Welcoming the Richness of Our Life

Allyson Pimentel, psychologist and meditation teacher, often focuses on connection to overcome a sense of separation.   In her recent meditation podcast, her topic was Sit So You Can Stand – suggesting that through meditation we are better able to deal with life vicissitudes.  Her underlying theme was welcoming everything into your life – accepting “what is” with openness and curiosity.  Through openness and freedom from assumptions and stereotypes , we can truly appreciate the richness of our lives.

The richness of our life

There are so many things that we take for granted in our life.  Gratitude meditation and the mindfulness practice of savouring what we have, can enrich our life, develop positive mental health, and reduce negative feelings associated with envy or resentment. In the introduction to her meditation podcast, Allyson takes these considerations one step further.  She focuses on the richness and diversity of the people with whom we connect and, in particular, with those engaged in the virtual meditation practice that she was facilitating.

Allyson read a short anonymous piece called, Radical Welcome.  The text highlights the process of welcoming everyone and acknowledging the diversity and richness of all who are present – welcoming those who are child carers/elder carers/ mental health supporters; those who have a fast internet connection/ slow connection/ disrupted connection; those who bring greater diversity to the meditation through differences in ethnicity, race, or ancestral origin; those who are experiencing the ease of wellness together with those who are suffering from chronic illness.  The welcoming process was inclusive of gender and religious differences; of the young and not so young; of those who educate and those who are learning; of the doubts, questions, uncertainty and searching of people present; of the hearts, minds, and bodies of all who form part of the common endeavour.

To give some practical application of the welcoming process, Allyson encouraged everyone to look at the “gallery view” of those who were present and to wave to acknowledge others.  Looking at everybody opens our eyes and minds to the diversity of those present and this is enhanced if people have previously identified their location in the text box.  These practices in a virtual meditation environment help to make us more aware of the richness and diversity of people we interact with a on a daily basis – we are often too preoccupied with ourselves, our stories, our needs and our perceptions to appreciate what others bring to our lives.  To reinforce this connectedness, Allyson began the podcast meditation with an invitation to take a collective, deep breath while noticing the infusion of energy on the in-breath and the release of tension on the out-breath.

Guided meditation

 In the guided meditation, Allyson encouraged us to feel the support of the chair and the earth, to tap into our natural breathing process, and to progressively focus on the noises in the room – including their coming and going and the silences in between.  She stressed the importance of choosing an anchor that we can return to if we are distracted by our thoughts, e.g., by worries, negative self-evaluations, or planning our day. 

Most of the meditation was undertaken in silence – with a focus on the sense of connection with everyone  present, while acknowledging the richness of diversity.  

Reflection

Allyson’s podcast meditation offers us an opportunity to call to mind the differences we encounter in people we interact with on a daily basis.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditations such as this podcast, we can become more conscious of the differences in the people we encounter and the potential richness of the interaction.  Mindfulness also makes us more aware of our own perceptions, biases and assumptions that could act as barriers to truly acknowledging others, mindfully listening to them, and valuing their differences.   Creativity and innovation lie within diversity if we adopt openness and curiosity to learn about, and understand, differences.

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

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

A Meditation for Situational Anxiety

The meditation described here is one of many podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  The presenter is Diana Watson, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC and author of The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness.  In the book, Diana explains the nature of natural awareness and how to develop it.

Diana is the main presenter of the MARC meditation podcasts that cover a wide range of topics designed to build self-awareness, increase self-regulation, and enhance overall well-being.  Diana describes the weekly meditation sessions as an oasis in the midst of our turbulent and challenging times.  In the meditation podcast described in this blog post Diana focuses on the topic, Are You Anxious?  The meditation is particularly powerful for people dealing with situational anxiety, e.g., awaiting a medical diagnosis or preparing for a job interview.  

The meditation may not work for some people who are experiencing a continuous state of non-specific anxiety.  The work of Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections, may be useful here.  Also , people who have experienced childhood trauma may find the trauma-sensitive mindfulness approaches more in keeping with their present experience.

The mind-body connection in anxiety

When we experience the emotion of anxiety, we become conscious of the close mind-body connection involved.  Anxiety can be felt in the body in many ways, e.g., “butterflies in the stomach”, aches and pains in arms and/or legs, tightness in the chest or constriction or soreness of the throat.  Simultaneously, we will be experiencing negative thoughts such as imagining the worst possible scenario, questioning our ability to cope, recalling previous “failures” or envisaging a poor outcome.  The combination of thoughts and uncomfortable bodily sensations creates a vicious cycle with one reinforcing the other.

What compounds the difficulty of dealing with anxiety is that it has a bad name – it is considered a bad emotion.  Karla McLaren, author of Embracing Anxiety, suggests that anxiety is a necessary emotion within which lies the wisdom to identify and support constructive action to deal with our challenges, tasks, and expectations. She offers ways to access the “genius of anxiety” to channel the inherent energy towards constructive action (instead of repression or suppression of the feeling).

A guided meditation for situational anxiety

Diana’s podcast begins with a grounding exercise covering breath, bodily sensations, and sounds.  Grounding is particularly relevant to dealing with anxiety because, as Johann points out, this emotion often arises from a sense of disconnection.   In the meditation, Diana strongly encourages us to feel the support of the chair, the earth, and our immediate environment – an approach designed to alleviate feeling unsupported in facing the challenges of life and to reinforce a sense of connectedness.

The next phase of the meditation focuses on our uncomfortable bodily sensations – getting in touch with, and reconnecting to, our bodies. It involves noticing how our body is responding to the emotion of anxiety and progressively releasing any tension, tightness, or constriction through a proactive body scan.

Moving beyond bodily sensations, Diana encourages us to address our negative thoughts by drawing on our inner wisdom to ask a series of challenging questions – what Karla calls “conscious questioning”.  This approach taps into previous achievements, challenges unfounded assumptions and catastrophe thinking and seeks to identify one or more constructive steps that can be taken to reduce anxiety and progress the task, project, or other challenging endeavour.

Diana rounds off her guided meditation on situational anxiety by encouraging us to engage in a loving kindness meditation – extending kindness to ourselves and others, particularly to those who are also experiencing anxiety.

Reflection

I recently used this guided meditation to help me deal with a challenging situation.  I found the body scan enlightening in the sense of unearthing and dealing with the uncomfortable bodily sensations associated with my anxiety.  The “conscious questioning” was also very constructive.  As we grow in mindfulness through guided meditations, whether face-to-face or via a podcast, we can increase our self-awareness (especially in relation to how our body and mind work in unison), develop our self-regulation by reducing reactivity and increase our sense of well-being and the associated ease.

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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.

Creating a Meaningful Story for Your Life

Tami Simon, CEO of Sounds True, interviewed Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond as part of her Insights at the Edge podcast series.  Rebecca and Lily are the authors of the newly published (January 2021) book, What’s Your Story? : A Journal for Everyday Evolution. The book provides deeply personal insights into what constitutes a meaningful life as a well as interactive, reflective questions designed to help the reader to revisit and rewrite the story of their own life.  Both authors are accomplished writers and activists with quite diverse backgrounds. Their collaborative writing over the past ten years to produce the book is a profound endeavour in its own right.  They share a common and very strong belief that in writing our own story with honesty, fearlessness, and persistence, we can rewrite our past and reshape our future so that we live a more meaningful life.

An opening reflective question

During the podcast interview, Tami asked Rebecca and Lily about the first question in their book which is, What is your first memory?  This question is penetrating in that it requires the reader to identify a memory that they really experienced and own.  It means unravelling the self-stories from what has been communicated by parents, society at large, national culture, workplace culture or formal education.  It means getting to the heart of what we actually believe and practice.  For Lily, the catalyst for the question was the experience of her mother dying from cancer; for Rebecca, the catalytic event was the divorce of her parents.  In both cases they were faced with the fundamental question of What story have I been telling myself about my life?  Which leads to the question, How limiting or empowering is my self-story?

A closing reflective question

The interview discussing the book – What’s My Story? – gravitated to the final reflective question How do I define a life well lived?  This question is designed to be proactive – to stimulate not only reflection but future action.  The question is intended to have us look back from our future deathbed and review how we have spent our life and how we had wished to spend it.  It means, in Rebecca’s terms, what would enable me to die peacefully when reviewing my life’s contribution and legacy?  The question for both authors revolved around, What is a meaningful life? How can I now live my life in a way that is congruent with what gives my life meaning, satisfaction and a sense of positive contribution to my relationships, my community, and the world at large?

Lily and Rebecca talked about how these questions and their personal responses are influencing the way they live now – even at the micro-level.  Throughout their book they ask the reader to reflect on what was meaningful in their past, what is meaningful in their present life and what would give meaning to the rest of their life – a potential catalyst for rewriting our own stories.  What could be useful in this personal pursuit of “a life well-lived” are the lessons from death and dying provided by Frank Ostaseski.

The science of a meaningful life

Several authors for the Greater Good Magazine collaborated on an article titled, The Top 10 Insights from “The Science of a Meaningful Life” in 2020.  The magazine itself is a production of the Greater Good Science Center, The University of California, Berkeley.  The authors drew on the work of multiple researchers in their network and  viewed the identified elements as a source of hope in these challenging times when the pandemic has led to many people experiencing conflict, loneliness, illness, and grief.

The authors draw on the concept of a “psychologically rich life” as a framework for their suggestions for a meaningful life:

  • Collaborating in learning with others
  • Connecting with other people by phone rather than text or social media
  • Expressing kindness and gratitude to others (which are contagious)
  • Being more extroverted in engagement with others (especially beneficial for introverts)
  • Engaging with diverse cultures that can serve to challenge our stereotypes
  • Seeking out challenging and varied experiences
  • Working in organisations that consciously pursue social justice both within and without
  • Exploring ways to be more motivated to express empathy.

Reflection

It is a sobering exercise to ask ourselves these reflective questions that represent the lived experiences of the authors.  What is also relevant to this reflection are the lessons from death and dying advanced by Frank Ostaseski.  The challenge is to work out how we define a “life well lived”.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can gain greater clarity about what a meaningful life is for us and have the courage and resilience to pursue it in our chosen field of endeavour.

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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.

Nature’s Call to Silence

As mentioned previously, silence as a facilitator of mindfulness does not involve the absence of sound.   Gordon Hempton – sound recordist, acoustic ecologist, and activist for silence in the world – maintains that silence is “an acoustic state , free of intrusions of modern, man-made noise”.  He has spent his life work recording natural sounds and advocating for the preservation of the silence of nature and the development of our capacities to really hear and listen to the natural sounds to be found in forests, treed spaces, beaches, rivers and wherever nature is calling.  His book, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet, recounts the recording of his auditory journey across America and the discovery of one of the quietest places in the world in the form of the Hoh River Valley rainforest in Olympic National Park, close to Washington. 

Gordon Hempton maintains that each place is a unique combination of sounds and encourages us to really listen to heighten our perception of the “soundtracks” that surround  us and to become aware of the “quiet between the notes”.  According to him, nature’s silence is everything and encapsulates “who we were, who we are, and who we need to be”. By “self-quieting” through the art of listening we can become awake to silence and the experience of just being-in-nature.

The healing power of nature

In her book, Turning Down the Noise, Christine Jackman devotes an entire chapter to “nature” and the research highlighting the healing power of nature, and the role of the Japanese practice of “Forest Bathing”.   The research demonstrates how nature can reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and improve mood.  Other research indicates that by becoming absorbed in nature, we can find real joy and beauty in our lives and reduce the “emotional inflammation” resulting from “nature-deficit disorder” and the stresses of challenging times such as the pervasive presence of the pandemic. 

Reflection

It is only when you attempt to tune into the natural sounds within your immediate suburban environment that you become acutely aware of the level of noise pollution that you experience regularly – the sounds of radios and advertising, traffic noise (buses, trains, cars, planes, and trucks) and the heavily polluting noise of equipment used in house building, renovation and repair, and grounds maintenance.  This is in addition to the digital noise that we experience through our mobile phones and computers, e.g., social media and incessant, disruptive advertising.

We can grow in mindfulness and realise the associated benefits if we can make the time to experience nature in pristine locations such as rainforests, undeveloped beaches, and quiet rivers.  As we learn the art of self-quieting by paying attention to the sounds and silence of our natural sounds, unpolluted by man-made noise, we can find a calmness and equanimity that reflects our natural environment.

A stunning resource in this area is the On Being podcast produced by Krista Tippett who interviews people, such as Gordon Hempton,  who can throw light on “what it means to be human”. Gordon asserts in his interview with Krista that when we listen to the silence of nature “our listening horizon extends”.

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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.

Aligning with What is Good and Healthy in Our Lives through Mindfulness

Allyson Pimentel, meditation teacher with MARC, provided a recent meditation podcast on the topic, Mindfulness as Alignment with the Good.  The catalyst for her online session was a walk with her dog in the bright morning sun, surrounded by the sound of birds, the beauty of flowers and trees, and the kind acknowledgement of neighbours.  What particularly came home to her was the  heightened receptivity that comes with mindfulness practice along with what is good in our life.

When we practice mindfulness in these challenging times we are returning to stillness amongst the turbulence of a pandemic and political unrest, seeking groundedness in the face of disturbing and disorienting news, exploring harmony in a world torn by racial hatred and the income divide, finding silence amidst the noise of a busy life, and resting in peace and tranquility.  As we deepen our practice, we become more connected to nature and to each other – we can picture other people around the world engaged like us in meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, or the singing of mantras.   We can sense the collectivity of everything, the growing alignment with what is good not only in our own lives but also in  the lives of others worldwide.

Allyson stressed that what we have in mindfulness is totally portable – we can take it with us wherever we go.  We have our breath, widening awareness of our senses and the capacity to feel warmth towards others with a kind heart.  Mindfulness engenders gratitude, wisdom, generosity, and compassion towards ourselves and others.  We can be mindful for others because of our calmness, self-regulation, openness, and willingness to listen for understanding.  We can bring to our daily interactions a healthy mind free from self-absorption, negative self-talk, resentment, or anger, so that we not only improve our own mental health but also impact positively the mental health of others.

Guided meditation for developing mindfulness and alignment with what is good

Allyson’s guided meditation during the podcast focused initially on our breath and achieving groundedness by sensing how we are supported by our chair and our feet on the ground.  She suggested that we take a collective, deep inhalation and exhalation and then rest in the natural movement of our breathing, focusing on the expansion of our chest or abdomen or the movement of the air through our nose.

She then encouraged us to focus on the sounds that surround us – room tone, sounds in nature or traffic on our roads.  Once we had been able to pay attention purposely and non-judgmentally to external sounds, she encouraged us to shift our attention to internal sounds – the sounds of our own breath, sighing, rumbling, clicking.

In the final stages of the meditation, Allyson suggested we focus in turn on two key questions:

  1. What is it I need now – what kind of support do I want?
  2. What can I do to provide support to others?

Support for others could be the simple act of ringing someone to see how they are going, connecting on Zoom, or meeting up in person with someone who you have not seen for a while or who is experiencing some difficulty. 

Reflection

It is easy to be thrown off balance or to become disoriented and anxious in these challenging times.  Mindfulness offers the chance to seek refuge in stillness and silence and to appreciate what is good in our life.  Allyson maintains that as we grow in mindfulness, we are contributing to what is good and wholesome in our own lives and the lives of others we interact with – whether face-to-face or virtually.  By reminding ourselves of this contribution of mindfulness, we can better sustain our practice and realise its benefits for ourselves and 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.

Mindfulness: A Pathway to Wisdom

Recently Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Dr. Dilip Jeste, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, on the theme of wisdom and how to be wiser, faster.  Dilip’s research interests are aging and the neurobiological basis of wisdom.   His exploration of wisdom and the related personality trait of compassion is presented in his book, Wiser: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good.

During the podcast interview, Dilip focused on his obvious passion, the neurobiological basis of wisdom.  While stating that the research is in the early stages in terms of completeness and application, he did suggest that people who are wise are guided by the neocortex part of their brain (our logical, analytical capacity), while those who are unwise are more driven by their amygdala (responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response).

In the interview, Dilip explained that to undertake research into wisdom he had to first establish the measurable components of wisdom.  His research led him to identify the common elements in multiple published definitions of wisdom in scientific journals.  This enabled him to isolate six of the more commonly used components of wisdom.  What I wanted to do here is explore how mindfulness can help to develop each of these components – thus serving as a pathway to wisdom.  By way of corollary, I would suggest that the  journey towards mindfulness is a journey into wisdom and its many components.

Mindfulness and the components of wisdom

Dilip made the point that wisdom is not a single trait but a collection of of traits – like the personality trait of emotional intelligence, it has several components.  In the section below, I will explore the relationship between mindfulness and each of the six components of wisdom identified by Dilip.

  1. Self-reflection – this covers the ability to explore your inner landscape and analyse your behaviour in terms of responses to stimuli.   There are many mindfulness practices that cultivate this capacity, especially those that encourage exploration of thought patterns, including harmful negative self-stories.  Another example is the process of reducing resentment through reflection that I described in detail in an earlier post.  Additionally, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a highly developed mindfulness approach designed to guide self-reflection.  Dr. Russ Harris, a prominent practitioner and proponent of this approach, has made ACT accessible to individuals who are experiencing self-doubts and negative self-evaluation.  His humorous illustrated book, The Happiness Trap Pocketbook, provides a range of exercises that makes self-reflection accessible to anybody.  
  2. Prosocial behaviour – where the focus of attention is on the needs of others rather than being totally self-absorbed.  This component of wisdom is manifested in displaying empathy and/or taking compassionate action.   Listening mindfully to the stories of others can be a form of compassionate action.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware  of how our mindfulness positively impacts others, leading to a realisation that we are also engaging in mindfulness for others.  Loving-kindness meditation is another form of mindfulness practice that enables us to reach out to the needs of others.   More recently compassionate leadership has emerged as a prominent trend in leadership development, driven by the global pervasiveness of mindfulness practices.
  3. Emotional regulation – being able to control your emotions.  One of the more consistent outcomes identified in mindfulness research is self-regulation.  In their book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson highlighted the traits that are altered and sustained through meditation practices.   These included not only self-awareness and social awareness (leading to empathy and compassion)  but also what they call “self-management” (another term for emotional regulation).  Mindfulness practice can help us overcome our habituated behaviour and our typical response to negative stimuli. 
  4. Acceptance – being able to cope with uncertainty, ambiguity, and differing perspectives.  Acceptance according to some schools is a defining characteristic of mindfulness, e.g. Diana Winston in her meditation podcasts for MARC UCLA explains that mindfulness involves “paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is”.  Mindfulness meditation has been used to reduce anxiety in times of uncertainty.  Through mindfulness practice we can also unearth assumptions about differences in perspectives that create walls between us and other people we encounter in our daily lives.
  5. Decisiveness – making decisions despite uncertainties and adversity.  Mindfulness meditation can help us to address procrastination.  It can also improve our decision-making capacity by highlighting the thoughts and emotions behind our decision-making,   exposing our negative thoughts and helping us to maintain focus and achieve clarity.  The Mindful Nation UK report states that one of the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace is “improved comprehension and decision-making”.
  6. Spirituality – defined as “continuous connectedness” with something or someone.  The focus of connection could be the Bhagavad Gita, Buddha, God, nature, or soul.  Connectedness to nature and other people can be enhanced through mindfulness meditation.  Allyson Pimentel offers a mindfulness meditation designed to overcome the sense of separateness and strengthen connectedness.  Christine Jackman, in her book Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World, offers the view of a Benedictine monk that prayer itself is a form of meditation – by praying you are connecting with God or some other deity through mindfulness (p.72).

Reflection

This discussion highlights some of the ways that mindfulness can provide a pathway to wisdom – approaches to developing the components of wisdom.  As we explore each of these components within our mindfulness practice, we can move closer to wisdom.  We could focus on a single component to overcome a deficiency – e.g. Dilip stated that he was working on strengthening his “prosocial behaviour”, specifically compassion.  Alternatively, we can aim to grow in mindfulness and wisdom more broadly by adopting different mindfulness practices.  The research by Davidson and Goleman confirm that mindfulness meditation can alter our brains, our minds, and our bodies.

Dilip’s research confirmed that some people grow in wisdom with age through the recently identified facility of neuroplasticity.  He maintained that people who are active as they age – combined with an openness to new experiences and making changes in their life – can grow in wisdom.  In speaking of activity in this context, he referred to being “active physically, psychologically, socially, and cognitively”.  As we use different forms of mindfulness practices – e.g. mindful walking, mindful listening, mantra meditations, Tai Chi or yoga, journalling, loving-kindness meditation and mindfulness  research – we can increase our level of activity across the dimensions that Dilip identified.

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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.

Quieting Your Mind to Bring Silence into Your Life

Allyson Pimentel, psychologist and mindfulness teacher, recently provided a guided meditation podcast on Keeping Quiet.  In the meditation, she stressed the importance of silence in our lives, particularly in these challenging times when people are experiencing fear, anxiety, uncertainty, worry, concern for their children and anger.   Allyson explained that mindfulness meditation involved “quieting the mind” while “opening the heart” – opening to compassion towards ourselves and towards others.  She maintained that by quieting the mind and experiencing the ensuing stillness and silence we can access our creativity and choose wise action.  In the silence of our inner landscape lies insight, strength, resilience, and the courage to take innovative action.

Allyson pointed out that by quieting the mind, we can deal with difficult emotions – we can stop ourselves from revisiting the past (our mistakes and inadequacies) and the associated depression and regrets, and we can stop predicting a negative future and the associated worry and anxiety.  In quietness and stillness, we can find the ease of the present moment, of being with “what is”.   Allyson drew on the words of  Pablo Neruda in his poem Keeping Quiet to envisage the outcome of each of us being quiet and doing nothing in the moment:

…perhaps a huge silence might interrupt the sadness of never understanding ourselves.

A guided meditation to quiet the mind

In her meditation podcast, Allyson offers a guided meditation designed to help you to quiet your mind – a mindfulness meditation characterised by extended periods of silence.  She suggests at the outset that you take a deep in-breath and enjoy an elongated out-breath as a way of settling into the present and the meditation.

Once you have settled, Allyson suggests that you begin to focus on your bodily sensations.  She encourages you to find a sensation in your body that you find pleasurable and to stay with the pleasure of the moment – quieting the mind and returning to your focus whenever distracting thoughts or emotions interfere.

You could focus on the pleasurable sensation of placing your fingers together – experiencing the sensation of touch and being touched, the tingling in your fingers, the feeling of warmth and energy coursing through your fingers, the sense of connectedness, the feeling of strength and power as you press them together and the sensation of gentleness as you lighten your touch.

Alternatively, you could focus on your breath, not trying to control it but just tapping into your process and sensations of breathing.  Here you might notice the coolness of the breath in your nose as you inhale, the sounds as you exhale, the sense of being alive and a sense of connection to every other living, breathing human or animal.

Reflection

The intensity of our pleasurable sensations can deepen with frequent practice. If we can quieten our minds often enough and for extended periods, we will experience the ease of being with the present moment and the power that this give us to manage our day and our life.  As we grow in mindfulness, our very presence can positively influence others and help them to deal with the waves and vicissitudes of their lives.  Our mindfulness can be for others as well as for ourselves.  We can not only bring the benefits of quieting the mind to ourselves but also extend them to others through our daily interactions.

Pablo maintains that if we can collectively quiet our minds and resist the urge to “keep our lives moving”, many of our global issues would be open to resolution as we moved together in an unfamiliar way:

It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines…

The weekly meditation podcasts conducted by MARC at UCLA provide what Allyson describes in her guided meditation as “companionable silence” – a way of regularly being quiet together and experiencing the power of silence.

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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 Pandemic and Narrowing of the Window of Tolerance

David Treleaven and Liz Stanley discussed the current pandemic In their interview podcast on Widening the Window of Tolerance.  They both asserted that COVID-19 had effectively narrowed the window of tolerance of many people.  There are many people who are becoming increasingly stressed and traumatised by unfolding events, whether because of the death of relatives and friends, loss of a job, dislocation from their normal place of work (and way of working) and/or stringent “lockdowns”.

Narrowing the window of tolerance

In these very challenging times, people are becoming controlled by their “survival brain” – resorting to a fight, flight or freeze response.  Their window of tolerance is becoming narrowed, both in terms of their inner tolerance of challenges and external tolerance of differences.  Everything has been “thrown up in the air” so that they have lost their grounding in accurate perception and balanced body sensations. 

Polarisation , racism, and hate thrive in this disrupted state as people seek refuge in their “own tribe” (flight) and attack others who are different from themselves (fight).  Liz suggested that many people are “uncomfortable in their own skin” so that lockdowns and movement restrictions , creating disconnection, exacerbate the tendency to dysregulation (inability to control emotions).   The sense of hopelessness and helplessness in facing continuous and growing uncertainty adds to the incidence of anxiety and depression.

A compounding factor is that social media becomes what Liz calls an “echo chamber” – it gives unregulated voice to “dysregulated communications” that increase the tendency towards polarisation.  People retreat to social media and television only to find that these media are increasingly disorientating and disturbing.    

Further compounding the issues for individuals is the fact that we tend to make a “bargain” with ourselves – e.g. we can put up with lockdown for three weeks by adding some new routines such as working different hours, taking more regular breaks and expanding project timelines.  However, when other people blatantly and inconsiderately breach lockdown regulations or social distancing requirements leading to further lockdowns, conforming people can feel betrayed – intensifying a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

Hope and widening the window of tolerance

In the previous post I discussed trauma-sensitive mindfulness and widening the window of tolerance.    Liz provides several strategies in her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.  In the interview podcast she shared some of her own strategies for becoming grounded during the current health and economic crisis – mindfulness meditation, gardening, walking and playing with the dog, and focusing on connectedness to others.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® provides detailed strategies and tools to navigate effectively through times of trauma and stress.  She makes the point that whenever we are controlled by our “survival brain”, we are disconnected from our “thinking brain” and shut off from the opportunity to access our creativity and ingenuity. In discussing “hope” in the current challenging times, David noted that the tendency to “hyperfocus on what is not working” (as he has done at times) tends to narrow the window of tolerance and our capacity to cope.  He suggests that accessing stories of successful transition can help to widen our window of tolerance, e.g. successful career changes by people who have lost their jobs. Another strategy that he suggests is to effectively reframe what is happening.  By way of example, he draws on the comments of Adrienne Maree Brown in her article on living through the unveiling:

Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered, we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

Liz reinforces this view when she suggests that it is really only in times of turbulence when everything seems to be “thrown up in the air”, that genuine and sustainable change can happen.

Reflection

As David suggests, we can choose to stay in the fog bank by continuing to absorb negative messages, both external and internal, or we can free ourselves from this befuddled state by growing in mindfulness and developing our own strategies to build resilience and stay grounded.

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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-Sensitive Mindfulness and the Window of Tolerance

In the previous blog post I discussed several resources on the topic of trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of these was David Treleaven’s Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast which includes interviews with people who have expertise in the area or a related area.   In a recent podcast, David  had a conversation with Liz Stanley who not only experienced very considerable trauma, the impact of mindfulness meditation on her traumatic experience but also has developed her own resources and training for people, both civilians and military personnel, who have experienced trauma.  The conversation with Liz on the topic of Widening the Window of Tolerance draws on her personal experiences, study and training and incorporates ideas from her training program and her book, Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma.

The Window of Tolerance

The concept of the Window of Tolerance has been attributed to Dan Siegel, clinical psychologist and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), UCLA.  Dan is the author many books, including Aware: The science and practice of presence.  Many people, including David Treleaven and Liz Stanley, have applied the concept of the Window of Tolerance in their research and training in relation to trauma-sensitive mindfulness.

The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (nicabm) provides an infographic that illustrates the concept in a very clear and easy-to-understand way.  They explain that the window of tolerance is about our capacity to deal with the challenges and stresses of the moment and take wise action to deal with them.  When stress takes us outside our window of tolerance we can experience hyperarousal (related to the fight/flight response) which manifests in uncontrolled anger, emotional overwhelm, or extreme anxiety; or, alternatively, experience hypoarousal (related to the freeze response) which manifests in the body trying to shut down resulting in numbness, “zoning out” or “spacing out”.  

The Attachment and Trauma Treatment Centre for Healing (ATTCH), drawing on the work of Dan Siegel and colleagues, provides a more detailed explanation of the concept in an article titled, Understanding and Working with the Window of Tolerance.  Pooky Knightsmith, on the other hand, provides a simple explanation in her short video on the window of tolerance and how to apply it to managing our emotions in everyday life (for those who are not experiencing trauma or trauma stimuli).

Trauma and narrowing of the window of tolerance

In her podcast interview. Liz reinforced the view that trauma causes a narrowing of a person’s window of tolerance.  She explained that she is a living example of someone who has experienced multiple traumatic events and who tried to cope in the only way she knew how, conditioned as she was by familial and social determinants.  Liz suffered an incredible range of traumatic experiences – active military duty in Asia and Europe, PTSD,  a near-death experience (NDE), rape, and whistle-blower harassment as a result of formally complaining about sexual harassment by her senior officers.

Liz described her response in terms of the compulsivity that comes with hyperarousal (which can occur when a person is outside their window of tolerance).  Instead of dealing with her traumatic stress, she intensified her activities, completing two undergraduate degrees simultaneously.  She explained that like a lot of people, she “compartmentalised” the stress, suppressed it and just kept going harder than ever, managing on two hours sleep each night – she “soldiered on”, both literally and metaphorically.

Liz had to make changes when she temporarily lost her eyesight – something she described as “cosmic coping pain” when her body which had “borne the brunt” of her hyperactivity decided “enough was enough”.  It was then that she explored mindfulness and researched trauma and trauma healing.

Liz explained “trauma” as impacting “neuroception” – “how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life threatening”.  In effect, trauma can distort our neuroception and effectively narrow our window of tolerance.  She explains the effect in terms of our “thinking brain” and our “survival brain”.

Our thinking brain enables us to analyse, make decisions, accurately perceive stimuli, and take wise action; our “survival brain” responds to perceived threats with the fight/flight/freeze response.  With trauma, the connection between the two is “compromised” so that, for example, seemingly harmless stimuli can be perceived as a threat and engender an inappropriate response negatively impacting a person’s health, relationships and capacity to undertake their work.   When we perceive a situation as hopeless or ourselves as powerless, our survival brain and nervous system can become flooded with heightened “emotional arousal”.

Liz explains, however, that when the thinking brain and survival brain are in harmony and working together, we have a wider window of tolerance – e.g. better tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty and the ability to identify and make effective choices, build sustainable connections, and perform optimally. 

Experience of mindfulness for dealing with trauma

Liz turned to mindfulness meditation to help her cope with her traumas which had deep-seated antecedents in the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by her father and grandfather (along with all the distorted coping mechanisms and fractured relationships that this entailed). Her initial experience with mindfulness was one of helping her to achieve some degree of self-awareness and associated self-regulation.  However, over time, she found that her “survival brain” took over as it began to “peel back deeper layers” – deep emotional scars hidden behind her hyperactivity (just as the happy-go-lucky “joker” or “larrikin” can hide the deep emotional pain of depression).

As some mindfulness practices acted as “trauma stimuli” she experienced panic and shallow breathing in-the-moment and flashbacks, nausea, claustrophobia, and inability to sleep for days afterwards.  Liz explained that a potential problem with mindfulness done in isolation and without appropriate modifications can lead to such heightened emotional awareness and arousal that the traumatised person can lose their ability to regulate their emotions and their unhealthy condition can be exacerbated rather than diminished, both mentally and physically.

Developing a trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness training

Liz explained that she spoke to scientists and neuroscientists, explored multiple skills and techniques, and wrote a book about her experiences and her journey out of trauma disablement.  She found that the myths surrounding mindfulness could make matters worse unless the mindfulness trainer recognised the impact of traumatic experience on a person’s window of tolerance.

In her book on widening the window, she draws on her own experiences and stories from people she has trained in a areas such as healthcare facilities and the armed forces.  Liz maintains that you can build resilience even in stressful jobs or when healing from traumatic experience(s).  She provides strategies involving paying attention in certain ways to increase the capacity to access choice and creativity and to make courageous decisions while effectively connecting with others through curiosity, openness, and compassion.

Liz’s Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® which was developed in 2008 and evaluated on four occasions by neuroscientists and stress experts is now available online through Sounds True.  The comprehensive course includes video training and live sessions on topics such as resilience, stress and trauma recovery, effective decision making and relationship building along with “new tools for successfully navigating the interpersonal aspects of stress, trauma, emotions, and conflict”.

Reflection

When you first hear about the potential harmful effects of mindfulness meditation training for trauma sufferers, you can understandably become concerned about conducting mindfulness training for any group.  Alternatively, you might initially dismiss the trauma-sensitive mindfulness movement as a movement to counter the growing global popularity of mindfulness.  However, the evidence to support the trauma-sensitive approach is growing and cannot be ignored.

On the other hand, both Liz and David strongly encourage practitioners not to be put off from training others in mindfulness by this new information nor to behave as if they are “walking on eggshells”.  They strongly encourage mindfulness trainers to persist, especially in these challenging times when mindfulness and resilience is needed by some many people.  They do, however, suggest to proceed with “some discernment”, develop increased awareness of trauma and its impacts, learn about new tools available for trauma-sensitive mindfulness training and intensify their own efforts to grow in mindfulness so that they can train with increasing awareness, insight and sensitivity.

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Image by skeeze 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.

Resources for Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

The core resource that I have used to understand and practise trauma-sensitive mindfulness is the work of David Treleaven.  David experienced trauma as a child and was a committed to mindfulness meditation practice which he found to be essential for healing trauma, but of itself insufficient.  His own clinical practice as a psychotherapist working with trauma sufferers confirmed this view of the essential nature of mindfulness meditation but its insufficiency in healing trauma sufferers.  David has dedicated his life’s work to researching and educating others about the relationship between mindfulness meditation and trauma.  This has culminated in his book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing and a website with additional resources. 

The potential for harm to trauma sufferers during mindfulness meditation

In his book and a free webinar on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, David explains that a lack of understanding by mindfulness trainers of the relationship between trauma and mindfulness meditation can result in overwhelm for a current or former trauma sufferer.  This overwhelm can be manifested in heightened anxiety, dissociation, or emotional dysregulation – the inability to control emotions elicited by a trauma stimulus.  Harm to the trauma sufferer by a meditation teacher can be exacerbated by a lack of understanding of trauma and perpetuation of the myths surrounding mindfulness meditation.  Typical responses that show this lack of understanding and sensitivity are statements like, “Stick with it” (by implication, “if you persist, your trauma response will go away”) or “Most people find this meditation relaxing and calming” (by implication, “there must be something wrong with you”).

The difficulty is compounded by the incidence of trauma and related adverse childhood experiences (ACE).   One study of 17,000 members of an integrated health fund found that two thirds had experienced an adverse childhood experience and 20% had experienced more than three such events.  There is now an ACE instrument whereby people can identify the number and type of ACE’s they have experienced in a lifetime.  David mentions other research that indicates that everyone will have at least one traumatic experience in their lifetime.  He goes on to say that the implication of this is that in any room of people practising mindfulness meditation, there will more likely be at least one person suffering trauma.  Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections, identifies disconnection from childhood trauma as one of the seven social causes of the pervasiveness of depression in society today.

The three myths about mindfulness meditation and trauma

In the 60-minute webinar on his website, David identifies three myths about mindfulness meditation that have been perpetuated in the popular press and in mindfulness training.  The three myths are as follows

  1. The Panacea Myth – the belief that mindfulness meditation will heal all kinds of stress, even stress generated by trauma.  David’s own experience and his clinical experience working with trauma sufferers reinforces the fact that mindfulness meditation alone will not heal trauma – mindfulness meditation processes need to be modified and, in some cases, supplemented by other methodologies such as professional psychological support.
  2. The Breath Myth – the belief that breathing is emotionally neutral.  David explains that because the respiratory system is biologically proximate to the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for excitation of our “flight/ flight/freeze” response) “close and sustained focus on the breath” can re-traumatise an individual for whom “breath” is a trauma stimulus. He states categorically and importantly that “people have different relationships to breath at different moments”.  He encourages the listener to experiment with this throughout the day to confirm that our breathing can be relaxed, tense or emotionally neutral at any point in a day.
  3. The Sufficiency myth – the belief that mindfulness meditation alone is sufficient to heal trauma.  David draws on case examples to illustrate the need for modifications to mindfulness meditation practice and the introduction of additional “self-regulation” tools to enable a person to heal from trauma.

Overall strategies to develop trauma-sensitive mindfulness training practices

David and other authors, practitioners, and researchers provide a range of strategies to “do no harm” when educating others in mindfulness meditation.  Here are some key strategies:

  • Understand trauma – First and foremost, understand trauma and its components on a biological, psychological, and social level.  Without this understanding, it is difficult to develop the sensitivity and flexibility required to do no harm when facilitating a mindfulness meditation session.  Associated with this, is the need to understand trauma-sensitive mindfulness and different strategies that can be adopted by mindfulness trainers and educators.
  • Provide choice re participation – this can be as basic as the freedom not to participate in any or all mindfulness practices on a particular occasion.  It can be the freedom to choose to close your eyes or leave them open (downcast or in wide-ranging exploration) and/or the option to sit, stand, walk  or lie down during meditation practice.  David points out that choice reinforces a sense of agency and is an important and healing aspect of mental health.  He also warns about the potential of offering too much choice in one session which can result in stress for participants, particularly those who already experiencing anxiety (David learned this by making this mistake himself in his zeal to provide agency).
  • Provide choice of anchors – this is a key area of choice that not only recognises that some anchors can be trauma stimuli for some individuals but also that anchors in meditation are an area of personal preference (what works for one person does not work for another).  Anchors enable meditators to restore their focus when they have been diverted by a distracting thought and/or emotion.
  • Adopt modifications to mindfulness meditation practices when needed – In the webinar mentioned about, David provides examples of how he has been able to offer modifications to mindfulness meditation practices for particular individuals when working one-to-one, including  allowing brief breaks to walk around, suggesting a shift in posture and encouraging the use of deep breathing at different intervals or at appropriate moments.  Sam Himelstein, who works with traumatised teenagers, has found, for example, that where a teenager cannot talk about, or focus on their feelings about, their traumatic experience, listening to appropriate music together can be relationship building and enable progress to be made in healing teenage trauma.
  • Develop awareness of principles, guidelines and practices for trauma-sensitive mindfulness – David provides a comprehensive, two-part, online program for training mindfulness practitioners in trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  He also provides a free Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast featuring  people such as Liz Stanley on Widening the Window of Tolerance and Sharon Salzberg on Loving-Kindness Meditation.   Sam Himelstein, author of Trauma-Informed Mindfulness With Teens, offers both guidelines and principles to enable mindfulness trainers and educators to develop the awareness and sensitivity to work with people who have experienced trauma.

Reflection

Reading about the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma-sensitive mindfulness made me realise that I had suffered multiple traumas as a child and that my five-years’ experience in daily mindfulness meditation and Gregorian chant as a contemplative monk in the late 1960’s had helped me to heal from these traumas. 

Recently, I had two participants out of a group of 20 in a management training program who openly stated at the beginning of the program that they suffered from chronic anxiety – one of whom experienced trauma as a result of their manager shouting at them and abusing them in public.  This facilitation experience confirmed the need to modify the training program and also led me to further explore anxiety through Scott Stossel’s book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope and Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind.  This book helped me to become more aware of the pervasiveness of trauma-induced anxiety across the world, intensified by the global pandemic, and how such anxiety can pervade every aspect of an individual’s life.

I have also witnessed two situations of emotional dysregulation during training courses when individuals have experienced a trauma stimulus – one during a singing course when a person experienced acoustic trauma and another where someone experienced re-traumatisation during observation of a success posture exercise being undertaken by another individual with the guidance of a workshop facilitator.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and research, we can become more self-aware, develop insight and sensitivity to work with people who are experiencing trauma and anxiety and build the flexibility and confidence to adopt mindfulness practices and approaches that are more trauma-sensitive.

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Image by Maria Karysheva 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.