Mindfulness and Training in Compassion

The Science and Wisdom of Emotions Summit conducted online from 2-5 May 2021 provided access to 30 of the world’s experts in the areas of compassion, mental health, well-being, wisdom, neuroscience, emotional intelligence and trauma counselling.  Access to the full recordings and transcripts are thoughtfully provided on a sliding scale, generosity-based pricing structure – with all levels of purchase receiving the full package together with the gift of free access for a friend, colleague, or family member.

There was so much covered in the Summit that is relevant to mindfulness.  However, in this post I want to look at compassion from the perspective offered by a one of the presenters.

Research into developing compassion

I have mentioned earlier in this blog the work of Richard Richardson and Daniel Goleman, authors of Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, whose review of research studies confirmed that compassion meditation developed the traits of kindness and compassion.  In the Summit, Dr. Sona Dimidjian, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, shared her own research work on the development of compassion. 

Sona had been concerned about the lack of research into the transfer of compassion training to the practice of compassion in daily life and set about establishing a participative research project to find out what works and for whom.  She was particularly interested, especially in our current environment of racialism and inequity, to establish what are the “barriers and facilitators” of bringing compassion into everyday life.

Fundamental to Sona’s approach, was engaging participants in her research in every phase of the research process – formulating questions, deciding the methodology and collaboratively undertaking the research.  She involved educators, young people and those experiencing mental health issues.  One such collaborative study led to the conclusion that brief compassion training (20 minutes a day compassion meditation practice) increased participants compassion while daily exposure to images of people suffering actually led to a decline in compassion.

One unexpected result from the study was that teachers, one of the core groups that Sona sought to help, became particularly concerned about the impact of their daily exposure to the suffering of their students and their parents.  The teachers indicated that they lacked training in self-care and care for their student children and yet they aspired to be kind and compassionate.   

This concern of the teachers led to another collaborative research project with educators to co-design a course in compassion that would lead to compassionate action on the part of the teachers.  The resultant program, Masters in Teacher Leadership, is available through Colorado University and incorporates a Certificate level component on Cultivating Compassion and Dignity in Ourselves and Our Schools.  Sona’s hope is that teachers become true models of compassion while teaching their students to be compassionate.

Compassion and dignity

While the abovementioned course incorporates self-compassion, fundamental to the content and approach is the recognition that compassion involves “honouring dignity within each other” – recognising the dignity of each person, irrespective of their race, religion, skin colour, gender (or identification as non-binary or non-gendered), sexual preference, culture or country of origin.  Compassion is inclusive and non-discriminatory.  It actively works against the prevailing ethos, created through “systematic conditioning”, that fails to see our common humanity and connectedness.

Compassion involves deep listening and the capacity to hear the perspective of another while seeking to understand and value the learning and diverse experiences of other people.  It involves curiosity blended with tenderness and caring.  Compassion training through mindfulness incorporates “mental training’ (involving both thinking and emotional elements) and serves to preclude reactive responses to those who are suffering (which Sona points out sometimes aggravates the suffering of others through a lack of understanding).  The mindfulness training involved in compassion training, on the other hand, enables the participant to “act more skilfully” and take compassionate action in their day-to-day interactions.

Compassion involves “seeing one another in our fullness”, in all our diversity and complexity.  Surprisingly, Sona found that the digital world, accessed through programs like Zoom, enables participants to have greater access to each other’s life – you get to see the bookshelves, dogs coming in and out of a room, children demanding attention or partners moving about undertaking their daily activities, the room layout and house surrounds (in some cases).  Sona points out that this is a much richer perspective than the perception of a person created by the role that they occupy – you get to see and engage differently through a more complete perception of a person in their natural environment.

Reflection

Reading something of Sona’s clinical research history and work on the ground with educators, new mothers and expectant mothers and youth experiencing mental health issues, you begin to appreciate that her life and work epitomises compassion-in-action.  In fact, one of her personal goals is to strengthen her own mindfulness practices to enable her to pursue compassion in her own life by avoiding the interference of her own biases and living with integrity and congruity with the compassionate values that she promotes.  Sona generously shares her research and insights through her Mind & Life Podcast.

Sona’s life and dedication pursued in a spirit of humility, openness and curiosity provides an exemplar for how we could pursue compassion through our own life and work and daily interactions with others.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the insight and commitment to enhance our deep listening skills and build the courage to take compassionate action in a skilful way.

___________________________________________

Image by Juanita Foucault 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.

Bodily Awareness: Movement and Stillness

The UCLA meditation podcast at the end of April 2021 was conducted by Tom Heah who has particular expertise in movement meditation and offers a range of Mindfulness in Action courses.    Tom’s guided meditation on Awareness in Movement and Stillness offers a way to pay attention to bodily sensations with openness and curiosity while moving and keeping still.  He makes the point that our body is always in the present moment through our senses while our mind is often consumed with thinking about the past or the future, e.g., planning, analysing, categorising, criticising, or summarising.  Tom describes the mind as a “thinking machine” while he sees our body as a pathway to the present moment and mindfulness.  His podcast meditation has three core parts – seeing, moving, being still.

Paying attention to what we see

As Tom’s meditation was conducted online via Zoom, he encouraged participants from around the world to turn their videos on and look to see who else is present in the collaborative meditation.  He maintained that through our sight we can reinforce our sense of connection to others wherever they may be in the world.  He suggested that “separation” is really a “conception of the mind” – ignoring the reality of our connectedness to every living thing.  He encouraged participants to spend a short time as they were looking at others to check into their own bodily sensations.  Tom reinforced the fact that our bodies enable us to experience our connection to the earth as well as to others.

Paying attention to our bodies while we move

Tom encouraged participants to stand or sit to undertake a number of conscious movements involving the arms, neck, and shoulders.  He offered stretching exercises for the arms, neck and shoulder rolls as forms of movement.  His main focus was on the bodily sensations experienced while undertaking the movements – encouraging the identification of points of ease or tension.

On completing the movements, Tom suggested that participants choose an anchor to be able to refocus the mind if wandering occurs – e.g., room scanning, focus on sounds within and/or without the room, focusing on the breath or remaining with bodily sensations.  He indicated that like a lot of other people his mind has been racing with the advent of the pandemic, as everything in life is impacted – work location, availability of work, physical and mental health, relationships, shopping patterns, income flow and capacity for free movement within a State or outside a country.

Tom suggested that focus on our body and body sensations is a way to still the mind and recapture peace, ease, and tranquility.  Movement meditations such as Tai Chi provide an excellent means to build bodily focus and concentration as well as to realise physical and mental health benefits. 

Paying attention to our bodies while being still

Tom suggested that the stillness meditation can involve sitting, standing, or lying down – whatever is comfortable and facilitates your ability to get in touch with your bodily sensations.  One of the easiest ways to pay attention to bodily sensations is to focus on our feet – observing sensations of touch, tingling, heaviness, connectedness to the floor or ground or other sensation.  I find that joining my fingers together from each hand also provides me with easy access to bodily awareness – to a sense of energy flow, warmth, connection, tingling and stillness.

Mantra meditations involving generation of bodily energy through voice and vibration, can still the mind and body. Lulu & Mischka, exemplars of the art of mantra meditations, maintain that in times such as the pandemic, mantra meditations can enable us to achieve both stillness and joy despite the pervasive challenges in our lives.  Their stillness in motion mantra meditation epitomises becoming grounded and connected through observing whales and singing while sailing close to these majestic marine mammals.

Reflection

Our bodies are the immediate and accessible pathway to being in the present moment.  We can readily still our minds and grow in mindfulness through body scans, chanting, mantra meditations and movement meditations such as Tai Chi.  The benefits are enhanced through daily mindfulness practice whatever form it takes according to our preference and however much time we can devote to the practice.  The increasing benefits over time serve to provide positive reinforcement so that what may have once been a chore becomes a pleasant and rewarding experience.

___________________________________________

Image by Ria Sopala 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 Set Boundaries for Mental Health and Freedom

Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Terri Cole about the nature of personal boundaries, their importance and how to establish and maintain them.  Terri is the author of the book, Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (finally) Live FreeIn writing the book Terri drew on her own personal experiences, especially as a child, and her work with clients as a psychotherapist.  She found that her own “need to please” created “dysfunctional boundaries” and observed that many of her client’s problems stemmed from the inability to establish “healthy boundaries”.

Our “boundary blueprint”

Terri maintains that we each have a “boundary blueprint”, imprinted by the key influencers in our life, including our parents.  She suggests that over time we model ourselves on the behaviour and responses of our parents and key influencers, so that we can end up with an approach to setting boundaries that is ineffectual and even mentally harmful.  Once we have been able to master the skill of establishing boundaries, we can free ourselves from the hold of habituated responses – which are often designed to avoid conflict, gain approval or maintain the “peace”.  As Terri points out, our habituated responses typically involve not being truthful about our own desires and needs.

Becoming a “boundary boss”

The concept of “boundary boss” is not a harsh or unkind approach as the name might suggest but essentially entails being kind to ourselves and others through telling the truth (while leaving room to negotiate about desires and needs).  Terri maintains that we all have a “boundary bill of rights” but often fail to understand those rights or know how to assert them.  She makes herself incredibly vulnerable by telling stories about her own experience and dysfunctional boundaries, including her failure to assert her wishes with clinicians when  diagnosed with cancer.

Terri maintains that becoming a “boundary boss” rests on five key pillars – (1) self-awareness, (2) self-knowledge, (3) self-acceptance, (4) self-compassion, and (5) self-mastery (incorporating self-love as well as “self-celebration”).  Throughout her book, she offers exercises and powerful reflections to help the reader build these pillars and move progressively towards “speaking their truth”.   Terri cautions, though, that the transformation involves one step at a time, not quantum leaps.   It initially involves a very honest exploration of the boundaries we have in place in our relationships – and an understanding of where are boundaries are “loose or “rigid”.  Her book is very much about self-exploration to determine a better way to respond to our interpersonal challenges.

Speaking truthfully

At the heart of establishing and enforcing boundaries is speaking truthfully from an enlightened self-knowledge.  It means having the courage to present ourselves as we are, not as we think people want us to be.  Terri stresses that it also entails having the courage to acknowledge other people’s rights and their right to decline or say “no”, as well as developing the skill to say “no” ourselves in appropriate circumstances.  She even offers very clear guidelines on how to say “no” and how to modify your response depending on the interpersonal context (e.g., interacting with a stranger versus with an intimate partner).

Terri suggests that many of the occasions where we do not speak our truth result in resentment or anger, e.g., where we feel that some things in our relationship are not equitable, or that we are being taken for granted or where our emotional needs are not being met.  These strong emotions can be indicative of our failure to establish our boundaries.   Terri suggests that if we want to look at improving our relationships, we need first to look at ourselves-in-relationship and how we are presenting ourselves.  As she asserts, “change begins with us’, with understanding our inner landscape and acting on our insights.

Reflection

Terri’s book is penetrating and exposing – it exposes our behaviour patterns and our behaviour drivers.  She does this kindly by first sharing her own transparency and vulnerability.  However, Terri does not leave us exposed but offers ways to develop the skills to understand ourselves and assert our desires and needs in a kind and compassionate way.

She offers practical, conversational starters to help us move beyond our habituated behaviour.  It is difficult to hear her speak or read her book without feeling exposed but, at the same time, feeling highly supported to begin the journey of personal transformation by becoming our own “boundary boss”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection, and self-knowledge exercises, we can progressively develop the necessary self-awareness, self-mastery, self-acceptance, self-compassion and self-forgiveness, to establish our boundaries and have the courage to assert them in a mindful and kind way.

________________________________

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.

Children and Young People Need Compassionate Action in these Difficult Times

According to a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission and Kids Helpline, one of the major fallouts from the pandemic is the pervasive negative impacts on children and young people.  Their report makes the point that “the health, social, educational, economic, and recreational impacts” will extend well beyond the pandemic and impact their futures.  Children and youth are themselves the future of their communities so it is incumbent on people in communities to extend compassionate action to this group who are in crisis through a global event over which they have no control.

The co-authored report identifies five key issues raised by children and young people:

  • Deteriorating mental health
  • Isolation from others
  • Disrupted education
  • Family stresses
  • Unanticipated changes to plans, activities, and recreation

These issues are not discrete and, in fact, are compounding – each individually exacerbating other impacts. 

Deteriorating mental health

A report by Headspace focused on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on young people who accessed their services.   Many young people indicated the negative impacts on their sleep, mood, and overall well-being.  Young people have experienced anxiety over an uncertain future,  contagious stress (from financial and health concerns of others) and disconnection from foundational supports such as family and friends. However, what is encouraging are the activities that young people undertake in terms of self-care, including accessing Headspace and its dedicated resources for youth mental health.  Also, some young people saw the difficult times as a chance to re-calibrate, re-think priorities and focus on what is important in life.  The problem now is that the negative impacts of the pandemic are so pervasive that organisations like Headspace are becoming overwhelmed by the demand for their services.

Isolation from others

Lockdowns and restricted movement, and the alternating on and off directives, have contributed to a sense of social isolation.  Disconnection from others can lead to loneliness and depression and impact young people’s confidence and sense of self-worth.  The more extroverted children and youth can experience long periods of boredom and begin to question their purpose and usefulness.  Connection, on the other hand, engenders mental stimulus, energy, joy, and shared experiences – all conducive to positive mental health.

Disrupted education

With the initial limitations on face-to-face education with schools and university lockdowns, children and young people found that their education was disrupted.  The impacts were experienced as a result of the variable capacity of parents to undertake home-schooling, the lack of preparation and training of teachers for online learning and delivery and the lack of technological and infrastructure support.  The disruption was compounded by the inability of some children and young people to learn adequately in an online environment, influenced, in part, by the inadequacy of home computers and/or space.

Family stresses

In many instances, adults in a family were having difficulty coping with the pandemic for similar reasons to young people – isolation, mental health issues and disrupted activities.  Many were forced to work at home, which suited lots of people but undermined the confidence of others.  Families, too, were in crisis because of job losses, financial difficulties, challenges accessing food and essential services and overall concerns about the health and welfare of family members (including members of the extended family who were isolated locally or overseas).  Adding to these stresses is the impact of grief through the loss of a friend, colleague, or family member.

Unanticipated changes to plans, activities, and recreation

For young people, recreation is an important outlet for their energy, the stresses experienced because of their age and physical development and frustration with life’s challenges (including conflict of values with their parents).  Limitations on recreational activities compounded the stress felt by young people and impacted their relationships with their family.  What is positive, is the number of families who took the opportunity to go for walks or bike rides together in their adjacent area.

Youth homelessness as a consequence of issues experienced by young people

One of the major impacts of the pandemic and associated stressors is the rise in youth homelessness. Mission Australia reported in July 2020 that one in six young people who completed their survey indicated that they had been homeless.  The report highlights the long-term effects of homelessness on young people for whom the experience is “isolating, destabilising and often traumatic”, creating “insurmountable barriers as they move into adult life”.   Homeless youth can experience a pervasive sense of sadness and hopelessness.  Children and young people experience homelessness because of family conflicts, domestic violence and abuse, bullying, household financial crises and lack of affordable housing.  Kids Under Cover (KUC) highlights the main causes of homelessness for children and young people and advances a very strong economic argument for preventing youth homelessness.

Addressing children and youth homelessness

Mission Australia has called on the Federal and State Governments to increase the stock of affordable, social housing as one approach to economic recovery and social accountability and to redress the growing crisis of children and youth homelessness.  The report jointly authored by  Headspace and the Australian Human Rights Commission suggests a range of educational, mental health, economic and informational strategies that Governments can employ to redress the situation.  They particularly encourage Governments to give young people a voice in pandemic recovery planning.  One recommendation  of the report that is particularly critical is “prioritising   services for vulnerable children and young people”.

Organisations already exist to provide the requisite services for young people and families who are struggling.  BABI, for instance, located in Wynnum (Brisbane, Queensland) has provided a comprehensive range of youth and family services since 1983 to residents of the Bayside areas of Brisbane (Wynnum, Manly & Redlands).  This includes supported accommodation for youth who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, specialised family support for parents who are young or have teenagers, personal development (including tenancy training and Get Set for Work training) and youth connection and engagement through their LINX Youth Space and their Youth Voice Committee (YVC).

Organisation such as BABI, Headspace and KUC are finding that the growing demand for their services are fast outstripping their existing resources.  Those who provide supported accommodation, for example, are working in an environment where so many influences are making it extremely difficult to provide the requisite housing solutions.   The influences that are compounding include:

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Rising house prices and rentals costs
  • Limited vacancies overall

This accommodation crisis is accompanied by the removal of economic supports instituted during the pandemic such as the Eviction Moratorium, JobKeeper payments and the Coronavirus Supplement.   The removal of the JobKeeper Payment alone is expected to result in the loss of at least 100,000 jobs.

While Governments could show compassion and do many things to address homelessness amongst children and youth, there is an obvious reluctance to address the associated issues.  It is clear that it is time for people in the community to take compassionate action in the form of advocating with Governments and politicians, supporting organisations such as BABI through their businesses and their personal donations and volunteering whatever assistance they can provide to enable these dedicated organisations to meet what is currently an overwhelming demand.

Reflection

Empathy developed through mindfulness can help us to feel for the plight of others, especially those experiencing homelessness.  As we grow in mindfulness through loving kindness meditation, we can gain insight into how we could personally contribute and become motivated to take compassionate action for the homeless children and young people in our community – the young people who are the future of our communities.

__________________________________

Image by Wokandapix 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.

Finding Silence Amid the Noise and Busyness at Work

Christine Jackman, in her book Turning Down the Noise, highlights the noise and busyness at work as barriers to achieving silence and mindfulness.  These barriers are compounded by an emerging cultural norm that she calls “performative busyness” – “where contributions that are quick, disruptive and loud” are valued more highly than the reflective, considered responses to organisational issues and problems.   This norm values busyness above reflection.  The cost to organisations and individuals is tremendous in terms of lost productivity, stifling of creativity and increased stress levels resulting in lost motivation, depression, and burnout.

The “performative busyness” norm

In many organisations, being busy, or at least appearing to be busy, has become the norm.  This elevation of “busyness” was highlighted by an engaging study by Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of The Time Bind, who demonstrated (among other things) the negative impact of the busyness norm on the implementation of family-friendly policies.  If you did not work long hours and appeared to be busy all the time, you were viewed as unmotivated, lacking in commitment.  The net result was that those (mainly women) who sought to access the family-friendly policy to take time off for pressing family needs were often refused or treated poorly for their “obvious lack of work motivation”.  Arlie documents the ever-increasing cost to the family and the workplace of this debilitating dilemma confronting caregivers.

I once worked as a consultant to an organisation where performative busyness was the norm and treated as a corporate value by managers.  Busyness became equated with importance.  If a manager was “too busy” to attend meetings, or if there was an extended lead-time before you could have a meeting with a manager, they were considered V.I.P.’s (Very Important Persons).  This emphasis on “performative busyness” was in direct contrast to the client-facing areas where the highest value was placed on client service, rather than self-importance.   The client service areas were often frustrated by the need for the central service areas to reinforce their busyness and importance by creating unnecessary work for the client service areas.  This centric-focused busyness negatively impacted staff morale and effectiveness in the client service areas as well as client relations.

The  “open office” bind

Open office designs were introduced for efficiency reasons and to achieve higher productivity and collaboration.  Cost efficiencies have been achieved in many places because of the reduced cost of office outfitting but human efficiency has declined.   Two Professors at Harvard University, Ethan Bernstein and Stephan Turban, reported in 2018 that their research demonstrated that open offices actually led to a decline in both productivity and collaboration, owing to the heightened noise levels and the lack of privacy.   Research too has highlighted the negative impact that open offices can have on employee’s mental health because of factors like noise, overcrowding, isolation, and distractions. 

It is interesting that during a recent virtual training course I was conducting, a number of managers reported that they were better able to build a relationship with staff who were introverts while working from home in a virtual environment.  They explained that their relationships improved and they put this down to the fact that they were no longer impeded by the noise level and lack of privacy of the open office.

Meetings and more meetings

Christine refers to what she calls the “ritual meeting” – the meeting that occurs at a set time each day or week and has been in existence for a considerable period (so that it has now become a ritual but participants may have lost sight of its original purpose or the original need may have actually ceased to exist).  She maintains that often too many people attend these meetings for no appreciable achievement with no one counting the cost or seeking to improve the outcomes. Christine points out that these ritual meetings feed performative busyness behaviour because they enable managers to book out their days by attending endless meetings and thus appearing extremely busy.

In another organisational consultancy, I was working with a group of eight organisational leaders, whose salaries averaged AUD$400,000.  They were wanting to improve their effectiveness but expressed concern that the real problem lay with the “managers down there who were not accountable”.  It turned out, however, that the leaders met ritually every Friday afternoon for four hours and typically had no appreciable outcome from these meetings (and hence nothing to report to their next level managers). Despite the fact that they were aware of the cost of the meetings and their ineffectiveness, none of the leaders chose to do anything about them.  They were blind to the fact that they themselves were not accountable for the way they used their time and the organisation’s finances and resources. They were oblivious of the lack of congruence of their behaviour with their stated value of “accountability”.

Reflection

There are many barriers to silence in our lives including digital noise, overload, the discomfort of others, and busyness at work.  Silence can be found in natural sounds and music which enable us to cultivate deep listening and an inner silence.  However, seeking silence does not mean that we have to hide away from the world or not take action against injustices or inequity.

Christine points out in her penultimate chapter, that there is a real trade-off between silence and activity.  In a very well-researched and insightful chapter, she points out that it is not an either-or situation.  The challenge is to find silence within our roles whether they be at work, at home as a parent or partner, or in a broader community setting.  She provides a “Silence: How-to Guide” at the end of her book to assist us in this task.  I have incorporated some of these ideas as well as my own mindfulness practices in a previous post about accessing the power of silence.

As we grow in mindfulness, through our pursuit of stillness and inner silence amid our daily life and work, we can find a deep inner peace, calmness, and creativity, as well as a harbour or refuge in challenging times and periods of difficult emotions.  In a personal Epilogue of her book, Christine tells the story of how, as her father lay dying, she was able to move past emotional turbulence and turmoil to sit in silence with him as he died – it was then that she truly found silence.

___________________________________________

Image by Robert C 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.

Thanksgiving: A Time to Revitalise our Gratitude Practices

The US celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday 26 November this year.  It was also formally celebrated in other places around the world while in Australia informal celebrations occurred as American organisations shared their Thanksgiving Day exhortations and practices.  This was followed by intensive sales campaigns under the banners of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  It is easy to lose sight of the message of Thanksgiving in the flurry and frenzy of the constant encouragement to buy and acquire.   Acquisition is suddenly valued more than appreciation.

The value of gratitude

Gratitude is important for our relationships and our mental health.  Expressing appreciation to another person in a relationship is a way of valuing them and what they say and do.  It builds trust and affection and overcomes the tendency to “take someone for granted” which is, certainly, an intimacy dampener.

Neuroscience has demonstrated the benefits that gratitude has for our mental health and overall well-being.  It can alleviate depression, replace toxic emotions such as anger, envy, and resentment and develop a positive attitude to life which is, in itself, conducive to mental health.  Karen Newell, for example, explains from her research how gratitude builds positive energy.  She encourages us to be grateful not only for things that are present in our life today but also for the experiences and people from our past, especially our parents and mentors.

Sustaining gratitude practices

There are numerous ways to express gratitude and appreciation.  The challenge, like all good habits, is to build gratitude practices into our daily life, however brief or informal.  Some people adopt a gratitude journal as a way to express appreciation and progressively build a deep and abiding sense of gratitude.  Others link expressions of appreciation to other activities undertaken during the day.  For example, when boiling the jug, you could express appreciation for access to fresh water (something that many people in the world do not have) or the food that you are about to eat.  While waiting during the day, you could choose to reflect on what you are grateful for rather than dive for your phone.

Gratitude meditation is a sound way to progressively build awareness and appreciation for everything that enriches our life on a day to day basis.  We can learn to savour our relationships, achievements, the development of our children, the skills and capacities that we have developed over time and life itself.  Developing a gratitude mindset can help us to experience joy in our life, not only for what we have received, but also for the achievement of others through empathetic joy.  Being grateful is a great motivator for taking compassionate action, which not only benefits others but also ourselves.

Reflection

The benefits of gratitude and appreciation are numerous and can positively impact many aspects of our life if only we can slow down for gratitude.   We have to learn to create space in our busy lives for stillness and silence so that we can grow in awareness of what we have to appreciate and continue to express our gratitude whether internally or through external communication.   Gratitude can improve the quality of our life and, at the same time, positively impact those around us.  As we grow in mindfulness through our gratitude practices, reflection and meditation, we can experience greater joy in our lives, enrich our relationships and make a real difference in our world – a world torn by envy, hatred, resentment, bias and discrimination and the great divide between the “have’s” and “have-not’s”.

_________________________________

Image by 춘성 강 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.

.

Resources for Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

The core resource that I have used to understand and practise trauma-sensitive mindfulness is the work of David Treleaven.  David experienced trauma as a child and was a committed to mindfulness meditation practice which he found to be essential for healing trauma, but of itself insufficient.  His own clinical practice as a psychotherapist working with trauma sufferers confirmed this view of the essential nature of mindfulness meditation but its insufficiency in healing trauma sufferers.  David has dedicated his life’s work to researching and educating others about the relationship between mindfulness meditation and trauma.  This has culminated in his book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing and a website with additional resources. 

The potential for harm to trauma sufferers during mindfulness meditation

In his book and a free webinar on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, David explains that a lack of understanding by mindfulness trainers of the relationship between trauma and mindfulness meditation can result in overwhelm for a current or former trauma sufferer.  This overwhelm can be manifested in heightened anxiety, dissociation, or emotional dysregulation – the inability to control emotions elicited by a trauma stimulus.  Harm to the trauma sufferer by a meditation teacher can be exacerbated by a lack of understanding of trauma and perpetuation of the myths surrounding mindfulness meditation.  Typical responses that show this lack of understanding and sensitivity are statements like, “Stick with it” (by implication, “if you persist, your trauma response will go away”) or “Most people find this meditation relaxing and calming” (by implication, “there must be something wrong with you”).

The difficulty is compounded by the incidence of trauma and related adverse childhood experiences (ACE).   One study of 17,000 members of an integrated health fund found that two thirds had experienced an adverse childhood experience and 20% had experienced more than three such events.  There is now an ACE instrument whereby people can identify the number and type of ACE’s they have experienced in a lifetime.  David mentions other research that indicates that everyone will have at least one traumatic experience in their lifetime.  He goes on to say that the implication of this is that in any room of people practising mindfulness meditation, there will more likely be at least one person suffering trauma.  Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections, identifies disconnection from childhood trauma as one of the seven social causes of the pervasiveness of depression in society today.

The three myths about mindfulness meditation and trauma

In the 60-minute webinar on his website, David identifies three myths about mindfulness meditation that have been perpetuated in the popular press and in mindfulness training.  The three myths are as follows

  1. The Panacea Myth – the belief that mindfulness meditation will heal all kinds of stress, even stress generated by trauma.  David’s own experience and his clinical experience working with trauma sufferers reinforces the fact that mindfulness meditation alone will not heal trauma – mindfulness meditation processes need to be modified and, in some cases, supplemented by other methodologies such as professional psychological support.
  2. The Breath Myth – the belief that breathing is emotionally neutral.  David explains that because the respiratory system is biologically proximate to the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for excitation of our “flight/ flight/freeze” response) “close and sustained focus on the breath” can re-traumatise an individual for whom “breath” is a trauma stimulus. He states categorically and importantly that “people have different relationships to breath at different moments”.  He encourages the listener to experiment with this throughout the day to confirm that our breathing can be relaxed, tense or emotionally neutral at any point in a day.
  3. The Sufficiency myth – the belief that mindfulness meditation alone is sufficient to heal trauma.  David draws on case examples to illustrate the need for modifications to mindfulness meditation practice and the introduction of additional “self-regulation” tools to enable a person to heal from trauma.

Overall strategies to develop trauma-sensitive mindfulness training practices

David and other authors, practitioners, and researchers provide a range of strategies to “do no harm” when educating others in mindfulness meditation.  Here are some key strategies:

  • Understand trauma – First and foremost, understand trauma and its components on a biological, psychological, and social level.  Without this understanding, it is difficult to develop the sensitivity and flexibility required to do no harm when facilitating a mindfulness meditation session.  Associated with this, is the need to understand trauma-sensitive mindfulness and different strategies that can be adopted by mindfulness trainers and educators.
  • Provide choice re participation – this can be as basic as the freedom not to participate in any or all mindfulness practices on a particular occasion.  It can be the freedom to choose to close your eyes or leave them open (downcast or in wide-ranging exploration) and/or the option to sit, stand, walk  or lie down during meditation practice.  David points out that choice reinforces a sense of agency and is an important and healing aspect of mental health.  He also warns about the potential of offering too much choice in one session which can result in stress for participants, particularly those who already experiencing anxiety (David learned this by making this mistake himself in his zeal to provide agency).
  • Provide choice of anchors – this is a key area of choice that not only recognises that some anchors can be trauma stimuli for some individuals but also that anchors in meditation are an area of personal preference (what works for one person does not work for another).  Anchors enable meditators to restore their focus when they have been diverted by a distracting thought and/or emotion.
  • Adopt modifications to mindfulness meditation practices when needed – In the webinar mentioned about, David provides examples of how he has been able to offer modifications to mindfulness meditation practices for particular individuals when working one-to-one, including  allowing brief breaks to walk around, suggesting a shift in posture and encouraging the use of deep breathing at different intervals or at appropriate moments.  Sam Himelstein, who works with traumatised teenagers, has found, for example, that where a teenager cannot talk about, or focus on their feelings about, their traumatic experience, listening to appropriate music together can be relationship building and enable progress to be made in healing teenage trauma.
  • Develop awareness of principles, guidelines and practices for trauma-sensitive mindfulness – David provides a comprehensive, two-part, online program for training mindfulness practitioners in trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  He also provides a free Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast featuring  people such as Liz Stanley on Widening the Window of Tolerance and Sharon Salzberg on Loving-Kindness Meditation.   Sam Himelstein, author of Trauma-Informed Mindfulness With Teens, offers both guidelines and principles to enable mindfulness trainers and educators to develop the awareness and sensitivity to work with people who have experienced trauma.

Reflection

Reading about the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma-sensitive mindfulness made me realise that I had suffered multiple traumas as a child and that my five-years’ experience in daily mindfulness meditation and Gregorian chant as a contemplative monk in the late 1960’s had helped me to heal from these traumas. 

Recently, I had two participants out of a group of 20 in a management training program who openly stated at the beginning of the program that they suffered from chronic anxiety – one of whom experienced trauma as a result of their manager shouting at them and abusing them in public.  This facilitation experience confirmed the need to modify the training program and also led me to further explore anxiety through Scott Stossel’s book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope and Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind.  This book helped me to become more aware of the pervasiveness of trauma-induced anxiety across the world, intensified by the global pandemic, and how such anxiety can pervade every aspect of an individual’s life.

I have also witnessed two situations of emotional dysregulation during training courses when individuals have experienced a trauma stimulus – one during a singing course when a person experienced acoustic trauma and another where someone experienced re-traumatisation during observation of a success posture exercise being undertaken by another individual with the guidance of a workshop facilitator.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and research, we can become more self-aware, develop insight and sensitivity to work with people who are experiencing trauma and anxiety and build the flexibility and confidence to adopt mindfulness practices and approaches that are more trauma-sensitive.

________________________________________

Image by Maria Karysheva from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness Strategies for Well-Being

Dr. Trisha Macnair, in her book Live Well, offers 100 ways to develop well-being.  Trisha has been a medical doctor for over thirty years and developed a speciality in “active ageing”.  Her book is focused on developing a healthy and long life and her many simple ways of achieving this include suggestions re nutrition, exercise and lifestyle.  Here I will focus on Trisha’s suggestions that relate to mindfulness.

Mindfulness for a healthy and long life

Trisha recommends several well-being strategies that are directly related to mindfulness:

  • Meditation – the psychological and physical benefits of meditation are well researched and documented.  Besides being a calming influence and source of tranquillity, meditation improves clarity and creativity and can contribute to mental health by helping to reduce negative thoughts, improve mood, develop wisdom and manage challenging emotions.   
  • Find your happy – underlying Trisha’s suggestions in relation to enjoying the physical and mental health benefits of being happy, is a focus on mindfulness.  This involves awareness of what contributes to happiness and unhappiness in our lives, tuning into experiences of well-being, and making time for ourselves to enable self-care.
  • Keep moving – several of Trisha’s recommendations relate to movement and she extols the physical benefits of walking, yoga and Tai Ch.  The mental health benefits of these practices can be enhanced by adopting mindful walking, treating Tai Chi as meditation-in -motion with conscious breathing and bodily awareness, and focusing on the meditative elements of yoga. 
  • Spending time in nature – the benefits of time spent in nature are increasingly being linked to improved physical and mental health and longevity.  The mental health benefits of nature can be enriched by meditating on the elements of nature, being conscious of the healing power of nature and developing our capacity for sensory awareness while in nature.
  • Doing acts of kindness – the happiness benefits of doing good deeds are well researched.  Mindfulness itself can have really positive outcomes for others as well as ourselves by improving many aspects of our interactions – our mood, ability and willingness to listen for understanding, capacity to regulate our emotions and express “sympathetic joy” and our sense of gratitude (not allowing envy to grow).  Loving-kindness meditation can also enable us to draw energy and vitality from our sense of connectedness to others and facilitate compassionate action.  Through mindfulness we can discover our unique way(s) to contribute to the well-being of others through specific acts of kindness.

Reflection

Trisha reminds us that there are many simple and readily accessible ways that we can use to develop our well-being and a healthy and long life.  The benefits of many of the practices she suggests can be enhanced as we grow in mindfulness.  Meditation itself brings substantial physical and mental health benefits.  The cumulative effects of the suggested practices can be life-changing because they are mutually self-reinforcing. 

________________________________________

Image by Alessandro Squassoni 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.

Tai Chi for Physical Health, Energy and Psychological Well-Being

Tai Chi is an integrative, whole-body routine that builds the mind-body connection.  There are many attempts to categorise the numerous benefits of Tai Chi and the categories vary with the orientation of the writer/researcher. For instance, Dr. Peter Wayne of the Harvard Medical School who has spent many years researching and teaching the efficacy of Tai Chi identified eight active ingredients of this internal martial art in his book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.

World-renowned martial arts practitioner, Bruce Frantzis, maintains that the integrative power of Tai Chi flows from the combination of stillness of the mind with intentional movement of the body.  The stillness refers to being present in the moment, not lost in thoughts associated with the past or the future.  However, as Peter Wayne points out, the mind-body connection is enhanced immeasurably by integrating breathing, movement and “cognitive skills” associated with focused attention, body awareness and the use of imagery.

In this current blog post, I will explore the benefits and efficacy of Tai Chi under three categories (which are not mutually exclusive but are mutually reinforcing) – physical health, energy and psychological well-being.

Tai Chi for physical health

The health benefits of Tai Chi are numerous and wide-ranging, positively impacting multiple bodily systems such as the circulatory, immune, respiratory and nervous systems.  Along with these systemic benefits are improvements in the functioning of different parts of the body such as the heart, nerves, muscles and bones.  In turn, the integrative nature of this internal martial art builds balance and coordination and improves flexibility and reflexes.  

Tai Chi can also relieve or remove chronic health problems.  Caroline Frantzis, in commenting on Bruce’s video presentation and illustration of Taoist energy arts, observed that Tai Chi is prescribed quite regularly by Chinese doctors as a form of therapeutic treatment for “blood pressure, heart problems, poor circulation, asthma, impotence, and nervous diseases” as well as for arthritis and back, neck and joint problems.  Researchers too have shown that practising Tai Chi regularly increases brain volume, improves thinking skills and memory and may, in fact, prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s or reduce the rate of development of dementia-related illnesses.

Tai Chi for energy

Bruce Frantzis has spent the better part of his adult life studying and exploring Qi, the energetic lifeforce that enables the body and mind to function.  He maintains that when we can really tune into our bodies through Tai Chi, we can actually feel the energy flow as it moves through “the fluids, nerves, fascia and other tissues” of the body.  In this way, according to Bruce, we can “become more fully alive and vibrant” because we have released any blockages and enabled the natural energy flow of the body.  In support of these observations, Caroline Frantzis (nee Martin) stated that during Tai Chi a practitioner “exercises every single muscle, ligament, tendon and joint of the body” and the associated movements effectively massage internal organs and every lymph node thus energising “all the body’s internal pumps”.

Tai Chi for psychological well-being

Peter Wayne devotes a complete chapter to the positive impact of Tai Chi on psychological well-being in his book, The Harvard Medical Guide to Tai Chi.  He incorporates personal reports and scientific research to illustrate how Tai Chi can reduce both depression and anxiety symptoms, improve mood, develop positive attitudes, reduce stress and tame the “monkey mind” (“mind wandering” is the cause of much personal distress).  He argues that Tai Chi’s positive impacts on psychological health can be attributed to not only its emphasis on “form and posture” together with its exercise component but also its capacity to develop “mindfulness and focused attention”.  He draws on recent research to demonstrate that these latter attributes and the associated state of being-in-the-moment, actively contribute to improved psychological welfare, happiness and overall quality of life. 

Peter explains how he accentuates this positive contribution of Tai Chi by having his trainees focus on bodily sensations during practice (e.g. the feel of your feet on the floor or ground, the movement of your breath or your hands/head, or the warm sensation in your fingers).  He maintains that the psychological benefits of Tai Chi can be increased by not thinking “but simply notice things as they are, without trying to fix or change them”.   Peter Wayne also draws on the comments of Peter Deadman that “cultivating this deeper awareness allows us to feel and explore the truer currents of our emotional life”.   He also alludes to the power of imagery and visualisation during Tai Chi as a means to develop positive thoughts and groundedness (e.g. imagining yourself as a tree with deep roots into the ground through which passes all tension and tautness).

Reflection

I have found in the past that frequently reviewing the benefits of Tai Chi identified by researches and practitioners builds my own motivation to incorporate this internal martial art form in my mindfulness practice.  Peter Wayne, in his Guide to Tai Chi mentioned above, provides a photo-illustrated, simple program along with ways to incorporate Tai Chi into the activities of each day.

I have previously completed two introductory Tai Chi courses conducted by the Taoist Tai Chi Society.   However I found the 108 movements based on the practice of Master Moy Lin Shin too difficult to learn and practise because of my work commitments.  I have found since, that I can regularly practise the first 17 moves of Master Moy’s Tai Chi set by following the free “Practise with me” video training guide.

Darius Boyd, Australian Rugby League legend, describes in his recently-released book, Battling the Blues, how he went through a number of really “dark periods” of depression and how he came out of these feeling stronger and more resilient through the assistance of professional therapy and the social support of his wife, mentors and friends.  He maintains that we each have dark periods and that “mental health is something that you consistently need to work at”.  Tai Chi offers an easy and accessible way to keep the dark periods at bay or, at the very least, to lessen their impact.

As we grow in mindfulness and focused attention through meditation and Tai Chi, we can reap the benefits of regular practice in terms of improved physical health and psychological well-being, enhanced energy levels and enjoyment of the ease of wellness.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­____________________________________________

Image by Elias Sch. 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.

Don’t Wait to Forgive

In his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses in depth his first lesson, Don’t Wait, learned from many years of working with the process of dying and death.  He witnessed so many people dying while consumed by hatred, resentment, rage and anger.  He also gives examples of others who were able to offer profound forgiveness on their deathbed.  He urges us not to wait until we are dying to embrace forgiveness for ourselves and others.  He contends that all forgiveness is ultimately self-forgiveness and is hugely beneficial for us – mentally, physically and emotionally.

Resistance to forgiveness

Frank talks about our natural resistance to forgiveness – a form of self-protection, protecting our sense of right and wrong and our elevated sense of who we are.  To forgive is to acknowledge difficult emotions such as anger, regret and resentment.  We tend to run away from these feelings because they cause us pain.  However, the cost and pain of carrying resentment all our lives are far greater than the pain of facing up to those parts of ourselves we are embarrassed by or unwilling to acknowledge. 

We each have an area of darkness that we don’t like to shine a light on.  Recalling events also brings to mind and body, the recollection and re-experiencing of hurt – hurt from other’s words and actions, and also hurt and regret we feel for things that we have said and done that were hurtful towards other.   Facing up to the depth of our difficult emotions is critical for forgiveness and mental health.

Anger and resentment can consume us, constrict our capacity to express kindness and love towards others, even those in close relationships with us.  We can find ourselves constantly playing over events in our head as well as in our conversations, our hurt and resentment growing with each retelling.  Ultimately, forgiveness involves letting go – releasing ourselves from the sustained constriction of negative emotions and giving up others as objects of our resentment.  If we do not forgive others and our self, our difficult emotions find expression in self-defeating ways, including manifesting our anger in such a way that another innocent party is hurt by our outburst or abusive behaviour.

Frank points out that forgiveness does not mean to totally forget an event that was hurtful or condone the actions of another person that were unjust, hateful or revengeful   It does not require reconciliation – sharing your forgiveness with the other person.  It is an internal act encompassing mind, body and heart.  When we overcome the resistance to forgiveness, we open ourselves to kindness and love.

The long journey of forgiveness

As they say, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – forgiveness is a life-time pursuit, not something to begin at the end of life.  Frank recalls his own anger, rage and resentment towards a Colonel in a country at war, when the Colonel refused to assist a five-year old boy who eventually died a very painful death without the medical support the Colonel could have provided.  Frank points out that these complex emotions consumed him and sometimes found expression in his rage.  However, he instituted a daily ritual which, after many years, enabled him to let go of these emotions and find the freedom to forgive and love again.

Frank encourages us to start along the path of forgiveness by first taking on relatively small issues/events in our life, not the big all-consuming hatred or resentment.  He suggests even practicing with small annoyances such as being cut off by someone in traffic or having someone leave a wet towel lying on the bed.  You can progressively build up to dealing with the big issues/areas of resentment and anger.  The process of incorporating forgiveness meditation into your mindfulness practices can be a way to begin and to progress the long journey of forgiveness.

Forgiveness requires absolute  honesty (not projecting an image of ourselves as “perfect”), acknowledgement of our own part in a hurtful interaction, understanding of what is influencing the other person’s behaviour, recognition of our connectedness to everyone and a willingness to face up to, and fully experience, what we don’t like in our selves.   Frank’s strong exhortation is, “Don’t Wait!” until it is too late – until our deathbed when we could be consumed with anger, guilt, regret or rage.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through forgiveness meditation, mindfulness practices and honest reflection, we can more readily recognise when we need to forgive and the hurtfulness that we cause by our words and actions.  We can progressively face up to our “dark side” and our difficult emotions that are harmful to ourselves and others.  We can also bear the pain of naming these feelings and really experiencing their depth, distortion of reality and self-destructive nature.   Forgiveness builds our freedom to express kindness and appreciation and to love openly.

Frank maintains that the foundation for true forgiveness is learning to forgive ourselves with “compassion and mercy” – this is, in itself, a difficult journey and, ideally, a life-time pursuit.

___________________________________________

Image by Лечение наркомании 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.