Achieving the Benefits of Meditation Through Regular Practice

In his Mindful Monday podcast on the 9th of August, Marvin Belzer emphasised the importance of keeping meditation simple, especially when we are new to meditation – focusing on something that is simple and real such as our breath, ambient sounds, or bodily sensations.  He stressed that this simple focus enables us to experience what is happening now for us and leads to realising the many benefits of meditation such as calmness, clarity and concentration – each of which flows over into other areas of our lives such as family, work, sport and relationships.  He highlighted the need to relax into our meditation, not trying to force specific outcome.  The process of meditation that he described is similar to what I explained previously, though on this occasion there was more time devoted to silent meditation.

In a subsequent podcast on 16th of August, Marvin stressed the need for effort and patience to realise meditation’s benefits – we cannot rush the results.  He maintained that we are not aiming for perfection but need to recognise the nature of the human condition – a realisation that cultivates humility and the acceptance that we have very little control over much of our life.  However, what we can control is our ability to direct our attention – a skill that underpins much of success in life.  Controlling our attention is “doable” if we make the effort of regular meditation practice.  Marvin suggests that what helps here is humour as we recognise the frailty of our ability to concentrate for any sustained period of time without distractions.

The benefits of regular meditation practice

While sustained meditation practice can be difficult, the benefits that accrue are worth the effort and persistence involved.  These benefits include:

  • Creativity – we can develop creative solutions to our everyday problems and realise creativity in our work life.  Creativity is cultivated in an environment of stillness and silence – an environment where our mind is uncluttered and we are not overwhelmed by challenging emotions.
  • Clarity – meditation helps us to clear our minds and open ourselves to self-awareness and to insights into what we bring to a situation.  It also throws light on our life purpose – how we can utilise our life experience, skills, knowledge and values to create a better world, whether locally or globally.
  • Resilience – as we become more grounded through meditation, we can bounce back quicker and easier from setbacks and disappointments.  Meditation builds resilience because it helps us to clear false beliefs, regain perspective and overcome “emotional inflammation” that is prevalent in these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Calmness and equanimity – as we become more grounded in our breath which is always with us while we are alive, we can experience calmness and face the vicissitudes of life with equanimity.  We can use symbolic actions, such as joining our fingers, at any time during the day to recapture this sense of calm and stability.
  • Compassion – as we come to accept our own frailty in the face of life’s challenges, we can become more empathetic towards others and more motivated to take compassionate action to alleviate the pain and suffering of others.

Reflection

Meditation requires effort but multiple benefits accrue if we can sustain regular practice.  If we are not too hard on ourselves – not seeking perfection in meditation practice – we can more readily sustain the motivation to undertake regular practice, no matter how boring the process may feel at times.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more tolerant of ourselves and others, appreciate our life and live it more fully.

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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.

Ways to Engage with Nature

In a previous post I explored the benefits of solitude and silence in nature.  Cultivating the practice of being alone in nature can help us to develop self-awareness, patience and self-regulation.  It can be useful for gaining insight into the limitations of our perspective on issues such as personal conflict and can provide clarity and insight by enabling us to access our “inner voice”.  With increased engagement with nature, we can better understand our life purpose and find creative ways to employ our skills and experience for the benefit of others.  But how do you engage effectively with nature to access these benefits?

Ways to engage with nature mindfully

Ruth Allen, in her book How Connection with Nature Can Improve our Mental and Physical Wellbeing, offers multiple suggestions on what we can do to increase the frequency and intensity of our engagement such as:

  • Mindful photography – this had immediate appeal for me because I love taking photos of sunrises and sunsets, rainforests, beaches, and birds that inhabit waterways, such as ducks, pelicans and water wrens.  Adopting a purposeful approach to photographing nature enables us to be fully in the present moment, to notice the detail and attractiveness of what we are trying to capture and to clear the noise and clutter in our head.  Ruth suggests too that we can employ the photographic images as a way to represent our emotions and, in the process, increase our self-awareness.  Ruth’s book is full of illustrations of mindful photography as well as her wisdom about nature and its connectedness that she has developed through personal practice, experience as an adventurer and  her professional endeavours as a geologist and eco-psychotherapist.
  • Gardening – whether you are pottering around in a garden or cultivating plants in pots, you can gain the experience of the smell of the earth, the sight of the different plant species and the touch and texture of both soil and plants.  Developing a herb garden gives an even wider range of aromas, textures and taste.  Gardening gives us access to intense sensual experience covering not only sight, taste, touch, and smell but also the potentiality of listening to birds as they traverse our space or reside in our bird-attracting trees and plants.  Consciously cultivating plants, shrubs and trees that attract birds, bees and butterflies increases our sensory experience of nature in our own yard.  Often nature is literally at our doorstep and we fail to engage effectively with it, just taking it for granted as a backdrop to our busy, noisy lives.  
  • Notice the small things in nature – often the large aspects of nature such as clouds, mountains, sky and oceans capture our focus at the expense of observing the small things in nature.  While the macro aspects of nature are indeed awe-inspiring and give us a sense of expansiveness, the micro level provides its own fascination through its diversity, intricacy and connectedness.  We can observe at the micro level by close observation or by what Ruth calls, “soft fascination”.  Close observation entails focused attention on something micro like a leaf, insect or stone and closely observing its features and marvelling at its distinctiveness whether that be its colours, patterns,, textures, shape or some other feature.  Soft fascination, on the other hand, involves letting our eyes “float” across a section of landscape while allowing our mind “to drift into a state of reflection and introspection”.

Reflection

Engagement with nature brings countless benefits and Ruth draws on the scientific evidence of these in her book, including the work of Stephen and Rachel Kaplan.  There are many ways we can practice this engagement extending from close physical observation to mindful photography.  We just need to form the intention to maximise our engagement with nature to harness these benefits.  We can meditate on nature and as we grow in mindfulness, we can enhance the benefits that accrue. Through mindfulness cultivated by mindful observation of nature and nature meditation, we can develop stillness and silence, attention and concentration, awareness and insight and a deep sense of connectedness and interconnection.

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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.

Building the Capacity to be in the Present Moment

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA, offers a guided meditation podcast on the topic, Back to the Basics.  This is one of the hundreds of free weekly meditation podcasts offered by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA.

In the guided meditation, Diana reminds us that the fundamental purpose of meditations is to build our “capacity to be in the present moment” – in a way that is open, curious, and accepting of what is.  There are numerous forms of meditation available today but they basically aim to develop this capacity so that in the daily challenges of life, such as conflict with a spouse, colleague, or a friend, we can draw on the calmness, equanimity and wise action that is available to us through mindfulness practice.  People can choose a form of meditation that suits their interest, lifestyle, and physical capacity, e.g., transcendental meditation, movement meditations such as Tai Chi or yoga, or singing meditations such as the various forms of mantra meditation.

Diana points out that the increasing volume of research conducted by MARC and other centres around the world confirm the capacity of meditation to improve our stress response, physical health and immune system; reduce chronic pain; and overcome anxiety and depression, especially through mindfulness programs such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).  The research also confirms that meditation can help children, even those with ADHD, to improve their capacity to pay attention.  These findings have led to the explosion of mindfulness practices in schools around the world, such as the MindUP Program developed by the Goldie Hawn Foundation in America.

A guided meditation – returning to the basics

In her guided meditation, Diana revisited the basic components of a meditation practice:

  • Comfortable position – this can be sitting, lying down (on the floor, grass, or beach), standing up or some form of mindful movement (e.g., mindful walking or Tai Chi).  The aim is to achieve a position that is free from bodily stress, so that discomfort does not become a distraction in itself.
  • Controlling visual stimulation – in a still meditation, people close their eyes or look downwards to avoid visual distractions.  In a movement meditation the person’s gaze is typically unfocused but the internal focus is on body position and movement.  In a mantra meditation, the internal focus is on the sounds and meaning of the sung mantras – visual stimulation may assist both aspects such as in evidence in the stillness in motion mantra sung by Lulu & Mischka.  Natural awareness allows visual stimulation because you are opening yourself to what is around you (and doing so without a specific goal in mind).
  • Choosing an anchor – in a still meditation, the anchor can be breath, sound, or bodily sensations (e.g., tingling in the feet or hands).  In a movement meditation, the body and motion become the anchor. The aim of the anchor, whether in a still or movement meditation, is to have a specific focus to return to when distractions take us away from the purpose of our meditation (distractions such as planning, worrying, or analysing).
  • Silence – this is a common component of many forms of meditation (apart from those that involve singing, chanting, music or speaking which seek to achieve an inner silence).  Diana typically incorporates a period of stillness and silence in her guided meditations. 

Whatever the form of meditation, the primary purpose is to be-in-the-present-movement.  Diana suggests, for example, that if a really strong emotion or physical sensation intrudes, that your focus could temporarily shift to that emotion or sensation before returning to your anchor.  Normally emotions and bodily sensations exist in the background, rather than the foreground of your meditation (unless you are consciously addressing a challenging emotion such as resentment or anger).

Reflection

There are many paths to the same end – being fully in the present moment.  What is important is being able to transfer the state of mindfulness to our everyday life – what Sam Himelstein calls mindfulness-in-action.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can capture the power of the present moment, maintain calmness in challenging moments and choose wise actions to address our situation.

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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.

Becoming Grounded to Strengthen Your Intention

We have all experienced being “knocked off centre” and becoming “ungrounded” in the challenging times of the past year (2020).  Now, as we look forward to the new year (2021), it might be helpful to restore our groundedness and reset our intentions.  Diana Winston of MARC UCLA offers a meditation podcast to enable us to achieve these goals.  Her guided meditation, Getting Grounded and Setting Intentions, offers a timely process.

Guided meditation for groundedness

Diana suggests that you begin by taking a couple of deep breaths and as you are exhaling to release the tension and anxiety that you have experienced in being able to arrive at this point.  She then focuses heavily on posture as a means to achieve groundedness.  You are encouraged to have your feet flat on the floor; to adopt an upright, relaxed position for your back; to find a comfortable position for your hands; and to either close your eyes or look downwards to reduce distractions.

To begin with, the primary focus is on your feet.  By focusing on your feet, you can feel the bodily sensations of being supported. You might feel the firmness of the floor beneath the softness of the carpet or the hardness of floor tiles.  Diana encourages you too to envisage beyond the floor to the walls supporting the floor and the ground that is always there, in turn, supporting the walls themselves.  As you focus on the sensations in your feet, you may feel a sense of support, strength, and earthly energy.  You might feel as though your feet are becoming thicker and drawing in warmth and energy – a sense that your support base is expanding.

Diana also offers other choices that can supplement or replace the focus on sensations in your feet (as an anchor to return to when distractions inevitably intervene):

  • Breath – you can focus in on your breath in its natural state without any attempt to control it.  You pay attention to wherever you can sense your breathing and become conscious of the rise and fall of your abdomen or chest or, alternatively, the sensation of air passing in and out of your nose. 
  • Room tone/sounds – here you pay attention to sounds in the room firstly and then to external sounds.  This requires you to avoid interpreting the sounds or identifying their origins or your assessment of them as good or bad.  For some people, opening up their attention to sounds can itself be a distraction and may make it very difficult for them to sustain their focus. 
  • Hands – you can join your fingers together and pay attention to the sensations from the connection.  You may feel warmth, tingling, softness or firmness.  If you persist with this focus, you might experience soreness that is present in your wrist or arm – you can be open to this sensation and focus on self-healing.

Diana has an extended session of silence in this meditation to enable you to really focus in on bodily sensations and the feeling of support that is readily available to you at any time – the more you practise this meditation by setting time aside, the easier it will be to access the sense of support in times when you are feeling really challenged by restrictions, loss, isolation, or disconnection.

Setting intentions

Diana further invites you to revisit the past year and all the challenges that it involved – What did you feel? What did you lose? What was most challenging for you?  She suggests applying a “light touch” to these reflections, not getting lost in the challenging emotions involved.

She then suggests that you recall what inspired you during these challenging times – the selflessness of frontline health professionals caring for COVID-19 patients in ICU and elsewhere, the generosity of individuals, the sense of reconnection with loved ones (even though it might have been virtually), the dedication of emergency personnel (ambulance, police, border officers,  paramedics) and the resilience of people who experienced grief and trauma and yet continued to assist others. 

In the light of these latter inspiring and energizing reflections, Diana encourages you to revisit your New Year’s resolutions or to set new resolutions.  She particularly encourages you to draw on the lessons you have learned through experiencing the past year and what they  signal as a way forward for you.  You might envisage a different world where empathy, compassion, kindness, and consideration replace racial discrimination, self-centredness, violence and hatred.

This consideration of what might be could be the catalyst for you to strengthen your intention to make a positive contribution to your family, your community and the world at large.  Through your interconnectedness, how you are in the world influences those around you and beyond.  It might be that you firm up your intention of providing more emotional and practical support to someone close to you who is experiencing difficulties; it could be becoming more patient with someone at your work who is slow and/or annoying;  or resolving to truly listen to people, especially when they are expressing a personal need.

Reflection

We have at our disposal a ready means to feel grounded and deepen our resolve to pursue our best intentions so that they translate into positive actions.  This will enable us to make better choices and not indulge in habituated responses that can have negative impacts.  As we grow in mindfulness, through meditations focused on becoming grounded and setting our intentions, we can be a positive force in the lives of others, both those who are close and others who are distant.  Diana’s meditation podcast is one way to enable us to move from self-absorption to embracing people in need, locally and globally.  

You can change the negative tenor of social media around a topic by adopting a positive approach.  For instance, the arrival in Melbourne of professional tennis players for the Australian Open has created a real stir. On the one hand, some players have complained that they are locked up in a quarantine hotel room for two weeks because someone on their plane has the COVID-19 virus.  Some Australians stuck overseas are expressing bitterness that they are unable to return home because of the global situation while the Australian Open tennis players arrive from all around the world on chartered flights.   People living in Melbourne have expressed the view that the players are “spoilt brats” because they themselves have experienced one of the most stringent lockdowns anywhere in the world and for an extended period.

The voice of reason and compassion in all this turmoil was that of Australian Olympic swimmer, Cate Campbell.  She suggested publicly that expressing bitterness, envy and resentment is only making a difficult situation worse.  She encouraged all Australians to show empathy towards the tennis players and to truly understand what loss they are experiencing by their enforced confinement before one of the world’s major tennis tournaments.  As an elite sports person, she knows only too well what deprivation of practice before a very significant event means for other professionals.

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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.

Maintaining the Christmas Spirit

Christmas is a time when we can experience strong positive emotions such as kindness, joy, gratitude, generosity, empathy, and compassion.  We can also be more considerate, thoughtful, patient, and understanding. The difficulty is maintaining the Christmas spirit throughout the rest of the year – how can we continue to experience these positive emotions and engage in these positive behaviours when we encounter the daily pressures of work, relationships, and expectations (our own and those of others)?

Tailoring mindfulness practice

There are many ways to build positivity and maintain positive emotions and behaviours.  Diet and exercise are two of the most popular approaches.  Seeking silence in a busy life amid the noise pollution of the surrounding world is another.  Mindfulness practice can help us to find the balance and equanimity necessary to manage the daily challenges that can upset our peace of mind and positivity.

What helps to sustain mindfulness practice is finding and tailoring a practice that meets our needs in an arena where we would like to improve ourselves and our reactions, and that can be embedded in our daily routine.  It is important that the mindfulness practice, however brief, is conducted on a daily basis so that it can become a habituated behaviour.

I have found, for example, that one arena where I can become frustrated and annoyed is when playing social tennis.  Part of the issue is my own expectations about how well I should be able to play.  Having played tennis for more than fifty years, with many of those years engaged in competitive tennis, I have the expectation that I should be able to play better than a lot of people.  This expectation, however, does not consider the decline in flexibility, reflexes, strength, and mobility that occurs as we age.  So, I need to manage my expectations, strengthen my sense of gratitude (e.g., about being able to move and play tennis at all!) and learn to manage my reactions to  personal disappointment with the way I am playing on a particular occasion.

What I have found is that mindfulness practices help me to improve my gratitude, reduce my expectations and manage my reactions.  What has been of particular benefit to me is Tai Chi – a form of mindfulness practice that directly impacts my tennis playing in a positive way.  The desire to play tennis well and enjoy the experience adds motivation to my Tai Chi practice. It has become a practice that meets my needs at the moment for self-regulation and that enables me to improve my positive experience in an arena (social tennis) that I thoroughly enjoy.

Developing a personal mnemonic

People often use affirmations to help embed a belief, a behaviour, or an orientation.  Another way to achieve these outcomes is to develop a personal mnemonic that captures the core benefits that you are seeking.  For example, with Tai Chi I have developed the following mnemonic that keeps the benefits of this practice at the forefront of my mind, strengthens the desire to practice and reinforces the positive outcomes that I experience.

My mnemonic for capturing the benefits of Tai Chi for my tennis is as follows:

  • F – flexibility in muscles and overall movement is increased considerably
  • R – reflexes are improved and increased in speed of response
  • A – awareness is heightened of every aspect of tennis play (e.g., movement of the ball, environmental factors, other players)
  • I – intention, integration and interaction are strengthened
  • C – coordination and concentration (which go hand-in-hand) are enhanced along with balance
  • H – heart health improved through better circulation and improved breathing
  • E  – energy and motivation are improved.

The mnemonic stands for “fraiche” – a term which itself has positive connotations when viewed as a delectable dessert.  

Reflection

Developing our own mnemonic is one way of reminding ourselves of the benefits of a personalised mindfulness practice and will enable us to maintain our motivation and increase the frequency of our practice.  As we grow in mindfulness through our personalised practice, we can maintain the positive emotions and behaviours that are characteristic of the Christmas spirit.

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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.

Using Imagery to Handle Difficult Situations

Diana Winston in the last MARC meditation podcast of 2020 provided a guided meditation on Handling Difficult Situations with Wisdom and Compassion.  She uses imagery for the guided meditation – a process she has used previously for a kindness meditation.  However, the focal image differs in the two meditations – the current meditation involves picturing a wise, compassionate person while the previous one involved the image of a “kindness pond”.  At the outset of the difficult situation meditation, Diana encourages you to envisage the mediation as an “inner oasis”, a refuge in times of stress.

Guided meditation on handling difficult situations

Difficult situations can be many and varied – e.g., a close relative suffering from dementia, conflict in the family, falling out with a partner or friend, personal illness or chronic pain, serious financial loss or job loss.  The starting point is to accept what is – not disowning it but being prepared to be with  what is happening without judgment, recrimination, or resentment.

Diana suggests that you begin the meditation with a couple of deep breaths – using the exhale phase to release any build-up of tension (this could involve multiple deep breaths if your tension is very high).  The grounding phase of the meditation focuses strongly on posture and the sensation of being supported – by the chair, the floor, and the ground.  This initial postural focus enables you to become grounded in stillness and silence.

Moving beyond the initial focus, you can re-focus on your bodily sensations and your emotions. Diana leads you in a simple body scan looking for particular points of tension such as in your back, arms, or shoulders, so that you can progressively release what is holding you back. 

Once you have achieved some level of groundedness in stillness and silence, you can focus on an anchor of your choice.  It could be observing your breathing, listening to sounds internal and/or external to your space, or paying attention to the sensation in your feet or when your fingers from each hand are touching.  The anchor serves as a home base whenever distracting thoughts intervene and capture your attention.

Introducing imagery into your guided meditation

Diana suggests that you focus on the image of a person you consider the wisest and most compassionate person you know (or know of).  It could be a current or past mentor, a health professional, or the Dalai Lama – the choice is yours.   

Once you have a person in mind, you think about what advice they would give you in relation to your current difficulty – “what would they suggest that you do or say?”   For example, when I did this meditation what came to me was the need to listen more and  interrupt less as a way to help another person who was experiencing considerable difficulties on a health and work front.  Deep listening is perhaps the kindest think you can do for a person in difficulty – it is a way to develop empathy and compassion.

The final stage of the meditation involves asking your imagined wise and compassionate person for a gift.  In my case, for example, I asked for patience, kindness, and sensitivity to the needs of others who are experiencing difficult situations.

Reflection

Imagery for people who are visuals can be a powerful way into profound meditation.  We can all enhance our perception and capacity for imagination by developing our visual intelligence.  One of the challenges in this meditation is to avoid becoming embroiled in re-living the difficult situation rather than maintaining attention and focus on achieving wise and compassionate action.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we will become better able to draw on a range of mindfulness practices to deal with difficult situations and approach them with both wisdom (through in-depth understanding) and compassion towards ourselves.  The benefits of doing so include realising peace and tranquility amid the turbulence, accessing our creativity to achieve wise action, and extending empathy and compassionate action to others in need.

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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.

Finding Silence Amid the Noise and Busyness at Work

Christine Jackman, in her book Turning Down the Noise, highlights the noise and busyness at work as barriers to achieving silence and mindfulness.  These barriers are compounded by an emerging cultural norm that she calls “performative busyness” – “where contributions that are quick, disruptive and loud” are valued more highly than the reflective, considered responses to organisational issues and problems.   This norm values busyness above reflection.  The cost to organisations and individuals is tremendous in terms of lost productivity, stifling of creativity and increased stress levels resulting in lost motivation, depression, and burnout.

The “performative busyness” norm

In many organisations, being busy, or at least appearing to be busy, has become the norm.  This elevation of “busyness” was highlighted by an engaging study by Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of The Time Bind, who demonstrated (among other things) the negative impact of the busyness norm on the implementation of family-friendly policies.  If you did not work long hours and appeared to be busy all the time, you were viewed as unmotivated, lacking in commitment.  The net result was that those (mainly women) who sought to access the family-friendly policy to take time off for pressing family needs were often refused or treated poorly for their “obvious lack of work motivation”.  Arlie documents the ever-increasing cost to the family and the workplace of this debilitating dilemma confronting caregivers.

I once worked as a consultant to an organisation where performative busyness was the norm and treated as a corporate value by managers.  Busyness became equated with importance.  If a manager was “too busy” to attend meetings, or if there was an extended lead-time before you could have a meeting with a manager, they were considered V.I.P.’s (Very Important Persons).  This emphasis on “performative busyness” was in direct contrast to the client-facing areas where the highest value was placed on client service, rather than self-importance.   The client service areas were often frustrated by the need for the central service areas to reinforce their busyness and importance by creating unnecessary work for the client service areas.  This centric-focused busyness negatively impacted staff morale and effectiveness in the client service areas as well as client relations.

The  “open office” bind

Open office designs were introduced for efficiency reasons and to achieve higher productivity and collaboration.  Cost efficiencies have been achieved in many places because of the reduced cost of office outfitting but human efficiency has declined.   Two Professors at Harvard University, Ethan Bernstein and Stephan Turban, reported in 2018 that their research demonstrated that open offices actually led to a decline in both productivity and collaboration, owing to the heightened noise levels and the lack of privacy.   Research too has highlighted the negative impact that open offices can have on employee’s mental health because of factors like noise, overcrowding, isolation, and distractions. 

It is interesting that during a recent virtual training course I was conducting, a number of managers reported that they were better able to build a relationship with staff who were introverts while working from home in a virtual environment.  They explained that their relationships improved and they put this down to the fact that they were no longer impeded by the noise level and lack of privacy of the open office.

Meetings and more meetings

Christine refers to what she calls the “ritual meeting” – the meeting that occurs at a set time each day or week and has been in existence for a considerable period (so that it has now become a ritual but participants may have lost sight of its original purpose or the original need may have actually ceased to exist).  She maintains that often too many people attend these meetings for no appreciable achievement with no one counting the cost or seeking to improve the outcomes. Christine points out that these ritual meetings feed performative busyness behaviour because they enable managers to book out their days by attending endless meetings and thus appearing extremely busy.

In another organisational consultancy, I was working with a group of eight organisational leaders, whose salaries averaged AUD$400,000.  They were wanting to improve their effectiveness but expressed concern that the real problem lay with the “managers down there who were not accountable”.  It turned out, however, that the leaders met ritually every Friday afternoon for four hours and typically had no appreciable outcome from these meetings (and hence nothing to report to their next level managers). Despite the fact that they were aware of the cost of the meetings and their ineffectiveness, none of the leaders chose to do anything about them.  They were blind to the fact that they themselves were not accountable for the way they used their time and the organisation’s finances and resources. They were oblivious of the lack of congruence of their behaviour with their stated value of “accountability”.

Reflection

There are many barriers to silence in our lives including digital noise, overload, the discomfort of others, and busyness at work.  Silence can be found in natural sounds and music which enable us to cultivate deep listening and an inner silence.  However, seeking silence does not mean that we have to hide away from the world or not take action against injustices or inequity.

Christine points out in her penultimate chapter, that there is a real trade-off between silence and activity.  In a very well-researched and insightful chapter, she points out that it is not an either-or situation.  The challenge is to find silence within our roles whether they be at work, at home as a parent or partner, or in a broader community setting.  She provides a “Silence: How-to Guide” at the end of her book to assist us in this task.  I have incorporated some of these ideas as well as my own mindfulness practices in a previous post about accessing the power of silence.

As we grow in mindfulness, through our pursuit of stillness and inner silence amid our daily life and work, we can find a deep inner peace, calmness, and creativity, as well as a harbour or refuge in challenging times and periods of difficult emotions.  In a personal Epilogue of her book, Christine tells the story of how, as her father lay dying, she was able to move past emotional turbulence and turmoil to sit in silence with him as he died – it was then that she truly found silence.

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

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

Nature’s Call to Silence

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

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

The healing power of nature

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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Image by Ben Travis 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.

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

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

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

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

Guided meditation for developing mindfulness and alignment with what is good

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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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.