Meditation as a Process

Marvin Belzer, meditation teacher and faculty member of the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, offers a guided meditation, Mindful Monday, as part of the regular guided meditation sessions provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.   In a recent Mindful Monday podcast, he focused on the process of meditation and as well as offering a guided silent meditation.

Marvin stressed that the process of meditation does not involve rush to get somewhere and is not about “doing” which is typical of our daily life as we seek to achieve things in family life, work and recreation.  While meditation does require “effort” it is a subtle process, unlike our exertions to achieve things in life.  To be effective in meditation we have to give ourselves permission not to aim for “getting things done”.

Marvin explained that the process of meditation involves directing attention to something specific that is occurring in our everyday life.  It can involve the sounds that surround us, our breath or our bodily sensations.  Marvin maintains that meditation cultivates concentration – a skill that can flow over to every area of our life and enhance our relationships, e.g. through deep listening.  Focusing on something that is neutral can be calming and provide clarity.  

Marvin’s guided meditation process

Marvin’s process began with several deep breaths to relax your body and ground yourself in the present moment.  It also helps at this stage to reaffirm your intention in meditating.  He followed this up with a focus on ambient sounds – the sounds that enter your awareness from outside your immediate location.  This can be difficult for some people because our natural tendency is to analyse sounds, identify their source and categorise them as good or bad, intrusive or relaxing, harmful or helpful.  In focusing on sounds, it is important to suspend intellectual activity and just experience the sounds as they are in the present moment.

Distractions such as planning the day’s activities or worrying about some future event are a natural part of the process.  Marvin stresses that the experience of meditation is a very personal thing that can be impacted by our emotions at the time, our intellectual preoccupations and our life conditioning.  There is no right way or perfect end result – there is a continuous process of focusing, being distracted, and returning to our focus – a cycle that builds our awareness muscle.  Jon Kabat-Zinn maintains that while mindfulness meditation involves “paying attention on purpose”, it also requires a non-judgmental frame of mind – not evaluating ourselves against some perfect model, process or way of “doing meditation”.

Marvin suggests that you do a light body scan at the outset to ascertain any points of tension and to notice your posture which should be relaxed but enable you to be alert to what is happening for you.  An alternative at this stage, particularly if you are feeling stressed, is to do a full body scan which can enable you to progressively release tension wherever it is experienced in your body.  Your body and specific bodily sensations can become the focus of your meditation, e.g. paying attention to the vibrations in your joined fingers or your feet on the floor or ground.  You can also tune into the physical sensation of experiencing fear, anxiety or sorrow – noticing where in your body a strong emotion is being manifested.  Marvin points out that this process of paying attention to the embodiment of an emotion can serve as a refuge from the disturbance of challenging emotions.

Another source of achieving calm that Marvin identifies is your breath.  He suggests that you can rest in your breathing – paying attention to where in your body you can experience your breath in the moment, e.g. the movement of your chest or abdomen or the flow of air through your nose.  This process does not involve controlling your breath but experiencing it as it is – slow or fast, light or deep, even or uneven.  We are always breathing as a natural process of being alive, so resting in your breath can serve as a refuge at any time throughout your day.  Through meditation practice, you can drop automatically into the calming influence of your breath – just as performers and elite athletes do when they are about to perform or compete. If you associate breath awareness with a bodily sensation such as vibrations when your fingers are joined during regular meditation practice, then the act of bringing your fingers together (e.g., when waiting for something or somebody) can activate breath consciousness and the calming influence of breathing.

Reflection

Meditation is a process, not a goal post.  Regular practice enables us to find calm in the midst of the waves of life.  It is important to remain non-judgmental.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation in whatever form we choose, we can develop calmness and tranquility and have a genuine source of refuge when times become challenging or we begin to become overwhelmed by emotions.  Our constant focus during meditation serves as an anchor in life when we encounter the turbulence of 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.

Body Scan Meditation – Being Present to Yourself

Gloria Kamler, stress-reduction expert and meditation teacher, provides a body scan meditation as one of the many UCLA weekly meditation podcasts.  Gloria has been a meditation practitioner for more than 30 years and talks enthusiastically about the many benefits of mindfulness meditation.  In the introduction to this guided meditation, she maintains that a body scan meditation can help us slow down, wake up to life and gain clarity about our purpose.  She suggests that instead of floating like a balloon on the winds of life, we can choose how we want to live and be able to “show up for your life”.

Gloria argues that focusing on the body via a scan helps you to develop “moment by moment awareness” that can lead to equanimity.  She maintains that our minds can lead us astray and delude us, while our body “always speaks the truth” if only we tap into it and pay attention to what we are sensing.  Through a body scan, we can access a different part of our brain, develop self-caring and caring for others and build emotional regulation.  

Body scan meditation

In her guided body scan meditation Gloria helps us to work progressively from our head to our feet dwelling on different parts of the body as we scan for tension, e.g. tightness in our neck, pain in our back, a tight furrowed brow, aching ankles or soreness in our knees.  Recognising these sensations puts us in touch with our own bodies – it makes us present to ourselves and grounds us in the present moment as we experience it.  Progressive releasing of tension as we bring our attention to different parts of our body, can create a sense of calmness and control.  It can lift our spirits and help us to be ready for the day’s challenges and opportunities.

Awareness of positive sensations as we undertake the body scan can heighten our mood, develop confidence to move forward and strengthen our resolve.  We could feel the firmness and solidity of our feet on the ground, energetic tingling in our fingers and arms and a calmness in our breathing – all of which portend and support our ability to surf the waves of life and make a real contribution to the lives of others, whether that is a simple smile, a random act of kindness, or compassionate action.   In caring for ourselves through our body scan, we can be open to caring about, and caring for, others.

We can begin to realise that everyone is at some time experiencing some form of pain – mental and/or physical.  We can feel connected to others just as we sense the deep interconnectedness of the parts of our body.  The process of the body scan, like that of Tai Chi, helps us to appreciate the mind-body connection – if we are not at one with our body, we can be “all at sea” with our thoughts and emotions.

Reflection

A body scan meditation can really help us if our mind is racing or we are distracted by anxious thoughts.  Becoming grounded in our body is the fastest route to being grounded in the present because our body is always present to us at every moment of every day – we just have to tune into it.  As we grow in mindfulness through body scan meditations, we can access our capacity for conscious choice, emotional regulation and equanimity.  We can approach life’s challenges with calmness, insight and openness to what is.

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

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Playing Canasta: An Analogy for Mindfulness

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

Paying Attention

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

Play with the cards you are dealt

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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Insight Meditation for Peace and Happiness

Mark Coleman offers an insight meditation podcast as part of the extended bonuses of the upgrade version of the Nature Summit.  He introduces the guided meditation as a mindfulness practice that is in line with the Vipassana tradition which seeks to develop deep personal insight to gain a peaceful, happy, and productive life.  The Vipassana meditation approach involves in-depth insight practice over ten days in a residential training environment with a rigid discipline code designed to remove all external distractions and facilitate sustained awareness.

Insight meditation focuses on exploration of  our inner landscape by paying attention to aspects of life as it is experienced – whether that is our breathing, our listening, or our bodily sensations.  It seeks to enable the practitioner to “see things as they really are” and not be blinded by self-delusion, difficult emotions, negative thoughts, or intense bodily sensations.  This intense self-observation and self-exploration highlight the interdependence of mind, body, and emotions.

Guided insight meditation

Mark’s light-touch, 30-minute meditation utilises some of the principles of Vipassana without the rigidity of the discipline code or the residential requirement.  His approach in the guided meditation is intended “to bring awareness to every aspect of your experience” as you are experiencing it.  It builds on and deepens mindfulness of breathing and extends paying attention to sounds and bodily sensations.  It has a similar slow-burn focus to Vipassana meditation to enable receptivity to what is occurring and how it is being experienced.  It takes “awareness” to another level.

At the hear of Mark’s approach is the desire to help you fully understand the mind-body connection and identify and eliminate patterns of thinking, sensing, feeling, and interpreting that cloud your connection to self and the world around you.  It is heavily embedded in your bodily experience and awareness of that experience.

Mark begins by having you focus first on your posture and any tightness in your body – encouraging you to progressively release tension in your jaw, neck, shoulders, stomach, and the muscles in your face and around your eyes.  Throughout the meditation he encourages you to not only be aware of aspects of your experience but be conscious of this focused awareness – being conscious that you are being aware, paying attention not only to the content of your awareness but also the process of being aware.

A graduated approach to paying attention

Mark begins the actual guided meditation by having you focus on the sounds that surround you and being conscious that you are actively listening.  He discourages interpreting the sounds, evaluating them as good or bad or thinking about the sounds (e.g., trying to work out where they are coming from).  He suggests that you “stay with the direct experience of hearing” so that you can be not only aware of the sounds but also the inevitable silence that occurs between them.

He then moves on to have you shift your attention to the experience of breathing, noting the qualities of your breathing – hurried or extended, smooth or stilted, deep or shallow.  As part of this intense but relaxed focus, he then gets you to pay attention to each breath as it is occurring – through a sustained focus on each in-breath, out-breath, and the pause between.  He suggests that you maintain a general awareness of your body as you await the next in-breath entering your body    through your nose.  At this stage, he reinforces his intention to help you “know what’s happening as it is happening”.

There will be times when you become “lost in thought” and lose your focus – this provides the opportunity to build awareness of your habituated thinking behaviour and become conscious of any pattern in your thoughts.  Constantly returning to your desired focus progressively builds your “awareness muscle”, something that is a widespread deficit in this era of incessant, intrusive, and sustained interruptions and distractions.

In the latter stages of the guided meditation, Mark addresses the issue of bodily sensations.  Again, the aim here is to build awareness through direct, conscious experience of what is happening for you.  So, Mark has you focus not only on the nature of the bodily sensation (unpleasant or pleasant) but also your relationship to it – how you are relating to the sensation, e.g., with avoidance, resistance, rejection, or persistence.  Strong feelings, including pain, will arise at different stages but this is natural as the inner barriers are removed and the sensation is experienced and explored directly.  Mark maintains that this level of engagement can lead to “ease”, no matter what you are experiencing.  Ultimately, it involves being honest and open with yourself about what you are experiencing.  This personal truthfulness underpins the GROW approach to overcoming mental health issues and a “disordered life”.

Clarity about your life purpose

The benefits of insight meditation include the experience of peace and happiness and clarity about your life purpose.  As the clutter of thoughts, sensations and emotions reduce, you are able to gain greater clarity about how you can contribute to making life better for other people,  You become clearer about your core skills, extent of your knowledge and the breath of your experience and can identify ways to contribute from this position of increased self-awareness.  Happiness is intensified when you can utilise your core attributes in pursuit of a purpose beyond yourself.

Reflection

Insight meditation uses our breathing as the anchor to enable us to explore our inner landscape – our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations.  The discipline of constantly returning to our breath when distractions occur helps to keep us grounded in the present experience.  This self-exploration highlights our personal barriers and how we react to what we are perceiving and experiencing in life.

As we grow in mindfulness though insight meditation, we gain a deepened self-awareness, heightened self-regulation and clarity about our life purpose.  This, in turn, engenders sustainable peace, happiness and productivity.
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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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

A Meditation: Valuing the Environment

Diana Winston of MARC, UCLA presented a guided meditation podcast, Earth Day Meditation, to celebrate the environment.  Her meditation podcast on Earth Day, April 22 2021, focused on appreciating and valuing the environment through our reflections and actions.  She reminded us that mindfulness involves present moment awareness which is often stimulated by nature when we go for a walk in a rainforest, swim in the ocean, spend time near a river or just enjoy our garden – the trees, plants, fresh air and sounds of birds.   Mindfulness is enhanced when we develop a sense of wonder and awe in the presence of the beauty of nature.

At one stage in the meditation, Diana asks us to remember the indigenous people who, through their stewardship of the land, preserved what we have to share and experience today.  Wynnum in Brisbane, the area in which I live, was named by the local Aboriginal people after the Pandanus Palm or breadfruit tree.  The local islands, such as Stradbroke Island, have a rich history of Aboriginal life, closeness to nature and caring for the land and bay.  Stradbroke Island is one of my favourite places to visit and relax in its relatively undeveloped beauty.  Part of valuing our environment is exploring our local environment history with openness and curiosity.

A guided meditation on the environment

Diana presents a guided meditation focused on the earth and its amazing features and places.  She suggests at the outset that we become grounded and pay attention to the sensations in our feet.  We might be experiencing tingling, warmth, heaviness, or other sensation.  By paying attention to our bodily sensations, particularly in our feet, we can experience a deepening connection to the earth.  We can feel the earth’s physical support which enables us to experience the richness of our life and our environment.

Meditating on place

Diana suggests later in the meditation that we focus on a place that is special to us, that engenders positive feelings.  We first picture the place and its physical characteristics – the terrain, bird and animal life, significant features, the presence or absence of water.  Moving on from capturing the physical aspects of the place that we are paying attention to in our minds, we are asked to capture some of the feelings that this place generates in us.

I found at this stage of the meditation that I focused on our local environment and particularly the Esplanade along the bay where I often walk with my wife.  I was able to experience wonder and awe, peace and ease,  relaxation and happiness as I pictured myself walking in company along the bayside paths through the trees, adjacent to the marina.  I recall the dolphins I saw in the marina and their playful nature.  I also felt a sense of connectedness to nature and people as I pictured the natural beauty of the place and people strolling happily along with their dogs, their children, and partners or by themselves.  I also felt energised by the images as I mentally explored my immediate environment and felt the energy that surrounded me both in nature itself and the people enjoying the bayside walk.

Reflection

This meditation enriched my appreciation of the environment that I have to experience daily.  It made me more aware of the richness of what surrounds me and the connection that I have to others who actively seek out the beauty of our bayside environment.  Diana asks us, in the spirit of Earth Day, to commit to one or more micro-gestures to care for our environment as we experience our sense of gratitude.

We often take our environment for granted but it will deteriorate if we do not value it and actively care for it. As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on our natural environment and all that it offers in terms of healing, tranquility, and connection, we can become more grateful for what we have at our doorstep and commit to caring for it.

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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.

Developing Awareness to Live More Fully

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education, at MARC, UCLA offers a meditation podcast where she introduces a range of meditation practices.   Her guided meditation covers The Spectrum of Awareness Practices.  During the meditation, Diana likens the different practices to changing the lens and focus of a camera – from narrow to broad to panoramic.  Her aim is to open us up to the possibilities inherent in meditation practice so that we can choose a preferred awareness focus as a regular practice or seek variety by consciously “changing our lens”.   It is not her intention to provide an exhaustive list of meditation practices but to show that there is a broad spectrum in terms of what we can pay attention to and the resultant focus of our awareness.

The telephoto lens – narrow focus

The first meditation practice Diana introduces is what she describes as using a telephoto lens – homing in on a specific object of awareness and leaving awareness of other things in the background (as you would when you focus your camera on a bird in a tree in a distant location).  The focus can be your breath (the rise and fall of your abdomen), specific body sensation or a noise within your room.  As your mind wanders from this chosen anchor, you can bring it back into focus (as you would when adjusting a lens for greater clarity of an image).  This form of awareness meditation develops concentration, calmness, and clarity. 

Wide lens – broader focus

We can broaden our focus beyond our breathing to a particular body sensation or a difficult emotion that draws our attention away from our breath.   We could pay attention, for instance, to the sense of groundedness in our feet, the warm tingling in our fingers or the tightness in our shoulders.  With a difficult emotion, such as resentment, we could focus not only on the nature and intensity of the emotion but also its bodily manifestation, e.g., tightness in the chest, stiffness in the  jaw or pain in the neck.  We can name the emotion and describe its intensity to better tame it and bring it under control.  This broader form of awareness practice can help us to understand our emotions and our triggers, develop emotional regulation, build body awareness and increase our awareness of our mind-body-emotion connection.

Panoramic lens – being conscious of awareness itself

Here we broaden our attention beyond a chosen focus to what exists both within and without us.  It involves tapping into our natural awareness – a consciousness of what is going on inside us as well as around us, without any specific focus.  It requires opening up fully to our inner landscape and our external environment – taking in the sights, sounds, smells, touch, and taste of what we experience.  This is the spaciousness in which we become conscious of awareness itself.   Natural awareness helps us to cultivate openness and acceptance, curiosity and appreciation and a sense of wonder and awe.

Reflection

Diana introduces the spectrum of awareness as a way to broaden and enrich our meditation practice, increase our understanding of the nature of awareness and its pervasiveness, and enrich our daily life so that we can live more fully, engaging with ourselves and the world with heightened awareness and gratitude.  David Sinclair in his book, Lifespan, describes something of the richness of openness to natural awareness when he describes the experience of bushwalking with his family as “Searching for serenity.  Hearing stories. Finding Beauty. Making memories. Sharing wisdom.”

Diana describes natural awareness and other mindfulness practices in more detail in her book, The Little Book of BeingAs we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation, we can experience life more fully and enrich the lives of others from the fullness of our own life.

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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 as a Pathway to Gratitude

Diana Winston offers a way to develop and express gratitude through a guided meditation podcast.  She reminds us that mindfulness is about being in the present moment and paying attention to what is, while being open and curious.  She maintains that being mindful in the present moment, no matter what is happening, can create the space and sense of appreciation to enable gratitude to arise.   

Gratitude can develop and grow as we pay attention to what we are grateful for – we become what we choose to regularly focus on, e.g., compassion, kindness or gratitude.  When we are present to the moment, not self-absorbed or lost in thought, we can more readily appreciate aspects of our life and our environment.  We tend to see things more clearly, not lost in the fog of emotions such as resentment, anger, or frustration.

Guided gratitude meditation

Diana provides this meditation as part of the weekly meditation podcasts provided by UCLA through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).  She takes us through a process of paying attention in the moment with a period of silence followed by a focus on being grateful.

The guided meditation has a number of steps:

  • Grounding – as with normal meditation practice, Diana’s process begins with being grounded through adopting a comfortable posture whether you are sitting, standing, or lying down for the meditation.  This is followed by taking a deep breath and using the outbreath to release any tensions, thoughts, or distractions.  At the same time, you can express gratitude for being able to breathe normally, something that we take for granted.  While expressing this appreciation, you could think of those who are suffering respiratory problems because of COVID-19 and offer compassion towards them, including a desire for their return to wellness.
  • Becoming aware – Diana suggests that you first focus on your body, then your mind and finally any emotions.  With your body, you can be focus on comfort, discomfort, aches or pains or any bodily sensation that you are aware of at the time.  You can pay attention to your thoughts and notice what your mind is doing, being aware of your tendency to plan, critique, analyse, evaluate or other regular mental activity that you may engage in.  Moving onto your emotions, you can become more conscious of how you are feeling – anxious, joyful, enthusiastic or sad – while accepting what is.  In this meditation, the aim is not to dwell on these bodily sensations, thoughts, or emotions, but to notice that they are with us at the moment.
  • Choosing an anchor – Diana offers a range of anchors such as your breath, bodily sensation (e.g., in your fingers or feet), sounds around you or an aspect of nature, such as a tree.  The anchor serves to bring your attention back once you become distracted by your thoughts.  The process of refocusing after distractions acts to strengthen your “awareness muscle”.

Focusing in on what you are grateful for

After a period of silence and practising stillness, Diana suggests that you bring to mind something or someone for which you are grateful.  This could be something you particularly appreciate in your life –  your location and its advantages, the opportunity to go for morning walks in a pleasant environment, the beauty of surrounding nature, the pleasure and comfort of your own home, the extraordinary capacity of your brain, the ability to move and engage in physical activity, or anything else that is a source of thankfulness.  

Alternatively, you could focus on a person in your life that you are really grateful for – in the process, paying attention to what you appreciate about them, e.g., their intelligence, thoughtfulness, support, kindness, sense of equity, willingness to share their feelings, openness, faithfulness, or any other traits that come to mind.

Whether you are focusing on someone or something, you can dwell on the sense of appreciation and gratitude that they are part of your life at the moment.  Keeping a focus on gratitude helps us to develop this very positive emotion that not only influences how we show up in the world and the nature of our interactions but is also great for our mental health

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, especially through gratitude meditation and expressions of appreciation, we will become more positive and appreciative of our life and less likely to indulge negative emotions such as resentment, envy, or frustration.

Recently I was playing social tennis with a male partner who was a very good player but who became increasingly annoyed and upset that his timing was out of kilter, resulting in multiple errors.  As emotional states are contagious, I could have become very negative about my own game and tennis mistakes.  However, through the practice of mindfulness, I was able instead to focus on the fact that I was able to play; that my body was holding up for this activity despite my age; and that I was able to take pleasure in any good shots I played.  This led me during the next day to focus on the micro skills that I was able  to use while playing tennis, e.g., serve, volley, play a forehand or backhand, run to the ball, and also judge the speed, direction, and spin of the ball.

Gratitude developed through mindfulness can positively impact every activity of our life.

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Developing Wisdom Through Meditation

In a recent interview for Mindful.org, Sharon Salzberg discussed The Power of Loving Kindness.  In the course of the interview, Sharon identified different ways that meditation can develop wisdom – the ability to make insightful judgments and sensible decisions based on our knowledge and experience.  Her wide-ranging conversation focused on a number of key insights that can help us to inform our judgements and guide our decision making.

Elements of wisdom developed through meditation

In her interview, Sharon shared several key insights into the way meditation can contribute to the development of wisdom:

  • Learning to accept what you can’t control – the starting point to develop wisdom is to acknowledge that many things are outside our control and to accept this fact despite our innate need for control.  Wasting energy and negative emotion on things outside our control only debilitates us and leaves us open to frustration and depression.
  • Realising that no matter the situation, you have agency – you can exercise agency (your capacity to act to have control over your inner landscape and over some elements of your external environment).   Viktor Frankl, author of Yes to Life in Spite of Everything, demonstrated control over his inner landscape during his internment in a concentration camp.  There is always something that you can do externally as well – you just need the space and time to be open to this possibility.  Even in this time of the global pandemic, people and organisations are finding creative ways to take action to exercise control over some elements of their life and work.  Wisdom recognises that you don’t need to feel entirely powerless.  As Sharon points out, “It’s an illusion to think that we are without any agency in our lives, any ability to act”.
  • Learning to use the gap that is available between stimulus and response – you can become convinced that your conditioned way of responding is the only way for you to react to a negative stimulus.  As Viktor Frankl maintains there is a gap between stimulus and response and therein lies your freedom to choose your action (“considered action” rather than reaction).  Meditation develops self-awareness, especially in relation to the negative stimuli that activate your fight/flight/freeze responses.  Meditation also builds self-regulation so that you can choose your response rather than be conditioned by your past experiences and habituated way of reacting.
  • There is a unique way for you to help others – you have a combination of life experiences, skills, personal attributes and knowledge/understanding that is different to anyone else.  Instead of trying to live up to others’ expectations, you can find a personal way to help through meditation and reflection – you can exercise sound judgment and creative decision making in relation to your potential contribution.  Sharon reinforces this when she suggests that you can “pay attention and look and listen for opportunities to help” that are in line with your capabilities and the challenges of the situation you are faced with.
  • Dealing effectively with difficult emotions – being with these emotions in all their pain and intensity instead of avoiding them and acting in a dysfunctional and hurtful way.  Feeling difficult emotions in your body and naming them in a granular way (e.g. anxiety, fear, shame) enables you to tame them and to convert negative energy into constructive action.
  • Appreciating moments of wellness and joy – it takes awareness in the moment to appreciate your experiences of beauty, joy and love.  Gratitude for these experiences enhances their impact on your overall wellbeing. Also, as Sharon maintains in her recent book, loving-kindness meditation is a revolutionary way to happiness.
  • Developing your sense of connectedness – when you experience wellness or complex emotions or become immersed in nature through meditation and reflection, you heighten your sense of connectedness to everyone else who is experiencing this range of human emotions and to every living thing.  Sharon notes that connectedness is the very fabric of life and if you treat yourself as separate, you are “fighting that reality”.  Loving-kindness meditation is a very effective way to reinforce and manifest our connectedness to others.

Reflection

It pays to think about, and experience, how meditation develops sound judgement and enables sensible decisions.  We so often relate meditation to rest and relaxation and overlook its power to facilitate effective action in a wide range of situations.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, our awareness of what is and what’s possible develops, our ability to manage ourselves (thoughts, emotions and actions) increases and our enhanced sense of connectedness becomes an inner source of energy and empowerment.

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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.

Accessing the Power of Meditation and Loving Kindness

Barry Boyce, founding editor of Mindful.org, interviewed Sharon Salzberg, globally recognised meditation teacher, about the impact of meditation and loving kindness (about which Sharon is a world-renowned exponent).  In the interview, The Power of Loving-Kindness, Sharon explained how she had studied Eastern philosophy and learned about meditation by travelling to India, not the local meditation centre like you do today.  She was surprised that much of the Indian meditation practice that she learned focused on the breath, not the more esoteric approaches she had learned about.

Focusing on the breath

Sharon was at first taken aback by the simplicity of the breath focus.  However, she soon realised that while the idea is simple, the execution is difficult because it involves having to deal with racing thoughts that distracted her from her focus on her breath.   She found how hard it was to pay attention to her breath when “thoughts came tumbling down like a waterfall”.

At challenging times, when anxiety is high, our mind races away from our focus with some speed and intensity.  Bringing attention back to our breathing focus, is difficult to do but builds our “attention muscle”.  It enhances our power of concentration and our capacity to be with what is, whether it is the experience of well-being or the pain and suffering of challenging emotions.  Pausing to focus on our breath develops clarity and our capacity to lead with conviction.

The role of loving-kindness

There is a tendency is to give up in the face of the difficulty of focusing on our breath.  However, persistence really pays and creates the power to access equanimity, ease and creativity.  Sometimes, we are tempted to beat up on ourselves by saying, “We are not good at meditation and never will be?”; “It’s such a simple thing, why can’t I do it?”  “Other people seem to manage, why can’t I?”

This is where loving kindness has a role.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his definition of mindfulness, exhorts us to practise paying purposeful attention “non-judgmentally”.  It is the negative self-evaluation that creates the greatest barrier to meditation, not the fact that we have lots of distracting thoughts.  Thoughts are natural and will vary in content and frequency over time, reflecting what is going on in our life at that time.  Jon suggests that we treat thoughts as if they are bubbles floating to the surface in boiling water.

Sharon maintains that “kindness towards ourselves” is essential if we are going to be able to persist with meditation.  She argues that paying attention and kindness are inseparable – without self-compassion, you cannot sustain your attention.   The power of meditation lies not only in the increasing capacity to concentrate but also in the ability to develop robust self-esteem through loving-kindness.   Another dimension of this power is the ability to rest in our breath and bodily sensations in troubling times and times of turbulence in our life. Sharon explores fully the role of loving-kindness in her recent book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.

The power of connection

Through meditation and loving-kindness, we come to realise our connectedness to everyone and our connection with nature.  This is foundational to our ability to show compassion towards others.  If we can accept ourselves fully – with our flaws, hurtful behaviour and our complex emotions – we are better able to extend compassion and forgiveness to others and accept that they are only human too.

Through our sense of connection, we can tap into the “collective energy” that surrounds us, pursue our life purpose and make a real difference in the world.  Meditation becomes a power source, a way of accessing the power within and without – it becomes the conduit for our energy system.

Reflection

Meditation has a calming yet powerful effect.  When we are rattled or frazzled, our power of concentration is diminished, our thoughts become dispersed and our energy dissipated.   Paying attention to our breath with loving-kindness enables us to access our power source and to bring focused energy to our endeavours, whatever they may be.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, particularly through loving-kindness meditation, we can enhance our sense of connection to everybody and every living thing, build resilient self-esteem and draw on the power of focus.

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Image by Alexander Droeger from Pixabay

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

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

Developing Sustainable Intimate Relationships through Mindfulness

Wendy Strgar, intimate relationship expert and author, stresses the role of mindfulness as a pathway to developing a sustainable intimate relationship.  In her books and blog she openly shares the ups and downs, troughs and deep valleys, of the 30 plus years of her relationship with her husband.  Her blog, Making Love Sustainable, has a category of posts devoted to mindfulness.  Wendy’s first book, Love That Works: A Guide to Enduring Intimacy, highlights developing intimate relationships as a learning journey for both partners.  Her latter book which provides a guide to awakening and sustaining intimate relationships focuses on “deep presence” and “attention” as key ingredients of a sustainable and rich intimate life.  I will draw on this latter book to share some of Wendy’s insights into how to sustain an intimate relationship through mindfulness.

Mindfulness for developing and sustaining an intimate relationship

There are very clear lessons in Wendy’s second book on sustaining intimate relationships that link directly to the nature of mindfulness as defined by Jon Kabat-Zin and the definition provided by Diana Winston.  Here are some key points that Wendy makes about developing and sustaining an intimate relationship:

  • Paying attention: Wendy’s longest chapter is devoted to this topic which she considers makes the difference between “fleeting pleasure and lasting happiness” in a relationship.  Her broader focus for a discussion of attention is being fully engaged in something that you love, that enriches you and makes you fully yourself.   A narrower focus that she emphasises is paying attention to your thoughts about yourself and your partner – since our thoughts create our reality.  In practice, this means dealing with negative self-stories on the one hand and developing a growing consciousness of how we think about our partner (a neglected area of personal inquiry).  As we have mentioned previously, “we are not our thoughts” nor is our partner solely what we think they are.
  • Being present: Wendy emphasises presence and being in the moment as key ways to communicate love and respect in an intimate relationship. If our mind is continuously wandering and we are lost in thought (about our “to-do list” for example), we cannot be truly present to the other person. In her blog post, Gifting Your Real Presence, she discusses the relationship benefits of being fully present and ways to achieve real presence.
  • Deep listening: the art of deep listening involves both paying attention and being present.  Wendy suggests that these aspects in combination develop the capacity for “full-body attention” and enable our partner to “feel truly heard”.  This art of listening requires that we do not “try to solve the other person’s problems or to steer the conversation” to something about ourselves and our achievements (to avoid the emotive content of the conversation).  In Wendy’s view, “attentive listening” serves to “enliven our intimate connection”.
  • Being non-judgemental: it is very easy to become obsessed with the negative spiral of identifying our partner’s faults and deficiencies (often to defend our own position or our sense of self-worth).  We can get into the negative habit of highlighting their lack of congruence – the inconsistency between their words (particularly their advice to us) and their actions. Again, paying attention to our thoughts about our partner will surface this tendency to judge and/or project our negative traits onto our intimate partner.
  • Developing the intention to focus on the relationship: Wendy suggests that an intimate relationship should be viewed as a container or environment that sustains “an atmosphere hospitable to love” (and intimacy).  This entails focusing on cultivating the relationship rather than the singular pursuit of our own needs at our partner’s expense or subservience to the assumed needs of our partner out of a sense of obligation.  Focusing on the relationship could also mean exploring the “unwritten rules” in the relationship. When we focus on cultivating the relationship atmosphere we can also think of the analogy of a garden.  Wendy suggests an intimate relationship needs the fertile soil of “showing up” in the relationship (translates to “sharing”), the pure water of setting aside time for intimacy, and the fresh air of clear and unambiguous communication.  
  • Bringing openness and curiosity to the relationship: this aspect lines up with Diana Winston’s explanation of mindfulness.  This entails a readiness to learn about our-self-in-the-relationship (through self-observation) and to get to know and understand our partner intimately – including their needs and preferences, communication style and their energy pattern.

Reflection

Developing a sustainable intimate relationship involves a lifetime pursuit of learning and focused intention to cultivate a loving environment for the relationship (rather than just accepting established patterns of saying and doing things which may be injurious to sustainability).  As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn to pay attention, be fully present, listen deeply, observe non-judgmentally and develop self-awareness and an unadulterated awareness of our partner (not contaminated by our unfulfilled need for attention derived from a deficient childhood).  Being mindful in an intimate relationship does not involve losing our self in the relationship but finding our self through the relationship.  It entails showing up fully in our life to enrich the relationship and engender intimacy through mutual appreciation and gratitude.

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Image by Sasin Tipchai 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.