Ways to Engage with Nature

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

Ways to engage with nature mindfully

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

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

Reflection

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

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Image by Hai Nguyen from Pixabay

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

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

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.

The Courage of Simone Biles

Simone Biles, considered one of the greatest female gymnasts of all time, had a rocky road at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (23 July to 8 August 2021) that had been delayed because of the pandemic.  Simone, who has won 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, experienced mental health issues at the Olympics and opted to withdraw from the US team event after completing only one of the four components in the artistic gymnastics competition.  She also withdrew from individual events including the all-round gymnastic competition. 

However, Simone returned for one event, the balanced beam, to win a bronze medal in a tight finish.  Her courage and resilience in the face of her mental health issues is a source of inspiration for many others, including elite athletes who suffer from the burden of expectations.  Her courage is immortalised in the Binge© movie about her life – the 2018 movie, The Simone Biles Story – Courage to Soar, which among other things depicts her adverse childhood experiences which included foster care.

Mental health issue – the Twisties

During the final of her first event, the vault, as part of the US Gymnastic team, Simone experienced the “twisties” which can be very dangerous because it involves disorientation through loss of spatial awareness while twisting and turning in the air and attempting to land.  It can cause serious injury such as that experienced by British gymnast, Claudia Fragapane, during the 2016 Olympics.  Claudia explained that Simone would have experienced the “twisties” as a mental block resulting from too much pressure – unrealistic expectations that fail to acknowledge that world-class gymnasts, while being able to perform “superhuman” feats, are in fact human and vulnerable. 

As Simone herself commented, “At the end of the day, we’re not just entertainment, we’re human” and gymnasts not only have to manage the intricacies and demands of the sport but also “things behind the scenes”. In her case, one of the sad and disturbing things that happened during the Olympics was the unexpected death of her aunt, which occurred two days before her return to compete on the balance beam.

The courage to return

Simone returned to the Olympic competition to compete in the individual balance beam final where she won a bronze medal.  She displayed incredible courage to return and risk injury but had clearly developed a balanced perspective through her mental health crisis.  She said of her Olympic Bronze Medal, that it “means more than all the golds” because of the courage and resilience she had to draw on over the previous five years and the week of the Olympics. She also indicated that she valued her “physical and mental health” above all the medals.

During her break from the pressure of the 2020 Olympic competition, Simone spent time utilising the training facilities of Juntendo University which is located just outside Tokyo.  There she was able to regain her balance and confidence to enable her to return for the individual balanced beam event. She publicly expressed her deep gratitude for their support and technical assistance.  To acknowledge their support publicly when she herself was in the limelight demonstrated her humility, appreciation and healthy confidence.   

Simone is globally acknowledged for achieving “gravity-defying” feats that no one else has been able to achieve.  After this Olympics, her personal achievement in dealing with her mental health issue will rank up there with her physical achievements and inspire many others to seek help and grow through their challenges.

Reflection

When we are confronted with unrealistic expectations we can become both disturbed and distracted and lose perspective.  Sometimes, it requires “time out” (as in basketball and beach volleyball) to assess what is going on and to regain our perspective.  Simone showed us that she had the courage to declare her difficult mental state and to take time out to find her balance (physically and emotionally) and restore her perspective.

It took even more courage to return to the Olympic competition despite the sometimes vitriolic media commentary that saw her as “deserting her teammates”.  She had to face not only her inner demons but also the external, unthinking critics who lacked understanding and compassion.  Simone also demonstrated courage in bringing “the topic of conversation on mental health to light” which she stated “meant the world” to her.

Simone was willing to disclose what action she had taken to be able to return to the competition and she did so to express her gratitude to people who helped her in the intervening period.  As I discussed previously, gratitude is one thing that Naomi Osaka uses to help her become grounded in challenging situations.  Ash Barty, too, has gratitude as a foundational value.

We can develop our own resilience and courage by using meditation, reflection and other practices to grow in mindfulness.  This will help us to explore our inner landscape and our habituated responses and enable us to develop healthy confidence and a balanced perspective.

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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.

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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Image by jacqueline macou 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 Confidence through Mindfulness and Reflection

Rick Hanson, in a podcast interview on the topic Confidence or Narcissism?, focused on the fact that many of us confuse confidence with narcissistic tendencies –  in summary, being self-absorbed and pursuing the need to be valued in the eyes of others.  He suggests that our behaviours often derive from adverse childhood experiences where we have been deprived of what he calls, “narcissistic supplies” – a deprivation of expressions of love and appreciation for who we are, not for what we might achieve or become.  Later in life, we try to fill the gap left by this deprivation by seeking to draw attention to ourselves or pursuing self-interest at the expense of everyone else.

Rick suggests that one way to fill the gap is to be mindful throughout the day whenever we experience something that is self-affirming, e.g., an expression of gratitude, and to savour this in the moment.  He also recommends loving kindness meditation towards others who are engaged in extreme narcissistic behaviour – recognising that their bullying, belittling, and blaming behaviours are often the result of a deficit (not receiving positive affirmation in their younger years). Mindfulness meditation can increase our awareness of our own narcissistic tendencies, build a genuine confidence born of appreciated positive affirmations and help us to understand what drives behaviour that is perceived as “over-confidence” or “superior conceit”.

The disabling effect of negative self-stories

Negative self-stories can undermine our confidence, lead to procrastination and act as a barrier to creativity in our life’s work..  These can have their origins in parental messages, schoolyard experiences, workplace exchanges or other environment influences.  They are below awareness and are often reinforced by our own self-criticism throughout our life experiences.  The self-stories get reflected in our emotional responses and habituated behaviour, such as procrastination. 

Tara Brach, meditation teacher and practitioner, suggests that it is important to bring these stories “above the line” in order to prevent them from undermining our confidence and self-belief.  She encourages us to practice meditation and reflection to enable us to  name the stories, embrace the underlying feelings, understand recurring patterns, and increase our awareness about their origins and our self-reinforcement of the persistent false beliefs.  Leo Babauta recommends adding a dose of self-kindness, as well as loving kindness towards others.

A reflective framework

In a recent online webinar on Awaken Your Confidence, Empowerment Coach Amy Schadt provided a reflective framework that identified four categories of self-doubt.  After the workshop, she generously provided a worksheet for one of the four categories that you identified during the workshop as being the most prominent self-doubt category in your life at the moment.  The worksheet provided a means of reflecting on the thoughts and behaviours that were creating a blockage for you and undermining your confidence.

Amy usually works with women and offers a range of services such as personal coaching, workshops, and her signature online program, Design Your Unstoppable You.  However, I participated in the webinar because I wanted to address a blockage to undertaking what Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, describes as “your meaningful work” – your life purpose which involves actualising your knowledge, skills and experience in the service of others. It often entails uncertainty and moving outside your comfort zone.   The meaningful work that I found difficult to initiate is the conduct of a series of online mindfulness webinars.  So, I could readily relate to the category of self-doubt identified by Amy as Hesitation.

Viewed on a purely logical level, this hesitation is not rational.  I am trained in group facilitation and have run hundreds of paid, face-to-face workshops and, more recently, many via the Zoom platform.  I am very comfortable with the technology, have a paid subscription to Zoom (so I can control the medium) and have a group of over 200 potentially interested people in my paid Meetup Group, Brisbane Courses and Workshops.  I have conducted a number of paid workshops on mindfulness in organisations.  I have also written more than 550 blog posts on the topic of mindfulness and engaged in a wide range of regular mindfulness practices, including Tai Chi. 

It is as if my life’s study, training, and experience has been preparing me to undertake this meaningful work in the form of online, mindfulness workshops.  I am very conscious that there is a huge need for mental health support in the community and I am firmly convinced through my research, writing, and practice that mindfulness has a role to play in providing that support. While my hesitancy about conducting these specific mindfulness workshops has no rational basis, it clearly has an emotional one.

Reflection

As Amy points out, underlying hesitancy is a fear that something could go wrong, I might make a wrong decision or the workshops will not work out as I expect them to.  In combining Amy’s Self-Doubt Hesitation Worksheet approach and Leo’s approach to dealing with rationalizations that prevent us from undertaking our “meaningful work”, I decided initially to explore my rationalisations for hesitancy and identify “contrary arguments based on evidence of my past experience”.  

My Rationalisations

After some sustained thought and reflection, I identified the following rationalisations as blockages to my undertaking the desired workshops:

  1. I am uncertain about the needs/interests of potential participants
  2. The workshops may not meet my expectations in being able to help people
  3. Workshop participants might have questions that I might not have the answer to
  4. Workshop participants may have mental health issues that I do not know how to handle
  5. I am concerned that I might accidently trigger a trauma response.
My counter arguments for these rationalisations

Leo suggests that you explore counter arguments for your rationalisations to weaken their hold and open up new, creative possibilities. Here’s my attempt to provide counter arguments for each of my rationalisations listed above:

  1. Uncertainty re needs – It is likely that members of my Meetup group (people who have expressed an interest in mindfulness and related topics) have needs and issues in areas that I have covered in my blog, including effective leadership and creating a mentally healthy workplace. The workshop would also enable them to be aware of, and have access to, the numerous resources mentioned in this blog.  There are many other people who are members of Meetup groups across the world who have similar interests and would be interested in participating once the workshops were advertised throughout Meetup.  This increases the likelihood of my not knowing what their pressing needs are or how to address them in the workshop.  However, I could conduct a survey via Survey Monkey© to elicit these.  I could also just ask participants what topics they want to cover in future workshops (which is something I do on a regular basis in my manager development programs).
  2. Not meeting expectations – I know from my many manager development workshops over many years that you cannot control outcomes in workshops, you can only design the process the best you can with the knowledge and information that you have at the time.  People come to workshops with different expectations, orientations, readiness to learn and motivations.  People have different learning styles and they also learn differently in various situations.  For one person, something another participant says might be the catalyst to deep insight; for another, it might be something they read away from the workshop.  I cannot control outcomes, nor should I try.  Hugh Van Cuylenburg, author of The Resilience Project, and other creative writers, artists and performers, emphasise the need to focus on process not outcomes and explain how this perspective generates freedom and creativity.
  3. Questions I can’t answer – I am not intending to present myself as a mindfulness expert or mindfulness trainer.  I want to share what I have learned about mindfulness – its processes, benefits, challenges and rewards.  I will encourage participants to share their experiences, knowledge, practices and insights.  I also have a mountain of resources at my disposal to share with anyone who has a question that I cannot answer or that someone in the participating group does not have the answer to.
  4. Mental health issues that are too complex – I will not be presenting myself as a mental health expert but as someone who has had to deal with mental health issues personally and as an ongoing carer.  I will provide a disclaimer – “I am not a Medical Doctor or Psychologist/Psychiatrist; I am a retired Emeritus Professor of Management who has worked with many people within organisations on a very wide range of issues affecting human behaviour.”  I know that for some people in some circumstances the very opportunity to share their challenges in a supportive environment can be a healing process.  I have some understanding about when to refer people to a professional in the area of mental health and I am aware of many resources in this area (having provided organisational consultancy services to a number of organisations in the mental health field). 
  5. Trigger a trauma response – I have become acutely aware that some mindfulness practices, as well as facilitation activity (e.g., storytelling), can be a trauma trigger for an individual.  I became very aware of this through the work of David Treleaven on trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  I have researched this area and written a number of blog posts on the topic.  The staring point is to have the awareness about this possibility.  There are strategies I can employ such as providing a choice of anchors when undertaking meditation practices that will reduce the risk.  However, the reality is that I have no control over what will be a trigger for an individual – many people have had adverse childhood experiences and trauma in their life and the potential triggers are too numerous to mention or even adequately conceive. I think I also have a particular sensitivity in this area because I have seen on a number of occasions where a relatively harmless intervention activity has resulted in a major physical and emotional traumatic response – and it is something that made myself and other people present very uncomfortable.

These reflections on rationalisations and counter arguments have helped me to strengthen my resolve to undertake this meaningful work and clarified for me what I need to do to ensure I develop a quality process for my proposed workshops.  As I grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, I can gain greater self-awareness, insight and wisdom, increased clarity about what I am trying to achieve and heightened creativity to achieve outcomes people value. 

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Image by Couleur 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.

Activating Gratitude through Micro-Gestures

LaRayia Gaston, author of Love Without Reason, spoke to Tami Simon of Sounds True in an interview podcast that covered her book as well as her life and work amongst the homeless in Los Angeles.  LaRayia is the founder of Lunch on Me, a charity offering fresh vegan and organic food to the homeless by accessing left-over food from cafes and restaurants that otherwise would be wasted.  She did extensive research to develop a supply chain and distribution process to ensure that people on the street received quality, fresh food.

LaRayia spoke about her difficult life with her own mother who was full of anger and resentment and engaged in destructive behaviours.   In contrast, her Grandmother was a constant source of inspiration through her unconditional love and her ability to spread love to whoever she met, wherever she went.  In her own words, LaRayia maintained that her Grandmother taught her to “love without reason”.  LaRayia decided that she did not want to “sit in the pain of anger and resentment” and the negative energy involved but wanted to share her positive energy and love.

Activating gratitude

LaRayia maintained that it is not enough to write our gratitude journals in the comfort of our homes – we have to translate that gratitude into compassionate action for those who are less fortunate than ourselves. We have to activate our gratitude.  She suggests that anyone can achieve this by adopting “micro-gestures” of kindness, thoughtfulness, and love.  For example, you could buy someone a bottle of water or a coffee, especially someone who has been seeking donations at the front of a store. 

LaRayia made a habit of carrying bottles of water and granola bars in her car that she could distribute to whoever might need one. Taking time to talk to someone on the street, who may look dishevelled, can be another micro-gesture expressing kindness and love – ignoring the appearance of a torn shirt, old jacket, and untidy beard to see the person beyond.  LaRayia contends that she is not asking people to “change the whole world” but to act on “what’s in front of us”.  She also stated that it is one thing to give when asked, it’s another level of awareness and action to notice a need and respond without being asked.

Barriers to activating gratitude and love for others

One of the barriers identified by LaRayia is our “scarcity mindset” – no matter what we have, it is never enough.  Another is what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as always rushing to “be someplace else”, rather than being in the present moment.  LaRayia argues that it takes discipline to be present and to take compassionate action towards those in need.  She practices meditation and develops her deep awareness of her connectedness to everybody, no matter where they live or how poor they are.

Another key barrier to activating gratitude and spreading kindness is the rationalisations that we use to avoid taking compassionate action, e.g., when we consider giving money to homeless people – “They will only spend it on drugs or alcohol”, “If only these people would work hard like us, they would not need assistance – helping them only makes them lazier”.  As LaRayia points out, these assumptions and preconceptions blind us and disable us from taking action – the fact is, we do not know what these people have experienced, the hurt they have felt or the way they have been treated in the past.  We know, however, for example, that young people who are homeless have often been the victim of domestic violence or sexual harassment or sexual assault.

LaRayia addressed the issue of “fear of rejection” in her interview podcast – a very common barrier to extending kindness to others.  We often think, “What if they turn down my offer of help, would I cope with the embarrassment of rejection”? She stated quite clearly that taking compassionate action is exposing ourselves to vulnerability, but it is a cost we have to pay to be kind.  A wonderful example of compassionate action while being vulnerable is that of Coach Mo Cheeks’ action to help a young singer complete the National Anthem at the start of a major basketball playoff – the singer had forgotten the lyrics and Mo helped her out by singing with her despite not being a great singer himself.  LaRayia suggests that the way forward is not to focus on “outcomes” but to concentrate on the process of spreading kindness, thoughtfulness, and love.  A focus on outcomes can entrap us and lead to disappointment and discouragement.  On the other hand, focusing on the person in front of us can lead to mutual benefit and healing.

A two-way street

Neuroscience research confirms the benefits that accrue to people who show kindness and gratitude to others.  LaRayia stated that this exchange is “not a one-way street”.  This was especially brought home to her when she was experiencing disabling grief on the death of her beloved Grandmother.  She decided to spend time with the homeless as a way to find herself again and heal from her grief. Her experience is recorded in her documentary, 43 Days on Skid Row.  LaRayia found that homeless people were the most generous people she had ever met – they gave despite their need while we often give from our surplus.  She argues that in giving both people learn and heal.

Reflection

One of the tenets of Lunch on Me is “radical self-love is the foundation for permanent healing”.  When we show kindness and love to others in need, we are showing respect and building their self-esteem.  If we show avoidance, disdain, or look down on the homeless, we are reinforcing any sense they may have that they are “not worthy” of respect or love.  

LaRayia encourages us to engage with others from our rich store of innate love rather from a perspective of emptiness.  She notes our obsessive need to accumulate wealth and possessions which do not bring lasting happiness.  The reality is that when we die or if we suffer Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, we can take none of this with us – people set about disposing of our possessions and dismantling our life’s accumulation.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a deeper sense of connection with everyone, no matter what their status, wealth or appearance is.  We can also develop the courage and creativity to overcome the barriers to activating our gratitude and adopt a daily practice of micro-gestures of empathy and compassion.  LaRayia offers many suggestions for micro-gestures and relevant meditations/reflections in her book.

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Image by Hieu Van from Pixabay

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

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

The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

In an interview podcast with Bob O’Haver, Gloria Kamler, mindfulness meditation teacher and stress-relief expert, discussed her reasons for meditating and how her practice has evolved over more than 30 years.  She indicated that in her first 10 years of meditation practice, she used to repeat mantras over and over for two and half hours each day.  This proved not only to be unsustainable as she began working with clients, but she also found that she did not experience effective transfer to her daily life of the peace and calmness she  experienced during meditation.  It was then that Gloria turned to mindfulness meditation and the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the developer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).   She now offers training in MBSR and meditation.

She also indicated that her reasons for meditating have evolved from seeking peace and calmness (at the time of the Vietnam War) to achieving emotional regulation, living her life more consciously and developing kindness towards herself and others. She realised that, in working as a therapist with people with chronic pain, she needed to achieve kindness towards herself (despite her frailties and fragility) and others and develop the capacity to accept what is.  Gloria suggests that we start each meditation practice session with the question, “Why am I meditating?” – this process strengthens our focus, raises our awareness of what we are actually doing and clarifies our purpose.

Benefits of mindfulness meditation

In a recent guided meditation podcast as a member of the MARC faculty, Gloria discussed what she experienced as the benefits of mindfulness meditation.  She explained that her concept of meditation was the “training of attention” to be able to see more clearly what is happening in her life, to develop a different perspective and to be more settled and contented when dealing with the waves and vicissitudes of life.

Gloria maintained that mindfulness meditation developed our brains so that we were no longer fully captured by our habituated fight/flight/freeze response driven by our amygdala.  She argues that for a majority of time we are working on “auto-pilot”, not being aware of what is going on inside us or in our immediate environment.  When faced with a challenging situation we can revert to responding the way we always responded – with silence, anger, frustration, resentment, envy, aggression, or inaction.  Mindfulness meditation enables us to develop choices and to become more skilful in navigating the ups and downs of life.  In speaking of developing flexibility, freedom and choice, Gloria quotes Albert Einstein on how to create new ways of behaving, “The only way to change a habit is to do something different.”

Gloria found one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation that “totally surprised” her, was the tendency to be “much kinder and compassionate”.  She found that this benefit was stimulated through a growing awareness of her connectedness to others and nature.  She discovered that we are “naturally wired to be kind”.  However, this capacity is often latent because we become “wired to the amygdala” that takes over – acting as our “Commander-in-Chief” determining what we perceive and how we think and feel, leading to our habituated responses.  Gloria found that, through mindfulness meditation, she did not take her life experiences so personally, was able to “witness her own fragility”, act more skilfully and consciously and take compassionate action.

Skills developed through mindfulness meditation

Gloria suggests that there are three basic skills that we practice in mindfulness meditation:

  1. Concentration – bringing our attention back to our desired focus, whether that be our breath, sounds, bodily sensations, or other anchor.  In this way we reclaim our attention and build our “awareness muscle”.
  2. Sensory and emotional clarity – being very aware of what we are sensing and our emotional responses to our perceptions.  Associated with this, is developing the space between stimulus and response, and realizing that we have choice and freedom in how we respond – leading to emotional regulation.
  3. Equanimity – allowing ourselves to be with what is, rather than resisting it.  Gloria suggests that it is natural to resist, to hold tightly to things as they have been and resist what is new and challenging. 

Self-Healing through mindfulness meditation

Kelly Noonan Gores in her book, Heal: Discover Your Unlimited Potential and Awaken the Powerful Healer Within, discusses the futility of the Disease of Resistance and the need to understand its message. She argues that the way forward and the means to break the hold of our tendency to resist is to “learn the language of the body”.  Gloria suggests that technology can separate us from our reality and our bodies.  By becoming grounded through mindfulness meditation, we can overcome self-sabotage and learn to work with our innate healing power and wisdom.  In another meditation podcast, Gloria offers a guided meditation on “body and breath”.

In the meditation podcast that is the focus of this post, Gloria spends some time instructing us on how to become grounded, especially through our feet.  She suggests, for example, that we concentrate on the bodily sensation in our feet – whether it is tingling or numbness, the sensation of socks on our skin or the feeling of something solid beneath us.  When we become grounded, we no longer feel out of control or constantly buffeted by the turbulence of life.  Mindfulness meditation becomes our refuge.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can  live our lives more fully, show compassion towards ourselves and others and experience joy, beauty and healing.  We can become less controlled by our emotions and habituated responses and more open and creative.

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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.

Insights Into Meditation Practice

Tami Simon from Sounds True interviewed world-renowned meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, about the nature of meditation.  The interview podcast titled, Beginning Anew, provided some valuable insights into meditation practice and its outcomes.  By way of illustration of the many applications of meditation, Sharon spoke of her meditation work with the Garrison Institute helping to develop a “culture of wellness” amongst domestic violence health care workers.  She also mentioned her meditation work with nurses and international refugee workers who experience vicarious trauma because of the trauma of others that they experience every day and feel isolated because of their inability to talk about the truly disturbing things they encounter.  Some of the insights into meditation practice from her interview are summarised below.

Insights into how we can become renewed through meditation practice

Sharon’s interview podcast provided considerable insight into the nature of meditation and its personal impacts – the longer and more consistently we practise meditation, the more profoundly we will experience these impacts:

  • Seeing possibilities – when we are caught up in our difficult emotions and seemingly trapped, we tend to experience “tunnel vision”.  In the face of disruptive change, which is ever-present, we tend to focus on the “endings” rather than the “new beginnings”.  We can also become obsessed with projecting an adverse future onto our mind’s screen.  We become locked in, unable to see possibilities and the potential for new beginnings – the ability to “begin anew”.  Meditation stills the mind and enables us to identify creative options – it releases our creativity in times of change and challenge.
  • Gaining understanding – Sharon highlights this dimensionof meditationby focusing on the difference between guilt and remorse.  Guilt in her words is a form of “lacerating self-hatred” where we beat up on ourselves for our mistakes, deficiencies and harmful behaviour.  We convince ourselves that we will never change but will continue to be hurtful towards others.  Remorse, on the other hand, is genuine sorrow for causing hurt to others together with the ability for self-forgiveness.   Understanding, developed through meditation, releases us from being “mired in the pain and exhaustion of guilt” and enables us to have the energy, motivation and will to change.  Sharon describes understanding as “a tremendous tool”.
  • Changing our perspective – if we focus only on the things that are wrong or missing in our lives, we will miss the things in front of us that generate well-being and possibilities.  If we get locked into a pattern of negativity, we will lack the ability to “see clearly” – we will not be in a position to “serve ourselves or others”.  Research at the HeartMath® Institute demonstrates that negative emotions creates chaos in our nervous system while positive emotions “can increase the brain’s ability to make good decisions”.  Sharon points out that focusing on the negative in any situation disables us while insight gained through meditation can “create change and the context for change”.

Reflection

We can become trapped in a created, negative reality with the perception of no way forward, and become trapped in guilt about our past words and actions.  Sharon maintains that as we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can open our eyes to possibilities, gain a real understanding of the difference between disabling guilt and enabling remorse and develop a perspective on change that enables us to move from negativity to positivity and sound decision making.  Sharon’s Insight Meditation Kit, developed with Joseph Goldstein, provides the tools and resources to help us remove hindrances to personal growth and develop the energy for personal change.

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Image by Ioannis Ioannidis 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.

Challenges for Couple Relationships During Quarantine and Working from Home

Rick Hanson, in one of his Being Well Podcasts, spoke of Coping with Quarantine.   His focus in this discussion was on the intrapersonal and interpersonal challenges of physical distancing and restrictions on movement.   In the podcast, he identified the challenges and highlighted the fact that the pandemic and associated quarantine conditions have contributed to an increased divorce rate in China since the pandemic outbreak.  Rick spoke of the interpersonal challenges brought on by the confinement conditions and the mental and emotional pressures experienced by couples working from home.

Challenges of social isolation for couples working from home

The unusual conditions for a couple working from home in the context of other social constrictions creates increase emotional pressure for individuals in a relationship as well as for the relationship itself.  Rick describes some of these challenges as follows:

  • Heightened emotional activation: both individuals in a relationship who are working from home will be experiencing heightened emotions in the form of anxiety, fear and frustration as a result of the Coronavirus and associated restrictions on location and movement.   Couples typically experience daily aggravations with some of the comments and actions of their partner.  These aggravations can be intensified in the situation of limited physical space in the home environment and restrictions on movement.  The home environment can become a place of continuous annoyance, conflict and anger rather than a haven of peace and contentment.  Married couples in this situation can experience suffocation and/or staleness and need to draw on considerable internal resources to increase their tolerance and maintain their relationship.
  • Loss of social support: physical distancing can separate us from people we usually associate with and from whom we draw support and reinforcement.  Normally, we gain validation and confirmation of our competence and self-worth through these external relationships.  The change to a working from home environment means that we have lost the daily “water cooler chat” and with it the exchange of information, including sharing of our thoughts and feelings.  The loss of various forms of social reinforcement can cause us to challenge our self-concept and self-worth – difficult feelings compounded by feeling inadequate working from a home environment where we lack the personal capability for remote communications or the working space and technology to take advantage of the positive aspects of remote working.
  • Loss of structure: it is surprising how many people report in the current situation that they “don’t know what day it is”.  This is due, in part, to a loss of structure in their day.  The loss of regular, repetitive activities results in a loss of anchors to our days that serve to remind us what day it is.  We no longer get dressed for work, take the train or car at set times, play our social tennis on Monday nights, watch the footy together on Friday nights, visit our extended bayside family or the local market on weekends or undertake any other activity that serves to structure our day or week.  Rick suggests that these structures normally “prop us up” and their absence can leave a sense of “groundlessness”. 
  • Loss of familiar role:  in the work environment, we can feel competent and in control.  When forced to work from home in a more complex and difficult environment, we can feel overwhelmed by all the challenges and be ill at ease for much of the time.  For some people, this can be temporary as they develop the skills to master their circumstances; for others, being able to adapt becomes a real issue and aggravates the feelings of frustration and reduced self-esteem.  The intense sense of ill-ease and associated stress can debilitate people and hinder them from seeing a way forward and acquiring the necessary skills to capitalise on the current situation and personal conditions.
  • Loss of freedoms: with the restrictions on movement and need for social isolation, people can experience a loss of the fundamental right to “freedom of association”.  Along with this, may be the experience of a lack of privacy where both partners are working from home, especially where for many years one partner went to work every day for an extended period.   Introverts may experience a loss of access to their “cave” where they would normally retreat to recover from extroverted activity, including interactions with their partner.   One or both partners in a relationship may feel that their other partner is constantly “under their feet” – a complaint frequently voiced by people where one partner usually works from home and the other partner has recently retired from their job in the city or away from the home.

Reflection

Quarantine as a result of the Coronavirus and enforced working from home conditions can place increased stress on couples and their relationship.  The current environment also offers an opportunity to develop our inner resources through meditations (including mantra meditations), mindfulness practices and reflection on our resultant emotions and responses.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a deeper understanding of what we are experiencing, keep issues and aggravations in perspective, develop tolerance, build our skills and draw on our innate resourcefulness and resilience.

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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.