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.

Bodily Awareness: Movement and Stillness

The UCLA meditation podcast at the end of April 2021 was conducted by Tom Heah who has particular expertise in movement meditation and offers a range of Mindfulness in Action courses.    Tom’s guided meditation on Awareness in Movement and Stillness offers a way to pay attention to bodily sensations with openness and curiosity while moving and keeping still.  He makes the point that our body is always in the present moment through our senses while our mind is often consumed with thinking about the past or the future, e.g., planning, analysing, categorising, criticising, or summarising.  Tom describes the mind as a “thinking machine” while he sees our body as a pathway to the present moment and mindfulness.  His podcast meditation has three core parts – seeing, moving, being still.

Paying attention to what we see

As Tom’s meditation was conducted online via Zoom, he encouraged participants from around the world to turn their videos on and look to see who else is present in the collaborative meditation.  He maintained that through our sight we can reinforce our sense of connection to others wherever they may be in the world.  He suggested that “separation” is really a “conception of the mind” – ignoring the reality of our connectedness to every living thing.  He encouraged participants to spend a short time as they were looking at others to check into their own bodily sensations.  Tom reinforced the fact that our bodies enable us to experience our connection to the earth as well as to others.

Paying attention to our bodies while we move

Tom encouraged participants to stand or sit to undertake a number of conscious movements involving the arms, neck, and shoulders.  He offered stretching exercises for the arms, neck and shoulder rolls as forms of movement.  His main focus was on the bodily sensations experienced while undertaking the movements – encouraging the identification of points of ease or tension.

On completing the movements, Tom suggested that participants choose an anchor to be able to refocus the mind if wandering occurs – e.g., room scanning, focus on sounds within and/or without the room, focusing on the breath or remaining with bodily sensations.  He indicated that like a lot of other people his mind has been racing with the advent of the pandemic, as everything in life is impacted – work location, availability of work, physical and mental health, relationships, shopping patterns, income flow and capacity for free movement within a State or outside a country.

Tom suggested that focus on our body and body sensations is a way to still the mind and recapture peace, ease, and tranquility.  Movement meditations such as Tai Chi provide an excellent means to build bodily focus and concentration as well as to realise physical and mental health benefits. 

Paying attention to our bodies while being still

Tom suggested that the stillness meditation can involve sitting, standing, or lying down – whatever is comfortable and facilitates your ability to get in touch with your bodily sensations.  One of the easiest ways to pay attention to bodily sensations is to focus on our feet – observing sensations of touch, tingling, heaviness, connectedness to the floor or ground or other sensation.  I find that joining my fingers together from each hand also provides me with easy access to bodily awareness – to a sense of energy flow, warmth, connection, tingling and stillness.

Mantra meditations involving generation of bodily energy through voice and vibration, can still the mind and body. Lulu & Mischka, exemplars of the art of mantra meditations, maintain that in times such as the pandemic, mantra meditations can enable us to achieve both stillness and joy despite the pervasive challenges in our lives.  Their stillness in motion mantra meditation epitomises becoming grounded and connected through observing whales and singing while sailing close to these majestic marine mammals.

Reflection

Our bodies are the immediate and accessible pathway to being in the present moment.  We can readily still our minds and grow in mindfulness through body scans, chanting, mantra meditations and movement meditations such as Tai Chi.  The benefits are enhanced through daily mindfulness practice whatever form it takes according to our preference and however much time we can devote to the practice.  The increasing benefits over time serve to provide positive reinforcement so that what may have once been a chore becomes a pleasant and rewarding experience.

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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 as a Pathway to Gratitude

Diana Winston offers a way to develop and express gratitude through a guided meditation podcast.  She reminds us that mindfulness is about being in the present moment and paying attention to what is, while being open and curious.  She maintains that being mindful in the present moment, no matter what is happening, can create the space and sense of appreciation to enable gratitude to arise.   

Gratitude can develop and grow as we pay attention to what we are grateful for – we become what we choose to regularly focus on, e.g., compassion, kindness or gratitude.  When we are present to the moment, not self-absorbed or lost in thought, we can more readily appreciate aspects of our life and our environment.  We tend to see things more clearly, not lost in the fog of emotions such as resentment, anger, or frustration.

Guided gratitude meditation

Diana provides this meditation as part of the weekly meditation podcasts provided by UCLA through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).  She takes us through a process of paying attention in the moment with a period of silence followed by a focus on being grateful.

The guided meditation has a number of steps:

  • Grounding – as with normal meditation practice, Diana’s process begins with being grounded through adopting a comfortable posture whether you are sitting, standing, or lying down for the meditation.  This is followed by taking a deep breath and using the outbreath to release any tensions, thoughts, or distractions.  At the same time, you can express gratitude for being able to breathe normally, something that we take for granted.  While expressing this appreciation, you could think of those who are suffering respiratory problems because of COVID-19 and offer compassion towards them, including a desire for their return to wellness.
  • Becoming aware – Diana suggests that you first focus on your body, then your mind and finally any emotions.  With your body, you can be focus on comfort, discomfort, aches or pains or any bodily sensation that you are aware of at the time.  You can pay attention to your thoughts and notice what your mind is doing, being aware of your tendency to plan, critique, analyse, evaluate or other regular mental activity that you may engage in.  Moving onto your emotions, you can become more conscious of how you are feeling – anxious, joyful, enthusiastic or sad – while accepting what is.  In this meditation, the aim is not to dwell on these bodily sensations, thoughts, or emotions, but to notice that they are with us at the moment.
  • Choosing an anchor – Diana offers a range of anchors such as your breath, bodily sensation (e.g., in your fingers or feet), sounds around you or an aspect of nature, such as a tree.  The anchor serves to bring your attention back once you become distracted by your thoughts.  The process of refocusing after distractions acts to strengthen your “awareness muscle”.

Focusing in on what you are grateful for

After a period of silence and practising stillness, Diana suggests that you bring to mind something or someone for which you are grateful.  This could be something you particularly appreciate in your life –  your location and its advantages, the opportunity to go for morning walks in a pleasant environment, the beauty of surrounding nature, the pleasure and comfort of your own home, the extraordinary capacity of your brain, the ability to move and engage in physical activity, or anything else that is a source of thankfulness.  

Alternatively, you could focus on a person in your life that you are really grateful for – in the process, paying attention to what you appreciate about them, e.g., their intelligence, thoughtfulness, support, kindness, sense of equity, willingness to share their feelings, openness, faithfulness, or any other traits that come to mind.

Whether you are focusing on someone or something, you can dwell on the sense of appreciation and gratitude that they are part of your life at the moment.  Keeping a focus on gratitude helps us to develop this very positive emotion that not only influences how we show up in the world and the nature of our interactions but is also great for our mental health

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, especially through gratitude meditation and expressions of appreciation, we will become more positive and appreciative of our life and less likely to indulge negative emotions such as resentment, envy, or frustration.

Recently I was playing social tennis with a male partner who was a very good player but who became increasingly annoyed and upset that his timing was out of kilter, resulting in multiple errors.  As emotional states are contagious, I could have become very negative about my own game and tennis mistakes.  However, through the practice of mindfulness, I was able instead to focus on the fact that I was able to play; that my body was holding up for this activity despite my age; and that I was able to take pleasure in any good shots I played.  This led me during the next day to focus on the micro skills that I was able  to use while playing tennis, e.g., serve, volley, play a forehand or backhand, run to the ball, and also judge the speed, direction, and spin of the ball.

Gratitude developed through mindfulness can positively impact every activity of our life.

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

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

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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 Digital Noise and Overload

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

The emotional toll of digital noise and overload

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

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

The need for supportive lifestyle changes

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

Barriers to Silence: Discomfort of Others

In a previous post, I discussed the challenges Christine Jackman experienced in attempting to find silence as a retreat from the busyness of her life.  I explained then that she encountered a number of barriers early on in her quest – her own negative self-stories, her worry about the perceived expectations and thoughts of others and her own habituated behaviours.  She found silence in participating in a number of retreats at Benedictine monasteries but the challenge then was how to sustain the practice of silence once she returned to her normal life as an investigative journalist.  In her book, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World,  Christine identifies another barrier – the discomfort experienced by others when she mentioned her pursuit of silence.

Discomfort of others as a barrier

Christine writes about her experience when invited by a friend to join a book club meeting.  As usually happens at such an event, people started sharing what they were doing.  When Christine’s turn came to speak, she debated with herself whether or not to mention her silent retreat but decided to go ahead.  The responses she received confirmed her expectations and the reason for her initial reticence.

Christine was met by a stunned silence when she mentioned her pursuit of a silence of a different kind.  The other participants were somewhat speechless – despite being intelligent and well-informed.  Her admission about seeking silence in her life was considered too left-field.  As Christine commented in her book, her pursuit of silence was unfamiliar and too challenging to those in “a world where being busy is considered a virtue”, or a sign of productivity.

This discomfort of people with being silent and “doing nothing” was brought home again to me in a recent conversation with a friend who has been a lifetime sailor, making extended sailing trips during her life such as from Australia to America.  In a discussion with friends, she mentioned that she had just returned (by boat) from a 3-months sailing trip from Brisbane to the Whitsunday Islands in the Great Barrier Reef (around 1,000 kilometres). 

My friend was met with a stunned silence and then the inveterate questioning, “But what did you do all that time? “How did you occupy yourself?”  They could not fathom spending anywhere near that amount of time being still and doing nothing.  My friend, being a very experienced long-distance sailor, was able to respond, “I was just being – taking in the water, the whales, the sunrises and sunsets, the fish, the horizon” – she had been experiencing the unfathomable benefits of silence and “natural awareness”.

Neither Christine nor my sailing friend were put off by the stunned silences or interminable questioning of others.  Christine noted that she was more perturbed by her inability to articulate why she was engaged in what was considered an “unusual thing” – the pursuit of silence.  She found that she could not muster a “compelling , rational argument” for something that “defies conventional description”.  So, someone lacking the deep experience of silence and/or having a limited conviction of the benefits of silence, can be easily put off by the discomfort of others who actually begin to wonder about your sanity – because your behaviour and commitment are so counter-cultural.

Reflection

The expectations of others and the associated discomfort can play on our mind whether they are expressed covertly (by looks or silence) or overtly (by words and actions).  To maintain our commitment to silence as with any other attempt to reduce the busyness of our life, we need to have the conviction, resilience, and courage to persist despite the discomfort of others who want us to “be like them” and not “stand out from the crowd”.

I recall working with a group of managers as part of our managerial mindfulness training program.  One of the participants, a nurse unit manager, indicated that she worked from 7am to 7pm every working day.  When undertaking a reflective exercise on what messages she was conveying by her behaviour, she realised that her own habit of working very long hours was contributing to an unhealthy work environment – she was conveying that “busyness and extended working hours are viewed as signs of productivity” and therefore desirable.

However, as soon as she implemented a plan to reduce her working hours, her staff were uncomfortable and questioned her about “why she had lost her motivation?”  In their view, if you were not continually busy and working long hours, you lacked commitment.  Fortunately, the positive benefits in terms of work-life balance and her unerring conviction of the benefits for her staff of reducing her working hours were enough to enable her to sustain her new practice of working reasonable hours.

The evidence is mounting that as we grow in mindfulness through stillness and silence, we begin to experience wide-ranging benefits such as clarity, calmness, and resilience.  The dilemma, however, is that thinking about silence will not realise the benefits – we have to experience being still and silent in our daily lives to achieve its benefits.  Without the reinforcement of the benefits, it is difficult to sustain the practice and commitment in the face of the incessant discomfort of others.  Meditation practice, incorporating stillness and silence, builds positive habits and sustained practice brings enduring benefits.

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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.

Quieting Your Mind to Bring Silence into Your Life

Allyson Pimentel, psychologist and mindfulness teacher, recently provided a guided meditation podcast on Keeping Quiet.  In the meditation, she stressed the importance of silence in our lives, particularly in these challenging times when people are experiencing fear, anxiety, uncertainty, worry, concern for their children and anger.   Allyson explained that mindfulness meditation involved “quieting the mind” while “opening the heart” – opening to compassion towards ourselves and towards others.  She maintained that by quieting the mind and experiencing the ensuing stillness and silence we can access our creativity and choose wise action.  In the silence of our inner landscape lies insight, strength, resilience, and the courage to take innovative action.

Allyson pointed out that by quieting the mind, we can deal with difficult emotions – we can stop ourselves from revisiting the past (our mistakes and inadequacies) and the associated depression and regrets, and we can stop predicting a negative future and the associated worry and anxiety.  In quietness and stillness, we can find the ease of the present moment, of being with “what is”.   Allyson drew on the words of  Pablo Neruda in his poem Keeping Quiet to envisage the outcome of each of us being quiet and doing nothing in the moment:

…perhaps a huge silence might interrupt the sadness of never understanding ourselves.

A guided meditation to quiet the mind

In her meditation podcast, Allyson offers a guided meditation designed to help you to quiet your mind – a mindfulness meditation characterised by extended periods of silence.  She suggests at the outset that you take a deep in-breath and enjoy an elongated out-breath as a way of settling into the present and the meditation.

Once you have settled, Allyson suggests that you begin to focus on your bodily sensations.  She encourages you to find a sensation in your body that you find pleasurable and to stay with the pleasure of the moment – quieting the mind and returning to your focus whenever distracting thoughts or emotions interfere.

You could focus on the pleasurable sensation of placing your fingers together – experiencing the sensation of touch and being touched, the tingling in your fingers, the feeling of warmth and energy coursing through your fingers, the sense of connectedness, the feeling of strength and power as you press them together and the sensation of gentleness as you lighten your touch.

Alternatively, you could focus on your breath, not trying to control it but just tapping into your process and sensations of breathing.  Here you might notice the coolness of the breath in your nose as you inhale, the sounds as you exhale, the sense of being alive and a sense of connection to every other living, breathing human or animal.

Reflection

The intensity of our pleasurable sensations can deepen with frequent practice. If we can quieten our minds often enough and for extended periods, we will experience the ease of being with the present moment and the power that this give us to manage our day and our life.  As we grow in mindfulness, our very presence can positively influence others and help them to deal with the waves and vicissitudes of their lives.  Our mindfulness can be for others as well as for ourselves.  We can not only bring the benefits of quieting the mind to ourselves but also extend them to others through our daily interactions.

Pablo maintains that if we can collectively quiet our minds and resist the urge to “keep our lives moving”, many of our global issues would be open to resolution as we moved together in an unfamiliar way:

It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines…

The weekly meditation podcasts conducted by MARC at UCLA provide what Allyson describes in her guided meditation as “companionable silence” – a way of regularly being quiet together and experiencing the power of silence.

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

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Accessing the Power of Silence

Every hour of every day we are assailed by noise that sometimes seems deafening.  Christine Jackman eloquently describes this noise pollution in her own busy life.  In her book, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World, she provides insights into the practices and strategies she employed to slow down, quiet the noise and access the power of silence.  She describes these quiet practices as “slithers, slices and slabs of silence” (QWeekend, 21-22 November 2020, p.26).

Noise pollution in our lives

We are so often unaware of the intrusiveness, stress, and distraction that noise pollution creates in our lives.  In our own homes we are pinged by fridge doors when the doors are left open, by the car when the lights are left on, by our phone when we receive a text message, by the dishwasher & washing machine when a load is completed, by the oven when the programmed time is up, by the computer game when we “score” and by the computer when an email is received.   We can also add the ringing of mobile and landline phones, the chimes of the doorbell (or the thud of the metal door knocker), the sound of music/arguments/renovations from our neighbours or the internal air flow noise of our air conditioner (compounded by external sounds of the fan and hot air extractor).

We could reasonably expect that when we are unfortunate enough to be hospitalised that we will have access to quiet time.  However, the reality in hospitals is a constant cacophony of sounds – the sound of the food trolley rattling as it does its rounds, of the rolling noise of mobile X-Ray equipment, of bedside monitors, of conversations of patients with visitors, of conversations between nurses and doctors and nurses, of cleaners gathering waste…and so on.

Christine points out in her book that the cumulative effect of these sounds can lead to disorientation, depression, inertia, and an inability to sleep or concentrate.  She recommends that we have to break out of the habit of blithely accepting the noises in our life and to take proactive action to remove them or to remove ourselves to engage in some form of creative or collaborative endeavour.

Practices to access the power of silence

One of the challenges is to stop long enough to understand the nature of stillness and access the power of silence. In her book, Christine offers a wide range of practices to access stillness and silence.  Here are some of the ones that she found useful and others that form part of my mindfulness practice:

  • “Holding space” in conversation – this entails listening for understanding and viewing the interaction with someone else essentially as a shared space whereby you are able to pause long enough to let them occupy the space with their words.
  • Observing nature closely – the focus could be a leaf, a bird, a butterfly, a tree or still water.  Here the idea is to pay particular attention for a reasonable time to visually absorb what is before you – whether it is something near or distant.
  • Using an app to undertake a brief meditation practice – there are a wide range of mindfulness apps that can be used for this purpose.  The meditation can be quite brief or extended, depending on how much time you choose to make available for the activity.
  • Utilising waiting time for a moment of quietness – I use the process of bringing my fingers from both hands together as a way of focusing on my breath and/or the sensations in my fingertips as they touch each other.  We spend so much time in waiting that this idle time provides a great opportunity to appreciate the power of focus, stillness and silence.
  • Walking mindfully – a way to slow the busyness of your life is to consciously slow your walking pace and be open to whatever comes to you in that moment.
  • Changing your access to media – many authors, including Christine, suggest that we could create space for stillness and silence in our lives by undertaking a “social media diet”.   This means restricting the amount of time and frequency of our access to social media.
  • Adopt a “Digital Sabbath” – taking a complete rest from your digital technology on one day a week.  This is a major ask for people who are addicted to the news and the words, dress, and actions of “social influencers”.
  • Breathing meditation – there are many forms of breath meditations but one of them is to tune into your own breathing by noticing the rise and fall of your stomach or chest.
  • Tuning into birds – as you walk outside your house, listen attentively to the singing of the birds around you.

Reflection

Developing the practice of accessing stillness and silence throughout the day can have considerable benefits for our mental and physical health, as well as for our ecology.  Acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hempton warns that unless we preserve “natural silence”, it will be lost forever “in the ever-rising din of manmade noise”.  In his book, One Square Inch of Silence, he describes his travels across America while recording the “natural voices of the American landscape” – his contribution to their preservation.

There were many responses to what has been termed “lockdown life” during the pandemic.  Some people, however, were able to find stillness and silence by developing their gardens, eating mindfully (e.g. while eating a mandarin), becoming grounded and connected to nature through their landscape, developing “latent talents” (such as painting), reading and listening to music (QWeekend, 21-22 November 2020, pp.12-14).

As we grow in mindfulness through stillness and silence and quiet reflection, we can learn to value silence in our life and nature, reduce the busyness of our lives and become more grounded and connected with ourselves and others.

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Image Source: Ron Passfield –  “Quiet Reflection” – Manly Marina at sunrise

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.

Silence and Connection: Finding Peace in a Turbulent World

Last night I had the privilege of accompanying my wife to a fund-raising event at Stepping Stone Clubhouse in Brisbane – an organisation dedicated to enabling people with mental illness to rebuild and enrich their lives.  The speaker for the night’s event was Trent Dalton, author of two recent books that were the focus of his discussion.  Trent has become a best-selling author as a result of the first of the two books, The Boy Who Swallowed the Universe which features two boys who experience the darkness of adverse childhood experiences.  The second book he spoke energetically about is his recently released novel, All Our Shimmering Skies – two girls experiencing trauma feature prominently in this book which is also an expression of hope, of wonder and life’s endless mysteries and miracles.

Life beyond trauma

Trent had many adverse childhood experiences and related trauma – including an alcoholic father, heroin-addicted mother, heroin dealer stepfather and a criminal baby sitter.  His two novels then are part autobiographical, part fiction and part fantasy (“gifts dropping from the sky”).   His two daughters had questioned him as to why he wrote the first of the two books with boys as the focal characters when he in fact had two daughters.  So, two girls featured in the Shimmering Skies novel.

Trent mentioned that even though the books begin with darkness in the characters’ lives, they end with hope and wonder.  He wanted to inspire his daughters to be strong and resilient despite what life brings in the way of obstacles and adversity.  He also wanted them to believe in hope and a life beyond trauma as reflected in his own life – now as a multiple award-winning author who is internationally recognised for his writing craft and storytelling.

Finding peace in silence and connection

Trent spoke of his close connection to place and nature.   His home suburb, Brisbane’s western suburb of Darra, features strongly in his writing as does Darwin which he visited a number of times, mainly on assignment as a journalist.  He described with a sense of awe the natural beauty experienced during a guided walk through Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia.  His closeness to nature is reflected in his wonder at even the smallest living creatures.

His connection to family and friends provided a very real grounding and enabled him to rest in the strength of these relationships.  Of particular note is his comment about how one of his daughters brought him very much “back to earth” after a whirlwind tour following his highly successful book, The Boy Who Swallowed the Universe.  At one stage when he was at home and dropping naturally into his effervescent storytelling mode, his 11 year daughter said something to the effect, “You don’t have to impress us now – you just have to be Dad to us.”

Trent’s Shimmering Skies novel captures something of the stillness and reflection he experienced observing the night sky through his window in Darwin or from his writer’s den in Brisbane.  His valuing of silence and stillness is reflected in his comment on Christine Jackman’s novel, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World:

…a deeply personal assignment: treading bravely, beautifully into the wonder of silence.

Christine reminds us that life is full of noise, distraction and setbacks and yet there exists the wonder of stillness and silence – the unnameable space in which one was free to think and breathe and simply be.   We just have to learn ways to access the silence in our lives – something I experienced at 5 am this morning when I walked along the Manly Esplanade in Brisbane as the sun rose and reflected on the shimmering water of the marina.

Reflection

Trent was able to inhabit the wounds of his trauma by revisiting his adverse childhood experiences through the key characters in his two books.  In discussing his books and his life, he was able to be completely transparent and honest about his background, his challenges, and his small triumphs.  This openness and curiosity about life are hallmarks of mindful living.  By growing in mindfulness through reflection, writing and wonder, he could appreciate his connection to everything and his close relationships which are so central to his life and work.

I find it humbling and a source of gratitude that I personally was able to live a life of silence and contemplation for five years after leaving home and traumatic circumstances.  I have lived through many adverse childhood experiences in my early childhood and traumatic events later in life.  I found solace and peace in stillness and silence.

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Image by Ron Passfield – Sunrise at Manly Esplanade

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.