Reclaiming Attention through Mindfulness

In a recent research paper published by the mindfulnessinitiative.org, Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell identified how mindfulness strengthens agency in these challenging times.  Their paper focuses on three main outcomes of mindfulness that build agency.  The first of these was “perceiving, gathering and processing information”.  Drawing on extensive research, they showed how mindfulness builds our capacities in these areas by progressively developing our attention, receptivity and “cognitive resilience”.

Reclaiming attention

By definition, mindfulness involves “paying attention in the present moment” to develop awareness.  Mindfulness meditation builds our “awareness muscle” by helping us to overcome distractions while focusing on an anchor.  We can become distracted by our own incessant thoughts, our basic drives and the relentless marketing that stimulates our desire to have, hold and enjoy.  Through mindfulness, we can progressively regain control over our attention and direct it to more meaningful and healthful endeavours.

In discussing “reclaiming attention”, Jamie and Rosie make the point that what we attend to creates our reality.  They draw on the work by cognitive neuroscientist Professor Stanislas Dehaene featured in his 2020 book, How We Learn, when they maintain that what we choose to pay attention to, shapes our inner and outer world – “our brains and our whole reality”.  

The lack of paying attention in a meaningful and healthful way can lead to disconnection – a loss of connection to others, meaningful work, and  childhood traumas.  This disconnectedness, in turn, can result in alienation and loneliness along with depression and anxiety.  Mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, can help us to train our attention so that we can value our external connectedness, build our inner landscape, and manage difficult emotions.

Reflection

The paper by Jamie and Rosie reinforce the idea that we have choice – we can choose what we pay attention to and how we pay attention.  We can create our own reality – the quality of our life, our health, and our relationships.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can build our agency – our capacity to act on our inner and outer world.  So, mindfulness will not only help us to realise effective self-care in these challenging times, but also enable us to have the awareness and focus to act wisely in the world for the benefit of others.

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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.

Building Resilience through Compassion Towards Others

In a previous post, I discussed Pema Chödrön’s ideas of developing resilience through self-compassion by “compassionate abiding” in our own pain and suffering during these challenging times of the pandemic.  This entails abiding in, or dropping into, the full depth of our painful experience through our bodily sensations and conscious breathing.  As we undertake slow, conscious breathing we hold our suffering with self-kindness and warmth.  Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Warriors of Light, remind us to “breathe into our hearts” because breath is our chariot enabling us to face the unknown and stand on our own.

In her interview podcast with Tami Simon of Sounds True, Pema extended the concept of compassionate abiding by moving beyond self-compassion to compassion towards others.  She maintained that embracing the pain and suffering of others particularly in these times, when everyone is suffering in one form or another, contributes to our resilience – we realise we are not alone and we are able to move beyond self-absorption and “panic storylines” to extending kindness to others.

Pain and suffering: a doorway to compassion for others

In these challenging times of the Coronavirus, we can be very sure that there are millions of people around the world who are experiencing suffering like we are.  People are experiencing all forms of loss – of loved ones, their jobs, their business incomes, their health, their financial security or their homes.  They may have become physically disconnected from their workplaces, their family and their friends, even stranded in a foreign country because of international travel restrictions.  They could be healthcare professionals working on the frontline and/or living away from their families for a number of months to protect their loved ones from cross-infection.  We can be very confident that there are people around the world who are feeling pain and suffering like we are.

Pema argues that abiding with compassion in our own pain and suffering is the doorway opening us to compassion towards others.  In experiencing fully our own suffering, not denying its intensity or pervasiveness, we develop a deep sense of connection with others who are also suffering at this time.  Pema spoke of the principle of Tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “taking in and sending out” – taking in our own experience of pain and suffering and sending out desire for relief for others.  She suggests that once we become grounded in our own suffering (this may take 10-20 minutes), we can take in the suffering of others.  On our in-breath we can imagine others who are experiencing similar pain and suffering and on our out-breath, wish them relief and insight to enable them to move beyond their own discomfort, distress, grief or loneliness.  Connectedness and resilience lie in this mutual experiencing.

Pema maintains that we do not have to confine this compassion towards others to a time of extreme challenge, we can use our pain and suffering as the doorway to compassion and connectedness at other times.  We may be experiencing distress because a family member is suffering from Alzheimer’s or feeling panic and anxiety because someone we are carer for is experiencing the black dog of depression.  At these times, we can drop into conscious breathing, embracing our distress and anxiety with kindness, and gradually move beyond this abiding self-compassion to compassion towards others who are experiencing the intensity of our own emotions. 

Reflection

I think that Pema’s profound insight into compassionate abiding opens the way to develop self-compassion, compassion towards others and personal resilience.  As we grow in mindfulness through conscious breathing and extending relief to others, we can move beyond our self-destructive narratives, restore our inner equilibrium and peace, and develop the resilience to not only survive these challenging times but also be able to extend help and support to others. 

Compassion towards others can be expressed in many ways even in these times of social distancing – the virtual choir of women physicians singing “Rise Again” is but one example of many where people are moving beyond their own overwhelming challenges and distress to reach out to others.

Pema provides multiple resources including her many books, her free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön  and her online course, Freedom to Love, which expands on the principles and practice of compassionate abiding.

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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.

Managing Remotely: Challenges and Opportunities

Managing remotely brings many challenges and these are compounded in the current uncertain times associated with the relentless march of the Coronavirus.  Managers like their staff can be ill-prepared for the sudden change in their work location and circumstances.  Managers who are used to seeing their staff daily and being able to observe what they are working on, lose that “line of sight” and can become anxious about their perceived loss of control.  Workers themselves can experience a sense of social isolation and can lack access to timely information and adequate technology.  These difficulties can be aggravated by distractions, particularly where there are young children at home and other children who need to maintain a school study program while being unable to attend school.  Managing remotely demands increased flexibility and adaptability on the part of managers, the willingness to “cut their staff some slack” and the emotional agility to manage themselves in times of crisis.

While the challenges of remote management are personally demanding for managers, particularly in times of uncertainty, there are also opportunities inherent in the remote circumstances.  These include the opportunity to develop stronger relationships with individual staff, to build effective teamwork and to promote creativity and capacity development.

The challenges of managing remotely

Staff working from home and/or in remote locations can lose their sense of belonging very quickly and become withdrawn and disengaged.  Managers on our Confident People Management (CPM) Program report that some of the other challenges that arise are:

  • Things can get out of hand quickly
  • Staff can become demotivated because they often do not know “what is going on” (compounded by the absence of the informal, “drink fountain” conversations that often entail sharing, “Did you know that…?”)
  • Misunderstandings and conflict can arise because of the lack of information and/or communication
  • Staff can feel a lack of support because the normal supports (presence of mentors, technical experts and resources) are not readily accessible
  • The working space and/or technology of staff working from home may not be ideal
  • The potential for negative cohesion and “groupthink” to arise in the absence of the physical presence of the manager
  • Staff can experience feeling isolated and this sense of disconnection from others can compound, or be the catalyst for, mental health issues such as loneliness and depression
  • Managing poor performance can be more difficult because of the loss of “line of sight”, the lack of face-to-face interaction and the extra demands of communicating and problem solving on a more regular or routinised basis.

People ideally suited to working remotely are those who are self-reliant, strong communicators, self-directed, resilient, trustworthy and outcomes/results focused.   Unfortunately, in these times of enforced working from home arrangements, managers do not get the opportunity to decide who is personally suited to working from home and whose work is adaptable to a working from home environment.  This situation of lack of control over a critical aspect of decision making can be particularly challenging for a manager and also make performance management even more difficult because some people will not be suited to these quickly implemented, new working arrangements.  The current need for social isolation and social distancing for both managers and staff can place an added burden on the manager and can make it difficult for them to maintain a positive mindset when faced with the added challenges of complexity, uncertainty and anxiety (their own and that of their staff).

The opportunities of managing remotely

Managers on our current CPM Program report that the remote management situation has surprisingly improved their communication with individual staff when they use video as apart of remote communications technology (such as Zoom© or Microsoft Teams©).  Both managers and staff are finding it easier to share openly and with some degree of vulnerability in this new context.  They put these relationship improvements down to the lack of workplace distractions, the absence of an open office environment where privacy is sacrificed in the misguided pursuit of efficiency and a mutual sense of vulnerability (occasioned by the Coronavirus).

With the right strategies for managing remotely, managers can create opportunities for staff to develop new skills, build resilience, improve teamwork and collaboration and gain more enjoyment and motivation in their work.  As the oft-quoted English-language proverb goes, Necessity is the mother of invention – the need to do something imperative about something that is significant to working effectively, generates creativity and innovation.  Both managers and staff are forced to find new ways of working and communicating to maintain their own sense of agency and to achieve the desired team outcomes.

Reflection

There is a tendency to see only the challenges inherent in remote management because of our natural negative bias when we feel threatened or forced to go outside our comfort zone.  However, there are very real opportunities involved in managing remotely, not the least of these being the catalyst to involve managers in accelerated self-development.  As managers grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection they can build their personal resilience, enhance their capacity to make “adaptive change” in their behaviour and more readily access their creativity and innovation.  With every challenge there is an opportunity for personal growth if the manager has worked at creating fertile ground, through mindfulness, for their own flourishing.

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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.

Managing Yourself in Times of Crisis

Susan David was recently interviewed as part the Ted Connects© series of talks.  Susan spoke on the topic, How to be Your Best Self in Times of Crisis.  She maintained that “life’s beauty is inseparable from it’s fragility” and provided a number of ways to manage yourself in times of crisis.  She emphasised the importance of facing our difficult emotions, naming our feelings, being curious about what our emotions are telling us, developing our sense of agency and finding ways to help other people.  Susan stressed that underpinning her approach is the concept of “emotional agility” – the core of which involves “radical acceptance” of our emotions and self-compassion.

The fragility of life

Susan reminds us that the Coronavirus highlights the fragility of life. This fragility, however, is part of our everyday life experience. We love someone then lose them, we enjoy good health then experience illness, we savour time with our children only to watch them grow up and leave home.  The problem for us is that our social narrative, the stories we tell ourselves as a society, is so focused on the importance of always achieving, being fit and happy and appearing to be always in control.  There is an inherent denial of the reality of death and the fragility of life – we have to appear to be strong and deny our difficult emotions.

Facing our difficult emotions

Susan stressed the importance of overcoming our habituated way of responding to difficult emotions.  We typically deny them, turn away from them and, yet, end up stuck in them or “marinating in it” as Rick Hanson, in his Being Well Podcast, describes the resultant state of self-absorption.  Susan maintains the critical importance of facing our emotions and owning them, not letting them own us.  This involves naming our feelings not in a broad way such as “I’m feeling stressed” but in what she calls a “granular” way or fine-grained identification of exactly what we are feeling, e.g. disappointment, resentment, anger, fear or anxiety.  It is only by truly facing and naming our difficult feelings that we can tame them, stop them from owning us.  Susan points out that this self-regulation is a key facet of mindfulness.

Being curious about our difficult emotions

This is a form of self-observation and self-exploration. It’s being curious about what our difficult emotions are telling us about ourselves and what we value.  Strong emotions are indicators of what is important to us but, at the time, perceived as lacking in our personal situation.  Loneliness, for example, is experienced as disconnection from others and tells us how much we value relationships and connection.  Social distancing and social isolation, as a result of the Coronavirus, have compounded our feelings of loneliness.  So, it’s important to move towards ways of re-connecting, if not face-to face, by phone and online communication. 

Developing our sense of agency

Susan argues that in these times when everything seems out of control, it is important to develop “pockets of control” to enable us to develop our sense of agency – our capacity to control some aspect of our life and our immediate environment.  These arenas of control can be minute things like deciding what three things you want to do today, developing a menu plan for the week, setting up a daily routine (especially when you are working at home with children present) or changing the way you normally do things to adapt to changing circumstances.  It may be that you decide to master the skill of online communication – developing new capacities as well as gaining control.  Some people look to regain control and appreciation over their own yard or garden.  My wife and I have recently bought a coffee-making machine so that we can better control our expenditure on coffee, increase our control over how our cappuccinos or Piccolos are made and limit our time and social exposure by avoiding having to go out and queue up for a take-way coffee.

Sense of agency can extend to appreciating what we have and savouring it.  The Coronavirus attacks our respiratory system, quite literally taking our breath away.  We can begin to really value our breathing through various forms of meditation which can ground us in our body in these times of uncertainty and anxiety.  As we learn to control our breathing through meditation, we can develop ways to calm ourselves in times of crisis and stress.  Our calmness is reflected in our breathing, as is our agitation. 

Helping others in need

Besides showing compassion towards ourselves (in owning and accepting our emotions and what they tell us about ourselves), it is important to move beyond self-absorption to thinking of others and undertaking compassionate action towards them.  This may mean a simple phone call to an elderly relative who is in lock-down in a retirement village or contacting someone you have not spoken to for a while.  Everyday we hear about people showing random acts of kindness and generosity towards others.

For example, our weekend newspaper reported about the wife of a doctor on the frontline of the fight against the Coronavirus.  He has decided to live apart from the family for six months to protect them from contracting the virus.  Despite her resultant loneliness, his wife is creating homemade meals for him and his fellow health workers and enlisting the support of neighbours, friends and anyone else to do likewise so that these frontline workers don’t have to rely on unhealthy take-aways to sustain them during their very long hours of courageously caring for others.  Susan challenges each of us with the question, “How can we help in little and big ways?” – how can we demonstrate being part of a community and being “values-connected”?

Reflection

In times like the present with the Coronavirus impacting every facet of our lives, we begin to wonder how we will all cope.  Susan expresses great optimism that the crisis will enable people to be their “best self” and daily we see evidence of this.  Susan points to the history of people handling crises with courage, wisdom, compassion and mutual kindness (witness the recent wildfires in Australia).  As we grow in mindfulness and learn to face our difficult emotions through meditation and reflection, we can understand better what our emotions are telling us, regain our sense of agency and begin to show compassionate action towards others in need.  Mindfulness helps us to be calm, resilient and hopeful.  

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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.

Mindfulness Meditation to Reduce Anxiety in Times of Uncertainty

In these times of increasing uncertainty, compounded by the global spread of the Coronavirus, the level of anxiety in individuals and the community at large can intensify (you only have to notice panic buying to witness anxiety contagion).  Anxiety impacts every facet of our lives – our relationships, problem solving, decision making and communication.  We can become abrupt with our significant others, quick to anger, argumentative, determined to prove we are right or hyper-critical of their words and action – all traits likely to damage close relationships which are built on mutual respect and appreciation.

Research also shows, for example, that 7% of people in Europe are frequently lonely.  The loneliness epidemic experienced in Australia, US and UK (where they have a cross-Government strategy to tackle the challenges involved) is exacerbated by the need to engage in social distancing, social isolation and, in increasing numbers, to work from home.  For people who are used to social contact and interaction at work, working from home can compound the loneliness problem. 

Added to the isolation from social work contacts is the banning of the normal places of social gatherings outside work such as restaurants, sporting events, concerts, university classes and professional conferences.  So, it is extremely difficult for people experiencing new levels and increased frequency of loneliness to find social support, other than electronically.  This puts pressure on people, young and old, to learn new ways of communicating (abbreviated social media messaging will not fill the void). Fortunately, new technologies for online communication such as Zoom have really helped to address the growing problem of physical isolation and its attendant problem of loneliness.

With more people out of work each day as businesses close under Government direction or because they are no longer viable in a social distancing environment, increasing numbers of people are experiencing economic anxiety and depression – they cannot see a way out of their current, seemingly intractable, financial problems. 

Before the Coronavirus, depression was already a major health issue in communities around the world.  Isolation and loss of employment – two very significant factors in precipitating or aggravating depression – are likely to accelerate the already exponential growth in depression in the community unless new ways are instituted by Governments, communities and entrepreneurs to redeploy people to arenas of employment experiencing growth in demand (such as healthcare support, farming and Coronavirus contact tracing) and individuals are able to find ways to address their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Mindfulness meditation – a way to address anxiety, loneliness and depression

Neuroscience research, such as that conducted by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), demonstrates the power of mindfulness and related meditation practices to eliminate anxiety, overcome loneliness and reduce depression.  A search on “meditation” in the search block of this blog will highlight many meditation practices for individuals to address these mental health challenges.  Some examples are:

MARC provides weekly meditation podcasts on a very wide range of topics.  These can be accessed either through their website or via the UCLA App providing “meditations for well-being”.   These meditations can be supplemented and reinforced by other mindfulness practices.

Reflection

The advent of the Coronavirus has compounded the problem of mental illness in communities around the world leading to growing anxiety, loneliness and depression.  People who previously did not experience these adverse mental health conditions are now succumbing to their widespread community encroachment.  Research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation is an antidote to these mental health challenges and is a source of overall wellbeing. 

The personal challenge is to overcome our initial reservations and disbelief and to take advantage of the numerous sources of mindfulness meditation available to us.  At first, we are inclined to believe that the challenge to our mental health and welfare is too great and that meditation is too simple a solution.  However, beginning with some small meditation practice and maintaining it daily, can make a very significant positive impact on our mental and emotional state.

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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.

How to Let Joy into Your Life

Diana Winston recently provided a meditation podcast on Opening to Joy.  She reinforced that mindfulness is about openness to the present moment in a curious and non-judgmental way.  Diana thought that this particular meditation is relevant in December when we are constantly being exhorted to be “joyful” – when many of us are experiencing emotions other than joy owing to anxiety, depression, or serious setbacks (physical, emotional or financial) at this time of the year.  It is also a time when we can experience extreme levels of exhaustion if we have been working intensely throughout the year or spending lengthy and stressful  days as a carer.  Diana offered this guided meditation as Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA as part of the weekly meditation podcasts presented by MARC.

We can find that at this time of the year our negative feelings can be magnified as the pressure of family celebrations mounts, distressing memories of recent (or even long-past) adverse events well up or existing painful emotions such as loneliness become intensified because we are feeling left out or overlooked or misunderstood or marginalised.  Some people have very recently lost family members as a result of bush fires, car accidents, or other misadventures – while others experience recollections of these devastating events occurring at this time of the year in the past.  It takes a lot of time, focus and energy to heal the wounds of past trauma.

Diana encourages us to be kind to ourselves through self-compassion as well as to show compassion for others.  She encourages us to explore mindful approaches to equanimity to allow peace and joy to re-enter our life if we are experiencing negative emotions or distress.  To this end, she is offering an online course Cultivating Forgiveness as part of the many courses presented by MARC.

Encouraging joy in your life through mindfulness

When we practice mindfulness, we are opening ourselves to joy and contentment – to experiencing what is, in an accepting and kind way.  It does not have to be a laugh-out-loud happiness but can be something small and subtle.  Joy can range from something that is profoundly felt to a simple sense of being content with life at the present moment. It can be the sensation of mindfully taking a walk by the sea, drinking a cappuccino, being fully present and mindfully listening to someone – joy can happen just by being fully here and showing up in our lives.  The act of gratitude for the positive things in our life – savouring our child’s development, our achievements, our friendships – can release us from unease or resentment and let joy into our life.

A guided meditation on cultivating joy

Diana provided a specific guided meditation on how to cultivate joy in your life during the podcast.  The basic steps are as follows:

  • Begin by experiencing being grounded through your feet on the floor, your thighs resting on the chair, your back upright but not strained – developing a sense of stability and being supported.
  • Progressively scan your body and loosen any muscle that may be tight or tense including your feet, legs, arms, wrist, neck, shoulders, shoulder blades, lower back and your face and forehead – your whole body, opening to a sense of well-being and ease.  You can take deep breaths as you progress with your scan and use the outbreath as a way to release tension and let in ease.
  • Now focus on something that will serve as an anchor in the event of distraction – the sensation of your breathing in some part of your body or the sounds in the room (without interrogation of their nature, source, volume or pleasantness).  You can also use the dual process of focusing on the sensation of your fingers being joined while at the same time experiencing your breathing in some part of your body where your attention can focus.  When you experience distractions such as planning, thinking, evaluating or worrying, redirect your mind to the present and your anchor to stay with the sense of ease, rather than the experience of unease.  This process of redirecting attention builds your awareness muscle and increases the prospect of experiencing joy in your life.
  • While you are being anchored through your breathing or sound, be conscious of the peace or contentment you are experiencing.  Pay attention to the joy that arises from being mindful – being fully in the present moment with openness and curiosity and wonderment. 
  • Now focus in on a specific, recent experience of joy – e.g. being with a loved one, sharing an experience with a friend, enjoying company over lunch or dinner, walking in a rainforest, or enjoying the sense of competence when playing tennis or any other sport.  Try to recapture the moment, the sensations, feelings, thoughts and the resultant joy – stay with these feelings and positive thoughts.  You can express gratitude for being able to have such an experience and to have the capacity to recapture it.

The art of cultivating joy flows from our conscious efforts to develop mindfulness and live our lives as fully as we can in the present moment.

Reflection

We can cultivate joy in our lives through mindfulness practices, meditation, reflection and expressing gratitude.  A meditation specifically designed to cultivate joy can assist us to grow in mindfulness and, as a result, more frequently capture and savour the experience of joy in our everyday lives.  We can cultivate joy by being mindful in our words and actions.

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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.

Depression, Loneliness and the Loss of Connection to Other People

In my previous post, I discussed the loss of connection to meaningful work as one social factor impacting the rise of depression and anxiety.  Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, found through his research, and that of his colleagues, that another major contributor to depression is the growing disconnection from other people being experienced in Western societies today.  This disconnection from others has led to an epidemic of loneliness in Britain, America and Australia.  The U.K. Government, in recognition of this growing social problem, has appointed a Minister for Loneliness.

Social change and the rise of loneliness

Robert Putnam, through research over more than 25 years covering almost 500,00 interviewees, provided evidence that people are becoming increasing disconnected from family, social groups, the wider community and neighbours.  The title of his landmark book incorporating this social research, Bowling Alone, captures the essence of his findings – people are now bowling on their own in a dedicated lane instead of bowling in a group as was the practice previously.  The level of volunteering has dropped dramatically as has active participation in what Robert terms “democratic structures”.

Johann suggests that this increasing tendency to “go it alone” is compounded by the often-repeated advice that change begins with you and that no one can help you but yourself – you have to fix yourself unaided.  He points out that this advice is contrary to the history of humanity which evidences our tribal nature and co-dependence.  Our forebears had to cooperate to survive – going it alone led to extinction.

The physical health costs of loneliness

Johann draws on the results of a range of research projects to demonstrate that loneliness dramatically increases the risk of catching infection and of dying from a serious health problem such as heart attack or cancer (risks like those of a person who is obese). The research highlights the fact that loneliness leads to an increased heart rate and production of stress-related cortisol (similar to what happens when a person is attacked physically).

The link between loneliness and depression

In his Lost Connections book, Johann draws heavily on the extensive research conducted by John Cacioppo into the link between depression and loneliness and the essential nature of the experience of loneliness.  John established that loneliness preceded the emergence of depressive symptoms in one of his many studies.  In another study he found that people who revisited a period of intense loneliness became “radically more depressed”, whereas people who recaptured a period of real connection to another person became “radically less depressed”.

These findings led John to ask the question, “What is loneliness?”  He established several key points through this basic inquiry:

  • loneliness is not the same as “being alone” – you can be alone and live alone and not feel lonely or depressed
  • you can feel lonely in a crowded place or even within your own family – the presence alone of others does not ward off a sense of loneliness
  • loneliness arises in the absence of connection with someone or a group of people with whom you can readily share experiences of joy or distress.

John argues that people need a “two-way” relationship where things that matter are shared for mutual benefit – the sharing needs to be “meaningful” for both people. He suggests that this element of exchange and mutual assistance is the “missing ingredient” needed to overcome loneliness.

Sarah Silverman (comedian, actor, singer and writer) in conversation with Amanda De Cadenet described her own experience of depression as “desperately homesick but home”. Being at home physically does not guarantee protection against depression – from feeling sad, anxious and negative; experiencing low self-esteem; and being fearful that people will dislike you. Johann suggests that Sarah’s allusion to “homesickness at home” highlights the fact that our conception of “home” has “shrivelled” from our sense of community as “home” to the four walls of our house.

The “snowball effect” of loneliness

Sarah, in her interview, also makes the point that self-deprecation, which is the hallmark of a lot of stand-up comedy, has its downside in that it leads to actual self-deprecation and depression, which becomes self-obsessive, shutting out other people. She argues that “if you can be okay with yourself, you can have a lot more room to have other people in your life”. If you feel lonely and depressed you will have low self-esteem and avoid social contact – leading to a “snowball effect” compounding your loneliness.

Johann discusses the “snowball effect” of loneliness in terms of both perception of threat and accelerated response time to potential threat. People who are lonely tend to exhibit “micro-awakenings”, a trait common amongst people who are anxious because they don’t feel protected when asleep. This state of “hypervigilance” leads to the perception of threat even when it does not exist (or experience of a slight when none is intended). The research quoted by Johann shows too that people who are experiencing loneliness tend to react twice as quickly to perceived threat as those who are not lonely.

Breaking out of loneliness

Johann argues that people experiencing loneliness are forever scanning their environment for threats because they do not feel as if anyone is looking after them – they perceive that no one “has their back”. He maintains that what they need is more love and kindness together with reassurance.

Dr. Hilarie Cash, who has extensively researched addiction to gaming and the internet, maintains that these addictions are often an attempt to escape from the sense of loneliness. She argues that what is needed is “connection with one another in a safe, caring way” – a face-to-face connection not a remote, superficial interaction mediated by a screen.

In a brief video about overcoming isolation, John Cacioppo explains how people have successfully overcome extreme isolation and loneliness. He maintains that breaking out of loneliness requires a change in cognition (the way we think about ourselves and others) as well as approaching others “in a way that is positive, in a way that is engaging and that is mutually enjoyable”.

How mindfulness can help to overcome loneliness and depression

One of the first thoughts that comes to mind is that meditation can assist us to overcome feelings of hurt and resentment. It can help us to find ways of forgiving ourselves and others. Through mindfulness practices, we can achieve calm, clarity and self-regulation (of our thoughts, emotions and actions).

Mindfulness can help us savour what we have – our work, our children, our friendships and the present moment. It can help us to slow down and express genuine gratitude which generates positive energy and builds relationships. Overall, mindfulness can help us to cultivate awareness of others, overcome self-absorption and engage in “compassion in action“. As we grow in mindfulness, we can move beyond loneliness and depression, learn to value ourselves, appreciate the present moment and reach out to others through reflective listening and compassionate action.

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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.

Christmas: A Time for Kindness and Reflection

Christmas is a time for kindness and reflection. It brings out the kindness in people of all persuasions and provides a time to reflect on the year that has almost passed, as we count down the days to the end of the year.

A time for kindness

Christmas seems to bring out the best in many people – thoughtfulness of others and kindness towards to those who are less fortunate. I recall last year being in Bologna and watching a group of young people moving around the streets on Christmas Eve singing songs to homeless people and offering them gifts. This thoughtful action brought smiles to the faces of people who received this kindness, particularly as they sat huddled in blankets on a cold night approaching zero degrees.

Christmas is a time when families get together and share gifts, when mothers shop with their adult daughters and children wait with gleeful anticipation. It is really a time of giving not only of gifts but also time – time for others whether family, friends or those in need. Christmas is very much a testament to the human heart.

It is also a time to be mindful of others when we are driving in traffic, pressed for that parking space in the shopping centre, and queuing for high demand public transport or taxi/Uber services. It’s a time to take a break from the hurly-burly of the festive season and get in touch with our breathing and appreciate the many things we have to express gratitude for. We have only to think of people less fortunate than ourselves, e.g. experiencing loneliness at Christmas, to realise how much we have to be grateful for. There is so much that we take for granted in our daily lives.

A time for reflection

As we reflect on our past year, we can ask ourselves, “What have we done that contributes to our own mindfulness and that of others we interact with?” Have we been able to maintain a regular form of meditation, mindfulness practice or activity such as Tai Chi or yoga?

I know for myself it is easy to read about mindfulness and to write about it, but it is another thing to maintain regular mindfulness practice. It is difficult to sustain such practices in the face of daily pressures from work, family or the community generally. It pays at times like Christmas to reflect on our practice and identify ways to better maintain our chosen technique(s) for building mindfulness. The benefits can extend to every facet of our lives.

Christmas is a time to reflect in terms of what we have done to share the benefits of mindfulness with others who we come into contact with, either informally or more formally through workshops and training activities. If we have developed the gift of mindfulness, how can we best share this with others who are in need of its benefits – because of mental health issues, stress or time/work pressures?

As we grow in mindfulness, we can more readily extend thoughtfulness and kindness to others, reflect on what we are grateful for in our lives and seek ways to share the benefits of mindfulness with others. Sustaining our mindfulness practice provides the foundation for this growth in internal and external awareness.

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

Image source: courtesy of agnessatalalaevO on Pixabay

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

Mindfulness Practice for Overcoming Unhealthy Habits

Leo Babauta, creator of zenhabits.net, suggests that underpinning our unhealthy habits is a “craving for wholeness”.  In his view – whether we are obsessed with the news, shopping, food, sex, social media or partying – we are looking for something to redress our loneliness, sense of disconnection or feeling of incompleteness.

Mindfulness practice to overcome unhealthy habits

Leo advocates a mindfulness practice that incorporates four main steps:

  1. Pause and be still.  Don’t seek distractions or ways to entertain yourself.
  2. Feel the discomfort of loneliness, isolation or disconnection that is driving you.  Realise that unhappy habits can entrench your sense of loneliness.  Get in touch with your uncertainty and explore what makes your life meaningful.
  3. Notice the goodness in your heart.  You care about others and about yourself.  Recall moments when you have shown loving kindness or consideration towards others.
  4. Connect with a sense of wholeness both within and without (outside of yourself).  Marvel at the integration of your mind, body and spirit and the interconnectedness of nature.

Leo, author  of The Habit Guide Ebook, describes the mindfulness practice in more detail in an article on his Zen Habits blog, The Craving for Wholeness That Drives Our Activities.  He suggests that you can rest in the awareness of the sense of wholeness in everything, including nature.  Let nature be your ally in your search for wholeness.

The Interconnectedness of Nature

Louie Schwartzberg, time-lapse photographer and film director, reminds us that nature is a source of mindfulness because everything in nature is interconnected and we are connected to it.  He explains that every living thing is dependent on another living thing and illustrates this through his film, The Wings of Life, which was presented at a TED Talk, The Hidden Beauty of Pollination.

Louie Schwartzberg is currently working on a crowd-funded film, Fantastic Fungi, in collaboration with authors, artists, doctors (oncologists, integrative medicine experts) and scientists (mycologist, ecologists, philosoforager).

In a short teaser film for Fantastic Fungi, Louie Schwartzberg explains the interconnectedness of nature manifested through mushrooms:

Plants need soil. Where does soil come from? It comes from the largest organism on the planet that heals you, that can feed you, that can clean up a toxic oil spill, that can even shift your consciousness.  It’s mycelium.  Mycelium is the root structure under budding mushrooms.  It’s like the Internet – a vast underground exchange [intelligent & communication] network that transfers nutrients from one plant to another.

Louie Schwartzberg has spent his whole working life to show us, in living vibrant colour and film, how nature inspires wonder through its wholeness and interconnectedness.  Leo Babauta, through his mindfulness practice, encourages us to to reflect on this wholeness and our interconnection with everything.

As we grow in mindfulness, we come to realise that we are not alone or disconnected – that we are connected to a vast wholeness manifested in nature and in the intricacy of the interconnection of our body, mind and spirit.  Mindful awareness of this connectedness is a pathway to overcoming unhealthy habits.

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

Image source: courtesy of astama81 on Pixabay

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

Mindfulness and Postpartum Depression

Kristi Pahr, freelance writer and mother, discussed how mindfulness helped her to deal with postpartum depression (PPD).  One of her problems, experienced by many mothers, was that she did not recognise her systems as PPD but put them down to hormonal change.  Unfortunately, PPD can get a hold of you very quickly and its effects can lead to a rapid deterioration in your mental health, your relationships and overall life.

Typically, the father is unaware of the nature, cause and devastating effects of postpartum depression and can further aggravate the condition through their seeming insensitivity, lack of concern or lack of physical/emotional support.  The mother may also feel unable to communicate the intensity of their feelings or their deteriorating health, and may be reluctant to communicate their real condition for fear of being seen as incompetent.  The symptoms of postpartum depression can be many and varied and this fact serves to compound the confusion on both sides, for mother  and father.

Kristi’s Story: How Mindfulness Helped My Postpartum Depression

Factors that contributed to Kristi’s postpartum depression were a loss of the first child during pregnancy, traumatic birth of the second, exhaustion, physical isolation and loneliness.  Feelings of inadequacy with a newborn baby often overwhelm even the most competent women and Kristi found that her sense of “not coping” led to “hyper-vigilance” – a constant scanning to check that everything is okay with the baby, heightened sensitivity to stimuli (e.g. a baby’s cry), and increased emotional arousal.

Hyper-vigilance can intensify feelings of inadequacy and anxiety and create a downward spiral in terms of mental health and well-being – the exhausted mother cannot sleep and recuperate which, in turn, negatively impacts her physical health and depletes her energy and capacity to cope with the stresses of daily life with a new baby.  It is a common experience that when you are tired, even the smallest problem or issue appears insurmountable.

What Kristi found is that mindfulness helped her to get in touch with her feelings, stand back from them, identify her triggers, defuse her negative thoughts and develop ways to manage her emotional response.  It also enabled her to identify the severity of her condition and to seek professional help so that she was able to increase her arsenal of strategies and tactics to manage her condition.

One of these strategies Kristi employed was practising awareness by writing a journal at the end of each day and addressing these insightful questions:

  • What feels really good right now?
  • What doesn’t feel so good right now?
  • What made me feel balanced today?
  • What am I grateful for?

Resources: Mindfulness for Postpartum Depression

Research into mindfulness for postpartum depression suggests that mindful practice should begin in pregnancy.  Here is a selection of resources for developing mindfulness for pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum depression:

1. Shamsah Amerise, MD, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, when writing for Headspace.com offers 10 Tips for a Mindful Birth.

2. Katherine Stone, award-winning blogger, provides resources for people experiencing postpartum depression on her  blog:  www.postpartumprogress.com

Her resources include the following the article:  Why Mindfulness Should Matter to Moms

3. Edith Geddes, MD and Medical Director of the University of North Carolina Women’s Mood Disorder Clinic, passionately advocates for screening for, and treating, perinatal mood disorders, especially in rural areas.  Being a former professional musician, she offers a mindfulness technique for composing a moment:

Composing a Moment: Mindfulness Techniques in Postpartum Mood Disorders

4. Mind the Bump Appdeveloped jointly by beyondblue and Smiling Mind – is designed to reduce stress during pregnancy and reduce the risk of developing postpartum depression:

Mind the Bump App Improves Wellbeing During and After Pregnancy

5. Andy  PuddicombeThe Headspace Guide to a Mindful Pregnancy.

As you grow in mindfulness during pregnancy and the postnatal period, you will be better able to handle the stresses of pregnancy and reduce the possibility and/or impact of postpartum depression.

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

Image source: courtesy of marmaladelane on Pixabay

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