disturbance when other people seem to be coping?.   Amber suggests that, over time, the uncomfortable feelings intensify, negative thoughts become reactionary and excessive and anxiety can be experienced as a panic attack or burnout.

Breaking the anxiety loop

Amber’s suggestion to break the anxiety loop is to first validate the true nature of the external stimulus, e.g. acknowledge that it is a global pandemic and certainly a challenging time that is causing uncertainty and worry for many people.  Then, asking yourself a number of questions relating to control (which appears to be the thing we experience as most under attack), e.g. “What can I actually control?, “What is in my power to do now to prepare, protect and provide for myself and others?”  She encourages us to check in to our bodily sensations via processes such as a body scan and progressive releasing of tension.  At the same time, she encourages us to challenge our negative thoughts and underpinning assumptions.  Amber asserts that in the final analysis, “feelings are not facts!” and we should question why these feelings are arising  – just as Jon Kabat-Zinn asserts, “We are not our thoughts!” and we should use diffusion strategies to minimise their impact.

Amber is the creator of The Anxiety Lab which is a membership site for women who want to overcome anxiety and restore control in their lives.  Besides social support provided by members, Amber offers resources and workshops to enable participants to develop mechanisms for coping with anxiety.  As a trained counsellor and clinical therapist, she also offers counselling for individuals and families as well as group therapy and teletherapy.

Anxiety can be compounded when we take on new roles such as that of a leader in a community organisation or a manager in a commercial enterprise.  Our inability to cope with anxiety can be more public and open to scrutiny in these roles and environments.

Managerial anxiety

Managers can be anxious about the decisions they make, their impact on the welfare of staff, their ability to properly represent the organisation and its goals, their capacity to observe legislative requirements or meet any of the multitude other demands of a manager in this day and age (including coping with new technologies and industry discontinuities).   Managers can be concerned about how they are viewed by their hierarchy, their staff, their colleagues or their clients. They can be anxious about meeting targets, avoiding budget overruns or achieving the required organisational growth.  Managers, whether executives or managers lower in the organisation, can be captured by expectations, those of others as well as their own unrealistic expectations arising from a perfectionist tendency.  This anxiety can lead to overwork and an inability to create boundaries between work and home (particularly in these days of hybrid work).

During the Anxiety Super Conference, Moira Aarons-Mele raised the issue of leadership anxiety and explained that it is different for every person.  She stated that because of our nature as “human relational creatures”, we worry about how we are viewed by others, “ping” off others’ anxiety and take on others’ urgencies.  She maintained that this anxiety-related behaviour is aggravated both by email (where we worry about the communications we initiate and our response to others’ communications) and online meetings.  Meetings via platforms such as Zoom, can be draining not only because of the level of concentration required but also the fact that we are “performing under lights”.  Moira suggests that the “energetic output” required for a series of Zoom sessions is excessive and in a TED Talk, she offers 3 steps to stop remote work burnout.

Moira self-identifies as “an extremely anxious overachiever” who is working to bring some normality to her life.  In pursuit of this purpose, she created The Anxious Achiever Podcast – a series of podcasts in which she interviews experts in the field of anxiety management including those who propose writing as therapy, adoption of the Acceptance and Commitment (ACT) therapy and dealing with the “imposter syndrome”.  One of her interviewees, journalist Priska Neely, explains why managing is the hardest job she ever had.

Overcoming managerial anxiety

Moira offers a number of ways to overcome managerial anxiety.  She suggests that one of the first steps for a manager is letting go – stop micromanaging and empower others through mindful delegation.  Associated with this, is the need to adopt healthy work habits that become new norms by way of modelling desired behaviour.  Sometimes this involves changing the expectations of staff that have arisen as a result of the previous behaviour of the manager, e.g. arriving early and leaving late. 

Moira also recommends talking about the work situation and the stressors involved and working collaboratively with staff to develop ways to cope effectively – e.g. introducing a wellness program or a morning exercise routine.  This self-care and other-care approach could involve checking in on oneself as well as staff experiencing distress.  Moira also strongly recommends setting boundaries , both at work and at home, ensuring there is a clear divide between work life and home life (avoiding endless spill over, a trap for the unwary when working from home).   Moira, like Ginny Whitelaw, encourages movement and bodily awareness to enable leaders to let go of tension – otherwise, their tension contaminates the mood of everyone else they come into contact with (bosses, colleagues and staff).

Reflection

There are many paths to overcoming the anxiety that negatively impacts our health, productivity and overall well-being.  We have to start, and persist with, the journey into our inner landscape.  This can be a lifetime pursuit but the rewards are great as we begin to break free of expectations and the other ties that bind us.  As Janine Mikosza writes in her novel, Homesickness: A Memoir, “your past doesn’t have to be your future”.

If we adopt mindfulness practices such as Tai Chi, yoga or meditation, we can find that over time as we grow in mindfulness we begin to develop heightened self-awareness, the courage to change, the creativity to develop new ways of being-in-the-world and the resilience to maintain the journey.  In the process, we will positively impact others whom we interact with at work, at home or during our everyday endeavours (such as sports or social events).  

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

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.

Developing Awareness to Overcome Anxiety

Judson Brewer, world-renowned clinical psychologist and neuroscientist, maintains that mindfulness through a three-geared awareness process can break the anxiety habit loop.  His latest book,  Unwinding Anxiety: Train Your Brain to Heal Your Mind, provides a guide on how to develop the requisite awareness.  His clinical practice and scientific research in relation to cravings and addictions, the focus of his first book The Craving Mind, led naturally to his understanding of anxiety and how the anxiety habit is formed and overcome.

Judson argues that anxiety hides in our habits.  Underpinning cravings, addiction and anxiety is the fundamental habit loop which develops through operant conditioning – reinforcement of a behaviour through a rewards system.  We experience some kind of trigger which leads to a habituated response that brings a personalised reward.  For example, if you experience a stressful event/day (trigger), you might come home and have a drink of alcohol (behaviour) which enables you to deaden your distress and distracts you from it (reward).  In the process, you are setting up a habit loop which becomes increasingly entrenched because your behavioural response (drinking alcohol) becomes habituated and you progressively need more and more alcohol to deaden the pain and achieve the necessary level of distraction.     

The reward value concept

Judson explains in his latest book that the reward experienced after a habituated behaviour is not a single element creating the habit.  According to him, the way the brain works is that it establishes a reward value for a particular behavioural response that not only involves the present moment reward but also the recollection of the accumulated rewards associated with prior occurrences of that behavioural response.   So, the reward value attributed by the brain to a behavioural response (such as drinking alcohol after a stress trigger) is an accumulation of prior experiences that were deemed positive (such as drinking alcohol in good company in a stunning location) – all of which can distort the real value of the reward and further entrench the behaviour.

Breaking the habit loop or anxiety cycle

Judson points out that the way to break the habit loop or anxiety cycle involves fundamentally developing awareness of the habit loop and establishing a realistic and holistic assessment of the “reward” in the present moment.  For example, if our to-do list acts as an anxiety trigger leading to procrastination (behaviour) which provides the reward of avoidance, we can in-the-moment recall that the procrastination behaviour itself has adverse effects such as leading to criticism for delays and/or intensifying the level of experienced anxiety.   This heightened awareness may also be developed “reflexively” (reflecting on the trigger-behaviour-reward loop after the event) if the experience is relatively recent and the recall is rich in content.  These options of present moment awareness or reflexivity relate to what we have discussed previously as reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. 

Developing holistic awareness

The fundamental problem with a habit loop is that our recall is often biased and defective.  We tend to overlook the adverse effects of a behavioural response and focus only on the positive, immediate effects (such as deadening or distraction).  In developing awareness of a habit loop or chronic anxiety, we need to adopt a more holistic and balanced approach – we need to become aware of the impacts of a behavioural response on our bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings as well as broader impacts such as on our work, our relationships and our environment.  Just providing an intellectual rationalisation for the desired changed behaviour is normally not enough to create the behaviour we desire – it ignores the power of emotions embedded in bodily sensations.  Judson points out that our survival needs (manifested through difficult emotions and bodily sensations) are more powerful than our need to overcome “cognitive dissonance” (where our rationalisations of a behavioural response conflict with our evidence-based experience).

Kind curiosity

Judson encourages the pursuit of “kind curiosity” to enable us to develop a more holistic and realistic assessment of the personally assigned “reward value” of a behavioural response.  Curiosity is a natural habit (evident in children and somewhat deadened in adults because of “mass distraction”) that can be encouraged and cultivated.  Unfettered curiosity can lead to unearthing disconcerting facts that may disarm, disillusion or distress us – it can challenge our self-concept in relation to our sense wholeness and genuine goodness.  Judson points out the importance of accompanying this heightened curiosity with forgiveness and loving kindness towards ourself – hence, the concept of kind curiosity.  Interestingly, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness includes the concept of purposefully paying attention in the present moment and doing so “non-judgmentally”.

Reflection

Once-off awareness raising is most likely to be ineffective in changing a habit and is definitely not going to overcome chronic anxiety.  We cannot expect to overcome habits that are entrenched and developed over many years (often since childhood). What is required is sustained kind curiosity and ongoing awareness raising.  Through sustained effort, we can substitute a more realistic reward value for the one that we have developed in our mind over time – which is why Judson suggests that we can unwind our anxiety by training our brain, through awareness training, to heal our mind.  Over time, too, we can develop what he calls a “bigger, better offer” (BBO) to offset the current reward value driving the existing anxiety habit loop.  He suggests that mindfulness might “fit the bill” here as it provides a wide range of benefits, without the adverse effect of substituting one bad habit for another (e.g. substituting lollies for alcohol).

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become aware of our triggers, our habituated behavioural responses and gain insight into the reward value that we attribute to our responses.  We can also learn to substitute more rewarding responses that will encourage the development of changed habits that have positive outcomes.  If we revert to old habits in times of extreme stress, it is important to avoid negative self-talk and self-denigrations and we can do this by extending forgiveness to ourself.

Throughout his book on anxiety, Judson draws on illustrations and validation from users of hist three  apps focused on cravings (e.g. over-eating), addiction (e.g. to smoking) and anxiety.  What these app-based programs provide is a readily accessible way to monitor yourself throughout the day and progressively substitute holistic rewards for those that are currently entrenching unhealthy habits.

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians 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 Mindfulness and Positive Mental Health in the Digital Age

In the previous post I focused on the challenge of the digital age with respect to developing mindfulness.  This earlier post was stimulated by a presentation of Jon Kabat-Zinn during the Mindfulness & Compassion Week (June 6- 13, 2021).  In his workshop, Jon also mentioned the benefits of the digital age for developing mindfulness and positive mental health, particularly during the time of the pandemic when people were becoming isolated through lockdowns and border closures.

There are many facets of the digital age that facilitate the development of mindfulness and positive mental health – the growth of global online, mindfulness conferences and seminars, access to online meditations, digital music and nature imagery, e-groups, and podcasts.   Many of these aspects have been enhanced by the emergence of streaming platforms and flexible technologies such as Google Chromecast and Bose portable speakers. 

Global online mindfulness conferences

The emergence of sophisticated web conferencing has enabled the growth in global, online mindfulness conferences, and the Nature Summit is just one example of this.  In this web conference, conducted from May 11-17 2021, more than 30 world experts discussed ways to connect with nature, access its wonder and wisdom and develop improved mental health and mindfulness.  The Science & Wisdom of Emotions Summit highlighted ways to cultivate mindfulness to gain an understanding of our emotions, deal with emotions in daily living and develop self-regulation to effectively channel our emotional energy. 

Online Meditations

During the pandemic, we saw increased access to online meditations, often conducted on a global basis.  The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), for example, converted their weekly, face-to-face guided meditations to the Zoom platform to enable global online participation.  Often, lifetime access to digital meditations were also provided for paid subscribers of web conference resources which included videos, audios, and transcripts.  Many organisations now provide online meditations and some, such as Headspace, provide guided meditations via an app. 

Emergence of e-groups

Some organisations providing mental health services via face-to-face meetings had to develop e-groups – moving their group support services online via platforms such as Zoom.  One such organisation is GROW which provides supported, peer-led groups for people experiencing mental illness (Growers).  This organisation was able to transition their face-to-face meetings to eGROW Groups enabling online access nationally as well as on a State/regional basis.

Access to digital music and nature imagery

Developing mindfulness and healing through music and nature imagery has been facilitated by the emergence of online media such as that provided by Louie Schwartzberg’s Moving Art website.  His films and photography are enhanced by his Wonder and Awe podcast series.   Digital music platforms such as Spotify have provided ready access to a world of different genres of music and podcasts, some incorporating guided meditations and mantra meditations.  YouTube enhances access to mantra meditations by enabling visual imagery to support the meditative singing as in Lulu & Mischka’s Stillness in Motion video.

Another aspect of connection through music in the digital age is the growth of virtual choirs and the associated logistical, singing, and instrumental collaboration on a global and local scale.  On a global level, for example, 300 people from 15 countries participated in the singing/ orchestration of the highly pertinent song You’ll Never Walk Alone.  In another example,  people from 50 countries combined to sing Amazing Grace in their own language.  On a local level, the Morningsong community choir was able to provide warm-ups, practice pieces and group online singing during pandemic lockdowns.  YouTube provides access to multiple virtual choirs.

Reflection

Digital media has provided the means to connect with each other and with nature at a time when people are physically isolated.  The spin-off from the periods of lockdowns and border closures is that many people have come to appreciate more what they have in life, to savour their access to nature and increase their motivation to improve their physical and mental health. 

There are now increased mechanisms and avenues available to develop our mindfulness practice through the growth in digital media and flexibility of access.  It is important to savour and utilise these facilities to enrich our mindfulness practice and enhance positive mental health.

As we grow in mindfulness with the aid of digital media, we can increase our self-awareness and connection with others, develop gratitude and creativity and build the resilience and compassion we need to manage effectively in difficult times.

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Image by Inga Klas 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.

The Challenge of Mindfulness in the Digital Age

Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness teacher and creator of MBSR, recently presented a workshop during the Mindfulness & Compassion Week (June 6- 13, 2021).  Jon’s focus was on mindfulness in the digital age. He addressed both the downside and upside of digitisation and noted particularly the benefits accrued through online communication during pandemic-related lockdowns.  In this post, I want to focus on the downside of the digital age – the challenge it poses to our ability to pay attention on purpose , non-judgmentally, in the present moment.

Jon was especially concerned about the manipulation of our minds and attention through social media and other online communication channels.  He drew on the work of the Centre for Humane Technology to explore both the human costs of the digital age.  He strongly encouraged exploration of this website and its podcasts along with the film, The Social Dilemma, which he suggested should be viewed multiple times. 

The downside of the digital age – the loss of attention, consciousness, and awareness

Jon maintained that in the digital world it has become hard to discriminate between what is true and what is false, between what is fact and what is myth.  He argued that we have “lost agency” and levels of decision making through social media and related digital technologies and the embedded “surveillance capitalism”.  The language we encounter is manipulative and “propels us out of the moment” – we lose our grounding in the present moment.  We are told that a video is “a must watch”, we are warned that we will “miss out” if we do not take a particular action and we are enticed to act to gain “rewards”, some of which are spurious.  Jon points out that the incessant barrage of information/misinformation and constant attempt to capture our attention leads to dysregulation in our life, adversely affecting our breathing, eating and sleep.

He argued that the greatest need for humanity today is to address the “loss of awareness” – the lack of consciousness that we are losing control over our minds, destroying our environment, and wrecking the lives of people through perpetual, disruptive advertising that attempts to capture our attention and steel our focus.  He encouraged us to increase our awareness of the impacts of the digital age so that we can live our life more fully in the present moment and not be caught up in the mainstream culture of acquisition (vs savouring), of form (vs substance), of envy (vs gratitude), and of self-absorption (vs compassion).

Our diverted attention

The Centre for Humane Technology works tirelessly to help us to develop the awareness of the downside of the digital age, especially through their insightful podcast series, Your Undivided Attention.  One example of this powerful message is the podcast, When Attention Went on Sale, which features an interview with Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads.

Tim maintained that the “commodification of our attention” actually began with the introduction of ad-supported newspapers.  The readers became the product, the focus shifted from a dissemination of the “truth model” to that of the “attention model” and we became the “puppets” of attention-grabbing advertising and media.  The content focus shifted to what shocks (death and violence), what titillates (sexualisation) and what raises curiosity (misleading headings).  The media exploited emotions of fear, scepticism, greed, and envy.   Early on, advertising posters with the work of famous artists were deployed throughout Paris as a means to invade people’s attention.  They were eventually removed when Parisians complained that they invaded their attention and were a blight on the landscape.

Commercial interests now drive the competition for our attention and television offers “precise marketing” through creating an “emotional resonance” with the viewer, heightened by the visual medium.  Human attention is being harvested in the pursuit of “economic and attention power” – attention gained by TV stations leads to higher ratings which leads to more advertising and revenue.  Wu describes this process as the “harvesting of human consciousness” in an environment that is scarily unrestrained and unregulated.  We can observe the resultant imbalance in information dissemination when we notice that a TV Program designed to provide an “alternative perspective” on the news of the day devotes more time to advertisements (reinforcing mainstream culture) than to alternative commentary during a one-hour program.  Viewers of ad-driven TV stations often engage in “channel surfing” to evade ads but this leads to what Jon calls “fragmented attention”.

Our attention is up for sale through Google ads where buyers of ad exposure in search results actually bid for the right to appear higher in the listed results.  While quality (relevance, originality, and depth of content) is an espoused determinant of ranking, price plays a major role and advertisers are encouraged to “outbid” each other for our attention. 

Social media has had a significant impact on attention distraction and distortion.  This has accelerated with the emergence of “selfies” (obsession with self over being present to the moment and location), the commodification of bodies (via private membership of TikTok for example), and “follower ads” on LinkedIn and other online advertising media.  The concept of “friends” (as per Facebook) has moved from “a bond of mutual affection” to that of a relatively disinterested follower and “friends” are purchased via online marketing organisations to boost one’s social presence. Positive product reviews by friends are harvested to build Google rankings – companies even pursue us relentlessly to gain our “review” (even when they have misled us about a product offering).

The game is all about grabbing “eyes on the page” (and Google, for example, measures pages visited, time spent on a page, and percentage of people who view only the “landing page” as they “surf”).  There is now software available to track your eyes as they view a webpage (with eye movement displayed via a heatmap).  We are becoming conditioned to providing those “eyes on the page” – “pop-ups” encourage us to register for continuous information/ad exposure and whenever we have to spend time waiting, our default action is to reach, unthinkingly, for our mobile phone.

The concept of “social influencers” has emerged to identify influential people who have the power to affect our buying decisions and who work in collaboration with brands who use their influence to persuade us to make purchases.  The source of the influencer’s power (e.g., celebrity status, expertise, sexual appeal) and the relative extent of their power (how many followers) is variable.  In consequence, influencers are viewed by brands as “social relationship assets” of variable worth.

Mobile phones are increasingly part of everyday life for people enabling constant access to the Internet, social media and to disruptive “notifications”.   Some people become obsessed with “keeping up-to-date” via social media and constantly access their phones (even sleep with them).  Others feast on the news with all its inherent biases, selective reporting and tailored reinforcement of the receiver’s views, perspectives, and politics. 

Supermarkets employ email-based rewards systems built around receipt scanning and identification of individuals’ typical shopping  basket.  They also attempt to widen purchasing choices by introducing bonus-boosted products not normally purchased by an individual.   Buyers can be “led” to purchase products they do not need or want.  The rewards system works on the principle of intermittent reinforcement employed by gambling machines where ongoing “jackpots” are given to entice the gambler to continue spending.

In summary, in a digital world there are so many mechanisms at play to capture our attention and multiple drivers such as profit, profile enhancement and social influence to sustain these constant, concerted efforts to distract us and divert our attention. This makes it increasingly difficult to be mindful in our everyday life unless we take conscious steps to develop mindfulness to counteract the adverse impact of these online media.

Reflection

Jon also discussed the many benefits of the digital age and this will be the subject of a subsequent post.  Whether we accrue these benefits or suffer the adverse effects of the digital age, comes down to our own choices and behaviour.

Jon emphasised the need to be very aware of the impact of digitisation on our behaviour.  He suggested, for instance, that we should be particularly mindful of our mobile phone use and its potential adverse effects on our quality of life and our relationships.

Jon maintained that the discipline of daily mindfulness meditation can flow over into every aspect of our lives including our use of digital media.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop increased self-awareness,  improved self-regulation, and enhanced insight into the adverse impacts of our own behaviour with respect to digital media.

Self-reflection on our use of digital media and its impacts on our relationships, on our level of personal stress and on our ability to concentrate and be productive, can provide the impetus for behaviour change.  The following reflective questions could serve as a starting point:

  • To what extent is your focus on social media reducing your span of attention?
  • How often is access to your mobile phone your default behaviour when you have to spend time waiting?
  • How often are you distracted by social media when in conversation with an individual or a group?
  • To what extent does social media determine the content of your conversations, e.g., how often do you share rumours, myths, scandals, and what “celebrities” are doing?
  • How much do you rely on social influencers for your purchase decisions?
  • To what extent does the time you spend on social media limit your time spent in nature, experiencing its numerous benefits?
  • Does your social media presence contribute to the quality of life of other people?

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Image by wei zhu 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.

Managing Your Thoughts with Mindfulness Meditation

Diana Winston, Mindfulness Educator at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), offers a guided meditation podcast on the topic, Working with Thoughts.  Diana reminds us that mindfulness involves paying attention in the midst of present moment experience and doing so on purpose and with a spirit of openness, curiosity, and acceptance.  She highlights the role of thoughts in our life and the possibility that they have been intensified and accelerated by the local and global experience of the pandemic.  Thoughts can arise anywhere, at any time, and in any location.  When we are in isolation, our thoughts may be about what we are missing out on or express fear about what might happen to us. 

Our thoughts can be helpful and highly productive at times leading to creative endeavours, compassionate action, or timely interventions in our own life or that of others.  Alternatively, they may be decidedly unhelpful, leading to self-loathing, inaction, or continuous suffering.  Thoughts are integral to our human existence – we have active brains constantly processing information coming through our senses.  We can manage our thoughts through mindfulness meditation if we understand how our thoughts can distract us and take over our everyday experience.

A fundamental principle espoused by Jon Kabat-Zinn is that “we are not our thoughts”.  Diana refers to the related Bumper Sticker that reads, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”.  We can easily become caught up in negative self-thoughts that become an endless cycle of devaluing ourselves and what we achieve in our daily lives.  Mindfulness meditation can help us to experience self-compassion and develop a balanced sense of our uniqueness and our accomplishments.

We can become “lost in thought”, unaware of what is going on around us or inside us.  This preoccupation with our thoughts can lead to self-absorption, a lack of awareness and insensitive words and actions.  We can often relate to James Joyce’s comment in The Dubliners that “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body”.

A guided meditation to manage your thoughts – returning to your body

In her meditation podcast, Diana encourages you to focus on your body.  She starts with a focus on posture and the sensation of your feet on the ground or floor and suggests that you first take a few deep breaths to help ground you in the present.  Her light body scan helps you to be aware of tension points in your body and to release any uptightness that may have resulted from your thoughts. You are encouraged to be conscious of any manifestation in your body of any unhelpful or harmful thoughts and to let them go.

Release from your negative thoughts and attendant painful bodily sensations is achieved through focusing on your meditation anchor.  You might begin with a focus on your breathing and progress to deep listening to sounds (without attempting to think about the source or to explore their emotional impact on you).  Diana suggests that using your bodily sensations as an anchor can help to ground you in your body which exists in the present moment.  You can focus on a particular part of your body to achieve this grounding, e.g., the heaviness in your feet, the tingling in your arms or the sensation of energy flowing through your conjoined fingers.

Your meditation anchor provides a means of keeping you connected to your body and to stop you drifting away in your thoughts.  It becomes a point of continuous return – constantly revisiting your anchor builds your capacity to control your thoughts and develops your “awareness muscle”.

Diana also recommends “labelling your thoughts” – identifying what type of thinking process you are involved in, e.g., planning the next day, evaluating someone else’s performance, criticising another’s behaviour, or indulging in self-criticism.  Like naming your emotions, labelling your thoughts enables you to tame them and create some distance from your thought process.  Overtime with meditation practice, you can begin to discern any regular thinking pattern such as my pattern of continuously planning my “next steps” during the day.

Using imagery in meditation to dissolve your thoughts

Imagery in meditation can also help you to manage your thoughts.  Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that you view your thoughts as bubbles in boiling water that burst as they reach the surface of the water.  Diana uses clouds as an image for your thoughts.  She suggests that you view the sky itself as the openness and expansiveness of your mind while your thoughts are passing clouds.  Sometimes the clouds are heavy and dark bringing a sense of sadness or overwhelm; other times the clouds might be wispy and flighty leaving a sense of lightness and joy.  You can imagine the clouds coming and going, passing you by as you stay grounded in your body.

Using substitution in meditation to change your thinking

Diana encourages you at an appropriate time to cultivate compassionate thoughts or gratitude to push aside negative thoughts that persist.  Compassion can enable you to substitute thinking about yourself with kind thoughts towards others who may be experiencing difficulty or suffering.  Gratitude pushes aside any thoughts of resentment or envy and enables you to savour what you have in your life.  These healthy ways of thinking can lead to happiness, ease, and wellness.

Reflection

Mindfulness meditation enables us to move from being captured by our thoughts to being grounded in our body.  It builds the capacity to be fully present to the richness of the present moment – whether that is being alone in our room, experiencing the stillness and silence of nature or interacting with others.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can progressively gain control over our thoughts and become more open to the possibilities in our life.  Freed from the tyranny of expectations and our own thoughts, we can experience happiness and the ease of wellness.

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Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

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

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

Turning Your Life Around – a Buddhist Perspective

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

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

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

Overcoming the negative self-talk

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

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

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

Reframing our difficulties and challenges

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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Image by Kanenori from Pixabay

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

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

Befriending Yourself and Others through Mindfulness

Allyson Pimentel in a recent MARC weekly podcast spoke about the power of meditation to enable us to befriend ourselves and others.  Her guided meditation is titled, Meditation as a Path of Friendship.   The meditation does not focus on self-improvement per se but on how to improve our relationship with ourselves, a relationship which impacts on our interactions with others.  If we are down on ourselves, for instance, it is difficult to be open and accepting of others.  When we are not at ease with ourselves, it is easy to be envious of others and resentful towards them.

Befriending yourself in meditation

Being kind to yourself in meditation begins with such simple things as ensuring that you adopt a comfortable position during the meditation, whether lying down, sitting, or standing.  It also involves undertaking a body scan to identify tense points in your body and to relax them.

Allyson suggests that you begin initially with a slow deep breath to help relax your body and open yourself to relaxing breath meditation.  This form of meditation entails focusing on your in-breath and your out-breath without any attempt to control them – just letting them be, while observing how they feel in your body with the rise and fall of your abdomen or chest or the smooth passage of air in your nose.  It involves appreciating that no matter what is going on around you or where you are, your breathing-on-auto is keeping you alive.

Jon Kabat-Zinn stresses the need to be non-judgmental when we are purposely in the present moment while meditating.  He suggests that self-acceptance begins with acknowledging that as human beings, we are constantly engaged in thinking – whether planning, analysing, criticising, judging, or evaluating.  The act of thinking is perfectly human, and we can befriend ourselves by accepting that we will have distracting thoughts when we are trying to focus during meditation.  However, by constantly returning to our meditation focus, our anchor, we can progressively build up our attention muscle. 

This refocusing requires us to notice that we are planning or evaluating, to name what is happening (“I’m evaluating again”) and to observe our thoughts as passing clouds, not entertaining them or dwelling on them.  This simple process of refocusing (that is hard to do) is a way to befriend ourselves through self-acceptance, to value ourselves enough to want to increase our capacity to pay attention and concentrate (to activate our highest potential) and to free ourselves from negative self-judgment.

Allyson suggests that you can befriend yourself by choosing an anchor that is comfortable for you and that does not trigger any negative physical or emotional reactions.  Each one of us has our own preference for an anchor – whether it is our breathing; sounds within our room or externally; or some form of bodily sensation such as the sensation of warmth and tingling as our fingers are touching or the feeling of being supported as our feet are firmly on the ground or floor.

Our anchor helps us to develop the capacity to be in the present moment, appreciate what is good in our life and grow in mindfulness – being increasingly self-aware, better able to manage our difficult emotions, becoming more patient and tolerant, and learning to accept what is.  As we develop self-forgiveness and self-care, we can experience ease and tranquillity and become more sensitive to the needs of others.

Befriending others

The more we can befriend ourselves through meditation, the better we are able to befriend others.  We will be more aware of our own limitations and more accepting of those of other people, better able to control our reactions to the words and actions of others, more willing to listen and build relationships and more able to find joy in the achievement of others (rather than envy).

Through meditation we develop a deeper sense of our connectedness, of our common humanity.  We also begin to appreciate the importance of connectedness for our mental health and wellbeing, as well as for that of others.  We can see in others what we value in ourselves – including our common appreciation of nature and all it has to offer for our well-being. 

Reflection

As we develop self-compassion, our compassion for others also grows and we become more willing to take compassionate action, including deep listening in times of another’s need.  Self-understanding and self-acceptance, developed through meditation and other mindfulness practices, are foundational to befriending ourselves and others.

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Image by Michael Gaida from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness Meditation with Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and meditation teacher and practitioner for over 40 years, is offering an online course in mindfulness meditation which he calls, Opening to Our Lives.   Jon is the author of several books on mindfulness and the one that had the greatest impression on me is Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness.   Jon explains that the title is intended to be interpreted both literally (e.g., learning how to access our “tastescape”) and metaphorically (that is waking up to the wonder of our senses and the world they give us access to).

In his 8-week online course, covering both video and audio offerings as well as resource material, Jon provides insights, practices, and encouragement to be in the present moment rather than being preoccupied with doing or lost in thought about the past or the future.  He argues that we miss out on much of the richness of our life, both our inner landscape and outer world, because we are not fully present most of the time.  

Jon explores key aspects of mindfulness in his course (which provides life-time access on purchase):

  • Mindfulness explained – Jon draws on his definition of mindfulness which emphasises being consciously and purposely present in the moment while doing so in a non-judgmental way.  He addresses our tendency to be self-critical and to develop negative stories about ourselves.  Jon highlights the healing power of mindfulness and its capacity to enrich relationships.  He also provides a guided sitting meditation.
  • Mindful Breathing – we are so often unaware of our breath and its power to relax us, open us to what is happening to us and to ground us in turbulent times.  Jon provides a mindful breathing practice that deepens our experience of ourselves and our world.
  • Developing a meditation practice: Jon stresses that establishing and sustaining a meditation practice requires clear and focused intention as well as the discipline of daily practice.  Maintaining motivation is a key issue and is reinforced through continuous awareness of the benefits of meditation practice.
  • Body awareness – Jon stresses the importance of being grounded in our body and offers a body scan meditation to enable us to be fully aware of our own “embodiment” – being fully present to our own bodies, our senses, and bodily sensations.
  • Movement meditation – Jon explains the power of Tai Chi and yoga as mindfulness-in-action and their role in helping us to reduce stress.  He emphasises the mind-body connection and the capacity of mindfulness to heal both the mind and body.
  • Relationship to the world – Jon makes the point that through self-awareness and self-regulation developed through mindfulness, we can be a positive force in the world by bringing joy, appreciation, and respect for diversity in our daily interactions.  He stresses the capacity of mindfulness to build our resilience in times that are challenging.

Jon also offers two live Q & A sessions where he addresses questions about content covered in the course and offers ways to address difficulties with establishing and maintaining meditation practice.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and learning from experienced teachers and practitioners like Jon Kabat-Zinn, we can enrich our own lives and those of people we interact with.  We can progressively achieve some clarity about our life purpose and how we can make a difference in the world, especially during these challenging times.

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Image by OLEKSII ALIEKSIEIEV 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.