Finding Silence Amid Digital Noise and Overload

I have previously discussed the barriers to achieving silence in this busy world including the discomfort of others and internal barriers such as self-doubts and negative messages.  Christine Jackman, author of Turning Down the Noise, acknowledges that even as she wrote this book, she was beset with self-doubts including, “Who will read this?” Christine reminds us that it is not only internal noise that we have to deal with but also digital noise that causes overload, both mental and emotional.  “Information overload” has become vey much a part of our language as we struggle to handle the endless flood of information from social media, TV, and email.  However, as Christine points out, the real toll of overload is on the emotional level.

The emotional toll of digital noise and overload

The social media giants such as Facebook, Apple and Twitter aim to distract us by drawing our attention away to something they want us to spend time on or purchase.  Christine cites research that shows the effect of headline grabbing by Facebook and Twitter – identifying what particular headlines are best able to grab our attention and induce us to click through to the article or message.  These headlines use emotive words to capture our attention, employ high profile people, promote conflict, and engage “polarising emotions”.   The negative emotional impact of digital noise  is compounded by cyberbullying and trolling

Research into the negative impact of digital noise, intensified by the advent of the smartphone, demonstrates that the associated noise pollution results in decline of cognitive abilities, increase in sleep disturbance and development of mental health issues such as anxiety, disconnection, loneliness, and depression.  In stark contrast, Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman, in their book, Altered Traits, have demonstrated that the stillness and silence embedded in mindfulness meditation results in four positive outcomes, (1) increased concentration and focus, (2) improved self-regulation in the face of stress, (3) heightened self-awareness and (4) increased empathy and compassion.  The latter outcome is enhanced considerably by specific loving-kindness meditation

The need for supportive lifestyle changes

Christine explored mindfulness meditation as a way to quiet the mind and “counter the toxic effects of digital noise and overload”.  She decided to practice meditation for 30 minutes each day, split into two 15-minute sessions – one in the morning (when I find it best to meditate) and the other in the night before going to bed.  This level of committed mindfulness practice is sustainable in a  busy life and the evening session can prove to be an antidote to sleeplessness. 

Mindfulness practice needs to be supplemented by supportive lifestyle changes.  Christine chose to remove social media apps from her phone and introduced a range of other changes, some of which are discussed in her “Silence: A How-to Guide” at the end of her book.  She still had to deal with the negative chatter from her “Monkey Mind” when she was experiencing tiredness or boredom or feeling threatened.  However, she found that through her mindfulness practice she had quietened digital noise and overload and was better able to recognise the “noise” from her Monkey Mind as well as disarm the resultant self-doubts.

Reflection

Mindfulness practice, including meditation, can help us to maintain our stillness and equilibrium in the face of digital noise, overload, and the resultant stress.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop increased self-awareness and self-acceptance and more readily deal with our negative thoughts.  Associated with that is increase in the capacity to reduce our reactivity to negative triggers and to take wise action.  However, mindfulness practice needs to be supported by other compatible lifestyle changes which reciprocally are enabled by quieting the mind.

It is interesting that even in times of success, we can be assailed by negative thoughts that can impact our self-esteem and derail us from our life purpose.  Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the highly successful book Eat, Pray, Love, explains this dynamic in her TED Talk, Success, failure and the drive to keep creating.  Elizabeth suggests that the route to equilibrium is “to find your way home again” – and meditation can help us on this journey to “whatever it is that we love beyond ourselves” and to which we can dedicate our energies with “singular devotion”, our life purpose.  She explains in another talk that our current work-from-home situations created by the pandemic represent a great opportunity to confront our fears and use reflection, meditation, and mindfulness practices to develop self-awareness and self-regulation.

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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 Challenge of Finding Silence

I have been reading Christine Jackman’s book, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World, which inspired me to write about the power of silence and to offer a guided meditation to quiet the mind.  I had expected that the book, a personal journey written from the perspective of a very busy and much-travelled journalist, would be a quick and easy read.   It is very easy to read given Christine’s mastery of the written word and her skill in storytelling.  However, it is quite a profound, personal exploration into the challenge of finding silence in a busy world (internally as well as externally “on-the-go”).  Trent Dalton describes this exploration as “treading bravely, beautifully into the wonder of silence”.

Barriers to silence

Christine describes in humourous detail her visit to a health retreat on the Gold Coast in Queensland.  While humour is her tool to disarm the reader, the description of her stay at the retreat is very honest and personally disclosing as she lays bare the barriers that she experienced in attempting to find silence.  She had to find her way through a labyrinth of thorny issues to achieve some insight into silence and its transformative power.

Christine had decided to observe silence during the retreat (where no one else was observing such a challenging discipline).  She even had a sign on her clothes explaining that she was observing silence.  The barriers she encountered were her own self-doubts and negative messages, her projection of the expectations of others and her habituated behaviour.  So, the barriers included a lifelong accumulation of negative self-evaluations, living up to the expectations of others and learned responses to negative stimuli. 

As Christine progressively worked her way through these issues that are not readily overcome, she emerged, however briefly, in a clearing where she was able to experience silence – achieved through a bush walk during which Christine held “a soft focus “ on her senses.  By tuning into her senses, she was absorbed in savouring the present moment.  She was able to let go of the busyness of her life – both internally and externally.

In the metaphorical clearing, Christine discovered a heightened awareness, a state in which her senses became “more acute’ – a state arrived at by doing nothing , including internal commentary.  She had already asked herself how comfortable she could be when confronted with being alone in silence – “Stripped of the ability to curate and present myself to others, who was I really?”

After experiencing the power of silence, Christine wanted to be able to sustain the deep tranquility and peace she had enjoyed . However, after returning to her normal, busy life she found that she was “no closer to working out how to build silence into my daily life”.  

Sustaining the silence

After several years of re-absorption into her busy life, Christine set out on another personal journey.  This time her journey took her to a Benedictine monastery because she had learned that a central rule of the Benedictine tradition was “the pre-eminence of silence”.  She visited New Camaldoli, a Benedictine monastery situated in a remote area of the Californian coast.  The hermitage hosts guests who want to participate in a residential retreat.  Christine participated in communal prayer in the mornings and Vespers and meditation in the evenings and filled her days with hiking and reading. 

In her book, Christine shares something of what she read – she found she resonated with Thoreau’s Walden, particularly where he describes the “quiet desperation” of people’s lives and the reason he went for walks in the woods was because he “wished to live life deliberately”.  She found that her experience at Camaldoli confounded her when she experienced something “both familiar and foreign” – including the fact that the sun seemed to sink into the ocean in the evenings whereas on the East coast of Australia where she lived, the sun rose from the ocean in the mornings.  Christine found that the silence and reflection afforded by the environment enabled her to experience serenity but she had realised that these feelings did not stick – she was unable to sustain them.

I look forward with anticipation to reading about the next chapter in her life of her exploration, titled “contemplation” – an interest that was stimulated by her reading Michael Casey’s book, Strangers to the City.

Reflection

In many ways , Christine’s book is a story of a journey that we all experience in some form or other – the quest for peace and tranquility in a busy world.  We find that silence, which is the gateway to this world of serenity and ease, is both elusive and ephemeral – and Christine’s story is a personal account of this journey and accompanying experiences.  For me, however, her story precipitates a number of personal recollections that are very strong to this day – it is as though I have shared something of her journey.  For example, I had also visited a heath retreat on the Gold Coast and could relate, in part, to her experience.

Christine’s description of the view from the Camaldoli monastery on a mountain top to the water below reminds me of the time that my wife and I attended Vespers at Eibingen Abbey, a community of Benedictine nuns, founded by Hildegard of Bingen (a true exemplar of stillness and silence and the creative genius that lies beneath).  At the time, we were staying on holiday in a friend’s place at Bingen on the Rhine in Germany.  The image above is a photo I took from Bingen looking across the Rhine towards Rüdesheim with the monastery in the background .

Christine’s description of monastic life brought back to me memories of my five years of silence as a contemplative monk in the Whitefriars Carmelite monastery at Donvale Victoria during the late 1960’s.  This involved a balanced life of prayer, meditation, Gregorian chant, physical activity on our dairy farm and extensive study (including reading and discussing the mammoth work of Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy)

Christine through her disarming honesty, transparency and clarity of writing takes each of us on a journey with her.  We can each see in our own lives, reflections of her struggle with the busyness of life and her search for serenity through silence – which she describes as “a space in which I could finally stop”.

As we grow in mindfulness by finding the silence and stillness in our own lives, we can develop an intimate self-awareness, learn to manage our difficult emotions, and achieve self-regulation in terms of our habituated behaviour.  In the silence if we persist, we can find tranquility, resilience, and creativity.

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Image Source – Photo by Ron Passfield, Looking from Bingen to Rüdesheim

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.

Healing from Trauma and Building Resilience to Manage Stress

Liz Stanley recently provided an introductory webinar for her course on Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)®.  The webinar explains the components of the course and how it helps people recover from trauma and enable anyone to build resilience and effectively manage stress.  She also discusses the traumas she has experienced, her personal search for healing and resilience and her in-depth training including her doctorate. 

The components of MMFT®

The online course covers 8 modules over 8 weeks (that you can undertake within your own time and availability).  The first four modules provide the framework to understand how stress and trauma affects us and provides an insight into the neurobiology involved.  As she explains in the webinar, stress and trauma reduce our window of tolerance (our tolerance of stress arousal).  In her view, each of us have our own window of tolerance which has been shaped from birth, and continuously widened or narrowed through our life experiences, encounter with trauma, our lifestyle choices and our stress response (creating implicit learning about what is threatening). 

If we are within our window of tolerance, we are better able to access our thinking brain (enabling accurate perception, clarity of thinking and wise decision making); when we are outside our window of tolerance we are captured by our survival brain and habituated stress responses in terms of bodily sensations, difficult emotions and harmful choices.

Liz explains that the second group of four modules of the MMFT® course deal with habits and related habituated responses, making effective decisions, managing difficult emotions and chronic pain, as well as ways to be more effective in our interpersonal interactions.  The course includes stress and trauma-sensitive mindfulness practices, ”somatic experiencing” and a unique sequence of exercises designed to achieve grounding and enable movement “from dysregulation to self-regulation”.

Liz’s course is offered through Sounds True and has been validated extensively through evidence-based research that has confirmed results in terms of improvements in cognitive performance, strengthened resilience and improved self-regulation, as well as positive developments in other areas of self-management.

Widening the Window of Tolerance

Liz explains that our repetitive experiences impact our implicit knowledge and shape our brains and neuroception (perception of threat/ safety).  We can choose experiences that are beneficial or others that are harmful – we have choice in how our brain is shaped and adapts (neuroplasticity).

In the MMFT introductory webinar and in her book, Widen the Window, Liz offers five lifestyle choices that can serve to widen our window of tolerance:

  1. Sleep
  2. Diet
  3. Exercise
  4. Awareness and reflection
  5. Social connection

She explains that the course details the beneficial effects of each of these elements and also the detrimental effects caused by their absence or deprivation.  She particularly notes the benefits of awareness and reflection.  Liz explains that awareness can be built through mindfulness practices, Tai Chi and yoga while reflective practices involve reflective thinking such as journalling, reading poems, reflecting on scriptural passages or work experiences and their implications, or maintaining some form of gratitude diary.  She highlights the benefits of mindfulness and reflective practices in terms of calmness, clarity, self-awareness, focus, resilience and intention building.

One of Liz’s key messages is that resilience is something that we can learn and develop through beneficial choices.  The result is that we will be better able to manage stress, heal from trauma and access our thinking brain which enables us to think clearly and creatively and choose wise actions – rather than be captive to stress-induced confusion and harmful habituated responses.

Reflection

Liz’s course focuses on how to heal from past, stressful experiences and how to deal effectively with future stressful situations, whether internal (e.g. chronic anxiety) or external (e.g. job loss or interpersonal conflict).  She emphasises the need for consistency not only in making beneficial lifestyle choices but also through engaging in regular mindfulness and reflective practices.   As we grow in mindfulness and the associated awareness of thoughts, emotions, and bodily responses, we can widen our window of tolerance and deal more effectively with the stressors in our life.

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

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

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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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.

Reflective Practices to Facilitate Managerial Mindfulness

In the previous post I discussed managerial mindfulness as an outcome of the Confident People Management (CPM) Program.  This form of mindfulness translates into conscious awareness about the type of team culture the manager is developing through their words, actions, inactions, and time allocation.  The cultural framework developed for the CPM program provides the catalyst for reflective practices incorporated in the program.

The manager’s role in shaping team culture

At the outset of our process of consciousness-raising within the CPM program, we reinforce the view that the immediate manager is the most influential person in shaping the team culture.  We say to our participant managers, “What you say and how you say it; what you do and how you do it; what you omit to do; and what you spend your time on; is shaping your team culture hour by hour, day by day.”  We acknowledge to participants that it is a harsh reality that “they get the team culture they deserve” – that their team culture is a direct result of what they choose to say and do and what they spend their time on.

However, we also explain to the participant managers that they have a set of tools at their disposal which enable them to shape team culture – the tools include congruent behaviour, active listening, setting expectations, positive feedback, and corrective feedback.  We then work with the managers through a series of experiential exercises and reflective practices that enable them to progressively build their awareness of how they are currently shaping their team culture and how they might proceed differently to improve both the productivity of their team and the mental health of their team members.

The cultural framework as a catalyst for developing managerial mindfulness

The CPM program is conducted over four to six workshop days, with the first two workshop days being adjacent and the remaining workshops separated by a month to facilitate practice on-the-job of the acquired skills.  Participant managers also conduct a workplace project (individually or in a team) to implement their learning from the program and gain greater personal insight and self-awareness.  The presentation of the results of their project to co-participants and their managers occurs on the final day of the Program.

The CPM Program offers many opportunities to develop managerial mindfulness through the following reflective practices:

  • Reflection on past experience: Participant managers are asked to reflect individually and in small groups on their experience of being managed by other supervisors/managers.  They then share in the small groups and the plenary group not only about their manager’s behaviour but also the impact that their manager’s words, actions, inaction, and time allocation had on them – on their feelings and their motivation.  This typically leads to a discussion about how workplace culture is shaped by managers – increasing awareness of the impact on team culture of their own managerial behaviour.
  • Exploring intention: Being conscious of your intention in any endeavour is a key element of mindfulness.  The centrepiece of the team culture model is congruence – aligning words and actions.  Participants reflect individually in writing on what kind of culture they are intending to create and how congruent their words, actions, inaction, and time allocation are with this intention. 
  • Debriefing experiential exercises: During the workshops, participant managers undertake experiential exercises focused on the elements of the team culture model – setting expectations, active listening, positive feedback, and corrective feedback.  They then reflect on the exercise in their group and share insights with the plenary group. This process facilitates the development of reflection-on-action.
  • Reflection on workplace practice: At the end of each workshop, participant managers are asked to consciously practise several skills in their workplace with their intact team during the intervening period between workshops.  Each new workshop begins with a small group-based reflection exercise.  The results of their reflection-on-action is shared with the larger group.  This often stimulates vicarious learning amongst the broader group.
  • Presentation of action learning project:  Participants are asked during their presentations to share what they set out to do, what outcomes they achieved (intended and unintended) and what they learnt through the program and their project.  This reflective process helps individual participants to make explicit their implicit learning.

Reflection

My co-facilitator and I have observed that the frequent practice of reflection-on-action during the CPM Program tends to cultivate the capacity to reflect-in-action, a process that involves being fully present on purpose.  As participant managers undertake reflective practices within the Program, they progressively develop the insights and skills of managerial mindfulness, awareness of how they are shaping team culture in the moment through their words, actions, inaction, and time allocation.  As they grow in mindfulness, the managers are more in tune with their staff, better able to be present when interacting and more open to influence and the development of staff agency.  This, in turn, contributes to the development of a productive and mentally healthy culture.

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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.

Managerial Mindfulness

Over the past 12 years, I have been co-facilitating a longitudinal, action learning program for managers.  The initial program, Practical People Management, was developed by my colleague Julie Cork and Mike Nelson in 2004 to address the issue of poor-quality supervision that was negatively impacting the health of public servants.  Over time, different components such as managing change and managing generational differences were added to the content of the program resulting in a loss of coherence.

When Julie and I started working together, we began to pool our ideas, concepts, models, and experiences and repurposed the program as Confident People Management (CPM).  A key element of this change was the introduction of a cultural change framework to integrate the components of the program.  

We also became more conscious of the role the program played in assisting managers to create both a productive and a mentally healthy workplace.  As we explored the writings and research on mental health in the workplace, we became increasingly aware of the role that mindfulness could play in helping managers to develop self-awareness and self-regulation and to facilitate development of a workplace culture conducive to the positive mental health of their employees.

Action learning, mindfulness, and mental health in the workplace

We were conscious that the research on mindfulness demonstrated that developing mindfulness was conducive to positive mental health in the workplace and elsewhere.  We were confident that action learning also contributed to a mentally healthy workplace. So, I undertook research to identify what were the factors (active ingredients) that enabled both action learning and mindfulness to contribute to positive mental health in the workplace.

In a book chapter I wrote on the topic, Action Learning and Mindfulness for Mental Health in the Workplace, I explained how action learning and mindfulness are complementary and mutually reinforcing as they have the common intermediate goals of developing “self-awareness” and “agency” , both of which are conducive to positive mental health in the workplace.

Our initial efforts to incorporate mindfulness concepts and practices into the Confident People Management (CPM) Program involved adding a mindfulness session to the program content.  However, for various reasons, including time restrictions, this did not have the traction we had hoped for.

As we reflected on the CPM Program and its development, we began to reframe our facilitation processes as “consciousness-raising”.   More recently, in our lag time because of Covid-19, I have come to conceptualise a core outcome of the program as developing “managerial mindfulness”.

Managerial Mindfulness

Drawing on the definition of mindfulness proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, I have developed a definition of Managerial Mindfulness as follows:

Managerial mindfulness is the awareness that arises when a manager pays particular attention, in the present moment, on purpose, to the impact they are having on the culture of their team.  This involves consciousness about the impact, positive or negative, that their words, actions, omissions, and time allocation have on the development of a productive and mentally healthy workplace. Managerial mindfulness is developed through openness, curiosity, and a commitment to reflective practice.

Over time, we have incorporated a range of reflective practices into CPM that facilitate the development of managerial consciousness by participant managers.  Some of these processes are integral to an action learning approach, others involve strategic questioning around the manager’s role in shaping team culture.

Reflection

Both action learning and mindfulness contribute to positive mental health.  However, in any given context, mindfulness practices can take on different forms.  Within the context of the CPM program, experiential learning and on-the-job practice, combined with reflective practice, enable participating managers to grow in mindfulness.  As they develop and enhance their managerial mindfulness, they can more consciously and effectively develop a workplace culture that builds both productivity and positive mental health.  They become acutely aware of the impact of their own words, actions, inaction, and time allocation in shaping their team culture.

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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.

Benefits of Body Scan Meditations

Body Scan meditations take many forms but typically involve a process of progressive noticing of parts of the body, usually beginning with the feet.  A body scan meditation can be undertaken anywhere or at any time and can be brief or extended.  One of its advantages is that it can be easily integrated into other forms of mindfulness practices such as gratitude meditation or loving-kindness meditation.  It can also be undertaken while lying down or sitting on a chair (e.g. in a workplace).  A powerful example of the benefits of this form of meditation is provided by Tara Healey who offers a guided meditation incorporating a 10-minute full body scan.

What are the benefits of body scan meditations?

There are many benefits that accrue from this form of meditation and these benefits are typically mutually reinforcing.  I will discuss several of the benefits here, but the real test is to try different forms of body scan and select one that is appropriate for the time you have available and your needs at the time.  A daily practice will be habit forming so that in times of stress you can automatically drop into a body scan.

  • Relaxation: the body scan is often described as a form of progressive relaxation as you consciously progress from your feet to your head paying attention to parts of your body, e.g. your toes on your left foot.  The very act of noticing serves to relax the different parts of the body as you progress.  Michelle Maldonado, when discussing self-care, suggests that a body scan can be used by people who have difficulty going to sleep in these challenging times. 
  • Tension release: some forms of body scan involve identifying different parts of the body where tension is being experienced in the form of tightness, ache, pain, or soreness.  This approach involves noticing these specific physical tension points so that you can consciously release them.  Because of the close mind-body connection, the release of physical tension can also serve to lessen sources of mental tension such as anxiety, fear or worry.  Deepak Chopra maintains that “there is no mental event that doesn’t have a biological correlate” – in other words, our thoughts and feelings are automatically manifested in our body.
  • Body awareness: as you develop the habit of a body scan, you increase your body awareness.  Some forms of this meditation focus on body sensations as you progress through the scan. In this way, you become more conscious of how your body is reacting to your daily experiences – often an aspect of your daily living that is outside conscious awareness.  Thus, the body scan is a route to developing mindfulness through heightening awareness of your body and its various sensations. 
  • Being present: body scan helps you to be in-the-moment, not distracted by thoughts of the past or anxiety about the future.  Focusing on body sensations such as heat or energy in various parts of your body (such as when your fingers touch), can enable you to become really grounded in the present moment.
  • Building capacity to focus: the act of conscious noticing of parts of the body, builds the capacity to focus – a key component of achieving excellence in any endeavour.  Learning to pay attention to what is going on in your body builds your awareness muscle and can help to reduce debilitating habits such as procrastination.
  • Developing self-awareness: this is a key element in the process of developing self-regulation.  As you develop self-awareness, you become more conscious of what triggers negative emotions for you and are better able to build your response-ability, thus controlling how you respond in specific situations.   You can become aware, for example, that particular situations make you “uptight” and learn what it is about those situations that contribute to your body and mental stress.
  • Dealing with trauma: body scan is a form of somatic meditation that is often employed in helping people who have suffered trauma or adverse childhood experiences.  Trauma and associated experiences leave deep imprints on your body, and mindfulness activities such as body scan can help to reduce this scarring and release harmful emotions.

Reflection

There are many benefits that accrue from the use of body scan meditations.  However, the benefits are intensified with daily practice.  As we grow in mindfulness through body scan meditations, we can develop self-awareness, release tension, improve self-regulation, build our body awareness, and heighten our capacity to be in the present moment.  In this way, we can learn to focus our mind and energy and overcome the dissipating effects of distractions and challenging emotions.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

Self-Care and Care for Others in Challenging Times

Resilience is a constant theme of podcasts, online courses, and conferences in these challenging times.  One outstanding example of this is the interview podcast conducted with Michelle Maldonado  by Mindful.org.  Michelle discussed Resilience for Divided Times – the challenge of maintaining equilibrium in times of divisions on the grounds of race, nationality, gender, wealth and health.  The pandemic has unsettled everyone and challenged our way of operating day-to-day and, in the process, heightened anxiety and unearthed deep divisions previously hidden by the routines and busyness of daily life.  IN the interview, Michelle highlights the need for self-care, self-awareness, and pursuit of our own individual contribution to the service of others.

Self-Care for resilience

Without self-care we are unable to care for others and are more likely to contribute to divisions rather than their resolution.  Michelle emphasises the need to get in touch with our challenging emotions and not push them away or ignore them.  She quotes her father who used to say, “No way to it but through it”.  Michelle suggests that with escalating personal challenges, the need for self-care increases and demands that we increase the frequency, duration, and variety of our self-care approaches and mindfulness strategies if we are to build resilience and maintain our balance.   

Many people are finding it difficult to sleep in the current challenging times because of worries about health, finances, employment or restrictions on movement and access.  Michelle shared her own approach to overcoming the inability to go to sleep.  She maintains that often sleep eludes us because our mind is unsettled or constantly ruminating.  Her recommendation is to meditate or write a journal before going to bed to provide a “dump” for the mind and to still the mind’s incessant activity.  This mental activity can be complemented by a “body scan” to identify and release points of tension.  If you wake up prematurely, Michelle encourages you to practise a form of breathing involving exhaling longer than you inhale (e.g. a count of 7 on the exhale and 5 on the inhale) – an approach that activates the parasympathetic nervous system.  An alternative is to get up and write.

Self-awareness to take wise action

Michelle argues that if we lack self-awareness, we can unconsciously inflame divisions by our words and actions.  She maintains that each of us is constantly engaged in perception and prediction – both of which are influenced by our past experiences, including our childhood.  Our perception and prediction can generate a wide array of emotions including anticipation, sense of hopelessness, exhaustion, and excitement. 

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of our biases, predispositions, and distorted perceptions and create the space to think and act more consciously, skilfully, and compassionately (towards our self and others).  Michelle tells the story of how working closely with Federal Enforcement Officers totally changed her perception of these officers – an erroneous perception built up through newspaper and TV reports.  She saw their humanity, kindness, and concern for others. The danger is that we tend “to lump all people together” – whether they are of a particular location, race, profession, political affiliation, or gender orientation.  We need to challenge our assumptions through curiosity and honest self-inquiry so that we can create the space to understand where others are coming from and be able to take “wise action”, not action fuelled by ignorance, fear, hatred or misunderstanding.  

Contributing to the service of others

When we are confronted with the magnitude of suffering, mental illness, and uncertainty in these pandemic times, we can have a strong desire to help others but can feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task.  Michelle assures us that there is a unique way for each of us to make a contribution to the welfare of others.  She suggests that you can sit with the challenge of identifying your role and contribution to the service of others, think about it and attempt to write it down (to provide clarity and order for your thoughts).  With patience and persistence, you can gain the necessary insight to take the first steps and have the courage to “concretize and manifest what is yours to do”.  This may involve overcoming your natural tendency to procrastinate.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through self-care and developing self-awareness, we are better placed to identify any distortions in our perceptions and projections and to manage challenging emotions.  We can build resilience and contribute in a unique way to healing divisions and helping others to achieve the ease of wellness.  

Michelle offers a brief G.R.A.C.E. meditation by way of reflection and integration of her discussion (at the 29-minute mark).  The meditation encompasses gathering attention; recalling intention; attuning to self and others; considering what would serve your self-care needs and the needs of others at this moment; and engaging ethically through deciding one wise action you can take (a first step).

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Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

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

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

Developing Wisdom Through Meditation

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

Elements of wisdom developed through meditation

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

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

Reflection

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

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Image by Nadege Burness 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.

Bringing Challenging Emotions to Awareness

Often our tendency with challenging emotions is to push them away or ignore them.  We may disown these thoughts and challenging emotions because we feel shame that we are experiencing intense anger, continuous resentment or persistent bitterness. Sometimes, if we entertain them and play the triggering situation over and over in our minds, these emotions take over our life, our reactions and interactions.  We may harbour resentment and continuously engage in harmful and unproductive thoughts, e.g. “Why me?”, “Wait till I get the chance to pay them back!” or “What have I done to deserve this?”  Our thoughts emerge from our inner hurt and overtake us.  

A guided meditation to bring challenging emotions to awareness

Tom Heah, accredited UCLA meditation teacher, provides a guided meditation podcast focused on Meeting Challenging Emotions with Awareness.  Tom maintains, like other meditation teachers, that it is important to allow these emotions, face them fully and own them, while treating ourselves with kindness and compassion.  

He suggests that we can grow in mindfulness and the capacity for a healthy response by meditating on a triggering situation and allowing the stimulated emotion to be with you.  He encourages you to feel the emotions in your body – sense its location, strength and size.  Tom recommends giving a label to your emotion – naming your feelings – so that you can better manage them.  He argues that being clear about how you really feel (not diminishing it or hiding its nature or intensity), will help you to respond appropriately rather than reactively.

As you open your “awareness to whatever feelings arise” such as loneliness, anger or frustration, you will experience bodily sensations such as tightness in the chest, pain in your arms/back or constriction of your breathing.  Tom maintains that it is important to allow these bodily sensations but support yourself with conscious breathing.  He suggests that you can think of breathing in self-kindness, love and caring and breathing out tension, pain and anxiety.   Your breath can be your emotions release valve.

Reflection

Tom’s process enables us to reflect on a past event that triggered challenging emotions.  However, if you are in the situation that is triggering your strong emotional response, you can adopt the S.T.O.P. process suggested by Tara Brach.  This process – stop, take a breath, observe, respond – enables you to pause before responding and assists you to regain control.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we will be better able to manage our challenging emotions in-the-moment.  This self-regulation takes considerable self-awareness and heightened self-control, both of which can be developed over time.  Tom reminds us that emotions can have a “limited timespan” if we readily face them and their bodily manifestations and don’t brush them aside, ignore them or engage in endless negative thinking.

Tom offers a range of free guided meditation podcasts and paid training courses, including a course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for which he is highly qualified and experienced.

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Image by かねのり 三浦 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.