Accessing the Present Moment through Mindfulness Meditation

Diana Winston, Director Mindfulness Education at MARC, offers a guided meditation podcast on the theme, “Back to Basics”.  She reminds us that mindfulness is very much about the capacity to pay attention in the present moment and to do so with curiosity, openness and a willingness to be with what is, including our habituated distraction behaviours.  Without mindfulness meditation we tend to spend out time thinking about the past (replaying undesirable events/outcomes) or the future (worrying about possible negative events which rarely happen). 

Mindfulness meditation enables us to build our concentration by staying fully focused on the present. The beauty of the present moment is that it is always accessible to us if only we focus our attention.  However, our busy human brains are forever active – engaged in planning, categorising, criticising,  exploring, and many other mental activities that manifest our intelligence.  Diana notes that everyone gets distracted during mindfulness meditation but the power of the process lies in the ability to return to our anchor to restore present moment awareness and build our awareness muscle.

Diana suggests that if we become distracted by thoughts we can name what we are doing, for example, “planning” or “critiquing” and return to our anchor.  She reminds us of the research that demonstrates the benefits of mindfulness, including building relational resilience and relieving painNeuroscience research shows us how mindfulness can increase our capacity to manage stress, enhance positivity and happiness and even alter the physical shape of our brains.  Dr. Dilip Jeste, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, provides research to highlight the role of mindfulness in developing wisdom and compassion.  Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson in their book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body,  explain that mindfulness research provides very strong evidence that meditation builds self-awareness, self-management and social awareness.   

Diana maintains from her research and extensive training of others in mindfulness practice, that “people who practise mindfulness report more gratitude, more appreciation and more connection with themselves and other people”.  Sometimes, a particular location can provide us with the right environment to develop mindfulness.  It may provide solitude and silence or reinforce our connection to country and community as Brooke Blurton frequently describes in her memoir, Big Love: Reclaiming myself, my people, my country.  Nature has a way of developing mindfulness because it stimulates wonder and awe and all our senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste.

The guided meditation

In the guided meditation, Diana encouraged us to adopt a comfortable posture to enable us to sustain our focus throughout the 20 minute meditation.  She suggested we choose an anchor to enable us to restore our attention whenever we notice that we were distracted.  The anchors suggested were our breath, external sounds or bodily sensations.  I chose to focus on my joined fingers that were resting on my lap.  I find that I can very quickly sense the tinkling, vibration and warmth in my fingertips once I have them joined.  As I focused on the associated bodily sensations, I became aware of pain in my fingers and wrists which then became my focus.

Diana suggests that when you are starting out using meditation, it is best to maintain a focus on your anchor and not be diverted by strong emotions.  There are, however, specific guided meditations for dealing with challenging emotions

The guided meditation provided by Diana (which begins after 6.35 minutes of introduction) incorporates a 10 minute silent meditation.  Towards the end of the meditation, Diana encourages us to sense how we are feeling, e.g., whether we are experiencing ease or relaxation.

Reflection

After the meditation, I recalled that one of the first mindfulness books I read was that by Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now.   Also In an interesting occurrence of synchronicity, I had been listening to mantra meditations on Spotify (via a Janin Devi Mix) as I wrote the first draft of this blog post and Alexia Chellun starting singing The Power Is Here Now (a song I have never heard before).

As we grow in mindfulness through our regular mindfulness practice, we can access the power of the present moment to gain greater self-awareness, heightened creativity, improved emotional regulation and a deeper sense of happiness and ease.  There are many options available for us to choose, e.g., chanting, meditation, yoga, mantra meditations or movement meditations.  We just need to choose the modality that works best for us and enables us to sustain our practice.  I find that Tai Chi provides the greatest immediate benefits for me and that is my primary mindfulness practice (supplemented by other practices as well).

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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.

Trauma Resilience

David Treleaven presented on the topic, Resilience to Trauma, at the recent Embodiment Festival 2023.   He made the point that while meditation and mindfulness practices can help some people recover from trauma, meditation may not work in individual cases.  He argued that suggesting “more” meditation is not the answer – we have to recognise the complexity of trauma and how it plays out in different people’s lives.  Individual’s hypervigilance as a result of trauma may impede their capacity to be still and reflect and they may find themselves continuously oscillating between a trauma response and temporary wellness – impeding their capacity to develop resilience.

David commented that trauma can create a level of rigidity in our response to stressors.  He noted that in some cultures such as Australia, Ireland, and South Africa, humour plays an important role in helping people to develop resilience.  Mark Walsh, Festival organiser and interviewer, commented that after undertaking trauma recovery work in Ukraine, he realised that humour is an integral part of the resilience of the Ukrainian people.  It was noted, too, that the current President, Zelenskyy, was previously a comedian and actor.

When Mark asked David what advice he would give to young people in these present challenging times, David suggested that it is important to undertake a regular practice that builds personal resilience.  He maintained that this is very much a personal choice but whatever practice you choose, to do so purposefully and “don’t be afraid to make a mistake”.   This wide-ranging discussion increased my interest in the relationship between trauma and resilience.  I decided to explore David’s podcast series, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, where he interviews trauma experts to explore the intersection of mindfulness, meditation and traumatic stress.

Trauma and Resilience

I was immediately attracted to David’s podcast interview with Anjuli Sherin on the topic, Resilience, Mindfulness and Trauma RecoveryAnjuli is a Pakistani American who specialises in trauma recovery with families, especially members of immigrant families.  She is a highly qualified and experienced therapist who offers individual therapy sessions, healing groups, guided meditations, training and her Joy Blog.  Anjuli is the author of Joyous Resilience – A Path to Individual Healing and Collective Thriving in an Inequitable WorldThe interview is very rich in its discussion of resilience and Anjuli’s book, because she shares insights from her own life experience and the resilience journey of her therapy clients.  David, himself an expert in trauma and trauma recovery, acknowledged that he learnt some new things as a result of the interview.

Anjuli begins with recounting her own trauma recovery journey, highlighting the trauma she experienced as an 18 year old, female immigrant to America.  Not only did she feel totally disconnected from her new cultural environment, she was also carrying the scars of intergenerational trauma resulting from living with her family in the “systems of oppression” present in Pakistan as she was growing up.  She found herself alone in America with no “compass”, family or community, while still in her early 20’s.  

Anjuli experienced what Bruce Perry describes as a “sensitised stress response” which led to overreactivity and maladaptive behaviour.  She describes her trauma as translating into “anger, fear and violence”.  She found that she did not cope with the stressors in intimate relationships, partly because she could not access, and express, her feelings and needs.  She was experiencing “emotional dysregulation” where she lacked control over her emotional responses. Her reactivity in her relationships led to more stress and feelings of shame.  Anjuli describes this trauma experience as the ”cycle of trauma” – the “vulnerable self” experiences stressors that lead to reactivity which, in turn, increases a sense of vulnerability, fear and helplessness that, again, heightens reactivity and maladaptation.  The trauma cycle results in negative self-evaluation, avoidance, and  questioning “what’s wrong with me?” – creating a further “cycle of suffering”.  An alternative mindset explores “what happened to you?” and seeks to understand trauma, its complexity and impacts.

The ”circle of resilience”

Anjuli describes the trauma recovery journey experienced by herself and her clients as a journey towards, and into, the “circle of resilience”.  This is a process, not a set state, that involves developing or accessing “four aspects of self” that enable the development of resilience and facilitate trauma recovery.   These aspects of self replace self-criticism, self-neglect and denial of feelings.  Anjuli maintains that people who have experienced trauma are often not able to use the “tools of resilience” (such as mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi or exercise) in a sustainable way because of their “vulnerable self’ and being stuck in their reactivity and sense of helplessness.

Anjuli noted that in her early stages of arrival in America she ignored advice to seek a therapist to help her with her trauma recovery.  It was only after the stressors she was experiencing increased (e.g. graduation and relationship stress) that she heeded advice to seek therapeutic assistance.  She had been mired in her negative self-evaluation and her maladaptive behaviour up until that time. 

The “four aspects of self” for the resilience journey

Through her own therapy and consulting with her clients, Anjuli identified what she calls the “four aspects of self” that enable anyone who has experienced trauma to undertake the resilience journey.  She found that her own therapy “changed everything” and helped her to develop resilience by providing “foundational teaching” to shift from emotional dysregulation to emotional regulation, to move from stress and shame to self-care, and to develop “healthy control and agency over actions, emotions and relationships”.  Her reactivity diminished and she was able to understand her own needs and ask for what she needed.

During therapy she developed the “four aspects of self” that enabled her to enter the path, and move along the journey, to healing and resilience, thus enabling her to utilise the tools of resilience, such as mindfulness and exercise, in a sustainable way.  The four aspects described in depth by Anjuli in her book are:

  1. Nurturing – self-talk that recognises feelings (naming her feelings) and “turns to those feelings with attunement and loving kindness”, leading to acceptance
  2. Protection – establishing healthy boundaries and limits
  3. Play and creativity – accessing the things that bring pleasure
  4. Awe and Gratitude – through the experience of beauty and “interdependence  with the larger world”.

Anjuli explained that these four aspects of self, enabled her to let go of her “vulnerable self” and to acknowledge that she is able to deal with challenging emotions such as grief and fear.  She stated that these four states “are not built outside of relationship”.  She reinforced the critical role of supportive relationships in the journey to recovery and resilience.  Brooke Blurton in her memoir, Big Love: Reclaiming myself, my people, my country, highlighted the relationship orientation of her Aboriginal culture and its role in helping her through multiple sources of trauma to heal and develop resilience.  She experienced intergenerational trauma, poverty, homelessness, sexual abuse and racism, yet throughout she was sustained by the “constant love” of her addicted mother and the love of her family (especially her Nan and siblings), the extended family of “Aunties” and “Uncles” and what she calls “the mob”.  Anjuli reinforced supportive relationships as a “source of resilience” in that they provide protection, nurturing and a readiness to listen and positively affirm a person’s experience and emotions and offer reassurance that they “are not alone”.

Reflection

Supportive relationships appear consistently as a key element for trauma recovery and the development of resilience.  When I reflect on my own experience of recovery from personal trauma, I am able to acknowledge the central role played by nurturing, protective relationships.  Anjuli’s book promotes personal and collective healing and recovery, and offers supportive practices and insightful case studies that facilitate the development of resilience and encourage joyful thriving.

Resources that can help us achieve trauma resilience, and the ability to cope with life’s challenges, include the Healing Trauma Program offered by Sounds True which involves 13 key trauma recovery experts such as David Treleaven.  Sounds True also offer a shorter course, Trauma and the Embodied Brain, facilitated by Bonnie Badenoch, PhD.  Bonnie is the author of the book, The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.

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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.

How to Sustain the Practice of Meditation

Marvin Belzer, Assistant Director of MARC, UCLA, in a recent guided meditation podcast provides some insights into what is required to sustain the practice of meditation.  He suggests, for example, that “willingness” is the essence of sustainability in relation to meditation.  We have to be willing to give it a go, be patient to stay with the process and avoid any attempt or pressure  to achieve perfection.  Some of his insights for sustainability, after 30 years of his own mindfulness practice, include the following.

Choose an anchor that is natural and comfortable for you

It is really important to choose an anchor that is easy for you and assists you to sustain the effort needed for meditation.   An anchor helps you to focus your attention, sustain the focus and serves as a point of return when you experience distractions.  The more common anchors are sounds (within your room or external), bodily sensations and your breath.  With sounds, it is important to just tune into what is happening around you but not attempt to identify the sounds (or source) or evaluate them in terms of pleasant/unpleasant, soft/loud or any other evaluation criteria.  The essence of sound as an effective anchor is the process of “tuning in”.   A focus on bodily sensations can be achieved through a body scan or a simple focus on a particular area of your body.  With your breath as an anchor, it helps to focus on where you experience the process of breathing, e.g., abdomen, nose or chest.  You are not attempting to control your breath but just to pay attention to the “in-breath”, the “out-breath” and the space between.  I find that a focus on breathing is easier for me than sounds because I find the latter distracting if I am inside a room.  However, if I am outside, I find it easier to focus on the sounds of birds, both those that are nearby and those further away.  It is important to be aware of the need to choose a “trauma-sensitive” anchor if a particular anchor elicits a trauma response (a rare occurrence, but a reality for some people).

Keep it simple

Marvin emphasises the simplicity of meditation.  You do not have to “perform” or achieve “mastery” to gain the benefits of meditation practice.  It does not involve a process of ongoing measurement or evaluation against some yardstick.  There will be days when meditation will feel easy and natural and other days when it is difficult because of what is going on in your life at the time and your level of health/wellness.  The amount of time you have available for meditation can also impact your experience of it. 

Choose a meditation practice suited to you and your available time

You do not have to master all possible forms of meditation (which are numerous).  For sustainability, it is important that you try to focus on a particular form of meditation that suits you and your lifestyle.  Some people like to sit quietly in their home, others like to meditate externally in nature, while others like an active meditation process such as movement meditation.  Some people prefer to employ meditation within a yoga framework.  I find that Tai Chi is the form of meditation that I can practise more regularly because I have spent a lot of my life in activities such as playing tennis, bike riding, competitive athletics and walking.   Some people find that mantra meditations or chanting suits them best and their situation.  Tina Turner, for example, found that chanting a particular mantra enabled her to achieve balance in times of adversity, which were sometimes extreme such as being an abusive relationship.

Remind yourself of the benefits that accrue as you meditate

Recalling the benefits of meditation practice provides positive reinforcement for your practice and helps you to sustain the effort.  Invariably, you can experience calmness, equanimity and clarity if you persist.  However, there may be particular benefits that you experience that are personal to you, e.g., reduction in difficult emotions, better stress management or ease in daily life.  I find that Tai Chi helps me to play tennis better because it improves my reflexes, coordination, concentration and flexibility.  The flow-over benefits of Tai Chi for my tennis performance (and enjoyment of social tennis) are a source of reinforcement for my mindfulness practice. 

Reflection

Marvin reinforces the need to not be discouraged when you experience distractions such as planning thinking or strong emotions.  It is natural, no matter how experienced you are, to find distractions intruding into your meditation practice.  You can acknowledge the distracting thought or planning process and return to your focus.  I find that planning my day is a major source of distraction for me during meditation but recognising this, I have adopted the practice of just naming what is happening and returning to my anchor.  Marvin suggests that with emotions you experience during meditation, you can just notice what they are like and how you experience them in your body, e.g. anxiety might be experienced as tightness in your chest or stomach.  After tuning in to the emotion and its bodily manifestation, he encourages you to return to your anchor.  The very act of continually returning to your anchor after a distraction serves to build your awareness muscle and your capacity to sustain concentration.  As we grow in mindfulness through sustained meditation practice, we will experience an ever-widening range of benefits that will serve, in turn, to reinforce our practice.

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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.

The Simplicity of Meditation

Marvin Belzer, PhD, provided a guided meditation podcast emphasising the simplicity of the process and the fact that its eminently “doable” – even if we have to fit it into a busy life by dedicating 3-5 minutes to focused attention on the present moment and our bodily sensations.  He emphasised that it does not have to be difficult or challenging but does require effort and regular practice.  He emphasised the need to avoid setting a goal that we pursued through meditation – this can create stress and distraction.  His emphasis is on keeping it simple while paying attention to some aspect of our everyday life. 

Marvin indicated that he has practised meditation for more than 30 years and has taught mindfulness for 20 years.  He offered the meditation as part of the free weekly guided meditations provided by MARC, UCLA.  His role in UCLA is that of Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences.  He has taught mindfulness to many groups including semester-length courses for university students and courses for teens.  We can gain some insight into Marvin’s mindfulness orientation by listening to his interview with Bob O’Haver on Bob’s “Why Meditate?” Podcast – the interview provides some insight into Marvin’s approach to meditation, mindful living, and the cultivation of compassion in our lives.

Guided meditation

In the guided meditation, Marvin maintains that by keeping the process simple, we can more readily access the calming effect of meditation and not be so readily distracted by complex or abstract thoughts.  The focus is on the present moment awareness as we are experiencing it.  His starting point is deep breathing to help us to ground ourselves – with a sigh on the out-breath. Marvin offers a choice of anchors – bodily sensations, surrounding sounds or our breath.  He encourages us to sustain our attention on one of these anchors so that we can experience a sense of calm, peace and stability.  Marvin emphasises that this simple approach to meditation can be a refuge in busy or turbulent times, if we make it a regular practice.

In his view, meditation enables us to pay attention to what is real in our life, not what we wished it would be.  Marvin encourages us to persist with paying attention even when thoughts, emotions or sensations distract us from our focal anchor.  He suggests that we adopt a playful approach to meditation not chiding ourselves, but noting something like, “There I go again, planning my day as if my life depended on it”.  He recommends that even in this busy time of the year, with Christmas approaching, we can adopt the habit of brief meditations – a process I employ when “waiting” for someone or something, especially traffic lights. 

Marvin encourages us to be non- judgmental towards ourselves but to “show up as we can”, given our commitments, health and family situation.  This is sound advice as I often find myself, when I am unwell or have an injury, being critical of myself for not doing my Tai Chi mindfulness practice.  His overall approach with his focus on simplicity and regularity is very encouraging.

Marvin also notes that sometimes we can be bored during meditation (I can relate to this!) but that boredom can be an important antidote to the endless stimulation provided by social media and invasive advertising.  Our capacity to pay attention is continuously eroded by the “firehose of information” – a term used by Johann Hari in his book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention If we persist with meditation despite our sense of boredom, we can reap the fruits of developing our awareness muscle and deepening our capacity to concentrate.  It is critical for our mental health and the health of our minds to protect our attention.

Reflection

Marvin, like accomplished practitioners in many fields, is able to make complex concepts and processes simple.  His approach encourages us to persist with meditation, no matter what is happening in our lives.  He suggests, for example, that if we are anxious, we can pay attention to the bodily sensations of our anxiety – we can release any tension we locate or stay with the sensation in a softening, calming way through a compassionate body scan.  As we grow in mindfulness through regular mindfulness practices such as meditation, we can access our inner landscape, enjoy tranquility, and gain clarity and insight.

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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.

Guided Mindful Movement Meditation

Tom Heah, a highly accredited mindfulness teacher, provides a guided meditation podcast on mindful movement, his particular area of expertise.  Tom was an Occupational Therapist in Vancouver Canada until 2021 when he switched to offering mindfulness training to the Vancouver Center which focused on mental health and substance abuse.  Tom has conducted many mindfulness training courses, including Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindful Awareness Practices (MAPs).  He offers free access to guided audio versions of mindfulness practices incorporated in these courses – they are available for streaming and/or download.  His recent mindful movement meditation was offered as the last of the 2022 weekly, UCLA online meditations.  From 12 January 2023, the weekly meditations will resume as in-person, face-to-face sessions at the Hammer Museum with live streaming.  The guided meditations will continue to be available in audio podcast form after the resumption.

Tom discusses the nature of mindfulness in terms of focusing on the internal and external sensations of the present moment.  He suggests that this involves openness, interest and curiosity about our current reality, both internal and external.  By focusing on the present moment, we resist the natural urge to ruminate about the past (experiences, mistakes, losses) or to worry about the future.  Tom maintains that cultivated present moment awareness enables us to show up in the various arenas of our lives.

Tom highlights the fact that despite the festivities of the Christmas season, many people will be experiencing sadness through loss, isolation, loneliness, illness or conflict with relatives.  He observes that people often cannot sit still when they are stressed – so he focuses on mindful movement in his guided meditation.

Guided mindful movement meditation

From the outset of the mindful movement meditation, Tom stresses the need to stay within our own physical limits, engaging in the suggested movements only to the extent that they do not cause pain.  The fundamental idea of mindful movement is to move parts of our body while breathing in a controlled way.  The aim then is to focus on the bodily sensations experienced with each form of movement.  Guided movements can be undertaken either standing or sitting, allowing for variations for the chosen posture.

In the guided movement meditation, Tom skilfully directs our movements while guiding our breathing – all the time reminding us not to stop breathing.  Some of the movements involve raising both arms, moving our arms sideways and slowly moving the neck in a number of directions.  It is important to follow the guidance provided so that we can remain focused on our bodily sensations, without thinking about the next step.

After completing the movement meditation, Tom guides us on a silent, still meditation where we can focus on an anchor of our choice to enable us to return to our focus when we become distracted by thinking or planning.  The anchor could be our breathing, sounds that surround us or some form of bodily sensation such as our fingers touching.

Reflection

The guided meditation provided by Tom is one of the many meditations that involve mindful movement.  Others include Tai Chi and Yoga.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful movement meditations, we can develop new perspectives on old problems, respond to triggers in a more skilful way and experience greater ease and restfulness.  Our increased bodily awareness can help us to better access the wisdom of the body and develop openness to our intuition.

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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 Way of Letting Go

Allyson Pimentel. mindfulness teacher with the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA, offers a guided meditation podcast titled, Mindfulness as Letting Go and Letting Be.  She describes the meditation as a Compassionate Body Scan and notes that it’s an adaption from a book by Susan Pollak, Thomas Pedulla and Ronald D. Siegel, Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy.  While the Compassionate Body Scan is one of the many meditations offered for therapists working with clients, it has wider application for every-day use by non-therapists.  To this end, the authors offer a series of audio meditation podcasts for personal use in downloadable format, along with handouts that list the steps in each mindfulness practice..

The Letting Go meditation offered by Allyson at the end of the 2022 is very timely as it coincides with a time when we have a natural tendency to review our year and begin to make resolutions about changes we want to make in our life.  This could mean breaking free of the ties that bind us, e.g., shame, expectations, perfectionism, or fear of failure.   It might entail overcoming self-protection or false beliefs that are preventing us from undertaking needed personal change.  Alternatively, it could involve letting go of difficult emotions, such as anger, hatred and resentment. 

Allyson reminds us that mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment as it is – not as we wish it to be. In this sense, it requires us to let go of “fantasy” and get in touch with our reality as it is, not distorted by wishful thinking.  Her guided meditation involves adopting an attitude of compassion towards ourselves as we scan our bodies and get in touch with the here-and-now bodily sensations we are experiencing.  Unlike some other forms of body scan, the focus of the compassionate body scan is not on release of tension but softening the sensation – staying with the discomfort and noticing how it changes over time as you soften its intensity.  Allyson points out that the process “can begin to soften the hardened, contracted aspects of our life, our bodies, our minds”.  

Guided meditation

At the outset. Allyson explains that letting go within the meditation is not an active process such as throwing out unwanted materials but a passive process of “letting be” – noticing and accepting what is.  The goal is to develop “clear insight” into our current reality as reflected in our bodily sensations.  Freedom lies in relating to ‘what is” with kindness and self-compassion, however painful.  She quotes an insightful poem by a friend that acknowledges “the pain of letting go what defines yourself”. 

During the guided meditation, Allyson helps us to focus on various body parts, starting with our forehead and extending to our feet, all the time bringing compassion to ourselves.  This is a particular form of meditation that is better with a guide as it helps us to focus on our bodily sensations and supports us to soften our sensations rather than adopt the habituated behaviour of attempting to remove or release them.   The meditation component of the podcast is about 20 minutes.

Reflection

During the guided meditation, I became conscious of my efforts at letting go when playing social tennis.  After having played team tennis competitions for two decades, I had developed an ingrained “need to win”.  I have had to progressively curb my need to win each point, each game, my own service game and eventually each set.   Underpinning this letting go is the need to let go of the image of myself as a very fit 40 year old playing A-Grade tennis.  The reality is that I am 76 years of age and losing strength in my arms, wrists and legs – my current reality, not my “fantasy’.  The last milestone in letting go of my “need-to-win” mindset, is being able to genuinely “savour the wins of others” – the winning shots of my opponents.

At the outset of the guided meditation, Allyson encourages us to take in our environment.  Fortuitously, I had decided to undertake the guided meditation while seated on our back deck – not in my office as I usually do.   The environment I was able to take in was very calming and pleasant – the warm sun of a Summer’s afternoon, glimpses of Moreton Bay and the islands, a very blue cloudless sky, a gentle cooling breeze and the sounds of Rainbow Lorikeets returning to their nightly resting place.

Gabor Maté, leading trauma expert, reminds us in his latest book, The Myth of Normal, that healing “starts with waking up…to what our bodies are expressing and our minds are suppressing”.  Edith Eger, holocaust survivor and world-renowned psychologist, suggests that what we need to do is to “remove the concentration camp of our mind”  – thus choosing freedom over victimhood.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and guided meditations, we grow in self-awareness – awareness of our bodies, our mindset, the thoughts and emotions that are holding us back from genuine healing and growth.  We need to give ourselves compassion and kindness as we are letting go.  Allyson maintains that this process enables us to live our life with greater wisdom and skills and greater compassion towards others.

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

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

Resting in Your Body

Vy Van Le provides a guided meditation podcast focused on becoming reacquainted with your body as part of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) weekly meditation sessions conducted in person at the Hammer Museum and online via Zoom.  Vy is a highly qualified mindfulness trainer and coach who facilitates the Mindful Awareness Practices Classes at MARC, UCLA. 

Vy’s background before becoming a mindfulness practitioner and trainer was in maths, biotech business development and management consulting.  Through mindfulness practice and training, she realised that she spent so much time in her head, disconnected from her body.  She could relate to James Joyce’s comment in The Dubliners , “Mr. Puddy lived a short distance from his body”.  This realisation led her to focus on embodiment mindful practices and to provide mindfulness training to individuals of all ages ranging from teenagers to retirees, as well as professionals particularly those in healthcare.

Vy contends that we are often numb to our bodies and that it is important to cultivate a relationship with our body and the intuitive wisdom and “gut feeling” of our body.  She maintains that the body is a doorway to the present moment and bodily awareness is a means of developing self-compassion and aliveness.  Vy argues that somatic meditation can help us to achieve a genuine connection with ourselves in a world where disconnection is a source of widespread depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.

Guided meditation for resting in your body

In the guided meditation podcast, Vy encourages you to concentrate on bodily sensations as you undertake a body scan.  Her scan process is focused more on awareness of bodily sensations than release of related tension in specific bodily parts.  However, one of the participants in her recent meditation session commented that “her shoulders were relaxed by the end of the meditation”, instead of raised in a tense position “as if carrying the weight of the world”.

Vy encourages you to progressively scan your body which is something that you can do at anytime or anywhere.  You might, for instance, notice the following sensations in parts of your body indicated below;

  • Thighs – the pressure from your chair or floor; muscle movement or tautness; sense of being held up/supported
  • Feet – sense of groundedness and connection to the earth; swelling or numbness; soreness from walking or running
  • Toes – tingling; flexing; cramping; alive or lifeless
  • Shoulders – soreness; stiffness; arched or compacted; strong or week
  • Fingers – tingling; stiffness; knuckle soreness; sense of control
  • Forehead – tightness; creasing; pain; agitation; clarity or calmness
  • Arms – muscle twitching; aches; sense of strength and self-reliance
  • Knees – softness behind the knee; soreness or tingling; sense of being supported
  • Chest or abdomen – the rise and fall with breathing; tight or relaxed
  • Nose – warmth or coolness from the in and out breath; blocked or open.

Your breath, feet and fingers can be anchors in this developing sea of awareness about your body.  You can re-focus on any of these aspects if your mind becomes a source of distraction.  Repeatedly returning to an anchor develops your awareness muscle and heightens your connectedness to your body.

While it is useful for you to undertake this form of body scan meditation yourself as a regular practice, it is really helpful in establishing the practice to be guided by a skill facilitator like Vy.  This enables you to concentrate on your inner and outer bodily sensations and not have to think about the next step – to just go with the flow of her guidance. 

Reflection

I found this guided meditation, led by Vy, to be particularly restful.  It developed a sense of resting in my body, away from the thoughts and cares of the world.  There is something peaceful and encouraging about being fully connected with your own body.  In lots of ways, this body scan meditation can be a source of refuge in difficult times.  It is amazing how often we ignore our body –  even trying to “soldier on” when we are experiencing post-traumatic stress effects from adverse childhood or adult experiences. 

Oprah Winfrey provides evidence of this “masking” in her co-authored book, What Happened to You?, when she quotes a discussion with Cynthia Bond, author of Ruby,   Cynthis described the devastating impact on her whole life and career from trauma, including sexual abuse as a child.   Cynthia explained that she tried unsuccessfully to “bury it”, hoping “that the ache would go away”.

The guided scan mediation offered by Vy helps us to grow in mindfulness – to become increasingly self-aware in relation to our body, to develop a sense of self-gentleness and self-compassion and to become more fully alive and present to our current reality. 

I realised during the course of the guided meditation that my mindfulness practice when waiting, e.g., at traffic lights, is a form of embodied meditation.  Instead of becoming annoyed with the traffic or particular drivers, I focus on my joined fingers that are resting on my lap and concentrate on the sensations I am experiencing through my fingertips, e.g., warmth, tingling, blood flow, and soreness (sometimes).   This embodied practice is really grounding for me and increases my bodily awareness.

Embodiment has become a strongly emerging theme in the mindfulness movement, e.g., The Embodiment Conference provides access to many experts in areas such as dance and creativity, yoga, trauma and social change, and movement and anatomy.  Free access is provided from 10th-14th December 2022.

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Image by Benjamin Balazs 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.

Resting in Your Breath 

Allyson Pimentel, in a guided meditation podcast, reminds us of the benefits of mindfulness that have been confirmed through neuroscience. Allyson is a mindfulness teacher with the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA. She often leads the mindful awareness sessions, held weekly at the Hammer Museum and/or online. 

Allyson defines mindfulness as “deliberately paying attention to what’s happening around you, within you and between you [and others]”. She asserts, along with other meditation teachers, that this means accepting “what is” while adopting a non-critical and non-judgmental stance. Our thoughts can be a distraction from this deliberate attention giving but, as Allyson points out, the role of the brain is to think. Our brains are designed to enable planning, memorizing, remembering/recalling. analyzing, critiquing, creating and comparing. In mindfulness meditation, we develop our awareness muscle by constantly returning to our anchor, not sustaining the distraction but treating it as clouds passing by. 

One of the anchors that Allyson addresses during the guided meditation is listening to sounds. She suggests that our ears are a doorway to the outside world and all that is happening there. She argues that our senses – hearing, tasting, touching, seeing, smelling – are effortless tools for accessing the external world. She quotes from the poem of Joy Harjo, Remember, to reinforce the beauty and diversity that is around us to take in, if we are mindful – the plants, animals, dawn, sundown, earth, stars, and everything else that makes up our universe, including our parents and siblings and our ancestors who have gone before us. Joy Harjo is an acclaimed poet who was appointed United States poet laureate in 2019 and is the Chancellor of the Academy of Academic Poets.  

Guided meditation 

Allyson encourages us at the outset of the meditation to become comfortable, something that is different for every person depending on their current level of health and wellness and their means of physical comfort. Once we are physically comfortable, we can employ a strategy to become grounded and focused – for some it may mean taking a deep breath or for others it will involve stretching or yawning. Allyson invites us to close our eyes “so that our inner eyes can open”.  

In the next stage of the guided meditation, she encourages us to listen to the sounds within us and around us – and to do so without interpretation, just opening our ears. Sounds can provide us with an anchor if our thoughts wander. However, I personally find them more of a distraction than using the alternative anchor Allyson proposes, our breath.  

Allyson encourages us when using breath as anchor to try to locate the place in our body where we can best sense our breathing – chest, abdomen, or nose. Then to focus on the sensations associated with our breath, e.g., hot or cold, calm or agitated, slow or fast, deep or shallow. Our breath can be a doorway to ease and tranquility, provided it is not a stimulus to a trauma response. Many mindfulness teachers encourage us to choose a meditation anchor that best suits us individually and encourage us to be conscious of trauma-sensitive options. Allyson builds in this sensitivity throughout her guided meditation, including providing choice of posture, grounding technique and anchor. 

Reflection 

Stillness and silence provided through meditation enables us to surf the “waves” of life, and not go under when we encounter turbulence. Allyson’s guided meditation reminds us about how easy it is to access our breath which is always with us in the present moment. Meditation can enable us to develop a profound consciousness of our breath, as well as the sounds that surround us. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices, we can experience ease and tranquility, develop the capacity to deal constructively with life’s challenges and open our minds and hearts to others as we increase our awareness of our connectedness.  

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Image by DanaTentis from Pixabay

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

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

Accessing the Power of Gratitude

Many writers and researchers today report on the power of gratitude while drawing on neuroscience research and reports of individuals who have changed their life for the better by developing a gratitude mindset.  Kute Blackson, in a video podcast on the topic, maintains that gratitude has an expansive characteristic – the more you are grateful and express thanks for, the more you will experience things to be grateful for.  He also contends that being grateful creates true personal freedom – you will no longer be held hostage by the need for more material goods.  If you develop a gratitude mindset, there are so many things to be grateful for in your life, both large and small.  Genuine gratitude allows no room for envy of what others have or obsession with “wants”.

Developing a gratitude mindset involves focusing on what we have and/or have access to – so it is an abundance mentality.  It contrasts sharply with the anxiety and resentment that flow from a deficit mentality where the focus is on what you do not have or have access to.  Gratitude, then, is at the root of happiness, displacing dissatisfaction about the absence of something – it entails present moment awareness and thankfulness.  Wong & Brown argue that “gratitude reverses our priorities” and contributes to positive mental health and the alleviation of mental ill-health resulting from “toxic emotions”.

The power of gratitude

The benefits from gratitude are multifaceted.  Kurt, drawing on neuroscience research, contends that gratitude positively impacts our “physiology, biochemistry, brain waves, and nervous system”.   As you delve into the articles and research on gratitude, you can gain an appreciation of the awesome power of gratitude.   Gratitude has the power to enrich your life because it:

  • Develops resilience
  • Opens up possibilities and abundance
  • Creates true freedom from the “wants” and the “need to have”
  • Makes you more fully in the present moment – what do I have now?
  • Generates positive energy for yourself and those around you
  • Diffuses toxic emotions such as envy, resentment and greed
  • Strengthens relationships through appreciation and trust
  • Makes you more open and receptive to change in your life (including what appears to be adverse changes)
  • Enables you to access your inner resources and creativity (because you are not blinded by challenging emotions or distorted perceptions)
  • Helps overcome boredom, difficulties, complaining & feeling overwhelmed
  • Develops feelings of joy and happiness (link to TED talk with over 8.8 millions views)
  • Strengthens our sense of connection to everybody and everything (including our planet).

Accessing the power of gratitude

There are many pathways to gratitude and the associated feelings of happiness and joy.  We have only to set the intention to develop a gratitude mindset and then sustain one or two practices over a period of about three months.  The practices can be quite simple such as a few minutes spent daily in the morning to think about what we are grateful for or an end-of-the day review that reflects on what was good in our life.   Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, suggests that the holiday season is a “time for gratitude” and offers multiple ways to express appreciation.

Journalling is a key activity for developing a gratitude mindset.  This can be done daily, weekly or at irregular intervals.  Like all habits, frequency builds competence.  There are many readily accessible resources and guides for gratitude journalling online.  Rick Hansen, for example, suggests the daily habit of journalling a response to three questions, “someone I’m grateful for?”, “something I’m grateful for?” and “an event I’m grateful for?”.   Mindful.org provides an illustrated Mindful Gratitude Journal including illustrations, 15 gratitude meditations, the science of gratitude, stimulus stories and ideas and ample space for recording your own thoughts.  Mindful also offers a 12-minute meditation podcast on cultivating gratitude for small things.

For many people, nature and music provide the stimulus for gratitude as they can inspire wonder and awe.  Louie Schwartzberg, time-lapse photographer and cinematographer, has developed a stunning video, Gratitude Revealed, which brings together nature imagery, music composition by Lisbeth Scott and commentary by some of the world’s leaders in gratitude and mindfulness, including Brother David Steindl-Rast.  Brother David is the author of Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fulness.

Reflection

The current period of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, reminds us that gratitude and generosity go hand-in-hand.  These celebratory days encourage us to express our gratitude by sharing our good fortune with others. 

As we grow in mindfulness, we gain increasing awareness of what we could be grateful for – nature, the people in our lives (past and present), the opportunities we are afforded, the things we possess and the access we have been given to a multitude of things that bring joy (such as music, sport, art and technology).  We are also motivated to express our gratitude and appreciation in all areas of our life.  Gratitude journalling in its many forms is a mindfulness practice that can help us develop a gratitude mindset – a sure path to happiness, positive mental health and creative endeavor.

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Image by Manfred Richter 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.

Making a Difference by Spreading Kindness

Diana Winston from MARC, UCLA, offers a guided meditation podcast on “kindness” and she maintains that we can make a real difference in the world by spreading kindness at a time when there is so much local, national and international conflict.  Her loving kindness meditation cultivates mindfulness and a gratitude mindset for the practitioner and helps to diffuse anger and unkindness in the world.  We know from experience that if we extend a smile or thoughtfulness to another person, it is often reciprocated, just as abruptness and rudeness stimulates a reciprocal response.  Kindness is contagious and has a momentum of its own that leads to diffusion.

Diana reminds us that mindfulness involves being open and curious while accepting what is.  Openness extends to being thoughtful towards people we find “difficult” or who constantly annoy us.  Diana asserts, with conviction, that kindness is a natural property of the heart that we extend to others and also our pets.  Kindness in her words is “the desire for another person t be happy” and has a mental, emotional and behavioural aspect.  Mentally, it involves thinking kind thoughts and positive wishes for others; emotionally, it entails feeling kindly towards others and appreciating their uniqueness; and behaviourally, it means engaging in “acts of kindness”. 

Diana’s guided meditation focuses on “radiating loving kindness” through our thoughts and emotions and involves creative visualisation, the use of imagery.  She argues that kindness is inherent in mindfulness practice because it involves being willing to show up, to accept what is (including individual differences) and acknowledge connectedness to everybody and everything.  In her experience, not everyone will warm to this form of meditation as it involves visualising a “lake of kindness” .  However, for people who are not particularly visual, she offers the suggestion to focus on the positive thoughts and emotions behind the process. 

Guided meditation

Diana begins the meditation in the usual way encouraging us to adopt a relaxed and comfortable posture and to take a number of deep breaths to enable us to relax and focus on the mindfulness activity.  One of the aims of mindfulness mediation is to really focus on the present moment, avoiding obsessing about the past or becoming preoccupied with planning future activity (my main source of distraction!).  Diana moves onto encouraging us to focus on our own breathing in an accepting, non-controlling way. She suggests that our focus can be on the up and down movement of our abdomen or chest or the in and out flow of air through our nose.  She follows this activity with a focus on the sounds in the room or external environment, again just being open to what is sounding not trying to identify the source or interpret the meaning.   Diana suggests that if we become distracted (everyone does, even the mindfulness experts like Diana), we can re-focus on one of the anchors mentioned, e.g. our breathing or sounds.

Diana begins the visualisation process after about five minutes of silent meditation.  She encourages us to visualise walking with a companion (someone we admire or a close friend) beside a scintillating blue lake, whose radiance touches everything around it.  She calls this the “lake of kindness”.  After a short while, we enter the inviting waters with our companion, experiencing sensations of gentleness, warmth and immersiveness of the “kindness waters” – sensations that elicit feelings associated with kindness.  Now, we imagine our friends, who are on the bank of the lake, joining us in the water so that they too are immersed in kindness as the lake expands through displacement.

The challenging part of the guided meditation is envisaging other people, who we are not positive about, joining us in the “lake of kindness” – dissolving to some extent our reticence to be with them and encouraging us to extend kindness to them.  We are then all enveloped in the “kindness waters”.   We can then envisage the kindness waters moving into the ocean; up the rivers of villages, towns and cities; and extending to all the waterways of the world thus “suffusing the world with kindness”.

Reflection

Kindness is natural but we become absorbed in our thoughts, negative emotions, stereotypes and sense of superiority – thus precluding us from radiating warmth and kindness to others.  It behoves us to reflect on times when we have omitted to show kindness and to consciously undertake acts of kindness, such as sharing a meal with someone who usually eats alone.  We can genuinely make a difference in the lives of individuals and everyone we come in contact with, if we approach them with kindness in our heart, even through the simple act of smiling or sharing a book.

As we grow in mindfulness and kindness through loving kindness meditation, we can make a real difference in our own lives and spread kindness in the world.  For example, you often see people who have been given the opportunity to enter a line of traffic, extend this kindness to someone else further along the road.

Mindfulness meditations help us to reflect on our words and actions and their impact and reminds us that we are all connected as we share the fragility and vulnerability of the human condition.  It is a useful practice to reflect at the end of each day and think about our “acts of kindness” as well as when we overlooked an opportunity to be kind to someone.

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Image by Pete Linforth 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.