Playing Canasta: An Analogy for Mindfulness

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

Paying Attention

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

Play with the cards you are dealt

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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Image by jacqueline macou from Pixabay

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

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

Mindfully Developing Inclusive Leadership

Andrés Tapia, international inclusion expert, recently presented a webinar, Overcoming Hypocrisy: How Workplaces Move From Performative Allyship to Authentic Commitments, in which he explored how to mindfully develop inclusive leadership despite opposition within organisations.  He highlighted the personal and career costs of attacking this laudatory goal in a mindless, unconscious manner.  Andrés webinar was hosted by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, who published his co-authored book, Autentico: The Definitive Guide to Latino Success – which looks at bias, conscious and unconscious, as barriers to overcome if Latinos and Latinas are to get ahead.  He also attacked the issue of inclusion from the leadership side when he wrote the book, The 5 Disciplines of Inclusive Leadership: Unleashing the Power of All of Us, co-authored with Alina Polonskaia.

In the webinar, he shared his experiences of developing inclusion in organisations on a worldwide basis.  He noted that bias and exclusion are not the sole province of white, male-dominated organisations in the West.  He indicated that exclusion exists everywhere but may manifest differently through bias on the grounds of religion, gender, ethnicity, skin colour or gender preferences thus having an impact on different groups, e.g., women, LGBT+, non-gendered, Muslims, Jewish. 

Andrés explored several strategies for consciously developing inclusive leadership.  His mindful approach included the following:

Be mindful of, and focus on, the people who are open to influence

Andrés warned against mindlessly attacking the problem of exclusion without awareness of the potential impact on mental and physical health and career success.  He suggested that wasting time and energy on the extreme opponents to equity and fairness is exhausting, unsustainable and ineffective.  He argues that you should seek out people in power who demonstrate an openness to inclusive practices and a willingness to explore the barriers, both personal and organisational, that perpetuate exclusion.  This entails, in the initial stage, developing a conscious awareness of where other leaders stand on inclusion issues.  It also means noting how inclusive are their friendships and social activities – what Andrés calls “foundational” evidence.

Develop allies

Exclusion is an arena of power so it is important to develop allies who will support and sustain you in your endeavours to create a counterculture that is compassionate and inclusive.  Ignoring this advice can lead to burnout and isolation.  Whenever, you are attempting to go against mainstream thinking and action, you need the support of others, both inside and outside your organisation.  This is exactly what we did in establishing the Action Learning Action Research Association (ALARA) in 1991.  At the time, action learning and action research were considered “aberrant” approaches to leadership development and organisational research – they were not mainstream and, in fact, challenged the very assumptions of the prevailing teaching, research and development culture. 

Understand “bedrock principles”

In giving an illustration of a female executive’s support for the advancement of an Asian woman who had been discriminated against, Andrés maintained that the executive observed some “bedrock principles” for developing inclusivity – have a through understanding of diversity and inclusion concepts, develop awareness of an individual’s talents and capability, appreciate the importance of personal sponsorship and coaching, and draw on your courage to “step up” and “stand up” for what you know to be fair and equitable in the way individuals are treated.  I have previously described the traits of inclusive leadership which reinforce Andrés concept of “bedrock principles”.  He adds a further trait that he considers is frequently absent even among well-intentioned leaders – that is, an awareness of their own personal and positional power and a willingness to leverage this power in the pursuit of inclusiveness.  Andrés points out that leaders often focus on empowerment of others who are disadvantaged but overlook their own power to create change.

Develop personal preparedness before seeking allies amongst disadvantaged groups

Seeking out allies amongst disadvantaged groups while being personally unprepared for the challenge of creating change puts an unnecessary burden on people in these groups who are already burdened by bias.  Andrés suggests that you have to build your own preparedness for wise action through observation, reading , watching videos, listening to podcasts and engaging others in conversation. He suggests that this more mindful approach develops full awareness of the nature and extent of disadvantage experienced by a particular group of people, the origins of the underlying bias, and the complexity of the challenge involved in creating an inclusive culture.  Mindfulness meditation can be employed to develop the necessary personal traits of inclusive leadership and awareness of our own unconscious bias.  Andrés notes that we can draw inspiration from the example of companies like Discover Financial Services that deliberately located one of their call centres (employing 1,000 people) in one of the poorest, Black neighbourhoods of Chicago, in pursuit of economic diversity and economic justice.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can increase our understanding of inclusion issues, develop self-awareness (especially in relation to our biases and their impact on others), build up the courage to intervene where necessary and gain the insight and creativity to take wise action.  Developing inclusive leadership needs to be approached mindfully if we are to be effective in creating sustainable change in equity and fairness within our organisations.

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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.

Developing Confidence through Mindfulness and Reflection

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

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

The disabling effect of negative self-stories

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

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

A reflective framework

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

My Rationalisations

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

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

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

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

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

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Image by Couleur from Pixabay

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

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

Solitude and Silence in Nature – A Pathway to Self-Awareness and Resilience

We can have an approach-avoidance attitude to solitude in nature – being alone in silence away from other people.  It can at first generate fear and tap into all our negative associations with “being alone”.  Solitude is different to loneliness because it involves choice – choosing to be by ourselves or to make the most of being “forced” to be alone.  It involves developing a positive perspective on being alone – seeing it as an opportunity for increased self-awareness and empowerment rather than a deprivation of company.

Ruth Allen, author of Grounded: How Connection with Nature Can Improve our Mental and Physical Wellbeing, maintains that when we are in nature we are never really alone – we are always in the presence of other living things that are around us that we often do not see.  Our natural environment is teeming with life.  When we choose solitude in nature, time away from other people, we can become more connected with nature and every living thing.  We can be more open to the vibrancy and beauty that surrounds us.

Often, we can be fearful of being alone with ourselves – facing up to who we really are (rather than who we project to others).  It means confronting those parts of ourselves that we may not like – it might be our character flaws or personal weaknesses, our past history of unkindness or thoughtlessness or our self-indulgence.  Many of these traits can be hidden away from consciousness because they appear too painful to confront.  The power of solitude in nature is the gift of silence and quiet reflection – time away from the distracting influence of noise and the pollution of expectations (our own and those of other people).

Gaining self-awareness and clarity

Solitude in nature offers us the opportunity to become increasingly self-aware – to understand who we really are and what we are truly capable of.   In his TED Talk, photographer Benjamin Powell argues that solitude in nature gives “our inner voice the opportunity to speak” and reveals our life purpose to us because it unearths our “latent gifts and talents” and cultivates unselfishness.  We can move from being self-absorbed to being absorbed in everything around us.

Often when we are experiencing challenges we say, “I need to go for a walk to clear my head”.  Solitude in nature gives us the opportunity to develop clarity, restore perspective and find creative solutions to issues that are causing us stress.  We can gain insight into our own way of perceiving the issues as well as develop an understanding from other people’s perspective.  Reflection through solitude in nature can help us, for example, to understand residual resentment that we may carry after an interaction (even if that was a long time ago).  It enables us to step back from the noise and clutter of a busy life and self-indulgence in hurt feelings and to find the insight to balance our perspective on the interaction, including understanding how our own sensitivity has contributed to our hurt feelings and appreciating the influences that contributed to the other person’s behaviour.

Strengthening relationships

When we return from solitude in nature, we are in a better place to engage with others, whether partners, family, friends, or colleague.  We can be more self-aware (particularly of our sensitivities and our habituated behavioural patterns), more patient through absorption in the quietness and stillness of nature, more in control of our own emotions and more ready to appreciate others in our life through experiencing gratitude for nature and its freely-given gifts.

Building resilience and self-reliance

When we spend time alone in nature, in stillness and silence, we have to fall back on our resources and resourcefulness.  We have to tap into our inner strength as we explore our “inner landscape” with openness and curiosity.  Meeting this challenge head on builds our capacity to meet the challenges of everyday life and to learn the depth and breadth of our inner strength.  Solitude in nature can provide us with an experience of bliss that flows over into our daily lives and strengthens us when we are confronted by adversity.  We know, too, from experience of solitude that we can seek refuge in nature to restore our groundedness and self-belief.

Reflection

If we have an aversion for solitude in nature, we can explore the feelings we are experiencing to better understand the source of our fear.  It might be that such solitude is a trigger for a traumatic reaction because of prior adverse experiences.  It could be that we are very reluctant to look too closely at our lives and what we have done in the past.  Sometimes, we may need professional support to engage with the challenge of solitude.

Ruth contends that we can train ourselves for solitude in nature and offers activities that we can undertake when alone in nature and ten strategies to employ when planning solitude in nature.  She also cautions against trying to move too fast or too far when we are not used to spending time alone.  Ruth points out, too, that we can progress from a short period to longer periods in solitude as we expand our comfort zone.  She also recommends that we reflect on our solitude experience and learn what natural places are more conducive to wellness for us as well as what is an ideal amount of time for us to spend in nature alone.

As we grow in mindfulness through solitude in nature and the resultant self-reflection, we can grow in self-awareness, self-reliance, and resilience to face the challenges of life.  We can also gain clarity about our life purpose and what we can contribute to helping others achieve wellness.

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Image by Antonio López 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 Mindfulness and Positive Mental Health in the Digital Age

In the previous post I focused on the challenge of the digital age with respect to developing mindfulness.  This earlier post was stimulated by a presentation of Jon Kabat-Zinn during the Mindfulness & Compassion Week (June 6- 13, 2021).  In his workshop, Jon also mentioned the benefits of the digital age for developing mindfulness and positive mental health, particularly during the time of the pandemic when people were becoming isolated through lockdowns and border closures.

There are many facets of the digital age that facilitate the development of mindfulness and positive mental health – the growth of global online, mindfulness conferences and seminars, access to online meditations, digital music and nature imagery, e-groups, and podcasts.   Many of these aspects have been enhanced by the emergence of streaming platforms and flexible technologies such as Google Chromecast and Bose portable speakers. 

Global online mindfulness conferences

The emergence of sophisticated web conferencing has enabled the growth in global, online mindfulness conferences, and the Nature Summit is just one example of this.  In this web conference, conducted from May 11-17 2021, more than 30 world experts discussed ways to connect with nature, access its wonder and wisdom and develop improved mental health and mindfulness.  The Science & Wisdom of Emotions Summit highlighted ways to cultivate mindfulness to gain an understanding of our emotions, deal with emotions in daily living and develop self-regulation to effectively channel our emotional energy. 

Online Meditations

During the pandemic, we saw increased access to online meditations, often conducted on a global basis.  The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), for example, converted their weekly, face-to-face guided meditations to the Zoom platform to enable global online participation.  Often, lifetime access to digital meditations were also provided for paid subscribers of web conference resources which included videos, audios, and transcripts.  Many organisations now provide online meditations and some, such as Headspace, provide guided meditations via an app. 

Emergence of e-groups

Some organisations providing mental health services via face-to-face meetings had to develop e-groups – moving their group support services online via platforms such as Zoom.  One such organisation is GROW which provides supported, peer-led groups for people experiencing mental illness (Growers).  This organisation was able to transition their face-to-face meetings to eGROW Groups enabling online access nationally as well as on a State/regional basis.

Access to digital music and nature imagery

Developing mindfulness and healing through music and nature imagery has been facilitated by the emergence of online media such as that provided by Louie Schwartzberg’s Moving Art website.  His films and photography are enhanced by his Wonder and Awe podcast series.   Digital music platforms such as Spotify have provided ready access to a world of different genres of music and podcasts, some incorporating guided meditations and mantra meditations.  YouTube enhances access to mantra meditations by enabling visual imagery to support the meditative singing as in Lulu & Mischka’s Stillness in Motion video.

Another aspect of connection through music in the digital age is the growth of virtual choirs and the associated logistical, singing, and instrumental collaboration on a global and local scale.  On a global level, for example, 300 people from 15 countries participated in the singing/ orchestration of the highly pertinent song You’ll Never Walk Alone.  In another example,  people from 50 countries combined to sing Amazing Grace in their own language.  On a local level, the Morningsong community choir was able to provide warm-ups, practice pieces and group online singing during pandemic lockdowns.  YouTube provides access to multiple virtual choirs.

Reflection

Digital media has provided the means to connect with each other and with nature at a time when people are physically isolated.  The spin-off from the periods of lockdowns and border closures is that many people have come to appreciate more what they have in life, to savour their access to nature and increase their motivation to improve their physical and mental health. 

There are now increased mechanisms and avenues available to develop our mindfulness practice through the growth in digital media and flexibility of access.  It is important to savour and utilise these facilities to enrich our mindfulness practice and enhance positive mental health.

As we grow in mindfulness with the aid of digital media, we can increase our self-awareness and connection with others, develop gratitude and creativity and build the resilience and compassion we need to manage effectively in difficult times.

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Image by Inga Klas 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.

Insight Meditation for Peace and Happiness

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

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

Guided insight meditation

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

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

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

A graduated approach to paying attention

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

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

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

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

Clarity about your life purpose

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

Reflection

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

As we grow in mindfulness though insight meditation, we gain a deepened self-awareness, heightened self-regulation and clarity about our life purpose.  This, in turn, engenders sustainable peace, happiness and productivity.
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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.

Being Mindful of Breathing

The upgrade version of the Nature Summit provides a number of meditation podcasts that offer a range of guided meditations.  In one of these, Mark Coleman – meditation teacher, coach, and therapist – leads a guided meditation on the Mindfulness of Breathing.  This is one of three meditations that he offers as an upgrade bonus that normally make up his CD meditation series, The Art of Mindfulness: Meditations for Awareness, Insight, Relaxation and Peace.  Mark is a co-founder of The Mindfulness Training Institute and the Nature Summit.

A guided meditation on the mindfulness of breathing

Mark’s meditation on breathing begins with encouraging you to adopt a comfortable position and become conscious of the pressure of your feet on the floor.

He then provides a series of mindfulness activities designed to heighten awareness of breathing and its beneficial effects on mind and body.  His instructions for this mindful breathing practice are below:

  • Begin with a light body scan checking for, and releasing, any point of tension.  You can scan the more  common places of tension – your shoulders, neck muscles, face and eye muscles, feet and ankles.  I find that typically my shoulders are raised and tense, so I have to learn to let go at this stage of the meditation.
  • You can now focus on an area of your body where you can sense your breathing – it could be the flow of air in and out of your nose, the undulation of your chest or the rise and fall of your abdomen.  Try to pay attention to your breath and how you are experiencing it – fast or slow, deep or shallow, long or short. The idea is not to try to control your breath but just observe how it is for you.
  • Mark suggests that once you have been able to focus on a location of your experience of breathing that you take time to pay full attention to the in-breath and then the out-breath – just focusing on how they are occurring.
  • You can then move on to observing the gap or silence between your in-breath and your out-breath – lengthening the gap if you desire.  Mark notes that during this stage of the breathing meditation (or one of the earlier stages) it is normal to be beset with distractions from your focus on breathing – images, emotions, planning, questioning, going over the past or thinking about the future.  He suggests that when you notice a distraction, name it for what it is without self-criticism and return to your focus. He maintains that noticing the distraction and its nature in the moment is actually an act of mindfulness (paying attention on purpose in the present moment and doing so non-judgmentally).  By naming the type of distraction, you may actually observe a pattern in your distracted thinking (mine is typically “planning”).
  • If strong bodily sensations arise, you can put attention on breath in the background while you deal with the sensation such as pain, tingling or soreness.  Similarly, if a strong emotion occurs, you can temporarily focus on it, name the emotion, and explore its bodily manifestation.   Mark suggests that you avoid letting your thinking about the emotion take over but stick with its actual physical manifestation.  Thoughts can reinforce an emotion, embed it more deeply and make it difficult to return to your focus on breathing.

Variations on the theme of mindfulness of breathing

Richard Wolf, author of In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness, discusses the practice of “rhythmic breathing” when exploring the interplay between music and mindfulness.  He also offers several breathing practices that involve breathing in-time to music beats such as 4/4 or ¾ time.  He suggests that you can develop this further by adopting what he calls the “four-bar sequence” – basically alternating inhalation and exhalation with holding your breath and doing each aspect for the equivalent of four bars. 

Richard encourages us to not only observe our breathing closely but notice its sonic qualities as well. He maintains that the process of conscious breathing is a meditative practice that builds mindfulness.  He argues that regular practice of breathing meditation linked to music can help us to develop “deep listening”, a skill that underpins quality relationships.

 Reflection

Our breath is with us in every moment and by paying attention to our breathing in the ways suggested, we can become more grounded in the present and less disturbed by ups and downs of life.  As we grow in self-awareness through breathing meditations, we can deepen our self-awareness and emotional regulation and  being more fully present to others through improved concentration and deep listening.

Mark extends the practice of mindful breathing and deep listening beyond our room to outside in nature and the wild.  He offers free daily nature meditations as well as Awake in the Wild Teacher Training.  He is the author of A Walk in the Wild: A Buddhist Walk through Nature – Meditations, Reflections and Practices.

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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.

How to Set Boundaries for Mental Health and Freedom

Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Terri Cole about the nature of personal boundaries, their importance and how to establish and maintain them.  Terri is the author of the book, Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (finally) Live FreeIn writing the book Terri drew on her own personal experiences, especially as a child, and her work with clients as a psychotherapist.  She found that her own “need to please” created “dysfunctional boundaries” and observed that many of her client’s problems stemmed from the inability to establish “healthy boundaries”.

Our “boundary blueprint”

Terri maintains that we each have a “boundary blueprint”, imprinted by the key influencers in our life, including our parents.  She suggests that over time we model ourselves on the behaviour and responses of our parents and key influencers, so that we can end up with an approach to setting boundaries that is ineffectual and even mentally harmful.  Once we have been able to master the skill of establishing boundaries, we can free ourselves from the hold of habituated responses – which are often designed to avoid conflict, gain approval or maintain the “peace”.  As Terri points out, our habituated responses typically involve not being truthful about our own desires and needs.

Becoming a “boundary boss”

The concept of “boundary boss” is not a harsh or unkind approach as the name might suggest but essentially entails being kind to ourselves and others through telling the truth (while leaving room to negotiate about desires and needs).  Terri maintains that we all have a “boundary bill of rights” but often fail to understand those rights or know how to assert them.  She makes herself incredibly vulnerable by telling stories about her own experience and dysfunctional boundaries, including her failure to assert her wishes with clinicians when  diagnosed with cancer.

Terri maintains that becoming a “boundary boss” rests on five key pillars – (1) self-awareness, (2) self-knowledge, (3) self-acceptance, (4) self-compassion, and (5) self-mastery (incorporating self-love as well as “self-celebration”).  Throughout her book, she offers exercises and powerful reflections to help the reader build these pillars and move progressively towards “speaking their truth”.   Terri cautions, though, that the transformation involves one step at a time, not quantum leaps.   It initially involves a very honest exploration of the boundaries we have in place in our relationships – and an understanding of where are boundaries are “loose or “rigid”.  Her book is very much about self-exploration to determine a better way to respond to our interpersonal challenges.

Speaking truthfully

At the heart of establishing and enforcing boundaries is speaking truthfully from an enlightened self-knowledge.  It means having the courage to present ourselves as we are, not as we think people want us to be.  Terri stresses that it also entails having the courage to acknowledge other people’s rights and their right to decline or say “no”, as well as developing the skill to say “no” ourselves in appropriate circumstances.  She even offers very clear guidelines on how to say “no” and how to modify your response depending on the interpersonal context (e.g., interacting with a stranger versus with an intimate partner).

Terri suggests that many of the occasions where we do not speak our truth result in resentment or anger, e.g., where we feel that some things in our relationship are not equitable, or that we are being taken for granted or where our emotional needs are not being met.  These strong emotions can be indicative of our failure to establish our boundaries.   Terri suggests that if we want to look at improving our relationships, we need first to look at ourselves-in-relationship and how we are presenting ourselves.  As she asserts, “change begins with us’, with understanding our inner landscape and acting on our insights.

Reflection

Terri’s book is penetrating and exposing – it exposes our behaviour patterns and our behaviour drivers.  She does this kindly by first sharing her own transparency and vulnerability.  However, Terri does not leave us exposed but offers ways to develop the skills to understand ourselves and assert our desires and needs in a kind and compassionate way.

She offers practical, conversational starters to help us move beyond our habituated behaviour.  It is difficult to hear her speak or read her book without feeling exposed but, at the same time, feeling highly supported to begin the journey of personal transformation by becoming our own “boundary boss”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection, and self-knowledge exercises, we can progressively develop the necessary self-awareness, self-mastery, self-acceptance, self-compassion and self-forgiveness, to establish our boundaries and have the courage to assert them in a mindful and kind way.

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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 for Mental Health Professionals

In his book, Trauma Informed-Mindfulness With Teens, Sam Himelstein stresses the need for self-care for mental health professionals dealing with traumatised teens.   His final chapter is devoted to self-care and professional practice.  Dr. Cirecie West-Olatunji, counsellor educator,  also stresses the need for self-care for professionals working with people experiencing traumatic stress.  Her video presentation is available as part of the courses provided by the Mental Health Academy.   Both experts in the area of counselling for trauma highlight the impact of vicarious trauma, especially the risk of mental health professionals experiencing compassion fatigue.

Mindfulness for self-care

Sam himself experienced trauma in his early 20s when he lost his sister through suicide. He makes the point that most health professionals will have experienced trauma of some kind and that this experience leaves them open to triggering their own traumatic response through exposure to the trauma stories of other people.  Cirecie highlights the fact that the trauma stimulus can be exacerbated where the professional has previously experienced combined or cumulative trauma. 

Sam emphasises the role of mindfulness in helping the professional to deal with their own re-traumatisation as a result of interaction with others and their emotionally draining stories.  He stresses the role of a personal mindfulness practice in helping him deal with the trauma of his sister’s suicide.

Sam  suggests that a personal approach to mindfulness as a protective mechanism could involve the following:

  • Silent retreat(s): Sam found these exceedingly helpful because they enable you to fully experience your emotions, gain a deep insight into your inner landscape and develop strategies to maintain or regain your equilibrium.
  • Formal practice: this entails inculcating a regular mindfulness practice (either sitting, standing, or walking) where you engage in some form of formal meditation.  This helps to build your concentration to enable deep listening, empathetic response, and the ability to promote wise action.  It also assists you to deal with your own difficult emotions (such as anger, resentment, or frustration), challenge self-defeating narratives and develop resilience in the face of challenging interactions.
  • Beyond meditation: Sam suggests that bringing mindfulness into your everyday life (in daily activities such as walking, washing clothes, eating, shopping), is effectively “mindfulness-in-action”.  It is particularly relevant to your relationships and interactions with others, especially in times of conflict.  One way to develop the necessary calmness and equanimity in the face of emotional challenges is to practice reflection-on-action to eventually cultivate the capacity to reflect-in-action, in the course of something adverse happening to you (whether that adversity is real or imagined).  Sam stresses the importance of daily mindfulness practices in controlling the “ego” which can get out of hand when  it perceives a threat (physical, emotional, or intellectual).

Professional development

Both Sam and Cirecie stress the importance of professional development to build competence and confidence to enable you to operate effectively within your chosen arena of professional practice.  For Sam this is the arena of traumatised youth, especially those who have been incarcerated.  He offers specialised training for health professionals through his Center for Adolescent Studies.  Cirecie’s professional arena includes trauma stress service delivery and training professionals who provide counselling in different countries following disasters such as earthquakes and pandemics.  She conducts research and training through her Xula Center for Traumatic Stress Research.

Cirecie stresses the need to gain control over your workload and, where necessary, seek to negotiate a lighter load (for your psychological welfare and that of your clients).  She maintains that every mental health professional, irrespective of their level of experience and training, has their window of tolerance beyond which they are unable to function effectively.  She gave an example of how a racist client triggered her and how  her experience in working in South Africa with a community where people were consistently dying from AIDS took her outside her window of tolerance and led to a severe illness.  In both cases, she sought professional counselling and recommends this form of professional development for other mental health professionals.

Cirecie highlights the importance of self-knowledge and self-awareness as critical factors in professional counselling, particularly understanding your own negative triggers.  She encourages too the development of your own professional support network that you can draw on for knowledge, experience, resources, and emotional support.  

In Cirecie’s view, personal and professional development extends to conscious awareness of the physical and psychological health risks inherent in the role of a mental health professional.  She urges appropriate preparation for the role through education which will provide motivation for health self-care (e.g., exercise, stretching (to release physical tension), diet, and drinking water).

Reflection

There are many reasons why mental health professionals do not undertake adequate self-care.  When working with clients who have suffered trauma or are currently experiencing trauma, it is critical that the health professional takes time for self-care to enable them to function at their best for the sake of their clients, as well as for their own welfare.  Mindfulness practice is recognised as a key component of this necessary self-care.  As mental health professionals grow in mindfulness, they are better able to identify personal triggers, develop resilience for their challenging work and build the capacity to engage in deep listening.  However, mindfulness practice needs to be supported by an appropriate lifestyle. 

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Image by Vanessa Kenah 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.

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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Image by MeHe 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.