Mindfulness Meditation for Anxiety

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

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

Guided mindfulness meditation for anxiety

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

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

Reflection

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

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Image by Aneta Rog 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.

Body Scan Meditation – Being Present to Yourself

Gloria Kamler, stress-reduction expert and meditation teacher, provides a body scan meditation as one of the many UCLA weekly meditation podcasts.  Gloria has been a meditation practitioner for more than 30 years and talks enthusiastically about the many benefits of mindfulness meditation.  In the introduction to this guided meditation, she maintains that a body scan meditation can help us slow down, wake up to life and gain clarity about our purpose.  She suggests that instead of floating like a balloon on the winds of life, we can choose how we want to live and be able to “show up for your life”.

Gloria argues that focusing on the body via a scan helps you to develop “moment by moment awareness” that can lead to equanimity.  She maintains that our minds can lead us astray and delude us, while our body “always speaks the truth” if only we tap into it and pay attention to what we are sensing.  Through a body scan, we can access a different part of our brain, develop self-caring and caring for others and build emotional regulation.  

Body scan meditation

In her guided body scan meditation Gloria helps us to work progressively from our head to our feet dwelling on different parts of the body as we scan for tension, e.g. tightness in our neck, pain in our back, a tight furrowed brow, aching ankles or soreness in our knees.  Recognising these sensations puts us in touch with our own bodies – it makes us present to ourselves and grounds us in the present moment as we experience it.  Progressive releasing of tension as we bring our attention to different parts of our body, can create a sense of calmness and control.  It can lift our spirits and help us to be ready for the day’s challenges and opportunities.

Awareness of positive sensations as we undertake the body scan can heighten our mood, develop confidence to move forward and strengthen our resolve.  We could feel the firmness and solidity of our feet on the ground, energetic tingling in our fingers and arms and a calmness in our breathing – all of which portend and support our ability to surf the waves of life and make a real contribution to the lives of others, whether that is a simple smile, a random act of kindness, or compassionate action.   In caring for ourselves through our body scan, we can be open to caring about, and caring for, others.

We can begin to realise that everyone is at some time experiencing some form of pain – mental and/or physical.  We can feel connected to others just as we sense the deep interconnectedness of the parts of our body.  The process of the body scan, like that of Tai Chi, helps us to appreciate the mind-body connection – if we are not at one with our body, we can be “all at sea” with our thoughts and emotions.

Reflection

A body scan meditation can really help us if our mind is racing or we are distracted by anxious thoughts.  Becoming grounded in our body is the fastest route to being grounded in the present because our body is always present to us at every moment of every day – we just have to tune into it.  As we grow in mindfulness through body scan meditations, we can access our capacity for conscious choice, emotional regulation and equanimity.  We can approach life’s challenges with calmness, insight and openness to what is.

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

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

Managing Your Thoughts with Mindfulness Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using imagery in meditation to dissolve your thoughts

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

Using substitution in meditation to change your thinking

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

Reflection

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

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Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

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

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

Activating Gratitude through Micro-Gestures

LaRayia Gaston, author of Love Without Reason, spoke to Tami Simon of Sounds True in an interview podcast that covered her book as well as her life and work amongst the homeless in Los Angeles.  LaRayia is the founder of Lunch on Me, a charity offering fresh vegan and organic food to the homeless by accessing left-over food from cafes and restaurants that otherwise would be wasted.  She did extensive research to develop a supply chain and distribution process to ensure that people on the street received quality, fresh food.

LaRayia spoke about her difficult life with her own mother who was full of anger and resentment and engaged in destructive behaviours.   In contrast, her Grandmother was a constant source of inspiration through her unconditional love and her ability to spread love to whoever she met, wherever she went.  In her own words, LaRayia maintained that her Grandmother taught her to “love without reason”.  LaRayia decided that she did not want to “sit in the pain of anger and resentment” and the negative energy involved but wanted to share her positive energy and love.

Activating gratitude

LaRayia maintained that it is not enough to write our gratitude journals in the comfort of our homes – we have to translate that gratitude into compassionate action for those who are less fortunate than ourselves. We have to activate our gratitude.  She suggests that anyone can achieve this by adopting “micro-gestures” of kindness, thoughtfulness, and love.  For example, you could buy someone a bottle of water or a coffee, especially someone who has been seeking donations at the front of a store. 

LaRayia made a habit of carrying bottles of water and granola bars in her car that she could distribute to whoever might need one. Taking time to talk to someone on the street, who may look dishevelled, can be another micro-gesture expressing kindness and love – ignoring the appearance of a torn shirt, old jacket, and untidy beard to see the person beyond.  LaRayia contends that she is not asking people to “change the whole world” but to act on “what’s in front of us”.  She also stated that it is one thing to give when asked, it’s another level of awareness and action to notice a need and respond without being asked.

Barriers to activating gratitude and love for others

One of the barriers identified by LaRayia is our “scarcity mindset” – no matter what we have, it is never enough.  Another is what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as always rushing to “be someplace else”, rather than being in the present moment.  LaRayia argues that it takes discipline to be present and to take compassionate action towards those in need.  She practices meditation and develops her deep awareness of her connectedness to everybody, no matter where they live or how poor they are.

Another key barrier to activating gratitude and spreading kindness is the rationalisations that we use to avoid taking compassionate action, e.g., when we consider giving money to homeless people – “They will only spend it on drugs or alcohol”, “If only these people would work hard like us, they would not need assistance – helping them only makes them lazier”.  As LaRayia points out, these assumptions and preconceptions blind us and disable us from taking action – the fact is, we do not know what these people have experienced, the hurt they have felt or the way they have been treated in the past.  We know, however, for example, that young people who are homeless have often been the victim of domestic violence or sexual harassment or sexual assault.

LaRayia addressed the issue of “fear of rejection” in her interview podcast – a very common barrier to extending kindness to others.  We often think, “What if they turn down my offer of help, would I cope with the embarrassment of rejection”? She stated quite clearly that taking compassionate action is exposing ourselves to vulnerability, but it is a cost we have to pay to be kind.  A wonderful example of compassionate action while being vulnerable is that of Coach Mo Cheeks’ action to help a young singer complete the National Anthem at the start of a major basketball playoff – the singer had forgotten the lyrics and Mo helped her out by singing with her despite not being a great singer himself.  LaRayia suggests that the way forward is not to focus on “outcomes” but to concentrate on the process of spreading kindness, thoughtfulness, and love.  A focus on outcomes can entrap us and lead to disappointment and discouragement.  On the other hand, focusing on the person in front of us can lead to mutual benefit and healing.

A two-way street

Neuroscience research confirms the benefits that accrue to people who show kindness and gratitude to others.  LaRayia stated that this exchange is “not a one-way street”.  This was especially brought home to her when she was experiencing disabling grief on the death of her beloved Grandmother.  She decided to spend time with the homeless as a way to find herself again and heal from her grief. Her experience is recorded in her documentary, 43 Days on Skid Row.  LaRayia found that homeless people were the most generous people she had ever met – they gave despite their need while we often give from our surplus.  She argues that in giving both people learn and heal.

Reflection

One of the tenets of Lunch on Me is “radical self-love is the foundation for permanent healing”.  When we show kindness and love to others in need, we are showing respect and building their self-esteem.  If we show avoidance, disdain, or look down on the homeless, we are reinforcing any sense they may have that they are “not worthy” of respect or love.  

LaRayia encourages us to engage with others from our rich store of innate love rather from a perspective of emptiness.  She notes our obsessive need to accumulate wealth and possessions which do not bring lasting happiness.  The reality is that when we die or if we suffer Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, we can take none of this with us – people set about disposing of our possessions and dismantling our life’s accumulation.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a deeper sense of connection with everyone, no matter what their status, wealth or appearance is.  We can also develop the courage and creativity to overcome the barriers to activating our gratitude and adopt a daily practice of micro-gestures of empathy and compassion.  LaRayia offers many suggestions for micro-gestures and relevant meditations/reflections in her book.

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

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

The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

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

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

Benefits of mindfulness meditation

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

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

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

Skills developed through mindfulness meditation

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

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

Self-Healing through mindfulness meditation

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

Mindfulness Meditation with Jon Kabat-Zinn

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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Image by OLEKSII ALIEKSIEIEV from Pixabay

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

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

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and the Window of Tolerance

In the previous blog post I discussed several resources on the topic of trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of these was David Treleaven’s Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast which includes interviews with people who have expertise in the area or a related area.   In a recent podcast, David  had a conversation with Liz Stanley who not only experienced very considerable trauma, the impact of mindfulness meditation on her traumatic experience but also has developed her own resources and training for people, both civilians and military personnel, who have experienced trauma.  The conversation with Liz on the topic of Widening the Window of Tolerance draws on her personal experiences, study and training and incorporates ideas from her training program and her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.

The Window of Tolerance

The concept of the Window of Tolerance has been attributed to Dan Siegel, clinical psychologist and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), UCLA.  Dan is the author many books, including Aware: The science and practice of presence.  Many people, including David Treleaven and Liz Stanley, have applied the concept of the Window of Tolerance in their research and training in relation to trauma-sensitive mindfulness.

The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (nicabm) provides an infographic that illustrates the concept in a very clear and easy-to-understand way.  They explain that the window of tolerance is about our capacity to deal with the challenges and stresses of the moment and take wise action to deal with them.  When stress takes us outside our window of tolerance we can experience hyperarousal (related to the fight/flight response) which manifests in uncontrolled anger, emotional overwhelm, or extreme anxiety; or, alternatively, experience hypoarousal (related to the freeze response) which manifests in the body trying to shut down resulting in numbness, “zoning out” or “spacing out”.  

The Attachment and Trauma Treatment Centre for Healing (ATTCH), drawing on the work of Dan Siegel and colleagues, provides a more detailed explanation of the concept in an article titled, Understanding and Working with the Window of Tolerance.  Pooky Knightsmith, on the other hand, provides a simple explanation in her short video on the window of tolerance and how to apply it to managing our emotions in everyday life (for those who are not experiencing trauma or trauma stimuli).

Trauma and narrowing of the window of tolerance

In her podcast interview. Liz reinforced the view that trauma causes a narrowing of a person’s window of tolerance.  She explained that she is a living example of someone who has experienced multiple traumatic events and who tried to cope in the only way she knew how, conditioned as she was by familial and social determinants.  Liz suffered an incredible range of traumatic experiences – active military duty in Asia and Europe, PTSD,  a near-death experience (NDE), rape, and whistle-blower harassment as a result of formally complaining about sexual harassment by her senior officers.

Liz described her response in terms of the compulsivity that comes with hyperarousal (which can occur when a person is outside their window of tolerance).  Instead of dealing with her traumatic stress, she intensified her activities, completing two undergraduate degrees simultaneously.  She explained that like a lot of people, she “compartmentalised” the stress, suppressed it and just kept going harder than ever, managing on two hours sleep each night – she “soldiered on”, both literally and metaphorically.

Liz had to make changes when she temporarily lost her eyesight – something she described as “cosmic coping pain” when her body which had “borne the brunt” of her hyperactivity decided “enough was enough”.  It was then that she explored mindfulness and researched trauma and trauma healing.

Liz explained “trauma” as impacting “neuroception” – “how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life threatening”.  In effect, trauma can distort our neuroception and effectively narrow our window of tolerance.  She explains the effect in terms of our “thinking brain” and our “survival brain”.

Our thinking brain enables us to analyse, make decisions, accurately perceive stimuli, and take wise action; our “survival brain” responds to perceived threats with the fight/flight/freeze response.  With trauma, the connection between the two is “compromised” so that, for example, seemingly harmless stimuli can be perceived as a threat and engender an inappropriate response negatively impacting a person’s health, relationships and capacity to undertake their work.   When we perceive a situation as hopeless or ourselves as powerless, our survival brain and nervous system can become flooded with heightened “emotional arousal”.

Liz explains, however, that when the thinking brain and survival brain are in harmony and working together, we have a wider window of tolerance – e.g. better tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty and the ability to identify and make effective choices, build sustainable connections, and perform optimally. 

Experience of mindfulness for dealing with trauma

Liz turned to mindfulness meditation to help her cope with her traumas which had deep-seated antecedents in the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by her father and grandfather (along with all the distorted coping mechanisms and fractured relationships that this entailed). Her initial experience with mindfulness was one of helping her to achieve some degree of self-awareness and associated self-regulation.  However, over time, she found that her “survival brain” took over as it began to “peel back deeper layers” – deep emotional scars hidden behind her hyperactivity (just as the happy-go-lucky “joker” or “larrikin” can hide the deep emotional pain of depression).

As some mindfulness practices acted as “trauma stimuli” she experienced panic and shallow breathing in-the-moment and flashbacks, nausea, claustrophobia, and inability to sleep for days afterwards.  Liz explained that a potential problem with mindfulness done in isolation and without appropriate modifications can lead to such heightened emotional awareness and arousal that the traumatised person can lose their ability to regulate their emotions and their unhealthy condition can be exacerbated rather than diminished, both mentally and physically.

Developing a trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness training

Liz explained that she spoke to scientists and neuroscientists, explored multiple skills and techniques, and wrote a book about her experiences and her journey out of trauma disablement.  She found that the myths surrounding mindfulness could make matters worse unless the mindfulness trainer recognised the impact of traumatic experience on a person’s window of tolerance.

In her book on widening the window, she draws on her own experiences and stories from people she has trained in a areas such as healthcare facilities and the armed forces.  Liz maintains that you can build resilience even in stressful jobs or when healing from traumatic experience(s).  She provides strategies involving paying attention in certain ways to increase the capacity to access choice and creativity and to make courageous decisions while effectively connecting with others through curiosity, openness, and compassion.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® which was developed in 2008 and evaluated on four occasions by neuroscientists and stress experts is now available online through Sounds True.  The comprehensive course includes video training and live sessions on topics such as resilience, stress and trauma recovery, effective decision making and relationship building along with “new tools for successfully navigating the interpersonal aspects of stress, trauma, emotions, and conflict”.

Reflection

When you first hear about the potential harmful effects of mindfulness meditation training for trauma sufferers, you can understandably become concerned about conducting mindfulness training for any group.  Alternatively, you might initially dismiss the trauma-sensitive mindfulness movement as a movement to counter the growing global popularity of mindfulness.  However, the evidence to support the trauma-sensitive approach is growing and cannot be ignored.

On the other hand, both Liz and David strongly encourage practitioners not to be put off from training others in mindfulness by this new information nor to behave as if they are “walking on eggshells”.  They strongly encourage mindfulness trainers to persist, especially in these challenging times when mindfulness and resilience is needed by some many people.  They do, however, suggest to proceed with “some discernment”, develop increased awareness of trauma and its impacts, learn about new tools available for trauma-sensitive mindfulness training and intensify their own efforts to grow in mindfulness so that they can train with increasing awareness, insight and sensitivity.

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Image by skeeze 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 Stillness and Joy in Turbulent Times With Mantra Meditations

Mantra meditation involves the repetition of a word or phrase while meditating.  It typically combines mindfulness meditation with some form of chanting.  It is an ancient meditation practice that has deep roots and is experiencing a resurgence in these turbulent times.  Mantra meditations can be sung by an individual, group or choir and accompanied by music and/or calming visuals provided via video.  These meditations through sound and vision often capture our connection with nature.

For example, the Epic Choir’s rendition of the Om SO HUM Mantra meditation simulates the movement of butterflies as the sound of singing rises and falls rhythmically.  The epitomy of connection with nature in mantra meditation is provided by Lulu & Mischka’s video of “stillness in motion” which incorporates their chanting accompanied by guitar playing with visuals of sailing and singing with whales. 

Lulu & Mischka – exemplars of the practice and benefits of mantra meditation

Lulu and Mischka are global exponents of the art of mantra meditation and have recorded two albums and produced a songbook in e-book form, as well as conducted workshops, concerts and retreats around the world.  They recently provided mantra meditations over six days accompanied by Lulu’s harmonium and Mischka’s guitar playing as a contribution to inner peace in these turbulent times. 

Lulu & Mischka describe themselves as “musicians and inner peace facilitators” who offer “joyful chanting and effortless meditation”.  The capacity of mantra meditation to calm the nervous system, reduce emotional reactivity and destructive self-stories has been researched and validated by researchers at Linköping University, in Sweden.  Other researchers have demonstrated consistently that “focused attention practices” such as meditation in its many forms develop “attention and awareness” while reducing self-obsession and harmful reactivity.  Mantra meditations build our awareness of our connectedness to each other and to nature.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and mantra meditations, we can achieve a stillness and inner peace in these turbulent times when everything is changing through the disruptive impact of the Coronavirus – through the constant and unpredictable disruption to our social, financial, employment, health, education and familial environments.   Lulu & Mischka demonstrate in their own lives and their mantra meditations that that this approach to mindfulness can bring calm and joy to our lives – providing a retreat from the waves of uncertainty.

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Image by Bernhard Stärck 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.

Maintaining a Positive Mindset in Periods of Uncertainty and Anxiety

The more uncertain the future, the more anxious we can become.  Anxiety is exacerbated by the depression experienced through isolation (enforced or self-isolation), loss of a job or loss of connection with others.  We can adopt mindfulness meditation to reduce our self-defeating narratives and undertake mindfulness practices to improve our mental health and wellbeing.  We can supplement these meditations and practices with other activities that help to build and maintain a positive mindset and develop our personal resilience.

Activities to build and maintain a positive mindset

The essential element here is to engage in activities that you find enjoyable and inspiring – activities that tend to take you outside of yourself and away from self-absorption.  Clearly, the choice of activities is influenced by personal preference.  Here are some possible activities to choose from:

  • Listening to classical music: this type of music can be very calming.  Listening to Mozart’s music, for example, can be relaxing and improve your concentration and brain power [I write my blog posts to the sound of Mozart playing in the background].  Many shared music platforms exist now, and in Australia we have the amazing ABC Classical radio station that among other things broadcasts superb live classical concerts from all around the world.  Classical music can build the capacity for deep listening – a skill that enables you to be fully in the present moment and to build intimate and lasting relationships (a very rewarding fringe benefit and residual skill).
  • Listening to TED Talks© – these talks are on numerous subjects and number in the thousands.  They are informative, uplifting and inspiring.  Recently, because so many people are confined to their homes, TED has introduced what it calls TED Connects – free, daily conversational sessions which feature “experts whose ideas can help us reflect and work through this uncertain time with a sense of responsibility, compassion and wisdom”.   Susan David, Harvard University psychologist, presented the first of these virtual conversations on 23 March 2020 when she spoke about emotional agility, dealing with anxiety, talking to your children about their emotions, focusing during the current crisis and small acts of kindness, especially to those working on the front lines”.  If you are a person who prefers auditory and visual formats over the written word, then this superb series may help you to build courage, joy and resilience in this challenging time of the Coronavirus.
  • Virtual tours of museums, zoos and theme parks – If you are visual person who enjoys “looking around” and viewing the antics of animals or appreciating fine art, then a virtual tour may be for you to help uplift your spirits. Some websites provide a list of virtual tours that you can enjoy.  Other websites focus on one type of virtual tour such as online tours of art galleries or virtual tours of online zoos, some with presentations and talks to entertain your children stuck at home.  Zoos Victoria in Australia are dedicated to fighting extinction of wildlife and provide a series of webcams from three zoos featuring various animals – you can take your pick of your favourite, e.g. the popular “penguin cam”.
  • Small acts of kindness – everyday you can read in the newspaper or hear on the news examples of small acts of kindness, people going out of their way to help someone else in need (even when they themselves are feeling the effects of various forms of deprivation and uncertainty at this time).  Some websites are dedicated to sharing random acts of kindness to inspire and stimulate others to take compassionate action withing their arena of influence.  A good place to start thinking about your own random acts of kindness is the kindness blog which is full of great ways to show kindness to family and friends, seniors and others.
  • Reading literature sourced online – besides accessing your own library of books and the novels/biographies you have never got around to reading because of your busyness, you can access heaps of resources online in terms of e-books, audiobooks and eMagazines.  While many public libraries have closed their physical buildings to subscribers, they usually offer material that can be accessed online, including music and audios.  The National Library of Australia, for example, offers free online access to e-books and other digitised material to Australian residents.  Local councils typically provide free access to e-books, audiobooks and emagazines.
  • Writing songs or journals – these are mechanisms for expressing your feelings, being able to name your feelings to better deal with them.  They can also serve to stimulate emotion in others and help them face up to what they are actually feeling, but not expressing. 

Reflection

These are very uncertain times and uniquely demanding physically, emotionally, mentally and financially.  Whatever we can do to build up our positive mindset will assist us to develop the resilience to meet these challenges.  Creativity flourishes in times of necessity as does kindness.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices and enjoyable/positive activities, we develop the capacity to find new ways to work and live in stringent conditions and resume our normal life with a strengthened resolve, increased gratitude and heightened adaptability once the Coronavirus is under control.

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Image by skeeze from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness Meditation to Reduce Anxiety in Times of Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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Image by Shahariar Lenin 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.