Mindfulness and Creativity in Our Life’s Work

In a recent presentation for The Contemplative Care Summit, Seth Godin spoke about, Mindfulness & Creativity at Work.  He stressed the importance of being mindful about self-talk and taking intentional action if we are to be creative in our life’s work.  Seth writes a daily post for his creative blog which he has been writing for more than a decade.  He is the author of 20 world-wide best-selling books such as The Practice which is about creative work.  He is also the initiator of many creative projects.  You can find his videos on YouTube, including his five TED Talks.

Self-talk: a barrier to creativity

Seth has previously written about what he calls “the lizard brain” – the amygdala, the part of the brain driven by fear.  He maintains that this is behind our negative self-talk and  can be disabling if we let it control our thoughts.  He challenges the myth of “writer’s block” and suggests that it is a blockage in our thinking created by our fear and perpetuated by self-stories.  He suggests, like one of my early mentors, that a way forward is to write, write, write.  Eventually, our not-so-good writing becomes good and then great – especially if we have a constructive, critical friend who is commenting on our writing out of understanding, comprehension, and good will, not out of ignorance or inanity.

Creative people such as Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, speak extensively about how fear and self-talk can block our creative genius.  Clare Bowditch – singer, songwriter, and author of Your Own Kind of Girl – describes in detail (in this autobiography), the power and pervasiveness of our inner critic.  Worrying about whether our creation, our work, our project, our song/performance or our presentation will be “good enough” sets in train a series of self-stories that can lead to procrastination.  Tara Brach offers the R.A.I.N. meditation – incorporating the steps of recognise, accept, investigate and nurture – as a compassionate way to deal with our self-generated critic.

Seth talks extensively about a specific fear, the “fear of failure”. We tend to catastrophize the outcomes if something “goes wrong” or “does not work out”.   He points out, however, that we do not have control over the outcomes and focusing solely on them leads to inertia and stifling of creative endeavour.  Seth maintains that “failure” and creativity go hand-in-hand and he talks about his many failures. He argues that if you are doing something that you have never done before or that has not been done by anyone else, then the chances of failure are always present – this uncertainty about outcomes defines the essence of creativity and we capture this in our language, “going out on a limb”, “going outside our comfort zone”, “leaping into the unknown” or “exploring new terrain”.

Seth suggests that we need to stay in the present moment and enjoy the process of creating something new – of bringing our creation into the world for the benefit of others.  Focusing on process in a mindful way creates freedom from fear, space to explore and openness to new ideas.  He also argues that we can overcome the nagging concern that we are an “imposter” (posing as a good writer, performer or facilitator) by accepting that you will act as an imposter if you are being creative – you are taking action with uncertain outcomes, you cannot guarantee success, and you are hoping that it will “turn our well” without any “iron-clad guarantee” that it will do so.

Intentional action

Intention provides the impetus to initiate and sustain creative action. Diana Winston offers a meditation process to help us to bring mindfulness to our motivations and intentions so that we can achieve clarity of purpose, align our energy and strengthen our motivation in the face of obstacles.  Leo Babauta offers a three-step process, incorporating clarifying intentions, that  we can use to start doing the meaningful work that we have been avoiding.  He also offers a daily practice to overcome the avoidance that we experience when confronted with difficult tasks.

Ricardo Semler, entrepreneur and author provides a more fundamental approach to access our underlying intentions.  He suggests that we ask our selves “why” three times to get to the fundamental question, “What am I doing this for?”  Unfortunately, our busyness becomes the greatest impediment to accessing our creativity and opening our selves to wisdom, clarity, and fulfillment.  Taking time to be still and revisit our intentions can enable us to achieve alignment with our overall life purpose and access the resonance that this alignment brings.  We can then begin to experience inspiration and intuition – the seeds of creativity.

Reflection

To fully access our creativity, we need to be aware of our negative self-stories, our fear of failure, and our imposter concerns.  By not facing up to the self-critic and the “lizard brain”, we can numb ourselves into inaction and procrastination.   As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation, reflection, and reframing, we can increase our self-awareness, develop self-compassion to deal with our negative thoughts and bring intention and alignment to our creative actions.  The stillness and silence of mindfulness meditation acts an “incubator” for creativity and innovation.

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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.

Maintaining the Christmas Spirit

Christmas is a time when we can experience strong positive emotions such as kindness, joy, gratitude, generosity, empathy, and compassion.  We can also be more considerate, thoughtful, patient, and understanding. The difficulty is maintaining the Christmas spirit throughout the rest of the year – how can we continue to experience these positive emotions and engage in these positive behaviours when we encounter the daily pressures of work, relationships, and expectations (our own and those of others)?

Tailoring mindfulness practice

There are many ways to build positivity and maintain positive emotions and behaviours.  Diet and exercise are two of the most popular approaches.  Seeking silence in a busy life amid the noise pollution of the surrounding world is another.  Mindfulness practice can help us to find the balance and equanimity necessary to manage the daily challenges that can upset our peace of mind and positivity.

What helps to sustain mindfulness practice is finding and tailoring a practice that meets our needs in an arena where we would like to improve ourselves and our reactions, and that can be embedded in our daily routine.  It is important that the mindfulness practice, however brief, is conducted on a daily basis so that it can become a habituated behaviour.

I have found, for example, that one arena where I can become frustrated and annoyed is when playing social tennis.  Part of the issue is my own expectations about how well I should be able to play.  Having played tennis for more than fifty years, with many of those years engaged in competitive tennis, I have the expectation that I should be able to play better than a lot of people.  This expectation, however, does not consider the decline in flexibility, reflexes, strength, and mobility that occurs as we age.  So, I need to manage my expectations, strengthen my sense of gratitude (e.g., about being able to move and play tennis at all!) and learn to manage my reactions to  personal disappointment with the way I am playing on a particular occasion.

What I have found is that mindfulness practices help me to improve my gratitude, reduce my expectations and manage my reactions.  What has been of particular benefit to me is Tai Chi – a form of mindfulness practice that directly impacts my tennis playing in a positive way.  The desire to play tennis well and enjoy the experience adds motivation to my Tai Chi practice. It has become a practice that meets my needs at the moment for self-regulation and that enables me to improve my positive experience in an arena (social tennis) that I thoroughly enjoy.

Developing a personal mnemonic

People often use affirmations to help embed a belief, a behaviour, or an orientation.  Another way to achieve these outcomes is to develop a personal mnemonic that captures the core benefits that you are seeking.  For example, with Tai Chi I have developed the following mnemonic that keeps the benefits of this practice at the forefront of my mind, strengthens the desire to practice and reinforces the positive outcomes that I experience.

My mnemonic for capturing the benefits of Tai Chi for my tennis is as follows:

  • F – flexibility in muscles and overall movement is increased considerably
  • R – reflexes are improved and increased in speed of response
  • A – awareness is heightened of every aspect of tennis play (e.g., movement of the ball, environmental factors, other players)
  • I – intention, integration and interaction are strengthened
  • C – coordination and concentration (which go hand-in-hand) are enhanced along with balance
  • H – heart health improved through better circulation and improved breathing
  • E  – energy and motivation are improved.

The mnemonic stands for “fraiche” – a term which itself has positive connotations when viewed as a delectable dessert.  

Reflection

Developing our own mnemonic is one way of reminding ourselves of the benefits of a personalised mindfulness practice and will enable us to maintain our motivation and increase the frequency of our practice.  As we grow in mindfulness through our personalised practice, we can maintain the positive emotions and behaviours that are characteristic of the Christmas spirit.

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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.

Meditation as Preparation for Dying

Meditating on death helps us to appreciate both the preciousness of life and its precariousness. Thinking about death and the dying process serves to motivate us to live our lives more fully and more aligned to our true purpose in life.  Much as we might like to, death is not something to be swept under the carpet – it is an every life reality.  Meditation itself can help us to prepare for death by helping us to face up to its reality and consciously build the capacity to die peacefully, with acceptance and equanimity.

The reality of our death

Irrespective of our belief about the existence of an afterlife, there are some inescapable facts about death and dying that we each have to face (not deny or ignore, despite cultural “taboos”):

  • The certainty of our death
  • The uncertainty of the timing of our death
  • The unknown about how we will die – there are so many potential internal and external causes of our death
  • The remaining span of our life is decreasing with each day (we are getting closer to death with each day we are alive – our life is inevitably running out, like the waters in an outgoing tide).

We can live our  life in the light of the lessons from death and dying or continue to ignore death’s reality.  One of the lessons Frank Ostaseski learned from observing the dying and practising meditation is that meditation is itself like the dying process.

What meditation and the dying process have in common

Frank identified a number of common elements between the dying process and meditation:

  • Stillness and silence
  • Being fully in the present moment
  • A focus on our inner life – “profound inquiry into the nature of self’
  • Accessing our inner wisdom
  • Progressive release from attachments
  • Deep sense of humility
  • Deep sense of expansiveness and connection to nature and everyone

The benefits of meditation for the dying process

The dying process is a solitary event – no external person or possession or power or wealth or physical beauty can assist us in the process of accepting the inevitable.  What can help us to make the transition easier at the time of death is release from all attachment, comfort with deep self-exploration and reconciliation with ourselves and with others.  What will help too are the positive states that we have formed through meditation – compassion, self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others, patience, wisdom and peace.  The more positive our life has been, the better we will be able to accept all that is happening to us at the time of death. 

Frank suggests that we should aim to replace guilt with remorse – not drowning in our guilt but expressing remorse for having hurt others.  Remorse then motivates us to do better and avoid hurting the people we interact with.  Forgiveness meditation is a powerful aid in this transformation.

Reflection

Once we accept that life is running out like the tide, we can value and appreciate every moment that we are alive, develop loving-kindness and build positive experiences where we contribute to the welfare of others.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, and especially by meditating on our death, we can create the positive states of acceptance, peace, tranquillity and compassion that will assist us in the dying process.  Meditation helps us to understand and accept the reality of our death and to prepare us for the inevitable (but uncertain) end to our life.

Frank’s book, The Five Invitations: Discover What Death Can Teach Us About Living Life Fully, can provide us with insights into the dying process and the lessons we can learn and, in the process, build our motivation to develop and sustain a daily meditation practice.

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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.

Creating a Positive Future in a Climate-Changed World

Diana Winston recently provided a meditation podcast entitled, Envisioning a Positive Future in Our World.  The podcast was timely given the devastating fires across Australia in the months preceding and following the presentation and the ongoing challenge of gaining control over fires that continue to rage.  Diana’s guided meditation was a part of the weekly podcasts offered by MARC, UCLA.  Diana emphasised the need to draw on mindfulness for strength and resilience, to envisage a better future and to collaborate to achieve a better world.

The immeasurable impact of the Australian bushfires

The devastating impact of the Australian bushfires and wildfires was brought into sharp relief by the ABC Four Corners© program, Black Summer, aired on 3rd February 2020.  The program incorporated video footage from various areas and stages of the fires along with discussions by people who had survived the fires and lost their homes and/or family members, firefighters who described what it was like to be in thick of the fires, evacuation centre volunteers and elected officials living in areas impacted by the fires. 

Michael Pengilly, Mayor of Kangaroo Island in South Australia, summed up the extent of the physical devastation when he said:

So far this bushfire season, almost 12 million hectares have burned.  At least a billion native animals have died.  More than 3,000 homes have been destroyed and 33 people have lost their lives.

He pointed out that there were still bushfires creating havoc across Australia at the time of the TV program. 

Firefighters and people who had lost their homes and loved ones spoke of the trauma resulting from the fires, the fear of losing their lives, the 48 hours of blackness and the suffocating smoke that burned into your throat and lungs.  Aaron Salway, who lost his father and brother in the bushfires, spoke of the immeasurable impact on themselves and children who have experienced and survived the fires:

This fire I’ll never forget.  I don’t think my kids will ever forget it. It’s something that’s going to be scarred into my brain.  I don’t ever want to see it again.

When you see pictures of 60 metre high flames; raging fires driven by gale force winds (in excess of 80 kph); exhausted firefighters who have just heard that two of their colleagues had died in a fire truck rollover caused by a fallen tree; and flying embers moving at high speed horizontal to the ground, you understand that the emotional scars are deep and very real. 

Some of the lessons from the Australian bushfires

The fires brought to the fore the courage and resilience of individuals and communities when confronted with a crisis of this scale.  One such inspiring example was that of members of a Muslim Community who travelled for five hours to cook for exhausted firefighters in East Gippsland in Victoria and arranged five truckloads of donated goods to be delivered to people in fire-affected communities.

The firefighters (many of whom were volunteers) who risked their lives, and in some cases lost their lives, showed incredible commitment to helping others to deal with the frightening challenge of the fires raging out of control.  

One of the key lessons of the fires was what people could achieve when they pulled together, pooled their resources, supported each other emotionally and concerned themselves with the safety of others.  The questions and answers during the video episode highlighted some other key lessons:

  • The climate-changed world is a “new normal”
  • Unless people of different political persuasions can pull together and collaborate, there is no way that the situation can be redressed and the prognosis for the future be improved
  • Leaders at every level need to move beyond petty differences and demonstrate true leadership – marshalling committed followers to work towards creating a positive future
  • Australia must find ways to tap into the indigenous knowledge of landscape management – learning about and respecting the environment and related ecosystems.

Tackling climate change as individuals

In introducing her podcast, Diana highlighted an article by Emma Morris in the New York Times on January 10, 2020.  In the article, titled  How to Stop Freaking Out and Tackle Climate Change, Emma provides a sound five-point plan that individuals can pursue to move beyond paralysis by fear to constructive engagement:

  1. Ditch the shame
  2. Focus on the systems, not yourself
  3. Join an effective group
  4. Define your role
  5. Know what you are fighting for, not just what you are fighting against.

The last point demands moving beyond blaming to collaborative endeavour.  Emma’s plan shows what individuals can do to create a positive future for their children and grandchildren.

Diana draws on this discussion to incorporate a visioning exercise in her guided meditation.  After an introductory period focused on becoming grounded, Diana suggests that people engaging in the meditation begin to envision what a renewed environment would look like in terms of flourishing trees, clean air, running water, clear skies, happy children, healthy and diverse wildlife, numerous birds and butterflies – a very different picture to one of darkened skies, dense and suffocating smoke, children distressed about their future environment, blackened trees and flora and burned/dead animals (many of them in danger of extinction).  Diana maintains that the future is ours to create.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can build our resilience; better appreciate our connectedness to others and our natural world; develop our motivation to collaborate and take compassionate action; overcome our biases and assumptions; and develop our personal role in helping to shape a positive future in our climate-changed world.

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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.

Improving Your Tennis Performance through Tai Chi

Dr. Peter Wayne, Tai Chi researcher and long-time practitioner, contends that the principles of Tai Chi have a strong synergy with the physical and mental demands of many sports.  In his book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, he supports this contention with examples and scientific research.  In the book, he strongly suggests that sportspeople adopt Tai Chi as a form of cross-training, especially people engaged in the sports of tennis, golf or skiing where the positive impact on performance is more direct.  Throughout the book, he provides specific Tai Chi related exercises for each of these three sports.  

How Tai Chi practice improves tennis performance

Peter’s research led him to identify the eight active ingredients of Tai Chi which are the primary focus of his abovementioned book.  He was able to explain the power of Tai Chi to strengthen the mind-body connection – a key ingredient for effective performance in any sport.  Peter highlighted this connection in relation to tennis by drawing on Timothy Gallwey’s work in relation to the inner game of tennis which I discussed previously.  In particular, Peter focused on Timothy’s emphasis on self-observation, mental and bodily awareness and the need to be non-judgmental when making mistakes in tennis.

Peter also focused on the specific active ingredients of Tai Chi that had a profound positive impact on tennis performance:

  • Awareness (including focused-attention and mindfulness) – Tai Chi builds bodily awareness (positioning and movement), strengthens the capacity to focus (on the ball and the opposition), and develops the ability to be fully in the present moment.
  • Intention (includes expectation and belief) – associated with this is the power of visualization, an important ingredient in improving and sustaining sports performance.  Tai Chi training draws strongly on metaphor and imagery in relation to movement, drawing on images from nature such as the movement of clouds and the wings of a bird.  In his book, Peter draws heavily on the research into “motor imagery” and its positive effects on performance.  The focused attention and groundedness involved in Tai Chi help to reinforce self-belief and shut out the negative self-stories that can impact expectations e.g. “I’m going to lose this tennis set” or “I’m going to do a double fault” or “I can’t possibly handle his serve”. 
  • Grounded Movement – Peter explains that the principles of Tai Chi state that “all movement is started in the feet, steered by the waist, and administered by the hands” and this is reflected in the practice of Tai Chi.  This process of movement is built into tennis strokes such as the forehand and backhand and incorporated in basic tennis training [Early in my tennis playing experience, I would coach very young children in tennis basic steps and the coaching followed this pattern].  Peter provides a basic training exercise in his book that he calls Tai Chi Tennis which mirrors this grounded movement.
  • Balance (both physical and emotional) – Tai Chi involves considerable weight transfer from one leg to the other, from forward to backward.  Weight transfer and the related capacity to maintain balance are essential components of tennis shots, especially volleys and tennis smashes.  Emotional balance is linked to the inner game of tennis mentioned above, including the capacity to manage mistakes and deal with setbacks.

Reflection

Peter’s research and practice reinforces the power of Tai Chi to improve tennis performance. His committed, professional approach to Tai Chi over many years is highly inspirational as is his book that draws all this together in terms of “active ingredients”.  As we grow in mindfulness through the practice of Tai Chi and meditation, we can increase our bodily awareness, emotional and physical balance and draw heavily on the power of mindfulness to strengthen focused attention and intention.  The real benefits will come with regular practice. 

This writing and reflection strengthen my motivation to increase my practice of Tai Chi and other mindfulness practices that will, in turn, improve my tennis performance and increase my capacity to be-in-the-moment and experience all the positivity that this entails.

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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.

A Framework for Reflection for Organisation Leaders

Chip Conley, author and hospitality entrepreneur, emphasised the importance of reflection, wisdom and lifelong learning for leaders.  He created the Modern Elder Academy to further that end.  He was especially interested in making the workplace a place for fullment, inspiration and self-actualization for employees – which he maintained was the means to achieve a sustainably successful organisation.  Chip acknowledged that his leadership philosophy was heavily influenced by the writing of two men Viktor Frankl and Abraham Maslow.

Viktor Frankl through his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, impressed on Chip the importance and power of a meaningful life for leaders and the critical role of leaders in providing an environment that is conducive to employees developing a “sense of purpose and meaning”.   Research has confirmed that a meaningful life is foundational to a person’s health, happiness and overall well-being.

Abraham Maslow and his work on developing a Hierarchy of Needs had a very profound effect on Chip and his approach to leadership, both as an owner/entrepreneur and a mentor to other leaders, especially the young founders of Airbnb.  Maslow’s work gave Chip an insight into how to develop a reflective framework to guide his own role as a leader and to assist other leaders to create meaningful work for employees.

A framework for reflection for organisational leaders – the transformative pyramid

Chip explained his reflection framework in a TED Talk© given in 2010 titled, Measuring What Makes Life Worthwhile.  He elaborated further on the evolution of the framework and how to put it into practice in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True.  He was particularly concerned about the challenge of applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to business and the management of employees.

What Chip realised is that, for employees, meaning provided inspiration which in turn developed intrinsic motivation.  He came up with the idea of a framework which he called the “transformative pyramid” – built on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which was illustrated as a five-level pyramid with physiological needs at the bottom of the pyramid and self-actualization at the top.

To simplify things and make his framework easy to implement, Chip developed his transformative pyramid as a three-level pyramid with “survival” at the bottom, “success” in the middle and “transformation” at the top.  He pointed out that many leaders focus only on the bottom of the pyramid, the survival needs, by using all their energy to create non-sustainable, extrinsic motivation in the form of pay, bonuses and financial rewards while ignoring what truly influences and shapes employee motivation.

In Chip’s model, “success” relates to recognition that an employee is achieving their role and contributing to the organisation.  He understood that positive feedback was a powerful motivator and that people often left their jobs because of the way they were treated, including feeling a sense that they had been “taken for granted” and their efforts were unrecognised.   Chip explained, by way of example, that during the dot-com crash, he introduced a process of recognition at his weekly managers’ meetings that not only provided some positive element to what was a relatively sober discussion but also helped to spread recognition and positivity throughout the organisation. 

The initiating process for giving recognition was simple – he introduced a ten-minute period at the end of each meeting where a manager would mention someone in one of the teams who “deserved recognition” for something they had done in the workplace or in the field.  This recognition was communicated personally to the individual involved who felt that they were “noticed” and respected, and their contribution was appreciated.  Chip suggested that great companies are differentiated by the fact that they are “first-class noticers”.

At the highest level of the transformation pyramid is personal reframing of work from “just a job” to something that is meaningful and worthwhile.  Chip suggested that this can be achieved by helping employees to understand the higher purpose of the organisation – the inspirational “why”,  and to find meaning in what they do by understanding the connection between their daily work and something broader that makes a difference in people’s lives.  

Chip indicated that he learned this lesson from a maid who had worked for a  long time in one of his hotels.  When he asked her why she seemed so happy doing mundane work every day (such as cleaning the toilets), she said that she was able “to create joy” for people who stayed in their hotel away from their home and often without their family or partner.  She was able to mentally connect what she did every day to a “noble purpose”.  This realisation and reframing were “transformative” for her – putting her mundane work in a totally different light and acting as a source of intrinsic motivation.

Chip encapsulated his “transformation pyramid” and its underlying principles in his book, PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow.  He encouraged leaders to use his framework to reflect on their relationships with their employees, customers and investors.  Since the first edition of the book, many organisations worldwide in different industries have used his framework to transform their businesses. In particular, they have found innovative ways to recognise the contribution of their employees.

Reflection

It is often the simplest ideas that have the greatest impact.  Chip demonstrated that focusing on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation was the way forward to transform companies and he proved this through his own roles as founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre and as mentor to the founders of Airbnb.  In the process, he addressed one of the key underlying problems associated with the growth of depression – the loss of connection to meaningful work.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can increase our understanding of leadership and what is meaningful in life for us and others, and notice, appreciate and provide recognition to people we encounter who contribute in whatever way to our own welfare and that of our organisations.  Noticing, appreciating and giving recognition require us to be present in the moment – a key aspect of mindfulness.  Being present builds awareness of our self and others.

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

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

Mindfulness – A Pathway to Emotional Agility

Dr. Susan David in her 2017 TEDWomen’s Talk, spoke about the gift and power of emotional courage – the willingness to face our emotions in all their diversity and strength.  She stated that research demonstrates that denying or suppressing emotions leads to strengthening emotions and can make people aggressive. Other research shows that such denial or suppression induces unhealthy coping behaviours and contributes to serious mental and physical health problems. Sometimes we suppress emotions because we think that this is what we should do – we take our cues from social norms or established unwritten rules operating in the workplace.   

In her book, Emotional Agility, Susan argues that radical acceptance of our emotions, however difficult, is essential to be able to bounce back from setbacks and lead a productive, happy life.  Her main premise is that denial of emotions develops personal rigidity – the inability to be flexible and move with the ups and downs of life.  She maintains that, on the other hand, radical acceptance of emotions builds resilience and “emotional agility” – the capacity to deal with the complexity of an uncertain and ever-changing world. 

Susan warns us about the “tyranny of positive” – the social expectation that we do not express what is viewed as negative emotions – such as anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment or envy.  We are expected in many situations “to put on a brave face” and deny how we really feel.  She discusses the “destructive power of denial” not only in terms of being injurious to health and well-being but also in disabling us and preventing us from developing effective or creative responses to our situation. 

How to overcome rigidity and build emotional agility

In her presentation and book, Susan offers several suggestions that can assist us to develop emotional agility:

  • Stop labelling emotions as “good” or bad” – they are just feelings that we experience as a result of our perceptions and are a part of normal, daily living
  • Change your mindset to accept that “discomfort is the price of a meaningful life” – a way of living that is designed to make a difference for ourselves and others. This is a part of accepting “what is”.
  • Name your feelings but do so accurately and specifically – so instead of saying “I’m stressed” (a generic state), identify the real feeling in all it’s intensity and contours, e.g. “I’m bitterly disappointed because I missed out on that promotion” or “I am continually very resentful that Joe caused me so much work and embarrassment by his words and actions”.  We tend to fudge the emotion to take some of the heat and negativity out of it.  Accurate description and radical acceptance of our emotions lead to a genuine release and frees us to explore productive ways of thinking and acting.  This may entail a progressive realisation of the true nature of our feelings as we reflect or meditate, e.g. by undertaking the R.A.I.N. meditation
  • Recall Susan’s statement that “emotions are data, not directives” – we can establish control over our emotions through meditation and by developing self-regulation.  The starting point is naming and accepting them. 
  • Ask yourself, “What is my emotion telling me about my current situation” – e.g. “Is it informing me that my current job is destroying my motivation and/or deskilling me?

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the true nature of our feelings, name them accurately and accept them as part of trying to live a life aligned with our values and what is meaningful for us.  It sometimes takes time to unearth the real nature and intensity of our feelings because we so often disown them.  Persistence in our self-exploration and self-compassion opens the way for us to be more emotionally agile and more open to life’s experiences, including the potentially challenging aspects of moving outside our comfort zone.                      

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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.

Music and Meditation: The Key Role of Practice

Richard Wolf maintains that practice is a key element in meditation and playing a musical instrument.  Richard explores practice along with other parallels between meditation and playing music in his book, In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness. Previously, I explored his ideas on achieving harmony through music and meditation.

It is through practice that we can master playing an instrument or achieving a high standard in sport.  The same is true of meditation – our capacity to meditate and achieve its benefits is dependent on how well we practice.  The greater the regularity and length of our meditation practice, the greater are the benefits that accrue to us.

Practice and repetition

Practice requires repetition and may be experienced as boring, e.g. playing scales on a musical instrument.  However, as Richard notes, after a period of practicing, if we persist, we can be keen to “practice for practice sake”.  With sustained practice, comes the realisation that the practice itself achieves the desired benefits of competence, concentration, harmony and spontaneity.  This is as true of meditation as it is of practising a musical instrument.  It is similar with sporting practice. I recall practicing tennis drills with my brothers when we were playing A Grade tennis fixtures.  Repetition was a key part – hitting the ball up the line over and over or practising volleys again and again.  However, as we grew in competence, we would marvel at the shots we played, laugh at the fun we were having and experience a real sense of happiness.  We would look forward to our practice sessions.

As our meditation practice improves and starts to flow into our daily life, we begin to experience a greater variety of benefits which, in turn, feed our motivation to practice.  Richard suggests that this occurs because when you meditate, “your mental, emotional and physical awareness are the instrument you practice on”.  The essence of effective practice is to maintain focus in the present moment on what we are doing, whether playing a musical instrument or meditating on nature.

Breathing in time – treating your breath as a musical instrument

Richard highlights the role of beats in music and the need for a musician to master different times in music such as 4/4 time and 3/4 time (as in a waltz).  He suggests that “counting beats internally” is an essential component of mastering a musical instrument.  He proposes that as a form of meditation practice, you can adopt the parallel technique of “rhythmic breathing”, e.g. what he calls a “four-bar sequence”.   This involves holding your breath for four beats (counting to four) for each of the four “bars” involved in breathing – inhalation, holding, exhalation, holding. 

In his book, he offers other variations on this breathing sequence that you can adopt but stresses that the important thing is to go with whatever helps you to experience calm and equanimity.   It is vital not to beat up on yourself if you lose count in the middle of your practice – just start over again.  The outcome is achieving a mind-body rhythm that is beneficial to your sense of ease and wellness.

Reflection

Meditation practice becomes enjoyable as we grow in mindfulness.  This increasing inner and outer awareness flows into our daily life and brings a variety of benefits such as focus, productivity, creativity, calmness and richer relationships.  The benefits can grow exponentially if we sustain our meditation practice.  Rhythmic breathing can enhance our mind-body connection.

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Image by Brenda Geisse 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.

Bringing Mindfulness to Your Motivations and Intentions

Diana Winston recently offered a meditation on the topic of mindfulness and intentions.  Diana is Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC, UCLA and the meditation was part of the weekly meditation podcasts offered by the Center.  The podcasts are accessible from the MARC website or via the UCLA Mindful App

Diana explained that an integral part of mindfulness is curiosity about our self, what we do and why we do it.  Many times, our intentions are not conscious – our thoughts and behaviour are often the result of habituated patterns.  We might sometimes do things because we think it is the “right thing to do” or because “others are doing it”.  As Diana points out, our motivations and intentions are often very complex, mixed in nature and not easily untangled.  She offers a guided meditation to unpack these motivations and, in particular, to explore the question, “Why do we meditate?”  If we are clear about the benefits that accrue for meditation practice, we are more likely to sustain the habit of meditating.  I find, for example, that clarity about my motivations is a key strategy for enabling me to sustain my practice of Tai Chi and writing this blog.

Meditation on intentions

Diana provides a meditation on intentions that has four key phases:

  1. Body scan – you begin by undertaking a comprehensive body scan, starting with the sensation of your feet on the floor and moving through your whole body.  I find that a body scan is easier to do if you are following the instruction of another person rather than if you try to do it under “your own steam”.
  2. Exploring why you meditate – what is it that keeps you going with meditation?  What are the benefits that you experience? The clearer you can be about the personal benefits for you – the intentions that shape your habit – the more likely you are to sustain the practice through difficult times or when you are time-poor.
  3. Grounding through your anchor – revisiting your personal anchor can help you to maintain your focus when negative thoughts or other distractions take your attention.  Your anchor can be your breath, focusing on sounds in the room (such as room tone), or getting in touch with a sensation in your body, e.g. the tingling when your fingers touch (my favourite). 
  4. Exploring why you do other activities – now you shift your attention to something else in your life to focus on your intention in doing that activity.  You can focus on a major activity that you regularly undertake and ask the fundamental question, “What am I doing this for?”  Alternatively, you can focus on a less significant activity that you want to gain some clarity about – it might be a commitment or task that you no longer want to undertake but continue to do so.  Diana cautions not to let yourself become frazzled if you cannot immediately find a focus for this phase of the meditation – you can always revisit the meditation at another time.  She also suggests that a few deep breaths taken during this part of the exercise can be helpful for finding and sustaining your focus.

Motivation for meditation

When I undertook this meditation, I was pleased that I was able to clarify and strengthen my motivation for persisting with regular meditation practice.  I was able to identify the following intentions behind my practice (you may have very different intentions based on your own life experience):

  1. Achieving calm – this is a key aspect of my intentions in meditation practice.  I find that calmness enables me to deal with the stresses of life and the inevitable traumas that I experience.  At the end of a recent workshop that I was co-facilitating, a participant came up to me and thanked me for my “calmness and creating a calming atmosphere”.
  2. Developing creativity – meditating releases my capacity to be creative in my writing and in designing and facilitating workshops for managers and leaders.
  3. Dealing with difficult emotions – there are several meditations that focus specifically on difficult emotions such as resentment or anger.  These meditations help me to temper the emotion and contribute to restoring my equilibrium.
  4. Reducing reactivity – there are so many things in life that can trigger a reaction, e.g. traffic jams, and I can become less reactive through my meditation practice (especially targeted mediations such as “You are traffic too” and “When you are waiting, have awareness as your default, not your phone”).  Now in traffic delays, I am able to revert to my anchor, fingers touching, to remain calm and increase my awareness.
  5. Improving relationships – meditation helps me to be more conscious of my thoughts and emotions in any interaction and assists me to be sufficiently present to actively listen to others I interact with, especially in close relationships (even if I don’t achieve this very well in a particular interaction, my awareness and reflection help me to resolve to do better the next time).  Awareness of my own thoughts and emotions improves my capacity to understand the dynamics occurring in my training groups.
  6. Health and healing – meditations focused on nature support my emotional stability and contribute to my overall wellness.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can develop greater clarity about the intentions behind our meditation practice and other significant activities in our life, sustain our motivation and enjoy the benefits that accrue both to ourselves and others we interact with.  We can begin to more fully realise the benefits of increasing inner and outer awareness. Meditation focused on our motivations and intentions can help us to make explicit the implicit motivation behind our actions and, in the process, to strengthen our motivation.

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Image by Alexas_Fotos 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 as Self-Observation

Brian Shiers suggests that underpinning mindfulness is self-observation, the foundation of self-awareness.  This means, in effect, that there is no one right way to meditate – that paying attention to and noticing ourselves, in whatever way, is essentially mindfulness.  While there is a tendency for people new to meditation to judge themselves against a presumed standard, the experience they are having in self-observation is what mindfulness is about, not some prescribed level of awareness.  Mindfulness practices are designed to stimulate this curiosity about oneself in an open, exploratory way.  Tara Brach describes this lifelong journey as “waking up” – a deep shift in inner awareness that leads to equanimity and increased empathy and compassion.

In a recent guided meditation podcast, Brian asked the question, “What is “Myself”? and he encouraged participants to activate their “observational mind” in a relaxed manner.  He maintained that the fundamental question, “What is the “self”? is both an ancient and a recent question (through the pursuit of neuroscience).

Is the “self” my body, my thoughts, my roles I undertake, my affiliations, my emotions or my mind?  Brian sited the work of Dan Siegel, a founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), who believes that the “self” is not only what we are born with, but also the cumulation of billions of impressions that we are exposed to through interactions with others – thus shaping our perceptions and responses.  Dan’s perspective reinforces the uniqueness of our “self”.  Brian suggests, then, that the self is “intertwined in inter- relationships” – the direct and indirect influence of others throughout our lives.

Researchers have yet to establish what the “mind” is, even with the advent of neuroscience.   Brain stated that neuroscientists at Stanford University have estimated that we generate between 65,000 and 90,000 thoughts per day.  We are reminded of the admonition of Jon Kabat-Zinn that “you are not your thoughts”, thoughts that come and go like bubbles in boiling water.  Brain suggests that the “enterprise of mindfulness” is “self-observation”, including bringing to conscious awareness and guidance, the unconscious, spontaneously occurring thoughts that pervade our minds.  So, from Brian’s perspective, mindfulness is the pursuit of self-awareness through observation of the various domains of our existence, including our bodies and our minds.

A process of self-observation

Brian’s guided meditation podcast takes you on a journey of paying attention to your “self” through a process of self-observation of body and mind – noticing your body on the chair, engaging in mindful breathing, noticing your thoughts (but not entertaining them), undertaking a body scan while releasing tension, and participating in a reflection.

The personal reflection involves identifying a positive trait in yourself, e.g. wisdom. loving kindness, gratitude, thoughtfulness or resilience; and exploring how it manifests, its impact on others and how you could further develop this trait. Brian offers some guided questions for the reflection:

  • What is happening when you exhibit this trait? (you can visualise it happening)
  • What impact does it have on others?
  • Who is a role model for you in respect of this trait?
  • Who could help you develop it?
  • How can you further develop this positive trait?

As we grow in mindfulness through self -observation during the process of meditation, we can better understand who we are, how we experience the world, and what we bring to our interactions with others. We can also identify strategies to strengthen our positive traits and increase our motivation to use them to create a better life for ourselves and others.

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Image – Personal reflection during sunrise, Wynnum, Brisbane

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.