Accessing the Power of Meditation and Loving Kindness

Barry Boyce, founding editor of Mindful.org, interviewed Sharon Salzberg, globally recognised meditation teacher, about the impact of meditation and loving kindness (about which Sharon is a world-renowned exponent).  In the interview, The Power of Loving-Kindness, Sharon explained how she had studied Eastern philosophy and learned about meditation by travelling to India, not the local meditation centre like you do today.  She was surprised that much of the Indian meditation practice that she learned focused on the breath, not the more esoteric approaches she had learned about.

Focusing on the breath

Sharon was at first taken aback by the simplicity of the breath focus.  However, she soon realised that while the idea is simple, the execution is difficult because it involves having to deal with racing thoughts that distracted her from her focus on her breath.   She found how hard it was to pay attention to her breath when “thoughts came tumbling down like a waterfall”.

At challenging times, when anxiety is high, our mind races away from our focus with some speed and intensity.  Bringing attention back to our breathing focus, is difficult to do but builds our “attention muscle”.  It enhances our power of concentration and our capacity to be with what is, whether it is the experience of well-being or the pain and suffering of challenging emotions.  Pausing to focus on our breath develops clarity and our capacity to lead with conviction.

The role of loving-kindness

There is a tendency is to give up in the face of the difficulty of focusing on our breath.  However, persistence really pays and creates the power to access equanimity, ease and creativity.  Sometimes, we are tempted to beat up on ourselves by saying, “We are not good at meditation and never will be?”; “It’s such a simple thing, why can’t I do it?”  “Other people seem to manage, why can’t I?”

This is where loving kindness has a role.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his definition of mindfulness, exhorts us to practise paying purposeful attention “non-judgmentally”.  It is the negative self-evaluation that creates the greatest barrier to meditation, not the fact that we have lots of distracting thoughts.  Thoughts are natural and will vary in content and frequency over time, reflecting what is going on in our life at that time.  Jon suggests that we treat thoughts as if they are bubbles floating to the surface in boiling water.

Sharon maintains that “kindness towards ourselves” is essential if we are going to be able to persist with meditation.  She argues that paying attention and kindness are inseparable – without self-compassion, you cannot sustain your attention.   The power of meditation lies not only in the increasing capacity to concentrate but also in the ability to develop robust self-esteem through loving-kindness.   Another dimension of this power is the ability to rest in our breath and bodily sensations in troubling times and times of turbulence in our life. Sharon explores fully the role of loving-kindness in her recent book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.

The power of connection

Through meditation and loving-kindness, we come to realise our connectedness to everyone and our connection with nature.  This is foundational to our ability to show compassion towards others.  If we can accept ourselves fully – with our flaws, hurtful behaviour and our complex emotions – we are better able to extend compassion and forgiveness to others and accept that they are only human too.

Through our sense of connection, we can tap into the “collective energy” that surrounds us, pursue our life purpose and make a real difference in the world.  Meditation becomes a power source, a way of accessing the power within and without – it becomes the conduit for our energy system.

Reflection

Meditation has a calming yet powerful effect.  When we are rattled or frazzled, our power of concentration is diminished, our thoughts become dispersed and our energy dissipated.   Paying attention to our breath with loving-kindness enables us to access our power source and to bring focused energy to our endeavours, whatever they may be.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, particularly through loving-kindness meditation, we can enhance our sense of connection to everybody and every living thing, build resilient self-esteem and draw on the power of focus.

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Image by Alexander Droeger 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 and Resilience in Challenging Times

The Awake Network and Mindful.org have collaborated to provide a free resource for healthcare professionals in the form of The Mindful Healthcare Speaker Series.  Jon Kabat-Zinn speaking on Mindfulness and Resilience in Challenging Times was the first in the series of six speakers.   While Jon is not an MD, he has a PhD in Medicine and focuses on mindfulness in medication, healthcare and society.

Jon and host, Dr. Reena Kotecha, spoke of the enormity of the challenges facing everyone with the advent of the Coronavirus and especially the frontline healthcare professionals who, in many instances, lack adequate resources and training to deal with the magnitude of this pandemic.  They spoke of the trauma experienced by these healthcare professionals who are witnessing the suffering and death of so many people.  Reena spoke of one frontline female doctor who had to move out of home to live in a hotel for three months to protect her mother who was suffering from cancer. 

A truly disturbing event was the suicide death of Dr. Lorna M. Breen, an emergency center doctor, who continually witnessed the very worst of the impact of the Coronavirus on people, including people dying at the hospital before they could be removed from the ambulance.   Her heroic efforts to save people through her frontline medical work contributed to her own death.  Jon reiterated that mindfulness does not lessen the enormity of the physical and mental health impact of the pandemic on the lives of healthcare professionals but emphasised that mindfulness acts as a ballast to provide stability in the face of the turbulent winds created by the pandemic.

Mindfulness as ballast for stability

Jon referred to the 25 years of quality scientific research that showed the benefits of mindfulness, extending to positively altering the structure of the brain, increasing functional connectivity (e.g. of the mind-body connection) and enhancing neuroplasticity.   Neuroscientist Richard Davidson co-authored a book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, and demonstrated the powerful effect mindfulness had on building resilience.

Jon spoke of “full catastrophe living” and emphasised that it is truly human to experience fear, anxiety and grief.  He argued that mental health is enhanced by feeling and accepting everything we experience, rather than denying its existence or intensity.  He stated that no matter how emotionally rending our circumstances are we can find refuge in mindfulness, by being “in the present moment, moment by moment”.  In this way, we are better able to recover from the “trauma” of the present reality and to do so without total depletion of ourselves.   

Mindfulness as awareness

Jon maintained that “we are not our narrative” – we are not our negative self-talk that diminishes us and depletes our energy in the face of life challenges.  He argues that our life is “one seamless whole” – our mind, body, thoughts and emotions.  In his view, our breath serves as the integrating factor and energy force.  Awareness of our breath in the present moment enables us “to get out of the wind” and “to recalibrate, recover and respond instead of reacting”.  To reinforce this message, he provided a guided meditation during his presentation focused on the breath for about ten minutes (at the 30-minute mark).

Jon maintained that awareness of our breath can enable us to be fully awake to what is going on inside us and to be more deeply connected to others.  He argued that we don’t have to achieve a particular goal – to become more or better – in his view, “we are already okay”.  In these challenging times, what is needed to help ourselves and others we interact with is to be authentically present, without a “mask” (metaphorically speaking), but with openness and vulnerability. 

Reflection

Jon highlighted the importance of trusting our “human creativity” when confronted with the need to help people who are stressed out by the pandemic.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we not only build our resilience in managing our personal challenges but also “modulate the tendency to put self ahead of everyone else” – we can diminish our self-absorption and self-doubt.  He maintained that awareness of our breathing reinforces our ecological connectedness.  

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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.

Mindful City Initiative: Mindful.Org

In the previous post I discussed the Mindful City Project focused on a pilot in Highland Park, Illinois. This is only one example of the many initiatives being undertaken in the USA to develop mindful cities. Another key approach is the Mindful City Initiative undertaken by Mindful.Org. I will focus on this initiative in the current blog post.

Mindful City Initiative: Flint, Michigan

The Mindful City Initiative is a social intervention that is one of the three high-leveraged projects undertaken by The Foundation for a Mindful Society. The Foundation aims to improve wellness, health, compassion and kindness in all sectors of society through its publications, Mindful.Org and the Mindful Magazine, as well as projects which aim to cultivate and support mindfulness practices based on evidence-based research. It seeks to achieve these outcomes through an authentic approach to mindfulness that reflects the integrity of the not-for-profit Foundation.

Flint in Michigan is a city that has experienced major crises, e.g. reduction in the GMH workforce from 80.000 at its peak in 1978 to 8,000 by 2010 and lead contamination of its water. The Mindful City Initiative in Flint is designed to utilise mindfulness to assist the regeneration of the city so that it can become, once again, a thriving, healthy and resilient community.

In pursuit of this aim, a two-day workshop – developed and delivered by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) – was conducted for civic leaders encompassing leaders in businesses, education organisations, healthcare, and philanthropy. SIYLI provides leadership training in mindfulness and emotional intelligence, as well as extensive mindfulness resources, including the latest neuroscience research on mindfulness practices.

The leaders in Flint developed a vision of a “flourishing community” and sought the help of the Mindful City Initiative to develop leadership skills that will achieve active collaboration and innovation to realise their vision. Through this initiative, Mindful.org is linking the city leaders to teachers, partners and programs in the mindfulness arena, as well as providing access to their publications and mindfulness practices offered via their major social media site.

A further initiative is planned for Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The focus here is on “bringing together city leaders and neuroscientists” to enhance civic leadership skills to enable leaders in different sectors to work together to create a sustainable, “healthy community”.

Through social innovations such as the Mindful City Initiative, organisations are working to enable civil leaders to grow in mindfulness and transfer their knowledge, learning and experience to the broader community for the health, welfare and sustainability of their communities.

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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.

Exploring Awareness Without Boundaries

In a previous post, I explored Diana Winston’s discussion of the three dimensions of awareness – narrow, broad and choiceless. In this post, I want to explore “boundaryless awareness” which is often called “choiceless awareness“. I will be drawing on a guided meditation for resting in boundaryless awareness provided by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

The expansiveness of awareness

Jon reminds us that our awareness can take in an endless array of sensations, thoughts, and emotions as well as conscious awareness of the fact that we are observing, thinking or experiencing. Our awareness is like the unbounded expanse of the sky or the galaxies beyond.

With narrow awareness we hone in on a particular focus such as our breathing, sounds around us or a specific self-story; with broad awareness we open ourselves to all that is going on around us. With boundaryless awareness we progressively open to our total inner and outer reality without constraint – not choosing, entertaining or engaging – just being-in-the-moment. Jon reminds us that we are often extremely narrow in our awareness, just fixated on ourselves – e.g. on our addiction, our pain or our boredom. Boundaryless awareness creates a sense of freedom – moving beyond self-obsession to openness to what is.

A guided meditation on boundaryless awareness

In Jon’s meditation podcast, provided by mindful.org, he takes us through a series of stages that gradually open our consciousness to the expansiveness of our awareness – beyond depth, breadth and width.

In the 30 minute meditation, he begins by having you focus on the “soundscape” – the sounds that surround you and the space in between each sound. He encourages you to “be the hearing” – to rest in the very act of hearing, thus deepening awareness not only of the sounds but also of the fact that you are hearing them.

In the next stage of progressing in awareness, Jon suggests that you now move your awareness to the air that you breathe and the sensation of the air on your skin as well as consciousness of its progress through your body. You could even extend this to breathing with the earth, so that you are attuned to your participation in the “breathing globe”.

Jon points out that while all this is going on your body is experiencing sensations – aches and pains, pressure of the chair on your back and legs, the sense of being grounded with your feet on the floor. [As I participated in this meditation, I even had the sensation of movement in my fingers (which were touching) – lightening the pressure of touch, growing thicker and expanding outwards.] Jon suggests that you let your awareness float across your body sensations as you breathe, sit, hear and feel.

You can extend your awareness to your thoughts, not entertaining them but growing conscious that you are thinking – letting your thoughts come and go as they float away. This awareness simultaneously embraces feelings elicited by your thoughts and accompanying images and memories.

In the final stage of this guided meditation, that Jon calls “one last jump”, you allow your mind and heart to be “boundless, hugely spacious, as big as the sky or space itself” – an awareness that has no bounds like the “boundarylessness” of awareness itself in its uninhibited form.

Stability through narrowing your focus

If you find that you need to stabilise your mind as you experience the unaccustomed sensations of “weightlessness” or unbounded awareness, you can return to a narrower focus – your breath or the sounds around you. In returning to a narrow awareness, you can sense the limits of this focus within the broader field of unbounded awareness. Boundaryless awareness, however, is accessible to you at any time you choose to pursue it.

As we grow in mindfulness by resting in our awareness -narrow, broad or boundaryless – through meditation, we come to realise the expansiveness of awareness and the freedom and calm that lies beyond self-absorption, with all its various manifestations such as addiction, negative self-stories or depression.

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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.

Happiness Through Mindful Eating

Megrette Fletcher reminds us that mindful eating can be a source of happiness in multiple ways. Mindful eating not only brings physical health benefits through improved digestion but also mental and emotional benefits through savoring the senses, enjoying the pleasure of eating tasty food, experiencing gratitude for the food that we have and enjoying the company of others.

The happiness benefits of mindful eating

When we are conscious enough to eat mindfully, we can be more in tune with our senses. This involves not only taste but other senses as well. We can enjoy the smell of freshly cooked food with the different aromas of spices, sauces and the core ingredients. We can experience the benefits of texture through touch as well as through our mouths (maybe this is why cooking shows put so much emphasis on incorporating different textures in our cooking). Sight plays a key role in mindful eating as we learn to appreciate presentation, including the varying colours of different foods and the artful colour matching. Sounds when eating, too, can play a role in our experience of happiness during mindful eating (providing they are experienced as pleasant, such as the crunch sound from eating pork crackling).

We can enjoy the pleasure of stopping from the busyness of our work and other responsibilities and savour the moment. There is a sense of satisfaction that derives from stopping, focusing and experiencing the moment – increasing our awareness that we are enjoying good food. There is also a sense of accomplishment when we can concentrate on the act of eating itself.

There are clear mental health benefits and positive emotions elicited when we express gratitude for the food we eat. Gratitude can emerge when we are mindful of the good fortune of having food to eat, enjoying plenitude (where many in the world have insufficient food) and experiencing quality ingredients and inventive cooking.

Being mindful of the company we enjoy when we eat is a key element in the happiness experienced through mindful eating. We can experience the pleasure of eating as a family on a regular basis or on special occasions where the extended family gets together. We can enjoy the company of colleagues and friends with whom we share a breakfast, lunch or dinner meal or just a cup of coffee. The experience of positive relationships enriches our lives and this benefit is accentuated when we mindfully share a meal together.

An article on the mindful.org website offers 7 reminders for mindful eating. The article provides seven practical ways to eat mindfully to experience nourishment of the mind and emotions, as well as of the body.

As we grow in mindfulness and awareness of the moment through mindful eating, we can experience genuine happiness and joy, enhance our positive mental state and develop a deep sense of gratitude for all that we are privileged to experience in life.

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

Image source: courtesy of moerschy on Pixabay

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

Meditation: Noticing the Sensations of Your Body

Often, we live so much in our thoughts that we lose touch with our bodies and yet our bodies are the means to ground ourselves in the present moment. John Kabat-Zinn offers a meditation that helps us ground ourselves through our bodies. The meditation is described in Mindful.org and provided as a meditation podcast, titled Bodyscape Practice to Notice Sensations.

The purpose of the meditation is to develop your awareness of the sensations in your body. This includes focusing on the nature of the sensation, e.g. tingling, aching, throbbing, and extends to noticing how the sensation is experienced, e.g. as discomfort, pain or resignation.

You can also expand your bodily awareness to encompass your skin, the largest organ of your body. This may involve noticing the cool or heat of the air flowing over your body and sensed by your skin. It extends to getting in touch with the variation in the sensations of your skin in different parts of your body – heat, chills, or dryness. Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us of the marvellous organ that the skin is and how it mediates our experience of the physical world and how we breathe through our skin.

The core advantage of noticing your bodily sensations is grounding yourself in the “now” -in your present reality as experienced through your body. The following meditation helps to achieve this groundedness.

Noticing the sensations of your body

Jon Kabat-Zinn provides a number of steps in his bodyscape meditation and these can be summarised as follows:

  1. The meditation begins with physical grounding through a focus on posture while sitting or lying. Holding your fingertips together while adopting a comfortable position for your hands and other parts of your body, can add to your awareness of bodily sensations – it is often easy to experience tingling in your fingertips as bodily energy flows in the course of a meditation. Touching your fingertips together can also serve as an anchor to enable you to experience energy flow in your body at any time and to become grounded very quickly.
  2. Focus on your breath – get in touch with the ebb and flow of your breathing by noticing your in-breath and out-breath while observing the gap between them. When you get in touch with the gap, you can rest in the peacefulness and equanimity that can be experienced in this space.
  3. Move your focus to where your body contacts the floor, the chair or a table/desk. Notice the nature of the contact and the different levels of pressure experienced at various contact points.
  4. Now shift your focus to a body scan – seeking out any bodily sensation that is a particular source of discomfort or pain. Let your awareness, aided by your grounded breathing, focus on any particular point where the sensations are strong. Sit with awareness of this part of your body, noticing the nature and intensity of the sensation and how you are reacting to it.
  5. You can progressively deepen your awareness to your very joints, muscles or bones – opening up to whatever the sensation is at the moment. John Kabat-Zinn, in his meditation podcast, takes this bodyscape meditation to a deep level and helps you to enter more fully into the depths of the “bodyscape”, just as he does in creating awareness of the depths of “touchscape“.

As we grow in mindfulness through bodyscape meditations, our awareness of our bodies expands, we become more easily grounded in the present and more able to accept what is.

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

Image source: courtesy of pcdazero on Pixabay

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

Savor the Freedom of Boredom

Barry Boyce, Editor of mindful.org, suggests that boredom provides the opportunity to free yourself from the need to continually occupy your mind, be productive or entertain yourself.

This idea of savoring the opportunity that boredom provides takes the idea of savoring to another level – to achieve this we need to reframe what we would normally consider to be a negative experience.

Increasingly, in moments of inactivity, we tend to fill up the time by accessing our mobile phone – checking emails, viewing the news, connecting via social media or searching for a store, product or the meaning of a word.

Boredom creates stress for many people because of our need to be “doing” all the time, a need created and sustained by today’s fast-paced world and work intensification.

The boring tasks and situations – washing the dishes, doing housework, waiting for a bus, train or plane – can free you up to engage in some form of meditation or savoring something you experience as positive in your life, such as the development of your child.   Some people attach a particular meditation practice to a boring event, e.g. waiting for the jug to boil or waiting for transportation.

Elaine Smookler offers a 5-minute gratitude practice which enables you to appreciate what is good in your life by focusing, in turn, on each of your senses.  This puts into practice the exhortation of Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness.

Boredom has many faces and is not a simple concept or experience.  However, there is increasing agreement that out of boredom is born creativity – it can provide the stimulus and space for new ideas and ways of doing things.  It can also help us to recognise the lack of challenge in our work or life generally, motivate us to change jobs or explore the surplus in our lives.

In boredom there is opportunity – something to savor in a world obsessed with continuous doing and achieving.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can reframe boredom, savor the latent opportunity involved and have the presence of mind to utilise our down-time to enhance our meditation practice, develop creative solutions or explore constructive ways to utilise the surplus in our lives.

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

Image source: courtesy of stevepb on Pixabay

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

Savor the Moment

It is interesting that we are frequently exhorted to “seize the day” – to make the most of the moment for our personal advantage.  It implies haste and possession – two primary descriptors of today’s fast-paced, “get ahead” world.

Barry Bryce, Editor-in-Chief of the Mindful Magazine and mindful.org, provides a very different exhortation in his article, Get Real with Everything: A Savoring Practice.

The article resulted from Barry’s commitment to maintain a savoring practice over a week-long period.  Through this practice, he came to identify seven ways that we could actually savor the moment.

“Savor” is not a term in common usage today as it implies a counter-cultural orientation.   The word in its American English form means:

To enjoy food or an experience slowly, in order to appreciate it as much as possible.

This is the meaning of “savor” behind Barry’s article.  His encouragement to savor everything relates to not only experiences we view as positive but also to those that, on the surface, appear negative.  Savoring these latter moments requires a positive stance – being able to perceive the positive in each situation irrespective of how it first appears.

In this post, I will concentrate on the first of those experiences that we normally view as positive – when things are good for us.

Savor the joy

Underpinning Barry’s orientation in the article is appreciation or gratitude for any experience in your life.  This perspective not only requires slowing down, but also overcoming a “taken-for-granted” attitude.

Barry suggests that when things are going well, you would naturally be able to savor the resultant happiness and joy.   He found that this was more difficult than he had imagined.  This is partly because we take things for granted and because there are different levels of savoring.  On the more immediate level, you can savor the smell of the flowers and trees, the rustle of the wind, the song of birds, the sight of a sunrise or sunset or the sheer joy of being able to walk or to do so in the fresh, open air.

At another level, that Barry refers to, is consciousness about your body and how it is naturally in-the-moment and in synch with what you are doing, e.g. walking.  This is appreciation of the way our body parts work together in unison to enable the act of walking.  I alluded to something similar in my recent article on developing mindfulness through tennis, when I expressed appreciation of the moment when the body and mind work in unison to assess the speed and spin of a tennis ball and to create a return tennis shot.

To savor the joy of the moment also entails overcoming the urge to “get somewhere” or to “do something” – both being obsessions of our times.  As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, we spend so much time “doing” that we have lost the art of “being”.

Mindful walking and mindful eating are other forms of meditation that entail savoring the joy of our actions and sensations in-the-moment.

As we grow in mindfulness through savoring the moment we are able to enjoy a richer and more rewarding life, to value what we have at the most basic level and to experience real happiness and joy.

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

Image source: courtesy of  MiguelRPerez on Pixabay