Mindfulness Meditation for Anxiety

Diana Winston introduced the use of mindfulness meditation to reduce anxiety in a recent guided meditation podcast through the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  The catalyst for the meditation was the anxiety she experienced listening to the news one morning before undertaking her daily  meditation.  She explained that she normally began her day meditating before anything else.  On the occasion she described, Diana started the day with listening to the news – a departure from her normal routine.  Starting the day with meditation is often recommended by mindfulness experts as a way to set your intentions for the day and strengthen your capacity to manage the challenges that will inevitably occur in the day ahead.  

Diana found the news disturbing and she found herself very anxious – an anxiety that she experienced physically as well as emotionally and intellectually.  In these situations when we experience news that is traumatic, upsetting or triggering, our minds tend to move to the worst possible scenario…”What if..”, ‘How will they cope?”  Diana decided to turn to mindfulness meditation as a way to manage her anxiety and disturbed mind.

Guided mindfulness meditation for anxiety

Diana’s approach to the guided meditation followed a number of steps:

  • Grounding – starting with a couple of deep breaths, you can begin to release some of the bodily tension through your out-breath.  Next, adopt a comfortable posture wherever you are undertaking the meditation – on a chair, lying on the ground, sitting on the floor or lying on a bed.  The central focus of the meditation is to pay attention to the sensation of solidity provided by the ground – you can access this sensation by focusing on your feet on the floor, your body on the ground, or the bed or chair on the floor which, in turn, is linked to the earth via the foundations of your house/building.  It is important to use whatever imagery or bodily sensation is useful to enable you to feel “solid” and grounded.  This is your return point throughout the meditation.
  • Body scan – begin a non-specific body scan by exploring wherever there is tension in your body.  When you locate an area or point that is tense, you can bring your attention to this point and consciously breathe out to releases this tension (you may need to do this a couple of times, if you are particularly uptight).
  • Choosing an anchor – one of the issues with anxiety is a racing mind, so it is important to have an anchor to constantly bring your mind back to your desired focus.  There are many choices for an anchor – your breath, the sounds in your room or externally, your hands resting easily on your lap.  However, it is important to choose something that does not itself trigger further anxiety, stress or trauma.  Diana suggests that you can always use the grounding sensation itself or focus on an object (e.g. a painting or a tree) which itself can lock in your attention.
  • Exploring bodily manifestations of anxiety – to achieve equanimity you have to be able to face your anxiety and the bodily manifestations that it generates, but this can be done gradually.  You may want to start with a small source of anxiety in the first place as Diana suggests.  Alternatively, you may find it important to focus on the anxiety that is really troubling you the most, so you can create a sense of ease as you go about your day.  Whatever anxiety-generating event/incident you choose, it is important to feel how it is experienced in your body.  Your mind-body connection means that feelings find expression in your body, whether experienced as good or bad.  The task here is to tap into how you are experiencing your anxiety or disturbed feeling in your body – it could be tightness in your neck or arms, soreness in your shoulders or legs, a queasy stomach, tightness in your forehead or any other bodily sensation or combination of sensations. The important thing is to get in touch with a bodily sensation at this stage and focus on it so that you can work towards its release.
  • Revisiting your groundedness – Diana advises you to take the previous step progressively and iteratively.  So you might start with a particular sensation and experience it fully and then return to your sense of groundedness, so the anxious sensation does not throw you off-balance.  By sensing, releasing, re-grounding, you can progressively cleanse your body of the tension – this, in turn, will help to reduce your anxiety-provoking thoughts and associated emotions.  The intensity of your anxiety will affect how long or how often you need to employ this meditation.  Small steps can have large effects with persistence.
  • Loving-kindness to yourself – in all this, it is important to realise that we all experience anxiety at different times and events in our lives. It is vital to be kind to yourself and not berate yourself for your assumed “weakness”, “over-sensitivity” or “softness”.  It is human to feel fear and to experience uncertainty, especially in today’s world of the pandemic and racial, national and international conflicts.  Part of caring for yourself in the middle of your anxiety is to tell yourself that it is okay to feel anxious, the feelings will pass and external events will change; and to acknowledge that there are many things that you do not have control over.
  • Loving-kindness towards others – this involves extending kind and empathetic thoughts to others who are experiencing anxiety or are the subject of your worry and concern.  There may be people who are experiencing local conflicts or threatening situations that you are anxious about.  Accepting that you cannot control the situation is a starting point and then offering them kindness in your thoughts may be all you can possibly do.  If you can take compassionate action, then, this will help them and yourself.

Reflection

The MARC meditation podcasts are provided on the UCLA website and via an app, and are offered to enable us to “develop self-awareness, emotional regulation and increased well-being”.  Diana makes the point that mindfulness meditation on anxiety equips us to deal with life’s difficulties and challenging emotions.  Persistent practice can deepen our resolve, strengthen our connectedness and achieve better integration of our mind and body.  As we grow in mindfulness, we will be able to choose wise actions, overcome habituated responses and achieve equanimity and ease.

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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.

The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

In an interview podcast with Bob O’Haver, Gloria Kamler, mindfulness meditation teacher and stress-relief expert, discussed her reasons for meditating and how her practice has evolved over more than 30 years.  She indicated that in her first 10 years of meditation practice, she used to repeat mantras over and over for two and half hours each day.  This proved not only to be unsustainable as she began working with clients, but she also found that she did not experience effective transfer to her daily life of the peace and calmness she  experienced during meditation.  It was then that Gloria turned to mindfulness meditation and the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the developer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).   She now offers training in MBSR and meditation.

She also indicated that her reasons for meditating have evolved from seeking peace and calmness (at the time of the Vietnam War) to achieving emotional regulation, living her life more consciously and developing kindness towards herself and others. She realised that, in working as a therapist with people with chronic pain, she needed to achieve kindness towards herself (despite her frailties and fragility) and others and develop the capacity to accept what is.  Gloria suggests that we start each meditation practice session with the question, “Why am I meditating?” – this process strengthens our focus, raises our awareness of what we are actually doing and clarifies our purpose.

Benefits of mindfulness meditation

In a recent guided meditation podcast as a member of the MARC faculty, Gloria discussed what she experienced as the benefits of mindfulness meditation.  She explained that her concept of meditation was the “training of attention” to be able to see more clearly what is happening in her life, to develop a different perspective and to be more settled and contented when dealing with the waves and vicissitudes of life.

Gloria maintained that mindfulness meditation developed our brains so that we were no longer fully captured by our habituated fight/flight/freeze response driven by our amygdala.  She argues that for a majority of time we are working on “auto-pilot”, not being aware of what is going on inside us or in our immediate environment.  When faced with a challenging situation we can revert to responding the way we always responded – with silence, anger, frustration, resentment, envy, aggression, or inaction.  Mindfulness meditation enables us to develop choices and to become more skilful in navigating the ups and downs of life.  In speaking of developing flexibility, freedom and choice, Gloria quotes Albert Einstein on how to create new ways of behaving, “The only way to change a habit is to do something different.”

Gloria found one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation that “totally surprised” her, was the tendency to be “much kinder and compassionate”.  She found that this benefit was stimulated through a growing awareness of her connectedness to others and nature.  She discovered that we are “naturally wired to be kind”.  However, this capacity is often latent because we become “wired to the amygdala” that takes over – acting as our “Commander-in-Chief” determining what we perceive and how we think and feel, leading to our habituated responses.  Gloria found that, through mindfulness meditation, she did not take her life experiences so personally, was able to “witness her own fragility”, act more skilfully and consciously and take compassionate action.

Skills developed through mindfulness meditation

Gloria suggests that there are three basic skills that we practice in mindfulness meditation:

  1. Concentration – bringing our attention back to our desired focus, whether that be our breath, sounds, bodily sensations, or other anchor.  In this way we reclaim our attention and build our “awareness muscle”.
  2. Sensory and emotional clarity – being very aware of what we are sensing and our emotional responses to our perceptions.  Associated with this, is developing the space between stimulus and response, and realizing that we have choice and freedom in how we respond – leading to emotional regulation.
  3. Equanimity – allowing ourselves to be with what is, rather than resisting it.  Gloria suggests that it is natural to resist, to hold tightly to things as they have been and resist what is new and challenging. 

Self-Healing through mindfulness meditation

Kelly Noonan Gores in her book, Heal: Discover Your Unlimited Potential and Awaken the Powerful Healer Within, discusses the futility of the Disease of Resistance and the need to understand its message. She argues that the way forward and the means to break the hold of our tendency to resist is to “learn the language of the body”.  Gloria suggests that technology can separate us from our reality and our bodies.  By becoming grounded through mindfulness meditation, we can overcome self-sabotage and learn to work with our innate healing power and wisdom.  In another meditation podcast, Gloria offers a guided meditation on “body and breath”.

In the meditation podcast that is the focus of this post, Gloria spends some time instructing us on how to become grounded, especially through our feet.  She suggests, for example, that we concentrate on the bodily sensation in our feet – whether it is tingling or numbness, the sensation of socks on our skin or the feeling of something solid beneath us.  When we become grounded, we no longer feel out of control or constantly buffeted by the turbulence of life.  Mindfulness meditation becomes our refuge.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can  live our lives more fully, show compassion towards ourselves and others and experience joy, beauty and healing.  We can become less controlled by our emotions and habituated responses and more open and creative.

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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 the Capacity to be in the Present Moment

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA, offers a guided meditation podcast on the topic, Back to the Basics.  This is one of the hundreds of free weekly meditation podcasts offered by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA.

In the guided meditation, Diana reminds us that the fundamental purpose of meditations is to build our “capacity to be in the present moment” – in a way that is open, curious, and accepting of what is.  There are numerous forms of meditation available today but they basically aim to develop this capacity so that in the daily challenges of life, such as conflict with a spouse, colleague, or a friend, we can draw on the calmness, equanimity and wise action that is available to us through mindfulness practice.  People can choose a form of meditation that suits their interest, lifestyle, and physical capacity, e.g., transcendental meditation, movement meditations such as Tai Chi or yoga, or singing meditations such as the various forms of mantra meditation.

Diana points out that the increasing volume of research conducted by MARC and other centres around the world confirm the capacity of meditation to improve our stress response, physical health and immune system; reduce chronic pain; and overcome anxiety and depression, especially through mindfulness programs such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).  The research also confirms that meditation can help children, even those with ADHD, to improve their capacity to pay attention.  These findings have led to the explosion of mindfulness practices in schools around the world, such as the MindUP Program developed by the Goldie Hawn Foundation in America.

A guided meditation – returning to the basics

In her guided meditation, Diana revisited the basic components of a meditation practice:

  • Comfortable position – this can be sitting, lying down (on the floor, grass, or beach), standing up or some form of mindful movement (e.g., mindful walking or Tai Chi).  The aim is to achieve a position that is free from bodily stress, so that discomfort does not become a distraction in itself.
  • Controlling visual stimulation – in a still meditation, people close their eyes or look downwards to avoid visual distractions.  In a movement meditation the person’s gaze is typically unfocused but the internal focus is on body position and movement.  In a mantra meditation, the internal focus is on the sounds and meaning of the sung mantras – visual stimulation may assist both aspects such as in evidence in the stillness in motion mantra sung by Lulu & Mischka.  Natural awareness allows visual stimulation because you are opening yourself to what is around you (and doing so without a specific goal in mind).
  • Choosing an anchor – in a still meditation, the anchor can be breath, sound, or bodily sensations (e.g., tingling in the feet or hands).  In a movement meditation, the body and motion become the anchor. The aim of the anchor, whether in a still or movement meditation, is to have a specific focus to return to when distractions take us away from the purpose of our meditation (distractions such as planning, worrying, or analysing).
  • Silence – this is a common component of many forms of meditation (apart from those that involve singing, chanting, music or speaking which seek to achieve an inner silence).  Diana typically incorporates a period of stillness and silence in her guided meditations. 

Whatever the form of meditation, the primary purpose is to be-in-the-present-movement.  Diana suggests, for example, that if a really strong emotion or physical sensation intrudes, that your focus could temporarily shift to that emotion or sensation before returning to your anchor.  Normally emotions and bodily sensations exist in the background, rather than the foreground of your meditation (unless you are consciously addressing a challenging emotion such as resentment or anger).

Reflection

There are many paths to the same end – being fully in the present moment.  What is important is being able to transfer the state of mindfulness to our everyday life – what Sam Himelstein calls mindfulness-in-action.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can capture the power of the present moment, maintain calmness in challenging moments and choose wise actions to address our situation.

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

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

A Meditation for Situational Anxiety

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

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

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

The mind-body connection in anxiety

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

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

A guided meditation for situational anxiety

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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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.

Using Imagery to Handle Difficult Situations

Diana Winston in the last MARC meditation podcast of 2020 provided a guided meditation on Handling Difficult Situations with Wisdom and Compassion.  She uses imagery for the guided meditation – a process she has used previously for a kindness meditation.  However, the focal image differs in the two meditations – the current meditation involves picturing a wise, compassionate person while the previous one involved the image of a “kindness pond”.  At the outset of the difficult situation meditation, Diana encourages you to envisage the mediation as an “inner oasis”, a refuge in times of stress.

Guided meditation on handling difficult situations

Difficult situations can be many and varied – e.g., a close relative suffering from dementia, conflict in the family, falling out with a partner or friend, personal illness or chronic pain, serious financial loss or job loss.  The starting point is to accept what is – not disowning it but being prepared to be with  what is happening without judgment, recrimination, or resentment.

Diana suggests that you begin the meditation with a couple of deep breaths – using the exhale phase to release any build-up of tension (this could involve multiple deep breaths if your tension is very high).  The grounding phase of the meditation focuses strongly on posture and the sensation of being supported – by the chair, the floor, and the ground.  This initial postural focus enables you to become grounded in stillness and silence.

Moving beyond the initial focus, you can re-focus on your bodily sensations and your emotions. Diana leads you in a simple body scan looking for particular points of tension such as in your back, arms, or shoulders, so that you can progressively release what is holding you back. 

Once you have achieved some level of groundedness in stillness and silence, you can focus on an anchor of your choice.  It could be observing your breathing, listening to sounds internal and/or external to your space, or paying attention to the sensation in your feet or when your fingers from each hand are touching.  The anchor serves as a home base whenever distracting thoughts intervene and capture your attention.

Introducing imagery into your guided meditation

Diana suggests that you focus on the image of a person you consider the wisest and most compassionate person you know (or know of).  It could be a current or past mentor, a health professional, or the Dalai Lama – the choice is yours.   

Once you have a person in mind, you think about what advice they would give you in relation to your current difficulty – “what would they suggest that you do or say?”   For example, when I did this meditation what came to me was the need to listen more and  interrupt less as a way to help another person who was experiencing considerable difficulties on a health and work front.  Deep listening is perhaps the kindest think you can do for a person in difficulty – it is a way to develop empathy and compassion.

The final stage of the meditation involves asking your imagined wise and compassionate person for a gift.  In my case, for example, I asked for patience, kindness, and sensitivity to the needs of others who are experiencing difficult situations.

Reflection

Imagery for people who are visuals can be a powerful way into profound meditation.  We can all enhance our perception and capacity for imagination by developing our visual intelligence.  One of the challenges in this meditation is to avoid becoming embroiled in re-living the difficult situation rather than maintaining attention and focus on achieving wise and compassionate action.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we will become better able to draw on a range of mindfulness practices to deal with difficult situations and approach them with both wisdom (through in-depth understanding) and compassion towards ourselves.  The benefits of doing so include realising peace and tranquility amid the turbulence, accessing our creativity to achieve wise action, and extending empathy and compassionate action to others in need.

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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.

Self-Care in Challenging Times

Diana Winston provides a meditation podcast on the need for self-care in these challenging times when every aspect of our external environment is being disrupted – our health, politics, economy, society and climate.  Added to this, is the rising unemployment precipitated by pandemic-induced responses designed to restrict movement and resulting in business upheavals, shutdowns, and permanent closures.  The inner environment for many people is in turmoil – mental health issues are growing exponentially as people experience grief, anxiety, anger, and depression.  Overt racism is on the rise as people project their anger and frustration on those less able to cope.  

The demand for help is overwhelming on many fronts.   The temptation, according to Diana, is to be so focused on caring for others that we ignore self-care – leading to exhaustion, burnout and personal overwhelm.  Diana’s podcast is designed to help us to find our balance in the face of these overwhelming needs– her guided meditation being one of the many weekly podcasts provided by The Mindfulness Research Centre (MARC) , UCLA.

The need for self-care

Diana makes the point that it is more powerful and helpful to provide help and assistance from a place of equanimity than one of frazzle and burnout – it is more productive to provide from our personal overflow than from our depletion.  Being frenzied and frazzled is not helpful to others nor to our own wellbeing.  The challenge is to find the balance between the many demands of life – our families, relationships, work – and our desire to give support to others in need, whatever form that takes.  Diana stresses the need for self-care to achieve the necessary balance and personal overflow to be able to give from a centre of calmness and gratitude.  She quotes Thomas Merton who maintained that trying to achieve “a multitude of conflicting concerns” can lead to “violence” towards self.

Ways to achieve self-care

There are a many ways to achieve self-care, several of them are already described in this blog.  Diana emphasises the role of meditation in enabling us to provide self-care simultaneously for mind, body, and heart.  Meditation helps us deal with challenging emotions such as feelings of resentment, to handle negative self-evaluation and to find creative ways to give without self-depletion.  It enables us to find equanimity amidst the current turmoil of life.

For some people, movement in the form of exercise, yoga, Tai Chi, walking, or riding is an important component of their self-care.  Personal preferences are important here so that our choices address our personal needs of achieving inner harmony and life balance.  Lulu & Mischka remind us that mantra meditation is another form of self-care – integrating body, mind, and heart, especially if heartfelt and meaningful chanting is combined with movement such as swaying or rhythmic dancing.  Meditation in its many forms enables us to re-generate and to leverage energy in a  unique way.  Some meditation practitioners such as Melli O’Brien of Mindfulness.com offer a free meditation app with several meditations relevant for our times.

Guided meditation on self-care

In her guided meditation on self-care, Diana begins with helping you to become grounded through deep breathing followed by attending silently to the natural rhythm of your own breath.  She encourages you to choose an anchor such as your breath, the sounds surrounding you or bodily sensations (such as the warmth, tingling or a flow sensation in your fingers or feet).   The anchor is designed to bring you back to your focus when distracting thoughts appear.

Diana then encourages you to envisage what it would be like to feel really balanced while at the same time caring for others and yourself and contributing purposefully and meaningfully  to your work or role in life.  Her aim is to encourage you to experience this balance and sense of satisfaction as a motivation to make some small change in your life to achieve a better balance.  She encourages you as a part of the meditation to make a commitment to achieve that one small, re-balancing activity.  For some people, this change may actually involve taking on some form of caring for others if they are not already engaged in helping others.

Reflection

It is easy to lose ourselves in these challenging times when everything is in a state of flux.  Meditation and other forms of self-care can assist us to balance our lives and re-generate and increase our positive energy flow in such a way that we can provide support for others while maintaining our own equilibrium.  As we grow in mindfulness, we enrich our inner landscape, revitalise ourselves and become more open to possibilities both in terms of self-care and caring for others.  We can find our unique way to help and to take wise action to achieve our intentions.

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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.

Developing an Anchor for Your Meditation

A meditation anchor serves to stabilise your thoughts when your mind starts to wander during a meditation exercise.  It is a way to secure your focus and restore your attention when you are invariably beset by distracting thoughts – a common occurrence for both experienced and inexperienced meditators.  An anchor is a personal choice and what works at one time may not work in another situation.  Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Alternatives to Breath Awareness, highlights the difficulties that people are experiencing with breath as an anchor while wild fires are raging in California.  People who suffer from respiratory problems, either chronically or intermittently, may also find that breathing is a difficult anchor to use during meditation.  Diana suggests bodily sensations or sounds as alternatives to breath awareness that can serve as an anchor during meditation.

Bodily sensations as an anchor during meditation

Often guided meditations begin with a focus on bodily sensations, e.g. feeling the firmness of the floor or ground beneath your feet.  This focus can be expanded to noticing the warmth or energy flow through your fingers when they are touching.   You might alternatively focus on the breeze on your face, the sensation of uprightness in your chair, the support beneath your body from the  ground or the sense of strength in your core.  Personal preference plays a big part in choosing a bodily sensation as an anchor during meditation.  It is important that it is emotionally neutral and does not evoke either strong emotions or racing thoughts.  The anchor is designed to bring stability when everything around you is constantly changing, including your thoughts and emotions.

Sound as an anchor during meditation

Diana frequently recommends sounds as an anchor for meditation during her MARC meditation podcasts.  The challenge here is to avoid evaluating the sound (e.g. in terms of whether it is good or annoying) or analyzing it (e.g. trying to identify the source of the sound).  Evaluation or analysis can take you away from your meditation focus and set in train a whole new line of thinking.   The sounds you choose can be anything that is relatively neutral.  Every room has its own room tone, and this can be an anchor.  If you tune into sounds, it can be useful to listen for the hardest to hear sound which intensifies your attention on listening.  When engaging in mindful walking in the outdoors, it can be very rewarding to use the sound of birds surrounding you as an anchor.

Reflection

I recall that when we had the bushfires in Queensland, I found it very difficult to use breath as a meditation anchor because of the amount of smoke and ash in the air.  I resorted to using the bodily sensation of fingers touching each other as an alternative.  This has served me well ever since as I use this anchor during waiting time to increase my awareness.

The main point is to choose something as an anchor that works for you (this may require some experimentation) and being able to adapt as your circumstances change.  What works at one time, may not work at another time.  As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation and developing our awareness muscle through effective meditation anchors, we will be better able to ride the waves of daily life and the challenges they present.

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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 for Sports Performance

In an earlier post, I discussed how playing tennis can develop mindfulness through building the capacity to pay attention in the present moment for the purpose of competing and being able to do so non-judgmentally (suspending self-criticism).  The very act of managing making mistakes in tennis helps to develop acceptance of what is and to reduce negative self-evaluation.  While tennis can help us to grow in mindfulness, using mindfulness practices on a regular basis develops our tennis performance.  Hence, playing tennis and mindfulness are mutually reinforcing.   I particularly noticed this mutual influence while watching some of the women’s matches during the US Open.

Being in the zone

Victoria Azarenka (unseeded) beat Elise Mertens (16th seed) 6-1, 6-0 in the US Open quarter-final round.  She achieved this despite not having played in a quarter-final since the 2016 Australian Open (Victoria gave birth to her son Leo in December 2016 and took a 9 month break from tennis during a lengthy custody battle for her son).  In her interview following the match with Elise, Victoria described how she saw the ball so large and with a bright yellow colour (she could even read the “US Open” imprint on the ball).  She also commented on the fact that the ball seemed to always be where she needed in order to hit the shot she wanted to play (in reality, it is likely that she had moved to be in the right spot to play the ball).   In the match, Victoria displayed heightened sensory perception, anticipation, and flexibility of movement.

The interviewer suggested that what Victoria was describing was known as “being in the zone” – an experience reported by many committed sports people such as car racing drivers and cricketers.  Mindfulness can develop the capacity to be-in-the zone as it achieves increased integration of body, mind and emotions – an alignment necessary to achieve the “flow” of being-in-the-zone.  Mindfulness practices such as yoga and Tai Chi can enhance sports performance and the likelihood of being-the-zone by developing bodily awareness, focused intention, groundedness and balance.

Finding the calm mind

Victoria lost 6-1 in the first set of the semi-final against Serena Williams who was determined to assert her ascendency as early as possible and to keep the rallies short (she had played four tough three-set matches leading up to this match).   However, Victoria went on to win the next two sets 6-3, 6-3.   When asked on interview how she went on to win after such a devastating start to the match, Victoria commented that Serena had dug her “in a big hole” and she had to “climb her way out”. 

She was able to do this because of the work she had been doing “to find the calm mind”.  She explained that she had learned to change her mindset from that of victim always seeking to ask why bad things were happening to her.  She stated that she recognised that she was responsible for what she did and how she reacted to situations and this had enabled her to “become a better person”.  Previously, Victoria had been noted for her on-court emotional outbursts that impeded her performance and progress as a professional tennis player.  During Serena’s lengthy injury break at a critical time in the match, Victoria was able to close her eyes and go inside herself and draw on her inner strength.

Mindfulness builds calmness and tranquility even in challenging times, develops self-awareness and helps us overcome negative self-evaluations.  It enables us to realise that there is a space between stimulus and response and that we have a choice in how we react to negative stimuli or testing situations.  Sharon Salzberg maintains that mindfulness develops wisdom in multiple ways including accepting what is beyond your control, managing your emotions and response and appreciating moments of wellness and joy.  Over the course of the US Open matches, Victoria frequently expressed her freedom from expectations and sheer joy at being able to participate in the competition and to play champions of Serena’s calibre.   

Body awareness and movement

At the start of the second set in her semi-final, Victoria began energetically bopping up and down.  During an interview following the match, she was asked what she was thinking when she “started to bop around at the baseline”.  Victoria explained that she was conscious of her need to bring her energy level up and movement was her way of doing that.  She was also able to tap into the fact that she started each day with a smile on her face and spent time on self-care to “focus her attention and energy”.

Processes such as body scan meditation can build body awareness, identify energy blocks, and provide a way to release tensions and the aftermath of traumas.   Mindful movement through yoga or Tai Chi can serve to build the mind-body connection and activate the body’s energy flow.

Reflection

Christian Straka, former tennis coach for Victoria Azarenka, is also a mindfulness facilitator with UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC).  He has created a specialized approach to mindset training by developing methodologies that apply “evidence-based mindfulness techniques in sports”. 

Many sportspeople consciously develop mindfulness to enhance their sports performance.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can access multiple benefits that facilitate achievement of high-performance levels in sports, as well as in our work and everyday life.  As with the pursuit of any competence, these benefits are more extensive and sustainable with regular practice.

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Image by Tomislav Jakupec 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.

Moving from Separation to Connection

Allyson Pimentel, a teacher at the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), provided a guided meditation podcast on the theme, From Separation to Connection, Silence to Speaking Truth, Stillness to Action. Allyson’s emphasis was on the power of meditation to increase our sense of connection, build our capacity to speak truthfully with courage and to take compassionate action.  Her meditation focus was on developing groundedness and stability through breath and formed part of the weekly, mindfulness awareness podcasts provided by MARC, UCLA.

Allyson explained that we are all connected in so many ways.  This sense of connection is heightened by the global pandemic and global social activity to redress injustice and inequality, epitomised by the Black Lives Matter movement.  This movement against violence towards black people has reverberated around the world with protest marches in many countries to show solidarity with those fighting against injustice. 

Sports teams are conducting public rituals to show solidarity and those who continue to promote hate and racism are being excluded from media forums that would otherwise give voice to their divisive comments.   Allyson noted that division and violence on racial grounds derives from a distorted sense of “separateness”, not recognizing our underlying connection to all other humans.  A  focus on separateness can breed “superior conceit”, a need to demonstrate that someone is “better than” another person.

Allyson’s professional work is focused on bringing mindfulness to bear on mental health issues and treatment.   She discussed mindfulness as paying attention to the present moment with kindness, curiosity and a sense of connection.  She stressed that breath meditation can help us to develop a strong sense of stability, self-compassion and compassion towards others.  She encouraged people participating in her presentation on Zoom to focus on one other individual participating in the global mindfulness awareness meditation and notice their face, their name, and their “place” and wish them protection, safety from harm, wellness and ease.  This process can deepen our sense of connection.

A breath meditation

During her Zoom drop-in session, Allyson offered a 20 minute breath meditation.  Her process involved a strong focus on our in-breath and out-breath and the space in between.  Allyson began the meditation by having all participants take a deep in-breath and let out an elongated out-breath while picturing their connection with others in the session doing the same thing – to create a sense of connection by breathing “as one”.   She suggested that people view the in-breath as self-compassion and the out-breath as compassion towards others, alternating between receiving and giving.

After this initial exercise during the guided meditation, Allyson encouraged participants to focus on their bodily sensations to become grounded fully in the moment – sensing their feet on the floor or ground and feeling the pressure of their body against their chair.   She suggested that if mental or emotional distractions intervened, returning to our bodily sensations is a way to refocus back on the breath.  A way to regain focus is to feel the breath moving the body (e.g. the in and out sensation of the diaphragm) and to feel the breath moving through the body – while recognising that many people around the world are experiencing constricted breathing through illness and/or inequity.

Allyson maintains that breath meditation and entering into silence fortifies us, provides stability and groundedness and enables us “to act for the good of others and to speak truth from our power”.  She suggests that meditation practice builds the personal resources to “speak wisely, truly and compassionately” in the face of unconscionable inequity.

Reflection

During the meditation session, Allyson quoted the One Breath poem written by Mark Arthur – a very moving reflection on connectedness and “collective social suffering”.  Mark exhorts us not to turn away but to turn towards the “deep, deep wound” as a way to express self-compassion. Then with loving kindness, “speak and act from the heart” with awareness that there is no separation between them and us, only connection through birth, breathing, living and death.

The space that lies between our in-breath and out-breath can be a place of rest and tranquillity and a source of spaciousness.  As we grow in mindfulness through breath meditation and exploring our connectedness to all human beings, we can access this spaciousness and learn to extend our thoughts and actions compassionately towards others.

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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.

How to Be Open to Change

Diana Winston recently provided a guided meditation on Opening to Change as part of the weekly meditation podcasts provided by MARC, UCLA.  Diana pointed out that change has always been a part of our life – both internally and externally.  We have constantly experienced change in the form of changes to our bodily sensations, our thoughts, emotions and body form.  We have experienced constant change in our environment (local and global) – our economic, political, social, financial, legal and climatic environment.  We can just think of the ever-changing nature of social media or the weather to remind us of the numerous changes that we experience daily.

Disruptive change brought on by the Coronavirus

The Coronavirus has created a disruptive change that is unprecedented in its magnitude and impacts.  We are finding that every dimension of our lives has been disrupted.  How we work and where we work has changed and for some people this means a loss of job and income.  Our financial situation is changing constantly as the new reality sets in, with businesses closing or going into lockdown, the share market fluctuating erratically, and customers prevented from visiting stores, cafes and restaurants.

Local, interstate and international travel has been severely constricted.  There have been significant restrictions on our daily lives – our movement, hygiene practices and access to resources have been mandated by Government (employing emergency powers).  Our interactions are changing as we have to adopt social distancing and social isolation – so people avoid rather than connect, people even cross the road to create distance as we approach them.

There are new limitations on who we can meet with, and the nature, duration and location of our meetings.  We are often forced to connect online, instead of face-to-face and to experience the exhaustion of this new mode of contact when adopted on a constant basis.  Everything seems to be turned upside down, even our perception of what day it is.  Bernard Salt, social commentator and demographer, coined the term “Lockdown Befuddlement Syndrome (LBS)” to describe our inability to remember what day it is  – a condition he attributes to the “loss of reference points” which served to fix the time of day and the day of the week for us (Weekend Australian Magazine, 16-17 May 2020, p. 28).

It is natural then for us to experience stress and resistance when we encounter total disruption and uncertainty.  It is also natural for us to experience the very real fear of viral contamination when going to the shops, being in enclosed public transport or lifts or just walking down the street. 

Previously, we have discussed various issues that impact our openness to change – our immunity to change, the need for emotional agility and the different survival strategies that individuals adopt.  Diana offers a guided meditation to help us to be more open to change whatever our habituated response is.  She suggests that, through mindfulness practice, we can turn the current “breakdown” in our life to the potential of a “breakthrough”. 

Guided meditation on openness to change

There are several steps in the guided meditation offered by Diana:

  • Physical grounding – sitting, lying or standing comfortably with eyes closed or downwardly focused.
  • Body scan – feeling your feet on the floor or ground, breathing into points of stiffness or pain, opening to your bodily sensations as they are at the moment.   Diana also suggests some form of movement to loosen your muscles, e.g. move your neck from side to side, stretch your arms and legs.
  • Emotional scan – getting in touch with your feelings at the moment and naming your feelings, without self-censure or self-evaluation (everyone experiences a range of emotions when faced with extreme uncertainty and threats to their sense of security).  It also involves confronting the experience of boredom and how it negatively impacts your life.
  • Mind scan – being open to your thoughts and what occupies your mind, exploring your preoccupation with the lost opportunities of the past and/or the uncertainty of the future.
  • Mindful breathing – sense your breathing (the in-breath, out-breath and the gap between), adopting deep breathing to tap into your life force.
  • Tune into sounds – open your awareness to sounds in the room and externally, without interpretation or emotional response.
  • Decide on an anchor – what will help you return to your focus when your mind wanders and you lose focus?  Your anchor could be a specific form of breathing, a bodily sensation, attention to sounds or any other signal to return your attention back to your desired focus.
  • Exploring your approach to present changes in your life – once you are in touch with how you are holistically experiencing your current reality, you can ask yourself a series of questions:
    • What aspects of your changed life are you adapting to well?
    • What positive responses have you employed, how have your enriched your daily routine?
    • What has slipped from your earlier resolve and practice, have you lost the discipline of a daily routine?
    • How could you improve your responses to your changed life and environment?
    • Are your expectations realistic, given your present environment?
    • What single positive behavioural change will you adopt?

Reflection

There are numerous examples, locally and globally, of individuals, communities and businesses adapting in a positive way to the experience of our current, constrained existence.  Parents are spending more time with their children; people working from home are valuing their home environment and enjoying increased productivity; businesses are adapting to a take-away or online environment; consultants, trainers and teachers are successfully converting to an online-teaching environment; people are learning new skills, including how to make bread; many people are exercising more and/or spending more time in nature and the open air.

Individuals and communities are working together to offer free nutritious meals to frontline health workers; businesses are adapting manufacturing processes to produce sanitisers, ventilators and protective gear; and musicians and artists are providing free shows online to brighten people’s lives and raise funds to fight the Coronavirus.   Everywhere you look, you can see examples of the resilience and generosity of the human spirit.

Diana askes us, “How can we channel what we have learned [in this crisis] to create a new existence?”  She maintains that as we grow in mindfulness we can move beyond our self-limitations and negative self-talk to access our inner strength, resilience and creativity.  We can move beyond our self-absorption to a sense of gratitude, self-compassion and compassion towards others.

Bernard Salt asks the Australian community:

What learnings, skills, adaptations, re­imagined values can we, should we, take forward in the recovery process to build an even better Australia in the months and the years ahead?  (The Australian, Monday 18 May 2020)

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Image by Jess Foami 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.