Managing Our Response to Uncertainty

In these challenging times, we often experience uncertainty and ambiguity which, in turn, leads to anxiety and depression.  At the very least, these conditions can make us feel uncomfortable, annoyed or ill at ease.  We normally want to be in control of our lives and have some certainty about our future.  We try to create some sense, order and meaningfulness for our future by developing our plans for our career, family interactions, travel and personal development.  In times of uncertainty like the present, we can become disoriented when these plans are disrupted, put on hold, deferred or cancelled altogether because of lockdowns, border closures, ill-health, international conflicts or major natural disasters.

We need some strategies to help us cope with this uncertainty and ambiguity. Over time, we have to develop ways to tolerate these setbacks and anxiety-inducing conditions.  The reality is that uncertainty and ambiguity are part of the human condition and cannot be avoided.  Diana Winston offers one way of addressing this uncertainty and managing our response to challenging times.  In her guided meditation podcast, Opening to Uncertainty, she provides a mindfulness meditation approach which she describes as “advanced practice” – not only is it challenging but also requires repetition and practice to enable us to widen our window of tolerance in the face of ever-increasing uncertainty and ambiguity.

Guided meditation on managing our response to uncertainty

  • Diana begins the guided meditation with an initial focus on body posture which should be relaxed and comfortable but involve conscious choice that enables freedom of breathing.  She begins the meditation practice encouraging multiple deep breaths that facilitate release of built-up tension and stress.  Diana encourages us to “relax into the present moment” and become conscious of our bodily sensations – especially pockets or points of uptightness.  As we wind down, we can progressively release specific points of tension. 
  • The next phase involves choosing an anchor that truly grounds us in the present and is unlikely to act as a trigger for heightened negative emotions or a trauma response.  We each have our negative triggers and varying levels of tolerance to specific difficult situations.  Our meditation anchor enables us to return to a chosen focus when we notice our mind wandering or when we experience strong challenging emotions. 
  • When negative emotions take over, we have the choice to work with the difficult emotion and its intensity (if we are at an advanced stage of meditation practice) or to use our anchor as a way to return to being grounded in the present moment. 
  • After addressing emotions around experienced anxiety, Diana moves the meditation to another stage where she encourages us to recall an occasion when we successfully dealt with some level of anxiety and ambiguity.  Associated with this, is recalling the feeling of dealing positively with the stress – we can try to recapture those positive emotions to strengthen our belief in our own capacity to deal with current challenges.  I found this activity particularly useful, because it is so easy to overlook past successes in dealing with anxiety when you are feeling overwhelmed with present challenges.
  • The next stage of the meditation involved loving-kindness towards ourself.  To begin with it is important to acknowledge that it is natural to feel anxiety in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity.  Diana recommends that once we acknowledge this naturalness, we can express a positive desire such as, “May I meet uncertainty with grace and ease.”  This request can be repeated as a way to reinforce the belief that we are able to manage uncertainty in whatever form it takes.

Reflection

I undertook this meditation on the day that I was due to receive my first COVID-19 vaccine.  I was uncertain about what vaccine I was going to receive and concerned about the after effects, given that I suffer from a wide range of sensitivities and allergies.  There was ambiguity to deal with as well – surrounding the availability of the different vaccines, their relative effectiveness and their after effects.  However, I found that Diana’s guided meditation helped me to become grounded and prepared for most contingencies.

In her meditation, Diana encourages us to approach uncertainty and our response with openness and curiosity and a “willingness to be with that experience”.  She stated that life has its “ups and downs” and sometimes terrible things happen as well as wonderful things.  She maintained that it is illusionary to believe that life is an even, untroubled flow – we will be challenged at times and be able to cope to varying degrees with what confronts us.  

Diana asserted that as we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we will be better able to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity and manage our response to challenging stressors and associated emotions.  However, she asserted that managing our response to uncertainty is a long-term process. Her guided meditation can help in that regard. 

Diana mentioned the availability of other MARC meditation podcasts via the UCLA  Mindful App.  Previously I have identified activities to maintain a positive mindset in the times of uncertainty and anxiety.  In this blog, too, I have covered other meditation approaches to managing our response to uncertainty:

  • Jill Satterfield provided a meditation on using breath as a restorative process in challenging times.
  • Diana Winston offered an approach which focuses strongly on gratitude.
  • Kristin Neff and Chris Germer provided a range of self-compassion practices to enable us to manage in challenging times, including the pandemic.  
  • MARC meditations incorporate a range of other meditations that can reduce anxiety in times of uncertainty and challenge.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

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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Image by John Hain 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.

Equanimity and Fragility of the Human Condition

Martin Brensilver, meditation teacher at UCLA, provides a guided meditation podcast on Equanimity as a Facet of Mindfulness.  In the process he explores the nature of equanimity and argues that it is not the same as passivity – it is not inaction or indifference in the face of human suffering in the world.  For Martin, equanimity involves “having a relationship with one’s deep sensory experience right now” – engaging with our deepest thoughts and feelings in the moment.  It involves being open to the full poignancy of the human condition – not deadening our experience of life but drawing out the sadness and melodrama of the human condition.  Mindfulness enables us to meet this intensity with “patience, love and tolerance” and a “soft heart”.

Martin stresses that equanimity is a fine balance between suppression of what we are feeling and thinking and becoming totally caught up in those thoughts and feelings.  Equanimity involves being fully present to our bodily sensations and open to fully experiencing our challenging emotions.  What equanimity brings to our lives is the capacity to overcome the “compulsion to act out our preferences” – the temptation to succumb to our habituated responses in the face of challenging thoughts and emotions.

Martin observes that there are times when meditation is “not fun at all”.  To be silent and still, in whatever posture we adopt, can unearth strong emotions and racing thoughts.  It can be a catalyst for uncomfortable bodily sensations.  What it does, however, is “open our hearts to ourselves” and what we are experiencing. 

The fragility of the human condition

Martin gave a talk in May 2020 as part of a retreat for Buddhist practitioners.  The podcast of the talk is titled, Vulnerability, Porousness, Equanimity, and Love.  The talk is fairly conceptual and focuses on the difference between classical Buddhist thinking on vulnerability versus modern-day Buddhist thinking.  However, Martin makes a number of points relevant to our discussion about the human condition by drawing on the work of several authors.

One of these writers is Adam Phillips, author of Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.  Adam suggests that we long for a different life from what we are experiencing.  We can become focused on “needs unmet”, “desires unfulfilled” and “roads not taken” – effectively “falling short” of our potential.  These are the “lives unlived” that we imagine could have been possible and this can lead to a sense of unrest and even “rage”.

Martin compares the human condition to that of the fragility of a plant and contrasts it to the solidity of a jewel.  He refers to Susan David’s comment that “life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility”.  In her book, Emotional Agility, Susan asserts that life involves sadness, fragility and anxiety and we need to acknowledge this, but to live our life more fully requires the courage to go beyond our comfort zone and manage our fear about uncertainty and ambiguity. 

Martin asserts that the pandemic has highlighted the downside of interdependence as well as the upside.  He suggests that we have been experiencing the “porousness of the boundary between self and world” – the pandemic has injected itself into millions of lives in numerous countries so that we are conscious that we are “living in precariousness”, we cannot ignore the fragility of the human condition.  Martin reaffirms Susan’s contention that failure to accept this vulnerability is a “major source of inhumanity” – the harmful withholding of care, concern and compassion.  He maintains that, in contrast, embracing vulnerability fully, (and with It, the possibility of rejection) leads to softening the heart and opening to patience, tolerance and care.

Developing equanimity

Martin draws on the work of Sara Lazar, a scientist researching meditation and yoga.  Sara and her colleagues in a joint research paper define equanimity as “an even-minded state” or an even disposition towards all experiences no matter their source or how they are experienced (e.g., pleasant or unpleasant).

Martin summarises Sara’s thoughts about developing the key aspects of equanimity as follows:

  1. Widen our perspective – when we are in pain or feel vulnerable (e.g. because of the pandemic), our focus narrows and we can easily lose perspective.  Martin suggests that one way to widen our perspective is to envisage the vastness of space or the time the light from stars take to journey to us.  We could also envisage the earth in space and billions of people living in diverse countries, timeframes and cultures.
  2. More readily engage in sensory experience – as suggested earlier, this means not denying experience or associated emotions but embracing them fully.  If we can accept not suppress what we are experiencing then we are better able to ride out the “the winds of feelings”, rather than tightly bracing against them.  This principle is captured in a very practical way by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book, Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using Mindfulness Meditation.
  3. Disengage from evaluative (judgemental) thinking and reactive behaviour – we have to overcome the unevenness of our response to challenging emotions and events conditioned by our habituated behaviour.  This takes a quiet confidence that is born of courage and self-awareness.  Despite our best efforts, our equanimity can ebb and flow but as we work with our deepest emotions we can widen our window of tolerance so that we are “not afraid to be overrun by experience”.

Reflection

Martin reinforces the fact that equanimity is not a steady state – it can have its ups and downs. As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can develop this “even-minded state” and ready disposition towards the challenging experiences and emotions of our life.  We can become increasingly self-aware and learn to overcome our reactivity and learned responses to stressors. 

Increasingly, we can build what Martin describes as “courageous confidence” – a healthy confidence not born of conceit but deeply embedded in consciousness of the fragility of the human condition.  We can progressively move away from acquisitiveness and self-absorption to care and compassionate action for others who together with us are experiencing life’s frailties, uncertainties and challenges.  

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Image by Anant Sharma 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.

Gaining Support in Difficult Times through Mindfulness

Allyson Pimentel offers a meditation podcast on the topic of “Mindfulness as Support”.  In the guided meditation, presented as a teacher at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), Allyson reminds us of the power of mindfulness to provide a refuge in challenging times, whether the source of difficulty is at home or at work.  She suggests that mindfulness, being in the present moment and accepting what is, enables us to navigate troubled waters by helping us to access our inner peace and equanimity and providing the opportunity to experience a wider perspective than a total focus on the present troubles or pain.

Mindfulness as nourishment for carers

Carers have a particularly challenging time as they not only have to deal with their own difficulties but also the suffering and difficulties of others such as Alzheimer’s Disease experienced by a loved on.  There is not only the challenge of seeing someone else suffer but also the need to manage the emotional contamination of another’s pain and personal distress.

Allyson reminds us that mindfulness enables us to broaden our perspective beyond the immediate, perceived suffering to other things that are good in our lives and that of others.  We can pay attention to the broader environment of sounds and laughter, open our minds to all that we have received in life  and that another person has received.  This “wider aperture” brings with it appreciation that beyond immediate difficulties and suffering is relief.  Allyson likens it to going from the centre of a dark wood to coming to the edge where light streams in and lush green plains open before us. 

Extending beyond ourselves

In the guided meditation, Allyson encourages us to think about others beyond our immediate sphere who might be experiencing suffering and personal difficulties, whether that involves pandemic-induced illness, addiction, loss of job or home, disconnection from family and friends, mental illness, or financial difficulties.  She suggests that we try to encompass others by focusing on them and their needs and wishing them peace, tranquility, and ease.  We can also envisage them offering us empathetic support in return.

Mindfulness as support for business owners

The Smiling Mind organisation reminds us that small business owners can gain support from mindfulness particularly in these difficult times of the pandemic and associated economic difficulties.   Small business owners have to deal with the daily challenges of managing their cash flow, engaging and retaining staff, dealing with business uncertainties and political changes,  managing multiple demands on their time and skills and establishing a work-life balance.  On top of this is the ever-present challenge of maintaining quality relationships at home with partners and children while their minds are full of business-related information and endless to-do lists.

Mindfulness enables small business owners to manage stress more effectively, achieve increased self-awareness and awareness of others, build their powers of concentration and cultivate their creativity.  It provides a refuge from daily turbulent waves and a place to recuperate and restore perspective.  Mindfulness also helps small business owners to develop resilience, to improve their deep listening skills and their relationships, and to realise much-needed, regenerative sleep.

Smiling Mind, in association with MYOB, offers a free mindfulness app with a special Small Business Program within the “At Work” section of the app.  They also have specific blog posts dedicated to how mindfulness can support business owners manage their day-to-day challenges.

Mindfulness as support for people with addictions

In a previous post I discussed how mindfulness through growing self-awareness can break down the “trigger-reward” cycle involved in addiction.  I also discussed the barriers to undertake and sustain mindfulness practice to overcome addiction and offered a four-step mindfulness practice to overcome these barriers.  In cases of serious addiction, mindfulness can support and reinforce therapies offered by professionals such as psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and psychologists.  Just as with trauma healing, people with addictions may need the support of professionals to overcome self-destructive behaviours.

The COVID-19 pandemic while providing some people with relief from time and work pressures and the unsustainable pace of life, has also led to increased alcohol and drug addiction, especially amongst older people such as “Baby-Boomers”.  In an interview podcast, Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke discussed the adverse impact of the pandemic on mental health as well as increased levels of addiction.  She explained that pandemic-related isolation is compounding difficulties for people with mental health issues and addiction and this is in addition to other new life stressors generated by the pandemic, e.g., uncertainties concerning employment and personal health, fear of infection of themselves and loved ones, financial difficulties, the breaking down of established life patterns and thwarting of future plans.

In recognition of the pandemic-induced growth in addiction of all forms, organisations such as ARK Behavioral Health provide a range of services as well as Covid-19 Mental Health and Addiction Resources.  Their insight into the adverse impact of alcohol abuse on immunity and vulnerability to COVID-19 infection is illuminating.  The pandemic resources provided are comprehensive as are the levels of care that ARK Behavioral Health professionals provide.

Reflection

Destructive emotions such as anger and resentment and related behaviours such as addiction can be injurious to the mental health and happiness of anyone as well as to that of their partners and children.  As people grow in mindfulness through regular mindfulness practices, they can experience support to address destructive emotions and addictive behaviours. Mindfulness develops self-awareness and emotion regulation and cultivates conscious choice and wise action.  Mindfulness can also provide support and reinforcement for situations where professional help is required to overcome addiction or heal from trauma.

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Image by Rebecca Tregear 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.

Bodily Awareness: Movement and Stillness

The UCLA meditation podcast at the end of April 2021 was conducted by Tom Heah who has particular expertise in movement meditation and offers a range of Mindfulness in Action courses.    Tom’s guided meditation on Awareness in Movement and Stillness offers a way to pay attention to bodily sensations with openness and curiosity while moving and keeping still.  He makes the point that our body is always in the present moment through our senses while our mind is often consumed with thinking about the past or the future, e.g., planning, analysing, categorising, criticising, or summarising.  Tom describes the mind as a “thinking machine” while he sees our body as a pathway to the present moment and mindfulness.  His podcast meditation has three core parts – seeing, moving, being still.

Paying attention to what we see

As Tom’s meditation was conducted online via Zoom, he encouraged participants from around the world to turn their videos on and look to see who else is present in the collaborative meditation.  He maintained that through our sight we can reinforce our sense of connection to others wherever they may be in the world.  He suggested that “separation” is really a “conception of the mind” – ignoring the reality of our connectedness to every living thing.  He encouraged participants to spend a short time as they were looking at others to check into their own bodily sensations.  Tom reinforced the fact that our bodies enable us to experience our connection to the earth as well as to others.

Paying attention to our bodies while we move

Tom encouraged participants to stand or sit to undertake a number of conscious movements involving the arms, neck, and shoulders.  He offered stretching exercises for the arms, neck and shoulder rolls as forms of movement.  His main focus was on the bodily sensations experienced while undertaking the movements – encouraging the identification of points of ease or tension.

On completing the movements, Tom suggested that participants choose an anchor to be able to refocus the mind if wandering occurs – e.g., room scanning, focus on sounds within and/or without the room, focusing on the breath or remaining with bodily sensations.  He indicated that like a lot of other people his mind has been racing with the advent of the pandemic, as everything in life is impacted – work location, availability of work, physical and mental health, relationships, shopping patterns, income flow and capacity for free movement within a State or outside a country.

Tom suggested that focus on our body and body sensations is a way to still the mind and recapture peace, ease, and tranquility.  Movement meditations such as Tai Chi provide an excellent means to build bodily focus and concentration as well as to realise physical and mental health benefits. 

Paying attention to our bodies while being still

Tom suggested that the stillness meditation can involve sitting, standing, or lying down – whatever is comfortable and facilitates your ability to get in touch with your bodily sensations.  One of the easiest ways to pay attention to bodily sensations is to focus on our feet – observing sensations of touch, tingling, heaviness, connectedness to the floor or ground or other sensation.  I find that joining my fingers together from each hand also provides me with easy access to bodily awareness – to a sense of energy flow, warmth, connection, tingling and stillness.

Mantra meditations involving generation of bodily energy through voice and vibration, can still the mind and body. Lulu & Mischka, exemplars of the art of mantra meditations, maintain that in times such as the pandemic, mantra meditations can enable us to achieve both stillness and joy despite the pervasive challenges in our lives.  Their stillness in motion mantra meditation epitomises becoming grounded and connected through observing whales and singing while sailing close to these majestic marine mammals.

Reflection

Our bodies are the immediate and accessible pathway to being in the present moment.  We can readily still our minds and grow in mindfulness through body scans, chanting, mantra meditations and movement meditations such as Tai Chi.  The benefits are enhanced through daily mindfulness practice whatever form it takes according to our preference and however much time we can devote to the practice.  The increasing benefits over time serve to provide positive reinforcement so that what may have once been a chore becomes a pleasant and rewarding experience.

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Image by Ria Sopala 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.

Accessing the Power of Silence

Every hour of every day we are assailed by noise that sometimes seems deafening.  Christine Jackman eloquently describes this noise pollution in her own busy life.  In her book, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World, she provides insights into the practices and strategies she employed to slow down, quiet the noise and access the power of silence.  She describes these quiet practices as “slithers, slices and slabs of silence” (QWeekend, 21-22 November 2020, p.26).

Noise pollution in our lives

We are so often unaware of the intrusiveness, stress, and distraction that noise pollution creates in our lives.  In our own homes we are pinged by fridge doors when the doors are left open, by the car when the lights are left on, by our phone when we receive a text message, by the dishwasher & washing machine when a load is completed, by the oven when the programmed time is up, by the computer game when we “score” and by the computer when an email is received.   We can also add the ringing of mobile and landline phones, the chimes of the doorbell (or the thud of the metal door knocker), the sound of music/arguments/renovations from our neighbours or the internal air flow noise of our air conditioner (compounded by external sounds of the fan and hot air extractor).

We could reasonably expect that when we are unfortunate enough to be hospitalised that we will have access to quiet time.  However, the reality in hospitals is a constant cacophony of sounds – the sound of the food trolley rattling as it does its rounds, of the rolling noise of mobile X-Ray equipment, of bedside monitors, of conversations of patients with visitors, of conversations between nurses and doctors and nurses, of cleaners gathering waste…and so on.

Christine points out in her book that the cumulative effect of these sounds can lead to disorientation, depression, inertia, and an inability to sleep or concentrate.  She recommends that we have to break out of the habit of blithely accepting the noises in our life and to take proactive action to remove them or to remove ourselves to engage in some form of creative or collaborative endeavour.

Practices to access the power of silence

One of the challenges is to stop long enough to understand the nature of stillness and access the power of silence. In her book, Christine offers a wide range of practices to access stillness and silence.  Here are some of the ones that she found useful and others that form part of my mindfulness practice:

  • “Holding space” in conversation – this entails listening for understanding and viewing the interaction with someone else essentially as a shared space whereby you are able to pause long enough to let them occupy the space with their words.
  • Observing nature closely – the focus could be a leaf, a bird, a butterfly, a tree or still water.  Here the idea is to pay particular attention for a reasonable time to visually absorb what is before you – whether it is something near or distant.
  • Using an app to undertake a brief meditation practice – there are a wide range of mindfulness apps that can be used for this purpose.  The meditation can be quite brief or extended, depending on how much time you choose to make available for the activity.
  • Utilising waiting time for a moment of quietness – I use the process of bringing my fingers from both hands together as a way of focusing on my breath and/or the sensations in my fingertips as they touch each other.  We spend so much time in waiting that this idle time provides a great opportunity to appreciate the power of focus, stillness and silence.
  • Walking mindfully – a way to slow the busyness of your life is to consciously slow your walking pace and be open to whatever comes to you in that moment.
  • Changing your access to media – many authors, including Christine, suggest that we could create space for stillness and silence in our lives by undertaking a “social media diet”.   This means restricting the amount of time and frequency of our access to social media.
  • Adopt a “Digital Sabbath” – taking a complete rest from your digital technology on one day a week.  This is a major ask for people who are addicted to the news and the words, dress, and actions of “social influencers”.
  • Breathing meditation – there are many forms of breath meditations but one of them is to tune into your own breathing by noticing the rise and fall of your stomach or chest.
  • Tuning into birds – as you walk outside your house, listen attentively to the singing of the birds around you.

Reflection

Developing the practice of accessing stillness and silence throughout the day can have considerable benefits for our mental and physical health, as well as for our ecology.  Acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hempton warns that unless we preserve “natural silence”, it will be lost forever “in the ever-rising din of manmade noise”.  In his book, One Square Inch of Silence, he describes his travels across America while recording the “natural voices of the American landscape” – his contribution to their preservation.

There were many responses to what has been termed “lockdown life” during the pandemic.  Some people, however, were able to find stillness and silence by developing their gardens, eating mindfully (e.g. while eating a mandarin), becoming grounded and connected to nature through their landscape, developing “latent talents” (such as painting), reading and listening to music (QWeekend, 21-22 November 2020, pp.12-14).

As we grow in mindfulness through stillness and silence and quiet reflection, we can learn to value silence in our life and nature, reduce the busyness of our lives and become more grounded and connected with ourselves and others.

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Image Source: Ron Passfield –  “Quiet Reflection” – Manly Marina at sunrise

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.

Using Mindfulness to Help Ourselves and Others

Tara Brach was recently interviewed about her course, Integrating Meditation and Psychotherapy, and the interview, Holding a Healing Space, is available as a free webinar at Sounds True.   While Tara introduces elements of the course for psychotherapists in her interview, she also provides sound advice and processes that we can use to help ourselves and others (even if we are not trained in psychotherapy).  She explains how meditation and awareness practices can reduce our reactivity and help us to develop calmness.  Tara also provides a short practice of her R.A.I.N. process that can be used by anybody anywhere.

Dr. Tara Brach is a highly regarded author, psychologist and meditation teacher with her own psychotherapy practice.  She is a significant member of the Inner MBA faculty and co-creator and facilitator with Jack Kornfield of the online Power of Awareness Course.  Tara explained that she was conscious of the upsurge in the need for psychotherapy in these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic and this motivated her to re-offer her course looking at ways to integrate meditation and psychotherapy. 

Tara stressed that in these turbulent and traumatic times, we need to be able to engage in meditation and other awareness practices “to calm the nervous system”.  When using these attention-developing approaches in psychotherapy, it empowers the patient to take control of their own lives and gives them a sense of agency – personal control over their inner and outer environment.  Mindfulness and self-compassion have been shown also to build and strengthen resilience.

Reducing reactivity

A key outcome of mindfulness developed through meditation and reflective practices is reduction in reactivity – through developing both self-awareness and self-regulation.  If we are aware of our harmful response to specific negative stimuli, we are better able to self-manage.  In reducing reactivity and inappropriate responses to stimuli, we can also reduce our sense of shame associated with our hurtful words and actions.  Self-awareness needs to be supported by self-compassion, otherwise we can activate our inner critic through solely focusing on negative self-evaluation. 

The R.A.I.N. Process

The R.A.I.N. process, refined over time by Tara, brings self-awareness and self-compassion together.  It is a process that is accessible to anyone at anytime and does not require psychotherapy training to use it to help ourselves or others.   In the video interview, Tara leads a guided meditation using the four steps of the R.A.I.N. process:

  • Recognize – Once you have adopted a comfortable position and focused on introspection rather than visual distractions, you can begin the process by taking a number of deep breaths, using the outbreath to let go of pent-up tension.   This can be complemented by a body scan designed to identify and release any physical tension in areas such as your forehead, shoulders, arms or stomach.  Try then to capture a recent interaction in detail that you are feeling unease about.  Recognize any complex emotions that emerge such as resentment, envy or anger.  You can give recognition to these emotions by naming them accurately (even in a whisper) – in a way that Karla McLaren describes as granular.  Naming your feelings as accurately as possible helps you to acknowledge their depth and intensity and gives you a greater sense of control over them – it enables you to tame them.
  • Allow – This is letting that emotion be, not denying it or pushing it away.  It’s facing the emotion in all its rawness and strength – with whatever courage you can muster.  Honesty about your emotions is itself an act of courage.
  • Investigate – The investigation is not a cognitive process but a somatic experience – feeling the emotion in all its intensity in your body.  It involves identifying how and where in your body that emotion is manifested – Tara describes this process as “feeling into your body”.  You can also access your beliefs about yourself and others involved in the precipitating interaction.  This stage can leave you feeling vulnerable, open to shame and disappointed in yourself.  However, the next step of “nurture” conjures up self-compassion as a powerful form of self-healing.
  • Nurture – Your nurturing can begin by a light touch on that part of your body where you sense your complex emotion the most, e.g. your chest, throat or arms.  Offer loving-kindness to that part of your body.  You can also imagine kindness being expressed towards you by someone you respect or love. 

Reflection

Tara’s video interview highlights the key elements incorporated in her course that focuses on embedding meditation and awareness practices in psychotherapy and reinforces the need for such an integration particularly in these challenging times when everyone is affected, including psychotherapists.  Her explanation of the benefits of these mindfulness practices, also provides motivation for us as individuals to engage in self-care through these processes, especially the R.A.I.N. process.

When we adopt R.A.I.N. with openness and honesty, we can achieve a new sense of presence and calmness in our lives that, in turn, can impact positively the lives of others.  People can experience our calmness and peace and we can feel a strong desire to take compassionate action towards others.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices such as R.A.I.N., we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, a greater degree of self-regulation and increased empathy and compassion for others.  We come to recognise that we are not “better than”, but the same – with our own faults, impatience, sensitivities, unfounded beliefs and unkind words and actions; all existing side-by-side with our thoughtfulness, generosity, loving-kindness, gratitude and our inner richness.

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Image by Mammiya 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.

Self-Care for Healthcare Professionals

Dr. Reena Kotecha presented at the 2020 Mindfulness & Compassion Global Summit on the topic of self-care for healthcare professionals.  Reena highlighted the irony of healthcare professionals caring for everyone but themselves and, in the process, suffering pain, disillusionment and burnout.  She shared her own story of depression, mental illness and suicidal thoughts resulting from working as a young doctor in an emergency department in a hospital.  She was drowning in self-doubt, suffering anxiety about the future and trying to cope with her present level of stress symptoms such as palpitations and sleeplessness.  Reena found her way out of the dark hole of depression through meditation.

She highlighted the stresses that healthcare professionals are experiencing in these challenging times of the Coronavirus.  Reena spoke of frontline healthcare workers who had to move out of home to protect their family and/or elderly parents, of the sadness and grief they experienced with the death of patients, of the frustration of having inadequate resources (such as personal protective equipment) and of their fear for their own safety in terms of the impact of their work on their mental and physical health.  Frontline professionals experience the intensity and immediacy of Coronavirus-related stress and emotional inflammation as a result of the risks to the life of their patients and their own life.

Barriers to healthcare professionals seeking help

Reena emphasised that healthcare professionals not only tended to overlook caring for themselves but also failed to seek help for their mental welfare when they really needed it.  She spoke of the barriers that stop healthcare workers from seeking professional support (some of which she experienced herself):

  • Training focus – all the focus of their training is on how to care for others, very little of the training is focused on caring for themselves or how to seek professional help for themselves
  • Priority focus – healthcare professionals are singularly focused on caring for others and they fail to give priority to their own mental and emotional health that would actually enable them to care for others more effectively and in a more sustainable way.  As Reena points out, healthcare professionals are much more comfortable and more proficient in the role of caregiver than that of “care-taker”.
  • Career focus – healthcare professionals become concerned about what others, including management, would think of them if they admitted to not coping and experiencing some form of mental illness (which still carries its own stigma).  They can be concerned about how others will judge them and what impact this would have on their career.
  • Expectations focus – the community has highlighted the heroic efforts of the frontline healthcare workers but this brings with it an unrealistic set of expectations that they are all strong and courageous, free from normal human emotions of fear, anxiety and self-doubts and the resultant experience of depression with its concomitant impacts of inertia, exhaustion, reticence and lack of energy.  In the light of this community expectation set, they are reluctant to admit to “weakness and fragility”.

Young healthcare professionals may begin their career with an unerring focus on their patients, giving priority to their caregiver role and ignoring their own needs.  They may feel really uncomfortable about being seen as “needy” or becoming a “care-taker”.  Professionalism is interpreted by them as being strong and efficient, able to cope with any situation.  Gradually, however, the singular focus on patients begins to take its toll and is compounded by the fact that no matter how hard or fast they work, demand continues to outpace resources and capacity.  They begin to experience stress, fatigue and sleeplessness.  Despite these signs of not coping they push on – driven by their own expectations and the perceived expectations of others, including the “worshipping” community.  Burnout results when the gap between what they are putting in and their intrinsic satisfaction with their work widens to the point where they lose belief in the value of what they are doing – burnout occurs on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels.

Mindfulness as self-care for healthcare professionals

Self-care for healthcare professionals is a lifetime passion for Reena, partly generated by her own early professional experience but also reinforced by the healthcare workers who seek her help and support during these highly stressful times.  She is the founder of Mindful Medics – an 8 week course for healthcare professionals incorporating mindfulness, emotional intelligence, neuroscience and positive psychology. Participants in the course have experienced significant benefits for their mental and physical health as well as in their overall personal and professional lives.

Reena is also a highly recognised public speaker on the topic of her lived experience.  For example she presented at the Happiness and Its Causes Conference in 2018 on the topic, Personal Story: Healthcare Starts with Self-Care.   In her Summit presentation, Reena provided a gratitude meditation designed to focus on appreciation for what we have in the present to displace a focus on a disturbing past or anticipatory anxiety about the future.  There is so much that we can be grateful for and savour in our life – nature and our environment, the development of our children, our achievements and rewards and the space of being alone

Reena in an article, titled I am grateful…, recommends strongly that we develop a constant practice of expressing gratitude for the simple things that we have in our lives and highlights the neuroscience research that supports the benefits of gratitude for mental health and wellbeing.

Reflection

It is important to express compassion for others, especially healthcare professionals and those directly impacted by the Coronavirus.  However, we have to recognise the enormous stress healthcare workers are experiencing in these challenging times and be more aware of not adding to that burden by perpetuating the expectation that they, individually and collectively, can cope with any challenge at no cost to themselves.  We can also offer our support for people like Reena who are helping healthcare professionals to develop mindfulness as a means of self-care.  The Mindful Healthcare Speaker Series is one ongoing event that we can support.

As we grow in mindfulness by focusing on self-care through mindfulness practices and gratitude meditation, we can become more conscious of what we are thinking and feeling and be better able to appreciate the present moment and all it has to offer in terms of overall wellness and happiness.  Mindfulness enables us to identify our barriers and expectations, acknowledge when we need help, develop strategies to cope more effectively and progressively build our resilience.

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Image by Petya Georgieva 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.

Building Resilience through Compassion Towards Others

In a previous post, I discussed Pema Chödrön’s ideas of developing resilience through self-compassion by “compassionate abiding” in our own pain and suffering during these challenging times of the pandemic.  This entails abiding in, or dropping into, the full depth of our painful experience through our bodily sensations and conscious breathing.  As we undertake slow, conscious breathing we hold our suffering with self-kindness and warmth.  Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Warriors of Light, remind us to “breathe into our hearts” because breath is our chariot enabling us to face the unknown and stand on our own.

In her interview podcast with Tami Simon of Sounds True, Pema extended the concept of compassionate abiding by moving beyond self-compassion to compassion towards others.  She maintained that embracing the pain and suffering of others particularly in these times, when everyone is suffering in one form or another, contributes to our resilience – we realise we are not alone and we are able to move beyond self-absorption and “panic storylines” to extending kindness to others.

Pain and suffering: a doorway to compassion for others

In these challenging times of the Coronavirus, we can be very sure that there are millions of people around the world who are experiencing suffering like we are.  People are experiencing all forms of loss – of loved ones, their jobs, their business incomes, their health, their financial security or their homes.  They may have become physically disconnected from their workplaces, their family and their friends, even stranded in a foreign country because of international travel restrictions.  They could be healthcare professionals working on the frontline and/or living away from their families for a number of months to protect their loved ones from cross-infection.  We can be very confident that there are people around the world who are feeling pain and suffering like we are.

Pema argues that abiding with compassion in our own pain and suffering is the doorway opening us to compassion towards others.  In experiencing fully our own suffering, not denying its intensity or pervasiveness, we develop a deep sense of connection with others who are also suffering at this time.  Pema spoke of the principle of Tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “taking in and sending out” – taking in our own experience of pain and suffering and sending out desire for relief for others.  She suggests that once we become grounded in our own suffering (this may take 10-20 minutes), we can take in the suffering of others.  On our in-breath we can imagine others who are experiencing similar pain and suffering and on our out-breath, wish them relief and insight to enable them to move beyond their own discomfort, distress, grief or loneliness.  Connectedness and resilience lie in this mutual experiencing.

Pema maintains that we do not have to confine this compassion towards others to a time of extreme challenge, we can use our pain and suffering as the doorway to compassion and connectedness at other times.  We may be experiencing distress because a family member is suffering from Alzheimer’s or feeling panic and anxiety because someone we are carer for is experiencing the black dog of depression.  At these times, we can drop into conscious breathing, embracing our distress and anxiety with kindness, and gradually move beyond this abiding self-compassion to compassion towards others who are experiencing the intensity of our own emotions. 

Reflection

I think that Pema’s profound insight into compassionate abiding opens the way to develop self-compassion, compassion towards others and personal resilience.  As we grow in mindfulness through conscious breathing and extending relief to others, we can move beyond our self-destructive narratives, restore our inner equilibrium and peace, and develop the resilience to not only survive these challenging times but also be able to extend help and support to others. 

Compassion towards others can be expressed in many ways even in these times of social distancing – the virtual choir of women physicians singing “Rise Again” is but one example of many where people are moving beyond their own overwhelming challenges and distress to reach out to others.

Pema provides multiple resources including her many books, her free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön  and her online course, Freedom to Love, which expands on the principles and practice of compassionate abiding.

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Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfulness and Resilience in Challenging Times

The Awake Network and Mindful.org have collaborated to provide a free resource for healthcare professionals in the form of The Mindful Healthcare Speaker Series.  Jon Kabat-Zinn speaking on Mindfulness and Resilience in Challenging Times was the first in the series of six speakers.   While Jon is not an MD, he has a PhD in Medicine and focuses on mindfulness in medication, healthcare and society.

Jon and host, Dr. Reena Kotecha, spoke of the enormity of the challenges facing everyone with the advent of the Coronavirus and especially the frontline healthcare professionals who, in many instances, lack adequate resources and training to deal with the magnitude of this pandemic.  They spoke of the trauma experienced by these healthcare professionals who are witnessing the suffering and death of so many people.  Reena spoke of one frontline female doctor who had to move out of home to live in a hotel for three months to protect her mother who was suffering from cancer. 

A truly disturbing event was the suicide death of Dr. Lorna M. Breen, an emergency center doctor, who continually witnessed the very worst of the impact of the Coronavirus on people, including people dying at the hospital before they could be removed from the ambulance.   Her heroic efforts to save people through her frontline medical work contributed to her own death.  Jon reiterated that mindfulness does not lessen the enormity of the physical and mental health impact of the pandemic on the lives of healthcare professionals but emphasised that mindfulness acts as a ballast to provide stability in the face of the turbulent winds created by the pandemic.

Mindfulness as ballast for stability

Jon referred to the 25 years of quality scientific research that showed the benefits of mindfulness, extending to positively altering the structure of the brain, increasing functional connectivity (e.g. of the mind-body connection) and enhancing neuroplasticity.   Neuroscientist Richard Davidson co-authored a book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, and demonstrated the powerful effect mindfulness had on building resilience.

Jon spoke of “full catastrophe living” and emphasised that it is truly human to experience fear, anxiety and grief.  He argued that mental health is enhanced by feeling and accepting everything we experience, rather than denying its existence or intensity.  He stated that no matter how emotionally rending our circumstances are we can find refuge in mindfulness, by being “in the present moment, moment by moment”.  In this way, we are better able to recover from the “trauma” of the present reality and to do so without total depletion of ourselves.   

Mindfulness as awareness

Jon maintained that “we are not our narrative” – we are not our negative self-talk that diminishes us and depletes our energy in the face of life challenges.  He argues that our life is “one seamless whole” – our mind, body, thoughts and emotions.  In his view, our breath serves as the integrating factor and energy force.  Awareness of our breath in the present moment enables us “to get out of the wind” and “to recalibrate, recover and respond instead of reacting”.  To reinforce this message, he provided a guided meditation during his presentation focused on the breath for about ten minutes (at the 30-minute mark).

Jon maintained that awareness of our breath can enable us to be fully awake to what is going on inside us and to be more deeply connected to others.  He argued that we don’t have to achieve a particular goal – to become more or better – in his view, “we are already okay”.  In these challenging times, what is needed to help ourselves and others we interact with is to be authentically present, without a “mask” (metaphorically speaking), but with openness and vulnerability. 

Reflection

Jon highlighted the importance of trusting our “human creativity” when confronted with the need to help people who are stressed out by the pandemic.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we not only build our resilience in managing our personal challenges but also “modulate the tendency to put self ahead of everyone else” – we can diminish our self-absorption and self-doubt.  He maintained that awareness of our breathing reinforces our ecological connectedness.  

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Image by Jill Wellington 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.