Building Resilience One Step at a Time

We all experience adversity and setbacks – it is how we deal with them that shapes who we are and what we are capable of.  Sometimes the setback is so great that it throws us completely off balance – at other times, it involves a minor and temporary dislocation.  Shelly Tygielski, in her course The Power of Showing Up, talks about how she was completely derailed by a painful divorce that left her as a single mother trying to raise her young son.   She found that she was unable to meditate or focus on anything because of her mental and emotional disorientation.

Eventually, Shelly through persistence with meditation (however dissatisfying because of her incessant distractions) was able to restore her balance and rebuild her resilience one step at a time.  She achieved this, in part, by “chunking” tasks to manage the challenges she faced with her endless “to-do lists”.   The determinant of the priority of her tasks was the degree to which they served her life purpose.

In her course, Shelly helps us to identify our thought patterns, emotional responses and habituated behaviours.  She provides ways to “deconstruct” ourselves and, in turn, “reconstruct” our sense of who we are.  The processes, including journalling, help us to break free of the ties that bind us and better align with our life purpose.  Releasing the hold of perfectionism, fear and expectations enables us to achieve personal integration and access our innate creative and fearless nature.

Shelly demonstrates through her own life history, experiencing traumas and multiple setbacks, that we can emerge with renewed strength, a laser-focus on our life purpose and the resilience to overcome whatever life’s turbulence throws our way.  Tina Turner, too, demonstrated a similar resilience through drawing on the power of meditation and chanting.

The road ahead involves taking one step at a time, confident in the hope that the journey provides its own rewards in terms of self-awareness, emotional regulation and achievement in line with our life purpose.  We can get ahead of ourselves too easily, expecting too much too soon – negative thoughts, such as “I should be further down the track” or “this process is taking too long”, will only hold us back.  We have to maintain our focus on the end goal – through mindfulness practices such as meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, chanting or journalling.

Chelsea Handler, in the Foreword to Shelly’s book, Sit Down to Rise Up, recounts the story of meeting Shelly backstage at a Wisdom 2.0 Conference.  Chelsea was immediately drawn to Shelly’s “vibrance” and to the fact that she was witnessing “someone who lives their life in purpose”.  Shelly subsequently invited Chelsea to join her at a meditation retreat for survivors of gun violence and family members who lost someone through such violence.  Chelsea immediately experienced negative thoughts about her own adequacy to participate in such an emotionally charged event.   Shelly assured her that she is “good enough” and has “personal agency” – messages she reiterates strongly in her book and her online course.   Chelsea participated in the retreat and learned a valuable lesson about dealing with people who were experiencing trauma and grief – “sitting and listening to people’s stories is sometimes all that is needed”.

Reflection

I was very recently thrown off balance by the fact that my three-year old car broke down. It lost power and displayed multiple malfunction messages relating to the engine, the transmission and the high level safety features.  This was particularly disconcerting and that meant that all the things that I had planned for the day were not possible, e.g. collecting a book from the library, dropping off clothes for dry cleaning, buying fresh seafood for dinner and purchasing other foods from a supermarket.  While this was a minor setback (that proved costly), I was blindsided by the fact that it left me so unbalanced.  However, I resorted to Tai Chi and persisted, despite feeling very unfocused and distracted by lots of thoughts and anxiety.  This proved to be the one step I needed to restore my balance and help me to refocus on my tasks and my writing. 

As we grow in mindfulness through practices such as Tai Chi and journalling, we can realign with our life purpose, restore our balance and build our resilience one step at a time (through one setback at a time).  It may take a short time or years (as in one of Shelly’s many setbacks) to restore our balance and alignment, but we need to persist in this process of metamorphosis.

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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.

Showing Up for Community Care

Shelly Tygielski is an advocate for translating mindfulness practices and related self-care approaches into community action.  Shelly herself epitomizes this translation, being a trauma counsellor for surviving victims of mass shootings in the US and for refugees from Ukraine in Poland.  She advocates strongly for both self-care and community care and argues that you cannot do the latter without the support of the former, otherwise you will suffer “compassion fatigue” and burnout.

Shelly sees meditation and other mindfulness practices as central to self-care.  She is a meditation teacher and herself practices meditation and what she calls “micro-practices”.   These are brief mindfulness practices that can be employed by anybody throughout the day, particularly at times when you are time-poor and feeling stressed, distressed or anxious.  

Shelly indicates that these micro-practices can be linked to some action you already undertake during the day, e.g. she employs the yogic technique of 4-7-8 breathing  when washing her hands.  This involves breathing in through the nose for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds and breathing out through the mouth for eight seconds (there are various combinations of these breathing processes, but basically the outbreath is longer than the in-breath or holding your breath).  This breathing practice can be used when waiting for traffic lights or waiting for the jug to boil or food to cook on the stove.  Richard Wolf in his book, In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness, offers alternative breathing practices that are linked to the different times in music, e.g. ¾ time.  He also offers deep listening approaches that can be employed as micro-practices.

How to show up for community care

Shelly provides the answer to this question in her new 10-day online course, The Power of Showing Up.  I recently purchased this course and I am very impressed with the way she has structured the course to literally “take you by the hand” and lead you to self-empowerment and the capacity to undertake community care.  She is not only a very inspirational speaker but totally transparent, sharing her own struggles and ways she overcame them.  It is not as if she immediately fell into the practice of community care.  She herself had to overcome the scars of being kidnapped at the age of two and inheriting “intergenerational trauma”.  

Shelly provides support for developing our inner landscape and overcoming negative thoughts such as “I am not good enough” or “I don’t know enough” or “I feel like an impostor” (“impostor syndrome”).  She strongly encourages us to overcome these obstacles (that she herself has experienced and overcome) and offers knowledge and pathways to develop a community of care – epitomized by her own creation, Pandemic of Love, which has matched the needs of 2 million people with other people who can provide concrete help and support.

Shelly’s course offers ways to help others in need so that they feel valued and appreciated.  In the process, she helps us to understand our own inner world and what is holding us back.  She offers a way to live a more meaningful life, aligned to our values and utilising our core knowledge and skills for community care. 

Reflection

I was very inspired by Shelly’s presentation at the Self-Care Summit and since then have joined a community of care, ExtendaTouch (Caregivers Supporting Caregivers).  I joined this community after receiving an invitation following publication of my blog post, Conscious Aging: Reframing for Health and Happiness.  

As I participate in Shelly’s course, I am working on developing an online Community of Care that will involve people sharing their mindfulness practices, approaches to self-care and strategies for overcoming daily challenges.  I hope to progress this community to a stage where we share our “self-care plan” and hold each other accountable for its implementation and ongoing refinement.  As we grow in mindfulness together, we will be able to develop the necessary self-awareness, courage and creativity to overcome our life challenges and help others (in our online community and elsewhere) to do so.

Shelly also provides added inspiration and insight in her book,  Sit Down to Rise Up: How Radical Self-Care Can Change the 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.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Managing Fear and Anxiety through Mindfulness Meditation

Diana Winston, Director of the Mindfulness Education Division in UCLA, provides a guided meditation podcast on the use of mindfulness to manage fear and anxiety.  She suggests that our fears can be real (e.g. a physical threat) or imagined (e.g. anxiety about some perceived future scenario which may never happen).  Fear is focused on perceptions about the present moment whereas anxiety tends to be longer term and related to imagined adverse futures in whatever form they may take.

We can be fearful about the risk of contracting the Coronavirus, COVID19, and experiencing the associated debilitating effects of this pandemic.  We might also be putting off our meaningful work because of unfounded rationalisations about what might go wrong.  We might have found that a generalised state of anxiety has disabled us and  that our fear response has blocked us from our creativity and capacity to perform at a competent level.  Our fear response can be manifested behaviourally as fight, flight or freeze.

In the guided meditation, Diana offers a four stage meditation process to address whatever form our fear or anxiety takes.  She maintains that a mindfulness approach can not only increase self-awareness and regulation of our emotions but also enable us to restore our centredness and strengthen our wellbeing and the associated ease.

The four-stage approach to managing fear and anxiety through mindfulness meditation

Diana’s four stage approach incorporates becoming physically grounded, exploring what is happening in the moment, accessing the “wisdom mind” and extending loving kindness towards yourself.  The processes in each of the four stages can be summarised as follows:

  • Stage 1 – This involves establishing a sense of physical groundedness by feeling your feet on the floor and experiencing the solidity, physical support and stability beneath you.  The associated feelings can be strengthened by picturing the solid earth beneath, no matter how much your are above ground level at the time of the meditation. ‘
  • Stage 2 – Here you are encouraged to face the fear in its various manifestations – bodily sensations, racing mind and unsettling feelings.  The core question is, What does fear feel like?  Do you experience increase heart rate, sweating, headache or a “clenched stomach”.  What thoughts are generating your fear and/or anxiety and what negative thoughts and worldview are you adopting?  What is happening for you emotionally, e.g. crying, withdrawing, being angry and/or aggressive or experiencing inertia?
  • Stage 3 – Once you achieve a degree of calmness, you can seek to access your “wisdom mind” which deserts you when you are in turmoil.  Mindfulness can provide a pathway to wisdom and open the door to our intuition and creativity.  Sharon Salzberg  maintains that meditation can stimulate our innate wisdom through recognition of agency, appreciating moments of joy and richness, identifying boundaries of control, strengthening our sense of connectedness (replacing a sense of aloneness) and assisting us to deal effectively with difficult thoughts and emotions.
  • Stage 4 – Here you are encouraged to tap into loving kindness towards yourself – providing understanding, a non-judgmental stance and reassurance. You can extend towards yourself the same thoughtfulness, forgiveness and generosity that you show towards others in need. 

Reflection

If we are anxious, we may need to explore a range of regular practices to restore balance in our life.   Judson Brewer, in his book Unwinding Anxiety, maintains that mindfulness does not stop anxious thoughts or change them but “changes our relationship to those thoughts and emotions”.  He offers a “mindfulness personality quiz” to help you identify your behavioural patterns and provides ways to “train your brain to heal your mind”.

Meditation and other mindfulness practices such as chanting help us to reframe our life and overcome adversity by developing insight and resilience.   As we grow in mindfulness, we can deepen our self-awareness, regain control over our thoughts and emotions and build the resilience required to live in these challenging times.

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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.

Supporting Recovery – Peer to Peer Support for Mental Illness

Increasingly, there is recognition that peer to peer support for people experiencing mental health issues is an important catalyst for recovery.  The support can be provided as a stand-alone service or as an adjunct to traditional mental health support services provided by doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists. Fundamentally, the approach involves people with lived experience of recovery from mental ill-health (or as a carer of someone in recovery) providing structured, support services for others who are experiencing varying levels of mental illness.

Professor Phyllis Solomon suggests that the dynamics underpinning the effectiveness of peer to peer support for mental health include the perceived value of experiential learning of the peer worker, the recognition by the program participant that they have something in common with the peer worker, inspiration and hope afforded by the recovery status of the peer worker, and the sense of mutual sharing and accrued benefits. 

Phyllis cautions, however, that there are several key factors that are critical to the success of a peer to peer support system for mental health.  These encompass ensuring inclusiveness, accessibility, and cultural representativeness; embedding an experiential learning approach; highlighting mutuality (benefit for both participant and peer worker); maintaining the voluntary nature of the service while enabling control by participants who are experiencing mental health disorders; and focusing on social support while providing professional support for the peer worker to ensure their stability and ongoing recovery.

The Queensland Department of Health in discussing their Mental Health Framework and attendant mechanisms for supporting peer workers, propose a set of underpinning values that align with Phyllis’ research and writing.  These include mutuality and personal responsibility, valuing the expertise of lived experience, facilitating self-determination and connection, and behaving authentically and transparently. 

The Framework highlights the support mechanisms required to ensure that peers workers can operate effectively and in a way that does not damage their own mental health.  These support mechanism for peer workers include quality supervision (incorporating professional supervision), education and training in core competencies and “navigating boundaries”, role clarity and clear reporting arrangements, and a career structure conducive to continued growth and personal advancement.

The GROW organisation

The GROW organisation is community-based and offers peer to peer support to enable participants (Growers) to overcome mental ill-health and achieve personal development.  GROW was started in Sydney, Australia, in 1957 by Con Keogh who drew on the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) approach and program to develop the core 12-step Grow Program. 

The Grow journey is illustrated diagrammatically by Grow Ireland along with video interviews with people in recovery who each talk passionately and appreciatively about the relevance of one of the 12 steps to their personal recovery.   

The core Program provides the structure and method for Grow Group meetings which are at the heart of the Program.  GROW itself is non-denominational and inclusive and embeds the values for peer workers discussed above (Queensland Health Framework).  The organisation has provided peer support for people with mental health issues for more than 60 years – sustainability that can be attributed to the focus on recovery and pursuit of the key success factors identified by Professor Solomon and, in particular, emphasis on volunteering for the group leadership roles of Organiser and Recorder which place control in the hands of the Growers.  GROW has a track record of personal recovery by thousands of people who have participated in the Grow Program locally and  internationally.

A key catalyst for the Program’s sustainability is the testimonies of recovery of participants, including the podcast interview with Dave McLoughlin who, at the time of the interview, was a Senior Manager in GROW Australia.  Dave stated in the interview that when he was ill he identified with the shared testimonials and was encouraged to join a Grow group early on in his illness because he thought that the Grow community “understood where I’d been and what I needed to do to get well”.  His story is inspiring others, just as he was inspired by the recovery story of people who participated in the Grow Program before him.

GROW offers a range of programs in addition to the core one, including the free Growing Resilience online program and Get Growing for school-aged participants.  Grow also provides online groups for the core Program, known as eGrow, for people who cannot attend the normal face-to-face meetings.

The emphasis on people with lived experience of mental ill-health sharing their experience and their steps to recovery is epitomised by Con Keogh, co-founder of GROW,  when he talked humorously and insightfully about his experience with mental ill-health and the institutionalised medical response he experienced in the 1950’s (which included electric shock treatment that blocked memory and learning).  He decided to attend an AA meeting through the encouragement of a friend and found that the people attending the meeting were incredibly helpful, frank, humble and able to achieve recovery despite their “messed-up lives”.  He discovered that the AA process was incredibly powerful for helping him move towards recovery from his mental illness, even though he was not an alcoholic.

Con’s experience with AA inspired him to form a specialised group meeting along similar lines but devoted to recovery for people who were experiencing mental ill-health in all its complexity and variability – he actually initially called them Recovery Meetings to keep the focus on what they were about.  He also introduced a system of reflection and recording on a monthly basis to capture the learning from the group meetings.  Con’s contribution to GROW which itself grew to 800 groups in 5 countries by 2005 was acknowledged in 2004 through the award of the Medal of the Order of Australia for his community contribution

Reflection

We are all growers in terms of our journey to wellness – seeking to overcome the mental stress of the pandemic, adverse childhood experiences, trauma, divorce, grief, work loss and disappointment, family conflict, abuse and bullying, loneliness, aging, physical ill-health, drug and alcohol addiction, isolation, financial difficulties or homelessness .  Our individual journeys with their distinctive combination of challenges are unique and this uniqueness is captured by Evonne Madden who shares the grief journey and recovery of more than 60 people in her book, Life After.

Con’s experience and that of thousands of Growers working through the Grow Program, confirms the recovery effectiveness of “mutual help for the mentally ill”.  The recorded testimonials reinforce the view that mutual help and reflection is one pathway for people suffering ill-health to grow in mindfulness through increased self-awareness and insight, enhanced consciousness of the impact of their behaviour on themselves and others, creative strategies to overcome negative thoughts, and increased capacity for self-regulation.  Grow groups, or their equivalent, can act as a mirror to stimulate awareness, cultivate hope and transform self-image.

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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.

Finding Silence Amid Digital Noise and Overload

I have previously discussed the barriers to achieving silence in this busy world including the discomfort of others and internal barriers such as self-doubts and negative messages.  Christine Jackman, author of Turning Down the Noise, acknowledges that even as she wrote this book, she was beset with self-doubts including, “Who will read this?” Christine reminds us that it is not only internal noise that we have to deal with but also digital noise that causes overload, both mental and emotional.  “Information overload” has become vey much a part of our language as we struggle to handle the endless flood of information from social media, TV, and email.  However, as Christine points out, the real toll of overload is on the emotional level.

The emotional toll of digital noise and overload

The social media giants such as Facebook, Apple and Twitter aim to distract us by drawing our attention away to something they want us to spend time on or purchase.  Christine cites research that shows the effect of headline grabbing by Facebook and Twitter – identifying what particular headlines are best able to grab our attention and induce us to click through to the article or message.  These headlines use emotive words to capture our attention, employ high profile people, promote conflict, and engage “polarising emotions”.   The negative emotional impact of digital noise  is compounded by cyberbullying and trolling

Research into the negative impact of digital noise, intensified by the advent of the smartphone, demonstrates that the associated noise pollution results in decline of cognitive abilities, increase in sleep disturbance and development of mental health issues such as anxiety, disconnection, loneliness, and depression.  In stark contrast, Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman, in their book, Altered Traits, have demonstrated that the stillness and silence embedded in mindfulness meditation results in four positive outcomes, (1) increased concentration and focus, (2) improved self-regulation in the face of stress, (3) heightened self-awareness and (4) increased empathy and compassion.  The latter outcome is enhanced considerably by specific loving-kindness meditation

The need for supportive lifestyle changes

Christine explored mindfulness meditation as a way to quiet the mind and “counter the toxic effects of digital noise and overload”.  She decided to practice meditation for 30 minutes each day, split into two 15-minute sessions – one in the morning (when I find it best to meditate) and the other in the night before going to bed.  This level of committed mindfulness practice is sustainable in a  busy life and the evening session can prove to be an antidote to sleeplessness. 

Mindfulness practice needs to be supplemented by supportive lifestyle changes.  Christine chose to remove social media apps from her phone and introduced a range of other changes, some of which are discussed in her “Silence: A How-to Guide” at the end of her book.  She still had to deal with the negative chatter from her “Monkey Mind” when she was experiencing tiredness or boredom or feeling threatened.  However, she found that through her mindfulness practice she had quietened digital noise and overload and was better able to recognise the “noise” from her Monkey Mind as well as disarm the resultant self-doubts.

Reflection

Mindfulness practice, including meditation, can help us to maintain our stillness and equilibrium in the face of digital noise, overload, and the resultant stress.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop increased self-awareness and self-acceptance and more readily deal with our negative thoughts.  Associated with that is increase in the capacity to reduce our reactivity to negative triggers and to take wise action.  However, mindfulness practice needs to be supported by other compatible lifestyle changes which reciprocally are enabled by quieting the mind.

It is interesting that even in times of success, we can be assailed by negative thoughts that can impact our self-esteem and derail us from our life purpose.  Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the highly successful book Eat, Pray, Love, explains this dynamic in her TED Talk, Success, failure and the drive to keep creating.  Elizabeth suggests that the route to equilibrium is “to find your way home again” – and meditation can help us on this journey to “whatever it is that we love beyond ourselves” and to which we can dedicate our energies with “singular devotion”, our life purpose.  She explains in another talk that our current work-from-home situations created by the pandemic represent a great opportunity to confront our fears and use reflection, meditation, and mindfulness practices to develop self-awareness and self-regulation.

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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.

Self-acceptance and Overcoming Negative Thoughts

Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Professor Steven Hayes co-founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  In the interview podcast, Steven focused on Self-Acceptance and Perspective-Taking.  Fundamental to the ACT approach is the capacity to “step Back” from the inner critic, notice the negative thoughts that are being generated and listening to those thoughts with a sense of curiosity to understand what is going on.  It involves being vulnerable to, rather than hiding away from, the hurt entailed in negative self-evaluation.  Added to this facing up to the inner critic are defusion techniques, such as perspective-taking, designed to create distance from the thoughts by seeing that they are not facts, only “streams of words” or momentary sensations.

Acceptance of thoughts and sensations

Steven explains that “acceptance” in the context of ACT involves acknowledging these negative thoughts as a gift to be explored, not something to be accepted passively or tolerated as if they were true and readily verifiable.  It involves recognising the wisdom embedded in our difficult emotions because they serve to illuminate something that we care about deeply. 

This involves the flexibility to acknowledge the gap between our thoughts and our inner awareness of them and the capacity to take what is useful in those thoughts to motive us to act on them to achieve a positive outcome that we value.   It is about regaining control over our inner world so that we can live our life “with meaning and purpose” – the core theme of Steven’s latest book, A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Towards What Really Matters.

Steven illustrates this acceptance approach by discussing negativity around body image and how to turn this into effective problem solving – rather than being trapped in the unfounded message of the inner critic that relates body weight to ugliness or lack of attractiveness.  He suggests as a starting point to revisit your past to see where the mental connection between body weight and ugliness originated, e.g. it might have had its origins in bullying at school by other students who were jealous of your academic or sporting success.  Following this exploration, you can use one of the many defusion strategies in ACT that can take away the power of this autosuggestion.  Russ Harris, ACT practitioner, provides a great set of defusion strategies in his humorous, illustrated book, The Happiness Trap Pocketbook – a very readable and accessible guidebook for personal change. 

Perspective-taking: a defusion strategy to create space and disempower the inner critic

Steven highly recommends “perspective-taking” as a defusion strategy to enable you to step back from negative thoughts and create enough space to disempower them.   There are many ways to undertake perspective-taking.  Steven describes one process in his interview podcast that he asserts will work even when you lack knowledge of mindfulness, ACT or any other related modality.  The steps he describes are as follows:

  1. Picture yourself struggling with the negative critic you are confronting (with your eyes closed or looking downwards to reduce distractions)
  2. Notice that it is a part of you that is noticing your struggle
  3. Now take that part of yourself that is noticing and tune into your body seeing yourself watching the struggle (you can even tune into the earliest occurrence of these negative thoughts) – in the process show self-compassion towards yourself
  4. Then ask yourself, “Is this person loveable, wholesome or empathetic?’ 
  5. Picture yourself sitting there observing this loveable, wholesome person from a short distance – as in a movie
  6. Imagine remembering 10 years from now how you looked as you struggled with the inner critic – picture yourself sitting in a chair or on the floor still struggling the same way
  7. You can ask yourself then, if you were observing this struggle in this future time, “What words of wisdom would you offer yourself?”
  8. Then bring yourself back to the present by grounding yourself in your body.

In this interaction, your wisdom will emerge, and you can offer yourself encouraging words such as “you can move on”.  According to Steven, research shows that “human intelligence in inherently self-compassionate” – the thought processes above enable you to tap that self-compassion.  He maintains that this form of perspective-taking is itself “very healing”.

Reflection

We can become overwhelmed by our inner critic if we give it free play, without challenge.  So often, we avoid facing up to what is painful.  The Inner MBA, developed by Tami Simon and colleagues, provides one avenue to explore our inner landscape, and defusing strategies offer many ways to break the hold of our inner critic.  Mindfulness practices provide a further avenue for facing up to our negative thoughts and related disabling beliefs.

As we grow in mindfulness through these processes, we can break the hold of the inner critic, gain a truer self-awareness, embrace self-compassion and emerge with a sense of freedom and alignment with our life purpose.

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

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

Mantra Meditations for Calm, Peace and Energy

Mantra meditation involves the repetition of a sound, word or phrase during meditation.  The mantra can be repeated silently, spoken or chanted, sometimes accompanied by music.   The singing of mantras can provide variation through intonation, pace, pitch, and volume.  The content can be rich in meaning drawing on ancient traditions or simply a single word.  Instrumentation can be added and often involves guitar, harmonium and/or flute. 

Famous yogi-musician, Girish, combines neuroscience and the art of singing mantras in his book, Music and Mantras: The Yoga of Mindful Singing for Health, Happiness, Peace and Prosperity.  Girish maintains that “Mantra is a sound vibration through which we mindfully focus our thoughts, our feelings, and our highest intention”.  In this statement he captures not only the power of focus inherent in chanted mantra meditations but also the energetic effect of the vibrations of music and singing. 

Singing of mantras has gained a resurgence through the development of the relatively new discipline of music therapy and the advent of neuroscience along with the understanding of the vibrational energy of sound and voice.

The benefits of mantra meditations

Like any meditation, mantras build attention and capacity to focus which in itself has a beneficial effect.  Typically practitioners return to their focus whenever a distracting thought interferes with their concentration on the mantra.  Neuroscience has highlighted this benefit and explained how meditation positively impacts the mind, emotions and the body. 

Susan Moran focuses on the distinctive nature of mantra meditations and summarises the science that supports this approach to meditation.  In her article, she identifies several research-based benefits:

  • Reduces distractions generated by the default-mode network of our brains (with its inherent negative bias)
  • Minimises negative self-talk that leads to depression
  • Activates the “relaxation response” and builds resilience in the face of stress.

Turning depression into a deep well of calm, peace and centredness through mantra meditation

The beneficial effects of mantra meditations were clearly articulated by Tina Malia in her interview with Kara Johnstad.   Tina Malia is globally famous for her song writing, singing, instrumentation and integration of different mantra traditions, and at the time of the interview, was working on her seventh album.

Tina told the story of her very deep depression in her twenties and her experience of the “dark night of the soul”.  She indicated that she had all the trappings of external success but experienced despair and a “deep, deep aching loneliness” that would not go away – she lost her meaning in life and considered ending her life through suicide.   At the time, she was a backing singer for world music singer/songwriter Jai Uttal and his band.  Jai suggested that she start a daily practice of Japa – silently singing the Ram mantra meditation while passing beads through her fingers.

Tina reports that this practice which she undertook conscientiously every day, although having little effect in the first few weeks, enabled her to find peace, harmony and an inner well of calm and creative energy.  She explained that it “completely lifted me out of despair” and she still continued the practice daily at the time of the interview.  She finds chanting mantra meditations a tool for helping her when she feels frazzled at busy times while touring the world.   She describes her silent mantra meditations as a well – an internal source of pure water that brings the experience of visiting a calming, familiar room. 

Kara Johnstad, who is herself a visionary singer-songwriter, describes chanting mantra meditations as creating “a higher vibrational field” that protects us against the turbulence of daily life and its many challenges.

Reflection

I have found just listening to the chanting of mantra meditations very calming, particularly those of Lulu & Mischka and the many mantra meditations of Deva Premal & Miten.  From my reading and listening to Tina’s story, it is clear that the real benefit of chanting mantra meditations comes not only from repetition of the mantra but from daily practice over an extended period (in Tina’s case over many months and years). 

It takes time to absorb the positive messages of a mantra into our consciousness so that over time it displaces our negative self-thoughts.  Tina suggests that mantra meditations are like a tool to explore our inner reality, “a shovel to go inside and dig”.  In this way we can develop a deep level of self-intimacy.

As we grow in mindfulness through chanting mantra meditations, we can unearth our disturbing negative thoughts and difficult emotions and replace them with a deep well of calm, peace and energy. Tina has demonstrated yet again that discipline creates freedom and success.  Her latest album, Anahata (Heart Wide Open) can be obtained through Sounds True.

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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 and the Art of Forgiveness

In a previous post, I highlighted the need for compassion and forgiveness to sustain a second marriage.  However, forgiveness is a need in all facets of our relationships because we can experience a grievance or hurt wherever we are – at work, at home or in our daily activity outside these spheres.  Dr. Fred Luskin, an international expert in forgiveness, explains that there are three main aspects of a grievance, wherever or whenever it is experienced:

  • Exaggerating the personal offense we experience
  • Blaming someone else for our negative feelings
  • Developing a grievance story.

In his book, Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for Healthy and Lasting Relationships, Fred draws on research to demonstrate that forgiveness leads to a sense of peace as well as physical and emotional welfare.  In contrast, maintaining a grudge, grievance or anger results in illness, a loss of personal power (you become controlled by your emotions) and an inability to focus on the task at hand.  The very words we use – such as “consumed by envy” – evoke the destructive power of grievances and sustained anger.

Developing the art of forgiveness through mindfulness

Fred points out that, contrary to popular belief, forgiveness is not about the other person by whom you feel aggrieved, it is about yourself – your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and consequent behaviour.  He contends that the focus in forgiveness is self-awareness and self-regulation, not reconciliation.  Some of the mindfulness practices that can help you develop the art of forgiveness include:

  • Mindful breathing: Fred offers a specific, brief practice here.  He suggests that you take three deep breaths.  When inhaling, you focus on the movement of your stomach as it fills with air.  As you exhale, you concentrate on your stomach softening (and the sense of release).  On your third deep breath, Fred suggests that you bring your focus to something or someone you love or a thing of beauty – filling your mind with something positive which can serve to displace negative thoughts and emotions.
  • Naming your feelings:  Fred suggests that through reflection you seek to identify the catalyst for your grievance and name the feelings that you experienced.  He argues that your past experiences may have influenced your feelings, but you experience them in the present and you are responsible for them (not the person you blame for those feelings).  Once you name your feelings, you can take ownership of them and effectively tame them (you control them, they don’t control you).  You can also identify how you have exaggerated the personal offense that you have experienced and what expectations or assumptions underlie that sense of being offended.  Fred maintains that we each carry around in our head what he calls “unenforceable rules”.
  • Choosing your channel: Fred proposes that we learn to replace the “grievance channel” (where we repeat our “grievance story” to ourselves and others) with more positive channels such as those focused on gratitude, love and beauty (especially the beauty of nature).  In his book, he offers multiple suggestions on how to switch “channels” throughout the day.  If we achieve this switch on a regular basis, we naturally develop our “forgiveness channel” because appreciation, a sense of beauty and feelings of love displace negative feelings of hurt, anger and resentment.  The art of forgiveness can be further developed by reading about, or listening to, stories of courageous acts of forgiveness by others.

Fred suggests that we need to become aware of the space in our minds that we are allocating to our grievance – how much of our time and energy are being consumed by accommodating and entertaining our grievances.

Reflection

To develop the art of forgiveness, we need to be conscious of the thoughts and emotions we are cultivating through the stories in our head – we become what we focus on, the choice is ours to be bitter or appreciative.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more self-aware of our “unenforceable rules” in the form of unrealistic expectations or unfounded assumptions, more readily name our feelings and learn to achieve self-regulation by consciously choosing to entertain positive thoughts and feelings of love and appreciation.

In reflecting on what unenforceable rules we carry in our head, I am reminded of an observation by Michelle De Kretser in her book, The Life to Come, when talking about Pippa’s reflections about her family friend Rashida (a Muslim born in India):

There was a whisper in Pippa’s brain, like a subdued, left-hand accompaniment to her thoughts, and this whisper was of the opinion that Rashida should be grateful that white people overlooked the double handicap of her religion and race.  [p. 221, emphasis added]

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Image by Pixource 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.

Guided Meditation for Releasing Stress and Reducing Overthinking

In times of stress, we tend to overthink – to engage in self-stories about who we are, what we are capable of and what negative impacts will eventuate from our situation.  These negative self-stories can lead to a debilitating downward spiral and undermine our capacity to cope with our daily challenges.  It is important to break the cycle of negative thoughts before they become entrenched in our psyche.

Great Meditation on its YouTube© Channel offers a specific guided meditation to help release stress and reduce overthinking.  The meditation focuses on three key areas impacted by stress – our breathing, our thoughts and our body.

Guided meditation to release stress and reduce overthinking

The 10-minute guided meditation offers a simple but effective way to unwind and take control of your thinking and bodily sensations.  The meditation process has three key steps:

  1. Focus on your breathing – the starting point is to become grounded through your breath.  Just observing your breath can be relaxing.  The key here is not to try to control your breathing but notice it occurring in a part of your body – through your nose, in the rise and fall of your abdomen or in your chest.  Adopting a comfortable posture helps you to maintain focus on your breathing.
  2. Observing your thoughts – this entails noticing what thoughts are occurring in your mind without judgment and without entertaining them.  It is important if your mind is blank not to go searching for thoughts because this can lead to overthinking.  The key is to maintain your relaxed breathing while you notice what is going on in your head.  Just let your thoughts pass by and remind yourself that “you are not your thoughts” – they are merely mental constructions.
  3. Notice your bodily sensations – we experience stress in our bodies in the form of tight shoulders, a stiff neck, localised pain or sore arms, legs or ankles.  Your body mirrors the fact that you are uptight in response to stress.  As you scan your body, you can progressively release points of bodily tension by focusing on these areas and letting go.  Deep breathing can assist this process and enable you to end the meditation process smoothly.

There are numerous sources of meditations that will enable you to release stress and free yourself from overthinking.  For example, Great Meditation provides a wide range of meditations for specific purposes on their YouTube© Channel.  Additionally, psycom.net lists links to meditation resources including music meditations, guided meditations, podcasts and meditation apps.

Reflection

The resources available for meditation practice are numerous and are very often free.  The challenge is to maintain regular meditation practice to enable us to destress and stop living in our thoughts. As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices, we will be more able to calm our minds, notice and release tension in our bodies and progressively build the resilience necessary to handle the challenges of work and family life. 

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Image by cocoparisienne 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.

Develop Equanimity to Overcome Reactivity

Much of the time we are reactive because of our ingrained habituated responses.  These develop over time and can vary with different stimuli – a confronting email, a perception of criticism by a partner or colleague, thoughtlessness by another person or traffic delays.  Our responses may be precipitated by negative thoughts that generate emotions such as fear, anxiety, frustration or anger.  We then act out these emotions in a reactive way – not stopping to maintain our balance or evaluate the best possible response. As we have mentioned earlier, there is a gap between stimulus and response and within that gap are choices and associated freedom.  Developing equanimity helps us to better utilise the gap between stimulus and response and widens our potential response options – as it frees us from being captive to our habituated responses.

Equanimity is being able to maintain a state of calmness, balance or even-mindedness in the face of a situation that we find challenging – physically, mentally or emotionally.  It builds our capacity to overcome reactivity and enables us to accept what is, without reacting impulsively.  Diana Winston makes the point that equanimity is not passivity – acceptance of what is, does not mean avoiding taking action to redress injustice, insulting behaviour or meanness.  What equanimity does mean is acknowledging what is and the inherent challenge (e.g. illness, mental illness of a family member, or loss of a job), not railing against all and sundry for our “misfortune”, but actively pursuing redress – including building our capacity to remain calm in the face of life challenges.  Equanimity enables responsiveness that is positive and productive.

A meditation to develop equanimity

Meditation, by its very nature, helps to calm us and, in the process, develop equanimity.  Diana Winston, however, provides a specific “equanimity meditation” designed to build our capacity to retain our balance and to remain even minded when confronted with a life challenge.  She provides this meditation as part of the weekly guided meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA. Her guided meditation podcast, Equanimity and Non Reactivity, contains several steps:

  1. Grounding yourself in your chair by adopting a comfortable, upright posture; closing your eyes or looking down; and focusing your intention on the present – not thinking about the past or worrying about what is coming up.  Being present-in-the-moment is a calming activity that can build equanimity.
  2. Complete body scan – starting with your feet on the floor (feeling the firmness and envisaging the stable ground below); moving progressively through your body, while noticing and releasing any points of tensions (such as in your neck, shoulders, stomach, legs or hands).  You can begin to notice the sensations as you progress with your body scan – feeling the tingling in your fingers or the softness/looseness in your legs as you let go and allow the tension to drain away.  During the meditation, it pays to be conscious of a tendency to let your shoulders droop. [Note: this part of the meditation resonates with the first part of the Yoga Nigra Meditation focused on the physical body]
  3. Focus on your breathing – you focus on wherever in your body you can feel the sensation of your breathing, the in and out movement of your stomach or the air passing through your nose.  The process involves noticing, not controlling your breathing.  You can also rest in the gap between your in-breath and your out-breath.  You can extend the observation of your breathing to other parts of your body such as breathing through your mouth.
  4. Noticing sounds – now switch your attention to the sounds within and outside your room.  Again, the process involves noticing not interpreting or judging the sounds (whether they are pleasant or grating, for example).
  5. Anchoring yourself – you can choose to focus just on your breath or the sounds or adopt a position of natural awareness where you are open to the sense of being aware. Whatever you choose becomes your anchor that you can return to when your mind wanders.  It is natural to have passing thoughts and emotions – the important thing is not to entertain them or indulge them but to acknowledge them, for example, by saying to yourself, “I’m wandering again”.  Once you notice and acknowledge your diverting thoughts and/or emotions, you can return to your chosen anchor.
  6. Equanimity meditation – this involves two main parts that focus directly on developing calm, no matter what your stimulus is.  The first involves capturing a time when you were able to remain calm and balanced when confronted with a challenge – it is important to visualise the event and recapture the memory in all its richness including the stimulus, your initial thoughts/emotions, how you brought yourself under control and your calm response replacing what normally would have been a reactive response.  The second part involves envisaging a challenging situation you have to deal with; identifying what is your “normal” response; and picturing yourself tapping into your boundless internal equanimity, energy and awareness to adopt a response that is both creative and positive.

Diana maintains that this process of equanimity meditation builds your capacity to manage difficult challenges rather than revert to reactivity – that involves adopting habituated responses that are potentially injurious to yourself and others. On a personal note, I like listening to the calmness of Diana’s voice and hearing her highly developed insights as she leads me through a guided meditation process on the weekly podcasts.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditations such as the equanimity meditation, we can realise a new level of personal resilience through the development of calmness, balance and even-mindedness.  We will experience less reactivity in challenging situations and be open to more positive and helpful responses.

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Image – Heron on branch in Wynnum Creek, 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.