Achieving Flow through Preparation, Focus and Attention

In an earlier post, I talked about our loss of attention through the “fire hose” of continual information dissemination and the incessant temptation of social media.  I mentioned that one of the costs of this overload and overwhelm is a loss of the capacity to achieve “flow” – a state of total immersion, energizing involvement and continuous enjoyment when undertaking a meaningful endeavour.

On reflection after writing this post, I realised that I achieve flow in two arenas of my life, one resulting in the intermittent experience of flow and the other involving a sustained flow experience – also known as “being-in-the zone”.  The two arenas of my life where I achieve some degree of flow are (1) playing social tennis and (2) researching and writing this blog.

Achieving flow while playing social tennis

What I have found while playing social tennis is that I experience periods of “flow”, sometimes during a set and other times during a point. My “preparation ritual” includes Tai Chi and this enables me, among other things, to focus on my opponent hitting the ball, observing the spin and trajectory of the shot, noticing the location of other players and choosing a return shot that takes into account this focused information.  Invariably, when I make a mistake, it is because I have been distracted by what is going on at other nearby courts (e.g. coaching lessons), resulting in my losing attention. 

My experience of flow while playing social tennis is episodic – with one exception many years ago when I achieved the experience of being-in-the-zone over two complete sets.  This early experience involved a sustained sense of flow with heightened enjoyment as a result of my seemingly, easy competence with all tennis strokes – e.g. serve returns on forehand and backhand, lobs, smashes and serving (including a second serve ace which shocked me and my opponent). 

Normally, however, I experience flow during tennis when I play a particular point during a game.  It can involve a long rally, a well-placed drive or a winning volley.  Sometimes, I play a shot that my opponents/partner marvel at, e.g. a half-volley drop shot or a half-volley backhand lob diagonally across the court when both opponents are at the net.  In these circumstances, my body is reacting instinctively, not consciously, and I am playing a shot that I have neither been taught nor have practised.  This experience is often described as achieving “unconscious competence” – you don’t have to think about shot making, it just comes naturally without any conscious intervention.  I attribute this instinctive response and the episodic experience of flow to my remote preparation (many years of playing and practising tennis) and my proximate preparation ritual which involves Tai Chi.

Achieving flow while researching and writing

I can relate to Johann Hari’s experience of achieving flow when researching and writing.  Johann described this in detail in his latest book,  Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention.  I started researching and writing the Grow Mindfulness Blog in July 2016.  I have now written more than 660 blog posts – on my calculation, in excess of 350,000 words.  I started out having difficulty writingmore than 400 words.  Now I find I have to discipline myself to keep each post to around 1,000 words or less (with the exception of top-of-the-head posts like this one).  I find writing my blog posts easy, enjoyable and productive (I can use some of the material in my manager development workshops).  I lose all sense of time and can easily create a blog post non-stop for 2 to 3 hours (I have to discipline myself to take a break after an hour).  This indicates that when writing my blog posts I can achieve flow or be lost “in-the-zone”.

I think two core things have contributed to my ability to achieve flow while researching and writing the blog.  Firstly, I have chosen a focus for the blog – mindfulness – that has become a massive area of development worldwide – in health, business, education, sports and community.  There is now an endless stream of podcasts, research papers, articles, blogs, online conferences/summits, and readily accessible mindfulness practices such as tradition-based meditations and mantra meditations.  My research area, growing mindfulness, is a treasure trove of ideas and practices and endlessly rewarding.  Each “upturned stone” reveals a new area for exploration.

Secondly, besides the limitless resource material available for research and developing my own practice, I have unconsciously instituted what Johann describes as the three pre-conditions for achieving flow – adopting a single focus, pursuing meaning and extending myself (through acquiring and sharing new knowledge and mindfulness practices).  I have to use discipline to maintain my particular focus for a blog post when researching because of the volume of material available ( I draw on a skill I developed when researching and writing my PhD – noting down for later research ideas or resource people that are interesting but not directly related to my focal topic). I also learnt a couple of years ago that, if I wanted to get into flow and stay in flow, I had to avoid reading my email before or during the process of writing (removing another possible source of distraction).  One think that does help my focus during writing is music, either specific Mozart music for concentration or mantra meditations by Lulu & Mischka.

Hugh Van Cuylenburg mentions a further pre-condition for achieving flow – a preparation ritual -which he describes in his book, Let Go.  I have adopted this practice for my writing endeavours (as well as my social tennis).  I often do my research – listening, reading or trying a meditation practice – as part of my preparation ritual.  This gives me a flow of ideas.  I will then “sleep on it” overnight and let my subconscious mind go to work to identify connections and expand on the ideas.  I write my blog post the following morning (I am a “morning person” – mornings are when I am most productive).  In this way, I am able to produce connections to previous posts I have written and/or researched, my past and current experiences, topical information, excerpts from novels I am reading, and conversations I have had.  These connections “just come to me”. 

Reflection

In addition to the proximate preparation rituals I adopt for playing tennis and writing my blog, I also engage in regular mindfulness practices, including Tai Chi and different forms of meditation (including mantra meditations).  These practices also extend to mindful eating and “mindful waiting”.   In this way, I try to develop what George Mumford describes as a “mindfulness mindset” –  achieved through adopting a variety of mindfulness practices appropriate to particular settings and time available.  These can incorporate “micro-practices”, forming part of a self-care plan.  As we adopt regular mindfulness practices, we can grow in mindfulness and achieve the realisation of flow in various arenas of our life and our different endeavours.  This can enhance our happiness and sense of who we are and contribute to achievement of our life purpose.

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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.

Life Review:  How are You Protecting Your Attention?

Previously I discussed the prospect of undertaking a personal life review by chunking up the task and focusing on some aspect of your life, e.g. self-care plan, putting yourself in other’s shoes (role reversal), reviewing your life purpose (what gives meaning to your life) or addressing the questions that arise from near-death experiences or the experiences of the dying.  Here I focus on your capacity to pay attention and ways to protect it as a part of a life review (how you spend your time and energy).

In his latest book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, Johann Hari, warns us that our capacity for paying attention is being stolen from us hourly, every day.  He researched and wrote the book because he found that his attention span and that of others was diminishing rapidly.  He found, for example, that he no longer was engaged in “sustained reading’ of novels, a pastime he loved.  He pointed out that because of the pace of life and our expectations (our own and that of others), we have resorted to multitasking. Research increasingly points out that multitasking, designed for computer processing, is undermining our ability to pay attention and our capacity to focus.

Johann maintains that multitasking continuously serves up distractions (the next task before the current one is completed), causes us to “switch” and lose time restarting, and robs us of the power of immersion which enables us to gain depth of insight through recognition of connections.  I used to tell my doctoral students that they will not be able to contribute new knowledge (a basic doctoral requirement) unless they spend the time to focus and immerse themselves totally in their topic (always setting aside interesting ideas that do not relate directly to their focus).   One consequence of multitasking is that we gain only superficial knowledge, miss important insights and undermine our capacity to reflect-in-action and reflect-on-action.

A digital retreat

Johann adopted a radical solution to restore his capacity to pay attention.  He took a “digital retreat” far away in a reasonably remote place without access to the internet.  He had a phone with no internet access (for emergencies only) and a laptop that served as a word processor only (not having internet access).  He found that the three months he spent in this retreat from digital overload challenged him immensely.  He noted that he continuously sought his phone as his default when he was bored and that he could not write because of his mental disturbance through lack of access to external news and information.  He allowed himself morning newspapers which served to keep him up to date but were well within his capacity to understand and absorb (unlike the usual information overload and overwhelm that normally arrives via the internet and social media that felt like “having your mouth on water from a fire hose”).  He suggested that the speed of information flow that we are bombarded with is effectively “a constant drip-feed of anxiety provoking factoids” (information that is unreliable but treated as if it were fact).

As Johann regained his balance through spending time in nature and enjoying the surrounding waters of his beachside location, he found that he could slowly begin to focus on writing a new book which he had been planning for some time.  His capacity to pay attention returned as well as his creativity.  He found that once again he was “in the flow” –  a state that he commonly achieved earlier on when researching and/or writing.

Undermining our “flow”

Johann suggests that the continuous flow of internet-based information and habitual tendency to access it is “crippling our flow states”.  He draws on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who coined the phrase “flow”.  People who achieve “flow” or are “in-the-zone” tend to sustain their attention and focus (without distraction), lose track of time and achieve optimal performance in whatever endeavour they are undertaking.  Johann, drawing on the work of Mihaly maintains that to achieve flow, you need to satisfy three conditions – (1) have a single focus/goal, (2) which involves something that is meaningful, and (3) incorporates a  “stretch” element (not too easy but not way beyond your capabilities, in other words, extends your capacities.)

Johann developed a close friendship with Mihaly and, in his “Stolen Focus” book, provides a unique insight into Mihaly’s life and how he developed the concept of “flow”.  This makes interesting reading and reinforces Mihaly’s orientation to “positive psychology” and his rejection of the deterministic approach of B.F. Skinner and his processes of “positive reinforcement” and “negative reinforcement” used to train animals, especially pigeons.  Johann, like Mihaly, contends that we have a choice – we can choose “fragmentation” (continue to live a life of distraction, information overload and emotional inflammation) or adopt the practices that lead to a life of “flow”. 

Reflection

When you read Johann Hari’s research and deep reflection in his Stolen Focus book, you become increasingly aware of the denigration of our capacity to pay attention and focus.   His work prompts a number of questions that could be used as a basis for a life review:

  • How are you using mindfulness practices to develop your openness to change?
  • Do you take “pauses” amongst the busyness of life to regain focus and clarity?
  • Are you obsessed with the news?
  • Are you willing to take a “digital detox” to overcome what Hugh Van Cuylenburg describes as “addiction to social media”.

Johann undertook an extended “digital detox” through his digital retreat and his “Stolen Focus” book (with its research of over 250 scientists) provides indisputable evidence of his ability to regain his capacity to pay attention and focus, and achieve flow.

As we adopt different mindfulness practices or undertake a regular practice such as Tai Chi or Yoga we can grow in mindfulness and gain insight into our “inner landscape”, develop our courage and motivation to change and achieve increased powers of attention and focus.  This will bring more frequent incidences of flow in our lives and help us to experience a greater sense of achievement, joy and happiness.  A starting point is to review our life and explore what we are doing to protect (or undermine) our attention and focus.  Daniel Goleman reminds us in this era of chronic distractedness that Focus is the Hidden Driver of Excellence – a conclusion he reached through exploration of the science of attention.

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Image by Arek Socha 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.

    

Undertaking a Life Review

In a previous post I discussed the life review process when it occurs during a near-death experience or when a person is dying.  While millions of people have reported near-death experiences (NDE’s), not everyone has the privilege of having this experience.  If we wait till we are dying, we may find that we are overwhelmed with regrets, rather than experiencing the joy of having created positive ripple effects in our life, especially in our latter years.

It is possible to undertake a life review at any point in our life and to benefit ourselves and others we interact with as a result.  The life review process, even self-initiated, can be a forbidding task.  People find that early in life (especially as teenagers) we tend to be more reckless and less sensitive to the needs of others.  Jeff Janssen, in his video podcast interview with Kirsty Salisbury offers two questions which may be too daunting as a starting point:

  1. Which events/situations would you look forward to seeing and feeling again?
  2. Which events/situations do you dread seeing and feeling again?

We can build towards a situation where the events/situations we look forward to re-visiting (in all their visual and emotional elements) dominate our life review towards the end of our life.  This can be achieved by beginning on the path to a complete life review – taken in your own time and own way.

Chunking to manage the life review task

You might adopt a process of chunking up the life review task – breaking it into manageable chunks.  Shelly Tygielski, in her online course on the Power of Showing Up,  decided to focus on self-care in her life review after receiving a diagnosis which indicated that she would go blind without radical medical treatment – which subsequently failed.   She adopted the process of chunking up the self-care life review by looking at the different spheres in her life, e.g. work, home, social and community.  Community was included because she believes strongly that self-care is ultimately for enabling one to participate in a unique way in community care.  The result of such a review could be a comprehensive self-care plan that serves our needs and, at the same, time contribute to the wellbeing of others that we interact with daily.

Using role reversal to access others’ perspectives.

Jeff also adopts another approach to a life review by using a role reversal process.  He suggests for example, that if he was in his son’s place, how would he view his father?; or if he was in his wife’s place, how would she view him as a spouse?  We can ask similar questions in relation to our colleagues, family members or clients/customers.  This can be enlightening in terms of the ripple effect of our words, omissions and actions and can identify ways to ensure that we are choosing to create positive rather than negative ripples.  

Life purpose review

Consistently we are told that pursuing a life purpose beyond ourself adds meaning to our lives and is foundational to achieving happiness, joy and self-fulfilment.  In a life review, we can explore how we are pursuing a life purpose that engages us in community care.  We can ask ourselves two basic questions:

  1. What is my unique combination of experience (including trauma), skills, knowledge and abilities?
  2. How can I better use these to advance community care in my immediate environment and/or the wider community?

If we answer these questions honestly and pursue the insights gained we can begin to generate more positive ripple effects in the lives of others (and our own life).

Questions from lessons learned through near-death experiences

In the summary of his book, 10 Life-Changing Lessons from Heaven (based on reported NDE’s), Jeff provides a series of questions around each chapter that addressing a separate lesson or recommended way of living our life.  Even without reading the book, you can use the questions as a form of life review (of course, if you read the book, you will gain so much more meaning, insight and “how to” information).  You could for example explore these sample questions or others provided by Jeff:

  • How have your fears held you back and limited you?;
  • Where in your life do you need to summon the courage to jump?
  • Can you think of any situations where the Ripple Effect of your actions have had a negative effect on others? What was this effect and how far did the ripple effect extend?
  • Which individuals or groups might you not fully understand or accept?

Reflection

There are many approaches we can use to begin on the path to a life review.  Undertaking a life review is a massive task and can be managed through chunking up the task by choosing a manageable focus and starting point (e.g. self-care plan, role reversal reflection, life purpose review, or specific lessons from NDE’s or from death and dying).

We can engage in self-pity and get lost in the adversity caused by our past words and/or actions, or offer ourselves self-compassion and forgiveness and move forward with a life review process that engenders a commitment to creating positive ripples in our life and that of others in the community.

As we engage in mindfulness practices, we can grow in mindfulness in every aspect of our daily life, gain self-awareness and insight into our impact on others and have the courage to change for the better.

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Image by Public Co 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 in Everyday Life

Rachel Kable – author, podcaster, blogger and mindfulness coach from Victoria in Australia –  recently participated in a podcast interview with Dr. Justin Puder.  In the course of the interview, she explained that when she first started out practising mindfulness in the more formal way of meditating (e.g. focusing on her breath), she had great difficulty and did not like it at all.  At the time she lived very much in the past and the future, not the present.  She would review past performance and prepare to-do lists for future activities to the point where she would lie awake at night, not being able to quiet her mind.  To sit still and focus on the moment was a real challenge and counter-intuitive.

However, Rachel persisted with formal practice because she had heard of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and wanted to experience them for herself and to share them with others.  As she persisted in her more formal efforts, she found that mindfulness practice increased her ability to focus and concentrate, enabled her to sleep more restfully and fully, enhanced her relationships (e.g. through being present to the person speaking and listening actively, not distractedly) and improving her capacity to be creative in her career endeavours.

Rachel also discovered that she could bring mindfulness to everyday life and the things she already did each day, e.g. cleaning the house, washing the dishes, preparing the meal, driving the car, eating her meals, or sitting on her deck (which provided the opportunity for engaging in “natural awareness”, taking in the sounds, sights, and smells already present to her).  Consequently, she decided that the focus of her mindfulness coaching would be on helping people to bring mindfulness to the activities of everyday life.  To this end, she has developed her blog covering things like self-care, meditation techniques, and simple living.  Rachel’s podcast series, which at the time of writing has 322 episodes, provides lots of practical advice on how to be mindful in everyday life, dealing with issues such as challenging emotions, expectations, stress, decision making and negative self-evaluation.

Rachel has also written a book, The Mindful Kind Book, wherein she provides practical advice and tools to manage overwhelm and stress, enjoy life more, improve resilience to handle setbacks and to practise mindfulness as a form of self-care when engaging in everyday activities, including work.  Her interview is one of many conducted by Dr. Justin Puder who has developed the podcast series, Drop In with Dr. J.

Reflection

Tennis is a very important part of my life and my exercise activity and has been since I was in Primary School (about 10 years of age).   Rachel’s podcast interview reminded me that I need to bring mindfulness more to the fore when playing tennis.  I have certainly used reflection-on-action in the past when looking at how I play tennis.  Through reflection, I have become more conscious of the importance of savouring the moment when playing tennis; addressing my “habit loop” (and related reward system) when experiencing blockages to trying out new tennis strokes; being able to constructively manage mistakes when playing social tennis; and identifying the behavioural and cognitive blind spots that are impeding my tennis performance.

I am often conscious of the technical aspects of playing tennis, e.g. keeping your eyes on the ball, preparing for a tennis shot, choosing the right shot, deciding the stance and position to receive a serve, and identifying the gaps in which to play a shot.  I can become more conscious of when my attention strays to what is happening on one of the other eleven occupied courts and bring my attention back to my own tennis game.

What Rachel’s comments remind me to do is to face my emotions in the moment when playing tennis (e.g. anxiety, fear), name them and decide how to manage them – rather than ignore or suppress them.  It also means acknowledging to myself (and challenging) my self-imposed expectations that impede my performance and enjoyment of the game. 

Rachel reminds us that mindfulness can be practised in every aspect of our life, even having lunch.  For me, for example, that means eating my lunch mindfully, savouring the taste, texture and aroma of what I am eating – not processing emails or planning my day as I eat. 

As we grow in mindfulness through formal processes such as meditation, Tai Chi, or yoga, we can more readily bring mindfulness to our everyday life whether that is driving a car in traffic, sitting on our back deck, working in our garden or just taking a walk.  Mindfulness can accompany us wherever we go and whatever we do – if we only let ourselves drop into present moment awareness.

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Image by Peter H 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.

Healing Trauma – Dealing with the Visceral Imprint

In a previous post I discussed the complexity of trauma and the need to adopt treatment practices that recognise and respect this complexity.  Bessel van der Kolk in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma, expresses serious concern with the overreliance on medication to treat trauma, especially for returning veterans suffering from PTSD.  He contends that “drugs cannot cure trauma” but only serve to “dampen down” manifestations of a “disturbed physiology” such as violence, overwhelm and uncontrolled anger.  He argues that the side effects of reliance on drug therapy include addiction, lessening the capacity for self-regulation and blocking the senses that otherwise would be the source of pleasure and motivation, emotion and pain. In his view, the treatment aim is not to “blunt emotional sensitivity” but to achieve integration of the traumatic experience into a person’s “arc of life”.

Bessel argues that a traumatised person’s basic challenge in recovery is to re-establish ownership of themselves – the whole person, mind, body and soul.  He contends that this plays out as a fourfold challenge – (1) developing ways to become focused and calm, (2) sustaining calmness when confronted with stimuli such as noise, images and smells that otherwise would trigger a traumatised response,  (3) becoming fully engaged with life and relationships and (4) being open to one’s real self without hiding behind “secrets” that are designed as self-protection (e.g. against shame and self-loathing).  Bessel suggests that the effectiveness of each of the four approaches can vary with the individual and the stage of the healing process.  He illustrates through case studies that the healing journey can be a life-long process with occasional or frequent relapses.

Bessel maintains that, in the long run, confronting the traumatic event(s) in all their horror  is necessary for healing.  However, he cautions about rushing this process without first building a person’s capacity to cope with the fullness of the “visceral imprint” and its related sensitivities (e.g. to specific sounds, smells, thoughts).  Confronting the harsh reality of the precipitating event(s) too soon, when the person is ill-equipped, can lead to an individual being re-traumatised.

Bessel contends that the focus of recovery has to switch from the “rational brain” to the “emotional brain” which manifests trauma in the form of physical sensations impacting the heart, breathing, voice, gut and movement of the body (e.g. resulting in bodily movements “that signify collapse, rigidity, rage or defensiveness”.)  The overall aim is to restore the “the balance between the rational brain and the emotional brain”, because in a traumatised person the rational brain is often overwhelmed by the emotional brain that can “see” danger where it does not exist and inappropriately activates a fight, flight or freeze response

Healing modalities for trauma that recognise the mind-body-emotion connection

Throughout his book, Bessel discusses a range of trauma healing modalities that he has researched and practiced with his clients. His approach is quite eclectic, drawing on both Western and Eastern healing traditions.  He demonstrates through case histories that one modality more than another, or a particular mix of modalities, may prove effective in individual cases.   He appears to adopt a trail-and-error approach to achieve the best fit for a traumatised individual, informed in part by their life skills and the precipitating trauma event.  Some of the healing modalities he adopts are identified below:

  • Controlled breathing – here he encourages slow, deep breathing that that tap into the parasympathetic nervous system and its capacity to reduce arousal and induce calm.  Breathing also serves to enhance oxygen flow to energise the body.
  • Movement modalities – these can include Tai Chi, yoga, martial arts and the rhythmic movement associated with African drumming.  Bessel notes that each of these modalities simultaneously involve not only movement but also breathing and meditation.
  • Mindfulness practices – Bessel points out that traumatised people often avoid their challenging feelings and related bodily sensations.  Mindfulness which generates self-awareness enables the traumatised person to notice their feelings and sensations and the precipitating triggers.  This can lead to emotional regulation, rather than emotional overwhelm which can occur when people try to ignore or hide their real feelings and sensations.  Peter Levine’s “somatic experiencing” approach is an example of a related mindfulness practice that can contribute to healing trauma.
  • Singing – can engage the whole person (body, mind, soul and emotions).  Effective singing requires appropriate posture and breath control, opening up the airways and, at the same time, releasing emotions.  In group sessions with singing teacher, Chris James, I have often observed the spontaneous flow of emotions as people, both men and women, become more engaged and absorbed in the process, learn to let themselves go and find their “natural voice”.  Chris maintains that singing enhances “vibrational awareness”, engenders “self-discovery” and builds “conscious presence”.
  • Chanting and mantra meditationschanting can reduce depression, increase positivity and heighten relaxation.  It has been proven to be effective in helping veterans suffering from PTSD.  Tina Turner found Buddhist chanting to be very effective in overcoming her trauma and re-building her singing career.  Likewise, mantra meditations (that typically incorporate chants) can lead to calm, peace and energy and enable reintegration of body, mind, emotion and spirit.

Reflection

Bessel encourages the use of multiple healing modalities when working with traumatised individuals.  He suggests too that the modalities described above can help anyone deal with life’s challenges, restore balance and build energy.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and related mindfulness practices, we can gain self-awareness, develop self-management and heal from trauma and the scars of adverse experiences, whether in childhood or adulthood.

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Image by Đạt Lê 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 Treatment: Understanding the Complexity of Trauma

The complexity of trauma is explained both scientifically and by case histories by Bessel Van Der Kolk in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, psychologists agree that trauma is not the “life-threatening”, precipitating event but the ongoing impact on a person’s mind, brain and body.  In his book, Bessel discusses the evolution of trauma treatment methodologies (and his roles in this evolution), the complex impact of trauma on individuals, the differential behavioural responses to trauma by individuals and the common responses that lead to addiction.

Evolution of trauma treatments

Bessel explains that in his early training and working days, he experienced different treatment modes for trauma such as “talk therapy” and the pharmacological approach.  He explained that talk therapy involved having an individual recount the trauma event in detail so that they had to confront the reality of the event.  Unfortunately, this often lead to the person experiencing a traumatic episode as a result of the stimulus of recall.  In the pharmacological approach, reliance was placed on drugs to treat the trauma patient.  Unfortunately, these were often administered in isolation without the support of therapy and contributed to ongoing psychological problems such as prescription drug addiction and depression.

The most heartless approach that Bessel describes is electrical shock treatment designed to desensitise individuals to precipitating stimuli.  Sometimes the treatment itself created a trauma response because of the effect of the stimulus (e.g. touch) and the inhuman nature of the treatment, e.g. for someone who had been sexually abused.  Bessel highlighted the lack of understanding of trauma and the absence of an adequate framework for treatment modalities illustrated in these early methodologies. The pursuit of a more holistic and scientific approach to trauma treatment underpinned his life’s work in helping trauma sufferers, especially those suffering from P.T.S.D. (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Result of visceral overload of precipitating event

Bessel was at pains to explain the complexity of trauma and its impact on individuals.  In his book, he explains the different regions of the brain, how they interact normally and the dysfunctionality caused by trauma.  He stated, for example, that a traumatic event can leave a “visceral imprint” on the lower region of the brain, the amygdala (the source of our fight/flight/freeze response). Thus a particular sensation (a smell, sound, sight, touch or taste) can create a “flashback” and trigger a trauma response in an individual.  This traumatic experience of discrete sensations illustrates the ever-present challenge for a traumatised person of “misreading signals” and seeing danger where it does not exist.  This inability to control the stress response is in part due to what Bessel describes as the ”visceral overload” at the time of the trauma-precipitating event.  He also makes the point that therapists are often misguided by their own belief systems, including the belief that the interaction of the mind and body is top-down only.  However, his own experience of trauma patients and recent neuroscience research shows clearly that the body/brain influence is bidirectional.

Same event – different behavioural responses

Different people respond differently to the sensory overload precipitated by a traumatic event.  Bessel tells the story of Stan and Ute who were involved in a major pile-up on a Canadian motorway in 1999 involving 87 cars.  They were travelling in the same car and met a wall of fog and were part of the continuous crashing of cars and trucks.  They feared for their lives and witnessed people being killed by the intensity of the crash and associated fires.  Stan’s reaction to subsequent stimuli was one of aggression and anger (fight response) whereas Ute was numb, a condition involving “massive dissociation” (the freeze response).  Bessel suggested that Ute’s freeze response was a learned behaviour precipitated by her upbringing by a mother who continuously “yelled” at her.  Through Bessel’s caring therapy, they were able to progressively restore their lives, regaining emotional control.  Ute benefited from the bottom-up approach of the Trauma Center where the focus was on physiological monitoring to enable the patient on change their “relationship to bodily sensations”.  Bessel subsequently established the Trauma Research Foundation after he had been unfairly dismissed from the Center, experiencing trauma in his own professional life.

Common responses to trauma

Trauma and its incessant re-activation through discrete sensory stimulation along with flashbacks and nightmares, create a life situation of continuous pain.  Many people attempt to numb the pain by resorting to drugs or excessive alcohol to block out the painful memories. This can eventually lead to addiction, associated mental illnesses and censorious misunderstanding by family and friends.

Reflection

Trauma is a very complex phenomenon precipitated by a great variety of events, experienced in differential ways by individuals and leading to individualised responses.  Added to these diverse events, impacts and responses are the variety of initiating stimuli that can trigger a seemingly unrelated trauma response in everyday life.

Bessel argues that one of the problems for traumatised individuals is that they spend so much time and energy in the past.  They become unaware of, and insensitive to, the present.  He maintains that mindfulness practices can help to restore top-down, emotional regulation and that bottom-up approaches such as “breath, movement, touch” can help to restore physical equilibrium and calmness.  The widespread use of somatic meditation for trauma management  is consistent with his view.

As we grow in mindfulness, we gain increased insight into our “inner landscape”, our behavioural responses and the options we have to behave differently.  We come to understand better the impact of past events on our present-day triggers and responses.  This can help us to achieve clarity, calmness and compassion towards others experiencing their own physical and emotional challenges.

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Image by Gerd Altmann 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.

Aging: Being Open to Opportunities

Day four of the Radically Reframing Aging Summit challenged us to be open to the opportunities that aging presents.  Each of the four presenters in their own lives and their own words demonstrated that they had reframed aging and viewed it positively as a period of possibility and creativity.  They reinforced the view that aging requires personal adaption and a resetting of expectations as there are some things that they can no longer do.  However, this does not preclude the potentiality of exploring new opportunities in work, play and life generally.

The interviewees – Lottie Tartell, Joseph C. Maroon, David Sinclair and William Shatner – stated that what is required to be open to opportunities as we age is not only examining our blind spots but also building mental and physical fitness to undertake new endeavours. William Shatner reinforced the mental openness required by reiterating the exhortation of Viktor Frankl to “Say Yes to Life” in spite of what happens when we are aging.  Each of the interviewees have demonstrated in their own lives and their exploratory pursuits that physical age does not define us and our capacity to be open to opportunities.  However, our mind plays a key role in what we enable ourselves to do and pursue.

  • Lottie Tartell taught at Hofstra University for four decades and became an Adjunct Associate Professor in Economics and Geography.  She indicated that even at age 96 she still undertook exercise classes, had an active social life and was engaged in community service as well as playing the violin.  She had to deal with grief with the loss of her husband, Dr. Robert Tartell, in 2013 (after 65 years of marriage), as well as the loss of friends and other family members.  She indicated that she did not dwell on getting old but did what she had to do each day.  Lottie has been active in the Women’s Movement through Planned Parenthood and with Robert had set up the Tartell Family Foundation providing funds to many charities.
  • Dr. Maroon is a neurosurgeon and author and completed a triathlon at the age of 81. He is noted for his research work and innovations in the area of concussion and neurotrauma.  His recent book (2020), Square One: A Simple Guide to a Balanced Life – 2nd Edition, provides insights into his own early setbacks and resultant depression and encourages people to experience a joyful and creative life by achieving balance and avoiding burnout by prioritizing health, meaningful work, relationships that are strong and spirituality.  In his interview, he urged people who are aging to “be mindful and aware of where they are“ in everyday life, especially in relation to sleeping patterns, exercise and diet.  In his earlier publication, The Longevity Factor, he highlighted the beneficial effects of Resveratrol and other related natural substances found in red wine, green tea, berries and dark chocolate.   Dr. Maroon is a strong advocate of mindfulness as a means of achieving awareness and life balance and living a long and healthy life.  In his Summit interview, he maintained that the harmful effects of stress, such as elevated cortisol in our bodies, could be controlled by mindfulness practices such as Tai Chi, yoga, meditation and prayer.
  • Dr. David Sinclair, genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, is the author of Lifespan: Why We Age – and Why We Don’t Have To.  He maintains that the goal of research into genetics is not to prolong a life of suffering and disease but to achieve “prolonged vitality” – more active, happy and healthy years of life.  In other words to “live younger longer”.  Like Dr. Maroon, David takes a Resveratrol supplement daily and in his book on lifespan he explained in detail how the beneficial effects of this natural molecule were discovered, including in his own laboratory and in experiments on his kitchen table.  He suggests that the beneficial effects of Resveratrol in extending lifespan can be enhanced when combined with intermittent fasting.   In the interview, it was clear that “he practices what he preaches” in terms of exercise, diet, and lifestyle.  He also spoke passionately about new discoveries in the area of “reverse aging” which he discussed at length in his lifespan book as well as the benefits of “delayed aging”, including the economic benefits for society.
  • William Shatner epitomised the philosophy of “seize the day” (carpe diem) and spoke enthusiastically about the  need to be open to the opportunities that aging presents.  At age 90, he was the oldest person to travel into space and this was for him a life-changing event.  He spoke passionately about his deep insight into the beauty and fragility of earth, a theme he had recounted in many other interviews.  Bill, as he is known, is a prime example of living younger, longer – he is a multiple best-selling author, highly-awarded actor, film director, song-writer, charity worker, and rides horses competitively.  He is a living inspiration of what is possible as we age.  His positive philosophy on life is reflected in his latest album, Bill, and his latest book (2022), Boldy Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder.  In his Summit interview, he spoke extensively and enthusiastically about the wonder of earth and every living thing and demonstrated a “don’t know mind” as he marvelled at the unending mystery of life and earth’s ineffable beauty.

Reflection

To some extent the revelations on Day 4 of the Radically Reframing Aging Summit were overwhelming but also immensely inspiring.  There was so much to think about and take on board. The presentations were energising and empowering in terms of living a fuller life, longer.  There was  very strong encouragement to be open to the opportunities afforded in aging which enable us to explore personal freedom and pursue unfettered creativity. 

There was also very strong reinforcement of the message that as we grow in mindfulness, we enrich not only our mind and body but also increase the quality of our life and extend our lifespan.  We can stay younger longer as a result of mindfulness practices that help us to manage stress effectively in our life, build a positive attitude, enhance our emotional regulation, develop wonder and awe, actively engage in social networks and undertake compassionate action.

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Image by Patrik Houštecký 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.

Life is Like Playing Tennis

Daily living has a lot in common with playing tennis – this does not suggest that they are exactly the same, only that they have some features in common when observed from an effectiveness viewpoint.  As with any metaphor, to say that life is “like playing tennis” is to say that there are some aspects that are the same in each thing being compared.  Life and playing tennis are characterised by uncertainty and challenges, require constant adaption, are affected by our mental and emotional state and can be a source of happiness or disappointment.

When playing tennis, as in life, you are uncertain about the next ball/challenge you will have to face.  In tennis, the shot you have to deal with can vary in spin, speed, and direction and be affected by external factors such as wind and air temperature and the kind of surface you are playing on, as well as the condition of that surface.   In life, we are faced with all kinds of challenges such as financial and health issues, relationship problems or adverse work conditions as well as broader issues such as financial constraints or heath crises such as the pandemic.

I have to admit that I am a “tennis tragic” having played tennis for over 60 years and continuing to do so in my 70’s.  I only play social tennis now once a week (compared to in my youth when I played morning and afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays, including different forms of fixtures and coaching).   As with life, I have had to make continual adaptions as I age.   I have decided, for example, that I need a new tennis racquet to provide better support for my game.  I requested a new racquet from my wife for my recent 75th birthday –  a racquet that is lighter and has a larger frame (for failing eyesight).   This replaced my 20-year old tennis racquet which was badly in need of a restring to restore power and precision.  

They say that to ward off Alzheimer’s disease you need to exercise and learn a new skill that challenges you and provides you with mental stimulation.  Again to overcome the declining strength in my arms and wrists, I decided to learn how to play a two-handed backhand instead of the single-handed backhand that I have used for the last 60 years plus.  This is incredibly challenging for me, not only from a technical viewpoint but also from the perspective of incorporating it psychologically in my game, with the high probability in the early stages of making a lot more mistakes when playing a tennis game.  It means  that I have to take more risks, reflect on what I am doing wrong and manage my mental and emotional reactions to the higher level of mistakes

To help me start out with the requisite technical knowledge, I asked by my sons to pay for three professional coaching lessons (as a 75th birthday present) which gave me a good grounding in the technique required to achieve an effective two-handed backhand.  Now, I just have practice to acquire the technical competency of a two-handed backhand and learn to manage my fear of making a lot of mistakes as I learn to adapt my shot and my positioning to different balls that I will face in a tennis game.  Fear can prevent me from trying out the two-handed backhand in a real game and deprive me of the opportunity to learn as I go.  As with life, I have to learn to manage my fears if I am to achieve a rewarding level of competency and joy.  

Over many years, I have learned to develop a number of principles for playing tennis effectively – a set of principles that have relevance to achieving a life that is fulfilling and happy.  I describe these principles below and they may serve to reinforce a positive approach to life.

My six principles for effective and joyful tennis playing are:

  1. As I approach each night of social tennis, I decide on one micro skill that I am going to concentrate on improving during that night (usually over three or four sets).  There are so many micro-skills involved in playing tennis that it is not possible or effective to concentrate on everything.  As with making resolutions in life to improve your behaviour, focusing on a single goal can prove to be more achievable, effective and reinforcing.   This process employed on each occasion of playing, has served as the basis for continuous improvement, one micro skill at a time.
  2. When playing, I make continuous adaptions to my game to adjust to the circumstances – different players and different conditions.  If some particular tennis stroke is not working or getting me into trouble, I try something different.  Over the years I have developed multiple forms of spin such as top spin, slice, back spin, “out-swinger” (spins away from the body of my opponent) and “in-swinger” (spins into the body).  I adapt my spin to suit the circumstances, e.g. the type of players I am playing against and the external conditions.
  3. Over the last few years dealing with declining physique, I have had to change my mindset playing tennis.  Earlier on when I was much more physically able, I used to try to avoid making mistakes.  But increasingly now, mistakes are a part of the game of tennis.  So I have come to view playing each shot as an experiment – in the face of the numerous variables involved in a tennis shot (both received and hit), it realistic to view playing tennis as a process of conscious “trial and error”, with relevant adjustments for what is deemed to be an error in shot selection and/or delivery.
  4. Instead of dwelling on mistakes I make in a game, I try to savour my really good shots – those that were executed well with the desired effect.  Over time, I have built up a mental video playlist of really good shots which serve to build my sense of self-efficacy – my belief in my capacity to competently complete a particular shot (e.g. a backhand, half-volley lob). 
  5. The challenge when continuously making mistakes or doing the wrong thing, is to avoid beating up on yourself.  I am learning instead to appreciate the fact that I can still run, play a tennis shot, enjoy a game with friends, have ready access to tennis courts and be able to afford to play.  When I am tempted to chastise myself for a poor shot, I try to express gratitude for the things that I have and can do on a tennis court.
  6. Over time, as my physical capacities have declined, I have had to adjust my expectations of what I am capable of achieving.   In my secondary school days, I was trained as a sprinter and achieved selection at GPS level.  Now I am a lot slower off the mark.  I have had to change my expectations about my speed and mobility around the court and capacity to hit fast tennis shot (owing to weakening strength in my arms and wrists).  I do try to strengthen my wrists and arms through exercise but this can only serve to reduce the rate of decline.  In the meantime, I have had to adjust my expectations (though sometimes, I attempt to play like a 40 year old…and suffer accordingly!).
  7. I have taken up again the regular practice of Tai Chi which helps to build balance, flexibility, reflexes, coordination and overall energy.  I have learned that Tai Chi has quite remarkable benefits for playing tennis.  This form of meditation-in-action also suits my personal approach to developing mindfulness and helps to offset my declining physical prowess as I age.

Reflection

I have previously written about how tennis can build mindfulness if approached in an appropriate way.  For me, playing tennis involves a continuous process of reflection.  AS I grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and other mindfulness practices, I am increasing my self-awareness about my thought patterns and emotional states when playing tennis.  I am also learning to adapt and adjust my expectations and to approach my game more mindfully, enjoying the present moment without the contamination of continuous negative self-evaluation.  There can be real joy in savouring the experience of competency and being grateful for what I have and can do. Despite the aging process.  I am increasingly convinced that If you live a reflective and mindful life, wisdom becomes a natural outcome.

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Image by Tonny Nijkrake 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.

A Compassionate Approach to Addiction

Gabor Maté argues for a compassionate approach to addiction in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.   He points out that Portugal has successfully decriminalised the personal use of drugs that were previously illicit with the result that they have seen “a reduction in drug habits, less criminality, and more people in treatment”.

However, he maintains that a key success factor in this decriminalised approach is the development of effective rehabilitation processes and comprehensive resources to support them.   Such rehabilitation approaches need to be viewed as ongoing and long-term as well as “patiently pursued and compassionately conducted”.  Gabor claims too that Portugal’s success in decriminalisation of personal drug use is influencing the development  of a more compassionate approach in Norway and Canada.

Gabor contends that addictions. no matter what their form or manifestation, in very many cases have their origins in the pain resulting from adverse childhood experiences.   For example, in his book he explains that the self-harm (lacerations) employed by “Arlene” creates pain that obliterates, however briefly, “the pain of a larger hurt deep in the psyche” – a deep pain resulting from sexual exploitation when she was young.

Parents reaction to addiction suffered by their adult child or children often involves hurt or anger, instead of understanding and compassion.  This censorious stance is underpinned by self-blame and a lack of self-awareness.

Gabor maintains that parents should not be blamed for their children’s addictive behaviour – they have most likely experienced intergenerational trauma and “unwittingly bequeathed” to their children their “own unresolved or unconscious trauma”.  They have tried to cope with their own pain by what Johann Hari describes as “disconnection from childhood trauma” in his book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression.  

Adopting a holistic approach

Gabor also argues that a holistic approach to addiction in all its forms requires teaching people ways of self-care including meditation and other mindfulness practices as well as what he describes as “body-work” which covers practices such as yoga and Tai Chi and other forms of martial arts.  Included in self-care approaches would be training in nutrition and overall stress management approaches such as reconnection to nature.

While Gabor acknowledges the benefits of 12-step approaches like that adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and GROW, he asserts that these approaches are not for everyone and other methods may be more appropriate for some people.  He argues for an approach that he calls “compassionate inquiry” which is based on trauma-informed understanding and a depth of inquiry that pursues causal factors rather than just seeks alleviation of symptoms. 

The aim of compassionate inquiry is to help the person suffering addiction to identify the trauma/traumas that they have experienced early in life, to isolate the resultant negative self-messaging and to ultimately confront and name the underlying pain they are seeking to alleviate through their ineffectual addictive behaviour.

Reflection

Underpinning Gabor’s compassionate approach is his unshakeable belief, informed by research and decades of field work, that addiction “arises from thwarted love” and that it is “one of the commonest and most human manifestations of torment”.  He maintains that the addicted person is constantly seeking external solutions for their internal “insatiable yearning for relief and fulfillment” – a state he describes as the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and body-work practices such as Tai Chi we can enhance our self-awareness, reduce self-blame and increase our understanding and compassion towards ourselves and others who are addicted.

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Image by Gisela Merkuur 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.

Exploring the Spectrum of Awareness through Fish in an Aquarium

Diana Winston previously introduced the concept of the spectrum of awareness – moving from a narrow lens through a wide lens to a panoramic view.  In a recent guided meditation podcast, Diana illustrated how to practice these different types of awareness through meditating with fish in an aquarium.   She suggested that observing fish in an aquarium with varying focus enables us to develop our understanding of the different ways we can pay attention – from a very narrow and sustained focus to a totally open awareness that takes in all that is occurring in our range of vision as well as what is happening internally.  Diana used the Aquarium of the Pacific webcam to enable participants to practice these different types of awareness.

Adopting a narrow awareness

Diana progressively introduced a range of awareness practices after having participants relax and adopt a comfortable, upright (if possible) position.  This can be preceded by slow, deep breathing to bring awareness to the present moment.  In the narrow awareness stage, Diana suggests that you focus on a plant at the bottom of the aquarium where there are a number of bright, green plants.  The chosen plant serves as an anchor throughout the meditation with the fish.  Once you have chosen a plant, she suggests that you maintain your focus on this particular plant and, if distractions occur, return your focus to the plant.  This practice of returning to your anchor builds your awareness muscle.  It is natural for your attention to wander, particularly where you have a lot of movement in front of you as in the aquarium.  A brightly coloured fish, a ghostly stingray or a sleek shark may pull your attention away – you can then just restore your focus to your chosen plant.

Widening awareness to movement of particular fish

Diana explained that this form of widened awareness can be activated by an investigative stance – e.g. exploring the movement of a fish as it passes in front of you from bottom to top, diagonally from corner to corner or from side to side, eventually disappearing from view.  Sometimes this widened focus can take in the synchronised swimming of a group of fish, moving artistically in pairs or threes.  Diana encourages you after following the movement of a particular fish or group of fish to return to your plant focus, again strengthening your capacity for paying attention and concentrating on a particular object.

Taking a panoramic view

Diana recommends that before expanding your awareness, you allow your body to soften and settle back to facilitate taking in the full screen, taking in everything that is happening in front of you in the aquarium.  As you observe the totality of the scene in front of you, you can notice the different colours of the fish (ranging from black to a bight orange), different shaped bodies and heads, varying speed of movement (from fast to very slow).   You can take in the ease and smoothness of movement of the different species in the aquarium, including varying movement of fins and tails.  You can extend your awareness further to take in the water itself, including the disturbance of the surface of the water as the continuous movement causes motion in the water itself.   Diana suggests that if at any time the scene and broader focus becomes overwhelming, you can return your focus to your plant anchor within the aquarium (e.g. some people may experience a sensation of giddiness with all the movement, colour, and glistening scales).

An addendum to this panoramic focus is to notice what is going on inside you, your own throughs and feelings.  This is in line with the definition of mindfulness used by MARC in their online and drop-in meditation sessions – paying attention in the moment with openness, curiosity and acceptance of what is occurring for you.  Your emotions may include calmness and peace, a sense of wonder and awe, or appreciation and gratitude. You can also check in with your associated bodily sensations at the time.  Diana encourages you, too, to become conscious of “who is noticing” being aware of your awareness – a uniquely human property as illustrated by clinical psychologist Noam Shpancer in his book, The Good Psychologist, when he compares the capacities of a human being to that of a zebra .

Reflection

I had become aware of the spectrum of awareness through a previous post I had written based on one of Diana’s earlier guided meditations.  Coincidentally, I recalled this practice when I was having my lunch on the deck at my home.  When I finished my lunch (which I did not eat very mindfully!), I decided to take a panoramic view of what I could see from the deck, including the far away waters of Moreton Bay.  I noticed the trees and plants, the different shaped leaves, varying movement with the wind in the trees, newly formed and colourful spring growth and the sounds and movement of birds penetrating my visual space.  This process of widened awareness was very calming and peaceful.

As we grow in mindfulness through observation, meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can build our capacity to focus and concentrate, to appreciate and savour what is around us and to get in touch with the healing power of nature.

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians 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.