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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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 Impermanence of Everything and the Preciousness of Life

In Part 1 of his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses his first invitation and principle for living, “Don’t Wait”.  Frank, as founder of a hospice and end-of-life carer, has cared for more than a thousand patients during their dying process and death.  In this first part of his book, he highlights the impermanence of everything and the preciousness of each moment of living.   

Frank has been a companion to the deepest grief of friends and relatives of the dying and experienced a depth of vicarious grief that is difficult to conceive – it’s as if the collective grief of others had beset him and brought him to his knees, both physically and metaphorically.  Fortuitously, he was a colleague and friend of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross at the time who supported him in his grief and his work as an end-of-life carer.  Elizabeth developed the classic concept of the five stages of dealing with death and loss in her book On Death and Dying and was also the author of Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss.

The impermanence of everything

If nothing else, the Coronavirus reinforces the impermanence of everything through its pervasive impact on every facet of our daily lives – our home, work location, transportation, schooling and education, shopping, spending, entertainment, health, finances, sport and our very daily interactions and movements.  The on-off nature and varying intensity of imposed restrictions serve to reinforce this message of the changeability of everything.  In these challenging times, we are called to adapt to the unpredictability of our work, our changing home arrangements, the extreme challenge to our health and welfare, and the uncertainty of our income and overall finances.

Without the pandemic, we can still become aware of impermanence – the birth and death cycle for humans, animals and nature.   Relationships end, animals are killed and eaten by other animals in the endless pursuit of food and survival and leaves fall off trees to become life-giving compost for new plant growth.  

The impermanence of everything was brought home to me by two recent incidents.  The first was the disturbing story of a nurse killed suddenly in our city while cycling to work.  Her husband indicated that their day started as normal with a coffee and breakfast together but ended tragically when the nurse was only metres away from her work at the hospital.

The second experience of impermanence occurred when I was walking along the foreshore of Moreton Bay near our home.  I was watching the small fish full of life darting back and forth in the marina when a fast-moving bird dived into the water and retrieved one of the fish for its food – only to be followed by other birds dive-bombing the school of little fish. 

The preciousness of life

Frank describes the process of dying as a “stripping away” of everything including our sense of “self” – our sense of who we think we are and should be, all our roles such as husband/wife, partner, parent, neighbour.  We lose our professional identity, our personal orientation, e.g. as a “people person” and our comparative self-assessment such as well-off or impoverished and successful or an abject failure.  Frank reinforces his view of the inadequacy of the medical model to explain the breadth and depth of the “stripping away” at death.  He maintains that in dying everything is released/dissolved – “the gross physical elements of the body, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, conditioning all dissolving”.  Frank asserts that what is left to discover is “something more elemental and connective” that constitutes the real essence of human nature.

Our awareness of impermanence, accentuated by illness, can lead to anxiety or a readiness to appreciate and savour the preciousness of life, of our relationships and of nature.   Through appreciating the pervasiveness of impermanence, we can more readily accept change and more willingly give up our attachments – the things that we hold onto to define our self and our worth.   This is where meditation can help us both in fully living and preparing for dying and death.

The “Don’t Wait” principle reminds us of the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the timing of our death – that it will happen, but we don’t know when or how.  This principle encourages us to value every moment we are alive and to savour what we have in life and the experiences of living.  Frank’s heart attack reinforced this message for him – his sense of self and perception of himself as the “strong one” helping everyone else in need was completely undone.  He encourages us to be curious about ourselves and our preferences/attitudes/ biases and to work at letting go of the identities that we have become attached to.

 Frank maintains that “softening around these identities, we will feel less constraint, more immediacy and presence”.  I am learning the profound truth of this statement through softening my identification with being a “good” tennis player who never or rarely makes mistakes.  Instead of wallowing in negative self-evaluation, I am beginning to enjoy the freedom of progressively loosening this unsustainable identification as I grow older and less physically able.

Reflection

Frank’s book would have to be the easiest and most-engrossing personal development book I have had the privilege to read, and, at the same time, the most profound.  As someone who has had a deep interest in, and knowledge of, his subject, he can communicate his ideas in simple language and practical illustrations.  Each paragraph contains exquisite morsels of wisdom and the book is replete with moving but brief stories that impress indelibly – so, even if you don’t remember the exact wording of his principles, you certainly remember the stories that illustrate them.  Frank’s writing reflects the calmness, humility and depth of insight and wisdom that is evident in his many conversations and podcast interviews about the process of dying and “The Five Invitations”.

“Don’t Wait” is a challenging principle but Coronavirus has forced us to stop, reassess and protect ourselves and others.  It has been the catalyst for incredible acts of courage and kindness – by our health professionals and people from all walks of life.  The Pandemic Kindness group on Facebook©, with over half a million members, is but one of many efforts to encourage and support random acts of kindness in these challenging times.

The “Don’t Wait” principle incorporates many invitations to create change in our lives.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become increasingly aware of our attachments (including to harmful self-narratives) and progressively develop the discipline and self-regulation to create real change in our lives to live with more appreciation, thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion.  We can learn to savour every moment of our life and everything that it entails.

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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.

Understanding the Process of Emotions

Dr. Eve Ekman recently presented a session on Overcoming Negativity and Judgement as part of the Wise@Work Virtual Communities series organised by Wisdom Labs.  Eve’s professional work focuses on developing emotional awareness, compassion and mindfulness. In pursuit of this goal, she draws on her knowledge, research and experience in areas such as integrative medicine, clinical social work and contemplative science. The mission of Wisdom Labs is to improve mental health in the workplace and the organisation offers guided virtual communities and a stress reduction app as a means to pursue these goals.  The positive outcomes from these tools are reduction in workplace stress, combating loneliness and burnout and improvement in teamwork.

Eve facilitates the Cultivating Emotional Balance Online Course and is Director of Training at the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), University of California Berkeley.  Eve demonstrates the benefits of her yoga and meditation practice in her concise, calm, practical and insightful presentations in many contexts, including in large organisations around the world.   Her video presentation on cultivating emotional balance and fluency at the 2013 Summer Institute for Educators (GGSC) is another example of the depth and passion of her work in developing emotional awareness

The process of emotions

Eve made the point at the outset that we have to understand the nature of emotions if we are going to learn how to keep them under control.  She explained that emotions are more than feelings (e.g. feeling good or bad about something).  In her view (informed by scientific research), emotions are really a process – a process involving “a trigger, an experience and a response”.

The trigger for a feeling of frustration and anger in the workplace could be something like the internet freezing continuously, someone who continually talks loudly in your open office workspace or the fact that your views and suggestions are ignored by management.   Working from home in the current lockdown environment of the Coronavirus can provide multiple triggers for frustration such as distractions, inadequate computer resources and managers who lack an understanding of your personal situation and associated difficulties (such as young children at home).   

Our experience of frustration and anger and associated thoughts of unfairness have a “biological correlate” – in other words, our thoughts and feelings are reflected in our body.  We may feel “uptight”, experience soreness in our back, arms or legs or have a stiff neck or headache.  Our response to the trigger and associated feelings and bodily sensations, can be mild, measured, “over-the-top” or involve some form of calming of ourselves and our emotions.

Eve suggests that we draw on integrative science (Western and Eastern approaches) to identify emotions as “constructive or destructive in how they are enacted” – in other words, how we respond, how our emotions play out in our words and actions.  Whether we choose a constructive or destructive way to act out our emotions will depend on how well we have our emotions under control at the time. 

The capacity to consciously chose an appropriate response to our triggers and associated feelings is described as emotional fluency or as Susan David calls it, “emotional agility”.  Eve’s facilitation in workplaces and her research, confirm that meditation and mindfulness practices are a pathway to developing emotional fluency/agility.   Without awareness of our emotions and how we enact them, we can be easily captured and controlled by them, resulting in harmful interactions and poor decision making.

Reflection

Viktor Frankl reminds us that between a stimulus (a trigger) and our response, there is a gap – wherein lies the opportunity to exercise choice in how we respond, and in the process, free ourselves from the enslavement of our emotions.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices we can build our self-awareness in relation to our triggers, thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and habituated responses and develop self-regulation to deal with our emotions constructively.

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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.

Tapping into Our Positive Energy Force

In a recent presentation as part of the You Can Heal Your Life Summit, Rajshree Patel emphasised that our breath is our life force.   She elaborates on this idea extensively in her book, The Power of Vital Force: Fuel Your Energy, Purpose and Performance with Ancient Secrets of Breath and Meditation.  She maintains that many people achieve “success”, but their harmful emotional life and/or turbulent relationships drain their energy and ensure that they are not happy.  Rajshree argues that they have not learnt to master their inner landscape – their thoughts, emotions and feelings.  For her, breathing is the gateway to life’s balance, energy and happiness.

In an interview recorded in a Moonshots Podcast, Rajshree argued that true self-awareness arises through our vital life force, the breath.  She stated that meditation is “the ability to perceive what is going on in your inner world as it is”.  For her, conscious breathing initiates meditation and enables you to achieve a level of perception of your inner landscape that gives you access to your innate power, potential and energy. Meditation through conscious breathing precipitates calmness, clarity and tranquillity – realised through evenness of our breath.  Rajshree pointed out that there is a proven relationship between how we breathe and our thoughts and emotions.  For example, research has demonstrated that a specific pattern of breathing occurs when people are shown photos depicting different emotions such as anger and fear.  The breathing pattern changes with each different emotion displayed.

Rajshree offers three ways to access our breath and suggests that these are pathways to meditation appropriate to different situations.  The three patterns she identifies are deep breathing, deep calm breathing and reset breathing.

Deep breathing

Conscious breathing brings us into the present moment, away from anxiety and fear about the future and from anger and resentment about the past.  Deep breathing is a mindfulness practice that builds our capacity to be in the present moment and tap into our internal power and energy source at any time during the day.  We might adopt this practice before we start our working day, after conducting a workshop or before beginning a meeting.  Rajshree reminds us that the in-breath draws in energy and vitality while the out-breath releases toxins and pent-up feelings.

The process of deep breathing involves placing your hand on your abdomen and taking a deep breath in, pushing your abdomen out.  Rajshree explains that often we take a shallow breath, drawing our abdomen in and trying to fill our chest with our breath.  She maintains that it is really important in deep breathing to expand the abdomen because this enables you to release “emotional blockages” that are held within this part of the body.  The in-breath should be taken as long as possible with a slow, controlled out-breath.  Having your hand on your abdomen helps you to be conscious of expanding your abdomen, rather than contracting it – of releasing emotion, not trapping it within you.  Rajshree suggests that you take 10 deep breaths at least three times a day – as practice builds awareness and competence.

Deep calm breathing

This form of breathing is designed to clear difficult emotions that may arise after a day’s work where you experience deadlines, noise, interruptions, unrealistic expectations, information overload and the resultant stress and overwhelm.  In a sense, deep calm breathing is a form of “letting go”.  If we don’t do this then we can become locked in a pattern of negative thoughts and emotions that finds expression in traffic rage, conflict with our partner or failure to listen empathetically to our children.  Little annoyances can catalyse a disproportionate, angry response.

The process of deep calm breathing involves deep abdomen breathing once again but this time you take in a deep breath and when you think you can’t breathe in anymore, you draw in more breath and then release the breath after a brief holding of the breath.  Rajshree maintains that this form of breathing breaks the link between mind, body and stress – releasing difficult emotions before they find expression in negative patterns of behaviour towards others.  She suggests that this mindfulness practice should be employed at the end of each working day before you leave the office or when you finish your workday when working from home. Doing 10 deep calm breaths at the end of the working day prevents negative emotions from taking hold and enables you to achieve a relative level of calm to face the rest of your day.

Reset breathing

This mindfulness practice is called “reset breathing” because the idea is to change your breathing from the form of breathing you take on after an experience of considerable agitation, e.g. conflict with your spouse, partner, boss or colleague; difficulty in getting to work on time; a spiteful interaction with a stranger or any other activity that raises your ire or upsets you unduly.  If we let this agitation fester, it drains our energy and frustrates our positive intentions.   As Rajshree points out, “our quality of life is directly related to our minds” and if we waste energy reliving the past and being resentful about our interactions, we destroy our chance of being happy, vibrant and energetic.

The process of reset breathing involves firstly recapturing the experience that caused you agitation.  Rajshree suggests that you close your eyes and try to envisage as fully as possible what you experienced at the time – your thoughts, actions, emotions and bodily sensations, as well as your perceptions of other people and your immediate environment.  After you have fully captured the precipitating experience, you take in a deep breath through your mouth followed by a sudden exhale accompanied by sounding “hmmm”!  Rajshree maintains that the vibration caused by this explosive sound is felt effectively between the eyes and positively activates the pituitary gland

Reflection

Our breathing occurs unconsciously moment by moment all day, every day that we are alive.  It is readily accessible wherever we are.  Breath is our life force and constant source of energy.  Conscious breathing, in whatever form it takes, enables us to access this life force and release difficult emotions and toxins in our physical system.  Our mind-body connection is clearly manifested through our breathing patterns.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing practices, reflection and other forms of meditation, we can achieve a profound level of self-awareness and an enhanced level of self-regulation and tap into our life purpose and creative energy.  Conscious breathing provides release from negative emotions and positively impacts the human body’s “energy system”. 

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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.

Self-Compassion in Times of Uncertainty and the Coronavirus

There are many people offering ways to manage anxiety and fear in these times of uncertainty brought on by the global Coronavirus.  Psychologist Rick Hanson, for example,  provides multiple online mindfulness resources including the Wise Brain Bulletin.  In the latest issue (Volume 14.2), Kristin Neff and Chris Germer offer 10 self-compassion practices for self-management during this time of the pandemic.  Self-compassion is about being compassionate towards ourselves despite our mistakes, deficiencies and perceived weaknesses.  It takes time and effort to build self-compassion, particularly if we are used to negative self-talk, berating ourselves for our mistakes or constantly comparing ourselves to others (and coming up short in our own estimation).

Elsewhere, Kristin provides a video explanation of the concept of self-compassion, discusses the three components of self-compassion and offers exercises on how to develop each of these.  She also offers a range of guided meditations and exercises on the website for the  Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.   Kristin and Chris are co-developers of the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSP) Program designed for those who want to explore more fully the richness of this mindfulness approach.  They are very well qualified to teach mindfulness and compassion (for ourselves and others).

Additional Approaches to developing self-compassion

There are multiple resources and exercises available to help you build self-compassion.  Some that are very accessible and easy to use are:

  • Compassionate body scan: a 20-minute progressive body scan that focuses attention on different parts of the body and treats each part of the body with kind awareness and tension release.  The guided body scan is offered in separate audio recordings by both Kristin and Chris.
  • Mood tracking: an essential element in building the self-awareness necessary for developing self-compassion and improved mental health.  There are many mood tracker apps that help you identify your triggers and enable you to gain control over your emotional responses.  Steve Scott provides a review of the 14 best mood tracker apps available today.  These apps provide a ready means of tracking stimuli and your responses in terms of moods/feelings.

Reflection

Self-compassion is the antidote to negative self-evaluation, just as gratitude and savouring what we have reduces competitive comparison and envy.  As we grow in mindfulness and self-compassion through meditation, mindfulness practices/exercises and reflection on the triggers that precipitate our strong emotional responses, we can progressively develop self-intimacy and the self-regulation necessary to identify our negative triggers and control our responses.

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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.

Working from Home and Staying Mentally Healthy

Many people have been thrust into the situation of working from home because of the Coronavirus and related Government restrictions on movement and contact.  As a result, numerous people are ill-prepared for the challenges and opportunities involved.  However, there is plenty of advice available through blog posts, videos and podcasts to help us acquire the necessary information to work effectively from home.  There are also specific suggestions for particular groups of people, e.g. teachers working from home and working from home with kids. Many of these sources of information stress the need to stay mentally healthy as well as look after your physical welfare.  Here are some strategies to achieve both effectiveness and sound mental health.

Strategies for working from home healthily for mind and body

The pattern you create needs to meet your personal preferences (e.g. a morning person vs. night person), your lifestyle, family situation and location.  Here are some suggestions that may help you to make choices that are relevant to your needs and those around you:

  • Negotiate arrangements – this entails reaching at least a tentative agreement at the outset with other affected parties such as your boss, you partner and your colleagues – having some clear understandings and groundrules at the outset can pave the way for a relatively smooth transition to working from home and avoiding unnecessary conflict at a time when everyone is feeling stressed.  If you have a partner living at home with you, it pays to negotiate arrangements about working space, quiet time, coffee buying or making and eating arrangements (e.g. getting your own breakfast and lunch but sharing dinner preparation and eating).  It is often the little things that can bring daily angst if they are not sorted out early.  If you have had an extended marriage or living together arrangement, groundrules get established unconsciously and it pays to explore how these might change with one or both of you working from home.
  • Establish a routine: this gives you a sense of agency, the feeling that some aspects of your life are under control when everything else is changing constantly and creating uncertainty and anxiety.  It is strongly suggested by many authors that you maintain your daily routine of getting ready for work (e.g. showering, getting dressed well, and beginning work at a set time).  I think some flexibility here can be healthy without jeopardising your ability to work effectively and not waste time.  You might, for example, wear more comfortable clothes, introduce a morning exercise routine (to take advantage of the time saved in not having to travel to work), occasionally sleep in when you feel tired from the extra stress created by the Coronavirus) and take time for conscious reflection (e.g. writing a journal about what you are experiencing and how you are responding). Sleep is particularly important at this time to enable your body and mind to recuperate from the stresses that you will be experiencing.
  • Develop an exercise program: physical exercise reduces stress and builds positive mental health.  It is wonderful to see so many people making the most of their additional time at home to walk, run or ride in the open (particularly along the bayside where I live).   Yoga and Tai Chi, offer physical, mental and emotional benefits in these times of stress and anxiety. Getting some fresh air is important – there can be a tendency with social isolation and safe distancing to become stuck in your home and not take in the benefits of time spent mindfully in nature.  Activity is a great antidote to anxiety and depression.
  • Don’t sweat the news: in times of uncertainty, there is a strong tendency to become obsessive about news reports (via newspapers, emails, social media or podcasts).  This not only dissipates your focus but also exacerbates difficult feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness.  Obviously, some information is important to know (e.g. available relief packages for individuals or businesses and Government advice/directives/legislation relevant to the Coronavirus).  Experts in the area of mental health suggest that establishing a set time or times during the day for catching up on the news can be a useful way to proceed (do you really have to be the first to know?).   It also pays to take note of the positive news, e.g. the many random acts of kindness that are occurring everywhere in the world as people struggle to cope with the present crisis.
  • Stay connected: with your work colleagues and boss – establish a routine for checking-in (preferably daily) as well as strategies to effectively employ electronic communication for planning, sharing and product/service development.  There is a need here to maintain the balance between work and task – not oversharing social information but not being overly focused on work alone.  Some work-from-home groups institute a set time each week to share recipes, a virtual lunch experience or happy hour, a sing-along or coping strategies. 
  • Undertake special projects: there are often work-related, home-based projects that have been put off because of lack of time or prioritising.  These projects can improve your work-from-home situation and enhance your productivity.  They could involve, for instance, clearing up the clutter in your “office”, strengthening the security of your computer system, improving recycling in the home (including disposal of sensitive work information) or establishing a home-based coffee-making machine or a filtered water system such as the Zanzen Alkaline Water System.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, recently participated in a Ted Connects© interview and provided deep insight and very sound advice about dealing with the overwhelm of the current Coronavirus crisis.  She advices strongly against substituting the busyness of the workplace environment with a new form of busyness in the working from home environment.  Elizabeth argues that we spend so much time running away from ourselves, not fronting up to ourselves including our fear and anxiety.  She argues that the present situation of enforced or voluntary working from home creates a wonderful opportunity for developing self-awareness and self-regulation through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection.  Often our greatest, unconscious fear is being-alone-with-our-self.  We seek distractions and fill up our time with multiple tasks only to find that we have no time to truly find ourselves. 

Reflection

The current working from home situation that many of us face has inherent challenges and opportunities compounded by the requirements around social distancing, safe distancing and avoidance of unnecessary travel (local and international).  Clarifying working arrangements, establishing a routine, developing an exercise program, avoiding obsessing over the news, staying connected and undertaking special projects that enhance a sense of control over your environment, are all important for a healthy mind and body. 

However, the real challenge and opportunity lies in developing self-awareness and self-management through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection.  As we grow in mindfulness, we enhance our focus (at a time of intensified distraction), our resilience (at a time of extreme mental and emotional stress), our creativity (when we appear lost for personal and community solutions) and our compassion (when so many people worldwide are suffering and grieving).  In all of this turmoil and uncertainty, there lies the opportunity to truly find ourselves.

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

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

Mindfulness and the Art of Forgiveness

In a previous post, I highlighted the need for compassion and forgiveness to sustain a second marriage.  However, forgiveness is a need in all facets of our relationships because we can experience a grievance or hurt wherever we are – at work, at home or in our daily activity outside these spheres.  Dr. Fred Luskin, an international expert in forgiveness, explains that there are three main aspects of a grievance, wherever or whenever it is experienced:

  • Exaggerating the personal offense we experience
  • Blaming someone else for our negative feelings
  • Developing a grievance story.

In his book, Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for Healthy and Lasting Relationships, Fred draws on research to demonstrate that forgiveness leads to a sense of peace as well as physical and emotional welfare.  In contrast, maintaining a grudge, grievance or anger results in illness, a loss of personal power (you become controlled by your emotions) and an inability to focus on the task at hand.  The very words we use – such as “consumed by envy” – evoke the destructive power of grievances and sustained anger.

Developing the art of forgiveness through mindfulness

Fred points out that, contrary to popular belief, forgiveness is not about the other person by whom you feel aggrieved, it is about yourself – your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and consequent behaviour.  He contends that the focus in forgiveness is self-awareness and self-regulation, not reconciliation.  Some of the mindfulness practices that can help you develop the art of forgiveness include:

  • Mindful breathing: Fred offers a specific, brief practice here.  He suggests that you take three deep breaths.  When inhaling, you focus on the movement of your stomach as it fills with air.  As you exhale, you concentrate on your stomach softening (and the sense of release).  On your third deep breath, Fred suggests that you bring your focus to something or someone you love or a thing of beauty – filling your mind with something positive which can serve to displace negative thoughts and emotions.
  • Naming your feelings:  Fred suggests that through reflection you seek to identify the catalyst for your grievance and name the feelings that you experienced.  He argues that your past experiences may have influenced your feelings, but you experience them in the present and you are responsible for them (not the person you blame for those feelings).  Once you name your feelings, you can take ownership of them and effectively tame them (you control them, they don’t control you).  You can also identify how you have exaggerated the personal offense that you have experienced and what expectations or assumptions underlie that sense of being offended.  Fred maintains that we each carry around in our head what he calls “unenforceable rules”.
  • Choosing your channel: Fred proposes that we learn to replace the “grievance channel” (where we repeat our “grievance story” to ourselves and others) with more positive channels such as those focused on gratitude, love and beauty (especially the beauty of nature).  In his book, he offers multiple suggestions on how to switch “channels” throughout the day.  If we achieve this switch on a regular basis, we naturally develop our “forgiveness channel” because appreciation, a sense of beauty and feelings of love displace negative feelings of hurt, anger and resentment.  The art of forgiveness can be further developed by reading about, or listening to, stories of courageous acts of forgiveness by others.

Fred suggests that we need to become aware of the space in our minds that we are allocating to our grievance – how much of our time and energy are being consumed by accommodating and entertaining our grievances.

Reflection

To develop the art of forgiveness, we need to be conscious of the thoughts and emotions we are cultivating through the stories in our head – we become what we focus on, the choice is ours to be bitter or appreciative.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more self-aware of our “unenforceable rules” in the form of unrealistic expectations or unfounded assumptions, more readily name our feelings and learn to achieve self-regulation by consciously choosing to entertain positive thoughts and feelings of love and appreciation.

In reflecting on what unenforceable rules we carry in our head, I am reminded of an observation by Michelle De Kretser in her book, The Life to Come, when talking about Pippa’s reflections about her family friend Rashida (a Muslim born in India):

There was a whisper in Pippa’s brain, like a subdued, left-hand accompaniment to her thoughts, and this whisper was of the opinion that Rashida should be grateful that white people overlooked the double handicap of her religion and race.  [p. 221, emphasis added]

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

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

How Could Mindfulness Help to Sustain and Nurture Relationships in a Second Marriage?

Tami Simon recently conducted a podcast interview with Terry Gaspard on navigating the challenges of a second marriage.  Terry is a college professor, author and very successful couples therapist.  In the interview, Terry drew on her book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around.  Both Tami and Terry pointed to the divorce static that highlighted the difficulty of a second marriage – while 50% of first marriages end in divorce, this figure rises to 60% for second marriages.

Second marriages entail the added complexity of increased financial expenses, the challenge of blending families (where there are children involved) and the intellectual and emotional baggage from the previous intimate relationships.  As the two insightful women discussed the topic of sustaining a second marriage from ideas and perspectives developed through their own research and personal experience, it occurred to me that mindfulness could help partners develop the insights and skills required to effectively and happily navigate the many challenges involved in a second marriage.

Mindfulness for accepting “what is” in terms of partner differences

In a previous post, I explained that Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC, incorporates “accepting what is” as an integral part of mindfulness.  Neither speaker in the podcast interview mentioned above thought that this entailed a totally passive position in relation to differences in partners in an intimate relationship.  While they recognised from research that 70% of differences in a relationship cannot be changed, they did identify ways to negotiate some differences.  Terry suggested, however, that some differences can involve what she calls “deal breakers” and these may need to be resolved with the help of a couples therapist if the second marriage relationship is to be sustained.

Terry drew on hundreds of interviews of couples and her own relationships to develop her book.  She maintained that trying to change the other person in a second marriage to be like yourself or some ideal image very often leads to divorce in a second marriage.  She points out that you will not change a person’s basic personality in a relationship – “morning people” do not automatically become “night people”, for instance, or introverts change readily into extroverts.  These are deep differences that cannot be changed, but if partners in a second marriage accept what is in terms of these more profound differences, it is possible to work towards various accommodations over time that make the relationship workable and rewarding.  Terry offers some suggestions in the podcast and in her book to address these differences.

Mindfulness for self-awareness

Research has consistently demonstrated that mindfulness develops self-awareness and the associated skill of self-regulation.  Self-awareness is critical to negotiate several significant hurdles in a second marriage:

  • Intellectual and emotional baggage – whether we like it or not, our past is in our present.  Each person in a second marriage brings their own baggage, both in terms of thoughts and feelings, to the new relationship.  We can act these out unconsciously and damage our relationship(s).  It may be that we bring to the second relationship a lack of trust, unresolved hurt, resentment or fears. Terry suggests that often rebound second relationships do not work because individuals have not taken the time and space required to heal from the damages of the prior relationship.  Mindfulness can help us to see what our personal “baggage” is and how it plays out in the conflicts we have in our second marriage, the points of irritation or the frustration and resentment that we experience towards our partner. 
  • Unrealistic expectations – we all develop expectations of ourselves and others that at times prove to be unrealistic.  Terry particularly mentions the challenge of blending two families in a second marriage and the unrealistic expectations that arise around this difficult endeavour. She contends that it takes at least four years for a partner in a second marriage to negotiate and achieve a balanced relationship with a stepchild (even longer for “stepchildren”).  Through meditation and reflection, we can become aware of our expectations and the influence they are having on our intimate relationship.  We can create the freedom of possibility by gaining release from the tyranny of unrealistic expectations of our self and our partner.

Compassion and forgiveness

Compassion and forgiveness are required in an intimate relationship because grievances will occur on the part of either or both parties.  Terry draws on the work of Fred Luskin, an expert in forgiveness, who talks about the “grievance story” or narrative that we develop when we are hurt in a relationship.  Grievance stories are effectively negative self-stories focused on our hurt that result from unresolved grievances we carry towards our partner over one or more incidents occurring in our second marriage.  They Invariably involve an unbalanced perspective, blaming the other person and some form of “punishment”, e.g. through personal attack (e.g. nagging) or withdrawal.

Acknowledging these harmful narratives and dealing with them through meditation and reflection can heal our wounds and enable us to participate more fully and constructively in our intimate relationship.  Fred’s book, Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Lasting Relationship, offers processes to overcome grievance stories.  It also provides an understanding of the nature of forgiveness, the underpinning science, the benefits of forgiveness and how to develop forgiveness (especially through the “gratitude channel”).

Reflection

After almost 35 years in a second marriage, I can readily relate to the issues described by Tami and Terry and the need for the perspectives and skills that they discuss to sustain a second marriage.  Their insights and strategies are particularly relevant, practical and workable.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the acceptance, self-awareness and forgiveness necessary to deepen, enrich and sustain a second intimate relationship.  A key ingredient for success seems to be to develop a “growth mindset” along with tolerance.

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Image by Arek Socha 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 Joyful for the Joy of Other People in Your Life

In a previous post I explored ways to cultivate joy in your life and provided a guided meditation on this practice.  The foundation for letting joy into your life is gratitude and the associated savouring of what is good in your life such as your achievements, friendships or your child’s development.  Genuine appreciation and gratitude displace the tendency to be envious of others’ success and joy.  However, we can work positively towards valuing and rejoicing in the good fortune of others, which in turn increases our own joy in life.

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast, Taking Joy in Others’ Joy, designed to help us to be joyful for the joy of other people in our life.  This guided meditation is offered as one of the many weekly podcasts provided by MARC at UCLA and available through their online archive.

Barriers to being joyful for others

Diana points out that it is natural to experience barriers to being joyful for others.  These may take the form of feeling envious of their success, coveting what they have (whether a possession or a person) or feeling an inexplicable sadness when we become aware of another’s joy.  One way to address these blockages is to identify what we are feeling and to name the feeling so that we can control it.  What we will often find is that our sense of shame (for experiencing strong negative feelings) will cause us to hide these feeling from our self (not own up to them) and/or to camouflage them when interacting with others.

Michelle De Kretser, in her book The Life to Come, gives a very good illustration of this camouflaging of feelings of envy.  Michelle, when discussing the relationship between Cassie (a creative writing student) and her friend, Pippa (a successful, published novelist), highlighted how we can avoid confronting the unwelcome feeling of envy:

Cassie had hit on the strategy of dousing the envy that flickered up in her around Pippa with a stream of (fabricated) compliments.

While this approach may hide our true feelings from others, it does not address the underlying barrier to being joyful for the joy of other people in our life.  Being honest with our self about our true feelings, naming them and understanding how they reflect in our behaviour can help us to reduce the barrier.  Diana offers a supportive approach in her guided meditation podcast mentioned above.

A guided meditation on empathetic joy

In addition to addressing negative feelings that act as barriers to being joyful for others, it can be helpful for us to take a constructive approach through regular meditations designed to develop empathetic joy – appreciating the joy of others resulting from a specific accomplishment or the experience of good fortune.  The joy of others may arise through their concerted efforts to develop a skill, overcome a difficulty or achieve something that is important to them. 

The starting point of this meditation is to become grounded through your posture, mental focus and the process of using an anchor to maintain your attention and relaxed state of mind and body.  Once you have achieved this groundedness for a reasonably sustained period (e.g. 10 minutes), you can shift your focus to cultivating empathetic joy.

Firstly, you focus on the good fortune or enjoyment of someone who is close to you, with whom you have a strong relationship.  You can then picture their joy or enjoyment over a specific accomplishment or piece of good fortune and extend the desire for their joy to be increased and sustained, e.g. “May you continue to be happy and joyful and experience further success and happiness in your life.”

The next focus in your meditation is on a person with whom you experience some degree of discomfort over their success (avoid focusing on someone whom you are totally envious about) – you might have a twinge of envy that you do not entertain or dwell on to any significant degree.  In your meditation, you then apply a similar expression of good will towards this other person, moving beyond negative thoughts or feelings (as you bring them into focus), to a genuine expression of good will – wishing them increased, sustained joy and happiness.

Reflection

Being joyful for the joy of other people in your life, can be very challenging in some situations.  Where we have strong negative feelings towards them (e.g. envy or covetousness), we will experience barriers to rejoicing in another’s joy.  Being honest with our self about these feelings, their origin and strength, will help to remove these barriers.  The regular practice of the empathetic joy meditation can serve as a supportive practice to cultivate the capacity to be joyful for the joy of others and to experience vicarious joy.  As we grow in mindfulness through these types of loving kindness meditations and reflection on our behaviour, we can increase our self-awareness; develop self-regulation of our thoughts, feelings and behaviour; and build our connectedness to others around us.

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Image by Johannes Plenio 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 Kindness through Meditation

Neuroscientists tell us that we become what we focus on because the act of focusing and paying attention creates new or deepened neural pathways in our brain.  So if we are constantly obsessed with criticism – finding fault – then this stance begins to pervade our whole life, and nothing will ever satisfy us.  So too if we develop kindness through meditation, our thoughts and actions become kinder towards ourselves and others.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA, offers a specific guided meditation designed to develop kindness.  This meditation podcast is one of the weekly podcasts offered by Diana or one of her colleagues on a weekly basis through MARC – drawing on personal experience, dedicated research and the wisdom of the global mindfulness community.  The kindness meditation as with most MARC meditations begins with being grounded and then moves to offering kindness to ourselves followed by kindness to others.

Becoming grounded in meditation

There are multiple ways to become grounded – becoming focused, still and fully present.  Often, we can start with deep breathing to enable our body and mind to relax and increase awareness of our bodily sensations.  This enables our focus to move inwards and away from the distractions and intensity of the day – away from the anxiety, negative thoughts and worries associated with meeting deadlines, doing presentations, dealing with conflict or challenging interactions with colleagues or salespeople in stores and supermarkets.

Once we gain some sense of balance and ease with deep breathing, we can move on to undertake a body scan.  This entails progressively noticing the various parts of our body and related bodily sensations, releasing any tension and tightness as we progress.  We can observe the firmness of our feet on the floor, straightness of our back, weight of our thighs on the seat, the pressure on our back from the chair and the tingling and warmth from energy flow in our fingers.  Observation will lead to awareness of tension which we can release as we go – tautness in our shoulders and arms, rigidity in our stomach, stiffness in our neck or tightness in our jaw, forehead or around the eyes.  It is important to focus on tension release and not seek to work out why we are so uptight or tense or, even more importantly, to avoid “beating up” on ourselves or being unkind towards our self because of the “failing” or deficiency” represented by our tension.

Finding our anchor in meditation

The next stage of the meditation is to find an anchor that we can continuously return to in the event of distractions or loss of focus – an anchor to stop us from being carried away by the tide of our thoughts or emotions.  An anchor is a personal choice – what works for one person, may not work for another.  Typically people choose their breath, sounds in the room or some physical contact point.

You can focus in on your breath – bringing your attention to where you most readily experience breathing – in your chest, through your nose or in your abdomen. For instance, you can increase your awareness of the rise and fall of your abdomen with each breath and choose to rest in the space between your in-breath and out-breath.

Another possible anchor is listening to the sounds in your room – listening without interpreting, not trying to identify the nature or source of a sound and avoiding assigning a feeling, positive or negative, to the sound.  You can develop a personal preference for using your “room tone” as your anchor.

Choosing a physical contact point in your body is a useful anchor because it enables you to ground yourself wherever you happen to be – whether at work or home or travelling.  It can help you to turn to awareness rather than your phone whenever you have waiting time.  An example is to focus on the firmness of your feet on the ground, the floor of your room or the floor of your car (when it is not moving!).  My personal preference is to anchor myself by joining my fingers together and feeling the sensations of warmth, energy and strength that course through the points of contact of the fingers.

Whatever you choose as an anchor, the purpose is to be enable you to return your attention to the focus of your meditation and, in the process, build your awareness muscle.  As Diana reminds us, “minds do wander” – we can become “lost in thought”, distracted by what’s happening around us,  planning our day, worrying about an important meeting, thinking of the next meal, analysing a political situation or indulging in any one of numerous ways that we “live in our minds”.

Throughout the process of grounding, it is important to be kind to our self – not berating our self for inattention or loss of focus, not assigning negative labels to our self, such as “weak”, “distractible”, or any other derogatory term.

Kindness meditation

The kindness meditation begins with focusing on someone who is dear to us – our life partner, a family member, a work colleague or a close friend.  Once you have brought the person into focus, the aim is to extend kind intentions to them – you might wish them peace and tranquillity, protection and safety, good health and strength, happiness and equanimity, the ease of wellness or a combination of these desirable states.

You can now envisage yourself receiving similar or different expressions of kind intentions from the same person.  This can be difficult to do – so we need to be patient with this step and allow our self to be unsuccessful at the start (without self-criticism or unkindness towards our self).  We can try to become absorbed in, and fully present to, the positive feeling of being appreciated and loved. Drawing on our memories of past expressions of kindness by the focal person towards us, can help us overcome the barriers to self-kindness.

You can extend your meditation by focusing your loving kindness meditation on others, particularly those people you have difficulty with or are constantly in conflict with.  We can also extend our kindness meditation by forgiving our self and others for hurt that has been caused.

Reflection

Kindness meditation helps us to grow in mindfulness – to become more aware of others, the ways we tend to diminish our self, our bodily sensations and our thoughts and feelings.  It assists us to develop self-regulation – learning to maintain focus and attention, controlling our anger and criticism (of our self and others) and being open to opportunities and possibilities.   Through the focus on kindness, we can become kinder to our self and others (even those we have difficulty with).

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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.