Life After Grief

In a previous post, I discussed how Rosie Ayliffe converted her grief and anger after the murder of her daughter to the reform of the Australian visa system that was contributing to manipulation and abuse of overseas backpackers.  Evonne Madden, in her book Life After: A Testament to Human Resilience, recounts the stories of 60 Australians who have experienced grief after the loss of a loved one.  Their stories illustrate that grief is very individual and plays out in distinctive ways over time.  It also confirms the view that in most cases grief is not a straight-line experience – there are ebbs and flows often occasioned by trigger experiences, words or actions that lead to flashbacks and emotional pain.  

The stories in Evonne’s book reaffirm the resilience of the human spirit and confirm how many people who experience grief find healing by going outside themselves – their anger and pain – to help others in need through compassionate action.   Their grief becomes the driver of their energy to ensure that others do not experience their level of pain.   As Katherine Woodward notes, trauma can be a trigger for self-awareness and self-realisation.

Exemplars of compassionate action through grief

Evonne details the heart-breaking loss experienced by the people in her stories.  Their sadness and grief is palpable but relieved by their strength of character and resilience and by how they have managed their grief by turning to the needs of others.  There are too many stories to recount here, but the following exemplars give you some sense of the resilience and courage of the people involved and serves as a teaser to encourage you to explore Evonne’s book yourself.

  • Lushani Hewage (age 26) lost her parents and one of her sisters in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.  Her account of the day the tsunami dramatically changed her life, when the wall of water hit the bus they were travelling in, is very traumatic and heart-wrenching.  Lushani and her two surviving sisters were initially cared for by relatives in her local area in Sri Lanka.  However, she was subsequently sent with one of her sisters to live with an aunt in Melbourne.  So there was not only the loss of her parents and a sister whom she had a special relationship with, but also the subsequent separation from another sister and having to adapt to life in a totally different part of the world.  Lushani now lives in Melbourne with her partner Sankini and they are both social workers.  She makes the point that “getting over” the trauma is not really an option but life does get easier, although people become impatient with your grief and ongoing sadness.  Lushani was determined to do something good after her experience and is very committed to the idea of doing social work in the child protection area.
  • Ajak Kwai (age 51) experienced the loss of her ill mother when she was a child and as a young adult experienced the loss of many relatives who were murdered in Southern Sudan by militia.  The civil war also took her father, siblings and fiancé.  She finally moved to Australia as a refugee and is now a singer and musician and her soulful music is available on Spotify and YouTube.  She stresses the need for modern society to learn from the practice in Africa where everyone drops everything and visits the bereaved family to provide emotional support…and they don’t stop visiting.  She maintains that what the world needs today is for us to “go back to the basics of caring for one another”.  She argues that forgiveness is important because hatred and revenge not only harms other people but also yourself so that you pay a “double price”.  Ajak believes “life is incredible” and “life is a mystery” and she gives expression to these beliefs in her songs.  She is a supporter of many organisations catering for women’s rights and refugees. 
  • Gavin Blue (age 52) and his wife Kel experienced the pain and grief of losing a child to stillbirth at 33 weeks.   While the hospital staff were very caring and concerned, the photographer seemed to be going through the motions and produced photographs of the Gavin, Kel and their stillborn baby that were “very graphic and forensic” and added to the trauma of the loss of the baby, Alexandra.  Kel was not coping at all afterwards so Gavin threw himself into protecting her and getting everything done, including a video of Alexandra’s life.  Despite people unwittingly making hurtful comments, Gavin and Kel decided that they had to look beyond the words and “listen to people’s intentions” which were designed to be helpful.  Gavin found that the photos he took himself of Alexandra helped him and Kel and made people comfortable talking about the situation “which helps immensely in grief”.  This experience inspired him to start Heartfelt which involves volunteer photographers providing free photos for people who have lost a child through stillbirth or have children with very serious or life-threatening illness.

Reflection

I listened to Ajak’s soulful music while I wrote this blog.  It reminded me of the healing power of music.  So many people have expressed their pain and grief through song and instrumental music, including the great composers and modern day songwriters like Lindsey Stirling.  Gratitude journalling too plays a major role in the healing process and is a pathway to resilience and happiness as demonstrated by Lindsey’s daily journalling process.

Grief is a complex mix of emotions fluctuating constantly and expressed in very individual ways.  The depth of pain and sorrow described by Evonne can at times feel numbing but the resilience and hope demonstrated by her generous interviewees shines brightly and is overwhelmingly inspiring. 

Ajak’s song Love Not Bitterness illustrates the depth of character of these people and their commitment to life and peace.  Olivia Gilewski, who lost her mother in a train accident when she was 12 years old, advises us to choose our words and actions wisely because they will be always with us especially after a loved one dies.  Her advice is that “You’ve just got to make the best of every day.”  As we grow in mindfulness though music, meditation and reflection, we can experience healing, health and happiness and learn to appreciate the beauty of life and nature

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Image by riyan hidayat 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.

Balancing Compassion with Equanimity

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC UCLA, offers a meditation podcast on the theme, The Balance of Compassion and Equanimity.  This is one of the weekly meditations provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC).  Currently, the meditations are offered via the Zoom platform and are recorded and uploaded for ongoing access.  They are also readily available via the UCLA Mindful app which provides “meditations for well-being”.

Guided meditation on balancing compassion with equanimity

In these challenging times it is easy to experience “compassion fatigue” or burnout.  The pandemic alone has brought death and grief, pain and suffering, job losses, homelessness, suicides, mental illness, business rundown/closure, family separations and divided communities (around issues such as border closures, vaccination distribution, mask wearing and mandatory vaccination).  Many places are experiencing natural disasters including earthquakes, wild fires, floods and tornados.   There are international conflicts creating an endless stream of refugees as well as people who are trapped in a violent and inhuman environment.   We do not have look too far to be surrounded by pain and suffering in this world of conflict and challenge.

In her guided meditation Diana maintains that in these times, it is common for people to experience a lack of balance and overwhelm.  She suggests that one way through the dilemma of finding a balance between compassion and equanimity is to take refuge in meditation.  Her recommended meditation practice involves both expression of compassion and a retreat into equanimity.  This can be a once-off approach.  However, if we are dealing with considerable imbalance and/or overwhelm we can repeat the process on a regular basis.  This will also be necessary if we find ourselves in a state of compassion burnout where we can longer feel for others who are in pain and suffering.

Diana begins the mediation by having us take a few deep breaths to release tension we may feel as a result of experiencing strong feelings of compassion.  She suggests that we become conscious of our posture and the groundedness provided by our feet on the floor or our body on the ground (if lying down outside in nature).  Initially, she encourages us to identify physical points of tension so that we can consciously release them.  Diana then progressively moves us through the process of exploring several anchors for our meditation – our breathing (movement in our abdomen or chest), external sounds or some bodily sensation.

Compassion meditation

Diana starts with a focus on compassion and invites us to bring to mind a particular group of people or an individual who we know are in pain and suffering.  She suggests that we start with something that is not a source of overwhelm (so that we can manage the emotions involved).  Diana then encourages us to find some words that enable us to express our compassion towards the chosen group or individual, e.g., “May your suffering be alleviated”.  If we can find our own words to express compassion, it will enable us to genuinely feel that we are extending kindness to others.

Equanimity meditation

Following the focus on compassion, Diana suggests that we take a form of refuge in equanimity meditation.  In this context the retreat to equanimity is achieved by refocusing on our chosen anchor.  It might be our breathing or sounds or a particular bodily sensation.  I have frequently focused on my fingers joined on my lap during meditation – feeling the warmth, the tingling and the flow of blood and energy.   In times when I am waiting or experiencing strong emotions, I can resort to this practice and simultaneously tap into my breathing.  The combination of these anchors – joined fingers and breath – are achieved by regular practice creating the association between them.  Each person has their own way of becoming deeply grounded and restoring balance and equanimity.

Reflection

Diane calls the  meditation practice she facilitated, the “black belt of meditation” – it can be extremely difficult to deal with the attendant emotions, achieve balance and restore equanimity.  What we are trying to achieve is acceptance of what is, while offering genuine compassion to those who are suffering.  There are so many things that are outside our control that acceptance, along with taking compassionate action where possible, is the way forward.  As mentioned earlier, a “rinse and repeat” process may be required to achieve a consistent level of equanimity.

Allyson Pimentel, another MARC meditation teacher, offers an alternative guided meditation on focusing on the elements of nature to achieve equanimity – calmness can be achieved by connecting with the elements of earth, water,  fire, air and space.   Martin Brensilver, in a different MARC meditation, maintains that equanimity can also be strengthened by widening our perspective, reducing our focus on evaluative thinking (e.g., resorting to absolutes of right and wrong) and intensifying our sensory experience (which increases our groundedness).  Gratitude meditation can also help us to restore our balance and calmness. 

As we grow in mindfulness through alternating compassion and equanimity meditation practice, we can progressively gain emotional regulation, develop a balanced compassion and experience equanimity and the ease of wellness.  We can also find creative ways to provide compassionate action for others who are experiencing pain and suffering.  Meditation and mindfulness practices enable us to access the deep well within ourself to provide strength and support to 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.

Ways to Engage with Nature

In a previous post I explored the benefits of solitude and silence in nature.  Cultivating the practice of being alone in nature can help us to develop self-awareness, patience and self-regulation.  It can be useful for gaining insight into the limitations of our perspective on issues such as personal conflict and can provide clarity and insight by enabling us to access our “inner voice”.  With increased engagement with nature, we can better understand our life purpose and find creative ways to employ our skills and experience for the benefit of others.  But how do you engage effectively with nature to access these benefits?

Ways to engage with nature mindfully

Ruth Allen, in her book How Connection with Nature Can Improve our Mental and Physical Wellbeing, offers multiple suggestions on what we can do to increase the frequency and intensity of our engagement such as:

  • Mindful photography – this had immediate appeal for me because I love taking photos of sunrises and sunsets, rainforests, beaches, and birds that inhabit waterways, such as ducks, pelicans and water wrens.  Adopting a purposeful approach to photographing nature enables us to be fully in the present moment, to notice the detail and attractiveness of what we are trying to capture and to clear the noise and clutter in our head.  Ruth suggests too that we can employ the photographic images as a way to represent our emotions and, in the process, increase our self-awareness.  Ruth’s book is full of illustrations of mindful photography as well as her wisdom about nature and its connectedness that she has developed through personal practice, experience as an adventurer and  her professional endeavours as a geologist and eco-psychotherapist.
  • Gardening – whether you are pottering around in a garden or cultivating plants in pots, you can gain the experience of the smell of the earth, the sight of the different plant species and the touch and texture of both soil and plants.  Developing a herb garden gives an even wider range of aromas, textures and taste.  Gardening gives us access to intense sensual experience covering not only sight, taste, touch, and smell but also the potentiality of listening to birds as they traverse our space or reside in our bird-attracting trees and plants.  Consciously cultivating plants, shrubs and trees that attract birds, bees and butterflies increases our sensory experience of nature in our own yard.  Often nature is literally at our doorstep and we fail to engage effectively with it, just taking it for granted as a backdrop to our busy, noisy lives.  
  • Notice the small things in nature – often the large aspects of nature such as clouds, mountains, sky and oceans capture our focus at the expense of observing the small things in nature.  While the macro aspects of nature are indeed awe-inspiring and give us a sense of expansiveness, the micro level provides its own fascination through its diversity, intricacy and connectedness.  We can observe at the micro level by close observation or by what Ruth calls, “soft fascination”.  Close observation entails focused attention on something micro like a leaf, insect or stone and closely observing its features and marvelling at its distinctiveness whether that be its colours, patterns,, textures, shape or some other feature.  Soft fascination, on the other hand, involves letting our eyes “float” across a section of landscape while allowing our mind “to drift into a state of reflection and introspection”.

Reflection

Engagement with nature brings countless benefits and Ruth draws on the scientific evidence of these in her book, including the work of Stephen and Rachel Kaplan.  There are many ways we can practice this engagement extending from close physical observation to mindful photography.  We just need to form the intention to maximise our engagement with nature to harness these benefits.  We can meditate on nature and as we grow in mindfulness, we can enhance the benefits that accrue. Through mindfulness cultivated by mindful observation of nature and nature meditation, we can develop stillness and silence, attention and concentration, awareness and insight and a deep sense of connectedness and interconnection.

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Image by Hai Nguyen 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.

Understanding and Developing AWE

Jason Silva maintains that whatever we find that is awe-inspiring extends our “perceptual frameworks” , expands our comfort zones and builds compassion and creativity.  When we experience wonder and awe, our “mental maps” are challenged and our mind is expanded to accommodate “land beyond the maps” that we have in our head.  We encounter boundarylessness, mystery, and the majesty of creation.  Through his Shots of Awe video podcasts, he encourages us to move beyond the “banality” and disengagement of our lives, to open to emotional and aesthetic experiences and to awaken to awe. He suggests that, in the final analysis, we have a “responsibility to awe”.  Jason offers ways to understand and develop awe through his free video, Find Your Awe.

Developing awe through nature

Louie Schwartzberg, time-lapse photographer and filmmaker, presented a TEDx Talk that focused on Wonder, awe and the intelligence of natureLouie explains that he often makes the invisible visible through his slow motion photography.  He opens us up to a sense of awe in the light of the ineffable beauty, power and interconnectedness of nature.  He maintains that nature takes us beyond ourself and our limited, self-absorbed focus and develops gratitude, compassion and wellness.  He argues that our sense of awe and wonder is heightened when we develop an intimate relationship with nature.

Louie, through his awe-inspiring, time-lapse photography, brings us visual sources of wonder by capturing the beauty, intricacy, expansiveness and grandeur of nature.  His photography unearths the incredible cooperation and coordination between plants and trees and the mind-boggling cycle of life.   He captures in slowed-motion the pollination of plants by birds, bees and bats; the development and emergence of fruit (such as strawberries); and the incredible internet-like network of fungi beneath the earth (captured in Louie’s film, Fantastic Fungi).   The wonder and awe experienced by people viewing his photography is clearly illustrated on the faces of people seeing his time-lapse photography projected onto St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Developing awe through sound and sight

Louie captures other sources of awe through his Wonder and Awe Podcast.  Some of these podcasts focus on auditory sources of wonder and awe, e.g., the wonderful compositions and singing of Lisbeth Scott; the soaring, healing sounds of violinist Lindsey Stirling; and the productions of Cosmo Sheldrake, musician and composer, who reinforces the “power of sound in nature”.

Rebecca Elson, dedicated poet and astronomer, left a legacy not only of scientific discoveries but also her poems and personal notes/musings captured in her book, A Responsibility to Awe.  One of her poems, Antidotes to Fear of Death, is shared publicly through readings by different people and captured visually by the accompanying deep space photography of Scott Denning.

Louie also interviewed Anna Bjurstam as part of his series of podcasts and explored energy science beyond the immediate realm of visibility.  Anna is a pioneer of wellness through Six Senses Spas of which she is Vice-President. These luxury resorts stimulate the senses through the incredible beauty of nature and experiences that are meaningful, empathetic and enhance well-being.  Anna mentioned her near-death experience which led her to understand “how beautiful, amazing and what a gift this life is”.

Reflection

Jon Kabat-Zinn encourages us to develop wonder and awe through our senses.  His book Coming to Our Senses, e.g., ways to fully enjoy our “tastescape”, “touchscape” or “soundscape”.   He suggests that mindfulness meditation creates the doorway to be consciously in the present moment in a non-judgmental and open way. 

Being curious about what we are experiencing in all its dimensions opens the way to develop wonder and awe in our lives.  As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware, increasingly focused on the present, and more attuned to nature and the world around us.  Jason Silva maintains that we often forgo the present for the future and we need to reverse this tendency if we are to awaken to wonder and awe.

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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.

Playing Canasta: An Analogy for Mindfulness

I was recently playing Canasta with my wife during a trip to Stradbroke Island to attend the Stradbroke Chamber Music Festival (SCMF).  It occurred to me that playing Canasta was an analogy for mindfulness – there were significant aspects of playing Canasta well that reminded me of being mindful.  I don’t want to trivialise mindfulness or overextend the analogy, but there are times when the ordinary seems to assume extraordinary dimensions.  Rachel Joyce captures this phenomenon in her book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – where a walking trip from the south of England to the north becomes a journey into Harold’s “inner landscape”.  It seems to me that to play Canasta well you have to pay attention in the moment and, above all, “play the best game you can with the cards you’re dealt”.

Paying Attention

Paying attention on purpose is fundamental to the development of mindfulness.  It builds concentration, self-awareness, awareness of the other and creative solutions to challenging problems.  In Canasta, you need to pay attention to what is happening in the game, notice the micro-behaviour of the other player(s), observe the choices they make about “taking up” or “putting down”, notice what cards they ignore and what they table.  You also have to be aware of what is going on in your own hand, test out your own assumptions and hypotheses about the other player’s strategy, correct any mistakes you make and “go with the flow” of the game.

Play with the cards you are dealt

According to the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), acceptance is integral to mindfulness – “accepting what is”.  Diana Winston, mindfulness educator with MARC, reminds us that this acceptance entails self-acceptance, breaking the complaining cycle, overcoming disappointments, being in touch with our feelings and keeping things in perspective.

In Canasta, there is no point in complaining about the cards you have been dealt or wishing that your mix of cards were better (e.g., more wild cards and jokers or multiple cards of the same number/rank).  You have to play with the cards you’re dealt and develop strategies to make the most of those cards and the cards you are offered/acquire as the game progresses.  You have to continue to pay attention as the game unfolds because you will begin to see opportunities that were not available or obvious at the start of the game.  And so it is with mindful living.

Reflection

There are many things in life that can be enriched by being mindful – whether it is being in nature, playing tennis, driving your car, listening to music, developing inclusive leadership or just waiting for something to happen.  For example, “killing time” while waiting can become an opportunity to tune your awareness, playing tennis and making mistakes can develop your self-awareness, self-regulation and resilience when played mindfully (and accepting what is!).

As we grow in mindfulness, we can enrich every aspect of our life because mindfulness is a portable state – it is not just grounded in a meditative practice or stance. It shapes who you are and how you respond to life and its many challenges.  It impacts what you see and how you perceive it.  It helps you to develop deep listening in relationships.  Mindfulness can go with you wherever you go but it requires a concerted effort, a commitment to practice and activities that enable you to transition from meditation to living life fully and with purpose.

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

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

Solitude and Silence in Nature – A Pathway to Self-Awareness and Resilience

We can have an approach-avoidance attitude to solitude in nature – being alone in silence away from other people.  It can at first generate fear and tap into all our negative associations with “being alone”.  Solitude is different to loneliness because it involves choice – choosing to be by ourselves or to make the most of being “forced” to be alone.  It involves developing a positive perspective on being alone – seeing it as an opportunity for increased self-awareness and empowerment rather than a deprivation of company.

Ruth Allen, author of Grounded: How Connection with Nature Can Improve our Mental and Physical Wellbeing, maintains that when we are in nature we are never really alone – we are always in the presence of other living things that are around us that we often do not see.  Our natural environment is teeming with life.  When we choose solitude in nature, time away from other people, we can become more connected with nature and every living thing.  We can be more open to the vibrancy and beauty that surrounds us.

Often, we can be fearful of being alone with ourselves – facing up to who we really are (rather than who we project to others).  It means confronting those parts of ourselves that we may not like – it might be our character flaws or personal weaknesses, our past history of unkindness or thoughtlessness or our self-indulgence.  Many of these traits can be hidden away from consciousness because they appear too painful to confront.  The power of solitude in nature is the gift of silence and quiet reflection – time away from the distracting influence of noise and the pollution of expectations (our own and those of other people).

Gaining self-awareness and clarity

Solitude in nature offers us the opportunity to become increasingly self-aware – to understand who we really are and what we are truly capable of.   In his TED Talk, photographer Benjamin Powell argues that solitude in nature gives “our inner voice the opportunity to speak” and reveals our life purpose to us because it unearths our “latent gifts and talents” and cultivates unselfishness.  We can move from being self-absorbed to being absorbed in everything around us.

Often when we are experiencing challenges we say, “I need to go for a walk to clear my head”.  Solitude in nature gives us the opportunity to develop clarity, restore perspective and find creative solutions to issues that are causing us stress.  We can gain insight into our own way of perceiving the issues as well as develop an understanding from other people’s perspective.  Reflection through solitude in nature can help us, for example, to understand residual resentment that we may carry after an interaction (even if that was a long time ago).  It enables us to step back from the noise and clutter of a busy life and self-indulgence in hurt feelings and to find the insight to balance our perspective on the interaction, including understanding how our own sensitivity has contributed to our hurt feelings and appreciating the influences that contributed to the other person’s behaviour.

Strengthening relationships

When we return from solitude in nature, we are in a better place to engage with others, whether partners, family, friends, or colleague.  We can be more self-aware (particularly of our sensitivities and our habituated behavioural patterns), more patient through absorption in the quietness and stillness of nature, more in control of our own emotions and more ready to appreciate others in our life through experiencing gratitude for nature and its freely-given gifts.

Building resilience and self-reliance

When we spend time alone in nature, in stillness and silence, we have to fall back on our resources and resourcefulness.  We have to tap into our inner strength as we explore our “inner landscape” with openness and curiosity.  Meeting this challenge head on builds our capacity to meet the challenges of everyday life and to learn the depth and breadth of our inner strength.  Solitude in nature can provide us with an experience of bliss that flows over into our daily lives and strengthens us when we are confronted by adversity.  We know, too, from experience of solitude that we can seek refuge in nature to restore our groundedness and self-belief.

Reflection

If we have an aversion for solitude in nature, we can explore the feelings we are experiencing to better understand the source of our fear.  It might be that such solitude is a trigger for a traumatic reaction because of prior adverse experiences.  It could be that we are very reluctant to look too closely at our lives and what we have done in the past.  Sometimes, we may need professional support to engage with the challenge of solitude.

Ruth contends that we can train ourselves for solitude in nature and offers activities that we can undertake when alone in nature and ten strategies to employ when planning solitude in nature.  She also cautions against trying to move too fast or too far when we are not used to spending time alone.  Ruth points out, too, that we can progress from a short period to longer periods in solitude as we expand our comfort zone.  She also recommends that we reflect on our solitude experience and learn what natural places are more conducive to wellness for us as well as what is an ideal amount of time for us to spend in nature alone.

As we grow in mindfulness through solitude in nature and the resultant self-reflection, we can grow in self-awareness, self-reliance, and resilience to face the challenges of life.  We can also gain clarity about our life purpose and what we can contribute to helping others achieve wellness.

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Image by Antonio López 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.

Developing Mindfulness and Positive Mental Health in the Digital Age

In the previous post I focused on the challenge of the digital age with respect to developing mindfulness.  This earlier post was stimulated by a presentation of Jon Kabat-Zinn during the Mindfulness & Compassion Week (June 6- 13, 2021).  In his workshop, Jon also mentioned the benefits of the digital age for developing mindfulness and positive mental health, particularly during the time of the pandemic when people were becoming isolated through lockdowns and border closures.

There are many facets of the digital age that facilitate the development of mindfulness and positive mental health – the growth of global online, mindfulness conferences and seminars, access to online meditations, digital music and nature imagery, e-groups, and podcasts.   Many of these aspects have been enhanced by the emergence of streaming platforms and flexible technologies such as Google Chromecast and Bose portable speakers. 

Global online mindfulness conferences

The emergence of sophisticated web conferencing has enabled the growth in global, online mindfulness conferences, and the Nature Summit is just one example of this.  In this web conference, conducted from May 11-17 2021, more than 30 world experts discussed ways to connect with nature, access its wonder and wisdom and develop improved mental health and mindfulness.  The Science & Wisdom of Emotions Summit highlighted ways to cultivate mindfulness to gain an understanding of our emotions, deal with emotions in daily living and develop self-regulation to effectively channel our emotional energy. 

Online Meditations

During the pandemic, we saw increased access to online meditations, often conducted on a global basis.  The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), for example, converted their weekly, face-to-face guided meditations to the Zoom platform to enable global online participation.  Often, lifetime access to digital meditations were also provided for paid subscribers of web conference resources which included videos, audios, and transcripts.  Many organisations now provide online meditations and some, such as Headspace, provide guided meditations via an app. 

Emergence of e-groups

Some organisations providing mental health services via face-to-face meetings had to develop e-groups – moving their group support services online via platforms such as Zoom.  One such organisation is GROW which provides supported, peer-led groups for people experiencing mental illness (Growers).  This organisation was able to transition their face-to-face meetings to eGROW Groups enabling online access nationally as well as on a State/regional basis.

Access to digital music and nature imagery

Developing mindfulness and healing through music and nature imagery has been facilitated by the emergence of online media such as that provided by Louie Schwartzberg’s Moving Art website.  His films and photography are enhanced by his Wonder and Awe podcast series.   Digital music platforms such as Spotify have provided ready access to a world of different genres of music and podcasts, some incorporating guided meditations and mantra meditations.  YouTube enhances access to mantra meditations by enabling visual imagery to support the meditative singing as in Lulu & Mischka’s Stillness in Motion video.

Another aspect of connection through music in the digital age is the growth of virtual choirs and the associated logistical, singing, and instrumental collaboration on a global and local scale.  On a global level, for example, 300 people from 15 countries participated in the singing/ orchestration of the highly pertinent song You’ll Never Walk Alone.  In another example,  people from 50 countries combined to sing Amazing Grace in their own language.  On a local level, the Morningsong community choir was able to provide warm-ups, practice pieces and group online singing during pandemic lockdowns.  YouTube provides access to multiple virtual choirs.

Reflection

Digital media has provided the means to connect with each other and with nature at a time when people are physically isolated.  The spin-off from the periods of lockdowns and border closures is that many people have come to appreciate more what they have in life, to savour their access to nature and increase their motivation to improve their physical and mental health. 

There are now increased mechanisms and avenues available to develop our mindfulness practice through the growth in digital media and flexibility of access.  It is important to savour and utilise these facilities to enrich our mindfulness practice and enhance positive mental health.

As we grow in mindfulness with the aid of digital media, we can increase our self-awareness and connection with others, develop gratitude and creativity and build the resilience and compassion we need to manage effectively in difficult times.

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Image by Inga Klas 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.

The Challenge of Mindfulness in the Digital Age

Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness teacher and creator of MBSR, recently presented a workshop during the Mindfulness & Compassion Week (June 6- 13, 2021).  Jon’s focus was on mindfulness in the digital age. He addressed both the downside and upside of digitisation and noted particularly the benefits accrued through online communication during pandemic-related lockdowns.  In this post, I want to focus on the downside of the digital age – the challenge it poses to our ability to pay attention on purpose , non-judgmentally, in the present moment.

Jon was especially concerned about the manipulation of our minds and attention through social media and other online communication channels.  He drew on the work of the Centre for Humane Technology to explore both the human costs of the digital age.  He strongly encouraged exploration of this website and its podcasts along with the film, The Social Dilemma, which he suggested should be viewed multiple times. 

The downside of the digital age – the loss of attention, consciousness, and awareness

Jon maintained that in the digital world it has become hard to discriminate between what is true and what is false, between what is fact and what is myth.  He argued that we have “lost agency” and levels of decision making through social media and related digital technologies and the embedded “surveillance capitalism”.  The language we encounter is manipulative and “propels us out of the moment” – we lose our grounding in the present moment.  We are told that a video is “a must watch”, we are warned that we will “miss out” if we do not take a particular action and we are enticed to act to gain “rewards”, some of which are spurious.  Jon points out that the incessant barrage of information/misinformation and constant attempt to capture our attention leads to dysregulation in our life, adversely affecting our breathing, eating and sleep.

He argued that the greatest need for humanity today is to address the “loss of awareness” – the lack of consciousness that we are losing control over our minds, destroying our environment, and wrecking the lives of people through perpetual, disruptive advertising that attempts to capture our attention and steel our focus.  He encouraged us to increase our awareness of the impacts of the digital age so that we can live our life more fully in the present moment and not be caught up in the mainstream culture of acquisition (vs savouring), of form (vs substance), of envy (vs gratitude), and of self-absorption (vs compassion).

Our diverted attention

The Centre for Humane Technology works tirelessly to help us to develop the awareness of the downside of the digital age, especially through their insightful podcast series, Your Undivided Attention.  One example of this powerful message is the podcast, When Attention Went on Sale, which features an interview with Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads.

Tim maintained that the “commodification of our attention” actually began with the introduction of ad-supported newspapers.  The readers became the product, the focus shifted from a dissemination of the “truth model” to that of the “attention model” and we became the “puppets” of attention-grabbing advertising and media.  The content focus shifted to what shocks (death and violence), what titillates (sexualisation) and what raises curiosity (misleading headings).  The media exploited emotions of fear, scepticism, greed, and envy.   Early on, advertising posters with the work of famous artists were deployed throughout Paris as a means to invade people’s attention.  They were eventually removed when Parisians complained that they invaded their attention and were a blight on the landscape.

Commercial interests now drive the competition for our attention and television offers “precise marketing” through creating an “emotional resonance” with the viewer, heightened by the visual medium.  Human attention is being harvested in the pursuit of “economic and attention power” – attention gained by TV stations leads to higher ratings which leads to more advertising and revenue.  Wu describes this process as the “harvesting of human consciousness” in an environment that is scarily unrestrained and unregulated.  We can observe the resultant imbalance in information dissemination when we notice that a TV Program designed to provide an “alternative perspective” on the news of the day devotes more time to advertisements (reinforcing mainstream culture) than to alternative commentary during a one-hour program.  Viewers of ad-driven TV stations often engage in “channel surfing” to evade ads but this leads to what Jon calls “fragmented attention”.

Our attention is up for sale through Google ads where buyers of ad exposure in search results actually bid for the right to appear higher in the listed results.  While quality (relevance, originality, and depth of content) is an espoused determinant of ranking, price plays a major role and advertisers are encouraged to “outbid” each other for our attention. 

Social media has had a significant impact on attention distraction and distortion.  This has accelerated with the emergence of “selfies” (obsession with self over being present to the moment and location), the commodification of bodies (via private membership of TikTok for example), and “follower ads” on LinkedIn and other online advertising media.  The concept of “friends” (as per Facebook) has moved from “a bond of mutual affection” to that of a relatively disinterested follower and “friends” are purchased via online marketing organisations to boost one’s social presence. Positive product reviews by friends are harvested to build Google rankings – companies even pursue us relentlessly to gain our “review” (even when they have misled us about a product offering).

The game is all about grabbing “eyes on the page” (and Google, for example, measures pages visited, time spent on a page, and percentage of people who view only the “landing page” as they “surf”).  There is now software available to track your eyes as they view a webpage (with eye movement displayed via a heatmap).  We are becoming conditioned to providing those “eyes on the page” – “pop-ups” encourage us to register for continuous information/ad exposure and whenever we have to spend time waiting, our default action is to reach, unthinkingly, for our mobile phone.

The concept of “social influencers” has emerged to identify influential people who have the power to affect our buying decisions and who work in collaboration with brands who use their influence to persuade us to make purchases.  The source of the influencer’s power (e.g., celebrity status, expertise, sexual appeal) and the relative extent of their power (how many followers) is variable.  In consequence, influencers are viewed by brands as “social relationship assets” of variable worth.

Mobile phones are increasingly part of everyday life for people enabling constant access to the Internet, social media and to disruptive “notifications”.   Some people become obsessed with “keeping up-to-date” via social media and constantly access their phones (even sleep with them).  Others feast on the news with all its inherent biases, selective reporting and tailored reinforcement of the receiver’s views, perspectives, and politics. 

Supermarkets employ email-based rewards systems built around receipt scanning and identification of individuals’ typical shopping  basket.  They also attempt to widen purchasing choices by introducing bonus-boosted products not normally purchased by an individual.   Buyers can be “led” to purchase products they do not need or want.  The rewards system works on the principle of intermittent reinforcement employed by gambling machines where ongoing “jackpots” are given to entice the gambler to continue spending.

In summary, in a digital world there are so many mechanisms at play to capture our attention and multiple drivers such as profit, profile enhancement and social influence to sustain these constant, concerted efforts to distract us and divert our attention. This makes it increasingly difficult to be mindful in our everyday life unless we take conscious steps to develop mindfulness to counteract the adverse impact of these online media.

Reflection

Jon also discussed the many benefits of the digital age and this will be the subject of a subsequent post.  Whether we accrue these benefits or suffer the adverse effects of the digital age, comes down to our own choices and behaviour.

Jon emphasised the need to be very aware of the impact of digitisation on our behaviour.  He suggested, for instance, that we should be particularly mindful of our mobile phone use and its potential adverse effects on our quality of life and our relationships.

Jon maintained that the discipline of daily mindfulness meditation can flow over into every aspect of our lives including our use of digital media.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop increased self-awareness,  improved self-regulation, and enhanced insight into the adverse impacts of our own behaviour with respect to digital media.

Self-reflection on our use of digital media and its impacts on our relationships, on our level of personal stress and on our ability to concentrate and be productive, can provide the impetus for behaviour change.  The following reflective questions could serve as a starting point:

  • To what extent is your focus on social media reducing your span of attention?
  • How often is access to your mobile phone your default behaviour when you have to spend time waiting?
  • How often are you distracted by social media when in conversation with an individual or a group?
  • To what extent does social media determine the content of your conversations, e.g., how often do you share rumours, myths, scandals, and what “celebrities” are doing?
  • How much do you rely on social influencers for your purchase decisions?
  • To what extent does the time you spend on social media limit your time spent in nature, experiencing its numerous benefits?
  • Does your social media presence contribute to the quality of life of other people?

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Image by wei zhu 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.

Widening and Deepening Our Perspective on Nature

Louis Schwartzberg, in his presentation for the Nature Summit, reminded us that each of us has a unique perspective on nature shaped by our childhood experiences, our environmental influences and our culture.  In referring to his grandchildren, Louie argued that they viewed nature with “their eyes wide open”.  They asked basic, taken-for-granted questions like, “What is air?”, “What is water?”  I recall my very young granddaughter sitting on rocky ground in a parkland area studying the lizards and bugs around her in minute detail.  She spent an hour in her observations while the rest of us played tennis on a cement strip nearby.

Louie suggests that we need to develop our own “pathways of exploration” to widen and deepen our perspective on nature.  This pursuit taken with wide-eyed curiosity will open the world of wonder and awe that is readily available to us.  Louie’s macro, micro and time-lapse photography expands our visual capacity when viewing nature.  He not only accentuates the expansiveness of nature, makes visible the unseen but also contracts time by taking us on a “journey of time and space”.  His film, Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath our Feet, takes us underground to explore the internet-like network of Mycelium that lie beneath the mushrooms that are visible to our naked eye.  We are guided on this journey by Louie and world-famous mycologist, Paul Stamets, along with other highly informed commentators.

Louie maintains that the perspective of white Caucasians on nature is very different to that of indigenous people who grew up in an environment conscious of nature’s interconnectedness and educated to understand, respect and value nature.

An indigenous artist’s perspective on nature

In her presentation for the Nature Summit, Seeing Through the Lens of an Artist, Camille Seaman explained that very early in life she was taught that “we are connected to everything, that everything has a life force”.  Camille is an indigenous photographer who “focuses on fragile environments, extreme weather, and stark beauty of the natural world” with the purpose of demonstrating that humans and nature are not separate.  Her photography  is a call to understand and value our connectedness to nature and to take “ responsible action” to restore and preserve our increasingly fragile ecosystems.   Camille has specialised in polar photography and has provided several TED Talks on topics such as The Last Iceberg.

Camille explained that in her early childhood, her Grandfather taught her so much about an indigenous perspective on nature, on connectedness and on respect.  He would reverently refer to trees as relatives and would introduce her to each of the trees in the woods while she placed her hands on the tree.   When Camille would unnecessarily break branches from trees he would say to her, “If you think you are separate from the trees, see how long you can hold your breath”.   He highlighted the fact that you “cannot harm it [the tree] without harming yourself”.

Camille spoke of the interconnectedness of nature in many ways. For example, she indicated that clouds bring rain which provide water for plants which, in turn, feed animals.  She maintained that storms give new life and energy to the ground and help us to appreciate that all life is transitory.  She tells her own life story and development as a bi-polar photographer covering Antarctica and Artic Poles in a TED Talk titled, Connection and Purpose: Tales of a Polar Photographer.

In her Nature Summit presentation, Camille emphasised the need to spend time in stillness and silence before taking a nature photograph so that you can be truly immersed in whatever you are viewing and bring a new perspective to what you are seeing.  She maintains that stillness in nature enables you to dissolve “the veil of separateness”.   She stated that amazing synchronies can occur in this stillness, e.g., animals may come out from their hiding place.  Intriguingly, not long after I was listening to her presentation, I was in the backyard weeding our rock garden when two birds flew down and sat beside me – a mother and her young bird.  They started singing and responded when I (hoarsely) attempted to whistle in return.

Reflection

Nature is all around us and in constant motion and transition – most of which we are totally unaware of.  Photographers like Louie and Camille bring this movement and change to life so that we can see things that we would not normally notice, experience emotions often hidden from us and value our connectedness with nature.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can expand and deepen our perspective on nature and value our connectedness, leading to wise and purposeful action to preserve it.

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Image by Andrea Spallanzani 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.

Developing a Relationship with Nature

Louie Schwartzberg reminds us that nature is a source of wonder (exploring and admiring) and awe (questioning the “how”).  In his view, nature effectively represents the intersection between art and science.  Art explores the “why” and generates admiration and inspiration through demonstrating the interconnectedness of everything and exposing nature’s beauty, even in the mundane; science, on the other hand,  encourages questioning with curiosity and openness while exploring the “how”, e.g., how do nectar feeding bats pollinate cacti and create milk to feed their young?

It is particularly apt then, that Louie’s podcast is titled Wonder and Awe which explores the intersection between  art and science through interviews with musicians such as Lisbeth Scott and scientists like mycologist William Padilla Brown.   There is so much of nature that is unknown and invisible to us and these artists and scientists along with Louie’s time-lapse photography help us to deepen our relationship with nature.

Developing an intimate relationship with nature

uie offered his perspective on the need for an intimate relationship with nature during his presentation, True Romance: Falling in Love with Nature, at the recent Nature Summit.  He highlighted the fact that the pandemic has created a “mental wellness barrier” for a lot of people and that nature has a healing quality.  He is now creating digital nature imagery for use in hospitals as a healing modality.  This “visual healing” has been scientifically proven to achieve “shorter length of stay in hospital, increased pain tolerance and decreased anxiety”

The pandemic has created opportunities for people to appreciate what they normally take for granted – the ability to go for a walk in nature, to connect with friends and family, to spend time alone away from the “madding crowd” and associated noise.  It has helped us to be more introspective and value what we have, as so much and so many have been lost.

Louie maintains that if we can develop an intimate relationship with nature through frequent mindful visits to natural environments and personal research (including videos, podcasts and articles), we can begin to care about the sustainability of our planet.  He pointed out that while a lot of scientific research has helped us understand the threats to our natural environment, the wealth of data has failed to achieve any appreciable shift in people’s behaviour in relation to nature’s fragility. 

He points out that our capacity to view nature is considerably limited  – effectively we are able to view the equivalent of one octave of an eight-octave scale.  Through his photography he makes so much more of the beauty of nature visible to us  – by filming at 1,000 frames per second he can enable us to see something that happens in one third of a second, actually 15 times longer.  Hence, he helps us to “explore beyond the one octave”.

Louie contends that the heart has greater influence over behaviour than the head – when our relationship with nature is one of loving and appreciating it, we are more inclined to engage in caring behaviour towards it.  We will be more careful about our paper use (because of its impact on trees), we will avoid plastic bags as much as possible (because of the impact on our oceans and marine life), we will plant a vegetable garden (because it provides us with a closeness to nature and fresh, uncontaminated food).

Reflection

There is so much to learn about nature and our interconnectedness with it – it is a lifetime pursuit.  We can grow in mindfulness as we spend more time in and with nature and adopt nature meditations.  Another way into building our relationship with nature is participating in mantra meditations that incorporate wonder and awe of nature such as Lulu & Mischka’s “Stillness in Motion” filmed with the whales in Byron Bay, Queensland.

Artist, David Hockney, reminds us:

The world is very, very beautiful, but you’ve got to look hard and closely to notice that beauty.

(Source: The Art of Living, Martin Gayford, The Weekend Australian, pgs. 10-12)

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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.