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.

_________________________________

Image by 춘성 강 from Pixabay

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

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

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.

_________________________________

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.

_________________________________

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.

_____________________________

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.

___________________________________

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.

_______________________________

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.

_____________________________________

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.

Under the influence of Thich Nhat Hanh

In a prelude to a guided meditation podcast, Remembering Thich Nhat Hanh, Diana Winston spoke with reverence about the life of Thich Nhat Hanh and his global influence.  Nhat Hanh, who died aged ninety-five in Vietnam on January 22 2022, was a Zen Master, peace activist, poet and author of over 100 books focused mainly on mindfulness and peace.  He established multiple Buddhist communities around the world and is considered the “Father of Western mindfulness”.  He exerted a global influence throughout his teaching life conducting numerous retreats and speaking with influencers such as the World Bank, Google and the U.S. Congress.

During the Vietnam war Nhat Hanh introduced the concept of “Engaged Buddhism” and led Buddhist monks in actions designed to help people of Vietnam who were suffering from the drastic effects of the extended conflict and regular bombing.  He argued that mindfulness increases our capacity to “see” but that this insight needs to be translated into compassionate action.   Nhat Hanh established the Plum Village in France, the largest Buddhist community in the world and an international practice center for followers of his mindfulness approach.  The influence of Thich Nhat Hanh is so pervasive that it is not possible to do its credit in this short blog post.  However, his teachings and meditations are readily accessible via Plum Village videos on YouTube and his full life history on the Plum Village website.

Guided meditation

Diana Winston, at the outset of her podcast meditation, acknowledged the profound influence that Nhat Hanh had over her mindfulness practice and that of numerous other mindfulness teachers and practitioners around the world.  She stressed Nhat Hanh’s influence over the practice of bringing mindfulness into everyday life and emphasised the benefits of mindfulness meditation in terms of stress reduction, overcoming anxiety and depression, managing pain, improving mood and developing a positive mindset and emotions.

After suggesting a comfortable, focused posture, Diana begins the meditation with the encouragement to take a couple of deep breaths, recalling the words of Nhat Hanh “Breathing in, I calm the breath; breathing out, I smile”.  She reminds us to identify any points of tension in our body and to soften those points to release the tension.

Next Diana asks us to focus on our breath – the process of breathing, whether the awareness is through the movement of air through our nose or the undulations of our chest or abdomen.  This is a passive observation, not trying to control the breath, but following it as it happens naturally in our body. 

She then suggests that we focus on the sounds that surround us – again passively, allowing the sounds to reach us without attempting interpretation or evaluation (in terms of pleasant or unpleasant).  

Diana maintains that it is only natural for thoughts and feelings to intrude and distract us from our chosen focus.  However, she recommends that we use our breath or sounds as our anchor to bring us back to our focus.  An alternative is to focus on bodily sensations such as those of our feet on the ground or our fingers touching each other causing tingling, warmth or a sensation of flow.  I like to use fingers touching as my anchor and I find that when I am waiting for something (e.g. a traffic light) I can touch my fingers and immediately drop into a breath consciousness that is calming.  

Diana observes that there are times when strong feelings will emerge, depending on what is going on in our lives at the time.  She suggests that we face these feelings and allow them to manifest without staying absorbed in them.  I noted that at one point in the meditation, I experienced a profound sense of sadness precipitated by the distressing events in Ukraine. I was able to stay with the sadness for a time and then restore the focus on my anchor, the sensations in my joined fingers.   The period of ten minutes silence at the end of the meditation podcast enabled me to deepen my focus.

Reflection

In her meditation podcast, Diana recalls Thich Nhat Hanh’s comments about death and dying.  In his video podcast on the topic, Where do we go when we die?, Nhat Hanh reminds us that cells in our body are dying all the time and new cells are being born – so, death and birth are part of every moment of our life.  He maintains that the disintegration of our body at death does not mean we cease to exist.  In his view, our words and actions continue to influence others – so, after we die, we continue in all the people who have come under our influence (or will come under our influence in the future).  He indicated that when he died he would continue in the lives of many thousands of people through the books he has written, the videos he has created and the podcasts that live on after him.

Sounds True provides a video of Nhat Hanh, the artist, as he engages in calligraphy as a form of mindfulness, using the in-breath and out-breath.  In one calligraphy, he likens the continuation of our lives in different forms to a cloud that never dies.

Diana states that the global mindfulness movement represents in many ways the continuation of the life of Nhat Hanh.  She asks us, “How are you going to enable the continuation of Nhat Hanh’s life in your own life?”. As we grow in mindfulness, we are continuing the life and tradition of Nhat Hanh and gaining access to the benefits of mindfulness including calmness, emotion regulation, insight, resilience and the courage to take compassionate action.

Thich Nhat Hahn made a hugely significant contribution to the global mindfulness movement and world peace (he was nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize).  Nhat Hanh left us a huge store of resources to enable us to plumb the depths of his teachings and his indomitable spirit, and to continue his life’s work to create a “beloved community”.  In all his life, throughout  the challenges of suffering, grief and disappointment, he “practised a lot of breathing, coming back to himself”.  Mindful breathing provided his grounding during all phases of his life, especially in the face of violence against the Vietnamese people, his followers and social workers.

_____________________________________

Image by Karl Egger 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.

Identifying Our Blind Spots Through Observation and Reflection

Kelly Boys, author of The Blind Spot Effect: How to Stop Missing What’s Right in Front of You, highlights the fact that blind spots have multiple dimensions, including cognitive (the way we think) and behavioural (what we actually do in response to stimuli).   In an earlier post I explored these dimensions in more detail and shared Kelly’s approach to identifying our core blind spot involving a meditative exercise that focuses on our bodily sensations and the underlying cognitive message that we are giving ourselves.

Our blind spots can impact every facet of our lives, including our relationships, work endeavours, sport activities, exercise routines and our diet and nutrition.  Through mindfulness and employing observation and reflection we can gradually recognise our blind spots and work to overcome them.  This is a life-time pursuit that needs to be worked at consistently and persistently.  Our blind spots are often manifest in our reactivity to stimuli whatever form they take.  Underlying our reactivity can be negative self-talk, prior adverse experiences, assumptions or resentment.  Tara Brach offers a simple S.T.O.P. practice that can be used, particularly when we are anxious or agitated, to overcome our habitual behaviour  (whether fight, flight or freeze) in a particular situation. 

In a recent post, I compared playing tennis to day-to-day life emphasising the uncertainty,  the mental and emotional challenges and the constant need for adaption that they have in common. 

Reflection

Being a “tennis tragic”, I have been watching the Australian Open Tennis Championship, particularly the matches played by Ash Barty, World Number 1 Australian tennis player.  In the process, I have been able to observe the behaviour of players and reflect on their mental attitudes, especially when they were challenged by falling behind in the score.  Some players became despondent and were able to regroup, others let out their frustrations in a show of anger (e.g. by smashing racquets), while others succumbed to the weight of expectations – their own and that of others especially the World Press.

While watching tennis matches during the Australian Open I was able to reflect on my own tennis game and, despite having played tennis for more than 60 years, I learned two key things through observation and reflection that will enable me to improve my social tennis games and enjoy them more, even while aging.   One had to do with a behavioural blind spot and the other with a cognitive blind spot.

My first revelation involved a behavioural blind spot that related to how I had my hands placed on my racquet as I waited for a tennis serve from my opponent.  Having just learned the technical aspects of a two-handed backhand, after 60 years of using a single-handed backhand, I was curious as to how two-handed backhand players prepared to receive serves in excess of 180 kph.  It surprised me that they could be prepared to use a single-handed forehand or a two-handed backhand with little loss of flow in transition.  Through observation, I learned that when receiving a serve they held the racquet differently to what I had been taught when using a single-handed backhand.  It made me realise that instead of having the left hand loosely supporting the right hand like I have been doing, they were already prepared to play a two-handed backhand by having a firm grip with their left hand in the right position on the racquet. 

From this I learned why I was having trouble accessing my two-handed backhand when I was waiting for a serve.  With my usual way of preparing for a tennis serve, I had firstly to move from holding the tennis racquet loosely with my left hand to achieving a firmer grip higher on the racquet (above my right hand) – all of which took too much time and impeded my readiness to receive a serve.  The new stance for me will be uncomfortable for a time.  This experience reinforces the point that we can have behavioural blind spots in any aspect of our lives, even something as simple as how we hold a tennis racquet.

My second revelation involved a cognitive blind spot in relation to the “slice tennis shot”.   When I learned to play tennis the slice tennis shot was part of your tennis armoury, but not your primary shot.  I have often used the slice tennis shot when out of position or when I have difficulty handling the power of an opponent’s shot.  However, I always viewed it as an inferior tennis shot – one played from a position of weakness.

However, after watching Ash Barty’s dominance using the “slice shot” as a primary tennis stroke, I have had to change my mindset and elevate the slice to at least an equal part of my tennis armoury along with a flat or top-spin forehand.  This has been a mental block for me in the past.  But now I have realised that the move from an Eastern forehand grip to a Western grip (sometimes extreme) has meant that a lot of players are unable to effectively play or handle the slice tennis shot.  The reasons are explained by Jon Crim in his overview of the Western grip.  This means that times have changed yet again and that the slice tennis shot (mainly through the success of Ash) has now achieved a status equal to that of the top-spin forehand.   While the top-spin forehand gives the tennis player an advantage in net clearance and depth of shot, it has the inbuilt disadvantage of making it more difficult to play the slice shot which tends to go lower over the net and stay quite low on impact, as well as having a “shooting” effect.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, observation and reflection we can develop curiosity about our blind spots, enhanced self-awareness and the capacity to overcome our habituated responses.  The insights gained can open up the opportunity for more joy and success in our relationships, work endeavours and sporting activities.  As Kelly points out, unless we observe and reflect on our thoughts and behaviour, we can miss what is right in front of us because of our blind spots.

____________________________________

Image by Bessi 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.

Being Mindful 0f Our Thoughts

Tom Heah presented a guided meditation podcast on Mindfulness of Thoughts through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  Tom reminds us that we are often lost in thought either about the past or the future – all of which detracts from fully experiencing the present moment.  In relation to the past, we might be absorbed by regrets about what we have done or failed to do; disappointed that certain outcomes (sporting, academic or otherwise) did not meet our expectations; or depressed about a broken relationship or lack of achievement or advancement.  In relation to the future, we might be worried about the unintended consequences of our words and/or actions; concerned about loss of physical/mental capacities; or anxious about our financial situation or the pervasiveness of the pandemic. 

Tom Heah is an occupational therapist and an experienced meditation trainer and practitioner with many years’ experience training facilitators of programs such as MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy).   He has a low-key and reassuring way of facilitating meditations and provides strong encouragement to “have a go” and try different approaches.

Guided meditation

Tom begins the guided meditation by suggesting that we focus first on “arriving” – being really present in body, emotions and mind.   He encourages us no matter what our posture is (e.g. sitting, standing, lying down or walking) to become very conscious of our bodily sensations – are we bringing any physical tension or tightness to the meditation?  He suggests we welcome any feelings that we may have at the start and to acknowledge their existence without blame or concern to shift them.  As part of this grounding process, Tom asks us to tune into sounds around us without interpreting them or seeking to evaluate them in terms of pleasant or unpleasant – acknowledging that these sounds just exist outside of ourself but within our soundscape.

Tom then uses our bodily sensations as an anchor before moving onto the potentially disarming and distracting element of our thoughts.  He encourages us to feel the solidness beneath our feet (whether through sensing the floor or the earth).  He switches our focus to our palms – firstly, placing our palms downturned on our lap, followed by having them in an upright position and becoming aware of the different sensations associated with these alternative positions (e.g. tightness, tingling or warmth).   This process can be followed by a full body scan moving from the top of our head to the souls of our feet.

When we have achieved some level of groundedness and being present to what is, Tom suggests that we become aware of our thoughts – their content, focus and associated feelings.  He draws on the work of Joseph Goldstein, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, to assert that thoughts lead to action that, in turn,  lead to consequences.  To change the consequences, we need to change our thoughts but the starting point is awareness of our thoughts, their patterns and their reactivity to negative triggers.  Joseph maintains that awareness of our thoughts leads to an “opening of the mind”.

Associated with our thoughts are emotions that are manifest in our body.  Tom encourages us to return to our anchor, bodily sensations, to tap into the embodiment of our thought-provoked emotions.  Again, we can become aware of the bodily sensations associated with particular emotions (e.g. anger can be reflected in muscular spasms or tightness; depression may be experienced as inertia; and nonspecific anxiety can manifest as fibromyalgia).

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness and become more aware of our thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations through meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can learn to accept what is and achieve a level of groundedness and emotional control.  Associated with these outcomes are increased resilience and heightened creativity in dealing with challenging situations and experiences.

______________________________

Image by Engin Akyurt 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.