Creating a Meaningful Story for Your Life

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

An opening reflective question

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

A closing reflective question

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

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

The science of a meaningful life

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

Domestic Violence: A Catalyst for Pursuing Life Purpose

The challenge we are confronted with during various stages of our life is to decide what is our purpose in life.  Finding that unique purpose can lead to a singular focus, total commitment and “unified action”, where your contribution to community – utilising your unique knowledge, skills, experiences, insights, and connections – becomes your unifying focus.  Trent Dalton, journalist and author of  All Our Shimmering Skies, tells the story of how domestic and family violence became the catalyst for Nicolle Edwards and husband Gareth to identify and pursue their life purpose in the form of RizeUp Australia, a registered charity providing concrete support to women and families fleeing domestic violence.

Trent’s story, Hands & Hearts in the Australian Weekend Magazine (12-13 December 2020), describes the practical help that RizeUp provides in terms of furnishing a house for domestic and family violence refugees.  With the help of a large social media following and a very large group of volunteers, Nicolle and Gareth provide home-making support for DV refugees when they move out of a Women’s Shelter to often-unfurnished, emergency  accommodation.  The list of furniture and accessories provided at no cost (or fuss), including bedding and basic appliances, is extensive and very impressive – all provided and set up for free through donations of goods and money and the donation of time and effort by volunteers in the RizeUp network.  Nicolle comments in the article that the “sigh of relief” of the recipient mother is motivation enough for her to dedicate herself to this life purpose.

Nicole realised that she could help domestic violence refugees and their children when she turned to social media to provide help to a DV refugee very early on (before RizeUp was created in 2015).  She was amazed at the response and with Gareth created the RizeUp network, which has now set up more than 980 homes for DV refugees and their families.  The RizeUp Facebook page provides many photos showing volunteers at work and the kind of practical home support provided by the network.   Nicole and Gareth demonstrate the strength and sensitivity required to pursue your life purpose.

My story – my experience of domestic and family violence

I experienced domestic and family violence as a child because my father, who was suffering from PTSD, had become an alcoholic. I heard the many shouting fights between my mother and father because he was spending so much of our income on alcohol.  I do recall our family at one stage living off food donations from the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  I also recall the times when my mother ended up in hospital after particularly violent arguments.   

I left home immediately after Grade 12 to study in Victoria and when I returned five years later the situation had not improved.  So, one day when my father was at work, I helped my mother pack her things and moved the both of us to a small house at the back of a shop.  The strangely happy part of the story is that after my parents divorced, my father remarried, gave up alcohol and walked every day for an hour for his physical and mental health.  He also used to drive my mother to church each Sunday after the separation.

It is only as I grew older that I realised how little support there was for my father whose nerves were shattered after serving in the Australian Army in Singapore in the Second World War.  He had been a prisoner-of-war in Changi prison for 18 months following the capture of Singapore by the Japanese.  Stephen Wynn describes life after The Surrender of Singapore as “three years of hell”.  Not long after my father’s release from Changi, he was deployed as part of the Allied Occupation Forces in Japan.

On reflecting on these early life experiences of domestic violence, I believe that they have unconsciously motivated me to work towards developing mentally healthy workplaces and communities both in my consulting and writing.  In my organisational consulting work, I have particularly worked with managers to build managerial mindfulness – consciousness about the impact that their words and actions have on the development of a productive and mentally healthy workplace.  In writing this blog, I have focused on mindfulness, mental health, trauma, and leadership as my contribution to providing individuals in the community and managers with resources, practices, and processes to create a mentally healthy life.

What is your story?

Recently, Tami Simon from Sounds True introduced a new publication written by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond who took ten years to develop and refine the reflective processes incorporated in their book.  The transformative and interactive journal, titled  What’s Your Story: A Journal for Everyday Evolution, provides a series of strategic questions to help you reflect on your life story (by theme and/or area of your life).  The deeply penetrating questions are designed to challenge self-limiting beliefs and throw light on a possible path forward.  The authors hope to enable you “to begin living your most authentic, creative, and meaningful life”.

Reflection

Sometimes the search for our life purpose is confounding and confusing – it seems to go around in circles before achieving some degree of clarity.  Our life purpose might prove illusive because it can be changing over time. As we gain greater personal insight and experience different catalytic events, we may find that what was truly purposeful and meaningful at one point in our life, is no longer adequate or energizing. As we grow in mindfulness through journalling, meditation and reflection, we can develop an expanded view of what we are capable of, build the courage to pursue our unique purpose, and positively impact others and ourselves. It is in achieving alignment with our life purpose that we find meaning and happiness.

Another useful resource is an eight-week course, Your True Calling, which is available online at Sounds True.  The author Stephen Cope, wrote the book, The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling.

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

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

Mindfulness: A Pathway to Wisdom

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

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

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

Mindfulness and the components of wisdom

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and the Window of Tolerance

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

The Window of Tolerance

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

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

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

Trauma and narrowing of the window of tolerance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experience of mindfulness for dealing with trauma

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

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

Developing a trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness training

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

Self-acceptance and Overcoming Negative Thoughts

Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Professor Steven Hayes co-founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  In the interview podcast, Steven focused on Self-Acceptance and Perspective-Taking.  Fundamental to the ACT approach is the capacity to “step Back” from the inner critic, notice the negative thoughts that are being generated and listening to those thoughts with a sense of curiosity to understand what is going on.  It involves being vulnerable to, rather than hiding away from, the hurt entailed in negative self-evaluation.  Added to this facing up to the inner critic are defusion techniques, such as perspective-taking, designed to create distance from the thoughts by seeing that they are not facts, only “streams of words” or momentary sensations.

Acceptance of thoughts and sensations

Steven explains that “acceptance” in the context of ACT involves acknowledging these negative thoughts as a gift to be explored, not something to be accepted passively or tolerated as if they were true and readily verifiable.  It involves recognising the wisdom embedded in our difficult emotions because they serve to illuminate something that we care about deeply. 

This involves the flexibility to acknowledge the gap between our thoughts and our inner awareness of them and the capacity to take what is useful in those thoughts to motive us to act on them to achieve a positive outcome that we value.   It is about regaining control over our inner world so that we can live our life “with meaning and purpose” – the core theme of Steven’s latest book, A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Towards What Really Matters.

Steven illustrates this acceptance approach by discussing negativity around body image and how to turn this into effective problem solving – rather than being trapped in the unfounded message of the inner critic that relates body weight to ugliness or lack of attractiveness.  He suggests as a starting point to revisit your past to see where the mental connection between body weight and ugliness originated, e.g. it might have had its origins in bullying at school by other students who were jealous of your academic or sporting success.  Following this exploration, you can use one of the many defusion strategies in ACT that can take away the power of this autosuggestion.  Russ Harris, ACT practitioner, provides a great set of defusion strategies in his humorous, illustrated book, The Happiness Trap Pocketbook – a very readable and accessible guidebook for personal change. 

Perspective-taking: a defusion strategy to create space and disempower the inner critic

Steven highly recommends “perspective-taking” as a defusion strategy to enable you to step back from negative thoughts and create enough space to disempower them.   There are many ways to undertake perspective-taking.  Steven describes one process in his interview podcast that he asserts will work even when you lack knowledge of mindfulness, ACT or any other related modality.  The steps he describes are as follows:

  1. Picture yourself struggling with the negative critic you are confronting (with your eyes closed or looking downwards to reduce distractions)
  2. Notice that it is a part of you that is noticing your struggle
  3. Now take that part of yourself that is noticing and tune into your body seeing yourself watching the struggle (you can even tune into the earliest occurrence of these negative thoughts) – in the process show self-compassion towards yourself
  4. Then ask yourself, “Is this person loveable, wholesome or empathetic?’ 
  5. Picture yourself sitting there observing this loveable, wholesome person from a short distance – as in a movie
  6. Imagine remembering 10 years from now how you looked as you struggled with the inner critic – picture yourself sitting in a chair or on the floor still struggling the same way
  7. You can ask yourself then, if you were observing this struggle in this future time, “What words of wisdom would you offer yourself?”
  8. Then bring yourself back to the present by grounding yourself in your body.

In this interaction, your wisdom will emerge, and you can offer yourself encouraging words such as “you can move on”.  According to Steven, research shows that “human intelligence in inherently self-compassionate” – the thought processes above enable you to tap that self-compassion.  He maintains that this form of perspective-taking is itself “very healing”.

Reflection

We can become overwhelmed by our inner critic if we give it free play, without challenge.  So often, we avoid facing up to what is painful.  The Inner MBA, developed by Tami Simon and colleagues, provides one avenue to explore our inner landscape, and defusing strategies offer many ways to break the hold of our inner critic.  Mindfulness practices provide a further avenue for facing up to our negative thoughts and related disabling beliefs.

As we grow in mindfulness through these processes, we can break the hold of the inner critic, gain a truer self-awareness, embrace self-compassion and emerge with a sense of freedom and alignment with our life purpose.

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Image by NickyPe 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.

Strength and Sensitivity to Pursue Your Life Purpose

In a recent podcast interview, Tami Simon, founder of Sounds True and Sibyl Chavis, her Chief Business Officer (B2C Division), discussed Combining Strength and Sensitivity to become a sustainable force for good in the world.  The interview was conducted by Richard Taubinger, CEO of Conscious Marketer.

The conversation focused on finding your purpose in life through intuitive sensing of the needs of others and the emergent energy for change, and aligning the pursuit of that purpose with your unique life experience, skill set and ever-deepening and expanding knowledge base.  The pursuit of your life purpose is then undertaken with “deep care” (sensitivity) and the strength of a resilience that can overcome obstacles and adapt to a constantly changing environment.   Tami spoke for instance of her skill in asking questions which has led to Insights at the Edge podcast series – interviews with the world’s leading teachers including mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat-Zinn.  A recent addition to the podcasts is a 3-Part Series titled, Healing Racism, with Dr. Tiffany Jana.

To enable others to pursue their life purpose with strength and sensitivity, Tami and her team, in collaboration with her global network of experts, has developed the Inner MBAa nine-month intensive program with more than 30 world leaders (including experienced and successful CEOs and experts in neuroscience, mindfulness, conscious marketing and practices for gaining insight and wisdom). 

The Inner MBA program incorporates monthly video/audio training, facilitated online learning pods, a virtual curriculum for at-home learning and modelling of “practice skills”.   This is a crowning achievement built in collaboration with LinkedIn, Wisdom2.0©, and New York University and addresses the gap in traditional MBAs by focusing on inner development as well as the knowledge and skills to succeed in business in today’s turbulent world.

Finding your true purpose in life

During the interview podcast, both Tami and Sibyl shared their life experiences and the influences that brought clarity about their life purpose and led them to the roles they play today in bringing conscious living and mindfulness to the world at large.  Tami contrasted what is available through the Inner MBA with the lack of mentors when she established Sounds True in 1985 in her early 20’s.  There were very few business founders/CEOs who were genuinely socially conscious and spirituality oriented, and of those that were, women were very much in the minority.  

Tami had to forge her own way without today’s mentors and to learn “to listen, attune and lead” to create the global, multimedia company that is Sounds True today – bringing mindfulness and spirituality to businesses and the lives of millions of people.  She pointed out that developing the requisite sensitivity and strength required a lot of “inner work” and the willingness to explore the depths of her heart and mind.

Sibyl’s career started as a corporate attorney, a profession she had in common with her husband, until one day they asked themselves “Is there more to life than what we have here?” A catalyst for changing Sibyl’s career and life direction was a sign in a hotel which read, “Life is about creating yourself”.  Both she and her husband quit their jobs on the same day.  Her husband became a film director and TV writer and Sibyl established Ripple Agency, “a full service digital marketing and creative agency”, and became a writer through her blog, The Possibility of Today.  Ripple strives to assist businesses to “engage in purpose driven initiatives to give back to their target customer’s communities”.  The Possibility of Today blog aims to help people overcome their negative self-stories, pay attention to the potentiality of the present moment, find more clarity about their life purpose and “to take action on things they always wanted to do” – thus transforming their lives.

Sibyl had developed her digital marketing skills through her experience in corporate America and had been a consumer of the digital products produced by Sounds True.  Her journey to find her true home as Chief Business Officer for Sounds True required persistent self-questioning and tapping into her intuition through mindfulness practices.  She came to realise that her knowledge base, skill set, work experience and life orientation were very much in alignment with the mission of Sounds True. 

Sibyl’s life journey reinforces the fact that the inner journey creates the outer reality – persistence and tuning into intuition are necessary ingredients.  The self-exploration is necessary to unearth our self-protection mechanisms and self-sabotaging behaviours.

Reflection

Unearthing our life purpose and having the courage to bring our work and life into alignment with it, require persistence and resilience and the pursuit of congruence (alignment of words and actions).  Meditation, reflection and self-questioning can help us to grow in mindfulness and build our self-awareness, self-regulation and connection to our intuition and creative capacities.

Too often we become discouraged with our lack of progress in identifying our life goal and how to achieve alignment.  We can easily give up and settle for something that is less than the best we can be.  Mindfulness practices can help us maintain our pursuit and overcome the obstacles we encounter on the way.   For example, Lulu & Mischka through their mantra meditation, Jaya Ganesha, can help us to appreciate the mystery and potentiality of each day.

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Image by Susan Cipriano 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.

Accessing the Genius of Anxiety for Improved Mental Health

Karla McLaren discussed embracing anxiety in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True when having a conversation about Making Friends with Anxiety … And All Your Other Emotions.   Karla was able to draw on her own life experience and her recent book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.   She has spent a lifetime researching and writing about emotions.

In a previous post, I explored Karla’s concept of emotions as storing energy and providing a message and wisdom.  I also discussed effective ways to draw on the energy and wisdom of emotions.  Karla emphasised the importance of not attributing the characteristics of “good” or “bad” to emotions, including difficult emotions.  In her view there are real lessons and ways to move forward hidden in each emotion, even anxiety.

Trauma and anxiety

Karla herself experienced childhood trauma and many of her insights are drawn from her experience in overcoming the associated anxiety and depression.  Like other people who have been traumatised, Karla has had to deal with anxiety and depression throughout her life.  She found that she was ignorant about these emotions and tended to repress or suppress them.   However, through reading and research she has been able to develop practical approaches to addressing anxiety and depression.  She has learned to befriend these emotions and now views depression as enforced slowing down and redirection and has developed the ability to draw on the “genius of anxiety”.

The genius of anxiety

In her interview with Elizabeth Markle on embracing anxiety, Karla emphasised that anxiety is “an essential source of foresight, intuition, and energy for completing your tasks and projects”.  As with any emotion we have a choice – we can suppress, repress or “over-express” anxiety or, alternatively, listen to the message and wisdom that lies within this emotion.  We need to understand that emotion is a process – trigger, experience, response – we have a choice in how we respond to what triggers us and the feelings we experience as a result.

Karla suggests that the appropriate response to situational anxiety is to channel the energy of the emotion towards completing a task or project – much as a canal channels water.  Repression or suppression of anxiety blocks the energy flow, while over-expressing anxiety through panicked or frantic activity can dissipate the energy rather than direct it.  A starting point for channelling the energy of anxiety is “conscious questioning” – e.g. “What brought on this feeling?” and “What truly needs to get done?”   This approach enables you to work with, rather than against, the energy of anxiety and to simultaneously care for yourself by downregulating the impact of the emotion on your thoughts and feelings. 

Karla continued her discussion of “conscious questioning” for anxiety by referring to a sample of other questions featured in her book, Embracing Anxiety (p.85):

  • what are your strengths and resources?
  • are there any upcoming deadlines?
  • have you achieved or completed something similar in the past?
  • can you delegate any tasks or ask for help?
  • what is one small task you can complete tonight or today?

Karla argues that this approach involves “leaning into anxiety”, not artificially calming yourself.  She also alludes to the research that demonstrates that accurate naming of our emotions and identifying the level of intensity of them is another effective form of downregulating emotions.  To this end she encourages us to develop our emotion vocabulary and offers her blog as a starting point for emotion identification.  In her book she offers ways of describing different levels of emotional intensity, for example, low anxiety is described as apprehensive, mild anxiety as edgy or nervous and intense anxiety as overwrought or super-energised.

Karla suggests too that yoga and mindfulness are effective ways of downregulating that can assist the process of conscious questioning.  She offered very brief meditation to illustrate this calming effect.  The meditation basically involved focusing on the quietest sound in the room.  Karla provides a range of practices for each emotion in her book,

Different anxiety orientations: planner vs procrastinator

Karla drew on the work of Mary Lamia, author of What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success, to differentiate between two main manifestations of anxiety – planning anxiety and procrastination anxiety.  The planner maintains a low level of anxiety continuously and has a task “to-do” list(s) to manage their anxiety about getting things done.  The procrastinator, on the other hand, does not make lists but works to deadlines and has an immense burst of anxiety and energy the night before a deadline is due (and often achieves the task in the early or late hours of the morning).  The procrastinator can “chill out” while waiting for the deadline, the task person has difficulty “chilling”.

Mary points out that what is different in the two approaches to task achievement has to do with “when their emotions are activated and what activates them”.  The procrastinator, for example, is motivated by the imminent deadline and experiences “deadline energy”; the planner is motivated by the need to keep task commitments under control.   Understanding the difference between these two sources of motivating anxiety and your personal preference in how to get things done, can reduce conflict in a relationship and support success where partners have a different orientation.   Maria discusses the potential clash in orientation between procrastinators and non-procrastinators in her Psychology Today blog.

Reflection

Mindfulness practices along with conscious questioning and reflection can help us to focus the emotional energy of anxiety.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can better identify our emotions, understand what motivates others and increase our response ability

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Image by Lars Eriksson 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.

Understanding the Message and Wisdom of Difficult Emotions

In a recent interview podcast, Tami Simon of Sounds True recorded a conversation with Karla McLaren, author of The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You.   The interview covered a range of emotions and the message and wisdom that lie beneath each one.  Karla’s primary focus was on emphasizing that emotions are not good or bad but serve to help us in various ways to change our situation and/or our behaviour.  In her view, emotions are a hidden source of wisdom that we should listen to rather than seek to control or dismiss.  Karla noted that people often deflect their attention from difficult emotions and try to displace them with “happier” experiences – thus missing the message of emotions.

Emotions hold a huge amount of energy

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla highlights the huge amount of energy that is stored in emotions, especially those that we label as “bad”.   The unproductive ways to deal with these emotions (and the energy stored within them) is either to suppress or repress them.  Suppression involves consciously distracting ourselves from the discomfort of these emotions and trying to meet the unrealistic ideal of an “always happy” person.  It can be okay as a short-term solution, but if the emotion (e.g. anger) remains unaddressed then it can lead to dysfunctional and harmful behaviour as we express our emotions in an unhelpful way.  

Repression, on the other hand, involves unconscious avoidance of emotions (a response partly conditioned by our upbringing and our perceptions of other people’s views).   The energy stored in repressed emotions can manifest itself in a depleted immune system and physical symptoms such as muscle pain and fatigue as well as the associated increased risk of serious illness such as cardiovascular disease.  You can see the negative impact of repressed emotions such as anger  operating in the workplace when someone at work blasts you for something that was a very minor mistake – you cop an “emotional dump” that is a response completely disproportionate to the nature of your error (but that manifests the accumulated energy of a repressed emotion).

Emotions are not good or bad

By naming difficult emotions as “bad”, we perpetuate our reluctance to face them and understand their message and wisdom.  Instead we increase our motivation to suppress or repress them because we fear what others might think, even if we express them in an entirely appropriate way.  Karla suggests too that when we label some emotions as “good” we are potentially setting ourselves up for disappointment or negative self-evaluation – because we perceive that we don’t feel as positive as others expect or express our good emotions in a way expected by others.

According to Karla, what lies behind calling emotions “bad” or “good” is an “attribution error” – we erroneously blame our emotions for the precipitating situation or trigger.   Our difficult emotions do not create our problems (like the health and economic impacts of the Coronavirus) – they exist to help us deal with our problems and difficult situations, if only we would listen to the message they convey.

Understanding the message and wisdom of difficult emotions

The first task is to name your feelings in a fine-grained way or what Susan David calls developing a granular description of your feelings.  This involves avoiding generalisations such as “I feel upset” and being more precise about the feelings involved such as anger, fear or anxiety.  Until you can name and compassionately accept your difficult emotions, you will be unable to understand what they are telling you.

According to Karla, each emotion has its own message.  For example, depression arising from a specific situation reduces your energy and slows you down so that you can see when something is not right, and you need to change the situation.  Karla maintains that depression “removes energy when we are going in the wrong way to do the wrong things for the wrong reason”.   On the other hand, anger helps you to establish boundaries (e.g. constant interruptions or intrusions into your personal space) and fear helps you to get really focused on the present moment and to draw on your insight and intuition to address the trigger for your fear.

Karla maintains that the current challenging times of the Coronavirus is resulting in people experiencing dyads or triads of emotions – she sees, for example, evidence of people simultaneously experiencing sadness, depression and grief.  In her view, sadness in this context is a message to let go of something that no longer works or applies (e.g. working in a workplace during pandemic restrictions) and grief is a natural emotion when you have lost someone or something – it is about taking the time to grieve and allowing for the fact that grief is experienced and expressed differently by different people and its expression changes over time.

Effective ways to draw on the message and wisdom of emotions

Karla emphasised the importance of being grounded when you attempt to deal with difficult emotions.  In her interview podcast with Tami Simon, she described a process based on deep breathing and sighing and complete focus on the present moment and your bodily sensations.  She suggested, for instance, that you feel the sensation of your bottom on the seat and your feet on the floor and listen to the sounds that surround you.

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla provides many experiential exercises to draw out the wisdom hidden in a wide range of emotions including anger, fear, jealousy and shame.  Through these exercises you can gain emotional fluency in dealing with your own and others’ emotions.  Karla stresses the importance of understanding a particular emotion and being able to differentiate it from other emotions, e.g. differentiating between sadness and grief.  This clarity about the nature of a particular emotion enables you to identify practices to understand and act on the message and wisdom inherent in the emotion.  She provides an alphabetical list of emotions and links to relevant blog posts on her website as well as videos on different emotions on her YouTube© playlist.

Another strategy that Karla mentioned is that of “conscious questioning” which she describes in detail in her latest book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.  In the interview podcast, Karla provided an example of this process that can be used in relation to panic.  For example, you can ask yourself, “What is the basis of my fear and the likelihood that what I fear will happen?” or “Can I avoid the situation that has the potential to harm me and is making me fearful?”  In the latter case, you might put off a visit to a food store at a busy time for fear of contamination from the Coronavirus.  Panic can help us to realise a potentially dangerous situation and enable us to take action to avoid the situation.   If your panic is chronic and not situational, other approaches such as managing your morning panic attack might help.

Reflection

Karla draws on her own life experience of dealing with her difficult emotions as well as a lifetime of research into emotions, their manifestation and effective ways of dealing with them.  As we grow in mindfulness and understanding through experiential exercises, reflection, conscious questioning and meditation we can access the messages and wisdom hidden in our emotions and develop emotional fluency.  Through these mindfulness practices we can safely negotiate difficult emotions and restore our equilibrium in any situation.

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Image by Anemone123 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.

Building Resilience through Compassion Towards Others

In a previous post, I discussed Pema Chödrön’s ideas of developing resilience through self-compassion by “compassionate abiding” in our own pain and suffering during these challenging times of the pandemic.  This entails abiding in, or dropping into, the full depth of our painful experience through our bodily sensations and conscious breathing.  As we undertake slow, conscious breathing we hold our suffering with self-kindness and warmth.  Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Warriors of Light, remind us to “breathe into our hearts” because breath is our chariot enabling us to face the unknown and stand on our own.

In her interview podcast with Tami Simon of Sounds True, Pema extended the concept of compassionate abiding by moving beyond self-compassion to compassion towards others.  She maintained that embracing the pain and suffering of others particularly in these times, when everyone is suffering in one form or another, contributes to our resilience – we realise we are not alone and we are able to move beyond self-absorption and “panic storylines” to extending kindness to others.

Pain and suffering: a doorway to compassion for others

In these challenging times of the Coronavirus, we can be very sure that there are millions of people around the world who are experiencing suffering like we are.  People are experiencing all forms of loss – of loved ones, their jobs, their business incomes, their health, their financial security or their homes.  They may have become physically disconnected from their workplaces, their family and their friends, even stranded in a foreign country because of international travel restrictions.  They could be healthcare professionals working on the frontline and/or living away from their families for a number of months to protect their loved ones from cross-infection.  We can be very confident that there are people around the world who are feeling pain and suffering like we are.

Pema argues that abiding with compassion in our own pain and suffering is the doorway opening us to compassion towards others.  In experiencing fully our own suffering, not denying its intensity or pervasiveness, we develop a deep sense of connection with others who are also suffering at this time.  Pema spoke of the principle of Tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “taking in and sending out” – taking in our own experience of pain and suffering and sending out desire for relief for others.  She suggests that once we become grounded in our own suffering (this may take 10-20 minutes), we can take in the suffering of others.  On our in-breath we can imagine others who are experiencing similar pain and suffering and on our out-breath, wish them relief and insight to enable them to move beyond their own discomfort, distress, grief or loneliness.  Connectedness and resilience lie in this mutual experiencing.

Pema maintains that we do not have to confine this compassion towards others to a time of extreme challenge, we can use our pain and suffering as the doorway to compassion and connectedness at other times.  We may be experiencing distress because a family member is suffering from Alzheimer’s or feeling panic and anxiety because someone we are carer for is experiencing the black dog of depression.  At these times, we can drop into conscious breathing, embracing our distress and anxiety with kindness, and gradually move beyond this abiding self-compassion to compassion towards others who are experiencing the intensity of our own emotions. 

Reflection

I think that Pema’s profound insight into compassionate abiding opens the way to develop self-compassion, compassion towards others and personal resilience.  As we grow in mindfulness through conscious breathing and extending relief to others, we can move beyond our self-destructive narratives, restore our inner equilibrium and peace, and develop the resilience to not only survive these challenging times but also be able to extend help and support to others. 

Compassion towards others can be expressed in many ways even in these times of social distancing – the virtual choir of women physicians singing “Rise Again” is but one example of many where people are moving beyond their own overwhelming challenges and distress to reach out to others.

Pema provides multiple resources including her many books, her free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön  and her online course, Freedom to Love, which expands on the principles and practice of compassionate abiding.

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Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski 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.

Resilience through Self-Compassion

Sounds True founder, Tami Simon, recently interviewed Pema Chödrön as part of the podcast series, Resilience in Challenging Times.  The theme of Pema’s interview podcast was Compassionate Abiding – an emphasis on building resilience by abiding in, or inhabiting, difficult emotions while extending loving-kindness to our self and others.  Her focus was on ways to become “embodied” – being fully in touch with the physical manifestations of our feelings. 

Pema acknowledged that many people worldwide are feeling lost and experiencing “groundlessness”.  This is normal and natural in these challenging times when everything has been upended – intrastate, interstate and international travel, location of work, availability of work, education of children and adults, health risks, financial security and relationships.  We are now having to connect from a distance – with our colleagues, friends and extended family.  People in the streets, cafés and shops are wearing masks and observing social distancing – avoidance is the new norm in interactions.

Becoming grounded in your body

With this pervasive upheaval, it is difficult to stay grounded and avoid being swept away by a torrent of difficult emotions. Pema maintains that the one, immediately accessible control point is your body.  Your difficult emotions can manifest in your body as tightness in your chest, pain in your arms or legs, headaches, upset stomach, racing pulse or any other physical form of constriction, acceleration or discomfort.   Pema contends that the pathway to resilience lies in immersing yourself in your feelings and associated bodily sensations through your breathing.  She argues that it is important to “lean into your sharp points and fully experience them”.

Pema offered a breathing exercise during her interview podcast (at the 16-minute mark).  She encouraged listeners to get comfortable (sitting, lying or walking) and to ask themselves, “What does a specific feeling (e.g. anxiety) feel like in my body?’  You are encouraged to explore the depth and breadth of the feeling through self-observation and self-exploration – locating the point(s) of manifestation of the feeling in your body. 

Conscious breathing with kindness and self-compassion

Having named your feeling and fully experienced its manifestation in your body, the next step is to take three conscious breaths – breathing in and out deeply, feeling your lungs expand with the in-breath and experiencing a sense of release/relief on your out-breath.  Pema argues that in this way we are accessing the “wisdom of our emotions” – emotions that have been shaped by our personality, life experiences and responses to triggers.  This process can be repeated over a longer period if the level of personal agitation is high.  Pema mentioned that in one of her recent experiences of a difficult emotion, it took her half an hour to achieve equilibrium and peace through this breathing exercise.

For some people, the focus on breath may be too traumatic because it generates painful flashbacks to adverse childhood experiences or too demanding because of respiratory difficulties or other physical disability.  In this scenario, Pema suggests that embracing yourself, rocking, tapping or a more analytical approach could work to tame the emotions and dampen the associated feelings.

As you breathe into and out of your feelings, it is important to extend loving-kindness to yourself – avoiding negative self-talk that is debilitating and disabling.  Each person has a different way of expressing self-compassion and acknowledgement of their inherent goodness.  Pema maintains that “the essence of bravery is being without deception” – having the courage to face up to what we are not happy with in ourselves, as well as what we admire.  By holding our faults, deficiencies and prejudices in loving kindness and understanding, we can move beyond self-deception, self-loathing and self-recrimination.  It takes a brave person to face the reality of what they feel and why, and to open themselves to self-intimacy and self-empowerment.   Pema suggests that as we extend kindness to our self, we imagine our heart opening wide and filling an ever-expanding space.

Reflection

Pema is a humorous, grounded and practical meditation teacher who has written many books including Start Where Your Are and When Things Fall Apart.  She provides a free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön.  Pema has also developed an online course, Freedom to Love, covering the principles and practices mentioned in this blog post as well as a penetrating exploration of resilience through compassion towards others.

After many years of meditation and teaching, Pema Chödrön has developed a quiet, down-to-earth, insightful approach that makes you want to learn more from her.  To me, she evidences the calmness and peace that she promotes. 

Consistent with other mindfulness teachers, Pema encourages spending time in nature, walking and other forms of movement.  As we grow in mindfulness through our breathing, self-exploration and self-intimacy, we can better access our own sense of peace and resilience in the face of very challenging times.

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Image by jplenio – My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: 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.